Posts Tagged ‘theism’

Ungodly Answers

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

I've recently posted a couple of entries that bear upon belief in G_d. In one, I noted how it is that we may have a legitimate sense that some events are guided by a purpose, which purpose is not that of any human being, yet is after all also not that of gods either. More recently, I challenged the notion that morality must or even can originate in commandments of G_d.

It isn't my intention to produce a parade of entries about G_d, nor to deal with the subject comprehensively in this 'blog. But the theme of G_d has been on my mind enough to provoke this one further entry. Like the previous two entries, this one will critique an argument for the existence of G_d, but will not attempt a disproof of that existence. I would be surprised if any of the reasoning that I provide in this entry were novel, but I hope that my exposition will be helpful.

One of the reasons that people believe in G_d is that they believe that She provides an explanation for the existence of the universe.

Part of the problem here is in being a bit careless about to what one refers with the word universe; that word has multiple meanings.[1] It would be abusive to presume that a theïst were using one of the narrower meanings — a currently closed set of interacting energy and matter — and show how that which we inhabit could have been creäted by previous mindless processes within some larger cosmological system. The theïst would naturally and rightly insist that by universe he meant that larger system.

For purposes of this sort of discussion, I think that, by universe, we really ought to mean reälity. However, a lot of theïsts want to assert that G_d is outside of what they call the universe. Now, saying X is outside of reälity is really saying that there is no X, that there's no more than an idea which is not instantiated. Plainly, when theïsts say that G_d is outside of what they call the universe, they don't mean that She is unreal; they must mean to divide reälity into at least two parts, one of which is G_d, and the other of which is something that they call the universe. Likewise, for those who more generally claim that G_d not is not entirely contained by what they call the universe, though all or part of it might be within Her; they do not mean that the remainder of G_d is unreal!

What they're claiming is that, at one time, reälity was just G_d, and then She brought that which they call the universe into existence, perhaps external to Herself or perhaps within Her (in which case we might speak and write of two parts, one of them being the universe, and the other being the rest of G_d) or perhaps partially internal to Her and partially external.

But if, instead of asking what brought the universe into existence, we ask what brought reälity into existence, then we've not yet got an answer. We have G_d, sitting there, unexplained.

Now, most theïsts are of the view that there was no time when G_d did not exist. Perhaps they imagine that an eternity has already passed; perhaps they imagine that time had a beginning, and G_d were there. Either way, if that is an acceptable claim about G_d, then it is not clear why it would not be an acceptable claim for an impersonal cosmological system. Likewise for just winking into existence ex nihilo after the passage of some time, if such a proposition (entailing the passage of time with nothing to change!) were coherent.

And a claim that G_d is the Great Mystery (accompanied perhaps by a beatific smile) is no explanation at all.

The introduction of the idea of G_d simply begged the question of whence it all came. The begging of the question is compounded if reälity is imagined as in two parts, one of which is G_d and the other is taken to be defined as creäted. Separating reälity into two parts, one G_d and the other called the universe allowed this group of theïsts to confuse and to be confused.

The question of why the universe should be lawful — why there's logic and math and why various things have physical properties and so forth — is often mistaken for a question distinct from that of whence came reälity. But any thing exists exactly to the extent that it has properties; in a sense, a thing is what it does. When we describe what a thing does, when we give its properties; this is no more or less than describing its laws; the most general laws describe the widest collections of things. (A friend once objected that logic did not seem to be a property of any thing; I told him that logic corresponds to properties of everything.) While it would seem that the universe might in many cases have very different laws, the idea of a law-less universe is incoherent.

[1] Some or all of these meanings have been noted by cosmologist John D. Barrow in The Book of Universes. Unfortunately, in other discussion, Barrow himself is sometimes unclear as to which definition he is employing.

The Instituted Unconscious

Monday, 22 June 2015

An institution is a constructed,[0] persistent organizing practice or relationship within a culture. When most people hear or read the word institution, they think first of a sort of an organization, somewhat like a firm though typically for some purpose other than pursuit of pecuniary profit. But, really, the scope is much wider, which is how one may, for example, speak or write of the institution of marriage.

Economists and other social thinkers recognize as institutions a great many practices and relationships that most people don't conceptualize as such. For example, languages are institutions; markets are institutions, and monies are institutions within those institutions; professional codes of ethics are institutions; and so forth.

Any given society is exactly a society, rather than merely some selection of people, to the extent that it is characterized by institutions.

Institutions can be hard to see as institutions; they can be hard to see at all. That which pervasively informs our thinking can be invisible for lack of contrast. The fact that a competent social thinker will recognize institutions that most people over-look does not mean that any given social thinker will recognize all the institutions of the society that he or she observes, or in which he or she participates. Rather, I do not think that any social thinker manages to attain such a profound awareness. If there is a meaning to most here, then I think that none of us sees most of the institutions. We participate in them, we use them, but we are unconscious of them.

Although one might imagine some outside agency acting to preserve an institution, more typically a practice or relationship will be persistent to the extent that it is self-perpetuating. It might be self-perpetuating in some fairly direct manner, or it might be thus simply by conferring some advantage on those who adopt it. Something that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner can seem to be purposeful. There are, in fact, some who would insist that a thing that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner truly is purposeful, but I don't want to enter into that debate here. Whether it be purpose or something that merely seems like purpose, there may not be any person to whom one could point and properly say that the purpose were his or were hers. Perhaps no individual wants the institution perpetuated — in some cases[1] participants may actually want an end to the institution — but acting through people the institution perpetuates itself.

So my claim is that we live and act within a rich frame-work of practices and relationships, largely unrecognized, that affect and effect events as if with purposes distinct from our own.

This concept may be related to various things.

In Jungian theory, there is postulated a collective unconscious, which is a set of structures of the unconscious mind, shared amongst animals to the extent that they are biologically related. In general, these structures include instincts; in humans, they also include symbols (called archetypes). Jung believed that the collective unconscious were dormant in the zygote; so that a person whose biological parents were of one ethnic group but who were raised from birth by members of another would have the collective unconscious of the biological parents, rather than of the family in which he or she were raised. I assert that this collective unconscious does not exist; but that something rather like it does, with the very important difference that it is transmitted experientially. The actual collective unconscious is the aforementioned unrecognized institutional frame-work.

Evolutionary psychology, also known as sociobiology, has sought to explain behavior (including human behavior) in terms of some habits leading to more reproductive success than do others. That much is surely part of a proper explanation of human behavior, but these theorists have had a propensity to insist or to presume that the mechanism of transmission is in the DNA of the chromosomes or of the mitochondria. (In this commitment, they have been rather like the Jungians.) After entirely too much delay, some of them acknowledged that cultures as such could be affected by evolutionary pressures. They developed the notion that Richard Dawkins called the meme,[2] and that EO Wilson grotesquely called the culgen (or something like that),[3] which was that of a culturally transmitted, self-perpetuating pattern, somewhat analogous to the chromosomal and mitochondrial genes. These patterns are institutions, viewed individually. We would be consciously aware of some of these patterns, but by no means of all.

Some people are convinced that all events are effected to some purpose, a thought typically expressed as Everything happens for a reason. This claim surely goes too far, but one could see how observing many events that seemed to happen towards a purpose, which purpose was not that of any one of us, could suggest a theory that all reälized outcomes were in some sense intended.

Others do not necessarily think that all events are effected to some purpose; but, perceiving in some events apparent purposefulness that cannot plausibly be imputed to any ordinary person, take this apparent purposefulness as evidence that events have been or are being guided an extraordinary person — G_d. As a metaphor, this works rather well, though the impersonal G_d of Spinoza would be a better fit for the institutional framework; but, in any case, the apparent purposefulness is not good evidence for the involvement of a literal G_d.

Where many believers have been too quick to see the work of G_d, many non-believers have been too quick to see mere chance-coïncidence. But teasing-out the difference between that which is mere accident from that which works to the purposes or quasi-purposes of a frame-work of unrecognized parts is at best extremely difficult, if not impossible. A pattern can be found in any data set, and from it the number of super-patterns that may potentially be extrapolated are infinite. Additionally, most of us want to find significance in our lives, which biases us to see not only purposes but purposes of particular sorts behind events.

[0 (2017:07/07)] A discussion of rather different matters impelled me to recognize that I needed to distinguish institutions from unconstructed, persistent organizing practices or relationships within a culture.

[1] For example, sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibria.

[2] Largely due to laziness and misunderstanding, this word came thereafter to have its popular meaning of any sort of widely spread expression.

[3] It's appalling how little philological sense is now had by otherwise educated people.

Whispers between the Lines

Saturday, 17 October 2009

There is a passage[1] in Locke's Essay Concerning Humane Understanding of which I took special note from the first time that I read it:

5. That men should keep their compacts is certainly a great and undeniable rule in morality. But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of happiness and misery in another life, be asked why a man must keep his word, he will give this as a reason:—Because God, who has the power of eternal life and death, requires it of us. But if a Hobbist be asked why? he will answer:—Because the public requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you if you do not. And if one of the old philosophers had been asked, he would have answered:—Because it was dishonest, below the dignity of a man, and opposite to virtue, the highest perfection of human nature, to do otherwise.
The reason that this passage stood-out and stands-out for me is that it contains a fundamentally sympathetic statement of a godless morality, and indeed fairly clearly exhibits the parallel between the might of G_d making ostensible right for the Christian, and the might of the State making ostensible right for the Hobbsean.[2] Locke's philosophy, epistemological and ethical, is heavily informed by a belief in a loving G_d, yet here Locke seems to reveal sufficient subtlety to do rather well without that G_d.

There's another striking passage[3] in that same work:

50. If we look upon those superior beings above us, who enjoy perfect happiness, we shall have reason to judge that they are more steadily determined in their choice of good than we; and yet we have no reason to think they are less happy, or less free, than we are. And if it were fit for such poor finite creatures as we are to pronounce what infinite wisdom and goodness could do, I think we might say, that God himself cannot choose what is not good; the freedom of the Almighty hinders not his being determined by what is best.

51. A constant determination to a pursuit of happiness no abridgment of liberty. But to give a right view of this mistaken part of liberty let me ask,—Would any one be a changeling, because he is less determined by wise considerations than a wise man? Is it worth the name of freedom to be at liberty to play the fool, and draw shame and misery upon a man's self? If to break loose from the conduct of reason, and to want that restraint of examination and judgment which keeps us from choosing or doing the worse, be liberty, true liberty, madmen and fools are the only freemen: but yet, I think, nobody would choose to be mad for the sake of such liberty, but he that is mad already. The constant desire of happiness, and the constraint it puts upon us to act for it, nobody, I think, accounts an abridgment of liberty, or at least an abridgment of liberty to be complained of. God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer is its approach to infinite perfection and happiness. That, in this state of ignorance, we short-sighted creatures might not mistake true felicity, we are endowed with a power to suspend any particular desire, and keep it from determining the will, and engaging us in action. This is standing still, where we are not sufficiently assured of the way: examination is consulting a guide. The determination of the will upon inquiry, is following the direction of that guide: and he that has a power to act or not to act, according as such determination directs, is a free agent: such determination abridges not that power wherein liberty consists. He that has his chains knocked off, and the prison doors set open to him, is perfectly at liberty, because he may either go or stay, as he best likes; though his preference be determined to stay, by the darkness of the night, or illness of the weather, or want of other lodging. He ceases not to be free; though the desire of some convenience to be had there absolutely determines his preference, and makes him stay in his prison.
Now, regardless of whether we agree that a being can be free and yet determined by something (not, as I believe, a contradiction if that something is internalized in the determined being), the fact remains that a G_d of this sort is more law-driven than many would conceive G_d to be.

Anyway, what brings all this to mind is that, lately, I have been reading (albeït in somewhat desultory manner) The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart. Chapter 15 (The Haunting) contains a section entitled Stopping Locke, which ends thus

Locke's vague conjecture that matter might be able to think, of course, is Spinoza's avowed doctrine. […] Leibniz's magesterial refutation of the founder of British empiricism, in brief, is a covert assault [Spinoza]. Furthermore, [in Leibniz's mind] Locke — like Descartes before him — is really just a feeble imitation of Spinoza: he leaves in doubt that which his dark master pitilessly destroys.


Leibniz's unstated intuition that Locke was something of a Spinozist, incidentally, is probably more insightful than is generally allowed in modern interpretations of the great empiricist's work. Locke wrote much of his Essay while living in exile in Holland from 1683 to 1688, during which time he purchased all of Spinoza's works and mingled in circles that included some suspiciously freethinking characters. Furthermore, the parallels between his work and that of Spinoza extend well beyond those suggested by Leibniz. To be sure, as a conciliation-minded member of the Christian establishment, Locke toned down or obfuscated some of the more radical implications of his Spinozism — a task for which his inimitably wobbly prose was particularly well suited.
I would hardly agree that Locke's prose were wobbly, let alone that it were inimitably so; in fact, I don't think that a person given to wobbly writing would be capable of the sort of perspicacious thinking that got Locke as far along as his did. But the point remains that some of what I noted in Locke, such as in the two paragraphs of the Essay that I quoted, demonstrates that Locke represented some of the same tendencies as did Spinoza. Any notion that Locke borrowed heavily from Spinoza would have to confront what was already indicated by Locke's background and writings before he fled to Holland (and, earlier, before Spinoza had published anything); none-the-less, it would hardly be surprising if Leibniz indeed feared that Locke were in effect an agent of Spinoza's philosophy.

[1] Book I Chapter II ¶5, in the 1894 edition edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser (which is the edition that I read).

[2] The Hobbsean will assert that the State makes possible a manner of living whose goodness is not itself derived from the dictates of the State. Many Christians would want to make a similar claim for the goodness of the manner of living made possible by G_d. However, if pressed, most of them would not answer as did Ευθύφρων in the fable by the old philosopher Πλάτων; rather, they would feel compelled to hold that not simply instances of goodness but the distinction of goodness were creäted by the power of G_d. But Locke himself proves an apparent exception to my characterization. (See above.)

[3] Book II Chapter XXI ¶50-1.