Posts Tagged ‘Hume’

Germans (mostly)

March 24, 2010

Here they come, let’s see if they can put some life into the match. But first a Frenchman, a Scot, a Swiss, an Englishman.

But before that, and speaking of believers: did you catch the debate on ABC’s Nightline last night between Michael Shermer and Sam Harris arguing against “the future of God,” versus Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston? It was a riveting show of belief and counterpoint, though the edited-for-TV version barely conveyed the rare excitement of actual ideas being exchanged in public for purposes of both enlightenment and entertainment. So I stayed up to catch the whole thing in its entirety, online. Check it out. All of the participants had interesting things to say, Sam Harris stole the show, and Deepak Chopra lived up to Julia Sweeney‘s past billing. He really does “layer” the quantum flap-doodle in ways that imply a specious expertise. There should be more of this sort of fare in the popular media! We’ll watch, you & me, and they’ll get decent ratings. Right? But back to our business…

Voltaire. Hectored by a parish priest on his deathbed to repent and declare Jesus’ divinity he protested: “In the name of God don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” He thought hell was a pretty silly idea, and like his friend Ben Franklin he was a Deist and a friend of the Society of Friends, a Quaker-sympathizer.

Hume. “By what arguments or analogies can we prove any state of existence, which no one ever saw, and which no wise resembles any that was ever seen?” Such were the sentiments that roused Kant from his slumbers and led him to “postulate” the unseen noumenal/transcendent realm of God, freedom, and immortality. But “le Bon David” was a skeptic to the end. “The morality of every religion was bad,” though he admitted having known some good religious men. By all accounts he was a good man too. His pal Adam Smith called him as close “to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man” as could be. He was calm in the face of his demise, cheerful and in good humor, without anxiety.

Rousseau. Difficult, paranoid, vain, ungrateful to his benefactor Hume [Rousseau’s Dog, Philosophers’ Quarrel], and “born again” (and then  eventually killed, Critchley speculates) at the paws of a Great Dane.  A strange man, but given to saving spurts of calm– especially when walking.

Bentham. Stranger still: he attends meetings of the University College London council, but does not vote. His perpetual presence in corpore is intended as “a posthumous protest against religious taboos surrounding the dead.” Inspiring.

Kant. Another strange dude. Obsessive, punctual of habit, semi-gregarious, a mouth-breather, fond of Cicero, and also a philosophical walker (but with a weird aversion to sweat). Famous last  word: “Sufficit.” Enough. (I like his countryman Goethe’s better: “Mehr licht.” More light. (Or was it “Mehr nicht,” No more?) Famous living words: “Sapere aude.” Have the courage to think.

Hegel. “The negation of the negation…” Sounds like gobbledy-gook of the sort that might inspire another philosopher to ingest laughing gas, but it is possible to read Hegel non-mystically as saying some very sensible things about life in its experiential and historical unfolding. He did not believe in disembodied spirits or the immortality of the soul, but he did believe in Spirit as communal self-knowledge. Turn it over and you get hard-boiled history and the political struggle for justice that Hegel (and Feuerbach) provoked in Marx. Hegelian philosophy resembles his student Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, an impressive structure built on sand.

Feuerbach. “The philosophical cure consists in overcoming alienation, demystifying Christianity and bringing human beings towards a true self-understanding.” We should stop kneeling before visions of remote perfection that we’ve projected onto Christ (and other iconic objects) and stand up on our own feet.

Schopenhauer. When we’ve stood up, he says, we need to look mortality in the eye. Life is “a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan.” Why, if he felt this way, didn’t he stuff it? Apparently because he didn’t want to feed the voracious monster “Will.” The problem with suicide is that it maintains the illusion of wilfullness. The only permissible suicide is the self-starvation of the ascetic. No thanks, I’ll just keep eating and pushing that round object. Move over, Albert. You must consider us happy. Even if, like Artur, we’ve had our poor hearts broken. As Emerson prods: “Up again, old heart.” (Is there consolation for too much grading?)

rationalists & empiricists, R.I.P.

March 17, 2010

Happy St. Pat’s Day, & Happy Birthday, Sis!

We were talking about Thomas Hobbes on Monday, about his negative evaluation of human nature as conducing to that “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short” state of nature we supposedly contracted out of. This stands in such striking contrast to David Hume’s and Adam Smith’s notion that humans are naturally un-selfish (and that that’s why we can even begin to entertain the thought of a free-market economy).

I pick on Hobbes at every opportunity, for being so down on the human race. But he’s kind of a role model anyway. Simon Critchley notes: he walked vigorously every day in order to work up a sweat and lived to 91, in the desolate 17th century (when most were lucky to hit 40).  And he had a sharp wit. His epitaph of choice: “This is the true philosopher’s stone.” Don’t tell Harry Potter.

Descartes didn’t fare so well, dying at (yikes!) 53.  But no wonder, with this attitude: “My soul, you have been held captive a long time… leave the prison… relinquish the burden of this body.”

Before giving up his ghost, Descartes corresponded with Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia. She pushed him on his problematic dualism: If the thinking mind is separate from the extended body, then how do mind and body interact? She was among the first of many to be underwhelmed by his speculative response that maybe it happens in the pineal gland.

Critchley says Descartes refused to take seriously Gassendi‘s objection that our ideas, even the clear-and-distinct ones, might be out of touch with reality. Well, though… he at least pretended to take it seriously, to motivate his “meditations” with hyperbolic doubt. I find that strategy suspect, and think we’re right to consider ourselves “in touch” most of the time. That doesn’t mean we can ever be indubitably certain that all our ideas are correct. It does imply that we should not  invent reasons to doubt in our studies what we cannot deny in our lives.

La Rochefoucauld thought the philosophers protested too much, those who tried so fervently to convince us that death is nothing to fear. “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.” And neither can safely be disregarded.

Blaise Pascal‘s snapshot of the human condition is bleak, but also reminiscent of Plato’s cave-dwellers: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others.” If you’ve heard of his wager you probably thought he was a hyper -rationalist, but for Pascal reason is limited and cannot establish its own first principles… left to itself it leads to endless and unanswerable scepticism.” So maybe David Hume was being disingenous when he declared reason beside the point.

Where did Leibniz get his “monad” idea? Possibly from Anne Conway, who argued against materialism and against any distinction between mind and matter. What did Bertrand Russell think of Leibniz? “Optimistic, orthodox, fantastic and shallow.” Similarly, William James called Leibniz’s theodicy “superficiality incarnate.” Some have construed Leibniz’s bizarre monadology as a front for a very orthodox conception of God as master-planner and micro-manager. Ironic, then, that the name “Leibniz” was popularly derided as “glaubt nichts,” or unbeliever.

John Locke was much more modest and circumspect about the scope of philosophy, tracing ideas to each individual’s idiosyncratic “sensation and reflection.” But he didn’t think he could prove it, and that opened the door to critics who wanted to nail things (and ideas) down more definitively.

Spinoza said a free human being is one who lives according to reason alone and is not governed by fear. That would seem to exclude Hume, who insisted that life is not lived by reason alone (or even by reason in the greatest measure) and that death is the transformation of one natural being (a living human being) into another natural being (the corpse as natural being). Pardon me if I don’t find that entirely consoling.

How civilized are humans, really? According to Vico, there is a constant danger of a cataclysmic return to a new age of the beasts.

English freethinker John Toland invented the term “pantheism,” commonly taken for atheism but  really a form of spiritual materialism. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing.

For George Berkeley, the independent reality of the material world is nowhere affirmed in the Bible. So, being a strict constructionist, he found nothing real in death. Again, pardon me if I don’t find that wholly persuasive.

Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks to kick.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Thanks in advance for not asking when your papers will be graded. The invariable answer, of course, is: ASAP. (That’s “the memo”– the one I’ll refer you to, if you ask me that question.)

live long and prosper

February 23, 2010

Jennifer Hecht’s Genesis poem includes a nod to Spinoza– Voltaire’s Enlightenment was nice but Spinoza led the Jews into light a good two centuries prior– and to Trekkies…

There is a flicker poetry to the universe and it had already started when we got here.  Yet we can star in it, standing there like Captain Picard. Our hearts on our sleeves like Commander Troi There are millions of galaxies to change our minds, yet we get our hearts replaced more often. Leonard Nimoy and Bill Shatner are both Jewish; the “live long and prosper” hand gesture rabbinical, a secret sign a young Nimoy spotted in shul when his father told him to close his eyes and he peeked instead. There they are on the bridge, Kirk and Spock, sailing into the universe where no one has ever gone before, exile upon exile, until nothing feels like home as much as further exile, further out, further on, ancient secrets furling secrets like fractals.

And lots more. She really sings the  spiritual side of natural oblivion, and makes it fun. What other kind of universe would you most want to be at home in, than one you had to leave?

Vulcan spirituality isn’t in today’s A&S readings (though it sorta was, in last week’s: Stoics and Buddhists are pretty Vulcan-ish). But it seems like everything else is: Galileo and Copernicus, Calvin and Hobbes, Erasmus, Luther, Rabelais, Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Jefferson… and in for a cameo, all of doubt’s old friends from Raphael’s School of Athens.

Thomas Hobbes didn’t call himself an atheist but his Leviathan state was widely perceived to be a God substitute, an authority to keep us all in awe. Hell, he said, was just a fantasy to control people. Foolish people, “they that make little or no enquiry into the natural causes of things…”

Voltaire, a Deist who found no grounds for believing in a worship-worthy Creator, probably inspired more people to reject their childhood religion than anyone else at that time… “Ecrasez l’infame!”

Spinoza: No one, not human beings, not God, could have free will. Nature was self-causing. There were no miracles. Supernaturalism did not have to be rationalized– it could simply be dismissed. If all that sounds too austere, he consoles us with a dose of Epicureanism: nothing forbids our pleasure except a savage and sad superstition. He means pleasures like study, wine, good food, the beauty of green things, theater, and sports.

Hume (who loved Cicero): We don’t need religion for morality, religion itself got its morality from everyday morality– based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow–  in the first place. Somebody should tell Stanley Fish. (And tell him too that English deists like John Locke counselled: to improve life, do not ask God for help.)

Jefferson (who did not love Plato): Jesus would reject all Christianity. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried was Jefferson’s attempt, when he took scissors to the Bible. The resulting  Jefferson Bible, he intended, would reflect “the most sublime and benevolent [and humane and natural] code of morals” yet devised by mortal man, and it would nestle safely behind the sacred wall so many of our self-righteous contemporaries have been so eager to tear down. That’s one founder’s “original intent” they consistently ignore.  He was a Deist, but considered that his personal business and none of the state’s. (If you missed it before, check out Maira Kalman’s tribute to the Sage of Monticello.)

And I’ll bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition. You should’ve.

down the road

October 7, 2009

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin.‘ Nancy Sinatra

charles-darwin-tree-of-life-sketch-1837“Truth” continues, first with a cryptic statement from our authors I consider a howler: “One need not attack science to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution.” No?

Granted, Darwin’s theory of evolution is not to be conflated with evolution per se. It’s not a necessary truth that Darwin’s version, or indeed that natural selection in general,  is a comprehensively correct account of how species originate and evolve on Earth. It’s a contingent matter of fact that Charlie Darwin (and not Alfred Russell Wallace, or even Charlie’s grandpa Erasmus, or who knows who) was the guy who assembled and finally propounded in public the most cogent account of biological nature’s modus operandi. Fact is, though, it has yet to be supplanted after 150 years. It keeps looking more and more elegant and right, as far as it went. It didn’t go far enough to incorporate the facts of DNA and the double helix, for instance. But neither did it block Crick’s and Watson’s way. It was a fruitful hypothesis that has multiplied.

So don’t hold your breath looking for reputable scientists willing to “reject Darwin’s theory” outright. Jerry Coyne speaks for many: “We are the one creature to whom natural selection has bequeathed a brain complex enough to comprehend the laws that govern the universe. We should be proud that we are the only species that has figured out how we came to be.” Why Evolution is True

Ken Miller, a prominent theist, has testified that it’s “the cornerstone of modern biology… a powerful and expanding theory that unites knowledge from every branch of the life sciences into a single science.”  Only a Theory

Theories are not, as Darwin’s critics often fail to grasp, unsuccessful aspirants to factual status. “Facts get interpreted according to theories.” Without theories, there could be no facts. Gravitation is a theory, and most of us would say it’s a fact too. If we’re Humeans, we won’t say it’s an item of certain knowledge; but then we don’t need to say that, in order to stand our ground and navigate it. If we’re pragmatists, we’ll say it’s an extraordinarily useful belief that’s paid its way so far, one we’re perpetually prepared to act on. That’s pretty solid ground.

Fortunately, it gets better in this chapter. “We want to say that truth means something more than “very well confirmed”; it means “the way the world really is.” That’s the presumption, balanced in science by the humble admission that our inquiry into truth is nowhere near completion. That’s why C.S. Peirce— recall him from the James bio: the brilliant but bumptiousRoad_Closed_Ahead_sign.svg[1] philosopher James thanklessly helped and publicized– called truth the view which is destined to be arrived at in the vanishingly remote long-run. Meanwhile, we must regard all truth claims as fallible and all disconfirmations as progressive, useful, suggestive, & encouraging. Peirce gave science its best rallying cry: “Do not block the road of inquiry!’

These terms “fact” and “truth” often get jumbled and confused. James is again a voice of clarity. “Truths emerge from facts… the facts themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.” And beliefs require believers, actors, doers. That’s us, the tellers and deniers of truth (and of falsehood), the theoreticians and experimentalists. When we respect logic and evidence and observation, mistrusting unexamined authority, we’re rational. That doesn’t mean we already own the truth, the whole truth etc., but simply that we’re on the road and on our way. We’re giving prejudice and superstition “down the road,” as my country cousins might say.

Sometimes truth runs afoul of our raisin’ (they might add); when it does, scientific rationality stiffens our resolve to stay on track. And scientific humility grants us leave to hit the occasional roadside attraction, in the form of  religious or spiritual speculation concerning matters that may range beyond our trip-tik and exceed the ambit of empirical inquiry: the ultimate questions of life, the universe, and everything. Science makes no advance declarations about this. Darwin himself pointed out that it’s more often those who know little, not those who know much, who are sure that a given inquiry is beyond science.

But the point here is that if we’re going to make time on our trip, we have to get back on the highway. We have to continue asking nature to yield specific information regarding particular matters of fact. Take care of the days, the years will take care of themselves: sound advice for students as well as scientists.

Why be rational? As Carl Sagan used to say, science isn’t perfect but it’s the best tool we’ve got. Acting rationally  maximizes our chances of getting knowledge, enjoyment, satisfaction, and the “occasional ego boost”  that comes from usin’ your noggin.

kierkegaard3Not many philosophers have openly embraced irrationality. (Many have courted her, but most often unwittingly or else with great reluctance and discretion.) Soren Kierkegaard, though, defended personal, “subjective truth.” His concern was not with how the world is, but with one’s own– his own– personal commitments in the face of “objective uncertainty.” If we can’t have the whole truth now, he implied, let us abandon the pretense of objectivity altogether and have ourselves a private, impassioned little fling. Let us take a leap of faith.

It’s a profoundly personal approach to faith and belief (less evidently to truth), but paradoxically there’s quite an extensive community of Kierkegaardians out there. (My old classmate George is one of their leaders.) They’re all individuals, they don’t have to follow anyone… but they choose to follow the melancholy Dane. For reasons, I imagine, not “because [they think]  it is absurd.” (Creo quia est absurdum, Kierkegaard liked to say.)

There is something willfully excessive about this view, but also something enticing– especially when weighing Kierkegaard against the philosophical giants of his time (Hegel especially) who were so confident of our human ability eventually to bring Geist, the great aborning  World Spirit of arch-Rationalist legend, to objective fruition.  But must there not be some reason why you or I should decide to “leap,” unless we’re comfortable with making life-defining choices arbitrarily? That really does seem irrational, and not in a good way.

But perhaps Kierkegaard gains in popular appeal by association with the romantic movement, and poets like “Bright Star” John Keats. If a short, intense, passionate life appeals, maybe Kierkegaardian irrationality does too. But still, is a preference for passion purely arbitrary? OK, that horse has suffered enough. I’ll stop.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism has a lot going for it, but “There are no facts” goes too far. Like Kierkegaard, his interest is not in the impersonal, objective truth but in personal passion and the expression of his own creative will. He treated life itself as his artistic canvas, and his personal style as an artful creation. The two great 19th century precursors of existentialism disagreed about God and another world, but their individualistic repudiation of Truth as something larger and more important than themselves is of a piece.

Much in our experience is subjective, but “it’s all subjective” really is a lazy untruth. That’s an ironic charge to lay at the feet of either the great self-styled philosopher of adversity (“What doesn’t kill me” etc.) or the tortured sufferer of “sickness unto death” but it seems accurate. Accuracy: another feather on the scale tipping toward some notion of objectivity as our goal in assessing matters of fact.

You’re on your own with Foucault and Habermas, I developed a blind prejudice against them both long ago. My  bad, I suppose.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was intriguing and original– I spent part of a party drinking with him in the kitchen once– but I’veQuine never had any trouble communicating about rabbits (“gavagai!”), even after a drink or two. (I used to wonder, with that string of initials,  if he might not have been a good spokesperson for the Seagram’s label.) His indeterminacy thesis seems overblown, but I’m sure he was right to emphasize holism and the web of belief. Novel experiences invite creative and experimental assimilation. That’s the spirit of science.

bertrandrussellthumbFinally, Lord Russell. He often said things he didn’t mean, for the sheer shock and amusement of it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t really mean it when he wrote, “Better the world should perish than I or any other  human being should believe a lie.” That’s on a par with Hume’s pricked pinky, an instigating statement designed to provoke serious “out of the box” reflection. And it echoes Clifford: “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for every one, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

I’m with James on this, though: “Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher.”

We’ve all swallowed our share of lies and inadvertent untruths, and peddled ’em too. Thankfully, the world has survived our collective duplicity and ignorance. We must hope it’s getting better at detecting the truth, and wanting to.