What are ultimate questions and why are they hard to answer? Dr Felicity McCutcheon Dialogue Australasia Conference



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We teach a unit in year 10 on the philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. It is instructive and challenging for the boys as they work through the ontological, cosmological, teleological arguments, Pascal’s wager and Feuerbach’s projectionist theory. What always comes out of this unit is their acute awareness that these arguments, by themselves, won’t prove anything. They don’t settle the issue. If Reason alone is inadequate to the task of answering an ultimate question one might be tempted to reject as unimportant the study of philosophical approaches to these questions. After all, philosophy is the discipline that employs the tool of Reason par excellence. Aren’t all attempts doomed to fail?

Wittgenstein’s ladder – Tractatus 6.54

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Philosophical approaches are the rungs on a ladder which you ultimately discard…but which are essential steps. The VCE Philosophy course has a unit called ‘The Good Life’ which examines the answers given to the question ‘what is the good life?’ by Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Simone Weil.

[ talk about the benefits of this…but how ultimately reason won’t decide for you – it’s the biggest challenge for my boys taking the course that ultimately they have to come to a conclusion on the question of God’s existence, on the nature of the good life and on whether life has meaning from somewhere other than reason.


Kant’s arguments to show that neither reason nor the empirical world, considered by itself, settle the question of the ultimate ground or nature of the world or persons. Kant concludes by saying to believe that experience makes sense as a totality we must have Faith.

Belief and the brain's 'God spot'

Scientists say they have located the parts of the brain that control religious faith. And the research proves, they contend, that belief in a higher power is an evolutionary asset that helps human survival. Steve Connor reports



Tuesday, 10 March 2009



GETTY

The search for the God spot has in the past led scientists to many different regions of the brain.



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A belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain, which is programmed for religious experiences, according to a study that analyses why religion is a universal human feature that has encompassed all cultures throughout history.

Scientists searching for the neural "God spot", which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief.

The researchers said their findings support the idea that the brain has evolved to be sensitive to any form of belief that improves the chances of survival, which could explain why a belief in God and the supernatural became so widespread in human evolutionary history.

"Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures," said Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington. "Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions."

Scientists are divided on whether religious belief has a biological basis. Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

The latest study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved analysing the brains of volunteers, who had been asked to think about religious and moral problems and questions. For the analysis, the researchers used a functional magnetic-resonance imaging machine, which can identify the most energetically-active regions of the brain.

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, Professor Grafman said.

"There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn't have a 'God spot' as such, instead it's embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday," Professor Grafman said.

The search for the God spot has in the past led scientists to many different regions of the brain. An early contender was the brain's temporal lobe, a large section of the brain that sits over each ear, because temporal-lobe epileptics suffering seizures in these regions frequently report having intense religious experiences. One of the principal exponents of this idea was Vilayanur Ramachandran, from the University of California, San Diego, who asked several of his patients with temporal-lobe epilepsy to listen to a mixture of religious, sexual and neutral words while measuring their levels of arousal and emotional reactions. Religious words elicited an unusually high response in these patients.

This work was followed by a study where scientists tried to stimulate the temporal lobes with a rotating magnetic field produced by a "God helmet". Michael Persinger, from Laurentian University in Ontario, found that he could artificially create the experience of religious feelings – the helmet's wearer reports being in the presence of a spirit or having a profound feeling of cosmic bliss.

Dr Persinger said that about eight in every 10 volunteers report quasi-religious feelings when wearing his helmet. However, when Professor Richard Dawkins, an evolutionist and renowned atheist, wore it during the making of a BBC documentary, he famously failed to find God, saying that the helmet only affected his breathing and his limbs.

Other studies of people taking part in Buddhist meditation suggested the parietal lobes at the upper back region of the brain were involved in controlling religious belief, in particular the mystical elements that gave people a feeling of being on a higher plane during prayer.

Andrew Newberg, from the University of Pennsylvania, injected radioactive isotope into Buddhists at the point at which they achieved meditative nirvana. Using a special camera, he captured the distribution of the tracer in the brain, which led the researchers to identify the parietal lobes as playing a key role during this transcendental state.

Professor Grafman was more interested in how people coped with everyday moral and religious questions. He said that the latest study, published today, suggests the brain is inherently sensitive to believing in almost anything if there are grounds for doing so, but when there is a mystery about something, the same neural machinery is co-opted in the formulation of religious belief.

"When we have incomplete knowledge of the world around us, it offers us the opportunities to believe in God. When we don't have a scientific explanation for something, we tend to rely on supernatural explanations," said Professor Grafman, who believes in God. "Maybe obeying supernatural forces that we had no knowledge of made it easier for religious forms of belief to emerge."


Philosophical analysis of ‘The Independent’ article on the God-spot

People engaged in the sort of research discussed here want to show that belief in God and the experience of the numinous can simply be explained by, or more accurately, can be reduced to nothing more than brain states.  The scientific assumption is that there is no God, but that the ubiquitous belief in God and the ubiquitous experience of God can be explained in terms of evolution and brain states.  There are several muddles here.  First, is the conflation of states of belief with states during which the brain has religious experiences.  The conflation can be shown thus: X can believe in the existence of God, that is, X can entertain propositions about God, without necessarily having any religious experiences at all.  On the other hand, X can have an experience of the numinous without entertaining any propositions about God. (There are people who have religious experiences but who are avowed atheists).  Second, both brain states involving belief and brain states involving religious experiences necessarily ARE brain states.  The fact that the brain is involved says nothing about the veracity and verisimilitude of the beliefs and/or experiences.  When I view a picture of an apple pie and when I view an apple pie, the same visual pathways of my brain are fired up.  This is a paradigmatic case of the chicken and the egg.  I can stimulate that part of the brain involved in the experience of having sex without actually having sex - this does not mean that that part of the brain will not be stimulated when I actually have sex.  In other words, what brain research tells us about the actual existence of God is zip. The article points to the on-going conflation of epistemic matters with ontological matters.  No doubt, when I entertain propositions about dragons, giants and princess faeries, some part of my brain lights up.  Should I ever actually encounter a dragon, giant or princess faery, some part of my brain will light up.


Problems:

 

1. Believing that X exists is not the same thing as experiencing X's ontic presence.



2. Brains can deal with both actualities and with analogies.

3. The brain can produce an experience of X by experiencing X or by being stimulated to experience X.  The latter does not disprove the existence of Xs.6

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Shaping the Spirit: policy and practice for promoting spiritual development in schools February 2009 ©



Appendix 2

Some examples of ‘Ultimate Questions’

The following offers some examples of the sort of questions that have been called ultimate or

fundamental questions. It is important to realise that sometimes young children may be asking an ultimate question about for example the fact of pain or evil, if they ask a question like, ‘Why are there stinging nettles?’

1 Authority

Who can I trust?

Who should I listen to?

Who should I obey?

What can I believe?

Who can I believe?

Whose rules should I follow?

Why shouldn’t I steal?

Where can I find the truth?

Am I answerable to anyone?



2 Morality

How do I decide what is right?

Where do my ideas about right and wrong come from?

Where do our ideas about right and wrong come from?

Why is honesty better than dishonesty?

Why shouldn’t I do bad things? E.g. Why shouldn’t I steal? Why shouldn’t I cheat? Why shouldn’t

I lie?

3 Values

What really matters to me?

Do people matter more than things?

Why is courage better than cowardice?

Why is justice so important?

Are people more important than animals?


4 Origins

How did the universe begin?

How can something come from nothing?

Why is there anything rather than nothing?

Is there a Creator or is everything really just a cosmic accident?

If there is a God, who made God?

Are we alone in the universe?

5 Identity

Do I know the ‘real’ me?

Do others see me the way I see myself?

Do I see myself in the way that others see me?

How can I get to know the real me?

Am I being true to the real me / myself?

What does it mean to be me?

What does it mean to belong?

What does it mean to be human?

6 Destiny

Where am I going?

Can I determine my own future?

Can I change?

Can I ‘buck the trend?

What can I hope for?

Is death really the end?

Why must we die?

Is there life after death?

Is there a heaven or hell?

Is there an ultimate reward or punishment?

20

Shaping the Spirit: policy and practice for promoting spiritual development in schools February 2009 ©



Will evil prevail?

Is reincarnation true?

What future is there for the human race?

How will the world end?



7 Meaning

Why do we keep asking ‘Why’?

Does anything make sense?

Is there a God?

Why is life unfair?

Why is there so much suffering?

Why do we not stop the suffering?

What brings lasting happiness?

Is there a reason why things happen to us?

Is there such a thing as an ‘act of God’?


8 Purpose

What is it all for?

Why go on?

Why do some people appear to win and others appear to lose?

Does life have any purpose?

What does it mean to be successful?

What should I aim for?

Can I be different?

This list of questions has been slightly adapted from one produced as part of RE Today’s Looking Inwards Looking Outwards project. We are grateful to RE Today for their permission to use the original list.

One of the 32 page booklets in the Engaging with Secondary RE series is entitled ‘Spiritual RE’ (Edited by Lat Blaylock, RE Today, ISBN 978-1-905893-10-2 – www.retoday.org .uk ). It explores issues to do with spiritual development from an RE perspective.


1 I have a more detailed section on this is my appendix, where I track Kierkegaard through Kant and Hegel.

2 Many philosophers were enamoured with Hegel. His influence on Heidegger perhaps helps to explain the latter’s interest and belief in the Nazi state, although I suspect that only goes to show the malignancy of ‘rationality’ left unchecked. The Cyber men in Dr Who are another good example!

3 For a cutting commentary on the medicalization of anxiety, see Kierkegaard’s parable: ‘A visit to the doctor’, subtitled: Can medicine abolish the anxious conscience?’ in The parables of Kierkegaard, p.57

4 Does this perhaps not really mean – get some more emotional food?

5 For Kant’s account of the Antinomies of Pure Reason see ‘The transcendental dialectic’, Book II, Chapter II – The Antinomy of Pure Reason in Kant’s masterpiece Critique of Pure Reason

6 This analysis was kindly provided by my good friend and philosopher Dr Peter Bennett, Head of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Haileybury College, Melbourne. I confess to outsourcing this section!



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