THE QUESTION OF GOD

“There is one God, supreme among gods and men, resembling mortals neither in form nor in mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. Without toil he rules all things by the power of his mind.” – Xenophanes

The next great problem in the search for a path to a philosophically guided life is the immense question of the existence and nature of God. As we discussed earlier, prehistoric man used the concept of divine spirits to explain otherwise mystifying events in the world. This carried over into early civilization as anthropomorphic agents with superhuman abilities that interact in various ways with mankind and expect worship and sacrifice. After thousands of years, during what Karl Jaspers calls the axial age, some cultures  – especially the Hebrews, but also Zarathustra and some Indian and Greek philosophers- began to realize polytheism was unnecessarily complex, even illogical, and began to proclaim or argue there was only one God or at least one supreme divinity (it is difficult to know exactly when atheism appeared and how widespread it was at any given time due to cultural restraints on its proponents). In any case, polytheism essentially disappeared by modern times leaving only two fundamental questions:

1.   Is there a God?

2.  What is His* nature?

The following blogs will address these two questions in a systematic order. First we will look at arguments for and against His existence. Thereafter we will look at different ideas on his attributes followed by theoretical reasons to believe in his existence outside of proof. Then we will make a very brief survey of the subject of religion, followed by the possible means to make contact with God and explore the concept of a relationship with Him. Last we will examine the reasonableness and consequences of the positions of atheism and agnosticism.

If the reader already has firm beliefs on these matters, it may be tempting, even reasonable, to skip the rest of this section. However if those beliefs are not based on careful reflection, they are not philosophically valid as such. As always, short cuts in philosophy may lead to error or enduring doubts.

*I will use the customary capitalized male article and possessive in reference to God as preferable to using the word, ‘God’ repeatedly or the neutral ‘It’ or even the feminine ‘She.’ However of course, like most people, I do not believe God has gender in the human sense and the male gender is only used for simplicity.

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GOOD VS. EVIL – PART III

In the last two blogs we discussed the mythological conflict of Good vs. Evil as a paradigm of the human conception of the universe especially as expounded by Zarathustra and reinterpreted by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Professor Francis Ambrosio in his course Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Lifelooks more closely at the position of humanity in this arena and proposes two timeless means to personal meaning: the role of the saint and the role of the hero. In that context he sees Nietzsche as a tragic hero, who self-identifies as the antichrist, but is in fact a misunderstood and unappreciated proponent of secular humanism, proposing “the ideal, not of oppressive domination of others, but rather of mastery over the self.”

So where does all of this leave modern man in defining his place in this mythic conflict? The answer recurs throughout literature whether sacred or historical:

One who does good is never overcome by evil.”  Bhagavad Gita, 6:40.

“Do evil to no man; work for the common good.” –  Cicero

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – St. Paul, Romans 12:21.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke, 18th century British politician and supporter of the colonies.

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein

These varied sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and perhaps more importantly to separate oneself from evil is to be a force for good. So returning to Frankena’s principles in the chapter on societal ethics; if our primary obligation is first not to commit evil actions and next to try to reduce evil, and our secondary obligation is to promote good, human history suggests commitment to doing good is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it.

Nietzsche shows us that self-mastery, rigorous analysis of ethical norms, and acceptance of and participation in the real world are necessary to success. Professor Ambrosio refines the human struggle; to defeat Evil and promote Good is done through the selfless courage of the hero and the personal sacrifice of the saint. I think Zarathustra and Nietzsche would agree that they are the uberman.

1Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses.

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CAUSES OF EVIL (cont’d)

In the last blog, we noted that evil can be due to natural causes or to human free will and that there are six explanations of evil due to the latter. We then looked at the first two: immaturity and accident. Now we will look at the four other causes of evil due to human free will.

In the category of evil due to error, I am referring to the use of information not readily seen as invalid in a decision for action. This may be avoidable through careful study of circumstances of decision and thoughtful reflection on actions.  Socrates sees  insufficient or erroneous knowledge as the defining feature in human behavior, that is, he sees virtue as identical to knowledge, arguing that no man will knowingly do what he knows to be wrong. However, I am unconvinced as my last three categories of human evil will demonstrate.

Weakness is a common source of evil and includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, and cowardice. It is overcome by the ancient virtues of temperance and fortitude combined with patience and diligence in decision making. Unlike error which may be unavoidable, weakness can be overcome by the mature individual through the art of self-discipline.

Selfishness is an excess of the self-preservation instinct intensified by human emotions and psychological constitution. Early in life it leads to evils of immaturity, but later in life it blinds us to fairness and compassion. It often reflects the belief that personal sacrifice is  unnatural, irrational, or unrewarding, but many great thinkers – for example, Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus, Seneca, and Spinoza -conclude that restraint, moderation, and selflessness can be good for both the individual and for others.

Last is malice, the intention to cause harm to others. The more common form, mean-spiritedness, leads to relatively minor evil; whereas the less common form, cruelty, can lead to major evils. Most of us have experienced the former although most often subconsciously; especially in response to a perceived hurt. It may be overcome by self-examination and control of emotions especially anger. Cruelty in all of its forms must be overcome through ethical reversal and good will or if necessary by external restraint.

Extreme evils of error can be seen in an unwavering certainty of one’s belief. When paired with selfish desire to outshine others, we get Becker’s misplaced heroism discussed in Escape From Evil1. When paired with cruelty we get J. Brownowski’s vision of the catastrophic evil of the Nazis in The Ascent of Man2.

Remembering Frankena’s principle of beneficence we discussed in the section on ethics3, our primary duty is not to inflict evil or harm. This requires us to eliminate to the extent possible all the evil due to our actions, particularly that due to error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Alternatively, knowledge, humility, self-examination, fortitude, consideration of others, and good will are the remedies for most human caused evil.

1Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975.

2Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.

3Frankena, William K., Ethics,  Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 .  1973, p. 47.

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CAUSES OF EVIL

“Nature in her indifference makes no distinction between good and evil.” – Anatole France

 

 

We don’t usually think about causes of good, they simply seem to be good fortune or derive from personal effort. On the other hand for some reason, it is characteristic of human understanding to wonder why there is evil. We are unlikely to ask why a day is beautiful, but inclined to ask rhetorically at least why a hurricane with its resultant damage or injuries should occur.

Traditionally philosophers attribute evil to two main causes: nature and free agency. Natural evil is that which occurs through the forces of nature: calamity (earthquakes, droughts, and the like), disease, and imperfections in natural function (e.g. genetic mutations or congenital conditions). Science can explain the basis for most natural evils, but not in any satisfying way why the universe has them. This ‘why’ is the crux of thinking about natural evil. Psychologically, it tends to make humans see the universe as hostile or indifferent to us while undermining belief in an all-powerful or beneficent divinity. These interpretations will be examined in more detail in later blogs.

The other main cause of evil is that committed by free agents, which for most of us means human free will (we will discuss the possibility of evil non-humans such as Satan in later blogs). While the number of evils due to free agency is large, the reasons fall into six main groups (in rough order of increasing severity): immaturity, accident, error, weakness, selfishness, and malice.

The first two of these are largely unavoidable and on the whole minor. The evils of youth are generally unintentional whereas accidental evil appears to be almost a variety of natural evil. Both lead to feelings of guilt or remorse and thus serve a place in human maturation and socialization and may drive individual and human progress .

(continued next post)

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CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS (CONTINUED)

In the last blog we discussed classifying goods and evils referring to Table 2 in the Appendix. We discussed the difference between  intrinsic and instrumental goods. A second distinction between goods is the location where they originate. An internal good is situated within the individual and cannot generally be directly shared with others, though this type of good can lead to good for others. Health for example cannot be directly shared, but healthy individuals can help the sick or disabled. An external good is outside the individual and relies on or is shared by others. Friendship and justice are obvious examples. Some goods, such as peace can be both, in which case I categorized them by the location that seems to me more essential to the individual.

Of course all goods are not equal with respect to desirable intensity. For instance, some goods are such that we can never have enough or too much of them. It seems illogical to say one has too much purpose, functional capacity, or creativity. Therefore these rate a 5 on a scale of 5 in the desired intensity column on the chart. Other goods are optimal in moderation and of diminishing value when excessive. Food is an obvious example; too much leads to obesity and lesser health. A classical example is courage where Aristotle sees moderation as ideal; too much courage being foolhardiness; too little cowardice.

The reader may have different thoughts on these ratings and categories, any of which I am happy to discuss and even modify. However it may be advantageous to create your own version of this chart, perhaps even with your own concepts of goods and evils for your contemplation.

You may also notice some items missing such as fame or power. I left these off because they seem to be of uncertain value or are not universally recognized as good or evil. The reader may prefer to add these and others to his own list. The other missing element in Table 2  is a ranking of goods. That question is addressed in our next blog.

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CLASSIFYING GOODS AND EVILS

“Good is all that serves life, evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life…and all that enhances life. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it to pieces.” – Erich Fromm

 

To further define the concepts of good and evil, it is helpful to identify the various goods and evils we detect around us. In general philosophers do not list more than a sample of goods and evils, so I have created a fairly comprehensive table of goods and evils from reading and personal reflection. (See Table 2 in the Appendix).  For many of these, a different name or manifestation might be chosen, but for the most part the reader should be able to trace a given good to one listed.  I also listed the corresponding evil – essentially the opposite of the good listed although there is some variation in this, for example for the good, security, the related evil is fear (i.e. worry about one’s safety).

Traditionally philosophers divide ‘good’ into two types. First is intrinsic which is good in itself rather than as a means to some higher good. Happiness is the most noteworthy example; we do not usually think of achieving happiness for some other reason, rather because we think it is desirable in itself. Alternatively an instrumental good is not good in itself, but by virtue of the good that can derive from it. Wealth is an example; good only as a means to comfort, happiness, or charity. In Table 2, I have tried to categorize the listed goods by which type they fit.

(to be continued in the next post)

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GOOD AND EVIL

“Good then if we mean by it that quality which we assert to belong to a thing, when we say that the thing is good, is incapable of any definition…” – G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica.

The crux of reality and life for sapient beings revolves around the concepts of Good and Evil. For instance one may question whether the universe is mostly good, mostly evil, or neither. Individual actions are considered ethical if ‘good’ and immoral if ‘evil.’ Therefore the next step is to think through these two words and the relationship between them.

Like we found with the word ‘reality,’ philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias tend to avoid defining the word ‘good’ per se. Dagobert Runes has a passable two part definition1:

1.  In ethics, morally praiseworthy character, action, or motive.

2.  Anything desirable, or that ought to be desired.

However, the words ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘desirable’ seem a bit circular rather than defining to me, and leave the real concern of relativity. After all a tyrant believes control of others is desirable, but it is not clear that makes for a ‘good.’ Webster’s dictionary has a half-column, 58 meaning entry for the word ‘good.’ None is more exact or more useful than these.

Aristotle thought of a ‘good’ as something which leads to happiness, but that seems insufficient for more general use. Accordingly I will again suggest my own definition:

Good is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe. Evil then is simply its negative.

No one need accept this definition, but the alternative is to rely on one’s own intuitive definition of good.  G.E. Moore thinks it is too basic a concept (like ‘yellow’) to be truly definable. This is troubling given the foundational nature of good and evil in much of practical philosophy, but the reader can at least get a sense of my use of those essential words from my definition.

1  Runes, Dagobert, Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, 1950, p. 118.

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SPECIAL PROBLEMS

“Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it. That is knowledge.”  – Confucius

 

Unfortunately before we can reasonably move forward to outline the path to philosophically based happiness and meaning, we need more than makes up the  broad outline on the tiers of reality and ethics. If they are the highways on a cross country drive, the ‘special problems’ are the roadside stops on that journey. Each of the special problems will require careful analysis as part of developing one’s concepts of reality and ethics. A short cut now may divert one from the correct route or lead through a maze of confusing dirt roads. They require separate analysis and are distinct from lesser problems in that one’s view in these areas will color one’s personal philosophy at every level.

The key special problems I will discuss include, in logical order:

  1. Good and evil
  2. The existence and nature of God
  3. Body and soul
  4. Death and immortality
  5. Free will and fate
  6. Teleology
  7. Grief, illness, and pain

During my discussion, I will focus on defining terms, providing context, reviewing traditional viewpoints and debate, and choosing the most reasonable resolutions. I will search for means to accommodate rejected alternatives in order to minimize the consequences of error. This may be done by identifying common elements, exploring metaphorical meanings, or assigning likelihood of truthfulness.

As always we cannot expect certainty, nor can we wait for it; rather we must make choices and live life within a framework of informed uncertainty. Following this phase we will be ready to draw up a blueprint for living a flourishing life.

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CURRENT READING

The Philosopher’s Magazine1

“Philosophy is not a theory, but an activity….”– Ludwig Wittgenstein.

 

While perusing the incredibly useful book, The Philosopher’s Toolkit2, by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, I noticed that Mr. Baggini had founded a quarterly philosophical magazine and decided on a whim to subscribe for one year. What a delightful decision! I received my first issue in December and thought it might be interesting to blog about its contents.

I’ll begin by noting the quality of the publication is excellent with a thick glossy cover and heavy stock paper. This issue has 120 pages of content with about 10% being aesthetically produced photos and illustrations. The advisory board consists of four women and eleven men; five of the twenty-four essays are written by editors or advisory board members.

There is a medley of subject matter starting with an editorial essay memorializing a British philosopher by the name of Mary Midgley who at age 99 wrote a book titled What is Philosophy For?, wherein she tries to “make sense of this deeply puzzling world”. Then come additional articles such as ones on fake news, sustaining the planet, and the esoteric What is dirt? There is also a challenging article on time as conceived by Henri Bergson and reflected in Doctor Strange.

This issue’s forum is on neuroscience, looking at some philosophically relevant features of that field including neuroexistentialism, transcendence, free will, utilitarianism, and the relationship of neuroscience to philosophy of consciousness. I enjoyed the book review on Iddo Landau’s Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, written by Kirsten Egerstrom, a philosophy professor whose research focuses on the topic of meaningfulness in life, an area of particular interest to me. The final piece is an interview of Matt Teichman, whose podcast is known as Elucidations, but who also refers readers to The History of Philosophy podcast which is one of his favorites.

However my favorite essay is Philosophy as a Way of Life, by John Sellars, professor of ancient philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. In the article his stated goal is to move philosophy away from modern concerns of what we can know and how we know it to philosophy as a guide to living. He discusses Pierre Hadot’s book (of the same name as the essay) which starts with Socrates’ emphasis on “care of the soul” and traces that approach to three later schools of thought. The first is developed by Epicurus whose efforts to explain natural phenomena scientifically is directed at alleviating unwarranted fears to bring about ataraxia, or untroubledness. The second is the stoicism of Zeno which identifies philosophy as the “art of living,” with a focus on control of the emotions, and seeing nature as a unified whole. The third is Pyrrhonism which renounces all beliefs, and suggests cogent counter-arguments lead us to ‘equipollence’ (the midpoint between two sides of a debate), and an involuntary confusion, resulting in an unexpected tranquility. Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus progressively refine these Hellenistic philosophies into approaches to real life problems and emphasis on deeds over words. Later philosophers such as Montaigne and Nietzsche also adopt the principle of philosophy as a guide to living rather than a simple mental exercise.

Overall the material in this periodical covers an amazing spectrum of philosophy in a succinct yet robust fashion. I found it very helpful in learning about current approaches to philosophical questions and for comparing my own thoughts with those of some academic experts. My only caution is that the content is by and large most appropriate for more advanced readers.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 83, 4th Quarter 2018.

2 Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S., The Philosopher’s Toolkit. Blackwell Publishing. 2003. ISBN  978-0-631-22874-5.

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SYNOPSIS OF THE BIG PICTURE (continued)

Second, external and cultural reality require care to avoid misperception and overcome bias. Observation of external reality requires caution – the world does in fact appear flat and the Earth does not seem to be moving, which is why it took millennia to get even intelligent people to believe otherwise. Multiple sources of data and detailed knowledge of history will reduce the chance of error in understanding society or how we got here.

Third, acknowledge the power of science. Whatever religious or personal beliefs you have, science has consistently proven to be the most reliable means to truth. It must be studied to avoid blatant error and to fully understand the physical world and cosmos. While much of science is designated as ‘theory’ (such as the ‘theory of evolution’), the real world utility and astounding predictions of science are proof of science’s validity (think of the technology in your cell phone or of the success of medicine in treating illness). Denying or dismissing science is done at great risk – consider the possible death of your child from refusal to vaccinate her.

Finally, accept that absolute certitude will not be possible in most or any of these areas. The degree of confidence should be a factor in how strongly any given notion of reality is embraced. For instance, in politics, recognizing the uncertainty of most political views is essential to social virtue. The less secure you are in an area, the more you will have to develop an ethical approach that minimizes the consequences of potential error, while accommodating the largest number of possibilities. Wisdom is not intrinsically dogmatic; rather adaptive and balanced.

Ernest Becker in his book Escape From Evil and J. Bronowksi in his towering television series and book, The Ascent of Man, highlight the horrific consequences of mistaken certainty. Ethical behavior requires an open mind in dealing with others and pursuing a better world.

If the goal is a meaningful life, errors due to a rush to judgment, denial of science, and over-reliance on imperfect perception and pre-existing bias are among its greatest dangers. In addition, there are some special problems that need to be worked out before we can finalize a pathway to that end. The reader is advised to review the following chapters to complete his or her preparatory work.

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