Posts Tagged ‘Leibniz’

“Best of all possible worlds” takes another hit

May 23, 2011

I was reading Leibniz and thinking of divine perfection last night when the first images of decimated Joplin, Missouri started to circulate.

And so we add another item to the endless litany of improbable “Best Possible World” realities Bertrand Russell began to enumerate in 1927:

Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

Or Joplin.

John Adams “doubted everything ’til he found the Unitarians.”

May 6, 2011

I should be grading, but I’m still thinking about all those good last-minute final report presentations yesterday. Nathan’s on Leibniz…

Nick’s & Jared’s on Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, & Adams… I love the Jennifer Hecht line on Adams, that he “seems to have doubted everything until he found the Unitarians.” Ha! In your face, Garrison Keillor!! But that was my story too, many years ago. Then I owned up to my Unitarian leanings on the Belmont Baptists’ application form and they slapped me down hard. Or rather, the Provost did. Guess he thought I might be too tight with the Wiccans. And that’s why I teach today in Murfreesboro, not Nashville.

Dalorian’s on Twilight… “There is always a bit of madness in loving. But there is also always a bit of reason in madness.” That’s a Nietzsche quote I can believe.

Patrick’s on Darwin… Here’s the lovely close of Origin of Species I fumbled:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Taylor’s on “Empathy, Altruism, & the Future”…

And Warren’s on the double-slit experiment… which, despite my skeptical scruples, I agree raises questions about things in heaven and earth undreamt in our philosophies.

And so another semester closes, another marathon grading session begins, and I find myself already missing the workaday routine of the college season.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

March 22, 2011

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist, holding that god is present in all of nature instead of transcending and creating it. English Deist John Toland may have coined the term originally. [JMH]

We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Voltaire’s Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden, maybe? Asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religion… Sagan’s hero…]

I could go on, but Marcel Marceau was right: “It’s good to shut up sometimes.”

Next time, STUDENTS: read to PW 88.

Spinoza & Leibniz (& Einstein)

October 28, 2010

Don’t like Descartes‘ metaphysical dualism? The other options on today’s menu are one substance or infinitely many. (“None”  is not an option for these two, but you could go back and warm up some leftover Montaigne if that’s your preference.)

Baruch Spinoza(1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” inCandide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

& here’s more Einstein on Spinoza’s God and ultimate Reality:

and more:

The Einstein/Spinoza view of time & space is subtle and strange. It has tempted some to make more  of it than seems sensible [rebooted] but Spinoza clearly found his “bliss” in it. If we’re part of something practically eternal, from a finite point of view, does that lend us a share of immortality? With this perspective are we back, in roundabout fashion, to the Tao?

Or at least to the author of Walden?: asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His God, with whom he communed daily on his saunters in and around Concord, MA, appears to have had much in common with Spinoza’s and Einstein’s.

Uncle Albert was not a New Atheist, nor quite an old one. He also said:

I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility… I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.

I always like to let Einstein give the benediction in my Intro classes, stay tuned for that. [parting wisdomsquashed Einstein… cosmic religionSagan’s hero…]

NOTE to students: the tornado alerts  messed with our afternoon classes on Tuesday, so everybody gets to wait ’til next Tuesday for Exam 2. No new quiz today, but Spinoza (& Einstein) and Leibniz will possibly be on the exam. We’ll get on with as many presentations as we can today, everybody please be present and ready to go. Remember, non-presenters, essays are due Tuesday too.

rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

March 17, 2010

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

Who knows?

March 1, 2010

Montaigne and Descartes, not quite contemporaries at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, represent two poles of French philosophy, two very different mindsets and worldviews, and two fundamentally different ways of thinking about knowledge, truth, and reason. Both valued knowledge and learning, but had different notions of how we stand in relation thereto. Figuring out which of them you like more, just like deciding if you’re a Platonist or an Aristotelian, will go far towards clarifying your own philosophy. Pictured here (from top left:) Montaigne, Descartes, Newton, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant

Montaign’e slogan, we’ve seen, is “What do I know?” Descartes is famous for “Cogito, ergo sum,” supposedly a foundation-stone in an edifice of unshakable (“indubitable”) certainty.

The up-side of Montaigne’s skepticism is his tolerance. Tolerance would remain in short supply throughout the modern era. No kidding.

Descartes’s most important thesis was his insistence on our ability to think for ourselves. Good. And Montaigne won’t disagree. Descartes insisted that we push our doubts to their extremes, to the point of absurdity, where they will rebound and give us indubitable truth. Hmmm. How do you grab that rebound exactly, Rene?

Descartes’s Meditations [squashed version] are still entrancing students and scholars of philosophy all these centuries later. So is his mind-body problem, though there aren’t many working dualists among professional philosophers these days.

In Spinoza‘s vision, there was no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance… our sense of distance from [Einstein’s?] God is mistaken. Spinoza also defended determinism, akin to fate. Whatever happens to us, happens necessarily. We should accept the universal necessity of nature, and feel the bliss of what Spinoza (the “God-intoxicated” atheist) called “intellectual love of God.”

Leibniz– you remember, Mr. Best of All Possible Worlds (as tagged by Voltaire) was not a monist or a dualist, or even a pluralist, but was an infinitist about substances. The world consists of innumerable simple substances, monads… God is the super-monad. No monad actually interacts with any other, but it seems like they– we– do, thanks to “pre-established harmony.” Weird.

Newton demonstrated the possibility of understanding the world in terms of a few simple, elegant principles. He also messed around with alchemy and other scientifically-disreputable chimeras. But he’s still Neil de Grasse Tyson’s favorite scientist/philosopher.

PW 1.1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

more reality

September 30, 2009

Or less…

I gave short shrift to the pre-Socratics, but Democritus (c.460-360 BCE)  was a genuine visionary. He “developed a picture of thedemocritus world that is remarkably close to our current scientific views.” He never appeared in public without laughing at human folly, hence his moniker “The Laughing Philosopher.” (Looks a little grim here, the sculptor may have been unsympathetic.) He had the last laugh, if it’s true that he lived past 100. He had good atoms.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete.” His “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was more like a breath than a spirit. “I would rather understand one cause,” he said, “than be King of Persia.” Carl Sagan celebrated him on Cosmos.

“With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and
demythologize the world was complete…”
Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied,
and then was a “mere breath”…

Many of Democritus’ successors developed views remarkably inimical to current scientific wisdom.

descartes crcleRene Descartes (1596-1650) thought it useful to doubt the reality of everything; he was a mind-body dualist; and he demanded indubitable certainty as the gold-standard of scientific knowledge. All of these views have been doubted, if not flatly rejected, by most scientifically-minded moderns. His famed Meditations seem circular. (Here he is, squashed and truncated.)circular

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) thought everything was part of one universal reality (or metaphysical substance). He was a pantheist. We’ve noted that Einstein was a fan: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It may well be that “Spinoza’s God” continues to capture more scientific respect than any more traditional alternative.

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), aka “Dr. Pangloss” in Candide, thought reality was almost  infinitely various, but also boxed and sealed. We are “monads,” self-contained substances (not unlike Neo, pre-Morpheus) experiencing a pre-arranged harmony

prearranged harmony of perceptions orchestrated by a very controlling Master Monad. We have “no windows.”

George Berkeley (1685-1753) said esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” Don’t blink, God, or we’ll wink out of existence. The lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson thought he had a practical refutation of Berkeley’s idealism.  He missed the point, but made one too: your philosophy of reality really ought to make a discernible difference in your experience of life .

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said “things in themselves” (tits, as I’m afraid my undergraduate Kant professor taught me to abbreviate them) are out of reach. We deal strictly in phenomena, or appearances. But the good news for Kant is that we can be sure that appearances are not deceptive in at least one crucial respect: they appear as they must, in the light of our own categorical nature. We constitute the world through the categories our collective minds impose upon them, and thus are normally in touch with reality when we ply our minds and use our reason.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) saw the world as a kind of universal Spirit, coming to maturity through the clash and conflicts of human history. He was the ultimate Systematic philosopher and devotee of Rationality, the antithesis of Kierkegaard (though some scholars have begun to challenge this). He made Schopenhauer crazy.

marxKarl Marx (1818-1883) “turned Hegel on his head,” seeing the world mainly in material terms. History was for him, as for Hegel, a grand unfolding process (“dialectic”) tending toward some higher “synthesis”  that would represent our apotheosis as a species. But as we know, his particular political synthesis has met with some resistance in recent decades.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)– separated at birth from Ebenezer Scrooge– was the pessimist-par excellence: life (on his view) is no good, without purpose, the clatter of pointless striving will. But he wasn’t a total scrooge: he loved little dogs, and (as we’ll see) as a young man he loved at least one or two other human beings. That’s why Alain de Botton chooses him to exemplify “consolation for a broken heart.”

suffering

September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.

Why not the best?

September 23, 2009

leibniz

bniz: this universe must be in reality better than every other
possible universe…Leibniz

This universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Dr. Pangloss taught metaphysico- theologo- cosmolonigology. He could prove that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as allpangloss things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings… Voltaire (1694-1778), Candide

So she’s like all “problem of evil.” And I’m like, “theodicy, barmaid, theodicy!”

..if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written Theodicy of Leibniz, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds… William James, Pragmatism wj

Philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire saw the great Lisbon earthquake as a metaphysically game-changing event.

For some, Lisbon lessened either God’s beneficence or his power.

For others, the quake lessened their estimation of human reason  and a reasonable world. Nature, according to enlightened minds,  was a benign and intelligible force. Its well-oiled operation  reflected the intelligence and skill of a designer God. Could we,  though, retain our confidence in reason, and thus in God’s ways,  in the rubble of Lisbon?

voltaireWhere are our Voltaires, spotlighting the suffering wrought by natural phenomena (Katrina, quakes, tsunamis, tornadoes et al) and the challenges they pose to any rational theist?

Well, there’s Bart Ehrman. (BTW: Ehrman is a former classmate of my colleague Mike Hinz. We hope to bring him to our fair campus next year.) He’s a respected Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina who until quite recently considered himself a devout Christian.

The leading reason given by atheists and agnostics for their disbelief is the problem of suffering or evil. David Hume put it this way, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

In God’s Problem, Ehrman joins the skeptics. He writes:  “the Bible fails to answer our most important question– why we suffer.” Suffering, he says, “is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed… Why are the sick wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why does a child die  of hunger every five seconds?”

That was Dostoevsky’s question too, in Brothers Karamazov (Book V, Ch. 4 – “Rebellion”), where Ivan asks:  “Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten  the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth…

dostoevskyI renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed… to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony.”

So is Ehrman the Christian-cum-agnostic in despair about evil? No. “The solution to life is to enjoy it while weecclesiastes can, because it is fleeting. The idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment, and dreams of trying to make the world a better place… This means working to alleviate suffering.”

Finally, consider a somewhat banal analogy. “Suppose you found yourself at school in a dormitory. Things are not too good.  The roof leaks, there are rats, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death.

dormThere is a closed door, behind which is the management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows… …exactly what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.” Simon Blackburn, Think

And perhaps belief runs hotter in nice dorms. Should it?


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