I’ve been reading essays, lately by the 19th Century philosopher William James. W. J. believed the best path to a healthy happy existence passed through religious belief, which, he writes, involved embracing the best, ‘more eternal’ things in life. He poses his argument at a time when many were coming to grips with the revelations science had uncovered about the natural world. Mysteries previously attributed to the supernatural became understandable; an Enlightenment world view undermined religious belief for those who thought about such things. W. J. argues philosophical pursuit of ‘objective truth’ will only yield, in the end, a deadly dogmatism, an intellectual dead end unable to accommodate experiential re-discovery. Such a pursuit lacks grasp of the realization that scientific knowledge is but a drop in the sea of the unknown.
Our philosopher maintains all of us, everyone, has an ‘inner voice’, an intuitive sense beyond our rational, logical minds that we sometimes suppress, but, when acknowledged can contribute to a superior life experience. One must, he suggests, exercise intellectual bravery, seeking answers to Life’s Big Questions, to not fear being wrong, to conjure the faith to believe. Skepticism he writes delays man’s emotional, intellectual development, is no more than a delaying tactic for those afraid to be wrong. A foray into the metaphysical, the supernatural world is an enlightening prospect, a means of realizing possibilities of eternal entities which will convey a sense of optimism to those religiously embracing that which is beyond the confines of science.
On the face of it, to my 21st century mind, W. J. seems a bit too optimistic. Was the late 19th century a simpler more naïve time? Well, certainly not. It’s just that we’ve put the front and center LBQ’s on the back burner these days.
A few years ago, I made a hike into the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The site contains fossils of pre-Cambrian life forms, many of which barely saw the light of day before fading into extinction. The most unusual of these early animals were asymmetrical, having three and sometimes five appendages, which, I suppose, might explain why these animals didn’t make it to the Cambrian era and beyond. It seems unlikely they’d have been able to compete well in a gravitational environment and it appears they were naturally de-selected in favor of the mobile superiority of bi- and quadrupedal life. I guess it will always be the case that some life forms will be naturally de-selected for an inability to adapt in a hostile and competitive world.
Given our difficulties dealing with our current dilemmas (i.e. dreaded virus, nuclear arms proliferation, political alienation, et. al.) I’m just wondering how close humanity may be getting to the top of the de-selection list.
I’ve been reading about the Roman Church’s extreme influence over the population of medieval Europe. Papal authorities demanded monetary compensations for all sorts of things. The sales of indulgences was particularly lucrative. Parishioners were assured such investment would reduce the purgatorial sentences of one’s departed loved ones.
By the early 16th century people began to realize the scam: that their hard earned money was funding a papal court engaged in extravagant living rather than winning early release from purgatorial Hell, which resulted in a serious collapse of papal influence not to mention the drain on monetary resources. The people though, still as religious as ever and now without an absolute overseer to guide them to the after-life (which had they thought about it wasn’t all that wonderful to look forward to anyway) found that they really didn’t need to be led at all, could interpret scripture for themselves and make their own way into God’s good graces.
The problem was that if anyone and everyone could make up his (or her) own mind about ‘True Faith’ then there would probably end up being a lot of differing opinions about what exactly the ‘True Faith’ was and whose side God was on, which is indeed what happened. As it turned out people discovering their own personal ‘True Faith’ weren’t particularly amenable to being contradicted by someone else’s idea of ‘True Faith’ which led to some pretty nasty and bloody conflicts, wars, beheadings and burnings that continued for over 100 years.
I guess, in the end, the tumult did bring about needed social reform and, you know, re-establish a semblance of authority. The means to achieve it, though was certainly a far cry from the message of the gospels.
I’ve been reading about Martin Luther recently. Quite an exciting story really: deeply religious god-fearing monk confronts the powers of a Roman Church that in the 15th century was pretty much absolute. The newly developed printing press provided a means for the prolific Luther to convey his dissatisfaction with a corrupt church to a more than receptive peasantry who bought into his conception that redemption was justified through faith alone and could be accomplished by the individual without a mediating clergy.
As tensions rose so did the peasantry who overran monasteries, burned churches, looted and murdered indiscriminately in God’s name. Luther, rethinking what he had started, turned on the peasants, encouraging the established powers to put them all to the knife.
Later in life Luther took responsibility for the peasant uprising as well as their ultimate slaughter at the hands of political and Papal authorities. In explanation he responded: ‘God commanded me to speak as I did.’ I guess his personal messages from God might have inspired him to vehemently denounce, demonize the Papists and Jews as well because he attacked those folks with particular zeal, not to mention his denunciations of the Calvinists, humanists and Anabaptists. His absolute certainty that God had shown him the only true way to salvation, justification through faith alone, displayed a zealotry that rather than bringing mankind together in a peaceful harmony did just the opposite.
Well, on the positive side, I guess Martin’s actions in the 16th century gave Lutheran church fathers a lot to think about over the centuries. The idea of justification through faith alone must require a lot of explaining.
I’ve been reading about the difficulties that the Early Christians faced translating the Bible into Latin. There were, apparently, a number of translations from the original Hebrew and Greek in early Christian times that were treated as ‘living text’, altered to suit the inclinations and personal biases of the interpreter. Serious scholars like Jerome (whom the church eventually thought well enough of to grant sainthood) struggled, in the 4th century CE, to gain a sufficient knowledge of Greek to produce an accurate (or fairly accurate anyway) translation of what was originally written. Even so our intrepid scholar, given the enormity of the task, made plenty of mistakes. And on top of it all, the time being pre-printing press, copies had to be made by hand by ill-fed, poorly housed monks who it is certainly reasonable to understand, made plenty of errors of their own.
Later, in the 16th century, Erasmus of Rotterdam, a respected Biblical scholar, unhappy with the grammatical errors and discrepancies of meaning in the New Testament returned to the original Greek in order to produce a translation more in keeping with the intentions of the authors of the gospels and epistles. Erasmus (whom the church apparently didn’t deem sufficiently saintly) spent years working on his Biblical update. He, too, was prone to translating mistakes.
Assuming the multiple translations into modern languages has inevitably built mistakes upon mistakes I have to wonder how today’s Christian Fundamentalists can maintain a belief in Biblical inerrancy.
So, I’ve been reading that in order to stay grounded in sound philosophical thought one needs to know what one believes and why one believes it. When I think about this, I can come up fairly quickly with the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ is often a bit elusive.
Take religion for instance; pretty hard to think about it outside the intuitive; no hard facts to be had and all; an inclination to believe in the existence of a heavenly realm is elusive enough to require the support of like-minds and require a pretty constant reinforcement. Those who deny the possibilities of such a pietistic realm, relying as they do on firm belief in science will rationalize their stance through a logical progression of empirical observations, but will never-the-less find the issue nebulous enough that they too will seek support of like-minded individuals. In either case the ‘why’, when offered will be subject to doubt if not the wrath of unbelievers.
There are those, I know, on both sides of the aisle who trust most implicitly their intuitions; are able to manipulate their ’whys’ beyond logic and shrug off the label of narrow-minded, hard-headed non-thinker that will certainly be leveled against them. Given the necessary support such folks may be able to sustain their invented fantasy land right up until the end times.
As for me, I will continue to seek my ‘whys’ and flex my ‘whats’ as necessary. I can think of no other reasonable way to proceed.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the likelihood the human mind may be considerably more than a physical compilation of billions of neurons, that, in fact, human consciousness is the manifestation of god within, giving humankind the capacity, through mental focus, to alter the material world.
The idea suggests that if we as a species were suddenly to realize the power within us we could bring about great advancements to our civilization not to mention world peace.
I understand there are those among us feeding their enthusiasm for the spiritual mysteries and hidden meanings in traditional religious texts like the kabbalah, Zohar, Gnosticism and the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. These folks are organizing, believing there to be power in numbers and creating ‘focus groups’ they believe will cure the world’s ills by concentrating their collective consciousnesses toward what they may consider to be positive goods but which, in fact, if any credence may be attributed to the activity at all, may turn out to be not necessarily good for everyone.
But, of course, it’s pretty hard to prove that the human mind is anything more than an organic computer, sophisticated though it is, which allows us each to more or less function within our respective worldly milieus. The idea of being god-within is certainly intriguing and imaginative. I though, as I’m sure you can tell, remain skeptical. On the positive side, I suppose any group activity probably has useful social value.
Although the scientific method, empirical observation, was painstakingly pursued by the best minds of the 19th century, the theistic conceptions through which the empirical data was filtered produced some pretty bizarre conclusions.
Careful observation of fetal development revealed God’s hand in the progression of the fish-like embryo through resemblances of primitive animal life to ape-like higher animals including non-white species until reaching the perfection produced by a Euro-American mother.
The Genesis creation story of mankind originating from an original pair led to the notion of polygenism which determined separate creations occurred for the lesser animals and non-white races, a belief that accommodated a moral acceptance of slave ownership.
I suppose one of the difficulties with establishing any sort of factual truth is no matter where one starts the information gathering, pre-existing ideas must begin the process. Keeping those premises flexible is the key, I guess.
According to the 19th century psychologist William James, man creates the world he inhabits. The path one takes, says Mr. James, may focus on ugliness or beauty, a man may choose to concentrate and relate to the Good or the Bad. The idea here is that faith is required: an acknowledgment of that which is beyond the empirical, outside the domain of scientific certitude: the realm of God and immortality.
Which seems to imply the need for perspective: that the natural world isn’t all there is, suggesting those in the ‘natural world only’ camp will have a much harder (impossible?) time maintaining an optimistic view of things, of remaining positive, of retaining and maintaining a high moral outlook.
On a personal level, to my mind, there is no doubt considerable energy is required, as our daily travails weigh upon us, to stay upbeat all of the time; even most of the time. Still, if it’s perspective it takes to stay on one’s preferred path I wonder if the only play is the metaphysical one. Mr. James suggests unless one is oblivious, we’ve already made our choice: skepticism in moral matters is an ally of immorality; who is not for is against, he says.
Answers to the big questions must have appeared much clearer back then.
I got to talking to a presuppositional apologist the other day. He assured me everyone knows God exists whether they realize it or not, God being the source of all our knowledge.
I told him that I was presently seeking God and had a number of good candidates but wasn’t absolutely sure I had found the right one and was really questioning the idea of an entity with all the omni’s in tow.
He said that since I already knew that the one true God (specifically, the Christian God of the Bible) existed I was just obscuring that realization by pretending to seek; I was suppressing the knowledge of God; I was being unrighteous. He said God was behind my ability to reason and think logically, that there was only one true world view and that was the Christian one and said, once again, that I knew all of this was true.
Not being aware that I knew something of which I was unaware, I told him that now, since he’s explained to me that I do know these things that I didn’t know I knew that perhaps there were other things I knew that I didn’t know I knew. And, supposing these things to be outside of the empirical realm, maybe I knew when I felt particularly safe and secure that there were invisible protector beings keeping me safe or that my dreams weren’t just dreams but were a parallel reality visited in my sleep or, maybe, I didn’t know that I knew all along that I am God herself creator and maintainer of my world.
I think the presuppositional apologist thought I was truly an unrighteous individual suppressing the truth that he and I knew it to be and went away believing I was a lost soul. But, I must admit I kind of like the idea of maybe knowing things I don’t know.