Skeptical Thoughts

Skeptical Thoughts July 10, 2018

 

Negev sundown
An irrelevant but beautiful Wikimedia Commons photograph of a sunset over Israel’s Negev Desert

 

Two items from some accumulated notes for another of my manuscripts:

 

(1)

 

The English poet Rupert Brooke wittily satirized the concept of a life to come as baseless wish fulfillment in his poem “Heaven”:

 

Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,

Dawdling away their wat’ry noon)

Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,

Each secret fishy hope or fear.

Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;

But is there anything Beyond?

This life cannot be All, they swear,

For how unpleasant, if it were!

One may not doubt that, somehow, Good

Shall come of Water and of Mud;

And, sure, the reverent eye must see

A purpose in Liquidity.

We darkly know, by Faith we cry,

The future is not Wholly Dry.

Mud unto mud! – Death eddies near –

Not here the appointed End, not here!

But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,

Is wetter water, slimier slime!

And there (they trust) there swimmeth One

Who swam ere rivers were begun,

Immense, of fishy form and mind,

Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;

And under that Almighty Fin,

The littlest fish may enter in.

Oh! never fly conceals a hook,

Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,

But more than mundane weeds are there,

And mud, celestially fair;

Fat caterpillars drift around,

And Paradisal grubs are found;

Unfading moths, immortal flies,

And the worm that never dies.

And in that Heaven of all their wish,

There shall be no more land, say fish![1]

[1] $Rupert Brooke, The Collected Poems,(London: Sidgwick & Jackson,1987) pp. 298-9. *

 

One of a famed but tragic group of English “World War One poets,” Brooke died in 1915, at the age of 27.

 

(2)

 

British philosopher Mary Midgley writes of a position that holds that “incredulousness is in itself a virtue and credulity a vice.  It is always more blessed to disbelieve than to believe.”  She regards this as a serious mistake.  “Selective skepticism,” or “a readiness to question unexamined dogmas,” is quite alright.  “But if this is inflated into genuinely undiscriminating disbelief, questions can have no answers, and the act of questioning itself becomes fraudulent and meaningless.”  In the day of the skeptical Scottish philosopher David Hume, she observes,

professed, chronic unbelievers (especially in religion) were rare.  The vices endemic to professed, chronic believers, such as complacency, lazy-mindedness and easy shockability, were dominant.  When, however, unbelievers began to grow more common, they in their turn naturally revealed their own characteristic vices, such as arrogance, perversity and self-dramatization.  At first, no doubt, it is a gain to counter the vices typical of age with those of youth.  But later this stops being half so obviously true, and to settle the balance would call for a direct moral argument. . . .   Once disbelief itself becomes fashionable, one can get the benefits of both sets of vices together, not only in the same epoch but in the same person.  Narrow-minded, conformist skeptics and immoralists are now a standard issue.

Both sets of vices are equally distracting and dangerous.  There is, I suggest, no possibility of properly calling either credulity or incredulity in themselves good or bad.  There is no short cut; we need to believe and disbelieve the right things.  Since disbelief, as much as belief, is a positive, chosen attitude, parsimony cannot settle the matter.  Neither belief nor disbelief can be bought wholesale, as a general policy.  We simply have to assess particular propositions on their merits.[1]

[1] $Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 126-127.

 

Posted from San Diego, California

 

 

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