Archive | Philosophy

The World Beyond Your Head | Matthew B. Crawford

The cover of Crawford's The World Beyond Your HeadBlame Kant.

That we are more distracted than ever is a truism. It is more difficult today to sustain focus on any one thing than ever before. The standard scapegoat for this distraction is technology. With text messages interrupting your flow and the incredible candy-like temptation of time-wasting games and social networking, what else can you expect?

Crawford agrees that we are more distracted than ever—and that technology plays a role in this. This prevents us from being real individuals. Under the onslaught of corporations whose goal it is to take our attention, we flit from thing to thing like everyone else. While we prize the Enlightenment’s gift of individuality, we cease to experience it in any meaningful way.

Rather than blame technology alone, Crawford sees it as a symptom of our real problem. The underlying issue is the influence of Kant’s understanding of the autonomous will. Here’s Crawford quoting Kant:

“Autonomy of the will is the property of the will through which it is a law to itself independently of all properties of the objects of volition,” Kant writes. “If the will seeks that which should determine it … in the constitution of any of its objects, then heteronomy always comes out of this.” In such a case “the will does not give itself the law but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it.” Autonomy requires that we “abstract from all objects to this extent—they should be without any influence at all on the will so that [the will] may not merely administer an alien interest but may simply manifest its own sovereign authority as the supreme maker of the law.” (73)

Crawford’s disagreement with Kant on this point sets the agenda for the entire book. Kant (challenging the scientific determinism of his day) tried to maintain human free will by removing human will from the objects humans interact with. For Kant, we don’t deal with things, but with abstractions of things.

The World Beyond Your Head is a passionate, articulate, and philosophically astute book that argues for a direct re-engagement with actual things—not mere representations. He backs his argument up with examples from many different places—the world of high speed motorcycle racing, the fatalistic goals of slot machines, and even the tyranny of Micky’s Clubhouse.

The final chapter describes the author’s trip to George Taylor and John Boody’s organ making shop. These craftsmen know what its like to develop a skill in working with real objects that only come through years of apprenticeship and sustained attention. While they don’t disdain technology, their engagement with the real allows them to use it as a tool rather than to be mastered by it.

This is the best book, of any genre, that I have read in years. Crawford not only diagnoses our problem accurately, he offers inspiring solutions to the autonomous perils of our day.

—Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2015).

Plato at the Googleplex | Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The cover of Goldstein's Plato at the GoogleplexPlato is the man. There is no greater figure in the history of Western thought and philosophy. While it’s true that Socrates lived and taught one generation prior to Plato, we know most of our information about Socrates through Plato’s eyes and writing.

In Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein imagines what it would be like if Plato was alive today. The chapters in her book alternate between essays about various elements of Plato’s thought (i.e. the role of virtue, the trilogy of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the meaning of Socrates’ death, etc.), and fictional scenarios where Plato is dropped into the modern world and responds.

In the title chapter, Plato is introduced to the internet. He also spends some time on a conservative radio show, debates parenting styles, challenges a neuroscientist as he prepares to undergo an FMRI, and even writes a relationship advice column.

This book is a fantastically informative and thought provoking read on the life and influence of Plato. Goldstein not only gives you information about Plato, she invites you to think through the ideas that he first thought.

My only nagging concern came from my background in studying Jesus. Just as many theologians end up painting a picture of Jesus that validates their own beliefs, I can’t help but wonder whether Goldstein did the same with Plato. (As Reza Aslan did with Muhammad) She paints him as the champion of secularism—basically an alternative to the religious worldviews that have dominated history until very recently in Western society. While its clear that Plato was a radical thinker, I can’t imagine that all of his references to the pantheon were purely rhetorical devices. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be so removed from their milieu.

Plato just feels too at home in the 21st Century.

—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014).

Summa Philosophica | Peter Kreeft

The cover of Kreeft's Summa PhilosophicaIn the second half of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote his famous Summa Theologica which became one of the most influential works of Western literature. He wrote the Summa not for advanced students, but (according to the preface) “for beginners.” In Summa Philosophica, Peter Kreeft has followed the form of Aquinas and produced a book for beginners to get started in philosophy.

Kreeft’s Summa contains 110 “short books,” or summaries of various philosophical questions such as “Whether time is infinite?” and “Whether organized religion has done more harm than good?” Each article follows the same form:

  1. The question is written in a yes or no format beginning with the word “whether.”
  2. Multiple objections to the argument are offered.
  3. The author’s own position is stated beginning with “On the contrary.”
  4. The author’s position is argued beginning with “I answer that.”
  5. Each objection is addressed.

Kreeft’s sense of humour is evident throughout the book. The “Preliminary Note,” for example, reads:

Dear Prospective reader, If you’re wondering whether this book is worth your time to read or your money to buy, don’t read the long, dull Introduction first. Browse through the book itself. (vi)

My favourite bit of humour comes at the end in the section entitled “Meta-Philosophical Evaluation of All of the Above” (245). I don’t want to spoil the surprise so I’ll save the body of this section for you to discover.

This is not a book to be read through in a few sessions—rather, it’s worth taking the time to read each summa slowly. Often times I read back in the article, reviewing the objection before reading Kreeft’s response.

While each summa is logically argued, I found myself disagreeing with a number of his replies. For example, in “Whether there is a double standard for good for states and individuals?” (201 ff.) Kreeft offers the objection that Christ both taught and practiced nonviolence (202). He answers the objection by stating that “when Christ taught nonviolence He was addressing individuals … and taught this as a counsel of perfection, not a universal command of justice” (203). This, of course, is the standard Roman Catholic view of the Sermon on the Mount—that Jesus taught a two-level ethic. I heartily disagree with this view! Many of the statements in Kreeft’s responses could merit their own summa!

Kreeft’s intelligence and ability to turn a phrase is in full display. Consider his argument “Whether all persons are beautiful?” (221 ff.). In response to the objection that some people are evil and that Hitler, for example, is “uglier than a hyena” (221), he responds by reminding us that the image of God “remains even when defaced, like a great painting beneath layers of dirt. Great evildoers are morally ugly only because they are ontologically beautiful” (222).

Kreeft’s Summa Philosophica is a book like no other. It’s both interesting and instructive to reflect on article by article. Not only are the questions themselves interesting, the style of argumentation is a good way to hone your logic skills.

—Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012).

Violence | Slavoj Žižek

The cover of Žižek's ViolenceAs I write this, Hamas is lobbing rockets into Israel and Israel is returning with air strikes and a ground offensive. As I write this the Ukranian government is trying desperately to reclaim sovereignty over the East which is increasingly controlled by pro-Russian militants. Somehow during this outbreak of violence, a passenger jet was shot down killing 298 passengers and crew. Violence is alive and well in our world.

For Žižek, this explosive “subjective” violence is only the violence we see on the surface. Below the subjective violence is objective violence, the violence inherent in language which influences our thoughts and attitudes. Also below subjective violence is systemic violence—the effect of living in our modern economic and political systems. Any understanding of what’s happening in the world today must take into account all the causes of violence.

Žižek (as you might expect) has many profound things to say about the subject, complete with regular references to Marx, Hegel, and Lacan. He wanders through many diverse cultural and political landscapes. He tackles the problem in the Middle East with an accusing look at the Germans (who, in his mind, offered restitution to the Jews by giving away someone else’s land). He looks at the uproar over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad. He delves into Alfred Hitchkcock’s films. He even considers the shaming of prisoners in Abu Ghraib This is one of the joys of Žižek—you never know where he’s going next.

My difficulty with this book was that  Žižek almost always takes a contrarian view. After a while it feels like he plays devil’s advocate just for the sake of being different—as if it was a game. He takes a radically counter-intuitive idea then tries to argue for it. His arguments are inventive and brilliant, but they’re far from infallible. Take for example, the prisoner abuse photos that came from Abu Ghraib. For Žižek, this obscene act of shaming was more like an initiation ritual into American culture. It was a hazing.

Žižek’s Violence is an intellectual, political, and cultural look at the violence that permeates our world. You can agree or disagree with him, but you can’t stay neutral.

—Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008).

Dynamics of Faith | Paul Tillich

The cover of Tillich's Dynamics of FaithFaith is a big word which points towards an even bigger concept. In the New Testament, faith stands for a deep trust and belief. In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich offers his take on this concept. Put succinctly:

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned (1).

This, of course, is an expansion on the New Testament’s idea of deep trust and belief in a person—Tillich’s faith comes from a philosophical viewpoint which engages all religions. While Christian faith in the person of Jesus Christ falls under his definition of “being ultimately concerned,” so do many other faiths, even secular and national faiths.

Dynamics of Faith is a very thoughtful book which deserves a careful reading. There are elements on every page to evaluate theologically.

Tillich does a fine job at clearing away some of the misunderstandings of faith. Faith is no mere “act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (31), nor is it “the feeling of unconditional dependence” (38) à la Schleiermacher.

Another strength of this book is Tillich’s acceptance of doubt as part of faith. Consider this argument (that has been picked up today by Peter Rollins):

If faith is understood as belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It as a consequence of the risk of faith (18).

What a powerfully pastoral idea! Doubt could actually be part of faith rather than an enemy of it.

My biggest problem with Tillich’s argument came with his separation between the ultimate and other fields of study. When explaining potential conflicts between faith and science, history, and philosophy, he strongly asserted the need to keep these realms separate:

Science has no right and no power to interfere with faith and faith has no power to interfere with science. One dimension of meaning is not able to interfere with another dimension (81-2).

Of course, if you understand the incarnation as the hypostatic union between God and humanity, then dimensional interference is precisely what happened!

Dynamics of Faith was published in 1957. Now, over 50 years later, it is still a good way to spark meaningful theological discussion and thought on one of the biggest theological categories in scripture.

—Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1957).

Deathbird Stories | Harlan Ellison

The cover of Ellison's Deathbird StoriesThe warning at the start of the book set the tone well (xii):

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This not is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

The first story was troubling enough to make me question whether or not I should have bought the book. Ellison lacks the restraint that most human beings come by instinctively. I suppose, when writing a book about all the gods people follow today (the gods of the freeway, the coaxial cable, the paingod, the god of neon, the rock god, the god of smog and even the god of Freudian guilt), you should expect trouble.

I tracked this volume down through AbeBooks.com after learning it was the inspiration behind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys. The concept that a god is only alive insofar as he or she is worshiped is a fascinating idea to explore. Gaiman explored it with brilliance while Ellison used it as the lietmotif in this collection of short stories.

From a Christian perspective, Deathbird Stories invites some interesting thoughts about the nature of belief and modern forms of idolatry. These hallucinatory tales show idolatry for what it is—unfortunately, without offering any solution.

—Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories (New York: Bluejay Books, 1983).

Insurrection | Peter Rollins

Strip away all comfort and joy you have ever received from your religious life and what are you left with? According to Rollins, nothing less than the most authentic way to live.

In Insurrection, Rollins uses the death and resurrection of Jesus to describe how we can live an authentic life. When we participate in the crucifixion on Jesus, all of our religious crutches are knocked away from us as we feel the despair of doubting God’s very existence. It’s only then that we can truly live.

Rollins is a great story teller and writer. He has a winsome way of using anecdotes to help you see everyday events differently. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, hearing the stories, and thinking through Rollins’ argument, I couldn’t help but disagree with his main premise.

For Rollins, unless you come to a crisis point where you receive no religious consolation, you’ve never truly lived the crucifixion and resurrection life. I know many people—myself included—who, despite times of doubt, receive equally genuine comfort from the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit is no existential crutch!

For Rollins, people who claim to be well are unable to admit that they’re really sick. People who claim to be happy are secretly in despair. While that’s certainly true for some people, you can’t paint every follower of Jesus with that brush.

The Miracle of Mindfulness | Thich Nhat Hanh

A couple years ago I found myself sitting in the back seat of a truck beside a person I met the night before while bumming a ride back to my van after an semi-aborted canoe trip. After learning I was a pastor he asked, “what’s your view on meditation?” I know the answer I was taught in Bible College. Christian meditation is a filling of the mind with scriptures, where Eastern-style meditation is a wicked emptying of the mind where who-knows-what can enter. My back-seat companion convinced me to look into things a little further. The Miracle of Mindfulness is the result of that conversation.

This short and simple work describes the fullness of life available to us when we slow down and notice everything around us. And we start to take notice by following our breath. It’s really that simple. Slow down, breathe deep, and focus on every breath you take. The world opens up before you. Since most of our lives are spent reacting to stimulus around us, and stress has become an epidemic, this is some good advice.

I should comment on the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity. I know many Christian readers see nothing good in other world religions. In my view, other world religions are human attempts on the basis of natural revelation to understand the divine. Why should we not learn where there’s wisdom to be found? As they say, all truth is God’s truth.

I was encouraged by Thich Nhat Hanh’s respectful tone whenever he spoke of Christians. I’ve started to integrate small breathing exercises into some of my morning devotions. It’s amazing how seven deep breaths will clear my mind to receive God’s Word.

Of course, there were parts of this book more directly related to Buddhism that I found difficult. The selection of Buddhist Sutras at the end, and some of metaphysical views on human nature were misguided.

Following the breath, while not an end in itself, is a good means to experience eternal life in God’s multifaceted creation.

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