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 na├»ve 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.