"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Philosopher Stone

The pallid bust of Socrates, just above my chamber door....

This is going to take a bit of reading, and I apologize for that in advance.  However, as one of the links says: "Philosophy majors read, and they must make sense of the arguments they encounter."  No, I'm not a philosophy major, but I play one on the intertoobs.  Well, arguendo, anyway....

So, in no particular order except the order in which I encountered them, we start here: "PHILOSOPHICAL LEARNING,"  I generally like Andrew Boyd, but he shows his own lack of philosophical education here (a fact which is generally more embarrassing when the ignorance is of science or engineering, but moving on....).  The problem is first with the idea philosophers are all logicians.  Boyd is right, formal logic has more to do with math than any other kind of reasoning, but the reasoning of philosophers has more akin to that of jurists than it is that of physicists (especially in the split between the Anglo-American schools and the Continental ones).  I would elaborate the point, but it's not my thesis just now.  Suffice to say a better understanding of becoming a lover of wisdom is involved.

A point exemplified by this:

And yet, I have to quibble with the Good Doctor. It’s a good quotation, but I don’t think mystery is the foundation of religion. I am not an historian, but from my own readings it seems to me that mystery was the jumping off point of most religions; the desire to explain the things we see around us and to answer the big questions.

But for most religions today, they claim to have the answers, and that removes the mystery. Oh, sure, there are bits about “God moving in mysterious ways” and other passages in religious texts, but these have always struck me as telling their adherents not to question, not to wonder why. Just accept.

Not all religions are like that, of course, and many religions have sects and subsects with different interpretations of their holy books and how to implement their words.

But what I like about science is that it doesn’t claim to have answers. It has methods. Yes, we do get answers, and many times they’re pretty solid. But science is all about leaving a little bit of room for further data, for an observation that doesn’t fit, for some new discovery to append or upend what we already know. Newton overturned Aristotle, and Einstein himself put Newton’s work into a larger framework; he didn’t negate it, but put it in context and showed where it could be more accurate.
Statements so factually inaccurate and fundamentally ignorant the mind reels. I know it's impolite (and impolitic) to denounce foolishness, but in the Age of Trump I can't bear egregious stupidity anymore than I could bear it before.  I disagree with Einstein that mystery is the foundation of religion, but I also disagree that religion "today" "claim[s] to have the answers."  The problem lies in the meaning of the term "mystery," which is used rather differently in philosophy of religion circles than it is in common parlance.  It's a simple shift I can easily illustrate with an example I used in class just this morning.

Discussing the idea (well, lecturing, let's be honest.  At 7:00 in the morning, I'm lucky to have students in the classroom; discussion is not on the board) of a persuasive argument I pointed out the different ways we use the phrase "sharing feelings."  I can share my feelings with you; but that's not the same thing as saying we share feelings.  You may not share my feelings at all, and simply sharing mine with you may persuade you, not to agree with me, but to want to evade me.  When you share your feelings, do I share your feelings?  The different uses of "share" are apparent in the sentence.  So in religion, does "mystery" mean something yet to be uncovered by science?  If so, will science someday explain the mystery about why I love my wife, and still have the same feelings for her I had when we first met?  Can it explain why I feel compassion for strangers (the impetus of the life's work of Emmanual Levinas)?  Perhaps, but without a reductio ad absurdum that doesn't being to explain either of those very different feelings?

I doubt, for example, Phil Plait has this in mind when he conflates "mystery" with "religion":

In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History Jan Patocka relates secrecy, or more precisely the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility. He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity. Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility. At the same time Patocka wants to distinguish religion from the demonic form of sacralization. What is a religion? Religion presumes access to the responsibility of a free self. It thus implies breaking with this type of secrecy (for it is not of course the only one), that associated with sacred mystery and with what Patoeka regularly calls the demonic. A distinction is to be made between the demonic on the one hand (that which confuses the limits among the animal, the human, and. the divine, and which retains an affinity with mystery, the initiatory, the esoteric, the secret or the sacred) and responsibility on the other. This therefore amounts to a thesis on the origin and essence of the religious.

Under what conditions can one speak of a religion, in the proper sense of the term, if such a thing exists? Under what conditions can we speak of a history of religion, and first and foremost of the Christian religion? In noting that Patocka refers only to the example of his own religion I do not seek to denounce an omission or establish the guilt of a failure to develop a comparative analysis. On the contrary, it seems necessary to reinforce the coherence of a way of thinking that takes into account the event of Christian mystery as an absolute singularity, a religion par excellence and an irreducible condition for a joint history of the subject, responsibility, and Europe. That is so even if, here and there, the expression "history of religions" appears in the plural, and even if one can only infer from this plural a reference to Judaic, Islamic, and Christian religions alone, those known as religions of the Book.

According to Patocka one can speak of religion only after the demonic secret, and the orgiastic sacred, have been surpassed. We should let that term retain its essential ambiguity. In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic, or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility. The subject of responsibility will be the subject that has managed to make orgiastic or demonic mystery subject to itself; and has done that in order to freely subject itself to the wholly and infinite other that sees without being seen. Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all. Its history derives its sense entirely from the idea of a passage to responsibility. Such a passage involves traversing or enduring the test by means of which the ethical conscience will be delivered of the demonic, the mystagogic and the enthusiastic, of the initiatory and the esoteric. In the authentic sense of the word, religion comes into being the moment that the experience of responsibility extracts itself from that form of secrecy called demonic mystery.

Since the concept of the daimon crosses the boundaries separating the human, the animal, and the divine, one will not be surprised to see Patocka recognizing in it a dimension that is essentially that of sexual desire. In what respect does this demonic mystery of desire involve us in a history of responsibility, more precisely in history as responsibility?

 'The demonic is to be related to responsibility; in the beginning such a relation did not exist.' In other words, the demonic is originally defined as irresponsibility, or, if one wishes, as nonresponsibility. It belongs to a space in which there has not yet resounded the injunction to respond; a space in which one does not yet hear the call to explain onself, one's actions or one's thoughts, to respond to the other and answer for oneself before the other. The genesis of responsibility that Patocka proposes will not simply describe a history of religion or religiousness. It will be combined with a genealogy of the subject who says "myself," the subject's relation to itself as an instance of liberty, singularity, and responsibility, the relation to self as being before the other: the other in its relation to infinite alterity, one who regards without being seen but also whose infinite goodness gives in an experience that amounts to a gift of death. Let us for the moment leave that expression in all its ambiguity.

Since this genealogy is also a history of sexuality, it follows the traces of a genius of Christianity that is the history of Europe. For at the center of Patocka's essay the stakes are clearly defined as follows: how to interpret "the birth of Europe in the modern sense of the term"? How to conceive of "the expansion of Europe" before and after the Crusades? More radically still, what is it that ails "modern civilization" inasmuch as it is European? Not that it suffers from a particular fault or from a particular form of blindness. Rather, why does it suffer from ignorance of its history, from a failure to assume its responsibility, that is, the memory of its history as history of responsibility?"

Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (University of Chicago Press 1995), pp. 1-4.

And yet I don't know how you can form an intelligent opinion on this question without being aware of the discussions about it.  It would be like forming an opinion on the rings of Saturn with no understanding of gravity.  Surely we are going to get enough of such ignorance in the Age of Trump, without passing around more of it.

Andrew Boyd and Phil Plait make the same fundamental error:  assuming all valuable knowledge is utilitarian, and any knowledge that is not is, well, really, not worth knowing.  The concept of mystery Derrida discusses above is initiatory:  it is the secret revealed to the favored. "According to Patocka one can speak of religion only after the demonic secret, and the orgiastic sacred, have been surpassed."  The discussion even puts religion beyond mystery, even as mystery is, again, not the idea Plait has in mind.  And the mystery is related to the mysteries of human motivation, which even science is unlikely to unlock:   "In what respect does this demonic mystery of desire involve us in a history of responsibility, more precisely in history as responsibility?"  Indeed, the prime mystery of religion is not:  "How do we explain the universe?"  The prime mystery of religion is:  "How should we then live?"

 It is not mystery in the sense Plait thinks the term is used, because words are not unitary and singular.  We use the same word for different purposes on a daily basis.  Much of modern philosophy has been aware of this for over a century, but Plait (and Boyd) seem wholly unaware of this fundamental issue.  And yet, since they are scientists, or at least trained in science, their knowledge is superior.  Or something.

I dunno; in this Age of Trump I guess I'm just more aware of people parading their lack of understanding as a superior ability.  If anything under Trump is in danger of being "normalized," it's that.


Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I've read Phil Plat and while he isn't the worst of the sciencey atheists, I doubt he could read that passage by Derrida and make sense out of it without as much study as your typical non-degree holding "man on the street" could. Yet, as you note, he feels free to speak as an expert on the topic of religion and is published by a reasonably reputable magazine as such. If Slate does that the more typical discussion of it is by those even more arrogant and as or more ignorant of the topic.

I'm finding in my very recent and beginning level deeper reading of the scriptures that most of the mention of them among atheists and even many others is so childishly superficial and stupid as to entirely discredit their point of view. I think the habits of thought of science, dealing with very, very simplified abstractions of virtually uniform objects and events has damaged a lot of scientists' ability to deal with more complex topics. They want to fit the vastly broader phenomena and experiences of life into their framing that can only deal with far narrower and simpler things. The conventions of American and British education have also allowed them to get degrees without having to address areas that train people in dealing with more complex entities such as philosophy and religion while giving them a sense of expertise that they, as well, think they can generalize from the culture and habits of their specialties. And other college grad are, as well, too ignorant to realize they're reading nonsense from the Plats and Coynes and Meyers and Dawkins.

That whole Enlightenment thing had a few good points but it was a real flop as a generalized program of culture. A while back I wondered how the fans of it could explain why it was pretty much found inadequate by future generations if it was The Way, The Truth.... But that would get us to the idiocy of Marxists and other atheists figuring that their way was fated by the course of nature to vanquish all other ways of thought which, of course, they haven't and likely won't. I think our universities have a role in giving people profitable credentials while leaving them virtually uneducated. It's no wonder Trump got in on the act.

6:12 AM  

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