A review of David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Yale University Press, 2013, 376 pages, paperback.
Among the most learned and entertaining, if not sometimes infuriating writers on the theological scene today is David Bentley Hart. He is the author of such notable books as The Doors of the Sea, The Beauty of the Infinite, and Atheist Delusions. Alongside this is his impressive portfolio of articles (in particular for First Things). His ‘Christ or Nothing’, ‘Laughter of the Philosophers’, and ‘Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark’ are classics!
The present work investigates the very real transcendental features of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. These three aspects of the human condition are fundamental to any true exploration and comprehension of reality. They also represent insurmountable obstacles to the naturalistic paradigm which holds sway in the minds of many within academe. In this post I shall restrict my comments to Being and Consciousness.
It is Hart’s contention, as it has been the contention of all Theists in the classical Christian tradition, that only the living God can stand behind these facts of our existence. To fit them within a materialist philosophy is to extinguish them altogether. But Hart is speaking of “God’, as defined in the classical traditions as the Source and Ground of Being, or as “Pure Actuality” in Aristotelian/Thomistic terms. Not, let it be said, the larger-than-life demiurgic god which the atheists love to rattle their sabres against, but the transcendent Lord and Creator of everything else that is.
Of this god who cannot be God Hart writes,
In purely philosophical terms… it simply does not matter very much if some god named “God” might happen to exist, even if he should prove to be the unsurpassable and unique instantiation of the concept “god,” as that fact casts no real light on the enigma of existence as such. Even if this demiurge really existed, he would still be just one more being out there whose own existence would be in need of explanation: the ultimate source of being upon which he and the world must both be dependent. Confronted by so constrained a concept of God, the village atheist would still be well within his rights to protest that, even if the world comes from God, one must still ask where God comes from. (129-130).
Hurling flack at a deity who inhabits the same circle of existence as everyone and everything else is fair game. But it isn’t significant as regards the God revealed in the Holy Bible (a fact which Jerry Coyne, who professes to have read the book, can’t seem to get straight). Nor is it significant, says Hart, rather controversially, as a poniard to use against the One God of whom some Muslims and Hindus speak (something I will come back to). Both non-believers and Christians need to be aware of the difference in speaking about the true God who is the independent Source of all other (contingent) being. Hence, says the author, “there can be no distinction between what he is and that he is” (133).
From this position the author moves on to defend Divine Simplicity as necessary (134-142). Simplicity (and impassibility) have suffered somewhat from friendly fire of late, but Hart reasons that these are important and necessary truths about God. It was good to meet with such an affirmation in the book.
Also mandatory, although rarely faced up to, is the materialistic aporia channeled to us by the New Atheists and the scientific majority if we take their ontology to heart. There is no mind and hence no goal behind existence. There are only mechanisms, and any appearance of purpose; any appeal to final causes is illusory. Speaking of the functionality inherent in the structures within and without, Hart observes,
Nothing within the material constituents of those structures has the least innate tendency toward such order, any more than the material elements from a watch is composed have any innate tendency toward horology. And, if complex rational order is extrinsic to what matter essentially is, how much more so must rationality itself be; for consciousness would appear to be everything that, according to the principles of mechanism… The notion that material causes could yield a result so apparently contradictory to material nature is paradoxical enough that it ought to give even the most convinced of materialists pause. (154).
Consciousness “is a uniquely ‘first person’ phenomenon” (156). “Electrochemical events are not thoughts.” (159). Consciousness means individuality means self-hood. Hart makes short work of “eliminativists” (like the Churchland’s) before moving on to present big problems for naturalistic accounts of consciousness. These include “qualia” – those subjective responses to things which are our feelings alone. Then abstract concepts are discussed. Again, the inability of naturalism to tackle the most fundamental questions about the reality of number and mathematics is exhibited (185-187). Then reason, and things like “language’s triadic semiotic structure” (189); then transcendental categories, and “Intentionality”, or “the fundamental power of the mind to direct itself toward something” (191), a segment I found especially helpful (191-197). And finally, the unity of consciousness. He almost gets presuppositional as he suggests materialists ought to think twice about their commitment to their metaphysics (204).
Hart’s wit and skill as a wordsmith are never so much in evidence as when he is creatively stating the obvious. I particularly loved this “pearler” on the overused analogy between a computer and a mind:
Software no more “thinks” than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word ‘pelican’ knows what a pelican is.” (219).
All computation, with all of its symbols, relies upon consciousness and is a top-down operation (223), just as all engineering is. Not that the writer is interested in buttressing Intelligent Design (41, 59, 302); although I think he might have represented their case better.
Anyway, from here he becomes more obviously theological; at least for a few pages. The discussion basically proceeds along scholastic lines, but it is none the worse for all that, and some of the language is (to me at least), spiritually edifying:
To speak of God… as infinite consciousness, which is identical to infinite being, is to say that in him the ecstasy of mind is also the perfect satiety of achieved knowledge, of perfect wisdom. (237).
The reader may be forced to have that run past him again, but it is deep and wonderful. It conjures up what we ought to mean when we absent-mindedly say “God is awesome”.
The next part of the review should be up in about a fortnight.