Monday, March 04, 2013

Book Review: "How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan"

Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. [why read old books? Because they are there]

The famed author of "How to Read A Book" helps us think about God. Adler’s central proposition is there exists an interest in the question of God’s existence and some are willing to consider the question; however, the author admits, “the God that is the object of pagan philosophical thought is not the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, or of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.” In other words, the pagan decides who God is. Is this possible?

Adler divides his book into six major sections populated with two to three chapters per section. The first section serves as an extended prologue where the author explains himself to his intended audience across two chapters. The second section discusses errors to be avoided. Section three (the longest section) sets the stage for the discussion of “God”, followed by the section examining “why the best traditional argument fails.” Section five delves into “a truly cosmological argument”, seeking to answer one remaining question. The book closes with the Epilogue and “what lies ahead for the reader.”

The author proposes two errors to be avoided, the first addressing the affirmation that the cosmos began, for to do so assumes the existence of a Creator (hence, avoid begging the question). The preferred (philosophical) assumption would be that the universe has always existed and always will exist. This is a logical and logistical impossibility for there could be no “present” from an infinitely regressing eternal past without a starting point. Time would have no meaning.

The second proposed error is to necessarily avoid inquiry concerning first cause. Adler properly demonstrates there can be no painting without a painter (p. 42), yet attempts to say natural causes are without  a cause-er. “In the case of the painter and the painting, we start out knowing the relation of the causes involved in the production of the work of art [painting is evidence of a painter]. But in the case of natural phenomena, we start out knowing only how the phenomena we study are related . . . . Nothing requires us to go behind the scene to find a hidden principle cause that is pulling the strings to make these natural puppets move.” (p. 44) In other words: a painting is evidence of a painting. “ . . . the world can exist without God.” (p. 46) That is, a painting can exist without a painter.

Adler introduces a question at this point: what is meant by the word, “God”? The author suggests (in so many words), “it depends who you ask” (pp. 49-50). “It is a noun . . . a name word designating singular or unique objects . . . members of which which either exist or about which we can ask whether or not they exist.” (p. 51). Is it a noun that should be capitalized (p. 54)? The author correctly refines the proper name, “God” as a definite and unique singularity that belongs to no class of objects (p. 56). Alder discovers a dilemma: this noun identifies a singularity who occupied time and space with identifiable disciples and witnesses. His solution? “[W]e must be prepared to substitute for the word ‘God’ used as a proper name, a definite description of the object named.” In other words, there must be found a pagan replacement for the object found as real, brought into question.

Adler suggests the uniqueness of this singularity defies description or category, which actually underscores the very meaning of “unique.” “I hope to show that we cannot think of God as a physical object,” and by this he means “imperceptible”(p. 64-65) He wants to find a new description, but finds difficulty thinking non-theologically about theology, so he offers two steps.

First, critiquing Anselm’s Ontological argument and Kant’s rebuttal (and dismissing both), Adler still agrees with the ontological argument, “if the supreme being must be thought of as one that cannot not exist, then the supreme being must be thought of as a necessary being.” This reader infers that the author’s difficulty is that this “supreme being” of the ontological argument is not the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob. The second step attempts to define the “supreme being,” seeking to answer the questions, “what is he like?” and “what is he unlike?” His answer leads to another probing question for exploration: “Only if we have some reason for thinking that God exists not only as an object of thought, but also in reality, quite apart from our thinking, do we have reason for believing in God’s real existence.”

The next section covering two entire chapters, Adler wields Occam’s Razor (as he did in previous chapters) discussing “Why the Best Traditional Arguments Fail,” taking The Cosmological Argument for God’s existence head-on. The failure of the argument proves to be insufficient with regard to perspective; that is, he makes a conclusion on insufficient evidence. This is intentional, given the direction of the following proposition: “If the existence of the cosmos as a whole needs to be explained, and if it cannot be explained by natural causes, then we must look to the existence and action of a supernatural cause for its explanation” (p. 131).

We are taken now to consider finally: since the cosmos exists, what sustains its existence? Why is there simply “nothing” as much as anything at all? Additionally, there must be a preservative cause preventing the collapse of everything into nothing.

The reader will be greatly rewarded to think with the author through the particulars toward absolutes. The author demonstrates the adequacy of philosophy toward an irrefutable conclusion the 20th century pagan must confront.  The only question now is: what does one do with his find? “Tolle lege.”

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