Self-Indulgence

Blogs are very self-indulgent media. Every time one publishes a post to one’s blog, one assumes that someone else cares what one has to say. There are excuses and attempts to claim mitigating circumstances — “I really only write for myself”, “It’s more of a personal diary than a blog”, “I don’t care what other people think” — but none of them stand up to scrutiny. If one were truly writing only for oneself, or writing a personal diary, or one did not care about the opinions of others, one would not publish one’s writings on the Internet. If one is honest, one must admit to a certain level of self-indulgence, a bit of pompous arrogance in the assumption that the great unwashed care a fig about what one has to say.

My blog has very few readers and I know most of them personally — those that I do not know well I have at least corresponded with by e-mail. I am not sure if that makes my situation better or worse, more ludicrous and self-absorbed or less. I at least try to avoid the temptation to write a public diary: I try to post things that may amuse or interest without assuming that you care about my personal life.

However, sometimes the urge is just too strong. Now that the year AD 2010 has well and truly begun, I would like to review the previous year and wallow in the intemperate narcissism of it all.

2009 was the year in which I left London, the stinking metropolis that had been my home for around seven years, and moved across the Atlantic Ocean. I began by living in a small town in Ontario for about three months, continuing my previous employment but now working from home with the aid of the Internet. The next three months were spent on unpaid leave: I travelled west by car through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, drove south to the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, then back across the prairies to Ontario, where I spent the final month on the shore of Lake Huron. I returned to Britain for a month, only to move west again in December, when I took up a new job (albeit with the same company) in California. It is looking probable that the United States Customs and Immigration Service will soon force my return to Britain (although I have a visa to stay here for three years, it seems that my Canadian fiancée is not welcome.) Still, for the moment I live in San Francisco, which is a great improvement over London.

My greatest intellectual development in 2009 must have been the belated realisation that theism has a lot more going for it than I had thought. I had, admittedly in common with many people in the modern West, assumed that the philosophical debate between theism and atheism had been settled long ago. I thought that only those who clung to irrational faith were theists and that those who were honestly rational recognised the logical imperative to accept atheism.

My first surprise was the discovery that the debate is far from over. The book Atheism and Theism by J.J.C. Smart and J.J. Haldane (published in 2002 by Wiley-Blackwell as part of the Great Debates in Philosophy series) was very illuminating. I think J.J.C. Smart is now my model atheist philosopher. In particular, I appreciated his point that there are few “knock down” arguments in philosophy. I later came to appreciate the two-sided nature of rationality (it is always essentially a dialogue rather than a monological deduction) even more when I read Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas (unpublished but available in rough form on his website: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas) at the end of the year. Without hyperbole, I think it is probably the most important philosophical text I have read for some time.

My second surprise was the discovery that theism is in many ways a more rational position than atheism. The first inkling that this might be so came to me from reading A Comprehensible Universe: The Interplay of Science and Theology by George Coyne and Michael Heller (published in 2008 by Springer). More evidence came from Is God a Mathematician? by Mario Livio (published in 2009 by Simon and Schuster) and especially the aforementioned Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas. From a rather different perspective, the possible rationality of theism was made clear to me by Edward Feser’s books on Thomist philosophy, such as Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (published in 2009 by Oneworld Publications). I owe a great debt to “Deogolwulf”, author of the brilliant blog The Joy of Curmudgeonry, for not only introducing me to many of the above authors but also for sharing his own ideas in personal correspondence with me. He also introduced me to Bill Vallicella’s blog, Maverick Philosopher, which is one of the better philosophy blogs on the internet.

It is possible that I was able to approach the theism/atheism debate with an open mind only because my general attitude towards religion changed over the course of 2009. For that, J.R.R. Tolkien is mostly to blame. I read The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Humphrey Carpenter and published in 2006 by HarperCollins) over the summer and found them curiously inspiring. Tolkien had an ability to see and articulate truths in a manner that I have seldom encountered elsewhere. I find it hard to explain exactly what it is about his work that I find so moving, but perhaps his own explanation, given in his essay On Fairy-Stories, which I re-read for the umpteenth time at the beginning of the year, is better than anything I will ever produce. (On Fairy-Stories was published as part of a collection entitled Tree and Leaf: Including “Mythopoeia” in 2001 by HarperCollins.)

I am currently reading J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (published in 1995 by HarperCollins) which a friend lent me before I moved to California. I read it while sitting in my armchair by the window, smoking my pipe and occasionally looking up at the leaves of the tree outside.

Tomorrow I shall attend a Latin Eucharist with Gregorian chant at my local Anglo-Catholic church.


The final counter to the sceptical questioner is to ask what alternative he has in mind. Since reasoning is typically two-sided, it often involves an assessment of alternatives. If alternatives are offered, we can compare them with what we ourselves have put forward, possibly finding them preferable, but more probably finding them less well supported than the position that is under attack. But if, as often, no alternative is offered, we are not engaged on a serious exercise. It is the converse of an argument of Hume’s, who concluded that “a total suspense of judgement is . . . our only reasonable resource”, arguing that, since “every attack and no defence . . . is successful, victory must go to the man who remains always on the offensive and has himself no fixed station or abiding city which he is ever, on any occasion, obliged to defend”. But guerilla warfare wins no territory. The metaphysician is looking for a position in which he can abide, and which he would be willing to defend. His thoughts and communications may sometimes be troubled by a Humean sceptic, but he will have no incentive to abandon his position for another, if no other is on offer. For he is serieux; metaphysics is not a dilettante occupation, but a guide to life, and life is short and will not allow an indefinite suspense of judgement.

Reason and Reality by J.R. Lucas; pp. 76 – 77

Advertisements
Published in: on January 15, 2010 at 10:18 pm  Comments (5)  

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m a brazilian physician and a regular reader of your blog. Maybe blogs are indeed self-indugent. But most human activities are. I think you’re doing a great work. I also found Maverick Philosopher by your link, so I’d like to thank you for that. Please keep up the good work.

  2. Oh, perhaps I do have a reader that I have not met! Thank you for your encouragement.

  3. A blog can also be a positive tool for gaining clarity. Many of the blog entries I have made have initially had more to do with me trying to understand or “set in motion” something. To my positive surprise, I have at times succeeded in this, and also received needed encouragement or perceptive commentary (not always in the form of blog comments but subsequent private discussions), that has greatly aided me, and further influenced my thinking and doing.

    I have found your blog entries to be of great interest, because your style of writing and approach is different from my own. However, I have never been that much of a philosophical bent, or found it necessary to find convincing rational arguments for something. If I have intuitively, strongly felt something to be right, it has been enough, and I have been able to continue forward.

    Alhough I can appreciate the more academic approaches, the myth and symbol have been more important and inspiring to me than any scientific data. Maybe that is also the reason why I choose poetry over philosophical texts anytime. In my case at least this has helped me to get closer to God.

  4. Writing a blog is a very effective way to order one’s thoughts. I find that usually the general theme of a blog article will hover in the back of my mind for weeks before eventually it all comes together and I get an urge to write it down. Typically, I find it hard to concentrate on anything else until I have finished writing at least the first draft.

    I often find that my opinion on some matter will change drastically over the course of writing an article. By the time I publish something, I have probably re-written it at least five times, usually more.

    So there is value merely in writing something down. It forces me to get my thoughts in order, to find contradictions and incoherencies that I didn’t notice when my thoughts were all jumbled up in my mind and unexpressed.

    However, I could do this without a blog. I do actually do this without a blog quite often. I write in my notebook (or on some scrap of paper on the rare occasions that I don’t have a notebook with me) as if I were writing a blog article. But often I never get as far as typing up my writings for my blog. Just writing it down in a private notebook turns out to be enough to order my thoughts.

    The great advantage of blogs is that they bring one’s opinions to the notice of other people. As you have, I have often benefited from the reactions of my readers. Their advice and recommendations have been invaluable.

    So, in a sense, my blog is really just a cry for help…

  5. My pleasure, and I am honoured by the mention and the kind words. I often feel embarrassed by the sheer presumption of blogging. I am glad, however, to have made your acquaintance. I am also glad you like J.R. Lucas. He is a largely unknown treasure.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s