Saturday, September 14, 2019

All Men Seek God

Acts 17: 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Paul is in Athens, debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  They hear strange ideas from Paul, and would like to understand what he means.  Paul remarks on their objects of worship, even with an inscription “To an Unknown God,” offering: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Paul continues, citing a seventh or sixth century BC Greek philosopher, Epimenides, with Paul offering the last line of what is this longer passage:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides is writing of Zeus; Paul suggests that he was, in fact, in search of the one true God.

Paul also cites Aratus, offering the last line from this longer passage:

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
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.
For we are indeed his offspring ...

Paul certainly knew his Greek philosophy.

In this book, Armstrong sets out to describe what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, a period from about 900 to 200 BC.  This was the time of Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece.

C.S. Lewis has also examined this wide swath of philosophy in the Appendix to his short book, The Abolition of Man.  He offers numerous illustrations of Natural Law to be found in history and in many cultures: ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Chinese, Old Norse, Babylonian, Roman, Hindu, Christian, Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Australian Aborigines.  As offered in Ecclesiastes 3, God has set eternity in the human heart – every human heart.  All men seek God.

Returning to Armstrong: The Axial Age was the time after the end of the Bronze Age, a cataclysmic upheaval of the prior order resulting in the struggle throughout the Eurasian world for a new order.  She describes the period:

The Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical, and religious change in recorded history…

She claims that we have yet to surpass the insights of this Age – in times of spiritual and social crisis, men have turned back to the wisdom of this Age – and of the wisdom that came out of this Age, to include Christianity.

The wisdom of this Age was to be found in the doing, not in the believing.  What mattered was behavior, which would then transform belief:

The only way you could encounter what they called “God,” “Nirvana,” “Brahman,” or the “Way” was to live a compassionate life. …First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought.

I know that this will raise controversy among and between various Christian denominations, mostly depending on how firmly one stands on the idea of total depravity.  I will only suggest: Armstrong is writing a book covering traditions far wider than Christianity – and, obviously, that pre-date Christianity; she is not attempting to settle an unsettle-able theological controversy.  Nor will I do so here.

All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness. …Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you.

Armstrong here cites what I have come to know as the Silver Rule – a rule that is far closer to the non-aggression principle than is the Golden Rule.  Certainly, as she includes characteristics of empathy and compassion, she is describing what most have come to know as the Golden, not Silver, Rule.

If the wisdom of this Axial Age can be summarized in one word, that word would be love.  Love is not a feeling or emotion; love is to be found in doing.

There are some slants that Armstrong takes in the book with which I disagree; however, my purpose is not to examine these.  I will remain focused on the passages I find valuable toward an understanding of man’s meaning and purpose, with the ultimate objective of supporting Natural Law and the liberty derived from this.


All men seek happiness. This is without exception. …And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look.

We must keep in mind that true happiness is not to be found in today’s superficial understanding of the word; it was always considered beatitudo – the happiness that comes from serving others; other-regarding action.

After describing man’s efforts to achieve happiness without faith, he concludes:

But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

There is a common ethos to be found throughout the thoughts and beliefs of people around the world; this was found in the philosophical traditions throughout Eurasia during this period to be examined by Armstrong, this period known as the Axial Age.

While working through this book, my primary focus will be on the Western tradition although I will include examination of these other traditions in order to support this view that the Golden Rule is common to all men, and that all men seek God.

As it has developed in the Western tradition, we walk a line that takes us through Plato and Aristotle, Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas.  It is a line that leads us to Natural Law – a Law necessary if one is to speak of Natural Rights and the liberty that requires these.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Asking the Right Questions

Those who wish to succeed must ask the right preliminary questions.

-          Aristotle, Metaphysics

Miracles, C. S. Lewis

What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.  It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.

I am not quite sure what I am going to do with this book, at least within the context of the general direction this blog has taken.  On the surface, writing one way or another about miracles seems outside the scope of this blog, even as widely as I have exercised this scope.

Yet, I am finding something in this book on the idea of naturalism and supernaturalism (as Lewis puts it), and Lewis offers food for thought on the idea that there is Natural Law that derives from a source above man, a Natural Law that takes its form from the ends or purposes of man.

This as opposed to the naturalist view, that we are nothing more than atoms randomly smashing together (as the purest form of naturalism offers).  In such a case, we have no basis for Natural Law, nor do we have a basis on which to suggest any law regime is better or worse than any other – or why we should have any law at all. 

Lewis defines these terms:

Some people believe that nothing exists except Nature; I call these people Naturalists.  Others think that besides Nature, there exists something else; I call them Supernaturalists.

Beyond this, precise definitions are difficult to come by.  Some Naturalists consider as Nature anything that can be identified by the five senses.  Yet, we cannot perceive our own emotions in this way, yet these certainly seem ‘natural.’

Lewis offers his working definition: “…Nature means what happens ‘of itself’ or ‘of its own accord’: what you do not need to labour for; what you will get if you take no measures to stop it.”

What the Naturalist believes is that the ultimate Fact, the thing you can’t go behind, is a vast process in space and time which is going on of its own accord.

Every event happens only because some other event has preceded it.  Lewis offers that the thoroughgoing Naturalist must, therefore, exclude even the possibility of free will.  Free will suggests that it is possible that something happened outside of what would have happened if things were left to go on their own.

The Supernaturalist agrees that there must be something which exists in its own right, some basic Fact which is itself the ground or starting point of all explanations; this is the One Thing, basic and original, existing on its own.  From this One Thing, there comes a second set of things, all caused by the One Thing; they exist because the One Thing exists.

The difference between the two views might be expressed by saying that Naturalism gives us a democratic, Supernaturalism a monarchical, picture of reality.

I find this striking.  If I may make a broad generalization: the left (naturalists) discounts tradition, including religion, and it praises democracy as proper for ‘equal’ men; if it is all just random, then why not?  The right (supernaturalists) respects tradition and religion and understands that natural hierarchies among men are both real and valuable.  This point is worthy of a more complete treatment than I will give it here; I may come back to it in the future.

What Naturalism cannot accept is the idea of a God who stands outside Nature and made it.

For the theist – the believer in the Supernatural – the reason of God is older than Nature, it precedes nature; from God’s reason, the orderliness of nature is derived.  “Reason is given before Nature and on reason our concept of Nature depends.”

Throughout thousands of years of European thought, it was held by most that Nature – certainly a thing that exists – did not exist in its own right, but was a thing dependent for its existence on something else.  It seems to me that this can be taken a step further: for thousands of years, there was no meaningful concept of a separation of the Natural and the Supernatural: the metaphysical wasn’t thought of as something separate from the physical – no one thought in such terms.  Science (as we moderns consider the term) was not something distinct from philosophy or theology; it was all just science.  More accurately, it was all philosophy (I still think about why all such educated people – even in hard sciences – earn a Ph. D., a doctor of philosophy).

…the understanding of a machine is certainly connected with the machine but not in the way the parts of the machine are connected with each other.

The distinction to be made is not one between mind and matter, but between Reason and Nature.  It is our Reason that enables us to alter the course of Nature.  This is a one-way street – Nature is powerless to produce rational thought:

…not that she never modifies our thinking, but that the moment she does so, it ceases (for that very reason) to be rational. …Nature can only raid Reason to kill; but Reason can invade Nature to take prisoners and even to colonise.

If Nature had her way, we would have nothing we might consider human life – no furniture, no books, no washed hands.  Man, through Reason, has colonized Nature; much of the rest of creation (far outside the scope of this blog, any discussion about higher and lower forms of non-human animals) acts “naturally”; it goes of its own accord, as it must.

John Vervaeke, in discussing Descartes – considered one of the pillars of the idea of rationality – offers that many of today’s defenders of pure rationality ignore Descartes’ foundation for rationality: normativity (how things ought to be), meaning, and purpose are all central to reason.

We know how Descartes would feel about today’s such materialists, because he said the same about Hobbes in his time, through their correspondence.  It was as if Descartes was saying…Hobbes, you idiot.  You can’t have a material reasoner. 

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Blindness or Subtle Jab?

I have been watching John Vervaeke and his series Awakening From the Meaning Crisis.  I have mulled over writing this post for a couple of days, not that I will have much to say…just an observation. 

This is from Episode 18, Plotinus and Neoplatonism; the specific topic for this post is Gnosticism.  After describing the positive side of Gnosticism, Vervaeke describes the dark side (starting around the 30-minute mark):

The dark side of the Gnostic vision can – it doesn’t have to – do this.  It is ultimately a conspiracy theory – a grand conspiracy theory.  Behind all of the evil chaos and suffering, there actually is an evil overlord.

One of the things that would make evil more tractable for us is if it was ensconced within an individual.  But this is the ultimate conspiracy theory.  There is a whole system that is keeping you from realizing the truth and who you really are…

You mockingly say, “oh, come on with your conspiracy theory.”  [Banging the table] Stop and think.  This evil overlord…some of them say – not all of them – that this is the God of the Old Testament. 

Why does he pick this “evil overlord,” the one that only “some of them say”?  Well, there are a couple of places that this could lead….

Who were the people that worshipped the God of the Old Testament?  The Jews.  Here is an idea that is now being sown into Western culture: the Jews are part of a conspiracy to keep us from realizing our true heritage.  And that is going to turn out to be an extraordinary dangerous and bloodthirsty idea.

He then points to Nazism as a twisted response to the meaning crisis that at the time occurred in Germany.  He further offers: how can we salvage the good from Gnosticism – the Gnosis from Gnosticism, just as we salvage the agape from Christianity?

Consider this, and set aside whatever you believe about Jews, the Holocaust, etc.: the dark side of Gnosticism is seen in the biggest bogeyman of the woke elite, and this is compared to the supposed dark side of Christianity.

But this is really a minor point, as I understand the worldview of the lecturer and I know what I am getting into if I want to glean the wheat from the chaff of his lectures.  He continues:

Can we salvage Gnosis from Gnosticism and at the same time avoid the conspiratorial way of thinking that can be so damaging and has been?

You see, one of the things that Gnosticism can quickly align into is utopian – they’re so enticing, right? – those utopian ideologies that give you the great conspiracy theory and tell you that you belong to the chosen few, the chosen race or the chosen class, and that violence is acceptable because the system is evil and must be destroyed.


So, the dark side of Gnosticism can lead one to conspiracy theories, leading to utopian ideologies that are dangerous – Nazism, for example, is one of these.  Holders of such dangerous utopian ideologies consider themselves as belonging to the “chosen race.”

Blindness or subtle jab?  You tell me.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Protesting the Abolition of Man

Earlier this year, Dennis Danielson gave the 22nd annual Weston Lecture at Augustine College in Ottawa, entitled Against the Ongoing Abolition of Man (video here).

Dennis Danielson is an intellectual historian who has written about literature, religion, and the history of science. He studied English Literature at Oxford and Stanford before teaching at the University of Ottawa and at UBC from 1986 to 2017.

His most recent book is entitled The Tao of Right and Wrong, of course invoking C.S. Lewis’ use of the Tao in the Abolition of Man.  This book is a rejection of moral nihilism, and a recognition of the life-affirming moral realism founded in the Tao.

I will offer some thoughts on the lecture; as is always the case with videos, I will likely not capture exact statements, but hopefully I stay true to intent.

Danielson has done a form of a re-write of Lewis’s classic work, offering what he calls a case for moral realism.  He writes of the trans-cultural or super cultural meanings of right and wrong.  By this he means, right and wrongs as recognized across most major cultural traditions around the world.  This idea conforms nicely with Lewis’s work – as Lewis identifies in the Appendix of his book.  It also is seen in the Golden Rule, versions of which are to be found throughout history and in many traditions.

What is the proposition that we must oppose?  Lewis called it subjectivism, others describe it as relativism or even more broadly, naturalism.  Danielson cites a book by Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology: The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.  Danielson notes that this is exactly the kind of thing we must fight against.

Carroll declares that meaning, morality and purpose are not built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human scale environment.  Science doesn’t care how we ought to behave, because the source of these values isn’t the outside world; it is inside us.  Carroll uses the term “science” as he must: artificially limited to physical science – hence providing the necessary presupposition for “proving” naturalism.

Carroll rejects what he calls “folk ontology” – according to which meaning might be given by God.  In its stead, Carroll offers “poetic naturalism,” rejecting all other possibilities and asks us to view meaning in the same way human beings view other concepts that we invent. 

When it comes to deep meaning and principles of right and wrong, such philosophical naturalism demands a search for something social, psychological, physical, etc.  In other words, it treats moral principles not truly as principles.  But principles are things that, by definition, come first.

One is reminded here of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:

You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever.  The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see though’ all things is the same as not to see.

Danielson cites another such book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari.  Much of it is quite similar to the arguments presented by Carroll.  But one thing of note: per Harari, there is no such thing as a human soul because scientists have examined the human body and found no such thing.

This lack of scientific support is based on premises and presuppositions that guarantee a lack of scientific support; it is not based on evidence and a careful chain of reasoning.  Naturalists deny and cannot explain ends or purposes inherent in human beings, yet every single one of us – including physicists and anthropologists – have aims and goals.  The very fabric of our lives is teleological – purpose driven.  Therefore, a failure to account for the strong sense of purpose driven lives undermines the naturalists.

Why is it that humans carry a different ethical compass than do apes or lions?  Much of what occurs as normal behavior in the (non-human) animal kingdom, we look at as sins if done by humans (or just immoral to you atheists).  What can explain this?  Random atom smashing that benefitted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) humans?  But then why are similar views held among virtually all of humanity?  This doesn’t seem random.

Lions and geladas.  Danielson notes that there is a lot of infanticide going on in such species, especially when the king is taken down, as his children go with him.  Why is it, when we see such behaviors in non-human animals, we don’t think in terms of good or bad and we accept that this is just the way it is?  Why do we not accept the same for humans?  Clearly the “is” of nature is quite different than the “ought” that humans accept.  (Then again, with abortion as acceptable as it is today in the human world…well, never mind.)

Thomas Henry Huxley was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Regarding human origins as coming out of what he called “the cosmic process,” Huxley had some thoughts on this matter.  At some point in this evolutionary process, the conscience of man revolted against the moral indifference of nature.  Thus, there is a sharp clash between the “is” of nature and the “ought” that we apply to human beings. 

Given such a clash, it seems somewhat futile to regard that “ought” as arising from the somewhat empirical “is.”  As Huxley observes, cosmic nature is no school of virtue.  Huxley notes that evolution alone is incompetent to furnish any adequate reason to offer why what we consider “good” is preferable to what we call “evil.”