A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Conclusion
Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.

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Imperialism Gives Way to Multiculturalism…?

Watching my cat look out the window and this random thought pops in my head: former 19th century empires–France, Germany and England for example–are the friendliest states in Europe to the idea of multiculturalism.

There are, of course, people in these countries who fear diversity; however, the majority of their populations are cosmopolitan in their outlook. Interestingly, Hungary and Poland–both countries occupied by outsiders throughout the 19th century–are the most resistant to immigration and the most cloistered. So, in something of an ironic twist, we have the countries which robbed the identity of nations 150 years ago now embracing those identities; and those states that had their identities robbed are the most reluctant to embrace diversity.

There appears to be a correlation, however strong or weak, between an imperial past and a multicultural present.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s house.

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I awkwardly ascend the same ladder-stairs she did; my hands and feet go where hers had. I saw the marks (so familiar to so many people) her father made on the wall where he traced the height over time of his two beloved daughters.
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I saw pictures of actors and actresses Anne cut from movie books pasting them on the floral wall paper of the walls of her tiny room. She probably dreamed about being in a different place when looking at those pictures.
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Anne reminds me that even our heroes are only people, only human (and we would do well not to idolize them). When we place them on pedestals they lose what is most beautiful about them: they make mistakes, they love, get moody, have good and bad days, and they are far from perfect; and this is why I appreciate Anne so much: she was a normal but bright person thrust in to exceptional circumstances who remained decidedly human until the end.
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The line up to enter the house stretches out of sight. The house itself is interesting and in as much as I have read about this remarkable person it is quite another matter to walk the oversteep stairs and peer through the curtains for myself wondering what it must have been like for her. I just cannot get past how insightful a person she was (and funny, too).

Argue to Learn

I went for a walk one early morning. I like to walk early in the morning because it’s more private. So this particular day I was a bit surprised to find I wasn’t alone. Sitting on a bench feeding the squirrels was the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a conversation with a genuine philosopher. I walked up to him asking if I could sit down on the bench. He nodded. After a few moments I mustered the courage to talk to him. Looking at the Sun rising I observed, “People in the Middle Ages mustn’t have been too bright.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well,” I responded, “They looked at the dawn every morning thinking what they were seeing was the Sun going around the earth. Nowadays even little kids know the earth goes around the Sun; it doesn’t take too many brains to understand that.”

Wittgenstein said nothing. He just kept looking at the burning yellow orb just above the horizon’s edge.

Breaking the awkward silence, I asked him a question: “I wonder what it would have looked like?”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“What would it actually look like if the Sun was going around the Earth?”

He smiled at the question responding, “I think it would have looked exactly the same. We see what our knowledge tells us to see; what you think the universe is, and how you react to that along with everything you do, depends entirely on what you think you know; and when your knowledge changes, for you the universe changes; and that is as true for the whole of society as it is for the individual—we all are what we know today. What we knew yesterday was different and so were we.”

Wittgenstein died 20 years before I was even born; nonetheless, I’ve learned a great deal from reading the great philosophers of the Western intellectual tradition. They haven’t taught me what to think so much as how to go about doing it. So when you find yourself in some form of argument with another person, don’t try to win. Try to learn. The “arguments” we find on sites like Facebook and Instagram between Republicans and Democrats in the United States or Liberals and Conservatives in Canada aren’t arguments at all; people are busy finger pointing and finger wagging and we’re all stupider for it.

Ultimately, even if one or the other of you actually wins the argument (which is usually just the person who got the last word in online) you have lost a genuine opportunity to learn something important from someone who thinks differently than you do. Instead of resorting to either gainsay or attacking people by calling them “libtards” or communists, do just as Wittgenstein did, ask clarifying questions and genuinely listen to the other person.

The person who thinks differently than you is not your enemy; they just look at the world differently than you–just like the people of the medieval period looked at the sunrise differently than we do today.

Both we and them believed ourselves to be reasonable; and, arguably, both of us held or hold on to convictions that are much stronger than the available evidence should permit. We are literally what we think about; if we genuinely seek to become our best selves it makes sense to try and learn as much possible from one another.

Argue to learn.

Catz and Marx

John Steinbeck made a pretty nifty observation: he said socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I suppose this is why so many of them oppose progressive tax reform that would be in their interest to support.

American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, i.e. Marx was surely right when he called capitalism a “machine for demolishing limits.” It does a pretty bang-up job demolishing planets, as well.

And now for the obligatory cat picture…with an ideological twist.

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Awareness: A Garden of Possibility

Who am I? Why should I strive to be good? What is goodness? What is justice? Why do people do the things they do? Why do I think the way I think? What is the meaning of life? Why is it important to ask such questions?

Socrates once remarked that the un-examined life is not worth living. Jesus said as much when he observed “Man does not live on bread alone” (Matthew 4:4). For both teachers the purpose of life was to grow in our understanding of ourselves and others. We cannot grow in that understanding unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon life.

By consciously examining ourselves we become aware of how our subconscious programming shapes our decision-making. If we do not do this, that is, increase our awareness of the powerful mental software running our lives which we call mind, we are little more than robots living day to day in unconscious and automatic repetition; an existence where people surrender to the illusion of fate or the weight of circumstances wondering why they are unhappy; they live life as though they are living on an assembly line—unaware, mechanistic, assembling, persisting in constructing the same things over and over while vainly expecting different results.

I recall when my first son was born feeling something like I was living out the life-cycle of a moth. My son’s birth was of course tremendously meaningful and important to me; nonetheless, I couldn’t help feeling as though I was walking someone else’s path or living out some sort of role. A conscious examination of life helps us not only deal better with what life happens to throw at us but it also helps us perceive our existence, less as a prison, and more as a garden full of possibility.

Drop Your Chains

Jean Jacques Rousseau observed human beings are born free but everywhere they are in chains. The chains Rousseau spoke of were in one sense real and in another sense figurative and imaginary: chains are real in the sense that in order to live in society people necessarily give up some of their freedom. (Abraham Lincoln observed perfect liberty for the wolves means death to the sheep.) In terms of imaginary chains—and that’s what they are, imaginary—when we believe our tribe (based on either race, ethnicity, gender, or religion) is best we inevitably exclude others; and in the process of excluding others society repeats the same tired pattern of fear-based pointless conflict, violence and dysfunction that continues plaguing humanity preventing it from progressing and enjoying peace.