Archive for November 9th, 2011

A festival of reason

November 9, 2011

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

Time for Enlightenment in CoPhi, with Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Paine, Jefferson, and Adams. The trans-Atlantic revolutionary fervor that gave rise to this amazing historical moment could be called a festival of reason. It was epitomized by a particular Festival of Reason in Paris, though, 218 years ago tomorrow. Let’s party like it’s 1793! Or maybe we’d better not: those partiers were murdered by Robespierre, who in turn was guillotined when “the Revolution turned.” He thought they were a dangerous cult. From his point of view, on the block, you can sort of see why. But they just saw themselves as the handmaids of liberty.

No more priests, no more kings
Good morals, wise laws
No more priests, no more kings! FofR

What is a “cult,” anyway? Not sure, exactly, but L. Ron Hubbard said the best way to get rich in America is to found a religion. There are a lot of rich (and tax-exempt) churches here.

I love how JMH credits coffee (and tea) with tuning up both the intellectual intensity and a new politeness in Europe’s cafe society. It really did transform the world, and regularly transforms people’s outlook on life. “A cup of strong coffee at the proper moment will entirely overturn for the time a man’s view of life,” as James knew. It’s more than a productivity drug, brewed correctly it can be catalyst of happiness too. Gets me up@dawn.

Voltaire was one of those salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably 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 castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

As we were noting in H1 on Tuesday, “there is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.”

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”

David Hume (remember his little finger?) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place…

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. Hume at 300… in 3 minutes

And here’s another riposte to the claim that suffering poses no insuperable obstacle to faith, from Baron d’Holbach:

Would it not be a thousand times better to depend upon blind matter… than upon a God who is laying snares for men, inviting them to sin, and permitting them to commit those crimes which he could prevent, to the end that he may have the barbarous pleasure of punishing them without measure…?

Like the Falsafah said, it does seem foolish to punish your slave for following orders (or his own god-given nature).

And here’s as good a place as any to insert another pass at understanding Immanuel Kant, who said paradoxically that our highest freedom consists precisely in following orders. Specifically, by orders he meant moral laws supposedly articulated by the application of a categorical imperative we voluntarily impose on ourselves.

Sapere aude, have the courage to know: this is the motto of the Enlightenment.

But what can we know?

The world we know, the one we live in and snack on, is the phenomenal world… We can’t know “things-in-themselves” at all. But we are free to know this phenomenal world through science, the science of how things seem to us.

Kant also indulged his unscientific believing nature: we can’t know “t-i-t”s but our moral feelings do hint at the reality of the noumenal world so “one might as well choose to believe…” So it seemed to the Sage of Konigsberg.

Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams: doubters all. Yet they all loved virtue, and Jefferson and Paine in particular singled Jesus out as a positive role-model. In fact, Jesus is about all that survived our 3d president’s shears.

Jefferson Bible…F.Church…TJ & the Good BookCarl Sagan on Jefferson’s Bible & Christianity…Maira Kalman, Pursuit of Happiness…”I too am an Epicurean“…DeismWJ on Leibniz (“superficiality incarnate”)… What Good Shall I Do This Day? (Franklin)… morning questionRescuing Jesus from the Bible

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Rapheal’s study site is now page-linked to the blog, beneath the Syllabus. Contact him to volunteer in helping build and maintain the site, to learn how to use all its features, and to share that info with your classmates.

P.S. That was a terrific, mutually-respectful conversation centering on Kristin’s report in H1 Tuesday! See, belief and unbelief can have a civil, spirited, un-rancorous dialogue together.

P.P.S. Thanks for not asking when your papers will be graded.