Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

sovereignty & visibility

January 28, 2011

Our class discussions of the problem of suffering yesterday provoked the usual heat, and a little light too.

Someone objected that non-believers typically approach this topic without the appropriate sympathetic understanding, which is available (he said) only to those who’ve already grasped the meaning of divine “sovereignty” from the inside.

Interesting formulation, and it’s true enough that an honest philosophical inquiry must honor its own curious doubting spirit. It must stand outside the phenomena it interrogates, precisely because it wonders if it can go “inside” without compromising its own rational sovereignty.

Have devout insiders dogmatically made up their minds in advance, opting for the firewall of faith over the risk of reflective openness to critical scrutiny?  Is a sovereign Deity immune to all critique, an alleged something about which we’re to say nothing? Isn’t this the simple refusal of philosophy?

Someone else asked if we found it difficult or problematic to believe in the invisible? Can you believe in Simon Blackburn’s analogical dormitory “manager” who does not show? [see slides #26 & #27 in yesterday’s post]

This question reminded me of William James’s discussion in chapter three of Varieties of Religious Experience, “The Reality of the Unseen.” Religion, he says,

consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto…The more concrete objects of most men’s religion, the deities whom they worship, are known to them only in idea[s]…

But in addition to these ideas of the more concrete religious objects, religion is full of abstract objects which prove to have an equal power. God’s attributes as such, his holiness, his justice, his mercy, his absoluteness, his infinity, his omniscience, his tri-unity, the various mysteries of the redemptive process, the operation of the sacraments, etc., have proved fertile wells of inspiring meditation for Christian believers.

We love our favored ideas, and it’s no shock to find ourselves passionately differing over their relevance and application.

Can you see an idea? Is it visible? Sure, says the pragmatist: you see it in its fruits. If your ideas of holiness, justice, omniscience, and divinity and mine diverge, we should discuss them, think about them, modify them as conscience and logic command. Then, we should observe closely the concrete practical differences those ideas make in our respective lives.

If believing in a sovereign creator motivates your best behavior and calls you to yourself, good for you- and good for your idea of Him/Her/It. Just be prepared to reciprocate, when you come across a happy doubter who stands outside the circle of your faith. We can co-exist, we just have to want to.

That’s why I never insist that we all arrive at the same conclusion as to the power and probity of the problem of suffering. What matters most, finally, is our common resolve to reduce the world’s net supply of it. We have way too much.

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.”

suffering

September 29, 2009

“They suffer, Majesty.”darius1_01

That’s the squashed version of human history, boiled down from 36 thick volumes for the King of Persia (as recounted by Matthieu Ricard).

“Yes, they suffer, at every moment and throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’re giving birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride, or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion, others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by the waters…

These are not mere words but a reality that is an intrinsic part of our daily lives: death, the transitory nature of all things, and suffering.”

Bleak. But not so bleak as the misnamed optimism of a Leibniz, one of those western philosophers “for whom suffering is inevitable and happiness out of reach” (though of course he’d never say so). Sartre, in his very different style, may be another. (He pretty much does say so, despite all the existentialist bravado about radical freedom.)

And so Buddhists commit to alleviating as much of it as they can for others, and liberating themselves.

Suffering is real, and an enumeration of instances can overwhelm. But all is not suffering. If it were, there could be no meaningful alleviation– let alone liberation. The problem of evil is mirrored by the happy problem of gratuitous good: there is a lot of “pointless” joy to be had in the world, by those who’ll have it. (“Cards win. Cards win!”)

But the melioristic impulse Ricard highlights in ch6 is admirable. I’ve written about it:

Above all, his keynote celebrates
the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may
prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push
back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.
These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal,
the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the
optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically
defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in
the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is
true,”13 James will insist on another way around or through the
poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection
reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only
believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and
injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing,
in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals
who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction
must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who
are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be
pitied than envied.
What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real
suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real
capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our
humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our
felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for
dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from
responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels
reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble
benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the
Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-
appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity”
workers, et al.) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing
for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament
James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?
It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian
optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies
that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is
Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the
Rational is the Real.”14 What a startling, potentially
stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in
the world of our collective experience!

Meliorists relish the fight and the spirit of sober-yet-cheerful work (as we may prefer to call it, with a less martial turn of mind), as we push back against the stubborn sources of our discontent.  These reflections surely underscore the Jamesian refusal, the radical empiricist’s refusal, to allow that either the optimists or the pessimists, as conventionally and historically defined, can be right. If “the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true,” pragmatic meliorists will insist on another way around or through the poles of this dilemma. It cannot be true that total perfection reigns in the actual world of our experiencing. We can only believe so by shutting our eyes to the obviously real ills and injustices by which humans are regularly visited—by disallowing, in short, the evidence of our experience. Those rare individuals who are personally charmed to lead lives free from affliction must know—or, minimally, must have heard or read of—others who are not; or else they are living ostrich lives and are more to be pitied than envied.

What is more, unqualified optimism that denies real suffering and deficiency in the world insults our real capacities; it disables our remedial impulses. Can our humanitarian and compassionate responses be so misguided, our felt regrets so misplaced? James certainly had no tolerance for dilettantism and the effusion of idle regret, disconnected from responsive action. But what of the active regret that fuels reform? Are the heroic deeds of good men and women, the noble benefactors of humanity (not merely the acclaimed, the Schweitzers and Mother Teresas, but the unsung and under-appreciated community volunteers, the “Habitat for Humanity” workers, et al) superfluous? Or (what comes to the same thing for anyone possessed of the kind of philosophical temperament James exemplifies) necessarily ineffectual?

It needs saying, here, that of course the Leibnizian optimist has his “theodicy” and his rational response and denies that anything—absolutely anything—is “superfluous,” or gratuitous, or unnecessary. All is Rational Necessity. For Hegel “the Real is the Rational, the Rational is the Real.” What a startling, potentially stultifying attitude, for anyone who purports to live and act in the world of our collective experience!

And so I give Ricard and Buddhism all credit for working to make the best of suffering and even learn from it. “Resigning ourselves to it with a simple ‘that’s life!’ [ignores] any possiblity of the inner change that is available to everyone…”

Right. But this talk of mainly- inner change is a shift from the bolder meliorist resolve to push back at suffering’s external sources. I confess, I’m not much impressed by this suggested exercise:

gray cloud“Imagine that you are taking upon yourself, in the form of a gray cloud, the disease, confusion, and mental toxins of [suffering] people, which disappears into the white light of your heart without leaving any trace. This will transform both your own suffering and that of others… “

It will? Or will it transform how I feel about suffering? Sounds pretty Stoic. Is that the change we need?

Don’t misunderstand me: we should do what it takes, internally, to allow ourselves (amidst suffering) to “feel a great happiness.” But we should also refrain from describing that inner transformation as (in itself) effective remediation. Moral holidays are  necessary. They’re not sufficient.