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

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I’m not going off on a tangent of having this blog being about current events, but this week we get another big event in religion in popular culture. Oprah says “thanks” to Jesus on her final show. Not in a brief off hand way but in a very clear and strong statement. If you seem to remember having heard her say things that seem to contradict that, there is nothing wrong with your memory.

I really don’t care what products or individuals she has supported that go counter to Christian morals or her stand on abortion, gay rights, vegetarianism or whether or not I need a makeover. What I do care is that she has used religious techniques to sell herself. She has been criticized for it, and just like religious leaders throughout history, she has claimed that she helps people and that she is searching for “good” and that her critics should get on board. All that in lieu of responding to the criticism itself. Like any good non-denominational preacher, nailing down just what she means by “good” is hard to define. It has something to do with believing in yourself and buying your T-shirts from an up and coming single mother entrepreneur.

Oprah pot shots are really too easy and I’m sure you will hear a few in the coming weeks. You will no doubt also hear from the Christians who want to distance themselves from her. Her self-help message runs counter to giving up your life to Jesus Christ. She is perfectly positioned to go after the “spiritual but not religious” market that is currently growing. Her ability to wrap a variety of “law of attraction” type messages under one umbrella, without examining any of them too deeply, is likely to be appealing for some time to come. Atheism is currently defined as non-belief in existing deities. For some it includes non-belief in all supernatural phenomena, but for many that is not a problem. Oprah has no problem promoting all types of magic.

If Oprah was merely bringing some modernization to Christianity, saying it is okay to pick the best parts of the teachings and discard the miracles and dogma, I would be okay with that. But she stated that Jesus was with her even when she didn’t know it. This leaves her room to claim anything she has done could be attributed to divine intervention and still say that she thinks for herself when she needs to. The statement she made on her last show indicates some pretty strong belief, and it will be difficult to reconcile it with previous statements she has made about non-belief. Given her ability to sell just about anything, I don’t doubt she’ll manage.

There is more to this than just the evils of marketing and the shamefulness of using Jesus to promote yourself. Whether or not she is doing that consciously doesn’t really matter. I am more troubled by what she is doing unwittingly. By giving G-O-D credit for her accomplishments, she leads many to believe that they only need to do the same to accomplish just as much. She leaves a big question about all of the people who will never come close to what she has done, where is Jesus in their lives? A very strange god that selects one woman, makes her a billionaire, has her promote books and programs that have nothing to do with Him, and leaves a billion others living on less than one dollar per day.

Parts of the final show are available on her website. In one of them, I think it is titled "what Oprah knows for sure" she talks about doing whatever you do with passion and that you will receive in direct porportion to what you give. So, this woman who has spent 25 years listening to stories of tragedy and triumph, hope and despair, knows for sure that life is fair. I guess my teachers, my football coach, my parents and the kid who stole my lunch money were all wrong.

I hope someone in her inner circle has pointed out that her message is only
slightly removed from the “gospel of prosperity” that has been seen on conservative evangelical television for years. It supports perseverance and hard work, but at the same time tells you that if you fail, there is something wrong with you. There must be something that you didn’t follow correctly because there certainly can’t be anything wrong with Oprah’s message. But don’t worry, if you fail, you just need to read the next book in the book club, or get the new updated DVD series, or go to the right seminar. It is a strange and dangerous brew of self-reliance and co-dependence.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Not the end of the world

I really didn’t want to say anything about May 21st, but it was so widely advertised I couldn’t resist. The only good thing I can see coming out of this is a larger awareness of how many people there are that believe that the end of times is near and how that type of thinking causes tremendous harm. The belief helps to explain a lot of our current problems. Why worry about where you’re great grandchildren will get clean water, if the world will be gone by then?

I was in college when 909 people died in Jonestown, followers of a man who had a utopian vision. These were smart people who wanted to build a better world. I have been interested in cults ever since. I was really bummed that the people with the May 21st vans were right near my work last week and I missed them.

Harold Camping’s Family Radio is not necessarily a cult but it shares the common theme of a large following of something that is based on a mix of very logical and very healthy teaching with some absolutely crazy shit. I don’t doubt that his programs have helped some people. The stories of people spending every last dollar right up to May 21st are people who will need a different help. I heard a pollster talking about the many people who believe the apocalypse will come in their lifetime, but younger people said they hoped it would come when they were 80. Harold Camping is 89.

One of the best studies on the phenomenon of apocalyptic preaching comes from Leon Festinger. In the 1950’s he followed a small group who believed aliens were going to destroy the earth. They didn’t. A few left the cult, but most deepened their faith when their leader had a new vision that it was their faith that had saved the world. This may be the strategy that Camping takes, according to this YouTube that claims to have some inside information. This is not the leader’s ability to tell a better story, it is the mind at work attempting to deal with doing something incredibly stupid.

If you need a humorous break at this point, this one is great.

There are many Christians who not too happy about all of this.

Even National Geographic felt is necessary to weigh in.

The craziest ones to me are the ones that say the prediction is wrong, but they know the real truth

I have not read all of those or made any attempt to critique the quality of one over another. They all say something about how his problem is that he uses an allegorical method of interpretation. Some say we should instead take Revelations literally. Using that method, you’ll know that the prophecy has come to pass when you see something like this:

7 The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. 8 Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. 9 They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. 10 They had tails with stingers, like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. 11 They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon and in Greek is Apollyon (that is, Destroyer)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Cost

Lots of links in this one, be sure to click on them for more information.

I attend a church that is opened minded enough to accept me regardless of my lack of faith, and small enough that the pastor can target his sermons to individuals. In a recent Sunday sermon, he spoke of Teilhard de Chardin and the anthropic principle. He talked of the convergence of Christian philosophy and its version of the coming of heaven with secular progress towards a more peaceful world. He said that to be a Christian, it is not necessary to believe in the details of the bodily resurrection of a man. It is enough to accept the moral of the story and find meaning in the symbolism. Ten minutes later, we were reading the ceremony for welcoming a new family of members and asking them to claim to believe that very thing. I’m sure the children in that family understood the consequence of answering “I will” to:

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,”

much better than the historical significance of Chardin or discussions of a singularity. The second part of this proclamation of faith contains the contradiction of modern monotheism
“in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races”

It is a proclamation that declares it is open to all people, but if you want to be in the club, you need to serve the right Lord. Any belief has this same cost. If you know someone who believes that George Bush was involved with planning the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, try to discuss the facts and respond to their logic and you will quickly understand the cost of belief. Try to discuss neuroscience with someone who believes they have traveled outside of their body, and you will see the cost of belief. Root for the wrong team at a soccer game and you will feel the cost of belief.

This is the dilemma that modern Churches find themselves in. They have dropped requirements to believe in most of the miracles or the historical truth of some of the events, they acknowledge contradictions in the gospels, they have re-interpreted long standing moral statements based on modern psychology, but they can’t drop the confession to Christ. If they did, what reason would they have for existing?