Religious attitudes
September 17, 2007 — 10:58

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , , , , ,   Comments: 20
  1. Every attitude that humans take that cannot be constructed out of simpler attitudes is appropriate on some occasions. (Premise)
  2. There are properly religious attitudes that humans take that cannot be constructed out of simpler attitudes. (Premise)
  3. Therefore, some properly religious attitudes are appropriate on some occasions. (by 1 and 2)
  4. If a properly religious attitude is appropriate, then there is a numinous being. (Premise)
  5. If there is a numinous being, there is a supernatural and numinous being. (Premise)
  6. Thus, there is a supernatural and numinous being. (by 3-5)

The argument is valid, but has four premises, not one of which is uncontroversial.  [The above has been edited: The first version of the argument had "holy" in place of "numinous" in 5, which mistake a sharp-eyed commenter pointed out.  A typo was also fixed. – ARP]

About premise 1.  Here, there is a question of what I mean by "attitude".  I include under "attitude" every kind of propositional attitude, but also some object-oriented ones, like being afraid of (which is, of course, not the same as fearing that).  The attitudes all include an aspect of the mental, but may also include physical aspects.  I don't know exactly how large a class I want to pick out here.  I want it to include things like being afraid of, hoping that, worshiping, being awestruck by, believing that, trusting in, hating, smelling, etc.  An attitude is a way for a person comport herself at least mentally. 

Some attitudes can be constructed out of simpler ones.  For instance desiring to spread ______ on bread is constructed out of the attitude of desiring to together with some concepts like those of spreading and onbreadness.  Spinoza thinks all attitudes can be constructed out of believes that, is pleased by and is pained by and various concepts to put in the accusatives of these attitudes, but he's surely wrong. 

If a basic attitude, one not constructible from something simpler as above, had no circumstances under which it was appropriate, it would be a very odd fact that we had that attitude.  Odd, of course, is not the same as impossible.  But I am not claiming that it is impossible for a critter to have a basic attitude that is never appropriate, only that in fact each of ours is sometimes appropriate.  Arguably, unless we affirm 1, scepticism looms.

The sense of "appropriate" here is the stronger, objective sense.  I do not mean that sometimes attitudes are justified, as in Jane's being justifiably scared of a hose because she has a justified false belief that it's a venomous snake, but that they are really appropriate. 

Thus, sometimes fear is appropriate.  Hence, some things are dangerous.  Sometimes hope is appropriate.  Hence, some future goods are causally possible.  Sometimes, hearing is appropriate.  Hence, there is an external world.

About premise 2. An attitude is properly religious provided that it is inappropriate outside of a religiously significant context.  Thus, the attitude of believing _______ to be a non-bicycle is not properly religious, since it is appropriate towards both God and a rock. 

Here, I am thinking about the attitudes we take towards the numinous, attitudes of the sort Otto describes in The Idea of the Holy.  Otto lists the emotional concommittants of our attitudes towards the mysterium tremendum et fascinans as including awe and fascination.  The "awe" and "fascination" at the mysterium tremendum et fascinans are each irreducible.  They have analogues and similarities, of course, outside of the religious sphere, but do not reduce to them.  Awe pushes us away from an object, but it cannot be reduced to fear (we might say that "awe" is a "religious fear", but that is not a reduction).  Fascination in the relevant sense pulls us towards an object, but it cannot be reduced to a combination of wanting, liking or being curious about, even though it may entail strong versions of these inspid attitudes.

These religious attitudes of awe and fascinations are properly religious.  One might have them when contemplating the universe as a whole, say, but only insofar as the universe as a whole is a reflection of the glory of something greater than the universe.  One way to see this is to note that the appropriateness of these attitudes is not a question of degree.  A universe that was the size of a walnut would not, unless seen as a reflection of something greater, make religious attitudes towards itself appropriate.  But mere size will not make the attitude more appropriate.  How many pounds do you need to weigh to be awe-ful and fascinating?  The universe as a whole, as far as we can tell, is just more of the same stuff around us, just a lot more of it–more matter, more energy, perhaps more minded finite beings.  It is only as reflecting something beyond the physical, something holy which lends the object something of its holiness, that the religious attitudes become appropriate.  Thus, they are properly religious.

About premise 4. I only need premise 4 as restricted to religious awe and fascination, and there I can make use of what I said in regard to premise 2.  But I think it is a general characteristic of properly religious attitudes that they should relate us or the world around us to something numinous.  Contrition as a religious attitude is being sorry insofar as one has offended a holy being.  (I don't know if contrition is reducible.  Maybe it can be reduced to being sorry for offending a holy being.  I suspect not, just as being in awe is not the same as being scared of a holy being.)

Premise 5. The holy is not just the very, very good, as Otto reminds us.  The holy is numinous.  Now a natural object might be numinous, say a shrine.  But it is only really numinous if it in some way ultimately participates in something beyond this universe.  We've seen in this in the discussion of premise 2.  Of course people might feel awe at a shrine that in no way participates in stuff beyond this world.  But "numinous" in this argument is to be always taken to mean "really numinous" not just "apparently numinous".  The shrine of a false god is apparently numinous, but is only numinous if it happens to participate in the numinousness of something real. 

One might formulate this as a regress: natural objects are only numinous by association with something else.  But if all we had is a regress of natural objects, each numinous by association with the next, the chain as a whole would still be a numinous object, and hence only numinous by association, and hence there would have to be a supernatural numinous object.  (Sounds quite a bit like the Cosmological Argument and the Fourth Way.)

So, the premises are true, the argument valid, and the conclusion true. 

  • Alexander – I assume that in premise (4) ‘numinous’ should read ‘holy’. I fail to see why nature as a whole couldn’t be numinous and holy without being supernatural.

    September 17, 2007 — 13:26
  • David Gordon

    For this argument to be valid,
    6. must be taken as “On at least one occasion, a supernatural and holy being exists” rather than “A supernatural and holy being always exists.” 3.establishes only that there is at least one occasion on which a properly religious attitude is appropriate. 4.,then, shows only that a holy being exists on at least one occasion, and 4. and 5. imply only the weaker sense of 6. (I’m assuming that Ben Murphy’s correction of 4. is correct.)

    September 17, 2007 — 15:06
  • David Gordon

    In my previous comment, 6. should be “supernatural and numinous” not “supernatural and holy.” Sorry.

    September 17, 2007 — 15:21
  • Ben:
    Yes, “holy” should be “numinous” in 5. (Holy entails numinous, but not necessarily the other way around.)
    Could nature as a whole be numinous absent a numinous being outside of nature that communicates its numinousness to nature? I don’t think so. Imagine a world consisting of nothing but a little pebble (this thought experiment is inspired by Taylor’s formulation of the cosmological argument). In that world, the whole of nature is a pebble. Is that pebble numinous, just because it is the whole of nature? Now, our world is a lot bigger than a pebble. But size does not yield numinousness.
    That’s an important point that I missed (in part because I tend to think timelessly). Yes, all that follows is that a supernatural and numinous being exists at some time and/or timelessly.
    This is still enough to defeat naturalism. 🙂
    It might, of course, turn out on further analysis that a being numinous in its own right has to be infinite and timeless (cf. Findlay’s arguments that a being worthy of worship must exist necessarily if at all). In that case, we would get present existence.

    September 17, 2007 — 15:22
  • I think a significant problem rests in moving from a phenomenological description to an ontological conclusion. As I understand Otto’s description of religious attitudes to be phenomenological, if that is right, they cannot be used to defend conclusions about the existence of any numinous being.

    September 17, 2007 — 15:50
  • Hi Alexander,
    I like the way you’ve set the argument up. Trent and I have been working on the argument from desire but we opted for an inductive framework. One question about your formulation is with premise 1. It seems like attitudes like lust, pride, self-hatred and divine-hatred are never appropriate but also that such attitudes cannot be constructed out of more simple attitudes. Self-hatred and divine-hatred are grammatically complex but it seems to me they aren’t logical constructions out of simpler attitudes. By the way, why do you say that unless we affirm 1 skepticism looms?

    September 18, 2007 — 9:24
  • john alexander

    Hi Alexander
    Interesting argument, but I course I do have some issues with it.
    1) You write, “Odd, of course, is not the same as impossible. But I am not claiming that it is impossible for a critter to have a basic attitude that is never appropriate, only that in fact each of ours is sometimes appropriate. Arguably, unless we affirm 1, skepticism looms.” I do not know about skepticism looming, but it may be wrong that a basic attitude is in fact sometimes appropriate. Do you mean to be saying that if x is sometimes appropriate that there is at least one time that it is appropriate? If so, I think that this is false. I take it that lusting after someone is an attitude, but there may be objects of that lust where it is never appropriate for a person to have that lust.
    2) You agree that I can have the experience of being in awe and fascination without committing myself to a belief in a God. I have such feeling in the presence of some feature of nature or work of art. I think that what I am feeling is the same (not in the sense of there only being one feeling, but one type of feeling in two different locations) feeling that a religious person who believes in God would have in similar circumstances. I am not convinced that one needs to believe in God to have a religious experience. It seems to beg the question that there needs to be one if one is to have a truly religious experience.
    3) Also, I am not clear as to why Spinoza is surely wrong. Can you come up with an example that is not reducible to any of the three things that he claims attitudes are reducible too?

    September 18, 2007 — 10:28
  • Ted:
    That’s pretty close to a refutation of premise 1!
    But let me try to answer.
    First, the easy stuff. Why do I say scepticism looms if one denies 1? Well, once one says that we have basic attitudes that are never appropriate, then unless one can argue that only a minority of our attitudes are like that (which would be enough for my argument, if I transformed it into a probabilistic one), or unless one can argue that perceptual attitudes are somehow significantly different from the others, it becomes quite an open option to believe that our perceptual attitudes are never appropriate.
    OK, now to the hard stuff. Divine hatred seems to be a special case of hatred, with God as the object. At least, it seems necessary and sufficient for x to exhibit divine hatred that x hate God under that description (i.e., the description “God”).
    Self-hatred is more complex. Certainly for me to hate myself is not the same as for me to hate Alexander Pruss. But I think there is a general way in which we can construct reflexive attitudes from non-reflexive ones. This works even in the case of attitudes we’ve never heard of before. Take some attitude like fearing that ____ will magically turn the Empire State Building into a giant carrot. We can form from this the attitude of fearing that one oneself will magically turn the ESB into a giant carrot. Linguistically, this is simple: we put “one oneself” in place of the blank. Conceptually, the linguistic simplicity is deceptive, but I think there is a general function from attitudes-with-a-blank-for-an-object to reflexive attitudes that corresponds to this linguistic construction.
    Oh, and of course hatred is an attitude that is sometimes appropriate. Hatred of one’s own wrongdoing, for instance.
    Lust and pride are hard cases. First, let me give a theistic argument for (1), just to soften you up. 🙂 The capacity for basic attitudes is not created by human beings. If we created such a capacity, then the attitude would be constructible out of simpler attitudes. But, unless one brings in the devil as the creator of some of our capacities (which may be giving him too much credit; he’s a destroyer and perverter, perhaps), the capacities for our basic attitudes are created by God. Hence, at least the capacities are good, and thus there are appropriate circumstances for the activation of these capacities.
    (One might well worry here about purely privative attitudes, like lack of love. Restrict the argument to non-privative ones. This might still be a problem… What about partly privative ones, like loving ______ insufficiently? OK, we probably need to exclude those, too. Thus, it does seem that 1 needs some qualification, unless we count “privation” as a form of construction, which seems right. Anyway, awe and fascination do not seem even partly privative anyway.)
    OK, back to lust and pride. There is a strand in the Christian tradition that humility is thinking of yourself as you are, and pride is thinking of yourself as better than you are. Pride, I guess, then is an intellectual vice. But now note that an instance of pride is an act of thinking you’re better than L. There is nothing wrong with acts of thinking you’re better than ______. Sometimes, they’re quite appropriate. Thus, after baptism, I am better than a worm.
    Lust is harder. I assume you mean “lust” as it is understood in the Christian tradition, not as it is understood in popular culture, where it is synonymous with sexual desire. For of course sexual desire has circumstances of appropriate application. So what is lust? Well, let’s try two accounts.
    On the first account, an
    inordinate sexual desire, inordinate either because the object is inappropriate, or because the motivations are wrong. On this view, lust isn’t actually a single attitude. E.g., it is lust to feel sexual desire for someone other than one’s spouse, and it is lust to selfish desire sexual relations with one’s spouse. The attitudes in the two cases can be different in kind (the adulterous sexual desire might be quite unselfish, though that’s probably rare). On this view, lust is defined as any distortion of sexual desire. So it is defined in terms of sexual desire–as sexual desire plus something bad (e.g., selfishness), or with an inappropriate object. As long as the something bad that is added on can is not itself a violation of premise 1, on this view we don’t have a violation of premise 1.
    Another account of lust is that of John Paul II. According to him, to lust for someone is to desire (or plan? or hope? or intend? — the details won’t matter here) to use someone sexually. On this view, sexual desire is neither necessary nor sufficient for exhibiting the vice of lust. One might with demonically cool rationality decide to use someone sexually in order to debase him, and thus form a desire to do so, and this will be lust. On this account, lust is a desire (or plan or hope or intention or the like) for a particular (bad) activity. Well, the attitude of desire has appropriate circumstances of application.
    One can indeed have religious attitudes in the case of art, etc. But are these attitudes appropriate then? My claim is that they are only appropriate if the finite objects that the attitudes are directed towards participate in something supernatural.
    For a plausible example of an emotion not reducible to belief, pleasure and pain, take puzzlement.

    September 18, 2007 — 11:20
  • I can also modify the argument by restricting premise 1 to experiencings. Feeling religious awe and feeling religious fascination are not further reducible experiencings. Every basic experiencing is sometimes appropriate.
    Another variant (perhaps not really different) is to restrict premise 1 to apparent perceivings. Some apparent perceivings, like those of a pink elephant, can be constructed out of simpler perceivings (viz., of pink things and of elephants). Some, like that of pink, cannot. Some religious experience is not reducible in this way. Hence, some religious experiences are appropriate, i.e., veridical.
    The argument from desire, on the other hand, is not a special case of this argument, but a separate argument.

    September 18, 2007 — 11:25
  • John Alexander

    You write; “One can indeed have religious attitudes in the case of art, etc. But are these attitudes appropriate then? My claim is that they are only appropriate if the finite objects that the attitudes are directed towards participate in something supernatural.”
    The issue I have is that seems to beg the question in favor of what it is that you are trying to demonstrate. Persons A and B are both having the same attitudinal response to an object, but B believes that God is related to this object while A does not. I would agree that both A and B cannot be correct regarding their bleiefs about there being a God, but I would deny that A’s attitude is less appropriate then B’s. I would think that simply from having an attitudinal response one cannot infer anything from that response to there being a supernatural being or not. These seem to be two seperate issues.
    I will have to think about your example of puzzlement.

    September 18, 2007 — 14:18
  • One can indeed have religious attitudes in the case of art, etc. But are these attitudes appropriate then? My claim is that they are only appropriate if the finite objects that the attitudes are directed towards participate in something supernatural.
    Lucretius eloquently expresses attitudes of awe and fascination toward the workings of the natural world, without believing that it participates in something supernatural. And folks like Dawkins speak about how they find e.g. the cell in its marvelous complexity and the events of the Big Bang awesome and fascinating. I don’t know whether those sorts of things count as ‘religious’ attitudes or not, but I see little reason to think that they’re inappropriate.

    September 18, 2007 — 14:46
  • Tim and John,
    One certainly can have attitudes of awe and fascination of the sort that Otto describes in connection with the natural world, and one can do this without believing in anything supernatural. The question is whether this attitude is appropriate if there is nothing supernatural.
    Granted, if pantheism were to be true, then religious awe and fascination at nature would be appropriate. But pantheism, let us suppose, is false.
    Define numinousness* as the property that an object must have in order that in virtue of it the religious kind of awe of and fascination at the object is appropriate.
    What is numinousness*? On a naturalist world-view, it cannot be some supernatural property. An object O that is numinous* is such in virtue of some physical properties of O. What are these physical properties?
    Argument 1: Any relevant physical properties are going to be ones that are a matter of degree. But no quality that is just a matter of degree will yield numinousness*. Things don’t become numinous* just by being more than 10 km high, or by having a bit more beauty.
    Argument 2: There really is no good answer to the question of what these basic properties are. Simply being big isn’t a good reason for awe and fascination of the religious sort. Being elaborate and beautiful aren’t either. The religious awe and fascination include an element that is qualitatively different from ordinary aesthetic appreciation (though ordinary aesthetic appreciation may come hand in hand with an element of religious awe and fascination), from fear, from appreciation of size and power, etc.
    In short, the folks who have religious-type awe and fascination at the universe have an attitude that would only be appropriate if pantheism, theism or some other religious view were true.

    September 18, 2007 — 15:49
  • For what it’s worth, I agree with Tim and John, as I think that there is an equivocation, between (3) and (4), on “appropriate.” We might (prima facie) have evolved so that we feel religious attitudes towards tribal symbols, for example (although I don’t believe that to be the whole story), and then that would be an entirely appropriate and elementary attitude to take to some things, but it would not make those things numinous, only make them appear numinous in the proper course of things (were that the whole story).

    September 18, 2007 — 17:10
  • (less seriously a different equivocation would give a longer “proof,” via (1) objectivity is a viewing from nowhere, (2) viewing celebrities is a viewing from nowhere, 3) celebrities are numinous, and (4) a celebrity exists, whence (5) there is a numinous being:)

    September 18, 2007 — 19:10
  • I don’t see the equivocation. I am using “appropriate” in all the premises in the same, objective sense. Thus, if a tribal symbol does not in fact participate in something numinous, the religious attitude towards it is justified but inappropriate.

    September 18, 2007 — 20:26
  • Sorry yes (it was I who was confused): Still, since your argument is valid, the conclusion is simply part of your premises (it is presumed by premise 2 I think, although I find the wording of that premise a bit opaque), so I wonder what the point of the argument is (?) You assume that God exists (since otherwise the awe and fascination are not properly religious) and then conclude as much. (I was thinking of how a religious attitude might be appropriate because of death, even though death is not a numinous being:)

    September 19, 2007 — 7:30
  • Alexander,
    Another approach to handling the cases I mentioned is to argue that, though they falsify premise 1 their inappropriateness entails theism. For sure, no naturalist should be all to happy with having to recognize basic attitudes that are never appropriate.

    September 19, 2007 — 9:22
  • Ted:
    Why would atheism be incompatible with the universal inappropriateness of lust? (On the John Paul II view where lust is a desire to use someone sexually, it seems that every Kantian should say that lust is inappropriate.)
    On the other hand, atheism seems to make it very plausible that sometimes self-hatred is appropriate. For unless one has a view on which everybody’s existence is a participation in God, it seems plausible that one could get so vicious that one would have no value or even negative value.
    By the way, here’s another reason to think that self-hatred just is hatred of oneself. What makes self-hatred inappropriate is simply that it is always inappropriate to hate a person, and that one oneself is a person. (If, per impossibile, one were a sin, it would be appropriate to hate oneself. 🙂 )

    September 19, 2007 — 11:19
  • The Kantian route is definitely an option for the naturalist to explore, but the combination of views has struck me as dialectically unstable. Kantianism is best developed within a context of a metaphysics of persons that makes sense of the injunction to respect persons as ends, not merely means. I just don’t see much plausibility to cashing that out in a Naturalist framework.

    September 19, 2007 — 13:41
  • Another possibly dialectically unstable position is to have a non-naturalist metaphysics of persons, but still be an atheist, and think that there are laws of nature regarding the development of the non-material aspects of the world (e.g., Thomas Nagel).

    September 19, 2007 — 14:03