CURRENT READING – EPISTEMIC DEFEATISM (CONTINUED)

Last time I reviewed Dr. Robert Pasnau’s essay Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat where he discusses radical skepticism and offers his response -the hopeful affirmation of evidence-based credence – arguing the goal of finding truth and avoiding error is trumped by the importance of being able to live a full life within the bounds of uncertainty. I enjoyed reading his article and appreciate his solution to the problem of skepticism, but today I wish to offer an alternative to mere hope.

It seems to me the practical philosopher should not choose wholeheartedly to embrace propositions based on credibility alone. Rather I think we must choose courses of action within our uncertainty that offer the best outcome should we be wrong, that is, pragmatic conduct. I offer three examples of increasing uncertainty.

 

First, absolute evil – take for instance whether the blinding of innocent animals is good or evil. While this seems self-evident, the radical skeptic may derive an argument I cannot that this action is justifiable or desirable. Pragmatically however, I choose not to blind innocent animals as there is no apparent value to me as a person; the choice not to commit this apparent evil has no untoward consequences.

Second is the near certain proposition that i should try to make a good life for myself within the limit of not interfering with this goal for others. I may be wrong; in fact, making a good life for myself may be impossible, but by attempting I have only the possibility of making a good life for myself in which case my life is good, or failing in which case I am no worse off than if I thought I should not make a good life for myself. Pragmatism succeeds again (although hope might here as well).

My last example comes from the plot line of The Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna, the protagonist, must decide between his duty to his side in a battle where the opposing side includes his friends, teachers, and even family (alternatively you may consider choosing the union side in the American Civil War). It appears impossible to determine whether duty to some of our friends and family is ethically correct compared to avoiding harm to others of them– here we have almost no level of certainty. The pragmatic solution is to do both. While we have a duty to provide service to our side, we can choose service that does not entail harming others – we can choose to be medics, or unarmed messengers, staff personnel, or other non-combatants – many of which involve opportunities for the epitome of heroism and sacrifice.

The reason I took on the project to develop practical philosophy from the teaching of the great thinkers was to offer ethical balance in conduct within the framework of a life full of uncertainty. Hope is a valuable human emotion, but a meaningful life requires virtue, and that demands we factor in the uncertainties in reality. In that sense I would consider myself, following Pasnau’s lead, a pragmatic epistemic defeatist, although I dislike the term.

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CURRENT READING – EPISTEMIC DEFEAT

 Snatching Hope from the Jaws of Epistemic Defeat1

“Hope is the only God common to all men; those who have nothing more, possess hope still.” – Thales of Miletus

At the suggestion of a subscriber, I read this 17 page essay by Professor Robert Pasnau (University of Colorado at Boulder) published in 2015 in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association. It can be accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~pasnau/inprint/. He defines ‘epistemic defeatism’ as “the view that we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition.”1 His goal is to untangle it from related views and establish its independence from questions of knowledge. He traces strict skepticism back to Pyrrhonism with its cardinal doctrine that for every good argument there is an equal opposing argument forcing the lover of truth to suspend judgment in all affirmations of knowledge. The Pyrrhonists offer at least seven challenges to formulations of certainty: illusion, perpetual variation, disagreement, cultural relativity, infinite regress of premises, circularity of arguments, and groundless assumptions.2

He divides skepticism into two branches: ‘weak’- which concedes beliefs are based on evidence that is insufficient for certainty (e.g. Descartes), and ‘strong’- which denies any belief is based on ultimately reliable evidence (e.g. Hume).  Pasnau thinks this latter case of epistemic defeatism, is more interesting philosophically. Strong skepticism is usually ignored or refuted a reductio, that is, since we obviously have knowledge, epistemic defeatism must be absurd, but he thinks other responses – reliabilism, default to truth, language game theory, changing context theory, consequence-based belief, and coherence – are better.2

While he maintains that knowledge need not be identical with certainty, he is intrigued by Hume’s arguments that our firmest beliefs lack even probability, contending that “…what could possibly be of greater philosophical significance than the thesis that, in the final analysis, we have no good evidence for the truth of any proposition?”3 He considers various approaches such as rational expectation, probability, antirealism (e.g. Berkeley), divine knowledge, and evidentialism,  but thinks none is ideal .2

He eventually comes to Augustine and Al-Ghazali who rely on divine inspiration or faith, but he finds problems with this position such as what happens when faith clashes with evidence, questions of degrees of knowledge to accept on faith, and the risk of epistemic chaos.

Instead he sees the crux of the claim to knowledge as the tension between our fear of being wrong and our hope of being right. Based on credence – one’s attitude regarding the chance of a proposition’s obtaining – one may choose to be optimistic and confident while abandoning the concern about being certain. He admits this ‘hopeful defeatism’ may not count as knowledge, but it does recognize “we care about many things other than truth and falsity- inasmuch as we want to live rich, engaged lives.”4 I am reminded of William James’ essay The Will to Believe.

However, I believe there is a stance more reasonable to the practical philosopher which is the subject of my next post.

———————————————————————————-

1Journal of the American Philosophical Association/ Volumes 1 / Issue 2 / June 2015. Page 257.  Note: I refer to this as ‘radical skepticism’ in my last two blogs.

3As there is not room in this essay even to summarize these, I leave it to the interested reader to go to the source.

3Ibid., page 262.

4Ibid., page 274.

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CURRENT READING – FINDING WISDOM (CONT’D)

Next in The Good Old Liberal Consensus, Daniel A. Kaufman examines wisdom in the political realm as described in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Briefly they inform the ‘liberal consensus’ which is based on the theory that the clashing of people’s interests and aims is inevitable, that the state is a neutral referee, and that an individual’s pursuit of good should be unmolested except when obstructive to another individual’s pursuit of good. From this foundation, four key principles arise: (1) the purpose of the state is to allow the individual to pursue his idea of the good, (2) thought and speech should be free, (3) the state should err on the side of free speech, and (4) engagement with those with whom one disagrees should take the form of discourse not personal attack. These principles are supposed to be sustained by the collective recognition that unanimous agreement on policy is implausible and that one’s political allies cannot be in power forever. However, in his opinion, this wisdom is being undermined by both the Right and the Left.

Last Valerie Tiberius entertains a more psychological sense of wisdom through the contemplation of a single adage, also her essay’s title: Live Each Day as If It Were Your Last. The power of this advice is its tendency to alleviate worry and excuse perfectionism. More generally it encourages the development of perspective that aligns emotions with what really matters. She places it within Aristotle’s practical wisdom or phronesis, the use of reason to apply knowledge to decision-making. But Tiberius suspects this proverb may not do justice to what really matters. She references Doing Valuable Time: The Present, The Future, and Meaningful Living by Cheshire Calhoun who divides one’s time into four parts: (1) “primary spending” – things done for their own sake (e.g. time with friends), (2) “entailed spending” – instrumental activities (e.g grocery shopping, studying), (3) “norm required” – compliance with societal norms (e.g. legal duties), and (4) “filler spending” – such as actions when waiting, unmotivated, or tired. Meaning comes mainly from primary spending while things we value require significant entailed spending.  Her conclusion is that one can take the ‘last day’ perspective sometimes, but not at all times – wisdom then is the ability to shift one’s perspective as circumstances require.

Interestingly the essays look at four distinct levels of wisdom – personal, psychological, societal, and political – quite a breadth for the limited size of this forum. Wisdom is revealed to be virtue first, but also preparedness, freedom, and perspective. Aristotle suggests a still higher category, ‘speculative wisdom’, the philosophical knowledge of metaphysics and theology, as opposed to the others he calls ‘prudence’. I love these many facets of wisdom, but distill from it the blending of a coherent understanding of reality with ethical conduct.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 87, 4th Quarter 2019, pages 82-105.

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CURRENT READING – FINDING WISDOM

“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” – Henri Frederic Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.

 

 

 

The Forum in the fourth quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Finding Wisdom, and consists of four essays – a total of only 18 pages of reading. In the introduction, we learn this project arose in response to letters requesting more practical philosophy. The authors are two men and two women professors of philosophy who were asked to take up a single philosopher or school.

Massimo Pigliucci’s piece, Wisdom: What Is It? examines the Stoic tradition. Following Socrates’ thought that wisdom equates to virtue as it is the only intrinsic good that cannot be used to do evil, Seneca offers the corollary: “Virtue is nothing else but right reason.” Such reason can be defined as “fitting expertise” in the “art of living.” Pigliucci suggests three tools for mastery of this art: (1) reading biographies of persons to emulate (e.g. Cato), (2) review of theoretical treatises (such as Seneca’s On Anger), and (3) study of practical books (e.g. Epictetus’ Enchiridion). From these we learn the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom which allow us to center our lives with a moral compass to achieve arête, the best way of living.

Catherine Wilson follows with Epicurean Wisdom wherein subjective pleasure and the avoidance of psychological and physical pain and deprivation are seen as the highest human goods when paired with the avoidance of selfishness and harm to others. This doctrine historically urges one to avoid unnecessary political and social involvement preferably by living in a communal setting with like-minded individuals. Wilson sees this as a problem for modernity as most of us do not wish to withdraw from society; instead she extrapolates the following lessons for contemporary living: (1) oppose oligarchy legislatively, (2)  seek not eternal youth and longevity nor fear death and inevitable deterioration, rather prepare for them, (3) support justice defined as the prevention of harm,  and (4)  deploy utilitarian governance as the societal expression of Epicureanism.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART III

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  _ ANALYSES

“When philosophy is regarded in the light of a series of abstract systems, it can be said to concern itself with two fundamental questions: first, the question ‘what there is’; and second, the question how ‘what there is’ may be explained.”– Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism.

After the introduction and his arguments regarding authentic African philosophy, Hountondji analyzes two African-born philosophers. The first is Anton-Wilhelm Amo an 18th century Ghanian who went to Europe at age four likely to be trained as a preacher. He ended up a master of philosophy in 1730 and taught for at least ten years and wrote at least four philosophical treatises. He eventually moved back to Ghana where the last record of him was a meeting in 1753 with David Henri Gallandet, a Dutch physicist and ship’s doctor, who found him living as a hermit with the reputation as a soothsayer.

Hountondji critiques Amo’s Dissertatio de humanae mentis apatheia (On the Impassivity of the Human Mind) where Amo argues the mind is neither the seat of sensation or the faculty of sensation (a passive function) consistent with the human mind as active, insensible, and free of passion, like the divine mind. But the human mind turns sensation into ideas which are only the mediative knowledge of things, representations, or reactivated sensations. This leads to an ironic difference in kind, not simply degree, from divine spirit whose impassivity is a perfection, whose thinking is creation, whose understanding of reality is direct. Non-passivity of spirit becomes a ‘transvaluation’ on passage from God to man.

But when Hountondji asks what in this work is African, his answer is nothing. Written in Latin for Europeans with no African audience or partners, Amo is the victim of the painful isolation of his historical situation. In the end, his works are instructive as demonstrating the need to “put an end once and for all to the monstrous extraversion of our [African] theoretical discourse…”1

Hountondji’s second example is Kwame Nkrumah, a contemporary American-trained philosopher, who became the political leader of Ghana. His works are mainly political philosophy focused on anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism. In his youth he embraced the non-violent approach of Ghandi and the politics of socialism, arguing that traditionally Africa society had the form of egalitarian communalism; therefore the movement to socialism would be smooth and without class struggle. Over time he came to see overturning neocolonialism, imperialism, and class inequality required armed resistance.

In his most famous work, Consciencism, Nkrumah sees philosophy as the instrument of ideology. He espouses a materialist metaphysic – the priority of matter which generates mind through a ‘categorical conversion’- defined as a process through which a given reality generates a reality of higher category. God, if he exists, is then a higher form of matter. From this metaphysic, he develops an egalitarian and humanistic ethic strongly influenced by Kant, and a political ideology of self-determination and socialism – all of which are closely interlocked and form a collective philosophy for all of Africa.

Hountondji criticizes this so-called Nkrumaism at several levels. First the metaphysic itself seems implausible. Second political justifications need to be political and economic rather than metaphysical. Third Hountondji denies the possibility of a collective African philosophy – rather sees a pluralistic debate and dialogue in conjunction with science as the best course for African philosophy.

Hountondji closes his amazing book with a reiteration of his key points: African philosophy must be based on (1) true internal pluralism, not a supposed primitive unanimity or an acculturation, (2) free dialogue,  (3) living rather than studying African culture, and (4) placement in the terrain of science. I suspect he would agree that in fact these principles apply to philosophy everywhere even if it took the experience of Africans to demonstrate them to the rest of us.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 130.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART II

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  

“Philosophy not only exists within history, like a substance in a container, but is itself a second-order history borne by empirical history, a productive process (producing something as yet undefined) a progress. In this sense philosophy does not have a history; structurally, it is history itself.” Paulin J. Hountondji.1

After the introduction to the subject of the traditional but erroneous concept of African philosophy as ethnophilosophy, Hountondji formulates his arguments for an authentic African philosophy through three essays prepared in 1969, 1970, and 1973. Be prepared for some fascinating reading!

He starts by telling us what philosophy is not: cultural anthropology, mythology, folklorism, oral literature, poetry, stories, a collective worldview, popular notions, proverbs, or even traditional wisdom. Rather philosophy is a discipline or a science, like algebra or linguistics, based on hypotheses and theories. It derives from the confrontation between individual thoughts through free and open discussion and debate. It is an intellectual effort to know, understand, and think out doctrines.

For Hountondji, philosophy is always in a sense a metaphilosophy2,3 developed by reflecting on its history with new thinkers feeding on the doctrines of their predecessors (and contemporaries). In the case of African philosophy, he feels it is best when directed to an African public, although it can include debates on Western philosophy.

His thoughts crystalize into three main points:4

1)   Philosophy is not a system, but a history.

2)   It moves forward by leaps and bounds, or revolutions.

3)   African philosophy may today (June 1973?) be going through its first mutation.

By the first point, he means that philosophy is not a finished system of absolute truth, but a historical dialectic. But that history is discontinuous, a zigzag, often shifting suddenly through revolutionary thinking. His examples of revolutions in Western philosophy include Descartes’ revolt against Scholasticism, Kant’s critique of existing dogmatism in response to Hume’s skepticism, and Marx’s materialism as revolt against Hegel’s idealism. However Hountondji adopts Louis Althusser’s theory that philosophical revolutions follow scientific revolutions, and as such philosophical discourse must be modeled on scientific discourse.

Now science depends on writing, the recording of discovery. Here we find the linchpin of authentic philosophy. Oral traditions demand preservation via repetition often leading to dogmatism; written documents do the remembering, and instead questioning and rebuttal are encouraged. Philosophy then must be based on written documents in order to enable criticism and debate. This also answers the question as to whether philosophical fragments from the oral tradition can be authentic – the answer is yes, but the process begins at the precise moment of transcription. Nonetheless above all “African philosophy is inseparable from African science.”5

His third point is the utterly critical one; at last we see the direction Hountondji is taking. African philosophy is emerging from its Western ethnophilosophical fog, and his generation of philosophers, being the first, will initiate and define African philosophy. They will be the Platos, Aristotles, Zenos, and Epicuruses of the first authentic African philosophy. Imagine the excitement he and his colleagues feel as, integral parts of, in his own beautiful words, “that groping, endless history, that unquiet, forever incomplete quest we call philosophy”6 

Our next and final post on Hountondji will look at his analysis of two major African philosophical works.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 101.

2Ibid. Page 63.

3Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, essentially the attempt to answer the question: “What is philosophy?”  See Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 589.

4Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 71.

5Ibid. Page 106.

6Ibid. Page 64.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART I

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality 1

“…Bantu ‘philosophy’ is shown to be a myth. To destroy the myth once and for all, and to clear our conceptual ground for a genuine theoretical discourse – these are the tasks now awaiting African philosophers and scientists.” – Paulin J. Hountondji.2

In my search through the philosophy section of my local used book store I came upon this book with its intriguing title. Mr. Hountondji is (or was) Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Benin, Cotonou and former Minister of Culture and Communication and Special Advisor to the Head of State of Benin, a small former French colony and then Marxist state, now a republic in western Africa. He was a visiting professor at our local university in 2008. The edition in my possession is part of a series called  African Systems of Thought.

In the preface, Hountondji sets down his perspective. First he follows Plato in that philosophy is the study of episteme (truth) not doxa (opinion). Philosophy cannot be inferred from culture and linguistics, so-called ethnophilosophy. Rather he defines African philosophy as literary works written by Africans and self-identified as philosophy. He also resists the idea of absorbing philosophy into politics.

A bit of history is instructive here. The science of anthropology arose in the 19th century against the backdrop of European colonialism and missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. In the traditional Western view, Africans were seen as ‘primitives’ and thought to have contributed very little to human ideas and civilization. By the 1920s, there was a movement to pluralism and relativism, and an attempt to revise the Western understanding of African philosophy. The main problem was the lack of written texts;  researchers were forced to extract philosophy from African culture and linguistics. Placide Tempels, a Belgian missionary, published his very influential book, Bantu Philosophy, in 1945. In it he distills from his observations the following:

“I believe that we should most faithfully render Bantu thought in the European language by saying that the Bantu speak, act, live as if, for them, beings were forces. Force is not for them an adventitious, accidental reality. Force is even more than a necessary attribute of beings: Force is the nature of being, force is being, being is force.”3

This seems, to me, incredibly powerful, and even complementary to the philosophy of Schopenauer (will) and Nietzsche (the will to power), but Hountondji and other Africans debunk it as mere European projection, especially as a means to enhance Christianization of Africans. Nonetheless later European and African intellectuals (such as Leopold Sengher, Alexis Kagame, and even Hountondji himself) expand on Tempel’s formulation or expend a great deal of energy on its refutation. Left unresolved is the question of the place for an alternate dynamic ontology of being as force in contrast to the classical Aristotelian static ontology of being as substance.

However, at the end of the day, I deeply respect the intellectual ideal that  all people develop their own philosophy through dialectic. We pick up with Hountondji’s arguments for an authentic African philosophy next time.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X. This book is featured on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.

2Ibid. Page 44.

3Ibid. Page 16.

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CURRENT READING – DOES GOD EXIST? (CONT’D)

Last post I discussed the first three of six essays making up the forum in the fall issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine titled Does God Exist? Today I will look at the last three essays.

Elizabeth Burns (University of London) refreshes the cosmological argument which states that if all individual things in the universe are caused, there must be a first cause, i.e. God. She notes this argument was derived by the kalam school of ninth century Arabic philosophy, modified by Aquinas, and expanded more recently by William Lane Craig. She reviews the two main counter-arguments: (1) Why does the universe require an explanation? and (2) By this line of logic, God then should also require a cause or explanation. Rather than parse the argument, Burns introduces, from the Chandogya Upanishad,  the teaching of Sushanta Sen, that God created the universe from His own nature making God both creator and physical substance of the universe.3 Periodic reabsorption and reinfusing of God’s nature leads to an ‘Oscillating Universe.’ Conceding this exact description appears contrary to current science, she extracts the pantheist or panentheistic elements suggesting a conjoining of God the World and God the Good (the latter mirroring Plato’s idea of the Good). She then pairs her cosmological argument – a complex universe must derive from progressively less complex parts to the least complex (God as the single non-complex, non-contingent) – with an ontological argument – degrees of goodness in the universe require an ‘Unsurpassable Goodness’ (also God). I doubt her argument is philosophically sound, but find its mix of science, logic, and spirituality refreshing.

Next Erik J. Wielenberg (DePauw University) takes on the moral argument for God’s existence, wherein human morality is based on the divine, and thus the nonexistence of God would permit undesirable and  unabated, self-interested behavior by man. Wielenberg does not thinks virtue depends on God; just as goodness is caused by things in themselves, so moral behavior is within the choice of action itself. Specifically he argues Kant is wrong in believing that since we have a duty to pursue the highest good, God is implied as only He can order the highest good. Wielenberg believes “our real moral obligation is simply to get as close to the highest good as we can.”  I have never found the moral argument to be persuasive, and Weilenberg’s reasoning seems valid to me.

Last, Neil A. Manson (University of Mississippi) reviews the modern version of the teleologic argument, that is, the universe is so finely tuned, it could not occur by chance. His position is this proof is less viable if physicists are right about the existence of a multiverse. In response to theists who protest the theory of a multiverse is untestable and simply an atheist’s refuge to deny God’s existence, he notes many physicists believe the theory of the multiverse comes directly out of our current understanding of physics and cosmology and is or will be testable in the future. For now I find the fine-tuning argument evidentiary rather than conclusive and think we must allow scientists a chance to validate the hypothesis of a multiverse. Regardless this theory seems unlikely to answer the harder question of why there is anything at all!

In conclusion five of the presenters argue against the demonstration of God while Burns is the one voice in support of divinity. This fits proportionately to the recent (non-theist) philosophical literature I have read. In my synthesis of the arguments and subjective rationale for God, I concluded that God as origin of the universe does exist (see posts on this site 3/18. 3/20, and 3/22/19 and Table 3 in the Appendix). For the most part, the six articles in this Forum do not appear to contradict my synthesis.

 

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 86, 3rd  Quarter 2019.

2Pascal, Blaise, Pensees. The Great Books Volume 33, 1952. Page 215.

3There is an uncanny similarity of Sen’s theory to that of the ancient Jewish Sages – see July 6 2019 post this site – God and Physics.

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CURRENT READING – DOES GOD EXIST?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Philosopher’s Magazine1

“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then without hesitation, that He is.”- Blaise Pascal.2

The Forum in the third quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Does God Exist? It consists of six essays offering contemporary reformulations and refutations of common arguments or proofs for the existence of God. (See also posts date February 11, February 13, and February 15, 2019 on this site)

The first essay is an update on the ontological argument. Graham Oppy (Monash University; Melbourne, Australia) discounts traditional versions espoused by Anselm and Descartes, and investigates modern ‘modal’ versions, meaning those built around concepts of possibility, contingency, necessity, and actuality. He concludes that these versions also fail although his arguments are too complex to summarize in this brief post. It seems to me the problem with any ontological argument is a faulty premise – that anything can meet the criterion of infinity. Infinity is a concept not an actual measure as is easily confirmed by trying to imagine a number beyond which no greater number exists.

Paul Bartha (University of British Columbia) then takes on Pascal’s wager (see epigram above). He reviews the four historical responses: (1) it is parochial – would a God who accepted this be worthy of worship – and which religion’s version would be best (many-gods objection); (2) it is inauthentic – God would likely reject this reasoning; (3) it violates the ethics of belief –i.e. it is merely wishful thinking; and (4) it is mathematically suspect due to uncertainty of God’s likelihood and gains from belief.  Bartha seems to find the last of these most interesting, doing a detailed analysis knowing it may fail with respect to belief in God, but may be useful elsewhere such as in environmental decision making. I find the ‘wager’ ineffective, but believe like William James that, in formulating our life’s course, we inevitably choose a stance on God’s existence based on belief rather than certainty– and yes, no decision (agnosticism) is a choice.

Tiddy Smith addresses the ‘common consent’ argument – the theory that since a large majority – about 95%  of people (and even 80% of philosophers, i.e. the “experts”) believe there is a divine being or higher power, it is likely to be true. His refutation is that religion is manufactured (rather than arising independently in the majority) and socially reinforced. He notes the anthropology literature finds isolated hunter-gatherer groups typically do not believe in a personal God (about 15%, although 24% accept a deistic God). Rather most embrace ancestor worship or natural spirits. I find this line of reasoning flawed as the logical response is to suggest that intellectual and spiritual advancement reveal to humans the error of these naïve beliefs, an awe of the universe and its governing laws, and for many an awareness of the divine therein.

(continued next post)

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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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