The Neo-Polytheism of Hubert Dreyfus: A Rational Fideist Analysis

Hubert Lederer Dreyfus (b. Oct 1929) is an American philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has contributed much to the interpretation and analysis of Heidegger’s philosophy. In recent times, his choice of an experience-based epistemic methodology has tended more towards a very pluralistic, anti-nihilist view; in fact, a reveling in Homeric polytheism as an inspiration for modern, revisited, or neo-polytheism.

In Epistemics of Divine Reality, the conflict between reason and experience in the history of  the philosophy of religion has been identified. The conflict usually results in reason’s tending to expel the empirical categories and choose a very metaphysical and, usually, monist or via negativa view of God. On the other hand, it also results in experience’s tending to expel the rational categories and choose a very concrete, plural, this-wordly view of self and the universe.

Dreyfus’ studies in Husserl’s phenomenological method and Heidegger’s existentialism in addition to Merleu Ponty’s filling-in-the-gaps of what Heidegger failed to address, viz a philosophy of being in body, seems to culminate in a celebration of Homeric polytheism and Melville’s Moby Dick view of self and the divine. Dreyfus considers Protestantism’s departure from the Catholic metaphysical God of the philosophers (of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes) as a major contribution which paved the way for the Nietszchean annunciation of the death of that “non-biblical” philosophical God. To the metaphysicians, God seemed to always be in the present and objectified. But, to him God is like the whale of Moby-Dick that is not as much available to philosophical exegesis as the seeming hieroglyphics on the whale’s body. According to Dreyfus, the God of the Bible is not that Pure Being that the intuitionists or mysticists (similar to the rationalist monists) talked about; He was the God of the burning-bush.  But, Dreyfus fails to notice that this same God who appeared in the burning-bush also announced His name as being “I AM THAT I AM”. In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly collaborate to introduce the new polytheism of empirical metaphysics. Samuel Goldman from Harvard makes the following observations:1

In All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus (of Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (of Harvard)…claim, “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us: we have kicked them out.” This expulsion, they say, is by no means permanent. The gods are ready to come back if only we are willing to “hear their call.” The first thing to note about this startling claim is the plural. Dreyfus and Kelly urge us to open ourselves to the return not of the God of the Bible but of gods. And not just any gods. On their view, the revival of the Greek pantheon offers the most promising alternative to nihilism. ……

…Dreyfus and Kelly….also contend that in recognizing the role of gods, we gain access to sources of meaning that would otherwise be obscured. Polytheism relieves us of the burden of choosing what we should do. In place of the modern struggle to establish one’s freedom, polytheism encourages an attitude of joyous gratitude. Like the Greek, they argue, we can experience our lives as a succession of unasked gifts that we do not need to earn or understand to cherish and enjoy. All things are “shining” with divinity and promise once we are open to living that way.

….. Rather than confronting this objection, Dreyfus and Kelly subtly revise Heidegger’s account of nihilism. The problem is not so much that “God is dead” as that the Judeo-Christian God is reduced to one option on the cultural menu. Many people do find meaning in Biblical monotheism. On the other hand, there at least some are who can’t or won’t. Polytheism, therefore, turns out to be a specialized product for a niche audience rather than a solution to the decline of the West. It is the spiritual equivalent of the pseudo-antique espresso machines sold to people who just aren’t satisfied with their old percolators.

Goldman considers All Things Shining‘s goal as failing in not being able to provide what it promises:

Polytheism, then, is a provocative way of describing one way of experiencing the world. But it fails to provide the access to meaning or values that Dreyfus and Kelly promise. This failure is the consequence of their rejection of the philosophical tradition on the one hand and biblical religion on the other. For all their disadvantages, both recognize that access to the meaning of life involves separating ourselves from our own moods and actions and evaluating them from an external standpoint. This isneasy. But at least it acknowledges that what we regard as the most admirable actions are not only shining with intensity, but also morally right.

It is worth remembering that Homer depicts the Greeks engaged in war of conquest and that his characters express profound gratitude to the Olympians when they have successfully taken their enemies’ lives, women, and property. Even in a disenchanted world, theirs are not the gods that we are looking for.

One can’t attempt to find meaning once one has obliterated the existence of the possibility of the transcendent absolute. As Wittgenstein submitted in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “The sense of the world must lie outside of the world.” Plato’s Euthyphro pronounces the problem very well when it argues that ethics cannot be absolute if we turned to the pluralistic gods for a deontological answer. The Euthyphro dilemma was: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” To which the answer was that a plurality of gods with their finite experiences cannot determine the nature of the good. The resolution consisted in a turning towards reason. The Platonic argument cannot be dismissed. In fact, Plato considered Homer (his stories of the gods) as dangerous to politics and ethics. In his Republic, Plato argues for the outlawing of the Homer that Dreyfus looks to for inspiration. To Plato, a strong republic cannot be built on false stories and flawed personalities as depicted by Homer and Hesiod. And, while Plato does understand the practical importance of the narratives, he doesn’t allow these narratives to claim authority above reason: which is, of course, also impossible for cogency demands that the rational be intact, without ignoring the empirical.

1Dawn of the Idols, The American Conservative, May 2, 2011.

The Ontological Argument: Issues and Significance

THE ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT basically argues that to have the concept of “God” (even to use the term “God”) and to assert the existence of God is the same thing. For Anselm, therefore, who first formulated the argument, the person who denies the existence of God is a fool; for using the very term “God” implies asserting God’s existence; so, the denial is self-contradictory.

Anselm, Descartes, and in recent times Plantinga have employed various versions of the ontological argument. Whatever be the version, the general progress of an ontological argument is from the rational to the real. The two main versions, namely the analytical (that predicates existence to the concept of God) and the modal (that conceives of divine possibility as actuality) attempt to prove that the denial of divine existence is logically self-contradictory; for if the concept of God is possible, then His existence must of necessity be actual, they hold. An important critique was made by Immanuel Kant who argued that defining a triangle as a polygon with three angles doesn’t prove the actual existence of a triangle. Of course, protagonists of the ontological argument contend that the definition of God is unlike the definition of triangles. For to define God as “the one than whom a greater cannot be conceived” or as “the being who possesses maximal greatness” necessarily entails (at least, as a logical necessity) the affirmation of the existence of God (to deny Him would involve a contradiction). To say that “the one than whom a greater cannot be conceived” does not exist is to claim that whatever exists is greater than “the one than whom a greater cannot be conceived” which is a contradiction. Similarly, to say that “the being who possesses maximal greatness” doesn’t exist is to affirm (since an infinite negation is not possible) that the existence of “the being who possesses maximal greatness” is an impossibility. But, that is an infinite negation as well. Modality is always open in this regard. But, if possibility is allowed, actuality cannot be denied.

Still, the ontological argument can only accomplish a rational purpose; it cannot empirically establish divine reality. The greatest drawback to the argument is that rational arguments cannot be used to establish or deny empirical facts. Epistemologists should learn this lesson from the Paradoxes of Zeno, the Arguments of Gaudapada, and the Antinomies of Kant. Rational analysis does play a role in understanding the empirical world (for instance, reason provides us the categories of quantity, affirmation, and negation that help us understand experience categorically). However, reason bereft of experience is empty and experience bereft of reason is blind.

But, for sure, the negation of divine existence is logically impossible; for no finite being can make an infinite negation (only unless the negation involves an issue of rational fact or possibility). For instance, a finite being can make an infinite negation like “a circular-square doesn’t exist”; however, he cannot make an infinite negation of the existence of “the one than whom a greater cannot be conceived”, since that definition does not involve a logical contradiction or impossibility (i.e. it is both logical consistent and possible).

Thus, perhaps the greatest significance of the ontological argument lies in its rational establishment of the concept of God as logically non-negatable. However, there will be problems if one attempts to use the argument beyond the realm of conceptual logic.

Religion and Culture: Problems in Definition -1

The existence of religion and culture can be both claimed and denied at the same time. In the claim that religion exists, one only uses the term “religion” to identify a group of things that are like each other. It is not necessary that every “religion” within the group will have elements that agree with another “religion” in the group. For instance, A may have some similarities with B and B may have some similarities with C; however, this doesn’t necessitate that A has elements that are similar to C. To argue that would involve an invalid categorical argument. For instance,

“Christians and Muslims believe that Abraham was a Prophet,
Muslims and Jews consider the swine unclean,
Therefore, Christians consider the swine unclean”, doesn’t necessarily follow.

Also, to deny the existence of religion just because one cannot find its essential soul is to only affirm a paradox. For instance, take the argument for the denial of the car which says that the car really doesn’t exist because when one begins to take apart the car, there will eventually come a point when the car ceases to exists. For instance, I begin by removing the tires and would still be capable of saying that the car exists, but doesn’t have tires. Or say, I begin by removing the door and would still be capable of saying that the car exists, but without a door. However, as I begin to take away the parts of the car one by one, I finally realize that there comes a point when I cannot call the car a car anymore. However, does this mean that the term “car” is useless?

The above is an example of Sorites Paradox. The Sorites Paradox usually asks the question, “Suppose there is a heap of sand; if I remove a grain of sand the heap will still be a heap; if I remove another grain, it will still be a heap: how many grains must I remove from the heap in order for the heap to cease to remain a heap?”

The above is called a paradox because we know that the heap does exist; however, when one tries to define a heap with reference to specific number of grains, the definition becomes impossible and “heap” becomes nonsensical.

Somewhere, there comes a point when the abstract concepts cannot maintain themselves before the empirical concepts. But, the case can also be vice versa. Take Zeno’s paradoxes, for instance.
However, one must not forget the historical question as well. For instance, Hindu was never considered an ism in early history. The ism was suffixed much later. “Hindu” didn’t refer to a religion, but to a people. In fact, the ancients used the term to refer to the land. For instance, Esther 1:1 refers to India as hodu. Similarly, with regard to “Christianity”, it was the disciples of Christ who were first called “Christians” in Antioch. But, noting that now a term such as “religion” has already become a part of common parlance, to yet avoid confusion and ambiguity, one can use more specific terms like, say, Vaishnavites and Pentecostals rather than Hindus and Christians. Not that we can’t call them so; but, that it is important for a communicator to be clear and specific in communication….

Rational Fideism and the Concept of God: Can God Be Rational and YetExperienced?

From Epistemics of Divine Reality, © 2007, 2009, 2011. (Available in Lulu, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, & Ibookstores)

Rational Fideism and Divine Reality

The results show that divine reality cannot be known except through a revelation of itself. For this to be possible, divine reality must at least be personal and concerned. Further, a knowledge of divine reality must not be either purely rational (in the sense that the rational attributes[1] are the divine attributes) or empirical (in the sense that the empirical attributes[2] are the divine attributes). If it is purely rational, then it would mean the negation of the empirical, as demonstrated by the arguments of both Zeno and Gaudapada. If it is purely empirical, then it would mean the negation of the rational, as demonstrated by the theological positions of animism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism; and the non-theological positions of skepticism, logical positivism, and mysticism.

A rational fideistic epistemics of divine reality expects the harmonizing of, but not fusion of, reason and experience. This means achieving a harmony of the rational-empirical attributes of unity-plurality, necessity-contingency, immutability-mutability, transcendence-immanence, and infinity-finitude. This means that the answer must come neither from reason nor from experience but from divine reality itself. In other words, if the divine doesn’t communicate in words there is no way of knowing it. Rational fideism presupposes on the basis of a philosophical disapproval of rational epistemics and empirical epistemics that ultimate or divine reality cannot be known apart from the revelation of divine reality itself. This requires that God should be concerned enough to reveal Himself to mankind. This also means that God, in order to be the Object of faith, must not only be absolute and rational in His essence,[3] but also empirical and ‘visible’ in His relation, without which one cannot relate to God.

Thus, reason and faith come into stage; reason as the interpreter of revelation, and faith as the appropriator of revelation. This also means that revelation finds a recipient dimension in the subject. The recipient dimension is the existentiality of human reality. It is the subjective dimension of divine epistemics. Existentiality refers to the human concern and reflection on existence itself; Being becomes a concern for the human. Such a human is referred to as Being-as-care in this research work. The concern is reflected in the passion, thirst, and longing that is experienced in the existential emotions of emptiness, anxiety, boredom, rootlessness, and bewilderment. These existential emotions may be linked to the metaphysical disharmony between reason and experience, a condition that cannot be resolved by either but only by ultimate of divine reality. The revelation of divine reality, consequently, forms the objective dimension of divine epistemics. The enquiry is rational fideistic in the sense that faith is seen as supported by reason and reason is seen as supported by faith. Reason can only function on the basis of faith, and faith can only see and understand with the aid of reason. Revelation, not experience, provides the data for the rational enquiry. Faith is also the thrust of human existentiality towards the discovery of the truth of divine reality. Faith brings subjective meaning. However, such subjective meaning would be anchorless if it had no absolute objective dimension to it. Further, doubt can lead to despair if faith is renounced. Therefore, a balance between the will-to-believe and the will-to-doubt must be achieved through the judgmental spirit of reason. Reason establishes the credibility of the objective dimension of faith, viz., Revelation. Divine reality is seen to be both essentially and empirically rational and relational. The rational-empirical harmonization is understood by the existential nature of human faith. In divine reality, one finds the rational ground in which one can anchor one’s faith and find both the rational and existential meaningfulness of life. Thus, rational fideism becomes the epistemics of harmony that seeks to ground the existential dimension of human reality in the objective dimension of divine reality based on and through the harmonious co-operation of reason and faith.

Each religion has its own revelation as inscribed in its own scriptures. It is not our concern here to study each of the various religious scriptures to come to the conclusion regarding divine reality. The purpose has been chiefly to provide a philosophical tool for theological enquiry. Illustrations of the existential application of the rational fideistic interpretation of biblical revelation have already been cited in the section of the subjective dimension of divine epistemics. Following is an illustration of how the rational-empirical paradox may be resolved in the biblical revelation of divine reality:

i. Unity-Plurality and Divine Tri-unity. The biblical God is essentially a unity-plurality that possibilizes his relationality. He is not a monad, nor is the God-head made up of three gods. On the other hand, the God-head is a trinity. Accordingly, oneness is the attribute of the three and threeness is the attribute of the one. Thus, the Trinity is seen as a harmony of both unity and plurality, in the sense that the Trinity is both a unity and a plurality. It is not one at the disposal of the other, but one in harmony with the other. The existential bond of the Divine Community is secured by Divine Love. The existential distinction is preserved by personality, the divine is three persons, which is the condition of love.

ii. Necessity-Contingency.  God is essentially a necessary-contingent being which possibilizes his relationality. As necessary, God is absolute; as contingent, the three persons within the Godhead work in unamity and love. There is no egoistic centre. Contingency can be seen within the Holy Trinity in the sense that each person within the Divine Community is related to the other.

The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.

…The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

…the Spirit of truth…shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. [4]

iii. Immutability-mutability. God is essentially immutable and dynamic which possibilizes his relationality. He is the eternally unchanging God. And yet, He ‘comes down’ to meet His people, He ‘visits’ the poor, He walks on the waves of the sea, and discourses with man in His inner being. The Bible begins with an acting God: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’[5] A God who works is a God in motion. God is certainly the God who doesn’t change in essence. However, He is also the God who creates, repents, judges, and saves. The Incarnation is a major example of this. In the Incarnation God did not change in essence but still took on a permanent nature of the human. The Word became flesh doesn’t mean that it was no longer Word but only flesh. The hypostatic union, in this case, secures both the divinity and the humanity of Christ. The noteworthy fact, however, is that the Word became flesh in some point in time and has remained so ever since. Thus, in essence God is unchanging but in His relation He is changing. He is essentially unchanging God who is dynamically active.

iv. Transcendence-Immanence. God is essentially a transcendent and yet immanent being which possibilizes his relationality. God is not only beyond the universe but also in the universe. He is not only Spirit but also the Omnipresent Spirit. He is not only the ‘wholly Other’, but also the ‘wholly Present’; ‘the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.[6] God is everywhere and yet not everything. God transcends the universe, He is not the universe. In contradistinction to the pantheistic and panentheistic position, the biblical God, in His essentiality, is not affected by any change in the universe since He also transcends it as Spirit.

v. Infinity-finitude. God is essentially infinite and finite which possibilizes his relationality. He is infinitely infinite and infinitely finite. Therefore, the infinitely finite division of space is not devoid of the personal presence of God. God is infinite in power yet He cannot do many things, like He cannot destroy Himself or be the cause of his own destructibility as in the polytheistic myth of Bhasmasur.[7] Also, He cannot sin, nor can He justify the wicked. Thus, He cannot do many things. The infinity of God, further, does not disallow the existence of the world. Neither is the infinity of God prevented by the existence of the world. Moreover, God is also seen as involved in temporal historical time and yet transcending the temporality of historical time. Thus, God is infinite, but not in the material sense, for that would be empirically impossible. He is spiritually infinite in being, power, and knowledge. However, He can involve Himself in the finite spatio-temporal world. He cannot be contained in a temple made of bricks and stones. But He is said to indwell the heart of a believer. Thus, in divine reality the infinite-finite find harmonious co-existence.

A few illustrations of Biblical theologizing by the existential application of the principles of rational fideism have already been given in the section on the subjective dimension of divine epistemics. Hopefully, such applications will eventually serve to unravel an understanding of the divine not just in the objective dimension but also in the subjective dimension. Thus, also hopefully, the objective cognizance of God will be met by a subjective anchoring in Him. And such anchoring will constitute the substantiality of the faith in divine reality which is not of things seen (empirical) but of things unseen. Thus, according to rational fideism, in matters of knowledge pertaining to divine reality, ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’[8] Such a view of faith as not only existential but also rational will finally lead theology into a discovery of both subjective and objective meaningfulness in Revelation.

Excerpt from Conclusion

Rational fideism harmonizes reason and experience in both the objective and subjective dimension of human knowledge. In the subjective dimension, faith as impelled by the turbulence of the reason-experience paradoxical situation seeks out for the harmonizing reality that would provide existential meaning to the human to whom existence has become an issue. Faith also provides the intuitive framework within which reason experiences knowledge. In the objective dimension, Revelation (Sabda Pramana) provides the ground in which faith is expected to cast its anchor and find solace for the soul. It is reason which ascertains the objective meaningfulness of Revelation. It is faith that experiences the subjective meaningfulness of Revelation. Thus, faith and reason are involved in the ascertainment of the subjective and objective meaningfulness of Revelation. The resultant knowledge of God, though not exhaustive, is at least epistemically harmonious. God is seen as both rational and empirical in character, while at the same time personal and concerned with human reality. God is both rational and relational. To quote one biblical illustration, God is both immutable and dynamic which possibilizes his relationality; for unless he is immutable he cannot be relied on, and unless he is dynamic he cannot be experienced. This relationality of God makes it possible for man to know God. If God possessed no possibility of relationality, then He could not be concerned with human reality so as to manifest Himself. This relationality also provides the basis for man to existentially relate himself to God, while God’s essential rationality provides the anchoring ground for faith. This relationality shows that God is personal (for reciprocal relationship to be possible) and concerned. He is concerned with human reality; therefore He reveals Himself to man.

[1] Viz., unity, necessity, immutability, transcendence, and infinity.
[2] Viz., plurality, contingency, mutability, immanence, and finitude.
[3] Cf. Heraclitus’ concept of the Logos as reason that governs the universe.
[4] John 3: 35; 5: 19; 16: 13-14 (KJV)
[5] Genesis 1: 1 (KJV)
[6] Martin Buber, I and Thou, p. 79
[7] Bhasmasur, a demon, was given the boon of turning to ashes anything by laying of hands; however, he in turn attempted to lay his hands on the god who gave him the boon which made the god take to his heels to protect himself from destruction.
[8] Hebrews 11: 1 (KJV)

© Domenic Marbaniang, 2007, 2009, 2011.