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Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Conversation Resumes!

Close Friend of Blog Martin Striz and I have had an extended exchange prompted by my recent post on Fundamentalism and "Priestly" Science (check out the comments for early episodes in the exchange), but I'm blogging my latest response as a new post, since it's been a few days since I paid much attention to the blog (teaching demands intervened), and I wanted to make sure Martin (and others) actually sees this latest contribution.

Fair warning, friends -- this is long, unedited, and a bit rambling even for me. UPDATE: Okay, I re-read this sprawling awkward thing again next morning, and have edited it a bit for clarity. This probably should be about three separate blog-posts, but I was on something of a tear. I hope people read this engagement in the exploratory and collegial spirit it intends.

To begin, once again, I regard fundamentalism as an essentially anti-democratic political formation, specifically as an authoritarian political formation, usually insistently patriarchal, and one that opportunistically mobilizes certain moral and esthetic aspects of particular religious faiths and practices to maintain and consolidate the incumbent and elite interests within a social order. Sometimes, Martin, you seem to agree with me at least in part in characterizing fundamentalism thus, so I'm assuming we are on roughly the same page here, or that you get my point even if you disagree with my emphasis here.

But it seems to me that

[1] you (along with others, many of whom are far worse) are pushing a stronger logical or structural identification between fundamentalist political formations and religious faiths and practices as such than I would personally, and that

[2] you are, in consequence, a bit too quick to describe congenial or at any rate harmless expressions of religious faith and practice you encounter as fundamentalist ones, even if they aren't really or only superficially are, and that

[3] you are, in consequence, describing more people as actively and intransigently fundamentalist than probably really are so, and that

[4] you are, in consequence, understandably a bit more disturbed and despairing about the capacity of reasonable democratic multiculturalism to prevail over the violent adjudication of human differences in today's world, especially where questions of deeply personal but incompatible modes of identity connected to religious faiths and practices are concerned, than I might be (on a good day).

It is the authoritarian politics themselves that are the problem for me, not the fact that "faith" has a role in some lives. Whereas it seems to me that certain versions of militant anti-religiosity that have taken on a real allure among many of my freethinking friends and colleagues at the moment take religion to be essentially irrational in a way that accounts especially or even definitively for the political pathology of religious fundamentalisms. I don't want to deny that this can be part of the picture of fundamentalist formations, certainly, but I think this is a profoundly incorrect emphasis that is sure to do more harm than good when all is said and done, for freethinkers themselves as well as for the standing of people of faith, if our perspective is defined by a commitment first of all to democracy.

Look, now, whatever you do, please don't react to this statement with "groans" -- since however much you disagree with what I am saying, if you finally even do, you can surely admit that you don't really think I am uninformed on this topic or behaving dangerously irrationally or whatever, so why pretend otherwise? Nor respond, please, with peremptory demands that I quote chapter and verse of this or that particular text you think I must be "casting aspersions" at -- when the truth is that I mentioned no particular texts at all.

I have been speaking all along here of a broad discourse of anti-religious militancy, which has resonated with unaccustomed volubility lately (and sometimes nicely edifyingly so) in many of the print and online fora I pay attention to, and for which, it is true, a few best-selling texts have been a conspicuous symptom and a prompt. But never in any of this have I claimed to be providing a thorough analysis or even book review of particular titles, which is a project that would require a very different style and approach than the one you see here. As for my awareness of the books that you are recommending to my attention in these exchanges -- I have read books by all three of these authors, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, I have read published essays and articles by all of these authors on the topic of religiosity, some of them I have been reading for years, as it happens, and I have paid careful attention to hundreds of enthusiastic and hostile responses to these books and articles in recent months.

Now, if you still think this makes me too ignorant or unqualified to discuss this topic you can only imagine how I feel defending "postmodernist" theory (the very term itself, in my view, usually indicating a flabbergasting ignorance of the complexities of the field that is presumably under discussion) and multicultural democracy against smug "Champions of Science" (and I would have thought it goes without saying I don't mean you by this designation, Martin, since we have so regularly and publicly agreed on questions of science advocacy hitherto) and ranters against the "Fashionable Nonsense" of many of my most brilliant, inspired, righteous colleagues in the "humanities," defending my own modest pragmatism against people who seem to regard their incomprehension of or even their outright refusal to read the very texts they decry as a signal of their superior intelligence on these topics -- although, to be fair, most clearly have read a few cherry picked quotations here and there which presumably demonstrate that Science and Technology Studies and post-Nietzschean critical theory is uniformly a kind of unrelenting indulgence in facile self-referential incoherence amidst an orgy of hysterical nihilism, probably sympathetic to the Terrorists ™.

It is very much in the context of these defensivenesses and frustrations of mine that I am publishing my hesitations about the new atheistical militancy, and it seems likely to me that your own context is almost certainly a very different one from mine.

I think this exchange of ours is getting a bit more heated than it has to do, because neither of us is always sure where we are personally being located when generalities are getting mobilized by the other. I would be shocked to hear you claim to be unaware that a sizable number of people who are caught up in the current militant anti-religiosity express reductionist attitudes that conjoin their atheism to a disdain for the humanities as they are actually practiced in many University settings, or that many of the militants seem incapable of or uninterested in distinguishing religiosity as it is expressed in authoritarian fundamentalist practices from its many other expressions, among them the common or garden varieties of personal religiosity I have described as essentially esthetic or moral ones. And surely you would be shocked to hear me claim that every atheist militancy inevitably expresses confusions of this kind -- especially since I am myself an absolutely convinced and unapologetic atheist, not above my own moments of militancy on the issue when the occasion demands it, and I certainly don't think I exhibit the tendencies I am decrying among the militants.

So let's not assume that either of us are making claims of the "all" or "none" variety, but only just claims about interestingly non-negligible "some"s in which either one of us may or may not be members ourselves. So, if the shoe fits wear it, but otherwise we'll not assume either is accusing the other of perniciousness, especially since we have such a long history of cordial agreement and mutual respect, after all.

On that note, I want to remind you all of a post I wrote here on Amor Mundi about two years ago, my answer to the question Is Science Democratic?". I still agree with every word of that post, which is still one of my personal favorites, and it does not seem to me that anything I have said in my recent criticisms of some versions of militant atheism and some championings of "science" that take on what look to me like perniciously "Priestly" colorations should surprise anybody who has read that piece.

Now, let's dig in a bit more closely.

I wrote:

Where I may disagree with you in the post is in my contention that [1] fundamentalism is in essence a political and not an epistemological phenomenon, [2] in my insistence that *both* scientific and religious outlooks are vulnerable to appropriation by fundamentalist mindsets, and [3] in my insistence that for *neither* scientific nor religious outlooks does this vulnerability to fundamentalist appropriation tell us what is *definitive* about the proper work of scientificity or of religiosity.

You responded:

I agree on the second two points. On the first one, I think that fundamentalism is primarily a psychological phenomenon.

I wouldn't deny that fundamentalisms as political phenomena typically correspond to and are enabled by a multiplicity of psychological factors. I have even referred occasionally in our exchanges to a fundamentalist "mind-set," for example. I was enormously influenced by post-war texts by critical theorists (like Adorno, Marcuse, and Reich) and 20C Beats (like Burroughs and Ginsberg) who were concerned about an "Authoritarian Personality," for example. Recently, some of this work found its way into John Dean's analysis of/polemic against contemporary American movement conservatism, including its religious fundamentalist base, in Conservatives Without Conscience. I am also immensely interested in and recommend the multivolume multiyear academic study published about ten years ago under the title of The Fundamentalism Project -- almost all of which I have read and studied quite carefully, as it happens.

But I am not sure why claiming fundamentalism to be importantly psychological would imply disagreement with my own sense that fundamentalism is essentially a political formation, rather than, say, an essentially epistemological problem. I won't put words in your mouth, or attribute attitudes to you that I don't know about, so let me just say that my worry is when at least some of the new atheistical militants claim fundamentalism to be "psychological" they mean less to address themselves to the complex dynamics of personal affect and collective agency but simply, straightforwardly, to pathologize vulnerable and exploited people who deserve and are perfectly capable of implementing democracy on their own terms.

Many (even most) anti-religionists seem to me to define religiosity first of all as the declaration of a belief in the existence of God, a belief that is analogized to belief in something like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. In this understanding, belief in God takes the form, "x exists," the force of which belief derives its heft from its connection to belief in innumerable other "x's" like tables, chairs, hunger pangs, protons, and so on, but with the difference that these "x's" earn their reality-bolstering wings through their adequacy to certain criteria of warrantability, usually summarized as either demonstrability or defeasibility depending on one's tastes in these methodological matters, whereas "God as x" is never either demonstrable or defeasible and, hence, its achievement of a reality effect is always a kind of fraud or parasitic infestation of reason, properly so-called.

I think that these sorts of logical and epistemological problems are what many atheistical militants have in mind when they turn their attention to the "psychological" dimensions of fundamentalisms, a move which tends to involve a pathologization of faith as such, and which then tends to deduce the authoritarian politics of fundamentalist formations as entailments of that essential pathology, while likewise positing nonauthoritarian religosities as compromises between an essential faithly irrationality and more wholesome glimmers of pragmatic scientificity. This move has the merit of simplicity, certainly, but it tends to eventuate in judgments that the overabundant majority of people on earth are incomparably more irrational than I personally think the facts bear out, it tends to authorize self-congratulatory explanations of the violence and instability of vulnerable exploited people who may be considerably more reasonable than we are giving them credit for, and it tends to undercut the celebration of both equity and diversity on which movements for planetary democratic multiculture deeply depend.

I would be the last to deny this sort of thing plays out in some measure in many of the variously faithful, from time to time, nor even that this mechanism plays out catastrophically in at least some believers. But I do think treating this critique as an adequate or essential characterization of religiosity in general amounts to a massive missing of the point, as far as practices of faith and professions of belief actually play out in the world practically speaking. As I have said before, I think an enormous number of professions of "belief in x, where x is 'God'" can be perfectly adequately translated by the pragmatic non-believer into statements of the form "I really try to be a decent person," or "I draw much of my personal sustenance from my membership in a community of good people defined by our shared attestation to this belief," or "my own project of personal self-creation seems to lead me to focus my attention on non-standard practices or states that are not easily or immediately describable in terms of current conventional commonsensical preoccupations."

When someone seems to say to me that they "believe" in the existence of a "thing" that cannot exist in the way things that exist normally do I ask myself -- now, what could this person really be trying to express in the way of belief if they aren't really insane or stupid beyond belief? Incredibly, this simple move usually is all it takes to open myself to extraordinary insights that before I had been stubbornly resisting out of ignorance or fear or a shabby self-importance. This point seems to me precisely analogous to one that applies to those who decry relativists as people who deny that "existence exists." It seems to me that nobody in their right mind denies that "existence exists" and so, whenever I encounter a claim from a philosopher or activist or poet that initially seems to suggest otherwise, I ask myself -- now, what could this person be trying to get at if they aren't making a facile self-referentially incoherent claim of the kind they seem to be making at first? Incredibly, this simple move usually is all it takes to open myself to extraordinary insights that before I had been stubbornly resisting out of ignorance or fear or shabby self-importance. As a good pragmatist I have to say that I don't focus too much worry on differences of belief that fail to play out in differences of conduct, but where actual conduct differs, there I try to determine what actual differences of belief account for that.

I'm assuming you'll charge that I foolishly misidentify fundamentalists as what you call "moderates," and further that you think I'll respond to this charge by claiming that you are doing something like the reverse, misidentifying moderates as "fundamentalists." But part of what I am saying is that the basic framing of this issue in terms of moderation and extremity seems to me likely to derange our understanding of the variety of religious belief and practice. I think religiosity is essentially a matter of esthetics and morals, a matter of highly idiosyncratic projects of private perfection and coping with the sublime dimensions of human experience (those that have not yet been assimilated into commonsense and literal language) as well as a matter of practices of moral identification and moral disidentification (the expression of "we-intentions" in Wilfred Sellars's parlance) providing a sense of belonging and social support. When you say that estheticized and moralizing modes of religiosity exemplify religious "moderateness" I cannot agree that this is the case, because it seems to me you are saying that religiosity is truly a matter of basic irrationality, faith in the existence of a non-existing thing, which in some people, thankfully, is "moderated" by more practical and mitigating concerns or something like that, when it seems to me that these variously faithful folks are simply straightforwardly religious, and not moderately so in the least.

For me, there is nothing about religiosity, per se, that would incline me to think that I am in the presence of a person who cannot be "reached" through deliberation, although I am quite aware that many prefer that religion not find its way to the dinner table else the collegiality of the meal be spoiled.

I wrote:

I think many of the religious claims dismissed as unfalsifiable perversions of proper scientific claims may be better described instead as declarations of membership in moral communities, expressions of "we"-intentions, testaments to essentially esthetic attitudes concerning the sublime and so on. To say that what matters most about them is the way they fail to pass muster as scientific claims is often just a matter of massively missing the point.

You replied:

53% of the American population rejects evolution in any form. A sizable percentage of them want their mythology taught in school. They make claims about metaphysical souls that reside in embryos and then demand public policy regarding research to reflect their views. Again, neither I nor the authors that I cite have any contention with people wanting to join moral or social communities. But the false instrumental claims that they make are real and dangerous.

I have regularly pointed to these sorts of outrageous states of affairs here on Amor Mundi, and so I am not exactly unaware of them, as you know. Indeed, we are very much on the same page on most of this sort of stuff. Queer feminist atheist anti-war vegetarian democratic socialists aren't exactly big fans of the Religious Right, doncha know!

I don't know if I always draw precisely the same set of conclusions from all the data as you do, however. You say that more than half of Americans reject evolution in any form. This is, of course, what many say, but part of the way in which people say things is by doing things. And when Christians aren't declaring their hostility to evolution because their moral leaders have told them that this public declaration is essential to their identity as believers in "family values" or what have you, they are also doing things like choosing surgeons over faith healers, driving cars rather than hopping on brooms, engaging honorably in a variety of modes of interpersonal commerce with people they would morally despise as sinners, and declaring in the face of injustice that "there ought'a be a law!" rather than "trust jeebus to sort it out," or what have you.

That is to say, quite a lot of what might seem attributable to a consistent logical application of irrational faith to practical conduct, probably really amounts just as often to uninterrogated uncritical laziness, of a kind that under the terms of a more secular institutional status quo will probably relatively effortlessly accommodate those changed circumstances as readily as they accommodate here and now the theological aspirations of the marginal small and opportunistic theological activists of the actually existing fundamentalism.

It isn't that I don't take this sort of thing seriously -- I quite assure you that fundamentalism, and Christian Nationalism, and Pentecostal evangelism and all that stuff scares the living daylights out of me. But I know not to confuse the inertia of institutional accommodation with firm, settled conviction. Things can change enormously and quickly for the better -- or for the worst.

This matters, among many other reasons, because it seems to me that uncritical, esthetic, and modest moral religiosities of the relatively harmless and commonplace varieties seem to me pretty obviously more likely to respond well to anti-fundamentalisms that appeal to them as intelligent sensible adult peers rather than anti-fundamentalisms that demand disrespectfully that they all be bagged for disposal forthwith. Such religiosities (which you want to call "moderate," but which I just see as straightforward) only really become anti-democratizing and lethal in industrial societies when one is unlucky enough to live in one of those eras in which bad confluences of historical instability and institutional weakness bring out the worst authoritarianism inhering in any broadly disseminated thoughtlessness across the social scene, as they have often seemed to do through most of my own lifetime (mostly as perfectly intelligible and often sensible compensation formations against the derangement of incumbent pieities in a rapidly networked and planetized world, yielding the desperate but disciplined power grab of Movement Conservatism facilitated by the anti-democratic institutional features of the Electoral College, the lifelong appointments of the Supreme Court, the proneness to the Executive to reconsolidate as a traditional sovereign in wartime, and corporate media consolidation, while yielding at one and the same time anomie, manufactured consent, ubiquitous gambling, and short-term parochial preoccupation in too many people too much of the time). I am honestly flabbergasted when I realize just how many millions of their fellow human beings some militant anti-religionists and other Supreme Rationalists seem willing to consign to the status of hopelessly unreachable irrationalist subhumanity.

And before you point out that "they" feel the same, let me just say, I'm a godless faggot socialist and you aren't going beat me in the earmarked for destruction by fundamentalists game so don't even try it, but also, well, I'm not really finally so sure that outside the catastrophic impersonal meat grinder of a war zone there really are that many people, including zealous fundamentalists, who really would rather murder me than leave me to my own devices, or to make use of my skills, or to listen to me crack a joke, or what have you.

Before we decide to get all hard-headed hard-boiled hard-cocked and "realistic" about the irrationality of the scary brownskinned religionists (which is what so much of this discourse finally amounts to as it plays out -- and I'm assuming you know what I mean and detest it quite as much as I do, Martin, I'm certainly not accusing you of this sort of disgusting ickiness) I think we should remember who has all the money, remember who is avoidably suffering for lack of even a small portion of that kind of money, and remember who is pointing guns at whom in order to secure that money unjustly in the face of the frustration that injustice engenders.

Once one looks at these sorts of actual facts squarely, one begins to wonder if the anti-religionist champions of abstract facticity aren't engaging after all in a bit of the politics of distraction -- if not by outright design, then simply because privileged people can usually find nice rationalizations to keep them from facing the scope and toll of their collaboration in violence, exploitation, and disastrous neglect.

That is to say, if there really are more authoritarian fundamentalists in the world today, it seems to me that recognizing our own complicity in their awful unnecessary suffering and engaging in the difficult social struggle to compensate the losses from which we have gained is far more likely to democratize and secularize the world than lecturing abjected foreigners about the logical problems connected to expressions of faith in the existence of a being invested with the Omni-Predicates. I'm just saying.

I said:

Debates about religious faith, moral membership, esthetic taste are prone to dreadful derangement by those who want always to understand reasonableness from the perspective of just one mode of reasonable belief-ascription.

You replied:

You always mention ethics, esthetics, and politics, but you never elucidate what exactly those modes of thinking are and why one should subscribe to them.

This is puzzling, since if one has read enough of me to know that I "always mention ethics, esthetics, and politics" then it is hard to believe that you haven't noticed the various corresponding elaborations of what "those modes of thinking are and why one should subscribe to them" that so often go along with these mentions. Actually what I tend to say is that these are all modes of reasonable belief ascription, that they differ in their ends, their forms, and their criteria of warrant. I don't think that one has much choice in the matter of "subscribing to them" as opposed to not so subscribing, since I simply claim that people straightforwardly exhibit these different modes of belief-ascription, and so I think the interesting question is what are the actual practices and criteria of warrant that differently prevail in each of these modes and which, within the modes, deserve to be credited with more or less reasonableness. What I oppose are versions of critique that would demand, in the name of reasonableness, the reduction of all the modes to the terms of just one preferred mode, in defiance of sense or actual practice, and it seems to me, if I may don my Nietzschean cap for a moment, that one of the things that Philosophy is prone to, unfortunately and very much to the cost of those who get taken in by this sort of thing, are precisely such oversimplifying fumigatorial fantasies.

To be rather schematic about it (since this really is something I go on about regularly hereabouts) I distinguish

[1] Instrumental beliefs, (a) implemented through collective practices of experimentation and publication, (b) warranted by criteria of demonstration and/or defeasibility, and contingent commitment to which provides (c) relative powers of prediction and control;

[2] Moral beliefs, (a) implemented through collective practices of identification and disidentification, (b) warranted by coherence with observed collective practice or with authoritative utterances (by established authoritaties or through authoritative interpretations of canonical texts), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative sense of belonging and assurance of social support;

[3] Esthetic beliefs (beliefs that things that are idiosyncratically valued by oneself are therefore valuable as such, that is to say, susceptible to legibility as valued even if they are not in fact valued widely at present or even at all valued otherwise), (a) implemented through personal practices of ongoing self-creation offered up to general reception, (b) warranted by the scene of informed, nonduressed consent (even if not necessarily legible as optimal, normalizable, generalizable, rationalizable, moralistically acceptable, and so on), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative sense of personal perfection;

[4] Ethical beliefs, (a) implemented through practices of public deliberation available -- typically only "in principle" -- to all, (b) warranted by formal universalizablity (this is tricky to delineate theoretically, since universals will always retroactively be exposed as expressions of parochial perspectives: the real force of formal universality is that it is a normativity that aspires to a universality defined, in practice, against the grain of contemporary practices of moral normativity that themselves are always circumscribed by practices of disidentification with constitutive outsiders who are then in principle included (includable) in a formal universality that fails to yield the effects of positive identification), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative incarnation of a "personal status" accorded the standing of rights-bearer, property-bearer, consent-bearer, peer among peers;

[5] Political beliefs, (a) implemented through the dynamic of strategic, opportunistic, usually citational, never equal interpersonal power relationships (in the sense best and complementarily delineated by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt as non-sovereign "power," and then recently reformulated by Judith Butler as "performativity"), (b) warranted by their legitimacy -- in democratic variations, usually according to constitutional establishments of a rule of law ordained by the consent of the governed, in anti-democratic variations, to authoritative pronouncements by a ruling or incumbent elite often claiming a privileged relation to a divine or naturally (this includes "market") ordained order of things -- a process which provides (c) a contingent reconciliation of the diversity of aspirations desired by the diversity of people who share (and are experienced as sharing, though not necessarily as equals) a finite world -- in democratic variations, reconciling these ends as consensually and nonviolently as possible, in anti-democratic variations, reconciling majorities to elite or incumbent interests.

You said:

Oh, and by the way, the very claim that "several modes of rationality exist, including instrumental, ethical, esthetic and political" is an instrumental claim requiring evidence. Perhaps your next blog post should be a solid instrumental defense of that claim.

Now, I don't know if this is most interestingly seen as an instrumental claim when all is said and done, and I can't say that I know what you would accept as an instrumental defense of it. Not every compelling argument looks like a lab experiment, nor should it: what if, instead of an argument, I changed the subject with a joke, kissed you on the cheek, slipped a poem in your pocket? What I've offered is my clearest schematic delineation of modes of belief I pretty much just stipulate as differing from one another (although it should be clear that this is a delineation that leans on a pretty longstanding tradition of philosophical thought that lends it some broad intuitive familiarity, however idiosyncratic my appropriation of these old distinctions), hoping that distinguishing them this way will appear plausible enough even to those to whom such distinctions will be unfamiliar to get me a hearing. My reasons for insisting on this delineation (or other similarly multifaceted delineations of reasonable normativity, even if they carve the phenomena up concretely differently than I do here), are very familiar ones from the perspective of analytic philosophy: sense a problematic and intractable tension? Relieve the tension by proposing and then maintaining salient distinctions.

I fully expect you and others to point out that with a little squinting and wiggling it is easily possible to shoehorn all of these modes of warrantable belief into a single one (almost certainly the winner will be: wait for it... wait for it... the instrumental mode! Ta Da!), and I would be the last to deny the force of this point. But just because it is possible to scale the reductionist Everest that doesn't necessarily mean it is a good idea -- especially if one can preserve reasonableness quite well without imposing a crabbed moralizing puritanical monotone onto the weird wonderful tapestry of warranted belief-ascription as people practice it. Quite apart from the way my delineation might help facilitate a multiculturalism that still has the conceptual resources to defend consensus science on its own terms and the legitimacy of general democratic standards of consent and right on their own terms (which is a key problem for philosophers in an era of radical technodevelopmental planetary change and social struggle, as far as I can see), it also provides a nice frame through which to understand various specific philosophical projects historically that have tried in one way or another to comprehend, reduce, or otherwise definitively hierarchize reasonableness in all of these modes to or from the terms of one particular privileged one.

I expressed exasperation at the militant notion that one needs "[t]o attack all religiosity as inevitably irrational[which] seems to me a hopeless cause in a world of billions of believers."

To which you replied promisingly that "the attack is mainly on religious fundamentalism," which as an authoritarian political formation I agree should be the focus of democratization (subsidizing universal healthcare, education, ensuring a free press, protecting unions, supporting local self-reliance through decentralized provision of social services, overcoming corrupt secretive public institutions, breaking up anti-democratizing elites by soaking the rich with progressive income, investment, and property taxes, and so on), not by impertinently lecturing victims of neoliberalism by mouthing pieties about "becoming practical reasonable adults," "taking personal responsibility," and peddling the "glories" of a liberty that amounts to isolation and systematic neglect), but then you added, far less promisingly, "and in the case of Harris, any faith-based belief system."

Now, clearly when we trust our lives to instrumental claims, what are wanted are beliefs warranted through the protocols of consensus science, defeasible, widely tested, long published, well-established, nicely coherent with long-settled conviction, and so on.

But, where what is wanted is a claim that helps us feel we fit in, where what is wanted is a claim that helps us overcome our influences and blaze a new trail with our own names on it, where what is wanted is to offer up a confident judgment of right to the tribunal of history, where what is wanted is to find one's way to reconciliation among intractable stakeholders who verge on violence in their differences for now, in such circumstances the word for what is wanted simply isn't always going to be "fact" (although, to be sure, sometimes what's wanted even under these differing circumstances is precisely a nice fact, I'm the last to feel the need to deny this sort of thing in a silly striving after philosophical neatness).

The point is, even as a proud inhabitant of what many of us in the debased era of the unprecedented criminal clown college of the Bush Administration have come to describe as The Reality Based Community, I am not so foolish to pretend that warranted scientific belief constitute the firm foundation of warrant on which the others depend.

For me, to be reasonable means to affirm as true those beliefs that accord with the standards of reasonable warrant that correspond to the mode of belief in question -- including very much an affirmation of the standards, institutions, and protocols of consensus science where what is wanted are beliefs that offer us powers of environmental prediction and control -- but also to understand the differences between the modes of belief on offer, the different ends that articulate them, and their different implementations. It seems to me one deranges and debases belief into irrationality not only by violating the standards proper to its mode, but by seeking to twist or expand it to accommodate ends and practices that are not proper to its mode.

You go on to say:

"[T]here are plenty of other fundamentalists, but religious fundamentalists are by far the most numerous, and in any case, they currently yield a lot of power and have a growing number of secularists worried, which is why they are the object of criticism among a growing number of people, in print and online."

But, you know, I truly wonder whether one can make a case that market fundamentalism isn't really the form most catastrophically devastating to actual human beings on earth today. Given the systematic infrastructure neglect, over-urbanization, austerity measures of debt restructuring, the volatility of social structure for the precarious in the face of relentless financialization of profit-taking, and the rest it seems to me that neoliberalism is quite as lethal as fundamentalist Islam or whatever it is that scares the atheistical militants most at the moment. And frankly when we turn our attentions to the real social impact of authoritarian fundamentalism, it doesn't take long to realize that its chief victims are women, kids, and queers -- structural features common to most anti-democratic authoritarianisms, features that foreground the role of political incumbency and control in fundamentalist formations rather than the role of the logical, ontological, and epistemological paradoxes of "faith" that often preoccupy the militantly atheistical boys online. I know, I know, I'm a guy, you're a guy, many readers clenching their fists in frustration at the moment are guys, but you all know what I mean as well as I do, we can all chisel past the facile point to the one I’m actually interested in here: If what we're talking about when we're talking about what is pernicious in fundamentalisms is describable as "patriarchy" then it isn't clear at all why authoritarian politics are not obviously our proper focus while the easily estheticizable question of faithful personal practices quickly comes to look rather obviously incidental to the problem of fundamentalism.

You write:

I actually think that, to the extent that moral, esthetic and political considerations have real-world outcomes, they are subject to scientific analysis, and can be informed by science. For example, if ethical considerations are contingent on consciousness, then science can tell us what kinds of agents demand our ethical consideration. If morality has anything to do with happiness, then scientific disciplines like positive psychology can help us understand what we ought to do to be happy -- to be moral.

I agree with you. Every moral belief or esthetic practice is certainly susceptible to scientific analysis (and oftentimes clarified by such), just as every scientific belief is invigorated by moral and esthetic considerations. Ultimately, instrumental belief is still a normative mode inasmuch as prediction and control are articulated (though not determined, because of the diversity of actual believers) by the horizon of desired outcomes. Instrumentality is far from automonous from the other modes, fueled as it is by desire and communicated through metaphor. But all of the modes are complexly inter-implicated.

All this is why none of the modes can settle into a position a superiority among the others in a way that will achieve general assent, but it is also why seekers after clarity and reassurance (Philosophers among them) will rarely be able to resist the siren call to clarify these complexities through reductionisms, hierarchizations, and so on.

I welcome the kind of inter-implication and illumination through interdisciplinary consideration that you are talking about here. But I don't think we rightly infer from this insight that science "has all the answers" or provides the measure or model for answerability as such. I think we tend to turn to some projects when we hanker after an unhealthy cleanliness, false ease, costly authority, misleading reassurance, usually in the face of the painful realization of our finitude and our precariousness as incarnated tinkerers, in the face of the facts that we are vulnerable to pain, to misunderstanding, to betrayal, to meaninglessness, to death.

I understand these attitudes well enough but I have not succumbed to them (bad days aside) and implore you all to resist them as well. It is better by far to be open to the voice of the other who will make unexpected demands on your patience, your faith, your time, your capacities but will clear the space of freedom with you and collaborate with you in building the road along which futures are made, than to retreat into the solitary confinement of Philosophy's false certainties and selfish consolations. Clearly, I seem to addressing a broader imagined audience, rather than just you there, Martin! I'm not so impertinent as to lecture you, my friend! I've been writing a while and I'm getting a little tired.

I said:

I think that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism.

You replied:

"Have you actually read those books, or do you just enjoy casting aspersions like seeds in the wind?"

Are you denying, then, "that many who are enthusiastic about these militantly atheistical books at the moment do indeed use them to justify and evangelize for their eliminativist and reductionist projects of scientism" and that this would obviously be a matter of concern to me and a matter at the heart of our ongoing disagreement? I don't understand how your objection is in point, and given the incredible time and care I have exhibited throughout this exchange (and others like it) it does seem a bit weird to trot out accusations of ignorance and lack of credibility this late in the conversation.

[E]very academic discipline with any merit uses an evidence-based mode of rationality. You have yet to make the case for any other one.

I do not agree that "evidence-based" equals "meritorious" in any kind of blanket way, in the Academy or anywhere else, even if certainly and obviously it should have pride of place in scientific practice and publication. I doubt you would actually enjoy living in a world where such an attitude really prevailed at a more general level, and so I will assume your statement was a glib overgeneralization offered for polemical effect (of a kind I myself am not exactly immune to making here and there, as you know). It seems to me I have offered up quite a lot of reasons why I believe as I do -- but if you were to refuse to regard as "making a case" anything that fails to pass muster in the restricted sense of warranting a specifically instrumental case then I would say you have been nudged uncharacteristically into behaving in an obtuse way that provides you in itself with all the evidence you should need. (Put a smiley there if you imagine me saying that in a caustic or disrespectful way -- the fact is I imagine you instantly see what I mean by this and you are chuckling appreciatively and collegially at my little joke, and I am loathe to resort to smileys as a general rule.)

The "atheistic militancy" that you perceive seems to some secularists like the only way to engage people that you can't reason with.

I hold a Deweyan faith in democracy -- and I do think it is right to admit that this is very much a matter of faith -- that there is almost no one on earth who cannot be reasoned with, and that one should strive to create and maintain the institutional conditions that encourage reasonableness between people.

This seems to me to be a straightforward application of the Philosophical Principle of Charity (which, contrary to what one might otherwise initially think is actually an epistemological notion, of all things), that to recognize a language-user as such is likewise to recognize a being who for the most part is "getting things right" from a propositional standpoint. One can almost always find ways to reason with a being one recognizes as a language user. Returning to the terms of my own distinction of moral from ethical normativity, one need not demand of a language user that they be reasonable enough to identify with to recognize them as reasonable enough to reason with.

It is just as likely (I'd venture to suggest usually more likely) to be the laziness of incumbent privilege rather than the subhuman irrationality of the alien other that accounts for failures of reasoning between people, whatever their personal beliefs, failures of civility, of patience, of imagination, of nerve. I think some of the atheistical militants are deploying their critique in a way that promotes absurd overgeneralizations that right about now historically play too often and too easily into dreadful racist and neoliberal "Clash of Civilizations" discourses, that these versions of militancy function to dismiss hundreds of millions of people as beyond the pale (as it were) of accessibility to reasonableness, bolstering a politics of intolerance and purity in the name of "Reason," making us fearful of alien others rather than open to what is reasonable in them, offering us easy alibis for the unearned privileges, the indifference to suffering, the short-term greed, the acceptance of violence exercised in our names that truly fuels so much of "unreasonableness" of the faithful that have been opportunistically exploited by authoritarians.

I propose that estheticizing faith will facilitate the peaceful and prosperous co-existence of the variously religious and not-religious people of the world, a secular attitude that provides a critique of authoritarian and fundamentalist formations of religiosity while at once one that is perfectly capable of respecting religiosity in general rather than disrespectfully demanding its elimination before the bulldozer of a triumphalist and reductionist scientism. It seems to me that there is a lot to say for such an attitude (not just for religious people whose religiosity is separable from fundamentalism but also for nonreligious folks who happen to be deeply invested in unorthodox practices of self-creation that are likewise not easily justified through current and conventional standards of instrumental warrant) while there is at one and the same time quite a lot to worry about in professions from my fellow atheists that Reason is not just marvelously useful but Great and must, in its Greatness, Prevail. You may very well disagree with my characterization or with my focus, Martin, but I hope you no longer think (if you ever did) that my characterization or my focus entails some kind of subversion of my advocacy for democracy or for the proper facilitation of practices of consensus science in democracies, nor, worse, that you think I would attribute any pernicious anti-democratic attitude to your own secularism even where it disagrees in some respects with mine. I fully expect you agree with me more than not, and that where you disagree with me you still appreciate my point. And the same goes for me.

7 comments:

jfehlinger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jfehlinger said...

> One can almost always find ways to reason with
> a being one recognizes as a language user. . .
> [O]ne need not demand of a language user
> that they be reasonable enough to identify with to
> recognize them as reasonable enough to reason with.

Of course, that's only true if one has the means to
**force** them to reason with you. If they've
got the upper hand, it's more reasonable to expect
them to call the police and have you thrown out
of the building!

"In a letter just before arriving in Fort Lauderdale, I
told [Jim] Kennedy that I would attend his Reclaiming Conference
and that I would appreciate meeting him just long enough
to hand him the fifty-page case we had produced to demonstrate
the half-truth, hyperbole, and lies he was telling about
homosexuals and, I hoped, time to respond to the lies with
a summary of the latest scientific, psychological, historic,
pastoral, and biblical evidence that homosexuality is
neither sickness nor sin but another of God's mysterious
gifts.

Kennedy had responded with a personal letter politely refusing
my request, saying that he could not possibly spend time
with me during the conference. During that rather awkward
confrontation with security guards upon our arrival, one
of Kennedy's associates reminded us again that there was
no chance of meeting with Kennedy.

The keynote speaker that first day was Ralph Reed, then
executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition.
Like every fundamentalist on the program, Ralph spiced up
his speech with apocalyptic warnings about abortion and
homosexuality. When the standing ovation ended and the
delegates headed for lunch, Nancy and I slipped into
Ralph's entourage and walked with them into the pressroom,
where camera crews and print reporters waited to interview
this powerful and persuasive young man.

Toward the close of the press conference, I stood quietly
at the front of the room hoping for a chance to confront
Ralph's misinformation about gay and lesbian Americans.
But before I could speak, Ralph's handlers led him and his
entourage out the door. I joined the camera crews as
they headed into the lobby, hoping for one more chance to
confront Ralph Reed's fundamentalist Christian views.
At that moment, in the crowded lobby of the Fort Lauderdale
Convention Center, with the press corps looking on,
Ralph walked up to me, his hand outstretched, a
genuine smile lighting up his boyish face.

'Mel,' he said, 'I've been hoping to meet you since you
were arrested at CBN trying to see Pat.'

Surprised that he had even noticed me, I mumbled some
pleasantry in return.

'I wanted to visit you during your twenty-one days in jail,'
he said, 'but the time just got away from me. I'm sorry.'

I thanked him for his concern and stood dumbfounded as
Ralph's handlers led him away. At that very moment, the same
Kennedy staffer who had reminded me that there would be
no meeting with Reverend Kennedy during the conference
approached at double time, a group of security personnel
in his wake.

'Dr. Kennedy will see you now,' he said quietly, and surrounded
by convention security we were ushered into a room just off
the lobby and left alone to share our surprise.

After a few moments of silence, the door literally flew
open as Kennedy rushed in, followed by his aides. He walked
up to where I was still seated, put his finger in my
face, and said angrily, 'What you need, Mel White, is to
repent your sin and get right with God.'

'Hello, Jim,' I said, standing to shake his hand. 'I'm glad
we can meet again at last.'

Before I could finish that thought, Kennedy shouted once
again, 'You need to repent. There's nothing else to talk about.'

'But, Jim,' I replied, 'I have repented my sins but my
homosexuality is not a sin, but one of God's mysterious--'

'Repent, Mel White,' he interrupted.

'Jim, couldn't we spend a few minutes talking about our diff--'

'Repent,' he said again. 'You need to repent and then we
can talk.'

'I have repented, Jim,' I answered, holding up the materials
we came to present him. He refused to accept our case against
his rhetoric. 'Will you just read this--'

'Repent,' he said, and that one-word command was getting under
my skin.

'I have repented,' I responded one more time, trying not to
give way to my growing anger and frustration.

'Repent,' he said again, and I thought maybe he had lost his mind.

'Repent,' he said for the sixth or seventh time, unwilling to
enter into civil conversation. I am committed to nonviolence
of the heart, tongue, and fist as described by Martin Luther
King, Jr. But I admit my commitment was wearing thin.

'Repent,' Kennedy repeated over and over again.

'I have repented,' I replied, and back and forth it went until
my friend Nancy Lee took me by the hand, saying, 'Nothing
can be accomplished here, Mel. Let's go.'

I can still see Kennedy staring down at me with fire in his
eyes. I can still hear his one-word command: 'Repent!'
I've not seen or heard from D. James Kennedy since that
strange meeting in the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center.
It's a memory I don't cherish. Looking back, I feel
embarrassed for both of us."

from _Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian
Right_ by Mel White, Chapter 3 "The Spoils of War:
James Dobson (the Enforcer) and D. James Kennedy (the Extremist)",
pp. 114-116

Martin Striz said...

Lordy. I just saw this. I will have to get back to you. :)

Anonymous said...

Good view, and lucidly points...although now that I go to comment on such I realize I've only read a small sliver of the view...

There's a repeated bit in an earlier paragraph containing this.."..myself to extraordinary insights..", in one of the earlier paragraphs.

Dale Carrico said...

There's a repeated bit

I think I know the part you are mentioning. I was trying by echoing that phrase to emphasize an analogy: that the insight that sometimes arises from seeing past the apparent absurdity of things that get called faith is like the insight that sometimes arises from seeing past the apparent absurdity of things that get called relativism. Which is not at all the same thing as suggesting that everything that passes for faith or for relativism looks to me like insight. I offer up no blanket reassurances on that score from either direction.

Jose said...

People forget that even amongst the religious cooler heads can prevail. Take a look at what happened in Kansas during the Intelligent Design fracas. Evolutionary Theory is obviously not popular in that state but that didn't stop voters from turfing out ID proponents.

Most athiest I speak to think Dawkins takes too hard a line. We like to potshots at religion at the moment because we're angry at what's happening but in the long I suspect that'll subside.

Personaly I suspect the friendly "Enthusiastic Athiest" stance of Douglas Adams will win out over the Dawkins approach. A good natured reasonableness and a sense of humour is the best way to promote athiesm in the long run.

Dale Carrico said...

Personaly I suspect the friendly "Enthusiastic Athiest" stance of Douglas Adams will win out over the Dawkins approach.

Me, too. And for good reason.