Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Philosophy of Science.

Today, I am especially grateful for the example of Dr. King. I will think of him and keep him in my heart.

The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Newmarket Press, 1987), this edition is edited and selected by Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who is also a Christian theologian.

This holiday seems like a fitting occasion on which to discuss some of the issues concerning the relationship between science and ethics, religion, philosophy and physics in the thinking of Dr. King.

I am not an expert on Dr. King's writings nor do I claim special knowledge concerning those theological or political matters that troubled this important American thinker. All Americans of my generation should have an opinion about Dr. King. Dr. King's philosophical ideas are as important to me as any other aspect of his life and work, so I think that (today, especially) a student's remarks are warranted.

We do not usually regard Dr. King as an important philosopher. I believe this is partly because of the very narrow way in which we understand "thinking" and "philosophy." It may also have to do with other factors -- like racism -- that he would have understood only too well. We tend to forget that Dr. King's doctoral work was in theology. As part of his studies, he must have developed sophisticated views on philosophical issues, after studying in detail the global tradition of thought on ultimate matters. ("David Hume's Philosophical Romance.")

I suggest that a study of Dr. King's preaching reveals profound philosophical sophistication -- entirely apart from his importance as a theologian or political leader -- so that persons who are not religious, not students of politics or of the history of the sixties' civil rights struggle, may still profit from a consideration of Dr. King's philosophical reasoning.

Dr. King is one of those fortunate individuals who might have been outstanding in any number of fields. With his wonderful voice and presence, he might have been a superb Shakespearean actor; a great politician (which in a way, he was); a writer; university lecturer; journalist -- the list goes on indefinitely. Among those career alternatives is the "profession" of philosopher, at which I am confident that he would have excelled. Maybe he is best thought of as a philosopher for our times as much as for his own, a Socrates in the electronic public square.

Althought Dr. King did not teach philosophy in a university -- and my guess, as I say, is that he could have -- he expressed ideas that are important and profoundly philosophical about morals and other matters. He has perceptive and forward-looking things to say about science and religion, for example, together with the relationship between these disciplines and areas of human activity. We are not usually aware of this when we think of Dr. King, but we should be. These ideas, I repeat, are more necessary now than when he first articulated them.

Science investigates; religion interprets. Dr. King said: Science gives man [and woman] knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. THE TWO ARE NOT RIVALS. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.

Dr. King's references to "mankind" should be understood to refer to both man and woman. This is a point that I know he would be clear about today, if he were with us. I do not need an expert to tell me that because it follows from the logic of his thinking. In the same way, I believe that we can make certain inferences concerning what the U.S. Constitution requires today, on the basis of the principles put in place by the framers at the end of the eighteenth century.

Notice that Dr. King accepts the fundamental compatibility between science and religion, that he was a "compatibilist" with regard to freedom and material causation, like Immanuel Kant and many other philosophers, that he sought freedom for himself and for all people, because he knew of its metaphysical or spiritual reality in a material universe that is nonetheless mechanically determined, at the level of large material bodies. This "knowing" of freedom was not merely an intellectual matter, but something more visceral and emotionally significant.

Dr. King also suggested on numerous occasions that science need not concern itself with ethics or spiritual matters in fulfilling its predictive goals and purposes, but not because such things are unreal. We must concern ourselves with values, without reliance on predetermined answers being found "out there," since values are as important, or more so, than almost anything that we can learn from scientists about the workings of empirical reality. True values must be discerned by our own intellectual and emotive efforts.

If you believe that adherence to a so-called scientific world-view leads you to a bleak moral nihilism, then you have misunderstood the scientific world-view, which is not at all about providing you with a morality that nature somehow "requires" or mandates. Science tells us that our moral judgments are for us to make. They are not given to us by nature. Furthermore, Dr. King would point out that even God leaves us with the responsibility for choosing our ethics, since it is this capacity for choice that makes evil possible, which also makes love possible.

Neither science nor God will remove this burden of choice from you. You cannot escape it, because this need to choose is what makes you human. This does not diminish the objectivity of our ethical truths. The concept of "objectivity" causes people to have some problems with this claim. I have covered this ground before, but I may as well clarify that by objectivity, one may mean "existential" or "human-related" objectivity. Nicholas Maxwell explains the difference:

In the first existential sense, something is objective if it exists, but subjective if it appears to exist but does not. In the second, "human-related" sense, something is objective if it is such that it is unrelated to humans, subjective if it is such that it is related to humans. Colors are objective in the first sense, but subjective in the second sense. ... It is perfectly compatible with this [distinction, in other words,] that colors should exist objectively, in the first sense, ... even if they are peculiarly related to us (or to beings like us), and thus subjective in the second sense.

I see the influence of Christian existentialism on Dr. King, especially the great Protestant theologians of the second half of the twentieth century: notably, Paul Tillich and Paul Ricoeur. I am sure that Dr. King was aware of the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and of Kierkegaard, perhaps also of the Catholic Gabriel Marcel. I also see an affinity with the writings and ideas of Martin Buber, and there is not such a great distance from Dr. King's thinking to the mature thoughts of Malcolm X. Juan Galis-Menendez, Paul Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Freedom (North Carolina: Lulu, 2004),

We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress. One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. [Meanings] The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. [Events] Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live.

And what are those ends for which we live?

Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of OUR Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind's quest for peace and security. ("Colors of the Cross" and see my short story, "The Allegory of the Cave.")

Notice that the life of Christ in the Gospels is seen as an example, or an ideal for emulation, rather than a statute book filled with rules and regulations. Dr. King is not a fundamentalist. The ultimate prescription or lesson, again, comes down to a single word, love, and does not make distinctions between races, religions, politics, genders, sexual-orientation or any of these other categories:

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. [Think of Dr. King's interest in Ghandi.] I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. ("The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

It is this understanding of love's importance, which may be related to Cornel West's recent discussion of "combative spirituality" and is not all that different from what I have called my "philosophical Ali shuffle," for it leads to the utter simplicity and overwhelming force of Dr. King's deepest insights and explains his serenity, even in contemplating death. This insight resulted in his confidence -- and now in mine -- that we shall always prevail in our personal and social struggles against evil. We shall overcome:

We must somehow believe that all unearned suffering is redemptive.

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