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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Renaissance Humanism: Atomism for Obscurantists

A discussion of Renaissance Humanism calls for comparison with other efforts to reconcile philosophy and theology. Both Erasmus and Thomas More tried to reconcile Epicureanism with Christianity. Reconciling the irreconcilable was bound to result in a certain amount of obscurantism. The demarcation line between theology and contemporary philosophy is drawn at the border between naturalism and supernaturalism, but this was not always the case. Philosophy, historically, has occupied a spectrum from Platonic idealism to Epicurean materialism. Theologians have called themselves philosophers and non-believers have studied theology as myth, or meta-theology. The Renaissance Humanists, in their efforts to reconcile Epicurus with Christianity, appear to have been caught in a personal struggle between faith and reason. 

Humanism has not taken a direct path from the Atomism of Democritus to the Secular Humanism of today. Philosophy that could not be syncretically incorporated into Church doctrine was suppressed. Whether religious or secular, Humanism has retained an emphasis on human agency over religious doctrine. Efforts to reconcile Christianity with philosophy fall on a continuum of obscurantism somewhere between the two. Plato’s idealism was more easily reconciled with Christianity than Epicurean materialism. From Plato’s idealism to the Atomism of Epicurus, the fundamental incompatibility of philosophy with Christianity made the theologian’s task increasingly more challenging. The challenge could only be met with increasing levels of obscurantism.

The demarcation line between philosophy and theology is much more pronounced today than it once was. Today, philosophy is overwhelmingly naturalistic. Theology, on the other hand, confers existence on entities that are neither pure abstraction nor materially real, but which—all too conveniently—have properties of both, as the occasion demands. Theology can be understood as pseudo-philosophy. It begins with supernatural presuppositions and constructs a perspective designed to validate those presuppositions. The more philosophy is influenced by theology, the more obscurantist it becomes. The more theology is influenced by philosophy, the more naturalistic it becomes. The greater the distance between the propositions to be reconciled, the greater is the obscurantism required to reconcile them. A discussion of obscurantism encompasses all of theology and some philosophy.

Natural Philosophy and Theology
What was once known as natural philosophy is now known as science. The field of science is overwhelmingly dominated by philosophical naturalists, those for whom the supernatural is a spurious category. If not a philosophical naturalist, a competent scientist must be a methodological naturalist—acting as if everything has a natural explanation—in order to rigorously follow the evidence as far as it leads. Settling on magic as an explanation at any point is the death of inquiry. Stopping short of naturalism is an abandonment of the resolve to get to the bottom of things. A neuro-scientist who believes in a “ghost in the machine” fails to understand consciousness as a function of biological complexity—that the ghost and the machine are one. A theology of disembodied consciousness is simply incompatible with modern science. 

Theology is to philosophy what astrology is to science. Pseudo-science rejects empirical evidence and theology rejects rational proofs. Theologians defend untenable claims until those claims strain credulity to the breaking point. The Neo-Platonists arguably had an easier task reconciling Plato with Christianity than the scholastics had reconciling Aristotle. For Plato, matter was corruptible and could only be derived from eternal, ideal forms. Neo-Platonism easily transformed Plato’s transcendent ideal into a supernatural deity. Plato, however, argued that what is good must be intrinsically so, not good by divine command. What appealed to theologians in Plato’s philosophy was his idealism. Plato conferred existence on forms without substance. Neo-Platonism is perhaps the most basic expression of supernaturalism—the sense that material existence on its own terms does not account for the soul. Neo-Platonism is the god of the gaps, an argument from ignorance. It is also a false dilemma. That which is not yet understood is not necessarily supernatural. The god of the gaps becomes smaller with each new discovery.

Reconciling Aristotle with Christianity was the task of the Scholastics. Aristotle’s “prime mover” was consonant with the will of a Creator. Aristotle’s philosophy was problematic for theologians, however, because he held that the universe had no beginning. Contradictions notwithstanding, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) used Aristotle’s physics to explain transubstantiation—arguing that the senses experience the accidents of the bread, but the substance was God. In atomistic terms, Aristotle’s “accidents” of matter are secondary properties, such as color and wetness, that emerge from the interaction of primary particles. 

Aristotle’s cosmic intelligences were also an element in Stoicism. A critical element of Stoicism for theologians was determinism. Stoicism represented a retrogression to the pre-Socratic pneuma—or fiery breath that animated the universe. If the God of the Stoics is understood as one with nature, Stoic determinism is a departure from the supernatural determinism of Christianity. Moreover, the Stoic universe was destined to be consumed and reborn cyclically. Stoic resignation aligns perfectly with Christian acquiescence to the will of God, but not with free will.

Cicero, while not a Stoic, favored Stoicism over Epicureanism. His philosophy fell somewhere between Stoicism and Skepticism. He conceived of a Stoic god, but ultimately did not believe the nature of the gods could be known. There was no reconciling Skeptic doubt with Christian faith, but the rhetorical methods of Academic Skepticism were adopted by Humanists to debate competing interpretations of Scripture where certainty was elusive and threatened to divide Cristendom. 

Epicurean Atomism—being unabashedly materialistic—is an anathema to Christian supernaturalism. Moreover, the Atomist cosmology implied an unbounded natural universe with no realm for the supernatural. Making atomism seem compatible with Christianity was the ultimate challenge for obscurantists. Early Church fathers sought to repress Atomism. Epicurus made Augustine’s list of philosophers who should disappear from collective memory. 

The Spanish word Oscurantismo, literally “darkening,” denotes the Dark Ages. It is an antonym of Ilustración, which denotes the Enlightenment. It is no accident, then, that anti-obscurantist scholarship is decidedly anti-religious. Obscurantism is a deliberate attempt to prevent the facts or pertinent details of a matter from becoming known. Deliberate obscurantism involves efforts to control the spread of knowledge. Plato, in The Republic, advocated the “noble lie” of foundation myths to insure public solidarity. Accusations of impiety are another example of deliberate obscurantism. St. Jerome (347-420) was an avid reader of Cicero, but gave up his guilty pleasure for fear of losing his faith. Being called a Ciceronian was to be accused of impiety, although less so than being called an Epicurean. If doubting the divine was impious, denying it was even more so. 

In contrast to deliberate obscurantism, stylistic obscurantism is a matter of abstruseness. Poetry is less transparent and more abstruse than prose. Post-modernism is often characterized as obscurantist for making the leap from constructed perspectives to relative truth. Religious apologetics earned its name for its abstruseness because it appropriated the tools of reason to "apologize" for faith, but could not meet the standards of logical argumentation. This is yet another reason to characterize all of theology as obscurantist. Obscurantism is the very fabric of theology, not merely an unfortunate by-product. The sacred is itself an authoritarian concept, insulating supernatural claims from reasonable scrutiny. 

One example of abstruse obscurantism by early Christians was ad hominem arguments. The use of the word “pagan” (meaning peasant) is widely used to this day to describe pre-Christian authors. This usage was an attempt to turn the tables on those who ridiculed the rustic ignorance of the early Christians. Tertullian (160-225), in response to ridicule, defended his Christian beliefs saying, “Yes, we too laughed at this. We are from among yourselves. Christians are made, not born!” Epicurus and Lucretius were singled out from among the pagan authors for special scorn. Epicurus’ moderate pleasure principle was misrepresented as utter debauchery. Lucretius was rumored to have died from a love potion, but the source of the myth was later discredited (Greenblatt, 2011).

Theology relies on a blend of deliberate and abstruse forms of obscurantism.  Augustine famously willed himself to believe in eternal reward and punishment in an unsuccessful effort to stave off carnal desires. His faith was deliberately self-imposed and logically abstruse. He somehow knew that Christianity was true without understanding how it could be true (Hecht, 2003). His insistence that sincere belief could be consciously controlled and affirmed without the object of faith being fully understood was disingenuous. Augustine’s tortured faith was the legacy of the emperor Constantine (272-337) who had made Christianity the religion of Rome by law. It had become the project of the empire to determine what Christian doctrine ought to be and convert the population to it (Hecht, 2003).

Considering the coercive nature and psychological impossibility of compulsory faith, it seems necessary to consider obscurantism along two dimensions, deliberateness and abstruseness. Justinian’s suppressionof philosophy for the sake of Christianity was deliberate, but not abstruse.  St. Jerome's fear of losing his faith to Cicero, which I will call sapiophobia, was neither abstruse nor deliberate in its own right, but underlies both deliberate and abstruse forms of obscurantism. Augustine's self-deception was abstruse but not deliberate, although it underlies deliberate obscurantism. Any Renaissance Humanists who might have professed the Christian faith insincerely to promote Epicureanism without reproach could be said to be demonstrating crypto-Atomism, which would represent a deliberately abstruse obscurantism. Table 1 summarizes the types of obscurantism discussed in this section.

Table 1
Obscurantism Taxonomy

Obscurantism Types

+ Deliberate
- Deliberate
+ Abstruse
- Abstruse

The Case for Atomism
Atomism consists of four basic principles (1) the existence of indivisibles—a basic unit of matter, (2) the vacuum (void) responsible for some substances being more dense and impervious than others, (3) reductionism—that atoms and the void are all that exist, and (4) mechanism—that there is no cosmic intelligence or purpose.  (Pyle, 1995)

Victor Stenger (2013) notes that physics and neuroscience support the Aromist view. Elementary particles have primary particles such as mass and energy. Secondary properties such as color and wetness emerge from the interactions of these particles. Neuroscience, moreover, has replaced mind/body dualism with the monistic understanding that the mind is what the brain does. Brain science based on atomism has made progress toward explaining consciousness. Dualism has no such claim on progress. The soul, understood as disembodied consciousness, is incompatible with modern science.

The trouble with supernaturalism is not that it is demonstrably false. It is by definition—and all too conveniently—beyond empirical knowledge. It can only be dismissed by rational proofs. The problem is that it is intellectually dishonest to profess a belief in an ill-defined proposition. What is the ontological status of an entity that is more real than a mere abstraction but less real than a material being? How meaningful is a declaration of faith in a provisional claim in something not fully understood? How does such a declaration square with the psychological reality of belief? Table 2 demonstrates the progression from natural philosophy to theology as a decent into obscurantism.

Table 2
Obscurantism Scale








Academic Skepticism

Renaissance Humanism

Renaissance Humanism
Christianity incorporated the most obscurantist and mystical elements of philosophy and suppressed the more naturalistic, "impious" ones. Plato and Aristotle were reconciled with Christianity in Neo-Platonism and Scholasticism, respectively. Stoic determinism gave Luther common cause with the reform-minded Humanists, but the Renaissance Humanists did not support dividing Christendom over the question of free will. The Humanists preferred the agnosticism of the Skeptics on polemic matters. Moreover, Academic Skepticism required evidence, and the Scriptures did not support a defense of free will. The Church suppressed the works of Epicurus for the milineum from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries. Matter had to be made of something, but Atomism rejected divine teleology and the immortality of the soultwo doctrines that were clearly non-negotiable. The Renaissance Humanists fought to bring to light a version of Atomism that could be reconciled with Church dogma, but Atomism was a monistic and wholly naturalistic philosophy. Christianity is dualistic—maintaining that the natural body and supernatural soul are elements of two distinct realities. In their efforts to reconcile the irreconcilableRenaissance humanists were bound to engage in obscurantism. 

Both Erasmus (1466-1536) and Thomas More (1578-1535) tried to reconcile Atomism with Christianity (Stenger, 2013). In The Colloquies, Erasmus compared the Epicurean pleasure principle to the pleasure of a life in Christ. He also called attention to the etymology of Epicurus’s name (helper) to rehabilitate the philosopher’s legacy. Thomas More described himself as a Christian Humanist. While Lord Chancellor of England, More ordered the burning of six heretics. In Utopia (1516), More portrayed a society in which all citizens were encouraged to pursue pleasure, but those who believed that the soul dies with the body or that the universe is ruled by chance were imprisoned and enslaved.  Erasmus  practiced an abstruse obscurantism, which did not indicate deliberate crypto-Atomism.  Although Erasmus did not actively engaged in suppression, as More had, he hinted that Luther could be exterminated without significant loss to humanity. More practiced deliberate obscurantism, betraying sapiophobia.

The Church put aside certain philosophical differences with Plato and Aristotle, but Epicurus was too radical. As More's novel demonstrates, the immortality of the soul and divine intervention were two doctrines that were too impious to be ignored. More believed that without the fear of god, there was no means of maintaining social order. The obscurantist belief that non-believers cannot be trusted is deliberate in its suppression of disbelief and abstruse in its insistence that sincere belief follows from compulsion.

The obscurantism that characterized Renaissance Humanism, like that of Neo-Platonism and Scholasticism, combined the deliberate and the abstruse. Thomas More participated in the deliberate suppressionpracticed by the Church and abstrusely called himself a Christian Humanist. Erasmus was abstruse in his comparisons between Epicurus and Christ. Both More and Erasmus were devout in their faith and demonstrated no evidence of crypto-AtomismSapiophobia underlies More’s deliberate suppression of impiety. The conceit that faith is a virtue is both deliberate and abstruse. It is deliberate in that it compels faith and abstruse in maintaining that sincere faith can be compelled. It takes no faith to accept a reasonable proposition. It takes only faith to accept an unreasonable one. Theological claims are not demonstrably false in the empirical sense. They are merely empty in the semantic sense. Augustine’s tortured faith demonstrates that it is disingenuous to claim know something to be true without knowing how it can be true. 

Even the faithful are inclined toward naturalistic explanations. When Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s physics to explain transubstantiation, he explained away the miracle. Without a suspension of natural law, there is no miracle. If miracles occurred, natural laws would not be immutable. In trying to explain transubstantiation as a natural phenomenon, Aquinas betrayed the underlying need to understand how the supernatural can be true in natural terms. The supernatural is a spurious category. Explanations from magic are the death of inquiry. A natural explanation has never been overturned by a supernatural one. Knowledge does not progress in that direction. Theology is pseudo-philosophy. This is the philosophical legacy of Atomism. Renaissance Humanism was situated between Oscurantismo and Ilustración. As might reasonably be expected, it retained vestiges of the obscurantism from which it emerged, but it placed human autonomy ahead of religious orthodoxy with exceptions for those who embraced most basic tenets of naturalism—a mechanistic universe and a mortal soul. Notions of the sacred continue to inhibit intellectually honest inquiry, but that is the unfinished business of the Enlightenment.


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