Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Faith, Hope, and Certainty

“Certainty may be quite compatible with being at a loss to say what one is certain of.  Indeed I seriously doubt if the notion of ‘certainty of,’ or ‘certainty that’ will take us accurately to the heart of the matter.  It seems to me that certainty is at least very much akin to hope and faith.  And I agree with Gabriel Marcel that it would be a mistake to undertake the interpretation of hope and of faith under what I will call the aspect of specificity, as if hope were essentially ‘hope that,’ and faith ‘belief that.’  Likewise, then, of certainty: Perhaps it too is not a matter of knowledge we can be said to possess.” 

Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning, (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1999), pp.36-37.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Comfort of Certainty

"Only once, as far as I remember, in all my lifetime have I experienced the pleasure of praise--not for what it might bring but in itself.  That pleasure was beatific; and the praise that conferred it was meant for blame.  It was that a critic said of me that I did not seem to be absolutely sure of my conclusions."
--Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers 1.10. (1897)

I often turn to Peirce not just for technical philosophical matters but also for insights like this one.  What sort of people am I interested in surrounding myself with?  It is most comfortable to surround myself with people who share my views and who espouse them with the air of certainty.  But as Peirce reminds us in "The Fixation of Belief," the great danger there is that in so doing I cut myself off from seeing my own errors and from improving my thinking. 

As with so many things worth remembering, it is hard to keep this in mind.  We need not just people who think differently from the way we think but also communities that will help us return to those words and ideas that sharpen us and provoke us to thought.  This is the challenge of theology and of philosophy, and of liturgies, both sacred and secular - to remind us of what we ought to remember while at the same time challenging us to resist the comfort of resting in what seems sure.  As Augustine writes, "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O Lord."  Until then, until our hearts find rest in the absolute, we should be wary of certainty, which is so often the enemy of learning.

Bugbee and the Tillage of the Soul

In the opening entry of The Inward Morning, Henry Bugbee writes

“I have yet to discover how to say what moves me to the endless search and research, the reflective turning over in my mind of experience.  The turning over is all so much tilling….All this tilling can be but a burying deeper of what ought to be coming out.  The moments in which something reliable has seemed to come of it all have impressed me as sudden.  Insight is earned, to be sure, but it is not steered, and it must find its own articulate form.  If it is to become more than sporadic and utterly ephemeral, one must pay attention to it, it must be worked out.”  
(Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1999), pp.33-34.

This is as much about philosophy as about mysticism; but it is a philosophic attention to mysticism.  The difficulty is not discovering what moves me to search; that is already known, albeit in a way that is not easily said.  The difficulty is in learning how to say it.  “God” and “the soul” and “eternity” all present themselves as shorthand for this motive.  It is enough to say them, sometimes, but they are placeholders.  They must not be said in vain.  We do not possess God; we seek God.  God is, as Eriugena intimated (in his description of what it means to create), both that which we seek and that which impels our seeking.  God’s creativity and origin-ality are complex, even if God is simple.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Come, Let Us Reason Together": Thinking About God

A student in my philosophy of religion class recently asked me, "Do we really need to put this much thought into God?  Is it not okay for me to believe without all the philosophical questions?"

On the one hand, yes, it is okay for you to believe without being a philosopher.  As William James points out, we often decide to believe religious, ethical, and aesthetic propositions on insufficient evidence, and we often do so justly.  Sometimes you've just got to choose, even if you can't prove you've made the right choice.

And I'm sympathetic with this student's position.  Faith can be, as James puts it, passional.  When people question our passions, or put restrictions on them, that can feel like a violation of something very personal and intimate.  In those times we feel that the person telling us we may not believe is a dogmatist and a tyrant.

On the other hand, I think there are some good reasons to spend time thinking philosophically about God. Here are five reasons why I think religious people - and specifically but not exclusively Christians - ought to do so.  

First, if your belief is based in Jewish and Christian scriptures, you might find the commandment to "love the Lord your God with all your...mind" to be sufficient reason.  If you love God, why would you withhold your mind from your worship?  And if you claim to be giving your whole self in worship but withhold your reason, aren't you in danger of committing the error of Ananias and Sapphira?

Second, thinking about God brings us into community with others.  It's a way of putting our beliefs into words, and when we do that, we invite others to consider them with us.  

Third, lots of people have opinions about God, and some opinions about God lead people to do violent things to others.  If we disagree with that violence, and want to stop it, we have two choices: we can oppose it with equal and opposite violence, or we can try to reason with others.  Perhaps more importantly, we can reason with those who might one day become violent and help them form reasonable and peaceable beliefs. It's hard to reason about others' opinions if we aren't able to reason about our own opinions.

Fourth, even if our reasoning about God is inconclusive (as it often is!) it is a kind of exercise for the mind, one that might prepare us for the conversations I just mentioned and also for solving lots of other kinds of problems.

Finally, thinking about God can help us discover idols in our own thinking.  It's a kind of self-examination.  If you take God seriously, then you probably want to make sure you don't worship the wrong thing.  My experience tells me that when I think about very difficult problems, part of me gets tired and wants to settle on any old solution so that I can be done thinking.  But that settling on a workable solution might well get in the way of finding the best solution.  Similarly, settling for an easy theology might get in the way of finding the best theology.  Will I ever find the best theology?  I admit I'm not sanguine about this.  But why should that keep me from longing and trying to make the theology I have better?  At any rate, surely I should try to avoid believing in the wrong thing.  I find Merold Westphal's position to be a helpful one: skeptics of religion are often better idol-detectors than I am.

What do you think?  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

"To have more is not to be more"

In Lewis's novel Out of the Silent Planet, the antagonist Weston attempts to explain why his civilization is superior to another.  He says,

"Your tribal life...has nothing to compare with our civilization--with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time.  Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower."

For Weston, the annihilation of space and time is proof of advancement.  I am reminded of Rabbi Heschel's words about the Sabbath in his book Between God and Man, where he advances a quite different view:

"Technical civilization is man's conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence."

The conquest of space - that is, of gaining power over things and making them our servants - comes always at the expense of time, which we often expend as though we could withdraw from that deposit infinite sums without deficit.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crime, Punishment, and the Great Community

How should we treat criminals?  "The reply is: Treat them as if you loved them." 

-- Charles S. Peirce, 4 May, 1892

Peirce's Parable of the Puritan

Peirce once wrote a school-essay responding to a prompt that asked whether there was any valid excuse for the intolerance of the "Pilgrim Fathers." (MS 1633)  Peirce replied with a parable, which I will paraphrase here:

On judgment day, a Puritan was called before God to give account of his life. The Puritan admitted his faults, and then pulled from his breast pocket a document that he claimed contained a justification of "hard-heartedness." When he handed this to God, someone laughed aloud at the possibility of making such a justification. The scoffer was seized by angels and taken to kneel before God, where "he will be told by the Judge that He considered it worthwhile to see what the Puritan had to say. But that he the scoffer as he judged shall be judged."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Puritans and Vaccinations

In light of recent political debates in the United States, this seems worth noting: the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards died of smallpox on March 22, 1758.  His death was the result of a bad inoculation, which is, of course, tragic.  But it is worth remembering that he received the inoculation to protect himself from the disease, and, apparently, as a way of showing that he thought the science behind it was trustworthy enough to take a risk and set an example for others.  We sometimes think of Puritans as being benighted, ignorant and pathologically anhedonic.  Edwards' active intellect and his attention to the works of John Locke and Isaac Newton suggest that this description of Puritans is facile and false.  (Thanks for nothing, H.L. Mencken.)

Of course, there are other issues at stake here, like the ethical question of whether vaccines should ever be mandated,  and whether the facts about the HPV vaccine are being reported accurately.

But what strikes me about Edwards' death is the possibility that in choosing to receive a vaccine, Edwards risked--and lost--his own life for the sake of others.  I would not require others to follow his example, but I think that Christians (and especially those who revere the memory of the Puritans) might take his example to heart.

Scientia Cordis

"Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts."

-- Charles Peirce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," (1868).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Do You Know The Phase Of The Moon?

I like to begin my class on ancient and medieval philosophy with two questions: (1) Do we know more about the moon than they knew five centuries ago?  (2) Do you know what phase the moon is in right now?

Of course, most of us would say "yes" to the first question, and with good reason.  After all, we've been to the moon several times, and we've brought samples back.  We have remarkable technologies for remote sensing.  The sciences have gone beyond what most people even a century ago could have imagined.

The second question might be harder to answer without looking up the answer somewhere.  When I ask my students, usually none of them know the current phase of the moon.  A recent facebook poll I gave my friends yielded many more positive replies to the second question.  Not a very scientific poll, since it might be that many who did not know simply chose not to reply out of shame.  Still, fewer than half of those who replied said they did know the moon's current phase.

I can think of no reason to be ashamed of not knowing the phase of the moon.  Most of us have no need to know it, and I don't ask the question in order to scold my students, but to point out something about how our knowledge has changed. It seems likely to me that five hundred years ago many more people would have been aware of the phase of the moon.  Children who play outside, farmers, fishers, sailors, and soldiers all wind up depending on the moon, or at least having considerable exposure to it.  Today, very few of us have reason to notice it, because our lives have changed so much. 

This brings me back to my first question: do we know more about the moon today than they knew five centuries ago?  In one sense, the answer is still obviously "yes."  But in another way, it has to be "no."  Most of us (myself included) don't pay much attention to the moon.  Our knowledge of its phase is not the knowledge of familiarity but rather confidence that, if we needed to know, we could look it up somewhere.  We have confidence in the knowledge of our community, and of its possession of data.

Which leads me to a third question: Is it enough to know that someone else knows the answer?  Sure, we don't need to know what the moon looks like right now.  But if you haven't taken a little time to stare at it lately, you might have forgotten something worth knowing: the moon is beautiful.  Go have a look.

Photos: (top) Full moon over Sioux Falls, SD, summer, 2011. (middle)  The moon rises over the Atlantic and shines through mangroves in Belize, January, 2011.  (bottom) The moon rises over Buenos Aires, August 2010.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ethics of Hunting

According to the myth, Actaeon the hunter was turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs.   Many versions add that this was because Actaeon offended Artemis.  He viewed her as she bathed, or he attempted to violate her.  His punishment was to be transformed from hunter to hunted.  His own dogs did not recognize him as they devoured him, (though Apollodorus adds that they later grieved as they searched for their master.)

Just as there are many versions of the myth, so there are many interpretations, and many things that Actaeon and Artemis might symbolize.  The divinity of Artemis suggests to some that hunters seek something much loftier than meat for their table.  Her femininity and virginity suggest to others that hunting represents sexual violence in another guise.

Both of these may be correct, but let me offer a third possibility: perhaps this is a story about virtue.  Actaeon acts without virtue, and he then becomes the victim of his own plans.  He makes the mistake of thinking that a hunter is the rightful possessor of all he sees, and so he fails to act with humility and gratitude.  As a result, he loses everything, including those relationships that were most dear to him.

The myth of Actaeon is a vivid picture of what good hunters know: the hunter is not lord of the forest nor master of nature.  Most of us live our lives as far from predation as we can arrange.  A certain type of hunter attempts to erase some of that distance.  The best hunters may be those who, in doing so, discover their true place in nature and emerge from the forest and field remembering their place with humility and gratitude.  Actaeon forgets who he is when he attempts to take Artemis as his own, and his forgetfulness is absolute.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

People Of The Waters That Are Never Still

Generations ago, one of my European grandfathers and one of my Native American grandmothers married, fusing in their offspring two peoples who had parted ways ages before, one heading west to the British Isles, the other to the Bering Strait and across to North America.  I grew up in New York, near where they met and married, and my childhood is marked by memories of that land: tall oaks and white pines, deep forests, rocky crags over which the water pours, never still, always the same, always changing.  The waterfalls of the Catskill Mountains are a constant presence in those mountains and in my memories.  They are the waters of my mothers and fathers, and of my youth.

(Photo: Kaaterskill Creek in New York State)

My family has since lost the languages those ancestors spoke, and this fusion of tribes has adopted the linguistic fusion of English.  I have no intention of claiming a legal place among either of the nations from which I am descended, nor even to name them here. But I find that the memory of both, and of the lands they lived on, is rooted deeply in my consciousness of who I am.  Last year, while visiting the British Museum, I saw a display of various Native American peoples, including my own.  It was the only time a museum has moved me to tears.  The words and ways of my forebears may be mostly gone, but they are not forgotten.  My father taught me to remember them and what they knew of the land we lived on, and often, while teaching me to know the woods, he would remind me that those woods were old family acquaintances.

Jacob Wawatie and Stephanie Pyne, in their article "Tracking in Pursuit of Knowledge," cite Russell Barsh as saying that "what is 'traditional' about traditional knowledge is not its antiquity but the way in which it is acquired and used." Our word "tradition" comes from Latin roots that mean something like "giving over" or "handing down."  Traditional knowledge is knowledge that is a gift from one generation to the next, a gift we give because we ourselves were given it. I am grateful to my father, in ways that I may never have told him - in ways that perhaps words cannot begin to tell - for the traditions he learned and loved and passed on to me.  I'm grateful that he has not let me forget.

There is, of course danger in emphasizing one's heritage and one's roots, especially if we make that the source of a distinction between ourselves and others, or a way of diminishing the lives and traditions of others.  Just as much as it matters to me that I am from the people of the waters of the Catskills, it matters to me that my ancestors shared those waters with one another, people from two continents recognizing, each in the other, the waters from which both arose.

For all that I have received, for the traditions like waters pouring over the cliffs, gifts like the Kaaterskill Creek, let me give thanks.  Let me give thanks with my life, offering to those who come after me, a taste of the sweetness of those same waters.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taxing Mileage

Several recent news articles have mentioned the possibility of taxing miles driven rather than (or in addition to) taxing gasoline.

On the one hand, this is a fair way of making sure that drivers of electric vehicles share the cost of maintaining roads.

But if it is to be enacted fairly, any such law will have to:
  • avoid placing an unfair burden on rural drivers, who generally must drive further to work and school, and earn less than their urban counterparts; and
  • ensure Americans that the GPS devices that would track mileage are not also used inappropriately by government to track the locations and movements of citizens.
 Maybe any such legislation could be made more fair by correlating the tax rate to zip codes and to vehicle weight.  The latter probably has the greatest impact on road wear, after all, and correlation to zip codes could help keep us from placing yet another burden on farmers, ranchers, and other rural workers.

Pay-to-Play and Democracy

A South Dakota legislator has proposed that SD schools can save some money by introducing "pay-to-play" fees for students wishing to participate in sports, debate, and other school activities.  From a fiscal standpoint this may seem like a good idea, but it is not.  Pay-to-play ensures that only students who can afford the fees (which can be substantial) can participate.  Either these activities are an important part of public education for all students, or they are not and should not be a part of public education.  As I see it, sports and debate and similar extracurriculars can be excellent ways of teaching self-discipline, teamwork, diligence, respect for others, love of learning, and other things that we should want all students to learn.  For just that reason, we should resist limiting access to these activities to just those who - like my family - are wealthy enough to afford them. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wittgenstein, contra Hawking

Stephen Hawking recently said that philosophy is "dead" because it simply hasn't kept up with science in recent years. Hawking is not the first to make this sort of charge. A number of people have written replies to Hawking's charge, and I won't cover that ground again.  Instead, let me simply offer a reply from Wittgenstein:

“Philosophy has made no progress?  If somebody scratches where it itches, does that count as progress?  If not, does that mean it wasn’t an authentic scratch?  Not an authentic itch?  Couldn’t this response to the stimulus go on for a long time until a remedy for itching is found?”