May 17

San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 2

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![

`Abdu’l-Bahá

1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoMay 10, 2015

Socorro, New Mexico – my hometown – is at the northern end of the great Chihuahuan desert. My daughter and I just spent two weeks there, visiting friends and family, hiking on high mountain peaks and at White Sand, feasting on New Mexican chile enchiladas and sopapillas, doing research at the New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology Library and the Socorro Public Library, and generally soaking up the land, people, climate, and the multitude of cultures. We even enjoyed a warming hot spring along side of the Rio Grande in Truth or Consequences.

ZuniDance1897New Mexico, ancient home of the Mogollon, Ancestral Puebloan (sometimes called Anasazi), and Apachean (modern Navajo and Apache) peoples, has a long and continuing history of sophisticated and artistically advanced native American (or indigenous) civilization.

New Mexico was the first portion of the continental United States to be colonized by Europeans (St. Augustine was established by the Spanish in 1565 was an isolated fort city). In 1598, more than 600 colonists and their extensive flocks marched 1200 miles north from the rich Mexican silver mining town of Zacatecas along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to the Santa Fe area. Led by a wealthy silver baron – Don Juan de Onate – the settlers fanned out over northern New Mexico. Their descendants form a network of interrelated families with a rich and unique Hispanic Catholic New Mexican heritage that still play a dominant role in New Mexico.

Billings SmelterIn 1821, New Mexico became part of an independent Mexico with commercial links to an expanding United States. In 1846, conquering United States expeditionary forces occupied New Mexico preceding its annexation by the United State soon after the United States invasion of Mexico. Important Civil War battles (Val Verde, Glorieta Pass) occurred in 1862, resulting in the defeat of confederate forces in the Southwest. With the advent of the railroads in 1880 – most notably the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe – and mining booms in the same time period, New Mexico began the slow process of integrating with the rest of the United States. It became a state in 1912. American and European artists discovered the unique mix of New Mexico’s cultures at the beginning of the 20th century, leading to long-lived art-colonies in Santa Fe and Taos. During World War II, reservation and ranch land was appropriated near Santa Fe, near Albuquerque, and in south central New Mexico to form Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories, and the huge White Sands Missile Range, still dominant factors in the modern New Mexico economy.

1947-Santa-Fe-Land-of-PueblosScience, Religion, and Social and Economic Development

In these blogs, we are exploring science and religion from the standpoint of the Baha’i teachings. My daughter offers a good summary of those teachings: “science and religion should be on the same table.”

Our last blog gave an overview of those teachings. Addressing the need to take advantage of the positive aspects of both science and religion, the Baha’i Writings urge us to “weigh all things in the balance” of science and religion:

God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance. … Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one.

If we do this – and we currently don’t – a brilliant future beckons:

When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

Of course, it is more involved than this. The transformation of society and the extensive effort and engagement that will be required is likely to be equivalent of something like the European Enlightenment in scope. A glimpse of how the process can work can be seen by looking at what the Baha’is have learned about the process of social and economic development.

JulianAndMariaMartinezBaha’i social and economic development provides a framework for how science and religion can work together. Central to this framework are (a) capacity building, (b) learning in action, and (c) a recognition that progress necessarily has both spiritual and material dimensions. Civilization, according to the Baha’i Teachings, has “both a material and a spiritual dimension” and that we have to learn to distinguish between destructive and constructive forces at work in the world. Capacity building means that “activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources”. Learning in action requires adapting a learning mode, one “characterized by constant action, reflection, consultation, and study.” It requires that “visions and strategies are re-examined time and again” and readjustment and changes are made:

As tasks are accomplished, obstacles removed, resources multiplied, and lessons learned, modifications are made in goals and methods. The learning process, which is given direction through appropriate institutional arrangements, unfolds in a way that resembles the growth and differentiation of a living organism. Haphazard change is avoided, and continuity of action maintained.

Another essential aspect of the Baha’i teachings is that development is for everybody – for everybody from every religion, economic level, and economics background:

DSC04040Bahá´í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background.

A civilization befitting a humanity which, having passed through earlier stages of social evolution, is coming of age will not emerge through the efforts exerted by a select group of nations or even a network of national and international agencies. Rather, the challenge must be faced by all of humanity.

Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

One of the things this means is that social change is not something done for one group of people by another group of people:

“Social change”, the Universal House of Justice made clear in its Ridván 2010 message, “is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another”, and in general Bahá´ís from one area do not establish development projects for others.  … the idea of an expert from outside being allowed to impose his or her professional aspirations on the local population is thus avoided.

Application to New Mexico

In the next blog, we apply the discussion of the Baha’i principles of science and religion combined with Baha’i experience in social and economic development to an evaluation of the historical process of development in New Mexico.

………………………

The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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May 15

Invisible Heroes: Seven Imprisoned Bahá’is

Bahram Nadimi

Bahram Nadimi

Note from the editor: This is a repost of an article contributor Bahram Nadimi wrote on the five year anniversary of the arrest of the Yaran—the seven person guiding council of the Bahá’ís of Iran. This is now the seventh anniversary of their arrest.  They are still imprisoned with no expectation of release. 

oOo

I love science fiction. A few friends and I recently finished watching the highly acclaimed Babylon 5 science fiction TV series. I have been thinking about one of my favorite episodes called: “Here comes the Inquisitor”, in which an inquisitor called Sebastian is summoned to determine if two of the main characters, Delenn and Sheridan, are ready for the challenges ahead. In a cold and dark dungeon, Sebastian interrogates the beaten and chained Delenn and Sheridan, trying to get to the heart of their motives by asking the same question over and over again “Who are you?

During Sheridan’s violent interrogation, Delenn comes to the his defense and says “Your quarrel is with me…if you want to take someone, then take me.”

Sebastian replies: “You would trade your life for his?  I thought you had a destiny!  Is that destiny not worth one life?…No Glory.  No fame. No armies or cities to celebrate your name. You will die alone unremarked and forgotten…”  

Delenn then says: “If I fall, another will take my place, and another, and another….Life is my cause. One life or a billion, they are all the same … this body is a shell, you cannot harm me. I am not afraid.”  

Stunned and surprised Sebastian says: “How do you tell the chosen ones? ‘No greater love hath a man than he lay his life for his brother’ for one person in the dark, where no one will ever know, or see…I have for centuries been looking for you:  Diogenes and his lamp looking for an honest man willing to die for all the wrong reasonsWhen the darkness comes, know this: You are the right people, in the right place at the right time.”

This brings me to the subject of this blog: Do we have invisible heroes now in real life, or is it just reserved for fiction fantasy?

If we look hard enough we will find countless souls who have quietly sacrificed their lives for and out of Love.  Here is a story of seven of these invisible heroes. Read the rest of this entry »

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May 11

San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 2

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![

`Abdu’l-Bahá

May 10, 2015

My daughter and I drove 800 miles Sunday!  I’m too exhausted to complete the planned 2nd blog on New Mexico today – will post it May 17th.

Meanwhile, some pictures.

Here is the iconic Socorro Catholic Church.  Its foundations date from the 1630s.

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Here’s a picture we took not too long after sunrise at White Sands —

white sands

Local floral and fauna (pronghorn antelope)

DSC03871

Navajo Country (Shiprock)

DSC04152

 

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The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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May 04

San Felipe Corn Dance vs. the Atom Bomb – Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 1

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![

`Abdu’l-Bahá

1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoMay 3, 2015

My daughter and I are traveling in New Mexico, visiting Socorro where I grew up on campus at the New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology (New Mexico Tech). We will be visiting the Jornada del Muerto (the desert plateau where the first atom bomb was detonated), White Sands National Monument, and other places throughout the state. I am doing background research on my family’s genealogy and looking around to try to understand better where my viewpoints come from and what has shaped my worldview – one I share with modern “anglo” culture (which, in New Mexico, means English-speaking American culture and modern northern European culture and its scientific mindset).

On May 1st, we made a pilgrimage to San Felipe Pueblo just north of Albuquerque and attended the corn dance –  a tradition there since its founding, probably 600 or 700 years ago. It was a powerful and unifying experience.  One could feel the strength of a community that was maintaining its cohesive and identity through dance and singing and a recapitulation of sacred stories.

First Atomic Bomb

New Mexico is a unique mix of three cultures (four, if you include the modern Los Alamos scientific culture) living side by side in sometimes fascinating and thought provoking juxtaposition. In this blog I explore some Baha’i themes about science and religion in the context of this juxtaposition.

There are some basic – and difficult – questions to be asked:

  1. Are the Corn Dance ceremonies and other ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico – sacred rites of ancient heritage – an aspect of true religion as described by the Baha’i Faith or not?
  2. Is Los Alamos Weapons Laboratory – creator of the atomic bomb and directly responsible for the death of several hundred thousands of Japanese non-combatant civilians. – an example of true science?

And, what are the lessons are to be drawn from their geographical juxtaposition?

There is No Contradiction between True Religion and Science

corndance

A fundamental teaching of the Baha’i Faith is that there is no contradiction between true religion and science. A full explanation of this principle is given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks. He says:

There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance.

How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science. … All religions teach that we must do good, that we must be generous, sincere, truthful, law-abiding, and faithful; all this is reasonable, and logically the only way in which humanity can progress.

santo-domingo-corn-dancer-210x410Religion, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá, has a spiritual part which never changes and a practical part, which among other things, deals with ceremonies like the corn dance:

The practical part of religion deals with exterior forms and ceremonies, and with modes of punishment for certain offences. This is the material side of the law, and guides the customs and manners of the people. … [T]he practical rules must change their application with the necessities of the time.

The spiritual aspect of religion are, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá, is “the greater, the more important of the two.” And when these are lost – when religion becomes contrary to logic and reason – it ceases to be a religion and becomes a mere tradition. That is what religion often is today, in such a contrast to the warmth and unifying feeling I felt at the San Felipe corn dance.

Further:

All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time.

Many religious leaders have grown to think that the importance of religion lies mainly in the adherence to a collection of certain dogmas and the practice of rites and ceremonies! Those whose souls they profess to cure are taught to believe likewise, and these cling tenaciously to the outward forms, confusing them with the inward truth. Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion.

abdul-baha-paris `Abdu’l-Bahá is very clear as to the effects of “religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance.” The consequences can be dire indeed:

Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions. If religion were in harmony with science and they walked together, much of the hatred and bitterness now bringing misery to the human race would be at an end.

The practical implications are laid out clearly. Use reasoning and intelligence to “weigh carefully:”

Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion?

balanceI say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!

But don’t forget that both science and religion are part of that weighing process:

God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance. … Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one.

He concludes with an extraordinary promise.  If we carry out – if we implement – what His father urges, the results will be astonishing:

When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.

GreenCornDance_72_3x10

Corn Dance at San Felipe Pueblo

Our experience at the San Felipe Pueblo at its corn dance was life-affirming and extraordinarily warm. Here is how Betty Fussell, writing in the New York Times, describes a similar corn dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo:

From the kiva in the distance, you hear first a drumbeat and then a chant of 50 men, halfway between wail and moan. The clowns, or koshari, appear. Some are smeared from head to toe in blue and ocher clay, some in black and white, painted in stripes and circles. … They are licensed jesters who marshal the dancers, joke with the spectators, mediate like harlequins between carnival and shrine. 

Corn Dance at San Felipe Pueblo in New Mexico Corn-Dance-at-San-Felipe-Pueblo-New-Mexico-1915-courtesy-Libary-of-CongressThe men and boys then enter:

The men dance together in double file, big-bellied men and skinny boys, toddlers and elders with gray hair flowing to the waist. Their naked torsos are painted with ocher clay, for these are the Squash People, who lead the dance. The Turquoise People, who follow, will be painted blue gray. On their breasts are bandoleers of seashells and loops of turquoise and silver. High moccasins are on their feet, parrot feathers in their hair. Pine branches are tied to their upper arms. …

The women and girls follow:

A group of women follow, girls to grandmothers. All wear the three-pointed wooden headpieces called tablitas, which look like Spanish church fronts. They have one shoulder bared to display masses of turquoise and coral around their necks. Their dresses are black, with red and green embroidery to symbolize rain. They hold a pine branch in either hand. Their feet are bare.

And they danced the whole day:

For the next seven hours some 500 dancers will lift their feet silently, regrouping in circles and lines, while the singers chant variations of eight basic songs. The dancers will change pattern as the songs direct, now shuffling in double file, a man in front, a woman behind, now facing obliquely to the right, now to the left, now linked together with the women’s hands on the men’s shoulders. They will dance in the central plaza before the arbor of cornstalks and cottonwoods, which houses both an image of the saint and the living elders who sit in its shade.

iatomic001p1

Trinity Site Explosion

And now the question ….

Are the Corn Dance ceremonies and other ceremonies of the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico – sacred rites of ancient heritage – an aspect of true religion as described by the Baha’i Faith or not?

Here is my analysis according to `Abdu’l-Baha’i guidelines. He says:

I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!

When I look at the corn dances, I see a unifying, community-strengthening event that looks to be a strong contributing factor to the continuing existence of Native American community that has been able to maintain its integrity for more than 500 years in face of tremendous challenges: attacks from native marauders, exploitation, slavery, and attacks on their religion and their land by Spanish, Mexican, and then American colonizers, and the pervasive materialism of modern culture,

From this weighing in the balance of reason and science, it passes the test!

`Abdu’l-Baha also says:

God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance.

My reading is that if I look at the religious aspects of what the Pueblos are doing with the corn dances – the honor paid to the rains, to the clouds, to the growth of the corn, to the strength of the community, and the offering of prayers and praise, I see religious truths permeating the ceremony.  And the honor paid to nature is an extraordinarily positive and powerful example to the people who have moved to this continent.

Is it a divisive ceremony? Apparently not, it currently brings everybody together. And it is a ceremony that has widespread currency around the whole of the native peoples of North America.

Next Blog

Next time to explore other things, including the Baha’i teachings about cosmology, the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley, and other fascinating topics in the Baha’i Faith and the topic of science and religion.

………………………

The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Apr 26

Books on Science and Religion #44: New Atheism and its Demise

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 26, 2015

“Atheism is here to stay,” writes Nick Spencer in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, “because God is back:”

After a troubled century in which its former promises not only failed to materialize but mutated into regimes of oppression that not even the religious had managed to achieve, atheism appears to have a renewed future in the twenty-first century. But it does so largely because religion, in its various guises, is once again a dominant feature on our social, political and intellectual landscapes. It is a pleasing irony with which to end.

Sam_Harris_The_End_Of_Faith_sm

Lets look at modern atheism – and the New Atheists – through Nick Spencer’s eyes. In doing so, we skip some important aspects of atheism in the 20th century that Atheists: The Origin of the Species, reviews, most notably the extraordinarily extensive and violent suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, in mainland China, and in Albania under the oppressive thumb of Marxist “Scientific” materialistic political ideologies, followed by the subsequent revival of religion. We also, skip important developments in France and in the United States, including the tragic story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

New Atheism

New Atheism, by most people’s reckoning, was born in 2004 with publication of the Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. But many of the basic claims were already in wide circulation, waiting for the trigger of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City to push them into print. Spencer cites a talk by the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at a Amnesty Oxford event:

250px-Nick_HumphreyChildren, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to … insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. …

So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

To Spencer, this captures much of what New Atheism will do and say:

[This captures] the tone – and content – for much subsequent New Atheist polemic: extreme hyperbole, absurd comparisons, lazy use of rights language, uncritical self-righteousness and an obsessive interest in how other people – other religious people to be precise – brought up their children.

Sam HarrisSam Harris – in The End of Faith – fits the mold. He says “We are at war with Islam … [not] with an otherwise peaceful religion that had been “hijacked” by extremists … [but] with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran.” Its hard to read this any other way but as Harris claiming all sincere Muslims are extremists and terrorists.

Harris escalates. He then claims that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may be ethical to kill people for believing them” and “if there is even one chance in a million that he [the terrorist] will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking”.  Harris is arguing that killing people for their beliefs – or torturing them – is just fine. Unfortunately, this is just Harris warming up. He next he argues that a pre-emptive nuclear strike on an Islamic state “may be the only course of action available to us.”

Spencer’s comment is appropriate:

Execution for one’s beliefs, the judicial use of torture, pre-emptive nuclear strikes: Harris achieved the remarkable feat of making an Islamic theocracy look comparatively humane.

Christopher_Hitchens_crop_2Christopher Hitchens is dismissed abruptly:

The respected journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote … [a book that]  swarmed with sweeping statements, sophistry, non-sequiturs, hyperbole and windmill-tilting, the literary equivalent of being pinned in the corner by a pub bore near closing time.

‘Religion is not unlike racism,’ Hitchens explained. Those who thought Saddam Hussein´s regime was secular ‘were deluding themselves’. The German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was motivated by an ‘admirable but nebulous humanism’. ‘In no real as opposed to nominal sense … was [Reverend Martin Luther King] a Christian’.

Richard Dawkins, Spencer writes, “had earned himself a large, devoted and well-deserved following long before his atheist magnum opus through a series of matchless books explaining and defending evolution.” But when it comes to religion, Dawkins subscribes to a simplistic black or white perspective:

In spite of Darwin’s own opinions on the matter, Dawkins was convinced that evolution was in direct competition with God. Religion, he thought, ‘is a scientific theory’, ‘a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life’. More specifically, it is an alternative to natural selection. ‘God and natural selection are … the only two workable theories we have of why we exist.’

Dawkins_at_UT_Austin_croppedAmerican fundamentalists, following the writings of modern creationist thinkers, often see God and evolution as opposed to each other. Dawkins “entirely agreed with them”: 

The result was a painful standoff in which one unshakeable set of convictions squared up against the other. As far as the fundamentalists, of both persuasions, were concerned, subtle or sophisticated religious commitments, especially those that understood religiosity as a pattern of life rather than a set of verifiable propositions, were little more than sophistry.

The New Atheists, like their opponents, liked their religion undiluted and uncomplicated, and were unwilling to grant to theological (and often philosophical) reasoning the same charity or presumption of intelligence they naturally granted other disciplines.

The problem has been repeatedly pointed out by Dawkins’s critics (to no avail):

theresprobablyNOGOD

‘What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists,’ remarked the Nobel prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs. Dawkins’s fault, wrote Antony Flew, himself one of the world’s most prominent atheists … [is] ‘his scandalous and apparently deliberate refusal to present the doctrine that he appears to think he has refuted in its strongest form’ ….

Even worse, according to Spencer, was Dawkins’s contempt toward others, his wanting to humiliate people:

This ran all the way from contemptuous to gratuitously unpleasant. Some targets were predictable. Pope Benedict was a ‘leering old fixer’ The Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart was a ‘yammering fumblewit’. Others were less so. The eminent philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny was dubbed ‘[a] “philosopher” with special training in obscurantism’, while then Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees was called ‘a compliant Quisling’.

320px-Daniel_DennettOnly Daniel Dennett, “a philosopher of considerable repute,” seems to have survived with his reputation intact. His Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon urges understanding and scientific investigation even though Dennett’s support for the cringe-inducing “brights” movement has won him detractors.

The End of New Atheism?

New Atheism is dead, Spencer argues. Hitchens died tragically. Harris has transformed himself into a new age guru (in books such as The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion). Dawkins is increasingly being seen as “a joke figure, shaking his fist as sky fairies”, as The Spectator puts it, in no small part because of his many stumbles in using Twitter (see here and here).

Increasingly, the militancy deployed by new atheism is seen as misguided, even by other atheists. Spencer cites the New Humanist, the magazine of the Rationalist Association in Britain:

In August 2013, the editor of New Humanist, the magazine of the Rationalist Association in Britain, wrote a piece claiming that Dawkins ‘provided a case study in how not to do it’. He went on to point out that blanket condemnations of religious groups were morally dubious (as well as counterproductive); that religious believers were in fact no less intelligent than non-believers; and that secularism did not mean excluding religious believers from public life. The tone and arguments could hardly have been more different from those of the New Atheists.

One of the more fascinating current developments in atheism is that it is learning from religion, a development sometimes called the New New Atheism. Alain de Botton, for example, in Religion for Atheists writes that “religion, shorn of its doctrine, claims to truth and all traces of the supernatural, might equip non-believers to live well and wisely, by means of patterns of thought, discipline, community and aesthetic sense honed over centuries.” The distinguished legal scholar Ronald Dworkin has pointed out that atheists can be profoundly religious. And atheist churches, often for those on the run from fundamentalist families, provide song, community and good works engagement.

But new atheism sold an incredible number of books, and it is may have even been successful in achieving some of its aims:

It is hard to tell whether the movement had been successful. Certainly, the number of people calling themselves atheist increased in the first decade of the century. In many Western nations the proportion of atheists had never been higher, and although they were still a minority, particularly in the US, atheism appeared to have the momentum.

That recognized, the trend had been identified many years before the millennium. The number of Western atheists had been growing throughout the twentieth century, although not as fast as the number of people who had relinquished religious affiliation – a category with which atheism was often erroneously confused.

Does atheism have a future.? Trends suggest that it does. The driving factor behind those trends is reasonably clear, if Wittgenstein’s claim that doubt is parasitic on faith is correct. The growth of religion – especially fundamentalist religion – will lead to further growth of atheism. Spencer concludes:

After a troubled century in which its former promises not only failed to materialize but mutated into regimes of oppression that not even the religious had managed to achieve, atheism appears to have a renewed future in the twenty-first century. But it does so largely because religion, in its various guises, is once again a dominant feature on our social, political and intellectual landscapes. It is a pleasing irony with which to end. Atheism is here to stay because God is back.

Next Blog

This is the end of this series of blogs, not because I’ve run out of things to explore, but because its time to explore other things, including the Baha’i teachings about cosmology, the Center for Theology and Natural Science in Berkeley, and other fascinating topics in the Baha’i Faith and the topic of science and religion.

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This is the 44th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Apr 19

Books on Science and Religion #43: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part Two

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 19, 2015

From my perspective, this is one of the most important blogs I’ve written (I’ve written nearly 180 of them here on Common Ground – a large number!). It’s not necessarily because of what it says, although there is some importance to the topic, but because of its personal significance.

This blog is important to me because it marks the end of a long journey started more than forty years when I became a Baha’i and needed to understand the relationship between science and religion. Was it acceptable to be religious in an age of science? Did God exist? What was the scientific authority of academics and leaders of thought who claimed that science showed religion to be meaningless? What was their reasoning? Was it true that science and religion were for the ignorant and untutored? Was religion a major contributor to the problems of the world?

My father was a college professor – and my mother a mathematics teacher – and I grew up on the college campus of a small, top-rated, science and engineering university – New Mexico Institute of Science and Technology – on the Rio Grande river in Socorro, New Mexico. Our neighbors were also families of professors – mainly from top universities around the world and often, as then was the case, from the left. It was almost apostasy to believe in religion.That was for the simple uneducated people in the valley below, a crutch. Yes, people went to church, but for social reasons, not because of belief.

Socorro Mountain

Socorro Mountain. Socorro is in the Rio Grande valley – to the left of the base of Socorro Mountain.

This blog, symbolically of course, is a return to the starting point of that personal journey, but now armed with knowledge and an understanding of why people believed as they did, and of why they embraced the tenets of logical positivism – which is what best represents collectively the predominant views of the professors that were my neighbors on the campus where I grew up, and also in academia around the world.

Equally importantly, I now know why the Europeans, and then the Russians, and then the Japanese, and then many other peoples around the world rejected religion and embraced the idea of scientific progress and scientism as its replacement, unaware of the dangers of materialism presented by an uncritical embrace of everything that represented itself as science.

Those dangers – encapsulated in the extraordinary terrors of social Darwinism, in the mass starvations and pogroms against its own peoples in the “scientific” materialisms of communist dictatorships, of colonialism and other aspects of materialistic empire building, in the production of weaponry of incredible destructive power and its deployment worldwide, and most of all as the failure to balance progress in the economic aspects of life with progress in the spiritual and ethical aspects of life – are both the record of the 20th century and the challenges of the 21st.

logical positivism 2Yes, the science and its methods that my family and my neighbors embraced is an essential part of the future. But, we need to add sound principles of spiritual development and ethical and moral advancement if that future is not to be bleak and dark.

But lets talk about the logical positivism that was the faith of my fathers.

Logical Positivism

Despite its failures – logical positivism – also known as logical empiricismis one of the most important and interesting philosophical movements of the 20th century, in part because of its importance to the modern American philosophical tradition and to current philosophy of science. It had its beginnings in Vienna in World War I when various mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers formed a discussion group that later came be known as the Vienna Circle. The Viennese origins of logical positivism are important, according to the Stanford article on logical empiricism because

World War I was an unmitigated disaster for central Europe that was followed by the economic turmoil of the 20s and the political upheavals of the 30s. It is hard to exaggerate these changes. Monarchies that had stood for centuries disappeared overnight and their empires disintegrated. This level of political convulsion had not been seen since the French Revolution, and that earlier upheaval was comparatively confined.

One result of these convulsions was the widespread conviction, shared by the Vienna circle, that old ways of thinking were inadequate and that reform was sorely needed:

The logical empiricists were [convinced] that their cultures were incapable of the necessary reform and renewal because people were in effect enslaved by unscientific, metaphysical ways of thinking. Such ways of thinking might be exemplified in theology, in the racial hatreds of the day, in conceptions of property, and in traditional ideas about the “proper” roles of men and women in society. So to articulate a “scientific world conception” and to defend it against metaphysics was not just to express an academic position in the narrow sense. It was a political act as well; it was to strike a blow for the liberation of the mind.

logical positivismIt wasn’t the first time that reform was expected to come from the artillery of science. Those in the Vienna circle believed that

to articulate scientific methods and a scientific conception of philosophy was the essential first step in the reform of society and in the emancipation of humankind. If all of this sounds like something out of the 18th century Enlightenment, the analogy was not lost on the logical empiricists themselves.

Stuart Greenstreet, writing in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, summarizes some of the logical positivist’s technical perspective. Central to logical positivist thinking was the principle of verification, acquired from Wittgenstein. Here is how Friedrich Waismann, one of the leading members of the Vienna Circle, saw it:

If there is no way of telling when a proposition is true, then the proposition has no sense whatever; for the sense of a proposition is its method of verification. In fact whoever utters a proposition must know under what conditions he will call the proposition true or false; if he cannot tell this, then he does not know what he has said.

What this means is that if we don’t have a way to verify a statement, this raises questions about its meaningfulness.

So the principle of verification was supposed to be a criterion to determine whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful: and the criterion was that the user must know the conditions under which the sentence´s assertions are verifiable.

To illustrate, suppose I say that God exists. Then the question is whether or not I have good reasons to believe in the existence of God. This, of course, is reasonable provided that we don’t forcefully add additional unreasonable requirements. But if we go a step further and say that the proof has to be strictly empirical, then we are doing logical positivism. Or as Greenstreet puts it, the doctrine:

… drew a line of demarcation between science and what the Circle´s members pejoratively called `metaphysics´ – a word they used as a synonym for `nonsense´. Their principle of verification meant that only propositions concerned with matters of empirically-verifiable fact (`It is still raining´), or the logical relationship between concepts (`A downpour is heavier than a shower´) are meaningful. Propositions that fall into neither of these camps fail to satisfy the principle, they argued, and consequently lack sense.

It follows, therefore, that the propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and religion, are meaningless nonsense. The same would be said for any proposition that expressed a judgement of value as distinct from propositions solely concerned with facts.

NPG x163793; Sir Alfred Jules Ayer by Walter BirdIn other words, the logical positivist ruled out the idea that metaphysical ideas – or religious belief – involved factual propositions, invoking Wittgenstein’s arguments about what was philosophical or not.

A.J. Ayer

One of the strongest proponents of logical positivism – and the man responsible for its initial popularity in Britain and the United State – was A.J. Ayer (1910 – 1989). From a wealthy half-Jewish continental family living in England, he arrived at Oxford at the age of 18 and soon devoured Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Shortly thereafter he was off to Vienna where he managed to join the Vienna Circle and the watch the unfolding development of logical positivism. Returning to England, he wrote Language, Truth and Logic, an extraordinarily influential book and a classic of modern analytic philosophy:

Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). The principle was at the time at the heart of the debates of the so-called Vienna Circle which Ayer visited as a young guest. Others, including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick, were already offering their own papers on the issue. Ayer’s own formulation was that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical import, otherwise it is either “analytical” if tautologous, or “metaphysical” (i.e. meaningless, or “literally senseless”). He started to work on the book at the age of 23 and it was published when he was 26.

Nick Spencer in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, summarizes Ayer’s stance on religion and atheism as follows:

In it he argued (or, perhaps, asserted) that, as all religious language was unverifiable, it was all basically nonsense. Because it couldn’t be verified one way or the other, the statement ‘there is a God’ was literally meaningless. In the fashion of Moore’s sophisticated self-definition, Ayer rejects the label atheist just as he did theist, as to do otherwise would, in his mind, have been to grant God-talk a legitimacy it didn’t have.

AJAYERbLanguage, Truth, and Logic brought Ayer enormous success and galvanized a whole generation of philosophers. Hilary Spurling, writing in the New York Time, summarizes Ayer’s style as follows:

Ayer belonged to an empirical, anti-authoritarian generation in vehement revolt against an enfeebled, overblown and contaminated metaphysical tradition. Far from laying down the law, he sought to streamline, modernize and cut back the role of philosophy. He insisted it had no business offering guidance on moral or ethical choices.

Logical positivism was to be the scientific and functional equivalent of Bauhaus design in engineering and architecture. It responded to the brutal political realities of the 1930’s in ways more conventional thinking could not manage. Wittgenstein, spoken of in some quarters as a second Christ or Pythagoras, was its secular high priest.

God, it seems, was dead again. (The death of God seems to be a oft-repeated theme in the Christian world.  Apparently, it started with the crucifixion.)  And atheism was in the ascendant:

This was arguably the apex of British philosophical atheism, the logical (as it were) conclusion of atheist ideas critiquing all forms of God-talk that went back to the seventeenth century. It wasn’t so much the final nail in God’s coffin as the denial there had been body to bury in the first place. It was not, however, to last.

implosionThe Collapse of Logical Positivism – and the Collapse of an Atheist Philosophic Tradition

The story of the collapse of the logical positivism has been told many times and in many ways. Nick Spencer brings a succinct and interesting spin to the tale, describing it not only as the collapse of logical positivism, but as the collapse of a major European atheistic philosophic tradition as well.

As in so much of 20th century philosophy, the story starts with Wittgenstein. Returning to philosophy – and Cambridge – in 1929, he decided that the problems of philosophy needed some more work:

Wittgenstein … turned sharply against his former self and made it quite clear the ideas on which the Vienna Circle, Ayer and logical positivism were built were simply wrong.

But more than that:

Independent of Wittgenstein’s change of direction, logical positivism, triumphant for a while, died a sudden death. Post-war philosophers attacked its basic tenets and although these attacks did nothing to rehabilitate God, they did cut the ground from beneath his over-confident detractors.

Even A.J. Ayer admitted the failure of logical positivism, albeit belatedly:

Ayer himself was naturally reluctant to recognize the demise but even he finally acknowledged what was, by the end of his philosophical career, obvious. When asked by philosopher Bryan Magee, mid-1970s, what he now thought were the defects of logical positivism, he admitted, ‘Well, I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.’

beyond positivismSpencer draws an interesting conclusion from this. Logical positivism, he argues, was the “conclusion of atheist ideas critiquing all forms of God-talk that went back to the seventeenth century.” Effectively, logical positivism put atheistic arguments into a sound, logical, and a modern philosophical format using Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophical logic and newly developed analytical techniques. The demise of logical positivism – something that was widely clear in the 1950s – meant therefore the end of an era for an important atheistic tradition:

The abrupt death of logical positivism marked the end of one of the most significant atheist philosophical traditions, one that was as old as modern European atheism itself. Hobbes, Spinoza D’Holbach, Naigeon, Bentham and many others not so philosophically inclined had all, in their own way, argued that theology was nonsense, treating the mystical as if it were real, the mythical as if it were material.

The decline and fall of this philosophical argument was a blow for atheism. Indeed, given the way the argument had long provided the basis for the more substantive attack on spiritual power – religion was wicked because corrupt priests based their power on mythical claims about God and the soul – it was a deeper wound than the merely philosophical.

Summary and Conclusions

The failure of logical positivism – and the fact that logical positivists themselves in the main came to reject it – suggests strongly, as Nick Spencer implies – that there are no sound philosophical grounds and no sound scientific grounds for rejecting religion.  So, when a modern outspoken atheist says that science proves religion to be wrong and that God does not exist, he or she is not speaking accurately about the matter. There are no scientific proofs that God does not exist. There are only opinions.

Now, we could go further than this, and maybe we should. If a scientist – or anybody else for that matter – tells us that science proves that God doesn’t exist or that religion is without a basis, we should ask her or him to give us their evidence. If they can’t provide believable evidence – and I know of none today who can – we must accept that with respect to the issue of religion they are being unscientific. They are substituting belief – their own or their imitation of the belief of others – for science.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we start on the final leg of our journey though atheism – the new or militant atheism.

………………………

This is the 43rd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Apr 12

Books on Science and Religion #42: Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists – Part One.

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 12, 2015

640px-StatueOfIsaacNewton

Newton’s statue in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, home of Russell, Mc Taggart, and Moore.

It is tempting to say that Bertrand Russell represented the apex of British atheism. But two more thinkers – Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.J. Ayer – and a whole new philosophical movement – logical positivism – were waiting in the wings to take the stage. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, sets the scene:

1927 was probably the high water mark of British atheism, or at least academic atheism, with [the atheists] [Bertrand] Russell, [John McTaggart Ellis] McTaggart and [George E.] Moore among the most respected philosophers in Britain. [But this ignores] the still more defiantly atheistic tone that academic philosophy took the following decade.

This defiantly atheistic tone – which also was mirrored in the United States – held that only science provided valid knowledge. All else – philosophy, ethics, morals, religion – had to bow down before science and acknowledge its authority.

This cultural atmosphere was that of my youth growing up on a college campus, even though it had long been acknowledged – even by logical positivists themselves – that logical positivism had failed to meet its own criteria. Much of what modern atheists say or think is a legacy of this refuted tradition, directly as is the case for A.C. Grayling, or indirectly as is the case for many others still under its sway.

logical positivismLogical positivism promoted the idea that much of philosophy – and perhaps all of theology and religious belief – was not verifiable. If something was not verifiable – if there were no ways to test ideas, propositions, statements, or hypotheses – then there was no way to make sense of them. If they were not sensible, that meant they were nonsense. Whether or not this nonsense had meaning varied from thinker to thinker – and the decade when you talked to them.

ayerajWittgenstein thought that there could be substantial and significant meaning to these non-sensible realities. A. J. Ayer, very young and very sure of himself in the 1930s, felt not. Metaphysics, religion – and even atheism – was meaningless, according to Ayer (see logical positivism):

Traditional metaphysics, with its abstract speculation about the supposed nature of reality, cannot be grounded on scientific observation, and is therefore devoid of significance. For the same reason, traditional religious claims are meaningless since it is impossible to state any observable circumstances under which we could be sure – one way or the other – about their truth.

The logical positivists themselves – much as Baha’is wanted to purge religion of superstition – wanted to purge philosophy of “metaphysics.” But, they felt that their ideas had broader applicability as well. Famously, the logical positivist philosopher of science Karl Popper described both Freudianism and Marxism as pseudo-sciences, holding that they were unverifiable even in principle. They advanced “propositions that are not open to the possibility of disproof” (see Freud and His Critics). In a similar vein, the Baha’i philosopher and mathematician William Hatcher criticized logical positivism as a pseudo-philosophy or pseudo-epistemology.

In Part One of this blog, we review the foundational contributions of Ludwig Wittgentstein to logical positivism and note his rejection of the concept that philosophy is all there is that has meaning.

Ludwig_Wittgenstein_by_Ben_RichardsLudwig Wittgenstein

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – Bertrand Russell’s great student and protégé – was the instigator of the trend of thought that led to logical positivism. From an immensely wealthy and cultured Viennese family, Wittgenstein met Russell in Cambridge in 1911, intensely studying the foundations of philosophy and logic with him for two years. During the war years that followed and while serving in the Austrian army, he wrote out his conclusions – he considered them to be the solutions – to the major problems of philosophy. It was the famously concise – and enormously influential – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The Stanford Encyclopedia summarizes his thinking as follows (BTW, Wittgenstein is notoriously difficult to grasp):

The world is represented by thought  … Wittgenstein sees the world as consisting of facts rather than the traditional, atomistic conception of a world made up of objects. Facts are existent states of affairs … The world is precisely those states of affairs which do exist.

Tractatus_title_page_1922_HarcourtPhilosophy, therefore, is necessarily about thought and propositions about the facts and the states of affairs they represent. So, we have to understand thought and language and how it works. According to Wittgenstein, it is through “pictures”:

The move to thought, and thereafter to language, is perpetrated with the use of Wittgenstein’s famous idea that thoughts, and propositions, are pictures – “the picture is a model of reality.”

Philosophy, therefore, necessarily is about the language describing facts and the pictures we use to convey what we know – how we communicate, discourse, and discuss about those facts. These pictures, to be meaningful, must correspond to the way reality actually is – they must be isomorphic to reality (note: isomorphic means “corresponding or similar in form and relations”)

The logical structure of the picture, whether in thought or in language, is isomorphic with the logical structure of the state of affairs which it pictures.

To be meaningful then, the picture and propositions about the picture have to make sense – they have to be communicated in sensical language. According to Wittgenstein, only

“the proposition has sense; only in the context of a proposition has a name meaning”

This, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, is what “provides the reader with the two conditions for sensical language”:

First, the structure of the proposition must conform to the constraints of logical form, and second, the elements of the proposition must have reference (bedeutung). These conditions have far-reaching implications … logic itself gives us the structure and limits of what can be said at all.

Wittgenstein concludes by telling us that some things can be said and some things not:

Having developed this analysis of world-thought-language [Wittgenstein] ends the journey with the admonition concerning what can (or cannot) and what should (or should not) be said, leaving outside the realm of the sayable propositions of ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

philosophy now logoDoes this mean that Wittgenstein thought of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, religion, etc as lacking in meaning? This was not his conclusion. Indeed by most accounts, he was religious, albeit unconventionally. Stuart Greenstreet, in Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism in a recent issue of Philosophy Now, notes that Wittgenstein, although Jewish by family background, had embraced Christianity during the war because of Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. In writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus after reading Tolstoy,

Wittgenstein had begun to feel that logic and what he strangely called `mysticism´ sprang from the same root. This explains the second big idea in the Tractatus – which the logical positivists ignored: the thought of there being an unutterable kind of truth that `makes itself manifest´. Hence the key paragraph 6.522 in the Tractatus: “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”

In other words, not everything can be captured by philosophy – or by science. Here is how Greenstreet puts it:

In other words, there is a categorically different kind of truth from that which we can state in empirically or logically verifiable propositions. These different truths fall on the other side of the demarcation line of the principle of verification.
Wittgenstein´s intention in asserting this is precisely to protect matters of value from being disparaged or debunked by scientifically-minded people such as the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle.

ludwig-wittgenstein-260x340Wittgenstein made this clearer in several paragraphs in the Tractatus:

“Paragraph 6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value which is of value, it must lie outside of all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.”

“Paragraph 6.42 Hence also there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.

“Paragraph 6.421 It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.”

Greenstreet summarizes as follows: “all worldly actions and events are contingent (`accidental´)” but “matters of value are necessarily so, for they are `higher´ or too important to be accidental, and so must be outside the world of empirical propositions.” 

And Wittgenstein goes on to say that “Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences” (Paragraph 4.111); “It is not problems of natural science which have to be solved” (Paragraph 6.4312); “even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all” (Paragraph 6.52); “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical” (Paragraph 6.522).

Comment and Summary

There is a lot to ask of Wittgenstein. If he is correct about philosophy not having anything to say about many of the larger truths of the world we live in, does that mean that theological proofs of the existence of God – or their refutation – don’t mean much of anything?

Is Wittgenstein consistent with what `Abdu’l -Baha says – in the Baha’i writings – about logical proofs of the existence of God?

The existence of the Divine Being hath been clearly established, on the basis of logical proofs, but the reality of the Godhead is beyond the grasp of the mind. When thou dost carefully consider this matter, thou wilt see that a lower plane can never comprehend a higher. … no lower degree can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible.

There are many of this sort of question to ask. But the next time – instead – we will look at the emergence of logical positivism, perhaps the most influential soundly-repudiated philosophy of the modern world.

Next Blog

The next blog is Part Two of Wittgenstein, A. J. Ayer, and the Logical Positivists.

………………………

This is the 42nd in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Apr 05

Books on Science and Religion #41: The Atheism of Bertrand Russell

Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

April 5, 2015

Bertrand_RusselOne of the most fascinating and accomplished thinkers of the 20th century – and probably its most respected atheist – was the English philosopher Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell.

Lord Russell – from a very prominent and very old aristocratic British family – has a resume rarely equaled. Here are the Wikipedia summaries:

He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege, colleague G. E. Moore, and his protégé Ludwig Wittgenstein. … His philosophical essayOn Denotinghas been considered a “paradigm of philosophy”... His work has had a considerable influence on philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

Russell’s philosophical contributions alone make him one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. But, he was also one of its leading logicians:

Honourable_Bertrand_RussellWith A. N. Whitehead he wrote Principia Mathematica, an attempt to create a logical basis for mathematics. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and computer science (see type theory, type system).

These were just his technical achievements. He also was one of the century’s leading activists:

Russell was a prominent anti-war activist; he championed anti-imperialism and went to prison for his pacifism during World War I. Later, he campaigned against Adolf Hitler, then criticized Stalinist totalitarianism, attacked the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War and was an outspoken proponent of nuclear disarmament. In 1950 Russell was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literaturein recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought“.

For Baha’is and like-minded thinkers, his belief in world unity and world peace – and his activism towards those goal – are exemplary. In The Expanding Mental Universe, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 (the text can be found here), he described humanity as moving towards unity:

From a very early time, human beings have been divided into groups which have gradually grown larger, passing, in the course of ages, from families to tribes, from tribes to nations, and from nations to federations. Throughout this process, biological needs have generated two opposite systems of morality: one for dealings with our own social group; the other for dealings with outsiders

One bodyReligion, he tells us, teaches us to love our neighbors and desire their happiness.  These teachings, often ignored, are becoming a “condition of survival”:

But in the new world, the kindly feeling towards others which religion has advocated will be not only a moral duty but an indispensable condition of survival. … Human society as a whole is becoming, in this respect, more and more like a single human body; and if we are to continue to exist, we shall have to acquire feelings directed toward the welfare of the whole in the same sort of way in which our feelings of individual welfare concern the whole body and not only this or that portion of it.

Russell’s Search for Certainty

What was the nature of Russell’s atheism? And why is it still widely respected? More on Russell’s atheism latter as I consider the second question first.

John Russell

John Russell, 1st Earl Russell and Bertrand Russell’s grandfather. He served as Prime Minister on two occasions during the mid-19th century.

Clearly, much of the respect for Russell’s atheism is due to the extraordinary breadth and depth of his accomplishments. But equally clearly, it was the sincerity and integrity of his search for truth that has gained him our trust. Nick Spencer, in Atheists: The Origin of the Species, gives us some biographical background.:

Having lost his mother, father and sister before the age of three, Russell was brought up by his grandparents in an atmosphere that was stifling even by late Victorian standards. He abandoned his grandparents’ Christianity early and much of the rest of life, intellectual and personal, was spent in search of certainty.

Russell first looked to find this certainty in mathematics, launching on a search for “a mathematics of human behaviour as precise as the mathematics of machines” and for an ethics based on science, mathematics, and logic. It was very much a mystical – and spiritual – search:

In 1901, Russell had a quasi-mystical experience when staying with Alfred and Evelyn Whitehead. He recollected in his Autobiography feeling the ‘unendurable … loneliness of the human soul’, impenetrable to all except ‘the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached’. ‘Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty … and a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to find some philosophy which should make human life endurable.’

principia mathematicaPhilosophy “which should make human life endurable” was – for Russell – mathematical and Platonic. It was about an abstract realm where “beauty, truth and goodness were to be located” that would offer “some temporary relief from the confusing pain of being human.”

The results that Russell achieved in his search for that philosophy, summarized in the monumental Principia Mathematica, were stunningly influential, but nonetheless fell short of what Russell had intended. The “Austrian logician Kurt Gödel conclusively proved not only that they had not done what they set out to do but, worse, that it could not be done. Certainty, of the type Russell sought, was impossible.”

He wrote in his autobiography that:

I have not had even the somewhat abstract God that Spinoza allowed himself to whom to attach my intellectual love … I am conscious that human affection is to me at bottom an attempt to escape from the vain search for God … I have loved a ghost.

Russell’s Atheism

Russell’s atheism is a problematic affair, with many claiming that he wasn’t really an atheist at all, but rather that he was agnostic.  (See, for example, Bertrand Russel the agnostic, one of seven excellent articles on Russell recently in the Guardian written by Clare Carlisle. Or see Was Bertrand Russell An Atheist or Was He Really an Agnostic? on the Bertrand Russel Society website. Or see Russell’s own thoughts – What is an Agnostic – where he seems to put himself in the agnostic category.)

Another problem is how poorly informed he is about religion, or perhaps it is better to say, how slapdash and unconcerned for fact and accuracy he was in his writings on the topic. Here is how Clare Carlisle puts in as she – charitably – summarizes his positions in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate:

Bertrand Russell did not consider himself an expert on ethics and religion, and it is true that his writing on these subjects lacks the originality and sophistication of his philosophical work on mathematics. His criticisms of religion are often similar – in essence if not in tone – to opinions voiced by contemporary atheists: he argued that religious beliefs cause wars and persecution, are moralistic and oppressive, and foster fear.

Russell Science and ReligionRobert Graves, the well-known English author and poet, puts it kindly, if rather more succinctly, in a 1957 New Republic review called The Atheism of Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley:

Generous emotion often beguiles Russell into unsupportable statements. Thus he asserts that “millions of unfortunate women” were burned as witches by mediaeval Christians, when any historian could have warned him to strike three zeros off this estimate …  Again, as an example of senseless superstition, he cites the Deuteronomic ban on seething a kid in its mother’s milk. Brief enquiry would have shown that this was a practical rule, directed by the Temple authorities against participation in a heathen rite.

Even a perfunctory look at Russell’s Religion and Science bears this out. He makes careless statements that he should have known were false. Here is the what he says on the first page of his first chapter:

Between religion and science there has been a prolonged conflict, in which, until
the last few years, science has invariably proved victorious.

Of course, religion and science, as is now widely known, were never in any prolonged conflict. Rather, there was a strong push in the 19th and early 20th century by various authors promoting their own idea that there was prolonged sectarian or ideological reasons. Unfortunately, almost the whole of Religion and Science is marred by a stereotyped – and uncritical – exposition of a received point of view. Here we can probably excuse him on the grounds that he was simply a victim of the prejudices of the day and his class.

But in the very next sentence, he writes:

But the rise of new religions in Russia and Germany, equipped with new means of missionary activity provided by science, has again put the issue in doubt, as it was at the beginning of the scientific epoch, and has made it again important to examine the grounds and the history of the warfare waged by traditional religion against scientific knowledge.

Russel Why I'm not a ChristianThis is simply egregious and risible, suggesting as it does that Russell was unwilling to honestly face the political consequences of the materialism and the social Darwinism that appear to have been central to his then (1935) worldview.

So, what are his views – both atheistic or agnostic?  Here is how I summarize it, if that is possible:

1. Religions are untrue and harmful. Or as Graves puts it: “At the age of 86, Russell still boldly declares that, in his opinion, “all the great religions of the world, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Communism, are both untrue and harmful.”

2. Philosophical arguments attempting to prove the existence of God are wrong. Graves, again: “As a master of metaphysics, Russell has little difficulty in demolishing the stock Catholic philosophical arguments held to prove the existence of God: the First Cause Argument, the Natural Law Argument, the Moral Argument, the Argument from Design, the Remedying of Injustice Argument.”  However, if you read what he says about them, his arguments are very lazy.

3. Science replaces religion. He believed in an “almost utopian vision of scientific progress” and even endorsed eugenics, according to Clare Carlisle in Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate.

4. Religion is based on fear.  Here is how he puts it in Why I am not a Christian:

Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.

This is one of the hardest of Russell’s ideas about religion to swallow. Graves, in 1958, concludes that “The resentful hatred implicit in all Russell’s discussions of early religious and moral training suggests that he lived as a child under constant threats of hellfire, and as an adolescent under frantic obsessions of sexual guilt.”

Russell A free man's worship5. And, from the description of Russell’s interests and background above, we can safely conclude that much of Russell’s atheism – or agnosticism – stemmed from his belief that truth and certainty were to be found in mathematics and logic, not religion.

6. And finally, Russell seemed to be a victim of a materialism that saw the world devoid of meaning. According to Russell’s account in A Free Man’s Worship, written in 1903:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

There is much more to say about Russell’s thought – and much more to explore in his fascinating spiritual and mystical side. But I’m at more than 2000 words, so I will have to leave much unsaid.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we consider Wittgenstein – that most marvelous and chameleonlike of philosophers – as well as Ayer and the logical positivists.

………………………

This is the 41th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Mar 29

Books on Science and Religion #40: The Atheistic Perspectives of Nietzsche

 Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mar 29, 2015

Nietzsche1882Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was one of the most influential cultural figures of the 20th century, an honor he shared with Freud. Atheism was an essential part of what he had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, Nick Spencer provides an overview of his atheism, which we review here.

Nietzsche continues to fascinate us, whereas Freud has lost much of his charm. For example, consider the uncritical panegyric that the usually reliable Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers us. Stanford’s Nietzsche is a romantic Dionysian guru-hero encouraging healing, creativity, and playful exuberance:

[Nietzsche] challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. He was interested in the enhancement of individual and cultural health, and believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world we live in, rather than those situated in a world beyond.

Nietzsche, it seems, affirmed life and inspired people:

Central to his philosophy is the idea of “life-affirmation,” which involves an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life’s expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be. … Nietzsche’s revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.

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Mar 22

Books on Science and Religion #39: The Atheistic Perspectives of Freud

 Stephen FribergTo believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mar 22, 2015

Freud and Nietzsche were two of the towering intellectual figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their atheism was a major part of what they had to say. In Atheists: The Origin of the Species, the author Nick Spencer provides an overview of their influential points of view on religion. In this blog, we look at Freud. In the next, Nietzsche.

The Baha’i Writings have only very little to say about Freud and his methods. The only mention I have been able to find is the following from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1921 to 1957:

Greatest-Name-Emblem2There is nothing in our teachings about Freud and his method. Psychiatric treatment in general is no doubt an important contribution to medicine, but we must believe it is still a growing rather than a perfected science.

As Bahá’u’lláh has urged us to avail ourselves of the help of good physicians Bahá’ís are certainly not only free to turn to psychiatry for assistance but should, when advisable, do so. This does not mean psychiatrists are always wise or always right, it means we are free to avail ourselves of the best medicine has to offer us.

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