I’m behind on my blog-posting. So, while I struggle to get caught up, I thought I’d offer a recap of what’s come so far in this “Science, Mind, and God” series. I hope to post the next installment on Descartes soon, within the next few weeks.
The series was motivated by the experience I had teaching a class on the so-called “New Atheists.” I started to buy into their empiricistic, neo-Darwinist take on the world, and some fundamental aspects of the world stopped making sense to me. Reading Thomas Nagel helped save me from this philosophical funk. (I hope through the whole series to make all this clear.)
I introduce the Four Horsemen of the atheistic apocalypse: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris are philosophers, and Christopher Hitchens was an essayist and cultural and political commentator (he died in 2011). In the wake of 9/11, all four wrote books attacking Western religion
The four of them all claim that there’s something positively harmful about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I make the distinction between attacking the belief in God (an epistemological issue—one regarding belief and grounds for belief) and arguing against the existence of God (a metaphysical issue—one about reality itself). The four authors don’t always keep this distinction clear. I go into some detail about Dawkins’s arguments that the existence of God is a scientific issue. There are some serious problems, and a deep confusion, in his discussion.
Here I discuss an unexpected outcome of my New Atheism class: that the students for the most part bought into the arguments of the four authors and enthusiastically condemned Western religion. I’d anticipated that the New Atheists’ arguments would be unacceptable to them, but once the students learned of the scriptural support for murder, misogyny, and various other forms of oppression, along with historical examples of such oppression, they were ready to condemn the whole enterprise.
I connect this to the contemporary issues of identity politics and the unfortunate examples of illiberalism on college campuses, when seemingly progressive students and often their professors block people from voicing opinions they disagree with. Such illiberalism springs from a rejection of the universality of human nature, which in classical liberalism grounds justice and morality.
In this offering, I go back to the Pre-Socratic “naturalist” philosophers, Greek thinkers living in the 5th and 6th Centuries B.C. They represent the transition from mythological thinking to a philosophical and scientific approach to understanding the natural phenomena around us, insofar as they were the first to conceive of the world as a “cosmos,” that is, an ordered whole. This involved two claims: a) there’s nothing beyond the natural world (i.e., they rejected anything supernatural); and b) the natural world operates according to inviolable laws.
I focus on the Pre-Socratic thinker Pythagoras, the head of a mystical cult that was known to believe in reincarnation and to claim that everything is number or is mathematical in nature. The latter idea is crucial for the transition to modern science in the 17th Century, and it may have been a product of Plato’s reconstruction of Pythagoras.
I note that, from the beginning, philosophy and science were concerned with making sense of the world: we wanted to give a rational explanation of the phenomena around us that accorded with our typical and regular experience and that made no use of anything supernatural or divine. That is, the beginnings of science and philosophy were deeply connected to our sense-making faculties.
I contrast this with modern science, which begins to disconnect scientific explorations of the world and scientific theories from our senses and our sense-making faculties. I quote Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who in a recent book says , “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
(I always want to response: “Nor to you, Professor Tyson. Nor to you.”)
The common version of Pythagoras both as a mystic who believed in reincarnation, and as a mathematical genius who believed that all reality is number, may well have been a construction of Plato’s. This dual image is presented largely in two Platonic dialogues: The Phaedo and the Timaeus. The Phaedo contains the death scene, Socrates’s execution by hemlock poisoning. The discussion leading up to that event concerns the possibility of immortality and reincarnation.
The other dialogue is the Timaeus, and it contains Plato’s creation myth. Plato embraces the picture of the universe as a cosmos, an ordered whole, which in his story is constructed by a rational, ordering god, the Demiurge. The creation myth has two main parts: those concerning the terrestrial and the celestial. In the former, Plato embraces an atomic theory that is geometrical in nature. That is, in his story everything around us is constructed out of microscopic elements, and these elements are triangles that combine and recombine into various objects. Plato had no empirical data for constructing a theory about what goes on at the microscopic level, and he reminds the reader that what he’s offering is merely a possible account.
On the other hand, there was a great deal of observational data regarding the movements of the celestial bodies: the stars, the sun, the moon, and the five observable planets. Plato constructs a theory according to which the Demiurge orders the heavens according to inviolable natural laws. This explains the regular motions of the stars, sun, and moon. He refuses to allow supernatural intervention to explain the irregularities of the planetary motions. Rather, he leaves this as a problem for his successors to solve.
Looking ahead, I’ll next talk about Descartes, one of the great mathematical and philosophical geniuses of the early modern period. Descartes firmly believed the natural world was a mechanical system that was causally determined and mathematically describable. But he also believed the mind was something quite different, something that stood apart from the body and the rest of the natural world.