Conclusions Based on the Antinomies of Pure Reason

csmsThis is an excerpt from John Harris’s new book, Climbing Backward Out of Caves, which makes a case for the rational basis of belief in a higher being.

One cannot prove logically that God exists—any kind of god. The “necessity” of a First Cause is held in permanent logical stand-off by an equal necessity that every cause be an effect of a previous cause—that nothing should arise from nothing. The matter all around us would collapse infinitely, like an ingenious set of eternally smaller cardboard boxes set inside each other, if there were no irreducible unit of matter from which more complex articles were constructed; but it is, alas, no less true to say that everything material takes up space, and that everything in space has an exterior and an interior, and that these two qualities already logically require a divisible complexity of formation. No antinomy may be said to reveal God by capturing more sense in one of its contradictory laws than in the other. A god at the beginning of time is not more compelling to human reason than a time for that god to begin in. These checks and counter-checks on the great chessboard of reason, with quantitative thought insisting that reality congeal within borders and qualitative thought insisting that the nature of borders be understood as fluid, has no end that we humans are capable of grasping. This way does not lead to a meeting with God, not even the “god” of science.

On the other hand, the labyrinth without exit of the antinomies does indeed demonstrate that there is no Science God. That is, scientific rules cannot in themselves explain full and complete reality. The point can scarcely be over-emphasized. Our science is not only deficient for the time being as a full account of reality: it must always be so. It is incapable of rendering that full account. The logical axioms at the foundation of scientific thought (i.e., logic made to apply to circumstance through constant hypothesis and experimentation) contradict each other, and the contradictions are insoluble and immovable within a merely scientific system. Cosmologists, in my experience, are fond of making grand assertions on the order of, “We draw closer every year to understanding the birth of the universe.” The late Carl Sagan notably popularized such optimism among those of my generation. Yet Professor Sagan and his crew were suffering from naïve self-delusion. We draw closer every year only to exhausting the previous year’s hypothesis. In this particular race, Achilles really isn’t going to catch the hare.

It is just as important to grasp, however, that the utter inadequacy of scientific explanation only creates a No Man’s Land where religious faith is as free to wander as any other alternative system. (I think it has a superior license to stray into this twilit area—an urgent invitation; but that remains to be proved in what follows.) Faith is not somehow victor by default due to science’s shortcomings. Cosmologist R. A. B. Haldane remarked many years ago that he suspected the universe of being “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” This is a possibility: i.e., that the ultimate truth not only exceeds the limits of rational analysis (the antinomies render that much unquestionable) but that it does so in a “queer” way that leaves “up” looking “down” and “In” looking “out”. Perhaps Achilles’ hare races through the looking glass into Alice’s wonderland, where nonsense intervenes frequently and haphazardly. This might explain why good people are sometimes suddenly destroyed, why wicked people are sometimes granted mountains of wealth and power, why stupid people are sometimes set on thrones, etc. Maybe the universe’s ruler, in other words, has no taste for anything at all that we would recognize as coherent. Or maybe he has a sadistic turn of mind: maybe the depressing Shakespearean verses, “As flies to wanton boys, / So are we to the gods,” describe the truth in terms as near to ours as possible.

Or maybe there are no gods at all—maybe everything really did lurch into existence from nothingness. As patently absurd as this sounds… perhaps the ultimate truth, from a human perspective, would be patently absurd.

In short, the No Man’s Land of belief is haunted by whimsical fancy and desperate lunacy as well as facetious irony and arbitrary fanaticism. We must proceed very carefully through this terrain. We must not, in particular, conclude that the failure of empirical logic to guide us to the far side means that no rational guide at all remains to help us out. Our “feelings” are certainly not irrational in every instance. Cultivated, carefully probed, humane feelings produce the kind of motive force which I called “sentiment” earlier—in preference to “emotion”, which can include brutal instinct and selfish, childish impulse. Because all feelings are by definition subjective (i.e., they do not yield objective quantities to our reason which we can collectively point at and measure), to be guided by any feeling—even the noblest, the least self-interested, the most loving—is less reliable than being guided by scientific reason (which, again, uses the finesse of qualitative thought to produce “real” quantities). Yet science can take us no farther.

So the trick now is to sort through all the feelings within us, separating those which have a higher claim to objectivity from those which seem more obviously subjective. After all, anyone can imagine a customized god and a pipedream heaven—but only a fool or a madman would devote himself abjectly to such creations as if they were real. Our purpose must be rigidly fixed on finding truth; and, since we now know that we cannot find it within the limits of our present understanding, we must find that which seems most probable—which best explains the many mysteries dwelling deeply in our hearts.

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