Atheism (and Theism) vs. Reality: Choosing Between Two Invalid Positions
What is is the same as what is not; what is not is the same as what is. —Hsin Hsin Ming
Form is emptiness; the very emptiness is form… —from the Heart Sutra
Perception is Samsara. —Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu
This is the fifth and last installment of my elaborate attempt to demonstrate—not just to suggest, but really to demonstrate—the invalidity of intellectual positions on the existence, or especially nonexistence, of God, so I suppose I should begin with a brief summary of the argument thus far.
I began with definitions, as any philosophical discussion should be based on well defined terms. So: for the purposes of this discussion, atheism is the belief that there is no capital-G God, theism is the belief that there is such a God, and agnosticism is the admission that the person simply does not know. This is referring to subjective points of view and not behavior, as many agnostics and even theists live as though there is no God, and the existence or possible existence of Same appears to have little effect on their worldly attitudes and behavior. But mainly I am interested in intellectual beliefs here.
Atheism is generally based on two things: an appeal to ignorance, and a faith-based belief in the validity of scientific materialism, scientific realism, or scientism—that is, the belief that science explains reality as mechanistic even at a metaphysical level. The appeal to ignorance is essentially a case of not being aware of any persuasive evidence of the existence of God, and then using that unawareness as a sufficient excuse for positive disbelief. Though of course mere ignorance of the existence of something is nowhere near real proof that that something does not exist…especially when that something is not even supposed to be necessarily something obvious or even perceptible. To be fair to atheists, though, most theists base their own theism on an appeal to credulity and to sheeplike and all too human conformity to their own cultural conditioning.
Then I spent two posts discussing the idea that scientific realism, though not necessarily scientific empiricism in general, is a belief system with religious undertones that accepts as gospel truth certain axioms that cannot really be demonstrated to be true…though of course a committed believer in scientific realism will see sufficient proof for a pluralistic material world existing outside of human perception in much the same way as a Christian will see sufficient proof of Jehovah God Almighty, and the deified status of his son, a first-century Hebrew carpenter turned miracle rabbi who was executed by the Roman government on political charges. Anyway, anyone who is skeptical of scientistic articles of faith is welcome to read the second and third installments of this little miniseries on atheism.
Then, in the previous post to this one, I discussed the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as his understanding of truth and reality come close in some ways to Buddhist philosophy, especially with regard to the distinction between ultimate truth (the Thing in Itself) and mere conventional truth (the thing as it seems). Kant considered the world we live in to be very heavily conditioned by mental constructions, and to be absolutely divorced from the universe as it really is. We live in a world of mentally generated symbols merely representing the universe but not necessarily resembling the actual universe at all. Furthermore, Kant insisted that no amount of intellectual or scientific progress would ever get anyone any closer to a knowledge of reality as it truly is. He seemed to think that every one of us is doomed to remain shackled in Plato’s cave for our entire lives, to remain blue-pilled in the Matrix.
But Kant was not a mystic, and did not realize that there is one ultimate Thing in Itself that is accessible to us, and that is the ultimate reality of consciousness itself. We have the potential, at least, to transcend the constant stream of perceptual symbols with which most people identify and consider to be their whole world, at least at the more or less conscious level of the ego. Some spiritual adepts, especially in Asia and in contemplative Christian monastic orders, have cultivated techniques for stilling the constant barrage of thoughts and feelings so that they can get at least a glimpse of the ultimate reality that underlies all experience. I think some have been successful in this endeavor. And adepts, or people just lucky or otherwise slammed into a profound mystical experience, if they have theistic tendencies, are liable to identify this nonsymbolic and incomprehensible experience as an awareness of the spirit of God.
However, this ultimate reality is not dualistic, since dualism is one of those categories of artificial mental constructions that Kant talked about, being purely perceptual, an artifact of human ape psychology that almost everyone attributes to a presumed external objective world. And so I finished the previous post with the idea that capital-R Reality is ultimately indeterminate, and can’t truly be said to exist or not to exist. And since God is what this Absolute is likely to be called by theists, God also cannot be said to exist or not to exist. Thus theism and atheism, going with the definitions already given above, are both ultimately invalid. Even agnosticism is rather pushing it.
NEVERTHELESS, the human mind must believe something. Also, the perceiving mind necessarily works with duality, including the duality of “is” and “isn’t.” In fact we could go so far as to say that any perception is necessarily a form of belief, that at the very least perception requires the belief that there is something real there, if only a thought; though that is going beyond the scope of this discussion. The fact remains, though, that we have to believe something about the existence or nonexistence of whatever it is we think about, including God, the Absolute, Nirvana, Tao, Brahman, the Thing in Itself…whatever we want to call it. So considering that all thoughts about the unthinkable are invalid, even so we must perceive something in order even to think about the issue; we are forced to choose an invalid and unrealistic belief, in this case with regard to God, as a concession to the foibles of human psychology.
Most religious systems naturally choose the invalid option of IS, because most people feel rather uncomfortable dealing with their Absolute as an unthinkable void, or as mere emptiness; and of course many people derive some comfort from the idea of a Great Father in the Sky looking after them, and coaxing them with heaven or threatening them with hell to make them be good. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, in its developed, orthodox form, has tended for the most part to favor the invalid option of ISN”T, and to refer to Nibbāna as “the principle of cessation,” and otherwise in predominantly negative terms. (The Upanishads of Hinduism have a similar approach with the famous line, neti neti in their approach to the highest truth: “Not this, not that.”) And some of the more sophisticated philosophical schools of Mahayana dance around the invalid dichotomy and play word games and toss around paradoxes until the reader or meditator just gives up and doesn’t know what to think…which actually takes one closer to the highest truth than does philosophy, let alone science.
Zen may be most notorious for this quietist approach to truth and reality. It is said that the words of a Zen master are like arrows shot by a master archer which knock down the arrows/words/thoughts of another person, leaving silence in their place. Also the koans of the Rinzai school of Zen are designed to accomplish the same thing: a question with no true answer is asked, like the famous What is the sound of one hand clapping?, and the meditator is required to come up with a true answer regardless, and he strives mightily until his intellect crashes leaving Voidness, and possibly realization, in its stead. The Madhyamaka philosophy attributed to the Buddhist sage Nāgārjuna is similarly nihilistic in the sense of destroying all belief systems as invalid, saving itself for last. But Theravada mostly just uses negative language with regard to the “highest state” and calls it good.
But again, everyone has to believe in something. That is just human nature and unavoidable, despite the ugly fact that beliefs, being symbolic mental constructs, cannot really touch Reality. Consequently much of the value of religion, especially theistic religion, is providing a more or less poetic metaphor for what can’t be put into words or even imagined, as a means of taking a simple villager or worldly town dweller closer somehow to a higher truth that is all around him, with his own unenlightenment preventing him from seeing his own truest essence…which cannot be said to exist or not to exist.
The fact is that a world view involving depth and transcendence, including an acceptance of invisible forces beyond the human level, can be more open and “enlightened” than a view limited by materialism and what is accessible to scientific measuring devices. This is regardless of the great worldly power which science, practically employed, is possible of attaining. The lack of transcendence in modern culture has been a notorious problem since Nietzsche at the latest; and scientism, liberalism, communism, fascism, and now Social Justice hysteria have tried to fill in the void left by the receding of religious faith with only fascism, ironically, plus maybe some forms of liberalism, even attempting to include some spiritual transcendence, since the more leftist ideologies, along with scientism of course, have been atheistic, materialistic, and thoroughly spiritually bankrupt and spiritually blind.
None of these ideological movements have succeeded in replacing infinity or “God” in the human heart, and the new cult of neo-Marxist “Social Justice” (as though it really were that) is utterly doomed for other reasons as well, not the least of which being that it is fundamentally based on demonstrable empirical falsehood—with, of course, political correctness hysteria preventing the falsehood from being acknowledged, even in theory. But we needn’t get into that here.
Without this acknowledgement of an Absolute, without a heart open to it to some degree, probably the highest and profoundest source of inspiration in human culture is closed, along with even a hint of the possibility of miracles. For that matter, with scientific materialism being the representative of highest truth even love, the closest the common person experiences to the spirit of God (so to speak), is degraded to nothing more real than a side effect of brain biochemistry and hormonal secretions.
The old religions have lost their hold on the western spirit, for the most part, and scientism is hardly any better equipped than Marxist dialectic to approach the Highest Truth—though the idea of the quantum field, with empty space containing zero AND infinite energy and creating matter out of virtually nothing, is damned intriguing, and seemingly tending in the right direction. So again, we must wait and see that religious or metaphysical paradigm can fill the western heart with new inspiration; although I do feel that Buddhism may be our best bet among the systems already in existence and relatively well known.
But of course true Dhamma is politically incorrect, for example in its insistence that there is always cosmic justice with everyone getting and being exactly what they deserve, and in the idea that being offended or outraged is itself immoral, and that suffering is ultimately always self-inflicted…but enough of atheistic ethics for now.