The Pragmatic Argument from Verisimilitude

What would life be like if God did not exist? If we found that such a life would be quite unlike our own lives as actually lived, that would be a pretty strong indication that atheism is false; that it disagrees with reality as we actually encounter it. Since God, if he exists, is by far – infinitely far – the biggest most important thing there is, our decision about whether he exists is the most important and far-reaching decision we can make in life. Thus if God exists, and we approached the question of his existence in the wrong spirit, it would be the worst mistake of our lives; as if we had spat on the Good King, but far, far worse; for the King in question would be the King of Everything.

It behooves us to approach the question in the right frame of mind, so that we are less likely to err in our thinking.

Part of approaching the question in the right spirit is being honest with ourselves about how things would be if God did not exist. To begin with a closed mind, or to beg the question and insist that nothing could be different if God did not exist, would be to cheat the whole project. But it is crucial to recognize that, in cheating the project, we would be hurting only ourselves.

What are the aspects of life that we are going to find most indicative? What, that is, are the things that might be quite different for us if there were no God? Well, what are the basic features of our lives?

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The Moral Imperative of Beauty

Our aesthetic evaluations are moral imperatives. Beauty presents itself to us not just as an appearance, but as an appeal, and as an alluring proposal for how we might live, and indeed therefore ought to live. If we had no practical interest in beauty and its reproduction in and by our acts, it would be to us dead, flat, mute. It would be, precisely, uninteresting. We would not find it significant or important. Indeed, we would not even notice it.

And aesthetic evaluations cannot but be moral evaluations.

To find one thing more beautiful than another is to find it better; to find it uglier is to find it worse.

Our interest in the beautiful is our interest in discovering how we might be better.

Ugliness contrariwise presents itself as a caveat. It is repulsive. Disgust is the “ugh” in ugliness. It is an aesthetic evaluation of experience that motivates us to take action. We want to flee from it, and we ought to do so. To find a thing repulsive is to find that avoiding it is proper, morally appropriate – good.

Being eo ipso moral evaluations, aesthetic feelings are a guide to morals.

Beauty and ugliness then are moral imperatives. They tell us how we ought to live – not just we ourselves individually, but we together, communally. To feel that a scene or a tune is beautiful is to feel that it is just and proper for society to be so ordered as to reproduce its sort more often; to feel that it is ugly is to feel that society ought to be so ordered as to prevent it and its ilk.

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Gnosticism in Modern Scholarship

Gnosis 02 This is the third in a series of four articles exploring the phenomenon of Gnosis or Gnosticism from a “Non-Voegelinian Perspective.” Eric Voegelin (1901-1986) in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and elsewhere used the term “Gnosticism” to refer to the “closed” or ideological-totalitarian systems that, for him, expressed the essence of modernity. Voegelin was a critic of modernity, just as he was a critic of the ideological-totalitarian systems, and in his usage the term Gnosticism (taking it out of quotation-marks) always carried a strong pejorative connotation. In Voegelin’s view, as expressed especially in the multi-volume study Order and History (1957-1965), Gnosticism sought to triumph but failed to do so in Antiquity, but then emerged anew in the early modern period to become the dominant Weltanschauung of the later centuries. Voegelin did not mean – as some took him to mean – that specific Gnostic doctrines, surviving in latency during the Medieval Period, then sprang back to life in all their details; rather, Voegelin argued that the difficulty of coming to terms with the “tension” (the perceived imperfection or even hostility) of existence inclined some people to deny existence by constructing an elaborate “second reality.”

The “second reality” eliminates, by various gestures of denial, anything inimical to the maladjusted ego in the real world. The “second reality” is a flight from reality – a fugue. The real world persists, which means that the advocates of the “second reality” find themselves in perpetual conflict, both rhetorical and psychological, with existence. Ideology, for Voegelin, is a magical gesture aimed at altering the structure of reality through unanimous declaration; the requirement for unanimity means that the Gnostic polity must quash all dissenting voices.

Voegelin did not evoke the topic of Gnosticism in a vacuum. The scholarship of Gnosis goes back to various students of G.W.F. Hegel, particularly to Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), whose pioneering study, Die Christliche Gnosis (Christian Gnosis, 1835), remains a touchstone. Nevertheless, the take-off of Gnostic scholarship happened in the Twentieth Century. A pivotal work appeared in The Gnostic Religion (1958), by Hans Jonas (1903-1993), reissued in a revised text in 1963, 1991, and 2001. With Kurt Rudolph (born 1929), whose Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism appeared in 1977, Jonas was a dominant presence in the field right up to his death. More recently, the names of Giovanni Filoramo (born 1945) and Yuri Stoyanov (born 1961) have become obligatory references. So has that of Michel Tardieu (born 1938) for his succinct book, Manichaeism (1981; English version 2008). It should be emphasized that Voegelin was never a primary scholar of Gnosticism. Jonas, Rudolph, and Filoramo, with whom the present essay deals, were and are primary scholars of Gnosticism. Their objectivity distinguishes them from well-known others (J. M. Robinson, for example, and Elaine Pagels) whose interest in Gnosticism is rather more advocative than rigorous. Continue reading

Notes on the Ecology of Knowledge

In a recent post, Tom Bertonneau sketched an ecology of knowledge – which I suggested should be called an ecognology – focusing mostly on the social aspects of that ecology. He began with a discussion of homeostasis, which formed the prompt for the following contribution to the ecognological project, which focuses more on its mental and physiological aspects.  

Minds homeostatically seek understanding of their ontological and practical predicaments; when they are disturbed, it is on account of factors of experience that they had not yet quite properly reckoned. They seek clarification of the turbidity that prevents their clear apprehension of things. In short, they seek knowledge. Attaining enough of it – for the time being – they rest – for a while.

In the limit, this search for understanding can attain complete rest only at the comprehension of Truth. While that rest is not something that our finite minds are themselves capable to achieve, we cannot but work at it, so long as we live. We arrive now and then at points of particularly sweet and refreshing rest; then we are disturbed, and the search begins again. All such searches have the Truth as their final end. Truth is the final end of minds, just as a full outermost shell of electrons is a final end of atoms.

Truth is in fact the strange attractor of acts in general, of all sorts of beings. Truth is the archetypal Form of strange attraction; it is that to which all acts, of whatever sort, are attracted, even when they err in their intensions; it is the basic ontological attractor, of which all other attractions partake, and on which they supervene.

So is Truth the superordinate epistemological strange attractor, for all the acts of the human mind and its brain. Beauty is what it feels like to comprehend and implement, enact, or embody Truth. Beauty is what Truth feels like. Goodness is the character of actual conformity of the understanding, and of the rational will, and so of life as lived – i.e., of the whole intellectual, cognitive, physiological and social system – to the Truth. Goodness, that is to say, is the value of Wisdom.


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Sketch of the Ecology of Knowledge


Since the 1960s everyone has been familiar with the idea of ecology. Nature, before humanity, as the ecologists argue, constituted a balanced and indeed a self-balancing system. James Lovelock in his various books with Gaia in the title argues that nature before humanity constituted a “homeostatic” system that was not only self-regulating but capable of responding to gross unbalancing influences by vigorous redistributions of the disturbance so as to restore the norm of homeostasis. These observations apply largely to nature considered as the terrestrial biosphere, but Lovelock’s theory extends by implication beyond the restricted earthly system – all the way out to the asteroid belt.

According to the theory of natural ecology, every element of nature is linked recursively, by plural feed-back loops, to every other element; the elements work together as a whole to maintain a settled norm overall. Environmentalism, a political development of the idea of natural ecology, claims, however, that the human element of the system is an emergent anomaly whose presence upsets the ability of nature to maintain homeostasis. Whether the environmentalist claim concerning humanity is true or false, the general notion that a self-regulating system might suffer disruption from influences that are somehow external to it is highly plausible.

The term ecology is an ingenious coinage, probably needed at the time it entered into usage. The Greek word oikos means “house” or “household”; the Greek word logos – as its derivative logic suggests – is not only the orderly discussion of a phenomenon but also the internally self-regulating, form-endowing law that renders a phenomenon thus-and-such rather than something else and that keeps the phenomenon in this character steadily so that it remains recognizable and amenable to cognition. The term ecology thus elegantly, although perhaps not intentionally, reflects the notion of the universe as an orderly artifact, corresponding to a rational plan and having a discernible goal – that of steady self-maintenance.

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Gnosticism: Its Self-Representation

Gnosis 02Part I of this series posed the linked questions whether Eric Voegelin’s characterization of Gnosticism in his various books on the topic was valid – and whether, as Voegelin asserted, modernity, in the form of the liberal and totalitarian ideologies, could be understood as the resurgence of ancient Gnosticism. The purpose of Part I was not to furnish definitive answers to those questions, but rather to explore two critiques of Gnostic doctrine from Late Antiquity. These were the essay Against the Gnostics by the Third-Century Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus and the discussion in Saint Augustine’s Confessions (Books III, IV, and V) of the Manichaean religion, a late variant of Gnosticism. The exposition concluded that the two accounts of Gnosticism although written more than a century apart (Augustine being subsequent to Plotinus) were convergent and largely similar. The argument did not propose that Plotinus and Augustine, in their critiques, anticipate Voegelin, but readers might justly have inferred that as a tacit thesis.

The present essay addresses Gnosticism by examining it in its own terms. It is certainly provocative that two ancient writers, separated by a tumultuous century-and-a-half should have arrived at essentially the same assessment of Gnosticism. Nevertheless, this similitude in the judgment might be because both authors are prejudiced in the same way; thus their agreement could erroneous or bigoted. After all, as the father of modern Gnosticism-scholarship, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), averred, the Gnostics were formidable thinkers, masters of confabulation, and connoisseurs of a wide variety of religions, including but by no means confined to Judaism and Christianity. Elements of Gnosticism likely became incorporated in Christian theology (think of Revelations) even as Patristic writers systematically anathematized what they regarded as heresy.

What follows concerns itself with details of four Gnostic documents: The Tri-Partite Tractate, usually attributed to Heracleon, a follower of Valentinus; The Origin of the World, of anonymous authorship; The Gospel of Truth, by Valentinus; and Zostrianos, also of anonymous authorship – all of which come from the so-called Nag Hammadi documents and all of which belong to the mid-Second Century or slightly later. Zostrianos likely influenced Mani (216-276) when he was writing his own scripture in the Third Century.

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Truth is a King

Truth demands our adherence, our conformity. There is no just, no correct argument against Truth, or therefore any just or correct way to act in contravention to Truth – indeed, no possible way, for there can be no way to enact a false or incoherent proposition. It might seem prima facie that it is possible to enact a falsehood. But not so. The only way we can possibly act is in a way that is in agreement with reality, and thus with Truth. We can certainly believe that we are enacting a proposition that is in fact false, and so shape our acts wrongly, as appropriate to circumstances that do not in fact obtain. Acts may err in their aims. But they must conform to reality, or they could not happen.

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Plotinus and Augustine on Gnosticism

Gnosis 02The trend of politics in the Western nations since Eric Voegelin’s death in 1986 has made his work increasingly relevant to any philosophically rigorous Conservatism or Traditionalism. In particular, Voegelin’s argument that liberalism and its Leftwing metastases constitute an evangelical religious movement, mimicking and distorting Christianity, has gained currency. The pronounced irrational character of the “Global Warming” cult and the obvious messianism of Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency have together sharpened the perception that contemporary Leftwing politics shares with history’s specimen-type doctrinally intransigent sects an absolute intolerance for dissent, even for discussion, along with a conviction of perfect certainty in all things. The sudden experience of Leftwing triumph attests that, indeed, utopian radicalism draws its strength from a deep well of resentment that puts it in conflict, not merely with those whom it regards as heterodox, but also with the unalterable structure of reality. Voegelin argued – in The New Science of Politics (1952), Science Politics & Gnosticism (1965), and throughout Order and History (1957-65) – that the rebellion against reality was a recurrent affliction of civilized life; he pointed to the acute anticosmic sects of Late Antiquity as offering a paradigm of the phenomenon and expanded the scholarly designation of them as “Gnosticism” to cover insurgent ideological doctrines of the modern period, particularly Marxism and National Socialism.

Thus Lawrence Auster, the late creator and supervisor of the (now inactive) View from the Right website, explicitly links his understanding of the Left and his idea of Traditionalism to Voegelin’s argument that modernity is essentially Gnostic. A somewhat less focused acknowledgment that the Left is cultic in its behavior has surfaced now and then at The American Thinker and the name Voegelin has occurred in that venue. Again, nationally syndicated “conservative” columnist and radio-host Dennis Prager, while not citing Voegelin, has nevertheless in a recent essay declared explicitly that Left-Liberalism is a religion and can be understand in no other way. In my own contributions to The Brussels Journal and in various print articles (for example, in a Modern Age essay on V. S. Naipaul) I have frequently invoked Voegelin, often quoting his pithy sentences, as a rich and clairvoyant explicator of our straitened times. Are we certain, however, that Voegelin’s disapprobation of Gnosticism is valid? And might Voegelin’s insistent parallelisms of the ancient and the modern be a result of an idiosyncratic view?

The topical literature is fortunately large. It reaches back to the Late Antique primary texts of Gnosticism – such as the Valentinian Gospel of Truth (ca. 150) – and the accompanying critical and anti-heretical discourses of the philosophers and the Christian Patres; and it embraces a rich scholarly investigation beginning in the early Nineteenth Century, continuing to the present. What do the ancient sources tell us about Gnosticism? And what does the scholarship of Voegelin’s Nineteenth-Century precursors, his contemporaries, and his successors tell us about it? Continue reading

The Science of Science

Theology encompasses metaphysics the way that the necessary concrete actuality of God encompasses and outpasses the mere abstract intellectual conception of God as that than which nothing greater may be conceived. Anselm’s Argument is where abstract metaphysical ratiocination entails the Act of a Being whose actuality makes metaphysics possible, ergo necessary.

Only if God exists actually can metaphysics be possible conceptually. Or, ergo, mathematics, or its application in physics.

The Moderns who insist that metaphysics is dead or impossible or obsolescent all argue from the basis of a metaphysical presupposition – a prejudice, and no more – that there is no God. If there is no God, then they are right. But if there is no God, nor therefore any metaphysics, then neither is there anything else, either; including materialist metaphysics, that boasts to abjure metaphysics altogether.

You can’t get any of the beings that are less than the most real being if you don’t first have the most real being. Take a set of beings; one of them is most real, the others all relatively less real. If the most real being is not real at all, then all the less real beings are even less real than “not real at all.” And the only way to be less real than what is not real at all, is to be in the first place inconceivable.

Theology, then, is the science of all science, the science in virtue of which any other science can know anything. If God is not actual, nothing else can be; if God is not intelligible, and knowable (at least in part, and in principle), then nor can anything else be either knowable or intelligible.

Wonder suffuses the practice of all science – drudgery, too, of course, but the drudgery is motivated by the wonder, which is the engine at the base of the whole project. Appropriately, it is at the far sublime edge of theology that science reaches the limit and culmination of wonder: worship.