Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, On Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism,” Sept. 17, 2008

This is the thirty-sixth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In 2008, I began my Ph.D. work with Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler. Ultimately, he directed my dissertation to its successful completion. Through this process, we became colleagues and friends.

On the advice of friends in the SFRA and of having read Mack’s first Political Science Fiction collection while at the University of Liverpool, I wanted the opportunity to study at Kent State University and work with him.

This is the first of three artifacts that I produced during my coursework independent study with Mack focused on Philip K. Dick, postmodernism, play, parody, and performance. As an invested SFRA member and its then-publicity director, I was concerned about the chilling effects a troll and his sock-puppets wreaked on our email list at that time. Ultimately, Mack helped me steer the independent study in that direction to theoretically grapple with online discussions in real life (RL).

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

17 September 2008

Discussion Notes on Shelley

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “The Necessity of Atheism.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832:  An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York:  Routledge, 1998.  77-79.

NB:  Shelley and his friend, T.J. Hogg, were kicked out of Oxford for publishing this (69).

He begins his proof by examining belief.  Mind/active and perception/passive.  The mind is active in investigating that which is perceived in order to clarify, but the mind cannot disbelief that which it perceives to be true. What Shelley calls, “the strength of belief,” is determined by, in order of highest to lowest importance, our senses, our experience (reason), and the experience of others. And it from these things that belief in a Deity derives.

Working through these three strengths, he admits that if the Deity appears to someone via the senses, then that person must belief the Deity exists.  However, he employs what is best described as Occam’s Razor to seek the simpler explanation for the cause and effect of the creation of the universe or one’s own birth rather than the more complicated idea of a Deity. Finally, he establishes that we cannot trust other’s belief in a Deity that, “commanded that he should be believed, he proposed the highest rewards for faith, eternal punishments for disbelief” (79).  Belief for Shelley must be voluntary and established by the perception of an individual’s senses.

He closes the essay by reprimanding those who would punish disbelievers, because one must and should only belief what they experience via the senses.  Furthermore, one has no choice but to believe this way without the influence of external pressure.  And, any person with a reflective mind will admit that there has been no proof for the existence of a Deity.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “Extract from A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialog.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832:  An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York:  Routledge, 1998.  80-81.

In this extract, Shelley is questioning the prevailing social order, maintained by the monarchy and church, and its requirement for what he calls a “supernatural intelligence” (80). Also, he considers the conflict between order and disorder in that system, and the supposed requirement for a “power” that supports order, and another, malignant, that supports disorder (80).

In a thought experiment, he questions if order might have a penchant for evil, and disorder a hint at good.  Why do these divisions necessarily remain diametrically opposed? He answers that order and disorder are constructions that we map onto our understanding of the world and our relationship to it (80). Therefore, what is good for us is heavenly ordained and that which is ill for us is the work of Satan.

He points out that order and disorder cannot be universal, because the criteria for those things are as varied and colored as the different people whose “opinions and feelings” create those criteria (80).

The most powerful passage in this extract is when he establishes that good and evil are relative, not only in effect, but more importantly in the relationship between people and their perception of the external world. It is human attribution of good or evil to objects and events external to the perceiver rather than an extrinsic or universal attribution of those descriptions.

And, connecting this extract to the previous, he concludes that one cannot reason the existence of a Deity, because what is believed to have divine motivation in the external world are really judgments and opinions of people mapped onto the events observed.

Electronic Communications, Philip K. Dick, and Belief Systems

What would Philip K. Dick do with a blog?  How might he have revolutionized the way we engage and think about belief and our perception of reality had he had a less restrictive method of communicating with fans and passers-by alike?

I use my blog as a means of connecting with people personally as well as professionally.  Originally intended as a personal blog about my travels abroad in the UK, it changed over time along with my own professional transformation into a PhD student and active participant in professional organizations.  It allowed me to hone my writing ability through additional practice, and it facilitated feedback from those persons who happened to by blog by the almighty digital deity, Google.  Also, it is a self-promotion of sorts, not unlike those by SF authors such as Cory Doctorow or John Scalzi, but it represents my life and work as a professional academic who critically thinks about the relationship between science, technology, and culture.  It’s more than a calling card–it’s a bulletin board that I organize and run that facilitates a communal response to my observations and thoughts.

Philip K. Dick would undoubtedly have had a different kind of blog than Doctorow, Scalzi, or I.  In his work, he questions the nature of reality and the human mind’s ability to perceive and react to the external world.  He realized, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, that our relationship to the external world is made possible by our senses and the interpretation of that sensory data by our mind. Thus, the supposed external world is actually a simulation that is ever present in our mind.  Dick questions, problematizes, and critiques our relationship to the external world in his myriad works, but it’s the latter works that specifically deal with perception and the questions of belief that Shelley raised in the early 18th century.

Shelley argued that the only ways in which one may believe in a Deity is directly through our senses, reason, and the experience of others. He quickly dispenses with the last two as being unequivocally insufficient for proof in God. However, the first, direct sensory perception is the only sure way to prove that God exists, for the individual. It is here that Dick steps into the picture one and three-quarter centuries later.

In his last works exploratory works, VALIS and the Exegesis, Dick describes his own direct sensory perception of a Deity, or more accurately, a Gnostic revelatory experience.  In these works, which would have been the pinnacle of blog writing had he had a digital outlet for communicating his experiences, he describes on the page what he remembers of the experiences of 2-4-74 as well as his reasoning through those experiences.  Dick follows what Shelley described two centuries before as the mind actively clarifying the sensory perception.  And as a reflective person, Dick offered many interpretations and counter-interpretations for his sensory experience in order to find his own way of understanding the experience. From the extended process of reasoning, Dick arrived at his own set of beliefs surrounding the experience, but he conceded that they were his experiences, and despite sharing them, one must arrive at that kind of belief on their own.  Additionally, he envisioned a future with less organized religion and more personal belief based on individualized experiences. In this sense, Dick is taking Shelley to task by establishing his own beliefs in a Deity.

I wonder what Dick would have concluded had he explored these ideas online through blogging.  According to Sutin’s biography of Dick, Divine Invasions, Dick corresponded with friends and colleagues, but “he was blue because it seemed there was no one to talk with about the ideas that mattered to him” (273). Those ideas were those that he recorded as his verbose self-dialog in the Exegesis.  However, interpersonal communication with friends is a somewhat different dynamic than the largely anonymous online communication (hence the recent flame war initiated by the new SFRA troll). Would an online community foster or impede Dick’s personal exploration of his unique sensory experiences? In addition to the voluminous writing that he was doing at that time regarding his experience, an online forum would necessitate a certain level of response and tailoring subsequent material to his readership.  Perhaps this would have enhanced or altered his reasoning based on the suggestions and theories of others.  However, as Shelley pointed out, we cannot wholly trust the reports of others in our own interpretation of sensory experiences.  I’m confident that Dick would have been aware of this, but it would certainly have had some influence, however insignificant but subtle, on his own thinking.

There are certainly issues today with online communication and the dissemination of ideologies and systems of belief.  I have heard anecdotally that online systems of communication assist individuals in finding or establishing smaller groups that share similar beliefs. Hence, Republicans find other Republicans, and Science Fiction fans find other Science Fiction fans. However, there’s certainly a cross pollination where, for example, Republicans find their way to the Science Fiction fan enclaves and either comment positively or negatively on something a SF fan has said, and vice versa.  It’s these interactions between borders that I find interesting, because a synthesis at best or a culture war at worst is taking place at these imaginary or invisible dividing lines.  Shelley and Dick would probably have found themselves on the same side, looking across the border at the unreflective infidels, and they would most assuredly have “guest blogged” on each other’s site.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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