Argument from the sublime, and the existential argument of Gabriel Marcell.

Arguments for the Existence of God
by Metacrock - edited by JMT
Used with Permission

Arguments IX and X

IX. Argument from The Sublime.

A. Aesthetic and Sublime clues to transcendence.

It always used to sound so stupid to me when people would say "O, look at the beauuuuutiful sunset, how can people deny that there's a God? (my Mother used to say that). Than after becoming a Christian I saw a really great sunset one day, the sky decked out in orange, pink, Gold, peach, cobalt, cerulean, and all punctuated by the most delicate saffron strips. It suddenly occurred to me why anyone would think that. Because we are the type of beings that are capable of appreciating beauty. It is not merely that aesthetic appreciation is beyond the ability of a dead random universe to produce, but that it spurs us to consider higher things. We realize from the appreciation of these things, art, music, poetry, literature, nature, that there is a realm of the sublime which transcends the mundane world of reductionism. I don't necessarily mean a supernatural realm--it could be a "realm" of our emergent qualities. But the fact that we can appreciate these things indicates that there is more to reality than merely the realm of science, technology, and the that to which reality is reduced by technocratic naturalists who can't appreciate higher possibilities.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"Sublime" refers to an aesthetic value in which the primary factor is the presence or suggestion of transcendent vastness or greatness, as of power, heroism, extent in space or time. It differs from greatness or grandeur in that these are as such capable of being completely grasped or measured. By contrast, the sublime, while in one aspect apprehended and grasped as a whole, is felt as transcending our normal standards of measurement or achievement. Two elements are emphasized in varying degree by different writers, and probably varying in different observers: (1) a certain baffling of our faculty with feeling of limitation akin to awe and veneration; (2) a stimulation of our abilities and elevation of the self in sympathy with its object.

1) The sublime implies transcendence.

That all people, given the right exposure, can appreciate the sublime, beauty in nature and art, in such a way as to seek some realm beyond that of the mundane physical is a direct implication that something more exists to be found. While this is not a proof of God in and of itself, it might be logical to infer from this sense of transcendence that reality is more than just the physical realm, and therefore, even though this is a highly subjective notion, if one finds that God satisfies this urge best of all, than God is probably the object of our longings for the sublime.

Peter Suber's Infinite Reflections
All college address at ST. John's College in Oct. 96
published St John's Review XLIV 2 (1998) 1-59

The Sublimity of the Infinite

"I am profoundly grateful that understanding infinity does not deprive it of its majesty. If the infinite were only interesting because of the paradoxes it generates, and the absorbing academic issues raised by the need to resolve them, then it would not be studied any more than self-reference, a prolific but more pedestrian engine of paradox. But the infinite is also majestic, one might say infinitely majestic."

"An hour under a clear sky at night, looking up, gives some sense of this. The depth of space is a wild blue yonder, not a true, perceived infinity.[Note 34] But it inspires contemplation of the true infinite, and the slightest brush with that idea is breath-taking, invigorating, expanding, lifting, calming, but also agitating, alluring, but also distant and magnificently indifferent. One reason to study mathematics is that you can get these feelings in broad daylight or indoors."

"There are many ways to become precise about these feelings, and many ways to praise and honor the infinite. I'd like to use Kant's term: it is sublime."[Note 35]

2) Mathematical links sublimeness of the infinite to the transcendent.

Peter Suber's Infinite Reflections
All college address at ST. John's College in Oct. 96
published St John's Review XLIV 2 (1998) 1-59

"Just for comparison, Cantor had a different set of numinous feelings about the infinite. He was not only a great mathematician, but a very religious man and by some standards a mystic. Yet his mysticism was supported by his mathematics, which to him was at least as strong an argument for the mathematics as for the mysticism.[Note 36] Apart from claiming divine inspiration for his work, we don't know exactly what spiritual views he linked to his mathematics, but his theorems[Note 37] give support to the following. Measured in meters, we are tiny specks compared to the universe at large. But measured in dimensionless points, we are as large as the universe: a proper subset, but one with the same cardinality as the whole. Similarly, measured in meters, we may be off in a corner of the universe. But measured in points, the distance is equally great in all directions, whether universe is finite or infinite; that puts us in the center, wherever we are. Measured in days, our lives are insignificant hiccups in the expanse of past and future time. But measured in points of time, our lives are as long as universe is old. We are as small as we seem, but simultaneously, by a most reasonable measure, co-extensive with the totality of being in both space and time. This is truly (as Blake put it) "[t]o see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour."[Note 38]

B. How do we get from the Sublime to God?

1) The realization that we are the kind of beings that can sense the sublime.

This appreciation, though culturally bound, and though it is an acquired taste, stems form our basic nature as personally aware centers of consciousness. This is especially true in the way that art makes us think of transcendence. Why should the cold universe be able to produce centers of conscious awareness from dead matter? The structure for awareness must exist in the universe, and since the object of our awareness seems to be a longing for the sublime we can infer that the answers lies in the sublime, in God.

2) Sublime as Co-determinate of Transcendent Reality.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
James McCosh writing of Archibald Alison's theories
on the Sublime

"The conclusion, therefore, in which I wish to rest is, that the beauty and sublimity which is felt in the various appearances of matter are finally to be ascribed to their expression of mind; or to their being, either directly or indirectly, the signs of those qualities of mind, which are fitted, by the constitution of our nature, to affect us with pleasing or interesting emotion." There is a singular mixture of truth and error in this statement: truth, in tracing all beauty and sublimity to the expression of mind; but error, in placing it in qualities which raise emotion according to our constitution. Beauty, and sublimity are not the same as the true and the good; but they are the expression and the signs of the true and the good, suggested by the objects that evidently participate in them." {316}

3) God is co-determinate of Transcendence.

If there is a higher reality there must be something real about it. To transcend the world is to obtain something of some higher realm. But an empty higher realm is meaningless. Since we are the kind of beings who can perceive the transcendent we must have been created in such as way that we are capable of understanding the transcendent. If beauty is a sign of the good than the sublime must be a sign of the source of the good. Since we are personally conscious beings capable of reading the transcendent in a sunset we must have been created by a conscious being who is capable of putting it there.

C) Objection answered.

All The basic objections deal with reducing the phenomenon to some naturalistic explanation and naturalizing it.

1) Fear , Terror and beauty.

The skeptic might argue that the sublime is merely the result of feeling overwhelmed by the huge or awed by the beautiful and is therefore merely a stimulus response.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

"The element of magnitude in beauty was noted by Aristotle, and given by him a prominent place in tragedy. But the earliest extant determination of the sublime as a distinct conception is in the treatise ascribed to Longinus, but now supposed to be of earlier date (first century C.E.). In modern philosophy, it was given special prominence by Edmund Burke in his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) and Henry Home in his Elements of Criticism who sought a psychological and physiological explanation. According to Burke, it is caused by a "mode of terror or pain," and is contrasted with the beautiful (rather than being part of the beautiful). Kant also distinguished it as a separate category form beauty, making it apply properly only to the mind, not to the object, and giving it a peculiar moral effect in opposing "the interests of sense." He distinguished a mathematical sublime of extension in space or time, and a dynamic of power. Most subsequent writers on aesthetics tend to bring the sublime within the beautiful in the broader sense insofar as its aesthetic quality is closely related to that of beauty."

a) Can view sublime in safety.


"As long as we are physically safe when viewing the sublime immensity, Kant argues, it helps us know our moral dignity and nonphysical invulnerability undiminished, even accentuated, by our forceful acknowledgement of our physical smallness and frailty."[Note 42]

b) Can't be reduced to any one of these elements.

Clearly the sublime is not reducible to just fear, terror, or beauty. If so, why would these three (really two) very different things bring on the same response? And again this is missing the mark. The real question is why are we the sort of beings who can experience this sense? Animals in nature operate to a large extent by pattern recognition. We should not be surprised to find that we did evolve a sense of the sublime, we are after all physical creators and we evolved. On the other hand why would be evolve such a heightened sense of it? And moreover, since it is not reducible to any one of these things, but may be triggered by them (as well as by mathematics and abstractions) than it is transcendent in itself beyond any of these reductionist accounts.

2) Pattern recognition.

Of course the reductionists will tell us that beauty and aesthetics began as some form of communication, it helped us determine who to mate with and how to avoid poison berries or something. To take that line is merely silly. It simply reduces these things to less than they are. If we catch a glimpse of the sublime we do understand that "something is afoot in the universe" (uh, Godwise).

a) Not reducible to immensity or beauty.

The Recognition of certain states of being, or tensions produced by being dwarfed in immensity bring on the sublime.
Peter Suber's Infinite Reflections
All college address at ST. John's College in Oct. 96
published St John's Review XLIV 2 (1998) 1-59

"Kant's theory of the sublime does not rest on these Cantorian theorems. His chief thesis for our purposes is that, "That is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small."[Note 39] Clearly the infinitely large is a perfect fit for this definition.[Note 40]

"The sublime is not an easy notion, and the best approach to it may be via negativa, showing how it differs from something familiar, the beautiful. Sticking only to those differences which bear most on the sublimity of the infinite, Kant says that the beautiful concerns a bounded object while the sublime object can be unbounded; the beautiful is compatible with charms while the sublime is not; the beautiful attracts the mind while the sublime both attracts and repels it; and the beautiful "seems as it were predetermined for our power of judgment" while the sublime is "incommensurate with our power of exhibition, and as it were violent to our imagination, and yet we judge it all the more sublime for that."[Note 41]

"The infinitely large meets these criteria almost by design. The infinitely large is unbounded, incommensurate with our powers of imagination, and to engage and satisfy us it no more needs charm than spring water needs sugar. It is so large that some of its proper subsets are just as large, a property shared by no finite magnitude."

"What triggers the feeling of the sublime most is immensity. Immensity in turn makes us feel a tension between two aspects of ourselves. On the one hand it makes us feel the inadequacy of our senses and imagination. On the other it makes us feel that there is more to us than senses and imagination, whose adequacy cannot be brought into question by immensity, no matter how spectacular or infinite. This second dimension of ourselves is not conception but moral vocation. While physically the immensity dwarfs us into insignificance, this very fact highlights that within us which is not dwarfed.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy James McCosh writing of Archibald Alison's theories
on the Sublime

"But there is a higher element than all this in beauty; an element seen by Plato and by those who have so far caught his spirit,-- such as, Augustine, Cousin, MacVicar, and Ruskin, but commonly overlooked by men of science and the upholders {315} of the association theory. The mere sensations or perceptions called forth by the presence of harmonious sounds, colors, and proportional forms, is not the main ingredient in the lovely and the grand. Beauty, after all, lies essentially in the ideas evoked. I hold by an association theory on this subject. But the ideas entitled to be called aesthetic should be of mind, and the higher forms of mind, intellectual and moral. There was, therefore, grand truth in the speculation of Plato, that beauty consists in the bounding of the waste, in the formation of order out of chaos; or, in other words, in harmony and proportion. There was truth in the theory of Augustine, that beauty consists ill order and design; and in that of Hutcheson, that it consists in unity with variety. Alison had, at times, a glimpse of this truth, but then lost sight of it. He speaks with favor of the doctrine held by Reid, that matter is not beautiful in itself, but derives its beauty from the expression of mind; he holds it true, so far as the qualities of matter are immediate signs of the powers or capacities of mind, and in so far as they are signs of those affections or dispositions of mind which we love, or with which we are formed to sympathize. He thus sums up his views: "

b) Therefore, not reducible to patterns.

"The idea in the pattern recognition argument is that patterns that trigger the sense of the sublime key us in to the feelings of fear or beauty that we have experienced in the past and almost hypnotically cerate the sense of awe. Nevertheless the concept is complex and cannot be reduced to merely a string of patterns. This argument makes sense in thinking of music or visual effects, but form the sense of aloneness in nature or the night sky we are reaction to more than just pattern recognition. IT can also affect us with new patterns or with non -physical phenomena such as mathematics."

3) Chemical determinism.

a) Functionalist can't make good on their claims.

The brain/mind reductionists that try to say that consciousness is nothing more than chemicals in the brain (brain function) are simply missing the point. Here is a long (I mean really long long long) boring dry but excellently scientific article showing that these guys are no where near figuring out what consciousness is, and that the complexity of the brain is still so vast we can look in wonderment at the sunset and dream of transcendent possibilities, and commune with nature and sense God's reality without fear that we are nothing more than an accidentally produced batch of neurons chemicals. Lantz Miller (who is not a Christian and it not a religious article) The Hard Sell of Human Consciousness (part I).
(See also the answers below on Consciousness argument which draw upon Miller's work)

b) Reduction loses phenomena.

To reduce the sublime to mere chemical determinism or brain functionalism loses the phenomena. When we try to analyze or dissect the sublime we lose the characteristics that trigger it. These attempts merely ignore what is being experienced.

4) Evolutionary function.

One of the major arguments is that we appreciate beauty as an evolutionary function so that we will seek out the better mates and have good genes. But this is super reductionism that ignores all kinds of phenomena. I do not get horny looking at sunsets or studying set theory. However, I do sense the sublime on those occasions. The sublime is a value added proposition and there is basically no reason for it in evolution.

X. The Existential Argument (Gabriel Marcell's Argument).

A. Personal encounter.

"...God is discovered by the individual in the movement towards the free realization and appropriation of rather than as the terms of impersonal objective argument. To say this is not to say this is not to say that the act of self relating to God as 'my truth' is for them an irrational act or a purely capricious choice. Kierkegaard indeed may tend to give this impression on occasion. But Jaspers emphasizes the insecurity and evanescent charter of finite existence and what may be called the experience or apprehension of the comprehensive, of the evolving being provided that one does not understand 'experience' here as meaning privileged mystical experience or anything approaching direct contact with God....IN his eyes (Marcel) exploration of those forms of experience which involve us as a person leads one to God..."[Frederick Copestone, Contemporary Philosophies, Westminster Maryland: Newman press, 1956,173.]

B. Existential Thinkers.

1) Soren Kierkegaard and objective uncertainty.

SK's theory of truth is that of "objective uncertainty." For him, scientific demonstration, and mathematics, is merely hypothetical truth. It has no real bearing on our situation as humans, it does not involve us in an understanding the meaning of our being, and without that we are not truly ourselves. He traces three stages in the development of the self: The aesthetic, the moral, and finally, belief.

"We are left with the leap of faith The passionate appropriation by the individual of an 'objective uncertainty.' The truth that matters is my truth...the truth which I have chosen, to which I have committed myself, for which I venture all, and by which I choose to live, rather than public property truth achieved as the conclusion of logical argument."[Copleston, 153.]

This may sound totally subjective and it might lead some to charge that it is a mere pretense. But SK Was totally committed to his faith and clearly believed that was real. He hated Descartes and felt that his doubt was phony. But if one could actually prove the existence of God who would need faith? The proof of God for Sartre is at the other end of the leap of faith, where one unities with one's source in God and becomes truly oneself, and for SK this was a reality that really works.

2) Paul Tillich and the object of ultimate concern.

Tillich believed that everyone shares the same basic ultimate concerns--death, justice, meaning and significance to life. When we confront our ultimate concerns truly we realize that there is an object of our ultimate concerns, which is God.

3) Karl Jaspers and apprehension of the transcendent.

Jaspers was trained as a psychiatrist and came to philosophy while already involved in a flourishing career in psychotherapy. His argument begins with a discussion about the limitations of scientific study. Any particular science is limited in and by itself in that is bounded by its own subject matter. Science is negated from every yielding an understanding of being, since to study being science would have to objectify it. Science could study beings, and does, but being is not merely study of beings, and cannot be objectified because to be is to be a subject and not an object. Being inherently contains its own subjective dimensions.

To understand being is to understand our own limits in finitude. We also move toward the transcending of this limit when we confront our own being--death for example--but not just death in general, rather, my own death. At such a moment I become aware of myself as grounded in being and the presence of being as the grounding of all beings. I become aware of the transcendent as the negatively apprehended compliment of limits. I cannot obtain scientific assurance of the transcendent but I affirm it in the exercise of liberty. Jaspers emphasizes the symbolic character of the world and of all events. the passing of the finite triggers the realization of the lasting value of the transcendent. (Copleston, 162-165)

4) Gabriel Marcel and the mystery of being.

Marcel views two levels of conscious thought. One can think about another person and objectify that person. But one cannot objectify oneself. The personal consciousness cannot be penetrated by scientific study because to attempt it would always necessitate objectification and ruling out of the subjective elements Which make up the meaning of human experience. He calls this awareness of personal consciousness "second level thought." My place as epistemological questioner might be taken by a machine, but as a subject I apprehend a certain mystery to being which cannot but be objectified and therefore lost in any kind of scientific analysis. If I am ask 'what am I?' I can approach this as a psychologist or scientist, but must always leave out the view point of the questioner. But if I ask about myself I must consider the view point of the questioner which asks the question; which is always a subjective viewpoint, the questioner who asks the question. I cannot objectify myself in that sense.

My fundamental situation however is to be present in the world, not as an ego in a particular situation, but as a subject being in the world. My relation in being is to be in relation open to the other; the inter-subjective.

"I aspire to an absolute commitment, to absolute loyalty. I may first aspire to this within the sphere of human relations. But reflection shows me that this involves the invocation of the absolute. 'Thou' who is the ground of all being and value and who alone makes eternal fidelity possible. Thus in the exploration of the relationships which arise on the plane of inter-subjectivity I 'discover' as the personal transcendent absolute and I become conscious of the orientation of my personality toward the absolute Thou, God. I am open to being from the start; and the conscious appropriation of this openness leads form the transcending of egoism in communion with others to personal self relating, in adoration and prayer, to God...I come to see the [relationships of inter-subjectivity] their metaphysical significance within the context of my existence as a person. I see that I become a human person only through self-transcendence, only with actual communication with other human beings and with God." --Copleston, 171.

[In that argument we can find analogues with Schleiermacher's feeling of utter dependence and Martin Bubber's I and Thou]

C. Objections.

1) This argument doesn't prove anything. Answer: Got me there.

2) This is just fantasy time, wishful thinking, that doesn't prove God exists.

Answer: That's right, and it's also wrong. It's not a demonstrative proof, that's for sure. And it is very akin to the religious experience argument. It's a rationale, a personal proof for those who find it convincing. But why should anyone find it convincing? The more philosophical types among us will note immediately that it takes seriously the problem of being at its most fundamental level; it does not objectify being or dismiss it as an array of sense data or a scientific problem to be studied and dissected. IT is by its very nature something that only the individual can choose to affirm in his own experience of being human, this is what is meant by the existentialist when they speak of "self authentication." And only in self authentication can one affirm the nature of what it is to be who i am and to be human. It is also on this level that we find God, the level of personal faith. There is a strong indication in these four thinkers that to seriously come to grips with this understanding places us very close to experiencing God on an existential level.

It's not a demonstrative proof but it is a proof of sorts, at least form the standpoint that one is offered a rationale for the logic of having faith. Skeptics are always asking me on the net "why should anyone believe?" Or "why have faith?" The answer is faith is self validating in a way that "demonstrative proofs" cannot be. Scientific information is always changing, and "facts" of science are limited to the nature of the inquiry and the methods of investigation. They involve an exclusion of the dimension which means the most to us; that of what it is to be human in the world. Logical demonstration is always arguable, and both leave room for doubt. If it could be proven beyond a doubt that God exists, it would still leave the question of God's nature, and whether or not God even knows we exist. But an existential apprehension leaves no room for doubt. To validate faith in this way, to commit to faith removes doubt.

Now, I have failed by a long shot to do justice to these thinkers. Each of the four is a profound figure and deserves the fullest attention of the reader. I urge everyone to read their books and consider their ideas. In three of the four (all but Jaspers) we find some of the greatest intellects of the Christian tradition, and in the four, including Jaspers, some of the greatest of the greats of existentialism.

By Metacrock. Used with Permission.
For more articles by the same author, see Doxa.