Monday, September 3, 2012

Egregious and flawed concepts about God

This is slightly-modified reblogging of Jime's recent post at 

Many new age people consider themselves "believers in God". But exactly what means "God" to them?

Some will say that God is a kind of "energy" which permeates the entire universe (or something like that). But what exactly do they mean by "energy"? A physical energy? A spiritual energy? Presumably, it is the latter. But what is a "spiritual energy"? The energy of a spirit (= unembodied person)? These reflections tend to be absent in the works of these new age people.

They don't specify if they believe in a personal God (a spiritual person with superlatives attributes which is the ground and source of all physical and non-physical reality), and when asked explicitly they deny this personal concept of God (which they, erroneously and again by ignorance, attributes to the Christian concept of God... which certainly is personal, but not all the personalistic concepts of God are Christian. In fact, in classical Christian theism, the anthropomorphic concept of God is largely rejected on behalf of a personal concept of God defined analogously).

The "theistic" new age person tends to conflate "personal" with "anthropomorphic," precisely because they have no idea of the literature about the problems related to the concept of God. They reject a straw man, created largely by the secularist propaganda of atheists.

Therefore (and here appears their pseudo-intellectualism and illogical thinking in full expression), often they ascribe personalistic properties to that "energy" (e.g. the property of being "intelligent", conscious, good, having purposes, plans and intentions in order to organize the universe, etc.). For example, they say, based for example on NDEs, that such energy is "pure love" (note that love, in the highest spiritual level beyond pure animal instinct, is a property of persons). 

Obviously, all of these specific properties of such peculiar "energy" are properties TYPICAL of persons, not of non-personal entities, forces or energies like the law of gravity, entropy, quantum vacuum, atoms, electrons, DNA, etc. So, the new age person tend to verbally to reject the personal concept of God, but implicitly such concept is fully implied in the properties that they ascribe to the "energy".

An egregious example of this is Deepak Chopra. Confusing "personal" with anthropomorphic (and with Christian fundamentalism) you read see this pearl in his criticism of Dawkins:
This assumption is false on several grounds. The most basic one is that God isn't a person... Therefore, reducing God to a Sunday school picture and claiming that the Book of Genesis--or creationism in general--competes with science isn't accurate. Fundamentalism hasn't played a role in scientific debate for generations. Einstein pointed out that he didn't believe in a personal God but was fascinated by how an orderly universe and its physical laws came about.

Chopra conflates the notion of God as being a person with "fundamentalism". This is an example of the conceptual naiveté and philosophical unsophistication that I've discussed in this post. Certainly, fundamentalists believe that God is a person, but the reverse is false: not all who believe that God is a person are fundamentalists.

Former atheist champion, the late scientistic philosopher Antony Flew became a deist who concluded about God this:
I accept the God of Aristotle who shares all the attributes you cite [self-existent, immutable, immaterial, omnipotent and omniscient being]. Like Lewis I believe that God is a person  but not the sort of person with whom you can have a talk.  It is the ultimate being, the Creator of the Universe.

Note that Flew's God is personal, because as a trained philosopher he knows that attributes like "omniscient" implies personality. Does it make Flew a six day creationist? Obviously not. But Chopra doesn't undertand this because he has absolutely not idea of the concept of God in classical and contemporary theology and philosophy. No hint of sophisticated reflection on the concept of God is being advanced in Chopra's works.

Chopra prefers to knock down the simplistic view of God taught by pseudo-intellectualistic Christian preachers at the Sunday school, instead of carefully addressing the sophisticated views of first-rate classical and contemporary thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swinburne, etc.

Regarding Einstein, the fascination for the laws of nature and the universe is not an objection against the view of God as personal. At most, it shows that Einstein was a pantheist. But Einstein was a physicist, not a theologian nor a trained philosopher, so hardly Einstein's personal opinion is going to settle the theological-philosophical problem of the nature of God.

Chopra's superficiality is telling in the following passage. After saying that God is not a person, he has not problem in using the property "intelligence" as applied to his non-personal concept of God:
So at bottom, the real question is this: Do we need an all-pervading intelligence to explain the universe? Forget the image of God sitting on a throne, forget Genesis, forget the straw man of a Creator who isn't as smart as a smart human being. The real debate is between two world views:
  1. The universe is random. It operates entirely through physical laws. There is no evidence of innate intelligence
  2. The universe contains design. Physical laws generate new forms that display intention. Intelligence is all-pervasive
Note that Chopra's second alternative is not incompatible with the first one. Materialists accept that the universe operates entirely through blind, mechanical and unguided physical laws AND that these laws generate new forms that display intention (e.g. the law of unguided biological evolution generates human beings who are intentional agents). They reject innate or intrinsic intelligence but accept supervenient intelligence displayed by some biologically complex organisms. This is the standard position of materialist and Darwinist scholars. Therefore, Chopra's understanding of the "debate" is superficial, false and misleading.

That intelligence is "all-pervasive" is fully compatible with God being a person. Perhaps what Chopra means is that intelligence is INTRINSIC in the structure of the universe, i.e. the physical energy and laws of this universe are, themselves, "intelligent".

Now, the intelligence of physical laws (if it were the case) doesn't exclude the existence of a intelligent designer who have designed them. After all, my cell phone is an intelligent one (a smartphone), but it doesn't suffice to conclude that a transcendent (=beyond my cell phone) creator of my cell phone doesn't exist. On the contrary, the evidence for such smartphone is evidence for the existence of a intelligent designer of it.

Regarding the universe, it is specially the case given the evidence that the universe (with its intelligent laws) began to exist. And this implies a cause. Therefore, the "intelligence" of the physical laws cannot be the explanation of the origin of the universe, because such laws began to exist too. Therefore, it points out to a intelligent cause that created such universe with such "intelligent laws". Hence, Chopra has not given any compelling reason to think that God, if exists, is not personal. On the contrary.

Regarding God sitting on a throne, I don't know ANY sophisticated Christian thinker who thinks such a ridiculous thing. Indeed, for Christians, God is immaterial (therefore, it is impossible to him to be sitting on something, let alone in a throne). The biblical passages which suggest divine corporality are interpreted metaphorically, not literally (because the Bible has several literary genres and proper interpretation and exegesis is dependent on them), as any person familiar with theological and biblical literature would know. 

Regarding a God who is not so smart as human being, no informed Christian could properly believe such a thing, since God is supposed to be perfect and omniscient, therefore (by definition) he's INFINITELY more smart and wise than any other being, including humans. A Christian believing otherwise wouldn't be a Christian, because he would believe in a God incompatible with Christian theology.

Again Chopra is beating a straw man and misinforming the public about Christian theology. 

It is fine if you don't believe in God or in any particular religion or worldview. But serious intellectuals have to make an effort to represent the views of their opponents in the most charitable, strongest formulation. Otherwise, they're pseudo-intellectuals and sophists.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Steve Fuller's "Science of God"

Steve Fuller, at the University of Warwick in the UK, has been proposing for some time that science ought to take God seriously into account.  Here is a brief set of links to his work and related topics. He comes from a Catholic/Jesuit education, but his theology does not seem to agree with the standard Thomistic views as discussed by Edward Feser.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has posted his article The science of God: The philosophical antecedents of Intelligent Design, which is a useful summary of his position. I want to discuss the relation of his work to the theistic science that I am advocating.

Fuller writes:
"Theomimesis" is my neologism for attempts to acquire God's point-of-view - in short, to take literally that we might "get into the mind of God" or even "play God."

The deity in question is Abrahamic, indeed, the "monotheistic" deity that eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers such as John Toland and Gotthold Lessing abstracted as the rational common core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In practice, this monotheism was usually - but not always - heavily biased toward some version of the Christian deity. This deity is distinctive in that it transcends the world it has created, yet its nature is sufficiently close to our own that we might reasonably aspire to approximate the deity's virtues.
This agrees well with the principles of theistic science, following from the core principles of theism whereby God is Love Itself,  and whereby our life is a kind of reduced image of God. Our mental activities of desiring and thinking exist because they derive from the love and wisdom of God.

The theomimetic moment has been captured in several ways. Kant, ever the diplomat, spoke of God as a "regulative ideal of reason." More plain-speaking theologians and philosophers have followed the great fourteenth century Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus' theory of "univocal predication" whereby divine attributes differ from human ones only by degree not kind. Thus, God may be "all knowing" but the sense in which God "knows" is the same as our own, except we "know" to a much lesser degree. This in turn allowed for direct comparisons between human and divine conditions of being, resulting in a trajectory of progress - typically presented as a project of species self-improvement from Adam's Fall to (possibly) the construction of Heaven on Earth.
This is also more or less true, once we acknowledge that the work of 'species self-improvement' is something done largely by God's regeneration of our spiritual life insofar as we permit that to happen. I have discussed before the significance of "univocal prediction" of divine attributes.
Two versions of this project have enjoyed considerable secular influence in the modern era:
  • Leibniz's theodicy, which would understand Creation in terms of a divine utility function that tolerates many local harms in service of ours being "the best possible world";
  • Hegel's philosophy of history, which makes temporality constitutive of God's own self-realization, which means that Creation itself is incomplete as long as the distinction between God and humanity remains.
Historically these two secular theomimetic projects are known as capitalism and socialism, respectively. The theomimetic agents are correspondingly known as the entrepreneur and the vanguard.

But once religious believers started to take seriously that the actual world might reflect the design of a divine intelligence that is literally "superhuman" - that is, the ultimate extension of human intelligence - disaffection quickly set in, as God seemed to operate on the principle that the end justifies the means. For humans this normally means "unscrupulous."

To be sure, the Jesuits (God bless them!) had already seen this problem in the Counter-Reformation, proposing the "doctrine of double effect," which aims to dissociate what one intends and what one anticipates. Thus, God always intends good, and through his all-powerful nature can bring about good, but the good of primary interest to the deity is ultimate good, not immediate or transient good. These lesser goods are related directly to matter, which for God is always a negotiable instrument. So while it is unfortunate that many must suffer and die, this would happen in service of an end to which they themselves would have agreed (had they been asked). Both military invasion and land dispossession have been justified on these terms.
It seems that we are failing here to have a proper account of God's management of the world, and how Divine Providence is managed.  We see, furthermore, how misunderstandings of theology lead to strange political platforms.
In light of this reasoning, it is perhaps unsurprising that Charles Darwin renounced his lingering attachment to Christianity once he studied closely William Paley's Natural Theology, which openly endorsed Reverend Thomas Malthus' views of divine population control through resource constraint. Of course, Darwin retained the substance of Malthus' theory - now re-branded as "natural selection" - but he refused to believe in the existence of a deity who would allow so many members of so many species to endure such miserable existences. Darwin's morally fuelled atheism thus led him to a kind of Neo-Epicureanism that dissipated divine responsibility in a sophisticated version of metaphysical indeterminacy.
Again questions of divine providence seem to be driving scientific ideas, and in 'strange' directions. Darwin's principle of natural selection, I showed, is impossible within theism.

However, the decline of theomimesis among professional theologians is trickier to explain. Most embraced Darwin's empirical findings and hypotheses without losing their faith. Indeed, the strong pro-science orientation of theologians in the half-century following the publication of Origin of Species is exemplified in Adolf von Harnack, who served as political midwife to the birth of the Kaiser Wilhelm (now Max Planck) Institutes, the pioneer vehicle for state-industry-academia research collaborations.

But the close bond between science and theology was undone by the German scientific community's strong presence in the First World War, whose unprecedented devastation led many theologians to doubt that science could be treated as the pursuit of God by technologically enhanced means. From this conclusion arose the sort of "fideism" championed by Karl Barth, which in the name of humanity's fallen state rendered theology a self-referential discourse without any aspirations or accountability vis-a-visthe world as understood by science. As the "Great War" had shown - at least to Barth's satisfaction - the very attempt to redeem theological claims in scientific terms was itself to court evil.
A very interesting observations, of how bad science and bad politics are repulsive.
Barth's regrettably influential inward turn helps to explain the ease with which science's staunchest twentieth-century philosophical supporters, the logical positivists, could get away with asserting the "non-cognitive" status of religious discourse - without hearing much theological complaint in return. Today's "New Atheists" merely raise the positivist ante by querying the whole point of religion, once its cognitive aspirations have been abandoned. In response, religious believers do themselves no favours by acting as if theology were literary criticism applied to an especially vividly experienced form of imaginative writing, otherwise known as "fiction."
Exactly. Theistic science aims to reclaim the cognitive status of scientific discourse, and show how theology may be used to make factual claims and predictions about the world.
Still worse offenders are those "religious pluralists" who declare intelligent design theory - the natural heir to the theomimetic tradition sketched above - as "bad science and bad theology" (here I think pre-eminently of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God). This must count as the "Big Lie" promulgated in the contemporary science-religion debate, for it merely serves to throw honest inquirers off a trail that would lead back to a literal construal of theology as the "science of God."

In that case, one might expect theories about God's nature to have scientifically tractable consequences, just as the protagonists of Europe's seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution had thought, the main fruit of which was Newton's world-system. In this context, the physicist Frank Tipler, the most dogged proponent of a metaphysically full-blown version of the "anthropic principle," must count as someone who lives up to this ideal, despite his outlier status in both science and theology.
Frank Tipler's theology is very far from theism, we should note. Only rather strange ideas seem to be promulgated these days!
For those looking to work their way back to a clear theological foundation for theomimesis, the best place to start is with Augustine of Hippo's interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis. In particular, he stressed three points of lasting significance:
  1. A strong reading of our having been created "in the image and likeness of God." The Jews had originally read this passage as a naturalistic explanation for why God found it so much easier talking to humans than other creatures, while Muslims took it to mean that humans were essentially God's robots, ideal vehicles for the conveyance of the divine message, as in the composition of the Qur'an by the functionally illiterate Muhammad. However, Augustine, following Paul (in Romans 5), read this passage to anticipate Jesus, understood not as another Jewish prophet but the "Son of God," which encouraged the idea that humans could be godlike. In the short term, this idea begat many of the heresies that Augustine sought to stamp out as Bishop of Hippo, but it opened the door to query what it might mean to live in imago dei: Are we to live our lives according to the dictates of Jesus' anointed successors, or are we to rediscover Jesus for ourselves in each new generation? In short: Peter's or Paul's way of spreading the Gospel. Nowadays the choice looks like Catholicism versus Protestantism, but it was already present at the medieval founding of the universities, with the Dominican stress on natural history and the Franciscan stress on optics. But equally it captures two scholarly ways of reading the Bible "literally": as a historical document or as a theatrical script. In the one case, we recover the Word (that is, we find out what they meant back then); in the other, we re-enact the Word (we find out what they would mean now). By the late-nineteenth century, this had crystallised as the distinction between "idiographic" and "nomothetic" sciences, the one focussed on the archive, the other the laboratory.
Remembering the "imago dei" is an extremely important part of theistic science. Further developments in theistic science furthermore indicate that the literal readings of scripture are only one of the many meanings that those texts may have. The Bible has many deeper meanings.
  1. A stress on the qualified nature of God's forgiveness of Adam's sin. Augustine interpreted Adam's divine death sentence, which extended to all his descendants, as implying that his sin was forgiven yet not forgotten: Each generation is born with a version of Adam's sin that they must then somehow redeem for themselves, presumably with divine approval and preferably with the aid of Jesus. (Contrast this with the account provided in Qur'an 7: Adam's debt is cancelled in return for perpetual submission, the literal meaning of "Islam.") A key feature of what Augustine coined as "Original Sin" is the specification of Adam's failure as being one of judgement, not action. Adam and Eve had erroneously trusted the serpent's plausible reasoning. Henceforth there would be grounds for questioning one's understanding of words, even though God had called things into existence. Many of the distinctive preoccupations of modern science flow from this sensibility, including these three: (a) the search for a pure language of thought that overcomes the noise of natural languages; (b) the concern with distinguishing genuine causal relations from their virtual ("evil") twin, empirical correlations; (c) the desire to mitigate our inherent imperfections by reverse engineering the bases of our material nature, tellingly called "genetics." Common to these preoccupations is the idea that Evil, though radically different in nature from Good, is quite similar in its appearance. Thus, considerable ambiguity has dogged the moral standing of science "pursued for its own sake," as this most ennobling of human endeavours can easily tip over into inhumane acts, as in the Faust legend.
Fuller is here briefly touching on the fact that our understanding changes significantly during the stages of our spiritual regeneration. And similarly, if we spiritually decline, that our understanding of spiritual things will decline. He also notes the fact that everyone thinks of what they desire as good, even if they have poor spiritual insight and hence mistake evil for good.
  1. The placement of equal emphasis on the perfection of divine creation as a whole and the radical imperfection of its parts. The story of Creation is presented as a piecemeal process, in which God appears to weigh options, given the (undisclosed) limitations of the material medium within which creation must occur. With the rise of Islam, the divine modus operandi comes to be compared to a chess game in which the grandmaster always win but by means dictated by the position of the pieces on the board. In any case, the existence of such options suggests that God is an "optimiser" - or, as economists say, a "constrained maximiser" - whose ideal solution to the problem of Creation requires many calculated trade-offs that, when taken in isolation, may appear unbecoming of a supreme deity, if not downright evil. The "will" was the name coined for a divine faculty, also present in humans, which realizes the outcomes of such calculations. But it is arguably just such knowledge that God was trying to hide from Adam when he forbade him from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because he wished humanity to be innocent of the "dirty work" of creation - namely, the possibilities that had to be forgone to enable things to be as they are. However, once Adam had been persuaded to eat of the forbidden tree, the only possible (if at all) way back into God's good graces was by discovering - however fitfully and imperfectly it was likely to be - the divine plan to which the forbidden tree had promised access. This meant capturing in temporal terms (over many generations) an achievement that God had accomplished from a standpoint equidistant from all places and times ("the view from nowhere"). The signature legacy of humans trying to reverse engineer the intelligence behind divine creation is the idea that scientific inquiry should aim for the most economical set of universal laws, where such laws are understood as covering not only generalisations of experience but also counterfactual possibilities (for example, those that God considered but rejected).
This story of the nature of Adam's error is a little odd. According to theism, it is rather the desire to deny that his life is forever dependent on God and the desire instead to be 'as God' with life in himself. Fuller also fails to understand the deeper importance of "will". The true will of a person is the state of the loves which constitute the being and life of him or her.