Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Will to Believe, The Once and Twice Born: The Moral Issue (Pt. 3)

As noted in the previous instalment, WSJ contributor Gertrude Himmelfarb insists William James ultimately rejected 'once born' theology since: 1) ‘morbid mindedness’ ranges over a wider experience and 2) ‘healthy mindedness’ is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine ‘because the evil facts which it refuses to positively account for are a genuine portion of reality’ and hence one must open one’s eyes to them.

To reiterate briefly, 'morbid-mindedness' is associated with a hellfire 'win or all lost' theology- and a perspective that abiding evil dominates the world. Thus, you either followed the dictated "righteous" path  - whatever that may be, or you're damned forever. Meanwhile, healthy-mindedness embodied a perspective or religious affinity (Einstein called it a cosmic religious feeling) that was invested in a deity identified with the animating principle underlying a beautiful, harmonious world, an impersonal (but psychically responsive) energy as opposed to Judge or Cosmic Potentate.

As a first point, it is difficult to reconcile Himmelfarb's take that  James saw "healthy mindedness as inadequate as a philosophical doctrine because the evil facts which it refuses to positively account for." The reason is that as any kind of academic philosopher, he must have realized it was not the job of either the non-believer or the 'healthy-minded' religious person to do so.  No, THIS accounting for falls onto the strict "omni"-God believer's docket.

Recall, the historical perspective embodied in one the earliest arguments by Leibniz (1714) in terms of his justification for the primordial existence question: WHY is there something rather than nothing? In that context, I insisted (in numerous earlier blogs)  the question was directly one that the believer needed to address, as opposed to the atheist or holistic spirtualist. (Though believers invariably tried to turn that around and assert it was an “atheist question”). But consider:

If “nothing” be conceded as the de facto simpler state, e.g. in which an invisible deity could still exist passively as “spirit” then why create a universe? Especially why go to the trouble of creating one which would be fraught with violence, despair, “sin” and all the rest. (Also one which an omniscient deity would have to know (IF it was judgmental) that it would have to condemn billions before he even created them.)

I argued that this itself made the act of creation an act of violence against those created- who would not be able (for whatever reason, including where born) to live up to its standards. Thus, we would have to question on an a fortiori basis any judgmental deity that created the cosmos. It could not have good will at its core, since it would know in advance (by virtue of its alleged omniscience)  its act would condemn billions it would have to know about before it even began.

The effect of this argument was to delimit the nature of deity that could exist, if any existed at all. In effect, by applying the preceding – in conjunction with the principle of sufficient reason- my intent was to eliminate forthwith all personal, subjectively interfering deities, or those possessing a nature capable of perceiving human wrong doing and hence pass judgments.

In other words, if such massive evil existed in the world as the 'morbid-minded' claimed, then WHY was their all powerful deity so impotent to limit it? That Deity, not the healthy-minded or non-believers, is the one that must be held to account for the presence of so much evil, as well as its apologists.

Let us also bear in mind that if an all perfect Being already existed (ab  initio),  it would have no need to create at all. It would be complete unto itself, perfect, self-sufficient and non-contingent. In effect, by creating it actually ADDED something (i.e. a contingent universe) to itself  so it cannot be “infinite” in the true sense, unless it and the universe are one and the same. Worse, by the creative act it would've added  imperfection to itself so it could no longer be perfect. (If one argues the universe is a separate creation from the deity, then one is saying the deity is not infinite)

Thus, Leibniz solved his conundrum by reverting to the Null hypothesis: that there ought to be nothing rather than something. Again, this skein of argument eliminates all Omni attribute-hyper interfering deities or rather God –concepts, and with them all absolutist moralities derived therefrom. For example, if one is to be a "morbid -minded" religionist invested in hellfire punishment, then it follows that one must accept an absolute morality. There would be no gray areas in said morality.

However, William James himself did not hold to an absolute morality. If we read his lecture 'The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life' (op. cit., p. 209, Dover Publications) we see:

"In point of fact, there are no absolute evils, ...and the highest ethical life - however few may be called to bear its burdens - consists at all times in the breaking of rules which have grown too narrow for the actual case. There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly - with fear and trembling - to vote and to act to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see."

This is, indeed, a perspective with which any healthy-minded, cosmic harmonious deity adherent would accept - as well as most unbelievers! It is also directly at odds with Himmelfarb's claim that James would have cast his moral lot with the 'morbid-minded', hell fire righteous. Again, because if one did not accept any absolute evil, one would not be "morbid-minded" in the first place!

James' take, in fact, is very harmonious with the take of Zen author Alan Watts ('This is It', p. 90):

"Absolute morality is profoundly destructive of morality, for the sanctions which it invokes against evil are far, far too heavy. One does not cure the headache by cutting off the head."

In the end, it seems abundantly clear that contrary to Himmelfarb's standard Judae-Christian take, James sided with at least the 'mystical' types who relate to the healthy-minded, and for whom the deity is more an animating presence permeating the cosmos than some anthropomorphic Judge on high.

Lastly, Himmelfarb writes that: "The more interesting challenge to the once-born, twice-born concept is traditional institutional religions. Only briefly, toward the end of "The Varieties of Religious Experience" does James venture into that realm."

But why would he, if after all is said, he has no use for "absolute evil" and hence any absolutist creeds based upon its acceptance?  Even former atheist Antony Flew, when giving a final interview, acknowledged:

“Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system”

A God of a “revelatory system” would be a monotheist construct such as espoused in books of revelation like the Bible, for example, or Talmud. It would evince absolutist principles and absolutist morality - though to be sure, in the Bible (OT) it gets away with all manner of genocide itself. But as an intelligent man, James would have seen the problems attendant on "traditional religion" and thus given it short shrift in his 'Varieties' having already disputed any 'absolute evil' in his lecture, 'The Moral Philosopher and Moral Life'. He'd be especially keen not to contradict his position!

Ms. Himmelfarb, it would seem, needs to re-read James again!

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