Listing entries tagged with Reason


posted on 12.05.2006 at 11:46 PM

In a new site connected to this blog:

** I have taken some of the more controversial ideas -- on disbelief and belief -- from the blog and early chapters of my book and combined them in a spiraling, twelve part paper (to be presented to a working group of the Center for Religion and Media at NYU).

** The Institute for the Future of the Book has come up with a new form that better integrates comments and allows readers to weigh in on individual paragraphs.

Thus we hope to expand the experiment begun with this blog: using the Web to sharpen and deepen a work in progress.

I hope you will check out this site and further the experiment with your comments, annotations, additions, references, corrections or criticisms.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

High Tide of Atheism?

posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM

Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").

What goes on?

1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?

2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?

3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?

4. ????????

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 AM | Comments (2)

Consciousness: Descartes' Error

posted on 10.20.2006 at 2:33 PM

The philosopher John Searle wades, with some confidence, through the swamp of attempts to make sense out of the forum in which we attempt to make sense: consciousness. Some of the issues in question are technical: "perception" versus "sensation," for example. But one of his points echoes one of the more significant moments in the history of disbelief: Descartes cogito ergo sum -- "I think therefore I exist."

Here's Searle saying "my consciousness exists":

Consciousness is real and ineliminable. It cannot be dismissed as some kind of an illusion, or reduced to some other phenomenon. Why not? It cannot be shown to be an illusion because if I consciously have the illusion that I am conscious, I already am conscious.

Descartes reaches this moment at the end of a brave effort to confront skepticism at its most scathing. Is there anything we could know, could believe in, even if some evil god were purposely trying to deceive us? This is not Searle's issue, at least in this article. But it is a very important issue in this history. For skepticism of this intensity, as Descartes understood, certainly includes among its targets the belief in a just God.

The place where Descartes manages to take a stand against skepticism is, as Searle is acknowledging, a reasonable one, though some would fiddle with the tense or a couple of the words. The problem comes when Descartes tries to move on from there. Having proven that there is something that we -- or more properly he -- could know, he makes a move that seems as clumsy as his original point was brilliant (unless it was somehow, shockingly tongue-in-cheek). Descartes concludes that since something he thought was true -- his own existence -- proves to be true, the rest of what he thought to be true must be true. Here's what he writes:

Accordingly it seems to me that already I can establish as a general rule that all things which I perceive very clearly and very distinctly are true.

Among those things that are, therefore, true, according to this odd reasoning, is, of course, God -- the precise Christian God that Descartes apparently perceived "clearly" and "distinctly."

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:33 PM | Comments (5)

Reason and Religion: II

posted on 10.12.2006 at 12:54 PM

This -- by Tertullian, the first major theologian to write in Latin -- is a bold statement of Christianity's attempts to rise above reason:

The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.

Does not something of this "logic" lie at the heart of all religion?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 12:54 PM | Comments (14)

Reason and Religion

posted on 09.22.2006 at 9:53 PM

New York Times columnist David Brooks on Pope Benedict XVI's riot-inspiring comments:

Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?

We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?

Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."

Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...

Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.

Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:53 PM | Comments (3)

They're Not in Kansas Anymore?

posted on 08.08.2006 at 5:35 PM

Thomas Frank, author of the insightful What's the Matter with Kansas, cautions against too exuberant a celebration of the defeat last week of anti-evolution forces on the Kansas Board of Education:

Could the faction's rank and file simply have given up, grown disgusted with the absurdity that their grand cause has become? Perhaps, but I think it is far too soon to write the obituary for the godly radicals.

Frank emphasizes the ongoing "war against elites...against the professions" -- doctors, lawyers, journalists, educators -- that has helped power this crusade. Of course, such a rebellion against expertise is an old element in the struggle of faith versus reason. In Greece in the 5th century BCE, while the Hippocratics were trying to take the "sacred" and the "divine" out of the practice of medicine, Athenians were constructing a temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, featuring a holy snake with a healing bite.

How can the experts strike back? By showing that they're just folks with their own faith, as has Senator Barack Obama? Or by continuing to stand up for what they do know? The latter strategy, I suspect, triumphed, at least for the moment, in Kansas:

The curriculum changes, coming after years of see-sawing power struggles between moderates and conservatives, drew widespread ridicule and, critics complained, threatened Kansas's high standing in national education circles.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 5:35 PM | Comments (3)

The Attack on Reason

posted on 06.23.2006 at 6:20 PM

This (thanks to Kristian Z. ) from the Baccalaureate Address given by outgoing Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers a couple of weeks ago. Summers, I admit, is a complicated character. But still...

It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question....

Another way of looking at this is that reason, to its glory, has become strong enough to question reason. But still...

Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century.

(Perhaps name of this blog should be changed to "But still...")

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:20 PM | Comments (19)

Day Seizing

posted on 05.31.2006 at 6:19 PM

I keep coming back to this notion of living now, seeking pleasure, enjoying this world, as the positive alternative to religion, with its sacrifices, renunciations and postponements, with its otherworldliness.

Here for the record is the complete Ode by Horace which uses the Latin phrase "carpe diem":

Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck [seize?] the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!

Not quite sure how to conceptualize this. How does it relate to other atheisms: naturalism, reason, science? Is it just hedonism? Is this larger than other atheisms? Do we lose morality?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:19 PM | Comments (4)

The "A" Word -- 4

posted on 05.21.2006 at 8:20 PM

From an interview with Sam Harris, author of the tough End of Faith:

I'm very distrustful of finding the right label because labels are ultimately sloganeering. You had the label the "brights," which is stillborn. I think atheism and secularism are also names that ultimately we don't need. We don't need a name for disbelief in astrology. I don't think we need anything other that rationality and reason and intellectual honesty.

But I can't subtitle my book: A History of Rationality and Reason. Problem not solved.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:20 PM | Comments (12)

A Teleology of Disbelief?

posted on 04.19.2006 at 8:30 PM

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive fast enough so that "some standing here...shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom." Didn't happen.

Madeleine Bunting (to whom this blog has paid an absurd amount of attention) took a shot back, accusing nonbelievers of a failed prediction of their own: "We were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now," she writes.

Okay, that hasn't happened. Don't know who -- Karl Marx, maybe -- said it would. But is it fair to assume that such a prediction-- that believers will eventually wise up -- is inherent in attitudes of disbelief? Is there an assumption that logic, science, whatever, will eventually triumph, that the Kingdom of Reason will come?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:30 PM | Comments (9)

Better Late...

posted on 03.11.2006 at 2:55 PM

The New York Times has finally gotten around to the debate on Leon Wieseltier's review of Daniel Dennett's new book -- after the Web has been chewing on it for a few weeks.

The entire letters page in this Sunday's (12 March) Book Review section is devoted to the debate -- one side of the debate: Sam Harris weighs in. Hume is briefly mentioned. And there's this great letter from Tim Maudlin, a philosophy professor at Rutgers:

Leon Wieseltier writes: "You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason."

Recall that Dennett's book attacks religion by investigating the causes, mostly in terms of evolution, of religion. Maudlin continues:

Someone tells me that he believes that the core of Mars is iron. When I ask how he came by that belief, he tells me that it came to him in a dream. This does not disprove his belief, but does show that there is no reason at all to take it seriously.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 2:55 PM | Comments (1)

Heavy Stuff

posted on 02.25.2006 at 1:33 PM

Far be it for this blogger to toot his own blog's horn...constantly. Just once in a while. And such an occasion has arrived. It strikes said blogger that the Derrida post below, which attracted a grand total of zero comments, and the Religion as Emotion post, less far below, are, like, important. derrida - rotated2.JPGcupid -rotate2.JPG

On account of the fact that they each get at the places, very different places, where the seemingly parallel lines of faith and reason seem to meet. Derrida is arguing (and, okay, maybe I didn't make this very clear) that there is a kind of primordial, inescapable leap of faith behind any attempt to reason, to communicate. That other lofty post suggests that an emotional response to religion, to faith, may be as real, even unavoidable, as love (and it is the official position of this blog that love is damn real) -- even if you don't belief in squat, even if you're Mr. or Ms. Reason.

Whole philosophies, maybe, could rise or fall based on such arguments. (I haven't quite worked out how, but trust me on this.) At the very least, you'd think someone writing a book (eminently readable but still intellectually sound) on atheism ought to have thought them out. You're supposed to help me think out.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 1:33 PM | Comments (18)

Science and Religion

posted on 02.21.2006 at 4:49 PM

Maybe this is what is most interesting about Wieseltier/Dennett debate below:

All right-thinking blue-state people, religious or not, had lined up on the side of science and evolution, against intolerant school boards and the foolishness of intelligent design. Now here's Wieseltier -- a liberal intellectual of impeccable credentials, in the New York Times, no less -- faced with the task of resisting a science-based atheist argument. And what does he do? He resorts to charges of "scientism" and quotes, respectfully, Hume saying: "The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author."

The scary question for a percentage of those right-thinking people: Has the scientific argument against religion grown so strong that it is necessary to challenge science to refute it?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 4:49 PM | Comments (4)

Wieseltier on Dennett I: "Scientism"?

posted on 02.21.2006 at 11:30 AM

It is not quite clear what faith Leon Wieseltier (left) is defending wieseltier.jpgdaniel_dennett_1.jpgin his over-the-top review of the new book by Daniel Dennett (right) on the causes of belief. But he must see the threat to that pale faith, and civilization as he knows it, as profound, because no holds are barred. The New Republic's literary editor even finds himself sounding a bit like a late-seventies comp-lit professor:

"Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so."

It is indeed an entertaining world we live in when science (broadly applied, to be sure) gets called religion by a long-gray-haired neoliberal (with a weakness for the spiritual) to fend off a long-gray-bearded philosophy professor (with a weakness for sociobiology), in, of all places, the pages of the New York Times. What are we to make of this charge?

Is there actually a sense in which science, when extended to human culture, might truly be considered a faith? (Does the attempt to locate a common source for faith and reason attributed to Derrida -- guru of late-seventies comp-lit professors -- below illuminate matters any?) Is the villain here just sociobiology -- evolutionary biology as applied to cultural behaviors? Or are we to conceive of our whole scientific view of the world as, gulp, just another religion? (Was Einstein the wrong choice as "Person of the Century"? Should it have been Thomas Kuhn?) Can one be an atheist or even an agnostic with respect to science -- or some overly ambitious applications of science?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:30 AM | Comments (12)

Faith and Knowledge -- Complications

posted on 02.17.2006 at 10:01 AM

Here's one way this discussion gets complicated. It comes from that great complicator Jacques Derrida, to whom I am, I admit, susceptible.

Had occasion once (in my role of ace reporter) to ask Monsieur Derrida whether atheism is where we begin. He looked at me uncomfortably. He said something about complexity or the difficulty of "improvising" on such a matter. We moved to a different subject.
derrida horizontal.JPG
Here's one way the subject gets difficult for Derrida: He sees (and others have certainly stumbled upon this) all our utterances resting, at bottom, on a certain, primordial "faith" -- faith that an attempt to communicate is being made and will be acknowledged. Reason, Derrida argues, is impossible without this "trust."derrida upsidedown.JPG
(The "text" from which this mixmaster of a line is extracted can be found in a collection of Derrida's writings on religion.)

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 10:01 AM | Comments (1)

On Bunting On Dawkins On Atheism

posted on 01.17.2006 at 6:45 PM

Richard Dawkins, who seems to be taking on the Bertrand Russell role of primary intellectual champion of atheism, has a two-part series attacking religion on Channel Four in the UK. Haven't seen it. (Will a US network have the guts to pick it up?) But I was sent Madeleine Bunting's exuberant critique of the series in the Guardian.

Bunting's piece is smart, tough and even, in places, wise: Yes, societies can find other excuses for killing each other besides religious difference. No, trying to prevent parents from indoctrinating their kids with religion doesn't sound like such a hot idea. (Are we also to prevent them from indoctrinating their children with free-market ideology or compassion for the poor?)

However, Bunting -- like many in the group Thomas Huxley once dismissed as "reconcilers" between religion and science -- seems unable to grasp the natural antagonism between faith and reason. "Faith, according to the New Testament, "is assurance of things hoped for." Reason, particularly its offspring science, is the alternative -- the antidote -- to such wishful thinking. This doesn't mean there isn't an element of faith at the bottom of reason -- "faith" that the sun will in fact rise tomorrow, for example. And this doesn't mean people of faith can't do science. But it would seem to support Dawkins' characterization of faith as a "process of non-thinking."

Bunting is also smart, tough and possibly wise on a subject that has been much discussed here: the new religious Great Awakening and an alleged and concomitant decline in freethinking. "There's an aggrieved frustration," she writes about nonbelievers, "that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now."

Bunting thinks she senses "the unmistakable whiff of panic." You panicked?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 6:45 PM | Comments (5)