AAI: Maurice Bisheff

This was definitely the weirdest talk of the meeting so far.

Bisheff was discussing Tom Paine, that fascinating patriot and rabble-rouser of the American Revolution. Atheists love the guy; he wasn’t one of us, since he was a deist, but he was a real firebrand in his opposition to organized religion. I think a historical analysis of this important figure in American history is the kind of thing we ought to encourage in freethought meetings; we aren’t all about finding contradictions in the Bible and going rah-rah for science, you know.

Unfortunately, this was a very academic talk, following the convention of formal papers in many branches of the humanities: he stood up there at the podium and read from a paper. Yikes. He lost a lot of people early, who just walked out of him in boredom, I’m sorry to say. I’m especially sorry since they missed the weird turn it took later.

Bisheff wanted to emphasize that Paine was not an atheist (which was fine, since he wasn’t), and went on to discuss some of his ideas about science, and nature, and god, and the afterlife. Again, not a problem, since he had those ideas…except that Bisheff seemed to want to regard them uncritically, as good ways of looking at the world, and he seemed to be enjoying taking a few potshots at atheists. And I’m sorry, but Paine, as described here, had some wacky beliefs.

He tried to justify some of the ‘spiritual’ views by claiming that they were like the premises of mathematics, lacking an empirical foundation and not susceptible to proof by materialists, because they reside in a plane outside of mere worldly matters. That was annoying enough in its lack of connection to reality, but then he proceeded to tell us about true science and scientists. Apparently, a true scientist of the future (we aren’t ready for this yet) will incorporate the mystical as well as the natural in his vision of the universe.

That woke me up from the snooze of the talk format.

I eventually asked him a few questions. I suggested that science is a rather pragmatic and methodological practice, so I’d like to know how we were to study the mystical. I also told him that while I didn’t disagree that Paine had these spiritual views, it would be truer to the freethought that he endorsed if we did not simply accept the opinions of Tom Paine, but that a critical analysis would be far more interesting.

I got a rather rambling reply back. Apparently Tom Paine was a proponent of transcendental science, whatever that was. Bisheff tried to give an example, and talked about a study of baby babbling that showed that some fraction weren’t actually babbling, but were speaking in the tongue of some ancient Buddhist sect. We just weren’t ready to comprehend this fact, and scientists run away from such a phenomenon that we can’t explain. Yeah, we were somehow talking about reincarnation.

The person next to me wondered if we’d somehow wandered into a Templeton seminar. I have to agree, it was crazy inappropriate. However, I would like to be the first to endorse the award of a posthumous Templeton Prize to Thomas Paine, hero of the American Revolution. It seems only fair.