Posts tagged ‘God’
I’ve been reading Josephus’ Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews in recent months, and I came across this delightful story set around 500 BC in Persia – giving an interesting twist to the decree to rebuild Jerusalem as told in the Bible.
Now, in the first year of the king’s reign, Darius feasted those that were about him, and those born in his house, with the rulers of the Medes, and princes of the Persians, and the toparchs of India and Ethiopia, and the generals of the armies of his hundred and twenty-seven provinces. But when they had eaten and drunk to satiety, and abundantly, they every one departed to go to bed at their own houses, and Darius the king went to bed; but after he had rested a little part of the night, he awaked, and not being able to sleep any more, he fell into conversation with the three guards of his body, and promised, that to him who should make an oration about points that he should inquire of, such as should be most agreeable to truth, and to the dictates of wisdom, he would grant it as a reward of his victory, to put on a purple garment, and to drink in cups of gold, and to sleep upon gold, and to have a chariot with bridles of gold, and a head tire of fine linen, and a chain of gold about his neck, and to sit next to himself, on account of his wisdom; “and,” says he, “he shall be called my cousin.” Now when he had promised to give them these gifts, he asked the first of them, “Whether wine was not the strongest?”—the second, “Whether kings were not such?”—and the third, “Whether women were not such? or whether truth was not the strongest of all?” When he had proposed that they should make their inquiries about these problems, he went to rest; but in the morning he sent for his great men, his princes, and toparchs of Persia and Media, and set himself down in the place where he used to give audience, and bid each of the guards of his body to declare what they thought proper concerning the proposed questions, in the hearing of them all.
Accordingly, the first of them began to speak of the strength of wine, and demonstrated it thus: “When,” said he, “I am to give my opinion of wine, O you men, I find that it exceeds every thing, by the following indications: It deceives the mind of those that drink it, and reduces that of the king to the same state with that of the orphan, and he who stands in need of a tutor; and erects that of the slave to the boldness of him that is free; and that of the needy becomes like that of the rich man, for it changes and renews the souls of men when it gets into them; and it quenches the sorrow of those that are under calamities, and makes men forget the debts they owe to others, and makes them think themselves to be of all men the richest; it makes them talk of no small things, but of talents, and such other names as become wealthy men only; nay more, it makes them insensible of their commanders, and of their kings, and takes away the remembrance of their friends and companions, for it arms men even against those that are dearest to them, and makes them appear the greatest strangers to them; and when they are become sober, and they have slept out their wine in the night, they arise without knowing any thing they have done in their cups. I take these for signs of power, and by them discover that wine is the strongest and most insuperable of all things.”
As soon as the first had given the forementioned demonstrations of the strength of wine, he left off; and the next to him began to speak about the strength of a king, and demonstrated that it was the strongest of all, and more powerful than any thing else that appears to have any force or wisdom. He began his demonstration after the following manner; and said, “They are men who govern all things; they force the earth and the sea to become profitable to them in what they desire, and over these men do kings rule, and over them they have authority. Now those who rule over that animal which is of all the strongest and most powerful, must needs deserve to be esteemed insuperable in power and force. For example, when these kings command their subjects to make wars, and undergo dangers, they are hearkened to; and when they send them against their enemies, their power is so great that they are obeyed. They command men to level mountains, and to pull down walls and towers; nay, when they are commanded to be killed and to kill, they submit to it, that they may not appear to transgress the king’s commands; and when they have conquered, they bring what they have gained in the war to the king. Those also who are not soldiers, but cultivate the ground, and plough it, and when, after they have endured the labor and all the inconveniences of such works of husbandry, they have reaped and gathered in their fruits, they bring tributes to the king; and whatsoever it is which the king says or commands, it is done of necessity, and that without any delay, while he in the mean time is satiated with all sorts of food and pleasures, and sleeps in quiet. He is guarded by such as watch, and such as are, as it were, fixed down to the place through fear; for no one dares leave him, even when he is asleep, nor does any one go away and take care of his own affairs; but he esteems this one thing the only work of necessity, to guard the king, and accordingly to this he wholly addicts himself. How then can it be otherwise, but that it must appear that the king exceeds all in strength, while so great a multitude obeys his injunctions?”
Now when this man had held his peace, the third of them, who was Zorobabel, began to instruct them about women, and about truth, who said thus: “Wine is strong, as is the king also, whom all men obey, but women are superior to them in power; for it was a woman that brought the king into the world; and for those that plant the vines and make the wine, they are women who bear them, and bring them up: nor indeed is there any thing which we do not receive from them; for these women weave garments for us, and our household affairs are by their means taken care of, and preserved in safety; nor can we live separate from women. And when we have gotten a great deal of gold and silver, and any other thing that is of great value, and deserving regard, and see a beautiful woman, we leave all these things, and with open mouth fix our eyes upon her countenance, and are willing to forsake what we have, that we may enjoy her beauty, and procure it to ourselves. We also leave father, and mother, and the earth that nourishes us, and frequently forget our dearest friends, for the sake of women; nay, we are so hardy as to lay down our lives for them. But what will chiefly make you take notice of the strength of women is this that follows: Do not we take pains, and endure a great deal of trouble, and that both by land and sea, and when we have procured somewhat as the fruit of our labors, do not we bring them to the women, as to our mistresses, and bestow them upon them? Nay, I once saw the king, who is lord of so many people, smitten on the face by Apame, the daughter of Rabsases Themasius, his concubine, and his diadem taken away from him, and put upon her own head, while he bore it patiently; and when she smiled he smiled, and when she was angry he was sad; and according to the change of her passions, he flattered his wife, and drew her to reconciliation by the great humiliation of himself to her, if at my time he saw her displeased at him.”
And when the princes and rulers looked one upon another, he began to speak about truth; and he said, “I have already demonstrated how powerful women are; but both these women themselves, and the king himself, are weaker than truth; for although the earth be large, and the heaven high, and the course of the sun swift, yet are all these moved according to the will of God, who is true and righteous, for which cause we also ought to esteem truth to be the strongest of all things, and that what is unrighteous is of no force against it. Moreover, all things else that have any strength are mortal and short-lived, but truth is a thing that is immortal and eternal. It affords us not indeed such a beauty as will wither away by time, nor such riches as may be taken away by fortune, but righteous rules and laws. It distinguishes them from injustice, and puts what is unrighteous to rebuke.”
So when Zorobabel had left off his discourse about truth, and the multitude had cried out aloud that he had spoken the most wisely, and that it was truth alone that had immutable strength, and such as never would wax old, the king commanded that he should ask for somewhat over and above what he had promised, for that he would give it him because of his wisdom, and that prudence wherein he exceeded the rest; “and thou shalt sit with me,” said the king, “and shalt be called my cousin.” When he had said this, Zorobabel put him in mind of the vow he had made in case he should ever have the kingdom. Now this vow was, “to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God; as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon. And this,” said he, “is that request which thou now permittest me to make, on account that I have been judged to be wise and understanding.’”
A couple of days ago, I talked about Paul Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté—a “post-critical” stage—and ended by taking a very broad-brush approach to see the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical as historical stages of the Christian West, the pre-critical being the general Christian consensus prior to Modernity, the critical being the reductionism that marked Modernity, and the post-critical being the Zeitgeist of post-modernism.
Sticking to the broad brush, Kelton Cobb seems to argue in his Guide to Theology and Popular Culture that there has been a general cultural shift away from the critical period of Modernity toward a kind of second naïveté. He takes as an example the humorous (sometimes crudely so) but thought-provoking movie Dogma, which came out in 1999 and features two angels, Loki (Matt Damon) and Bartleby (Ben Affleck), who “have been whiling away the last 4,000 years in Wisconsin, where they were banished by God following a small act of rebellion in the wake of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. … Loki had misgivings about the destruction of Sodom, and quietly raised the question with Bartleby about how it is that a loving God could be so full of wrath. Commiserating with each other, the two got drunk and gave God the finger. As punishment they were banished to Wisconsin, where they were to remain until the end of time itself, when they will be destroyed.”
Finally, however, they find “a window of opportunity—to flee Wisconsin, escape their pending destruction, and ‘go home’ to the God who rejected them.”
Cobb finds the fact that the two suffering angels desire to “go home” at all very worthy of note, because they long to “return to bask in the divine presence of the One whose justice they doubt and whose judgment of them had been their undoing. After 4,000 years of stewing on God’s wrath and their own rejection, they want back in. … The story seems to concur with the idea that even a God whose exercise of justice is faulty is worthy of the longing of creatures who scramble to return to the divine presence. This is different from an earlier generation that, as William James observed, so objected to the image of a wrathful God that they either exorcised this attribute from God’s countenance or abandoned their belief in God altogether. Like Tolstoy and Bunyan, Loki and Bartleby have undergone the depths of despair, suffered the dark flank of God, and come out the other side through a second birth.”
In other words, Ricoeur would say that they had reached a second naïveté.
Cobb goes on to talk about Ricoeur having described the present as a “period of mourning for the gods who have died,” an in-between stage “in which the ancient gods of morality have died of obsolescence and exhaustion. An essential theological task demanded in this period of mourning, he goes on to suggest, is a long recuperative wandering, a detour through the texts of our culture.”
Personally, though, I think Cobb takes the movie a bit too seriously, even if the thoughts he pegs on it might be valid.
In Psalm 14:1, we find the statement, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Thomas Aquinas and many others have used this verse to talk about atheism versus theism. But what did the Psalmist really have in mind? I doubt it was an intellectual, highly theoretical and abstract disputation about the existence or non-existence of a transcendent Absolute Entity we call “God.”
First of all, the Hebrew word translated as "fool" is not primarily someone who lacks intelligence but who is morally deficient. Second, and in line with that, the whole Psalm is about "evildoers" who "devour" God’s people and oppress the poor. Therefore, the statement about the fool saying in his heart that there is no God is meant to convey: People who suppress their conscience and mistreat other people say to themselves, "There is no one who will take me to account. There is no ultimate justice. I will get away with my crimes."
But neither does the Psalm assert that atheists are necessarily morally deficient. In my understanding, the Psalmist does not say, "All those who deny God’s existence are morally deficient." Rather, he means to say, "All those who blatantly mistreat other people cannot, in their heart of hearts, really believe that there is a God who will hold them accountable."
He does not say, "He who does not believe in God is a fool," but, "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’" Note the phrase, "The fool says in his heart …" The "fool" may outwardly proclaim quite loudly allegiance to God. But if he acts in such a way that it shows utter disregard to others, his outward confession of faith belies what is in his heart.
Of course, by interpreting Psalm 14 in this way I do not deny that there is a long Western tradition about atheists not being morally upright—a tradition that several morally upright atheists of the past few centuries have tried to dispel.
As mentioned in my last post, I recently read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. It is certainly a worthwhile read, even if only for the many testimonies that James gathered for his work. I should add, however, that a large proportion of these testimonies comes from a Christian background, so the Varieties do not have quite as much variety as one might hope of such a work. Still, it should be praised for taking religious experiences seriously and not dismissing them out of hand only because they are religious.
Now on to the problems. James’ pragmatic approach to religious experience, which essentially says that one ought to judge the value of religious experiences solely by their fruit, raises many questions. As Richard Rorty has pointed out, it is not quite clear in James whether or not the actual existence of God/gods is relevant. At times, James talks as if it were of no consequence whatsoever whether or not there really is a spiritual realm beyond our perception. At other times, he seems to say that it matters a great deal.
For example, he says, “Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion’s fruits in merely human terms of value. How can you measure their worth without considering whether the God really exists who is supposed to inspire them? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted by men to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion—it would be unreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deity were really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitly assuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own as much as if you were a scholastic philosopher.”
This is an important point. For instance, the Aztecs (in what is now Mexico) believed that the shedding of human blood and the sacrificing of human life were necessary to keep the cosmos running. Without continuous human sacrifice, the present age would come to an end. Now, as James rightly pointed out, it matters a great deal whether or not this belief is actually true. If it is true, then human sacrifices are necessary. Perhaps we might still consider it an evil, but a necessary evil. As the many wars even in our own time show, we are quite willing to sacrifice human life if we think it necessary for the protection or continuation of our society. And, since we tend to sanction and even sanctify whatever we deem necessary, we might even consider human sacrifice a noble institution. (For anyone who has a hard time imaging how people could ever consider human sacrifice a noble institution, I recommend the novel Aztec by Gary Jennings.)
Now in our modern democracies we tend to say, “You can have any religious belief whatsoever, but you still have to keep the law. If your religion induces you to act against the law, you will be punished like everyone else.” But such a separation between belief and practice is not completely honest. If the Aztec belief is true that human sacrifices are necessary to keep the cosmos running, then, to any morally-minded person, this cosmic reality ought to take precedence over any petty national laws. If the belief is true, it becomes a moral imperative to disobey the law and keep sacrificing humans.
Or, to use a more relevant example for us, take the belief in the existence of an immortal soul. If, as some firmly believe, an immortal soul is created at the moment of conception—or, alternatively, if a pre-existing soul unites itself with the human cells at the moment of conception—then we cannot simply consider the fertilized human egg a fertilized human egg. If this belief is true, then taking the morning-after pill would amount to separating a soul from its body. Our common word for that is murder. And if you truly believe that every woman who takes a morning-after pill is a murderess—and probably a mass-murderess at that—you might feel morally driven to take extreme measures to prevent such murder from taking place. Most people would not consider it morally reprehensible to kill a mass-murderer who is about to kill further victims, if his death is the only way to prevent more crimes. Granted, killing pregnant women would be of little point, since you would kill the baby with her, but targeting abortion clinics or the manufacturers or sellers of morning-after pills would be morally justifiable or even obligatory.
So, by making laws prohibiting such actions, governments are taking a clear stance on the truth or falsehood of certain religious beliefs. By telling the believers in Aztec theology and those who believe in the existence of an immortal soul, “You are not allowed to act out the logical conclusions of your beliefs,” governments are making the clear statement that those beliefs are not true. If they granted that these beliefs might be true, they would make appropriate allowances in the law—just in case Aztec believers really are saving the cosmos through human sacrifices and believers in an immortal soul really are preventing mass-murder.
Like James says, “To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent.”
But then, how do we decide which beliefs we reject outright and which beliefs we tolerate as possibly true? Only those who fit our own moral framework? But where does our moral framework come from? Our moral framework is to a large extent determined by the kind of presuppositions we have about the world. How can we judge religious claims by their fruit if tastes vary so significantly between different people? In that case, we are using a kind of reasoning that my two-year old daughter is fond of using at the moment, “I like bananas because … I like bananas.” My daughter has picked up from us older ones that she ought to, if possible, give a rational justification for her opinions, but in many cases the only rationale she is able to give is her own preference.
Does, then, the Jamesean maxim “Judge a religion by its fruit” simply boil down to “Judge a religion by whatever suits your taste?”
Well, in some passages James comes very close to saying so: “But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empirical evolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral and religious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressively develop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.”
To summarize: Sometimes it matters a great deal whether a religious belief is objectively true or not, because the belief determines whether certain actions are considered right or wrong. Judging religious beliefs merely by their fruit is insufficient, since people’s tastes change significantly throughout the ages. One might say, “Well, then, let’s not judge religious beliefs at all.” But that is not an option either, because we need to make laws to govern civilization, and some of those laws prohibit what would be the logical consequences of certain beliefs.
Would anyone like to contradict my conclusion? Did I misunderstand James?
As I wrote in my post on the history of Idealism, Idealism asserts that what is most real and/or accessible to us humans are our ideas or thoughts about the world, and it is an open question to what degree those thoughts actually correspond to an outside reality.
Now G.E. Moore set out to refute Idealism in his essay of 1903, and his basic criticism is surprisingly simple—that is, if I understand him correctly. Essentially, he is saying that Idealism would lead to an infinite regress, and if Realism cannot be supported, then neither can Idealism.
If you haven’t read the essay, this explanation is probably not yet very clear. Let me try to spell it out more.
Perhaps his refutation can best be illustrated by saying that G.E. Moore is using the same basic argument against Idealism that Bertrand Russell and others have used against Theism, which is the old question, “Well, if God made the world, then who made God?” God as an explanation for why the world exists, said Russell, doesn’t explain anything, because you are still left with the question of why God exists. You have only pushed the question back one level. Better not to push at all, otherwise you would land in an infinite regress. The Leibnizian question, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” is unanswerable for us humans, and the belief in God does not solve it. We are still left to ask, “Why does God exist rather than nothing?”
Now, it might be said that God is a more fitting end point for the ultimate mystery of existence than a material universe, and personally I am actually inclined to think so, but here I’m only using it as an example for how G.E. Moore tries to tackle Idealism. He basically says to Idealists, “You wish to push back our perception of reality one level by pointing out that all we have of reality is our awareness of it, and therefore we can only affirm our awareness rather than the reality itself. Well, but then how do you know about your awareness? Of your awareness you are also merely aware, so why not doubt the validity even of your awareness? And then you could doubt the validity of the awareness of your awareness, ad infinitum. Better stop at the outside reality than go down that infinite road of an explanation that ultimately explains nothing.”
To use G.E. Moore’s actual words: “[T]he existence of a table in space is related to my experience of it in precisely the same way as the existence of my own experience is related to my experience of that. Of both we are merely aware: if we are aware that the one exists, we are aware in precisely the same sense that the other exists; and if it is true that my experience can exist, even when I do not happen to be aware of its existence, we have exactly the same reason for supposing that the table can do so also. When, therefore, Berkeley, supposed that the only thing of which I am directly aware is my own sensations and ideas, he supposed what was false; and when Kant supposed that the objectivity of things in space consisted in the fact that they were ‘Vorstellungen’ having to one another different relations from those which the same ‘Vorstellungen’ have to one another in subjective experience, he supposed what was equally false.”
At first this seems like a good point, but I am not sure that G.E. Moore is right. Does he really refute Idealism as such or only Berkeley’s Idealism, and perhaps even a straw-man Berkeley at that? The popular conception of Berkeley is that he said: “Being means being perceived. Therefore, when I am not looking at the tree over there, it isn’t there.” This caricature of Berkeley’s Idealism ignores the most important ingredient of his philosophy, namely God. For Berkeley, God is always present everywhere and perceives everything, and therefore everything is real because it derives its reality directly from God.
So yes, G.E. Moore does refute Berkeleyism, but only the popular conception of it that leaves out God. Moore is correct to say: If you think that things in the outside world do not exist when you are not perceiving them—if perception is the only reality that exists—then you also need to say that your awareness does not exist when you are not thinking about the fact that you are aware of things.
But does this refute Idealism as such? Does this change the fact that I can be much more directly aware of my awareness than I can be of the outside reality? I don’t think so. I can only perceive the laptop in front of me through my five senses: I see its bright screen, I feel the keys on my fingertips, I hear its sound of the fan, I can bend over it and smell the warm metal and plastic; I can even stick out my tongue and taste it. All of this information is transmitted by neurons to my brain and interpreted there in a certain way because my brain is wired to perceive reality in a certain way. What exactly is this laptop apart from my perceiving it?—Well, that is quite a different question from the question of my immediate perception. I am aware of the laptop, but what is the laptop apart from my awareness? A difficult issue, and one that the best philosophers and scientists in the world keep grappling with.
In contrast, in order to be aware of my awareness, all I need to do is to think: “I see, I touch, I hear, I smell, I taste something that I call a laptop.” No one can tell me that I am not having these sensations and that I construe these sensation into the concept “laptop” because sensations and mental constructions are subjective and non-debatable. Perhaps I am hallucinating, perhaps the objective reality of this thing called laptop is radically different from my perceptions, but my perceptions and the concepts in my mind are still real. As far as I am concerned, they are the most real and most accessible things in existence.
Therefore, contrary to what G.E. Moore said, my awareness of the laptop does not stand in exactly the same relation to the laptop as my awareness stands in relation to my awareness. The first is the relation between something subjective to something objective; the other is simply the acknowledgment of the fact that I am having a certain subjective experience.
For me, G.E. Moore has not refuted Idealism. But perhaps I misconstrued his argument and, while criticising him for attacking a straw-man Berkeley, have erected a straw man myself? I have a hard time believing that such a philosophically highly educated man as Moore fell prey to misrepresenting Berkeley and am rather inclined to think that I am misrepresenting Moore. If so, I would welcome more objective input.
The basic plot of the tale takes place in ancient Babylon, where a virtuous citizen by the name of Zadig rises in the esteem of the king but is betrayed by envious neighbors. Consequently, he falls out of favor with the king and becomes a wanderer in the Middle East, enduring injustice, ingratitude and all manner of suffering. After a while, a civil war breaks out in Babylon, which gives Zadig the opportunity to return and conquer his enemies. In the end, Zadig is king and rules with justice.
That’s the basic plot. But there are several philosophical questions raised by the experiences of Zadig, some of them implicit in the storyline and others explicitly asked by various characters.
When I wrote about Voltaire’s Micromegas, I quoted Professor Kors. Let me quote him again now to list the questions he sees in the text:
- What are the ethics (not the form) of good government? What matters under any form of government are the morals, civic virtues, and compassion of whoever rules and the ruler’s capacity to remain above flattery.
- Why does so much human injustice exist in the world?
- What might be remedies of human injustice?
- What is the role of chance in human justice?
- Why does chance seem so opposed to divine providence?
- Can one look at the human condition and find divine justice?
As is typical of Voltaire, he raises these questions without giving a definite answer to any of them. Rather, he shows the dilemmas of our human condition and thus creates empathy in the reader. Voltaire is foremost a humanist, not a system builder or even at all a systematic thinker.
Although justice triumphs in the end, much of Zadig is dominated by injustice, and it raises the old question of Plato’s Republic: What is justice? What would justice look like? How can we achieve a just society? Is it possible to achieve justice on earth or is injustice so deeply engrained in us that all we can do is to create a few safeguards against the inevitable abuse of power? Should we have an optimistic or a pessimistic view on human nature? Should we go with Hobbes or with Rousseau? And finally, how are we to reconcile God’s justice and providence with the obvious injustice within human civilization?