Monday, August 04, 2014

The fascination with what's heilege

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but it was in seminary I was introduced to the idea that "dirt" is simply "matter out of place."

Soil in the garden is good; soil tracked into the house from the garden is "dirt."  Dirt is bad.

I've made the point with my students, from time to time.  Imagine, I tell them, that I've brought a coke  into the classroom, straight from a vending machine.  I put it on the table, never touch it again or open it, and on the way out I leave it.  Would you take it?

Most students say they would.  Now, I say, change the facts (and change the outcome!):  now I scoop up the same can on the way out the door and drop it in the trash can, a container filled mostly with discarded paper (no food or coffee grounds, etc.).  Now would you take it?

Why not?  Because it rests against a piece of discarded paper?  What if I left a piece of paper leaning on the can on the table?

You see where this goes:  we have boundaries, lines we do not cross.  From a young age we are taught that trash is trash, and it must remain trash.  That can is now "dirty," and it would certainly be out of place if it were removed from the trash can and put back on the table.  We live by these boundaries, by keeping certain things "pure" and not letting them get "dirty."

Derrida is helpful here. He points out that holy, heilege in German, (the change of language helps us realize this doesn't involve just English or English speakers), means "set apart in order to be kept pure." It's a word almost wholly connected with religion, but it could be accurately (if oddly, given its connotations) used to describe a bandage in a sterile package: the bandage is set apart, sealed off, so it can remain sterile, which is to say, pure. Of course we don't connect "sterile" and "pure." We think of "pure" as describing something singular, like a precious metal which has no admixtures in it. "Sterile" means something germ-free (and so "clean") or something unable to reproduce (which may bring in connections to sexual reproduction as "dirty," but that gets us unto contemplating how "dirt" is simply matter out of place, and then we're off on a whole 'nother pursuit). But to be sterile in the germ-free sense is to be pure for the purpose of medical treatment, like a sterile bandage. And both can mean to be "holy," because that's why we call things holy: they are pure, they are singular, they are set apart and should not be contaminated with admixtures or "dirt."

And I bring it up because of this article at Salon, which insists I cannot possibly think as I do:

 It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable. I’m saying that the “God made evolution happen” position is rife with both internal contradictions and denial of the evidence. You don’t have to deny as much reality as young earth creationists do to take this position — but you still have to deny a fair amount.

What you first have to deny is most of the ideas and assumptions about the nature of God, the nature of Creation, and the relationship of Creator to created, that are made in that argument.  It's not really a philosophical dismantling of a theological position; it's more of a blindly stupid set of assertions which, were they made about science instead of religion, would be laughable and discarded as the "messed up" opinions of Ken Hamm.  It's not the assertions about evolutionary there that disturb me; it's the ignorance of Christian theology.  But that ignorance is almost beside the point, because the real purpose of this article is to declare there is only one kind of believer:  the Christian fundamentalist; and everyone knows "they" are wrong on everything.  So "progressive" Christians need to renounce their beliefs and join the side of the atheists, because there is no middle ground, and there is no world in which science and religion can co-exist.

Because if they can co-exist, that means science is not paramount and doesn't trump all human understanding and answer all human questions and fill all human needs.  It means, in brief, that science is not holy and cannot expel that which is unclean from the temple of Reason.  It's the simplest of fundamentalist assertions:  what I believe is true, and that can only mean what you believe is false.  Any attempt to mix the two, or reconcile them, renders what I believe impure, unholy; and that cannot be permitted.

The "internal contradictions" identified there are mostly contradictions of the author's own invention. The argument presented itself is rife with contradictions, such as this:

And at the risk of anthropomorphizing: Evolution doesn’t care if you’re comfortable. Evolution doesn’t care if you’re happy. Evolution doesn’t need you to be perfect: it just needs you to be better than your competitors, your predators, and your prey. Evolution cares if you survive, and produce fertile offspring that also survive. Actually, even that’s not exactly true. Evolution doesn’t care if you live or die. If you die, something else lives. Evolution doesn’t give a damn who it is.

Evolution doesn’t give a damn about any of this. But God supposedly does. So why did he do it this way? If God is so powerful that he could bring all of existence into being simply by wishing it; if he’s so powerful that he can tinker with the genetics and circumstances of evolution simply by wishing it — why would he wish it to be so clumsy, half-assed, inefficient, jury-rigged, superfluous, and brutal?
The second paragraph is right:  evolution doesn't care, because evolution is a theory, it is not a deity or a human being.  It is merely an idea, an explanation.  As such it is not even itself reality; it is an abstraction from reality.

Secondly, survival doesn't rest on being better than your competitors, predators, or prey.  Mostly it involves being in the right place at the right time, or not in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Prey usually evade predators on a "survival" scale by being more numerous.  It's a fairly simple matter:  if the prey is greatly diminished solely by predation, the predators die, too.  Does evolution "fix" this?  Or does the balance simply occur often enough to keep predator and prey around for more than one generation?  Predator and prey certainly persist, even as species and individuals die or go extinct.

Circumstances for any one individual matter far more than "fitness."  "Fitness," after all, simply means you lasted out a generation.  Dinosaurs were "fit"; until they weren't.  Under evolutionary theory they were never anything except alive.  Their variety is explained by evolution; their survival, or lack thereof, is not.  If we are going to insist that "fitness" is the standard for reality (because we must "accept reality in general, and the reality of evolution in general,"), then we are going to rapidly find ourselves considering again whether "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!"

The argument here is a weak variant on the problem of theodicy: if God is good, why does evil exist? But the argument from theodicy posits a "god" who is a simple creation, rather than a complex one; a god simpler than human beings, a god we can put in our pocket and draw out when it is convenient for us.  Why does evil exist is a theological question, not a scientific one.  And the argument here rests on a specific concept of God which cannot be challenged because theology is not science (the Dawkins' Retreat) and therefore cannot be taken seriously, but at the same time must be taken seriously so that it can be refuted with science!

But theology can only be taken seriously insofar as it proves science is right, by the theological argument being limited to what the atheist insists it is.  For example:  "Given that there’s not one scrap of evidence suggesting that this invisible Divine Tinkerer actually does exist — and a whole lot of evidence suggesting that he doesn’t — why would you conclude that he does?"\

Evidence of existence is a mug's game.  It is not at all the same thing to say "I exist" and to say the computer I type on just now "exists," but the argument about God's "existence" never so much as acknowledges that distinction.  Still, the more interesting issue there is:  is God an "invisible Divine Tinkerer"?  According to whom?  Some Christians say so; some don't.  Are the latter wrong, because it makes it easier to discard the beliefs of the former?  And why does it matter if some people believe in the existence of God?  I mean here the ones who don't insist evolution cannot be reconciled with "God's word."  Why can't I conclude God is real?  Because it offends the presumptions and ignorance  of an atheist?

Seems to me that problem of holiness extends beyond the ideology of scientific materialism.  Science is holy, and all that is not-science must be discredited in order to leave science pure.  And all this religious talk is just getting our science dirty.  This disgrace shall not stand!


  1. Secondly, survival doesn't rest on being better than your competitors [emphasis added], predators, or prey. Mostly it involves being in the right place at the right time, or not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    This is something (although not in your eloquent and pithy wording ... can I use it?) I emphasize with my biochemistry students. AFAIC, people can believe whatever they want (it's a free country, yadda, yadda, yadda) but beliefs do have consequences. I am very much concerned about the political consequences of both "new atheism" and "intelligent design" because both belief systems put to much faith (and I do use that term* purposefully here) in evolution, the former because in denying God's existence, natural processes such as evolution must explain everything and the latter because evolution must create intelligently designed results. For both groups (as for the social Darwinists which are the intellectual forefathers of both groups) the fittest -- the survivors -- must be the best.

    The problem is the political consequences of believing the fittest are the best and failing to appreciate the role of luck: i.e. they pay too much attention to the post-hoc ergo proper hoc logic of Deuteronomy 4:4 and not enough to Ecclesiastes 9:11-12. If your belief system skews that way, then what do you care of the poor or even the middle classes, whose real share of the economic pie is decreasing? They are "losers" and "unfit" after all, which means they must have done something right whereas the "fittest", the "winners" deserve what they have. So why should society as a whole, via government, just reward losers and the unfit? Why shouldn't that just be left up to the "winners" to support the "losers" for the moral benefit of the winners who deserve that moral benefit as a complement to their deserved wealth?

    OTOH, if you have a full appreciation that the race does not always go to the swift, you might realize that the economy's "losers" don't deserve to loose and that the "fit" shouldn't be left to care for the "unfit" as a matter of charity that further benefits the fit (by providing the fit with additional moral superiority) but rather that the moral duty of helping the "unfit" is a societal obligation, although the economy's winners, as the beneficiaries of society, ought to fund this assistance, not merely as a matter of charity, but out of duty toward their fellow man. Indeed, from an evolutionary point of view, one can argue that human social compassion, that enables the "unfit" as well as the "fit" to propagate their genes, is what makes humanity ultimately so well-adapted: as you point out, fitness is itself environment and time bound as a concept: the stone rejected by the builders may become the cornerstone (Psalms 118:22), what is not fit in early 21st century America may be very fit in an only slightly different time and place. Indeed, the personality needed to start a business is oftentimes very different than the personality needed to maintain a business; the personality that thrives in the 'burbs may be very different than that which thrives in the big city, etc. But if you don't allow the so-called "unfit" access to resources or if you only do so out of "charity" in order to provide yourself with a sense of moral superiority, how do you know where or in what way they will thrive and benefit humanity as a whole?

    * my daughter's name is Faith. I shouldn't show my comment to her. She gets upset when people take her name in vain ;)

  2. Pardon the (deleted) first attempt at a post and the fact that I rambled so long in the post above, I didn't have room to make the point I make below. I had a food challenge yesterday to see if I was really no longer allergic to milk, but it turns out that I am still allergic, so I am still in a bit of a haze between the allergy and the anti-histamine to relieve the symptoms of said allergy. Anyway ...

    Of course, for Koheleth, it sometimes seems that his appreciation of the role of luck led him to increase his belief that economic disparities were the natural order of things and that interfering with that order was itself problematic. So, an appreciation of the role of luck in fitness is not sufficient to ensure an appreciation for the need to redistribute wealth from the economy's "winners" to its "losers", but I would argue it may very well be a necessary condition. And that necessary appreciation of that lesson of Koheleth strikes me as something both the new atheist crowd and the intelligent design crowd lack.

  3. My first response to your comment is to think of that lovely British class of people, the "lucky sperm club."

    Having had much more experience with aristocracy and class and privilege, the Brits sometimes manage to understand it far better than we do. It's not a perfect way to state the issue, but it goes a long way toward dispelling the idea that some are deserving, others are not.