An Agnostic Defends Negative Theology

Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne, of the University of Chicago, has a rather nasty post at his blog deriding negative theology, but I think that negative theology has some merits that Coyne might not be considering. In fact, if God exists (and as an agnostic I don’t claim any knowledge about this one way or the other), then negative theology must certainly be an important conceptual piece of the puzzle with regards to God’s existence. I offer the following defense:

When we think about our planet, we recognize that for billions of years it consisted of one thing: matter. But about 100,000 years ago, a wildly improbable thing occurred: a world of blind matter started manufacturing self-conscious minds. That’s a stunning fact. Mind emerged from matter. Suddenly, this was no longer one world of objects, but two sharply distinct worlds: the world of objects and the world of subjects.

You and I and Prof. Coyne and the other posters at this thread are not just more of the same. We represent a radical and fundamental disjuncture on our planet—and perhaps the universe—from everything that has gone before. Indeed, if you were to try to describe our mental states—that is, the subject world that we humans live in—to a cat (in terms of the old object world of blind material and unconscious forces), you would have to speak in terms of “negative humanology”: The experience of full consciousness, Mr. Cat, is not a piece of wood, it is not a moon, it is not the jump of a frog, it is not a ball of string, it is not the wind brushing a leaf.

In other words, every single phenomenon and thing—everything!—in the object world would have to be negated—“It’s not this, it’s not that, it’s not this, it’s not that”—until you had literally catalogued the whole object world. And you could set that list against human consciousness and say: What is human freedom, consciousness, and love? They are none of these things. They are not just more of the same; they are a disjuncture from all that has gone before, and cannot even be remotely understood in terms of what has gone before. They completely transcend the object world, not just superficially, but radically. They touch, that is true. They interact. In short, humans are immanent in the object world, but they are not the object world. And humans move among objects unaware of their presence.

You might offer analogies to help Mr. Cat: Being depressed for a human is a bit like looking down into a dark well; passion is like a cow’s heart boiling on a stove. But analogous language would always have to be qualified: Depression is not a dark well; passion is not a cow’s heart boiling. It’s just the best that we could do to explain the transcendent mental world to a creature embedded in the object world.

Now if we simply add a catalogue, not just of the object world, but of the human subject world, to our list, and say—“God is a third category”—a disjuncture like the disjuncture between the human and object world—then we have negative theology. We can no more speak of God in human subject terms than we can speak of humans in material object terms. We can use analogy, we can sing, we can light candles, we can pray, we can reason, but really these gestures are just placeholders on the mystery of the ground of Being. God is like hate, but God is not hate. God is like love, but God isn’t love. God is like unfulfilled longing, but God isn’t unfulfilled longing. God is that third disjuncture that transcends the subject-object universe (even as we transcend the object world). We can’t reach that third disjuncture from where we’re at, and our gestures toward it are akin to poetry sent to a distant lover. We’ve got to keep sending that letter again and again without ever being able to say it all. Think of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” That’s about it. Gnawing on the same old bone of longing. Repetition and variation. Negative theology suggests that perhaps another good response to such a disjuncture is silence. That, of course, is also Wittgenstein. What we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.

Now as good rationalists, we must ask: Is there any evidence that such a third disjuncture might exist? It’s one thing to posit it; another to make it reasonable. And I think that there are some things that suggest it is a reasonable inference: (1) the curious cosmological constants in physics that have led to a very complex universe of objects and minds; (2) the fact that the object-universe is mathematical and comprehensible to the human mind; (3) the fact that the contingent object universe appears to have had a beginning, and is now thermodynamically unwinding, and so has not always existed.

And perhaps most suggestive of all: Our very real dilemma, as humans, attempting to comprehend our universe’s “beginning.” There are only three basic possibilities, all dumbfounding and subject to question begging: (1) matter created itself from nothing and, via a blind process over billions of years, itself generated the mental universe you and I inhabit in our heads; (2) matter is eternal and coexistent with nothingness; or (3) an eternal mind or telos of some sort—that third category?—made matter “in the beginning” with the property of evolving minds (akin to itself) over time.

This is the disjuncture to which negative theology addresses itself—the boundary upon which our empiricism cannot reach—nor our minds fully comprehend. We seem to inhabit a universe founded on King Lear’s paradox—nothing can come of nothing!—and yet here we are. Trying to get our heads around nothingness and the “viva negativa” is not a form of irrationalism, but a necessary part of understanding. It is a paradox in need of explanation. If God exists, it’s somewhere in this puzzle, and in the contemplation of nothingness, and as a third disjuncture as large and difficult to comprehend as the first two (the subject and object worlds).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to An Agnostic Defends Negative Theology

  1. Who’s to say the cat does have consciousness? It may well be different than human consciousness, but that doesn’t mean that cats, butterflies or trees don’t possess it. For that matter, who can say that single cell organisms don’t possess consciousness?

    This is one of the galling things about we humans. Too often, if we don’t understand something, we say it does not and cannot exist until, of course, somebody discovers that such and such does exist.

  2. Oops. That first sentence is supposed to read, “Who’s to say the cat doesn’t have consciousness?” (My proofreading skills have abandoned me in old age.)

  3. santitafarella says:

    The Rambling Taoist:

    Wherever consciousness starts, the point is that there is a huge disjuncture between the object world and the subject world, and the gap may be equally large (conceptually) between God (if God exists) and the subject/object world. I was defending the value of negative theology, not trying to pinpoint when consciousness begins in the universe. Unlike you, I presume that (in its most meaningful sense) it begins with the higher mammals (dolphins, primates) and culminates in humans.

    I’m not trying to pick on cats.


  4. But why do you presume consciousness begins with higher mammals? It could just as easily start with tadpoles or dandelions. Just because we have yet to figure out how to communicate with most beings, this does not suggest that they don’t possess consciousness.

  5. santitafarella says:

    Rambling Taoist:

    I suppose it is logically possible that consciousness is more pervasive than I’m making it. I do think humans, however, are functioning on a whole different order of consciousness than any other animal. There’s not even a close second in terms of language dexterity, the use of tools, culture etc.

    We are very odd creatures in the universe.


  6. My point here is that the “in terms of” you describe are criteria important to our species. None of these things may be of importance to other life forms. It could be that consciousness itself is a primitive aspect of life that many other organisms surpassed eons ago.

    You also suggest that humans “are very odd creatures in the universe”. Odd from whose vantage point? Our own, of course. Since we have not mastered the ability to converse with most of the others beings on our planet, we have no way of knowing if they experience humans as odd or not.

    Finally, we don’t know what other life forms exist beyond our planet. The human species could be very run-of-the-mill or we could be the anomaly of anomalies.

    When we get right down to it, we really don’t that much. 😉

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