Monday, August 30, 2010

Beyond Belief? Five New Books on Religion

Superstition Marches On

Thomas Riggins

Jonathan Benthall has an article called "Beyond Belief: In Spite of Science and Secularism, Religions are Gaining Strength -- But Are They Offering More Than a 'Storm-Shutter' or a New Global Market?" [TLS 12-11-2009]. Under the heading "Philosophy of Religion" (although there is little philosophy involved) he reviews five recent books on religion [Michael King: POSTSECULARISM, Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION, John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK, Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD, and Michael Jackson, THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND]. From what I could glean from the review none of the books seem interesting nor deep and, unless one is already predisposed to be sympathetic to superstition and its baneful grip on the human spirit, not worth the time and effort to read. Here are some impressions from Benthall's review.

Mike King: POSTSECULARISM: THE HIDDEN CHALLENGE TO EXTREMISM, 324pp. This is, among other things, an attack on Richard Dawkins, whose militant attack on Theism is still upsetting people. King says Dawkins wants to "arrogate to science what is the proper domain of a quite different human impulse-- the poetic and mystical." He accepts the "non-overlapping magisteria" supported by Steven Jay Gould, adding a third, as Bentall points out, of the arts. These domains are "autonomous with regard to science." He goes on to reject,the reviewer quotes him, "the monoculture of the mind" reflected by the fundamentalists of both religion and scientists-- "ultra-scientism" as Benthall puts it. Well, all I can say is that science wants to explain what is really going on in our world and what ever "poetic and mystical" views turn you on are fine but it is a delusional superstition to think that is the way to world understanding. Astrology is certainly "autonomous' with regard to Astronomy but let us not dignify it as a "non-overlapping magesterium." Religion was a pre-scientific way of looking at the world. Today it simply a tool by which the exploited are more easily controlled by their masters. Once the exploited catch on, if ever-- its doesn't look so good that they will-- it's all over.

Terry Eagleton: REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: REELECTIONS ON THE GOD DEBATE 185pp (Yale). Benthall tells us that Eagleton is turned off by the "doctrinal ferocity" of atheists such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens whom he lumps together as "Ditchkins." Eagleton himself rejects the version of God as a vengeful proponent of hell fire and brimstone and thinks that the message of Jesus has been betrayed by the mainstream interpretation of the Christian churches. He is sympathetic to a left Christianity based on a concept of Original Sin that results in a "tragic humanism." But how can you base anything on the fairy tale of "Original Sin?" Benthall says Eagleton finds it "scandalous" that opponents of religion such as Dawkins and Hitchens" can just dismiss the "work of religiously committed people over centuries in alleviating suffering, working for peace and standing up to dictators." Well perhaps it's not so scandalous when you reflect on the fact that compared to the religiously committed who over centuries inflicted suffering, worked for war and blindly followed dictators-- the number of people Eagleton is referring to is a drop in the bucket. As Bertrand Russell said, first religion does a great deal of harm and then a little good. I don't think we need spend much time on this type of jejune apologetic.

John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge: GOD IS BACK: HOW THE GLOBAL RISE OF FAITH IS CHANGING THE WORLD. The first author is an editor (and a Catholic) the second a senior staff member (and an atheist) at THE ECONOMIST, a major organ of bourgeois propaganda and misinformation. Benthall says the thrust of this book is to oppose the "standard view" that religion in the US is "exceptionally elevated" as opposed to Europe and other developed countries "with the drift away from the churches" and that this is the trend of history. "Elevated" is a strange word to use, I think, to describe the primitive nativistic and quite ridiculous beliefs of most American Christians. Everyone who studies the philosophy of religion grants that the US is full of undereducated, unsophisticated, antiscientific, homophobic, racist Bible thumpers to a greater degree than other industrialized areas of the world. That this is "elevated religiosity" is debatable. The authors see, with the exception of Europe, the world trending in the American direction with the rapid growth of religious sects and cults (not their terminology) in the neocolonial world and in China. They are confident that China will become a Christian country. The Chinese "middle class" is better educated than its American counterpart so I doubt this will happen. As we continue to exploit and destroy the neocolonial world, religion can be expected to grow and prosper in this area as it is the sigh of the oppressed after all. Our authors understand this as Benthall writes they hold that, "People take cover from the 'hurricane of capitalism' under the canopy of religion." Since THE ECONOMIST supported Bush's imperialist oil grabbing invasion of Iraq, our authors well know what the "hurricane of capitalism" is capable of.

Paul Froese, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD: FINDINGS FROM THE SOVIET EXPERIMENT IN SECULARIZATION, 264pp (U 0f Ca Press). Using only English language sources, Froese sets out to test the six propositions he thinks are at the basis of the Soviet attitudes toward religion. The six are as follows, according to Benthall's review. 1) Religion is a primitive illusion. 2) Religious rites and values are more important than the gods. 3) Religious leaders are functions of state power. 4) Religious behavior is mostly based on rational choice (!?) [I really doubt the Soviets believed religion was both a primitive illusion AND involved rational choice. Froese puts this one in because he will propose a "market model" for religion later on in his book and most bourgeois thinkers believe markets are the result of "rational choice" such as spending more than you have.] 5) Religion is only concerned with the supernatural. [Another dubious Froese proposition attributed to the Soviets, who were well aware of the social, political, and economic roles that religion concerns itself with.] 6) Religion is subject to market forces the same as businesses are. Benthall says the author has "a personal leaning towards the market model" --i.e., 6) and this, in my opinion, is why he thinks the Soviets believed 4) as well. This whole scheme is cooked up out of Froese's brain. He wonders why the Soviets did not just co-op the Russian Orthodox Church, as the Tzars had, and use it to further the aims of the state. "Froese wonders, Benthall writes, "why Soviet propagandists spent so much effort in creating a substitute religion [i.e., Atheism ] when they could have co-opted an existing one [Orthodoxy] more easily." Froese thinks the Soviet leaders were all like Putin. It does not occur to him that the Bolsheviks sincerely thought religion was a mental poison that imprisons the minds of the masses and makes them slaves and stupid at the same time. The free human beings of the future would be free of the God Delusion.

Michael Jackson [no, not THAT Michael Jackson], THE PALM AT THE END OF THE MIND: RELATEDNESS, RELIGIOSITY, AND THE REAL. This book will claim a little more of our attention as, unlike the twaddle before, there is some real thinking going on here. The author is a social anthropologist influenced by phenomenology. Benthall quotes him on a need for a modern understanding of religion. Jackson writes, "We need to approach religiosity without a theological vocabulary, repudiate the notion of religion as a sui generis phenomenon, and distance ourselves from the assumption of a necessary relationship between espoused belief and subjective experience." He thinks religion is search for "what matters". Well, this would give it a broader extension than it now has. He thinks that religion develops at the extreme limits of human experience when we arrive at "those critical situations in life where we come up against the limits of language, the limits of our strength...."

"It would seem," Jackson writes, "that for all human beings, regardless of their world views, it is in border situations when they are sorely tested ... that they are most susceptible to those epiphanies, breakthroughs, conversions, and revelations that are sometimes associated with the divine [?? what is the 'divine'?- that's theological vocabulary ] and sometimes simply taken as evidence of the finitude, uncertainty, and thrownness of human existence." This is, of course, an echo of the EXISTENZ philosophy of Karl Jaspers and his notion of "limit-situations." It is also, like Jasper's philosophy, a form of anti-scientific irrationalism. Here is Benthall: "For him [i.e., Jackson], a given interpretive vocabulary is at its most disputable when it appears to privilege one way of representing reality by depreciating others." Taken literally this would mean that the scientific method, the only way so far that we have arrived at propositions that have universal applicability, would be on a par with metaphysical speculations and religious intuitions. Benthall thinks that Jackson's way of looking at the world could lead to "spiritual principles compatible with modern science" and concludes that Jackson's way of looking at religion could result in "a shared 'religious' sensibility that may be fitfully emerging to unite different peoples and traditions, in ways influenced by, but not entirely decreed by, the gods of the marketplace." Yet again with the "marketplace." This "shared 'religious' sensibility" already exists in the form secular humanism based on the scientific outlook-- a form of Deism without the deity-- and we do not need to go whoring after new gods. Secular humanism + Marxism should do the trick.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Revisionary Metaphysics: A Peek at Galen Strawson's "Selves"

Thomas Riggins

The philosopher Galen Strawson has recently published a 448 page book entitled SELVES: AN ESSAY IN REVISIONARY METAPHYSICS. This article is based on Thomas Nagel's review in the London Review of Books 5 November 2009 ["The I in Me"].

Nagel tells us this a book of "shameless metaphysics" [in the good sense] in which GS argues that there are such things as "selves" [you probably think you have one] but they "are not human beings" [we'll see about that]. GS is not some kind of wild idealist. He refers to himself as a materialist and so thinks if you have a self it could NOT "exist apart from your central nervous system." Well. Marxists would agree with that. There is a catch, however. All your experiences are brain events and for "orthodox" materialists brain events, and hence experiences, are events that take place in the physical world. But GS doesn't think that our experiences can be properly explained by an appeal to the properties of the material world.

This does NOT mean there is some other non physical world involved. It means that the material world is of greater extension than the world described by physics. "This means,' Nagel writes, "that the conscious brain has a mental character that is not revealed by the physical sciences , including neurophysiology." Pretty strong stuff. Maybe we should say "not YET revealed", etc. But let's see where GS is going.

Here is the direction of the argument according to Nagel. GS begins with phenomenology ( the subjective feeling of experience of the self) and moves to metaphysics (the objective nature of the self itself). We are told the "results are radical and unexpected." Consciousness is the experience of a subject. A subject is for GS a SINGLE mental thing. If there is a "self" it is a "subject as a single mental thing" which GS calls a SESMET. Your sesmet in the form of "I" thinks of itself as persisting through time as a single entity.

GS thinks this may be an incorrect thing to think and asks how the "I" as a sesmet can persist through discontinuities of consciousness. The human being that you are is the host of fleeting sesmets but there is really no underlying "I" which belongs to all of them. So there are a series of "selves" in the human being-- when you go to sleep and are unconscious one sesmet ceases and a new one comes into being when you regain consciousness-- a new "I"-- which due to the memory storing capacity of the brain links the new sesmet with some memory content stored from the the previous sesmet or "I"-- the feeling you have of a persistent "I" existing in the past and having a future is an illusion-- maya!

GS goes so far as to say that when he remembers today what "he" did yesterday he has no sense that it is the same "I" today as was the "I" of yesterday. Nagel thinks this very strange and suggests that GS has a very atypical conception of himself. Nagel quotes GS as follows:

"The episode of consciousness is certainly apprehended from the inside, and so I take it for granted that it is mine, if I care to reflect: I take it for granted that it is an episode of consciousness of the human being that I am. But there is no sense, affective or otherwise that it was consciousness on my* part.' [Nagel explains: The asterisk indicates the use of 'my' to refer to the subject of present consciousness.] "My past in mine* in the sense," GS continues, "that it belongs to me,* but I don't [ should the "I" have an asterisk?--tr ] feel that I* was there in the past."

GS again: "When I consider myself in the whole-human-being way I fully endorse the conventional view that there is in my case-- that I am-- a single subject of experience-- a person-- with long-term diachronic continuity. But when I consider myself as an inner mental subject and consider the detailed character of conscious experience, my feeling is that I am-- that the thing that I most essentially am is-- continually completely new."

Nagel is not the only one to not be able to feel this way about his own "I". To think, as GS says in the following, "that there simply isn't any 'I' or self that goes on through (let alone beyond) the waking day, even though there's obviously and vividly an 'I' or self at any given time"-- is to think about the "I" quite differently, I think, than most of humanity. But that is his phenomenology and will lead, as Nagel says, to an "equally strange metaphysics."

Since we experience the "self'" both DIACHRONICALLY [a technical term philosophers like to use meaning through time or historically] and SYNCHRONICALLY [at a particular instant in time] all we know about the self arises from experience. Without experiences, no self. A thing is experienced only insofar as its properties are experienced. In fact, a thing and its properties are indistinguishable.

Warning-- thin ice ahead. Nagel: "Further, this thing cannot be distinguished from its properties, and those properties are exhausted by the experience, which is in turn identical with the experience's contents." Is this really materialism? Subjects have experiences and if the thing's properties are exhausted by the subject's experiences this does not leave the possibility of a thing having an existence or property independent of the subject and that smells, I think, of idealism.

In any case, Nagel says that the foregoing discussion of the self and its experiences means that at any given time the "self" is just an episode or unity of a given set of existing experiences-- a sesmet. This is why there is a synchronically, but no diachronically, existing "I". But since GS also supports MATERIALISM the self must be a brain process, or as he says in his book, "a synergy of neural activity which is either a part of or (somehow) identical with the synergy that constitutes the experience as a whole."

As a sequence of sesmets the self of one moment is not the self of the next. The human being has a new self with every consciously aware brain process episode's set of experiences for any given moment in time, but has no diachronic existence. GS says, that Materialists "take the mind-- the mind-brain-- to have non-experiential being in addition to experiential being that provides all the ontic depth anyone could possibly want." By "ontic depth" [from ontology, the science of being] he means the feeling we have of a persistent being of a diachronic "I", that is myself and has memories and past experiences belonging to it even when not consciously present at every given moment.

Does all this sound like a lot of complicated play on words? Why not just say the feeling we have of a "self" is the I's awareness of its present consciousness PLUS what it remembers of past experiences. Brain processes give rise to consciousness and also store memories which can be recalled at different times. Why postulate and try and prove that we have zillions of fleeting selves (sesmets) rather than basically just one? Why multiply entities needlessly?

GS replies: "Philosophy, like science, aims to say how things are in reality, and conflict with ordinary thought and language is no more an objection to a philosophical theory than a scientific one." But science is based on experimentation with regards to the physical world and not speculation with regard to metaphysical theories. By analogy a religious person could say: "Religion aims to say how things are in reality also, so religious ideas that conflict with ordinary thought and language should not be objected to anymore than scientific theories that do the same."

When I said above GS's materialism gave off a whiff of idealism I had this in mind; this opening his conception of philosophy gives to idealist theories. A well founded materialism closes the door on religious speculation, it does not leave a crack open for the irrationalists to squeeze through. Bertrand Russell, the philosophical fore barer of GS as well as Nagel, defined philosophy as the no man's land between science (what we do know) and religion (what we don't know) and this is the territory that GS's theory of the self inhabits.

Nagel does not think GS has made his case in any event, but highly recommends the book both for the high level of philosophical argumentation it contains as well as the wealth of information on the opinions of other philosophers and the answers that they have come up with regarding the mind and the nature of the self. "SELVES is a work of profound philosophical reflection," Nagel writes, and he credits GS with being a philosopher of "imagination and audacity" as well as of "intellectual power and exemplary integrity."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inquiring Marxists Want to Know: Where is the Truth? Is it in Bertrand Russell, Lenin, Jerry Fodor, or Michael Tye?

Thomas Riggins

Jerry Fodor, the American philosopher, has a review in the October 16, 2009 TLS entitled "The truth is not out there." This review is of Michael Tye's "CONSCIOUSNESS REVISITED: Materialism without phenomenal concepts" and Tye is a follower of Hilary Putnam a Harvard philosopher who defends a position called "externalism". A position Fodor suggests that "might have outlived its usefulness."

Well, what I want to know is, if the truth isn't out there, where is it? Marxists think the truth, such as it is, depends on both the "out there" and the "in there" (i.e., the head). Let us see what Fodor has to say.

To explain "externalism" Fodor uses the example of H20 vs. XYZ. XYZ is supposed to have all the properties of H20 but isn't really water! We have H20 on earth but suppose a counter earth exactly the same as earth except instead of our water they have something chemically different called XYZ. You can't tell the difference by looking but if you had a glass of XYZ and you thought you had H20 you would be wrong. So for your concept of what you were looking at to be correct it is dependent on external factors as well as your internal state of mind. The truth, it seems to me, is both out there and in there (there being the brain).

Fodor then gives two traditional philosophical ideas that externalism calls into question. The first is that if you learn the meaning of a word ("water") part of what you learn is the meaning of the word and second is that it is the meaning which determines the extension or reference of the word. It's H2O in the glass [oops-- it's really XYZ]. A word should extend to what it means-- that is water I see in the glass if and only if it is H20.

Externalism calls both these semantic rules into question, says Fodor. One or the other or both could be false. Why? Because, Fodor says, it seems that BEING H20 decides if something is WATER but H20 is NOT PART OF THE MEANING OF WATER. You know how to use the word "water" even if you have never taken a chemistry course and don't know anything about molecules of hydrogen and oxygen and how they get together.

Now words express CONCEPTS so if the meaning of a word is responsible for its extension so it is of the concept as well-- i.e., what we think with-- we think with concepts. Fodor gives an example of DOG. The meaning points outward from the mind to the dog and and inward to the concept as well. Fodor says "Fido is a dog" is only true if "Fido falls under the concept DOG" and vice versa. "A word," he says, "expresses a corresponding concept; a concept represents what the corresponding word refers to."

Fodor likes this way of thinking, which he calls the "representationalist view of concepts" [ it needs more work done on it ] but he says "I love it very much" [and why not?]. But, Fodor fears Putnam's ''externalism" could put the kibosh on this love affair. According to Putnam the meaning of the words you use and the concepts you use depend not only on what goes on in your head but also on the external world as well.

I don't see what is so upsetting about that. It is not the meaning as meaning that is at issue but the correct use of the concept. The glass appears to me to have water in it, or H20, two different concepts for the same thing but I am only correct in applying these concepts if the glass is not a glass of XYZ but one of water. How does this threaten representationalism? More specifically, how is Putnam justified in saying "externalism" means that the "mental representations of concepts" are not in your head because the meaning of the extension is not. What is not in your head is what is really out there in the external world-- a glass of XYZ. The fact that "externalism" has to be taken into account with respect to the truth conditions of your use of the concept WATER or H20 does not justify Putnam in saying the "meaning" of your concept "ain't in your head." It does justify your saying the truth of the correspondence of your judgment that your concept applies to the external world "ain't only in your head." I don't think either Putnam or Fodor is on base here.

Now we get to Tye's book. Fodor tells us that in both empiricism and rationalism "perception" goes like this: I get a percept [bow-wow] and I infer a nearby animal [dog]. Tye, however doesn't like the "infer" part in the above. Fodor quotes him: "it seems natural to suppose that vision involves direct contact with external things in standard veridical cases." Well, maybe-- but after introduction to philosophy we are supposed to understand that the image or sound of a dog is mediated by our senses and the brain infers what is out there. There is mediated contact not direct immediate contact.

Tye goes on: "When I perceive a tomato, for example, there is no tomato-like sense impression [this is just an assertion by Tye] that stands as an intermediary between the tomato and me. [I hope he doesn't think a tomato is in his brain!] Nor am I related to the tomato as I am to a deer when I see its footprint in the snow. [ You are related to the footprint and the tomato in the same way, however.] I do not experience the tomato by experiencing something else over and above the tomato and its facing surface. [Fodor asks is it the tomato or its facing surface we experience. I wonder if Tye infers the tomato from the facing surface?] I see the facing surface of the tomato DIRECTLY" [and infer the tomato indirectly.]

Fodor has a lot to say about this. "Experiences," he says, "are themselves modes of awareness; one doesn't INFER them, one just has them." Yes, but I do, consciously or unconsciously (it's up to the brain) infer from them to the external world. Fodor suggests the OBJECT of the experience is the tomato but I think that is an automatic brain inference we become conscious of the tomato we look at it--oops, better lighting, it's a really red apple.

I think I am not on board with Fodor when he writes: "THE MIND IS ACTIVE IN PERCEPTION; but it is PASSIVE IN EXPERIENCE; which is to say that PERCEPTION IS INFERENTIAL BUT EXPERIENCE ISN'T." I'm not sure you can separate EXPERIENCE and PERCEPTION this way. Fodor asks how do we become aware of the phone ringing and says we don't "hear it (as one might say) 'directly'." But is it not more natural to say( after Philosophy 101) I become aware of the ringing because my brain picks up an auditory sensation, translates it, and makes my consciousness aware that the phone is ringing?

A few lines above I jestingly hoped that Tye didn't think the tomato he was looking at was in his brain. Fodor thought that Tye did believe something like that but then said to himself it wasn't possible for a philosopher to hold such a position-- that a tomato could be part of Tye's phenomenology (not a CAUSE of it but a CONSTITUENT). But he finds the following quote in Tye's book: "An object's looking F ... [isn't] a matter of an object's causing an experience which represents simply that something is F. The experience one has of the seen object is one into whose content the seen object itself enters." Hmmmm.

Following Fodor's lead let us assume that F is the Chrysler Building (CB). Fodor says Tye is trying to expound a theory of the PHENOMENAL CONTENT of our experiences. Fodor says only God knows where the phenomenal content of the CB is [well when I look at the CB it is in my mind i.e., the result of a brain event in my head] but there is no question where the CB is [42nd Street and Lexington in New York City]. So Tye can't really mean what he says-- i.e., that the CB is itself a constituent of my phenomenal content of it. I know that philosophers can be big headed, but they don't have heads big enough to contain the CB!

Tye's view is very counterintuitive and Fodor takes the time to tell us how Tye tries to make it more easily understandable. He draws an analogy from the philosophy of BERTRAND RUSSELL. Russell held that the things propositions were about were parts of the propositions about them. Fodor says that John is part of the proposition that John sneezed. It's true Russell talked that way but Fodor says, rightly I think, that Tye can't really make this appeal to Russell because the analogy between parts of propositions (Russell) and parts of experiences (Tye) "doesn't really bear much weight." Saying John is a part of a proposition simply means the truth value of the proposition depends on something about John. This "doesn't license claiming that John is part of an experience of his sneezing...."

What is the point of all this? Fodor says Tye wants to reconcile a physical metaphysics with a Realist [materialist] account of consciousness, of our conscious experience. The way to do this, Tye thinks, is by an EXTERNALISM which holds that the OBJECT of a veridical experience is part of the phenomenal content of the experience. [I'm not even going to discuss the problems of "illusory" experiences although Fodor does in his review].

Fodor says that a big problem for materialists is that since a conscious experience is, for them, the result of a brain state "assumed to be material through and through" the question is HOW CAN A BRAIN STATE BE CONSCIOUS''? Tye wants to solve this problem by making the content of direct perception is both part of the experience and "BY ASSUMING THAT THE CONTENT OF AN EXPERIENCE IS IPSO FACTO CONSCIOUS CONTENT." But Fodor thinks the available evidence is against this idea. He says that Tye is aware of this evidence and tries to explain it away but he has to add ever more "wheels and gears" to get his theory to run.

An aside here. Materialists need not ask the question as to how a materialist brain state can be conscious. Consciousness is a PROPERTY of matter-- for humans a property of the brain. It is not a KIND OF MATTER. According to Lenin, "To say that thought is material is to make a false step, a step towards confusing materialism and idealism." [CW vol. 14 M&E-C quoted in FML p. 116, see below].

I don't think we need to go over all the cases discussed the case of the CB was enough to make Tye's theory seem impossible. Fodor concludes that the evidence we have from psychology and other sciences indicates the what "perceptual experience delivers to the perceptual belief is not the X but the X experienced-as-such-and-such; and it's what the X is experienced as that determines what belief is formed in consequence of the seeing." This is a perfectly good position that a materialist can take and there is no need to try and construct a counter factual "Materialism without phenomenal concepts."

Fodor concludes that "externalism has just about outlived its usefulness. It looks as if its recent incarnations are just complicated ways of restating its premisses. In fact, he decides that Putnam's form of externalism is not needed to explain the meaning of having conscious content in the mind [brain] because REFERENTIAL CONTENT is all that is necessary for any philosophy of mind or language. And this is how Marxists, at any rate, in holding to DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM would put it: "It is not the things themselves, or their properties and relations that exist in man's consciousness, but mental IMAGES or reflections of them, which convey more or less accurately the characteristics of the objects cognised and are, in this sense, similar to them [Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninsm, Moscow, 1961).

Sunday, August 15, 2010


by Thomas Riggins

Since the collapse of the socialist experiment in the USSR and Eastern Europe the question of how to make socialism successful has become more pertinent than ever before.

I believe that the observations made by the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) as a result of his 1920 trip to Russia and his interview with Lenin are relevant to this discussion and should be given serious consideration by socialists.

This article is based on the last chapter of Russell's book THE PRACTICE AND THEORY OF BOLSHEVISM. I must note that his views pertain to the conditions to be met while still under capitalism so that when socialism comes it will be able to succeed.

"The fundamental ideas of communism," he says, "are by no means impracticable, and would, if realized, add immeasurably to the well-being of mankind." So, at least, communism is a worthwhile ideal to struggle for it seems.

It is strange, however, for a logician such as Russell not to realize that the fundamental ideas of communism logically rest upon Marx's theory of value and since, in other places, he rejects that theory he should think them to be impracticable.

Be that as it may, Russell finds no fault with the fundamental ideas, the problem is "in regard to the transition from capitalism." The capitalists may put up such a fight to maintain power that they will destroy what is good in our civilization and "all that is best in communism." So this must be avoided.

There can be no success for a communist revolution if industry is paralyzed. If that should happen the economy would breakdown, there would be mass unrest, starvation, and the communists would have to resort to a "military tyranny" to retain power and maintain order and the utopian ideals of communism would have to be practically junked. This is arguably what happened in the Soviet Union as a result of forced collectivization and industrialization and the mass destruction suffered by the Nazi invasion in WW2.

So the success of any true communist revolution depends upon the survival of industry. This means that poor countries, small countries, and countries without fully developed economic power cannot have successful revolutions because the capitalists of the advanced countries would overthrow them or subvert them. Now, of course. this may be less true than when Russell wrote because there is at least one economically advanced country professing socialist ideals that could aid an under developed country, namely China

There is only one country large enough and powerful enough to have a successful revolution. "America, being self-contained and strong, would be capable, so far as material conditions go, of achieving a successful revolution; but in America the psychological conditions are as yet adverse." He further remarks that, "There is no other civilized country where capitalism is so strong and revolutionary socialism so weak as in America." This still appears to be the case.

Wherever socialism comes to power the bourgeoisie will but up a fight, and Russell says the important question is how long the fight (he uses the word 'war') will last. If it is a short time he doesn't see a problem. If it s a long time there will be a big problem involving the ability of socialism to maintain its ideals.

Therefore, Russell draws the following two conclusions. First, there can be no successful socialist revolution unless America first becomes socialist or is willing to remain neutral with respect to a socialist revolution. He dosn't mean socialists can't come to powe, but that they will not have the material means to create socialism. World history since 1920, when his book was written, would seem to give some credence to this view.

Second, in order to avoid the kind of civil war that would effectively cripple the realization of the the ideals of socialism, communism should not be set up in a country unless the great majority of the people are in favor of it and the opponents are too weak to initiate violent opposition or effective sabotage of the process.

The problems with the distortion of socialist values associated with so called "Stalinism" and "Maoism'', for example, can perhaps be attributed to the backward economic conditions of Russia and China respectively. Communists were able to take power but were not able to bring about the justice, equality and prosperity for all that was hoped for. The Russian experiment is over for now but the Chinese one is still a work in progress.

Russell also says the working class should be educated in technical matters and business administration so as not to be overly dependent on bourgeois specialists. This would imply an advanced industrial society, which was not the case in Russia or China at the time of their revolutions.

With respect to England, actually any advanced country-- especially the US-- is meant, Russell maintains the best road to socialism should begin with "self-government" in industry. The first industries to be taken over would be mining and the railroads (transportation) and Russell has "no doubts" that these could be run better by the workers than by the capitalists.

The US is actually in a position to this now that the government effectively owns the auto industry and some big financial firms (AIG). What is lacking is what Russell called the psychological preconditions by which is meant advanced class consciousness on the part of the workers. It is PAs function to help bring that about so lets hope our readership goes up!

Russell says the Bolsheviks are against self-government in industry because it failed in Russia and their national pride won't allow them to admit this. This is misleading. The Bolsheviks certainly favored workers control and soviets being in charge of industry but the civil war made this difficult to establish in practice [thus war communism]. They had no objections to workers self-government, that's what the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) was all about.

As far as having nationalized industries in capitalist countries being governed by worker's councils was concerned, this was permissible as a transitional stage to full socialism but not as an end in and of itself. Besides, a capitalist government would be unlikely to let the workers actually have the determining voice. Russell's suggestions, however, still make sense and the labor movement should be making this demand. No one is better equipped to run the auto industry than the UAW.

Russell thinks capitalists only care about money and power And we have seen this to be so in just the last few years with out current crisis.

So socialists should first take over the industries by means of self-government and allow the capitalists to keep their incomes then,when all can see that they are drones, they can be dispossessed without too much trouble. In this way we could have a relatively peaceful transition to socialism without the collapse of industry. Historically, Social Democrats have supported this but have in practice, in almost all cases, betrayed the workers and helped out the capitalists instead.

Russell says that another reason industrial self government is a good idea is that it would forestall the type of over centralization found in Russia. This should not be a real concern as Russia was backwards and Russell's plan assumes an advanced economic basis. The important thing is that it would be a support for democracy.

Russell makes an important distinction about democracy. There are at least two ways we can think about democracy One is parliamentary democracy, or in the US the type of representational democracy set up over two hundred years ago basically to protect slavery. Russell says this type of democracy is "largely discredited" and that he has "no desire to uphold" it as "an ideal institution."

He may have felt it was discredited in his day, but what about now?
Polls suggest that many Americans, at least, have a low regard for Congress and are becoming more and more aware that it is a tool for the corporations and their lobbyists Workers in the European Union are also waking up to what is happening in their respective countries. So socialists, perhaps, both here and abroad should be agitating for Russell's second kind of democracy.

He calls this "self-government." However. Russell doesn't give a more specific name for this, but today we use terms such as popular democracy, direct democracy (as opposed to representational democracy) or participatory democracy. The Russians tried soviets but the conditions on the ground made this impracticable. For the US, probably, some sort of mixture of popular democracy and parliamentary democracy (with the right of recall) would come near to what Russell had in mind. William Z. Foster once wrote a book called "Towards a Soviet America"-- I am not quite advocating that as a first stage!

Russell gives three main reasons for ensuring that socialism is based on his notions of self-government. 1) No dictator, no matter how well intentioned, "can be trusted to know or pursue the interests of his subjects [Stalin?]. 2) A politically educated population depends on self-government [the Soviet working class was unable to defend its gains against Yeltsin and Gorbachev and Co.]. 3) Self-government promotes order and stability and reinforces constitutional rule [the Soviet constitution was just a piece of paper]. As far as I know these reasons are all valid.

Russell's reasons are no doubt correct and successful socialism will be more likely if, when the time for the transition from capitalism comes, "there should already exist important industries competently administered by the workers themselves." This is certainly the ideal situation. But history does not always deal us the ideal hand. Sometimes, we are forced to play the hand we are dealt as it is not realistic to constantly fold your cards unless you have a royal flush.

Besides rejecting Bolshevism because he does not think it compatible with the type of stages and gradualism with respect to self-government that he has outlined [what the Bolsheviks questioned was if the ruling class would resort to violence if socialism won peacefully], Russell has another big problem with the Third International and that it is that its methods are based on coming to power as a result of war and social collapse, whereas socialism can only work, i.e., keep its ideals intact, by coming to power in a prosperous country-- not one destroyed by war and social upheaval.

Let us say that this is an alternative peaceful, and preferred, method. In 1920 the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing if this [violence] was a doomed project. It appears to us now that Russell may have been correct. Socialism can come to power by this method, but it cannot succeed in building a real lasting and popular social order without an already exisiting industrial infrastructure. Russia and Eastern Europe seem to have confirmed Russell's fears. The jury is still out with respect to the remaining socialist countries as I indicated earlier with respect to China.

Russell ends by saying the Bolsheviks are too dogmatic and what is really needed is an attitude that is more patient and takes into consideration the complexity of the international situation and rejects "the facile hysteria of 'no parley with the enemy'". By 1948, when his work was reissued, Russell could have read Lenin's "Left Wing Communism An Infantile Disorder" and he would have realized how inappropriate his description of the thought of the Third International was.

He then says, Russian Communism "may fail and go under, but socialism itself will not die." True then, true now. The Great War, Russell says "proved the destructiveness of capitalism" and he hopes that the future will not show the "greater destructiveness of Communism" but rather the healing powers of socialism.

What came was another world war of even greater destructiveness and the entrenchment of capitalism and its destructiveness. It now threatens the very Earth itself-- its atmosphere, its oceans, and its rain forests and all life on Earth. Now more than ever we need "the power of socialism to heal the wounds which the old system has inflicted upon the human spirit."

Friday, August 13, 2010


Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, Art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna (New York, Bloomsbury, 2009) pp. 347.

Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

This is an excellent graphic novel, Howard Zinn calls it "extraordinary," about the life and times of Bertrand Russell and his search for the foundations of mathematics. Believe it or not, this is a really good read and not a dry and esoteric exercise in the history of mathematics.

In a brief "Overture" we are told this is a real honest to God comic book and it has a real story line about real people and events (although some fictional elements have been added to juice up the story they are minor).

The framework of the book is a lecture given by Bertrand Russell at an American university a few days after the invasion of Poland in 1939. On his way to the lecture hall Russell encounters protesters who want the US to stay o ut of the war and they expect Russell, who was world famous for his opposition to WWI, to join with them. Instead he invites them to his lecture with the idea that his views on the new war will be revealed. They accept and they all go to the lecture hall together.

Russell's topic is "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" but he actually recounts the major episodes in his life and his philosophical search to establish the truth of mathematics as a branch of logic. Actually the comic ends in 1939 and Russell lived another 30 or so years so there is room for a follow up comic.

His "lecture" (it's not an historical lecture just an excuse to introduce Russell as the narrator, is divided into six parts. The first, "Pembroke Lodge," recounts Russell's youth at his Grandfather and Grandmother's estate where he was brought up after the early deaths of his father and mother. In the second part, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", Russell goes off to the study mathematics and philosophy at Cambridge, meets his life long friend G.E. Moore, meets the woman who will be his first (of four) wives, and takes classes with Alfred North Whitehead with whom he will later collaborate in writing the three volume "Principia Mathematica" their magnum opus on the foundations of mathematics.

Part Three is called "Wanderjahre". Russell and his bride travel to the continent visiting Germany and France and Russell has fictional encounters with the great mathematicians Frege and Cantor (inventor of set theory). Although fictional these meetings further the plot by introducing some of the mathematical ideas that Russell was working on in the first decade of the 20th Century.

In part four, "Paradoxes," Russell and Whitehead work on Principia Mathematica, Russell's marriage cracks up, he attempts to seduce Whitehead's wife (and fails). The title of this part refers to certain logical paradoxes, especially "Russell's Paradox," which led Russell and Whitehead to conclude that without finding solutions to logical paradoxes they could never prove that the foundations of mathematics rested on logic.

Part five is called "Logico-Philosophical Wars." Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up to study logic with Russell at Cambridge and calls Russell's whole outlook into question. Meanwhile, World War I breaks out. Wittgenstein goes off to fight for Austria (not very enlightened) and Russell ends up in prison (for six months) for anti war activities.

In part six "Incompleteness" we find Russell married again, having a son, and running a progressive school based on his philosophical views on education. His and Whitehead's project for establishing the foundations of mathematics gets a fatal blow from a young mathematician named Kurt Godel who proves his "Incompleteness Theorem" which shows that the goal of the "Principia Mathematica"-- a complete proof that mathematics rests on logic is unattainable.

Russell ends his speech by saying to his American audience that he can't tell them what to do with respect to fighting or not fighting in W.W.II. They will have to logically think this out for themselves.

Anyone with an interest in 20th Century Anglo-American philosophy will really enjoy reading this book. I have only skimmed the surface in this review.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Thomas Riggins

"The Case for God" is the new book by Karen Armstrong the popular best seller writer on religion. This is an evaluation of her case as based on a review by Ross Douthat in The New York Times Book Review Oct. 4, 2009.

Douthat thinks this is the right time for Armstrong's book now that the Bush era is over and the country is focused on health care and the economy (he neglects to mention the two wars still raging from the Bush era) rather than right wing religious issues such as creationism and sex education based on abstinence.

Douthat says the book is a good history of religious thought in the West and also "wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism"--i.e., Dawkins & Co. Armstrong wants to make three major points in her book. 1.) The idea of "God" put forth by the new atheists as well as literalists and fundamentalists is wrong headed. 2.) Her idea of "God" does not conflict with science. 3.) Her views on "God" are more faithful to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity than are those of the conservation literalists of today. In fact she says it is the moving away from the old time religion towards literalism that is "one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today."

Let's see what her argument is and if she can make her case. The pre-modern theologians (say the Fathers of the Church and even Thomas Aquinas) she says saw faith as a "practice" a set of beliefs not, she writes, "something that people thought but something they did." Well, this seems an odd thing to say. Christians have always fought over what CREED to uphold, calling each other heretics based on THOUGHT not practice. Burning at the stake was not a modern invention. So when Douthat says she holds that the old time religion was "a set of skills , rather than a list of unalterable teachings" I think she is just wrong. Persecuting heretics and weeding out wrong thoughts started with PAUL and has been with us ever since. And similar things can be said about other religions as well.

The conflict with science in modern time, she thinks, arose because theologians developed "a fatal case of science envy." How did this happen? Armstrong thought the religious thinkers became Deists in the tradition of Newton and William Paley (!), according to Douthat.

Impressed by the "natural theology" of the scientists Western Christian thinkers held "the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God's providential care," Armstrong writes. This led the religious thinkers to give up their pre modern "mythic" and non literal approach and, as the reviewer puts it to adopt a "pseudo-scientific rigor." This meant "they had nowhere to turn when Darwin's theory of evolution arrived on the scene."

This is really revisionist history. Christianity and its leaders never adopted the Deism of Newton or Paley. Becoming literalists was just the opposite of the scientific approach. If they had been impressed by the "natural theology" of the Deists and they wanted to ape the scientists they would have rushed to adopt Darwinism and incorporate it into a scientific theology. They did just the opposite because this earlier pre-modern "mythic" form of religion based on practice not thought constricted by scripture is a figment of Armstrong's imagination. She is incorrect if she thinks Aquinas or Augustine would be "unfazed by the idea of evolution" as the reviewer puts it. They would have rejected the scientific theory of evolution and concocted some non scientific Bible based theory instead but they would never have accepted Darwin.

To avoid the fruitless arguments over religion versus science, Armstrong makes two recommendations. First, she writes to the atheists that there is "no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth--- or lack of it--- only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action." Well, this first one doesn't make any sense. How do you judge the "truth" of a ritual? And ethical "truths" are notoriously slippery and culture bound notions whose "truth" seems to depend on "feeling" more than on anything else. No atheist is likely to "embark" on a religious life style to discover religious "truths", especially when they already think there are no truths to be found. There are too many religions fighting not only among themselves but also internally with their own sects, as to make it seem a most unlikely prospect for an atheist.

Second, the fundamentalists and literalists are told to go back to the old time pre-modern religious outlook that recognized that "revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally.... [that] revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity." This will go over like a lead balloon, especially with those who think revelation ended with Moses and a few Old Testament prophets, or with the New Testament, or the Koran. But atheists will agree that "human ingenuity" is the bases of revelation.

The reviewer also has doubts about Armstrong's views and mentions that rather than having her liberal outlook the old Christian sages [and others too] "were fiercely dogmatic." Some of them, Augustine for example, may not have been 100% Biblical dogmatists (with respect to Genesis for example) but still held literalist views as well (the Resurrection).

I have to conclude that Armstrong's God will have little appeal to most people who believe in religion-- especially since he is "mythic" and dependent on "human ingenuity." I think her case for God fails and the time one might spend in reading her book could be more profitably utilized in reading Spinoza.