Saturday, 9 January 2010

Homeward Bound

Good dog

A curious article in the occasionally provocative Credo column in The Times, by philosopher John Cottingham, headlined Our restless quest for God is a search for home. Cottingham is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, an expert on Descartes, about whom he's written a number of times. That gives the game away a little about his world view, I guess. He writes:
As we struggle through life, we seem compelled to acknowledge, sooner or later, that our human good, our flourishing and fulfilment, depends on orienting ourselves towards values that we did not create. Love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice, courage, endurance, fidelity — all belong to a core of key virtues that all the world’s great religions (and the secular cultures that have emerged from them) recognise, and which command our allegiance whether we like it or not.
This is more or less true, I guess. But I could equally have written:
Love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice, courage, endurance, fidelity — all belong to a core of key virtues that all the world’s cultures (and the religions that have emerged from them) recognise...
Like many a theist he is begging the question when he states that secular cultures have emerged from religious ones. It is quite possible that homo sapiens was around for thousands of years without religion. It is *certain* that the species was around for thousands of years without the (current) great religions. Given that, it seems more probable that the great religions have arisen from humans. If he thinks otherwise, he should present evidence for why he thinks this is not the case.
We may try to go against them, to live our lives without reference to them, but such attempts are always, in the end, self-defeating and productive of misery and frustration rather than human flourishing. These facts are already, if we think about them, very striking and important ones. We are dependent and vulnerable creatures, who need, for our fulfilment, to orientate ourselves towards certain enduring values.
This would be consistent with an evolutionary benefit to, or at least a *reason* for, such virtues.
If we couple this with an awareness of the obvious fact of our human weakness, and the notorious difficulty humans experience in steadfastly pursuing the good they aspire to...
Yeah, evolution is imperfect unfortunately...
...then one is struck by the extent to which religious belief offers a home for our aspirations.
What?! Why aren't I struck by this? Why is religious belief also a home for the vices - bigotry, pride, avarice, lust and wrath?
Theism, in its traditional form found in the three great Abrahamic faiths, involves the idea of a match between our aspirations and our ultimate destiny. On this picture, the creative power that ultimately shaped us is itself the source of the values we find ourselves constrained to acknowledge, and has made our nature such that we can find true fulfilment only in seeking those values. In the much quoted words of St Augustine, “you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds repose in you”.
Flat out assertion, with no evidence. Traditional theism certainly isn't represented by the three great Abrahamic faiths in most of Asia. Why should we have any 'ultimate destiny'? Much has been written on the values about which he writes arising from evolutionary and societal sources and, as I've mentioned before, there are really insurmountable problems if one assigns the values to the source he favours.
The natural response to this — to acknowledge that creative source of goodness with joy, and to turn towards it for strength in our struggle — is so basic that it presents itself to the believer as a fundamental and necessary way of going through life. It is not a matter of scientific hypotheses about the precise macro or micro mechanisms that formed our planet or our species, but rather a necessary impulse of trust, something that, as William Wordsworth conveyed in his Lines Written above Tintern Abbey, stems from moments of vivid awareness of the beauty and goodness of the world and our place within it. It is an impulse so deep that we feel that neither abstract intellectual speculation, nor the drudgery or pain of our routine existence Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb / Our cheerful faith that all which we behold / Is full of blessings.
This is a very real claim; that it is *natural* to have faith. The corollary is that anyone without faith is not acting naturally. Theists like to allude to this idea occasionally, but it is fundamentally flawed as an *argument* for theism; I think philosophers (like him!) call it the naturalistic fallacy. (You'd think a professor would be able to avoid such a basic error.) Simply stated, just because something is natural doesn't make it right. It may be, but we need to examine the details more closely; rational enquiry, often including science, is the appropriate response, not a lazy acceptance of our urges, and the 'rightness' of them.
Few have been more eloquent advocates of the benefits of faith: the uplifting sense of openness to beauty and goodness, and the trust that our best and deepest aspirations in life are not arbitrary flailing around in the dark, but are part of the quest for “God, who is our home”. To describe God as our “home” is to conceive of him as the ultimate source from which we come and the point of return to which our restlessness drives us — the final end where our true peace lies. Of course, the cold light of reason may compel us to turn our back on all this — that is a question to be considered. But we need to be aware of what it is we would be rejecting.
I can certainly see why many have thought this; it seemed sensible *to a degree* when I was a theist. But this paragraph is surely just a re-statement of Pascal's Wager? That argument fails completely, and Cottingham's curious article also raises unanswerable questions; what are we rejecting? No two theists seem to share the same theism. What is God? If returning to him is the purpose of this existence, what is the purpose once we are with Him? What purpose did God have in setting up this universe?

I've never been presented with any answers to these questions that even *approached* making sense, and I find it hard to believe that theists have them either, otherwise they would tell me :-), surely? If nothing Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb / Our cheerful faith that all which we behold / Is full of blessings, then I do not envy them, and I'm happy to avoid that particular vice, since their faith is flying in the face of all the evidence around us.


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    jojo says:
    13 January 2010 at 03:06

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