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Webs without Borders

Brad Onishi asks two main questions in this podcast. First, does it make sense to talk of an enchanted secularity? And, second, is philosophy useful for the academic study of religion/s? He spends little time on the second question, flipping it around to discuss the study of religion/s’ value for philosophy. We want to give some more space here to that second question. Our comment on Onishi’s discussion will illustrate the value of philosophy, by drawing on recent discussions in the philosophy of language about the nature of meaning. There are two main views, each of which has strong common-sense appeal. One – the representationalist view – holds that we understand a term by what it denotes or purports to represent; meaning involves word-world relations. The other – the holistic view – holds that we understand a term by how it relates to other terms; meaning involves word-word relations. We suggest that Onishi assumes the representationalist view when exploring his first question, but that the holistic view is actually the one that gives him what he wants. Philosophical defense of the holistic view will then answer his second question.

Onishi uses “Weber’s binary” to contextualize the possibility of an enchanted secularity. In the Weberian view, there is a sharp divide, an impenetrable “border,” between Enchantment and Secularity. Once this basic binary is set up, these broad categories can be filled in with more specific ones. This sort of description lends itself well to Venn diagrams:

The representationalist view underlies this framework: Weber is committed to ‘the enchanted’ and ‘the secular’ picking out mutually exclusive things, different regions of the world, if you like. Onishi’s strategy is to object to Weber’s denotations, arguing that one or the other in fact picks out something different from what Weber supposes: he redraws the boundaries.

The danger in this move is that runs afoul of a charge of equivocation—i.e., that it is not so much that Onishi is disagreeing with Weber as that he just changes the subject. In other words, why wouldn’t we say that Weber (on this reading) and Onishi just mean different things by “enchanted” and “secular”—i.e. that Weber takes ‘secular’ to denote something which excludes uncertainty whereas Onishi takes it to include it? On. this view, they are just talking past each other. The only way to avoid that conclusion under the representationalist model is to suppose that ‘the secular’ and ‘the enchanted’ do, in actuality, denote things which both include uncertainty in some substantial way, and that we have some means of establishing that. Representationalism has difficulty with this, as it is hard to see how we can access the denotations of the terms without using the very terms in question (or others that are equally problematic). The main terms used in the study of religion, such as invisible, transcendent, and non-empirical, reveal the limitations of the representationalist approach.

For semantic holists, meaning is not a function of what words stand for, represent, or denote, but rather of how they contribute to an interlocking pattern involving other terms. This sort of theory of meaning – whose most well-known philosophical proponents are W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson – has become increasingly influential in the study of religion. It is discussed, for example, by Hans Penner, Terry Godlove, Nancy Frankenberry, Kevin Schilbrack, Jeppe Sinding Jenson, Scott Davis, the two of us, and others. Quine in particular used the metaphor of a ‘web of significance,’ where a given term is understood as a node that connects to other nodes, each of which in turn connect to still others. Meaning is not given by correspondence to the world, and so there is ‘fact of the matter’ as what a given term means. There is no need to un-mediatedly access portions of the world to see if two terms have overlapping denotation. Rather, their meanings are revealed in their use. To understand a term on this model is not to be able to point to what it is about, but rather to be able to work one’s way around its portion of the web, drawing the right sorts of inferences supported along the way.

We suggest that filling in the gaps in Onishi’s argument as presented in this short podcast reveals a predilection to holism. To explain why ‘the secular’ can include the uncertain, he points to “quantum mechanics, advances in complex systems, and biology”, but as it stands, this is under-argued. More robustly, Onishi’s claim could be better understood in terms of ‘secular’ and ‘scientific’ being close nodes on a semantic web, ‘biology’ being close to ‘scientific’ on the same web, and similarly with ‘uncertainty’ to ‘biology’. To complete the argument in this vein, he would need to bring ‘uncertainty’ sufficiently close to ‘the enchanted’ in the web to ensure that the latter shares semantic content with ‘the secular’. He doesn’t provide that account in the podcast, but does throw out some other terms that suggests this is his intention, such as ‘mystery’, ‘mystical’, ‘magic’, and ‘wonder’. Although he doesn’t use the term ‘supernatural’ in the podcast, it is not hard to see small steps from ‘mystery’ to ‘religion’ that pass through it.

Representationalism presents us with the challenge of determining, first, what things are in the world and, second, how our words map onto those things. On the one hand, this seems a common-sense view, much as the view that the world is flat is common sense: at a first approximation, that does seem to be how words mean; they point to things, they paint a picture of the world. But, it runs straight into the problem of determining the representationally postulated meanings of the key non-empirical terms central to the study of religion, or of thinking that those denotata can be accessed in a linguistically unmediated way. Holism avoids both of these problems and has the additional advantage of sidestepping the interminable academic debates over the uniquely “right” and “true” meanings of our technical terms. This highlights a sense in which the representationalist view is counter-intuitive. It holds that determining “the” meaning of a word – e.g., ‘enchanted,’ ‘secular’ or ‘religion – is about finding the perfect match, the soul mate, the Higher Semantic Self, the one and only real and ideal fit between word and world. Do we really want to commit ourselves to a view of meaning that frames academic discussions as a search for “the one” or as battle between divergent readings, only one of which can be true? Holism avoids all these problems, and it is equally or more common sense. When we try to get at the meaning of a technical term in a book, don’t we look in the index, at how the author uses the term in their other work, at how authors cited by that author use the same term? Is this a quest for a hidden essence (“the one”), or is it an exploration of a web of connections between words? Haven’t we all discovered, at some point in our life, that the meaning of a word that we learned in childhood, from a parent or teacher, did not quite fit with more common meanings that we encountered as our semantic horizons enlarged? Is it right to say that we had the wrong meaning and then learned the right one (even when the two overlap)? Or would it be better to say that we shifted our network of associations to converge on a more normal one (where “normal” has a descriptive, statistical sense)?

Returning to Onishi’s first question, to say that one thing is describable as ‘enchanted’ and another as ‘secular’ need not be understood as a difference in kind. We can see them at lying at some distance from each other on a semantic web. For analytical purposes, some might configure their semantic web to place them closely while others might distance them—or even arrange things so that there is no path from one to the other. Onishi spends some time critiquing an historically important conception of ‘rationality’ that tied it to Cartesian “discrete subjects”. That was part of his attack on the Weberian conception of ‘the scientific’, arguing that as the idea of a ‘discrete subject’ is now “philosophically outdated”, both ‘the rational’ and ‘the scientific’ must be rethought, and that this will affect whether it is possible to have an enchanted secularity. But, does this show that the Weberian understanding of its meaning was faulty, and similarly for the related concepts? Not at all; Weber was still able utilize that meaning in reconstructing a particular semantic history from which insightful connections can be understood, as for example between the Protestant work ethic and capitalism. To reiterate our central take-home point, the divergence between Weber and Onishi need not be understood as a fight over where to place borders, but rather of adopting different configurations of the semantic web—a difference which, we might note, is only visible against the background of a good deal of overlap elsewhere. For Onishi, ‘enchantment’ lies close to ‘magic’ which lies close to ‘mystery’, which itself connects in one direction to ‘religion’ and in another to ‘uncertainty’. (This is, of course, highly simplistic, but you get the idea. The web becomes very complex very quickly and will occupy three dimensions, if not four.) For Weber, ‘secular’ lies close to a nineteenth-century, largely positivistic, conception of ‘science,’ itself understood in relation to such terms as ‘deterministic’, ‘mechanical’, and ‘law governed.’

For the holist, different semantic webs are judged not on whether they correspond to reality, but rather on the work that they do and whether they better or worse ‘fit’ as many considerations as we think important as possible. In other words, some people will prefer the Weberian binary take on the meaning of ‘enchanted’ and ‘secular’ and some people will prefer Onishi’s. Discussion then turns away from fighting over which reading is the one true champion to a more fruitful direction: which is more useful? or, what purposes are served and who benefits from each of these readings? Darwin noted other sorts of regularities than did Newton, and he saw that the sort of predictions Newton was keen on are a lot more difficult to make where biology is concerned. Did Darwin replace Newton’s wrong concept of ‘science’ with the correct one? Did Darwin see much better what ‘science’ actually denotes, the thing that it picks out in the world? Or did he (minimally) rearrange and extend its web of semantic associations? Onishi can be seen as doing something similar: he is trying to extend a web of associations in order to offer more useful account of the meanings of key terms in our discipline. His vindication is not that he has found the true meanings of “enchantment’ and ‘secularity’ but that his discussion provides a much better—richer, more useful, even more ethical—way of thinking about religion in the modern world.

 

Steve and Mark are kind of comedians and have suggested the following caption for their photos:

As we hope our response to Bradley Onishi suggests, there is no such thing as what a word or picture just means, in and of itself. Context is required. You can’t “read” our author photos without knowing what to connect it to. You need to situate it in a semantic web of sorts. Who is the woman in the photo with Steve? What religion is that? Is it play, ritual or something else? Is Steve the expert or is she, or neither? If you jump to some specific interpretation that is only because you are presuming, filling in or projecting a semantic network that is not provided.

To satisfy the curious, along with a some colleagues, Steve visited a famous mudang (a healer / diviner who works with a series of spirits) in South Korea. Prof. Chae Young Kim, who invited Steve to be part of his research team on religion and healing, set up the visit. Steve shares:

“Ms. Lee was excited to meet me – not as much as I was to meet her – because I work with spirit healers in Brazil. She showed us her two small temples, with their richly decorated altars, gave us a recreated demonstration of a divination consultation, and then insisted that I wear the robes of this one particular spirit. She was laughing the whole time … thought it was hilarious. I got into the spirit of the playfulness of the moment. That is her putting the robes and hat on me. So it is play, but also an echo of ritual, and she is the expert, but acknowledging my different sort of expertise. And she taught me how to open the fan with a sharp snap, but nothing like the snap that she produces.”

As you, as a reader, engage the images on RSP, we hope you are challenged in new ways to think about how we make meaning from them. –Rebecca Barrett-Fox, features editor.

 

 

 

Narrating Secularism in the Continental Philosophy of Religion: Onishi and the Enduring Consequences of the Secularization Thesis

Building largely from the thesis he developed in his 2018 The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion, Bradley Onishi in his interview with David McConeghy outlines the rejection of the secularization thesis in the philosophy of religion, as well as its implications for the study of religion more broadly. For those not familiar, the secularization thesis is the contention emerging from the work of Max Weber, which insists that modernism’s trajectory toward greater rationalism will invariably lead to greater secularization. Along with a chorus of scholars in fields ranging from the philosophy of religion to behavioral economics, Onishi makes a clear case for the heuristic futility of the secularization thesis, primarily because it overstates the modern subject as a rational maximizer.

In this conversation, Onishi’s original contribution emerges not from his critique of the secularization thesis, but rather in his ability to diagnose what the failure of the secularization thesis implies for the delineation of subdisciplines in the study of religion. Put simply, Onishi rightly notes that scholars of religion conceptualized the ideological distinctions between the fields of the continental philosophy of religion and philosophical theology prior to understanding the limitations of the secularization thesis. More than a trivial historical observation, Onishi’s insight cogently explains that several of the now-defunct core premises of the secularization thesis remain present in how scholars of religion justify why it is that philosophers of religion must not learn from the religious traditions they study—at least without falling prey to the common critique of becoming a crypto-theologian.

Though Onishi is himself not guilty of this, his analysis raises one of the most persistent concerns I have held for the narration of religious affiliation: namely, the insistence that many people who are not religious, upon closer examination, hold the same core attitudes that are the hallmark of religious experience. Framed otherwise, though I agree with Onishi’s critique of the secularization thesis, there remains the problem of the precedent that the secularization thesis poses for how the conversation regarding secularization functions in the first place. That is, if one identifies the secularization thesis as the status quo against which contemporary scholars of religion are to rebel, then even the most critical and generative analysis will leave secularism in a default position of hostility against religion. To be clear, this is not to suggest anything about compatibility models for science and religion, such as from Ian Barbour. Rather, what is consequential in this conversation is the how such a point of departure narrates the direction of the ideological hostility itself.

Above, the interior of the Nottingham, England Pitcher & Piano, which is housed in a building that was a Unitarian Church from 1876 to 1982. While Pitcher & Piano has 18 locations in the UK, this is the only one in a former house of worship. Image from the Pitcher & Piano website.

Put simply, Onishi’s analysis of post-secularity leaves me with the lingering suspicion that scholars of religion still retain the understanding of secularity as encroaching upon the territory of religion, and not the other way around. On this point, I must be careful not to overstate my concern. It is not so much that I view Onishi as arguing for a problematic understanding of the religious as prior to secularization; it is abundantly clear that his intention is more accurately to destabilize a facile binary between the sacred and the secular, which includes offering a more generous possibility for secular persons to participate in various forms of enchantment that were previously monopolized by faith traditions.

The problem as I see it is that this method of framing the evolving relation of secularity to religion presumes that enchantment is a primordially religious experience, which religious persons generously share with secularists who were just persecuting them. Allow me to explain.

Though I recognize that such a reference may risk placing me firmly back within a modernist framework where the secularization thesis reigns unchecked, on this matter I am continually haunted by one of the most compelling charges that Freud offers for conceptualizing the relation between religious and scientific Weltanschauungen—a bit of text that I foregrounded a recent volume with. In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud interrogates the relation between secular science and the religious worldview in the following way.

The struggle of the scientific spirit against the religious Weltanschauung is, as you know, not at an end: it is still going on to-day under our eyes. […] Religion may not be critically examined because it is the highest, most precious, and most sublime thing that the human spirit has produced, because it gives expression to the deepest feelings and alone makes the world tolerable and life worthy of men [sic]. We need not reply by disputing this estimate of religion but by drawing attention to another matter. What we do is to emphasize the fact that what is in question is not in the least an invasion of the field of religion by the scientific spirit, but on the contrary an invasion by religion of the sphere of scientific thought. Whatever may be the value and importance of religion, it has no right in any way to restrict thought—no right, therefore, to exclude itself from having thought applied to it.[1]

One does not have to accept Freud’s critical vision of religion qua wish fulfillment to be persuaded by his account of the relation between secular science—of which Freud believes psychoanalysis is a part—and religion. More modestly, the historical priority of religion’s dominance should not suggest that any conflict with secularism is always a form of secular aggression as understood by the secularization thesis. Rather, Freud suggests, it is completely possible that science and secular persons are merely asserting their right to have space to breathe and carry out their work without impedance from religion. Any claim that secularism is encroaching upon religion is nothing more than a deluded persecution complex.

I offer the Freudian critique not to concern troll Onishi and McConeghy’s genuinely riveting interview. I broadly agree with Onishi’s conviction that being a secular person does not make one a secularist, that it is possible to hold an enchanted secularity, and that the decolonization of the philosophy of religion will be vital for clarifying these possibilities. My question, more concretely, is how we as philosophers of religion can create space for secular persons to be secular, without the presumption that any claim to meaning and enchantment is somehow co-opting religion. Practically speaking, this has little to do with secular persons feeling they have permission to be enchanted; anecdotally speaking, no secular person in my world feels particularly compelled to get approval from religion before they engage in a ritual practice, for example. Rather, as a philosopher of religion who is also not afraid to learn from faith traditions—some of which I unapologetically participate in—I am more specifically irked by scholars of religion such as Paul Tillich who narrate secular persons as facing a pathetic ultimatum: acquiescence to the meaningful domain of religion, or resignation to nihilism.

This is, naturally, a deplorable framing—one which I know Onishi and McConeghy would also reject. My suspicion, simply, that there is likely a parallel problem between the task of rejecting the secularization thesis, and the tired problem of overcoming metaphysics in the continental philosophy of religion. In other words, once the conversation is framed in those terms, even the most creatively valiant efforts to subvert them will only ever reaffirming their flawed premises. If my suspicion is correct—it may not be—then this is in no way an indictment of Onishi’s project. Rather, it is a worthwhile struggle with which I sympathize. I am grateful for his labor here.

[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 209-10.

The Sacrality of the Secular and Philosophy of Religion

“It’s possible,” says Professor Bradley Onishi, “to hold an enchanted secularity” if we stop thinking of secularism as mere rationalism. In this week’s podcast, we hear about the ways in which philosophy of religion has thought “with” religion rather than for or against religion. Tracing alternative models of secularity through Martin Heidegger, Geoges Bataille, and others, Onishi calls on us to rethink how the philosophy of religion can help religious studies find different ways to frame the categories of secular and religious. As a resource in the academy, he says, religions themselves provide ways to question our basic assumptions about what religion does for us and look at our normative assumptions about anew.

 

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God and Mathematics

What does math have to do with religion? In his interview with Hans van Eyghen, author Chris Ransford discusses his latest book ‘God and the Mathematics of Infinity’. He discusses why mathematics is useful for thinking about religion, covering some of the conclusions he draws in the book.

 

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

God and Mathematics

Podcast with Chris Ransford (12 February 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ransford_-_God_and_Mathematics_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): Hello, I’m Hans Van Eyghen, I’m with Chris Ransford to discuss his latest book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity. Welcome, Chris. So, could you tell us a little bit about your project, about the book? What was your motivation behind this?

Chris Ransford (CR): Sure, Good morning, first! And thanks for having me on the show. This book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity, is actually part of a trilogy of books exploring the nature of reality. The motivation of that is because we are in the 21st century, and there is actually zero consensus in society as to what it is, this reality that we live in. So you have, at the one end of the spectrum people who still do believe in what is variously called materialism or physicalism, and at the other end of the spectrum you have fundamentalist religious people. And very often, of course, the truth has got to lie in-between, somewhere. But all my background, educational background, has demonstrated to me that mathematics is an extremely powerful tool to analyse the truth. And I have to immediately qualify this. A very large section of mathematics cannot be used to pronounce anything about external reality, simply because those parts of mathematics are predicated on axioms – which is foundational statements that are accepted at face value, that have not been proven. And on the basis of these axioms whole branches of mathematics are built such as geometry, let’s say. And they are internally consistent, but they cannot express anything about the ultimate truths of reality. On the other hand – the most important in my view and in other mathematicians’ view – part of mathematics is number theory. And numbers are actually not predicated on axioms, but on definition. In other words, one and one is called two. And that’s all there is to it. That’s a definition. And when you define one plus one is two, then very soon you have natural whole numbers, and then you have rational numbers, and then you have irrational numbers, and then you have infinities. And all of a sudden from the mere definition of two lions being two lions as opposed to one lion, a whole menagerie of very powerful numbers is born, out of which you can analyse – meaningfully analyse – reality. And one of my observations about, say, some religions and some atheistic people is that their pronouncements are totally susceptible to mathematical analysis based on numbers. And then you have a number of conclusions that you can draw from that. And, for instance, what religious people maybe do not understand about a mathematical analysis of God, it is actually not a mathematical analysis of God, per se. It’s a mathematical analysis of the consequences that flow from the attributes that are ascribed to Godhood. In other words . . . I’ll give you an example. If you define God as having infinite attributes, then the consequences of those infinite attributes are totally susceptible to analysis through the mathematics of infinity. Then you can conclude certain things. And you can conclude that certain things can possibly be and certain things cannot possibly be at all. And I am observing, in the current world, a debate between let us call them either religious or spiritual types on the one side and the atheistic or materialists on the other side. What I have observed, somewhat unfortunately, is that more and more the materialistic side seems to be winning the argument and they win the argument for a number of reasons and all of these reasons are actually susceptible, once again, to mathematical analysis. And one of the reasons why they win is because they conflate spirituality – the essence of what maybe religions have been trying to talk about for centuries – with the trappings of religions, meaning all the sometimes very silly trappings, such as singing hymns and reliance on ancient texts of literature and everything: all things that are actually epiphenomena of religion, but do not touch the core. And so the analysis by mathematics will enable you, first of all, to avoid things that are frankly quite infuriating in religion, such as the development, on the part of a number of big religions, of leaps of faith. Leaps of faith in this day and age, the 21st century, are not acceptable. And if a demand for such is maintained educated people, intelligent people, and more and more people in the 21st, 22nd, and so-on, centuries are going to leave religion, because in the modern age this is not an acceptable way of doing things. And, especially, leaps of faith are totally amenable to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example. Some leaps of faith will lead to a contradiction in terms – and some have got to give way – and some will not. For instance, let us take the example of an acceptable leap of faith that would be – in totally non-religious terms – that would be the leap of faith of the person who buys a lottery ticket. A lottery ticket would have one chance in some million, you know, odds of gaining the jackpot, but it’s not impossible. So, in that sense, the leap of faith is acceptable. But the leap of faith that says that an infinite entity can be second-guessed by people who have limited IQs, a limited lifetime on earth and everything; the mathematics shows you that it’s a contradiction in terms. It is not possible that something infinite be properly appreciated, properly processed and properly comprehended by a receptacle that is finite. So we have to analyse all these sort of things. And on the other side of the aisle is, exactly likewise, susceptible to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll give you the floor. The ongoing argument that everything is materialist, and so on, is a bankrupt argument, because theoretical physics demonstrates that matter ultimately doesn’t exist. Matter is the vibrations of the quantum vacuum, of the vacuum. And matter reduces to vibrations of nothingness. And that’s the mathematics, that’s a fact. So people who predicate their reasoning on simply, you know, the fact that what you see is what you get, and that matter is all there is, are demonstrably wrong. And I will illustrate this by telling you about the latest book I’ve read. I’ve just read a book by a well-known philosopher. And one third, one big third of the book is given over to analysing physicalism. And that illustrates to me the absolute necessity to use mathematics. If that philosopher instead of philosophising and looking at the pros and cons and eventually – after one full third of the book – not settling the issue, had actually used mathematics instead, the mathematics is and the theoretical physics is that matter is vibrations of vacuums and that hence, therefore, matter cannot be the fundamental feature of reality or the fundamental trait of reality, and that therefore we have to move beyond matter to try to understand the fundaments of reality. And that, to me, illustrates the absolute necessity to bring mathematics into reasoning. We are in an age where we have on the one hand people like Isis, on the other side of the aisle we have people like Richard Dawkins who heaps scorn on millions and millions of people who say they have experienced something that they couldn’t explain. Both attitudes are not sustainable; both attitudes are not bringing us further into the 21st century and it’s absolutely time for us to have a new approach to the ultimate nature of reality: not use the science of last century, such as physicalism; but also not use the frankly bankrupt arguments that go “I base my worldview on a book of ancient literature written in a pre-scientific age, and my book is better than yours.” That is not sustainable. We’ve got to stop having that kind of argument. And it’s only at the price, or at the cost of stopping those arguments that we’ll be evolving into a discourse on matters of spirituality – maybe religion – and reality, that goes beyond the current debates that frankly are not taking us any further.

HVE: Ok, thank you. I want to get into the point of not being able to second-guess God’s intentions, God’s commands. You’re probably aware that that’ll be a far stretch for many religious believers. But I was wondering, doesn’t that exclude the whole concept of revelation, in a way? What do you do with people who claim to have such knowledge?

CR: OK, that’s fair enough. But it does, to a very large extent, and let me tell you why. The issue we have with most religions – virtually all, but this we can qualify – is that they rely for the message – if there is such a thing – the message of the Godhead – not specifying further who that Godhead is – they rely on words, be they oral words, be they texts. And the fundamental issue with that, we have to ask ourselves: is human language a capable vehicle, a possible vehicle to convey the words of a Godhead? And mathematically, as I will just show, there are at least four separate reasons why it is not the proper vehicle. It’s not the proper vehicle for at least four independent mathematical reasons. And the bottom line of those reasons is that human language is so inherently limited. So we could have an ideal human language but it cannot convey God-like thoughts. Because God-like thoughts are, by definition, infinite and they reflect a certain mode of thinking that cannot be expressed by the vehicle of the human language. And let me give you, if that’s ok, let me give you four reasons. The first one is very simple and it’s agreed to by all religions, including religions of the (audio unclear). It is what is called in mathematics Tarski’s theorem or the undefinability theorem, which very simply states that the proof of any statement cannot be possibly made from inside the language that makes the statement. It’s very easy to understand if I tell you, “This car is blue,” I cannot prove from inside the English language that the car is blue. I need external corroboration, which is quite obvious. The second proof is a little bit more subtle, but it’s exactly the same thing as the Mercator projection in map-making. In map-making, if you want to degrade by one dimension, you massively warp and distort the map that you’re trying to convey. If you look at the map of the world on Mercator, or for that matter any other projection, the point which is the pole becomes actually as long as the equator. So something rips. It’s like if you were going to flatten an orange upon a table – something rips, and by the process of ripping you sustain a huge loss of meaning of the data that’s being conveyed. Look at any Mercator map on the wall. Greenland is actually less than 1/4 of the size of Australia. Any map of the world shows Greenland bigger than Australia. And so on and so forth. And that’s just by going down one dimension. And if you go by two dimensions you would have to project onto a segment and all would be lost. Now let me give you an example with language. If you’re going to want to say, for instance, you’re going to want to translate into normal language Einstein’s works that space and time are the same thing; you’re going to write a book about Einsteinian physics and you’re going to entitle the book Space-Time. Now that’s wrong. You have actually prioritised space over time by writing space-time. And now you try the other way round- Time-Space- same problem. And finally you hit upon the solution which is to go up by one dimension and write it in a loop. And when you write space-time in a loop you have no priority; no first and no second element. And by going up two elements you have solved a problem of something that you couldn’t properly express in the English language, because of its linearity. And to demonstrate that this linearity is true, try to tell your publisher over the phone that you write space-time on the front of your book, you can’t. You have to write meta-data, which means you have to explain how to do it, because the language doesn’t allow you to that. And if you are talking of an infinite mind expressing God-like thoughts, you multiply this by infinity. You’re not having 2-d down to 1-d, you’re having infinity-d down to 1-d – which is the language that is used in ancient texts. Now let me give you a third reason. There exists a well-known phenomenon which is called emergence. Emergence is that whenever any constituent element to something becomes very big – not necessarily infinite – then you have all kinds of totally unpredictable phenomena that start happening. And when left alone. When things become infinite then you have a plethora of inherently unpredictable things that start happening. So for an IQ of 100 or 200 or 300, trying to second guess or to understand an IQ equivalent of infinity, simply the simple phenomenon of emergence cannot let you do that. And, really, if you had a . . . I hate the word prophet, but if you had a soothsayer or a translator of what the Godhead says, he or she would fall victim to the dimensional issue that I was talking on earlier. So you cannot get out of it. And the last element – there are more – but the last element I would like to quote here. Apart from the undefinability theorem, apart from the dimensional issue which is un-crackable, apart from the phenomenon of emergence which you cannot possibly predict or foretell, there’s also the phenomenon – very often in human religion – of circular reasoning. In other words, and to caricature it: “It’s true because the Bible says it’s true.” And I’ve seen that in my classes, in my Sunday classes. I have heard a lot of those arguments. And I find it a pity that we are still there in the 21st century because that gives ammunition to the Richard Dawkins set, if you like, who deny any spirituality even though there’s overwhelming proof out there that there is such a thing as spirituality. There is such a thing as higher dimensions and everything. All those things give ammunition to this set of people who cast scorn and aspersion on anybody who has a spiritual component to knock it, scoff at it, say that it’s all delusions, liars and straw that weaker minds are clutching at. And I find it very, very problematic and very regrettable that this be the case. And what I want to say, if we do not move into a rational intelligent type of spirituality, spirituality will lose the debate in the coming decades, let alone the 22nd century. And that will be a huge loss for humankind.

HVE: Ok. I want to get into the conclusions you draw in the book, about God’s attributes. Some are quite classical, some widely accepted, at least if you have a religion, like all-knowingness, almightiness. But some are quite surprising. Could you maybe elaborate on those, the surprising conclusions you draw?

CR: Which one?

HVE: The one, for example, about God being present in everything.

CR: That’s very good. That exactly another, for me, absolutely essential proofs that the use of mathematics is indispensable. The debate between what was called immanence or transcendence has been a debate that has gone on for a very long time. But it has never been settled by theologians. And you have two schools of thought. So in all religions some think that God is everywhere, and some think that, if God exists, that God is in a privileged realm, somewhere, a heaven and only forays into lesser realms or other areas, when needed. The problem is, you can analyse that mathematically and on the basis of theoretical physics. And the analysis is not entirely obvious because you have to analyse time first. How could . . . . If God is not present anywhere, then if God would want to cast an eye on something that happened it would have to go back in time and there are all sorts of issues. But the demonstration that you get from that is that there is a stark mathematical contradiction between saying that a God would be all-powerful and omniscient – in other words all-knowing – and the fact that it would have Godly attributes. So it would actually negate the Godly attributes. So you cannot have it both ways. The possibility of God, of which mathematics itself – for reasons which I’ll go into in a minute – cannot actually determine . . . . If there is a God then that God must, if it is going to be divine – in other words if it’s going to actually have the attributes that are reputed to be its attributes by religions and spirituality, that actually constitute its very essence of being God, its very Godhood – then it must be present everywhere. And if you speculate, there are ways that this is totally compatible with the current world. I believe that the image of a personal God is not possible for all sorts of reasons. It’s not a bearded man in the sky or some equivalent of that. It’s not possible. But what is possible is that it’s a higher dimensional mind that actually moves through space-time in such a way as creating something that is not entirely circumscribed, and there would be reasons for that. Surprisingly – something that very few non-mathematicians appreciate fully – you can actually grow infinity. Infinity per se is not simply infinity. You can actually grow infinity. And if you do have an infinite God, put yourself in its shoes for two minutes and look what happens. You have basically two solutions. You can just soar upon nothingness and everything. The cost of that is that you are going to become a static God, and if that happens you are actually going to lose some of your divinity. Because what you’re going to become is a curator of something that is becoming a museum universe. You know the past, the future, you know the extension of space-time everywhere and nothing ever fundamentally changes. So you are infinite, but you’re an infinite museum curator because nothing changes. So your option out of that, and the thing that will preserve and uphold your divinity, your Godhood, is actually to have a universe that can grow. And the universe that can grow is not a trivial proposition. You will find, if you analyse in certain ways, you will find that you cannot grow it in certain dimensions: you can certainly grow it in a three dimensional space or +1 dimension time, but there are certain dimensions that are closed to you. And that is quite compatible, in some ways, with one of the advances in cosmology. You know that in cosmology a lot of very reputable physicists have tried to understand the Big Bang. And there’s many scenarios that actually give rise to a Big Bang. Many totally different scenarios that would lead to our seeing the Big Bang the way we see it. But it could be quantum fluctuation in a parent universe; it could be colliding super-brains in a 5-d space-time; it could be the existence of time before itself; it could be the bouncing universes and the bouncing universes have different ways of happening – there’s the Penrose way, there are some other ways. But what all of those scenarios have in common, in our quest to understand the Big Bang, is that they all require something to have been there before the Big Bang. So the best minds both in cosmology, in information theory, in many different ways, tried to understand and tried to work out how the Big Bang can happen from absolute nothingness. And the results were extremely interesting. The only plausible scenario was that the Big Bang could happen out of nothingness only if the disembodied laws of mathematics – so at least some disembodied laws of mathematics – existed prior anyway. So you come to a road where even if a Big Bang as we know it didn’t come from something material – such as a false vacuum, such as a prior universe, such as anything – it came from this incarnate mind. Because another way of proving it, with wave functions etc., the mathematical laws in that case would be alive. So you come to a possibility that the whole universe is actually part of . . . . If I may express it that way – it sounds terribly religious – and that’s for lack of a better word . . . . But the whole universe including your cup of coffee, the pen, a galaxy somewhere is part of the body of God. So that leads to a place where what we call God is not somebody personal, is not somebody judgemental, but it’s somebody alive, that has a possibility of disincarnate existence, that lets universes happen for very specific reasons. And those specific reasons are to grow, to grow infinity itself. And then we have a reconcilable of image of spirituality and science. And this is the only way that I see a place, the only proper way where we can reconcile the two. And all of a sudden, all of the sciences that were banished, such as studies – as you may be aware there’s a lot of studies on altered states of consciousness and so on. And all those studies are pooh-poohed by modern science because they are all afraid that it’s going to link them with religions with funny hats, with judgementalisms, with associations with books that were basically the Stephen King novels of 2000 years ago and when there was no understanding of anything, at a time when very, very few people knew how to write and they wrote what they could. They thought that earthquakes were the acts of God, they thought that diseases were the acts of God, etc., etc. And to become associated with that, of course, it’s a sure-fire killer in careers of science – as it should be. But the problem is we are stuck there right now. We are stuck in this rut where we either have the Isis people or we have the Richard Dawkins, and both of them have areas that they call no-go. It is haram – or whatever the word is – in certain regions to ask questions. It’s forbidden in almost all of them. Science does kind-of the same thing. When confronted with things it cannot explain under the current science, scientists sweep it under the rug as well. And take all the conflicts on earth today. They fundamentally all arise from that. And we’re not talking something that is not massive. We have massive conflicts. We have people who suffer immensely, like all those girls subjected to female circumcision because of ancient texts and everything. And we seem to be stuck in this course. And we have very many people who have experienced something that they can’t explain. And the explanations of Richard Dawkins just do not wash with them. So what do they do? They go back to those who say they know better, although they do not, and that perpetuates the cycle and the stand-off where we are stuck right now. The stand-off. And what I’m trying to say, we need to move forward. This is the 21st century. We need to free ourselves from spiritual reliance on ancient texts. And there’s no justification where those ancient texts should be deemed as being the corner-stones of modern-day religions – absolutely not. And you can prove they’re not suitable for the job. But we should also move from where that leads science to, which is wholesale rejection of whole areas of human knowledge. And we’re stuck, we’re not moving, which is the reason why I wrote this book, which is my second book in the understanding of the nature of reality. And, again, if you believe in God you believe in a totally different reality than if you don’t. If you believe in materiality, as in Aristotelian physicalism, then you believe in a form of the universe that other people do not believe in. And the whole point of the book is to say the force and the strength of mathematics is that it can actually analyse that intelligently, and enable progress.

HVE: Ok, thank you. We’re running out of time here. Time flies . . . . One last question, because it will be on people’s minds, is the existential question. You refrain from answering it in the book, so you reach a limit there.

CR: Yes. It will be part of my next book. Very quickly, I’ll try to tell you where I come from. Three hundred years ago we didn’t know where earthquakes, where lightening etc. came from. We had no idea, we didn’t understand atoms, electricity, tectonic plates, microbes. We’re still very close to that. The cutting edge of science has to do with wave functions. And things like this are not very well-known now, but that will actually further our understanding. And in the book I’m quoting somebody who’s actually atheistic, who’s a very well-known university professor in the US, who says we must define God in a certain way. And as she explains it – and I explain part of it in the book – the question: “Do you believe in God?” is meaningless. You have to define your terms. You have to define what God is. And my next book will try to answer this in the light of modern science. And we have to shed our preconceptions on everything. And I think we can actually come close to a definition that would be acceptable to most people, and in which we would say, “Well yes. This does exist.” And this can be construed as actually being a Godhead, and it has to be defined. And it’s got nothing to do with the personal God of the Abrahamic regions. But it has to do with the fact that there is something there that we’re not seeing at the moment, and with the fact that to appreciate that, and to begin – to use an old phrase – to touch the face of God, we have to have enhanced our knowledge, not simply to atoms, electricity, tectonic plates and bacteria but a lot more. And this is what science worldwide is in the process of doing. It will take us I believe another 200-300-400 years but we will get there. We shouldn’t jump the gun by saying we know already. No, we’re still in the process of building up our arsenal of knowledge tools that will let us put our arms around the concept.

HVE: Ok. Thank you. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much.

CR: My pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Citation Info: Ransford, Chris, and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “God and Mathematics”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/god-and-mathematics/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley.

In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.

In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking).

In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.

Podcasts

Webs without Borders

Brad Onishi asks two main questions in this podcast. First, does it make sense to talk of an enchanted secularity? And, second, is philosophy useful for the academic study of religion/s? He spends little time on the second question, flipping it around to discuss the study of religion/s’ value for philosophy. We want to give some more space here to that second question. Our comment on Onishi’s discussion will illustrate the value of philosophy, by drawing on recent discussions in the philosophy of language about the nature of meaning. There are two main views, each of which has strong common-sense appeal. One – the representationalist view – holds that we understand a term by what it denotes or purports to represent; meaning involves word-world relations. The other – the holistic view – holds that we understand a term by how it relates to other terms; meaning involves word-word relations. We suggest that Onishi assumes the representationalist view when exploring his first question, but that the holistic view is actually the one that gives him what he wants. Philosophical defense of the holistic view will then answer his second question.

Onishi uses “Weber’s binary” to contextualize the possibility of an enchanted secularity. In the Weberian view, there is a sharp divide, an impenetrable “border,” between Enchantment and Secularity. Once this basic binary is set up, these broad categories can be filled in with more specific ones. This sort of description lends itself well to Venn diagrams:

The representationalist view underlies this framework: Weber is committed to ‘the enchanted’ and ‘the secular’ picking out mutually exclusive things, different regions of the world, if you like. Onishi’s strategy is to object to Weber’s denotations, arguing that one or the other in fact picks out something different from what Weber supposes: he redraws the boundaries.

The danger in this move is that runs afoul of a charge of equivocation—i.e., that it is not so much that Onishi is disagreeing with Weber as that he just changes the subject. In other words, why wouldn’t we say that Weber (on this reading) and Onishi just mean different things by “enchanted” and “secular”—i.e. that Weber takes ‘secular’ to denote something which excludes uncertainty whereas Onishi takes it to include it? On. this view, they are just talking past each other. The only way to avoid that conclusion under the representationalist model is to suppose that ‘the secular’ and ‘the enchanted’ do, in actuality, denote things which both include uncertainty in some substantial way, and that we have some means of establishing that. Representationalism has difficulty with this, as it is hard to see how we can access the denotations of the terms without using the very terms in question (or others that are equally problematic). The main terms used in the study of religion, such as invisible, transcendent, and non-empirical, reveal the limitations of the representationalist approach.

For semantic holists, meaning is not a function of what words stand for, represent, or denote, but rather of how they contribute to an interlocking pattern involving other terms. This sort of theory of meaning – whose most well-known philosophical proponents are W.V.O. Quine and Donald Davidson – has become increasingly influential in the study of religion. It is discussed, for example, by Hans Penner, Terry Godlove, Nancy Frankenberry, Kevin Schilbrack, Jeppe Sinding Jenson, Scott Davis, the two of us, and others. Quine in particular used the metaphor of a ‘web of significance,’ where a given term is understood as a node that connects to other nodes, each of which in turn connect to still others. Meaning is not given by correspondence to the world, and so there is ‘fact of the matter’ as what a given term means. There is no need to un-mediatedly access portions of the world to see if two terms have overlapping denotation. Rather, their meanings are revealed in their use. To understand a term on this model is not to be able to point to what it is about, but rather to be able to work one’s way around its portion of the web, drawing the right sorts of inferences supported along the way.

We suggest that filling in the gaps in Onishi’s argument as presented in this short podcast reveals a predilection to holism. To explain why ‘the secular’ can include the uncertain, he points to “quantum mechanics, advances in complex systems, and biology”, but as it stands, this is under-argued. More robustly, Onishi’s claim could be better understood in terms of ‘secular’ and ‘scientific’ being close nodes on a semantic web, ‘biology’ being close to ‘scientific’ on the same web, and similarly with ‘uncertainty’ to ‘biology’. To complete the argument in this vein, he would need to bring ‘uncertainty’ sufficiently close to ‘the enchanted’ in the web to ensure that the latter shares semantic content with ‘the secular’. He doesn’t provide that account in the podcast, but does throw out some other terms that suggests this is his intention, such as ‘mystery’, ‘mystical’, ‘magic’, and ‘wonder’. Although he doesn’t use the term ‘supernatural’ in the podcast, it is not hard to see small steps from ‘mystery’ to ‘religion’ that pass through it.

Representationalism presents us with the challenge of determining, first, what things are in the world and, second, how our words map onto those things. On the one hand, this seems a common-sense view, much as the view that the world is flat is common sense: at a first approximation, that does seem to be how words mean; they point to things, they paint a picture of the world. But, it runs straight into the problem of determining the representationally postulated meanings of the key non-empirical terms central to the study of religion, or of thinking that those denotata can be accessed in a linguistically unmediated way. Holism avoids both of these problems and has the additional advantage of sidestepping the interminable academic debates over the uniquely “right” and “true” meanings of our technical terms. This highlights a sense in which the representationalist view is counter-intuitive. It holds that determining “the” meaning of a word – e.g., ‘enchanted,’ ‘secular’ or ‘religion – is about finding the perfect match, the soul mate, the Higher Semantic Self, the one and only real and ideal fit between word and world. Do we really want to commit ourselves to a view of meaning that frames academic discussions as a search for “the one” or as battle between divergent readings, only one of which can be true? Holism avoids all these problems, and it is equally or more common sense. When we try to get at the meaning of a technical term in a book, don’t we look in the index, at how the author uses the term in their other work, at how authors cited by that author use the same term? Is this a quest for a hidden essence (“the one”), or is it an exploration of a web of connections between words? Haven’t we all discovered, at some point in our life, that the meaning of a word that we learned in childhood, from a parent or teacher, did not quite fit with more common meanings that we encountered as our semantic horizons enlarged? Is it right to say that we had the wrong meaning and then learned the right one (even when the two overlap)? Or would it be better to say that we shifted our network of associations to converge on a more normal one (where “normal” has a descriptive, statistical sense)?

Returning to Onishi’s first question, to say that one thing is describable as ‘enchanted’ and another as ‘secular’ need not be understood as a difference in kind. We can see them at lying at some distance from each other on a semantic web. For analytical purposes, some might configure their semantic web to place them closely while others might distance them—or even arrange things so that there is no path from one to the other. Onishi spends some time critiquing an historically important conception of ‘rationality’ that tied it to Cartesian “discrete subjects”. That was part of his attack on the Weberian conception of ‘the scientific’, arguing that as the idea of a ‘discrete subject’ is now “philosophically outdated”, both ‘the rational’ and ‘the scientific’ must be rethought, and that this will affect whether it is possible to have an enchanted secularity. But, does this show that the Weberian understanding of its meaning was faulty, and similarly for the related concepts? Not at all; Weber was still able utilize that meaning in reconstructing a particular semantic history from which insightful connections can be understood, as for example between the Protestant work ethic and capitalism. To reiterate our central take-home point, the divergence between Weber and Onishi need not be understood as a fight over where to place borders, but rather of adopting different configurations of the semantic web—a difference which, we might note, is only visible against the background of a good deal of overlap elsewhere. For Onishi, ‘enchantment’ lies close to ‘magic’ which lies close to ‘mystery’, which itself connects in one direction to ‘religion’ and in another to ‘uncertainty’. (This is, of course, highly simplistic, but you get the idea. The web becomes very complex very quickly and will occupy three dimensions, if not four.) For Weber, ‘secular’ lies close to a nineteenth-century, largely positivistic, conception of ‘science,’ itself understood in relation to such terms as ‘deterministic’, ‘mechanical’, and ‘law governed.’

For the holist, different semantic webs are judged not on whether they correspond to reality, but rather on the work that they do and whether they better or worse ‘fit’ as many considerations as we think important as possible. In other words, some people will prefer the Weberian binary take on the meaning of ‘enchanted’ and ‘secular’ and some people will prefer Onishi’s. Discussion then turns away from fighting over which reading is the one true champion to a more fruitful direction: which is more useful? or, what purposes are served and who benefits from each of these readings? Darwin noted other sorts of regularities than did Newton, and he saw that the sort of predictions Newton was keen on are a lot more difficult to make where biology is concerned. Did Darwin replace Newton’s wrong concept of ‘science’ with the correct one? Did Darwin see much better what ‘science’ actually denotes, the thing that it picks out in the world? Or did he (minimally) rearrange and extend its web of semantic associations? Onishi can be seen as doing something similar: he is trying to extend a web of associations in order to offer more useful account of the meanings of key terms in our discipline. His vindication is not that he has found the true meanings of “enchantment’ and ‘secularity’ but that his discussion provides a much better—richer, more useful, even more ethical—way of thinking about religion in the modern world.

 

Steve and Mark are kind of comedians and have suggested the following caption for their photos:

As we hope our response to Bradley Onishi suggests, there is no such thing as what a word or picture just means, in and of itself. Context is required. You can’t “read” our author photos without knowing what to connect it to. You need to situate it in a semantic web of sorts. Who is the woman in the photo with Steve? What religion is that? Is it play, ritual or something else? Is Steve the expert or is she, or neither? If you jump to some specific interpretation that is only because you are presuming, filling in or projecting a semantic network that is not provided.

To satisfy the curious, along with a some colleagues, Steve visited a famous mudang (a healer / diviner who works with a series of spirits) in South Korea. Prof. Chae Young Kim, who invited Steve to be part of his research team on religion and healing, set up the visit. Steve shares:

“Ms. Lee was excited to meet me – not as much as I was to meet her – because I work with spirit healers in Brazil. She showed us her two small temples, with their richly decorated altars, gave us a recreated demonstration of a divination consultation, and then insisted that I wear the robes of this one particular spirit. She was laughing the whole time … thought it was hilarious. I got into the spirit of the playfulness of the moment. That is her putting the robes and hat on me. So it is play, but also an echo of ritual, and she is the expert, but acknowledging my different sort of expertise. And she taught me how to open the fan with a sharp snap, but nothing like the snap that she produces.”

As you, as a reader, engage the images on RSP, we hope you are challenged in new ways to think about how we make meaning from them. –Rebecca Barrett-Fox, features editor.

 

 

 

Narrating Secularism in the Continental Philosophy of Religion: Onishi and the Enduring Consequences of the Secularization Thesis

Building largely from the thesis he developed in his 2018 The Sacrality of the Secular: Postmodern Philosophy of Religion, Bradley Onishi in his interview with David McConeghy outlines the rejection of the secularization thesis in the philosophy of religion, as well as its implications for the study of religion more broadly. For those not familiar, the secularization thesis is the contention emerging from the work of Max Weber, which insists that modernism’s trajectory toward greater rationalism will invariably lead to greater secularization. Along with a chorus of scholars in fields ranging from the philosophy of religion to behavioral economics, Onishi makes a clear case for the heuristic futility of the secularization thesis, primarily because it overstates the modern subject as a rational maximizer.

In this conversation, Onishi’s original contribution emerges not from his critique of the secularization thesis, but rather in his ability to diagnose what the failure of the secularization thesis implies for the delineation of subdisciplines in the study of religion. Put simply, Onishi rightly notes that scholars of religion conceptualized the ideological distinctions between the fields of the continental philosophy of religion and philosophical theology prior to understanding the limitations of the secularization thesis. More than a trivial historical observation, Onishi’s insight cogently explains that several of the now-defunct core premises of the secularization thesis remain present in how scholars of religion justify why it is that philosophers of religion must not learn from the religious traditions they study—at least without falling prey to the common critique of becoming a crypto-theologian.

Though Onishi is himself not guilty of this, his analysis raises one of the most persistent concerns I have held for the narration of religious affiliation: namely, the insistence that many people who are not religious, upon closer examination, hold the same core attitudes that are the hallmark of religious experience. Framed otherwise, though I agree with Onishi’s critique of the secularization thesis, there remains the problem of the precedent that the secularization thesis poses for how the conversation regarding secularization functions in the first place. That is, if one identifies the secularization thesis as the status quo against which contemporary scholars of religion are to rebel, then even the most critical and generative analysis will leave secularism in a default position of hostility against religion. To be clear, this is not to suggest anything about compatibility models for science and religion, such as from Ian Barbour. Rather, what is consequential in this conversation is the how such a point of departure narrates the direction of the ideological hostility itself.

Above, the interior of the Nottingham, England Pitcher & Piano, which is housed in a building that was a Unitarian Church from 1876 to 1982. While Pitcher & Piano has 18 locations in the UK, this is the only one in a former house of worship. Image from the Pitcher & Piano website.

Put simply, Onishi’s analysis of post-secularity leaves me with the lingering suspicion that scholars of religion still retain the understanding of secularity as encroaching upon the territory of religion, and not the other way around. On this point, I must be careful not to overstate my concern. It is not so much that I view Onishi as arguing for a problematic understanding of the religious as prior to secularization; it is abundantly clear that his intention is more accurately to destabilize a facile binary between the sacred and the secular, which includes offering a more generous possibility for secular persons to participate in various forms of enchantment that were previously monopolized by faith traditions.

The problem as I see it is that this method of framing the evolving relation of secularity to religion presumes that enchantment is a primordially religious experience, which religious persons generously share with secularists who were just persecuting them. Allow me to explain.

Though I recognize that such a reference may risk placing me firmly back within a modernist framework where the secularization thesis reigns unchecked, on this matter I am continually haunted by one of the most compelling charges that Freud offers for conceptualizing the relation between religious and scientific Weltanschauungen—a bit of text that I foregrounded a recent volume with. In his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud interrogates the relation between secular science and the religious worldview in the following way.

The struggle of the scientific spirit against the religious Weltanschauung is, as you know, not at an end: it is still going on to-day under our eyes. […] Religion may not be critically examined because it is the highest, most precious, and most sublime thing that the human spirit has produced, because it gives expression to the deepest feelings and alone makes the world tolerable and life worthy of men [sic]. We need not reply by disputing this estimate of religion but by drawing attention to another matter. What we do is to emphasize the fact that what is in question is not in the least an invasion of the field of religion by the scientific spirit, but on the contrary an invasion by religion of the sphere of scientific thought. Whatever may be the value and importance of religion, it has no right in any way to restrict thought—no right, therefore, to exclude itself from having thought applied to it.[1]

One does not have to accept Freud’s critical vision of religion qua wish fulfillment to be persuaded by his account of the relation between secular science—of which Freud believes psychoanalysis is a part—and religion. More modestly, the historical priority of religion’s dominance should not suggest that any conflict with secularism is always a form of secular aggression as understood by the secularization thesis. Rather, Freud suggests, it is completely possible that science and secular persons are merely asserting their right to have space to breathe and carry out their work without impedance from religion. Any claim that secularism is encroaching upon religion is nothing more than a deluded persecution complex.

I offer the Freudian critique not to concern troll Onishi and McConeghy’s genuinely riveting interview. I broadly agree with Onishi’s conviction that being a secular person does not make one a secularist, that it is possible to hold an enchanted secularity, and that the decolonization of the philosophy of religion will be vital for clarifying these possibilities. My question, more concretely, is how we as philosophers of religion can create space for secular persons to be secular, without the presumption that any claim to meaning and enchantment is somehow co-opting religion. Practically speaking, this has little to do with secular persons feeling they have permission to be enchanted; anecdotally speaking, no secular person in my world feels particularly compelled to get approval from religion before they engage in a ritual practice, for example. Rather, as a philosopher of religion who is also not afraid to learn from faith traditions—some of which I unapologetically participate in—I am more specifically irked by scholars of religion such as Paul Tillich who narrate secular persons as facing a pathetic ultimatum: acquiescence to the meaningful domain of religion, or resignation to nihilism.

This is, naturally, a deplorable framing—one which I know Onishi and McConeghy would also reject. My suspicion, simply, that there is likely a parallel problem between the task of rejecting the secularization thesis, and the tired problem of overcoming metaphysics in the continental philosophy of religion. In other words, once the conversation is framed in those terms, even the most creatively valiant efforts to subvert them will only ever reaffirming their flawed premises. If my suspicion is correct—it may not be—then this is in no way an indictment of Onishi’s project. Rather, it is a worthwhile struggle with which I sympathize. I am grateful for his labor here.

[1] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1965), 209-10.

The Sacrality of the Secular and Philosophy of Religion

“It’s possible,” says Professor Bradley Onishi, “to hold an enchanted secularity” if we stop thinking of secularism as mere rationalism. In this week’s podcast, we hear about the ways in which philosophy of religion has thought “with” religion rather than for or against religion. Tracing alternative models of secularity through Martin Heidegger, Geoges Bataille, and others, Onishi calls on us to rethink how the philosophy of religion can help religious studies find different ways to frame the categories of secular and religious. As a resource in the academy, he says, religions themselves provide ways to question our basic assumptions about what religion does for us and look at our normative assumptions about anew.

 

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God and Mathematics

What does math have to do with religion? In his interview with Hans van Eyghen, author Chris Ransford discusses his latest book ‘God and the Mathematics of Infinity’. He discusses why mathematics is useful for thinking about religion, covering some of the conclusions he draws in the book.

 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu-Tang CD’s, Ramen, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

God and Mathematics

Podcast with Chris Ransford (12 February 2018).

Interviewed by Hans Van Eyghen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ransford_-_God_and_Mathematics_1.1

 

Hans Van Eyghen (HVE): Hello, I’m Hans Van Eyghen, I’m with Chris Ransford to discuss his latest book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity. Welcome, Chris. So, could you tell us a little bit about your project, about the book? What was your motivation behind this?

Chris Ransford (CR): Sure, Good morning, first! And thanks for having me on the show. This book, God and the Mathematics of Infinity, is actually part of a trilogy of books exploring the nature of reality. The motivation of that is because we are in the 21st century, and there is actually zero consensus in society as to what it is, this reality that we live in. So you have, at the one end of the spectrum people who still do believe in what is variously called materialism or physicalism, and at the other end of the spectrum you have fundamentalist religious people. And very often, of course, the truth has got to lie in-between, somewhere. But all my background, educational background, has demonstrated to me that mathematics is an extremely powerful tool to analyse the truth. And I have to immediately qualify this. A very large section of mathematics cannot be used to pronounce anything about external reality, simply because those parts of mathematics are predicated on axioms – which is foundational statements that are accepted at face value, that have not been proven. And on the basis of these axioms whole branches of mathematics are built such as geometry, let’s say. And they are internally consistent, but they cannot express anything about the ultimate truths of reality. On the other hand – the most important in my view and in other mathematicians’ view – part of mathematics is number theory. And numbers are actually not predicated on axioms, but on definition. In other words, one and one is called two. And that’s all there is to it. That’s a definition. And when you define one plus one is two, then very soon you have natural whole numbers, and then you have rational numbers, and then you have irrational numbers, and then you have infinities. And all of a sudden from the mere definition of two lions being two lions as opposed to one lion, a whole menagerie of very powerful numbers is born, out of which you can analyse – meaningfully analyse – reality. And one of my observations about, say, some religions and some atheistic people is that their pronouncements are totally susceptible to mathematical analysis based on numbers. And then you have a number of conclusions that you can draw from that. And, for instance, what religious people maybe do not understand about a mathematical analysis of God, it is actually not a mathematical analysis of God, per se. It’s a mathematical analysis of the consequences that flow from the attributes that are ascribed to Godhood. In other words . . . I’ll give you an example. If you define God as having infinite attributes, then the consequences of those infinite attributes are totally susceptible to analysis through the mathematics of infinity. Then you can conclude certain things. And you can conclude that certain things can possibly be and certain things cannot possibly be at all. And I am observing, in the current world, a debate between let us call them either religious or spiritual types on the one side and the atheistic or materialists on the other side. What I have observed, somewhat unfortunately, is that more and more the materialistic side seems to be winning the argument and they win the argument for a number of reasons and all of these reasons are actually susceptible, once again, to mathematical analysis. And one of the reasons why they win is because they conflate spirituality – the essence of what maybe religions have been trying to talk about for centuries – with the trappings of religions, meaning all the sometimes very silly trappings, such as singing hymns and reliance on ancient texts of literature and everything: all things that are actually epiphenomena of religion, but do not touch the core. And so the analysis by mathematics will enable you, first of all, to avoid things that are frankly quite infuriating in religion, such as the development, on the part of a number of big religions, of leaps of faith. Leaps of faith in this day and age, the 21st century, are not acceptable. And if a demand for such is maintained educated people, intelligent people, and more and more people in the 21st, 22nd, and so-on, centuries are going to leave religion, because in the modern age this is not an acceptable way of doing things. And, especially, leaps of faith are totally amenable to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example. Some leaps of faith will lead to a contradiction in terms – and some have got to give way – and some will not. For instance, let us take the example of an acceptable leap of faith that would be – in totally non-religious terms – that would be the leap of faith of the person who buys a lottery ticket. A lottery ticket would have one chance in some million, you know, odds of gaining the jackpot, but it’s not impossible. So, in that sense, the leap of faith is acceptable. But the leap of faith that says that an infinite entity can be second-guessed by people who have limited IQs, a limited lifetime on earth and everything; the mathematics shows you that it’s a contradiction in terms. It is not possible that something infinite be properly appreciated, properly processed and properly comprehended by a receptacle that is finite. So we have to analyse all these sort of things. And on the other side of the aisle is, exactly likewise, susceptible to mathematical analysis. And I’ll give you an example, and then I’ll give you the floor. The ongoing argument that everything is materialist, and so on, is a bankrupt argument, because theoretical physics demonstrates that matter ultimately doesn’t exist. Matter is the vibrations of the quantum vacuum, of the vacuum. And matter reduces to vibrations of nothingness. And that’s the mathematics, that’s a fact. So people who predicate their reasoning on simply, you know, the fact that what you see is what you get, and that matter is all there is, are demonstrably wrong. And I will illustrate this by telling you about the latest book I’ve read. I’ve just read a book by a well-known philosopher. And one third, one big third of the book is given over to analysing physicalism. And that illustrates to me the absolute necessity to use mathematics. If that philosopher instead of philosophising and looking at the pros and cons and eventually – after one full third of the book – not settling the issue, had actually used mathematics instead, the mathematics is and the theoretical physics is that matter is vibrations of vacuums and that hence, therefore, matter cannot be the fundamental feature of reality or the fundamental trait of reality, and that therefore we have to move beyond matter to try to understand the fundaments of reality. And that, to me, illustrates the absolute necessity to bring mathematics into reasoning. We are in an age where we have on the one hand people like Isis, on the other side of the aisle we have people like Richard Dawkins who heaps scorn on millions and millions of people who say they have experienced something that they couldn’t explain. Both attitudes are not sustainable; both attitudes are not bringing us further into the 21st century and it’s absolutely time for us to have a new approach to the ultimate nature of reality: not use the science of last century, such as physicalism; but also not use the frankly bankrupt arguments that go “I base my worldview on a book of ancient literature written in a pre-scientific age, and my book is better than yours.” That is not sustainable. We’ve got to stop having that kind of argument. And it’s only at the price, or at the cost of stopping those arguments that we’ll be evolving into a discourse on matters of spirituality – maybe religion – and reality, that goes beyond the current debates that frankly are not taking us any further.

HVE: Ok, thank you. I want to get into the point of not being able to second-guess God’s intentions, God’s commands. You’re probably aware that that’ll be a far stretch for many religious believers. But I was wondering, doesn’t that exclude the whole concept of revelation, in a way? What do you do with people who claim to have such knowledge?

CR: OK, that’s fair enough. But it does, to a very large extent, and let me tell you why. The issue we have with most religions – virtually all, but this we can qualify – is that they rely for the message – if there is such a thing – the message of the Godhead – not specifying further who that Godhead is – they rely on words, be they oral words, be they texts. And the fundamental issue with that, we have to ask ourselves: is human language a capable vehicle, a possible vehicle to convey the words of a Godhead? And mathematically, as I will just show, there are at least four separate reasons why it is not the proper vehicle. It’s not the proper vehicle for at least four independent mathematical reasons. And the bottom line of those reasons is that human language is so inherently limited. So we could have an ideal human language but it cannot convey God-like thoughts. Because God-like thoughts are, by definition, infinite and they reflect a certain mode of thinking that cannot be expressed by the vehicle of the human language. And let me give you, if that’s ok, let me give you four reasons. The first one is very simple and it’s agreed to by all religions, including religions of the (audio unclear). It is what is called in mathematics Tarski’s theorem or the undefinability theorem, which very simply states that the proof of any statement cannot be possibly made from inside the language that makes the statement. It’s very easy to understand if I tell you, “This car is blue,” I cannot prove from inside the English language that the car is blue. I need external corroboration, which is quite obvious. The second proof is a little bit more subtle, but it’s exactly the same thing as the Mercator projection in map-making. In map-making, if you want to degrade by one dimension, you massively warp and distort the map that you’re trying to convey. If you look at the map of the world on Mercator, or for that matter any other projection, the point which is the pole becomes actually as long as the equator. So something rips. It’s like if you were going to flatten an orange upon a table – something rips, and by the process of ripping you sustain a huge loss of meaning of the data that’s being conveyed. Look at any Mercator map on the wall. Greenland is actually less than 1/4 of the size of Australia. Any map of the world shows Greenland bigger than Australia. And so on and so forth. And that’s just by going down one dimension. And if you go by two dimensions you would have to project onto a segment and all would be lost. Now let me give you an example with language. If you’re going to want to say, for instance, you’re going to want to translate into normal language Einstein’s works that space and time are the same thing; you’re going to write a book about Einsteinian physics and you’re going to entitle the book Space-Time. Now that’s wrong. You have actually prioritised space over time by writing space-time. And now you try the other way round- Time-Space- same problem. And finally you hit upon the solution which is to go up by one dimension and write it in a loop. And when you write space-time in a loop you have no priority; no first and no second element. And by going up two elements you have solved a problem of something that you couldn’t properly express in the English language, because of its linearity. And to demonstrate that this linearity is true, try to tell your publisher over the phone that you write space-time on the front of your book, you can’t. You have to write meta-data, which means you have to explain how to do it, because the language doesn’t allow you to that. And if you are talking of an infinite mind expressing God-like thoughts, you multiply this by infinity. You’re not having 2-d down to 1-d, you’re having infinity-d down to 1-d – which is the language that is used in ancient texts. Now let me give you a third reason. There exists a well-known phenomenon which is called emergence. Emergence is that whenever any constituent element to something becomes very big – not necessarily infinite – then you have all kinds of totally unpredictable phenomena that start happening. And when left alone. When things become infinite then you have a plethora of inherently unpredictable things that start happening. So for an IQ of 100 or 200 or 300, trying to second guess or to understand an IQ equivalent of infinity, simply the simple phenomenon of emergence cannot let you do that. And, really, if you had a . . . I hate the word prophet, but if you had a soothsayer or a translator of what the Godhead says, he or she would fall victim to the dimensional issue that I was talking on earlier. So you cannot get out of it. And the last element – there are more – but the last element I would like to quote here. Apart from the undefinability theorem, apart from the dimensional issue which is un-crackable, apart from the phenomenon of emergence which you cannot possibly predict or foretell, there’s also the phenomenon – very often in human religion – of circular reasoning. In other words, and to caricature it: “It’s true because the Bible says it’s true.” And I’ve seen that in my classes, in my Sunday classes. I have heard a lot of those arguments. And I find it a pity that we are still there in the 21st century because that gives ammunition to the Richard Dawkins set, if you like, who deny any spirituality even though there’s overwhelming proof out there that there is such a thing as spirituality. There is such a thing as higher dimensions and everything. All those things give ammunition to this set of people who cast scorn and aspersion on anybody who has a spiritual component to knock it, scoff at it, say that it’s all delusions, liars and straw that weaker minds are clutching at. And I find it very, very problematic and very regrettable that this be the case. And what I want to say, if we do not move into a rational intelligent type of spirituality, spirituality will lose the debate in the coming decades, let alone the 22nd century. And that will be a huge loss for humankind.

HVE: Ok. I want to get into the conclusions you draw in the book, about God’s attributes. Some are quite classical, some widely accepted, at least if you have a religion, like all-knowingness, almightiness. But some are quite surprising. Could you maybe elaborate on those, the surprising conclusions you draw?

CR: Which one?

HVE: The one, for example, about God being present in everything.

CR: That’s very good. That exactly another, for me, absolutely essential proofs that the use of mathematics is indispensable. The debate between what was called immanence or transcendence has been a debate that has gone on for a very long time. But it has never been settled by theologians. And you have two schools of thought. So in all religions some think that God is everywhere, and some think that, if God exists, that God is in a privileged realm, somewhere, a heaven and only forays into lesser realms or other areas, when needed. The problem is, you can analyse that mathematically and on the basis of theoretical physics. And the analysis is not entirely obvious because you have to analyse time first. How could . . . . If God is not present anywhere, then if God would want to cast an eye on something that happened it would have to go back in time and there are all sorts of issues. But the demonstration that you get from that is that there is a stark mathematical contradiction between saying that a God would be all-powerful and omniscient – in other words all-knowing – and the fact that it would have Godly attributes. So it would actually negate the Godly attributes. So you cannot have it both ways. The possibility of God, of which mathematics itself – for reasons which I’ll go into in a minute – cannot actually determine . . . . If there is a God then that God must, if it is going to be divine – in other words if it’s going to actually have the attributes that are reputed to be its attributes by religions and spirituality, that actually constitute its very essence of being God, its very Godhood – then it must be present everywhere. And if you speculate, there are ways that this is totally compatible with the current world. I believe that the image of a personal God is not possible for all sorts of reasons. It’s not a bearded man in the sky or some equivalent of that. It’s not possible. But what is possible is that it’s a higher dimensional mind that actually moves through space-time in such a way as creating something that is not entirely circumscribed, and there would be reasons for that. Surprisingly – something that very few non-mathematicians appreciate fully – you can actually grow infinity. Infinity per se is not simply infinity. You can actually grow infinity. And if you do have an infinite God, put yourself in its shoes for two minutes and look what happens. You have basically two solutions. You can just soar upon nothingness and everything. The cost of that is that you are going to become a static God, and if that happens you are actually going to lose some of your divinity. Because what you’re going to become is a curator of something that is becoming a museum universe. You know the past, the future, you know the extension of space-time everywhere and nothing ever fundamentally changes. So you are infinite, but you’re an infinite museum curator because nothing changes. So your option out of that, and the thing that will preserve and uphold your divinity, your Godhood, is actually to have a universe that can grow. And the universe that can grow is not a trivial proposition. You will find, if you analyse in certain ways, you will find that you cannot grow it in certain dimensions: you can certainly grow it in a three dimensional space or +1 dimension time, but there are certain dimensions that are closed to you. And that is quite compatible, in some ways, with one of the advances in cosmology. You know that in cosmology a lot of very reputable physicists have tried to understand the Big Bang. And there’s many scenarios that actually give rise to a Big Bang. Many totally different scenarios that would lead to our seeing the Big Bang the way we see it. But it could be quantum fluctuation in a parent universe; it could be colliding super-brains in a 5-d space-time; it could be the existence of time before itself; it could be the bouncing universes and the bouncing universes have different ways of happening – there’s the Penrose way, there are some other ways. But what all of those scenarios have in common, in our quest to understand the Big Bang, is that they all require something to have been there before the Big Bang. So the best minds both in cosmology, in information theory, in many different ways, tried to understand and tried to work out how the Big Bang can happen from absolute nothingness. And the results were extremely interesting. The only plausible scenario was that the Big Bang could happen out of nothingness only if the disembodied laws of mathematics – so at least some disembodied laws of mathematics – existed prior anyway. So you come to a road where even if a Big Bang as we know it didn’t come from something material – such as a false vacuum, such as a prior universe, such as anything – it came from this incarnate mind. Because another way of proving it, with wave functions etc., the mathematical laws in that case would be alive. So you come to a possibility that the whole universe is actually part of . . . . If I may express it that way – it sounds terribly religious – and that’s for lack of a better word . . . . But the whole universe including your cup of coffee, the pen, a galaxy somewhere is part of the body of God. So that leads to a place where what we call God is not somebody personal, is not somebody judgemental, but it’s somebody alive, that has a possibility of disincarnate existence, that lets universes happen for very specific reasons. And those specific reasons are to grow, to grow infinity itself. And then we have a reconcilable of image of spirituality and science. And this is the only way that I see a place, the only proper way where we can reconcile the two. And all of a sudden, all of the sciences that were banished, such as studies – as you may be aware there’s a lot of studies on altered states of consciousness and so on. And all those studies are pooh-poohed by modern science because they are all afraid that it’s going to link them with religions with funny hats, with judgementalisms, with associations with books that were basically the Stephen King novels of 2000 years ago and when there was no understanding of anything, at a time when very, very few people knew how to write and they wrote what they could. They thought that earthquakes were the acts of God, they thought that diseases were the acts of God, etc., etc. And to become associated with that, of course, it’s a sure-fire killer in careers of science – as it should be. But the problem is we are stuck there right now. We are stuck in this rut where we either have the Isis people or we have the Richard Dawkins, and both of them have areas that they call no-go. It is haram – or whatever the word is – in certain regions to ask questions. It’s forbidden in almost all of them. Science does kind-of the same thing. When confronted with things it cannot explain under the current science, scientists sweep it under the rug as well. And take all the conflicts on earth today. They fundamentally all arise from that. And we’re not talking something that is not massive. We have massive conflicts. We have people who suffer immensely, like all those girls subjected to female circumcision because of ancient texts and everything. And we seem to be stuck in this course. And we have very many people who have experienced something that they can’t explain. And the explanations of Richard Dawkins just do not wash with them. So what do they do? They go back to those who say they know better, although they do not, and that perpetuates the cycle and the stand-off where we are stuck right now. The stand-off. And what I’m trying to say, we need to move forward. This is the 21st century. We need to free ourselves from spiritual reliance on ancient texts. And there’s no justification where those ancient texts should be deemed as being the corner-stones of modern-day religions – absolutely not. And you can prove they’re not suitable for the job. But we should also move from where that leads science to, which is wholesale rejection of whole areas of human knowledge. And we’re stuck, we’re not moving, which is the reason why I wrote this book, which is my second book in the understanding of the nature of reality. And, again, if you believe in God you believe in a totally different reality than if you don’t. If you believe in materiality, as in Aristotelian physicalism, then you believe in a form of the universe that other people do not believe in. And the whole point of the book is to say the force and the strength of mathematics is that it can actually analyse that intelligently, and enable progress.

HVE: Ok, thank you. We’re running out of time here. Time flies . . . . One last question, because it will be on people’s minds, is the existential question. You refrain from answering it in the book, so you reach a limit there.

CR: Yes. It will be part of my next book. Very quickly, I’ll try to tell you where I come from. Three hundred years ago we didn’t know where earthquakes, where lightening etc. came from. We had no idea, we didn’t understand atoms, electricity, tectonic plates, microbes. We’re still very close to that. The cutting edge of science has to do with wave functions. And things like this are not very well-known now, but that will actually further our understanding. And in the book I’m quoting somebody who’s actually atheistic, who’s a very well-known university professor in the US, who says we must define God in a certain way. And as she explains it – and I explain part of it in the book – the question: “Do you believe in God?” is meaningless. You have to define your terms. You have to define what God is. And my next book will try to answer this in the light of modern science. And we have to shed our preconceptions on everything. And I think we can actually come close to a definition that would be acceptable to most people, and in which we would say, “Well yes. This does exist.” And this can be construed as actually being a Godhead, and it has to be defined. And it’s got nothing to do with the personal God of the Abrahamic regions. But it has to do with the fact that there is something there that we’re not seeing at the moment, and with the fact that to appreciate that, and to begin – to use an old phrase – to touch the face of God, we have to have enhanced our knowledge, not simply to atoms, electricity, tectonic plates and bacteria but a lot more. And this is what science worldwide is in the process of doing. It will take us I believe another 200-300-400 years but we will get there. We shouldn’t jump the gun by saying we know already. No, we’re still in the process of building up our arsenal of knowledge tools that will let us put our arms around the concept.

HVE: Ok. Thank you. I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much.

CR: My pleasure. Thank you for your time.

Citation Info: Ransford, Chris, and Hans Van Eyghen. 2018. “God and Mathematics”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 9 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/god-and-mathematics/

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Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

‘Religion is Natural and Science is Not’

Communicating with your favorite God or gods, forest spirit, or Jinn – easy. Postulating that the entire universe is held together by theorizing the process of quantum entanglement, informed from a personal commitment to philosophical a priories, which are based on measurements of the physical properties of said universe – harder. Introduction aside: ‘religion is natural and science is not’, at least according to philosopher and cognitive scientist of religion Dr. Robert N. McCauley.

In this view, ‘popular religion’ (i.e. attributing agency to inanimate objects, belief in spirits, belief in the supernatural – not to be confused with creating ‘theologies’ or ‘catechisms’) typically arises naturally from human cognitive faculties. ‘Naturally’, meaning at an early age in the course of normal human development, requiring little-to-no encouragement or support from the environment, and with likely origins stretching far back into our evolutionary history. However, science often proceeds rather counter-intuitively (Feyerabend, 1993) and requires practice (i.e. learning and repetition), as well as institutions to support its proliferation and credibility (e.g. universities and agencies such as the National Science Foundation). Your average 8 year old might hold a belief in what McCauley and Lawson term as a “culturally postulated superhuman agent” (2002) such as a god, Jinn or the Tooth Fairy, but they are unlikely to be donning a white lab coat and analyzing the output from a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the 'religion is natural, science is not' thesis.

RSP Editors in Chief Christopher Cotter and David Robertson provide a colorful illustration of the ‘religion is natural, science is not’ thesis.

In Robert McCauley’s interview with Thomas Coleman for the RSP on why Religion is Natural and Science is Not, McCauley begins by presenting a “new twist” in the ongoing dialogue between science and religion by exploring, and comparing, each concept from a cognitive standpoint taking into account the thought processes required to support both religion and science. He gives a brief outline of a dual process model of cognition (e.g. thinking fast vs. thinking slow) drawing an important distinction between two forms of ‘fast thinking’, labeled as “practiced naturalness” and “maturational naturalness”. The former arises only after some type of cultural instruction, arriving late in our evolutionary past and may require a special artifact (e.g. being taught to ride a bike requires a bike!), while the latter arises ‘easily’ in the course of human development, is evolutionarily old and the only special artifact required is the mind (e.g. by age 3 the majority of children in the world are walking).

In exploring precisely ‘what’s in a name’ McCauley clarifies how he uses the terms “religion” and “science” stating that maturationally natural processes are required for religion, whereas, practiced naturalness is required for science. In closing, he addresses an important question. If ‘religious cognition’ is natural, what does this mean for people who lack a belief in God? McCauley offers up one possible avenue of explanation, putting forth the idea that variations may occur in an individual’s Theory Of Mind, or, the degree to which one can perceive the mental states of other conspecifics, thus affecting that person’s ability to mentally represent a super natural agent by giving it ontological veridicality.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

References:

  • Feyerabend, P. (1993). Against method. London: Verso.
  • Mccauley, R. N. & Lawson, E. T. (2002). Bringing ritual to mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.