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Part Five: An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and a Post-Modern Logical Positivist Part Five: An Imaginary Conversation between Aristotle and a Post-Modern Logical Positivist
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-04-20 08:28:51
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Logical Positivist: Good morning Professor Aristotle. I have heard you are conducting some peripatetic seminars on the existence of God. Do you mind if I participate. I think I have a contribution to make to the argument.

Aristotle: by all means, the more the merrier.

LP: Thank you professor but regretfully I need to start with a severe critique of your ancient philosophical system based on logic and rationality.

A: Let’s hear it.

LP: You Greeks were strong on logic and metaphysics, in fact it can truly be said that you invented them, together with many other things such as democracy, but there was a flaw in your scheme and it was the neglect of history which you considered too messy and confusing to be incorporated into rationality.

A: Coming from a logical positivist the compliment is certainly welcome. But let’s hear more on history and how it applies to the issue at hand which is that of the ontological existence of God. How does history help us here?

LP. Quite a lot actually. One of the reasons for not believing in God is derived from the picture we atheists and agnostics have of the history and function of religious belief.

A: This sounds very much like the argument put forward by Professor William James.

LP: Not exactly. His is based on his philosophy of Pragmatism, mine on the philosophy of Auguste Comte better known as Logical Positivism.

A. Quite intriguing. Please explain to us what this picture is all about.

LP: Well it goes like this: primitive societies have a great number of deities inhabiting everything in nature. For the primitive mind these deities provide a plausible explanation of why things happen.

A: Are you referring to Vico’s era of the gods punctuated by mythology and the poetical?

LP: Not really. Vico’s was a cyclical theory of history; ours is a progressivist one: the lower or less perfect gives way over time to the higher or more perfect.

A: This sound similar to my theory of perfectibility and accumulation of knowledge and wisdom.

LP: In some way it is professor. But to go back to the primitive mind, if there is a devastating flood it means that the gods are angry. If the harvest is abundant it is because the gods are feeling kind at the moment. This is not dissimilar from divining what happens to people from the horoscope or the position of the stars at the moment. Some of these prognosticators by horoscope call themselves Gnostics implying that they possess great knowledge but the opposite is true, they speak out of ignorance devoid of logical positivism.

A: It is beginning to sound like our ancient Sophists and their sophistical arguments. But go on.

LP: So events happen because of the gods’ anger, benevolence, envy, jealousy. Primitive people were convinced that they could influence nature the same way people are influenced by supplication, doing favors, carrying gifts, doing favors, promises, etc. Your ancient pagan religion had a dozen major gods who had major functions for important natural events and then there were the lesser spirits; but it also had the idea of natural processes occurring naturally without anyone intentions or emotions or desires being involved in the mix.

A: Quite true but I still don’t see where you’re going with this.

LP: To this simple idea: within Judaism and those religions that developed from it, Christianity and Islam, the gods decreased to one and began to meddle less and less in human affairs. He is like a clock-maker that has made the clock and now the clock runs itself, to use an apt metaphor of your assorted theists.

A: and what happens to the idea of the Providential God of these three religions?

LP: well what happens is rooted in the historical development. Around 1600 AD the Scientific revolution takes place. With it natural explanations increase and the part played by God’s desires and actions in explaining things decreases even further. People begin to explain thing by natural causes, scientific laws rather than divine will. This process is still ongoing but in any case science is today the main way to explain things although it hasn’t fully replaced religion yet.

A: I would say so, considering that 55% of the seven billion plus world’s population practice one or another of the three Abrahamitic religions and try to influence events by praying to God and pleading with him/her or promising things to him.

LP: Quite right professor. But this is a primitive vestige soon to be replaced. Atheists are the thinkers of the future.

A: Four thousand years is a long time and those religions are still around, to your great disappointment, obviously. In any case, what makes you think, pray, that this is progress. Why is this a good thing?

LP: if I may borrow one of William James’ ideas, it is a good thing because primitive spiritualism didn’t work while science does. Praying to God to increase your crop yield is not nearly as effective as scientific farming.

A: What you are proposing is that science and its empirical materialism always works better than spirituality. That is not what I heard from William James the other day, not to speak of Berkeley.

LP: on the whole, as an intelligent man, you’d have to agree professor that it works much better. In the Dark Ages the average life expectancy was 35 mostly due to diseases and a high infant mortality. Now, with natural science to help us it is 80. Science works as religion will never be able to do. We enlighten men know full well that religion is just superstition, a remnant of the primitive mind and the Dark Age.

A: as I said at the beginning of these conversations, I have great respect for science; I was one myself and agree that when it comes to increasing the yield of crops and other practical purposes it does a better job than religion. But it seems to me that you have pre-judged religion without considering other jobs to which religion may be better suited. In any case, with all due respect to your logic, it hasn’t so far shown that the claims of religion are false, for indeed practical usefulness is different from truth; anybody endowed with reason can see that!

LP: agreed but I submit to you that usefulness in terms of prediction, explanation, and control are the tests for the truth of any theory. They show that scientific theories are true and religious ones are not.

A: Nevertheless, I still think that branding some ways of thinking primitive is misguided, offensive and biased toward our ancestors who still have much to teach us. I would never call the poetical age of Homer which precedes the age or reason of Socrates, Plato and myself, primitive. That it is not! It has in fact much to teach the extremely rationalistic modern man. This is intuited so well that Homer continues to be read by all high school students in the world to this day and age. I bet it is even read in China. To call Homer primitive is not only disrespectful, but it devalues those ways of thinking which explain much better than science some of the intricacies of the modern psyche. A scientist of the caliber of Freud understood that much when he names one of his psychological theories Oedipus complex and has appeal to Greek myths to explain permanent fixtures of human nature.

LP: but you see professor, that is exactly what we logical positivist wish to do: to devalue those beliefs because they are false and they don’t work, with all due respect to Sigismund Freud.

A: your story or your scientific way, or myth if you will, of explaining nature may be more functional and pragmatic than appealing to the gods, but I am afraid my friend that you have not demonstrated that pragmatic results is what the idea of God is all about, neither have you shown that that there is no longer any need or any function for religious beliefs, or that the religious idea that God does indeed exist is false. I leave you with this thought to ponder and then perhaps we may resume our conversation on this important subject: science manipulates the environment and shows us how it works and functions. Religion probes the mysterious in the universe and searches for meaning therein. The tasks are not the same and they are not equally important. Perhaps your great scientist Albert Einstein had it on target when he said that when the summit of the unified theory shall have been discovered, the scientist as he climbs on that summit will be greatly surprised to find out that the theologian has been there all along and is waiting for him there to offer him what he lacks: an understanding via reason or via revelation of the existence of God.   


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logical positivism & Comt2013-04-20 13:51:35
Dear Sir, I am not quite sure whether I can follow. The Logical Positivist plays a terribly confused role here. Did ever a logical positivist refer to Comte's history of religion to make his point? Was not logical positivism all about a clearer perspective on scientific statements among which god's interference will not be allowed? olaf.simons@positivists.org

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-21 02:10:22
Mr. Logical Positivist, thank you for your comments. Comte, the father of logical positivist, does in fact postulate that the scientific era which comes at the end of the historical process is superior to the two preceding ones of myth and metaphysics and is governed by the concept of inevitable progress. What is rejected is myth, which is inextricably tied to religion and metaphysics which is inextricably tied to philosophy, not to speak of the classical Greek concept of harmony and avoidance of extremes. I fail to see the confusion you allude to in the logical positivist’s stance of my imaginary conversation. Perhaps you can be kind enough to point it out in its particulars and not simply as a general statement which can easily be proffered and just as easily ignored.

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