In Modern Philosophy, my students keep wanting to believe that the philosophers of the 1600s didn't really believe in God: they just had to pretend that they did, to avoid the wrath of the Church. I think my students really perceive all the God-talk as fake, meaningless, even maybe childish or primitive. They say they are "put off" by it.
I really try to challenge their preconceptions. I tell them that they are anachronistically reading on meanings that these philosophers did not intend. I encourage them to delete the word "God," and look in a new way at what they are actually saying: "What concepts are they associating with this word?" I have them labor over the text, while I write their findings on the board: "orderliness of the universe," "creator of all" (which I help translate as "the deepest grounding of all existence"), "omniscience" which I help translate as "everything that is is ultimately knowable by some consciousness," etc.
Then, I ask, "Do you believe any of this? Do you believe that the universe is orderly? How do you explain why there is something rather than nothing? What is the source of all being? It just accidentally came into being? How is that an answer and not a cop out? Do you think that everything that exists is at least theoretically knowable? What would it mean to exist but not be knowable at all, by any kind of consciousness?"
My students seem intrigued, or maybe even disturbed at the implication that their deepest beliefs might be something like belief in God. So, by the next class, they come back to the view that these philosophers don't really believe in God, or that's not really want "God" means, etc.
Or, even more bizarrely, they try to get around thinking about this by coming back (yes, back) to questioning Descartes' earlier claim, "I think, therefore I exist."
"You really question that?" I ask, showing my astonishment. "You really think that that is the most problematic aspect of Descartes' proof?!"
They try the Buddhist denial of Self.
"Descartes says nothing about 'self,' here!" I point out. "The claim he is making here is not the claim that Buddhists deny. Buddhism objects to sharp individuation, in favor of a view that emphasizes the interconnectedness of all being. That's very different from what Descartes is doing at this moment in his proof."
With reluctance, they turn their attention back to the God question then.
I thought it would be fun for them to realize that the notion of God may mean something more mysterious and interesting than they had originally thought, but their attitude suggests almost a moral stance against considering this in any way different from the blanket dismissal that they have been trained to make.
I am having more fun with this than it may seem. And I am certainly not trying to "convert" anyone -- I tell them "I'm not saying you have to believe this; I'm just saying you have to understand it before you are even in a position to decide whether you believe it or not."
But I am distressed at how dogmatic is their disbelief, especially when they think they are preaching against dogmatism!
This is going to be an interesting class. The students will find that the God question never does go away during the Modern period of philosophy (roughly 1600-1800). They will find that it is still not clear by the end of this time period that the notion of God is obsolete. The idea of a purely mechanistic universe develops by then, but many remain unconvinced -- and, anyway, by the early part of the 20th century, that image of the universe is found not to work because it is denied by quantum physics. The universe just is very strange--none of the oversimplified attempts to finally explain it completely have ever worked!
6 years ago