Sunday, 30 September 2012

More snippets from Philosophy 314

So we read a little Galileo, and it was all about something called corpuscularianism.  The world is full of these little corpuscles which are responsible for such things as our ability to smell.  When the corpuscles get up our nose, we smell things.

I thought, What is this nonsense?  I even skipped the class on Galileo.  But then in the next class, referring back to that one, the prof referred to Galileo’s “atomism.”

Oh, atoms, I thought.  Molecules.  They do get up your nose and trigger sensations of smell.  Hmm.

Though how do I know that?  Why am I prepared to believe in molecules, but not corpuscles?

I think I just went through a defamiliarization experiment, like in Gulliver’s Travels when the Lilliputians say that Gulliver keeps his god in his pocket because he won’t do anything without consulting it, and you think, What nonsense, but it turns out they’re referring to his watch.  Ah, you think.

Or it has something to do with paradigm shifts and belief systems.  I’ve abandoned many of the beliefs of my youth, but I still believe in atoms and molecules.  God knows why; I’ve never seen either.  I suppose that means that if I had never heard of atomic theory and someone presented it to me now, I’d call it nonsense.  I wonder why.  Because it goes against experience?

An argument for not trusting experience and the senses, I suppose, which leads to Descartes, but I’ve talked about him already.

I suppose I believe in atoms and molecules because some things you concede to authority, as even the great skeptic, Michel de Montaigne, said you have to do, because after all you can’t know everything and you have to trust authorities on some issues.

So I accept atomic theory, but didn’t even recognize it when presented under a different name (corpuscularianism).  Under its strange new name I rejected it utterly; once I realized it was just another name for atoms and molecules, well, at first I felt embarrassed and defensive, but eventually I thought, Okay, so Galileo wasn’t crazy.

Though I only think that because he fits into my current belief system.  Hmm.  There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Cogito Part Deux

So maybe he did say it, Descartes I mean, "cogito ergo sum."  Or in French, "je pense, donc je suis."

Further research has turned up new possibilities.  I let the prof know.  I'm helpful that way. Last year, in the Religious Studies class I was taking, the prof decided to explain BC/BCE and AD/CE.

He began by saying, "Who knows what happened in the year 0?"

I said, "There was no year 0."

Always helpful.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Snippets from Philosophy 314

So this term I continue my plan to be the oldest student in a variety of classes across campus, pursuing philosophy in the hopes of understanding the meaning of life. 
This is what I’ve found out so far as I sit on one of the few old-fashioned chairs without wheels (the wheeled chairs that dominate the classroom hurt my back):

Cogito ergo what?

So we’re reading Descartes, who seems a bit of a bore, committed to finding implausible proofs for the existence of God.  The one thing I knew about Descartes before taking the course was that he was the one who said “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). 

Only he didn’t say it; he says things like that; that famous phrase accurately sums up his main approach (which is a skeptical view in which he begins doubting everything he can, and decides he can be sure only that he exists, and he’s sure of that only because he knows he’s thinking; and if he’s thinking, he must exist in some way to do the thinking).

A reasonable point of view, but he never actually sums it up in the famous Cogito phrase.  “Yes,” says the prof, “I was surprised to discover that too.”  Who did say it first, I ask?  The prof shrugs. “Philosophy is full of slogans,” he says.

Hmph, next I’ll find out that Sherlock Holmes never said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

And philosophy is full of slogans?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Synagogue and Student Council

I don’t go to synagogue very often.  The last time was almost a year ago, and I’d been away so long I didn’t realize they’d moved the time back half an hour, so when my girl-friend (who had never been to synagogue before) and I showed up, they were just getting underway.

This is not ideal because a synagogue service lasts three hours, and the thing to do is show up about 45 minutes late, after the opening prayers but in time for the Torah readings and the rabbi’s sermon.  Only the 100-year-old men show up right at the start, and of course the officiating officers: the rabbi, the cantor, and in this case another official, a sexton, a beadle – I don’t know what to call him – gabbai and shamash are possible Hebrew names.

He greeted us at the door and sounded happier to see me than I’d expected, it turned out because I was the tenth man needed for “minyan,” or quorum, the minimum number required to conduct a full service.  This was only the second time in my life that I’d been pressed into service this way because usually I show up late enough that a minyan has already been formed.

So at first there were very few of us at the service, and I felt uncomfortable, worried I might be called on to do something I didn’t know how to do, but making up the minyan doesn’t require anything but your presence, so that was all right, and eventually others who knew about the later start showed up and I could feel more comfortably inconspicuous.

And it was a pleasant experience overall.  I always enjoy the mysterious prayers and chants, and the sermon is sometimes interesting; there’s ritual and community and even food at the end and some pleasant conversation with members of the congregation.

My girl-friend and I said we should go back, but we haven’t, perhaps for a number of reasons.  In my search for ritual, community, and spiritual sustenance I have other outlets.  I keep signing up for Continuing Studies courses, for one thing, and even courses for credit.  But perhaps more important, I attend Student Council meetings.  Every two or three weeks I am there with my real community, my real congregation, and I am there in an official capacity as Clerk of Council.  I walk around holding the Code of Procedure, looking a bit perhaps like the sexton-gabbai holding his prayer book and ushering people in.  Not that I usher people in, but I walk around whispering advice, or I sit in my designated place taking notes for the minutes.  Oh, and I help establish the numbers for quorum, the Council’s minyan.  And when called on, or even when not, I offer information about the rules.

I am not uncomfortable there; quite the contrary.  It’s like a second home.  I’ve been doing it for years and I know the rituals, the order of service.  In this case the food comes at the beginning, and there are lots of people who show up on time and then leave early, the opposite of how it is in the synagogue.

Then the Speaker calls the meeting to order, there are introductions, I get to introduce myself as the Clerk.  There are presentations and questions, and then the Approval of the Minutes (my Minutes among others), then the debate on motions.  No sermons (well, not usually).  Sometimes elections to committees, and then the motion to adjourn.

No one says Good Shabbes afterwards, but groups may gather for post-mortems or libations.  I may stay for some post-mortems but not for the libations.  It’s late at night by the time we finish; often the meetings are even longer than synagogue services, and I am tired at the end, and yet it feels comforting.  There is no God, unless you count Brigadier General Robert (inventor of Robert’s Rules), but it is my synagogue.