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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On the spell of the spiritual and the mechanism of philisophy

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Guardian has an interesting article on the failure of anglophone philosophy here. In it, Roger Scruton argues that the analytic philosophy of English-speaking philosophers has taken philosophy out of realms where it might be relevant to peoples' lives.

Scruton says:
Academic philosophers in the English speaking world still regard philosophy as Locke defined it in the 17th century, as “the handmaiden of the sciences”: it doesn’t explore the world beyond science but the limits of science, with the result that philosophy doesnt really intrude into the public world. In the early 20th century were were caught up by the movement to form analytical philosophy, based in the study of logic, the foundations of mathematics, the syntax of ordinary language, the validity of arguments, something very formal. So when people have a big question, especially now since the decline of the orthodox religions, they don’t turn to philosophy for the answer but try to formulate it in whatever technical words have been bequeathed to them, and when a scientist comes along and says “I have the answer”, or even “there is no question”, they think “this guy knows what he’s talking about, I’d better lean on him”.
The French, he notes, did not fall into this trap. Sartre was willing to address the great moral questions, even if the morality of his actions in World War II might be a little questionable (he gained his teaching position during the war because Vichy law eliminated a Jew from that position, and chose not to be active in the resistance.)

But Scruton fails to note that many people don't look to science for their answers. Some turn to religion, some turn to New Age gurus. Both reflect a backlash against the Enlightenment ideas reflected in modern philosophy. Most modern philosophy (yes, even the French) is unwilling to deal with the spiritual feelings people have.

Part of the problem is that people tend to believe in the spiritual in an a priori manor., and will interpret any attempt to analyze it as an attempt to destroy it, to reduce it to the physical world. Any logical and analytical approach to the spiritual that does not treat the existence of the spiritual as an accepted fact and a realm not readily explained by the physical world will be seen as the reductive destruction of the spiritual, equivalent to trying to understand the Mona Lisa by turning it to powder and doing chemical analysis of the molecules.

Any attempt to find the part of the brain that needs to believe in god will receive this reception. My own attempts to understand the spiritual in terms of the ethereal parallel world of symbolic thought have been received this way. As an agnostic, I am open to the possibility of the existence of a spiritual world but not convinced of it. And I have to wonder, if we could understand the spiritual world, would that be tantamount to its reductive destruction?

In my series of posts on the strangeness of being human,  I have stuck with trying to explain what I can, which has restricted me to the physical and analytical. I remain skeptical of those who claim a special knowledge of the spiritual world, because so many have been shown to be frauds, but I respect the impulses and the work of sincere ministers of many faiths. For many people, faith has been a support for them spiritually, psychologically, morally, and socially. Scot Adams, long a vocal atheist, said on his blog recently:
In recent years I've come to see religion as a valid user interface to reality. The so-called "truth" of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren't equipped to understand it anyway. 
 As a pragmatist, I find this appealing. Were I a Christian, I might find it appalling, for the same reason the Catholic Church found Pascal;s Wager appalling: It does not accept the truth of religion as its reason for practicing religion.

Yet in many ways, worrying about the truth of religion is a modern luxury. If you lived in most societies for most of the history of religion, the penalty for failing to believe in the God or Gods of your people was death, ostracism, or incomprehension by your fellows. The notion that religion should have to justify itself was uncommon until recently. Socrates was charged with undermining the young's faith in the gods, and condemned to death. Society was punishing him, not for proving the gods did not exists, but for raising the question of how we might logically confront religion.

Thomas Aikenhead was executed in Scotland in 1697 for the same thing. Thomas Hobbes might have lost his life on a charge of blasphemy for claiming God exists, but is a material being, had he not had protection from the king, who he had tutored.

Although Aikenhead was the last person in the United Kingdom executed for blasphemy, the last successful prosecution in the UK for blasphemy was in 1977. The law has since been repealed.

There are parts of the world where the law says you can still lose your life for leaving the established religion, although in the best-known cases governments have backed off.

But even for the unchurched, the spell of the spiritual has an appeal that the logical mechanisms of philosophy cannot address. This is an interesting problem, because for centuries, philosophy was taught in Europe at Christian institutions. In fact, if you wanted to be educated in Europe after the rise of Christianity, for centuries you had to take orders.

This led to exactly the sort of reductive logic chopping we now see in our more materialistic philosophy. Schoolmasters were ridiculed for arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (my view is, all of them or none of them, depending on whether angels have a sense of rhythm -- after all, they are as immaterial as the question.)

So the problem of the relevance of academic philosophy is not a new one. One of the aspects of the academic environment is that to be wise, you must specialize, so that you may know more about something than anyone else. That specialization takes you away from the big questions. Another is that the trap of irrelevance is not always obvious. The question of whether angels had a material presence interested some philosophers, and the thought experiment about them dancing on the head of a pin was a thought experiment intended to illustrate it.

The real trap was in failing to understand that in the grand sweep of things, whether angels had a material presences was irrelevant to the important questions of how we should live. The conversation became attenuated because those involved did not realize that they had lost the plot.

And if philosophy leaves the questions of how we should live our lives to the soft science of psychology or the realm of new=age gurus, it will be irrelevant to the questions they attempt to answer. Perhaps these questions are not the ones modern philosophy wishes to deal with, but if so, people will continue to ask, what is it for?

Scruton thinks the notion that philosophy is the queen of the sciences makes it beholden to the sciences, but that is wrong. Philosophy is the mother of the sciences, having spun them off. There was a time when naturalists called themselves "natural philosophers." It was philosophers who first examined the basic questions of physics, math, and astronomy.

Philosophy should not now turn its back on its children, but should integrate them, and show how they affect the way we live. But it seems to me that philosophy is the child of the spiritual rather than its queen or mother. We first tried to understand the world in a poetic and mythic way, and only later brought our problem-solving logic to bear on those understandings. It is much harder for the spirtual's logical child to understand its parent, because its business has been to supplant mythic understanding with logical understanding.

But it can talk about the questions the spiritual attempts to answer. After all, the Buddha had little to say about the gods, nor did Confucius. The question is, will academic philosophy reward such efforts, or view it as an enterprise left to some other field of study?



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