Category Archives: philosophy

loving wisdom

What Philosophy Is, Concluded

Within a couple of weeks of that revival service, and my tear-stricken response to the altar call, it was all over for me: the spiritual exaltation had vaporized, my masturbatory activities had, in spite of all my resolutions, resumed.  (That I could ever have expected them to cease testifies to the naivete that bathed this whole conversion experience of mine.)

In generic form, narratives such as this one are common.  Christopher Hitchens tells of abandoning his religious beliefs when he was just nine years old.  Hundreds of other such stories and anecdotes can be found online.

I did not, however, find my religious beliefs eroding, not at all.  I lost faith in my emotions; I began to put a great deal of effort into thinking through how humans could have anything to do with divinity, or divinity with them; I read all of the college library texts on philosophy of religion (which was the origin of my lifelong distaste for theology and religious philosophy in general).

By the time I was ready to graduate from college, it was clear that my own way toward god was going to be by taking thought, by more or less rational paths as opposed to emotional ones.

I said to myself, finally, that problems may arise, at the level of feeling and emotions and spirit, which cannot be solved at the level of feeling and emotion and spirit.

And that, over the years, has evolved into my definition of philosophy:

Philosophy — loving wisdom — is the effort to personally resolve problems that arise as feelings, emotions, or spiritual conflicts, but cannot be solved at that level.  Such problems may arise in individual, communal, or institutional domains.

What sort of problems are we referring to here?  Mine, as you can see, deal largely with, or originated in, religion.  Others in my generation — and every generation of humans over the millenia — find challenges in science, in psychology, in political history, mathematics and logic, cultural mores.  Here’s a small selection of the questions that began to arise as I reflected, during high school and college, on my failed conversion:

  • is there actually a divinity at the other end of all this altar-call hokum?
  • if there is, why didn’t it respond to my traipsing up the aisle, my tears, my repentance?
  • what’s the difference — if any — between this revival stuff and the kind of church services I’d been raised with?
  • where, really, can I find anybody else who knows this territory well enough to provide a little advice and counsel?

what philosophy is, continued

How it all began for me:

When I was around fourteen my dad — who was a born-again Christian, which led to tension with the rest of the family who remained Dutch-immigrant Calvinists — took me to a revival service.

I had no experience of revivals.  I didn’t know about altar calls.

Some of my readers may not have encountered that expression before.  An “altar call” is when the choir sings Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling, while the revival preacher suggests that while everyone’s eyes are closed you can surrender yourself to Jesus and come up the aisle and kneel to signal your repentance.

Well, that revival service ended with an altar-call.  I surrendered to it — and walked up the aisle — with tears in my eyes.

My family worshipped every week at a Christian Reformed church; prayed at every meal and read a bible passage at dinnertime every day, attended Sunday School half of the year and catechism the other half.  I had no complaint to make about any of this at the time, and — in general — still don’t.

But the religion we practiced every day of our lives was not the sentimental evangelicalism of that revival service.  It was Dutch Calvinism, for farmers.  It did not consist of altar calls, but of doing good for your neighbors and for your family and for people in need.

The call I surrendered to that night came from far outside my ordinary experience of what might be involved in the worship of God.  It’s no surprise that I was so bowled over by the sentiments and the emotion of the altar call.  Especially by Softly and Tenderly.

It was a powerfully spiritual moment for me, at fourteen.  Such moments do not generally deserve the mockery they get in some public discourse.

But spiritual moments, inevitably, must subside, and become less exalted, more mundane ones; by the time we got home that night, I was wondering what was supposed to happen next.

To be continued… .

What Philosophy Is

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a path of inquiry undertaken by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited or paradigmatic cultural patterns.

Is it intellectual?

Most commonly yes, but not necessarily so.  Every one of us, as we come to our adulthood, may find apparent discrepancies, or outright contradictions, among the various systems of thought in which we have been raised.  Some people, depending on their personal inclination, may ground their personal living exclusively in one such system; some, in an adhoc synthesis of elements from several systems; some turn, in early adulthood, to some new system – new to them, at any rate – that appears to render all previous ones obsolete or irrelevant.

Is philosophy necessary?

For every person?  No, not at all.  It is possible to live fully, completely, satisfyingly, entirely within the range of a single cultural system and its vocabulary and practice.  Many do.

Then what is it for?

The inquiry is undertaken only by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited cultural patterns.  In general, these are resolved when the fault-lines are eased, the dislocations cleared, the colliding conceptual systems brought into harmony.

Can you give me an example?

As a child, I absorbed the religion of my family and culture.  I also absorbed the ideas about science common to mid-century schoolbooks.  By the time I was fifteen it was clear that many things asserted in one of these systems were incompatible with things asserted in the other.  I began trying to figure these out.

The effort of doing so constitutes a path of inquiry.  Every person undertaking any such inquiry is engaged in philosophy, whether self-consciously or not.

The work of philosophy, as I am characterizing it here, is not intrinsically an academic subject.  It may be, in some times and places; in the high middle ages, it was academic, but during the renaissance it was not.  It became academic again in the early 18th century and remains so to the present.

Can you give me more?

Other situations likely to put someone on such a path might be:

  • a person disinclined to spiritual language might devote a lifetime to understanding those who speak such language;
  • conversely, someone who uses the language of spirit naturally and fluently might devote a lifetime to understanding those who don’t;
  • a person naturally committed to logical methods and abstract thought might evolve anthropological sympathies, and come to completely rework the deepest foundations of his thinking (i.e. Wittgenstein);
  • a person of great mathematical ability, possessed of a profoundly mathematical imagination, might attempt to describe or interpret the entire range of human experience in essentially mathematical concepts (i.e. Descartes).

But philosophy, you said, is not necessarily intellectual.

People who devote themselves to this inquiry may find themselves engaging in dialog with others, to establish their path, their errors, corrections, indubitable premises, even the naming of things.  Each path is solitary, but it is necessary to confer with others on their paths.

The most obvious medium of discourse for such dialog is human language; and if language, then concepts, logic, argument, syllogism.  And so a great deal of the history of philosophy can only be told in stories of reasoning, of logic, of conceptual exercises.

In addition, however, there are paths of inquiry that express themselves within the domain of conduct alone.  In such contexts – e.g. monastic practice whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise – profound communication may conduct itself at the level of action alone, unmediated by dialog or indeed by any verbal commentary whatsoever.

So one might conduct his inquiry in total silence.


I have some difficulty with that.

Yes.  So do I.

But it does me good to think about it that way.


Intelligence — Natural and Artificial

An American court has just granted two chimpanzees a writ of habeas corpus.  Legally, this constitutes them as persons.  For the first time in history, a human legal system has recognized that creatures other than ourselves can be “cognitively complex” enough to merit the status of legal personhood.

And  this just in: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (which, around fifty years ago, initiated the project that eventually yielded us the Internet) is inviting proposals for “Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems“.  They appear to mean by this systems that are intelligent enough to update themselves and even adapt to new hardware designs and platforms without human intervention.


Clearly, the concept of intelligence is undergoing some powerful transformational pressures.  Remember when there were “I.Q tests”?  Remember Mensa?  Does anybody still believe in IQ?

With regard to animal intelligence, we’ve come a long way.

Walk with me for a few minutes through an A.I. fantasy.  After a lifetime of waffling back and forth about the matter, I’m now convinced that some level of Artificial Intelligence will be active within the lifetime of my grandsons (who are now 19, 18, and 10 years old respectively).

What sort of behavior would we accept as “Artificial Intelligence”?  The best-known characterization of such behavior, for the past sixty-five years, has been the Turing Test.  But for riffing on the Darpa proposal, the turing test is too broad: it stipulates a system whose verbal behavior — say, on a chat line — is indistinguishable from that of a human.  (Think of the movie “Her“.)  We don’t need that for the Darpa proposal .

What we would need is a system that — whatever its primary purpose is — could

  • update itself
  • update any of its components, including not only current ones but also…
    • replacements for current ones, written in new computer languages
    • new ones, unforeseen at its creation
    • interfaces to newly installed hardware devices, and the drivers to operate them

OK, for a simple use-case, let’s imagine a system whose purpose is — oh, not military, for God’s sake —  maintaining archives.  Over the hundred years stipulated in the DARPA proposal, the technological infrastructure of the archives will likely go through several changes.  Just in the past fifty years, data memory has gone from ferrite-core to a bewildering variety of solid-state fabrications, while storage technologies have evolved from magnetic drums to tape to multi-terabyte hard drives.

A couple of propositions seem obvious:

  1. The system acts on its own initiative.  It does not wait for someone to press the “update” button.
  2. If it acts on its own initiative, it must have the capacity to “decide” when to do so.
  3. Items 1 and 2 can properly be identified, analogically, as a capacity for reflection.
  4. Such a capacity is necessarily independent of the other tasks assigned to the system.  It is executed by a subsystem to which all of the other system tasks appear as objects or processes.
  5. There will be some entirely practical boundaries to the system’s mutability.  It is not required to be able to transform itself, for example, from an archive maintainer into, say, the control system of an orbiting satellite.  Whatever its stipulated role, it maintains that role throughout its centuries-long lifetime.  It is not a shmoo.

To be continued . . .   .

Variations on a theme by Wittgenstein


From Philosophical Investigations, §2

“Imagine a language . . . to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant BA is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words block, pillar, slab, beamA calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language.”

Variation 1

After a day of hard labor with builder A, assistant B has eaten — wordlessly — the dinner his wife has — wordlessly — prepared.  He sits crosslegged before the fire, satisfied.  By degrees, a distant look comes into his eyes.

“Block”, he says softly, staring into the fire.  The wife glances quizzically in his direction.

He looks down at his own hands.  “Block”, he says again.  The woman, who knows the language from observing him at work with his colleagues but has never participated in it, looks around to see the block he must be referring to.

Once again, he speaks, slowly, softly, wonderingly: “Pillar”.  The woman grows distraught and finally frightened.

Variation 2

Assistant B has lunched upon strange mushrooms.  The afternoon’s work begins ordinarily enough; but at some point he responds to builder A’s call “beam”, not by tossing a beam, but with a suggestive pelvic thrust.  Builder A, attending to the work in front of him, does not see this, but calls out again “beam”.  Assistant B dances from side to side, erotically, giggling.

Assistant D, from the adjacent worksite, whose mate gathers from the same fields as assistant B’s, joins the dance.  Several other assistants do the same.

The afternoon grows chaotic, as the workers’ conduct deteriorates to a rhythmic bump-and-grind, shouting each of the four words of their language in turn, circling the stock of parts.  Some begin clapping at each bump.  Others join in on the off-beats.

The masons, bewildered, abandon their work but do not join in.  They go home.

Variation 3

Assistant A and his mate luxuriate — wordlessly — under their furs, after a capacious meal.  He holds up his hand, palm upwards.  “Slab”, he says.  She does not understand.  “Slab”, he says again, and claps his hand to his chest.  Tentatively, she presses a hand to her own breast; he grasps it, transfers her touch to himself, and presses his own hand to her breast.  “Slab,” he says, softly.

She smiles.  He chuckles.  She puts a hand to his crotch.  “Pillar”, she says.  He laughs uproariously.

The rest of the evening proceeds wordlessly.


What This is All About Really

You’d never guess it from the first dozen or so entries I’ve made since Uptime got started in January of 2014.

My first interest, in these posts, is the nature of human religion.  Especially the religion that has been my practice since childhood, the Christianity of my forebears.

Since my earliest years, given both the reflective gifts to consider the issue, and the spiritual strength to pursue that consideration, I’ve found no reason to either surrender it, abandon it, or abjure it.

I have followed for many years the comment threads that attach themselves to public discourse on religion and anti-religion.  The orientation, generally, of my posts to this blog will be not self-consciously intellectual or academic.  They will be couched in the most colloquial idioms that can express my thoughts clearly.

Since my own position is emphatically supportive of human religious practices in general, I suppose a few remarks are in order about the range of religious practices, convictions, and beliefs currently active in my native land, the United States of America — and about the range of arguments that are commonly advanced against those practices, convictions, and beliefs.

I will be offering those remarks piecemeal over the next several weeks of postings to Uptime.


Animals Learning

An interesting little report in The Register this morning.

Old notions die hard, right?

For example, Rene Descartes and his argument that animals are automatons.  Only humans think, because only humans have souls.  Animals don’t have souls, therefore they don’t think; the only existence available to them is as unconscious biological mechanisms.

I despise this notion, and Descartes for promulgating it.  I know from the histories of philosophy that he wasn’t the only one to believe that — it was popular among a certain class of 17th-century intellectuals — but it’s his name that is stereotypically associated with the idea, right down to the present time.

It’s wrong.  It’s false.  It’s provably, observably, factually false.  This is not a vaguely philosophical “Matter of Opinion” issue, like that goofy notion of his regarding Minds and Bodies and the pineal gland.

Well, Descartes was not an empirical researcher.  He was a mathematician.  He was a brilliant mathematician — and a pathetically inept philosopher.  (It’s extremely instructive to compare his methods with those of somebody who really was a researcher — his older contemporary Galileo.)

Animal intelligence is, in fact, a proper matter for straightforward scientific investigation.

For the past five or six decades, people have been conducting just such studies.  Their results have given us increasing confidence that animals really possess — in misty, simpler, sometimes rudimentary form — most of the same kinds of sentience that we humans do.

These results, inconspicuous as they are, have consequences for much bigger questions, concerning . . .

  •  human language and its origins
  •  the origin and persistence of human religions
  •  the nature of animal, human, and artificial intelligence.

I’ll get to those in time.

A Thought Experiment

There will be more experiments like this in future postings.  This particular one has occupied me intermittently for several years — it often helps me to reduce religious disputes, as I reflect on them, to their lowest common denominator.

So we posit two populations of persons: tribe-sized, maybe a couple of hundred apiece including women and children.   Presumptively human: identical in biology, metabolism, and neurological processes.  Like us humans in all the important respects, no matter how we prioritize those.

  • Tribe A’s language consists of, oh let’s say      — 5000 words.
  • Tribe B has the same language, but one more word — 5001 words.
    • the one additional word: “God”.

An immediate consequence of that extra word is that tribe B’s language may have an indefinite number of sentences that do not exist in tribe A’s language.

(For simplicity’s sake, let’s stipulate these two tribes have not yet developed writing.  If they’re capable of keeping written records, it’s a completely different scenario.)

We can pose a number of questions about this situation:

  1. Suppose the tribes to be initially isolated from each other.  Then they meet.  How long might it take for the extra word to pop up in their palaver?  How might a conversation proceed from that point?

  2. Suppose them, on the other hand, to be integrated into a single population.  How will members of each tribe identify themselves to each other in daily activity?   Do they need to?

  3. Suppose we just stipulate that there is no distinction between members of these two tribes other than the single additional word in the language of tribe B.  They observe the same phenomena, have the same science, the same math, the same logic.  But we’ve said nothing about their psychology or social structure.

  4. Then what about cultural norms, mores, institutions, myths, narratives?  Is that single word variance enough to generate divergences in these?  Will we find significant differences in moral codes?  Necessarily?  Or contingently?

Of course there could be many more questions.  These are just the first that occur to me.

Some Questions

Has the fun really gone out of explaining things?

Did the first-generation evangelists use altar calls?

Can you worship without a theologian nearby?

How would a first-generation gentile convert understand references to “The Law”?

Will the neighborhood atheist ever give up his enlightenment-besotted notions of ‘human reason’?

Do scientists ever use parables or myths?  If they do, who would listen to them, and why?

Enough chitchat…

…let’s talk about Marilynne Robinson.  Let’s talk about polemics, and rhetoric, and true speech.  Back when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published, Marilynne Robinson reviewed it in Harper’s Magazine.

I read the review earlier today.  It did my heart good.  She dissected the book, and Dawkins’ prose, and Dawkins’ arguments, with astonishing finesse, craft, precision, and intensity of spirit.

It’s a big world out there.  I encountered Robinson for the first time only ten years ago, when I read her novel Gilead.  I read it with great pleasure but in total ignorance of her religious commitments, and attributed the candor and precision of her storytelling to nothing more than straightforward artistic integrity.

When I became aware of her Christian convictions a couple of years later, that had a double-whammy impact on me: artistic integrity can be, and in her case is, grounded in the commitments of her worship and witness.

Facts such as those should not be surprising.  That we find them so, in our public discourse, is an indicator of just how distorted that discourse has become over the last several decades.