Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My cup runneth over...

Now geor3ge gets into the act, with a link to this Salon article:

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call "scientific naturalism," that there's nothing beyond nature -- no transcendent dimension -- that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there's no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There's no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don't want to go that far. So there's a self-contradiction there.
Funny thing is, we've been here, done that: it was called "Logical Positivism." When it crashed and burned (thanks partly to Wittgenstein, partly to the fundamental errors of the school of thought itself), it left Alfred North Whitehead trying to create an alternative to Plato which wound up being the basis for process theology (which absolutely no one who responds intelligently to Dawkins, et al., has referred to; sadly enough for Shubert Ogden and company). I once saw Logical Positivism as the only philosophical school that had been thoroughly repudiated and abandoned (and it was). Too bad Dawkins and Hitchens don't know anything about philosophy; could have saved them a lot of trouble, and prevented the needless death of countless trees.

Oh, well, what else are bestsellers for?

GÓ§del, by the way, pretty much did in Russel and Whitehead's magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, by proving that even if you could map everything into the language of a mathematical system, the system would still generate sentences that it could not contain answers to. Wittgenstein drove another nail in that coffin with the final words of his quasi-mathematical Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them--as steps--to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Wittgenstein was always a more moralistic philosopher than the alley cat Russell (Will Durant can barely tolerate Russell because of his numerous sexual affairs in Durant's The Story of Philosophy, even as he must acknowledge Russell's contribution to then modern philosophy, one that shrinks more and more as time goes by), proved Russell's system far too limited in a famous anecdote:

He used to come to see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down the room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him: 'Are you thinking about logic, or about your sins?' 'Both', he replied, and continued his pacing. I did not like to suggest it was time for bed, for it seemed probable both to him and to me that on leaving me he would commit suicide.
Russell despaired of Wittgenstein but, as I say, the communal opinion differs with him today:

There are two great men in history whom he somewhat resembles. One was Pascal, the other was Tolstoy. Pascal was a mathematician of genius, but abandoned mathematics for piety. Tolstoy sacrificed his genius as a writer to a kind of bogus humility which made him prefer peasants to educated men and Uncle Tom's Cabin to all other works of fiction. Wittgenstein, who could play with metaphysical intricacies as cleverly as Pascal with hexagons or Tolstoy with emperors, threw away this talent and debased himself before common sense as Tolstoy debased himself before the peasants - in each case from an impulse of pride. I admired Wittgenstein's Tractatus, but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent very similar to those of Pascal and Tolstoy.
I suppose if you still think Pascal and Tolstoy wasted the bulk of their lives, you'd agree with Russell's assesment. Anyway, I digress; back to Haught.

It's an interview, not a theological article, so disagreeing with the details here would be churlish. Much of what Haught has to say, in general terms, is actually quite good, and makes what he might say in print, intriguing. This, for example, is fuzzy and vague but given the context, actually quite good:

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I'm talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There's going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language -- in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.
What he doesn't say is that the real problem is that he's talking about metaphysics: about being and existence and all the "squishy" things which Anglo-American philosophy has basically squeezed out of consideration in order to natter over whether or not Hume's categories of "analytic" and "synthetic" statements are valid, and what should fit into them. That is the real, unspoken break between Continental philosophers and Anglo-American ones (and the reason Russell despaired of his former student), unspoken at least in this discussion. What we are really arguing about is which philosophy should rule, should determine the terms of the debate. But, as Haught points out, even within the terms of the Anglo-American school, there are ways of understanding metaphysics:

What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It's a deep faith commitment because there's no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It's a creed.
Creeds, of course, being those things you must assent to in order to be admitted as a member of the community or society. It is the marker of distinction between those who are in, and those who are out. And faith as "believing what ain't so" is an idea at least as old as William James, and as often since his work on religion, repudiated by both theologians and philosophers of religion.

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
Or, as Wittgenstein said (again): "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." But silence, of course, doesn't sell books; neither, however, does it kill trees.

Haught's argument is actually that there are serious and dangerous questions to be asked, and his answers come from Tielhard de Chardin. I must admit at this point I am unfamiliar with Chardin's work, so I don't comment directly on the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of Haught's theology (which I don't know, either; so, two reasons to remain silent.) However, I'm not wild about the idea that either science or theology has to rest on the idea that the universe is "progressing" toward anything. I do agree, of course, that since the Enlightenment, we cannot have the same ideas about God as we had before. But, without meaning any offense to Mr. Haught, that is hardly a knew idea. Rudolf Bultmann, who should have remained famous for working alongside Martin Heidegger and for producing a magisterial analysis of The Gospel of John (if you ever want to read a thoroughly Germanic piece of scholarship....!), struggled to answer the theological questions of the "modern age," and courted controversy and notoreity with his work on Christianity and mythology (also a thoroughly Germanic work of scholarship, but in this case that isn't as much of a compliment). Probably much of what critics of Christianity declaim as "mythology" was first identified by Bultmann, the theologian. Ironies abound.

So not only is Mr. Haught not plowing new ground, I'm not sure his furrows run all that straight. I'm not, for example, at all comfortable with this:

Are you suggesting there's some kind of cosmic consciousness -- a consciousness pervading the universe that has some connection to God?

I'm looking for an explanation that's robust enough to account for the kind of universe that is able, from within itself, to develop and unfold in this ongoing process of complexification. So the idea that some sort of providential presence is accompanying this process seems not at all irrational. And I like to think of God in these terms.
When we start dividing the world into fundamentals of "irrational" and "rational," with one good, one bad, well....I'm not willing to be so Hellenistic about the cosmos. The Greeks were quite happy to let their gods be bastards, and even be agents for the chaos they thought would eventually return and subsume all; but I still think the Hebrews were more realistic about the nature of the universe and the deity who created it. which is not to say their "god" is either Aristotle's unmoved mover or Plato's "good," or even the perfection of Plotinus. As Haught puts it:

This is the fundamental thinking about God in the Quran and the Bible -- God is personal. Theologically speaking, personality is a symbol, like everything else in religion. Like all symbols, "personality" doesn't adequately capture the full depth of ultimate reality. But the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal -- at least capable of everything that humans are capable of -- then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an "it" rather than a "thou" and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being.
There's a nice touch of Buber there, but that's still more Hellenistic than Hebraic. I think the Hebrews weren't too concerned with God presenting rationally in the world. They thought God had God's reasons for doing things, but didn't limit the actions of God to only those they deemed "rational." They were more concerned with God presenting justice and compassion in the world, for us to model. That's a God I'm more interested in looking for, and in worshipping.

But about Mr. Haught's theology I could be wrong, so we'll leave the matter to rest. Far more interesting are observations like this:

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology.
The question of results: is that entirely a scientific enquiry? Thanks to antibiotics, certainly a very good thing, we now have staph infections that eat flesh and "super bugs" such as forms of tuberculosis which send health care officials (who are mostly "scientists," no?) into a blind panic. Thanks to technology, the handmaid of science, we have pollution and now, global warming. Do we approach these results from a purely scientific standpoint, or is something more called for? Science, as I mentioned earlier, has also made our ability to kill each other in war even more devastating and "efficient." Does science have a comment on that, an approach to it that might be a solution? Perhaps a scientist does, but I don't think science per se has much to say to these situations at all.

Sometimes I really do think we need to go back, take Hume seriously, and start again.

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