Listing entries tagged with Carneades

Is the Possibility of God Logical?

posted on 08.21.2006 at 10:09 PM

Some of the best thinking on this subject was done by Carneades, the second-century BCE Greek Skeptic. Here are some quotes from Sextus Empiricus' later account of Carneades' reasoning:

If the Divine exists, it is certainly...both virtuous and happy.... But it does not possess all the virtues unless it possesses both continence and fortitude. And it does not possess these virtues unless there are certain things which are hard for God to abstain from and hard to endure.... For it is the man who holds firm when he is being cut and burned that shows fortitude, and not the man who is drinking sweet wine. There will, then, exist certain things which are hard for God to endure and hard to abstain from... But if so, God is receptive of vexation and of change for the worse, and hence of decay also. So that if God exists, he is perishable....

This is an arguments that flaws are needed for virtues, and therefore that gods, which don't have flaws, can't have many of the virtues.

If the Divine is all-virtuous and possesses wisdom, it possesses sound-deliberation.... And if it deliberates, there is something which is non-evident to it.... It is impossible non-evident to God.... From which it follows that he does not exist at all.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:09 PM | Comments (4)

Author Seeks Advice -- 2

posted on 08.10.2006 at 6:48 PM

Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.

I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):

Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.

Two questions:

1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)

2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:48 PM | Comments (9)


posted on 07.25.2006 at 11:37 PM

Here's an "opinion," from Alan Wolfe -- Boston College professor and Jewish "public intellectual":

I praise fundamentalist Christians for "their willingness to stand against the emotionality of American culture in favor of ideas -- strongly held ideas, to say the least -- about who God is and why he asks so much of us."

One feels one ought to launch an "opinion" back, say: Yeah, but those ideas often seem profoundly uninteresting, even childish.

However, part of the problem with being something of a skeptic is a certain discomfort with this process of opining. Who is to judge what ideas qualify as "interesting"? What purpose does it serve to call adults with views different than yours "childish"?

Here, via Cicero, is Carneades, the Greek skeptic about whom I am about to begin writing, and a hero of mine:

It is not our custom to set forth our views.

It was Carneades who, on an official visit to Rome, gave a remarkably persuasive speech arguing for justice, then -- the next day -- gave an equally persuasive speech disputing all he had said the previous day. (The Romans were not amused; they kicked the Athenian philosopher out.)

One would like to say that this seems more interesting than fundamentalist Christian "ideas" or even than Alan Wolfe's "idea." But, of course, that would be setting forth a view.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:37 PM | Comments (2)

Are We All Gods?

posted on 06.21.2006 at 4:47 PM

Or should we try to be? This is from a comment below by Jay Saul:Superman.jpg

Go be God/ There's No Time To Waste

Is there a sense in which a disbeliever could/should believe this sort of thing? Certainly eliminating the supernaturals does succeed in clearing the field clear for us -- the only beings left with the ability to write love songs and fire arrows. Nothing wrong, as a rule, with aiming high.

Ãœbermenschen? Has a certain ring. A feeling of invulnerability? Maybe good. Confidence that you can get what you want? Can't hurt.

Eternal life, however, would presumably have to be confined to moments (unless medical advances manage to eliminate the disease thing). Omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience might have to be interpretations of the power of consciousness.

The problem with gods, however, is their flawlessness -- as Carneades, among others, pointed out. Many of our virtues, passions, poems, come from our flaws. Is being human, or being animals, really not sufficient? Or is the point that we need to bucked up?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:47 PM | Comments (7)

What Nonbelievers Might Believe In

posted on 05.16.2006 at 1:21 AM

Leonard_Cohen.jpgHow about this quote from Leonard Cohen?

"There is a crack, a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

The singer/poet once called this line his "credo." Cohen recently spent almost five years at a Buddhist monastery, which might disqualify him as a spokesman for nonbelief. (Our policy on Buddhists remains unclear.) But this notion of the value and beauty of "flaws" is an important one. The great Greek skeptic Carneades -- a hero of my book -- noted how gods, lacking flaws, must also lack virtues: How can you show courage if you can't be hurt?

Is it through the ability to be hurt that the light comes in?

What light?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:21 AM | Comments (8)

Atheist or Agnostic?

posted on 01.01.2006 at 11:41 AM

The word "agnostic" was coined by Darwin's friend and defender Thomas Huxley in 1869 to describe their less aggressive, less certain (and safer?) version of doubt.

"In matters of the intellect," Huxley wrote, "do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith."

And here is Leslie Stephen, who also prefered this "a" word to the other one: "State any one proposition in which all philosophers agree, and I will admit it to be true; or any one which has a manifest balance of authority, and I will agree that it is probable. But so long as every philosopher flatly contradicts the first principles of his predecessors, why affect certainty?"

Stephen's daughter Virginia Woolf, though occasionally prone to emitting vague mystical noises, seems more of the atheistic persuasion: "Certainly and emphatically there is no God."

This schism (Is Huxley to Atheism what Luther was to Catholicism?) makes most sense to me in terms of the two versions of Greek, Roman and then European skepticism: The Academic school believed it wasn't possible to really know anything. The Pyrrhonian school believed it wasn't even possible to know that.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:41 AM | Comments (7)


posted on 12.14.2005 at 11:16 PM

I'm interested in the struggle so many individuals, from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists, have undertaken for the cause of atheism - a cause that promises no heavenly reward.

I'm interested in the wages of disbelief: Societies have long punished those who decline to acknowledge the local God (or gods). In Scotland near the end of the seventeenth century, for example, an orphan studying at the University of Edinburgh began sharing -- openly, brashly, unwisely -- his criticisms of religion. The Scriptures, Thomas Aikenhead was reported to have proclaimed, are "so stuffed with madness, nonsense and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them." Based on the testimony of some of his fellow students, Aikenhead was convicted of blasphemy. Repentance would have helped, but the young man's efforts in that direction were not entirely convincing, especially when he explained that his errors had flowed from an "insatiable inclination to truth." Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in Edinburgh on January 8, 1697, a few months before his twenty-first birthday.

Many nonbelievers have lived dramatic lives or suffered, like poor Aikenhead, premature deaths, but I am also after the drama that is to be found in their thought. Shucking off superstition - in the name of an "insatiable inclination to truth" - has been difficult and it has been important. Philosophy and science have flourished on ground cleared over the millennia by disbelief. Oracles, ghosts and angels had to be routed; contradictions discovered; logical failings uncovered. The Greek skeptic Carneades demonstrated, for example, that if the gods were perfect they couldn't exhibit the virtues - courage, say - that come from overcoming weaknesses and flaws. Such criticism of religion falls under the heading of the negative idea of atheism.

Is there also a positive idea? Trying to clarify what that idea might be - untangling it from philosophy and science - will be one of the major challenges I face in researching and writing this book.

And I'm interested in where these ideas stand today: when fatwas are being issued; jihads and crusades being declared; when the orthodox are fighting to retake the textbooks and the courthouses. Are the gods reasserting their hold upon humanity? Or is this just a reaction to the ongoing, even accelerating global spread of secularism?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:16 PM | Comments (2)

Cast of Characters

posted on 12.13.2005 at 9:45 PM

The book in question is intended as a narrative history of disbelief. Here is a list of some of the individuals whose stories might be told.

Note: I am aware of the rather startling gender imbalance in this list. (It is very weak in persons of color, too.) This was clearly a difficult subject for females (and other oppressed groups) to be heard on before the nineteenth century, but they must have done their share of thinking about it. I hope, with further research, to recover some of their stories and their thought.

Carvaka the Raxasa--mentioned in a text that may date from 600 BCE; the reputed founder of a long-lived Indian sect of nonbelievers, which asserted that only the material world exists, rejected all notions of an afterlife ("After a body is reduced to ashes where will it come back from?"), had no use for "fasting" and "penance," extolled "embraces."

Diagoras of Melos--according to one account, gave up belief in gods in anger over a lost manuscript, then prosecuted for impiety in Athens. 5th century BCE.

Protagoras of Abdera--"Of all things," he announced, "the measure is man"--not gods; also reported to have been prosecuted for impiety. Greece, 5th century BCE.

Democritus--had an eerily modern understanding of atoms and space--one that left no room for gods. Greece, 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

Carneades of Cyrene--the great skeptic; capable of taking both sides of any issue--except, it seems, religion, to which he applied his most withering analyses. Athens, 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.

Cicero--also a skeptic; wrote one of the great dialogues questioning belief in the gods: "It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly, but in a private discussion of this kind it is perfectly easy to do so." Rome, 1st century BCE.

Elisha ben Abuyah--a rabbi who became a nonbeliever; when he examined the world, he saw neither justice nor a judge; expelled from the faith. Palestine, 1st and 2nd centuries.

Abu Nuwas--an uninhibited gay poet; an outspoken nonbeliever. Baghdad, 8th and 9th centuries.

Abu Bakr al-Razi--the most renowned Arab physician; questioned all religions, his religion and even the status of "the Prophet." Baghdad, 9th and 10th centuries.

Averroes--a Moor who helped bring Greek writings and a respect for reason back to Europe, where they would pave the way for a return of disbelief; his scholarship made him suspect in the Islamic world and he was, for a time, banished for heresy. Morocco and Spain, 1126-1198.

Thomas Hobbes--his conception of the universe--"all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real"--carried him dangerously close to atheism; the Great Fire seen by some as God's response to Hobbes' insufficiently pious view. London, 1588-1679.

Thomas Aikenhead--a Scottish university student who found "madness, nonsense and contradictions" in the Bible; said as much; was hanged for blasphemy. Edinburgh, 1676-1697.

Jean Meslier--a Catholic priest who revealed his atheism only in a book he left to his parishioners after his death; became, posthumously, an Enlightenment hero. France, 1678-1733.

Denis Diderot--editor of the first great encyclopedia; arrived at atheism through his study of science and the blind; became one of its most influential proponents: "Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian"; spent three months in prison for such views. Paris, 1713-1784.

Baron d'Holbach--once Diderot converted him to atheism, became a one-man publishing house on the subject: "We shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them; and that custom, respect and tyranny support them"; gathered what may have been history's most impressive concentration of nonbelievers in his salon; he escaped prosecution; the poor who trafficked in his books did not. Paris, 1723-1789.

Marquis de Sade--his lack of belief in God did not stop him from trying to insult God; can be said to have experimented with the notion that without God everything is permitted. France, 1740-1814.

Jacques-René Hébert--under the leadership of this radical revolutionary, atheism finally gained control of a country--briefly, ingloriously; churches were shut; a statue of Meslier planned; but Hébert's political career ended shortly afterwards, at the guillotine. Paris, 1757-1794.

Pierre Simon Laplace--physicist whose masterly, five-volume account of the universe neglected to include a role for God; Napoleon noticed. Paris, 1749-1827.

Thomas Paine--put so much stock in reason that he was reviled as an atheist and is still celebrated by atheists; statements like this helped: "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense." England, America. France, 1737 - 1809.

Percy Bysshe Shelley--a pamphlet endorsing atheism led to his expulsion from Oxford; returned to the subject in additional essays and poems, including "Queen Mab": "And priests dare babble of a God of peace,/Even whilst their hands are red with guiltless blood,/Murdering the while, uprooting every germ/Of truth, exterminating, spoiling all,/Making the earth a slaughter-house!" England, 1792-1822.

Frances Wright--was the first woman in America to lecture before an audience of men and women; friend of Jefferson and Jackson; on the side of science and progress; against religion: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition." Scotland, United States, 1795-1852.

Harriet Martineau--this erstwhile writer of religious books was converted during a visit to the Holy Land; she then announced: "There is no theory of a God, of an author of Nature, of an origin of the Universe, which is not utterly repugnant to my faculties." England, 1802-1876.

John Stuart Mill-- the liberal political philosopher had been presented as a boy with one of the more powerful of the arguments against the existence of God: If God made us, who made God? Called himself "one of the few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it." England, 1806-1873.

Ernestine Rose--eloquent and unbending in support of her causes: freedom for slaves and women, freedom from superstition; searched for freedom in her life, too; rarely have the intolerant been given so many reasons to hiss. Poland, Germany, England, United States, 1810-1892.

Karl Marx--religious as a child; his atheism would eventually spread around the world. Germany, London, 1818-1883.

Charles Bradlaugh--expelled from Sunday school and eventually his parents' home for his freethinking; became a radical leader and an outspoken atheist; spoke and debated before jammed halls full of working people; elected to Parliament. England, 1833-1891.

Frederick Nietzsche--the parson's son who announced, with proper gravity, the "death of God." Germany, Italy, 1844-1900.

Sigmund Freud--bold in his challenge to the "illusion" of religion, which, he suggested, is "the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity." Vienna, London, 1856-1939.

Bertrand Russell--in his philosophy, pushed reason to, and perhaps beyond, its limits; in his politics, stood consistently against war and against gods: "I do not think that their existence is an alternative that is sufficiently probable to be worth serious consideration"; behaved with less consistency in his personal life. England, 1872-1970.

Jean-Paul Sartre--important thinking on the question of where meaning might be found if it is not God-given; can be accused of having stumbled a bit on his own personal and political searches for meaning. Paris, 1905-1980.

Simone de Beauvoir--an atheist before she was a feminist: "I cannot be angry at God, in whom I do not believe." Paris, 1908-1986.

John Lennon--atheism was just one stop on his erratic wanderings: "God is a concept by which we measure our pain"; but what a line: "Above us only sky." England, New York, 1940-1980.

Jacques Derrida--I've had occasion to discuss the subject with him; his point, I believe, was that one cannot remove this one brick from our cultural foundations and expect the rest to stand undisturbed. Algeria, France, 1930-2004.

Barbara Ehrenreich--one possible candidate for a contemporary example; an outspoken, fourth-generation, "family-values" atheist: "God, if there is one, has never shown any great interest in stopping wars, ending poverty, feeding the hungry, stopping patriarchy, racism or anything like that." United States, 1941-.

Salman Rushdie--"I do not need the idea of God to explain the world I live in"; the best-known contemporary example of the price that is sometimes still paid by those who dare question religion. Bombay, London, New York, 1947-.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:45 PM | Comments (20)