Wednesday, 8 July 2009

China’s Pyrrho

“Shen Tao discarded knowledge, abandoned self, followed the inevitable, and was indifferent to things. Such were his principles. He said: ‘Knowledge is not to know’. He was one who despised knowledge and would destroy it. Stupid and irresponsible, he ridiculed the world’s way of preferring the virtuous; careless and impractical, he condemned the world’s great Sages; shifting and slippery, he changed about with circumstances; disregarding right and wrong, he was only concerned with avoiding trouble; learning nothing from knowledge and thinking, paying no attention to past or future, he stood loftily indifferent to everything.”

Chuang-tzu, ch. 33., tr. H.A. Giles (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926), quoted by Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1: The Period of the Philosophers (from the Beginnings to circa 100bc), tr. D. Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p.153. (Further: “Men of ability laughed at him and said: ‘The way of Shen Tao is no practice for the living; it is a principle for the dead’.” Ibid.)

Hope to an End

“Democracy is a daring concept — a hope that we’ll be best governed if all of us participate in the act of government.” [1]

It is another example of how connotations and motivating factors usurp the rule of a word’s denotations, such that a clear appreciation of what is meant or proposed or entailed is obscured. Naturally a hope that we shall be governed best if such-and-such happens is not a form of government, let alone a good one; it is merely a hope to that end. A hope, so far as I know, cannot be a form of government, except in the apolitical sense that it can govern a man’s deeds to good or ill effect. Hoping may well be a motivating factor in bringing the concept of democracy to realisation, so far as that is possible, but it has nothing to do with the concept itself. Furthermore the word “democracy” does not denote goodness, nor does the fact itself entail it; such is a connotation which a man fancies without reason. That said, I entertain a hope — though I dare say I am not governed by it — that the quiet and seemingly-innocuous emptying of words of their denotative meanings in the heads of many will not go so far as to bring about terrible consequences for all. It may well denote a vain hope.

[1] Brian Eno, “A New Politics”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 8th July 2009.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

From a Wordbook

bundling, n. A political party’s custom, hardly to be averted, of offering to an electorate a range of policies which must thereupon be accepted together as a bundle, or not at all; wherewith a discerning vote for one policy by taste and attraction can be to no avail since it is an undifferentiated vote for them all by effect, albeit in the highly unlikely event that it has any effect at all. Cf., wholesaling, nose-holding, and unlucky-bag; not to be confused with bungling. See P.R. Hornblower’s The Unavoidable Legitimation of Unappealing and Treacherous Policies when Held in Common by All Politickal Parties in Democratick Republicks (London: 1691), celebrated author of Politickal Tricks and Phancies and How to Foole Them All of the Time.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Darwin and God

“[F]aced with the facts at his disposal, Darwin reached the same conclusion as the Swedish Humanist Association: There’s probably no God.” [1]

He reached no such conclusion. He tended to waver between deism and agnosticism:
“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.
...“Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,—a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,—and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.” [2]
“I cannot believe that there is a bit more interference by the Creator in the construction of each species, than in the course of the planets.” [3]
“The mind refuses to look at this universe, being what it is, without having been designed; yet, where one would most expect design, viz. in the structure of a sentient being, the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design.” [4]
“There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.” [5]
“My views are far from clear . . . I can never make up my mind how far an inward conviction that there must be some Creator or First Cause is really trustworthy evidence.” [6]
“I feel in some degree unwilling to express myself publicly on religious subjects, as I do not feel that I have thought deeply enough to justify any publicity.” [7]
“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist. . . . What my own views may be is a question of no consequence to any one except myself.— But as you ask, I may state that my judgment often fluctuates. . . . In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God.— I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” [8]
I should add that Darwin was hardly a knowledgeable authority on the theological arguments, nor understood their subtlety or philosophical grounding, as he himself acknowledged. Still, the belief is in no way true that in the mid-nineteenth century Darwin became a Dawkinsian. I do not fear that I present a greatly controversial theory when I say that it is a belief which has evolved in no small part at the creative hand of a vociferous epigone and philosophical buffoon, though one yet falling short of omnipresence. Nonetheless, the former Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science has amply fulfilled the duty for which that chair might have been instituted. If any members of the public have not by now understood that science as a human industry is one in which misinformation, polemics, ignorance, bullying, psychological appeals, inherited prejudices, woeful arguments, philosophical ineptitude, and base motives also play a part, then the blame lies more with them than with the professor; for he has demonstrated almost everything that was humanly possible in that regard.

[1] Björn Ulvaeus, “Religion and schools don’t mix”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 30th June 2009. (I am aware that the quotation comes from some pop-entertainer, but I feel it is worth adding my tuppence-worth to the rebuttal, since the view seems to be quite widely assumed.)
[2] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Asa Gray, 22nd May 1860, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[3] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to Charles Lyell, 17th June 1860, ibid.
[4] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.J. Wedgwood, 11th July 1861, ibid.
[5] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex,
Vol. I. (London: John Murray, 1871), p.65.
[6] C.R. Darwin,
Letter to F.E. Abbot, 6th September 1871, published online at Darwin Correspondence Project.
[7] Ibid.
[8] C.R, Darwin,
Letter to John Fordyce, 7th May 1879, ibid.