Archive for category Wisdom

When Philosophy Becomes Therapy – The Atlantic

What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.

via When Philosophy Becomes Therapy – The Atlantic.


Leave a comment

Getting Up

Getting Up

When I think about the “Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic, I am first of all struck by what it must mean for the prisoner to get up. Why does the prisoner get up? At what urging? What could be the impetus for such getting up when one’s whole life there was never the slightest notion of ”getting up"?.

Socrates does not say, leaving us to ponder what could lead to such a momentous and inexplicable act. And why had the prisoner not acted before now?

Or is “act”really the right word? Is the getting up a choice the prisoner makes? Or is it something that happens to the prisoner somehow?

And what must that getting up be like? There never was up in that sense in the prior experience of the prisoner. The prisoner could not even have known there was an up.

How disorienting it must have been. How alarming, at least at first. And then to turn around. Around! A completely new orientation, one never before even conceivable. Imagine, if you can, what that must be like.


Getting up demands metanoia, a turning around of the mind, a reorientation. What brings this about? Necessity? But what is the force of that necessity, if indeed it is necessary? What demands that we come around to another heading?

The prisoner must somehow come to grips what is happening – the very realization that he (or she) has been a prisoner requires a turning around of the mind. What is it to come to realize that one has been a prisoner (of a kind) all of one’s life? What will this release from prison come to mean? How will the newly-released prisoner learn to cope with all the new experiences?


It seems such a simple thing: getting up. But what effects such a simple act (if it is an act) can have! And then: metanoia, turning around one’s mind (or having it turned around). What could be more under our own control than our minds, and yet such transformation seems always hard, almost impossible, and always at a great cost.

Can we get up? Will we?


Leave a comment


Yesterday, I wrote about the haters. Today, I’d like to say a few words on behalf of the lovers in this world.

As I write these words, my wife, Kellie, my sister-in-law Joan, and my nephew Jackson are all on their way to New York City to raise their voices in support of efforts to deal with our climate change challenges. These challenges are significant, and to handle them it is going to take a concerted effort on the parts of individuals, organizations, institutions, and governments around the world. No small task!

I am very proud of Kellie, Joan, and Jackson. They are taking time out of their busy lives and money out of their own pockets to join in a direct way this struggle for a better world for all of us. They are doing it for love — love of their families, love of their communities, and love of our planet-home. As the t-shirt Joan is wearing today says, Love is the only answer.  And so it is.

So I humbly ask for your prayers for Kellie, Joan, and Jackson, as well as all the other participants today in the People’s Climate March that their day might be peaceful, safe, and fruitful. A simple prayer for well-being is just one way to show them back some love for the love they are showing all of us today. (You can follow the action from a distance on Twitter — @Peoples_Climate and #PeoplesClimate.

I would also ask your prayers for the abolition of ignorance and willful stubbornness and human hybris. For such prayers to be answered, of course, it will take a miracle of epic proportions! But still, I pray and I ask you to do so, also. The abolition of ignorance would mean that those who deny the simple facts of climate chaos (and the real potential for devestating ecological, economic, and political disaster) must get their heads out of the sand, and in many cases, if you will excuse me, out of their asses and face up to these facts. May it please God, let such ignorance and the complicity it engenders to be abolished!

But, like the climate that is being whip-sawed, the solution to climate chaos is complicated. To be frank, it is not just a matter of recycling your newspaper (or of a simple calculation of the environmental costs of print vs. electronic production of newspapers).

First of all, it is a global problem requiring a global solution. As with any change which carries the risk of unintended consequences, no one wants to go first. On the one hand, we all seem to be followers in search of a leader, but on the other we no longer trust leaders. Most sovereign states and not a few individuals refuse to recognize the leadership of others.  In many ways, that is understandable. We tend to think that no one knows any better than anyone else what is going on and what to do about it. We realize that, often, we follow “leaders” at our peril. I am all for that vigilance.

And yet we are sheepish followers in so many other ways that we, ourselves, refuse to recognize or acknowledge. Most of the time we live our lives unreflectively, and we are at the very least uncomfortable with having questions raised about how we live and what we value. Many times, we are violently reactive to such questioning. We think however we live, whatever we desire, and whatsoever we do is natural, and therefore right. Indeed, we fiercely defend our right to do what we do — without considering whether what we do is right or wrong. Fatally, we have lost the very notion of right and wrong, however much we pay lip service to the idea.

These are strong claims. My guess is that you do not like hearing them. You do not believe this pertains to you. You are wrong, though. It pertains to all of us (including me).

The second element to the complexity of finding solutions to climate chaos is capitalism. Capitalism is the root of this evil (indeed, it is the root of many evils). The propaganda of the nation in which I live has brainwashed us citizens into thinking that capitalism is, again, natural, and that there is no viable alternative to it, and in fact all proposed alternatives are evil. All three of these claims are patently false. They are as false as climate chaos is true — factually, demonstrably, plainly visibly true. Only heads in sand or asses cannot see these facts.

No, I take that back. Some people can’t see the truth. Some people won’t see the truth (it’s too uncomfortable). However, there are those who do see the truth but do not want anyone else to see it. Why not? Because the false serves their own selfish (and false) purposes very well. This is the ism part of capitalism at work. Capital — some seed money and tools to create additional convenience, comfort, pleasure, or wealth, is a fine and perhaps necessary thing. Capitalism is not fine, and it is not necessary. As an analogy, science is a fine and necessary thing (“All men by nature desire to know,” says Aristotle in his Metaphysics), but scientism is not a fine thing, and it is not necessary. The trouble with the isms is the same in both cases. Capital and science serve at the pleasure of us human beings, but isms demand that we bow down before them (and those that wield those isms like weapons). The isms claim to be “natural” and answer all questions and solve all problems. But in fact they create problems we never had before. And the “solutions” they offer are really only more problems rebranded in an Orwellian marking ploy as “solutions.” They never offer real solutions because the solutions we need are those that uproot the isms all together.

So I pray that those acts of love today in New York City (and around the world) that are directed at the climate chaos challenge will also sow additional seeds of love that will take root and uproot the stifling miasma of the isms that are killing the planet. Today is also International Peace Day. Let us make peace with the planet as well as with each other. The only way to do that is to bring the freedom back to the fake-free markets of corporate (i.e., fictitious entities) capitalism and to recognize the ignoble lie of infinite desire that is the core of the capitalist system.

To meet the challenge of climate chaos, we must first face the fact that it is real and threatening. Then we must admit that the economic monstrosity that is consuming the globe is at the root of the problem and work to uproot it. But we must go further and reconsider the very notions of work and wealth. Any basic understanding of capitalism includes the idea of the intense pressure for efficiency leading to profit. Efficiency and profit: are these really the goals of our labor? Although they have real world effects, both are abstractions. I pose just two questions for your consideration. First, if you were to enjoy your labor (because you chose it, it is creative, and you reap the benefits of it yourself), why hurry or try to get it over with quicker? Second, why can’t your labor and anything it produces be their own reward? If you can imagine satisfying answers to these questions, you will have rejected central tenets of capitalism. Of course, such satisfying answers would slow the world way down, and life as we currently experience it (if indeed we can catch our breath long enough to experience it) would evaporate. Such a transformation of wage-work into meaningful labor, however radically disruptive such a change would be (and it would be severe!), would very likely contribute to diminishing substantially our climate threats.

Are we willing to do this? I doubt it, quite frankly. Yet I fervently pray we will give it a try and be patient with each other as such change plays itself out. Except for the “one-percenters,” perhaps, we’d all be much happier in days to come.

To find the courage and the resources for such a transformation, you have to look inside yourself. Not the capitalist-consumerist generated fake-self that is a function of the current system, but your true self. And that means finding your true self. And that means finding a way to find your true self. We lack that way, for the most part, and so the prospects for finding our true selves are dim, and thus the solutions we need are unlikely to be immediately forthcoming. That is how hard our problems are!

It is a matter of a certain kind of faith. They say that faith is lacking today, but I disagree. I find that most people today are fervent believers. Alas, the object of their faith is a lie, a false god, an idol. What most of us worship is the beast, the monstrosity of capitalism. And capitalism has no more loyal adherents than those who are religious in the usual sense of that term. I admit, I’ve become seriously disillusioned with the religions (plural) of the world, mainly because of the stupid, mean-spiritied, and violent things they lead so many to do. Religion is conservative in the attenuated sense of that term, meaning only bound to the status quo (“It’s god’s will.”). That’s why capitalism loves religions.

It does not love religion (singular), however, because religion in that sense is not just another consumer good to market and sell or social networking club to join. Religion, in that sense, is about the transcendent, that which cannot be packaged, that which is not for sale. Religion, in that sense, recognizes that there is eternity as well as quarterly accounting statements and daily stock reports, and all makes sense only in terms of the eternal. Religion in this sense is, paradoxically, both a powerful and a weak thing, both a dangerous and a salutary thing. It is powerful in that it drives people who sense the transcendent to live and love not only for themselves and for today. It is weak in that uncontrollable and uncontrolling. It does not lend itself in any necessary way to be wielded as a sword or as surgical knife. And it is therefore dangerous for the same reason: it is easy to be mistaken about it, to think it is something that can be mastered and used for one’s own purpose. Yes, people do use “religion” as a club to beat others, but this weapon is not really religion, which is a weak force. The religions of this world are a masquerade, an often dangerous one. Real religion is salutary. It compels us to find our true selves, to find the real truth and meaning of our lives.

To deal with our climate issues, we will need to recover real religion. We will need to rediscover that we are bound to something that transcends the quotidian concerns of capitalist consumerism, that we are and ought to be in its service and not in the service of the priests of Baal of the current economic system. Because — again paradoxically — to be in the service of a transcendent weak force is to be free indeed; to be in the service of capitalism is to be a slave, watching from our chains as the planet is ever-more rapidly degraded.

So I pray we find this God…or let this God find us willing to be transformed, to have a change of mind and heart. To learn to love our world, our neighbors, and our true selves. That love would be true religion.

But I’m a realist, and it’s hard to be optimistic. If you’re reading this, you’re probably “doing well-enough” — maybe even very well. You look out your window and see the weather looking more or less like it always has (as if weather and climate are synonyms). You can’t or don’t see the problem, so for you there is nothing to fix. This little plea of mine is some left-wing claptrap that Fox News has sufficiently “debunked” for you. If all that’s accurate about you, I can hardly expect you to make changes or even want to make changes. But I say we’re like the frog in the pot of water that is slowly being heated. It’s all good…until it isn’t. But then it will be too late.

So maybe it doesn’t matter to you after all. But take a good look at your kids and your grandkids, and think again. Please. Make a change for love’s sake.

Leave a comment

Meaning in Life

 I learned a long time ago…that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying. A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?

— From Chaim Potok, The Chosen, p. 217.

Leave a comment

Philosophizing for a good chunk of the day

The Maverick Philosopher definitively answers the question, “How much time should we spend on philosophy?”: “A good chunk of the day.”

In fact, he gives us one of the most succinct (“brevity is the soul of blog,” he says) defenses of the philosophical life that one is likely to find. To summarize: it’s fun, it’s humanizing, it is a bulwark against bullshit, and it can be a spiritual practice. Right on all accounts, as far as I’m concerned. Read more and also the first part of this argument.

Leave a comment

What is Philosophy?

In the course of an essay offering a modest defense of Martin Heidegger in advance of the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, a collection of private reflections that, among other things, demonstrate the philosopher’s deeply anti-semitic views, Jonathan Rée gives his definition of philosophy:

The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.

Not a bad view of philosophy.

Regarding Heidegger, here are some other views of his anti-semitism.


, ,

Leave a comment

This is Water

Nine minutes and twenty-three seconds of wisdom, for your consideration….

Leave a comment

With the Whole of the Everyday

Lectio Divina: A thought (or two) for the day (and everyday):

God can be beheld in each thing and reached through each pure deed. But this insight is by no means to be equated with a pantheistic world view, as some have thought. …[T]he whole world is only a word out of the mouth of God. Nonetheless, the least thing in the world is worthy that through it God should reveal Himself to the person who truly seeks Him; for no thing can exist without a divine spark, and each person can uncover and redeem this spark at each time and through each action, even the most ordinary, if only he or she performs it in purity, wholly directed to God and concentrated in Him. Therefore, it will not do to serve God only in isolated hours and with set words and gestures. One must serve God with one’s whole life, with the whole of the everyday, with the whole of reality. The salvation of man does not lie in his holding himself far removed from the worldly, but in consecrating it to holy, to divine meaning: his work and his food, his rest and his wandering, the structure of the family and the structure of society. It lies in his preserving the great love of God for all creatures, yes, for all things.

[From Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, (1958, 1988) 41-42; slightly edited.]

Gloss in the form of a question: What is meant by “purity”?

Martin Buber

Martin Buber

, , ,


A basic insight on metaphysics

From James Chastek at Just Thomism:

Metaphysics cannot have first principles, i.e. things it takes for granted as true from which it reasons. This does not mean that nothing is self-evident or that there is no basis for things, but it does mean raising the question whether there is any such thing. On this account, there are two modes of science: those that are never perfectly self-reflective or self-aware, but simply take things for granted that are invisible to them (mathematics, natural science) and whatever inquiry is perfectly self-reflective, such that it can even see and raise questions about its foundations. This is why those of a metaphysical bent can get so frustrated by mathematicians and scientists, who simply cannot do what they do without taking principles for granted that they are more or less oblivious to. The pay-off for this absence of self-reflection is great power, exact knowledge, and progressive advances in the discipline. But the metaphysician will always be bothered by a certain sense that there is a forgetfulness of the most important things in science and mathematics, just as the scientist and mathematician will always be bothered by the inability of metaphysical inquiries (philosophy, philosophy of mind, etc.) to make definitive and widely accepted advances in knowledge.

If we are ever going to make some sense of the recent discussions of the relation between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and philosophy, on the other, we are going to have to sharpen our philosophical skills. Many times proponents of one side or the other in these debates will make statements that they purport to be “scientific,” when in fact they are metaphysical.  In a similar way, sometimes a claim will be dismissed as “just philosophical” when in fact it is a claim that can be investigated via the methodologies of science. And in all cases there may be some things that must be taken “on faith,” so to speak, of certain enterprises are to get off the ground.

Chastek’s point above has a long history. The best place to begin thinking this through is at the beginning.  And that beginning was more than 2500 years ago in Greece, at the time of the so-called “presocratic” philosophers.  It is interesting to note when an era is defined or given a proper name.  The “middle ages,” for instance, designates a time between the classical era and the modern period, and this designation leaves the impression that not much was going on during this transitional period (by the way, this “transitional period” lasted over 1000 years, from about 400 A.D. to 1500 A.D. Fat chance nothing happened).  In this case, the “presocratic” philosophers derive their name from Socrates (469-399 B.C.), and the thinker who generally gets pride of place for being “first” in the lineage of Western philosophers is Thales of Miletus, whose dates are given as 624-547 B.C., about 150 years give or take, before Socrates.  There were many others, among them Anaximenes, Pythagorias, Democritus, Xenophanes, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno, et. al., and they produced insights that in one form or another are still with us today (however greatly elaborated). So calling Thales and these other thinkers “presocratics” is a little like calling Civil War generals Grant and Lee “preschwarzkopfians” after General Norman Schwarzkopf of “Gulf War I” fame. (Or “pre-Petraeusians” or something like that, before General David Petraeus.)

In Thales’ day, it was a general idea of the public that everything that exists is made up of just four basic elements:  fire, air, earth, and water.  What I mean by a general idea is something like a background notion.  This proposition that everything is ultimately made of fire, air, earth, or water was not something that I would imagine most people thought about on a daily basis.  The idea was just “there” in the atmosphere, so to speak, much like if you were to stop and ask people on the street today what everything is made of they would likely reply “atoms” or maybe “matter”–but they don’t go on and on about it as a rule.  It is like the “question” to the “answer” on the game show Jeopardy: Answer:  “Everything is made of it.”  Question: “What are fire, air, earth, and water?”  (or “What are atoms?”)  Unless you are on the game show, the issue doesn’t usually come up.  You need to know about the four elements to understand why Thales in particular (and philosophers in general) can be seen to be a bit weird.  Instead of resting content with the four elements as the fundament of all that is, Thales asked himself a strange question:  But what are the four elements made up of?  Maybe you had a similar experience in Catechism class or Sunday school when, being a bit of a philosopher yourself, you asked, after being told that “God made everything”:  But who made God?  It’s just not asked!  Once you get to God, that’s it.  That’s the end of the line.  Well, it was something like that for Thales to ask about what the four elements were made of.  In fact, his question is an instance one of the pre-eminent philosophical questions:  What is it really?  “What is it?”  “Well, it is something made up of fire, air, earth, or water.”  “Yes, but what is it really? What are the elements that make up this thing made up of?”

We can see immediately that there is something about the philosophical project that is at odds with the received opinions of the many, with the common sense of the polis or the community.  In some ways, even before the explicit philosophical question, there was already a tension, let’s call it, between appearance and reality.  There appear to be many things, but the reality is that all of those many things are made up of just the four elements.  And Thales takes this a step further and says that to the common sense there are just the four elements, but in reality there is but one thing that underlies them all. What makes him think that there is one thing behind the many and to wonder about it is a good question.

What was that one thing that was at the root of the many things that appeared to be?  For Thales, the answer is water.  For Thales, the four elements were essentially manifestations of just one element.  Now how did Thales come to this conclusion?  He made some observations:  he noticed that water could take on the form of the other elements.  When water was very cold, it was hard, solid, like earth.  When water was whipped up and became misty, it hung in the atmosphere like air.  And when it was very excited, it could burn just like fire.  Thales could test this hypothesis, couldn’t he?  He could try to see if he could get, say, fire into a liquid state or air into a solid state.  To him, it appeared that only water was malleable enough to take on the forms of the other elements.  And this inference leads to another of the principal philosophical questions:  Why?

There followed on after Thales a string of thinkers who pondered the same question.  Anaximines, for instance, drew the conclusion that air (breath–pneuma) was the root of all that is by conducting an experiment of sorts.  You can try it, too:  Purse your lips like you would do to whistle, and then blow some air against the palm of you hand.  What is the general temperature?  It is cool…like water (and, if it were even colder, like earth).  Now, open your mouth wide like you are going to say “aaahhh” for the doctor and blow on the palm of your hand.  What is the general temperature now?  It is warm, like fire (okay, a not very hot fire, but still…).  Via this experiment, Anaximenes determined that the reason why the basic common sense elements can take their various forms was due to the processes of “condensation” and “rarefaction.”  In fact, Anaximenes discovered an insight that is still with us today, namely that quantitative change can result in qualitative change, a principle still fundamental to sciences as diverse as physics and sociology. It is interesting to note here that, for Thales and Axaximenes, the foundational elements and the processes that accounted for them were “physical” or “natural.”  It would be going much too far to claim that these presocratics had a sophisticated theory about all this–including what might be meant by terms like “physical” or “natural”–these are really anachronisms.  But you can see this point more clearly if you contrast the views of Thales and Anaximenes with that of another presocratic thinker, Anaximander.

Anaximander was much more radical in his thinking.  He reasoned that the four common elements had to be made up of something other than one of the four basic elements, for how could water be fire or air be earth?  In the end, he thought, all things would have returned to water unless there were something like “opposition” preventing it.   It had to be the case that there is something prior to the elements that, when acted upon in certain ways, manifested itself as this or that element.  Anaximander called that from which the elements were derived apeiron, the “unlimited” or the “indefinite” or the “boundless indeterminate.”  The “force,” if that is the right word, he named “injustice,” or strife that is the clash of opposites.  This is a very interesting and important attempt to answer the questions, what are things really? and why? The solutions of Thales and Anaximenes were derived from the “observable” world.  We have to put that term “observable” in the scare-quotes because, of course, they never primarily observed fire, air, earth, and water; rather, they observed houses and trees and ships and grape vines and mountains, other Greeks and lots of things besides.   But their solutions derived from the observable world in taking water or air as the root element and the basis of all there is.  Anaximander’s solution strayed from the “observable” world, even with the allowances we have made for that term.  For how would one ever observe something indefinite or unlimited or boundless?  Even if you were to look out in the distance and observe an object that you could not identify (which would be, in that sense, “indefinite”) it would hardly be unlimited or boundless.  It–whatever it is–would be bound at least by the background in which it is observed.  Otherwise, it would so completely blend with or blot out everything else that you could not observe it at all.  So while in some sense air or water is a “thing” or a “something,” the apeiron really is no specific thing, no thing at all, even nothing.  Even though Anaximander reasons starting from the observables, and even though he seeks a simple explanation, reducing the many observables to one basis (monism), his solution is no longer “natural” or “physical” but now “meta-physical.”  I will leave aside all the things we should say about this term “metaphysical”, but for the moment I am just remarking that on Anaximander’s way of understanding reality, there is no possible observable that could be at the basis of all things.  Instead, a force of some kind must be at work on “something” that is not yet any thing until the force works on it.  And when it does, then things begin to manifest (and not the apeiron).

Now that’s a deep idea but it is reasonable given what was thought at the time.  The philosophical–really, the proto-scientific–issue was a question of the deep-structure of reality.  Anaximander reasoned that the naturalistic answers that had been proposed were not satisfying, indeed, that they could not ever satisfy the question.  You could forever ask what the next proposed solution really was and why it was purportedly able to ground everything else.  You say the four elements are really water…but what is water really and why does it sometimes manifest itself as air and other times as fire or earth?  Anaximander was thinking that you could never hit bottom if you keep trying to gain a “naturalistic” or “physical” basis (remember: we can’t take these terms too seriously at this point…they are undefined by these thinkers and at this point in time) for nature or physis.  “Something” outside of things had to be the ground of things (again with the scarequotes, but you see how hard it is to talk about apeiron).

If I may return to what I think I heard in Sunday school again, there is an analogy here.  We were taught that everything that is was created by God (we, I have to admit, did not talk about how God might have done this and whether there might be a conflict with science).  But if we were to ask, as I am quite sure I must have, “but who created God,” we would be told that the question really doesn’t make sense.  God is not a thing like all other things.  Every actual thing is limited in some way (you can tell where one thing leaves off and another starts up).  But God is unlimited, both in space and in time.  God is everywhere and always.  But “something” (see what I mean about the analogy…?) that is everywhere is nowhere in particular, and “something” that was and is and is to come is no-when in particular, and so is not just some thing, not just something, but otherwise, and therefore very hard to talk about in a way that captures what “it” is really.

So we can see two alternative sorts of problems.  If you want to be a “naturalist” like Thales or Anaximines, then you will face the problem of the infinite regress of questioning:  but what is that made of and why?  If you want to be a “metaphysician” like Anaximander (or perhaps like a Sunday school teacher) then you have a technique for avoiding the infinite regress, but you will also find it very hard to say anything definite. (This is the reason why idolatry is the premiere sin, upon which, ultimately, all others rest, and why it is so hard to avoid committing)  What can you say definitively about the “indefinite”?  Which way is right?  Which way do you lean?  Even at this point, we can  begin to see the battle lines forming for the evolution vs. intelligent design debate that won’t take place for a couple of millennia. When the evolutionists propose only natural causes, those that hold to ID find the answer unsatisfying–the fundamental question remains:  but how did it all get here?  But if the proponents of ID have to rely on the supernatural to explain things, then those who hold to naturalistic explanations have a good point when they complain that the ID proponents are not saying anything definite or observable or provable or even meaningful.

And this is the reason science and religion usually win out over metaphysics. We have always wanted to understand ourselves and the world around us, but not mainly just because we can. I think we mainly want to understand ourselves and the world around us so that we can do things, so that we can get what we want. Techne – knowing how – is always bound up with nous – knowing what is. Since the advent of modern science, technology has been moving full speed ahead. But there is also our desire know know why things are the way they are and what that means for us, for our desires, our hopes, our fears. So even though its demise had been predicted since the rise of modern science, religion, though not the same as it ever was, is still as strong as its ever been. The purport to bring that questioning to a close with some real answers.

Thus both science and religion (at least for most people) always need to get going, so to speak, which means they need to bring to a close radical self-questioning and self-reflection and start “doing things.” This is easy to see in religious people, who talk comfortably about faith. But it also can be seen in the views of some of our public scientists, such as Stephen Hawkings and Lawrence Krauss. You can easily see their exasperation with philosophy (or, what is the same thing, ultimately, metaphysics). We just don’t “need it” anymore. We just don’t “need” to ask what we mean, in the case of Krauss, by “nothing.” We can, we techno-scientists, go about our business very well without asking ourselves these questions.

True enough. But some of us apparently cannot help ourselves. We wonder — it all begins with wonder, says Aristotle — about your business, both techno-science and creedal-religion, what it’s really for and what accounts for it and where it might be headed and what we might hope for. We are bothered, as Chastek puts it, that something in all your business has been lost or forgotten. Not just, though, in math and science but also in theology and religion. And, perhaps most importantly, we want to know for ourselves to the extent we are able what that might be.  Sometimes it appears that we’re given a stark choice: side with the techno-scientists or side with the religious adherents. Perhaps there is a real third alternative: the philosophical life and its metaphysical speculation. The scientists will yawn and the believers will scoff – that is, if they don’t do worse. But we philosophers might live happily anyway, even if we live on the run from scientists and believers, at least so long as the scientists and the believers don’t kill us all in the meantime. Maybe wonder and speculation is our best hope.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Doing the Impossible

CHAPTER LXVIII of the Rule of St. Benedict

If a Brother Is Commanded to Do Impossible Things

If, perchance, any difficult or impossible tasks be enjoined on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of him who commandeth with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he see that the gravity of the task is altogether beyond his strength, let him quietly and seasonably submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior, without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after his explanation the Superior still insisteth on his command, let the younger be convinced that so it is good for him; and let him obey from love, relying on the help of God.


Today is July 11, the Feast of St. Benedict.

(originally posted July 11, 2011)

Leave a comment