Brains, John Campbell was saying in his Berkeley interview, are a big asset. “It’s very important that we have brains. Their function is to reveal the world to us, not to generate a lot of random junk.”
Voltaire was an enemy of philosophical junk, too. One of the great Enlightenment 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
“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]
William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate“:
Leibniz’s feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me. It is evident that no realistic image of the experience of a damned soul had ever approached the portals of his mind…
And James’s comments continue, in a similarly scathing vein. But if you like Leibniz’s defense of the ways of god, maybe you’d love his monadology. Maybe not. But if one substance is good, how good is an infinity of them?
“Whatever is, is right.” I don’t care which Pope said that, it’s crazy. No way to live and think. “Everything happens from a cause, sure, but not “for a reason” if that’s code for “for the best.” Irremediably, irreedemably bad things happen. Regret is an appropriate first response. Of course we tshould ry to prevent recurrences of the worst (by our lights) that happens.
Voltaire’s Candide may be the most devastating parody ever penned. A “logical explanation for everything” leaves the world much as it found it, less than perfect and easy to improve. Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, educating the ignorant, saving the earth, etc., are obvious improvements to begin with. “All is well,” Miss Blue? I don’t think so.
But the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did nothing to block Voltaire’s “Pangloss” from continuing to insist that everything is the result of a pre-established harmony. What must it be like, to believe that?
After tornadoes, earthquakes, and other fatal natural disasters, people interviewed on television frequently thank god for sparing them. Is that a reasonable response? What should we say to the survivors of those who weren’t spared? If “acts of god” (as the insurance companies put it) take life randomly, and you happened to be one of the random survivors, would you feel grateful, lucky, or guilty?
Candide’s statement that “we must cultivate our garden” is a metaphor for not just talking about abstract philosophical questions but instead doing something for our species while we have the opportunity. It’s a plea for applied philosophy. I’m fresh from a philosophy conference where, I’m sorry to report, the old bias in favor of Grand Theory still has its champions. Spectators, not ameliorators.
Voltaire was a deist, a freethinker, a pre-Darwinian. He was not an atheist. But is that just an accident of history?
Maybe not. I have a feeling Bertrand Russell would have been one in any age. And he would still have marveled at nature’s universe. He’d have wondered at, not shrunk from, the stars.
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