Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Do Angels Have Genitals? A Curious Proof of God’s Existence

The odd question whether angels have genitals, which already occupied the minds of countless scholastic theologians, was raised again by the great Jewish-German philosopher Hans Jonas in an article that was published in 1990 in the journal Scheidewege (which, I’m proud to say, I have been co-editing for more than a decade now). The article is called “Vergangenheit und Wahrheit” (Past and Truth) and has, as far as I know, yet to be translated into English. I’ve stumbled across this article because I have been asked to write a paper on Hans Jonas for a collection on “New Contintental Perspectives on Medicine and Society”, edited by Darian Meacham, and although that particular article is perhaps not very relevant in this context, I couldn’t help being fascinated by the argument that Jonas presents here: a new and actually quite original and convincing proof (as far as such proofs go) of the existence of God.

When Jonas asks whether angels have genitals he is of course not looking for an answer. Rather, he uses the question to make a point, namely that it doesn’t make any sense to argue about the properties of something that doesn’t exist. It is neither true to say that angels have genitals, nor is it false. Nor would it be quite correct to say that neither do angels have genitals nor do they not have them. They do not belong to a class of things to which the laws of logic do not apply. Instead, they are not things at all; they are literally nothing, so that it doesn’t even make sense to ask the question whether or not they have genitals.
However, among the things that do not exist, are also all past events. What is past, no longer exists. It may have existed once, but now it does not exist. Yet we tend to assume that statements about past events are true or false, even though we may never be able to ascertain which statements are true and which false. Did Napoleon blow his nose on that fateful day when he lost the battle of Waterloo? Did he think of his former wife Josephine who had died the year before? Did he try to figure out whether angels have genitals? Even though nothing has been recorded that would answer those questions, it nonetheless seems that there must be an answer, that either he did those things, or he did not do them. But if the past does not exist, if it, or at least that particular part of the past, is completely and utterly gone, unrecorded and not remembered by anyone, then do we not have to conclude that the question whether or not Napoleon thought of Josephine during the battle of Waterloo is just as meaningless as the question whether angels have genitals? And meaningless not because we could never know whether the answer someone gave was true or false, but rather because there is no fact in relation to which an answer could be true or false. Napoleon, being past and gone and hence a non-existent entity, did not think about Josephine, nor did he not think about her. Napoleon does not exist, and non-existent entities do not think.

Too weird a thought? Try to look at it from this angle: we are used to say that past events cannot change. They are fixed, always stay what they were. Either Napoleon did think about Josephine or he did not, and if he did, he will always have thought about her on that particular day, and if he did not, he will never have thought about her that day. But if the past does not exist, how can it be fixed? How can it be unchangeable? In order to be unchangeable, it seems, the past must in some way still exist. It must be there to have properties. But where, or how exactly, is it? Let us imagine an Orwellian government that is powerful and determined enough to destroy all the traces of the real past, that changed all the history books, all documents that tell us about what really happened, and thus invented a new past, which would then, for us and for everyone and for all practical purposes and for all that anyone will ever know, be the past. Or would it? Yet if there is no trace of the real past left, in what way is it the real past?
Jonas suggests that in order to make sense of our belief that past events are real, so that statements about the past have a truth value (i.e., are either true or false), we must assume that there is something that preserves the past in the present, and that means the whole past, every single detail of it. So what we need is a kind of cosmic memory in which nothing ever gets forgotten. But a memory cannot exist on its own, but only as part or aspect of a subject who remembers. And that subject is God.

Jonas is of course quite aware that these reflections do not amount to a full-blown proof. It’s just an idea, a probably feeble attempt to make sense of it all, but I personally find it strangely persuasive. Let us again use our imagination. This time let’s imagine the world in a few billion years, shortly after the earth has been absorbed by the sun. Nothing is left of life on earth. Nobody that remembers any of it. No traces of anything that happened before this event anywhere. The situation is exactly like it would be if there never had been any life on earth, no humanity, no you or me. Nothing any of us has ever done or is ever going to do will have made a difference. Yet if at some stage in the future the world is exactly like it would be if we had never existed, so that there is no difference between a world in which we existed and a world in which we didn’t, then in what way have we existed at that time? If there is no difference between those two worlds, then there is no difference between our having existed and our not having existed.
It seems to me that this conundrum also has ethical implications. If it is all going to be the same in the end, then in the long run it doesn’t make any difference what we do. So why bother? Why try to do the right thing? Do we not, in order to think that what we do matters, have to believe that somehow, in some form, what we do lives on, not just for a while, but forever? That there is some kind of cosmic memory that remembers, and will always remember, what we did, and for which it does make a difference?

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