Friday, June 03, 2011
Paul: Yes, if you choose to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an atheist will not necessarily understand why.
David: While you may not have intended to be insulting, and I didn't take it that way, the "Flying Spagetti Monster" probably is inherently mocking. To take it more seriously than it probably deserves, though, one important difference between the spagetti monster, or the pink unicorn, and God, is that the former are arbitrary, while God is not. This is shown by the fact that a cohesive and consistent picture of God emerges in many cultures around the world. Dawkins and Dennett are ignorant of this fact (long since recognized by anthropologists), and it undermines one of their arguments against God.
One of their own arguments against God rests on the premise that there is no such coherent picture of God. But the premise is false; therefore the argument they use to argue against God, if valid, is actually evidence FOR the existence of God.
Probably the best skeptical response to this argument (though a bit ad hoc -- no skeptics I know predicted these facts, as did Sts. Paul and Augustine), would be that there's something about human psychology or anthropology that lends itself to belief in God as the Judeo-Christian tradition conceives Him. (A "God gene," maybe -- though different from a source of mystical experience, as usually intended.)
Even if that were so, that would still send the Spagetti Monster flying off into intrastellar space. Human beings have no spontaneous tendency to cook Italian spagetti, let alone believe in the Spagetti Monster; therefore, there is no parallel.
For this and other reasons, an atheist SHOULD recognize the difference between God and the FSM. If in fact theism has a biological or psychological basis, he probable DOES recognize the difference, and simply chooses to pretend otherwise. If it has no such basis, then the coincidence among different cultures around the world is even more startling, and strongly suggests revelation.
RF: I've heard you make this remark before concerning a supposed universality of the conception of God. I have no problem with religious people trying to find common ground with people of other faiths, but historically I don't see this universality (nor, by the way, did John Locke, for which reason he rejected innate ideas.). Of course, the three most populous religions of the world today--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--do share a very similar conception of their respective gods, but this is easily explained by historical influence. But looking back historically, and not simply counting heads, we find very different conceptions of deities. One only has to look at the prevalence of polytheism in the ancient world coming out of the bronze age. So I find nothing that suggests historically the universality you claim.
RF: Sorry about the second post, but your reference to a Stoic again raises a question, the one Paul was raising as well, as to whether identifying all these gods in different cultures as a reference to God as understood by a Christian is not a matter of ignoring the details. The Stoics were thoroughgoing materialists, and thus their god was understood as material, fire in fact, quite out of keeping with a Christian conception. One might also cite Aristotle's god. It would be entirely anachronistic to see this god as some equivalent to the Christian god. Aristotle's god is not a creator, not a governor of the world or designer of it in any sense, is not a loving god, not a judge of us or a source of moral standards. We can't gloss over such details, IMO.
DM: As for the Stoic God, I think their physics was at war with their intuition on the nature of God, and the intuition usually won. Of course everything was made of matter for them. But their writings on God are very striking from a Christian perspective. You can make a case that they were materialist, polytheist, pantheist, henotheist, or just theistic -- though all our conceptions of those things are a bit out of pace with their metaphysics -- it was unique. But reading through their stuff, it's the theistic element that seems strongest to me. I'm including a discussion of this question in the paper I'm writing; I'd be interested in what you think about those two or three pages when (if) I finish.
I really am enjoying those folks -- I feel deep admiration for their philosophy, which is one of the most heroic, yet also humble somehow, I've ever come across.
RF: I'm still not convinced. There's also an issue of circularity to your argument. You admit that there isn't universal belief in a supreme deity, and thus admit to counterexamples. But with that in mind, you argument seems to boil down to something like this: in all cultures in which a supreme deity is recognized these deities are alike in that they are all conceived as being supreme. If you ignore the differences in detail, this is as far as I can see what your argument boils down to.
As for the Stoic god, I would still stress the differences between it and the Christian god. Not only was it a material being, but like Aristotle's god it did not intercede in worldly events. It determines the natural order, but once so determined it does nothing to change that order. Thus like Aristotle's god, there is no point in prayer, since the Stoic god will not answer such prayers, and there isn't even a suggestion that it would hear a prayer. Like Aristotle's god, there is no suggestion of omniscience as Christians understand it. Again, the Stoic god is no moral judge, and no moral law giver.
But further there are so many forms of religious belief: pantheism, monolotry, polytheism, and even forms of Buddhism that don't recognize a god at all, that it is hard to put much credence into your argument. And even if I gave up on these objections, and accepted that there is some general recognition of a supreme being among many cultures, what is implied by this? There are many explanations possible.
But I'm glad to hear you enjoy the Stoics. They have always been a favorite of mine as well, particularly Epictetus.
DM: The skeptic claim is that God is arbitrary, like the FSM. Dawkins makes this explicit (as did Durkheim):
"Not surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions. Historians of religion recognize a progression from primitive tribal animisms, through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Norsemen, to monotheisms . . . "
My response is (1) Dawkins is wrong, "historians of religion" mostly know now that the last item on his alleged progresssion often (even usually) comes first. (2) What he says about the "God Hypothesis" coming in "many versions" involves a major oversight: in fact there is striking agreement between hundreds of tribes on EVERY inhabited continent about the character of the Supreme God.
It's not just that He's supreme. There's a whole list of characteristics that people around the world usually attach to the supreme God. (creator -- father -- good -- judge -- transcends cultures -- rewards kindness -- should not be worshipped with an idol -- among others) Durkheim gives a short list for Australian tribes, John Mbiti a long list for African peoples, James Legge and Vincent Shih give an almost identical list of characteristics for the ancient Chinese God. Lang showed that belief in a High God with similar characteristics was common around the world. Leading experts in different fields and of all viewpoints, like Mircea Eliade, Marvin Harris, Paul Radin, and Rodney Stark, have admitted the phenomena, though they've given different spins to it.
At a minimum, it shows that the Judeo-Christian God is NOT arbitrary, or the product of one particular culture.
The Stoic God was not, admittedly, conceived identically as Yahweh. Like many primitive concepts of God, also some from science, He was distant, and difficult to access. That's why the Christian faith came as "good news:" as Pascal put it, "not the God of the philosophers, but of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" -- the Christian revelation added to what the Greeks were already figuring out about God. But how can a Christian read what Balbus said here and not recognize who he is talking about?
"Thus, if we every way examine the universe, it is apparent, from the greatest reason, that the whole is admirably governed by a divine providence . . . "
"To this skill of nature, and this care of providence, so diligent and so ingenious, many reflections may be added, which show what valuable things the Deity has bestowed on man."
Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus, and a lot that Epictetus says, is also in the same tone. I'll look at these passages more closely with your criticism in mind, though.
Of course there are many forms of religion. And of course there are possible materialistic explanations for the fact that ONE concept appears in hundreds of cultures around the world -- I admitted that already. My points are, (1) Dawkins, and the FSM argument, depend on the concept of "God" being completely arbitrary, as the FSM is. (Why not a Flying Anchove Pizza Monster? A Gliding Okonomiyaki Monster? A Limping Taco Salad Monster?) But that concept is NOT arbitrary; the concept of "God" should therefore be held separate from culturally -determined devas and deities, like say Bacchus, or Kali, or Superman. (2) Christians predicted this phenomena; I know of no prominent atheist who did so, before the facts were know. (3) Certainly the phenomena makes the reality of God at least SOMEWHAT more credible. When they are ignorant of the phenomena, atheists like Dawkins argue quite readily that the culturally-determined and arbitrary nature of concepts of God consistutes evidence against the reality of God. Why should the argument only work if the data favors the atheist position?
RF: First, monotheism was not new with the Stoics in Greek culture. It went back at least as far as Xenophanes. You might take this as some confirmation of your points, but I might point out that by in large Greek culture was polytheistic. Monotheism was a philosophical exception. Plato, whom you mention, in the Timeaus, thought that one could not understand the world without positing two gods, the Demiurge and the World Soul. Aristotle, as I mentioned before, thought you could get along with one, but then again his god was very unlike the Christian god.
Now for the passage in particular. The "unity of good and bad" is not a hold out from pantheism or polytheism, although you're right there is much of this in the passage. A central doctrine of the Stoics was that things of themselves are "indifferent." They are only good or bad, beautiful or ugly, based on human judgment. This was critical to the Stoic ethic. All that is is necessary given the natural order. One cannot desire that the necessary not be (if one is rational). Thus what the common man calls "good" in the sense of desirable is in itself indifferent, as the "bad" is equated with the undesirable. This is the realization of the Stoic sage, who does not allow desires to differ from what actually occurs.
"First cause of Nature" and "you know how to . . . bring order from chaos" similarly requires careful reading. You might know that the Stoics were the authors of the doctrine of the "eternal recurrence" (or perhaps Heraclitus, but there is no sufficient evidence here). According to this view, the world has no beginning or end, but is cyclical, where each cosmic epoch repeats precisely the proceeding cosmic epoch. (Generally the Greek philosophers believed in a Cosmos that had no beginning nor end.) A first cause need not be a creator. So much even the great Thomas Aquinas admitted. Each cosmic epoch ended and began in universal conflagration. Why? Because all things return to God who is materially fire. (By the way, they also thought that the soul was comprised of fire, and it appears for two reasons: this would explain why we warm-blooded creatures become cold at death, and also the "quickness of thought" seemed to require the quickness of fire as an explanation.)
Now, with respect to "ruler of all things," let us step back a moment and consider this historically. Was Yahweh the "ruler of all things"? He certainly doesn't appear to be so from the OT. He needs the aid of human action to take Palestine. He is more of the helpful general than in control of all. He certainly aids David against Goliath, but he doesn't do the deed himself. We simply don't get this notion from the OT. And it is understandable. From all that I've read, recent scholarly views are that the Israelites were not monotheists before the return from exile. At best they held to a monolatry. If Yahweh is not the only god, then Yahweh must struggle with other gods as humans struggled with other humans. So the notion of God as "ruler of all things" is not Yahweh.
A second historical note. The Gospel of John is the first to refer to Christ as the "Word," or in Greek the "Logos." John clearly took this view from the Stoics, who took the view of the Logos from Heraclitus. So the historical record is not untainted here. This familiar theme of Christianity no doubt entered the religion from the Stoic Greeks. After all, the Jews were hellenized centuries before John. So if John was an educated Jew, he would understand much of Greek thought. If John were a converted Greek, then of course he would understand his intellectual culture.
I appreciate that you brought your comments onto my "home court" as it were, philosophy. As I said, with the exception of a bit of Chinese religious belief I'm not well acquainted with nonWestern religion--a lack that I'd like to address before I die, perhaps even sooner. But I do believe that a claim of convergence of belief among cultures must be carefully scrutinized. There is much room to see superficial similarity.
DM: Paul brought up the "Flying Spaghetti Monster." I responded by saying, "One important difference between the spaghetti monster, or the pink unicorn, and God, is that the former are arbitrary, while God is not. This is shown by the fact that a cohesive and consistent picture of God emerges in many cultures around the world."
I also pointed out that Dawkins bases an argument against God on the lack of any such consistent picture. His premise being false, if his argument is valid, anthropology provides a useful (though admittedly not overpowering) argument FOR the existence of God.
You admitted you sometimes use leprechauns for a similar purpose, and disputed the commonality or coherence of the image of God in various cultures. Since I've been reading Stoics lately, and since someone else brought up the Greeks and Romans, I offered a couple long quotes from Epictetus and Cleanthes to illustrate my point, and that's where the argument has centered since. I introduced Epictetus with the words, "But yeah, God keeps on breaking through to the Greeks and Romans, too."
With that background in mind, a few possible responses are not entirely relevant:
(1) "But Stoics may have influenced the early Christians, or Greeks may have been influenced by the Jews."
True, but we're only talking about the Greeks, rather than the Chinese or Australian aborigines, as a concession to Western culture.
(2) "But these folks have lots of gods, not just one."
True, but that has nothing to do with my initial claim about God vs. FSM, or my later claim about God "breaking through" to the Greeks and Romans.
(3) "But scholars think early Jews had lots of other gods, too!"
True, and the Bible points that out forthrightly. But if the concept of God, as Christians and Jews hold it, really does appear widely in primitive times, then Hebrew (or American) idolatry can be regarded (from a theistic perspective) as a regression, as indeed the Bible depicts it. The issue is not "monotheism" vs. "monolatry," it is whether a consistent picture of God can be found in MANY cultures around the world.
All right, here's Cleanthes again. Let me insert apparent points of commonality between Cleanthes' words about "Zeus," and what Christians say about God. I'll consider some of the points you dispute afterwards.
Theistic expressions in Cleanthes "Hymn to Zeus"
"Most (1) glorious of the (2) immortals, (3) invoked by many names, ever (4) all-powerful,
Zeus, the (5) First Cause of Nature, who (6) rules all things with (7) Law,
Hail! (8) It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since (9) from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be (10) God's image,
we (11) alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth . . .
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
(12) goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your (13) invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal (14) Word of Reason which moves through all creation . . .
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable, and (15) how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that (16) the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, (17) evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
(18) they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, (19) they would have the good life . . ."
On the face of it, that's a remarkable amount of agreement. Some Christians, I think, would even find this quote threatening -- "how could a pagan know all that?"
But you argue that in many ways, official Stoic philosophy is quite different from Christian theology. Furthermore, you make the case that even some of these points may diverge more than they appear on the surface:
(5) "First cause of Nature . . . (15) you know how to bring order from chaos" . . . requires careful reading." In fact, the Stoics believe the world has "no beginning or end," and the "first cause need not be a creator."
That may be. The congruence with Genesis 1 is, nevertheless, striking. "The earth was formless and empty . . . God said, 'Let there be light!'" God here is depicted both as a "first cause," and as One who brings "order from chaos."
"Now, with respect to (6) "ruler of all things," let us step back a moment and consider this historically. Was Yahweh the "ruler of all things"? He certainly doesn't appear to be so from the OT. He needs the aid of human action to take Palestine. He is more of the helpful general than in control of all. He certainly aids David against Goliath, but he doesn't do the deed himself . . . "
Perhaps you confuse "ruler" with "despot," or "one man band." The Bible doesn't depict God as a big Puppet Master in the Sky, usually . . . But I see no reason to think that's what Cleanthes had in mind, either. Freedom is built into the OT: "Choose you this day whom you will serve!" God can be "ruler" without dictating and causing every single event directly. (According to the Bible, even evil human acts are turned into good.)
Finally, you seem to challenge (14) somewhat:
"A second historical note. The Gospel of John is the first to refer to Christ as the "Word," or in Greek the "Logos." John clearly took this view from the Stoics, who took the view of the Logos from Heraclitus. So the historical record is not untainted here."
John clearly did borrow the term "logos" from the Greeks -- actually all his words, apart from a few Aramaic insertions! And Philo and other Jews had used "logos" in some such way already, absolutely.
But John is mainly echoing Genesis. "In the beginning God . . . " "And God said . . . " These two most powerful invocations translate brilliantly, clearly, succinctly into "In the beginning was the Word."
So the real question is not why John sounds so much like Cleanthes, but why Cleanthes sounds so much like Moses. And I think my interpretation is the simplest solution, and fits a lot of other data, including the many remarkable confluences between Cleanthes' hymn and Judeo-Christian images of God. Remember, my original comment here was not, "The Stoic picture of God is exactly like the Christian," but "God keeps on breaking through to the Romans and Greeks." There's enough similarity here to support that contention, I think.
You said, at one point, that I seemed to be arguing in a circle: Yahweh is supreme, and many other supreme gods are like him because they are also supreme. Hopefully you'll admit we've now seen other qualities that the J-C God and the Stoic God share in common. Allow me to go through Chrysippus' Hymn to Zeus one more time. This time, I'll put each of the 19 qualities that his "Zeus" shares in common with the J-C God in one of three categories: (a) qualities shared between Christians, Stoics, and Greek pagans; (b) qualities shared between Christians and Stoics; and (c) qualities shared between Christians and Chrysippus, but NOT with orthodox Stoicism. I see (b) and especially (c) as potential evidence for my hypothesis. (Leaving aside for the moment the issue of historical borrowing, and what that might mean.)
(What counts as evidence against the hypothesis is also a dicey issue, given the complexity of the hypothesis, and the potential for "stacking the deck" on my part.)
God and Chrysippus' "Zeus:" 19 shared characteristics
"(1) Most glorious . . . " (a) or (b) Agrees with Stoic and Christian theism, and partially with Greek polytheism. Zeus is the chief of the gods, but as philosophers had long since recognized, the Homeric vision of his acts were not always very glorious.
"(2) of the immortals . . . " (a)
"(3) invoked by many names . . . " (b) or (c) While Greek gods were commonly identified with deities in other cultures known by other names, this seemed especially true of Zeus, and generally as a deity more closely approaches monotheism. The Bhagavad Gita takes this to an extreme: "Some bow to the countless gods that are only my million faces." (81) But the many names of God in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, is also paralleled in Chinese theism, and by the common recognition among tribal peoples that God has many names. Paul also implied that even the name "Zeus" could refer to the One True God, as we will see.
"(4) ever all-powerful" (b) Zeus is not all-powerful in Greek mythology; when he is described as such, he begins to take on theistic qualities.
"(5) Zeus, the First Cause of Nature . . . " (b) Stoic philosophy agrees here with Judeo-Christian theology, against traditional Greek paganism.
"(6) Who rules all things . . . " (b) or (c) The pagan Zeus does not do this; it is not clear in what sense the God of Stoic philosophy does, either. Of course this agrees with the J-C image of God.
"(7) with Law . . . " (b) The Stoic and Christian God is lawful; Homer's Zeus passionate and rather lawless.
"(8) It is right for mortals to call upon you . . . " (c) Here, remarkably, Cleanthes appears to agree with both J-C theism, AND with polytheism, AGAINST the school of philosophy he heads. You have argued that Stoics could not pray to their God. Johan Thom (professor of Classics, U of Stellenbosch) agrees, but notes:
"This again confronts us with the problem what it means for a Stoic to pray. In terms of the logic of a strict pantheistic system, a Stoic should have no need to pray: he has direct access to God within himself, since his reason shares in the divine logos . . . The fact that God is identified with fate furthermore appears to preclude prayer, for how can prayer change that which is predetermined by the very structure of the world?"
Here's an interesting piece of evidence for my theory. Theoretically, you should be right: Stoics should not pray. But many of them do, including Cleanthes, the second leader of the school. Strom continues:
"In the words of Marcel Simon, `Stoic prayer is a paradox but a reality.' Seneca and Cleanthes are sometimes cited as representatives of a `strict' and a `more liberal' approach to prayer, but even Seneca is at times quite positive about the value of prayer.'" (Thom, Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus, 26)
Thom explains this by pointing out that Stoicism is a combination of pantheism and theism, and that Stoics are not always consistent! Following Simon, he points out that two common kinds of prayer, thanksgiving and submission to the divine will, are relatively easy to square with Stoic philosophy. However, here we have "petitionary prayer with a request to God to assist human beings in overcoming their lack of insight and the concomitant failure to make the correct moral choices. In this case Cleanthes turns to a superior force, outside himself, for help." (Ibid, 27)
"(9) from you we have our being . . ." (a) or (b) This is an interesting phrase. It has polytheistic parallels in Homer, Hesiod and Theolytus, where "genos" can be taken physically. But Paul also seems to echo it in Acts 17: 28: "As even some of your own poets have said, `For we too are his offspring.'" while Paul is (most agree) citing Aratus directly, as Thom puts it, "the plural `your own poets' suggest he may have had Hymn to Zeus v. 4a in mind as well."
Aratus was speaking of "Zeus" in a way that suggested a stronger theism as well:
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring...
Paul quoted the last line, and likely had Cleanthes in mind as well - showing that he recognized the name "Zeus" could refer not to Homer' god, but to that of Abraham and Jesus. (See 4 above.)
"(10) we whose lot it is to be God's image . . . " (?) Here I don't know the other tradition well enough to say. No necessary contradiction with Stoicism or paganism, but the parallel with Genesis is particularly striking.
(11) we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth . . . (?) This phrase underlines the Genesis parallel.
"(12) The whole universe, spinning around the earth, goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you." (b)
Homer lacked such an exalted view of Zeus. He also seems to take a more active role than Stoicism proscribed.
"(13) So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands" (b) The pagan Zeus was quite vincible.
(contrary evidence?) "your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt. By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established . . . "
Thom argues that his phrase reflects the Stoic connection of God to fire.
"(14) and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation . . . " (b) OT theology anticipated the Stoic "logos" twice. First, it does so in the creation account, to which we have already referred, in which acts of creation repeatedly begin with, "And God said." Second in the Proverbs, in which Sophia (in the LXX) is a personified quasi-divine voice.
"(15) But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable, and how to bring order forth from chaos . . . " (b) Zeus does not do that, for Homer. Stoicism here is "Moses in Attic Greek" - as Genesis describes: "The earth was formless and empty . . . and God said, `Let there be light.'" There are no doubt other parallels in Mediterranean thought, as you suggest.
"(16) the eternal Word of all came to be one." (b = 14?)
"(17) This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches; though they are desirous of good things for their possession" (b) or (c) This is one of John's favorite themes, but it predates Christianity in the Jewish tradition. I don't know how well it fits Stoic philosophy. I doubt the desire to flee Homer's Zeus would define a person as an "evil mortal."
(18) "they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;" (b) or (c) Law is a major theme of Psalms, especially Psalm 119. Also one of the themes of Romans 1-2, also of the prophets. "They have eyes, but see not." Again, this does not fit in with Greek paganism, but is another example of Stoic thought moving in the direction of a theism recognizable to Jews and Christians.
"(19) and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life . . ." (a) or (b) The gods reward, though not because of following "Law."
Is my analysis of these points fair? Would you disagree with any of them, or can you tell me how to resolve those I couldn't classify?
RF does respond to this last, long post, and we do explore the equally remarkable theistic ideas of these other Stoics. . . But this is probably enough -- maybe more than enough -- for now. What I think this shows, is how far out in space the Spaghetti Monster really is. God was breaking through to the Greek philosophers, as He did to the Chinese, Indians, and tribal peoples around the world. God might even be defined as the least arbitrary being in the universe. But you won't hear that from those who take Colbert as their idol. -- DM