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August 8, 2018 The Need for a Progressive Male Rights Movement: an Opinion Piece by Nathaniel Bates


August 3rd, 2017 Evolution and God’s Intervention with Creation and the Garden of Eden: the Biblical Tradition is not Anti-Scientific

Creationists who try to replace the theory of evolution with “scientific” creationism have the same narrow mind-set as the naturalist and materialist scientists who debunk religion. Creation and the Garden of Eden need to be understood in a theological way as the entrance into history of God’s plan of salvation. But this is not an attempt to reduce the grandeur of God. God created the heavens and the earth, but the Bible is not intended to be a scientific textbook.

July 31st, 2017: The Nephilim: Giants in the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4

What do you think of the speculation about the Sumerian 12th planet Nibiru, the Nephelim, and the Anunnaki? I looked at the biblical passages that these Internet apocalyptic scenarios come from and have quite a different interpretation.

January 10, 2017 Blogging my thoughts:

Meryl Streep rebukes President-elect Trump on moral grounds, but he seems all about win or lose and being in a power-defensive mode without seeming to indicate that he has a conscience. Let me give him the benefit of a doubt. He probably knows that he is vulnerable on moral grounds coming into the glass-bowl nature of the modern presidency from the sordid environment of the entertainment industry. The sordid side of powerful men could remain hidden when women knew their place and did not share positions of power. Women now have a say-so. So, he figures that he can’t afford to be truthful. Meryl no doubt represents a real threat as opposition to him, just like the disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski was. (I’m getting these details from this morning’s New York Times.) This New York Times reporter has a rigid and bent right arm, a condition due to arthrogryposis, a congenital fusion of joints.

But the president-elect should know that beyond win and lose, beyond power, there is human decency and truth involved with arguing an issue rather than turning it into an ad hominem argument. This fallacy in argumentation for him goes off the deep end and becomes tantamount to character assassination for anyone who dares to point out the truth. But if the shoe fits, wear it. When we are immature we often have to experience correction and taking it to heart makes for self-improvement.   

Is lying all right in order not to be politically correct? Does being truthful constitute being politically correct? If the issue is a rebellion against political correctness, then are racist, sexist, misogynist statements allowed and to be celebrated because they are not politically correct? What don’t I understand about all this opposition to political correctness? Does it mean one can’t criticize a Black person and not be racist? Or to criticize right-wing Israeli politics immediately makes a person anti-Semitic? That could be explored. But “law and order” are racist code words: the law discriminates against Black people and our present order excludes them, for the most part.

Don’t forget that racist language for some may be cathartic, but for others it is a speech act rehearsal calling for action. (Dylan Roof probably also considered Obama the worst president we ever had.) Is aversion to bullying, misogyny, and racism merely being politically correct? If so, then stands taken for human decency, truth, and justice become trivialized into mere, milk-toast expressions of political correctness. Thus, when a woman confronts him on his misogyny, he can counter that she must be having her period, and wow! He becomes a champion in the fight against political correctness! Even a boxer, a fighter not into argumentation, would be penalized for hitting below the belt. And ad hominem-s and in his case, character assassinations, assert speech act violence rather than honest and truthful argumentation and communication.

To pick up another issue: critical thinking easily exposes a fallacy when one person’s plagiarism is defended by saying someone in the opposition also plagiarized. That is a “you, too” fallacy. And it is unethical as well, because  two wrongs do not make a right and something does not become right because everybody does it.

Then there is the ethical problem when a broken law is relativized by pointing out all the other good in a person. If someone murders another person, it does not matter if they are a good husband or father. The guards in German concentration camps seemed to love their children. Breaking a law can be compared to falling through a hole in the ice. If there is a hole in the ice and the whole person falls through it, it does not matter how thick the ice is in other places. Breaking a law is like that. There may be mitigating circumstances due to considerations of equity. For example, putting a Black man in prison, when Black families are bereft of men may make the punishment a greater injustice than the crime committed. Using jury nullification or imposing community service or a financial penalty may be more just and the wiser course of action.

How about some feedback and critique?

Blogging my thoughts on January 7, 2017 by Peter Krey

Numbers are sometimes problematic in the literature of antiquity. Could they have indicated some kind of qualities and symbolic meanings before they really indicated determinations of quantity? Before Pythagoras conceived of forms and thus could attach numbers to them and count them, how could calculations and numbers in the sense of quantitative determinations have been thought? The quantitative may have well have been preceded by a symbolic meaning of numbers. (Pythagoras, of course, is one of the first philosophers, whose reasoning about forms and numbers and his conception of them is recorded in history, there may have been thinkers before him that have been forgotten, of whom we have no record, and who therefore never made history.)

In the case of the symbolic meaning of numbers: in Noah’s flood, it rained forty days and forty nights, the children of Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land, and there are four hundred years of slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, the House of their Bondage. These numbers refer to qualitative degrees of suffering in a symbolic way rather than being real quantitative determinations. Other examples of primordial use of numbers, perhaps for the sake of prestige, are the ages of the patriarch, e.g., Methuselah lived 969 years and died in due time. Nero’s 666 may have stood for tyranny, and what can on make of 153 large fish in the miraculous fish-catch, when Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you no fish?”

Plato criticized Pythagoras for not conceiving of pure numbers, but always attaching them to geometric space or musical tone; the latter, e.g., in his study of music. Thus, for him mathematics could become a description of the universe, but music could as well, in terms of the music of the spheres.

Numerology must have preceded mathematics, like astrology preceded astronomy, and alchemy, chemistry. But How could the people of antiquity think about numbers before forms were conceived? At that point, the ability to count could not have been possible. But on the other hand, I believe that old cuneiform records count items of trade, so counting may have been possible long before Pythagoras reasoned about forms and numbers. It would be interesting to compare how a child learns to count (ontogeny) versus how the human species learned to count in a phylogenetic sense. This would be analogous to how a child learns to speak versus how our species learned to speak and created language. It may be fun to research the history of mathematics, but how does one research its pre-history?

Blogging my thoughts on April 10th, 2015 by Peter Krey

I just tweeted about Churchillian drift: this expression refers to attributing an apothegm (a pithy saying or instruction) to a well-known authority, rather than to an unknown writer. I just learned this concept by reading this morning’s newspaper.[1] That could well have happened to biblical books. A gospel could have been attributed to the apostle Matthew and John, for example. But schools that follow an apostle or a prophet could also be an explanation. In philosophy, Plato speaking as Socrates can be an example. He may have identified completely with his teacher. Some mathematical insights attributed to Pythagoras may have been those of his students. A collective identity, where individuation has not yet taken place, could also be an explanation. Before I personally individuated, I really identified very much with my family. I felt as if I had a collective identity, being the eleventh of sixteen children.

[1] See Erin McKean’s OP-Ed piece in the New York Times (April 10, 2015, A21), “The Wise Words of…Who Again?”


Understanding the Anti-Nerd

by Nathaniel Bates in Memory of Jason Zarri

To read Nathaniel’s thoughts in a PDF:

Understanding the AntiNerd121114pdf

Why Not Sell California to Google? Blogging My Thoughts

admin : July 12, 2012 1:03 am : Blog

Blogging my thoughts:

The Op-Ed page in the New York Times today was pretty inspiring. Milos Forman, the film director of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” showed how those who claimed President Obama was a socialist didn’t know what they are talking about. He described socialism as he had experienced it and there is no comparison.

He argued that we had to keep in mind the melody of our country and how some harmony is required for us to make it. “But if just one section, or even one player, is out of tune, the music will disintegrate into cacophony.”[1]

I don’t want to blame one party for the gridlock in Washington, because the real reason for the chasm between different political ideologies is the chasm that has grown between the rich and the everyday people of our country. In the words of Chief Justice Brandeis, “We can have democracy or the great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.” Our representatives in Washington are caught in the social forces, the money, that is, issuing from our social and economic inequality.

In their piece Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer compare the economy to a garden and argue that it is not a rational machine. Harmful economic activity needs to be weeded out and healthy economic activity needs to be supported. Taxes and government spending is like watering the garden, when it spent for education and health, and is better compared to the circulation system than money that just goes down the drain.

In my blogging I have compared taxation to pruning of trees and bushes in order to make them bear fruit for the common good rather than wild, destructive, and contradictory growth.

Liu and Hanauer argue that

“Under the efficient market hypothesis, taxes are an extraction of resources from the jobs machine, or more literally taking the money out of the economy. It is not just separate from economic activity, but hostile to it. This is why most Americans believe that lower taxes will automatically lead to more prosperity. Yet if there were a shred of truth to this, then given our historically low tax rates we would today be drowning in jobs and general prosperity.”[2]

The authors argue that jobs come from the organic feed-back loop between consumers and business, which requires a thriving middle class. The severe concentration of wealth kills middle class demand and jobs do not trickle down but emerge from the middle out. “To spend tax dollars on education and health is to circulate nutrients through the garden.”

They continue,

“True, not all spending is equally useful, and not every worthy idea for spending is affordable. But this perspective helps us understand why the most prosperous economies are those that tax and spend the most, while those that tax and spend the least are failures. More important, it clarifies why more austerity cannot revive an already weak private economy and why more spending can.“[3]

After the misguided Bush tax cuts (and the two wars) we lost 8 million jobs beginning our Great Recession. Money that could have renewed our infrastructure was in part lost in the Wall Street bubble with irrational derivatives and credit default swaps, where more weeds like Bernie Madoff and other Ponzi schemes were hiding among the wild growth in our financial sector, which made up 47% of our economy. The other part of the tax cuts, I believe, made our government have to buy bonds and increase the debt by loaning money from those who would have had to pay it in taxes. Thus our government has been taken hostage by those who should have paid taxes.

To pay taxes is a patriotic duty and serves to socialize our inherent selfishness. The tithe, which means giving the first ten percent of income to the church or charities, demonstrates one’s faith in God. Paying our taxes demonstrates our good faith as citizens of our commonwealth. It brings harmony into the garden of our economy. Liu and Hanauer argue well that their garden approach to the economy is pro-business and not at all anti-capitalist.

To me it seemed that politicians first promised tax-cuts in order to bribe voters into voting for them against their own interests. Now with Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge, which so many have signed, what seemed irrational has attained the level of insanity, unless one believes in anarchy. (Norquist merely wants to shrink government down enough to drown it in the bathtub.) Governor Pat Brown running against Ronald Reagan wondered, if he hated government so much, why he would want to be the president. It was like an anti-Catholic wanting to become the pope.[4]

The huge deficits that Reagan and George W. Bush left because of their tax cuts show that they were using both to dismantle big government. When Reagan talked of the corner drugstore he was avoiding mention of the huge pharmaceuticals. Privatization does not give more power to the common person and get the government off an individual’s back, but places us into the power of the corporations. As the state governments get into trouble and city governments here in California go bankrupt, more and more public facilities have to name themselves directly after corporations. A change of pitchers now requires one to hear about oil change or what not. You pay to see a movie and you have to watch commercials and the movie contains commercials in the feature. The market is colonizing our life world in places it has no right to be.

Why did FDR create big government? In order to bully the huge corporations into taking our national interests into consideration. Where is the allegiance of global transnational corporations, except for their own private wealth?

Public citizens standing up for public interests and the commonwealth have to take a stand against all this privatization. Private armies, private jails, private schools! If we could sell California’s state government to Google, it could take care of our deficit in a jiffy. Why not let Google become one of the fifty states? What’s in the name “California”? Why not privatize it? The CEO of Oracle just bought an island in Hawaii.

We have just been into downsizing, where hatchet men fired whole departments to replace them with temporary workers. There is an army of unemployed, making workers have to do the work of three or more laid off workers. Should you complain, there are ten other workers standing in line for your job. Then there is the out-sourcing of labor and the remark from a CEO in the down-sizing time: “We don’t owe you a living?” For the sake of mega profits, productive workers were laid off in droves. Are the people there for the sake of the corporations or the corporations there for the sake of the people? Pray tell.

See Habermas: The Life-World and the Two Systems.

peter krey

[1] “Obama the Socialist? Not Even Close,” New York Times, OP-ED, Wednesday, July 10, 2012, A23.

[2] “The Machine and the Garden,” Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Words to that effect heard on KQED “The Legacy of Pat Brown” on the California State of Mind: June 22, 2012.

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Science should not Step Out of Bounds

admin : March 26, 2012 1:03 am : Blog

Blogging my thoughts:


Science should not Step
Out of Bounds

(In the Light of Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge)

Dennis Overbye in his article “There’s More to Nothing than We Knew” in the Science Times,[1] reacts to Lawrence M. Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing, writing that physicists and cosmologists like Krauss are going into philosophical and theological territory. “He joins the chorus of his fellow physicists and cosmologists, who have been pushing into sacred ground proclaiming more and more loudly in the last few years that science can explain how something – namely our star-spangled cosmos – could be born from, if not nothing, something very close to it. And God, they argue, is not part of the equation.”(D1)

When such scientists say that God is not part of the equation, then it is difficult to follow how they can say they are pushing onto “sacred ground.” It is true that God creates out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo in Latin. Under human auspices you cannot get something out of nothing, or in Latin, ex nihilo nihil fit. It is a pretty heady thing to understand and theorize out there at the edge of material reality, but because scientists observe these wonders, does it mean that they author and create what they are observing or theorizing? I think not.

To get into philosophical territory, we could use Heraclitus, Parmenides or Hegel. Let’s take Hegel. Scientists are exploring the deepest determinations of being and nothingness. In Hegel’s logic, when every last possible determination is subtracted from the category of being, a pure “isness” is left that is identical with nothing, the second category of his dialectic. And when nothing passes into being or something, he discovered his third category, becoming. What Hegel was discovering in his dialectic of thought was the possibility of equating being and nothing and the passage of one to another as the third category, returning from something to nothing or building up from nothing to something. Philosophers have broken the ground for and worked out this thought-capacity, which scientists are unconsciously using.

Now Krauss as well as Overbye do not make the distinction drawn by Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) between focal awareness and subsidiary awareness, focal knowledge and subsidiary knowledge.[2] Like Thomas Kuhn, who in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[3] points out that the actual history of scientific discovery and its history as presented by scientists is very different, [4] Polanyi shows that underlying the process of scientific discovery is not only empiricism, experimentation, and the scientific method, but also the search for truth, understanding, and other personal and human values shared in common, often in a subsidiary realm beneath the scientific focus of attention, awareness, and knowledge.

Krauss as well as Overbye (except for the perspicuity of his last question in the article) turn their focal attention to what physicists and cosmologists can say about nothing. They are not aware of the subsidiary motion of their thought and the comprehensive activity and motion of their thought by which they can describe the deepest determinations, of which science is capable of finding for some being, whether of quantum particles or some kind of dark energy in the nothing they are thinking about.

Of course, when I place our focus on their thought, I disrupt the matter that they are investigating and the meaning of their thoughts.[5] But along with most scientists, they lose sight of the subsidiary thought processes that make their scientific knowledge possible as well as eclipsing themselves, who are the thinkers of these thoughts. That’s why Overbye’s question at the end is a clincher: “But who is or was the dreamer?” (D3)

Reading this article, don’t become bewitched by the verbal magic. Remember that philosophers have developed the words, concepts, and categories in which scientists think!

Dr. Krauss finds three different kinds of nothingness. 1) That of empty space: it is, however, filled with energy, vibrating electro-magnetic fields and so-called virtual particles dancing in and out of existence from borrowed energy consisting of randomness that characterizes reality on the smallest scales, according to the rules of quantum theory.

2) There is nothing even without space and time. “Following a similar quantum logic, theorists have proposed that whole universes, little bubbles of space and time, could pop into existence, like bubbles in boiling water, out of nothing.” (D3)

Then 3) There is even a deeper nothing, in which even the laws of physics are absent. “Where do those laws come from?[6] Are they born with the universe, or is the universe born in accordance with them?” Overbye asks. (D3) Overbye criticizes Krauss for turning to multiverse theory, where nearly an infinite assemblage of universes, could each have its own randomly determined rules, particles, and forces that present solutions to the equations of string theory – the alleged theory of everything (and that Overbye feels could explain anything). (D3)

Now it is obvious that Krauss is finding deeper and deeper determinations of being and nothingness and his interchange of particles, bubbles of space and time, or even universes and thinking them through the thought-distinctions that long ago, Hegel, Parmenides, and Heraclitus worked out for him. The scientist’s focal attention, however, is on his scientific description, but he could not discover it, present it, or even think it, without thought and without his own existence as a thinker of those thoughts, of which he is unaware because they are subsidiary to his focal attention. (This insight comes from understanding the comprehensive nature of Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge.[7])

Scientists with their focal attention fixed for knowledge on the very edge of the material, physical universe, have left their conscious thinking, their own selves, their values, and their history, in which they could pronounce these theories, far behind.

Now because Lawrence Krauss knows that God creates out of nothing and now he can almost take what is the philosophical term, “nothing,” and put it under a microscope – he argues that “God is not part of the equation.”

Here is where Polanyi, a scientist-become-philosopher, comes in again. Polanyi uses a metaphor of a machine to point out that the deepest analysis of the chemistry and physics of the machine will never give you a clue to why the engineers made it and nor about what purpose it was made to carry out.[8] Thus as much as in the flight from the personal and the divine, such scientists feel they are pushing into the sacred and into the territory of philosophy and theology, they are working on the level of chemistry and physics. Therefore it is not in their competence to make judgments about who the thinker, the dreamer – to use Overbye’s word, nor what the spiritual reality of this world is. Human history, thought, morality, and the spiritual dimension is a level of reality that scientists methodologically ruled out for the sake of the space-time, quantifiability, and measurability of the scientific enterprise.[9] Now such scientists cannot suddenly make a claim about the totality of reality, when from the get-go, they have methodologically agreed not to consider a significant or even the most important level of reality.[10]

Because of the scientific method, the historical, the thought world, the realm of morals, and the spiritual realities are unspecifiable for science. They have become the subsidiary dimension of the scientific focus. According to Polanyi, the higher of the two levels of reality is unspecifiable in terms of the lower.[11] Thus science is not competent to make pronouncement about the purpose of human life on earth, the course of history, morality, and our life before God, because they are all unspecifiable on the rung of reality that science investigates.[12]

[1] New York Times, (February 21, 2012), pages D1 and D3.

[2] Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man, (University of Chicago Press, 1959), page 30: “We may say that when we comprehend a particular set of items as parts of a whole, the focus of our attention is shifted from the hitherto uncomprehended particulars to the understanding of their joint meaning. This shift of meaning does not make us lose sight of the particulars, since one can see a whole only by seeing its parts, but it changes altogether the manner in which we are aware of the particulars. We become aware of them now in terms of the whole on which we have fixed our attention. I shall call this subsidiary awareness of the particulars, by contrast to a focal awareness which would fix attention on the particulars in themselves, and not as parts of a whole. I shall also speak correspondingly of subsidiary knowledge of such items, as distinct from a focal Knowledge of the same items.

[3] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[4] Ibid. “The depreciation of historical fact is deeply, and probably functionally, ingrained in the ideology of the scientific profession, the same profession that places the highest value upon factual details of other sorts.” (page 137) and in rejecting previous scientific paradigms by means of textbooks, scientists renounce the books in which those paradigms were embodied, “The result is a sometimes drastic distortion of the scientist’s perception of his discipline’s past.” (page 166) Interestingly enough, Thomas Kuhn compares science to theology, (pages 135 and 165) where a new paradigm has to be accepted on faith, (157) scientists have to be converted into accepting it, (149) and “Far more clearly than the immediate experience from which they in part derive, operations and measurements are paradigm-determined.” (125)

[5] Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man, (University of Chicago Press, 1959), page 30.

[6] I believe that laws were first social determinations, which scientist then transposed onto the regularities of nature. But what sense do they make when nature is completely random and irregular?

[7] See Micael Polanyi’s post-critical philosophy in Personal Knowledge, (Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1958-1964) in 428 pages.

[8] “Take a watch to pieces and examine, however carefully, its separate parts in turn, you will never come across the principles by which the watch keeps time.” Michael Polanyi, page 47.

[9] Michael Polanyi, page 45: “Dismemberment of a comprehensive entity produces incomprehension of it and in this sense the entity is logically unspecifiable in terms of its particulars.” (Polanyi’s italics)

[10] In his book, Science, Faith, and Society: a Searching Examination of Meaning and Nature of Scientific Inquiry, (University of Chicago Press, 1946), Michael Polanyi writes, “The denial of all spiritual reality is not only false but incapable of consumption.” (page 78)

[11] Ibid., page 59.

[12] Otto F. Kernberg, in his book, The Inseparable Nature of Love and Aggression: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2012), writes of three vertices of reality, delineating one vertex for science, one for religion and values, and one for art, much like I posited levels of reality, material or natural and spiritual. Kernberg, like Polanyi, writes of an emerging spiritual realm, which he affirms and respects as a scientist. Scientists, who deny the existence of God and the spiritual vertex of reality, on the basis of science, end by falsifying science by making it a Weltanschauung. (page 381) Kernberg shows how Freud’s atheism made him reject the religious basis of morality and base it on rationality, thus contradicting his own deepest convictions about the power of the irrational unconscious over humanity. (page 353)

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Some Thoughts on William James and the “Science of Religions”

admin : February 20, 2012 2:17 am : Blog

According to William James, religious experience is explanatorily prior to rational accounts of religion, such as those of philosophy and theology. In his The Varieties of Religious Experience he says, “I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue.” [1] James thought, for example, that theistic arguments cannot be the basis of belief in God (476-478). First, theistic arguments have been subjected to intense criticism, and there are a great many people who do not find them convincing (476). This shows that theistic arguments are not likely to persuade those who do not believe in God. Second, the God whose existence theistic arguments attempt to establish is not the God who most people believe in (485-488). I am inclined to agree with these charges. I would wager that most people, for example, do not believe in a God who is a wholly simple and impassible being; a being who is pure Existence, who cannot be affected by anything creatures do and who is without any semblance of emotion. For most people God is a personal being, but the God of the theologians is not, despite their protestations to the contrary.

However, although we must grant that reason comes second in religion, this does not mean that it has no role to play. In what follows I will try to vindicate James’s view that it plays a positive role by being a part of what he calls a “science of religions”.

James thinks that reason can play a positive role in religion, in the form of a philosophically-based “science of religions” (496). What James says, basically, is that philosophy can make religion more universal by eliminating those aspects of it which are peculiar to certain times and places (496).  It can strip “historic incrustations” from religious doctrine and worship (496). Finally, it can rid religion of those of its claims that are inconsistent with the results of scientific inquiry (496).  Science can then take the remaining religious claims and test them just as they would any other claim (496).  “As a result”, James says, “she can offer mediation between different believers, and help to bring about consensus of opinion” (497).

What are we to think of this? Religious people might object that this science of religions does violence to religion itself. If science is the ultimate arbiter of religious truth, are not any potential conflicts between science and religion automatically resolved in favor of science? My answer is a qualified “yes”; but this is not as bad as it may sound. For we must keep in mind that religion can go beyond science without contradicting it. For example, it would seem unlikely that any scientific experiment could prove the existence of God, but it seems equally unlikely that any scientific experiment could refute it. The same could be said of moral claims.

Nevertheless, there are cases where science and religion genuinely conflict. Whether or not religion must give in such cases depends on the content of the scientific claim in question and the strength of the evidence supporting it. For in science claims can be accepted with various levels of confidence, and range from mere hypotheses to time-tested models to well established theories. While I do believe that science is our best means of coming to know the physical world, this does not commit me to thinking that it is perfect. It should not be assumed that a hypothesis ought to be believed simply because it has gained some acceptance in the scientific community. History provides us with examples of hypotheses, such as those that formed the basis of phrenology, which were accepted not because they were empirically sound but because they were, for the most part, flattering to their adherents. Were non-scientists obliged to accept such theories simply because they were embraced by a sizable portion of the scientific community? We must also consider that it is not always easy for non-scientists, who know next to nothing about a given issue, to evaluate studies which aim to test hypotheses concerning it. They may not even be able to understand the language in which the studies are framed, due to an excess of technical terms. For all these reasons, it is not incumbent on people to accept all scientific-sounding claims they encounter. (Of course, this is not to say that they should reject them either; the proper attitude may be one of agnosticism.)

It might be objected that those who lack the requisite knowledge to evaluate certain scientific claims ought to defer to the experts in the field. This is a good rule of thumb, provided that one knows enough to determine who is an expert and who is not. But even if one knows who the experts are, this may not be enough to solve one’s problem. Sometimes experts disagree with each other, and when they do it can be well-nigh impossible for a layperson to determine which of them, if any, is right. When this happens, I think one is not obliged to defer to any of them.

From the foregoing we may conclude that, if a scientific claim is not yet well established, people may have reasons that justify them in not accepting it; and I see no reason why these reasons cannot be religious beliefs, provided that they themselves are justified.

But what about cases which are not like the above? What if one is reasonably well-informed about an entrenched theory, accepted by all the experts in the field, which has passed all experimental tests with flying colors, but which contradicts some tenets of one’s religion? In such cases I think religion must give, but doing so is probably beneficial for it in the long term. For science is an empirical discipline, and whenever any theory becomes entrenched it is because there is a very large amount of evidence to back it up. If religion were to dig in its heels in such a case, it would pit itself against this evidence, and would either have to deny its existence or explain it away. I think such a gambit is unlikely to succeed, as I know of no cases in which a scientific theory has been overturned by an apologist defending their religion. When it becomes obvious that the apologists have failed, they will have achieved nothing besides making themselves and their religion look bad in the eyes of the public. If those who practice that religion had instead chosen to modify some of their beliefs to accommodate the scientific evidence, they would have spared themselves some embarrassment, and may have even gained new adherents by showing that they are not closed-minded.

Neither should the faithful be troubled by having to admit that their religious beliefs can be overturned. After all, no one takes science to be infallible. Many previously accepted theories have eventually been falsified, and some of our most well-confirmed theories, namely general relativity and quantum mechanics, are inconsistent with each other. In spite of that, science is the most successful knowledge-gaining enterprise that people have ever devised. If this fallibility is not enough to cause us to lose faith in science, why should it be enough to cause us to lose faith in religion?

In conclusion, the relations between reason—whether in the form of philosophy, science, or some hybrid—and religion are complex, and the question of which of them makes a stronger claim on our belief is delicate. James’s view is that in the end science wins out. I have argued that this is true, but just barely. Thus science may have the upper hand when it comes to determining the truth of factual claims, but if religion is to give us guidance as to how we should live in the real world it should have nothing to fear from the facts. At the end of the day it may turn out that neither science nor religion gives us a complete or infallible picture of reality, but if we combine them we might get a better picture of it than we would have if we had to work with either alone.


–Jason Zarri


James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The Modern Library, New York 2002.








[1] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, page 470. All subsequent references are to The Varieties of Religious Experience, the numbers in parentheses being the page numbers.

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“The Tree of Life” A Philosophical Film Review

admin : February 10, 2012 5:35 am : Blog

“The Tree of Life”

A Philosophical Film Review

It is rare that an American movie addresses philosophical themes with stunning visuals and a thoughtful macroscopic lens.  “Tree of Life” (2011, directed by Terrence Malick, starring Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and Sean Penn) does just that.  In addition to stunning visuals representing the natural history of life on Earth, we see the microcosm of an American family in the 1950’s forced to ask philosophical questions about the nature of life, love and compassion.  The film revolves around the death of a son, the death of a brother, and the questions raised about the benevolence of existence.  What makes the movie particularly moving is the degree to which the history of life, its extinctions and its struggles to survive, are portrayed with a humanity and compassion that few natural history films or documentaries give such a subject.  One actually feels for the dinosaurs as they go extinct.  The idea that the purpose of life is one of universal compassion is given serious consideration, as is its contrasting position, the idea that one cannot live life morally or one will be trampled.  Good people who desire to believe the former position have to grapple with the inevitable disappointments attending a benign philosophy of life, and yet they still maintain their stance with dignity and grace.

The movie looks at a seemingly idyllic life, in many ways a truly idyllic life, through the eyes of the children.  The innocence of the children is buttressed by the compassionate beauty of their mother, who teaches the children to love all people, and all living things.  Nature for her is a wide circle of compassion blessed by God.  Profoundly religious, she goes beyond conventional formal religion to a form of spirituality that encourages wonder and curiosity, along with a childlike innocence that she shares with her children.  The father is a good man, a talented musician and inventor, but he sees the world as a competitive place in which the good suffer and the ruthless triumph.  He attempts to discourage the children from listening to their mother’s view of the world.  Eventually, through persistence and emotional trauma, the children begin to adopt the view of their father.  They reject the way of their mother and become bullies who devalue life, human, plant and animal.  The father is never portrayed as an evil man, but as someone who was stolen from and cheated.  He felt strongly that the world could not be lived by those who were weak or overly compassionate.  He realizes throughout the film the harm he is doing but he continues to believe that he is acting out of necessity.

The film is a series of spectacular images and dialogues that are often segmented and choppy.  This is a deliberate film style since the entire film is a memory and somewhat of a projection.  The Nature scenes are spectacular, and reflect the innocence of childhood in the fifties.  Yet, they are much more.  They represent a macrocosmic view of life in which human beings are imbedded in a much bigger picture of ecological relationships.  However, even more so, the Nature scenes provide the visual backdrop of the central philosophical problem of the movie; “Why should we be good when there is so much seeming cruelty in Nature?”  Human beings are asked by the higher moral philosophies to widen their circle of compassion to all living creatures, yet all around them species go extinct.  The family’s mother lives such a life of compassion, and yet she is weak before a stronger father who represents a view of Nature predicated on the need to conquer or be conquered.  The children begin to lose their innocence as they see cruelty as a stronger force than love.  Whereas they once loved the world around them, its children, animals, plants, and beauty, they soon turn to bullying and the killing of small animals.  There is tragedy in this turn of events, one made more tragic by the fact that it never was necessary, that life would have been so much better had the desire to love and be loved been nurtured.  Eventually, death and poverty enters the picture as the idyllic childhood comes to an end and never returns.

The genius of the film is that it is not a tragedy in the end.  The philosophical questions are never fully resolved, but there is reconciliation.  The father is never portrayed as a villain.  He is someone who eventually sees the beauty of life once again.  He is capable of redemption, and so is the family.  Compassion and the beauty of life triumph in the end of the movie.  Even death does not destroy the beauty of existence.  The cycle of the seasons and the flow of life continue to show that all is not cruelty, that compassion is not simply for the weak ready for extinction but a vital part of life.  Much of the film deals with religious narratives, and questions about the goodness of God.  There are scenes apparently played out in Heaven, but they are indicative of religious existentialism more than the portrayal of religious certainty.  The same might also be said about the much heralded scenes involving the natural history of life on Earth.  These are scenes played out from a human perspective.  The film is an exercise in benevolent existentialism, the notion that a life lived for compassion is as much about the self as it is about the world around oneself.

“Tree of Life” can be criticized as somewhat disjointed and unsatisfying to those who want a straight plot.  In addition, there are times when it appears to be two movies.  I believe that this was the intent, to present us with two movies and a disjointed set of memories from decades after the events that can only be reconciled by a reflecting son who can view life through philosophy.  He can imagine Nature, and imagine Heaven, but only through self-reflection can he really make peace with his own life.  I believe that this movie is a “must see” for philosophers and the philosophically inclined and those who want a visual feast.  A definite PLUS!


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