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Gilbert Ryle – An Oxford man who advocated “ordinary language”

Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) was an English philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1945-68. He edited the journal Mind from 1947-71.

Ryle and others like G. E. Moore developed the idea, forwarded by Wittgenstein, that philosophy is best expressed in so-called “ordinary language.” For Ryle, using abstract language is so removed from everyday experience and speech that it tends to be, for the most part, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Some philosophers are so heavily invested in their specialized language that they become blind to the ambiguities, limitations and sometimes absurdity of their claims.

A similar argument could be made about anyone who overly invests in a particular language game or symbol system, to include psychologists, biologists, physicists, economists, lawyers, environmentalists… The list goes on.

Not everyone agrees with Ryle. For a while, his views were trendy in philosophy but that didn’t last long. Today, philosophy is even more esoteric and symbolic than ever. Most modern philosophy degrees demand advanced courses in symbolic logic that, to the uninitiated, might look more like math than critical thinking.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the main points for and against the use of ordinary language in philosophy and related disciplines:

For:

  • Language is dynamic, full of ambiguous connotation and a product of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation.
  • Specialized language cloaks bias and subtly reinforces unequal relations of power. For instance, in psychology a person is “ADD” or “Autistic.” The scientific label makes it so. End of discussion. Who cares if these people have unusual abilities that the status quo is too biased to recognize or support?
  • Ordinary language isn’t patronizing to ordinary people and may, in fact, draw them into a discussion. This could lead to new insights and benefits for all.

Against:

  • Given the potential ambiguity and fluidity of language, shouldn’t philosophers try to define their terms as precisely as possible?
  • Isn’t it valid for specialists to use specialized language? For example, do you really want your operating room surgeon to say “give me that blade over there” one day and “hand me the knife” another day instead of always using the quick and precise, “scalpel“?
  • Specialized language increases precision and facilitates greater communication, efficiency and effectiveness among specialists. Popular writers can always translate the main points to the public, later on.

It seems each of these arguments has its pros and cons.

For some, the best approach – ironically an age-old advertising and entertaining technique – is to tailor one’s expression to fit the perceived audience. Instead of speaking above people, some believe it’s better to try to connect—unless, of course, you’re in a specialized group using shared terms (e.g. A Trekkie convention).

Some hard core philosophers seem to overlook the many nuances of human interaction. So they can come off dry, abstract or irrelevant. But every now and then specialized thinkers do come up with ideas worth considering. For me, one example is Hume’s critique of causality. I love and sometimes mention that idea if I feel my audience is ready to consider its transformational potential.

But to return to Ryle, he also published a popular work in 1949, The Concept of Mind, that questioned Descartes mind/body dualism. Ryle says Descartes describes the mind as a metaphysical ghost in a material machine. And from that we have the enduring phrase, “ghost in the machine,” an idea now morphing into new meanings with the rise of AI.


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Bertrand Russell – Temporarily lost his job for advocating peace

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (Photo Wikipedia)

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a Welsh philosopher, mathematician and activist.

Russell taught at Cambridge in 1895, published Principles of Mathematics (1903) and, with A. N. Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13).

He was let go from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1916 for advocating pacifism during World War I. This was scandalous even at the time because most of his Fellows opposed his firing.¹ Jailed in 1918 for six months, Russell eventually revoked his support for pacifism with the rise of Fascism.

Soon after his Fellowship was restored.

In the 1920’s he lectured and wrote widely. In 1927 he founded an experimental school with his second wife, Dora, a woman of achievement in her own right. And he toured the Soviet Union and lectured in China and America.

Russell’s best known publications are The Problems of Philosophy (1912), On Education (1926), An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), History of Western Philosophy (1945), and Human Knowledge (1948). He also wrote probing essays on a variety of topics, such as Why I am not a Christian (1927).

After World War II Russell advocated a ban on nuclear weapons and corresponded with leading politicians around the world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and authored a three-volume Autobiography (1967-9).

English: Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behi...

Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behind bust of Bertrand Russell (by Marcelle Quinton 1980) in Red Lion Square the entrance to Conway Hall can be seen with Royal Mail van parked outside. (Photo: Wikipedia)

¹ Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m posting this revision on Good Friday. Seems a lot of people run into bad luck for advocating peace. †

Related » Ludwig Wittgenstein


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Rona and other myths undercut our cosmological arrogance

In Oceanic mythology Rona is a fierce female cannibal who eats her beautiful daughter’s lover.¹

Another Oceanic myth tells of a male god, Rona, who fights the moon to rescue his abducted wife.² According to this story, when the moon tires from the battle with Rona, it wanes. When the moon regains its strength, it waxes.

This is a good example of what might be called alternative logic, lateral thinking or, for some, anthropomorphism. From his fieldwork, the depth psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that archaic myths are logical and meaningful to so-called primitives, just as scientific explanations appear logical and meaningful to many so-called advanced, thinking persons.

More recently, postmodern critiques of science tend to view theories as working myths or fictions instead of facts. This makes sense if one is willing to admit bias and the limits of human understanding.

English: Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper in 1990 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Take Karl Popper, for instance. He points out that scientific theories are never really proved, per se, but only supported. Also, scientific theories are subject to falsification, modification or radical change through, as T. Kuhn suggests, a paradigm shift. We know that Newton’s Laws of Motion perform well for conventional problems. But Einstein’s work is required for areas that Newton couldn’t observe and probably didn’t imagine.³

Somewhat ahead of his time, Jung says he treated so-called primitives with respect and, when interviewing local elders and tribesmen, didn’t challenge their beliefs or try to convert them to a modern scientific or, for that matter, Protestant Christian perspective.4

A considerate move on Jung’s part. Imagine if advanced extraterrestrials publicly visited Earth. Let’s say the visitors could see beyond our common view of directional time and the (apparent) solidity of matter. These beliefs are important to the functioning and psychological security of 21st century mankind. So if ETs revealed too much knowledge too fast, they’d likely blow our minds as David Bowie put it in the song “Starman.”

Likewise, had Jung tried to convince indigenous peoples that the sun’s rising did not depend on contemplation and sacrifice but, rather, the Earth’s natural rotation, he might have upset their psychological wellness.5

This raises questions about our “developed” cosmological assumptions and how they tie in to the idea of progress. Clearly this topic can go in many directions. I touch on some of these in entries on numinosity, spirituality, mysticismscience, psychiatry and scientism, among others.

¹ See http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/om/om08.htm for the source of these and also for this Wikipedia retelling:

According to Māori legend, a Ngaio tree can be seen on the moon:

The man in the moon becomes, in Māori legend, a woman, one Rona by name. This lady, it seems, once had occasion to go by night for water to a stream. In her hand she carried an empty calabash. Stumbling in the dark over stones and the roots of trees she hurt her shoeless feet and began to abuse the moon, then hidden behind clouds, hurling at it some such epithet as “You old tattooed face, there!” But the moon-goddess heard, and reaching down caught up the insulting Rona, calabash and all, into the sky. In vain the frightened woman clutched, as she rose, the tops of a ngaio-tree. The roots gave way, and Rona with her calabash and her tree are placed in the front of the moon for ever, an awful warning to all who are tempted to mock at divinities in their haste.

English: Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung ...

Hand-colored photograph of Carl Jung in USA, published in 1910 (Photo: Wikipedia)

² Ibid.

³ See Reddit – Ask Science.

My PhD thesis suggests that Jung thinks and behaves like a postmodern before the idea of postmodernism becomes fashionable. Jung’s father, Paul, was a Protestant minister who said Carl had to “believe.” Jung later writes that he doesn’t know how he is to find this belief. With access to his father’s theological library, the young Jung took to Latin and religious studies like a dove to water.

Jung interviewed a Hopi elder and other Native Americans who held these beliefs. See cgjungpage.org.


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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) – Great unifier or opinionated reductionist?

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian scholar of religion and philosophy who taught at the University of Calcutta and Oxford. He became the first Vice President (1952) and the second President of India (1962).

More interesting to me, he was an influential interpreter of Hinduism. His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was a standard for students of Comparative Religion back in the mid-1980s. But this wasn’t the copy I kept in my coat pocket while traveling throughout India. Instead, I preferred a small, cheap Indian paperback that lacked the intellectual varnish of the Radhakrishnan publication.

For Radhakrishnan, diverse world religions are different aspects of the same Source. So religions can be unified through a universal interpretation of Vedanta, particularly, Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta argues that the soul (atman) and ultimate reality (brahman) eventually merge as one. There is no ultimate individuality.

Radhakrishnan’s intentions were noble. I have no doubt that he wanted to sow worldwide peace and promote mutual advantage. But what we want to believe and what’s really happening are often quite different.

Accordingly, Radhakrishnan believes that the Christian message, which clearly glorifies individuality and sainthood in the service of God, fits within his non-individualistic take on Hinduism.¹

Image – Wikipedia

Radhakrishnan’s work is widely respected in India and around the world. This isn’t surprising because Hinduism, like most religious perspectives, tends to incorporate or, depending on how you look at it, reduce different world religions to agree with its own understanding of the godhead. Some find this an attractive approach while others believe it overlooks or, perhaps, trivializes important theological differences.

Consider, for instance, a fairly standard Hindu view of Christianity. For many Hindus, Jesus Christ is just another messenger—some might say avatar. Christ is one among many wise historical figures, and certainly not the most evolved messenger or avatar. For some, Christ is a well-meaning cosmic schoolboy because he doesn’t teach about the supposed “truth” of reincarnation. He’s not evolved enough to “know.”

So for many Hindu believers in reincarnation, Christ the cosmic schoolboy is not the only Son and incarnation of God as traditional Christians, themselves, believe.²

One could argue that this approach, even if well-intentioned, contributes to a condescending and divisive “we know better than them” attitude that runs through most faith groups around the world.

When individuals rigidly believe that their particular religious beliefs represent absolute or the best available truth, there’s arguably little room left for meaningful dialogue.

The agenda to ‘convince and convert’ is found among most religious people. Sometimes this agenda is masked with an agreeable persona of trying to understand. Whether or not this facade of trying to understand represents unethical deception or a wise kind of “fishing” for souls remains open to debate.³

¹ This might be due to his never having an unadulterated Christian experience. Some think he was, in part, reacting to a negative experience with Christian missionaries in India. See http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/244/684 . There are some schools of Indian thought that conceptually fit better with Christian cosmology.

² For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16. Hinduism is not the only non-Christian belief system that modifies traditional Christianity to fit within its own framework. Almost all non-Christian religions do this, old and new. Likewise, many Christians reinterpret non-Christian beliefs to fit with their own cosmology.

³ “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” http://biblehub.com/matthew/4-19.htm

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The Runes – Another window into beliefs about the sacred and profane

Mosaic runes - the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols.

Mosaic runes – the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols – xjy via Flickr

Runes are the characters of different Germanic languages dating from 150 CE.¹

The characters gradually took on divinatory and mystical significance as they spread from southern Europe to Britain and Scandinavia. They were replaced by the Latin alphabet when runic cultures converted to Christianity between 700 CE and 1100 CE. Still used for decoration, some New Age enthusiasts see the runes as tools for depth psychology, divination and mysticism.

Not unlike modern interpretations of the I Ching, which adapt ancient Chinese commentaries, New Age runes are said to be based on runic inscriptions found on swords, stones and bronze pendants. Also like the I Ching, Tarot and other forms of divination, the runes have been commercialized.

Some believe the commercialization of the runes invalidates their divinatory and mystical significance; others don’t make a sharp distinction between God and commercialism.² This latter group believes that God’s ways are greater than any human thought or construction. So God can work through anything, be it a traditionally sacred vehicle or another branded as a sellout.³

evolution of the j-rune.

evolution of the j-rune. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the language of Religious Studies, the debate over commercialization involves beliefs about the sacred and profane, cosmology, and how everything does or does not connect within a given belief system.4

Wikipedia, although claiming to be as objective as possible, displays a secular, slightly sarcastic bias when addressing modern forms of Runic mysticism.

The lack of extensive knowledge on historical use of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the reconstructed names of the runes and additional outside influence.

A recent study of runic magic suggests that runes were used to create magical objects such as amulets, but not in a way that would indicate that runic writing was any more inherently magical, than were other writing systems such as Latin or Greek.5

An inscription using both cipher runes, the El...

An inscription using both cipher runes, the Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th century Rök Runestone in Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Paula Byerly Croxon claims they can be traced to 1300 BC via archaeology. See PDMB&S (2003), p. 245.

² Next time you’re in a Catholic Church, take a look at the back page of the parish bulletin. Even though Jesus was enraged by ancient merchants peddling their wares and money-changing in the temple, Catholics are doing a similar thing today: Ads over the whole back page of the bulletin, sometimes really smarmy ones.

³ I tend to fall into this camp. So when some clergy preach against the horrors of TV, the internet or “secular” ways, I usually reflect on how regimented and ignorant they really are. I also smile inwardly when, moments later, they reverentially scoop up the “secular” money with an offertory hymn. Sometimes more than once in a given Mass. Does this somehow make the profane sacred? Some say it does. Others see it as rank hypocrisy and a general lack of psychological integration.

Picture of Runes used in Fortune Telling

Runes used in Fortune Telling (Wikipedia)

4 One of the leading scholars to address this issue is the Romanian, Mircea Eliade.

5 That’s why, as staggering as it is, Wikipedia often isn’t enough. We need books, articles, independent blogs and websites to unpack assumptions and to provide alternative perspectives. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runes

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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

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The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.