19th century (part 2)

It’s back to the 19th century in CoPhi: Atomism & anthropology, Auguste Comte, Charles Bradlaugh, Robert Ingersoll, and some poets.

This section begins with Marie Curie, who put radioactive flesh on the atomic bones Epicurus, Lucretius, and Democritus could only guess at. The geologist Lyell had a huge impact, insisting that immense stretches of  time were necessary to move continents and reconfigure landscapes… and given the evidence, were sufficient too. Lamarck proposed the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a view now substantially disposed of by evolutionary science.

A curious sidenote: Lyell feared that Lamarck’s view would destroy our moral fabric, and spent so much time trying to refute it that he drew greater attention to the evolutionary view eventually propounded by Darwin.

I jumped the gun on evolution the other day– I couldn’t wait!– so to repeat: Herbert Spencer (who was the only sibling of nine to survive, JMH notes) was a Social Darwinist. Charles Darwin was not. That is, Spencer emphasized the dog-eat-dog quality of a world in which struggle and suffering outpace insight, cooperation, and progress. What we need is a “doggy-dog world” (if you’re a fan of Modern Family you might get that reference) in which both the strong and the sweet (in Darwin’s own words “the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive” and flourish. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” and”light will be shown on the origins of man.”

As for the evolution and development of humanity, Darwin did not think wealth, power, or social status were marks of fitness. He favored cooperation, empathy, charity, kindness, and compassion. He opposed slavery, and favored our emancipation from all forms of inherited, acquired, ancient prejudice.  He is widely misunderstood in America, thanks to a constant plethora of  creationist misinformation emanating from pulpits and popular culture. I was shocked by a student comment the other day, to the effect that if we evolved then our ancestors must have mated with wolves. It’s the old “If humans descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” nonsense.  Scopes (Inherit the Wind)… Are We Still Evolving?…God (“respect”)

“Darwin’s Bulldog” T.H. Huxley gave us agnosticism. “Agnostics reject superstition and doubt supernaturalism but “totally refuse to commit” to its denial. There may just be Saturnians, and until we prove otherwise we should keep our belief-ledger open. In “Evolution and Ethics” he warned against Social Darwinism and the conflation of nature with society. ”Of moral purpose I see not a trace in nature. That is an article of exclusively human manufacture.” One of our better productions.

Does “brain matter define personality” any more than nature delineates ethics? Well, it’s surely related. But the relation is non-reductive. The brain secretes thoughts, sure enough, but it takes an astonishingly un-pin-pointable portion of that brain to know them from the inside.

Auguste Comte‘s “antireligious ‘religion’” was called positivism, and it curiously rejected atheism. Entire freedom from theistic religion means not taking any precise stance towards its claims. Nobody calls herself an asantaclausist, or an a-easterbunniest. Positivists turn instead to how, notwhy, thinking the latter a childish question. The “classic Comtian” is epitomized by the Flaubert character who professes the God of Scorates, Franklin, and Voltaire, advocates for free, public, science-spirited secular education, and studies society sociologically. He’s a Deist. But Flaubert thought they were out of touch with life’s perennial mysteries. One person’s mystery, of course, is another’s ho-hum.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists looks to Comte and his “religion of humanity” for inspiration.

He was convinced that humanity was still at the beginning of its history and that all kinds of innovation – however bold and far-fetched they might initially sound – were possible in the religious field, just as in the scientific one.

He may have been right about that, but his project (especially its  call for a new priesthood) was “denounced by both atheists and believers, ignored by the general public and mocked by the newspapers.” Must sound painfully familiar to de Botton.

William James was a friend of the religion of humanity too:

…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. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
“Religion is not about knowing the world factually but about feelings and experience.” That’s a common view in some schools of divinity, and amongst sociologically-inclined students of religion like Durkheim. It’s less common among ordinary believers.
Dostoyevsky “did not like the look of the moral world without God.”Everything is permitted in a Godless world, he said. Surely that’s false.
Charles Bradlaugh was “thorough!” It got him locked up in London’s clock tower, but like Comte he was over the whole debate. “I cannot deny that of which I have no conception.”
Bradlaugh and Annie Besant wrote The Freethinker’s Text Bookthen she wrote the ironically-titled Gospel of Atheism.

Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner died defiantly, cursing “worse than useless gods and godlings.”

Robert Ingersoll spoke the agnostic’s deepest prayer: “Let us have the courage and candor to say We do not know.” Nice complement to sapere aude.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a wunderkind poet, dead at 30 and convinced that “other people’s words” and “witnesses other than ourselves” are no proper basis for anyone’s belief. He didn’t like the philosophers’ abstract gods either. But, he was ok with Spinoza’s.

John Keats’s negative capability is a skill worth acquiring, given the likelihood that uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts will always be with us.

Emerson may have been the first “spiritual, not religious” American, at least after breaking with Unitarianism. But the UUs aren’t really that religious these days either.  Emerson’s pal Margaret Fuller, another friend of native Americans, had little sympathy for missionaries.

Who doesn’t love Emily Dickinson? I gave her the last word in my James book: “Hope is the thing with feathers” etc. My favorite of hers remains this one, though:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—


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