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Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I recently watched a short web-interview with Richard Dawkins on the Washington Post website.  The piece was entitled: “Divine Impulses: Richard Dawkins on “the arrogance of religious persons”.

I want to make a quick observation.  Let’s say that there are two general types of believers in the world: Modern and Postmodern.  Yes, this is an oversimplification.  However, it is useful for the purpose of this post, which is to highlight a difference in the varieties of faith and to highlight different ways of engaging with “strident atheists,” as Dawkins says.

At about the 2 minutes and 30 seconds mark in the video Dawkins says:

I can’t know that there’s no God….that’s a sort of cautious sort of thing to say.  I’m not saying there’s definitely no God.  But the arrogance of a religious person who just knows; not only knows that there’s a God, but that it’s this God, the Christian God, the Trinity, and the Virgin Mary…And they’ve got absolutely not a shred of evidence for any of it.  That’s arrogance.

The Modern believer would hear this and probably hone in on Dawkins’ claim that they hold beliefs without a “shred of evidence.”  The Modern believer would then respond by mustering a wealth of archaeological, historical, and textual evidence to support their beliefs and refute Dawkins’ claim.  Indeed, as Josh McDowell argued in his immensely popular book of the same name: there is a wealth of Evidence that Demands a Verdict. 

Why does the Modern believer respond in this way?  The answer, I think, is rooted in the same spot as Dawkins’ original criticism.  In other words, Dawkins and the Modern believer share a basic understanding: On one hand, there are Objective states of affairs in the world; on the other hand, peoples’ beliefs about those Objective states of affairs are more or less True based on their Accuracy.

The Postmodern believer would hear this and probably hone in on a different part of Dawkins’ claims.  In particular, I think there are two points in particular:

1.       Postmodernists might all together obviate Dawkins’ criticism regarding knowledge.  In other words, they might assert that faith in God has little to do with knowledge.  Dawkins’ claim misses the point.  Faith is a lived commitment, not a claim to know anything objectively about the world.

2.      Postmodernists might challenge Dawkins’ claim to define the limits of what counts as knowledge.  In other words, one might argue that Dawkins’ criticisms of the faithful ‘who just know’ are valid in the context of the scientific method and an objectivist epistemology.  However, scientifically generated knowledge does not define the limits of all the kinds of knowledge.  We should talk of multiple knowledges, not just one knowledge.  And on that note, one could then argue further that while one’s knowledge of God is not objective, it is experiential.  Claims to know warranted by rich life experience are equally valid, yet different from objectivist claims to know.           

 Why would Postmodernists respond in this way?  The answer, I think, is rooted in a fundamentally different point than Dawkins’ criticisms.  Postmodernists who value experiential knowledge, or knowledge from the inside, over and above objectivist knowledge from the outside are coming from a logically distinct starting point compared to Dawkins and compared to Modern believers.  Oddly enough, Dawkins and Modern believers share more in common on the matter of what counts as knowledge than do Postmodern and Modern faithful. 

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Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Jacob - I enjoyed the delicate thrust of this: that Dawkins and the ‘Modern’ believers are batting on the same side with respect to knowledge. But by speaking of a faith which is a ‘lived commitment’, how would postmoderns escape Dawkins’ criticism that they are committed to something which ‘they just know’ - providing thereby no further substance for what they assert to be true?

Isn’t it the case that to believe, in the Christian sense, involves both reasonable evidence, which Dawkins dismisses without any hint anywhere that he might have carefully explored what that might be, as well as inner confidence, which might also be described as the assurance of faith brought by the Holy Spirit, which so infuriates Dawkins because it won’t submit to his own intellectual reasoning?

In other words, the Christian believer is like the teacher of the law in the parable, who brings out of his store old things and new, modern and postmodern, without having to resort to the rhetorician’s tactic of the ‘either/or’ dichotomy.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Thanks for your comments.

The point that I want to insist on is that Dawkins’ criticism that ‘they just know’ is relevant only for an objectivist view of knowledge.  Dawkins does not speak for all modes of producing knowledge—we cannot forget he is a natural scientist and not a social scientist.  Natural scientists, while they often talk as if they do, don’t define the limits of all knowledge.  My point is that objectivist knowledge is only one way of knowing.  There are other ways of systematically producing knowledge.  Ethnographers, ethnomethodologists, and phenomenologists, for instance, systematically produce knowledge based on experience.  There are a number of techniques for doing such: interviewing, participant observation, fieldnoting, etc.  These are all ways of studying experience in a more or less systematic fashion.

Evidence is not the issue—or to the extent that objective evidence is important to one’s view of God, then I would say that they are more Modern than Postmodern.  Or put another way: not all evidence should be seen only as objective evidence.  There is also experiential evidence.  Think about it this way: there is objective evidence that X number of bombs were dropped in Vietnam during the US war there.  It is measurable.  There is also the experiential evidence that soldiers engaging in combat could bring to bear—this is not objective evidence, but evidence generated through experience.  If someone asked: What does war mean?  Recounting the number of bombs dropped does little to answer that question.  Hearing someone tell a story about his experiences in combat goes much further toward answering this question.  The same goes for God.  We can count the number of baptisms, which is celebrated by the SBC—because the SBC is situated firmly in the Modern camp.  Or we can talk about experience, give examples, tell stories, and demonstrate through our lives what God means. 

For me, the difference hinges on what we mean by knowledge: Are we talking about objective and measurable knowledge from outside the phenomena?  Or are we talking about experiential knowledge from inside the phenomena?  These are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about knowledge.  Dawkins is talking about one; I am talking about the other.  To the extent that the faithful are talking about objective knowledge then they are basically batting around the same epistemologal ball as Dawkins.  I’m moving in a different direction and I think faithful Postmoderns should be moving in the same direction. 

 

 

 

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I’ve been editing something — a fictionalized three-way theological debate based on a conceit that long-time habitues of OST know all too well — and I took a break to have a look at what’s shaking over here. Lo and behold, the conversation on this thread could have been taken right out of what I was just editing. Here’s the part I was just working on…

I am well acquainted with this deification of science,” said the Preacher, frowning, “this replacement of an Almighty Father’s loving hand with the blind and brutal forces of nature. We agree on one thing, Sage: True Myth is an impossibility. Surely the proponents of that cowardly compromise seek some middle ground between faith and science. I care not whether God’s day lasts twenty-four hours or a billion years. There is no reason to assert that natural processes occurring today have held sway forever. No scientist can probe places where man has never been or times before man appeared on earth. God said it; He did it: end of debate.”

With barely detectable movement the Emergentist raised his left index finger from the table and waggled it vaguely toward the Preacher. “You remain locked in the same paradigm as our unconventional friend here. Both of you insist on reading the text literally, as if it were raw data and you were theological scientists. Of course we may accept the contemporary view that life emerged gradually and incrementally from simpler forms. We may affirm that the material universe itself erupted in a vast outpouring that organized itself over countless billions of years. Still, beyond all scientific probes and before every sophisticated device designed to measure inconceivably vast stretches of space and time, there stands the primal Source of all stability and change. Why fuss over the details when the overall thrust has always been clear to even the most primitive and intuitive of minds? The text is true beyond all empirical verification.”

The Emergentist took a sip from his tea, then pushed it aside. “Why not simply accept that religion and science are two separate domains? Each should be encouraged to operate freely within its own purview. Religion deals with matters of meaning and purpose, of morality and community, of God. Science concerns the investigation, explanation and technological control of the material world. Religion is not a scientific enterprise, nor is the Bible a scientific textbook. In like manner, natural science can offer no knowledge or insights about morality or meaning or purpose. Science is observational, experimental, hypothetical, whereas religion occupies intangible realms of faith and spirit in which there can be no hard evidence. Rather than breaking down the walls between these two magisteria, we should embrace their intrinsic incommensurability. We are prepared to acknowledge the truth claims and the pragmatic value of science. Evolution? Yes, of course. However, we dismiss as intellectually crude those empirical fundamentalists who insist on subjecting spirit to matter, who scoff at the lack of tangible evidence for phenomena that transcend evidence.”

The Emergentist and the Preacher exchanged glances as the Sage offered a tentative summary: “So far it seems that, although the two of you disagree in many respects, fundamentally you are in accord.” He held up his cup, hoping to catch the attention of the server who was passing by.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

So Jacob, would you agree with Dawkins that those who claim to know there is a god, and that this god has particular characteristics distinguishing it from other gods and from fairies, are arrogant, regardless of the source of knowledge to which they so confidently point? Or do you believe that someone can assuredly know these things about a god through personal experience, even if that experience cannot be validated or falsified by tangible evidence?

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

not all evidence should be seen only as objective evidence.  There is also experiential evidence.”

Science is a set of methods specifically designed for understanding experience. Scientific research consists of creating speciic kinds of experiences and investigating those experiences systematically.

Let’s say that, through subjective experience, you enage in some sort of relationship with God. This subjective experience presumably activates your neurons and synapses. Is it possible to investigate the source of this activation? If there are no readily identifiable sources of activation occurring from outside stimuli, then might not we hypothesize that God activates the neurons directly? Perhaps God activates some internal neurostimulus mechanism that’s difficult to distinguish from hallucination or imagination. Or perhaps God uses some sort of a remote transmitter operating on some frequency not detectable by existing telemetry recording devices but whose signals are picked up by our brain chemicals.

The Vietnam war happened: it was observed by many people; it was recorded in images and words. There are veterans of that war who have personal memories of that war that were observed by no one other than themselves. They experience psychological consequences resulting from those experiences that persist even today. Some of these vets at times mistake their surroundings for the Vietnam war zone and their loved ones as combatants in that war.

There are other people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and who suffer PTSD as a result. They have had personal private experiences of close encounters that cannot be validated by other observers. Some of them claim to have undergone operations on alien spacecraft in which receivers were implanted in their brains, allowing them to receive inaudible messages from the aliens…

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Science is a set of methods specifically designed for understanding experience. Scientific research consists of creating speciic kinds of experiences and investigating those experiences systematically.”

Not all scientific methods are about studying experience.  For instance, statistical studies look for correlations between variables.  Statistical studies, generally speaking, are not about studying experience; rather, statistical studies are about studying what they define as objective changes in variables across cases—what’s the effect of race on election outcomes, for instance.  Other types of systematic analyses are about studying experience—they include ethnography, ethnomethodology, phenomenology, etc—which generally has nothing to do with claims of objectivity.  In important methodological ways, scientific approaches geared to studying objective phenomena are distinctly different than systematic approaches geared to studying experience; the former are interested in measuring and predicting, while the later are interested in how interpretive communities of people make sense of their experiences and act toward others.    

Is it possible to investigate the source of this activation? If there are no readily identifiable sources of activation occurring from outside stimuli, then might not we hypothesize that God activates the neurons directly?”

Researchers studying experience usually rely on theoretically informed inductive methods of data gathering and data analysis.  So, in effect, this means that one is not aiming to study “the source of this experience,” as you phrased it.  But rather, these researchers are interested in explaining and understanding how this experience of “God” is made sense of by the person and community and how it impacts their everyday life.  

So, for instance, we know that people visible make sense of “God” in a great variety of ways.  Some pray to this “God” others spend a lot of time and effort denouncing this “God.”  And among those people that identify with this “God” experience and pray, there are still a great variety of ways that people do this.  Some burn incense and others sit silently and still others do it in Latin and others in Southern-drawl English, and some wear colorful robes and others dark suites and shiny shoes.


Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Variables” are just experiences codified in ways that facilitate their systematic interpretation. An election outcome is an observable event; race is used to understand why the event turned out as it did. Is the researcher going to question the respondent’s race in a self-report study? Usually not: if the respondent experiences her/himself as a particular race, that’s good enough. If the self-report variable turns out to bear some statistical relationship to the observed outcome, then further research can be done to investigate in greater detail. I suspect we’re in general agreement here, Jacob.

these researchers are interested in explaining and understanding how this experience of “God” is made sense of by the person and community and how it impacts their everyday life.”

Yes, this sort of research is done with some frequency. So, e.g., people of faith in the US tend to be happier and more politically conservative, on average, than unbelievers, with of course substantial individual differences within groups. Again, unpacking these results is how science gains further understanding of these gross-level findings.

one is not aiming to study “the source of this experience,” as you phrased it.”

But such studies can be done within the normal range of empirical investigation. Studies are conducted to evaluate, say, the results of prayer on the prayed-for outcome, using predictor variables such as religious affiliation of the praying person, whether that person claims to have a personal relationship with the prayed-to deity, the type of outcome being prayed for, wearing of robes, burning of incense, and so on. These are codified observable experiences. If some of the predictor variables bear some association with the outcome, then they too bear closer scrutiny.

One needn’t look at the neural pathways associated with someone claiming to be communicating inaudibly with an invisible being, but such studies could be investigated. E.g., have the person rigged up to a neural MRI, have them report when they receive messages from the invisible communicator, see what changes in the neural activations are evident, etc. A crude method to be sure, but neuropsychological research is a pretty new field. Science didn’t used to be very good at measuring interstellar distances or subatomic structures either.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Yes, this sort of research is done with some frequency. So, e.g., people of faith in the UStend to be happier and more politically conservative, on average, than unbelievers, with of course substantial individual differences within groups. Again, unpacking these results is how science gains further understanding of these gross-level findings.”

I venture to say that most studies that we hear about on the news or read about in the paper are statistically oriented studies, usually surveys, applied to some sample of people with the goal of generalizing across cases.  The type of study that I am talking about hardly ever makes the news—I am talking about something like Nancy Ammerman’s book Bible Believers or Harding’s book The Book of Jerry Falwell.  Again, the aim is less to understand “gross level findings” and more about explaining some particular community of people.  Generalization across cases is not always the goal of all science.

But such studies can be done within the normal range of empirical investigation. Studies are conducted to evaluate, say, the results of prayer on the prayed-for outcome, using predictor variables such as religious affiliation of the praying person, whether that person claims to have a personal relationship with the prayed-to deity, the type of outcome being prayed for, wearing of robes, burning of incense, and so on. These are codified observable experiences. If some of the predictor variables bear some association with the outcome, then they too bear closer scrutiny.”

One needn’t look at the neural pathways associated with someone claiming to be communicating inaudibly with an invisible being, but such studies could be investigated. E.g., have the person rigged up to a neural MRI, have them report when they receive messages from the invisible communicator, see what changes in the neural activations are evident, etc. A crude method to be sure, but neuropsychological research is a pretty new field. Science didn’t used to be very good at measuring interstellar distances or subatomic structures either.”

Sure, I agree.  Such questions can be studied in a variety of ways, but not every way of empirically studying religion involves hypotheses, variables, and measurements.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

That’s true as well. In my original comment I was contending that science is just a more formal and mathematical way of doing what we do every day in ordinary life: have experiences, make observations, try to make sense of them. I expect that you occasionally give some thought to whether your personal religious experiences have any referent outside of your own head. Even if you can’t perform some sort of complicated experiment to verify or falsify your interpretations, you may, for example, wonder whether the inclination to do or say something comes from God or from your own unconscious or from social expectations.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I don’t agree that science is necessarily more formal and mathematical.  I would say that one way of doing science is formal modeling that focuses on mathematics.

I would be more inclined to say that science is systematic investigation of something.  And that systematicity plays out in different ways based on the methodological approach one uses.  In other words, a researcher might conduct a systematic investigation of the rituals of Protestant fundamentalists and never use mathematics.  Or they may study the rhetoric of witnessing as spoke by fundamentalists and never use mathematics.  These are scientific insofar as they are systematic studies of some people—but they are not formal or mathematical.

No, not really.  I don’t give a lot of thought to whether my personal religious experiences have any referent outside of my own head.  Why?  Because faith isn’t an idea; faith is a way of living, a way of relating to oneself, one’s neighbor, one’s enemy, and one’s God. 

One time my father in law asked me why I thought God is in the mind of men.  I replied that I didn’t.  However, I added, if some people do argue that God is in the mind of men, then it is probably because so many people insist that they have “beliefs” about God.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Agreed, science is not always mathematical but is usually more systematic than ordinary observation, with a concerted effort either to avoid or to compensate for subjective biases.

” I don’t give a lot of thought to whether my personal religious experiences have any referent outside of my own head.  Why?  Because faith isn’t an idea”

Ideas are inside the head; ideas are often about something that’s outside the head. I can pass by all sorts of things in the world to which I give no thought but which may block my view and which, if I run into them, may cause me pain.

faith is a way of living, a way of relating to oneself, one’s neighbor, one’s enemy, and one’s God”

Just leave off the last clause and you might even see eye to eye with Dawkins.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Agreed, science is not always mathematical but is usually more systematic than ordinary observation, with a concerted effort either to avoid or to compensate for subjective biases.”

If you could leave off the “effort either to avoid or to compensate for subjective biases” we would be in agreement.  Bias is a concern if one is seeking objectivity.  Objectivity is not the aim of all systematic study.

Here is a short post at the Duck of Minerva that may illustrate the difference between what I am talking about and what you are talking about.  Its called “Two Philosophers Shoveling Snow.”  http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2010/02/two-philosophers-shoveling-snow.html.

Basically, the difference between what you are saying and what I am saying is this: while you seem to be under the impression that I am talking about subjective idealism, I am not.  I am talking about a relational understanding of the world, not an understanding based on a subjective/objective dualism.  Or as one of the characters in the Two Philosophers link above says: “I’m not conforming my mind to something mind-independent; I’m just doing what is appropriate under the circumstances.”

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

If you could leave off the “effort either to avoid or to compensate for subjective biases” we would be in agreement”

I put that statement in purposely because it’s a plane of cleavage dividing so-called hegemonic modernistic science and postmodernism. I’d say that most working scientists presume that they’re studying objective reality and that they’re trying to arrive at progressively better descriptions of that reality. According to a recent survey most Anglophone philosophers also subscribe to scientific realism. Sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural studies specialists are more likely to regard science itself as a systematically biased undertaking. Of course these people thereby disqualify themselves as “real” scientists ;)

So a relational God isn’t “out there,” but is more like the spirit of intersubjectivity, a sort of personification of “faith” as a way of being-with?

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Being-with?  Of course, you know, it always depends on who you ask.  Don Cupitt has his take on the matter and so does John D. Caputo and so do others moving along similar theological lines.  I just say relating with oneself, one’s neighbor, one’s enemy, and one’s God.  

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Nice post and enjoyable discussion, Jacob.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Likewise.  Very nice discussion.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I would add one last point.  Research that aims to understand and explain how people make sense of experience can account for the gamut of experiences: from “alien abduction” to “personal salvation.”  Or as Clifford Geertz put it, rocks and dreams are both part of experience.  Researchers studying experience, in other words, are not attempting to argue with the ‘reality’ or ‘accuracy’ of the claims made by the people they are studying.     

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Sure, there are scientists who study rocks and those who study dreams and those who study religious experience and alien abductions. One typical kind of question is whether self-reported experiences bear any statistical association with anything else of interest. So, e.g., are people of certain demographic or educational backgrounds more likely to report these experiences? Are they better able to predict future events or bend spoons without touching them? Can the messages they receive from invisible sources be evaluated in any interesting ways?

Scientists are unlikely to recognize any sort of unbreachable wall between their domain and the domain of faith. Investigating the solar system got Galileo excommunicated for his trouble, but astrophysics wasn’t significantly impeded for very long.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I am talking about a relational understanding of the world, not an understanding based on a subjective/objective dualism.”

I realize that we reached a nice conclusion to our conversation yesterday, but this morning I woke up thinking about your dualism remark, so I figured I’d write my thought down, even if it doesn’t advance the theological discussion about whether and what God is.

Human subjectivity cannot transcend the world and the objects it contemplates, as Plato or Descartes would have it, because humans are part of the world. Human thinking is a natural phenomenon. As an adaptive mechanism thinking is not fundamentally different from a fish swimming or a plant facing its leaves toward the sun. The human subject and the objects which surround it are all part of the same environment. Still, even on a level playing field it’s possible to distinguish between things occupying that field. A wolf can distinguish between the deer and the lion and another wolf because there’s survival value in making such distinctions. Humans too.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I agree.  There is a value in making such distinctions.  As Richard Rorty nicely put it:

All the descriptions we give of things are descriptions suited to our purposes.  No sense can be made…of the claim that some of these descriptions pick out ‘natural kinds’—that they cut nature at the joints.  The line between a giraffe and the surrounding air is clear enough if you are a human being interested in hunting for meat.  If you are a language-using ant or amoeba, or a space voyager observing us from far above, that line is not so clear, and it is not clear that you would need to have a word for ‘giraffe’ in your language.  More generally, it is not clear that any of the millions of ways of describing the piece of space time occupied by what we call a giraffe is any closer to the way things are in themselves than any of the others.  Just as it seems pointless to ask whether a giraffe is really a collection of atoms, or really a collection of actual and possible sensations in human sense organs, or really something else, so the question, ‘Are we describing it as it really is?’ seems one we never need to ask.  All we need to know is whether some competing description might be more useful for some of our purposes.”

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Thinking,” as Rorty would put it, doesn’t refer to anything in your head or mind.  It is a useful word that helps coordinate your action with those people around you.  Human word use is like a fish swimming or a stomach churning food—it just observably happens.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

This thoroughgoing intersubjective pragmatism solves some problems while opening up new ones. It’s like the old “if the tree falls in the woods and nobody sees” riddle. If lions kill a giraffe and eat it without anyone witnessing the event, did it happen? If you say no, then aren’t you giving priority to the human perspective over that of the giraffe (now the ex-giraffe) and the lions (now with full stomachs)? And it’s a human linguistic and epistemological perspective that’s valorized: unless you have the words “giraffe,” “hyena,” “eat,” and so on, and unless you participate in an intersubjective linguistic community that assigns words similarly to these observed things and events, then the things don’t exist and the event does not occur. This seems like another variant of idealism to me.

There are postmodern, atheistic pragmatists who contend that schools should teach creationism in parallel with evolution because there’s a large community of people who believe creationism to be true. Since truth is relative to communities, it is argued, then there’s no way of distinguishing which account is the more accurate. Advocates of this pragmatic position also argue that schools should teach astrology or alchemy if enough people in the community believed these ideas to be true. Sociologist Bruno Latour famously claimed that no one died of the smallpox virus before Pasteur discoverd it. By implication, a community which claimed that no Jews were systematically slaughtered during the Holocaust would be pragmatically justified in teaching this version of history to its children.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

If lions kill a giraffe and eat it without anyone witnessing the event, did it happen? If you say no, then aren’t you giving priority to the human perspective over that of the giraffe (now the ex-giraffe) and the lions (now with full stomachs)?”

What is the use in asking “did it happen?”  That is the pragmatic point.  Not, yes or no, did it really happen?  But, what is the use of asking “did it happen?”     

This seems like another variant of idealism to me.”  Of course it does, because you seem to be under the impression that I am talking about ideas, but I’m not.  Think of it this way: there are still external pressures impacting humans.  Giant waves that we call Tsunamis still kill lots of people.  The word “Tsunami” is part of a broader causal network of words and technologies that enable humans to usefully coordinate their response in the face of this thing we call a Tsunami.  Is Tsunami the real, accurate word is unimportant.  What’s important is how we use the word to coordinate a response that limits unwanted suffering?  Like, for instance, everybody runs when someone says a Tsunami is coming.  That is not idealism.  That is pragmatism—and there are important ontological and epistemological differences between idealism and pragmatism.

There are postmodern, atheistic pragmatists who contend that schools should teach creationism in parallel with evolution because there’s a large community of people who believe creationism to be true.”

Such as…name some names.

Sociologist Bruno Latour famously claimed that no one died of the smallpox virus before Pasteur discoverd it.”

Logically speaking it would have been impossible for this disease that we call smallpox to exist before it was named as such.  Just like it would be impossible for Jesus to be a libertarian, which some conservative seem to think, because libertarianism was not linguistic or practical possibility at that time period.  It only became possible to be a libertarian when that word was invented.

By implication, a community which claimed that no Jews were systematically slaughtered during the Holocaust would be pragmatically justified in teaching this version of history to its children.”

How do you get that?  I’m not sure.  In fact, I think just the opposite.  It is useful to teach that this mass killing did happen.  It is a great tool for teaching people about the evils of people and the great sacrifices of people.  Teaching about it can be a useful way to limit suffering in the future.  Again, the question is not did it really happen, but what use is this story for our community today?  There are very good uses for retelling the stories.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

What is the use in asking “did it happen?”  That is the pragmatic point”

As you say, Jacob, that’s the pragmatic point; my point is that there are limits to pragmatism. I’m suggesting that whether or not something exists or some event happened is not determined by human utility.

…you seem to be under the impression that I am talking about ideas, but I’m not.  Think of it this way…”

Let’s see: you’re telling me that you’re not talking about ideas, but then you tell me to think in a particular way. But now I recall your telling me that, per Rorty, ideas aren’t in minds but are activities we perform to coordinate action among one another. So I should think of it this way in order that I might coordinate myself with you? Why not think about it my way so that you can coordinate yourself with me? On some level it doesn’t matter what I think you’re talking about, or even what I think I’m talking about. Are there giraffes being eaten by lions unobserved by humans, or aren’t there?

Giant waves that we call Tsunamis still kill lots of people.”

Right: they kill humans regardless of what we agree to call them. Sometimes they kill other creatures without any human witnesses on the scene to tell the rest of us about the event. If there was no word for it, or if none of the humans on the beach had ever seen or heard of such an event, would it happen anyway? There’s an apocryphal story about how the native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus and his three boats coming toward them because they had no concept of what such a thing could be. Somehow I bet that’s not true.

everybody runs when someone says a Tsunami is coming.  That is not idealism.  That is pragmatism”

Agreed. We’d have idealism if the phrase “a Tsunami is coming” were only an agreed-upon signal to run for higher ground, without there being some event independent of language and culture to run from. I presume we’d agree that the pragmatic value of running is that the thing really is likely to kill you if you don’t run.

Such as…name some names.”

There’s Steve Fuller for one. He wrote this: “Alchemy and phrenology are indeed part of the backstory of modern science, and had they enough practitioners or believers today, they would be worth trying to incorporate in the science curriculum to illustrate the context of discovery.” Of course even without names and quotes the position is consistent with the sort of intersubjective pragmatism we’re discussing.

Logically speaking it would have been impossible for this disease that we call smallpox to exist before it was named as such.”

You don’t believe that the disease existed before it had an agreed-upon name? Or that the disease was caused by a contagious virus before Pasteur discovered the virus? I guess we disagree there, Jacob. Did the stars revolve around the earth before Copernicus said that they didn’t?

How do you get that?  I’m not sure.”

It may seem like a good idea for you and I, who agree that the Holocaust actually took place, to teach its reality. But if you have a community of people who agree among themselves that the Holocaust did not take place, what justification does the pragmatist have for teaching them that it did? Does the pragmatist try to persuade the Holocaust deniers that it’s in their best interests to say that the Holocaust happened?

Again, the question is not did it really happen, but what use is this story for our community today?”

Here again, I’d say that “did it really happen” is very much the question.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Here’s something apropos the discussion of pragmatic realism. My wife is reading a book called My Stroke of Insight, in which neuroscientist Jill Taylor describes her massive left-hemispheric stroke and subsequent recovery. At one point Jill’s mother is helping with the rehab by having Jill work on crossword puzzles:

My right hand was extremely weak so just holding the pieces and making comparisons took a lot of effort. Mama watched me very closely and realized that I was trying to fit pieces together that obviously did not belong together based upon the image on the front side. In an effort to help me, G.G. noted ‘Jill, you can use color as a clue.’ I thought to myself color, color, and like a light bulb going off in my head, I could suddenly see color! I thought, Oh my goodness, that would certainly make it much easier! I was so worn out that I had to go to sleep. But the next day, I went straight back to the puzzle and put all the pieces together using color as a clue. Every day we rejoiced what I could do that I could not do the day before. It still blows my mind (so to speak) that I could not see color until I was told that color was a tool I could use. Who would have guessed that my left hemisphere needed to be told about color in order for it to register?”

There are plenty of interesting things embedded in this recount, but I’ll focus on one. Neurological research has demonstrated that the right brain is dominant in color detection, but the left brain controls systematic problem-solving tasks. The implication is that, while her intact right hemisphere could see color even after the stroke, her damaged left hemisphere didn’t remember how to use color pragmatically in solving the puzzle.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

The point of the Neurological research is ultimately about usefulness, not truthfulness.  These scientists are trying to intervene, manipulate, control, and change.  It is superfluous to claim that the Neurological research is a true vocabulary.  It is useful, like a hammer, a tool that humans use to interact with experiences that people have.  And by the way, that experience that she had that we call a stroke, was experienced, described, and observable—unlike the unobservable and undesccribable lions and giraffes.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

What I found relevant in the episode was that the person who had suffered the stroke could still sense color but could no longer use color pragmatically as a tool in puzzle-solving. As we know, there are also people whose brains don’t allow them to sense color and who have to use other environmental cues to perform pragmatic tasks effectively; e.g., the top light on the traffic signal means “stop,” the bottom one means “go.”

To solve jigsaw puzzles, people need brains that can both extract raw information like color from the environment (right brain) and transform those sensations into pragmatically useful information (left brain). When our brains are functioning properly the process linking environment to purposeful action is seamless, as if the environment is providing us with information that’s prepackaged to be useful for solving puzzles. But brains actively interact with and translate the environmental stimuli — stimuli that, I would contend, exist independently of the specific sensory organs used to detect them and the brains used to process them and the pragmatic tasks for which we use them.

Note also that the tasks of puzzle solving and driving incident-free through city traffic, while created by humans, still exist independently of whether you or I happen to have the puzzle or the steering wheel before us. Still, you and I must use our brains to perform these pragmatic tasks effectively.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

As you say, Jacob, that’s the pragmatic point; my point is that there are limits to pragmatism. I’m suggesting that whether or not something exists or some event happened is not determined by human utility.”

I agree there are limits to pragmatism, as there are limits to all philosophical and practical perspectives.  Being explicit about those perspectives and their limitations is to be valued, committed to, fleshed out, challenged, and revised.

So I should think of it this way in order that I might coordinate myself with you? Why not think about it my way so that you can coordinate yourself with me?”

You know the game!  ;-)  More precisely, because I am committed to another way of knowing, another way of being.  Your way, in relation to my way, are distinctly different, but may well intertwine in practice in some areas.  

On some level it doesn’t matter what I think you’re talking about, or even what I think I’m talking about. Are there giraffes being eaten by lions unobserved by humans, or aren’t there?”

If these events are “unobserved by humans,” how would you know that they were actually happening?  Why do you insist on transfactuals (unobservables)?  More to the point, why not stick with observable interactions between people?  We are people after all, and not unobserved lions eating giraffes.  You want the ontological Truth; I am ok with saying that the ontology of the matter is a presupposition.    

If there was no word for it, or if none of the humans on the beach had ever seen or heard of such an event, would it happen anyway?”

Would it matter?  It would be meaningless.  I am interested in meaningful phenomena.  Better yet, how would know if there was no way to describe or experience the phenomena?

There’s an apocryphal story about how the native Americans couldn’t even see Columbus and his three boats coming toward them because they had no concept of what such a thing could be. Somehow I bet that’s not true.”

Somehow I bet that it is true.  If the predominant or only way the natives had to understand and respond to the English was as deities, then making war against them would seem impossible or unlikely.  I argue that our meaningful world is composed of what we can describe and experience—by events that we make sense of, interpret, and act toward.  I fear that when you start talking about unobservables that cannot be described, it sounds too abstract and lacking in concrete experience for me to put much value into.    

We’d have idealism if the phrase “a Tsunami is coming” were only an agreed-upon signal to run for higher ground, without there being some event independent of language and culture to run from.”

What does claiming that it is independent add to this discusson?  Nothing!  It is a useless gesture of a philosophical realism.  The observable fact is that people do describe, interpret, and respond to a force called a Tsunami.  They are deeply intertwined in a causal network.  Logically, as far as human beings are concerned, I would argue that there is no way to untangle the experience or mediation of Tsunami from the Tsunami itself.  The line that you are drawing between observer and the observed is a line that you are drawing and not there naturally, so to speak.      

There’s Steve Fuller for one. He wrote this: “Alchemy and phrenology are indeed part of the backstory of modern science, and had they enough practitioners or believers today, they would be worth trying to incorporate in the science curriculum to illustrate the context of discovery.” Of course even without names and quotes the position is consistent with the sort of intersubjective pragmatism we’re discussing.”

Sure.  Check out Ian Hacking’s work on the history science.  Learning that science is a human invention with a history of entanglements with a variety of different practices is probably important to understand for certain groups of people—like practitioners of science and teachers of the history of science.

At one time people talked about imbalances in humors to diagnose and treat patients.  Today we talk about disease vectors and transmission.  Clearly, one vocabulary is more useful than another.  But I just don’t buy that one vocabulary is necessarily more True or Corresponds more Accurately than another vocabulary.   

You don’t believe that the disease existed before it had an agreed-upon name? Or that the disease was caused by a contagious virus before Pasteur discovered the virus? I guess we disagree there, Jacob. Did the stars revolve around the earth before Copernicus said that they didn’t?”

Before Copernicus started arguing otherwise, it didn’t matter that we argue that the earth revolves around the sun.  It only started mattering when Copernicus started making a different argument.  In other words, I would agree that it has been found to be useful to operate according to heliocentric model as opposed to a pre-Copernican approach when dealing with matters of cosmology.    

It may seem like a good idea for you and I, who agree that the Holocaust actually took place, to teach its reality. But if you have a community of people who agree among themselves that the Holocaust did not take place, what justification does the pragmatist have for teaching them that it did? Does the pragmatist try to persuade the Holocaust deniers that it’s in their best interests to say that the Holocaust happened?”

The Holocaust is only one of several mass killings aimed at ridding the earth of a group of people.  In the Bible, the God of Israel endorsed a number of extinctions.  We don’t teach about all of them.  Are we worse off because of that lack of teaching about all genocides?  

Perhaps one could argue that if the group in question values the lessening of unwanted human suffering, then learning about the Holocaust is instructive in pointing to thing to do and things not to do.   

Here again, I’d say that “did it really happen” is very much the question.”

That is why I am a pragmatist and you are a critical realist.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Well I must say that I’m intrigued by your project, Jacob. NT Wright considers himself a critical realist too, but I suspect that in matters of faith I’d be more in agreement with you than with him. I’d guess that most empirical scientists uphold a sort of pragmatic realism: they believe they’re getting closer and closer to describing the real thing, but they’re not necessarily representing or capturing the essence of the thing as it really is. I’m not sure there is an essence of a thing to be discovered: more the sum of the interactions the thing has with other things, with minds, with languages, with societies.

I’ve read Hacking on the history of probability theory. He traces a methodological progress over time, which I think is a more accurate account than the rather arbitrary replacement of one paradigm by another that’s the usual caricature of Kuhn’s work. And Hacking doesn’t just regard probability as a methodological tool but as an appropriate means of exploring an irreducible uncertainty in the way the universe operates.

I agree with the social constructionists and the language game people that societies construct realities for making sense of their shared experiences. There is also a tendency for cultures to hegemonize their socially-constructed realities by claiming that they’re part of nature itself. This I think is implicit in Biblical texts: since God created the material universe, he can also create a nation, a law, a patriarchic social order, etc. that are just as permanent and God-ordained as is the natural order; and whatever is wrong with society is the same as what’s wrong with nature, namely human resistance to this ordained social order. The current versions of hegemonistic social order include the idea that humans are “naturally” inclined toward capitalistic economic arrangements and private property ownership.

I’m trying to find the right words and ideas for recognizing that, while humans can create social realities, and while even science is a practiced inside a culture governed by at-times arbitrary norms, there is a reality that exists independently of human awareness or society, or even of human existence. E.g., I think it’s possible, based on the evidence they left behind, that dinosaurs really did dominate the earth and go extinct long before humans ever arrived on the scene to discover and name them.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Then Elohim said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:14-15)

Elohim seems to have been an ontological pragmatist too. Maybe you’re created in his image and likeness, Jacob ;)

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I’m trying to find the right words and ideas for recognizing that, while humans can create social realities, and while even science is a practiced inside a culture governed by at-times arbitrary norms, there is a reality that exists independently of human awareness or society, or even of human existence. E.g., I think it’s possible, based on the evidence they left behind, that dinosaurs really did dominate the earth and go extinct long before humans ever arrived on the scene to discover and name them.”

To be clear, I’m not claiming that dinosaurs didn’t roam the earth.  I just don’t need the rhetorical flourish of “really” to make my point.  It is widely agreed (which is very different than claiming it is the Truth) upon that dinosaurs roamed the earth.

What I want to insist on is that these bones are meaningful to us not because they have some intrinsic meaning or value residing in them that imposes itself on us.  Rather, the bones are significant because we have attached specific meanings to the bones.  So, yes, there are bones—they meant something very different to the ancient Romans and Greeks that found them compared to the Paleontologist today.  

This is the difference between a critical realist and pragmatist.  You want to talk about ‘what is’ and I want to talk about ‘what it means’ or ‘how it is composed’ by people.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

That meaning per se dominates the raw material it purports to make sense of, that “really” is reduced to a “rhetorical flourish” rather than a description of what’s out there, that dinosaurs roamed the earth because “it is widely agreed” that they did so, that the meaning which the ancients ascribed to the giant bones is as valid as the meaning which modern paleontologists assign to them, that the real isn’t discovered but is “composed by people” — these are views that wake me up at night.

As I see it, the biggest terrors of a thoroughgoing socially-constructive pragmatism as you describe it are these. First, from a selfish point of view, if I create something that no one else acknowledges as meaningful to them, then what I’ve created remains unreal. Second, if someone discovers something about the world and no one finds it meaningful to them, then it’s as if that discovered thing doesn’t exist. Third is the thoroughgoing anthropocentrism: if there are no humans on the scene to create meanings for objects and forces and events, then those things are unreal. Fourth is the politico-economic concern: if some dominant and influential social group asserts that 2+2=5, then that becomes the new reality.

Here’s something I wrote a few years ago that you’ll probably resonate with:

Which is the more powerful act: to create all the things that populate the heavens and the earth, or to create systems of meaning by which the heavens and the earth become real? An individual insect can die at the same instant that another one hatches; a whole species of insect can come into existence, thrive, and fall into extinction; mountain ranges can be lifted up from the sea, slowly crumble to rock, and sink back into the deep; a star can form, generate enough gravity to support a solar system and enough energy to support life, and then collapse and disintegrate. These are physical events involving the creation, transformation and destruction of matter. However, until they find their place in a system of meaning, these events and things are not real.

If you watch my little home videos on my new Sir Toby’s post you’ll hear how I use this approach as the basis for an interpretation of Genesis 1. I.e., Elohim didn’t create the material universe ex nihilo; instead, he invented a “language game” that happened to catch on. Did I discover the truth about Genesis 1 is “really” about, or did I create it? I wrote this reading first as a nonfiction, but now I’ve rewritten it as fiction. Does fictionalizing it make it less “real,” or more so? If no one watches those videos, do they not exist? And so on.

I’m curious about what pragmatic use you’re making of these ideas, Jacob. On your bio you say you’re working on a Ph.D. In what? Is pragmatism versus realism integral to your doctoral thesis?

Incidentally, when I was in grad school I heard Rorty talk a couple of times. He was on the English faculty at the U. of Virginia while I was studying psychology there. As you can imagine, his colloquium wasn’t very “meaningful” to an empirically-oriented psych department, largely because his philosophical arguments critiqueing a “mirror of nature” epistemology had very little pragmatic impact on the day-to-day work of doing science on how humans think. Also, Rorty’s was the only lecture on Freud I heard during the entirety of my doctoral program.


Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Here you have the ‘three ages’ of interpretation of texts (which can also be applied to the interpretation of ‘reality’):

Age 1 - Authors create meaning; we should look for what an author ‘intended’ in a text. In a pre-scientific era, there was no question that this was how we should view God and His creation.

Age 2 - Texts have autonomous meaning; once created, they are independent of the authors who created them; the author ‘dies’. This is also what happened when God was kicked upstairs by the theists, so that science could get on with its investigations unhindered by having to relate its findings to God.

Age 3 - Meaning in texts is neither confined to an author’s intent, nor to an autonomous meaning; rather, readers create meaning; hence ‘reader response theory’ (Rorty; Fish). The ‘absentee landlord’, God, has now simply become ‘absent’. The reader/scientist is God.

Apply this to the understanding of the world at large, and we have the movement from the Modern era of investigative science to the postmodern era of the rejection of objective knowledge in favour of personal or contradictory meanings.

Apply this to theology, and we have the movement away from a belief in an objectively existing God and the possibility of ‘knowing’ Him, and therefore the world He created, to a world of word games - where reality exists only insofar as words conjure it up for us.

Until, that is, God breaks in on our solitary confinement and solipsism, and the cycle starts all over again.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Here you have the ‘three ages’ of interpretation of texts (which can also be applied to the interpretation of ‘reality’)”

This of course captures my concern in a nutshell: that reality is regarded as, or reduced to, a text. We use language to talk about reality, do we not? Pragmatically speaking, in ordinary conversation we typically use linguistic signifiers to signify something outside of our own heads or our shared systems of meaning.

It’s gotten light enough outside for me to see that it has stopped snowing but that it could easily start up again soon. In writing this I’m communicating something not just about the state of my mind or the conventions of our linguistic community, but about the current state of the little sector of the vast world which I happen to be occupying right now. I presume this is the reader’s expectation as well. It is or is not actually snowing here regardless of what I happen to observe or how I describe what I observe in words.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

My understanding of the weather conditions on the eastern seaboard of the USA suggests that what you say may be true. What is more open to question is how the person who made these comments about snow in your post understands who he is, and how he came to be the person that he is, observing certain phenomena through his window.

This uncertainty extends to questions concerning the nature of the currently snowbound world he inhabits, and how it is perceived. At least, it is an uncertainty which is encouraged by the postmodern purveyors of identity as being adrift on the sea of language, which includes language about God. This uncertainty is not something that I personally subscribe to, having a very different worldview.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

What I appreciate about your comments are that they leave open the possibility for different worldviews.  John Doyle has a perspective too, I would say, and it isn’t Objective Reality—but a perspective that makes it possible for him to talk about objectivity and reality.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Well I guess my work is just about done here, when I get to play the dogmatist to Peter’s relativist. However, it’s an interesting topic of conversation to me so I’ll carry on…

For the record and to summarize what you probably already understand about my views, I’m making a distinction between what we know or believe or say about things like snow and dinosaurs and the mass execution of Jews by Nazis on the one hand, and the independent existence of such things on the other. If things exist independent of human awareness, then there’s a possibility that people can encounter those things as things in their own right, and through those encounters come to know something about them.

I can hear a perspective which says that things don’t exist outside of what we say to each other about them, but you’re right, Jacob: it is hard for me to imagine anyone really subscribing to that worldview, and I use the word “world” loosely. I will, however, take your word for it that you are one such person.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I can hear a perspective which says that things don’t exist outside of what we say to each other about them, but you’re right, Jacob: it is hard for me to imagine anyone really subscribing to that worldview, and I use the word “world” loosely. I will, however, take your word for it that you are one such person.”

 

I don’t think you’re very generous in understanding where I’m coming from.  Indeed, there is a philosophical tradition from which I am drawing my perspective.  It is not me alone that stakes out such a perspective—though surely the community is smaller than the worldview from which you hail.

I am not talking about existence—that is what you are talking about.  Existence is experiential or it isn’t very existential.  My point is that I am interested in WHAT STUFF MEANS and not WHETHER OR NOT IT REALLY EXISTS.  So, it is incorrect to argue that I mean that “things don’t exist outside of what we say.”  It isn’t about existence.  It is about meaning—humans make meaning, they interprete and act according to those interpretations.  I am a social scientist and so how humans make meaning and how they justify their actions is of extreme interest to me.  I have adopted a relational methodology that enables me to study socio-political life as an unfolding series of connections that produce larger or smaller scale networks of connections.   


Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I couldn’t remember how we’d come to this apparent impasse, so I went back to your original post. In it you contrast modern and postmodern believers. The modernist evaluates beliefs as more or less true based on their accuracy vis-a-vis objective states of the world. The postmodernist, in contrast, might espouse a faith that is about lived commitment rather than knowledge, and/or might lay claim to a kind of knowledge that is experiential rather than objective.

I certainly agree that people’s commitments aren’t necessarily justified on objective grounds. Loving this person rather than that one, or regarding politics as more important than ethics, or even dedicating oneself to getting rich versus improving others’ lives: these are judgments of what’s good and important and meaningful, and there is no standard outside of human judgment in these matters. To the extent that faith constitutes a personal and collective commitment to a set of principles, to a community of people, to a way of acting in the world, then I agree with you that faith functions independently of what’s objectively real or true. Such a faith can imbue life with meaning that’s experienced subjectively and intersubjectively. So I’d say that we’re in fundamental agreement about such matters.

I have adopted a relational methodology that enables me to study socio-political life as an unfolding series of connections that produce larger or smaller scale networks of connections.”

Do you subscribe to “actor-network theory” or some variant on it? I’m only tangentially familiar with its tenets, but I understand that ANT includes both human and non-human actants in its networks. So a social network might include people and ideologies and money and geographical neighborhoods and standard behavior patterns etc. etc.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I don’t do ANT in particular, but I have read enough Bruno Latour that it shapes what I do.  Network theory that I draw from is closer to American pragmatism.  Yes, I would agree that networks include people and things.  The question is: does the thing have agency?  ANT folks say yes; but in American social science, saying that things have agency causes more problems than good.  So, I draw from symbolic interactionism to focus on how people interact with and interpret things. 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

When I was in school I studied the cognitive and reading practices of research scientists, as well as their networks of mutual influence. I used citation patterns as one of my data sources, so I too relied on postmodern text theory and the social studies of science to inform my work.

I agree that the agency of inanimate objects is problematic. I’ve gotten to know the work of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, a couple of contemporary continental philosophers (though both are American) who are inventing something they call “object-oriented ontology.” Latour figures prominently in their theories of causality and agency.

I’ve been reading a superb book entitled Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, 2007 by Eyal Weizman. Weizman describes in detail how the Israeli government and military have manipulated physical space to achieve and maintain dominance over the Palestinians. He notes the irony of Israeli military intelligence invoking Deleuze, Bataille, Debord, Agamben, and other theorists of the left for hegemonic purposes. Networks, swarms, deterritorialization, lines of flight: post-structural tactics proposed for poking holes in a dominant social order can also be used, and to better effect, to break up resistances. The master is using the slave’s tools against him, as it were. It’s clear that inanimate features like borders, walls, roads, checkpoints, hilltops, and so on have effects on human lives, but it’s also clear that human agents design and counteract these effects.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing problematic with what you’ve just said.  And there was no need to say that these things are “real” or “objective.”  Borders, to the extent that they do impact on human life, are seen as practical enactments—the border guard checking the passport is an embbodied practice that constitutes and causes the sovereign state.  The state has no concrete existence apart from these ongoing performances—or at least that is what a poststructural perspective would argue.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Your neighbors may agree with your descriptions of the events you observe—they may say to you, “yep, that’s what we say here,” but neither your descriptive phrase nor theirs necessarily corresponds to objective reality.  Indeed, how would you get outside of your descriptions of the world to test and see if they are accurate or not? 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Generally, I like it.  But you said: “Until, that is, God breaks in on our solitary confinement and solipsism, and the cycle starts all over again.”  I wouldn’t say that it is solipsism and I am not at all certain  “God breaks in” to anything.  I don’t buy that God is separate and distinct force that intervenes in some instances and not in others.  

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I was using ‘solipsism’ in a general way, rather than as a philosophically defined category. But it’s interesting that we come to the point where you say that you don’t buy God as a separate and distinct force (that) intervenes (in some instances and not in others).

It’s a watershed that distinguishes you and John on one side from myself. But it’s also a watershed that distinguishes entire systems of how reality is perceived, and the nature of reality itself.

Theologically, someone like Don Cupitt has popularised, in a very limited way, because of his limited audience, a postmodern worldview in which biblical texts are explored as wordgames, God being spread across the words themselves, rather than being perceived as having any separate and independent existence.

It’s a worldview which is very contradictory to the repeated biblical emphasis from the creation accounts onwards that ‘God said’, as someone who is outside the system in which we live, but who can also creatively enact as well as come into and operate within that system, and indeed did so climactically in Jesus.

From this point of view, the possibility of accurately perceiving the world around us, ‘reality’ if you like, depends not on science, nor on ourselves, but on God as the source of that reality. The possibility of knowing how things really are depends on His existence as the ultimate fact in the universe. That’s not to say that empirical observation and reason do not offer ‘true’ perceptions of reality, but they are only partial. In the end, we cannot see things as they really are apart from God (according to this worldview). All things cohere insofar as they are related to Him.

In a similar way, we have no true independent existence apart from God. The ‘self’ which perceives reality only finds its true identity in relation to God. Conversely, the ‘self’ loses its true identity if it separates itself (or tries to) from God. The biblical narrative describes how we, as a race, lost our significance, security and acceptance, the basis of identity, in God. It describes all the things and ways in which we sought that identity apart from God, and the disastrous consequences. It describes how Jesus came to restore us to that true identity, and to enable us to become truly human, as God had intended it to be.

This is, of course, a worldview. From my perspective, it is the only worldview which makes sense, and does not lead into atomised fragmentation, or open up massive philosophical fissures, which even people like Richard Dawkins are unable to contemplate, let alone provide credible explanations for.

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Worldviews—we all have them.  Experience can shatter those worldviews.  For instance, being the lone survivor while everyone around you dies may break you from your sense of faith in an all loving, sovereign God.

I usually argue that God as a weak force.  The best symbol for that is Jesus on the cross.  While he is not sovereign in the sense that he intervenes here and there, he does lay an unconditional claim on your life.  That is a sign post indicating how to live one’s life in relation to oneself, one’s neighbor, one’s enemy, and one’s God.

 

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I was suggesting that the Christian worldview is powerful because more coherent, philosophically, than alternative worldviews. Whether I personally continue to believe in it would not alter its coherence.

I also think, Jacob, your view of how God intervenes, or should intervene, in our world, if he were God, needs some exploration. Should God intervene physically every time somebody did something or incurred something that involved pain? Can you imagine what sort of world that would be like?

On the other hand, new creation, new heaven and new earth, beginning in the resurrected Jesus, the downpayment in each of his followers, an alternative rule to existing world rule, a new community spread over the entire earth, a dynamic that defies the cycle of hope, failure and despair to which the rest of mankind is bound - I’d have thought this was some intervention.

It all depends which way you are looking, and what you alternatives you hold in the balance.

Now, what was this thread all about? Oh yes, Dawkins and co.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I was suggesting that the Christian worldview is powerful because more coherent, philosophically, than alternative worldviews. Whether I personally continue to believe in it would not alter its coherence.”

Worldviews as abstract doctrines and sets of propositions may be more or less coherent.  But, as a lived matter, I don’t buy the claim that Christianity is more coherent than any other worldview.  Empirically, Christianity is highly varied.  So, I would disagree that coherence is the source of strength—though I think that following Jesus can make a consistent life possible, it is not a determined outcome, but a matter of ongoing effort.

Should God intervene physically every time somebody did something or incurred something that involved pain? Can you imagine what sort of world that would be like?”

My point is that I don’t think God intervenes in a supernatural way.  After Haiti, I didn’t ask myself: “Where was God?”  Or “Why did God do this/allow this to happen?”  Etc.  These are questions that presume God is sovereign.  I do not hold such a position.  I just don’t think that God is separate from events.  God, it seems to me, is both immanent to everyday life and transcendent in relation to everyday life; but God is not separate or distinct from creation.  

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Jacob, this is becoming an entirely new thread, but - no, worldviews are not abstract doctrines or sets of propositions. They are narratives which we play out in our lives, which make sense of the lives that we live. They involve key symbols which give our lives significance. The stories answer the basic questions: Who are we? Where have we come from? What’s wrong? What’s the solution? Worldview also provides a praxis, a way of being in the world. So yes, the coherence of the Christian worldview is its source of strength. But it’s only as strong as it its central focus - which is Jesus.

Your response to Haiti is very interesting. An immanent and transcendent God - we’re agreed on that totally. A God not separate or distinct from creation - well, He would have to be in some sense, otherwise He wouldn’t be God. You don’t become what you have created. But, a God much more closely identified with and involved in His creation - yes, I like that.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

It seems pointless to argue that worldviews are or are not coherent.  The coherence of any world view is an empirical matter that one can observe being narrated and performed. 

I’m not saying that God became what he created.  Rather, I am saying that God is not separate from what he created.  He is part of his creation; God is like a Mountain, God is like….God is like his creation.  How can a creator be distinct from what he created?  Does the artist not infuse their selves in their painting?    

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Stories of people knowing they have captured the Objective Truth, and stories about what policies people will justify with that Objective Truth, scare me just as much.

As I see it, the biggest terrors of a thoroughgoing socially-constructive pragmatism as you describe it are these. First, from a selfish point of view, if I create something that no one else acknowledges as meaningful to them, then what I’ve created remains unreal.”

Empirically, this is not problematic at all.  People give meaning to things that other people care nothing about all the time—I care nothing about Golf, but many other people care a great deal.  The game of golf persists nonetheless, however.  Because the game of golf is not possessed by any one individual—a community of people play and understand and comment on the golf world.  Reality or not reality isn’t the problem—meaningfulness is the issue.  

Second, if someone discovers something about the world and no one finds it meaningful to them, then it’s as if that discovered thing doesn’t exist.”

Discoveries come and go.  And communities of people who find those discoveries meaningful come and go.  In historical interaction, nothing lasts forever and stays unchanged.  

Third is the thoroughgoing anthropocentrism: if there are no humans on the scene to create meanings for objects and forces and events, then those things are unreal.”

But you act as if you can get outside of your anthropocentric view.  How do you do that?  How can you get outside of your human perspective to get at the real that is supposedly outside human practice?  

Fourth is the politico-economic concern: if some dominant and influential social group asserts that 2+2=5, then that becomes the new reality.”

2 + 2 = 4 is a logical equation with a long history, lots of institutional support, and plus it is often presented as ‘commonsense’ and obvious— I doubt it will be overturned anytime soon.  To be clear, I am not advocating a consipiracy theory.  I am simply saying that 2 + 2 = 4 was not an objective discovery, but a symbol made by humans with a history.  

Did I discover the truth about Genesis 1 is “really” about, or did I create it? I wrote this reading first as a nonfiction, but now I’ve rewritten it as fiction. Does fictionalizing it make it less “real,” or more so? If no one watches those videos, do they not exist? And so on.”

Why assume that there is a “truth” to “discover” about Genesis 1?  I would say that there are competing interpretative readings of Genesis 1.  You offer one; I have read others.  The question is not is it more or less real, but how does it impact the course of your or anybody else’s conduct?  Again, I think that there is an important distinction that you are missing: you are talking about ‘what is real’ and I am talking about ‘how things are composed’ or ‘what does it mean.’  These are different questions that cannot all be reduced to an answer about reality.

I’m curious about what pragmatic use you’re making of these ideas, Jacob. On your bio you say you’re working on a Ph.D. In what? Is pragmatism versus realism integral to your doctoral thesis?”

My dissertation is entitled: “Ordinary Terrorism: Interpersonal Security Conduct and the Politics of Danger in the United States.”  I draw from pragmatically oriented philosophy, methodologies, and methods (including ethnography, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and discourse analysis) to study how people make sense of the danger of terrorism and how it impacts their everyday conduct in the Washington Metro.  I will be defended in late April or early May and am on the job market looking specifically for jobs in International Relations and Comparative Politics.  

Incidentally, when I was in grad school I heard Rorty talk a couple of times. He was on the English faculty at the U. of Virginia while I was studying psychology there. As you can imagine, his colloquium wasn’t very “meaningful” to an empirically-oriented psych department, largely because his philosophical arguments critiqueing a “mirror of nature” epistemology had very little pragmatic impact on the day-to-day work of doing science on how humans think. Also, Rorty’s was the only lecture on Freud I heard during the entirety of my doctoral program.”

It is not hard for me to understand why psychologist who are talking about minds and motives and desires might miss the empirical value of a pragmatically oriented approach that focuses on concrete interaction.   Although, William James didn’t miss the point of the pragmatic perspective for psychologists.  In International Relations, my disciplinary focus, pragmatism is a growing philosophical response to the dominance of formal modeling, rational choice theory, systems modeling, and the full range of hypothesis testers. 

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

this is not problematic at all.”

Discoveries come and go.”

You offer one; I have read others.”

I posed four issues that frighten me about pragmatism. I wouldn’t harbor these fears if I didn’t take pragmatism seriously. And you’ve seen that I resonate with some of the ideas. That you seem to find only reassurance in what I fear adds a fifth terror to my list.

Do I fear those who claim to have found the Objective Truth? Sure: that’s what your post was about. I share Dawkins’ fear of those who claim to know the Objective Truth about God. Empirical science as currently practiced relies on falsification rather than confirmation of hypotheses, so Dawkins is being true to his methodological commitments by maintaining his agnosticism, his ultimate uncertainty about the Objective Truth. Typically it’s the politicians and talkshow hosts who turn science into dogma, not the scientists themselves.

I understand that discoveries come and go. What I fear is when this coming and going becomes indistinguishable from passing fad and fashion. I understand that popularity often trumps beauty and truth and justice. What I fear is equating popularity with beauty and truth and justice. I understand that perceptions are typically more influential than evidence, both individually and collectively. What I fear is that popular perceptions are manipulated by money and power, and even by psychologists and sociologists hired by those who wield money and power.

On the other hand, I understand that upholding standards which purport to supercede popular opinion is a typical move invoked by elitists attempting to preserve their status in class wars. And as you’ve alluded to, Jacob, power has often been wielded in the name of purported certainties promulgated by the elite: the superiority of the Aryan race, the WMDs in Iraq, etc. So there are things to fear either way.

Finally, I return to the “You offer one; I have read others” remark. This is of course insufferable, inasmuch as it’s the only thing you’ve had to say about my interpretation of Genesis 1. The implication is clear, however: from a pragmatic point of view there is no practical use for you to make of my reading. To be honest, though, I wrote the nonfiction book about Genesis 1 from pragmatic motives: I thought that I’d have an easier time getting nonfiction published than fiction, and I thought that my Gen. 1 interpretation would offer a practical solution for those conservative Christians who wanted to preserve scriptural accuracy while acknowledging the empirical and logical discrepancies embedded in the Biblical text. I hadn’t counted on the emergent evangelical crowd moving on to poetic and true myth readings of Genesis 1, wherby empirical (in)accuracy is deemed irrelevant to the meaning of the story for the Christian community. I also hadn’t counted on my coming to regard my own pragmatic reading of Genesis 1 as true and beautiful and just in its own right. And so I find myself an embittered and disillusioned old man, hanging around this Christian website when there’s no real practical reasons for me to do so any more.

I would ask you more about your dissertation, but for the sake of ego preservation I’m forced to say something like this: “Meh, dissertations come and disertations go. If it gets you a job you want, then that means it was a good dissertation. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t.” I find it easier to put remarks like this in the mouths of fictional characters, contrasting them with other fictional characters who uphold the value of an intrinsically excellent dissertation regardless of its practical implications for the writer, for the reader, or even for the world. My fiction always remains ambivalent, so neither character would unilaterally win the day. And then of course the finished novel would remain unpublished, unread, unreal…

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

In an odd way, what you write is beautiful.  What we have at base are commitments, judgement, and a varying sense of self.  Bitter as you may be, your writing here is part of who you are, a way of mobilizing who you are in the face of narratives that are similar and different.  Beauty is not faddish, but it certainly isn’t timeless either—it’s rather stable, yet changing.  While I am not claiming that beyond our perception nothing exists, I am saying that there is no way to get outside of our perceptions to test the reality of our claims.  Falsification is an ongoing conversation—not a magical method that allows us to get beyond ourselves.  Let go of the metaphysical push to get beyond oneself and embrace the existentiality of life.     

 

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

It was rather beautiful, wasn’t it (lol)? Sometimes beauty can emerge even from interpersonal disagreement.

Falsification is an ongoing conversation—not a magical method that allows us to get beyond ourselves.”

Scientists deluded into thinking they have a magical method! Film at eleven!

Let go of the metaphysical push to get beyond oneself and embrace the existentiality of life.”

Alternative exhortation: Get over yourself. The universe was here long before you showed up, and it will still be here long after you’re gone. Have a look around.

Okay, I’ll stop now.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Nope, it turns out I can’t stop.

So there are these three guys standing around a jar full of marbles. “I wonder how many marbles are in the jar?” asks the first guy. The second guy says, “I dunno, maybe about a hundred?” “More like two hundred,” says the third. The first guy says, “let’s compromise: one hundred fifty marbles it is.” The three walk away arm in arm.

Okay, now I’ll stop.

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

But where’s the context that gives their actions meaning?  As it stands, there actions lack any context and seem absurd.

Toward what purpose are their actions directed?  Who are these guys?  What does the arm in arm gesture indicate?  

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

Alternative exhortation: Get over yourself. The universe was here long before you showed up, and it will still be here long after you’re gone. Have a look around.”

My point is: so what?  So processes and pressures will continue to occur after I’m long gone.  What’s the point?  I don’t think that that’s Truth or Objectivity or Reality or whatever label one wishes to apply.    

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

I’ve gone from religious certainty (a long, long time ago), to confidence (on occasion), to hopeful (always). I am sympathetic to the atheist position, for if anything it strives for purity in its objectivity. Atheists properly point out religion’s exclusionary, isolationist, institutional hierarchies that breed an us-and-them mentality (which looks nothing like Jesus). But (surprisingly) I see this same kind of intolerance and exclusionary posture from many in the atheist camps. You note this as well in the similarity between Dawkins and Modern Religious Believer. The whole affair is pitiful.

Camile Puglia writing in Salon recently said basically the same thing, “… I was recently flicking my car radio dial and heard an affected British voice tinkling out on NPR. I assumed it was some fussy, gossipy opera expert fresh from London. To my astonishment, it was Richard Dawkins, the thrice-married emperor of contemporary atheists. I had never heard him speak, so it was a revelation. On science, Dawkins was spot on—lively and nimble. But on religion, his voice went “Psycho” weird (yes, Alfred Hitchcock)—as if he was channeling some old woman with whom he was in love-hate combat. I have no idea what ancient private dramas bubble beneath the surface there. As an atheist who respects and studies religion, I believe it is fair to ask what drives obsessive denigrators of religion. Neither extreme rationalism nor elite cynicism are adequate substitutes for faith, which fulfills a basic human need—which is why religion will continue to thrive in our war-torn world.”

JL

Re: Richard Dawkins, Knowledge, and Faith

JL:

These observations by John and Camile of the “denigrators” of religion mirror my own experience to some extent; although my blinders seemed to be rather securely in place until not too long ago. Online discussions at various websites have been a regular part of my experience for many years now. I have a long list of bookmarked sites still, although some have gone away and others I’ve just ceased to participate in (…here at OST a good example of the latter…:-))

I like John’s hopscotch description of his spiritual path. I like it because it says what needs saying in very few words - a behaviour I wish came more naturally to me. (…verbosity rules!…)

Borrowing his form, my own journey would look more like this:

I’ve gone from fear-based narrow sectarian christian dogma never approaching certainty (a long, long time ago), to unthinking apathy (mostly), to a hopeful “human-portrait-of-jesus-based” agnosticism (always).’

Thanks again, JL…, and to others on this thread  - it is a good one.

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