Synapse

May 23, 2009

Suppose I say, ‘I have this idea. Let’s climb up to the top of the cliffs and see if we can fly.’ Or:  I start to tell you an idea I have about setting up this investment company, but rather than invest the money we can use some of the new cash to give great returns to the old investors and skim off the rest, live high on the hog. It’s the perfect idea…

Aside from getting us killed and/ or put in jail, I’m advertising something here called an ‘idea’, and right now I’m giving you the idea that ideas are a bad thing (though look here before you cancel on the flying plan) but of course ideas always start out to be good—otherwise why have them, why say them, why write them down. ‘I have this stupid idea. Let’s climb…’

Some would say ideas are the province of philosophy; some would say ideas are the right of all free men and women, that they are in fact one of the things that makes us free; some would say ideas are the bane of mankind, the essential problem, that you can do just about anything with ideas—with the possible exception of eating them: It’s difficult to tell where ideas start and stop; it’s like the universe is pure mind generating impure thoughts: If mankind is the mind of the earth, ideas are like lightning in the night sky.

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A. C. Grayling has a new book out called Ideas that Matter: a Personal Guide for the 21st Century and The Edge has an ‘interview’ with him—actually he just talks for 10 minutes or so—where he sets out some ‘questions’ that are on his mind, ideas about science, liberal democracy, the mind, and information theory, and Memorial Day seems a good time to talk about them. For example: Science, he argues, is a the greatest achievement of mankind to date. We need to figure out a way to get more people interested in it. We need more scientists, more science education, more science awareness in general.

A.C. Grayling is a philosopher. That is his considered opinion; we can take it a fine example of an idea; we can even wonder if it is true.

Dr. Greg H. Bahnsen also has some videos on the web. Here he’s lecturing about ‘Problems for Unbelieving Worldviews’(sic), and even though he doesn’t earmark things as clearly as Grayling, he does have an idea we can talk about: You can’t actually do philosophy.

Dr. Bahnsen is a Christian apologist. This is his considered opinion; it too is a fine example of an idea; and while we would like to wonder if it’s true—I wonder if Dr. Bahnsen will let us, that wondering stuff being desperately close to doing philosophy.

Now Grayling seems pretty tame, maybe too tame:  We’ve got to get the kids into the lab. The more people that study science the better we will be. Sounds unexceptionable: it’s not like he’s drawing his cudgels to do battle with Dr. Bahnsen about philosophy: we’re talking science here, the science that gave us penicillin and the smallpox vaccine; that’s put a man on the moon; that’s given us evolution and the DNA molecule, has harnessed the power of electricity. Science has to be a good thing; so, it must be good to have more of it.  Right?

Let’s run a little thought experiment: these days the most popular major in college is business—finance, money and banking, economics, all that stuff—we’ve been putting the kids into the office, not the lab—so to draw a parallel with Professor Grayling’s thinking—if more science education will produce more and better science, we should be expecting a great flowering in our economic life right about now, a golden age: Third world countries finally getting the financial help they need, thoughtful and creative ways to provide universal health care, a true safety net for the old and infirm, economic stability for us all.

That’s not quite what’s happening, is it? Even if we don’t totter over the brink in to financial chaos, it seems fair to say that all we’ve produced lately is a lot of financial sharpies out trying to steal our money. And in a big way. Want to get a picture of just how much 700 billion dollars is? If you count a dollar a second, it will take you 31 years, 251 days, 7 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds to count one billion dollars. One billion. To count 700 billion we’re talking over 20,000 years: if you were just finishing your count today, you would have had to start in your cave during an ice age in the Pleistocene. You want a hot chocolate or anything?

This is unfair to Grayling, you say. It’s an idea that draws a false parallel with his idea.

Okay, let’s finish the thought: he’s saying that we should have a society that is not run on greed but on curiosity about the world, that we need not be generating evil based on our grasping egos, that there is another way to be in the world rather than exploit it and rape it and turn it into a grey pavilion of pollution and poison. He’s saying that understanding the world is a greater pleasure that owning it. Science is good because it, among other things, reflects a good healthy society. This is what Grayling is saying, isn’t it?  We’re not just encouraging Little Johnny and Janet, and Little Julio and Jiyong, to get out the chemistry set or start a rock collection; we’re encouraging them to exist in the world differently. That’s what science is all about surely.

Dr. Bahnsen presents us with a different set of problems. He does not seem tame at all. For one thing, he’s preaching to the choir. An ad hominem atmosphere hangs in the air.  One ought to study philosophy, he avows, with the ulterior motive of using it for the fixed purpose of combating unbelievers. There’s no nonsense here about coming to some philosophic understanding on one’s own, that philosophy has something to teach in itself. It all comes down to this relationship between faith and reason. Dr. Bahnsen’s idea is that you cannot reason without faith, and  faith in God in particular, and he’s citing a big name—a big name in the philosophic tradition as well as in Christianity—to back him up, St.  Augustine. What he doesn’t do so convincingly is establish why this is so. The choir smiles at his ad hominem appeal and faith (in God) is left…well, left struggling for credibility in this smug atmosphere. I’m not sure St. Augustine would approve. Philosophy is left behind in a shambles.

Grayling’s second idea has to do with the preservation of civil rights and liberties. For those who think the subways in New York are only covered with graffiti, consider this quote from John Stuart Mill that has graced the subways in New York City recently:

The only freedom deserving the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

We’ve gotten used to the word ‘liberal’ being used as an insult; we’ve come to accept that ‘liberal’ should be paired with ‘bleeding heart’; we’ve been listening for too long to these morons on talk radio turn liberalism into a creed for ninnies. In fact, liberalism is at the heart of why we are freer in mind and body today than at any time in history. Grayling is right (I make no qualifications here) to cite the protection of liberal democracy as one of the key ideas we need to carry with us into the 21st century: We must continue to be pursuing our own good. And he’s right to point to terrorism and totalitarianism as enemies of liberalism—but what about religion, is it a friend or foe to liberal democracy?         

A. C. Grayling is a public atheist. He, in fact, fits into Dr. Bahnsen’s conception of an atheist quite well: he thinks it is up to the theist to positively argue the case for God, not the atheist to positively argue against it. He thinks a belief in God is equivalent to a belief in fairies and that God has about as much relevance to the world as fairies have. (It’s obvious it’s been some time since he’s put a tooth under his pillow.) He’s an atheist who doesn’t like the term atheist, thinks ‘naturalist’ a better formulation, with believers designated ‘supernaturalists’. So far as I know, he has taken no position on ‘Tinkerbelle Theism’, nor has he suggested that if you believe in God, you should clap your hands, clap, clap, clap. I do expect he would take a dim view of Dr. Bahnsen’s notion that you need faith to reason or that if you do reason, you sorely delude yourself by not acknowledging that reasoning is a holy undertaking.  A. C. has in fact reasoned it through: God does not exist. All we have to do now is figure out what ‘reasoning’ is.

I’m afraid I have a hard time getting into Dr. Bahnsen’s hot house. If we mean by reasoning drawing conclusions from premises, it seems hard to see where faith enters into things. If we mean by reasoning, simply thinking—Dr. Bahnsen, do you really mean an atheist can’t think? We have wandered into a realm where religion is a danger to liberal democracy: it wants to take our ability to reason/ think away from us. It wants us to stop making judgments to stop pursuing our own good. We have entered a strange world where the only role philosophy has is to be a tool to defend a position that one already knows to be true…And how does one know this truth? By faith? Trust me, come to the edge of the cliff and jump. God will guide you. This is crazy. John Stuart Mill is quaking in his grave. This is ‘the idea’ at its worst, a Ponzi scheme for the mind. Religion cannot be the foundation of our society; it has to be the churning huddled masses, yearning to be free—but it has to be those masses one by one, as individuals.

Speaking of ‘the mind’, is coming to understand it the third most serious problem we face in the 21st century? It seems startling, but Grayling thinks so. Let’s be clear here: We don’t know what the mind is. The locus classicus of thinking about the mind is Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’ and Descartes saw the mind as a separate substance from the body. No one quite thinks that anymore. There is something called the ‘hard problem’, and the hard problem is very hard indeed: it has to do with explaining conscious states—qualitative conscious states, subjective states—in terms of what we take to be the non-conscious processes of physical reality. Right now we can’t do it. This is ground zero in our pursuit of the mind.  Grayling seems to be thinking, however, of building artificial robots and interdisciplinary studies, and the synergy that develops and spins off new concepts and new ideas—a kind of space program of interior space. Let’s jump to his fourth idea for a moment: The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Okay, not exactly what he said, but this is:

…I mean the practice of reading, the practice of reflection, themselves; I mean the nature of what underlies our ability to be good conversationalists with one another, to be reflective and informed, to have a good knowledge of the classics, but also to be open to new ideas and new work across all the disciplines — history, the sciences, philosophy, and the literary arts. How are people going to relate to these things in the future, given that in the past this centrally involved reading and reflecting

It seems Grayling is a secret nutritionist of the mind, a John Stuart Mill in sheep’s clothing. Science is good for you and you need to eat more of it;  liberal democracy with its freedoms and human rights is important and we need to preserve it, spread it about; yet the central battle may be about the mind: ‘recondite’ questions involving philosophers and neurologists, sure—the hard problem is an important one—but issues defining what knowledge is, issues as to how it is stored and made available, how we think about God and faith, how we think about ideas, the care and feeding of the mind in general…issues, my friend, that do involve genuine thought and not Dr. Bahnsen’s faux philosophy, issues about persons and society, about individuation.

But this is not the heart of the matter: If mankind is the mind of the earth, and ideas are like lightning in the night sky, and we are about to take the mind out of the sky…

This sounds crazy, I know, but take a look at a familiar image: On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo painted a section called ‘The creation of Adam’. It’s arguably the best known painting in the world. It’s arguably the most profound image of God and God’s relation to the world and to man. Adam’s body looks ready to go, but he lays back, limp, supine, right now he’s not fully human; he reaches out to God…

This has to be it—God is about to give Adam life; He is about to give him a soul; God as the ground of our being—God giving man a mind.

Look closely at the area surrounding God. What is that? Look closely at the hands: Adam and God about to touch. It’s a synapse, isn’t it?

God in the night sky is about to spark life, like cloud-to-ground lightning, and that cloud he’s in looks like a brain, doesn’t it, fully charged, ready to go.

You can read about this image, but one has to wonder…where was Michelangelo’s head at? (You should pardon the expression.) Is he saying God is in the brain? Or that the brain is God? Or that the brain connects with God, that thinking is divine, that Bahnsen is on to something after all, that to understand truly is to connect with the cosmos, and that is to connect with God? Reaching down like that, God is giving Adam understanding, he’s placing him in the Garden of Eden, waiting for Eve…and waiting for the rest of history to unfold. A nightmare he’s trying to forget. A tale told by an idiot. All those things…

Or, is he saying: This God stuff, the mind in the sky stuff, it’s really the brain, you know, it’s one of the ideas that populate the sky.

And if you’re mind runs to Frankenstein here, especially the old movie with Colin Clive shouting “It’s alive, it’s alive!” amid the rain and storm, the lightning flashing life into the monster, circumventing millions of years of evolution, man fashioned out of inanimate matter, Hollywood’s answer to the hard problem, via Mary Shelly, before they knew there was a hard problem, or if you’re thinking of Ben Franklin with his kite out in the rain, bringing the power out of the sky, well, you may have something there. This all could be one big synapse.

From the Book of Job: Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.

Stephen Deadalus is talking with Mr. Deasy in an early chapter of Ulysses:

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

—That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

—What? Mr Deasy asked.

—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

James Joyce was a novelist and a writer of genius. God is a shout in the street. We do credit Joyce with this idea, even as he puts it in the mouth of Stephen Deadalus, the presumptive maker of labyrinths. Questions remain, however: who is cursing and who is shouting? And who is shrugging his shoulders?

Well, it’s Memorial Day this weekend; a day intended. . . for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.

That’s the idea behind it, anyway. This is a General Logan talking about the Civil War in 1868, and comrades, ‘whose bodies now lie in almost every city.’ Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day; people used to decorate the graves with flowers. One last idea: the flowers on the graves of the dead do not make the dead feel better.

Today we think of it as the ‘unofficial’ start to summer. If you’re having some friends over to celebrate…um, commemorate the day, why not grill up some Grayling, throw a little Bahnsen on the barbeque, and, I don’t know, pickle a Michelangelo or two. Why not get out the cassette player, get out the old AC/ DC albums…I’m going to request Highway to Hell. And if it’s stormy, we can go fly a kite.

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