Monday, November 03, 2014

Where all the ladders start

Because Advent is coming, and it is the "little Lent"

I'm parking this for further consideration later (which means, usually, you'll never see me mention it again!).  Good stuff here, especially in this:

These folks have so uncritically embraced modernist body-mind dualism that they blame all of the world’s problems on bad ideas (of which Islam is apparently the “motherlode”). As an ethicist, I am very interested in good and bad ideas, which lead to flourishing or suffering. But for all their love of “facts,” the New Atheists completely ignore history–the messy web of concrete factors like power, land, genetics, weather, hormones, economics, chemistry, and even good old father issues that give rise to ideas.

As postmodern theorists have been telling us for decades, religious “beliefs” do not simply spring up sui generis or ex nihilo. On the contrary, they exist within bodies–messy blobs of blood and bone and nerve endings that need food, shelter, and social ties in order to thrive. A healthy dose of materialism would go a long way toward complicating their oversimplifications. (I can recommend Manuel Vasquez’s More Than Belief as a primer, or perhaps they could enroll in Brent Plate’s introduction to religion class.)
A)  I really appreciate conversations from someone who knows the field (here's another example), like an ethicist who examines these questions critically, rather than a polemicist like Harris, who just shoots his mouth off.  B)  I like seeing the New Atheists taken to task for their complete misrepresentations of history, anthropology, and religion and religious studies, in the name of "rationalism."  C)  I'm very aware, thanks to seminary and ministry, of the fact that religious beliefs exist within bodies, not within arguments about abstractions (which should still mean "drawn out from" the material and concrete, the cosmos we live in.  We've turned abstraction into reality, or tried to, thanks to the dualism mentioned in the opening sentence.)  D)  Dualism--I have a real bug about dualism, and anyone who sees it lurking in the fundament has my undivided attention for their argument.

I'm led by the above to this book.  Although I favor William James' argument, or Wittgenstein's (I've used them both to the point of cliche by now), this looks like an interesting study.  I especially like the admixture of materialism in religion, something that will probably drive the would-be empiricists and logical positivists (who don't seem to realize they are dead!  Maybe it has something to do with Halloween impending) to distraction.  This is a good thing.  But it also returns (our discusccion of) religion to where it (religion) has always been:  in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.  Protestants tried mightily to remove it from that, and got the Pietists and revivals and pentecostals and charismatics for their trouble, not to mention all the arch-conservative Calvinists on the other end.  My personal attraction to liturgical worship is founded fully in the material aspects of spiritual life.  It ain't dualism that drives me there.

I've long thought the most virulent (and least informed) "atheists" at Salon (where atheism and religion are the most reliable click-bait) were mostly anti-modernists who devoutly want religion (especially) to be one thing, the easier to despise it.  But there's that dualism again:  everything must be either/or, it must be neatly cleaved between good and bad, right and wrong.  It really is the fundamentalist outlook, and is itself as much a religion as any held by an ISIS soldier or the most fervent member of a KJV church where Jesus revealed his truth to us in the King's English of the 17th century.

Dualism isn't reducible to right v. wrong, nor is it responsible for such reductionist thinking.  But the allure of dualism, that there is a sacred and a profane, that the most important things in the world are either oil or water, is a misleading one.


  1. My problems with dualism, or, even more so, monism for that matter. include that they are both artificial and limiting framings of reality which not only exclude other possibilities, but become dictatorial rules under which other possibilities are to be rejected without consideration.

    Both and all such intellectual methods of trying to reduce the incredible variety of human experience of life, internal to the mind and external into something they can put down on paper, get published and, generally, get some kind of reward. History shows that in the process, a lot of people and other living beings can be hurt and killed.

    I'm struck by the notable lack of success that the century and a half of psychology as a "science" has brought, I think they well may have started out wrong and, in just such an attempt to gain academic rewards and a place in the university curriculum, classified the mind, thoughts as physical objects which could be treated with science. I don't think there was ever a good reason to do that and I will predict that the present method of making pretty multi-color images of fMRI scans (made by reducing the possible available information produced by the method to make it machine readable and humanly publishable) will prove to be no less of a dead end than the previous programs of faith that were never all that different from phrenology and entrail reading.

    The desirability of having a "science of the mind" doesn't mean we're going to have one. Which reminds me of that line which Jessica Lange delivered so well in Sweet Dreams about people in hell wanting ice water.

    Someone asked Rupert Sheldrake about whether he was a dualist or not, he said he thought they were both wrong, that it wasn't that two are too many, it's that he thought two might be too few.

    Thank you for this post, it might get me off of my physical body to finish a post that's been in draft for a long time.

  2. At the risk of delimiting myself (then again, it's a comment form!), I think again of the case of Phineas Gage, and how we use his story to advance our own preferences.

    A la Dr. Jekyll, Gage becomes a changed man from his horrible accident, and the "evil" Gage is released, a man anti-social and unable to live among "decent" people, not unlike Mr. Hyde.

    Then he "proves" how the brain functions, because without 'that" portion of the brain (which portion? Guesses for grabs, but that's good enough, right?), he can't work like a "normal" human being, because that's how the brain works, right? Either/or!

    Except none of those stories may be true, and the matter of human nature and behavior may be far more complex than that, and Mr. Gage may have been more a freak because society insisted on seeing him that way (they chose for him, as Sartre might say), whether he was or not.

    Reductio arguments make things easier for us; they aren't necessarily the mirror of nature.