Sunday, February 28, 2010

Religion and Philosophy

Does it ever occur to you to be entirely random? Does such a notion defeat the point: plan to be random? Part of me wonders if that's what happened when people started dreaming along lines of what we now understand as 'religion'. I think there was a measure of spontaneity involved in the philosophic meanderings on reality that easily makes a lateral step into religion.

Mind you, this begs the question of which came first: religion or philosophy. But I don't see the two as separate. I think they are conjoined twins. A person can't hold religious views without adopting the particular philosophical biases that undergird them. For example, Christianity sprang out of Hellenistic and Stoic philosophies. That is, the undercurrent of thought in Christianity is primarily Platonic. Christianity, as it were, is founded on Platonic thought.

Many is the objector to that notion, believe me. But there's no denying the parallel between Plato's perfect and derivative forms theory within Christianity. The core doctrine of Christianity, the incarnation of God in the man of Jesus, is exactly that: God, the perfect being, takes on the skin of a man, an imperfect and derivative (image and likeness) being. Yes, the notion of imago dei pre-existed the neo-Platonic Christian teaching of the incarnation. Yes, the Hebrew peoples saw humanity as directly linked to God. But this overlap doesn't invalidate my point, it affirms it: religious and philosophical querries are inseparable; they reinforce and build on each other.

So, Plato, being the philosophically savvy individual that he was, looks at the world around him and comes up with a speculation for what, why, and how things are. Hundreds of years later, the Jewish peoples host that same idea, but couch it in the notion of God dwelling with his people. The same ideas were birthed in the stories of Horus, Mithra, and Vishnu, to name a few. There is a common element amongst these religious views: the idea that the perfection that is God willingly reduces to the imperfection of man to show man how to behave and play well with others.

Great! But some burning little questions now heat my mind: what's to say that God simply isn't just a product of philosophy? That is, when human reason meets its limitations but intuits there may be more, is the notion of 'God' just a dumping ground, so to speak, for future speculations? Speculations that might carry with them more of the collective human experience; more of the newer, more refined attempts to understand what we haven't understood before? Might 'God' just be a linguistic application we employ to say "I don't know" but at the same time keep an empathic connection with our fellow creatures?

It's an interesting idea to think about. For me, at least. You can take it or leave it as you see fit. For now, however, I'm not so sure that 'religion' and 'philosophy' are creatures of a different kind. I think they're versions of the same thing: a cultural narrative.

17 comments:

E said...

I'm tempted to say that "religion" doesn't exist: it's a fabrication invented by classical liberal Protestantism.

But, along these lines, the Church does exist. I suspect it's probably pointless to argue over whether or not the Church has -- or is -- a religion.

Whereas it's now common to hear folks say they're "spiritual not religious" or that "they're troubled by organized religion", I'm inclined to say I'm... um, what's the right word... "Churchly".

There are many important senses in which I don't have a religion or a spirituality ("organized" or not), but I do have a Church.

RE: platonism/neo-platonism. I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

Whatever else we have to say about small 'o' orthodoxy, each step along the way is a rejection of neo-platonic impulses, no?

Exhibit A: Arianism. The orthodox confession of Christ is at once TOO divine and TOO human for the neo-platonist, no?

But, above all, there's something completely out of order, and very distasteful, about attempts to peer into the hidden psychology of others while ignoring the reasons they actually offer, publicly.

Plato thought he had reasoned out knowledge -- CERTAIN knowledge -- of these sorts of things, not speculative guesses or arguments-to-the-best-explanation. Yes, I think Plato was wrong about a lot, and above all was on the wrong track in his epistemology. But, in any case, to reach for these sorts of psychological explanations while bypassing Plato's reasons is to... well, bypass reason.

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

I get the distinct impression that you're displeased with my article. That you are concerned that my estimations of things amount to assuming about the psychological character of the figures I mentioned, and not necessarily dealing with the things they said.

I need to be clear that this is the case before I can answer to your critique.

Thank you,
Kane

E said...

Depends what you mean by displeased. I just tossed off some first reactions. I thought I was agreeing with about a 1/4 of what you were hinting at.

Plato and neo-platonists didn't use God as a dumping ground for the "I don't know" and Plato did not "speculate" (in the contemporary sense of "speculate") about these matters. In any case, God wasn't postulated in order to explain anything or fill in explanatory gaps.

Perhaps much more importantly, the tradition of Christian natural theology doesn't work this way either.

But, just display my piety and good standing to everyone in ear shot, let me say it: DON'T BE A PLATONIST.

E said...

Oops. It should read: "But, just TO display my piety and good standing to everyone in ear shot, let me say it: DON'T BE A PLATONIST."

And just so everyone's in on the joke, I'm talking not about my Christian piety, but my modern piety as an "intellectual" in "good standing." Ha! They need to demonstrate their piety too, so everyone knows they're on the right team.

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

Yes, I agree that Plato and the neoplatonists did not use the concept of God as a 'dumping ground'. My point in asking about the 'dumping ground' was not to link Plato to it, but to speculate/ponder if that is the case or not? My comments about Plato and the neoplatonists were just to show that there is an inextricable link between philosophy and theology.

Of course, 1000 years after Christ, Aristotle was re-discovered, and the Christian academy integrated Aristotelian schemes to undergird its theology. Again then, philosophy undergirds religion.

"In any case, God wasn't postulated in order to explain anything or fill in explanatory gaps."

Yes, that may be the case, but it may also not be the case. I'm aware that the notion of 'God' was taken as a plain fact, as much as the hands at the end of our arms. However, there is some merit, I think, to God also being an evolution of ancestor worship: the many ancestors eventually being replaced by the security of a single, multi-omni deity that could competently attend to us just as much as we attend to it.

"Perhaps much more importantly, the tradition of Christian natural theology doesn't work this way either."

You have me there. I'm not versed enough, yet, in natural theology to deal appropriately with your above statement.

However, yes, becoming a platonist is not a full-measure worldview.

E said...

You said: "I'm aware that the notion of 'God' was taken as a plain fact, as much as the hands at the end of our arms."

OK, now we're getting to it. Plato, et al, thought they achieved reasoned out knowledge that was more certain than mere sensory "opinion" about hands and such.

You said: "However, there is some merit, I think, to God also being an evolution of ancestor worship: the many ancestors eventually being replaced by the security of a single, multi-omni deity that could competently attend to us just as much as we attend to it."

Again, these folks thought they'd achieved reasoned out knowledge of God. And this God didn't do much attending to us, really. But, in any case, reaching for this kind of psychological explanation is a very strange tactic, no? We need to deal with their knowledge claim first, no?

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

"But, in any case, reaching for this kind of psychological explanation is a very strange tactic, no? We need to deal with their knowledge claim first, no?"

I'm not sure it's "strange" (as in, weird) so much as it's another layer. However, dealing with their knowledge claim is a good place to start.

You have a direction you'd like to go in this, so why don't you set out what claims you'd like to examine. I'm quite happy to learn from you, and discuss things with you.

E said...

Imagine someone launched into some sort of Freudian story in order to explain why I think I know trees or that the sum of 7 and 8 is 15.

BTW, Lewis called this "bulverism."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulverism

What I mean to narrow in on is the bypassing of the reasons (taken in the broadest sense) appealed to by the putative knowers. This is a serious betrayal of the ethics of the practice of reasoning together. The fact that we aren't shocked by this tactic displays our dullness to the living reality of the practice of reasoning together.

Yes, bulverism might be appropriate if you're dealing with folks with pathologically false beliefs. But in cases like that, you won't be practicing reasoning together, will you?

I say that abdicating the practice of reasoning together is a strange tactic for the so-called champions of reason.

And I say that the question of whether the Christian proclamation is false, even pathologically so, is answerable only in view of certain external matters of fact.

In this way I differ from folks who'd say that, whether or not the Christian proclamation is true as an external matter of fact, there's no rational way for us to get into epistemic contact with it.

Though, back to my main point, DOWN WITH BULVERISM!!!

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

Okay, so down with Bulverism. I'm familiar with Lewis's essay, having read it many years ago. Nevertheless, thank you for the reminder.

Yes, using Freud to explain trees and sums is skewing the subjects. However, I'm not sure how my speculations equal unethical reasoning. Like I said earlier, my use of Plato was purely an example to show how a doctrine in Christianity directly parallels a teaching from Plato. This hardly breaches ethical reasoning anymore than drawing a parallel between growing methods for McIntosh apples and growing methods of Fuji apples.

It's entirely possible I'm completely missing your point. If that's the case, then okay, I'll keep thinking about your statements.

I take it from your comments though, that you would like to rebut my speculations as bulverisms and encourage a maieutic exchange. I think that would be wonderful.

I'm just not sure where you'd like to start. Are there any particular claims you'd like to deal with? And particular philosophical positions you'd like to examine?

E said...

Point of clarification: I was thinking of this:

"...there is some merit, I think, to God also being an evolution of ancestor worship: the many ancestors eventually being replaced by the security of a single, multi-omni deity that could competently attend to us just as much as we attend to it."

(Not the stuff about Plato at the foundation of Christian theology.)

Taken in the loosest and broadest sense, this story seems possible.

But some folks think they know God and have something to say about how they know God. Maybe they're deluded. But you haven't reasoned with them if haven't addressed what they have to say about it. That's simply how the game of "reasoning together" (so to speak) works.

Here's where Bulverism would be fitting: if someone argued that there's no way to explain the existence of putative knowledge of God unless it's a matter of fact that God exists. That sort of argument explicitly invites the Bulverist response, no?

It's probably also worth noting that this evolutionary story, as far as it goes, is perfectly compatible with the Christian proclamation, no? It might even be true.

But, used as a Bulverism, it misses the point, I'd say.

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

Okay. That's fine if we're looking at things from within the scope of Christianity. But what if I wanted to take a look at things from outside Christianity? What if I wanted to throw out some anthropological ideas for examination? These things would be appropriate to do from a non-Christian point-of-view, wouldn't they?

The ancestor theory does seem possible, yes. It can even fit in with a Christian worldview, I agree. However, you and I both know that possible is not the same as plausible or probable. That being said, I think the only honest position to take on matters of the genesis of religion is practical agnosticism: we simply don't know how religion began.

Religion seems like a human impulse; but why? Religion is pandemic, yes, but is it an archaic form of philosophy? Can anything more than possible answers be given to these questions? In fact, when it comes to matters of ultimate significance, are any answers ever more than possible?

E said...

"But what if I wanted to take a look at things from outside Christianity? What if I wanted to throw out some anthropological ideas for examination? These things would be appropriate to do from a non-Christian point-of-view, wouldn't they?"

I try to keep my feet on the ground, so to speak. In terms of the real life encounter between a Christian and an outsider, the outsider cannot rightly claim to

(i) have entered into the game of reasoning with the Christian

AND

(ii) have used reason to see to that the Christian's beliefs are irrational

unless and until they've addressed the Christian's self understanding of how they know what they seem to know.

I say this is so based on the elementary rules of the game of reasoning together.

But, yes, so long as the outsider is minding his own business, and so long as the outsider isn't curious (in all seriousness, not an veiled insult), they can do whatever they want. They should always believe what seems true, all things considered.

This is where epistemic virtues come in, I think. How curious should I be? What's interesting? What's a live option worthy of my consideration?

Our answers to these sorts of question will, in some vital way, take the form of "too much" or "too little" or "about right."

It is easy (for us all) to shield ourselves from the truth by throwing water on the spark of curiosity, no?

Depending on the postures we adopt towards the world, and our willingness to think through reasoned-out knowledge claims, we can be culpably ignorant. We'd better justify our doubts as well as our beliefs.

All of these considerations are constantly in flux. In the end, we must, and really cannot help but, take a stand how things seem to us, all things considered, and to endorse our degree of curiousness with regard to the multitude of proclamations that come our way as fitting.

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

"In terms of the real life encounter between a Christian and an outsider, the outsider cannot rightly claim to

(i) have entered into the game of reasoning with the Christian

AND

(ii) have used reason to see to that the Christian's beliefs are irrational

unless and until they've addressed the Christian's self understanding of how they know what they seem to know."


I think this is where you and I differ. I don't see any reason why a non-Christian cannot understand the propositions set-out by the Christian, even have just as intimate an understanding of them as the Christian. The only thing the Christian can claim apart from the non-Christian is 'revelation'. That, however, is just as much a subjective claim as the non-Christian saying "you can't really appreciate what I'm saying until you have the same intuitive flash", or "the same dream", or "the same feeling."

What is layed out in Christian doctrine is just as accessible to non-Christians as to Christians. If it weren't, then we'd have to wonder at the capability of those recording the Christian faith.

To that end, when someone like Christopher Hitchens states that he does understand the propositions set out by Catholics and that he disagrees with them for this-that-and-the-other reason, we can be reasonably certain that Hitchens does understand those claims. He's simply not part of the 'club', so to speak.

One does not need to be part of the 'club' to understand what the club asserts. If that were the case, we'd have nothing to argue against Muslims, Gnostics, New Agers, et al. We'd always come up against the stone-wall that states "because you're not one of us, you cannot possibly reason with or against us." Hogwash!

It simply isn't true that if I disagree with you, I must take on your allegiances to understand you before continuing to disagree with you.

In the case of Plato, and the platonists, I can see (given that your are much more educated in philosophy than I am) that you probably find a lack of understanding in my representation. I wholeheartedly grant that: I am not a platonist, nor have I studied the corpus of Plato's works. My knowledge is limited, and I've made some tongue-in-cheek remarks based on what little I do understand. At the same time, I don't need to become a platonist to argue against platonism.

So, I will repeat it again, just to make sure I've said it to my conscience's satisfaction: I don't have to be a follower of any religious or philosophical outlooks in order to understand them, even argue against them.

I think that's a reasonable place to be.

Kane Augustus said...

p.s. This does not mean that I don't have a duty to attempt understanding of what other claimants make, however. The object of conversation is to speak to and with each other in an effort to bring about a unified understanding. If that is not pursued, then people chat at cross-purposes in a crossed-monologue, which is a bit of shame.

E said...

You said: "I don't have to be a follower of any religious or philosophical outlooks in order to understand them, even argue against them."

Yes.

You said: "The object of conversation is to speak to and with each other in an effort to bring about a unified understanding."

Yes.

Just to recap what I think I've been on about... as I recall, at least:

Some folks claim that the notion of "God" arrose as a kind of magical explanatory catch-all/stop-gap.

This becomes a Bulverism if people reach for it before they've looked into whether or not we do have knowledge of God. You should look into whether a belief is false before you try to explain how such a "false" belief arose.

The question of whether someone is actually engaged in a Bulversim is difficult to answer in any decisive way.

For example, if I encounter someone raving about aliens who follow them around in black helicopters, I probably won't look into their claims. Given my limited resources, I don't have time to look into it, and broadly speaking, it just doesn't feel like a live option.

If he says the only (or perhaps the best) explanation for his belief about the aliens is that he's right, I'll give him some explanatory story about how the belief arose. (Grab an abnormal psych textbook, I suppose.)

This might be a Bulverism, but who'd blame me?

Is the knowledge of God which the Church proclaims like this crazy belief about the aliens?

If my goal is to publicly address the question of aliens chasing us, and to convince folks to not take this stuff seriously, I'd better look into what these alien proclaimers have to say, no? Maybe they ARE being chased by aliens?

I don't have time to inquire, but if I take on inquiry as my goal, I'd better make sure I actually do it.

I suspect someone like Hitchens will want to know what the evidence for God is. By this he means something like: "For what do we need to postulate God as an explanation?"

Now, obviously, he'll say that we've explained so much that we don't need to reach for God to explain things anymore.

But this only shows that his understanding of the knowledge of God is hopelessly provincial and quaintly modern, in the old-fashioned sense. (And his general epistemology too.) The very structure of his inquiry into the knowledge of God is flawed from the beginning.

Still, who can blame him? He's not a philosopher, and very very few philosophers specialize in the philosophy of religion. And, above all, very few philosophers have an adequate epistemology.

Each of these claims I've made is highly debatable, but, and this is key for me, the debate hardly ever (if EVER) gets to these matters.

All of this is very subtle and interesting, and that's why I find so much of what goes on in the popular debates hilariously inadequate.

Kane Augustus said...

Ed,

I'll square with you: I don't think I'm committing a bulverism by tossing out for consideration the possibility that Dennett's ancestor theory may have some merit. I haven't made any positive assertions that Dennett's theory is actually the case. Nor have I made any negative assertions that traditional notions for knowledge of God are not the case.

Given that there have been many theories for the emergence of a belief in God, listing one of them in a speculative article does not equal a bulverism. At least, not to my way of thinking.

"I suspect someone like Hitchens will want to know what the evidence for God is. By this he means something like: "For what do we need to postulate God as an explanation?"

Yes, Hitchens may take Laplace's angle on God as a necessary postulate. That, unfortunately for Hitchens, may very well be a bulverism of the highest order: to dismiss out-of-hand the question of the knowledge of God because and alternate explanation can be given that doesn't include the necessity for the knowledge of God.

I agree with you there. I also agree with you that shirking the responsibility to develop a sound epistemology is tragic to the philosopher in general. In that sense, I have a lot of work ahead of me. My thoughts on the issue of God are in a tumbling free-fall, perhaps because I have an inadequate epistemology.

You are insightful, Ed. I enjoy that. Please continue. I'm eager to read what you write next. :^)

E said...

I think you're right: the ancestor theory needn't be a bulverism. Although, I suspect Dennett might be a bulverist.

In Breaking the Spell he offers up the ancestor theory as the best explanation for the existence of... well... "religious experience" I suppose.

Actually, now that I think about it, DOES he do this?

Really he offers up the ancestor theory *PLUS atheism* as the best explanation.

Three things worth noting:

(1) The Church doesn't present her proclamation and then argue that its being true is the best explanation for its existence. (That would invite a full-fledged bulverist response.)

(2) The Church doesn't *postulate* God or "the supernatural." Any evaluation of these as postulates gets off on the wrong foot, I'd say.

(3) It seems to me that it's the *atheism* that's doing all the heavy lifting here, not the ancestor theory.

The Church could sign off on the ancestor theory (*PLUS theism*, of course!)

But Dennett couldn't sign off on the ancestor theory *PLUS theism*, could he?

The chasm here is the atheism/theism.

In Dennett's thinking, I submit, any explanatorily adequate *atheistic* theory beats any explanatorily adequate *theistic* theory, just because atheism is SIMPLER than theism.

But if we *know* that theism is true, then any theory that's predicated on atheism will be inadequate, at least insofar as it really *is* predicated on atheism. (Yes, that's a mighty big IF and INSOFAR AS ;-)

Either Dennett doesn't understand how the knowledge of God proceeds or he doesn't understand how Occam's Razor works.

In a nut shell, I suppose Dennett (et al) thinks that "the natural" is a given and so the "supernatural" must either

(1) be postulated to explain the natural

OR

(2) be believed in by a sheer act of the will (fideism/dogmatism).

I don't accept this way of setting up the problem.