There be dragons!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Liberal Arts

Our most excellent guidance counselor sent me the link to this article on a downturn in liberal arts education enrollment (a typical phenomena during a recession; people panic and try to get jobs that will pay, only to find themselves becoming destitute and then longing again for the shining city on the hill).

Applications to Colleges Such as St. John's Are Dropping As the Downturn Leads Families to Weigh the Value, And Price, of a Liberal Arts Degree More Carefully.

This article is from today's Washington Post (August 27. 2009):

I certainly understand the struggle of LA education in this sort of environment. Unfortunately, I think that they are fighting a losing battle when they claim that a LA education is “practical” and gives “tools for life”. I don’t know if that is correct and I don’t think it is a selling point. It’s much like University of Dallas trying to field a baseball team to compete with Texas Tech or SMU – ain’t gonna happen.

More to the point, though, I still am unconvinced that the praxis of liberal arts education is that strong. Praxis always speaks to utility, practicality, what are you gonna “do with” that degree in (insert LA field here)? When it comes down to it, LA education is impractical b/c it encourages the mind/soul/nous to pursue beauty, goodness, truth with ardor – not to use verum bonum pulchrum for some practical end. Such pursuit and contemplation ultimately is liberating; makes the freeman out of the slave, b/c it broadens the mind to see vaster vistas than before.

But liberation, though one of the main goals of the education, can’t actually succeed unless the student pursues knowledge with abandonment of any practical return; a certain ecstasy of sorts has to happen.

Therefore, I think LA education is as impractical as love.

Though it isn’t a big selling point to say “we offer an utterly impractical course of study” – ne’theless, if we make the modus operandi for study a praxis we have debased the finest and noblest of pursuits into something base and selfish; just as if we attribute to love a selfish motive, the promise of gain or some irresistible drive of biology we no longer have love, merely a weaker form of power.

Monday, August 3, 2009

An exchange - "Rope" and Dostoevsky

One of my colleagues sent me this note:

Hello colleagues,

I hope you are all having a good summer.

But I also hope one or more of you will be eager to apply your critical thinking and answer some of my questions regarding the following argument for atheism. The argument at the link below was sent to me by an alum – this is an article that is currently influencing his choosing atheism.

I am hoping one of you will volunteer to read this article and spend 30-60 minutes talking with me about it. I have some ideas about critiquing this argument – but as I am neither a theologian nor philosopher I would like to bounce my thoughts off of one of you and hear your response as well.


Me: To misquote Jerry Maguire, Mr. Bradley lost me with "hello." In this opening paragraph he states:

First: there is ample precedent for what I am doing. Socrates, for example, examined the religious beliefs of his contemporaries--especially the belief that we ought to do what the gods command--and showed them to be both ill-founded and conceptually confused.

-no, he didn't. What he did was to shake the pharisaical complacency and self-righteousness of his contemporaries in order to deepen their understanding of their religious world. If we're to call Socrates (and Plato) anything it would not be "irreligious" and it certainly would not be "atheist". Why so many atheists turn to Plato for solace is utterly beyond me.

I wish to follow in his footsteps though not to share in his fate. A glass of wine, not of poison, would be my preferred reward. (coward)

FURTHER, he misunderstands the Dostoyevsky argument when he says:

"If there is no God, all things are permitted." So said one of Dostoyevsky's characters in Crime and Punishment. He was claiming that if God does not exist, then moral values would be a purely subjective matter to be determined by the whims of individuals or by counting heads in the social groups to which they belong; or perhaps even that moral values would be totally illusory and moral nihilism would prevail. In short--the argument goes--if there are objective moral truths, then God must exist.

No. That's not it at all. The argument Dostoyevsky is making is that if we abandon the reality of God (or even of gods) then there are no restrictions upon our actions and being a murderer is as valid as being a saint.

The actual passage is in Book 11, chapter 4 of Brothers K and consists of an exchange btwn Smerdyakov and Ivan Karamazov recounted by the increasingly insane Ivan to his brother, Alyosha. Here is the text:

"But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’ ‘Didn’t you know?’ he said laughing, ‘a clever man can do what he likes,’ he said. ‘A clever man knows his way about, but you’ve put your foot in it, committing a murder, and now you are rotting in prison.’

Smerdyakov has just murdered a man and claims that Ivan is complicit in the murder b/c it was he that told Smerdyakov that men can do what they will w/o God. (See Hitchcock's "Rope") So in Dostoevsky's portrayal, the original idea professed by Ivan becomes the catalyst which justifies the murderous Smerdyakov in his actions!!!! It isn't a proof of the existence of God, it is a proof of the murderousness of human nature without God.

I never cease to be amazed by the ignorance of history that would claim that religion has been the cause of all our agony rather than that religion has been the one bulwark against the tide of war, famine, suffering and cruelty that inundates our miserable little race. That just isn't so, and Dostoevsky, on the eve of one of the bloodiest centuries in all of human history, was crying out against the abandonment of the one thing that might stem the blood dimmed tide and preserve the ceremony of innocence.

Finally, though, I dismiss the argument in the following way. I don't have time to read and refute all these arguments, I've read them before, thought them before, experienced each of them before. But if there is to be any argument about anything we have to first agree that argument, reason, logic, are fitted to a reality that exists. When we argue we argue about something. When we use language it is language about something. If nothing else, when we say "God" we mean this correspondence. Belief in the reality of that which we argue about allows argument itself. Belief in the reality to which language has correspondence allows language itself. Mr. Bradley argues there is no God.

If we agree with that argument then Mr. Bradley is no more right than Mr. Chesterton or Mr. Lewis or Mr. Pascal or Mr. Saint John and the only principle upon which we can rest any discussion is the triumph of my will over his or his will over mine.

I choose my will ... which dictates that his argument is trash.

End of discussion.

Here's "Rope":