Monday, June 30, 2014

The Thing Stands Mute

The problem here is, you have to do extensive reading.

I don't mean that as a "problem" which is too great a burden; I just mean it's a cheat, to use hyperlinks to direct you to outside reading, and then expect you to return and read a commentary on what you've just read.  But when I read this transcript the first time through, my first impulse was to annotate large sections of it for response.  I come by it via the Thought Criminal, who does a nice job of summing up who is there:  Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science specializing, as he says, in biology; and Jim Bradley, an emeritus professor at Calvin College, a mathematician who admits to a religious conversion experience.  I was not as familiar with Ruse as TC is, but I found this longer essay by him which was interesting but not as incisive as I might have wished.  Still, there are two choices in this kind of matter:  don the apparel and speak in the vocabulary of the professional philosopher, or write for a popular audience and actually be understood.  William Tsutsui, an economist known as "Dr. Godzilla" for his enthusiasm for the fictional monster, mentioned yesterday to NPR that his family members are basically the ones who've read his academic tomes, but millions pay attention to his use of Godzilla and his thoughts about the creature.  Mr. Ruse faces the same problem, and his essay is not published in an academic journal (which would have to stoop to consider the arguments of Richard Dawkins on God and faith, so there's that, too.)

As I say, fairness should require that I post at least excerpts of the transcript and the essay, to support my argument.  It's something I teach my composition students every semester; still, I'm not going to do it now.

For one thing, I'll end up belaboring arguments I've made many times by now, and who wants to suffer through an old man's inability to remember what he said last year, or even last week, or his willingness to say it all again?  For another thing, it is as much what is not said at these two links that I am interested in.  Ruse is right, the "Humanism" championed by Dawkins and the other New Atheists is put forward with a religious fervor that makes it a replacement religion; and he marshals examples I was unaware of in support of his thesis.  I'm interested in the sociological reasons for that, a topic he barely touches on and he never mentions sociology in his analysis  It's that lacuna that is most interesting to me.

In other words, it's the dogs not barking in these discussions that I'm interested in.  Those dogs aren't barking because they know their masters and fall silent in the night, but because they are not present at all.  Maybe the analogy is that some groups are cats in this discussion, and are never part of the pack in the first place.  So it isn't the dogs that don't bark; it's the dogs that aren't even there.

I read the entire transcript at On Being longing for a theologian to be a part of the discussion.  Maybe that would create too great a risk of jargon, of a conversation that only dogs and philosophers could hear, but what I got instead as a philosopher trying to keep his comments comprehensible, and a mathematician trying to defend a Sunday school version of Christianity in the presence of a philosopher of science.  And both were talking about theology with no more knowledge of the subject than I have of statistics or the human genome.

Perhaps for balance next time we could have a high school science teacher discuss religion with a theologian.....

There is more to "religion" than popularized ideas about Christianity, just as there is more to Islam than the "Islamic Caliphate" announced this weekend by ISIS.  Somehow I don't think the world's 1.8 billion Muslims, the majority of whom live in Asia, are going to feel themselves in thrall to this "Islamic Caliphate" any time soon, though I expect lots of words spilled in America over this new Muslim threat and hegemony.  No more then, does even kindly Jim Bradley speak for Christianity in his attempts to reconcile the nature of God (the subject of theology) to the nature of the world as understood scientifically and more particularly through certain fields of mathematics.  Michael Ruse gets off a nicely self-deprecating joke about philosophers in a dark room looking for a black hat that isn't there, and theologians being the ones who find the hat (which either means they are delusional, or there is something there only theology can grasp); but at no point in the discussion do either of them even make a clear distinction between science and the philosophy of science (there is a mention of it) which would clarify theory from practice, a distinction as important to the lay believer in the pew and the theologian.  Indeed, science can have a philosophy, but theology can, apparently, only be what Sunday school teaches:  Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

That's about as theological and spiritual as the discussion gets.  And the philosopher's discussion of religion and science in his essay is even emptier of content.

Which again, I suppose, is supposed to be acceptable because these are public, "popular" fora, not  academic ones.  Nor are they necessarily religious ones, although by today's standards it is if only because religion is mentioned but not disparagingly.  The only discussions of religion and atheism I can come up with are "popular" ones like the debate between Dawkins and Rowan Williams that Mr. Ruse mentions in his essay.  I find such discussions about as useful as the debate between the late Christopher Hitchen and Chris Hedges.  It was the Romans who revered rhetoric, because they appreciated the power of panem et circenses.  The Greeks were rightly more dubious of the power of the well-turned phrase that charmed the hoi polloi but did not lead to wisdom.  If Socrates got one thing right, it was understanding that the road to wisdom began with understanding that everything you know is wrong. Rhetoric that wins debates rests on appealing to the audience's desire not to learn anything else, at all, except how wise they already are.

Of course, there's a reason serious theologians and religious thinkers don't stoop to engage the likes of Richard Dawkins, and it has to do with the sage advice against wrestling with pigs.

I mentioned sociology above, not because I'm trained in sociology, but because I was taught some of its principles and read some texts in sociology in seminary.  One of the common jibes against Christianity (Ruse mentions it in his essay) is the distinction made among believers:  Is a Mormon a Christian?, the usual formulation goes.

Well, is a sociologist a scientist? Is an anthropologist? Richard Dawkins makes much of behavior and genetics; has he studied psychology, sociology, or anthropology, all of which are fields that attempt the scientific study of behavior.  Dawkins refuses to make himself conversant in the ideas of theology, his bete noir; but Dom Crossan, the Biblical scholar, is conversant in both the fields of anthropology and archaeology, and brings both to bear in his studies of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus, as well as in scriptural studies.  Professor Dawkins can't be bothered with such scrupulous scholarship; he prefers the popular attention of selfish genes and God delusions.

Why is it that a seminary graduate is more conversant with terms from sociology than a philosopher of science?  Why is it no one except seminarians and their professors recognize the importance of sociology in this discussion of human behavior?  Why do so many "scientists" and even philosophers of science act and speak as if science were limited to only the most popular fields of the day (in the 19th century it was chemistry; in the early 20th century it was nuclear physics, which gave way to genetics, which has given way to biology in general, each of which was/is, in its time, the standard by which "truth" was/is judged.  And yet atheists accuse believers of being unreliable as to the basis for the "truth" of their assertions.....)

Even as we need more cross-disciplinary discussions, we have fewer and fewer of them.  C.P. Snow lamented the rise of "two cultures," but there is really only one culture now, and there only has been the one since the 19th century.  The humanities and the liberal arts (which include theology and philosophy) have never really had a chance in the face of rampant empiricism and its insistence that "truth" is based on chemistry; or physics; or genetics; or biology; or computer science; or....

I think the true lament is that we grow narrower and narrower, insisting not that we can see the world in a grain of sand, but that the grain of sand IS the world.

Stop that world; I want to get off.

1 comment:

  1. About the Ruse essay you link to, you might find this amusing and informative.

    "Huxley's view prevailed. It was partly that Darwinism won. Many of the difficulties urged against evolution in 1860 by Owen and others, though not those actually put forward by Wilberforce in his speech, were satisfactorily settled in the next few years. The geological record filled in many missing links. Satisfactory explanations of how electric eels or venomous snakes could have evolved were found. It became a good inductive hypothesis, as Wilberforce had all along allowed that it might. The Darwinians, who were a small minority in 1860, became the dominant majority over the next twenty years, but never lost the sense of being persecuted. This was partly a matter of Huxley's own personality. He had no love of ecclesiastics and was sure that science must be at odds with religion. Later in his life he is still remarkably resistant to the idea that there were clergymen who accepted evolution, even when actually faced with them.72 The fact that there were others who did not, including some like the archdeacon of Exeter at a later meeting of the British Association,73 fortified him in his prejudice that they were all obscurantist at heart. The quarrel between religion and science came about not because of what Wilberforce said, but because it was what Huxley wanted; and as Darwin's theory gained supporters, they took over his view of the incident."