Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

Atheism & Philosophy in the wings

January 4, 2012

Spent a pleasant few hours yesterday setting up the new course blog for “Atheism & Philosophy” (A&P, I’ll call it) which commences in just over a week. The masthead announces that we’ll be exploring the philosophical, ethical, spiritual, existential, social, and personal implications of a godless universe. Put in a nice long raft of book links,* a few images including an homage to Hitch and another to the evolution of godless cooperation, and a reiteration of the James claim we’ll devote ourselves to confirming (or not).

…ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does. -William James, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

I’ve placed the end at the beginning: our final assignment, in April, will be to write and present a short testimonial essay: “Why I am [am not] an Atheist.” Perhaps some will choose to share their entries via Pharyngula or some other public archive of the lately-burgeoning humanist ouvre.

We’ll begin, once introductions are out of the way, with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Scale of Doubt” Quiz. Then we’ll parse some of Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Then to Julian Baggini’s Atheism, Louise Antony’s anthology Philosophers Without Gods (and maybe her recent New York Times piece “Good Without God” too), Russell Blackford’s 50 Voices, and Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape.

Can’t wait!



February 28, 2010

The great instigator of doubt– but let’s not call it that, let’s call it skeptical reflection leading to spiritual awakening– of both the 19th and 20th centuries, hands down, has been the effort either to assimilate or repulse the human  implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  That’s why I wish Jennifer Hecht had reserved a slot in Doubt‘s penultimate chapter, somewhere in the vicinity of her discussion of the Tennessee “monkey trial,” for mention of John Dewey’s “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy.”

But it’s a good discussion of the Scopes circus trial, to which I claim a small “degrees of separation” connection: I lived under the same roof, for a short time, with one of Clarence Darrow’s expert witnesses who was not allowed to testify in Dayton, Tennessee on behalf of John Scopes. I remember Winterton Curtis, my first landlord, as a kindly, charming old man who mysteriously pulled dollars from my ear.  (The Dayton judge would’ve seen that as proof of his Satanic nature, no doubt.) He was also very respectful of the locals H.L. Mencken derided as “boobs.”

If you want to learn more about Scopes, Dayton, and Friendly Atheism, read Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey. Chapman, great-great-great-(great?) grandson of Charles Darwin himself, went down to Dayton to try and understand the curious breed of human known as Young Earth Creationist [more]. He still doesn’t get it (any more than I do), but he actually confesses to liking many of the Darwin Deniers he met and spoke with– including one (Kurt Wise) who studied with Stephen Jay Gould at Harvard, before being hired to teach biology (!) to Bryan University undergraduates.

And if you want to see an entertaining dramatic rendition of Scopes, watch Spencer Tracy and Frederic March in Inherit the Wind.

WJ 4.1

February 12, 2010

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Renouvier is not remembered as a giant of western philosophy, but for William James he was a life-saver.  WJ 4

We’ve talked about ego and self-hood, especially in the light of Buddhist critiques that trace much human suffering to the stubborn insistence on preserving its centrality. But the James survival strategy– that’s not an overstatement– turned on his embrace of the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world that Renouvier’s definition of free will inspired young James to act on. The strategy seems to have been vindicated, for James, pragmatically speaking.

An insightful observation by James that would turn up two decades later in the ground-breaking Principles of Psychology dates to this period: by working our stint day by day on the one line we have chosen, without looking ahead or thinking much of the final result, we are sure of waking some fine morning, experts in our particular branch… Could this be the full fruit and flower of what it means to live in the present?

This is also the period in which James and a small coterie of friends including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and Chauncey Wright, formed an informal discussion group, thoroughly chronicled by Louis Menand, called “The Metaphysical Club.” It would have been an extraordinary group in any age, by any standard… The era and the place were charged to the muzzle with new beginnings, not least the startling new ideas of (now bi-centenarian) Charles Darwin. (Menand enlists John Dewey, author of “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” as an honorary member of the club.)

Darwin said “there were enough brilliant minds at the American Cambridge in the 1860s to furnish all the universities of England. He wouldn’t probably have known of James, then, but he definitely knew Wright, the intellectual-boxing master of Peirce, Holmes, and James, and William’s most influential teacher.  When Wright visited Darwin in England in 1872, Darwin asked him to give some thought to the problem of will. The result was “The Evolution of Self-Consciousness” in 1873.

C.S. Peirce was the other world-class philosopher of James’s generation whose ideas the “club” would incubate. James later tried to give his flagging career a boost by crediting him with the original idea of contemporary pragmatism (in “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results“). Peirce, displaying characteristic prickliness and ingratitude, refused the honor and re-named his own thought “pragmaticism”– a name he hoped would be too ugly to “steal.” But he deserves lasting credit for insisting that we not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts. His pragmatic maxim reflects this insistence: “Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we might conceive the object of our conception to have. That’s what we will and should understand the object to be, Peirce proposed. Our ideas won’t be clear if we don’t know how to apply them. The very first lesson that we have a right to demand that logic shall teach us is, how to make our ideas clear; and a most important one it is, depreciated only by minds who stand in need of it. To know what we think, to be masters of our own meaning, will make a solid foundation for great and weighty thought…

Peirce concluded “Fixation of Belief” with a clarion “ethics of belief” statement of principle: what is more wholesome than any particular belief is integrity of belief… to avoid looking into the support of any belief from a fear that it may turn out rotten is quite as immoral as it is disadvantageous. [Arisbe PhilDic]

Peirce, like James and all classic American philosophers, was hugely influenced by Darwin. He identified three fundamental forms of evolution, tychistic (evolution by fortuitous variation), arancastic (evolution by mechanical necessity), and agapastic (evolution by creative love). For a hard-headed, practical-minded realist, Peirce’s metaphysics is exceptionally romantic. And just in time for Valentine’s Day.

According to Peirce, the most fundamental engine of the evolutionary process is not struggle, strife, greed, or competition. Rather it is nurturing love, in which an entity is prepared to sacrifice its own perfection for the sake of the wellbeing of its neighbor… SEP

In later years Peirce fell on hard times. James saved him, financially and emotionally. After James’s death Peirce called himself “a mere table of contents, so abstract,”  compared to James, “so concrete, so living.”

As this week’s installment closes, William James has begun to settle into his vocation. He’s teaching anatomy and physiology, and getting some things published.

One of my favorite James essays, on the importance of vacations, appears at about this time. In it he contrasts our busy-ness with the artful approach to life practiced elsewhere, inviting us to consider “the shopkeeper in Germany, who for five or six months of the year spends a good part of every Sunday in the open air, sitting with his family for hours under green trees over coffee or beer and Pumpernickel, and who breaks into Achs and Wunderschons all the week as he recalls it.” His “contentment in the fine weather, and the leaves, and the air, and himself as a part of it all” is a springboard of renewal that propels him cheerfully back to work, back, as we say, to “reality.” But he knows that his recreation is at least as real as his work (which would suffer as surely as he would without his springboard). We could learn from that shopkeeper. This was the germ of James’s thinking about what he would eventually dub “moral holidays.” (For more on this, see Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy. Seriously.)

Another of James’s lifelong quirks surfaces now:  he’s beginning to mess around with “spiritualism,” looking for “a force of some sort not dreamed of in our philosophy.” He never found it, but he never stopped looking. He’s already a radical empiricist.

“it’s true”

November 22, 2009

I’m not a Darwinian fundamentalist– I don’t think evolution supplants religion– but I understand what motivates alleged Darwinian fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins (though he rebuts the charge): sheer frustration with the intemperance of religious fundamentalists.

I delivered my standard mutual tolerance pitch on this theme in class Friday, making concession after concession to religion. I agreed with William James that religion is a meaning-quest, and as such is among the most important things humans can do… even making full allowance for the residual ungrounded supernaturalism, and frequent absurdity, of the various creeds and dogmas of faith.

But are theistic fundamentalists mollified, do they temporize their hostility to evolutionary theory in the face of such concessions? No. They still spout creationist nonsense, they repeat the confused canard that evolution is “just a theory,” and in the process discover their cozy compatibility with brethren from other traditions. Evolution seems to be the great unifier of  Judeo-Christian and Islamic anti-intellectualism.

Yes, it’s a theory… like gravitation is a theory. And like gravitation,  it’s true if anything is. Jerry Coyne is not a strict fundamentalist, he does not advocate jihad against religion; but like the barmaid and Carl Sagan, he endorses elementary instruction in critical thinking as the best solution. Ours is a time, yet another time, when the fragile candle-flame of reason and respect for natural reality gutters under the assault of pseudoscience and superstition. Time, again, to exorcise our demons.

If you don’t want to listen to Coyne or Dawkins, try Liam Neeson.

WJ bio – 11

November 20, 2009

It’s the turn of the (19th to the 20th) century, James is cultivating his friendly philosophical antagonism and personal friendship with Josiah Royce

who said: “I teach at Harvard that the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real, you see.”

In this photo James has just goaded Royce with the taunt: “Look out, Royce. Damn the Absolute, I say!” (The Absolute was Royce’s and the other Idealists’ name for, for lack of a better name, God.)

…and he ‘s still hiking too much. He’s working on, and fretting about, the impending Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland that will eventually become Varieties of Religious Experience. But a collapse in December ’99 necessitates their postponement.

“The problem I have set myself is a hard one; 1st to defend against all the prejudices of my [profession], ‘experience’ against ‘philosophy’ as being the real backbone of the world’s religious life… and second, to make the hearer or reader believe what I myself invincibly do believe, that although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories) yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

We’ve already noted that, for James, the religious impulse is less motivated by questions about God than by the universal urge for better, richer, more meaningful life. Experience, including religious experience, is to be taken seriously whenever it aspires to serve that purpose. Much philosophical discourse about religion is logically and technically correct, but fails to grasp the life-affirming motivation that made James a friend (if not a practitioner) of religious faith.  (And then there’s the Nietzschean critique, according to which religion is intrinsically life-negating. James was more cognizant of religion’s naturalistic roots and fruits.)

James really means what he says.  Religious creeds and theories are absurd, and he has no interest in “your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be  Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition…”

James’s interest was more in what we might call ” spirituality,” with a lot of qualification. There remains much confusion about this term, with some assuming that it excludes a naturalistic orientation– it does not– or that it’s simply an alternative, non-sectarian name for “religious”– which it defiantly is not.  “We must make search for the original experiences which were [and are] the pattern-setters,” rather than sinking back into comfortable religious conformism. “Life” demands it.

John Dewey made a similar point, when in A Common Faith he called for the reclamation and emancipation of “religious” as a term of description applicable to generic, non-denominational experience. He didn’t want to surrender the word, but whatever you call it– spiritual, transcendental, “consummatory” etc.– the experience is very much of this world. It’s natural for human beings to seek and find meaningful patterns in life as it is lived, and not to postpone it for an after-life that for all we can possibly know may never arrive.

The so-called religion of healthy-mindedness, or mind-cure, or (more broadly) positive thinking, had James’s strong endorsement. Richardson: “When a person feels better because he thinks he has been given a cure, we call it, with complacent condescension, the placebo effect. For James, however, the same effect is simply a cure.”

Religion never had a more sympathetic defender among philosophers than William James, but as the Edinburgh lectures drew to a close he wrote to a Christian friend: “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian system of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” But he’d not have had much sympathy for Richard Dawkins’ atheistic version of evolutionism. He’s too supportive of the life impulse to deny its religious manifestations in just about any form, but he’s also too drawn to the evolutionary hypothesis to exclude religionists from its tent.

Richardson reports a scene that may surprise Jamesians like me who were  aware that he’d rebuffed former student Morris Cohen’s proposal to regard baseball as a “moral equivalent of war,” which James had said “we now need to discover in the social realm… something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved incompatible” :

Friends of son Francis (“Aleck”), who managed the baseball team at his Cambridge school,  “remembered seeing William James sitting by himself in the stands in raw weather, watching his son’s team and taking a lively interest in the new idea of sliding into base headfirst.”

A headfirst slide is a good metaphor for William James’s view of life in general, at age 60. As he said in his last Edinburgh lecture in 1902: “No fact in human nature is more characteristic than its willingness to live on a chance.” And to take serious risk of personal and professional injury doing it, evidently.

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce– recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ‘em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.


September 21, 2009

god willliam blake

The Ancient of Days, aka God

William Blake, 1794

(–”What do you mean, William Blake?”

–”I mean William Blake!”)

Chapter Three is the God chapter, but of course this topic– like the last one, the Meaning of Life– is just too sprawling for a single chapter, book, or course. It may be too big for a human lifetime.

For those drawn to it not merely as an interesting object of study but as the sacred source and center of life itself, we need to catch our breaths before we begin. And let us remind ourselves: not everyone thinks about God (or “God,” “Allah,” “Yahweh,” “Jehovah,” “Bhagwan,” “Ahura Mazda,” et al) the same way you or I do.  Humans have nominated many alleged supreme supernatural beings through the centuries. They have advanced many claims and fewer arguments  in the names thereof. Non-believers have ignored, studied, disputed, and sometimes ridiculed those claims.

Philosophers have attempted to identify, examine, and critique those arguments (or argument place-holders), as they should: it’s in the job description. Pious non-philosophers have often protested this activity.

The next caution for us all: we are not obliged to respect a view just because those who espouse it call it their religion. We are not obliged to bite our tongues and refrain from saying that we find a particular religious view unworthy of respect. I’ll say it right now: I do not respect the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. OK, you say, but that’s not a serious religion.  Further up the mainstream, then: I do not respect Scientology. Its founder is on record as saying that if you want to get rich, start your own religion. He was a charlatan, and the tenets of his faith as I have examined them are just laughable.

Yes, laughable in my opinion. But in philosophical conversation we don’t just swap opinions. If the subject comes up in the classroom, or the agora, or in an online exchange hosted by a conscientious and self-respecting philosophy blogger, reasons will need to be provided if the exchange is to bear fruit. And if any of the defenders of any of those religions comes up with a good case for God, I’ll try to be among the first to say so.

I’m not just picking on L.Ron Hubbard.  I could swim further up the mainstream, discovering more cause for derisive laughter. I have, I will. So have others. But one must be sensitive to time and place and circumstance.

And in fact, there are considerations of social civility, politeness, and prudence that make full disclosure of anyone’s view of someone else’s creed  inappropriate in many social settings, and that I don’t deny. But in the classroom, in books and other printed matter, in the streets and on the Internet, I’m particularly wary about laying down strict ground rules or prohibitions that would have the effect of stifling anyone’s first amendment rights or, as the American philosopher Charles Peirce said, “blocking the road of inquiry.”

And so I just advise: distinguish belief from believer, and accord everyone– classmates included– presumptive respect as human beings.  Remember the ad hominem fallacy, among others, and don’t attack others’ character or impugn their motives. Ask for their reasons. Offer your own. Let them speak, one at a time, and speak in turn when they’ve finished.

But all, heed: “that’s just how I was raised,” or “that’s what we believe in my faith,” are not good philosophical reasons. You can’t win or even begin an argument with such statements. Presumably those who raised you and taught your Sunday School had reasons. Specify them, and defend them rationally, if you’re going to bring them into the conversation at all.

I count close friends among the representatives of most major religions and faith traditions. We agree to disagree on matters of spirituality and religion. They understand that my rejection of their faith is not personal.

Another very important distinction, in a free and secular society: church and state. Not sharing a friend’s faith, not respecting a neighbor’s religion, not having a recognized religion or believing in God yourself at all, are well within your constitutionally protected rights as a citizen of the American republic.  They do not make you unpatriotic. They might not make you popular; but studying Socrates brought us to a pithy rejoinder on that point: so what?

But after saying all this, it remains to acknowledge: some will be made uncomfortable by the fact that we’re discussing this topic at all, in the public space of a university classroom. (Others are made uncomfortable by the discussion’s being online; but of course they can re-direct their browsers.) To that I say, again: philosophy exists for the very purpose of making all who enter its ambit uncomfortable. Discomfort is a positive sign of thinking-going-on. Now, if you’d rather not think at all, I don’t suppose there’s much else I can say that will change your mind.

The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryan (aka Matthew Harrison Brady, in “Inherit the Wind”), told his legal nemesis Clarence Darrow at Dayton, Tennessee in 1926: “I don’t think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow replied: “Do you think about things you do “think” about?” I know what he was asking, but there really wasn’t anywhere for that conversation to go.

Still, there’s one form of faith we must all evince, all who’ve consented to participate in this class:  faith in philosophical reason to ameliorate your discomfort, one way or another. Even an irrationalist like Kierkegaard must invoke reasons for rejecting reasons. Why the passionate “leap of faith”? No reason at all? Surely not.

Enough preliminaries, for now. Let’s begin by thinking about the survey in our text. “How Do [You] Think About Religion?” Which boxes did you check under “I believe what I do about religion because __,” “When I go to a religious service I feel __”? What does “spirituality” mean to you? What’s your view of organized religion in general?

William James is quoted in this chapter, sounding very much like the Jewish theologian Martin Buber, exploring  his feeling that the universe is not a mere It to us but a Thou.

James said many other interesting things about what he called “the varieties of religious experience.” He  sympathized with others’ beliefs, because he thought they all reflected a universal human impulse for life. “Not God, but more life,” said James, is the most natural human impulse , the ultimate source of religious variety, and the real point of religion.  And he was very open to alternative approaches. The religious, for him, meant anything that brought home for people the reality of whatever they considered “divine.”

And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be (probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.”

James would probably understand where Karen Armstrong is coming from in her new book, The Case for God. But he’d probably rather discuss Robert Wright’s: The Evolution of God.

James filled out a “God & religion” questionnaire himself once:

Do you believe in personal immortality? “Never keenly; but more strongly as I grow older.” Do you pray? “I cannot possibly pray—I feel foolish and artificial.” What do you mean by ‘spirituality’? “Susceptibility to ideals, but with a certain freedom to indulge in imagination about them. A certain amount of ‘other worldly’ fancy. Otherwise you have mere morality, or ‘taste.’” What do you mean by a ‘religious experience’? “Any moment of life that brings the reality of spiritual things more ‘home’ to one.”

Some have read in these responses a Jamesian tilt toward supernaturalism, but I am more inclined to view them as a nod of sympathetic recognition and moral support, an instance of neutral distancing and what’s been called James’s belief in (others’) believing. In any case, his use of the term salvation in the present context is neutral with respect to any supernatural implications. It means something like “deliverance from evil,” where ‘evil’ is not taken necessarily to imply a malevolent supernatural agency at work in the world, and where it is hoped and supposed that natural human powers are equal to the task of resisting it successfully, not always but often, at least in the long run.

As for the “problem of evil”: it was a problem, to James. “I cannot bring myself, as so many seem able to do, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over,” James wrote to his brother as a young man in 1870. “It’s as real as the good, and if it is denied, good must be denied too. It must be hated and resisted while there’s breath in our bodies.” And sixteen years later: “There is no full consolation. Evil is evil and pain is pain.” James biographer R. B. Perry: “He was too sensitive to ignore evil, too moral to tolerate it, and too ardent to accept it as inevitable. Optimism was as impossible for him as pessimism. No philosophy could possibly suit him that did not candidly recognize the dubious fortunes of mankind, and encourage him as a moral individual to buckle on his armor and go forth to battle.”

And yet, he also believed wholeheartedly in “moral holidays.” Holidays are celebratory times, and James never forgets the celebratory elements of experience, most especially the moments of “transcendence.” They are the saving elements that “make life worth living.”

jimmy_buffettBut that’s another story, another song. If you’re interested, check out chapter four in Jimmy Buffett and Philosophy: the Porpoise Driven Lifethe chapter called “License to Chill.” (BTW: Jimmy Buffett’s full name is James William Buffett.) Suffice here to say: Buffett’s God, and James’s, would want you to enjoy your life. Fall Break is coming; but have a little fun today too. And find some “evil” to resist while you’re at it. That’s a divine agenda.

“I fully believe in the legitimacy of taking moral holidays.” -William James.

“Well it’s only up to you, no one else can tell you to Go out and have some fun… And take a Holiday. You need a Holiday…” -Jimmy Buffett

human impulse80 and the ultimate source of religious variety.
And, as he informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of
life was most quickened by what he could not help regarding as
the progressive epic of evolution. “I believe myself to be
(probably) permanently incapable of believing the Christian
scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously
evolutionary mode of thought.”

Coming soon: “Atheism and spirituality”

July 31, 2009

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.” I’m looking ahead to a new course in the Spring (2010) semester.

First I was going to blaze trails, at least around these parts, with  Atheism Old & New. (Epicurus, David Hume, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Bertrand Russell are “old,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and Shermer are among the more notable new.)

Then I thought it would be more politically prudent, in these troubled times for public education funding (and, frankly, with tenure in the balance) , to do a Spirituality course instead.

Now, reaching for a grand synthesis and throwing caution to the winds (but ducking the blow-back), I’ve decided that atheism and spirituality deserve each other. As William James pointed out, the absurdity of religion is matched only by the spiritual audacity of its intentions. “Although all the special manifestations of religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories), yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important function.”

The religious impulse is inseparable from  what some have called elan vital or life force. That’s what spirituality is largely about: living, breathing, attending, caring, learning. Paying rapt attention to each present moment, one after another as conveniently measured by our restless, respiring consciousness. What does that get us? More life, we hope. “Not God, but more life” is our most natural human aspiration. Eternal life even, in the most audacious old dream.

Yet, James  informed a correspondent in 1901, his own sense of life was most quickened by the progressive epic of evolution. And it requires death. A lot of it. “I [am] incapable of believing the Christian scheme of vicarious salvation, and wedded to a more continuously evolutionary mode of thought.” Scratch 9 out of 10 atheists, you’ll find an evolutionist craving “more life.”

But more for whom? Is there sufficient consolation in the hope of a future life for humankind (and its unimaginably evolved spawn) at large?

sleeperOr must the saving life to come be mine, all mine? Recall Woody Allen on this point: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children… I want to achieve it through not dying.” We’ll see how that works out for Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey. Well, perhaps somebody will see.

Evolution as salvation? That’s a proposition whose meaning and truth (or falsehood) a course on atheism and spirituality could have a lot of fun figuring out. Spiritual atheists and evolutionists do exist, after all, as do jaded believers and “Young Earth creationists” pantomiming the motions of a lifeless faith. (And don’t forget Francis Collins and the theistic evolutionists.)

although all the special manifestations of
religion may have been absurd (I mean its creeds and theories),
yet the life of it as a whole is mankind’s most important

Watch this space for course details. First, though, the new Fall course connects with spirituality too: would life be worth living, if we couldn’t pursue happiness?

it happens

June 9, 2009

Norman Corwin, 99 years old, pioneer of radio’s golden age, and that rare lottery winner (the genetic lottery, in his case) who didn’t squander his treasure, found a baseball hook for his This I Believe essay on the power of simple kindness:

Years ago, while watching a baseball game on television, I saw Orel Hershiser, pitching for the Dodgers, throw a fastball that hit a batter. The camera was on a close-up of Hershiser, and I could read his lips as he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” The batter, taking first base, nodded to the pitcher in a friendly way and the game went on.

Just two words, and I felt good about Hershiser and the batter and the game all at once. It was only a common courtesy but it made an impression striking enough for me to remember after many summers.

The blood relatives of common courtesy are kindness, sympathy and consideration. And the reward for exercising them is to feel good about having done so…

One more secret of happiness (and one more dispensation of evolution) revealed: doing good, feeling others’ pain, and caring about other people makes most of us feel good, one at a time. For some of us, it even lengthens a happy life. Norman Corwin is a national treasure. I want what he’s having.



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