Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Francis Bacon's dream

So much concerning the several classes of idols, and their equipage; all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, whereinto none may enter except as a little child.
These remarks are from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, in which he criticises what he calls 'idols', what we might call preconceptions or idees fixes, which inhibit our understanding and our approach to the phenomena around us. Interestingly, Bacon was particularly concerned about the muddying effects of everyday language, anticipating such later seventeenth century thinkers as Spinoza and Descartes, who were won over by the achievements of mathematics, and sought to model philosophical thinking upon mathematical axioms.

In the version I have, an extract published in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Bacon describes the Idols of the Tribe [the tendency to generalize or abstract from too little evidence, and to create general forms from specific instances], the Idols of the Cave [the tendency to generalize too much from your own specialization], the Idols of the Marketplace [the above-mentioned tendency to mystify what should be clear, through the use of everyday language], and the Idols of the Theater [a preoccupation with philosophical systems, discredited or not, as a guide to truth]. Another problem that I encounter is the fear of divesting yourself of the trappings of supposed adulthood and sophistication, so to become child-like, as if wonder is a failing and knowingness is all. Our identity is wrapped up in a bank of knowledge, opinions and attitudes, and these are the greatest barriers to scientific exploration we have - which is all somehow rather ironic.

touching on the coherence of perfection

As I've often said, I'm one of those who has yet to hear a convincing argument for the compatibility of religious belief and scientific endeavour [which, after all, is an endeavour to uncover the truth about how our world works, and a pretty damn successful endeavour at that]. Attempts to mesh the two have invariably watered down both, often to homeopathic proportions. Ophelia Benson here reports on an attempt to describe the 'conflict model' as impoverished - that's to say, we should - what? Play down the obvious incompatibilities? Refrain from criticizing the often silly attempts to either unite the two or show that they operate in mutually exclusive spheres?
I do agree though that we should maybe spend less time pointing out the absurdities of religious pseudo-scientific claims, and more time being scientific about religious belief. That's a way of avoiding direct conflict while strengthening the scientific position.
Here's a view I have about religious belief, though it may not be all that scientific. I was reading an exchange of comments on a philosophy blog, and one person made the fairly commonplace assertion that the usual attributes of a monotheistic deity - omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness - must be ruled out because they are logically incoherent. This may or may not be true, but what is definitely true is that these attributes are very easily imaginable, especially to a child - and therein lies the power of all religion. In fact, not only are these attributes easily imaginable but we can't help but imagine them. Logical coherence is no obstacle to the child's imagination.
Religion is all about power, punishment and perfection [okay, maybe I'm putting wordplay above truth here, but bear with me]. For children the struggle for power, and against power, is very real and very everyday. The same goes for the struggle to avoid punishment and, as a corollary, to gain rewards and kudos. And the best way to avoid punishment and gain rewards is to be perfect - in the eyes of the powers that be [the parents]. Even as adults, when we make mistakes, we wish we hadn't and we try to learn from those mistakes, so as to be more perfect [we might say, so as to be better at such and such, but it amounts to the same thing - the ultimate end of self-improvement is perfection]. But our adult, wiseacre selves know that such perfection can never be achieved. We know it largely through experience. Not so the child, and this is why super-heroes, witches and wizards - and gods, it must be added - are so appealing to the child in us. The child might not think through what perfection means, or any of the other attributes of gods, but she knows that if she had done otherwise she might not have gotten into trouble, that if she had done something else, or refrained from doing something, she would have been dubbed a good child instead of a bad one, and if she'd kept on making the right decisions, she might have been dubbed even more than good, even perfect. Though it wouldn't have taken long to realize that, no matter how 'good' she was, she wouldn't have gotten the same glowing response from her parents. She would notice an inconsistency, an occasional unfairness in parental judgement. If only she could make her parents as perfect in their judgement as she was in her behaviour.

It's pretty clear where all this is going. Ideas about perfection, though perhaps logically incoherent to a trained philosopher or logician, are perfectly coherent to a child, and quite probably they are among the first Big Ideas we have to grapple with. There's something about this, it seems to me, that connects intimately with the basic appeal of religion. Ultimate, perfect judgement, ultimate, perfect example, total control and more than a whiff of magic. They're all a kid's delight, and if we bring all our adult ritualism and sophistication to bear on these fantasies, we can flesh them out almost to our satisfaction, and live in a child's dream for many lifetimes.

Monday, October 11, 2010

quel surprise - a flawed pope

While I was out the other day, collecting my thoroughly unremarkable academic transcript from campus west of Unisa, I took the time to visit Borders and catch up on some reading. The book I finally settled on was The hound of Hitler, by Gerard Noela biography of the controversial Pius XII, pope from 1939 to 1958. I had no intention of buying it - I have no money - but after a bout of reading, I was hooked, and definitely would have liked to buy it. It would have made a great companion volume to the new Geoffrey Robertson book - which I also can't afford.
I've heard Pius XII described as 'the nazi pope', and his activities got an airing at the atheists meetup I attended about a week ago. So what was coming out of the Vatican during the war and the immediate post-war years? What, if anything, was this pope's association with nazism? After reading only a dozen pages of this book, I have more inklings about this than I had previously.
The first thing to become clear about the book is that it's no hatchet job, which you might expect it to be from the title, though that title is ambiguous - was he a hound attacking Hitler or working for him? The author is himself a Catholic, having edited a major Catholic journal for a decade in the seventies and eighties, and he seems to know plenty about recent Catholic history and Catholic politics. More importantly, he has the historian's detachment and fealty to the deepest and fairest understanding of his subject. What comes out, in the small portion that I've read, is a judicious appraisal of a closeted, delicate, intellectual, unworldly personality, probably ill-fitted to the position of moral arbiter of millions of people's lives at such a time of storm and stress as the second world war provided. Eugenio Pacelli, to use his real name, was no Nazi. After all, Nazism invoked an extreme, specifically German nationalism, which could hardly appeal to anyone who wasn't German. As to whether he had fascist sympathies, I've not read enough yet to determine that, but it's possible. Pacelli's aristocratic family had been lawyers and advisers to various popes for decades. They were members of the soi-disant 'black nobility', nobles created by the Holy See who remained loyal to the papacy during the years of church-state conflict from 1870 to 1929, and Pacelli himself seems never to have questioned the authoritarianism of the RCC, an authoritarianism that fascist regimes, as well as sympathetic organisations such as Action Francaise, partly modelled themselves on.
Now I've just finished reading the quite comprehensive Wikipedia article on Pius XII, as well as reviews of Noel's book, such as this one [since it's sadly unlikely that I'll be able to secure myself a copy], and the figure that emerges is of a pope who, in spite of his previous extensive career as a Vatican diplomat, was a political naif who placed too much emphasis on treaties and agreements, a la Neville Chamberlain, and who failed to realize the threat of Hitler until too late. Pacelli was notoriously silent about Nazism during the war years, and in the post-war years reserved his strongest criticism for communism, the more 'natural' enemy of the RCC. This silence has been the subject of numerous books and articles, and the focus of furious debate for decades.   The question of the Jews and anti-semitism lies at the heart of it all. Anti-Judaism was a major feature of Roman Catholicism for centuries. Noel writes about an extraordinary ceremony that traditionally accompanied the inauguration of a new pope, in which the pope would offer to a rabbi a copy of the Bible, or perhaps it was the Tanach, upside-down, together with thirty pieces of silver. This symbolized, presumably, that the Jews had gotten the 'word of god' upside-down. No prizes for guessing what the silver coins represented. Pacelli would have been imbued with this traditional enmity towards the Judaic religion. All in all, though, he doesn't seem to have been any more anti-semitic than the rest of his tribe, and he really does seem to have made some efforts to help the Jews towards the end of the war - too little, too late. He seems particularly to have read Hitler all wrong, imagining him, because of an early pact made between the Nazis and a left-wing workers' group, to have been 'secretly' a creature of the left. And he always saw the greatest danger as coming from that direction. Apparently, in his days as as a Catholic diplomat in the thirties, he had an audience with Roosevelt, in which he harangued him about the threat of communism in the US.
Above all, this pope was concerned about the power of his church, a church whose 'truth' was beyond question. Plus ca change... His silence may have had something to do with his ambivalence about the Jews [there were no doubt plenty of rabid anti-Semites in the Vatican in the early twentieth century, and Pacelli's family had by and large come out against Dreyfus at the time of the notorious Dreyfus affair] but just as much to do with the fear of becoming the target of the Nazis, as had occurred when Dutch bishops protested against Nazi behaviour. A vast number of Dutch clergy and laity were then rounded up and executed.
It's probably unlikely that a more vociferously anti-Nazi pope would have made much of a difference to the Nazi killing machine during the war. However, I'm trying in vain to find an explicit statement from Pacelli about the Holocaust made after the war. I'll keep on trying. Meanwhile, I note that a number of Jewish historians and writers have come out in defence of Pacelli and the Catholic church's role in saving many thousands of Jewish lives during the war.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cicero on universal law and morality

Marcus Tullius Cicero was more renowned as a literary stylist and an orator [as well as a prominent lawyer and politician] than as an original philosopher, but these comments, made more than two thousand years ago, and in turned derived from earlier Stoic philosophers he had studied, would be endorsed by many a modern-day thinker, such as Stephen Pinker, concerned to emphasize a real human nature rather than a 'blank state' which might be filled with whatever values a teacher or master-manipulator might choose to impose.

In his essay On Duties, Cicero distinguishes between statute or civil law and 'the moral law which nature itself has ordained':
As I have said before - and it needs constant repetition! - there is a bond of community that links every man in the world with every other. Though this bond is universal in application, it is particularly strong as a unifying link between people of the same race: between actual compatriots the link is closer still. 
The existence of this natural bond of community between all human beings explains why our ancestors chose to make a distinction between the civil law of the land and the universal law. The law of the land, it is true, ought to be capable of inclusion within the universal law, but they are not synonymous since the latter is more comprehensive.
Cicero regularly refers to this universal law as 'natural', and so one thinks of principles of natural justice, and of natural law, which dates back to Roman law. The idea of a bond of community between all humans surely contains the germ of the concept of universal human rights [and universal human responsibilities], in spite of the rigidly hierarchical nature of Roman society, the overall powerlessness of women, and of course the general acceptance of slavery [upon which much of the economy was based]. Cicero doesn't take the concept too far, taking human nature as 'god given', the god he mentions being Jupiter. His claim that 'people of the same race' have a stronger bond, and compatriots a stronger one still is both questionable and a commonplace. David Hume would certainly have agreed, and it's a bit reminiscent of Singer's 'expanding circle', though I've often wondered myself about the strength of the nationalist bond, a very weak bond in my case. I'm not sure what he means by 'people of the same race', as opposed to compatriots, and I'm not at all sure if his contemporaries understood it either. The Romans at this time were forever fighting peoples on their borders - in fact this sort of fighting went on throughout the many centuries of Roman power, and presumably they considered these 'barbarian' peoples as races rather than nations. Then again, they may have distinguished some of their enemies as more civilized than others, as 'compatriots' among themselves. In any case Cicero was clearly grappling with the same sorts of issues around the extent of human sympathies that philosophers and psychologists have been grappling with in more recent times, and which genetics and evolutionary psychology have been helping to shed light on - even as they have rendered the concept of race redundant.
The main subject of Cicero's essay, though, is the relationship between 'right' [as in doing what is right] and 'advantage' [as in self-interest]. He treats the subject confusingly at times, and I might look more closely at it later.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

gleanings from other blogs

I've never been to this blog before, but I like its head quote:

I have come to the following conclusion: Scholarship devoted to the question of the historicity of Jesus, while not a total waste of time, could be better spent gardening.
Joseph R. Hoffmann
Though that might just be the head quote of this post. So much for the Jesus Seminar - and didn't Hoffmann have something to do with that? The post goes on to look in detail at the problems of historicity in the gospels, a subject I've harped on about in the past, and the blogger, Tristan Vick, comes to much the same conclusion as myself:
Modern biblical scholarship has revealed many insights into early Christianity, and when we look into the details surrounding the historical Jesus’ life we are at a lost to formulate any chronology which would be considered a viable model of historic events. Failing to meet the basic prerequisite of supplying the necessary information to be deemed a real historical person is probably the strongest evidence for the Legendary Hypothesis, and which is why I think it is a valid inference. This doesn’t mean I deny Jesus existed or that he was merely a myth. There is enough textual massaging of the Gospel narrative to suggest that there was a genuine Jewish person who fit the description of Jesus lingering somewhere behind the shroud of myth, so I can’t simply dismiss Jesus of Nazareth altogether, but one needn’t dismiss this in order to accept the fact that most of the information we have is either mythical (i.e. improbable) or historically inaccurate.
It's a solid piece, though covering familiar ground.

I found the blog through this site, in which David Lane Craig's version of the Kalam cosmological argument comes in for decidedly and delightfully rough treatment.

Also rather enjoyed this piece via three quarks daily. It is certainly true that some people have adopted environmentalism as their new religion. I was amused by the quote from Freeman Dyson that leftist environmentalism has 'replaced socialism as the leading secular religion', because I know of someone once near and dear to me who used to be a socialist, very much in the 'secular religion' sense, and who is now an environmentalist activist, replete with crusades, missionary work and assaults upon the infidel. There are a great many of these ultra-orthodox, right-thinking true believers around nowadays. The article isn't about  climate change denial, rather it celebrates unorthodox approaches to looking at the problems we're faced with. Heretics.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Constantine's role

the arch of constantine, rome

Theology is a subject I've tried to get into, and apparently Jason Rosenhouse and Jerry Coyne have been trying to do the same, with regard to modern theology. Being a lesser mortal, without immediate access to modern university material, and being too poor to be able to subscribe to scholarly journals, I've looked at whatever scraps came my way, such as the apparently dubious interpretations of Islamic theology offered up by Karen Armstrong, as well as more ancient theologies such as Augustine of Hippo's attempt to prove the existence of the soul, Anselm's ontological 'proof' of his god's existence, and historical interpretations of the thought of the likes of Origen and Arius.
Much of this I've found a real yawn, though I've occasionally been impressed by the ingeniousness, as well as the energy, of the arguments. I've tended to take the 'emperor's new clothes' position - is there really anything to talk about? This seems especially relevant to theology about Jesus - a person or a god or an aspect of a god? It seems to me that, before you start speculating about such things, you have to establish whether the guy ever really existed - a matter for empirical research, not pure intellectual speculation. But with theology in general, you have to have something of the other-wordly about you to appreciate it, and there's not much of that in me. And I find too little of the this-worldly in theologians.
To judge from Rosenhouse's experiences with modern theology [or theistic enquiry into the existence of gods, which isn't quite the same thing, but which is surely self-evidently problematic], I'm probably not missing much. From my reading, Rosenhouse thinks much like me on the subject - but probably with a greater command of formal logic - and once you encounter the first profoundly dubious or unwarranted assumption in these writings it's hard to find the energy or enthusiasm to go on. I'm more interested in the history of these debates, and their political implications, which aren't great these days, but were very great when the RCC ruled the roost, or when monarchs claimed to rule by divine right.
So I'm currently, through Robin Lane Fox, learning much about a key moment, probably the key moment, in the history of Christianity's relationship to secular authority, that's to say the Roman Emperor Constantine's accession to full power in 324, and his various decrees and speeches from that time, requiring the institution of Christianity as the religion of the emperor, if not of the state.
Constantine's conversion and its momentous impact has occasionally come up in conversations I've had with vaguely interested parties, and as always I've pretended to know more about the subject than I actually do. Now I can partially rectify the situation - I mean, I'll still pretend to know more than I do, but at least what I do know is a lot greater than before.
One issue Fox helps clarify is this: Wasn't it just a matter of time before Christianity became the official state religion, considering its gradually growing popularity in the Graeco-Roman world? Another is this issue: Was Constantine a 'real' Christian, or did he just adopt the religion for specific, pragmatic reasons? And there are other issues I'd love to have clarified. What was the reaction of the various strata of the population to Constantine's conversion and his decrees? How did Constantine get converted in the first place? How did all this affect the church hierarchy? When was the first pope consecrated, and how was power distributed between the emperors and the popes? etc etc
Not all of these questions are addressed directly in Fox's book, and I suppose I'd have to read or peruse dozens of texts before I got a proper handle on it all [always remembering too that the primary materials are so scant, and often one-sided and propagandist, that many questions will never be fully answered], but if I can trust Fox - and I feel inclined to do so -  I can at least answer the first two questions more or less to my satisfaction. Most of the following comes from Fox and from wikipedia articles on Constantine, his dad Constantius, Diocletian and others.

Constantine was born in 272. At the time, his father was a Roman officer, part of the bodyguard to the emperor Aurelian [270-275]. Interestingly, Aurelian, a highly successful emperor in spite of the brevity of his rule, raised the status of the sun god, Sol, as the main divinity of the empire, providing a first glimpse of European monotheism, though perhaps we shouldn't make too much of that.
Hard to know how much the young Constantine was aware of it all, but the empire was in a right mess during his early years - the last years of what has been dubbed by historians 'the crisis of the third century' - with seven emperors having dropped dead by his fourteenth birthday. The eighth emperor, Diocletian, a former army officer of 'low birth', eventually raised Constantius, the army officer of low birth, to the position of Caesar, or junior co-emperor. For some reason Diocletian decided, over time, to divide the empire into quarters. First, in 285, after only a year as emperor, he appointed Maximian as his senior co-emperor, or Augustus, and then in 293 he appointed Constantius and Galerius as junior emperors. My guess is that there were so many marauding peoples on the borders of the empire [Quadis, Sarmatians, Goths, Alamanni, Longiones, Franks, Burgundians and Vandals to name a few] that Diocletian realized he'd have to be in four places at once to keep his eyes on them.
Constantius was one of the western emperors. His son, the future Constantine, eventually joined him on campaign in Gaul and Britain, where Constantius died, in York, in 306. This was in the year after Diocletian retired to his vegetable garden [he was one of those rare top pollies who chose to turn his back on power]. The tetrarchy he created immediately came under strain. Constantine wasn't named Caesar after his father's death, and a complicated power struggle ensued. More importantly though, for the future of Christianity, Constantine, who was brought up in Diocletian's court, witnessed the early years of the Great Persecution, the worst persecution of Christians in the empire's history, a persecution begun by Diocletian and further pursued by Galerius and Maximin. It probably had a profound effect, and, while trying to consolidate power in the west, he took a more tolerant approach to Christianity, as his father had before him. He seems to have converted to Christianity around the year 312, probably under the influence of a close adviser, Ossius, bishop of Cordova. Ossius was to become Constantine's representative in the Christian disputes the emperor felt bound to deal with in the 320s, most notably the Donatist and Arian controversies. He also presided over the Council of Nicea in 325.
Anyway, to answer the two questions. Firstly, no, it wasn't inevitable that the Roman Empire would become Christian. It came as quite a shock in fact. Although we don't have clear data like censuses and the like, there's little evidence that Christianity was on the rise before Constantine's conversion, and of course the vast majority of the ruling class and the ranks of the military were pagan. It was also hardly inevitable that Constantine would survive to stabilize the empire, and to take it onto the road towards Christianisation. The fifty years before Constantine's rise to power were incredibly bloody and dangerous for emperors. Many were corrupt or incompetent, but many were brilliant, or at least potentially so. No doubt Constantine kept his wits about him, but he also would have had more than his fair share of luck, and Christianity itself was riding on this luck. But it should also be noted that Christianity was a vastly different religion from paganism. It was far more than just moving to a more monotheistic paradigm, as with the emperor Aurelian and his son-god. With Christianity came the concepts of sin, redemption, salvation, the Fall and the Second Coming, a way of looking at the world completely at odds with the pagan religion. For this reason, once the religion became established, disestablishing it - as the later emperor Julian tried to do - was something of a too-hard-basket proposition. So, given that, had Constantine not been persuaded that way, another later and successful emperor might have turned to Christianity, the religion still might have been successful without Constantine. Then again, maybe not. The best approach would've been to ignore the religion, rather than adopting it or persecuting it. And perhaps that's the best approach today - but it becomes difficult when a religion interferes with scientific theory, or campaigns against the furtherance of knowledge, as I believe the Catholic Church does.
As to the second issue, it's clear from his concern to iron out the problems with Christianity in the early fourth century, and his keenness to establish an orthodoxy, that Constantine was a sincere Christian. There doesn't seem to have been any obvious pragmatic motive for his conversion, which would've caused more logistical and process problems than not.