Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ancient philosophy and ID III

Two more comments on the ancient philosophy and ID debate. -- although things have no moved on, I think, to the question of whether ancient philosophers were 'humanists'. Thanks to everyone who has contributed so far.

First, A. C. Grayling responds to Catherine Osborne's comment:
There are two different things in play: teleology and intelligibility. I think the latter is an assumption of all the Greeks from Thales on, and the former is made especially salient in Aristotle, though discernible elsewhere as you say. In importing as much as possible of use from Greek thought into Christianity from Augustine onwards, the doctors of the church - Augustine among them - were pretty careful to distance themselves from materialism (including the form it took in early Stoicism) or better: naturalism, so that references to 'gods' as in Thales and Stoics who spoke of fire or nature as the 'divine' did not at all suggest to Augustine and his ilk that they were dealing with anything like their conception of deity. Hence my point: that what Augustine and the Christian tradition means by 'god' and what occurrences of the terms thus translated from Greek denoted are quite different things. Apologists who try to co-opt the Greek philosophers to the religious tradition of which Christianity is an exemplar accordingly equivocate.
Second, Rupert Read has the following perspective on the debate:
Listen again here to my debate with Anthony Grayling last night on Radio 3, on 'humanism'. (It's about 34 minutes into the programme - you can just move the bar at the bottom straight along to it.)

It is relevant to this discussion on kenodoxia, in that Grayling and I seem to disagree pretty strongly about whether religion need be problematically superstitiously theistic or not.

I think the conversation was useful, and certainly fun. In retrospect, however, it seems to me that we were speaking somewhat at cross-purposes in our debate, and don't actually disagree quite as much as we thought we did about other matters, including the ostensible topic of conversation, 'humanism', which we probably should have defined more tightly before starting. For, for Grayling, apparently, humanism is only the sum of all non-supernaturalistic religion. Take for instance the list of philosophers with which Grayling begins: this has little or no unity! This is hardly a tradition. As an alleged ideology, as an 'ism', it cannot possibly be compared with (say) Hinduism or Buddhism; for it is thin gruel indeed. As I said, on the programme: if all that humanism is is the absence of superstition, then I have no beef with it. But that hardly seems to me to match closely with the actual use of the term 'humanism', to connote some coherent, substantial and positive belief-system that is in debate with and sometimes disagreement with ecologism, with the animal rights movement, and with the great mystical religions.
It does seem to me that it would be hard to find much that would seem like 'humanism' in a strong sense in classical antiquity, besides perhaps Epicurus and Democritus and maybe a sophist or two. Plato would be a bit grumpy, I think, to be labeled a humanist in any strong sense. Sure, he's all for being self-critical and thinking in a clear-minded way about how best to live, but a Platonic world is, it seems to me, one in which god plays a crucial ethical and metaphysical role. True, we shouldn't wait just to get a bit of divine revelation to acquire wisdom, but what wisdom we do achieve is likely to be based on a proper and true acceptance of the divine. Two of the things which Grayling says are deeply 'un-humanist' do turn up in Plato: that our present life is important because it is a preparation for something to come and that humans are somehow superior to the rest of the animal and plant world as the result of some kind divine decision.

Things are a bit tricky, though, and I confess I'm beginning to lose my bearing about what the precise comparanda are suppose to be. For what it's worth, the British Humanist association website says that the following are characteristic of its world-view:

  • that human ethics, morality or principles should be based on human social nature and shared reality
  • that we can take responsibility for our actions rather than deferring responsibility to supernatural realms
  • that the world is amenable to our rational curiosity

  • These all sound like good ideas to me. The first is probably the most controversial, partly because a lot will depend upon what 'based on' means here. and there are all sorts of possible views about what 'human social nature' amounts to. But anyway, there isn't much in this list that Plato or Aristotle would disagree with. Is that enough to make them 'humanists'?, I doubt it mostly because their view of the 'human social nature' on which ethics is based is one that has a sense of divine nature or natural teleology built in to a degree that I think would make a modern humanist decidedly uneasy.

    To be clear: I'm all for teaching plenty of philosophy in schools and I happen to think that a lot of what I understand to be humanism is an excellent place to start about thinking about how we ought to live. But I'm just a little uneasy about co-opting the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in this cause. The method of inquiry they tend to emphasise is a good thing, of course. I'm all for people doing some thinking and some self-criticism and not just taking as as a starting point some kind of divine authoritative revelation. All the same, we would be wrong to obscure the sense in which many of these old guys thought that the eventual view we should adopt is one which holds that a good human life requires and ought to be based upon a correct and positive acceptance of the crucial role of the divine in the world. Indeed, there is a strong current of thought in these ancient thinkers that says that we are able to engage in the right kind of rational inquiry only insofar as there is a part of us -- our reason -- that is indeed divine, if not part even god itself.

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