16 Mar 2017

Descartes and the roots of modern atheism


by Jonathan Ekene Ifeanyi


Descartes

“...Many writers have commented on the way in which Descartes’ dualism has changed the whole of our subsequent thinking, creating a dichotomy which runs right through our culture, a dichotomy represented on every university campus by the divide between the science faculty and the faculties of arts and humanities...He opted for a different kind of certitude, a certitude which would very quickly enable Descartes’ successors to confront God with the doubt as to whether He really existed at all.” (Lesslie Newbigin)

I have often spoken to friends about the much-read book The Closing of the American Mind by late Chicago classicist and philosopher Allan Bloom, a book which, indeed, touched a nerve in Western society. The process which Bloom describes, writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is being carried to its ultimate absurdity in the “deconstruction” program which is extending from literary theory to other branches of what was once thought to be knowledge and which appears to make any claim to speak of truth untenable. In fact, a claim to speak the truth comes to be regarded as only a concealed assertion of power. Nietzsche has come into his own: there is nothing left except the will, since the language of truth is no longer usable.”

In the book At the Roots of Modern Atheism, Michael Buckley, S.J., argues that the Church itself must bear a heavy responsibility for this situation. In trying to counter scepticism by calling in the help of philosophy to prove the existence of God, rather than inviting people to believe in God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, the Church abandoned its own proper ground and provided—as Buckley shows—the tools for modern atheism. In fact, as Newbigin rightly observes—regarding both Catholic and especially Protestant “missionaries”:

“...in an even surprising way, it must be said that the work of missions itself has unwittingly contributed to the relativism which Bloom complains. Most Anglo-Saxon missionaries were children of the Enlightenment. They did not make the necessary separation in their minds between the Enlightenment’s program for human unity on the basis of a universal “reason” with its vision of a single civilisation moving progressively toward universality and the gospel program for human unity based in the crucified and risen Jesus. Just as in the Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the confident program of Enlightenment rationalism stimulated a romantic countermovement which extolled human creativity manifested in the variety of human cultures, so in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the work of missionaries has been a major factor in stimulating a renaissance of cultures in reaction to the aggression of western rationalism. The modern world has become culturally and religiously plural in a way for which it is unprepared”. 

In his book, Buckley shows how the rise of atheism in the modern world is indeed a religious phenomenon unprecedented in history, both in the number of its adherents and in the security of its cultural establishment.  How did so revolutionary a conviction as this arise?

An overarching theme of Buckley’s work is that atheism is produced by the (perceived or real) internal contradictions of theism, and thus takes its shape in response to theistic claims. In order to understand atheism, then, one must examine the theism it denies. Atheism is distinct in the modern period, because only in the modern period are there atheists. In the ancient and medieval worlds, atheism was only a hypothetical position or a polemical insult—there was no group of people called “atheists”; in the modern world, on the contrary, there is a group of people who recognise themselves as atheists and are even proud to be so labelled! Buckley investigates the origins and development of modern atheism and argues convincingly that its impetus lies paradoxically in the very attempts to counter it. He traces the peculiar character of modern Western atheism to the choices made by theistic philosophers in the early modern era. At the turn of the seventeenth century, Leonard Lessius, a Flemish Jesuit, wrote De providentia numinis (On Divine Providence) to combat atheism. Yet his attacks are not against any modern atheist (they are apparently too shrewd to announce their unbelief openly) but against the classical figures associated with atheistic belief.  As Lessius’ “atheists” are drawn from classical antiquity, so are his refuting arguments. This approach makes atheism primarily a philosophical, not a religious issue.  Another Jesuit, Marin Mersenne, likewise sought to combat present atheism along classical lines. He too excuses faith, but designs an argument for God upon ancient Epicurean and Neoplatonic lines. In the distinction between faith and reason, the battle against atheism is conducted by reason in the method of philosophy. Jesus and traditional theology scarcely appear, and will continue to play only a token role through the Enlightenment. In fact, Leonard Lessius and Marin Mersenne determined that in order to defend the existence of God, religious apologetics must become philosophy, surrendering as its primary warrant any intrinsically “religious experience” or “evidence”!

Although modern atheism finds its initial exponents in Denis Diderot and Paul d’Holbach in the eighteenth century, their works bring to completion a dialectical process that reaches back to the theologians and philosophers of an earlier period—Leonard Lessius, Marin Mersenne and co.  The most influential philosophers of the seventeenth century, René Descartes and Isaac Newton, and the theologians who followed them accepted this settlement, and the new sciences were enlisted to provide the foundation for religion!

Newton
René Descartes (1596-1650) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) are the two most pivotal intellectual figures of the early modern period. Descartes is the founder of a Universal Mathematics, Newton the founder of a Universal Mechanics. Both were theists, and both insisted that the existence of God could be defended by reason alone. For them, reason is the only justifiable foundation for theistic belief. Yet, the two offer different approaches.

Descartes, a Catholic, and even a devotee of Our Lady, was not only one of the most prominent philosophers of the seventeenth century but in history of Western philosophy. Often referred to as the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, he profoundly influenced European thought with his writings. Best known for his statement “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), he started the school of rationalism which broke with the scholastic Aristotelianism in two ways. Firstly, Descartes rejected the mind-body dualism, arguing that matter (the body) and intelligence (the mind) are two independent substances (metaphysical dualism) and secondly, he rejected the final causal model of explaining natural phenomena and replaced it with science-based observation and experiment. He spent a major part of his life in conflict with scholastic approach which still dominated the thought in the early seventeenth century and trying to convince the Churchly authorities that the new sciences are not challenging the traditional theological teachings.

Descartes’ scepticism argues not from the world to God but from God to the world. God is necessary as the guarantor of human reason, and then as the connection between the mind and the external world. Since we must be indubitably sure of God’s existence, and since indubitable knowledge must be gained by the geometrical method, there is no place (or need) for revelation or personal experience to establish God’s existence.

On his part, Newton takes the physical world for granted, and seeks an explanation of its predictability and order. God appears as a necessary postulate for the Newtonian universe to function as it should. Absolute time and absolute space must be necessary effects of God’s existence. He must be the one who formed great astronomical masses and determined the correct distance of the planets from the sun to ensure stable orbits. Further, Newton’s calculations revealed that the universe is not quite self-sustaining; God must periodically wind the clock to keep it from getting too out of time.

Some theologians then jumped on the chance to develop the Cartesian or Newtonian philosophies into even more rigorous “proofs”!

Today, one of the powerful effects of Descartes’ undertaking is the senseless rejection of revelation in our time. Today, revelation is not allowed as a subject for classroom teaching.  As Newbigin rightly puts it:

“It is barred from public doctrine. Human origins are a subject for classroom teaching. They are part of public truth. Human destiny is not. It is a matter of private opinion. And if there is no public doctrine about human destiny, there can be no basis for rational discussion in the public forum about what are and what are not proper ends of human endeavour. And when there are no rational grounds for this decision, the way is open for the sort of mindless fanaticism about single moral issues which is such a feature of our time.”

At this juncture, it is important to note that all the attackers of private revelation within the Catholic Church in our time—those who often insist that we must not believe in private revelations, both church leaders and the lay faithful—are in reality influenced NOT really by what the Church teaches but by this same Cartesian undertaking!

In his Truth to Tell, Newbigin draws a parallel between our situation and that of St Augustine living amid the disintegration of the Graeco-Roman classical culture and remarks that the Saint faced a situation similar to ours but depended on revelation and hence was able to fight the errors of his age and indeed, conquered. He writes:

“Augustine was a rational thinker if ever there was one, but all his great rational powers could not extricate him from the disintegrating ruins of classical culture. Reason can only work with the data that it is given. The vision could be developed by Augustine only because there were new data, because through Ambrose he was brought into living contact with the church, and with the scriptures which embody the story by which the church lives. Revelation, the action of God himself in the events which the church celebrates, gave him his new starting point. From a new standpoint his massive intellect could see in a wholly new perspective the landscape through which he had travelled. As a result he was able to hand on to the following centuries a coherent and rational way of understanding the world and human history which also carried forward much that was precious in classical culture.” (Truth To Tell, p. 21).

But, says Newbigin, everything depended on the fact that there was a new starting point, a new fundamental pattern. “The parallels with our situation are, I think, instructive. The eighteenth century, the period in which our modern scientific culture became fully self-conscious and confident, called itself the Age of Reason.” (Ibid).

Newbigin says the central conviction which has inspired this unfortunate period of human history has been that the human mind is equipped with a power of reason which is capable of discovering the real “facts” and so liberating us from mere tradition and superstition. But the data upon which reason was set to work were—essentially—the data provided by the senses. He writes:

“Francis Bacon, that pioneer of enlightenment, sought to eliminate all metaphysical concepts and advised us to attend to what he called “facts”. To know the facts is to have power over them. The only one of the old metaphysical concepts which he retained was that of cause, because (according to Adorno and Horkheimer) “it alone among the old ideas seemed to offer itself for scientific criticism...’’. The idea of purpose was eliminated as a category of explanation because purpose cannot be directly observed. Bacon’s program, vastly developed in subsequent centuries, has given us what Bacon wanted—power, power over nature and, of course, over other people. If we concentrate on facts which can be known by the senses, and on causes which can be checked scientifically by observation and experiment, then human reason can obtain power over nature. This has been achieved on an unprecedented scale. The fact that it has alienated us from nature and created a widespread sense of homelessness and bereavement is one of the main reasons for a contemporary rejection of this kind of rationality and the call (in the New Age Movement) for a return to the motherly embrace of a Nature that we have so ruthlessly violated. But because human beings are also part of nature, and because the whole driving force of the movement of enlightenment has been to acquire a knowledge of nature which would confer power over nature, the whole thrust of our culture has been towards patterns of domination. Hence the clamorous calls for emancipation of dominated groups which is such a pervasive element in the contemporary scene.” (Ibid., p. 22).

For Augustine, he says, and indeed, most of the early Church Fathers, everything depended upon the data from which reasoning begins.

“But it is possible for reason to be used in another way. Everything depends upon the data from which reasoning begins. It is possible to begin with the data provided by the five senses and reasoning inductively from these. This has been the method which has created our modern scientific culture. It still uses the metaphysical category of cause, even though philosophers have questioned it. But it does not use the category of purpose. Purpose is something which is hidden in the mind of the person whose purpose it is until one or other of two things happens. Either the purpose is carried out so that everyone can see what was originally an idea in the mind of the one whose purpose it was, or that person must tell others what his purpose is. There is no third possibility. If we are considering the cosmos as a whole and the human story within the cosmos, and if we are asking whether there is any purpose which would enable us to understand it, the first option is not available. We shall not be around to observe the final moments of the cosmic story. The only available possibility is the second: that the One whose purpose it is should reveal it. If there is no revelation from God, then speech about the purpose of human life can only be speculation—the kind of speculation which Bacon advised his contemporaries to avoid in order to study facts.” (Ibid., pp. 22-23)

Again, he writes:

“There was a new starting point for Augustine, as for Athanasius and the Church Fathers before him...The question of the starting point is the fundamental one. Basic to the shaping of our culture was the attempt of Rene Descartes to find a fresh starting point for thought. Descartes lived in an age of profound scepticism...He lived in a time when beliefs which had been accepted from time immemorial were being shown to be unreliable. It seemed that certain knowledge was impossible. The work of earlier pioneers of modern science, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, had apparently shattered the world which the inhabitants of Western Europe had felt themselves at home for 1000 years. Descartes...sought and believed that he had found a fresh basis for certainty in his own existence as a thinking mind. From this standpoint he moved to the idea of God—but a God who is essentially an implicate of the human idea of perfection, and to the material world which belongs to a totally different order of existence from the mind.  In this dualistic world God could influence the human mind, but he could not act upon the material world itself...Many writers have commented on the way in which Descartes’ dualism has changed the whole of our subsequent thinking, creating a dichotomy which runs right through our culture, a dichotomy represented on every university campus by the divide between the science faculty and the faculties of arts and humanities...He opted for a different kind of certitude, a certitude which would very quickly enable Descartes’ successors to confront God with the doubt as to whether He really existed at all.” (Ibid., pp25-26; p.27).  

The tragic result of Descartes’ legacy has been that, a part of Western culture—that part in which theology usually falls—has lapsed into subjectivism:  and so Revelation, Dogma and the like become nonsense. Descartes lived in a time of great scepticism—in a time when beliefs which had been accepted from time immemorial were beginning to fall prey to man’s “diabolical reasoning”. For a thousand years before him, there had been wrought into the very stuff of European thinking belief that God is to be trusted and therefore things and people are not simply the playthings of whimsical gods and goddesses or of all-disposing Fate. Apart from that long schooling, it is hard to think that anyone could have set out on the enterprise to which Descartes set himself. The age in which Descartes lived was profoundly disturbed by the new scientific discoveries—it is true; and, as many thought, it was necessary to find something which could not be doubted, a foundation on which to build a stable home for the human spirit. But the whole enterprise rested on assumption—that is, on that famous “Act of Faith” that the cosmos is so “constructed” that that kind of certainty is available to human beings. Descartes may have had good intention in his undertaking, but by proposing a different kind of certitude instead of trusting in the faithfulness of God—as, for instance, Athanasius and Augustine did—he ended up committing the sin of Adam. The new starting point which he proposed—which has been so fundamental for all that has followed—was a small-scale repetition of the Fall. Adam was not content to trust God. He wanted to have his own certitude, based on an experimental test of the validity of God’s promise. He was the first inductive theologian.

“Athanasius himself is content to identify the Fall with the acceptance of a false ideology”, writes late Charles Cochrane, an Oxford professor of classics. “Such an ideology may take any one of several different forms. It may, for example, find expression in Epicureanism, which undertakes the problem of explaining the universe in terms of matter and motion, and which denies that there is any principle of discrimination in matter beyond that of physical pleasure and pain. Or it may appear as Platonism which, with its admission of a pre-existent matter, yields an inadequate idea of God by reducing Him to the status of a mere mechanic. Or again, it may emerge as one of the various types of Gnosticism which, because of their underlying dualism, deny the unity of the cosmos. But, whatever form it assumes, the results of departing from the Word are alike intellectually and morally disastrous. Intellectually, men lose the principle of understanding, and undergo a progressive blindness of perception. Morally, they lose the principle of life, and suffer a spiritual phthisis or wasting away.” (Christianity and Classical Culture—A Study of Thought and Action From Augustus to Augustine, p. 369.)

Today most modern Western theologians are heirs of Descartes and—subsequently—heirs of Adam. From Descartes onward it has been held that reliable knowledge is to be had by the relentless exercise of the critical method. Revelation is senselessly rejected, and Dogma can no longer be accepted on its own terms. It must submit to “rational criticism”. But, as Newbigin puts it, “the critical method must ultimately destroy itself.” Interestingly, Newbigin, a Protestant, laments—though indirectly—that even in the Catholic Church dogma is no longer accepted! But the statement “all dogma must be questioned”, he argues, “is itself a dogma which must be questioned.” He is right. Your basis for criticising a statement of what claims to be the truth must be based on some other truth-claim which—at that moment—you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticised—the critical principle must ultimately destroy itself. Reason, even the most acutely critical reason, cannot establish truth. If Christianity is all about God revealing Himself in Jesus Christ and rescuing man from his plight, then there must be some submission before a given authoritative revelation.

“We have been born blind from Adam”, Augustine would say, “and thus we have need of the illumination which comes to us from Christ.”

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