While reading through an earlier post, it occurred to me that it might have relevance to today’s political drama. So I tracked down a few essays and put a contemporary spin on the year-old post. And while I’m on the dangerous topic of politics, I predict this Thursday’s debate will be canceled by an October surprise (albeit perhaps a day early). The surprise might be a family crisis for Sarah Palin (as if her family isn’t, by definition, a crisis), or perhaps something bigger. And maybe the debate will proceed on schedule, the McCain/Palin ticket hoping they can just let windbag Biden repeatedly stick his foot firmly down his throat. But if the debate proceeds on schedule and Palin actually sneaks a word or two in, I’m betting the McCain campaign will spend the entire week in damage control.
Reason arose in Greece about 25 centuries ago, and is perhaps best known from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato (ca. 428-348 BC) uses the conversations of Socrates to pose and explore questions in considerable detail. Although many of the issues and associated conversations seem unsophisticated to contemporary readers, these initial attempts to employ logic to study the natural world and the role of humans in the world are remarkable precisely because they were the unprecedented. The contributions of ancient Greece to the material worldview that characterizes modernity cannot be overstated; that so many of the contributions came from Athens, a city that never exceeded 250,000 residents, is simply astonishing.
Although the ancient Greeks laid the foundation for modernity, few bricks were added to the structure for nearly two millennia. During the early seventeenth century, the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the deconstructionist RenÃ© Descartes (1596-1650) ushered in the Enlightenment, thereby triggering a flurry of construction to the edifice of knowledge. Almost overnight it became clear that the world was a material one that could be observed and quantified by all who dared think and observe. Nature obeyed rules and humans were big-brained animals capable of discovering and describing those rules.
Thus, the Enlightenment eroded the role of authority as a source of knowledge. In the wake of Giordano Bruno’s heinous execution by the Catholic Church, Bacon recanted earlier statements in which he denied the Ptolemaic view that Earth was the center of the universe. But the erosion of authority that began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and the Church was increasingly marginalized as a source of knowledge.
David Hume (1711-1776), in his initial written piece of philosophy, presented a compelling case against miracles, hence against religion: “Of Miracles” was published in 1748 as an essay in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understandings. This essay should be required reading for anybody interested in understanding reason and religion. Considering the ludicrous religious statements coming every recent U.S. President and every recent presidential candidate, it should be required reading for them, too.
Shortly before Charles Darwin formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection in the Origin of Species (1859), Schopenhauer (1788-1860) used Plato-like dialog to question the basis of religion in his well-known essay, “Religion: A Dialogue.” Can you imagine such a nuanced and reasonable debate between candidates for political office in our burgeoning theocracy?
Notably influenced by Schopenhauer and writing shortly after publication of Darwin’s dangerous idea, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) vociferously spread the word about God’s death (probably unaware that Max Stirner had declared the death of God shortly after Nietzsche’s birth in his 1845 book, The Ego and Its Own). Nietzsche predicted Reason would overwhelm worldviews based on mysticism, a prediction that turned out to be hopelessly optimistic. As S. Jonathan Singer concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live. Singer likely did not know he was echoing Schopenhauer, although Schopenhauer’s use of dialog in his essay clearly indicates he knew he was echoing Plato in reaching the same conclusion. In any event, the absence of reason on the campaign trail represents a distinct and disturbing departure from reality, though it closely matches the ten percent figure given by Plato and Singer. Are the candidates pandering to the public, hence satisfying our obvious desire to be lied to? Or do they really lack the ability to discern fantasy from reality?
Which is worse?
Nietzsche expressed his views on Christianity early and often in his writings, most popularly with Thus Spoke Zarathustra; I recommend that classic book and, for the condensed version of Nietzsche’s view, The Antichrist (the latter, which probably should have been titled The Anti-Christian, represents Nietzsche’s views on God particularly clearly and vehemently, and if you’re short on time, I recommend sections 1-9, 29-39, and 47-49). The Antichrist was intended to be shockingly blasphemous, but it cogently makes many important points and articulates them vividly. The Antichrist is an excellent and strident follow-up to Schopenhauer’s thoughtful essay.
To further muddy Nietzsche’s clarity, be sure to read the 1953 essay published in Look magazine by Bertrand Russell (1903-1959):”What is an agnostic?” Russell was the world’s last philosopher of significance, and his views superbly reflect reality. The birth of postmodernism often is traced to 1960, the year after Russell’s death. I don’t think it’s causal.
Collectively, these four essays illustrate the capacity for, and importance of, Reason. Reason is the basis for understanding the material world. As such, it serves as the foundation upon which we can understand and practice conservation of species and cultures. That is, we can conserve the last remaining shards of nature only through description and understanding rooted in reality. Or, of course, by bringing down the entire world’s industrial economy. The latter seems a lot more likely than application of reason to the issue.
Mysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for conserving nature. Ultimately, I suspect it will prove inadequate for saving humanity as well. Although we could blame the lying clowns who represent us, the politicians merely reflect the populace, and therefore contemporary zeitgeist. Like it or not, the politicians we elect are six flights below the lowest common denominator in large part because we cannot reason our way up the stairs.