Wednesday 2 September 2009

The Philosopher's God (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume  LXXXXVII No. 2 Autumn 2009

Or a Philosophy for the Religious?*

By Brenda Almond

'Nothing can come out of nothing, and it is impossible that anything that there is, can perish.'
The philosophical work of Timothy Sprigge is often considered to be too difficult for the non-philosopher, and indeed it does touch upon many of the most profound areas of speculative metaphysics. Nevertheless, Sprigge had a respect, unusual amongst professional philosophers, for those he called 'thoughtful amateurs'. As one Pierfrancesco Basile and Leemon McHenry put it recently in Consciousness, Reality and Value, (2007): 'Rather than isolating philosophy from non-philosophers, and non-philosophers from philosophy, he has sought to bring philosophic clarity to the very issues that deeply concern many individuals.'

But while the philosophical position that Sprigge expounded in his publications and his conversation does indeed have deep and complex dimensions, it was the ethical and religious implications of his metaphysics, and his holistic view of what there is, that provided the main focus of the Oxford conference. But some light can be thrown on what is sometimes called 'the "god" question' by looking first, very briefly, at the way in which Sprigge approached issues in practical ethics, an area in which he made the treatment of non-human animals a central concern.

Sprigge is one philosopher of whom it could rightly be said that his positive advocacy on behalf of non-human animals and the environment flowed directly from his deeply worked out metaphysical views. Early in his career he met the young Peter Singer, then developing his own approach to animal rights. Sprigge was teaching at that time at Sussex University, and had invited Singer to his house in Lewes, where the conversation centred on a visit Singer had made to a small commune that was seeking to live ecologically and independently in a remote country area, consuming only its own resources. The members had raised a pig for food, and had allowed it to live a free and happy life until the time came for its slaughter. Singer, who was already committed to vegetarianism, was seeking to work out his own reaction to the distinctive ethical problems this presented. But where Singer saw this first of all as an issue of practical ethics needing an intellectual justification in essentially utilitarian terms, Sprigge started his search for an answer to such questions from a point of view which was already more metaphysical than ethical, involving, as it did, a reasoned assessment of the possibility of attributing 'mind' to a non-human entity.

This was probably not at this early stage to be interpreted in terms of an already developed metaphysical view of mind as the only reality, but as a simpler and more down-to-earth assessment in which he found it possible to weigh the claims to consideration of a prawn or a scallop and then to accept the dietary implications of his conclusions. With this approach, he exercised a significant influence on the early Australian academic movement towards a philosophically-based vegetarianism, and once convinced of the validity of this intellectual approach, he accepted the ethical claims it made on his own life with something like the conviction and commitment of a religious believer.

Later, Sprigge's exploration of the moral standing of animals extended to other aspects of the natural world, including its non-animate aspects, as his concept of the mental moved away from the approach to the philosophy of mind and language engaged in by such twentieth-century philosophers as Ryle and Ayer, and back towards the idealist metaphysics of nineteenth-century thinkers such as Bradley and McTaggart. Indeed, it is possible to think of Sprigge as himself a reincarnation of a nineteenth-century philosopher ? something also noted by Richard M. Gale who writes: 'He does philosophy like someone who has just arrived in a time machine from Cambridge of the 1890s.' This was not intended as a slur, and Gale goes on to congratulate Sprigge for his courage and conviction in swimming so strongly against the prevailing philosophical tide. Nevertheless, Sprigge did in fact owe much to the analytic tradition, to logical positivism and the standards of rigour in meaning and truth demanded by the verification test, and to the philosophical influence, as far as method is concerned, of A.J. Ayer. But the influence of the metaphysicians was in the end stronger, nor was the nineteenth century by any means Sprigge's stopping?point. Indeed, his return to the past took him further back - to Berkeley, whose impeccable logic he appreciated even while identifying its limitations, and to Spinoza, who was probably his greatest inspiration. But Sprigge's own ontological inquiry, if seriously pursued, would really end, I would suggest, more than two millennia earlier, with the metaphysical world-view of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides.

I do not intend to follow him there, however, because what I wanted to explore in the talk I gave at the Oxford conference is the point where philosophy and religion ? often opposed to each other in twentieth-century universities, where learning to refute historic arguments for the existence of God became almost a ground-clearing exercise for new recruits to philosophy in the second half of that century - reach out and touch each other in Sprigge's personal exploration of what there is and who we are.


Religion for Sprigge, as for most people brought up in Britain at his time, could be presumed to be the Christian religion, although he came to be profoundly interested in other world religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Most forms of the Christian religion, however, pose problems for philosophers schooled in the empiricist tradition. Belief is not subject to the will, and the empiricist is a natural sceptic. Christianity, however, unlike some other world faiths, seeks adherence to a creed and has traditionally hated heresy. Sprigge's leaning towards the idealist philosophers was combined with what is perhaps best described as a personal search for an understanding of religion that does not depend on unverifiable factual claims but can nevertheless be supported by rigorous philosophical reasoning. This sets him apart from those philosophers who believe it is impossible for philosophy to provide a metaphysical underpinning for Christianity, amongst whom he places Descartes, Kierkegaard, William James and John Macmurray. His list also includes Pascal, but the prominence he gives to a long passage from that thinker in the Introduction to The God of Metaphysics, suggests that he had more sympathy than he cared to admit ? perhaps even to himself ? with the personal and inspirational, even mystical, terms in which the God of Christianity is described in Pascal's Pensées:
The God of Christians does not consist of a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements: that is the job of the pagans and Epicureans. He does not consist simply of a God who exerts his providence over the lives and property of people in order to grant a happy span of years to those who worship him: that is the allocation of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of the Christians is a God of love and consolation; he is a God who fills the souls and hearts of those he possesses; he is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their wretchedness and his infinite mercy, who unites with them in the depths of their soul, who makes them incapable of any other end but himself.

Pascal, Pensées
This personal God and this personal form of Christianity was, it seems to me, one that Sprigge abandoned if at all, only with reluctance. Indeed, I believe that his exploration of the metaphysicians' god was a quest for the God that twentieth-century analytic philosophy had made it so difficult to reconcile with respect for the pre-eminence of reason. His account of Kierkegaard's response to the difficulty of reconciling reason and religion sums up the dilemma: 'Thus to be a Christian demands that we make the leap of a doubly (at least apparently) irrational faith. It is irrational, first, because it is only through having faith in it that we discover it to be certainly true, and secondly, because the very content of our belief is apparently logically absurd.'

Kierkegaard concluded that a passionate commitment to the absurd is in fact the essence of Christianity. In contrast, Sprigge describes his own position as a synthesis of two more rigorous philosophical systems, Bradley's and Spinoza's, and he disowns any interest in defending a personal God, preferring to follow Bradley on this point. He writes: 'Whether we think the Absolute can reasonably be called 'God' or not, Bradley is surely right that it is not a person.' Nevertheless, he does go on to make a concession to an at least quasi-personal perspective, when he says that there could be a sense in which, whether called Absolute or God, it includes in itself all persons. The difference, he says in Theories of Existence, between this and the God of Christianity is simply that 'it did not create, but is, the universe.'

He moves closer to an explanation of what this must mean in his account of the philosophy of T. H. Green in The God of Metaphysics. Green's name for what Hegel had called the 'Absolute Idea' and which others called the 'Absolute' was the 'Eternal Consciousness' and its essential characteristic was that it consists in a single eternal mind, in which our minds are in some way included. Whether or not Green's 'one spiritual self-conscious being' is the God of the Judaic religions is not crucial to this broad thesis, and Sprigge acknowledged that idealist philosophers have differed in their views about Christianity and even about the existence and nature of God. But he believed that in claiming that what we think of as the natural world is in some way or other dependent on mind, these philosophers had provided 'the best purely philosophical case for a religious view of the world of any metaphysicians.'

Green himself, who was the son of an Anglican clergyman, was 23 when Darwin's evolutionary theory plunged the scientific and theological worlds into controversy. It is not unreasonable to suppose, then, that Green's motivation was indeed, as Sprigge suggests, a desire 'to save a religious view of the world from developments in natural science and biblical criticism which threatened traditional Christianity.'

Indeed, Sprigge later repeats this assessment even more emphatically:
... while the whole idealist movement of that time provided cheer to those who feared that their religious outlook was under threat from history and science, it was Green above all, together with Edward Caird and his brother John, who offered a form of Christianity claiming to be intellectually, morally, and emotionally sustainable. Thus there can be no doubt of the religious, and more especially Christian, relevance of Green's God.
Sprigge's own rejection of the idea of a personal God might seem to distance him from the God of these philosophers. But Christianity includes other important elements apart from belief in a personal God, some of which it is easier to accommodate within Sprigge's philosophy, if only as metaphor, and it is clear that some bringing together of the essence of the Christian religion and abstract philosophical reasoning was indeed an important aspect of his philosophical quest. For he undoubtedly had a deep understanding of something he described as an unarticulated yearning ? a 'cosmic longing' - for what the great religions, but especially Christianity, can offer to their followers, and I believe it is the credence he gave to the phenomenon of 'religious consciousness' that is the key to understanding his commitment to absolute idealism.

Varieties of Idealism

In Theories of Existence, which was published in 1984, Sprigge wrote:
'The main message of absolute idealism . . . is that we are each aspects of a larger whole which has its own larger life, and that if we follow the leadings which come as from the deeper levels of our being, which are dimly continuous with the whole to which we belong, we will gain the sense that our strivings to fulfil our own potentialities play a part in some deep, if largely hidden, significance possessed by the universe as a whole.' 
 This is another way of putting something that Spinoza had expressed in terms of a simile in a letter to a contemporary. Imagine, he said, a parasitic worm living in the bloodstream and trying to understand and interpret its surroundings. The worm would see each drop of blood as an independent entity; it would not be able to recognize the part played by individual drops in the bloodstream as a whole ? nor could it understand that the more significant unit is the bloodstream as a whole, rather than the droplets of which it is constituted. But even the bloodstream taken as a whole is inadequately understood until it is seen in relation to all the other fluids in the body and to the body as a whole. If we see our physical selves as separate independent entities, our understanding is limited, Spinoza suggested, in the same way as that of the worm.

The 'whole' in Spinoza's simile has no immediate religious significance, but Sprigge himself is ready to make a fairly direct connection between a holistic and a religious account of the universe. He writes:
'A not strictly philosophical question is whether the existence of the Absolute has any real religious significance. I suggest that it does, if only because it justifies a certain cosmic emotion which we sometimes feel towards the Whole of things and through which we conceive the idea that in spite of all its horrors the world is essentially worthwhile and good.' 
Sprigge described himself as a 'pantheistic idealist.' Is it possible, I wonder, to read the choice of that term as a signal that he did not see himself as either an atheist or a humanist ? that he did not intend to abolish God, or even the monotheistic hypothesis? For, paradoxically, a pantheist for whom the apparent variety of the universe merges into a single whole that can be described as god, is necessarily a monotheist. Nevertheless, Sprigge does accept the loss of the individuality of human persons that characterizes absolute idealism - the kind of idealism represented by Spinoza in which God and nature come together in a broader cosmic consciousness which knows itself ? is capable of being self-aware.

But it is hard to reconcile this with Christian doctrine, which seems deeply dependent on a conception of God as set apart from the world of individual human beings ? in theological terms, as transcendent rather than immanent. Sprigge argues, however, that to conceive of God as an all-encompassing consciousness that coincides with nature itself is not to lower our conception of God, but to raise our conception of nature. (Theories of Existence) This remark, and the general position it indicates, may well be enough to place him in that long line of thinkers he so clearly admired, who wanted to open the way to a richer account of the core elements of religious belief and to overcome, in the words of another commentator on Sprigge's work, 'the dualisms of this world and the next, of body and spirit, and that of our minds and god's.' (Consciousness, Reality and Value)

The Unitarian influence

Given what I would see as Sprigge's reluctance to relinquish completely the spirit and the ethical essence of Christianity that had been part of his own education and his broader cultural context, it is perhaps not surprising that Sprigge found a congenial spirit in the form that these took in the Unitarian tradition ? a movement which has a strong philosophical base reaching back to the Socinians in the sixteenth century. Indeed, he dedicated his book The God of Metaphysics to St. Mark's Unitarian Church in Edinburgh and by his choice, his funeral service was conducted in a Unitarian church in Sussex where he had returned in retirement.

Described by one of its early chroniclers as holding that no specific creed is necessary for salvation, Unitarians believe in freedom of thought in religion, and that the good life is more important than correct belief. Some see Unitarianism simply as an undogmatic version of the Christian faith. While it rejects belief in the Trinity and does not accept the divinity of Jesus, it clings to the rituals and pattern of orthodox Christianity in its church-like structure and services, and until the end of the nineteenth century the movement was regarded, and saw itself, as another dissenting nonconformist Christian denomination. However, the absence of dogma, and the lack of any requirement to subscribe to a creed, has caused most other Christian groups to reject its claim to membership of the wider church and, indeed, today's Unitarians include not only those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity but also agnostics and avowed atheists.

Its roots, however, are deeper than this. Probably the best identifiable point of emergence was the sixteenth century ? a time when the response to heresy was likely to be torture and burnings. Amongst those whom Unitarians claim as their distinguished forebears are Erasmus, Martin Luther, Lord Shaftesbury, and Mary Wollstonecraft. The movement was established as a denomination by the scientist and philosopher of religion, Joseph Priestley, and its then aim was to restore early Christianity and get rid of the accretions of centuries of distortion and dogma. James Martineau, author of The Seat of Authority in Religion, argued that only reason and conscience (both given us by God), and not faith, should be the ground of religion.

In North America, the movement took a more nature-based direction and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a writer from whom Sprigge drew inspiration, held that that God was to be found in nature as a whole. Emerson, who had been a Unitarian Minister in Boston moved to England for a time, where he was influenced by the English Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Philosophers like Hume, in the eighteenth century argued that when belief in miracles and the infallibility of the Bible went out of the window, Christianity, too, was abolished. But this was not the Unitarian view. As one historian of the movement, H. Gow, explains:
'It is of great importance for those who wish to understand Unitarianism to realize that criticism of the Bible and disbelief in the miracles arose amongst them as the result of a deeper religious faith, and not merely a keener historical inquiry.' - The Unitarians(1928)
Contemporary Unitarians put this in a different way. They might, for example, say that Jesus, not being divine, nevertheless saves by his life and his example. Sprigge doubted that Jesus himself even claimed divinity in the sense that it is understood in today's churches. He wrote ' . . . as a Unitarian, I doubt that Jesus did really claim to be God'.

The philosophers' god

So was there room in Sprigge's philosophical system for the philosopher's god? I think this is a question Sprigge's work raises rather than answers and I should like to end by citing something I myself once wrote, which I think Sprigge would have endorsed. I presented these reflections as those of an imaginary 'wise woman' called Sophia. Sophia's message was this:
'You didn't think, because there is nothing separate that was mind, there is no mind. So you should not think that, if there is nothing separate which is God, there is no God; or if nothing separate which is soul, that there is no soul. It is not absurd, or ultimately incomprehensible, to say that the world is God, mind, soul; that this is the only path to immortality; and that understanding this is the only peace of mind.' - The Philosophical Quest (1988)
But the last words belong to Sprigge himself. In summarising Kierkegaard's views, he wrote in The God of Metaphysics: 

' . . . at every moment the assurance of the Christian hope is at risk from the offence it gives to the intellect; therefore it must remain a continual struggle to believe it.'
It seems to me that that was not only Kierkegaard's dilemma, but also, whatever his personal intellectual preferences, and no matter where his own philosophical reasoning had taken him, that of the author of The God of Metaphysics.

* This is an edited version of the paper presented to the Philosophical Society's 2009 Conference in honour of the British philosopher, Timothy Sprigge.

About the author: Professor Brenda Almond is author of Exploring Ethics and is a former President of the Phiosophical Soceity of England

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