World-wide there is a very broad range of systems of knowledge/belief which incorporate religious convictions of one sort and another. They must all be coherent and satisfying or they simply would not persist - survival of the fittest, and all that. Some are associated with particular cultures and modes of life. Some relate to a single deity, others to whole families of gods. Some deities are regarded as dealing directly with people at a personal level: others are more remote and stand-offish.
It is under the heading of religion that faith, belief, revelation and perhaps hope play such an important role. (The Christian "sure and certain hope" is an interesting use of words!) What is certain knowledge to one person may be wishful thinking to another and nonsense to a third. History has not always dealt logically with religions: atrocities have been the by-products of many a religious war or persecution. Dogma is sometimes difficult to justify on any basis other than that it is the edict of some "authority". Many religions produce their own ethics or unique codes of conduct: diets may be more or less restricted, and rules laid down for marital or family relationships.
Emphasising again that coherence is not the same as truth, any objective thinker is faced with many equally coherent but mutually exclusive religions to pick from. But they may not all be equally hoskentic: hoskence (defined in Chapter Six) incorporates elements of intellectual satisfaction and subjective desirability without which a purely coherent account of some aspect of the world may not be acceptable. Hoskence also takes account, perhaps as an aspect of intellectual acceptability, of the probability relationships of competing accounts: recall the geocentric versus heliocentric debate used as example in Chapter Six.
§10.1 The Lucky Ones
Pride of place among the hoskentic enhancements of coherence is revelation. It would be possible to be very rude and dismissive about knowledge conveyed direct from the supernatural to the individual intellect, on the basis that they tell so many different tales. Virtually every culture has its own syllabus when it comes to the message which is regarded as having been transmitted. Even within cultures individuals receive opposing insights: western Christian A may be converted from Roman Catholicism to some form of Protestantism while just the reverse happens to B.
But perhaps insistence on unanimity is an invader from science. The coherentist can afford to be much more open-minded. After all, geocentricism was not made true by being universally accepted. It is much more important that the material being considered carries conviction for the individual thinker concerned. And on that score revelation is virtually totally convincing. Even when considered objectively, it is natural for messages known to come from a benign supernatural source to carry authority sufficient to guarantee acceptance.
The case is only slightly different where the source and the subject of the revelation are one and the same. Many a one-time atheist has become convinced of the existence of God when s/he receives such a message. And the message need not even be coherent, in our sense of the term. It may well be that the new insights are so powerfully persuasive that the recipient happily restructures his or her whole edifice to accommodate the new material, at the expense of ditching or editing-out previously crucial segments of knowledge. A paradigm case is that of Saul on the road to Damascus, as told in the Weymouth translation.
Suddenly there flashed round him a light from Heaven; and falling to the ground he heard a voice which said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"
"Who art thou, Lord?", he asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," was the reply.
Blinded, Saul was led into Damascus where for two days he remained without sight, and did not eat or drink anything. Then with help from Ananias he recovered his sight and was filled with the Holy Spirit.
§10.2 The Existence of God
Those of us with no direct line to our deity have to build up instead an objective view about religion: we have a greater number of options. Any dogma or body of belief which has commanded sufficient respect to determine the way of life of thinking people must be coherent: nobody consciously accepts an incoherent basis to live by. To be totally consistent in our search, all the religions of the world would have to be examined as being deserving of some thought. Fighting shy of such a task in the present context I propose to consider only the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Could such a God exist? Can it be coherent that He is so shy that He doesn't make his presence known to all mankind and be done with it? Or is He so uncaring about humanity that He doesn't mind one way or the other about being acknowledged? These and more serious problems need some consideration before we can regard the idea of God as acceptably coherent, let alone as desirably hoskentic. We might try listing His attributes and actions, paying particular attention to those aspects sometimes regarded as bordering on incoherence.
- God was the creator of the universe. OK, that seems to cohere with science's current thinking that there was indeed a beginning to the universe: there may be a "for ever and ever" into the future but there isn't into the past so far as our universe is concerned. This seems to imply the hoary old chestnut along the lines of "Where was God before time began, and how long had He been there?"
- God is perfection. Oops! That sounds rather too much like an adjective having been turned into a noun. But perhaps it is only a metaphorical manner of speaking: He could be perfectly loving, and perfectly just, and perfectly ... almost anything, perhaps everything.
- Similarly He can be omnipotent. Ah well, not quite! We should rate it as worryingly incoherent if He started playing ducks and drakes with the laws of logic or mathematics. We're grateful that He seems not to go tinkering with the laws of physics as we conceive them. Oh, but perhaps He does: remember the miracles, and those quanta with intuitively incoherent properties like being in two places at once? Quanta behave according to known statistical laws but are individually subject to uncertainty. So we must leave a question-mark there.
- The hard core of Christianity per se seems to involve a strange history.
- Mankind sinned against a loving Creator, and got into a mess.
- Humanity was judged by that same Creator to be in need of salvation.
- Such salvation could be brought about only by that Creator sacrificing a part of Himself by the death upon the cross.
It is difficult to separate the theological "fact" from the illustrative metaphors - opening the gates of heaven, bearing our load of sin, the Son reconciling us to the Father (Creator), and very much more. Certainly this is not very coherent when an outsider first comes across it all. The received wisdom - the excuse, if you like - which is supposed to put our minds at rest if not to explain it all is this:
the limited intellect of those lower than the angels is not enough fully to comprehend the divine purpose of the Supreme Intellect.
Many of the churches' procedures are incoherent. It would waste time to provide a listing: we will make do with a single example. Why does a prayer relating to "this night and evermore" or "for ever and ever" need repeating at all, let alone weekly or even daily - in some cases more than once, minutes apart, in a single service?
There is, of course, the vexed question of evil: if a loving all-powerful God created our universe to His own design how came He to create pain and suffering, disease and death, ignorance and war? There is an answer, of course, but whether it is hoskentic or not is more doubtful.
- If His creatures were to love Him they could not be automata since love without options would be meaningless: it would be just a property like solubility.
- Therefore free-will was a necessary ingredient in the blue-print for sentient soul-bearers, and there had to be an option other than good. It did have certain spin-offs too.
- There can be no justice without freedom and responsibility: there can be no responsibility without options: there can be no significant options where everything is perfect. So justice and perfection can't be combined in any creation.
- The good of overcoming evil was a bonus, unobtainable without there being evil to overcome!
- Making souls subject to judgement added a bit of spice to the undertaking: it was more interesting for God and would keep the soul-bearers on their ethical toes.
So the idea of the creation of man by God in his own image is tolerably coherent if not overwhelmingly convincing. The problem is just that the level of coherence seems to fall away when certain aspects of accepted teachings are grafted on. We'll look at a few later.
Meanwhile, there is a competitor coherent structure based on the notion that man created God in his own image.
- This is God the explanation of all the deepest mysteries - the uncaused first cause, the designer, the creator.
- This is the basis for an opiate of the people - a vehicle which will bear the output from man's built-in psychological need to worship something greater than himself.
- This is God the comforter who can assure us that death is not the end of life.
- This is the final-so-far outcome of the natural evolutionary process from sun-worship and animal gods through spirits of forest and thunder and on to theological refinement. This is the most comprehensive data-system ever devised by man, with replies to every question - either with an answer or with an explanation as to why an answer is not possible.
On that last point, believers explain that no reasoned approach to God can be possible. If knowledge of God were a matter of logic then there would be no need of faith. If God's presence were amenable to objective proof then our response to Him would be as duty to a dictator rather than as love of a divine Person. It is incoherent that God's existence should carry compulsory coherence!
In perspective, then, it seems clear that it is internally coherent to "know" that God created man in His own image: it is alternatively internally coherent to "know" that man created God in his own image. There is not and cannot be any purely rational, objective method of knowing which "knowledge" is better, let alone true. It is easy to work out which is the safer policy. Christianity for example offers an attractive insurance policy, but some people find the premium of subjection, praise and glorification uninspiring - perhaps unhoskentic.
In Chapter Seven some time was spent in trying to work out a relationship between body and mind, and whether mind was a "thing" or a property. By a further step away from physical things we may reach "spirit". Again we can sensibly ask some legitimate questions as to its existential status.
- Is spirit a thing? Should we speak of "the" spirit and "my" spirit?
- Is the real, essential me a soul which is of a spiritual nature?
- Or is the whole concept a non-logical extension of some commonplace metaphor like "the spirit of springtime" or "a spirited attack on his opponent's views".
Massive tomes have been devoted to this subject. Analysis and dogma, conjecture and speculation know no limit in this regard. A small contribution just here may not come amiss. Spirit is not the stuff of science. There is no known method of objective demonstration: no instrument can meter the properties of spirit. So it is necessarily the case that we know of matters spiritual only through our own spiritual faculty. Immediately, therefore, we are back with Wittgenstein's private language argument that we came across earlier: see Chapter Seven. That argument shows that it is not possible meaningfully to discuss matters for which no independent baseline can exist. But I'm afraid that will not stop me!
If we do indeed have a spiritual faculty there is no reason to believe that it should be any more reliable nor any better standardised than any other human faculty. The hearing-deficient are "deaf" or "hard of hearing": those lacking vision are "blind". Those lacking a spiritual faculty are ... well, they're in need of a word or phrase. The psychologist William James used the expression "seemingly unconvertible persons" but he did not attribute that to lack of spirit, rather to the contrary as the following quotations show.
- "Religious ideas cannot become the centre of their spiritual energy".
- "There are men anaesthetic [non-feeling] on the religious side, deficient in that category of sensibility".
- "So the nature which is spiritually barren may admire and envy faith in others, but can never compass the enthusiasm and peace which those who are temperamentally qualified for faith enjoy".
He evidently considered - after long and detailed study, I may say - that there was some underlying spirituality in everyone. But religion evidently involved something more: sensibility and temperament are mentioned.
There might be some merit in thinking about the everyday aspects of matters involving the spirit. Surely we all experience some uplift at the beauty of nature and the grandeur of certain types of scenery: many react with more than simple emotion to sublime music, and some can even derive a non-logical inner thrill from some magnificent machine or even an insightful mathematical proof. There is the other side of the coin too: inevitably it is beyond emotion that we suffer at times of bereavement or when we contemplate some major disaster.
So even those of us who are seemingly unconvertible persons can admit to a faculty which we cannot fully enjoy, just as the blind person would not deny the reality of sight for the more fortunate among us.
But soul would seem to be a different matter. Can anyone introspect to a soul? Or is soul simply something created by dogma? Unfortunately we have in such questions to make a very determined effort to distinguish between the words and the ideas. We are certainly not involved with whatever Frankie Howerd was referring to with his "Poor soul!" comment. Nor with "the life and soul of the party". Such may indeed be uses in the language but for present purposes a more precise definition of the concept is needed. The history of philosophy and religion is bestrewn with variants. The soul may be what makes our flesh live: it may perhaps be immortal. It may be made of some substance or it may be merely a collection of properties. What needs to be discussed here is the mainstream Judeo-Christian soul "thing" - the spiritual entity by virtue of which each of us is a child of God.
Incoherent difficulties immediately abound.
- Is soul digital or analogue?
- Is it the case that a body either has or does not have a soul?
- Or is a soul something that develops from initiation through growth to maturity?
- If human beings have souls but animals do not at what stage of evolution were there soul-less parents who begat ensouled offspring?
- Similarly with individual development: assuming that eggs and sperms do not have semi-souls apiece, does a soul arrive or develop at conception, at birth, with the development of personality and responsibility, or on the satisfactory completion of some religious rite?
- In what sense is the soul the seat of moral responsibility?
- Do the conventional methods of education and training automatically give access to the soul or is some higher faculty involved in digesting moral learning for assimilation by the soul?
- Then there is the complementary question, is it the soul which controls free will?
All these questions lend themselves to endless debate, with obvious practical and moral implications in such fields as birth control and abortion, the churches' sacraments, education, speciesism, law, and many other crucial aspects of life. Coherentism provides no universal means of sorting through these imponderables. It may well be possible to compute all the possible combinations of variants and then to see which sets are inconsistent and so leave a rather long "short list" of internally coherent alternatives. Then each individual could incorporate into his or her own edifice of knowledge that substructure which fitted most neatly and beautifully.
Or not, as the case may be. Some view the sheer number and difficulty of questions as preventing the coherence of the whole concept of soul. Certainly if man might possibly have created God in his own image then soul is redundant or is downgraded to a mere synonym for the nub of personality.
§10.5 Eternal Life
Equally vexed are the many questions about eternal life. The words and the generally proposed idea are themselves an incoherent combination.
- "Eternal life" is taken as having a beginning and a continuation through future aeons. The death of the mortal body marks the beginning of the afterlife of the immortal soul.
- "Eternal", "beginning", "continuation", "future", "aeons", "afterlife", and indeed "life" itself are all words with time components. Mankind has no reasoned basis for assuming that the time dimension can be separated from the three spatial dimensions which together make up the four-dimensional space-time which is all that we can know about. So on that basis the abandonment of body involves the abandonment of time: death cannot be the "beginning" of any new phase of existence.
If we nevertheless accept the eternal life concept, it is then easy to pour scorn on childish visions of heavenly life as being like the best bits of our earthly existence, with lots of sweets and smashing comics and no school and so on. But a moment's thought shows that the adult version must be equally naïve.
- No nasty rats or alligators, of course, but no soul-less dogs or horses either: no peacocks nor butterflies. There may be flowers, though it seems a bit unjust that soul-less orchids may get to heaven when the soul-less insects on which they depend on earth do not. Or does everything get there unless kept out by moral shortcoming? If so we're back with rats and alligators again, but perhaps in form only: they are reputed to be nice ones this time as in the case of the lion lying down with the lamb.
- Perhaps that lion and the alligator will then be OK since they will, in the absence of time, never get hungry and so never need to hunt. In fact if we all have to leave time behind when we desert our bodies then no activities are possible in the afterlife - no sports, no music, no explorations, no achievements, since they all have time elements. That makes it sound dreadfully boring. And for all eternity. Oh dear: poor soul, indeed!
Clearly, eternal life cannot be life as we know it. Rather must it be some much more spiritual existence. Quasi-bodily activities and sensations would be, of course, only means to various spiritual goods - happiness, fulfilment and so on. So heavenly existence must be some eternal state of total happiness, total fulfilment.
But can that be? If the soul is the moral focus and is to be judged after death then so long as we stick with Christianity the implication is clear: Christ alone, having achieved perfection on earth, enjoys perfection of happiness and fulfilment. The rest of us are liable to be graded onto the lower levels of happiness and fulfilment which with perfect justice reflect our deserts. But perhaps those of us who are "seemingly unconvertible persons" will finish up with negative scores and find ourselves elsewhere altogether.
A parallel school of thought, or faith, maintains that since Christ was sacrificed on earth our own judgement will be avoided: heavenly bliss of Christ's own perfect quality will be granted to us all.
All this assumes of course that some of the eastern religions are in error and that we shall not be returning to earth for our next incarnations.
I personally find it very difficult to construct any coherent picture of "eternal life": odd components do not fit together and are lacking in hoskence altogether. How much worse then if some churches' dogma about the resurrection of the body is to be accommodated too. Any such thought implies a return to matter, to four-dimensional space-time, to science, to real rats and real alligators - and total incoherence. But then, who am I, with my finite human intellect, to set limits on what God (or Krishna, or the sun-god) might ordain?
Many questions have been asked in this Chapter, many doubts expressed, many incoherent combinations identified. It almost seems as if a totally coherent edifice of religious knowledge is impossible. Or ought I to say that it is available only to the faithful? - that it cannot properly be assessed from on outside, objective viewpoint?
If coherentism is to monitor a body of knowledge, albeit a very personal and individual one, must it consist solely of that knowledge which comes by revelation with its own in-built guarantee of authenticity? Might the rest be self-deception? - or brain-washed dogma? Could the hope be wishful thinking?
Despite these quibbles and queries, the fact remains that mankind does place and always has placed a great deal of concern, faith, interest, loyalty and hope in matters of religion. In the real world, out there, there have been and are millions of convinced individuals with intellects superior to mine who dedicate their lives to the service of their God or gods. I cannot share, but would not seek to pour scorn on, such philosophies.
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