Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ayer's Critique of Collingwood's Metaphysics.

Primary Sources:

A.J. Ayer, Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage, 1984), pp. 191-213.
R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), entirety.
R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), pp. 185-213 ("The Existence of God") and pp. 231-273 ("The Metaphysics of Kant").

Secondary Sources:

R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945), pp. 113-136.
John P. Hogan, Collingwood and Theological Hermeneutics (New York: University Press of America, 1989), pp. 71-92.
The Collingwood and British Idealism Center.


A few days ago, I dressed neatly and purchased an apple as I visited my daughter's high school on "parent/teacher" day. She is fortunate to attend a very good school, a school where high school studies are accelerated and completed in two years, so that students (top 2% in reading scores in N.Y.) may spend their final years of secondary education "taking" college courses. They usually go on to Stanford or Yale, Brown or Wellesley bringing joy and the experience of financial bankruptcy to their proud parents.

All of the teachers at this school have graduate degrees, most have a Ph.D., and yet my encounters were somewhat ... disconcerting.

Each person employed as a teacher laid out a methodical plan of instruction. One person even had a chart and graph, complete with an alarming set of numbers arranged on a scale. Considering that this was a history teacher, I wondered whether students actually pondered historical issues in the class.

"Oh, yes ..." I was assured. "We've got discussions down to a science." I bet you do.

There are many places in the world where what is taken for thoroughness, rigor, seriousness in American education, even in some of our best schools, is interpreted as a kind of blindness to what is most important in education -- which is to make possible for students a civilized life.

One goal of education, especially in the humanities, should be cultivation of taste and development of the faculty of judgment in civic and (for those who are religious) spiritual matters, along with a sharpening of the student's capacities for moral reflection and striving towards wisdom.

Nothing that I heard from my daughter's teachers -- at least, not in an immediate or direct sense -- had anything to do with these goals.

My attempts, tactfully, to raise the subject were greeted with puzzled stares and shock. This was not hostility from teachers, only incomprehension. A French counterpart of these teachers would have understood me and agreed. Maybe the same is true in Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina.

What has been lost in American intellectual life and education is the sense of eros in learning. Scientism is the unofficial and unspoken religion of the American public school classroom. Yet the nicest and most humane person encountered at this school is my child's science teacher. Weird.

As Desi Arnaz used to say, "Wha' happen?"

The Greek notion of dialektic ("philosophical exchange") as a form of passionate intimacy among participants -- participants whose shared goal is a kind of self-improvement or spiritual realization of the self -- or the Athenian understanding of "happiness" as directing "all of one's energies towards excellence," are endangered ideas or theories of education. The first is a Platonic/Socratic notion; the second is an Aristotelean-Eudemonian concept. Both may be found in Mortimer Adler's proposals for the University of Chicago (Paedia?), recently discussed in new terms by Robert Pippin. R. Pippin, "Liberation and the Liberal Arts: The Aims of Education," ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

I think the triumph of social science learning, combined with the doctrine of neutrality and hostility to traditional religions -- also a suspicion of patriotism as, somehow, old fashioned or "corny" -- has led to this blankness and emptiness. "Neutrality" dominates the cultural space of public schools. Passion is outlawed. So is all discussion of ends. Method is substance. Everything is means; ends count for nothing. Objectivity and not imagination or insight is admired. We are creating a nation of insurance "salespersons." Brand Blanshard, "The Uses of a Liberal Education," in The Uses of a Liberal Education and Other Talks to Students (Illinois: Open Court, 1973), pp. 27-45, then Mary Midgley, "Philosophical Plumbing," in Utopias, Dolphins and Computers: Problems of Philosophical Plumbing (London & New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 1-15.

People have "values" that we must respect (but not discuss). What is regarded as thoroughness -- a "sacred" value in our secular public square -- is often a mask for a frightening substantive nothingness. Nihilism wears a smile and bakes a cake for the dance on Saturday night. Analysis and clarity have replaced or been mistaken for understanding people and events. ("Why I am not an ethical relativist" and "John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism.")

This unintentional celebration of shallowness is the result of a debate still taking place at the level of high culture, which is often dimly understood or not known at all by these same highly talented and dedicated teachers, who simply take their methods of evaluation for granted as the only possible ways of conceiving of knowledge and of how one communicates it.

These are profound philosophical errors leading to a flawed view of professionalism and competence. This point is not irrelevant to the legal profession. Yes, there are many exceptions to this generalization. ("Nihilists in Disneyworld.")

I will examine a critique of R.G. Collingwood's doctrine of absolute presuppositions developed by A.J. Ayer, and which (I hope) yields a contrast between logical positivism and atomism, as opposed to historicism and dialectics, as methods in social thought. I will defend the latter method, which has mostly won on the European Continent, along with Critical Theory in politics; whereas logical atomism and positivism mostly triumphed -- until recently -- in American intellectual culture.

We need a mix of both approaches in public schools, making use of ALL of these different theories. In closing, I will return to my parent/teacher day experiences. ("Is clarity enough?" and "Stewart Hampshire and Iris Murdoch On Freedom of Mind.")

I. Ayer's Critique of Collingwood's Metaphysics.

The disagreement between Ayer and Collingwood is a classic example of a failure of philosophical communication and understanding. This misunderstanding of Collingwood's work results from Ayer's temperament and from his previous philosophical commitments. Logical atomism and positivism lead this exceptionally gifted philosopher -- A.J. Ayer is not David Stove! -- into serious misreadings and errors.

Ayer begins by claiming that Collingwood's metaphysics amounts to nothing more than "the debris of Absolute Idealism." (p. 193.) Ironically, Ayer's own logical positivism is now in ruins, while idealism is undergoing a dramatic revival from an ethical and political direction, leading to impressive new work in epistemology and metaphysics, notably the development of a new "transcendental phenomenology." (Quentin Lauer, Don Ihde, Paul Ricoeur.)

Similar developments in Continental theory -- especially among phenomenologists and those working in the hermeneutic tradition -- underline the importance of these persistent perspectives, both rationalism and idealism, in Western intellectual culture, including science. (Gadamer and his recent interpreters.)

Ayer focuses on two issues central to Collingwood's metaphysics: 1) Collingwood's theory of absolute presuppositions; 2) Collingwood's ideal historicism. I begin by defining these concepts, distinguishing them from Ayer's inaccurate understanding of what is at issue. I then set forth Ayer's full critique, indicating where I believe his greatest mistakes are made; I return to Collingwood's writings, offering a defense of his views. I will argue, however, that Collingwood's theory needs to be supplemented by F.H. Bradley's more important and profound philosophy. Finally, I suggest that both Bradley's and Collingwood's' systems lead, necessarily, to religious insights or culminate in theology. Some great scientists find the same to be true in their work. More on that later. ("'Inception': A Movie Review" and "'The Matrix': A Movie Review.")

Logical positivists and adherents of scientism will immediately interrupt to say that this means idealism is (to use a technical term in philosophy) "bullshit." Not necessarily.

Philosophers in America and Britain have brought many of the insights associated with idealism up to date in recent work examining revived metaphysical issues. ( I urge readers to examine the works of Nicholas Rescher and Robert Brandom as well as many others in the Continental tradition.)

Admirers of New Age spirituality will rush forward to object that I question mind/brain identity theory, so how can I suggest that "thoughts" affect reality? Duh.

Alternatively, befuddled empiricists insist that, "like, thoughts do not add any information to the world and stuff, because everything a priori is tautological, or something."

I have encountered a twisted version of a combination of Hume and Wittgenstein that is a bizarre distortion of both of those philosophers' views.

It should be clear that my focus is on method and styles of reasoning for classroom discussion. However, I also argue -- for the benefit of people who are religious -- that there are highly sophisticated scientific and philosophical defenses of religious belief. No one should be intimidated about his or her religious faith on the assumption that religion is somehow forbidden by current philosophical or scientific learning. This is not the case. ("Is this atheism's moment?")

Faith in God and acceptance or rejection of religious tradition is a choice for each person. I have always described myself as an atheist. By means of philosophical effort, I have come to recognize that belief is just as respectable a choice, intellectually, as the opposite. Much more important than formal religious beliefs, for me, is the ethical commitment to others that one makes in life. In being a "good" person, it helps to stay far away from New Jersey. Otherwise, goodness seems to be compatible with religious faith or its absence.

The struggle to be a good person is a daily one that is never finished. ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

1) The theory of absolute presuppositions.

Ayer's statement of this issue is interesting because, unconsciously, Ayer reverses Collingwood's ideas. As we say in the neighborhood, Ayer reads Collingwood "backwards":

His [Collingwood's] first step is to advance the supposition that 'Every statement that anybody ever makes is made in answer to a question.' As stated this is plainly false if it implies that a question has been posed in every case. We may perhaps assume that Collingwood was thinking of scientific statements ... (p. 198.)

Collingwood's second proposition is that every question involves a presupposition. I doubt whether this is true either, if it is understood to apply universally, but it may be true of the sort of scientific questions that Collingwood has in mind. (p. 198.)

Now let us begin by reversing Ayer's presentation of these statements. There are presuppositions for every form of human activity or inquiry. At the most obvious level, you had to be born in order to do philosophy in your twenties. You had to learn a language and master a highly technical discipline with a long history. Intellectual activities arise to satisfy a present need. You find out stuff in order to get things done that will be helpful to you: "I am hungry." This statement might be understood as a response to the unarticulated questions: "How do you feel? or, Do you want to eat something?"

Questions call for answers, though neither questions nor answers need to be conscious or even fully understood or articulated by the questioners. All human inquiries are attempts to answer large clusters of questions, though often not questions that are well understood. Sometimes, the questions giving rise to a discipline have been forgotten. As a result, our answers no longer make much sense. Ignorance of the history of structures of thought makes disentangling the strands and sub-inquiries that have accumulated over centuries impossible. Hence, people in these fields no longer understand one another. Besides, other forces cloud the nature of the original "query" -- like the subtle and pernicious presence of power, as Michel Foucault suggests. ("Michel Foucault and the Authorship Question.")

Suppose you go into a grammar school classroom and play "telephone." Have each child whisper something to the student sitting next to him or her then ask the last child in the row what was heard. Often that child will say something with no connection to what was first spoken.

Enter a conversation involving a crowd of speakers one hour after it began, with no knowledge of what has been said before your arrival and you will be lost. ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

Every person is asking or presenting you with a question. Rarely are these questions articulated verbally. Almost always -- this is especially true of women -- explicit formulation of these questions will be greeted with hostility. ("Immanuel Kant and the Narrative of Freedom.")

Philosophy is a conversation that began at least two thousand, five hundred years ago. The same is true of science. There is good reason to believe that these words -- philosophy and science -- designate different aspects of a single "conversation/inquiry" among persons. Ignoring the history of that conversation -- call it dialectics -- will make genuine progress or even meaningful participation difficult. ("Master and Commander.")

Remember that every question involves presuppositions, usually these presuppositions are so obvious to the people who initiate the dialogue, that there is no felt need to state them explicitly. After centuries of discussion and debate, however, such presuppositions may be forgotten, thus rendering much of the on-going discussion absurd. See Alasdair MacIntyre's "disquieting suggestion" in After Virtue. Collingwood writes:

When Plato described thinking as 'a dialogue of the soul with itself,' he meant that it was a process of question and answer, and that of these two elements the primacy belongs to the questioning activity, the Socrates within us. (p. 35, Autobiography.)


For a logic of propositions I wanted to substitute what I called a logic of question and answer. It seemed to me that truth, if that meant the kind of thing which I was accustomed to pursue in my ordinary work as a philosopher or historian -- truth in the sense in which a philosophical theory or an historical narrative is called true, which seemed to me to be the proper sense of the word -- was something that belonged not to any single proposition, nor even, as the coherence theorists maintained, to a complex of propositions taken together; but to a complex consisting of questions and answers. (p. 37, Autobiography.) ("Donald Davidson's Anomalous Monism" and "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

Collingwood sees truth as totality, something dynamic and relational. ("Conversation On a Train.")

Ayer's idea of precision is to isolate and sharpen a single atomic proposition and test its verifiability to determine truth-content. This is exactly the wrong approach when examining philosophical claims arising as part of an enormously complex conversation spanning centuries, that is, wrong when examining a "form of life." In all encounters with other cultures and their residents we are "meeting" forms of life different from our own. ("A Philosophical Investigation of Ludwig Wittgenstein.")

The idea of love and its transformations as well as "relations" (term of art) with every important idea in Western thought, if pursued rigorously from Plato's Symposium to Jean Luc Marion's current speculations, will yield a complete depiction of Western speculation on ultimate matters from a feminine-masculine as opposed to the usual masculine-feminine perspective.

The same inquiry may be pursued, dialectically, by focusing on the idea of evil with equally synoptic results. Networks-theory interlocking with systems-thinking. This is a new way of "doing" philosophy that is inclusive of literature, cinema, music and performance, also science and mathematics. This may be a new way of doing an old style of philosophy. ("Drawing Room Comedy: A Philosophical Essay in the Form of a Film Script.")

I think that atomism is hopelessly flawed as an approach to the understanding of people in social settings. Hence, the problem with standardized tests created by and for "standardized" people. In any relationship, including the student and teacher dialectic, each person serves as question and answer for the other. Quantum mechanics has made the importance of these entanglements clearer. ("Dialectics, Emtaglements, and Special Relativity.")

"We teach students to have a thesis statement, then three supporting propositions." Right, Mr. English teacher. This sounds like an excellent method for interpreting and getting the most out of Shakespeare's profound literary enigmas and wise poetry. It makes literary discussion into a "science." Hamlet is a good play. (Thesis statement.) This is followed by three supporting propositions.

I am not sure that this is the best way to encourage original and creative thinking about literary texts or anything else. This may be seen as "Newtonian thinking" in a "post-Einsteinian age."

American lawyers and many others, including teachers doing education science on the side, are taught this atomistic approach to intellectual questions. This is also how students are evaluated by such persons. How specific can you be? Answer: I don't want to be specific. I want to be inclusive of a vast field (explanatory power) and universalizing (predictive power). I hope to be less specific, sometimes, but more general and profound.

"Knowledge of natural necessities stimulates knowledge of natural kinds which stimulates knowledge of their ways of acting, which, invoking the generalized concepts of reference and referent," Roy Bhaskar writes, "leads to an extended concept of existence (embracing causality) and a fortiori of classification, such that transfactually active tendencies may themselves be grouped into natural kinds (of causal laws)."

Plato Etc. (London: Verso, 1994), p. 27. For Bhaskar's discussion of Ayer's positivism and the problem with verificationism as well as Karl Popper's falsificationist response, see page 37.

Bhaskar is sometimes misquoted by the "it's-all-relative" school as one who denies the objectivity of truth. Nothing could be more inaccurate. To suggest, as Bhaskar does, that all knowledge is social knowledge of an independently existing world is: 1) not to deny that the knowledge thus acquired may be objective (Hegel), in terms of a rational or historical scheme; or 2) that knowledge can ever be known to exist without knowers (Kant).

Bhaskar's thinking is best compared to Putnam's and Rorty's thinking, so that both coherence and correspondence features in Dialectical Critical Realism, which is also compatible with religious commitment or its absence.

This is not "vagueness," but universality leading to the widest possible understanding -- which is the goal of dialectics, where the subject of discussion is always evolving, as a process with both a logic and specific history. Kind of like people.

Think of Constitutional law in America. It ain't real estate law, right? O.K., law students explain the difference between those two areas of law. Can you understand Constitutional law without understanding the history of the subject? If not, why not? "Where" is American Constitutional law going? How do you know that? Can you understand any person without knowing his or her history? If not, why not? Where are we "going," New Jersey? ("New Jersey Filth, Failures, and Flaws.")

I want a thesis statement and three supporting propositions.

This atomistic and positivistic method is a helpful approach in some inquiries, though even in the sciences it is drastically limited when theoretical insight or imagination is called for. In philosophy and the so-called human or social sciences, including psychology and law -- when logical atomism is pursued in exclusive and isolated fashion -- it can be disastrous.

Analytical precision, as opposed to synthesizing or narrative intelligence and synoptic vision, can result in a highly methodical form of imbecility. But enough about our appellate courts in New Jersey. ("New Jersey's Feces-Covered Supreme Court.")

Imagination is desperately needed to project the knower into the situation of questioners and dialogue participants confronting what is to be known, so as to formulate adequate responses to the appropriate questions at issue in order to provide "successful" answers, that is, to "know" things. Fundamental questions are always changing.

This Hegelian notion of dialectical movement leads to Collingwood's "ideal-historicism."

2) "All history is the history of thought."

Collingwood's explanation of his famous historicism which -- despite his claims to the contrary -- can only be understood as a contribution to the idealist tradition, suffered from confused articulation due to illness. Collingwood suffered several strokes while working on The Idea of History. 

Absolute -- as distinguished from relative -- presuppositions cannot be compared. They are not true or false, but historical artifacts. Gadamer on prejudice and Lonnergan on insight and horizon in interpretation come to mind at this point. So does Ricoeur's phenomenological-hermeneutics.

I can hear the relativists grumbling and salivating. Not so fast philosophical fashionistas.

Collingwood's historicism is supplemented (and even motivated) by religious concerns, so that it serves a function comparable to Bradley's Absolute. I read Bradley into Collingwood's system, as the completion of Collingwood's dialectics.

To understand the thinking -- including scientific thinking -- of any period, it is necessary to understand the presuppositions on which that thinking is (often unconsciously) based. Ayer's presuppositions dictate his reading. Collingwood believes that this is true for all of us. Different historical conditions give rise to unique presuppositions, all of them arising from what has come before.

No one set of presuppositions is "better" -- except that they may be more accurate or useful -- than others. "Better" is always linked to "purpose" for Collingwood, as payoffs are connected to favors in New Jersey's legal and political circles. ("Menendez is Charged With Selling His Office" and "Is Menendez For Sale?")

Collingwood is missing Bradley's Absolute, as I say, or a direction to universal history. Bradley would insist that feeling tells us of levels of reality beyond mundane truth or any epistemological presuppositions, a reality which is linked to the primal experience of being.

Heidegger now comes in handy. All narratives, in their totality, seem to point in the direction of ultimate Being. That's "God" in case you didn't get it. Quentin Lauer comments of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit:

Hegel is convinced from the beginning that the odyssey he describes is a "spiritual" one; that consciousness, if permitted to reveal itself, will reveal itself at every level as "spiritual," as opposed to [merely] natural activity.

A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 4.

In the same way, I read Spinoza as a step towards Kant and Hegel. I direct the reader, once again, to MacMurray's and Lonergan's theological writings. I now offer quotes, first, from the writings of a theoretical physicist and priest; second, from the writings of F.H. Bradley. Ready? Here we go:

Reality is built up from relationships. Wholes have a significance exceeding that of the bits that make them up. ... I AM saying that the existence of the Creator would explain why the world is so profoundly intelligible, and I can't see any other explanation that works half so well.

John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos & Christianity, p. 36, p. 75.

"... our main wants -- for truth and life, for beauty and goodness -- must all find satisfaction" in the Absolute; in short what is supremely real is also supremely valuable."

W.H. Walsh, quoting Appearance and Reality, in D.J. O'Connor, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p. 431.

I'll throw in one more:

Bradley's Absolute is a harmonious, unitary, supra-relational system werein all appearances were included and reconciled, and the external divisions introduced by discursive thinking overcome. Even thought itself would be absorbed within this all-embracing whole, reaching a consumation that could at the same time be said to involve its extinction. [Unity with God?]

Patrick Gardiner, Nineteenth Century Philosophy, p. 403.

All history is thus the history of thought since it is based on cognitive presuppositions. History is about how people understood themselves and the world, which results from what they presupposed about both, given their placement in the on-going "conversation" of humanity.

[Metaphysics] is primarily at any given time what people of that time believe about the world's general nature; such beliefs being the presuppositions of all their 'physics,' that is their inquiries into its detail. Secondarily, it is the attempt to discover the corresponding presuppositions of other peoples and other times, and to follow the historical process by which one set of presuppositions has turned into another. (Autobiography, p. 65-66.)

Ayer's logical positivism and self-contradictory verificationism is steeped in thirties' suspicion of idealism and the German metaphysical tradition associated (by Ayer's generation) with World War I -- which was still fresh in people's minds -- and with the atrocities of the Nazis, which were only beginning then and the anticipated World War that was to come.

People failed to appreciate that this hostile reaction was also very German, not least in its extreme form in the works of some members of the Vienna Circle.

To understand a historical development or any person moving through time, acting purposefully, it will be necessary not to isolate atomic propositions, but to INTERPRET and even construct narratives seeking to account for (explain) a historical journey in its entirety. In addition to analysis, there will be a need for imaginative scope and ambition, holistic thinking. These qualities are in short supply even at my daughter's excellent school. Narrative or interpretive rationality will be vital in our intellectual lives, besides or supplementing analytical clarity. ("Immanuel Kant and the Narrative of Freedom" and "David Hume's Philosophical Romance.")

Guess what disciplines are really good at developing interpretive skills? Philosophy, Constitutional law, literature, performing arts, science, but also religion. All of these subjects are secular studies, appropriate for the classroom; all may also be pursued "religiously," as forms of devotion. Science pursued by an atheist may be devotional and highly spiritual. ("Jacques Derrida's Philosophy as Jazz.")

Next I turn to some surprising philosophical errors and faulty interpretations by Ayer resulting from his non-comprehension of Collingwood's metaphysics. Anything given as an offering of the self, a giving of oneself, is devotional. An analogy may be drawn between the Chinese language of gifts, deriving from Confucianism and later Buddhist traditions to "offerings" in the Catholic mass.

II. Ayer's Discontent.

Ayer both misunderstands and ineffectively critizes the "ontological argument" for God's existence:

There is no need to press the question whether the idea of there being something than which nothing greater can be thought has any meaning. Let the concept be allowed to pass. The mere fact that someone entertains it is not in the least inconsistent with his [a philosopher's] denying that there is anything to which it applies.

The difficulties associated with this passage are both internal and external: 1) internal to Ayer's Humean empiricism is the argument that what is in the mind, always and necessarily, comes from the senses. This is something which cannot be established by sense data. There can be no sense-knowledge of God; however, Ayer has allowed for the acceptance of the concept of God as a Being "than which no greater can be conceived" (Aquinas, Anselm), which then requires the further acknowledgment by Ayer that a Being who exists is greater than one who does not. Since God is a "Being none greater than which can be conceived," as a matter of necessity, the mere use of the concept of God and its acceptance, logically demands postulating God's NECESSARY existence as following from His nature by definition. This is an a priori argument.

Analogously, I may use the word and concept "universe." If I do, and if I accept the definition of the word and concept, then I cannot say: "I am excluding Trenton, New Jersey from the universe." Given what the word and concept "universe" means, then Trenton and (alarmingly!) the entire state of New Jersey must be "in" the universe as a matter of logical necessity.

"Everybody," Jackie Mason says, "has gotta be somewhere." Some unfortunate persons will have to be in New Jersey. Worse, there may be an infinite number of New Jerseys in an infinite number of universes, each of them with a Supreme Court in which seven persons in black robes are equipped with typewriters or computers to wreak havoc on unsuspecting citizens. ("Law and Ethics in the Soprano State.")

Additional difficulties with this passage from Ayer's essay arise from external philosophical positions, that is, from outside logical positivism.

Phenomenology has established that consciousness is a quality of directedness in the human mind. Consciousness is characterized by intentionality. Consciousness is always consciousness "of" something. Consciousness is a pointing towards that which is the object of consciousness -- which is not necessarily empirical, yet still "real."

A mathematical formula is not empirical, but it is real. Einstein's E = MC2 is a real and true description, but this formula is not physically located in any one particular place.

When thinking of God, therefore, the mind must be pointing at something external, giving rise to such a concept in the first place. No mind is conscious of a cup, if there is nothing in the universe to correlate with the object; but it may be that mind and consciousness itself -- this mysterious and unique human faculty -- is already a participation in (or product of) something that is tentatively designated by the word "God."

For there seems to be no other successful attempt to account for this mysterious "world-constituting" power of humanity, which is consciousness or mind. Josiah Royce insists that you can only direct yourself towards or conceive of something of which you already have an idea in your mind.

Why is Einstein's formula "real"? What is the "order" which makes that formula real? ("Is it rational to believe in God?")

In a recent article in Discovery, Mr. John Horgan assumes the truth of what he says cannot be known to be true by stating: "... modern researchers ... attempt to locate the physiological causes of religious experience, characterize its effects, perhaps replicate it, and perhaps even begin to explain its abiding influence." (p. 52, December, 2006)

This assumes that religion and God are produced or caused by mental processes, which are then assumed to be identical with brain processes -- assumptions made without arguments or explanations. But then, Mr. Horgan says: "Science cannot tell us if God exists only in our imaginations or as an entity beyond our comprehension." (p. 57, December, 2006)

If God may exist externally, objectively and "beyond our comprehension," then looking for the causes of God and religion "in" the brain does not sound like a very smart plan. ("Pieta.")

Also, what does Mr. Horgan mean by God? Or religion? No definitions are offered that can possibly address the complexities of these concepts. The God idea may include both the thinking process as well as what is thought about or "of." ("Metaphor is Mystery.")

Ayer makes a statement that reveals scientific ignorance. Ayer states at page 205: "One may hope that it is only philosophers who conjure with possible worlds and make heavy weather of necessity."

This book appeared in 1984. It was written in 1982. The first experiments with dark matter suggesting alternate realities or the "multiverse theory" date from the early sixties and seventies. Hawking's work with "black holes" also dates from this period, late sixties and early seventies.

Discussions by thinkers -- such as David Lewis concerning counterfactuals -- were also available to Ayer. Hence, Ayer is simply mistaken about (or unaware of) the science of alternate universes or the "mutiverse theory." He is unaware when writing this book that SCIENTISTS were deeply concerned (and still are) with "possible worlds," not to mention a postulated "God gene." Research concerning the "Higgs' field boson" dates from about 1964.

Why would we be equipped with such a "God" gene, if we are? Would such a gene not serve some objective purpose in the empirical world? Would there not be "something" to which that gene "corresponds"? Maybe there is something that makes the God gene "real."

A third error or inadequacy in Ayer's essay is strictly for the philosophical cognoscienti. 

Like most analytical philosophers, Ayer recognizes Kant's genius and yet he has great difficulties with Kant's system. Ayer says: "The Kantian form of idealism is accurately described by Collingwood as representing nature, that is to say, the material world of Galileo and Newton, as a 'rational and necessary product of the human way of looking at things'; what it omits and is condemned by Collingwood for omitting is a consistent account of what things are in themselves." (p. 208.)

Ayer fails to realize that he should have written for us nature appears in a rational and necessary way, according to Kant, but that we can not know nature as it is itself, apart from all knowers. However, Kant goes on to say that we can know some things about the universe: namely, that it makes itself known to rational -- and spiritual? -- agents only in a certain way, i.e., in space and time-thinking, subject to rational constraints. This leads Kant to a "warranted belief" or practical postulate that God "is" and the idea of God alone suggests as much necessarily. Here is Kant doing the philosophical equivalent of a slam dunk:

But, surely, people will proceed to ask we may admit a wise and omnipotent Author of the world? Certainly, we may answer, and not only we may, but we MUST.

Kant does not make Ayer's mistakes when deploying metaphysical concepts, like the idea of God, even as he rejects a traditional understanding of the ontological argument, which becomes a practical postulate in Critical Theory suggesting God's existence "in reason."

That idea, [God] therefore, is entirely founded on the enjoyment of our reason in the world ... And although we can discover but little of that perfection of the world, it is nevertheless a law of our reason, always to look for it and to expect it; and it must be beneficial, and can never be hurtful, to carry on the investigation of nature according to this [Deus] principle.

Critique of Pure Reason, [A 698-701; B 726 - 729] (New York: Anchor, 1966), F. Max Muller translation of the 1781 and 1786 editions, together, at pp. 453-455.

Thinking is what we are here to do, but only so that we learn to love one another. When we love, we find ourselves -- wherever we turn -- thinking or sharing in one thought above all others.

Hegel came to the same conclusion. Einstein found himself believing in Spinoza's God after a similar chain of reasoning. We find at the end of all our exploring a warm and welcoming presence. It is a short word I am thinking of, but if you prefer to speak of "love" that will do:

"Synchronicities give us a glimpse beyond our conventional notions of space and time [a hint of the Mind of God?] into the immense patterns of nature, the underlying dance which connects all things and the mirror which is suspended between inner and outer universes. With synchronicity as our starting point, it becomes possible to begin the construction of a bridge that spans the worlds of mind and matter, physics and psyche."

F. David Peat, Synchronicity: The Bridge Between Matter and Mind (New York: Bantam, 1987), p. 2.

Dr. Peat is a theoretical physicist who worked with David Bohm. Dr. Peat's first articles raising these issues appeared in 1974. There is a direct line from Plato's Symposium to the most recent research in the so-called "hard sciences."

Ayer's discussion of Collingwood's historical thesis is even more inadequate.

"Neither is it clear," Ayer writes, "why history should be limited to the history of thought." (p. 212.)

Ayer suggests that descriptions of natural events are "objective." This reveals Ayer's inadequate understanding of history.

The distinction between natural and "spiritual" events -- with empirical manifestations -- is a historical one. In thinking of any event, meaning or understanding is always "historical and must be thought," which is exactly Collingwood's point. To a person who cannot conceive of a divide between spiritual and natural reality (and there are millions or billions of such persons on the planet today), Ayer's distinction between objective events and subjective meanings of events is absurd. This includes much of Islamic civilization. Not everyone in the world is a child of the European Enlightenment accepting the fact/value dichotomy. Occurrences may be both "actions" and "events." ("S.L. Hurley on Beliefs and Reasons for Action.")

It is not the same event if Vesuvius erupted for explicable "natural" causes than if it exploded because the gods were angry at men. See Susan Neiman's recent book on evil and her discussion of the great earthquake in Lisbon, you'll see what I mean.

The historian wishes to understand the event as men and women who lived through it understood it. However, to understand it in today's terms is also to think it, only in a new and different way. There is no way to think about historical events while not thinking. "Think" about it. Then take another look at the ontological argument for God's existence.

Two cookies and ice cream for anyone who makes a connection.

Are drone attacks against Al Qaeda targets seen in the same terms by Americans and all others in the Middle East? If Jacques Derrida is correct that, in the realm of human meanings, there is nothing outside the text, then the challenge becomes to step out from those "texts" that are no longer working in order to develop new ones.

Ricoeur seeks to capture this process of new beginnings in terms of a "hermeneutics of freedom."

Are we (or our enemies) supplying the "text" in the Middle East? Who is making the effort to define America's "War on Terror"? Are we (or our enemies) defining America for the world?

The Iran deal, a new beginning with Cuba, unprecedented possibilities in international economic relations are ways, I believe, that Mr. Obama is creating alternative options for failed conversations between nations that may become successes.

In thinking of God -- even rejecting God -- you are involved with the concept of God, which is (from a logical point of view) to postulate God's reality, as an idea (ideas exist), possibly also as much more. This is an exclusively philosophical reasoning or argument.

Many great philosophers have found this conclusion inescapable, even critics acknowledge the subtlety and richness of the argument. Ayer does not get it. Yet this highly successful argument was not produced in a laboratory and cannot be verified empirically.

You may wish to delete a letter from this text in order to express frustration if you hate traditional religions. Knock yourselves out.

Conclusion: "Back to Parent Teacher Day."

Along with tons of homework and a concern to have students learn plenty of facts and a methodical approach to subjects, I suggest that imagination should be encouraged and narrative intelligence developed in students. Learning at its best is a kind of playing.

Values and religion -- discussed in secular terms as an important social phenomenon with cognitive significance -- may be "appropriate" subjects even for the public school classroom.

I wonder whether any of my daughter's teachers is reading Collingwood's books? I hope so, but I doubt it. ("Whatever" and "America's Nursery School Campus.")

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