Russell, Ayer, and no nonsense

Oxbridge superstars Bertrand Russell (Cambridge) and A.J. Ayer (Oxford) are the classic 20th century British philosophers on tap in CoPhi today (Russell was actually born in the 1870s and made it to nearly the century mark). We’ll squeeze in another Cambridge don, Frank Ramsey, if time allows.

That’s a small philosophy pun, PB’s Ramsey expert Hugh Mellor is also an expert on time. And it’s in bad taste too, given that poor Ramsey’s un-Russellian time was tragically short: he lived only to age 26. RussellAyer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”)…. Russell @dawn… Logicomix]

Then, another passel of Americans from AtP, including a linguist-philosopher duo on the power of metaphor, a transplanted Anglo-Manhattanite neurologist, and a Unitarian guru. We Yanks win, don’t we? -if only by the numbers.  

So much has been said about Russell, and by him. 

There isn’t a practical reason for believing what isn’t true. If it’s true you should believe it, if it isn’t you shouldn’t… it’s dishonesty and intellectual treachery to hold a belief because you think it’s useful and not because you think it’s true. 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts. 

And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence. 

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. 

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?  [Why I Am Not a Christian… More Russell]

Clearly, “for Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity.” The concept of an Afterlife is, to coin a phrase, “nonsense.” We must save ourselves. (As Carl Sagan would later say, there’s no sign of help coming from anywhere “out there” to rescue us.)

Russell said family friend and “godfather” J.S. Mill provided a satisfactory answer to his own early childhood query, posed by so many of us: “What caused God?” If anything in the universe can exist without a cause, why can’t the universe itself?

Having settled the question of God to his own satisfaction, he turned full attention to the philosophy of logic and mathematics, to paradox, to set theory, and other conceptual conundra. If something is false when it’s true (“This sentence is false” etc.), then it’s back to the drawing board for the logicians. It’s not even a close shave. As for the extent of my own interest in set theory and its ilk, I think young Ramsey said it best: “Suppose a contradiction were to be found in the axioms of set theory. Do you seriously believe that a bridge would fall down?” No I do not.

“How can we talk meaningfully about non-existent things?” That’s never really hung me up, nor anyone who appreciates good literature. Either young Russell was not a big reader of fiction, or maybe he thought he had to justify his reading. I’m glad he cared about “the present king of France,” but I frankly could care less.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, with his Verification Principle, loved to detect and discredit nonsense. Good for him, we’re choking on it. But he went too far. “Metaphysics” (not to mention “ethics” and “religion”) may have been a dirty word, for him, but there’s far more sense on earth (let alone in heaven, if a heaven there be) than was dreamt of in his Logical Positivism

Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own, in his old age. Interesting, in light of his youthful philosophy as exposited in Language, Truth, and Logic, “in every sense” (he admitted while still a relatively young man) “a young man’s book, “according to which unverifiable statements are meaningless nonsense. 

Old Ayer claimed his premature dalliance with death in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]



…a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. 

“Stealing money is wrong” has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written “Stealing money!! 

No moral system can rest solely on authority. [Or as Russell said: nothing externally imposed can be of any value.]

There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this … all of life.

And with that last insight the former Wykeham Professor of Logic may at last have hit on a profound truth far beyond formal language and pedantic logic. Ayer’s greatest moment, for my money:

One of the last of the many legendary contests won by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer was his encounter with Mike Tyson in 1987… Ayer — small, frail, slight as a sparrow and then 77 years old — was entertaining a group of models at a New York party when a girl ran in screaming that her friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. The parties involved turned out to be Tyson and Naomi Campbell. ”Do you know who [the bleep] I am?” Tyson asked in disbelief when Ayer urged him to desist: ”I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” ”And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic,” Ayer answered politely. ”We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” nyt 

If George Lakoff and Mark Johnson had been at that party there might have been real fisticuffs. Probably not. But the metaphors would have been flying, for sure. 
For linguist Lakoff and Oregon philosopher Johnson, we live and reason by metaphors. “Philosophy in the flesh” depends on speaking and thinking in ways that mirror our condition as embodied reasoners. The logical categories we project onto our experience directly reflect the most basic facts about our ways of being. We have fronts and backs, so do our cars and tvs. No coincidence. They may overstate the Cartesian  element in traditional philosophizing a bit, but as William James said: “the earth of things, long thrown into shadow by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights.” Like a prizefighter on the comeback trail, like an underdog who beats the odds, like, well, like a good metaphor.
Mathematician Robert Kaplan makes a whole lot of nothing, and inverts philosophy’s great cosmolo- ontological question Why is there something rather than nothing? It gets confusing, but it’s still pretty amusing. Just like the encyclopedia entry on “nothingness” that goes on and on and on… And then there’s Sartre’s le neant. “Nothingness” made him sick. 
Lately this matter has been taken up by physicist Lawrence Krauss in A Universe From Nothing, and journalist Jim Holt in Why Does the World Exist? Thanks for nothing, y’all. (The universe exists to give philosophers something real to think about. Right?)
But seriously, there’s an important question lurking beneath all this superficial wordplay. Or else there’s important nonsense. If the vacuum of space is not nothing, in even its thinnest manifestations, can we not think the vacuum away and wonder what, if anything, that would leave behind?
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, deals with more tangible mysteries. Why do some people mistake wives for hats? Must have something to do with personhood. Sacks has an “abiding preference for the organic, the human, the humane.” Robin Williams may have been a good casting call, then, since humanity is nothing if not crazy and sometimes manic. 
Like Schopenhauer, he’s a musicophiliac and a fount of epigrammatic wisdom. Unlike Schopenhauer, he’s a nice man. He’d never push an old lady down the stairs, or inform a patient that the world is without point or purpose.

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self—himself—he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes. [Young Ayer, later visions notwithstanding, couldn’t see this.]

In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life. 

[Speak, Memory… “Seeing God” (How the brain creates out-of-body experiences and religious epiphanies: Atlantic)… How Hallucinations Happen (npr)… TED ’09Desktop diary (scifri)… ]
Sacks has also inspired one of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, whose protagonist in The Echo Makers is based on him. But he’s no guru.
Anthony Storr (Feet of Clay, Solitude…) said gurus claim to be bringers of light, but more often suffer delusions of grandeur or divinity and propound “absurd theories about the universe.” That definition fails to exclude too many accredited academics, but I guess it’s clear that Jim Jones and David Koresh were at the far fringe end of the spectrum. Do we really want to include Jesus and Gandhi and Freud and Jung, with the likes of Gurdjieff (blaming the moon for evil?!) and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (check your mind at the door)? Seems like much too broad a brush.
Robert Fulghum is no Davidian whacko, though he was born in Waco. He’s a Unitarian Universalist in Seattle, and he was full of occasionally witty (but usually pretty banal) wisdom. Kindergarten does teach important life-lessons, after all. “Play fair, don’t hit, share, say you’re sorry…”
We don’t need gurus, but Van Morrison was wrong about method- we need a better method in philosophy than the search for inarticulate mystical authority- and about teachers. We especially need good kindergarten teachers. Nothing absurd about that.

via Blogger http://jposopher.blogspot.com/2013/11/russell-ayer-and-no-nonsense.html

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