I see that John N. Gray’s next book is going to be about…cats. Well, I suppose when you’ve already covered neoliberalism, apocalyptic religion, and the quest for immortality, in addition to various aphoristic works, why not? It’s nice to see that sort of eclectic philosophizing. Gray is one of my favorite thought provocateurs, regardless of his topic, so I’m sure I’ll read this one too. Still, I feel comfortable predicting in advance that in examining mankind’s relationship with felines, Gray will once again find support for his own “godless mystic” worldview. As his mentor Isaiah Berlin famously said, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing, and it strikes me that Gray has become quite the hedgehog in recent years.
Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.
But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction?
Mark Dooley, Conversations With Roger Scruton:
Despite having ‘served an apprenticeship in atheism’, Scruton has, I suggest, never been an atheist per se. ‘On the contrary, I have always assumed that religion is necessary to human communities on sociological and anthropological grounds, as well as on metaphysical grounds. People need something with which to root their beliefs, and also their conduct, their sense of themselves and their relation to others. We are fundamentally related beings and all the religions are shaped by this great need. Take religion away and nihilism is the first result, and then chaos, which is what we’re seeing now. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the doctrines are true. This is the great difficulty for people like me who begin from that anthropological sense of what religion is: how do we make the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” into the actual affirmation of a doctrine? That is something with which I have wrestled all my life.’
When did this wrestling begin? ‘It was a “puberty moment”. When, as a boy, I went in secret to the Anglican Church, I was affirming my own independence and my incipient love of the English way of doing things. But that didn’t last: my life was very soon swept into disorder by the need to leave home and to fend for myself. At Cambridge, I did become fairly atheistical and I have since been persuaded that the truth about our world is given by science and not by any theological doctrine. That is what science is: an attempt to give the truth about our world. It can make no place for the “divine hypothesis” One must therefore find another, non-scientific way to resuscitate the basic contours of a religious worldview, and that is really what I have been doing in my writings. I share with Richard Dawkins the image of the completeness of the natural sciences and the view that there isn’t anything that they leave unexplained, other than the great fact that there is something, and not nothing, a fact that is for that reason inexplicable.
‘I have been very influenced in this by Wagner, and by his attempt, not just to show that art gives you an alternative approach to the deep truths about the human condition that religion advances, but also that it enables you, to a great measure, to resuscitate the idea of the sacred — which is the idea upon which human communities ultimately depend. The sacred is something which one has to find in one’s own life if one is to live that life correctly.’
To take an example related to animal intelligence, I can recall a moment around 15 years ago when I was sitting on a park bench in Tokyo eating my lunch. I was watching some crows strutting around the park looking for food. Suddenly I noticed that the very same intelligence that looked at the world through my eyes also looked at the world through the eyes of those crows.
It’s very difficult to write a good, watertight, rational kind of explanation for why I knew this to be true. It’s so unlike the way most human beings have been learning things about the world for the past few thousand years that it sounds kind of dopey. It even sounds dopey to me and I know it to be true.
…Intelligence isn’t a function of the brain. It isn’t contained there. The complexity of a creature’s brain doesn’t determine its intelligence.
Griffin was at least three decades my senior and had impressive knowledge, offering the Latin name of the birds and describing details of their incubation period. At the workshop, he presented his view on consciousness: that it has to be part and parcel of all cognitive processes, including those of animals. My own position is slightly different in that I prefer not to make any firm statements about something as poorly defined as consciousness. No one seems to know what it is. But for the same reason, I hasten to add, I’d never deny it to any species. For all I know, a frog may be conscious. Griffin took a more positive stance, saying that since intentional, intelligent actions are observable in many animals, and since in our own species they go together with awareness, it is reasonable to assume similar mental states in other species.
That such a highly respected and accomplished scientist made this claim had a hugely liberating effect. Even though Griffin was slammed for making statements that he could not back up with data, many critics missed the point, which was that the assumption that animals are “dumb,” in the sense that they lack conscious minds, is only that: an assumption. It is far more logical to assume continuity in every domain, Griffin said, echoing Charles Darwin’s well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind.
“On no other account do I congratulate myself more,” Erasmus wrote toward the end of his life, “than on the fact that I have never attached myself to any party.” It takes perseverance to keep calmly advocating an independent, liberal position — balanced, fair, respectful of complexity, more concerned to get at the truth than to be entertaining — when what Jacob Burckhardt called the terribles simplificateurs are harvesting youthful enthusiasm and collective emotion.
Now there’s an ideal worth striving for and a consoling mantra in times of madness. Hear, hear.
“Erasmians” is the term that Garton Ash, echoing Ralf Dahrendorf, applies to thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, one of the two main subjects of this interesting essay. Speaking of Berlin, I have actually been planning to re-read all of his books later this summer (yes, yes, I know I said that in 2014, but it’s for real this time). And just to tie it all together in a nice, serendipitous bow, Garton Ash himself was recently named, in another interesting article, as one of the “Children of Berlin” whom the world could stand to see more of.
I guess it had to happen eventually. The social media cause célèbre of political dilettantes meets the favorite philosopher of the same. The expected profundity ensues.
Cohen’s meticulousness pays off. While he could present a clear night sky taken at any latitude, he instead captures the very night sky that, in megacities, is hidden from sight. The photographer keeps some details of his process a secret, it seems. So, I can only suspect that Cohen takes his picture of a city, determines what the night sky looks like in that city on that day and then quickly travels to a remote area to find the same night sky viewed from a different location. This precision makes all the difference.
I still haven’t experienced that sort of night sky directly, but those beautiful composite photos will suffice for now.
I’m not very familiar with Fiona Apple’s music, but I’m quite impressed with her as a person.