Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Response to me

My friend PJ attempted to respond to my previous post, but since blogger tends to fail with some degree of regularity, he wasn't able to post a response. Instead, I received an email. I'll post it in full now, and, rather than clutter this particular post with further responses, I'll respond in another post. (Note: I need to find a synonym for "post".) Here goes:

Me: First, I wish to thank you for participating in what has been, until now at least, a rather civilized discussion. I hope that we can continue charitably.

PJ: My pleasure! And again, my apologies for being so egregiously tardy in my response. As I said, I was too extravagant in my previous post, making promises that would require volumes to satisfactorily fulfill. So, where you find my response obscure or dogmatic, please, just ask for further explanation. Also, if I've ignored something you think represents a genuine challenge to my position, just repeat the point and I'll do my best to address it.

: You are right in suspecting that I would assert that rationally atheism should end in nihilistic skepticism. [....] The reason, I would propose, why atheism so seldom ends in nihilistic skepticism is that man is seldom rational. [....] Now, I'm not insisting that the atheist should go out and commit murders and rob liquor stores; nor am I insisting that atheists cannot be more moral than religious individuals. However, if you are having "lucid ethical relations", I cannot see how they can be described as rational.

PJ: All people regardless of their religious beliefs have good reasons to love their family, friends, and neighbors; to improve their local communities; and to take an active interest in long-term
national and global politics. These are -- some of them, at least --genuine ethical relations. I don't at all understand why you think that it is irrational for atheists to lead ethical lives, or the sense in which we are, as Vox Day puts it, "moral parasites." Under what conditions are you willing to describe an action as moral? I'm wondering, here, if you might be operating with an artificially restrictive notion of morality.

Me: [I]f I may use hints by way of proof, it is telling that, while the doctrine of infallibility wasn't formally declared until 1870, no pope has ever contradicted another while speaking when infallibility applies.

PJ: But popes and their advisors know -- in detail -- the historical record of papal pronouncements, and they have an active interest in maintaining institutional consistency. Their success (for which I take your word) is admirable, but hardly miraculous.

Me: The existence of a two thousand year old institution can not easily be explained; Augustine was using the existence of the Church as proof of its claims a mere four centuries after the Resurrection. How much more inexplicable is the Church's existence two millennia after God became Man!

PJ: I'm afraid that, due to historical ignorance, I am unable to account for the existence of Catholic Church with any kind of specificity. I agree that its continuous existence for so many
centuries is truly impressive. Catholic doctrine obviously continues to resonate with many people even today. All I can say -- and this isn't very much -- is that Catholicism emerged out of a felt need of a people, gained popularity as an means for affirming some kind of otherwise unexpressed dimension human freedom, and gradually built up its present institutional existence. Of course, this is terribly vague, and true of all successful ideological systems. It is
compatible with both the existence and non-existence of the Christian God. I hope, though, that you'll agree that there are many possible explanations for the rise of Christianity/Catholicism. The phenomena do not demand a super-natural explanation. All we need is a group of people who come to identify their interests with participation in, and advancement of, Catholic/Christian practices. Institutional success, in short, is meager evidence for the truth of a theology.

: As for the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, I shall merely quote the apostate James Joyce. After explaining his rejection of Catholicism, he was was then asked if he would become protestant. He responded: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"

PJ: Good to see you enjoy Joyce! I'm a fan myself, but in this context, as I'm sure you'll agree, we would need a scholar with credentials in comparative religions. With its strong Scholastic
roots, Catholicism may well be more logically coherent than Protestantism, but there are plenty of other religions in the world, not to mention the route Joyce took himself. In any case, logical
coherence does not establish actual existence.

Me: [J]ust because you've demonstrated that the ground has been stable for your entire life doesn't mean it must continue to be. We can reasonably expect it to, certainly, but, to Chesterton's point, that doesn't mean that it must. I don't wish to be overly pedantic,
yet the logic behind perpetual continuation of the common place escapes me. Believing such should, I insist, be chalked up to a minuscule, but again, entirely reasonable, bit of faith.

PJ: I'm not claiming that the ground is eternal. It's possible (however unlikely) that something will happen to disrupt its solidity, existence, or relation to me such as lets it function as
ground. But none of this has any bearing on the existence of the Christian God. The faith implicit in my activity of moving about in the world is of a different kind than your conceptual claims about divinity. Faith in former is subject to continuous experiential confirmation; faith in the latter is not subject to any confirmation at all, unless upon death. Just because we cannot produce an a priori proof for the continuous existence of the empirical world, which we agree exists, does not make it reasonable to agree about the existence of the Christian God, just because we cannot produce an a priori proof for its existence. You'll say that I'm distorting your
claim here; but, if this isn't what you mean to imply, I can't figure out why you're insisting upon the non-rational, receptive component of experience, which strikes me as quite out-of-place in this discussion.

Me: Second, by definition, a historical occurrence cannot be retested; but that does not mean it cannot be falsified. Would it berational to dismiss the theory of evolution--as applied from apes to man--simply because we cannot repeatedly test it? To reiterate, I accept the Resurrection because I believe it happened. Were it falsified, I couldn't help but disbelieve it.

PJ: First, to quibble, evolution is a theoretical framework that unifies and explains, via specific biological mechanisms, a wide variety of phenomena. Those who believe in the Resurrection believe that it is a singular, historical event, further endowed with a specific theological significance. Historical events are much harder than scientific theories to confirm or refute, unless there is a great deal of well documented evidence from credibly objective
sources. I don't think this is the case for any of the events of Jesus's life. I'm curious, in fact, about what kind of evidence could falsify the Resurrection to your satisfaction. As far as I
know, the only claim that professional historians are comfortable endorsing is that someone named Jesus existed, had some kind of a popular following, and was put to death by Pontius Pilate.

You have to understand my skepticism here. There are lots of reasons to believe that human beings do not come back to life three days after a violent death. It would require a tremendous amount of evidence to substantiate a particular exception to this well established natural fact. Surely no one could reasonably be asked to believe any of the miraculous stories circulated about Jesus's life without an independent theological justification. No one believes in the Resurrection because of the awesome historical record. They believe in the Resurrection because they believe in the Christian God, and tradition has it that he was crucified, died, and on the third day rose again. But why would anyone in the 21st century accept this theology?

: If God exists, and if God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Christ imbued the Catholic Church with his Holy Spirit to guide it lo these many years, the assent is neither arbitrary nor irrational. Of course, disagreeing with any one of these premises breaks the chain of rationality, but if they are accepted, the synthesis is cogent.

PJ: Right; however, I doubt not only the veracity, but even the cogency of these premises. My reasons are essentially Kantian. The central thesis of the first Critique is that (to quote the
commentator P.F. Strawson) "there can be no legitimate, or even meaningful, employment of ideas or concepts which does not relate them to empirical or experiential conditions of their application." It's not clear to me that the concepts of God, Christ, or Holy Spirit have such conditions of application; they seem, rather, to be employed at the discretionary will of the devout. This is not to say that there's nothing to them -- clearly there is, or they would not
have persisted in the way that they have -- only that their truth has not been adequately articulated. (More on this shortly.) This thesis, which Strawson calls the "principle of significance," is my primary theoretical justification for rejecting theological language.

Me: I would add, too, that the apparent absurdity become easier to accept and even understand with a little bit of natural theology.

PJ: The thought here is that "natural theology" (something of an oxymoron, in my view) gets us some kind of an "infinite" entity, and so casts Christianity in a more positive light, as the correct
description of an independently established entity, rather than as a groundless set of extravagant theological and historical assertions? I'm hesitant to delve into Aquinas, my concern being that one cannot assess a particular passage without studying the whole, monstrous
volume. But if I'm wrong about any of this, I might take a look at the passage you refer to.

: In what ways has the world changed? Human nature doesn't change, which is why Catholic doctrine always and everywhere applies.

PJ: Ah, but human nature does change and with it, the social world. Or, if you prefer, human nature is to have a self-transformative "second nature." Our "first," material-biological nature is the product of evolutionary forces, of course; but morality is a relatively new phenomenon, in the vast time-scales of the life sciences, and it can only emerge for beings who develop our kind of
social "second" nature. *What* we are, in terms of first nature, has been tautologically stable for as long as there have been homo sapiens. The ethical question, however, is of *who* we are, who we might become, and the obligations thereby incumbent upon us. Who we are cannot be articulated in the terms of the natural sciences. Rather, selfhood can only be cashed out in terms of irreducibly social commitments and identifications.

This, I am afraid, is to run rough-shod over your libertarian commitments, because individual selfhood, on this model, is not a metaphysical given; it is a historical accomplishment, sustained only through relations of mutual recognition. I can only articulate and actualize my identity in terms of self-sustaining social practices, intelligible only with reference to historically achieved norms and objectives. These practices are always up for further negotiation, but only from the inside-out, as it were. We must start from life as we know it; no one can legitimately claim a God's-eye-view as to how things "truly" ought to be, from the perspective of eternity. The
very idea, I would contend, is nonsense (think back to the principle of significance). We cannot attribute norms to an external party on pain of mystifying the very concept of a norm and, by extension, individual selfhood. Only those norms that the human community legislates to itself can be legitimately binding for it. To abide by anything else, according to the Hegelian analysis of modernity, is to exist in a state of self-alienation.

Our ethical-political project, then, is to identify and strengthen those practices in the modern world most conducive to human flourishing. Some of these practices will be recognizably moral or
judicial, but many will not. And this is as it should be. Morality is crucial, but it is not the summum bonum or "purpose of life." Goods have no status and life has no purpose apart from what we ourselves establish and maintain in our concrete, historical practices.

None of this is to say that we leave our first nature completely behind. But we transform it profoundly when we situate it within our social world of meaning. It can be rational, for instance, to risk one's life to preserve democracy or Catholicism in a way that makes no sense at the biological level of body- or species-preservation.

To return, then, to the previous topic and make some good on a promissory note above, religious beliefs and practices can be understood as a kind of "misrecognition" of the social. The divine
is the historical community as seen through a glass, darkly. The "glass" is a mirror, the idea being that, reflecting on God, we are reflecting on ourselves without realizing that that is what we are doing. (This is a claim advanced in different ways by Hegel and Émile Durkheim.) Theologies typically present a strongly teleological model of the world, according to which meanings and purposes are writ directly into the fabric of mind-independent reality. The Enlightenment subjects this worldview to heavy -- in my opinion, damning -- criticism, as represented, for instance, by the Kantian principle described above. Meaning, value, morality, etc. have then to be relocated in the mind-dependent social reality of the historical community. This community then does the work traditionally ascribed to God; it has, in fact, been doing this work all along. It is not a super-human agent or a metaphysical given, but just *society* -- construed in terms of self-transformative networks of mutual recognition -- that make up the fabric of the spiritual/conceptual world in terms of which our meaningful human life is nurtured and sustained.

How precisely the community can function as the stable foundation of our meaningful world can present itself as something of a puzzle. Authoritarianism, self-defeating relativism, or some other form of nihilism, may appear to threaten. I contend that Hegel dissolves these threats by replacing the teleological model or reality with a robust, non-reductive alternative that emphasizes the self-legislative autonomy of the historical community. I've gestured towards this model throughout, and I'll send you a paper that contains a more systematic exposition, for you to read or skim at your leisure. (Don't feel bound to read the whole thing if you find it unduly technical or obscure.) Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll have leave these final claims at the level of bare assertion, since I don't have time to elaborate any further today. We'll continue the
discussion in subsequent posts.

All the best,


troutsky said...

Well articulated PJ. Catholics are a "community" with an authoritiarian epistimology that has proven durable.Like so many other religions, some much much older. I happen to believe humans need to transcend this old social model, expand this notion of community, and that the democratic revolution was the first step but the project looms large and time is short.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Like so many other religions, some much much older.

I'll grant you Judaism, but it's hardly the force it once was. It's not as if Africa is converting en masse to Judaism.

All other religions, like Judaism, have remained somewhat tribal. The only possible exception would be Islam, which is antedated by Catholicism by a good six centuries.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed the discussion, although I am afraid much of it probably went over my head.

"Historical events are much harder than scientific theories to confirm or refute, unless there is a great deal of well documented evidence from credibly objective

The "evidence" condition in the above statement when applied to the events related to Christ's resurrection or imbuing of the Church with the Holy Spirit has always led me to question my faith in the Catholic Church. Maybe this is a simple example, but since middle school my instructors have told me to analyze the viewpoints of those "recording" history. That being said, I don't expect some sort of "revisionist Bible," but looking at some historical events contained within the Bible prevents me from using the events as a basis for my persepectives and actions.

Also, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything in my life that I know, understand, or believe in that is not based in my experiences. Sometimes it feels like my actions are shaped by some intangible force that guides me to act in a Christian manner, but I now attribute this to my experience of growing up with Catholic teachings.

Could you also comment on your previous comment of "It's not as if Africa is converting en masse to Judaism?"

See ya around, pal.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Maybe this is a simple example, but since middle school my instructors have told me to analyze the viewpoints of those "recording" history.

As well you should. Strictly speaking, no one was present at the Resurrection, unless you count the Roman guards who claimed--somewhat incredibly--that they had fallen asleep.

The Gospels were all written during the first century, and all were certainly favorable toward the Christian interpretation of the Jesus story. That said, we must consider whether or not they would have reason to lie about the essential facts of the story. As Paul was quick to point out, all hinged upon the Resurrection being true.

If the Gospel writers knew the stories to be false, why would they perpetuate myth? Perhaps to provide hope for the people, but the Jewish religion had already accomplished that. It didn't do much good to follow a false Messiah, especially one who was already dead. I suppose a conspiracy theory fits, but it would take exceptional foresight to predict that the sect would grow into a powerful Church, which would provide an excuse for perpetuating a lie.

The sources we have are reliable, and, especially considering the time period in which they were written. Against the four Gospel accounts, for instance, we have but one source for the existence of Alexander the Great, and that several centuries after his death. But we believe Alexander existed because of his conquest, just as we believe Christ existed because of His Church.

And we may readily believe the accounts of the historians because they seem plausible. Ultimate acceptance, of course, requires, on both accounts, an act of some faith.

Also, I'm having a hard time thinking of anything in my life that I know, understand, or believe in that is not based in my experiences.

I would say that is the reason most people believe, and I do not think it a poor one.

Could you also comment on your previous comment of "It's not as if Africa is converting en masse to Judaism?"

I was merely pointing out the exceptional quality of Christianity by comparing it to its predecessor. Aside from Islam, which is typically spread by conquest and the fear of death which threatens the apostate, Christianity strikes me as unique because it is a proselytizing religions.

All religions grasp at higher truths. One of them was so convinced of its claim to universal truth that it sent men and women to the corners of the earth to die for that Truth. It warrants serious scrutiny.

A Wiser Man Than I said...
This comment has been removed by the author.