31 October 2008

Gods As We See Them, part II

I asked yesterday about Xenophanes' argument (is there one?), because it seems to me that the fragments are today standardly taken to express an indifference argument, but I don't see that that is the only, or most plausible, alternative.

The indifference argument would be: different kinds of creatures represent the (bodily form) of the gods differently; there is no reason for preferring one such representation than another; thus, no such representation should be affirmed.

Now indifference arguments are common in presocratic philosophy.  Still, this one seems off the mark here, for two reasons.  

First, if that's the sort of argument that Xenophanes had in mind, he would never have presented the argument in a cross-species form-- because it would have struck his audience as absurd to say there was no reason to prefer what humans suppose over what oxen and lions might suppose!  At least, this would be far from a natural claim to make. 

Second, as put forward with regard to different groups of human beings, the argument is too sophisticated: one has to assume that each culture and racial group is on a level with every other, which is an egalitarianism that would have been more problematic for Xenophanes' audience than any theological conclusion he would have wanted to establish.

The truth is, we impute this indifference argument to Xenophanes because we find it easy to accept.  We ourselves presuppose equality of cultures, and we presuppose, too, an innate tendency to 'paint the world with our own thoughts' (a la Hume and Freud), and so, from variations of the sort that Xenophanes describes, we quickly conclude that the differences point to the essentially subjective origin of the phenomena.

The move is well displayed by McKirahan's commentary.  This is the argument as he reconstructs it: 
...we Greeks think the gods have the appearance of Greeks, yet all other peoples portray the gods as having the distinctive characteristics of themselves; but a god cannot simultaneously have the characteristics of all human peoples, and there is no reason to prefer one anthropomorphic account to another.  More radically, [Xenophanes] challenges the very conception of anthropomorphic gods.  In this case too, the belief stems from humans projecting their own nature onto the divine.
I guess I want to say that this reconstruction stems from modern scholars' projecting assumptions that they find plausible onto Xenophanes.

I'll say tomorrow what looks to me an argument that has a better chance of being what Xenophanes actually thought.


Anonymous said...

I rather thought that the more obvious interpretation of the argument (if there is one) is that it's a genetic argument: people imagine the gods like themselves, including all their differences, and other beings would do the same if they could; this shows that their ideas of the gods do not come from any knowledge about them, but from a projection of their own characteristics onto the divine. The genetic argument would avoid the perennial problem that such arguments face by being just one strand of Xenophanes' theological views -- so that he does not make the fallacious argument that since these ideas have suspect origins, they therefore can't possibly be true. Rather, explaining them as projections establishes that a) they aren't based on knowledge, and so we have no reason to believe that they're true; b) we know why people hold the conflicting views that, on Xenophanes' alternative view of the divine, are false. A kind of theological error theory, if you will.

But by now it has become obvious to me that nothing about Xenophanes is obvious.

Anonymous said...

Another point worth making is that some of the ancients were in fact quite enamored of arguments from disagreement for the view that beliefs have no objective basis, despite failing to be cultural egalitarians. Just think of Herodotus 3.38, or the role that (on most accounts) familiarity with foreign cultures played in the nomos/physis antithesis.

It also seems wrong to suppose that one needs to be influenced by Freud et al. to arrive at the basic 'projectionist' idea from observing the phenomena to which Xenophanes appeals. How else would one account for those phenomena, even if the gods really do look just like Greeks with bigger muscles?