In his latest book for the non-scientific layman, Leonard Mlodinow (See* below) recounts a joke in his discussion of the stereo-typing and categorization of people. As Mlodinow tells it, three gentlemen (a white Catholic, a white Jew, and a poor black man) die and head for the gate of heaven where the Lord will question them to determine their qualifications for entry.
The teachings of a Jewish sage are transformed into a Hellenized, somewhat mystical philosophy and eventually Christian doctrine over the course of a few decades. After a few centuries, the Christian doctrine becomes a Roman institution.
Human beings, like all entities existing in a natural and social environment, have a variety of causal conditions that limit what they can and cannot do. Much of what we are and do is causally conditioned. But this fact does not imply that we have no control over what we can do. We most often do control a good part of what we do, within the context of many conditions that we don’t control. It was only a remnant of the old doctrine of a soul not affected by material causation that led some people to the false conclusion that lack of control results from being subjected to a variety of causal conditions.
When we try to apply such concepts as ‘perfection’ and “highest good’ to the human world, we find reason for concluding that they really do not apply.
There is an interesting analogy between the illusions of Don Quijote and the Socratic vision of philosophy. Both envision a divine-like object to which they are completely devoted. Socrates saw philosophy (as he practiced it) as being a divine mission and the greatest good available to humanity. Quijote saw his lady as nearly divine in virtue and beauty.
I was struck by the similarity between such Dualist campaign to downgrade physical views of human beings and the story of aliens who snatched the bodies of human victims and replaced them with strange facsimiles. Of course, it may not appear that dualists and spiritualists are out to snatch away one’s body and replace it with an alien likeness….But they do seem intent on reducing the human body-brain to mere matter-in-motion, a primitive form of material existence that cannot support the complex and high level of activity that we justifiably credit to our corporeal nature.
I read a statement (“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”) like this one and I ask: who has gone insane, the great physicists or me? But it is not just the theoretical physicists and cosmologists who try my sanity of late. The philosophers also have their role in this mad comedy.
Whenever I hear this point raised by some theologian, or a theistic philosopher, or any apologist for the theistic line I’m reminded of an episode from “The Simpsons” in which young Bart is confronted with some mischief that points to him as the perpetrator. He makes a series of exclamations of diminishing innocence.
Trying to specify “the biggest problem in philosophy” can be an interesting exercise for undergraduate students of philosophy; but I’m inclined to classify it with such questionable, idle exercises as trying to say who the greatest philosopher is; or whether Shakespeare or Cervantes was the greater writer.
Yes, the Prayer Caucus’ letter — demanding “In God We Trust” as our national motto — is a waste of time and should be thrown in the trash bin. But we can imagine some other interesting responses that we might make to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes and his Prayer Caucus. We could ask exactly what do they understand by their motto “In God We Trust.”