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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CURRENT READING – IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? (cont’d)

In the last post I summarized an essay/lecture by Jacques Barzun from 1969 on the question of whether life is worth living. Today I will add some of my thoughts on his thesis and its application to our time.

I agree that we have difficulty separating feelings which are visceral from thoughts which presumably rely on reason. With so little in philosophy being certain, feelings and opinion become inescapable default criteria in the reasoning process. Barzun’s belief that life for each of us is experienced individually  rephrases a basic tenet of existentialism which when paired with Martin Heidegger’s observation that the self (or dasein) experiences itself as being-in-the-world, reinforces Barzun’s concern of society’s impact on the quality of our lives. But if we can only find meaning and happiness as individuals, society should be structured for every individual to succeed.

What is it about life that makes us wonder if it is worth living? Perhaps the answer is found in Buddha’s first noble truth; “Life is suffering.” In return for that suffering, man expects certain benefits – specifically the hope of happiness and meaning. Personal limitations, natural ills, and death can be accepted as unavoidable, but we seem unable to forgive the evils of the very society we created. For instance manners may appear superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, but in fact Barzun, like Confucius, knows better – manners and respect for others is essential to their contentment. Immanuel Kant expands this into his  categorical imperative: we must never treat another as a means, only as an end.

Meaningful work is tied closely to the need for individual purpose in the achievement of happiness. Here I wonder if Barzun is being completely objective; the agrarian life of our ancestors seems no more meaningful than modern livelihoods. Nonetheless it is undeniable that finding societal purpose through one’s vocation is a critical piece of a flourishing life.

With regards to democracy and capitalism, they appear to allow the highest quality of life possible so far, but the negative consequences of materialism and futile competition are a trap that stymies fulfillment. In a world where the competition for physical survival is muted, we must be reminded frequently that material competition is a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche warns us that only through the careful examination of societal values and a powerful will to find our authentic role can we emerge from mediocrity.

It seems likely that within the near future (if not already), mankind will find the limits of secularism and humanism. Paul Tillich warns us repeatedly that the true ultimate concern must be identified for any hope of meaning in our lives. Humanism while noble seems to fail the test of ultimacy.

One place where I think Barzun can be challenged is on the end of great human causes. Hegel’s error on believing his generation was at the end of history should not be duplicated in our time. Homo sapiens is far too young to have mastered its mission as a species. There remains too much suffering in our world and danger to our planet, not to mention a universe only recently opened to our potential participation. Rather I suspect our immaturity as a species has left us unable to see through the miasma we have created by the failure to get our seven billion moving parts to work together.

I doubt Barzun would advise us to follow Arthur Schopenauer’s pessimistic path and  repudiate society. Instead he may be urging us to recognize the need to treat each other as valuable and deserving of respect, to identify a meaningful calling within the larger world, to redirect democracy and capitalism to the benefit of every living person, and to find our way to an ultimate cause. Humanity has much to offer the universe – it is up to us to find the means to accelerate that purpose and make life worth living.

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CURRENT READING – Is Life Worth Living ?

“That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions, and were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.” George Santayana

The Spring 2019 issue of American Scholar, the quarterly magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, includes a half-century old essay by a 20th century historian, Jacques Barzun, with an introduction by his grandsons. It is the transcription of a lecture he gave at the University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine entitled “Man and Life” but which he called “Present Day Thoughts on the Quality of Life (1969).”

Barzun was a chronicler of the West’s decline and had been deeply affected by the horrors of the first World War that left him with a “permanent muting of the spirit.”  He matured into a humanist who insisted upon the inseparability of feelings from thought. He was deeply concerned with the individual’s interior life or ‘sense of self’ which he considered the primary determinant of one’s quality of life, and yet emphasized the role culture makes in the shape, form, and quality of our lives.

The dilemma of the 1960s according to Barzun (and perhaps our time as well) is that life seems to lack the right quality due to societal structure. Occupation becomes a rationalization rather than a reason for our desire to live. His critique of modern society describes six main problems:

1.   Social contacts are increasingly impersonal leading to alienation. Each of us begins to feel like a mere unit, manipulated by societal institutions, in a world without the manners that in earlier times served as a means of protection of the self.

2.  Work that leads to visible accomplishment has disappeared, and this is mirrored by the appearance of the failure of institutions and the state to ever solve problems. 

3.  Democratic competition and envy manifests as the repeated need to justify one’s existence, resulting in excessive self-consciousness that distorts reality as we become “spectators in our own life.”

4.  Secularism and equality limit life goals which leads to discounting of heroism and greatness, and dismissal of spiritual or religious life. 

5.  The historical success of the great human movements for democracy and equality left us without major societal causes within which individuals can find meaning. 

6.  Because most modern change is superficial rather than fundamental, there is only an illusion of change. He offers as evidence the thoughts of John Rushkin who predicted our misery of self-contempt and Thomas Carlyle who foretold the paralysis of social action.

Barzun worries that modern thinkers believe the solution to these problems can be engineered – genetically, psychologically, or politico-economically, but he disagrees pointing out that problems of human affairs rarely have such solutions. Many individuals instead default to neoprimitivism or drug-induced withdrawal.

He concludes that as a historian, his task is not to predict the future, but whatever it may be “What is certain is that the desire not for life alone, nor for brutish life, but for a special quality in life will not cease, even for the last shivering inhabitant of a devastated planet. That desire is planted deep, and it seeks its fulfillment, which is what makes humanity other than animal.”

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – WE ARE NOT ALONE (cont’d)

Davies talks through the philosophical issues starting with the traditional concern of societal disintegration after publicity of extraterrestrial life or intelligence, which seems unlikely. He postulates that statistically an alien civilization would be more advanced than ours given our reaching out beyond the solar system is only a recent capability. Conventional religious beliefs may be undermined or otherwise affected or humans might embrace the higher religion of a more advanced civilization or even see them as God-like. Some additional philosophical issues he raises include:

  1. Is the modern scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence analogous to the historical search for the supernatural?
  2. Did the alien life develop separately from ours, making life a predictable rather than miraculous or rare natural event or has life spread from a single origin (panspermia)?
  3. Does the confirmation of alien life or intelligence confirm the theories of self-organization and emergence whereby life and consciousness may be basic phenomena of complex or chaotic systems in the universe?
  4. What if the intelligence is artificial or machine made (AI as superior to natural intelligence)?
  5. What are the implications of sharing their advanced knowledge?
  6. Can advanced aliens be a conduit to the divine being?

Until the search for extraterrestrial life, especially intelligent life is successful, we are left with the lingering question first posed by Enrico Fermi – “Where is everybody?” If there are a multitude of advanced alien life forms, it seems reasonable to expect they would already have contacted or visited us, or even have preceded the arrival of humanity on Earth. Disallowing the dubious assertions of UFO theorists, the corollary is that supra-human intelligence does not fall within our current space-time corridor, or perhaps has chosen to remain hidden.

The late Charles Krauthammer wrote a poignant article, Let’s Put a Hopeful Face on the Cosmic Silence3, in December 2011. He saw our drive “to find our living, thinking counterpart in the universe …betrays a profound melancholy – a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence. That silence is maddening. Not just because it compounds our feelings of cosmic isolation. But because it makes no sense.”

This existential observation is followed by his recalling Carl Sagan’s concern that the explanation of the silence may be that advanced civilizations destroy themselves just when they develop the technology to reach out beyond their own stellar system; the silence then is “not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness, but a tragic story about our destiny.”

He then considers whether intelligence is fatal not only ultimately, but nearly instantly on a cosmic time scale. His solution is discipline which is the work of politics, the ordering of society to permit human flourishing while restraining Hobbesian instincts. He concludes, “The debased and mundane practice of politics… will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few – the only- who got it right.”

If Davies and Krauthammer are correct, then we anxiously await conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. Such evidence will suggest answers to questions about the origin of life, the regularity of intelligent life forms, theories of emergence and self-organization, and possibly the workings of the divine. But perhaps most importantly it will serve as a precedent – confirming that intelligent beings can overcome the propensity to destroy themselves, and so offer space for optimism on the future of mankind.

 

1Shreeve, Jamie, Who’s Out There? , National Geographic, March 2019, Volume 235 No. 3, ISSN0027-9358, pages 42-75.

2Davies, Paul, Are We Alone. Basic Books, 1995. ISBN 0-465-00419-9.

3Krauthammer, Charles, Let’s put a hopeful face on the cosmic silence, Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky., December 30, 2011.

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CURRENT READING – WE ARE NOT ALONE

We Are Not AloneNational Geographic, March 20191

“There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours…we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.” – Epicurus.

 

The March 2019 issue of National Geographic includes this article which updates us on the scientific efforts at finding evidence of life on other worlds and particularly intelligent life (known as SETI or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). For over 50 years scientists have been using radiotelescopes to scan the heavens for evidence of radio signals from other advanced civilizations without success. However the existence of other planets was confirmed in 1995, when 51 Pegasi b was discovered. Using the now silent Keppler Space Telescope, over 4000 exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have since been identified with about 25% being earth-sized and in the habitable zone of their stars. Projecting the Keppler data, there should be at least 25 billion such planets in our galaxy alone.

Current efforts at finding alien life are now directed at identifying biosignatures -physicochemical features consistent with life such as atmospheric oxygen and methane – and technosignatures –similar analyses suggesting civilization such as presence of pollutants – on exoplanets. There is also interest in sending tiny computers powered by solar sails to the nearest star systems. (The reader is referred to the article itself for more detail.) The author, Jamie Shreeve, closes with the titillating phrase, “… the first intimation of life from a distant planet feels thrillingly close.”

For the most part the article avoids the philosophical implications of the eventual demonstration of life and intelligence beyond Earth, but in an amazing coincidence, last week I happened upon a book at New Haven Books in Melbourne, Florida, titled Are We Alone?2, by Paul Davies, an Australian professor of natural philosophy, published in 1995. Davies explores the history of speculation on life beyond Earth, openly discussed by the ancient Greek atomists such as Epicurus (see quote above). In the seventeenth century, Richard Bentley reasoned God would not have made so many stars invisible to the naked eye for us, but rather for their nearby inhabitants, while Christiaan Huygens thought it befit the deity to endow other worlds with intelligent life. More recently people have been intrigued by the possibility that UFOs are evidence of aliens from other star systems

(continued next post)

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