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Well, what do you think about that? (Parting Thoughts).

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? Can we only be anthropomorphic at best--that is, rendering to God the traits of humans, such as anger, jealousy, love, etc.? Indeed, is this not the present situation, as we attribute an intellect and will to the Deity? Does the women's movement have a point in resenting God being referred to as male, since the Deity, as spirit, can have no sexual designation? What do you think of philosopher Ludwig Feurbach's declaration that "True theology is anthropology?" We have been told that we are made in God's image, but doesn't it appear from the above that God is made in our image?

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince and other books, has the Little Prince listening to the advice of his friend the fox: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." One might add that the 17th-century mathematician Blaise Pascal was close to this view when he wrote, "Heart has its reasons that reason cannot understand." So is St. Augustine, who tells us, "Love--and do as you please."

Before one agrees or disagrees, one should ask exactly what "heart" means in this context. Does it signify the emotions, instinct, an intuition, or how one feels, as opposed to what one thinks? Does it mean that we should let the "force" within guide us, as "Star Wars" advocated, or, as the expression has it, "Go with the flow"? Where does reason--supposedly man's highest faculty--fit into all of this? Ortega e Gasset, a Spaniard who authored The Revolt of the Masses, wrote, "The intellectual vigor of a person, like that of science, is measured by the dose of skepticism and doubt which one is capable of digesting and assimilating."

Do you ever wonder how some people seem certain of everything when you have difficulty in being certain of just one thing? Is the first view simply that of pure dogmatism, as one finds in the mindset of fundamentalists? Troth in a changing world is hard to come by. As American philosopher-psychologist William James put it, "What has concluded that we may conclude with respect to it?"

Now, here are some quotes for you to ponder. Take your time and don't gloss over any. Each is worthy of reflection.

"The three essential questions for life are: What must I do? What can I know? What can I believe in?" (Immanuel Kant)

"The truth is that there is no troth" (David Hume)

"There is only one question that really matters: Why do bad things happen to good people?" (Rabbi Harold Kushner)

"There are two kinds of people: those who bring their presents and those who bring their presence" (Gabriel Marcel)

"At one time, we had an absence of the experience of God. Today, we have an experience of the absence of God." (Thomas Altizer)

"Subjectivity marks the frontier which separates the world of philosophy from that of religion." (Jacques Maritain)

"Science has many enemies and many more secret ones, among those who cannot forgive it for having weakened religious faith and threatening to oveahrow it" (Sigmund Freud)

Gerald F. Kreyche, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is emeritus professor of philosophy, DePaul University, Chicago, Ill.
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Title Annotation:author explores ideas and how we form them
Author:Kreyche, Gerald F.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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