Posts Tagged ‘James Wood’

PW 1.1

January 25, 2010

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

spiritual atheists

August 28, 2009

James Wood (“God in the Quad,” New Yorker 8.31) is not the first to slam the “new atheists” for being the structurally-identical twins of evangelical zealots, we’ve been hearing about “Darwinian fundamentalism” for a long time. The late Stephen Jay Gould used to toss that epithet around a lot. Jerry Coyne has a good reply.

But Wood, while missing the big picture, is not entirely lost in the forest. I like his implicit call for a more spiritually-circumspect atheism. Not being a theist is not at all the same as being uninterested in the meaning of life and the point of existence. Respectable atheists aren’t just nattering nay-sayers eager to declare their antipathies and all that they’re against; they’re actively and enthusiastically for something too. Succinctly, they’re for what Dawkins has called “growing up in the universe”: breaking free, as a species, from the old limiting dependency on external metaphysical support. Different atheists will expound that idea differently, but it’s ultimately about freedom and independence.

So Wood’s still wandering and waiting for his theological rescue in a “fallen world,” and resenting atheists for not doing likewise: “What is needed is… a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” No. Atheists are not disappointed. What is really needed from them is a compelling account of why they’re not, and why they think none of us should feel lost in an ungoverned cosmos. It’s our home, the universe, whether we share it with a creator or not.

Much to talk about in “Atheism and Spirituality,” come Spring.