Critical Review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God

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The Experience of God, a book by prolific philosopher/theologian David Bentley Hart, is a surprisingly worthwhile read. Let me be clear, it most certainly isn’t a book I would ever have entertained the idea of reading if a friend hadn’t suggested it. After having read one of Hart’s earlier books, Atheist Delusions, about which I have virtually nothing positive to say, seeing as how it was little more than a string of apologetics for Christianity, I had very low expectations going in. Despite this initial scepticism however, I am pleased (and more than a little surprised) to report that, although I did have to hold my nose periodically to get through certain passages, The Experience of God opened up not insignificant common ground between Hart and myself. In this article, I will outline what I take to be the main theses of the book and highlight the areas in which we agree as well as those where we don’t.

The Definition of God

This is the central theme of the book. Hart argues that the God of deists, creationists, and atheists is a vastly diminished caricature of the real God. God has become just another being in a universe full of beings. Admittedly, He is the pre-eminent being, the first, necessary creator-being, but still, just a being. Hart’s God, on the other hand, “…is oneness as such, the one act of being and unity by which any finite thing exists and by which all things exist together.” (p.31) God, it turns out, is not just the creator of all beings, He is the source of being itself.

Hart sees God expressed in three aspects; being, consciousness, and bliss. Being, as already mentioned, refers to the source of everything that exists (or existence itself), or as Hart quotes Muslim philosopher Mulla Sadra; “God is not to be found within the realm of beings, for he is the being of all realms.” (pp.107-8) Another way to say this is that God is the actuality which all individual beings share in, in diverse ways and degrees. This is all obviously heavily reminiscent of the Neoplatonic concept of the One, conceived of as a source that “emanates” lesser beings; a comparison that Hart would happily endorse, I suspect.

The second aspect of God is consciousness, which Hart defines as “our ability to know the world, to possess a continuous subjective awareness of reality” (p.152). He links this to God by fully and unashamedly embracing idealism in a way that is neither terribly clear nor particularly convincing, but seems to go something like this. He starts by affirming that to exist is not just to be perceptible or knowable, but actually manifest to consciousness. Imagine a universe that was either unknowable or unknown. In what sense could such a universe be said to exist? Certainly not in any meaningful way or with any meaningful structure. How does meaning arise then? Consciousness, definitely, but consciousness alone would be insufficient. The universe itself (and everything in it) must also be tractable to consciousness; i.e. it (they) must be intelligible. Hart calls this intrinsic intelligibility ‘idea’, and asserts that it is not only a real property of a thing’s existence; it is, in fact, identical with it (to be is to be knowable/known, remember). There can be no idea without a mind, so a perfect idea (the highest form of intelligibility, perfect understanding of the thing) requires a perfect mind (in Hart’s words, pure intelligibility requires, and is the same as, pure intelligence) – the mind of God. As Hart says; “Absolute being, therefore, must be absolute mind.” (p.236)

The path to the third aspect of God, bliss, takes us through what Hart calls transcendentals. Despite the somewhat grandiose name, these are basically just abstract concepts. Hart spends this chapter talking about only three transcendentals, but it wasn’t clear to me whether he thinks these are the only three, or the most important, or just a representative sampling. The basic idea here is that we don’t, and can’t, desire finite things as final ends. Instead, we desire them as means towards transcendent, final goals, or as Hart puts it; “…the contingency of our desires points toward unconditioned final causes.” (p.244) These final causes are truth, moral goodness, and beauty (I will look at each of these in more detail in the next section). The key point is that each of these transcendentals arouses a “kind of delight” in us; a delight which undergirds conscious existence, and which Hart calls bliss.

All of this culminates in a neat definition of God which Hart supplies on page 248; “…in God, the fullness of being is also a perfect act of infinite consciousness that, wholly possessing the truth of being in itself, forever finds its consummation in boundless delight.”

The Definition of God – Analysis

 The Abstract God

Perhaps the single, biggest objection to Hart’s definition of God is that it in trying to elevate Him to the loftiest heights, heights truly befitting the magnificence of God, Hart has reduced Him to empty concepts, both completely meaningless and as uninspiring as mathematical axioms. What could it mean to say God is existence, or consciousness, or bliss, or any of the other abstract concepts that one often hears thrown about by religious believers: love, truth, the alpha and the omega, and so on? One might as well argue that God is electricity, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Of course, this would be ludicrous. Who would seek ecstatic union with the weak nuclear force, or pray to electricity, or find solace in the presence of gravity? But slap a poetic, inspirational-sounding abstraction on God (being, truth, beauty, etc.), and suddenly the whole thing gains a veneer of credibility it doesn’t deserve.

The meaninglessness of Hart’s God culminates in his assertion that God must be simple, unable to “possess distinct parts, or even distinct properties” (p.128), and, as eternal, He can’t be subject to change either (time being a measure of change – not to mention the fact that change indicates a movement from potentiality to actuality, whereas God is pure actuality (another meaningless concept)). What can possibly be left over after one has removed distinct parts/properties and the ability to change?

Hart defends all of this by claiming that any other way of thinking about God is guilty of anthropomorphism; the tendency to re-make God in our own image and likeness. The charge of anthropomorphism is undeniably valid when people try to convince us that a being even the tiniest bit like Hart describes God cares about what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom, or desires human worship, or takes sides favouring one equally petty, narrow-minded tribe over another (curiously, He’s always on my side), but it is far from obvious that the claim that God isn’t subject to change or lacks distinguishing properties fares any better. The problem for Hart here is to explain how his God can be as transcendent as he claims and yet not dissolve into meaningless abstractions. Unfortunately, to the extent that he attempts this impossible task, all he does is appeal to even more meaninglessness propositions. If God can’t change, He must therefore be unfeeling and unable to be aware of contingent truths, you argue? Hart: It’s just that “his knowledge or bliss or love does not involve any metaphysical change in him” (p.137). God therefore can’t act in the world, nor can He be free, you say? Hart: God’s “creative intention… can be understood as an eternal act that involves no temporal change within him. His freedom… [consists in] the infinite liberty with which he manifests himself in the creation he wills from everlasting.” (p.139) As far as I’m concerned, this is all mystical, pseudo-philosophical gibberish. None of these ‘explanations’ mean anything. What is an “eternal act,” or knowledge that doesn’t produce a “metaphysical change” in the knower, or something willed “from everlasting”? Yes, Hart’s God is immune to most atheistic attacks, but in securing this victory, he hollows out the definition so much that not only is there no trace left of a loving Father we can have a personal relationship with (not such a serious problem for religions like Buddhism, but a fatal blow for traditional Christianity), but ‘God,’ identified as nothing more than a string of abstract concepts, is (like all abstractions) absolutely bereft of any concrete reality independent of a thinking subject.

Being

Despite the fact that I disagree with Hart’s empty identification of God with existence, the question of being (when correctly asked) is a valid and interesting one. Fortunately, one philosopher in particular has done a much more thorough (if not more accessible) job of investigating it; namely, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger agrees with Hart that the question of being is the search for that by which beings appear as beings, but, where Heidegger gives a sophisticated phenomenological analysis of being that resists dubious references to transcendental, being-bestowing non-entities; Hart, on the other hand, identifies the source of being as the answer to a metaphysical question that gets off on the wrong foot from the start and never recovers.

Being, properly conceived, is centred on the individual, whom Heidegger calls Dasein. In asking how the thing appears as a thing before Dasein then, we must investigate, not some mysterious, transcendental realm, but Dasein him or herself. It turns out that we don’t perceive individual things, a hammer for instance, the way science imagines; i.e. as discrete, material objects. Instead, things appear within a referential totality (hammers with wood, nails, other woodworking equipment, the field of carpentry, etc.), and are disclosed to (have meaning for) individual Dasein in different ways. For example, the tools in a carpenter’s workshop disclose themselves to the carpenter in a completely different way than they do to the insurance agent who is assessing their value for insurance purposes. This is a very cursory first step in the direction of Heidegger’s analysis of being, but hopefully illustrates my point that being, when approached with clarity, is an important concept. What of Hart’s analysis, then?

Essentially, Hart observes that beings exist. He then wonders about this mysterious quality, ‘existence,’ that belongs to these beings; specifically, how they came to possess it. Crucially, by this, he isn’t looking for a physical explanation. Since every stage in a physical explanation would contain ‘material’ that already ‘exists,’ such reasoning would presuppose the very thing he is investigating. Nor is he looking for an explanation for matter itself. This would simply yield a Creator-God, a demiurge, that Hart is at great pains to distance himself from. The only possible conclusion then, is that the source of existence must be transcendental and not itself an existing (as we typically understand the term, at least) being.

The problem with this chain of reasoning is the way Hart thinks about existence, or being. For him, it is a real metaphysical quality that somehow suffuses beings and is therefore something over and above their mere physical being-thereness.’ Yes, this water bottle is ‘there’ on my desk as a physical thing, Hart agrees, but, as a physical thing, it also has this additional quality of existence, which cries out for an explanation. To put it another way, Hart’s God isn’t the source of the matter that constitutes my water bottle (a demiurge); rather, He is the source of the being of the matter that constitutes my water bottle. As Hart puts it, God is “the source and fullness of all being, the actuality in which all finite things live, move, and have their being, or in which all things hold together; and so he is also the reality that is present in all things as the very act of their existence… He is not just something actual, but actuality itself, the uncaused source and ground by which finite actuality and finite potentiality alike are created and sustained…” (pp.109-10)

It is at this point that we ought to realise that Hart is pulling the abstract wool over our eyes. He has taken an abstract concept (‘being’ or ‘existence’), pretended that it has some kind of concrete reality, and then led us down the garden path looking for a metaphysical source for it. None of this is legitimate; or rather, starting from the mistaken, and wholly unjustified, notion that ‘existence’ is some kind of active force or presence surrounding and permeating existents, we have been led astray from the beginning. To say my water bottle exists isn’t to posit a water bottle along with some ethereal quality called ‘existence,’ an “actuality” in which my water bottle supposedly endures. The way Hart uses the term ‘being,’ it has been reduced to an imagined property, a metaphysical mystery manufactured for the sole purpose of proffering a theistic solution. If I am right that Hart has confused an abstract concept for a concrete reality, one would expect to find the conversation pretty quickly sink into (literally) nonsensical non-sequiturs, such as “…the actuality of all actualities…” (p.107), the “ultimate source of existence…” (p.104), “God is… the transcendent source of the actuality of all substances and forces…” (p.139), etc. Needless to say, this is exactly what we do find.

Consciousness

As with being, Hart’s idealistic (by which I mean the philosophical position that reality is fundamentally mental) identification of God as consciousness contains a germ of truth. The problem is that Hart takes this germ and leads us down another garden path with it. He is absolutely right to note that a universe which is unknowable (or unknown) lacks any kind of meaningful existence. This runs contrary to the current scientific, materialistic paradigm we are living in, which asserts that things exist whether or not someone is around to observe them. Would my water bottle continue to exist if I disappear? Of course. What if all conscious beings on Earth were to disappear? Of course. How could it be otherwise? The scientist is only able to answer in this way because the modern understanding of ‘existence’ is an impoverished one that considers nothing more than particles. When the scientist hears the question I asked about my water bottle, what they actually hear is, “Would the atoms that constitute my water bottle continue to exist if all conscious beings disappeared?” From this perspective, their answer is, of course, correct. The disappearance of all conscious beings doesn’t entail the disappearance of all matter. But is a water bottle reducible to the atoms that constitute it? A water bottle is a vessel for holding water and only makes sense in a wider referential context that includes, among other things, beings which need to drink water, desire to carry it around with them, have appendages appropriate for grasping the bottle, and so on. Before we had smartphones and TVs, kids used to play with round, metal hoops, rolling them around on the ground with sticks. Do we still have those toys? No, because no one uses them anymore. And yet, we can still see metal hoops everywhere (you might even be wearing a pair of them in your ears). How can we make sense of this? The wider framework within which those toy hoops belonged has disappeared. Physical, metal atoms arranged in the shape of a hoop are still in evidence all over the place, but those toys (literally) don’t exist anymore. The toy, like my water bottle (and every thing), isn’t reducible to the physical atoms that make it up. The claim that a universe that was unknowable, or unknown, doesn’t meaningfully exist is simply an extension of this principle.

So, how does Hart go astray? In exactly the same way we saw with ‘being,’ he attempts to reify an abstraction; this time, the idea of a thing. Rather than the idea of the thing; i.e. what the thing is, emerging as part of a structural totality which we call ‘world,’ revealed to (and importantly, related to) an individual on the basis of that individual’s culture, personal experiences, desires, capabilities, etc., Hart wants to claim that it is actually a real property of the thing, it’s so-called “intrinsic intelligibility.” With the idea now belonging wholly to the thing as what it really is (some suspect metaphysics going on here by the way), Hart then attempts to convince us that the perfect understanding of the thing (grasping the idea in its totality) would require a perfect mind – hence God. This argument contains some striking similarities to the one 18th century philosopher George Berkeley advanced with his notorious esse est percipi, or, to be is to be perceived. Just as Berkeley concluded that God must exist as a permanent perceiver in order that things don’t disappear when we stop looking at them, Hart seems to conclude that God must exist as the Mind for whom the ideas embedded in things ultimately correlate. Unfortunately, given that (1) there is no reason to believe in Hart’s idea, and (2) his entire metaphysical edifice rests on it, there is no reason to believe anything that follows, including the existence of God as some type of universal consciousness. Indeed, when broken down like this, it appears that Hart has merely pulled the same stunt that we saw him try with being. With his conception of idea, he has simply created a metaphysical problem, which he can then invoke God to solve. It would be far more parsimonious to simply dispense with his highly speculative, metaphysical idea, and connect ‘what the thing is’ with the individual consciousness perceiving it. This won’t explain consciousness, but, of course, Hart’s artificial construct doesn’t do this either.

Hart spends most of the chapter on consciousness highlighting the inability of materialism, or naturalism, to explain consciousness. It is here that he and I find common cause against the materialists. Materialism is a wholly third-person driven account of reality and, as such, by definition, has no hope of ever satisfactorily accounting for consciousness, which is, at its core, a first-person experience. This is an important point to grasp. It’s not just that we currently lack the technology but can one day expect to have all the answers here. Even knowing everything there is to know about the brain will not make consciousness a materialistic phenomenon. This by itself in no way means we need to invoke some even more mysterious ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ or ‘divine spark’ nor does it mean that the mental is not dependent on the physical in such a way that the reverse may not be true. What it does mean is that a complete description of the universe has to be more than just an inventory of the location and momentum of every particle.

Hart identifies six problems that consciousness creates for materialism, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with and will just outline below without a detailed discussion:

  1. The qualitative dimension of experience. This is often termed ‘qualia,’ or the feeling that it is like something to have an experience.
  2. Abstract concepts.
  3. Reason.
  4. Transcendental conditions of experience. By this, Hart is referring to Kant’s insight that the mind, rather than being just a passive spectator, has to actively impose a structural framework (the categories) upon reality before things can appear for us.
  5. Intentionality. This is sometimes called ‘aboutness,’ and refers to the way the mind is somehow directed out towards things exterior to itself; i.e. the way the mind can be ‘about’ things.
  6. The unity of consciousness. This is a phenomenological insight that therefore isn’t affected by neuroscientific modular accounts of consciousness or the curious cases of subjects who have had the connections between the left and right hemispheres of their brain severed resulting in behaviour that suggests the two separated hemispheres are operating independently of each other. Conscious experience is always singular and indivisible when it is experienced.

There are a few more points I would like to mention from this chapter before bringing this section on consciousness to a close. Hart criticises Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment which is often (incorrectly) cited as having disproven freewill. I have written a couple of articles about this already, so I won’t repeat myself here. He rejects epiphenomenalism, the notion that the mind is essentially a side-effect of the processes taking place in the brain, which therefore completely lacks any causal efficacy. Hart’s criticism basically consists in pointing out that beliefs, desires, and other mental states clearly do play a causal role in our behaviour. While this may not be the best argument against epiphenomenalism, I do agree with Hart that it is wrong. In my opinion, the slightest tug on the threads of this theory quickly highlights its inadequacies and inconsistencies, and leaves you with a mess of string on the floor in no time at all. Interestingly, Hart expresses support for some versions of panpsychism – a position I have also found myself drawn to over the past couple of years. There are still some big problems to be addressed with panpsychism, perhaps most notably the combination problem (how the gathering together of little ‘bits’ of consciousness, or conscious ‘bits,’ can produce a unified conscious whole), but this seems to me less difficult to explain than how consciousness could arise in a purely materialistic universe in the first place. Finally, Hart challenges the idea that the mind is a computer, another topic about which I have probably written more than my fair share. This is an idea that, while defensible as a metaphor, is typically not intended as such by those who use it. ‘The brain is the hardware, the mind is the software’ is another form this misunderstanding often takes. This equivalence so often drawn between minds and computers these days is a strange attempt to demote consciousness while elevating computers at the same time. It is relatively easy to see how this has come about though. If brains are just computers, then a) since we understand how computers work, there is no fundamental mystery to consciousness anymore, it’s all just information processing fully explicable within a materialistic framework, and b) this means that the current hype around AI isn’t misplaced. We can expect our digital gods to bloom from out of their transistors and microchips any day now. I completely agree with Hart when he notes that the difference between minds and computers is so vast that what computers do is not even an elementary version of what a mind does. The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, expressing scepticism about the ‘imminent’ arrival of general artificial intelligence (i.e. not just the narrowly intelligent programs that can play chess or drive a car), compared the situation to trying to get to the moon by climbing a really tall tree, and believing that you have made progress by doing so. You feel that you’re closer to your goal than the person standing on the ground, but, in reality, neither of you are getting to the moon anytime soon.

Bliss

Recall that bliss turned on what Hart called transcendentals. These turned out to be abstract concepts, which, precisely because they were abstract concepts, made them wholly inadequate as a description of a real (as opposed to abstract) God. In addition to this though, Hart claimed that there was a “kind of delight” associated with them; hence, the connection with bliss. Supposedly, the search for truth, performing morally virtuous actions, and appreciating beauty all produce bliss. This, I would suggest, while being very poetic and perhaps even uplifting, is more fiction than fact.

At bottom, what Hart is talking about with bliss, I suppose, are those moments when we find ourselves suddenly filled with joy and serenity, when we sense that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, Kant’s feeling of Achtung that the sublime arouses in us. The problem is that, while the experience of bliss is a perfectly legitimate human experience, Hart hijacks its and bestows upon it transcendental, religious overtones that it doesn’t actually have in and of itself. This becomes obvious when we de-poeticise Hart and bring him back down to Earth from the abstract, rarefied conceptualisations about which he writes.

What could it mean to say that the pursuit of truth produces bliss? When the physicist is engrossed in mathematical equations trying to understand how gravity and quantum mechanics fit together is she feeling bliss? When I read Kant or Heidegger, is that bliss? Funny, it seemed more like confusion, or even frustration. Or is it later, when I’m musing about what I’ve read, that I am supposed to feel bliss? How about moral goodness? Is it that doing the right thing produces bliss? Surely, that can’t be true. If it were, morality would be easy. Who would do the wrong thing if we got bliss from doing the opposite? Or is it that meditating on Plato’s form of the Good produces bliss? And beauty. Is bliss really to be found in museums and at art exhibitions? What about watching a movie with a beautiful or handsome actress/actor? Does that produce bliss?

One might argue that I’m cheapening Hart’s ideas. Let me stop you right there because I freely admit that is exactly what I’m doing. Hart’s abstract, intellectual musings sound gloriously profound (and even plausible) as long as you don’t think about them too closely. Contemplating the wonder of the universe in an attempt to understand the Truth of it all, becoming the embodiment of compassion by embracing a transcendent moral goodness, allowing the majesty of nature or a haunting melody to lift one up to catch the briefest glimpse of God. It is easy to see how all of these things could easily create moments of bliss that might tempt one to conclude there is, there just must be, something more to life, a greater, Divine plan being fulfilled. Hart claims that bliss derives from the abstract concepts (the transcendentals) involved in each of these experiences, but this is to illegitimately reify them; as if truth, moral goodness, and beauty had some kind of absolute, concrete Platonic existence somewhere, completely independent of the beings who conjure them in thought.

There is a more reasonable way to think about the feeling of bliss. To find it we only need to look at what all of these experiences have in common; namely, conscious subjects. Once you have a conscious agent capable of self-reflection and abstract thought, capable of considering its existence and perspective within a cosmos infinitely greater than itself and full of mystery and wonder, then you have all the necessary conditions for bliss. Implying that something more than this is going on, while tempting and seductive with its promise, is more wishful than clear thinking.

Having said this, the particular abstract concepts Hart has chosen to be his carriers of bliss are interesting, and there are a few more comments I want to make about each of them. The first is truth. The way Hart uses the word, as something like a synonym for God, renders it essentially meaningless, so I want to take a different tack. In a scientific sense, truth is just the correspondence of my thoughts about reality to reality itself. This is relatively uncontroversial at a certain level of description. If I think it is raining and it actually is raining, then my belief is true. But as we saw with my water bottle, things are less straightforward if we look a little more closely at reality itself. The world, or reality, isn’t just clumps of particles; rather, it’s a referential totality imbued with meaning and apprehended from an embedded, embodied perspective. Of course, there is still nothing wrong with the correspondence theory of truth. A scientist could quite correctly claim that her thoughts about reality are true if she thinks everything is made up of tiny strings vibrating in ten dimensions, and things actually are made up of strings vibrating in ten dimensions. She could even say she has uncovered the truth about reality, as long as we qualify this by noting that the meaning of ‘reality’ here is restricted to the physical ‘stuff’ the universe is filled with/comprised of. As I’ve argued, this is a fairly impoverished view of reality though. If, rather than this, we take reality to be the meaningful totality of interconnected objects with which we dwell, then truth takes on a deeper meaning. It now makes sense to see truth, not as a correspondence between thought and the external world, but as that which permits, or grounds, that correspondence in the first place. On this account, truth can be thought of as an unconcealing which lets things appear before us, and which, in turn, requires that we openly engage with the things we find ourselves surrounded by. It also means that we have gone beyond superficial claims about statements or beliefs being true or false insofar as they correspond to an external reality that we are necessarily at a distance from, to the deeper realisation that, when an individual participates in this unconcealing openly and authentically, he or she is in truth. This, to me, is far more profound and illuminating than either the scientist with their physical, meaningless truths or Hart with his abstract, empty ones.

The second transcendental is moral goodness. Here, I want to focus on one particularly controversial claim of Hart’s; namely, that it is impossible to “believe in ethical imperatives without reference to some sort of absolute “Goodness as such.”” (p.251) As ought to be clear by now, ‘Goodness as such,’ as an abstract concept, exists nowhere except in the mind of a conscious subject and can therefore, hardly be considered absolute without invoking some pretty suspect metaphysics. However, even if you resist this common sense fact and insist on the actual existence of some kind of Platonic-like moral goodness (existing who knows where and comprised of who knows what), how could it possibly help in moral dilemmas? Abortion? Stem-cell research? Euthanasia? I would like to see anyone resolve these moral issues by appeal to an abstract concept like “absolute Goodness as such.”

Fortunately, even in the absence of Hart’s fictional “absolute Goodness,” ethical imperatives are possible; they just don’t have supra-human authority. I truly find it strange that Christians are so resistant to the fact that morality (something concerning our own behaviour, after all) could be something for which we ourselves are ultimately responsible. We think about morality, we construct ethical theories, we argue for, and justify, our principles, and we build cultures based around values on which we all agree. Of course, we do all of this because we have to. If we’re being honest, there is no “absolute Goodness” we can consult to get the right answer. Would it be easier if we could just light some incense, sit alone in a room, and commune with “absolute Goodness” for moral guidance? Absolutely. Unfortunately, this isn’t the world we live in. Does this mean ethical imperatives are impossible as Hart claims? Hardly. Buy a book on ethics if you don’t believe me. Even better, go into the street and start a fight. Society (through the police and the judicial system) will very quickly remind you of the ethical imperatives upon which we have collectively decided. What all of this does mean though, is that our ethical imperatives aren’t grounded in some eternal, fixed Truth, a Wisdom greater than our own collective wills, a transcendent Parent with all of the answers. Rather, they are grounded in our own reasoned assessment of how we choose to live. This certainly makes our morality contingent, immanent, and non-permanent (something homosexuals, women, and racial minorities are no doubt grateful for), but none of this renders it arbitrary, impotent, or meaningless. It means there will be moral disagreements and no higher party to turn to for the answer (as if there were one). Very well, so be it. This is what it means to be a responsible adult living in a community with other adults. It also means that we will sometimes make the wrong decision (although ‘wrong’ isn’t really the appropriate word – better to say that we will sometimes make decisions we regret later), and these decisions may produce a lot of suffering over an extended period of time (again, see homosexuals, women, and racial minorities). But this isn’t a reason for throwing in the moral towel. Rather, it makes it all the more important that we make sure we are fulfilling our moral obligations responsibly and wisely, not passing the buck by looking for rules in an Iron Age text or muddying the waters by invoking some “absolute Goodness” which (somehow) knows best how we ought to live. Honestly, all of this seems so obvious that I feel a little like I’m wasting your time making you read it, but I have no choice because people like Hart continue pushing this notion that ethics without religion is impossible.

Hart also disagrees with what he calls “evolutionary utilitarianism” – the idea that our ethical sense has been implanted in us by natural selection – and describes the naturalist’s claim that even though “morality is a contingent product of brute amoral nature… [it is nevertheless] binding upon the conscience of any rational man or woman” (p.253), as “charming hopelessness” and “a manifest absurdity.” My response to this is to note that first, not only is “evolutionary utilitarianism” actually a pretty solid explanation for how ethical behaviour arose, at least in the earlier stages of our evolutionary ancestry, but given the vacuity of Hart’s “absolute Goodness,” it’s the only game in town for an explanation of how our ethical sense first emerged. Second, I agree with Hart, against the naturalist, that morality is not solely “a contingent product of brute amoral nature.” It almost certainly started like this (as evidenced by that fact that we occasionally see ‘moral’ behaviour in other animals that have no idea of God or any “absolute Goodness”), but as soon as we had reached a certain level of self/other awareness and developed higher-order cognitive capacities, morality would no longer have depended on the blind driving force of natural selection. Third, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that Hart thinks a secular morality isn’t “binding” on anyone, but for some reason believes that his absolute Goodness is. The thinking here seems to be that without something independent and transcendent to point to, the best a person can hope for is that other people will happen to share one’s values and moral judgements. If they happen not to, there’s no remedy because they will always be able to reject any argument with a single word; ‘No.’ But there is some subterfuge going on here. In the first place, the secular moralist can do much better than this argument suggests because they can appeal to things like reason and compassion. Sure, the other party may continue to disagree, employing their own arguments (or just appealing to uncaring self-interest), but, and here is the second point of subterfuge, this same interlocutor can reject Hart’s own ‘absolute’ morality with that very same ‘no.’ This is precisely because Hart’s “absolute Goodness” isn’t a transcendent reality one can point to in order to convince anyone of anything. In trying to promote his or her own morality, the Christian is reduced to arguing for it just like the secularist. If they don’t, then it is they who have no option but to hope that their interlocutor happens to agree with their religious/supernatural view of the world.

Hart’s final transcendental is beauty. The main thing I want to say here is that I agree with Hart’s opinion that evolutionary explanations for how and why we value beauty are profoundly unsatisfying. First of all, it’s difficult to make the case that beauty, unlike morality, has any kind of utility, which could therefore have been selected for. As an example of this, the notion that we find certain lush and watery landscapes appealing because our ancestors would have preferred them seems demonstrably false in light of the preponderance of non-lush and non-watery landscapes which we consider beautiful. Other proposed qualities, such as harmony, symmetry, consonance, etc. all seem equally unlikely given the fact that we often find beauty in the precise opposite. Of course, none of this justifies Hart’s claim that ‘beauty’ must therefore actually have some magical, transcendent existence. As with any other abstract concept, we need nothing more than a consciousness capable of abstract thought to explain beauty. Reifying abstract concepts the way Hart does all through his book creates far more problems than it solves and only muddies already unclear waters.

There is one last bone I have to pick on the topic of transcendentals, and it concerns this quote: “…faith in God is not something that can ever be wholly and coherently rejected… The desires evoked by the transcendental horizon of rational consciousness… underlie the whole movement of thought toward the world.” (p.287). Here, Hart is suggesting that when we direct ourselves towards ends that aren’t physical in nature (what he calls transcendentals, and which he identifies with God) we are, at the same time, tacitly acknowledging the existence of God. When the atheist searches for the truth, or strives for moral goodness, or takes the time to enjoy something beautiful, she is actually turning towards the divine, even as she denies that it exists.

If Hart’s transcendentals actually existed, this argument would hold more weight. As I’ve argued, ad nauseum by now, transcendentals are nothing more than abstract concepts which have no reality outside the mind of the person thinking them. I wonder if Hart also thinks other abstract concepts like deception, moral depravity, and ugliness also qualify as transcendentals, which therefore must also exist in the same noumenal realm as truth, moral goodness, and beauty, and presumably must also somehow comprise part of the divine. Or, in a nicely circular fashion, are only ‘good’ abstract concepts transcendental? The truth is there is just no reason to believe anything Hart has claimed here, and I think even a nominally unbiased consideration of the situation would find his assertions implausible at best and intellectually reckless at worst.

Materialism

A second theme in The Experience of God is that materialism is incoherent. Materialism is actually a metaphysical principle; i.e. a principle which goes beyond the physical, in the sense that rather than being about physical matter itself (which is the job of the sciences), it’s about reality. Specifically, it’s a principle which asserts that everything that exists is comprised of physical matter, and a material description of the universe is therefore also a complete description of it. This means, as Hart quite correctly argues, that materialism cannot be proven according to scientific; i.e. evidence-based, empirical, methods because those methods are already mired in the physical. Nor is there a deductive argument which could confirm the truth of materialism.

Hart also notes, again quite rightly, that materialism cannot find support in the successes of science; “Empiricism in the sciences is a method; naturalism in philosophy is a metaphysics; and the latter neither follows from nor underlies the former.” (p.296) The success science has had in exclusively adopting the materialist principle, by assuming that there is nothing more going on than the (quantum) mechanical interactions of tiny particles, is no guarantee of its truth. As explained above, observation of the physical is insufficient to prove a metaphysical claim.

Now this is all fine, but Hart then asserts that atheism (being grounded in materialism) is therefore “the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith…” (p.19), as if the faith of the theist and that of the atheist were equal. Indeed, Hart would probably say the atheist has greater faith than the theist. This would be because he imagines that his account can at least accommodate Being itself, consciousness, and his transcendentals. What can we say about this? Well, first of all, as we’ve already seen, there is no reason to suppose abstract concepts like ‘Being itself’ or transcendentals actually exist outside our thoughts of them, and, as regards consciousness, the religious answer doesn’t explain this at all; or rather, in addition to failing to explain it, it conjures up an even greater mystery that we have no hope of ever explaining. This is important because it is tempting to think that the God postulate solves the problem of consciousness; science can’t explain consciousness but religion can. Well, it’s true that science can’t explain consciousness, but let’s be crystal clear on this; religion can’t explain it either. Saying something like “God is Mind,” or “Consciousness comes from God,” absolutely, unequivocally, (and obviously!) does not explain consciousness. Such statements don’t even address consciousness let alone make a start towards explaining it; they just bury it in pseudo-philosophical non-sequiturs.

So, materialism definitely doesn’t require more faith than religion, but what about Hart’s basic charge that materialism requires faith? I have been resistant to this idea in the past, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more sympathetic I have become to it. First of all, what do we mean by faith? One can only have faith in something that cannot be demonstrated or proven. If God’s existence admitted of demonstrable proof, faith would be unnecessary. No one has ‘faith’ that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow and set in the west, or that gravity will drag my cup down to the floor if I drop it. We might say we ‘believe’ these things will happen because it is conceivable (although unlikely) that they might not, but we have pretty good (inductive) reasons for believing as we do (or equally effective, no good reasons for believing otherwise), and so it would be inappropriate to use the word ‘faith’ in these contexts. With this definition of faith on the table then, it’s unavoidable that materialism is a form of faith. In what way? Well, it’s obviously not faith in scientific, or even common sense, observations/experience. Those are as real as anything can be if the word ‘real’ is to have any meaning at all. However, it is faith in the sense we discussed earlier; namely, that being a metaphysical postulate, it can never be confirmed by physical observation/experiment. In other words, it is an assumption prior to any observation/experiment we make, or even could make.

This is all logically indisputable and gets us to faith, but I would go even further and agree with Hart once more that (at least in some of its more extreme, even dogmatic, versions) materialism is indeed both irrational and absurd. This is because it’s an assumption that is unable to account for the basic facts of human existence, as we incontrovertibly know them. There is just no conceivable material, mechanical, deterministic explanation for subjective experience or thoughts. This seems so obvious to me that it barely needs stating. A complete description of every single neuron, atom, subatomic particle, or even quantum string in the brain, including what they were all doing, still would not explain how conscious experience arises in a purely physical world (at least not without substantial revision of what we mean by ‘physical’). This is where the irrationality and absurdity kick in. We have people like Alex Rosenberg denying intentionality, claiming, against all evidence to the contrary, that thoughts aren’t about anything, because how could anything be about anything else in a purely physical universe? We have people like Sam Harris denying that we are selves (not, by the way, a fictional immaterial ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ for which we have no evidence and the mere notion of which presents considerable, even insurmountable, problems, c.f. Cartesian dualism) because there is no physical correlate. We even have people like Dan Dennett claiming to have explained consciousness while actually explaining it away. Although I think Dennett denies the charge, I can’t see how he can be understood as anything other than an eliminativist (someone who denies the existence of various mental states and phenomena). Not to mention the scores of people who believe all of our actions are fully determined by the laws of physics, effectively reducing us to robots marching to the beat of our atoms (yet somehow paradoxically aware of the fact). You think that your thoughts are about things, that you are a self, that you are conscious, and that you actually make real decisions, but these are all illusions; illusions for a consciousness that doesn’t even exist. Irrational? Absurd? These are probably some of the nicer adjectives Hart might have considered for these types of claims. (I do want to stress though that none of this makes religious faith any more coherent; in fact, in the context of the preceding discussion, religious faith, in not even proffering a plausible explanation, isn’t even absurd!)

So, the mere existence of conscious experience and non-physical thoughts means that materialism is out as a comprehensive description of our universe. Hart goes on to conclude that since materialism fails, there is no reason not to suppose that the “material realm is ultimately dependent upon mind rather than the reverse: that the fullness of being upon which all contingent beings depend is at the same time a limitless act of consciousness.” (p.227) While I don’t disagree with this sentiment as it is, I definitely want to pull the brakes on where Hart wants it to lead us. Hart believes that materialism is the “only fully consistent alternative to belief in God…” (p.17), but this is to dramatically overplay the religious hand, which I have argued is even less coherent than materialism (in addition to not explaining anything, it creates so much more that must be taken on faith). The failure of materialism (not science, remember, which deliberately restricts itself to investigating the physical) doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to abandon ship, and it would be particularly foolish to turn to Iron Age, or Medieval, or new age beliefs, in its stead. Perhaps, as Hart suggests in that quote above, consciousness, in some form or other, is fundamental (something like panpsychism), or maybe our recent forays into quantum mechanics necessitate a re-thinking of what the ‘physical’ actually is (the double-slit experiment, although first performed over a hundred years ago, in 1909, still cries out for a coherent explanation – how can electrons be both particles and waves?!). Either way, nothing about this situation supports any kind of religious interpretation involving a divinity who cares about the welfare of individual humans (whether of the Creator-God, or Hart’s somehow non-being, variety), eternal life (in heaven if you’ve been good, somewhere else if you’ve been bad), or the independent, actual existence of abstract concepts.

Modernity

The last of, what I consider to be, the three major themes in Hart’s book is the notion of modernity as objective, scientific decadence that has, in many ways, left us worse off. This whole discussion is framed by the broader idea that thought/belief is always conditioned by the era in which it occurs, and undercuts the notion of a ‘neutral’ stance, or the so-called view from nowhere. We aren’t world-less, Cartesian Minds surveying the external world from a value-free, judgement-less, impartial perspective. The world reveals itself to us from the very beginning, not as a sterile collection of scientific particles we calmly and rationally survey before deciding what everything means, but as a whole comprised of interconnected parts that stands before us already saturated with meaning and value. This is what it means to be human. By the time you have the conceptual capacities to think about and reflect on the world, you’ve already been immersed in it, you’ve already got it all over you, so to speak. Of course, you can try to disentangle yourself from the world (this is basically what science is), but you can’t ever truly succeed. To some extent, all you end up doing is replacing one set of values/meanings you use to interpret reality with another. Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, talks a lot about this. Atheism seems like the natural, reasonable position for many of us in the West, Taylor argues, only because the modern world has (for a number of reasons he outlines in the book) become dominated by an instrumental, individualistic, disenchanted outlook he calls the immanent frame (‘immanent’ as opposed to ‘transcendent’), which tempers and conditions our understanding of reality without our even being aware of it. Hart expresses the same sentiment when he says that “[h]uman beings now in a sense inhabited a universe different from that inhabited by their ancestors. In the older model, the whole cosmos… had been a kind of theophany, a manifestation of the transcendent God within the very depths and heights of creation… According to the model that replaced the old metaphysical cosmology… there is no proper communion between mind and matter at all. The mindless machinery of nature is a composite of unrelated parts, in which the unified power of intellect has no proper or necessary place.” (pp.58-9) Of course, this doesn’t amount to an argument for or against religion or atheism; just a reminder that we need to look past what appears to be ‘obviously true’ or ‘natural,’ because terms like these come to us already heavily-laden with presuppositions and values, and buried within a pre-existing, interpretative framework.

So, what is the modern world like? Well, as I mentioned, Hart sees it as largely impoverished. We have gone from a metaphysically rich world to a mechanistic one; a meaningful, ordered cosmos to an impartial, uncaring universe. The former gave us a home, the latter left us out in the cold with nothing but the shirts on our backs. Hart uses Aristotle’s four causes as a nice illustration of this situation. Aristotle identified four ‘causes’ that explained a thing; material, efficient, formal, and final. If we are talking about a vase, the material cause is what it is made of (glass), the efficient is what brought it into being (the artisan), the formal is what makes our vase a vase (it’s shape), and the final cause is its purpose or teleology (to sit on the table and look pretty, or maybe to hold flowers). If the last two of those ‘causes’ sound like they shouldn’t be included in that list, this is because, as Hart correctly points out, only the first two survived the passage into modernity. Form and purpose, being aspects of the thing that don’t reduce to a tidy, objective, material description, have been abandoned by our scientific age. This isn’t to say that we no longer talk about form and purpose. We do. However, they have no place in the modern, scientific description of the universe, which boils down to particles, strings, fields, whatever, interacting in accordance with mechanistic laws. Sure, we may talk about a spoon having to be a certain shape, and being made for a specific purpose, but really it’s all just particles. This is a world, before which, we are strangers. A sterile, indifferent world that exists independently of us, and from which, although we participate in it, we are removed.

Religion can resist this (although it certainly hasn’t always) by saying that we belong intimately to the universe as a co-created thing, belonging here by definition. I would go Hart one better though, and argue that we don’t need religion for this. The scientific account is… not exactly wrong, but… incomplete, not because God created us or is a mysterious ocean of Being which grounds our existence (or some other meaningless, poetic analogy), but because there is no world outside of the perspective of consciousness. Recall what I said earlier about things appearing for Heidegger’s Dasein within a meaning-infused, referential totality. This referential totality (i.e. the world and everything in it) isn’t a framework we simply tack on to ‘stuff’ which is, originally and really, just clumps of meaningless matter. In other words, it’s not a secondary, or artificial, structure we overlay on a physical reality which is primary. The world is, from the very moment we are aware of it (“always already” to borrow an apt Heideggerian phrase), alive, rich, full of meaning. I never perceived that book as a collection of atoms arranged in a certain way. From the very beginning it was a “daring feat of speculative fiction” (according to the Boston Globe, anyway), which, by its very existence, refers to whole industries of publishing and entertainment, a rich linguistic history, a tradition of literacy and story-telling, etc., all terminating in a being with specific features (digits for grasping and turning pages, a capacity for vision to register those squiggles on the page, etc.), just to name a few of the ‘hidden’ aspects within which the book is situated. Of course, we can subsequently reduce it to atoms, but that is the point. Originally, we aren’t estranged from the world; on the contrary, we are a constitutive part of it.

Hart goes on to say that science is only one way to look at the world. It is, at bottom, a method, and a method is nothing more than a set of limitations or constraints. This is undoubtedly true, and coincides nicely with my argument above, I think. Where I diverge from Hart is in thinking that this realisation throws open the floodgates for any old nonsense. Science is one way of looking at the world, religion is another… and the two are equally valid. As I said above, the scientific viewpoint isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete, or limited. This is its strength. Science is a method that deliberately ignores individual perspective and subjectivity. This becomes a problem only when we forget this, and start claiming that scientific facts are ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’. Religion, with its way of looking at the world that is based on claims about transcendent realities and supernatural entities (a religion without these couldn’t even properly be called a religion), doesn’t have the same legitimacy because these are real-world, concrete claims, the truth of which (again, not some high-falutin, transcendent, metaphysically complicated, Jordan Peterson-like ‘it would take me two hours to explain’ Truth – just good ol’ fashioned God exists or He doesn’t, when you die you go to an afterlife or you don’t, and so on), we can and should evaluate sensibly and rationally. One might object that these are propositions that are impossible to verify (which is true), and so we are justified in making a leap of faith. This isn’t particularly convincing considering that there are many propositions we can’t verify (that Hinduism is right, for instance, or that there is a pantheon of Greek gods watching us, or that a race of advanced aliens visited Earth in our distant past and built pyramids, etc.), but for which we don’t suddenly throw common sense out the window and proclaim the less plausible, less parsimonious option the default.

Moving on, Hart is also strident in his criticism of evolutionary biology in this section. He doesn’t criticise the theory itself (which is just as well – it’s hard to take seriously anyone who doubts evolution after the mountain of evidence that stands in its favour); rather, he directs his ire at its excesses, a phenomenon Raymond Tallis in his book Aping Mankind memorably calls “Darwinitis.” Hart asserts that; “Evolutionary biology, properly speaking, concerns the development of physical organisms by way of replication, random mutation, and natural selection, and nothing else.” (p.73) The key words there are the last two; nothing else. Evolution, given its success at explaining biological complexity without reference to a Designer, has been illegitimately co-opted by many other disciplines to do the same thing for them, including, but not limited to, psychology, economics, politics, social organisation, ethics (as we’ve already seen), religion, and aesthetics.

Hart is particularly critical, and rightly so, of the notion of memes as sociocultural analogues for genes. Evolution by natural selection (mediated by genes) is one of those truly brilliant and elegant scientific discoveries that revolutionised our understanding of life and the universe. Sociocultural evolution, mediated by imaginary things called memes, on the other hand, is a fiction that serves only to confuse and distort. Yes, ideas that have certain features tend to spread (and live) while others with different features fail to take hold (and die out), all in a way that is something similar to what we see happening with biological evolution. This makes it tempting to draw an analogy between the two, and if we remember that that is all it is, an analogy, this is fine. However, in our scientistic age, full of people always looking to reduce complex processes down to predictable events governed by mechanistic laws, analogies like this tend not to remain analogies for long. We have already seen an example of this with the brain and mind becoming computer hardware and software, respectively. Memes aren’t genes. They aren’t even like genes in any meaningful way. Genes are physical objects that predispose an organism for certain traits. If a random mutation yields a trait that increases the fitness of that organism in a way that enables it to outcompete its rivals and produce more offspring, then more of the next generation will have that same trait, allowing them to also outcompete their rivals. This will ensure that the trait spreads throughout the population over time. The genius of this idea is that if the physical details are correct (which they are), evolution must occur, and although it is a completely blind process, it appears teleological in nature. A meme, on the other hand, is any cultural element that is passed on from one individual to another. This is where the resemblance with a gene begins and ends (and even this is being fairly generous). Memes aren’t a part of an individual like genes are. They aren’t even physical. This means that they aren’t ‘passed on’ in anything like the way genes are. They are produced by conscious beings (not a ‘blind’ process), and only ‘survive’ and ‘spread’ thanks to decisions made by other conscious beings (try ‘deciding’ to have a certain gene express or not). This means that their ‘survival’ isn’t a function of them contributing to the fitness of anyone or anything. Yet, despite all of this, the idea of memes has taken hold. Why? Because it allows us to describe yet another aspect of reality without reference to a pesky consciousness that doesn’t seem to make sense in a universe where the physical facts are the only facts there are. There’s nothing strange going on here. Biological evolution proceeds quite nicely without a Designer, and so does the ‘evolution’ of ideas.

The idea of the ‘selfish’ gene is another aspect of evolution that succeeds in drawing Hart’s ire. This is a metaphor that, as we saw with the analogy of the meme, has taken on a life of its own and now effectively “obscures any clear picture of the genetic determination of organisms…” (p.259) by courting the notion that genes are actually the ones in control and we are merely their carriers. Now, of course no one believes genes are actually selfish, so “…where is the harm in a mere figure of speech? But images often shape our concepts far more thoroughly than dialectical arguments can.” (p.263) Again, the scientistic, physicalist narrative is being reinforced. There isn’t anything special about humans or consciousness. It’s all just mindless, mechanical forces. To say that you chose to do something is equivalent to saying a gene, or group of genes, induced that behaviour in order to further its own agenda (survival and reproduction).

One example Hart recounts to illustrate his point that these metaphors and analogies are doing a disservice to genuine scientific inquiry is Robert Wright’s evolutionary ‘explanation’ for modern altruistic behaviour based on the idea that altruism is essentially aimed at procuring reciprocal benefits. We all know this story. We are nice to others because we expect they will be nice to us. This ‘strategy’ would have had obvious survival benefits for our distant ancestors, so those who followed it lived longer, had more children, and propagated the gene for altruism (I’m obviously oversimplifying here, but this is the basic gist of it). The problem for evolution to explain though is altruistic behaviour even where there is no expectation of a reciprocal benefit, as in, for example, donating money to a charity which helps people in a distant country. Wright offers what Hart calls (in an assessment I totally agree with) the “almost lunatic assertion” that our “discriminatory “equipment”” has been fooled by the media. The media, by projecting images into our living room, has tricked our stupid brains into thinking that if we help those moving images of people ten feet away, they might help us at some later time. The only context in which this type of nonsense could ever arise is one which holds that “genetic codes are programs (which is a bad metaphor) and that organisms are “robots” (a worse metaphor) and that genes are “selfish” (a catastrophically worse metaphor)…” (p.266)

Another aspect of modernity Hart takes issue with is the tendency to “regard organic life as a kind of machinery, and to treat human nature as a kind of technology…” (p.307) No doubt, this understanding of life, and humans in particular, is a completely wrong-headed oversimplification, and an example of the modern, materialist, reductive urge gone awry, but on the same page Hart goes on to make a more controversial claim. This tendency, he claims, has given us “many of the worst political, juridical, and social evils…” (p.307), some of which he later goes on to list as including scientific racism, eugenics, Nazism, communist totalitarians, mandatory sterilisation, etc. As Hart says a couple of pages later, “even essentially innocent ideas can have malign consequences… [They open up] a vast array of ideological, practical, and cultural possibilities that other ways of seeing reality would preclude.” (p.309) Unfortunately, my response here is that this attitude is just as wrong-headed and simplistic as the scientistic belief that humans are machines.

This is the narrative that Hart is asking you to buy into: the spread of atheism and the associated diminished status of human beings (more physical, less spiritual) in the West led to the horrors we saw unleashed in the 20th century. Nice and simple, right? There’s a straight line connecting a fall in belief to a rise in atrocities. Case closed. Let me briefly outline three problems with Hart’s thesis:

  1. How is it that those same countries which saw a drop in faith and a rise in secularism are the very same countries in which democracy, universal rights, and equality also flourished to a degree unimaginable at any other time in human history? If you say this is because they had deep Christian roots, why were those same roots nevertheless unable to prevent all of Hart’s “evils”?
  2. Many of the “evils” Hart references happened in the 20th century, not because people stopped believing in God, but because technological advances, in addition to bringing potential benefits, also have the potential for terrible misuse. Eugenics, forced sterilisation, the wholesale slaughter of millions, etc.; none of these things were possible at any other time in human history. If such technology had been available in the Middle Ages to heads of Church/State who were more than willing to burn people alive for the crime of believing something different to them, what do you think would have happened? Cue number 3…
  3. If Hart were right, history should show that Christians (with their worldview centred on the belief that every human has intrinsic worth as a child of God) didn’t do, or couldn’t have done, any of his “evils.” Sadly, even a cursory glance through Western (Christian) history reveals a shocking preponderance of racism, sexism, totalitarianism, mass murder, and any number of other sins.

That last point is probably the most important. It reminds us that there is no set of beliefs or worldview which human beings can’t interpret in such a way as to justify the most heinous of behaviours. Hitler didn’t need a worldview that saw human beings as machines to carry out his despicable actions any more than the worldview that saw human beings as children of God didn’t prevent Pope Nicholas V from authorising Spain and Portugal to invade, capture, subjugate, and “reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”[1] any pagans they encountered. Indeed, C.S. Lewis makes the point for me in Mere Christianity[2] when he, in trying to defend the actions of the over-zealous Christians who eagerly attended witch burnings jeering at the poor women before they were set alight, excuses their behaviour on the grounds that they truly believed these women were in league with the devil. The truth is that a religious/superstitious worldview is just as likely to produce barbaric behaviour as an atheistic one. But then the first point in that list above comes through and reminds us that, despite the cold, sterile, atheistic worldview that allegedly created Hitler, communism, etc., we (again, mainly in the West) are now living through the most peaceful, most opportunity-filled, and most egalitarian period humanity has ever enjoyed. So, I agree with Hart when he criticises the worldview that reduces humans to machines (piloted by an army of selfish genes), but disagree that it is responsible for the “evils” of the 20th century.[3]

Finally, following on from my last point, Hart criticises our modern tendency to think that we are better than prior, ‘primitive’ ages. There is, he says, “no such thing as general human progress, there is no uniform history of enlightenment, no great comprehensive epic of human emergence from intellectual darkness into the light of reason.” (p.326) Instead, he claims that while we “excel in so many astonishing ways at the manipulation of the material order… in the realms of “spiritual” achievement – the arts, philosophy, contemplative practices – ours is an unprecedentedly impoverished age.” (p.326)

What are we to make of this? First, this anti-progress sentiment, typical in so many religious thinkers, appears to me to be a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to the dominant secular narrative, which holds that the jettisoning of the enchanted, supernatural-infused, transcendent worldview of religion and the embracing of a rational, scientific, immanent worldview has, in some general sense, improved the lot of humanity. Now, while there is a good argument to be made for that knee-jerk reaction; i.e. that the transition from religiosity to secularism wasn’t as simplistic and clear-cut as it is typically portrayed (Taylor makes the case for this in quite a balanced and persuasive way in A Secular Age), the real problem for the progress-denier here (and this goes back to my point (1) earlier) is that life in the modern age has improved. Life today, on the whole, is immeasurably better, for more people, than it has ever been before. For many of us, we no longer have to worry that we will be persecuted, or discriminated against, based on our religion, gender, race, or virtually any other characteristic. When we feel ill, the doctor doesn’t tell us it is because we have sinned and ought to pray to this or that Saint. If we have an opinion that differs from that of the Church or the State, we don’t run the risk of receiving the death penalty for talking about it. Steven Pinker argues for this in his extensively researched The Better Angels of our Nature, which is absolutely packed with statistics, graphs, and facts that support this claim. Is Pinker claiming every facet of human life has improved? Of course not. Is he claiming this for all countries, or all people in any particular country? No. Is he claiming that the positive gains we have made are somehow secure against future change. Hardly. Is he claiming that there is some grand, overall trajectory humanity is following, leading us into a glorious future? Absolutely not. Yet these are the arguments one commonly hears from those in the anti-progress camp, as if any of these points refutes the fact that few of us would really prefer to live in an earlier age. And honestly, I can’t think of a better definition for progress than that.

Second, Hart claims that the arts and philosophy are impoverished in the modern era. I find this hard to believe. At no time in history has there ever been more opportunity, more freedom, or more options on offer in the humanities than we have open to us now. You may not agree with all of it (Hart certainly doesn’t, and neither do I), but to call our age “impoverished” in this respect seems more than a little disingenuous. Not to mention that most of the luminaries of our age won’t become luminaries proper until historians in the future work them into a greater narrative of human history (which may or may not be accurate, but that is a whole different can of worms…). This is why every era is full of critics bemoaning the paucity of greatness in their time. The individuals who will come to define an era seldom appear that way from within that era. Who knows which philosophers, artists, authors, poets, scientists, etc., our descendants will be reading about in their history books? One thing I can guarantee about those future societies though is that they will have their fair share of David Bentley Hart’s complaining about the impoverishment of their age and longing for the greatness of the early 21st century.

In truth though, what Hart means when he uses the word “spiritual” isn’t the arts or philosophy, but religion. In this, I would agree with him; we are indeed a religiously impoverished age. Fewer of us believe in a supernatural grounding to the universe than at any other time in human history. Whether this is good or bad is another 16-page article though, so let me close this section on that small point of agreement with Hart.

Ancient Religions

One last topic I would include as a sub-theme here is the way Hart has a tendency to venerate early religious traditions; frequently quoting from a wide variety of faiths: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Vedanta, Christianity (obviously), just to name a few. His basic argument is that all of these early faiths had a profound understanding of God that coincides with Hart’s own exposition as he presents it in his book, and these deep truths have been lost, or at least covered over, in their modern incarnations. Accordingly, Hart lambasts atheists and fundamentalists (young earth creationists, biblical literalists, Deists, Intelligent Design proponents, etc.) alike as maladies of the modern era (although, make no mistake, the former come under much heavier fire than the latter).

I have to admit, I found this strand of the book particularly weak, and disappointingly reminiscent of Atheist Delusions, in which Hart argued that Christianity in the Middle Ages doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it has garnered for itself. Using the same strategy he used in Atheist Delusions, Hart cherry-picks quotes from people across these faiths that support his own reading of God as being, consciousness, and bliss (as opposed to a creator demiurge or a bearded old man in the sky), or that reinforce his nuanced, highly intellectualised interpretations of religious texts (as opposed to simplistic, literal readings). Now, not all religions are created equally, so for the sake of simplicity and convenience, plus the fact that Hart is coming at this from a Christian perspective, I’ll focus on how plausible this is for Christianity. In a word, not at all. Does Hart really expect anyone to believe that Christianity pre-modernity never relied on literal readings of the Bible, or that early Christians didn’t believe that God was a concrete being responsible for literally creating the world, who was surrounded by (also actual and existing) angels and opposed by a very real Satan, or that the age wasn’t rife with superstitious beliefs in a whole host of good and evil forces, spirits, and tokens? Hart tends to cherry-pick opinions of individual people that say what he wants to hear and then uses them to make blanket statements about whole faiths and eras all while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. One example I will cite is Hart’s claim that resistance to Copernicus’ heliocentric theory wasn’t “inspired by some desperate attachment to geocentrism prompted by the self-aggrandizing conviction that humanity occupies the center of all reality.” (p.52) On the contrary, “it was much more the case that the earth and its inhabitants were placed at the lowest and most defective level of reality.” (p.53) What is the lesson we are supposed to take away here? Medieval Christianity was humble and unpretentious?! Perhaps in between the periods when they were burning heretics alive at the stake? The truth is that both of these statements are true, and the sentiments behind them were emphasised to different degrees by different Christians and in different eras. If Hart had been making this more balanced point, you’d be reading my concluding thoughts right now. The only reason I felt I had to comment on it here is because it lends support to a less helpful, nostalgic attitude that looks backwards to some fictional, golden age we have subsequently fallen away from. These nostalgic fantasies are just that; fantasies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything positive about prior ages that we are worse off for having lost, but, if you really want a golden era, for all its faults, you could do much, much worse than pick the early 21st century to live in.

Concluding Thoughts

The Experience of God is a bit of a mixed bag for me. Hart’s conception of God (the main purpose of the book), even if I did happen to believe in some kind of Higher Power, is not just unsatisfying (and not what many self-respecting Christians actually believe, I suspect), it’s literally an empty abstraction. One can sympathise with Hart in wanting to avoid simplistic, anthropocentrised caricatures, but his God just doesn’t make sense. Like I said, you’d be just as well served praying to electricity or the quantum fields that make up the structure of the universe.

On the other hand, I completely agree with some of Hart’s critiques of modernity, materialism, and the scientistic worldview; a worldview that has, I believe, in claiming to be able to contain everything in its mathematical, deterministic framework, over-extended itself. The remedy however, is not to embrace Hart’s abstract God nor is it a return to a supernatural, enchanted worldview – a worldview which can never be proven wrong, but more importantly, doesn’t have much on the other side of the ledger either. (This is a bigger problem than you might at first think because one could reasonably expect there to be some type of incontrovertible, personal evidence that a God, if He is even half of what He is cracked up to be (admittedly, not so much Hart’s God), actually exists.) Rather, as I’ve tried to show wherever possible in this article, philosophy offers us far richer, more meaningful reflections on human existence and the world we inhabit than either science or religion can offer. The former is admittedly more practical, but, in restricting itself to physical objects and mechanical processes, this usefulness is procured only at the expense of being able to provide a satisfactory understanding of a conscious, lived life. The latter is more comforting (some versions of it anyway) and easier to grasp in its basics, but is probably a complete fiction. If that doesn’t bother you, that’s fine, but I better not catch you trying to argue for your beliefs or against anyone else’s on the grounds of plausibility or reasonableness.

One might object that few people understand philosophy, and moreover, they don’t want to. That’s fine. Few people have much knowledge of science and no one understands quantum mechanics, but that hasn’t stopped the scientific worldview from dominating the intellectual landscape and shaping how we see ourselves and the world. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to have been caught up in the framework it has foisted on us. Likewise, one doesn’t have to directly read Heidegger and Kant (a daunting task indeed) to get a glimpse of a different framework that just might offer more than either a mechanical, meaningless universe or an abstract, meaningless God.


[1] Hayes, Diana. 1998. “Reflections on Slavery.” In Curran, Charles E. Change in Official Catholic Moral Teaching

[2] I am 90% sure this came from Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but I couldn’t find the specific passage when I was writing this.

[3] If you’ve read the book, you might take issue with me here by noting that Hart actually says the opposite, specifically on page 310; we “ought not to blame materialism for the greatest evils committed under its aegis…” The problem I have here is that this apparently balanced position rings a little hollow in light of the fact that immediately after this (sentence) he goes on (for a couple of pages) to argue that there is basically a straight line directly connecting the former to the latter.

2 thoughts on “Critical Review of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God

  1. Pingback: Demystifying Heidegger’s Beyng | Absurd Being

  2. Your assertions that Hart’s God is abstract and meaningless are themselves abstract and meaningless, for they are without well defined parameters or criteria by which meaningfulness can be established and adjudicated. This review reads more as a psychological confession than a serious critical reflection. Of course, as Hart is a systemic thinker, one may rightly expect that this book cannot be fully comprehended without acquaintance with Hart’s extended oeuvre. His work on analogical meaning (mainly developed in The Beauty of the Infinite) ought to clear up many of the confusions present in this unfortunately superficial review. Perhaps your review may speak to the casual reader of philosophy whose only just begun to suspect the specious nature of more conventional “naturalistic/modernistic” worldviews; but to one who actually has a background in theology, this is barely an improvement over the sort of take you’d find in Sam Harris.

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