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Gifford Lectures 2019
The Hard God: Ontotheology as an Antidote for Idolatry
Lecturer: Mark Johnston, The Henry Putnam University Professor, Princeton University.
Author of Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (2009, 2nd Ed. 2015); Surviving Death (2010, 2nd Ed. 2013); Human Beings (2019) and The Obscure Object of Hallucination (2019).
17th Lecture 1: Why Reject Reductive Naturalism?
The question of the origin and meaning of evil implicates the question of being. That is why, in reflecting on our fateful condition, an onto-theology, or alternatively an onto-atheology, is not dischargeable. An answer to the question of how evil arose requires insight into the nature of evil and into the nature of reality in the large.
Two comprehensive views of reality, Zoroastrianism and Reductive Naturalism, reject the presupposition of our question as to how evil came into the world. In their quite different ways, they say it didn’t. Zoroastrianism, along with its syncretic forms such as Manichaeism, sees evil as a fundamental original principle, primordially opposed to, and equi-powerful with, the good. Zoroastrianism leaves us in an irresolvable jeopardy. And it invites the question of how the observable intermixed creation, both good enough for life to develop and yet suffused with evil, could have come about. Why not instead a primordial and everlasting mutual negation of the two powers, resulting in no creative output whatsoever? A nice decision theoretic question lurks there.
From the reductive naturalistic point of view, evil in our loaded sense will appear as a theological anachronism. The word “evil” may remain in scientifically informed use, but only as an intensifier in the denomination of what is merely very bad, in the sense of being deeply at odds with human interests, where human interests are understood thinly—say as little more than conventionally underwritten desires.
But Reductive Naturalism leaves ethics incoherent. And not just because it leaves no place for libertarian freedom, or for the kind of content causation required for reasons as such to be causes. There is a new kind of consideration, which directly highlights the ethical incoherence of reductive naturalism.
If ethical life is to be viable then we must be transcendental subjects not exhausted by, or wholly grounded in, the causal processes spread across our spatiotemporal footprints. For if we are exhausted by, or wholly grounded in, our spatiotemporal footprints then we are “ontological trash”. It follows that the principle of ethical singularity—the only being with a moral status to be found within the spatiotemporal footprint of a person is that very person—will then massively fail, with disastrous implications for our practical life, set out in detail in this lecture.
As it turns out, the drift of cognitive science strongly favors the causal closure of neurophysiological processes. The hopes of Karl Popper and John C. Eccles, set out in The Self and Its Brain , have become increasingly forlorn over the decades. No serious research program in neuropsychology supposes that there are sites in the brain which might intelligibly play the role Descartes assigned to the pineal gland, i.e. the role of being a locus of interaction between a substantial free subject and the sufficient neural conditions for our emotional and intellectual lives.
Accordingly, if we are to seriously develop the view that we are transcendental subjects we need a different model of the subject/body relation. Dualism yes, interactionism, no. Hylomorphism comes to mind. But too often it hovers indecisively between a polite form of physicalism and a woozy interactionism.
Here is one model that might fit the bill: Our intentional bodily life is the expression of the fundamental quality of our will, but not by way of downward causation of the neural by the mental.
Any such view requires an established harmony between subject and body. How could such a harmony have come about?
19th Lecture 2: Is Hope for Another Life Rational?
Many would admit that the whole landscape of ethical life, as secularism understands it, is utterly ill-conceived if this is not our only life. A neglected question is whether there is an ethical landscape if this is our only life.
One of the most famous Gifford lecturers, William James, characterized Immanuel Kant’s reflections on immortality as “the uncouth part of Kant’s philosophy”. James seems to have supposed that Kant somehow reneged on his pivotal denial that the force of the ethical “ought” presupposes a supposed reward for ethical conduct. Instead, Kant’s insight is that a principle of proportionality of happiness to desert is undetachably built into the aspirations of practical reason.
Accordingly, there is a Kantian-style argument that we are practically required to hope for another life, an argument which the James of The Will to Believe would find very hard to resist. Indeed, the argument appears to support the hope that each of us will have a sufficient range of embodiments to develop and manifest our individual qualities of will.
The discussion begins with the idea that if the ethical rightly has a controlling status in human life, it cannot be that the obvious one sentence generic summary of human history—That the clever and powerful bastards get away with it—is the final truth of the matter. It ends with an exploration of how a human being could come to have embodiments other than these.
24th Lecture 3: Why Did the One Not Remain Within Itself?
Onto-theology now has a bad press, even to the point of being represented as a form of godless and sterile intellectualism. Strange that, especially given that in Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and Scotus onto-theology appears as the intellect’s prayer, even perhaps a form of intellectual theurgy.
Theurgy and prayer aside, a certain sort of Neo-Platonic onto-theology serves to dramatize the idolatrous character of conventional conceptions of divinity. In particular it replaces the idea of God as predicatively all-good with the idea of God as the Good, the source and ground of all goodness, a ground that is itself constitutively Good rather than merely predicatively good. (Here an analogy with color, properly understood, may be helpful.)
Can the conception of God as the Good both explain creation and account for its contingency? Can a ground contingently ground? Only, it seems, if the Good is also the locus of libertarian free will, and chose to create because of a reason that was adequate but not rationally coercive.
What could that reason be? And how does understanding this reason transform the traditional problems of good and evil?
26th Lecture 4: "Ameliorism": Is Reality Unimprovable?
Many ethical theorists would accept some variant on this principle:
Rationality requires you to perform the act of maximal expected utility (where there is one) or at least an act which is one of the satisfying acts on offer, so long as the act is morally permissible and no alternative act is morally required.
What is the ground of the reasonableness of maximizing expected utility (or of satisficing)?
Where does the idea that rationality requires you to perform the act of maximum expected utility come from? Why should we believe that? Is it simply a habit that has slipped into our thought and become highly “intuitive” as a result of the cultural pre-eminence of “economic reasoning”—which itself developed out of the theory of optimal gambling.
The ground of the reasonableness of the utility principle is something like this:
1st Lecture 5: How Did Evil Come Into the World?
Astrophysics tells us that the psalmist was wrong. The heavens—when comprehended in their vast totality—do not proclaim the glory of God. Moreover, if we set aside the multiverse hypothesis, astrophysics provides real evidence of a kind of fine-tuning needed for complexity and therefore life. But it is a fine-tuning that is either inept or malign or, at best, utterly opaque. And the very idea of fine-tuning represents the frame of the laws of nature as a fait accompli to be dealt with just as it stands. Accordingly, the fine-tuner, the one causally responsible for the existence of material things capable of being more complicated than helium atoms, could not be God.
The intriguing doctrine that all being is good, because the very to be of any being is a manifestation of the Good, encouraged the view, developed by Augustine in the polemic against his former coreligionists the Manicheans, that evil is mere privation. A privation is an absence of what ought to be. What is denominated as “evil” is a mere privation only if the absence of what ought to be is not itself grounded in some positive malign condition.
Evil is not everywhere mere privation. A neonate’s missing thumb may be a mere privation, but a carbuncle is not the mere privation of smooth skin. It is a positive condition that precludes smooth skin. Agony is not the mere privation of peace of mind, nor is viciousness the mere absence of the virtues. Outright viciousness, i.e. the sickening mix of hatred, cruelty, contempt, concupiscence, etc., is a positive condition that grounds the absence of the virtues in the vicious.
Perhaps the intriguing doctrine that all being is good only implies that no substantial individual being is evil just in virtue of its defining essence, its fundamental manner of being. Even if all being is a manifestation of the Good, so that no substance is by its essence evil, there remains a possible source of positive evil, as it is found in both the will and in nature.
Beginning just with the Good, how could evil arise in creation? Created free individuals, who thereby can determine the expressed quality of their will, are capable of freely choosing vicious and utterly self-serving forms of life. The clearheadedly vicious consequently favor a regime of evil in which others are either their instruments, or at the very least follow, each of them, the iniquitous path of valorizing their own good over the good. The malign aspects of the material world are helpful in imposing this form of bondage on others. Is this not what we see, when we scrutinize the dark side of human life?
Notoriously, the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions stumble in the face of clearheaded iniquity. They deny that it is possible. Better to follow Henry Sidgwick on this point, and admit what he called the dualism of practical reason. There is no demonstration that egoism, and hence evil, is intrinsically irrational. The objection to an evil will is not that it must be an irrational will. The objection is just that it is iniquitous, i.e. it valorizes its own good over the Good.
The central questions of the lecture will be: How far can the iniquity of agents account for positive evil, including the malign progression made up of the known history and predictable future of the material universe? And: What are our chances in the face of evil?
We shall see that the free-will defense as it is usually deployed comes too late, and that the emergence of evil is only comprehensible if we, among creatures, have, as it were, a second-class moral status, which allows that for the sake of the realization of some tremendous good, we permissibly might be put in real jeopardy of being captured by evil.