February 2022

Selected articles and essays, including Barbara H Rosenwein on the love and the stories that shape it; Blake Smith on René Girard and the secular apocalypse; and Elizabeth Breunig on the paradox that kids pose for liberalism.

Losing My Religion

Robin Hanson on his blog, Overcoming Bias, briefly explains why he became an atheist after growing up in a very religious family. Perhaps interesting to an atheist – perhaps more interesting to an ex-atheist.

Forgive me for editorializing, but here's an Iain McGilchrist quote before we hear what Robin Hanson has to say:

Perceptions are laden with theory. We never just see something without seeing it as something. We may think that our theories are shaped by observations, but it is as true that our observations are shaped by theories... We don't look where we don't expect to see, so that our expectations come to govern what we can see. This is why the model is crucial. (TMWT 410)

Now, here's Robin Hanson:

In college I drifted slowly away, eventually to full atheism. (At a similar speed to most peoples’ biggest view changes.) But my change had little to do with disagreeing with church doctrines or with difficulties explaining evil. And I never resented nor confronted my parents for teaching me something with which I later came to disagree. This wasn’t about my relation to them either.

No, the main issue for me was that in college I became greatly persuaded by and deeply immersed in a physics view of the universe. It was not just one set of lenses through which one might look to gain insight. No it purported to offer a complete (if not fully fleshed-out) description of the reality accessible to me. It offered me many detailed ways to test that claim, and it passed those tests as far as I could tell. So far as I could see then, and now, the world immediately around me *IS* in fact the world of photons, electrons, protons, and neutrons described by the physics I learned.

But that world just offers few openings for hidden powers to be listening to or influencing my thoughts and feelings, or changing how my life goes according to my sins and prayers. Sure my family, coworkers, or governments might try to do those things. But I at least see many traces of their existence around me. It is the idea of completely hidden powers doing such things that seems crazy to me. Not logically impossible, but quite implausible given our evidence.

Now I must admit that a similar fraction of those who know physics better than most believe in the god of prayer, compared to others. So what else explains how physics influenced me, compared to them? It might be that I just know physics better than most of them. But modesty forces me to consider other possibilities.

The love story story

Barbara H Rosenwein in Aeon asks the question, "What does love mean in Western culture?" and finds some answers in stories throughout the course of history.

Stories are manipulative, for they not only make sense of what we feel but also shape those feelings, even as we struggle to mold them according to our particular needs and understandings. In that sense, they are tools of power as much as they are neutral organisers of the disparate sensations and experiences of our lives.
[W]e live in emotional communities that evaluate, use, abuse and act out emotions in ways that make sense mainly within that community.

To understand the stories that inspire, explain and keep on track these various emotional communities, it is best to look at the long haul: history. Doing so means moving away from the prevalent tendency to deny that the past can shed light on the human heart and brain. That predilection infects not only the Basic Emotions crowd but also, at least as it is now discussed, psychological constructionism, which so far does not consider whence derive the ambient associations between sensations and their conceptualisations.

René Girard's apocalypse is now

Blake Smith in Unherd explains the social and political philosophy of René Girard, reinforcing Girard's Catholic grounding and emphasizing what his contemporary fans often ignore – that he saw the secularization of the West in religious terms as the coming of the joyous and terrifying apocalypse.

“The apocalypse,” declared René Girard, “has already begun.” The most influential philosopher in the world today was on a messianic mission before his death seven years ago.
In Girard’s vision of history, the secularisation of the West — the decline of the political role of religion, and of religious belief — means, in an apparent paradox, that the Gospel can, for the first time, “become clear”. For centuries, our societies had existed on the basis of a usually unspoken, and philosophically incoherent, compromise between pre-Christian values (of preserving society through rituals of sacrifice) and the message of Christ, who showed that sacrifice is now unnecessary and that the end of the world is at hand.

Secularisation dissolves this compromise. It hastens the apocalypse, and thus the second coming of Christ, by ending the social rituals that had constrained the violence of competition: “all that remains is mimetic rivalry, and it escalates to extremes.” A society without religion, ritual, constraint, or limit, in which atomised individuals compete with each other in steadily worsening spirals of envy and hostility, is the clearing in which Christ will reappear.

Kids Have No Place in a Liberal Democracy

Elizabeth Breunig in The Atlantic argues that the obligation, responsibility, and authority that children demand creates paradoxes that test the limits of liberalism's capacity to maintain peace among people with conflicting subterranean moral values.

[C]hildren are a paradox for liberalism. On the one hand, it’s crucial that they obey adults in their daily life, because they rely on adult competence and judgment to stand in while they develop their own. On the other, the helplessness of children, coupled with the fact that they too are wholly human persons, obligates others to them—meaning, in short, that children both take orders and give them by nature of their very existence. Children are bundles of obligations, theirs and ours to them, and their vulnerability and needs leave little room for the sort of political freedom the imaginary liberal subject is presumed to have.
[T]hey force us to debate the merits of our own moral doctrines explicitly, despite the fact that we have little skill for it and less practice. Children foreclose the possibility of living and letting live; they are one of the chief reasons we can’t all just get along. They are people both public and private, dependent and necessary, creatures whose very nature places demands—beautiful ones—upon others, drawing them up and out of themselves and into the world.

The End of an Illusion

Yascha Mounk in Persuasion reflects on the optimism of his adolescence in the context of war on Ukraine, which reminds us of the fragility of peace and tolerance.

I once took for granted that my world would look a lot more like that of my parents than like that of their forebears. I was, I thought, lucky enough to be born in a more enlightened time, in which mutual understanding was on the rise, and dictators waging wars of conquest on the wane. But the lesson of Putin’s ruthless war on Ukraine is that even this modest hope may yet turn out to be an illusion.

I am not a religious man. But in these painful hours, I have found it impossible to resist a secular prayer:

May God be kind to the Ukrainian people.
May God be kind to all of us.
For there, but for the grace of history, go we.