As I’ve mentioned, I am in the midst of reading many books at once. Not the best habit, but little else feeds the mind or fuels the creativity so well as a variety of voices sharing their wisdom. Therefore I’m doing a series sharing tidbits from these works in the hope it gives you some mental fuel. This is Part 2. See Part 1.
Tidbit #2: On Philosophy
The significance of this tidbit requires a little background info…
I majored in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Chicago. You are right in thinking, as you probably are, that this is a very strange major. I always laugh when people ask what I majored in because they think it probably informed my career. Silly people. Anyway, despite the lack of an immediate professional application for this major and my embarrassing lack of retention of the material, I do have a lot of experience talking about philosophy and big ideas like existence, God, truth, knowledge, etc. What’s more, I still get a kick out of it…to a point. By the time I graduated I knew several grad students I could have throttled for taking the whole thing way too far. Why? Because they developed the nasty habit of answering every philosophical query with their own doctoral thesis. It didn’t matter if what you said had nothing to do with pragmatism, or Freud, or disillusionment–they would force it to be about pragmatism, or Freud, or disillusionment. The real trouble lay in the fact that these numbskulls graded my papers. One time a grad student give me a B in my Shakespeare class, not because my paper was bad–he provided no concrete criticism–but because he believed Midsummer Night’s Dream was an allegory of death. Really. Midsummer. The one with the fairies and the donkey-headed chap. Common’, man.
While the B still stings (haha, B Stings, get it?), I am grateful for these moments because they taught me to take over-simplified theories with large grains of salt. Nothing in all of creation is ever about one thing. The real world is organic and messy and constantly changing; if a philosophical theory takes too much of a reductionist approach, we know something has gone awry.
But the point of this series is not for me to ramble, but to share what much wiser people have said about these topics. The other day I applauded G.K. Chesterton who, in his 1925 book The Everlasting Man, writes the following critique of reductionist philosophy:
“The temptation of the philosophers is simplicity rather than subtlety. They are always attracted by insane simplifications, as men poised above abysses are fascinated by death and nothingness and the empty air. It needed another kind of philosopher to stand poised upon the pinnacle of the Temple and keep his balance without casting himself down. One of these obvious, these too obvious explanations is that everything is a dream and a delusion and there is nothing outside the ego…[The philosophers] have made many things out of it, and sometimes gone mad about it…But the point about them is that they all think that existence can be represented by a diagram instead of a drawing; and the rude drawings of the childish myth-makers are a sort of crude and spirited protest against that view. They cannot believe that religion is really not a pattern but a picture. Still less can they believe that it is a picture of something that really exists outside our minds. Sometimes the philosopher paints the disc all black and calls himself a pessimist; sometimes he paints it all white and calls himself an optimist; sometimes he divides it exactly into halves of black and white and calls himself a dualist…None of them could understand a thing that began to draw the proportions just as if they were real proportions, disposed in the living fashion which the mathematical draughtsman would call disproportionate. Like the first artist in the cave, it revealed to incredulous eyes the suggestion of a new purpose in what looked like a wildly crooked pattern; he seemed only to be distorting his diagram, when he began for the first time in all the ages to trace the links of a form–and of a Face.”
I love the image of life as a drawing. After all, the real world is full of curves. Do you know how hard it is to calculate curves? Remember calculus? No matter how many decimal places you use your integrals and derivatives are always approximations. Diagrams, calculations, and analogies help us understand aspects of life, but never all of life. Chesterton urges us to take our eyes off the paper and patterns and pay more attention to how life really is, both in its simplicity and its intricacy.
I’m tempted to start spouting about how I wish that the church would also do this, instead of constantly reducing theology and experience to trite statements, but I won’t. Happy Friday!