Friday, 12 January 2018

Our Lady Underground: Aporia and Religious Thought

This is a short notice of a forthcoming article.

The article argues that the outcome of philosophical debate in classical Athens was often thought to have implications for our knowledge of the nature of the reality which we inhabit, and consequently, for the meaning of religion. Apparent failure to reach a satisfactory conclusion to an argument, was sometimes a conclusion which provided insight into the complex nature of reality.

Looked at in this way, philosophical argument about difficult and sometimes intractable problems is about developing an understanding of the nature of the reality in which the argument is intelligible, and which has implications for the meaning of religious thought and practice.

Not all philosophical questions have this kind of importance of course, but the practice of precise and forensic discussion of philosophical questions of any sort prepares the student for those questions which do. This was the main business of the Academy.

'Our Lady Underground: Aporia and Religious Thought' is a companion paper to 'Patterns of thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain', which is expected to be published in the Spring. The paper is discussed here.

TY January 12, 2018.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Reviewing Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' - Anthony Flew

Anthony Flew's review of The God Delusion (2008) suggests that Dawkins has become a secular bigot. Flew was a influential philosophical atheist. Yet in 2007, when he was eighty-four years old, he published There is a God, in which he writes about how he came to believe in a Creator God on the basis of both scientific evidence and philosophical argument. In his book, he discusses his belief that it is possible for an omnipotent being to choose to reveal himself to human beings, or to act in the world.

I quote some of the most interesting discussion of Dawkins book. Flew wrote that:
The God Delusion by the atheist writer Richard Dawkins, is remarkable in the first place for having achieved some sort of record by selling over a million copies. But what is much more remarkable than that economic achievement is that the contents – or rather lack of contents – of this book show Dawkins himself to have become what he and his fellow secularists typically believe to be an impossibility: namely, a secularist bigot. (Helpfully, my copy of The Oxford Dictionary defines a bigot as ‘an obstinate or intolerant adherent of a point of view’).
Flew amplifies on this charge, and Dawkins' avoidance of a particular statement by Einstein: 
The fault of Dawkins as an academic ... was his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine which he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form. Thus we find in his index five references to Einstein. They are to the mask of Einstein and Einstein on morality; on a personal God; on the purpose of life (the human situation and on how man is here for the sake of other men and above all for those on whose well-being our own happiness depends); and finally on Einstein’s religious views. But (I find it hard to write with restraint about this obscurantist refusal on the part of Dawkins) he makes no mention of Einstein’s most relevant report: namely, that the integrated complexity of the world of physics has led him to believe that there must be a Divine Intelligence behind it. (I myself think it obvious that if this argument is applicable to the world of physics then it must be hugely more powerful if it is applied to the immeasurably more complicated world of biology.)
He continues:
Of course many physicists with the highest of reputations do not agree with Einstein in this matter. But an academic attacking some ideological position which s/he believes to be mistaken must of course attack that position in its strongest form. This Dawkins does not do in the case of Einstein and his failure is the crucial index of his insincerity of academic purpose and therefore warrants me in charging him with having become, what he has probably believed to be an impossibility, a secularist bigot.
Dawkins was aware of Flew's change of mind about the existence of some kind of Creator God standing behind the physical world, and mentioned the fact. Flew quotes the passage in The God Delusion where Dawkins refers to his conversion: 
On page 82 of The God Delusion is a remarkable note. It reads ‘We might be seeing something similar today in the over-publicised tergiversation of the philosopher Antony Flew, who announced in his old age that he had been converted to belief in some sort of deity (triggering a frenzy of eager repetition all around the Internet).’
What is important about this passage is not what Dawkins is saying about Flew but what he is showing here about Dawkins. For if he had had any interest in the truth of the matter of which he was making so much he would surely have brought himself to write me a letter of enquiry. (When I received a torrent of enquiries after an account of my conversion to Deism had been published in the quarterly of the Royal Institute of Philosophy I managed – I believe – eventually to reply to every letter.)
Flew suggests that:
This whole business makes all too clear that Dawkins is not interested in the truth as such but is primarily concerned to discredit an ideological opponent by any available means. That would itself constitute sufficient reason for suspecting that the whole enterprise of The God Delusion was not, as it at least pretended to be, an attempt to discover and spread knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God but rather an attempt – an extremely successful one – to spread the author’s own convictions in this area.
Hence Flew's charge that Dawkins had become something he himself would have thought would have been impossible, namely a secular bigot. Flew then challenges Dawkins use of the term 'Deism' in his book, which is allowed an elastic function: 
.... although the index of The God Delusion notes six references to Deism it provides no definition of the word ‘deism’. This enables Dawkins in his references to Deism to suggest that Deists are a miscellany of believers in this and that. The truth, which Dawkins ought to have learned before this book went to the printers, is that Deists believe in the existence of a God but not the God of any revelation. In fact the first notable public appearance of the notion of Deism was in the American Revolution. The young man who drafted the Declaration of Independence and who later became President Jefferson was a Deist, as were several of the other founding fathers of that abidingly important institution, the United States.
Dawkins also challenged Flew's integrity as a scholar for accepting an award from a bible institute:
In that monster footnote to what I am inclined to describe as a monster book – The God Delusion – Dawkins reproaches me for what he calls my ignominious decision to accept, in 2006, the Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth. The awarding Institution is Biola, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Dawkins does not say outright that his objection to my decision is that Biola is a specifically Christian institution. He obviously assumes (but refrains from actually saying) that this is incompatible with producing first class academic work in every department – not a thesis which would be acceptable in either my own university or Oxford or in Harvard.
The full review is available here.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Is Richard Dawkins a Closet Deist?

Since the publication of The God Delusion in 2006, those of us who are interested in the history of ideas, both long and short, have got used to a more aggressive and even militant form of atheistic response to discussions of the concept of God, and the meaning of the Divine. Dawkins book is the main reason for this change.

‘The God Delusion’ is not a scholarly treatise on belief and disbelief concerning the existence or the reality of God, and the arguments for and against. Nor does it pretend to be. It is an old-fashioned piece of polemic writing, intended to serve an agenda which is already established. However, this has not stopped some of the readers of the book from imagining that it is in fact the last word on why every possible reason for entertaining the idea of God is delusory, and that anyone still discussing the subject of the Divine is an abject fool.

By writing this book, what Dawkins has done is to empower (in the jargon of the day) a large group of people who see any discussion of God as some sort of intellectual imposture. They see this for many possible reasons, including the fact that, perhaps most importantly, and in western religions in particular, the concept of God has been used to buttress temporal and political power, and many of the arguments which have been made in favour of the existence or the reality of God, over the past thousand years or so, do function as support for temporal ideologies. The disbelievers see such imposture as an offence against intelligence and common sense, and ‘The God Delusion’ contains the weaponry for combatting the deceit.

Dawkins is not a theologian. But this does not disqualify him from discussing the truth or falsehood of the existence of God, and the arguments which have been created in order to support what is known as ‘rational belief in God’.  I share Dawkins negative view of this unhappy concept, which gives space to credulous patterns of thought. However, Dawkins project would have been better served if he had produced a scholarly discussion of the subject first, before writing the polemic. By publishing only the polemic, he has himself created a space for credulous patterns of thought. Discussion of theological questions is now out of the seminary and the university, and is in the marketplace.

Some time ago, shortly after I published my first book, which discusses the long history of ideas about God and the Divine, I wrote a blog post with a misleading title ‘The Irrationality of Atheism’. The article was actually about the illogical and careless nature of western human thought concerning the Divine. In the ontological argument, as it developed from St. Anselm onwards, the question was almost always couched in terms of Gods existence, and whether or not the existence of God could be understood to serve another of God’s apparently necessary properties: ‘perfection’. I pointed out three things:

 Can God, in any meaningful sense, be said to exist, even if God can be said to have reality? We think of existence as a characteristic of being in space and time.

Secondly, that the ontological argument provides nothing which connects God with the matrix of space and time. This suggests the uncritical acceptance of space and time as something which exists apart from the Divine, and which is perhaps a fatal objection to the ontological argument.

Thirdly, if the nature of what God is includes the generation of the space and time in which we live and think, then intelligent atheism is impossible, since it would necessarily mean the complete denial of human experience.

What I was arguing was that modern atheism is actually dependent for its nature on the ontological argument, and the terms in which it is framed. Meaning that eight hundred years of argument about the nature and existence of God underpins the point of view of those who regard themselves as atheists.

Most of the time this article received little attention. At other times it did get a response – sometimes polite and intelligent, sometimes not. What struck me about the latter instances however, was how little the responders actually knew, as opposed to how much they imagined they knew, about theological questions. They’d read ‘The God Delusion’, and that was enough. The argument made sense to them, and they were as a consequence, militantly in favour in Dawkins point of view.

So much so that it was often clear that they were responding to the provocative title of the article, and had not read the article itself (far less any other article on the web site). There was no need for them to read the article, of course – they knew that, whatever was in it was nonsense, and that I must be confused, or just an attention seeker.

For many, modern atheism is now a belief system, like any other. Just dressed up as absolute unbelief. And Dawkins book is their sacred text. It makes sense. It is logical. It is the final word on the matter.

I found myself being accused of confusing theism and deism, which was a bit puzzling at first. But since the accusers have generally read Dawkins book and very little else, and therefore have no wide knowledge of the history of human thought, they necessarily take their cues from him. And Dawkins does spend a lot of time talking about both. We learn about Dawkins perspective from this, and so can gain an understanding of the limitations of his own argument.

I think of theism and deism as terms for patterns of thought which belong in the early modern period, and which are couched in the kind of discussions contemporary with that time, all the way up to the French revolution, and beyond. But earlier ideas about god can be understood in terms of theism (the word of course is Greek, as is its derivative atheism). But no-one in their right mind would try to equate the theism of Plato with the theism of the early modern period; they just aren’t the same. Plato’s ‘theism’ concerns a God who is wholly transcendent of physical existence, and transcends all sense experience. Theistic belief of later times implies no such thing.

The distinction Dawkins makes in ‘The God Delusion’ between theism and deism is a simple one. Theism is a pattern of belief which enshrines the idea that the Divine is responsive to man, and his rituals of worship and prayer. It is a pattern of belief dependent on the idea that God can act in the world.  By contrast, deism contemplates the idea that a creator God has existence, and necessarily created the world, but that he is not active in the physical world beyond that.

This is the kind of idea which Descartes employed in his description of reality. God was real, but existed in a sphere of his own, and so we could get on with the business of understanding the world in terms of mathematics and physics, without reference to God. The idea was also attractive to the generation of theologians and scholars who came after Newton, who saw the divine hand in the regular clockwork of the heavens, the motions of the planets, and approved of Newton’s use of mathematics to describe the regularity of the cosmos. Their very regularity could be argued to show that God created the physical and sensory world, but did not intervene once the cosmos was in order, and in motion.

In October 2008, Dawkins debated with the mathematician John Lennox at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The debate had the title ‘Has Science buried God?’, In the debate Dawkins made an interesting statement, which puts him on this theist-deist spectrum, at least in so far as he recognises that the laws of mathematics and physics have to have some origin. He said that, though he would not accept deism, it was possible to make the case for “a deistic god, a sort of god of the physicist…. Who devised the laws of physics, god the mathematician, god who put together the cosmos in the first place and then sat back and watched everything happen” *1. He had however no notion that a similar case could be made for a theistic god.

So, if Dawkins is not in fact a deist, where does he think the laws of mathematics and physics come from? What is the origin of the inverse square law, and the law of gravity? He clearly accepts mathematical order in physical reality, since you cannot understand or do science if you don’t.  So it seems as though Dawkins objections to deism are irrational, and that he is a deist masquerading as the high-priest of atheism.


1.    *1. Dawkins view of at least the possibility of a mathematically inclined god, who defined the rules, and set everything in motion, would have made perfect sense to the Stoics, including the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, who understood the world principally in terms of the power of Necessity (anangke). The world was in motion according to a predetermined pattern, against which man’s powers were feeble in the extreme. We could change certain things here and there, but we had to accept the implacable force of Necessity. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Patterns of thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain

For the past three weeks or so I've been writing a paper on aspects of mind during the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age in Britain, during the period when most of the megalithic circles were built. I wrote a paper in 2016 (Stone Circles, Phenomenology, and the Neolithic Mind) which explored the possibility that we might have enough information from the structures to infer thought and motive of their builders. 

In that article I wrote: 

The main objection of the archaeological community to the acceptance of this view of the circles as sophisticated tools for the observation of the heavens and its movements is two-fold. The first is that there is nothing (beyond what these objects seem to show) which suggests to us that the megalith builders and their contemporary culture was concerned at all with precision. The second is that, even if the circles can be shown to mark certain astronomically precise points, we have no clue at all about why the megalith builders would want to do this. We have no understanding of the function and purpose of such observations, and so we can say virtually nothing about either the purpose of the monuments, or about the culture which gave rise to them. In other words we are no further forward in our understanding.

This two-fold objection is sound, at least from the archaeologists point of view. We have no contemporary description of anything at all from the time and culture of the megalith builders. We have no understanding of their intentions, and no understanding of the function of the circles, and it is unlikely that archaeological interpretation by itself will reveal these things to us. It seems to be gone altogether, and all we are left with is insupportable speculation. Perhaps it would be best to draw a veil over this apparently anomalous aspect of the past, since we can have no understanding of it.

The upshot of the article was not as negative. I argued that:

[in] both Greece and Assyria, the heavens, and what the heavens represented, were of particular importance for cult practice. Plato is clear that the heavens represent an image of divine Being, also spoken of as the ‘Living Animal’, created out of the materials of other gods, by the demiourgos (the ‘Living Animal’ is created by the Demiourgos rather than by God directly, so that there should be not too much of the divine present in the world). He is also quite explicit that the body of the ‘Living Animal’ was created with precision.

In which case astronomy is important for the understanding of divine Being. An infamously unintelligible passage in Plato’s Timaeus talks about the perception of images being possible only because the soul already contains exemplars of these. If the heavens represent an image of divine Being, then all other images are poor imitations, and we should direct our attention principally to the heavens. The soul represents the heavens most closely, and in antiquity was notionally the part of us which is most connected to the divine. It is the soul which recognizes divine knowledge when it is presented to it.

We already know the importance of the soul in Britain in the late 1st millennium BCE, from several sources, including Julius Caesar.  It may be that these ideas were similarly tied together in Britain, and perhaps at a much earlier period. I explored a Mesopotamian parallel:

In ancient Assyria, part of the ritual for creating an image of a god (thereby conferring divinity on the object) involves the image being exposed to the sight of the heavens. As a god, it needs to have perception of Being, of which it is an aspect. We have this ritual from the reign of Esarhaddon (7th century BCE), who was the predecessor of Ashurbanipal, one of the last Assyrian kings, and the owner of the famous palace library, much of which is now located in the British Museum.
So the point is the establishment of contact - even an identity with - what is divine. It is possible to see this concern with connecting Heaven and Earth as a parallel to what Plato describes more abstractly in his Republic. I wrote:

...Plato argues that the philosopher should ascend to the idea of the Good, which is another way of referencing the idea of transcendent Being, by a series of connected images, without specifying what those images might be. These images, as imperfect representations of Being, are subject to change. Matters are complicated by the fact that the things which are imaged are also subject to change. Thus both subjective impression and objective reality are subject to change and uncertainty.
So the process is problematic, and complex. To some extent it is a matter of conjecture, as well as knowledge.
A key characteristic of ancient religion was that it entertained conjecture regarding knowledge of the gods. Plato refers to this in his discussion of the divided line in The Republic. We cannot know Being itself directly. We cannot know the lesser gods directly either, but we can understand some of the characteristics of these gods, though full knowledge is necessarily beyond our understanding. We can approach some limited understanding of Being via the images and descriptions of the lesser gods however, which is one reason why they were deemed to have some kind of reality.
In which case knowledge of divine things is a journey through the problematic and sometimes paradoxical aspects of reality as it presents itself to us. You need a priesthood for dealing with that. They were dealing with ontological questions, and did the best they could within the limitations of human knowledge.
This limited set of characteristics and properties emerges from thorough and precise discussion of the nature of ontology (Being), as the focus of human conjecture. This is quite clear in both Plato and also in what we know of the teachings of Pythagoras. The paradox of knowledge is the consequence of the idea that all knowledge is present in the divine, and that we only have knowledge because we have a soul. In other words, we can have knowledge as the result of the divine having a presence in us already.

I suggested that Plato, rather than exploring a pattern of ideas created in the Academy in Athens, was in fact transmitting and refurbishing some

...key aspects of a Bronze Age philosophy, which has its roots in the Neolithic in both Europe and the near East. The transcendental doctrine which is enshrined in his work is actually in plain sight to anyone who can follow his reasoning that all the merely likely stories are just that: no more than likely. The single argument which is not a mere likelihood, is counterintuitive, paradoxical, and beyond common sense. And it remains a matter of conjecture. This argument about the nature of the world used to be the apex of learning and knowledge. Reality is transcendental, and neither subjective or objective. Nothing lay beyond this fundamental understanding of the world.
If this argument is correct, then we can know what Neolithic man was up to, and in some detail. In short, for the intellectually sophisticated in the Neolithic period, the heavens represented, as for Plato much later, a moving image of eternity. To measure the parameters of this moving image of the divine was to know God, and to have knowledge of divine things.

This represents a radical departure in our understanding of the development and the history of human thought. We know that the heavens were important in the neolithic and the early Bronze Age in Britain, and if that importance stemmed from an understanding that the heavens represented a moving image of eternity, then the people who built the megalithic circles had a concept of Being, and of a reality which transcended most human experience. Such an idea is the most abstract of all. It transcends all images of what is real. It implies a culture built on responses to questions about the nature of reality, and many conjectures about what can be known.

The Pythagoreanism which the surveyor of many of the megalithic sites in Britain, Alexander Thom, detected in his findings, was very basic in nature, and based on statistical analysis of his data, and the geometrical construction which could be found in the monuments. Which means the observance of the importance of the Pythagorean right angled triangle, and the concern with whole numbers.  Both of these were of importance to the later Pythagoreans, as we know. A further clue was the statements by a number of ancient authors to the effect that the religious belief of the Britons in the late 1st millennium BCE was akin to Pythagoreanism.

But there is very little detail about what Pythagoreanism in Britain might have entailed, if the identification is correct. This is rather surprising, since we have a great deal of information about Pythagoras and Pythagorean doctrine available to us from sources other than Julius Caesar, and the authors whose opinions have survived as a result of being quoted by Eusebius (though often inconsistent, and sometimes quite obscure in meaning). We have a biography of Pythagoras from both the neoplatonist Iamblichus, and also from Porphyry. We also have an extensive and rather good account from the author of the Lives of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius. Plus we have the works of Plato, who is constantly referencing the doctrines of the Pythagoreans.

So this new paper looks at the material we have concerning Pythagoras, in order to know a fuller range of what Pythagoreanism implied in the late sixth century BCE, both in Italy and in Greece. As it turns out, certain key ideas in Pythagoreanism arise as the logical consequence of the kind of discussions which they entertained, mainly concerning number, mathematics and geometry. And these key ideas shape their ideas about religion, divinity, the nature of reality, of Being, and of Eternity.

The paper concludes with the suggestion that, if  key religious ideas emerge in the Pythagoreanism of the 1st millennium BCE, in the course of logical argument concerning number, mathematics and geometry, then we should entertain the notion that parallel discussions may have taken place in the late Neolithic and the early British Bronze Age, on account of their own evident concern with number, mathematics and geometry.


The title of the paper is: 

Patterns of thought in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain

Abstract: Pythagorean elements detected in megalith circles in ancient Britain have no easy explanation, and precede 1st millennium Pythagoreanism by an extraordinary period of time. This paper explores the idea that there is a connection between some core Pythagorean mathematical and geometrical concerns, and ideas of divinity and eternity.  On the basis of a close examination of Pythagorean ideas in the 1st millennium, for which we have extensive documentation, it is suggested that this connection is based on a series of logical inferences. It is therefore possible that similar conclusions were arrived at in the Late Neolithic.

Key words: Megalith, Pythagoras, Philosophy, Religion, Mathematics

Paper sections are:

1 The Longevity of Ideas
2 Pythagoreanism in 1st Millennium Britain
3.The Principal Sources for Pythagoreanism
4 The Core of Pythagorean Doctrine 
5 Diogenes Laertius on Pythagoreanism
6 Pythagorean Thought in Italy
7 The Existence of Irrational Numbers
8 Religious Aspects of Pythagoreanism
9 The Pattern of Eternity
10  Pythagorean Syncretism
11. Transcendentalism in Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Britain
12 Walking back the Insight into Ancient Mind
13 Pythagoreanism and the Deep

Publication details will be available in the near future (probably March 2018).

TY, December 10, 2017.