Monday, September 16, 2013

Can you have the bells without the believers?

Richard Dawkins and I have something in common (almost). He considers himself a cultural Anglican and I consider myself a cultural Catholic. For both of us, a world in which there were no churches would be a world in which there were something important missing. At the very least, there would be an aesthetic loss, but there would also be a loss of a sense—he seems to be saying, and I would agree—of what the Western identity has been. 
I imagine I am a little more invested in my cultural Catholicism than Dawkins is in his Anglicanism. More than considering going into a church, I regularly go to the chapel near my office after classes and I engage in other practices rooted in my tradition. But that's not the point I want to make.
Rather, it is that being a cultural Catholic or Anglican or member of another tradition requires that there be committed members of the same tradition. Of course, Dawkins is in a slightly different situation, since his aesthetic comfort is state-supported. But, even in that case, and even if he is right that many Anglicans don't actually believe anymore, when there are no more believers, the churches will be just museums and the sepulchers—as Nietzsche's madman had it—of the dead God. That is not quite the same thing as a functioning church to which you have a cultural affinity, any more than an altarpiece in a museum is the same thing as an altarpiece in a church. Having been divorced from its purpose, it loses some of its meaning. There's no contradiction in being a non-believing, though culturally-entwined, member of a tradition. There might be something elitist about it, maybe it causes a tension, maybe it might even be bittersweet.
But my point is that being a cultural Anglican or Catholic does place a kind of restriction on one. Since what you love relies on committed others, they deserve respect. You can't run around with and cross-promote the work of people who claim that religion poisons everything, a la Hitchens; or, that those who pray are no more stable than those who believe God can be contacted by talking into a hair dryer, a la Harris; or, that all religion is a delusion, a la Dennett (and Freud); and, you can't claim that people ought to lose their jobs because they take their religion seriously, as Dawkins himself has—though that was with a person who believes a religion for which Dawkins has no affinity. 
That is, contrary to the program of many New Atheists, if you value what religion has given your society and even want to see it stick around, you can't deride the people who actually believe it—and create what you like.


Monday, September 09, 2013

A small question about the grammar of "pain"

I am in pain. I have the same persistent dull ache I have had in my elbow since the beginning of the summer when I began a new workout routine with a new workout partner. The pain is strong enough—so maybe not a dull ache—that it makes sleeping difficult. 
But, in the process of watching an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I forget the pain. The mixture of laughter at juvenile humor and wondering whether this isn't just a picture of human nature at its unvarnished core comes to the fore in my mind.
At the end of the episode, as I begin to get ready for bed, I again begin to think about my elbow and I notice the pain again.
A question presents itself: Would we say that I was in pain during the show? (This is a question about what we would say about the mental state, not a question about what science tells us about the operation of my nervous system and brain.) 

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Beauty and supervenience

On Monday, I will be lecturing on Plato, as I do near the beginning of each semester. There's something a little like the liturgical year about teaching: the same material comes up again and again, in the same order. And, that can be immensely boring or it can bear me along in a reassuring rhythm, especially when I see something new—with my own eyes or, usually, through the eyes of my undergraduates.
My standard way to introduce students to the theory of Forms is to have them think about beautiful things and what such things have in common that could make them beautiful. This raises a few issues, since most of my students claim to believe that beauty is subjective—they have to be pushed to see that they don't actually judge it this way—and I always have a student or two who wishes to reduce beauty to symmetry or an evolutionary compulsion. 
But, I was also thinking about beauty with regard to one of my other courses this semester. In some ways, no matter how all analogies may limp, beauty seems a near perfect example of a supervenient property, thus an apt case for explaining that notion, as well as multiple realizability, to my philosophy of mind students. 
There's little question (to me) that the beauty of a piece of music or a face or a painting is determined by its physical properties. I know that this is not accepted by all in aesthetics, but it's near enough to true for me. And, any change in the beauty qua beauty of an object would have to mean a change in that object's physical properties. But, a full catalog of the physical properties of Mozart's Requiem or Michelangelo's David would not capture its beauty. There's just no reducing beauty to the physical, for all the determination by the physical. And, it should be obvious that there are many different ways to achieve beauty. So, this looks to me like an easier entree into the concepts of supervenience and multiple realizability than just hitting them with the mental supervening on the physical.
I'm sure introducing these notions through this example will lead to undreamt of nightmares of explication, but in this I have hope.