Thursday, July 28, 2011

Reason and Revelation: The Islamic Case and Western Parallels

Both Etienne Gilson, in his classic study The Unity of Philosophical Experience (UPE, 1937), and Benedict XVI in his 2006 address at the University of Regensburg (Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization)--previously discussed in Benedict at Regensburg--have found it useful in discussing the crisis of the West to compare the Western crisis to the earlier crisis of Islamic thought.  As we continue our consideration of the development of Western thought, we will do likewise.

Gnosticism and Ideology

In what follows I’ll be using words like gnosticism and ideology in quite specific senses.  Gnosticism and ideology represent human responses to reality in which a programmatic vision of reality is developed in a highly conceptualized structure. Unlike the experiences of faith and reasoned inquiry--which seek insight into the nature and meaning of existence--gnosticism and ideology, while highly conceptualized and thus highly rationalistic in a certain sense, have as their motivating core, desire: desire for deliverance, for certitude, for power. Thus, while gnosticism and ideology often draw freely on the symbols and terminology of faith and reasoned inquiry, their motivation sets them apart and marks them as deformations of those experiences. Gnosticism and ideology present reality in terms of a conceptual construct that, while purporting to offer a comprehensive understanding of reality, is in fact oriented toward the fulfillment of human desires rather than the understanding of reality as it really is. As I use these terms, broadly speaking, “gnostic” refers generally to movements that seek deliverance or salvation, while “ideology” is seen to have a strongly practical, this worldly orientation toward attaining power.

This usage derives, of course, from the work of Eric Voegelin. One of Voegelin’s most compelling explications of the nature of gnosticism and ideology can be found in his seminal essay, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” in which Voegelin quite deliberately characterized Hegel’s gnostic/ideological speculation as “sorcery.” (The essay is unfortunately unavailable on the internet. Cf., Eric Voegelin, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” Collected Works Vol. 12, or Eric Voegelin, “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” Studium Generale 24 (1971), pp. 335-68. Cf. also Voegelin’s shorter book length expositions, The New Science of Politics and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism.) The following short summary of the basic ideas Voegelin was working with, taken from the essay on Hegel, is helpful:

Sorcery, or magic, is a conceptual system that asserts the human ability to control the natural world (including events, objects, people, and physical phenomena) through mystical, paranormal, or supernatural means — through, for example, magic words, or an ability to present compelling appearances of fictitious reality.
A Second Reality is such an ersatz reality. The term was coined by Robert Musil to denote a fictitious world imagined to be true by the person creating it, who will then use his construction to mask and thereby “eclipse” genuine, or First Reality.
(From Hegel as Sorcerer: The “Science” of Second Realities and the “Death” of God, by Jean F. Drew)

As is apparent from Drew’s definitions, Voegelin’s focus was on the gnostic nature of Hegel’s speculation, but Voegelin deliberately used the provocative term “sorcery" to draw attention to the ways in which Hegel’s speculation differs from true “philosophy," despite Hegel’s use of language and presentation that are usually associated with philosophy. This ambiguity of Hegel’s presentation was noted by David Walsh who pointed out (Reflections on the Nature of Modernity) that Hegel deliberately maintained this ambiguity in his thought--the ambiguity as to whether it was “religious” or secular in nature. This ambiguity as well as the interplay between gnosticism and ideology, their conceptual fluidity and ability to masquerade as faith or reasoned inquiry, has its practical uses: successors of Hegel such as Marx had no difficulty transforming gnostic speculation into ideologies focused on raw power under the guise of intellectual respectability.

Historical background

We in the West are accustomed to thinking in terms of a tension between “religion” and reason, stretching back to the death of Socrates. In our earlier discussion of Greek thought we traced the rise of “philosophy” as an intellectual and spiritual movement in the Greek world to the discovery of dialectic and the application of formal logic to the worldview of the archaic ontology, as mediated by Greek culture. The Greek (and archaic) conception of the cosmos as an ordered whole, guided by eternal laws and ruled by the gods, invited the effort to frame that worldview in more strictly conceptual and logical terms, but it also led to the rise of a more critical attitude toward the traditional expression of archaic ontology in myth. The myths of the Olympian gods in particular were subjected to deconstructive, rationalistic critiques, going back to the times of the early Milesian thinkers. Over time the Greeks had lost sight of the serious purpose of myth--it’s use as a metaphor to communicate insights into the structure of reality; the Olympian myths had come to be seen largely as mere literary conventions at best. Many in the new generation of thinkers, intoxicated by the power of formal logic, regarded these myths as impious misrepresentations of the gods and sought to recover their true significance using dialectic as a tool of analysis.

In that context of a radical critique of the entire mythic form of expression we were able to see Plato as an essentially conservative figure who sought to preserve the essential insights and structure of archaic ontology, recasting the heavenly archetypes of archaic ontology as Forms or Ideas. In common with the archaic tradition Plato saw these “Ideas” as the true reality; earthly existents were like shadows compared to the archetypes/Ideas in which they participated. While Plato fully embraced the new dialectical approach--embodied in the very form of his writings,  dialog--he also saw not only that logic alone could not resolve the problems that had been raised by the new currents of thought, but that logic tended to dissolve man’s bonds with reality. Unable to break out of the Greek view of the universe as finite and of true being as fundamentally conceptual or “ideal,” Plato appealed to a spiritual approach that he termed “philosophy," love of wisdom. In this spirit he turned at crucial points to the use of “philosophical myths.” These “philosophical myths," as Plato was well aware, lacked the strict necessity of logic; instead, he offered them as “probable" solutions, intended to express his conviction of the validity of the essential insights of the archaic worldview. The resulting tension in Plato’s thought between dialectic and myth has been a recurring problem in the West. In particular, it led to the ossification of Plato’s myths (and in particular the myth of Anamnesis or recollection, by which Plato sought to “explain” our knowledge of “eternal” ideas) into doctrines--myth masquerading as science.

Nevertheless, the conflict between reason and “myth” in Ancient Greece, while real, never reached the level of widespread social conflict. Greek culture was able to accommodate both reason and archaic ontology (as expressed in myth) as well as inquiry based on formal logic. Indeed, much of what we know as Greek “philosophy” could as well be characterized as a spiritual movement, born of dissatisfaction with myths that had lost their existential resonance and had become more in the nature of literary conventions. In this sense, the rise of dialectic is an organic development in Greek culture with deep roots in the archaic tradition. Even the execution of Socrates should not lead us to see that episode as a persecution of reason for, while the charges against Socrates may have been framed in traditional religious terms, there is little doubt that Socrates’ death was largely the result of his deep involvement in politics during Athens’ life and death struggle following the Peloponnesian War (cf. H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks, 153-154). And this, too, has been a constant in Western history: heretics of various sorts have regularly been persecuted, but rarely for defending the use of reason.

The Islamic World in Context

By contrast, the struggle between reason and religion in the Muslim world was decisively won by the anti-reason forces, and at a fairly early date. This had far reaching consequences for all Muslim countries and deserves a closer examination, as it will shed light on developments in the West. Our purpose here is not to provide an intellectual history of Islam or of “philosophy” in the Muslim world. Rather, our interest is in the factors that led to the resulting total hostility to reason--unequaled anywhere else in the world, but not entirely unparalleled.

We have previously characterized Islam as the ideologization of a way of life, with that way of life being the Bedouin raiding way of life. Thus, in Islam the sporadic Bedouin raids on sedentary communities are radically universalized and become the divine command to raid the entire world and force its utter submission to the Islamic way of life. The divine command transforms a way of life and replaces it with an ideologized version of that way of life; there is no other justification for this program than the divine command. So, too, the archaic ontology’s divine archetypes--which, embodied as metaphor in myth, provided the man of archaic societies with a connection to the divine source of being--are essentially replaced by the uncreated, eternal Qu’ran, which is a code that defines the new way of life. The Qu’ran is “revelation” in the sense that it is without rhyme or reason--it is the divine command. Thus, it is no surprise that orthodox Islam shows itself to be the implacable enemy of any way of life that is not Islam, including even the underlying traditional Bedouin way of life, for to acknowledge an origin of Islam in a way of life would be an admission that the Qu’ran is not immutable divine command but is in some sense a development with human origins--and so not an archetypal ideology. This being the case, reason itself becomes an enemy and orthodox Islam must be constantly vigilant against any assertion of reason’s independence from Qu’ranic revelation.

It may be useful at this point to contrast Islam with other cultures with which the Muslim world was in contact, and indeed by which it was influenced. In particular, we wish to contrast ideology with other responses to reality, such as myth, revelation, faith, gnosis and reasoned inquiry. We must stress at the outset that none of these responses, as they appear concretely in the world, are necessarily exclusive. For example, it happens at times that the mythic response to reality--which uses metaphor as a vehicle for expressing insight into the nature of the universe and man’s place in it--can also be misused as the basis for a magical, gnostic or ideological interpretation of reality.  Thus, portions of the Israelite scriptures have been used outside their mythic context to justify purely power political ambitions and an ideology of chosenness that separates Jews from universal humanity in the name of “revelation.” This Judaic pattern has also been used by Christian heresies to construct an ideology of revelation that seeks to establish “scripture” as a blueprint for life. Nevertheless, for historical reasons Islam has remained closer to a pure “type” than have other cultures.

Reason, Faith and Revelation

Man, in his experience of reality, is faced with a fundamental dichotomy: the origin of reality is unknown, yet reality itself is knowable--within the limits of man’s capabilities. The universal human response to the problem of origins is to attribute the origin of the universe to a power that transcends reality as it is known to man. This conclusion is based on the insight that to all time there must be a beginning, and that no being within reality as we know it can account for its own being. Typically, this view was expressed in mythic terms that used metaphors for coming into being from some preexisting matter. However, the Israelites pursued this line of thought far enough to arrive, shortly before the time of Jesus, at the insight that the universe can only have been created ex nihilo: brought into being by a single power without the use of any pre-existing matter. (This development was discussed in our Religion of Israel “Synthesis” series, June to November, 2009.) Such a power must, by its very nature, transcend all human knowledge, or human knowledge as we know it to operate. Therefore, statements about such a power must, strictly speaking, be framed as analogies: statements that are not literally true in human terms, but which point to a real truth that nevertheless transcends human expression. This power cannot be conceived, cannot be expressed as a concept, since it transcends all such human--and, thus, limited--modes of knowing.

On the other hand, man’s knowledge of this worldly realities is expressed by the use of concepts, abstract general ideas which can be manipulated by formal logic--a tool of thought that does not know analogy. Thus, the ability to manipulate concepts derived from reality gives man a powerful feeling of control over reality, but by its nature ignores all aspects of reality that do not fit its capabilities. Now, myth is the attempt to express insight into the fundamental order of being by using metaphors acquired from observation of this worldly realities. Thus, the archaic ontology sees worldly realities as deriving their reality from participation in heavenly archetypes or, as Plato expressed it, Ideas or Forms. The temptation for man, throughout history, has been to forget that knowledge of fundamental reality, the reality that causes all things to be, can only be expressed by means of analogy or metaphor; man, in his thirst for knowledge that can provide “results,” a seemingly deeper insight and more solid grasp of reality, may seek to treat all reality as concepts that can be controlled and manipulated using formal logic. This was the problem that Plato inherited from Parmenides, who could show by logic that, if being is being, there can only be one being, not many--in defiance of all human experience. Plato, having decided that the heavenly archetypes of earthly realities are “Ideas” or concepts, was faced with two problems: how is it that multiple material beings are able to participate in Ideas--which can only be single, unitary--and how is it that man knows eternal, unchanging concepts/Ideas when his experience is only of continually changing material beings? Of course, these are insoluble problems if man remains confined within the boundaries of dialectic, since no pure concept can be shown to be necessarily linked to another. And so Plato resorted to the Myth of the Cave and the Myth of Anamnesis (we know concepts by "recollection" from a prior existence) to express his convictions of the reality of earthly existence and the validity of our knowledge.

Greek culture, like every way of life, arose and developed organically over the centuries. While the Greeks had a strong sense of common “Greekness” over against other cultures, there was no one text in the great corpus of Greek literature that could claim to be a blueprint or guidebook for “Greekness” in anything remotely like the sense in which the Qu’ran defines the Muslim--not even the Homeric works, the “Bible” of the Greeks, could fulfill that role. Moreover, the myriad myths of the Greeks were generally accepted as metaphoric in nature; to question them, as Plato did, did not make one less Greek in the way that questioning the Qu’ran makes a Muslim subject to death. In this we see a fundamental difference between myth and ideology. Ideology is programmatic--it has a practical use and is designed for that use. Typically it serves as a justification for concerted organized action against a defined “other.” Myth is interested in the nature of things; ideology seeks to organize for action. Myth presents metaphor as a vehicle for expressing insight into reality--which reason also seeks--whereas ideology seeks to control and even change reality in a programmatic fashion. Thus, wide ranging, reasoned inquiry has a valid claim to be a fundamental continuation of the ancient Greek spirit of archaic ontology. This is not the case for Islam, for which the Qu’ran is all in all.

Israelite culture presents a more complex contrast to Islam, since Israelite thought--as it came to develop--shares, in some respects, features of ideology. Like Greek culture, Israel and its culture developed organically; Israelite culture--and the Judaism that grew from it--has always remained a way of life that embraces more than its scriptures. By contrast, while the Bedouin way of life developed in similar, albeit less advanced, fashion, Islam--its ideologization--shows no such development: it comes into existence as a book that defines the culture, and that definition remains essentially constant. There remain varying ways of life in Muslim countries, but those ways of life have no claim to be Islamic on their own--only Qu’ranic sanction can provide that, and so we find that Islamist reform movements are typically implacable enemies of local ways of life, of localized expressions of Islam.

Revelation in Israel also differs from revelation in Islam. Scholars are able to trace the development of Israelite religion and have established the period at which “revelational" ideology (in its Deuteronomic form) took hold in Israel, but such ideology, influential as it has been, has never had exclusive sway over Jewish life. To this day, even the Zionist ideology--which claims to base Jewish rights to specified land on literal interpretations of the Patriarchal myths--cannot authoritatively claim to exclude other variants of Judaism as non-Jewish. To this day, movements that offer “spiritual” interpretations of the Israelite scriptures, as well as their own traditional writings, exercise significant influence. These movements could be termed “gnostic” (as distinguished from ideological) in nature--claiming, by “knowledge,” to offer deliverance of one sort or another. This, of course, was also true of at least some of the Greek “philosophical” religions, offshoots of Pythagoreanism and Platonism, for example. By contrast, revelation in normative Islam (we will not be considering gnostic style “mysticisms”) is strictly geared toward the creation and maintenance of the Ummah, the Muslim “community” or “nation.” Like revelation in Judaic derived ideologies, “revelation” in Islam is self validating--one accepts it or one doesn’t. There is essentially no room for discussion.

By contrast, “revelation” in Christianity has a radically different meaning, based as it is on “faith” understood as reasonable belief. Revelation is first and foremost the person of Jesus, not a book, although the early Christian writings are obviously the main source of our knowledge of Jesus. Faith as a response to revelation, to Jesus, is the placing of one’s trust in the person Jesus based on reasonable belief in his claims and his message. Faith is, then, articulable and justifiable. Thus, faith in the Christian sense must be sharply distinguished from “faith” as used by Jews or Muslims (indeed, there is reason to believe that the use of this word by Jews and Muslims is probably due to Christian influence). Faith in the Christian sense is transparent to reason, and acceptance of the central role of reason is central to Christian faith, as enunciated by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (Chapters 1-2).  By contrast, Protestantism (understood by Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, p.134, as “the successful invasion of Western institutions by Gnostic movements”) embraces the Judaic model of revelation as a book. The affinities to Islamic thought are clear enough, as well as the probability that Islam acquired this model of revelation from Judaic thought. The struggle in Christian thought over different theories of revelation will concern us later.

Reason and Revelation in Islam and Western Parallels

As stated above, it is not our purpose here to present a history of reason or “philosophy” in the Muslim world. The facts are well enough known, and have been recently reviewed in popular form in Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind. Briefly, when the Arabs had successfully conquered the Middle East they came into close contact with the heritage of Greek thought--and especially that of the Neoplatonists and of Aristotle--through the Syrian Christians. At first this new thought, based on reason, was enthusiastically embraced by the Arabs. However, it wasn’t long before a reaction set in, based on the realization of the incompatibility of the Greek tradition of reasoned inquiry with the Islamic model of Qu’ranic revelation. As Gilson remarks:

... where the revealed truth is, by hypothesis, absolute truth, the only way to save philosophy is to show that its teaching is substantially the same as that of revealed religion. (UPE, 29)

Etienne Gilson draws a fascinating parallel between this Islamic reaction against reason and a similar reaction, just a few hundred years later, in the West. The comparison sheds light in both directions. During the 10th-12th centuries in Western Europe, logic and dialectic were “rediscovered,” including previously unknown logical works of Aristotle. At that period, little was known of actual Greek philosophy in the West, and philosophy was largely identified with logic. The logicians soon began to apply their new tools to the truths of faith, with regrettable results. Since logic had been equated with philosophy (a typically Platonic approach), and the logicians had been responsible for dangerous errors regarding matters of faith, many theologians concluded that philosophy itself is the enemy of faith. The theologians therefore considered that the best way to preserve the truths of faith was by discrediting philosophy--itself an essentially philosophical task since, paradoxically, reason can only be attacked using reason. Nor, as Gilson notes, were these theologians negligible as thinkers:

Wherever there is a theology, or merely a faith, there are overzealous theologians and believers to preach that pious souls have no use for philosophical knowledge, and the philosophical speculation is basically inconsistent with a sincere religious life. Among those who favour such an attitude, there are some of a rather crude type, but others are very intelligent men, whose speculative power is by no means inferior to their religious zeal. The only difference between such men and true philosophers is that instead of using their reason in behalf of philosophy, they turn their natural ability against it. (UPE, 26-27)

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between the two cases.  For Muslims Qu’ranic revelation is absolute--it is a complete guide to life in book form, presupposing no previous thought--whereas for Christians revelation is not a book but a person who appeared in history. Thus, in Islam there was no theologically based reason to resist the theologians’ attack on reason, and very good theological reasons to support the attack, since Qu’ranic revelation cannot tolerate a separate base of authority. By contrast, the Christian concept of the revelation of God in Jesus presupposes the long history of reasoned inquiry into the nature of God and man, from archaic ontology through Israelite and Greek thought, culminating in Paul’s Letter to the Romans which explicitly sanctions the use of reason as essential to Christian faith: the “scriptures” are not absolute in anything like the Qu’ranic sense. As a result, there was bound to be significant theologically based resistance within orthodox Christianity to the excesses of some theologians who attacked reason.

Gilson recognizes, of course, the many cultural differences between the Muslim and Christian worlds, but he finds a common theological denominator for the opponents of philosophy in the stress that these theologians place on the omnipotence of God:

God is great, and high, and almighty; what better proof could be given of these truths than that nature and man are essentially insignificant, low and utterly powerless creatures? A very dangerous method indeed, for in the long run it is bound to hurt both philosophy and religion. In such a case the sequence of doctrines too often runs in the following way: with the best intentions in the world, some theologian suggests, as a philosophically established truth, that God is and does everything, while nature and man are and do nothing; then comes a philosopher who grants the theologian’s success in proving that nature is powerless, but emphasizes his failure to prove that there is a God. Hence the logical conclusion that nature is wholly deprived of reality and intelligibility. This is skepticism, and it cannot be avoided in such cases. Now one can afford to live on philosophical skepticism, so long as it is backed by a positive religious faith; yet even while our faith is there, one still remains a skeptic in philosophy, and were our faith ever to go, what would be left of us but an absolute skeptic?  (UPE, 30-31)

In these few sentences we see virtually the entire history of the conflict between “reason” and “faith” in the West, and the tragic conundrum: the more that theologians manage to discredit reason to their followers, the more faith itself is discredited. Still, a caveat is in order, lest we be carried entirely away by Gilson’s Gallic delight in rhetoric. Among the many differences between the Muslim and Christian worlds is this: for Christians God is in his essence Love and He is a God who reveals himself to man through his works in creation. For the Muslim, God is in his essence Omnipotent, and He reveals himself in a book that is, as it were, fallen from the sky: eternal, unchanging and above all unchallengeable. Whereas for the Christian history has witnessed a dialog of love between God and man, for the Muslim history has witnessed--one time--the deliverance of unchallengeable divine dictates. Thus, while Islamic thought must by its nature jealously guard the exclusivity of the Qu’ran against all comers--and especially against reason itself--in Christianity any such movement that challenges reason, popular though it may be for a time, is bound to encounter powerful resistance which has strong claims by which to challenge the very orthodoxy of the would be champions of theology against reason. (As we will later see, this is a key to understanding the Protestant Revolt which, while using Christian symbols of faith is, in essence, a revolt against Christian faith.)

Gilson, in discussing the Muslim case, appeals to a medieval Jewish thinker who makes the case that we have been advancing--that the Muslim destruction of reason was essentially foreordained, dictated by the very nature of Qu’ranic revelation. It came down to a stark choice between reason and the Qu’ran, and for all their brilliance in dialectic, the Muslim theologians were essentially disingenuous; they were not inquiring into the nature of things so much as merely seeking to justify their own position:

Maimonides [Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204], who with St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most balanced of all mediaeval theologians, has described in a masterly manner the sort of game which those men were playing. ‘It is not our object,’ Maimonides says, ‘to criticize things which are peculiar to either creed [Christians or Muslims] ... We merely maintain that ... when they laid down their propositions, [they] did not investigate the real properties of things; first of all they considered what must be the properties of the things which should yield proof for or against a certain creed; and when this was found they asserted that the thing must be endowed with those properties ...’ (Guide for the Perplexed, 109-110; UPE, 32-33)
Accusing their authors of not being interested in the real nature of things would have been a cheap criticism, though a true one.  What Maimonides has clearly perceived, with remarkable insight, is that even these men themselves were aware of the fact, and that, in a sense, their whole doctrine was but a toilsome justification of their attitude. (UPE, 33; emphasis mine)

Now, since the early Muslim philosophers, the Mu’talizites, had clearly shown that Islamic theology was vulnerable to reason, the solution seized upon by the Asharite theologians--attacking philosophy with philosophy--was to construct a philosophy that would deny the ability of reason to attain real knowledge of the world. The opening by which this attack was launched was the claim that, since the Qu'ran states that God is omnipotent, it follows that any alleged restraint on God's omnipotence--even the suggestion that God is reasonable--is an attack on God's omnipotence and thus an attack on the Qu'ran as well. The tool that they used to drive this attack home, which they found ready to hand among the teachings of the Greeks that had been handed on to them by the Christians, was atomism.

Now, be it noted, these atoms are essentially no more than logical entities, utterly unconnected one with another. (It is in this fact--that atoms are logical entities and no more--that we find an essential connection between Islamic thought and the West, a connection we will return to.) After subjecting the conclusions of the philosophers to devastating critique--a critique borrowed in great measure from earlier Christian writers--the Asharite theologians proceed to erect a “philosophical” doctrine that will support their desired theological destruction of reason. According to the Asharites, the atoms that they posit are neither eternal nor constant in number--they are created and/or destroyed by God when it so pleases him. The result is that every object in the world is constantly being created by God, and there can be no such thing as a causal connection: all actions are created instantaneously by God. This means that God is utterly unknowable by reason and, thus, from a human standpoint must be regarded as arbitrary. To be knowable or even predictable would infringe on God's omnipotence. Maimonides, in his critique of these theologians, points out the practical implications of this doctrine--which were, of course, precisely the implications that the Asharite theologians were looking for:

In accordance with this principle [writes Maimonides] they assert that when man is perceived to move a pen, it is not he who has really moved it; the motion produced in the pen is an accident which God created in the pen; the apparent motion of the hand which moves the pen is likewise an accident which God created in the moving hand; but the creative act of God is performed in such a manner that the motion of the hand and the motion of the pen follow each other closely; but the hand does not act and is not the cause of the pen’s motion; for, as they say, an accident cannot pass from one thing to another ... There does not exist anything to which an action could be ascribed; the real agent is God. (GFP 120-126, quoted by Gilson, UPE, 37)

Fanciful as all this may seem, Gilson is quick to point out that the results of this exercise in logicism--the conceptual manipulation of pure logical entities--in fact anticipates Descartes’ concept of pure extension. And the implications, drawn out by followers of Descartes such as Malebranche, Berkeley, Leibniz and Spinoza, were indeed strikingly similar. For example, the Wikipedia article re Leibniz’ Monadology notes:

What he proposed can be seen as a modification of occasionalism developed by latter-day Cartesians [such as Malebranche]. Leibniz surmised that there are indefinitely many substances individually ‘programmed’ to act in a predetermined way, each program being coordinated with all the others. This is the pre-established harmony which solved the mind body problem at the cost of declaring any interaction between substances a mere appearance, something which Leibniz accepted. Indeed it was space itself which became an appearance as in his system there was no need for distinguishing inside from outside. True substances were explained as metaphysical points which, Leibniz asserted, are both real and exact — mathematical points being exact but not real and physical ones being real but not exact. (emphasis mine)

And of course the question must be asked, can a true faith survive when based on a radical distrust and denigration of the powers and abilities of human knowledge?

With a little less zeal for the glory of God, or rather, with a still greater zeal enlightened by common sense, these men would no doubt have realized that the destruction of causality ultimately meant the destruction of nature, and thereby of science as well as of philosophy. Even when it has laws, a physical world whose laws are not inscribed in the very essence of things is a world without intrinsic necessity or intelligibility, and therefore unfit for rational knowledge. Skepticism always goes hand in hand with such theologies, and it is very bad for philosophy--but is it better for religion?
In one of his best novels [The Blue Cross], G. K. Chesterton introduces a very simple priest who finds out that a man, though clothed as a priest, is not a priest but a common thief; when the man asks him what made him sure that he was not a priest, Father Brown simply answers: ‘You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.' (UPE, 38-39)

In the West there has always been an antidote to skepticism, in the form of theological support for reason itself, inherent in the nature of orthodox Christianity (cf. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason). Thus, skeptical “philosophies” and theologies could enjoy a vogue among dilettantish intellectuals, but could never block the advance of knowledge and technology. In the Muslim world there was no such countervailing tendency in orthodox thought--quite to the contrary, in fact--and the result was slow cultural suicide.


  1. This is really excellent, a highly intelligent, insightful explication.

    Thank you.

    Robert Reilly

  2. Thanks very much, Robert. I recommend your work to everyone.

    You may wish to read an earlier post, Benedict at Regensburg in which I make use of your article "The Pope and the Prophet" (especially in the "Addendum" section toward the end of a somewhat rambling discussion). In that post I contend that Benedict--contrary to the popular impression--is not indulging in simple Muslim or Islam "bashing." To the contrary, he is pointing out that the Western tradition of Christianity has, in certain schools of thought, been involved in virtually the same philosophic errors as those of orthodox Islamic thought (which you document so well).

    In view of this, Benedict appears to be suggesting that Islam and Christianity may actually have some common ground for dialog, if Islamic scholars are willing to engage in critical, self-reflective discussions (not a given!). Of course, the reasons that Western Christianity has been more resistive to these philosophical heresies has to do with the underlying differences in revelation: the difference between the self-revelation of God in Jesus and the revelation of a book to Mohammed.