Progress in philosophy and theology in the long view

Why does philosophy seem to make so much less progress than science?  Professor J. L. Schellenberg addresses this often-asked question at Aeon magazine.  He quickly touches on some common answers.

  1. Philosophy deals with inquiries for which a proper methodology has not yet been developed.  Once real progress starts being made, a subject stops being a branch of philosophy and becomes a science.
  2. The point of philosophy isn’t to answer the big questions, but for each individual to refine his or her soul by struggling with them.  By its nature, it must be done anew by each person.
  3. Philosophical questions don’t get answered but they do get refined.  We now have a more precise sense of what the problem of free will is, for example, and this is progress of a sort.

I think there is merit in each of these points, but Schellenberg suggests another.  Perhaps the big questions of philosophy are just really hard and take longer than a couple of millennia to solve.  It is not unreasonable to hope that the human race will survive for tens or hundreds of thousands of years.  On such timescales, philosophy hasn’t be around long and may still be, looking back from a hundred thousand years hence, at a very immature phase.  The task of philosophers for the coming centuries may ultimately preparatory work:  discarding dead ends, developing tools, achieving small but solid initial results.

Continue reading

Is the novel a distinctly atheistic art form?

This is the opinion of Ian McEwan, because novels train us in empathy.  I’m not sure what that has to do with religion, but most atheists do strike me as nauseatingly sentimental, so maybe there is a connection.  In the linked article, M. M. Owen analyzes three of McEwan’s novels, finding their treatment of storytelling to be more ambiguous than McEwan’s public position.  It sounds like McEwan is too good a novelist to keep himself on message.

Certainly, there does seem to be something about the novel that makes it a poor vessel for religious or mythical narratives.  I think it’s that novels describe their events in such great detail.  Archetypes may be invoked, but no character or event can simply be its archetype because it has been so thoroughly individualized.  Myths reside in “sacred time” beyond profane localizations, like Platonic Forms.  When the story is recited, or a like event occurs, the myth becomes present.  Novels are too long and too detailed to be “made present” through communal, liturgical reading.

Christians are always being told that we need to retake the culture.  Don’t bother with politics; reach people through the arts.  We should not assume that this just means to excel at the art forms of the contemporary world:  that we should aspire to write the best novels, movies, and pop music and somehow instill it with our values.  It may be that we will need to develop other art forms as proper bearers of our culture.