Against Natural Theology

These are some scattered thoughts arising in relation to a paper I’m working on for a class in Process Theology.

Alfred North Whitehead godfather of Process Thought argued for a God within his overall cosmological system.  Fairly unique contribution relative to modern era philosophers in that regard. So Process Thought is deeply imbued with a Natural Theological strain.  David Ray Griffin one of the godsons (I suppose) of Process Theology wrote a classic text arguing for a new Christian natural theology.

Natural Theology is the belief that arguments at the level of reason alone can be proferred to prove the existence of God.  Usually these arguments grow from a study/interpretation of the natural world.

One of the classic arguments in this regard is Thomas Aquinas’ Argument from Necessity.

Observing that every being in nature requires another being for its existence (i.e. everybody has ‘rent[s] in the universe) Aquinas argued that therefore the entire universe was (in the parlance) contingent.  And therefore the universe itself required a being to bring about its existence. Namely God.

The problem with this theory is the extrapolation from individual cases to the universal.  Just because all beings in the universe require a cause does not mean the universe is the same as individual beings.  Aquinas to his credit did leave open the possibility that the Universe was eternal (though intriguingly for the purposes of my argument he believed the universe had a beginning in time because the Church said so–i.e. it was an article of faith).

He argued that the Universe could not have existed (true) and therefore there must have been a Necessary Being to get the universe going (wrong). Or rather why would that being be Necessary and not simply another in a causal chain?  [Aquinas has to assert without evidence that an infinite causal chain can not be–but why is that automatically the case?].  The argument only functions if you can prove that there is no infinite causal chain.  But you can’t prove there is no infinite causal chain without proving a Necessary Being (i.e. the difference between causing to be and causing to exist I would argue is already a theological distinction which assumes that which it is supposed to prove) but you can’t prove the Necessary Being without proving there is no infinite causal chain which in turn you can’t prove without proving a Necessary Being which you can’t prove without proving no infinite causal chain, which you can’t…..and you see the circularity.

Later came the classic argument from design–that the Universe was like a watch and therefore just as a watch required a watchmaker so the Universe requires a designer.  Of course the idea that the universe is like a watch is a human construct and metaphor.  It’s a human interpretation.  It’s an interpretation btw of a well educated, Western European in the modern period (like William Paley who wrote this in the 19th century) because watch making was considered a high art and technology in his day.

What both of these arguments are getting at and what I think can be established through science and philosophy is that there is Eros or a potential for Emergence in the Universe (see footnote26).  But that is nowhere near the same as proving the existence of a God.

The question of a god/God is always part of a religious tradition.  It is always part and parcel of the intersubjective, linguistic reality in which we are formed.  Natural theology being a 3rd person “ITS” view of things, forgets the inter-subjective construction of reality and believes there is a way to get to The Objective Truth once and for all.  [Classic modernist fallacy].

How that this shakes out in practice is something along what the lines of Derrida describes as the absent shaping the present.  In Process Thought, Whitehead describes God as All-Compassion (Love).  But why would be the case?  In a certain strand of Buddhism, for example, there is the concept of the alaya vijnana (the so-called Store House Consciousness).  Which is also elsewhere called the Causal Consciousness.  The store house ‘stores’ all the memories of the Kosmos in a way very similar to how Whitehead’s Process God is the one who integrates all reality into itself and re-members it.  (Everything is redeemed through the Divine’s Memory).

Now of course the Process view has an evolutionary twist that the store house lacks–since evolution was not understood in the intersubjective when the notion arose in Buddhism.  But notice in the Store House concept is no necessary description of Love per se.  Because that is a construct built out of the Biblical heritage.

Which is exactly my point–back to Derrida for a second.  The absent is theology and the intersubjective.  [Whitehead’s philosophy is only partially intersubjective not fully so].  Because Whitehead, as the son of an Anglican clergyman, grew up in the Anglican tradition of Holiness/Beauty of God, this has to be background for his philosophy.  Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means the idea that this provable from the exterior world or from interior (individual-subjective only) reflection is way off base.

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non-theistic kids camp

Michael D at Balloon Juice points to this ad for Camp Inquiry ’08 whose mission is as follows:

This is a place where kids can be themselves. We work toward helping youth confront the challenges of living a non-theistic/secular lifestyle in a world dominated by religious belief and pseudoscience. Grounded on the conviction that kids can begin establishing habits of the good and ethical life early on, Camp Inquiry 2008 adopts a three-part focus: The arts and sciences, the skeptical perspective, and ethical character development comprise an integrated approach to this “Age of Discovery.” Campers, counselors, and teachers will address key issues around individual identity, forging trusting relationships, establishing a sense of local and global community, and living with respect for the natural world. (my emphasis)

Now as I’ve said many times before I have no problem with (in fact I support) the building up of atheist religions. Or better a secular humanist religion. Insofar as they see themselves as not out to be anti-religion but rather simply themselves and work in a liberal society respecting differences towards some common good buildup.

A couple of things are clear here. This isn’t science camp. Science camp would be about science only. Again I think it’s interesting to explore the arts and ethics as well as science but what we are really discussing here is a worldview. In other words, it’s just like church camp. So the idea (contra Michael D.) that this is about teaching kids “inquiry” versus “dogmatism” is just atheist dogmatism itself. The children are still being taught what to think and even how to think. Just described as “inquiry” versus (according to this logic) the evils of religion. The idea that you can teach context (how to think) but not content (what to think) is highly problematic if not complete BS, especially in the minds of youth. The two are inherently intertwined. (more…)