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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

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I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing NeedsBuilding Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

My Rating★★★★☆

Is Yunus the only practicing (as in the type who never came across the proverbial armchair yet) nobel laureate in economics? (his field is, if not the nobel)

His ideas and beliefs are rooted in and grown from the experience of running what sounds like hundreds of companies and offshoots and sister concerns – almost all successful, launching an entire industry and redefining one of the oldest businesses of the world.

Yet, in spite of full awareness of the credentials of the author, everything inside a reader militates against the seemingly utopian picture Yunus paints. You want to shout at him: all this is fine but REALITY is different! But the reader forgets – Yunus has seen and succeeded in the stark reality of one of the poorest, most torn landscapes in the world and he is proving that the ‘reality’ that economics teaches us is a very constrained reality. All the talk of incentives being the fuel of the human growth engine fall flat. But you don’t give in, you keep drilling deep holes in every cheerful statement of Yunus throughout the introductory chapters, after all you have years of economic training to back you up.

Finally Yunus gets to the case studies, and you read on with growing astonishment that the very principles outlined earlier, the principles that you had in your economic wisdom so thoroughly cut into pieces, all seem to just work on the ground. You scratch your head and try to figure it out. Then you forget your criticism and congratulate yourself on your own positive outlook towards humanity. Until next time.

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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations: A New TranslationMeditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marcus Aurelius must have been a prolific reader. He sure was a prolific note-taker, for these meditations are surely his study-notes(?- after all he was a ‘philosopher’ from age 12). I don’t know of the publishing system at the time but where are the detailed footnotes and references? Marcus Aurelius is quite a wise man or at least he read enough wise men. He sure nailed it as far as boring a reader is concerned. No better way to establish your book’s wisdom quotient.

I am being needlessly caustic of course(do note my rating above). The book is quotable in almost every page and is good to dip in to now and then, you might well find an aphorism that fits the mood just right every time. And that is why the book is a classic and so well-loved.

Don’t read it as a scholar, you will end up like this reviewer. As I said earlier – He is like the wisdom of ages. Aargh 🙂 Not that it is all bad – it is like reading an old uncles’s notes after he has been preaching to you all your life.

Good that I am a stoic too. All ills are imaginary. Yes.

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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion

Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of ReligionMinds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations of Religion by Todd Tremlin

My Rating★★★★☆

Non-scholarly musings on a Scholarly work

So it is then established that Gods, Religious concepts and Rituals are natural effervescences of the kind of mind that we posses, parasitic on our cognitive processes. It (our minds) is uniquely suited to imbibe them.

Mark though: We cannot (yet) make a claim that our minds WILL produce Gods and Religions and Rituals if left to themselves (though historical evidence might indicate that this could well be the case) but only that our minds cannot avoid the God Meme once exposed to it. Our society is very efficient at ensuring that.

An Atheist or an Agnostic is in this way, in this fundamental cognitive aspect of the nature of our cognitive construction, indistinguishable from a Theist – once exposed to a God concept they cannot but let their mind’s velcro stick to those burs forever.

The Theist adheres to a theological notion, the Agnostic to a scientific/skeptic’s credo and an Atheist to his own brand of faith in a new-found Religion of Science (reminding one of the Buddhists who tried to go nuclear (agnostic) and ended up as theistic in daily life).

But, we do have two brains inside us (yes, that is quite a ‘new’ finding too)) as Daniel Kahneman elaborates in his new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow) and only our rational brain system (read pathway) can entertain these abstract concepts. Our emotional/instinctive (read pathway) brain will still repeatedly resort to the God Concept we are familial (thus familiar) with in most of our our “on-line” thinking – that is in our daily (non-abstract-thinking) life.

“Deal with it”, the message is: We are all the same – Theists, Agnostics, Atheists or whatever we call ourselves, we are all in the same boat believing in the same agencies “on-line” and professing different versions of our pet abstractions “off-line”.

Not even managing to fool ourselves.

Disclaimer:

The above review is not a summation of the book but more a running with the ball tossed by it. The book is a study and an overview of the new Science of the Cognitive Study of Religion and deals with Religion in a new way – as a cognitive by-product of our psychology and our evolution. It is thoroughly fascinating and can lead to all sorts of ideas just as any new science should.

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Posted by on February 23, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel ChristThe Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

My Rating★★★☆☆

Well played, Pullman.

Philip Pullman meets Alyosha and tells him his story.

Alyosha flushed. ‘But… that’s absurd!’ he cried. ‘Your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of Him — as you meant it to be. And who will believe you about freedom? Is that the way to understand it? That’s not the idea of it in the Orthodox Church…. That’s Rome, and not even the whole of Rome, it’s false – those are the worst of the Catholics, the Inquisitors, the Jesuits!..’

Later Ivan came storming into Pullman’s front porch, after learning from Alyosha about the novel length expansion of his prose poem. ‘That’s plagiarism!’ cried Ivan to Pullman’s face, highly delighted. ‘You stole that from my poem! Thank you though.’

Then he turned on a surprised Alyosha and announced, ‘Get up, Alyosha, it’s time we were going, both of us.’

Pullman went back to the project he was working on, what is a little borrowing as long as you borrow from the best.

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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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Bleakness Can Be Inspiring

Bleakness can be inspiring:
A bloated river, a ruined city,
Pictures in an old history text-book;
A metropolis blinded by fog,
  Deafened by apologetic airline announcements;
A manual projection camera displayed,
Outside a renovated theater, taking the leap;
Scores of employees in funeral attires,
Walking back from their own graves.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Philosophy Bites

Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites by David Edmonds

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This book mostly consists of philosophers raising some interesting questions and then failing miserably to answer them. It really is a hodgepodge of concepts where they stick their feet into every interesting philosophical pond available but hardly spends the time required to really test the waters or to gauge the depths. So while the book was not very valuable from the perspective of finding good answers, it was still a good exercise in framing a lot of new (to me) questions or reframing some old ones, and that is after all the essence of all philosophy. Once we have answers to any question, or have the proper way to ask it, then it crosses over from philosophy to science.

So just for getting one thinking in these wide variety if questions, the book was fascinating and worth the time in reading and probably it is also worthwhile putting down here the major questions and also a few attempted answers.

The first question to be addressed was whether the “yuck” reaction ie whether moral or physical disgust should be a yardstick for policy measures or for any informed judgment. The answer was a unilateral No and I will cover this further in my review here.

Another question to be taken up was on whether Relativity should be the foundation of all morality. This Relativism would be any theory which encapsulates the idea that there are individual differences in morality (for which there may be a cultural explanation) and that there are no absolute truths about any moral judgements that we make. Is it all just a matter of taste? The Relativist would answer that it indeed is, he would say that ‘you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine’ – end of story. But the trouble is, it’s not the end of the story because we’re each seeking to impose a policy on the other.

To illustrate this take an example where I want people to purge al streets of the menace of street dogs and you want them not to, then just at the level of desire we’ve got a disagreement and you could be expected to act to prevent this dog-culling and I act to promote it. We’ve got policies that are in conflict and we might come to blows, as people do. Suppose you say ‘Dog Culling No!’ and I say ‘Dog Culling Yes!’, and in comes Rosy The Relativist, and she says ‘Hey you two, why don’t you just realize that stray dogs are good for you and bad for him and that’s the end of it?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘How does this help?’ Whatever led you to oppose the culling or wish to tolerate the stray dogs is presumably still there; whatever led me to promote it is still there. The idea that we’re not in conflict just starts to look farcical. And the conflict has not been resolved by Rosy – it hasn’t even been helped.

The question of how to treat animals too is explored. How do we regulate cruelty to them and decide where to draw the moral lines? The answer that Peter Singer puts forth is two fold, any creature that is capable of making plans fo the future should be treated with that respect for its own ambitions and any creature capable of suffering should be given the consideration of alleviating any needless suffering. Singer brings up the example of factory farming where we confine animals in conditions that for their entire lives make them miserable. We have to ask: what do we get out of this? Well, we produce food a little more cheaply. But we are not starving, and we can afford to pay a little more for our food. I don’t think there’s much doubt that that’s not something that can be justified if we give equal consideration to the sufferings of the hens and the pigs.

Then the discussion turns to the question of Human Enhancement for excelling in sports and other competitive fields. the thrust of the argument is that if we enhance human performance artificially sports will lose its meaning, we watch it for the human element, to see people overcoming the odds of their bodies to do impossible things. If they are no longer ‘impossible’ and inconceivable, then why watch them?

The next part was about friendship and I could not make out any real questions in this discussion except a back and forth about how can we justify the morality of giving special treatment to our friends over strangers. Are some friends more equal than others? The answer is that the social morals of treating all the same is about equality but friendship is about individuality.

Is cosmopolitanism really that important and how far should toleration just for the sake of toleration go? Can we allow practices we consider morally depraved just because they are part of the cultural tradition of a community? The only anser seems to be that if these practices are imposed on people who are not in a position to make an informed choice for themselves, children, for instance, you might want to be paternalistic and protect them from it for their own good. Adults making informed choices would be a different case. But ultimately it should be about giving the people in that community the education and the informed choices so that they can rise above the blinding customs and then make a decision for themselves, without having them imposed on them from a Big Brother who knows better.

The question was again picked up in the section about Multiculturalism and how Tolerance should not be the word we should be using. To tolerate something is different from real acceptance of the culture. The problem with ‘tolerance’ is what it sounds like – suffering someone’s existence rather than dealing with them violently.

The tricky nature of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice is also explored. That’s when one person is telling another person something and the hearer, owing to some prejudice, deflates the level of credibility they give to the speaker. A good example that we might relate to to understand this abstract concept is the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where we find the defendant being charged with rape just because none of the white jurors believe the word of a ‘negro’, then the injustice matters deeply, and indeed in that case the consequences prove fatal.

Who can try and define the nature of Infinity? The mathematicians define it thus: if you can pair off a sub-collection of any given collection with the whole collection, that means you’re talking about an infinite collection of objects.

Scientific realism is to believe that everything that science postulates is really here and is real, even if our sense organs can never perceive it. The conclusion seemed to be that we should be skeptics about some areas of science which has a history of producing wildly wrong theories (such as astronomy?) and realistic about the sciences with a better track record (chemistry?). But with such a short history, do we have enough data to really decide?

This was followed by a very abstract discussion on time and how we treat it so differently from spatial measures. I have nothing worthwhile to comment on this really. Then came the section on the nature of the relationship between the mind and the body as Tim Crane tried to explore it. Most of the discussion was centered on Vedantic philosophy and the Upanishads and is much too detailed and in any case the question is more important!

Tim Williamson then tries to explain how to classify Vagueness and boundary conditions. When do you start and stop being a teenager? When does a heap of sand stop being a ‘heap’ if you remove one grain at a time? At what hour, or minute, or second, does one become middle-aged? Basically it is an exploration of the famous Sorites paradoxes.

The discussion from here on centers on Art and how to define and classify them. Apparently, the fine arts as we now know them today, was the invention of one man – a French thinker called the Abbé Batteaux. The real question though is when does any object get classified as Art? If it is beautiful? Beautiful to whom? Is institutionalization inevitable in a field like the Arts?

Alain de Botton makes an appearance to talk about aesthetics and architecture. His main argument is that form and functionality are important but aesthetics is as important since that too one of the fundamental function so architecture. To explain the real function of a building, Botton invokes John Ruskin – it should encompass both sheltering and also what John Ruskin calls ‘speaking’, when he says buildings shouldn’t just shelter us, they should speak to us. They should speak to us of all the things that we think are most important and that we need to be reminded of on a daily basis. So the idea is that buildings should be the repositories of certain values, ideas, suggestions, and that they should reflect these back to us, so as to inspire us. I was strongly reminded of the speech made by Arkady Bogdanov during the meteor shower episode in that fantastic book Red Mars, and this was the only reason I felt that I agreed with Ruskin on this one.

From art we move to wine and about how to truly appreciate it. And then takes a radical shift into the possible motivations for watching a tragedy.

The discussion was about resolving the paradox of Aristotle when he says Tragedy gives pleasure through pain. This paradox of tragedy is dissolved in effect by saying Aristotle was wrong. The tragic poet’s task is not really to generate in the audience a peculiar species of pleasure. What he should have said, and arguably what he really means, is that a tragic poet aims at giving us a certain kind of insight.

From here on, the discussions are about God and Atheism and so all the really bored ones can get off the bus now.

Don Cupitt says that he has given up on the ideas of a pre-existent self, world, and God, quite apart from human belief, human commitment, and human descriptions. God doesn’t exist apart from our faith in him is his belief now. John Cottingham exploring the Meaning of Life itself says that God is not necessary and neither is religion. Spirituality and spiritual practices independent of both can still give us the calm and peace that we seek. Stephen Law then delves in the famous Problem of Evil: If we begin with the thought that God is all-powerful, all-good, and indeed all-knowing, the question, then, is why does evil exist? or why does evil exist in quite the quantities that it does? There are two different problems here. The first is called the logical problem of evil. Some people argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any suffering or evil whatsoever. The other problem of evil is this. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, why is there quite so much suffering and evil in the world? Surely an all-powerful, all-good God would have the ability to produce a world with far less suffering, and, if He’s all-good, then He would surely want the world to contain far less suffering. Why, then, is there quite so much suffering? So, on the evidential problem of evil, it’s the quantity of evil that’s really the issue, whereas on the logical problem it’s the existence of any evil or any suffering at all that’s deemed the problem. The quantity of suffering is evidence that there is no God.

Keith Ward proposes that a return to eastern Idealism might solve the problem of this definition of God. But, then comes A.C. Grayling who says no to all conceptions of God in his first statement but never raises a finger against any idea that the Judaeo-Christian personal God in his talks. But he is surely a Radical Atheist, rejecting the idea that there are gods or supernatural agencies of any kind in the world. It is even a rejection of the idea that there might have been supernatural agencies at some earlier point in the universe’s history, which is the deist position. He calls himself a naturalist, but the only hole I could detect in his argument was if he was confronted with the numerous ideas of God that never ascribes anything ‘supernatural’ to the concept.

The entire book was in an interview format and most of the times the answers are more evasive than conclusive in any way. But since these are supposed to be the leading philosophers in their respective fields, we can at least take heart that they know as little as we do?

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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