CURRENT READING – DEISM (continued)

Last time we began our discussion of Kerry Waters book, Revolutionary Deists, by looking at the basic tenets of deism, its critique of Christianity, and its political posture. Today we will look at the causes of its decline and ponder its legacy. Walters tells us deism declined in America after the death of its leading voices. Its basis in reason and science was seen as intellectually elitist – “the thinking person’s religion.” Romanticism and transcendentalism which dominated the 19th century arose in direct opposition to Enlightenment philosophy and the complete reliance on rationality.

Philosophically, it began with David Hume’s attack on causation as metaphysically suspect – mere inference due to the human mind’s propensity to see as causal two events that are contiguous, sequential, and constantly conjoined in experience – hence undermining the mechanistic description of nature. Moreover the deist view was ultimately unsatisfying with its austere and indifferent universe and its remote, uninvolved image of God.  Reason also struggled to explain human moods, passion, and intuition. Immanuel Kant’s vision of the uniqueness of humans in nature in possession of freedom contradicted mechanistic explanations of behavior. Perhaps most damaging to deism were philosophers such as Baron Henri D’Holbach who in his Systems of Nature, argued a mechanical cosmos needed no God as explanation and human reason would never identify an origin of the universe nor would a first cause contribute significantly to our understanding of it.

Deism’s legacies were its effect on Christianity and political thought. Christianity reacted to its attacks by de-emphasizing supernaturalism, adopting the naturalist arguments of the deists to defend itself, and using reason in religious inquiry and biblical exegesis. Some denominations began to focus on symbolical or allegorical rather than literal interpretations of Scripture. But deism’s greater contributions to modernity may have been its humanism and its support for tolerance and equality. Many of its political beliefs such as religious freedom, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and press were incorporated into the American Constitution.2

But I think the Enlightenment and deism have a larger place in the individual search for human meaning. Their belief in human rationality and disbelief in the supernatural have been validated in spite of Hume’s arguments. Trust in  science allowed man to conquer diseases such as small pox and polio, develop modern technology, and land a man on the moon. Individuals lacking a formal religious orientation can find footing in the concept of ‘worship of the deity’ as man’s exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence. The rational and empirical investigation of nature can  still  be the making of a viable theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and the virtuous treatment of fellow humans still works as a foundation of ethics.

Finally thoughtful people will need to come to terms with the question of the origin to the universe. Deism offers no less reasonable an answer than any formal religion and provides an ecumenical approach.

 

1Walters, Kerry, Revolutionary Deists, Prometheus Books, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-190-5, pages 7-12.

2Ibid, pages 245-273.

CURRENT READING – DEISM

Revolutionary Deists by Kerry Walters

 

“All that we see, about, abroad,

What is it but nature’s God?

In meaner works discover’d here

No less than in the starry sphere…

His system fix’d on general laws

Bespeaks a wise creating cause;

Impartially he rules mankind,

And all on this globe we find.

– Philip Freneau, On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature.

In addition to philosophy, I have tremendous interest in the American Revolution, so what good luck when on my recent trip to Michigan I came across this book at Black River Books in South Haven. The author, Kerry Walters, is the William Bittinger Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is author or editor of more than twenty books with intriguing titles such as Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed.

He explores American deism especially as elaborated by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Freneau.

Deism, he tells us, is a religious worldview which sprang from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, natural philosophy (science), and experience. Its central tenants are:

  1. Reality is the creation of a perfectly benevolent and rational deity (the ‘Supreme Architect’).
  2. Physical reality conforms to universal, immutable, and absolute laws of nature set in motion by God and the discovery and comprehension of these laws is within the reach of the human mind.
  3. In coming to know reality, man gains a deeper appreciation of God’s characteristics.
  4. The highest form of worship of the deity is in the exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence.
  5. The rational and empirical investigation of nature is the basis of ‘true’ theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and virtuous treatment of fellow humans is the foundation of ethics.

Deists considered the Christianity of the time as pernicious in its avowal of the utter corruptibility of man, encouragement of intolerance, persecution of dissent, hampering of scientific progress, and obstruction to social justice. At the political level, deists were strict republicans who believed in freedom of religion and of the press, universal education, and separation of church and state. They denounced slavery, the abuse of Native Americans, and the subjugation of women and sought to reform institutions that bred intolerance.1

Clearly deist thinking was incorporated into the political philosophy of early America and the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, both of which inspired other nations. Their defense of the repressed seems surprisingly fresh 250 years later. But of course deism declined in the following century; next time we will examine why and explore its legacy further.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)

CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS (continued)

Schroeder comes to a different conclusion regarding the Big Bang. He rewinds time back towards the singularity to about 10-43 seconds (that’s a second divided into 1 followed by 43 zeros parts) after the Big Bang when the temperature of the universe is 1032 degrees Kelvin, too hot for matter to exist, so in fact the universe is pure energy. The problem is then clear: “as the theories of the early universe reach back to the beginning, they describe a condition in which all the matter is pressed into a space of zero size and infinite density. Infinity cannot be dealt with quantitatively and so cosmologists cannot describe the conditions of our absolute origin in real terms. Only by working in a dimension of imaginary time, a concept that does not translate into a dimension of the world in which we live, can the very instant of the beginning be described mathematically. But if we relate to real-world dimensions, that zero point of time, the beginning, is beyond the grasp of mathematics and physics.”3

He repeats his misgivings on the mathematics used by physicists in describing the Big Bang a few pages later: “In other words, although there is a theoretical solution in the world of physics to this problem of the beginning, in terms that are perceivable to humans, there is no solution.”4

Schroeder does not directly address quantum mechanics as an explanation for a spontaneous universe, but a quote in another context may indicate his likely position, “Except at the nuclear level, where quantum mechanics can alter statistical probability, the very laws of physics that predict the formation of stars, galaxies, and elements rely on the occurrence of the probable over the improbable. Without this there is no basis for physics…Although in theory an event may occur, statistics have told us that in reality when the probability of an event occurring is very, very, small, then there is essentially zero chance of it occurring.”

Schroeder reverts to theology to explain the mathematically inexplicable, citing not only Genesis, but also four great Jewish biblical scholars. The most incisive of these scholars is Nahminides who postulates the origin of the universe from “a speck of space, the size of a mustard grain”6  – a quite remarkable guess, if it is one, for the 13th century.  He postulates that the contraction of God’s divine being is the basis of the Big Bang and the creation of the universe ex nihilo (from nothing).

These two descriptions leave the philosopher in a quandary. Schroeder may of course be biased towards his faith and presenting his arguments to confirm his beliefs while withholding arguments that contradict them. However, Hawking’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the theoretical and statistically improbable appearance of an infinitely dense, infinitely small, singularity at a temperature over 1032 Kelvin using quantum theory and imaginary dimensions and time does not appear entirely intellectually honest either. I respect his initial disclosure of his belief (faith?) in science and its laws, but wonder if in this case he should acknowledge he is debating metaphysics rather than physics. The reader will have to decide that for himself.

1Wikepedia.

2Hawking, Stephen, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 9781984819192, pages 23-38.

3Schroeder, Gerald L., Genesis and the Big Bang, Bantam Books, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-553-35413-2, page 63.

4Ibid, page 66.

5Ibid, page 159.

6Ibid, page 65.

 

CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS

Brief Questions to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Genesis and the Big Bang – Gerald Schroeder, Ph.D.

 

“Study astronomy and physics if you desire to comprehend the relationship between the world and God’s management of it.” – Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed.

 

On a recent trip to Michigan, I purchased two books written by physicists that address the existence of God but come to opposite answers. The first is by Stephen Hawking who probably needs no introduction. He was a mathematician, theoretical physicist, and cosmologist at the University of Cambridge and considered by most people as the second greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century just behind Einstein.

The second book is by Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jewish applied physicist who received his degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a former member of the United States Energy Commission.  He is currently a professor at Aish Ha Torah College in Israel.1

Hawking’s book begins with a chapter titled: “Is there a God?”2 His thesis begins by expressing his belief in science wherein “there are certain laws that are always obeyed.” He then says it is reasonable to argue these laws are the work of God, but that this is more a definition of God then a proof of his existence. And this is not what most people mean by ‘God.’ He does not believe God serves as an explanation of the origin of the universe, rather “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” The universe consists of matter and energy (which are interchangeable) and space – all of which Hawking says came out of the Big Bang which itself came from nothing.

How can that be? Hawking explains that the laws of physics require the universe to have negative energy and the Big Bang created both the positive and negative energy whose sum adds up to zero, much as if you make a pile of dirt by digging  you end up with both a mound and a hole. That negative energy still exists in space and balances out the equation. Also the laws of quantum mechanics tell us particles like protons “can appear at random.” Therefore “if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it,” and “the laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.”

Last he argues that since the Big Bang starts essentially as an infinitesimally small and infinitesimally dense point or essentially a black hole and since time stops at black holes, time does not exist before the Big Bang hence does not require a cause, that is, the question of whether God created the universe makes no sense as there is no time before the Big Bang.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)

HUMAN MORTALITY – CONCLUSIONS

“As for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague possibilities.” – Charles Darwin

Our analysis of death and immortality has been quite revealing – taking us through the distinctions between life and existence, metaphysical and physicist conceptions of time, and being and nothingness. Literal biologic and personal spiritual immortality seem unreasonable and unwieldy. They appear to be the naïve thoughts or hopes of the childhood of our race, following our emergence via evolution to self-consciousness. We cannot prove our ancestors were wrong, but we can distill from our analysis more sophisticated formulations on life and death.

These conclusions include:

  1. Inevitable biologic death gives man a focal point for life, an impetus to accomplish something meaningful in a finite time frame, within one’s historicity.
  2. While alive man can have a transcendental form of eternity through infinite present moments and continuance within his phenomenal experience of being.
  3. Metaphorical immortality derives from offspring, effects on others, and works.
  4. Man’s perpetuity within the universe occurs via the recycling of his materiality, his mental energies, the chain of causation he initiates, and participation in space-time.
  5. If there is an afterlife it most likely takes the form of impersonal spiritual continuance within a greater being, but this cannot be demonstrated.
  6. Of known creatures, man uniquely participates in the two eternal aspects of the universe – by virtue of his material make-up of indestructible subatomic particles and through his knowledge of the eternity of the universe as a whole.
  7. Man also uniquely participates in the two poles of being – nothingness and ultimate being – and in this participation achieves the existential summit within the universe.

At the end of the day death does not truly justify the fear most of us naturally experience although only the most hardened fail to see it as a cause for regret. All of our reasoning converges on one conclusion; the best response to man’s mortality is for us to live fully and thoughtfully, to appreciate our apparent uniqueness in the cosmos, and to recognize that at a minimum our immortality is instantiated in having existed at all.

BEYOND DEATH – PART IV – THE EMBRACE OF BEING

“He whose preoccupation is with excellence longs fervently to find rest in perfection; and is not nothingness a form of perfection?” – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice.

We previously determined that the consequences of man’s understanding of his ultimate fate as a transient in an eternal universe include the desirability of preparing for death and embracing being while alive. In the last two blogs I reviewed one approach to the preparation for death, Seneca’s Stoic formulation. Today we will look at the embrace of being.  

When one reads philosophy, one finds unexpected essays within otherwise standard texts. One of the most poignant of these is the final chapter in Richard Taylor’s introductory Metaphysics.1 Taylor methodically reviews body and soul; freedom versus determinism; space, time, and eternity; causation; and God – essentially following academic arguments in all of these areas. But his concluding chapter appears to be speculative, existentialist, even spiritual or poetic. The path he takes us on is one of the most powerful I have encountered in all my reading; one I have read over and over.

He starts by reminding us that the approach of death and nothingness cannot be stayed. Nothingness is “immense, for in truth it is infinite in every way possible” and “the most total certainty.” Then he refutes the hope of the durable soul or ego as “already a part of the nothingness…as not even real to begin with.” But all is not lost; “that which is inexorable and infinite, that which we are, from which we came, and to which we assuredly go is not nothingness, but its very opposite, which is being.”

We find no dread in the extinction of other things even most people, no it is our own personal being, or self, whose extinction we dread. He asks then what is this self?  As we mentally separate the self from other things we move progressively inward from distant to closer things and finally to that which is inside us. But this inner self defies description and is “indistinguishable from nothingness.” Our inner ultimate reality is total, perfect, nothingness. Therein is the paradox, the nothingness of the self makes us fear nothingness.

He concludes with a suggestion: “Try this: instead of starting with the heavens and firmament, mountains and oceans and drifting clouds, with things, and peeling all these away in a vain search for something somehow more precious at their center, do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing inward, toward some imagined bit…try to proceed outward, and see heaven and earth, mountains and oceans, and drifting clouds, all you have been taught to regard as things, as others, as foreign and distant, see all these as they are. You will be astonished to find yourself and nature in one and the same; and far from dreading the nothingness, which now seems like sickness, and hardly worthy of anyone, which is how you began all this, your state of mind will be just the opposite. You will rejoice in being, in nature, in yourself, which will now have ceased to be any mystery, and you will finally understand without seeking further what Spinoza meant by the intellectual love of God.”

So what is the final lesson revealed in our search for immortality – perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along. Man should seek not perpetuity, but perfection, and man alone in all of existence knows or will know the two perfect antipodes of reality – nothingness and ultimate being.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, pages 121-126.

BEYOND DEATH – PART III – PREPARATION FOR DEATH (continued)

Seneca wants us to eliminate the propensity to regret our mortality, “Before I became old, I took care to live well; in old age, I take care to die well.”5 No life is long and a life is long enough once one attains wisdom. He tells Lucilius, “Make haste to live…and think each of your days to be an individual life. The man who accustoms himself to this way of thought, for whom life is complete each day, if free of worry…”6 This is the paradox Seneca teaches, preparation for death entails living life to its fullest!

Seneca also speaks frequently of death as liberation or freedom, although in his letters, he is often referring to suicide – and in fact he died by his own hand at the command of the Roman Emperor, Nero. The lesson for our time, where human afflictions are treatable and politics is less bloodthirsty, is that death after terminal illness or fraility of advanced age is release from suffering. And even in our century we control to some extent the final time of death depending on how we face disease.

Last Seneca finds solace in the knowledge that we share death with all men, in fact with all life. We then are part of a whole, “there are fixed seasons by which all things progress; they must be born, grow, and perish.”7 And “Nature has this one particular point among other instances of its justice: when the time arrives to leave this world, we’re all in the same condition.”8

Preparation for death by living fully and following Seneca’s five steps is one of the fundamental lessons of the investigation of human mortality. Next we will juxtapose being and nonbeing to uncover a second key truth.

1Seneca, How to Die, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2018. ISBN 978-0-691-17557-7, page ix-x.

2Ibid, page 2.

3Ibid, page 22.

4Ibid.

5Ibid, page 38.

6Ibid, page 56.

7Ibid, page 100.

8Ibid, page 109.

 

BEYOND DEATH – PART III – PREPARATION FOR DEATH

“The whole life of philosophers…is simply a preparation for death.” – Cicero

 

Last time I proposed that on reflection existential anxiety is unfounded as, man as a physical being shares with all things greater than subatomic particles and less than the universe as a whole the quality of transience, but uniquely participates in eternity through human understanding.  One consequence of this is man unlike other creatures can prepare for his eventual nonexistence. Today we will look more closely at the preparation for death especially as transmitted to us through the letters of Seneca.

In his book How to Die, James S. Romm reconfigures relevant passages in Seneca’s letters into a manual of sorts describing the Stoic approach to death. I found quite revealing his introduction which alludes to a scientific study where patients administered hallucinogenic mushrooms reported they “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal,” and found the experience not “morbid or terrifying but liberating and affirmative.” 1 This seems to confirm that existential anxiety is a ‘peak experience’ and even the entry point for the ultimate life experience and can be mollified by confronting it.

Romm’s reconstruction of Seneca’s thinking involves the following steps:

1.  Prepare yourself.

2.  Have no fear.

3.  Have no regrets.

4.  Set yourself free.

5.  Become a part of the whole.

He begins with Seneca quoting Epicurus: “Rehearse to die…it’s a great thing to learn how to die.”2 He tells his friend Lucilius that he has already experienced death – the time before he was born, and that death is no worse. Pity for the dead is as absurd as pity for the unborn. Fear of death not only makes dying more difficult, but life less noble. He scoffs at the fear and avoidance of death, “Whoever doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to live.”3 He even calls it madness, “..fear is for things we’re unsure of; certainties are merely awaited.”4

(continued next post)

BEYOND DEATH – PART II – A REVIEW

“…fearing death gentlemen is nothing other than thinking one is wise when one isn’t, since it’s thinking one knows what one doesn’t know. I mean no one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all goods for people.” – Socrates, in Plato’s Dialogue, Apology.

Last time I argued that the decision to ignore eventual death appears to be an unacceptable approach to death while existential anxiety is the summit of human experience of the force of life – making these the antipodes of human postures on death Today I wish to unpack the main points in the last 19 posts, and see if that anxiety actually makes sense.

We learned that biological mortality is nature’s price for evolution of complex organisms as it is both intrinsic to muticellularity and essential for the development of future species. Eternal existence is neither empirically demonstrable nor metaphysically possible for man, the latter because real and subjective existence are contingent rather than necessary. Traditional concepts of immortality and the afterlife are logically inconsistent, undesirable, or impersonal. Alternatively, mortality offers important benefits for the individual: release from suffering, a focal point for life, immense freedom, finite limits on duty, and a comfortable historicity. Death also serves humanity and the universe, particularly as the greatest value of any given living thing is its exhaustion in the propulsion of nature.

But the existentialist’s belief that nature and the universe are indifferent or hostile to man seems to me unwarranted. Of all living things of which we are aware, man seems to get the closest to immortality, if nothing else by participation in the eternal through the knowledge of cosmic time and necessary being. But we also saw that man achieves a variety of forms of immortality: (1) physical – the recycling of our material bodies; the enduring nature of mental energy, and the chain of causation which follow on our actions, (2) metaphorically – in our offspring, our impacts on other humans, and our enduring works, and (3) transcendentally – in infinite present moments, persistence within our frame of being, participation in space-time, and perhaps ‘eternal recurrence.’

It turns out that the only eternal manifestations of the universe are its subatomic building blocks interchangeable with energy, and the universe itself – the infinitesimal and the whole. No other subpart of the universe, not man, (not even a demiurge if there is one) can claim eternal individual existentence on a cosmic time scale; but man, at least, participates in both of these manifestations – as composed of the infinitesimal eternal parts and integral to the chain of causation, biology, and space-time that infuse the universe; combined with awareness of that participation.

To me, there are two implications of these ruminations:

1.    Death and the end of individual existence are unavoidable, so prepare for it. 2.   Universal being is eternal, so embrace it.

At least, two philosophers have looked at deeply at these implications, and we will see what they discovered in the next two blogs.

BEYOND DEATH – PART I – EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY

“There are those who think that life is valueless because it comes to an end. They fail to see that the opposite argument might also be proposed: that if there were no end to life, life would also have no value; that it is in part the ever present danger of losing it which helps to bring home to us the value of life.” – Karl Popper

Is there and ideal approach to mortality and what is it? The simplest answer is the common sense one: “Yes, just ignore it.” With some trepidation, I must admit I have spent a great deal of time trying to defend and refute that viewpoint in personal meditation. My eventual conclusion was that it not the ideal nor even an acceptable position.

I would ask you to remember back to when you first grasped your own mortality; not just that all men die, but that you yourself will actually die. I certainly remember: I was fifteen, walking by myself through my suburban neighborhood on a beautiful spring day. I am not sure where the thought of death came from, perhaps I was thinking about the dead frog I had thrown into a bowl of Chlorox to extract its skeleton for sophomore biology, or the death of an adolescent girl I knew in a motorcycle accident, or maybe it was just the mental incursions of my parents floundering marriage. I do not recall the trigger, but I do remember, as clear as if it was yesterday, the gripping realization that came from nowhere that I would die one day – go to sleep and never wake up – and then everything would be over, not just for a day, or a week, or a year, but forever. Everything that mattered to me would be no more.

I remember my heart beating out of my chest, the breathlessness, the feeling of dread, of terror, of inescapability. I remember stopping cold in my tracks. I had to wait until that awful feeling passed, and then…I resumed my walk and tried not to think about it. “I have plenty of time”, I thought, “Something so far in the future is no threat to me now. Death isn’t real, not like family problems, school, peer pressure. If I don’t think about it, that feeling will stay away.”

For the last 45 years I have gone back and forth, from fleeting periods of this existential anxiety (I hadn’t heard that word when I was 15) – Kierkegaard’s dread – to long lapses into Becker’s ‘denial of death’ sometimes for years at a time. Perhaps you too have experienced this. Only reading the great minds in history and personal meditations revealed to me that this ‘common sense’ approach to facing one’s mortality is a futile dodge, a ruse, a cheat. Life’s ultimate value is interwoven with the realization of one’s mortality. That feeling of existential anxiety is the supreme feeling of life itself. The next three blogs will take us deeper into that absolute truth.