Month: September 2014

Philosophical Myths of the Fall

Mulhal - Philosophical Myths of the FallI came across a fascinating book today. I originally found it in a footnote in Peter Harrison’s The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (2007). The book in question is Stephen Mulhall’s Philosophical Myths of the Fall  (2005). He begins with a long quote from Genesis 3, the story of mankind’s willful rebellion and fall from grace. Mulhal then introduces his book with a discussion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre noted that Enlightenment thought rejected teleological forms of understanding the natural world. It also rejected any “religious idea of the human telos as involving a relation to God, and of those who fail to fulfil that telos as existing in a state of original sin.” The Christian doctrine of original sin has been interpreted and reformulated in various ways. What Mulhall has in mind is the understanding that “human beings are not only naturally capable of acting—even perhaps disposed to act—sinfully, but are always already turned against themselves, against the true and against the good, by virtue of their very condition as human.” Such a doctrine, he says, “patently violates a variety of interrelated and central Enlightenment precepts.” He quotes Wittgenstein to make a distinction:

People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect as sick. Anyone who is halfway decent will think himself utterly imperfect, but the religious person thinks himself wretched.

What Mulhall wants to do in this book is examine the work of three unlikely philosophers who “preserve a recognizable descendent of the Christian conception of human nature.” That is, he wants to show how the myth of the Fall continued to exert a significant influence upon modern philosophy, but with the caveat that “these philosophers want to keep a conception of human beings as in need of redemption and as capable of it, but [who] locate the source of that redemption within the world of human experience.” In short, this was the human desire to become like God. These three philosophers are Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. According to Mulhall, all three philosophers regard humanity as “structurally perverse,” that we are “essentially enigmatic to ourselves,” that we “stand incomprehensibly in need of redemption,” but, at the same time, we are able to achieve such redemption “through a certain kind of intellectual practice that is also a spiritual practice.”

A similar argument has been put forward in the case of historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97) by Thomas Albert Howard in his Religion and the Rise of Historicism (2000), which argues for the “theological origins of nineteenth-century historical consciousness.” Mulhall concludes his study that, in the final analysis, “it will be far more challenging than many seem to think to construct a conception of the human condition that genuinely transcends the Christian theological horizon within which Western culture has developed.” Harrison himself supports such a thesis in his book when he places the foundations of modern science in theological developments of the doctrine of original sin.

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The New Theodicy of the Scientific Naturalists

I have come across several references to Frank Turner’s “The Secularization of the Social Vision of British Natural Theology” recently, so I decided to read it myself. The essay is part of the collection of essays under the heading “Shifting Boundaries” in his Contesting Cultural Authority (1993).

In this essay Turner traces the “demise” of classical British natural theology and how it was replaced by a “secular” theodicy. Classical British natural theology was always circumscribed and supported by a vision of commercial society. According to Turner, “British natural theology had addressed itself to both nature and society.” John Ray’s The Wisdom of God in the Creation (1691), for example, had a strongly supported economic expansion. The material world was indeed governed by God; but more importantly, it was “created intentionally for human uses.” “God placed humans beings on the earth,” Turner summarizes, “to realize or exploit the potentialities that inhered in the rest of the creation.” Thus Ray justified trade, commercial transactions, and the “dominion” of the earth for the benefit of mankind. This argument is also found in Lynn White Jr.’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967), who maintained that orthodox Christian belief led western civilization to exploit the natural resources of the world.

In addition to Ray, William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) and the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-40) similarly used natural theology to support the emerging industrial order. Paley’s “Divine Watchmaker” analogy “reflected the eighteenth-century fascination with machinery,” transforming God into “a skilled and ingenious English engineer.” Moreover, the authors of the Bridgewater treatises “presented natural theology as confirming the general superiority of humankind over the rest of the creation and as pointing toward modern European civilization as the end and natural state of humankind.”

But the “civilizing” effect of industrialization in early nineteenth-century Britain was becoming a problem for natural theologians. The writings of Dickens, Carlyle, Mayhew and others revealed how industrialization had brought on the conflagration of the earth. In Bleak House (1853), for example, Dickens depicted the hellish results of the industrial age—an earth engulfed with fog, mud, darkness, squalor, poverty, and disease. In short, a nightmare. England had become Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Mayhew’s contributions to the Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1850 revealed the consequences of rampant industrialization, and Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) adds the spiritual dimension:

British individual existence [he writes] seems fast to become one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive…These scenes, which the Morning Chronicle is bringing home to all minds of men…ought to excite unspeakable reflections.

To many of these writers, industrialization only reveled a “reign of death.” The world, as Hardy put it, was “God-forgotten.”

To deal with commercial society, British natural theologians had to develop a theodicy. According to Turner, Paley justified the evils and suffering caused by industry on utilitarian grounds. In the grand scheme of things, Paley seems to say “It is a happy world after all. The air, the earth, the water, teem with delighted existence.” The hierarchical character of English society encouraged competition, which was good, and poverty only further induced one to work. What ultimately gave Paley comfort in the face of such social ills was human immortality. Turner writes, “lives of individuals on earth must be regarded as probationary for a life to come in which rewards and punishments would be meted out.” Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argued similarly. The disparity between food production and population was a terrible injustice, but “actual justice lay in the hereafter.” The authors of the Bridgewater treatises likewise concurred.

Turner then turns to the rising authority of the scientific naturalists. To gain a hearing, the scientific naturalists had to dissociate themselves from the more radical opinions of a group of London medical men, who wholly rejected religion of any kind. Thus scientific naturalists such as Darwin, for instance, had used natural theology—particularly the kind the authors of the Bridgewater treatises had provided—to underpin his understanding of the natural world. It was only much later, in his The Descent of Man (1871), according to Turner, that Darwin began attacking classic British natural theology, and specifically its philosophical anthropology. By stripping away all of the unique qualities of humankind, Darwin “portrayed a brutish human past and a materialistic interpretation of human historical development.” But in doing so Darwin merely provided a new social vision that, in the final analysis, “paralleled the social argument of the traditional natural theology.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the scientific naturalists continued the “whiggish” analysis of the natural theologians, supporting “the fundamental character of contemporary British and European society.” What was truly unique about the scientific naturalist approach, however, is how they interpreted Baconianism. As Turner writes, “Although Francis Bacon had pointed to the double revelation of divine knowledge through both nature and the scriptures, he had also urged natural philosophers to resist the temptation to pose unanswerable questions and questions that had no practical import on the human condition” (my emphasis). On the one hand, natural theologians embraced Bacon’s first precept, but ignored his second. The scientific naturalists, on the other hand, ignored his first but embraced his second. Huxley’s “new nature,” for example, “accomplished Bacon’s goal of abandoning the pursuit of literally useless questions.”

But in placing the “God question” completely outside the natural realm, “humankind emerged as the creator.” This was the new theodicy of the scientific naturalists. In his Romanes Lecture of 1893, Huxley rejected the suffering in nature:

Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.

The suffering caused by the “cosmic process” must be opposed. We must fight against nature. This fight was the “new” ethical order, a new societal cooperation that would replace competition and eventually end human suffering.

The Warfare’s Toll on Historical Interpretation

Putnam - 400 YearsI was reminded today of a remarkable chapter in James R. Moore’s The Post-Darwinian Controveries (1979). Moore argues that the “military metaphor perverts historical understanding with violence and inhumanity, by teaching one to think of polarity where there was confusing plurality, to see monolithic solidarity where there was division and uncertainty, to expect hostility where there was conciliation and concord.”

I was searching “freethought” on the Internet Archive when the first hit that came up was Samuel P. Putnam’s 400 Years of Freethought, published by the “The Truth Seeker Company” in 1894. The book begins with a proem on “Freethought—Past, Present, and Future.” For the “past,” the proem begins with Bruno, “looking forth with eyes of fire,” who was “martyred” for revealing “Science’ fearless path.” The proem transitions to the “present” with Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), the “great agnostic” of the United States, before finally concluding with the “child” of the “future,” the “tiny prophet of untraveled years.”

The first chapter remarks that “through darkness and struggle; through bloody war; through torture and terror, through superstition, ignorance, and tyranny, Freethought has steadily pushed onward, with true Promethean fire, with the torch of reason, with undaunted face, with unreceding step, until now it leads the world with victorious colors.” Riveting stuff.

After delineating what, exactly, Freethought is, Putnam in the following chapter highlights the “three voyages” of Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan. It is not long before Putnam claims that Columbus “gave almost undeniable proof that the earth was not flat, as it was declared to be by the standard theology of the church.” Although himself not a freethinker, Columbus, according to Putnam, “was certainly a heretic in action.”

All this is familiar territory. Indeed, Putnam references John William Draper several times, and likely borrowed themes and ideas from some of Andrew Dickson White’s periodical publications. What is interesting about Putnam is that he was a seminary student in Chicago in the 1860s, preached as a Congregational minister, converted to Unitarianism 1870s, and then renounced Christianity shortly thereafter. In 1887 he established the Journal of Freethought and became the author of numerous books attacking Christianity and religion in general. He was not simply anti-Catholic. In chapter five of 400 Years of Freethought he proclaimed that the Reformation marked “an epoch in human progress.” But quickly qualifies: “it soon reached its culmination and ceased to be of any benefit.”

What happened to Samuel Putnam? I do not know enough about him to make any definitive claims, but surely he was part of the “warfare’s toll on historical interpretation.”