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.
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”.
John 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
We 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?”