Thursday, July 20, 2006

rudimentary sketch of a childish god

I was doing a little research into the Real Character of John Wilkins and came across an essay by Jorge Luis Borges -- The Analytical Language of John Wilkins -- on a site called ALAMUT, Bastion of Peace and Information. Now both the essay and the site are interesting on their own, but what caught my eye was Borges' quote of David Hume:
The world - David Hume writes - is perhaps the rudimentary sketch of a childish god, who left it half done, ashamed by his deficient work; it is created by a subordinate god, at whom the superior gods laugh; it is the confused production of a decrepit and retiring divinity, who has already died ('Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion', V. 1779).
Now this quote is translated from Borges' Spanish so it's reasonable to suspect it to differs from Hume's original English. In fact it's quite different, both in text and implied context.

Here is that original English:
This world, for aught [man] knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.
As to text differences, Borges or the translator, or both, paraphased the Hume text so that it reads more smoothly to the modern eye. As to context, Borges suggests that Hume believed the world to be a botched creation, but Hume's point isn't so straight-forward. His protagonist, Philo, is saying (a) the world has many imperfections (the philosopher's short hand is to say there is evil in the world) and (b) this being so, it isn't logical to believe in a single omnipotent God who is perfectly good. Epicurus was the first to state this conundrum. Epicurus drew the argument out to a belief that there are many gods (as ancient Greeks believed) but that they are indifferent to human affairs -- ethical beings whom humans might strive to emulate, but remote and having no material impact on the world of men. Hume's Philo does likewise, saying that God exists but does not guide human affairs in any way. He says this God created the universe and established a pattern -- what are known as laws of nature -- and that's it; there's no more.

However, where Epicurus was -- in modern terminology -- a materialist, one who believes that everything, including human thought is mechanical -- that the universe is a mechanism like a watch, Philo says the unfolding of history (everything that happens everywhere in all time) is not mechanistically preordained, but rather -- again using modern terminology -- is naturally propagated. He doesn't actually refer to evolution, but his concept of propagation is entirely consistent with evolution. As I see it, he's assuming that an impersonal rule or law -- which we call evolution -- is the most likely organizing principle for the universe. More than half a century before Darwin, he says:
Cleanthes, replied Philo, as you have heard, asserts, that since no question of fact can be proved otherwise than by experience, the existence of a Deity admits not of proof from any other medium. The world, says he, resembles the works of human contrivance; therefore its cause must also resemble that of the other. Here we may remark, that the operation of one very small part of nature, to wit man, upon another very small part, to wit that inanimate matter lying within his reach, is the rule by which Cleanthes judges of the origin of the whole; and he measures objects, so widely disproportioned, by the same individual standard. But to waive all objections drawn from this topic, I affirm, that there are other parts of the universe (besides the machines of human invention) which bear still a greater resemblance to the fabric of the world, and which, therefore, afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of this system. These parts are animals and vegetables. The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world, we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation.
Philo goes on to say that whatever entity created the universe and established its pattern of generation, there is little reason to believe that creative force was intelligent.

Like Epicurus before him and Darwin after, Hume was attacked as crypto-atheist. But it's probably closest to the truth to say he kept an open mind on the subject. Philo says that man knows of four ways to understand cause and effect: the principles of reason, instinct, generation, and vegetation. He maintains that reason and instinct are likely to have been produced by generation (evolution of animals) and thus gives primacy to evolution (generation and vegetation) over reason and instinct (or faith) as means of understanding the unfolding universe. So, although "we have no data to establish any system of cosmogony. Our experience, so imperfect in itself, and so limited both in extent and duration, can afford us no probable conjecture concerning the whole of things," what little we do know supports evolution as the guiding priciple of creation, not an intelligent, omnipotent, omnipresent, king-like God.

Though the Borges paraphrase that captured my attention shows off the classiness of Hume's skepticism, the argument which it introduces is much more nuanced and, in my reading, surprisingly "modern."

All in all this section of the Dialogues is well worth reading. Read it and make up your own mind. It's from Part V of an online text, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

{Source of the Alamut Borges piece: Translated from the Spanish 'El idioma analítico de John Wilkins' by Lilia Graciela Vázquez; edited by Jan Frederik Solem with assistance from Bjørn Are Davidsen and Rolf Andersen. A translation by Ruth L. C. Simms can be found in Jorge Luis Borges, 'Other inquisitions 1937-1952' (University of Texas Press, 1993)}

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