Breaking the Law With John Milbank – Part 1

A recent debate between John Milbank, Stephen Law and Madawi Al-Rasheed really caught my eye, firstly because it included John Milbank a great theologian of whom I am a fan. Also, because the debate included 3 viewpoints that were not only extremely different but also very often have a problem talking to each other. To start let me summarize what I believe to be the core of John Milbank’s case (he rarely says or writes anything in a simple clear way):

  1. A distinction needs to be made between a God, a divine being, and The God, the ground of all being, by definition there can be no direct empirical evidence of The God since it is transcendent.
  2. Either meaning or culture are completely arbitrary and vacuous or they describes reality in some way and add something to it.
  3. If the latter is true, it must be justified somehow.
  4. There can be no possibility of fully justifying any system of meaning on its own, so every system of meaning must have included in the system a telos that is outside the system, i.e. a space for the sacred.
  5. Once you have that, the extra sacred Telos from outside the system that holds the system together you basically already have religion, you have already admitted God.
  6. Without that, the entire system of meaning falls apart and you end up with anti-humanism, purely mechanistic and arbitrary systems.

It’s a difficult argument for sure, but it is certainly true. In a purely naturalistic world there can be no meaning, anything that we might describe as meanings are simply arbitrary leftovers of atoms bumping into one another, meanings add nothing to the world, and don’t fit with the world in anyway, in fact there is no “world” as such, since a “world” is already ascribing meaning and unity to something. However, once you admit meaning, by creating a system, you will invariably have to include an aspect of the sacred, an outside telos holding the whole thing together, it simply won’t work otherwise, and once you do that you’re already knocking at heaven’s door.

Stephen Laws argument is basically the old argument from Evil. There’s too much good for there to be an Evil God, there’s too much evil for there to be a Good God, and so he says the hypothesis of God fails.

Madawi Al-Rasheed’s point is completely different; it’s from an anthropological standpoint. Her point is basically that we should be generous to other faiths, and that it’s not so important what is “true” or not, but what role religions plays in different societies and whether or not that role is positive or not, and whether or not it leads to good outcomes or bad. It’s the whole “you’re religion is good for you, mine is good for me,” but what matters is the social effects.

When it comes to Al-Rasheed’s point, frankly, it somewhat bores me. It’s not that a religions effect on social systems isn’t interesting to me (it most certainly is, as anyone who looks through what I’ve written on this blog will know), but it doesn’t interest me to look at that while suspending the concept of truth, truth is just too important. Also in her enterprise there is already a quasi-religious assumption about the goodness of harmony and peace (we can’t assume this, lest we offend the moral sensibilities of the Viking religions who described heaven as constant warfare or the Aztec religions which required constant shedding of human blood), which already gives the relativistic game away in a sense.

Unfortunately, John Milbank’s point went completely unaddressed by Stephen Law. This does not surprise me too much. On one hand, we have a Theologian steeped in the continental tradition, and steeped in the theological tradition, looking at the questions on many different levels, phenomenological, logical, ontological, moral and so on. Then we have Stephen Law, an analytic philosopher, in a tradition that puts at the highest-level pure logical analysis, very often refusing to go deeper than what can be demonstrated in a formal logical way.

This difference demonstrates itself right from the beginning where Stephen Law describes God as “the God Hypothesis,” something which at the very outset completely misunderstands religion, God is almost never posited as a hypothesis, God is related to, experienced, trusted in and appealed to, but God is not a hypothesis. Nor could God be a hypothesis, God being the ground of all being could not be the explanatory hypothesis for a series of phenomenon, because God is the ground for the very being of any phenomenon. Since God is a completely free non-contingent agency, he cannot be predicted experimentally, meaning he cannot be, by definition, subject to scientific enquiry. So right from the very beginning we see Stephen law completely miss understand the subject, he simply isn’t talking about the God of the Abrahamic tradition, he’s pretending it’s something else, and it doesn’t surprise me, because for some analytic philosophers the only thing worth talking about are things for which one can give a purely logical or empirical account.

When John Milbank brings up the Abrahamic understanding of evil being a privation of being, Stephen Law completely ignores the point by writing off a priori theodicy saying that all of them can be applied to an evil God. Well I don’t see how that could be applied to John Milbank’s description of the Abrahamic account of evil, nor does Stephen Law care to apply it. Stephen Law basically has a one trick pony, we don’t’ believe in an evil God nor should be believe in a Good one, and no matter what John Milbank says he basically just returns to that.

John Milbank at around the 38 minute mark makes a very important point he says:

The mere fact that you’re talking about good and evil totally gives the game away; you’re clearly no sort of atheist at all. If we can even distinguish between good and evil and claim they’re objective, you’ve already sold the pass, you’ve already said, “actually I agree with Plato and Socrates against the Sophists,” you’ve lost the argument.

Stephen Law then says that he doesn’t need to buy into the concept of evil at all, all he needs to do is point out that suffering is something Christians view as evil, and that if they believe in a Good God that considers suffering Evil there is an internal contradiction. Then John Milbank then points out that even if suffering exists as experienced by conscious souls we already need to start talking beyond the natural. Then he goes on to talk about the freedom of created order to refuse the goodness of God, which happens at a cosmic level. Again, Stephen Law ignores it.

But I think something more can be said about this. Let’s say Stephen Law was a moral nihilist, and he critiqued belief in God based on the problem of Evil. What he would really be critiquing is the existence of Goodness as such, if God cannot exist because of evil, then goodness cannot exist either as a real objective phenomenon, if goodness cannot exist, then the argument against God on the basis of evil breaks down as well. So we experience Goodness as an objective moral reality and thus we see God, but if the existence of evil negates that God then, what do we have? We have to explain away the experience of Goodness as an objective moral reality or we must come up with some kind of theodicy. Writing off any sort of theodicy a priori is a priori shutting down the discussion. The objection on the basis of evil must defend moral nihilism in the end, it must not only insist that God cannot be appealed to for evil, but it must insist that evil doesn’t exist. Or what one must do, if one is not a moral nihilist is explain how the experience of the Good as an objective moral reality can be anything more than a delusion without appealing to the divine in anyway.

The argument from Evil cannot be simply one way, the one delivering the argument must deal with the implications of what one is saying, this is something Stephen Law doesn’t do.

Stephen Law then brings up the issue of agency detection. The argument is that human beings have evolved to detect agency in things in order to avoid danger, and this has led us, the ancestors of those who were sensitive to detecting agency, to be hyperactive agency detectors, thus detecting agency in places where they may not be. John Milbank rightly points out that this doesn’t mean that all detecting of agency that is not empirically verifiable by science isn’t accurate. He also says, more importantly, that religion is more interested in the question of why there is agency at all.

Again, I think something more can be said about this. If one is a naturalist, there is no reason to believe in anything like agency. You are stuck with Daniel Dennet style naturalism where all you have is a fully deterministic universe where agency, free will, consciousness are all illusions (the nonsense of consciousness being an illusion to that which is not conscious is something we’ll put aside for now). If all I am is matter in motion, just like the rocks, the stars, space dust and so on, how could there actually be any agency? What is the fundamental difference between me and a rock other than I am arranged in a more complex way? How could I even have agency? Just as a “rock” cannot be about something, how could a bunch of carbon and other molecules mixed up into what we call a human being be “about” something without appealing to something beyond “nature?” In a sense, someone finding agency in a rock is just as mistaken as someone finding agency in a human being, both are just different configurations of atomic structures, both are completely subject to the laws of nature and causality, and neither could have any agency.

So John Milbank is correct, what’s important is why there is any agency at all. Stephen Law can run that “defeater” if he likes, but like the problem of Evil, it leaves his position in a weaker position than the theist one. Unfortunately, like many atheists (especially those from the analytic tradition of the empirical sciences), he fails to be able to think more than one step at a time and he fails to be able to think on more than one level at a time, which is why he makes such shallow and un-thought through arguments.

Breaking the Law With John Milbank – Part 1

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