Archive for January, 2012

A very good little book

January 31, 2012

We finish Baggini’s Atheism today in A&P. I need to order a crate of it, so I can hand copies to Gideon Bible peddlers et al. It is a very good little book indeed.

Chapter four considers the question of meaning and purpose, and whether it would really be good to have been given a purpose by a Creator rather than have to fashion one for ourselves.  I think I’d rather roll my own. This may be the most distinctive difference between theists and atheists, that the latter are typically not consoled or comforted by the thought that  meanings and purposes have been created for us.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being so consoled and comforted. Or is there?

“Evolution doesn’t provide life with any meaning either.” Well, it does if we find it meaningful to be links in a very long self-replicating chain of DNA and ideational mimicry, the “continuous human community” of John Dewey‘s Common Faith.

And in fact I do, not because evolution is in service of some specific “further aim or goal” but because it opens time and expands possibility. I’m really curious about what kind of world the 10,000 Year Clock will chime in. Contemplating that world and those people of the far future, who (one imagines) will either have overcome the worst tendencies of our nature and advanced to unimaginable heights, or regressed to a more primitive stage of bare survival. It means something to me. It expands my own sense of possibility, and responsibility. We should not break the chain.

But the dizzying prospect of 10 millenia is too rich for most of our radars, and Baggini is right to pull us back to the quotidian world of tomorrow and tomorrow…

Does it really make sense to ask, ‘Why would you want to do a job you enjoy all day and then go home to someone you love and fill your leisure time as you please?’

No, it doesn’t. Day-to-day satisfaction in life is crucial. But speaking just for me, the pace of it creeps less pettily when I lengthen my now to include the hypothetical future whose fate is  (in part) in present hands.

A question for the theists among us: do you agree that seeing this world as preparatory for eternity compromises its intrinsic value?

How about Ray Bradbury’s Martians, for whom the question of life’s worth only arises when times are bad? Is it so obvious that “life is its own answer?” Is an expiration date crucial? Is death “the final full stop that makes life meaningful?”

We spent some time in the Future of Life class wondering how much life-extension would be too much. I’m with Baggini on this: 80 doesn’t quite reach the point of diminishing returns, so long as I can literally continue to lay tracks. On the other hand, it would be much too long in a state of immobility or pain or senescence. Ray Kurzweil, I note, is hawking another book on this subject: Abundance. The future may be better than I think, but I’m not interested in “the life of a disembodied something” either – no matter how blissfully or how long.

Don’t you love the Terry Pratchett quote about being an atheist but still “angry with God for not existing”? Julian Barnes said “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” Some do, some don’t. I mostly don’t, but I empathize with those (like William James) who do. I don’t sneer at those who believe in believing. On the other hand, I think Baggini is right to challenge those who say they just can’t imagine living without God to try a little harder. If I’m going to try hard to grasp their neediness it seems only right and fair that they reciprocate.

40% of Czechs are atheist? Isn’t that low? Aren’t there places where it’s higher, and where people lead meaningful lives anyway?

On the matter of religion (and temples) for atheists: “sacralization is utterly foreign to mainstream rational atheism.”  And that’s also why a certain brand of militant, fundamentalist atheism makes Baggini uncomfortable. “Fundamentalism is a danger in any belief system… the main danger we need to guard against is not religion but fundamentalism.” So if Alain de Botton builds his temples he’d best let the Unitarians run ’em.

Again, the call to worship here is for atheists to be pro-naturalist, not anti-religious. I think many in our class, and in our culture lately, are both. That is, they not only (for instance) “object to the religious monopoly on values education” but reject as well the suggestion that they might actually share a range of values with the religious. But believing that religion is false does not entail the belief that religious people are from Mars, or Vogon. Is this something we all need to pray about? Just kidding.

And to give myself another reality check: Baggini’s not making this up, plenty of believers say they “know God exists” because that’s how they feel. I agree with the spirit of James’s defense of feeling, to a point.

Individuality is founded in feeling… It is only in feeling that we directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.

But, c’mon: the feeling of faith ain’t knowing, no how.

I agree with Baggini, the argument from evil makes a strong case. Bart Ehrman has laid it out with unprecedented simplicity and clarity, Mr. Deity wraps it up… and still they believe.

We dispatched the classic god arguments along with Goldstein’s 30-something others last week, finding them unimpressive. Baggini is more emphatic, especially about the cosmological (“utterly awful, a disgrace”), teleological (“terrible”), and ontological (“weak” and “banal”) arguments. So it comes down finally to “inner conviction” and the futility of debate. It’s hard to sustain faith in civility sometimes, but we’ve managed so far in A&P. Too bad we’re not a microcosm.

Next: Louise Antony’s Philosophers Without Gods.

East and west and yin and yang

January 30, 2012

So much to talk about in CoPhi today, spanning east to west. My hook this morning is the ever-elusive Tao, the way of natural harmony and balance and reconciliation of mutual opposition. It’s hard to talk about (“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao” etc.) but maybe that’s why we ought to try.

M 30/T 31 PW 18-39. Buddhism & Jainism, Confucius & Taoism, Early Greek philosophy (pre-Socratics), Socrates, Plato. RECOMMENDED: JMH ch3 & p11-24

Two of the Tao’s better trans-cultural emissaries are Fritjof Capra and Benjamin Hoff, authors respectively of The Tao of Physics and The Tao of Pooh.

I’m a follower of Pooh from way back, he was Older Daughter’s favorite bear. (There have been a few, eh Boo-Boo?)

Capra, though, I’m really just finally beginning to explore, through the back door: David Kaiser’s How the Hippies Saved Physics . Maybe it’s a load of quantum flapdoodle, as skeptic Michael Shermer & others say [review of What the #$*! Do We Know?], but it’s challenging (or at least provocative) flapdoodle.

Our tendency to divide the perceived world into individual and separate things  and to experience ourselves as isolated egos in this world,” Capra contended, had long been understood in Eastern traditions as a mere illusion which comes from our measuring and categorizing mentality. Western observers’ impressions of the physical world as pointillist and fundamentally cleaved off from human consciousness arose not from the nature of reality per se, but from the mental filters and habits we happened to have imposed…  three centuries after Newton and Descartes, quantum physicists had only just learned that “we can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves”—a deep insight that Capra considered comparable to age-old Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist teachings.

JMH as usual has helpful things to say about all our topics today.  Consider her remarks on the Buddha’s conception of karma, for instance, and how questions like whether there’s a God or an afterlife or an immortal immaterial soul are unhelpful.

He said worrying about these things would be like a man pierced by an arrow asking questions about the family origins of the man that made the weapon… He said that to ask where the soul goes after death is like extinguishing a campfire and then asking whether the fire went east or west when it left. “The question is not put rightly.” Was there a God? Were there gods? The Buddha said these are questions “which do not edify.”

And here we can note an east-west meeting of the minds. Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates in particular were always more interested in the practical business of how to live well, than in speculative and metaphysical  questions about ultimate truth.

And this brings us to Socrates and Plato. The former “taught” the latter, who in turn taught Aristotle.  Each student disagreed with his mentor in big ways, without abandoning attention or respect. (Good role models for us all, we co-philosophers and listeners.)  But there’s a real question about whether Plato the metaphysician didn’t exaggerate Socrates’ interest in the hypothetical world of essences, Ideas, and Forms and understate his preoccupation with ethics. It’s the primarily-ethical bearing of Socrates’ inquiries, after all, that gets Solomon to label him a Sophist (and to intend by that a compliment).

Socrates was not opposed to the Sophists; he was the best of them…

Socrates believed that virtue is the most valuable of possessions, that the truth lies beyond the “shadows” of our everyday experience, and that it is the proper business of the philosopher to show us how little we really know. PW

Socrates “knew nothing and yet was wiser than most, since at least he knew that he knew nothing.” JMH continues:

Socrates counts among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth. The Socratic method is an eternal questioning. This is not relativism; there is truth to be found, but human beings may best approach it through doubt than conviction.

Plato’s allegory of the Cave, in Republic  Book VII, is a thinly-veiled homage to his teacher Socrates (whose “last days” he witnessed and was deeply affected by), though his own philosophy went considerably further than Socrates’ in asserting metaphysical knowledge of another world.

Confucius Institutekarma… pre-Socratics… Democritus… Sophists… Protagoras

Feeling ambivalent about feelings

January 28, 2012

Rachel in A&P the other day read us a quote she found on Julian Baggini’s blog, averring the joint testimony of both modern philosophy and psychology as to the irrelevance and unreliability of feelings in establishing truth.

Responsibility is one area in life where philosophy and psychology leave us with the message: do not trust your feelings. You carry responsibility for whatever is within your control, whether you feel its weight or not.

If so, this represents a real shift – a stunning and almost patricidal development in the history of thinking about feeling. William James, father of modern psychology and of pragmatic philosophy, thought and felt very differently. He defined rationality as a sentiment, a “feeling of the sufficiency of the present moment,” and the divine “only such a primal reality as the individual feels.” In Principles of Psychology he wrote:

In its inner nature, belief or the sense of reality, is a sort of feeling more allied to the emotions than anything else.

In Varieties of Religious Experience James says, as I reminded some friends in Maine a few years ago,

Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done. Varieties of Emotional Experience

And he commenced “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” with the declaration that

Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only thing our minds could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes  at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

So it’s in that light that I continue to waver over JMH’s tenth quiz question, about evidence.

Do you believe that feelings about things should be admitted as evidence in establishing reality?

No, I don’t. But I do think feelings matter, and while they’re not evidence per se, speaking strictly and empirically, they still have a great deal to do with the evidence we allow ourselves to see and act upon. Reality is not simply a feeling, nor does it depend on your feelings or mine. Reality is ultimately mind-independent. But our feelings are nonetheless inseparable from what we take for real, for how we establish our personal sense of reality (deluded or not). So, is that a good thing, or do we need to aspire to a more “radically feelingless” regard for truth?

Yes. No. Not sure. And that, I guess, is why I’m a humanist of the pious variety.

Posthuman philosophy and the Big Questions

January 27, 2012

One of the many interesting turns in yesterday’s A&P discussion came when someone suggested that it’s presumptuous of nonbelievers to assume the ultimate explanation of life and existence must necessarily be scientific. How do we know we’re not  so low on the evolutionary escalator that all our big categories (including “scientific” and “religious”) won’t eventually be swallowed up by forms of intelligence we can’t begin now to fathom? Perhaps our heated debates about god and cosmology will all be left in the dustbin of natural history.

I think that’s an intriguing suggestion. Pride does goeth before a fall, and while we have come a long way from stone knives and bearskins we still need to eat our humble pie. Is anyone besides John Horgan still talking about the “end of science” these days, let alone the end of inquiry? It’s thrilling to think of the human adventure as only the “beginning of infinity.” (That’s Isaac Asimov‘s phrase in End of Eternity, lately exapted by David Deutsch [On Point].) Maybe a wholly different spectrum of light will be shed, when our great- great-whatevers find a way to see through all that opaque Dark Matter. But of course that’s going to take awhile.

The transhumanists think we can speed the process along, through the adept deployment of new life technologies. In his “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy” Mark Walker (reported Bill McKibbben in Enough) says we should

create beings who are as far removed from us in intelligence as we are from apes,” and then wait for them to provide the answers… They would, he writes, be godlike. And then they could provide the theory of everything.

In Remaking Eden Lee Silver imagines posthuman philosophers of the remote future finally answering the Big Questions:

  • Where did the universe come from?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What is the meaning of conscious existence?

Will those philosophers be scientists or religionists? Will they have a pious bone in their bodies, or a reverential electrode in their neural nets, or…? Will anything to them be sacred?

It’s impossible to say, and for some of us it’s hard to care what they’ll say. We’re the ones asking those questions right now. We have to fashion our answers with the conceptual tools we’ve got, not the ones we’d like to imagine. (Is that the philosophical analogue of the Rumsfeld Doctrine?)

And so it’s entirely predictable that mere humans will continue to choose sides between science and religion, theism and atheism, etc., and will continue to be tone-deaf or just indifferent to the other side. I just hope we’ll all continue to be as agreeably disagreeable as the students in A&P have been, so far. Let’s make those posthumans proud.

Secular believers and the feeling of faith

January 26, 2012

Begin the Baggini: we begin Julian Baggini’s Atheism today in A&P. His BBC celebration of secularity is a good introduction.

The Secular Society has a nice place, but wait ’til you see Alain de Botton’s Atheist Temple. (Thanks Dean.) Puts the Crystal Cathedral to shame.

Baggini has little use for fideism. After reading Martin Gardner I have to say I’m also unimpressed with the quixotic “believe in spite of anything” school.

And yet. I can’t shake the sense of a “feeling of faith” I don’t know personally, am deeply skeptical about, but still can’t bring myself to dismiss out of hand. JMH:

Some people may be tone-deaf to the idea of evidence, some may be tone-deaf to the feeling that there is a higher power—we must forgive them each their failing. But there is also a tradition by which both sides refuse to engage the interesting questions: believers refuse to consider the reasonableness of doubt, and nonbelievers refuse to consider the feeling of faith.

It’s an odd dynamic, emerging from the juxtaposition of this class with CoPhi. On alternate days I find myself either the most or the least assertive atheist in the room, all because I’m trying to “engage the interesting questions” and “consider the feeling of faith.” I’m always seeking someone’s forgiveness. (Cue Mr. Prine.)

I wish the hard-core “secular believers” in A&P could have seen the looks of blinking incomprehension on some students’ faces when I said yesterday, as matter of factly as I feel it, that I simply do not accept the concept of “hell.” (Well, there have been a few staff meetings… but never mind.)

I find it easier to renounce the concept of hellfire, anywhere and anytime, than to flatly repudiate someone’s heartfelt testimonial of, say, an encounter with angels. That’s inconsistent, I know. Angels make no more sense than demons.  But angels are benign and helpful spirits, and people do need help. Nobody needs to roast, or to espouse a loving god who could be capable of turning up the heat.

Still, and though I typically don’t say so, the angel-feeling is not the “feeling of faith” I feel obliged to respect. I usually just only ridicule it “in my heart.” (Like Jimmy Carter, that’s also where I do my best sinning.)

My greater regard is for the more amorphous, mysterious, mystical experiences  that result in something imprecise but uplifting being somehow registered by the experiencer. Again, people need help. They need uplift. I don’t want to deprive people of the help they need.

But maybe  the greatest help will come when “all of God’s children” are confident enough in human solidarity and humane secularity to look the universe squarely in the eye and not blink at its failure to reflect what JMH calls our humanness. We are the repositories and the expressors of value, not it. Or rather, we are the part of it with values. As Julian Baggini says, we just need to have a little more faith in ourselves.

Atheism is not a faith position because it is belief in nothing beyond which there is evidence and argument for; religious belief is a faith position because it goes beyond what there is evidence or argument for.

Thus Christianity endorsed the principle that it is good to believe what you have no evidence to believe, a rather convenient maxim for a belief system for which there is no good evidence.

It is a simple error to suppose that just because atheist beliefs are also “unproven” or “uncertain” that they too require faith. Faith does not plug the gap between reasons to believe and certain proof.

So here is a first step in moral thinking. Forget any transcendental lawgiver or divine source of morality. Just think about what is needed for a human life to go well and you will soon find that most of what we recognize as morality comes into play.

…being good is a challenge for everyone, atheist or non-atheist.

Renewing the passion for wisdom

January 25, 2012

Beginning once more in CoPhi with the late Robert Solomon’s rapid overview of the history of philosophy. I’ve been using Passion for Wisdom for a long time, and have yet to find anything of its kind I like better.  Maybe next year? Nigel Warburton’s Little History of Philosophy (sample) might work. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, our plates are full with the first 17 pages of Passion for Wisdom, from Augustine to Brahma to Xenophanes to the Zeitgeist and Zoroaster.

PW preface, 3-18, H Introduction. Fate vs. logos, Early Indian philosophy, Hebrew philosophy, Zoroastrianism, problem of evil/suffering/pain. **RECOMMENDED: JMH ch 2, especially 62-74

The biggest topic here, for my money, is the problem of evil & suffering. Is it bad enough to warrant this bleak statement about the value of life?

“Better to never have been born,” claimed the cheerful figure Silenus, “and next best to die soon.” In a world in which people had so little control, the concept of fate naturally played an important role.

Guess it all depends on who/what/when/where you are. Or why. But fate is no friend of the unborn, is it?

In place of the whims and passions of the gods and the uncertainties of fate, there had to be logos (logos), some reason or underlying logic. Religion had opened the way to the “beyond” for thousands of years, but it was philosophy that would demand order in the beyond.

…what is best known (in the west) about Indian philosophy — its mysticism and that familiar set of exercises known as yoga

Xenophanes: “if horses and oxen had hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like horses and oxen.”

Job & EcclesiastesBuddhists on sufferingBerenstain Bears

Aren’t we all “chock-full” of faith?

January 24, 2012

William James* thought so. And Walter Kaufmann said we heretics can have faith too. Turns out his faith was a lot like mine, and like that of many in my profession: a pluralistic faith in the value of variety, of many voices, of collaboratve learning:

I do not believe in any afterlife any more than the prophets did, but I don’t mind living in a world in which people have different beliefs. Diversity helps to prevent stagnation and smugness; and a teacher should acquaint his students with diversity and prize careful criticism far above agreement. His noblest duty is to lead others to think for themselves. -“Faith of a Heretic” (see also WK’s lectures on existentialism)

But not all faiths are equally meritorious. A rigid, intransigent, unfalsifiable faith too easily becomes a misanthropic dogma. A tentative, grasping, spectatorial faith may be mere wishful sentiment. But faith that motivates works, faith in the future or faith in one’s own abilities or in the capacity for goodness of people who’ve let you down in the past, can be self-actualizing and self-fulfilling if we’re prepared to act on it ourselves and apply what we learn from the consequences. That, anyway, is the faith of a pragmatist, and not just the abstract academic variety of pragmatist but (some of us abstract academics might argue) of pragmatic agents of social change like MLK. Are you skeptical? Good, you should be.

(I love that phrase “chock-full,” it was Jackie Robinson‘s coffee and thus has acquired for me the connotation of fortifying, emboldening plenitude.)

Today in CoPhi we continue our first pass through the Hellenistic Age of ancient Greece, with the Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. They didn’t speak much of faith, but they had a salutary form of it: faith in reality, and faith in the ultimate beneficence of acknowledging it. Their philosophically “dominant mood” was

a clear-eyed resignation to chaos and uncertainty, and a conviction that reality, even painful reality, is preferable to living under false ideas.

Where so many philosophers in the western tradition have recoiled from uncertainty, they found “emancipation” in the embrace of chaotic reality and the repudiation of “ridiculous, infantilizing misconception.”  They were among the first genuine cosmopolitans, and in JMH’s agreeable metaphor they decided to stop trying so hard to escape the forest of natural existence.

Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time. Thus the cosmopolitan doubter looks back on earlier generations with bemused sympathy—they were mistaken—and looks upon believing contemporaries with real pity, as creatures scurrying through the forest, idiotically searching for  a way out of the human condition.

Cynic means dog. “Cynics wanted to live virtuously and calmly, the way the animals do.”  Reminds me of my favorite lines from Whitman.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.

Stoics said “we are here, this is our situation, there is no hidden other situation.” Deal with it.

Epicureans said Take heart! The gods are distracted and uninterested, and anyway they did not make the world, “if they had, it would not be so full of suffering.” And, “we are going to die, but so what? When it is over, it will be over.” And, “the soul is a corporeal thing.” And, “accepting the finality of death makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden” and to stop yearning for another one to come. “Difficult truth is better than wonderful falsehood.” Sorry, Willy James.

In A&P we’ll look again today at any of Goldstein’s God arguments anyone cares to discuss.  I’m especially interested in the Argument from Pragmatism (#32), which is probably at best an argument for the right to believe (and not for the existence of God). In fact, most of the arguments are best construed in that vein. The largest question we can ask about them in the aggregate, then, is the old Clifford question from Will to Believe: is it ever right, anywhere, any time, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? By what right? (SEP)

D has challenging thoughts* on all this, and awaits my reply. I do too. Never know just what I think about WJ’s WtB, at a given moment, ’til I see what I say that day. I’m pretty sure it’s a crummy argument for God’s existence, but am still unresolved as to its ultimate merits in defending personal belief in things unseen. It’s a big, open universe, maybe there’s room in it for variety here too.

*”Appeals to authority are bad, recognition of authorities’ insight, when evident, is good. Is there a reliable criterion of evidence we can all invoke?”

If by ‘reliable’ you mean steadfast expectations based on past experiences, then empirical science has been proven to be the most reliable criterion for event prediction. I don’t think this has to exclude other means of discovery, but we all rely on empirical science every day whether we like it or not. One would be hard pressed to find a theist willing to be blindfolded and rely on divine guidance to traverse a busy intersection… If we both accept [the foregoing statement about ‘authority’] as true and by ‘authorities’ insight’ you mean insight based on scientific theories that are repeatable, falsifiable and backed up empirical data, then, in light of verifiable evidence, ‘authority,’ in this sense, is simply the genesis or author of the theory, which has no bearing on the veracity of the facts…

Sounds right enough. My problem (might it be my salvation?) is that this still sounds right to me too:

I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically, even though in point of fact they were personally all the time *chock-full of some faith or other themselves.

Faith in the probity of scientific inquiry, for instance, is a faith I happen to share. I am prepared, even, to cross the street on its authority. Seems pretty reliable so far. But it’s not really “faith” in the same sense, is it?

Is there a reconciliation in the offing, between the Jamesian pluralists (am I the only one?) and the hard-core take-no-prisoners atheists? Or at least a spirited and friendly conversation?

Or should we just call the whole thing off, on the authority of whoever left the apocalyptic flyer in my car door last night?

“Jesus Christ is Coming to Take Over! – Your invitation to the take over and escaping death begins by saying yes to Jesus Christ… [Visit our prophecy site on the coming of WW3, the east and west coast tsunamis and mega quake, backed by miracles, signs and wonders at”]

Kinda makes a mockery of my high-blown defense of Jamesian pluralism, doesn’t it? I think I could turn and live with animals…

The redoubtable quiz that just won’t go away

January 23, 2012

The last two classes finally get their crack at Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt Quiz today, and an introduction to Doubt. JMH is an atheist of the friendly variety, noting that while belief-centered religion is parasitic on a culture of doubt and that doubt is in fact older than most faiths, “faith can be a wonderful thing.” You’ll not get that concession out of most of the so-called New Atheists, or their 19th century precursors (Marx, Freud, Nietzsche,…).

JMH, a first-rate historian/philosopher/poet (maybe the one and only to wear all those hats with flair, in our day) is a frequent contributor to the Best American Poetry blog. She did a terrific interview with Krista Tippett on the program formerly known as “Speaking of Faith” (which became Being in large part because the host was so impressed by Hecht’s presentation, and came to realize that there’s far more to be said of heaven and earth than is dreamt of by people of faith alone.

JMH discerns seven historically-salient categories of doubt: science, nontheistic religion (eg Buddhism), cosmopolitanism, morally indignant repudiation of the world’s suffering and injustices, “graceful-life philosophies” (eg Epicureanism-“we don’t need answers or stuff”), philosophical skepticism (whether contrived like Descartes’ or sincere like Montaigne’s and Socrates’), and finally “the doubt of the ardent believer” (like Jesus).

Now, about that quiz: There have already been several interesting comments about the exercise, and a few expressions of surprise and exasperation. One stumbling block I’ve noticed is the reluctance most of us have, admirably, to declaring an unequivocal response to questions about which nobody can know the absolute and incorrigibly correct answer. “Not sure” is sane and circumspect, but remember that the quiz is simply asking what you know about your own mind and heart at this very moment of reflection. You’re not required to claim omniscience or certainty about the universe.

Interpreted in that light, I find myself capable of declaring a solid yes or no to most of the questions, and of pretty much skipping the “not sure” category entirely. That is, I know what I think at this moment about these matters. I don’t know that I’m right. Neither do you, right?

People often demur, when asked if they consider themselves atheists, on the grounds that it sounds too confident and cocky to say they don’t believe in a transcendent/supernatural creator God… even if they really don’t. But why should it seem any more cocky to say “I don’t believe X” than to say “I do,” when it’s already been conceded all around  that nobody-but-nobody knows for sure? If we’re really flinging open the closet doors and inviting everyone into the fresh air and honest sunshine of truthfulness, it should not. No double-standards need apply.

So maybe it’s easier to take the quiz if you silently mouthe the qualifier “but I could be mistaken” after each  response? As an instinctive fallibilist (as opposed to either fideist or dogmatist) I always thought that went without saying, but say it if it helps.

Here’s a small unscientific sampling of what others have said about the quiz so far:

  • We collectively concluded that when it comes to religion, there will always be a range of opinions and beliefs regarding religion, and that one quiz could not necessarily determine where you stand with your religion.
  • The Doubt quiz told me that I’m either an agnostic or some hybrid atheist thing…I’m pretty sure I can decide for myself. We all agreed that the wording was tricky and that the quiz does not accurately determine what or how one doubts in entirety.
  • I heard a lot of talk about the quiz in class today and some different perspectives, some agreeing with and some disagreeing with the results of the quiz. For me, the quiz was simple. I’m a Christian, which led all of my answers to be a solid “yes.” Quite appropriately, the quiz labeled me “a Believer.”
  • The Doubt quiz says I’m agnostic. From what I’ve heard about it agnostics think that the knowledge of God is unobtainable and so we shouldn’t bother trying to figure it out. I don’t think any knowledge is unobtainable, we just haven’t found it yet, so I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic. I also wouldn’t call myself an atheist, though I used to be one. I don’t believe in any organized religion but I also don’t believe that reality just happened. Everything the way it is, especially as it is related to us, just seems too perfect to be totally random.
  • I also answered “No” to all the questions on the quiz. A few of them were very open to interpretation, like #10. Which reality are we talking about? The reality of how I feel about something, or the reality of the object that I have feelings about? And #13 was so loaded with junk that I answered “No” just on principle 😉
  • 1. Do you believe that a particular religious tradition holds accurate knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality and the purpose of human life? No. So far, none of the gods (way over 10,000 and counting) have ever demonstrated any credible evidence for their existence 
outside of human personal conviction or faith, both of which are plagued by inconsistency and incoherence. That fact, compounded by each and every religion’s exclusive, incompatible claims about the divine, makes accepting Pascal’s Wager the beginning of a more extensive problem—not the solution. (See all of D’s responses here… and see William James’s responses to his quiz, way back in the day, here.

Donald Hall’s window

January 21, 2012

Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets, a former poet laureate, a Red Sox fan (and author of “The Baseball Players” and “Baseball and the Meaning of Life“) , and a feature subject in the current New Yorker (which I’ve finally caught up with). He’s now old and alone (his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon left us several years ago) and infirm, no longer writing poetry but still loving life. The view from his window is a reminder to us all that we’re damned lucky to be here, and should not waste a breath on despair.

Jennifer Hecht has also read Hall’s essay and commented on it.

Did you read the piece by Donald Hall in the New Yorker this week? It is an essay on looking out the window, old, and between pages on birds and snow he reports on his life with a phrase for each decade, his thirties bad, his forties forgotten because he was drunk, fifties a good total change of life. Each brings so many questions none of which he there answers. We’re in the middle of so many adventures. Life, I’ve long said, is a decent book with a terrible pacing problem.

The pacing gets too slow in January, she’s saying. April is not the cruelest month. How could a St. Louisan like T.S. Eliot say such a ridiculous thing? Oh, yeah – he’s one of the two from my hometown- the other was a student last Fall- I’ve encountered who did not care about the Cards. He was a convert to Catholicism and not to the Church of Baseball, aka “religion without the mischief.”

I think Mr. Hall shares George Santayana’s perspective on the seasons, as expressed in The Life of Reason: we should enjoy each in turn, and not allow ourselves to be hopelessly in love only with the Spring.

But I still can’t wait for April. Neither can Donald Hall.

Tea Partiers and bong partiers

January 20, 2012

The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the world.

And, the most prolific. Every issue arrives before I’ve finished with its predecessor. The January 23 number is here but I’m just getting to January 16, where I find in Talk of the Town the best short explanation of Ron Paul’s popularity I’ve yet seen:

Paul, whose batty-grandpa personality and oddball mélange of pacifism, anarcho-libertarian radicalism, and crackpot economics attracts an equally eccentric congeries of Tea Partiers and bong partiers… Hendrik Hertzberg

That’s it exactly, in a nutshell.