Friday, June 1, 2012

Moving Day...

I've been contemplating this for a while, but today I officially moved this blog to a new site.  Mosts of the posts have been transferred over, unfortunately most comments didn't make the move (but that's ok, we'll start afresh with some new discussion soon!).  This blog will stay here, but nothing new is going to be posted for a while.  To keep up with new posts, check out the new site here:



Creation Hymn From the Rig Veda

Have been reading a bit of Asian philosophy lately (mostly because I often hear it discussed but know little about it firsthand and suspect most of the characterizations I hear about it are really more caricatures than accurate descriptions).  Found this creation hymn from the Rig Veda particularly interesting and thought I would share:

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.  What stirred?  Where?  In whose protection?  Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.  There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.  That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse.  Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.  The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind.  Poets seeking in their hearts with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.  Was there below?  Was there above?  There were seed-placers; there were powers.  There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.

Who really knows?  Who will here proclaim it?  Whence was it produced?  Whence is this creation?  The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.  Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen-- perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not-- the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows-- or perhaps he does not know.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Thought Experiment: Carl Rogers and Post-Modernism

It has been a very busy semester for me here at Yale, and as a result I have been pretty inactive in the blogging world of late.  Have several partially completed posts in the line-up for the future, but as a first foray back to the blog, thought I'd throw up some stuff I've been reading lately and see what people think.  I am currently engaged in the final research and writing push for a paper on philosophy that I'm excited about because I think it will integrate a lot of things I am interested in the ares of hermeneutics, existentialism, and psychology.  A significant part of my research the last few days has been focused on one of the leading psychologists of the last century, a fellow by the name of Carl Rogers, one of the founding figures of a movement known as "humanistic psychology" which attempts to move psychology away from the supposed scientific rigor of behaviorism and reconnect with philosophy, especially the existentialist philosophers of Europe.  If most of that introduction was meaningless to you, that's fine.  I find this stuff very exciting, but I'm an odd duck, I know.

What I've posted below is a lengthy selection from an essay Rogers wrote in 1978 titled "Do We Need 'A' Reality?"  This is perhaps one of the most succinct and compelling presentations of what a "post-Modern" worldview might look like that I have read, and I want to do a little thought experiment with it.  Experiment might not be the right word, as I think about it, but work with me.  What I'm very interested in is how other people react to this passage.  I've included very briefly some of my own thoughts below the quote, but I'm mostly interested in your reactions.  What do you agree with?  What do you disagree with? Where is Rogers right on the money?  Where is he lost at sea?  Is his vision attainable or is he too idealistic?  Let me know what you think:

I, and many others, have come to a new realization.  It is this: The only reality I can possibly know is the world as I perceive and experience it as this moment.  The only reality you can possibly know is the world as you perceive and experience it as this moment.  And the only certainty is that those perceived realities are different.  There are as many “real worlds” as there are people!  This creates a most burdensome dilemma, one never before experienced in history.  

Form time immemorial, the tribe or the community or the nation or the culture has agreed upon what constitutes the real world.  To be sure, different tribes or different cultures might have held sharply different world views, but at least there was a large, relatively unified group which felt assured in its knowledge of the world and the universe, and knew that this perception was true.  So the community frowned upon, condemned, persecuted, even killed those who did not agree, who perceived reality differently.  Copernicus, even though he kept his findings secret for many years, was eventually declared a heretic.  Galileo established proof of Copernicus’s views, but in his seventies he was forced to recant his teachings.  Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching that there were many worlds in our universe.  Individuals who deviated in their perception of religious reality were tortured and killed.  In the mid-1800’s, Ignaz Semmelweis, an intense young Hungarian physician-scientist, was driven insane by his persecutors because he made the then absurd claim that childbed fever, that dread scourge of the maternity room, was carried from one woman to another by invisible germs on the hands and instruments of the doctors.  Obvious nonsense, in the terms of the reality of his day.  In our American Colonies, those who were even suspected of having psychic powers were considered witches and were hanged or crushed under great stones.  History offers a continuing series of examples of the awful price paid by those who perceive a reality different from the agreed-upon real world.  Although society has often come around eventually to agree with its dissidents, as in the instances I have mentioned, there is no doubt that this insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds a culture together.  

Today we face a different situation.  The ease and rapidity of worldwide communication means that every one of us is aware of a dozen “realities”; even though we may think some of them absurd (like reincarnation) or dangerous (like communism), we cannot help but be aware of them.  No longer can we exist in a secure cocoon, knowing that we all see the world in the same way.

Because of this change, I want to raise a very serious question:  Can we today afford the luxury of having “a” reality?  Can we still preserve the belief that there is a “real world” upon whose definition we all agree?  I am convinced that this is a luxury we cannot afford, a myth we dare not maintain.  Only once in recent history has this been fully and successfully achieved.  Millions of people were in complete agreement as to the nature of social and cultural reality-- agreement brought about by the mesmerizing influence of Hitler.  This agreement about reality nearly marked the destruction of Western culture.  I do not see it as something to be emulated.

In Western culture during this century-- especially in the United States-- there has also been an agreed-upon reality of values.  This gospel can be stated very briefly:  “More is better, bigger is better, faster is better, and modern technology will achieve all three of these eminently desirable goals.”  But now that credo is a crumbling disaster in which few believe.  It is dissolving in the smog of pollution, the famine of overpopulation, the Damocles’ sword of the nuclear bomb.  We have so successfully achieved the goal of “a bigger bang for a buck” that we are in danger of destroying all life on this planet.

Our attempts, then, to live in the “real world” which all perceive in the same way have, in my opinion, led us to the brink of annihilation as a species.  I will be so bold as to suggest an alternative.

It appears to me that the way of the future must be to base our lives and our education on the assumption that there are as many realities as there are persons, and that our highest priority is to accept that hypothesis and proceed from there.  Proceed where?  Proceed, each of us, to explore open-mindedly the many, many perceptions of reality that exist.  We would, I believe, enrich our own lives in the process.  We would also become more able to cope with the reality in which each one of us exists, because, we would be aware of many more options.  This might well be a life full of perplexity and difficult choices, demanding greater maturity, but it would be an exciting and adventurous life.

The question may well be raised, however, whether we could have a community or a society based on this hypothesis of multiple realities.  Might not such a community be a completely individualistic anarchy?  That is not my opinion.  Suppose my grudging tolerance of your separate world view became a full acceptance of you and your right to have such a view.  Suppose that instead of shutting out the realities of others as absurd or dangerous or heretical or stupid, I was willing to explore and learn about those realities?  Suppose you were willing to do the same.  What would be the social result?  I think that our society would be based not on a blind commitment to a cause or creed or view of reality, but on a common commitment to each other as rightfully separate persons, with separate realities.  The natural human tendency to care for another would no longer be “I care for you because you are the same as I,” but instead “I prize and treasure you because you are different from me.”

 If you have read much of this blog you will probably recognize from the first paragraph of this quote that I am very sympathetic to at least some of what Rogers is saying here.  Two criticisms that I have, however, are worth mentioning.  First, I think Rogers moves too quickly from epistemology to metaphysics.  I agree with his assessment of the human condition in so far as we are able to "know" reality, but I'm not sure this means what he takes it to mean concerning whether or not there "is" a reality.  Second, I think Rogers is too idealistic.  I share his desire for a world of peace and tolerance, but I'm not sure its attainable by the human means he outlines.

That's all the assessment I'm giving here.  Want to hear what others think.  Enjoy!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Faith, History, and Eschatology

Just finished reading The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade, thought I would share some sections of the book here.  This is not meant to be a summary of the book’s main argument, I’m intentionally focusing in on a few things that I found particularly interesting.
The book is dealing with ancient/ “primitive”/ “archaic” understandings of humanity’s relationship with metaphysical concepts like “reality” or “being” or “time.”  To give you a little background:
The metaphysical concepts of the archaic world were not always formulated in theoretical language; but the symbol, the myth, the rite, express, on different planes and through the means proper to them, a complex system of coherent affirmations about the ultimate reality of things, a system that can be regarded as constituting a metaphysics.  - 3
In other words, religious myths and religious actions were a major locus of how such concepts were understood in the ancient world.  
[On the] “primitive” ontological conception: an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.  Thus, reality is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is “meaningless,” i.e., it lacks reality...  Hence it could be said that this “primitive” ontology has a Platonic structure. - 34
Insofar as an act (or an object) acquires a certain reality through the repetition of certain paradigmatic gestures, and acquires it through that alone, there is an implicit abolition of profane time, of duration, of “history”; and he who reproduces the exemplary gesture thus finds himself transported into the mythical epoch in which its revelation took place. - 35
Essentially, Eliade argues that for the ancient world a kind of dualism pervaded their philosophy in which that which was truly real was that which could escape the changing flow of time.  This was enacted through the retelling of religious myths, which were timeless, and the participation in religious rituals, through which Eliade writes “[ancient man] repeats the gestures of another and, through this repetition, lives always in an atemporal present.” - 86
For contrast, take a modern view of time and history as exemplified by Hegel:
For Hegel, history is “free” and always “new,” it does not repeat itself; nevertheless, it conforms to the plans of providence; hence it has a model (ideal, but none the less a model) in the dialectic of spirit itself.  To this history which does not repeat itself, Hegel opposes nature, in which things are reproduced ad infinitum. - 90
And now for the really interesting bit, contrast both these models with Eliade’s interpretation of the relationship with time and reality in ancient Hebrew thought:
For the first time, we find affirmed, and increasingly accepted, the idea that historical events have a value in themselves, insofar as they are determined by the will of God.  This God of the Jewish people is no longer an Oriental divinity, creator of archetypal gestures, but a personality who ceaselessly intervenes in history, who reveals his will through events (invasions, sieges, battles, and so on)... It may, then, be said with truth that the Hebrews were the first to discover the meaning of history as the epiphany of God, and this conception, as we should expect, was taken up and amplified by Christianity.  We may even ask ourselves if monotheism, based upon the direct and personal revelation of the divinity, does not necessarily entail the “salvation” of time, its value within the frame of history. - 104
What makes this even more interesting is the way in which this conception of history takes on an eschatological dimension:
Under the “pressure of history” and supported by the prophetic and Messianic experience, a new interpretation of historical events dawns among the children of Israel.  Without finally renouncing the traditional concept of archetypes and repetitions, Israel attempts to “save” historical events by regarding them as active presences of Yahweh.  Whereas, for example, among Mesopotamian peoples individual or collective sufferings were tolerated insofar as they were caused by the conflict between divine and demonic forces, that is, formed a part of the cosmic drama, in the Israel of the Messianic prophets, historical events could be tolerated because, on the one hand, they were willed by Yahweh, and, on the other hand, because they were necessary to the final salvation of the chosen people.  - 106-07
Out of this eschatological dimension develops a new perception of God which makes possible faith (interesting to note that Eliade’s understanding of faith here is being influenced by Kierkegaard):
Abraham’s religious act [the sacrifice of Isaac] inaugurates a new religious dimension: God reveals himself as personal, as a “totally distinct” existence that ordains, bestows, demands, without any rational (i.e., general and foreseeable) justification, and for which all is possible.  This new religious dimension renders “faith” possible in the Judaeo-Christian sense.  - 110
In another gesture to Kierkegaard, Eliade then describes how this kind of faith, made possible in Judaism and Christianity, has struggled to catch on:
Neither in Christianity nor in Judaism does the discovery of this new dimension in religious experience, faith, produce a basic modification of traditional conceptions.  Faith is merely made possible for each individual Christian.  The great majority of so-called Christian populations continue, down to our day, to preserve themselves from history by ignoring it and by tolerating it rather than by giving it the meaning of a negative or positive theophany.  - 111
In other words, Eliade seems to be suggesting, for the majority of the Christian tradition the locus of religion is still found in ritual (which recalls the idea of participating in an eternal present) and not in “faith.”  I find this whole comparison very interesting for a few reasons.  First, it definitely seems to be a jab at Catholicism in the name of promoting a kind of Kierkegaardian, perhaps even evangelical, conception of “faith.”  It is also interesting because of the way in which “faith” in this sense is intertwined very closely with eschatology.  Any thoughts?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Critique of Universalism

This thought occurred to me one day last summer when I was working at camp, strolling through the woods carrying my guitar.  I jotted it down then but never came back to finish writing it.  Finally setting about that task...
The logic of this post is assuming a traditional “heaven-hell” schema of an afterlife (in which I would also include, for my Catholic brethren, a schema which included “purgatory”).  I take it as part of most such theologies that the afterlife is (at least theologically) considered more significant than this life because of its eternal nature (as opposed to the changing, temporal nature of this life).  Such assumptions may not hold in every version of universalism, so this critique is not meant to be definitive by any means.
The critique can be phrased in a question playing on an old saying:  If all roads lead to Rome, then what does it matter which road you take?  Now, to some extent this is exactly the point of universalism- it doesn’t matter which road we take!  But I want to press the logic of that a bit farther.  If it truly doesn’t matter which road we take, then we can attach no objective value to any particular road.  Which then leads to some particularly startling conclusions:  it is no better to be a child abuser than a devout monk, for instance, given this understanding of universalism.  At the end of the day, both will end up in the same place, sharing the same heavenly experience despite having lived radically different lives.
In one sense, this implies significant equality.  Death, which we must all experience, becomes the great equalizer, after which all of our experiences will become the same.  On the other hand, such great equality in effect negates the value of this life.  It turns into a weirdly fatalistic and potentially hedonistic kind of gnosticism which holds the “eternal” life as the most significant and this life as a mere stopping point whose meaning and significance is little to none (so we might as well get as much enjoyment out of it as we can in whatever way we see fit).
The resource to defend against this critique is to limit the scope of universalism, saying something like “all those who make an effort at moral living” or, slightly more narrowly, “all those who make an effort at religious faith” will end up in heaven.  This quasi-universalism (not truly universalism anymore, but something that might be considered an “inclusivism”) is no longer subject to the critique that I have raised, but it might be subject to other critiques.  In particular, it might be plagued by the problem of defining a “threshold”- what qualifies as a worthwhile effort at moral living?  What qualifies as an effort at religious faith?  Once we begin asking those questions we begin very quickly to end up back in the same kinds of arguments which motivated the movement to universalism to begin with- the desire to avoid seemingly arbitrary excluding boundaries.
All this to say, the issue of determining the bounds of salvation is a sticky one no matter what approach you take or position you hold.  

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