Saturday, September 19, 2009

Machiavellian Theism

One encounters the most delightful delightful conundrum in reading Machiavelli's The Prince: the author hails from Italy, then as now, the most ostentatiously Christian place in Christendom; the seat of the Papacy and the Index of Prohibited Books (to which, fittingly, The Prince was added in 1559). The Catholicism of Machiavelli's Italy, then more than now, was rigid and morally absolutist, with the power to consign tracts and authors alike to the flames of this world and the next. So it is doubly scandalous to see in The Prince one of the most relativistic treatments of religion ever penned.

"A certain prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name" Machiavelli writes, "never does anything but preach peace and good faith, but he is really a great enemy to both, and either of them, had he observed them, would have lost him state or reputation on many occasions." If we were to end the quotation at "enemy to both," the typical reader, versed in some aspect of the moral tradition of the West, would assume a fairly standard denunciation of this prince's hypocrisy and false piety. The fact that this is exactly the opposite of what Machiavelli intends--a thoroughly scandalous kind of approval--is quite possibly why The Prince remains compelling: the book is, simply put, an instruction manual for an armory. It describes the tools of statecraft as a collection of weapons, how they are to be acquired, maintained, and employed, and--nothing else. The maintenance of power is as dispassionate as instructions for operating a DVD player or getting the most from the Atkins diet. In his hands (or, as he recommends, the hands of a prince), religion is a tool like every other: like armies and fortifications and ties to the nobility and attempts to compel the respect of the people. Like the state itself, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about religion, any more than these inherent qualities might take up residence in a pitchfork or plow. Most notably, Machiavelli approvingly describes religion as a labor-saving device for those princes who are fortunate enough to compel loyalty on religion's behalf:
[Ecclesiastical principalities] are acquired either by ability or fortune; but they are maintained without either, for they are sustained by ancient religious customs, which are so powerful and of such quality, that they keep their princes in power in whatever manner they proceed and live. These princes alone have states without defending them, have subjects without governing them, and their states, not being defended, are not taken from them. [...] Only these principalities, therefore, are secure and happy.

None of this is an explicit denial of religion's God, however: Machiavelli makes clear that these principalities are also maintained by "higher causes, which the human mind cannot attain to." But rather than a statement of reverence, his effectively total divorce of the spiritual and the temporal reminds us of the Epicureans: if there are gods, they clearly don't have anything to do with us.

It would seem that for Machiavelli, religion is located somewhere in a theoretical great chain of utility: it is a tool in the service of the state, the state itself a tool in the hands of a prince, and the prince a tool in the service of history. And it is precisely because of the chilly detachment with which the author describes the institutions in which most men are emotionally so heavily invested that he has seemed, I think, so evil to some. But we do not think this of the historian describing a time ten centuries past, or of a modern scientists describing a colony of ants. We accept the detachment as a necessary tool of putting aside what we wish to be the case for the physical reality of the situations that we observe. We can currently apply this detachment, without reproach, to phenomena as diverse as child socialization, chemical bonds, sociopaths, and climate change--and be published in academic journals. But a functional critique of religion in the service of the state was probably a bit too ahead of Machiavelli's time...and perhaps of ours.

So could Machiavelli have had any orthodox theistic beliefs, despite his analysis of religion as a tool of great potential utility, not despite but because of its potential to deceive? Oddly, I think so. I think he would realize that the uses of religion would exist as they did regardless of its truth--in fact he seems to say exactly this when he claims it "presumptuous and foolish" to assess these higher causes. We have an example of another scientist, certainly a theist, three centuries after Machiavelli, expressing a similar thought: in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "God helps those who help themselves."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Fine-tuning Arguments, Deism, and Why I Don't Think It Matters that Much

Beagle's note: This mini-essay originally appeared in condensed form as a comment at another blog. Why mention it? I think the moral of the story is that writing is nothing if not a good conversation among people with colorful ideas.

My friend the Infuriated SciTeacher (I warn friends like him about such unsubtle blog titles, but there is only so much one can do with scientists) just posted an interesting review of physicist Victor Strenger's The New Atheism, a book which summarizes the last decade of work by the authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, as well as some of the arguments in response from theists. I will put it in the queue, although it's going in behind Dennett's own Breaking the Spell, Dawkins' latest take on evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, and a whole lot of course requirements. A short essay of Strenger's appears in Hitchens' The Portable Atheist, but that's my whole exposure to him at this point. I'm passingly interested in any good popular account of physics, as the so-called anthropic principle seems to be the new(ish) battleground for most theistic apologists. The idea, for those unversed, is that the mathematical constants of the universe, including gravity, the nuclear force which allows atoms to bind, the speed of light, and a number of other factors seem uniquely set to allow for the emergence of complex matter and, eventually, life. It takes no great genius to see where those of a theological bent take this information. An apparently solid explanation of the idea (I haven't read it yet) is laid out in the the British astrophysicist (and agnostic) Sir Martin Rees' Just Six Numbers.

But one need not be a physicist to see the logical tendentiousness of the theistic version of such arguments. Some iteration of it appears in the Roman Catholic biologist/theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God all the way through creationist pablum such as Canadian journalist and Intelligent Design advocate Denyse O'Leary's By Design or by Chance? I generally reply to such assertions that physics suggests faith with something along the lines of, "Well, that's interesting, but I'm hardly going to Confession over it." I'm not a physicist, or even popularly educated in physics, so for me to try to argue about something on which I am so ignorant would put me in the same camp as the apologists (who, it bears note, are never physicists either). And I don't like that camp; I get poison ivy there. If I'm going to prioritize, following Plato and Aristotle's views on rhetoric, that we try to know what the hell we're talking about before we convince anyone else of it, then it makes little sense for me to find fault with theists for cherry-picking the esoteric bits they like from science to prove theism sans a more comprehensive understanding, and then cherry-picking the esoteric bits that I like to argue otherwise.

My lack of belief, rather, is a basic extension of observation--the rational causality of the events immediately around us and through the annals of recorded human history. And beyond that, we know that miraculous explanations always turn out to be bunkum when we get direct access to the facts: languages didn't get mixed at the tower of Babel; we know how they branch, and can watch it happen in historical time. It is true that this strictly inductive argument does not itself warrant a priori exclusion of miracles in principle, but I am still waiting for any good reason that we should allow for them when the evidence for them is exactly on par with, or perhaps slightly worse than, the evidence for Bigfoot. We know, after all, that large, probably hairy hominids have existed; we have, conversely, no fossil record for deities, unless it be writ in the annals of dead civilizations and their dead gods. We also know that there is something in the human character which leads us to write such creation narratives in the first place: we're still doing it about phenomena as recent as the creation of the American nation (the cherry tree myth) as well as its national pastime (the Abner Doubleday myth). But while academic sciences offer a great deal of help in broadening the debate and refuting theism on many levels, strictly speaking, I'd probably still be convinced without them. I'm pretty much sold by the English rationalist David Hume, and he was writing 100 years before Darwin.

But as importantly, I'm simply not greedy enough to much need to go past the Deist tradition that refuting the anthropic principle seems to target. I don't find it logically compelling, but I'm not terribly interested in ruling it out, either. In fact, if Christian authors, philosophers, and scientists like Dinesh D'Souza, Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Alvin Plantinga would all get together and agree that God crafted the physical constants of the universe and then decided to take a nap for the next 14-15 billion years, we would be witnessing a truly monumental Step Forward, as they would at that point have conceded every meaningful aspect of traditional religion. And to return to the the 18th century (as well as the theme of my upcoming book), I don't think the Deist Thomas Jefferson and the atheist Hume would have found all that much to disagree about, at least in terms of philosophy. Deism may well still be (and probably is) wrong, but it's a really harmless sort of wrong, as it is atheistic at the level of everyday human affairs including (most importantly) human morality.

And this is where the art of living comes in: it is useless to think of conduct and the foundational beliefs that inform them as somehow walled off from one another. While there are certainly human behaviors that are, regardless of religion/nonreligion common across many cultures, at the individual level, our most deeply held beliefs have a profound impact on how we choose to live our lives, particularly in arranging our ethical priorities. And really, as far as ethical priorities are arranged, I cannot think of a morally significant difference in the Deistic and atheistic worldviews. And here I must concede that, perhaps, my belief, that the skepticism and investigation prioritized in both systems are better epistemic tools for navigating human life than credulity and mysticism, is itself lacking in external support, and hence, under an extraordinarily broad definition, religious. But that is a leap of faith that I am willing to take.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Timothy Keller Has Never Met an Atheist: Review of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

What is ultimately so unsatisfying about The Reason for God is that I really suspect that, on some level, pastor of Manhattan's Redeemer Presbyterian Church and author Timothy Keller was making a sincere effort at engagement with nonbelievers. His tone is cordial, even genial, when writing about prominent atheists (including the typically reviled "four horesemen" of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens); he doesn't sling mud, distort assertions of nonbelief beyond recognition, brand rationalists as evil or culturally subversive, or even try to explain unbelief as the result of some undisclosed childhood trauma. He concedes that there may even be reasonable and rational arguments for atheism, rather than viewing it as a variety of moral turpitude or delusion. The civility of his discourse is at complete odds with, say, the spin and outright lies of the Intelligent Design creationists of the Discovery Institute or the faith-is-conservatism of the Family Research Council.

And that's why it's disappointing that the book misses the mark so badly in attempting to address the arguments of religious skeptics. It's not that Keller's refutations are particularly poor, even if they are, by his own admission, so heavily dependent upon C.S. Lewis; it's that they're not aimed at his alleged audience. Keller claims that "believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement [over mere denunciation] [...] when each side has learned to represent the other's argument in its strongest and most positive form." And so, each topic in the opening seven chapters in the book purports to be a refutation of skepticism, according to such terms--what Keller calls "a distillation of the many conversations I've had with doubters over the years."

But what the author has instead compiled is a litany of complaints from troubled believers: one chapter addresses, "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" Keller answers, following Lewis' The Great Divorce that this is a choice made by the selfish that they assiduously make into perpetuity. That's fine as far as Christian apologia goes, but that isn't responding to a question nontheists ask each other, really. It would be a bit like asking if they think Santa is a racist for ignoring African children. As a batch, the godless aren't much into moral analysis of entities they hold not to exist, other than as fodder for cruel jabs at the faithful. Keller treats the issue of theodicy similarly: he maintains that reconciliation of God with the existence of evil and suffering somehow heads off the galloping hoards of New Atheists; but that is essentially an in-house debate among the religious, at a time when nonbelievers prefer to deal with physical evidence for deities and their powers over the vagaries of divine-command moral philosophy.

His chapter refuting the historical critiques of the Gospels, entitled (ironically, of course) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally," is in much the same vein, if appreciably worse: Keller argues for the accuracy of Paul's Epistles based upon their chronological proximity to the life of Jesus, while conveniently overlooking the fact that the oldest copies of these manuscripts hail from the third century, after 200 years of amateur scribes had unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) had their way with the story. He argues that the Gospel of Mark would have been written when "thousands" of witnesses to Jesus' ministry were still living, as if sexagenarians on up were a dime a dozen in first century Palestine. He assumes the authenticity of all four canonical gospels, apparently unconcerned that Matthew and Luke are acknowledged by nearly all Christian theologians and biblical textual scholars as later revisions of Mark. He includes the story of the fallen woman from John, although this is a well-established medieval interpolation into the text. Additionally, he supports the historical veracity of the Gospels with the following howler:
For a highly altered, fictionalized account of an event to take hold in the public imagination it is necessary that the eyewitnesses (and their children and grandchildren) all be long dead. They must all be off the scene so they cannot contradict or debunk the embellishments and falsehoods of the story. The gospels were written far too soon for this to occur.

One less charitably inclined might gather that Timothy Keller is unversed in Holocaust denial, or grassy knolls, or Roswell, New Mexico, or Bigfoot, or Nessie, or 9/11 conspiracy theories or...well, it is unloading artillery on insects to belabor a point so obvious: "highly altered, fictionalized account[s] of an event" "take hold in the public imagination" all the time, without three generations of corpses being at all compulsory to smooth the way toward their widespread public acceptance. The very living nature of Elvis Presley's descendants has not precluded all manner of wild re-creations of his life and death, it merits note.

Either Keller has never read Bart Ehrman, a recent biblical scholar who might dispel some of this confusion, which seems unlikely, or he's betting that his "skeptical" reader hasn't, which is also a suspect wager. Again, his argument seems aimed either at a waffling believer or a serious one looking for argument fodder, not at any group of college-educated humanists.

The second half of the book, the positive case for theism, fares little better in targeting anyone but the already-converted. It begins with a discussion of what Keller deems "The Clues of God": and while so-called anthropic coincidences (the existence of physical constants in the universe that allow for the emergence of life) are interesting, the kind of God implicit in such fine-tuning of the universe is at best Deistic; the evidence, if we accept it as such, has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity. (To his credit, Keller acknowledges as much.) The conversation then dovetails into assertions that human feelings of sublimity, the "unfulfilled longing evoked by beauty" is evidence of something other than itself. And we run into the same problem again: any rational materialist will simply find the argument puzzling; aesthetic appreciation is not something that scientists find, in principal, particularly arcane. The evolutionary narrative says that this is exactly as it should be if sight and sound are means by which we navigate the world.

Ultimately, The Reason for God leaves us with something of an odd set of choices. It's possible that Timothy Keller, despite his indications otherwise, has never actually read the popular works of modern atheism except in condensed and secondary form. Since we all cheat on our reading lists here and there, this wouldn't necessarily be a damning indictment. The second option is that Keller has read Dawkins and Harris, and doesn't understand them well. The third is that he is intentionally misrepresenting the views of nonbelievers in a classic straw-man polemic. I'm not comfortable making any of these assertions. He seems too diligent to be a slacker, too literate to be obtuse, and too sincere to be strategically dishonest.

What I suspect, rather, is that Keller has confused a group of his current and former Manhattanite congregants and visitors who pose pointed theological questions with an entirely different group: nonbelievers who are not "soul searching" but instead are intellectually satisfied with the rationalist project, all its unfulfilled potential notwithstanding. And that's why I want him to participate in a new and different book. This time, I want him to introduce, edit and reply to an anthology of essays by his godless opponents, in order that he may grant them their own voices and idioms and respond as cordially to what atheists actually maintain as he has to what they do not. He might call it The Reason for Dialogue, or something such. Because then I can change the title of this review to: "Timothy Keller Has Met an Atheist."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Definition Drift: Contemporary versus Modern Understandings of Epicureanism and Stoicism

A good deal of the problem with modern comprehension of stoicism and Epicureanism, so far as they are understood at all, is a problem that we encounter with many old terms, particularly those coming from geographically distant cultures: connotation drift. Epicureanism, a term originally employed to suggest a sober and moderate life, took on, perhaps in the hands of its critics, nearly the opposite imputations. Epicurus writes that, far from a life of chasing after the most decadent experiences, Epicureans should prioritize simply those pleasures which occur in the absence of suffering: “All desires which create no pain when unfulfilled are not necessary; such desires may easily be dispelled when they are seen as difficult to fulfill or likely to produce harm.” Yet, in 1866, the English writer John Motley rails against “A horde of lazy epicureans, telling beads and indulging themselves in luxurious vice.” And it is much in Motley’s sense that we understand the idea presently: “Epicurean” today is most commonly found, often in restaurant reviews and wine ratings, describing luxuriant feasts of food and drink that Epicurus himself would likely have found merely gluttonous. In fact, such criticisms had obviously already begun to circulate during his own lifetime, as is evident in the following defense. It might be surprising to see how he described the philosophy which bears his name:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.

Hence, the association of Epicureanism with hedonism is one which he would (and did) explicitly reject. Why, then, this confusion? We can suspect that it stems from Epicurus’ teaching that death is the end of experience, and hence that the existence of the body and mind is all that we can know. The radical reduction of the influence of gods implicit in this denial of the afterlife raises the importance of the human physical form to the highest degree. A shift in focus from the supernatural to the physical of this order may have seemed so radical that the kind of pleasure that Epicurus had in mind for the body was really of no matter to his contemporary and modern opponents; any philosophy which denied the primacy of gods in human experience would (and does) find similar indignation.

Ultimately, Epicureanism is much more closely related to stoicism than we might suspect. And again, this relationship is clouded by the modern understanding that we have of stoicism. We typically understand “stoic” to mean “unfeeling,” and while that’s not a completely baseless interpretation, the idea is better understood as “emotionally detached.” Epictetus’ Handbook succinctly describes the philosophy thus: “The more we examine our attitudes and work on ourselves, the less we are apt to be swept away by stormy emotional reactions in which we seek easy explanations for unbidden events.” While these recommendations can seem exotic to a modern Western audience, the idea that we ought to be aware of and in control of our emotions sits near the center of most Asian religions, chief among them Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of all of these philosophies is not to extinguish emotion but to experience it in its proper sphere—a sphere in which we can observe it take place within ourselves without being ruled by it or otherwise helplessly compelled to act. In short, we are to be able to see our own emotional states with the same level of clarity as if they were occurring in someone else. In fact, some variety of this exact instruction can be found in all of the spiritual and philosophical traditions mentioned.

The point of all this is not, as is commonly suspects, the extinguishing of human joy; it is liberation from the everyday suffering associated with being ruled by selfish cravings. Epictetus makes the point rather forcefully: “It’s much better to die of hunger, unhindered by grief and fear, than live affluently beset with worry, dread, suspicion, and unchecked desire.” When we see the stoic definition of inner contentment as freedom from painful emotions, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish it from the Epicurean definition of pleasure. How odd, then, that two millennia later when the terms are tossed about casually, we use them nearly as antonyms.