Breaking News: The copyright claim on my video (via YouTube) has been lifted as a result of my protest. You can view it with full audio.
At last, the long awaited world premier of my retelling of this biblical cult favorite! You can watch it on YouTube, and sing along at the end with Bob Dylan.
Breaking News: The copyright claim on my video (via YouTube) has been lifted as a result of my protest. You can view it with full audio.
I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe. Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place. Wikipedia summarizes it thus:
1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.
Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it. On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell, during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!” “God in boots?” Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism. The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.
I deal with it this way: I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be. It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept. (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.
I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that? I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.
It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting. The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene. The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old: There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.
The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur. (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. ) The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention. During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book. When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny! I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.” Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no, being a great lover of good music.
D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties. Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:
Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism: for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion. He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics. If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute. I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.
The latest pseudo-intellectual sally to save the “God hypothesis” published on the NYTimes OpEd page brought forth some good responses from letter writers. Among them, was this pithy observation:
…While personal revelation is an excellent way to know whom we love, it is an abysmal way to seek knowledge about the universe. It becomes an excuse to believe what one wishes to believe.
Paul L. LaClair Kearny, N.J., Aug. 23, 2009
My hat’s off to Dan Dennett for his great response, quoted in full here (my emphasis):
To the Editor:
Robert Wright notes that the speculations he outlines on how a moral sense could evolve are “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” Indeed, these speculations — actually rigorous abstract arguments — have been developed by evolutionary theorists who, like Mr. Wright, see our moral intuitions as real phenomena in need of an explanation.
But the point of these arguments is to demonstrate that there can be a traversable path, an evolutionary process, from, say, bacteria, to us (with our moral intuitions) that doesn’t at any point require that the evolutionary process itself have a purpose. In other words, their implication is that our moral sense would evolve even if there weren’t a creative intelligence in the background.
So the compatibility that Mr. Wright finds is trivial.
Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don’t imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.
Daniel Dennett Medford, Mass., Aug. 23, 2009
Dennett is the author of Consciousness Explained, one of the best books I have ever read on the mind-body problem. I am tickled to see that the Wiki article cites T. Nagel’s criticisms of the book in its summary – one of my favorite parts of Dan’s book is his dissection of Nagel’s famous article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”
I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time. He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics. And, he was a mystic.
In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses. In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal: In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.
Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…” Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day. Pascal addresses just this conflict.
As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.” Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them. Some might call it a dialectic.
Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.
Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)
For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point. As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:
…those who hold that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so. (#136)
How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?
Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order. At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics. He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel. Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive! He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law. He knows it’s a sham. The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.
One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations. He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin. Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none. History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.
Moreover, nobody is truly free. We have free will, but it is limited. We do not choose where or when we are born. We cannot start from a blank slate. We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.
Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.
More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:
Some choice words from Sarah Palin, chief theological spokes-person for the Republican ticket:
She expressed support for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. “I wish on a federal level that that’s where we would go because I don’t support gay marriage,” she said.
For those who claim there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution, I guess this is fine. We might as well have amendments stipulating appropriate sexual practices, theologically acceptable rates of interest on loans, and dietary rules to be observed in all public places as well. Maybe, just maybe, the government should back out of defining marriage entirely, even at the state level. We could all be on a level playing field – with civil unions – and then we can get married by whatever priest, rabbi, mullah, brahmin, or witch doctor we select.
Notice, also, how the usual “conservative” stance on states’ rights is dropped in favor of morality to be legislated from the Center when the issue is of such earth-shaking importance.
In the interview she also discussed her personal religious beliefs and said that “faith and God in general has been mocked through this campaign.”
Getting a little grandiose in her complaints here, I think. She has certainly been mocked, but I don’t recall hearing much “God shall be mocked…” stuff at all. Perhaps she thinks she is G-d?
I like the “God in general” part too. Well, at least the mockers aren’t focusing on God-trivia, like his hairdo in the Sistine frescoes, and stuff like that!
She’s a disgrace to our country.
The religious right in our country has been busy for some time trying to get over the falsehood that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Yes, the founders were raised as Christians. Yes, only a few were atheists, although many were Deists of the Jeffersonian-Voltairean sort. Yes, the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution, but then, neither do the words “separation of powers.” Those two ideas, however, are clearly central to the meaning of the document.
Perhaps no better evidence for the non-Christian, secular nature of the state our Founders bequeathed to us (aside from the fact that God isn’t mentioned in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence only mentions the Creator, and the only mention of religion in the Constitution is negative, i.e., there shall be no religious test for office) is the testimony of the contemporary evangelists who did not like the point of view of the Founders. Here we have a quotation from the emminent Timothy Dwight, a prominent evangelical of the time who later headed Yale College:
“The nation has offended Providence. We formed our constitution without any acknowledgment of God; without any recognition his mercies to us as a people, of his government or even of his existence. The [constitutional] convention by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessings, upon their labors. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system without God.”
Amen to that, Tim!
This quotation can be found in the article linked here.
The most beautiful syllogisms, I think, are those employed by those old Christian Platonists to explain the existence of evil in the world. From Augustine to Boethius, and on, they argued away the Force of Evil, and so dealt a death blow to a major argument against their notion of God as the Supreme Good. How could evil exist as an independent and vital force in the world if God was omnipotent and good? Didn’t the Manichees, against whom Augustine argued, have a point, that evil was coextensive with, and the equal in potentcy of God? Wasn’t the universe the scene of battle between these two equal and opposing forces? How else to explain the existence of suffering, misery, treachery, and all things sordid and bad in a world created by the Good? Nope, not at all! Evil, we are told, does not exist, because it is simply a supreme lack of goodness; it has no being.
Things are insofar as they are good, or partake of the good. Things are, to the degree to which they partake of their essence. Consider a chair: A good chair does just what a chair should, supports your weight comfortably while you sit. A very good chair might be beautiful to look at too. (Some people would say that a beautiful thing is one that is what its essence is, that is, one that partakes of its essence. Thus, beauty is objective, and certainly not in the eye of the beholder, a notion that Voltaire satirized in his Philosphical Dictionary.) A bad chair is one that fulfills these functions poorly: it is ugly, uncomfortable, rickety, and falls apart soon. So, we might say, the good chair is more of a chair than the bad one, or partakes of chair-ness more than the bad. The good chair meets or fulfills our notion of what a chair is more completely than the bad one, and is, therefore, more of a chair. We all talk this way all the time. A fine fellow is a real man; a jerk is less of a man.
It’s not hard to see where this line of reasoning is going: We in society have a notion of good and bad, and we have notions of the Good, at least for specific categories, such as chairs, steaks, or automobiles. (Nevermind that our notions about these specific goods might be totally at odds with each other – that’s a different problem!) When we consider the moral realm, the realm within which we judge of good and evil, we see that those actions that we call evil are those which are in conflict with our notion of the good. The Good, we might say, consists partly in having compassion for others, so those who lay about them with selfishness and contempt are bad, bad people, not under the force of Evil, but who have fallen away, so to speak, from the Good. (Of course, we assume that Good sets the standard, the path, from which one strays. We could imagine an alternative universe where the Bad is the standard and Satan is the supreme ruler.) God and his Supreme Good remain triumphant in their fullness of Being, containing as they do the ultimate nature of all Good, and evil is simply the non-attainment, to one degree or another, of Good. It’s a continuum, from Evil, the supreme non-being and negativity, to supreme Is-ness, total being and goodness. It’s a great idea, and it appealed to people very deeply for a very long time.
Of course, there is a concrete reason for associating goodness with being, that is, existence. Things exist by virtue of having qualities, things that are described. Insofar as things have qualities, they are. What is there to say about a nullity? What can be described or said? And the better a thing is, the more qualities it is likely to have. Advertisers understand this, perceptive philosophers that they are. They describe everything in terms of its new and many featured functionality to convince us that theirs is the best car, the best radio, the most good computer. Isn’t more better? So, if more is better, if things are by virtue of their qualities, and if good things are those that are most like their essence, then those that are good at being what they are, have more being. Simple.
So fear thee not evil, it has no power. Seek the good and true, secure in the knowledge that evil is ignorance and error. And know that even in error there is truth, for error is merely a less correct apperception of what is than is the truth, that is, it is a falling away from the true and the good, not a statement of something else. Everything is good, but some stuff is less good, i.e. more bad, than others. We are on a great ascending scale: seek to raise yourself towards the Fullness of Being by cleaving to the truth. We walk about this world surrounded by objects that are like red hot embers sizzling in the white snow, their heat fanned to glowing by the breath of Being. Watch your step.
The universe encompasses all that has being and all that is not. It is the sum total of all truth and of all error. Nothing can be uttered that is out of this world. The nature of any thing is its history, the description of what it is and has been, in its progression through time and space; a recitation of its qualities as it moves towards or away from what it is, in essence. Nullity and being are the two faces of the universe, so why worry about whence came the world? It has always been here. Before the Big Bang, there was, perhaps, the Big Nothing, and it too was the World.