Posts Tagged ‘Rochester Russell Forum’

In search of the transcendent (update)

June 7, 2016

Update: This was originally posted on March 31, 2016.  Robert Heineman replied on June 6, 2016.  His reply can be found in the comment thread.  Click on this for his original talk.

A RESPONSE TO ROBERT HEINEMAN
By Philip Ebersole

My friend Dr. Robert A. Heineman gave a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, saying that modern philosophy is a failure to the extend that it denies the reality of the “transcendent.”

He unfortunately did not provide a good five-cent definition of “transcendent,” so I resorted to my old Webster’s dictionary.  Here is what I found:

TRANSCENDENT: (1) exceeding usual limits, (2) extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience, (3) beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge, (4) transcending the universe or material existence.

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

I would not deny that there are forces, entities and laws not only beyond ordinary experience, but beyond all possible experience and knowledge.  Our knowledge is a drop, as William James is quoted as saying, and our ignorance is an ocean.

My question is: How do you philosophize about something that is beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge and transcends the universe itself?  My second question is:  What relevance would things beyond all possible knowledge and experience have to me and the people I know?

∞∞∞

Dr. Heineman looks for answers in the findings and limitations of modern science.  He makes three points.

First, he argues that contemporary science has produced concepts such as “quantum entanglement” that appear to defy logic and certainly defy common sense, but appear to fit the facts.

It may be, as the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.

Second, he argues there are certain questions that science can’t answer and may never be able to answer.

I think this is true, and important to keep in mind.   Dr. Heineman is very right to push back against reductionist arguments that claim metaphysical questions can be answered in terms of chemistry and physics.

Scientific inquiry reveals much that is important about how things work and that is relevant to philosophical understanding – for example, about how brain activity and brain chemistry are correlated with human thought and emotion.

But neurology and biochemistry do not explain how my experience of being a conscious, thinking, decision-making human being arises from brain activity.  In fact, I can’t define what an explanation would consist of.

Third, he argues that the structure of mathematics is an example of transcendence.  The Pythagorean Theorem is not tangible.  It is not part of everyday human experience.  Yet it is objectively real, not a human creation like literature.  Mathematicians are continually making new discoveries that other mathematicians verify.

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The failure of philosophy in a secular age

June 7, 2016
Bob-Heineman-W

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.

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Jurgen Habermas and his three tests of truth

September 10, 2015

These are notes for my talk to the Rochester Russell Forum at Writers & Books Literary Center, 740 University Ave., Rochester, NY on Thursday, September 10, 2015

One of the things that Bertrand Russell wrestled with all his life with a theory of knowledge—how we can know anything for sure.  It is a question we have discussed in different ways at the Russell Forum.

I plan to discuss some ideas of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that have helped me understand these questions better —specifically, his idea that there are different kinds of knowledge, each with their specific tests for validity.

Jurgen Habermas is the grand old man of German philosophy.  He is now in his 80s, and occupies the same position in German intellectual life as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey did in British and American intellectual life at that point in their lives.  Habermas by the way was an admirer of the American pragmatists.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

He served his philosophical apprenticeship as a member of the Frankfurt School – the Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt – which sought to develop ideas of Hegel and Karl Marx.

Max Horkheimer, the director of the Frankfurt school, believed (like John Dewey, but unlike Bertrand Russell) that philosophy was not a separate academic discipline, over and above the natural and social sciences, but rather must be integrated with and draw on all of them.

Neither did the Frankfurt school believe that philosophy could be separated from the times and the social setting of philosophers.  Its members believed in something they called Critical Theory, which showed how the ideas of any given time were a product of a historical process.

The Frankfurt school transplanted itself to New York City during the Nazi era, and its leaders, like many cultivated Europeans before them, were horrified by the vulgar industrialized American culture.  They thought that Americans in their way were just as manipulated by propaganda and just as lacking in independent thought as Germans under Hitler.

Horkheimer and his follower Theodore W. Adorno wrote a treatise called The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which I haven’t read, but in which I understand that he said that the ideals of reason and science, developed during the 18th century Enlightenment, have failed.  They have been turned against themselves, and merely resulted in new methods of oppression and social control.

But, as Habermas said, if we are all products of our particular society and historical era, and if the public opinion is controlled by the manipulation of the powers that be, how it is possible from something such as Critical Theory to have any objective validity?  How is it possible that any progress or improvement takes place at all?

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