Friday, November 02, 2007

Philosopher thinks polytheism (many gods) would be an improvement - really!

Here's something you don't see every day: A defence of polytheism. Arguing that "Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high", professor emerita Mary Lefkowitz of Wellesley College argues that we should "Bring back the Greek gods":
The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles' father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created.

Et cetera. Actually, polytheism was rejected in the Western tradition for two reasons: First, it seemed illogical (irresistible force meets immovable object?). Second, the capricious qualities of the old gods, which Lefkowitz admires, were despised among the people.

Interestingly, during the Christian era, many of the gods found a second career as fairies, goblins, and witches - which doubtless suited them well enough. The opera Tannhauser offers a look at this process.

More generally, I have difficulty with the idea that anyone today would actually BELIEVE polytheism. I wish I could remember the name of the Canadian feminist philosopher who pointed out that problem years ago. Christians actually believe in the Triune God, even though we can't entire grasp the relationships involved in the Trinity. But no one could believe in the same way - in Venus or Mars or Bacchus. They merely represent our own states of mind to ourselves.

And there is a sense in which the pagan gods were never any more than that, even in antiquity. They were not beyond us, they were usually beneath us. So today, a polytheist must be a practical atheist. I do concede Lefkowitz this, however - polytheism is much more fun than atheism, and produces vastly better art and culture. Compare, for example, the monstrosities of totalitarian atheist architecture in the twentieth century with the Parthenon of ancient Greece.


A slam dunk victory in a game that wasn't played?

Book reviews are interesting to read, because they can tell us a good deal about popular assumptions - how reviewers think and how they think their readers think.

In a generally favourable review of The Evolving Brain: The Known and The Unknown by R. Grant Steen (Prometheus Books, 2007), Columbia U's Lewis A. Opler writes,
Paradoxically, given its title, the only area that I felt was not handled expertly was in its handling of how and why evolution had chosen us—Homo sapiens, with our large prefrontal cortex and our increased plasticity and capacity for learning and communicating—to be the rulers of planet Earth. Possible answers include intelligence, language, communication, theory of the mind, and activation of pleasure circuitry because of affiliative behavior—all lead to collaboration and sociality of our species.

But what external changes emerged 50,000 years ago allowing this to give us a selective advantage?

What indeed? I guess that's the unknown. Opler goes on,
Steen unequivocally delivers a slam-dunk victory for evolution over intelligent design. But I kept waiting for cutting-edge neurobiology and psychology to meet cutting-edge evolutionary theory, and this did not occur.

But, other than this, I found this book a tour de force.

So ... in what sense, exactly, is the book a slam dunk victory or a tour de force?

Ah, I see ... in the sense that it provides reassurance for materialists. If it does that, it need not effectively address (as it evidently didn't) the questions that cause people to doubt materialism.

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