Sunday, 4 December 2016

God: An Existential Proof

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Ernest Hemingway has one of his characters say, 'The world breaks everyone.' In crafting this now famous line, did he hand us a new proof for the existence of God?
It all rests on the way we are motivated, and the changes our motivations undergo in the course of a lifetime.

What is it that motivates me to plant a garden (and to plant it thus), to embark on a career, or to go to war? Today there is little disagreement that, basically, I am motivated when I hold up the world in my head to the world itself. Where then I find a difference between the two, I am motivated to act. It is, writes neuropsychologist Richard Gregory, the encounter with the 'unexpected' that motivates me.

Now consider that, in one’s early years, one's motivations are fresh and new. The world in one’s head seems to offer one high hopes, pleasant dreams, a good view of humanity, and enthusiasm to spare. Yet as one progresses through life, 'the world breaks everyone'. It breaks them, not so much through the hardships it brings to bear on the body—if this should matter at all—but because of the way in which it assails the mind and emotions.

Disillusionment sets in. And this, presumably, means coming to see things for the way they are. As we grow and mature, we come to see that the world is a place where hopes wither, dreams die, good turns to bad, and our energies are sapped. We become jaded, tired, and disinterested. 'My hopes were all dead,' Charlotte Brontë has one of her characters say. 'I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing. They lay stark, chill, livid corpses that could never revive.'

With no world now to hold up to the world, because we have finally seen the world for what it is, we lose our motivation—ultimately all motivation—because motivation is the 'unexpected'.

And so we lose the ability to live. Ernest Hemingway had no motivation to go on. He famously shot himself with a double-barrel shotgun. It is 'the very good,' he wrote, 'and the very gentle and the very brave' who go first. As for the rest—they, too, shall be found.

What then to do, when we are broken? How may a person restore any motivation at all, when they have come to see the world as it is?

It needs to be something beyond this world—and though we here 'appeal to consequences'—the argument that it must be so—indeed it must be so. We cannot go on with a view of this world which is born of the world itself. Small wonder, then, that it is central to religious thinking that 'whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord'. We continue to strive—but we strive for something which is other-worldly.

There may be another, logical possibility. If not something beyond this world, then we need an interventionist God who through his being there, changes our expectations—a God who reaches down into our reality—a God who acts in this world. The world is not, therefore, all that I expect it to be. This, too, is a dominant religious theme: 'For by you I have run through a troop,' writes David. 'By my God have I leaped over a wall.' He could turn the tables, through his God.

What then is that motivation which lies beyond this world? What then are the interventions of God? This would seem to lie beyond the bounds of philosophy, and in the realm of theology.

Paradoxically, if we accept the 'God option' as the basis of all true motivation, then this would seem to be the option of deepest disillusionment—at the very same time as it offers us the greatest hope. One has no need for a new and fundamentally different motivation, in God, unless the world in one’s head is no longer found to be worth holding up to the world.


  1. Yes, thoughtful post, Thoams. I certainly sense there is this kind of fading of motivation - 'internal motivation' - in the usual process of growing older. However - the search for external motivation seems to me to be practical and possible to find in 'earthly' things, one does not need to suppose a god or gods. One might work for the wellbeing of other people (parents often focus on their children, don't they!)... or on a grand project, or as an artist creating a particular work... or achieving something in the garden. No?

  2. Hemingway’s character sets the stage, declaring, “The world breaks everyone.” As encapsulated by those four words, Hemingway’s character overstates it. Hence why the rest of the quote is critical: “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” What some might view as praiseworthy resilience in the face of adversity. So, what are at least three (among possibly many) of the options? Either despair and disillusionment bring one to belief in a god (a search, in the crevices of life, for solace and meaning). Or, turning disillusionment entirely on its head, joy in life and wonderment in the universe bring one to belief in a god (manifested as awe). Or, equally celebratory, neither happens (our realizing that it all just is, and that’s enough for one’s equanimity)—without defaulting to a god, but subscribing to (the choice probably doesn’t matter) either agnosticism, or atheism, or mysticism, or secular humanism, or some other sufficient non-‘other-worldly’ explanation of why things are the way they are. And, I would suggest, instead of the world existentially “assail[ing] the mind and emotions,” the world elevating the mind and emotions.

    “[B]ecause we have finally seen the world for what it is, we lose our motivation.” Certainly for some, but not, I offer, necessarily for all. Some acquire, not lose, motivation from “[seeing] the world for what it is”—inspired by the world’s grandeur, mystery, complexity. “The world in one’s head [in one’s early years] seems to offer one high hopes, pleasant dreams, a good view of humanity, and enthusiasm to spare.” Indeed; however, that enthusiasm need not wither. Perhaps the scaffolding with which to perceive reality in a positive light might, and does, occur at any and all phases of life, depending on the frame of mind. That is, an emergent appreciation for—expanding commensurate with one’s passage through life—the magnificence of “the world”: from the marvelousness of our own bodies and minds, to the delicateness (hardiness?) of the ‘blue orb’ we live on and its finely grained life-sustaining features, to the astounding vastness, energy, and complexity of the cosmos.

    Anyway, for what they’re worth—perhaps very little—just a few of my thoughts to be tossed into the hopper regarding your intriguing post.

    1. It depends I think on the nature of the disillusionment we are talking about -- whether it is piecemeal (happens in separate bits in one's life) or whether it is a universal kind of thing (a total eclipse of the heart).

      If in principle it is piecemeal, I suspect that in principle we could never reach a state of disillusionment. Speaking simply from experience, disillusionment may indeed be a universal kind of thing. The question then, no doubt, is whether those who avoid it are sagacious or naive, or perhaps just lucky.

      An even fuller quote of Hemingway: "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."