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Sunday, December 25, 2011

More Pluralism

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, long-time Friend of Blog "JimF" quotes from yesterday's long "reality has a liberal bias" post and then raises some incisive questions:

I had written, among many other things:
I assume that those who cannot imagine defending science, defending facts, defending fairness, defending nonviolence, defending democracy, defending rights, defending standards while at once holding on to beliefs like these [about the ineradicable uncertainty and contingency of the warranted beliefs of finite beings such as ourselves, and about the pluralism of reasonableness of multifaceted social beings such as ourselves --d] are either honestly a little ignorant for now or just rather stupid, by which I mean to say that they are being terribly lazy, inattentive, uncritical, and even rather bratty about the whole thing...

To this, "JimF" responded:
Well, of course it's more complicated than that.

To the extent that the political right wing is imbricated with religious traditions, and it overwhelmingly is, then these folks have a different standard for truth, fundamentally incompatible with "defending science" as the ultimate standard for determining the facts.

They see science as a flawed human enterprise (which it is, of course), circumscribed by the limits of human reason (which it also is), while at the same time subscribing to a "higher truth" (opaque to you and me) which they get from their holy books and prophets.

The Mormons, for example, are quite explicit about this -- an
individual's standard for knowing the truth of Mormonism is supposed to be a "testimony" -- a warm and fuzzy feeling in your guts that's supposed to be coming straight from God. On the other hand, if you don't have this warm and fuzzy feeling, or if you get warm and fuzzy feelings about things which aren't on the approved curriculum, then **you've** got problems.

These are incommensurate discourses, and I see the ultimate resolution as a Darwinian one. Whichever one endures or predominates in the long run will be the one that tends toward the long-term survival of the human race. This isn't a particularly cheerful thought, but there you are. I'm hopeful, personally, but if something like global warming changes the rules of the game faster than human civilization can adapt, then we're screwed, pure and simple.

My reply, off the cuff, as it were:
I don't agree that all forms of religious faith are incommensurable with the proper defense of consensus science. When you say the right wing is imbricated in religious faith, I am last to deny the danger of the program attested to in those precincts of the right that are infused with patriarchal authoritarian Dominionist politics, but it really is important to remember that not all religious formations are the same, and also that religious formations change in the face of historical vicissitudes like all sociocultural formations do, in the face of the pressures of a wholesomely diversifying, secularizing, queering nation for example. To be honest, I see as much or more of the trace of the triumph of "acceptable" deception, hyperbole, self-promotion that has come from the suffusion of our public life with the norms and forms of advertizing and marketing in the ugly evils of Movement Republicanism as I do the scary trace of Dominionism.

Anyway, if I can be pluralist about modes of warranted-belief and truth-talk anybody can. I'm an atheist myself but I'm also an aesthete and I have no trouble squaring the idea that true beliefs that yield prediction and control should emerge from testable hypotheses attracting a public consensus of conviction while true beliefs that yield beauty should make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up or enable me to empathize with a lifeway that had hitherto been too alien to me to connect to or something like like (that is, some standard of warrant quite different from the one that makes scientific beliefs reasonable). If Mormons are a moralizing subculture and fandom they can treat all sorts of things as matters of taste accompanied by warm and fuzzy feelings differently than I do without threatening outright incommensurability in matters of prediction and control or political reconciliation. How warm and fuzzy do they feel about their cardiologist, after all, as they are going under?

Claims about utter incommensurability of belief seem to me almost inevitably too hasty: Humans are awfully clever over time when they need to find ways of reconciling apparent contradictions between their histories and hopes or between changing members of their communities. As you know, I find it rather easy either to moralize or aestheticize faith-claims among believers, to make a quiet translation that makes initially unreasonable declarations among them seem instead reasonable enough to deal with.

It is only the insistent fundamentalists, the ones most recalcitrant about pluralism who are trouble. But when it comes to this sort of recalcitrance champions of science can be easily as fundamentalist as the faithful are -- and it is often from such a place that genocidal rages for order making recourse to clash of civilizations narratives, discerning interminably incommensurable epistemologies, or declarations about pluralists qua menacing relativists come.

Of course for the pluralist herself the reductivist/ fundamentalist, whether religious or scientific, scarcely seems incommensurable to her -- fundamentalisms tend rather to look like neurotic symptoms after all, which is simply one of the many ways finite humans as incarnated poems with a creative unconscious coping with the vicissitudes of history remake themselves into unexpected beautiful perverse art-works for the world. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" can be a declaration celebrating proliferation as easily as a chestnut proposing a facile reassuring collapse. So, I do agree that barriers to pluralist conviviality are a bit more complicated than just ignorance and laziness, but I just don't like to leap to the pathological too quickly is all.


jimf said...

> I don't agree that all forms of religious faith are incommensurable
> with the proper defense of consensus science. . .
> I'm an atheist myself but I'm also an aesthete and I have no
> trouble squaring the idea that true beliefs that yield prediction
> and control should emerge from testable hypotheses attracting
> a public consensus of conviction while true beliefs that yield
> beauty should make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up
> or enable me to empathize with a lifeway that had hitherto been
> too alien to me to connect to. . .

I understand what you're saying here, of course.

I guess it depends on which "magisterium's" (as S. J. Gould
put it) "true beliefs" take precedence when they come into
conflict. It probably doesn't matter much (except as as
an unfortunate symptom) when ordinary people dismiss evolution
as the only intellectually compelling framework for the
origin and development of life. The advice of a cardiologist
is a subject on which **most** (but not all) folks would
accept "beliefs" deriving (somewhat loosely, as always
in medicine) from the "true beliefs that yield prediction"
of modern science.

But matters of, say, child rearing, is an area in which
religious folks are all too likely to ignore the advice
of experts, however well attested by the evidence. Also,
of course, public policy as it impinges on matters of,
say, sexual morality. I hardly need to give examples of
that sphere! (But an unfortunate recent one was the
overriding by the Secretary of Health and Human Services
of a decision by the FDA to approve over-the-counter
sales of a "morning after" pill. Whatever the excuse may
have been, you **know** it was a political one driven by
a perceived need to avoid a confrontation with the
religious right.)

Certainly, one's view of the significance of future events
on Earth must be substantially altered if one **really**
believes that mortal existence is a "vale of tears"
destined to end sooner rather than later with all
the best people being reborn in indestructible bodies
living for eternity in a transcendent reborn reality.
(One wonders, though, how many people **really** believe
this, whatever they may profess in public -- it does
go against the grain of common sense, as well it

And of course, as Bertrand Russell said in an interview,
"I get letters constantly from people saying 'Oh, God
will look after it.' But he never has in the past!
I don't know why they should think he will in the future."

Dale Carrico said...

It's strange, I think my pluralism may derive from the habits I acquired training in analytic philosophy (a vantage from which I tend to be excoriated as a menacing relativist now), namely, coming upon a recalcitrant conflict, tension, paradox, either change your mind or propose a distinction to relieve the thing. Again, I get it that you are annoyed by Christian fundamentalists of the American variety, I mean, as an atheist, faggot, lefty, feminist, pacifist, vegetarian I have the ire of no small few of their ugliest and most hypocritical factions aimed at me fairly conspicuously. I must say, though, I do think these people are a more marginal minority than the attention they receive merits, that they are more ambivalent and susceptible of sense in a diversifying, secularizing society than the attention they receive suggests, and definitely they are idiosyncratic enough in their sects neither to be treated as representative of "religiosity" in general or monolithic in their own practice. Not all bad parenting and proselytizing is child abuse -- or, better, all heteronormative child rearing skirts the edge of child abuse in ways with which our society has yet to come to terms while reaping endlessly the harvest of abuse in damaged humans. To attribute that uniquely to religion or Christianity would miss the mark, the sanity of the progressive education movement has been a casualty of neoliberal looting and racist reaction, for both of which the tide has turned leaving us to contemplate the work of a long generation that will bury us long before it's done. I disagree with your certainty that a faith in heavenly resurrection renders those who hold it bad faith actors in such work, since I have observed people of faith are a diverse lot, even if I will admit that I became an atheist while still very young the moment I realized that the presumed existence of hell made me morally superior to the Christian God and my researches into the varieties of religious experience seemed little different from my researches at the same time of varieties of sensory experience, if you will, and came to the conclusion that the whole lot is better conceived a matter of aesthetics and for ethnographers.