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Here is the video clip (low-quality version) that I showed my students. What does it have to do with philosophy?


I spent some time thinking about how to introduce the subject of philosophy to my Survey of Philosophical Thought course this semester.  I haven’t taught an intro class for over a year and I thought it was a good time to re-think some of the ways that I have approached the course in the past. While I was trying to find a good way of characterizing philosophy, I naturally thought of Socrates’ adage that philosophy begins in wonder. I had recently seen a couple of videos, having nothing to do with philosophy (one was about a leopard reacting to an infant baboon after killing its mother), that I thought did an excellent job of inspiring wonder and awe. So, before even talking about what philosophy is, I showed the two short clips to my students and got their reactions. Of couse I anticipated that this approach might be a disaster with students wondering about this odd philosophy professor showing clips from nature documentaries, so I prepared some remarks that I hoped would link the videos with my idea of what philosophy is.  I thought I might be a good idea to share those remarks here and see if anyone feels like responding. (The class wasn’t a disaster, by the way. The clips provoked quite a bit of discussion that was directly relevant to philosophy). Here is what I had prepared to say:

The world is a mysterious place.  There are places that can overwhelm you with beauty, make you want to get on your knees and worship the unknown power that creates such a glorious world. And there are events that make you turn inward and contemplate the miracle of your self; that you are a conscious being who can experience the wonder and beauty and glory; how is it that this universe is capable of creating beings that, as part of it, can also, at the same time, be aware of it? I have a body that I can move merely by willing it, how does this happen? And who or what is this “I” that has a body, is aware of its body, and can will to move it and thus affect the world around it? The face of a child can make you feel tremendous responsibility for his future, for making sure that he has all of the opportunities for joy and exploration and meaning that he imagines that he can have.

And it is a place of such horror. A world in which the inhabitants turn on one another, indeed must turn on one another just to fulfill the urge to survive, an urge over which individuals have no control. All life cries out with the desire to continue to exist, and yet, when we think about it, we don’t know why. Where does this drive to survive come from? I do not control it and yet it controls me.

And there are unspeakable horrors that we cause to one another, murder, torment, fear. We can take one another’s most beloved and valuable possessions, cause them great stress and unhappiness, and even take their lives.  Why is this world such a place?  And what about the tragedies that are caused by the so-called natural, indifferent world? The powers in this universe can snuff out countless lives in an instant, can reduce the hopes and dreams of thousands to rubble with an earthquake, volcano, storm, or disease.

We seem to be naturally inclined to react to the world as if it were inhabited by a conscious spirit who controls things in much the same way that we (at least in our imaginations) control our own small sphere. Is there such a spirit, or is the universe basically mindless, soulless, and without purpose? If there is such a spirit, then what is he/she/it like? Does he have plan? And why would any being introduce conscious creatures into a world in which they must kill one another just to survive and where they face countless dangers that seem bent on depriving them of the one most powerful desire that, as living beings, they cannot resist and did not chose?

The world is a mysterious place.  Why is it here?  Why are we here? How can we learn about it? What can we know about it? These are the questions that strike philosophers with overwhelming force.

One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others).  Why should reverence be tied to morality?

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’  from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion.  Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.)  Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural.  Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications.  And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.

What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.

Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for  humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way.  Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will.  This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities.  The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us.  Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)?  There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values.  The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.

Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God.  Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard.  This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.

However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself?  I’ll leave that question for next time.

Jason Thibodeau

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