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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/16/14

Edward O. Wilson Inveighs Against Organized Religion (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 16, 2014: In his book THE NEW ENGLAND MIND: THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY (Harvard University Press, 1939), Perry Miller, professor on English at HarvardUniversity, reports that he had found only one self-described Aristotelian in seventeenth-century New England. All the other college-educated New Englanders were self-described Ramists.

Peter Ramus (1515-1572) was a French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr (he was killed in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre). Miller describes Ramist logic (also known as dialectic) as disjunctive. Disjunctive logic (or dialectic) can also be described as either-or thinking.

HarvardCollege was founded in 1636. Not surprisingly, Ramist logic (or dialectic) dominated the curriculum, as it had dominated the curriculum at CambridgeUniversity and elsewhere. (However, by and large, universities under the auspices of Roman Catholics continued to inculcate the Aristotelian tradition of logic. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Protestant educators tended to inculcate Ramist logic as a way to clearly differentiate themselves from Roman Catholics and their Aristotelian tradition of logic.)

In his short polemical book THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE (2014), Edward O. Wilson, who taught at Harvard University for more than four decades, shows that he likes to work with disjunctive logic (or dialectic). Incidentally, Professor Wilson has a clear-sighted view of the Harvard faculty today. He says that Harvard today is ruled by "hard-core specialists" -- basically, men and women dedicated to being researchers.

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Now, in his book VARIETIES OF TRANSCENDENTAL EXPERIENCE: A STUDY IN CONSTRUCTIVE POSTMODERNISM (2000), Donald L. Gelpi, S.J., discusses a number of famous historical persons in American culture, each of whom came from an American Protestant background. Gelpi repeatedly describes those famous Americans as employing the dialectical imagination they inherited as part of their American Protestant heritage (see pages 82, 132, 164, 172, 174, 192, 193, 206, 223, 224, 280, 281, 282).

I would say that the dialectical imagination that Gelpi sees as the heritage of the American Protestant tradition of thought is rooted in the disjunctive logic of Peter Ramus.

I would also say that the dialectical imagination that Gelpi sees as the heritage of the American Protestant tradition of thought thrives in American media today -- most obviously in the way that the American media tend to report all political contests as horse races.

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Gelpi contrasts the dialectical imagination that he sees as part of the American Protestant heritage with the analogical imagination that he sees as part of the Roman Catholic tradition.

Disclosure: I come from a Roman Catholic background. However, for many years now, I have not been a practicing Catholic. Today I would describe myself as a theistic humanist, as distinct from a secular humanist.

Professor Wilson comes from an American Protestant background. But today he is a secular humanist. In his short polemical book, he works with a materialistic philosophical position.

Gelpi contrasts the either-or thinking of the dialectical imagination with the both-and thinking of the analogical imagination.

So far as I know, the analogical imagination that Gelpi sees as part of the Roman Catholic tradition of thought is not especially popular today -- or even well known today. As a matter of fact, reasoning by analogy is often considered today to be the weakest form of argument. However, in the past, reasoning by analogy was considered to be useful -- and honorable. But this is not to say that all analogies were considered to be equally useful, because that was not the case. But it is to say that reasoning by analogy was not ruled out as the weakest form of argument, as it commonly is ruled out today.

In effect, Gelpi himself works with a disjunctive contrast between the dialectial imagination and the analogical imagination. Nevertheless, he champions the both-and spirit of the analogical imagination. So in light of his own use of a disjunctive contrast, perhaps we should adopt the both-and spirit and say that perhaps at times the either-or disjunctive logic has its place. As we will see, Professor Wilson frequently uses either-or disjunctive logic.

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Professor Wilson works with a sharp contrast that he sees between what he describes as "the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories," on the one hand, and, on the other, "the worldview of science."

Professor Wilson's denunciation the philosophical worldview that he attributes to organized religion is spirited and unequivocal:

"Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths. They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity. They read into the creation myths humanity's effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death. Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there must be Something Out There."

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
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