Category Archives: Philosophy

Dangerous Ideas: Hobbes & Spinoza

An excerpt from the draft of the book I am currently writing:


Chapter 5: Hobbes & Spinoza

Publishing

Two books were published in the second half of the seventeenth century, almost twenty years apart in separate countries, that made nearly identical arguments and utilized a similar structure in presenting their cases. Both books were influential in shaping arguments that led to the later emergence of Western democracy, and due to their remarkable similarities and some fascinating details surrounding their arguments, a dedicated chapter comparing their insights is deserved. Given that these are two lengthy works that tend to be very repetitive in places, and in an attempt not to bore the casual reader with an in-depth analysis, this will necessarily involve an extremely rigorous summary of their main arguments.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in England, and in 1669 or 1670, Benedict Spinoza published the Theological-Political Treatise in the Netherlands. As the name of Spinoza’s work implies, the topic of both books dealt with theological issues to make political points; specifically, that church officials should stop interfering in civil matters. Under these two topics, they each made several related points which will be outlined below in a high-level grouping by subject. Both men had other writings, of which mention will be made, but the primary focus here will be on these two works which most advanced the cause for freedom of thought and had a lasting impact.

As with Descartes, both authors got their books on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books for their controversial challenges to Church authority. Protestants in Europe were not very happy with them, either. While Hobbes published his book openly, Spinoza not only took the precaution of publishing anonymously, but also used a fictitious publisher (Henry Künraht) and city (Hamburg) of publication. Spinoza’s caution undermined his claim that Holland was a tolerant place—which by contemporary standards to other European countries, it was—in which to voice criticism:

Since, then, we happen to have that rare good fortune—that we live in a Republic in which everyone is granted complete freedom of judgment, and is permitted to worship God according to his mentality, and in which nothing is thought to be dearer or sweeter than freedom—I believed I would be doing something neither unwelcome, nor useless, if I showed not only that this freedom can be granted without harm to piety and the peace of the Republic, but also that it cannot be abolished unless piety and the Peace of the Republic are abolished with it.[1]

Spinoza also revealed what he truly thought in his private correspondence, which at times stands at odds with what was publicly stated in his published writings. For example, in Letter 30 to Henry Oldenburg in 1665, he stated matter-of-factly:

I am currently working on a treatise giving my views about scripture. I am led to do this by the following considerations:

(1) the prejudices of the theologians; for I know that they are the greatest obstacle to men’s being able to apply their minds to philosophy; so I am busy exposing them and removing them from the minds of the more prudent;

(2) the opinion the common people have of me; they never stop accusing me of atheism, and I have to rebut this accusation as well as I can; and

(3) my desire to defend in every way the freedom of philosophising and saying what we think; the preachers here suppress it as much as they can with their excessive authority and aggressiveness.

Spinoza experts, Professors Nadler and Curley, made similar points about the stealth of Spinoza in regard to the TTP. Nadler wrote that after his friend Adriaan Koerbagh was arrested and tried for blasphemy, then imprisoned and died in jail for his Dutch publication criticizing the status quo, Spinoza was well aware of what could happen to him and took the appropriate precautions.[2] Curley asserted that Spinoza needed to make a judgment call on just how far he could go in certain cases, and often “pulled his punches.”[3] Curley further pointed out from Letter 30 that Spinoza stated he was working on a theological treatise in 1665, with no mention of politics.[4] Given that Leviathan was not translated into a language Spinoza understood until 1667[5] (in Dutch, and Latin by 1668), this suggests that the political arguments of the final chapters of the TTP were likely an afterthought following his exposure to the ideas of Hobbes, and given further motivation by the persecution and death of Koerbagh.

Main Arguments

Both authors spent, roughly, two-thirds of their content on biblical exegesis—textual criticism, deconstruction, and (re?)interpretation. From a modern context, it is tempting to think this is excessive (indeed, it is, in places) and that their arguments could have been dramatically more concise. A casual glance at Leviathan’s table of contents and the huge number of topical subheadings will give the reader an idea of just how prolix Hobbes could be and the monotonous detail he went into. Granted, they both could have used a decent editor to consolidate their repetitive arguments. However, they were writing at a time when religious bodies exercised considerable control and influence over society and government, and, as such, they needed to make strong cases for delegitimizing ecclesiastical authority. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of their writing is aimed at just this task and the breakdown of those arguments is presented in the Theological Arguments section.

Spinoza’s exegesis in the TTP gave rise to the modern discipline of textual criticism, which has continued to uncover new insights in biblical scholarship to the present day; some of those insights confirming and others disproving certain points he made about the authenticity and meaning of many passages and books.[6] While Hobbes made many of the same points, it will be Spinoza’s references that will be the focus here with the occasional corresponding citation from Leviathan. The primary reason for this is because of Spinoza’s unique background: an excommunicated Jew from a Portuguese immigrant family that fled the conversions in Iberia, who was fluent in Hebrew and educated in the Jewish schools of Amsterdam; giving him unique insights and skills Hobbes and other thinkers of their day did not have. While the political arguments of Hobbes informed the last chapters of the TTP, Nadler pointed out that Spinoza would have needed no input from his contemporaries on formulating his biblical deconstructions.[7]

The arguments of both Hobbes and Spinoza can be summarized into subjects covering: Political – state authority, church subordination to the state, and social contract theory; and, Theological – the origins/legitimacy of scripture, critiques of religious authority and their usurpation/abuses of power, and in Spinoza’s case, his conception of God as indistinguishable from nature and not an anthropomorphized being concerned with human dealings.

Ontological Arguments

Before exploring Spinoza’s theological arguments in detail it is first helpful to understand his conception of God, as it forms the foundation of his subsequent points in the TTP. In Ethics, published after his death in 1677, he laid out his “proof” for the existence of God. In Book I: God, Proposition 11, Spinoza makes the claim:

God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.

If God didn’t exist, then God’s essence would not involve existence; and that is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists.

This is the standard ontological argument, the same used by Descartes shown in the preceding chapter. In a book dedicated to deconstructing Spinoza’s arguments in Ethics, Bennett was very direct in his assessment stating that Spinoza believed this was “sufficient for a proof” and it is a natural reaction for one to “gasp at the impudence;” and overall, asserted that Spinoza was not adept at proper reasoning and used logic only so far as it supported his arguments rather than as a purely philosophical means to an end.[8] Oppy provided a detailed account of the history and types of ontological arguments and the invalid nature of their construction, listing Spinoza’s proof as “Intimations of a defensible mereological ontological argument . . . e.g., the existence of the physical universe.”[9]

Oppy continued:

. . . there is fairly widespread consensus, even amongst theists, that no known ontological arguments for the existence of God are persuasive.

Many other objections to (some) ontological arguments have been proposed. All of the following have been alleged to be the key to the explanation of the failure of (at least some) ontological arguments: (1) existence is not a predicate; (2) the concept of god is meaningless/incoherent/inconsistent; . . . and (7) ontological arguments are question-begging, i.e., presuppose what they set out to prove.

Oppy referred readers to Sobel, who in his book, Logic and Theism, used the mathematical logic and symbolic notation formalized by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their twentieth-century groundbreaking contribution to philosophy, Principia Mathematica, to deconstruct the logical fallacy contained in Spinoza’s proposition. Russell, on the nature of ontological arguments, stated, “The argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”[10] Interestingly, Sobel commented that Russell never used his own mathematical logic to deconstruct ontological arguments, as Sobel did, to show precisely where the fallacies were.[11]

Russellian notational logic is complex and beyond the scope of this work (and comprehension for most of the general public), and consequently only the conclusion will be noted here. Sobel demonstrated[12] that Spinoza’s Axiom 7 (If a thing can be conceived as not existing then its essence doesn’t involve existence), contains a type of logical fallacy known as an amphiboly—an “ambiguity of speech, especially from uncertainty of the grammatical construction rather than of the meaning of the words.” Spinoza defines this thing as an essence or a substance in his premise, and in his conclusion claims this presupposed substance that exists is God. Sobel pointed out this subtle switch is easy to overlook.[13] Obviously, people are capable of conceiving of something not existing, and Spinoza begs the question by claiming that something cannot be conceived not to exist so it must, therefore, exist. Spinoza’s proof, that God necessarily exists from the antecedent conclusion of Proposition 11, collapses with the falsification of Axiom 7—as do any of his arguments subsequently built upon it. This will not be the only logical fallacy that Spinoza commits.

While Spinoza may have reasoned himself into this conclusion, Russell noted reason is not enough:

The whole of this metaphysic is impossible to accept; it is incompatible with modern logic and with scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not by reasoning; when we successfully infer the future, we do so by means of principles which are not logically necessary, but are suggested by empirical data. And the concept of substance, upon which Spinoza relies, is one which neither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept.[14]

I think it may be said quite decisively that, as a result of analysis of the concept “existence,” modern logic has proved this argument invalid.[15]

Motivations

While Spinoza’s proof of God is invalid, his conception of God was important for the advancement of secularism, because his premise that God is an incorporeal prime mover removed from the concerns of humanity was the basis from which he attempted to deprive the religious leaders of his day of their biblical authority. By arguing that God is indistinguishable from nature and that millennia of Jewish and Christian priests have perverted the “true nature” of religion—loving God and practicing loving-kindness and justice for our fellow humans—Spinoza made the case that their self-appointed authority was just as made-up as the flimsy dogmas they had invented in order to subvert and control the populace.

For his views, Spinoza was widely accused of being an atheist simply because his concept of God (which he believed in, just not the personal God of the Abrahamic faiths) was different from the mainstream understanding.[16] Spinoza is most often labelled with the term pantheist, someone who equates, as Spinoza does, God with the laws of the universe (“God or Nature”[17]), and which is closely related to the deism of the American founding fathers. He repeatedly disavowed the atheist slur directed at him, as noted in point two of Letter 30 above, which was one of his motivations for writing the TTP and which did absolutely nothing to dispel this popular notion, but only made matters for him worse. The accusations of atheism levelled at Hobbes and Spinoza, and their replies, will be covered after reviewing their arguments in Leviathan and the Theological-Political Treatise which so inflamed the establishment.

As outlined in chapter two on the Vatican’s accumulation of power and domination in Western Europe, and in his own day with the interference of stern Dutch Reformed Calvinists into non-church spheres of influence, religious authorities repeatedly sought to repress intellectual freedom. Spinoza decided the best way to make his case for freedom of thought was to amply demonstrate in all the ways (he thought) the church fathers were wrong, in order to remove their shackles from the minds of the men advancing science. Spinoza made the targets of his attention clear, mocking those who would hinder progress for the sake of tradition:

So it comes about that someone who seeks the true causes of ‘miracles’ and is eager (like an educated man) to understand natural things, not (like a fool) to wonder at them, is denounced as an impious heretic by those whom the people honour as interpreters of Nature and of the Gods. For the denouncers know that if ignorance is taken away and replaced by real knowledge of mechanical processes, then foolish wonder is also taken away, depriving them of their only means for arguing and defending their authority.[18]

Judging from the rising numbers of non-believers in twenty-first-century, highly secular Western Europe, and the corresponding rapid decline in church attendance, Spinoza was correct that knowledge is the key for attenuating religious authority in the socio-political sphere. Though, he would loathe the lack of reverence for God that came hand-in-hand with the dwindling wonder of fools, especially as such rigorous secularism was sparked, in part, by his own arguments.


[1] TTP Preface, 12. All references to the TTP employ the Bruder paragraph numbering system used by Curley in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Vol. 2. Further, Curley affixes a prime notation to the words knowledge and power, providing them differential meanings from their Latin originals: ‘knowledge…where “science” did not feel right for Scientia…[such as] treating scientia as equivalent to cognitio. (637-8); ‘power…very often (not always) refers to power arising in an institutional context from a person’s (or collective body’s) position in that institution. (649-50).

[2] Nadler 1999, 269.

[3] Curley 2016, 53-56.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] From Curley’s “Spinoza’s Contribution to Biblical Scholarship” in the forthcoming second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza by Don Garrett, editor. Professor Curley generously emailed me a draft version of his contribution for my consideration. See also Nadler 2011, 119.

[6] Curley 2016, xv; Nadler 2011, 106.

[7] Nadler 2011, 119.

[8] Bennett 1984, 72; 75; 28.

[9] Oppy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[10] Russell 1945, 349.

[11] Sobel 2004, 58.

[12] Ibid., 50.

[13] Ibid., 53.

[14] Russell 1945, 344.

[15] Ibid., 466.

[16] Cf. Letter 73, “My opinion concerning God and Nature is far different from the one modern Christians usually defend. I maintain that God is the indwelling cause of all things, not the cause from outside.”

[17] Ethics IV, Preface.

[18] Ethics I, Appendix.

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Big History of Religion: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on the Rise of Belief

I first became aware of the concept of Big History from the TV documentary on History which aired in 2013, and I was thoroughly fascinated from the start. Recently, I took the Coursera Big History: Connecting Knowledge series, and while proceeding through the course I realized that both my book, Manifest Insanity, and my recently featured article, Psychology of Faith, examined religion from the Big History perspective. Here, then, is a summary of the Big History of religion.

Big History covers eight thresholds, the first five of which are a given: 1: Big Bang; 2: star formation; 3: build-up of heavier elements, nucleosynthesis; 4: planetary formation; 5: emergence of life.

Starting from threshold 6, the evolution of collective learning, along with threshold 7, the agricultural revolution, we will examine how religious thought arose in our ancestors with a series of quotes from leading thinkers in evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology, and how other disciplines (archaeology, philosophy, neurology) illuminate our understanding of the subject; something made increasingly easier by threshold 8, the ever-increasing interconnectedness of the world.


Inhibition is very often the key to our survival.


Evolutionary Psychology — Threshold 6

All but a handful of scholars in this area regard religion as an accidental byproduct of our mental evolution. Specifically, religious thought is usually portrayed by scholars as having no particular adaptive biological function in itself, but instead it’s viewed as a leftover of other psychological adaptations. . . .
. . . The private perception of being intelligently designed, monitored, and known about by a God who actively punished and rewarded our intentions and behaviors would have helped stomp out the frequency and intensity of our ancestors’ immoral hiccups and would have been strongly favored by natural selection.

Bering, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life

In the Big History: Connecting Knowledge course, was a video on evolution that noted the similarity between chimps and humans regarding these immoral hiccups:

While all primates have a hierarchy of alphas and betas, humans and chimps, who share 98.4% of their DNA, are the most prone to team up together and launch a revolution against the alpha male. We’re also both prone to ganging up, roaming our territory, and beating up unsuspecting foreigners of the same species, and not for direct survival reasons. Chimpanzees have been observed finding a lone chimp male from another group and kicking, hitting, and tearing off bits of his body and then leaving the helpless victim to die of his wounds, and humans definitely bear this stamp of our lowly origin, where indeed, the imperfect step-by-step process of evolution made us highly intelligent, but still, with prefrontal cortex’s too small, and adrenal glands maybe too big. Aggression and blood lust are definitely part of our shared heritage, and, looking at more recent human history, does that really surprise anyone?

Human Evolution: Crash Course Big History #6

Therefore, according to evolutionary psychologists, religion played a role in moderating our baser instincts.

Patience, restraint, modesty, humility — these are all desirable, biblically endorsed features of humanity not because they are heavenly virtues, but because they’re pragmatic. . . . For us, inhibition is very often the key to our survival.

In other words, the illusion of a punitive God assisted their genetic well-being whenever they underestimated the risk of actual social detection by other people. This fact alone, this emotional short-circuiting of ancient drives in which immediate interests were traded for long-term genetic gains, which have rendered God and His ilk a strong target of natural selection in human evolution.

Bering

This is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.


Agricultural Revolution — Threshold 7

In every world zone the invention of agriculture was a precursor for the rise of states. The key to having a state is agrarian surplus. If you produce enough food, you can have a class of people who don’t need to farm. They can then fulfill other duties in this increasingly numerous and complex society whether they be leaders or judges who settle disputes, bureaucrats who deal with administration, and infrastructure doctors who heal the sick, priests who make sacrifices to vengeful gods or soldiers who provide security or at least extract a portion of the agricultural surplus for the leadership through some kind of taxation. And with more people filling new jobs and generating new ideas about them, this is also good news for collective learning. Diversification of labor is also the first step of early states toward hierarchies and classes — aristocrats and popular and despotic kings and pharaohs and sultans, shahs and emperors.

Migration and Intensification: Crash Course Big History #7

For 99% of our time on Earth, we had no organized religion. But then, we settled down, grew food . . .
. . . The longest-lasting civilization in the history of the world was in ancient Egypt. . . . It was here civilization and religion became fused as one. Every major civilization since has adopted the same formula. . . .
. . . Begun over 7000 years ago, it’s one of the oldest religious sites n he world. . . . This is where the building blocks of religion began to merge. For over two million years we were hunter-gathers, and hunter-gathers typically practice a religion called animism. . . . But, when they switch to herding, this changes their worldview. While hunter-gathers roamed freely across the landscape, herders settled for weeks at a time wherever they could find pasture. This led to a new kind of religion. The first thing that happens when people start herding, they start building sacred spaces. If you want to pray, or you want to worship, you’ve got to come to this space. And what this does, is it brings people together, from all over the place, into this one area, to worship together. . . .
. . . This giant megalith, here, this thing weighs several tons and would have been carried a few miles just to get it to this point, and that requires organized labor, that requires people working together. We can surmise that they would have had some kind of spiritual significance to these things to put that much effort into this. And if that’s the case, we’re looking at some sort of prototype church. The first monuments were all inspired by religion. . . .
. . . What we’re seeing here at Nabta Playa, this is the beginning of religion as we know it. Now these people have to appeal to the gods to make sure nature does what they want it to do in order to survive. This is exactly how religion operates today.

First Civilizations, Episode: 2 — Religion, Video 6 of 11, Nabta Playa, PBS (2018).

While Göbekli Tepe in Turkey is considered the oldest temple site, 1–2,000 years older than Nabta Playa, it was created on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, and as such, it is not an altar dedicated to crop fertility but to ancestor worship.

We don’t normally associate this idea with agriculture, but at least in their beginnings theist religions were an agricultural enterprise. The theology, mythology and liturgy of religions such as Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity initially centered on the relationship between humans, domesticated plants and farm animals.

Biblical Judaism for instance, catered to peasants and shepherds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of synagogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughterhouse and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of the incense mixed with the odours of the congealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere.

Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always.


Cultural Anthropology

Legendary professor of world mythology, Joseph Campbell, discussed how the local terrain shaped and defined our ancestors’ perceptions of the divine.

Moyers: Geography has done a great deal to shape our culture and our idea of religion. The god of the desert is not the god the plains

Campbell: — or the god of the rain forest — the gods, plural, of the rain forest. When you’re out in the desert with one sky and one world, then you might have one deity, but in a jungle, where there’s no horizon and you never see anything more than ten or twelve yards away from you, you don’t have that idea any more.

Moyers: So are they projecting their idea of God on the world?

Campbell: Yes, of course.

Moyers: Their geography shapes their image of divinity, and then they project it out and call it God.

Campbell: Yes. The god idea is always culturally conditioned, always. . . .

Moyers: I wonder what it would have meant to us if somewhere along the way, we had begun the prayer “Our Mother,” instead of “Our Father.” What psychological difference would it have made?

Campbell: Well, it makes a psychological difference in the character of the cultures. You have the basic birth of civilization in the Near East with the great river valleys then as the main source areas, the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and then over in India, the Indus valley and later the Ganges. This is the world of the goddess; all these rivers have goddess names finally.

Then there come the invasions. These fighting people are herding people. The Semites are herders of goats and sheep, and the Indo-Europeans of cattle. They were formerly the hunters. They translate a hunting mythology into a herding mythology, but it’s animal oriented. And when you have hunters you have killers, and when you have herders, you have killers, because they’re always in movement, nomadic, coming into conflict with other people and they have to conquer the area they move into. This comes into the Near East, and this brings in the warrior gods, like Zeus, like Yahweh.

Moyers: The sword and death, instead of fertility.

Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers

In another section of the documentary, Campbell goes on to discuss how societies separated by vast distances evolved the same ideas of the supernatural.

Moyers: Now, what do you make of that, that in two very different cultures, the same imagery emerges?

Campbell: Yes, well, there are only two ways to explain it, and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here, and the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have — and to the detail the correspondences can be identified, it’s astonishing when one studies these things in depth, the degree to which the agreements go between totally separated cultures.

Moyers: Which says something about the commonality of the species, doesn’t it?

Campbell: Well, yes, that was Carl Jung’s idea, which he calls the archetypes, archetypes of the collective unconscious.

Ep. 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’, PBS (1988).

The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival.


Archaeology

At Nazlet Khater archaeologists found another burial, the burial of an adult, dated 30 to 35,000 years old. This example is also important because just beside the head of the skeleton was a stone and axe, an offering in the tomb. This is the first evidence of an associate artifact with a human body in a tomb. That means that people, at this stage, were interested in the protection of the bodies in the afterlife. When you protect a body after it’s dead, that means that there is a belief in the afterlife. Why do you want to protect your body if your body is useless after the death? In this case, when you protect the body, we can guess that these people had a very complex belief in the afterlife, and maybe a religion.

Tristant, Coursera — Big History: Connecting Knowledge — How did people live in the Palaeolithic?

Above, Harari mentioned how Judaism and Hinduism sprang out of the agricultural revolution, meaning the religions they gave rise to, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and that a sizeable number of people who subscribe to a major world religion are also tied to these agricultural origins.

Source: NPR

Just as P [the priestly source] grounded the Sabbath in the creation story, so it grounds the Passover in the story of the exodus. The Passover was probably originally a rite of spring, practiced by shepherds. In early Israel it was a family festival. . . . The celebration was changed by the reform of King Josiah in 621 B.C.E. into a pilgrimage festival, to be celebrated at the central sanctuary [Jerusalem] and was combined with the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible

As with living organisms, religion has continued to evolve and change over the centuries, with, in some cases, substantial shifts in the core tenets. I will focus on Judeo-Christianity, as that was the subject I covered in my book and with which I am most familiar; but I will return to Buddhism in the neurology section. Archaeology, in particular, has shown how Israelite theology changed fundamentally over its duration. The reform of Josiah, mentioned above, was when monotheism first became the official state religion of Judah, not earlier in its history as its texts portray, and which the excerpts below elaborate on.

We know from text and from archaeology, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the ancestors, the gods of the underworld so to speak. We know from texts, at least, and from iconography that we find in the ground, that traditional Israelite religion involved venerating the stars and the planets. We know, therefore, the traditional Israelite religion was polytheistic.

Baruch Halpern, Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies — University of Georgia, in The Bible Unearthed

The book of Deuteronomy perpetrates one of the great reformations in history: it imposes a strict philosophical monotheism that banishes all other gods from traditional culture. This was part of a reformationist program in which King Josiah attempted to centralize not only power, but the ability to reach the realm of the divine into his own hands, in Jerusalem, in the temple,the temple, which, sat in the backyard of the Royal Palace. . . .

. . . Deuteronomy was hugely important for Western civilization because for the first time the individual was singled out from the crowd as the focus of moral responsibility and duties . . . .

. . . Many elements of the reform actually precede the reform. . . . Effectively, what you see in the 7th century BC is the development of individuality. These social changes were reflected in radical new laws in Deuteronomy, an ideological change of great enduring consequence . . . .

. . . What it testifies to is a new consciousness at the end of the seventh century. . . . The power of the governor was subject to some greater laws, some greater morality, and it’s here on this broken piece of pottery, as archaeological evidence from the time of Josiah, that what we now still believe as biblical tradition and biblical morality, was born among the people. . . .

. . . That is the mindset, the self-conscious mindset, on which science, and monotheism, and Western civilization have been found.

Neil Silberman (L) and Israel Finkelstein (R), The Bible Unearthed (2005)

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments.


Philosophy

After centuries of a repressive Vatican controlling much of what happened in medieval Europe and the affiliated intellectual stagnation, the Protestant Reformation lit the match that would eventually culminate in the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, European philosophers opposed to blind faith, tradition, and superstition, advocated for the increasing application of reason and scientific rationalism, and advanced the ideas of humanism as an alternative to theism. As many Western secular nations have evolved beyond traditional religion, secular humanism is coming to be the dominant philosophy in a number of these societies. Statistics confirm this trend, as the least religious countries are correlated among the happiest; whereas, religion continues to have the most influence in countries with less-developed economies and greater degrees of uncertainty. Citizens in self-actualized societies don’t appear to need the crutch of religion, allowing our common humanity to be our moral guide.

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.

Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind?


Neurology

In a relatively new field of neurology, coined neurotheology, modern science can now demonstrate how gods manifest in our brains; and here is where we come back to Buddhism, as Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer activate a completely different part of the brain.

This is the resting scan, this is the prayer scan showing increased activity in the frontal lobes and in the language area of the brain. . . .

. . . When a person feels deeply focused on their prayer, we see increased activity in the focusing area of the brain. This area of the brain, the frontal lobe, is intensely active when we hold conversations; it allows us to speak and to listen.

Andy believes that in Judeo-Christian prayer the frontal lobe activates, just as it would in normal conversation. To the brain, talking to God is indistinguishable from talking to a person.

When we study Buddhist meditation, where they’re visualizing something, we might expect to see a change or an increase of activity in the visual areas of the brain. In Buddhist practice, the divine is an abstract presence, not a person who is directly spoken to, but rather an essence that can be visualized during deep meditation. And when Andy looks at the brains of people who do not believe in God, he finds that simple quiet meditation produces none of the brain activity of believers.

Through the Wormhole, Did We Invent God?, Science (S03E10, 2012).

A multidisciplinary analysis gives us the Big History view that from an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation, divine agency was born and took root in our brains, and we can now see our god neurons activating with magnetic resonance imaging.

What if I were to tell you that God’s mental states, too, were all in your mind? That God, like a tiny speck floating at the edge of your cornea producing the image of a hazy, out-of-reach orb accompanying your every turn, was in fact a psychological illusion, a sort of evolved blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain? It may feel as if there is something grander out there . . . watching, knowing, caring. Perhaps even judging. But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind. In reality, there is only the air you breathe.

Bering
Source: Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

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Filed under Archaeology, Big History, Cultural Anthropology, Evolutionary Psychology, Neurology, Philosophy, Religion