Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism
| 10 Jun 2017
| Onkareshwar Pandey, Editor In Chief, NOP

Review of
Haulianlal Guite's philosophical novel,
Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism (Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2017)

- By Dr. Ankur Barua, Philosopher, Lecturer in Hindu Studies, Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University

Consider a bedside conversation between a dying man Elwin, and his sister Josephine. As his life slowly ebbs away, Josephine, a hardboiled atheist asks him partly with contempt and partly with anguish, ‘Where is that God of yours? How could God let you die this slow agonising death? Does not your torment provide conclusive God does not exist?’ Elwin serenely gazes at the face of his distraught sister, and responds weakly, ‘Ah, Josie, do you not see? Precisely this excruciating suffering of mine is evidence that God exists!’

Many of us have been witnesses to, or even interlocutors in, such a conversation, where what one party loudly proclaims to be overwhelming proof of God's absence is considered by another party to be plausible evidence for God’s presence. Those who have come down on the side of divine non-existence in such situations often appeal to the authority of Science (reverentially capitalised).

Haulianlal Guite’s Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism is addressed to the Josephines in us. With massive learning, gentle irony, and scintillating wit he urges us to re-examine some of the bases of our everyday acceptance of Science. He has produced in the process a truly breath-taking philosophical meditation, where he interrogates the claim that Science has provided conclusive refutation of the existence of God. The narrative structure is elaborated through a series of conversations between Mr Dyers, a journalist who is undergoing a Near- Death Experience; and an enigmatic figure called Mr Walker, who acts as his philosophical gadfly.

As the conversations unfold, we are taken on a whirlwind tour of roughly three thousand years of intellectual history – from Plato to Aquinas to Kant to Russell to Quine, the resources of every major philosophical standpoint are marshalled even as different dimensions of the God-question are highlighted, explored, and elaborated.

Guite’s novel is a philosophical exploration. It is written to articulate, through the skeletal frame of a narrative between Dyers and Walker, specific philosophical theses. However, if it is a novel by a philosophical mind, it is not meant exclusively for philosophical spirits. Guite helpfully provides an introductory section and a compendium where he introduces a non-philosophical audience to the key figures and the central concepts alluded to or drawn on in the course of the evolving dialogues.

Guite’s philosophical prose illuminates one of the most powerfully entrenched opposites across academic as well as popular cultures – viz., Science versus Religion. On the one hand, we have those who believe that Science has triumphantly liberated us from the tyrannical obscurantism, the superstitious ignorance, and the cruel barbarism of a dark age of Religion. On the other hand, we have the resolute champions of Religion who equally irately condemn to the flaming pits of fire and brimstone the masses of decadent, depraved, and dissolute worshippers at the secular altar of godless Science.

Guite is a sure guide who ever so gently takes us on a delicate tightrope over this gulf by pointing out that even Science-based atheism relies on certain presuppositions which are usually left unexamined, and which, more crucially, cannot be verified through straightforward scientific (empirical) procedures. For instance, the everyday enterprise of science is structured by assumptions such as our ability to know the world, and so on. The vital point here is that these assumptions are not observations like the ‘There is a bottle on the table’, but are the (a priori) presuppositions which enable such observations.

Consider the case of Newton’s law of universal gravitation. What gave Newton who had never travelled even to Jaipur, let alone to Jupiter, the confidence to declare that his natural law is universally applicable everywhere? The quick answer is that the theory of Newtonian gravitation is shaped by certain deep-level presuppositions about the sameness of reality everywhere. Such presuppositions enabled Newton to boldly declare that the shape of gravity on earth is no different from that on Jupiter, even though we may never travel to Jupiter to verify this claim.

Through various episodes from the history of science, Guite seeks to show this inference to be wrong: if Science, then Atheism (A). I Is this evident in the same way the claim if 1+1>0, then 2>0 (B), is? The crucial philosophical debate between Guite's characters Dyers and Walker, is partly over whether (A) is valid in the same way (B) is. The sections of the novel where Guite grapples with this momentous question, through a discussion of the philosopher W.V Quine’s ‘conceptual holism’, will perhaps be the most hard going for the philosophically uninitiated. However, the basic point that Guite seeks to highlight is that, like diverse religious worldviews, the claim "if Science, then Atheism" is not grounded in self-evident truths.

Consider the following argument:

Premise 1: Whatever exists, exist in space and time.
Premise 2: God does not exist in space and time.
Therefore, God does not exist.

Both religious believers and atheists accept premise 2, which is simply a conceptual explication of the word ‘God’. The crucial point, however, is that whether one affirms or denies premise 1, the disagreement is not a scientific dispute at all. Scientific methods can neither verify nor falsify the ‘existence claim’ in premise 1, even if scientists in their everyday work in the labs need to assume its truth. The moral of this story is that there is more than one way to cut the cake. Two scientists, who are equally honest, truth-seeking, and sincere, can operate with different sets of assumptions about their meta-scientific positions.

Nevertheless, an atheism which appeals to Science could claim that religious belief is simply a dogmatic stance because it cannot be proven wrong come what may. This, in effect, is atheistic Josephine’s exasperated complaint to the dying believer Elwin. At this stage of the argument, we are truly in philosophically treacherous waters, and Guite again indicates a way to the other shore. Like religious belief, the scientific enterprise too is informed by certain ‘steel-frame’ assumptions that often prevent a scientific theory from being proven wrong at a single stroke.

One such steel-frame assumption is the law of the conservation of energy. If challenged to show how a scientist knows this law to be valid even in distant galaxies when no one has ever been there, most working scientists might simply retort to this effect: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.

This fact is difficult to believe for us today because we operate with a somewhat romanticised idea of a scientist as a rugged ‘free-thinker’ who valiantly tears down the ancient bastions of entrenched dogmatism. Guite's point instead is that even this ‘free-thinking’ scientist already has a deep commitment to certain background assumptions, much like religions do. And these assumptions are taken to be stable, even if not unalterable. Again, as happens in religious systems.

Thus, Guite highlights a sort of parity across scientific and religious worldviews. They both have a conceptual core (for instance, ‘the law of conservation of momentum’ or ‘God is Love’) which is resistant to falsification, and which is surrounded by a protective belt of dispensable concepts. Therefore, even when these core assumptions appear to be often refuted, changes not in the core itself but elsewhere in the protective belt can take the sting of the refutation and explain it away.

For instance, while scientists were aware for centuries that the planet Mercury does not obey Newton's laws, they did not reject Newton's laws outright. Instead, they ‘dogmatically’ persisted in the teeth of seeming refutation, and tried out numerous adjustments (the protective belt) to keep defending Newton.

Likewise, while seemingly unmerited suffering is admittedly difficult to reconcile with the hypothesis of an all-loving God, it by no means constitutes a knockdown refutation of theism. Perhaps God moves in mysterious ways, perhaps God is training us for the spiritual endeavour, and so on. There is, logically speaking, no cut-off point where a Josephine could demand: ‘Enough is enough, if you keep on believing in God after 241.35 ‘units’ of suffering, you are being downright stupid’.

The basic idea is that scientific and religious worldviews are both systems of thought that cannot be conclusively falsified in bits and pieces. However, one can move in and out of these horizons of thought. Thus, while in my story the believer Elwin’s religious commitments remain unshaken, many individuals have, of course, moved away from religious horizons precisely because of their inability to believe in a God of love in the face of apparently gratuitous suffering. And likewise, there are atheists who have become theists, of which Guite himself is one.

All these reflections bring me to my single concern with Guite’s argument – the term ‘blind faith’. If Science-oriented atheisms are ‘blind’ for relying on deep assumptions which are highly contested, religious belief too is ‘blind’ in this sense. For while atheists might be too hasty in summarily affirming Premise 1, we have to ask religious believers what styles of reasoning they have to offer for denying Premise 1. Therefore, it would turn out that all individuals – atheists as well as religious believers – are ‘blind’. And this state of affairs would eviscerate the word ‘blind’ of all significance.

I suggest a slightly different way of looking at things. Call those systems of belief ‘rational’ which start from self-evident premises or where means are suitably related to ends. Thus ‘2+2=4’ and ‘I am going to the Himalayas because I am looking for cold weather’ are rational beliefs. Call those beliefs ‘irrational’ which flagrantly violate the principle of non-contradiction – thus, ‘I am writing this essay right now and I am not writing this essay right now’ is an irrational statement. Between these two poles, there lies the vast grey area of our everyday existence where we mostly deal with ‘non-rational’ beliefs.

Consider the case of Celestine to whom Peter says on their wedding day, ‘I promise to love you all my life'. Now is the bride irrational for making a lifelong commitment when there is no way to know if she will still love him 20, 30 or 40 years from now? I think not. Love is, strictly speaking, neither ‘rational’ nor ‘irrational’ but ‘non-rational’ – thus all its ecstasies and all its agonies.

Guite indicates that both religious belief and Science-based atheism are more akin to the commitments involved in love than to overly cerebral ratiocinations with concepts, principles, and arguments. Only, that scientific atheism and religious belief are structured by two different kinds of love. In the former, it is an existential commitment to the exploration of truth in a world that assumes the absence of transcendental significance; and in the latter, it is an existential commitment to the exploration of truth in a world that assumes its presence instead. Ultimately, then, what separates the two groups is not how much they know but what or whom they love. Whether this diagnosis of the human predicament, as rooted in and shaped by love, is adequate or inadequate, is itself a part of the philosophical debates that Guite skilfully explores.


About the Author: Haulianlal Guite
Haulianlal Guite, a 29 year old young IAS officer whose first passion has always been the subject of “philosophy” whose first philosophical novel called ‘Confessions of a Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism, ' was released by Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju in New Delhi recently.
The book is claimed to be the first philosophical novel on God written by an Indian Civil Servant since John Stuart Mill published “On Liberty” in 1858 and also the first non-fiction novel written by a North-East Indian.

Guite hails from Churachandpur District, Manipur. He topped the civil service exam 2010-11 in the ST category as a Bachelor student of Philosophy graduated from St. Stephen College, DU and all India rank of 33 at the young age of 23 and remains the only IAS officer from the Guite community.
The young administrator revealed that becoming an IAS officer was never his dream even though he became one due to his father’s pressure.

“I was always inclined towards academic and my passion always made me return to the subject, therefore I finished my Master degree in Philosophy from JNU Delhi after becoming a civil servant,” he said.

He is the eldest of the four children, born to parents who are both doctors, Dr Thangchinkhup Guite (father) MHA, USA and Dr Paozachiin Guite, an eye specialist who works in far northeastern state of Manipur.

His ground breaking work argues the case for God in a novelised format and deals with the near-death experience of its protagonist, a journalist named Albert Dyers, and his interaction with an entity who claims to be an angel.

A 2011 batch IAS officer of the Zomi-Kuki tribal group in North-East India, with an All-India 33rd rank, Haulianlal Guite was merely 23 years' old on selection, remains the only IAS officer of the Guite clan, and is encadred in Rajasthan. He is now serving as the Secretary of Jaipur Development Authority.

Haulianlal Guite on FB: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011353749535

The Book:
Haulianlal Guite's novel on God, titled "Confessions Of A Dying Mind: The Blind Faith of Atheism", is available in amazon.in.)




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