Enlightenment Worldview of Cathcart and Klein Essay

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Here is where they tell one of their funnier jokes, which is actually quite relevant in ways that they do not spell out:

A man stumbles into a deep well and plummets a hundred feet before grasping a spindly root, stopping his fall. His grip grows weaker and weaker, and in his desperation he cries out "Is there anybody up there?" He looks up and all he can see is a circle of sky. Suddenly the clouds part and a beam of bright light shines down on him. A deep voice thunders, "I, the Lord, am here. Let go of the root and I will save you." The man thinks for a moment and then yells "Is there anybody else up there?" (Cathcart and Klein 53).

Cathcart and Klein offer their own quick philosophical gloss on this joke, which is that "hanging by a root has a tendency to tip the scales toward reason" (Cathcart and Klein 53). Yet we need to analyze the joke in terms of the philosophical ideas presented. Everything reasonable suggests that the man will die if he lets go of the root: thus there might be a sort of double meaning in God's promise that "I will save you," since saving in a religious scheme often applies to something that happens after death. God may be visiting the man in his last minutes to assure him he will go to heaven if he lets go of the root. Thus, the man's seeming distrust -- which is a sort of skeptical approach -- is entirely rational.

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However it is also worth noting the way in which this anecdote illustrates something which is also dealt with shortly afterward in Cathcart and Klein's book, which is the nature of evidence in the miraculous. The man in the well has received something that very few people actually do receive directly: sensory evidence that seemingly indicates the existence of God, who is here addressing the man directly. The bright light and the loud voice are, in a word, miraculous. Yet Cathcart and Klein demonstrate that skepticism is the proper attitude to bring toward any claim of the miraculous:

Essay on Enlightenment Worldview of Cathcart and Klein Assignment

David Hume, the skeptical British empiricist, said that the only rational basis for believing that something is a miracle is that all alternative explanations are even more improbable. Say a man insists he has a potted palm that sings arias from Aids. Which is more improbable: that the potted palm has violated the laws of nature, or that the man is crazy, or fibbing, or high on mushrooms? Hume's response: "Puh-leez!" (We're paraphrasing here.) Since the odds of the man having been deceived or having stretched the truth are always somewhat greater than the odds of a violation of the laws of nature, Hume could foresee no circumstance in which it would be rational to conclude that a miracle had happened. (Cathcart and Klein, 59-60).

As a result, the man hanging in the well must weigh all the possible explanations for the miraculous intervention. Since the advice sounds almost certainly fatal, the man actually has no reason to believe that the voice he heard is God and not some malevolent supernatural being -- presupposing that the ideas of God's goodness are indeed correct. But in reality, what Descartes or Hume would probably do in the man's position is to doubt the evidence of their senses: in an extreme emotional situation such as hanging by a thread, it would seem more likely that one might doubt the sensory evidence (bright light, loud voice) as a hallucination, rather than believe that divine revelation has intervened here when it is otherwise withheld on a daily basis.

Cathcart and Klein provide this kind of joking introduction to basic philosophical concepts throughout the book. However they are engaged in a basic Enlightenment project with substantial Enlightenment biases: their ideas are largely based on philosophical concepts that do not hinge upon the question of God, and thus religious philosophy is given somewhat short shrift in the book. But at the same time, religious philosophy does hinge upon belief, which is perhaps not something that is susceptible to reasoned argument (and which does not always take kindly to jokes). But Cathcart and Klein are amusing and useful guides to the basic concepts of philosophy otherwise.

Works Cited

Cathcart, Thomas and Klein, Daniel. Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. New… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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