Posts tagged ‘Descartes’

Is Christianity Dumb?

Benedict Spinoza Credit: Wikipedia

Benedict Spinoza
Credit: Wikipedia

It’s really the Enlightenment’s fault.  Ever since René Descartes decided the best catalyst for rational inquiry was skepticism, the skepticism supposedly necessary to reason and the faith integral to religion have been regularly presented as at odds with each other, or, at the very least, best quarantined from each other.  Consider this from Descartes devotee and Old Testament critic, Benedict Spinoza:

Those who do not know how to distinguish philosophy from theology dispute as to whether Scripture should be subject to reason or whether, on the contrary, reason should be the servant of Scripture:  that is to say, whether the sense of Scripture should be accommodated to reason or whether reason should be subordinated to Scripture … It is obvious that both are absolutely wrong.  For whichever position we adopt, we would have to distort either reason or Scripture since we have demonstrated that the Bible does not teach philosophical matters but only piety, and everything in Scripture is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.[1]

Spinoza passionately contends that reason and religion must be kept in two separate spheres.  If they are not, he warns, Scripture will distort reason and reason will distort Scripture.  But key to understanding Spinoza’s argument for the separation of Scripture and reason is why these two entities distort each other.  “Scripture,” Spinoza explains, “is adapted to the understanding and preconceptions of the common people.”  Spinoza assumes that the biblical characters of antiquity did not have the intellectual faculties necessary to imbibe the great rational truths of the Enlightenment.  Spinoza elsewhere explains:

God adapted His revelations to the understanding and opinions of the prophets [and other biblical authors as well], and that the prophets could be ignorant of matters of purely philosophical reason that are not concerned with charity and how to live; and indeed they really were ignorant in this respect and held contradictory views.  Hence knowledge about natural and spiritual matters is by no means to be sought from them.[2]

Isn’t that nice.  God would have revealed matters of rational, philosophical reason to the biblical writers, but because they were not smart enough to understand them, God had to stick with giving them moral platitudes about “charity and how to live.”  Thankfully, Spinoza does understand the truths of rational philosophy and can explain them to us full-throatedly.

Unfortunately, Spinoza’s parings of reason with intelligence and religion with ignorance are still assumed in and normative to the thinking of our day.  Consider this from the Huffington Post:

Are religious people less intelligent than atheists?

That’s the provocative conclusion of a new review of 63 studies of intelligence and religion that span the past century. The meta-analysis showed that in 53 of the studies, conducted between 1928 to 2012, there was an inverse relation between religiosity – having religious beliefs, or performing religious rituals – and intelligence. That is, on average, non-believers scored higher than religious people on intelligence tests.

What might explain the effect?

Scientists behind studies included in the review most often suggested that “religious beliefs are irrational, not anchored in science, not testable and, therefore, unappealing to intelligent people who ‘know better.’”[3]

Now, the rules of rational and, for that matter, statistical inquiry remind us that correlation does not equal causation.  So, to surmise that religious beliefs decrease IQ from a study that happens to show some people with religious beliefs have lower IQ’s than those without religious beliefs is suspect at best.  Indeed, Jordan Silberman, a co-author of the study, admitted as much to the Huffington Post:

I’m sure there are intelligent religious people and unintelligent atheists out there … The findings pertain to the average intelligence of religious and non-religious people, but they don’t necessarily apply to any single person.  Knowing that a person is religious would not lead me to bet any money on whether or not the person is intelligent.

Silberman concedes that there are many anomalies that counter his correlation between religious belief and lower IQ’s, which speaks forcefully against any kind of causation.  Thus, this study gives us no real insight into to whether or not religion and rationality are truly at odds with each other.

So why do I bring all of this up?  Because, regardless of whether or not it is true, firmly ingrained into our society’s zeitgeist is the narrative that religion and reason are irreconcilable.  I, however, believe this to be false.  Christians can make full use of their rational faculties without having to sell their faith to the strictures of a seventeenth century movement and its incorrigible assumptions concerning the incompatibility of reason and religion.  Regardless of any assumptions bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, we know that we have far more than just reason or just religion, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).  And His mind bridges both reason and religion.  After all, His command created both reason and religion.

[1] Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, Michael Silverthorne & Jonathan Israel, trans. (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007), 186.

[2] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 40.

[3] Macrina Cooper-White, “Religious People Branded As Less Intelligent Than Atheists In Provocative New Study,” The Huffington Post (8.14.2013).

October 28, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Descartes to Kant

René Descartes and Immanuel Kant

It began in the Garden.  When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they became history’s first narcissists.  Narcissism is defined as “a consuming self-absorption or self-love; a type of egotism. Narcissists constantly assess their appearance and desires.”[1]  Adam and Eve assessed their desires and decided that their desires trumped God’s command.  Theologically, then, narcissism is as old as history itself.  Philosophically, however, narcissism’s origin – or at least its willing sanction – is slightly more modern.

Narcissism finds its philosophical roots in the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes.  In 1637, he published his seminal work, Discourse on Method, in which he undertook to find something concrete on which to rest his life – a point of certainty in an illusory and shifting universe.  How would he discover such a point of certainty?  By doubting everything he possibly could.  He writes, “I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that which was wholly indubitable.”[2]  Descartes trumpets methodological doubt as his mechanism to discover certainty.  For doubt and certainty are inimical to each other.  This means that if Descartes can find something which he cannot doubt, then this thing must, by antonymic reasoning, be certain.

So what does Descartes doubt?  Pretty much everything.  He doubts human intelligence and insight.  After all, Descartes says, there are a great “number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men.”[3]  Thus, how is one to know who holds the correct opinion?  We are left only with uncertainty.  And where there is doubt, we must throw it out.  Societal norms and traditions must also be doubted.  For different societies have different and conflicting opinions and customs:  “A person brought up in France or Germany exhibits [a very different character] from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he always lived among the Chinese or the savages.”[4]  Not even one’s own senses can be totally trusted, for “our senses sometimes deceive us.”[5]

So are we left with anything which cannot be doubted?  Descartes says there is one indubitable thing:

Whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it.[6]

Here we have perhaps the most famous words spoken by any philosopher in any age:  “I think, therefore I am.”  This is what Descartes can know for certain:  He exists.  How does he know this?  He thinks.  Consciousness, in Descartes’ scheme, becomes the cause of one’s existence, for the very certainty of a person’s very existence is based on nothing else than that person’s very thinking!  Everything a person can know, experience, or be certain of is found in nothing other than the person who is knowing, experiencing, and being certain.  A person, then, is a completely self-contained and self-absorbed entity.  And this, by definition, is narcissism.

It is important to note that, no matter how egocentric Descartes’ dictum may be, the philosopher styled himself as a committed Catholic and finally, at the end of Discourse on Method, seeks to make an argument for the existence of God.  But consider how he fashions his argument: “I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect.”[7]  Descartes argues that because he can think of a being more perfect than himself, there must indeed be such a being!  In other words, Descartes thinks of God, so there is God.  He thinks, therefore God is.

Though Descartes ultimately exercises a certain amount of restraint in Discourse on Method, trying to steer clear of the unabated egoism that his philosophical system inevitably brings, Descartes’ “I” was quickly marshaled by other less scrupulous philosophers to plunge into a pool of silly solipsism and self-regarding subjectivism.  The next century saw the rise of Immanuel Kant who championed the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon.  The noumenon is what Kant referred to in German as the ding an sich, “the thing in itself.”  That is, the noumenon is that which is outside of us.  The phenomenon, conversely, is our personal experience, roughly analogous to the Cartesian “I.”  Kant argued that a person has no access to the noumenon apart from the phenomenon.  In other words, it is impossible for us to get outside of our phenomenal selves to directly observe the noumenal world.  Kant asserts, “We cannot know these objects as things in themselves” (ding an sich).  Thus, we are stuck in our hopelessly subjective phenomenal perspectives.  Lest one believe that subjectivity is all there is, however, Kant quickly qualifies:  “Though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.”[8]  Notice how closely Kant’s apology for the existence of the noumenon mirrors Descartes’ apology for the existence of God:  “I can think it, so it must exist!”

With such a rosy view of the human intellect, it is no wonder that subsequent generations have quickly left behind Kant’s noumenon – since it was ultimately inaccessible anyway – in favor of the egoistic phenomenon.  That is, what is “out there” noumenally no longer matters to many people.  Some have even gone so far as to deny the existence of the noumenon altogether.  It is only what is “in us” phenomenally that counts.  This, in turn, has led to obsessive and unyielding introspection – a tell tale sign of narcissism.

Christianity, of course, tells a different story.  We should not bow to what is “in us” as the ultimate grounds for our existence.  Indeed, what is “in us” is suspect at best and, more realistically, downright evil.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?  Our ability to understand even our own selves (not to mention the rest of the world) by ourselves is fatally flawed.  Understanding must start from outside of us;  not from inside of us.  This is why, according to Scripture, wisdom and insight are finally gifts from an external God and not functions of an internal human intellect (e.g., 1 Kings 4:29).

Perhaps Descartes’ dictum would be better reversed:  “I am, therefore I think.”  Or, even better, “I am created, therefore I think.”  In this dictum, creation – the mechanism by which we exist – precedes deliberation.  We can only think because we have been endowed with an intellect by a loving Creator.  He is the center and superlative of our being, for He is the source of our existence.  Our narcissistic “I” must yield to His perfect glory.

[1] “Narcissism,” The American Heritage Dictionary,

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Forgotten Books, 2008), 28.

[3] Discourse on Method, 7.

[4] Discourse on Method, 14.

[5] Discourse on Method, 28.

[6] Discourse on Method, 28-29.

[7] Discourse on Method, 30.

[8] Vincent G. Potter, Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (Fordham University Press, 1993), 198-199.

July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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