Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is Belief in God Immoral?

I have an ongoing conversation with a friend about belief in God, specifically whether there is anything 'redeemable' in it. We post things on Facebook in each other's general direction, baiting to the other to respond. Last evening he posted an opinion piece of Michael Ruse published today in the New York Times, 'Why God is a Moral Issue.' The article studies why the so-called 'New Atheists' think belief in God is immoral.'

So I'll bite. I'll respond to the general question of whether belief in God is moral or not.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was well-nigh impossible to doubt the existence of divinity-whatever name that might go by--or that divinity laid moral norms for how person's were supposed to think and act.

This is not to say that people didn't mock the gods or behave badly. They did. It is to say, on the other hand, that when they mocked the gods or behaved badly, they did not have an alternative system of belief like atheism to justify mocking the gods or behaving badly.

There were divine laws. People did what people do, and disobeyed them. That's what laws are for, and why they are promulgated in the first place: because people disobey them, and need to be 'nudged' back into conformity with the law. The term atheism, in fact, did not always stand for a system of belief, which is devoid of all but a negative reference to divinity. To be an atheist formerly mean to willfully break God's law, i.e. an atheist was someone who acted as if there was no God.

Sometime in the course of the last 400 years, what was before impossible to doubt was increasingly called into question--until, in the 19th and 20th centuries, whole sectors of Western societies ceased to profess a belief in God. This process gradually gained speed, especially in the last half of the 20th century, after two world wars, the growth of widespread material prosperity, and the increasing success of scientific investigation to explain the natural world.

What changed? A good many things, to be sure. I want to focus on how it is possible for belief in God to become immoral.

The usual story that our ability to believe in God (as well as the human soul, angels, miracles, etc.) was gradually undermined by the explanatory successes of the natural sciences. The essential points of this story have been debated at very great length. The story has certain merits. It makes sense of things from a certain vantage. But it also hides as much as it reveals.

The usual story requires a bit of nuance. One of the essential things that sets our modern scientific age apart from previous 'religious' ages is that claims about whether something exists or not and whether something is good or not came to be regarded as essentially different.

I am referring to the so-called difference between the is and the ought. Prior to our modern scientific age, it would have been difficult to ultimately distinguish between them. In our modern scientific age, distinguishing between them has become almost second nature.

The following example may sound a bit simplistic, but it represents the main point. To a modern scientific age, the fact that gravity causes an object to fall is neither good nor bad. It just is. The question of what is good or bad pertains solely to human desires and motivations, and not to the natural world considered in and of itself. Whereas prior to our modern scientific age, it was good that objects fell to the ground because that is what objects are supposed to do. That is what God created them to do.

To illustrate the difference a little more concretely, to a modern scientific age, it is not assumed that a person's physical make-up is determinative of who/what they are. A person might be born with the genitalia of a woman, but discover in the course of their lives that they identify as a man. This possibility only becomes conceivable in our modern scientific age. Whereas prior to our modern scientific age, a person who is born with the physical make-up of a woman is a woman is a woman, and a person who is born with the physical make-up of a man is a man is a man. Other possibilities deviate from the moral norm for being women and being men.

The difference between the two perspectives is the difference between night and day. The switch between them doesn't happen all at once; and doesn't happen to entire societies all at once. But once the switch is made, it is very difficult to imagine the world on other terms. Even religious believers get caught up in the switch. The result is that strange phenomenon we call religious fundamentalism, which insists on a literal interpretation of the scriptures, but uses the language of modern science to justify its position.

Michael Ruse's basic argument is that it is immoral to believe in something for which there is little or no evidence. I agree with the sentiment of the claim, but not the claim itself. It is immoral to believe contrary to the evidence. But this does not settle the very important matter of what actually counts as evidence.

The one thing that Ruse and his 'New Atheist' compatriots cannot seem to wrap their heads around belief in God ultimately has nothing to do with the scientific evidence.

If one accepts that natural scientific inquiry leads to genuine knowledge--and I do--then one has already accepted that the switch described above has taken place. Questions of the morality will now be judged on different terms than the scientific evidence.

Think about it carefully and follow the argument to its conclusion. If it were immoral to believe anything except that which conformed to the latest and best scientific information, then questions of morality must ultimately be submitted to the scientist in the laboratory or the statistician at a computer for determination. The most moral persons, in this picture, would be the scientist a the statistician, since they are the one's drawing the conclusions and disseminating the information. (If that doesn't deserve an LOL, I don't know what does.)

This makes very little sense; not in the least because most people are too busy living their lives, making sure they have a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food on the table, to consult the latest scientific journals.

Scientific conclusions are always contingent and provisional--and, perhaps more importantly, merely descriptive. They do not, and cannot, have the character of a moral judgment, which asks whether this course of action is better or worse than another course of action.

All of the scientific evidence in the world, in fact, will not produce a definitive moral conclusion. Science describes a universe that is billions of years old and tens of billions of light-years across. It describes increasingly complex natural and biological organisms. It even deigns to analyzes the complexities of human relationships. But for all its prescience, science never tells me whether it is better for me to do this or that, or to believe this or that.

Moral judgments, in this sense, differ from scientific conclusions like my body differs from the entire spatiotemporal extent of the universe. The difference is not a trivial one. Whether humanity evolved from 'lower' forms of life, for example, says nothing definitively about whether I should or should not do harm to the next person in this or that situation. The best an evolutionary explanation can do is offer reasons for why I did or did not harm the next person in this or that situation.

On the specific question about whether belief in God is immoral, Ruse is wrong to suggest it is immoral because the scientific evidence suggests that God does not exist. He is wrong because the evidence can suggest nothing of the sort.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Consciousness is Divided.

The so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness hides a very obvious truth: our consciousness of the world, and ourselves in it, is divided.

Susan Blackmore writes in her Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), 'No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss, the great abyss or the explanatory gap between inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.'

I want to suggest this is not strictly true. The statement can be true only to the extent it has a limited explanatory function for the study of modern natural science. But it is clearly not true to say that no one has bridged the gap between 'inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.'

I bridge that gap simply by being me. Incidentally, so do you, simply by being you. Proof of this fact is found in the simple things of life: like feeling hungry, falling sleep, or hitting your head on a low door-frame. The subjective experience of corresponds directly to an objective state of affairs, without which my subjective experience makes very little sense.

So we can take exception with the literal wording of Blackmore's statement 'No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss.' Forgive what may seem like a silly platitude, but we all are fathomless abysses. We bridge ourselves all the time.

What would prompt Blackmore to claim that no one bridges over themselves?

Blackmore belongs to a new coterie of philosophers of neuroscience, who think of consciousness as an emergent property in matter. An extremely versatile concept, emergence allows a person to say that consciousness is at base a material phenomena, but will not be explained in the same terms as other material phenomena.

For example, the fact that I have a subjective awareness of myself must be explained with reference to the matter of my brain, but it will not be explained in terms of classical mechanics and the law of gravity, or the law of thermodynamics, or the theory of relativity--all of which the physical stuff of my brain is subject to. As an 'emergent' phenomena, consciousness requires a 'higher' order of explanation--but one which, in theory at least, can still be grounded ultimately in the matter of the brain.

Emergence assumes an evolutionary account of human life. It assumes that enough time will have passed for life to have emerged from non-living material; and for complex organisms to emerge from the singled cell-organisms; and for single-celled organisms to emerge from the simple self-replicating building blocks of life; and for the highly complex phenomenon of consciousness to to emerge in complex organisms.

So when a philosopher of neuroscience like Blackmore talks about consciousness, we want to note very carefully that she proposes to merely refer to a person's subjective perception of things, which she says has emerged in the course of human evolution. The evolutionary process itself is an objective process. It does not arise in a person's subjective perception of things. It is instead discovered at the late point in the course of human development--say, in the work of Charles Darwin and subsequent evolutionary thinkers.

The main thrust of my argument against Blackmore has to do with how she divides the world between an individual person's subjectivity and the empirical universality of a scientific claim.

I call your attention to your own self-conscious experience of things. And I invite you to tell me if this admittedly very generic account does not fit your situation.

At the present moment, there is a screen in front of your, which you are looking at. If you lift your eyes up from the screen, you will note that you are (or, more precisely, you body is) situated is a space filled with other objects. We might also say that the space you find yourself in is filled with other bodies or other things. The words can be used interchangeably, so long as they remain at the level of a extremely generic description.

So far so good. Your body is situated in space relative to other object/bodies/things. Now where is time? Where is the past, present, and future? Or, more precisely, where are things in the past, things in the present, and things in the future? The answer for where things in the present are is relatively straightforward: things in the present are situated relative to your body in space.

The question where things in the past or future are will prove a little more difficult to answer. Why should this be the case? Let's take a simple example: what did you have for dinner last night? To answer the question requires that you think back to a place and a time where and when you ate a meal. You remember yourself sitting down at a table, or in front of the television, eating a meal.

Note how your conscious attention divides in two ways: to a place and to a time. The place where you ate dinner last night is somewhere in the 'external' world. It is possible to return to the place you ate your meal. If you have the time, you can get up and walk there. If you ate at home last night, you will probably return their tonight. But you cannot--and this is the crucial difference--return to the time that you ate your meal. In fact, you can only remember eating your meal in that place and at that time--and that is if your memory is good, which mine is not.

On the strength of this example (and numerous other examples can be provided), we may generalize the point by saying: persons have a subjective, or conscious, awareness of themselves situated here and now. That conscious awareness is divided in half: persons are 'externally' aware of their present bodily situation in a space relative to other bodies; they are also 'internally' aware of things in the past (memories) and they anticipate possible futures (expectation).

If persons think about other places and times--that is, other than the here and now they currently occupy--the idea of those other places and times must be reconstituted 'internally' (i.e. mentally). And the simple reason this is the case is that persons cannot transport their bodies at will across space and time. To do admit that you have a body, in this sense, is to admit that one exists under definite limitations, not so much on what persons can think, but on what persons can do.

The fact that she has a body (and so a brain) is a terrible inconvenience for Blackmore's argument. In the first place, it is not clear who we are talking about anyone if we posit an 'unfathomable abyss' between Blackmore's brain and her mind. If there is no possible way for Blackmore herself to cross over, there would be no way for her to make her thoughts known to the rest of us.

In the second place, if we keep clearly in mind the fact that she has (or, better yet, is) a body, her account of the emergence of consciousness in the course of humanity's evolutionary history is no longer quite as straight-forward as she would have us suppose.

Let us take for granted that evolutionary processes operate on bodies (--and if not bodies, then what?), which are always and everywhere situated in some place and time. Because of their own bodily situation, a person cannot directly observe evolutionary processes in action. They must instead, like Charles Darwin, draw inferences from bodies in the world, which they can observe. Such inferences allow persons to construct a reasonable account of how things might have come to pass in the past. Arguably, this is what evolutionary biologists still do today, though their methods of inference have grown infinitely more sophisticated.

The point I want to make is that, so far as persons are concerned, there is no 'fathomless abyss' between 'inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective' in the way that Blackmore describes. The reason this must be the case is that evolutionary processes are not an objective in the way that she describes.

Whenever a person thinks about the way things were in the past, they engage in an intrinsically speculative effort to understand the present world, in which they find their bodily selves. To the degree that persons forget this fact, they forget that they have a body.


See: Consciousness is Never a Problem

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Observing Natives with Francis Parkman

When Francis Parkman set out on the Oregon Trail in the spring of 1846, he went with the express purpose of acquainting himself with the conditions of native people's lives.

His long-term project was to write a history of France and England in North America. The completed narrative would range across the north-eastern quarter of the Continent, and cover a period of time from the initial French and English settlements to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759). Since the participation of native tribes was decisive in many cases, the narrative required they be included.

Parkman was keenly aware just how much the lives of native peoples had changed in the course of a centuries back east in New England. So he resolved to observe native peoples living in material conditions that most closely approximated those he planned to write about. That meant heading out onto the Oregon Trail, where the tribes were still lived a largely traditional, semi-nomadic subsistence lifestyle.

Time, it might be said, keeps pace with social change. Tecumseh's War (1811-2) was provoked by an unabating stream of American settlers and European immigrants into the Ohio Valley. 'Sell a country!? Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?" the great Shawnee chief asked. But time was not on his side.

Native attitudes towards land-ownership proved an continual inconvenience for those who wanted to turn it towards more productive uses. The Native Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, freed up land in the southern states for American settlement and cultivation. It effectively reduced the Five Civilized Tribes to wards of the state. The Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee, who had been spread across sections of Florida, George, and Alabama, were forced marched beyond the Arkansas Territory, which is today remembered as The Trail of Tears.

The interior of the Continent continued to fill up immigrants, pushing the tribes further west. By 1846, the Oregon Territory remained the last open country on the continent, where the native people remained largely unmolested by the federal government. But this too came to an end after the American and British governments settled on 49th parallel, the same year Parkman journeyed into the west. With no longer lands available for relocation, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 set up the remaining tribes on reservations.

Parkman made the basic assumption that one could infer something about native life in the past by observing the lives of contemporary natives peoples. Though much in dispute today, the assumption has a long and respectable pedigree. Philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau that contemporary primitive tribes-people lived in a state of pristine conceptual abstraction called 'the state of nature.' This was a secular, early modern take on the biblical Garden of Eden, but without an angel brandishing a fiery sword to guard the way back to humankind's original innocence. Per Locke's famous observation that in the very beginning, 'All the world was America,' it was now possible both to hypothesize and observe humanity's original state.

Parkman's party made its way from Kansas City northwest along the St. Joseph Trail to the Platte River in present-day Nebraska. From there they turned due west, along the Platte's banks. Occasionally they encountered other migrants, who usually greeted their appearance on the horizon with a certain amount of suspicion. Migrants were aware that Bringham Young was leading a large group of Latter Day Saints from Nauvoo, Illinois, where their prophet Joseph Smith had been murdered, to the Great Slave Lake. The migrants wanted to maintain their distance from 'the much-dreaded Mormons'--as all 'good Christians' might be expected to do.

The wagons now were circled in the evening, and a guard set at sundown. The country they were entering belonged to the Pawnee, who Parkman loses very little sleep describing as 'a treacherous, cowardly banditti, who, by a thousand acts of pillage and murder, have deserved chastisement at the hands of the government.' He even commends to his readers the story of a 'Dahcotah' (or Lakota, which is better known as Sioux) warrior, who stole into a Pawnee village, stabbed, and then scalped sleeping victims, before making his escape onto the vast darkness of the prairie. But, to his credit, Parkman reins in his contempt and goes out to have an 'amicable conference' with one of their chiefs, who he presents with the 'unmerited bounty' of a half a pound of tobacco.

He recounts how his party joined with a larger group of migrants for mutual protection for three or four days, before breaking off again to visit the village along Horse Creek, led by a 'Dahcotah;' chief named 'Old Smoke.' The record of the visit is noteworthy for its care and attention to detail. The usual prejudices color the account, but it is no longer clear whether Parkman is conveying his own impressions or merely adopting the 'civilized' conventions of his reading audience.

The following passage, for example, appears to be constructed to convey more than merely the superficial appearance of things:
Not far from the chief stood a group of stately figures, their white buffalo-robes thrown over their shoulders, gazing coldly upon us; and, in the rear, for several acres, the ground was covered with a temporary encampment. Warriors, women, and children swarmed like bees; hundreds of dogs, of all sizes and colors, ran restlessly about; and, close at hand, the wide shallow stream was alive with boy, girls, and young squaws, splashing, screaming, and laughing in the water. At the same time a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of people whom they and their descendants, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earthy.
The intended meaning of the final reflection is opaque. The juxtaposition of the image of happy mothers and children would seem to suggest that Parkman senses that a way of life is about to be lost. At the same time, Parkman surrenders to the plodding progress, however unlovely by comparison, of the migrants. We might say that the final reflection is not descriptive, but rather prophetic. Parkman cannot claim an empirical certainty, but he can, in a sense, claim something better. He has divined the signs of the times; he has peered into the human heart and seen that the traditional tribal ways of life must invariably be trampled by the progress of cultivation and eventually industry. And barring an act of God, certain things must invariably come to pass.

The quoted passage bears the marks of careful construction. Parkman wants to make a general statement, which sees all of the Great Spirit's children in a true light. But his immediate impressions of the persons that he encounters is not so clear. Not all of his prose is as generous. There are 'squaws of lazy warriors' and 'old women, ugly as Macbeth's witches, with hair streaming loose in the wind.' And one older warrior, he relates, seemed eager to 'barter one of his daughters for my horse.'


Also see: Francis Parkman on The Oregon Trail

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

We are All Chosen People

Europe has blamed the Jews for an encyclopedia of sins. The Church blamed the Jews for killing Jesus; Voltaire blamed the Jews for inventing Christianity. In the febrile minds of anti-Semites, Jews were usurers and well-poisoners and spreaders of disease. Jews were the creators of both communism and capitalism; they were clannish but also cosmopolitan; cowardly and warmongering; self-righteous moralists and defilers of culture. Ideologues and demagogues of many permutations have understood the Jews to be a singularly malevolent force standing between the world and its perfection.
-- 'Is it Time for the Jews to Lave Europe?' The Atlantic Monthly (April 2015)


Set against this backdrop, the topic I want to broach may seem innocuous. Namely: that 'being chosen' is a 'serious' issue that the 'chosen people' must confront.

Most will think words overheard at a self-important academic conference, or skimmed over in another career-minded career publication, hardly worthy of comment. No doubt they are right.

Still, the sentiment (which may be growing in the ranks of academia, though I can only produce anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the point) surprised me enough to have stuck in my head.

The essence of the sentiment is that the next thing Judaism must deal with is with the idea that the Jewish people are 'chosen.' The import of the adjective 'next,' of course, is temporal: if the Jewish people are to keep up with the times, they must confront the exclusivity of their traditional inheritance. Presumably they can keep their ritual practices, but the intellectual moorings of those practices have to go. Those mooring aren't compatible with our secular modernity.

Surprised? I was. It's not that I don't see the logic of the argument. A religiously plural outlook will naturally be uncomfortable with even the slightest hint of exclusivism. But, call me naive, I had assumed that Judaism peculiar form of exclusivism stacked up pretty well on a secular balance against other religious traditions like, say, Christianity or Islam.

Imperial, missionary, Christianity gets in your face and under your skin. God became human being and commanded his followers to preach the good news to everyone, whether they want to hear about it or not. Militant, fundamentalist, Islam is the next big threat to the comfortable secular order. God spoke in Arabic the truth of peace through submission, which everyone needs to hear, again, whether they want to or not.

Judaism's outlook seems tame by comparison. Sure, it is exclusive, in the sense that God's claims the Jewish people as his own. But they are not particularly in your face about it. Christians want you to get baptized. Muslim want you to recite the Shahada. Jews aren't saying the same thing about circumcision.

Judaism inculcates the charitable attitude of we will do our thing, and you do your thing, and we will both be better for it. The basic structure of the attitude fits with God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, where he says, I will bless you to Abraham's progeny, and the whole world will be blessed through you--just by being you.

So how did the Jewish version of religious exclusivism even rate a seemingly serious and concerned comment? My confusion was doubled since this is not the sort of thing you are supposed say in polite company. The Holocaust? That was not so long ago. Saying Judaism has to give up its particular version of exclusivism verges on blaming the Jews for their troubles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees, among other things, the freedom of religion and conscience? That was formulated, in large measure, in response to the human capacity to run roughshod over human peculiarities and specificities, among which Jewish experience in the run-up to and during WWII seems to quintessential expression.

I should put my Christian credentials on the table. Judaism interests me primarily so that I can understand Jewish people; to understand the difference between how a Christian understands Judaism and how a Jew understand Judaism. My interest may seem rather abstract, but it goes to the heart of the question of peculiarly human differences: the difference between what I think of another person in relation to myself, and what they think of themselves. As I am not myself Jewish. Judaism does not and cannot interest me for its own sake--which brings us to this post.

Judaism is the canary in the goldmine of Western civilization, a Jewish friend of mine said to me. I agree completely. Regardless what your political sentiments are regarding the nation of Israel from one moment to the next, how one regards the concept of Judaism does seem to function as a sort of intellectual bellweather.

Now, I am most emphatically not claiming, as some 'dispensationalist' Evangelical Christians might claim, that the Jewish people must occupy the land of Israel, must occupy the Temple Mount, and must build a new temple; all of which can be taken as 'signs' of the end-times.

The last drops of humanity have long since been drained from contemporary dispensationalism. I recall that the only time I saw my grandfather (on my dad's side of the family) cry was while he read the Book of Revelation at the supper table. He closed the Bible, unable to finish the passage. I asked him why. He whispered hoarsely about the 'terrible things that must come.'

I can't be sure whether he was referring to the coming sufferings of the righteous at the hands of the wicked, or to the sufferings of humanity in more general terms. (I was never clear to which version of dispensationalism he subscribed.) But, having some experience of poverty and war, he could empathize with the coming sufferings of at least some other people. Not so with contemporary 'dispensationalists.' Their attitudes towards suffering in the coming apocalypse have the moral depth of a first-person shooter video-game. They state matter-of-factly that in order for prophecy to be fulfilled, lots of people are going to have to die--including a lot of Jews. They appear not to notice that their Jewish Lord never smiles kindly upon such gruesome nonchalance.

My claim accords much more closely with a quote that my memory attributes, perhaps in error, to G.K. Chesterton's The New Jerusalem (1921): the Jewish people are exactly like everyone else, only a little more so.

This idea rests in the firm conviction that Judaism has its notion of religious exclusivity--but then so does every outlook on life, religious or otherwise. The Jewish difference is to see this as a fundamental fact of human life, and to work with it. The Jewish people may claim to be chosen God. But everyone, in this sense, is chosen by a Someone or a Something.

The Jewish difference, again, is carry around a collective memory of being chosen by a Someone (explicitly not a Something) who admonishes them for thinking they are any better than anyone else, who reminds them that they are only human.

Most other outlooks appear intent on leveling exclusive identities. They contain a barely suppressed conceit that everybody else ought to see the world as we see the world, think about the world as we think about the world, and act in ways that we understand as rational. The academic sentiment that insists that 'being chosen' is a 'serious' issue that the 'chosen people' must confront falls squarely into this category.

Indeed, most communities have seen fit to hold their outlook over other communities, or over minority communities within their bounds. And within communities, some will hold this over the rest of the members. Conform, or suffer the consequences of being left out, is the usual refrain. The claim to be chosen is what makes the majority communities and the elites within a community 'better' than the rest; and so belonging to the majority elite the best of all. Imperial Britain had its 'white man's burden.' The United States of American has its Manifest Destiny. China remains the Middle Kingdom. These are only the most obvious examples: the list could go on. (I couldn't think of an example for Canada.)

I will briefly mention Karl Marx' 'On the Jewish Question' (1843) and Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939) to confirm the point. Both works make roughly the same claim: the Jewish people have failed to universalize their particular historical consciousness, which prevents them from fully participating in our secular modernity. For Marx, this means it is a legitimate question whether Jews, as Jews, can be full participants in the modern state. For Freud, this means a pathological guilt remains lodged in Jewish consciousness for the death of Moses, which manifests itself as a deviant attachment to religious ritual, and a desire for a new Moses, a messiah.

Both Marx and Freud, of course, had Jewish backgrounds. Their positions, in some sense, were personal attempts to make sense of their personal histories. But the form of their arguments is very easily turned to much more sinister purposes.

The depravity of contemporary anti-Semitism, even the sort that masquerades as enlightened opinion, is precisely this: what it despises in Judaism it actually despises in itself, and displaces it onto Judaism. It is driven by the inordinate desire to be more than human, to transcend the peculiarities that define us, which ends with what Augustine called the libido dominandi, the desire to dominate others. That is what makes it so disquieting.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Consciousness Was Never A Problem

The so-called 'hard problem' of consciousness was never a problem. With all the claims being made by neuroscientists these days, we might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

The problem of consciousness is currently presented as the problem of how material objects--certain bodies--are conscious at all. Consciousness, the problem states, is not something one would expect in a material object. Stones aren't conscious. Dirt isn't conscious. A river isn't conscious. And it is doubtful that plants, insects, and other 'lower' forms of organism are conscious in the sense that we speak about it in ourselves.

When we get to the larger-brained organism, however, we start to see glimmers of what we would call consciousness. When we get to ourselves, we stare at the problem in the face.

So, the natural next question to ask is, how does a subjective experience of the world arise in the matter of the brain? I can look at my brain, but I will not see my subjective experience of self reflected in it. My subjective experience belongs to me. It is always and everywhere my experience. My brain is a highly decentralized system, on the other hand, with no corresponding objective center that could explain why my disparate subjective experience is mine.

If the psychologist Susan Blackmore, who wrote the Oxford University Press' Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction (2005), is to be believed, 'No one has yet succeeded in bridging the fathomless abyss, the great abyss or the explanatory gap between inner and outer, mind and brain, or subjective and objective.'

Blackmore belongs to a school of thought that thinks about the problem of consciousness in the following terms: Consciousness is an emergent property that arises from matter in the natural history of our evolutionary development.  Ten million years ago one would not encounter consciousness as we presently understand it. Ten million years from now what we call consciousness will have continued to evolve beyond our present ability to recognize. In the same sense, though on a much shorter time-scale, a thousand years ago, no human being actually understood what was at stake in the problem of consciousness. Today, she says, we are for the first time beginning to grasp just how deep the problem runs. What about a thousand years from now? Well, who knows? We may finally understand consciousness. Or we may have a whole new set of questions to answer.

But the problem of consciousness, as I stated at the outset, is not a problem--at least, it is not a problem on the terms it is presently stated. The present discussion as it appears in the philosophy of neuroscience wonders how it is possible for consciousness to arise in a material object. In the present discussion, you would be hard pressed to find a philosopher of neuroscience who would admit that the fact they are a material object--a body--is of any consequence.

The point may seem so basic as to be unimportant, and so not even worth mentioning, I know. But it goes to the heart of the matter: to what one supposes oneself to be studying and to how one supposes oneself to study it.

The problem of consciousness is presently stated in universal empirical terms. It asks how the human race became consciousness in the course of its evolutionary history. For most of the history of the universe, there was no such thing as consciousness. Then we came along.

But the only place a human being ever encounters consciousness is in themselves and in other beings like themselves. Stated in slightly different terms: persons only ever encounter consciousness individually; that is to say, never in abstraction from bodies which are conscious.

Not to put too fine a point on it: I am--this body is--conscious. And the first thing that I notice is that I must be conscious--this individual body must be conscious--in order to ask how the human race became conscious in the course of its evolutionary history.

Seen from this perspective--and what other perspective could there be?--the problem of consciousness does not concern how a subjective experience of the world fits with the objective matter of the brain.

No. The problem of consciousness instead concerns how the subjective experience of the world and the objective matter of the brain fall apart.

Again: I am--this body and its brain are--conscious. I have a subjective experience of the world, yes. The nature of that subjective experience is such that it always seems to be tethered to this body and its brain. My 'mind' can wander through thoughts that seem to arisen unbidden by any conscious motive. My 'mind' might wander through different places and times in memory. My 'mind' might even wander, like Susan Blackmore's wanders, up and down the course of humanity's evolutionary history. Certainly.

I, nonetheless, am this body, stuck in this particular place and time, sitting in front of a computer, wondering how to best draw this post to a conclusion. If you ask which part of this body is closest to what I am, I would point to my forehead--between, and slightly above my eyes, behind which you find the cerebral cortex.

So consciousness was never a problem. I have a subjective experience of being this body. My subjective experience may present itself as something more than this body, but it is never anything less than this body. The proof, it seems to me, is that when this body dies, my subjective experience of the world will also cease.

And that is the real problem. Bodies die all the time. But aside from the fact that I am this body, there is nothing, it seems to me, in my singular, subjective experience of the world that suggests it should come ever to an end.

This, no doubt, is what Plato had in mind when he described the soul's descent into the body and ascent from the body at the moment of death.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Francis Parkman on The Oregon Trail

In the spring of 1846, a young Francis Parkman, two months out of Harvard College law school, set out with his cousin from St. Louis up the Missouri River and onto the Oregon Trail.

The outbreak of the Civil War was still fifteen years in the future, though the steady movement of people west that would precipitate the conflict between a statist, slave-holding South and a federalist, slavery-abolishing North was in full swing. The Mexican-American War would begin in May, after Mexico contested the borders of the Republic of Texas, drawing the United States into the conflict. California would also rebel against Mexico in June, and be incorporated into the United States later in July.  The boundary through the Oregon Territory, which had been open to both American and British interests since 1818, was settled at the 49 parallel between the Rocky Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The only exception was Vancouver Island, which remained entirely in British hands, though its southern tip dipped below the 49 parallel. Texas officially entered the union, when Mexico finally relinquished its claim two years later, around the same time gold was discovered in California.

The timing of Parkman's journey was therefore auspicious. He passed through St. Louis, a gateway into the west, just as the United States was consolidating its present Continental boundaries

The official reason given for the journey was 'curiosity and amusement.' Parkman harboured a more serious intent, though. He had resolved to write a history of France and England in North America through the 17th and 18th centuries, up to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham above Quebec City in 1759, which saw the expulsion of French authority from North America. He required, he believed, a better acquaintance with the native peoples' ways of life. The tribes around New England had lived too long in the presence of Anglo-American 'society to afford him much insight. In order to write such a history, he wanted to observe native people whose material conditions were that much closer to those in previous centuries back in the east.

St. Louis was bustling with activity when he arrived. In The Oregon Trail (1847), a personal memoir of sorts, and his first publication, he describes 'emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon or California...[and] an unusual number of trades were making ready their wagons and outfits for Sante Fe.' 'The hotels were crowded, and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work...Almost every day steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri.'

Parkman's description of his surroundings, and the persons that he encountered, are striking for their attention to detail. The degree of care he paints pictures with his pen gives readers a clue to his intention. He is self-consciously making an eye-witness report. So vivid is his description that, with an little stretch of the imagination, the reader can almost see through his eyes. No doubt, this was his intention.

Parkman tells, among others, of 'thirty or forty slavish looking-Spaniards, gazing stupidly from beneath their broad caps,' 'crouching over a smouldering fire...Indians from a remote Mexican tribe,' and 'one or two French hunters from the mountains, with their long hair and buckskin dresses.' It is hardly possible, of course, that these are summary descriptions capture perfect images. Parkman was known for possessing a strong memory. Still, it is not difficult to see stereotypes just beneath the surface of the text, helping to organize the narrative.

About a week out and 500 miles from the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, where it enters the Mississippi River, Parkman met up with a captain from the British army, his Irish brother, and an English gentlemen, who were on a hunting expedition.

The captain seems left a strong impression on Parkman. He and his companions had waited for a week or more in the town of Westport (today a suburb of Kansas City, south of the Missouri River, just east of the border with Kansas, which was still a territory at the time), hoping to add to their number be setting out. When they finally did set out again, a storm almost immediately blew up on them, and left them soaked to the skin. Parkman recounted, 'The Captain was one of the most easy-tempered men in existence, so he bore his ill-luck with great composure, shared the dregs of coffee with his brother, and lay down to sleep in his wet clothes.'

A hurried reader is likely to miss the fact that Parkman and his cousin stayed behind, while captain and his companions have gone on ahead. This raises a question about how he could have sketched such an intimate portrait.

Did he faithfully report detail that the captain later related to him? which raises the possibility that the captain embellished upon events in order to present himself in a certain life. Did he reconstruct what might have happened based on general impressions of the captain? In that case, some of the details can be doubted. The value of Parkman's book as a strict eye-witness account may be in doubt. 

The obvious answer to these questions is that Parkman relates information he received at a later time and fills in the details. The more likely answer, it seems to me, is that he reconstructs the situation based on later impressions of the captain's character. The difference between the two options, of course, comes down to a matter of perspective. And from one point of view, these are simply two sides of the same coin. But the text leaves ample reason to suppose Parkman took literary license where actual information was absent.

The character of the captain fits a recognizable trope in literature most recently employed in George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman (1834). He is the sort of career soldier who always needs to be sharing his inexhaustible wealth of military knowledge in order to feel useful. Had he fought in the First World War, he would have taken his tea during a artillery barrage, or just before going over the top, in order to settle his stomach. Had he served in India during the Raj, you would find him on the roadside breakfasting with his Indian servant, explaining the meaning of the Gita, which remained hidden until British common sense discerned its true import.

Once off the river and onto the Oregon Trail, Parkman and his cousin join up with the captain Parkman describes how, 'In defiance of the rain, he was stalking among the horses, wrapped in an old Scotch plaid.' The next morning, as their wagon train reaches a river bank, Parkman relates the following conversation:
"Now my advice is--" began the Captain, who had been anxiously contemplating the muddy gulf.
"Drive on!" cried R.
But Wright, the muleteer, apparently had not as yet decided the point in his own mind; and he sat still in his seat on one of the shaft-mules, whistling in a low contemplative strain to himself.
'My advice is,' resumed the Captain, "that we unload; for I bet any man five pounds that if we try to go through we shall stick fast."
"By the powers, we shall stick fast!" echoed Jack, the Captain's brother, shaking his large head with an air of firm conviction.
"Drive on! drive on!" cried R., petulantly.
"Well," observed the Captain, turning to us as we sat looking on, much edified by this play by play among our confederates, "I can only give my advice, and if people won't be reasonable, why they won't, that's all!"
In the event, the captain's advice proved correct. The company was forced to unload their wagon, in order to dig it out. Though he narrates it, Parkman seemingly takes no note of the fact.

The party continued its way along the Oregon trail. Needing something to apply his 20 years of military experience to, the captain fretted over the wagon train's disorderly and defenseless procession. 'We have no sentinels; we camp in disorder; no precautions at all to guard against surprise. My own conviction is that we ought to camp in a hollow square, with fires at the centre [sic]; and have sentinels and a regular password appointed every night.'

Parkman, in passing, comments, 'But his convictions seldom produced any practical results. In the present case he contented himself, as usual, with enlarging on the importance of his suggestions, and wondering why they were not adopted.' The captain was insensible to the objections of apparently wiser heads, who pointed out that, not only had they not crossed into hostile territory, and when they did, it was foolish to mount a defense in the case of an attack. Lives, if not possessions, that way could be preserved.

Contemporary readers of The Oregon Trail are likely to seize on Parkman's prejudices, of which there are many. But even prejudice can be put to good use.

The first use to giving Parkman's prejudice free reign is that allows readers to view the plains through the eye of a contemporary New Englander. The author is himself situated in the objective frame; and rather than continually drawing back to reflect on what the author thought about this or that happening, he is shown thinking in situ. The second, and what I believe is the more significant, use is that it gives Parkman's narrative geographical breadth and temporal depth.

Parkman's stereotypes leaves holes in his narrative that readers, if they had the time, could fill in with further reading. We know the captain served in the British military for 20 years. Where did he serve? In what capacity? What about his English gentleman companion? What brought them to the Oregon Territory?

Similar questions can be asked of every one of his characters: French-Canadian trappers, Spanish traders, American boatmen, Indian tribesmen, and, of course, the endless stream of migrants. The cumulative effect is to suggest much more than the narrative itself can actually say.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Is God Infinite, and (Why) Does it Matter?

The short answer is that the God of classical theism is infinite, and that it doesn't matter. The longer answer explains why it doesn't matter. Let's look at the longer answer first.

Metaphysical speculation is an infamously useless endeavour. But perhaps even more infamously, people still get paid to engage in it. (This does not include me.) Though genuinely confusing to those whose minds are more inclined to the natural sciences--what does it matter, after all, how many angels dance on the head of a needle?--it only takes a moment to realize that what metaphysicians are actually paid for is not the product of their speculation, but everything else that goes on around it. They teach students, for example, to 'critically' engage with the writings of others, an invaluable sort of persistent patience to engage with another person's arguments.

Such a 'critical' training may not, of course, serve an obvious utilitarian purpose, nor is it easily monetizable (for which reason it may be said to be invaluable). But it is, or at least it should be, conducive to the general leavening of an educated society with good manners and civil graces.

This is a tall claim. What exactly do I mean by it?

The common wisdom of today is that metaphysical speculation instills violent hatreds and provokes violence. Isn't metaphysical speculation what the resurgence of religious fundamentalism is all about?

I mean something like the following: Understanding what another person means is often tough going. Understanding what I myself think about this or that issue can often be even tougher going. And it does not take a speculative metaphysician of any advanced degree to realize other people are not likely to have a perfectly transparent understanding of things either. If I have difficultly understanding other persons and more difficulty understanding myself, so should other persons.

Metaphysical speculation, then, ought to be conducive to a general sense of intellectual modesty. Take, for example, the much maligned question about how many angels can dance on the head of a needle. I am not sure how many angels can dance on a needle head. I am also not sure why someone would think the question an important one to answer. But I can be very sure that I will never find out if I dismiss the question out of hand because it fails to conform to my idea of what can possibly be true. Hence, for the sake of understanding other person's better, I stifle my deep-seated need to dismiss such inquiries as manifest nonsense.*

These are valuable skills in their own rights to cultivate; and it is a good thing the institutional memory of higher academics continues to allow persons to pursue, if only for the sake of general literacy and mutual comprehension.

The question about whether God is infinite fits this same bill. How the question is answered will be more revealing about what they think about themselves than it ever will be about the speculative metaphysical entity that we have collectively agreed to name God. This is the first sense in which God is infinite, but, in itself, it does not matter.

My musings here are prompted by Stephen Webb's attempt to answer the question, Is God Really Infinite? over at First Things. Webb engages with recent and contemporary contributions to number theory. He wonders if there is any way to show that the classical theist God's infinity is bigger than Graham's number, a number so big that if each Planck volume in the universe contained a single digit, it could still not be contained. He comes around in the end, after invoking the authority of Anselm, Goeffrey Cantor, Aristotle, and much less well-known 20th century theologian Erich Przywara, to the conclusion that God might not be infinite, but our possible knowledge of him certainly is.

Webb's conclusion illustrates something of the point that I want to make; namely, that our answer to the question says more about ourselves than it ever does about a transcendent Divinity.

The idea of infinity is generally considered a numerical version of a limiting concept. The latter is any idea that we have in our heads that corresponds to nothing in reality (pace Immanuel Kant), and serves only to designate what cannot be thought. So, for example, I observe many things in the world, but I never observe world itself. The world is never something in the world. Hence, my idea of the world can only ever be a limiting concept.

Mathematicians can debate the finer points about whether it is possible to think the number infinity. The general wisdom is that you cannot actually think infinity. That is to say, it is not possible for me to hold in the finite 'space' of my attention the complete series of whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4...n). Why not? Because my attention fastens itself to one number after another, and maybe a couple numbers at a time, but not the complete series of whole numbers simultaneously.

Mathematicians might propose a formula that allows you to think infinity, such that if you let your mind grasp the circularity of the formula, you can, so to speak, think infinity. But this is different than actually thinking infinity, which is to think complete series of whole numbers simultaneously. Since my mind must move ploddingly along from 1 to 2, and 2 to 3, and 3 to 4, there is just no way for me to do that.

Webb sees as much where he says, 'The problem with this judgment is that infinity—as in, God is infinitely unknowable—does not admit to degrees. An infinite God is not like an unimaginably large number that we could count to if only we had enough time.'

This is a promising line of inquiry, though Webb does not explore it in any great depth. If he had, he might have come to some surprising conclusions about himself.

It seems, on the one hand, that we can form the 'limiting concept' of infinity, the simultaneous possession of the complete set of whole numbers; but, on the other hand, we can't actually think the complete set of whole numbers simultaneously. The reason is ready-to-hand: our finite attention constrained to move from moment to moment through time. This movement of time is utterly indifferent to what I might want. I might want to speed it up, or slow it down; but while my perception of the rate of time's movement can vary by degrees (especially in cases of boredom, anxeity, utter serenity), I can still know that its rate of movement has not changed by reference to some external measuring device, like a clock. The movement of time constrains me to count numbers in sequence.

So let's grant that God is infinite in the sense that he possesses in his infinite attention the complete set of whole numbers. Does it matter if he is? Well no, but it does reveal something about myself/ourselves.

It draws attention to the fact that all my thinking is conditioned by the movement of time--or what we a materialist like Thomas Hobbes could call the 'trayne of thoughts'. I have an idea, or a limiting concept, that is analogous to the simultaneous possession of the complete set of whole numbers. But my attention is otherwise stretched out through a series of successive moments that extends backwards into the past and reaches forward into the future. These are counted in their slow succession through every single present moment.

So, God of classical theism is infinite, yes; but the only way this could mean anything to me is if I were not stuck counting moments as they pass me by.

And I am stuck counting moments as they pass me by.


*The question about how many angels can dance on the head of a needle regards how a purely intellectual being like an angel is said to exist. The question intends to ask are intellectual beings (like angels, the human mind, and God) extended in space like physical bodies are extended in space. A needle is spatially extended, while angels are not. So the question is nonsensical in the precise terms that it is stated. But far from being utterly silly, it anticipates what I have termed here a 'limiting concept.'

Monday, March 09, 2015

'Science-Based' or 'Data-Driven' Public Policy

I wrote just last week about how belief in God and belief in evolution have been markers of communal identity. To clarify what I meant, I want to add that these two sorts of belief are markers of communal identity in the following sense: in the popular discourse, what is being debated is whether the next person is ‘right-thinking,’ whether they can be trusted, whether they belong to ‘our’ community, or not. That is to say, belief in God and/or belief in evolution stands for a whole constellation of ways of thinking about things, which gives one person a good idea about whether they are likely to have anything to say to the next person, whether they are going to agree with them on many issues, whether they see the world the same way that I do.


The converse is also true: what is not being debated is whether God exists or not, or whether the theory of evolution is true or not. The sort of people who *actually* engage with these specific questions are exceptionally small in number. They can usually be found on university campus. They are usually reasonably well-dressed. And when they make a public appearance, it is most often in front of a classroom full of students. As for the rest of us, including the classroom full of students, we absorb what they have to say for ourselves. But this is different than engaging in these rarefied debates for ourselves.

This time, I want to adjust my focus on how belief in science (and by this I mean something that includes, but is more general, than belief in evolution) is indicative of a breakdown of civic participation and civil discourse. It seems to me that if markers of communal identity express themselves anywhere, it is in our political outlooks: in the sorts of things we think our political masters ought to be concerned about, how they ought to think about those concerns, and what they ought to do about them. Belief in science, which expresses itself in calls for ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy, reveals our underlying distrust in other persons with whom we share the world. We no longer want to, know how to, or care to—and perhaps we never did—trust each other to engage in good faith.

Appeals to ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy cuts across party lines.The prestige that science possesses in the Western world has meant that different groups makes different appeal to science, in the abstract, to justify their particular stances. The recent uproar over the declining level of measles immunization in the general population is case in point. I will stick to a Canadian example, though I suspect the general point can be inflated many times over in the United States.

A could of weeks ago, the Conservative government of Canada roundly condemned the negligence of parents who had not immunized their children. The Health Minister Rona Ambrose, while scrumming with reporters, was verbally and visibly frustrated, even even to the point of shaking with anger, with parents who had not vaccinated their children. Why? For no other reason than that the scientific evidence was so clear on the matter. And how could they be so selfish not to listen to what the science has to say? This is, of course, the same government that sits lightly to the one side with regards to the scientific evidence for climate change. But I will leave hornet’s nest alone for the moment.

The idea of ‘science-based’ or ‘data-driven’ public policy scares the bejesus out of me. In most cases, and in the measles case specifically, I am completely on board with the putting the scientific findings into practice. My difficulty is with the argument itself. The idea that an entire country ought to do something because the scientific evidence was so clear on the matter is functionally equivalent to claiming that an entire country ought to do something because God said so.

With belief in science, as with belief in God, some mere mortal tells the rest of us, on no uncertain terms, to sit down and shut up because science has said so. But, of course, science says no such thing.

The claim that we ought to do something because science says so is effectively a show stopping argument. It brooks no dissent. Belief in science may possess the allure of being democratic, in a way that belief in God does not. Science is supposed to be objective and verifiable, and so is supposed to belong to everyone in the same way. But that is not really how things work. Scientific knowledge is born of a hypothesis that has been tested and verified by persons who have reasons of their own. The hypothesis is constructed for reasons that transcends merely scientific determination or justification. And the conclusion that one draws is essentially factual and provisional, and has absolutely to say about how it is going to be applied.

Scientific conclusions are always morally and politically ‘under-determined.’ The science may say that an increase in the number of vaccinated children increases the likelihood that someone catches measles. But that is all it can say. It says nothing, for example, about why this is a bad thing (even if it is a bad thing). That conclusion the persons have to supply for themselves.

I would go so far as to suggest that a claim that the scientific evidence is clear on the matter in the context of a public policy discussion is as dubious, as charlatan-ly, as barely concealed attempts at gaming the political system made by advocates of religious freedom. My reasoning is thus: the person who says ‘we’ ought to do thus and such because science says so refuses to engage ‘us’ as persons who are collectively engaged in the communal enterprise of nation-building.

They talk down to ‘us’ from on high, shaming ‘us’ into submission. They do not try to persuade of the goodness of their proposed course of action. They make no attempt to appeal to the ‘better angels of our nature.’ They do not ask ‘us’ to pursue a course of action for the common good.

They treat ‘us’ instead like unruly individuals, ultimately seeking our own ends, even at our neighbour’s ultimate expense, who must be coerced to submit. In other words, they treat us as mere objects, when they should be treating us as equals.

And in a democratic country, this is a load of horse-hockey. No doubt the Ms. Ambrose was correct that parent’s should be immunizing their children. The reason she offered, however, were at best cynical; and, at the very worst, they perpetuated the same lack of concern for one’s fellow citizens as not immunizing your children.

The translation of scientific theory into public policy must confront the inevitably variegated and duplicitous character of human intention. Scientific conclusions lay down no rules, sets out no moral standards, has no political goals. People, on the other hand, do all of these things for what are more or less self-interested reasons.

Since scientific claims are various and sundry, as numerous even as the stars in the night-sky, different groups can cherry-pick their favourites. They can make them say almost whatever they want. And, given that scientific conclusion are contingent—which is to say, only ever suggestive—there is nothing in the claim itself to give it moral or political force.

What is needed is the sort of civic discourse that does not begin with an argument ending appeal to an authority that knows nothing ‘our’ concerns. We the people, to borrow an American euphemism, must be persuaded that perfect strangers are stronger when the stand together than when they individually pursue their self-determined courses of action. The public policy advisers must make the case that both our individual and collective self-interest is served by acting in the interests of others.

But sadly, it seems that our masters have forgotten how to speak the language of the common good and the public interest. All I can see is technocrats to the left, and plutocrats to the right; and here I am, stuck in the middle, alone with my thoughts.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Belief in God and/or Belief in Evolution

Today belief and God and belief in evolution have become markers of communal identity. They have come, in popular discourse, to define the boundaries of 'right-thinking.' They tell us whether we are likely to agree with a person, and that person can be trusted.

Those who believe in God cannot abide the moral relativism implied by the theory of evolution. Those who believe in evolution decry the pretense involved in human being supposing themselves to speak on behalf of divinity, which may or may not exist; and if it does, is unlikely look or sound like a bigger versions of his self-righteous followers; and if it does this too, can hardly be worthy of our adoration. One side says that we need a transcendent principle, like God, from which to derive a coherent morality, or all is lost. The other side says that if we, all of us merely human beings, derive our morality from a transcendent principles, we do violence to our fellow human beings.

And if there is a middle ground between the two possibilities, it is occupied by persons (like me) talk too much to be trusted. The simplest answer is usually best answer. Anyone who needs more than three minutes to explain themselves obviously spends too much time thinking, and not enough engaging with the practical everyday of human life to be of much use.

Current discussions about the 'the relationship between science and religion' fall out in roughly the terms that I have described here. The public discussion is clearly polarized. The academic discussion skews heavily towards a single pole: to treat religion as an object of scientific inquiry. Tenured exceptions talk a great length, increasingly to no effect, about why the question is actually more complicated than people are making it out to be. Non-tenured exceptions (like myself) worry that they are committing intellectual hari kari by not aligning themselves with one side or the other.

Even a reasonably well-endowed private organization like the John Templeton Foundation, which ostensibly has a positive view of religion, seems intent on reducing it to merely empirical description. And while public funding organizations are a little more tolerant of projects that are more 'literate,' and less 'scientific,' in their orientation, the winds have shifted there as well. The headwinds are strong; the situation is not favourable to tack against them.

Having taught a class on 'Religion and the Natural Sciences,' I have more than a little invested in the debate. Over the few years of engaging with students, my own thinking has been clarified about what exactly it is that should seen as being at stake. The contemporary discourse is much too 'objectively' oriented. It demands to know if God exists, if evolution is true, and how, if at all, the two might fit together. It treats the question in abstract. But the real question, it seems to me, has to with in what sense belief in God and belief in evolution are comparable. In other words, it is not God and/or evolution that are at issue, but with the nature of belief itself.

Belief (and the fact that communal identities and moral stances seem to flow from it) is the common denominator. And if you say as much, it is almost as if the terms of the discussion change. I say almost as if because the terms of the discussion have not actually changed. They are seen, however, in a very different light.

For example, what could it possibly mean to say that 'I believe in evolution'? A scientific theory does not cease to serve its explanatory function if I stop believing in it. It is true insofar as it is able to account for the facts in question. And the theory of evolution is true given that it is the best account of the empirical evidence that we have available to us. A person can say, 'I don't believe in evolution.' But that changes nothing about the its ability to account for the facts. And insofar as this is true, the theory of evolution is true, regardless what you or I or someone else might believe about it. (Or someone presents a better theory to account for the facts.)

The same sort of consideration applies to claiming 'I believe in God.' If God is the sort of being described in the sacred religious texts, he does not wait for me to believe in him in order to exist. His existence (or lack thereof) owes nothing to my desire that thus and such be the case. If the sacred texts are to be believed, precisely the opposite is the case. My existence is contingent upon God's 'belief,' so to speak, in me.

By making this a zero-sum game about belief in God or belief in evolution, we actually suppose far more about our own selves than we ever did about evolution or God. Belief in God and belief in evolution, in fact, are false equivalents. The problem with the contemporary discourse, both in the popular press and in the academy, is that it cannot see as much.

What could it possibly mean, after all, to say that 'I believe in God' in the same sense that someone else believes in evolution? Belief in God doesn't admit empirical verification like 'belief' in evolution. The evolutionary biologist can point to the fossils record, comparable physiological structures, shared genetic material, and so on. What evidence does the theologian have to offer? Certainly nothing physical. The theologian can point to sacred texts extolling the wisdom of God in creation or waxing eloquent on the wonders of what he has made. Such texts convey a deep sense of God's presence in the natural world. But a natural scientist will very soon point out the obvious difficulty with all such accounts: we can observe all the natural things they talk about, but God is nowhere to be found.

Now, someone like Richard Dawkins has argued that this is proof positive that God, in fact, does not exist. We can observe natural phenomena; but we cannot observe God. Ergo, God does not exist. But this, I contend, is to avoid the basic issue; namely, the nature of our belief.

The contemporary discourse could stand to reflect more carefully on what it is that scientists actually do and what it is that the sacred texts actually claim.

A scientist begins by dividing the world up into little pieces. Individual scientists (or laboratories of scientists) focus specific pieces. From those parts the scientific community builds up a picture of the whole. So of course the scientist never gets around to questions regarding religion, which begins with ideas like God has created the whole world.

On the other hand, a sacred text like the Bible quite literally tells you that God creates the whole world. The texts also prohibits drawing any false equivalence between God and the world. Do worship an idol in the form of anything in the heavens above, the earth beneath, or the waters below. God will not be found in any one of the little pieces; and if he is, in some way, shape, or form, he won't be contained there. The Qur'an makes an essentially comparable claim. If you go a little further afield, Hindu and Buddhist texts also struggle with the problem of false equivalence, which they answer in their own ways.

This is not yet to say, of course, that science has a 'limited sphere of inquiry' or that God definitively exists. It is to say, on the other hand, a person's belief in evolution ought not to be placed alongside another person's belief in God.

If people persist in doing so, that is only because they overestimate what their belief in evolution or in God can accomplish in the first place.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic?

This is a question that has garnered a large amount of press in the last few weeks. The cover article in The Atlantic's monthly print edition, 'What ISIS Really Wants' (March 2105) played the part of catalyst.

The article was written by Grame Wood, a Canadian journalist who has written for The New Yorker, The Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. Reaction was almost instantaneous. News feeds exploded with more or less--sometime more and sometimes less, in my estimation--credible reactions to Wood's claim that there is something deeply Islamic about the 'ideology' or 'worldview' that inspires the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIL, which stands, more broadly, for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Certain more radical strains of politically conservative and liberal punditry seized on the idea that ISIS was deeply Islamic. For what were naturally different reasons. Conservative commentators wanted to see something deficient in Islam itself to explain its inability to be modern, Western and European, to generate the institutions that support civil society, to develop the rule of law. Liberal commentators saw Islam as inherently patriarchal, oppressive, or, at least, repressive, and saw ISIS as only the most recent expression of this. Other, more centrist positions, call for a more moderate interpretations with a measured reticence like President Obama, who is staunchly opposed to identifying ISIS with Islam. For some, most likely pragmatic, raison d'etat, he opted to use the label of 'violence extremism.'

Of course, this does not exhaust all the possibilities. An article in Salon, usually a more radical, left-leaning news source, by Haroon Mughal was titled 'The Atlantic's Big Islam Lie: What Muslims Really Believe about ISIS.' The article described the recent history of the region that birthed ISIS, highlighting the United States' disruptive influence in the region. It also made the important point that the vast majority of Muslims, in fact, do oppose ISIS' extremism. If the group has been able to flourish, that has more to do with the lack of legitimate local authority to check the its growth and progress. The disruptive influence of the United States, again, has played no small part. Fareed Zakarai addressed Wood's contentions on his Sunday morning CNN show, Global Public Square. In a related article, 'The Limits of the "Islamic" Label,' he makes the point that 'many Islamic State leaders believe their ideology.' But if we only understand the ideology, we will never what motivates individuals to become extremist.

I myself am of two minds on the question. I think ISIS is Islamic insofar as it deviates from the Islamic norm; but insofar as ISIS deviates from the norm, it is not Islamic. Clear-thinking persons, who insist on the absolute validity of the principle of non-contradiction, may accuse me of positing a doctrine of double-truth. However, the reason that I am of two minds is really quite straight forward. The question has two possible answers, one factual and the other normative. ISIS is Islamic insofar as its language, the authorities to which it appeals, and its general ethos are Islamic. But ISIS is not Islamic insofar as most persons and groups, including those within the region, that self-identify as Muslim reject its claims.

The matter can perhaps be stated more clearly in these terms: the Islamic community broadly conceived, or what Muslims know as the Ummah, has existed since the 7th century, and can today count around 1.6 billion members, in its various fractious manifestations. ISIS, as an infinitesimal part of that larger whole, has been around for a couple of years; it's numbers are maybe in the tens of thousands. Now it is simply inconceivable that ISIS stands for the Islamic community as a whole. ISIS is a flash-bang in the frying-pan: its extremism is simply not sustainable, and so it's essentially Islamic character (both factually and normatively) must be seriously doubted. The Ummah has lived and will continue live on. ISIS? Not so much.

This, at least, seems to me a credible position to take for a person who is moderately well-informed about the Muslim world. The position balances between the different sort of concerns that crop up whenever one tries to define groups with respect to each other (or with respect to sub-groups or off-shot groups). The act of defining a group presumes some normative identity, whereby we can discriminate what does and does not count as being part of the group. But the definition also has a 'factual' (or actual) point of reference; namely, the persons who are defined as belonging to the group or not.

The problem with the present conversation that has grown up around the Wood's article, it seems to me, is that it misunderstands the essentially communal nature of Islam. As it is with most other classical religious traditions (perhaps with the exception of Greco-Roman traditions of Neoplatonism and Stoicism, which are escapist doctrines), so it is with Islam that theology is sociology. The Christian Church, the Jewish Covenant (or Chosen) Community, and, to a lesser degree, the Buddhist Sangha and the Confucian family, are comparable examples. Doctrine informs of communal way of life, which includes basic moral norms and also ritual practice.

The present conversation in widely-read North American new sources fundamentally misunderstand the communal nature of religion. It bounces back and forth between defining Islam, on the one hand, in abstraction as a body of doctrine, or an outlook; and, on the other hand, as an object of sociological study. Commentators begin by distinguishing theology from sociology, and then try to figure out afterwards how they fit together, with ambiguous, often one-sided success.

This is a very real problem. If theology is sociology, then the definition of Islam will be derived from the entire history of the Ummah, beginning with the Hijra from Mecca to Medina in 622, when the Ummah formally had its beginning. Rather than cherry-pick examples, which can be spun to fit any narrative, the definition will contend the moral arc inscribed a Muslim's account of Islam's own history. But if theology and sociology are first regarded separately, and only afterwards related to each other, then we land in the absurd situation where the question, Is ISIS Islamic? is debated at length and with great sincerity.

The case in point here is Wood's article. The argument of the article can essentially be boiled down to the claim that if it looks like Islam, smells like Islam, and feels like Islam, then it must be Islamic. As Wood commented in a follow-up article, he subjected himself to a rigorous early-morning regime of consuming as much hate-full ISIS propaganda, hoping that the effects would wear off by the evening, so he could sleep. He wanted to inhabit the extremist universe. He noticed that ISIS language borrows heavily from existing Islamic tradition. The apocalyptic language that it employed was especially striking. Wood, at this point, made a genuine contribution to the public discourse on ISIS. What rationale does the organization have for provoking absolutely everyone? They are trying to bring about the end of the world. He points out, 'The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.'

Certainly, this is true. Apocalyptic movements often act in ways that defy the conventional norms of rationality. ISIS does not appear concerned, for example, in the slightest with self-preservation. It wants to be the harbinger of the Last Day. And even though it cannot be sure that it is (such things belong to God alone), it can at least hope.

But Wood's argument gets a little fuzzy at this point, for the reasons I pointed out above. He, if you will, has in his possession a pair of ideas. The first idea is generic conception of Islam, its doctrine and its practice, abstracted from the material record of its history. The second idea he has is of ISIS, both what it claims for itself and what it has actually done, which it has done a very good job of publicizing on its own. One is timeless, for all intents and purposes; the other is in time. He holds them up for readers to see. And he suggests an answer to the question, Is ISIS Islamic?

To his credit, Wood backs away from explicitly calling the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam. Alternative Islamic voices are cited towards the end of the article. But his own position is buried in the later half of the article. Commenting on Salafi preachers, who he sees as an ISIS analog in the West, he says, 'To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win.' That some of his readers have not been so reticent to call the problem of ISIS, the problem of Islam is not surprising. The article moves in the direction, even if it never arrives at the destination.

Wood's opposes an of an abstract idea about Islam to a vanishingly small group of Islamic extremists. In his eyes, the transience of extremist movements and the accumulated wisdom of past generations counts for naught. Human history has no depth; tradition, no weight. Wood quite literally cannot see the Ummah. Everything is made to stand and fall on a single judgment about a tiny group of individuals, in their tiny corner of human history. The question, Is ISIS Islamic? is not only the wrong question; the terms on which it is asked are entirely out of proportion.

The problem that Wood and so many other scholars is that they diagnosis the pathology of extremism by pathologizing religion. They pathologize religion by cutting the human world in two: doctrines and practices go on one side, groups of people go on the other. Where does that leave him? Wood's most recent article, 'What ISIS Really Wants: The Response,' cites as sources actual members of ISIS, who have reacted positively their portrayal. But he does not see the interpretive dilemma.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Idea of the Dissertation

My intention here is to summarize the argument of my dissertation in as unpretentious and straight-forward language as possible. The point is not to 'dumb down' the argument. It might seem that this is what I am proposing to do. But this is the wrong way to think about talking about one's dissertation. One doesn't write a dissertation to cultivate an esoteric form of knowledge, which no one else would understand--so why bother try to talk about it in the first place? One writes at least for a small group of people. So why not try for a larger (admittedly hypothetical) audience?

The subject of my dissertation is the idea of religion that is found in Edward Caird's Gifford Lectures on The Evolution of Religion (1890-2) and The Evolution of Theology (1900-2). Card is mostly unknown today, so a few comments may be helpful to situate him. He held the Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, for 27 years (1866-1893), before finishing off his career (and, it turns out, his life) as the Master of Balliol College in Oxford, in England (1894-1907). He was a main representative of the Scottish branch of the idealist (or, more precisely, the Absolute idealist) tradition of philosophical inquiry. He was a contributor to the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, at a time when individual entries could run many pages in length, which his did. He was a major participant in the Gifford Lecture series (1888-present) in its very earliest years. And, perhaps more importantly, if a little less obviously, he made his name being among the earliest English-speaking persons to write on hugely influential German-language philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Georg W.F. Hegel. He and his contemporary British idealists worked hard to translate their obscure German prose into something a practically-minded Englishmen could comprehend.

Now I want to set all of this information aside, and approach the topic of Caird's work from a different angle. The information is essential, of course, to understanding who Caird was and why he ended up writing the books that he did. The task that I have put myself to here is different, though. What I have in mind is a 'practical' description. Burying the reader in a crush of historical references will be counterproductive.

What do I mean by a 'practical' description? I will develop what I mean, and what I take to be the essential of Caird's thought, in three steps.

First, I will define what Caird thinks it is to be self-conscious: one is conscious of oneself as having a self-conscious experience of the world that is centered on one's own body. While this should not be a stunning revelation to anyone, I am interested in the difference that Caird describes between being conscious of oneself as an individual body and the aims and claims of modern scientific study. He argues that modern science aims at securing 'empirical universality' for its claims, and does not care in the slightest that you or I are individual bodies.

The First Part of the Argument

Second, I will describe how Caird uses this definition of what it means to be a self to draw attention to the fact that you and I, as individual bodies, are not in space and same way that we are in time. This claim, though no less practical, is a little more complex in nature. If you consider that human beings are free to choose whatever direction they want to travel in space (at least as far as your feet or vehicle can take you), but cannot choose what direction they want to travel in time, then you get the general idea. I will spend a little bit of time developing exactly what this entails.

The Second Part of the Argument

Third, I will ask, if we are not in space the same way we are in time, how is it that we come to knowledge of the past--either of natural history or human history? As individual bodies, we are here and now. Historical knowledge regards knowledge of other theres and thens, to which we have no immediate access. Some mental trick must required in order to be able to infer temporal change and distance from the distribution of fossil in layers of rock or words preserved on a page.

The Third Part of the Argument

And, in conclusion, I describe how Caird's conclusions regarding the fact that we are individual bodies, are consequently in space differently than we are in time, and must therefore infer ourselves into seeing temporal change and distance, lead him to narrate the human past, and specifically the history of religious belief and practice. Caird draws attention to the fact that especially when persons read texts (though the point can include more broadly the studying of other human artifacts), what they do is look for cues that make sense in their self-conscious experience of the world. Since everyone's self-conscious experience of the world is centered in their bodily life, Caird argues that the study of the material record of the past must be grounded in bodily life.

In short: if you can't see your own body in the historical record (and you can't), you have to look for the bodies of others in the places and times of their lives.

Go to The Conclusion of the Argument

The First Part of the Argument

If I ask you to tell me about yourself, what sort of answer are you likely to give? First, you will most likely tell me your name. From there, the number of possible answers seems to extend infinitely: where you live, where you are from; who your parents are, who your family members are, what you do for a living, what you enjoy doing in your spare time, where you went to school, what you favorite sports team is, and so on. Which question you choose to answer first is up to you. But you will tell me about the things that you think are important to know about yourself. So we may say that your answer will be revealing of your self.

Most people, I think, will recognize that there is something disingenuous (or at least incomplete) about any one of the answers to these possible possible. None of them quiet get at who you or I 'actually' are. Even our names conceal as much as they reveal. A name, at best, is an intelligible point of reference--a key, if you will, that opens one person's world up to another person. You say, I am [insert your name]. I am from... I do... I like... etc.... etc.... But a name is just as easily a bottomless hole, into which can throw as many things about oneself, without ever filling it up.

A couple of things follow from the potentially limitless number of questions, and answers to questions, about who you am I are. The first is that we all seem to carry around an idea of ourselves as something solid and whole: an 'I' that can be distinguished from other person, beings, and things. Our experience of ourselves as wholes, in fact, is so persistent, so pervasive, that even if you disagree with me--that is to say, if YOU disagree with ME--you have already proved my point. The second thing that follows is that were someone to ask us to tell them about ourselves, it is unavoidable that we talk about some limited aspect or some part of ourselves. For example, you ask me to tell you about myself. I respond by telling you my name, that I am Canadian, I am not a teenager, and I grew up on a farm. Try as I might, however, I could never relate to you the whole myself. No amount of description could ever exhaust the whole of who I am.

The problem I have been describing is the problem of self-consciousness. The problem is essentially one of rational self-reference; that we are not only the things being described; but also that are we the things doing the describing. We get along just fine talking about things other than ourselves. We may or may not be right about these other things. If we are not right, we can go back and get a better idea of the other things in question.

The matter is never so straight-forward when describing our own selves. We never leave ourselves in the first place, so there is nothing, strictly speaking, to go back to. But when we actually do try to describe ourselves, the best we seem able to accomplish is to describe some aspect or limited part of ourselves. In short, our self, that something whole that we know ourselves to be, always seems just out of reach, even while we know that the whole of our self is doing the reaching.

Caird looks at the problem of self-consciousness and wonders why it should be a problem in the first place. He wants us to think about what sort of answer are we expecting. And he wants to know whether the answer that we expect true to the sort of 'thing' that we are.

Every major work that Caird ever published can be read on a meditation on these themes. Caird's basic argument is that, when asked about ourselves, our modern scientific education has trained us to turn 'inwards' and away from the 'external' world. We have been trained to think about our self as an idea or an intellectual object--and not as a physical object. When asked about our self, our education predisposed us to turn inwards to think about that idea we have of ourselves. If we do respond to the question, either we give a partial answer, which we intuitively 'know' to be inadequate; or we shy away from answering at all, since we are perpetually unsure about whether we are ever in position to give an answer.

Caird thinks this is the absolutely wrong way to go about asking the question. The right way to ask the question is hiding right in front of us. Your self cannot be an idea you carry around in your head about your self. If your self is an idea you carry around with you in your head, then who is carrying the idea of your self around in their head? Is not the person carrying around the idea of your self...yourself?

The problem, again, is one of self-reference. What we are cannot merely be an idea that we carry around in our own heads. This simply will not compute. We are a self-conscious being who have ideas about themselves.

Caird thinks the proper response to questions about the self is not to turn 'inwards' away from the 'external' world. The proper response is to turn 'outwards' towards the 'external' world where you find yourself as an individual body.

Who am I? Well, I am this body, the one sitting in front of a computer typing these words on the screen. Or am I the one who will later read the words over to make sure they make sense before I post them online. Or am I the body that is prepare food for myself. Or go to bed. Or wake up. Or kiss my wife. In every case, I am this body. The places and times change, certainly. The fact that I am this body will not. And when this body ceases, when it dies...well, then in every sense of the word, so will I. That is to say, I will cease in every sense that I understand myself to presently be this body. What lies beyond is another question entirely.

Thinking about ones own self in this way, about one's self as this body, is harder than it sounds. An empirically-minded thinker is not likely to see the point in the first place. The reason is that the language of modern science continually refuses to let us think about ourselves as individual bodies. Modern science lets us think of ourselves as bodies, certainly. But it's statement are always generic, never personal, and so never individual. The consequence is that modern science (or, more precisely, modern scientists) can tell me a lot of things about bodies. What it cannot do is tell me about the existential fact that I am this body.

Just how hard this is will become more apparent in the second part of the argument, in which we come face to face with the fact that we are in space in a different way than we are in time.

Go to The Second Part of the Argument