Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Fascinating discovery in our (human) cultural history. A NY Times Report by Nicholas Wade is worth reading.
Very interesting review by Thomas Nagel in the NY Review of Books:
The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy
by Anthony Gottlieb
Liveright, 293 pp., $28.95
It is fascinating to learn about the concrete historical circumstances under which great philosophical works—works that have become timeless classics—were produced, and about the relation to their own times of the extraordinary individuals who produced them. For those with limited firsthand knowledge of the works this biographical approach can serve as an accessible introduction or reintroduction to the thought of some of the most important creators of our intellectual world. Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist who is not a philosopher but a philosophical fellow traveler, is writing just such a history of the entire course of Western philosophy. The first volume, The Dream of Reason (2000),* took the story from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. The second volume, The Dream of Enlightenment, ends in the eighteenth century; a third volume will take us from Kant to the present day.
Gottlieb concentrates most of his discussion on six philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries whose stature and influence are especially great—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume—along with shorter treatments of Bayle, Voltaire, and Rousseau, and brief comments on many other figures. Here is what he says at the outset:
It is because they still have something to say to us that we can easily get these philosophers wrong. It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes. That is what this book tries to do.
Gottlieb exaggerates the intellectual distance of these figures from us: it isn’t that they speak our language, but that we speak their language, because our world has been significantly formed by them. And he does not always succeed in stepping back into their shoes, which in the case of a great philosopher means understanding his thoughts from the inside, as well as in relation to his historical milieu. Nevertheless Gottlieb’s biographical narrative is vivid and often illuminating. Most important, he emphasizes throughout that these men lived in a historical period dominated by dramatic developments and conflicts in three areas—science, religion, and politics—and that their thoughts and writings were dominated by the need to respond to those developments, and to understand the relations among them.
First, there was the scientific revolution, which introduced a new way of understanding the physical world through universal laws, mathematically formulated, that govern everything that happens in space and time. Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference. Two of Gottlieb’s thinkers, Descartes and Leibniz, were major contributors to the mathematical sciences—Descartes through the creation of analytic geometry (hence the term “Cartesian coordinates”) and Leibniz through the invention of the calculus (which was created independently by Newton). Descartes also produced theories of mechanics, optics, and physiology, Leibniz made significant contributions to dynamics, and Spinoza worked in optics and conducted experiments in hydrodynamics and metallurgy. But all six grappled with the question of how the austere physical reality revealed by the new science is related to the familiar world that we perceive—and to our minds, in which both perception and scientific reasoning take place.
Second, after the Reformation and the terrible wars of religion it had become clear that the plurality of religious beliefs in Christendom was not going to disappear. This posed questions both about the grounds for religious belief and about how governments should choose between imposing a single orthodoxy and tolerating diversity. In addition, each of these philosophers had to be concerned about the relation of his own work to the religious orthodoxy of his community, and about the dangers of ostracism, repression, or persecution. Descartes was deterred by the condemnation of Galileo from publishing his cosmological theories, and Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Third, the basis of legitimate political authority was coming seriously into question, with skepticism about the divine right of kings and support for the right of subjects to overthrow a ruler who abused his power. This was not just theoretical: it took concrete form in the English civil war that culminated with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Glorious Revolution that replaced James II with William of Orange in 1688. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Rousseau all produced theories of political authority starting from the subject’s rather than the ruler’s point of view.
The metaphysical and epistemological problems that arose out of the scientific revolution are particularly difficult and abstract, and the responses of these thinkers are among the most formidable structures that philosophy has produced. They were concerned, as philosophers have always been, to understand the nature of reality in the broadest sense: what kinds of things and facts ultimately constitute everything there is. They were also concerned with whether we humans have the capacity to discover the answers to those questions, and if not, what limits to our knowledge are imposed by our finite human faculties. The advances of the scientific revolution gave these problems a new form.
Given how much he has to cover, Gottlieb does a pretty good job of summarizing the complex speculative responses of his philosophers. They are contributions to a collective intellectual inquiry that has continued ever since, and their value lies in working out some of the main alternative possibilities for making the most general sense of reality. Others can then explore, refine, and elaborate those proposals, and attempt to refute or defend them, or at least to evaluate their relative plausibility. I will confine myself—with apologies for the capsule presentation—to one metaphysical example, the mind–body problem, which grew directly out of the scientific revolution and is very much still with us.
The problem arose because the new mathematical conception of physical reality dehumanized it. Among other things, that conception left out all the rich qualitative aspects, such as color, smell, taste, and sound, with which the world appears to our senses. These so-called “secondary” qualities were interpreted as effects on our minds, as opposed to the geometrically describable so-called “primary” qualities like shape, size, and motion, which are features of the physical world as it is in itself, independent of our minds.
The question was: How complete an account of the nature of reality could the new physical science in principle provide? Do our minds necessarily escape its reach, even if our bodies are part of the physical world? Hobbes gave the most radically materialist answer to this question, holding not only that we, with all our thoughts and perceptions, are nothing but matter in motion, but that even God is a physical being. A scientifically updated version of this view—with mechanics replaced by quantum theory, molecular biology, and neuroscience, and God eliminated from the picture—is the dominant form of contemporary naturalism. It holds that physics can aspire to be the theory of everything. . .
Note the sentence “Although knowledge of those laws is based on observation and experiment, the reality they describe is not directly available to human perception, but can be known only by theoretical inference.” Isn’t that actually saying that the reality being described is known only through memes?
Ariel Levy has a long and interesting article on ayahuasca in the New Yorker. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s just a snippet:
. . . Having studied fMRIs and EEGs of subjects on ayahuasca, Araujo thinks that the brain’s “default-mode network”—the system that burbles with thought, mulling the past and the future, while your mind isn’t focussed on a task—is temporarily relieved of its duties. Meanwhile, the thalamus, which is involved in awareness, is activated. The change in the brain, he notes, is similar to the one that results from years of meditation.
Dennis McKenna told me, “In shamanism, the classic theme is death and rebirth—you are reborn in a new configuration. The neuroscientific interpretation is exactly the same: the default-mode network is disrupted, and maybe things that were mucking up the works are left behind when everything comes back together.”
In the early nineties, McKenna, Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center, and James Callaway, a pharmaceutical chemist, conducted a study in Manaus, Brazil, that investigated the effects of ayahuasca on long-term users. Fifteen men who had taken part in bimonthly ceremonies for at least a decade were compared with a control group of people with similar backgrounds. The researchers drew blood from the subjects and assessed the white blood cells, which are powerful indicators of the condition of the central nervous system. (McKenna told me, “In psychopharmacology, we say, ‘If it’s going on in the platelets, it’s probably going on in the brain.’ ”) They found that the serotonin reuptake transporters—the targets that many contemporary antidepressants work on—were elevated among habitual ayahuasca drinkers. “We thought, What does this mean?” McKenna said. They couldn’t find any research on people with abnormally high levels of the transporters, but there was an extensive body of literature on low levels: the condition is common among those with intractable depression, and in people who suffer from Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with bouts of violent behavior. “We thought, Holy shit! Is it possible that the ayahuasca actuallyreverses these deficits over the long term?” McKenna pointed out that no other known drug has this effect. “There’s only one other instance of a factor that affects this upregulation—and that’s aging.” He wondered if ayahuasca is imparting something to its drinkers that we associate with maturity: wisdom.
Charles Grob told me, “Some of these guys were leading disreputable lives and they became radically transformed—responsible pillars of their community.” But, he noted, the men were taking ayahuasca as part of a religious ceremony: their church, União do Vegetal, is centered on integrating the ayahuasca experience into everyday life. Grob cautioned, “You have to take it with a facilitator who has some knowledge, experience, and ethics.” In unregulated ceremonies, several women have been molested, and at times people have turned violent. Last year, during a ceremony at an ayahuasca center in Iquitos, Peru, a young British man started brandishing a kitchen knife and yelling; a Canadian man who was also on ayahuasca wrestled it from him and stabbed him to death.
Grob speculated that the shaman in that case had spiked the ayahuasca. Often, when things go wrong, it is after a plant called datura is added to the pharmacological mix. “Maybe facilitators think, Oh, Americans will get more bang for their buck,” Grob said. He also wondered if the knife-wielding British man had been suffering a psychotic break: like many hallucinogens, ayahuasca is thought to have the potential to trigger initial episodes in people who are predisposed to them.
Problems can also arise if someone takes ayahuasca—with its potent MAOI—on top of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a common class of antidepressants. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation encourages enormous amounts of the neurotransmitter to flood the synapses. The outcome can be disastrous: a condition called serotonin syndrome, which starts with shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, and palpitations and can progress to muscular rigidity, convulsions, and even death. “I get calls from family members or friends of people who seem to be in a persistent state of confusion,” Grob said. He had just received a desperate e-mail from the mother of a young woman who had become disoriented in the midst of a ceremony. “She ran off from where she was, and when she was found she was having breathing difficulties and is now having what appears to be a P.T.S.D. reaction.”
These cases are rare, but profoundly upsetting trips are common. People on ayahuasca regularly report experiencing their own death; one man told Araujo that he had a terrifying visualization of being trapped in a coffin. “There are some people who are getting damaged from it because they’re not using it the right way,” Dennis McKenna warned. “It’s a psychotherapeutic process: if they don’t integrate the stuff that comes up, it can be very traumatic. That’s the whole thing with ayahuasca—or any psychedelic, really. Set and setting is all-important: they’ve been telling us this since Leary! It’s not to be treated lightly.” . . .
Andrew Murphy writes in the OUP blog:
On this day in 1670: a trial gets underway:
“The question is not whether I am guilty of this indictment, but whether this indictment be legal.” (William Penn, 3 September 1670)
The two defendants had been arrested several weeks earlier while preaching to a crowd in the street, and charged with unlawful assembly and creating a riot. Their trial, slated to begin on 1 September, had been pushed back to 3 September after preliminary wrangling between the judge and the defendants. And so on this date – 246 years ago today – the defendants were called before the bench. They were an unlikely pair, in some ways: the firstborn son of an English knight and naval hero, a month shy of his twenty-sixth birthday, who had studied at (and been ejected from) the most prestigious college in England; and a wealthy London merchant, sixteen years his senior. But by the end of the year, due in large part to the events of the next two days, William Penn and William Mead would become leading spokesmen for the Society of Friends (Quakers) and nationally-known figures in the movement for liberty of conscience, representative institutions, and the rule of law.
The trial was contentious before it even began: as they approached the bench on the morning of 3 September, Penn and Mead found themselves fined for refusing to remove their hats before they had even spoken a word. (Quakers considered doffing the hat to mere humans inappropriate, a gesture that deprived God of the ultimate honor due Him.) During the proceedings, Penn continually objected that the charges were unjust and contrary to English law; he was eventually ejected from the courtroom altogether. Mead continued to object until he, too, was ejected. Despite repeated threats from the judge, and despite being denied food and a toilet all night (at least according to the defendants), the jury found Penn and Mead not guilty, whereon its members were fined for refusing to convict. Penn and Mead, though acquitted, were returned to jail on contempt charges stemming from their refusal to remove their hats at the outset of the trial. Penn’s release came a week later, his fines paid by family or friends so that he could be home with his dying father.
What followed after the trial is arguably as important as what happened during the trial. A purported transcript – entitled The Peoples Ancient and Just Liberties Asserted – appeared shortly after the conclusion of the trial and went through nine printings in the last three months of 1670 alone (with additional printings in 1682, 1696, 1710, and 1725). Though it is a transcript of sorts, Peoples’s presentation of Penn and Mead is clearly a stylized and heroic construction, a morality play in dramatic form, complete with stage directions and narrative insertions, aimed at presenting the defendants as courageous Dissenters railroaded by a persecuting state-church system. It is a work of political theory and political theater that articulates a politics of dissent against arbitrary authority, of clear written law against prosecutions built on vague charges, and of juries as defenders of popular liberties against power-hungry judges. Its publication and ensuing popularity marked William Penn’s emergence as a new voice in the world of English Dissent.
The early modern courtroom was a far cry from our contemporary version of that institution, and it lacked many modern “hallmarks” like the presumption of innocence, exclusion of hearsay evidence, guarantees of defense counsel, the burden of proof on the prosecution, defendants’ right to silence. The judge in the case was none other than . . .
Really excellent column (and statement) by Josh Korman at Book Riot.
I had the chance, once, to put my money where my mouth was. It was an experience not unlike being woken in the middle of the night by a foreign noise in your home and having only seconds to decide whether you will grab the baseball bat from the corner and walk toward the sound or hide in the closet instead.
My 110 eleventh graders were reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and one of our administrators had notified me that the parents of one of those students had contacted the superintendent directly to complain about the assignment and, of course, demand that the book be removed from the curriculum, the school, the county, and, if possible, scrubbed from the fabric of their child’s brain. I told the administrator that I would gladly meet with the parents to discuss their concerns.
This was a lie on two fronts. For one, I wasn’t glad about any of this. And for another, I was using a broader definition of the word “discuss” which includes indignant shouting and fist-shaking. But meet we did. I could tell you that, with Darrow-like precision, I cut away the heart of their argument and led them into the green pastures of enlightened understanding, but two lies is enough for one paragraph. No one shouted, minds and hearts failed to transform, and we promised nothing more than to revisit the policy allowing for alternate novel assignments if requested. Shortly thereafter, I was asked by a very supportive administrator to draft a statement detailing my rationale for selecting the novel in the first place so that if anyone else, including district-level personnel, expressed concerns about the book, the statement could be given to them in lieu of dragging me to more meetings.
This is what I wrote:
My selection of Margaret Atwood’sThe Handmaid’s Tale for study in my AP Language and Composition classes has come under scrutiny, related primarily (though not exclusively) to a passage which includes explicit reference the sexual assault of a woman enduring forced servitude in a dystopian, totalitarian future. I would like to take this opportunity to provide a cogent rationale for my selection of the book in response to the concerns expressed by some parents.
To start, it is worth noting that
Scott Shane reports in the NY Times:
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump don’t agree on much, but Saudi Arabia may be an exception. She has deplored Saudi Arabia’s support for “radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism.” He has called the Saudis “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”
The first American diplomat to serve as envoy to Muslim communities around the world visited 80 countries and concluded that the Saudi influence was destroying tolerant Islamic traditions. “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing,” the official, Farah Pandith, wrote last year, “there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.”
And hardly a week passes without a television pundit or a newspaper columnist blaming Saudi Arabia for jihadist violence. On HBO, Bill Mahercalls Saudi teachings “medieval,” adding an epithet. In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes that the Saudis have “created a monster in the world of Islam.”
The idea has become a commonplace: that Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.
Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States’s own actions among them?
Those questions are deeply contentious, partly because of the contradictory impulses of the Saudi state.
In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.
Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counterterrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.
Saudi leaders seek good relations with the West and see jihadist violence as a menace that could endanger their rule, especially now that the Islamic State is staging attacks in the kingdom — 25 in the last eight months, by the government’s count. But they are also driven by their rivalry with Iran, and they depend for legitimacy on a clerical establishment dedicated to a reactionary set of beliefs. Those conflicting goals can play out in a bafflingly inconsistent manner.
Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. . .
And do read the whole thing. There’s a lot more, and it shows how the Saudi initiative has unbalanced the role of Muslim in daily life in dozens of countries and cultures.
Later in the article:
Why does Saudi Arabia find it so difficult to let go of an ideology that much of the world finds repugnant? The key to the Saudi dilemma dates back nearly three centuries to the origin of the alliance that still undergirds the Saudi state.
Around where I live, on Monterey Bay, a lot of surfers wear wetsuits, which apparently are illegal in France, at least for women.
UPDATE: No, The Wife tells me, wetsuits are okay.
I think I can’t make sense of the law because the law doesn’t make sense. It’s an example of laws passed to show social disapproval of a group, not for any other reason. (One reason, I’ve read, that (alcohol) Prohibition did not work in the US is that the law was passed by Protestant rural majorities, who tended to drink little, to show their disapproval of urban Catholics, who did imbibe. Once the law was passed and the disapproval was shown, the public really didn’t care whether the law was enforced or not.
Anyway, I think one can reeasonably condemn the French law and whatever passed for the “thinking” behind it.