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The Underground Man on Free Will

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Dostoevsky’s unprecedented short story, Notes from Underground, is a philosophical treatise of striking originality. In the early nineteenth century, with the remarkable successes of science in controlling nature, social and political theorists began to conceptualize human persons as just one more cog in the Newtonian “world machine“. As such, it was thought, human society could likewise be controlled through social engineering, ensuring its proper functioning toward desired outcomes. In this excerpt, Dostoevsky voices his revulsion toward this mechanistic view of humans, renouncing the notion that humans can be relied upon to act in the predictable, law-like fashion that characterizes the physical world. On the contrary, we humans are radically free, often acting irrationally and self-destructively for no other reason than to assert our independence from custom, convention, and social pressure. The larger story, from which this excerpt is taken, recounts the inner dialogue of an isolated and contemptuous civil servant whose quest for vengeance against perceived slights leads him to alienate himself from all others. Though this “Underground Man” is especially unseemly, Dostoevsky takes it that his rationalizations will resonate with the reader’s own inner thoughts, and will thereby undercut the deterministic, materialistic view of man current in his day. Dostoevsky’s protest on behalf of free will remains a spirited rebuke to the standard narratives of human events that offer explanations only in terms of psychology and instinct, of nurture and nature, both geared towards self-preservation. ~ Nate

Twofold Truth

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This is a long but exceptionally eloquent and learned dialogue between a group of thoughtful friends in the late 19th century. Dr. Trevor poses the question “whether what is demonstrably true in one subject or from one point of view can be false in another or from a different standpoint?” Their dialogue bookends Trevor’s formal paper, where he argues that whatever may be the case in reality, at least within our own deliberations, “we cannot without the most gratuitous mental suicide allow the subjective co-existence of antagonistic convictions both claiming to be true at the same time”. Trevor begins by noting the severe limits of our knowledge. “The thinker rightly regards himself and his knowledge as a small islet in the immeasurable ocean of the unknown.” He unsparingly traces a history of the ecclesiastic autocracy of theological dogma until reason got its foot in the door and began an insurrection, asserting itself against the “Roman” church as the singular arbiter of truth. Nonetheless, he argues, the phenomenon of competing considerations is not just a byproduct of religious authority, but rather an inescapable aspect of being human, coming at us from many angles: “the Known and the Unknown, individual man and collective humanity, Intellect and Emotion”. Trevor therefore commends the thinker who has “double vision”, the ability to see and integrate various sources of evidence, who is always reticent and reflective, even in conviction. Though it requires treading through some rather dense prose, the discussion of these “Christian skeptics” is a feast of language and thought. At times it captures the spirit of Afterall.net better than I ever could have in my own words. ~ Nate

Lewis’ Moral Argument for God

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In this oft discussed passage from Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis spurns the supposed implications of a century’s worth of cultural anthropology, arguing that, in spite of surface differences, virtually all people possess an innate moral compass that is at bottom similar or the same. He begins by noting that human quarreling presupposes such a shared set of moral norms, that without a common set of “Rules of Human Nature”, quarreling would be, in effect, impossible. Lewis goes on to argue that this set of moral obligations we find in ourselves suggests a moral lawgiver. En route, he comments on the proper limits of science, on what we can infer on the basis of our own self-knowledge, and on the hypocrisy of those who claim no such common moral knowledge exists. Lewis’ essay is hardly the most rigorous moral argument for theism on offer, but it does display his knack for drawing on the everyday to illustrate his premises and his argument for a common ethic is especially worth considering in view of the conventional wisdom about the radical diversity of moral norms. The moral differences between persons and cultures is profound. Can Lewis’ argument for universal “Rules of Human Nature” be sustained? I’m particularly keen to reflect on the extent to which apparent moral differences should actually be attributed to different beliefs about reality. On this, see his thought provoking comments on the old practice of burning witches at the stake. Also note his observation that the materialistic and religious views of reality are not a bifurcation emerging out of the Enlightenment, but rather a fundamental divergence that turns up “wherever there having been thinking men”.

Speaking the Truth in Love

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To speak the truth, or what seems to be truth to us, is not a very hard thing, provided we do not care what harm we do by it, or whom we hurt by it. This kind of “truth-telling” has been always common. Such truth-tellers call themselves plain, blunt men, who say what they think, and do not care who objects to it. A man who has a good deal of self-reliance and not much sympathy, can get a reputation for courage by this way of speaking the truth. But the difficulty about it is, that truth thus spoken does not convince or convert men; it only offends them. It is apt to seem unjust; and injustice is not truth. ¶ Some persons think that unless truth is thus hard and disagreeable it cannot be pure. Civility toward error seems to them treason to the truth. Truth to their mind is a whip with which to lash men, a club with which to knock them down. They regard it as an irritant adapted to arouse sluggish consciences.

Civility In Company and Conversation

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George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. To modern ears many of these rules may seem quaint and moralistic, overly aristocratic and deferential. But though they are primarily rules of a bygone formality, good manners are most often an outward expression of respect toward others and there is a timeless wisdom in many of them. One of the prevailing undercurrents here at Afterall.net is a desire to be competent at speaking in love what one takes to be true and not trivial. The first article I wrote here was “Recipe for Conversation“, borne out of frustration with my own failure in many cases to speak with as much kindness as conviction. It is not easy to disagree without being disagreeable. Fortunately, to our great benefit, there is a long conversation in Anglo-American discourse about this subject of “civility” or “civil discourse”. Indeed, the American Experiment is in large measure an attempt to live well with differences. To that end, Washington’s rules with respect to civil conversation are worth considering. If nothing else, they are a glimpse into another time. Not surprisingly, incessant talkers and interrupters, not to mention gabbing with a mouth full of food, were as gauche then as they are now. As an aside, I’ve also added a new category, Civility & Rhetoric, to begin to gather books, quotes, and papers on this subject in one place. ~ Nate

Materialism and Its Discontents

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The clear facts of consciously valued experience and of freely chosen purpose, the intelligibility and elegance of the deep structure of the physical world, the visions of transcendent value in art, the categorical demands of duty and of the search for truth, and the testimony of so many to a felt power making for goodness and uniting the mind to a higher selfless reality of wisdom and bliss – all these things the materialist has to consign to illusion. May it not be that it is the materialist who is refusing to see what is there?

Argument from Consciousness

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Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about consciousness and how it might contribute to evidence for the existence of God in light of metaphysical naturalism’s failure to provide a helpful explanation. Some of my thinking has culminated in the recently released Consciousness and the Existence of God (Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion) (Routledge, 2008). Consciousness is among the most mystifying features of the cosmos. Geoffrey Madell opines that "the emergence of consciousness, then is a mystery, and one to which materialism signally fails to provide an answer."i Naturalist Colin McGinn claims that its arrival borders on sheer magic because there seems to be no naturalistic explanation for it: "How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe, not prefigured by the after-effects of the Big Bang; so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?"ii Finally, naturalist William Lyons argues that "[physicalism] seem[s] to be in tune with the scientific materialism of the twentieth century because it [is] a harmonic of the general theme that all there is in the universe is matter and energy and motion and that humans are a product of the evolution of species just as much as buffaloes and beavers are. Evolution is a seamless garment with no holes wherein souls might be inserted from above."iii

Men Without Chests

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In this essay, Lewis takes as his subject the thesis presented by two unnamed schoolmasters in what he calls “The Green Book”: that our value judgments refer only to our own sentiments and never to any intrinsic worth in the objects we judge (i.e. subjectivism). He is concerned as to what this will mean for the education of English children, and this essay constitutes one part of Lewis’ Abolition of Man, subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”. In the authors’ seemingly innocent and casual subjectification of value there is a subversive outcome: “I do not mean, of course, that [the schoolboy] will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” The Green Book’s authors analyze a piece of banal and deceptive advertising. But, Lewis notes, the authors have effectively precluded any normative judgment of the ad, for a similiar judgment upon Johnson, Wordsworth, or Virgil could be no less an accurate description of a reader’s sentiments, and there is no other quality to which to appeal. Lewis ends with this oft-cited poetic prose: “And all the time — such is the tragicomedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” His argument continues in “The Way”. ~ Afterall

A Natural and Supernatural Conversion

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My conversion was in two parts: a natural part and a supernatural part. Here is the natural part: first, over a period of two years my hatred toward Christianity eroded due to my philosophical inquiries. Rest assured, I take the logical process of philosophy very seriously, and I am impatient with anyone who is not a rigorous and trained thinker. Reason is the tool men use to determine if their statements about reality are valid: there is no other. Those who do not or cannot reason are little better than slaves, because their lives are controlled by the ideas of other men, ideas they have not examined. To my surprise and alarm, I found that, step by step, logic drove me to conclusions no modern philosophy shared, but only this ancient and (as I saw it then) corrupt and superstitious foolery called the Church. Each time I followed the argument fearlessly where it lead, it kept leading me, one remorseless rational step at a time, to a position the Church had been maintaining for more than a thousand years. That haunted me.

The Da Vinci Code: A Novel.

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The most important word in this entire book is the noun in the subtitle; this is a "novel"-a work of fiction. That is important to remember, especially after the statements on page 1, which move the work slightly into the arena of historical fiction, but only slightly. It is true that there are such organizations as the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei. It is true that the author has worked hard to describe accurately the contemporary European locations, including city layouts, buildings, and artwork, in which the plot is set. The statement that "all descriptions of… documents… in this novel are accurate" is, however, highly inaccurate!