The failure of philosophy in a secular age


Dr. Robert A. Heineman

Robert Heineman is professor of political science at Alfred University.  He is the author of several books, including Authority and the Liberal Tradition and (with W.T. Bluhm) Ethics and Public PolicyThe following is his notes for a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, at Writers & Books Literary Center in Rochester, NY.

This was originally posted on March 13, 2016.

By Dr. Robert Heineman
Alfred University

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_This evening I propose to engage the claims of the secular humanists that there is no “transcendent” reality in the world.  My argument moves beyond positions of this sort that take religion as their opponent, as does Philip Kitcher in his recent book Life After Faith.

I shall argue that not only is the transcendent existent, but that it has been recognized as such by major thinkers in the western tradition.  What has happened, unfortunately, is that the advances of science and the ideological dominance of academic philosophers have diverted serious intellectual analysis of who we are and where we are located in the universe from a proper framework.

Briefly in terms of western intellectual tradition, for the Greeks science and philosophy were intertwined to the benefit of both.  Following this period the dominance of the Catholic Church imposed a form of transcendental thought on the western world for at least a millennium.

The Enlightenment witnessed the development of tremendous scientific advances led by Isaac Newton, and as a direct corollary those of a philosophical bent constructed major theoretical systems that reflected their belief that all thought had the characteristics of scientific systems.

In this effort the empirical drive of especially English thinkers drove philosophy away from the assumption of universal transcendental axioms toward the narrower confines of logic, language analysis, and quantitative formulations.

George Sabine notes the special importance of advances in mathematics and the move toward a precision of thought beyond the ruminations of classical Greece.  This approach in his words constructed “the principles by means of which systematic inference can construct a completely rational system of theorems.”

The result was an era of “demonstrative systems” of thought that dominated the 17th and 18th centuries that sought a comprehensiveness and logical rigor that was seen as paralleling the “dazzling progress” in the sciences between Galileo and Newton.

This focus has in many ways disabled philosophy as an encompassing framework, both interpretive and analytic, for human beings living in the twenty-first century.  While science continues to project the existence of universals beyond the tangible, philosophers have become ideologically attuned to the empirical as the sole source of truth.

As Quentin Meillassoux has put it contemporary philosophy is witnessing the “religionizing of reason“ in contrast to the progressive rationalization of religion during the hey-day of Greek philosophy.

Clearly many major western thinkers have understood the importance of reality beyond the living and breathing.  Plato obviously was one of the first to posit the existence of ideal forms beyond the tangible.

Later Kant was very clear that his analyses were based on human existence and that there certainly existed a universe beyond such existence, which may well not be apprehendable by individuals.

Hegel, not one of [Bertrand] Russell’s favorite thinkers, nonetheless offered the Geist, or the Spirit, as working its dialectical will in the world.

tractatus-logico-philosophicus-ludwig-wittgenstein-paperback-cover-artAnd finally Wittgenstein asserted at the conclusion of his Tractatus that what is not amenable to logical analysis and knowable through reason must be accepted on faith.

Thus when he visited the Vienna Circle, whose members saw themselves as positivist disciples of the great man, Wittgenstein would sometimes turn away from them and simply read poetry from the works of Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian mystic, indicating the importance of the mystical to him.

Carnap, in particular, described Wittgenstein’s approach as more closely akin to a creative artist than to a rigorous logician.  Similarly, P.M.S. Hacker concludes that in Wittgenstein’s thought we have “a romantic existentialist ethics of the unspeakable.”

Despite this worthy lineage of the idea of transcendental meaning in the world, contemporary thinkers have ignored that concept or worse have denigrated it in often very nasty fashion.  Kitcher’s book is an exception to this approach against the transcendent,  but, while raising useful points, it, frankly, falls short as a form of convincing criticism.

In response to the lack of analysis incorporating the actuality of the transcendent a number of major thinkers have recently, once again, taken up the cudgels.  These thinkers specifically avoid relying on divine sanction and other religious explanations, although they often recognize them as attempts to somehow fathom the transcendent.

In particular I want here to review briefly the arguments of three thinkers—Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, and Quentin Meillassoux.

Dworkin’s approach to my mind is the most shallow of these efforts, although his work in legal theory has been profound.  Dworkin contends that throughout human history there has been a belief in fundamental moral principles that rise above mere utilitarian calculus.  He argues that these undergird the religious impulse among humans and that an atheist arguing for the transcendental  has a basic commonality with religious belief without having to accept the specifics of any particular religious position.

For Dworkin the belief in the metaphysical has been too permanent and universal to be without meaning.  He draws upon the beauty of natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the pervasive symmetry in nature assumed in particular by physicists.

Scientists, he argues, believe that the world is “a certain way,” and this belief has guided scientific progress. While I regard his position as reasonable I think that it lacks the kind of analytic rigor needed to put the secularists in their place.

Dworkin, however, does appear to be speaking to one of the criticisms that pervades much of the thought of Kitcher, and of course other humanists, and that is that across religions the variety of beliefs and practices are so variegated  that the idea of true belief becomes nonsensical.  Dworkin contends that at the most fundamental level of human belief there are real commonalities.

Nagel moves several steps beyond Dworkin with his “New Atheist” position.  Basically he challenges the non-believers with the tools by which they make sense of the world, namely the quantitative and physical.

He argues that the standard accounts of the cosmos “fly in the face of common sense,” and contends that the existence of human consciousness, or reason, confirms a teleological force in the cosmos.  In particular, he sees the claims of a “spontaneous emergence” of the universe and the use of manifold evolutionary mutations to explain human consciousness as simply untenable.

We must move beyond the concept of a mind/body separation and understand that  mind is an integral force throughout man’s existence.  The features of the natural world are not the result of coincidences, of “brute facts.”  The odds of the human mind developing from “brute facts” in a cosmos of infinity are beyond statistical calculation and any other form of probability.

We will return to Nagel’s specific criticisms when we look at how far science can be seen as without the transcendental, but here we note that Nagel calls for a major conceptual revolution that makes mind essential to understanding.

“I find the confidence among the scientific establishment that the whole scenario will yield to a purely chemical explanation hard to understand, except as a manifestation of axiomatic commitment to reductive materialism.”

For Nagel “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value that is inseparable from them” moves us beyond the narrow materialism of biology, physics, and chemistry.

Clearly the most profound philosophical excursion into the transcendence issue has been presented by Quentin Meillassoux, a philosopher teaching at the Sorbonne.

QuentinMeillassouxAfterFinitude91bCbbkJiuLIn his After Finitude  Meillassoux argues that science has outpaced philosophy in its recognition that there exists a realm of power and persistence that is completely unaffected by human existence.  He charactizes the current state of philosophy as Ptolemy’s revenge.

Kant has been given credit for a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy, but Meillassoux charges that Kant’s approach has been a “catastrophe” for philosophical thinking because it has returned to human centered thought, and a rationalism based on correlationism centered on human beings.

In other words, Copernicus and succeeding scientists demonstrated the existence of a world before human existence and irrespective of human existence.  Kant, however, misread this development arguing in terms of human inspired knowledge and laws, returning to the Ptolemaic world based on human existence.  Thus reason defined as discovering correlations became the basis for western philosophy.

That body of thought is incapable of encompassing the absolutes that exist outside of reaches of the human  mind.  For Meillassoux, the entré to the absolute and a world beyond human subjectivity is mathematics.  “Philosophy’s task consists in re-absolutizing the scope of mathematics”(126) and understanding the limitations of  the correlationism of what passes for the rational.

Allow me to suggest that what Meillassoux’s analysis points to once again is the inversion that has occurred between philosophy and science.  At one time philosophy offered guidance to scientific thought and that made sense during the classical age.  With the advent of scientific rationalism and achievement, philosophy never adjusted to the fact that its concepts no longer provided either guidance or inspiration for scientific endeavors.

Today, again following Meillassoux ,philosophers, and perhaps students of literary criticism, remain focused on the human centered and the immediately empirical and disregard the infinite vistas that mathematicians and scientists acknowledge.

At this point I propose that we examine the parameters of science today and note several inescapable facts that seriously undermine the claims of rationality as they are currently fashioned.

First and foremost, we should note that the universe is infinite.  This is a fact that no one can really comprehend and some scientists—cosmologists in particular—struggle mightily to put an understandable definition to this fact.

Given the existence of infinity, it is difficult to argue against transcendence.  Clearly the universe extends far beyond the limits of reason, if it does so, what is there?  Nagel goes after this issue vigorously with his critique of the spontaneous generation of everything.  And let’s say that the “Big Bang” theory is true, where does that leave reason as offered today?

Reason with its if-then approach, or as Meillassoux would have it correlationism, simply cannot cope with the “Big Bang.” Can it be that nothing existed—to phrase a total contradiction—before the Big Bang?

Other problems for the secular humanists arise from the field of quantum mechanics, which moves beyond Einstein’s formulations and offers probabilities instead of predictive laws.  Included in these probabilities is the role of subjective observation, consciousness as Nagel might put it.

Further problematic is the recognition of non-locality in the sub-atomic world.  Any given particle contains plus and negative charges, and it is a fact that if a part of a particle is spun off and measured, the other part, no matter where it is in the universe will possess the opposite charge.  That seems reasonable in the sense that in any atom pluses and negatives can be expected to balance out.

Where the real problem in understanding within the so-called Standard Model arises is with the measurement of spin, or the theory of entanglement.  If subatomic particles are entangled and then separated, and if one particle is measured to have a particular spin, the other particle no matter where located will have an opposite spin.  This theory, called “spooky” by Einstein, has just recently been supported by experiments by Dutch physicists.

No one has been able to explain this “spooky action at a distance,” and it seems pretty clearly to undercut Einstein’s assertion that the speed of light is the most fundamental unalterable measurement in the universe.

Some have argued that the application of human consciousness in the measurement affects the other particle across space; others suggest that there exists an unknowable network, or dynamic, that immediately transmits to the other particle.  Either way traditional explanations fall by the wayside.

A further consequence of quantum mechanics and the related quest for the “theory of everything” has been the demise of empirical experimentation at the outer reaches of physics.  The particles and dynamics being posited are simply incapable of direct observation, so exceptionally creative labels and imaginative forms of measurement have been developed.  One commentator has suggested that disputes among physicists today resemble those among literary critics.

All that I am saying at this point is that there is ample room in science as formulated today for the transcendent, and that much of philosophy remains in a state of “naïve realism” that inhibits useful assumptions and analysis.

An exception in this respect has been the field of mathematics, where it appears that most scholars are in fact Platonists.  In other words, they see themselves as “finding” universals rather than creating formulas or relationships, a position taken by Kurt Godel.  Einstein, for example, had a bit of an epiphany when he finally saw how relativity theory explained phenomena.

Kitcher argues that epiphanies are really simply insights developed over time and often with concentrated thought, and Einstein seems to fit that description pretty well.  But turning to the mathematical, what does one do with Ramanujan. I have mentioned again and again, Robert Kanigel in The Man Who Knew Infinity chronicles the life of this amazing man.  Born a Hindu in one of the backward areas of India, Ramanujan with nothing more than basic math texts began formulating amazingly complex formulas in the dust around his Indian dwelling.  Clearly Ramanajun had spent almost no time concentrating on math.  Moreover, his background was one of borderline poverty and his culture Hindu.

I would argue that the Platonists have an exceptionally strong case with the likes of Ramanujan stretching their minds far beyond what they could have envisioned.  Ramanujan credited his mathematical insights to his family’s goddess, granting a religious overtone to his work.   There is little western training or culture to produce an epiphany in the sense that Kitcher wants to delimit the occurrence.

But we might offer, as well, the view of Ramanujan’s mentor at Cambridge, and one of the premier mathematicians of his age.  [G.H.] Hardy, in contrast to his Hindu colleague, was a confirmed atheist.  Yet for him mathematics also contained a transcendental  element.  Kanigel quotes one who knew him who asserted that he believed that “the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure . . . [and] that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion.”  It seems to me that in these two men we have a juxtaposition of lives and thought that fit comfortably within a Platonic framework.

There are other points that I could offer to support the existence of the transcendent, but I want also to give religion its due.  I am not arguing for the truth of religion, that decision is yours to make.  But I am suggesting several points in this regard.

First, Meillassoux makes the point that the retrogression to the Ptolemaic approach among philosophers leaves a huge vacuum in the area of moral values.  The consequence has been the rather simple-mindedness of the likes of Kitcher, who, frankly, has a difficult time providing any kind of universal goodness in the world because his fundamentals do not allow it.  The utilitarian standard cannot get away from the dilemma posed ably by J.S. Mill.

The good life posited by Kitcher may sound attractive enough, but its components evince what Kitcher, a good, well-educated fellow, sees as virtuous and satisfying.  But clearly these remain subjective and based on naïve realism.  What religion has offered and continues to offer are universal values that have stood the test of time and served as a form of objective morality.

Second, it is very difficult to find anywhere in human history a society that lives solely by the physical, or what is taken for scientific, or the procedures and conclusions of some sort of rational process.  Humans innately search for something beyond themselves.  This seems to be the position of Dworkin as well, although he insists on his atheism.  Still he finds commonality across societies and generations in the need for fundamental transcendent beliefs.

My point is that human history must count for something in this dialogue.  And, of course, immersion in the logical, presented either as narrative or as increasingly abstract and complex formulas, tends heavily to disregard the past and focus on the immediate, with, I would argue, often disastrous effects.

Third, it is interesting to watch secular humanists search for symmetry and beauty in the “real” world, when in fact there is much out there that is neither symmetrical nor beautiful.  In this respect religion often offers answers as well, or at least recognizes the prevalence of evil and ugliness among us.

And I would say in this sense many religions are more closely in touch with the human experience than the abstractions offered by those of the non-religious.  The hubris that strives for the “theory of everything’ has many of the qualities of the Old Testament tale about the Tower of Babel.  And my understanding of Russell is that Russell also suggested that symmetry and beauty are neither inevitable nor necessary to explain the world.

In conclusion, without delving into other telling examples, I believe that wherever one turns, there is irrefutable evidence for the existence of transcendent realities.  Major western philosophers have recognized the possibility.

Current thinkers such as Dworkin, Nagel, and Meillassoux are trying to move philosophy away from the Ptolemaic.  Current science, while pushing the bounds of knowledge further, has reached the stage of concept construction beyond empirical confirmation.  The field of mathematics has had and continues to have strong proponents of the Platonic view of mathematics.

The projection of individual egos and a belief that nothing is beyond human apprehension and construction has resulted in an erroneous and unfortunately narrow understanding of existence and the possibility of a more useful role for philosophy.

It is time for philosophy to move out of the academic confines of disciplinary rigor and into the real world beyond.  Wittgenstein’s reading of Tagore, and perhaps Dr. White’s poetry, may be especially appropriate in this respect.

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3 Responses to “The failure of philosophy in a secular age”

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    I think the answer is to return to the spirituality of our ancestors. The spirituality that reveres the earth, that recognizes we are part of the earth’s creatures. The spirituality that recognizes and respects spirits of place, of land and water. The spirituality that recognizes and reveres a multiplicity of Gods. That functions in tribal units rather than faceless nationalism. We need to relocalize our entire lives. It only starts with food.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. williambearcat Says:

    I remember grappling in college with some of these ideas especially the idea that monotheism was a progressive idea and that we were too assured of our positions/ Some degree of humility is really required.

    I will need to re-read this as it has been quite a while since I grappled seriously about transcendence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vincent M Says:

    At this stage, I just want to thank you for republishing this significant piece. I hold Wittgenstein already in the highest regard as a kind of mentor for the last fifty years, and Nagel ditto for a mere four or five. Now in this you’ve presented some more thinkers of note, and thus once again shown me how blogging can provide a spoor to help guide us through life’s jungle.

    Liked by 1 person

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