Featured Video: Abraham & Isaac

November 9, 2012

Breaking News:  The copyright claim on my video (via YouTube) has been lifted as a result of my protest.  You can view it with full audio.

At last, the long awaited world premier of my retelling of this biblical cult favorite! You can watch it on YouTube, and sing along at the end with Bob Dylan.

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Ontological Fallacy

June 28, 2011

I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe.  Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place.  Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.

Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it.  On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell,  during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!”   “God in boots?”  Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism.  The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.

I deal with it this way:  I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be.  It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept.  (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.

I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that?  I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.


Atheism on the sly

March 31, 2010

It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting.  The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene.  The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old:  There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.

The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur.  (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. )   The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention.  During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book.  When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny!  I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.”  Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no,  being a great lover of good music.

D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties.  Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:

Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism:  for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion.  He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics.  If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute.  I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.


My man, Dan

August 26, 2009

Not-blind watchmaker

The latest pseudo-intellectual sally to save the “God hypothesis” published on the NYTimes OpEd page brought forth some good responses from letter writers.  Among them, was this pithy observation:

…While personal revelation is an excellent way to know whom we love, it is an abysmal way to seek knowledge about the universe. It becomes an excuse to believe what one wishes to believe.

Paul L. LaClair   Kearny, N.J., Aug. 23, 2009

My hat’s off to Dan Dennett for his great response, quoted in full here (my emphasis):

To the Editor:

Robert Wright notes that the speculations he outlines on how a moral sense could evolve are “compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation.” Indeed, these speculations — actually rigorous abstract arguments — have been developed by evolutionary theorists who, like Mr. Wright, see our moral intuitions as real phenomena in need of an explanation.

But the point of these arguments is to demonstrate that there can be a traversable path, an evolutionary process, from, say, bacteria, to us (with our moral intuitions) that doesn’t at any point require that the evolutionary process itself have a purpose. In other words, their implication is that our moral sense would evolve even if there weren’t a creative intelligence in the background.

So the compatibility that Mr. Wright finds is trivial.

Go ahead and believe in God, if you like, but don’t imagine that you have been given any grounds for such a belief by science.

Daniel Dennett     Medford, Mass., Aug. 23, 2009

Dennett is the author of Consciousness Explained, one of the best books I have ever read on the mind-body problem.  I am tickled to see that the Wiki article cites T. Nagel’s criticisms of the book in its summary – one of my favorite parts of Dan’s book is his dissection of Nagel’s famous article, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”


The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

Mocking God

October 20, 2008

Some choice words from Sarah Palin, chief theological spokes-person for the Republican ticket:

She expressed support for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. “I wish on a federal level that that’s where we would go because I don’t support gay marriage,” she said.

For those who claim there is no separation of church and state in the Constitution, I guess this is fine.  We might as well have amendments stipulating appropriate sexual practices, theologically acceptable rates of interest on loans, and dietary rules to be observed in all public places as well.  Maybe, just maybe, the government should back out of defining marriage entirely, even at the state level.  We could all be on a level playing field – with civil unions – and then we can get married by whatever priest, rabbi, mullah, brahmin, or witch doctor we select. 

Notice, also, how the usual “conservative” stance on states’ rights is dropped in favor of morality to be legislated from the Center when the issue is of such earth-shaking importance.

In the interview she also discussed her personal religious beliefs and said that “faith and God in general has been mocked through this campaign.”

Getting a little grandiose in her complaints here, I think.  She has certainly been mocked, but I don’t recall hearing much “God shall be mocked…” stuff at all.  Perhaps she thinks she is G-d? 

I like the “God in general” part too.  Well, at least the mockers aren’t focusing on God-trivia, like his hairdo in the Sistine frescoes, and stuff like that!

She’s a disgrace to our country.


Huh?

September 25, 2008

I got an email from a believer today:  “How can you believe there is no God?  Just stop and look around at creation.”

Well, I frequently do just that.  A non sequitur if I ever heard one!