25 February 2023

The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason: a review

Cross-posted to Goodreads here.

Dr Aleksei Il’ich Osipov’s book, The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason, has just become one of my favourite books on applied Orthodox theology in modern times for several reasons.

First, he showcases the ways of Western philosophy going back to Leibniz and Spinoza (but also including figures like Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher). In each case, he shows how these philosophers’ conceptions of God differed—sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in ways not so subtle—from the Christian witness to the Incarnation and its ramifications for how we should relate to God. The ‘search for truth on the path of reason’ is one which cannot be brought to a successful completion in itself, because the reason is darkened to the incomprehensible reality of God… and yet, as he shows with several examples, those who follow on that path may come to realise that the end of their journey lies along a different one.

The second noteworthy point is the deft and penetrating critique of scientism he provides. While he acknowledges the remarkable achievements and advances of knowledge that have come from the natural sciences, Dr Osipov nonetheless openly scorns the idea that science is at odds with religion (noting that the vast majority of scientists throughout history have been religious), and also shows that the attempts to make a comprehensive doctrine out of science—bear in mind he was writing this at le nouvel athéisme’s peak of popularity, in 2009—are woefully misguided and ill-fated.

There are several dimensions to Dr Osipov’s criticism of scientism. Most importantly, science does not and cannot prove or disprove religious maxims, because science is methodologically tethered to the realm of material causes and effects. The Christian thesis of a Creator cannot be subjected to empirical testing, because the ultimate reality to which the question of first causes belong is not amenable to such testing.

Following from this, he emphasises that the practice of science itself relies on a guiding hand which gives it a leading set of values and morals, and which determines the possible scope of its use. Osipov notes that although science has given us miracle cures for diseases, telecommunications and clean and cheap sources of energy—it has also given us biological weapons, echo chambers of distraction and outrage, and nuclear bombs. Being neutral towards questions of value, the natural sciences and the technologies which follow from it can be turned either to marvels of creativity and construction and wonder—or else to cataclysmic destruction and untold human suffering. This isn’t a particularly controversial point anymore, but Osipov makes it precisely in rebuttal to those who think science is capable in and of itself of providing the values by which it can be controlled.

Despite this, Osipov makes several strong arguments for acknowledging the reality of biological evolution, and notes that several saints—including Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Saint Theophan the Recluse—have noted that evolutionary theory is not at odds either with Scripture or with Christian practice… provided that it does not deny God.

Lastly (but not least) is his critique of religion. Dr Osipov identifies several strands within religious life which are deserving of critique: paganism, mysticism and immanentism (though he doesn’t use this last word himself). Paganism, which in his view is the identification of the supreme reality with the experience of a particular race or nation of people, he cites as spiritually harmful because it leads to various forms of pride and a rush after ‘food and shows’. Mysticism, a term by which Osipov comprehends a number of different strands of religious experience from the Dharmic religions to some forms of Protestant Christianity, places the locus of religious striving on the sensory experience of the believer. I’m using the word ‘immanentism’ here to encompass Dr Osipov’s critiques of Catholicism and Judaism, which are separate but share a common theme. His view is that both of these religious traditions place an over-emphasis on building paradise in this world, or awaiting a this-worldly Messiah who will deliver comfort and joy within this life.

The vital piece of his critique of religion is the emphasis he places on humility as the core virtue which is applicable to Orthodox practice. For this, he relies particularly upon the witness of modern Orthodox holy men, in particular: Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833); Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894); and especially Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867). All three of these luminaries of Orthodoxy emphasised making oneself humble and acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty and reliance on God as the cornerstone of any sort of spiritual striving—from the very beginning even to the heights of ascetic perfection. (Speaking of asceticism: if done without humility or love of Christ rather than self, Osipov clearly demonstrates how it can bring great harm to the ascetic and to others.)

Dr Osipov brings to the forefront the Orthodox tradition’s deep scepticism of ‘signs and wonders’, and the steadfast reluctance to trust with which these saints and others in the tradition approached them. This reluctance was not born of any materialistic or atheistic idea, but instead from a deeply-felt sense of humility before God. There is a bit of a polemical emphasis here, which directs a certain degree of criticism at Roman Catholic visionaries like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila and Thérèse of Lisieux, whose eagerness for and reliance on visions and sensory ecstasies of God’s mysteries are treated as delusional.

However, Dr Osipov is not averse to directing these same critiques of other religions against certain aspects of contemporary popular Orthodox practice. In particular: he sees evidence of ‘paganism’ in the hyperdox over-reliance on the external forms, rituals, canons and typikons of the Church; ‘mysticism’ in the popular but dubious occasions of exorcisms (particularly mass exorcisms) and myrrh-streaming icons; and ‘immanentism’ in seeking after ‘spiritual fathers’ who exert cults of personality over their followers. The basic underlying point about treating such visions and miracles and teachers with a healthy degree of wariness in the knowledge of our fallen senses should be well taken.

I highly recommend this book—if for nothing else, than for directing the reader to the witness and spiritual wisdom of the Christ-loving Saints Seraphim, Ignatius and Theodore. There is a great deal of value within Dr Osipov’s work, value which I hope more Western readers come to appreciate.

22 February 2023

Osipov on science and religion

I’m currently reading the Orthodox apologetics book The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason by Professor Aleksei Il’ich Osipov. Now, I’ve read a fair bit of apologetics literature—including most notably the English classics by GK Chesterton and CS Lewis—but, with the honourable exception of Saint John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition, it’s one of those genres that I’ve kind of been turned off of due to over-exposure. There’s something slightly unseemly about the debate-club tactics of too much of apologetics writing, attacking opposing views where they’re weakest and concealing one’s own flaws. However, I’m finding this book to be interesting in several ways.

I’ll give one modest example here. I will have more to say about the book later, I’m sure: Osipov is both profound and well-read, and he has a number of interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics in the history of philosophy and the history of religion. But I did want to touch on a couple of specific things he says about the relationship between Christianity and science.

Osipov seems to have a solid background in anthropology and the natural sciences—something that seems to have been held over from a Soviet education. (Many of the scientists and expert authorities he quotes were Soviet.) What’s more, he doesn’t take a straightforwardly-oppositional view to the sciences, even though the bent of his overall argument is strongly opposed to materialism and atheism.

Osipov accepts as given the timeline proposed by Soviet anthropologists regarding the emergence of the human species: dating it back 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. He is markedly more sceptical about the links directly relating human beings to the various pithecine species, but no more so than most evolutionary biologists. It’s still an open question in biology at what point the divergence into the genus Homo occurred, and what position the pithecines occupy in our extended family tree, so to speak.

Furthermore, Osipov sees no contradiction whatsoever between accepting the scientific evidence about the date and nature of human emergence on the one hand, and belief and trust in the God of the Scriptures on the other. Indeed, he sees the archaeological evidence of the presence of religious belief (such as ritual burial practices among the Neanderthals) to be confirmation that the presence of God has been felt and intuited even by our distant ancestors—and as an argument against the various atheistic naturalist and sociological theories of religion:
Religion is much more ancient than class societies, older than social oppression… [religion is] about 30 to 40 thousand years old. The general presence of religion throughout humanity is one of the most impressive facts of world history. Such a phenomenon could not be the result of chance, of someone’s fantasy or fears. It should have its own cause in something fundamental, or be rooted in man’s very nature, in the very essence of being.
This position is fully consistent with Osipov’s later-expressed view on the limits of science, which is essentially an endorsement of Stephen Jay Gould’s position of non-overlapping magisteria: ‘Natural knowledge, as a whole, studies the visible world. Therefore, the foundation of religious truth—the existence of God—cannot be subject to scientific refutation.

And again:
Religion and science are two essentially different realms of human life activity. They have different points of reference, different goals, tasks and methods. These spheres can touch each other, intersect each other, but as we see, they cannot disprove one another. At the same time, Christianity preaches the two-hypostatic nature of man’s existence, the undivided unity in him of spiritual and physical natures. Both answer God’s plan for man; and only the harmonious integration of their activities gives man’s life a normal character. Such a life presupposes the need for the ‘bread’ of technological development for his body, and the spirit of religious life for the soul. Just the same, man’s guiding impulse should always be his moral-reasoning, spiritual impulse.

Christianity sees science as one means of obtaining the knowledge of God (see Romans 1:19-20). But first of all, Christianity sees science as a natural instrument of this life, which must nevertheless be used with caution. Christianity regards science negatively when this two-edged sword wielding such terrible power acts independently of the moral principles of the Gospels. Such ‘freedom’ corrupts the very purpose of science, which is supposed to serve for the good—and only the good—of man (as the famous Hippocratic Oath says, ‘Do no harm!’).
The overall aim of Osipov’s book, as is clear from the title, is to showcase the paucity of Western rationalism (the ‘path of reason’) for answering the deeply-held questions, and for satisfying the deeply-held wants of the soul, before showing how these needs and wants are met by Christianity in general and by Orthodox Christianity in particular. But he is not anti-West. Much like the Slavophils whom he admires and whose thought he seeks to build from (particularly Khomyakov and Kireevskii), he sees within the West a vast and brilliant exploration of the potentials of the human mind—but an exploration which has hard limits and an unfulfillable end. Likewise, even though he faults scientific advances for producing ‘acquisitions in the field of microphysics, microbiology, medicine and military-industrial technology’ which have potentially world-ending consequences, he does not fault the discipline itself and sees much good which can come from it.

The compatibilist position which Osipov takes, therefore, isn't only—or even primarily!—about ‘following the science’ (a phrase which now fills me with utter annoyance at its insipidity). More to the point: it’s about doing religious investigation properly. Christianity is not, when correctly understood, at war with the knowledge of nature that the natural sciences provide. Christianity is, however, very much at odds with its misuse, and at odds with misguided attempts to turn the methodological naturalism of science into an ideological naturalism posited as a ‘comprehensive doctrine’.

16 February 2023

Book review: John Maynard Keynes by Hyman Minsky

The following is my review (a rather glowing one) of Dr Hyman Philip Minsky’s book on John Maynard Keynes, from Goodreads. I had posted an excerpt from this book, a quote from some of its source material, and another from one of its present-day heterodox disciples yesterday. I hope the following review may go some way toward explaining and perhaps even excusing some of my recent enthusiasm.
This book is simply, utterly, devastatingly hands-down brilliant.

Hyman Minsky, in undertaking this overview of the thought and intellectual legacy of John Maynard, Baron Keynes, asks us no less than to consider the following. He asks us to consider that the shape of the modern economy—with its treadmill of conspicuous consumption, environmental destruction, runaway military-industrial spending and intensifying bubbles of speculation disconnected from any real source of value—essentially takes Keynes’s name in vain. Although Keynes is in many respects considered the author of this economic order via the so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis’, Minsky argues persuasively that, given the direction of his theorising toward the end of his life, Keynes would have regarded our present economy with horror and alarm.

Minsky argues that the several attempts by various of Keynes’s disciples in the postwar Anglo-American sphere to reconcile his thinking with the ‘classical’ view of economy that prevailed among the liberal circles of his day, have the effect of watering down or even obviating the observations that Keynes was attempting to make about the operation of capitalism in his
General Theory of Employment. The attempts to synthesise Keynes’s insights with the classicalist objects of his critiques have resulted in a ‘Keynesianism’ which undertheorises investment, removes his central thesis about the uncertainty of the future, and obscures his concerns about the foundations of financial markets being based on processes and moods (the infamous ‘animal spirits’) which are essentially irrational.

Minsky attempts to retrieve from the
General Theory, a view--one imperfectly realised by Baron Keynes within his own corpus—of Keynes’s key concerns and the direction of his theory toward the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’. Minsky presents us with a Keynes who, for genuinely humane and altruistic reasons against the interests of his class, truly desired an economy where the working class could enjoy some degree of leisure and higher culture; and one in which the incomes earned from rents or quasi-rents would be gradually starved off.

Unfortunately, the usage of the tools of regulation and government intervention in the economy which were undertaken in his name had the exact opposite effect of the one he seems to have intended to bring about. The modern ‘Keynesian’ economy is one in which inequality has ballooned, the working class is burdened with greater stress and lower pay and harsher workloads, and the capital gains of the wealthy are protected and even subsidised in law (through, among other things, the military-industrial complex).

The entire book is excellent. My one nit-pick is that the middle chapters do get pretty far into the weeds with their explorations of the various mathematical models which comprise both the neoclassical synthesis and Minsky’s heterodox interpretation of Keynes. For patient readers who are not econometricians or economic specialists, however, the conclusions of each chapter do a satisfactory job of recapitulating the core concerns in plain language. This book is more than worth your time to read.

15 February 2023

Minsky contra the military-industrial complex

Okay, last one of these for now. In my defence, this one was just too good not to share. Here we have St Louis post-Keynesian leading light Hyman Minsky laying straight into the American military-industrial complex as a key driver of hypercapitalist accumulation and the acceleration of inequality:
Another reason why capital income has not withered away in the post-war period may lie in the structure of the government programmes that have been developed to maintain full employment. In the pre-World War II emergency of the Great Depression, government programmes designed to increase employment were heavily weighted toward the direct employment of labour. During World War II, a series of contractual devices for war production were developed which used private facilities for the manufacture of war materiel. In the postwar period, this contract system has been continued, both for the production of military equipment and in the production of more civilian-oriented goods. These contracts always provide for a substantial profit margin for the contractors. Not only has the postwar structure of policy designed to maintain income been heavily weighted toward the capital-consuming military needs, but the social structure of these policies has tended to subsidise capital income. Furthermore, inasmuch as the combination of military demand and the much larger schemes of transfer payments (social security, etc.) requires a heavy tax load, tax measures designed to aid capital income at the expense of consumers’ income are available…

It might well be that the euthanasia of the rentier in the form Keynes envisaged it requires prior constraints on the growth of relative needs, and the constrained growth of relative needs requires an income distribution based on low or no income from capital ownership. Underlying Keynes’ vision of a world in which capital is no longer scarce [to the majority of people] is a world in which income distribution is such as to avoid encouraging ever more extravagant consumption, and in which ‘civilised’ standards discipline and control relative needs and move consumption away from capital-intensive patterns.

Baron Keynes drops the mic

Following up from the astute observations of his present-day eastern disciple, here is another money quote from the teacher, in The End of Laissez-Faire:
It is not true that individuals possess a prescriptive ‘natural liberty’ in their economic activities.

There is
no ‘compact’ conferring perpetual rights on those who have or on those who acquire.

The world is
not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide.

It is
not so managed here below that in practice they coincide.

It is
not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest.

Nor is it true that self-interest generally
is enlightened, more often individuals acting separately to promote their own ends are too ignorant or too weak to obtain even these.

Glaz’ev’s money quote

Notable post-Keynesian economic historian and policy advisor to the Russian government Sergei Glaz’ev has the following money quote (pun very much intended) regarding the economic theories of Milton Friedman and his ‘sound money’-advocating intellectual forebears:
По своей сути монетаризм представляет собой откровенную апологетику интересов держателей монет, которые заинтересованы в повышении их покупательной стоимости. Она использует наукообразную терминологию, но по своему методу сродни квазирелигиозной догматике, поскольку не приемлет сомнений, игнорирует факты и не признает эксперимент. Поэтому многие мыслители считают монетаризм современной версией ветхозаветного культа Золотого тельца, религией обожествления денег. Исходя из этого, наверное, следует и оценивать практические результаты монетаристской политики, проводившейся с 1992 года: хотя российская экономика за этот период в основном примитивизировалась и сжалась в нефтегазовую трубу.

At its core, monetarism is a frank apology for the interests of coin holders who are interested in increasing their purchasing value. This doctrine merely serves their interests by imposing self-restrictions on the state in managing the issue of money. It uses pseudo-scientific terminology, but its method is akin to quasi-religious dogma, because it does not accept doubts, ignores facts and does not recognize experiment. Therefore, many thinkers consider monetarism a modern version of the Old Testament cult of the Golden Calf, a religion of deification of money. Proceeding from this, it is probably necessary to evaluate the practical results of the monetary policy pursued since 1992, although the Russian economy during this period was basically primitive and shrank into an oil and gas pipeline.
Or, put more bluntly, in the words of Fr Andrew Phillips: ‘Monetarism is just another word for Mammon.’ And he says so in light of the selfsame historical events that Glaz’ev does here. Understand that the legacy of the 1990s in Russia is very much so the result of the neoliberal reforms spearheaded by the Harvard Boys (themselves taking their cues on shock therapy policy from the Chicago Boys, in turn avowed devotees of Milton Friedman), taking direction from the IMF and the United States government. In the wake of the societal collapse that followed, practically none of its authors could be brought to a public account in their lifetimes. Not Chubais, not Gaidar, not Berezovskii, not Khodorkovskii, not Shleifer, not Browder, and certainly not the Harvard Boys.

Which isn’t to say that people didn’t pay. However much it pretends otherwise, the Golden Calf is nothing if not a bloodthirsty god.

10 February 2023

Pointless video post: ‘Если (ты исчезнешь)’ by Берег Неба

Prime power metal from Krasnodon. Excellent musicianship and a definite flair for classic rock vibes: little wonder they chose to round off their only studio album with a cover of Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’. Valery Bykov really puts in the effort in on that melodic line on this song. Sadly, the band broke up in 2014, right around the time the SBU rolled up in force in the area. Hopefully they get back together and follow up this album.

07 February 2023

Lift the sanctions; end the pillage!

The earthquake that has struck Turkey and Syria has been devastating. So far there are seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-six people confirmed dead. For a comparison point: as a result of the earthquake yesterday, more civilians across four countries—Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine—have died in just two days, than have died in the entire past year of fighting in the Ukraine. This is truly a staggering human tragedy, deserving of deep mourning. The humanitarian response in Turkey has been quick to mobilise; in Syria, it has been slower—not at all for a lack of will on the part of the people or the government, but for a lack of resources.

The eastern Mediterranean has long been a hotbed of seismic activity, with the southeast of Anatolia basically being one long strike-slip fault zone. In the 520s Antioch—a great city in the heart of this very region—was levelled by a series of similarly crushing earthquakes, each of which also killed thousands of people at a stroke. Patriarch Saint Ephraim of Amida was among those who pitched in cleaning up the city and rescuing survivors in the aftermath, among whom were Saint Martha and her son Saint Symeōn the Younger Stylite. Prayers asking the intercession of any of these three saints with our Lord Christ and the Holy Theotōkos will surely be efficacious in aiding the victims.

We should not, however, be content merely to offer prayers. Our energy, our money and our hearts should go out to the victims as well. International Orthodox Christian Charities has set up a special response for the victims of the 6 February earthquake. So too has the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Please consider donating to either of these two response funds.

There is another important step that people in the United States and the European Union especially can take for the victims of this earthquake. That is: we can call for an immediate halt to the cruel sanctions policy of our government. Over ten million Syrians have already been placed in dire straits financially on account of this sanctions policy. But more to the point: this sanctions policy directly hinders international aid efforts for the Syrian people, which they need now more than ever.

Another thing we can and should pressure our government to do after this earthquake, is to recall our troops from the oil fields in al-Ḥasaka in northern Syria. We should begin allowing the Syrian people themselves to benefit from their own natural resources, instead of pillaging the stuff out from under their feet—a Trump-era policy that Biden has not seen fit to end. That wealth, which justly belongs to the Syrian people, could well represent the difference between suffering and flourishing, even between life and death, for hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

May God soften the hearts of our leaders, and preserve in faith and steadfast perseverance the long-suffering people of Syria!

EDIT: Russia and China have both offered Syria significant aid packages to help with disaster relief. The US is still slowing humanitarian aid from entering the country with its sanctions policy, which appears to be motivated entirely by geopolitical self-interest. The three Patriarchs of Antioch, including Patriarch John X, have issued a letter condemning sanctions against Syria, and calling for them to be lifted.