Monday, October 31, 2011


Despite my having enjoyed several of A.C. Grayling's thought-provoking books, his recent, The Good Book; A Humanist's Bible, isn't really my cup of tea. That said, I enjoyed reading parts of this interview (no, not the bits about his hair ;o)
"And besides, really," he adds with a withering little laugh, "how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously."
Exactly...and it helps to explain why I wouldn't be tempted to join an association of atheists. Denying a specific belief held by another man may illustrate the sorts of things that I'm likely to disbelieve, but it says next to nothing about what I actually believe. Despite my general aversion to belief in sky gods, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I have more in common, overall, with a given Christian or Muslim, than I would a certain, self-proclaimed atheist. 
That if having people agree with my own philosophical stance really mattered. It doesn't. Of those whom I would give a kidney in a heart-beat, exactly none share my philosophical beliefs. The people that I most love in the world have distinctly different religious, philosophical and political beliefs than mine. Simply put, we don't love people because they agree with us. Furthermore, we sometimes betray those whom we claim to love by merely agreeing with them when we ought to do otherwise.
"They have stopped deceiving you, not loving you. And it seems to you that they have stopped loving you." Antonio Porchia
While engaged in friendly arguments in recent weeks, I twice noticed my disputants laboring to shift the terms of our disagreement in order to illustrate that our diametrically opposed stances were in fact the same. I suspect they were worried that our friendship might be in jeopardy if it turned out that we actually did disagree on the issue at-hand. 
I came away a bit depressed in both cases. Not because we argued, or because I lost an argument, but because I realized these people know so little about me, or think so poorly of me, as to fret that I might turn my back on them should their view point happen to prevail.
Epicurus taught that nothing is finer than sitting under a tree discussing philosophy with friends. With or without the tree, this mental tableaux is my idea of "the good life" as well. Bear in mind, philosophers rarely discuss their points of agreement. One might as well talk about the weather. A professor may discuss philosophy, but when two or more philosophers gather, they argue. Ideally, they argue as gentlemen or gentlewomen. Sophists argue for the sake of winning arguments. Philosophers argue as smartly as they know how, in order to jointly tug on a corner of the woolen rug that lies beneath the ordinary world; the world we already knew by the age of nine.
The person I argue most fiercely with is myself. I would think less of myself if it were otherwise. And yet someone who only argues honestly with him or herself lives in danger of intellectual inbreeding. Those who will only discuss their beliefs with like-minded people - perhaps, for fear of having an argument - commit intellectual incest.
To live in a world in which everyone were exactly alike would be to live alone in a world; all we could do is talk to ourself.  Martin Buber taught that the difference between a monologue and a conversation is the "otherness," or the moment of surprise. In order to have a conversation we must be prepared to hear surprising things; otherwise, we're only talking to ourself. 
It's a poor philosopher that can't spot three ways that his every assertion is incorrect. The trouble is that we argue our ideas as though our lives depended on them, when it's less about the static ideas themselves than it is the passion with which we pursue them.
"Man is ready to die for an idea, provided he doesn't quite understand it." Paul Eldridge
I wasn't born holding my present beliefs; I arrived at them through an arduous process. These beliefs comfort me. They help me to make my home in an otherwise inhospitable Universe. Comfortable as they are to have around, rather than wrap myself into a little ball around my present beliefs, my goal is to rid myself of them. That's right, my ongoing quest is to replace my present beliefs with better ones. I shall never be content on this accord. Philosophy is not something you have, it's something you do. To paraphrase Sir David Butler, a better philosopher is not one who is right, but one who is wrong for more insightful reasons.
Political argumentation is unnecessary (even unhealthy) in totalitarian states. Democracy, on the other hand, amounts to an ongoing argument about how best to govern ourselves.
And so I argue that argument is necessary for our well-being. An argument doesn't necessarily signal a break-down of etiquette or diplomacy. A signal of agreement is not a reflexive sign of friendship. Rather, you do me a favor by patiently explaining why I am mistaken. In a dialogue it is necessary to both speak and listen. And when we listen we ought to be prepared to hear new and strange ideas. A wise philosopher by the name of Frank Zappa once said  
"Without deviation from the norm, progress is impossible."


  1. Michael,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, it caused me pause and reflect. :-)


    John K2ZA

  2. Hi John,

    Thank you for saying so.

    All the best,
    Mike, AA1TJ

  3. Michael - just found this post after downloading some interesting stuff from your website.

    I have gotten myself into deep hot water over the years by assuming that acquaintances can take a question for what it is meant to be - an attempt to gain more understanding, and more often than not, to test my own ideas or opinions.

    Unfortunately such questions or queries are often interpreted as a criticism or even an attack right from the word go.

    Strangely, we are encouraged (and indeed some are handsomely rewarded) for engaging in a test of physical skills, but you can be roundly censured for daring to engage in 'thought sport'.

    Thanks for the post...


    Steve VK2XV