Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Atheists are Coming (Gasp…!)

The two, hour-long videos of Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and Harris talking on atheism are making their way through the Integral Province. I made a short comment on them at Open Source Integral and was asked to expand on the thoughts. One of the main reasons for pursuing the matter further was it gave me the chance to quote this essay by the late Richard Rorty called Universalist Grandeur, Romantic Profundity, Humanist Finitude in which he deftly stated some cultural perceptions that parallel my own. He wrote:

Philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart-when long-held and widely-cherished beliefs are threatened. At such periods, intellectuals reinterpret the past in terms of an imagined future. They offer suggestions about what can be preserved and what must be discarded. The ones whose suggestion have been most influential win a place on the list of “great philosophers”. For example, when prayer and priestcraft began to be viewed with suspicion, Plato and Aristotle found ways for us to hold on to the idea that human beings, unlike the beasts that perish, have a special relation to the ruling powers of the universe. When Copernicus and Galileo erased the world-picture that had comforted Aquinas and Dante, Spinoza and Kant taught Europe how to replace love of God with love of Truth, and how to replace obedience to the divine will with moral purity. When the democratic revolutions and industrialization forced us to rethink the nature of the social bond, Marx and Mill stepped forward with some useful suggestions.

In the course of the twentieth century there were no crises that called forth new philosophical ideas. There was no intellectual struggle comparable in scale to the one that Lecky famously described as the warfare between science and theology. Nor were there any social convulsions that rendered either Mill’s or Marx’s suggestions irrelevant. As high culture became more thoroughly secularized, the educated classes of Europe and the Americas became complacently materialist in their understanding of how things work. In the battle between Plato and Democritus-the one Plato described as waged between the gods and the giants, they have come down, once and for all, on the side of the giants. They also become complacently utilitarian and experimentalist in their evaluations of proposed social and political initiatives. They came to share the same utopian vision: a global commonwealth in which human rights are respected, equality of opportunity assured, and the chances of human happiness are thereby increased. Political argument nowadays is about how this goal might best be reached.

This consensus among the intellectuals has moved philosophy to the margins of culture. Such controversies as those between Russell and Bergson, Heidegger and Cassirer, Carnap and Quine, Ayer and Austin, Habermas and Gadamer, and Fodor and Davidson, have had no resonance outside the borders of philosophy departments. Philosophers’ explanations of how the mind is related to the brain, or of how there can be a place for value in a world of fact, or of how free will and mechanism might be reconciled, do not intrigue most contemporary intellectuals. These problems, preserved in amber as the textbook “problems of philosophy”, still capture the imagination of some bright students. But no one would claim that discussion of them is central to intellectual life. Solving those very problems was all-important for contemporaries of Spinoza, but when today’s philosophy professors insist that that they are “perennial”, or that they remain “fundamental”, nobody listens. Most intellectuals of our day brush aside claims that our social practices require philosophical foundations with the same impatience as when similar claims are made for religion.

Rorty was a little more diplomatic here than I would have been. If asked, “How do you feel about religion?” “What is your stand on the forced hegemony of science?” My reply would be: “Ask me if I care.” “Well then, in what do you believe?” “I don’t.”

Context: I have found in a few rather rare instances people whose autonomy of mind is as well developed as their level of self-awareness. They seem not to have any need for belief. They seem whole in both heart and mind. Next to their qualities, belief appears to bespeak a failure of self-reliance, a failure of will. But that is just the accumulation of experience from my preferred perspective. From another I can see where the faculty to believe is the highest human sensibility.The two are an ambiguity that I have neither the time nor interest to resolve for myself. I embrace the former of the two because its a lot more fun and save for the fun of it, why stick around?

But looking at the 4 H’men video, I see a great deal of true belief and maybe some superstition. Dawkins, for example seems to possess a militant belief in Science. (And Dennett to a lesser extent.) To me that is like believing in a wrench, but I have known people who do actually have faith in Science like it was The Savior, that it has some numinous aura and requires all of our subordinatiion. I would write further on this phenomena but such people need our understanding; their lives must be bleak enough as is without the addition of my ridicule.

And Sam Harris is an interesting case. From something akin to Rorty’s perspective he appears as the troglodyte militarist trying to revive the flames of a long-dead war. On some site he is described as believing that “religion creates divisiveness…” Now that’s a revelation. Who would have ever thought? But is he against all divisiveness, even that which certainly can be caused by the placement of an attractive, ovulating young woman in the presence of a group of lusty young men? Is Harris also in favor of eliminating attractiveness or lust or ovulation?

Reflecting on that last riff, I seem to have detected a puritanical streak running through the 4 H’men conversation. It isn’t quite as pronounced as the drearily earnest puritanical streak that is present here in the Integral Province, but that is probably because of Hitchen’s cynical and dissolute kind of influence in the video discussion. True belief, whether among the 3 Scientistic H’men (Hitchens is a journalist) or among the civilians of Integral, appears often to create this puritanical aura. But I have written enough of that elsewhere. Speaking of Hitchens, he seems to be the most vocal of the four in pointing to world terrorism and saying “look at the damage that superstitious belief can create” as if thinking that the elimination of belief can eliminate violent conflicts, or hatred or fear. I think there is some illogic at work in such a contention.

My final thought—at least for the time being—on this expansion of comments is that all of the 4 H’men are considered part of the “Brights,” though they are not entirely in favor of that name. The name Brights was proposed to describe those who are members of the “naturalistic” (as opposed to the supernatural-istic) persuasion in a public relations campaign to habilitate the Non-Belief Option to the point where non-believers (whatever their subcatagory) can successfully run for public office. How sweet. I wonder if the really Brights would even want to.