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.

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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)

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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.

 

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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)

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