Considering Christopher Hitchens was the master of the English language, it seems particularly stupid of me to use it now. It’s like trying to serenade the world’s greatest singer. But here goes my poor attempt which is aided greatly by a quotation by a Nobel prize winning author.
Overhearing younger folk talking about “life”, I heard a statement that gave me pause: “All we want in life is to be happy.” As axiomatic as it seems, this short assertion does not make sense. The plague of much modern thought rests in attempting to cure itself with “happiness”: some ill-defined single mechanism or property of existence that we each strive for that completes, fulfils or renders whole our entire existence. Note: I did not say we do not wish to be happy; but this is different from saying all we want is to be happy. Indeed, as the great AC Grayling has highlighted: “The first lesson of happiness is that the surest way to be unhappy is to think that happiness can be directly sought.” Its epiphenomenal property is obvious: happiness arises as a by-product of other endeavours. From this we must take notice that to seek out happiness directly is juvenile, misguided and often retarding of the process of living a good life in the first place.
In the latest eSkeptic, I was very excited to see Skeptic handling a book review concerning Bertrand Russell. This is not just any book – its a graphic novel about Russell’s earlier life and his pursuit for logical and axiomatic truths. It charts Russell’s passionate attempt to establish if there was anything that could be indubitably known.
However, I was disappointed (I am being kind using this term) at the book review itself. Considering I have contributed two book reviews to Skeptic magazine, I felt incredibly undermined that such horrid writing was accepted. I encourage readers to view it for themselves: it is perhaps the worst-written article I have read this year (if not the last five). Perhaps I am used to reading well-written articles, even by people (like Terry Eagleton) who I do not agree with. The book-reviewer commits a cardinal sin of using himself to fill space and create imagery; this is not taboo but it is often messy. The book review should aim at highlighting the book, perhaps criticising it (since no book is perfect, one can usually find ways to criticise and, perhaps, suggest where it can be improved).
But really – who cares about where you are flying from? Who cares that some arbitrary person asked you to write a book review? Who cares that its your kid’s first day at school? Get back to the Nobel Prize winning writer and the beauty of that man’s logic (even where it failed, it failed beautifully). This writer, David Cowan, informs us that he is well-qualified to deliver a thorough overview of the book, but instead we are subjected to his inane and terrible writing. In reference to why the writer Christos Papadimitriou matters to him, he says: “My dear friend Vivian Leal of Kepler’s Bookstore asked me to review this book … Coincidentally, I would have never met Vivian had I not befriended her husband Daniel 23 years ago back in CS121 another debt I owe Christos Papadimitriou.”
WHO CARES? Who writes like this and gets published in Skeptic? I am saddened to see such tripe in a magazine I generally love (when I can get hold of it). Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but I would appreciate your thoughts. Really, this is the worst writing I’ve read this year…
Along with Bertrand Russell, it is importance to consider what one believes rather than what one knows. Knowledge, the evanescent sphere that humans touch upon to ascend to higher planes of comprehension, is mostly unimportant: It is the beliefs that we hold. Indeed, modern philosophers like Roger Scruton regard epistemology not as the study of knowledge but the justification for our beliefs. In this short space, I am aim to succinctly outline my current beliefs with the goal of checking up on them in one year. I hope readers do not find this self-indulgent but rather a project of epistemic duty, to which each person should scrutinise for themselves. If there are alternate and better views, many current views should be rescinded or replaced.
- …nothing is sacred and the attempt at sanctification brings nothing but dogmatic human assertion onto an otherwise neutral world. This is not to be confused with not thinking certain thing highly important: for example, I do not believe in the “sanctity of human life” but I believe very strongly in fighting for people’s autonomy, freedom and their pursuit of happiness.
- …many current governmental policies, even in “Western” liberal democracies, are premised on knee-jerk emotional responses which cater to the masses. We need a thorough reassessment based on evidence rather than emotion if we wish to help our fellow Man. Thus, our policies on drugs, capital punishment, education and the automatic respect for religions to dictate on important moral issues needs at the most rescinding and at the least thorough consideration.
- …suppression only worsens rather than ameliorates most social problems. Thus, we should legalise drugs (from marijuana to cocaine), prostitution, pornography, abortion, euthanasia and similarly related constituents of “immorality”. Conservative moralists tend to consider a slippery-slope that as AC Grayling put it works like this: “If you eat two bananas, you are going to want to eat a million.” We can already see the irrationality of such an approach. Firstly, if people want drugs, abortions and euthanasia, they will usually find a way to get it. Secondly, we already have arbitrary instances of various allowances of these prohibitions: we have legalised alcohol and nicotine (both of which are far worse than other drugs, like say marijuana); we don’t blink when we give a pet a good death (the literal meaning of euthanasia) but shudder when the gaze shifts to one of our own. This again goes back to considering something sacred, rather than looking at something humanely – that is, it is more important for someone to have life, even if it is filled with suffering, than to have no life and therefore no suffering. Also, those who chant the mantra “drugs are bad” should remember that for the most part, even alot of so-called hard drugs when taken in minimal circumstances do little to no damage.
- …when entering the public sphere, all ideas are open to criticism, debate, mockery and scorn. If we eliminate the stupid notion of sanctity, we can allow that ideas are man-made and therefore fallible. The point is to weed out the bad and keep the good but that can not be done if certain ideas are beyond criticism. For too long we have lived under the shadow of a respect for people’s faiths but no longer must that be the case. We should care more about people and creating a better world, than hushing our own important criticisms which could better more lives by being spoken rather than placating dormant lives with silence.
- …we should not be afraid to defend our point of views strongly, but more importantly we must be able to utter 2 three-word sentences: “I don’t know” and “I stand corrected”. Sure, we may feel like imbeciles when we vehemently defend a view which turns out to be wrong. We should then apologise and say so, rather than making the situation worse by deluding ourselves into naive dogmatism. Nobody really cares anyway because no one is keeping tabs on how often you were right. Also you will be right by acceding to your opponent or antagonist (even if there are say, your brilliant philosopher girlfriend), because you will be able to correct those who shared your previously held view.
- …religions are a disgusting affront to human sensibilities and are perverse for accruing various properties. It is both tedious and mortifying to constantly read about religious groups opposing abortions, same-sex marriages, prostitution, drugs, freedom of speech and expression, liberty, and so on. In each case, we can probably name a few cases where religious people who deem their actions sanctified (there is that notion of sanctity again!) by a god have killed someone who is part of these movements. Religious people often refuse to face facts and evidence, as is the case with for example evolution and contraceptives, and instead point to arbitrary passages in their arbitrary (sacred) book. Religions not only reward people for horrifying actions like the slaughter of innocent people, but also rewards people for believing without evidence. It also rewards people for peering into other people’s private lives which, if ignored, would not hinder their own lives at all (how could a happy homosexual couple going about their business make the lives of say a normal family horrid, unless they were Christians and told by their holy book that homosexuality is an affront to god?)
- …the most disgusting affront to our species and the biggest fight we have is the continued emancipation of women and bringing their hands to tightly clutch the banner of liberty. Especially in such places as Africa, where we know that when women are allowed charge over their own bodies, we can end poverty. Poverty will not be solved solely though charity – we know that will not work. Instead, we must seek charity’s root, namely karitas or the love of fellow humans. This means liberating women which reduces poverty by not dealing out already low resources to an inestimable number of offspring, who themselves grow up to continue to breed and create more people to suffer needlessly. Aside from poverty, we need to push back the patriarchy of society to realise that women (who do better than the male counterparts in education) are human. Religions also aid this patriarchy by giving men a divine sanction to use their wives as nothing more than cattle. There are too many instances to name in Islamic countries that they might collectively be called Misogynia. By combating these arrogant and stupid men who think women are lower than themselves, we will be pulling the carpet from under the feet. The biggest wake up call that Muslims states could suffer would be a woman, wearing clothes of her choosing, smiling and enjoying her own mind and body. A respect for the minds and their bodies should be welcomed, not solely for the purpose of the male related urge to have sex, but also for the appreciation of the beauty of both. Personally, women are the better sex and it is often said that if god was a woman, the world wouldn’t be in such a mess – perhaps the only statement of an anthropomorphic god I could agree with.
- …we need a re-evaluation of why we procreate. To the Greeks, everything was an ethical dilemma: even the clothes you wore. To them the ethical life was a life well-lived and living ethically was a life-long challenge. We tend to forget this view, with its importance on self-reflection. Applying this to all spheres would end a lot of social problems but it needs to be consistent. Thus, to be consistent, there has yet to be a good reason laid out for the procreation of our species. As I write this, I am of the opinion that it is immoral to create new people, since it is by definition impossible to have a child for that child’s sake – because the child does not exist when you conceive him. Parents do not know their children for quite some time, so it is impossible to say that parents have children for that child’s sake. To have a child is simply a selfish act, a biological need (arguably the most prominent and therefore the most overlooked!). Why have kids? It is a bizarre question to most people, but as of yet there has not been a satisfactory answer. To continue the human species is not good enough either, since I do not care for those who do not exist. I care and apply my moral sphere to those who exist. Those who do not exist do not suffer. Also, we must remember that our species will die out eventually and we only prolonging the inevitable. It seems harsh and to some horrifying, but it is rather simple. For this reason, I at this moment will not have children. Instead, I think our efforts in helping people to procreate and the “sad” fact that people are sterile, needs shifting to aid children who are already alive. That is, instead of focusing on children who do not exist, focus on those who do! Perhaps this is what irks me the most – there are so many children who need loving families and I do not doubt that people who want kids simply want a child to love. Therefore, they should not add to our overpopulated word, but simply adopt. Psychological testing has shown time and time again, there is no difference in affection and love between children who parents adopt and children born to biological parents. I believe it a human duty to shift our silly polices on those “unlucky people who are sterile” and who can not create new people; and instead promote the humanity and importance of adopting people who already exist.
- …reading is the gateway to living the good life and engaging in discussion with ideas its path. Epicurus was the embodiment of this, who thought the highest aim in life was sitting beneath a tree discussing philosophy. Whilst we can not reasonably expect such a life today, we can approach it with the same considerations. Reading is a joy and should be shown to young people when their minds are finding fruition and goal. Like education, reading should not be promoted by forcing children to read certain books, but how and why they should read in the first place. People find their hunger grow when reading and the acquisition of “knowledge” becomes a life long goal. There is nothing pretentious in reading Tolstoy and Faulkner’s books, indeed they are beautiful and actually simple writers. They are classics because even the general reader is able to enjoy its beauty, whilst stuffy introverts like myself could dissect it for in-depth literary criticism. There is also much joy to be gained in reading opposing viewpoints, thus reading books for and against evolution, for and against god, for and against postmodernism, and so on. We enjoy debates for their entertainment value and watching one side get overturned by the brilliance of the other; but we also allow people in better positions than ourselves to criticise more eloquently and with better information. It is a joy: try (really try) for example reading a work by Derrida (perhaps a short one) than try Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense or Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s Why Truth Matters.
- …by studying philosophy, I hope to bring it further into the public sphere where it belongs. Much is to be gained from the history of ideas and discussion within philosophy. Not least the clarification and use of critical thinking so important to this discipline. Moral philosophers need to be higher placed within our society than say, bishops and rabbis – for the simple reason that moral philosophy is not moralising – i.e.: it is not about setting out a list of “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…” but the clearing of verbose emotional reactions and alternate paths not previously considered. The first person journalists should contact when an ethical dilemma arises from medical advancement should not be the public or a religious don: it should be a bioethicist. After outlining all the paths and conjectures surrounding the topic, others can contribute more coherently. This should be the job of the philosopher in general, to clear the path for discussion to continue maturely.
- …sex is overrated. In nearly every sense, sex finds itself at the top of the list for both those who consider themselves godless liberals in their “FOR” list, and for the conservative moralisers in their “AGAINST” list. If sex was less the topic of focus, it could be allowed to be the healthy, enjoyable actualisation of affection two (or three or four) people have for each other.
- …I am not intelligent or bright. I reserve such terms for those who deserve it and find it a particularly insulting when an important property finds itself attached to me. As an example, I did terribly in high-school, barely passing. I did even worse in a tertiary institution, only managing firsts in English literature – a degree, nearly anyone could do well in. I am not exceptional in any way, save that I am particularly good-looking.
- …that last sentence was a lie.
I hope that by next year one of these would have changed, either to be replaced with something more informed, or elucidated more clearly. For example, I hope to be able to say that I am working from a tertiary institution. Until then, let us see what changes the world makes upon itself.
Humanism and the Need for Wonder
What makes us human? What simply outlines and describes a human being? Whilst I would love to delve more into this, it is not the focus. Rather my point is this: The fact that we can pose such a question is itself something to be awed about. We like to think, arrogantly, we know what “intelligence” is, what “stress”, what “being human” is. We struggle with these concepts all the time. And I find John and Mary Gribbin’s answer the most correct, in their book of the same name: “Being human simply means being one of a variety of animal on planet Earth.” (1)
So should humanism rather be considered along the lines of PETA – that bizarre organisation that has turned into a cult? Why don’t we consider people when we fight for animal rights? We know through evidence that we are animals. There is no ‘seat for the soul’ or any form of Cartesian dualism, through which a spirit can slither and take residence. We are animals – of this there can be no doubt. If you doubt me, investigate our closest cousins, chimps. Helping, sharing, caring all linger alongside warfare, brutality and conquest (2). Our genetic makeup matches theirs 99.8% – the genes are of course exactly the same. People have a hard time realising their cousins are not just swinging from tree to tree but are those daffodils underneath too. That all life on earth reproduces essentially the same way is testament to the awe-inspiring realisation that we are all related. Not just us humans but yourself and your favourite goldfish, plant or flower.
Thus: What separates us from the chimpanzees, animal rights groups are trying to “save”? David Attenborough asked this, too:
Man has credited himself with several talents to distinguish him from all other animals. Once we thought that we were the only creatures to make and use tools. We now know that this is not so: chimpanzees do so and so do finches in the Galapagos that cut and trim long thorns to use as pins for extracting grubs from holes in wood. Even our complex spoken language seems less special the more we learn about the communication used by chimpanzees and dolphins.(3)
It is these sorts of realisations that science affords which spurn people toward more supernaturalist ideologies. We might refer to these as Unweaved Rainbow Realisations, after Keats’ charge against Newton. Once people’s rainbows have shattered into a thousand tinkling shards of painful truth, they are more inclined to seek other, more industrious rainbows (4). Rainbows up in the sky dictating our births (astrology); rainbows too complex for science to demolish (god, theology and the meanings of ‘holy’ books); rainbows that disguise themselves as valid (creationism and intelligent design); and rainbows, which once tasted, heal and help (homeopathy, crystal healing, angel-therapy). The pots of gold, though illusions, are still enticing. People’s yearning for beauty, meaning and wonder are a thirst for the numinous. And, like a man denied water in a desert, the illusion can still be as enticing as the actual: A mirage is no less enticing for not being true.
How then are we to promote humanism in the teeth of “rainbows”? Even by postulating science we seem to tread on our own toes: through science we appear to reduce humanity to simply being animals. There appears to be nothing “special” about us. And science trumps rainbows again and again. Humanity’s flight from reason is beginning to sound like the blur of jet-engines. Science’s answers are breed and breathe, not helpful in defining meaning.
And in the face of this, we know people would choose mirages over empty sand. But why do people choose superstition again and again? Science appears to make life dull, meaningless and utterly worthless. As I’ve said and as is my main point: science does in itself give no answer. It is a tool to discover the world and universe. It is the most powerful tool – so powerful that we have established facts that are true throughout the universe. No superstition can make such a bold claim and justify it.
But with all its power and beauty, science appears to dissolve humans from their core into lifeless husks pushed and manipulated by bacteria and a fragile brain. As Bertrand Russell put it at the beginning of What I Believe: “Man is a part of Nature, not something contrasted with Nature. His thoughts and his bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motion of stars and atoms.”(5) People’s usual reaction is the sound of a rainbow shattering: No! I refuse to be scientifically measurable and subject to those same laws! I am special!
Yet, if we stop, if we breathe, if we ponder perhaps the rainbow reforms. Consider: a rainbow is no less beautiful in that we know it is a mixture of light and condensation. And life is no less beautiful, miraculous or awe-inspiring just because we are subject to physical laws. In fact we are not subjects, we are discoverers. The word “law” implies prescriptive, whereas Natural Laws are descriptive as the sky is blue. You can not defy gravity, deny germs. That is part of Natural Laws. Understanding these Laws has helped us create a better society (we have eradicated smallpox through our understanding of natural laws, to name a small example; we are able to make crops that help billions of chronically poor thanks to people like the great Nobel laureate Norman Borlaugh).
Yes. We are subject to the same descriptive equations that fit anything. If there is one human here and another human there, that makes two humans. Descriptions do not make it any less amazing that we are around to calculate such a simple matter! I find it incredible that I am “obeying” the same Laws as a entire planets and powerful stars (from where we all came in the first place).
I find that my connection to the universe is there, literally written in the stars. I do not want to be above the world I want to be part of it. I do not want to be some special being observing animals, I want to be part of a great animal kingdom myself. That we have touched the moon, the stars, the sky, that we all have loves, hates, fears, is testament to our need to belong. We all want to belong to something higher or greater than us – the aspirations for the numinous, by traversing the paths of rainbows – but I think humanism finally launches hooks to pull those rainbows down. Like a great sheet it must tumble. We must bring ourselves back down to earth.
We need only grasp that we are here, alone and dependant upon each other for this to work. Though the rainbows are beautiful, we must not forget they are still people. Whether you see a rainbow or a mixture of light and condensation, we are the same. We want to belong and there is nothing better to belong to than that great ape: Homo sapiens. We must eradicate the fear that science destroys the numinous and show it inspires the grandest connection of all: We are connected to the stars, the planets, the galaxies. All of us. If there is anything greater to be connected to, I have not found it. And I will even make a prediction based on the stars: I do not think there will ever be anything greater than this concurrent connection. Rejoice in your belonging to the cosmos.
And don’t forget to breathe.
1. Gribbin, J. and Gribbin, M. (1998) Being Human. London: Phoenix Paperbacks.
2. I hate the term “going ape” – I find other apes to be more civil than most humans.
3. Attenborough, D. (1986) ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ in Life on Earth: A Natural History. London: Fontana Paperbacks, p. 302
4. Dawkins, R. (2006) Unweaving the Rainbow. London: Penguin.
5. Russell, B. (2001) What I Believe. London: Routledge
Recently, I was privileged enough to attend two lectures by the great Daniel C. Dennett. His two topics were “What should we be free to teach our children about religion” at UCT and “From animal to person” at Stellenbosch University. I had the pleasure of meeting his wonderful wife, Susan Dennett, who was the one who then introduced us. We chatted for an estimated 26 seconds before I wished him well for his lecture. As should be expected, both lectures were fantastic. But during these excursions into the outside world, I decided to investigate a nearby antique book store.
I discovered something quite extraordinary: a 1912 Sydney Edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays. There were only 30 copies ever made of this beautiful book: A blue-green cover, with a golden embossed Bacon coat of arms, stating: “Mediocria Firma”. The Bacon motto, “moderate things are surest”, can still be seen inside St. Mary’s Church, in Redbourn.
Many consider Bacon to be the earliest wielder of “Knowledge is power”, though in all likelihood a predecessor coined the term. Born in 1561, he was son to Sir Nicholas Bacon who was then Keeper of the Great Seal. Growing up in a fertile environment of political machinations, Francis entered Parliament at the age of 23.
Bertrand Russell, in his fiery discussion of Bacon in A History of Western Philosophy, says:
Although [Bacon’s] philosophy is in many ways unsatisfactory, [he] has permanent importance as the founder of modern inductive method and the pioneer in the attempt at logical systemization of scientific procedure.
We do not revere him for his ethical or moral life. Consider his admission to accepting bribes – though he stated they never influenced his decisions. It was not uncommon, at this time, for those in judicial positions of power to gladly accept gifts from those who sought to gain from forthcoming decisions. He was convicted not for the actual act itself – which was ubiquitous amongst his cohorts – but for shadowy party movements in politics. He also was not one to question decisions based on religious or dogmatic assertion. We are not dealing with a John Stuart Mill or a Tom Paine.
Bacon’s impact on the religious establishment is one more of a poisoner than of an axe-wielder. He was firmly resolved in separating theology from philosophy, since the former relies on revelation and the latter on reason. Specifically, we are indebted to him as Russell beautifully highlights:”The whole basis of his philosophy was practical: to give mankind mastery over the forces of nature by means of scientific discoveries and inventions.”
Primarily, this rested on severing the ties of theology to philosophy and scientific inquiry. One could not begin with ordained or divine knowledge then proceed to build hypotheses. As Bacon says: “If a man begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubt, he shall end in certainties.”
Though he claimed to see the hand of god in nature, he maintained an objection to inferring based on teleological notions. He was adamant in formulating a structure of induction. Indeed, AC Grayling highlights in Towards the Light:
[Bacon] was cited with admiration in the incorporating documents of the Royal Society in London, whose founders regarded him as their inspiration.
Darwin, referring to his own first notebook, said: “I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any [presupposed] theory collected facts on a large scale.”
There are excellent sources of Bacon’s work all over the internet, finding much fertility especially in quotation websites. But consider his bifocal shattering on reason and his poisoning the veins of faith. Bifocal because he viewed reason and faith as mutually distinct, in a looser way than Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA, and he goes one step further. Russell again explains it better than I ever could: “[Bacon] held that the triumph of faith is greatest when to the unaided reason a dogma appears most absurd.” This has an eerie echo of Tertullian’s “Certum est quia impossibile” or “It is certain because it is impossible.”
Bacon also famously said: “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” This is of course nothing but an assertion and, in my opinion, a false one. There is not a single good philosophical reason to believe any tenet of religion – which is different from maintaining an anthropological explanation for why people believe, even in the teeth of scientific explanation. That is, Bacon makes an “ought” assertion which is distinct from an “is” explanation. One may consider Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained which barely dwells in the in-depth microgarbage of theological nonsense, but seeks a cognitive reassessment of psychological models. Bacon, in fact, would be proud.
Bacon, then, maintains a horrid assertion of faith – no doubt viewing it as a virtue in the eyes of a celestial despot – whilst dwelling in a tributary of free-flowing scientific inquiry. This is not something new but it certainly is important to note this when we consider this powerful figure. He is a major idea-factory for both sides of the god-coin, whose thumbs are raw with the toss on deciding where exactly this great man stands. The similarly named and similarly strange Francis Collins, author or The Language of God, might be a modern case in point. Alister McGrath, John C. Lennox, Roger Scruton and others would also fill this boat of twisting, miasmatic faithful defenders who also maintain open inquiry and a free love of the scientific method.
He was important then for his defense of inquiry and the slow, gradual realisation that faith is not needed to explain the natural world. He was one of the few people in the world to help carry our progress, by being a stepping stone for our faltering knowledge. Yet no doubt to his contemporaries, he was viewed similarly as any politician. As Dostoevsky misanthropically says in The Idiot:
Lack of originality has always, everywhere, in the whole world, from time immemorial, been considered the primary quality and finest recommendation of the efficient, businesslike and practical man, and at least ninety-nine per cent of men (at the very least) have always shared this view, whilst only one per cent has viewed, and continues to view, the matter differently.
Now, we can look back and say thank goodness for Bacon. For his views on open inquiry, an eloquent dismissal of theology on the impact on worldly explanations, and a defense of doubt as a virtue, it is no wonder that he would not find favour with mullahs – it seems that if they banned him simply for his surname, we could also find a subtext.