Posts Tagged ‘Passion for Wisdom’

PW 2

February 1, 2010

With today’s Passion for Wisdom assignment we have another go at classical Chinese philosophers and the pre-Socratics, and Buddhists and Jains and Sophists. Then, Socrates himself (who was not “permanently pissed,” after all).

Buddhists reject the Hindu self, leaving some doubt about what it is that could possibly cycle through successive incarnations or reap the weal or woe of karma. But Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains all exalt the quest for a trance-like blissful experience, and resist what they see as western “over-intellectualization” of the sort Pooh’s friend Owl seems to exemplify.

And of course Buddhists are known for the “Noble Truths” of suffering and the “Eightfold Path” to Enlightenment which begins with seeing* (the very meaning of the Sanskrit word for philosophy) and seeks Nirvananot happiness in the western sense, but an ego-displacing perspective that looks very alluring to some western neophytes who wish they could twinkle and glow like the current Dalai Lama too.

*(Visual metaphors are big in the history of western philosophy too. See Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.)

Also very appealing to many of us is Buddhist compassion, exemplified for me (though I can’t quite explain why) in a particular photograph of the DL with a certain former heavyweight champion; and the DL’s forthright “faith in science“. There’s a strong Socratic element in Buddhism’s claim that the “illusion of understanding” blocks our way to  enlightenment… as there is in the scientific method and its ethos of fallibilism.

Less appealing to me is the concept of   “renunciation” and the judgment of the everyday world as itself a grand illusion. I like the response of the logically-minded Nyayayikas, who  “rejected the notion that the everyday world was an illusion.” Transitory yes, but unreal? No.

(Here’s the DL in London in 1997.)

One of the most striking images here clarifies the Taoist conception 0f “soul” as an impersonal part of nature. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, by contrast, one is holy insofar as one is not part of nature and is outside of time… The Christian soul is an intact bit of  eternity in everyone. The Taoist soul is more like a drop of water in a stream. Again: Taoists believe that to be wise is to realize one’s unity with nature and to live in conjunction with nature’s rhythm, the Tao… The personal self may die, but the Tao with which the sage identifies lives on.

Speaking of water… Thales of Miletus (634-546 BCE) said water was the nature, the archê, the originating principle of all reality. With his olive presses he resisted the charge of “unworldliness” so often lodged against philosophers.
Earth, air, fire, and water, hot and cold, wet and dry… Opposition is often basic to Greek philosophy, whereas the Chinese would rather talk about ‘harmony’

The ancient Greeks referred to all other peoples as barbarians (whose unintelligible speech sounded to them like “bar-bar-bar”). Herodotus: “the Greeks have been from very ancient times distinguished from the barbarians by superior sagacity and freedom from foolish simpleness.” This cultural chauvinism persists, apparently, and was delightfully exemplified by the proud Greek father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (finding uncredited Greek origins for everything, including Japanese kimonos).

But they do have plenty to be proud of, including Hippocrates’ (c.460-377 BCE) naturalism: “Men think [a disease] divine merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.”

Democritus (460-370 BCE), “The Laughing Philosopher,” expanded the atomic theory of Leucippus and agreed with Pythagoras: “the Cosmos can be understood because it obeys certain laws that are the same everywhere in the universe.” This proposition is the foundation of science. Carl Sagan thought a lot of him (and Steve Gould thought a lot of Sagan).

With Democritus the attempt to deanimate and demythologize the world was complete. Greek “soul” was insubstantial except when embodied, and then was a “mere breath.” Something like this view, incidentally, led the Egyptians to mummify  their dead, and the early Christians to emphasize physical resurrection as necessary for salvation. The ancient Hebrews mostly restricted their concern to the concrete human being, not soul. Similarly, the Chinese related soul to social identity without specific metaphysical expectations. (Buddhists, again, thought soul was either an illusion or– as the Taoists said– was one with the rest of the universe, rejecting the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth.) As for the modern scientific take on soul, it looks a lot like Democritus’s… but Michael Shermer says the soul of science is substantial enough.

Protagoras (c. 490 – c. 420 BCE ) said (1) that man is the measure of all things (which is often interpreted as a sort of radical relativism) (2) that he could make the “worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)” and (3) that one could not tell if the gods existed or not. He and his peers were sophists, and are at least partly responsible for giving it a bad name.  Sophistry, or subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation, leads to the cliche that a “good” philosopher (or lawyer) can prove anything.

But the philosophy of Protagoras does not have to be read as sophistry, mercenary argumentation offered for a fee. It might be seen as confidence in our ability to know the world because we view it in human terms– a view later associated with the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Or, it could be viewed as a precursor to pragmatism and an attempt to render thought practical and useful.

Next up: Socrates on Wednesday. Intro students: read Alain de Botton’s chapter “Consolation for Unpopularity.”

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!