Is Religion a Universal in Human Culture or an Academic Invention?

People give names to persons and things, and then suppose that if they know the names, they know that which the names refer to.

– Keiji Nishitani

diogenes-photo

Brett Colasacco | Aeon Ideas

If anything seems self-evident in human culture, it’s the widespread presence of religion. People do ‘religious’ stuff all the time; a commitment to gods, myths and rituals has been present in all societies. These practices and beliefs are diverse, to be sure, from Aztec human sacrifice to Christian baptism, but they appear to share a common essence. So what could compel the late Jonathan Zittell Smith, arguably the most influential scholar of religion of the past half-century, to declare in his book Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982) that ‘religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study’, and that it has ‘no independent existence apart from the academy’?

Smith wanted to dislodge the assumption that the phenomenon of religion needs no definition. He showed that things appearing to us as religious says less about the ideas and practices themselves than it does about the framing concepts that we bring to their interpretation. Far from a universal phenomenon with a distinctive essence, the category of ‘religion’ emerges only through second-order acts of classification and comparison.

When Smith entered the field in the late 1960s, the academic study of religion was still quite young. In the United States, the discipline had been significantly shaped by the Romanian historian of religions Mircea Eliade, who, from 1957 until his death in 1986, taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School. There, Eliade trained a generation of scholars in the approach to religious studies that he had already developed in Europe.

What characterised religion, for Eliade, was ‘the sacred’ – the ultimate source of all reality. Simply put, the sacred was ‘the opposite of the profane’. Yet the sacred could ‘irrupt’ into profane existence in a number of predictable ways across archaic cultures and histories. Sky and earth deities were ubiquitous, for example; the Sun and Moon served as representations of rational power and cyclicality; certain stones were regarded as sacred; and water was seen as a source of potentiality and regeneration.

Eliade also developed the concepts of ‘sacred time’ and ‘sacred space’. According to Eliade, archaic man, or Homo religiosus, always told stories of what the gods did ‘in the beginning’. They consecrated time through repetitions of these cosmogonic myths, and dedicated sacred spaces according to their relationship to the ‘symbolism of the Centre’. This included the ‘sacred mountain’ or axis mundi – the archetypal point of intersection between the sacred and the profane – but also holy cities, palaces and temples. The exact myths, rituals and places were culturally and historically specific, of course, but Eliade saw them as examples of a universal pattern.

Smith was profoundly influenced by Eliade. As a graduate student, he set out to read nearly every work cited in the bibliographies of Eliade’s magnum opus, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958). Smith’s move to join the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1968-69, he admitted, was motivated in part by a desire to work alongside his ‘master’. However, he soon began to set out his own intellectual agenda, which put him at odds with Eliade’s paradigm.

First, Smith challenged whether the Eliadean constructions of sacred time and sacred space were truly universal. He did not deny that these constructs mapped onto some archaic cultures quite well. But in his early essay ‘The Wobbling Pivot’ (1972), Smith noted that some cultures aspired to explode or escape from space and time, rather than revere or reify them. (Think of the various schools of Gnosticism that thrived during the first two centuries CE, which held that the material world was the work of a flawed, even malevolent spirit known as the demiurge, who was inferior to the true, hidden god.) Smith distinguished these ‘utopian’ patterns, which seek the sacred outside the prevailing natural and social order, from the ‘locative’ ones described by Eliade, which reinforce it – a move that undercut Eliade’s universalist vocabulary.

Second, Smith introduced a new self-awareness and humility to the study of religion. In the essayAdde Parvum Parvo Magnus Acervus Erit’ (1971) – the title a quotation from Ovid, meaning ‘add a little to a little and there will be a great heap’ – Smith showed how comparisons of ‘religious’ data are laced with political and ideological values. What Smith identified as ‘Right-wing’ approaches, such as Eliade’s, strive for organic wholeness and unity; intertwined with this longing, he said, is a commitment to traditional social structures and authority. ‘Left-wing’ approaches, on the other hand, incline toward analysis and critique, which upset the established order and make possible alternative visions of society. By situating Eliade’s approach to religion on the conservative end of the spectrum, Smith did not necessarily intend to disparage it. Instead, he sought to distinguish these approaches so as to prevent scholars from carelessly combining them.

Behind Smith’s work was the motivating thesis that no theory or method for studying religion can be purely objective. Rather, the classifying devices we apply to decide whether something is ‘religious’ or not always rely on pre-existing norms. The selective taxonomy of ‘religious’ data from across cultures, histories and societies, Smith argued, is therefore a result of the scholar’s ‘imaginative acts of comparison and generalisation’. Where once we had the self-evident, universal phenomenon of religion, all that is left is a patchwork of particular beliefs, practices and experiences.

A vast number of traditions have existed over time that one could conceivably categorise as religions. But in order to decide one way or the other, an observer first has to formulate a definition according to which some traditions can be included and others excluded. As Smith wrote in the introduction to Imagining Religion: ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterised in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious – there is no data for religion’. There might be evidence for various expressions of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so forth. But these become ‘religions’ only through second-order, scholarly reflection. A scholar’s definition could even lead her to categorise some things as religions that are not conventionally thought of as such (Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance), while excluding others that are (certain strains of Buddhism).

Provocative and initially puzzling, Smith’s claim that religion ‘is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes’ is now widely accepted in the academy. Still, Smith reaffirmed his own critical appreciation for Eliade’s work in two of his last publications before his death in December 2017, and one of the final courses he taught at Chicago was a close reading of Patterns. Smith’s aim was never to exorcise Eliade from the field. His intention was instead to dispense with the temptations of self-evidence, to teach scholars of religion, whatever their preferred methods or political-ideological leanings, to be clear about the powers and limits of the decisions that they need to make. The student of religion, Smith said, must be self-conscious above all: ‘Indeed, this self-consciousness constitutes his primary expertise, his foremost object of study.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Brett Colasacco

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1892)

Pragmatism & Postmodernism

william-james

To my best belief: just what is the pragmatic theory of truth?


Cheryl Misak | Aeon Ideas

What is it for something to be true? One might think that the answer is obvious. A true belief gets reality right: our words correspond to objects and relations in the world. But making sense of that idea involves one in ever more difficult workarounds to intractable problems. For instance, how do we account for the statement ‘It did not rain in Toronto on 20 May 2018’? There don’t seem to be negative facts in the world that might correspond to the belief. What about ‘Every human is mortal’? There are more humans – past, present and future – than individual people in the world. (That is, a generalisation like ‘All Fs’ goes beyond the existing world of Fs, because ‘All Fs’ stretches into the future.) What about ‘Torture is wrong’? What are the objects in the world that might correspond to that? And what good is it explaining truth in terms of independently existing objects and facts, since we have access only to our interpretations of them?

Pragmatism can help us with some of these issues. The 19th-century American philosopher Charles Peirce, one of the founders of pragmatism, explained the core of this tradition beautifully: ‘We must not begin by talking of pure ideas, – vagabond thoughts that tramp the public roads without any human habitation, – but must begin with men and their conversation.’ Truth is a property of our beliefs. It is what we aim at, and is essentially connected to our practices of enquiry, action and evaluation. Truth, in other words, is the best that we could do.

The pragmatic theory of truth arose in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1870s, in a discussion group that included Peirce and William James. They called themselves the Metaphysical Club, with intentional irony. Though they shared the same broad outlook on truth, there was immediate disagreement about how to unpack the idea of the ‘best belief’. The debate stemmed from the different temperaments of Peirce and James.

Philosophy, James said, ‘is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits. It works in the minutest crannies and it opens out the widest vistas.’ He was more a vista than a crannies man, dead set against technical philosophy. At the beginning of his book Pragmatism (1907), he said: ‘the philosophy which is so important to each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means.’ He wanted to write accessible philosophy for the public, and did so admirably. He became the most famous living academic in the United States.

The version of the pragmatist theory of truth made famous (or perhaps infamous) by James held that ‘Any idea upon which we can ride … any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labour, is … true INSTRUMENTALLY.’

‘Satisfactorily’ for James meant ‘more satisfactorily to ourselves, and individuals will emphasise their points of satisfaction differently. To a certain degree, therefore, everything here is plastic.’ He argued that if the available evidence underdetermines a matter, and if there are non-epistemic reasons for believing something (my people have always believed it, believing it would make me happier), then it is rational to believe it. He argued that if a belief in God has a positive impact on someone’s life, then it is true for that person. If it does not have a good impact on someone else’s life, it is not true for them.

Peirce, a crackerjack logician, was perfectly happy working in the crannies as well as opening out the vistas. He wrote much, but published little. A cantankerous man, Peirce described the difference in personality with his friend James thus: ‘He so concrete, so living; I a mere table of contents, so abstract, a very snarl of twine.’

Peirce said that James’s version of the pragmatic theory of truth was ‘a very exaggerated utterance, such as injures a serious man very much’. It amounted to: ‘Oh, I could not believe so-and-so, because I should be wretched if I did.’ Peirce’s worries, in these days of fake news, are more pressing than ever.

On Peirce’s account, a belief is true if it would be ‘indefeasible’ or would not in the end be defeated by reasons, argument, evidence and the actions that ensue from it. A true belief is the belief that we would come to, were we to enquire as far as we could on a matter. He added an important rider: a true belief must be put in place in a manner ‘not extraneous to the facts’. We cannot believe something because we would like it to be true. The brute impinging of experience cannot be ignored.

The disagreement continues to this day. James influenced John Dewey (who, when a student at Johns Hopkins, avoided Peirce and his technical philosophy like the plague) and later Richard Rorty. Dewey argued that truth (although he tended to stay away from the word) is nothing more than a resolution of a problematic situation. Rorty, at his most extreme, held that truth is nothing more than what our peers will let us get away with saying. This radically subjective or plastic theory of truth is what is usually thought of as pragmatism.

Peirce, however, managed to influence a few people himself, despite being virtually unknown in his lifetime. One was the Harvard logician and Kant scholar C I Lewis. He argued for a position remarkably similar to what his student W V O Quine would take over (and fail to acknowledge as Lewis’s). Reality cannot be ‘alien’, wrote Lewis – ‘the only reality there for us is one delimited in concepts of the results of our own ways of acting’. We have something given to us in brute experience, which we then interpret. With all pragmatists, Lewis was set against conceptions of truth in which ‘the mind approaches the flux of immediacy with some godlike foreknowledge of principles’. There is no ‘natural light’, no ‘self-illuminating propositions’, no ‘innate ideas’ from which other certainties can be deduced. Our body of knowledge is a pyramid, with the most general beliefs, such as the laws of logic, at the top, and the least general, such as ‘all swans are birds’, at the bottom. When faced with recalcitrant experience, we make adjustments in this complex system of interrelated concepts. ‘The higher up a concept stands in our pyramid, the more reluctant we are to disturb it, because the more radical and far-reaching the results will be…’ But all beliefs are fallible, and we can indeed disturb any of them. A true belief would be one that survives this process of enquiry.

Lewis saw that the pragmatist theory of truth deals nicely with those beliefs that the correspondence theory stumbles over. For instance, there is no automatic bar to ethical beliefs being true. Beliefs about what is right and wrong might well be evaluable in ways similar to how other kinds of beliefs are evaluable – in terms of whether they fit with experience and survive scrutiny.Aeon counter – do not remove

Cheryl Misak

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

Vividness

Moonpaths by the Cowherds

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.

Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.

For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t…

View original post 3,101 more words

Lifelines

I Prevail – Lifelines

When I open my eyes and see the lines that live on the life I left behind,
I feel disconnected from the place that I call home.
When I try to rewind I can’t design a way to go back to that place and time.
I remember that moment that changed everything I know.
Everything I know.

Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason.
Who’s gonna be there to make me whole?
I can’t stop the bleeding,
Looking for a meaning,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.
Won’t you say something, say something?
I can’t do this alone.
Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.

I live with all the goodbyes, doesn’t matter how hard I try!
They end in long nights spent up looking back on my life!
I feel disconnected from the place that I call home.
They hit me from the blind side, caught me in the blink of an eye!
Just like a landmine going off inside my mind!
I remember the moment that changed everything I know.

Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason.
Who’s gonna be there to make me whole?
I can’t stop the bleeding,
Looking for a meaning,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.
Won’t you say something, say something?
I can’t do this alone.
Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.

This life can cut like a knife!
It leaves lines and divides!
This life can cut like a knife!
It leaves lines that divide a before and an after!

Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason.
Who’s gonna be there to make me whole?
I can’t stop the bleeding,
Looking for a meaning,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.
Won’t you say something, say something now?
I can’t do this alone!
Cut up into pieces, looking for a reason,
Throw me a line and bring me back home.

When I open my eyes and see the lines,
I see the lines.
Now they live on the life I left behind,
I see the lines.

Fade In / Fade Out

Nothing More – Fade In / Fade Out

Just the other day I looked at my father.
It was the first time I saw he’d grown old.
Canyons through his skin and the rivers that made them,
Carve the stories I was told.

He said, “Son,
I have watched you fade in.
You will watch me fade out.
When the grip leaves my hand,
I know you won’t let me down.

Go and find your way.
Leave me in your wake.
Always push through the pain.
And don’t run away from change.
Never settle, make your mark.
Hold your head up, follow your heart.
Follow your heart.

Just the other day I stared at the ocean.
With every new wave, another must go.
One day you’ll remember us laughing.
One day you’ll remember my passion.
One day you’ll have one of your own.

I say, “Son,
I have watched you fade in.
You will watch me fade out.
When the grip leaves my hand,
I know you won’t let me down.

Go and find your way.
Leave me in your wake.
Always push through the pain.
And don’t run away from change.
Never settle, make your mark.
Hold your head up, follow your heart.
Follow your heart.

We all get lost sometimes, trying to find what we’re looking for

I have watched you fade in.
You will watch me fade out.
I have watched you fade in.
You will watch me fade out.
When the grip leaves my hand,
I know you won’t let me down.

Go and find your way.
Leave me in your wake.
Always push through the pain.
And don’t run away from change.
Never settle, make your mark.
Hold your head up, follow your heart.
Follow your heart.

When the morning comes and takes me,
I promise I have taught you everything that you need.
In the night you’ll dream of so many things,
But find the ones that bring you life.
And you’ll find me.
That’s where you’ll find me.

What did Max Weber mean by the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism?

ludwigshafen

The BASF factory at Ludwigshafen, Germany, pictured on a postcard in 1881. Courtesy Wikipedia

Peter Ghosh | Aeon Ideas

Max Weber’s famous text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is surely one of the most misunderstood of all the canonical works regularly taught, mangled and revered in universities across the globe. This is not to say that teachers and students are stupid, but that this is an exceptionally compact text that ranges across a very broad subject area, written by an out-and-out intellectual at the top of his game. He would have been dumb­founded to find that it was being used as an elementary introduction to sociology for undergraduate students, or even schoolchildren.

We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’. More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe. So the ‘spirit’ of capitalism is also an ‘ethic’, though no doubt the title would have sounded a bit flat if it had been called The Protestant Ethic and the Ethic of Capitalism.

This modern ‘ethic’ or code of values was unlike any other that had gone before. Weber supposed that all previous ethics – that is, socially accepted codes of behaviour rather than the more abstract propositions made by theologians and philosophers – were religious. Religions supplied clear messages about how to behave in society in straightforward human terms, messages that were taken to be moral absolutes binding on all people. In the West this meant Christianity, and its most important social and ethical prescription came out of the Bible: ‘Love thy neighbour.’ Weber was not against love, but his idea of love was a private one – a realm of intimacy and sexuality. As a guide to social behaviour in public places ‘love thy neighbour’ was obviously nonsense, and this was a principal reason why the claims of churches to speak to modern society in authentically religious terms were marginal. He would not have been surprised at the long innings enjoyed by the slogan ‘God is love’ in the 20th-century West – its career was already launched in his own day – nor that its social consequences should have been so limited.

The ethic or code that dominated public life in the modern world was very different. Above all it was impersonal rather than personal: by Weber’s day, agreement on what was right and wrong for the individual was breaking down. The truths of religion – the basis of ethics – were now contested, and other time-honoured norms – such as those pertaining to sexuality, marriage and beauty – were also breaking down. (Here is a blast from the past: who today would think to uphold a binding idea of beauty?) Values were increasingly the property of the individual, not society. So instead of humanly warm contact, based on a shared, intuitively obvious understanding of right and wrong, public behaviour was cool, reserved, hard and sober, governed by strict personal self-control. Correct behaviour lay in the observance of correct procedures. Most obviously, it obeyed the letter of the law (for who could say what its spirit was?) and it was rational. It was logical, consistent, and coherent; or else it obeyed unquestioned modern realities such as the power of numbers, market forces and technology.

There was another kind of disintegration besides that of traditional ethics. The proliferation of knowledge and reflection on knowledge had made it impossible for any one person to know and survey it all. In a world which could not be grasped as a whole, and where there were no universally shared values, most people clung to the particular niche to which they were most committed: their job or profession. They treated their work as a post-religious calling, ‘an absolute end in itself’, and if the modern ‘ethic’ or ‘spirit’ had an ultimate found­ation, this was it. One of the most widespread clichés about Weber’s thought is to say that he preached a work ethic. This is a mistake. He personally saw no particular virtue in sweat – he thought his best ideas came to him when relaxing on a sofa with a cigar – and had he known he would be misunder­stood in this way, he would have pointed out that a capacity for hard work was something that did not dist­inguish the modern West from previous soc­ieties and their value systems. However, the idea that people were being ever more defined by the blinkered focus of their employment was one he regarded as profoundly modern and characteristic.

The blinkered pro­fessional ethic was common to entrepreneurs and an increasingly high-wage, skilled labour force, and it was this combination that produced a situation where the ‘highest good’ was the making of money and ever more money, without any limit. This is what is most readily recognisable as the ‘spirit’ of capitalism, but it should be stressed that it was not a simple ethic of greed which, as Weber recognised, was age-old and eternal. In fact there are two sets of ideas here, though they overlap. There is one about potentially universal rational pro­cedures – specialisation, logic, and formally consistent behaviour – and another that is closer to the modern economy, of which the central part is the professional ethic. The modern situation was the product of narrow-minded adhesion to one’s particular function under a set of conditions where the attempt to understand modernity as a whole had been abandoned by most people. As a result they were not in control of their own destiny, but were governed by the set of rational and impersonal pro­cedures which he likened to an iron cage, or ‘steel housing’. Given its rational and impersonal foundations, the housing fell far short of any human ideal of warmth, spontaneity or breadth of outlook; yet rationality, technology and legality also produced material goods for mass consumption in unprecedented amounts. For this reason, though they could always do so if they chose to, people were unlikely to leave the housing ‘until the last hundredweight of fossil fuel is burned up’.

It is an extremely powerful analysis, which tells us a great deal about the 20th-century West and a set of Western ideas and priorities that the rest of the world has been increasingly happy to take up since 1945. It derives its power not simply from what it says, but because Weber sought to place under­standing before judgment, and to see the world as a whole. If we wish to go beyond him, we must do the same.Aeon counter – do not remove

Peter Ghosh

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

What makes People distrust Science?

square-stationary-earth

A Map of the Square and Stationary Earth by Professor Orlando Ferguson, South Dakota, 1893. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Bastiaan T Rutjens | Aeon Ideas

Today, there is a crisis of trust in science. Many people – including politicians and, yes, even presidents – publicly express doubts about the validity of scientific findings. Meanwhile, scientific institutions and journals express their concerns about the public’s increasing distrust in science. How is it possible that science, the products of which permeate our everyday lives, making them in many ways more comfortable, elicits such negative attitudes among a substantial part of the population? Understanding why people distrust science will go a long way towards understanding what needs to be done for people to take science seriously.

Political ideology is seen by many researchers as the main culprit of science skepticism. The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum. However, there is more to science skepticism than just political ideology.

The same research that has observed the effects of political ideology on attitudes towards climate change has also found that political ideology is not that predictive of skepticism about other controversial research topics. Work by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, observed no relation between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification. Lewandowsky also found no clear relation between political conservatism and vaccine skepticism.

So there is more that underlies science skepticism than just political conservatism. But what? It is important to systematically map which factors do and do not contribute to science skepticism and science (dis)trust in order to provide more precise explanations for why a growing number of individuals reject the notion of anthropogenic climate change, or fear that eating genetically modified products is dangerous, or believe that vaccines cause autism.

My colleagues and I recently published a set of studies that investigated science trust and science skepticism. One of the take-home messages of our research is that it is crucial not to lump various forms of science skepticism together. And although we were certainly not the first to look beyond political ideology, we did note two important lacunae in the literature. First, religiosity has so far been curiously under-researched as a precursor to science skepticism, perhaps because political ideology commanded so much attention. Second, current research lacks a systematic investigation into various forms of skepticism, alongside more general measures of trust in science. We attempted to correct both oversights.

People can be skeptical or distrusting of science for different reasons, whether it is about one specific finding from one discipline (for example, ‘The climate is not warming, but I believe in evolution’), or about science in general (‘Science is just one of many opinions’). We identified four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate – in some cases quite strongly – which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity. When not measuring all constructs simultaneously, it is hard to properly assess what the predictive value of each of these is.

So, we investigated the heterogeneity of science skepticism among samples of North American participants (a large-scale cross-national study of science skepticism in Europe and beyond will follow). We provided participants with statements about climate change (eg, ‘Human CO2 emissions cause climate change’), genetic modification (eg, ‘GM of foods is a safe and reliable technology’), and vaccination (eg, ‘I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children’). Participants could indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with these statements. We also measured participants’ general faith in science, and included a task in which they could indicate how much federal money should be spent on science, compared with various other domains. We assessed the impact of political ideology, religiosity, moral concerns and science knowledge (measured with a science literacy test, consisting of true or false items such as ‘All radioactivity is made by humans’, and ‘The centre of the Earth is very hot’) on participants’ responses to these various measures.

Political ideology did not play a meaningful role when it came to most of our measures. The only form of science skepticism that was consistently more pronounced among the politically conservative respondents in our studies was, not surprisingly, climate-change skepticism. But what about the other forms of skepticism, or skepticism of science generally?

Skepticism about genetic modification was not related to political ideology or religious beliefs, though it did correlate with science knowledge: the worse people did on the scientific literacy test, the more skeptical they were about the safety of genetically modified food. Vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology, but it was strongest among religious participants, with a particular relation to moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

Moving beyond domain-specific skepticism, what did we observe about a general trust in science, and the willingness to support science more broadly? The results were quite clear: trust in science was by far the lowest among the religious. In particular, religious orthodoxy was a strong negative predictor of faith in science and the orthodox participants were also the least positive about investing federal money in science. But notice here again political ideology did not contribute any meaningful variance over and beyond religiosity.

From these studies there are a couple of lessons to be learned about the current crisis of faith that plagues science. Science skepticism is quite diverse. Further, distrust of science is not really that much about political ideology, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, which is consistently found to be politically driven. Additionally, these results suggest that science skepticism cannot simply be remedied by increasing people’s knowledge about science. The impact of scientific literacy on science skepticism, trust in science, and willingness to support science was minor, save for the case of genetic modification. Some people are reluctant to accept particular scientific findings, for various reasons. When the aim is to combat skepticism and increase trust in science, a good starting point is to acknowledge that science skepticism comes in many forms.Aeon counter – do not remove

Bastiaan T Rutjens

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

 

Is Philosophy Absurd? Only When You’re Doing it Right

diogenes

Helena de Bres | Aeon Ideas

Last semester, halfway through a meeting of my ‘Meaning of Life’ seminar, I found myself lying on a window seat along the eastern wall of the classroom. I was scheduled for spinal surgery in a few months, and sitting and standing were tough. I needed a break.

‘It was the Romantics,’ I intoned, adjusting the pillow under my head, ‘who first argued that living “authentically” is an end in itself. For some, authenticity overtook morality as the ultimate ideal. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it [here I began to gesticulate energetically]: The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it!’ I whacked my elbow involuntarily against the wall. ‘Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind!

I glanced up at my students and faltered. It had occurred to me, and perhaps to them, that I was being absurd.

I had this thought, and then, because overthinking is my profession, I analysed it. Why absurd, exactly? On one account, absurdity springs from a noticeable gap between expectation and reality, aim and outcome, or means and end. Sometimes the discrepancy is amusing. Imagine an artist-in-residence’s end-of-year exhibition involving only a tiny makeshift diorama depicting the artist sleeping. Other times, the discrepancy is terrifying, as when a darling of the fossil-fuel industry is appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. In my case, the mismatch was between the command and authority that a professor is expected to display and the fact that I was lying below eye level on a puffy log-shaped pillow.

My horizontal lecture wouldn’t have been quite as absurd, though, if I were, say, an economist or historian. There’s something especially absurd about philosophers, supine or not. The explanation for this might lie in the best-known philosophical account of absurdity, offered by Thomas Nagel in 1971. Nagel argued that when we sense that something – or everything – in life is absurd, we’re experiencing the clash of two perspectives from which to view the world. One is that of the engaged agent, seeing her life from the inside, with her heart vibrating in her chest. The other is that of the detached spectator, watching human activity coolly, as if from the distance of another planet. Nagel notes that it’s our nature to flip between these points of view. One moment we’re fully caught up in our mushroom-cultivation class, our infatuation with our sister’s husband or our intractable power struggle with Terri in accounting. The next moment, our mental tectonics shift and we see ourselves from an emotional remove, like a spirit hovering over its own body. It becomes evident to us that, ‘from the point of view of the Universe’, to use the 19th-century utilitarian Henry Sidgwick’s phrase, none of these things matter.

Our sense of absurdity kicks in when we snap between these two perspectives rapidly, in a kind of duck-rabbit movement of the soul. The sense of absurdity depends on this instability. If we could retain the internal perspective forever, we’d never experience the shock of doubt about whether what we were doing was ultimately worthwhile or made any kind of sense. If, alternatively, we could permanently view all human affairs, our own included, from the perspective of the Universe, we’d never find ourselves eagerly attempting to adhere fungi to a damp log. We’d be full-time ascetics, to whom nothing human mattered at all, people who couldn’t be caught red-handed caring about something small.

Though Nagel says that we all adopt both the internal and external perspectives on our lives, some people clearly identify more with one than the other. And some of these people cluster in professions where one perspective is disproportionately valued. Academic philosophy is one such profession. When people say: ‘Let’s be philosophical about this,’ they mean: ‘Let’s calm down, step back, detach.’ The philosopher, in the public imagination, is set apart from the mundane concerns and fiery attachments that govern the rest of humanity. He or she takes the external perspective on pretty much everything. When Søren Kierkegaard collapsed at a party and people tried to help him up, he allegedly said: ‘Oh, leave it. Let the maid sweep it up in the morning.’

If this image is accurate, and if Nagel’s account is right, philosophers, parked forever in only one of Nagel’s perspectives, will escape the absurdity of the human condition. We philosophers, however, are among the most absurd people I’ve ever met. The reason for this has a whiff of paradox. Abstraction and detachment might be a philosopher’s stock-in-trade, but philosophers are often fiercely attached to those very things: passionate about impassion, abstract in the most concrete of ways. They spend years working obsessively on papers with titles such as ‘Nonreducible Supervenient Causation’ and then have public brawls about them at conferences. This is part of philosophy’s charm for me. There’s something especially absurd, yes, but also endearing, about people who are so serious about their core life endeavour that they regularly forget its ridiculous aspects, even though the endeavour itself is meant to serve as a perpetual reminder.

So I was both abstract and fervent down there on my log pillow. But what does this really have to do with the absurd? Many of us associate the concept not with simple discrepancy, nor with Nagel’s more complex perspectival clash, but with futility. A nice illustration of this is the video of a Japanese game show named ‘Slippery Stairs’ that went viral last year. The show requires its contestants – barefoot, in skin-tight onesies – to scramble to the top of a staircase coated with what looks like tepid ice. The video portrays six people painstakingly, desperately, attempting to do this, and repeatedly sliding dramatically back down the stairs, often taking the other five with them. ‘Life,’ someone wrote in the comments.

What attitude should we take to our situation or ourselves, once we recognise that they’re absurd, in any of these ways? One option is to shake our noble fists at the cosmos, cursing its silent coldness and slippery stairs. This stance appeals to a certain kind of guy in college. But some of us – women, the disabled, ethnic and gender minorities, etc got the memo pretty early on that we weren’t plausibly the centre of the Universe. So when our adolescent attention was directed to life’s disappointments and farcicality, we were more inclined to shrug and get back to what we were doing than get theatrical about it.

Nagel recommends something like this approach. He writes: ‘If sub specie aeternitatis [viewed in relation to the eternal; in a universal perspective] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.’ But irony might be less attractive in 2018 than it was in 1971. There’s something about seeing everything you value under constant attack that increases your sense that some things do matter.

My preferred take is this. The absurdity of our situation is only troubling if it implies that nothing really matters and that all human pursuits are inherently meaningless. But none of the accounts of absurdity canvassed above have that implication. If you love what you’re doing, and if what you love has genuine human-sized value (roughly, the moral philosopher Susan Wolf’s definition of meaningfulness), your life can have depth and purpose even if it involves incongruity and failure, and even if the Universe cares naught for it, or for you. Talking seriously about philosophy with teenagers, while your back collapses, their hearts break, their parents struggle, and the country falls apart – you could call it absurd. But you could also look up from your window seat, catch yourself in the thick of it, and, after a twinge of embarrassment, call it beautiful. Then get back to work.Aeon counter – do not remove

Helena de Bres

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Problem of Atheism

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

Illustration by artist Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by mathematician Lillian Lieber


Excerpts from Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (Appendix)

Marxist Humanism

As is commonly known, Marxism looks on religion as a way for those unable to come to terms with the frustrations of life to find satisfaction at the ideal level by imagining a world beyond. In so doing, the argument goes, they nullify the self and transpose the essence of their humanity into the image of “God” in the other world. In this act of religious “self-alienation” both nature and humanity become nonessential, void, and without substance. Atheism consists in the negation of this nonessentiality. By denying God it affirms the essence of the human. This emancipation of the human in turn is of a single root with human freedom.

This variety of atheism is connected with Marx’s characterization of the essence of the human individual as worker: humanity is achieved by remaking the world through work. The process of self-creation by which one gradually makes oneself human through work is what constitutes history. Seen from such a perspective, atheism is unavoidable. For since the source of religious self-alienation lies in economic self-alienation (the condition of being deprived of one’s humanity economically), once the latter is overcome, the former will fall away as a matter of course. According to Marx, then, atheism is a humanism wrought through the negation of religion.

Now insofar as Marx’s atheistic humanism is a humanism that has become self-conscious dialectically – its affirmation rests on the negation of religion – it clearly strikes at the very heart of religion. In it we find a clear and pointed expression of the general indifference, if not outright antagonism, to religion in the modern mind. From its very beginning, modern humanism has combined the two facets of maintaining ties to religion and gradually breaking away from it. In a sense, the history of modern philosophy can be read as a struggle among approaches to humanism based on one or the other of these aspects. At present the debate over humanism – what it is that constitutes the essence of the human – has become completely polarized. The responses provided by the various religious traditions show no signs of being able to allay the situation. Questions such as freedom, history, and labor, in the sense in which Marx discusses them in relation to the essence of humanity, paint a picture of the modern individual that had until recently escaped the notice of religion. To come to grips with such questions, religion will have to open up a new horizon.

Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.

Or again, we might say that the issue of “the non-self nature of all dharmas” refers to “the nonessentiality of nature and humanity,” but this does not mean that we can reduce the claim to a self-alienating gesture of projecting the essence of our humanity on to “God.” It refers to the essential way that all things in the world are: depending on each other and existing only in interdependency. It is meant to point to the essential “non-essentiality” of all beings, and hence to a domain that no society can alter, however far it may progress. It is, in short, the very domain of religion that remains untouched by Marx’s critique. Marx argues emphatically that through work human beings conquer nature, change the world, and give the self its human face. But deep in the recesses behind the world of work lies a world whose depth and vastness are beyond our ken, a world in which everything arises only by depending on everything else, in which no single thing exists through the power of a “self” (or what is called “self-power”). This is the world of human beings who exist as “being-in-the-world.”

As for religion itself, whose maxim all along has been “all is suffering,” the idea that this has to do with “historical” suffering has not often come to the fore. (In this regard, Christianity represents an exception.) The idea of “karma” is supposed to relate concretely to the historicity of human existence, but even this viewpoint has not been forthcoming. The human activities of producing and using various things through “self-power,” of changing nature and society and creating a “human” self – in short, the emancipation of the human and the freedom of the human individual – would seem to be the most concrete “karma” of humanity and therefore profoundly connected with modern atheism. But none of these ideas has been forthcoming from the traditional religions. Even though for Christianity the fact that we must labor by the sweat of our brows is related to original sin, the germ of this idea has not, to my knowledge, been developed anywhere in modern theology.


Sartrean Existentialism

Modern atheism also appears in the form of existentialism. The same sharp and total opposition that separates existentialism and Marxism in general applies also to their respective forms of atheism. Unlike Marxism, which understands the human being as an essentially social being, existentialism thinks of the human being essentially as an individual; that is, it defines the human as a way of being in which each individual relates to itself. Marx’s critique of religion begins from the self-alienation of human beings in religion, redefines it as an economic self-alienation, and then deals with religion in terms of its social functions. In contrast, the existentialist Sartre, for example, understands the relationship between God and humanity as a problem of each individual’s relating to the essence of “self”-being itself. In other words, he begins from something like an ontological self-alienation implied in seeing human beings as creatures of God. For all the differences between the standpoints, they share the basic tenet that it is only by denying God that we can regain our own humanity. As is the case with Marx’s socialist individual, for Sartre’s existentialist individual humanism is viable only as an atheism – which is the force of Sartre’s referring to existentialism as a humanism.

According to Sartre, if God existed and had indeed created us, there would be basically no human freedom. If human existence derived from God and the essence of human existence consisted in this derivation, the individual’s every action and situation would be determined by this essential fact. In traditional terms, “essential being” precedes “actual being” and continually determines it. This means that the whole of actual human being is essentially contained within the “Providence” of God and is necessarily predetermined by God’s will. Such predestination amounts to a radical negation of human freedom. If we grant the existence of God we must admit God’s creation; and if we grant God’s creation, we must also allow for God’s predestination – in other words, we are forced to deny that there is any such thing as human freedom. If human freedom is to be affirmed, the existence of God must be denied.

Human “existence” (a temporal and “phenomenal” way of being) does not have behind it any essential being (a supratemporal and “noumenal” way of being) that would constitute its ground. There is nothing at all at the ground of existence. And it is from this ground of “nothing” where there is simply nothing at all that existence must continually determine itself. We must create ourselves anew ever and again out of nothing. Only in this way can one secure the being of a self – and exist. To be a human being is to humanize the self constantly, to create, indeed to have no choice other than to create, a “human being.” This self-being as continued self-creation out of nothing is what Sartre calls freedom. Insofar as one actually creates the self as human, actual existence precedes essence in the human being. In essence, the human individual is existence itself. This way of being human is “Existence,” and Existence can stand only on an atheism.

Of late we are beginning to see a turn in the standpoint of Heidegger, in that he no longer refers to his thought as an “existentialism.” Still, it seems important to point out what his thinking up until now has shared in common with the existentialism of Sartre. That human beings continually create themselves out of nothing is meant to supplant the Christian notion of God’s creatio ex nihilo. To this extent it is not the standpoint of “self-power” in the ordinary sense. Self-creation out of nothing is not brought about simply by the inner power of a being called human and hence is not a power contained within the framework of human being. This “being” is continually stepping beyond the framework of “being.” Nothingness means transcendence, but since this transcendence does not mean that there is some transcendent “other” apart from self-being, it implies a standpoint of “self-power,” not of “other-power.” In contrast to Christianity, it is a view in which nothingness becomes the ground of the subject and thereby becomes subjective nothing – a self-power based on nothing. Here the consciousness of freedom in the modern mind finds a powerful expression and amounts to what is, at least in the West, an entirely new standpoint. It seems doubtful that this standpoint can be confronted from within the traditional horizons that have defined Christianity so far. It is quite different with Buddhism.

From the perspective of Buddhism, Sartre’s notion of Existence, according to which one must create oneself continually in order to maintain oneself within nothing, remains a standpoint of attachment to the self – indeed, the most profound form of this attachment – and as such is caught in the self-contradiction this implies. It is not simply a question here of a standpoint of ordinary self-love in which the self is willfully attached to itself. It is rather a question of the self being compelled to be attached to itself willfully. To step out of the framework of being and into nothing is only to enter into a new framework of being once again. This self-contradiction constitutes a way of being in which the self is its own “prison,” which amounts to a form of karma. Self-creation, or freedom, may be self-aware, but only because, as Sartre himself says, we are “condemned to be free.” Such a freedom is not true freedom. Again, it may represent an exhaustive account of what we normally take freedom to be, but this only means that our usual idea of freedom is basically a kind of karma. Karma manifests itself in the way modern men and women ground themselves on an absolute affirmation of their freedom. As Sartre himself says, his standpoint of Existence is a radical carrying out of the cogito, ergo sum of Descartes, for the Cartesian ego shows us what the modern mode of being is.

That Sartre’s “Existence” retains a sense of attachment to the self implies, if we can get behind the idea, that the “nothingness” of which he speaks remains a nothingness to which the self is attached. It was remarked earlier that in existentialism nothingness became subjective nothingness, which means that, as in the case of Greek philosophy or Christianity, it is still bound to the human individual. Again looked at from behind, we find that human subjectivity is bound up inextricably with nothingness and that at the ground of human existence there is nothing, albeit a nothing of which there is still consciousness at the ground of the self. No matter how “pre-reflective” this consciousness is, it is not the point at which the being of the self is transformed existentially into absolute nothingness. Sartre’s nothingness is unable to make the being of the self (Existence) sufficiently “ek-static,” and to this extent it differs radically from Buddhist “emptiness.” The standpoint of emptiness appears when Sartrean Existence is overturned one more time. The question is whether Buddhism, in its traditional form, is equal to the confrontation with existentialism.

Sartre thinks that to be a human being is to “human-ize” the self continually and to create the self as human out of nothing. Pushing this idea to the extreme, and speaking from the standpoint of emptiness in Buddhism, it is a matter of continually assuming human form from a point where this form has been left behind and absolutely negated. It is, as it were, a matter of continued creative “accommodation,” a never-ending “return” to being a new “human.” Taken in the context of Buddhist thought as a whole, there is some question as to whether this idea of “accommodation” really carries such an actual and existential sense. Does it really, as Sartre’s idea of continual humanization does, have to do with our actual being at each moment?

When Sartre speaks of ceaseless self-creation out of nothing, he refers to an Existence that is temporal through and through. It does not admit of any separate realm of being, such as a supratemporal (or “eternal”) essence, but is simply based on “nothing.” But for Sartre Existence is self-created within a socio-historical situation, which demonstrates his profound appreciation of the social and historical dimensions of the human way of being. In the case of the standpoint of Buddhist emptiness, in which human being is understood as arising out of emptiness and existing in emptiness, we need to ask how far the actual Existence of the human being at each moment is included. How much of the Existence within the actual socio-historical situation, and completely temporalized in this actuality, is comprehended? To the extent that the comprehension is inadequate, the standpoint of Buddhism has become detached from our actuality, and that means that we have failed to take the standpoint of emptiness seriously enough and to make it existential. In this case, talk of “accommodation” is merely a kind of mythologizing.


Atheism in the World of Today

A crisis is taking place in the contemporary world in a variety of forms, cutting across the realms of culture, ethics, politics, and so forth. At the ground of these problems is that fact that the essence of being human has turned into a question mark for humanity itself. This means that a crisis has also struck in the field of religion, and that this crisis is the root of the problems that have arisen in other areas. We see evidence of this state of affairs in the fact that the most recent trends of thought in contemporary philosophy which are having a great influence – directly and indirectly – on culture, ethics, politics, and so on, are all based on a standpoint of atheism. This applies not only to Marxism and existentialism, especially as represented by Sartre, but also to logical positivism and numerous other currents of thought.

Involved in the problem of the essence of human being are the questions, “What is a human being?” and “By what values should one live?” These are questions that need to be thought through in terms of the totality of beings, the “myriad things” of which human beings are only one part. It is a question, too, of the place of human beings in the order of the totality of beings, and of how to accommodate to this position (that is, how to be truly human). For the order of being implies a ranking of values.

For example, even if “man” is said to be the lord of creation, this places him in a certain “locus” within the totality of things, and therefore refers to how one ought to live as a human being. In the Western tradition the locus of human being has been defined in relation to God. While we are said to have been created from nothing, our soul contains the imago dei. This divine image was shattered through original sin, to be restored only through the atonement of God’s Son, Jesus, and our faith in him as the Christ. Here the locus of human beings in the order of being and ranking of value takes a different form from the straightforward characterization of man as lord of creation, a form consisting of a complex interplay of negation and affirmation. This locus of human being is well expressed in Augustine’s saying: “Oh God, you have created us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Needless to say, the basic dynamism behind the forming of this locus came from Greek philosophy and Christianity.

Modern atheism, Marxism, and existentialism share in common the attempt to repudiate this traditional location of the human in order to restore human nature and freedom. The seriousness of this new humanism is that such a restoration is possible only through a denial of God. At the same time, the new humanism harbors a schism in its ranks between the standpoints of Marxism and existentialism. The axis of the existentialist standpoint is a subjectivity in which the self becomes truly itself, while Marxism, for all its talk of human beings as subjects of praxis, does not go beyond a view of the human being as an objective factor in the objective world of nature or society. Each of them comprehends human being from a locus different from the other.

In the Western tradition the objective world and subjective being – the natural and social orders on the one hand, the “soul” with its innate orientation to God on the other – were united within a single system. The two main currents in modern atheism correspond respectively to these two coordinates, the soul and the world, but there is little hope of their uniting given the current confrontation. There is no way for modern men and women simply to return to the old locus, and the new atheism offers only a locus split into two. Confusion reigns in today’s world at the most basic level concerning what human beings are and how they are to live.

Each of these two standpoints seeks to ground itself from start to finish in actual being. This is related to the denial of God, in that full engagement of the self in actual being requires a denial of having already been determined within the world-order established by God, as well as a denial of having been fitted out in advance with an orientation to God in one’s very soul. Both standpoints stress the importance of not becoming detached from the locus in which one “actually” is, of remaining firmly grounded in one’s actual socio-historical situation, or more fundamentally, in actual “time” and “space.” But do these standpoints really engage actual being to the full?

Earlier on I suggested that as long as Marxism and existentialism continue to hold to the standpoint of the “human,” they will never be able to give a full account of actual human being. These new forms of humanism try to restore human beings to actual being by eliminating from the world and the soul the element of divine “predetermination.” The result is that they leave a gaping void at the foundations, as is evidenced by the lack of a locus from which to address the problem of life and death. Since the human mode of being consists in life and death, we must pass beyond the human standpoint to face the problem of life and death squarely. But to overcome the human standpoint does not necessarily mean that one merely returns to the “predetermination” of God, nor that one simply extinguishes freedom or actual being. It is rather a matter of opening up the horizon in which the question can be engaged truly and to its outermost limits.

Earlier I also proposed consideration of the locus of Buddhist “emptiness” in this regard. In the locus of emptiness, beyond the human standpoint, a world of “dependent origination” is opened up in which everything is related to everything else. Seen in this light there is nothing in the world that arises from “self-power” and yet all “self-powered” workings arise from the world. Existence at each instant, Sartre’s self-creation as “human,” the humanization in which the self becomes human – all these can be said to arise ceaselessly as new accommodations from a locus of emptiness that absolutely negates the human standpoint. From the standpoint of emptiness, it is at least possible to see the actuality of human being in its socio-historical situation in such a way that one does not take leave of “actual” time and space. In the words of the Zen master Musō:

When acting apprehend the place of acting, when sitting apprehend the place of sitting, when lying apprehend the place of lying, when seeing and hearing apprehend the place of seeing and hearing, and when experiencing and knowing apprehend the place of experiencing and knowing.


Further Reading

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

The Kyoto School (SEP)