Friday, November 20, 2009

Love Is In The Air

For my students, a little fun with logic. Consider the following syllogism. Does the conclusion (3) follow from the premises (1, 2)?

1) Everyone loves a lover;
2) John loves Jane;
3) Therefore, everyone loves everyone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Two kinds of ducks

Recently I was speaking with some students about environmental philosophy, and about the ethical dimensions of hunting and fishing. Most of those students were not hunters, but all of them seemed to care about the environment.  I asked them at one point if they knew how many species of ducks live in our region.  I think the best (and most entertaining) answer I got was "Two: mallards and non-mallards."

What struck me was how little, in general, my conservation-minded students know about the wildlife around them.  And I think they are not unique in this.  In fact, they may know a good deal more about nature than most of their generation.

Recently, Smithsonian published an article about conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic.  Zaradic worries that we are becoming ever more attached to video screens, and that, as a result, our knowledge of the natural world is suffering.

My fear is that we are, in a way, becoming modern-day Gnostics.  (Gnostics hope to liberate the spirit from materiality by means of esoteric knowledge.)

But this is dangerous.  Rejecting materiality--rejecting the body, its world, and its boundaries--seems like a bad idea.  Maybe I'm wrong, and the transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and his disciples have it right.  But the body, it seems to me, is just as ethically significant as the soul or mind.

Losing touch with the material world makes it harder for us to notice when ecosystems are suffering.  It also might make it easier for us to undervalue the bodily suffering of other people.  And, speaking for myself, at least, I know that the pleasures of video screens are almost always more alluring than taking care of my own body.  In fact, I'd be exercising right now--or duck hunting--but it has been a while since I checked in with my Facebook friends.  I wonder if any of them can help me learn about ducks.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Desmond Tutu and The Most Subversive Thing Around

"We were inspired not by political motives.  No, we were fired by our biblical faith.  The Bible turned out to be the most subversive thing around in a situation of injustice and oppression.  We were involved in the struggle because we were being religious, not political.  It was because we were obeying the imperatives of our faith.”  (No Future Without Forgiveness, 93) 

Tutu is making a peculiar claim here, and I can't entirely tell if he's serious.  He says they weren't motivated by politics, but by the Bible; but then he says the Bible was subversive.   Does he mean that it was politically subversive, or is he talking about some other kind of subversion - spiritual or moral or psychological subversion, perhaps?  I guess the question is this: what exactly was being subverted?  He says plainly that it was "injustice and oppression."  But what is not so plain is whether the injustice and oppression were primarily political; or if the political was only a sign or symptom of something else.

I've also been reading a lot of William James this week, especially The Varieties of Religious Experience.  James argues that we should not judge religion a priori but rather a posteriori.  As James puts it, "not by its roots, but by its fruits."

In that book and elsewhere, James argues that we are wrong to think that reason's chief role in religious experience is to judge the truth-claims of religion.  Rather, religion is to be understood as playing a role within reason itself.  Religion "is something more, namely, a postulator of new facts as well" as being a means of "illumination of facts already elsewhere given."

James and Tutu both offer religion as more than simply another second-string player on an already deep bench, and as more than a degenerate form of political reasoning.  For both of them, religion is a source of insight that cannot be had in other ways.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Best Rule in Writing

"The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake."  Charles S. Peirce, "Private Thoughts: Chiefly On The Conduct Of Life," lxxv, March 17, 1888.

I've been editing the Religious Writings of Charles Peirce for a few years now -- hopefully will publish them within the next few years -- and this is one of the passages I love coming back to.  I'm not always sure how to put it into practice, but the idea of writing out of love for my reader reminds me that there is precious little that we do or say or make that does not affect the lives of others.  Even this "private thought" from Peirce's journal, written a century ago, has shaped my thinking.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Every Time You Open A Prison... close a school."  - Victor Hugo.

"Why is it considered morally offensive and economically unwise in this country to give a poor person a few dollars more than $13.22 per day, but ethically appropriate and fiscally sensible to incarcerate a poor person at an average cost of $55.18 per day?" - Jens Soering, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse(Click here for Wikipedia's article on Jens Soering.)

Hugo is obviously being provocative; education does not guarantee moral goodness.  And Soering is similarly making a comparison that leaves out the important fact that criminals freely choose to commit their crimes.  Nevertheless, good education does create opportunity, whereas inequality in education seems like an invitation to the poor to continue to consider themselves to be perpetually unequal to the wealthy and so perpetually unable to advance economically without crime.


Using God As A Weapon?

Gandhi once wrote that "the Satyagrahi's only weapon is God."  (A Satyagrahi is one who practices Satyagraha, Gandhi's peaceful and powerful version of civil disobedience.)

Some of religion's most vocal (I do not say best) contemporary critics argue that religion is either irrelevant or dangerous.  It's irrelevant, they say, because it is just an evolutionary holdover that we no longer need.  It's dangerous, they say, because it allows people to use God as a weapon.

Gandhi and many others remind us that there are two ways of using God as a weapon.  If we use God to justify using other weapons to kill or oppress people, we turn God into a tool or an idol.  At that point, religious people would do well to ask just what it is they're fighting for, since it can no longer be piety.

Gandhi illustrates the other way, in which God is that which can never be taken away from us, and that which is ultimately worth living and dying for.  In this way, God is not a "weapon" we wield to harm people, but one that serves to fight against injustice.

Tyrants set themselves up as gods on earth; belief in a God above the tyrant can deflate the tyrant's power and give the Satyagrahi the necessary soul-force to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with her God."  Against such things, it seems to me, only would-be tyrants and their servants will argue.