One of our listeners (and contributors! Thanks again!) Ernie P. has posted on our Facebook page:
You all (on the podcast) seem to assume that 'belief in the irrational' is a strongly correlated with religious belief; I would argue that (depending on how you define it), it is a factor in all human belief, and the only real irrationality is to think our own beliefs fully rational...
Now, I see that Ernie and another blogger Alan Lund have a whole back-and-forth going about the justification for Christianity, so you can check that out if you want; I'm not going to attempt to inject myself into that (and honestly don't have time to read it all right now).
So without getting into Ernie's specific arguments in favor of theism, I wanted to point out that move of trying to undermine all of our knowledge and then saying that religion isn't any more undermined than anything else is one of the standard theistic strategies, as with the guys from the Philosophy for Theologians podcast I blogged about earlier. Alvin Plantinga, probably the most influential living Christian philosopher, has a similar take (if you want details from this you can listen to it on several episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, most notably this interview with Tyler Wunder who wrote his dissertation on Plantinga). Plantinga basically sets a pretty low bar for legitimate evidence and then counts our alleged sense of God as sufficient to meet this. In the area of history, I've blogged about views of the evidence for the Resurrection based on the premise that pretty much any historical evidence that we have for long-past events is crappy, and the case for the Resurrection isn't any crappier than that. ...And intelligent design must be a legitimate theoretical option because science is all just theories anyway, right? Even my boy Montaigne thinks all human knowledge is folly, so we need revelation to get us set straight.
It should be obvious from the range of examples I just gave that I'm not sympathetic to this objection. As elaborated in "The Great Pumpkin Objection" to Plantinga, this overall view is a recipe for allowing in belief for just about any kind of nonsense, and it's a real problem for religious folks to positively rule out all the other faiths apart from their own; a truly universalist attitude accompanying this defense is pretty rare. I'm not going to get into the subtleties of Plantinga; this general objection is much more widely used than his specific view, and (as in the creationist example above) most often used as a hacksaw, not a scalpel. One could respond with Harris's hacksaw and insist that science is fully grounded, but a truly adequate response is going to have to elaborate a whole epistemology, whether it be pragmatist (keeping in mind James's sympathy for religion, which could be considered a very mild version of this same kind of theist argument I'm objecting to) or phenomenological (and though famous phenomenologists like Sartre were atheists, there are luminaries in this tradition that weren't) or quietist or analytic/emprical (a la Russell). I'm not prepared to give such an account here, but it's something I'm going to have in mind during future epistemology episodes. I do think this theist tack is deeply cynical and is in no way going to ground a belief in one of the traditional religions.
For a really interesting take on what post-modernism (Derrida and friends) suggests in the area of religion, listen to this Pale Blue Dot interview with John Caputo, who is one of the few guys involved with this whole area that I actually want to read more by.
Robert Scott says
Hmmm… I will freely admit that post-modernism is not a coherent logical system, so it lends itself to being ridiculed and treated with contempt on philosophy sites, but I think you’re giving it a rough deal here. I don’t think that post-modern theologians and philosphers are necessarily descending into total relativism, you’d hardly find a modern 21st post-modern theologian defending intelligent design. For 21st take, try a guy like Peter Rollins. http://peterrollins.net/
His “system” would be a complete embrace of doubt, a putting away of the religion of one’s youth, a full experience of the “terror” of atheism and an existentialist’s will to choose to construct a path of hope in the face of this atheism. It means inverting traditional fundamentalist notions of a personal God, and replacing it with ideas like “finding God” in the stranger, in love of others.
That’s very post-modern, but doesn’t do the full descent into fairies at the bottom of the garden.
But what does “‘finding God’ in the stranger, in love of others” even mean. It seems like he’s just adding an unnecessary step to save a cherished belief.
Robert Scott says
I’ll appeal to Wikipedia here since the hive mind puts it more eloquently than I could:
“Panentheism is a belief system which posits that God personally exists, interpenetrates every part of nature and timelessly extends beyond it. Panentheism is differentiated from pantheism, which holds that God is not a distinct being but is synonymous with the universe.
Simply put, in pantheism, God is the whole; however, in panentheism, the whole is in God. This means that the universe in the first formulation is practically the whole itself. In the second formulation, the universe and God are not ontologically equivalent. In panentheism, God is viewed as the eternal animating force behind the universe”.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’m not going to pretend here that I’m responding to actual philosophical post-modernists: Caputo, for instance, comes off like a version of Schleiermacher (as does Derrida as Caputo describes him). I’ll have a clearer idea of how this works with academic post-moderns when we get to those episodes, whenever that happens.
Derick Varn a.k.a. Skepoet says
I was about to say that this seems to not really have much to do with post-modernism as it is in the primary texts, so as a response to Caputo, this is sound.
Ernest Prabhakar says
Thanks for the shout out. First of all, I want to apologize for my snarky and apparently misleading comments on your Facebook page; let me know when I’ve expended $10 worth of annoyance and I’ll make another donation. 🙂
Now that I’ve got your attention, though, let me try to articulate my concerns more coherently, to hopefully inspire a more substantive critique. It is pretty verbose, though, so I’ve posted it on my own blog:
You can reply either there or here, whichever is more convenient for you.
Seth Paskin says
I considered your comments neither snarky, misleading or annoying. I just wanted to point out that we don’t all share the same views.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, drawing on Kuhn is just a more subtle version of the same basic move.
People that are alarmed by “scientism” accuse science of being positivist, but as you know as a physics guy, actual scientists are much more cautious than thinking that they’ve laid down an ever-growing edifice with no limits. Instead, science is, as you say, about coming up with the best explanation available. All of science’s general principles are at base hypotheses, so we can’t say with certainty that everything has a cause or that time and space are as they appear to us or any of that… the success of quantum research shows that science can incorporate findings that directly go against these basic presuppositions, meaning that they are not held dogmatically. Science also holds as a presupposition that science itself will hopefully gain us knowledge, but even that need not be held dogmatically; we may just hit a brick wall (as a mysterian thinks re. the mind/body problem), and have to change the investigative methodology or just give up on some line of inquiry.
The hypothesis that the simplest explanation is usually correct, and along the same lines, that physics follows mathematical patterns, is also inductive, and yes, strictly speaking, there’s no way to argue without circularity that a more complex, ad hoc explanation is actually wrong compared with a simpler but more radical one (I have in mind here the heliocentric vs. the geocentric view). Via Swinburne, I’m also familiar with an attempt to make theism a “simpler explanation,” and though in what I read he doesn’t go so far as to try to justify scripture (which is really the point that sticks with me), I’m sure there are equally self-reflective thinkers that have done so.
It’s been too long since I read Kuhn for me to say whether you’re doing justice to him in trying to cast Christianity as comparable to a scientific paradigm. Your attempt to appropriate him is not one I’m familiar with; I’ll for sure be reading this w/in the next year and will have something more substantial to say.
These practical questions of who I take seriously or who I find worthy to argue against are highly variable depending on the situation and the day. Though Christianity is a dead option for me right now, it certainly was not at various points in the past, and I’ve spent enough time entertaining these kinds of arguments over the past weeks that I’m not sure how much more open-minded I could possibly be without simply abandoning my capacity for judgment and inviting everyone into the tent out of sheer respect, so to speak.
I don’t have much to add more specifically beyond what I’ve posted here recently regarding miracles and evidence for the Resurrection. Yes, I recognize that there are perfectly intelligent, intellectually honest conservative Christians (which is frankly more than a lot of Christians are willing to grant to atheists, who are obviously deceiving themselves according to anyone who buys the sensus divinitatus argument I referred to above), and also perfectly intelligent conspiracy theorists and UFO fanatics and many others to whom I find it hard to give my sustained attention.
Ernest Prabhakar says
Fair enough. I do appreciate that you try to play (um, what’s the opposite of devil’s advocate :-); that you both genuinely respect religious ideas and people and also try to balance some of the, yes, snakiness towards religion that occasionally leaks out from the other hosts. I apologize if I’ve tarred you unfairly.
That said, I still get the sense that you’re comfortable with so-called ‘liberal’ religion but find it difficult to respect anything from the conservative/fundamentalist side, even the more thoughtful Billy Graham/Francis Schaefer types. Is that a fair assessment?
Ernest Prabhakar says
Thanks for the response. A couple of points:
a) Seth, I concede that you were right. You (and even Wes, on occasion) have affirmed that an attachment to philosophy is based on the same sort of “leap of faith” as religion, and it was unfair of me to tar you with the same brush. We disagree on the margins, but you didn’t deserve my direct critique.
b) Mark, I don’t blame you for your apathy towards religion. Christianity hasn’t done much to recommend itself to people like you for the last few centuries. But this isn’t really about religion, it is about epistemology, which is something I hope you *do* give a damn about.
From that perspective, I am arguing that “revelation” is a red herring. The real enemy to truth is unexamined dogma, groupthink, and self-righteousness — which are endemic to the human condition. Despite our propaganda, scientists are not any more immune to those failings than anyone else: I would get further criticizing inerrancy at my very conservative church than I would questioning the validity of string theory at Caltech.
The real advantage of science is not our rationality, but our *empiricism* — the fact that we resolve disputes between models by making testable predictions, collecting data, and openly debating the results.
By that measure, sure, science is way ahead of religion. But religion, by that same measure, arguably does better than philosophy. And if that doesn’t bother you, then I’d love to know what epistemology you’re drinking.
And if you disagree with my assertions, then I’d love to see your data.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Yes, I agree that empiricism is the point, and I apologize for making you quote yourself instead of reading your external post carefully. So you’re arguing in favor of natural theology, i.e. arguing religious points based on an appraisal of specific evidence. This is the project of the historian podcast I linked to (http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=261), and then I just listened to second and even more frustrating one: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=10555. It was also the project of numerous scientists and theologians for a several centuries, from Aquinas, Paley, etc. as discussed in our ep. 44, to folks like Newton and Descartes, and people even into the 20th century who have tried to weigh the soul (http://www.snopes.com/religion/soulweight.asp), establish the historical possibility of the Biblical flood/parting of the red sea/other alleged Biblical happenings, etc.
This is where my comparison to, e.g., people fascinated with ghosts or ESP or UFOs comes in. I’ve given all that stuff my attention at some point (it’s kind of fun, after all), but just don’t feel I’ve ever heard any convincing empirical accounts of those things or of the parts of Christianity amenable to empirical research to make me consider them as serious options. Sure, a part of my philosophical attitude is social/historical: I want to learn what people have been thinking and talking about, so I’ll read some Plantinga or Swinburne or whomever. My underlying desire, though, is to look for truth, and I’ve personally found the stuff in philosophy of mind and phenomenology that I’ve read over the years (some of which we’ve talked about on episodes, more of it we’ll still have to get to) to be more plausible.
The source of my greatest resistance to Christianity, as opposed to, say, Buddhism or even Judaism, is that in my cultural surroundings, it’s just so damned overrated (in my opinion, of course). I’m continually subject to musical comparisons: in college, there were bands like Pearl Jam and REM that people I considered irritating would play in my vicinity all the time, and to me (who was mostly into prog at the time), it just sounded mediocre… mostly harmless, but to the extent that it’s being pushed on me, I really loathed it. It wasn’t until I was able to get out of that environment and, eventually, explore these things for myself that I saw the point. My initial resistance to doing any philosophy of religion readings for PEL at all (and to covering Ayn Rand, for that matter), is similar: Christianity has gotten so much hype over the years… why on earth would I want to contribute to that? But then I read Karen Armstrong and Schleiermacher and Eric Reitan, and OK, I get it to some degree, and though at this point I find the (non-empirical) salvation system idea (died for MY sins!) pretty repellent, I’m sure I’ll give some more thought to that as an image, which you’re right, is no worse or weirder than, say, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence or any number of other metaphysical notions speculated about. The natural theology parts, though, the allegedly empirical basis for Christian claims… that seems a dead issue to me; that sort of research only seems to inform (or be of much interest to) someone who’s already convinced of the truth of Christianity, again, just like, say, ESP research. The conversational dynamic is also similar; it comes down to arguments about the validity of bits of alleged evidence, which is for the most part an irritating and not at all philosophical kind of conversation, even if the subject matter, if proven, would have philosophical bearing.
I’m not going to stand up for how open minded actual scientists might or might not be. I imagine they already have a defined field of study and are going to object to anything flying in the face of that as an unprofessional distraction. From what I understand, the openness to new ideas will vary quite a bit by science: I recall a lecture in college from I think from Wolpoff (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milford_H._Wolpoff) where he complained that he was able at a conference to propose as a topic “something that would revolutionize the whole study of paleoathropology,” and that the organizers just accepted that and put him on the slate. This struck him as a sign that his whole field was dangerously underdeveloped, that in any self-respecting science that kind of grand claim would be met with skepticism and shunning. If you’re going to challenge the status quo, it clearly matters quite a bit who you are and what credibility you’ve established with the powers that be, so Hawking could undermine string theory and be listened to, but not you.
Ernest Prabhakar says
“so Hawking could undermine string theory and be listened to, but not you.” That’s probably true. Just like a St. Francis or St. Augistine or a Peter Wagner could rewrite the rules of Christendom. And perhaps I may yet. 🙂 I still consider it an open question whether philosophy is robust enough to even experience that kind of revolution…
The only clarification I would make is that the kind of “Natural Theology” I’m pursuing isn’t “the allegedly empirical basis for Christian claims.” I accept the Bible on faith, with same sort of “naive reliabilism” I use for my senses, since otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make any forward progress. I do that realizing that in specific instances I may well be wrong, yet acknowledging that only by that assumption could I even have found out I was wrong.
The only kind of “natural theology” I subscribe to is the kind used by physicist (and priest) John Polkinghorne in his book “Faith of Physicist”, where he considers the literary/verbal tradition of Scriptures as one piece of valid (but not necessarily 100% accurate) evidence, alongside history, philosophy, and physics.
If you do ever decided to take up religion again — not that I blame you for avoiding it — I think you would do well to start with him.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Per the post I just put up, I don’t think the Bible as a whole, meaning the set of claims about ethics, metaphysics, history, and other things put forth in that book, is at all plausible as the starting point for inquiry in the way, say, the underlying assumptions of a given scientific paradigm might be. There are Christian (and Jewish) worldviews that (I guess; I’ve never tried) could be expressed as a minimal set of postulates which can then ground interpretation of that text, but that doesn’t lead to anything like Biblical literalism (though I regard “literalism” as incoherent per said other post namedropping hermeneutics). I know there’s a long history of people (Aquinas for one) who claim the relationship between rationality and the Bible that you’re expressing, but to me, this is just a version of the same nihilism I was objecting to in the post that started this thread.
Yes, inquiry has to stop somewhere (at least on any given occasion; I tend to think you can always go back and push the inquiry further later on, but that effort too, must stop), so there will always be some assumptions accepted uncritically (though I think only an apologist would insist on calling these “faith;” certainly Bertrand Russell acknowledges this structure of inquiry and felt no such need). But our goal as empiricists should be to make them as few and as simple as possible. So Swinburne’s take on God as simple I think could work here, because it’s essentially just one claim, about the nature of God, which entails a set of attributes and relations to the whole of creation. The set of 4000 claims (OK, I just made that number up) that comprise the Bible are nothing like this.
And if one objects to my describing the Bible as a set of claims and says it has some other non-assertive purpose, yes, I say, this is moving in the right (Scheiermacheresque) direction.
Wayne Schroeder says
Mark: here’s some of Caputo’s lectures: http://trippfuller.com/Caputo/
Wayne Schroeder says
This is my Amazon review of Caputo’s ” Against Ethics:” Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction (Studies in Continental Thought):
John Caputo (a Kierkegaardian pseudonym no doubt–so we will call him by his real name, Jack) uses his shocking, satirical, deconstructive voice in an impish, wild dance “Against Ethics.” Don’t get me wrong, he is very serious–an intellectual Monty Python with teeth. He skewers the philosophical and human history of those who would step over the line and presume to “know” what is the truth, and thereby contribute to the misery of humanity–commonly known as the violent error of self-righteousness–which leaves dead bodies, literally and personally, in its wake.
He skewers Hegel, Heidiegger and even the more careful Merleau Ponty (who, granted, slips into idealism at times) for trying to claim a perfect world, a shinny world, a perfectly embodied world and thereby evade the imperfect, the dull, and the broken-bodied of this world.
If you woke up one morning as Kafka’s cockroach in Metamorphosis, Jack would be right there by your side, rubbing shoulders with you as you waddled through the dusty corners of life– not trying to eliminate your pestiness with the ethics of RAID. He is against the mean spirited nihilism of Nietzche (p. 235), but he loves the deconstructed shadows that follow in his wake (and that of Derrida).
No, Jack is more of a court jester, a wise guy, a master of word play and language games in order to undercut false authority, harmful judgment and narcissism. While he claims to have minimal knowledge of truth, plays the humble card and keeps a low profile–he is all the while keeping close watch on you, lest you make one false step of claiming too much–which is nearly anything–since all propositions propose too much.
He in fact deconstructs judging as: “not primarily a matter of applying the law, but of lifting the law” “. . . in order to judge what is happening” (pp. 108, 106). And “Forgiving is just forgetting” (p. 110)–It never happened–forget about it.
Rather than attempt to unravel the phenomenological riddle of being and of bodies of sound mind and physical health, Jack prefers to focus on flesh. Not the healthy embodied/world existence of Merleau Ponty’s flesh, but of human flesh that is bruised and cut and bloodied. Because that is what happens as a result of the inescapable obligation that the Other (person) brings to each of us.
We are fundamentally challenged to respond by either reaching out and touching the Other(s) around us, or by hitting, rejecting avoiding their obligation on us. And we can never trust that our reaching out and touching others is true altruism, because we are impossibly selfish, and in fundamental ways, rejecting, so that we hit and hurt, literally or otherwise. That’s what we do, and that is not ok, so we are in deep need to forget about it.
Despite his scandalous, dark and satirical intentions, there are occasional bright spots in the abyss:
“What is at issue is not the purpose of what happens but whether one rejoices in what is happening, whether what is happening is a joy or a disaster, or something in between” (p. 233)
“The point is not the `meaning’ of events but rather the ‘joie de vivre,’ the joy of ordinary life, of our days and works, of the finite, immanent, intermediary goals of daily life, the surpassing joy of the day-to-day, or work and companionship, the exultation in the ordinary, which is, after all, what there is” (p. 234)
“My interest lies with people so exposed to the abyss by which events are inhabited that they cannot get as far as ordinary life and its ordinary joys and sorrows” (p. 235)
“Faith is not a way of escaping what happens, but a way of interpreting it and coming to grips with it” (p. 245)
It is not by accident that there are echoes of the Sermon on the Mount throughout “Against Ethics”.
P.S. This book makes most sense if you are a continental philosopher, have a stomach for satire, word play and life’s impossibilities.