Magazine article USA TODAY

Well, What Do You Think about That? (Parting Thoughts)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Well, What Do You Think about That? (Parting Thoughts)

Article excerpt

WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT, the world is run by ideas. They do have consequences, and, generally, it is people with a philosophical bent who supply those ideas. For example, millennia ago, the thinkers in ancient Athens had much to do with the origins of democracy. The notions of John Locke, the 17th-century English political philosopher, found their way into the U.S. Constitution. Thomas Jefferson, an Enlightenment philosopher himself, expanded on them in his writings. Communism owes its fundamental ideology to persons such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Illich Lenin. From these few instances, we can see that Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, had it fight when he declared that "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come." (In regards to communism, one might add that there is nothing so satisfying as an idea whose time is gone.)

The above shows the application of ideas to the practical order in which we live, breathe, and have our being. However, there are equally important ideas that govern our thought-lives as well. Often, they fail to give us an empirical answer backed up by science, nor can we expect them to do so. This is why they are called "speculative" ideas. One example is the question whether we are unique and really free, or if this is only an illusion, given our genetic makeup and cultural conditions. The issue of personal immortality is another, as is the question of the existence of a God and, with that, tangential issues such as the reconciliation of such an entity with the evil we experience in the word. As one can see, the problems they address are perennial and strike at the heart of the human condition.

Obviously, these are weighty issues that deserve deep investigation, though they can merely be touched upon in this column. What I want to do, simply, is to take some provocative quotes by great thinkers and subject them to personal and critical scrutiny, an attempt at "interaction" with the written word. By critical here, I don't mean a necessarily negative view, but, rather, a thought-out and evaluative assessment. Such criticism involves taking a hard look at the presuppositions and/or logical consequences of someone's viewpoint.

In raising any kind of intellectual issue, one must always "question the question" to see if it is legitimate. On occasion, one must turn the question around, as, for example, in the matter of the devil. The question should not be "Does the devil exist?" but, rather, "What is the problem to which the devil is the solution." Put another way, what experiences prompt one to posit a devil in the first place?

One must look for the evidence and remember that the burden of proof lies on the one who makes the assertion. In Socratic fashion, permit me to raise questions about the following quotes, giving an occasional comment here and there, but then asking the reader to do so in turn. With such a preface, let us enter the word of speculative thought.

Xenophanes, an ancient Greek thinker, is reputed to have said, "If men were horses, their god would look like a horse" Is this a blasphemy or an insight into the only way we can even discuss the issue of God? If God, by definition, is infinite, is it possible for us as finite beings to bridge the gap between us? …

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