Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Jay Gould’

Magisteria and Weltanschauungs

January 25, 2013

I’ve been enjoying the new semester’s many co-philosophical conversations immensely. With three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays that’s twelve separate confabs per day, plus all-inclusive wrap-ups, not counting Bioethics (where we’re still just getting started) and staff meetings (where we never get finished) and office hours. The simplest of technologies, a lowly call bell, has been a brilliant innovation. We’ve been answering.


I’ve also been toting coffee to class. To be awake is to be alive. (But co-phers, you’re gonna have to toss some coins in the “donation” bin if you want the good stuff to keep on flowin’. Otherwise, when the XMAS blend is gone it’ll be the Kroger Value Brand…)

I’m also enjoying my fourth Thursday class, an informal tutorial on Science & Religion that meets happily during Happy Hour on the other side of East Main. Yesterday we put Stephen Jay Gould’s Non-overlapping Magisteria, NOMA, to rest. RIP. SJG was a terrific and biting polemicist but he was just wrong: any religion worth its salt does indeed make or imply claims about the world’s facticity, and cannot in intellecutal conscience or political prudence be left strictly to its own sphere of internal discourse. I understand the pluralistic impulse to live and let live, and let a thousand worldviews bloom. I also understand something SJG probably did not about the “mind of the south.” Most of my religious neighbors aren’t too keen on striking the sort of concordat he proposed.

And yet, and yet… Gould was that rare scientist with the soul and pen of a poet, and the sensibility of a renaissance scholar. He was in error on this question, but he was also a genuine philosopher. Can’t say that for 99% of the working scientists I’ve encountered. He was (Michael Shermer reports) moved by mountains and stars.

He was also a baseball fan. Now do you understand his appeal to me, D&D?


So, once more for my CoPhi collaborators:  “What is philosophy?”

“It is a Weltanschauung, an intellectualized attitude towards life. “

There. Clears it right up. Why couldn’t all those confused and laughing philosophers simply have said that?

Oh yeah: every time I’ve ever asked students about their weltanschauungs, they either giggled or recoiled or looked nonplussed… as though I’d mentioned something not suitable for discussion in polite company.

So let me clarify.

The quote is from William James, trying in the first chapter of his last published (posthumous) work (Some Problems of Philosophy1911) to answer the Philosophy Bites stumper question “What is philosophy?”

And here to clarify the Jamesian clarification is Herr Doktor ProfessorFreud, writing two decades later:

By Weltanschauung, then, I mean an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place. It is easy to see that the possession of such a Weltanschauung is one of the ideal wishes of mankind. When one believes in such a thing, one feels secure in life, one knows what one ought to strive after, and how one ought to organise one’s emotions and interests to the best purpose.

Oh. “No question is left open” by a good weltanschauung? In that case, I ain’t got one and I really don’t want one. The open questions are the ones that get me out of bed in the morning and give me something to talk about at work.

And James felt the same way. He was always ambivalent about philosophy, and his dying words were: “What has concluded, that we may conclude with regard to it?”

Nothing, is of course the implicitly correct reply. (BTW: Freud and James met once, in 1909, and reportedly had a fairly spirited conversation. But you know what was really on Freud’s mind, right?)

So philosophy is an open-ended, never-ending quest for clarity that gives you an “intellectual attitude” and feeds your curiosity. It is intellectually unifying, to that extent, but should never be stultifying. As James’s thorny friend Charley Peirce insisted: “Do not block the road of inquiry.”

One more thing: good philosophy is interesting.

 Philosophy, indeed, in one sense of the term is only a compendious name for the spirit in education which the word ‘college’ stands for in America. Things can be taught in dry dogmatic ways or in a philosophic way.

So there’s the gauntlet I’ll be picking up, as chief facilitator of three sections of CoPhilosophy at MTSU: don’t be dry, don’t kill curiosity or the cats who have it, don’t dogmatize. And don’t block the road.

Or as DNA pioneer James Watson put it: avoid boring people.

A fun Day 1!

January 18, 2013

Day 1 was fun, with all those introductions and not so much “explanation” from me. Teachers need to remember: students are people too. They deserve to be met and heard, not just lectured at.

So, I’ll put away the Opening Day necktie (I wonder if my footballers and cheerleaders noticed the themetie?) ’til next Fall, roll up my sleeves, and get down to trying to explain a bit more on Tuesday.

As my first class concluded and disbanded yesterday in Room 204, students crowded in for Professor M’s to follow. I made a prediction to them: Professor M will write a long and somewhat difficult quote from the philosopher Peirce on the board. Let me know next time if I’m not correct. (After so many years we can all mime not only our own opening acts but also those of our colleagues,  to a point. I threw a curve this year, though.)

Then I headed back upstairs to my office, sat down at my desk, looked up and across the hall into 304, and what did I see? The confirming remnant of Professor M’s just-concluded previous class:


It’s the very statement I’d just forecast downstairs,  a quote from C.S. Peirce, contending that philosophy is a branch of science.

It’s decidedly not my view. I see science as a branch of philosophy, not the other way around. Some religion, too. It all begins in wonder, curiosity, and plurality. I’m sure we’ll be talking about that, this semester.

But I’m also sure that Professor M will teach a great Intro to Philosophy course. There’s no single royal road to wisdom, no exclusive source and sustainer of wonder.

That’s why we’re co-philosophizing in my classes. It’s gonna be a lot of fun, especially if the theists hang in there with me. I came out of the closet: I’m a humanist, a secularist, a naturalist, and when push comes to shove, an atheist. Some also call me an accomodationist. If more ‘ists are really needed, though, I prefer “pluralistic meliorist.”

That should be enough fog to hold off the positivist reductionists, no?

But it also presses the next inescapable question, the one D&D will be taking up with me in our late-Thursday afternoon independent readings course on Religion, Rationality, & Science: are science and religion compatible? Really compatible, not just in the way marriage and infidelity can be (as David astutely noted), but more like salt and pepper?

Or like humans and chimps, perhaps? Evolutionists are often asked, by deeply-confused fundamentalists: why are there still monkeys? Just as you could also ask, more than a century and a half after Darwin, why  there are still theists. Or: why tolerate religion?

My working hypothesis is that there are still theists for the same reason there are still other kinds of primate: common descent, shared ancestry, developmental divergence from the same tree of life. It’s all related, we’re all related, theists and atheists, philosophers and scientists, believers and skeptics.  Same tree, same source, different branches.

I suggested that we preface next week’s discussion of Stephen Jay Gould’s notorious “Non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) proposal with a peek at Evolution.

This really is going to be a fun semester.


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.

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.