Scientist Works Way Back to God

Big news in the Great Books Project today: we are cracking open a new volume, something we haven’t done since beginning War and Peace.

Here are the readings for the coming week:

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book X, Chapters 19-39 (GBWW Vol. 51, pp. 430-468)
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 32-35 (GBWW Vol. 21, pp. 165-181)
  3. The Discourses of Epictetus, Book II, Chapters 6-7 (GBWW Vol. 11, pp. 135-137)
  4. Sonnets LXXVI-LXXX by William Shakespeare (GBWW Vol. 25, p. 597-598)
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXVI, heading “Ideo-motor Action” to heading “Will Is a Relation between the Mind and Its ‘Ideas'” (GBWW Vol. 53, pp. 790-814)
  6. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, Book I, Chapters 1-7 (GBWW Vol. 20, pp. 1-21)

Now that we’re getting into Calvin, that leaves us with just about seven volumes still unopened out the sixty-eight we started with in 2011.

Here are some observations from the last set of readings:

  1. 3e92bc35c00820914dd4674fe3b65fb7War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Book X.1-18: Tolstoy really cuts loose here with the French invasion and its impact on his characters. Old Prince Bolkonsky dies after reconciling with Mary, who then faces unruly peasants on the estate as she attempts to evacuate. Rostov comes and bails her out, and she falls in love with him. On the macro-level, Tolstoy goes on about the craziness of the invasion and the attempted response of the Russian elites. Forces larger than anyone are at work, and no one is in control. It’s the same thing we’ve been getting hints of since the beginning, but now the philosophy is very overt.
  2. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, Part II, Chapters 27-31: This section begins with a discussion of crimes, which people commit because of “some defect of the understanding, or some error in reasoning, or some sudden force of the passions.” The sovereign punishes crimes and rewards by gift or contract those who perform service to it. Commonwealths can be weakened or destroyed either by poor institutions (usually those that give the sovereign too little power in Hobbes’s view) or “seditious doctrines” spreading in the populace. The “overmighty subject,” whether individual or corporate, is also a threat. The section’s final chapter takes a stab at natural theology (without too much success, IMO). Hobbes is winding up for the section on the Christian commonwealth.
  3. “On Dreams” by Aristotle: This treatise is the successor to “On Sleep and Sleeplessness,” which we covered here almost three years ago. Even though we dream without sense-perception, our souls “make assertion” as though sense-perception were taking place. Aristotle apparently believes that sense-organs continue to be influenced by the objects of perception even after those objects have been removed; the impressions are themselves objects of perception. By day, the senses work with the intellect and overshadow any impressions generated by the latter, but at night when the senses aren’t operating the same way, the intellect takes over and influences the sense-organs. So Aristotle thinks that the sense-organs are still working in a way during dreams.
  4. Sonnets LXXI-LXXV by William Shakespeare: Most of these have something to do with what will or ought to happen when the poet dies. He wants his lover/friend to forget about him: “I love you so that I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot if thinking on me then should make you woe.” Moreover, the world will mock, asking why the poet was worth any consideration. But the best part of the poet, his spirit, will remain with the lover/friend.
  5. Principles of Psychology by William James, Chapter XXVI, beginning to the heading “Ideo-motor Action”: This chapter is really long, and we’re only covering about the first third of it this week. James appears to classify the will as a species of desire (as distinct from a mere wish). The only direct result of the will is bodily movements. The chapter discusses the “mechanism of production” of those movements, which James believes are “secondary functions of our organisms” that must draw on a repository of the memory’s supply of ideas of involuntary movement. The “kinaesthetic idea” is all the mind needs to will the voluntary movement. James argues against others who say there must also be some feeling of “innervation” for it to work.
  6. Science and the Modern World by Alfred North Whitehead, Chapters XI-XIII: Whitehead goes there: “We require God as the Principle of Concretion.” Like Aristotle, dispassionate modern scientists can’t get around the need for God. Something outside of empiricism must hold everything together; we’ve reached “the limit of rationality.” On the “conflict between religion and science,” Whitehead points out several instances of theologians going off the rails in their scientific pronouncements, but that the scientists of the same era were usually also wrong on the same questions. Or alternatively, both theologians and scientists were correct depending on the sense in which their terms were employed. When scientific and religious doctrines clash, it’s an opportunity, not a disaster. Whitehead thinks that professionalism has become progressive for the first time, and that this presents dangers and opportunities. The 19th century turned the “struggle for existence” into a “gospel of hate” with its class conflict, nationalism, etc. We must must reject both the Gospel of Force and the Gospel of Uniformity. Give him credit for ending with a bang.

Continued prayers and well-wishing for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. If you are enjoying a holiday today for Labor Day in the U.S., I hope you will take some time to read a Great Book.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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