Grow a Soul



Bob’s talk presented at the Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo :

Only Connect: genetics, culture, and the veil of ignorance

Grow a language, grow a morality, grow a soul


I want to thank the Fellowship for inviting me to your service today. I want to welcome friends and family.
I have enjoyed speaking to you on several occasions and once again thank you for the opportunity. Most recently both Peter Croft and David Weston were present to question me. I miss them both.
The last time I talked with you I gave you a quiz. No quiz today! Today I want to talk about roots and soil and souls and growth. You will notice that I speak metaphorically at times and that there is in the talk a subtle (or blatant) attempt to suggest that growing tomatoes is similar to growing a soul. After the last talk one of you asked me if I am an agnostic or an atheist. I answered, “Neither. I consider myself an ignostic.”
I have been thinking about that question and answer for some time now. Perhaps a parable will help:
An ignostic was asked whether she believed in God, and said, “If you mean a big man in a cloud, as some conceive of God, then I am an atheist, for we have satellites now which would have surely seen such a creature if he existed. If you mean an all-encompassing God who is synonymous with the cosmos, then I am a theist… though I see no reason for having two words for the same thing.
Ignosticism is the position that there are many different, contradictory definitions for the word “God”, so one can’t claim to be a theist OR an atheist until one knows which definition is meant. I don’t, for example, believe in or worship Thor or Zeus or Facebook.
Furthermore, if the chosen definition is incoherent and makes no predictions that can be empirically tested, then it doesn’t matter whether one believes in it or not, for how can something meaningless be true OR false? (this last part is also known in philosophy as theological noncognitivism). And yet, of course, we humans speak and write of God. Some of us die for what we think is God. Fly planes into buildings shouting his name. God, I believe, is a character in literature in the same way that Hamlet is or that Sherlock Holmes is – an interesting, complex, fascinating character, but living only in stories.

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Sunday’s Sermon

Rescuing Memory: the Humanist Interview with Noam Chomsky

Noam C

Reading Assignment

English: Sam Harris
English: Sam Harris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In looking over my email this morning – Mondays often bring a bunch of weekly Blog reports – the one that caught my attention was “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements” by Massimo Pigliucci. [Here] It has links to a relevant set of papers and Blog entries in its extensive footnotes.

I’m curious to hear what you have to say about the ongoing exchanges between the aggressive atheists and their critics. The “debate” reminds me of the book Critical Condition reviewed here in which Patrick Finn worries that critical thinking is destructive, and that what we need more of in this world is creative thinking.

Sam Harris has been in the news recently for his attempt to engage Noam Chomsky in a “debate” about terrorism. Harris went public with the email exchange that he had with Chomsky. [Here]

And then Salon wrote about that exchange [Here] in a short piece titled “Noam Chomsky undresses Sam Harris: Stop “pretending to have a rational discussion”.

Secularism . . .

Akeel Bilgrami

Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment

Akeel Bilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment, Harvard University Press, 2014, 397pp., $45.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780674052048.

Reviewed by Nikolas Kompridis, Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University

Occasionally, albeit, much too occasionally, philosophers illuminate the great challenges of the age, conceptually and critically, opening up genuinely new pathways for thinking about and responding to these challenges. In his latest book Akeel Bilgrami does this superbly, brilliantly, and very carefully. Carefully, in the sense of taking great care to get things right, and treating those things as themselves worthy objects of care and concern (and not simply as instrumental to the purposes of his arguments). Bilgrami describes his book undramatically as speaking to the issues of

the relation between religion and politics . . . governed by a philosopher’s interest in . . . practical reason; and in particular, to broaden that interest by studying the extent to which practical reason is or is not efficacious in navigating the prima facie conflicts that secularism is confronted with. (x)

I find this description excessively, if commendably, sober, for the book, and the larger project which it announces, is much richer and much broader in scope than is reflected in this statement of its purpose, and, much more radical, both philosophically and politically. One would expect nothing less from a book dedicated to Noam Chomsky and Prabhat Patnaik. Having read it a couple of times — it takes at least a couple of readings to appreciate just how much more is at stake, especially in its four longest chapters — I do not think its primary contribution is to our understanding of practical reason, whether to its limits or to its efficacy. At least not to practical reason as it is conventionally understood in the discipline.

Read the review.

Sunday’s Sermon: Culture and Morality

moral rootsJohn Mikhail on Universal Moral Grammar

Do children have an innate pre-disposition to make certain sorts of moral judgement? Is there such a think as a universal moral grammar? John Mikhail of Georgetown University suspects that there is an innate basis to our morality analogous to Noam Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device. He explains why in conversation with David Edmonds.

Listen to John Mikhail on Universal Moral Grammar

Paying attention

001042-e000000595We have been watching a re-run of the series “The First World War” which is based upon Professor Hew Strachan’s book. It is difficult to watch as the body count increases, the weapons are improved, the destruction is immense and the idiocy of war is front and centre. The twentieth century must be the cruellest of centuries as we humans engage in war after bloody war. I kept thinking, while watching the series, that every politician and every religious person should watch this and remember the past.

We humans do not seem particularly good at learning from our mistakes. Driven by the worst emotions we lurch from war to war while at the same time destroying the environment around us.


About ten years ago I [Richard Marshall] interviewed Noam Chomsky, and the first question I asked him was why, with all the irons he has in the fire, he dedicates so much time to engaging with philosophers. He said his concern was really part of a more general concern – that “it should trouble us that we’re not thinking about what we’re up to, and those questions happen to be the domain of what philosophers pay attention to.” I feel that there are just too many human enterprises that are not being subjected to critical thinking, and the problem is getting worse rapidly.

“what the hell are we doing here?”

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