Delight Springs

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Augustine to Quine

It's AugustineBoethius, Santayana, Dewey, and Quine today in CoPhi.

Is anyone, from God on down, “pulling our strings”? We’d not be free if they were, would we? If you say we would, what do you mean by “free”? Jesus and Mo have puzzled this one, behind the wheel with with Moses...
..and with "Free Willy." But as usual, the Atheist Barmaid is unpersuaded.

(As I always must say, when referencing this strip: that’s not Jesus of Nazareth, nor is it the Prophet Mohammed, or the sea-parter Moses; and neither I nor Salman Rushdie, the Dutch cartoonists, the anonymous Author, or anyone else commenting on religion in fictional media are blasphemers. We're all just observers exercising our "god-given" right of free speech, which of course extends no further than the end of a fist and the tip of a nose. We were celebrating precisely that, and academic freedom, when we lined up to take turns reading the Constitution yesterday.

They’re just a trio of cartoonish guys who often engage in banter relevant to our purposes in CoPhi. It’s just harmless provocation, and fun.  But if it makes us think, it’s useful.)

Augustine proposed a division between the “city of god” and the “earthly city” of humanity, thus excluding many of us from his version of the cosmos. “These two cities of the world, which are doomed to coexist intertwined until the Final Judgment, divide the world’s inhabitants.” SEP 

And of course he believed in hell, raising the stakes for heaven and the judicious free will  he thought necessary to get there even higher. But if there's no such thing as free will, how can you do "whatever the hell you want"?  But, imagine there's no heaven or hell. What then? Some of us think that's when free will becomes most useful to members of a growing, responsible species.

Someone posted the complaint on our class message board that it's not clear what "evil" means, in the context of our Little History discussion of Augustine. But I think this is clear enough: "there is a great deal of suffering in the world," some of it proximally caused by crazy, immoral/amoral, armed and dangerous humans behaving badly, much more of it caused by earthquakes, disease, and other "natural" causes. All of it, on the theistic hypothesis, is part and parcel of divinely-ordered nature.

Whether or not some suffering is ultimately beneficial, character-building, etc., and from whatever causes, "evil" means the suffering that seems gratuitously destructive of innocent lives. Some of us "can't blink the evil out of sight," in William James's words, and thus can't go in for theistic (or other) schemes of "vicarious salvation." We think it's the responsibility of humans to use their free will (or whatever you prefer to call ameliorative volitional action) to reduce the world's evil and suffering. Take a sad song and make it better.

Note the Manicahean strain in Augustine, and the idea that "evil comes from the body." That's straight out of Plato. The world of Form and the world of perfect heavenly salvation thus seem to converge. If you don't think "body" is inherently evil, if in fact you think material existence is pretty cool (especially considering the alternative), this view is probably not for you. Nor if you can't make sense of Original Sin.

Boethius was consoled by the thought that God’s foreknowledge of everything, including the fact that Boethius himself (among too many others) would be unjustly imprisoned and tortured to death, in no way impaired his (Boethius’s) freedom or god's perfection. Consoled. Comforted. Calmed. Reconciled.

That’s apparently because God knows things timelessly, sees everything “in a go.” I don’t think that would really make me feel any better, in my prison cell. The real consolation of philosophy comes when it contributes to the liberation of mind and body (one thing, not two). But it’s still very cool to imagine Philosophy a comfort-woman, reminding us of our hard-earned wisdom when the going gets impossible.

And then, of course, they killed him. The list of martyred philosophers grows. And let’s not forget Hypatia and Bruno. The problem of suffering (“evil”) was very real to them, as it is to so many of our fellow world-citizens. You can’t chalk it all up to free will. But can we even chalk torture or any other inflicted choice up to it, given the full scope of a genuinely omniscient creator’s knowledge? If He already knows what I’m going to do unto others and what others will do unto me, am I in any meaningful sense a free agent who might have done otherwise? The buck stops where?

George Santayana was a Spanish-American philosopher at Harvard, not quite a pragmatist but a good representative of the Euro-American strain of classic American philosophy. He gave us one of our most quoted unattributred quotes: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (Life of Reason

William James described Santayana's Platonic perfectionism as "the perfection of rottenness," and Santayana himself as a man determined never to enjoy his eggs at breakfast. (Santayana countered that James seemed to think all eggs were good just "because the hen has laid them," i.e., because they're real and not ideal.)

Eggs aside, Santayana has been called "a pessimist in an optimist's country." Others called him "supercilious, vain and offensive." Bertrand Russell apparently thought him "a prissy queen and a prig." I'd just call him a masterful and elegant writer of sophisticated prose, a naturalist and materialist and a skeptical observer of life, and a delightful aphorist who said there's no cure for life and death, save to enjoy the interval. Also that it's better to love all the seasons in turn, rather than be exclusively and hopelessly in love only with Spring.

John Dewey (1859-1952) is one of my heroes. I love what he said about the continuous human community.

W.V.O. Quine (1908-2000) was not one of my heroes. But I enjoy recalling the time I hung out with him in the kitchen.

Postscript. A note from Carlin Romano: 
FYI, cover piece of the Chronicle Review next week will be a piece by me headlined (I think), "Dao Rising: The Liftoff of Chinese Philosophy in America."
 So, is a sequel in the works? China(town) the Philosophical...

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