Archive for May, 2007

Very Poor “postmodern” Thought, a Confession

May 24, 2007

Over at Cocktail Party Physics, one of my very favorite blogs, where (by the way?) there are links to “the internet all atwitter” about the “Blogs for Brownback” website (he’s one of the three Republican candidates for President who don’t believe in evolution) — and this website that was supposedly set up  by supporters calls heliocentrism a piece of indoctrination by liberals (nobody seems to know if it’s a satire or for real — I vote for satire)….

I’d better start over. Over at Cocktail Party Physics, I got into a conversation about science and postmodern thinking with a physicist who alluded to the Alan Sokal hoax paper published back in 1996 in a cultural studies journal. Sokal was a physicist at New York University who got fed up with the trendiness and shallowness of postmodern rhetoric and so-called thinking, and wrote a hilariously funny paper asserting that Quantum Mechanics supports the “feminist, poststructuralist critique of the substantive content” of science. The article is 11 pages long, with pages of bibiolography and more pages of really, really funny notes about Lacan and Derrida and particle physics, adding up to a grand total of 40 pages!

Now I’m mentioning this hoax for two reasons. 1) it reminds me that a confession is long overdue on this weblog from me as a literary theorist.  Yes, okay, there is, I need to admit it, a lot of really vapid and shoddy stuff out there in the U. S. posing as postmodern thought….

My poor son at university has had to endure a couple of utterly useless classes filled with postmodern tripe tryong to pass for profundity, and students of mine will recognize my old refrain: “It’s because the U. S. never went through decades of structuralist thought and methodology, as the Continent did, before the arrival of poststructuralism.”

Deconstruction, especially, has been in the U. S. a trendy bandwagon embraced rhetorically with little real understanding by some. You can’t read Derrida without a real immersion in (post)structuralism. Nowadays, I would add that we don’t know phenomenology over here either, the way the Continent does, and you need that just as much. Our North American ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, and others are like the rough idea most of us have of Godel’s theorum, without the slightest idea of how he arrived at it…. (It’s fascinating — more on this later)

Let’s stop pretending that anyone, no matter how highly trained in their discipline and how broadly educated, can grasp the fundamentals of another rigorous discipline without years of training and work. And who has all this time? I have worked so incredibly hard to gain the grasp of physics and of the history of physics that I possess and I have taught for years in this area and yet my grasp of physics is infantile when I read the cutting edge cosmology and particle physics going on at cosmic variance, for example. (I was happy to read a chemist on that blog saying “you guys could understand everything I do, because it’s all just basic physics, but I can’t begin to understand what you guys in cutting-edge physics are doing nowadays.” Hurray! Company even among the scientists.

Lately I’ve been studiously reading the Darwinian spokespersons and learning amazingly helpful tools for thought from them. I’m going to present some of these new paradigms in future posts. But when it comes to their thoughts about God and soul and mind, then I’m in my own area of specialization and they are way out of their fields.

And I also gotta tell you that Dawkins (The God Delusion) has no idea at all about the depths of philosophical thought to be found in Christian theology and religious practice, and Terry Eagleton is perfectly right to tax him about this, since Dawkins is writing against Christianity among other religons. (Good converstion on cosmic variance about this issue of Dawkins’ credentials.) Yet this lack of credentials and this utter lack of any deep understanding is only to be expected. How can any of us be this interdisciplinary? And yet, shouldn’t we be talking to one another about belief in God?

Yes, but not this way. This arrogant and intellectually shallow way. (I don’t think Dawkins even knows he is being arrogant. He seems a charming person. It’s that tragic Oxford analytic close-mindedness, if I may say so, that has wounded me all of my life.)  Our inevitable disciplinary limitations should lead us all to epistemological humility.

Not to the grotesquely huge oversimplifications and unfounded leaps Dawkins is so examplary of, in his arguments against religion and against belief in the divine. He hasn’t a ghost of a notion of what “divinity” entails in rigorous thought, or else he would know that he is a believer in God, as, in his charming honesty, he makes so apparent in the 3 quarks daily interview.  (But look at the anti-theistic denials in the comments there! Link is in my post on Richard Dawkins.)

The scientific apologists against God, the self-declared atheists (who all seem to feel deep awe before the universe and its enormous complexity and order), are quick to say that there is a vast difference between “sophisticated theology” and your everyday run-of-the-mill Christian religion, which they equate with American Fundamentalism and creationism. (This is like equating Islam with a militant jihadist movement, except that many Fundamentalists, unlike jihadists, have profound understandings of God and are simply scientifically and politically naive. Not all of them, maybe not even most of them — who could know? Well, maybe the same is true of some of these poor young jihadists, too.)

Yes, creationism and Intelligent Design need to be addressed, but it takes a closer analysis than simply supposing the problem is reducible to belief in God! Thank goodness for atheists like Sean Carroll, who points out in his witty review of Dawkins that you can’t just blame Northern Ireland on “religion.”

So look, I don’t step in and correct physicists in their work in their discipline — how could I? Yet I can step in and make some historical and philosophical interventions relative to the assumptions scientists are making when they claim their way of thinking is simply, purely, “reason” — and that other fields and conclusions about other subjects are prima facie irrational. (And boy, is that resented in our highly charged political climate.)

If you look at the Sokal article and read the first three paragraphs, you will see a vivid and wonderful misrepresentation of the relationship between scientists and postmodern thinkers, boiled accurately down to a hypothetical, stark “yes/no” disagreement about the existence of “an external world.”

Utterly wrong as this is, it seems to be precisely the stereotypical picture that most scientists have of the boogey-man they call “postmodernism.” I got a wonderful comment a couple days ago about the shock and dismay a scientist who deeply respects and loves science experienced reading about what postmoderns “said about science,” and I know that my own very thoughtful physicist colleagues at my university went rigid with hostility at the notion of any epistemological limitations on science, for the same reasons.

Yet where do genuine postmodern thinkers say there is no external world, or that the substantive content of science is “merely socially constructed,” or that science isn’t a valid way of knowing?  It’s this yes/no, either/or, dichotomizing manner of thinking that is itself impeding the thoughtful conversations we are called to, if we embrace the vision of the arts and sciences.

As you know if you’ve been reading me, I tend to trace this reductive dualism to the dominant Cartesian dualisms that founded scientific modernity in the 17th and 18th centuries. (How very “postmodern” of me!)  

Scientific advances have moved us way beyond that kind of dualism, though, looking at it from historical studies and from theory of knowing. (Not Anglo-American theory of knowing, I admit, but Greco-European theory of knowing, and also lingustics — against not Chomskian linguistics, which is as dualistic as hell, but Continental linguistics again.)

So what am I to do about this empasse (the empasse between science and theory that so effectively blocks understanding), in the context of this highly politicized hostility between embattled camps here in the U. S.

Well, I’m going back to my deepest beliefs and commitments:  that science is rigorous and beautiful, and that theory is rigorous and beautiful, and that so is faith, taken as a way of knowing, and in particular as a way of knowing in the (prescientific) tradition of Western theology and practice, which I happen to know best.

It doesn’t work for me to argue the long historical overview, because people “hear” me as merely uttering the stereotypical postmodern message that is captured and parodied so well in the Sokal paper….

Better for me, then, to just do it.  To work respectfully and closely in and with the beautiful. To explain by reading what’s beautiful in the Darwinians, for instance, and what’s beautiful in Plato or Augustine or Aquinas, for another instance, and to practice the thoughtful conversation that I would wish to argue for, between “camps” that are so falsely and needlessly and wastefully divided.  Always remembering, of course, that I know, as the Greek philosophers knew, that “the beautiful things are difficult.”

To close this post, what’s especially beautiful is that there are persons out there reading these feeble and groping attempts on this weblog toward conversation, which is a deep grace I didn’t used to believe in, because I didn’t know it was true, until this “empirical proof” arrived.

By the way, this kind of reading the text, such as I did in my post on Kevin Hart’s Guide to Postmodernism, takes time. I’m working at fever pitch, but I don’t know how often I’ll be posting, so put me on a feed aggregator, folks, if only you know how to do that.  (I haven’t been able to figure it out, for the set of blogs I want to check in with….I’m just a lowly humanist, after all.)

Thanks for re-opening the conversation!

May 22, 2007

I started to answer the very thoughtful and much appreciated comments on my last post (which was about the physicists and the Darwinians not being on the same page) and I realized my responses were becoming essay-length! So I decided to turn them into a new post instead. Thank you, HI, for providing this marvelous stimulus. (At least it was marvelous to me. I hope it will be helpful to others.) I do get rather carried away and impetuous in some of what follows….

Hello HI, Yes, of course I remember you from cosmic variance, and I am deeply touched and humbled that you have been reading my blog all this time, and that you care enough to stay in conversation! Your points are excellent and once again you are calling me to task on a “short cut” I have been using that bothers me also. You are my conscience! 

But then, that is the case in any true conversation, isn’t it? And conversations between science and faith (or science and postmodernity) have got to be real conversations, because it takes a lot of commitment in this day and age even to venture out of the separate camps to talk to one another. 

First, you asked about my “shock and disillusionment” when reading many of the caustic comments over at cosmic variance about faith. (Not all the comments, by any means.) I was shocked that the understanding of religious experience and religious thought was so shallow, and yet so arrogantly dismissive at the same time. It was the intensity of dislike and “desire to stamp the other side out of existence” as Jennifer Ouelette put it, that shocked and saddened me so much.

Regretfully, I have realized much of this anger is due to the Intelligent Design movement, which encroaches onto scientific knowing and scientific classrooms and really does threaten the integrity of science, and therefore makes scientists very angry at Christians. I am very sad about the ID movement, and especially that people don’t realize that this attitude (or this literalistic way of reading Genesis) is not typical of Christianity in relation to science in the long historical view or in the wider global view. 

I want to deny with all my heart and strength that you could take 1) the Church’s persecution of Gallileo and 2) creationism and conclude that Christianity as a way of knowing, in its thought, is opposed to science, or that science is intelligent and religion is stupid and damaging. (Both science and religion have heavy crimes that could be placed to their accounts, btw.)

MY major theme, always, is that there are many valid ways of knowing, addressed to different facets of an enormously complex reality, and their methodologies are different, but they should all be respected and all have something to offer. Science deserves a place of honor, though, I agree. Still, I think that validity has to do with rigor and thoughtfulness and creativity in developing the methodologies, not with the sort of thing the knowing is being practiced for. (I know this isn’t how we think these days, which is why I go back to Plato and Aristotle’s vision of the pluralistic arts and sciences in my own work.)

About the greatness of Newtonian science, I fully agree with you, and my negative comments were not meant to take away from its brilliance or the wonderful basis it provided for contemporary science. I think that both science and Christianity have been historical ways of knowing that have evolved but stayed true to their foundational orientations and methodologies.

When I am critical of Newtonianism (or Cartesianism), I am looking at just one aspect of Newtonianism, let’s call that its worldview, or its cultural impact. Science isn’t really about worldview and culture (or about philosophy or theology either), but it does suggest various conclusions about these things, naturally, and that’s okay, but the West took Newtonian science and made it into a statement about the absolute knowledge of the West and the superiority of the West for having that absolutely factual and unassailable knowledge.

From a historical viewpoint, the Newtonian cultural worldview was intensely dogmatic, HI, and stressed absolute concrete FACTS and one way of looking at things — the scientific method — that is the only TRUE way. This “way” was associated with the masculine mind, “objectivity,” and “rationality.” And for me, because I am looking at things from the point of view of cultural studies, when relativity and Quantum Mechanics came along, this opened up that absolutist scientific worldview to mystery, complexity, and real, dynamical knowing instead of the closed, reductive way of treating nature embraced by Western culture in the earlier period of science. 

The physicists of the early QM decades realized that physical reality was far more subtle and complex than had been thought, and that knowing it was trickier than supposed. Instead of science being on the verge of a complete picture of physical reality at the end of the 19th century, huge new questions had opened up.

BUt most of all, from my perspective, physicists realized that they were working not with nature but with their own measurements of nature, and with such measurements as they were ABLE to take, not directly with the brute reality, whatever that is, from which the measurements are drawn.

There is of course still scientific law and scientific description, but now there is a philosophical gap between that description and “reality” — and this fact humbled the truth claims of science. Do watch or read Bronowsky’s Ascent of Man series in the episode about Newton and Einstein — here is where a great physicist like Bronowsky attempts to show us that after Einstein the way is open (again) to recognize that there are many levels or dimensions of reality and many ways of attempting to know those aspects and no one human way or discipline has an absolute claim or an ultimate grasp of the mystery or the meaning.

In other words, we can’t get at the brute fact, so to speak, directly. Human knowing is always MEDIATED — by our methodologies, by mathematics based on measurements for example, and by language, and worldviews — and this calls for “epistemological humility,” which is a great contribution of postmodern thought, as I see it.

Scientists, because they are not highly trained in philosophy or cultural studies for the most part, or historical studies, tend to feel that postmodern thought is saying science is “just socially constructed” and has no real and growing core of insights. They aren’t aware of the rich area that opens up in-between “absolute fact” and “culturally constructed” that has been mapped out in cultural studies and literary theory and Continental philosophy and other disciplines.

No, postmodern thought suggests something much more nuanced and subtle: that as humans all our knowing is mediated by assumptions and methods which both enable and limit our results. We cannot cometoknow in any other manner! Science is an amazing way of knowing, but not an absolute and universal one. It doesn’t and cannot study everything, and what it does study it studies in a mediated manner.  (The Darwinians have accomodated to this by introducing ways of studying rigorously a mental reality that is on a different level from chemistry and particle physics,  but the current cosmological physicists seem to think the mystery of “the fundamental reality of the natural world” is almost within their grasp. Beyond that ultimate mathematicization of the physical universe, lies nothing more to be said or explained or known.)

This seems so strange to me, given that science itself has learned that not only Newtonian mechanics but also relativity and all the rest may only be “local” realities, and may not apply in the vast majority of the universe. So you see, we have this magnificent opportunity to use and respect all the ways of knowing and to have conversations about their implications relative to one another — and instead in the U. S. we have hardened into this polarized war between an absolutist scientific outlook and an absolutist religious outlook.  This is tragic. There’s no other word for it.

The universities should be teaching kids the historical setting we are in right now and how this rich and exciting new opening for thought has been made by deconstructing modernity’s absolutes. Kids should see the wonders of thinking in all the disciplines (and in faith), when instead we seem to be disillusioned with thinking because it disturbs our illusory absolutes! These modern “absolutes” have been a prison camp shutting us off from the joy of seeking truth, for anti-theistic scientists and for scientistic Christians (fundamentalists) alike.

I want to try to use our own Western foundation in Plato and Aristotle to point us toward the many ways of knowing, without claiming humans can think they understand absolute truth in any of them, especially in religion. The difference between God and us prohibits us from doing more than witnessing to the intimations of truth we have experienced within our religious traditions, and on that basis. We cannot claim that we “know” the truth about God, because God is beyond any human grasp of truth, even if and when (as I believe) God becomes a human being to reveal to humans something of the genuine being of God.  What do humans do with that, by the way, but mangle it and murder it?

To take one example, as a traditonal Christian thinker I believe that God is in the world in the form of its formal order studied by science.  And God is also “formally” beyond the world and the formal order that sustains it that science studies. God is immanent AND transcendent. Another way to put this would be that the formal order within a richly ordered system transcends the system, and I’ve just been realizing that Godel’s theorem may say precisely this. (Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop is about so many of the things I’ve been working on in Plato and Aristotle, for example, and has a wonderful exposition of the meaning of Godel’s “incompleteness” theorum.)

So Western theology and Greek philosophy both reached into the Mystery of all that is and came out with the miracle of the elogant formalities of things. Science studies these elegant formalities in terms of physical matter and motion and the mathematical principles instantiated in them. Before the rise of science, those formalities “in” the physical world were felt by Christians to be wholly natural (or in and of nature), and yet were felt to be one with a transcendent formal vitality that cannot be limited to the natural world. (Which is basically what Dawkins says he believes in, in the interview I linked in my last post! That is what is so ironic. Dawkins believes in the pre-scientific “God” of the West, not in the “God” of modern science, who is a “ghost” in the machine. Over at cosmic variance, Sean Carroll says that the Judeao-Christian God is absolutely opposed to the “god of the philosophers” in the West,  but the same identification of “God” with the elegant formalities of things is everywhere in the biblical tradition. This is a huge subject….)

 This formally immanent and transcendent elegance the Greeks called the divine, and so did the European Christians who came after the Greeks. This is why we have Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins so vehemently, because Dawkins knows nothing about the depths of Western religious thought and its brilliant exploration into the nature of things.

Isn’t it sad that we can remain so isolated in our own little fields and so hostile to the fields of others? I think that this “fortess” mentality arise from the assumption that humans can have absolute factual knowledge of the truth of things. And this was introduced in the Cartesian and Newtonian Era as the scientific Modern Western worldview. The critique of Modernity — i.e. the postmodern (I would include Einstein and the QM thinkers, btw, as being postmodern in their critique of modernity) — deconstructs these absolutist claims.

But by saying the science can’t get at its own aspect of reality completely, or without mediation (any more than any other way of knowing can), and that science’s results are therefore limited rather than absolute, doesn’t make science’s progress any less real and amazing. But scientists are still thinking (like fundamentalist Christians) that if our knowledge isn’t an absolute truth, then it is “merely relative.”

No, because of postmodernity, we can all return to our roots, that ancient view that knowing is based upon long and thoughtful participation in rigorous ways of knowing. So I’m not saying that truth is any less important to human beings in postmodern times than it ever was.  But what ID fundamentalists and hard-rationalist scientists don’t admit is that WE know that truth “only as we can.” And that means we’d better be very hesitant about asserting that our human grasp on that truth is certain and absolute and overrules every other kind of insight. Doing that is likely to change the part of the truth we think we know into a lie.

Within Christianity, outside of modern North America, it has always been held that the truth that has reached out to us (while also being in us as the natural order that is our bodily and mental life) is Mystery (and most amazingly, a Mystery of Goodness and Love as well as of elegant formal order) and we are trying to cometoknow it, but can only do so in very limited and feeble ways. And in that, pride is our greatest enemy.

You know, HI, pride IS our greatest enemy as human beings, in trying to come-to-know the things we yearn to know about. And I mean that literally, you DO seem to know that. Being Christians or scientists doesn’t insulate us from pride. We humans are a very fallible and self-destructive kind of living being. (This too is a postmodern or deconstructive response to Modernity’s ideal of the rational and objective and entirely free white-male Western mind!)

Here’s where, as it often noticed, the postmodern and the premodern (the earlier Western tradition before the rise of science) share deep affinities. Which is why you have a contemporary Marxist literary theorist like Eagleton defending medieval Christian theologians against a high modernist like Dawkins… 
I’ve gone on waay too long, but I must say something in response to the last question you posed before staggering into the kitchen for some breakfast:
“From my prejudiced point of view, what was fascinating [about the New Yorker piece on the Amazonian tribe’s unusual language] was that Everett (who seemed to be a Christian first and a linguist second) gave up on his Christian faith after interacting with Piraha people, but he still thinks linguistics as a useful approach to understand Piraha people, even though he no longer believes in Chomskyan theory. As someone from a non-Christian tradition, I just wonder how you can remain a Christian when confronted with a different cultural tradition.”

You are already postmodern, HI, because you have the wonderful humility and openness to say “from my prejudiced point of view”! So in return, “from my prejudiced point of view,” let me say that my deepest beliefs as a Christian come from the interactions of different cultural traditions around the meaning and practice of the Christian message. As a medievalist and Renaissance scholar, I study Christian thinkers in other times and places — Augustine and Aquinas, for instance — and also in the world church in other places, in South Africa with the truth and reconciliation hearings, for instance, and this forces me to give up my parochial North American scientistic ideas of what the Gospel is or might be. (And shows me that reading and interpreting the scriptures is limited in the same ways that mathematicizing nature is, and we need to be very undogmatic about it.)

When I encounter Christian faith in all these different times and cultures, I recognize “something,” despite all these historical and cultural differences. As a Christian, meeting new cultures clarifies and deepens my understanding of how limited my own outlook really is, especially as a Christain. So I don’t suppose that human beings need my own particular cultural rendition of the Gospel in order to experience a connection to God, or that they even need any rendition of the Gospel that I might recognize.  Contact with ultimate reality can’t be limited, nor can divine Love.

As a Christian, I do believe the news about what God has done in Christ (however little I may understand it) is true, and I have found that it does connect me to God, based on a lifetime of experience that has been rigorously disciplined by the Christian tradition and its thought and practice. But I don’t believe that I understand or represent it very well, or that I don’t betray it all the time, even in well-intentioned ways.  I’m thankful for a way to know God, but I can’t absolutize that way (my undersanding of that way), not because it isn’t true, but because I can’t know that truth very well. I am inherently limited as a knower of anything, and inherently gifted, too.

One thing different cultures have taught me, though, is that I can’t think the truth I seek to experience through being a Christian is reducible to any set of facts or propositions that, in some absolute and final and in a closed way “equals the truth”! The Judeao-Christian tradition is filled with human beings who claimed to know and practice the truth perfectly and who were judged to be merely empty vessels of self-righteousness and pride — at the farthest remove from actually knowing God. God looks on the heart and knows our deepest desires for the good of the world. God is Love.

I suppose I am, personally, more like Everett’s wife, in that I love linguistics as a way of knowing and I want to move way away from Chomsky, and yet I would also like to truly know how the Piraha live and think and speak, for their own sake but also to encounter their own unique cultural responses to the Christian message, because I think it would teach me as much or more than it teaches them… 

And like a scientist, I know that my faith is always open to new evidence and must prove itself anew and that it might not do so. Faith is a way of knowing.  What calls to us to be known is so much greater than our knowing ever is. Perhaps Goodness and Love are not the ultimate realities; perhaps I do not really know what goodness is or love, and do not even recognize them when I meet them, or mistake them for something else. I am dependent upon the elegant formalities of things to reveal to me (or not) that the awe-inspiring elegant formalities that science studies may have another even more glorious face.

I haven’t talked about that “short cut” that bothers my conscience, but this is way more than enough for today.  I’m sorry if I’ve gotten way off track, but I’m letting this go out into the blogosphere as it is…and staggering off into the kitchen for breakfast now….

Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily — Richard Dawkins Interview

May 21, 2007

Over at 3 quarks daily, a British Christian interviews anti-theist campaigner Richard Dawkins at his home in Oxford. It’s fascinating! It shows just the irony I tried to get at in my last post, about how the Darwinians are doing such great thinking but aiming it all against the “ghost” in the machine, thinking that ghost is God, when scientific Cartesianism invented it through the mind-nature split. Be sure to read the comments also. And once you’re there, notice the really rich selection of thought pieces surrounding it. Zizek is always there, and Martha Nussbaum, but the array is breath-taking. I could spend all day reading at 3 quarks daily, but force myself to skim…. (Dawkins says he believes in something we will discover, something awe-inspiring and transcendent and better than anything we could conceptualize, something that is out there behind the universe; it just isn’t “God.”) 

A Journey of Discovery for Me and a Pointed Question for Scientists?

May 17, 2007

Day by day my journey of discovery as Alice (the professor of the humanities) in the blogosphere Wonderland continues.  I am reading more and more of the conversations going on at physics weblogs, and more and more about the arguments against theism in Dawkins, Harris, Johnson, Dennett, et cetera. And my bewilderment is crystalizing into one diamond-hard point of incomprehension (which I will proceed to state as a question for scientists in a moment).

I am at length recoveringfrom my initial shock and disillusionment at the knee-jerk glibness of the anti-theistic reasoning.  Poor benighted me, the postmodern lit theorist, who thought she was in a different time period!   There I used to be, surrounded (in my Episcopal parish and at my university) with physicists who were also theists, and participating with them ( and with a clatch of Greek Orthodox physicists who travel to India to teach monks Western science every year) in wonderfully integrative conversations that have enriched my life immeasurably.

There I was, innocently (and tragically) ignoring along with them the misguided “creation science” and Intelligent Design movements of my own co-religionists, never realizing that the warfare was heating up in such an ugly manner, and that by worshipping God I was held by so many to be responsible for grave sins  against the life of the mind.

Our priest, who’s a great teacher and who shows us slides of the star factories in deep space (with tears in his eyes), says that postmodernity — by which he means the critique of scientism, or the critique of hard rationalism as a belief-system — is an advance in human understanding that will be very, very hard for the fundamentalist wing of the Christian church to absorb, in this new century. But I didn’t know that so many scientists would find it equally disconcerting! I didn’t know that the lines had hardened so drastically, against all the epistemological enigmas raised by quantum mechanics, for example.

I thought we were all, you see, card-carrying members of the “pluralistic thoughtfulness will win out in the long run” school of thought. (And if it doesn’t win out in the long run, we are all doomed.)  The physicists, I imagined, based on the ones I knew and on the ones I had read in the heyday of relativity and quantum mechanics, were just like the sacramental Christians (or let’s broaden this non-Cartesian, pro-science set of denominations to include all of the “confessional” Christians, so as to get in the Presbyterians too, for Bethany,  as I’ve learned through the fascinating links at — the two groups were alike, I had imagined, in that they were thinking integratively in this less dogmatic post-modern world of ours…  So I had thought.  Well, guess again, at least on the physicists’ side. (This is a blatant over-generalization about contemporary physicists, of course, but the weblog conversations convey such a lot of animus…)

So, you see, I fell from innocence, into the rabbit hole where science and faith are currently talking (no, screaming) right past one another. I entered the blogosphere and was scorched and disillusioned by the hot flames of scientific rancor against theism, and their evident desire “to stamp the other side out of existence,” an attitude Jennifer Ouelette mentioned in her comment awhile back.

On physics blogs I listened to those for whom belief in God is exactly like believing in the tooth fairy, or better, like believing in “the great (but ineffable) Cosmic Muffin.” (I love this quip!) Gradually, as I listened, I became clear and focused on this one diamond-hard point of my  incomprehension.

So here is my question for scientists of the Dawkins and Dennett-type anti-theistic persuasion. Why does it seem to you that showing, for example, exactly how the brain produces our richly human subjective experiences would equate to showing that “soul” or the “mind’s I”  does not “exist”? Or for another example, how does finding an evolutionary mechanism that completely explains the acheivement of something as complex as the eye equate to an argument against the existence of God?  (I think everyone should read Dennett and I have a post reporting on him, in progress.)

I just cannot understand this equasion. Why should the human mind NOT be “reducible” to physical processes in the brain, if there is a God? Why shouldn’t the universe have a mechanism (natural selection) for producing high-order complexity through random variation, if there is a God? A divine ground of all existence wouldn’t dream of sponsoring a cosmological process, unless it had “gaps” in it requiring flamboyant personal interventions from time to time?

This kind of thinking is so very Cartesian, separating nature-as-machine from “mind” as though it has to be a “ghost” in the machine or else it is not “mind.” But in sharp contrast to this kind of dualism, historically Christians and Jews have been in a philosophical, theological tradition of “thinking immanence.” Aquinas, for instance, theorized the mind as the life of the body — i.e. as inseparable from its physical actuality, except in purely formal terms. And Aquinas (and everyone else) agreed with Augustine that if the life of my mind is (equivalent to or defined as) the life of my body, then “God is the life of the life of my mind…” (Confessions).

This immanentist thought is a very different kind of thinking from the later Cartesian dualism that has placed a chasm between matter and spirit, and that still does in the outlook of many scientists today, apparently. And in the minds of many analytical philosophers, like Dennett, even though the analytic tradition claims not to be technically Cartesian today, or even foundationalist.

For me and for many other theists, our immanentism leads us to pure fascination and rejoicing as the beautiful formalisms of science work out more and more of the intricate structures within the physical world. For us, it’s just that Stephen Hawking’s (mere) metaphor of “knowing the mind of God” has a deeper resonance. (A Real Presence, if you will.)

Now up to this point, you’ve actually been reading a post I wrote several weeks ago, when I was engaging mostly with the physicists in the blogosphere, and when I was drawing on my knowledge of the history of physics, as it was up until about 10-15 years or so. So much has changed; so much has been discovered in these years! But the old Cartesian paradigm of Newtonianism has only regrouped and solidified, from what I’m reading. There’s a new triumphalism in physics that I wasn’t expecting, growing out of an embattled mentality in reaction to creationism (which is a reaction to scientific arrogance, which is a reaction to…)  So I still empathize entirely with the scientific mind’s distaste for the monolithic worldview of  religious literalists.  But scientific hard rationalism is also strikingly literalistic and monolithic, too, and seems newly unaware of any epistemological complexities in its own methodologies.

Okay, so now here comes Alice’s next surprise, and it’s a huge one. Hurray for the Darwinians! In evolutionary science and Darwinian philosophy of science, a huge advance on Cartesian rationalism is being made.  Wonderfully better paradigms of language and consciousness are emerging right now, breaking down completely the dualism between mind and matter. The funny thing (but it isn’t very funny) is that this movement, for whom Dennett is the outstanding thinker and spokesman imho, is being framed by these writers as combating religious belief, which is seen as identical with an outdated Cartesianism that was actually invented, in fact, by science.

As Lesslie Newbigin so beautifully pointed out in all his writings, the branch of Christianity producing the biblical literalists has bought entirely into (outdated) Newtonian scientific paradigms of “fact” and “truth.” They have not been able to distinguish the Gospel from their Modern Western culture, because they have not engaged on an equal footing with the non-Cartesian Christians, in other denominations, in other times, or in other contemporary cultures, none of whom feel a need to defend Genesis by making it a science textbook. Only in monolingual, English-speaking North America…. (Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture, where Newbigin says that no branch of the Church “arrives at the foot of the Cross” without humble, respectful interaction with the larger church… )

Returning to the scientists, though…. What the anti-theistic scientific writers don’t seem to realize is that the Cartesian mind-body and mind/nature dualisms they are deconstructing were innovations of scientific modernity and were not historically associated with Judaeo-Christian thought in the West prior to Descartes.  (Yes, I know, there’s the tradition from Plato, but he was not a mind/nature dualist and he was never adopted simplistically in the Greco-European Christian tradition. This is treated in my own work in the sessions.) 

Cartesianism is similar to what used to be called gnosticism, in its mind-body dualism, and even though many modern Christians are gnostics without knowing it, nonetheless, it’s not the historical faith. (And historically, so very importantly, faith has always been a way of knowing, not a certain mind-state opposed to evidential learning, as it has become today in many modernly-religious minds.)

So right now, the physicists and the Darwinians are not on the same page, in terms of the sophistication of their understandings of the nature of human knowing and the complexities of the search for understanding.  But a Darwinian such as Dennett is introducing all the complexities and richness of what we in cultural and religious studies deal with, not to mention in philosophy and theology, while the physicists by and large are retreating to reductive knee-jerk positivism. Gone is the profound humanistic thoughtfulness of an Einstein, a Bohr, or a Brownoski, and the scientific communties which surrounded them. Yet the two current camps of scientific apologists  think they are all alike, simply because both camps claim to be reducing mind or design to “purely physical” mechanisms or descriptions.  (But for the Darwinians, these physical mechanisms accomplish  “design work,” and they do so “for reasons”!)

Enough for today. More on Dennett’s paradoxy soon. And whatever you do, don’t miss the New Yorker story on the Amazonian tribe that is challenging the dogmatic dualism of Chomskian linguistics. As you read this, remember that Dennett is on the anti-Chomskian side of this fascinating intellectual contretemps!

Kevin Hart on von Balthasar, Marion, and Milbank…

May 10, 2007

Is postmodernism a thoroughly secular movement of thought? If it is, then the modern and the postmodern would seem to be “in continuity,” at least in this respect. But of course, there is no one postmodernism, and the brilliant postmodern critique of modernity’s intellectual shortcomings “for some folk . . . is an invitation to elaborate a way of being that is utterly post-secular.”

This is how Kevin Hart, “postmodern theologian” from Australia — and a poet — who’s now teaching at Notre Dame, opens the final chapter in his riveting Postmodernism: A Guide for Beginners (2004). Hart’s book is not just for beginners. In fact, I guess I don’t have to write my lit theory guide, because this book does the job so beautifully, and I urgently recommend it to my readers, even though it confines itself to the last 50 or 60 years or so, out of the 2400 years I must deal with….

Anyway, in his last chapter Hart skillfully brings recent Christian theologians and philosophers into conversation with Blanchot, Levinas, and Derrida, around the rich and fascinating conundrum of the (im)possibility of the gift. He sets a certain context for von Balthasar, Marion, and Milbank, and I’m interested in what those of you reading (or having read) von Balthasar think about it. The implications for dialogue between science and faith are implicit in Hart’s account, which I’ll now sketch.

Hart begins by reminding us that the post-secular thinkers are typically postmodern in terms of how they view modernity’s shortcomings. Hart’s list of these is characteristically sharp and incisive. It goes like this: “its reliance on static, spatial models of knowledge [i.e. the “fact”], its narrowly Ramist understanding of method [i.e. its linear and heavily binary “logic”], its heavy emphasis on the solitary self [the cogito or “thinking ego”], its stress upon disinterestedness [i.e. its impossible segregation of a new ideal of “objectivity” from its new and demonized opposite, “subjectivitiy”], its impatience with ritual [at one with its general dismissal of embodied being], and its wilful confusion of mystery and mystification [’nuff said!].”

Now you can see from my glosses of Hart’s phrases that my own work’s about the implications of the innovative but very narrow new Cartesian model for human knowing and about contrasting them with a more dynamic Greco-European model that lasted from the Greeks through Thomas Aquinas, and persisted among the Renaissance humanists, before losing out to Cartesianism….

But Hart’s post-secular thinkers are marked not only by this thoughtful critique of cultural modernity, but also by their rejection of another modernism,“theological modernism” (or theological liberalism). In this respect, Hart mentions postmodern Christians such as “post-liberal” theologian George Lindbeck at Yale and anti-foundationalist analytic philosopher Richard Rorty. On the other hand, Hart points out that other post-liberal figures such as critical theorist Jurgen Habermas and theologian Karl Rahner disavowed theological modernism, but could not properly be called postmodern, because they do not “mark a rupture” in their own thought from that of cultural modernity.

Given this succinct little taxonomy, Hart is now ready to introduce “the most significant of all postmodern theologians,” Hans Urs van Balthasar, and to explain how von Balthasar “rethinks” cultural (Cartesian) modernity. Hart reviews quickly how von Balthasar traces the origins of Cartesianism back to trends in the Islamic philosophy of Avicenna and Averroes, which disquieted the 12th-century champions of orthodoxy, Albert Magnus and Aquinas, with its primacy of reason over faith

With the Franciscan teacher Johannes Duns Scotus, however, Von Balthasar finds the full-blown emergence of modernity within late medieval Christian theology. Hart briefly analyzes this, notes that Scotus may have been “subtly misunderstood,” and relates how von Balthasar traces its influence to the theology of Francisco Suarez, the counter-Reformation theologian whose work dominated the 17th century, and in particular the Jesuit school at La Fleche that Descartes attended. (Any opinions on this fascinating account?)

The oppositions von Balthasar found between Duns Scotus and Dominican Thomism, and the the transmission through Suarez to form the backdrop for Descartes’ outlook (especially the notion of a neutral universal being that eliminates the infinite difference between God and the human mind) is fascinating to anyone who (like myself, a 17th-century scholar) has long pondered the rise of the Enlightenment paradigm of scientific rationalism, the paradigm that took the Protestant West by storm and still organizes the mindsets of hard scientists and biblical literalists alike, in North America today.

By the way, Hart cites analytical philosophers as disputing that any of them are “still” Cartesians or even foundationalists. Well, I guess they haven’t talked to the analytic philosophers I’ve encountered all my life…. And North Americans in general are certainly Cartesians and foundationalists, unless formed in the confessional denominations or unless artists or linguists or otherwise aware that modern rationalism is only one limited instance of the rigorous ways of knowing….

As helpful as Hart’s discussion to this point has been, it only gets better, as Hart moves from von Balthasar to Jean-Luc Marion, and thence to John Milbank, the last of the three postmodern theologians Hart wants to look at. The sections on Marion include a brief yet very powerful introduction to Husserlian phenomenology including the epoche and the reduction (and that ain’t easy), and then, through phenomenology and through Milbank’s disagreements with Derrida on the gift, Hart moves into an orchestration of these thinkers together with Levinas and with Hart’s own special subject, Blanchot. Hart talks a lot about Blanchot, having written a book on him, and it’s all to the good, I must say. Blanchot’s relevance to the postmodern conversation is amply demonstrated throughout the book.

But I’ve gone on and on about this guide to postmodernism, enough for today. Since I am only now plunging into von Balthasar, I’m wondering if the theologically informed would agree with this sketch of what Hart has to say? I’m also wondering how on earth we can open the closed campuses of our era (and this is my main focus in my own work) to the ancient and sacred wonder of thinking otherwise than rationalistically?

(If these questions and thinkers interest you, be sure to visit The Land of Unlikeness, listed in my blog links, where folk are reading von Balthasar and a good discussion is underway.)

Traceurs joyously engaged in a way of knowing…

May 2, 2007

From The New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson writes:  “A bracing parkour chase begins “Casino Royale,” the recent James Bond movie. It includes jumps from the boom of one tower crane to that of another, but parkour’s customary obstacles are walls, stairwells, fences, railings, and gaps between roofs—it is an urban rather than a pastoral pursuit. The movements are performed at a dead run. The more efficient and fluid the path they define, and the more difficult and harrowing the terrain they cross, the more elegant the performance is considered by the discipline’s practitioners.”  Watch what he’s talking about, especially the landings on the tops of railings — im-possibility in action: 

Wilkinson continues:  “Parkour has no explicit glossary, but traceurs typically describe the fundamental maneuvers as the cat leap, the precision jump, the roll, and the wall run. There is also the tic-tac, in which a nearly horizontal traceur takes at least one step and sometimes several steps along a wall and launches himself from it; and the underbar, in which a traceur dives feet first through a gap between fence rails, like a letter going through a slot, then grabs the upper rail as his shoulders pass under it. In addition, there are several vaults, including the lazy vault, the reverse vault, the turn vault, the speed vault, the dash vault, and the kong or monkey vault, in which a traceur runs straight at a wall or a railing, plants his hands on top, and brings his feet through his hands. All these moves link to one another, so that a traceur might say that he went cat to cat, or that he tic-taced a wall or konged it, then did a roll and a wall leap. The intention is to become so adept that the movements recede in one’s awareness and can be performed without reflection. Jazz musicians occasionally say that a novice needs to learn all about his instrument, then he needs to learn all about music, then he needs to forget everything and learn how to play, which is a paradigm that also fits parkour, especially because both activities at their most proficient are improvised. A jazz musician wants to be comfortable in any key. Similarly, a traceur wants to be sufficiently fluent so that he can cross any terrain in flight without compromise.”

           This new sport developed by David Belle in Paris and spreading across the globe illustrates all the features of a classical Greek -ike, a formal way of knowing. It has been (and will continue to be) formalized by its disciplinary community and as such may become an Olympic sport. I especially appreciated the comparison to jazz, which is, like dressage, another formal way of knowing from the perspective of the Greeks.  (See my Session One, especially part 7, at right.)