Think Again

by John Holbo on May 5, 2009

Oh, I suppose Stanley Fish’s latest, “God Talk”, can do with its own CT comment thread.

There’s this bit, for example:

You won’t be interested in any such promise [of faith], you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”?

So basically Eagleton (and Fish) are arguing against a hyper-panglossian rationalist-atheist liberalism that is, by hypothesis, decisively refuted by ‘all we read in the newspaper’. And from this Eagleton and Fish conclude that the only way to puncture this hubristic bubble of supreme self-sufficiency is with … religion? It doesn’t even occur to them, apparently, to try to get these panglossians to read the newspaper? Which. would. refute. them?

Of course, devastating that lot would still leave all the actual liberal-rationalist-humanist-atheists unaddressed. But I take it Eagleton and Fish have absolutely no idea what to say against any of them except (stamps foot, for extra truthiness) ‘do these liberals not understand the importance of Important Things! Hubris! Harrumphsnort!’

If there is any more cogent anti-liberal-ratonalist-atheist argument in that whole Fish piece, I am very sorry to say that I must have missed it.

I thought the ending was a nice ‘more in sorrow than anger’ touch. Eagleton, writes Fish, “is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.” Oh, and the bit in the middle where Fish spends a whole paragraph crowing about Eagleton’s cleverness in referring to them both as ‘Ditchkins’.

Don’t they teach irony in the English department any more? I think they should.

{ 267 comments }

1

Ginger Yellow 05.05.09 at 1:09 pm

“Eagleton, writes Fish, “is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.”

I suspect the feeling is mutual.

2

harry b 05.05.09 at 1:36 pm

This:

““What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions”

struck me as odd. Christianity is specifically what they’re talking about, not religion, which is very often entirely about local satisfactions.

I’m reluctant to make fun of Eagleton without actually reading him, because he has been misrepresented to me by people enthusiastic about him in ways that suggest making fun is appropriate only to find out, when reading him, that what he has to say is clever, insightful and interesting. Annoying!

3

John Holbo 05.05.09 at 1:53 pm

I have to say, Fish’s description sounds like vintage Eagleton to me. The religious stuff is new, but there’s usually something filling that particular ‘here’s why you are wrong without me having to tell why you’re wrong’ slot.

4

Preachy Preach 05.05.09 at 2:02 pm

Without contributing to his coffers, this is a reasonable summary (in his own words) of Terry Eagleton’s thoughts on the topic. I have to say that it makes some rather strange assumptions, and wilful disregard of Christianity as she is practised, in its attack on Dawkins.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/eagl01_.html

5

bianca steele 05.05.09 at 2:02 pm

Of course, devastating that lot would still leave all the actual liberal-rationalist-humanist-atheists unaddressed.

It’s probably obvious that the route chosen by Eagleton and Fish addresses actual lrha’s primarily by requiring them to grok Eagleton’s argument against lrha-ism and sophisticated defense of traditional Christianity: the discourse has room for Christian humanists like Eagleton and for lrha’s swatting at the fringes of the boundary with Christianism, both hashing out why Eagleton is right, over and over again, but unreconstructed lrha’s, as well as unreflective committed believers, need not apply.

6

bianca steele 05.05.09 at 2:11 pm

“Christianism”: I’m pretty sure I intended to type “Christianity”

7

Righteous Bubba 05.05.09 at 2:21 pm

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

People may ruin the plans of God.

8

Salient 05.05.09 at 2:24 pm

This part’s more fun.

“[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion,Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

So, the purpose of religion is aesthetic? It speaks to our limbic systems’ exadaptive capacity to feel a whelming sense of bond/connection/empathy in response to evocative or communicative sensory data? I’ve never had a proponent of religion suggest this clearly that the purpose of religion is identical to the purpose of storytelling. Hm.

[Aside: it's my understanding that what it means to be "moved" by a ballet, or by a Chekhov story, is beginning to be well-explored within neuroscience (fun easy-read popularizations here and here). Within a few generations, it seems reasonable to expect that the broad-strokes analysis of the physiological mechanisms underlying aesthetic appreciation will fall in the realm of applied science / neurology. A quick comment bleg - is there anyone around whose expertise falls roughly into this realm, who could mention some researchers / research programs who are currently doing reliable / frequently-cited studies of these mechanisms? I'd love to hear, and it seems relevant to this comment thread because Fish/Eagleton are building their case on this analogy.]

Shorter rest of the article: liberals don’t believe in the coming kingdom of God because they believe in the coming kingdom of Man.

Shorter problems with Fish’s article: straw man argument, due to false dichotomy. That’s strong evidence that this is a polemic piece, designed to aggravate and rally rather than analyze or assess. So, I guess there’s no point in engaging with it too deeply.

9

Salient 05.05.09 at 2:27 pm

For those who do want to engage more deeply with the general idea of religion-as-human-need, this interview with V.S. Ramachandran is (while uneven) at least a sincere attempt to discuss the topic.

10

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 2:30 pm

i thought this piece by eagleton (subscribers only unfortunately) did a slightly better job of handwaving at some of the contradictions in liberal secular positivism (or whatever it’s called)

11

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 2:30 pm

So, the purpose of religion is aesthetic?

A lot of that going around; seems to be pretty much the last-ditch line of defense nowadays for muddleheads trying to hold out against the assault of the Evil Dawkhitch Stormtroopers. Often involves the truly brain-dead confusion of religion with religiously-inspired art.

And no, it’s not possible to engage productively with such manifestations of severe cognitive impairment.

12

Theron 05.05.09 at 2:33 pm

I gave up on the piece early, when I got to the part where Fish opines that science should not be held responsible for not asking or answering the question of why anything exists in the first place because that’s not what science does. Maybe he should trot down to the physics department for one of their bag lunch research seminars or something? Or, I don’t know, read a book about what contemporary physics is up to? Maybe he’d like to know what NASA is spending his tax dollars on, such as the upcoming Planck mission?

13

Martin James 05.05.09 at 2:40 pm

I thought Fish was rehashing Eagleton to point out the religion as aesthetic experience meme enough that the religious would be offended. I mean the whole burning bush thing is now just ballet and literary snobbery?

How ironic I found it blasphemous. Friggin poser.

14

CJColucci 05.05.09 at 2:42 pm

If most religious believers believed in the kind of content-free religionism that carefully avoids saying anything that might possibly be shown to be false, the angry atheists of the world would not exist. Eagleton, et al., who affect to be above the vulgar theological errors of the rubes whose religion actually says something, are really saying nothing more to the angry atheists than: “Well of course I don’t believe that sort of rubbish, but you haven’t said anything about what I believe — whatever that is.”

15

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 2:46 pm

CJ- thanks to PZ Myers we can now conveniently refer to that popular gambit in just 2 words- it’s the “courtier’s reply”.

16

Bill Gardner 05.05.09 at 2:54 pm

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

I was under the impression that science does address these questions. Eagleton and Fish have presumably heard of cosmology and neuroscience. So perhaps they are using some occult meaning of the word “why” to make these questions extra-scientific?

17

Kathleen 05.05.09 at 2:55 pm

John — have you actually read Eagleton, or just Fish-on-Eagleton? Fish is a wily intellectual opportunist, and anyone read through Fish is going to end up smacking of that quality, too.

I thought Eagleton’s take-down of Dawkins was just great. If patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, showy atheism is the last refuge of people who are interested, above all, in noisy irrefutable argumentation for its own sake.

Is there anything less difficult than asserting the lack of concrete evidence for the divine? Dawkins spent the 70s and 80s squawking about the “selfish gene” and sundry other empty assertions about biology that have since been displaced by the advance of actual knowledge. So he’s retreated to the safe ground of yapping about atheism. Ditto Hitchens — spent the past decade squawking about Islamofascism, the correctness of the latest White Man’s War, and making sundry other tawdry assertions that have since been shown to be baseless via the unfolding of time and consequences. So he’s retreated to the safe ground of yapping about atheism.

Noisy atheism is ambrosia for people who like to argue but hate the possibility of being shown to be wrong. What Eagleton elegantly pointed out in his essay on Dawkins was the impossibility of providing concrete evidence for the divine is part of the nature of the divine, if there is such a thing. Which perhaps there is not. But loud triumphalism about how there isn’t any such concrete evidence is incredibly silly; people who are impressed by that triumphalism and want to join in its parade might want to also look into the exciting sport of shooting fish in a barrel.

18

Salient 05.05.09 at 2:55 pm

I gave up on the piece early, when I got to the part where Fish opines that science should not be held responsible for not asking or answering the question of why anything exists in the first place because that’s not what science does.

Granted, Fish is completely right.

No science will ever answer a literal question of this form. Even asking the question is problematic, because there’s an implicit assumption that there is some coherent justification for “why” matter exists.

This idea of “purpose” as justification is very human. Some caution with language and intent is necessary here. One could say the “purpose” of a pigeon’s wings is to enable flight, but within this discussion it would be better to say “the pigeon can fly because it can flap its wings to achieve the necessary loft.” This is not an ontological statement, and does not address “why” the bird has wings; it’s more an identification of the characteristics of flight-enabling wings.

To ask, “what purpose does this have?” implies the thing in question was made for a purpose, by some entity capable of making things for a purpose. It’s the kind of question you’d expect humans to ask, given that so many of us spend our lives making purposeful things, or contributing to the production of purposeful things. We, especially those of us who think about and analyze the experience of human beings, are inclined to think in terms of purpose. So, we’re inclined (at least our naive intuition is inclined) to conflate consequence with purpose.

In the case of matter, the existence of an inhabitable world, or the particular shape of a coastline, there’s just no compelling reason to entertain that equivocation.

19

Salient 05.05.09 at 2:59 pm

So perhaps they are using some occult meaning of the word “why” to make these questions extra-scientific?

Unfortunately, Fish is obfuscating here. The first of those three questions (which relies upon a faulty premise) is not at all like the latter two (which are valid questions that do indeed fall within the realm of valid scientific inquiry).

20

John Holbo 05.05.09 at 3:01 pm

“John—have you actually read Eagleton, or just Fish-on-Eagleton? Fish is a wily intellectual opportunist, and anyone read through Fish is going to end up smacking of that quality, too.”

As I say upthread, I haven’t read this new Eagleton, but I’ve read a ton of old Eagleton and I find it perpetually frustrating in just the way the Fish piece is.

21

Jonathan Mayhew 05.05.09 at 3:07 pm

The aesthetic approach to religion leads directly to postmodern relativism, and thus undermines religion’s truthiness claims in a fairly radical way. This goes hand-in-hand with the coyness of arguing “I may or may not believe it myself but it is not necessarily ridiculous if someone else believes it.” If nobody writes books arguing against the truth of ballet it is because, well, nobody makes truth claims about ballet in the first place.

The same goes for Eagleton’s analogy about being in love with someone. We recognize that as a radically contingent feeling, that cannot be dismissed by someone else even if it isn’t shared by them. But the lover doesn’t even argue that everyone else should be in love with the beloved. When we turn to religion things look very different, because religion tends to argue that beliefs like this are not contingent–even while relying on surreptitious appeals to aesthetics and contingency.

22

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 3:08 pm

Noisy atheism is ambrosia for people who like to argue but hate the possibility of being shown to be wrong.

Oh, horse pucky. That’s actually a perfect description of people who waste their time constructing gauzy, too-content-free-to-be-refutable forms of “religion” so that they can complain about those horrible blue meanie atheists.

23

Bill Gardner 05.05.09 at 3:11 pm

Noisy atheism is ambrosia for people who like to argue but hate the possibility of being shown to be wrong. What Eagleton elegantly pointed out in his essay on Dawkins was the impossibility of providing concrete evidence for the divine is part of the nature of the divine, if there is such a thing. Which perhaps there is not.

A compelling argument for quiet atheism.

24

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 3:18 pm

eagleton is also a wily intellectual opportunist — indeed wily enough that i frankly doubt this quality can be amplified by filtration

dawkins is by no means wily or opportunist, and not much of an intellectual outside his own discipline — certainly he has very little cultural curiosity

the point about the ballet argument is that — even when the great day comes that science explains our attraction to its forms, and sense of what’s excellent in it and what isn’t — we will not on that day stop finding value in ballet itself and turn only to books on neuroscience: “why it works” and “how to do it” are different kinds of knowledge (as anyone trying to translate music theory to listenable music performance can tell you)

does this translate into the knowledge that churches have that science doesn’t? eagleton is making a masked burkean argument, isn’t he? burkleton is suggesting that there is social practice and resistance and sense of community (the practical “how to do it” of a culture) built into and around its institutions which we would be wise not merely to sweep away thoughtlessly in the name of current explanatory theory (with all its links to the technocratic management class, within so-called “rationalist” culture)?

the irony here being that hitchens is the one who has lately made the great burkean trek across the political floor…

conclusion: they are all rogues (except dawkins, who is a bit of a hapless numptie, or “bright”, in his own doomed coining)

25

Sebastian 05.05.09 at 3:20 pm

“Noisy atheism is ambrosia for people who like to argue but hate the possibility of being shown to be wrong.

Oh, horse pucky. That’s actually a perfect description of people who waste their time constructing gauzy, too-content-free-to-be-refutable forms of “religion” so that they can complain about those horrible blue meanie atheists.”

Can’t you both be right?

26

bob mcmanus 05.05.09 at 3:21 pm

I went looking for an original quote, Birth of Tragedy I think, but I liked this paraphrase by Jorge Bonilla:”Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity…” I also thought I might look for Nietzsche on positivism, but why bother.

It doesn’t even occur to them, apparently, to try to get these panglossians to read the newspaper? Which. would. refute. them?

No, it wouldn’t. Because the world is not uncovered or discovered, and facts cannot refute faith, nihilism, hope, or despair. The world is created. Now PZ & Dawkins might admit that science is bull, just a more useful delusion than religion, but utilititarianism, well, N dealt with that well enough. Seems to me that science is where I smell the vengeful & judgemental ressentiment, the moralism of modern revelations. Applied neurology will justify our values? Right.

27

dave 05.05.09 at 3:21 pm

“the impossibility of providing concrete evidence for the divine is part of the nature of the divine,”

Hmm… the marriage at Cana, Lazarus, the bleedin’ Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Road to Damascus, and on, and on, and on. Stigmata, bilocation, the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius… I believe the RC church still requires what it chooses to assert as firm evidence of miracles before it canonises. In short, dude, you are the courtier and I claim my five pounds.

28

Righteous Bubba 05.05.09 at 3:22 pm

Can’t you both be right?

Heh. I enjoy questions that can be resolved via polling.

29

dave 05.05.09 at 3:23 pm

“science is where I smell the vengeful & judgemental ressentiment, the moralism of modern revelations.”

Do you know many scientists? Silly beggar.

30

Walter 05.05.09 at 3:25 pm

I think everyone’s been a bit too harsh on the column. There’s a lot to criticize – in particular, I think Rorty has a lot to offer in terms of refutation of the idea that the philosophically “self-sufficient” will see no use for “hope.”

But the push back against the absurd certainty of the new atheists that Fish has offered in multiple columns should be welcomed.

To me, the important takeaway is just this:

“Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)”

31

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 3:27 pm

Can’t you both be right?

I for one will be more happy to shut up- because these arguments really are horribly boring- a soon as religion stops getting massive preferential treatment in the US, and it becomes possible for an atheist to be elected President. Get back to me when those things happen, OK?

32

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.05.09 at 3:28 pm

“There he is!” Viy cried and fixed an iron finger on him. And all that were there fell upon the philosopher.

33

bob mcmanus 05.05.09 at 3:29 pm

I enjoyed throwing badly digested Nietzsche at Holbo. “But, Bob, in Wanderer…”

34

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 3:30 pm

Walter, it’s precisely on questions of meaning and value )as well as ethics) that religion, as compared to art or, on its best days, even philosophy, has at best platitudes, and at worst sheer atavistic barbarism, to offer. (I assume your use of the word “truth” in this context was meant as a bad joke. )

35

John Holbo 05.05.09 at 3:35 pm

“Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.”

Do Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and all other rationalist liberal humanists?) claim that meaning value and truth are reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them? If not, what’s the relevance.

This just seems like clumsy slinging around of vague charges of cold-hearted reductionism.

36

norbizness 05.05.09 at 3:39 pm

I love how Eagleton (both from here and the Salon excerpts from about a week ago) seems to be describing a sort of Christianity adhered to by about 0.001% of Christians.

37

Kathleen 05.05.09 at 3:44 pm

dave, you have the mistaken impression that the RC owns the patent on the divine. It’s exactly the kind of argument Eagleton’s essay on Dawkins skewered: first, describe any of the many ludicrous possible examples of religious belief [I personally don't have it in for the Catholics so I'd go with people who survive horrific conflagrations and then say, "God must have a special plan for my life since everyone else -- benighted suckas -- died a painful death in that fire!"]; second, point out the stupidity and/or viciousness of such thought processes; third, do the atheist QED victory dance. Look, you are welcome to find that particular 3-step the sweetest dance going. Just don’t ask for too much admiration from this part of the audience while you perform it.

38

norbizness 05.05.09 at 3:50 pm

That’s why, instead of showy atheism, I like the relatively muted apathetic agnosticism better: not only am I not buying what you’re selling, I don’t want it for free either. Get off my lawn.

39

Preachy Preach 05.05.09 at 3:53 pm

I’ve long ago established a tacit modus vivendi with my Christian friends – they don’t call me a spiritually blind individual unable to accept the joy, tranquility and moral grounding that faith can provide; I don’t point out the discrepancy between the very large truth claims being made and the paucity of the evidence supporting them. We then go down the pub.

40

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 3:59 pm

john at 35: it may not matter whether idealist A ever makes claim B, if the institution idealist A works for and within (let us call it institution C) in effect unavoidably establishes claim B… this is (i think) sortakinda-marxist eagleton’s sortakinda point here

(since by any reasonable metric eagleton also works for institution C, there’s a lot of heavy lifting being done offstage, as usual: and he is of course being fantastically slippery, as several ppl have noted, about his own beliefs, viz (papal) institution D — still, the notion of a checks-and-balances set-up between formally incommensurable institutions is not inherently politically absurd, as a guarantee of something-or-other nice… tho not as a rule much cheered on by sortakinda-marxists… )

41

Salient 05.05.09 at 4:00 pm

Just don’t ask for too much admiration from this part of the audience while you perform it.

I guess I mildly appreciate that there exist individuals who devote themselves to revealing that viciousness and incoherence implicitly underlie many specific belief systems. It would be one thing if the examples at hand were inventions of the author, nonexistent in the real world, but even your example is disturbingly popular.

In fact, I think that’s the core value of strident advocates of atheism. It’s often not so much about arguing “there is no God” convincingly, as it is about arguing “a belief in an all-powerful God often has problematic consequences for one’s ethics, judgment, character, prejudice, etc.”

I’m curious, what would you prefer?

42

Paul Gowder 05.05.09 at 4:03 pm

I couldn’t read Fish. He meanders on and on so much about nothing. They don’t teach getting to the point in whatever benighted department he got educated in either.

Also, can we please invent a time machine to deliver all of these people to some time before the Enlightenment that they hate so much?

43

Ginger Yellow 05.05.09 at 4:03 pm

“conclusion: they are all rogues (except dawkins, who is a bit of a hapless numptie, or “bright”, in his own doomed coining)”

It was Dennett’s unfortunate coining, not Dawkins’s.

“It’s exactly the kind of argument Eagleton’s essay on Dawkins skewered: first, describe any of the many ludicrous possible examples of religious belief… second, point out the stupidity and/or viciousness of such thought processes; third, do the atheist QED victory dance.”

Except that they don’t describe “any of the many ludicrous possible examples”. They describe many of the actual examples, encompassing far more people’s faith than Eagleton or Fish. Sure, there are people whose faith makes no empirical claims and cannot be disproved by definition. But a) they are vastly outnumbered by other believers, and b) the “noisy atheists” go on to argue that such content-free religion is aesthetically and morally unsatisfying. I’ve got no particular brief for Dawkins or Hitchens, but it would be nice if their sophisticated theology opponents actually addressed these points instead of pretending that the empirical arguments are being addressed at them and the moral/aesthetic arguments aren’t.

44

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 4:04 pm

(at 40 i’m using “establishes” in the sense of the “established church”, not in the sense of “since we have established delta is a right triangle)

(and at “(papal)” i should probably have said “(papal and/or ‘sorta-kinda revolutionary’)”)

45

Adam Roberts 05.05.09 at 4:05 pm

Kathleen: “First, describe any of the many ludicrous possible examples of religious belief … second, point out the stupidity and/or viciousness of such thought processes; third, do the atheist QED victory dance. Look, you are welcome to find that particular 3-step the sweetest dance going. Just don’t ask for too much admiration from this part of the audience while you perform it.

How about: ‘first, describe almost all the many ludicrous possible examples of religious belief …’ (viz norbizness at 36), following up with stupidity and/or viciousness pointing-out and the dance. Would that win your ‘admiration’?

46

Paul Gowder 05.05.09 at 4:16 pm

Also:

a) What’s wrong with cold-hearted reductionism? Particularly, while talk about meaning and value can only end in tears with the religious crowd, certainly truth is, in fact “reducible to the facts themselves.” I daresay no reduction, in the sense of some thing some person actively does to the truth is even necessary. Truth already is the facts themselves. What else might it be?

b) Kathleen, when most religious people believe a stupid and vicious thought process, and atheists are trying to argue against what people actually believe (shameless plug), pointing out the stupidity and viciousness of “if you don’t agree with me Satan will waterboard your ass for all eternity” is precisely to the point.

47

James Stevenson 05.05.09 at 4:22 pm

#36, #43, #45 all have it about right. Most of Hitchen’s book (haven’t read Dawkins) focused on the very real harm organized religion has done and continues to do. I read him to be claiming that this harm is basically a feature, not a defect. A far more interesting argument against religion than windmills Fish wishes to tilt at.

48

Walter 05.05.09 at 4:22 pm

Steve -

The use of “truth” was not mine, but rather a quotation from the piece.

Your description of religious ethics as “platitudes” or “barbarous” can only make sense relative to some presupposed ethical perspective, which is entirely the point.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that you’re not comfortable with certain religious principles or with the consequences of religion in certain cases.

There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that analytic philosophers generally don’t find arguments over the existence of god very compelling. (I like this overview of that subject: http://bostonreview.net/BR34.1/byrne.php)

I fear the tendency of a certain type of rationalist to mistakenly treat statements about meaning or even ethics in the context of scientific rationality.

But John, your point is well taken. I’m not intimately familiar with Ditchkins’ arguments, and so maybe there’s less to push back against than I thought.

Also, for what it’s worth, I’m an atheist.

49

christian h. 05.05.09 at 4:24 pm

These kinds of threads are always fun, because they show up the complete lack of self-awareness of the Dawkins types. More seriously, Eagleton is writing in a completely different context than Fish or, for that matter, PZ Meyers. The UK is not the US.

50

Righteous Bubba 05.05.09 at 4:24 pm

third, do the atheist QED victory dance.

No religionist would do such a victory dance if he felt he had a winning argument.

51

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 4:25 pm

paul at 46: reading a book about how to play the piano is not the same as knowing how to play the piano (even if it’s a very good book)

the cold-hearted reduction “to the truth” risks being the establishment of analytical knowledge (management-level knowledge) at the expense of practical know-how (artisanal kowledge): knowledge is not reducible to the “facts themselves” (if by facts you mean recitations of facts)

HOWEVER the shimmy by which the above gets to be some kind of defence of the-church-as-institution seems (in eagleton’s and fish’s hands) to be a handwave at various threatened social forms of knowledge (knowledge for the sake of their argument encoded as praxis rather than theory) without ever risking being specific…

52

Bill Benzon 05.05.09 at 4:25 pm

Salient@8

You can check out my Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), which covers some of the neuro musical stuff (and was reviewed in Science and Nature).

In general, there’s a lot of work on music and emotion, e.g. Patrik Juslin and John Sloboda, eds. Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Oxford UP).

There’s Robert Zatorre at McGill and Isabelle Peretz at U Montreal. Anne Blood has done some key brain imaging work on music and emotion; I believe she’s at Harvard these days.

Uri Hassan at NYU is doing interesting work on neuroimaging response to film, e.g. Hasson et al. “Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film,” Projections 2, 1-26, 2008.

Semir Zeki has written a book on neural response to visual art.

53

Paul Gowder 05.05.09 at 4:28 pm

Belle @ 50: fair enough: I think I have a more expansive notion of “facts,” one that incorporates, say, the fact-of-the-matter about how to do stuff, and recognizes that having epistemic access to the truth in the sense of being able to recite it isn’t the only thing one needs to be a functioning human. I agree, in other words, with every single thing you just said.

54

mpowell 05.05.09 at 4:32 pm

46: Let’s be accurate- it’s God who will be doing the waterboarding according to most accounts. You and Satan will be board buddies.

55

Picador 05.05.09 at 4:36 pm

My favorite bit was:

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do.

Funny… that’s what they claimed to do for thousands of years, and anyone who disagreed was branded a heretic with all that entailed. Fish wants us to believe that religion never made any claims to “explaining how the material world works “: go tell that to Galileo, Stan. I don’t think I’ve read either Hitchens or Dawkins threatening to burn anyone at the stake recently for the crime of disagreement.

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Colin Danby 05.05.09 at 4:44 pm

Fish (like Hitchens) is these days just out to annoy people. I won’t defend every position Eagleton takes, but he does deserve to be read carefully, and he clearly scores versus Dawkins who, like his many fans above, will not allow the possibility of religious *thinking* in any active, interesting sense.

If you want to engage thought as thought, then Eagleton’s point holds that you need to read and engage with religious thinkers. If you refuse that on the grounds that these are just a few theologians and demotic religion is something else entirely, fine, but then you have a problem of history and social science in pinning that thing down and studying it properly. There’s plenty of interesting work along these lines, but generalizing from tales of stupidity and viciousness falls, ahem, short of the rigor to which people who claim to be rationalists should aspire.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.05.09 at 4:50 pm

If we interpreted this not as a defense of religion, but as an attack on “liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals”, people like Christopher Hitchens – would it still sound controversial?

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Paul Gowder 05.05.09 at 4:53 pm

Christopher Hitchens may be an Islamophobe, but he’s not an intellectual. I really, really, really wish people would stop lumping him and Dawkins in together. To see the difference, just read both The God Delusion and God is Not Great. The former is intelligent and thoughtful, even if it may not engage the latest theologian’s version of the expressivist god. The latter is, well, bring your barf bag.

59

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 4:56 pm

Your description of religious ethics as “platitudes” or “barbarous” can only make sense relative to some presupposed ethical perspective, which is entirely the point.

Uh, no. The point was that to anyone looking for such perspectives, religion turns out to have much less to offer than apologists routinely claim.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 4:59 pm

Shorter Danby #55: [courtier's reply]

If I want to learn more about religious thought- as I do, since it’s a very important aspect of human behavior- I turn, neither to apologists nor to Dawkhitch, but to the likes of Pascal Boyer.

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Colin Danby 05.05.09 at 5:27 pm

Well, Steve, one trouble is that the Dawkins/Hitchens position requires assuming one big object of knowledge called “religion,” plus a whole lot of other assumptions that let them draw easy conclusions about this thing. There’s no effort to reference and engage work in cultural anthro or religious studies that has thought about and tried to apply these categories rigorously. It turns out, for example, to be rather hard to delimit a single object called “religion” across the world, one reason I roll my eyes when I hear any blanket statement about this thing, pro or con. So I come back to a simple point: if you want to make statements about religious thought or practice in the world, there’s ample scholarly work on that, from which I would expect people who claim to respect rational inquiry would depart.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 5:34 pm

Why is that a “trouble” for ME, Colin? I already said that for serious study of “religion” I turn not to the dynamic duo but to someone like Boyer, precisely the kind of person you’re talking about, and one of whose major points is in fact that “religion” is really not a coherent category. Please reply to your actual interlocutors rather than to straw men.

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belle le triste 05.05.09 at 5:37 pm

i’m actually fairly sure i’ve read hitchens in interview say that he hopes that religion — or religious writing — does become aesthetics: that he’s quite happy to pay attention and even respect to (say) the bhagavad gita as a poem; if i’m right about this (and if he still thinks it) then the argument that religion be appreciated as a branch of aesthetics would seem not to hold up well as a challenge to his line…

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Frowner 05.05.09 at 5:44 pm

Hi all,

I’ve read a reasonable amount of “old Eagleton” and no new Eagleton, but I’d be very interested in anyone’s thoughts on the relation between the two. Frankly, this religion wheeze of his came as a complete surprise to me and left me wondering what I’d been missing in the earlier stuff. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

65

Colin Danby 05.05.09 at 5:48 pm

How you’re squaring the incoherence of religion as a category, Steve, with your various earlier statements about “religion” is unclear to me. Perhaps there are several people posting testily under your name.

The Boyer ref does clarify what’s going on here, and links back to the odd references to aesthetics upthread: back of the Dawkins et al. position is an extreme biological reductionism.

66

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 5:51 pm

frowner, there was a letter in the lrb recently what quoted maurice bowra* cheerfully giving himself a pat on the back for giving eagleton tenure (or whatever the term was), precisely because TE was publicly a committed marxist and a committed catholic

*do i mean maurice bowra? him or someone i always confuse with him

67

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.05.09 at 5:52 pm

It doesn’t seem to me that the ballet metaphor necessarily implies ‘religion as aesthetics’. The plain meaning of the metaphor is that religion and “attempts to explain the world” are in different categories…

68

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 5:52 pm

“what quoted” — an example of the quality writing one turns to the lrb for

69

Martin James 05.05.09 at 5:52 pm

Eagleton’s argument that people who believe in “mainstream Christianity” are worthy of respect because there is a subtle theology of long standing seems about the same as saying people who hold “mainstream values” are worthy of respect because Kant was a subtle philosopher.

The best part about the schoolyard atheists and the part of Eagleton where he says “well, my theologians are as rationalistic as your scientists” is that it does point out how completely absurd EVERYONE’s notions are. Being a person with desires and values and beliefs and a history and then dying makes no sense. I’ve yet to see the neuroscience that explains what a collection of molecules causes a person to have agony and ecstasy. What scientific theory shows why and how it is wrong for one collection so molecules to torture another collection of molecules? What is the mass or energy or position of “wrongness”?

It would seem that John Holbo, more than almost all other CT posters, because he lived in Oregon and likes comics and has studied conservative thought and has taught philosophy in Singapore and has a wife a children and seems to enjoy life in general, could take just a little time and talk about what he really, truly thinks about all the absurd notions that people believe.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 5:54 pm

How you’re squaring the incoherence of religion as a category, Steve, with your various earlier statements about “religion” is unclear to me.

Many things seem unclear to you, Colin. Context is all. I was replying to people, and concerning other people, who are specifically attempting to defend highly deliquescent versions of a specific relioguin, Christianity.

Now do you actually have something to contribute to the discussion, or not? Dark mutterings about “extreme biological reductionism” suggest not.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 5:56 pm

“Religion”, that is, though I rather like “relioguin”- a particularly staunch penguin, perhaps?

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belle le triste 05.05.09 at 5:57 pm

bowra-eagleton letter somewhere here (scroll down): it’s from nogod-botherer a.n.wilson

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 6:00 pm

What scientific theory shows why and how it is wrong for one collection so molecules to torture another collection of molecules?

Who has claimed that there is such a theory? Certainly nobody whose name has thus far been mentioned in this thread. (A thread in which the undeniable absurdity of our species is certainly on prominent display!)

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jack lecou 05.05.09 at 6:07 pm

Well, Steve, one trouble is that the Dawkins/Hitchens position requires assuming one big object of knowledge called “religion,” plus a whole lot of other assumptions that let them draw easy conclusions about this thing.

That is a variation of courtier’s reply.

Their arguments certainly do not require ‘assuming one big object of knowledge called “religion”’. I’m pretty sure Dawkins or Hitchens do not even claim to be trying to debunk that kind of vague meta-category. They mostly take aim at the actual beliefs and practices of the Abrahamic religions they’re familiar with. To the extent Dawkins tries to generalize, it’s to something like “worship of supernatural creator gods”, which seems like a well enough defined thing to argue with.

And whatever else you think qualifies as “religion”, that’s a pretty large chunk of what’s actually practiced. If anyone in this thread or elsewhere sometimes confuses god belief (or the Abrahamic religions specifically) with some amorphous broader category, that’s at worst a fairly minor semantic error . (And more likely just a matter of understanding the context. )

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Pete 05.05.09 at 6:15 pm

For what it’s worth, here’s what I posted over at the NYT:

I’m concerned with what I see as some pretty serious revisionism in this post.

Fish quotes Eagleton: “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

But this is incorrect. Christian churches have for centuries made specific empirical claims that have been over and again refuted by science, from the claim that the Earth is the center of the universe, to the claims still at play today that the planet is only 6000 years old and all species that exist were formed in an initial act of creation. It is absurd to hold that religion does not or has not sought to explain the world. The history of interaction between science and religion is for the most part a history of religion backing away from various explanatory claims as each is shown to lack evidence. It is only because of this long retreat that the modern claim that religion and science explore separate domains can have any (little though it may be) credence at all.

Fish again: “And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.””

I am floored by the hypocrisy here. Each of the evils mentioned here – racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, even poverty and famine – has been actively supported and justified by religion. It is true that other religious people have opposed some of these at one time or another, but to attribute these evils to scientific progress or a commitment to liberalism is breathtakingly inane. John Stuart Mill was not a religious man, but he was one of the founders of modern liberalism, and opposed the subjection of women, slavery, and so on, such that he was known as one of the “Radical Philosophers.”

One final thing: All of the questions supposedly addressed by religion that require faith rather than reason have been addressed by philosophers making use of their own, human, reason. I do not claim that we have satisfactory answers to them, but questions of purpose, of morality, of the foundations for explanation and evidence, of the fundamental nature of the world – all of these questions are being actively addressed by modern philosophers without the need to retreat into a claim that we require a leap of faith to do so.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 6:17 pm

77

Salient 05.05.09 at 6:28 pm

If you want to engage thought as thought, then Eagleton’s point holds that you need to read and engage with religious thinkers.

And if you want to engage popularizations of thought as disingenuous or dangerous, it helps to be able to point out specific, compelling examples that support your contentions.

Actively working to marginalize and disempower dangerous advocates is a very different life pursuit than actively working to engage rational discourse. Don’t mistake the strident advocacy of Dawkins for the latter, please, it’s like criticizing an engineer for not engaging with the development of new and better theory.

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Kathleen 05.05.09 at 6:30 pm

What Dawkins has had to say about genetics and human evolution is *wrong*. It’s so totally, atrociously, and embarrassingly wrong he’s given up writing about it and turned to God. Ditto Hitchens.

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belle le triste 05.05.09 at 6:31 pm

it’s annoying that the eagleton piece i linked to at 10 is subscriber only, bcz i genuinely think it has a more interesting and substantial argument buried in it than fish’s or TE’s anti-dawkins review that preachy linked to: it’s a dialectics-of-enlightenment argument about the march of liberty which takes on some of pete’s points at 74 a little more weightily

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 6:34 pm

Kathleen, you’re an idiot. As a biologist I can tell you that Dawkins is a genuine biologist who has made important and permanent contributions to evolutionary theory.

81

Martin James 05.05.09 at 6:38 pm

Steve,

Thanks for the quote showing how hypocritical Dawkins is. Of all our superstitions surely the belief in free will conflicts the most directly with the scientific worldview. Setting the extreme biological reductionists aside, we still don’t have any non-reductive scientific accounts of free will.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 6:42 pm

Of all our superstitions surely the belief in free will conflicts the most directly with the scientific worldview.

Speak for yourself. I am not responsible for your cognitive limitations. A nice example, though, of the rhetorical use of “surely” to disguise the entire absence of an argument.

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Pete 05.05.09 at 6:43 pm

Belle @ 78. Since you’re my only link to the LRB piece, would you be interested in trying to spell out some of those arguments? I’d definitely like to have a chance to engage with them, if you have the time and and willingness to set them out.

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Salient 05.05.09 at 6:44 pm

What Dawkins has had to say about genetics and human evolution is wrong.

Please provide some evidence or citation to support this. This isn’t to say I disagree with you, but “totally, atrociously, and embarrassingly wrong” is a strong claim and some kind of reference or detail would be appreciated.

85

belle le triste 05.05.09 at 6:49 pm

pete, i will if i have a moment later this evening (i am of course posting here while procrastinating on something urgent and large and unrelated i have to write elsewhere): i have rather been hoping (and hinting) that a CT reader with an online sub will find some cheaty route to it… (i read the paper version; which i shall now dig out)

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Salient 05.05.09 at 6:53 pm

As a biologist I can tell you that Dawkins is a genuine biologist who has made important and permanent contributions to evolutionary theory.

That’s what I thought (being an outsider to the field, I have no room to be assertive), but maybe Kathleen’s referring to the various accusations that Dawkins stepped outside his jurisdiction? I thought most of those criticisms were handily dispensed with, but I’d be curious to hear more precisely what she’s referring to.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 6:59 pm

His work is certainly not uncontroversial, and is hotly disputed by the followers of Steven Jay Gould and other advocates of multilevel selection cum sniffers-out of “pan-adaptionist” heresy, but as far as I (an amateur in this context) can tell, nobody in the field would deny that he’s a significant figure even if they disagree with him.

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bianca steele 05.05.09 at 7:07 pm

If Eagleton’s proposal to consider the religious as the aesthetic is accepted, we ought to expect to hear fairly traditionally religious people say that “aesthetic” is the correct modern word for what they experience in church and when thinking about the bible. Eventually we might expect to hear that churchgoing is a more aesthetic experience than poetry-reading. We might hear sermons praising an aesthetic appreciation of correct morals.

89

Martin James 05.05.09 at 7:09 pm

Steve LaMal,

Technically speaking, the proposition is part of the argument, so there wasn’t an ENTIRE absence of an argument.

Of course it was rhetoric. Like, “You and your so-called will…”

90

Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.05.09 at 7:12 pm

Are those who speak so confidently about “religion” intimately familiar with the history and content of the various religious worldviews around the world? There’s much that is repulsive in religious thought and practice, especially of the more vulgar and thoughtless kind, but there’s much that is repulsive and vulgar in nationalism, fascism, Maoism, Realpolitik, the ideologies that animate aerial bombing, or factory farming, or our penal system. On balance, I think adherents of religious worldviews rarely come close to these quintessential expressions of barbarity, and in fact have contributed much to what is valuable in modern civizations.

Of course religions are notoriously dangerous when allied to the power of the State and Empire, as the history of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism attest (and, of late, religious Zionism in Israel). But that hardly tells the whole story of religions around the world (as a famous Hungarian dissident once said, ‘History takes no note of the baby feeding at its mother’s breast.’). In the bulk of items from the twentieth century catalogue of horrors: from King Leopold’s Belgian Congo, through World War War, the bombing of Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Stalinist Gulags, the Holocaust, the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961), the Chinese Cultural Revolution, colonialism in Indochina, the bombing of Cambodia, the genocidal Khmer Rouge, etc., religions were not the principal cause or among the primary variables of violence.

It’s of course important to fight against all who use their religious beliefs and identification to foment inexcusable ignorance and lies about the natural sciences and scientific theories, or to trample upon European Enlightenment values or the virtues of rationality, or to bully others who respectfully disagree with them, or resort to religious justifications for the resort to collective violence in what are otherwise often political and socio-economic conflicts…. But religions have no monopoly on evil and wickedness, on folly and superstition, on stupidity and violence, and so forth and so on.

Anyway, for a more sympathetic take on religious worldviews that largely avoids intractable theism/atheism debates and polemics, please see the introductions to my posts for the following bibliographies:

Hinduism: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/12/hinduism-selected-bibliography.html

Classical Chinese Worldviews: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/12/classical-chinese-worldviews.html

Buddhism: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/12/buddhism-basic-bibliography.html

Judaism & Jewish Philosophy: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/03/judaism-jewish-philosophy-selected.html

Christianity: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/04/christianity-select-bibliography.html

Islam: Forthcoming anon.

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Kathleen 05.05.09 at 7:16 pm

New work in molecular genetics but most particularly in evolutionary developmental biology is showing the model of gene function, gene regulation, and thus selection that underpinned Dawkins’ work is fundamentally incorrect. He was writing in the space created by the absence of positive knowledge; because of advances within the biological sciences that space is now gone. He has (along with the sociobiologists, who have re-named themselves evolutionary psychologists because of the embarrassments attached to their previous moniker) retreated hastily from many of his earlier positions, mostly by mumbling that he didn’t mean to suggest what people read him to be saying. Being rather more clever than the average sociobiologist, he hasn’t followed them into their sad new land of Ev Psych but instead given up that business altogether, moving into the God debunking line. As no positive knowledge will ever intrude into the space of that kind of argumentation, there he is safe to snark and posture unto the end of his earthly days.

The parallels with Hitchens are striking: loud trumpeting in part 1 (ooh the Muslims! smite them!); embarrassing public revelations of the wrongness of his trumpeted position in part 2 (debacle in Afghanistan and Iraq); enough cleverness to not charge on with that particular herd of lemmings in part 3 (like Dawkins who has declined to become an ev psycho, Hitchens has backed away from the neocons and made demurring noises about torture — sort of like Dawkins on “I didn’t mean what you thought I meant, not at all, mumble edge away mumble mumble”); loud harangues about atheism in part 4 which allow Hitchens/Dawkins to take up the soapbox-top position that is their only abiding political-intellectual interest anyway.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 7:19 pm

New work in molecular genetics but most particularly in evolutionary developmental biology is showing the model of gene function, gene regulation, and thus selection that underpinned Dawkins’ work is fundamentally incorrect.

As a molecular biologist, I call bullshit on this. Any aspect of DNA function that’s visible to selection can properly be treated at the high level of abstraction of population genetics as a “gene” in the specific sense that Dawkins uses the word. Moreover, Dawkins was always quite clear about this.

93

Mark 05.05.09 at 7:22 pm

I think Steve LaBonne needs to ease up a bit. I know that DSquared et al are occasionally in favor of a bit of roughhousing in the comment threads, but all these accusations of idiocy, ignorance, illiteracy, cognitive limitations and so forth (“atavistic barbarism”!) is a bit, dare I say, “schoolyard.”

But point well taken (although there’s no need to cite or even agree with Boyer for this) about the incoherence of “religion” as an analytical category.

94

bianca steele 05.05.09 at 7:33 pm

I’ve run across something like the argument Steve and Kathleen are having before. I’m inclined to agree with Steve, but the work I was doing required me to take people like Kathleen seriously. But I could never figure out why the argument was supposed to be so stunning. What it sounded like to me was, “Genes can’t operate outside specific environments, etc., which also have to be taken into account — therefore, in 10 years scientists will have realized that thinking in terms of genes is totally worthless, and that the existence of the gene was in essence a superstition.”

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Kathleen 05.05.09 at 7:50 pm

The nice thing about scientific research is that it tends to resolve these sorts of arguments in ways that obviate sweaty, red-faced name-calling. Steve, if you want to continue standing on the deck of that ship as it crunches into the iceberg of evo-devo, you should at least be aware that *even Dawkins* has jumped that particular Titanic.

Bianca — I have never heard anyone make a statement resembling “the existence of the gene was in essence a superstition”; that Dawkins’ writing about genes was very wrong-headed, yes, absolutely.

96

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 7:52 pm

Mark, to choose just one of your whines for unpacking , here’s the context in which I used the phrase “atavistic barbarism”:

…it’s precisely on questions of meaning and value (as well as ethics) that religion, as compared to art or, on its best days, even philosophy, has at best platitudes, and at worst sheer atavistic barbarism, to offer.

You don’t think that what is offered by, say, the Taliban is properly described as “atavistic barbatism”? I eagerly wait your explication of this claim.

97

koan0215 05.05.09 at 7:56 pm

So Dawkins has admitted that some of his theorizing in the 80s was wrong. So? That’s how science works. Somebody advances an idea and the evidence for it, others find new evidence that shows that things are actually different, and the original somebody admits that things are different than they had thought. This seems to indicate that the man is basically honest.

98

Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 7:57 pm

Steve, if you want to continue standing on the deck of that ship as it crunches into the iceberg of evo-devo, you should at least be aware that even Dawkins has jumped that particular Titanic.

I was trained as a devlopmental biologist, I follow current work in evo-devo with great interest despite having left academia, and I say that this claim is plain nonsense. It also suggests that you have no understanding whatsoever of population genetics and have great difficulty in operating on the level of abstraction which it occupies, and in understanding the extent in which such an abstract framework can provide useful insights regardless of the nature of the underlying details (as it was doijng before anything at all was known about those details).

And as I said, Dawkins was always admirably clear about the precise and very abstract sense in which he used the word “gene”, a word with at least as many potentially incompatible meanings as “species”.

99

Lee A. Arnold 05.05.09 at 8:06 pm

I think you could relate the AESTHETIC to religion, or at least to the SACRED, if you center the argument upon the assumption that purposiveness always fixes into FORMS, i.e. that what is rational is in some sense a series of constructions — and that therefore, GAPS must occur in it.

The argument would be in two steps — that the aesthetic is in our finding of form, and that the sacred is in acknowledging the necessary gaps in form:

(Step 1.) Kant makes the assertion in The Critique of Judgment that the aesthetic is found in nature (as opposed to the ballet) alongside a recognition of nature’s apparent purposiveness.

This came before evolutionary theory, so we have to unpack it a bit:

Kant elaborates that we feel joy or pleasure in uncovering an empirical law of nature — or again, that we feel joy upon our first discovery that these empirical laws may be combined under a larger, universal law of nature. (He is including mathematical physical laws and so forth.) These laws give nature a unity as if some other being had supplied it for our discovery; in other words, as if nature were purposive. (Kant: “..this is not to be taken as implying that such an Understanding [i.e. the existence of God] must be actually assumed.”) The aesthetic is our feeling of joy when it is bound-up with our discovery of outside form, which, because it comports with our own understanding, seems to reveal a pre-existing purposiveness.

And Kant draws the analogy to the practical purposiveness in human arts (such as ballet,) where invented forms are meant to communicate a unity, and there is joy in experiencing it.

Now of course, evolutionary theory put an end to all explanations by general teleology or any semblance thereof, such as Kant might have argued. But the development of circular control systems (cybernetics) showed how purposiveness could occur in subsystems. (Leading to what I presume is the currently reigning belief, i.e. that circuit loops in the brain will be found to cause consciousness.)

(Step 2.) This brings us to Gregory Bateson, who spent his scientific career examining communication that occurs within and between both natural and social systems, in other words, communication of every type. Communication is seen as composed of circular or more complex chains of signals, which necessarily meet at interfaces between organisms or subsystems. The communication crosses at these interfaces usually in more discrete or “digital” lumps, and this is true up through all levels of organization, from neurons to house-heating thermostats, to natural or formal language. And this led further on, to a study of sacred ritual as a form of communication (and indeed as a possible ecological-social thermostat, by Roy A. Rappaport in the book, Pigs for the Ancestors.)

Bateson argued that all rituals studied in anthropology (from non-literate tribal rituals to organized church rituals) have the following characteristic: a silence is indicated; something is NOT allowed to be spoken, or is incapable of being spoken: “…noncommunication of certain sorts is needed if we are to maintain the “sacred.” Communication is undesirable, not because of fear, but because communication would somehow alter the nature of the ideas.” Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, p.80 (1987).

So then, to combine the aesthetic and the sacred, we just combine Kant and Bateson. Note that in these arguments both Kant and Bateson got down to the primacy of intentionality or purposiveness:

Kant argued that form is allied to purposiveness, and the aesthetic is our joy in the discovery of form.

Bateson argued that the sacred is the acknowledgment of gaps in the form which has been created by our purposiveness.

To conclude: think of a human (or a society for that matter) as a Subject, having purposes about Objects. We can map the aesthetic and the sacred onto that picture, as double inverses of this intentionality. The aesthetic is object-to-subject received and the sacred is subject-to-object conferred. Form is aesthetic, and the remembrance of the gaps in the forms is sacred. Q.E.D.

P.S. I know the subject-object Kantian thing is all very Cartesian. But, as Nietzsche wrote, “I suspect that we have not yet gotten rid of God, since we still have faith in grammar.”

100

Kathleen 05.05.09 at 8:10 pm

Steve: as you probably already suspected, I also smell like poop.

101

Pete 05.05.09 at 8:10 pm

Belle @ 85. Thanks! If I (or someone else) can figure out some way of accessing it in the meantime, I’ll check it out.

102

Paul Gowder 05.05.09 at 8:11 pm

Huh, I think Steve needs to kick out the jams a bit more, personally.

I’m not a molecular biologist, and so while I know some evolutionary theory (mostly on the math end) I’m certainly not in a position to jump in on the debate between Steve and Kathleen, in particular, in any substantive form. But it’s still worth pointing out something here in her comment #91:

[Dawkins] was writing in the space created by the absence of positive knowledge; because of advances within the biological sciences that space is now gone. He has (along with the sociobiologists, who have re-named themselves evolutionary psychologists because of the embarrassments attached to their previous moniker) retreated hastily from many of his earlier positions [...]

Wait a second. Is this supposed to be a criticism?! Kathleen, this is called “theory building.” Scientists come up with a theory that matches the limited knowledge they have, and then it gets tested, it gets replaced with better theories, etc. etc. That’s how science works. If Dawkins’s work on genes has been superseded (which I take it is a highly contestable position, and one that Steve is ably contesting, but let’s assume arguendo that it’s true), that hardly means that it didn’t represent a genuine scientific advance or he doesn’t deserve the title of a really good scientist and serious intellectual (unlike Hitchens) as a result. Nor does it mean that the original work was “wrong-headed” or “empty assertions” or “interested, above all, in noisy irrefutable argumentation for its own sake,” or “so totally, atrociously, and embarrassingly wrong,” or any of those other slurs Kathleen keeps throwing at Dawkins in order to suggest that he’s some kind of fraud. Newtonian physics has also been superseded. It doesn’t mean Newton wasn’t a real scientist. Good science gets superseded all the fucking time.

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 8:34 pm

104

JoB 05.05.09 at 8:43 pm

Well, whilst this thread ungently oozes its way to “this thread is now closed for further comments” maybe it is not out of place to wonder why Fish/Eagleton feel compelled to waste their energy on somebody that rarely get exposure in the mass media?

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Righteous Bubba 05.05.09 at 8:46 pm

Noisy atheism is ambrosia for people who like to argue but hate the possibility of being shown to be wrong.

People die because of religion. They certainly die for many other reasons, but the argument in favour of showy atheism involves more than just preening: it’s a necessity in a world in which children die because their parents pray rather than treat, or go to war because [fish-barrel-et-cetera].

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Righteous Bubba 05.05.09 at 8:48 pm

Well, whilst this thread ungently oozes its way to “this thread is now closed for further comments”

Can we all come together on our opinion of Christopher Hitchens?

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Theron 05.05.09 at 9:05 pm

Salient: Your response to my statement struck me as a non sequitur, but only because we are talking about rather different things. Who said the universe needed a justification, a purpose? What does that have to do with the “why” of existence? It does of course if you define “why” in terms of purpose, but again, there is no reason to believe that existence has any purpose intrinsic to itself. If the the question “why” is one of asking about an empirical process that brings about a state of affairs, then that is absolutely what science does. The question as to what happened before Big Bang, for example, once though unanswerable, is one we can now address, and the Planck mission I mentioned is part of that effort. This gets us closer to the problem of why there is existence. The idea that science can not explain why there is existence is based on the assumption that existence has some purpose, for which there is no evidence.

Any set of religious belief based on the idea that “science can not answer this” is on flimsy ground, anyway. If there is some objective purpose to existence, not one that depends on human subjectivity, I’m sure science will track it down eventually.

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Martin James 05.05.09 at 9:55 pm

Theron,

Has science explained what an idea is?

109

Theron 05.05.09 at 10:01 pm

Don’t ask me – ask a neurologist.

110

bianca steele 05.05.09 at 10:09 pm

Kathleen: I’m not surprised nobody respectable (who also has some expertise in science) has said that. I read it in one of those popular books on complexity and chaos theory, probably published before the mid-1990s. It would take me a little while to track down which one, assuming the library still has it and/or I took notes.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.05.09 at 10:45 pm

Quoting from John Cottingham:

“One of the most celebrated former advocates of the goal of a naturalistic ‘theory of everything’…has recently come to acknowledge that, for logical reasons, our understanding within a closed system can never be complete. The Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking had earlier in his best-selling A Brief History of Time looked forward to a complete all-inclusive set of scientific equations that would explain everything in the universe, and indeed the very existence of the universe itself…. Since then, however, reflection on Kurt Godel’s famous incompleteness proof of 1931 has led Hawking to recant. In a more sober assessment he acknowledged that we can never be ‘angels who view the universe from the outside,’ but instead that both we and our models are ‘part of the universe we are describing.’ One might therefore expect any scientific theory we produce to be ‘either inconsistent, or incomplete’ [hence the truth of Paul Gowder's colorful remark that 'Good science gets superseded all the fucking time.']. So in place of his earlier jocular ambition to know ‘the mind of God’ (i.e. to provide a complete naturalistic theory of the cosmos), Hawking now writes that he is glad he has changed his mind: ‘I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end.'”

Cottingham tackles an even stronger naturalist thesis that can be traced back to Hume and Kant but proceeds to explain how their “arguments do not in fact close the the door to religion as firmly as is often believed….” For the full argument, please see his book, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (2005). Metaphysical realism is best understood, on this view, as not the product of inductive inference “secured through scientific systematization of our observations, but rather represents as regulative presupposition that makes science possible in the first place:” “Our commitment to the mind-independent reality of ‘the real world’ stands together with our acknowledgment that, in principle, any or all of our present scientific ideas as to how things work in the world, at any present, may well prove to be untenable.” Moreover, “A homo mensura realism which limits the ‘that’ and the ‘what’ of real existence to the realm of human knowledge is ultimately implausible.” As he says elsewhere, reality outruns our cognitive reach. Or, put differently, absolute knowledge cannot be said to the goal or end of scientific inquiry (which is, after all, a characteristically human endeavor) as that would suggest the end of our cognitive limitations qua humans, as considerably less than perfect creatures. And there is, after all, an important distinction between what we know as “science” and what we call “scientism” (the ‘strong’ reductionist agenda is, as John Ziman reminds us, ‘the party manifesto of modern scientism.’).

Philosophy, religion, art, and ethics, for example, are exquisite examples of the fact that science is not now nor ever will (or at least should not) be “a ‘metanarrative’ from which one might eventually expect to deduce a reliable answer to every meaningful question about the world.” This does not of course preclude the possibility of belief in a “natualistic” worldview but simply serves to help us appreciate that there are other equally plausible (because not capable of disproof) worldviews “out there.”

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 10:49 pm

Philosophy, religion, art, and ethics, for example

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

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Steve LaBonne 05.05.09 at 10:58 pm

On a more serious note, it’s way, way past time for people in the humanities to stop wasting time (and making themselves look foolish) attacking their pet strawman versions of “scientism”, which resemble the views of no scientist with whom I have ever been acquainted either in person or in print.

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Salient 05.05.09 at 11:03 pm

Your response to my statement struck me as a non sequitur, but only because we are talking about rather different things.

No, I think you and Fish are talking about different things, and that’s the clarification I was trying to make. I think Fish is conflating the question “why do birds have wings” (something any geneticist can answer) with “why ought birds have wings?” (something which science can’t answer; the question itself is based on a faulty premise).

Whether or not Fish’s confusion is deliberate or merely fortuitous, it’s not for me to say.

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Salient 05.05.09 at 11:04 pm

Shorter clarification, for Theron: we pretty much agree.

116

koan0215 05.05.09 at 11:24 pm

“On a more serious note, it’s way, way past time for people in the humanities to stop wasting time (and making themselves look foolish) attacking their pet strawman versions of “scientism”, which resemble the views of no scientist with whom I have ever been acquainted either in person or in print.”

Actually, I don’t think that he’s building a strawman in that comment. I think pretty much every scientist would admit that it is unlikely that human endeavor will ever allow us to know absolutely everything about the universe, and that almost every bit of knowledge that we have can be altered by the addition of new knowledge. It’s just that most scientists wouldn’t point to that gap in knowledge and say “you see that there? that gap is God.”

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.05.09 at 11:25 pm

Steve,

While I admit to having neither the time nor the stomach for the kinds of debates one often finds in threads such as these (at my age, you initmately appreciate their futility), I do have a couple of comments and questions.

And so you concede there are non-pet strawman versions of scientism?

Working scientists rarely engage in the kind of systematic reflection and articulation of views that would enable one to readily ascertain the fact of their commitment to, in practice, some species of scientism. But a wide array of philosophers of science of have detected such an ideology often animating particular research proposals, agendas and programs. In any case, because the practical effects of such scientism are not invariably or obviously pernicious, I see no need to be alarmist about such things.

Is anecdotal and testimonial evidence sufficient to reach a conclusion such as yours (re: ‘or in print’–I admit to suspecting you’ve perhaps not read widely enough in the relevant literature)?

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steven 05.05.09 at 11:44 pm

I had the impression that Dawkins qua scientist was (“merely”) a zoologist, and qua writer a popularizer. Is it in fact the case that he has made substantial contributions to evolutionary theory itself?

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:00 am

And so you concede there are non-pet strawman versions of scientism?

No. As I said, some of the various extraordinary claims attributed to it might sometimes be found in some mid-2oth C philosophers of logical positivist stripe, but never in my experience in actual scientists (who, contrary to popular stereotype, are more likely than not to have serious artistic and other cultural interests, as I do myself.) The philosophers you mention are generally, whatever they THINK they’re doing, actually attacking other philosophers. Kindly leave scientists out of your internecine disputes.

I admit to suspecting you’ve perhaps not read widely enough in the relevant literature

I admit to suspecting that you understand very little about either science or scientists.

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Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:07 am

I had the impression that Dawkins qua scientist was (“merely”) a zoologist, and qua writer a popularizer. Is it in fact the case that he has made substantial contributions to evolutionary theory itself?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: both The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype are in fact scholarly rather than popular works. The ideas in the former are mostly those of George Williams, but extended and brought forcefully to the attention of many biologists who had managed to ignore Williams; and it had a profound impact on the field even among dedicated opponents of his ideas, who were forced to greatly refine their arguments. The latter has some interesting and original ideas, which however don’t appear to have borne major fruit though they’ve certainly had some influence.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.09 at 12:21 am

I’m uncertain as to the relevance of the supposed stereotype (I admit to being ignorant of it) about scientists having “serious artistic and other cultural interests,” as that fact is not logically or otherwise tied to the issue of scientism as I’ve come to know it.

John Ziman, a scientist of sufficient experience and acclaim (i.e., with impeccable credentials)–and among others–has written intelligently about “scientism,” although perhaps he’s disqualified in your view owing to his penchant for and clear facility with, philosophy of science.

So, anecdotal and testimonial evidence suffice for the conclusion you’ve drawn.

It may very well be that several decades of reading books about science (less so about scientists themselves, in other words, biographies and such) has been fruitless and I in fact know very little about science and scientists and thus should defer to your clear superiority in expertise in such matters.

And by all means, please have the last word as I’ve already grown a bit weary.

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engels 05.06.09 at 12:23 am

What amuses me about these threads is quickly they devolve into a muck slinging contest. So who is the bigger moron, Richard Dawkins or Terry Eagleton? On your marks… and remember whoever manages the most contemptuous dismissal of the contending writer’s arguments, personality and scientific/literary career — whether or not accompanied by anything resembling reasons — wins!

123

David 05.06.09 at 1:10 am

I pretty much gave up on it at this point: “And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do.”

It isn’t exactly clear what Fish (or is it Eagleton?) means by “…provide a technology…” but, if he/they mean an explanation, than this is the biggest load of bullshit dishonesty since I have a ruler in Iraq who caused 9/11 and etc. Talk about laughable intellectual arguments. Explanation and subsequent “laws” based on same is the fundamental stock in trade of all religious systems.

This is, we must remember, the same Fish (a minnow in the sea of intellect) who recently claimed to be unfamiliar with the term neo-liberal.

124

windy 05.06.09 at 2:40 am

Kathleen:
The nice thing about scientific research is that it tends to resolve these sorts of arguments in ways that obviate sweaty, red-faced name-calling. Steve, if you want to continue standing on the deck of that ship as it crunches into the iceberg of evo-devo, you should at least be aware that even Dawkins has jumped that particular Titanic.

And where and when do you imagine he did that?

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Theron 05.06.09 at 4:34 am

Salient:

I see – I misread you. My apologies.

126

josh 05.06.09 at 4:50 am

Oh dear, I seem to be late for the party. Which seems to have become all about Richard Dawkins, somehow.
But, crikey — when did Stanley Fish (and, apparently, Terry Eagleton) transform into intellectual ringers for Roger Scruton (who’s been making the same argument for decades)?
Also, I was quite struck by this, quoted above:
“Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.”
I may be terribly confused, but I seem to recall Jerry Cohen making a similar argument about value and facts. And I don’t generally associate Jerry with either postmodernism or neo-religiosity.

127

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 7:25 am

114: I think Fish is conflating the question “why do birds have wings” (something any geneticist can answer) with “why ought birds have wings?” (something which science can’t answer; the question itself is based on a faulty premise).

Humans don’t care much about birds and their wings, here a simple description will do.

But humans want to know: “what is the point of all this?” You give them Big Bang, evolution, brain chemistry – and they get the impression that there is no point. They get depressed. They start looking for and find substitutes, something to believe in: superstitions, or, more often now, some sort of -ism, some enlightenment-age ideology. He (Fish) finds it unsatisfactory.

128

JoB 05.06.09 at 8:23 am

Steve, I have come to the following (in principle falsifiable) hypothesis: you’re a new computer programme designed specifically for these comment threads in the spirit of a “Türing-test”.

The trick applied by your evil genius is to have you (seemingly) defend the current consensus in ways abrasive enough to trigger emotions in your interlocutors – but not quite as abrasive to get you banned. Probably the evil genius is commenting here as well. If it works he can, struck as he is by the late stages of neurological decay, at least posthumously reach world domination: when you are fine-tuned, you can be replicated and force your consensus on every discussion – in the spirit of ‘science has it X’, therefore X.

129

Mrs Tilton 05.06.09 at 9:38 am

JoB @128,

Steve… you’re … a “Türing-test”

Sorry, I’m not really au fait with the philosophical literature. To pass a “Türing test”, does an AI need to convince a human it is Prussian, or a bad heavy metal band?

130

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 10:28 am

A tendentious precis of that other LRB Eagleton article, for pete’s sake at 75 and 83

Disclaimers
i: I am really really NOT an Eagleton fan – I think he’s an opportunist slyboots — so what struck me on first read of this piece is that he is taking a more complex, less glib, less “outflanking” position than he usually does.
ii: on second read, last night, with a view to writing it up, it struck me that it’s not really as good as I first thought — in fact it’s a mess, a ragbag of postures and cleverness stitched together for provocation’s sake (who wd have think?) in the course of which he paddles briefly round what I consider a good argument, w/o very clearly or fairly making it…
iii: … in particular — his main target in this short section is A.C.Grayling — I have no reason to suppose he characterises ACG fairly (I’ve never read any); fairness of this kind is not something I associate with TE (I don’t associate it with Hitchens either)… So it’s possible that the “good argument” I’m claiming he’s dabbing towards has been dispatched by ACG and others, and I’ve just never seen this done well. (I slightly think not or I’d see more evidence of its traces upthread — but absence of evidence is not evidencne of absence, so — )
iv: I seem to have set myself the task of taking an argument made inadequately by someone I dislike and making it “better”, in the face of a LOT of people who dislike him even more. This is nuts and I am circumspect. However I still sort of cleave to the belief that you should demolish the STRONGEST version of yr opponent’s argument, even if they are fool enough not to make it — it’s (in the long run) better for your own side…

Eagleton is reviewing Ben Wilson’s “What Price Liberty? How Freedom Was Won and Is Being Lort”, which is a history of the march of liberty in Britain — and different notions of liberty — from the Stuart Era to the present; and of how some of these ideas of liberty are wound deep into Britain’s ideas of itself, and some less so, and where are we now with it? Eagleton begins to gently mocking the complacent British sense of self — as stout john-bullshit yeoman shouting get orff my land to Vikings, Normans, Kings, priests, Boney, Hitler, and etc — and concludes (unexpectedly and given my low opinion of him rather winningly) by making a case for exactly this kind of stubborn bolshy unthinking commitment to (as an anglo-saxon wouldn’t know to call it) Negative Liberty, as a key element in any project of social liberation and self-enlightenment.

The key — says Eagleton — to Wilson’s story is that it’s not a “Whig History” of liberty, in the sense of a tale of a unified transhistorical concept (that bright side and dark side both agree on), as it gradually emerges from shadow into the light, fully formed if not yet fully enabled. As Eagleton says Wilson says, there are in fact (of course) there are several different types of liberty — there political liberties, economic liberties, cultural and religious liberties — and different groups and institutions battle for these more specific liberties; which as often as not encroach on one another. “Liberty” is divided against itself: my licence is your constraint — your right to privacy is affected by my freedom of information, and so on. This isn’t exactly news, but — says Eagleton — Wilson is very good on the paradoxes of the current multicultural settlement. Where on the one hand communal sense of grievance impinges on the right of the citizen to criticise who s/he pleases, to state what’s wrong about someone else’s beliefs — and on the other, a certain militant secular pseudo-rationalism is establishing Reason as a monolith against the darkies…

Nor is it the case that scientific knowledge advanced entirely against “the church”; a better description of its advance in and after the Renaissance is that it advanced along the political divisions between the many different churches — with different religio-polities working it sometimes as a proxy, sometimes as a weapon, at different times. Here an instance I was reading about last week (not from the Eagleton article): the three founders of the science of botany — Otto Brunfels, Hieronymus Bock and Leonhart Fuchs — were all ambitious 16th-century Protestant theologians, patronised by and competed for by local Protestant princelings: to these three, this new and important knowledge was a weapon against corrupt Catholicism. In other words, the story back in the day is not of Science vs Religion, so much as Religion vs Religion, with science scuttling deftly between the camps. How is that relevant now? Is it any more?

Eagleton’s position on this last is — I believe — a slippery mix of Burkean conservatism (don’t destroy institutions until you understand their FULL role — until you understand the value they bring as well as the harm they cause) and sorta-kinda Marxism: in which the rationalising bluster of certain (mostly strawman) atheists is cast as (objectively) coterminous (in our current situation) with the ideology of the Party of War, and with the cynical economic self-interest of the ruling class generally. So he is criticising the rhetoric of enlightenment, as it slides from the valid defence of some institutions against others (Darwinism as a necessary component in scientific education) to pre-emptive demolitions of said institutions, to justification for Empire — “Enlightenment” as a rationale for hurtling overseas into benighted lands and violently shattering their social structures and defences and safetynets, replacing them with little more than a slipshod version of a pure market economy, in its ugliest version, with all constraints and counter-traditions basted to bits. (But I am filling in a lot of gaps here, to make this argument — I think — stronger and clearer than TE makes it; and therefore of course making it was for him to slip off in another direction and mock and sneer at me for empiricism or relativism or post-modernism or any one of the dozens of little present-day clerical heresies that lie in wait for the guileless… )

So the anyway, perhaps the bluntest redux I think I can fashion of TE’s half-made argument is that Militant Rationalism, as its righteously blasts its genuine institutional foes, at the same risks clearing the landscape of ALL social and quasi-political structures than can actually stand up to — for good reason or bad — the unfettered crypto-religion of the free market; and that when and if science turns to battle this final and greatest enemy*, it will find itself entirely co-opted, penetrated and denatured.

(Caveat: this is all quite hurried — post on a blog comments thread when I’m meant to be doin something else — and I am not in sympathy with all of it AT ALL; I think there’s a strong version of what is animating Eagleton-when-honest lurking beneath this, a version I *am* more in sympathy with, I think — but I don’t know if I’ve got it right exactly.)

(Second caveat: this is a very long post and I apologise…)

131

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 10:30 am

(it’s also possible it would be more convincing w/o all the typos but i’m not betting on it)

132

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 10:55 am

And by all means, please have the last word as I’ve already grown a bit weary.

As you wish. It’s curious that you cite Ziman against what I said, since 1) he was a trained scientist, as you yourself pointed out, and was far from being afflicted with scientism himself; 2) his attacks on scientism were directed primarily at the people he called “metascientists” (philosophers, sociologists, etc. studying the scientific enterprise) rather than at scientists themselves. To quote from Teaching and Leaening about Science and Society: “The point is to show how very far the real opinions of thoughtful scientists and science teachers are from the scientistic views that have been sketched earlier in this chapter. … Scientism is a more serious disorder amongst those who have been taught a little science than it is for those who teach it.”

133

JoB 05.06.09 at 11:57 am

Tilton-129, are you implying Steve is a bad heavy metal band? or do I have to believe you make the link between AI and Türing without being ‘au fait’ at all?

134

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:10 pm

Actually I’m a bad classical violist. Not into heavy metal.

I think she was reminding you that Turing was English and didn’t sport an umlaut.

135

JoB 05.06.09 at 12:12 pm

Touché!

136

engels 05.06.09 at 12:20 pm

Turing? He spent the 1930s squawking about computability but his discredited theories have long been considered a joke by real… (continued on page 91)

137

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 12:26 pm

It was undoubtedly the declining quality of his work, that led to him prostituting himself to the imperialist project by getting involved in the murky power nexus of spies and secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park (cont. on p.94)

138

Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.06.09 at 12:27 pm

Steve,

For the record (and then you can have the last word): The thoughts of Ziman I was referring to were largely found in his book, Real Science: What It Is, and What It Means (2000). In any case:

1. I never said *all* or even *most* scientistists were afflicted by scientism, nor did I ever claim it was confined to *only* scientists, so I’m not sure what point you’re making.
2. He offers evidence that there is indeed something called “scientism,” about which *you* said there were no non-strawman versions.
3. An example of one of the beliefs found in “scientism” is a belief in “strong” reductionism, a belief that perseveres in many quarters, in addition to the related belief in providing a “Theory of Everything.” Much of what counts for scientism today will disappear when intelligent people, including scientists, give up such beliefs.
4. Scientism may or may not include what Kitcher called “the Legend,” but we would do well to keep in mind “the stereotype of science that idealizes its every aspect–is almost as damaging as the attack it is supposed to be fending off” (Ziman).

And now you can have the last word (but I appeal to your sense of decency to use it wisely).

139

engels 05.06.09 at 12:30 pm

Oh, and he is a slippery intellectual opportunist who never argues properly for his views. Why? Because I said so!

140

Salient 05.06.09 at 12:33 pm

But humans want to know: “what is the point of all this?” You give them Big Bang, evolution, brain chemistry – and they get the impression that there is no point. They get depressed.

I don’t think this is anywhere close to universally the case. I’d like to see some supporting evidence for this that’s beyond anecdotal.

I admit to suspecting that you understand very little about either science or scientists.

I second what I understand to be JoB’s point, Steve: while I enjoy reading the objective content of your comments, the tone’s just frustrating — there’s really no need for such consistent hostility. At best it’s a distraction from the worth of the points you’re making, and at worst it’s a severe detriment to the thread and a likely discouragement to would-be commenters.

Example: Whatever you think of Patrick’s viewpoint upthread, I think it was useful and interesting to hear his comments. Wearing out your interlocutors with accusations about their qualifications or ignorance, even when this doesn’t verge into actual personal attacks, is just conversational dirty pool.

‘Course, I made pretty much the same mistake on a thread a couple months ago, compounded with insufficient familiarity with the topic of discussion, so feel free to ignore me on this.

141

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 12:35 pm

“You give them Big Bang, evolution, brain chemistry – and they get the impression that there is no point. They get depressed. “

Some do. Others don’t. They feel that life has the meaning and purpose we give to it – that the human mind is an incredibly powerful and creative meaning generator – and find that very uplifting.

142

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:38 pm

Wearing out your interlocutors with accusations about their qualifications or ignorance, even when this doesn’t verge into actual personal attacks, is just conversational dirty pool.

I do take your point. But when I encounter people saying really dumb things in a particularly cocksure, tub-thumping way, the spirit may be willing but sometimes the flesh is weak. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. ;)

143

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 12:39 pm

They feel that life has the meaning and purpose we give to it – that the human mind is an incredibly powerful and creative meaning generator – and find that very uplifting.

Amen, if you’ll pardon the expression. ;)

144

Salient 05.06.09 at 12:43 pm

Turing? He spent the 1930s squawking about computability but his discredited theories have long been considered a joke by real… (continued on page 91)

Page 91:

androids.

145

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 12:54 pm

… considered a joke by real… (continued on page 91)

Page 91:

ly slippery androids.

146

JoB 05.06.09 at 1:19 pm

salient, thanks for catching my point ;-)

(or is it pöint?)

Steve, that’s the most straightforward non-apology-apology possible. There you go again: dumb and all that. (by the way: I like my umlaut’s and there’s at least poetic justice in “Türing”)

engels, why do you want to do to Turing what Kathleen wanted to do to Dawkins? I don’t know whether he was a creep or what he was up to with spies (argh, the biographical details) but if he was wrong (which is the faith of most of us trying to say something concrete) he was so in a still very relevant way. Only a Fish would find fault with him across the board.

147

Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 1:27 pm

engels, why do you want to do to Turing what Kathleen wanted to do to Dawkins?

You are missing a joke explained in his first comment.

148

Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 1:30 pm

Or her!

149

JoB 05.06.09 at 1:32 pm

Touché again!

150

Mrs Tilton 05.06.09 at 1:33 pm

JoB,

I like my umlaut’s and there’s at least poetic justice in “Türing”

Well, who doesn’t like a good umlaut now and again? (Beckett did. He made a highly obscure and metaphysical umlaut joke about a town I spent a few years in that I have always treasured. The joke, I mean, not that I don’t also treasure the town.)

But it’s hard for me to see the poetic justice in germanising Turing, given that he was instrumental in beating the Germans the next-to-last time England managed to beat them.

151

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 1:36 pm

Wasn’t there also a 5:1 tonking in 2001/02-ish?

(This is pretty much the sum of my knowledge about football.)

152

Salient 05.06.09 at 1:42 pm

JoB changes moniker to to JöB in 3… 2… 1…

153

Mrs Tilton 05.06.09 at 1:49 pm

PP @151,

yes, but against a B-team. Anyway, for purposes of these comments, I am operating strictly within the “two World Wars and one World Cup” universe (though I have always had a soft spot for Harry Hutton’s riposte, to be delivered in best stäge-German accent, of “three World Cups and one Economic Miracle”).

154

Pete 05.06.09 at 1:56 pm

Belle, thanks for your post @ 130! I agree entirely with your # iv, of course.

The details of the development of science against the backdrop of religion are certainly complicated. I do think that even the science being done by religious persons was subversive, since its very pursuit embraced a methodology that is a direct challenge to the (any) Church’s claim to be an authority in matters of secular truth. The method of science separates questions of empirical truth from a need to refer to authoritative religious figures or documents. The complexities of the relationship often involve prior religious convictions corrupting or misleading scientific pursuit. Take Louis Agassiz, a man who contributed an enormous amount to the advancement of science, but who also, at least in part due to a religious commitment to creation, offered a pseudo-scientific defense of racism. (This is an over-simplification, but hey, this is a blog comment not a journal article).

The later point, that we should be cautious about tearing down our social structures, is well-taken. But I don’t hold that science could ever serve the role of political morality that religion has held and does hold. Science offers a replacement for religion’s explanatory role. I think we have a great deal of evidence that religions have done (and still do) a less-than-satisfactory job in the role of a political, moral doctrine. The secular moral doctrine of liberalism that comes out of the social contract tradition is, I believe, a superior alternative for this political role. The point is just that the choice isn’t between religion or unfettered free-market. This form of liberalism, in that it emphasizes viewing persons as free and equal, also has the ability to counter-act a tendency to imperialism and a sense of moral superiority – I wonder if these impulses didn’t have at their hearts a religious motivation after all, the enlightenment version of the crusades.

This is getting long, so I’d better cut it off. But your post gives me lots to think about, and I do think bellegleton is a subtler and more interesting position than what I found in Fish, so thanks again for it.

155

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 1:58 pm

I’m trying to figure out the French equivalent here.

“Deux guerres mondiales (une aprés un rejoué) et finalement, l’Alsace et Lorraine”?

156

Preachy Preach 05.06.09 at 2:02 pm

Less facetiously, what Pete said.

157

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 2:07 pm

Ginger 141, many, many get depressed, especially as they get older and there are fewer and fewer meanings left to generate. The masses need their op1ate.

A friend of mine got in a car accident. They attached a gadget to the palm of his hand: push the button – get a dose of op1ate. Nice, right? But of course a rational person could argue that it’s all wrong: paint is there for a reason, the body reacts to it, etc. I think this is a somewhat similar situation.

158

Salient 05.06.09 at 2:15 pm

But of course a rational person could argue that it’s all wrong: pain is there for a reason, the body reacts to it, etc.

…I have no idea where that’s coming from. A rational person would probably recognize that a sensory nervous system capable of feeling pain was an adaptation with problematic effects (the fact that pain is “there for a reason” does not carry any moral implication like “one ought to feel pain” or whatever). In fact, this adaptation seems to have necessitated counter-adaptation in the form of, e.g. endorphin release mechanisms to alleviate debilitating pain.

I doubt a rational person would believe that our bodies are some kind of realization of the ideal that should never be messed with, and I strongly suspect a rational person would argue in favor of offering treatment and alleviation to suffering persons.

Ginger 141, many, many get depressed, especially as they get older and there are fewer and fewer meanings left to generate.

Do you have any research or evidence you could link to? From what I can remember of the canonical studies, and this is admittedly fuzzy, late-life satisfaction is thought to revolve around feelings of life accomplishment or lack thereof.

159

JoB 05.06.09 at 2:24 pm

Mrs T. (sounds nice, doesn’t it?), it was even more poetic than that – regimentation et al.

Salient, thanks for expanding my vocabulary! Nope, I wouldn’t want to be poetically related to Deutschland even if my dialect is (and JoB isn’t a moniker, but maybe it is a moeniker?).

160

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 2:57 pm

Salient, you don’t need any special research; all you need is to spend some time on this planet, and you’ll get an idea of when and why people turn to religion.

161

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 3:09 pm

Salient, you don’t need any special research; all you need is to spend some time on this planet, and you’ll get an idea of when and why people turn to religion.

Having been on this planet for 53 2/3 years, my observation is that in most cases the “why” is simply childhood indoctrination, and “turning” never happened because there was never any “unturning”.

As to the relatively small number of people who become religious for the first time later in life, you might be correct. But I think that drinking is probably a more popular anesthetic in such cases than religion though of course the two can be combined.

162

Salient 05.06.09 at 3:11 pm

Salient, you don’t need any special research; all you need is to spend some time on this planet, and you’ll get an idea of when and why people turn to religion.

Your claim is not “people have a reason to turn to religion.” Your claim is specifically that “many, many” people who are non-theists throughout their lives become depressed, specifically because “as they get older and there are fewer and fewer meanings left to generate.” I am assuming by “many, many” you are talking about at least, say, a third of non-theists who live to beyond middle age, who experience this specific phenomenon. Admittedly, perhaps I’m not clear on what you mean when you say “meanings left to generate.”

Please provide some justification for this, or (if necessary) correct my misunderstanding of your position.

163

Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 3:19 pm

But I think that drinking is probably a more popular anesthetic in such cases than religion though of course the two can be combined.

And then follows the twelve-step higher power.

164

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 3:22 pm

the point henri is making is that — when you’re old and tired and ill and possibly lonely, and things didn’t turn out the way you thought they were going to when you were young and sexy and amazing, and you’ve lost trust in your own ability to make things happen right for you emotionally or intellectually or creatively — then the chances of you turning to a pre-fashioned myth of consolation are quite high, especially if the institutions that offer such consolation are willingly putting themselves out there, and the rival institutions are focused on other (exciting, high-stakes) projects

i think it’s pretty easy to see how militant rationalism can seem a bit uncaring and intimidating if you already feeling broken: it only reaches out to you if you’re prepared to participate at this high and intellectually challenging level; it’s competitive, it’s argumentative, it’s about fashioning the future — and here you are, timid and excluded, mayne never very confident that you understood this science stuff, and (this you definitely think) without much of a future yourself, let alone any sense you could fashion anyone else’s… so you turn to those folks on the corner who’ve always been there, who run a soup kitchen and hold out a seemingly friendly hand…

165

Salient 05.06.09 at 3:26 pm

the point henri is making is that—when you’re old and tired and ill and possibly lonely, and things didn’t turn out the way you thought they were going to when you were young and sexy and amazing, and you’ve lost trust in your own ability to make things happen right for you emotionally or intellectually or creatively—then the chances of you turning to a pre-fashioned myth of consolation are quite high, especially if the institutions that offer such consolation are willingly putting themselves out there, and the rival institutions are focused on other (exciting, high-stakes) projects

Well, yes. Except, I don’t think Henri is making that particular point. Henri’s point seems to be that, as one gets older, there’s less and less to think about and explore, so people get depressed and turn to religion. At least, this is the only way I can parse the statement “they get older and there are fewer and fewer meanings left to generate.”

166

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 3:30 pm

“Meanings left to generate” is a reference to 141.

You’re going way too literal with “people who are non-theists throughout their lives become depressed.” All I’m saying is that the Big Bang and brain chemistry do not provide satisfactory answers to proverbial “life’s big questions”. Many people find it depressing, especially as they grow older, or experience some tragedy, or, you know, general misery. And religion helps, in a way that rational thought can’t.

167

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 3:33 pm

i think people who are confident in their abilities (and right) to think and explore are often quite unaware of what it might mean to be unconfident — of what the strength differential actually is, and how cruelly excluding it can seem to those on the wrong side of it

168

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 3:35 pm

doubly excluding for those who once thought they wanted to participate, and never got their rhythm going, and sat miserably on the sidelines as the action got further and further away…

169

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 3:37 pm

Henri, like Salient I literally have no idea what point you’re trying to make in 157. You’re not really going down the “Atheists should be social Darwinists” route, are you?

And while my anecdote isn’t data either, it’s certainly not my experience that atheists are any more depressed (especially because of their lack of religion, rather than other factors which may be somewhat correlated with atheism). It’s true that studies have shown religious people self-report higher levels of “happiness”, but that’s not the same thing at all. Until we get some proper data on how attitudes about the purpose of the universe/life affect depression, I can only offer the factlet that the two people I know well who experienced severe end-of-life depression were a Brother of the Order of Noble Poverty and a devout Methodist.

170

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 3:46 pm

“Admittedly, perhaps I’m not clear on what you mean when you say “meanings left to generate.””

To be fair, this bit I do agree with somewhat. Some very fulfilling meanings that are available to theists and non-theists alike are love of family and friends, attainment of skill at sport or art or music etc, earning the respect of your professional peers, and so on. As you get older, your friends and family die off, you’re less physically able, and you’re (often) no longer working. So a lot of the key sources of meaning in your life are going to be diminished, unless you’re lucky. In the case of the latter person I mentioned in 169, he continued working well beyond the point he should have been, given his physical state (he was ;past 90), because it was one of the few sources of pleasure and meaning left in his life. But religion wasn’t enough for him. I’m not faulting religion for this – in the circumstances, it would be hard to have any consolation and I’m sure he’d have been just as depressed as an atheist. I’m just saying that in my experience it’s no better than atheism in extreme circumstances.

171

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 3:51 pm

No, I’m not doing “atheists should be social Darwinists”, and I am an atheist myself. But I feel that I understand why people (not all, but many) need religion. And I wasn’t talking about depression in the clinical sense, of course.

172

Pete 05.06.09 at 3:51 pm

Belle and Henri,

I wonder if militant rationalism may be more of a bogeyman than a real worldview. Militant rationalists need love too. OK, so that’s a toss-away quip, but my real point has to do with what I think involves a distinction between views about the source of one’s purpose. To look to a God, or any other authority, for one’s purpose is to search externally for this purpose. Enlightenment thinking on this subject, I think (setting aside enlightenment thought about the source of explanations about the natural world), involves a turn inward. We look inward and use our reason to determine our purposes. This is a fundamental shift. Even those who look inward for purpose require caring relationships. These folks need not be hardcore philosophers; rather the difference is just in the source of the validity of one’s purposes – are my projects valid because they accord with some external standard (are they, and I, validated by something else?), or because I have intrinsic worth and I chose them?

I’m worried that I might be saying something that is just tangential to your post above Belle (@ 164). So, here’s my picture of the good (rather than cold and uncaring) militant rationalist soup kitchen. It would be pretty terrible to engage with the broken man or woman by citing Kant or Darwin, or something like this. Rather, I see the enlightenment, ‘liberalist’ approach as involving emphasizing that the broken person is valuable, in and of themselves, and that they ought to recognize themselves and their own goals as deserving of respect. They also deserve, from our rationalist, compassion and maybe even friendship, because they matter, they count. I think this message of self-worth and empowerment can be very powerful, as powerful as the message that God loves them and is there for them.

173

Pete 05.06.09 at 3:58 pm

Henri @ 166 says,

Many people find it depressing, especially as they grow older, or experience some tragedy, or, you know, general misery. And religion helps, in a way that rational thought can’t.

I think that basic human compassion can help in ways that abstract religious entities cannot help either, and successful religions take advantage of this by creating supportive human communities. It’s actually quite a thing to be able to have access to a vast human companionship with only But we can support the formation of communities

174

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 4:01 pm

it is a bogeyman, yes, but the fact that aggressive defenders of rationalism are (some of them) a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to the issue of the consolation of the broken and the disappointed — yes yes it needs to be taken care of, but it’s doesn’t occur to them that it’s something THEY could be doing, they have important exciting intellectual battles to fight and scientific discoveries to make! — is a bit what i’m getting at: there’s sometimes an self-unaware assumption of the division of labour (and sometimes also an assumption that such consolations are either to be privatised or handed on to the relevant bureaucracy) that plays into the hands of those who want to flourish the bogeyman…

175

Pete 05.06.09 at 4:02 pm

Henri @ 166 says,

Many people find it depressing, especially as they grow older, or experience some tragedy, or, you know, general misery. And religion helps, in a way that rational thought can’t.

I think that basic human compassion can help in ways that abstract religious entities cannot help either, and successful religions take advantage of this by creating supportive human communities. It’s actually quite a thing to be able to have access to a vast human companionship given only a religious conversion. But we can in so many ways support the formation of communities that do not require a religious test for membership, and I think there is reason to do this in virtue of religion’s decidedly mixed record.

176

Pete 05.06.09 at 4:03 pm

(ah- sorry for the double post! Must have tapped “submit” before I was done.)

177

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 4:13 pm

one of the very buried arguments in the eagleton piece — really not fleshed out beyond a couple of left-as-hints sentences — was that the provision of Positive Liberties (meaning interventions to provide freedom from hunger, misery, intimidation) ought not, as per liberalism, be left to the clumsy machineries of the state, but should rise from social instititions fashioned from the comity of all, for the needs of all (or something like that: in one sense it was boilerplate socialist platitude, but his — odd but to him important — argument was i think that the relics of the institutions that had not very successfully run things before the bourgeois revolution would be the seeds or even models of the institutions that would, far more successfully, run things after the socialist revolution to come…)

(Key quote: “Marx was a fan of positive freedom, but he did not believe in the state, either paternalist or otherwise.”)

178

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 4:14 pm

(comment using the dreaded s-word is trapped in moderation)

179

Pete 05.06.09 at 4:14 pm

Belle @ 174

Ah, I think I see. Like this: “Let someone else talk about care for the needy and the broken and the sad, we’re too busy advocating for the proper place of science!” So, is your point that this sort of attitude is unproductive, in that it “plays into the hands of those who want to flourish the bogeyman,” and so people like Dawkins and so on should also advocate for the poor in order to present a human face and head off this tactic by their opponents (and also simply because we should advocate for the poor)?

180

bianca steele 05.06.09 at 4:18 pm

belle@164: I’m finding it difficult to distinguish what you describe as “turning to religion” from “finding a nice, old-fashioned woman who will look up to you and serve generally as a haven in a heartless world, after a youth that was misspent following so-called peers who didn’t really have your best interests at heart and didn’t really know what was important,” which I have to think is applicable to only a minority of life narratives.

181

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 4:25 pm

“And I wasn’t talking about depression in the clinical sense, of course.”

OK. It probably would have helped to have used a different word, then.

Also, I wanted to make Pete’s point in 175. I suspect that a lot of the higher reported happiness I mentioned comes from the sense of belonging to a community – something that religion has worked very hard for thousands of years to do. There are very few comparable organisations/structures for atheists/agnostics, partly because it’s harder for them/us to group around a common identity other than rejecting theism – and most people would rather identify with something positive – partly because it’s much younger as an organised movement than most religions, and partly because many atheists became atheists by rejecting the organised nature of most religions. I can certainly see that some people would have difficulty lacking that community, especially in the modern, atomised, urban world.

But like I say, I don’t think it has anything to do with a belief that existence has a transcendental purpose. And I hope that over time comparable communities and mechanisms arise to meet the belonging needs of atheists/agnostics. I’m pretty hopeful that the internet will help to accelerate the process – it’s certainly a powerful tool for finding like-minded people and I’ve personally become a member of several fairly close-knit communities through it.

182

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 4:31 pm

I don’t think there’s any intrinsic reason why the atheist soup kitchen — if this is the synecdoche we’ve hit on — shouldn’t flourish, and indeed be the best and nicest one to go to: it’s not a matter of people’s temperaments, I don’t think. It’s a matter of the shape of the institutions being fashioned (and the will to fashion them, and the awareness of the need): some of what’s being pushed back against is simply that intellectual celebrities — however entertaining or insightful* — are a bit unlikely to be that great at the kind of institution-forming that’s felt to be missing.

*(which is almost by definition other people’s lame and annoying)

183

belle le triste 05.06.09 at 4:46 pm

bianca, the distinction you’re looking for is between finding that they’re friendly down at the mission when no one else was, and a gorgeous soup-manufacture heiress sweeping past in her jag and falling for you and rescuing you and giving herself up to your every need: i entirely agree the latter is probably a bit off the menu for most

184

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 4:47 pm

…people like Dawkins and so on should also advocate for the poor…

As in fact he does; his left-liberal politics are hardly a secret.

185

watson aname 05.06.09 at 4:54 pm

As in fact he does; his left-liberal politics are hardly a secret.

I think there is an important distinction to be made between advocating that “we” should collectively do more for the poor, and advocating that we, meaning you and I, should spend this Saturday afternoon working at a particular soup kitchen (or whereever).

I think there is at least a perception that “the left” concerns itself too much with the former and not enough with the latter, and the opposite is true of “the right”.

186

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 4:59 pm

The ‘community’ argument sounds convincing, and I’m sure it’s helpful, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Hanging out with your bowling league buddies is nice, but it won’t fill the void. The question remains – for me, at least, but I suspect for many others as well – what am I doing here? I get up every morning and go to work, have a barbecue with my buddies on Sunday, read blogs – why? To keep doing this for a couple of decades more and then get cancer or heart attack and disappear? What is stopping me from ending it right now?

187

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 5:02 pm

What is stopping me from ending it right now?

The burning desire to argue with atheists? ;)

188

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 5:07 pm

“I don’t think there’s any intrinsic reason why the atheist soup kitchen—if this is the synecdoche we’ve hit on—shouldn’t flourish, and indeed be the best and nicest one to go to: it’s not a matter of people’s temperaments, I don’t think. “

Well, that depends. I think we’re relatively unlikely to see a (large) explicitly atheist soup kitchen style organisation, but there are plenty of secular organisations like that (Shelter, for instance, to keep within this particular synecdoche) which are very successful and do a lot of good work. Most atheists I know would be more comfortable donating to or volunteering for secular organisations like that than an avowedly atheist one. I mean, I consider myself relatively “militant”, but I don’t think we should be proselytising to vulnerable people. It seems to me the most likely form of organisation in this sphere would be for avowedly atheist/agnostic/humanist/rationalist organisations to arrange fundraising/volunteering drives within their membership – something that does indeed happen, but not as systematically as within organised religion.

Also, unless I’ve misread him, I don’t think Henri was thinking so much about financially suffering people as psychologically, although obviously the two are interlinked.

189

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 5:13 pm

“The question remains – for me, at least, but I suspect for many others as well – what am I doing here? I get up every morning and go to work, have a barbecue with my buddies on Sunday, read blogs – why? To keep doing this for a couple of decades more and then get cancer or heart attack and disappear? What is stopping me from ending it right now? “

Well, it varies from person to person, doesn’t it? Some people get enormous fulfilment from raising their children. Others love learning about history. Others try to be the best rock climber in the world, or the country, or their family. Others find enormous satisfaction in popular or classical music.

The point about communities, or one of them anyway, is that pretty much by definition they build connections between people. Those connections are full of meaning – and they would in most circumstances provide extremely good reason not to end it right now.

190

Ah 05.06.09 at 5:22 pm

Haven’t had time to read all the comments but if you are still interested in the neuroscience of ballet then look up Calvo-Merino in google scholar. She has the most highly cited dance studies showing that the more you dance (yourself) the more your brain responds to seeing other people dance. Maybe the same is true of religion ?!

191

Salient 05.06.09 at 5:28 pm

The point about communities, or one of them anyway, is that pretty much by definition they build connections between people.

And of course, it’s worth acknowledging that church communities fall into this category too. And surely the feeling of community derived from having a “personal relationship with God” provides similar amelioration, with the added benefit that such a relationship is explicitly thought to be eternal.

What is stopping me from ending it right now?

I don’t know. I think the universe, from any one person’s perspective, should have a fundamental asymmetry to it. There’s not a whole lot I can contribute to the cosmos, which will wheel around its course without me; the chance I’ll play some irreplaceable role in improving human quality of life is probably nil. Chances are I individually won’t do much damage and won’t do much to improve matters for vast numbers of people. On the other hand, the universe has plenty in it: I get to explore and experience and learn and raise a family and… well, go on as you like. Small responsibility relative to the benefits and joys. Lucky me. I can’t imagine wanting to end this asymmetry.

Notice, this approach to life requires a certain degree of stability, health, resources, et cetera; I figure I should do my part to help as many people as possible have that opportunity, and more or less the same quality of life. So I do.

192

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 5:44 pm

Right, arguing with atheists or learning about history is fun, but it’s not that much fun. Just think of all the unpleasantries one has to endure for the dubious pleasure of arguing with atheists: brushing teeth, sitting in the office for hours, grocery shopping, etc.; all that endless boring maintenance stuff. Not to mention things like, say, colonoscopy. All this just to become the best rock climber in the world? C’mon.

193

Pete 05.06.09 at 5:50 pm

I’m not quite sure at what level to address Henri’s concern @ 185. On the one hand, I like the line Ginger takes @ 188 (Why go on? I got my reasons, but you tell me, why do you go on?). I’d even go so far as to say that for some persons in the kind of state that Henri has worried about – lonely, broken, depressed, perhaps simply filled with existential angst – little things can be enough. “Why should I go on?” “Well, I’ve got to go to the dentist today…” Mundane things can often be enough to motivate us to keep on.

On the other hand, I think Henri might be looking for the right answer, and not simply for what happens to motivate us. (Ginger might be taken as addressing both of these in her post as well.) Here religions of various sorts offer themselves as contenders. I want to address this version of the concern at a more abstract level. I think that the answer is that the source of our final ends is not external to us. Meaning is not imposed from without – my final ends are my final ends. So, for me, my final ends involve my relationships with my wife and family, my career, and very general things like living a full and varied life and in general being decent. These are things that I value, and I try to organize my life, with all of my first-order ends and projects, in such a way to achieve them. It is because of these things that I value that I go on. If you ask, “But what is the purpose of all of this?”, I guess I just think there isn’t one.

A quick caveat: the liberal in me feels compelled to mention that I think that different views than the one I’m expressing, including versions of the religion answer, are not necessarily unreasonable.

194

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 5:51 pm

Cheer up, Henri. Your concerti are rather nice and some of them still get played occasionally. ;)

195

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 6:08 pm

They are the best, indeed. Very romantic.

196

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 6:35 pm

See, the family, children, that all sounds very nice – until you analyze it rationally and realize that it’s all a combination of some residual religious indoctrination and animal instincts. But we are not religious and we are not animals, so why should we value our children more than any other children? Or our wives over other women, especially if we find some of the other women more attractive?

I understand that people often are strongly attached to their families and care about them – that’s an empirical fact – but conceptually it’s seems kind of weak. Especially after being married to the same woman for many years and when the children have grown up.

197

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 6:44 pm

It fascinates me that the same people who accuse atheists of being coldly hyper-rational will turn around and pretend that they need a rational justification before they can love their kids. By the way, unless your real name is Data or C3P0, you most certainly are an animal.

198

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 6:47 pm

By the way, provided you’re willing to go whole-hog on utilitarianism, Peter Singer will gladly demonstrate to you that it ISN’T rational to love your kids more than other people’s. ;)

199

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 7:00 pm

Sure I am an animal, but unfortunately I am a sort of animal that got a brain that keeps analyzing his behavior from a meta-perspective. And it tells me that my behavior doesn’t make sense, I’m being fooled by a trick played by evolution. To me as an individual it’s no more meaningful than any superstition.

200

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 7:13 pm

Humans truly are a ridiculous species and much of our behavior doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Accepting that and laughing at it (at oneself above all) I find to be a great help in warding off the metaphysical blues. I think it’s only when we insist on taking ourselves very, very seriously that we get really good at making ourselves unhappy.

201

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.06.09 at 7:16 pm

Amen, brother.

202

nick s 05.06.09 at 7:24 pm

For the relationship between Fish and Eagleton, it’s worth remembering where David Lodge found inspiration for Morris Zapp and Phillip Swallow.

I discussed the LRB piece here when it appeared: point is, Dawkins is more grating when he gives lip-service to the aesthetics of religious cultural output (the Burkean sublime, if you like) than if he ignored it entirely.

(There’s a one-word reply to people who gleefully ape PZ to shout “Courtier’s Reply!” and that word is “philistine”. If you prefer two words, “smug arsehole”; or three, “oh, fuck off.”)

203

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 7:39 pm

By a strange coincidence, “smug arsehole” and “oh, fuck off” are precisely my reactions to nick s’s comment. Funny that.

And anyone who can write “There’s a one-word reply to people who gleefully ape PZ to shout “Courtier’s Reply!” and that word is ‘philistine’ ” is merely suffering from the distressingly common cognitive debility that leads to confusing the value of religiously-inspired cultural artifacts with the value of religion. To see the stupidity of that one need merely recall that the two greatest masterpieces of 19th-century church music, the Requiems of Berlioz and Verdi, were written by atheists.

Sovente in queste rive,
Che, desolate, a bruno
Veste il flutto indurato, e par che ondeggi,
Seggo la notte; e sulla mesta landa
In purissimo azzurro
Veggo dall’alto fiammeggiar le stelle,
Cui di lontan fa specchio
Il mare, e tutto di scintille in giro
Per lo vòto Seren brillar il mondo.
E poi che gli occhi a quelle luci appunto,
Ch’a lor sembrano un punto,
E sono immense, in guisa
Che un punto a petto a lor son terra e mare
Veracemente; a cui
L’uomo non pur, ma questo
Globo ove l’uomo è nulla,
Sconosciuto è del tutto; e quando miro
Quegli ancor più senz’alcun fin remoti
Nodi quasi di stelle,
Ch’a noi paion qual nebbia, a cui non l’uomo
E non la terra sol, ma tutte in uno,
Del numero infinite e della mole,
Con l’aureo sole insiem, le nostre stelle
O sono ignote, o così paion come
Essi alla terra, un punto
Di luce nebulosa; al pensier mio
Che sembri allora, o prole
Dell’uomo? E rimembrando
Il tuo stato quaggiù, di cui fa segno
Il suol ch’io premo; e poi dall’altra parte,
Che te signora e fine
Credi tu data al Tutto, e quante volte
Favoleggiar ti piacque, in questo oscuro
Granel di sabbia, il qual di terra ha nome,
Per tua cagion, dell’universe cose
Scender gli autori, e conversar sovente
Co’ tuoi piacevolmente, e che i derisi
Sogni rinnovellando, ai saggi insulta
Fin la presente età, che in conoscenza
Ed in civil costume
Sembra tutte avanzar; qual moto allora,
Mortal prole infelice, o qual pensiero
Verso te finalmente il cor m’assale?
Non so se il riso o la pietà prevale.

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Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 8:29 pm

Salient:

And of course, it’s worth acknowledging that church communities fall into this category too.

Oh absolutely. My point was that the one area where I would concede that atheism as a world-organising-system (a concept which I’m not entirely comfortable with, but anyway) falls short of religion is in the community building. At the same time I think that’s a strength, in that I’m definitely not a fan of many of the tools religion uses to reinforce the sense of community, but I fully recognise the downsides as well.

Pete:

On the one hand, I like the line Ginger takes @ 188 (Why go on? I got my reasons, but you tell me, why do you go on?).

That wasn’t quite the line I was trying to express, but, still, it’s a good question. Henri clearly hasn’t ended it right now, and is an atheist. So he must have some reasons of his own. My point was more an extension of the “the human mind is the meaning generator, not received authority” argument. And human minds are gloriously diverse that individuals’ answers to that question are necessarily going to be different.

Pete:

Ginger might be taken as addressing both of these in her post as well

I’m a he, not that it matters much.

Pete:

Here religions of various sorts offer themselves as contenders. I want to address this version of the concern at a more abstract level. I think that the answer is that the source of our final ends is not external to us. Meaning is not imposed from without – my final ends are my final ends. So, for me, my final ends involve my relationships with my wife and family, my career, and very general things like living a full and varied life and in general being decent. These are things that I value, and I try to organize my life, with all of my first-order ends and projects, in such a way to achieve them. It is because of these things that I value that I go on. If you ask, “But what is the purpose of all of this?”, I guess I just think there isn’t one.

This is exactly my point, much more eloquently put.

. Just think of all the unpleasantries one has to endure for the dubious pleasure of arguing with atheists: brushing teeth, sitting in the office for hours, grocery shopping, etc.; all that endless boring maintenance stuff. Not to mention things like, say, colonoscopy. All this just to become the best rock climber in the world? C’mon.

I think I’ll let Tim Minchin answer this one for me:

Isn’t this enough?
Just this world?
Just this beautiful, complex
Wonderfully unfathomable world?
How does it so fail to hold our attention
That we have to diminish it with the invention
Of cheap, man-made Myths and Monsters?
If you’re so into Shakespeare
Lend me your ear:
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw perfume on the violet… is just fucking silly”
Or something like that.
Or what about Satchmo?!
I see trees of Green,
Red roses too,
And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
That’s ok.
But here’s what gives me a hard-on:
I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant lump of carbon.
I have one life, and it is short
And unimportant…
But thanks to recent scientific advances
I get to live twice as long as my great great great great uncles and auntses.
Twice as long to live this life of mine
Twice as long to love this wife of mine
Twice as many years of friends and wine
Of sharing curries and getting shitty
With good-looking hippies
With fairies on their spines
And butterflies on their titties.

Henri:

See, the family, children, that all sounds very nice – until you analyze it rationally and realize that it’s all a combination of some residual religious indoctrination and animal instincts. But we are not religious and we are not animals, so why should we value our children more than any other children? Or our wives over other women, especially if we find some of the other women more attractive?

See, this is why I mentioned the social Darwinism thing. You’re the one apparently advocating vulgar reductionism, not the scientists or the militant atheists. Most of us don’t see much of a problem in love of family as a source of meaning. Sure, some values boil down to axioms unjustifiable by pure, cold rationality. But they do mean something to us. But it’s not like they’re controversial, or problematic. Even the theists agree. So what’s the problem?

205

Steve Fuller 05.06.09 at 8:46 pm

Having read this overwrought discussion (which must be leaving Stanley Fish in stitches, if he even bothers to notice), I am curious as to why Steve LaBonne doesn’t reveal his true identity. Is it because of animal cowardice or animal inconvenience? Everyone here is taking LaBonne at his word when he says he’s a molecular biologist but he sounds like a loudmouth failed (but competent) philosopher with a strong misanthropic streak. I would like to be proved wrong. It would put what he says in a better light. And he’s been on the blogs and listservs now for years doing his borderline-harassment shtick. Somebody with his zeal and skill should be more open about their identity, especially now that the New Atheists have rolled into town.

206

Ginger Yellow 05.06.09 at 9:16 pm

Having read his overwrought testimony, I am curious as to why Steve Fuller doesn’t reveal his true thoughts about evolution. Is it because of animal cowardice or animal inconvenience? Everyone here is taking Fuller at his word when he says he’s a philosopher of science but he sounds like a loudmouth failed (but competent) sociologist with a strong post-modernist streak. I would like to be proved wrong. It would put what he says in a better light. And he’s been on the blogs and listservs now for years doing his borderline-inchoherent shtick. Somebody with his zeal and skill should be more open about their beliefs especially now that the New Atheists have rolled into town.

207

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 9:21 pm

In all the world, perhaps only Steve Fuller could be fucking stupid enough to imagine that someone posting under his real name isn’t “revealing his true identity”. By no stretch of the imagination was I a GOOD academic scientist before changing careers to forensic science, but I certainly never sank so low as to be a philosopher, nor a loudmouth provincially “successful” (but incompetent) sociologist of science who’s been a worldwide laughingstock since Dover. ;)

Stephen G. LaBonne Ph.D. F‑ABC
Lake County Crime Laboratory
235 Fairgrounds Road, Painesville, OH 44077
(440) 350-2129
email: slabonne@lakecountyohio.gov
Education
1983: Ph.D. (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Advisor: Prof. Lawrence B. Dumas
Thesis topic: Isolation of a yeast DNA binding protein that specifically stimulates yeast DNA Polymerase I
1976: A.B. (Biochemical Sciences), Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Professional Experience
5/2004-: DNA Technical Manager, Lake County Crime Laboratory, Painesville, OH
5/2001-4/2004: DNA Analyst, Lake County Crime Laboratory, Painesville, OH
Duties: DNA casework; managing technical and quality-assurance operations of DNA laboratory; writing and maintaining DNA Standard Operating Procedures; internal validation of DNA methods
5/2004-: Consulting Forensic Scientist (DNA Technical Leader), Mansfield Police Department Laboratory, Mansfield, OH
Duties: Technical oversight of DNA testing at Mansfield laboratory, peer reviewing of DNA cases
5/1998‑ 4/2001: Forensic Scientist III
12/1997‑5/1998: Forensic Scientist II
8/1996‑12/1997: Forensic Scientist I, Bioscience Section, New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center, Albany, NY
Duties: technology validation and writing of the Implementation Plan (technology section) and Standard Operating Procedure for STR profiling of convicted‑offender specimens; STR analysis and peer review of convicted-offender samples
1993‑1996: Research Scientist, Biology Department, University at Albany, SUNY
I worked in the laboratory of Prof. David Shub on regulation of a phage T4 intron‑encoded endonuclease. I taught Introductory Genetics in the summer of 1995.
1989‑1993: Assistant Professor of Biology, Union College, Schenectady, NY
My research (funded by grants from NIH and later NSF) was in the field of Drosophila developmental genetics; my primary teaching responsibilities were in introductory genetics and (upper‑division) molecular genetics. I supervised several undergraduate research students.
1986‑1989: Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, Univ. of Mississippi Medical Ctr., Jackson, MS
My NIH‑supported research was in the field of Drosophila developmental genetics; I taught the cell biology units of the medical biochemistry course and a graduate special‑topics course in cell biology.
1982‑1986: Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Developmental Genetics and Anatomy, Case Western Reserve University Medical School, Cleveland, OH
I trained in Drosophila developmental genetics in the laboratory of Prof. Anthony Mahowald; from 1983‑1985 I was the recipient of an NIH postdoctoral fellowship (NS07262)
Publications
LaBonne, S.G. and Dumas, L.B. (1983) Isolation of a yeast single‑strand deoxyribonucleic acid binding protein that specifically stimulates yeast DNA polymerase I. Biochemistry 22: 3214.
LaBonne, S.G. and Mahowald, A.P. (1985) Partial rescue of embryos from two maternal‑effect neurogenic mutants by transplantation of wild‑type ooplasm. Developmental Biology 110: 264.
LaBonne, S.G. and Furst, A. (1989) Differentiation in vitro of neural precursor cells from normal and pecanex Drosophila embryos. J. Neurogenetics 5: 99.
LaBonne, S.G., Sunitha, I. and Mahowald, A.P. (1989) Molecular genetics of pecanex, a maternal‑effect neurogenic locus of Drosophila melanogaster that potentially encodes a large transmembrane protein. Developmental Biology 136: 1.
LaBonne, S.G. and Duceman, B.D. (1999) Unusual amelogenin genotypes that may yield anomalous gender‑typing results. J. Forensic Sciences (accepted for publication but withdrawn after being set in type due to legal concerns about use of convicted‑offender specimens in the study).
Edgell, D.R., Derbyshire, V. , Van Roey, P., LaBonne, S.G., Stanger, M.J., Li, Z., Boyd, T.M., Shub, D.A. and Belfort, M. (2004) Intron endonuclease I-TevI also functions as a transcriptional autorepressor. Nature Structural & Molecular Biology 11: 936.
Selected Abstracts Presented
LaBonne, S.G. Antibodies identify several pecanex gene products. 32nd Annual Drosophila Research Conference, Chicago, 1991.
LaBonne, S.G. Early ventral expression of pecanex. 33rd Annual Drosophila Research Conference, Philadelphia, 1992.
Shub, D.A., and LaBonne, S.G. Independent evolution of a gene, its Group I intron, and the intron ORF. RNA Processing Meeting of the RNA Society, Madison, 1994.
LaBonne, S.G., and Shub, D.A. Transcriptional autoregulation of homing endonuclease I‑Tev I.
95th General Meeting of ASM, Washington, 1995.
LaBonne, S.G., Biega, L., and Duceman, B.W. AmpFlSTR ProfilerJ allele frequencies in New York State populations. 23rd Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists, White Plains, 1997
LaBonne, S.G., and Duceman, B.W. STR profiling of saliva stains on FTA7 paper. 26th Annual Meeting of the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists, Saratoga Springs, 2000
LaBonne, S.G. Casework validation of Powerplex7 16. Promega STR Educational Forum, South Bend, IN, 2001
Selected Training Courses Completed
FBI DNA Auditor Training, 10/31 – 11/2/01; refresher training, 9/18 – 9/19/2006
Courtroom Testimony Training, Forensic Science Institute of Ohio, 11/27 – 11/29/01
Bloodstain Pattern Analysis Workshop, Miami-Dade Metropolitan Police Institute, 3/4 – 3/8/02
Evidence Recognition, Collection and Documentation Course, Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science (University of New Haven), 1/26 – 1/30/04
CODIS Software Training, Vienna, Va., 5/7 – 5/11/07

208

koan0215 05.06.09 at 9:24 pm

“but I certainly never sank so low as to be a philosopher, nor a loudmouth provincially “successful” (but incompetent) sociologist of science who’s been a worldwide laughingstock since Dover.”

Oh wow THAT Steve Fuller!

209

Salient 05.06.09 at 9:58 pm

I am curious as to why Steve LaBonne doesn’t reveal his true identity.

A while back when Steve LaBonne was mentioning his credentials, I recall it took me about thirty seconds of google-scholaring “LaBonne, S.” to find some published papers etc. I guess the CT poster with moniker Steve LaBonne could be someone who is secretly not Steve LaBonne, posing as Steve LaBonne?

210

Steve Fuller 05.06.09 at 10:29 pm

My apologies to Steve LaBonne for thinking he wasn’t a scientist. I was trying to find out why your bile/content ratio is so high. Philosophical principle is always a good shot. I guess it must be career frustration or something else that isn’t — or perhaps is — revealed in the list you’ve provided.

211

John Quiggin 05.06.09 at 10:56 pm

Steve Fuller, I’d lay off the personal attacks if I were you. And especially if I were you, I’d avoid accusations of sockpuppetry.

212

Steve LaBonne 05.06.09 at 11:15 pm

I guess it must be career frustration or something else that isn’t—or perhaps is—revealed in the list you’ve provided.

Or perhaps it’s just that anti-science nimrods annoy me.

213

Steve Fuller 05.06.09 at 11:26 pm

Dear John, I am amused by your response, since here I thought that it was Steve LaBonne who was arguing ad hominem throughout this thread and that Crooked Timber allowed it. But I guess it must be only in his case — and perhaps yours as well, since I really don’t get the ‘sockpuppetry’ remark except as an innuendo about something that really you should spell out if you think it’s worth mentioning. I hate to bait you like this, but at least it would confirm my suspicion that ad hominen attacks are indeed allowed, your protestations to the contrary.

As for dear Dr LaBonne, to be honest, I thought his name was a pseudonym for some self-appointed righeous avenger (or someone with an unhealthy attachment to Duran Duran). And while I was not as clever as kaoano215 (no doubt the real name of a denizen of the Borg Collective) to see if someone with his name published any papers, I did google to see for how long and on how many lists he’s been spreading bile across the internet — fifteen years (at least) is a long time to be so righteous to such little effect. So I’m still left with a mystery. Surely there is a talent being wasted here…

214

sleepy 05.06.09 at 11:43 pm

I’d like to know if there’s one person on this thread willing to state that he or she does not live most of his or her life according to assumption and faith, even if it’s their own sense of reason.

Dawkins thinks he’s found the cure for faith. But his own is the one he ignores. He’s an anti-humanist. To humanists that’s more offensive than religion, which is after all no more than a system of laws.

Reason at its most abstract is individual and private. And the moral esthetic of scientific exploration is no more than the esthetic of mountain-climbing writ grand.
The search for ‘truth’ is no more than the search for unknown facts. And when those unknown facts are known they become banal. So the search goes on again. For what!!!?

In the end there is no there there, beyond desire. Dawkins defends a kind of desire.
What kind of intelligence is it that needs to invent new gadgets, lets say: new musical instruments, as opposed to learning how to play one well
What does that last word mean?

There is no purpose to life beyond the social. NONE. Science as such is as absurd as rock climbing without the need to get over a hill to find food. And scientists and those who pretend their non-scientific activities are science act out of desire not selflessness, and certainly not out of necessity.

The close study of texts, or of man made things, is a social act and an act of introspection.
All gods fail. They always have. In the 20th century man made himself god. He failed too.
Religion as such is not the answer. Neither is science. And neither is Robert Fulghum
There is no test that you can pass that enables you all on your own to claim the mantle of ‘reason.’ Our descendants will always look back at us and our preoccupations and find them largely to be odd.
Better ironic self-awareness than pure reason. Because pure reason is something we will never have.
Does it matter whether Alden Pyle thought of himself as religious?

215

Righteous Bubba 05.06.09 at 11:49 pm

The search for ‘truth’ is no more than the search for unknown facts. And when those unknown facts are known they become banal. So the search goes on again. For what?

Penicillin?

216

sleepy 05.06.09 at 11:50 pm

And before I get yelled for supposedly saying something about subjectivity and numbers:

We think and communicate in categories by means of words. I’m willing to stipulate that numbers are external, but I won’t say the same for language.
That would simply be illogical.

217

sleepy 05.06.09 at 11:53 pm

“Penicillin?”
It became banal to those who over-prescribed it.
There mistake.

218

sleepy 05.06.09 at 11:54 pm

sorry for the typo

219

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 12:28 am

It became banal to those who over-prescribed it.

But never will to those who would otherwise die from an infection it can treat.

Really, do you think anybody hasn’t seen versions of this particular rant 100,000 times before, and watched the multiple strawmen therein be demolished as many times? Yawn. If nobody bothers to do it for the 100,001st time, it’s not because of your devastating intellect (though you’re welcome to believe that if it makes you feel good.)

(And for Christ’s sake, has ANYBODY who bashes Dawkins in these hackneyed terms ever actually read a word he’s written?)

220

Salient 05.07.09 at 12:45 am

I’d like to know if there’s one person on this thread willing to state that he or she does not live most of his or her life according to assumption and faith, even if it’s their own sense of reason.

I am willing to state that.

I think it’s worth pointing out that confusion over the meanings of words could fuel a long and pointless exchange, here. The idea of “faith” — to me — is belief that not only is held in the absence of experiential evidence, but also would be held in the face of compelling contrary evidence.

For example, if you had faith in Jesus as savior and in the middle of a day the skies seemed to split and Muhammad appeared to you in a fiery chariot and declared to you his status as your savior, you would assume yourself to be hallucinating, because you know Jesus is your savior. Perhaps you would assume it’s the devil’s work, to tempt you. Whatever: if you have faith, then no evidence whatsoever to the contrary could possibly convince you otherwise. You’d disbelieve your own senses for prolonged periods of time before you’d change your faith-belief.

So, e.g., it would be possible for me to

It would be impossible for me to have faith in, say, the models of chemistry, because I’ve seen those models accurately predict phenomena. If I saw a model that did not accurately predict the phenomena it was meant to represent, I would scrap it — to me, that means I have no faith in the model. That having been said, one of my lines of work is theoretical modeling, even at the apprentice stage. So I’m accustomed to the idea that most of what we “know” is a distillation that is subject to re-interpretation as new training data comes in or as we think up new modeling methods.

It is also essentially impossible for me to have faith in the non-existence of any supernatural god. I know enough common sense about biology to understand, e.g., that people die; if I were to die and then find myself in some supernatural realm, well, I’d feel pretty open to accommodating new evidence.

But colloquially speaking, we throw around the word “faith” in all sorts of silly ways — optimistic = I “have faith” in humanity, for example. That’s fine for everyday discussion, but if we’re going to have a serious exchange about faith, I think it needs to be built on some common understanding of what we mean when we use the word.

221

sleepy 05.07.09 at 12:53 am

“But never will to those who would otherwise die from an infection it can treat.”
That’s not the point. The defenders of ‘reason’ began operating on assumption.

So what’s the cure for intellectual laziness? Is somebody going to invent a pill?
Also, you’re confusing born again christians with christian scientists.

“And for Christ’s sake, has ANYBODY who bashes Dawkins in these hackneyed terms ever actually read a word he’s written?”
Yes.

You’re upset about what people believe. I worry about how people act.
I’ll give you another parallel:
I’m not greedy or materialistic. The only principle that governs my life (outside of the search for sex) is curiosity. But logic tells us that we must calculate our policies on the assumption that people are affected by things that don’t affect me at all. Political science and economics as fields are based on a realistic understanding of human attitudes and behavior. That would imply to me at least that we have to accept that most people are stupid. And as far as I’m concerned they are. So if we accept that about economics why not accept it about everything else, and try to understand everything as realists?
It’s odd how economic realism in this country became economic idealism, but that’s more about psychology, specifically American psychology, than logic.

222

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:01 am

I regret having attributed some degree of coherence to what sleepy was typing in his previous rant. Clearly, that was a libel. I have no idea at all what to make of stuff like

Also, you’re confusing born again christians with christian scientists.

(huh?) so I won’t even try.

223

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:02 am

Good stuff from Salient.

Some additional truisms, just to deal with some of the most common red herrings.

Richard Dawkins is not M. Homais come to life. Neither is anybody else. M. Homais is a fictional character.

Scientists actually are quite aware that their models of reality are only that, models.

Very few scientists imagine that they’re selfless crusaders a la Martin Arrowsmith (and if there are any who do they’re probably not very popular with their colleagues.)

It’s not news to those who study human behavior that we are a social species.

People do science because it’s fun (primarily), because they want to do something useful (in bad cases like weapons developers this may be a dangerous delusion), but certainly not because it’s a religion-substitute.

Scientists, like other people, have lives and interests outside science.

224

sleepy 05.07.09 at 1:07 am

“The idea of “faith”—to me—is belief that not only is held in the absence of experiential evidence, but also would be held in the face of compelling contrary evidence.”

But mention the word “Marx” and Brad DeLong starts howling at the moon.

And by you logic we wouldn’t need a black man or a woman on the Supreme Court because reason dictates that once we understand [by reason alone!!] what racism and sexism is we have no need for a black or female “perspective.” Sooner or later they’d end up on the court. But the argument for “perspectives” sounds like relativism!

225

Salient 05.07.09 at 1:13 am

I regret having attributed some degree of coherence to what sleepy was typing in his previous rant.

I’m having a hard time believing you when you say your “spirit is willing” to be charitable, Steve. It hasn’t been in evidence today.

226

George W 05.07.09 at 1:13 am

High jackass quotient on this thread.

227

Salient 05.07.09 at 1:15 am

sleepy, I don’t understand how that’s a reply to my statement. To be clear, I am not Brad DeLong, and I haven’t said anything about the U.S. Supreme Court nomination-to-be.

228

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:15 am

And by you logic we wouldn’t need a black man or a woman on the Supreme Court because reason dictates that once we understand [by reason alone!!] what racism and sexism is we have no need for a black or female “perspective.”

Sigh. Reason “dictates” no such thing. Valid reasoning from pretty well-accepted psychological premises would surely “dictate” the exact contrary.

Please take a course in logic so that you might come to have some idea of what reasoning actually entails. “Reason” is not some kind of civil religion (Robespierre has been dead for quite a while). It has no content in itself, it’s basically just logic, a tool for insuring that the truth of your premises, if they are true, survives intact into your conclusions.

229

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:17 am

I’m having a hard time believing you when you say your “spirit is willing” to be charitable, Steve. It hasn’t been in evidence today.

I plead guilty. Time to go to bed. ;)

230

sleepy 05.07.09 at 1:28 am

“well-accepted psychological premises would surely “dictate” the exact contrary”
And those premises are based on the premise that pure reason is impossible.
You should Dawkins’ friend Colin McGinn on relativism and democracy.
http://mcginn.philospot.com/index.php?story=story080531-113347

You want intellectual simplicity in a psychologically complex world.
And you don’t even see the contradiction because the only psychology you refuse to see is your own.

231

nick s 05.07.09 at 4:39 am

the distressingly common cognitive debility that leads to confusing the value of religiously-inspired cultural artifacts with the value of religion.

Yeah, right. I missed the Fuller interlude, but anyway, picking up where we left off, my short response is of the three-word variety.

My longer response is that I’m entirely comfortable with Gerard Edelman’s formulation when it comes to locating aesthetic responses within concentric models that extend from the cultural and psychological down to the interplay of neurotransmitters and the underlying physics guiding those chemical reactions.

I don’t have much time for people who think it’s useful to pass judgement on various cultural artifacts as if they were a nice cup of tea or a satisfactory bowel movement. (Note: I’m not referring to Steve LaBonne here.) Or, to be more precise, I’d appreciate it if they stuck to subjects where their expertise keeps their bare spotty arses from display.

Of course, you were the one who confused a respect for cultural artifacts that may or may not touch upon religion with some kind of respect for religion. It’s actually about respect for people as the producers of those artifacts; Dawkins’ tin ear annoys me for the same reason I’d prefer the tone deaf to not volunteer for the karaoke.

I could account your confusion to some cognitive debility in scientists, because that’s such a rich vein of snarky potential. Since I actually respect them, I’ll blame your hair-trigger on the Skinnerian reinforcement that you’ve received chez PZ to treat anyone suspected of heterodoxy as if they’ve argued that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.07.09 at 7:26 am

Ginger 204, See, this is why I mentioned the social Darwinism thing. You’re the one apparently advocating vulgar reductionism, not the scientists or the militant atheists. Most of us don’t see much of a problem in love of family as a source of meaning. Sure, some values boil down to axioms unjustifiable by pure, cold rationality. But they do mean something to us. But it’s not like they’re controversial, or problematic. Even the theists agree. So what’s the problem?

Look, I happen to love my children and abhor social Darwinism. What I’m saying is that being a rational individual it’s difficult for me to make a deep meaning out of it, as I realize that it’s merely a product of early indoctrination and some circuits in my brain.

You seem to sorta agree, so what does “they do mean something to us” mean exactly? Does it make you a closeted person of faith, a vague universalist in denial? If so, what are we arguing about?

233

JoB 05.07.09 at 9:20 am

Henri, maybe you should just settle for meaning and realize that the epithet ‘deep’ that you are apparently needing is just the byproduct of early childhood indoctrination. I mean it.

234

Henri Vieuxtemps 05.07.09 at 9:52 am

Right JoB, or it could also be a result of some combination of chemicals in my brain: nicotine, too much sugar, fluoride, who knows. So then, as a rational individual, should I join some unitarian universalist church and (hopefully) enjoy myself (like my injured friend in 157), or should I remain pure and keep suffering? Dilemma…

235

JoB 05.07.09 at 10:06 am

Henri, I do nicotine too so that’s not the guilty chemical ;) Or maybe it is :( Join a church why don’t you. All of this pureness desire is indoctrination and all of the suffering is just addiction to romantic art. Once in the church people will annoy the hell out of you, so you’ll see the suffering is there and maybe you can give up the categories pure/suffering and go see a movie with the kids, or write a book … but: please don’t take up cooking lessons & join the local cooking club!

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.07.09 at 10:35 am

Right again, but if (hypothetically) I did find a religion and become happier that way – would it make Mr. LaBonne despise (or, best case scenario, pity) me? I suspect it would. But why?

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 10:46 am

Right again, but if (hypothetically) I did find a religion and become happier that way – would it make Mr. LaBonne despise (or, best case scenario, pity) me?

No, I’d be happy that you found something that makes you feel better. (However, given your skeptical temperament, I would privately doubt that it would work for long, and I would hope for your sake that you would eventually find a more durable source of consolation.)

238

Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 10:55 am

It’s actually about respect for people as the producers of those artifacts

I admire Wagner’s music (well, more than I actually like it, but that’s a different discussion). I most certainly don’t admire or respect Wagner as a person, and why should I?

239

JoB 05.07.09 at 11:25 am

Herni, so you have Steve’s blessing! Quit that church whilst you’re ahead ;-)

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Ginger Yellow 05.07.09 at 11:28 am

“What I’m saying is that being a rational individual it’s difficult for me to make a deep meaning out of it, as I realize that it’s merely a product of early indoctrination and some circuits in my brain.”

But all human meanings are a product of our environment and circuits in the brain (defined loosely). Again, what’s the problem? Knowing that doesn’t make them any less meaningful to us. You keep seeming to argue that “deep” meanings need to be rooted outside our minds, but the whole point I’m arguing is that the meanings are generated by our minds. Certain meanings have more power because they’ve been reinforced during the course of evolution, or a broadly universal applicability, or for some other reason, but they’re still our minds’ reasons.

” Does it make you a closeted person of faith, a vague universalist in denial?”

Uh, not as far as I can tell, but then I’m not sure what precisely you mean by that. It makes me someone who believes the meanings we give things are enough for us.

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belle le triste 05.07.09 at 11:28 am

Oh! I just twigged something — I was distracted by that whole atheist soup kitchen nonsense (my notion; my fault)

Labonne says, re Henri’s (theoretical) despair: “I’d be happy that you found something that makes you feel better. (However, given your skeptical temperament, I would privately doubt that it would work for long, and I would hope for your sake that you would eventually find a more durable source of consolation.)”

“Privately” is the crux: because the modern liberal secular mind is geared to the assumption “different strokes for different folks, comfort is where you find it within, mine not to impose in such matters”. The big public institutions of manipulative outreach — I mean religions — are (in this light) grotesque impositions (as terry eagledevil’s advocate above I’ve been downplaying the degree to which I too consider them grotesque: the social value we get from them, which is not nothing, we pay for, very harshly). As good modern liberal seculars, we niche-market our pleasures and our beliefs and our institutions and methods and techniques of discovery and refinement and distraction and consolation and community and etc; and of course division of intellectual labour has been a wildly productive boon in many many MANY ways, but with it comes social separation. So automatic and so pervasive that we don’t even see when it’s right in front of our face. Why is “private” an unquestioned value in this instance?

What Steve doesn’t say is this: “I have an idea where Henri will find more durable source of consolation. I will email him suggestions as to where we could meet up and spend time chatting about it. He might not get much from my lines of diversion and reflection and self-refreshment, but I bet I know what he would like.” The habit of social outreach — obviously no more absent in scientists than any other passion-shaped mammal* — isn’t wound into the dynamics of this kind of discussion; it’s carefully kept at bay from it. (It’s a distraction from work, and — more significantly, in respect of the argument I want to be making and have so far failed to make — from the wider politics of that work.)

As Pete nicely put it (though he immediately backed away!): “Militant rationalists need love too. OK, so that’s a toss-away quip…”

(I’m totally not meaning to harsh on Steve here — though obviously I am cheekily taking up the Nature of His Response words and making A Stern Example of it; it’s just that what he said is what made the light go on in my head re something I’d written about privatisation of consolation earlier on, and the muddle I was getting into about what I meant by this…)

The stage we’re at (re our social institutions of consolation) is bad; I don’t think — unlike Eagleton — that we need to go backwards, and recruit religion to help us out, I think this is a horrible regression; but I think religion was aware of a social need — which it places at the heart of its Propaganda of the Deed* — which we have pushed to the margins of our various gladiatorial intellectual spectacles.

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belle le triste 05.07.09 at 11:33 am

^^^”this kind of discussion” — ie crooked timber-type arguments about religion and rationalism

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belle le triste 05.07.09 at 11:35 am

(and ignore the asterisks)

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 12:13 pm

What Steve doesn’t say is this: “I have an idea where Henri will find more durable source of consolation. I will email him suggestions as to where we could meet up and spend time chatting about it.

Seriously, I were Henri’s friend and believed, based on my understanding of his personality, that I DID have such an idea, I most certainly would broach it, of course without tactlessly disparaging whatever he was currently trying to use to get him through the day (unless it were something self-destructive like excessive use of drink or drugs.) But yes, as a good little liberal I don’t feel it’s my place to do that to a stranger. Like any way of life liberalism has its limitations, but I find this particular limitation of liberalism to be a price worth paying in order not to live in a society of bossy busybodies.

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belle le triste 05.07.09 at 12:33 pm

Of course, Steve, and I (genuinely) didn’t mean it to be about you and your decisions anyway (which I have no problem with and are no different from mine); any more than I meant it to be about Dawkins and his “advocacy for the poor”. What I’m getting at is that — if you’re someone who feels they’ve been left on the outside, in need of consolation — these particular assumptions we liberals are making (about our right/duty not to be bossybootses, but our right/duty nevertheless to partake of a vivid public _conversation_ about every imagineable kind of things), can/will seem cold and heartless, an offer of participation-at-a-cost* that’s easy to refuse, compared to the participation-at-a-cost** offered elsewhere.

*The cost here is that you have to be up-to-the-mark intellectually, and pretty thick-skinned, and cheerfully (or spitefully) able to hold your own in such disputes. This is a cost some — the old, the tired, the bruised, the shy, the alien — will not feel able to pay. (Of course, we’ve actually evolved a whole ecology of different flavours of dispute, to suit differing tastes and views and politics and temperaments — from volokh to lolcatz to w/evs — but I bet there’s a ton of folks unable to receive workable communion from any of these…)
**The cost there is that you have not to openly challenge the underlying organisation myths and moral rules of exclusion, whatever harm you see they’re causing off round the corner away from the benefit you’re getting.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 12:40 pm

Belle, I can only repeat that I’m quite aware that that’s one of the costs of liberalism, and it’s one that seems to me worth paying in light of the benefits and considering the alternatives. Other people’s calculations on that point may of course differ.

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nick s 05.07.09 at 1:19 pm

I admire Wagner’s music (well, more than I actually like it, but that’s a different discussion). I most certainly don’t admire or respect Wagner as a person, and why should I?

You’re still not comprehending what I said. Let me rephrase it: it’s about respect for the human endeavour that is the creation of cultural artifacts.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:22 pm

You’re still not comprehending what I said. Let me rephrase it: it’s about respect for the human endeavour that is the creation of cultural artifacts.

Respect which, no doubt, some straw person out there is gravely lacking. Whatever.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 1:44 pm

P.S. I deeply respect Wagner’s creative processes. He was one of those rare geniuses who change the entire course of music history. As a human being he was a disaster, and his views, which do in fact find expression in his work as a number of musicologists have demonstrated, were repellent.

On the other hand, while I certainly do not share or admire Bach’s religious beliefs (which are very obviously expressed in his works), he seems to have been a rather admirable (if somewhat irascible) person as well as a supreme artist. (I feel the same way about Dante.)

So no matter how you twist and turn you’re still committing an undergraduate-level howler, which accords ill with your smugly superior tone.

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bianca steele 05.07.09 at 2:01 pm

belle,
I haven’t caught up entirely with this thread, but if I understand you correctly: Part of my point is just that the religion that seems to be trumpeted by celebrity academics like Eagleton is not the same as what you’d actually find elsewhere. Eagleton perhaps gets to make up his own theology and receive a publishing contract in return, without having to feel like his intellectualism has forced him to leave the community of believers. The hoi polloi are expected to parrot phrases from a somewhat constrained group of sources, or more likely to realize that the help they are able to offer others from their particular station in life precludes intellectual commitment of any kind, if they are actually going to help rather than make themselves feel better.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.07.09 at 3:11 pm

Ginger 240, but of course it needs to be rooted outside our minds, otherwise we are venturing into solipsistic territory. Which is fine too, except it’s probably even less scientific and rational than “in the beginning was the Word”.

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Ginger Yellow 05.07.09 at 3:30 pm

They’re often related to things outside our minds, but I fail to see why meanings have to be (or even can be, absent the supernatural) rooted outside our minds. To take a simple-ish example, the word “toilet” denotes a real object or class of objects, but the meaning each person gives to it is his/her own. And for words in general, even their denotations are constructed by a community of minds.

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sleepy 05.07.09 at 4:09 pm

The question is not whether or not you choose to defend finding comfort in pattern-making and assumption as opposed reason and empiricism; you do it whether you admit it or not.

Alden Pyle found comfort in pattern. Brad DeLong finds comfort that way. Steve LaBonne finds comfort that way. And so do I and everyone else. I don’t argue with religious people about the details of their faith. I’m only arguing with LaBonne because he refuses to accept that he’s subject and acts on the same desires. We invent patterns and narratives to give order to the world. LaBonne has invented a pattern of meaning to give order to his:

—“And by your logic we wouldn’t need a black man or a woman on the Supreme Court because reason dictates that once we understand [by reason alone!!] what racism and sexism are we have no need for a black or female ‘perspective.'”
“Sigh. Reason ‘dictates’ no such thing. Valid reasoning from pretty well-accepted psychological premises would surely ‘dictate’ the exact contrary.”
—“And those premises are based on the premise that pure reason is impossible.”

The reasons for diversity are substantive not merely political and practical. Platonists may argue against “perspectives” as opposed to truth [Colin McGinn does] but most of us would oppose a philosopher king.
LaBonne made a clear logical mistake. He slipped. He assumed. He argued from faith.

We are partial: we have preferences and can not escape having them. The world is mostly inert and absolutely meaningless. Mr LaBonne, you have as hard a time accepting that as any Catholic.
The rule of law is not the rule of reason. The rule of reason will always end up as the rule of experts; and the rule of experts is the rule of an unelected elite. There is no God. There is no Truth. There is no telos beyond entropy and even to call it a telos is to give it a meaning when there is none. That mankind has spent trillions on the romance of science and exploration rather than spending a third of that on the mundanity of water-treatment plants and public health is just bizarre to me. But the geology of Mars is somehow considered ‘meaningful’ to people. As meaningful as whatever there is on the top of Mt Everest. As someone who defends a disinterested reason I can only scratch my head. Love is blind I guess.

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sleepy 05.07.09 at 4:11 pm

to make it pedant proof:
“…trillions on the romance of big science.”

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Righteous Bubba 05.07.09 at 4:14 pm

Seth?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.07.09 at 4:59 pm

I don’t know, GY. You pick a perfectly ordinary object or activity and you make it your fetish, sort of. Arbitrary and capriciously, just because you feel like it. I suppose it might work for some people (star wars fans come to mind), but I don’t think it’s very common, and it’s probably a recipe for a huge disappointment later in life. It’s not rooted outside your mind enough, not meaningful enough, can turn to dust at any moment.

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Ginger Yellow 05.07.09 at 5:57 pm

Henri, I think we’re talking at cross-purposes, and I’m really not sure what your line of argument is. I’m not talking about fetishes or obsessions, as colloquially understood. I’m talking about the way we attribute vary levels and types of meaning to everything we encounter, all the time.

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engels 05.07.09 at 6:12 pm

If I were a religious believer reading this thread I think would probably be questioning my belief in a benevolent creator by this point.

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Steve LaBonne 05.07.09 at 6:22 pm

If I were a religious believer reading this thread I think would probably be questioning my belief in a benevolent creator by this point.

Could it be… SATAN???

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Salient 05.07.09 at 6:24 pm

We are partial: we have preferences and can not escape having them. The world is mostly inert and absolutely meaningless.

Again, you’re obfuscating through wordplay. Adopting your odd definition of the word “meaning,” even if you believe in some god, this does not imply the world has any “meaningful” attributes. After all, it’s not as though creating something imbues you with the authority to call it meaningful — meaning in the sense you’re using, insofar as it exists, is an intrinsic property, not dependent on any relationship. So, ok. The world can’t possibly have the kind of “meaning” you seek to prove it doesn’t have. I would call this a misuse of the word “meaning.”

After all, you go on to say/imply that:
(1) we’re all operating on “faith”
(2a) more specifically, and this is the irksome part, you are arguing that we are all completely equally arbitrary in our choice of faith.
(2b) As a consequence of 2a, you are implicitly claiming there is no appropriate criterion we may use to objectively judge Person A’s “faith” superior to Person B’s “faith”

Do I have this more or less right?

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Salient 05.07.09 at 6:34 pm

That mankind has spent trillions on the romance of science and exploration rather than spending a third of that on the mundanity of water-treatment plants and public health is just bizarre to me.

1) It’s not as though people have very much direct control over the coffers.

2) I think spending money on “the romance of science” has led to, e.g., advances in our understanding of physiology, which in turn facilitated medical developments, for public health. And the money spend on “exploration” (I’m assuming you mean exploration of outer space) has pretty clearly resulted in technology advancement. Ironically enough, one such advancement was in wastewater treatment (it’s as though you were trying to devise examples which would undermine your own point).

3) But maybe I just don’t know what you mean by romance. It’s like “pork barrel spending” in this respect — what falls within the “romantic” category is probably highly contingent

4) Romance-science with profit is justified, in the minds of those who pursue it, by the profit. E.g. space exploration, publicly funded, fairly profitable (and in my mind worthwhile by point 2 alone).

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.07.09 at 7:33 pm

Perhaps we can achieve some common ground by noting that all wordviews, be they of largely rationalist or religious inspiration or orientation are, at bottom, at least insofar as we endeavor to rationally vindicate or justify them as well as bind them in some fashion to our experience, rest on principles or truth claims that are not themselves rationally justifiable without infinite regress (i.e., we can always ask the question: ‘And what justifies *that*?). Hence the resort to and appeal of, in the history of philosophy, “self-evident” truths. Put differently, in the words of Nicholas Rescher:

“The fact is that philosophy cannot provide a rational explanation for *everything,* rationalizing all of its claims ‘all the way down.’ Sooner or later the process of rationalization and explanation must–to all appearances–come to a halt in the acceptance of unexplained explainers.”

With regard to logical derivation at least, “we must accept some inexplicable ultimate, unless we are to descend into an infinite regress.”

Rescher suggests that we consider the possibility of philosphical explanation as being “sytemically holistic,” meeting criteria having more to do with fit and coherence rather than as simply or solely a process of axiomatic linear justification. The latter prefers a type of philosophical exposition that relies on inferential expression and argumentation to vindicate its claims, while the former generally resorts to a rhetoric of persuasion: “Like inferential reasoning, rhetoric too is a venture of justificatory systematization, albeit one of a different kind.”

Rescher uses examples from the writings of Nietzsche to illustrate this form of philosophical discourse although he reminds us that most philosphers will employ both methods of philosophical vindication even if, in the end, one predominates, as it usually does (I think Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is a nice example of shifting back and forth between these two modes of philosophical exposition, sometimes in an irritating way).

As Rescher further explains,

“Reflection on the contrast between the argumentative and the rhetorical modes of philosophical exposition leads to the realization that these two styles are congenial to rather different objectives. The demonstrative/argumentative (inferential) mode is efficient for securing a reader’s assent to certain claims, to influencing one’s *beliefs,* The rhetorical (evocative) mode is optimal for inducing a reader to adopt certain preferences, to shaping or influencing one’s *priorities and evaluations.*”

Religious discourse (save that of theologians committed to natural theology) is written typically in the rhetorical and evocative mode, indeed, often in figurative language more appropriate to the types of “things” it is endeavoring to speak about, things that are beyond the limits of rational cognition and literal description. But philosophical discourse as well often finds sufficient reason to rely on the rhetorical and evocative mode:

“the rhetorical…mode of philosophical exposition is by nature geared to securing acceptance with respect to *evaluations:* to enlisting the reader’s agreement to certain priorities or appraisals. It is preoccupied with evaluation, with forming–or reforming–our sensibilities with respect to the *value* and, above all, the *importance* of various items. It is bound up with a view of philosophy that sees the discipline in *axiological* terms, as an enterprise that has as its prime task the securing of certain evaluative determinations and the establishment of certain prizings and priorities. It aims primarily to *induce* people to an evaluative standpoint. It exerts its appeal not in reasoning from prior philosophical givens, but rather by rhetorical means that exert their impetus *directly* upon the cognitive values and sympathies we have fixed on the basis of our experience of the world’s ways.”

And Rescher’s pellucid conclusion:

“Even the most demonstration-minded philosopher cannot avoid entanglement in evaluation by rhetorical devices. For even the most rationalistic of thinkers cannot argue demonstratively for everything ‘all the way down,’ so to speak. At some point a philosopher must invite assent through an appeal to sympathetic acquiescence based on experience as such. On the other hand, even the most sentimental philosopher cannot altogether avert argumentation. For a reliance on certain *standards* of assessment is inescapably present in those proffered evaluations, and this issue of appropriateness cannot be addressed satisfactorily without some recourse to reasons.” (Please see, Nicholas Rescher, a System of Pragmatic Idealism, Vol. III, Metaphilosophical Inquiries, 1994: 36-58)

Keeping this in mind, we might now consider the following from John Cottingham:

“In the history of philosophy, the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most commonly coupled not with the term ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises.’ Perhaps the most famous exemplar is the sixteenth-century Ejercicios espirituales (‘Spiritual Exercises,’ c. 1522-41) of St. Ignatius Loyola. As its name implies, this is not a doctrinal treatise, nor even a book of sermons, but a structured set of exercises or practices; it is a practical course of activities for the retreatant, to be followed in a prescribed order, carefully divided into days and weeks. [....] In Ignatius…we are dealing with a practical manual–a training manual–and the structured timings, the organized programmes of readings, contemplation, prayer, and reflection, interspersed with the daily rhythms of eating and sleeping, are absolutely central, indeed they are the essence of the thing. Ignatius himself opens the work by making an explicit parallel with physical training programmes: ‘just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid itself of disordered attachments.’ [....]

What holds good for any plausible account of the tradition of spiritual exercises also holds good more generally for any true understanding of the place of religion in human life: we have to acknowledge what might be called the primacy of praxis, the vital importance that is placed on the individual’s embarking on a path of self-transformation, rather than (say) simply engaging in intellectual debate or philosophical analysis. [....] The philosopher Blaise Pascal was a striking advocate of this line of thought. His famous nuit de feu or ‘night of fire’ on November 23 1654–the intense religious experience that led to a radical change in his life–generated in him what he describes as feelings of ‘heartfelt certainty, peace and joy’ [cf. the Sanskrit formula, saccidananda in orthodox Indian philosophy and comparable descriptions of the Buddhist's nibbana.] But the God who is the source of these feelings is ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ not the God of ‘philosophers and scholars.’ Commentators have discussed the exact import of these words, but the general point is clear enough: faith, for Pascal, must arise in the context of a living tradition of practical religious observance, rather than from debate and analysis in the seminar room. This is consistent with Pascal’s general philosophical stance on the epistemic status of religious claims, which may be described as proto-Kantian; questions about the nature and existence of God are beyond the reach of discursive reason. ‘If there is a God,’ says Pascal, ‘he is infinitely beyond our comprehension…and hence we are incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is.’ And since reason cannot settle the matter, we have to make a practical choice, a choice on which our ultimate happiness depends.”

Lastly, consider the following points from the late Ninian Smart and Hilary Putnam respectively:

Who can say that Christianity is false because it is supposedly not rational? What if it be rational to expect worldviews to proceed substantially form symbolic sources? What if it is rational to expect revelation from the Beyond if God is ever to address the world that she, having created other than herself, is hidden behind? And if it is not irrational to believe in God, why not the Qur’an, why not Islam? Can the Christian prove her revelation or the Muslim his, over against the other? So [perhaps] it is not rational to think there are clear rational answers to the question of the truth of worldviews.” (From Smart’s Religion and the Western Mind, 1987: 12-13)

The philosopher Hilary Putnam puts Smart’s point this way: “‘Is our own way of life right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong.”

In any case, and in many respects, sensitive, empathetic, reflective, and critical global worldview description and analysis is in its infancy, and thus it seems highly unlikely anyone is (at least today) sufficiently well-versed in all the planet’s religious and philosophical worldviews to engage in such an enterprise. For we are only now beginning to appreciate the unique logic and forms of rationality found in non-Western worldviews. And we are still in the process of formulating the possible candidates for acceptable cross-cultural and comparative criteria for the analysis and evaluation of worldviews, especially if we grant that the assumptions and methods of modern Western philosophy are not necessarily privileged in such an enterprise, and in fact remain open to learning (about contemporary philosophy’s own myths and presuppositions, for example) from this cross-cultural encounter. Another way to put this would be to concede that Western philosophy (or science for that matter) does not possess an a priori monopoly on, or privileged possession of, the truth in any absolute sense. This is not equivalent to denying we can or should strive to make rational and ethical assessments of particular beliefs or practices within worldviews (cf. Martha C. Nussbaum’s Sex and Social Justice, 1999, or think of Gandhi’s critique of Hinduism and his belief that no religion should countenance in theory or practice the violation of fundamental ethical values and precepts), for we do and should. And this is all the more urgent if we happen to believe religions are first and foremost about “ways of life” and personal conduct, rather than dogmas, doctrine, or orthodoxy (i.e., more a question of orthopraxis). Smart himself argues, and I think persuasively, that it is through the comparative analysis of worldviews that we will generate the normative conceptual resources and categories for worldview evaluation, if only because the process itself will serve to “detribalize Westerners,” that is, enable us to overcome our dispositional tendency to “treat our tradition normatively, either explicitly or secretly.”

In some measure, of course, and particularly in the beginning, we unavoidably treat our own tradition(s) as normative in the comparative study of worldviews. (As Henry McDonald has argued, we ‘see’ or act and think on the basis of our own norms, rules and values, i.e., ‘on the [normative] basis of our own concepts, because they are the logical space in which we move and without which we could see nothing at all.’) Smart and others who have thought long and hard about the comparative examination of worldviews, being at the same time pioneers and trailblazers in this enterprise, believe that it will eventually allow if not encourage us to become more self-critical about our own worldviews, and that the result of such encounters and dialogues need not lead to either absolute relativism or radical scepticism.

So while we may be critical of specific worldview beliefs, practices, interests or themes (the latter in the sense perhaps of undue or misplaced emphasis), it is fruitless to make truth claims about worldviews as worldviews. With regard to this more modest critical endeavor, for example, we might assess the potential or capacity of a particular worldview to rationally, ethically, and creatively respond to various urgent issues and problems in our contemporary (and future) world: be it nationalism, uneven or unfettered technological development, public health and general welfare, various kinds of violence, ecological deterioration and devastation, the recognition of basic human rights, the commodification of values, global distributive justice, the awakening and exercise of functions and capacities thought essential for human flourishing or eudaimonia, and so forth and so on. This serves to remind us that, at bottom, our traditions and worldviews are the repositories of our normative conceptions of the good life, and only a clear and deep understanding of such conceptions will enable us to find the evaluative criteria essential to critically assessing ideologies and worldviews in the interests of our shared humanity or individual and collective flourishing.

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nick s 05.07.09 at 7:43 pm

So no matter how you twist and turn you’re still committing an undergraduate-level howler, which accords ill with your smugly superior tone.

And once again, you appear to be deliberately misreading me in order to jam that stick a few inches further up your arse. Whatever, lab rat.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 05.08.09 at 6:11 am

257, Ginger, I’m not talking about fetishes or obsessions, as colloquially understood. I’m talking about the way we attribute vary levels and types of meaning to everything we encounter, all the time.

I understand that our personal judgments of things are subjective. But you suggested before that something like rock climbing can serve as life’s meaning; that’s what I’m responding to. At that point it’s not just subjective (you enjoy rock climbing – I don’t), it seems to break into a whole different category. But I’m probably missing something again.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.08.09 at 8:46 pm

Patrick S. O’Donnell, perhaps you will be interested in the following comparative mysticism. Some years ago I notated the practical mystical writings of Patanjali, Shankara, Buddaghosa, John of the Cross, and Ibn ‘Arabi, according to categories that were suggested by an article in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.

I picked these mystics because they are intellectual-type, not devotional-type, and so they left a rather comprehensive rational description through to the end of the mystical process.

I then extracted and correlated all the results into one list. They turn out to very close in order, and so I will posit that my result is rather like the developmental stages in Piaget, which are not precisely the same for each individual, but close enough — and similarly, there are cumulative aspects as well as sudden changes.

The categories by which the descriptions were extracted are as follows: (A) the reported states of being (there are 3 major ones,) (B) the psycho-technology, meaning the mental effort which is to be followed, and (C) the presiding results, meaning the results which develop at each point. I ended up with 14 solidly distinguishable steps. Again, these are found in all the mystics. Putting them in their most common order:

(1, FIRST state of being) — Waking consciousness;

(2 psycho-technology) — Practice of virtuous conduct and purification;

(3 presiding result) — Quiet and inner strength;

(4 psycho-technology) — Direct the mind to one object, and hold it for as long as possible;

(5 presiding result) — Counterattack by the Sins, that is very specifically, by the Preventers of holding the mind on one object: Greek Christian sin = “hamartia” = “missing the mark,” Vedantism “unwholesome roots,” Buddhism “nivarana” = “hindrances,” Islamic Sufism “Satan’s character traits;”

(6 psycho-technology) — Reapply the mind again and again to one object, and hold it for as long as possible;

— At this point there is a jump of many months or years until you can maintain:

(7 psycho-technology) — Maintain a continuous, non-discursive flow, via #6;

— At this point there is a jump of only a few days or weeks until there comes a discontinuous change:

(8 SECOND state of being) — Fusion of subject and object, foreground and background (e.g. Buddhist second dhyana;)

(9 presiding result) — Continuous growth of a combined emotional-intellectual function: usually termed something like “illuminated wisdom-love;”

(10 presiding result) — but the sins or unwholesome roots remain, to resurface throughout;

(11 presiding result) — Powers, visions, pseudo-nirvanas;

— And then it may take decades until the following is perfected:

(12 psycho-technology) — Via #6, renounce and sacrifice #9,10,11, all entirely, and renounce and sacrifice one’s own self;

— Which upon total acccomplishment, immediately leads to a huge discontinuity:

(13 THIRD state of being) — “Extinction (nibbana),” “deiformity,” “aloneness;”

(14 presiding result) — Freedom and detachment.

NOTES.

None of these mystics, nor dozens of others it would appear, made much use of the theologies of their religions. Yet these are the people who came closest to “God-consciousness.”

But I had to omit Judaism because I haven’t found a really good classical Jewish mystic! It turns out that this tradition tends not to have recorded many extended personal statements about the process. And what exists, are expressions of the devotional or bhakti path (e.g. Song of Songs) and not the intellectual path.

You could however describe a set of criteria which all theologies have in relation to this basic path. All of them, for example, contain a conceptual explanation of the originating division, or some would say “fallenness,” from the 3rd and highest state of consciousness (#13.) This may or may not be bound-up with the proposal for its remedy.

On #8: Only the most psychologically-advanced religions, Vedantism and Buddhism, separate out #8 and give it its own name and even go further into subdivisions of states. However, #8 is clearly described by John of the Cross, (perhaps the most intellectually advanced of Christian mystics?)

#8 also appears to be very similar to what James Joyce called an artistic “epiphany,” although in mysticism of course the intent is to hold onto it, and extend it as long as possible.

Interestingly, #8 also maps rather directly onto Stanislav Grof’s first step in the process of psychedelic psychotherapy: (1) Aesthetic Experience. (See his book Realms of the Human Unconscious, 1975, just reprinted.) Yet the “presiding results” start rapidly to diverge, — perhaps because there is a different structure to the intentional volition. In psychedelic therapy, as I recall, you are somewhat rammed through the experience, whether you are ready or not. Among many other results this can lead to apocalyptic visions with terrible fear, because the confrontation with ego-death is wholly persuasive and can seem like a genuine medical crisis. The “bad trip.” The Book of Revelation is often forwarded as a perfect description of this. (Of course when LSD went to the streets, some people had bad trips but stopped there, not abreacting all the buried emotional material in further and counseled sessions. This colored their lives for decades more, a real tragedy I believe.)

The devotional paths, such as bhakti yoga and most of Christianity of course, jump-off around #4 into direct worship of god or the avatar. Christianity is in this sense just one large Hindu sub-cult.

It must be allowed however that Christ is unique in combining at least three separate practical functions: (i.) like the Buddha, as a model for the practice of virtuous acts and purification at step #2; (ii.) like a Hindu avatar, as the object of self-abnegating devotion for mental focus throughout; and (iii.) remarkably, the story of the sacrifice on the cross gives a precise metaphor that maps directly onto the ego-death from #12 to #13.

It is perhaps this “functional efficiency” of Christ which leads many of his yet-unrealized followers (stuck somewhere between steps #2 and #11, and by this time spinning madly) to boast loudly of the superiority of their religion. In short, it is Vanity, the root for Christians (and Muslims in particular too) of all of the Satan’s other hindrances.

This incessant trumpeting of the Christian experience is not only annoying to other religions, but it permanently prevents these particular Christians from making the sacrifice of ALL ideas and concepts that is necessary to get to their own Beatific Vision (#13-14.) Ultimate irony. (The advanced Christian mystics are circumspect on this point, perhaps taking their lesson from the likes of poor Marguerite Porete, who unfortunately reported outside of doctrine that she “became God” herself. In a later era though Meister Eckhardt got away with this. John of the Cross used “deiformity” — he became of the form of God — a cleverer and safer locution.)

(P.S.) Since the Roman Church, in an early century, released its priests from the requirement to be in a “state of grace” while giving mass (by “state of grace” let us presume they were talking about something at least like step #8,) we can only speculate on the spiritual condition of its current hierarchy.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 05.08.09 at 10:28 pm

I’m aware of similar attempts to speak to the apparent commonalities of mystical experience, much of which goes back to the efforts of those committed to philosophia perennis in the study of religions. I’ve been particularly interested in the different states of consciousness adumbrated in mystical experiences (and how these relate to the ‘unkowability’ of God in some traditions or some sort of supra-rational non-propositional knowledge of Ultimate Reality, as in the case of nirguna Brahman in Advaita Vedanta) and, relatedly, the kind of careful elucidation of types of mystical experience (especially the ‘apophatic’ and those entailing what Robert K.C. Forman terms the ‘pure consciousness event’), a taste of which one finds in Jerome Gellman’s entry on mysticism found in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mysticism/

That said, I’m equally interested in the *differences* between religions, what makes them unique as religious worldviews, etc. And I don’t assume that such differences are negative, indeed, they may speak to some interesting features about human nature (at least as historically constituted and expressed to this point in time). Moreover, mysticism is, at least in our time and place, a religiously elitist path : “For the world of the mystic is a rarefied world, perhaps like the heights of Machu Pichu, suited for habitation only by those whose blood has become specially adapted for such altitudes. If religion is not to be confined to a spiritual elite, it must be able to speak a language suitable for ordinary humanity–indeed, to close off that possibility would be a denial of the compassion and universalism that is the hallmark of great religions” (John Cottingham). In fact, one of the things I find most intriguing about religious discourse is its capacity to “speak” to those at various levels of psychological maturity and growth (as well as different ‘character types’ and temperaments), self-knowledge, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual discernment.

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Lee A. Arnold 05.09.09 at 1:41 am

Patrick, I think you are right. The only things I would add from my point of view is that the experience of higher consciousness appears to underlie every religion, that “God” or “samadhi” etc. is the name for it, and that the teaching of the attainment of it composes some of the earliest literatures of the religions, although it is often fragmented or buried under metaphor. The fact that the teachings and their subsequent elaborations were able to find such a broad sympathy across the various levels of personal maturity and growth, shows that the highest state of consciousness, while distinct, ties into some sort of spectrum of emotional and intellectual functions, and that there is in some sense a vector or direction to the process that is felt in almost everyone. Transpersonal psychology, in a nutshell.

My correlated outline also gave me an idea for an alternate method of looking at the differences among the major religions, by mapping the differences in the intentional structures of both the believers and the putative deity (or not, in Buddhism and Taoism) — with regards to the religion’s explanation for why the world is the way it is, and the specific recipe the religion gives for finding salvation or transcendence. I’m pretty sure that sounds like nonsense, but I think it’s related to phenomenology and I hope to study it someday. It is a little bit related to what I am doing, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrVsLdTtepM

One place where I would disagree with you is about the “elitism” of mysticism. It may be elite inside the main religions, but I think the tendency to it is quite widespread, outside of them — although it is not being recorded, there is no codified tradition for it, there is no scientific understanding of it, and some of it is ending-up sedated, perhaps tragically, under psych meds.

Before the modern era mysticism was not thought to be unusual; Bernard McGinn’s extraordinary history of Western Christian mysticism (4 vols., so far) examines dozens of prominent examples; there must have been many more who didn’t write or teach or leave any record; and the Church was often exercised to burn-out unorthodox varieties.

With the rise of science the Church decided to try to defend its orthodox theology, which had long since become a pseudo-science to explain the cosmos. Mysticism didn’t stop, but recognition of it diminished. In the more liberal environment unorthodox mysticism got a free turn, and went into several different places at once: into Swedenborgian gibberish, into Blake, and into Goethe, who is perhaps the earliest case we know of in the modern era of a first-rate mind who appears to have understood both mysticism and science. A little later, into some of the Romantic poets. The ecumenical movement of the late 19th century brought the Hindu gurus to European, British, and U.S. attentions, and then theosophy and the like flourished. In the 20th century both Brouwer and Husserl claimed mystical insight; in the U.S., Franklin Merrill-Wolff wrote down the process precisely. Then of course the psychedelic 60’s hit, for good and ill, leading to the interest in Zen and the more mystical versions of Buddhism that arose in the U.S. I think it is widespread. With the rise of neuroscience, the mystical path is going to be better understood, and I predict that it will finally be declared to be a part of nature.

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