Friday, 28 December 2007

BB2: Look at the Pre-Enlightenment - Are we re-inventing the wheel? : Donald Rutherford

[This is talk 4, session 1 of 2, on the first day of The Science Network's Beyond Belief Enlightenment 2.0 conference. An introduction and list of all reviews can be found at BB2: Enlightenment 2.0 Introduction]

After a few questions, particularly on the last talk by Edward Slingerland, severely challenging - correctly in my opinion - his argument for the necessity of residual metaphysical assumptions in Enlightenment 2.0 (I will make a separate post on all of the questions that occurred between talks in session 1 after completing my reviews of these talks), we join, after a break, Don Rutherford, a member of the UCSD Philosophy Department and a specialist in the history of modern philosophy. His research has focused on the the philosophy of Leibniz and the role of eudaimonistic ethical theory in the seventeenth century. His theme nicely dovetails with the previous speaker's, by focusing specifically on morality and metaphysics and by looking prior to the Enlightenment 1.0 at the pursuit of happiness, and asking has anything really changed?

Rutherford starts by arguing that the ideas, values and principles of the Enlightenment existed for long time before the 17th century, for example, prior to this, Leibniz and Hobbes were inspired and broke with tradition. Where did their inspiration or liberation come from? The ancients, or more precisely, the ancient Greeks. Back then, they were asking the same questions that we still ask. Where does the value of my life come from? How does one achieve happiness? Rutherford posits that there are two basic broad classes of answers - "Other world" versus "This World" focused. For "This Worlders" the human life is pursued for its on sake, with opportunities to make it worth living and if it does not have these features then this is what we call tragedy. For "Other Worlders" they start by assuming that this world cannot fulfill their needs, so beyond this world there must be something else that can make us happy, now or in the future.

"Other worlders" have dominated Western culture and relied on the other world to seek solace and satisfaction, this being done whether one is an uneducated peasant or a sophisticated theologian. All presume that the ground for this life is in an Other World. Philosophers from Plato through Descartes to Kant are examples of this type of thinking. "This worlders" seek to ground this life in this world, Rutherford arguing the best early example of a "this worldly" philosophy being the Epicureans. The world consists of atoms moving in a void, everything arising through chance to produce, life, us, the world and everything else. No providential plan governs the passing into being of anything. If gods did exist - they would have nothing to do with us. What we do with our life is up to us. How we solve that problem is from the point of view of happiness. For Epicureans happiness is a life free of pain and mental disturbance. Note this does not mean a naive hedonism, as pursuit of immediate, sensual pleasure will lead to pain. One also needs to free oneself of anxiety over death and pleasing gods. Now their morality is one version of a "this worldly" ethic open to criticism, by Aristotle for example, with different versions, usually of happiness, but all debated within a "this worldly" approach. Finally the Epicureans believed that their approach might only ever have minority appeal, the majority clinging stubbornly to seeking solace in the gods.

Rutherford then brings his Pre-Enlightenment view up to date with three propositions (I must add, if I have not mis-understood him, that the first two seen very similar). The first, he notes , is supported by the recent article in Newsweek, showing that only 7% of Americans did not need some form of other worldly belief, as if to confirm the Epicureans view this approach, that still a post-Enlightenment 21st century or Enlightenment 2.0 worldview, would only ever be popular with an minority elite.

Secondly, the success of science and ideas since the 17th century has made no difference to a this worldly appeal, the continued demographic dominance of the two main monotheistic religions, he says, supporting this point and again confirms the expected minority position of the Epicureans - if one was going to be convinced by this recent science, one would also have been convinced in the time of ancient Greece by the Epicureans, nothing has changed. He observes that early attempts by Hobbes, Leibniz and others were attempting to reconcile Epicureanism's physics - atomism - and ethics - sophisticated hedonism with the church, rather than let the Epicurean questions be the main event. From the Enlightenment - as a period - to the present day, the question now is how one can reconcile the question of the meaning of one's life with however much one knows about this world. One can still be pulled, because of fear or dissatisfaction, to the other world, by how one reconciles oneself to that knowledge.

Finally, whilst we expect biology, cognitive neuroscience and other fields to add important facts about ourselves, they will still not contain first person conceptions of how to enrich of the human life. To answer he states that art, literature and philosophy has as much to offer as science can.

I have a few issues with his "Other world" and "This world" dichotomy. I don't accept that this is a good characterization of the divide between classical and enlightenment (of whatever era - Epicurean to the present day) thinking. Referring to Pascal Boyer's book "Religion Explained", he emphasizes that in most mono -worldview societies and cultures, the idea of a this-world versus other-world dichotomy does not exist, that is, to us, the strange beliefs in ghosts, ancient ancestors and spirits are just part of their fabric of reality. They consider it incoherent to ask such a question as "does a ghost exist?". Further, one forgets how tainted we are in our multi-worldview world which, whilst allowing such conceptions as Rutherford's dichotomy to even be meaningful, does not mean these are necessarily the only way to understand it.

The dominance of the two mono-theistic religions can be better explained not by a need for an other-worldly ground - although that is for sure what they do fulfill - and which is, arguably, quite radically different requirement to most mono-worldview cultures, but rather by their extreme manipulation tactics over the centuries. For example rules such as death to apostates; forced conversion,death or exile; apartheid, and worse, for contrary minority religions ; and, in Islam's case, the substitution of the conqueror's language -Arabic - for the conquered's native tongue (a project that Soviet Communism failed to achieve with Russian...) should suffice for starters. However debatable the Newsweek data is, there is considerable variation across the world, outside the USA, on the reliance on "other worldly" beliefs. This data is at best an indictment of the current state of the USA. At worst, it is dubiously biased, based on leading questions. Either way, we don't need really need to make pronouncement based on this data. The following point shows why.

This is the wrong issue or wrong dichotomy. Rutherford seems to hold a similar conception to Slingerland about the Enlightenment and one that is contrary one of the generally agreed central Enlightenment ideas - of a secular state - a public sphere where everyone is free to hold their own private beliefs and pursue their happiness in their own way with oneself as the best judge of this. Looked this way, the question is about false beliefs, whether of this world or any other. We need to manage the most harmful false beliefs of any ilk. Just because one holds a false belief based on an other world view does not make it "bad", since another could hold a this world false belief which is far more harmful. In such a society we need identify the most harmful false beliefs and educate and, if necessary prevent, anyone and everyone to not use these as a means to fulfill their own happiness. The real dichotomy to be explored is that over harmful versus harmless false beliefs.

Now can art, literature and philosophy reach the parts that science cannot reach - that first person need for satisfaction? Although he makes no argument for this, I would agree with him. I would also say that science, in the guise of the various domains he listed, will be able to show why and how, eventually, too. Even if they do not art, literature (whether popular or high brow) etc. still would fulfill first person needs, including fantasizing over other (non-existent) worlds and gaining valuable insight and inspiration for one's life, without needing to believe these worlds really exist. Anyway is not all fiction actually about such worlds?