Awakin.org

Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Previous Comments By 'jb'

Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts., by Jonathan Franzen

FaceBook  On Jun 18, 2011 Jason Buckley wrote:

Iris Murdoch, "Love is the difficult realization that something other than yourself is real".

 

Individual and Social Ethics, by Bertrand Russell

FaceBook  On Dec 28, 2010 Jason Buckley wrote:

Just posting my thanks to those who maintain this site. I find a lot of the readings rather gushing, nebulous, interchangeable and waffly, but every so often there is something that catches something important and describes it with a rare clarity. 

 

But It Is There, by Kent Nerburn

FaceBook  On Sep 1, 2010 Jason wrote:

Experience is usually a good guide to truth. The paradigmatic experience for discovering the truth is scientific experiment: public, repeatable, consistent, describable and (for those repeating the experiment at least) disinterested.

Religious experience has none of these features. It is private, occasional, conflicting, ineffable and greatly cherished by those who experience it. If I were to spend 15 minutes a day meditating, I would have an enormous vested interest in discovering a mystical sensibility. Imagine two people drinking the same bottle of wine. One has paid £500 for it. The other has no idea that it is meant to be anything special. The buyer will discover notes of flavour in it that are quite lost on the friend he is treating.

For these reasons, not only is your experience of God not a good reason for me to believe in God, it is not a good reason for you to either. You should apply a sterner test of sceptical distrust to evidence for a proposition you know you want to believe than for one you find objectionable, in order to counteract your natural bias. 

The retreat from the intellectual and public sphere to that of private feeling is supposed to put someone beyond the reach of argument: in a "well" of their own which is permanently inaccessible to others, and therefore beyond all criticism. How can anyone else tell you what you feel?  But that is to glide from one meaning of "feel", "experience" to another - from a sensation to a contact with something outside the self that stands behind that sensation: real pins and needles as opposed to figurative ones. Given the infinite, unsolicited power of the imagination in dreams, why should we suppose there are any feelings we cannot create if we put our mind to it?

 

But It Is There, by Kent Nerburn

FaceBook  On Aug 31, 2010 Jason wrote:

"My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me and depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities." - Frank Ramsey, Epilogue I've always found this to be a succinct and elegant "credo" of "optimistic materialism" with which I can largely agree. I think two of the most useful axes along which to categorise belief systems are theist/atheist and optimist/pessimism about human experience in this world. When theists attack atheists, or vice versa, they usually contrast their own optimistic view with a caricature of a pessimistic view from the other side. So an angry atheist may paint a picture of a Christian terrified of death, regarding experience in this world as an empty rehearsal for the next life, despising physical pleasure, concerned only with staying on the right side of an angry deity; a defensive Christi  See full.

"My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings and the stars are as small as threepenny bits. I don't really believe in astronomy, except as a complicated description of part of human and possibly animal sensation. I apply my perspective not merely to space but to time. In time the world will cool and everything will die; but that is a long time off still, and its present value at compound discount is almost nothing. Nor is the present less valuable because the future will be blank. Humanity, which fills the foreground of my picture, I find interesting and on the whole admirable. I find, just now at least, the world a pleasant and exciting place. You may find it depressing; I am sorry for you, and you despise me. But I have reason and you have none; you would only have a reason for despising me if your feeling corresponded to the fact in a way mine didn't. But neither can correspond to the fact. The fact is not in itself good or bad; it is just that it thrills me and depresses you. On the other hand, I pity you with reason, because it is pleasanter to be thrilled than to be depressed, and not merely pleasanter but better for all one's activities." - Frank Ramsey, Epilogue

I've always found this to be a succinct and elegant "credo" of "optimistic materialism" with which I can largely agree. I think two of the most useful axes along which to categorise belief systems are theist/atheist and optimist/pessimism about human experience in this world. When theists attack atheists, or vice versa, they usually contrast their own optimistic view with a caricature of a pessimistic view from the other side.

So an angry atheist may paint a picture of a Christian terrified of death, regarding experience in this world as an empty rehearsal for the next life, despising physical pleasure, concerned only with staying on the right side of an angry deity; a defensive Christian may paint a picture of atheists as mindless hedonists, living moment to moment in a selfish life of atomic individualism. Whereas, of course, there are positive, optimistic people who appreciate beauty and do their best for their communities in both camps.

What's interesting about this quote from Ramsey (mainly a technical philosopher whose admirers would see this foray into ethics as a lapse of taste!) is that it is addressed from an optimist to a pessimist within a shared framework of atheism. I expect there are similar passages from better-humoured theologians critiquing the bleak outlook of fire and brimstone preachers.

The point I am getting at is that most of the intellectual and other virtues can be displayed by those from a religious or atheistic background, as can the corresponding vices. A willingness to engage with those who think differently to you is something which I consider to be a virtue, hence I see Nerburn's article as an argument for the vices of closed-mindedness and selfishness, just as I would an article by an atheist saying "Just leave the godbotherers to their fantasies. They're too dumb ever to see sense." When you change the language around like that, you can see that this piece is at its heart a mixture of flattery and abuse, not a good diet for anyone's spiritual journey.

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But It Is There, by Kent Nerburn

FaceBook  On Aug 31, 2010 Jason wrote:

I don't wish to hog the board but I can't help asking Akong if he/she sincerely believes that "all of the ills of the world still pale when compared to the elegance of the morning sun exploding through a raindrop on a green leaf." Such rhetorical flourishes may sound OK when comparing an abstract generalisation of suffering with a specific example of natural beauty, but they lose their credibility when you substitute a specific example. The following sounds rather twisted, for example:

"The horror of a grenade exploding in a crowded marketplace and tearing through the innards of an innocent child still pales when compared to the elegance of the morning sun exploding through a raindrop on a green leaf."

or

"The slow progress of the parastic infection river blindness as the miscroscopic worms make their way through the body, causing itching, sometimes elephantiasis of the genitals and eventually, in some cases, blindness, still pales when compared to the elegance of the morning sun exploding through a raindrop on a green leaf."

I'm all for turning an elegant phrase, but when using an image as part of an argument I think it's a good idea to reflect on whether you really mean what your words say. Saying things you don't really believe on closer consideration shows a lack of respect for your readers and for your own intelligence.

 

But It Is There, by Kent Nerburn

FaceBook  On Aug 31, 2010 Jason wrote:

This is typical of the strain in religious writing in which thinking is opposed to feeling, and discovering the truth is opposed to rational thought, so that the reader is prepositioned to pity anyone who produces a plausible counterargument.

Thinking scientifically about the world is not opposed to feelings of awe, as if the world were a tacky magic trick that ceases to entertain once its secrets are unveiled. A deeper understanding of science deepens one's amazement and sense of the preciousness of the natural world. If the world has been made at God's fiat, he could always make another one if we mess this one up; since it has taken billions of years to reach this level of exquisite complexity, it is rather less replaceable than that.

It shows a breathtaking lack of self-awareness that you castigate atheists for being "frogs in a well", whilst advocating that not only should those who agree with you assume that they are not "in a well" themselves, but forestall any possibility of finding out that they are by cutting off all dialogue with those with a different point of view. 

I won't labour the point, as it has never been put more graphically than in in Matthew 7. 

"For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?   

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."