Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mother Teresa and Philosophy

Like some of the likely listeners at my Yale rendition of Rand’s “Faith and Force” speech tonight at Harkness Hall, Room 119 (6pm), my fellow conservative Gerard Perry does not share my complete skepticism about religion — and asks how I feel about Mother Teresa being honored with a U.S. Post Office stamp. I think any fair-minded person would agree that this is an unfortunate violation of the separation of church and state — and a case of coercers using stolen money to honor a crank, to boot. As Christopher Hitchens and others have lamented, Mother Teresa often eschewed modern medical assistance as ostentatious and overly materialistic, preferring in many cases to pray futilely over the dying or merely lay hands upon them. A tragic, morally warped figure who serves as a warning to us all of how not to live (one of the reasons I just signed up to attend the April 17 NECCS conference of skeptics here, featuring James Randi and others).

Meanwhile, for example, some of my materialistic, purportedly shallow colleagues at the American Council on Science and Health have literally done things like save a billion lives through improved agricultural techniques and eradicate smallpox from the planet even while being pilloried by ostensible defenders of Nature and/or God’s design — and all that struggle goes on when the more minor players on our Board aren’t merely helping to found hospitals and the like. Ah, what blinkered, cramped little lives the servants of science and industry lead! They’ll pay for it with eternal torture in the afterlife, I’m sure, and no one wants to be eternally tortured.

Of course, lest I exaggerate the divide, it’s worth noting my boss at ACSH is married to a religious man and that long-term co-existence is thus possible (fusionism!). Their daughter, I concede, did a nice job of splitting the difference by focusing on…philosophy. That makes sense to me. Philosophy is a fairly open-ended attempt to talk about truth in whatever language proves necessary to describe it — and wherever the ensuing arguments lead. Like few other disciplines, it is malleable enough to address whatever appear to be the new vexing issues of the day without requiring the jettisoning of the whole field’s methodology or underlying cosmological assumptions when surprises arise — as of course they always should unless one is very stubborn.


In short, if there’s reason to believe there’s a God, the idea ought to be subsumable within philosophical language, just as the implications of a purely-material universe ought to be. Philosophy, bless it, is ready to handle anything — which is why people like me who are (in addition to being pretty rational) a tad stoic and not easily fazed are often drawn to it. If you tell engineers that we’ve just discovered all physical laws are really being faked via telekinesis, they’ll probably freak out, at least in the short term. Philosophers will calmly ask, for example, what ethical implications this revelation has for the permissible range of action of the telekinetics (if they change the laws of the universe at a whim, have we been wronged?).

We philosophy buffs can handle the truth, in other words. I would not lose my mind if it turned out the universe were the product of a planning mind (heck, I’ll even tell you the one remotely-plausible argument I’ve heard for this position, which is the argument from the so-called Cosmic Anthropic Principle concerning the well-suitedness of this physical universe to molecule formation, not that I think it ultimately necessitates a Designer). I only wish I could convince my religious acquaintances (those who have not already permanently lost their minds) that they need not lose their minds if we conclude, after sober reflection, that the universe does not imply a Creator. They seem very anxious and insecure on that front as compared to all the skeptics I know.

Speaking of things poised between science and religion, by the way, in between the inflation-adjusted box office totals for biotech-oriented Jurassic Park and ancient-Hebrews-oriented Raiders of the Lost Ark (both Spielberg-directed) now sits Avatar, at #17 on the all-time box office hits list (with a diabolical $666 million in domestic ticket sales). It’s risen above Phantom Menace and The Graduate in the past week or so — how high will it go? This might, I suppose, be a good time to admit I was wrong about one empirical prediction: I thought Avatar would be a colossal money-loser.


Gerard said...

. A tragic, morally warped figure who serves as a warning to us all of how not to live…

Perhaps, but isn’t it a bit late in the day for the USPS to start drawing ethical boundaries, re: who it decides to honor? I’m thinking specifically of the commemorative Paul Robeson stamp, which was issued as part of the Post Office’s black heritage series.

As bad as Mother Theresa might have been, is she really worse than one the chief apologists for the USSR’s most ruthless despot and the heinous crimes he committed? Yes, cozying up to Enver Hoxha and the Duvaliers is a sticky business, but more objectionable than defending the show trials of Joseph Stalin?

Todd Seavey said...

As I noted just a few hours ago in my Yale speech (which was fun — thank you to all the POR folk), I contend, hard as this may be to imagine, that one can be opposed to _both_ Stalinism and groundless supernatural claims. It’s easy if you try. I am also opposed to the post office, which is the real source of these specific problems, let it not be forgotten.

But tomorrow: some complaints about skepticism, in the interests of balance.

Todd Seavey said...

Ali Kokmen reminds me of this recent story about atheists offering Christians a great chance for mutually-beneficial trade, by the way:

Gerard said...

Well, it is one of only three federal agencies whose workforce has actually contracted during the reign of our benevolent Hawaiian overlord.

See, there’s cause for some cheer.