Francisco Contreras – Unabashedly Skeptical

"The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks." –Christopher Hitchens

Category Archives: Philosophy

Seduced by Heresy? : My Spiritual Journey

The following short lecture was delivered to the high school Apologetics class on May, 13, 2016 at Puebla Christian School, after being invited to give a short speech and answer some questions about my personal spiritual journey.

 


 

When Mr. Miranda asked me to speak before you today to talk about my spiritual journey, I had a big fear that I would come off as “preachy”, as people often do when talking in front of a group. The truth is, I have nothing to preach to you. I do have personal beliefs about God, truth, beauty and goodness that I wouldn’t mind sharing with you if you’re interested, but I wouldn’t want to preach about any of these things. The reason I say this is that the beliefs that I have are  provisional; they are my best attempt to understand the world so far. I expect them to change. If I am going to change and mature, then my ideas about life and God should change and mature too. In fact, if previous experience is a good way to predict the future, some of these ideas are going to change a lot. Some of them might even change completely. But what I do want to talk to you about is the process by which my beliefs have changed and evolved over the years.

As some of you know, I was raised in and graduated from PCS. I went to camp as I’m sure all of you have, I sang the songs in chapel, closed my eyes during prayer, and at times felt very real and intimate spiritual experiences during Bible class and school outings. Most importantly, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of who God was.  Of course I knew that I had a lot to learn and to read, but in my mind there were a few things that seemed pretty clear about the nature of God, which were for the most part reinforced by my peers and teachers.  I knew that God created the world in seven days (I even knew the order), that God cares about what we do and what we think, that He loves us and sometimes has to punish us, and that He resides in Heaven and sent His Son (who was also God himself) to save us from our sins.  I bet some of you have a very similar list to mine.

But then I started reading.  I read science, philosophy, literature, theology and encountered some very interesting ideas.  I read that science was something more that just a list of boring facts that I had to memorize to pass Mr. Keech’s class. Science was actually a pretty cool way to ask and answer questions about the world and  has been pretty effective in giving us medicine, electricity, iphones, and guitars. I learned that most scientists have deduced –through their highly effective way of asking and answering questions–  that the world was probably not created in seven literal days, but rather that it has evolved in  billions of years from  the interaction of these things called “fundamental particles” . Not only that, but that there were Christians who believed that this scientific explanation about the origin of the universe did not conflict at all with their relationship with God. For example, Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project and one of the world’s most important living scientists, is a very devout Christian who uses evolutionary theory in his work every day. Or  Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential science writers of his generation, who believed that science and faith are two different things that should not overlap. He thought it was just as ridiculous to open up the book of Genesis to explain biology and cosmology as opening up a physics textbook to understand the nature of God.

And then I started reading theology and discovered some more interesting ideas. For example, I encountered a theologian and philosopher named Thomas Aquinas –who Mr. Miranda very much admires, by the way– who didn’t really think that God was an involved, personal intercessor that cares about what we do and what we think, but more like a bodiless entity outside our universe  through which all existence is sustained (in his words the “First Efficient Cause of Things”). I also read about a Jewish philosopher named Maimonides, who believed that talking about God being “good” or “getting angry” was rather silly because those are terms that we use to describe people. He believed that since God was so much beyond our understanding, the best way to talk about God was not to assign any human attributes to Him at all and instead remain silent, often quoting “Silence is Praise to Thee” from Psalm 95.  I even read about a group of thinkers that called themselves “Marxist Christians”, who believed that Jesus was not God made flesh, but rather an archetypal example of a perfect Marxist.

Reading about all of these captivating ideas was as exhilarating as it was scary.  I had been taught to believe that evolution was incompatible with Christianity, that Marxism was “evil”, and that questioning God’s personal attributes was borderline heretical. I had certainly heard from many people that “you should question your beliefs” and “make your faith your own”, but implicit within their injunctions was the assumption that the questioning should always lead you back where you started, which didn’t seem right to me. I needed to have these questions answered and these ideas examined.  I decided that what I was going to do was seek Truth — note that that is Truth with a capital “T”– no matter where it lead.  I resolved that if an idea could be questioned, then it should be. That my daily morning prayer was going to be the following:

If the sky is blue, then I desire to believe that the sky is blue.

If the sky is not blue, then I desire to believe the sky is not blue.

Let me not become attached to beliefs that are not True.

–Litany of Tarski (paraphrased)

What I want you to take away from today is that there are ways of thinking about God and life that are different from what you’ve heard  from your family, your church and even  PCS (what William James called the “varieties of religious experience”). And  some of these ideas may actually be True.  The different categories that you have learned in your class (Marxism, Humanism, Buddhism and the rest of the “isms”) are a good way to begin to understand a group of similar ideas, but  remember that Truth doesn’t really work that way. Truth doesn’t seem to present itself in neat little categories, but it is rather messy and only shows itself when you treat ideas with the respect they deserve.

I am not suggesting that you should discard the beliefs that you’ve had your whole life. I am, however, inviting you to seek new ideas and ask yourself some important questions. What am I going to do with all these interesting ideas? Am I going to try to take these ideas seriously and test them for my own, or am I just going to come up with ways to rationalize them and avoid having an honest conversation with myself?

If you do have this conversation, maybe you will find out that there is more to Christianity than the Evangelical, literalist model.

Maybe you will find out out that there is more to religion than Christianity.

Maybe you will find out that there is more to life than religion.

Or maybe you will just find out that what you had already believed was pretty spot on.
Whatever be the case; if you are honest with yourself,  you will adopt these new beliefs after a process of a genuine quest for Truth, and that makes all the difference.

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Work to Live or Live to Work?

“ Work is what people have to do in order to be able to buy Iphones and party”

This sentence was uttered by one of my middle-school students during a class discussion about what work means to them. Regrettably, she was not an outlier in uttering this opinion, but a representative of the class consensus; and as far as I can tell, society’s consensus also. For quite some time it has been generally accepted that one’s “job”  is merely the obligatory, often grueling task that one has to do in order to fund leisure. Do you want to have nice things? Well suck it up and work. Do you want to travel and go to shows and concerts? Well suck it up and work.  Indeed , the so-called Monday-Friday workweek is often seen as an oppressive barrier from you and your “real life”. “TGIF”, am I right? This is our modern philosophy of work, and it is prevalent anywhere we look. To take one example, high-school students today are told to choose  college majors solely based on the amount of expected income the majors might provide in the future. These students are no longer told to consider qualitative values of choosing a profession, whether the job will allow them to express themselves, whether it would help society, etc. Is this conception of work one that we should have as a society? What have been the consequences of excluding work from our personal identity? How has this happened and how ought we to change it?

workweek

Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher is considered to be a modern classic on alternative economics. It is a wonderfully enlightening book that critiques our underlying economic  assumptions and encourages a new perspective  on how we can move towards a sustainable economic future. This collection of essays was written in 1973,  but its ideas remain as relevant today as on its day of publication. Among the most interesting of the essays is one entitled Buddhist Economics, where he argues that the current philosophy of work  in much of today’s society is dissatisfying, confusing, and ultimately unsustainable.   

2015-01-09-consumerismSchumacher explains that due to the adoption of Keynesian Economics and capitalist economic structures, our conception of work, which had been previously informed mostly by religious traditions, took a turn for the materialistic with the dawn of the Industrial Revolutions in the early 1800s. Modern economic theory reduces work to an activity to acquire monetary wealth, a mere economic utility.  The reasoning behind this new philosophy of work was that it was the only way to meet the industrial employment demands of the new economy. If people continued to view work as part of their personal and social identity and not as merely a way to to make money, then they probably wouldn’t have accepted the impersonal, grueling jobs of the industrial era.

“For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. “  

— John Maynard Keynes

From this philosophy stems the desire to avoid work at at all costs, which Schumacher argues has estranged us from finding a fulfillment and purpose in life.  He instead encourages us to adopt what he calls a Buddhist Perspective of Human Labor. Which consists of three parts.

1: Work To Develop One’s Faculties

Our work should allow for the full expression of our creative and intellectual capacities. It should not be an obligation, but an exercise of our mental dexterity.

2: Work To Overcome Ego-Centeredness

Schumacher states that according to Buddhist tradition, work is the main way in which we can go outside ourselves and collaborate with others. 

3.Work for Necessary Sustenance  

The last point of this perspective deals directly with material necessity. Unlike our modern perspective, working for material gains should be only a component of why we work, not our sole aim.   


 

Personally a lot of these ideas seem interestingly reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau, which makes sense considering he took a lot of inspiration from Eastern Philosophy.  One could argue that the main message in all of his work is his fierce opposition to the mindless consumerism and materialism of his day. Though fiercely eloquent, Thoreau’s thought always featured the tricky juxtaposition of idealism and practicality, and I think that’s the main challenge we too must wrestle with if we are to continue to re-think our philosophy of work. However, it is clear to me that we must give it a shot.

“… to make a living not merely holiest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not”

 –Live Without Principle, Henry David Thoreau

 

Freedom of Speech: Establishing First Principles

There have recently been numerous controversies regarding alleged breaches of freedoms of speech and expression in the public sphere, in American college campuses of all places.  The loudest of these events, of course, have been the media-free safe zones and reporting of hateful speech proposed by some protesters affiliated with the  Concernedstudent1950  movement at the University of Missouri, as well as the controversy over Erika Christakis’ email at Yale University.  These and other events clearly challenge the principle of free inquiry that American universities have traditionally nurtured, and at least in the case of Yale, explicitly championed. It looks like these groups are ,deliberately or otherwise, weakening the very same principle that allows them to freely voice their concerns and express their opinions.  Are they aware  of the dangers of challenging academic freedom? Wait… am I even aware of them? Why should dissenting, polemical, and –yes, even offensive ideas be allowed to air publicly?

Freedom of Speech: Establishing First Principles

In philosophy, to establish first principles –sometimes called a priori terms– is to provide the foundational axioms from which further arguments can be inferred and developed. When we talk about the concept of freedom of speech, I think no one has established first principles more clearly and elegantly than John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty (1859). In chapter two of Mill’s philosophical work he lays out the following three reasons we should unequivocally defend free expression: 1. I May Be Wrong, 2.You May Be Right and 3. Process and Understanding of Truth.

1. I May Be Wrong

 If any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility” (pg50)

 

Milton argues that to attempt to silence someone’s opinion is to assume one’s infallibility, to believe to be the possessor of absolute truth. But what could be more evidently wrong than the assumption of infallibility?  The whole history of human progress, especially since the Scientific Revolution (which Dr. Yuval Harari aptly calls the “Discovery of Ignorance”)  has been founded on the fact that our tendency to be wrong is the only certainty we can lay claim to.   Consider the scientific method.  In order for a hypothesis to leave the realm of the conjectural, it must be subjected to strict experimentation.  Following that,  experiments are to be meticulously examined and repeatedly reproduced. And even after this whole process is successfully accomplished, the scientist always knows that their theory could, at any moment, be unrecognizably changed and improved upon.

If this acknowledgment of fallibility is necessary to answer even the simplest scientific question, how much more is it to answer complex ethical questions?

2. You May Be Right

“Though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied” (pg51)

Mill’s second point is the natural continuation of the first. Once you assume that you can never be absolutely right (because people are prone to make mistakes), it is easy to see that the only way to form accurate beliefs is by listening to differing opinions aware of the possibility that they might have something to offer. For example, Newtonian mechanics has helped us understand many things. Using its simple set of ideas, we can explain the movements of objects and the forces underlying them with elegant reasoning and mathematical validity.  The theories seemed very complete, indeed in their time the amount of phenomena they could explain was unprecedented. However, despite its apparent coherence, Newtonian mechanics was questioned and out of its limitations arose what is called quantum mechanics.  Imagine how much poorer we would be if we had tried to stop Einstein just because we  thought of Newtonian mechanics as being absolutely right.

 

On this point, Mill also warns against finding shelter in the false security of consensus. Some feel justified to silence the types of speech that seem obviously wrong just because said opinion is held by an overwhelming majority. However, I think that not only sets a dangerous precedent against dissent, but also exhibits the worst kind of intellectual and moral arrogance. Let’s never forget that one of humanity’s most shameful mistakes was socially accepted, politically endorsed, and religiously justified. Indeed, in Frederick Douglass’s famous words, “slavery was preached from the pulpits” and the first steps of its eradication were radical opinions and dissenting literature.

3. The Process and Understanding of Truth

“Even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds”(pg50)

 

So far two of the three the examples that I have provided to try to explain Mill’s points have been scientific. I do this under the assumption that arriving at a scientific truth is similar to arriving at an ethical one in that the process has to include some sort of conflict of ideas (what is usually called a dialectical notion of truth). Scientific examples are usually better because they do not carry the political and ideological baggage that ethical examples often do. But I do want to address a point that can only be explained through ethical examples.

It seems like people are tempted to silence an opinion because it is offensive, hateful, or insensitive.In 2005 there were attempts to censor some cartoons because they were offensive towards Muslims. A few years late, Charlie Hebdo was victim of mass disapproval under the same grounds. And just very recently there was a petition signed attempting to ban Donald Trump from the UK. I believe that by trying to censor these people on the grounds of offense, we lose the value of defending our opinions (whatever they may be).  

 

For example, there is no doubt that Trump has been in the habit of saying some very xenophobic, racist, sexist, and overall unintelligent things. It is perfectly reasonable that people would rather not hear him except for the fact that they lose the opportunity to figure out why what he is saying is so horribly wrong. I think no one has put it best than Thomas Paine than when he wrote in his  introduction to the Age of Reason ,“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.” That is the thought I want to leave you with.


Now, I am weary to end without a forceful clearing of the throat. My disapproval of the student protesters and other groups is limited to the actions that have undermined freedom of expression, not of any of their particular arguments (except, of course, in the case of Trump). For instance, I am glad students and faculty members are convening to challenge what they consider to be systemic racism in their universities. I encourage them to continue to do so and hope they’ll remember that if there be any legitimacy in their arguments, it will be unearthed through open dialogue, not censorship.

 

Too Much Knowledge??

I am super excited to tell you that this blog has been met with mostly very positive feedback.  Here is a little snippet from an online conversation I had with a friend recently.

Q: Kierkegaard was fascinated by figures such as Socrates and Faust who were keen for new knowledge. But these figures both met a tragic end. Is the pursuit of knowledge ultimately a dangerous thing both for the individual and for society as a whole?  Can it be a bad thing?

 A: I think it is easy to succumb to a naive and ultimately errant view of the world by using the phrase “pursuit of knowledge” and ascribing it an evaluative qualification. Surely the accumulation of knowledge has given us the capacity for unprecedented destruction and mayhem — especially in these last two centuries– , as well as for good and progress. Knowledge is a tool that has been used by people in power, and as such its effect depends solely on its wielder.

Notwithstanding,  I hold to the proposition that an honest quest for truth has intrinsic value. That is to say, that the endeavor begets progress — moral and otherwise– in and of itself.  Among the many intrinsic benefits of pursuing truth, the most important is undoubtedly the resulting intellectual autonomy. Immanuel Kant phrased it as Sapere Aude (“dare to know”) and described it as the motto of the Enlightenment in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?”. This result alone should make the pursuit of truth more than worthwhile.

Q:  But The history of the last two ( 20th -21th) centuries shows us that with the accumulation of knowledge
came horrible destruction of the two world wars plus endless number of of the local wars. It is by chance or as a result of this pursuit of knowledge ?

A: The calamities and atrocities of recent centuries that you mentioned have come as a result of a blatant defiance of this very idea. I would argue that all of these regimes were not at all interested in the pursuit of truth. On the contrary, they held the belief that such pursuit was unnecessary because they already possessed absolute truth and their mission was in some way or another to propagate it. Furthermore, If one is to look at history and see the people who actually were interested in this pursuit, one would be met with the likes of Lucretius, Democritus, Spinoza, Einstein, Descartes, and Socrates himself. Please tell me when a society following the teachings of these men fall into fascism or genocide. I doubt one could ever point to such society.

In conclusion, I believe that the pursuit of knowledge (I would rather use the word truth instead, as I stated previously) is a dangerous thing if and only if it is done in a society that depends on an infallible hierarchical structure purporting to possess absolute truth. Such was the case with Socrates and Faust, and such has been the case in all theocratic and totalitarian societies. One need only consult the historical record to see the authoritative powers of unreason, credulity, and absolutism suppress and oppress the agents of skepticism and inquiry (eg: Galileo , Darwin, etc). However, I do see the grounds for establishing a society –and in some ways we have been collectively heading  that way– where skeptical inquiry is encouraged or at least tolerated. The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution have been a good start, we just need to continue in that line of thought and never forget how little we actually know, being suspicious of anyone who says otherwise.

I would like to finish my post with some lines from a poem by Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Please feel free to leave any comments or questions so that we may continue this wonderful discussion.

Further Reading 

Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment

The rest of Alexander Pope’s wonderful poem “A Little Learning

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I Am a Citizen of the World…Where Are YOU From?

Implicit within humans is the evolutionary tendency to organize into distinct groups. Nowadays, one can see this tendency manifest itself in quasi-tribal affiliations with sports teams, cult fandoms and ,more importantly, in nationalistic identification; the last of which I hold to be the dangerous remnant of imperialist ideology and without which we would be much better off.  For who can utter the word nationalism without invoking images of its quintessential champions, Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Hitler’s aggressive expansionist Nazi state? Yet nonetheless one can see glimpses of the nationalist mentality in our liberal democracies through the irrational sacrosanctity of national flags and the xenophobic vocabulary that seems to be ubiquitous in political speeches. For example, how many times must we hear American politicians use the phrase “in order save American lives” in order to justify or oppose foreign military intervention? This and many other like statements imply that  mere nationalistic identification intrinsically adds value to life and therefore makes it more valuable over another. Up with this I will not put, and neither should you. It is time for us, as a global society, to repudiate this perverse ideology and instead espouse the inclusive characteristics  of human solidarity, embodied handsomely in the ideas of the cosmopolitanist philosophical tradition. 

Cosmopolitanism is quite simply the idea that all human beings are equal citizens of a single community. This idea dates as far back as Socrates and Plato, but is best represented by Diogenes the Cynic in the fourth century BCE when he famously replied “I am a citizen of the world”  after being asked to which city-state he held allegiance¹. This “global citizenry” concept has since been advocated by the likes of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill,  and more contemporary thinkers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, who accurately defined cosmopolitanism as “universality plus difference ” ².  Now, this concept, because of its inclusive and reasonable nature, invites us to make it the strong foundation on which to judge political systems, social institutions and even our moral predispositions. Cosmopolitanism allows us to naturally extrapolate the natural rights of man, beautifully articulated in the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence,– or in Confucian humanism–  to all peoples, thereby completely eliminating any implicit or explicit evaluative judgments based solely on someone’s nationality.

Personally, having the mentality of a “citizen of the world ” has taught me that universality is the only way to foster true multiculturalism and equality. The marginalization of women in theocratic states, the murderous homophobia in Uganda, the unbridled governmental corruption in Mexico, and the religious persecution in Pakistan are issues which equally demand my attention and action.  To deem one as more important than another solely on nationalistic grounds is an archaic and barbarous proposition, especially in our ever-more globalized society.

REFERENCES:

1. Kleingeld, Pauline and Brown, Eric, “Cosmopolitanism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/cosmopolitanism/&gt;.

2. Kwame Anthony Appiah, Global Citizenship, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 2375 (2007).
Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol75/iss5/3

WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT COSMOPOLITANISM? GO HERE 🙂

-Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” <https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/kant/kant1.htm&gt;

-Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers by Kwame Anthony Appiah  (highly recommended book) <http://www.amazon.com/Cosmopolitanism-Ethics-World-Strangers-Issues/dp/039332933X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8&gt;

Never hurts to read Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful document. (the Preamble being the relevant section for our discussion)<http://users.wfu.edu/zulick/340/Declaration.html&gt;