Faith & Reason

Faith & Reason:

We were discussing this very topic just a bit below, and today Arts & Letters Daily posts an insightful article on the subject.

It's very interesting reading; I might want to take the arguments slowly, over several days. I like the author's concept, but I think his argument is troubled. Let's start with just the first few parts of it.

We all know how things turned out, of course. An angel appeared, together with a ram, letting Abraham know that God didn’t really want him to kill his son, that he should sacrifice the ram instead, and that the whole thing had merely been a test.

And to modern observers, at least, it’s abundantly clear what exactly was being tested.... God was testing Abraham’s faith.

If we could ask someone from a much earlier time, however, a time closer to that of Abraham himself, the answer might be different.
That's one of the reasons to study Medieval as well as ancient philosophy. We often think of ourselves as living in a particularly rational time, heirs to the Enlightenment and all that. In fact, the Medievals were often much more rational than we are. Because they believed in God, they assumed that the world was rational. The problem was in figuring out how to use our reason to understand the puzzles -- but the puzzles were assumed to have answers, rational answers that led to God. Of the great princes of rationality in modern philosophy Hegel was no more rational than this; Kant rather less so.

Let us continue, though.
The usual story we tell ourselves about faith and reason says that faith was invented by the ancient Jews, whose monotheistic tradition goes back to Abraham. In the fullness of time, or—depending on perspective—in a misguided departure, the newer faiths of Christianity and Islam split off from their Jewish roots and grew to become world religions in their own right. Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated series of events, the rationalistic paragons we know as the ancient Greeks invented reason and science. The Greek tradition of pure reason has always clashed with the monotheistic tradition of pure faith, though numerous thinkers have tried to “reconcile” them through the ages. It’s a tidy tale of two pristinely distinct entities that do fine, perhaps, when kept apart, but which hiss and bubble like fire and water when brought together.

A tidy tale, to be sure, but nearly all wrong.
So, the "Jerusalem v. Athens" problem proves to be... well, a tidy tale. What corrections need to be made? The author proposes several. Let's do just the first three for now.

1) The Jewish road to monotheism was traveled much later than most people believe. The transition to pure monotheism was late enough that it appears to have been informed by Greek thinking.

2) The Greeks' approach to the question came from their rational analysis. There is a proposal that creation tracks to a unitary principle by the time of Thales; a unitary God appears first in Plato, not the Bible. Jewish philosophers like Philo learned the idea of pure monotheism from Plato.

3) Therefore, faith and reason don't have to be reconciled. Reason is prior to faith, and gave rise to it. Not only are they in harmony by nature, but reason -- also by nature -- is in the driver's seat. The author puts it thus:
So one indisputable thing the last century or so of scholarly work has uncovered about faith and reason is that they are hardly the rigidly separate traditions we commonly take them for. It’s surprising for us, looking back, that reason came first. Even more surprising, perhaps, is how quickly monotheistic faith followed, starting with its first glimmering in the thought of Thales himself. As we perceive order in nature, it seems, we also gravitate to the One.
Let's start with the fact that the author of this review is wrong on two significant points around assertion #2.

First, the demiurge of the Timeaus is not a unitary god. He is in a sense responsible for the order of everything that exists in the moving universe of time, but he is (a) not making these things, just ordering them: prime matter is prior to his ordering it; and (b) is doing so not just in imitation of the Forms, but rather to make a shrine for them. Thus, Plato's myth is not really unitary: there's one agent, yes, but he is making a shrine to honor many Forms. (It is possible -- Plato sometimes seems to suggest -- that all Forms finally participate in the Form of the Good. That still gives you two, not one.)

Second, Aristotle's unmoved mover was not unitary either. Aristotle rejects Thales' framing argument that all things 'boil down' to water; he has five elements in his system (earth, air, fire, water, and the celestial element that makes up the stars; this was a later addition, though, and in his earlier works he had only the first four). More importantly for monotheism, Aristotle isn't sure about the number of unmoved movers, but suggests it is around 57. It is later philosophers -- Avicenna, for example, followed by Aquinas -- who assert that there is one unmoved mover, and that one is God.

Avicenna, however, wasn't really able to make the unmoved mover function as a unitary god. His "necessary existent" doesn't have any relationship with anything in the created world, aside from bestowing existence upon it. It functions like the Form of the Good for Plato: the model of everything, but not the actual maker of the world of time and motion. It is the intelligence of the first emanation, like Plato's demiurge, who orders all this chaotic prime matter in imitation of the beautiful Necessary Existent. Daniel De Smet and Meryem Sebti, in a close reading of Avicenna's commentary on Surah 112, assert that he actually assigns the name Allah to the first emanation -- not to the Necessary Existent. Allah comes in second! He is therefore able to serve as the maker of the world; but he isn't the ordering principle of the world. He's just the workman putting things in order, in imitation of something more beautiful and perfect than himself.

(Aquinas is able to have a God that is both the unmoved mover and the actual causal agent of reality, because God is rather more interesting in his reading. We'll come back to that later.)

In any case, I think these flaws derail the review's conclusion, in (2). Monotheism didn't arise from reason alone; Plato's ideas don't lead to it in any sort of direct or necessary fashion. In fact, as Avicenna demonstrates, it's kind of hard to get there. Islamic doctrine wants an absolutely unitary god (this is the principle of tawhid), but what Avicenna could give them was a god in two parts.

The loss of (2) puts (3) in jeopardy, though I would like to salvage (3) on other grounds. Let's talk about this much first.

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