Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!

On the one hand, I know about books like this (though I honestly don't take the time to read them anymore. Life is short, and the bookshelf is long.)

Twenty-three philosophers examine the doctrine of materialism find it wanting. The case against materialism comprises arguments from conscious experience, from the unity and identity of the person, from intentionality, mental causation, and knowledge. The contributors include leaders in the fields of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, who respond ably to the most recent versions and defenses of materialism. The modal arguments of Kripke and Chalmers, Jackson's knowledge argument, Kim's exclusion problem, and Burge's anti-individualism all play a part in the building of a powerful cumulative case against the materialist research program. Several papers address the implications of contemporary brain and cognitive research (the psychophysics of color perception, blindsight, and the effects of commissurotomies), adding a posteriori arguments to the classical a priori critique of reductionism. All of the current versions of materialism--reductive and non-reductive, functionalist, eliminativist, and new wave materialism--come under sustained and trenchant attack. In addition, a wide variety of alternatives to the materialist conception of the person receive new and illuminating attention, including anti-materialist versions of naturalism, property dualism, Aristotelian and Thomistic hylomorphism, and non-Cartesian accounts of substance dualism.
This interests me not only as a subject itself, but because I read a review like this:

According to Wright's theory, although religion may seem otherworldly—a realm of revelation and spirituality—its history has, like that of much else, been driven by mundane "facts on the ground." Religion, that is, changes through time primarily because it responds to changing circumstances in the real world: economics, politics, and war. Wright thus offers what he emphasizes is a materialist account of religion. As he further emphasizes, the ways in which religion responds to the world make sense. Like organisms, religions respond adaptively to the world.
Not, of course, that the materialism being considered by the former is precisely the materialism being employed by the latter; but then, there's the rub, innit? As Hamlet would say. I mean, is a detailed critique of the position of materialism even appropriate for a book like Wright's? It could be the case that the death of a school of thought has been announced prematurely. On the other hand, it could be that Wright has simply failed to notice that the corpse is beginning to molder. Given my opinion of Wright's latest opus, one would assume I adopt the latter position. But that aside, I'm interested in what this review has to offer; which means I have my own critique of it, too. Let me start at the end of the essay, and work my way backwards:

Despite these reservations, I find that I do agree with another, and important, point that Wright touches on in the course of these discussions. Man's sense of the divine has, it seems clear, generally grown more sophisticated and abstract through time. The Logos of Philo is miles beyond the nearly demonic gods feared by primitive man. And as Wright emphasizes, there's every reason to expect this trajectory to continue. Certainly, few thoughtful people, now or in the future, can be expected to take literally the poetic evocations of the divine found in Western scriptures.
This, of course, is the basic misunderstanding of the theory of evolution, the one that leads to complete perversions of the theory, such as Social Darwinism. If there is any trait that sets humankind apart from the other animals on the planet, I would submit it is the passion for finding not just patterns but purpose in the patterns. It's a tendency we can't seem to shake off, even as we try to shake it off. Consider the paragraph slightly earlier than the one just quoted, where the reviewer takes Wright's argument to task:

Although Wright offers these ideas tentatively, it's hard to see how they're supposed to work. He has offered a materialist account of moral progress. If that account succeeds (and he thinks it does), it provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent. Indeed Wright's use of the word "transcendent" seems gratuitous. Consider an analogy that has little or nothing to do with morality. Economists argue that the non-zero-sum game of trade—i.e., exchange in which both sides benefit—gives rise to a direction in history: the expansion of trade and the growth of wealth. But no one is tempted to conclude that this directionality suggests a higher purpose. The invisible hand is a metaphor, not a transcendent appendage. Conversely, if Wright's materialist account of moral progress fails, this also provides evidence neither for nor against anything transcendent: maybe God drives moral progress or maybe a different materialist account could explain the facts.
I especially like that line about the "invisible hand." It seems almost impossible to abandon the traditional language of "purpose," even as we critique, especially from a purely materialist vantage point, any idea of "purpose." I'm fine with denying purpose in the world (I think it's a grossly abused notion, even in a theological context); but if we're going to do it, let's be consistent about it.

So if God, as Bokonon tells his followers in Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, has left it to us to find a purpose for all of this, perhaps the materialists are right, and we are just looking for reflections of our own desires in what we see around us. If we lay down that burden, where does that leave us? It's at least a worthy thought-experiment; but apparently, it's almost as impossible to imagine as our own death. Worse still, though, is cultural arrogance, and the masked idea that human civilization has "progressed" to the point of our current state of "enlightenment," an idea that requires the existence of "primitive man" fearing "demonic gods." A brief review of human history, coupled with my own personal experience among churches and people in general, has given me more than a mild taste for the "demonic," enough to be convinced that if the concept is flawed, the reality is unchanged after so many millenia. As for "primitive man," it just won't do: the very phrase conjures up so much cultural chauvinism and Western hegemony I'm almost surprised it was allowed into the New York Review of Books; but at that point I start sounding like Bill O'Reilly, so let me say my critique is meant seriously. Anyone still speaking of "primitive civilizations" is either not speaking in the proper terms of evolutionary psychology, or they are revealing that it is a field that has very little to do with science, indeed. I have my suspicions about "evolutionary psychology" anyway, but I'm not studied in the field, so I'll leave my observations there and move on.

And where we come to is something like this:

The symbols that run through this poetry [i.e., the "poetry" of scriptures] may or may not point beyond themselves to anything real, but surely the ideas that they purport to point to are more significant than the symbols themselves. Wright is right to remind us of this, however obliquely. And he is right to note that peaceful coexistence among cultures, and perhaps even our survival as a species, could rest upon wider recognition of this point. After all, few people presumably want to kill or die over differences among symbols that might represent, at least approximately, the same thing. These are important points and they are worth making. But I don't see how it takes game theory or evolutionary psychology to reach them.
Leave the Romantic/post-Romantic views of "scriptures=poetry", a tangled set of assumptions as easy to unsnarl as a ball of long-legged spiders, and consider instead a response that takes such a comment at face value: "Fine, everyone can reference Eliade (as the reviewer does, establishing the basis for Wright's thesis early in the review), even if they don't seem to have read him; but has everyone already forgotten Ricouer and his work on narrative? Is Derrida's deconstructionism so soon dispatched to the dustbin of discourse simply because it is not deemed sufficiently "scientific"? Does no one still recognize the consequences of Godel's theorem of incompleteness?"

Yeah, I ramble a bit; but the ignorance of Ricouer (like the reviewer's ignorance of cultural anthropology), and more importantly the work of Ricouer, is directly on point here. Maybe people shouldn't be willing to kill over symbols which are so closely related to each other, but have you been in a small group lately? What the "tea party" groups are doing right now, imploding and exploding much like Ross Perot's Reform Party, is the same battle over similar insights that all groups engage in. Indeed, the more nearly the groups are related, the more narrowly they draw their differences. Is this evolutionary? Or just human perversity? Sociology explains it better than evolutionary theory does, for my money; Occam's Razor, and all that. Churches, those tiny test tubes of group interaction and engagement, will break up over the symbolism of how money is spent: on new carpet for the sanctuary, or saved for another purpose, perhaps even given to another charitable end. Symbolism can attach to church furnishings (and not the peculiarly religious ones, like crosses and crucifixes and pews). I was once roundly reviled for suggesting the church I pastored remove a huge commercial stove which had long ago outlived its purpose, and which the fire marshal was now requiring be disconnected, or surmounted by an exhaust/fire suppression system which would have cost half the church's annual budget. That stove had acquired great symbolism for certain church members, and no argument about the similarity of interests we had in not wasting so much money on an unused object was going to be heard. No one fights like family, which is why the Christians and Muslims and Jews battle each other more fiercely in the name of God, Allah, or Yahweh, than they battle with the Buddhists or the Hindus (who battle with Muslims in India and Pakistan because of proximity, not because their gods cause them to war with each other). Protestants and Catholics in Ireland fought with each other for generations precisely over the similarity of their symbols, both religious and national. The fight is usually to preserve those differences, because the symbols are so similar. Really, I'm surprised I have to explain this to anyone; but there we are.

This, however, is where it gets interesting:

Things grow more serious with Wright's second requirement:

"Depending on the exact circumstances, responding wisely to non-zero-sum opportunities can call for more than just seeing the non-zero-sumness. Sometimes it calls for a kind of "sight" that goes deeper. It can call for an apprehension not just of the pragmatic truth about human interaction, but of a kind of moral truth."

This comes as something of a surprise. We've been told that the "pragmatic truth about human interaction" generally accounts for the waxing and waning of religious ideas. And now we're told that something further is needed, a sight that is deeper than pragmatic.

As Wright tries to explain this deeper sight, matters get murky. The key, he says, is something called the moral imagination, the mental ability to put oneself in another's shoes. This ability, he assures us, was "'designed' by natural selection to help us exploit non-zero-sum opportunities, to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they're available." So the argument is that an evolutionary psychological construct, the moral imagination, lets us see game-theoretic situations that are non-zero-sum. And the result, often enough, is economic or political cooperation as well as the expansion of the moral circle.
A "kind of sight"? Hmmmm....like Blake was talking about, perhaps? Somehow, I rather doubt it. But it is a dubious proposal of scientific reasoning, isn't it? And "moral circles"? What, pray tell, are those? "The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."--Jacques Derrida, introducing his lectures published as Given Time I: Counterfeit Money, a series of lectures concluded with The Gift of Death. Somehow I don't think Wright is trying to go there, although he should, as Derrida's lectures are about religion, although they go unnoticed by either Wright or Allen Orr, the reviewer. Pity, that; it would have made things so much more interesting. Viz:

"Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.

"Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this."
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

I mention this because Wright and Orr make much of economics in their analysis (game theory is central to most modern economic theories), yet unafraid as they both are to "think big thoughts," neither entertains the conjectures of a contemporary French philosopher on precisely the subject they are writing about. Neither gives any thought to the impossible, even though that is a standard feature of all discussions in philosophy of religion since, oh, since Kierkegaard gained notoriety at the beginning of the last century. Ah...c'est la vie. Nor do they, materialists to the core, consider the importance of the paradox, especially when trying to speak of "transcendence" in purely materialist terms. I mean, it can be done, I suppose; but it's like trying to speak of a sphere in terms of only two dimensions:

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of ever passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, in one way or another the collision must cause its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments, ed. Soren Kierkegaard, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.

Rather hard to think ill of the paradox, when you don't think of it at all. But then again, materialism cannot allow that "something that thought itself cannot think" can be discovered. After all, if you don't think it can be found, why go looking for it?

I would go after Wright more deliberately on this point, but Mr. Orr has done it ably for both of us:

Wright's reliance on game theory and evolutionary psychology is troubling for another reason. These theories, particularly when taken together, are so pliant that they can explain almost anything. One consequence is that Wright's readings of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or Koran sometimes degenerate into clever attempts to explain each passage as a response to specific local circumstances. Take his explanation of why Paul was so big on brotherly love. Paul, usually absent from any given church, needed to encourage harmony within and among his many fractious congregations; hence his epistles extolling brotherly love (what Wright calls "a form of remote control"). But Wright's hypothesis doesn't work. While Paul clearly suffered organizational headaches, the notion that he preached brotherly love because he was always on the road begs the question of why he was always on the road, reaching out to Gentiles in Antioch, Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, and elsewhere. Surely the more plausible answer is that Paul traveled tirelessly because he believed in brotherly love, not that he preached brotherly love because he traveled tirelessly.
When a theory means whatever you want it to mean, are you brilliantly exploiting it? Or playing Humpty-Dumpty to the world's Alice? And when your analysis is turned inside out so easily, is it really any virtue that you aren't afraid to "think big thoughts"?

You know, sometimes I just despair over the standards for intellectual endeavor in this country; at least, the standards for public intellectualism.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:26 PM

    "Man's sense of the divine has, it seems clear, generally grown more sophisticated and abstract through time. The Logos of Philo is miles beyond the nearly demonic gods feared by primitive man."

    By this account our sense of the divine has grown more sophicated and abstract than the God of Jesus or Paul. So why, then, do such highly evolved beings as ourselves bother with what such primitives have to say?

    Or perhaps this idea of spriritual progress rests on an observation that our epic poetry is so much better than Homer's, or or drama so clearly superior to that of Shakespeare.