CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART III

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  _ ANALYSES

“When philosophy is regarded in the light of a series of abstract systems, it can be said to concern itself with two fundamental questions: first, the question ‘what there is’; and second, the question how ‘what there is’ may be explained.”– Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism.

After the introduction and his arguments regarding authentic African philosophy, Hountondji analyzes two African-born philosophers. The first is Anton-Wilhelm Amo an 18th century Ghanian who went to Europe at age four likely to be trained as a preacher. He ended up a master of philosophy in 1730 and taught for at least ten years and wrote at least four philosophical treatises. He eventually moved back to Ghana where the last record of him was a meeting in 1753 with David Henri Gallandet, a Dutch physicist and ship’s doctor, who found him living as a hermit with the reputation as a soothsayer.

Hountondji critiques Amo’s Dissertatio de humanae mentis apatheia (On the Impassivity of the Human Mind) where Amo argues the mind is neither the seat of sensation or the faculty of sensation (a passive function) consistent with the human mind as active, insensible, and free of passion, like the divine mind. But the human mind turns sensation into ideas which are only the mediative knowledge of things, representations, or reactivated sensations. This leads to an ironic difference in kind, not simply degree, from divine spirit whose impassivity is a perfection, whose thinking is creation, whose understanding of reality is direct. Non-passivity of spirit becomes a ‘transvaluation’ on passage from God to man.

But when Hountondji asks what in this work is African, his answer is nothing. Written in Latin for Europeans with no African audience or partners, Amo is the victim of the painful isolation of his historical situation. In the end, his works are instructive as demonstrating the need to “put an end once and for all to the monstrous extraversion of our [African] theoretical discourse…”1

Hountondji’s second example is Kwame Nkrumah, a contemporary American-trained philosopher, who became the political leader of Ghana. His works are mainly political philosophy focused on anti-colonialism and pan-Africanism. In his youth he embraced the non-violent approach of Ghandi and the politics of socialism, arguing that traditionally Africa society had the form of egalitarian communalism; therefore the movement to socialism would be smooth and without class struggle. Over time he came to see overturning neocolonialism, imperialism, and class inequality required armed resistance.

In his most famous work, Consciencism, Nkrumah sees philosophy as the instrument of ideology. He espouses a materialist metaphysic – the priority of matter which generates mind through a ‘categorical conversion’- defined as a process through which a given reality generates a reality of higher category. God, if he exists, is then a higher form of matter. From this metaphysic, he develops an egalitarian and humanistic ethic strongly influenced by Kant, and a political ideology of self-determination and socialism – all of which are closely interlocked and form a collective philosophy for all of Africa.

Hountondji criticizes this so-called Nkrumaism at several levels. First the metaphysic itself seems implausible. Second political justifications need to be political and economic rather than metaphysical. Third Hountondji denies the possibility of a collective African philosophy – rather sees a pluralistic debate and dialogue in conjunction with science as the best course for African philosophy.

Hountondji closes his amazing book with a reiteration of his key points: African philosophy must be based on (1) true internal pluralism, not a supposed primitive unanimity or an acculturation, (2) free dialogue,  (3) living rather than studying African culture, and (4) placement in the terrain of science. I suspect he would agree that in fact these principles apply to philosophy everywhere even if it took the experience of Africans to demonstrate them to the rest of us.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 130.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART II

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality  

“Philosophy not only exists within history, like a substance in a container, but is itself a second-order history borne by empirical history, a productive process (producing something as yet undefined) a progress. In this sense philosophy does not have a history; structurally, it is history itself.” Paulin J. Hountondji.1

After the introduction to the subject of the traditional but erroneous concept of African philosophy as ethnophilosophy, Hountondji formulates his arguments for an authentic African philosophy through three essays prepared in 1969, 1970, and 1973. Be prepared for some fascinating reading!

He starts by telling us what philosophy is not: cultural anthropology, mythology, folklorism, oral literature, poetry, stories, a collective worldview, popular notions, proverbs, or even traditional wisdom. Rather philosophy is a discipline or a science, like algebra or linguistics, based on hypotheses and theories. It derives from the confrontation between individual thoughts through free and open discussion and debate. It is an intellectual effort to know, understand, and think out doctrines.

For Hountondji, philosophy is always in a sense a metaphilosophy2,3 developed by reflecting on its history with new thinkers feeding on the doctrines of their predecessors (and contemporaries). In the case of African philosophy, he feels it is best when directed to an African public, although it can include debates on Western philosophy.

His thoughts crystalize into three main points:4

1)   Philosophy is not a system, but a history.

2)   It moves forward by leaps and bounds, or revolutions.

3)   African philosophy may today (June 1973?) be going through its first mutation.

By the first point, he means that philosophy is not a finished system of absolute truth, but a historical dialectic. But that history is discontinuous, a zigzag, often shifting suddenly through revolutionary thinking. His examples of revolutions in Western philosophy include Descartes’ revolt against Scholasticism, Kant’s critique of existing dogmatism in response to Hume’s skepticism, and Marx’s materialism as revolt against Hegel’s idealism. However Hountondji adopts Louis Althusser’s theory that philosophical revolutions follow scientific revolutions, and as such philosophical discourse must be modeled on scientific discourse.

Now science depends on writing, the recording of discovery. Here we find the linchpin of authentic philosophy. Oral traditions demand preservation via repetition often leading to dogmatism; written documents do the remembering, and instead questioning and rebuttal are encouraged. Philosophy then must be based on written documents in order to enable criticism and debate. This also answers the question as to whether philosophical fragments from the oral tradition can be authentic – the answer is yes, but the process begins at the precise moment of transcription. Nonetheless above all “African philosophy is inseparable from African science.”5

His third point is the utterly critical one; at last we see the direction Hountondji is taking. African philosophy is emerging from its Western ethnophilosophical fog, and his generation of philosophers, being the first, will initiate and define African philosophy. They will be the Platos, Aristotles, Zenos, and Epicuruses of the first authentic African philosophy. Imagine the excitement he and his colleagues feel as, integral parts of, in his own beautiful words, “that groping, endless history, that unquiet, forever incomplete quest we call philosophy”6 

Our next and final post on Hountondji will look at his analysis of two major African philosophical works.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 101.

2Ibid. Page 63.

3Metaphilosophy is the philosophy of philosophy, essentially the attempt to answer the question: “What is philosophy?”  See Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 589.

4Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X, page 71.

5Ibid. Page 106.

6Ibid. Page 64.

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CURRENT READING – AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY – PART I

African Philosophy –Myth and Reality 1

“…Bantu ‘philosophy’ is shown to be a myth. To destroy the myth once and for all, and to clear our conceptual ground for a genuine theoretical discourse – these are the tasks now awaiting African philosophers and scientists.” – Paulin J. Hountondji.2

In my search through the philosophy section of my local used book store I came upon this book with its intriguing title. Mr. Hountondji is (or was) Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Benin, Cotonou and former Minister of Culture and Communication and Special Advisor to the Head of State of Benin, a small former French colony and then Marxist state, now a republic in western Africa. He was a visiting professor at our local university in 2008. The edition in my possession is part of a series called  African Systems of Thought.

In the preface, Hountondji sets down his perspective. First he follows Plato in that philosophy is the study of episteme (truth) not doxa (opinion). Philosophy cannot be inferred from culture and linguistics, so-called ethnophilosophy. Rather he defines African philosophy as literary works written by Africans and self-identified as philosophy. He also resists the idea of absorbing philosophy into politics.

A bit of history is instructive here. The science of anthropology arose in the 19th century against the backdrop of European colonialism and missionary work in Africa and elsewhere. In the traditional Western view, Africans were seen as ‘primitives’ and thought to have contributed very little to human ideas and civilization. By the 1920s, there was a movement to pluralism and relativism, and an attempt to revise the Western understanding of African philosophy. The main problem was the lack of written texts;  researchers were forced to extract philosophy from African culture and linguistics. Placide Tempels, a Belgian missionary, published his very influential book, Bantu Philosophy, in 1945. In it he distills from his observations the following:

“I believe that we should most faithfully render Bantu thought in the European language by saying that the Bantu speak, act, live as if, for them, beings were forces. Force is not for them an adventitious, accidental reality. Force is even more than a necessary attribute of beings: Force is the nature of being, force is being, being is force.”3

This seems, to me, incredibly powerful, and even complementary to the philosophy of Schopenauer (will) and Nietzsche (the will to power), but Hountondji and other Africans debunk it as mere European projection, especially as a means to enhance Christianization of Africans. Nonetheless later European and African intellectuals (such as Leopold Sengher, Alexis Kagame, and even Hountondji himself) expand on Tempel’s formulation or expend a great deal of energy on its refutation. Left unresolved is the question of the place for an alternate dynamic ontology of being as force in contrast to the classical Aristotelian static ontology of being as substance.

However, at the end of the day, I deeply respect the intellectual ideal that  all people develop their own philosophy through dialectic. We pick up with Hountondji’s arguments for an authentic African philosophy next time.

 

1Hountondji, Paulin J., African Philosophy – Myth and Reality. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33229-X. This book is featured on the list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.

2Ibid. Page 44.

3Ibid. Page 16.

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CURRENT READING – DOES GOD EXIST? (CONT’D)

Last post I discussed the first three of six essays making up the forum in the fall issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine titled Does God Exist? Today I will look at the last three essays.

Elizabeth Burns (University of London) refreshes the cosmological argument which states that if all individual things in the universe are caused, there must be a first cause, i.e. God. She notes this argument was derived by the kalam school of ninth century Arabic philosophy, modified by Aquinas, and expanded more recently by William Lane Craig. She reviews the two main counter-arguments: (1) Why does the universe require an explanation? and (2) By this line of logic, God then should also require a cause or explanation. Rather than parse the argument, Burns introduces, from the Chandogya Upanishad,  the teaching of Sushanta Sen, that God created the universe from His own nature making God both creator and physical substance of the universe.3 Periodic reabsorption and reinfusing of God’s nature leads to an ‘Oscillating Universe.’ Conceding this exact description appears contrary to current science, she extracts the pantheist or panentheistic elements suggesting a conjoining of God the World and God the Good (the latter mirroring Plato’s idea of the Good). She then pairs her cosmological argument – a complex universe must derive from progressively less complex parts to the least complex (God as the single non-complex, non-contingent) – with an ontological argument – degrees of goodness in the universe require an ‘Unsurpassable Goodness’ (also God). I doubt her argument is philosophically sound, but find its mix of science, logic, and spirituality refreshing.

Next Erik J. Wielenberg (DePauw University) takes on the moral argument for God’s existence, wherein human morality is based on the divine, and thus the nonexistence of God would permit undesirable and  unabated, self-interested behavior by man. Wielenberg does not thinks virtue depends on God; just as goodness is caused by things in themselves, so moral behavior is within the choice of action itself. Specifically he argues Kant is wrong in believing that since we have a duty to pursue the highest good, God is implied as only He can order the highest good. Wielenberg believes “our real moral obligation is simply to get as close to the highest good as we can.”  I have never found the moral argument to be persuasive, and Weilenberg’s reasoning seems valid to me.

Last, Neil A. Manson (University of Mississippi) reviews the modern version of the teleologic argument, that is, the universe is so finely tuned, it could not occur by chance. His position is this proof is less viable if physicists are right about the existence of a multiverse. In response to theists who protest the theory of a multiverse is untestable and simply an atheist’s refuge to deny God’s existence, he notes many physicists believe the theory of the multiverse comes directly out of our current understanding of physics and cosmology and is or will be testable in the future. For now I find the fine-tuning argument evidentiary rather than conclusive and think we must allow scientists a chance to validate the hypothesis of a multiverse. Regardless this theory seems unlikely to answer the harder question of why there is anything at all!

In conclusion five of the presenters argue against the demonstration of God while Burns is the one voice in support of divinity. This fits proportionately to the recent (non-theist) philosophical literature I have read. In my synthesis of the arguments and subjective rationale for God, I concluded that God as origin of the universe does exist (see posts on this site 3/18. 3/20, and 3/22/19 and Table 3 in the Appendix). For the most part, the six articles in this Forum do not appear to contradict my synthesis.

 

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 86, 3rd  Quarter 2019.

2Pascal, Blaise, Pensees. The Great Books Volume 33, 1952. Page 215.

3There is an uncanny similarity of Sen’s theory to that of the ancient Jewish Sages – see July 6 2019 post this site – God and Physics.

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CURRENT READING – DOES GOD EXIST?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Philosopher’s Magazine1

“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then without hesitation, that He is.”- Blaise Pascal.2

The Forum in the third quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Does God Exist? It consists of six essays offering contemporary reformulations and refutations of common arguments or proofs for the existence of God. (See also posts date February 11, February 13, and February 15, 2019 on this site)

The first essay is an update on the ontological argument. Graham Oppy (Monash University; Melbourne, Australia) discounts traditional versions espoused by Anselm and Descartes, and investigates modern ‘modal’ versions, meaning those built around concepts of possibility, contingency, necessity, and actuality. He concludes that these versions also fail although his arguments are too complex to summarize in this brief post. It seems to me the problem with any ontological argument is a faulty premise – that anything can meet the criterion of infinity. Infinity is a concept not an actual measure as is easily confirmed by trying to imagine a number beyond which no greater number exists.

Paul Bartha (University of British Columbia) then takes on Pascal’s wager (see epigram above). He reviews the four historical responses: (1) it is parochial – would a God who accepted this be worthy of worship – and which religion’s version would be best (many-gods objection); (2) it is inauthentic – God would likely reject this reasoning; (3) it violates the ethics of belief –i.e. it is merely wishful thinking; and (4) it is mathematically suspect due to uncertainty of God’s likelihood and gains from belief.  Bartha seems to find the last of these most interesting, doing a detailed analysis knowing it may fail with respect to belief in God, but may be useful elsewhere such as in environmental decision making. I find the ‘wager’ ineffective, but believe like William James that, in formulating our life’s course, we inevitably choose a stance on God’s existence based on belief rather than certainty– and yes, no decision (agnosticism) is a choice.

Tiddy Smith addresses the ‘common consent’ argument – the theory that since a large majority – about 95%  of people (and even 80% of philosophers, i.e. the “experts”) believe there is a divine being or higher power, it is likely to be true. His refutation is that religion is manufactured (rather than arising independently in the majority) and socially reinforced. He notes the anthropology literature finds isolated hunter-gatherer groups typically do not believe in a personal God (about 15%, although 24% accept a deistic God). Rather most embrace ancestor worship or natural spirits. I find this line of reasoning flawed as the logical response is to suggest that intellectual and spiritual advancement reveal to humans the error of these naïve beliefs, an awe of the universe and its governing laws, and for many an awareness of the divine therein.

(continued next post)

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CURRENT READING – DEISM (continued)

Last time we began our discussion of Kerry Waters book, Revolutionary Deists, by looking at the basic tenets of deism, its critique of Christianity, and its political posture. Today we will look at the causes of its decline and ponder its legacy. Walters tells us deism declined in America after the death of its leading voices. Its basis in reason and science was seen as intellectually elitist – “the thinking person’s religion.” Romanticism and transcendentalism which dominated the 19th century arose in direct opposition to Enlightenment philosophy and the complete reliance on rationality.

Philosophically, it began with David Hume’s attack on causation as metaphysically suspect – mere inference due to the human mind’s propensity to see as causal two events that are contiguous, sequential, and constantly conjoined in experience – hence undermining the mechanistic description of nature. Moreover the deist view was ultimately unsatisfying with its austere and indifferent universe and its remote, uninvolved image of God.  Reason also struggled to explain human moods, passion, and intuition. Immanuel Kant’s vision of the uniqueness of humans in nature in possession of freedom contradicted mechanistic explanations of behavior. Perhaps most damaging to deism were philosophers such as Baron Henri D’Holbach who in his Systems of Nature, argued a mechanical cosmos needed no God as explanation and human reason would never identify an origin of the universe nor would a first cause contribute significantly to our understanding of it.

Deism’s legacies were its effect on Christianity and political thought. Christianity reacted to its attacks by de-emphasizing supernaturalism, adopting the naturalist arguments of the deists to defend itself, and using reason in religious inquiry and biblical exegesis. Some denominations began to focus on symbolical or allegorical rather than literal interpretations of Scripture. But deism’s greater contributions to modernity may have been its humanism and its support for tolerance and equality. Many of its political beliefs such as religious freedom, separation of church and state, and freedom of speech and press were incorporated into the American Constitution.2

But I think the Enlightenment and deism have a larger place in the individual search for human meaning. Their belief in human rationality and disbelief in the supernatural have been validated in spite of Hume’s arguments. Trust in  science allowed man to conquer diseases such as small pox and polio, develop modern technology, and land a man on the moon. Individuals lacking a formal religious orientation can find footing in the concept of ‘worship of the deity’ as man’s exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence. The rational and empirical investigation of nature can  still  be the making of a viable theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and the virtuous treatment of fellow humans still works as a foundation of ethics.

Finally thoughtful people will need to come to terms with the question of the origin to the universe. Deism offers no less reasonable an answer than any formal religion and provides an ecumenical approach.

 

1Walters, Kerry, Revolutionary Deists, Prometheus Books, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-190-5, pages 7-12.

2Ibid, pages 245-273.

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CURRENT READING – DEISM

Revolutionary Deists by Kerry Walters

 

“All that we see, about, abroad,

What is it but nature’s God?

In meaner works discover’d here

No less than in the starry sphere…

His system fix’d on general laws

Bespeaks a wise creating cause;

Impartially he rules mankind,

And all on this globe we find.

– Philip Freneau, On the Universality and Other Attributes of the God of Nature.

In addition to philosophy, I have tremendous interest in the American Revolution, so what good luck when on my recent trip to Michigan I came across this book at Black River Books in South Haven. The author, Kerry Walters, is the William Bittinger Chair of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. He is author or editor of more than twenty books with intriguing titles such as Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed.

He explores American deism especially as elaborated by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, Elihu Palmer, and Philip Freneau.

Deism, he tells us, is a religious worldview which sprang from the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, natural philosophy (science), and experience. Its central tenants are:

  1. Reality is the creation of a perfectly benevolent and rational deity (the ‘Supreme Architect’).
  2. Physical reality conforms to universal, immutable, and absolute laws of nature set in motion by God and the discovery and comprehension of these laws is within the reach of the human mind.
  3. In coming to know reality, man gains a deeper appreciation of God’s characteristics.
  4. The highest form of worship of the deity is in the exercise of godlike qualities – reason and benevolence.
  5. The rational and empirical investigation of nature is the basis of ‘true’ theology, and the examination of one’s conscience and virtuous treatment of fellow humans is the foundation of ethics.

Deists considered the Christianity of the time as pernicious in its avowal of the utter corruptibility of man, encouragement of intolerance, persecution of dissent, hampering of scientific progress, and obstruction to social justice. At the political level, deists were strict republicans who believed in freedom of religion and of the press, universal education, and separation of church and state. They denounced slavery, the abuse of Native Americans, and the subjugation of women and sought to reform institutions that bred intolerance.1

Clearly deist thinking was incorporated into the political philosophy of early America and the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, both of which inspired other nations. Their defense of the oppressed seems surprisingly fresh 250 years later. But of course deism declined in the following century; next time we will examine why and explore its legacy further.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)

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CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS (continued)

Schroeder comes to a different conclusion regarding the Big Bang. He rewinds time back towards the singularity to about 10-43 seconds (that’s a second divided into 1 followed by 43 zeros parts) after the Big Bang when the temperature of the universe is 1032 degrees Kelvin, too hot for matter to exist, so in fact the universe is pure energy. The problem is then clear: “as the theories of the early universe reach back to the beginning, they describe a condition in which all the matter is pressed into a space of zero size and infinite density. Infinity cannot be dealt with quantitatively and so cosmologists cannot describe the conditions of our absolute origin in real terms. Only by working in a dimension of imaginary time, a concept that does not translate into a dimension of the world in which we live, can the very instant of the beginning be described mathematically. But if we relate to real-world dimensions, that zero point of time, the beginning, is beyond the grasp of mathematics and physics.”3

He repeats his misgivings on the mathematics used by physicists in describing the Big Bang a few pages later: “In other words, although there is a theoretical solution in the world of physics to this problem of the beginning, in terms that are perceivable to humans, there is no solution.”4

Schroeder does not directly address quantum mechanics as an explanation for a spontaneous universe, but a quote in another context may indicate his likely position, “Except at the nuclear level, where quantum mechanics can alter statistical probability, the very laws of physics that predict the formation of stars, galaxies, and elements rely on the occurrence of the probable over the improbable. Without this there is no basis for physics…Although in theory an event may occur, statistics have told us that in reality when the probability of an event occurring is very, very, small, then there is essentially zero chance of it occurring.”

Schroeder reverts to theology to explain the mathematically inexplicable, citing not only Genesis, but also four great Jewish biblical scholars. The most incisive of these scholars is Nahminides who postulates the origin of the universe from “a speck of space, the size of a mustard grain”6  – a quite remarkable guess, if it is one, for the 13th century.  He postulates that the contraction of God’s divine being is the basis of the Big Bang and the creation of the universe ex nihilo (from nothing).

These two descriptions leave the philosopher in a quandary. Schroeder may of course be biased towards his faith and presenting his arguments to confirm his beliefs while withholding arguments that contradict them. However, Hawking’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the theoretical and statistically improbable appearance of an infinitely dense, infinitely small, singularity at a temperature over 1032 Kelvin using quantum theory and imaginary dimensions and time does not appear entirely intellectually honest either. I respect his initial disclosure of his belief (faith?) in science and its laws, but wonder if in this case he should acknowledge he is debating metaphysics rather than physics. The reader will have to decide that for himself.

1Wikepedia.

2Hawking, Stephen, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 9781984819192, pages 23-38.

3Schroeder, Gerald L., Genesis and the Big Bang, Bantam Books, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-553-35413-2, page 63.

4Ibid, page 66.

5Ibid, page 159.

6Ibid, page 65.

 

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CURRENT READING – GOD AND PHYSICS

Brief Questions to the Big Questions – Stephen Hawking

Genesis and the Big Bang – Gerald Schroeder, Ph.D.

 

“Study astronomy and physics if you desire to comprehend the relationship between the world and God’s management of it.” – Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed.

 

On a recent trip to Michigan, I purchased two books written by physicists that address the existence of God but come to opposite answers. The first is by Stephen Hawking who probably needs no introduction. He was a mathematician, theoretical physicist, and cosmologist at the University of Cambridge and considered by most people as the second greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century just behind Einstein.

The second book is by Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jewish applied physicist who received his degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a former member of the United States Energy Commission.  He is currently a professor at Aish Ha Torah College in Israel.1

Hawking’s book begins with a chapter titled: “Is there a God?”2 His thesis begins by expressing his belief in science wherein “there are certain laws that are always obeyed.” He then says it is reasonable to argue these laws are the work of God, but that this is more a definition of God then a proof of his existence. And this is not what most people mean by ‘God.’ He does not believe God serves as an explanation of the origin of the universe, rather “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” The universe consists of matter and energy (which are interchangeable) and space – all of which Hawking says came out of the Big Bang which itself came from nothing.

How can that be? Hawking explains that the laws of physics require the universe to have negative energy and the Big Bang created both the positive and negative energy whose sum adds up to zero, much as if you make a pile of dirt by digging  you end up with both a mound and a hole. That negative energy still exists in space and balances out the equation. Also the laws of quantum mechanics tell us particles like protons “can appear at random.” Therefore “if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it,” and “the laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.”

Last he argues that since the Big Bang starts essentially as an infinitesimally small and infinitesimally dense point or essentially a black hole and since time stops at black holes, time does not exist before the Big Bang hence does not require a cause, that is, the question of whether God created the universe makes no sense as there is no time before the Big Bang.

(CONTINUED NEXT POST)

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CURRENT READING – IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? (cont’d)

In the last post I summarized an essay/lecture by Jacques Barzun from 1969 on the question of whether life is worth living. Today I will add some of my thoughts on his thesis and its application to our time.

I agree that we have difficulty separating feelings which are visceral from thoughts which presumably rely on reason. With so little in philosophy being certain, feelings and opinion become inescapable default criteria in the reasoning process. Barzun’s belief that life for each of us is experienced individually  rephrases a basic tenet of existentialism which when paired with Martin Heidegger’s observation that the self (or dasein) experiences itself as being-in-the-world, reinforces Barzun’s concern of society’s impact on the quality of our lives. But if we can only find meaning and happiness as individuals, society should be structured for every individual to succeed.

What is it about life that makes us wonder if it is worth living? Perhaps the answer is found in Buddha’s first noble truth; “Life is suffering.” In return for that suffering, man expects certain benefits – specifically the hope of happiness and meaning. Personal limitations, natural ills, and death can be accepted as unavoidable, but we seem unable to forgive the evils of the very society we created. For instance manners may appear superficial, restrictive, and inconvenient, but in fact Barzun, like Confucius, knows better – manners and respect for others is essential to their contentment. Immanuel Kant expands this into his  categorical imperative: we must never treat another as a means, only as an end.

Meaningful work is tied closely to the need for individual purpose in the achievement of happiness. Here I wonder if Barzun is being completely objective; the agrarian life of our ancestors seems no more meaningful than modern livelihoods. Nonetheless it is undeniable that finding societal purpose through one’s vocation is a critical piece of a flourishing life.

With regards to democracy and capitalism, they appear to allow the highest quality of life possible so far, but the negative consequences of materialism and futile competition are a trap that stymies fulfillment. In a world where the competition for physical survival is muted, we must be reminded frequently that material competition is a dead end. Friedrich Nietzsche warns us that only through the careful examination of societal values and a powerful will to find our authentic role can we emerge from mediocrity.

It seems likely that within the near future (if not already), mankind will find the limits of secularism and humanism. Paul Tillich warns us repeatedly that the true ultimate concern must be identified for any hope of meaning in our lives. Humanism while noble seems to fail the test of ultimacy.

One place where I think Barzun can be challenged is on the end of great human causes. Hegel’s error on believing his generation was at the end of history should not be duplicated in our time. Homo sapiens is far too young to have mastered its mission as a species. There remains too much suffering in our world and danger to our planet, not to mention a universe only recently opened to our potential participation. Rather I suspect our immaturity as a species has left us unable to see through the miasma we have created by the failure to get our seven billion moving parts to work together.

I doubt Barzun would advise us to follow Arthur Schopenauer’s pessimistic path and  repudiate society. Instead he may be urging us to recognize the need to treat each other as valuable and deserving of respect, to identify a meaningful calling within the larger world, to redirect democracy and capitalism to the benefit of every living person, and to find our way to an ultimate cause. Humanity has much to offer the universe – it is up to us to find the means to accelerate that purpose and make life worth living.

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