From mid February to early March, N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, where I am presently doing a Master as part of the Logos Institute, presented a series of 8 lectures as part of the Gifford Lectures as the University Aberdeen, with the focus of addressing topics as it pertains to natural theology. Natural theology has been a particular topic of interest for many of my classmates, particularly those influenced by Karl Barth which includes myself in a qualified sense, so it has been talk of the Logos program the past few weeks. However, despite hearing about it, I never attended nor had I yet to watch any of them, until I watched the first one today. So, my hopeful attempt is to do an eight post blog series with my own personal reflections, responses, and meanderings from Professor Wright’s lectures. For those interested, YouTube links to the entire series may be accessed here, but I will embed the YouTube video for each post.
1) I am not qualified as a historian, therefore to evaluate the historical relationship between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment needs to be qualified only towards what a comparison of ther system of ideas in Epicurean and Enlightment philosophy and not how and to what extend Epicureanism was historically transmitted to 18th century Europe. I certainly can see and understand the similarities between Epicureanism and the world we live in following the Enlightenment. However, my critique rests in the tendency to label an event by one period of history as a recapitulation of another period of history, either in the form of retroactive anachronism or attribution of historical causation and influence leading to the diminishment of novel ideas of later cultures. In their basic epistemological notions, Epicureanism (or should say Democriteanism) and Enlightenment do share many similarities in their metaphysical view of the material world as a combination of smaller parts. As such, understanding is derived from trying the functions of the smaller pieces in order to how they make up the whole. As a result, there is a certain resistance to the idea of external causation, where some entity, particularly God, comes from the “outside” to influence the system; causation is principally limited to internal causation with only qualified allowed of external causes if they were material of origin, such as Darwinian attributing the diversification of the specifies in part to selection pressures of the environment. Thus both Epicureanism and Enlightenment thinking have an epistemology that 1) by default looks towards internal causation and 2) if it must look outward, must attribute it to sensible/material causes.
But with these similarities, there are some important differences between Epicureanism and the (Post-)Enlightenment, both of which pertain to metaphysics. Epicureanism is more methodical than metaphysical, in that the emphasis on knowledge is placed not on materiality, as in the Post-Enlightenment, but on the senses. For Epicurus, all sensation is true. Now certainly, we can certainly derive the Enlightenment definition of the material world as being grounded upon all that can potentially be observed by the classical senses, particularly sight and sound, and then can be extended to include anything can be detected by our instruments and every justifiable theory that we metaphorically derives from the material world (such as the modern ideas of dark matter and energy as metaphors of “regular” matter and energy.) But in deriving this definition, we should note that a subtle difference is that modern sciences are more expressly metaphysical than simply focused on an epistemological method that values sensation as true as in Epicureanism.
Secondly, Epicureanism posited different domains for the world we live in and the gods that were mutually excluded from each other. The importance of this difference was rooted in the management of people’s emotions so as to avoid concern that they might anger the gods. As with much of Hellenistic philosophy, it was much more concern with practical matters about a way of life in avoiding mental discomfort, which Epicurus referred to as ataraxia. In that sense, Epicurean metaphysics was much more in service to how one should live. By contrast, the pronounced trajectory of Enlightenment thinking is towards the metaphysical rejecting of anything not material in materialist reductionism. Even if one does not take such a strong stance, the reason a “rational” person does not really put too much stock into that whole religious thing boils down to the high value of “reason”, however that is to be defined, rather than a sympathetic concern for human existential worry. To that end, the Enlightenment shares more in common with Stoicism’s value of reason, minus the shearing off of Stoicism’s pan(en)theistic cosmology.
The end result is that the modern world influenced by the Enlightenment has more of a metaphysical basis for its views towards religion than Epicureanism. And as such, it also reflects distinctly different ways of addressing theological questions.
2) However, insofar as the similarities do exist between Epicureanism and the Enlightenment due to historical influence and other shares factors, there is a valid point to bring forth about the basic epistemological framework of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment. When we try to make sense of the world, there are two different modes we employ that lead us to draw inferences in different ways: knowing our focus as an object and knowing our focus as a person.1 This is to recast Martin Buber’s famous distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships with a more expressly psychological/phenomenological understand. In knowing our focus as an object, we are focused principally on how an object we perceive through our sensory data is relevant to our desires, whether they are more basic, physiological desires or less immediately visceral desires such as those stemming from asking questions out of intellectual curiosity. Our knowledge is reduced to what can be immediately perceived and is analyzed in accordance to their relevance to what it is we desire. By contrast, in knowing our focus as a person, we necessarily must project our own mental life onto the other person since we have no direct means by which we can sense another person’s mind; we necessarily and always fill that gap in with our own experiences, both in the moment but also the experiences embedded in our own memories that we can use to simulate another person’s feelings if even we do not share that same feeling at that moment. In this context, the relationship between desires and projection exists in such a way such that we tend to see our desires occurring in the other person. However, often times our projections are in error, and so our focus may provide feedback that can shed light on when we are in error and adjust our thinking accordingly.
Epicureanism works principally from an object(ive) epistemology; Epicurus’ explicit concern was to facilitate human well-being and happiness so that his focus on knowledge was related to the desire for happiness and avoidance of worry. His focus on sensation is consistent with objectification. Similarly, the Enlightenment employed a similar methodology, although via the claims of the distinterested knower the Enlightenment often times cloaked the way desire controlled the acquisition and formation of knowledge. However, this heritage in the sciences continued such that science has attempted to understand people in a manner that resembles the object(ive) mode more than the personal/subject(ive) mode. In its most blatant form was the psychological field of behaviorism, but it is common in various other social sciences such as sociology measurement of people groups via statistics or cognitive psychology’s metaphor of the mind as an information-processing machine/computer. As a result, modern scientific theory about people falls short in actual practice of relating to persons, and I would even say about God. This practice reflects the more metaphysical nature of the Enlightenment and modern science., whereas Epicurus was much more at home engaging with people as he extolled the virtues of friendship; he did not objectify people, or even the God or the idea of God, as modern Enlightenment/scientific perspectives are apt to do. In this way, the Enlightenment more resembles Epicureanism’s cousin Stoicism, which tended to minimize and eschew the nature of personal attachments.
Thus, when it comes to the question of natural theology, and even theology as a whole including revelation, there are differences in what we will come to believe based upon whether we are attempting to understand God via an object epistemology or a personal epistemology. The different methodologies stemming from these two basic modes, both in implicit forms and when they become more explicit, leads to very different results as they value epistemic sources differently and they will employ differing grounds of justification. However, insofar as natural theology is done via observation, it will be primarily determined by forms of object epistemology. Thus, this will create a natural tension with the idea of God as a personal God and with a marked tendency to “objectify” God as understanding Him only insofar as we try to infer his relationships to our own desires. Additionally, the personal epistemological mode fits into the idea of Wright’s “epistemology of love,” albeit with the recognition that personal epistemology does not necessarily entail knowing a person, or even God, through the lens or emotion of love but can include other emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, etc. Thus, while Wright did not expand upon his “epistemology of love” in this lecture, I can certainly imagine why and how his perspective represents a decisive rejection of the object epistemology of Epicureanism and the Enlightenment but also a more decisive critique against standard modes of natural theology.