Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Second-Tier Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists Friedrich Schleiermacher as a second-tier philosopher, although they say he is one of the most-interesting in that class. The “second-tier” moniker refers to his work being derivative of the big guys like Emmanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza. They also say he is clearly following Herder who they list as “of the first importance” although I don’t know much about him. Reading the stories of these men from centuries past who rethought what it is to be human always leaves me completely astounded. It has been difficult enough for me to form a worldview in fifty years and I have the advantage of being able to hear these philosophies synthesized into the poetry that plays regularly on FM radio.

Schleiermacher came well after Thomas Aquinas had attempted to reconcile religion with reason and in an the era when Kant and others were looking to abandon religion and re-ask the question of just what morality is based on if not divine decree. In some sense this may have been a defensive move, he was classically trained in theology after all. But although he made some clear statements about not being able to believe in the saving grace of a risen Christ, he said there was something more to religion than a set of rules or a place to be comforted. In later years he seemed to backpedal on his statements of non-belief. His true feelings are difficult to discern.

In his early and seminal work On Religion, he relinquishes both God and morality as unnecessary to religion. Instead he says, “Religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling. It wishes to intuit the universe.” This leaves a lot of room for philosophical discussion. Feelings can be defined in a couple of ways and are fallible, as is intuition, so what is he talking about? I will leave it up to the detectives of historical philosophy to sort that out. As a 21st century human being I have a lot more information to draw from about just what Schleiermacher could have been thinking.

He had no sense of the size and age of the universe like I do. He didn’t know that he shared atoms with stars that had burned and exploded a billion years ago. He didn’t know about energy fields and waves of light or strings that vibrate in other dimensions. All of these have spawned new philosophers, many of them only pretending to have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. It is not terribly profound for someone today to say they don’t believe in God but there must be something else, something out there. If you said that 200 years ago, you would merit an entry in Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Schleiemacher was bucking two trends at once. He was part of a movement away from using religion as a basis for all ethical decisions, but he was not comfortable with the trend toward conscious reasoning as the only source of knowledge. As he says in Essence of Religion, "religious feeling should accompany every human deed like a holy music; we should do everything with religion, nothing because of religion"

If you abandon the idea that Gods or demons put thoughts into your head you are still left with the question of where thoughts come from. We still can’t find a thought and put into a jar but advances in neuroscience have led us back to the type of philosophy that Schleiemacher was considering. We know that we are descended from lizards and monkeys and parts of our brains still operate closer to how those animals think than what we think of as our rational selves. We are finding that emotions play a larger role in reasoning than previously thought.

The theory is called “motivated reasoning”. When faced with information that does not fit our current view, an EEG can pick up an emotional response that we are not aware of. That response directs our thoughts and the slower process of rational thinking, the thinking that we think we are doing, appears to be logical and rational but the emotional response has already directed that reasoning down familiar comfortable paths. Even acquiring more information, in other words “learning”, does not necessarily help. A more sophisticated person who should be capable of challenging his own assumptions is also capable of creating more sophisticated arguments to maintain his current view.

Chris Mooney recently laid out much of this in an article in Mother Jones magazine. He links to many studies and describes how this relates to the recent apocalypse prediction. He sums the article up with, “The upshot: All we can currently bank on is the fact that we all have blinders in some situations.” If we are going to work together on the biggest scientific problems that have ever faced humankind, we will need to be aware of the emotional reactions we illicit in others as we breach topics of recycling, global warming, gas mileage and religious pluralism.

In an October 1994 essay in Scientific American titled Descartes' Error and the Future of Human Life, Antonio R Damasio head of the neurology department at the University of Iowa College of Medicine found similar parallels with his work and the words of philosophers from the era of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”.

It is intriguing to realize that Pascal
prefigured this idea within the same 17th
century that brought us Cartesian dualism,
when he said "It is on this knowledge of the
heart and of the instincts that reason must
establish itself and create the foundation for
all its discourse." We are beginning to
uncover the pertinent neurobiological facts
behind Pascal's profound insight, and that
may be none too soon. If the human species
is to prevail, physical resources and social
affairs must be wisely managed, and such
wisdom will come most easily from the
knowledgeable and thoughtful planning that
characterizes the rational, self-knowing

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