Sunday


There is an ancient parable from India about several blind men who encounter an elephant. The story is well known in many different versions, in all of which the blind men disagree as the nature of the animal — one touches its leg and says that an elephant is like a tree; another touches its ear and says that an elephant is like a fan; another touches its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake, and so forth.

We know that the elephant is one and whole, but the blind men of the parable do not know the elephant as a single reality; they are blind in more than one sense.

The same problem — the problem of appearance and reality — has been central to Western metaphysics since the beginning of philosophy to the present day. I have previously written about the philosophical antipathy and rivalry between Henri Bergson and Bertrand Russell in the early part of the twentieth century (in Epistemic Space: Mapping Time). Both of these antagonistic figures treated the same problem. Here is Bergson’s version:

There is in this something very like what an artist passing through Paris does when he makes, for example, a sketch of a tower of Notre Dame. The tower is inseparably united to the building, which is itself no less inseparably united to the ground, to its surroundings, to the whole of Paris, and so on. It is first necessary to detach it from all these; only one aspect of the whole is noted, that formed by the tower of Notre Dame. Moreover, the special form of this tower is due to the grouping of the stones of which it is composed; but the artist does not concern himself with these stones, he notes only the silhouette of the tower. For the real and internal organization of the thing he substitutes, then, an external and schematic representation. So that, on the whole, his sketch corresponds to an observation of the object from a certain point of view and to the choice of a certain means of representation.

Now beneath all the sketches he has made at Paris the visitor will probably, by way of memento, write the word “Paris.” And as he has really seen Paris, he will be able, with the help of the original intuition he had of the whole, to place his sketches therein, and so join them up together. But there is no way of performing the inverse operation; it is impossible, even with an infinite number of accurate sketches, and even with the word “Paris” which indicates that they must be combined together, to get back to an intuition that one has never bad, and to give oneself an impression of what Paris is like if one has never seen it.

Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics

And here is Russell’s version (which I previously quoted in Appearance and Reality in Cosmology):

With the naked eye one can see the grain, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.

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Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.

Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, Chapter 1

Bergson later goes on to add, after his exposition of the problem:

“Both empiricists and rationalists are victims of the same fallacy. Both of them mistake partial notations for real parts, thus confusing the point of view of analysis and of intuition, of science and of metaphysics.”

It is almost as though Bergson realized that his own “empiricism” (after a fashion) might be contrasted with Russell’s “rationalism.” This is where the problem of appearance and reality meets the problem of the one and the many. Reality is one; appearance is many. How are we to understand how the one presents itself as many, and how the many are unified in the one?

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

Bertrand Russell as a young man, when he was engaging in polemics with Bergson.

There are times when the many perspectives on one and the same world seem unproblematic. The case of the blind men and the elephant can be resolved by bringing the blind men back to the elephant and directing them to feel the continuity of the various parts of the elephant with each other. And when many different scientific experiments confirm one and the same theory by testing different aspects of that theory in different ways, but all independently (and reproducibly) confirm one and the same theory, we know that we have one scientific theory that despite its many predictions concerns itself with one and the same world.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

Henri-Louis Bergson, 18 October 1859 to 04 January 1941, philosopher and time and duration, very famous in his time but little read today.

There are other times when the unity of the world and of the diverse perspectives upon the world are more problematic. Everyone, I think, is well familiar with the problems posed by competing and incommensurable narratives of what is believed to be the same sequence of events. This difficulty is encapsulated in the pop-culture dichotomy of, “he said/she said,” where the incommensurability is the incommensurability of gendered perspective.

Thomas Nagel's famous paper, 'What is it like to be a bat?' considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ considered the particular perspective that bats have on the world and how it differs from our perspective.

I have elsewhere cited Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “What is it like to be a bat?” (in Addendum on the Origins of Time and What is it like to be a serpent?) and noted that Nagel chose the example of a bat because, as a vertebrate and a mammal it is not all that different from primates (and presumably has experiences of the world not unlike those that primates have of the world), but the bat primarily experiences the world through sonar rather than through sight. That makes the bat very different from a primate, and presumably results in a dramatically different experience of the world — hence, there is something that it is like to be a bat, and this “something” is significantly different from what it is like to be a primate.

There are many ways of seeing the world, and some of these ways do not even involve “seeing.”

There is a sense in which organisms that relate to the world through fundamentally different sensory mechanisms experience a different world. The bat’s world constructed from sonar, the pit viper’s world constructed from infrared-sensing pits, the shark’s world constructed from electroreceptors, and the primate’s world of stereoscopic color vision are, in a sense, different “worlds.” But only “in a sense,” because in another sense these diverse senses reveal the same world, as is apparent when these different organisms with their distinct sensory mechanisms interact — sometimes recognizing each other (which I attempted to describe in The Eye of the Other), sometimes just avoiding each other, while at other times preying on each other or fleeing from predation.

Biodiversity means perceptual and epistemic diversity.

If we can find a way to put these different perceptions of the world together, we will have a much more comprehensive account of the world that that based on the observations of a single species. That is to say, the perspectives of other species, if only we could tap into them, would provide countervailing evidence to lessen our anthropic bias. We can think of these other perspectives as narratives, with each narrative of the world being ontologically derived from the structure of the organism, which involves both the peculiarities of its sensory organs and its functional relationship to its environment.

If we take a naturalistic perspective and assume that the natural world is, unproblematically, as it presents itself to be, with a variety of many distinct species involved in relationships of cooperation and competition, we know that these radically distinct perspectives on the single natural world that hosts us all are in fact fully commensurable. Although no one individual, and no one species, has the synoptic perspective that includes all radically distinct forms of sensory perception, the distinct perspectives have a unity in the unity of nature. (And indeed also a unity of mind, such as I elaborated in Kantian Critters.)

Naturalism, then, implies the commensurability of radically distinct world-narratives that are ecologically integrated even if we cannot understand this integration or experience the world from any perspective other than that common to our species.

That the perspectives of distinct species possess a de facto commensurability despite their profound differences puts the supposedly incommensurable theoretical views of human beings into perspective. It is, of course, the position of Thomas Kuhn’s philosophy of science that different theoretical models of the world constitute distinct paradigms, and that these paradigms are incommensurable.

The “theories” implicit in the sensory apparatus of any two distinct species are far greater than the difference between any two theories maintained by the same species, though we must entertain the possibility that our ideas give us a dimension of differentiation that does not exist for all species, just as not all species possess sensory organs (as, for example, with micro-organisms), so that the possession of sensory organs also involves a dimension of differentiation from species lacking sensory organs.

The primate brain devotes much of its capacity to the heavy processing demands of stereoscopic color vision. The mollusk brain also processes fairly sophisticated visual stimuli, but it also devotes a significant amount of its capacity to the control of the cells on the surface of its skin, which allows octopi and cuttlefish to produce both brilliant displays and effective camouflage on demand. Given brains structured around these very different cognitive demands, I imagine that primates think and view the world very differently from the way that mollusks think and view the world — though these differences do not prevent the species from interacting, though primates and mollusks don’t interact all that much because of their distinct ecological niches.

If species possessing a cognitive architecture as profoundly different as that represented by primates and mollusks can achieve a de facto commensurability through their common participation in a single biosphere, then the incommensurability of different human points of view does not seem all that bleak.

Ecology is the master world-narrative that unifies that sub-narratives employed by individual species in virtue of their perceptual and cognitive architecture. Ultimately, astrobiology would constitute the universal narrative that would unify the ecological narratives of distinct worlds.

The naturalistic narrative has the power to unify even across species and across worlds. This power may not be particularly evident at present, but in the long term future of our species (if our species does in fact have a long term future) this power will prove to be crucial.

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Darwin’s Cosmology

12 February 2012

Sunday


Today is Darwin’s birthday, and therefore an appropriate time to celebrate Darwin by a mediation upon his work. No one has influenced me more than Darwin, and I always find the study of his works to be intellectually rewarding. I also read (and listen to) quite a number of books about Darwin. Recently I listened to Darwin, Darwinism, and the Modern World, 14 lectures by Dr. Chandak Sengoopta. While I enjoyed the lectures, I sharply differed from many of Dr. Sengoopta’s interpretations of Darwin’s thought. One theme that Dr. Sengoopta returned to several times was a denial that Darwin had anything to say about the ultimate origins of life. Each time that Dr. Sengoopta made this point I found myself grow more and more irritated.

To say that Darwin had nothing to say about the ultimate origins of life may be technically correct in a narrow sense, but I do not think that it is an accurate expression of Darwin’s vision of life, which was sweeping and comprehensive. While it may be a little much to say that Darwin ever entertained ideas that could accurately be called “Darwin’s cosmology,” it is obvious in reading Darwin’s notebooks, in which he recorded thoughts that never made it into his published books, his mind ranged far and wide. It is almost as though, once Darwin made the conceptual breakthrough of natural selection he had discovered a new world.

In characterizing Darwin’s thought in this way I am immediately reminded of a famous letter that Janos Bolyai wrote to his father after having independently arrived at the idea of non-Euclidean geometry:

“…I have discovered such wonderful things that I was amazed, and it would be an everlasting piece of bad fortune if they were lost. When you, my dear Father, see them, you will understand; at present I can say nothing except this: that out of nothing I have created a strange new universe. All that I have sent you previously is like a house of cards in comparison with a tower. I am no less convinced that these discoveries will bring me honor than I would be if they were complete.”

Darwin, too, discovered wonderful things and created the strange new universe of evolutionary biology, though it came on him rather slowly — not in a youthful moment that could be recorded to a letter in his father, and not in a fit of fever, as the idea of natural selection came to Wallace — as the result of many years of ruminating on his observations. But the slowness with which Darwin’s mind worked was repaid with thoroughness. Even though Darwin was the first evolutionist in the modern sense of the term, he must also be accounted among the most complete of all evolutionary thinkers, having spent decades thinking through his idea with a Platonic will to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Given that Darwin himself thought that making the idea of natural selection public was like “confessing to a murder,” the fragments of Darwin’s cosmology must be sought in his latter and notebooks as much as in his published works. As for the origins of life, narrowly considered, apart from the cosmological implications of life, Darwin openly speculated on a purely naturalistic origin of life in a letter to Joseph Hooker:

“It is often said that all the conditions for the first production of a living organism are now present, which could ever have been present. But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, — light, heat, electricity &c. present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes, at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured, or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed.”

Darwin’s 1871 letter to Joseph Hooker

What has widely come to be known as “Darwin’s warm little pond” sounds like nothing so much as the famous Stanley L. Miller electrical discharge experiment.

Darwin revealed his consistent naturalism in his rejection of teleology in a letter to Julia Wedgwood, where he indirectly refers to his slow, steady, cumulative mode of thinking (quite the opposite of revelation):

“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where would one most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.”

Darwin’s letter of 11 July 1861 to Miss Julia Wedgwood

This same refusal continues to a sticking point to the present day, since, like so much that we learn from contemporary science, appearances are deceiving, and the reality behind the appearance can be so alien to the natural constitution of thue human mind that it is rejected as incomprehensible or unthinkable. That Darwin was able to think the unthinkable, and to so with a unparalleled completeness at a time when no one else was doing so, is testimony to the cosmological scope of his thought.

One of the most memorable passages in all of Darwin’s writings is the last page or so of the Origin of Species, which touches not a little on cosmological themes. Take, for instance, the “tangled bank” passage:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Besides anticipating the evolutionary study of ecology and complex adaptive systems long before these disciplines became explicit and constituted their own sciences, Darwin here subtly invokes a law-like naturalism that both suggests Lyell’s uniformitarianism while going beyond it.

Darwin places this law-governed naturalism in cosmological context in the last two sentences of the book, here also implicitly invoking Malthus, whose influence was central to his making the breakthrough to the idea of natural selection:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This famous passage from Darwin reminds me of a perhaps equally famous passage from Immanuel Kant, who concluded The Critique of Practical Reason with this thought:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. The first starts at the place that I occupy in the external world of the senses, and extends the connection in which I stand into the limitless magnitude of worlds upon worlds, systems upon systems, as well as into the boundless times of their periodic motion, their beginning and continuation. The second begins with my invisible self, my personality, and displays to me a world that has true infinity, but which can only be detected through the understanding, and with which . . . I know myself to be in not, as in the first case, merely contingent, but universal and necessary connection. The first perspective of a countless multitude of worlds as it were annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which must give the matter out of which it has grown back to the planet (a mere speck in the cosmos) after it has been (one knows not how) furnished with life-force for a short time.”

Both Darwin and Kant invoke both the laws of the natural world (and both, again, do so by appealing to grandeur of the heavens) and a humanistic ideal. For Kant, the humanistic ideal is morality; for Darwin, the humanistic ideal is beauty, but what Kant said of morality and the moral law is equally applicable, mutatis mutandis, to beauty. Darwin might equally well have said of “the fixed law of gravity” and of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” that he saw them before himself and connected them immediately with the consciousness of his existence. Kant might equally well have said that there is “grandeur in this view of life” that embraces both the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

Darwin did not express himself (and would not have expressed himself) in these philosophical terms; he was a naturalist and a biologist, not a philosopher. But Darwin’s naturalism and biology were so comprehensive to have spanned the universe and to have converged on an entire cosmology — a cosmology, for the most part, not even suspected before Darwin had done his work.

There is a sense in which Darwin fulfilled Marx’s famous pronouncement, from this Theses on Feuerbach, such that: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Darwin, however, did not change the world by fomenting a revolution; Darwin changed the world by thinking, like a philosopher. In this sense, at least, Darwin must be counted among the greatest philosophers.

I would be a rewarding project to devote an entire book to the idea of Darwin’s Cosmology. I know that I have not even scratched the surface here, and have not come near to doing justice to the idea. It would be a rewarding project to think through this idea as carefully as Darwin thought through his ideas.

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Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

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Sunday


In several earlier posts I have made a trial of distinct definitions of naturalism. These posts include:

A Formulation of Naturalism
Two Thoughts on Naturalism
Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation, and
Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology

I regard all of these formulations of tentative, but there may be something to learn from these tentative formulations if we employ them as a kind of experiment for understanding methodological naturalism. That is to say, each of these attempts to formulate naturalism implies a formulation of methodological naturalism. Furthermore, in so far as methodological naturalism is definitive of contemporary science, each formulation of methodological naturalism implies a distinct conception of science.

In A Formulation of Naturalism I suggested that, “Naturalism is on a par with materialism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like materialism.”

In Two Thoughts on Naturalism I suggested that “Naturalism is on a par with mechanism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like mechanism.” I also suggested that, “Naturalism entails that all ideas will first be manifest in embodied form… there are no abstract ideas that are given to us as abstract ideas; all ideas are ultimately derived from experience.”

In Naturalism: Yet Another Formulation I noted that these earlier efforts at formulations of naturalism are implicitly parsimonious, tending toward conceptual minimalism, and further suggested that, “we can characterize naturalism in terms of a quantitative parsimony, following quantitative formulations as far as they will go, and only appealing to qualitative formulations when quantitative formulations break down.” There is a sense, then, in which we can speak of deflationary naturalism. In so far as these formulations of naturalism embody the principle of parsimony, we need not separately formulate the principle of parsimony as a regulative norm of science.

In Naturalism and Object Oriented Ontology I suggested that an approach to naturalism might be made by way of object oriented ontology, which I there compared to Colin McGinn’s transcendental naturalism thesis, i.e., that the world is “flatly natural” though we are unable to see this for what it is because of our perceptual and cognitive limitations.

While when I first formulated naturalism such that, “Naturalism is on a par with materialism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like materialism,” I intended naturalism as consisting of a more comprehensive scope than materialism, though when applied to the scientific method I see that it can be taken as a doctrine of limiting one’s scope to the problem at hand. This approach to science is as familiar as Newton’s aphorism, Hypotheses non fingo. Science often proceeds by providing a very limited explanation for a very limited range of phenomena. This leaves many explanatory gaps, but the iteration of the scientific method means that subsequent scientists return to the gaps time and again, and when they do so they do so from the perspective of the success of the earlier explanation of surrounding phenomena. Once a species of explanation becomes generally received as valid, the perception of the later extension of this species of explanation (perhaps already considered radical in its initial formulation) becomes more acceptable, and more explanatory power can be derived from the explanation.

Similar considerations to those above hold for the same formulation in terms of mechanism rather than materialism, or in terms of quantification rather than materialism. Initial formulations of mechanism (or quantification) can be crude and seem only to apply to macroscopic features, and is possibly seen as impossibly awkward to explain the fine-grained features of the world. As the mechanistic explanation becomes more refined and flexible, the idea of its application to more delicate matters appears less problematic.

An object-oriented ontological account of naturalism would be the most difficult to formulate and would take us the farthest from methodological concerns and the deepest into ontological concerns, so I will not pursue this at present (as I write this I can feel that my mind is not up to the task at the moment), but I will only mention it here as a viable possibility.

In any case, our formulations of methodological naturalism based on these formulations of naturalism would run something like this:

Methodological materialism pursued as far as possible, leaving any non-material account aside

Methodological mechanism pursued as far as possible, leaving any non-mechanistic account aside

Methodological quantification pursued as far as possible, leaving any qualitative account aside

Methodological flat naturalism, or transcendental naturalism, pursued as fas a possible, leaving any non-flat or non-transcendental account aside

I think that all of these approaches do, in fact, closely describe the methodology of the scientific method, especially as I mentioned above considered from the perspective of the growth of knowledge through the iteration of the scientific method.

The growth of knowledge through the iteration of the scientific method is a formulation of the historicity of scientific knowledge in terms of the future of that knowledge. The formulation of the historicity of scientific knowledge in terms of the past is nothing other than that embodied in the Foucault quote that, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” (from “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault”)

All present scientific knowledge will eventually become past scientific knowledge, and it will become past knowledge through the continued pursuit of the scientific method, which is to say, methodological naturalism in some form or another.

The distant future of scientific knowledge, if only we had access to it, would seem as unlikely and as improbable as the distant past of scientific knowledge, but the past, present, and future of scientific knowledge are all connected in a continuum of iterated method.

It is ultimately the task of philosophy of see scientific knowledge whole, and to this end we must see the whole temporal continuum as the expression of science, and not any one, single point on the continuum as definitive of science. The unity of science, then, is the unity of the scientific method that is the connective tissue between these diverse epochs of science, part, present, and future.

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Naturalism and Suffering

12 March 2011

Saturday


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1755_Lisbon_earthquake

Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 1755.

The scale of destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami that has just struck the northern part of Hokkaido in Japan (2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami — 東北地方太平洋沖地震), cannot but remind us of other natural disasters, some of them in the recent past, and some long past. It is likely that the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 26 December 2004 was the worst natural disaster that has (or will) occur in my lifetime, in terms of total casualties, with almost a quarter million dead, most as a result of the tsunami following the earthquake.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 became a point of contention between a naturalistic view of history and an eschatological view of history.

The most famous earthquake and tsunami in Western history is the disaster that struck Lisbon in 1755. I previously mentioned this in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities. I mentioned in that post Nicholas Shrady’s book, The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which presented in some detail the intellectual controversy that emerged following the disaster. Shrady cited the work of Gabriel Malagrida, whose 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:

“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”

There are probably people who continue to think such things today, and a few who say so in private, but this is not the dominant narrative today. We certainly bear traces of a past dominated by an eschatological conception of history, but civilization has largely moved beyond this. Now, whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not, Occidental civilization today embodies a naturalistic conception of history. The transition from medievalism to modernism was also a transition from an eschatological Weltanschauung to a naturalistic Weltanschauung. This does not mean that we have “solved” the problems of an earlier era, but only that we have moved on to other problems.

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer

As I said above, we bear the traces of our history, and some of us bear these traces more heavily than others. Recently I have been listening to Bart D. Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman is a serious scholar of early Christianity, and, by his own account, someone who started out as a sincerely and devoutly believing Christian, only to find that he had lost his faith after many years of study and confronting the problem of suffering.

Ehrman writes:

Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of people about issues pertaining to suffering, and I am struck by the kinds of reactions I get.

After briefly discussing avoidance of the issue of suffering altogether and those responses to the problem of suffering that he considers to be answers that are “too pat” to be satisfying, Ehrman moves on to a third category of responses to suffering that he cannot accept:

Other people — including some of my brilliant friends — realize why it’s a religious problem for me but don’t see it as a problem for themselves. In its most nuanced form (and for these friends everything is extremely nuanced), this view is that religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems. (p. 15)

In Ehrman’s formulation of this view that he cannot accept, there is an echo of a famous passage from Hume, who wrote in his essay on miracles:

“…we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”

This passage from Hume has become a standard point of reference not only for those who followed Hume and formulated the naturalistic conception of the world that dominates our thinking today, but also fideists who see in this the last remaining legitimate form of an uncompromising expression of faith: faith is a miracle, therefore proof in and of itself of what faith wants to believe. Thus this from Hume is, at once, both purple passage and locus classicus.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually become contemporary scientific naturalism.

Ehrman writes that he respects this view and sometimes wishes that he could share it, but ultimately he cannot share it. He writes, “The God that I once believed in was a God who was active in this world.” He makes it clear that his confrontation with suffering was crucial to his loss of faith, and he further makes explicit that his remarks about his faith are all in the past tense, so there is no question of an equivocation in his belief; he is not about to say that he will change his mind if only someone can show him an intellectually legitimate way to formulate the problem of human suffering.

The Eschatological Conception of History

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

Ehrman is living a conundrum. He has abandoned the faith that the world has a particular metaphysical and eschatological structure, but he hangs on to the idea that our suffering must be expressed in eschatological terms, and our response to that suffering must also be expressed in eschatological terms. If it is not so expressed, according to Ehrman, it is avoidance, too pat, or a naturalism that he cannot share. But he has nothing to offer in place of naturalism, except strong feelings of its inadequacy.

I have encountered this attitude elsewhere, and when I thought about it I realized that I had written about it. In my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception I wrote:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Ehrman does not express himself in terms of war, but there is a close parallel between those who reject utilitarian and pragmatic assistance because it does not come wrapped up like an eschatological care package, and those who cannot accept a naturalistic conception of human suffering because it does not answer their deepest needs and longing to do justice to a noble and honorable conception of man, but a conception rooted in an eschatological conception of history that is no longer defensible in rational terms.

For Ehrman, human suffering is a cosmic grievance, and a cosmic grievance can only be addressed by a cosmic remedy. I don’t think that Ehrman is alone in this. Indeed, what makes his view interesting is that he is able to give eloquent expression to something that is sharply and poignantly felt by many who do not have the means to express themselves so well.

The question, then, as I see it, it not how to give the proper cosmic response to the cosmically formulated dilemma, but rather this: is our modern naturalism merely a superficial overlay, so that the vital forces that drive life remain profoundly and unalterably eschatological, or is the kind of attitude Ehrman expresses typical of a transitional age, indicating that we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the naturalism formulated by visionaries like Hume? There are, of course, other possibilities as well — and interesting possibilities at that. The only reason I am going to bring this post to an end at this time is not because I am satisfied with what I have said, but only because I am tired.

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