Saturday, December 26, 2020

Russian Philosophy

I have had occasion to explain to colleagues and students that they really do need to engage with works they disagree with. The important thing about doing that is that you get to work out why you disagree and hence start to understand your own position a bit more, even if you still cannot agree with the author.

I suspect that, on the same basis, it is often a good idea to read about and engage with ideas you know nothing about a priori. There is, after all, a whole world out there of serious thinking of whom I have heard nothing, or very little, and know less about. Somewhere an idea might be lurking which will turn out to be the keystone of my own world view. I have just not encountered it yet.

In that spirit, I picked up Copleston’s Russian Philosophy. So far as I can tell this was first published in 1986, so the complications caused, I am sure, to Russian thought by the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union were not matters of consideration. But the reading of the book suggests that Russian thought is very different from my own traditions.

Copleston starts with a brief history of Russia from the early days through to the Revolution. This is necessary because philosophy, after all, occurs against a social, political, and cultural background. Russian philosophy, in particular, seems to have been always in tension between ‘Westernisers’ and ‘Slavophiles’. It is probably a mistake to draw these two camps too precisely, but essentially the first thought that the wholesale importation of European ideas, culture, and scientific and technological advances were vital to Russian advance and flourishing. The Slavophiles, while not necessarily rejecting Western influence totally, thought that there was something unique that Russia could and should offer the world, from her own experience.

The latter position also included the significant influence of the Orthodox Church. This too developed separately from the Western, Roman Catholic tradition. A problem here seems to have been the relative lack of development of theology in the Russian Orthodox Church, and the identification of that Church with the state. Lack of engagement with the Orthodox faith, or criticism of it, could be equated with treason against the state.

Independent strands of thought were slower to emerge in Russian than in the West. The earliest thinkers were, perhaps, from the reign of Catherine the Great (r. 1762 – 1796), who was herself German. Western influences, which had been introduced by Peter the Great (r. 1682 – 1725), but German idealism was one of the main philosophies that Russian thinkers had to deal with.

Various ideas floated around, which had to match Western thought with the Russian situation. Russia developed in a different way to the west, with an intellectual elite of educated landowners and aristocracy, and the bulk of the population, who were peasants and, often, serfs. There were various concepts around which rather idealised the view of the peasant and the Russian village as a community and these led to some rather ineffectual, idealistic, efforts to reach out to the peasants by young members of the elite. They tended to fail when the idealists found that the peasants were only really interested in obtaining more land.

Russian thinkers often ran foul of the authorities. The Tsar and his bureaucracy were fairly vigilant in policing acceptable and unacceptable thinking. A fair number of thinkers landed up in Siberia, where they could continue to think and write in fairly comfortable conditions (at least as far as Siberia can be) but removed from the elite capitals of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Copleston traces Russian thought not only through philosophers but others, in particular, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who were not thoroughgoing thinkers but authors who created worlds (of some bearing on reality, of course) and could use characters to comment on the ‘human condition’ and, in particular, on problems of faith and evil. Dostoevsky, of course, is famous for some of the scenes in his fiction where, for example, characters argue that nothing in the world and no life beyond it is worth the suffering of a child, and also for the scene of the ‘Great Inquisitor’ questioning human nature and freedom. These scenes are now part of world literature and recur in later thinking.

It is of course impossible to ignore the influence of Marxism on Russia. There were plenty of Marxists around before the Revolution, of course, and Lenin was among them as a more political operator than political philosopher. The problem was that Marx’s view of history was that the revolution would only arise when the workers were established as a class, which could only occur when there was a capitalist system and bourgeoisie which could be used by the workers to bring about the Communist system. This did not happen in Russia, although by the time of the Revolution there was an emerging middle class and working class. Lenin rather short-circuited the development envisaged by Marx.

As Copleston notes, the Revolution replaced one autocratic system with another one, perhaps worse. While some things might have improved, the Marxist – Leninist – Stalinist system not only exiled people to Siberia but put them in gulags and shot them. Stalin became the ultimate authority when Marxist orthodoxy was at stake, and he was hardly a philosopher. Things eased a bit after Stalin’s death but not a great deal. Non-Marxist philosophers could be engaged with, but only to show their shortcomings with respect to Marxist orthodoxy.

Lenin exiled around a hundred thinkers and theologians after the Revolution and they brought some aspects of Russian thought, and Orthodox theology, to the west, where such ideas have had some interest. Now, of course, in Russia another rather autocratic state has taken shape, and again the church seems to be in its pocket. The original criticisms of the Russian Orthodox Church, that it was too interested in the state and power rather than the plight of the peasants and serfs could well be becoming pertinent again.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Philosophy of Hope

 The second strand of the concept of hope is philosophical thinking. This, of course, predates Christianity and the earliest consideration in fact comes from Greek myth, recorded in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Here, Pandora opens a large jar which released all kinds of evils into the world; only Hope remained to counterbalance them. Perhaps hope can sustain humans against all manner of evils.

On the other hand, I think it was Nietzsche who commented that perhaps Hope was left in the box because the Greeks felt it was the most dangerous of the evils. A friend commented to me once that of all things, the one thing he could not cope with was hope. Hope raises our expectations for a better future and, Nietzsche argued, prevented us from focussing on the here and now. This is, of course, among other things, a criticism of theological hope. If theological or religious hope, in the Christian tradition, is for an unspecified future happiness, then we can justify any suffering in the present.

The fact that a lot of work aimed at the relief of suffering in the present is based on Christian thought and action does not get a look in here, of course. The faith is so often presented as being one of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ that counterexamples tend to get drowned out. But Nietzsche's accusation and a large number of other observations, both empirical and philosophical have largely removed the category of hope from philosophical work. Hope is consigned to theology.

The problem, at least according to Neiman, is that philosophy has lost track of evil. The horrors of the Twentieth Century are such that philosophy cannot cope. The terrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima are more than our philosophies can bear. Previous writers, from Leibniz to Freud could grapple with evil. But, after the Second World War it is almost as if philosophy had to shrug and give up or move on to something that was potentially explicable.

An anchor for Neiman’s exploration of Evil in Modern Thought is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is ostensibly an account of the trial of a Nazi official who was involved in creating and sustaining the Holocaust. While Neiman, in her afterword, observes that Arendt’s account of Eichmann was not based on full knowledge of the facts of his beliefs, the philosophical point is unchanged. Where Arendt writes of ‘the banality of evil’ she is, in fact, indicating that there might be some hope.

The idea is this: If evil comes about through lots of small decisions by people to do something – follow orders, conceal papers, sign documents without really reading or understanding them or considering the consequences and so on, then by changing those decisions, evil can be prevented in human terms. If evil is truly banal, then it is the small decisions of life which build up and become the great evils of the world.

In the history of philosophy, Neiman writes, there was in Enlightenment thought, a dissociation forming between natural and moral evil. Events like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 could be seen as Providence, as an act of God, punishment for sins. If this road is not taken, and many Enlightenment thinkers did not do so, then natural evil is not evil at all, it is just something that happens. We might be able to explain storms and earthquakes, but the death and destruction dealt out are not evil, merely unfortunate.

Moral evil, on the other hand, is something which we cannot account for because it is inflicted by people on others. The Holocaust was a great moral evil, but there is in fact no calculus of evil. To say Auschwitz was a great moral evil (and it was) does not mean that the firebombing of Tokyo was not an evil. We hope that the latter was done with good intentions and the former was not. But whether intentions actually stack up like that is unclear.

Along these lines, then, we can see why hope has become philosophically unfashionable. Against the technological evil our times are capable of, such as the nuclear end of the world, philosophical hope has little to say. Our lives are not our own, in this sense. Our leaders, and those of other countries, hold the cards in the game of nuclear poker. Similarly, we feel disempowered and helpless in the face of climate change. Some of the leaders we elect, or who otherwise come to power, refuse to accept that climate change is a problem of will have any effect, or that it has such a significant effect as to warrant a change of policy and promise to their electors. Short term advantage outweighs even slightly longer-term catastrophe.

The hope in small things and activities is still alive, however. Things have changed. Public execution is outlawed in many countries; confessions extracted by torture are not accepted by many judicial systems. The fact that they still are in some is not cause for despair. The fact that women still earn less than men, or that people of colour are still discriminated against and so on are not reasons to despair either. The identification of such issues gives some hope for a better future.

Of course, climate change, increasingly violent storms, the emergence of new diseases and so on could be classified as natural evils. But the responsibility for climate change and these concomitant results thereof is human activity and human activity where the people who choose do have some idea of the choice and the evil route they are taking. A company that discharges industrial waste into a rive which will kill the fish knows that this is a possibility and that if found out will be subject to public humiliation, court proceedings and large fines. Attempting not to get found out is not a response in a moral sense, nor is switching operations to a country where the environmental rules and enforcement are more lax.

But experience shows that small changes can build up. A family decides to holiday in the UK rather than flying to Florida. Tons of carbon emissions are saved. One family holiday is not going to make a great deal of difference. But ten million a year over ten years might. Maybe, in a non-theological sense at least, hope is to be found, and perhaps only to be found, in small things.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Problems with Truth

 We can seek truth, but can we ever find it? And anyway, how can we seek truth?

One of the ways in which we believe we seek truth is through science and the scientific method. This, many people think, gives us access to truth, to the really real, to what is out there, right now, right here.

The snag here is that science does no such thing. Scientists might (although increasingly do not) think it does give access to the real, to the truth, but overall this belief is rather declining. Science is a discipline (or really, a set of disciplines) which aim to give us some predictable idea of what is going on. However, as was pointed out long ago, science has a tendency to create various, rather occult sounding, quantities or entities along the way, which are way outside the possible experience of any human.

For example, light is described by a photon, and a photon has various properties and behaviours, all of which are well explained by the theory of quantum mechanics. But no-one has, or can, see a photon, in the sense of a single particle of light. It is not just that we cannot see something that small, it is simply that the observation of a photon is theoretically impossible. If we claim that scientists have ‘seen’ a photon, what is really meant is that a set of instruments have behaved in a way which suggests that a single photon initiated a sequence of events which has been interpreted by a human as being caused by that photon.

There are other problems around as well. Humans do not simply use scientific method, or reason, to arrive at truth. As noted a while ago, you cannot expect a scientific answer to the question ‘Do you love me?’ There is no scientific method to obtain an answer to the question, we simply have to listen to the reply and bring it into the context of the relationship. Similarly, in spite of the inflated claims of some, it is impossible to predict who might fall in love with whom. There might be some general rules of thumb, formed by experience, but overall, if you think of all the relationships you know, there is no pattern.

Science views the world through the matrix of models, theories and instruments. Whether what is produced is in fact reality is a little moot. There is certainly something out there which science can predict the behaviour of, but exactly what it is cannot be said by science. However, once we start to extend science towards human behaviour it gets a little more difficult. After all, the Internet giants, such as Amazon and Google, do not strictly speaking predict our behaviour. They collect vast quantities of what we do, click on, buy or whatever, and use that to suggest that the majority of people do such a thing. This is not a scientific theory in the normal sense of the words. It is an empirical, behavioural data set which is used to predict the average activity of large numbers of people. Data collection and data mining are valid operations, but the laws are empirical, rule oft thumb things, rather than experimental – theoretical operations of the natural sciences.

This is not to say that the social sciences are invalid, of course, but to indicate that positivism, understood as the assumption that the methods of the natural sciences can be extended to social science, is. There is a lot more to human experience than the laws of natural science. A human is a great deal more than the results of physiology or psychology would suggest. A human is not simply a bunch of cells and organs working together. Nor are human minds reducible to brain wave patterns.

Human society, as studied by sociology, is, of course, another complex object. How it works is an interesting question which involves economics, history and politics, at least. Philosophy and theology also turn up. We cannot understand the past without some thought about people’s beliefs, both about the world and about religion. And we cannot understand the present without understanding the past. While many may well ignore the impact of theology today, in the past it shaped people’s world and activities.

The social sciences, along with the arts and humanities, including politics, history and theology, cannot use the scientific methods of the natural sciences. The subject matter is simply inappropriate, the approaches differ markedly and, of course, there is no such thing as an experiment. While we many (and I have) heard social scientists use the term ‘scientific’ in their discourse, they do not mean mathematical hypothetico-deductive method and controlled experiment. Such things are simply impossible in the subject. They might mean methodical, logical and careful work, and we hope they do, but that is not the same as ‘scientific’ in the natural sciences.

This is not to say that social sciences, history, philosophy and theology cannot arrive at truth, or at least a reasonable approximation to the truth (which is all natural science can aim at, after all). It is simply that the methods of these subjects are not the methods of the natural sciences. In a sense, this is blindingly obvious. Metaphysics is not physics, politics is not chemistry and so on. But the obviousness of the point does not seem to prevent some people, many of whom, it would appear, ought to know better, from asserting that, for example, science (by which they mean natural science) is the only way of arriving at the truth.

It has to be conceded, of course, that there is a lot of erroneous philosophy, theology and social science out there. But then, there is a fair bit of junk science, as well. Usually, of course, the erroneous science does not get a place in the more popular narrative of the history of science, which is seen as steady progress towards the modern, the knowledgeable and the truth. A slightly more detailed look suggests that much scientific research is a matter of plenty of blind alleys, dead ends and errors, some of which are useful in clearing away mistakes. Linear progress it is not.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...