God and the Philosophers
Edwards, Paul, Free Inquiry
FROM ARISTOTLE TO LOCKE: PART I A THREE-PART SERIES
Discussion about the origin of the universe, whether it has a purpose, and whether it is controlled by a supernatural power have always engaged philosophers. Beginning in this issue of FREE INQUIRY, the evolution of Western thought on the subject, and how it has moved from a theistic to a naturalistic outlook, will be traced by noted philosopher Paul Edwards in a special three-part series.
Edwards has published extensively in his long academic career. He is the author of Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (Prometheus Books, 1996), The Logic of Moral Discourse, and Heidegger and Death, as well as numerous articles. He is the editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Voltaire, and Immortality, and has contributed to The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. In 1979, he won the Nicholas Murray Butler Silver Medal, awarded by Columbia University for distinguished contributions to philosophy. Edwards currently teaches at the New School for Social Research.
In Part 1, Edwards summarizes the positions of the Greek and medieval philosophers and takes us into the eighteenth century. Part 2 will appear in the Fall issue.
THE TRADITIONAL POSITION
The beliefs of most people in the West who have been brought up in the Christian or Jewish religions can be summarized in the following propositions: the natural universe has not always existed, it was created out of nothing by a purely spiritual being; this purely spiritual being known as God has always existed; this being not only created the universe but has continued to be its ruler ever since the creation, interfering in the course of events from time to time by working miracles; this being, furthermore, has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. The leading Christian and Jewish philosophers - St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Maimonides - supported all these propositions. Ockham did not think that they could be proven, but the other great figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition maintained that they are backed by decisive evidence.
Plato and Aristotle believed in gods who played a far less central role in the universe than the God of the Christians and Jews. In the Timaeus Plato introduces the Demiurge, a kind of cosmic architect or engineer who brings order into a chaotic universe. Aristotle's God is a "prime mover" - we have to appeal to such a being to explain motion, but the material universe itself is eternal and uncreated. It should be mentioned that, although Aquinas believed, on the basis of Scripture, that the universe was created by God out of nothing, he did not think that any of his "proofs" established this conclusion. They only established God as the sustaining cause of the universe, and this conclusion is entirely compatible with the eternity of the world.
We now know that, aside from Ockham, quite a few medieval philosophers were in varying degrees skeptical of the official theology. However, since it was protected by what Voltaire called the "logic of the sword," heresies were infrequent. In Muslim countries, where there was far greater freedom of thought, several of the leading philosophers, most notably Averroes, openly accepted Aristotle's teaching of God as the Prime Mover and of the eternity of the world.
Much of the philosophy of the last 300 years is the story of the attacks on the Judeo-Christian view and its replacement by a naturalistic outlook that completely dispenses with theological explanations. Some of the great philosophers of the modern period, notably Descartes and Leibniz, offered arguments for traditional theism, but several others were in varying degrees critical of the old scheme. Foremost among the critics were Spinoza, the deists, Hume, and Kant. Spinoza is usually classified as a pantheist who maintained that God and the universe are identical. Voltaire and Frederick the Great regarded him as an atheist who retained theological language, while Goethe, who was himself a pantheist, called Spinoza "God-intoxicated." Be this as it may be, Spinoza taught that the natural universe was uncreated, and he was also most emphatic in his rejection of miracles.
Deism, which began in England in the late seventeenth century, was primarily a rebellion against revealed as distinct from natural religion. The deists did not deny a creator of the universe, but they were highly critical of the Bible, regarding all stories of divine intervention as superstitious and often immoral nonsense. In arguing for the existence of God they preferred the teleological argument to the a priori arguments of earlier believers. Some of them questioned the perfect goodness or indeed any of the moral attributes of the Deity. In his Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne and in Candide, Voltaire, the most influential of the eighteenth-century deists, tried to show the absurdity of any cosmic optimism without, however, abandoning belief in a Designer.
The story of deism and of religious toleration go hand in hand. The deists were reviled and violently attacked by the orthodox in all major Western countries, but very few were imprisoned and not one was put to death. Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) is usually described as the founder of English deism. However, his works are of little philosophical interest. The most influential and also the most interesting English deists were John Toland (1670-1722) and Anthony Collins (1676-1729). In 1696 Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious, the ostensible aim of which was to purify Christianity. In fact, it was an attack on the central doctrines of Christianity and it outraged theologians throughout the British Isles. The Irish House of Commons condemned the book to be burnt by the hangman and ordered its author arrested and prosecuted. Toland was Irish, but he was living in England where he was safe. His travels on the continent brought him to Hanover and later to Berlin where he engaged in philosophical discussions with the queen of Prussia. The Letters to Serena (1794), his most important philosophical book, is based on some of these discussions. In it he defends not only deism but also a version of materialism - thought is an inherent accompaniment of the material movements in the nervous system. In his later years Toland became an admirer of Spinoza and appears to have embraced pantheism. All his adult life he was a vigorous champion of free speech and showed great sympathy for the victims of religious persecution. F. A. Lange in his History of Materialism quotes the following declaration, which is quite in the spirit of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty:
Let all men freely speak what they think, without being ever branded or punished but for wicked practices, and leaving the speculative opinions to be confuted or approved by whoever pleases; then you are sure to hear the whole truth, and till then very scantily, or obscurely, if at all.
It is of some interest that Toland was a friend of the Jews. In his day a number of Jews lived in England illegally. Toland favored the legalization of their status and, believing that Jews would make good citizens, he advocated Jewish immigration into England in a pamphlet entitled "Reasons for Naturalizing the Jews in Great Britain and Ireland on the Same Foot with all Other Nations." Toland dismisses the notion that each nation has a "special spirit" as a vulgar prejudice. If the Jews have engaged primarily in commerce and banking this is because they were barred from government posts, agriculture, handicrafts, and the professions. Nobody before Toland has written so movingly about the persecution of Jews at the hand of the Christian clergy and the rabble they incited. The Jews, he wrote, always lived as "sheep among wolves."
Collins was described by T. H. Huxley as "the Goliath of free-thinking," a title he richly deserved. He was a wealthy country gentleman, and some of his friends were highly placed aristocrats. Lord Egmont, who was himself a pious Christian, remarked that "his worst enemies could not charge him with immorality, nor his best friends acknowledge him a Christian." During the last years of Locke's life he and Collins were close friends. We have a letter from Locke to Collins written in 1703: "Believe it, my good friend, to love truth for truth's sake is the principle part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-bed of all other virtues; and if I mistake not, you have as much of it as I ever met with in anybody."
In 1713 Collins published his Discourse of Free Thinking, which was followed in 1723 by A Discourse on the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion. The former of these caused such a commotion that Collins had to flee to Holland to avoid arrest. The book drew numerous replies from defenders of the establishment, including Bishop Berkeley, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Bentley. Collins offended orthodox opinion not only by his view about God, but also by being both a materialist and a determinist. He engaged in an extended controversy with Samuel Clarke, the leading philosophical defender of Christianity, in the course of which he argued for the "materiality" of the soul and against its "natural" immortality. Berkeley claimed that he had heard Collins say that he had a proof for the nonexistence of God. There is no way of deciding at this date how serious Collins was when he made this remark, if indeed he made it. However, in his exchanges with Clarke he endorses an argument that does appear to imply atheism. In order to prove the existence of God, he writes, it is necessary that we should have an idea of the creation of matter ex nihilo. But we have no such idea. Several contemporary physicists maintain that at one time there was literally nothing. It is not clear that Collins would dispute this. His point seems to be that a purely spiritual being could not have produced the physical universe.
In 1717 Collins published his Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty, which largely repeats ideas found in Hobbes and Locke. Voltaire particularly admired this work, quoting from it on numerous occasions. It is a defense of what we now call "compatibilism." Collins insists that "necessity" (i.e., determinism) is compatible with liberty - "the power in man to do as he wills." He also argues that the "moral necessity" that governs human behavior is different from the necessity found in clocks, watches, and such other beings, which for want of sensation and intelligence, are subject to an absolute, physical, or mechanical necessity. This surely is a valid observation, but Collins confuses causal necessity with the necessity of mathematical propositions and, like other compatibilists, he is too easily satisfied with a purely utilitarian justification of praise and blame.
Toland and Collins escaped judicial punishment. But Thomas Woolston (1670-1733), a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who was greatly admired by Voltaire for his courage and his eloquent defense of religious freedom, was not so lucky. Between 1727 and 1730 he published six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour, the purpose of which was to expose "the absurdities, improbabilities and incredibilities" of the miracles worked by Jesus if the New Testament stories are interpreted literally. The earlier deists had carefully refrained from criticizing the character of Jesus and from ridiculing the miracles he was supposed to have performed. Woolston knew no such restraint. The reaction of the Christian establishment was entirely predictable. In 1729, at the instigation of Anglican clergymen, he was tried and convicted of blasphemy. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment and a fine of [pounds]100. Woolston was unable to pay the fine and also refused to promise to abstain from further writings on religion. As a result he remained in prison until his death. To his great credit, Samuel Clarke interceded on Woolston's behalf, but without success.
In America, deism became fashionable among the educated classes in the second half of the eighteenth century. Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and the first five presidents were deists. During the election campaign of 1800, a group of influential New England ministers denounced Jefferson for his "atheism and immorality." The charges were false, but Jefferson was certainly no Christian, and he was of course the leading champion of the separation of church and state. It is ironic that John Adams, who was Jefferson's opponent was even more strongly opposed to traditional religion. "Twenty times in the course of my late reading," he wrote in a letter some years after his retirement, "I have been on the point of breaking out, 'this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it.'"
The most important event in the American story was undoubtedly the publication of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1794). Unlike some of the English deists, Paine was an ardent believer in God, but he was an equally ardent opponent of revealed religion and the whole institutional apparatus of the Christian churches. He showed in detail the errors, anachronisms, immoralities, and inconsistencies of both the Old and the New Testament. The Bible, he concluded, is a "history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales."
Paine was a student of astronomy and knew something about the vastness of the stellar universe. The discoveries of astronomy rendered
the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air. . . . When we contemplate the immensity of that Being who directs and governs the incomprehensible Whole, of which the utmost ken of human sight can discover but a part, we ought to feel shame at calling such paltry stories the Word of God.
Paine had taken an active part in the French Revolution. His moderation irritated Robespierre, and he barely escaped the guillotine. He returned to America in 1802. His services to the American Revolution were well known, and, although Jefferson and Madison treated him with respect, there was enormous hostility.
His last years were spent in New York City. One of his few friends was Elihu Palmer (1764-1806), an ex-Baptist minister who organized the Deistical Society of New York and published a periodical in which several of Paine's late articles appear. Palmer was in fact more radical than Paine. Paine believed in immortality for the best and most intelligent human beings (of whom needless to say he was one), but Palmer in his Principles of Nature (1801-1802) rejected any kind of survival after death. Palmer died in 1806, Paine in 1809. Not long before his death Paine applied to the Quakers for permission to be buried in their cemetery. The request was denied and Paine was buried in a plot on a farm he owned in New Rochelle. Some of the New York Quakers were so outraged by the action of their leaders that they formed a breakaway sect.
Both in America and in Britain conservative Christians continued to circulate libels about Paine's character. His American publishers were never prosecuted, but his English publishers were not so lucky. In 1811 the publisher of the third part of the Age of Reason was condemned to 18 months' imprisonment and to stand in the pillory once a month. In 1819, Richard Carlile was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for the same offense. As late as 1888 a bombastic imperialist by the name of Theodore Roosevelt referred to Paine as "a dirty little atheist." In the second half of the nineteenth century Paine's good name was gradually restored. This was due to lectures and articles by leading free-thinkers like Robert Ingersoll and above all to the magisterial two-volume Life of Thomas Paine (1892) by Moncure Conway. In recent years, Paine has once again been celebrated as a hero of the Revolution. In 1968, after agitation by the Thomas Paine Society, of which the present writer was a member, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with the picture and name of Thomas Paine.
The Enlightenment in Germany started late and was very tame when compared with France and England. Christian Wolff, the leading academic philosopher of the first half of the eighteenth century, was a Leibnizian rationalist who fully supported traditional ideas about God and immortality. He was nevertheless denounced as godless by several of his Lutheran colleagues, who prevailed on Frederick William I to dismiss him from his position in Halle in 1823. He was also ordered, under pain of death, to leave Prussia within 48 hours. Wolff was reinstated by Frederick the Great in 1740. Frederick was a deist, but he wrote only in French and had no significant impact on German intellectual life.
The first major deist was H.S. Reimarus (1694-1768), a teacher of oriental languages in Hamburg. Reimarus's Apologie oder Schutzschrift fur die vernunftigen Verehrer Gottes (Apology for or Defense of the rational Worshippers of God) was posthumously published by the great playwright and champion of religious toleration, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, in 1774 and 1777. Reimarus was emphatic that God is needed to explain the world order, but he was equally emphatic in rejecting miracles, including those of the New Testament. Needless to say, Lessing was bitterly attacked for publishing such a godless work, and it was generally believed that Lessing himself was a deist. It seems more likely that he was a pantheist. He also favored reincarnation over the immortality preached by Christians and Jews. "Why," he asked, "could not each individual human being have been present more than once in this world? . . . Why should I not return as often as I have been to acquire new knowledge, new capacities?" He adds that he does not find this "hypothesis" at all ridiculous. Lessing never declared that he actually believed in reincarnation but he is frequently cited by contemporary reincarnationists as one of the great men who shared their view.
One of the most interesting figures in the German Enlightenment was the poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). In a letter to Goethe he remarked that a "healthy nature" did "not need either a Deity or immortality." It appears that Schiller did believe in God but not in any kind of survival after death. Talbot in Die Jungfrau von Orleans (Maiden of Orleans) makes a powerful speech about the transitoriness of all human striving:
Soon it will be over, and I will give back to the earth, and to the eternal sun, the atoms that were joined in me to create pain and joy. And of the great Talbot, whose reputation as a warrior resounded throughout the world, nothing will remain but a handful of light dust. . . . So ends man, and the only booty that we carry away from the battle of life is insight into nothingness, and cordial contempt for all that seemed to us* noble and desirable.
It is not safe to ascribe the views of a character in a play to the author, but in this instance the evidence suggests that Talbot was indeed speaking for Schiller.
HOBBES AND LOCKE
Hobbes and Locke, who were contemporaries of the early deists, do not easily fit into the story of the philosophical emancipation from Christian theism. Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist and, like the ancient atomists, he thought that God (if there was a God at all) was material. Most theologians regard God as an "incorporeal substance," but, according to Hobbes, this is a self-contradiction. In this connection Hobbes covered himself by adding that God is not an object of philosophy but of theology. In De Corpore he defends the eternity of the world. As previously explained, this doctrine is not inconsistent with belief in God as a sustaining cause of the word but it is inconsistent with God as the creator as He appears in Genesis. In discussing imagination Hobbes observes that the religion of the gentiles (meaning here non-Christian religions) is the result of not distinguishing dreams from waking life. It is clear that Hobbes thought the same was true of Christianity but he was careful not to say so. He "solves" the problem of evil by saying in effect that God can surely do as He pleases, and that omnipotence is its own justification.
When God afflicted Job, he did object no sin unto him, but justified his afflicting of him by telling him of his power. . . . "Hast thou," saith God, "an ann like mine? . . . where wert thou when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . power irresistibly justifies all actions, really and properly, in whomsoever it be found."
Hobbes was frequently accused of atheism, both by royalists and by rebels. His writings are of course full of professions of piety, but these have a hollow ring. Most commentators agree that Hobbes was an unbeliever. "One wonders," writes R. S. Peters, whether "his whole treatment of 'true religion' is not a colossal piece of irony." The historian H. R. Trevor-Roper has described Hobbes as a "complete atheist."
Unlike Hobbes, Locke was a sincere believer in Christianity. According to Maurice Cranston, the author of a standard biography, Locke was a deeply religious man who saw no conflict between reason and revelation. He had no doubt that the resurrection of Jesus really occurred. In The Reasonableness of Christianity, As Delivered in the Scriptures (1695), he writes:
Before our Savior's time, the doctrine of a future state, though it was not clearly hidden, yet it was not clearly known in the world. . . . No religion taught it, and it was nowhere made an article of faith and principle of religion until Jesus Christ came, of whom it is truly said that He, at His appearing, "brought life and immortality to light" and that, not only in the clear revelation of it and in instances shown of men raised from the dead, but He has given us an unquestionable assurance and pledge of it in His own resurrection and ascension into Heaven.
Locke tries to prove the existence of God by a variant of the cosmological argument similar to the second of the five ways of Aquinas. He claims that somebody who denies the existence of an "eternal being" is committed to the view that at sometime there was nothing at all and that, since things cannot come into being without a cause, the rejection of an eternal being is incompatible with the actual existence of things. This argument is clearly invalid. For if we grant that there has never been nothing, this would indeed be consistent with the reality of an eternal being, but it would be equally consistent with an infinite causal series of things, each of which is of finite duration.
Locke was one of the first philosophers to write in defense of religious toleration. In the "Letter Concerning Toleration," he maintained that it is both illegitimate and senseless to use force in the settlement of religious disputes. The mind is so made that force cannot compel it to believe* "It is absurd that things should be enjoined by laws," he writes, "which are not in men's power to perform; and to believe this or that does not depend on our will." Locke advocates toleration not only for all Protestant sects but also for many non-Christian religions, specifically including the Indians of North America and the Jews. He does, however, exempt two groups, Roman Catholics and atheists.
. . . that church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom, that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.
"Another prince" is of course the pope. On atheism Locke sounds like Ronald Reagan or worse:
Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold on an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought dissolves all . . . those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.
Atheists have enjoyed full civil rights in almost every Western country for over a hundred years and "all" has not dissolved. Here Locke the empiricist was not very empirical. The argument that atheism, not being a religion "can have no claim for religious toleration" is of course a total evasion of the real issue. Why should toleration not extend to views on religious topics that do not constitute a religion? Locke also seems to have forgotten here that "to believe this or that does not depend on our will."…
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Publication information: Article title: God and the Philosophers. Contributors: Edwards, Paul - Author. Magazine title: Free Inquiry. Volume: 18. Issue: 3 Publication date: Summer 1998. Page number: 36+. © 1999 Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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