This is the sixth installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with Steven Horst, Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University.
Can you tell me something about your academic position, and about your current religious affiliation/self-identification – please feel free to say something about your religious upbringing or history, or anything else that might be relevant to your current religious affiliation.
I am Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University, a selective liberal arts college in the northeastern US. I specialize in philosophy of mind/cognitive science and its intersections with philosophy of science, and have published books on the computational theory of mind, reduction, and the relationship between natural laws and free will. I am in the process of publishing a book on a view I call Cognitive Pluralism – a thesis about cognitive architecture and its implications for semantics, epistemology, and unity of knowledge. I have also published shorter works on moral psychology and cognitive science of religion.
I did not grow up in a religious household. There was a brief period in my childhood when my mother sent me to the nearest church, and I remember loving the music and being fascinated with communion (as it was called in that Presbyterian church). But that ended when some of the other children in Sunday school took exception to my quickly memorizing the Bible verses to get my copy of the Bible and picture of Jesus and began to push me around on the way home from church.
I had a strong interest in spirituality as an adolescent, studied Transcendental Meditation with my father, and read what I could get my hands on of books about what would later be described as New Age, the occult, and things like lost civilizations. By chance or providence, I picked up a Christian book that had the same sort of “look” to its cover as Chariots of the Gods, and when I had finished it, found myself saying the prayer of acceptance at the end of it one snowy January afternoon in my mid-teens.
I started going to church with my next door neighbors – an Episcopal church that was the magnet church for charismatics over much of the state of Maryland. I have remained an Episcopalian ever since, and have been active there from the parish level (vestry person and warden) to the national (lay deputy from my diocese). I am active in the prayer and healing ministry there, bring the Eucharist to shut-ins, occasionally preach, and am licensed to lead public worship other than the Eucharist.
Looking back, I think that one thing that has sat well with me about the Anglican tradition is that it has a fairly minimalist view of core doctrine – more or less what is in the Creeds – and regards anything beyond that as pious conjecture that is at the discretion of the believer. In my own case, as a philosopher who has a strong sense of how difficult it would be to really have knowledge on theological matters, this usually amounts to abstaining from beliefs about matters on which I do not think there is a clear argument from Scripture.
But as much as I have been active in the Episcopal Church and love its liturgy, my deepest commitments are to the Church Universal and to the particular group of individuals who make up my parish of 25 years. If I were to relocate, I might very well look into the local Christian communities, particularly Eastern Orthodox, as much of my spiritual reading has come from the Eastern tradition. So I sometimes describe myself as an “Eastward-looking Anglican”.
You do a lot of things related to ministry. Could you say a bit more about how this impacts your everyday life?
This has differed a lot from year to year, depending on just what I am doing. When I chaired a search for a rector – I think it was something like an 18-month process – I not only had to do a lot of organizing, but also felt obliged to read up on literature about parish life. I think that was the busiest year of my life, and I was regularly working from 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. Being a warden also meant spending a lot of time learning to do things like finances that I am not an expert in, and explaining them to the parish. (I am good at explaining things and presenting information in forms like PowerPoint, and this ended up being surprisingly effective in things like persuading people that they needed to be making larger financial contributions unless they wanted to see the parish close.)
While I was a deputy to the (national) General Convention, I spent a lot of time reading posts on the listserv for that body and occasionally crafting replies that would make an unpopular point without provoking angry and uncharitable responses. I think in all that my professional training did me some good.
Other forms of ministry, such as preaching and particularly intercessory prayer and laying on of hands for healing, really open up a different part of my life. I think that I probably feel both closest to God and most authentically myself in moments when I am praying for someone, or when I feel there is something I am supposed to say to them –– what in some traditions of the Church is called “speaking a word”. There have been times when I have felt absolutely certain that there was something God wanted me to say, and it made absolutely no sense to me, but clearly made a connection with the person it was meant for. In such moments, I feel the lines between me and the Holy Spirit acting within me become a bit blurred, and feel at least a bit transparent, allowing God to act through me. This really helps remind me that God is always real and present, even though His presence is often veiled, and it seems to impart a kind of grace to me for a time as well.
Much of the ministry of my parish, which is in the middle of a downtown Main Street, is to the homeless of our community. We run an overflow shelter in the long, cold New England Winter, have opened a clothing bank, and are trying to refurbish a space to provide a place for people to shower and do laundry. This helps remind me of the stark realities that someone like me, who has a decently-paying job and lives in a nice house (usually with his nose stuck in a book or a computer screen) too easily forgets: that much of the world lives in very different circumstances, and that in fact the number of people in my country living in or near poverty has been increasing year by year.
In recent years, I’ve felt a growing sense of compassion – sometimes painful compassion – for all the need in the world around me, and the recognition that things I take for granted (having a warm coat, clean socks, a safe place to sleep, the prospect of retirement) are things that perhaps hundreds of people even in my little town have to worry about every day. I suppose I’d still have some abstract recognition of these facts if I weren’t part of an urban parish, but it is only because I am part of something larger than myself that I have a way of making a small difference that, combined with the small differences a hundred other people make, add up to a big difference.
Does your ministry also have an effect on your work as a professional philosopher, and if so, what sort of effect (direct or indirect)?
Well, if we are talking about the expressions of ministry I described in my last response, the answer is either “not much” or “only very indirectly”. I suppose there have been years when the obligations I’ve taken on as a churchperson, a teacher, and a philosophical writer have been in dire competition for my time, my energy, perhaps my very soul. That is not really what you are asking, but there is something worth exploring here. For someone teaching at a secular/pluralistic institution in the US, there is a default assumption that one’s religious life and one’s professional vocation are strictly separate things. Perhaps even more than “separate” – they are expected to be firmly walled off from one another. I have heard that there are colleges that are “secular” in so oppressive and tawdry a way that simply being religiously identified is deemed a matter of grave suspicion, but I am happy to say that Wesleyan is not (for the most part) that sort of place.
I actually prefer the label “pluralistic university” to “secular university”, because at its best, a non-sectarian institution of higher learning should at very least accord respect to religious identification, just as it does to political identification, gender identity, gender expression, race, culture, and so on, and I think that my institution has met at least this baseline aspiration. (In part, this is because of the fact that the Christian-identified students are for the most part Asian- or African-American or indeed Asian or African, which sometimes comes as a bit of a shock to people who think of Christianity in terms of European imperialism and are somewhat discomfited to find that its local advocates are for the most part people of color and in many cases from third world countries.) I suspect that members of the campus Christian Fellowship may know of my faith “through the grapevine”, but I consider it a professional responsibility never to mention it in class unless directly asked. There have been times that I did something with the Christian Fellowship, attending events or speaking once or twice, but it has not been a regular thing, and has been strictly distinct from my role as a professor.
On the other hand, my Christian commitment has had an influence on what I decide to write about, and a bit less often what I teach about. I am not a philosopher of religion, and really do not particularly enjoy teaching about things like the arguments for the existence of God. This is partly because I am a fideist (someone who regards religious commitment as based on faith rather than argument). But when I teach, say, the Early Moderns, I tend to make it clear that Galileo and Descartes showed no signs of ever being anything but good Catholics, or that Newton regarded Providence and miracles as extremely important. When a colleague who taught philosophy of religion retired, I began to occasionally teach a course called Christianity and Philosophy (half of it about late antiquity, and including the role of theology in Early Modern science), and taught some Christian (principally Eastern Orthodox) texts along with other wisdom tradition texts in a course called Moral Psychology: Care of the Soul.
In my professional publications, my choice of topics has no doubt been shaped by my Christian commitments, and by what I take to be the dangerous misconceptions of the age. My books have attempted to diagnose and work therapy upon computationalism, reductionism, and determinism – doctrines that I take to be both false and harmful. (I am not sure what I would have done had I deemed them harmful but true, but fortunately that was not my situation.) But my arguments against them have never used theological commitments as their premises, and I have left only very indirect clues as to my own commitments, such as including the designations of liturgical feast days in the dates of the forewords. While I have no doubt that my Christian commitments played a large role in selecting these topics, the arguments could hardly be as effective if they depended upon the reader first becoming a Christian, and indeed, on these particular topics, I think one need not be a Christian to see the problems with the views I was criticizing.
There is, however, a deep dissatisfaction in this, which is that it does not satisfy a felt need to be both an apologist and a public intellectual. As a young man, I was quite influenced by the writings of C.S. Lewis, and have always felt a deep desire to follow in some ways in his footsteps. Recently, I have been working on two books for broader audiences. One, called What Do Christians Believe?, is intended to be a very general introduction to Christianity for educated inquirers, somewhat like Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The other, tentatively entitled Exorcizing Laplace’s Demon, seeks to present to a general audience the criticisms of reductionism and determinism that I developed for academic audiences in Beyond Reduction (2007) and Laws, Mind, and Free WIll (2011).
In recent years, I have also started doing a bit of work in cognitive science of religion, particularly in dialog with research in cognitive psychology that addresses the origins of religious concepts and beliefs. Given my own professional specializations (in philosophy of mind/cognitive science), I have concentrated on issues such as what makes certain beliefs “intuitive”. From my own standpoint as a Christian fideist (not made explicit in this articles), I would say that our minds are biased towards a general belief in God and other supernatural beings, but that this bias needs to be supplemented and corrected by revelation to provide even the basis for a correct understanding of God, which can only truly be formed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We readily and confidently come to believe in God, gods, spirits, angels, demons, and ghosts, but many of these confident beliefs are by no means knowledge, even if they are true beliefs. Sometimes, in the Kantian sense, they are “illusions” – things that seem like knowledge, but are not really known, and certainly cannot be known by reason alone, or even by just any old experience, but at best through the eyes of faith. Because the beliefs are sometimes the result of basic cognitive mechanisms, they can be “cognitive illusions”. From my Christian standpoint, I would say that religious knowledge can be supplied only through legitimate revelation. As a philosopher, I would put these “illusions” in counterpoint with another set of atheistic illusions of reductionism and determinism, which are what I address in my books. These, I think, are equally the product of illusory operations of reason, which produce what feels like knowledge, but in fact is not. Indeed, if I were to summarize the point of my books briefly, it would be that they seek to expose such illusions as illusions. Neuroscience and gravitation are matters of scientific theory, and can be knowledge. Reductionism and determinism are philosophical speculations grounded in deep psychological mechanisms, but are by no means implied by the best contemporary science.
It is interesting that you mention your work on cognitive science of religion, and on how our minds are biased towards belief in God. Results from the cognitive science of religion have sometimes been used to argue against religious belief, and you also mention that we can have cognitive illusions (such as the illusion of determinism and reductionism). What would you respond to those who say that the cognitive science of religion casts doubt on religious belief?
I would not say that our minds are specifically biased towards belief in God as theists understand God, but towards forming concepts of and beliefs about a broader class of entities that, from the standpoint of naturalists, would count as “supernatural”. There are probably a lot more cultures where this has meant belief in ancestor spirits, witches, demons, or powerful beings associated with locations rather than anything like the monotheist’s notion of God. And of course, for a lot of them, our division between “natural” and “supernatural” beings would be incomprehensible – is an angry volcano god natural because a volcano or supernatural because an agent?
Now in terms of cognitive illusion, I’m inclined to use the word ‘illusion’ in Kant’s sense – that a cognitive illusion is something produced by a cognitive mechanism and seems to be knowledge (perhaps even to be necessarily true) but really is not, though it might in fact be true or false.
And I have begun to work out ideas to the effect that the constellation of divine attributes that tends to get ascribed by high theological monotheisms – say, a transcendent and providential deity that created everything from design and is perfect in knowledge, power, and goodness – can be reached by a kind of process in which very ordinary intuitive reasoning methods are applied to very ordinary intuitive beliefs and things like schemas for causation and teleology that seem to be part of the normal developmental toolkit. That is, high theological ideas may be more directly tied to maturationally normal and species-typical feature of cognition than the particulars of folk religions – but of course the high theology only comes about when these species-typical features are subjected to particular forms of dialectic and reasoning.
Mind you, I think high theology has very little to do with why people actually believe in God or other supernatural beings. But I think Kant was right that there are religious dialectical illusions (in his sense of ‘illusion’). He was also right that there are naturalistic ones, and my books on reduction and determinism in fact argue that a major part of the reason people assume reduction and determinism must be true lies in a kind of dialectical cognitive illusion as well. (And more generally, that most of the major views in philosophical metaphysics get their appeal on the basis of cognitive illusions.) So, sure, there are ways our minds recommend theistic beliefs in a fashion that is illusory in the sense of producing a mere semblance of knowledge and even necessity, but this is also true of the origins of the major atheistic intuitions.
As a Christian, I’d say that our natural cognitive biases produce no more than the resources for starting to form an idea of the kind of God Christians believe in. I think it is central to Christian (Jewish, Islamic) religion that we really only begin to know God through God’s self-revelation – in history, through the prophets, in the Incarnation, and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Simply believing that there is an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent being who created the universe doesn’t make you a Christian. It doesn’t even tell you what you need to know in order to decide to become a Christian, because it says nothing about salvation through Christ.
And there are things about the specifically Christian beliefs that are deeply counterintuitive – as the Bible puts it, it is a “scandal” that the God who created the universe would take on a human nature, much less suffer and die, or that human beings can be “adopted as children of God” or “grafted into the True Vine” and take on something of the nature of Christ. Those are all category-benders to an extent that our minds will need to be transformed in order to really grasp them.
Here I am drawn to the explanation given by some Christian neo-Platonists, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I take the point of departure here to be from Plato’s suggestion in the Divided Line passage that discursive reasoning (dianoia) is not the highest faculty of the soul – that there is also a faculty, which Plato and the Orthodox call nous – whose function is direct apprehension of spiritual realities.
In the West, we find this notion in something like the Beatific Vision. In Orthodoxy, there is the view that the proper state of the soul is one in which the Holy Spirit dwells in and illuminates the nous, allowing us to contemplate God and spiritual things, but in fallen humanity, the Holy Spirit has withdrawn, and the capacity is atrophied to such an extent that we lose sight of the fact that it was ever there at all, and just think of ourselves as rational animals – an amalgam of monkey and Macintosh.
The goal of the associated style of spiritual practice – hesychasm – is to allow the Holy Spirit to re-awaken the nous so that we contemplate God and attend to spiritual things rather than to the senses and the passions. Of course, for those of us who have not had this kind of mystical experience, this is but an avid hope. But we have the testimony of many, regarded as spiritually purified, that when we attain it, all of our old ways of thinking about things, including our best philosophy and theology, will then seem, in Aquinas’s words, like filthy rags.
I have been a stumbling practitioner of this hesychastic spirituality since I discovered the sayings of the Desert Fathers in college. Among the things that have attracted to me to writers in the Orthodox tradition – say, from Evagrios the Solitary in the Egyptian Desert to Theophan the Recluse in 19th century Russia – is the way that Orthodoxy has placed this tradition of spiritual practice in dialog with philosophy and theology. (Most importantly in terms of my professional interests, with an empirical tradition of understanding the soul.) It is not something I have written about much, as I consider myself still a novice, and have not had the kind of enlightening experiences that would put me in a position to speak to it from a perspective of real understanding.
I think there is, however, a deep relationship between this outlook and my epistemological views. Some prominent Christian philosophers are Rationalists, and think that God has given us forms of understanding that adequately reflect the real natures of things. I think that we are very limited and finite creatures, whose natural understanding (not enlightened by the Holy Spirit) gives us only a motley assortment of imperfect, idealized, perspectival, and pragmatically-constrained ways of thinking about the world that do not add up to a coherent whole.
We see not only God, but also ourselves and creation, “through a glass dimly” –indeed, through a variety of smudgy lenses that give us partial and occluded views of different things. I don’t think that science or philosophy overcome this, though they may polish some of the lenses a bit. I take the attitude of the negative theologian, but towards the created world as well – “yes this, but not quite this, and infinitely more besides”. The only hope I see for truly adequate understanding of God, ourselves, or the world is through a radically different form of cognition, the sort of thing Plato and Christian neo-Platonists have called noetic understanding. But the real goal here is not better understanding, but dwelling in the presence of God, gazing upon Him, and as a result being transformed into His image and likeness, from glory unto glory.