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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thomas Hobbes, a Brilliant Pessimist

THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes's materialist philosophy is expressed in his most famous book The Leviathan (1651). Here we read, "The universe is corporeal; all that is real is material, and what is not material is not real."

Our knowledge comes from our senses and since the sense can be fooled, even this must be questioned. He rejects Descartes' mind-matter dualism, but he agrees with Descartes that the human mind can analyse experience and achieve a rational and scientific knowledge.

Despite his "indestructible cheerfulness" (Quinton), Hobbes' materialist philosophy eschews metaphysical grounds for hope. He does not believe in a personal God or that the Creator has established natural boundaries by which the ruler and the wise might discern justice and morality. His pessimism about human nature likely resulted from childhood experiences. His father was the vicar of a local parish, and in the wake of a scandal precipitated by brawling outside his church, the disgraced vicar disappeared. Hobbes and his two siblings were taken to live with their paternal uncle, a tradesman and alderman, who provided for Hobbes' education.

An excellent student of classical languages by age 14, Hobbes went to study at Magdalen Hall in Oxford. He left Oxford in 1608 and became the private tutor for William Cavendish, the eldest son of Lord Cavendish of Hardwick (known later as the first Earl of Devonshire).

In 1610, Hobbes traveled with William to France, Italy and Germany, where he met other leading scholars of the day, such as Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson. There is no doubt that Hobbes had a brilliant intellect. It is revealed in his development of the social contract theory.

Hobbes often quotes the Bible in his writings. He pays lip service to the idea of God's existence and divine law, but in Anthony Quinton's assessment, he is an atheist. Quinton writes, "Despite occasional polite or cautious references to God he was clearly an atheist." (Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers, Oxford, p. 106.)

As Martinich pointed out (1995), the term "atheist" was frequently applied to people who believed in God, but not divine providence, or to theists who held beliefs that were inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian conception of God.

At the very least, it can be safely said about Hobbes that he was a pessimist when it came to humans and God alike.

Related reading: Hobbes on the Order of Creation; Did Hobbes Change the Meaning of Justice?

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Timeless Mystery of God

Alice C. Linsley

Joan Violet Robinson said, "Time is a device to prevent everything from happening at once." To this, someone quipped, "Space is a device to prevent everything from happening in Cambridge."

Human existence entails the perception of space and time, but our sense of place is generally more acute than our sense of time. We speak of time as something that "passes" and we yet we have no immediate awareness of its passing. C.S. Lewis wrote of this experience:
"We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. 'How he's grown!' we exclaim, 'How time flies!' It's as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course, the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal." (Reflections on the Psalms. Harcourt, Chapter 12)

Aristotle viewed time as something external which has duration and numerical value. Neo-Platonists instead spoke of time as being continuous, as the soul is eternal and imperishable. This conception is similar to the Platonic ascent of the soul in the Symposium and the Phaedrus.

A man of Platonic sensibilities, C. S. Lewis, wrote:
"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” (The Weight of Glory)

In The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade writes that belief in cyclical time was “discernibly present in the earliest pre-Socratic speculations. Anaximander knows that all things are born and return to the apeiron. Empodocles conceives of the alternative supremacy of the two opposing principles philia [love] and neikos [strife] as explaining the eternal creations and destructions of the cosmos…The eternal conflagration is, as we have seen, also accepted by Heraclitus. As to the eternal return – the periodic resumption, by all beings, of their former lives – this is one of the few dogmas of which we know with some certainty that they formed a part of the primitive Pythagoreanism.”

Does the soul have an existence autonomous from time and space? If so, are we to imagine the possibility of transmigration of the soul? Certainly Plato believed this. Or are we to imagine a bodiless soul existing in some non-material state? This is certainly the hope of Hindus and Buddhists. The Christian hopes in bodily resurrection made possible by connection to the Resurrected One, the Messiah, the "first born from the dead." He is the eternal King who grants immortality to those He leads to the Father.

We may reason that that which predates time is not bound by time, and if we do so, we must apply this to the very laws of physics. And if we do that, we must entertain the likelihood that there is a fixed quality to those laws. The Israeli scientist Gerald Schroeder takes this position in his book The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth. Schroeder writes:
“The further philosophical problem of there having been a beginning arises with the idea that the beginning of our universe marks the beginning of time, space, and matter. Before our universe came into being, there is every scientific indication that time did not exist. Whatever brought the universe into existence must of course predate the universe, which in turn means that whatever brought the universe into existence must predate time. That which predates time is not bound by time. Not inside of time. In other words, it is eternal. If the laws of physics, or at least some aspect of the laws of physics, did the job of creation, those laws by necessity are eternal.” 

The Creator is the eternal and immutable God. We may reason that physical laws reflect the Creator, by the best physicists admit that there are many unsolved mysteries in physics. The mysteries may themselves be reflections of the eternal reality of God.

Related reading: Time and Eternity; Theories of Change and Constancy; The Metaphysics of Time Perception; The Story of Ontology; Better a Philosopher and an OratorGain a Heart of WisdomEighteen Unsolved Mysteries in Physics; Tim Maudlin on Time

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Geometry and Experience according to Albert Einstein

Math has its own indisputable logic. In this sense, it has greater certainty than most sciences.

This is the address given to the Prussian Academy of Sciences by Albert Einstein on January 21, 1921 in Berlin.

Related reading: John Lennox on Nonsense; Blaise Pascal; Using Arab Math to Uncover Authors of Torah

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Interview with Brooks McDaniel

Chris Marchand recorded an interview with Brooks McDaniel, a professor of philosophy and religion, now retired from Illinois Central College. McDaniel is also an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) and a writer and poet.

Marchand studied World Religions with McDaniel. Brooks McDaniel is a Tillichian liberal Protestant and Marchand is an orthodox Anglican. In this podcast Marchand and McDaniel talk about faith, spiritual experiences, and what McDaniel would like written in his obituary.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Why I Love Philosophy

Alice C. Linsley

I have been teaching philosophy at the university and high schools levels for over 15 years. Some of my former students have gone on to become philosophy majors and philosophy teachers. It is gratifying that some stay in contact with me. They tell me that my approach to teaching philosophy is unique and that they wish others would employ a similar method of engaging students with the great minds of history.

I love philosophy because it is the single discipline in which we may discuss everything. We are given permission to question everything, to test the validity of ideas, and to learn how to think more deeply.

My philosophy students are asked to consider questions. What is real? How do we know? Is there objective truth?  Is it possible to know the true nature of something? What can be known? What are the limits of human understanding? Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Does innate knowledge exist? Is it possible to understand natural phenomena solely on the basis of observation and the senses?

“The real question is why is there 'being'? The existence of existence is amazing, awesome.” ― Gerald Schroeder

What is the mind? How is it related to the body? Is there a soul?

What constitutes authority? What are the proper limits of government? What makes a good society?

In our studies and conversations, we encounter philosophers who recognize the importance of the imagination: Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Berkeley. Imagination plays a key role in my method. I end each unit of study by asking students to role play.

Students begin the semester by selecting a philosopher from a list I provide. They are to read selections of writings by this person and a few general articles about the person. Based on what they have learned they design a hat. This hat is worn in the Great Minds Forums. As long as the student is wearing the hat, they must remain in the role of that philosopher. If they wish to speak as themselves, they remove the hat. I wear the hat of Socrates and at the beginning of the forum I pose 3 questions. These are written on the board. I then ask one of the philosophers present to address the first question. They may then address the question to another philosopher. If a student makes remarks that are not consistent with the philosopher in question, I point that out and ask them to rephrase their comment.

By this means students are able to see the development, interaction and connection of ideas across centuries. Plato may engage Aristotle and Aristotle may engage Hume. Hume may challenge Descartes and Descartes may critique Spinoza or Berkeley. Rand faces off with Marx and John B. Rawls. Derrida engages Martin Heidegger, and Elizabeth Anscombe probes the moral thought of Nietzsche.

Only eight students participate in the Great Minds Forum. They are arranged in a circle and the other students observe the forum from their seats. Every student is given an opportunity to participate in at least one forum. It takes two full class sessions to address the three questions posed by Socrates. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Positivity Comes to Buckingham University

Professor Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, flew in from the United States recently to celebrate the launch of a new era for Buckingham University, which is to become Europe’s first “positive” university. From now on all students at Buckingham, along with its professors, will be trained in the theory of positive psychology, helping them foster a more engaging and positive culture, free from bullying.

Admirable as this may sound, branding a university as positive could be problematic. For one, what about all those great pessimist thinkers such as Sophocles, Nietzsche and Freud? Will they be thrown off the curriculum? Banned from campus? It was the work of Freud, says Seligman, that blinded psychologists for far too long to the more positive aspects of human life that help people flourish.

Setting Freud aside, insisting on making a university positive – let alone a whole society – could be problematic on a more fundamental, ideological level.

The positive psychology movement was founded in 1998, and since then has attracted a large following, influencing business leaders and politicians across the world. At the heart of this theory is the claim that external circumstances make almost no difference to our happiness, as Seligman has explained.

Read more here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Tim Maudlin on Time

Time isn’t just another dimension, argues Tim Maudlin. To make his case, he’s had to reinvent geometry.

George Musser

Physicists and philosophers seem to like nothing more than telling us that everything we thought about the world is wrong. They take a peculiar pleasure in exposing common sense as nonsense. But Tim Maudlin thinks our direct impressions of the world are a better guide to reality than we have been led to believe.

Not that he thinks they always are. Maudlin, who is a professor at New York University and one of the world’s leading philosophers of physics, made his name studying the strange behavior of “entangled” quantum particles, which display behavior that is as counterintuitive as can be; if anything, he thinks physicists have downplayed how transformative entanglement is. At the same time, though, he thinks physicists can be too hasty to claim that our conventional views are misguided, especially when it comes to the nature of time.

He defends a homey and unfashionable view of time. It has a built-in arrow. It is fundamental rather than derived from some deeper reality. Change is real, as opposed to an illusion or an artifact of perspective. The laws of physics act within time to generate each moment. Mixing mathematics, physics and philosophy, Maudlin bats away the reasons that scientists and philosophers commonly give for denying this folk wisdom.

The mathematical arguments are the target of his current project, the second volume of New Foundations for Physical Geometry (the first appeared in 2014). Modern physics, he argues, conceptualizes time in essentially the same way as space. Space, as we commonly understand it, has no innate direction — it is isotropic. When we apply spatial intuitions to time, we unwittingly assume that time has no intrinsic direction, either. New Foundations rethinks topology in a way that allows for a clearer distinction between time and space. Conventionally, topology — the first level of geometrical structure — is defined using open sets, which describe the neighborhood of a point in space or time. “Open” means a region has no sharp edge; every point in the set is surrounded by other points in the same set.

Maudlin proposes instead to base topology on lines.

Read it all here.

Related reading: Meauring Time with the Clepsydra; The Clepsammia; Theories of Time and Eternity; Change and Constancy