Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

The Passion of the Western Mind

August 30, 2014

UnknownThis book by Richard Tarnas is a history of Western thought. Now, yes, Eastern thought is also worthy of respect. But the Western intellectual tradition is the 800 pound gorilla, the elephant in the room, the hippo in the bathtub.

I have written about our falling down on humanities education. Tarnas presents his history as a story – the tale of how we got from Point A (the ancient Greeks) to Point B (where we are today), with hints of a further Point C. It’s actually a thrilling story – but more, it’s vital to understanding our world and its challenges.

Play-doh's Forms

Play-doh’s Forms

Tarnas says he aims to describe systems of thought “on their own terms,” without “condescension,” so that we can better understand our journey. He begins with the Greeks, notably Plato, whose theory of “forms” was a first stab at understanding the nature of reality, starting a conversation that’s never stopped.

Then comes Christianity. True to his word, Tarnas gives us Christian thought and its development straight, “on its own terms,” nonjudgmentally. images-2This takes many pages. Frankly I skimmed over much of it. However, one thing that impressed itself upon me was how impossible it was, in Europe at least, during the centuries of church domination, to break free of that influence. The Christian way of thinking was the only way of thinking.

But then the story gets good. Revolution bursts out all over. You’ve got your Renaissance. Then your Reformation. And then your scientific revolution, and your Enlightenment. It all makes the church’s head spin.

When it comes to discussing the modern intellectual paradigm – the Enlightenment of science and rationality – Tarnas lets slip his straight-faced mask of nonjudgmentalism. images-4He is downright triumphalist about how thoroughly the modern idea demolishes the older mentality grounded in religion. To read his passages on the sweeping victory of science over faith, you might think religion has slunk away, crushed and banished. This may be true in the academic groves Tarnas inhabits; but it sure ain’t true in Kansas.

Meantime, though, it wasn’t just religion having trouble with science; philosophy did too. It’s the eternal problem of epistemology:  what is true knowledge, and how can a human mind possess it? “The Crisis of Modern Science,” Tarnas calls this chapter. In particular he invokes philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-96), and the notion that what we’ve got is not so much information as interpretation; we cannot truly know anything. And then we find sentences like this: “The aggressive exploitation of the natural environment, the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the threat of global catastrophe – all pointed to an indictment of science, of human reason itself, now seemingly in thrall to man’s own self-destructive irrationality.”

Please. This is indeed the pessimistic post-modern mindset. But just as Tarnas was over-the-top in declaring that science had killed faith, he is even further off the mark in declaring science mortally wounded.

Unknown-1Firstly, you can bullshit all night in your dorm room over the epistemological conundrum, whether we can truly know anything – but airplanes fly (and pigs don’t). That airplanes do fly actually proves that the great corpus of modern scientific knowledge is true. Not probably true, as Kuhn might at most allow, all encrusted with qualifiers and caveats – but absolutely true, full stop. (But perhaps Professor Kuhn, believing as he did, never boarded an airplane; or did 99% of the other things modern people do, like using computers, thanks to scientific knowledge.)

As for “man’s own self-destructive irrationality,” etc., it’s undeniable that we are at least imperfectly rational and sometimes cause great harm to ourselves and others. But is that the whole picture? It’s not even most of it. The bigger picture – vastly bigger – is that, from our emergence as a species, and especially from the start of civilization, and especially in modern scientific times, we humans have increasingly utilized rationality to create societal structures and to gain knowledge to advance technologically, to give ever greater numbers ever better quality of life.

Unknown-2That’s the bigger picture. All this “self-destructive irrationality” crap makes me sick. We have not blown ourselves up with nuclear weapons. Most of us are less violent than ever (yes; see again my review of Pinker’s book). More people than ever have more food, better health, more education, and more rewarding and longer lives.* True, all this has put a strain on the planet, but rather than being irrationally self-destructive, to the contrary it’s been a rational effort to improve life. There’s no free lunch, but the price has been worth paying, and so far growing knowledge has enabled us to handle the resulting environmental challenges.

Now what about that Point C I mentioned? In the spirit of Tarnas I’ll try to present this “on its own terms.” He suggests a resolution to “the profound dualism of the modern mind” – man vs. nature, mind vs. matter, self vs. other, etc. One’s birth is an expression of a larger underlying archetypal process of moving from one paradigm to another. The newborn is expelled into a world of confusion, needing a “redemptive reunification of the individuated self with the universal matrix.” It’s not a matter of our seeking to extract knowledge from the world; rather, “the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind.” There is a “universal unconscious” that “reflects the human mind’s radical kinship with the cosmos.” images-6This break-out is what the great Western intellectual journey has been leading toward. But so far it’s been mostly a masculine thing, and only now are we beginning to reunite our masculine and feminine. For this, “the masculine must undergo a sacrifice, an ego death.” This evolutionary drama may now be reaching its climactic stage.

Well. As Francis Urquhart, in the original House of Cards would say, “You might think that; but I could not possibly comment.”

* No doubt some lefty cynic will deride me as a blind fool. Much though such folks love to believe everything is getting worse, it just ain’t so.

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Is There a God? Why I Am an Atheist and Humanist

October 17, 2013

UnknownMany different religions have been practiced throughout history and around the world – with endlessly different and conflicting stories. Can anyone be sure their faith is true, and all others are not?

You must ask yourself, “How does one know?” And with God, it’s impossible; a God as generally defined is quintessentially unknowable. We can know things about the natural realm, but not anything outside it; and if God created it, he would stand outside it, and thus outside the reach of human knowledge. No mortal could have special, privileged access to such information; all theologies are built upon nothing but imagination.

But actually, if there were a true religion, we would all know it. Because the world would be different. A fundamental truth about the very essence of things ought to be self-evident. God would not play hide-and-seek. images-3Of course, some believers think they see God in every butterfly. But Darwin gave us a more down-to-earth understanding; yet one, in its way, beautiful and awe-inspiring too.

What would a world with a God actually be like? For one thing, there’s the matter of evil and suffering. imagesStraining to reconcile this with the idea of a benevolent God has, from time immemorial, tied religious apologists in knots. None has ever made any sense. If God existed, things would be different.

Yet still believers assume God must be good. Why so? And what would “goodness” mean to God anyway? Why should it mean what we think? An omnipotent God could make evil good. And if we supposedly get morality from God, where did he get it from?

images-4This is just a taste of the tangles the God idea entails: a quicksand of incoherence and contradiction. If you think only God can explain creation, a being so powerful and complex would himself require an explanation bigger than the one he’s supposedly supplying. There is no such explanation – except for humans wishing that reality were different than it is – especially the reality of death – and that there’s so much injustice. Isn’t it obvious that religion was made up by ancient people, with limited knowledge, to fill such wishes, and explain what seemed inexplicable? And that common sense (and Occam’s Razor) tell us such fairy tales can’t possibly be true?

All the holy books were written by humans. Unknown-3Calling a book God’s word doesn’t make it so. None contains anything that ordinary people couldn’t have written. Indeed, they’re all such flawed books that any self-respecting deity would disclaim responsibility.

In sum, the world we see is totally inconsistent with the idea of a God, and totally consistent with nongoddity. Everything is natural, explicable in terms of nature itself, requiring nothing “supernatural” outside it. One by one, science has been solving the mysteries, and the answers never include God. We shouldn’t expect a different outcome regarding those questions yet to be answered.

Bigfoot -- at least there's a photo

Bigfoot — at least there’s a photo

Can I prove there’s no God? Well, nor can I prove there’s no Bigfoot. But the burden of proof is upon proponents of improbable theories. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And God is more improbable than Bigfoot.

So why do people who refuse to be convinced by conclusive scientific evidence for evolution accept religious doctrines with no evidence at all?

Because they want to. Human psychology seems highly susceptible to such beliefs; we crave them, and suspend our skeptical faculties. Faith is a belief divorced from facts or rationality; a choice to believe regardless. One can come up with rationalizations, but that’s just trying to justify a belief that’s already been chosen.

Atheism, in contrast, is not merely another “faith” or belief; my atheism is not a choice, it’s simply acknowledging reality. But it’s not a “belief in nothing” and it isn’t bleak. I’m fine with this reality, which gives us the opportunity to live rewarding lives. images-1Rather than being playthings of an inexplicable God, our fates are in our own hands. And we have not done too badly. We’re products of a natural world wherein goodness, justice and morality don’t even figure; but we’ve progressed to achieve at least some.

Indeed, this is modernity’s big story: the cynics and pessimists are wrong. Life is improving, with democratic and humanitarian revolutions, rising quality of life, and declines in violence and suffering.* This progress has occurred not in spite of religion’s weakening, but because of that. People freed of religion are better, not worse. Humanity is being liberated from the hindrance of religion’s stultifying fatalism and false beliefs, with our confidence now lodged instead in our own selves, and our ability to understand reality and thereby to change it.

images-2Thus my humanism is properly focused on humans. This world is the only one we’ve got, and making it better is what gives our lives meaning.

* See again my review of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.