Posts Tagged ‘Julia Sweeney’

Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, multiculturalism

February 12, 2013

Dwan Adams of the Peace Corps made such a terrific pitch, I’m expecting half the class to have run off and joined when I get to Bioethics tomorrow. I’m half considering it myself. I don’t know how she made life in a tent in Mongolian winter sound appealing but she did. So, you want to join?


Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

There’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”


“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”


“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*


“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicate Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?

I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God [Tippett], and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive. God just is.

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)…]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. (But see below.*)

Cesar Kuriyama told the TEDsters the other day that he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?

“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”

Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

*“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. Prepare the rafts.

And consider the Corps.

Hands off, glasses on

February 8, 2013

So, about that particular “Jesus and Mo” cartoon I mentioned here and in class yesterday, the one I like to use to introduce the free will/divine foreknowledge problem, the one a couple of students thought contrary to the spirit of cosmopolitan “citizen of the cosmos” acceptance of difference we’d been discussing in connection with Anthony Appiah’s PB interview

Maryam Namazie has some thoughts on standing by our Author.

Some atheists are not happy with One Law for All’s use of the Jesus and Mo cartoon on leaflets to promote the 11 February Day in defence of free expression [in the UK]. They feel that since the Jesus and Mo cartoons have been deemed offensive, it is best not to use them.

But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We’re rallying in order to say that the right to offend is part of free expression. No one needs to rally for inoffensive speech, do they?

Free expression is a big part of the point, and offense is something one can choose not to take.

But the issue for me is not about whatever “insult” might attend the scenario of cartoon caricatures depicted in bed, reading and talking. Author’s simply reminding us that the Abrahamic faiths have a great deal more in common than  their fervent partisans want to admit.

No, the issue is really to do with whether we’re up for an open exploration of ideas, diversity, and “the value of different points of view.”

The man who has not read is like the man who has not traveled — he is not an intelligent critic, for he has nothing with which to compare what falls within the little circle of his experiences… That to which we are accustomed we accept uncritically and unreflectively. It is difficult for us to see it somewhat as one might see it to whom it came as a new experience. George Fullerton

When we read a text or gaze at an image that makes us uncomfortable or angry or hurt, we’re broadening the circle of our experience. We’re “traveling” to the land of someone else’s consciousness, someone else’s way of seeing. If I can invoke one more metaphor, we’re putting on and viewing the world through someone else’s glasses.

And that’s what I try to do in my philosophy classes: get everybody talking, swapping glasses, seeing things as others see them.

You don’t believe in god? Slip on the Augustine or Anselm or Descartes- Rx lenses: clearer or fuzzier? Think you’re essentially an immaterial spirit? Take a gander through these Hobbes specs: matter in motion, finely resolved.

You believe in god? Here, Julia Sweeney, try the no-god glasses for a second.

…Let’s just try on the not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off. So I put them on and I looked around.

I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, “Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!” I wanted to run out and catch the earth as it fell out of space into my hands.

And then I thought, “Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a really long time.” Then I thought, “What’s going to stop me from just, rushing out and murdering people?” And I had to walk myself through it, why are we ethical? Well, because we have to be. We’re social animals. We’re extremely complex social animals. We evolved a moral sense, like an aversion to wanton murder, in order for communities to exist. Because communities help us survive better in much bigger numbers. And eventually we codified these internal evolved ethics inside of us into laws against things like wanton murder. So… I guess that’s why I won’t be rushing out and murdering people! …[Begins at 1:32]

The aim is not uniform vision or a permanent “correction,” necessarily, just a momentary glimpse of insight that may eventually improve our mutual understanding and lessen the tension and mistrust between us.  It may make us slightly less blind to one another’s various ways of seeing and being in the world.

Guess who said this?

And now what is the result of all these considerations and quotations? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us.

Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands. “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings

No, not Monty Python.

Now… ready to try the google glasses?

The end of “Doubt”

November 28, 2011

We wrap up JMH’s Doubt today in CoPhi. [Remember, STUDENTS, final report presentations begin Wednesday and Thursday.] She says we’d all be a lot clearer if we’d just

avoid using believer, agnostic, and atheist and just try to say what you think about what we are and what’s out there.

Lots of different views are out there, along with the world they more-or-less accurately engage. But we should resist labeling them, or ourselves, even with better labels like sectarian, “one-of-many,” meaning and science spiritualist, Skeptic, perplexed, ritualist, science secularist, doubter.

Note, though, that to doubt is not necessarily to repudiate or excoriate. It’s simply to remain open to a new thought when it comes. But all labels aside, it seems clear enough after nearly 500 pages of Doubt that what we are is a species that has always had its doubters. Some of us embrace uncertainty, some shrink from it, all benefit in the long run from an honest and collaborative exchange of views. What’s out there is a big cosmos, and we’re in it. There’s room in it for all kinds, so long as we’re willing to share the space. But labels probably do serve more often to reinforce our worst exclusionary and judgmental tendencies, than to elicit a more expansive cosmopolitanism.

A story in yesterday’s Times about black atheists (which doesn’t quote Hubert Harrison) quotes Neil deGrasse Tyson echoing the point:

Am I an Atheist, you ask? Labels are mentally lazy ways by which people assert they know you without knowing you.

Right. But labels can be constructively clarifying and instigating, too. It’s easy to conform to a pattern to which you didn’t know there was an alternative. That’s why we’ve been reading JMH, to disabuse ourselves of that common error. Dozens of undeservedly obscure names (like Hubert Harrison’s) crop up again and again in the history of doubt, challenging the easy faith of those who entirely exclude the spirit of skepticism from their radar simply because they never read or heard a word about it.

According to the Pew Forum 2008 United States Religious Landscape Survey, 88 percent of African-Americans believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 71 percent of the total population.

Believing anything “with absolute certainty” just looks a lot shakier when you come to realize that thoughtful humans have always doubted and always will. How can it possibly be considered more acceptable to be a church-going drug dealer than to be an atheist? Only by not really being considered at all.

Consider a recent Tyson tweet:

Thanksgiving dinner, a few years ago, each in turn thanked God for food. I thanked scientists for improved farming. Got booed.

An appropriate response by Tyson at that moment, in the face of such uncomprehending  intolerance, might very well have included a bit of explanatory self-labeling. He wasn’t just being obtuse, he was representing a proud and ancient human tradition of alternative belief.

Wittgenstein might have reminded Tyson’s obdurate, intransigent cousins (and mine) that “reality does exist and limits the kinds of games that can be played.” The gratitude game “bewitches the intelligence” of those who won’t acknowledge its real sources in our shared experience. But he would also remind Tyson that science is not “the only approach to investigating the world,” and that “doubting, by its nature, is done within the realm of believing something.” Again, there’s room at the feast for all kinds.
“We inhabit a world of belief and cannot see out of it.” We cannot really doubt that we’re awake, when we think we are. That’s mostly a good thing, “belief is one of the best human muscles” (because it moves us to act) but it’s also the explanation of our intolerance. We need to work on that, but  is it really “crazy” for theists and non-theists alike to challenge one another’s arguments? We have to try harder to “see out of” our respective belief-bubbles and even to pop them when they prevent mutual understanding. If it’s true that “we can speak of the world only in our language game,” we need to develop a more inclusive language. The language of doubt, perhaps?
Sartre again. “There is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it.” That still just strikes me as a premature judgment, even for atheists. Why can’t the “blueprint” of our nature(s) be a work perpetually in progress? Why can’t human nature be fluid? And why, if you agreed with Sartre, would you also acknowledge “an intense command upon us to be moral”? An intense feeling of responsibility, sure. But is a feeling a command? Not usually.
So, by “hell is other people” maybe he means the others who don’t respond to the same felt “commands” we do. But in Sartre’s own terms isn’t there a whiff of “bad faith” here, if we objectify our mutual responsibilities as externally imposed commands rather than choices we’re always at risk of neglecting? Too bad we can’t cross the channel to settle that with the man himself.
Sartre said he settled the God question to his own satisfaction at age 12. His partner Simone de Beauvoir was 14 when she (with Balzac’s assistance) declared her own independence. Were they precocious, or premature? His command was her need: “in a godless universe there is a desperate need for each of us to be moral.” (The Second Sex 25 years later)
Albert Camus‘s great theme was the absurdity of living in a world of repetitive meaninglessness, only then to die. That’s Woody Allen‘s theme too. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or my children. I want to achieve it by not dying”…Prof. LevyNot dying is precisely the Sisyphean task Camus said should make us happy. “Acknowledging the absurdity of the human condition is what saves us, and ‘one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.'” Or at least produce novels, plays, and films. “It’s our ballgame.”
For many of us, life was most emphatically shown to be in our hands by the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel‘s cri de coeur for the nocturnal silence of the death camps sums it up.
 …after another hanging, Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.
Viktor Frankl‘s amazing story and the message of his life was nicely summarized by a student once as both Nietzschean and Beatle-esque: we need meaning, and for that we need love. (quotes)
It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in  the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.
A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
The Cold War and Joe McCarthy put god on our currency and in our pledge in the 1950s. That mindset, the falsehood that “an atheist American is a contradiction in terms” and the preposterous proposal that “atheists should not be considered citizens or patriots” (Bush Sr.) is light-years removed from the transcendent Gaian sensibility of poet/statesman/Velvet revolutionary Vaclav Havel. More respect, for one another and for the “miracle of the universe,” is still (we may hope) the history of the future.
Is the evangelical atheism of the so-called New Atheists “harsh” and “coarse”? Or is it an inevitable backlash against religious bigotry? The vaunted Four Horsemen are Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens*, and Dan Dennett. But there are many more riders in their posse, some of whom have delivered riveting TED Talks. Don’t miss Julia Sweeney, my favorite New Atheist. (If you’re a Deepak Chopra fan, you might not like this.)
(Sweeney transcript… *Hitchens-Blair transcript)
So, to be clear: the end of Doubt, the point of doubting, is to live. Its purpose is to summon as much freedom and dignity as befits a questioning, questing, aspiring social species. “The only thing such doubters really need, that believers have, is a sense that people like themselves have always been around, that they are part of a grand history.” Point taken. May the conversation continue.

Give peace a chance

May 14, 2011

The Dalai Lama came to New Jersey yesterday with his message of peace, compassion, and loving-kindness, versus “too much emotion, attachment, anger or fear.”

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams took issue with HHDL.

“I thought it was strange to be asked to be on this panel on inner peace, because I don’t have much,” she said. “It’s anger at injustice which fires many of us.”

She went on to criticize aspects of American policy that favor corporations and the wealthy, and, without naming a particular conflict, said there was no such thing as a “just war.”

They’re both right. The path to peace is fraught with conflict, anger and negative emotion can be constructively channeled to positive ends, and the ultimate personal prize is still a happy disposition. It’s not an either/or.

It’s reported that Deepak Chopra was also in Newark, explaining the (pseudo?-) neuroscience of happiness. He makes some people angry, too, like Julia Sweeney (but in a sweet way.) We’ll see how he and others play this Fall in SOL (the course formerly known as “Happiness 101” and now rechristened “Happiness and the Secret of Life”), with their various candidate Secrets.

I’ll be pulling for peace, myself. It was in somewhat short supply here last night, with our house full of ‘tween-age sleepover guests celebrating Younger Daughter’s impending birthday. I hope Mom finally got some sleep, it’s like the sign on Mother-in-Law’s door says: “when [she] ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

“Peace in the family” is something we all need more experience with, Your Holiness.

irrational exuberance

December 24, 2010

Exuberance carries us places we would not otherwise go—across the savannah, to the moon, into the imagination… Kay Redfield Jamison

Generosity continues to speak to me, this morning in connection with those nuns whose own exuberance for living the cloistered life is so contrary to my own sensibility, and so sad to me. But just listen to them, they’re beside themselves with the ecstatic joy of a meaningfulness they had not found in the secular world. Sister Beatrice says

this is the most freeing thing I could have chosen, because everything else would have been trying to find this — this defining relationship that would give value to everything.”


“I met the person for me. I’ve been known by him forever. And I’ve known him more or less throughout my life. And now I know that this is where I’m called to.”

“We’re all orienting ourselves towards heaven,” says another Sister. I find that creepy and depressing, myself. But we’re not talking about me.

Ex uberare—”the pouring forth of fruit.” If we’re going to be Jamesian pragmatists about this we’ll just have to overlook some of the absurdity and focus on the fruit, the good works, the charity, the high-spirited mobilizing of personal and institutional energies for good.

And for bad, Hitch will remind us: church edicts proscribing contraception in Africa, priestly perversion and child rape… it all goes onto the scale.

Wisdom, James said, is knowing what to overlook. My challenge, again, as an aspirant “atheist with a soul”, is where to draw the line beyond which tolerable absurdity becomes the kind that should no longer be overlooked?

Julia Sweeney pointed out in Letting Go of God that the line between trinitarian virgin birth and Joe Smith-style weirdness is specious, just a shade this side of Scientology. And Deepak Chopra’s New Age quantum weirdness is right in there with them.

But, on this holiday eve, it would be much more in the spirit to overlook all that for now and instead accentuate the positive. Take it away, Eric

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

OK, that last couplet isn’t entirely positive. But I’m told there’s healing in prayer.

telling tales

November 13, 2010

Some notes from Owen Flanagan’s keynote address last night (“What Kind of Identity is Narrative Identity?”) to the 42d annual meeting of the Tennessee Philosophical Association, at Vanderbilt’s Furman Hall in Nashville:

John Locke’s narrative/”forensic” self, combined with William James’s phenomenal/flowing self, yields the “conscious autobiographical stream” of 1st person subjectivity.

The traditional psychology talks like one who should say a river consists of nothing but pailsful, spoonsful, quartpotsful, barrelsful, and other moulded forms of water. Even were the pails and the pots all actually standing in the stream, still between them the free water would continue to flow. It is just this free water of consciousness that psychologists resolutely overlook. Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water that flows round it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, – or rather that is fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood…

Now any thought the quality of whose fringe lets us feel ourselves ‘all right,’ is an acceptable member of our thinking, whatever kind of thought it may otherwise be.

The point of all these worries about whether there is a substantial self, how it knows itself, and why it matters, is to discover amidst the fringe and inchoate elements of our streaming awareness– the feelings of and, if, but, and by (etc.), and all the books we’ve read and music we’ve absorbed, and the interpersonal encounters we’ve registered– some stable and enduring fitness for living.

Richard Rorty expressed the “cosmopolitan” irony of our situation, from a bourgeois liberal point of view: there are many different kinds of person, their ways of living are variable according to local standards and conditions, we know that none of them enjoys exclusive endorsement by the metaphysical structure of the universe… and yet, we bourgeois liberals feel confident that our hatred of cruelty and love of tolerance and mutual respect are the correct attitudes. Can we say why, in terms the universe itself will corroborate? Maybe we can’t, maybe we’re just tales twice and thrice told because we’ve grown accustomed to telling ’em that way.

Or maybe personal selfhood is just performance art. Lit critic Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” the angst that one is just copying and not being original and creative in one’s own right, is best alleviated by a decision to play with variable identities while not truly  owning or being a single one of them. Life becomes a stand-up improv marathon.

Especially in the self-disclosing age of social networks and blogs and transient celebrity for all, we’re constantly spinning stories about ourselves. Do we have a clue, who we really are?

Personhood-as-performance has this going for it: it’s creative, interesting , fun, novel, and absurd (if you like that sort of thing). On the other hand, it may be frivolous, inauthentic, unreliable… and absurd (if you hate it).

Flanagan had lots more to say, in his high-energy, rapid rhythm, multi-media presentation. But he didn’t quite get to the next chapter in James’s Psychology: the attentive self, beyond the phenomenal stream. That’s the self with intentions, purposes, and meaning. It’s the self that sets us free and finds us something to live for.

And that’s the self you’ll be hearing more about from me. Got the green light yesterday to present  “Storytelling and the Attentive Life” at the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy‘s annual meeting in March, ironically this year in Julia Sweeney‘s hometown of Spokane, Washington.

Why “ironic”? The conference theme is “Narrative and Identity,” and Julia has announced her intention “to stop being a public, personal, storyteller.”

Better start getting my story straight, and rehearsing my performance.

narrative and identity

August 24, 2010

Back to the question about storytelling in our time…

What do we stand to gain and lose, specifically in terms of our personal and collective “identity,” through the incessant spinning of all these public “narratives”?

I was wondering about Julia Sweeney’s decision to stop telling stories in public, for fear of warping the private relationships in her life with daughter, husband, and perhaps herself. Not unreasonable fears, in the digital age.

So many of us have gone public now, casually hitting the “publish” button almost daily, sharing personal information with “friends” we’ve never met, impulsively tweeting our unfiltered thoughts and feelings.

What would Socrates say? Is this the examined life? Or is it cave painting and shadow puppetry? Do we know ourselves better than ever, or have we become shallow image-makers? Are we really connecting with one another, and deepening our relationships? Or are we cutting ourselves off from genuine reality and disbanding the ties that bind?

When a brilliant pro like Sweeney, whose stories almost always transcend the personal while still striking her listeners in a way that feels intimate and direct– becomes doubtful of the value and impact of public narrative, the rest of us ought to take notice. The philosophers who will meet next March in her hometown to talk about “narrative and identity” certainly should.

One relevant consensus amongst my colleagues emerged and caught my attention, at the Symposium up east: philosophers  in the pragmatic pluralist grain must learn to be good listeners. A story worth telling is worth hearing. The best narratives are not merely internal monologues, they’re to be shared.

That’s why William James’s best essays (in his own estimation) were those in which the words of other persons outnumbered his own. There are so many stories yet untold, so many voices are required for a harmonious chorus. We must all sing our songs.

Fortunately, Julia’s are already recorded.

honesty w/kids

May 12, 2010

And then there’s the indoctrination angle…

Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief is chock-full of sensible ideas about childhood and responsible parenting. For instance, Julia Sweeney on her little daughter’s requests for reassurance about “what we believe”:

I hated the whole word “believe” and I also hated that she was just taking what I said as absolute truth, because in the perfect world of my head, she wouldn’t be indoctrinated with anything. She would come up with her own answers.

But it’s not that simple.

Our job is to socialize our kids, and they have evolved to look to us for answers. Not providing those answers is wrong.

Right. But which answers are those? Parenting’s a huge responsibility, and a huge field of mines to wade through and try not to blow up. Julia seems to have a knack for it. For instance, she told her five-year old about Grandpa:

Lots of people believe that after someone dies, they live on. But I think that is just their way of not feeling as sad as they might… I think that when people die, they die. And we should feel really sad and also feel happy that the flower of that person ever got to live at all.

Her little girl “got it.”

Imagine no religion, it’s easy if you try…

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?)


February 2, 2010

(Happy Groundhog Day! Rise and shine, Hitch, it’s time to get out of Punxsutawney. Remember, Phil’s only a god. Not the God…)

Christopher Hitchens is the Bad Boy of New Atheism, the most strident,visible non-accommodationist out there. He stands to Dawkins roughly as T.H. Huxley stood to Darwin, a bulldog and verbal brawler who loves polemical confrontation and takes no prisoners, a lightning rod who seems only more energized by reciprocal jolts of scorn and hostility.

Dawkins is nobody’s wallflower, but next to Hitchens he’s positively courtly.

So it might seem a challenge to find in Hitchens a continuation of the positive theme we’ve been accentuating with all our A&S authors so far. More than anyone, Hitchens has earned the reputation and perpetuated the stereotype of atheist-as-naysayer, and of atheism as  a negative and depleted worldview.

And yet, his editor’s introduction to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-believer commences with a nod to Albert Camus’ Dr. Rieux (“The Plague”): there are more things to admire in men than to despise. Hitchens is not a misanthrope, he is not Schopenhauer.

A couple of pages on, he’s upholding atheism as the impassioned defender of life in our world:  atheists have always argued that this world is all that we have, and that our duty is to one another to make the very most and best of it. That’s affirming and positive, no?

And: The Golden Rule is innate in us...the miracle is that there are no miracles or other interruptions of a wondrous natural order. We don’t need ’em, nature’s wonder enough. The onus shifts, from this perspective, to those whose “death wish” is to leave it all behind on a wing and a prayer for an unseen heaven. What’s nihilistic about loving the world?

Hitchens reiterates a Dawkins point that really ought to go far towards neutralizing the stereotype: everybody is an atheist in saying that there is a god– from Ra to Shiva– in which he does not believe. All that the serious and objective atheist does is to take the next step and to say that there is just one more god to disbelieve in.

He repeats Jonathan Miller’s analogy (I’ve heard this from Sam Harris too): “I do not have a special word for saying that I do not believe in the tooth fairy or in Santa Claus.” But then, the fans of the tooth fairy do not bang on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. A measure of push-back is in order, he’s saying. That’s not pure negativity, it’s strategy.

Then again, his insisting on the more descriptively-accurate moniker “anti-theist” might be construed as a bit gratuitously aggressive. But there’s a positive rationale, to distinguish his view from that of atheists who say that they wish the fable were true. That’s the utter negation of human freedom, which we should be happy to repudiate.

Human life is worth living, on its own terms. And what lovely terms they are, any one of them enough to absorb a lifetime and none of them implicated in the supernatural or the oppressions of the coercive-communal: the beauties of science and the extraordinary marvels of nature; the consolation and irony of philosophy; the infinite splendors of literature and poetry; the grand resource of art and music and architecture. You can love the Parthenon without joining the cult of Athena.

Hitchens shares Dawkins’ anger about childhood indoctrination, inflicting the terrors of hellfire upon the most innocent, trusting, and vulnerable members of our species. At least the Vatican’s put Limbo on the shelf.

But he also appreciates the power of gentle humor to deconstruct theistic pretense. Why wouldn’t an all-knowing creator reveal some knowledge we might recognize as beyond the ken of uneducated bronze-age shepherds?

Hitchens has no use for Stephen Jay Gould’s Nonoverlapping Magisteria or for theistic evolution in general. Either one attributes one’s presence here to the laws of biology and physics, or one attributes it to a divine design. If you try to have it both ways you must embrace what he caricatures as a most ridiculous scenario: for all these millennia, heaven watched with indifference and then– and only in the last six thousand years at the very least– decided that it was time to intervene as well as redeem… The willingness even to entertain such elaborately mad ideas involves much more than the suspension of disbelief.

Hitchens’ combative posture, let’s admit, makes for entertaining spectacle. But will it succeed strategically, in winning non-theists a more prominent and respected  voice in the public discourse of our times? Can it be balanced and modulated by the more temperate tones of a Sweeney or a Hecht or… or who? Where will the next generation of Sagans and Goulds come from, when the time for armed resistance has passed?

Here he defends the subtitle of his God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.