God as Infinity

With a friend / philosopher from Pakistan I created a community called "Debating (with) God". We will discuss the nature of God from a philosophical perspective. We decided that I would present Levinas' concept of God and he would present Spinoza's concept, and then we will compare and discuss these views. The central question is if God, if he exists, is part of the physical world, or if he can only be found in a metaphysical world which is not accessible for humans. If so, if he lives in a completely different dimension, then the question is how humans can know anything about him at all, even if he exists at all or not.

I found an article on the Internet which focusses on Levinas' concept of God, so I posted a summary in the D(w)G community. Here is what I posted at Orkut: Below is a summary of an article from Val Petridis and Tom Fatsis in the Quodlibet Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy. See also the
complete article, of which I find that it gives a very good and clear description of Levinas' concept of God.

I agree with the biggest part of the conclusions, only I think that Levinas doesn't think that we cannot know anything at all about God and that there wouldn't be any link between the limited ontological world and Infinity. To welcome the other and to meet God through that, to see a glimpse of him through the other, is the highest possible form of goodness for humans. To meet the other creates ethical behaviour. Moral good / just behaviour means to welcome the other with open arms. If the other opens me up towards infinity, in my view it's logical to assume that he doesn't give me some kind of access only to Infinity but also to infinite Goodness. I am not sure if Levinas literally says this somewhere (I'll search for it), but I would strongly expect this. The Jewish religious roots are strong in Levinas' way of thinking. I cannot believe that Levinas would consider God as an anonymous neutral infinite metaphysical power who could just as well be evil as good. Since ethics are at the core of human relations for Levinas and since it is through these relations that humans can be turned to being good, through an opening up, a transcendence towards Infinity, which is offered by the other, which is only possible through the other, I really think that God should be infinite Goodness according to Levinas.But let's start now with the summary of that article.

"Purple Infinity"

Throughout his works Emmanuel Levinas has used various terminologies to refer to God. In every case God is described as infinite unknowable, unsayable and unsignifyable. In the “Trace of the Face“ Levinas refers to God as the Unknown and absolute other. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas calls God the absolute other and in Otherwise than Being he uses the term the otherwise than being. I will show that these concepts are completely compatible with one another and are based on the same premises. Furthermore, it will be argued that term God is a phrase or ideatum that refers to that which cannot be known, signified, or contained in any expression of language. Levinas’ God will be shown to everything that can never be known or said. This God is not the personal deity depicted in typical religiosity, Levinas’ God is not a divinity that interacts with the human world, rather this God is that which lies beyond the limits of what humans can ever experience or know. It will be shown that the term God as found in Levinas work can be easily substituted by any other term that refers to that which is beyond everything contained within that which can be known. Thus, I will prove that Levinas use of the terms infinite, the unknown, the absolute other and the otherwise than being to refer to the same non-religious God or the something that is absolutely beyond being. The term God refers to that which a secular term like infinity could as easily be used to referred to without losing any of its intended connotations lost in the substitution of one term for the other. In fact, I will show that the term God is more problematic than its secular counterparts as it contains religious presuppositions that are not contained in Levinas formulation of that which lies beyond being. In this sense, Levinas’ terms for God secularize divinity and relegate God to a concept acceptable even to atheists.
This is not the God of religion rather a term used as an ideatum of that which is always beyond what humans will ever know. This God who will never fulfill any of the characteristics usually attributed to God and even if God did, no one would ever know it.

I will commence by examining the idea of the unknown as presented by Levinas in “The Trace of the Face“. The perpetual unknown is infinite. No matter what one encounters and absorbs into one’s horizon the unknown continually exists and remains infinite beyond the self’s horizon. What lies beyond the limits of the known will always be infinite and unknown. This seems to suggest that part of the infinity of the unknown can be encompassed within the known and made finite within one’s horizon. However, Levinas seems to also imply the unknown is always unknown and always stands outside the horizon of the known as the infinite unknown. The trace it leaves behind as the self absorbs more of the unknown into the self’s horizon is a trace of evidence that erases itself and only exists in the moment of transition when something unknown becomes known. Thus, one can only realize the dichotomy between the unknown and the known at the moment of transition from the former to the latter. The unknowable will never be part of that which can be known. Its absolute alterity is always beyond the self’s horizon.

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas claims that infinity is a good term for the absolute other or God. An ideatum is a term used to refer to something without attempting to encompass it, to make reference to its content or claim to know anything about it. An ideatum does not signify an object of being, rather it refers to that which cannot be signified and lies beyond being. Infinity refers to a concept that is beyond human comprehension. One transcends to the realization of the absolute other when the self’s idea of totality becomes disrupted by the presence of the face of the other. The other who faces me is more than what I can sense, the other holds hidden secrets that I cannot completely grasp, never. At the moment one’s idea of totality becomes disrupted in the face to face with the other, one transcends to an experience of the face to face with the absolute other (God). The absolute other is unknowable and unsignifyable. The face of the absolute other is an ideatum that only assumes the existence of that which cannot be known and lies beyond being. Levinas’ ideatum of infinity as presented in Totality and Infinity seems to indicate a concept that is beyond any finite set or idea and overflows any reference to it.
So, in short, whatever this infinity may be, no one will ever know. If it is God it is more akin to deism than any interactive concept of a personal God usually proffered by most world religions. This God does not act in creation as propertied by religions like Judaism and Christianity.

The traditional characteristics attributed to God become problematic in the face of the premises Levinas uses to refer to the unknowable beyond being or what he calls God. Traditionally God is described as Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent and all good. Since Levinas’ God does not interact with the world of being and being is the bases of the known, God remains unknowable. Even if Levinas’ God had any of the above-mentioned attributes no one within Being, such as a living human, would ever know it. As Levinas claims in Totality and Infinity, this God is better worshipped in silence without any type of homage than worshipped with any sense of piety.

In conclusion, I have shown that the Unknown, Infinity, the absolute other and the otherwise than being are compatible with a secularized idea of God. These terms, including God, are ideatums which are used by Levinas to refer to that which cannot be contain in any expression of knowledge or language. Levinas’ God is everything that can never be known or said. This God is not the personal deity typical of religiosity. Levinas’ God is not a divinity that interacts with the human world causing the great feats described in many religions.. Rather this God is that which lies beyond the limits of what humans can ever know or interact with. It has been shown that the term God in Levinas’ work can be easily substituted by any term that refers to that which is beyond everything contained within that which can be known. The term God refers to that which a secular term like infinity could be used to referred to without losing any of its intended connotations. In fact, I have shown that the term God is more problematic than its secular counterparts as he term God contains religious presuppositions that are not contained in Levinas formulation of that which lies beyond Being. In this sense, Levinas terms for the beyond Being or God secularize divinity and relegates God to a concept acceptable to even Atheists. This is not the God of religion rather it is a term used as an ideatum of that which is always beyond what humans will ever know. This God will never fulfil any of the characteristics usually attributed to God and even if God did, according to Levinas formulations of God as completely unknowable, no one would ever know it.



Stay away from truth

This post is my shortest blog post ever. For a change I will only post a quote from the philosopher and theologist Adolf Holl. I think this is a very good expression of the meaning of anti-dogmatism :-)
I just read an interview with him in Volzin, where he said:
"If you love truth you should try to stay away from it."

He says that he is a "case of doubt" ("een twijfelgeval" in Dutch) himself, he fundamentally doubts everything, he became a priest but he revolted so much against the church that he was kicked out of it. I like the way he talks about truth, that he says that you offend the truth when you claim too easily to possess it.



Rootedness in the homeland and the dwelling

I had a kind of eureka experience last week, that I at once knew what the structure of my dissertation should be like. My (possible) second supervisor said that I should focus and balance more and that I should choose one central theme, of which he considered "hospitality" to be the most suitable one. My first supervisor said he totally agreed.

And then I started to think about why hospitality would be such an important issue to link the philosophy of Levinas to the way individuals and the society as a whole (politicians) deal with strangers / immigrants.

I wondered why hospitality is needed to have a peaceful and well functioning society, in the same way as I argued before why forgiveness is needed to end conflicts / wars. The "I got it" reaction last week was because I made a link from Heidegger (rootedness in the homeland) via Levinas (ethical confrontation with the face of the other) to Derrida (hospitality).

Heidegger says in "Sein und Zeit" that people have a special relation to the ground where they are born, where they are rooted. To be means to be firmly attached in the empirical material world, to the particular place where you come from, that you own. This idea from Heidegger is where the biggest part of Levinas' criticism is aimed at. He says that when people have to be enrooted, that people who are not in their homeland are immediately excluded, they are considered to be inferior because they don't have the strength of their roots established firmly in their own ground.

Levinas strongly dissaproves of the idea of rootedness. He says that we are all guests in the land of God, we don't own the land on earth, in fact we borrow it from God, he allowed us to live there. So who is living where exacly, is in fact random. We are all equal as humans and we are free, we cannot be imprisoned by our background or race. A status as homeless or as a stranger cannot make us inferior human beings.

We are equal, but as far as our relation is assymetrical, the other is the higher person, never me. The people who are the best teachers, the most suitable people to make an appeal to my moral responsibility, are the people who are vulnerable themselves; the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. These are people who are not rooted, they are unstable, they miss a firm connection with the material world. They miss their homeland, they miss wealth (food, a house, money), they miss their parents or their husband. As a human the stranger is equal to me, but in our ethical relation he is higher than me. The one who is fragile and asks for my help is able to open up my little selfish world. In his later work Levinas even describes this as if I am a hostage of the other, as if I am obsessed by him and as if I cannot escape from his confronting gaze, from his naked face in front of me that demands my response.

Derrida further elaborates on this relation between the first person and the other, in the relation between the host and the guest, the owner of the house and the stranger who knocks at the door. The image of the house and the host can be combined with the land where a nation is located. Derrida agrees that it's Gods house, the host doesn't posess the house, he only happens to live there. So he is already a guest in his own house. The fact that he lives behind that door, a door he can open to strangers, means that he has by definition the possibility to welcome a stranger. The welcome of the other is taking place in many ways, the host is welcomed in his own house and is then able to welcome a stranger. The stranger turns the host into a hostage, he is handed down to the guest who becomes his teacher, his master, because of the ethical relation that they have.

This part of the theory is maybe too complex to explain in a few words, but what is important, is that the attitude of hospitality, to welcome the other, especially the stranger, forms the core of both the ethics of Levinas and of Derrida. It applies to any kind of contact between humans, but especially for the contact between a native and a stranger. When the native welcomes the stranger, this means he respects him as a human, it means peace and justice, it means they are equal as humans, and it means that the host doesn't take away the freedom of the guest, his welcome is unconditional, the guest is not imprisoned by the host in his cultural and historical background. The host doesn't doesn't have a sign at his door that Jews or blacks or whoever are not welcome, every stranger is welcome, no matter who he is or where he comes from.

Derrida and levinas don't say that every nation should be completely open to whoever wants to enter the country, that idea is of course completely unrealistic. Especially Derrida focusses on the impossible but necessary combination between unconditional hospitality, the absolute welcome of the other, on the one hand, and on the other hand the necessity to create national laws and conditions for whom can enter the country and whom not.

The same applies to the example of the house. I you really welcome everybody you will end up in a very full and dirty center for homeless or a place where criminals can make their deals, there are some limits to the kind op people and the number of them that you can accept in your house.

The main point I want to make in my dissertation, is that Derrida at least considers this a complicated dilemma, one in which one constantly has to look for a balance between a universal unconditional welcome of strangers and the national laws and conditions that limit the number and type of strangers that can enter a country.

For the Dutch Minister Verdonk of Immigration there is no dilemma at all. The barbarian strangers should be kept out of the country as much as possible, and she will violate as many national and international treaties and constitutional laws of universal human rights for that as possible. She tried to push a law through that people from the Antilles, who are Dutch in fact, can never enter the country, unless they have proven that they are no criminals and that they earn ebough money. This is a very clear form of institutionalized racism. The colour of their skin is a condition to close the borders, unless they can prove that they are not the barbarians that Verdonk expects them to be.

Not only at the political level but also at the individual level there's an increase in simplistic and hostile sentiments towards strangers. We clearly need more hospitality in the Netherlands. So my dissertation will be a plea to welcome the other, whoever he may be. A plea to always treat strangers as human beings, no matter how many votes politicians think they can win by dehumanizing immigrants and creating the image of an iron lady who closes the Dutch borders almost completely to non-western strangers.



Rob and Es about Nazism and Islam

(Pictures: Hitler versus a page of the Quran in Arabic. Translations are welcome.)

The discussion below is a follow-up of my discussion with Roberta about who God really is. This new discussion started because a Muslim from Pakistan said:

"I am sorry Rob, I cannot be associated with a community which hurls swear words at my Prophet. I think I have said this to you many times before: I love my faith, and you love what you believe in. I am proud of being what i am and you are proud of what you are; but since you insult my Prophet. Our ways depart..."

Roberta replied:
"YOUR PROPHET might be a darling to you, but he is no darling to the people he oppressed. Why can't you understand that???
Nazis also LOVE HITLER!! Will you respect them and love him too???
The Vikings LOVED ERIK THE RED!! He, who pillaged villages, enslaved thousands and built his "peaceful" empire on the corpses of FREE MEN!!!

ENOUGH HYPOCRISY!!!!! I am sick to death of it!!!
Who is standing by evil deeds? Who is standing by false prophetdoom? Please state who you are, so that I can ban you from this community. In this place no more evil shall remain!!!

What matters is that you use Islam for PEACE and NOT evil. DO NOT PROMOTE FAKE IDEOLOGIES. DO NOT ENCOURAGE EVIL PUNISHMENTS TOWARDS YOUR FELLOW HUMANS. And we can all live together."

I replied to that:
"Who says that he doesn't "use" his faith to strive for peace?
You can be critical towards the Islam, but I think that as a moderator you have to be more tolerant to Fahd and others who love their faith. This is an Islam community with many Muslims as its members. How can there ever be peace in this "Islam" community if you don't respect that Muslims love their faith?"

And this was the beginning of a longer discussion between Rob and me, about the differences between Nazism and the Islam - black is said by Roberta, red is said by me, earlier in the discussion, blue is my most recent remarks :

R: I am trying to understand this. Call me insane but I am really trying.I need an explanation to ease my mind:How can a person say that he uses Islam for peace while he loves his prophet? A prophet who caused more pain than life is worth? Think about it.
It is the same as if I say to you that I really admire Nazism because they are very organized, competent, precise and tough. And I love Hitler because ALL HE WANTED was GOOD THINGS FOR GERMANY AND HIS PEOPLE. Does that make sense now? Hitler was a Nazi. He killed and maimed many people! And yet, he was doing it for the good and prosperity of his country!The Germans loved him! Some still do! And even I understand that all he wanted was progress for Germany! He had ambitions!!! But at what price?

So, does that mean that I have to FOLLOW HIS STEPS AND LOVE HIM FOR HIS "INTENTIONS"? Please please.. shed some light on this! I really need to understand this.

For me there's a big difference between the two.It's clear why Nazism / fascism is very bad and inhuman, I suppose I don't have to explain that (6 million Jews killed).
For me the difference with the Islam is very big. Religions have different sides within them. Ethics are usually strong in a religion, this counts for Christianity, Judaism and the Islam, and also for many other religions. If you read the Torah, the Bible or the Quran you will find many good ethical rules in it that you have to help the poor, that you shouldn't kill each other, that you should respect your parents, etc.
I never read Mein Kampf but I am pretty sure that this kind of rules are not in it.
This doesn't mean that believers always follow the good ethical rules, and holy books often consist of other rules as well. Religious leaders usually want to have a strong position so they don't like it when people don't listen to them. Many bad things happen in the name of a religion, in the name of the Islam just as much as in the name of other religions.How can you be so sure that Mohammed was a "false" prophet? I don't know if he married Aisha when she was very young or not and I don't know if he killed many people in wars. I do know that he strived for peace and social justice (to help the poor and the oppressed) and that he had an open mind to some other religions. But why should you personally judge the Prophet? Isn't it possible that you accept that others follow the Prophet Mohammed, if they in their turn accept that you don't follow him?

R: Thanks for your reply, but I am still in doubt... (Not of you, because you are replying as you see it, but of the whole ideology).

E1: It's clear why Nazism / fascism is very bad and inhuman, I suppose I don't have to explain that (6 million Jews killed).

R: There were MILLIONS killed by Islam too! Starting from its beginning, until today!!

E2: As millions of people have been killed and are still being killed by other religions...

R: Jerusalem was attacked MERCILESSLY by Muslims, trying to desecrate the temples! Muslims killed millions of Persians, Greeks, Anatolians (Byzantines), you anme it....They killed MORE than Hitler! So, in what way are they different on this instance?Their intentions were different perhaps?

E2: Indeed.


E2: No, Hitler wanted to kill all Jews because he considered them as an inferior race.
There are many religions who try to kill non-believers and this is wrong and stupid, but it is morally less wrong to kill people who don’t want to follow your faith than to try to kill a whole race because you consider them as inferior.


E2: Hitler is much worse

E1: If you read the Torah, the Bible or the Quran you will find many good ethical rules in it that you have to help the poor, that you shouldn't kill each other, that you should respect your parents, etc.

R: Yes, and the NAZIS were also taught in good schools, had very high morals and respected their parents! (AMONGST THEMSELVES). And they certainly should not kill each other (they were taught), only OTHERS (Infidels, as Islam calls us): Jews, Muslims, blacks, Asians of all kinds.

E2: There’s a difference here, Nazi children didn’t learn that they always have to help the poor, no matter who they are, that they should also help poor Jewish children. The Islam has many rules that you also have to help non-believers when they need help. And as I said, a fundamental difference is that Muslims are not one race and non-Muslims neither, so by definition the Islam cannot be as racist as Nazism.

R: They wanted a PURE RACE.And what do Muslims do? ENCOURAGE INTERMARRIAGE.Isn't this also an attempt to have PURE RACE???

E2: No. There is nowhere written in the Quran or where ever that Muslims should be one pure race. The Senegalese are darkly black, they are clearly not the same race as e.g. Palestinians, or Indonesians, how could this ever become one race, and why would that be the aim?

E1: Many bad things happen in the name of a religion, in the name of the Islam just as much as in the name of other religions.

R: True. But WE are doing something about it.

E2: Peaceful Muslims also.

R: And we have been doing for eons. EVEN our churches NOW know that the Bibles were NOT written by G-d and there are many UNTRUE stories in them.

E2: Does the Bible not come from God? I wouldn’t be too fast to say that. How could anyone believe in his faith if he considers the holy book of his religion as nonsense?

A holy book is one of the only ways in which a God can speak to his believers, in my opinion. This doesn’t mean that you should take everything literally what is written there, but the main message, in as much as humans are able to interpret it in the right way, cannot be nonsense for a believer.

R: Why can't Muslims see that from their side too? Why do they keep humiliating themselves believing that Allah wrote a book for them? (We have plenty of evidence this was not so).

E2: It’s impossible to follow the path of Allah if you consider his book, the Quran, as nonsense. You couldn’t be a theosophist if you would consider all the written texts from theosophy sources as nonsense.

R: What evidence do they have to support their claim, I ask?

E2: There is no absolute evidence. Otherwise believers would be knowers, not believers. When you follow a certain faith, you believe in that God and the Prophets of that religion, and in its holy book. You personally think that you are absolutely sure (or not if you are half an agnostic), but it cannot be proven through science.


This is quite a fundamental discussion in my opinion, it's good that it's not too much based on emotions but more a rational dialogue. The person who said to Rob that he had to leave her community has read my discussion with Roberta now, and he said that he was really impressed and that he appreciated my comments a lot. He also said that I understand the Islam better than many Muslims do.

In the beginning I only wanted to post my discussion with Roberta here. But when I looked at Orkut I saw that the post from this boy was a better starting point. I find it beautiful how he expresses his decision in a really tolerant and respectful way. This doesn't count in the same way for Roberta's reply in my view. Roberta doesn't like the Prophet Mohammed, she considers him to have been a violent immoral barbarian. She is
entitled to that opinion of course, and she can express that opinion on Orkut. But she should not insult Fahd and threaten to ban him from the community because he follows the Prophet. She should accept that his faith and his views are different from hers. This is how tolerance and acceptance of differences leads to peace, while the opposite leads to conflicts and wars.

This post I would like to end with a U2 tekst about love and peace, which is a clear appeal to stop the fighting:

Lay down
Lay your sweet lovely on the ground
Lay your love on the track
We're gonna break the monster's back
Lay down your treasure
Lay it down now brother
You don't have time
For a jealous lover
As you enter this life
I pray you depart
With a wrinkled face
And a brand new heart
I don't know if I can take it
I'm not easy on my knees
Here's my heart you can break it
I need some release
We need love and peace
Lay down your guns
All your daughters of Zion
All your Abraham sons
Baby don't fight
We can talk this thing through
It's not a big problem
It's just me and you
You can call or I'll phone
The TV is still on
But the sound is turned down
And the troops on the ground
Are about to dig in
I wonder where is the love?
Love and peace



Inside and outside the ethical perspective

So according to Rudi Visker Levinas tries to put mouths full of rice so that the other can't speak to him anymore, and the other is supposed to be an abstract other without a specific identity and relevant cultural categories that he belongs to. So far I didn't read any criticism towards Levinas' philosophy that I agreed with. But after all I have read, I would like to make some remarks myself, about the shock of the face to face meeting (illustrated with some random google pictures called "face to face").

For Levinas the reality is fundamentally ethical. There is nothing that matters matters more in life than the ethical relation with another person. The relation is already ethical before I consciously thought about it and before I made a rational decision of how I would react. When Levinas describes the meeting with another person, this is not an abstract situation, this is what happens all the time around us. For Levinas it's a big shock to meet the other, he feels ashamed, he feels a strong urge to respond to the (unconscious) appeal that the other makes. The first person becomes a kind of hostage of the other.

Levinas doesn't really mean this in a symbolic way, he means it quite literally. But I don't think that the way Levinas sees this is very common. If people would be ashamed and shocked every time they saw a face of the other in front of them, they would be shocked many times during the day. I can be shocked sometimes, when I am lost in my own thoughts and a stranger speaks to me at once, for instance, or when in an important meeting somebody suddenly asks me a difficult question. But usually it's not a big confrontation to meet another person, it happens naturally usually.

Levinas looks at the world through ethical glasses, everything he sees, he interprets as good or bad. When he chooses for an evil action this will weigh heavily on his consciousness. When he would decide not to respond to the appeal of the other, to pretend not to have noticed or heard the other, he would realise all the time what he is doing, it would be very hard for him to objectify the other. Levinas describes the meeting with the other as if every human being wears the same ethical glasses as he does. This is why he can be optimistic about the human nature, and why he says that peace is the natural and primary state of the world, not war, and that the relation with the other is ethical by definition, the other always does an appeal to me, it doesn't matter how I choose to react to that. Every human being is in principle accessible for the appeal that the other makes, so when he chooses not to respond that's his own decision.

But what if most people look at the world and at the other from a non-ethical perspective? What if they are prejudiced and if they discriminate they other without realising it? What if their intentions are good or neutral but that they just don't realise that the other is doing an appeal to them, that he asks for help or for a respectful response?
If the first person doesn't feel ashamed when he is confronted with the naked face of the other, if he doesn't feel a desire to be in real contact with the other, to welcome him, if he remains indifferent to the other and just walks on, then how can levinas expect that person to react in an ethical way? And if that person really doesn't know what he is doing, if he doesn't decide deliberately to ignore the other, but if he just isn't conscious about what is happening, how can you judge his behaviour then? If he is completely ignorant you can't be angry with him that he objectivies the other, you can't blame him for that, you can't call his behaviour evil.

Or should you expect from everybody that they are able to understand themselves that the other makes an appeal to them? I think you can't expect that, when nobody has ever shown / explained that to an ignorant person.
I think that this is one of the most difficult points in Levinas ethical philosophy: what happens to that philosophy when you step outside of Levinas' ethical perspective? Levinas' philosophy is not completely utopian in my opinion, since he is not the only person in the world with ethical glasses. But how does his theory apply to people with not so clear ethical glasses?

I see this a lot at Orkut, that people hurt and objectify / totalise each other while their intentions aren't bad, while they just don't realise what they are doing. It takes me a lot of efforts to explain to them why I think that behaviour which is based on prejudices / xenofobia / hate etc. is bad. You can only expect responsible behaviour from people when they first understand why it is wrong what they are doing.
And many people are fundamentally indifferent, they don't really try their best to be good ethical persons who don't hurt others unnecessary, many people don't really care about it, they are so much locked up in their selfish and egocentric little world that the appeal of the other doesn't reach them. This makes the work of justice, the struggle to stimulate ethical behaviour much more complicated, but it is a reality that cannot be denied.



Free will is not to make mistakes in your reasoning

This text is something I already wanted to write down a long time ago already. Although Levinas doesn't write directly about a free will, the freedom to choose is important in his philosophy.
I have been thinking about the question if a free will exists for a long time, already at highschool I wrote a paper about it. It took a long time, but some months ago I found a kind of satisfying answer for myself.

For a long time I thought that there was almost no free will. There are so many things in my life that I am confronted with and that I cannt change: where I am born, what happens to me, if I have good luck or bad luck, etc. And if there are different possibilities that I can choose between, it's still not a free will, because my background determines what I want to choose. Even if I want something which is bad for me, I can't change my wishes / desires.
So then in fact everything is determined, it is determined if I have good luck or bad luck and it is determined which choices I will make, based on my desires, as a result of my character and how I grew up.

But some months ago I discovered a point in the chain of causes and effects where there is some kind of freedom, nonetheless. I can't change what I desire. This is the goal that I want to achieve. For instance: I have a desire to help poor people in the third world. I cannot decide that I will no longer have that desire, it is stronger than me, it is not my reason which decides what my desires and passions are for, they are there, coming directly from my unconsciousness.

My passions and desires determines the goals I want to achieve. My reason helps me to decide which would be the best road to achieve these goals. I am standing at some crossroads. I have to decide which road I will go. I don't know where the different roads lead to. But I can try to imagine where they go to, I can walk these roads, each of them, in my mind. So I consciously think about which aim I want to achieve, and which road would lead to that goal. I listen to my heart to know what I desire and I think about how I can get there. When I do this, I use my potential freedom. As a conscious human being I have the capacity to reflect on what I am doing and to make deliberate choices. When I don't do this, when I follow a random road without thinking about it, the chance is big that I won't reach my goal. So the free will means that I use the full potential of my reason to achieve the desired destination. At a student party I explained this idea to a colleague philosopher and he said then: "so the free will means that you don't make a mistake in your thinking process when you try to achieve the desired goal (vrije wil betekent dat je geen redeneerfout maakt wanneer je je doel probeert te bereiken). I thought that it sounded strange, that the free will means that you don't make a mistake in a rational decision process. It isn't completely rational either; you first have to feel what you desire, because your reason alone can never know what your heart longs for. But I do think that the freedom is located in the choice process, if you skip that process you don't use your freedom.

The place where you start is determined and the place where you want to go to is determined, but you are free to choose which road you will take in trying to get there. It's like a labyrinth in which you try to find out which road goes where.

The role of the other, who puts me in question, is also focussed on this choice process of choosing the right way. The other will ask me: "Where are you going? What is the place where you desire to be, and which road have you chosen to get there? Are you sure that this road will go where you think it is going? I have walked this road before and I can tell you something about places where you have never been yet. Let me help you to find your way."

If you were walking blindly, automatically, you have to start thinking again about where you are going, because the other asks you these questions and invites you to respond. If you don't walk blindly but think about where you are going, this increases the chance that you will reach your goal, even when all these questions of the other are uncomfortable and confronting, and when it makes you unsure, because at once you start to think that you might be walking in the wrong direction. But still it is healthy and useful to respond to the questions of the other / the stranger.



Who is God really?

It's strange to realise what the impact has been of Paul Sars recommending me to read Levinas, during a Swedish dinner two or three years ago. It's strange to see how fundamental my turn back towards religion is. Last week I had an appointment with my possible second supervisor - Theo de Wit. We spoke about the meaning of Rudi Viskers' claim that it's impossible to leave religion out of Levinas' philosophy. I thought he meant it as criticism, that a philosophical theory is not very strong when it looses its meaning when you remove God from it. But Theo said that it was no criticism, but just something that has to be kept in mind. I said that I agreed. Then he said that he noticed that, although my dissertation is about Levinas, I don't mention God or religion anywhere in my own proposal. But if you look at this blog, you can see I talk a lot about religion.

Much has changed in the period between now and when I wrote the proposal for my dissertation, 6 months ago. Today I had a discussion about religion in which I said things that I would never have said half a year ago. But what came back to me is not a traditional way of believing. I remained in the first place a philosopher, in that sense there didn't change much in my way of thinking. I have never been very sure about anything, when I called myself an atheist I wasn't sure that God didn't exist. Now that I call myself a religious humanist I am still not sure that God exists either. I just assume something and I first assumed that he didn't exist and now I assume that he exists. I do this because I try to put myself in Levinas' skin so that I can better understand his ideas: if I try to believe in God the way he does I can understand him better. For me it doesn't really matter what I believe, I don't think that there is an absolute truth that I could discover, I will always have my doubts towards anything that I have chosen to believe in. So why not believe in Levinas' God, then?

Anyway, here's the dialogue about God that I had today with my friend Roberta from the UK -Roberta had just asked in a discussion about the Islam: "So who is Allah really?"


Who is Allah really? 10/12/2005 2:51 AM

This is how I see it: There can be only one God, there will be one infinite being. Even if a people, like the Dogon, believes in more gods, then I think that these gods are together part of the one God (I suppose that idea isn't possible from within the Islam).

But because of the nature of the divine being there can be only one (that idea can be Islamic).
In my view God/Allah is infinite, He is unlimited, almighty, He is infinite love, goodness and power. The question "who is he?" cannot be answered by humans. We cannot really know him because we are as humans too limited to understand Infinity.
God is the source of everything, the Creator. He was there before us, he already knew us before we were born. We remember him although we have never met him.
God is infinite goodness and he wants us to be good as humans. He wants us to create peace and justice on earth and that we treat each other right, that we are all sisters and brothers, that we love each other and help each other and respect each other.
God is a blinding infinite light of goodness. We have some of that light / goodness in ourselves as humans and we should let that light shine, we should support each other and make the light stronger in humans, so that the light can make the darkness of evil less dark.We should try to end wars, whe should help the poor, we should welcome strangers and offer them hospitality and we should respect all humans as humans, we shouldn't kill each other. This is how I see it, I hope it gives some answers and Muslims can say if this is correct as well from the perspective of the Islam.

Roberta [in red means Esther is quoted]:

10/12/2005 4:24 AM

Ok.. let me make a few comments on it:

There can be only one God, there will be one infinite being. Even if a people, like the Dogon, believes in more gods, then I think that these gods are together part of the one God (I suppose that idea isn't possible from within the Islam).

I am not so sure that there can be only one G-d. Or any G-d. But, for argument's sake let us call G-d the power which we do not know.The dogons believe that their g-ds are extraterrestrial beings. The same as the mesopotamiams, Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc...All these cultures refered to their g-ds as coming from Space, heaven, in heavenly chariots, splash landing, etc... (A very physical thing, one that people can SEE happening).
So, G-d (The unknown power) and the g-ds of the stories are NOT the same. They are totally different creatures.

But because of the nature of the divine being there can be only one (that idea can be Islamic).

Well, we don't really know anything about the nature of the divine being(s), or the almighty. But the idea was not Islamic, in fact it was Egyptian. Akhenaton was the first Monotheist in history. Abraham's stories have unfortunately, been corrupted to refer to ONE G-d as Elohim, instead of the very G-d Nannar, whom Abraham served. (Fortunately the true story is found in the Sumerian tablets of Nineveh).

In my view God/Allah is infinite, He is unlimited, almighty, He is infinite love, goodness and power.Well, this is also my view, but not Allah.

Allah is the name of Nannar. Like EL / Elohim are the g-ds of the scriptures.The G-D you and I refer to is something that no one has seen, heard or spoken to (physically).

The question "who is he?" cannot be answered by humans. We cannot really know him because we are as humans too limited to understand Infinity.

Well, he is not HE, but we can answer this question. In fact, our reply is much more logical than the "Religious" reply, as G-d is NOT a religious being. (By saying WE, I mean: THEOSOPHISTS)

God is the source of everything, the Creator. He was there before us, he already knew us before we were born.We remember him although we have never met him.

This is the part which theosophy can explain better. "G-d is the source of everything, He knew us before we were born".

God is infinite goodness and he wants us to be good as humans. He wants us to create peace and justice on earth and that we treat each other right, that we are all sisters and brothers, that we love each other and help each other and respect each other.

Unfortunately we don't know what this power wants. We can only assume. But as much as this power is infinite goodness, it is also infinite evil. For a balance is established.We must NOT confuse G-D (Power) with G-ds (beings). This is our mistake.

God is a blinding infinite light of goodness. We have some of that light / goodness in ourselves as humans and we should let that light shine, we should support each other and make the light stronger in humans, so that the light can make the darkness of evil less dark.

Beautiful and inspiring!! Really it is!!! But unfortunately G-d is not light. It is above it all.

We should try to end wars, whe should help the poor, we should welcome strangers and offer them hospitality and we should respect all humans as humans, we shouldn't kill each other.

I agree 100%. And we should also PROTECT animals and NOT slaughter them for no reason... and we should look after every child and human being that needs our help!!

This is how I see it, I hope it gives some answers and Muslims can say if this is correct as well from the perspective of the Islam.

Who cares if it's correct or not?? It is what is in your heart and in many people's hearts. It is the driving force that leads us to perform good deeds.


Beautiful words Esther!!! :-)


10/12/2005 5:34 AM

Nice to have this talk.

So: If there is a God, this being, which is probably not a "he" in a human way, this being cannot directly tell us who he is. If the Dogon gods are extraterrestrial, this doesn't mean that they can't be part of the Infinite being, the one God. I think that the idea that the Divine is not from our world, that this idea matches well with the idea of Infinity, since the universe itself is infinite.

If God cannot talk to us directly, if he cannot explain to us who he is, it means by definition that there is very little that we can know about him. It also means that when we as humans try to imagine what he is like, when we describe him or make a drawing of him, that we will always make mistakes. The main mistake will be that we imagine him as a human being, because we know what humans are like but we don't know what an infinite non-human being will be like, so we can't make a drawing of that (by the way, to draw an infinite being you need an infinite piece of paper). We cannot know for certain if God exists or not. We can not prove it. We cannot take down an infinite being to the earth and show him on television or something. It is theoretically possible that we have invented him, that infinite goodness doesn't exist. (I don't believe in God as being infinite evil as well.)

But if we assume that he exists, then the way I described it so far is how I personally believe in him, it is just what seems to be logical for me and according to how I feel / experience it. I am supposed to be a 95% Muslim, so if that's true then my personal answer to "who is Allah" will have an overlap with the way a 100% Muslim would answer the question. It is said in many religions that God created us after his own image. If that is so, then we should be able to understand something of "who is God". He is a bit like us, but his power, love and goodness is infinitely more (or 70 times more according to the Islam I think) than ours.

So we cannot know God's nature, but the idea that God would be infinite is something that seems to be very logical for me.If he is infinite then there can be only one, because two separate infinite beings cannot exist next to each other, one day the infinity of the two would collide against each other, the infinity of the one would limit the infinity of the other.

The light of God is not a physical light. To describe him as light is a symbol. Because light is also infinite and light can conquer darkness without using violence. To let light as goodness shine in the darkness is a symbolic way to show how you can strive for justice without starting another war.

And to create a tradition of ending my blog posts with a song, this time I end with the Smashing Pumpkins:

If there is a God
I know he likes to rock
He likes his loud guitars
And his spiders from Mars

And if there is a God
I know she's watching me
She likes what she sees
But there's trouble on the breeze

And if there is a God
I know they're on TV
They’re the spies with bedroom eyes
Who cowers in our sky

Who are you this time?
Are you one of us flying blind?
Because I'm down here throwing stones
While you're so far from home

If there is a God...



Earthquake in Pakistan and how some humans refuse to be human(e)

Here's another Orkut conversation between someone from Pakistan and someone from India:

Pakistan says:

Pray for Earth Quake victims

Pakistan was jolted by severe earthquakes, I witnessed them, and they are frightful.
Please pray.

I just feel bad for these guys, but then I feel good too, coz those who died there will go straight to heaven.

India says:

How do you know? Why can't some of them go to hell?

Pakistan says:

For once be humane........

Can't you see the hope I showed in those lines.

And: The innocents who die in Ramadan go straight to heaven. Now bang your head against a wall.

India says:

Why can't some of them go to hell?

Esther says:


Thousands of people died, it could have happened to you if the earth quake was located a little bit different, could you stop talking about hell now?! There's enough hell on earth already.

How is this possible? How is it possible that this Indian boy dehumanized the Paki's so much that even now he doesn't share their pain for the loss of their beloved ones, how dare he speak about the possibility that the people who died will go to hell? What if he had lost his own father in an earth quake, would the the idea that he would go to hell ever come to his mind?! And this while India was struck as well...
It's very strange that although something terrible has happened in the real world, that this person still continues with an abstract discussion about whom will go to hell and whom to heaven...

And now let's do what the first Orkuter made an appeal for, and let's also donate to provide as much help as possible...



Mind Control

Here's another part of an Orkut discussion. Stefan from Switzerland says that I have to be careful with trying to eliminate prejudices, discrimination and racism, because e.g. prejudices are thougths in peoples minds, and I should not try to control their minds, I am not allowed to do that. It is because of my Levaninasian protest against totalitarian racism that I protest against racism, but Stefans warning is at the same time Levinasian too, since mind control is just as totalitarian as racism. So it's an interesting and very relevant discussion we were having - of which you see the most important part below.

We were talking about justice, about if we have the same aims that we strive for, with different means, or if we also strive for different aims.

I said:
My central aim is justice:
- I don't want to see that millions and millions of people die of hunger every day. That one of the 3 women in Senegal dies when a child is born, because the health care services are insufficient there. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 38, while it more than double that age in the Netherlands.
- I don't want to see that people are discriminated and considered to be inferior human beings just because of the colour of their skin.
- I don't want people to live "imprisoned", that they can't go on the street, that they can't say what they think, that they have to fear for their lives all the time, only because of their political opinions.

- I don't want to see children traumatised by stupid wars that go on for ever. When children are confronted with too much immoral violence, for a too long time, there comes a time when their lives are ruined for ever, when they will never be able anymore to live a happy normal life without having nightmares of the war.
A world with so much poverty, suffering and oppression is not a world that I consider as right and just.

And then Stefan said:

Esther, it seems to me that I was right on with my understanding of your goals:
"you'd want to live in a peaceful, harmonious and prosperous society, where no one suffers from poverty, crime and oppression"
You went into more detail, but I think the above summed it up quite well. The "justice" component is implicit in this formulation, but it is well worth making it explicit.

So our goals are not different at all. I also strive for justice, based on the understanding that every individual has exactly the same right to his own body and mind, especially the right to live as he chooses, not as someone else wishes to impose on him.
So to me, the most important aspect is to remove aggression and oppression as much as possible, so that people become truly free to choose.

As for the "mind control" aspect - when you say you want to eliminate xenophobia, you have to be very careful:
- It is RIGHT to eliminate criminal ACTS in general, quite independently of motivation. To the victim, it doesn't matter if he was attacked because his aggressor was drunk or because he didn't like his skin colour. Ideally, the victim is able and allowed to defend himself against aggression and will be helped individually and institutionally.
- It is WRONG to try to control what people think, feel or express (short of, as I've said elsewhere, actual direct or veiled threats, which constitute acts of aggression).

If someone doesn't like red-haired people, that is his preference and you're not making the world better by trying to force not to feel that way. If someone dislikes foreigners, women, blacks, whites or whatever, that does not concern anyone. He is even entitled to refuse interacting with the people he doesn't like. I think laws to the contrary are criminal, as they impose a specific worldview, no matter how noble it may seem.

If the law creates the conditions for a peaceful coexistence by opposing aggression, then the hearts and minds will follow. If the law tries to force harmony, it will only ignite much worse hatred. Your wish to eliminate xenophobia does not concern objective rules of justice, it concerns what goes on in another person's mind and hence becomes as dangerous as the attempt at imposing a religion or ideology.

In short: distinguish what you WISH for and what is actually coherent with the principle of justice and the right of other people to make their own decisions and have their own opinions.
It's quite interesting to see that people are often more eager to impose their worldview than they are to implement those things that do not require a "re-education" of everyone else.

NB: This is true of every possible type of unpleasant thought.

I don't want to control what people think, I just don't want them to use force to impose their ideas, period.

Then I replied, later in the discussion:

I wanted to come back to Stefans point of "mind control" against prejudices, discrimination and xenophobia / racism. We can never determine for others what they should and what they should not think. The state can't do that, and I can't do that to my friend for instance.

If somebody decides to put away his prejudices and xenophobia then that is his own choice. But people could be stimulated to make that choice when others show them why prejudices and xenophobia can have negative effects not only for foreigners but also for a society as a whole, for the interhuman relations.

By the way, I don't care what people think, they can have the most awful thoughts as long as they treat each other right, with respect. So I won't ever accuse somebody of bad thoughts, I will only protest against bad behaviour. I think we all have this kind of responsibility to protest against discrimination and racism, and this is not the same as mind control, and it will be more like a computation of individual protest, then through collective state control.

So in my opinion I am not trying to control someones mind when I protest against racism etc., because I don't protest against thoughts but against discriminative dehumanized behaviour. But this is something that many people against whom my protest is aimed, don't understand. When I try to wake up the first person, with me in the role of the other, my protest isn't expressed in the way the Levinas describes how it should happen. When the first person sees the face of the other, a natural appeal goes from the other to the first, it's an invitation to respond. When the first person takes his responsibility upon himself and welcomes the other, then he took a distance from the totality that was there before he welcomed the other.

An invitation with a welcome as a response is not the same as when I accuse somebody of racism and when I try to convince him to change his behaviour.
This is in my opinion a general difficulty with ethics. You have ideas about good and evil and you try to turn what you consider as evil into good. But it's not so easy to avoid doing it in a totalitarian way. And even if my intentions are good and if I deliberately try to bring it as an invitation, not as something I am forcefully pushing through, then still people usually don't react with open arms when I accuse them of evil behaviour. So Stefan is right that it is something that should be handeld with care...



Life is for living

Anna and the papers of her story
Yesterday I saw the movie "Leef!" (Live!) from Maria Goos. It was heavy because everything - the sadness and suffering, the ethical claims, the symbols, and the sweetness - all of this was over the top. The reality of life was concentrated and packed in an ironic covering of sentimental clichés, in the same way as this was done in "As it is in heaven". Leef!, however, was at times more a story about "As it is in hell", although the main character, Anna, was called an angel by the "knuffel allochtoon" ("teddy bear immigrant") in the film.

Anna's mother and the daughter with a new heart
Forgiveness was one of the central themes in the film. The most awful person in the film is Anna's mother, she doesn't apologize for the wrong she has done to her daughter and so she cannot be forgiven. She reminded me of my grandmother from my mothers side, a frozen loveless dominant egocentric person with a sick mind.
What I wrote about in my post below, forms the red line in the film, about how the traumas from the past influence the present and the future, and what you can do to come to peace with your past and with the people who hurt you or whom you have hurt. Anna wanted to be a writer since she was six, she wrote something every day. Her mother said that she was good for nothing and that she would never become a good writer. Her step father insulted her and raped her. Her mother made her believe that Anna, as a little child, did something terrible, but something she didn't do, in fact . But Anna's feelings of guilt for this made her later life very heavy. It's incredible how indifferent her mother remains throughout the whole film. She admits that she's a terrible bitch - something my grandmother would never have admitted - and she says she had a life full of shit, which she uses as an excuse for her faults, and for which she hopes that people will pity her, which doesn't happen however (which isn't surprising).

Daddy with his difficult daughter
Gregor the knuffelallochtoon / Balkan refugee asks Anna's mother how she could ever do that to her child, and if she doesn't feel guilty at all. He keeps asking questions, he wants to know the truth and he wants to awaken the conscience of Anna's mother. Then Anna decides that she will write everything down, so that Gregor can read what happened and so that he doesn't have to ask so many questions anymore. To write down what happened is a process to remake the past so that she could find peace with it. The whole film is full of this process at different levels, as I wrote it in my last post: people talk to each other, the one who has hurt the other listens to the others story, he shows that he understand it and he apologizes from the bottom of his heart for what he has done. And then they can make a new start together. Anna's man feels sorry for his adultry and admits it, says sorry and stops it. One of their daughters even gets a new heart to symbolize the new start.

This is a typical Levinas film, because it is full of "works of justice", of Anna and Gregor helping an old lost lady on the street to find her way back home, of Anna saving the life of an unknown child while her own child is falling from her bike, of her daughter who protects her father so that the adultry isn't discovered, and who tries her best to stop her parents from fighting with each other.

Present Anna with the little Anna
What I found very beautiful in the film, is how Anna listened to her heart, how she each time tried to find the way back to her core, to her fundamental inner nature, to find peace, rest and strenght there. The little Anna, the girl when she was 6 years old, has always stayed with her, and promised that she would never leave. The little girl helps her with her writing. In the film the girl really stands in front of her, they talk together. This is a very beautiful vision I think, that we should all keep the little child that we were in the past with us, that we keep that child forever in our hearts.

Maybe that could be what Levinas calls the other in ourselves. Levinas each time emphasizes the important role that the other plays in my life, I can only be free and responsible when I am liberated by the other, I can't do that myself. But I think that this doesn't mean that what I have inside of me wouldn't matter, that it would only be an imprisoned egoism. A human being is like a candle, a candle can't lighten itself, the other is needed to enlighten it. But once my light is burning, it is my own passion which is burning, my passion is still being fed by the interaction with passion from the other, but what burns in my candle is my own fire of desire. The end of the film is very beautiful: Anna puts out her ear rings and puts off her shoes. She leaves the busy party that was organised to celebrate her 20 years marriage with her husband. She just walks out of the room - and the knuffelallochtoon says "Leef!" to her and waves her goodbye - then she walks in the street, with her socks and her cold party dress. Then the little Anna comes to her and they walk hand in hand...

And now I will end with a U2 quote:

Baby slow down
The end is not as fun as the start
Please stay a child somewhere in your heart

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