The secret police will never get me

The secret in the poet's heart remains unknown to the secret police,
despite their ability to predict his every thought, utterance, and
movement by monitoring the cerebroscope which he must wear day and
night. We can know which thoughts pass through a man's head without
understanding them. Our inviolable uniqueness lies in our poetic
ability to say unique and obscure things, not in our ability to say
obvious things to ourselves alone.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p.123

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The Rise of Atheism

There’s an interesting convention on in Melbourne Australia this weekend. A global meeting of atheists led by Richard Dawkins. It is being covered by a blog on the ABC website. It will be interesting to see if the convention rings with the tones Alister McGrath attributes to the new atheists in his book The Twilight of Atheism:

Western atheism now finds itself in something of a twilight zone. Once a worldview with a positive view of reality, it seems to have become a permanent pressure group, its defensive agenda dominated by concerns about limiting the growing political influence of religion.

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Gadamer, Polanyi and relativism (A recent presentation)

Michael Dummet calls it “the scandal of philosophy,” that philosophy has no systematic methodology, while Richard Bernstein says the following:

Hovering in the background of this pursuit [of turning philosophy into a rigorous science] is what might be called ‘the Cartesian Anxiety’—the fear or apprehension that if there are no … basic constraints, no foundations, no determinate ‘rules of the game’, then we are confronted with intellectual and moral chaos where anything goes. 

Today I want to consider two thinkers who have overcome their Cartesian anxiety, but who emphatically do not believe that anything goes. The question I am working on in my doctoral studies is whether they are successful in holding on to a sensible notion of truth without either falling backwards into Cartesian neurosis or tripping over their own feet into the relativist puddle.

It is an interesting accident of history that in the space of a couple of years in the mid 20th century, two of the most significant critiques of the Enlightenment dream of certain knowledge and neutral objectivity were published. Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge in 1958 and Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method in 1960. Yet apparently neither author was significantly influenced by the other.

For Polanyi, once one of the world’s leading physical chemists, the focus of his attention is the knowledge that comes from the natural sciences, while for Gadamer the project is about human understanding, the object of which ranges from history and texts to art and music.

Today I will explore some parallels between Polanyi’s epistemology and Gadamerian hermeneutics, focussing particularly on aspects relevant to the charges of relativism levelled against them.


My own interest in these authors has been sparked because while the objects of their work are distinct, I believe that their epistemic approach is similar, both describing remarkably comparable processes that lead to an understanding of knowledge that goes beyond their different realms. While protesting against objectivism and the notion that knowledge or understanding is the outcome of a neutral method, both also rejected subjectivist, sceptical and relativist implications of their work, all of which accept a rationalist ideal for knowledge but with differing degrees of optimism or pessimism about its success. What makes Polanyi and Gadamer alike and radical, is not that they simply reject the extremes of this spectrum, but rather, they reject the entire paradigm of knowledge implied in such descriptions. Both offer another paradigm that sees subjectivity and objectivity, not as competing poles but as mutually reinforcing qualities of knowledge, and, they hold, without such a view there can be no knowledge.

So, both thinkers maintain that it is possible to talk of truth without falling into the Enlightenment trap that binds truth to an ideal of certainty and detached objectivity. In the sense that both reject the possibility of an Archimedean point which is unmediated by tradition, and unaffected by personal beliefs, they are anti-objectivist. But both stand against relativism and subjectivism by holding that, while certainty is a chimera, we can nevertheless talk of truth and make universal truth claims. In order to escape from what Gadamer calls the “entanglement in traditional epistemology” both dedicate themselves to the task of articulating a description of the actual practice of human understanding or knowledge production.

For Gadamer true understanding is neither subjective nor objective and nor can it ever be final. It is not merely subjective because it is in some sense true. “Meanings cannot be understood in an arbitrary way” he says. And he talks of the danger of failing “to hear what the other person is really saying” or of “ignoring as consistently and stubbornly as possible the actual meaning of the text…” “The important thing”, he says, “is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text can present itself in all its otherness and thus assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings.” Despite this ideal though, the accusation of relativism is summed up by E.D. Hirsch who says:

If we cannot enunciate a principle for distinguishing between an interpretation that is valid and one that is not, there is little point in writing books about texts or about hermeneutic theory.

Now listen to Polanyi who, although he uses the term ‘objective’, does so in a limited sense. He says,

Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claiming universal validity. Such a knowledge is indeed objective in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden reality; … It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge.

While Polanyi is happy to talk of ‘knowledge’ and objectivity, he does so in this radically qualified sense of personal knowledge.

So, scientific discovery for Polanyi, or understanding for Gadamer, is to arrive at knowledge of universal truth. But this knowledge cannot be theorised adequately using the model that separates a knowing and impersonal subject from the object of knowledge, and that imagines there are methodical guarantees of success. For both authors, truth is to be had but not by accepting the Enlightenment paradigm. And for both, knowledge is a provisional interpretation, always in the making and which might be wrong. Whether we talk of Newton and Einstein or Romeo and Juliet some interpretations are simply better than others. But conviction and not certainty is the appropriate description of beliefs that no longer lie on a spectrum between certainty and scepticism.
 
It is clear by now why both Gadamer and Polanyi lay themselves open to charges of relativism. Both reject objectivism, both recognise that reason is at least partially historically and culturally constituted, both reject the possibility of a rule-based method for guaranteeing truth and both recognise the provisionality of all knowledge.

Eduardo Echeverria criticises Polanyi’s epistemology arguing that he fails to clarify the link between epistemic justification on the one hand and truth on the other. Polanyi is an epistemic relativist according to Echeverria because Polanyi holds that “justified belief is dependent on epistemic context.” But Polanyi is also a realist, holding that “truth as a reality is distinguishable from [what] one is justified in holding to be true.” “In short,” says Echeverria,

implied in [Polanyi’s] reflections on truth is the doctrine of verification-transcendent truth, which asserts that propositions have truth value independent of our capacity to know what warrants our acceptance of them.

Struan Jacobs makes the point that it is not sufficient for authors like Polanyi (and, I would add, Gadamer) to simply assert their belief in a universal truth. Jacobs recognises that “Polanyi is not a relativist as regards the ideal of truth.” But Polanyi also holds that there can be a logical gap between belief systems saying that scientists from different schools, “think differently, speak a different language, live in a different world.” This view, later popularised by Thomas Kuhn, and known as the incommensurability thesis, results in relativism according to Jacobs. If Polanyi is to avoid the charge of cognitive relativism, he needs to provide “good reasons for cognitive choices.” That is, according to Jacobs’ reading, Polanyi’s choice between belief systems is not founded on reasons. So, when seen from the perspective of traditional expectations about knowledge, it seems that Polanyi’s fallibilist position is akin to cognitive relativism, although I question whether Polanyi’s view is not more nuanced than Jacobs’ description.

But perhaps the so-called problem of relativism is a red herring. What if the whole debate about relativism only made sense within an absolutist framework? And what if it could be shown (although by its nature, no absolute proof could be expected) that an absolutist framework is an idea that only exists parasitically on the negation of human finitude? This is the argument of Jean Grondin, in his defence of philosophical hermeneutics against the charge of relativism. In an evocative phrase, he says, “the claim to infinity remains the daughter of finitude.”

Grondin defines absolute relativism as “the doctrine that all opinions on a subject are equally good” and then he argues that Gadamer is not an absolute relativist because “there are always reasons” for choosing one opinion over another. Paraphrasing Rorty, Grondin says, “the philosophers one terms relativists are simply those who estimate that these reasons are less algorithmic than many rationalists imagine.” So, says Grondin, the charge of relativism, “is hardly more than a conceptual bugaboo constructed by those who possess a foundational conception of what truth or interpretation should be like.”

If I understand the argument correctly, the gist is that the question of relativism looks entirely different depending on which side of the fence one is sitting. From the absolutist position, the charge of relativism is to accuse the other of living in a world where there is no truth or at least no knowledge of it. But from the other side, the likes of Gadamer and Polanyi see this charge as naïve because it is dependent not just on impossible expectations of human knowledge but on an incoherent view. They hold that all knowledge is an intrinsically human production and delimited by human historicity and finitude, but that there are, nevertheless, better and worse reasons, some explicit, some tacit, for holding to what we believe to be true. If this is relativism of a sort, so be it, but it is not arbitrary. At which point we imagine the absolutist might reveal their own inability to understand the hermeneutic perspective, by saying, ‘Prove to me that one reason is better than another. How can you know?’ But to ask for proof is, of course, to remain wedded to a model of human knowing that denies the reality of our being-in-the-world and the universality of interpretation.

Brice Wachterhauser sums up Gadamer’s position in a way that could equally apply to Polanyi. He says,

Human knowing always depends on language and history, on a context of commitments and practices to show the thing in itself in a certain way … we never can see the whole truth but only a partial truth or a perspective but a truth about the thing itself nevertheless.

Let’s turn briefly now to how Gadamer and Polanyi describe the intrinsic human element in all knowing and the sense in which they are redefining the concept of knowledge by including a tacit human component that can never be exhaustively defined and which includes a role for authority and tradition.
 
Polanyi highlights the impossibility of formalising the rules of scientific discovery and emphasises the personal agency, commitment and creativity of the scientist. For example:

Desisting henceforth from the vain pursuit of a formalized scientific method, commitment accepts in its place the person of the scientist as the agent responsible for conducting and accrediting scientific discoveries. The scientist’s procedure is of course methodical. But his methods are but the maxims of an art which he applies in his own original way to the problem of his own choice.

And for his part, while Gadamer is happy to talk loosely of procedure and “methodologically conscious understanding”, he, like Polanyi, is firmly against a trust in method to guarantee truth. He talks of the task of hermeneutics in the following terms:

Ultimately, it has always been known that the possibilities of rational proof and instruction do not fully exhaust the sphere of knowledge. … We… must laboriously make our way back into this tradition by first showing the difficulties that result from the application of the modern concept of method to the human sciences. Let us therefore consider how this tradition became so impoverished and how the human sciences’ claim to know something true came to be measured by a standard foreign to it.

For Gadamer, the search for understanding is couched in terms of the ubiquitous nature of our mostly unconscious prejudgments or prejudices–the word is the same in German. According to him, the prejudice against prejudice was the downfall of Enlightenment epistemology and in contrast hermeneutics is based on the doctrine that prejudgments are an essential condition of understanding. In an oft-quoted passage he says:

Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. … The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudgments of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.

If such prejudgments are an essential part of the understanding process and if the hope of objectivity or final knowledge is in fact a blind alley, then what he calls the “fundamental epistemological question” concerns the legitimacy of prejudgments. To quote Gadamer, the question is:

What distinguishes legitimate prejudices from the countless others, which it is the undeniable task of critical reason to overcome?

Polanyi too is in no doubt about the naivete of a program of Cartesian doubt that aims to eliminate preconceived opinions. He says:

While we can reduce the sum of our conscious acceptances to varying degrees, and even to nil, by reducing ourselves to a state of stupor, any given range of awareness seems to involve a correspondingly extensive set of a-critically accepted beliefs.

While Gadamer’s discussion is in terms of the role of prejudice and of tradition, the conceptual link with Polanyi becomes clearer when Gadamer talks of the sort of authority that can be a valid source of truth. He says:

…authority cannot actually be bestowed but is earned… It rests on acknowledgment and hence on an act of reason itself which, aware of its own limitations, trusts to the better insight of others. … The prejudgments that [the teacher, the superior, the expert] implant are legitimized by the person who presents them. But in this way they become prejudgments not just in favor of a person but a content, since they effect the same disposition to believe something that can be brought about in other ways—e.g., by good reasons.

Now listen to Polanyi talking about authority and tradition in science. He says:

… the knowledge comprised by science is not known to any single person. Indeed, nobody knows more than a tiny fragment of science well enough to judge its validity and value at first hand. For the rest he has to rely on views accepted at second hand on the authority of a community of people accredited as scientists.

We have seen that for Gadamer understanding is entrenched in and presupposes a host of unexamined assumptions or beliefs. We ride a bicycle or read Dostoevsky without a self-conscious attempt to make our presuppositions explicit. The object of our understanding is tacitly intelligible to us, and understanding is just this tacit ability to make sense of the world. It is not something mastered by method or rules, but acquired in practice as we listen and trust others doing the same.

For those who know Polanyi you will have detected my deliberate use of the word ‘tacit’ to describe Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Much of Polanyi’s work is based on his discussion of tacit knowledge summed up in his catch phrase, “we know more than we can tell.” He goes to great lengths to show that such knowledge is ubiquitous and has radical implications for epistemology. He says:

..suppose that tacit thought forms an indispensable part of all knowledge, then the ideal of eliminating all personal elements of knowledge would, in effect, aim at the destruction of all knowledge. The ideal of exact science would turn out to be fundamentally misleading and possibly a source of devastating fallacies.

In both these authors we have seen a turning away from that ideal. But in doing so they do not merely move away from the certainty pole towards scepticism or relativism: they redefine knowledge in a way that is fallibilist but is not open to relativist critiques, based as they are on foundationalist assumptions.

But this is not to say that either author has successfully offered a solution to the problem of the gap between justified belief and truth. In the case of Polanyi, Echeverria’s way forward, is to suggest a transcendental argument. He says “we must resist defending epistemological realism apart from and independently of a metaphysical account of reality.” And so, he continues, the question to be asked is, “what must reality, including I, as a knower, be like in order that human knowledge be intelligible at all?” He cites Thomas Nagel’s naturalist suggestion of “an unheard-of-property of the natural order” that relates us to the world, but Echeverria goes further in suggesting a theological solution. Either way, the point is that the relationship of knower to the world is of such a nature that fallible knowledge is possible although the details of that relationship are stubbornly resistant to philosophical and scientific investigation. But now is not the time to enter into that mind field.

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Heidegger made easy for the masses

I am working on a mass-market piece on the extraordinary Martin
Heidegger. “Heidegger made easy” if such a thing is possible. The current draft is as follows…

Heidegger’s problem of being

My philosophical quest in search of the nature of knowledge has
recently led me down a slippery trail into my own Mines of Moria, the
eerie world of raw truth. It is here, in this obscurity that lies
beyond words, that the ghost of Martin Heidegger looms: certainly one
of the 20th Century’s brilliant minds, and a philosopher with a
damning relation to the Nazi party.

Heidegger’s was a name I heard whispered since my first dabblings in
philosophy. I knew he was a philosopher to avoid at all cost, because
he is reputed to be one of the most difficult thinkers to understand.
But the inevitable happened and I was forced to cross paths and swords
with this giant.

Heidegger’s writing takes on the everyday world where image and
propaganda mould the minds of the masses. A world where unthinking
people trail after those pipers of ‘new atheism’ who tout science as
the certain and only road to truth. But deeper reflection reveals the
shallowness of such promises. There are more things in heaven and
earth, Professor Dawkins, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. While
Heidegger’s abstract reflections prove a challenge to the new
fundamentalists, they augur well for those who think there is more to
human existence than a cosmic chemical soup.

Heidegger’s relationship with National Socialism in his native Germany
proved a black mark on his philosophical copy book. While it enabled
him to stay in academia, it lost him friends. Sir Karl Popper, the
British philosopher of science and political theorist, said, “I appeal
to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention
Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This
man was a devil.” The details remained sketchy for years and Heidegger
himself played down his involvement. New evidence conclusively shows
that his was not a passive role. He encouraged young students to join
the Nazi Party and he worked with the Gestapo to remove Jews from
academic positions. He even betrayed former friends such as Edmund
Husserl, the ‘father of phenomenology’.

Heidegger apparently saw himself in the mould of Plato’s
‘Philosopher-King’, who would lead the thinking of the Third Reich and
the new Germany. He had affinities with Hitler, both sharing a rural
and anti-Semitic cultural background, and some suggest that Heidegger
saw in Nazism the possibility of applying his individual-based
philosophy at a state level. Yet Heidegger had friends who were Jews
and it was his one-time Jewish mistress, Hannah Arendt, the
philosopher and chronicler of Nazi atrocities, who was much later
responsible for his acceptance in North America. “Heidegger is a
spectacular case of a bad man writing interesting things,” said
prominent North American philosopher Richard Rorty. Ironically,
Heidegger himself said, “he who thinks great thoughts often makes
great errors.”

Where other thinkers might have been shunned for their sins,
Heidegger’s brilliant insights into the most primordial aspects of
human experience ensured the survival of his philosophy. After an
enforced five year period of academic inactivity, he returned to
teaching in Germany in the early 1950s.

Heidegger’s main work, Being and Time, is considered by many to be a
masterpiece of 20th Century philosophy. But others question whether
Herr Heidegger is the Philosopher-King wearing no clothes. British
philosopher Roger Scruton says of the work, “It is formidably
difficult–unless it is utter nonsense, in which case it is laughably
easy.” Bertrand Russell, a no-nonsense positivist philosopher, calls
Heidegger’s highly eccentric terminology “extremely obscure.” Russell
says, “One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.”
Another commentator describes Heidegger’s prose as “constipated,
Teutonic, jargon-laden, and laughably contorted.”

Scruton and Russell surely have in mind such sentences as:
“Understanding is the existential being of being-there’s own
potentiality-for-being: and it is so in such a way that this being
discloses in itself what its being is capable of.” And if you are
looking for a short definition of ‘meaning’: “Meaning is the
‘upon-which’ of a projection in terms of which something becomes
intelligible as something.”  No; clear language was not one of
Heidegger’s strong suits.

For Heidegger words were part of the problem of philosophy because our
familiarity with their meanings blinds us to other possibilities. His
solution? To describe and re-describe experience, and when words fail
(which was often), to make up new words. Making full use of his native
German, where new words can be cobbled together with hyphens,
Heidegger could produce sentences such as, “Being-in-the-world is the
for-the-sake-of-which of being-there.” [Footnote for Heidegger scholars:
this is a Heideggerian sounding phrase but not one he would have said
methinks. I would be happy to have an more accurate one that has the
same average of hyphens to words.]

Heidegger spent all his life around the Black Forest in southern
Germany, doing much of his writing in his country hut. Born and bred
Roman Catholic, he started on the path to the priesthood but a crisis
of faith turned him to philosophy. His focus on the earliest Greek
thinkers led him to his iconoclastic view that two thousand years’ of
thinkers since Plato had been barking up the wrong philosophical tree.
Philosophers had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, and most
were wasting their time.

So what did two millennia of philosophical forebears get so wrong?
They failed to address the problem of being.

The major mistake in the history of Western thinking, according to
Heidegger, is the propensity to divide the world of our experience
into subjects and objects; into observers and things observed. This
dissection assumes something about the world before the cutting
begins: it assumes the world can be chopped into pieces and the bits
remain true to what they were before.

Not so, says Heidegger. What if the world weren’t like that? What if
the world were the sort of place where everything is connected to
everything else and cutting it up left you with something that was not
true to the world? What if the world were like a cardigan knitted with
one length of wool rather than like a patchwork of pieces stitched
together? Cutting a piece out of the cardigan to examine it will only
leave an unravelling mess of broken threads. Or what if the world were
a jelly and cutting it up caused a meltdown?

In fact, says Heidegger, such ways of thinking fundamentally confuse
our ‘way of being in the world’ and despite neat and ordered
philosophical taxonomies, the result is misunderstanding of our
everyday experience and not greater understanding. What’s more, not
only is the world more like the knitted cardigan, but we ourselves are
part of the weave. We are ‘always and already in-the-world.’ Our
viewpoint can never be from the outside as observers. We are part of
the cardigan that makes up the whole and to assume that we can be
otherwise is to distort the world. The solution, says Heidegger, is to
examine what has been left unexamined for so long: the nature of being
itself revealed in our everyday experience.

Behind all philosophy, and indeed all human thinking and action, lies
being. Being is the water in which we swim. Before any doing or
thinking or even philosophising, lies being; the ground of all our
possibilities, and notoriously misunderstood. If we want to understand
normal human action and life in the real world, then we need to
understand being. But beware! The road to understanding being is not
to turn it into an object, an entity, that we can gaze upon and
examine. Heidegger’s insight, against the whole philosophical
tradition, is the simple but profound; “The being of entities is not
itself an entity.”

Another face of Heidegger’s radical philosophising is his analysis of
the appalling effect of imminent death on all our experience.
Heidegger looked death in the face, revealing that aspect of the human
condition. The sometimes invisible spectre, the elephant in the room
of life, that silently dominates every future.

I lost a son last year. A vigorous, strapping lad of 23 [pictured in the
banner photo above on the beach.] He was red-carded by
cancer through no fault of his own. I’ve had my nose rubbed in the
frailty of human existential fragility and the smell is not pleasant.
Heidegger was right: our own death lies lurking around one corner or
the next, a constant companion on the road, that sword of Damocles
held back by a thread. The question of afterlife is moot: earthly
living grinds to a dead-end in apparent oblivion. Nothingness. And the
human spirit cries out, ‘no!’

Heidegger embraces the ‘no’ to make the sense that can be made of it.
This is not the safe, polite, analytic philosophy confined by British
sensibilities. Nor is it the American pragmatist approach,
business-like to the end and a ‘too hard basket’ overflowing with all
the deepest questions. This is the philosophy of hard questions and of
a man who, for reasons only he understood, could admire the Fuhrer.
But in those pre-war years, in a cultural context we can little relate
to, and in a mind of such genius, is it not conceivable that you or I
might have done the same?

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Hans-Georg Gadamer

I love this painting of Gadamer by Dora Mittenzwei. Thank you Dora for permission to use it here. The painting is of Gadamer at 100 years old and still in fine form. It is a massive 1.9 x 3m in size. Gadamer died at 102 in 2002.

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Padding the case for the new atheism

Mark Shea’s article on the new atheists is copied below. It talks tacitly of tacit knowledge. The source is here.

Padding the Case for the New Atheism

Recently there has been a flurry of books from the “New Atheists.” Such figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have been holding forth to state . . . well, not anything new.

The reason there is nothing new to say is that there cannot, by the nature of the discussion, be anything new to say. When it came to the question “Does God exist?,” St. Thomas could only think of two reasonable objections in the whole history of human thought.


Objection 1: It seems that God does not exist, because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

Objection 2: Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

Every reasonable atheistic argument is a restatement of one or both of these basic points.

Objection 1: The Argument from Evil is a rich treasure trove for the New Atheists, providing as it does multiple opportunities to bang on about how Religion Poisons Everything and brandish the usual rap sheet of evils done by theists. And, best of all, should some theist timidly observe that 20th-century atheists shed oceans of blood dwarfing anything ever achieved by theists, the New Atheist can then rail against the uncaring and immoral God who lets innocents suffer and die. It’s win/win! If you are as quick-witted as Hitchens, you can even try to reclassify communism and Nazism as “religions.”

This last ploy may not pass the laugh test with most people, but it’s still workable with the Chattering Classes. All the New Atheist need do is hope that his reader won’t inquire too deeply into just how he arrives at certitude about what “good” or “evil” is without smuggling in all sorts of transcendent categories from a supernatural worldview.

For the New Atheist is full of moral prescriptions and proscriptions: We should be teaching children about Darwin. We should not be teaching children religion. We should have greater tolerance for sexual diversity. We should not be subjecting infants to circumcision. We ought to be doing X, we ought not to be doing Y, etc.

The problem is this: Trying to derive a moral universe — any moral universe at all — of Should from a purely materialistic universe of Is turns out to be impossible. The perfectly just outrage of a Hitchens at some crime by a theist turns out — if you grant the New Atheists’ materialism — to be just one more biochemical reaction. And privileging a biochemical reaction merely because it is a lot more complex than, say, combustion is as crude a mystification as bowing down to a rock because it’s really really big.

In the atheistic universe of Is the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called “Adolf Hitler” can have no greater or lesser Oughtness than the biochemical reactions going on in the piece of matter called “Martin Luther King Jr.” They just Are. Attempts to impose meaning or value judgments on these biochemical processes are, in the final materialist analysis, simply one more sample of the human brain’s innate tendency toward pattern-making — which, according to Dawkins, is the source of the God Delusion. As the real modern atheist, Richard Rorty, pointed out, there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, “Why not be cruel?” Quoth Rorty:

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

The New Atheists, however, seem to be blissfully unaware of all this, because they are, in fact, Old Atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries who retain a serene confidence that the privileged bits of the moral and rational order looted from the Christian civilization they are laboring to destroy will just go coasting on of their own accord. Because of this, the New Atheists retain the charming Enlightenment faith that they can hold on to that particular pattern-making epiphenomenon of brain tissue called Reason as they deploy the other staple argument of any really substantial atheistic case: Objection 2: The Everything-Works-Fine-Without-God Argument.

This argument is what undergirds most attempts to back up the New Atheism with a gloss of scientism. It goes like this: People once thought lightning was the Wrath of God and disease was caused by evil spirits. Now we know the physical laws behind a lot of phenomena. Therefore, there is no Legislator of those Laws, and he cannot alter those laws or feed new data into his creation because that would interfere with the philosophy of a lot of tenured people.

Put briefly, you propose a huge metaphysical hypothesis that Absolutely Everything popped into existence 13 billion years ago with the help of Nobody, but loaves and fishes cannot pop into existence 2,000 years ago with the help of Jesus of Nazareth, despite the eyewitnesses who inexplicably chose to die in torments proclaiming He did. The trick to establishing this hypothesis as dogma — when the odds currently stand at 10137 to 1 against the fine tuning of the universe — is to take a particular methodology that, by its nature, only looks at time, space, matter, and energy and have thousands of people repeat “Only what our methodology can measure is real!” for two centuries over millions of loudspeakers. Voila! The words of C. S. Lewis’s Mr. Enlightenment become the Received Wisdom of an entire culture:

Hypothesis, my dear young friend, establishes itself by a cumulative process: or, to use popular language, if you make the same guess often enough it ceases to be a guess and becomes a Scientific Fact.

If people still are troubled by those 10137 to 1 odds, just wave your hand like Dawkins and say there are probably lots of universes, so ours was bound to turn up. Admittedly, there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever for that claim. But if you invoke “string theory” and mention Stephen Hawking’s name you can generally intimidate people into silence.

If this doesn’t work, you can, like Dawkins, argue that “any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself.” Have another New Atheist named Dennett declare this argument “unrebuttable.” Then quote Dennett quoting you and declare him spot on. You might also want to throw in something about how much more science knows about the complexity of universe today than in St. Thomas’s day. Don’t play up the fact that medievals knew as well as anybody else with two eyes that the universe is a really complex place. And, in particular, don’t discuss the fact that St. Thomas addressed your brand new unrebuttable objection nearly 900 years ago in his Summa Theologiae (Part I, Question 3, Article 7).

Most of all, overlook the fact that the question you are supposed to be attending to is “whether God exists,” not “whether God is complex.” Ignore the fact that all a theist has to do is show that creation is contingent and therefore necessarily depends on what is not contingent for existence. Do not remind yourself that the theist is not obliged to say he or she understands that non-contingent Being, merely that such a being exists. If all this fails and your reader still thinks St. Thomas is getting the better of you, call your reader a creationist in the same tone of voice you’d use to say, “You left your used Kleenex on my coffee table.” Or, if you are Hitchens, just compare him to Osama bin Laden.

Now Objections 1 and 2 are all she wrote as far as good atheist arguments. You can expand on them by multiplying examples of evil or by ringing the changes on various natural processes that seem to be getting on fine without God. But you can’t add to these arguments.

And that’s what fascinates me about the New Atheists. Because, as Dawkins’s “unrebuttable” fallacy just demonstrated above, the New Atheists and their disciples do not stick to these, the only two really reasonable objections to God’s existence there ever have been or ever will be. Instead, they exhibit the telling tic of the nervous rhetorician and incorrigibly lard on various other arguments known as “fallacies.”

To borrow a term from Dawkins, one common meme among the New Atheists is the Argument from Intellectual Maturity. It’s a gripe as old as Celsus, eloquently repackaged in the words of Christopher Hitchens:

[Religion] comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs).

This boast of being the first adults after humanity’s long childhood of irrational mysticism is a theme to which the New Atheists (who like to refer to themselves as “Brights”) return again and again. Only the Trained Measurers of Time, Space, Matter, and Energy are the natural custodians of the Knowledge of Ultimate Reality; while only the stupid, immature, or crazy can suppose the existence of the supernatural. The Brights are, in Carl Sagan’s phrase, the candlebearers in a demon-haunted world, the Vanguard of Humanity Come of Age.

If St. Thomas were around to summarize the argument, it would go something like this:

Objection 3: It seems that God does not exist, because children, fools, and other simpletons believe He does. Therefore, God is a delusion concocted by mental and emotional juveniles.

This argument has a certain appeal in a world of ululating Cartoon Rioters, six-day creationists, spoon-benders, Art Bell fans, and Marian Apparitions on Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. Yet, curiously, right in the middle of his own discourse on the immaturity of the theist, Hitchens makes a strange and startling confession of faith in the infallible mystical insights of one particular child named “Christopher Hitchens.” In [2] God Is Not Great, Hitchens describes how, at the age of nine, he concluded that his teacher’s claim that the world must be designed was wrong:

I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong.

Hitchens’s brother, Peter, drily replies:

At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.

It’s my view that he still doesn’t know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he “simply knew” who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.

What is marvelous is how nakedly Hitchens reveals his own atheist convictions to be entirely faith-based and — what is more — based on faith in a mystical epiphany to a nine-year-old boy. All the massive artillery of his adult wit and eloquence is, in the final analysis, ranked and ranged to protect that boy and his emotional epiphany. In contrast, all Christ asks of us is to have hearts like children, not minds like children. St. Thomas’s faith was childlike; his intellect was formidably adult. Hitchens, in contrast, demands we reject St. Thomas’s fifth demonstration of the existence of God — because a nine-year-old boy had a really strong feeling once half-a-century ago.

Another curious strategy of the New Atheists has, like the Argument from Intellectual Maturity, a certain prima facie appeal. It is the Argumentum Contra Suckers. Again, in Thomistic terms, it goes something like this:

Objection 4: It seems that God does not exist, for shepherd children, peasants, polyester-clad tourists from Jersey, and other people I regard as suckers say they see miracles. But any God worthy of the name would submit to my demand for experimental proof, not manifest Himself to such tacky people. God does not submit to my demands, therefore God does not exist.

This conundrum goes all the way back to the New Testament, of course. The Pharisees made a similar demand, and Christ replied:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah (Mt 12:39).

The New Atheists and their students have, of course, a simple explanation for this: Jesus would give no sign because he could give no sign. His miraculous claims were fraudulent, so he just shouted critics down and bolted for the door. His equally fraudulent disciples imitated him, giving us the fiction of the New Testament.

There are two problems with this simple explanation.

First, why would the Gospels record this rather embarrassing incident? If the whole thing is, as it appears, an account of the time the Master dodged getting caught as a fraud, it seems much easier for his chroniclers to just skip it. Particularly since the evangelists are frauds themselves whose entire task was to doctor the record in order to paint their dead rabbi as a god.

Second, why do the chroniclers then record that, after this, Jesus promptly goes off and started working various signs? Can such cunning frauds really be so dumb as to not think anybody would notice?

Or might it be that Jesus’ words and deeds do not admit of such a surface reading? Again, the New Atheist account of the Gospels winds up sounding a great deal like Lewis’s Mr. Enlightenment:

The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can’t help admiring them.

But do you mean that the Stewards don’t believe it themselves?

I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them — just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and would believe anything they were told.

This curious pattern of trying to have things both ways is on remarkable display among the New Atheists. On the one hand, we run into contradictory explanations that do not explain, such as diabolically clever evangelists who are too stupid to read their own books. On the other hand, we run into a curious role reversal when it comes to dealing with claims of the miraculous, not 2,000 years ago, but right here and now.

Theists, you will recall, are dogmatists utterly closed to empirical evidence that challenges their tidy little universe. The New Atheists, in contrast, are realists who just follow the evidence where it leads, and luckily it leads to what they “simply knew” since they were nine years old. Yet curiously, we so often meet New Atheists like London Times columnist Matthew Parris.

Recently, Parris wrote his coolly intellectual reaction to the story of Sr. Marie Simon-Pierre, who, as doctors confirm, was suddenly healed of a well-documented case of Parkinson’s Disease on the night of June 2, 2005, after praying for the intercession of the recently deceased Pope John Paul II. By way of careful scientific examination of these facts, Parris deployed the following analytical algorithms:

1. Link the story with crazy dispensationalist notions about the Second Coming;

2. Call for “intelligent Christians” to voice their “righteous anger” and “contempt” for this “nonsense” (apparently meaning “any belief in the supernatural”);

3. Ridicule the “excesses of Lourdes”;

4. Lament “the woeful confusion of faith with superstition”; and

5. Categorically condemn anyone stupid enough to “honestly entertain the possibility that from beyond the grave the late Pope John Paul II interceded with God to cause a woman to be cured of Parkinson’s disease.”

Parris concludes this dispassionate pursuit of the evidence with the following de fide definition:

“But how can you be sure?” Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope’s name down. He didn’t.

Simple-minded folk might think that the truly rational first step is to find out if the nun had Parkinson’s and then find out if she was cured. Why not research the strange and well-documented deeds of St. Pio of Pietrelcina? Or the miracles at Lourdes?

Instead, the tactics of Parris are defended with a sort of mantra: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This slogan is designed to persuade us that the debate is over what the facts are — not over whether the New Atheist materialist dogma permits him to so much as look at them.

The reality is that extraordinary claims are established on the basis of human evidence every day. No man can prove in a lab that his wife loves him, yet for millions of men it is an extraordinary fact more certain than the age of the universe, accepted entirely on human testimony. For centuries, extraordinary claims were brought back from Africa of a mysterious manlike creature that dwelt deep in the jungles. The way the reality of this creature was determined was not by sitting in a lab parroting “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” but by going and seeing whether or not gorillas were there.

And that’s the thing: The believers go and see. Credo ut intelligam. New Atheists stay at home and rail at what Hitchens calls the “ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage.”

Seventy-thousand eyewitnesses (including atheists and skeptics) to the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima are told by the stay-at-home dogmatist that it was spontaneous mass hallucination unprecedented in history.

People who have experienced scientifically documented and inexplicable healings at Lourdes are commanded by New Atheists to believe they are victims or perpetrators of some sort of unnamed “excess.”

A Host begins bleeding human blood at a Mass in Betania, Venezuela, and the whole thing is caught on video by an ordinary tourist? Conspiracy and trick photography, despite the fact that the Host (still preserved in a monstrance after being subjected rigorous tests) continues to bleed now and then to this day.

And when the resolve to Just Not Look begins to crumble under the suspicion there might be something to the supernatural after all, the solution is “Pop in a DVD of the Amazing Randi or Penn and Teller debunking something and repeat to yourself ‘Some claims of the supernatural are bunk, therefore all are.’”

God’s obstinate tendency to conform to the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior (”God, under carefully controlled, laboratory conditions, will do whatever he likes”) has prompted some particularly desperate New Atheists to propose one final objection in a last ditch attempt to show who is boss. This is known as the Argument from Chronological Snobbery. It may be seen in chemical purity in the words a devotee of the New Atheism who recently wrote me:

Because science is evidence-based and ever-evolving it is actually better suited to unravel the mysteries of life and the universe than ancient “divine” texts. (Is it unreasonable to ask, for instance, that the Lord offer us at least a cursory sketch of DNA in his “authoritative” text on the workings of the world? Or perhaps it’s time for the old man to reveal a revised edition that at least pays lip service to the Enlightenment and the wonderful discoveries of science, none of which were implied or indicated in the slightest in his original “bible.”)

St. Thomas would put it thus:

Objection 5. It seems God does not exist, because if he did exist he would meet my demand for proof by giving a biblical author knowledge — such as the soil composition of Mars or the design of a microchip — impossibly ahead of the Bronze Age. He has not done this, therefore God does not exist.

Now there are only two sorts of people who think Scripture is supposed to be The Big Book of Everything: New Atheists and Fundamentalists (who are more alike than either realizes). Catholics, in contrast, believe Scripture to be about God’s progressive revelation of salvation in Jesus Christ and reject the notion that its mission is to give us the atomic weight of the hydrogen atom or a schematic for a transistor. That’s because our present is not, in the words of Lewis, “the final and permanent platform” from which all is to be judged and the ultimate summit to which all has been leading.

Think about it. Suppose some earlier skeptic made similar demands. If he is God, says the medieval skeptic, then why doesn’t Exodus discuss the four humors of the body? Where is the blueprint for the astrolabe in Genesis or the science of leechcraft in Numbers? The 17th-century skeptic demands to know why God nowhere reveals ultimate truth — Newtonian physics — in Scripture. The 19th-century skeptic demands to know why God never deigned to reveal the hard scientific fact of aether to Moses. In the 1940s, the Stalinist skeptic laughs at the Bible’s ignorance of Lamarckian evolution.

In short, it is the glory of science to progress. Meanwhile, the purpose of revelation is not to tell us everything about everything, but to tell us about the important things. And the irony is, the revelation of creation ex nihilo is precisely the sort of thing that transcends both Bronze and Digital Age mythologies. Paganism tended toward a cyclical, not a linear, vision of time. It universally imagined the gods making the universe from some sort of “stuff.” Only one people held the fixed belief in creation ex nihilo: the Jews, who insisted that “God created the heavens and the earth” out of nothing. Scientifically, the question of whether the universe even had a beginning remained open until about 40 years ago. How that beginning came about is still — and always will be — a question that transcends science and can only be known by revelation.

At this point, the sane metaphysician must sooner or later say, “Very well then, science is limited and I must grow beyond its narrow confines. I must embrace a larger metaphysic that encompasses science, yet allows for supernatural revelation that transcends, not contradicts, the truths revealed by science.” The insane metaphysic says, “No! Everything must fit my narrow empiricist worldview!”

That is what the Catholic Tradition calls “pride.” And that, ultimately, is the real issue here, not “sufficient evidence.” The solution to this blunder is what the tradition calls “humility.”

G. K. Chesterton once remarked that the only response a believer can give to the one who will not understand is “You don’t understand.” It should be noted that the operative term here is “will not,” not “cannot.” There are two sorts of questioners, roughly speaking: those who ask to find things out and those who ask to keep from finding things out. This is the explanation for Jesus’ mysterious refusal to give a sign, coupled with his curious willingness to give all sorts of signs. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. But those who ask in order to keep from finding also get what they seek. For all find what they truly seek.

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Prophetic words?

Chris Hedges has an impressive pedigree and a cutting cultural critique. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle, a penetrating book that begins with window on world championship wrestling. A short interview with Hedges is here on YouTube.

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The true and the pseudo problems of knowledge

The ‘problem of knowledge’ has traditionally been about the question of whether we can know anything certainly and if so how we can justify that knowledge. It is based on an inside-outside view which sees us (me: the knower) as a subject separated from the thing known which is the object of my knowledge.

Heidegger says that this subject-object separation assumes a subject which is not in the world of the objects that are known. As if one could put oneself on one side of a line and all things to be known on the other side. But this separation is just not the way the world is (our world: the world we live in and experience and cannot escape from). In Heidegger’s language we are always and already in the world. We already know before we start to think of the so called problem of knowledge. But even more: we could not even dream up this wrong way of thinking about the question if we weren’t already involved in knowing.

So if the ‘old’ problem of knowledge is a pseudo problem, the true problem according to Heidegger, is this: how do we, who cannot help being totally caught up in knowing the world, how do we disclose  the world in which we already are? (History of the Concept of Time p.162)

Mmm… I think this could be clearer.

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Heidegger no realist but enjoys honey for breakfast

In Being and Time (Section 44) Martin Heidegger does not want to be identified as a realist. But he does not question the reality of the external world. And there’s the issue: the reason he does not question it, is not that he is not interested in questioning it, or because he already has the answer to that question, or because it is a question that is too hard to answer. The reason that he does not ask whether the external world exists is because he thinks that is an “inappropriate formulation of the question.”


So what does Heidegger mean by ‘realist’ if he is not one and yet he does not deny the existence of what he calls ‘entities within-the-world’?

Heidegger says his view differs from every kind of realism because “realism holds that the Reality of the ‘world’ not only needs to be proved but also is capable of proof.” Wrong on both counts says MH. He says that realism, which thinks in this way, has got the structure of of reality wrong in the first place and then with that wrong structure in mind, it asks its question. More soon…

Meanwhile, while listening to Heidegger expert, Hubert Dreyfus, (on free mp3 lectures) it was encouraging to hear him say that for 30 years he has been wrestling with Heidegger’s views on realism and still isn’t sure he has understood him correctly.

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Tacitus’ rules. OK?

Rule #1: Keep it simple

If something is worth saying, then it is worth saying clearly, concisely and in words of few syllables. This site is for laypersons, not just philosopho-persons or theologo-persons. If philosophers and theologians cannot speak with laypeople about things that matter, then perhaps they don’t matter so much after all.

Maybe it is asking the impossible, but the content of this site should be serious but fascinating, simple but profound. “Escribir es pensar con claridad” said Jorge Ibargüengoitia, which means very little if you don’t speak Spanish. “To write is to think clearly.”

More thoughts on simply writing and avoiding ‘weasel words’ will soon be found at Tacitus’ thoughts on writing well.

Rule #2: Keep it friendly

Please contribute to the dialogue vigorously but politely. Remember the two pitfalls of the net: it is faceless and fast. It is easy to misunderstand people, to be rude to them, and to do both before you have had time to say, “I think it’s time for elevenses.”

A dialogue is only worth having when both partners listen with respect, and speak with humility. So be it! Or be censored, censured or sent packing.

Rule #3: About blogs, comments and articles

The aim of a blog entry and the comments that follow it, is to conduct a discussion in byte sized chunks. Longer articles will be posted elsewhere with links to the relevant blog. See the articles index for more.

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