This week I will be mostly reading…

Posted by on July 1st, 2009

Three Dialogues on Knowledge, by Paul Feyerabend.

Yes its that time of year again where I read my favourite philosophical iconoclast. However I’m not going to give a comprehensive review of the book (mostly as I’m only 1/3 of the way through it). Amazon reproduces the blurb from the back of the book and that succinctly describes its scope and its method.

As the title suggests it is concerned with knowledge, specifically in the fields of epistemology, ethics and metaphysics. Consequently lots of topics get attention paid to them including religion, science, astrology, culture etc.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its style. It is – quite unlike most of Feyerabends work, easy to read. It is written in imitation of the Socratic Dialogue. I get the feeling that Feyerabend (who as well as being a Professor of Philosophy was a graduate of both Physics and Theatre) wrote these dialogues not for inward digestion but for public performance – consequently it is much more accessible to the reader than other works of his. He also is conscpicously absent, each of the characters represent aspects of him or even anti-characterisations and I get the impression that because he is absent as a figure (even mocked in one of the dialogues) he doesnt feel the need for grand standing controversial gesture statements – even if the content brings up controversial ideas i.e. the anarchic nature of science.

Anyway I may occasionally post excerpts from the book.

I start with this one on education – which also touches on ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, tradition, culture, existentialism, anarchism etc. I found it a very powerful passage.

A: So you really are against education.

B: On the contrary! I regard education – the right kind of education – as a most necessary aid to life. I think the poor creatures who were sent into the world just because a man or a woman were bored with each other, felt lonely and hoped that producing a nice little pet might improve matters, or because mama forgot to insert her intra-uterine device, or because mama and papa were Catholics and did not dare to have pleasure without procreation – I think these poor creatures need some protection. They got life without having asked for it – and yet from the very first day of their existence they are pushed around, forbidden to do this, ordered to do that, any conceivable pressure is exerted upon them including the inhumane pressure deriving from the need for love and sympathy. So they grow up. They become ‘responsible’. And now the pressures are refined. Instead of the whip we have the argument, instead of parental threats the pressures issuing from some midget whom his fellow midgets regard as a ‘great man’. Instead of eating his supper he is supposed to search for truth. But why should the children of tomorrow have to imitate the leading idiots of today? Why should those upon whom we have imposed existence not view this existence in their own terms? Don’t they have a right to please themselves even if this scares the beejesus out of their teachers, fathers, mothers as well as of the local police force? Why should they not decide against Reason and Truth…

A: You must be dreaming…

B: And this is my good right. This is everybody’s good right and it must not be taken from us by an education that maims instead of helping us to develop our own being to the fullest.

– Second Dialogue (1976)

Review: The Real God (part 1)

Posted by on October 8th, 2008

Here is my long overdue book review on Richard Harries “The Real God“. Published in 1994 it is a short work on the philosophy of religion and basic theology by the then Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries. The full title of the book is The Real God: A response to Anthony Freeman’s God in Us. Thus this may be seen as being part of a dialogue, however to Harries credit it is not necessary to have first read the other book in order to make sense of this work.

This book is essentially a Realist apologetic for Christian belief and its remit is neatly summed up in the blurb by the question “If God exists, how can we know this?”

Immediately this should get materialist atheists and varying degrees of agnostics interested as the question seems to imply discussion on the physical and empirical basis of theistic belief. This should also interest students of “language games” who may wonder at the degree to which Harries seeks to straddle the science-religion divide. (Note this is really a false dichotomy – as Wittgenstein rejected the notions of islands of discourse – similarly in terms of hypothesis and narratives of origin religion and science have somewhat overlapping interests).

Significantly though this book was not written with the average Dawkins supporter in mind – and predates the “God Delusion” by some years. It may be interesting and informative to compare the different God-hypothesis both authors present (but thats a whole ‘nother task!)

Primarily as noted this book was a response to Anthony Freeman’s “God in Us”. Freeman was an Anglican priest and member of the “Sea of Faith” theological school who argued from a postmodern perspective about the human origins of religion. He eventually left the institutional church after
arguing that God as a metaphysical entity was not real, but that God was a projection of human ideals.

The Sea of Faith network have been variously described as Christian Atheists and Christian Humanists. Though as befits a postmodern school of thought they evade precise definition by virtue of holding many differing views without proferring any particular orthodoxy. Perhaps the most important position they do hold in common is that irrespective of the divine or human character of religion, the reality or non-existence of a deity, religion can play a positive role both personally and socially.

Harries responds to this with the intent that he is going to present a realist thesis on God. And although I have more sympathy for arguments that come from a via negativa (a negation of talking about the attributes of God) and am described variously by many as an anti-realist, I must confess that I enjoyed Harries arguments and style of writing.

He begins by exploring the character of God. What type of a person or being is he? Interestingly he is not concerned with obscure theological points (like how many angels can dance on a pinhead) but with human projections of divinity. He argues quite sympathetically that one of the prevailing themes in modern secularism and irreligiosity is liberation from an oppressive judgemental and rule-weilding God. And then goes on to propose that the projection of the divinity that we make (as reflected in art, prayer and theological themes) changes with society. Thus at different stages of history God the creator dominates moreso than God the judge etc. An example he gives is the Medieval triumphalism of God the King – an image that has less impact, significance and relevance to the modern mind.

This interesting chapter serves to illustrate that the conception of God is multifaceted as indeed is our experience of religion. And thus it is a reminder both to the individual believer, to the unbeliever who has left religion and to the religious institution itself that theistic-themes need to be constantly re-explored, re-invigorated and re-described.

Over a series of posts I will continue this review focusing on the various themes that Harries presents, and particularly at those themes that are of interest to this blog, and finish with some of my concluding thoughts.

Part 2 will deal with belief and disbelief, specifically with attempts to argue from design, and the psychology of belief and disbelief and its irrelevance to the notion of “proof”.

Part 3 will explore a postmodern analysis of faith.

Part 4 will deal with talking about that which we call “soul”, existential fulfilment of our lives here and now, and miracles and the laws of nature.

Part 5 will explore rationalism, the nature of scientific proof, relatvism, the eschatology of genuine “truth” with regards certain philosophical speculations and an apologetic for Christian Rationalism. Plus some concluding notes from me.