A house under construction

The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe, John Haught, Yale University Press.

The argument of John Haught’s The New Cosmic Story is that part of the universe’s continuing development is an awakening to what he calls ‘rightness’, for want of a better term. In this view, scientists and philosophers have not taken seriously the emergence of religion (alongside consciousness), which, rather than being some sort of outdated rival to science, has been oriented towards this rightness.  Religion may point to truth, beauty and purpose being fundamental goals of the universe, rather than illusions or accidents.

Haught contrasts three views of the universe – first, an atheist materialist one that says that the universe has no ultimate purpose and that it can be explained by looking back and down at the building blocks of the universe, namely matter. Materialists suggest that science explains all, including religious intuitions. Ironically, says Haught, they do so with a strong sense of the ‘rightness’ of their opinions.

The second view is of some religious believers, from Buddhist to Christian, who treat the universe as imperfect and who look forward to escape. For them also, the universe has little purpose except to be endured until we enter a perfect one. In contrast, Haught writes of a third, anticipatory worldview that sees subjectivity and morality as part of the universe, not an accidental by-product, and evolving along with actual matter.

By way of analogy, we might suggest the universe in Haught’s thought is a house under construction. Materialists suggest that it can be explained by looking back at when the materials were ordered and the inevitability of bricklayers laying one brick on top of another, but think it is silly to entertain thoughts of it being built for a purpose. Religious escapists see the rain pouring through holes in the unfinished roof and declare that we should ignore this imperfect, inadequate structure, as other perfect and finished dwellings are available for purchase. For Haught, the house is being built for habitation but its final shape is only envisaged, not complete.

At times it seems Haught has little evidence to back up his view, and can only state it repeatedly, albeit in increasingly poetic and elegant terms. But he would counter that this is taking the scientistic view. Instead we can take the universal emergence of religious explanations among many cultures as indications that there is more in the universe than can be explained by science, but that this way of seeing is through a glass darkly, and works subjectively and intuitively.

Some may catch a whiff of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s work behind all this, and certainly Haught builds on it while making his own case. Teilhard de Chardin’s work is not universally accepted, but it does have biblical resonance. In the New Testament, the concept of the Kingdom of God is one that has already begun. Christians are working on it already, with the help of God, anticipating that it will come to completion and perfect both heaven and earth, renewing the whole of creation, not just individual souls whisked off to enjoy heaven. This is a somewhat more specific reading than Haught gives. He is more concerned with the rise of religion in general alerting us to the possible teleology of the universe, a surmise certainly at odds with most cosmologists, who tend to look backwards rather than forwards.


Signs and wonders

Miracles: A Very Short Introduction, Yujin Nagasawa, Oxford University Press

You may know a miracle when you see one, but they are not so easy enough to define. Or so it seems from this book in Oxford’s ‘A Very Short Introduction’ series. For a small book, philosopher Yujin Nagasawa spends a lot of pages discussing what are not miracles, but that is because he is carefully winnowing potential cases and moving towards the definition of a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature that is caused by an intentional agent and has religious significance’.

That explanation may indicate, correctly, that the book is less a celebration of miracles and more an attempt to figure out philosophically what miracles are, and, crucially, whether they are possible and why people still believe in them. Nagasawa writes that they are impossible from the standpoint of the laws of nature, but logically possible. Whether they actually happen is a question he leaves somewhat hanging, perhaps reflecting the fact that in the modern world we are not sure exactly what to make of them. After-all, one can be religious and reject miracles. Conversely, more Americans believe in miracles than they do in life after death.

It would be almost miraculous to discuss miracles without discussing eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, who famously made the somewhat circular argument that miracles don’t happen because they can’t happen, though he also sniffily discounted them because they tended to be believed by the lower, uneducated classes. It’s good to be sceptical about miracles. If they happened every five minutes their currency would be devalued. But then again it is no good to suggest that the laws of nature prohibit miracles, because that would be to misunderstand that miracles are by their very nature unnatural.

Miracles can take many forms: levitation, teleportation, bilocation, transfiguration, walking on water, controlling the elements, transforming matter and finding the image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast (supposedly). Jesus was known primarily for his miracles of healing and exorcism, as noted by the ancient historian Josephus. But Jesus also warned not to get carried away by signs and wonders, which prompts Nagasawa to go somewhat off-topic again to suggest that what is most remarkable about religion is, even if it is not exactly miraculous, its tendency to inspire altruism.

(Originally reviewed for Insights and Crosslight magazines)

Starting with the body

Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women takes its clever title from her art criticism, but the heart of the book is a long, compelling, riveting, thoroughly researched and intricately thought-through essay on the mind/body philosophical problem, with personal touches often missing from discourses on the subject. She attacks it from a feminist angle, in the sense that she starts with the body, especially the female body, and the bond between mother and child, beginning in the womb, and unravels the masculine bias often submerged in Cartesian or evolutionary approaches (such as that of Richard Dawkins, whom she labels, interestingly, a Platonist). Importantly, she criticises over and over the stridency of arguments and the lame assertions that evidence for particular points of view (that consciousness is an illusion, we are just machines, etc., that we will soon create AI) will be forthcoming, just you wait and see. (Such lame ‘we don’t have the answer yet but we will, therefore our hypothesis is correct’ arguments are also roasted by, amongst others, David Bentley Hart in his book The Experience of God.)

Instead she pleads for recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the problem, and argues for the need to genuinely express doubt (perhaps another masculine area of weakness), especially, she says, since doubt is often a catalyst for innovative thinking, and not merely a weakness in argument or a reluctance to learn.

Evolution from and in debt to

Alister McGrath, in his latest book, says that no modern philosophers are asking about the meaning of life because it is (to them) an embarrassingly crude subject matter. This is not entirely true, although perhaps academic philosophers regard the popular philosophising of the likes of Alain de Botton, John Armstrong or Terry Eagleton as barely worthy of the name philosophy. The disregard seems to be mutual. Anyway, John Kaag (above) in his recent  American Philosophy paints a similar picture of contemporary philosophy’s allergy to the everyday. Kaag argues for the relevance of said American philosophy of a bygone age, particularly that of the pragmatic philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey.

A philosophy lecturer, Kaag stumbles across the library in New England of Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher and educator, a student of William James, a key contributor to the literature on the sociology of religion, and a correspondent of Robert Frost and others. Kaag has the task of working out how to preserve and offload the library, while keeping some semblance of its worth as a whole. Amidst his discoveries of gasp-inducing first editions of various Western classics with handwritten notes and dedications from authors, Kaag weaves the tale of American philosophy’s evolution from and debt to European philosophy, emphasising both that American philosophy was not as autonomous as it is often portrayed and that it beat its own individual, enterprising path. As in an undergraduate course, he introduces Hobbes, Hegel, Descartes, Kant and James, as well as lesser known figures such as Jane Addams and Pearl Buck.

Not only does Kaag argue for an older, more relevant style of philosophy, but he ties it to his personal experience of getting over a divorce and alcoholism and falling in love again. Rather than just telling of American philosophy’s practicality, he applies it to his own situation, and the result is a beautifully entwined memoir and summary, even if at times his own circumstances tend to accentuate what is personally relevant from the works of various philosophers. For example, he says that Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is ‘actually’ about Coleridge’s marriage. Well, yes, but also so much more, as Malcolm Guite relates in detail in his recent glowing study of the man and the poem, Mariner (Hodder & Stoughton).

A kind of materialist

Materialism, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising, even if he writes with common sense and a minimum of theoretical verbiage. In his latest book he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) particularly in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around, and that material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche held similar views about the roots of our ideas, spurned bourgeois philosophy in favour of brutal honesty and could see to the dark heart of things. (His celebrated ‘God is dead’ was meant to alert people to the fact that they spoke of God but acted as if He didn’t exist.) But Nietzsche got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling conditions of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself. (Those on the left in thrall to Nietzsche tend to conveniently overlook his fascist views, says Eagleton.)

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also, writes Eagleton, undervalued philosophy’s power. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled. It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion, but Jesus, who is supposedly God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ teachings typically had a materialist bent – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, feed the hungry, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

And Christians are not just souls waiting for heaven, but material beings (of a ‘highly specific kind’, says Eagleton) working through the animation of the Holy Spirit for a better world. Neither are we just minds, but connected to other people through our bodily needs.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

Appealing to conservatives and atheists

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard can appeal to conservatives, atheists, fervent believers and critics of the church. He is claimed as a Lutheran and an existentialist. He influenced Karl Barth, Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer, but also Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. Equally, he could offend anyone, in his own life and beyond, as his critical gaze takes in most of human folly. He was precocious and aloof but also physically impaired. He treated his ex-fiancee dreadfully but also saw and responded to the humanity in all the people with whom he talked in the streets of Copenhagen.

Summaries of his thought and his life can be daunting, which makes Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan) a feat, even though, admits Backhouse, Kierkegaard himself deplored such reductionism. The subtitle, ‘A Single Life’ refers to the ‘single individual’, Kierkegaard’s term for the individual who stands with authenticity apart from the crowd, something that Kierkegaard increasingly came to embody, as he became mired in slanging matches in the press and ultimately became a figure of public ridicule, so much so that he could no longer take his daily walks in the city. Backhouse outlines the scandals and trials, and also, fascinatingly, how Kierkegaard’s thought disseminated across the globe until he reached his place in the pantheon of the greatest of Western philosophers.

Where are the philosophical books?


When we think of Art with a capital ‘A’ we tend to think of paintings in galleries, in public galleries most of all, of superstar artists, and of the viewing of art as some sort of reverent, contemplative experience, much like, no doubt the experience of pilgrims viewing relics or taking the stations of the cross in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it is not an uncommon analogy to liken art galleries to cathedrals, or to declare that art galleries have replaced churches as the place for transcendent experience. Or at least that is the kind of bourgeois or elitist view of things, and it is that elitism that philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff rightly takes a shot at in his latest book Art Rethought. After-all, as he says, where are the philosophical books about the deeper meaning of memorials? Or quilting or folk songs? Why when we think of the philosophy of art do we automatically assume we are talking about Western painting? (We might think that something like Australian indigenous art is an exception, but most Australians still encounter it as painting in a gallery in an aesthetic contemplation experience.)

To answer this we have to, as Wolterstorff does, take stock of the ‘grand narrative’ of the trajectory of modern art, realise it is a narrative and not just the way the world must be. And then we might have to, as Wolterstorff does, look at some outsider art, in the wide sense of the term as being outside the elite art establishment, think about what it does and why it is of value and then we might decide that ‘transcendence’ is not the only criteria to judge art on. Wolterstorff makes a great case here for the value of art as propaganda (in the generous sense of the word) or as craft or as made for purposes other than simply aesthetic contemplation (as worthy as that is of itself). He suggests that when we view art in galleries we are actually viewing if often outside of its original purpose (as political statement or as a means of conveying religious messages, say). Take, for example, he says, Bach, who never wrote music outside of the purpose of worship within a church. Aesthetics and other purposes are not mutually exclusive of course, but aesthetics are not the only gig in town. Besides, suggesting art is merely aesthetics can also be a cover for other, non-aesthetic agenda.

As an example of artists denigrated, or at least ignored, because they are not purely aesthetically-focussed, Wolterstorff discusses the German artist Kathe Kollwitz (below), who not only made visual art in a medium that was not painting, but made strongly political statements with her enthusiasm for the working poor in her (beautiful) prints and drawings. Not that she is unknown, but she has not received her due precisely because she had a non-aesthetically exclusive agenda. And yes, Van Gogh and Picasso and others had their pieces to say too, but they were secondary to the aesthetic innovation they are famous for. It is, as Wolterstorff says, that if an artist makes art for a purpose other than aesthetics, the art is somehow lessened and heavy-handed. In fact, says, Wolterstorff, a philosopher well-known for writing about justice, it is creating more injustice to dismiss art made for the purpose of confronting injustice as mere propaganda. It is to his credit that Wolterstorff patiently, and in a very philosophically methodical way, points all this out.