Atheism is Acosmism

Whose perspective is that of the whole world? Whose comprehension is competent to the whole world?

At the end of my last post, I said:

In the absence of God, both the theories we’ve talked about boil down in the end to “there is no absolutely binding, objective moral truth, but rather only happenstance.” When push comes to shove, then, the only way there can be such a thing as morality is if there is an omniscient, necessary God who knows without possibility of error what is right.

But watch what happens when I make a few substitutions:

In the absence of God, there is no absolutely binding, objective truth, but rather only disparate subjective impressions. When push comes to shove, then, the only way there can be such a thing as truth is if there is an omniscient, necessary God who knows without possibility of error what is true.

Atheism, then, is acosmism.

Acosmism doesn’t say there is nothing at all. It says only that there is no such thing as a cosmos – an ordered, coherent world, in which the motions of creatures (including their motions of knowledge) are coordinated. If God does not exist, then I have my perspective, and you have yours – although I have no way of knowing about that, do I? – but there is no deciding between us, no way those two perspectives are joined together in a single perspective that reconciles them both. Thus there is no way to tell, in the end, who is right and who is wrong, who is mistaken and who is correct. There’s just me and you, and about you, I’m not so sure.

There is furthermore no way that any empirical tests we run on our hypotheses are going to generate anything but purely private phenomena, because private phenomena are by definition the only thing any of us can apprehend. Private phenomena exhaust the category of phenomena. The only way I can gain access to your experiences is by being you.

Thus if there is no God out there who knows exactly, perfectly, and from an utterly comprehensive perspective what has happened, then there is no world out there, no overall situation that obtains regardless what anyone thinks. There is, rather, only what various creatures think, experience, feel. Thus there is nothing out there for such thoughts, experiences and feelings to be about. There is then no way that anyone at all can make a statement about the world. All they can do is make statements about themselves, and there is just no such thing as a public truth, an objective truth. But this means that no matter what we say, and no matter what we think we are saying it about, really we are only talking about ourselves. This applies equally to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. If there is no cosmos, then each of us is utterly alone.

Thus if there is such a thing as a world that exists objectively so that it can function as the object of our apprehensions, and so that our apprehensions can then be in the first place about something real, and in the second either wrong or right, mistaken or correct, there must be a God to provide it.

If God exists, then there can be worlds. If not, not.

28 thoughts on “Atheism is Acosmism

    • Looks that way, yes. Who’d a thunk it, right? Until this afternoon, I sure didn’t.

      DR Griffin has also asked: if there is no God, where is the past and how do we gain access to it? I.e., how do physical events of the immediate past *find* those of the present so that a transfer of energy can occur? Who is manning the switchboard? If there is no God keeping track of where everything is, and making sure everything shows up at the right time and place, then how the heck do you get even a simple thing like a trajectory? We say, “oh, there’s a physical law that takes care of that.” Really? Where is it? What is it, and how does it do its work?

      • The same standard of proof atheists demand regarding the supernatural cannot be found for any other (moral or natural) claim.

  1. Aren’t you going a little too far when you shift from the realm of ought (moral truth) to the realm of is (Boolean truth)? Can’t I rebut your argument by asking you to walk through a wall? No one, including you, would disagree that you can’t, so – functionally at least – there is a truth and we agree on it. Sure, we are all fallen, partial knowers of the cosmos, but none of us can walk through that wall. All of that seems orthogonal to the issue of whether an all-knower exists.

    • We can agree with one another, to be sure. And we can agree with other things, such as walls. But without an absolute reality determinable only by omniscience, there’s nothing out there that such agreements can be *about.* No creaturely determination – no creaturely act – nor any set of such acts however great, can suffice to a complete determination of creatura as a whole. I can determine the character of *my* world, at best. But not yours, certainly, or, a fortiori, *the* world.

  2. I guess the question boils down to whether the ultimate and unchanging truth is more like a God, or more like a list of laws of physics. Or maybe it is more like a computer program, if we are to take Stephen Wolfram seriously.

  3. I am in agreement with most things posted on this blog, however I do not think that I agree with this. So a panentheist (as opposed to a pantheist) or a idealistic spirtitual monist would be an atheist? Or would a Hindu who believes in Brahman (a panentheistic conception of God) be an atheist as well? Or how would you classify Paul Tillich?

    • Pantheists, panentheists and Tillich are not atheists. Spinoza, likewise. So they can be moralists. Buddhists? Not so much, I think. But I’m no expert on Buddhism.

  4. I asked because panentheists, spiritual monists, and often Hindus are acosmic in that they deny the “reality” of the physical universe, viewing it as illusory. They would claim that God is the ground of all being and that the only thing that actually exists is God (that all is One in God (Brahman)).

    • Well, all is one in God, to be sure, in the sense that in God there is no East or West, no Jew or Greek: he integrates all things. That’s how we get a coherent world despite creaturely waywardness. But note that the notion of One makes no sense in the absence of a Many. An integration is nothing at all if there is nothing to integrate. This is why the Trinity suggested itself so forcefully to Israel in its encounter with Greece in the person of Philo Judaeorum. The Trinity is both a Many and a One, and these are understood as an eternal dynamic actuality. So that there is no way under the Christian revelation to get a One except as an integration of a Many, which while Many are not disparate, but One; there being no way to get a Many except by having a One in which they subsist. “One” and “Many” stand in a relation of mutual implication, so that each is an aspect of the other. Christianity therefore subsumes Brahmanism (I’m pretty sure that Coomaraswamy would agree with this), which under the Christian revelation may be seen as a partial insight (albeit deep, to be sure). Brahmanism is subsumed in the Christian Neo-Platonism of Pseudo-Dionysius, who strongly influenced all the Scholastics; his works were their basic texts. Aquinas cites him more than anyone but Paul and Aristotle. He is not heterodox. And his Supra-Personal Godhead – the One of the Trinity’s Many – is Tillich’s Ground of Being. We may understand the Ground as the logical forecondition of being as such, which is not itself a member of the class of existents; this is not a derogation of the primacy of God, for because he is eternal there is no lapse of manifest expression of the Ground. The Ground is forecondition of God only logically, not (obviously!) actually.

      We should think of it this way: if God is to exist, it must be possible for God to exist. This possibility is the Supra-Personal Godhead. It does not exist prior to God, for like any possibility it exists only as the property of some real. If God did not exist, nor would his Godhead. The possibility of God, then, exists as an aspect of the very being of God. And this is just another way of saying that God is eternal.

      As for panentheism, I view it as no more than a straightforward explication of the Pauline “in him we live, move and have our being.” That we are in him does not mean we really are not; on the contrary.

      About Spinoza, I am not so sure. It is decades since I read him, and I was then a mere child. But I feel fairly sure that he would not agree that monism entails the simple nonexistence of the world.

  5. This is indeed parallel to your argument about morality and runs into the same Euthyphroesque problem: Is the truth believed by the gods because it is true, or is it true because it is believed by the gods?

    Common sense favors the first option, but you assume the second. Were it not for God’s omniscience (you say), there would be nothing for our beliefs to be “about.” It would seem to follow that God’s own beliefs are not “about” anything at all (or are about only themselves) — and that therefore God can be called “omniscient” only by convention, since there is no objective reality to which his beliefs correspond. God’s beliefs are arbitrarily defined as “correct,” and human beliefs are considered “true” insofar as they resemble God’s. Under this model, God is not really omniscient in any objective sense — so if he didn’t exist, some other set of beliefs (mine, say, or yours) would serve just as well as a standard. This, of course, is completely insane, so I assume I’ve misunderstood you somewhere.

    What’s wrong with the first option? What’s wrong with the idea that the world really exists and the truth really is true, independent of whether or not anyone knows it? It seems to me that you begin by assuming absolute nihilism (there is no objective reality, only opinions) and then conclude from that premise that atheism is nihilistic.

    • Were it not for God’s omniscience (you say), there would be nothing for our beliefs to be “about.” It would seem to follow that God’s own beliefs are not “about” anything at all (or are about only themselves) — and that therefore God can be called “omniscient” only by convention, since there is no objective reality to which his beliefs correspond.

      From the fact that God’s omniscience establishes an object for our beliefs to be about it certainly does not follow that God’s own beliefs are not about anything at all. If God knows about himself, he knows about something that, because it is eternal and necessary, is very definitely something.

      God’s own necessary existence is the objective reality to which his beliefs about himself correspond. His necessity provides his objectivity.

      What’s wrong with the idea that the world really exists and the truth really is true, independent of whether or not anyone knows it? It seems to me that you begin by assuming absolute nihilism (there is no objective reality, only opinions) and then conclude from that premise that atheism is nihilistic.

      Well, the world is really out there, of course. And the truth is really true. If any knowledge is to be possible, this must be the case. If knowledge is not possible, then one of the things that cannot be known is that knowledge is not possible. Thus it cannot be truly believed that knowledge is not possible. That is to say that the belief “knowledge is not possible” is not possibly true. It is necessarily a false belief. So knowledge is possible, and the world is out there, and the whole truth of that world really true, whether or not any creature recognizes it.

      The problem is that creaturely knowledge alone is not competent to determine that truth. If atheism is true, so that creatures are the only sorts of things there are, then the whole truth of the whole system of things that produced them, being larger than they, is not knowable by any of them. In that case, the whole truth is simply not known. It might be known if there were a God, but in the absence of God, it is not known by any knower. If God does not exist, there just is no such thing as a perspective from which all the disparate understandings of creatures may be reconciled in a single harmonious understanding. Under the atheist hypothesis, such a grand synthesis is simply not available. It is not out there as an achieved fact. I.e., it does not factually exist.

      Thus if atheism were true, there might be my world, and your world, but there would be no such thing as the world, no version of events independent of creaturely observers. This would mean that my world and your world would not pertain to the world, but only to themselves. One could not therefore, even in principle, judge of their truthfulness or falsity.

      Now this is a manifestly absurd result. The absurdity of the result indicates that the atheist premise is absurd.

  6. > Thus there is no way to tell, in the end, who is right and who is wrong, who is mistaken and who is correct.

    Belief in God is sort of like doing homework in elementary school or other lower grades — you can be confident that even if you don’t know the answer, they are there in the teacher’s guide somewhere, and your rightness or wrongness can be judged by this external (to you) standard.

    Real life is more like graduate school. You are doing original research (if you are doing it right), and while you may have some guidance from those with more experience, fundamentally you are out there on your own. There aren’t right or wrong answers, there is just success or failure, and even the definitions of that are in flux.

    This is scary and perhaps most people aren’t up to the challenge. You can always go on repeating 8th grade over and over again, I suppose.

    • If in the real world there are no right or wrong answers, then in the real world there is no right or wrong answer about what constitutes success or failure. I.e, there is no way to succeed, or to fail. So nothing can really be important. In which case, you are in graduate school, or whatever else you happen to be doing, for … no reason. In that case, certainly graduate school – the search for a truth that is not really out there – is a total waste of time and effort. Better to get wasted, than to waste time on anything else.

      People who think there is no truth out there are not like graduate students, not like educated men. They are like sophomores.

      • You seem to be stuck on a hard dichotomy between theism and nihilism, but there are other possibilities.

        – naturalism – our success and failure are rooted in the dynamics of evolution, that is, success is defined as what can propagate itself.

        – existentialism – we define our own standards, rooted in nothing but the raw facts of our being.

        – buddhism (loosely speaking) – your self is illusory, learn to pay proper attention to the machinery of illusion, liberate your (nonexistant) self and others.

        And more, but that’s enough for a blog comment. But I’ll add that fear of nihilism is a weak argument for theism. That you feel a need for an absolute frame of reference does not call it into being.

      • It seems to me that in this comment you are actually replying to the thread Atheism is Amorality. But that’s OK. The comment has salience for this thread, too, as will my reply.

        The hard dichotomy I’m stuck on is the one between doctrines that make no sense and those that do. The three doctrines you notice, for example, simply make no sense:

        1. – Naturalism: “success is what propagates itself;” this is to say that success is whatever manages to happen. It empties success of meaning. “X happened because of evolution” is just a way of saying “X happened because X happened.”
        2. – Existentialism: “we define our own standards, rooted in nothing but the raw facts of our being;” if those raw facts include no brutally given standards, then the standards we define are not morality, properly speaking, but just inventions, fantasies, illusions. Same goes for epistemological standards. If the raw facts of our existence do not include knowledge, then all we can do is wave our hands around like ignoramuses. If on the other hand the raw facts of our existence include knowledge, and also moral knowledge, then we have to ask, “whence the knowledge?” and “where and what is the object of that knowledge?” and “what has to be true if we are to have the knowledge that we seem to have – that, indeed, we must have if we are to reason at all, or therefore to live?” Theist answers are the only sort that don’t end in absurdity.
        3. – Buddhism: “your self is illusory;” then there is no way you can learn to pay proper attention, or liberate anything. If you don’t exist, then by definition you cannot act at all, and your Buddhism is the illusion of an illusory being. Question: how does an illusion have an illusion?

        “Fear of nihilism?” I never said anything about nihilism in these two posts. I said that among the consequences of atheism are amoralism and acosmism. I wasn’t arguing that if God doesn’t exist, nothing can exist. I could make that argument, if I wished, but in these two posts I wasn’t.

        It’s not fear that grounds my theism, or some infantile need for structure, order and safety. It’s the fact that atheism *makes no sense.* I hope it goes without saying that it won’t wash to suggest that I have some irrational fear of irrationality, or some puerile “need” for rationality!

      • Well, it might not make sense to you, but obviously the things I mentioned do make sense to many people. That is data of a sort. Buddhism in particular has provided sense to large populations for thousands of years.

        I should add that Christianity makes no sense to me, but I respect the fact that it has prospered and formed the basis for Western Civilization for a long time. That doesn’t make it true, but it makes it “successful”, and thus interesting to me. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity strike me as true in any meaningful sense. That doesn’t matter much to me; religion is obviously not about truth but about practices that support a society and culture.

      • If you don’t think there is such a thing as truth in the first place, as would seem to be the case, it’s not surprising that you should then feel that religion is not about truth. If there is no truth, then no realm of discourse is about it, and nothing you or anyone else says can be true.

        People believe all sorts of things that make no sense – such as the modern notion that we cannot know the truth. It’s easy to err – that’s one of the reasons we think, and talk. If there is no truth, we *cannot* err, and all talk is noise. Odd, in that case, that talk is advantageous, and thus preserved against the edits of energetic parsimony.

      • Who said I didn’t believe there was such a thing as truth? Obviously I do, but my notion of truth is much different from yours. Surely we can agree that the nature of truth is, at least, not obvious, which is why philosophers have been arguing about it for a very long time.

      • It was when you said, “There aren’t right or wrong answers,” that I inferred that you believe there are no right or wrong answers. But perhaps I misunderstood what you meant by that. Perhaps you meant something like, “once you have reached a certain point in your learning, there aren’t any masters who can tell you definitively whether your notions are right or wrong, because you are exploring new territory where their knowledge is inapplicable.”

  7. Hi Kristor!

    Very good. This is why either Christianity or Buddhism must be true. The Buddhist view would be that the world is really the projection of our own minds: solid objects come from collective pride, hot things come from collective anger and so on. There is no God in Buddhism because there is nothing objective to create, our own minds do the creation.

    However, interestingly while there is a huge gap between C. and B. in ontology/epistemology I must disagree with your previous post about morality. Like most Western thinkers you reduce morality to objective rules vs. subjective desires. So it is the human will hitting the wall of laws, rules, rationality, this is how we can envision Western concepts of morality, a beast beating against a cage or trying to make peace with it. The Eastern/Buddhist method is to examine why do we even desire or want things! Why do people want to kill, steal, fornicate etc. and Buddhism reduces it to the illusion of separating the world from the self. Sin is basically the wrong ways to overcome this separation basically trying to put the world into the self (conquests, stealing, sexual conquests, greed etc.) or put the world under the self (desire for power), or make the self better than the world (pride, vanity) and so on. So from this point of view objective rules are needed only for self-centered people, cages are only needed for beasts. People who overcame the self just cannot do anything bad.

    This is a wholly different way of thinking about morality: instead of trying to make rationalistic rules why we shouldn’t steal, it is about becoming the kind of person who never wants to. And you don’t need objective morality for that, all you need is realizing the self is not real.

    Of course it only works for a small number of monks and yogis who really care about overcoming the self For the masses, I support Christianity. Christianity is much more political: it gets correctly how to deal with the average person who does not want to become selfless and therefore he really needs the cage of objective rules. This is why I am politically conservative and pro-Christianity: it is perfectly fine as long as we understand it is basically the public school level of morality, for the masses, not the PhD level of it. it is surely better than modern liberalism, but then again, almost everything is.

  8. Pingback: Whose Service is Perfect Moksha « The Orthosphere

  9. I completely agree with this article, except I don’t understand the use of the term “acosmism.” Upon looking it up, I read that it refers to the belief that the universe is illusory and that only “the infinite unmanifest Absolute” (God, presumably) is real. How could this be compatible with atheism?

    • Most simply, acosmism is the doctrine that there is really no cosmos. This in turn can mean that there is really nothing at all, as in Buddhism, or that there is really only one thing, as in Vedanta or the philosophy of Parmenides.

      Note also that an infinite unmanifest absolute is not God. God is manifest, and is also a person, or persons.

      NB also that “infinite” and “unmanifest” cannot properly speaking be coherently entertained together; they contradict each other. Only a manifest actuality can have a quantity such as either finity or infinity.


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