Sunday, January 6, 2013

Xenophanes and the nature of the one God

To: Cornell J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Xenophanes and the nature of the one God
Date: 10th February 2013 12:12

Dear Cornell,

Thank you for your email of 28 January with your second essay for the Pathways Ancient Philosophy program, entitled, 'The Theology of Xenophanes'.

In the light of your well founded comments, I do think that the question Xenophanes addressed in his criticism of traditional views of the gods, and his argument for the necessity of one god, is what kind of deity is worthy of *respect*, rather than what kind of deity is worthy of 'worship'. My only problem with the word 'respect' is that it can be used for too many things. Fire is something you should 'respect', so is any aged person (so young people are taught).

There is an important general point to make here about the 'gods of the philosophers' from Xenophanes, through Aristotle and down to Spinoza and beyond. These beings are intellectual posits, objects of intellectual respect or 'love' (in Spinoza's narrow sense) comparable to the respect and awe which the mathematician might have towards the cumulative hierarchy or the theoretical physicist might have towards superstrings or quarks.

You don't petition such a god with prayer, or beg for forgiveness for your sins. The idea that 'all pious men should hymn the god with decent stories and pure words' is about remembering what ultimately matters, something that human beings do which binds them together as people who have respect for that which is important, that which puts mundane things in their proper perspective. This is fully consistent with Socrates' view -- which was eventually to inspire the philosophy of stoicism -- that the man (or woman) of knowledge cannot be anything but virtuous, because they have a proper grasp of their own place in the cosmos. Socrates had a 'daimon', but there is no evidence that he worshipped a personal god, like the god of the Jews.

(By the way, I didn't know about Akhenaton, thank you for this information.)

In answer to your question, I don't think that a god who 'shakes all things by the power of his mind' can be literally identical with nature, as in Spinoza, because if god is nature then there cannot be a cause and effect relationship. There are no 'things' for god to shake because the things are god.

Given the paucity of textual evidence, I would argue that an important clue is the physical theories of Xenophanes' predecessors. The 'one' Aristotle is referring to can be interpreted as the 'arche' in the Milesian sense. (Later we will see this notion subjected to the radical critique of Parmenides.) In Xenophanes we have a philosopher putting forward an alternative view to the 'everything is water', 'everything is air' kind of theory. It is notable (as I remarked in my comments on your first essay) that the Milesians attribute mental as well as physical attributes to their arche. Another important point is that Anaximander's arche is separate from the world because it is that which gives rise to 'limited' things. Putting all these ideas together, it does not require a great leap to conclude:

The one has agency.

The one acts on all things.

The one is not identical with the world.

Yet the one is intimately connected to the world.

When Xenophanes remarks that 'no man has seen or will anyone know the truth about the gods and all the things I speak of' he is saying something which differs in a very important way from logical positivism. I therefore think you are wrong in saying that Xenophanes 'anticipates' the logical positivists.

For the logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, talk of a transcendent deity is strictly meaningless, because it controverts the verification principle, according to which a proposition is meaningful if and only if it is verifiable in principle (there is some dispute about how far the notion of 'in principle' can be stretched).

What Xenophanes is saying is diametrically opposed to this view. Talk of the one god is meaningful despite the fact that statements about such a god are not verifiable, even in principle. We know exactly what we are saying, we just don't know whether what we are saying is true or not.

In Xenophanes view, statements about god are in the same category as physical theories generally. So here he puts two things together which the logical positivists wanted to keep separated. According to them, a scientific theory is meaningful, because it entails 'observation statements'. This does not get them wholly out of trouble, however, because this pushes them towards the view that whatever meaning a scientific theory has can only be as an 'instrument' ('instrumentalism'). In other words, they reject the idea that a scientific theory can be 'true' or 'false' as such.

All the best,