Thursday, February 6, 2020

Nature and Grace

τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται, ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης (Romans 1:20)

ἐν αὐτῷ γὰρ ζῶμεν καὶ κινούμεθα καὶ ἐσμέν (Acts 17:28)

I enjoy learning how things work. This is often a professional task in my day job as a chemical engineer but this curiosity extends to pretty much everything I encounter. Part of learning how things work is conceptual or physical dissection, dividing a thing into simpler components, but crucially, a comprehensive understanding also requires parallel reassembly, understanding how the components fit and work together. To understand most comprehensively what a thing is requires looking at it in several ways and I marshal a heavy arsenal of varied methods. This includes religious ways of looking at things.

For a secular audience using religious methods of understanding would seem to require some justification. The justification I can give with most confidence is pragmatic, that many aspects of my world of experience, my lebenswelt, are simply more comprehensible with these methods than without them. Not all things of course. Empirical and mathematical methods work just fine for learning about the design of devices and manufacturing processes. But understanding other kinds of things requires other kinds of methods, like literary, artistic, and philosophical methods. What a thing is is often more than its physical makeup, though it is also that. Paintings and photographs are physical objects with no meaning in themselves. But as objects we interpret they are representations, which in a sense transcend their physicality. Similarly a musical composition is more than just a sequence of sounds, though at one level it is that as well. Roger Scruton calls this possibility of looking at things in different ways “cognitive dualism”. He contrasts this with ontological dualism, the view that there are different kinds of things. Cognitive dualism by contrast allows for multiple and similarly acceptable ways of looking at a single type of thing, a difference in perspective rather than in nature.

Objects of religious interest like existence, life, death, and personal identity all have non-religious interpretations that can work just fine in practice but I happen to find that religious interpretations add something to the others. I don’t consider different approaches to an object to be in competition with each other but to have complementary relationships. One criticism I have of scientism and overreaching naturalism is that they presume to exhaust all legitimate perspectives on an object, dispeling all others. Free will is debunked because decisions are physical neurological processes. God is expelled from nature because nature operates according to self-sufficient physical laws. Things are nothing other than what science and naturalism say they are. Mary Midgley called this kind of reductionism “nothing buttery”, the tendency to see a thing as nothing but one particular view of it. My approach is not to deny the empirical, scientific perspective. I view things in that way too. Rather my approach is to see things from additional perspectives, including religious perspectives. Yes, the thing is that, but it is also this.

In many cases this leads me to see God in precisely those places from where he is thought to have been dismissed, particularly in the natural world. I see the natural and supernatural as distinct but not separate. In this I take a side in a significant, if somewhat technical theological debate within the Christian tradition. The direct focus of the debate is between realism and nominalism, which to explain with some simplification is basically a debate over the nature of abstractions (“universals” in medieval terminology), whether they have independent reality or whether they are useful fictions.

In a Platonic or Neo-Platonic conception of reality the physical world is patterned after and governed by a higher order populated by eternally existing universals or forms (εἶδος). Examples could be mathematical and physical laws. In the Christian Platonism these forms subsist in the mind of God. Because this higher order is, at least in principle, comprehensible the mind and nature of God are also comprehensible. Significantly nature, by being patterned after a higher order, is itself ordered and rational. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) understood this connection to be an operation of God’s grace in the created order. Nature is continually driven and directed by God’s power. And so to observe nature is also to see God’s hand in it. Paul of Tarsus, no stranger to Hellenistic thought, expressed this affinity between Gentile and Judaic ideas. For example he said of the Gentiles in his letter to the Romans that “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). He also  taught the people of Athens that God infused nature with life, quoting the Greek poets as saying, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). 

William of Ockham (1280-1349) dispensed with universals in his metaphysics and in his theology saw God as much further removed from nature, unknowable, and unpredictable. This had important implications for Christian ideas about judgment and salvation that carried into the Protestant Reformation centuries later. In an application of his famous “razor” Ockham dispensed with the forms populating the higher order of reality as entities that had been multiplied beyond necessity. One benefit of this move in Ockham’s view was to make God absolutely free. Nature is not ultimately governed nor ordered by eternal law but by God’s pure will. God can change anything in nature as he sees fit and can make things opposite of what they are. Because of this it is not possible to learn anything essential about God by observing nature. God becomes more inscrutable, known through scripture alone.

As I said, I take a side in this theological debate on the side of Aquinas and the realists. There are various reasons for this but among them is a Christian sentiment that God is intimately involved in the world. I find this more satisfying both spiritually and intellectually. Admittedly that’s not a solid rational argument but it makes more sense to me. One implication of this is that I see the demystifying, debunking, and secularizing impulses of naturalism and scientism around any natural phenomena rather unthreatening to a religious perspective of the same phenomena. Because God’s grace is observable in the operations of the natural order any greater understanding of the natural order by science in no way displaces God. It is rather a fuller description of God’s activities in nature, one that is more comprehensible to a particular form of human understanding.

I think evolution is a good example of this. Historically no scientific idea has been more threatening to religious people because it provides a way to think about life developing in nature without God. But I think this was only a threat because of a historically contingent intellectual climate in which, centuries after Ockham, it was even possible to think of nature as a whole operating indepent of God. David Bentley Hart has argued that the theory of evolution would likely not have bothered ancient and medieval theologians at all had they known about it because in their view any operation in nature is also an operation of God’s grace. They may have simply seen evolution as “the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” In other words, if evolution proceeds by natural selection according to a predictable algorithm, to use Daniel Dennett’s characterization, this is simply the Platonic conception of nature following after the pattern of a higher governing order.

Because I see God and nature so closely related I don’t find certain views of the creationist or intelligent design movements especially compelling or necessary. You could say that I do subscribe to intelligent design in the most general sense of God being active in evolution, since God is active in all of nature and evolution is part of nature. But I don’t see a need to look for gaps in the fossil record or instances of irreducible complexity in molecular biology to carve out a space for God. There’s no need to carve out a space for God because God infuses the whole process from start to finish. Certainly there are gaps in the fossil record and instances of complexity in molecular biology that we can’t explain. But I believe these are simply instances of incomplete knowledge of the process rather than actual gaps in the process itself. For my aesthetic taste I hope that is the case. I would find the divine design of a seamless process that did not require periodic interruptions and fixes much more elegant.

I’m similarly unperturbed by neuroscientific descriptions of mental experiences and find "eliminative" interpretations of them quite unpersuasive. In an eliminative view, physical descriptions of our mental experiences eliminate the need for common-sense notions of mental experiences like fear, belief, anxiety, and desire, dispensing with these concepts as superfluous “folk psychology”. I find it improbable and impractical that one way of interpreting something, even if it is empirical and quantitative, should eliminate the utility and possibility of interpreting in other ways, especially ways that are primary to experience. I don’t know if concepts like fear and desire will be useful in the future of neuroscience but they are certainly useful in many other domains, especially in daily life.

The most inviting target for a naturalistic perspective of the brain is the soul. Do we have souls? Eliminativists and presumably many religious people must have a much more fragile understanding of what a soul is than I do because I cannot imagine what it would even mean for people not to have souls. I understand a soul to be the totality of the organism, its substance and its activities. At first glance this may seem to claim very little. If this is all a soul is then of course we have souls. Souls are what we are. But I maintain that on more thorough reflection the totality of the organism and its activities, particularly the human organism, is an incomprehensibly remarkable entity and that the soul, even understood in so seemingly minimal a way is just as miraculous as whatever maximal conception one might have of it. One need not refer to religious ideas to appreciate this. Two “problems” in the philosophy of mind will suffice. The first, “easy” problem of consciousness is the project to give thorough physical descriptions of the processes in the brain that produce conscious experiences. The easiness of this first problem is only easy relative to the second because it is quite difficult relative to current scientific capabilities. The brain is fantastically complex and the more I study neuroscience the more I come to see how far we are from understanding it as a physical system. Still, I can imagine it being solved eventually. The second, “hard” problem of consciousness is a more fundamental philosophical problem of how the physical material of the brain produces first-person, self-conscious experience, which would seem to be something immaterial. I cannot even imagine how this explanatory problem could be solved, even though the process it concerns obviously takes place.

From a religious perspective the soul has a spiritual origin and I find that perspective a perfectly adequate account for it. As in the case of many other things for me a religious perspective of the soul, of the totality of the organism, adds something to it, a certain way of seeing our connection to all things. The soul, as a part of nature, is not thereby separate from God or anything spiritual because in my theology God and nature are intimately connected through grace. God’s creative activity in nature coincides with his animating, life-giving activity that produces our souls. The Bible gives a sublime narrative and symbolic illustration of this. God breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). The breath or spirit of God is an important creative force in biblical text. On the first day of creation God’s breath or spirit moved or brooded upon the face of the chaos of primordial waters prior to bringing order to them (Genesis 1:2). Just as God infuses all nature, governing and directing it, God’s spirit inspires and animates all life. I find this a significant perspective to consider as a synthesis of all the information we might gather about the universe and ourselves. It all weaves together into a coherent whole and we are connected to all things in God.

Monday, February 3, 2020

When Rebekah Met Isaac

וַתִּשָּׂ֤א רִבְקָה֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא אֶת־יִצְחָ֑ק וַתִּפֹּ֖ל מֵעַ֥ל הַגָּמָֽל׃
(Genesis 24:64)

וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה יִצְחָק֙ מְצַחֵ֔ק אֵ֖ת רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתֹּֽו׃
(Genesis 26:8)

Rebekah’s hand at artifice took some time to develop. For sure by the time she was a middle-aged mother of grown twin boys she was cunning to her core, though still as innocent in demeanor as in her youth. It was clear which side of the family Jacob, the supplanter, got his craftiness from. Isaac, bless his soul, called things as he saw them and it hardly occurred to him that anyone would make things out to be other than they were. “Well, your voice sounds a lot like Jacob’s, but your hands are hairy, and you said you’re Esau, so you must be Esau.” It was too easy. Still, Jacob got his own helping of the same from that side of the family when Rebekah’s brother Laban got seven years of free labor out of him then hooked him up with the wrong woman. Classic House of Bethuel move.

But Rebekah was less deft in her youth. Some of that may have been a consequence of her marriage to Isaac. Husbands and wives can influence each other in that way. He may have held her back, keeping her more guileless than she would have been. They did make one attempt at deceit together but they were hopeless at it. When they were living in Gerar Isaac worried that the men there would kill him to get a chance with Rebekah, because she was a total knockout and that’s what guys in Gerar would do. So, not being especially original, he recycled an old scheme his father had used. Twice. He told the men of Gerar that Rebekah was his sister.

Abimelech was the guy who ran the place. Not totally clear if this is the same Abimelech who Abraham had pulled this same stunt on. One would hope not, though he would have been pretty old by this time so maybe he’d have forgotten. Anyway, everything was going along fine; Isaac hadn't been murdered yet and people were actually buying that they were brother and sister. But it seems that it hadn’t occurred to these “siblings” that to pull off the ruse successfully they ought to take care that no one see them acting together in ways that siblings wouldn’t be acting, like “knowing” each other, biblically. So one day Abimelech happens to be looking out his window and sees Rebekah and Isaac, shall we say, frolicking. Specifically they were metsaḥeq-ing; sounds kind of scandalous, I know. It’s the Piel participle of tsaḥaq, meaning to laugh, the same word used to get Isaac’s name. And there was definitely some furtive giggling going on. Anyway, Abimelech sees this and does a bit of a double-take and thinks, “Waaaait... a second! You’re not brother and sister.” So that attempt at artifice didn’t work out.

Rebekah was not lacking in grace and poise. Even as a young woman she was supremely well-composed and in command of her surroundings. She had certainly impressed Abraham’s servant and stand-in matchmaker Eliezer with her generosity and diligence when she brought up many barrels of well water for him and all his camels. It was only her affection and passion that would sometimes compromise her composure. And in this we can easily forgive her since it was actually quite endearing.

Before she met Isaac, Rebekah had never known the debilitating yet delightful effects of romantic attraction. So she was wholly unprepared for their first meeting in the field. She rode upon a camel amid a caravan laden with gold, silver, and fine apparel, gifts from Abraham on occasion of her betrothal. A most dignified and courtly procession. As they approached the Negev, Isaac happened to be walking in the field nearby, going out to meditate.

Now Isaac was quite a fine specimen and though Rebekah didn’t know yet at the time what “her type” was it is certain from their later canoodling in Gerar that Isaac was it. As soon as she saw him from atop her camel she was transfixed, so much that her previously regal posture began to slacken and she started to lean toward him as if in a gesture of her internal yearning, leaning so far that she quite unceremoniously plopped off her camel. There is some debate over the exact nature of her dismounting. Some say she “alighted'' daintily, yet briskly off her camel, a more generous interpretation of watipol, that she fell. And that’s all well enough. But in truth, from the perspective of this omniscient narrator, she fell flat on her butt. And it was hilarious.

The camels came to a stop as Rebekah lay in a heap on the ground and Eliezer suppressed laughter, with only partial success, amused to see her so toppled, having seen quite clearly the cause of her distraction. He dismounted and offered his hand to help her off the ground. Hastily she brushed the dirt from her clothes and pulled back the curtain of tangled hair that veiled her face. She searched again to see Isaac, but after a moment, much too long to be inconspicuous, became conscious of her audience.

She cleared her throat. “Who is that man there coming toward us in the field?” she asked, attempting the most casual-seeming attitude she could feign, but in a manner than betrayed anything but lack of interest.

“That is my master, Isaac,” answered Eliezer.

“Oh good!” she said, more quickly and breathily than she had intended. Rebekah veiled her face.

Observing all this Isaac, was oblivious to any of the subtext but was nevertheless just as enraptured. And that worked just fine. He took Rebekah as his wife and loved her.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Costs

She knew what he was planning to do but only after it was too late. By then they were several days from home and she could never reach them in time. All she could do now was wait, alone with her thoughts and her anger, for her husband to return.

She should have known. Her husband would do anything for what he believed in. And people admired him so much for it. But they never saw what it cost or considered what it cost her.

She sat outside the house while she waited. When he came back she would be ready.

She saw him first when he was just over the horizon, out on the flat, arid plain, still hours away, approaching on foot with his hired hands. By the time she could finally make out their faces she could tell that their son with them. He was still alive.

She should have been relieved but instead felt nothing. By then she could no longer feel anything. When she realized what he had planned to do she had changed permanently. Nothing would be the same again.

Her husband approached her hesitantly. He could see in her face that she knew.

“I didn't do it,” he said.

“But you would have,” she responded flatly. “You were planning to.”

He was silent for a time but then stood to full height and spoke deliberately. “I do what I have to. Everything we have, everything you care about, we have because I am willing to do what needs to be done. He would not be here in the first place if it were not for that.”

“I know that,” she said. “I love him and I know what it cost.”

It was true and she could not rightly blame him. But she could not love him either. Everything has its cost.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Indirect Methods, Knowing by Their Fruits


ἀπὸ τῶν καρπῶν αὐτῶν ἐπιγνώσεσθε αὐτούς.
- Matthew 7:16

When Jesus warned about false prophets he taught that people could know them by their fruits. Because important features of things and people are not always apparent at an observable surface level appearances can be deceiving. False prophets can come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly be ravening wolves. A tree that appears good may be corrupt. But these inner qualities are not directly accessible for us to evaluate, so we need indirect methods. I believe this practice of using indirect methods is generalizable to many areas of knowledge. It may be frustrating to lack direct access to things we want to understand or disappointing to realize that what we thought we knew directly is actually indirectly mediated. But I don’t think we need to be frustrated or disappointed with having to know things in indirect ways. Instead, it’s helpful to realize and accept that this is just how knowledge works and that understanding these indirect methods can help us to be better knowers.

We might imagine that this kind of indirect access to things, knowing things by their fruits, is some kind of low-grade concession appropriate to dubious things like religion but not necessary in the firmer fields of the sciences. But the sciences are no exception and do not bypass indirect methods. In fact indirect methods are especially important in the sciences. Something I admire about scientists is that they have to be very clever to get at their targets of interest. They cannot simply watch nature passively as casual observers and read off its features but must, as Francis Bacon put it, contrive experiments that compel nature to give up its secrets. Scientists are always trying to dig deeper to understand the hidden structures and laws that govern what we observe. Getting at these hidden structures requires some skillful means because they are not the kinds of things that can be seen in the usual way. We have to see them indirectly.

Often the best way to see something unobserved is to correlate it with something more readily observable. Chemistry uses many such analytical methods. Flame color correlates with the presence of certain metals and organic functional groups. Chemists have an array of methods correlating molecular structure to observable responses like infrared absorption (IR spectroscopy), ion magnetic deflection (mass spectrometry), and radiation absorption at different magnetic field strengths (NMR spectroscopy). We might imagine from the ball-and-stick drawings of molecules we see in textbooks that this is something primary, like what scientists first see when they look at molecules. But these are models, simplified representations that help us to think about and summarize experimental findings, even allowing us to ignore the experimental procedures used to generate these pictures. But a more thorough understanding of the science pays attention to our methods of knowing. For example, the analytic methods mentioned make use of theories of bond energy, electric charge, magnetic force, and magnetic field, all of which are necessary for a thorough understanding of organic chemistry. The lines on a spectrum that a device generates are meaningless without these interpretative concepts. Philosophers of science say these things are theory-laden.

We might see this as yet more bad news. Not only are we cut off from direct access to things as they are but our indirect methods require interpretative methods that carry even more baggage. First we couldn’t know the tree directly but needed to know it by its fruit. Now on top of that we can’t just consider of the fruit in isolation but need an entire discipline of husbandry or culinary sense of taste. These are the kinds of constraints that the modern philosophical project strove to avoid. Let’s work out a system that doesn’t depend on any tradition or culture, something that will be universal and independent of those kinds of particular constraints. I’m not convinced that that is possible and that has basically been the conclusion of the postmodern critique, though I don’t see it is as so devastating a critique as it might be thought to be.

That science has a tradition was the theory of Thomas Kuhn in his infamous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These aren’t traditions bound to particular locations, nationalities, or ethnicities but traditions of thought, collections of accepted practices and theories. Kuhn proposed that scientists usually operated under a consensus of basic theoretical assumptions, like Newtonian mechanics, and tend to explain deviations in ways that preserve the theory. But there are sometimes periods of revolution that upend the theory and transform the tradition, as with relativity and quantum mechanics. Willard Van Orman Quine also challenged the tradition-free aspirations of logical empiricism in his "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". The second of the dogmas he challenged was empiricism’s reductionism, the idea that a single statement can be meaningful in isolation. Instead Quine argued that all scientific statements are interconnected, a theory of holism rather than reductionism.

Another interesting attempt to cut free from tradition was in moral philosophy, what Alasdair MacIntyre called the Enlightenment project in his book After Virtue. MacIntyre reviews the moral philosophies of Hume, Diderot, and Kant, charging that each, in their attempt to produce an ethical system from first principles all-too-coincidentally managed to reproduce the norms endemic to their native cultures. MacIntyre argues that this Enlightenment project had to fail because morality depends not only on human nature but on a tradition’s teleological conception of what a human person is to be. Traditions have narratives that define a person’s development in that tradition. These narratives are so engrained that, like Hume, Diderot, and Kant, we might be led to think they would be the natural outcome of any free-thinking, enlightened person. But on closer inspection we find that our moral reasoning depends somewhere either on arbitrary preferences or a traditional narrative.

There have been similar impulses to liberate religious ideas from particular traditions and from scripture. In the sixteenth century this took the form of a rationalistic natural religion, as in deism. In the eighteenth century this took a more experiential, emotional turn in liberal Christianity, notably in the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. These movements had multiple counter-reactions but one of special interest to me is the tradition-embracing postliberal theology of George Lindbeck in his book The Nature of Doctrine. I was introduced to postliberal theology by one of Lindbeck’s students, Phillip Cary. Postliberal theology grants the postmodern critique of modern philosophy, that knowledge and meaning are not possible independent of some kind of tradition. So postliberal theology enthusiastically embraces dependence on Christian tradition and the Bible.

I find indirect methods interesting in all these areas – science, ethics, and religion – but most especially in religion. Maybe that’s because I see religion as most ultimate and extensive in its scope and concerns. Going back to the initial problem of direct versus indirect access it is quite apparent that the big religious questions elude direct access. Mysticism may be a form of direct, personal access but it also seems to be ineffable, so we can’t say too much about it. Communicable religious ideas and practices seem to acknowledge and embrace the hiddenness and mystery. The Hebrew Bible notably forbids images of God. The Bible frequently speaks in myth and parable. Its many rituals seem to indicate that the language of God is the language of symbolism and that if we are to approach God it is to be on these terms.

Why should it be this way? In a sense it is not surprising if God is the ultimate of all things. If the more immediate and tangible matters of science require indirect approaches through scientific models how much more symbolic and parabolic will religious approaches to God need to be? Still it seems that God is to be accessible to everyone, not just through elite religious adepts. This may make symbolism and ritual all the more necessary. Most people don’t approach scientific theories in the most precise and rigorous form of highly mathematical expression but instead through simplified models that nevertheless convey much of the essential intuition of the theories. God may not be comprehensible directly but through indirect religious methods one may encounter God in other ways, as one encounters Christ in a piece of bread or cup of wine.

The perspective I want to promote is to see indirect methods not as stumbling blocks but as stepping stones, in all areas where they are applied, including in science but especially in religion. The parables, commandments, and rituals of Christian practice are not smokescreens that obscure the face of God, or worse an unreal delusion. Rather the parables, commandments, and rituals are the means of access; they are our way in. Baptism is a renewal of life. The eucharist is an encounter with and internalization of God. The cross is a sign of God’s self-giving love and saving act for all people.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Atheism in the Service of Theology

I find atheism quite fascinating. It’s not an outlook I’ve ever been able to stick with seriously for various reasons but I like to follow the conversations to see what’s being discussed. It's theologically interesting to consider what it might mean for atheism to be true, what implications would follow. Such speculations can show in relief the nature of the deity they deny, something of central theological interest. As with religion it's important to consider that atheism is not one thing but that there are rather many forms of atheism, a variety that makes its study all the more theologically fruitful.

I think I had an unarticulated sense before that there were many forms of atheism but I was pleased to see this idea fleshed out in detail in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, published in 2018. Gray is an atheist but rather sectarian, having strong preferences for only a few select forms of atheism over several forms that he finds untenable. I divide up the possible types of atheism into different categories than the ones Gray uses but I nevertheless appreciate his general approach of making these distinctions. I like to organize forms of atheism and theism into complementary pairs, each sharing a similar conception of God that they either deny or affirm.

One form of atheism I find denies a conception of God as master craftsman, what Plato called a demiurge. This is a kind of scientific atheism that sees God as an explanatory hypothesis in competition with modern science, modern science understood here popularly as a kind of canonical set of laws and theories, as opposed to the technical meaning of a general method of empirical enquiry. To prefer the “God hypothesis”, as Victor Stenger called it, is to reject competing scientific hypotheses that have been confirmed by mass experimental evidence. I actually find the claims of this type of atheism rather modest. The world does not look much different today whether this craftsman God exists or not. It just has different origins. There’s no difference in observed reality, just different hypotheses for the origin and cause of its various features. The corresponding theism, belief in God as master craftsman, may be part of many people’s religion. Creationism and intelligent design see God as master craftsman. But most people’s religion is also much more than this and may not even include it or give it much attention. Allegorical interpretations of religious stories have been common for centuries among religious adherents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden isn’t necessarily a competing hypothesis about human origins. Consistent with the indistinguishable universe that follows from either atheism or theism of this sort, religious believers with alternative or expanded forms of theism may completely accept many or all of the scientific explanations of observable reality without compromising anything. That’s another reason why this type of atheism seems to me quite modest.

Other forms of atheism are kinds of morally-focused atheisms and I see these taking two forms. In one form God is a superfluous law-giver, superfluous because we can derive moral law without God. Moral law and moral progress are real in this view but transcend God and even contradict what God is believed to have decreed. This makes it possible to condemn atrocities committed in the service of religion throughout history. This atheism would take the side of the Euthyphro Dilemma, proposed by Plato, that the gods love what is good because it is good independent of them and not that the gods make things good simply by saying so. There is something transcendent beyond God that grounds morality. This form of atheism makes space for something that would seem supernatural, though naturalized by other names. I still find this form of moral atheism quit modest because the moral world looks very similar to the moral world of theism, though with differences in the specific moral laws.

A more significant form of moral atheism is one that dispenses with moral law altogether, an amoral atheism. Here the moral worlds of atheism and theism look very different. Atheists accepting this form of amoral atheism may still behave in ways that would be considered moral. But there would be no moral fact of the matter, no real right or wrong. There might still be a sense of right and wrong as social convention but it would be of a different ontological category. I don’t find this form of atheism discussed as much though people might take it for granted and acknowledge it when pressed. Richard Rorty is one thinker who has explored this outlook quite thoroughly. Rorty defends liberalism and human rights but without recourse to any ultimate grounds of justification. Promulgating such Western values is a benign form of chauvinism, something other parties in the modern clash of cultures, such as China and Middle Eastern states, would agree with but view less favorably as unwelcome Western imperialism. I find the Rortian outlook quite fascinating and even attractive, especially in some climates of absolutist hyper-moralism that start to get exhausting. But it’s worth stressing some of the jarring implications of this. In an amoral world slavery and mass murder are not morally wrong from any absolute perspective. We can deplore them, declare them immoral in our own adopted morals, and make laws against them. But there’s no fact of the matter beyond that.

The complementary form of theism that amoral atheism denies grounds morality in God. This could be as a matter of divine fiat, as proposed by William of Ockham and divine command theory, or as something essential to God’s nature: God is good, as a fundamental axiom. Theists can appeal to the natural sense people have that there really are things that just are right and wrong to make the case that this moral reality has a transcendent origin. If the view that mass murder is no more immoral from an absolute perspective than selfless love seems implausible it undermines the plausibility of amoral atheism. Non-theists may object that a person doesn’t have to believe in God to be moral but that isn’t quite the same issue. It’s not a matter of whether belief in God leads to moral or immoral actions but whether God’s existence is necessary to make anything moral or immoral in fact, regardless of people’s beliefs. Again, the difference between atheism and theism here, what the world is actually like, seems significant.

One form of theism that, to its credit, would seem to have no possible complementary atheism is God as being itself, or Being with a capital B. This is the God of classical theism, sometimes called the God of the philosophers. David Bentley Hart gives an excellent overview of this classical theism in The Experience of God in which he sets out “simply to offer a definition of the word ‘God’”. One way I like to wrap my head around this ontological conception of God is to imagine, or try to imagine, what it would mean for this God not to exist. This is a God whose nonexistence would entail the nonexistence of everything else. If this God does not exist, nothing exists. And it’s important to be clear what this means. It’s not entirely clear, to me at least, what else about the nature of God follows from this, or if it overlaps with anything that religions have traditionally said about God. I think it does but it’s not obvious. The only thing immediately apparent here is that there is something underlying all of this, all reality. That could simply be the brute fact of the universe itself, basically pantheism, or something more than that, which I find more plausible. But if this is the most basic definition of God the difference between theists and atheists may amount to a preference of language, theists preferring traditionally and historically loaded terms like God, Brahman, and Dao, and atheists preferring more secular language like Immanuel Kant’s noumena, or just shelving the matter as something indulgently metaphysical and unscientific. For my part I accept the classical understanding of God, with a lot of contingent, scriptural features added on. That the personal God with whom I have an intimate relationship of love and trust is identical to the ground of all being is something that fills me with awe and reverence. I think awe and wonder in the face of the ultimate mystery behind all things is something available to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. But combining that with the intimacy and love fitting a personal God comes after the fact of accepting a particular religious narrative and doesn’t seem to be derivable or provable from metaphysical reflection alone.

The last complementary set I consider may be one of convergence in mysticism, where atheistic and theistic complements do not differ all that substantially, particularly in their practice if not in belief. I wouldn’t have considered this convergence until I read Gray’s book but I find it quite interesting. He proposes that “some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion”. This may be one of those cases where opposite directions on a curved linear spectrum wrap around and meet again. Mysticism isn’t a form of religious practice I adopt yet myself but it feels like something I might save for retirement when I’ve retreated to a tranquil villa somewhere. Mysticism has competing definitions but I think of it as direct, relational encounter. In religious mysticism this is direct and immediate communion with God at a personal level. A relationship with any person who is not me holds unbridgeable mystery but to recognize this and to see another person as another person with their own consciousness and perspective is to see them more profoundly than in any other way. The mystery and the intimate knowledge coexist and reinforce each other. There’s a kind of factual unknowing in this new way of relational knowing that coincides, if not with atheism then with an agnosticism that’s open to the ultimate mystery of reality. That’s one reason it seems particularly fitting for old age, after I’ve have figured out how much I don’t know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Platonism and Theism


Why do you believe what you?

Adapting an idea from Dallin H. Oaks I am resistant to making final judgments. Part of that is I think it’s just more interesting to take different ideas and try them on for size. But I make lots of intermediate judgments, seeing what the logical and existential implications of ideas are and how they fit or don’t fit together.

Going back to differences between Christian classical theism and Mormon theism there are strengths in each. I’ll talk about Christian classical theism. I think it is interesting that Christian theology/philosophy moved in the direction of Neoplatonism and I think there are certain strengths in that position. There is something remarkable about the order of the universe. Here’s a line from Carl Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God:
A naïve Western view of God is an outsize, light-skinned male with a long white beard, who sits on a very large throne in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow. 
Contrast this with a quite different vision of God, one proposed by Baruch Spinoza and by Albert Einstein. And this second kind of god they called God in a very straightforward way. Einstein was constantly interpreting the world in terms of what God would or wouldn’t do. But by God they meant something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe; that is, gravitation plus quantum mechanics plus grand unified field theories plus a few other things equaled God. And by that all they meant was that here were a set of exquisitely powerful physical principles that seemed to explain a great deal that was otherwise inexplicable about the universe. Laws of nature, as I have said earlier, that apply not just locally, not just in Glasgow, but far beyond: Edinburgh, Moscow, Peking, Mars, Alpha Centauri, the center of the Milky Way, and out by the most distant quasars known. That the same laws of physics apply everywhere is quite remarkable. Certainly that represents a power greater than any of us. It represents an unexpected regularity to the universe. It need not have been. It could have been that every province of the cosmos had its own laws of nature. It’s not apparent from the start that the same laws have to apply everywhere. 
Now, it would be wholly foolish to deny the existence of laws of nature. And if that is what we are talking about when we say God, then no one can possibly be an atheist, or at least anyone who would profess atheism would have to give a coherent argument about why the laws of nature are inapplicable.
Forgiving Sagan’s uncharitable caricature at the beginning of that quote I think the God of Spinoza and Einstein is actually not that metaphysically different from the God of Augustine or Aquinas, to the complaint of many other Christians. Hence Blaise Pascal’s line: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars.” In Confessions it was the immateriality of platonic, abstract objects that allowed Augustine to accept, intellectually, the concept of an immaterial God.

Mathematical Platonism is one of those ideas that I have tried to shake off but have found quite difficult. And if it’s true it stands there like a governing principle for all that is or ever could be. Even reading Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea it kept popping up. Dennett touts the notion of the algorithm as a means of removing design and intention from various processes, like evolution by natural selection. But an algorithm is itself an abstract vehicle that exerts a lot of causal power in the physical world. That’s not trivial. Evolution by natural selection after all is not random. Randomness is a creationist’s caricature. It’s a highly ordered process superimposed on random processes. (It was Richard Dawkins who first drew my attention to that point).

Even rejecting Platonism the order of the universe, as noted by Sagan, does allow for a certain kind of theism. Carrying that forward to a personal deity is a huge leap. Mormonism seems to have space for an impersonal, transcendent order under which God and mortals subsist. Some Mormon philosophers like Adam Miller try to carry immanence further and collapse the whole notion of transcendence and Platonism. That’s an interesting idea but in my own mind presently the platonic Hydra repeatedly rears its head.

The Philosophies of Men



Elder Cook said in his General Conference talk, Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus:
We are committed to knowledge of every kind and believe “the glory of God is intelligence.” But we also know that the preferred strategy of the adversary is to lead people away from God and cause them to stumble by emphasizing the philosophies of men over the Savior and His teachings...
We know the Apostasy occurred in part because the philosophies of men were elevated over Christ’s basic, essential doctrine. Instead of the simplicity of the Savior’s message being taught, many plain and precious truths were changed or lost. In fact, Christianity adopted some Greek philosophical traditions to reconcile people’s beliefs with their existing culture. The historian Will Durant wrote: “Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated life.” Historically, and in our own day, some people reject the gospel of Jesus Christ because, in their view, it doesn’t have adequate intellectual sophistication.
I admit I'm not crazy about this kind of talk but I want to do right by what he's saying here. And I want to think critically about the concept of the "philosophies of men" and its utility, because I think it is useful. First I'll distinguish between the known gospel and the true gospel. This is just to say that our understanding of the gospel (the known gospel) is imperfect. To get at a useful definition of the philosophies of men I'll adopt the premise that the true gospel is rational. That's already a problematic premise and not everyone accepts it. There's a lot more to be said about that but I'll leave it at that for now. In light of that I'll define the philosophies of men as ideas that are dominant in a culture and are accepted uncritically. I'd say that makes them rather unphilosophical but no matter.

I'm adopting this definition rather than a more obvious, and in a way correct, definition: that the philosophies of men are any ideas that are dominant in a culture and contradict the gospel. To the extent that we're referring to the true gospel here I think that definition works. But there's a problem. If our understanding of the gospel is imperfect we have no way of knowing if these ideas are in conflict with the true gospel or just the known gospel other than reason and revelation. I think reason and revelation are often the same thing. But to the extent that they are different I don't discount the importance of revelation. But as my experience with revelation (outside of reason) is quite non-propositional I'll focus on the importance of reasoning.

I think it's more helpful to think of the philosophies of men as the uncritical acceptance of ideas because the way to confront them is not avoidance but critical engagement. It's the strategy outlined by Hugh B. Brown:
One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required.
I'm very concerned about the cultural attitude that intelligence and rationality are dangerous to religion. And I worry that talk of the philosophies of men often plays into that. It gives the natural impression that religion is unintelligent and irrational. I often hear people say of someone who has left religious activity that they were "too smart". My first reaction to that is to feel insulted; am I not smart enough to leave then? I think that it's that kind of attitude that is more repelling than anything. It's a recipe for brain drain.

My Institute teacher, Jay Richardson, wrote his doctoral thesis on the place of reason in Mormonism. It's a fascinating piece and it was reading that paper that gave me the confidence to just be who I am without fear or apology. Richardson refers to Mark A. Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in which Noll analyzes a strain of anti-intellectualism in Evangelical Christianity. Richardson asks whether or not there is similarly a scandal of the Mormon mind.

Threats of a scandal of the Mormon mind include what Richardson, quoting Armand Mauss, calls "folk fundamentalism":
Mormon folk fundamentalists have a tendency to read the scriptures literally, to emphasize the gap between God and humanity, to emphasize obedience at the expense of autonomy, and to have a general distrust of reason especially compared to revelation.
Richardson concludes that there is not yet a full blown scandal of the Mormon mind but it is a real risk.

Getting back to Cook's talk, I think there is utility in the concept of the philosophies of men but it's treacherous. I don't like the approach of: "this contradicts what I believe, therefore it's just so much clever sophistry." More thinking is required. A fruitful analysis of the philosophies of men, the uncritical acceptance of dominant ideas, is of the form: "this is problematic and here's why." It's Brown's principle. Otherwise we sell ourselves short.