Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lost Among the Stars

The concept of interpretation is all here: there is no experience of truth that is not interpretative. I do not know anything that does not interest me. If it does interest me, it is evident that I do not look at it in an uninterested way.
Gianni Vattimo, "Toward a Nonreligious Christianity," After the Death of God, ed. Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press 2007)

I've been pondering this post for too long, now. I'm putting it out in what may well be an only partially-edited form; so I may come back to it, or just start over again with more thoughts as I find time to write them. Initially I started out simply responding to some of Rorty's essay, which is still the main thesis here. Later, I began to put it in a larger and larger context, including some thoughts on philosophy of religion by Tillich, and in the more or less contemporary debate on Christianity (not really religion) v. atheism. I had one purpose for the Vattimo quote, above, originally. I meant to place it in relationship to the Rorty quote, and explication of that quote, just below. But more and more I look at the Vattimo quote in light of my thoughts on atheism, and the argument that atheism needs Christianity (not religion more generally) in order to exist; that atheism as it is broadly practiced (by Dawkins, or Hitchens, or Harris, or even Pharyngula) is merely and solely anti-Christianity, especially Christianity as they choose to define it. But I'm not interested in debating and identifying still more straw-man arguments; as the Vattimo quote directs me, it's more a question of interpretation. Atheists, it seems to me, are consumed with interpretations of Christianity which they may then denigrate with their "objective" examination. But, of course, if I am not interested in a subject, I have no interpretation of it (I, for example, have no interpretation of fields of science which are probably critical to, at least, my technological existence); and if I am, how can I say my interpretation is objective, and yours is not?

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, though. This began with reading Rorty in an essay about religious belief (as he defines it), and atheism, and interpretatation (heremeneutics) and knowledge (epistemology):

I can summarize the line of thought that Vattimo and I are pursuing as follows: The battle between religion and science conducted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a contest between institutions, both of which claimed cultural supremacy. It was a good thing for both religion and science that science won that battle. For truth and knowledge are a matter of social cooperation, and science gives us the means to carry out better cooperative social projects than before. If social cooperation is what you want, the conjunction of science and the common sense of your day is all you need. But if you want something else, then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion that finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your solitude.
--Richard Rorty, "Anticlericalism and Atheism," The Future of Religion, ed. Santiago Zabala (New York: Columbia University Press 2005), 39.

Rorty is not referring to that particular passage quote from Vattimo; but the quote summarizes nicely Vattimo's hermeneutic, and hermeneutics, or the principle of interpretation, will ultimately be the topic here. This is a concept that sparks no little debate, since while Vattimo's observation ties in with Rorty's pragmatism (as we'll see), and both seem to tie into Kuhn's idea of paradigms, many philosophers of science still insist Kuhn doesn't mean what Vattimo and Rorty mean. And I come to insist neither of them are right about religion or theology, either.

Are we having fun yet?

First, to put the Vattimo quote in context, it's preceded by this:
Heidegger also realized that the scientific claim of inspired from a determined interest: for example, to describe a natural phenomenon in a way that others could also speak of it in the same way and develop this self-same knowledge of the world does not function as a mirror. Instead, there is a world and someone who is "in the world," which means someone who orients himself in and to the world, someone who uses his own capacities of knowledge, hence someone who chooses, reorganizes, replaces, represents, etc.
Vattimo takes this insight about objectivity back to Heidegger, but I would take it back to Kierkegaard, as regards our relationship to truth (the broader point) and point out Kierkegaard learned the truth of subjectivity from Augustine. Not exactly Godel-Escher-Bach, but another eternal golden braid anyway. And the connection to Rorty? One of his most famous books critiquing the generally accepted notion of objectivity is: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. There may or may not be a spoon in the Matrix, but Rorty is quite sure there is no mirror of humanity in nature.

But both Rorty and Vattimo are addressing issues in philosophy of religion: Vattimo is addressing certainty and interpretation, Rorty (in the essay quoted) the existence of God and the existence of religion. The problem with philosophy of religion is that all philosophers imagine they can be philosophers of religion, too. After all, in Western culture, we're all experts on religion, right? The other problem is that none of them imagine theology has anything to contribute to the conversation, nor that they have any need to know what theologians think. In other words: where to start with how wrong this is? Well, let's start at the end and work our way backwards.

Fundamentalists still get mightily exercised about atheism, which itself seems to get mightily exercised about the question of the existence of God. Rorty, an atheist himself, distinguishes this commonly understood defining attribute of atheism from what he preferred to think of as his own position, which he called "anticlericalism:"

...anticlericalism is a political view [!], not an epistemological one or metaphysical one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do--despite all the comfort they provide to those in need or despair--are dangerous to the health of democratic societies.* Whereas the philosophers who claim that atheism, unlike theism, is backed up by evidence would say that religious belief is irrational, contemporary secularists like myself are content to say that it is politically dangerous. On our view, religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized--as long as ecclesiastical institutions do not attempt to rally the faithful behind political proposals and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live and let live. (p. 33
*Rorty provides a footnote at this point which reads (without the citations):

Of course, we anticlericalists who are also leftists in politics have a further reason for hoping that institutionalized religion will eventually disappear. We think otherworldliness dangerous because, as John Dewey puts it, "Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing." (p. 41).
Yeah, that sums up Reinhold Niebuhr and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King in a nutshell, don't it? Should I point out the example of Cotton Mather, whose slave taught him about smallpox vaccinations long before Pasteur? Should I mention the Congregationalists who helped the slaves on the Amistad win their freedom, and sparked the Abolitionist movement? Sure, there are a lot of errors laid on religious believers entering the political sphere, with our without institutional support; but the very idea that religion in politics is bad is, well....a bad idea. A foolish one, at best. An ignorant one, even. One expects better of someone like Rorty.

As I say, fundamentalists get very worked up about the issue of God's existence, but I know of few other religious thinkers, theologians, pastors, or Christian laypeople who do. It's just not a "live option," as William James (another American pragmatist) would say. So if that's the kind of religion you value, well: don't bother to send in the clowns, they're here.

The fundamental problem here is identifying the subject by the margins, the fringes, the boundaries: by discerning what you don't know, and considering that positive knowledge of the ding an sich. The via negativa may work well in theology where the nature of God is actually considered (and where percipi is neither esse nor nature existence), but it applies because it posits subject which is but which cannot, by definition, be known. Rather like a human being in that way, if we were wholly honest about our relationships and how "other" even the most intimate people in our lives remain to us. But the via negativa doesn't work as a way of discerning what can be known. And that's the problem with philosophy of religion, and with those who think philosophy of religion only requires a few opinions about a few public topics such as atheism, fundamentalism, and religion.

Even Rorty's distinction between atheism and anticlericalism is a distinction without a difference. Atheism, at least as he defines it, is aimed at eradicating religion by denying the basic tenet of that religion. Anticlericalsm aims at being more tolerant, but this is merely intolerance in the name of tolerance: I will tolerate your religious beliefs, so long as you go away and take them with you, and never let me hear of them again, because they bother me! Rorty justifies this by following (ironically!) the dualism of Augustine (in which the world is neatly divided into either/or), and dividing the world into the realm of the polis (where everyone must agree with everyone else on what is important, and we must all use the same basis for that agreement) and the private (where you are free to believe any damn fool notion you like!). Apparently the public gathering of believers which constitutes the ecclesia of Christianity (to limit ourselves to only one religion out of the world's religions) is either private within Rorty's sense, or is public but can be treated as private so long as it minds its place and stays out of the realm of the polis altogether. The polis seems to be the only proper public sphere (no surprise there!) in Rorty's scheme. All other public institutions are merely subservient to it (schools, government, etc.) or irrelevant to it (social institutions, charities, religious institutions, to name a few).

In other words, Rorty's ideal polis is quite happy to tolerate the other, so long as that other is not too wholly other, because then the polis brings on the righteous smackdown and drives the other into seclusion, where all un-like minded beings belong. Can't have people being unmutual, you know, especially over something so irrational, or, in Rorty's terms, unmusical. Religion, Rorty argues, is like philosophy: not everybody "gets it." So just as we wouldn't foist music on those with no talent for it, or philosophy on those who find it pointless, neither can we allow religion to have a hallowed place in the polis; or a place at all. We can't all be religious, but we can all be reasonable (which is neither a philosophy nor a philosophical stance, so don't get smart with me! Er, with Rorty, I mean.). As long, of course, as we are all reasonable in the same way. Because the minute you aren't reasonable with me, well, then you're unreasonable, and then you are outta here, buddy!

Which still doesn't explain what we do with Reinhold Niebuhr, or Dorothy Day, or the Rev. Dr. King; but it takes care of James Dobson (who isn't part of any institutional religion) or Pat Robertson (ditto), or Rick Warren (finally, someone in an "institution"!), so it's all for the best. Right? Nor does it explain why only one definition of "reasonable" gets to hold sway for all of humanity. I suppose the answer is the same as to why there is only one definition of "religion" in the world, and that is Rorty's, derived from some understanding of Western culture and some of the religious beliefs which have constituted it.

In this essay Rorty references Derrida, but does so to his detriment. Derrida acknowledged the multiplicity of religions in the world. He understood Christianity was only one among many, and Western Christianity only a part of world-wide Christianity, and all the American variants only sects among those, and all those variants not wholly United State of American (there is Central and South America, with even more variants there). But let's take Rorty seriously a moment, and see precisely where science has allowed us to carry out "better cooperative social projects than before." Certainly technology has advanced human comfort as never before, at least in certain countries. Turns out other countries have to sacrifice in order for some countries to advance. The colonialization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas by Europe didn't lead only to unstable and fractious nations on all three continents, and to the current turmoil in the Middle East. The exploitation of those countries continues unabated to this day. Our "better cooperative social projects" come at "their" expense, but that's better...for us, at least.

And that brings us back to Derrida, who spoke of the West's globalatinization, with all the Roman hegemony the word implies. As Derrida notes, to speak of "religion," of religio, is already to speak Latin, to force the world into one tongue and hammer human existence across the globe into one mold. Derrida links globalatinization to what he labels tele-technoscience, by which me means the use of scientia and technos via tele-technology such as television and, now, the Internet. Derrida was writing in the late '90s', but he proves oddly prescient a decade later:

Prominent British Muslims are being recruited to star in a government-backed advertising campaign aimed at preventing people in Pakistan from engaging in extremist activity, the Guardian has learned.

The three-month public relations offensive, called I Am the West, consists of television commercials and high-profile events in regions such as Peshawar and Mirpur. It is being funded by the Foreign Office which is paying up to £400,000 for a pilot project.
The idea here, of course, is to approach Muslims and try to "reason" with them. But it is also to get them to accept the hegemony of the West, if only because it asks the Muslims, not the "West," to change. Which is not to critique the effort so much as to point out that, as the French say: the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Derrida at least recognizes the world; Rorty seems uaware of religion in America except as he sees it in passing, or on television. And yet, steeped in the culture, he is an expert, no?

Keeping the church out of politics can cut both ways, too.

Truth and knowledge are, indeed, matters of social cooperation, but societies are not merely closed circles with no connection to or interaction with other societies; and science is not the only source of truth, knowledge, or social cooperation. There is also the question of ethics (at least), which is why a philosophical system like utilitarianism, which is usually associated with the "dismal science" of economics, or merely with the "scientific" evaluation of value based on what works best for the majority, is actually first and foremost an ethical system. (And because it is an ethical system, Rawls's critique of it tries to correct it on largely ethical grounds.) Ethics determines truth and knowledge, too, because it determines value. Hume's distinction between synthetic and analytic knowledge divided what we can know into the obvious ("This stone is heavy") but unimportant, and the debatable ("This goal is good"), Hume concluded we can't say anything useful (well, philosophically useful) about either category, but we still need those categories, even if neither leads us to truth. We may abandon metaphysics, and so abandon any notion of "eternal" truth; but there are still truths valued by a society, truths which we must acknowledge in order to have any social cooperation at all, then those truths will not arise solely from a scientific context. Otherwise Oliver Wendell Holmes is right, and "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!" Holmes' sentiment is not offensive simply because it is scientifically unsound. After all, despite The Mismeasure of Man, and other re-considerations of "IQ" and how we measure intelligence in animals or humans, despite removing "Idiot" and "Imbecile" from our legal lexicon (Holmes was speaking technically, not pejoratively), we still cling to ideas that are unsound or unappealing, and their lack of appeal or soundness is not solely because of social cooperation or how science regards them. Holmes’ opinion, rather, is offensive because it offends our moral sense (if not our ethical one). What has changed between Holmes’ day and our own could be said to be our sense of ethics about the treatment of the class of persons concerned in that case; but that reconsideration of the value of the individual is more arguably a moral, rather than an ethical, shift. And a moral shift presupposes precisely the metaphysics that both Rorty and Vattimo start out by rejecting (i.e., we should all be treated equally; and what is the source of that equality? I don't believe it is the "original position," which is only an intellectual exercise, anyway).*

Which is less an argument for the validity of metaphysics, than it is an object lesson in trying to throw out the bathwater without tossing the baby with it. It may seem sound theory to reject metaphysics once and for all, but just as Heidegger can't talk about Being in concrete terms and becomes more apparently metaphysical as he tries to be less so, neither can Rorty or Vattimo reject metaphysics or even institutional religion, without presuming a remnant of both to serve other purposes they cannot do without. Anymore than Rorty’s refinement of atheism (“anticlericalism”) can do without institutional Christianity.

I’m still not sure what to make of these attempts to remove something that cannot be removed, especially when without it, the position you espouse would be eradicated as well. As Tillich writes:

Both the theological and the scientific critics of the belief that religion is an aspect of the human spirit define religion as man’s relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny. But it is just this idea of religion which makes any understanding of religion impossible. If you start with the question whether God does or does not exist, you can never reach Him; and if you assert that He does not exist, you can reach Him even less than if you assert that He does not exist. A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. And the question is justified whether such a thing does exist, and the answer is equally justified that it does not exist. It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they have not only not refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word “God.” Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheistic scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.
Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 4-5.

Precisely so.

Wait a minute! Maybe I should be thanking Rorty for his service, instead of criticizing him. Hmmmm…..

*on the other hand, there is nothing essentially metaphysical in the ethic proposed by Jesus in the gospels: make the first last, and the last first, and make the highest goal to be last of all and servant of all. It's a very practical, very "this-worldly" ethic, and it's only appeal to God is for model, not authority ("God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.") So it isn't even that an appeal to metaphysics is necessary in Christian ethics. The issue of discarding it, in the context of a discussion of religion, is aimed at discarding the deity; which is the aim of atheism: to discard Christianity. Which is less a problem for Christianity, than it is for atheism. Once you catch that car, what are you gonna do with it?

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