Middle Ages

Back from Birmingham, where I was pleased to meet John Kaag and thank him for his American Philosophy: A Love Story“Looking back, I had the realization that at one point in the not-so-distant past, philosophy wasn’t the sort of thing that was discussed only at formal conferences and in arcane journals. It was exchanged over dinner, between families. It was the stuff of everyday life.” And, “The love of wisdom was not bound in academic journals that no one read; it rather permeated all aspects of human existence.”

Then, I contributed my small bit to the William James Society’s panel discussion of immortality and “Existential Pluralism” and reaffirmed our continuing commitment as public philosophers to the ongoing project of constructively melding and applying American philosophy’s traditional elements – pragmatism, pluralism, radical empiricism, and especially meliorism. Some of my friends find it very difficult to do that, on paper. In practice, and in the spirit of James, I don’t see how we can possibly fail to try. 

I’m with him: “I am willing that every leaf that ever grew in this world’s forests and rustled in the breeze should become immortal. It is purely a question: are the leaves so, or not?” Only time and experience will finally tell. In the meantime, we must remember: “The inner significance of other lives exceeds all our powers of sympathy and insight. If we feel a significance in our own life which would lead us spontaneously to claim its perpetuity, let us be at least tolerant of like claims made by other lives.”  Let us not let “blindness lay down the law to sight.” And let us not stamp out possibilities, prematurely. The most compelling and most vulvnerable possibility these days, surely, is the very continuation of lives worth living. The really vital question persists: what is life going to make of itself, on this earth of things? That’s the existential question.
In late antiquity and the middle ages the big questions tended to be more about life’s rumored sequel and how to achieve it. Augustine first thought you had to make alliance with the forces of good, in their death struggle with the forces of darkness. He was on the right track, I tend to think, before his big conversion. He was right to suppose that our side needs all good hands on deck, to resist and overcome evil. He put that conversion off as long as he could, praying for purity but only in due course. For the record, though: I don’t think he was right to think of our carnal condition as an entombment. Incorporeal souls sow no wild oats, ascetics enjoy few existential delights.


So, buoyed by Platonism, he “put all forms of materialism firmly behind him” and “turned back the clock of intelletcual history.” The old Greek commitment to reason was not finally comforting enough to him. “He returned to a version of the comforting supernatural stories which most of the first philosophers sought to dispense with, or at least to rationalize.”
Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy dialogue found its own form of comfort, not in Augustine’s Christianity but in Lady Philosophy’s timeless stoicism. God (or Good?) sees all in a single atemporal sweep, “at a go,” and thus somehow leaves the hapless victim of tortured persecution and execution as free as it found him. He can still choose to be “philosophical” about every misfortune, even to his dying breath on the rack. His freedom’s a lot like Kris Kristofferson’s and Janis Joplin’s, “just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Anselm’s God, “than which nothing greater can be conceived,” and his famous “proof” thereof, is another of those notorious sleights of hand made to do heavy philosophical lifting with nothing more muscular than verbiage. It’s still shocking to me, how many bright people (including young Russell, briefly) it’s seduced. 


Speaking of great misfortune, poor Abelard’s is painful to ponder. Gottlieb blames “his scholarly prowess and his passionate involvement with logic” for emboldening him to his own seduction. How ironic, that he would go on to make his mark as “the first serious moral philosopher of medieval times” and “to apply rational analysis to the nature of moral goodness.” Too little, too late.

Moses Maimonides did not address Abelard’s peculiar form of perplexity but did try to bring philosophy, science, and religion together. “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” But try telling that to the world. He was right, though. “You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.” But, Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen.”

He was onto confirmation bias early. “We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it. […] The same is the case with those opinions of man to which he has been accustomed from his youth; he likes them, defends them, and shuns the opposite views.”

Was he really the first to say this?: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Did he anticipate James’s Will to Believe notion that “our errors are not such awfully solemn things”? “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

He was sort of a bioethicist before his time: The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it.” And, “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.” Actually that might have helped Abelard, with a little timely saltpeter in his diet.

William of Ockham’s famous “razor” said we should keep our theories simple, our ontology thin. Remember Goober’s beard?
Remember Buridan’s Ass? Apparently “no such animal appears in his writings.” Too bad.

Giordano Bruno was a mystic fri ar, but he also had a vivd scifi imagination. He said there must be other worlds and “countless suns” out there in the Void, “innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow.” We’ve only confirmed that in the past twenty years or so. It (and other heresies) got him torched in 1600. Neil Tyson tells his story.

Finally today, Aquinas. His First Cause Argument, echoing Aristotle, said a never-ending series of causes and effects would lead to an unacceptable regress. The first term in any explanatory sequence, he thought, has to be self-evident. But is that itself self-evident?

More questions: Can the definition of a word prove anything about the world? Is theoretical simplicity always better, even if the universe is complex? Does the possibility of other worlds somehow diminish humanity? Which is more plausible, that God exists but is not more powerful than Satan, or that neither God nor Satan exists? Why? Are supernatural stories of faith, redemption, and salvation comforting to you than the power of reason and evidence? And what do you say to Carl Sagan?:

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” 

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