Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘reason’

Am I A Rationalist?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 5, 2010

When I was at university Rationalist House was just down the street, but I never crossed its threshold. The building looked archaic, and I imagined old men inside, perhaps bitter atheists. Much like people must conceive of old churches. I’ve been thinking about *how* I undertake my search, and wondering if my love of reason makes me a rationalist?

I thought, “If I’m going to call myself a rationalist, I’d better understand what that means.” In the library, I picked up a book and began to read 1.

Maybe…

Rationalism regards religion as a personal question … [and] does not deny the existence of God or a future life.

Surprised? I was. I definitely want reasonable beliefs, but not a rationalism which by definition excludes spirituality. However the following section in the book makes it clear that an atheist-leaning agnosticism is the ‘rational’ presumption. Oh well.

The Rationalist Press association defines rationalism “as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a system of philosophy and ethics verifiable by experience and independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority.”

A noble idea. I mustn’t forget the postmodernism of the end of last century attacks the idea that one can create a grand narrative.

Rodin - The Thinker

The writer makes a good deal of noise about ethics, at times there was a moralistic do-gooder sense about his writing. I wonder if that’s the defensiveness of an atheism which was accused of leading to amorality by outsiders?

He quotes Chillingworth, an “eminent Christian writer” of the time who says

Reason gives us knowledge; while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it … it is by reason alone that we can distinguish truth from falsehood.

Also one Bishop Butler who says, “Reason is the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself.”

That whole belief and reason thing interests me a lot, and I intend to write more about it some time. I was also concerned rationalism might ignore our emotions.

On the contrary, it fosters and regulates the emotions. There is no denying that some of the noblest thoughts born of human genius have emanated from the impulse of emotion, but it was that emotion was controlled by reason.

Controlled? I’m not sure if I deprecate emotion to that level.

I wondered if being a rationalist would turn me into one of those rabid hater-type atheists I see on twitter and in other places on the intarwebz. I very much appreciated these comments:

“Gentleness is one of the greatest of virtues, and to promulgate our opinions in what is conventionally … termed a gentlemanly manner…[is wise]”

“Of course, destructive work must be done [of error]; but a man need not put himself into a passion in doing it.”

“While some rely entirely upon faith as their rule of life, others seem to attach too much importance to the lack of it. The latter contend that belief cannot save mankind, but they ignore the fact that neither can mere unbelief.”

I heartily agree.

Maybe Not…

Since researching this, I’ve been doing some more thinking and reading. I do think it’s important to figure out the best method to search for truth. Yes, I’m still committed to reason and experience… but perhaps not to the extent of calling myself a rationalist. In my next post, I write about the reasons.

Agree or disagree? How does this rationalist approach to finding reality make you feel?

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Notes
1. All quotes are from Charles Watts The Meaning of Rationalism (1905) in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (Prometheus, ed Gordon Stein, 1980)

Posted in agnostic, atheism, ethics, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 42 Comments »

Showing My Hand – The Meaning of Life

Posted by spritzophrenia on June 21, 2010

For twenty years, off and on, I’ve thought about writing a book on The Meaning of Life. Last year I decided to work more explicitly towards that goal, and this blog is part of my journey towards publishing. Here’s The Meaning of Life – Part One, for example. I really value your input and constructive criticism.

I had thought I’d call my book simply, “The Meaning of Life”. However, in my research I’ve just discovered a book in the library, published only a few years ago by a UK professor of English titled “The Meaning of Life”. Aargh! Robbed! Beaten to my goal! 😉

Actually, I’m feeling quite content and rather phlegmatic. Let’s face it, it’s a big question and there’s room for all. I haven’t read his book yet, but I feel my hand somewhat forced. Before reading it, I want to note down my general ideas for structuring my book, lest I be accused of plagiarism.

42 Meaning of Life
42 – I know, I don’t get it either 😉

Big caveats: This is the beginning of a work in progress, largely in note form, misses out a lot, and will no doubt change over the course of the project. This post is abandoned, rather than finished. (Hopefully the rest of my blog is more readable – eg my stuff on Atheist Spirituality). That said, here’s a preview:


Book structure.
I’m intending to make it personal as well as philosophical? How to pitch it? Academic versus popular is tricky. I want pictures! eg Engineers versus Physicists versus Philosophers

[Edit: I now think the structure will be more short vignettes, but the content will be similar, so will leave this here.]

Working Title:
42 Is Not Enough:
The Meaning of Life

“God is dead! And we have killed him!” – Nietzsche

“How can anyone discover what life means?
It is too deep for us, too hard to understand.
But I devoted myself to knowledge and study;
I was determined to find wisdom and the
answers to my questions”
– Ecclesiastes (The Bible)

“‘If life was devoid of realities there would be no meaning to life’, my father wrote in one of his forewords to his book, in Hindi” – Sri Bachchan, Indian actor.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” – Joy J. Golliver

1. Welcome to Your Life
(Introduction)

My intentions, biases and background. (Perhaps to be unpacked through the book.) I’m an open agnostic, or perhaps a theistic agnostic or a deist.
This book is only the story so far. I’d like to revisit it in 20 years and update or change it. After all, I have neglected major religions like Hinduism, and I can’t possibly fairly evaluate everything. Look at how big the religion and philosophy sections in public libraries are! The dangers of guru-ism?

Having said that, I do think there are less than a dozen major worldview alternatives, eg atheism, theism, polytheism, pantheism, monism… And few options within those are realistic, eg polytheism is just too unlikely imo. Within theism, Mormonism, for example, is just too unbelievable. US archaeology alone destroys it. Sorry Mormons 😦

Disclaimer: I’m well aware that a non-adherent of a religion usually makes mistakes in emphasis, nuance and understanding when writing about it. My apologies for any factual errors. I feel uncomfortable criticising a spiritual path from the outside so I’m relying on those writing from the inside. I also acknowledge the large number of good, moral people in any worldview.

Music! Supertramp | The Logical Song That song really affected me and made me think, from a young age.

Feel free to skip straight to my answer, although it will be more fully understood in the context of other things.

“If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” ~John Rich

2. There’s no Escape
(The “feel” of the meaning of life)

It’s a universal question, and arguably the motivator behind the spiritual search. Atheist spirituality.
“God is dead. We have killed him” – Nietzsche. But this is a tragedy that N spent his life trying to overcome, not the triumphalism of some atheists. See nihilism. My experiences / thinking as a youth.

Humour – Monty Python’s film, Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy.

“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” – Douglas Adams

42 – note it’s called the big question of “life, the universe and everything”. Doesn’t mention the meaning of life, tho’ it’s implied?

Note 42 is the result of asking the wrong question. It’s worth considering is asking “what’s the meaning of life?” the wrong question too? (thanks Randy Murray for this).

The motivation for the search. Nihilism, atheism. Not all, or even most atheists end up nihilists, but it’s a strong pull for me.

To look in the eye of meaningless-ness is to feel the horror of being
“Cast out upon 40,000 fathoms of the deep” – Joseph Conrad??

3. Unpacking The Question
(What do we mean by ‘meaning’?)

What does “The Meaning of Life” (MoL) actually mean?
Distinguish between ‘meaning’, ‘purpose’ and ‘significance’. See my The Meaning of Life – Part One
Some people think that the question is a non-question, eg Marty at AtheistClimber. I respectfully disagree (as per my comments in his blog).

Animals and the meaning of life – dolphins, higher primates. Is intelligence alone the measure of value? No.

I think unpacking the question actually leads to a lot of insight into what the answer might be.

4. The Invisible Hand
(Theism)

Concentrating mainly on Christianity, as that’s my background but will also reference Islam and Judaism where I can. Judaism does consider the question to a degree. Victor Frankl was Jewish, although his conclusions in “Man’s Search for Meaning” do not require any spiritual point of view.

My previous conclusion that meaning is found “in God”, and later “in Jesus”. But what does that actually mean? Is it coherent? Probably not.

Conclusion: Surprisingly, even if God exists, it may not give an answer to the meaning of life. “God” cannot be a meaningful answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?”

Perhaps God needs a meaning of life too? Perhaps all “intelligent life” does?

5. If You See the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him
(Mysticism/The East)

So far, I don’t think the concept of the meaning of life is actually addressed by Buddhism. (Buddhist friends, please help?)
This leads to the interesting idea that MoL is a Western (theist influenced?) idea. My attempts at meditation. Ultimately, I don’t think Buddhism is intellectually helpful.

Mysticism? Christian Mystics? AW Tozer? (He now feels too hardline to me.) My few pagan / wiccan experiences? New Age worldview?


from http://offthemark.com

6. Both Beast and God
(Reason, Philosophy)

Am I a rationalist? Possibly, but there may be limits to reason (viz Bertrand Russell’s quote).

“To live alone one must be a beast or a god, says Aristotle. Leaving out the third case: one must be both – a philosopher.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

J P Moreland moving the question to being about value (in Scaling the Secular City) He’s a good philosopher, but I don’t think this satisfies. Although losing a sense of value is a consequence of loss of meaning for me.

Kai Neilsen and other atheist philosophers. The “new atheists” – Dawkins, Hitchens, et al (if I must! 😉 )

Philosophy is life’s dry-nurse, who can take care of us – but not suckle us. ~Soren Kierkegaard

The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it. ~Bertrand Russell

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please – you can never have both. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains. ~Alfred North Whitehead

7. My Answer

I think the MoL is essentially found in living life. In life itself. (Not in biology, but in a human life lived.) Living, loving, enjoying sunsets, working to help others, playing a sport. Living itself has intrinsic meaning. (Or maybe not – that could be challenged.) Thus the specific meaning could be – in fact, must be – different for each person.

It’s the same conclusion Baggini came to, tho I came to it independently. But as he says, it’s not a great secret and you don’t have to be a great philosopher to figure it out. He is more eloquent than I am here:

“The only sense we can make of the idea that life has meaning is that there are some reasons to live rather than to die, and those reasons are to be found in the living of life itself. ”

Surprisingly, this is an answer that works for both theists and atheists.

(He also agrees with me that a religious worldview only makes a small difference to the outcome.)

“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” ~Andre Gide

8. How Then Shall We Live?
(Conclusion)

What life might be like, “living” the meaning of life.
This book is only the story so far. I may revisit it in 20 years and update or change it.

Bibliography
My working bibliography is here.

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What do you think? Would you enjoy reading such a book? Please comment below. Ideas and helpful criticism are really welcome both on content and structure, or anything really.

Posted in agnostic, Meaning of Life, meta, writing | Tagged: , , , , | 31 Comments »