“The Experience of God” Review – Chapter Two

This is the third in a series of posts examining David Bentley Hart’s book “The Experience of God”. You can find the other parts here.

Aeons ago, I started writing a chapter by chapter review/analysis of David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. I did the introduction and Chapter 1, and then stopped the series in despair: the faults of the book seemed too many to detail, and I couldn’t stomach the effort. However, numerous people have written to me since then to request that I continue the series, so I’m going to grit my teeth and continue. So, get caught up with my previous responses, and dig in to Chapter Two, “Pictures of the World.”

In the second chapter, Hart continues setting out his philosophical stall. He has dealt with the definition of God in Chapter 1 (though not, I argue, successfully), and now he is concerned with the nature of philosophy and the supposed weaknesses of the naturalist perspective. He makes a series of points.

Philosophy Does Not Make Progress, and is Faddish

Hart is quite clear in his view that there is no progress in philosophy. He says, starkly, “If philosophy had the power to establish incontrovertible truths…then it might be possible to speak of progress in philosophy” – but, since it cannot, we cannot. Philosophy, in Hart’s view, is as much a series of intellectual fads and fashions as it is a progressive enterprise, a “history of prejudices masquerading as principles”. Furthermore, Hart argues, it is “the educated class” in any society which is most in hock to the prejudices of their time, meaning that professional philosophers (among the most “thoroughly indoctrinated” of people) are most likely of all to uncritically accept the intellectual mores of surrounding culture. Therefore, Hart avers, we should be skeptical of the quality of contemporary philosophy, and not assume that just because materialistic naturalism is popular among philosophers right now that it is a good response to philosophical problems.

This last point seems to be the purpose of Hart’s case here: he wants to stress the faddishness of philosophy to undercut the current popularity of naturalism and materialism. If he can say “Hey, philosophy is like fashion: it’s just change, not progress!”, then the fact that naturalism and materialism are currently popular among philosophers is no recommendation of the position.

The problem with Hart’s argument here (and it is a very grave problem) is that it is pure assertion: there is no supporting evidence of any sort provided for any of his statements about philosophy in general, about professional philosophers, or about contemporary philosophy in particular. At no point does Hart give an example of philosophical works or trends to illustrate his case, or engage with philosophical journals, or do any of the work required to substantiate such a broad critique of a whole field of human inquiry: he just says things like “there is no progress in philosophy”, and expects us to believe it because he says it. There is not even logical argumentation or any form of reasoning behind his positions: it is all bald assertion. This is…bad? Unacceptable? His argument is totally unsupported.

It is also wrong. Philosophy progresses in much the same way literary criticism progresses: people take a seed text (Plato’s Republic, for example), read and analyze it carefully for logical consistency, generative ideas, fruitful applications etc., and then add their thoughts on top. Others then respond to these new thoughts, and the process continues. Eventually, we have a body of criticism which is fuller and more considered than the original text would be alone. Perhaps no one “proves” or “disproves” central tenets of the seed text (although this sometimes does happen – logical inconsistencies are often discovered in philosophical writings), but a body of wisdom grows, and we understand the seed text better through the work of numerous critics. That is a sort of progress. If it is true, as Hart claims, that “It is as possible today to be an intellectually scrupulous Platonist as it was more than two thousand years ago”, that is not because philosophy does not progress, but because of the progress philosophers have made in improving Platonic thought. Intellectually scrupulous Platonism today is quite different to that offered in Plato: it shares a family resemblance and certain core features, but has otherwise been modified through a progressive process of expansion and refinement.

As I’ve said, Hart offers absolutely zero evidence to support his assertion about the depth of the “indoctrination” he claims professional philosophers suffer from, so the claim need not be taken seriously at all. But for what it’s worth, in my experience of working alongside respected philosophers, and studying with them at the most elite academic institutions in the world, Hart’s claim is an inversion of the truth. Professional philosophers, in my experience, delight in discovering unusual arguments which set them apart both from the culture at large and from their fellow philosophers. Philosophical conferences tend to be like competitions in which each thinker hopes to take home the laurel for “most counter-intuitive theory”. To get published in the best philosophical journals, you have to say something new, and the more surprising the better. Philosophers are trained to be hyper-critical of cultural institutions and reigning ideas, and generally pride themselves at being able to think beyond the mores of the day. Indeed, I think that some of the appeal of theistic arguments among philosophers today is precisely because they seem so unusual to many of us: philosophers love weird, and contemporary theology is really weird. But, regardless of the merits of my case here, my reference to personal experience with philosophers and my sketch of an argument about philosophical progress is much more argumentative work than Hart does in this whole section of this chapter – and that is not OK. He simply doesn’t secure, or even support, his case. This is not an isolated problem.

Tour of Philosophical History, from the Ancient World to Now

Hart then proceeds on a readable and interesting “tour” of philosophical assumptions, in which he describes some key differences between how the pre-moderns viewed the world and how we view it today. This part of the chapter is fine: quite a fun and interesting read. The purpose of it is to show how our contemporary view of the world focuses on “material” and “efficient” causes for things, while excluding consideration of “formal” and “final” causes (these are four types of causation given by Aristotle). Hart argues that while the contemporary view began as a “heuristic metaphor of a purely mechanical cosmos”, wielded by scientists in order to bring clarity to the investigation of certain types of causes, it “became a kind of ontology, a picture of reality as such”. The distinction, Hart says, is between “seeing the universe simply as something which can be investigated according to a mechanistic paradigm”, and seeing it “as in fact a machine.” The first he endorses, the second he does not.

This is a bit technical, but it’s not too hard to understand. Hart is drawing attention, essentially, to a distinction between methodological naturalism (starting from naturalistic assumptions in order to make progress solving particular problems), and ontological naturalism (claiming that the universe is simply natural, that there is nothing but natural elements as a matter of fact). The difference is between saying something like “Let’s assume there are only natural elements in the universe: what could we discover then?” and saying “There are as a matter of fact only natural elements in the universe, and here’s why.” (I, personally, don’t put much stock in this distinction, because I am essentially a Pragmatist – but to explain my own philosophical position would take us quite far from Hart’s book.) Hart stresses at length how big a shift he thinks the philosophical move from pre-modern to modern frameworks of thinking was, arguing that the pre-moderns had a “sense of an integral unity of metaphysical and physical causes, and of a spiritual rationality pervading and sustaining the universe”. We, in the modern naturalistic age, do not – we see physical causes only.

Hart’s view is clear: in the shift from a pre-modern to a modern perspective, we lost something important. The previous perspective was, he claims, “metaphysically richer, immeasurably more mysterious, and far more spiritually inviting”. Perhaps, but as with all his writing so far, Hart does far too little to defend his thesis. He states his position powerfully, but he doesn’t back it up – all the while disparaging those who believe differently to him.

An example. Hart states:

“it is casually assumed by (I suspect) a pretty healthy majority of cognitive scientists that the conscious mind really is nothing but a mechanical material function of the brain…they have no room left in their thinking for the possibility that the experience of consciousness might best be explained in terms of an integral unity of “higher” and “lower” causalities.”

This quote is characteristic of the book so far:

  • It makes a strong claim about what a “healthy majority” of cognitive scientists believe about a complex philosophical question based only on a suspicion, without supporting evidence (“I suspect” is a dead giveaway that Hart does not know).
  • It twice assigns psychological characteristics to those who believe differently. These (imaginary) cognitive scientists are “casually assuming” their position (not thinking about it carefully), and they have “no room left in their thinking” for other points of view (they are closed-minded). This makes those who disagree with Hart sound careless and thoughtless, which is clearly a way of poisoning the well. If his discussants haven’t thought about their position, why should the reader credit it?
  • Reductive language like “nothing but a mechanical material function of the brain” is used to make the materialist worldview seem thin, closed to the grandeur of experience. Listen to naturalists like Carl Sagan talk of the material world, though, and there’s no “nothing but” about it – it’s just a rhetorical game to try to further discredit naturalism.
  • Hart presents what he believes to be another way of viewing the situation re: consciousness – “the experience of consciousness might best be explained in terms of an integral unity of “higher” and “lower” causalities”” – but he does nothing to clarify what this alternate view means, what it entails, and how we might verify or test it. It’s hand-waving, without philosophical substance.

Hart’s approach here, as elsewhere in the book, is all smoke and mirrors. First, he uses the smoke of dismissiveness to denigrate naturalist and materialist perspectives, saying that they are merely the cultural prejudices of indoctrinated people. Then, he uses the mirror of vagueness to redirect attention toward his preferred alternative – which is given no supporting argumentation or philosophical detail. Hart’s case is an illusion.

Naturalism Or Not?

Clearly, Hart’s dismissive approach to naturalism not the only way to view things. We could recognize, instead, that the shift to naturalism has brought extraordinary clarity to our thinking, has rid us of many wrong and dangerous beliefs, and has re-positioned us in relation to the world in a positive way. Many pre-modern views of the world and of our place within it are simply less powerful, epistemically-speaking, than the ones naturalism offers. And I, for one, find nothing spiritually deficient in a naturalistic worldview: indeed I believe, along with Carl Sagan, that science and its fruits are not just compatible with spiritual life, but complementary. Hart, I think, systematically undervalues naturalism, in a way which does violence to the potential splendor of the view of the cosmos which it offers.

Hart provides a passionate description of a non-naturalistic universe but, throughout this chapter, he doesn’t do very much to secure the idea that the god-filled universe he prefers is more plausible than the godless one. Even if we were convinced that the pre-modern view of the cosmos were more aesthetically appealing than the modern view, that doesn’t mean that the pre-modern view is true. A world in which unicorns exist would be much more fun than the world we actually live in – that doesn’t mean that unicorns exist, though (sadly).

I’m willing to grant that we shouldn’t confuse our scientific models with “reality per se” (whatever that is),  and that we should always be open to the possibility that alternative accounts of our experience will fit the facts better. But this position, which is about as far as Hart’s argument here can take us, is no different from the position of any responsible scientist or philosopher. If Hart wishes to provide an alternative to naturalism or materialism, he needs to demonstrate 1) that there problems which naturalism genuinely cannot solve;  2) that these are genuine problems which demand an answer, rather than pseudo-problems; and 3) that a non-naturalistic framework offers a more useful, powerful explanation of the phenomena which give rise to those problems. Despite a lot of flourishes, in this chapter Hart doesn’t do any of this.

Astonishingly, Hart seems to understand this. Towards the end of the chapter he states, as he transitions into the next section of the book, “it is not my aim to prove the truth of this [non naturalistic] vision of things as much as to describe it.” And, indeed, Hart offers much more “description” than “proof”. But given that he has spent countless pages disparaging the perspectives of his ideological opponents, and since his argument requires solid justification if he reader is to accept it, this seems a startling dereliction of duty. It’s like Hart has spent an introduction and two chapters marshaling his forces and promising the reader that a solid defense of his view is forthcoming, only to quit the field at the moment of battle. It is enraging. And so ends the second chapter.

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About James Croft

Dr. James Croft is the Outreach Director of the Ethical Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and completed his Ed.D at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist.