Tuesday, October 2, 2012

William James, The Will To Believe and the Once-Born and Twice-Born (Pt. 2)

In her essay, ’The Once-Born and Twice Born’, Gertrude Himmelfarb references William James’ lecture ‘The Will to Believe’. She notes that in the lecture “he warned his audience that he would not offer either logical or theological arguments supporting the existence of God or any particular religion”. He “justified faith” instead by positing a “will” or a “right” to believe, “despite the fact our logical intellect may not have been coerced”.

She also cites James’ anticipation of his academic peers objections, particularly that if one renounced the logical intellect then by definition one had relinquished any claim to truth. She asserts that James “replied that in defense of truth faith is justified since the truth is not provided by logic or science but by experience and reflection”.

In James’ mind, according to Himmelfarb, moral questions couldn’t be resolved with the certitude that comes from objective logic or science, and so with religious faith. She then goes on to cite a passage from James’ lecture – addressed to the nonbelievers of his day - to the effect that “the will to believe derives from hearts, minds and courage”. Further that it “speaks with an authority, a truth, as compelling as that which science and logic provide in other realms of experience”.

According to James: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Leaving out the self-reference of the statement, which plays into the basis for Godel’s Incompleteness theorems, this needs to be examined more trenchantly.

One first needs to grasp that the issues of religion and deity existence are two different questions. (After all, was it not the psychologist Carl Jung who wrote: "Religion is a defense against the experience of God"?) Religions are actually man-made artifacts or creations which invoke what are supposed to be “revelatory” scriptures or manuscripts to define and explicate particular faith claims based on a specific ritualistic form of deity worship, and recognition. In truth, then, one can have deity acceptance or belief without the window dressing or intermediary obstruction of a religion.

Secondly, one must understand what James himself meant by “religion”. In the Dover publication, ‘The Will To Believe – And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy’ (1958) we find on page 51, James’ definition:

“Religion has meant many things in human history, but when from now onward I use the word, I mean it in a supernatural sense, as declaring that the order of nature, which constitutes this world’s experience, is only one portion of the total universe. And that there stretches beyond the visible world an unseen world of which we know nothing positive, but in its relation to which the true significance of our present mundane life consists.”

The preceding is extracted from his lecture ‘Is Life Worth Living?’ delivered in October, 1895 to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association. This dating is crucial, because it is at least five years before Max Planck’s discovery of the quantum and decades before Neils Bohr articulated the simplest form of the quantum theory. Also, thirty or more years before the modern quantum theory of Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg (who developed the matrix mechanics form).

Recognize here that the quantum theory is the most comprehensive and elegant predictive theory we have concerning the quantum level of reality – the ultimate “unseen” world which James (in 1895) would have known nothing about. Hence, we are left with two possible ways by which we might construe James’ quote, one of which enables the basis for a “true religion” in alignment with “true physics” (see Santayana’s quote at the end of previous blog),and the other which merely shows obeisance to a “false religion”- false physics.

If then James means by “the unseen world of which we know nothing positive” a putative unseen PHYSICAL world, i.e. that of atoms, quanta, de Broglie waves, and quarks, bosons etc. then he is on the right track. Which is to say, a religion formulated from such is to be regarded in a genuine sense, as opposed to its alternative – literally accepting the supernatural jabberwocky of ghosts, demons, and so forth.

On the one hand, a “healthy-minded religion” is feasible, even if modern physics doesn’t back it or support it one hundred percent of the way (though I’d say it does at least 50% of the way). On the other hand one is surrendering to “morbid minded” false religion which gnaws away at the putative psyche or soul. (Look for example, at some of the rancorous hateful spiels of the proclaimed “saved” fundies and their ilk).

Speaking of which, this is a dichotomy that Himmelfarb references next. She writes that James quoted the English writer Frances Newman that “God has two families of children on this earth, the once born and the twice born”.  The former, in James’ words, “see God not as a strict Judge, not as a glorious Potentate, but as the animating spirit of a beautiful, harmonious world”.

If one were to adopt the holistic basis of quantum mechanics literally, say in the form of Bohm’s Holomovement, this is what one might arrive at. A kind of cosmic synergy in which each part embodies the whole within it, as Bohm’s Implicate order embraces the explicate order. James saw this type of religion as that of “the healthy minded”.  Even Albert Einstein, in his essay on Cosmic Religious Feeling, was able to articulate how it worked:

“The individual feels the futility of human desires and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single, significant whole”

He goes on to state that this feeling:

"knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image - so there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it"

In Himmelfarb’s words, commenting on once-born theology in general:

“Accompanying the advance of so-called liberalism in Christianity, it represents a victory over the old morbid ‘hell fire theology’.. So far from dwelling on the sinfulness and depravity of man, the once born belittle sin, deny eternal punishment and insist upon the dignity rather than the depravity of man.”

She then goes on to explicate the “twice born” who are “all too aware of the existence of evil, indeed, of the ‘experience of evil as something essential’. Because of this split, the once born “look on the twice born as ‘unmanly and diseased’” while the twice born look on the once born as “unspeakably blind and shallow”.

On which side did James fall? Himmelfarb begins by conjecturing that on the surface one might believe as an academic he’d side with the once born and liberal theology rather than the hellfire form. However, she insists he later 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.

But must one? Modern holistic religion, say in the form of Religious Science, or what is called ‘Science of Mind’, both of which are quantum-nonlocality based, see the problem differently. While not dismissing the existence or varieties of evil in the world or that the human brain is constructed to enable it (e.g. by its tri-partite structure) they yet recognize one need not empower it by his thoughts. Hence, if thought is indeed energy of a sort (perhaps quantum mechanically mediated) then if one focuses on the evil or evil act he effectively gives it power over him. Over his life.

Does one ignore the evil? Not really. One instead places it at the periphery instead of the center of his focus, life perspective and existence. I have cancer, a definite “evil” in my personal perspective. I have had to deal with it by choosing a treatment. This treatment created its own “evils” – such as burning pain I am trying to live with, accept. I get through my days because I don’t make my temporary pain and suffering the be-all and end all of my existence but choose instead to accentuate the positive, such as writing blogs or reading or just watching sports on TV. You get the point?

Likewise with sin. Say I enter a room and find my teen son is watching internet porn. I can raise hell including threats to his immortal soul, and eternal damnation while waxing on about “the world, the flesh and the Devil” or I can mute the response button. Acknowledge I have seen what he’s doing, but don’t turn it into a federal case or theological-moral issue. Instead, accentuate the positive while using the opportunity for a discussion on sex and adult sexuality if he’s willing. Otherwise, just let it be. Let him choose the right time to talk…or not. The planet and my world will not collapse if the kid watches porn every now and then. If he does it every waking minute and his school work suffers, well that’s a different thing and maybe a definite time for a talk!

Is there abundant evil in the world, sure! But is it somehow the most substantial aspect of the world? Maybe not! Perhaps, as philosopher N.M. Wildiers once observed: “Evil is part and parcel of a world in evolution”.

An evolving world can never be a perfect one, the two are mutually exclusive. So the incompleteness of it is displayed in the incompleteness of the visible morality or its sentient beings, or in the destructive vicissitudes of nature. We don’t whine and make a major deal out of it every day, but accept it as the nature of the world we inhabit. It is what it is. Yeppers, it's there all right. But move on, don't let it occupy your consciousness completely! By doing so you invest it with more power than it merits. As for 'demons', 'hell', etc., as supernatural constructs they are part of the false physics to which George Santayana alluded in 'Reason and Religion'. They are indeed the boogeymen of the morbid-minded, and serve no useful purpose for the sane or those who aspire to be healthy minded.

Next: Exploring James'  Morality

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