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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What Am I Doing?

I consider my a "philosopher in training," among other things.  So I often ask myself what is philosophy.

If I were writing for Wikipedia or the Journal of Philosophy, I might answer by interviewing philosophers, by getting descriptions from the various schools and departments of philosophy, or by examining statements or best practices of the great philosophers of history. But I'm writing for myself after many years of studying and doing philosophy. Like Dewey's Pedagogic Creed, I just want to sum up what I believe philosophy is and should be.

For me philosophy is systemic critical inquiry.

Inquiry:   As Aristotle said, philosophy begins with wonder.  It is an ongoing enterprise of asking what and why.  Philosophy uses the method of science to achieve knowledge, namely, experience, insight and hypothesis, and verification through experiment and peer review. Philosophy does not supplant or overrule science; it builds on and furthers science by integrating, classifying, and critiquing science.

Critical inquiry: As Kant said, philosophy is questioning the conditions for the possibilities of all human activities, including science, for example by reflecting on the methods, directions, and complementarities of science, art, religion, and ordinary language. As critical inquiry it continually challenges the dogmas and conventional beliefs of all our enterprises. I see much philosophy being done today not just by academic philosophers but by literary and art critics, science writers, and journalists.

Systemic critical inquiry: As Dewey said, philosophy is critically inquiring into the whole human endeavor and its results. It considers the holistic context. It proposes trends and categories within which human activities take place. It identifies the worldview of our era and of the ones preceding us, the paradigms within which our symbols, beliefs, formulas, and expressions take meaning. It raises questions concerning the direction of humanity in the universe.

Philosophy uses, supports, and maintains reason in human affairs.  It does not displace or denigrate the emotions which are often the stimulus for our actions.  Indeed it carries its own passion for life, beauty, justice, and meaning.  But it does temper and modify emotion and passion so that it continues us on our way to further life, beauty, justice, and meaning.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Love of Naming

I just finished reading Terrence Beacon’s excellent book: The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.  It summarized, critiqued, and pushed forward all that I have been studying for 50 years in philosophy and science. 

This reflection (I have so many after my reading) is more personal and theological. 


Please do not believe in things or person or entities or gods or causes or concepts or words or doctrines.  Just know them for who and what they are.

Realize that we give existence to all of them.

I exist through you and you through me.  When you sculpt my image and say my name, I exist.  We are existence and all that is exists through us—including nations and heroes, religions and gods, arts and beauty, sciences and truth, our worlds and our very selves.  

Naming confers existence.  When our bodies acquired the ability to name, we achieved existence along with the cosmos.  Indeed, in the beginning was the Word.

Not that there was no before-existence; there was matter and energy and light and life.  But they did not stand out as beings, entities, persons, and forces until we had the wondrous power to name them and each other. 

Such a wholly, holy power is the ability to name.  Naming creates and destroys.  It creates us when we acknowledge the power humbly with respect.  It destroys us when we use the power arrogantly unaware of its limits. 

Loving is giving me name as a person, autonomous and interdependent, with the power to name.  Your naming agrees to be limited by my naming.  We choose to name our world and each other together. 

Violence annihilates in me and in others the power to name.   Since our power to name is interdependent, destroying in others the power to name results in the destruction of the power to name in our selves. 

God is Love.  We who live in love live in God and God in us.  Love is no supernatural entity out there apart.  Love is the transcending act of us being named and naming. 

My Love, I am not, nor can I be, a person without your giving me name and so recognizing me standing apart from everything else in the cosmos.   You give me my being in the cosmos, in memory, in place, in relation with all others.  This is the reason you are my goddess, my creatrix, my grace, the one who shapes my image, the one who calls my name and grants me the power to name you. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Religious Instinct

Last night we experienced the Black Nativity at H Street Playhouse.

Gospel and Soul at its height.  We are still floating with the music, the dance, the energy.  Thanks, Langston Hughes.  Thanks, Theater Alliance.  Thanks, great cast, all of whom we met afterwords.  What an angel you are! I told the woman who played Gabriel.  I believe, I told a lead of one of the spirituals.  And Joseph and Mary, Alvin Ailey would be so proud.

How so very important is the gospel to the African American community with its salvation and liberation message as well as its code for abolition and civil rights!  But also its ability to make people feel good about themselves even in oppressive situations.  Maybe an opium, as Marx said, but one needed for survival.  Yes, what a friend we have in Jesus!  Yes, God gives us all we need.

Even as a non-theist and non-Christian, I acknowledge and experience that good news with great relish and appreciation.

As an avid reader and thinker in philosophy and science, I cannot but accept that there is indeed a "religious instinct" in most of us -- throughout our species across the boundaries of culture.  "Ab esse ad posse valet allatio," assert the scholastics.  From the existence of religion in all its manifestations, we can argue to a potentiality (e.g. instinct) for it.

But where does it come from, the philosopher of science in me asks.

Yale Professor Paul Bloom has demonstrated that in child development and the dawn of the "theory of mind" and the firing of "mirror neurons," i.e. a sense of other selves with feelings and awareness, these attributes are sometimes attributed to events and inanimate objects.  Thus a sense of supernatural entities develops often interpreted through the stories of the child's culture.  This is the "accidental" foundation for gods and religion.

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the Sage Center at UC Santa Barbara, points to the evolution-selected "interpreter" of the brain's left hemisphere that is wired to find explanations and put order in the chaos of the emergent possibilities of the universe.  And so we affirm a First Cause, an original Logos, a Designer, or some Power beyond nature to make sense of it all including us.

I incorporate both of these in a theory of perception or consciousness from which develops a sense of self inextricably connected to others and to objects in the world in relation to a history and a future.  It is a dynamic, emerging, transient sense that can be properly labeled as a sense of transcendence--in the here and now, but continually passing beyond it in our developing communication with others.  This dynamism is the power of language, science, art, and, yes, culture and religion.  It is Aristotle's "wonder," Lonergan's "unrestricted desire to know," Frankel's "search for meaning," Bergson's "√©lan vital," Otto's "idea of the holy," Hegel's "dialectic," Neitche's "will to power, "Tillich's "ultimate concern," Dewey's "quest for unity" and "religious attitude."

The fallacy of course is to identify this dynamism of human being with any thing, person, cause, narrative, or entity.  From this fallacy comes the illusion of the absolute and delusion of the perfect that closes the book, stops revelation, and destroys the dynamism.

The dynamism of the human mind or soul is a wonder indeed and the source of many wonders in science, religion, civilization, and love and art--including the wonder of the Black Nativity and the wonderful story it sings and dances.