Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialog

This is part two of a three part post series that explores some issues and ideas proposed to me by Mack Hassler as part of the independent study that he’s conducting for me on the works of Philip K. Dick.

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.

You may find an expanded version of this extract online here.

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.

Notes on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism”

This is part one of a three part post series that explores some issues and ideas proposed to me by Mack Hassler as part of the independent study that he’s conducting for me on the works of Philip K. Dick.  He asked me to consider the ways in which the thinking of Shelley and Dick are interrelated on the level of metaphysics and belief.  Also, he suggested that I bring those things around to the way their ideas were disseminated as well as the way I communicate online through this blog.  This and the following three posts represent my findings.

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.

You may find “The Necessity of Atheism” online here.

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

Shelley 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.

SFRA 2008 – Saturday

On the final full day of conferencing at SFRA 2008, we shifted from the Holiday Inn Holidome to the beautiful, (de)constructed campus of Kansas University.  I only note the state of construction on the campus, which is a continual state of affairs for all large universities, because Jason Embry, Melissa Colleen Stevenson, and I got totally lost on the way to the University Union.  Luckily, we had a delightful breakfast at Miltons after we thought the empty Ingredient was closed, so we had the energy to persevere–I to find the parking deck, and Jason and Melissa to hoof it in the rain to the Union through the construction barricade.  They made it to their panels on time, and I ducked into the first morning panel shortly after it began.

The three morning panels at KU were full of great papers, but I decided to go to the “Beginnings and Endings” panel, because Jason Embry was presenting on Philip K. Dick’s Valis and I’ll be working with Mack Hassler on PKD in the fall.

Rikk Mulligan, who I paneled with at IAFA 2008, presented on S. M. Sterling’s Dies the Fire series with his paper, “From the Ashes:  S. M. Sterling’s Novels of “The Change” and the New Postapocalypse.”  I think his connecting Sterling’s work with America in the here-and-now is an interesting take on the present.  His essay was packed with a lot of ideas and details that I think he can turn into a larger paper for publication.

Veronica Hollinger presented a paper title, “Science Fiction and Posthumanism:  Intersections of Story and Theory.”  Her essay is an indepth and insightful survey of posthumanist theory, and it’s taken from her chapter in the upcoming Routledge Science Fiction collection.

The last presentation was Jason Embry’s “Recovering the Third Eye:  Gnostic World-Building in Philip K. Dick’s Valis.”  He brings Lacan and the Real to bear on Dick (no multiple pun intended).  He talked about language in Valis, and how Dick sought to reclaim that which was lost through language.  The idea is that there was a loss through accepting one language and symbolic order. Valis is an attempt at returning to a lost unity, hence the gnosticism in the novel.  This is great stuff, and it comes from a chapter in Jason’s dissertation that he’ll be defending soon–best of luck!

After the panel, Jason and I walked through the widely spaced rain drops to the library and the Science Fiction collection book sale.  When we arrived, it was clear that a lot of stuff was cleaned out, but there were still some jems hidden in the stacks.  Some of my finds included Bruce Sterling’s Schizmatrix (Veronica mentioned this as a must-read in her presentation), a collection of C.L. Moore stories, a handful of collections edited by Judith Merril, and Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions 1.

We had a nice catered lunch in the Big 12, and then it was back to work.  I walked up to the English Room for the “Playing the Universe:  Reading and Teaching Science Fiction with Video Games” roundtable that I participated in with Pawel Frelik (the organizer), Craig Jacobsen, and Donna Binns.  It was my first roundtable, and I had no teaching experience to speak of, but I came prepared with some ideas that I had regarding Pawel’s two discussion leading questions:

Question 1
Are videogames as a medium ready for the mainstream humanities on a par with literature and film? What are the biggest problems that videogames face concerning their acceptance as relevant and attention-worthy texts?

Question 2
As a medium that often captures the imagination of young students much more than books or even TV shows/films, how can games be used to assist teaching fantastic literatures in the older media? Any specific strategies? Any specific examples that you feel would be perfect for teaching space opera, cyberpunk, etc?

Craig and Donna had some great practical advice based on their use of video games in the classroom.  Craig uses video games in a genre studies course, and Donna uses video games as a way to get students writing about games and their relation to other media/genres–she asks her students to make content that makes sense.  Craig made an important point that I had missed in thinking about video games in the classroom–don’t forget small, online games.  He described using the online game Deanimator as an introduction to his “Zombies” class–he has everyone play it at their computer station, and then he has them stop playing and turn off their monitors.  He asks everyone to describe the setting, how the controls work, what else was going on besides killing zombies.  Interesting, no one remembers these things, which drives home the point that students will have to consider these things as texts with deeper meanings than the activity of killing zombies.  Also, he tells them, “I don’t care what you like just like your chemistry teacher doesn’t care what your favorite element is.”  This is an important lesson that I’m going to bring into my classroom.

After a great exchange of questions and discussion, I stuck around for Mack Hassler’s New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction book launch.  Mack had a copy of the book, fresh off the press (make sure your hands are clean).  The panel of contributors included Peter R. Bergethon, Lisa Yaszek, Doug Davis, Mary Elizabeth Ginway, Thomas Michaud, and Marleen Barr.  Peter is a neuroscientist and doctor, who wrote the opening piece, which is about how as our minds physically change with the advent of new technologies, our engagement and ways of thinking about politics will also change.  Marleen wrote the end piece, part of which she read at the 2005 SFRA in White Plains, NY, which is about how Condoleeza Rice is a dominatrix robot controlled by George W. Bush–that’s all I remember about it, besides the boots–but for this one essay’s humor and scholarship alone, you should check out this book when it comes out!  More info here.

The day wound up with an indoor BBQ, complete with stout beer.  There were many thank yous and congratulations on a successful conference.  Also, being July 12, everyone sang happy birthday to Jim Gunn, and then Sue Hassler shouted out, “it was Jason’s birthday too,” so everyone clapped for me.  A good time was had by all, but I was groggy from lack of sleep, so Jason, Melissa, and I drove back to the hotel for a nap before going back out later in the evening.

Meeting back up in the bar downstairs, we had some Guinness, said our good-byes to Melissa who had to leave early in the morning, and then Craig, Sha, Jason, Natasha, a-friendly-bloke-whose-name-escape-me, and I checked out the Lawrence, Kansas nightlife.  We braved hordes of fans, groupie gangs, and the hipster legions at the Bottleneck and another place way too crowded to warrant a name other than “Mathematical singularities for fun and profit.”  Also, Craig conducted experiments on signification.  I had a great time, fell asleep with a nice buzz after talking with Yufang on the phone, and woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed (with hangover) for the business meeting Sunday morning.  More on that next time…