Should We Make Every Choice Scientifically?

Psychology, the science of mental events, has grappled from the start with a critical question of moral neutrality. The science of psychology with its ideal of the impassive observer began as a branch of philosophy in the latter decades of the 19th century. In the United States William James, philosopher and close friend of Charles Peirce, was recognized as an originator of psychology. But philosophy including that of James and Peirce raises questions of value-choices.

Are human thought and behavior best defined from a position of scientific neutrality? It should come as no surprise that psychology took just such a value-neutral turn in 20th century modernity. Continue reading “Should We Make Every Choice Scientifically?”


Rediscovering Character

Several writers near the start of the 21st century have urged looking back in time to recapture a spirit they say has mostly disappeared. Tom Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, tells the stories of ordinary and famous Americans who grew up during the Depression years, mobilized heroically to defeat the Axis powers in World War II, and in the following decades established the most prosperous society known so far on the earth.

After the war, Brokaw writes, “Americans at home rushed to start families and build communities and careers….” He continues – Continue reading “Rediscovering Character”

The Will – Circa 1911

Victorian educators gave great attention to developing “the will” in students. By the early 20th century, “the will” began to disappear. The fledgling science of psychology demanded reproducible, publicly demonstrable effects, which do not fit the idea of will that periodically must “break these rules.” Continue reading “The Will – Circa 1911”

Fundamentalism I. Better than Nothing

We make choices in our lives, or at least we think we make choices. But do the choices, real or not, end up making much of a difference for us and for others? Do they end up making any difference for GSOT, for the Grand Scheme Of Things? Is there a place in GSOT for human decision?

I have wondered about GSOT as long as I can remember. Some people look for answers in relationships; others seek meaning in action or in accomplishment. I have shared those paths, but my left brain wants to add something more. On many a Friday night, like a brief personal sabbath before family activities on Saturday and church on Sunday, I’ve found a few hours to think and write.

Time and again I keep tracing my steps back to seek a starting point. The starting point is critical. In a previous blog, taking a cue from Charles Peirce, I proposed that we should start from where we are.

We examined how positivism, the dominant philosophy among leading scientific thinkers during most of the 20th century, starts with the dictum that truth pertains only to that which can be tested scientifically.  Because of the requirement for reproducibility and interchangeability in science, truth so defined must be timeless and anonymous, aiming for universality. Positivism regards everything else as meaningless, thereby expressing a selective nihilism.

Yet most of what seems meaningful in life is personal, less than all, and tied to a moment or to a finite story in time. The starting point of positivism fails, because it puts all of that into an inferior, ephemeral category of reality. Positivism does not start from where we are.

Now I want to turn to the other widely subscribed philosophy in the U.S. over the past century, competing for dominance with positivism. I call it a philosophy, although I guess few others would give evangelical fundamentalism such a name. But it is a chosen path of ultimate truth for many millions, and we can rightly consider it a philosophy and part of GSOT. Evangelical fundamentalism rose to prominence only in the early 20th century, somewhat later than positivism. Today fundamentalism remains strong politically and culturally, as positivism crumbles.

Through childhood and early adolescence I lived with the tension of my mother’s religious belief and my father’s nonbelief. He was regardless an available, loving father and also an inspiring medical scientist. An early aptitude for mathematics and science seemed to mark me to take my father’s path. But my mother was also intellectually engaged, and she strongly encouraged my first attempts at writing outside of schoolwork. Her faith was strong though curiously flexible, owing perhaps to her upbringing in a Christian tradition liberal by early 20th century American standards.

My mother’s father taught and held leadership positions in a divinity school. As a young professor of philosophy at Carleton College, he had published in 1911 a book titled The Pupil and the Teacher.[1] It was a handbook for Sunday School teachers that blended the new science of psychology from William James with traditional Victorian notions of character and will. The book sold over a million copies before it went out of print in the 1940s.

Mama took the young children to Sunday School, but did not insist if any of us decided to stop going around age 12. I continued to go. How did it happen that Christianity began to stick with me? Mama’s example must have been important, but I didn’t give her credit at the time. Instead I looked mostly toward Sunday School teachers and ministers and, especially, friends at church. A Methodist pastor, Eugene Dyess, convinced me that I did not need to leave my intellect behind in considering religious belief. I accepted enough traditional doctrine to keep going to Sunday School beyond that accountable age of 12. When I made a decision for Christ at age 14, the greatest influence for me by far had been the witness of friends at church, who met my dire need for companionship and connection, and whose faith was palpable.

This complex of heritage and experience was my Peircean starting point for thinking about religion. Yet when I went to college, I met new friends, who generally had a different kind of starting point. In a dorm room at Ole Miss, Bud Clarkson expressed what I would later identify as a fundamentalist starting point.

Bud was smart, a prime rush candidate for our fraternity, later to become a university professor. One day when I enthusiastically presented some thoughts about heaven, he responded that I was too speculative, that my ideas drew more from Disneyland than from biblical authority. Retaliating, I expressed some doubts about the Bible – and that hit a nerve with Bud. We must start with the Bible, he insisted. I asked why. “We find truth in the Bible,” he answered. “How do you know that?” I asked.

“I can’t prove that the Bible is true,” he admitted, “but I am certain of this – unless we have the Bible to rely on, we have nothing.” That stopped me in my tracks. We are to believe the Bible, I heard him say, because it is better than nothing.

After college I moved to Boston to go to medical school. At a Christian meeting there I met a quiet fellow student, the son of parents who started a Bible church in Arizona. My new friend seemed by word and action a model for faith.  I subsequently asked him to join me in promoting some activity of the Christian Medical Society, but his reply was long in coming. After 2 weeks, I questioned him directly.

He was not a Christian, he said. He had lost his faith. The very idea of a spiritual life had become meaningless to him. He occasionally went to meetings, where he found familiarity but no renewal. How is it meaningless, I asked? “The deeper I look,” the young man said, “the more convinced I am that there is nothing there.” Nothing there – the same words I would hear from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, discussing the brains of worms, frogs, and humans.

Here were two young adults, both intelligent, both nurtured in religious homes, each contemplating nothingness – nihilism – and moving on toward decision, each to a different conclusion. But their modes of thinking, and especially their starting points, were perhaps not so different.

Somehow the apprehension that “nothing makes sense, nothing matters” has not affected me much. Here I give both my parents credit, my mother for her faith and relentless optimism, my father for his kindness and his joy in work and learning. I am not at home with nihilism, and I don’t live there. Nihilism, I hope, won’t play much of a role in my basic idea of GSOT.


Next post: Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible say?

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[1] The Pupil and the Teacher. Weigle, L.A. Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911.



Positivism II. Free to Choose

In the first half of the 19th century Auguste Comte in France proposed to apply scientific methods to the study of human relationships, initiating sociology as a scientific discipline. On a broader scope, he declared that science had eclipsed religion and metaphysics as systems for understanding the universe. He named his views philosophie positive or positivisme.

Comte adorned his ideas with various exhortations and moral imperatives unacceptable to later philosophers of science. Therefore, positivism as we know it today is sometimes called neo-positivism. I shall not make this distinction.

The most fervent exploration of positivism happened between the world wars among members of the Vienna Circle. A collection of their work along with some later additions was compiled by A. J. Ayer under the title Logical Positivism, published in 1959, the 100th anniversary year for The Origin of Species. The collected essays exude confidence and surety, as if the final course for human philosophical endeavor has been defined, and all that remains is to fill in the details.

I was born a member of the baby boom just after World War II. My father was a medical school professor, a physiologist, who shared his excitement at scientific discovery with his children. When I had just turned 7, the pupils of my eyes must have dilated as he opened a hallway refrigerator at the medical school to show me jars of dog blood he would be using in experiments. Later I would stare in awe at open chest preparations, watching the heart beat and the lungs expand and contract, driven by the piston of a respirator. Yet Daddy had the sensibility to bring home a handsome black and white puppy saved from the usual fate to become our family’s all-time favorite pet. We named him Mutnik after the Soviet satellite.

One night Daddy took us outside to look at the night sky. Peering up, he said, “The stars are very far away. But don’t just look at the stars. Look at the black between the stars, and think about how far away that is.” Sometime later he described to us Einstein’s theory about the curvature of space. If you could travel in a rocket ship past the stars in a straight line going very far and fast, he told us, eventually you could end up right back here where you started.

We children knew our father to be agnostic, but living in Mississippi in the 1950s, we also recognized that he did not want the outside world to know. Our mother was a community leader and churchgoer. Questions of science versus religion were rarely discussed at the dinner table. Instead we heard about the PTA, the latest discovery in space or in the ocean, new movies, the chances of the Ole Miss football team, or the musicals they had attended in New York – complete with singing renditions for our ears.

I went to Sunday School and church with my mother. In my early teens I began to look seriously at the claims of religious faith, expressed most effectively to me by some of my friends. Science or faith? Would I follow in the path of my father, a path that I partially recognized had attracted some of the best minds of the era, or would I accept the faith of my friends and my mother?

But where in the scientific realm of positivist thinking was the mechanism that allowed me to make a choice at all? Are we only observers of the events that describe our lives, events that answer only to reproducibly defined stimuli, responses, and genetic traits? I pushed back against that thought. Science, I pondered, might not be the only way to gain knowledge, especially the knowledge of who I am and what I want.

I began to think that the deepest feelings and commitments that steer the course of our lives are mostly unscientific. My father would have said that evolution put the feelings and commitments inside of us. In his absence now, I ask different questions and observe that the process by which each learns about his own passion is not scientific at all.

If the process of self-discovery is unscientific, should I count the result unsubstantial?  William James contrasted the “tough-minded” empiricist with the “tender-minded” rationalist.[1]  What young man would not choose to be “tough-minded”?  Religious as well as secular thinkers have distinguished the rationality of science from the irrationality of faith. What kind of foundation for GSOT can be built on irrationality?

Now some 50 years beyond adolescence – quick decisions were never my style – I have settled on a position that I consider both rational and tough-minded. Positivism, scientific materialism, and philosophical naturalism are wrong. Effective in their time perhaps, but in the light of new understanding somewhat quaint and, finally, stupid.

My philosophical birthright from the mid-20th century is too narrow, leaves out too much. I hope you may come to agree that the case against positivism and its kin is decisive. Decisive, yet neither logically compelled, nor universally evident, nor manifestly probable. If it were any of these, it would be mathematical and scientific, and would fit neatly within the frame of positivism, canceling the case.

In the next 4 blogs, I shall try explain how I find positivism to be demonstrably, though not scientifically, wrong. We’ll examine closely the founding principle – the starting point – of positivism, and I will try to show how that starting point conscientiously applied may lead to the omission of much that is real and valued in our lives, and how even the most dedicated disciples of positivism fall short of complete adherence to their credo.

But you will see no attempt from me to marshal a preponderance of evidence that compels you to agree. To make a judgment in the face of compelling evidence is not to choose but to acquiesce. I wish to leave you free to choose.


Next post: Positivism III. Immediacy and Particularity

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[1] William James.  Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978, p. 13. James did perhaps more than anyone else to popularize pragmatism, while simultaneously making significant advances in the new science of psychology. Pragmatism as presented by James, Charles Dewey, and others departed critically from the rigorous program conceived by their close friend, Charles Peirce. In 1905 Peirce wrote that he, “finding his bantling child ‘pragmatism’ so promoted, feels that it is time to kiss his child good-by and relinquish it to its higher destiny; while he begs to announce the birth of the word ‘pragmaticism,’ which is ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.” – What Pragmatism Is. The Monist. 1905; 15:161-181, reproduced in Weiner, P.P. Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings. Dover, New York, 1958, p. 186.