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Willard Quine – My unapologetic simplification

Willard Quine (1908-2000) was an influential American mathematician and philosopher who rejected Kant’s analytic-synthetic distinction¹ and advocated a form of holism.

English: The OWNER of this passport picture of...

Passport picture of Willard Van Orman Quine (Photo: Wikipedia)

Quine argues that empiricism contains “two dogmas.” One dogma is the distinction made between intellectual constructs and facts.

The second dogma is reductionism—that is, the belief that naming and meaning are the same.

Quine’s thought has been variously championed and critiqued. It seems that whatever way we look at the issues Quine addresses, we encounter the same problem. Language (and arguably all symbols, to include numbers) has conceptual and descriptive limits. It can never be entirely precise nor complete.²

The relationship between symbols and reality is an age old debate with no definitive answer. The discussion can go along ‘horizontal,’ conceptual lines or veer off into deeper, ‘vertical’ lines (as with Carl Jung‘s view of the archetypal image).

The discussion can also exist in a kind of matrix. That is, one could argue – as I do – that all words carry a potential numinous power. Numinosity isn’t something restricted to religious or mythological symbols.

In sociology, Quine’s thought appears in discussions about reification and also about the relation between scientific truth claims on the one hand, and ideology, the profit motive and social power on the other hand.

Healthcare Costs by Images Money via Flickr

Admittedly this is the briefest of brief sketches about Quine. When it comes to Western philosophy, it seems everyone has their own take on what these complicated thinkers are trying to say.³ My interest in Quine is mostly in trying to get people to think critically about scientific truth claims.

Science is becoming a new kind or medieval-style religion. The initial assumptions, selectivity, biases, interpretations and extrapolations built in to science are so glossed over or taken for granted that the average person tends to see science as “truth” and doesn’t even want to discuss any further.

In other words, science has a pretty firm grip on the minds and actions of many people. Too see this in action, we don’t have to look any further than some of the facile placards in the recent “March for Science.”

Making a religion out of science is misguided, authoritarian and dangerous. I think humanity can do better. So that’s how I justify simplifying Quine. I’m taking a poststructural approach. Something that I think everyone does. Although not everyone might be aware of it (or admit it, if they are).

Image by Becker1999 via Flickr

Need I say more?

¹ Kant devised a distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions. Analytic propositions are said to contain the predicate in the subject. Synthetic propositions do not contain the predicate in the subject. An example of an analytic proposition is, “All squares have four sides.” An example of a synthetic proposition is, “All men are athletic.”

² Along these lines the ancient Greek, Heraclitus, once wrote said that we cannot step into the same river twice. So what is a “river?”

³ Not to imply that Eastern philosophy is necessarily simpler or less open to interpretation. Just look at some of the Buddhist logic schools, for instance.

Related » Science, scientism


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Quiddity – What is?

Quiddity (Latin: quidditas = whatness) is a medieval scholastic term referring a thing’s essence (primary substance) in contrast to its observable form (secondary substance).

This kind of distinction goes back to Plato and plays an important role in understanding the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist, said to transform in essence but not in observable form.

Catholics and several other Christian churches believe that Holy Communion is not just a memorial but a sacrament in which one partakes of the living body and blood of Christ. Each Christian Church has subtle variations in trying to explain this mystery. For Catholics, by taking the transformed host one goes further into becoming a part of the mystical body of Christ.

For most Christian believers, partaking in the Eucharist is the opposite of natural eating. With the Eucharistic meal, the eater becomes part of the eaten, whereas in natural eating the reverse is true: the eaten becomes part of the eater.¹

Concerning the Catholic theological distinction between essence and form, essence is not to be taken as mere mattery/energy—that is, the fabric of the observable universe.  For Catholics, essence is a spiritual term that means something qualitatively different from matter/energy.

This important point is often misunderstood or entirely overlooked by New Age / Quantum Physics enthusiasts who recast the old myth of naturalistic pantheism into the latest scientific language, which arguably is just another myth.

David Hume

David Hume (Photo: Wikipedia)

Clearly, not everyone accepts the idea of primary substance. Non-believers tend to think of it as mumbo jumbo. And Catholics are sometimes called derogatory terms like “wafer biters.”

The philosopher David Hume and others who probably never felt the glory of the Eucharist argued that since primary substance cannot be perceived, it should not be assumed to exist.

However, many who do experience tangible effects from the Eucharist would likely see Hume’s perspective as limited, one coming from a mind constrained by worldliness, materialism and an over-reliance on conceptual reasoning.  As Wikipedia notes

The claim that substance cannot be perceived is neither clear nor obvious, and neither is the implication obvious.²

¹ Some New Age and Shamanistic believers might dispute this, saying that when we eat an animal we temporarily merge with its soul, which continues into an afterlife.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Substance_theory

Related » Consubstantiation, Transubstantiation

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The Quakers, past and present

Pete Birkenshaw via Flickr

The Quakers (a.k.a. The Religious Society of Friends) are a religious movement founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691). Wikipedia outlines the interesting origins of the appellation, Quakers.

In 1650, Fox was brought before the magistrates Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton, on a charge of religious blasphemy. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord”. It is thought that George Fox was referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. Thus, the name Quaker began as a way of ridiculing George Fox’s admonition, but became widely accepted and is used by some Quakers

The Quakers were pacifists who rejected the Christian Sacraments, seeing themselves as  true Christians, Saints, Children of the Light, and Friends of the Truth.² They advocated plain speech and clothing, and were persecuted for their nonconformity. Four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, were executed in Boston in 1660.

In the 20th century Quakers made a name for themselves in the world of business, with names like Cadbury and Rowntree leading the pack. BBC points out that not all Quaker businesses succeeded. But we remember the success stories.³

English: The Religious Society of Friends (Qua...

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Mosedale Meeting House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, pockets of Quakers exist around the globe, often in economically disadvantaged locales where they engage in charitable works.

Quakers emphasize an Inner Light and personal revelation. Liberal Quaker “Friends” recognize different manifestations of what they understand as “The Holy Spirit.” This means that non-Christian religions are seen as valid approaches to God.

The Catholic Church has generally regarded the Quakers as a well-meaning but misguided sect.4

Title page from a book protesting the persecut...

Title page from a book protesting the persecution of Quakers in New England (1660-1661) (Photo Wikipedia)

My only direct experience with a Quaker came through a university professor. While most other professors had PhDs, he was still working on his.

Despite this apparent drawback, he was by far one of my best undergrad professors. Intelligent, witty, kind and encouraging. He brought historical and biographical depth to what otherwise could have been a pretty dry topic—sociological theory.

So if he is any indication of what the rest are like, Quakers have made a pretty good impression on me.

George Fox. This image shows part of an engrav...

George Fox. This image shows part of an engraving by “S. Allen” (published 1838) of a painting by “S. Chinn” – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers

² Ibid.

³ http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-17112572

4 For instance » http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9765

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Ramanuja – Hindu sage likened to St. Thomas Aquinas

English: sage Ramanujacharya's statue

Ramanujacharya’s statue – Wikipedia

Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE) was a leading Hindu philosopher born in the Brahmin caste. Legend has it that he learned the Vedas when he was a baby, only eight days old.¹

Ramanuja was influential to the Bhakti movement, which favors devotion over dry, conceptual philosophy.

Apparently Ramanuja hoped to visit another prominent Hindu philosopher, Yamunacharya, but the latter died before they could compare notes.²

Ramanuja sees the Vedas as authoritative. If you believe in one part, you have to believe in all of the Veda. In other words, he is a religious fundamentalist who accepts the social stratification and misogyny spelled out and reinforced by the Veda.³

Believing that Vishnu is supreme, as a Vaishnavite (follower of Vishnu)  Ramanuja challenges the views of Sankara and the Saivites (followers of Siva). Wikipedia suggests that their respective positions on the soul in relation to ultimate reality are the same.

Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita school and Shankara’s Advaita school are both nondualism Vedanta schools,[19][46] both are premised on the assumption that all souls can hope for and achieve the state of blissful liberation; in contrast, Madhvacharya believed that some souls are eternally doomed and damned.4

Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Ramanuja develops a form of monism that differs from Shankara’s. Ramanuja’s system of Visistadvaita is widely recognized as qualified monism. Specifically, Ramanuja challenges Sankara’s claim that only the Brahman is real and individuality is illusory (maya). For Ramanuja, the Brahman is real and beyond pain and suffering. However, individual souls (jivas) emerging from and ultimately resting within the Brahman are also real.

English: Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi...

Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi Mandir in Kedarnath, India. Photo taken by Priyanath – Wikipedia

For Ramanuja the Brahman is beyond the law of karma but the individual soul (jiva) is not and must answer to the wheel of rebirth. Accordingly, the jiva experiences the pleasure and pain of earthly life. And liberation from samsara, the round of rebirth due to karma, is gained through individual effort as well as from the grace of Vishnu.

Ultimately, the individual soul rests within but does not become absorbed by the Brahman or, for that matter, simply disappear.

As a consequence of his religious and philosophical innovations, Ramanuja was persecuted by a rival Hindu who happened to be a Saivite ruler.

The prominent Indologist Wendy Doniger calls Ramanuja “probably the single most influential thinker of devotional Hinduism.”5

Others have likened Ramanuja to the 13th-century Christian thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. These two thinkers may appear similar on an abstract, intellectual level but any similarity after that becomes problematic. First of all, the alleged truths of Christ and the Veda at many points are incompatible.

Second, from my perspective the religious experiences respectively offered by Hinduism and Christianity (Catholicism specifically) differ.6

Instead of yielding to the pressure of political correctness and glossing over perceived differences, it is far more fruitful to talk about religion and religious experience as we really see and feel it.

Otherwise, sugar-coated religious dialog and ostentatious conferences are a huge waste of time and money. They may help to connect a circle of established or trending pundits. But backslapping, mutual admiration, fancy hotels and superficial proclamations will never replace any kind of true understanding.

STATIONTOSTATION lp album cover by David Bowie – Wikipedia

¹ This seems pretty far fetched. It reminds me of stories about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, emerging from the womb playing air piano with his baby fingers.

² If both were so spiritually achieved, you’d think that earthly death wouldn’t matter and they could communicate directly, soul to soul.

³ For those claiming that the Vedas do not advocate caste, I urge you to look at the Vedic creation myth.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramanuja

5 Ibid.

6 Perhaps only those who cannot discern a difference in numinosity between these two paths would believe they are phenomenologically equivalent. Some may see this as a biased or backward statement but if a person, like myself, experiences real differences among different religious paths, another’s inexperience, insensitivity or preference for political correctness will not change that fact. This issue has recently appeared in relation to some Catholics’ view of yoga.

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Plato – One of the most esteemed thinkers of all time

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) via Wikipedia

Plato (427-347 BCE) was a Greek philosopher born into an aristocratic Athenian family. Over the centuries he has come to be regarded as one of the most influential philosophers of all time, especially within Western philosophy.

Plato’s quick wit and eagerness to learn was evident at an early age. He most likely was instructed on a wide variety of topics, to include grammar, music, natural science, geography and gymnastics. And as an aristocrat, Plato would have been taught by the most respected teachers of the day. According to the Roman writer, Apuleus:

Speusippus praised Plato’s quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the “first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study.” ¹

All this bore fruit. Few philosophers are seen as his equal, with the exception of, perhaps, Immanuel Kant, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Plato’s contemporary Aristotle, whom Plato taught.²

Plato has an interesting take on knowledge. Essentially, he believes in reincarnation. Plato suggests that all knowledge rests in the soul before birth. The trauma of being born makes us forget what we knew. So learning is just “remembering” what we once knew on a higher, transcendental plane.

Freud via Wikipedia

Some might liken Plato’s view of knowledge to Freud‘s idea of the unconscious, but I don’t think Freud, the materialist atheist, would have agreed. More correctly, Plato’s theory of knowledge leads to the notion of the Forms.

For Plato, the Forms are perfect, unchanging and eternal. They are the true reality that everything else on Earth approximates. Not unlike Buddhism, everything in our changing world is viewed as secondary and impermanent.

But any similarities with Buddhism end there. For Plato, gaining knowledge of the eternal Forms means we become aware of the soul’s eternal nature. So for Plato, the philosophical life is a “preparation for death,” a death where we continue onward as individual souls.

Buddhists, on the other hand, try to eradicate individuality. For them, individuality, even an individual soul, is illusory. And to believe in any kind of individuality – be it the ego or the soul – hampers one’s spiritual development (which for Buddhists is a kind of unpacking and disposal of psychological contents).

Plato’s most influential teacher of philosophy is Socrates. Socrates never writes anything but roams the streets philosophizing with just about anyone who will listen. At Athens, Soctrates is eventually sentenced to death on charges of “atheism” and “corrupting the youth.”

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1...

Portrait of Socrates. Marble, Roman artwork (1st century), perhaps a copy of a lost bronze statue made by Lysippos via Wikipedia

Socrates’ supporters probably had an escape plan for him. And many would have turned a blind eye had he fled in the night. This kind of thing was almost half expected with exceptional cases in ancient Athens.

But Socrates chooses to drink poisonous hemlock rather than flee and, in his eyes, live dishonorably. From this, some contemporary thinkers say that Socrates’ death is a kind of suicide.³

So impressed by Socrates, Plato makes him the protagonist in most of his philosophical works, which are written as dialogues. In Plato’s dialogues, the character Socrates debates with others about many of the big questions.

Plato sometimes is regarded as hostile to poetry, while his student Aristotle is seen as sympathetic to the poetic imagination. But this isn’t entirely right. Plato admires divinely inspired poetry, in contrast to poems crafted by mere technique.

Aristotle writes prose commentaries on the importance of the artistic process, along with rules for creative artists. Plato, perhaps believing he is eternally justified in doing so, writes not prosaically but with a poetic flourish.

Plato condemns or severely restricts the use of poetry in education, yet he uses poetry extensively in his own works, citing verses with approval, imitating poetic style and imagery, or subjecting poems to critical study.4

Plato’s distinction between inspired verse and poetry based on technique seems a bit clunky. Aristotle begins to collapse the distinction by arguing that well crafted poetry can be cathartic. In other words, Aristotle recognizes that good poetry taps into something deeper than the world of the senses.

Saint Monica (331 – 387), also known as Monica of Hippo, was an early Christian saint and the mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo. Colored engraving from Diodore Rahoult, Italy 1886.

After the Christian church takes hold of the European imagination, St. Augustine of Hippo recasts aspects of Plato’s work to support Christian belief. St. Augustine’s tremendous influence on Christian theology isn’t really challenged until medieval theologians obtain translations of Aristotle made by Muslim scholars.

Today, Plato’s influence has fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church and the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, who borrows from and respectfully calls Aristotle “The Philosopher,” is taught in various theological contexts.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

² No brief summary can account for all of Plato’s beliefs and ideas. Some that have captured my imagination are mentioned here.

³ See G. S. Aldrete http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/history-of-the-ancient-world-a-global-perspective.html

4 Paul Woodruff, “Plato’s Use of Poetry” in Oxford Art Online (Plato)


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Pantheism – Is my God bigger than your God?

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

Benedict de Spinoza (Photo: Wikipedia)

Pantheism (Greek: pan [all] + theos [God] = All is God) is the belief that God and creation are one.

Subtle differences and schools can be found within pantheism. Naturalistic pantheism sees nature and the cosmos as God, a cosmology found New Age theories advancing the idea that “We are the Universe.”

Others say that God exists in but is also greater than the universe. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This view is sometimes called panentheism. Panentheism is evident in Taoism and aspects of Hinduism, as well as the philosophical works of Spinoza¹ and Hegel.

Both pantheism and panentheism differ from Theism and Deism. But these belief systems, themselves, are not the same. Theism and Deism both understand God as transcendent to creation but they differ on the degree to which God interacts with creation—from a great deal to not at all, respectively.

The religion scholar R. C. Zaehner suggests another term, panenhenism, for the belief that the universe is a unified whole without reference to any kind of ‘God.’

Zaehner’s term anticipates semiotic and postmodern agendas that deconstruct words like ‘God’ and the meaning these words connote to different individuals and groups—such as feminists, as well as visible, invisible, outspoken and silent minorities.

Talking about idea of pantheism can be fruitless because terms like “the universe” or “nature” mean different things to different people. For some, these are limiting terms because they do not include heaven and hell, as well as the spiritual powers and beings believed to reside in these places.

Others, however, claim that the words “universe” or “nature” simply point to “All That Is,” which would include heaven, hell and everything else in between.

Wikipedia sums up the general meaning of pantheism as follows:

In the mid-eighteenth century, the English theologian Daniel Waterland defined pantheism this way: “It supposes God and nature, or God and the whole universe, to be one and the same substance—one universal being; insomuch that men’s souls are only modifications of the divine substance.” In the early nineteenth century, the German theologian Julius Wegscheider  defined pantheism as the belief that God and the world established by God are one and the same.²

The Catholic Church has always opposed pantheism as an ultimate worldview.³ For Catholics, the Holy Spirit is incomparably higher and yet more personal than some force (or forces) of the created universe. For those who have experienced the difference, this seems obvious.

For those who haven’t experienced any difference, Catholics (and others) who say God is transcendent yet immanent probably seem brainwashed by their tradition. Reductionism isn’t only about cretins in white lab coats. It’s about anyone who tries to drag others down to their level of experience and understanding.

Image via Wikipedia

Related » Akhenaton, Connotation, Denotation, Monotheism, Polytheism

¹ Wikipedia’s entry on Pantheism seems almost devotional in its praise of Spinoza’s great intellectual achievement. True, he anticipates the enlightenment and Biblical criticism. But in my opinion, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about when it comes to cosmology. A simple street person could be far wiser but some of us tend to exalt those who craft elaborate intellectual systems, even if they are built, layer by layer, on flawed or limited assumptions about the nature of reality.

² Ibid.

³ This opposition has not always been loving, to say the least. Giordano Bruno, essentially a pantheist, was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno


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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.