Archive for November 21st, 2011

Americana, Black Socrates, Einstein, Freud, Russell

November 21, 2011

It’s the 20th century already in CoPhi, we must be getting very near the end. But what has concluded, that we may conclude? Absolutely nothin’… Collaboration in the “philosophy of ‘co'” is (almost) never-ending. So it must just be the end of the beginning we’re running up on, this Thanksgiving week. (Remember, STUDENTS, our Thanksgiving break begins Wednesday.)

Today we read of “secular nations, Americana, Evolution & Einstein, Freud, and Bertrand Russell,” among others.

JMH says Ludwig Wittgenstein set the tone for this century when he wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I don’t know about that, as a 20th century mantra. The professional occupation of philosophy does not reward silence, and not many of my colleagues have been known to hold their tongues in public. We all talk too much, that’s the  game we’ve been hired to play. William James did it too, and periodically confessed his self-revulsion for feeding the PhD Octopus.

What an awful trade that of professor is,” James complained at term’s end in 1892, “paid to talk, talk, talk! …It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.

And yet, on the mundane plane of existence and survival, unemployment just  might be worse. Whatcha gonna do, sit silently in a circle and intuit? Meditate? Be?

Speaking of secular Americana (something we readers of Doubt now know to be real and legit, not oxymoronic in Jefferson‘s and Adams‘s and Franklin’s and Paine’s America), it’s nearly Thanksgiving. Lots of people around these parts think of it as a religious holiday, when we’re all supposed to thank god for the turkey and stuffing, but it really did begin as a non-religious festive ritual. Same for July 4, Memorial Day, and all the other public occasions when religion and politics (and football in Fall) all run together. So, for all who find themselves in stifling company on Thursday and called on to grace the excess, here’s a little Thanksgiving prayer. But if that was too much, here’s a more conventional one. [gratitudeFordluckythanks a lotthank goodnessgratitude is good for you (Tierney)]

“Unifying communal experiences” are a good thing, but can be more of a challenge this time of year for those of us who’ve given up football. Penn State was the final nail in the coffin, for me (for it). NCAA collegiate athletics is corrupt (“The Shame of College Sports“) and football at every level is unconscionably violent (“Offensive Play“). But I’m not entirely inflexible on this: raise a generation or two of kids who understand all the risks they run of brain damage, mental illness, permanent disability, premature death etc., and if they still want to play then that’s their choice. I’ll still be boycotting. (Hockey & boxing too, of course.) But pass the turkey, please. And the pie. Let’s talk hot stove baseball.

Thomas Mann was wrong, religion must be separated from politics in a pluralistic democracy. But there’s still something to be said for putting social life “on the altar” (and not the sacrificial altar, either). That’s what John Dewey was doing when he said “the things in civilization we value most are not of ourselves” etc. We are a part of something larger than ourselves: nature, society, and history. The vital question of what life will ultimately make of itself is compelling, and inspiring. “A better life here upon earth” is a sacred goal, and shouldn’t be consigned to the scrap-heap of Marxist-Leninist history. Lenin did say everyone should be free to practice whatever religion they pleased, or none. Tragically he merely said it. So did Walter Rauschenbusch, with his social gospel (“Thy will be done on earth“) and commitment to a just future.

Turkey’s secular experiment (no pun intended) fizzled, but how much bloodshed might we have been spared at this end of that century if people had heeded Ataturk‘s observation that fighters (and terrorists) are more willing to die and kill  when they think their reward will be heaven and its oddly-earthy perqs. (How many virgins, again? But aren’t all angels virginal, by definition?) The social gospel should exclude the society of angels.

The Nazis and Fascists did get religious about politics. (The present GOP has precedent.) But the oft-repeated claim about Hitler’s irreligion is false. “I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty…” You could look it up.

But closer to home, how about that Thomas Edison! “Have faith and go forward,” he said, but faith in what exactly? “I cannot see any use of a future life.” For ourselves as continuous individuals, that is, in an eternal heaven. (Picture lightbulbs popping.) His hero Paine is another iconic American whose true views are not True Blue. But both understood Dewey’s version of naturo-socio-historical continuity very well indeed.

Hubert Harrison, the “Black Socrates,” defies the stereotype of unblinking theism among African-Americans. He also admired Paine, noted errors in the Bible, and embraced Agnosticism (“such an agnostic as Huxley was”).  He said he had no intention of bowing down to a lily-white god or worshipping a Jim Crow Jesus. He was more than a little literal when he also embraced Nietzsche’s repudiation of “slave ethics.” Admitting that reason alone did not meet his every need, he still preferred “to go to the grave with my eyes open.” That’s a really good personal credo, “eyes open.” Mind too.

Emma Goldman, Mother Earth matriarch and “an exceedingly dangerous woman,” found doubt a source of happiness. The negation of gods is also an affirmation of humanity, an “eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.” [Quotes]

Margaret Sanger‘s slogan is (was?) penciled into the concrete of our stairwell in JUB: “No Gods, No Masters.” The fatherly anecdote of a casual rhetorical question about God’s baking skills serves as a sobering reminder to parents and teachers: the smallest throwaway remark can change a child’s life. Be careful.

Mark Twain was one of my earliest mythic heroes. Like the Cardinals, he came with the territory where I grew up, just a little southwest of Hannibal MO. It’s little appreciated, amongst the legions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn readers across the land, that he was an acerbic and gnostical freethinker: “There is only one father cruel enough to afflict his child with… disease.” And: “If Christ had really been God, He could have proved it.”

“Twain believed in God, but not one that cared for us.” Not a god of charity, kindness, mercy, or compassion. We humans may have invented heaven, he says, but we really don’t want to go there. All the fun people would have to be at the other place, if only it were real as well.

There’s more in today’s reading about the Scopes Trial. Remind me to tell you again about my childhood hero and favorite magician Winterton Curtis, one of those scientific witnesses who went down to Dayton and was denied an opportunity to testify for science and truth and Clarence Darrow, “attorney for the damned“. (It was Darrow, btw, not Richard Dawkins, who first said everybody’s an agnostic/atheist with respect to something or other.) Yet Dr. Curtis retained admiration for the natives, as do I. (And as did Charles Darwin’s descendant Matthew Chapman, btw.)  (Damned Yankee in ColumbiaDon’t Tell Me the Lights are ShiningScopes 7…)

“God does not play dice with the universe,” but maybe Einstein just meant that dice (“chance”) doesn’t get played period. Again,

I believe in Spinoza’s God… I do not believe in a personal God… I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

Yet he affirmed a sense of mystery and wonder, beauty and sublimity. “Strange is our situation here on Earth…”

Strange, too, is our situation as diagnosed by Herr Doktor Professor Freud (who’s been interestingly juxtaposed, by Armand Nicholi, with C.S. Lewis over the “question of god“). “Human morality and civility [are] a thin covering over a mass of blind hungers and needs,” and “religion gives most people their only inkling of the philosophical world.” We can do better, maybe people can “handle the shock of the truth.” Eventually, anyway. Grandma possibly can’t on Thursday, though. Pick your battles, keep the peace ’til the pie’s been served.

Bertrand Russell says J.S. Mill wakened him from his youthful dogmatic slumbers.

 I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?'”

I’m no Russell or Mill but I do recall rehearsing a similar line of thought myself, at about age fifteen.  It’s what Carl Sagan was saying on his Day, too. “If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world.” Why not?

Well, some will resist that move because they prefer not to face the prospect of ego-annihilation and personal “rot.” But Russell’s view is appealing. It provides a solid riposte to the Buddhist emphasis on existence-as-illusion, one I think most renunciators can agree with (or should): “Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end.” Should we do all we can to postpone the end, and fill the interim with happy purpose? I vote yes. (Did you see the cartoon I posted yesterday?) There’s no other cure for birth and death than to enjoy the interval. (GS)

The future of life need be no illusion, and the vitality of our interest in that future will be as real as we choose to make it. The “good real things of life–work, love, children and play”– may just be good enough.