In her book, Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity, the philosopher Catharine Wilson has asserted that “we are all, in a sense, Epicureans now.” The biblical scholar N. T. Wright quotes Wilson, and calls her assessment “spot on.”
When I was a young man, I thought Epicureans were people who ate foods with names I couldn’t pronounce at restaurants I couldn’t afford. And indeed, Webster’s “simple” definition of Epicurean is “Involving an appreciation of fine food and drink.” But we are clearly not all Epicureans in that sense. So what does Wilson mean?
She means that the worldview of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus has won the day. Epicurus, who lived three centuries before Christ, taught that God (or the gods) are irrelevant to our lives. Everything we see and are is but a chance and temporary configuration of atoms that is destined to dissolve and be reconfigured.
Epicurus, as popularized by his first century B.C.E. disciple Lucretius, saw no need for a God or gods to create the cosmos. If there is a God, he does not care about humanity, does not answer prayers and offers no judgment on individuals. The best humans can do is avoid as much pain and enjoy as much pleasure as possible, for as long as possible.
God, if he exists (and Epicurus does seem to believe in some kind of detached deity or deities) does not live in our zip code. He may live (to borrow an analogy from Wright) on an upper story of our building, but the stairs have collapsed and the elevator is out of order. God, in Lucretius’s Epicureanism, does not care about us, and we do not need him.
This is the view that, according to Catherine Wilson, dominates our day. It is taken for granted on college campuses, both in the sciences and in the humanities. It is the orthodox view of modern secularism, and provides the philosophical foundation for atheism, old and new.
Many people believe that science has produced this modern and enlightened view of things, but one could argue that the truth lies in exactly the opposite direction. It was an ancient and unscientific (in the modern sense) philosophy that produced modern scientists, who conduct their inquiries having already concluded that God is not involved. That is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific deduction.
It is important to realize that Epicureanism has never been the only philosophical game in town, though its contemporary dominance, as Wilson asserted, is clear. In the ancient world, Epicureans shared the stage with Stoics, Sophists, Platonists and others.
Indeed, in the first century, the Apostle Paul squared off against Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens. His view, founded on Jewish monotheism, made claims that flatly contradicted those of Epicureanism: The God who created and sustains the world has entered the world to redeem it through Jesus Christ. His resurrection is proof that God has come among us.
The Epicureans debated St. Paul, though it is not at all clear that they understood him. They eventually resorted to name-calling, as some contemporary Epicureans have also been known to do. And that is, is some ways, the point post-modern Americans need to keep in mind: today’s cultural debates are nothing new. They are not the result of science versus obscurantism or reason verses religion, or modern enlightenment verses ancient naiveté, as is so often portrayed. They are the result of competing philosophical approaches to life.
Because that is true, it is not enough, not nearly enough, to ask if modern science is right, since modern science is conducted and interpreted through a philosophical worldview. We need to go further and ask which worldview best depicts reality. One can utterly reject Epicurean philosophy and still value science and hold it in high regard. But one cannot accept Christianity, with its central belief in a creator and redeemer, without utterly rejecting Epicureanism.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/16/2015
Hey Shayne, I read this published in the Canton Repository. I think you may be interested in learning about the ins and outs of a relationship between a Christian and a “non-secular” Humanist. My girlfriend and I have discussions about faith on a semi-regular basis. We tend to circumvent the zip code debate most times, as I find myself as both Deist and Pantheist on those grounds. We focus on similarities between Christian ethics and the good-living philosophy of men like Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius and Mark Twain. In my opinion, it’s a dialogue rather than clash of cultural philosophy. We both grow in our understanding of spirituality and it reinforces some aspects of our separate theologies and weakens others. I totally get where you come from writing that science holds God absent. Of course, because you can’t measure God with a Large Hadron Collider. What cannot be seen or fit into testable theory is nought. IMO this cultural norm was introduced into Western pop culture by William of Ockam and has not since left – see Chatton’s anti-razor for a worthwhile rebuke, if you are unfamiliar.
I suppose I wonder, what are you trying to persuade the reader of? I posited you felt imposed upon by Epicureanism (or people who claim to be Epicureans but then go around spreading discord – clearly not the MO of the philosophy). Are you more concerned with the ontology or the limitations is imposes as a cultural norm?
Hi Tim. Thanks for reading and i appreciate you taking the time to comment. I didn’t write this because I feel imposed upon by Epicureans – don’t really feel that at all. But it seemed to me that many people assume that the “scientific” viewpoint stands alone and, often, in contradiction to a “religious” viewpoint, and do not realize that science (at least scientists) operate from a set of philosophic assumptions. Those assumptions may lead them to oppose religious faith and they may not, but recognizing their presence is a good starting point.
I also think it interesting that some people who utterly oppose a Darwinian evolutionary explanation of life on the planet sometimes hold an Epicurean philosophical viewpoint (God does not live in this zip code) and don’t even know it. The very argument about creation (as an example) is colored by the philosophical assumption that go unstated by both parties.
Again, thanks for reading! Best to you. – Shayne
“It was an ancient and unscientific (in the modern sense) philosophy that produced modern scientists, who conduct their inquiries having already concluded that God is not involved. That is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific deduction.”
I disagree. Scientists don’t make philosophical assumptions about there not being a God, they simply conduct their inquiries as if there’s no god because there’s no way to factor that in. How could a scientist, working in the physical, natural world, incorporate into their experiments a supernatural being? What would be the point in even doing an experiment if you are going to stick in a supernatural variable that could skew the results in infinite ways?
Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it. Perhaps we’re not meaning the same thing: The results of an experiment may not change whether a person believes in God or not, is an atheist or a new-ager, Christian or Hindu. But the deductions based on the experiment certainly might. For example, the famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga acknowledged a few years ago that Richard Dawkins was a brilliant biologist, but went on to say he was a sophomoric philosopher. In saying this, he was not suggesting that the scientific data were skewed, but that the deductions drawn from the data were influenced by a philosophical presupposition.
At any rate, thanks again for reading, and best to you! – Shayne
Shayne, thank you for your reply. I thought some more about this while running this morning, and want to run this by you: If Plantinga and other Christian apologists see their God in the results of experiments, but do not also leave room in their explanations for the gods of other religions, are they not guilty of the same “philosophical presupposition” that they accuse Dawkins of? And to expand on this idea, isn’t the position of someone like Dawkins, who excludes ALL gods when interpreting the results, more reasonable in doing so? To expand again, at what point would a non-Dawkin’s (for lack of a better label) method of interpretation cease to be useful, because the number of variables becomes overwhelming?
I realize you probably have plenty on your plate, and may have exhausted your interest in this topic, but I appreciate you taking the time to respond, and doing so thoughtfully. All the best to you, as well!
Dave, I don’t think Plantiga and others are guilty of the same philosophical presuppositions because the issue – this god or that one – is a different issue (with, I suppose, different possible “guilty” presuppositions!) about which they have thought carefully and come to reasoned conclusions. I think Dawkins (God bless him!) works within an Epicurean framework which he does not notice (or did not, until others called it to his attention).Plantiga (and I, for that matter – though I’m not fit company to be included with him and people like him) also operates within a framework, but one that he is conscious of and has thought carefully about.
At any rate, be well as you explore these difficult questions. I appreciate your shared interest and thoughtful manner about this important subject. – Shayne
Shayne, just to be clear…my point was not that Plantinga and his ilk pick one god over another…it’s that they pick ONE god (only), and ignore ALL the other 1,999 or so gods. Saying that they thought carefully and came to reasoned conclusions really sidesteps the issue, since each believer in the other 1,999 gods can make the same claim as Plantinga, with exactly the same “after careful thought” reasoning. Dawkins and other scientists cannot be criticized for ignoring all gods (for equally good reasons with respect to each god), while Plantinga and his ilk are excused from ignoring 1,999 gods…and then asking everyone else to interpret the results of experiments with THEIR god in mind. To criticize the much more reasoned approach that Dawkins takes makes no sense, at least to me.
On a side/related note, I think you give Plantinga too much credit, and give yourself not enough credit. Thanks again for the conversation.
Sorry, Dave. I did misunderstand and appreciate the clarification.
It does seem to me still that this is a philosophical question. Francis Collins (for example) agrees with Dawkins (for example) on the instrumentality of a Darwinian-like process in the development of human life, but has not reached the same conclusions because of a difference in philosophical positions. My hope in writing that particular article was that readers would be aware of the existence of such presuppositions. Too often, it seems to me anyway, people frame the debate as if it only began in the 19th century and was carried on between rational science and superstitious religion. Collins, Polkinghorne, Davies and a good many others are a testament to the fact that the debate is not primarily between science and religion but between philosophical positions that scientists (and all the rest of us) hold.
Thanks again for the clarification and the thoughtful presentation of your views. – Shayne