Archive for February 11th, 2020

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February 11, 2020

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Keep on pushing

February 11, 2020

We’re experiencing a mysterious semi-power outage in our home this morning, so I’m even more in the dark than usual. All the more cause to appreciate Mr. Edison…

Happy birthday to the man who said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

And

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

And

“Five percent of the people think;
ten percent of the people think they think;
and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”

Which echoes Bertrand Russell (“Most people would rather die than think, and in fact most do”)
and William James (“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really just rearranging their prejudices”).
Edison was a freethinker and a fan of Tom Paine, approvingly citing Paine’s declaration that ‘The world is my country; to do good my religion.’ (More Paine below*)
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“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” A.Dumbledore

 In CoPhi today we commence report presentations and continue following the great American retreat from reason and Enlightenment, from Cane Ridge to Joseph Smith.  Mark Twain summed up his century’s standard cerebral strategy: we feel, and call it thinking. We habitually mistrust our minds and turn to our guts for guidance. Visceral “thinking” is precisely what’s landed us in Fantasyland.

“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?” But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

And yet, 19th century America was on track to “realize” Enlightenment before the forces of reaction gut-punched us back into our prolonged adolescent infatuation with superstition and supernaturalism. “Education became free and compulsory… we got telegraphy, high-speed printing presses, railroads, steamships, vaccination, anaesthesia, more.”

But we also got tellers of legendary tall tales. Ronald Reagan liked regaling us with stories of a mysterious angel in a dark robe whose sudden appearance (and equally sudden disappearance) at the Constitutional Convention knocked sense into the quarreling delegates. (“God has given America to be free!”) His source was supposed to be Thomas Jefferson.

Europeans traditionally have had a binary choice between state-sanctioned religion or none at all. America has always been about a wild sectarian smorgasbord of religious pluralism. We do like to choose. When we don’t like what’s on the current menu, we cook up a new religion. Christian Science, Scientology, Science of Mind,  et al. It’s been estimated that there are over 300 Christian denominations in the U.S. alone. That almost seems low.

Funny thing, though: in Jefferson’s day it was (he told European correspondents) the north that was known as a hotbed of “superstitious and hypocritical” piety, while southerners were “without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that of the heart.”


The 19th century “Woodstock for American Christianity” came in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, whose high-on-heaven communicants have been described as “drunk as sexually aroused… walking to the altar to be saved and experience an all-consuming feeling of a personal relationship with Jesus.”

The next generation of evangelical enthusiasts included one Charles Finney, who was sure he’d met Jesus face to face. Literally. Even Billy Graham never claimed that, did he? Can’t speak for Franklin, whose claims I think we’ve learned to discount anyway. Finney was not doctrinaire, he just wanted us to meet and greet our savior too.  Of course the doctrine of eternal damnation always lurks behind the promise of eternal life, for those who doubt and question.

Alexis de Tocqueville, observing all this, said no country in the world was as fanatically Christian as America. Understandably. “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”

And then came William Miller, who said Christ would be back in the Spring of 1843… Oops, April 1844. No wait, October. Well, stay tuned.

Joseph Smith takes top prize for sheer audacity of faith, if we can trust that he really believed his own story about the angel Moroni and the golden plates etc. “I don’t blame anyone for not believing my history, if I had not experienced what I have, I should not have believed it myself.” And yet, more than 15,000,000 present-day Latter Day Saints presumably have not experienced it but say they believe anyway.  That is truly a great mystery.

Citizen Tom Paine would defend their right to believe, but would also point out that no one is obliged to accept someone else’s experience as coercive of one’s own faith. “My own mind is my own church. All national institutions of churches… appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit… I do not choose to rest my belief upon such [hearsay] evidence.” Age of Reason

Today in A&P we also begin by pondering the power of emotion to run roughshod over reason. It’s important function is to give us our goals and an impetus to meet them, but it can sometimes also impede our ability to critique and modify them in the light of new ideas and evidence. But some would say that ability is already compromised by the imperative of our “selfish genes” whose reproductive success is what ultimately accounts for our goals. 

Richard Dawkins: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do…We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” If we don’t rebel, then there may well be a sense in which a person just is a vehicle driven by genes, in order to produce more of themselves. Can we occupy the driver’s seat? Can we “defer immediate gene-specified rewards and make longer-term plans” that do serve our goals?
And is this another way of asking, again, about free will?

This is also the context in which Dawkins introduced memes, the mind’s own replicating agents. He echoes Tom Paine “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.” 

Even with rational inquiry, we must guard against the “sedimentation” (says Jesse Prinz) of social forces supplanting our individual critical choices and goal-seeking.

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity acknowledges the inevitability of social forces defining us, by race or gender or whatever, until we accept the responsibility of pushing back. We’re not pure subjects, though. The fashioning of personal and social identity is always a matter of push-pull. Values do get sedimented in the brain, and it’s only the courageous persons whose brains ever get cleansed from too much accreted and unexamined layering.


Sartre’s bogey was bad faith, Marx’s was alienation, and the forest is full of other bogeys we must always be ready to face if we’re to flourish. For instance, the tedium and ennui and sheer sense of maddening pointless repetition were Camus’s Sisyphean bogeys. His solution, to keep pushing that stone, seems to me mis-characterized in our chapter as a case of acquiescence to absurdity. 
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” A full heart born of struggle is not resigned or acquiescent. but it probably is ironic and amused. So should we all be, in these strange days of ours. Keep on pushing.

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