Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx…& coal

It’s Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Scientific Realism today in CoPhi, and in EEA our introduction to Bill McKibben. Where to begin?

Well, why not with the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had?

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin@dawnevolutionDennettMatthew ChapmanScopes TrialLoyal Rue]

We were talking yesterday about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:

In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Then today, a leap. Followed by a revolution. Don’t we all want to see the plan?

Kierkegaard said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

  • “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
  • “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
  • “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
  • “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
  • “Once you label me you negate me.”
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
  • “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

Members of the Taliban just perpetrated another of these unspeakably obscene “pious” faith-murders, as reported in this morning’s news. They shot a schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular.”

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

Marx said some things too.

  • History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.
  • As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.
  • Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.
  • The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.
  • The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
  • The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

We were also talking about infinity yesterday, of course finding words and even numbers inadequate to the boggling scale of the concept, and I was reminded of that art installation outside Vandy’s Science Library celebrating the reach “from atom to cosmos… ever into mystery.” But can we believe that science really solves micro-mysteries and discovers real entities at the subatomic level? Yes, says David Papineau. Not always, but sometimes for sure.

I consider myself that kind of selective scientific realist, too, because ultimately a humble belief in the progressive (though incremental) probity of science is optimistic. That’s why I always drop in, whenever I’m in the neighborhood, to appreciate Nancy DuPont Reynolds’ wonderful sculpture in the window.

We’ll greet Bill McKibben first in Rolling Stonewhere he wrote last summer:

Pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

There’s lots to be outraged about. Mitt Romney said at the “debate,” for instance, “I like coal.” He doesn’t understand or care, evidently, that “a coal-fired power plant doesn’t need an accident to wreck the planet; it performs that task constantly.” But at least it employs coal-miners, eh? Except when it kills them.

But what’s our next step, class?

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