Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs: Science, Philosophy, and their Histories Hardcover – Nov 16 2011
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"While utilizing the insights and criticisms of philosophers and scientists before him, the book avoids the literary downfalls of its predecessors; it is succinct, approachable, and immensely enjoyable to read. Each chapter offers up a distinct focus and resolves in a clarifying abstract. The topics addressed inevitably set the book as a spark for debate between scholars and laymen alike, but it serves also as tangible proof of the low belief that philosophy matters every day."--Publishers Weekly
"This remarkable work by Matson can be read on the surface as an engaging journey through intellectual history, rich in details drawn from the author's encyclopedic knowledge of the history of philosophy...For general readers this is an accessible, intriguing history of philosophy. It will appeal to all who seek to understand the ongoing tension between religious belief and scientific theory. Highly recommended."--CHOICE
About the Author
Wallace Matson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the co-author of A New History of Philosophy, Vol. I and II.
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Dear Professor Matson,
I read "Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs" a few weeks ago. My immediate impulse was to write to you about the many things you wrote that I agree with, and the things I had inklings about which you reinforced. But most of my ideas and inklings likely arose from reading about high and low beliefs in the Second Edition of your text books or your "Uncorrected Papers". And you already know these things. So, I'm not sure there is a lot to be gained by going on about how enlightening they are as I have done in the past. But, now, after reading your book again, there are a few things I would like to say about it.
Will Durant wrote that we have become a world of specialists, knowing more and more about less and less. Unfortunately, it seems to me this is so even for many philosophers. You are an exception to that. You have offered an edifying account of the biggest picture of where we are and how we got here. If Hume awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumbers, hopefully you will do the same for many present day philosophers. You make it clear that brilliant men have wasted valuable time in philosophical cul-de-sacs. I admire your ability to see things clearly and your willingness to tell it like it is.
While most religious beliefs are products of wishful thinking, and are intended to help people maintain hope and overcome fear, when beliefs are in conflict with knowledge they begin to lose their value. And when they collide with the beliefs of others, they threaten our peaceful coexistence. If their purpose is to raise hopes and to diminish fears, it is at least ironic that, in the near term, conflicts in religious belief now stand as the most likely cause of our voluntary extinction. As you note, this danger has arisen because our intelligence has evolved more rapidly than our hunter/gatherer emotions have evolved. So, as a species, we are now in the precarious state of a powerful intellectual genius, but, at the same time, a dangerous emotional adolescent.
My hope is that your book will be widely recognized for what it is - a comprehensive, thoughtful description of the development of a common, yet significant, feature of human life, and an explanation of why, despite its flaws and dangers, it persists. If your concepts of "high belief" and "low belief" and their implications become widely understood, it could go a long way toward defusing the threat imposed on the world by religious belief. Hopefully, others will adopt these concepts, and will build on the foundation that you have so beautifully put in place.
Just as you did in the first sentence of the introduction to your philosophy text, George Santayana made an important point in the first sentence of his introduction to "Three Philosophical Poets" (one of whom, as you likely know, was our friend Lucretius): "The sole advantage of possessing great works of literature lies in what they can help us to become." In his keen insight, Santayana moved one step beyond the value of 'knowledge' itself, to the impact it has on what we 'are'. Your book has the potential to do that. It can cause us to become something better than what we are now.
Thank you, Professor Matson, for sharing with all of us your valuable thoughts. And thanks to everyone from your students at Berkeley to your friends at Yale who helped make it possible.
With fondest personal regards,
Brief response from Professor Matson:
Thank you again for your beautiful letter. That makes it so worth while.
Bonus quote from Quine: "To learn is to learn to have fun."
Low and high beliefs is a nice tool for explaining what unites (low beliefs) and what divides (high beliefs) humanity, and how
the invention of philosophy and science in ancient Greece has the potential of transforming all high beliefs into low and unify all human societies. It explains why this has not happened (i.e. how the classical Greek intellectual tradition gave space to Christianity and religious thinking in general) in a reliable way. Of interest is also the analysis of the recovery of the West from the loss of the Milesian outlook and current efforts towards a new non-religious ethics. In this respect, I found the authors critique of Descartes and Leibniz quite on the spot. The book is mainly about ethics and offers an impressive effort for the reestablishment of the Classical ideal (Aristotle's ethics for example) for a secular, rational and in the end scientific ethics (via evolutionary game dynamics for example) that is connected with the state and not with religion. Such ethics could bind humanity together so I could not recommend stronger this book to young people, and in fact parts of the book could be ideal for even secondary education (let alone university level).
Some minor problems:
(1) It is too short for what is trying to achieve. That is why the discussions in some places are a bit wanting of more data and analysis.
(2) The most important chapter that of Athens classes with Jerusalem is a bit shallow. Yes, the main aspects of religion are presented but not nicely discussed in depth. That is, yes indeed, their characteristics are presented but WHY they came to be like that? A bit more information on the social environment and the reasons for the resulting medieval stagnation of the west were definitely lacking. For example, is it possible that signs of this environment are present today? What are the chances of the same thing happening again and so on. In this context, I also found that the novelty of the christian synthesis of jewish/middle-east and hellenic/pagan elements into something qualitatively new (not altogether conceptually self-consistent but fully serving the interests of the crumbling roman power that shaped it) could have been discussed in greater extension.
Some even more minor things: I would identify Parmenidean unchanged Being with a logicomathematical one rather than space, and I would place Plato's republic squarely and undoubtedly at the top of single philosophical achievements.
Moreover, Plato is not hostile to science as the author says. I believe he reaches this wrong conclusion because he underestimates (in comparison with the three Milesian scientific axioms) the role of dialectic in science. It is more important than the three Milesian characteristics and indeed generations of scientists learned how to argue reading the grand master (Plato). Moreover, the element of (constrained) imagination is the very essence of scientific theorising and one can (and should) enjoy the highly imaginative Platonic thought (even if immediately recognises many of his theories as wrong). So sure, Plato was not a scientist like Thales, Democritus or Aristotle but his thought was not hostile to science.
Finally, it is the case that philosophy can survive in academia only as fundamental science; i.e. as a deep scientific analysis of the grand questions of science (and not as sophisticated journalism which is the other tendency). There is certainly space for this type of philosophy in a modern society. The author's point of view is supporting such an idea for the role of philosophy by showing that philosophy was a science in the beginning and whenever (throughout the centuries) was other than that it became weak and decayed into a sophisticated shadow of religion. Perhaps unexpectedly, the paradigm for modern philosophy (and indeed for the recovery of the west for its current decline and rapid decay of values) is not classical philosophy but the presocratic one. Similarly, the most benevolent democracy model is the one of Solon and not of Pericles.
Presocratic philosophy offers the tools for the theoretical understanding of Solon's democracy. It argues for the harmony between nature and society by extended natural Dike to political Justice [an excellent modern source is: "The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics" by D. Graham (CUP)]. It is not too late for philosophy and indeed for the west for such a much needed rebirth.
If you have any interest in the human condition and actively seek to promote what unites us and avoid what divides us, do not miss this little gem!