Letter from South America

Dear Bob,
 
I’m taking my first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). The course is called “The Science of Happiness” offered by Berkeley University on the EdX platform. It’s really cool: having all the material available at any time, and then the discussion enriched by the diverse views of the so many participants. And it is free! Great indeed. But if I had the option I would not take distance education as opposed to attending a class in person. There is, in my opinion, something about the teacher, the real person, the character and the human interaction that it is supposed to educate, facilitate, and help one develop the mind. And perhaps I would prefer that every human connection I have was a real one. But this is the era of technology and we get to have “virtual” connections and yet, manage to have the feeling that there is a true human relationship. In the course, just like here, when we have an exchange of thoughts, we do it without seeing each other, without listening to our voices (at least not in real time, except for the live Q&A session) or seeing our reaction. But still, it feels like there is connection and attraction and it is fun.
 
Human connection is a necessary condition for happiness, scientists have found. I don’t have many close friends, in fact, I just have … boy, not many strong relationships as we usually consider them. Do our relationships here in the blog count? I say they do because although we might not contact each other through our senses, I “see” you through your thoughts, your words, the stories you tell here, your interpretation of things, your humor. And likewise, I think you “see” me in the same way. I find meaning and meaning is what matters.  
 
I think human connection is very complicated and one might wonder if it is true that it is possible to have really good relationships. I guess it goes with one’s personality and culture. Where there is a culture of non-trust, where a common view is that the other is always up to something, something that might affect you negatively, meaningful relationships are not going to flourish. War, poverty, corruption, injustice corrupt the soul. When I lived on Gabriola Island, in Canada, I was always amazed of how nobody seemed to be on guard, suspecting the other’s intentions; nice feeling. This is the second week of the course and the topic is precisely how human connection is such key to happiness. I have to admit that I never thought much about how to make my relationships very strong but how not to be affected by others and be free and supposedly happy. But it seems that this is not the correct approach if happy is what I want to be. A lot to study and eight more weeks to go; I am excited.
 
I want to tell you that you are a very important person in my life, dear Bob, and that my relationship with you and the contributors of this blog is of the most importance to me.
 
Until next time,
 
Laura.

Fathers and sons and the church

ReviewWhy I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversation on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

By Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo with a foreword by Peggy Campolo

HarperCollins 2017

 

Review by Bob Lane

We certainly do not need to be reminded that history is filled with so called religious wars. In fact there are long lists available on social media (e.g., here) and, of course, there is an ongoing debate about just what contribution religion makes to our warlike history. William T. Cavanaugh in his Myth of Religious Violence (2009) argues that what is termed “religious wars” is a largely “Western dichotomy” and a modern invention, arguing that all wars that are classed as “religious” have secular (economic or political) ramifications. Similar opinions were expressed as early as the 1760s, during the Seven Years’ War, widely recognized to be “religious” in motivation, noting that the warring factions were not necessarily split along confessional lines as much as along secular interests. However anyone who has served in the military during wartime is aware that the chaplain is used as a motivator for getting the troops to sacrifice their lives for God and country (whichever God or country is at play).

The “war” in this book is between a father and a son, or between evangelical Christianity and secular humanism, and one of its virtues is that no one gets wounded or killed, unlike every other war in history. Instead it exhibits a loving discussion between two relatives displayed in twenty-one chapters and a joint conclusion – with no winner or loser, and with each holding the same beliefs at the end of the book as at the beginning: “what neither of us believes, however, is that the other is a fool. As we said at the beginning, while we come to it differently, each of us always reaches the same conclusion about this life: Love is the most excellent way.”

In those chapters we learn of how the son, Bart, is “deconverted” from the evangelical Christian belief system to secular humanism. And how the father, Tony, remains steadfast in his faith. What is not in these chapters, however, is any real philosophical discussion of truth or evidence. Each seems to feel a certain way about the world and the world of the spirits and gods. Although there is mention of Truth, especially by Tony, there is a lack of a discussion of what truth is. “Truth” like so many other terms, is not clear and unambiguous because we use the term in many different ways: there’s capital T Truth and there is small t truth.

Capital T truth often finds its home in certain kinds of texts, most often those called scripture by those who are insiders in a particular group. Religious Truths, political Truths, are the sorts of claims I have in mind. They are proclamations, articles of faith, rules of the game.

  • The free market is the only way to economic nirvana.
  • God is love.
  • God is peace.
  • Three strikes and you are out.
  • There are three downs in real football.
  • On Easter Christ rose from the dead.

Small t truth is quite different. It never parades as fixed and eternal, but is more modest. It is quite clear about its function in a sentence and disappears as soon as possible once its job is done.

  • It is true that there are 4 beer in the refrigerator.
  • “It is raining” is true if and only if it is raining.
  • Evolution is true.
  • Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
  • It is true that the NFL and the CFL have different rules.

Notice the first set is made up of proclamations. These capital T statements are constitutive rules of the language game they establish. They really are not true or false, but are just True by definition of the game. Notice the absurdity of a baseball player trying to argue with the umpire that he should be allowed four strikes. Or a Christian who doesn’t believe in the resurrection. Small case true is a relational term – it claims a relationship between a statement and a state of affairs.

Capital T TRUTH is always delivered with certainty. Small case truth is more modest. It attempts to say what is, but can be emended if someone has drunk some of the beer.

Certainty tells us about the speaker’s state of mind and not about a state of affairs. Certainty is demonic.

Mark Twain gets it right: We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after the Truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he has never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after the Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment- until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather.

Tony is certain in his faith. Christianity is True. Bart has read the Old Testament and the New Testament carefully and has noticed the problems therein. He no longer believes in True. He cannot commit to the faith required to continue in the “congregation of believers” but does not want to give up on the community of humans who are helped by those humanists and others who believe in helping others. And just as importantly he does not want to destroy anyone for his or her beliefs. Reason is trumped by love in this relationship. Tony tells us that the Gospel “has been set forth impossible to understand in purely rational terms on purpose” as an explanation for the inconsistencies that Bart has discovered. Bart, at one point in the conversation, tells us that “none of us really chooses what we believe” and later that “faith is a choice.”

At every time in our violent history, we humans could benefit from more love, more concern for others, more ways of getting along. But instead we continue to talk of “fire and fury” and remain in a constant state of “lock and load”. This book offers some notion of what that love might be like.

 

 

Bob Lane is an emeritus professor of philosophy and religious studies at Vancouver Island University.

The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

seed
Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.


Descartes 

 

THE REASONER

THE  REASONER 11(9)


Volume 11, Number 9 September 2017

ISSN 1757-0522

The latest issue of The Reasoner is now freely available for download
in pdf format at [http://www.thereasoner.org/]

EDITORIAL / Davide Grossi

FEATURES
– Interview with Rineke Verbrugge / Davide Grossi

NEWS
– Theoretical Aspects of Rationality and Knowledge, 24-26 July / Zoé
Christoff and Louwe Kuijer
– Formal Models of Scientific Inquiry, 18-19 July / Vlasta Sikimic

and more!