Meditation I, Sapere Aude – The Limitations of Human Understanding

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

~ The Creation of Adam was painted by Michelangelo (1511) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It illustrates the Creation of man from the Book of Genesis. As this meditation is mainly centered on God and man, I saw it fitting that the first image in sight should be in proper relation to the subject of discussion.

~

As the amount of knowledge (or perceived knowledge) I have gained increased steadily over the years, I thought it prudent that I took time to free myself of all other business and humbly review some of the beliefs, philosophy, and arguments that have taken root in my mind. At an earlier age, I came to realize that knowledge is akin to architecture. Should the foundations be of flawed and  of second grade material, the building would also be flawed and of second grade quality.

Worse still is the fact that a building built with a flawed foundation risks collapse like a house of cards as something subject to doubt and fundamental instability would never be a solid foundation of which further knowledge is to be based upon. Therefore, I consider it imperative and of utmost importance that I reconsider everything subject to doubt as Descartes has done and hopefully form my new world view (Weltanschauung).

Bear in mind that what I have written here is not a direct attack on any party or individual that I know of or will come to know in the later days of my life. This cumulative combination of words constitutes only some of my latent opinions on certain matters and represents nothing more than an attempt in forming a coherent train of thought so as to formalize some of the simple abstract ideas floating in the chaos and confusion of my mind.

It is a common thing for people to be puzzled by the existence of God. When an atheist asks for proof of the existence of God, a common answer would be because the holy scripture(s) say so. Yet when asked what authenticates the holy scripture(s), a common answer would be because the holy scripture comes from God. Thus we are stuck with the classic situation of which a never ending loop forms between God and the Holy Scripture(s), both seeming to validate one another.

While it is easy to say that we must have faith in the Lord Almighty and his heavenly consorts, the reality is that there is a lacking in concrete evidence of the existence of God as God is not something that we are able to feel by our senses. Similarly, there is a lacking in the evidence that God does not exist. This is evidently so when God is attributed with the characteristics of being an eternal, infinite, all-knowing, omnipotent, creator of everything, and yet a vigilant overseer of absolute justice with emotions and feelings akin to that of a mortal.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852)

Many situations in history can be linked with the divine punishment of God on mortals for their misdeeds and their sins. Cities like Jericho, Sodom, and Gomorrah were all destroyed by the divine hand of God as a result of some sin against the divine power. However, other cities like the siege and fall of Constantinople (current day Istanbul) and the sacking of Rome by barbarians were more often than not seen as an accident,tragedy,or betrayal to which God is perceived to have played a lesser role.

Siege of Constantinople by Jean Chartier

The lack of uniformity between the justifications of the divine hand of God striking mortals have led me to doubt on whether punishment (or blessing) by a divine being is really a result of the actions of man. Is a natural disaster like the one seen in New Orleans really a result of God’s wrath on the city? Or is there some other explanation that would yield a more logical argument?

In many aspects, I lean towards the writings of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza in that God is the natural world and thus has no personality. This would of course mean that natural disasters that inflict unimaginable horror and death is not some divine judgment of any kind upon man and their mortal actions. But if God has no personality, does that mean that God does not really exist (since a God without a personality is a God without a will)?

It is important here to remember that although most religious individuals believe that God created man in his own image, man has time and time again recreated his perception of God in his own image. A study of the various religions would show that in different geographical areas, ‘God’ is usually shown with some influence from the culture of its local inhabitants. Therefore is it not better to say that we have created our perspective of God in our own image?

Here lies the greatest puzzle, as all known forms of literature of God’s relationship with man from the Mesopotamia’s Epic of Gilgamesh, and Enuma Elish to the Dead Sea Scrolls contain an epic battle between two superhuman personalities of which one is normally good and the other evil. Whether by divine revelation or human imagination, the story of Yahweh and the Serpent in the Book of Genesis, Lord and Satan in the Book of Job, The Trojan War by Homer, and the Scandinavian God Odin and Loki have inspired us all!

However, the Devil (the bad guy regardless of his name) logically should not exist if God’s universe is perfect. For if the Devil exists, the perfection which he attempts to destroy would already have been destroyed by his mere existence. And thus according to historian Arnold Toynbee, an omnipotent God is subject to two limitations with the first being the perfection of what He has created already and that He cannot refuse to take up a challenge by the Devil.

This of course becomes ironic as the Devil who it would be safe to presume possesses some intellectual ability would take up a fight with God knowing he is bound to lose to an all  powerful God. Thus the Devil who tries as he might to go against God becomes God’s lackey to serve some purpose God has for him and can be really called as God’s fallen scapegoat agent.

At this junction, I would like to point out Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In his critique, Kant pointed out the limitations and possibilities of ‘pure reason’ and that not all knowledge comes from the senses as the old English school (John Locke) believes to be. Kant continues by stressing that some objects are outside the very capacity of our minds and therefore the principle of causality (cause and effect) would be irrelevant.

Thus, due to the limitations of both the senses and of pure reason, no one could surely and absolutely know whether there is a God and an afterlife. Conversely, no one could really know that there is no God and no afterlife as both objects of thought are beyond the capacity of the human mind. Here lies the greatest appeal of Kant’s critique, for how is it possible for man with a limited capacity of understanding and limited by time and relativity explain an infinite, eternal (not subject to time), and absolute being?

Therefore instead of saying as Spinoza has done that God is the natural world and has no personality, it would be better to say that God encompasses the natural world and His personality is beyond the comprehension of man. The question would now remain on whether morality, and free will would stand alone without them being subject to divine providence.

Critique

After reading what I have written above, many people have asked me on whether I am an atheist. Here I would like to stress that although some paragraphs above may have given you that idea, I have not stated that God does not exist (as I do believe that the Creator exists). To be precise, I have come to a position similar to Socrates in acknowledging that I know that I do not know (the absolute understanding of God).

_

Please Proceed to the Next Meditation: Meditation II, Ethos The Limitations of  Ethics

Or Go Back to the Meditation Page

Comments
14 Responses to “Meditation I, Sapere Aude – The Limitations of Human Understanding”
  1. Melanie Choy says:

    Hey, good one there… A pleasure to read, but brought me to no conclusion… XP

  2. ashley says:

    Hey, what can I say on this?
    Perhaps is all the state of mind!
    I think you should have devote yourself..

  3. Erny says:

    An interesting piece, although the writer went thru all the points of contention, he still fail to answer at last the question that he is pondering, whether God made man or man made God? It is imperative that the writer make his own stand and put forward his arguments so that the readers will be able to have a clearer picture and decide whether to agree or disagree.

  4. valerie says:

    Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe..

  5. lorryboy says:

    dear james, 1st i hav to say that, i dun not noe whether tis is a good article o not, coz i m not that samrt n not a good reader as well. however, the only thing i can tell u is that, keep writing man, i believe that u will become a good writer in the future.

    Well, for me, i choose to belive that god is exist, but i m not superstish.coz for me, god is jz like a legend, is like a story from the ancient.sometime we do not nid to be too stubborn on seeking the answer(prove that god is exist),jz keep it mystery, it seems more beautiful dun u agree? what u get if u prove that god is not exist?U get nothing but jz killing an legend.

    legend/ old time stories should be keep and jz make it go around from one generation to the nex, and it should not stop. For me, GOD is there for the purpose of reminds not to behave negatively, and to be mercy, and should not have any elements of killing, punisment, or sacrifying.

    When i can make decision for my own n the situation is undercontrol, i be my own god. So when things i cant control i leave it to god, what i do is jz learn to accept it.Doesn’t mean that i giv up easily, of couse i do my best fight back, but sometimes doesn’t mean u giv out 100% n u will get it back whole, that is life, and it is unperfect, dun u think that unperfect is beautiful…..

    (make it clear, i dun not attacking or offence anyone, is jz my view and u no feel for it,is good, u feel support, i say thx, u feel i bullshit, than forget wat i write)

  6. lizii says:

    I’m more or less the same; I don’t believe in god, but I believe in some form of creation. However, I don’t believe it was some divine being that created the world and humanity and etc.

    I have to say that you have not considered one thing: human nature. It is human nature to see one thing as good and one thing as evil. It is human nature to want to understand things and therefore create reasons for why they exist. They look for hope in god, and, to a lesser extent, search for someone to blame for their misfortunes.

    The fact that God, or a supreme being of some sort, exists in so many cultures is a testimony to this. Maybe some people will think that it’s much more than a coincidence; that there must be some kind of divine intervention. I think it’s just us humans and the way our minds work. Obviously it’s a long and complex process, but in short, that’s what I believe.

  7. jamesesz says:

    So I have been thinking and pondering over your writing. So I think what I will do is leave some questions for you to think about and tell me what you think about them ok.

    1. It’s great to see you reading writers and philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Descartes.Be aware that every theology is in some measure a philosophy, and often operate from a philosophical worldview. Search Kant and Descartes background and the era that they were in. Might want to rethink their philosophy, the hidden assumptions and bring them into the light for examinationa nd critique. Also looking at their lives and what influenced their thinking is important. A very common phenomena among philosophers is reactionary philosophy – where they grew up in an era that accepted certain things and they saw the church/society/themselves suffer ill consequences.

    – a little that I know about Kant and Descartes
    – Enlightenment era – at the age where Copernican discovered the astronomical fact that the earth revolves around the sun instead of the pre-conceived “earth the centre of the universe since the sun revolves around the earth”. Also this was an idea propagated by the Catholic church based on a misinterpretation of one or two verses on the Bible, and the idea that since Christ, the Son of God came to earth, we must be the center of His attention.
    – So when Copernican found this scientific fact, intellectuals reacted to the past ‘deception’ and so questioned the validity of the Bible (which is the heart of the issue). NOw they are fearful of believing what they are told without questioning/ i.e. the dogmatism of doubt and the skill of knowing.
    – one or two things for you to think about:
    # doubt is not objective. to doubt one thing is at the same time to believe something else. “The skeptical statement “I doubt P”can be restated in a positive form: either “I believe not P”or “I believe P is not proven. ” But this statements provoke the question, ” One what basis do you believe this?” (Michael Polanyi). Shifting the focus of our doubt means shifting the focus of our faith commitments. The whole enterprise of doubt rests on an uncritical acceptance of and reliace on a whole framework of meaning. therefore, doubt is a highly subjective process, rooted in all sorts of commitments beyond the awareness of the doubter. THe act of doubting itself rests on unproven belief. If we commit ourselves to the principle of doubt, we must ultimately either be reduced to silence, since nothing at all can be proved.

    # another interesting thing to think about : is our sensory reality a reality? many times what we see and presume to know is often very different from what they really are. simple example – we see two people yelling at each other. we will immediately interpret what we see according to our colored lenses. We do not come to any reasoning with a tabula rasa mentality. We come to most conclusion based on a framework in our minds whether or not we are conscious of them/our prejudice.

    # the question of testing before believing and coming to the conclusion that we therefore cannot know God since He cannot be objectively proven needs to be re-examined. A short answer is this: God chose to reveal Himself to us through nature, through a universal consciousness of a Creator or a denial of one (which by the way, you cannot deny something which is not there in the first place; and look at the many branches of religion attempting to explain who God is, if He does or doesn’t exist – why do mankind wrestle this idea of God so much if it’s not important? or if it doesn’t exist?), through the scriptures. On what basis do we say that we are more real than Him. For example, the Painter is more real than a painting. THe painting is a creation and does not have the full capacity to understand the reality of the Painter . But really in this simple example, the Painter was the one who created the reality of the painting.

    Obviously there’s so much more to this discussion. One good resource (which I quoted from )is the Survivor’s GUide to THeology. Gives you the whole panorama of beliefs and philosophical struggles throughout church history.

    Take care of yourself James.. write soon ok..

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