Review (Part Two): The Experience of God — Being, Consciousness, Bliss, by David Bentley Hart

In part one, we considered Hart’s explanation of what it is meant by “God,” in order to avoid the distraction of puerile attacks on straw-man stand-ins for the real God.

In this post, we consider Hart’s discussion of the philosophical backdrop against which his argument will be received. This will help us to avoid prejudices that we might bring to bear on our understanding of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, so that we can better appreciate Hart’s central thesis that “we can approach nature only across the interval of the supernatural.”


What we have witnessed in recent years is a descent into oversimplification, in important questions. Hart says, charitably, that it is not an advance in clarity. To many who observe this same dumbing-down phenomenon, the response is less charitable. The dumbing-down in reasoning is more than an “oversimplification,” it is a leveling-down of our ability to reason.  One way to win a debate is to have a superior message.   But another way is to coarsen the receivers of that message.  That’s why a lie repeated often enough begins to sound like the truth.  Truth is a casualty both when the seed of a lie is cast, and when the soil in which it is cast is made receptive to the lie.

Mechanistic philosophy

Hart sets up what he will refer to in the rest of the book as a mechanistic philosophy, which is not so much an intentional, systematic belief system, as it is a prejudice in how we approach any philosophical question. It leads to a metaphysics of anti-metaphysics.

Hart traces the evolution of this mechanistic prejudice from Francis Bacon (1561-1626). His way of looking at the world, and that of other thinkers who followed in his footsteps, led to consideration of matter as being a substantial and efficient agency in its own right, rather than merely a conditional, caused thing. The thought was that matter only needed some kind of efficient ordering power.

That was conceived to be God, of course, but over time, there evolved a scrupulous refusal of metaphysical conjecture, or of any recourse to higher causes. Hart observes that this way of thinking actually boosted the detailed, minutely observed, carefully measured empirical inquiry, but over time, the result has been that “a purely mechanical cosmos became a kind of ontology, a picture of reality as such.” We have acquired the habit of seeing the universe not merely as something to be investigated with a mechanistic paradigm, but as actually a machine.


From Bacon to Descartes and the rise of deism, Hart chronicles the shift in thinking. Darwinism initiated the final phase of the drift to deterministic materialism.  Because of the mechanistic philosophy already in place, the Darwinian proposal of natural selection suggested the possibility that nature might be the product of wholly indeterminate and wholly mindless forces – modern materialism. This was what made Darwinism a “dangerous idea.” Hart writes that it was only a dangerous idea in this way, however, because of the metaphysical epoch in which it was first proposed. In an earlier age it would not have been mistaken for a rival metaphysics, and it never should have been.

Natural selection is thereby taken as proof of materialism, but it isn’t.  It does not account for: (1) the existence of the universe; or (2) the lawfulness of nature. Hart means it cannot account for existence in the first place, rather than a series of contingent causes, and it cannot account for the laws of physics, by which the universe came into being. “The question of being cannot be answered by a theory that applies only to physical realities.” Similarly, “Natural selection must be bound to an ensemble of physical laws to which it could not itself have given rise.”

Circularity of standard proof of materialism

In this way Hart addresses the circularity of the standard trope that the supernatural is not provable because it is not natural. He offers this self-evidently fatuous syllogism:

physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything.

Hart writes that naturalism is “a metaphysics of the rejection of metaphysics, a transcendental certainty of the impossibility of transcendental truth.”

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