Josh Dunigan |||

Silence as a critique of Descartes

Scorsese made a movie before The Irishman about two priests who go to find their mentor in Japan. He is lost due to the purge of western ideas and especially western religion from the land. This is one of my favorite movies I have watched since it deals with being challenged on your beliefs in the most radical and upfront ways. The movie could be seen through the Christian lens of having your faith challenged over and over by evil. Hell, it should be seen through this lens since it is directly brought up.

There is a lot going on in this movie, but one thing that was interesting was it challenged some of these old epistemological and metaphysical notions of God and religion, particulary from Descartes. The church’s teachings have been heavily influenced by the works of philosophers, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Descartes, they looked for a way to keep a stranglehold over the minds of as many people they could. So the arguments we have heard constantly from either side in common discussions have been hashed out centuries before. Silence actually counters Descartes’ argument for the existence of God in not just one, but two different ways.

Descarte’s argument

Descartes is famous for his arguments trying to prove that there exist things outside of us and namely there exists a God (the Judeo-Christian God in particular). Not going into too much philosophy, his argument hinges on two premises.

  1. We have a clear and distinct idea of what God is.
  2. That the idea of God we have can only come from God itself.

Explanation of premise 1

Descartes argues that we do have a clear and distinct idea of what God is. This would mean that we should be able to define it in some way. Some classic definitions of things are like, God is all knowing, all powerful, all good. This definition historically runs into problems, like Nietzsche who said that God must be evil since the evil in the world can only be God’s fault. Another issue is that God is infinite, apparently, but even understanding what it means to be infinite is not clear. If we only understand infinite in a negative way, in that it is just what is not finite, it does not mean that we have a positive understanding.

Explanation of premise 2

The reason that Descartes thinks that this is the case has to do with what he thinks of as different levels of reality. In short, God is at a higher level of reality and the idea of God can only come from this higher level. A rough analogy is imagine how in a sci-fi world, maybe a being that exists in four dimensions cannot create anything higher, but can create things in three dimensions. Similarly, we can create things in lower dimensions, but not in four or higher dimensions. This is not a precise analogy, but the metaphysics Descartes are using is not entirely central to the purpose of this post.

The key thing to takeaway is that Descartes thinks that the idea of God in our minds can only come from God himself.

Counters from Silence

There are two scenes / themes from the movie that are particularly fascinating and deep.

One is that when Japan would try and root out private worshipping Christians, they would make people step on an engraving of Jesus Christ. They were told that a true believer would rather die than step on Jesus’ face. The two priests in our movie that are searching for their mentor end up at a disagreement of what the locals should do if confronted with this scenario. Adam Driver thinks that they cannot and should not step on the picture, even if they have to die. Adam Garfield thinks that this is insane and that they should just step on it, after all, it is just a picture. The two priests end up with conflicting ideas of what it means to worship God and what God wants here. Granted you could argue that it is just Christian dogma, but it is definitely a nice counter example to premise 1 above, that we have a clear and distinct idea of God.

The other is even more interesting a theme. Adam Garfield ends up having conversations with the person who is leading the removal of Christian Japanese people. The leader says that their mentor has converted and they want to convert Adam Garfield. They end up getting into deeper discussions about ethics, human nature, and epistemology to try and convince each other. The Japanese leader says that there is no ground for Christianity to take root in the people. They do not truly believe in the same idea of God as the Europeans. Adam Garfield does not take this to be possible, he says that the truth is the truth no matter where you are.

Unconvinced, Garfield ends up talking to his old mentor. Their mentor (it is unclear if he truly converted or faked it), says that the people of Japan do not see God the way we do. He found out that what people thought God was in Japan was the sun. Instead of worshipping the things that religious artifcats represent, they worship the religious artifacts themselves. The way that Europeans think of Saints and priests is not that we worship them, but we respect them in their devotion to their faith and as examples of what it means to be a good Christian, whereas the locals would worship the priests themselves. This argument helped convince Garfield that he was leading a futile effort to convince these people.

This directly refutes premise 2, which thinks that God gives us the idea of God in our minds. If this was the case, then our idea of God and the locals of Japan would be the same. Since this is not the case, it must be explained by some other story, like the fact that we were born and brainwashed by society and the church that this was the case. Even if you could be taught the idea of God, premise 1 above presents an issue since it seems even the most devout of priests do not have a clear idea of what God is.

Ending note about religion

I am not and I do not think we should militant athiests like some people in America. This movie is not attack religious faith as such and I am not either. What it is is showing the difficulties of a philosophical conception of God. This was the purpose of Descartes’ argument was to convince people using reason not faith. If you are the church or a devout Christian, you cannot use faith to convince people to have faith in God. Faith does not (at least as I know) is not a tool to use to convince others of faith, it would be circular reasoning.

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