Thursday, 21 April 2016

Dialogue with Evolutionists

To oppose or not to oppose Darwin.
Religion that can’t withstand scrutiny of unbiased reason and experience must go and we should welcome Dawkins and other critics of religion from Marx to Freud to Russell  and their modern disciples for sifting the ideological, superstitious and other problematic elements that have been associated with religion by lesser minds and professionals of vested interest – Mullacracy. For those who reduce religion to an insurance deal whose premium is paid here or those who worship words and don’t taste God and those who invoke God to throttle free inquiry – who have deep down anxiety to silence philosophers, scientists, mystics and even children asking awkward questions regarding higher things they imagine at their own level, modernity has made things difficult. Religion has to offer arguments too strong to resist any criticism and must have enough humility to acknowledge that it doesn’t deal with the truth pure and simple but filtered, tailored truths that take into consideration both needs and weaknesses of its heterogeneous addressees and is more interested in living with mystery than imposing any special knowledge claims. It has to be catholic enough to accommodate every sincere seeker in its ambit. It has to be ready for debate and discussion with anyone on any issue. It has nothing to fear from any new development of thought as long as the later is in turn ready to be appraised in terms of the best available evidence. Let us state what religion’s doctrine of creation (not creationism/intelligent design promulgated as scientific hypothesis) is and see if the criticisms of creationism/intelligent design from the influential evolutionists from Dawkins to Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True) to Stephen J Gould and scores of other critics apply. Since it is the best minds – sages – who have the right to speak in the name of religion and explain its subtle symbolism and its background of penetrating metaphysics we will let them only speak and not quote from popular press and preachers who are taken to be authorities by the laity. Amongst those who were best qualified to explicate religion in an idiom that the highest academic seats would better comprehend or appreciate and the acknowledged authorities of different disciplines take seriously, is Ananda Coomaraswamy whose prodigious knowledge of scores of languages and religious, artistic, philosophical traditions across civilizations besides extremely careful and meticulous scholarship has been recognized by the academic elite. The fact that he was also trained as a geologist (and made a name in that field) – like his friend Rene Guenon (Abdul Wahid Yaha) who was a mathematician – makes his knowledge about science and especially scientific method first hand and this means he willn’t build fantastic notions that modern scientist could dismiss away without giving due consideration.
      He has been emphasizing time and again that inferior thinkers shouldn’t be heeded at all. And it isn’t difficult to identify these inferior minds when one reads the best from Plato to Nagarjuna to Sankara to Lao Tzu to Aquinas to Eckhart to  Ibn Arabi to Mulla Sadra to Shah Waliullalah.
      What world religions collectively have to teach us regarding doctrine of creation (not to be too readily contrasted with evolutionary thesis) is what Commaraswamy is able to present thanks to the masterly understanding of hermeneutical tools provided by respective traditions.  According to him, at the level of mediate causes evolutionary theses need not be questioned on religious grounds, special creation and evolution are not irreconcilable alternatives if the doctrine of special creation is metaphysically read. The two concepts of special creation and evolution are incompatible only if mythical account is historically interpreted and theologians defending special creation have usually defended it historically. We need to distinguish between the First Cause and Mediate Causes. As Coomaraswamy explains:

  • The First Cause whether philosophically absolute or ‘mythically personified,’ is the direct cause of being of things but only indirectly of the manner of their being. The manner of their being is determined by the Mediate Causes. The category of Mediate Causes doesn’t exclude any of those forces or tendencies or determining accidents on which the evolutionist relies as explanations of the observed series; if he differs from the philosopher in ignoring the First Cause it is because he is not discussing the origin of life but only its variety.
      Another lengthy passage needs to be quoted:
  • In traditional doctrine of evolution, every one of the forms, every phenomenon, represents one of the ‘possibilities of manifestation’ of an ‘ever productive nature’ which may be called either the God, the Spirit, Natura Naturans or, as in the present context, the ‘Life’ according to which we speak of the forms of life as ‘living.’ This Life is the First Cause of lives, but the forms which these lives take  is actually determined by the ‘Second’ or ‘Mediate Causes.’ That are nowadays often called ‘forces’ or ‘laws’ notably that of heredity. No difficulty is presented here by the variability of the species; the shape that appears at any given time or place in the history of a ‘genus’, ‘species’, or ‘individuals is always changing. All the definitions of these categories are really, like ‘round numbers’ indefinite, because the reference is to ‘things’ that are always becoming and never stop to be, and can only be called ‘things’ that are always becoming and never stop to be, and that can only be called ‘things’ by a generalization that ignores their variation over some longer or shorter, but always relatively short ‘present.’ 
      Another remark that “there are no delimited and monads or egos, but only one unlimited” shows how resistance to the idea of distinct species closed to further change is critiqued by him.
      The following description of the Life of Supreme Ego, to use Iqbalian expression, in relation to the world of manifestation by A.K. Coomaraswamy seems to be echoed in Iqbal’s Asrari Khudi. “‘Life’ being one of the names of God, according to his ‘ever productive nature’ seeks ‘experience.’”
      The following metaphysical claims can’t be contested by evolutionists and thus conflict is avoided. Scientists qua scientists can bypass such metaphysical roots of empirically observable entities in their investigations.
  • Every one of these transient forms of species and individuals reflects an archetypal possibility or pattern (pater, father) subsistent in what is called the ‘intelligible’ as distinguished from our ‘sensible’ world or locus (Skr. Loka) of compossibles…It is only to the extent that we can think and speak of distinct ‘species’ and ‘individuals’ that we must also speak of their separate archetypal ideas; in reality, everything that flows is represented there in all its variety, although not in a temporal succession, but so that all can be seen at once.
  • Coomaraswamy observes that what Gradation states sub species aeterntatis, the Myth relates sub species aeviternitatis, and History sub species temporis.  (For those vocal  people who want to take strong positions for and against evolution or religion’s doctrine of creation need to take a pause and meditate on these terms to understand the nuances and complexity  in traditional position that is shared by all traditional religions and traditional philosopher-sages. The beauty of Coomaraswamy and Guenon and their likes is they don’t advocate personal opinions but  attempt their best to present what has been traditionally received and affirmed by Revelation and traditional authorities of religion). Coomaraswamy approvingly quotes Prof. Keith’s statement that according to The Rig Veda “This creation cannot be regarded as a single definite act: it is regarded as ever proceeding.” And comments: “this doesn’t mean it is unfinished in principio and ex tempore, but that it is apprehended by ourselves as a temporal sequence and as if cause and effect could be separated from one another by sensible periods. The phrase “in the beginning” in the genesis is logical rather than temporal priority.”
      Let us not forget that man, traditionally, is body, soul and spirit. We need not contest evolution of body. And we must state fundamental differences with evolutionist naturalism and materialism on soul and spirit. And we can show how indefensible is the latter’s position on soul and spirit later while acknowledging problems in fundamentalist creationist account of body’s separateness and autonomy from other forms.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Encountering Dawkins on Religion

Reading The God Delusion as Delusions about Being.
Richard Dawkins is the new prophet of atheism and a great missionary of evolutionary science. He is feared by most of popular preachers whom he deconstructs in debates. He combines wit and iconoclastic zeal with brilliant oratory to popularize evolution and atheism. However his popularity owes something to simplistic generalizations about religion that attract popular imagination. In places brilliant critique of abuses of religion and shallow doctrinaire exotericism (Zaahir Parasti) and credulity of a significant faction of believing camp, is combined with ideas and constructions  that are  both misleading and shallow. Since Dawkins is now a presence and his work a new Bible for some critics of religion and atheists, we need to engage with him to understand both modern man’s alienation from religion that he understands little and misreads much if we assume that it is saints and sages and philosophers of religions that present the real face of it. We aren’t going to tame this bull in the china house of faith  but try to understand his rage.  On every page of his book is something to embarrass a Mullah or even a sophisticated religious scholar who isn’t informed about tenor of modern scientific outlook. He rubbishes familiar arguments we see advocates of religion invoking. Science has succeeded in dislodging the religion of the Mullah – we can see that Mullahs made much of  fill-in-the-blanks-argument and tried to defend none knows the sex of child in the womb or none can predict tomorrow’s weather.
      For me the best defense against him is to yield to his scathing critique on many points – let us learn to be humble and learn from him and far more sophisticated atheists than him, and then examine a few key points where he misidentifies the target or throws the baby with the bathwater. Let us note some points that may merit consideration by Dawkins admirers and critics. I focus on clarifying the grammar of religious belief or term God, and I think we can appreciate his position while stating our own and showing that it is not all or none option that we are forced to take. We can agree with Dawkins on the following key points, among others:
  • Evolution in form of different species is considered quite plausible by what closely approximates as ijma (consensus) of scientific community. It has been found to be highly useful idea that helps explain a lot and creationism as popularly taught in contradistinction to evolution in biology is purely speculative and has failed to provide a method for doing science or explaining in any better way much that evolution explains. Evolutionary science is based on certain premises and evidences that are hard to challenge though it suffers from various deficiencies. We live in a world shaped by this science. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” Dobzhansky said long ago. Now we know we are all witness to the phenomenal progress of biology. Evolution, one important definition states, is descent with modification. Evolution in some sense can’t be denied. Methodological naturalism that grounds it too is almost impossible to refute as far as doing science with this in background is the key practice today. Who can deny the animal in himself or herself? Our behavior can’t be explained if we discount any kind of relationship to animals. Darwin’s book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals needs to be read if one has any doubt. And we just need to think how many times we say about someone that he is an animal.
  • That literalist theology is scientifically or rationally indefensible. And only some Mullahs are  consistently literalist.
  • That the existence of evil in the world forces us to abandon simplistic thesis of divine goodness and power anthropomorphically conceived.
  • That we needn’t invoke miracles as constituting breach of laws of nature. We need to read the most well known spiritualist Madame Blavatsky on miracles that are done by knowing laws better rather than breaking them. One might also read Schuon on “naturally supernatural” character of intellect or his definition of Revelation as macrocosmic objectvization of the Universal Intellect to understand how problematic is division between natural and supernatural as popularly posited. 
  • That religious fundamentalism has served neither religion nor truth and we must resist baneful influence of teaching religion in a way that excludes, creates holier than thou attitude, oppresses women and feeds an imperialistic theology.
Some points that put Dawkins in perspective and critique his distortions or misapplications include, among others:
  • Religion criticizes metaphysical claims of modern evolutionism and needn’t deny evolutionary biology as far as empirical evidence implies it. Great religious thinkers contest philosophical uses of evolutionary biology and social Darwinism. Evolutionist metaphysics is riddled with too many problems to warrant serious consideration. Reductionist naturalism applied to consciousness/spirit/intelligence is laughable. 
  • It isn’t the truth but problem solving capacity of evolutionary biology that needs our attention. Science can’t fight symbolic, existential truths and in fact deeper questions it leaves out as it focuses on fallible models predicting certain results. If science deals with truth, it is not the metaphysical truth but truths we construct and keep refining.
  • Dawkins says he is interested in knowing about what is true and religion doesn’t fit the bill. Now religion is interested in saving people from suffering – and hell – and not truth itself.
  • Argument from selfish gene thesis needs to be properly appreciated rather than straightway condemned. It is parasitic on a profound truth that all life is individual and we can appreciate or experience anything only in terms of primordial experience of subjectivity or self – from Plato to Iqbal we have traditional arguments for enlightened self interest  or what Iqbal phrases as Khudi ki zed mei sari khudayi.
  • Dawkins creates a ghost out of the body and spirit of religion and then proves ghost is a figment of imagination. He doesn’t engage with any theologian properly; he quotes his own imagined definition of God or Beyond or supernatural that he pitches against the natural and empirical and then finds it easy to question.
  • Dawkins attacks (personal) God and mystics talk about Godhead, Absolute, Self, Ground of Being, Unity of Existence instead of existence of personal God taken as Absolute.
  • Dawkins attack God of heavens, a supernatural God who is to be believed without evidence. Mystics talk about God within who is to be realized or witnessed rather than believed on authority.
  • Dawkins is uncompromising champion of reason and evidence. So is Buddha, a founder of a mystical religion.
  • Michael Ruse, atheist and philosopher of science, questions Dawkins and thinks it is shameful to be an atheist if God Delusion is the standard. He accuses him of failing to engage with sophisticated religious thinkers and therefore keeps repeating simplistic notions. 
  • There are no absolute proofs for God but there are five and in fact many more ways of finding God that though not formal and indubitable proofs are very strong pointers. How convincing are they may be decided by reading their modern statement by Maritain and Kreeft’s defense in The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. If we refuse to entertain any theistic thesis, howsoever sophisticated, we have likes of Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Derrida and Levinas talking about quasidivine nature of Being (Being can’t be refuted by Dawkinian strategy). The fact that Dawkins doesn’t engage with highly sophisticated religious and secular understanding of the grammar of religious belief or God-talk or language-of-transcendence forces us to say that he knows so little about philosophical theology as Harun Yaha knows about evolution. Both utterly fail to impress us.
  • The only task that if performed would silence Dawkins and his fundamentalist theological critics is showing how theology is autology (science of Self) and translating theological terms into existential language of certain mystics or leading theology back to its source in metaphysics. Then we don’t use word God but Being and thus we can’t have a title like God Delusion.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

A Report From Hell: Understanding Samuel Beckett's Agony

He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them.
Beckett is considered by some as the greatest writer of the twentieth century. Those who know what the hell has been modernity and especially the twentieth century and have read or watched Beckett’s work will largely agree. His work is set in hell or purgatory because he sees  them everywhere. Do you know of any person who is really happy, at home, without revenge or malice or complaint and not speaking ill of someone? Do you know anyone who can confidently say his life has been live well or he has found meaning in it? Who isn’t a creature of habit? Who doesn’t wait aimlessly and distract himself by gossiping or playing absurd games or meaningless chatting on social networks? Who has found unalloyed love that heals all wounds? Beckett describes  man’s failure, especially modern man’s failure who has lost faith in God. Anyway do you know anyone who truly believes today? Belief in manifested by virtues of acceptance, detachment, patience etc. and we find them largely absent in us.
      How many people you can absolutely trust?  Who can say or about whom one can say that he knows himself, that he knows his Master, that he knows the other as God? If we find mostly disappointing answers to these questions, we can appreciate agony and pain of Beckett. Beckett also focuses on terminally ill – old, crippled, worthless people whom life teaches humility. (Eventually almost all of us become humble as we advance in age, experience and wisdom and see “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”). We will discuss his therapy of laughter and his statement “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” some other day and today we focus on his vacillation and self doubt and his struggle to be a mystic – I will not say his failure as a mystic. It is modern man’s failure that he portrays and we all know we struggle and keep limping in the great odyssey that life is and its meaning and glory largely escapes us doubting, timid creatures of habit and slaves of passion and ego.
      Beckett explicates Buddha’s Fire sermon in all his work. To quote from it:
  • Everything is burning. How is everything burning? The eye is burning. The ear is burning. The nose is burning. The tongue is burning. The body is burning. Thought is burning. The mental impressions, made by what the senses perceive, are burning. And the sensations produced by these mental impressions, whether they are pleasant or painful, are burning.”
He deconstructs all the idols modern man has constructed to escape despair and smuggle happiness outside God. He called himself an artist of failure. He has referred to himself in specifically Nietzschean and mystical terms as “non-knower” and “non-can-er.” His art, like much of twentieth century art, is a crude and quite inadequate approximation of traditional religious or mystical ideal. He remains tied to a nihilistic vision and that blocks his way to see further into the treasures that are bestowed to those who transcend their limited self. Beckett does the purification work quite excellently but ends in no land of bliss but a sort of neutrality that though freed from the worry that characterizes ego-centred man but has not that bliss of Brahman which exceeds all things that Beckett could imagine as giving us joy.
      The greatness of Beckettt’s thought from the Eastern perspective is that this vision of evil and destruction represents not so much the conclusion (Buddha has painted similar picture) of his argument, as its starting point. Beckett gives the evidence, and his people cry out against God (though Buddha and mystics would not do this) — yet ultimately they refuse to accept the evidence that they themselves have provided, and their indictment turns out to be an appeal to a different kind of God altogether, and with that, a different kind of death, a different kind of reality, a different kind of meaning.
      Beckett quite rightly, speaking from the traditional Eastern perspective, saw the limitations of traditional religious (theistic) thesis especially as understood  by popular theology (ulamai zahir) that posits God rather than the Godhead as the Ultimate Reality or First Principle. But he doesn’t take leave of religion to opt for materialism. He opts for certain appropriation (inadequate in many respects) of mysticism. All his people in a sense are mystics as Coe points out. They are all aware of a force at work within them and about them, a force which goads them onwards towards ends which they themselves would not have envisaged, yet which can neither be analyzed nor rationally explained, which completely eludes the net of words or the realm of the known or thought (discursive intellect). They all describe God negatively which is familiar to the East in the tradition of the negative divine as Stace phrases it in his Time and Eternity.  This is Sufi’s deconstructive way of fana (Beckett describes inevitability of encountering fana but baqa is generally missing in his worldview). Beckett’s (anti) heroes possess a strong feeling of being caught up in a pattern of salvation and damnation, of sin and redemption, of guilt and punishment, although their ignorance of or their not taking cognizance of eastern ideas of karma and fate makes all these things incomprehensible or irrational and thus unaccounted for and finally not of much use ultimately. It is not clear to them why God is blasting them as Celia complains or whether the punishment of life  is brought about as the necessary consequence of some sin committed previously (such as that of being born as Vladimir suggests) or whether the laws of cause and effect in this case may not work backwards. “All here is sin” says The Unnameable. “You don’t know why, you don’t know whose, you don’t know against whom, someone says to you…” Macmann also doesn’t know what his sin was although he felt full well living was not sufficient atonement for it or that this atonement was itself a sin, calling for more atonement, and so on. Beckett’s people all realize that they can never hope to “understand” God, His purpose, still less His lack of purpose (“God” says Malone, “does not seem to need reasons for what he does, and for omitting to do what he omits to do, to the same degree as his creatures, does he?” until they have understood something of themselves, as Coe notes). And this knowledge of the self ( What is God other than the deepest self of man) though absorbing most of their energies is indeed denied to them or given them only very fragmentarily as otherwise all these questions would have been “answered.”
      Beckett tries answers that popular preachers of exoteric or literalist or “scientific” religion give and finds them wanting. He comes close to mystics but doesn’t go all the way with them. He keeps doubting but occasionally seems to smells eternity or heaven though cautions us regarding dangers or delusions on the Way.
      Final words I give to Indian mystic Ram Tirtha (whom Iqbal readers know) that show the difference between liberated mystics and struggling heroes. Ram Thirtha declared that red rays of the sun were his muscles. When anything came across his eyes, he robed it in God and then saw that there was nothing else but God. He thus addresses winds: “Blow, O breezes, mingle O winds, with these words whose purpose is the same as yours./  O laughter! laugher!/    I inextinguishable joy and laughter.