Saturday, March 26, 2011

William James: Lecture 1

As would be expected, the first lecture is an introduction to the material and outlines aspects of his approach and also explains why the subject matter is important. He also spends some time thanking his hosts in a self deprecating manner. At the time, America (even in Harvard) was not the center of intellectual thought, so William James talks about the great honor given to him to share his thoughts to a European audience.

To start with, he outlines two methods of inquiry; the first attempts to determine the what and the second tries to answer why it is significant or valuable. For example, in Biblical studies, Historical Criticism tries to determine the history of the Bible and how it came together. Who were the original authors and how were the individual writings compiled together into a single document? However Historical Criticism can never determine value by itself. If your definition of value is that the document has to be perfect, consistent, and without error, then the Bible would not fare to well. I found it interesting how much has not changed in the last 100 plus years. He could have written the same words today and it still is very applicable.

He spent some time criticizing over simplistic determinations of causal links, for example a link to religion from human sexuality. But he was also concerned that religious experience was being dismissed because of their physical origin. He argues that you can't dismiss an experience because it was likely caused by epileptic seizures. The true measure of the value our its results; not where it came from. Of course that means we will never be able to immediately know the answer, but will have to wait. This goes against our human desires for easy answers.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Blogging through the Varieties of Religious Experience

I will admit that I had lived for over 30 years before I heard about William James. He was a psychologist/philosopher in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is most famous for his book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," which was an edited transcript of a lecture series that he gave in Scotland, called the Gifford Lectures. I first heard of him while listening to a program called "In Our Time". By the way, I love listening to "In our Time." They have discussed everything from obscure battles from a thousand years ago to artificial intelligence to the dawn of the iron age to the age of the universe. Here is a link to the program on William James.

If you are interested in reading this book it is quite easy to find a copy. I got mine from Project Gutenberg for the grand price of free. It was preformatted to my e-reader which is even better. I will be taking a chapter at a time and highlighting sections that I particularly liked.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book Review: Sense and Goodness without God

"Yet our very lives are a joyous occasion. By existing, and making of ourselves something good, we give ourselves and each other value, we create purpose and meaning. Neither existing by accident nor existing only a short while changes anything about the value of existing, the value of getting to be, to behold and to know the universe, to create something."
-- Richard Carrier

Richard Carrier's book "Sense and Goodness without God" is a fairly comprehensive presentation of a world view based on Metaphysical Naturalism. Even if you are an atheist, you will not agree with every point he makes and he isn't expecting agreement. The book could be thought of as a case study. Richard Carrier takes his own assumptions and shows how to validate and verify the assumptions as best as possible and from those assumptions create a world view.

He starts out with an overview of the purpose of his book and a brief biographical sketch. Next he launches into a discussion of how we know, starting with a very concept of what is language. He takes the reader through different methods of knowing and discusses there relative strengths and weaknesses of each method. Of course scientific investigation and logic is ranked highly, personal experience is less trusted, and faith the least trusted method of all.

After establishing method he takes the reader through a tour of the current state of scientific thought and his implications. Next he uses this basis to argue against positions that contradict the evidence. He basically points out that all investigation of supernatural claims when investigated using more trusted methods turn out to be incorrect.

Lastly he takes his foundation and builds on it. He presents a naturalistic case for morality, feelings of beauty, and how society should be structured.

High points. Richard carrier does well during his discussion of language and knowledge. Also his background as a historian shows when he is discussing historical material (especially ancient Rome). Also he makes a good case for morality and beauty.

Low points. When arguing against specific positions, I feel that he overstates his case. Typical argument would take an opponent's position and discuss its undesired implications. However the implications did not seem to logically follow from his opponent's position. His section on politics is very idealistic (no taxation, legislature determined by lottery, ..)

Overall I found the book engaging and I enjoyed reading it. It will challenge your thought and hopefully prod you in to developing your own world view.