Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On deciding to act (quotes)

"Unawareness is the root of all evil."
Anonymous Egyptian Monk. Quoted in Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. (1992) New York: Bantam, 2002. p. 68.

"Although self-awareness, by itself, does not lead to behavior change, it is foundational."
Doug Silsbee. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. P. 51.

"One simple criterion for distinguishing authentic intuition from ego projections or wishful thinking is that the real stuff is delivered as invitations, not demands. The words 'You should do...' or 'You must do...' are not part of intuition. Rather, intuition is your soul saying, 'Please consider...' or 'Will you...?'"
Sharon Franquemont. You Already Know What to Do: 10 Invitations to the Intuitive Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000. p. 5.

As a character decides whether to jump into a well:

"Khalil is listening; he hears its whispers; he thinks its soft enticements are his own wise thoughts. He believes he's deciding — but all he's doing is listening to the whisper of the well."
John Speed. Tiger Claws. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. p. 162.

"You sit down at the computer and say, 'What am I supposed to do?' The regular gamers in the room have to explain: 'You're supposed to figure out what you're supposed to do.'"
Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. p. 42.

"What's intellect?"
"Well, intelligence. Aql." I nod. "Aql nazari. A talent for imagining. And aql amali. A talent for doing."
Uzma Aslam Khan. The Geometry of God. Clockroot Books, 2009.

"Yet when the time comes, I am not able to pull the trigger. I tell myself that the strategy works generally, but might not work with this hand. I cannot, by thought, generate the feeling of conviction that the laws of probabilities are actually in effect and that betting a bad hand occasionally is preferable to always folding. I cannot convince myself that what I know to be correct is actually correct."
Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. p. 114.

"...if people do things for lunk-headed, backward-looking reasons, why wouldn't we also do things for significance-seeking, self-actualizing reasons? If we're predictably irrational — and we clearly are — why couldn't we also be predictably transcendent?"
Daniel H. Pink. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate, 2010.

"To come to man's estate it is not necessary to get oneself killed around Madrid, or to fly mail planes, or to struggle wearily in the snows out of respect for the dignity of life. The man who can see the miraculous in a poem, who can take pure joy from music, who can break his bread with comrades, opens his window to the same refreshing wind off the sea. He too learns a language of men.
But too many men are left unawakened."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Wind, Sand and Stars. (1939) Translated into English by Lewis Galantiere. London: The Folio Society, 1990. p. 195.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Douglas Adams: On preferring the term 'atheist' over 'agnostic'

Douglas Adams was once interviewed by American Atheists on the use of the word “atheist."

In England we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism…if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him [God], then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.

He continues:

I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe.
By contrast, he says:

I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance...I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view...God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

The interview was reprinted in:

Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. New York: Ballantine, 2005. (With a 2003 introduction by Terry Jones.) pp. 96-97.

Related: I like this excerpt from George Yancy's interview of Todd May in the New York Times (October 2020).

Yancy: If those who believe in the supernatural are mistaken epistemologically, do you feel that you have a responsibility to tell them that they are wrong or is it fine to allow religious believers to embrace beliefs that you would argue are false?

May: To me, whether or not to argue about the correctness of belief in the supernatural is very much dependent on context. For instance, I do volunteer teaching in a maximum-security prison, where faith among the incarcerated men often plays an important role in sustaining them psychologically. It would be unethical for me to try to argue that they’re mistaken. They adhere to different religions, they know that I’m an atheist, and so we sit around a table (or did until Covid-19 arrived) and discuss philosophical ideas together, often comparing how their different beliefs might incorporate or reject these ideas.

Alternatively, if someone is using religious faith to diminish others, challenging the correctness or coherence of the faith itself might be a justified form of confrontation. And for very different reasons a philosophical discussion of the supernatural would be a proper place to challenge religious belief.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Faith: Its purpose and limits (Quotes from others)

Hegel said: “With this possibility of knowing God the obligation to know Him is imposed upon us.”

But it may well be impossible to know God.

Some people say that faith is a type of certainty. An Israeli man quoted by Amos Oz: "You cannot separate faith and certainty. They are one and the same. In my vocabulary they are synonyms." Simone Weil: "In what concerns divine things, belief is not appropriate. Only certainty will do. Anything less than certainty is unworthy of God."

Others steer away from certainty. Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor with the social justice organization Sojourners: "Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want: Easy certainty." Frank Schaeffer puts it this way: "atheism and fundamentalist religion," though "ideological opposites," nevertheless "often share the same fallacy: truth claims that reek of false certainties. I also believe that there is an alternative that actually matches the way life is lived rather than how we usually talk about belief. I call that alternative "hopeful uncertainty."

It isn't to the benefit of any ideology or practice to allow us to achieve certainty, for then we would abandon the quest it had assigned to us. If we achieved certainty in faith, religion would have made itself obsolete. "Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. ... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion..."

But what can religion do for us? Does it tell us that we are broken — and then try to fix us, or inspire us to fix ourselves, or give us the tools to make things better? G. K. Chesterton: "When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified not because her children do not sin, but because they do." As stated by someone Christopher Phillips quoted: "Socrates tried to do the right thing at a time when everyone else was doing the wrong thing. And you know they were all doing the wrong thing in retrospect, because their civilization crashed and burned. As long as just one person is willing to do the right thing amid a sea of badness, there’s reason to hope. Socrates’ life and death, from what I’ve been reading, were modeled on a sense of duty that was ‘faith-based’ — he had faith in people to do the right thing, at least over the long haul, even if over the short term most are acting foolishly. If we don’t all act out of a similar faith, how can we ever hope to see light again in dark times?"

Is the project always incomplete? Leslie Dewart: "For faith is always coming-into-being, it is never quite fully faithful, it is always on the way, hence never perfect and achieved. And if faith is a mode of existence, then Christian theism is a way of life."

And we are never introduced to the whole God?

Frederica Mathewes-Green: "People newly coming to church should have an unfamiliar experience. It should be apparent to them that they are encountering something very different from the mundane. It should be discontinuous with their everyday experience, because God is discontinuous. God is holy, other incomprehensible, strange, and if we go expecting an affable market-tested nice guy, we won't be getting the whole picture. We'll be getting the short God in a straw hat, not the big one beyond all thought."

We are always seeking? Deepak Chopra: "Many doubters have said that God was invented so that these ferocious instincts can be kept in check. Otherwise our violence would turn on us and kill us. But I don't believe this. The oldest hunter lurking in our brains is after bigger prey, God himself."

The quest is difficult. It is had to do what we are doing, to find what we wish to find, and to retain it and act upon it as if we really believe it. The character Pi says in Life of Pi: "Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

We don't always control the process. Cary Tennis: "faith can neither be argued into or out of someone but must arrive and depart according to its own capricious schedule."

And the history of religion and faith, too, is ongoing. Nicolas Berdyaev: "Everything existential is history, dynamic force, destiny, man, the world, are history, God is history, a drama which is working itself out." Working itself out, or perhaps not working itself out, or working itself farther into a hole, but in any case, ongoing.

Where do beliefs about God — God's existence or nonexistence or anything else we might think about the subject — come from? Do they spring from a preexisting philosophy? Or do religious opinions come first, and do those opinions produce our other kinds of philosophy? We don't know. Dale B. Martin: "It seems to me that all arguments about priority — that one's theology is simply a reflection of one's ideology or vice versa — are fruitless. How can we possibly know the answer to such a question? How could we ever sort out so exactly the intricate workings of another person's mind, when we can never be sure why we ourselves believe certain things?" It seems safe to say that everything we believe influences everything else we believe, even if we cannot identify a first cause. For that reason, we should be careful about what beliefs we cultivate. John A. Hardon: “[Vladimir] Solovyev's [1853-1900] fundamental premise was that Orthodox (true) doctrine about Christ is the only sound basis for truly Christian society. What a person believes about Christ determines his concept of the human community.” Judith Plaskow: “Once images become socially, politically, or morally inadequate, however, they are also religiously inadequate." The explorer Freya Stark said: "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."


G. W. F. Hegel. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953. (Originally 1837.) p. 16.
Amos Oz. In the Land of Israel. (1983) Translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura. USA: Harcourt, Inc., 1993. p. 153.
Simone Weil. Quoted in Deepak Chopra. How To Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. Introductory quotation.
Jim Wallis, quoted in "Without a Doubt." Ron Suskind. New York Times Magazine. October 17, 2004. pp 46ff.
Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. Prologue, p. xiii.
Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness. (1969) New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. p. 72.
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1925. p xiii.
“Tarah,” quoted in Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 173.
Leslie Dewart. The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age. New York: Herder and Herder 1966. p 64.
Frederica Mathewes-Green. At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. p 149-150.
Deepak Chopra. How To Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. p 14.
Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 297
Cary Tennis. Answer to the question "I'm a Christian turning agnostic" in his advice column "Since You Asked..." February 24, 2006. Accessed February 25, 2006.
Nicolas Berdyaev. The Divine and the Human. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949. Foreword, 1944-45. p v.
Dale B. Martin. Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990. pp. 145-146.
John A. Hardon. Christianity in the Twentieth Century. New York: Image Books, DoubleDay, 1972. p 182.
Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990. p 135.
Freya Stark, quoted in the Columbia, Mo., Daily Tribune, quoted in The Week, Oct. 14, 2011. p. 21.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Do we perceive things as they are, or as we are?

Reviewing some passages I transcribed 10-20 years ago on this subject.

One possible worldview is: The external world exists as exactly-whatever-it-is, and we perceive it and interpret it.

"Here is the argument. Outside our heads there is freestanding reality. Only madmen and a scattering of constructivist philosophers doubt its existence. Inside our heads is a reconstitution of reality based on sensory input and the self-assembly of concepts."
— Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

"Consciousness, by which I think [he]...means apprehension, is a state of a mind, and does not include its object (say, a body) as a part of itself."
— W. D. Ross. The Right and the Good. (1930) London: Oxford University, 1946. p. 71.

This arises in distinctions like "ontological" or "metaphysical" (what exists) against "epistemological" (what we know).

"These are the four elements present in awareness: metaphysical, epistemological, mystical, and moral dimensions — four ways of revealing, or "translating," the mystery of the Divine and applying it to our human condition. First, the metaphysical, as grounded in the transcendent One, is limitless vertical truth. The epistemological, or what we can know, is moment by moment a horizontal reality pointing to its vertical Source. The mystical, from the horizontal into the boundless, is the spacious verticality of the Divine. Finally, the moral combines transcendent vertical awareness with the horizontal — appropriate attitudes and actions in everyday life. In its spiritual expression, developing from its moral character, awareness is love in action, and the attributes of limitless sensitivity, kindness, compassion and mercy — actual acts of living.
Wayne Teasdale. A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2002. pp. 198-199.

Another possible worldview is: The sensations, emotions, and values we attribute to nature might be not in nature itself but in ourselves.

"We think that the grass is green, that stones are hard, that the snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of a stone upon himself."
— Bertrand Russell. Quoted in David Berreby. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2005. p 141.

"Nature gets credit which in truth should be reserved for ourselves, the rose of its scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves and should turn them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellence of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."
— Alfred North Whitehead, quoted by Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (1972)

"The spiritual and emotive quality of nature does not reside in brute facts but rather originates from the transmutation of these facts into new values by human imagination and fantasy."
— Rene Dubos, Beast Or Angel?: Choices that Make Us Human. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. p. 197.

But what are we?

We could have evolved without consciousness.

"Consciousness, in survival terms, is an irrelevancy. It is perfectly possible to conceive of a world inhabited by all sorts of life-forms, from the simplest bacteria to the most spectacularly cerebral of creatures, in which there never stirred a single conscious feeling or experience. In fact, such a world could be imagined that was outwardly indistinguishable from our own. It might appear to be full of diversity, sophisticated behavior, intelligence, and even wit and charm, and yet involve no subjective experience, no inner feeling of being, whatsoever.
Many attempts have been made by evolutionary biologists to explain why consciousness should have come about and what possible advantage it might have bestowed on its owners. For example, it has been suggested that being conscious allows us to understand how other members of our social group feel so that we can better interact and communicate with them. Consciousness, it is sometimes said, helps us to see the world from each other's point of view. But the circularity of this argument is readily apparent. It might indeed be a survival advantage to appreciate how the other fellow feels if conscious feelings and experiences are already a fact of the world, but this offers no explanation of why consciousness should have come about in the first place. Exasperated by their failure to discern an obvious purpose for consciousness, some researchers have dismissed it as peripheral and almost accidental — an inconsequential spin-off of the brain's other activities."
— David Darling. Zen Physics: The Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p 172.

Consciousness — or, at least, the 'I' who is conscious — may be an illusion.

"If the ego were to disappear, or rather, to be seen as a useful fiction...the thinker would be seen to be no more than the series of thoughts, and the feeler no more than the feelings."
— Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, p 70-71

And maybe these "things," these other beings that we perceive in nature, are part of us.

"[Among the foragers,] only a fool would imagine himself as somehow exclusively a human being. Through language and artifice one could recall and vivify the primal linkage (we might call it an evolutionary connection) to other forms of life, animal and plant. Language and art underscored Homo's bestial and vegetal identity, a hyphenated identity: 'I can be a frog or a fox and still be a person.'"
— Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. p. 18.

Here is another angle to tackle the question: The world includes that which is and what we perceive about it. Is there a distinction between what-exists and what-we-know? Maybe, maybe not. The other angle is that there is something else beyond these matters, outside this world.

"Kabbalah invests these two words with cosmic, metaphysical significance. Yesh comes to refer to the created world, this one in which we spend most of our time. But yesh connotes much, much more than merely the material or the physical. It includes spatial, temporal, intellectual, even emotional reality also. The key notion here is that all the things of yesh have definitions, beginnings and ends, and, above all, boundaries. Living in the world of yesh is not bad — indeed, it's obviously inescapable and often beautiful. Yesh is only dangerous if you think that's all there is."
Lawrence Kushner, "A Kabbalah Lexicon" in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Complex or simple?

"Intelligence is: (a) the most complex phenomenon in the Universe; or (b) a profoundly simple process.
The answer, of course, is (c) both of the above. It's another one of those great dualities that make life interesting."
— Ray Kurzweil. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. p. 118