Saturday, October 21, 2006

Beautiful arrows of the mind

Stephen Barr thinks it is time to take down Richard Dawkin's view of the universe in this commentary on Dawkins in First Things. I'm replicating it here in its entirety because it is fairly short and concise and there are few sentences that don't add to Barr's argument.

A small price that I have paid for the privilege of writing book reviews for First Things is that I have ended up reading four of Richard Dawkins’ books. That is more than anyone should have to read, for though Dawkins writes extremely well, his repertoire of ideas is quite limited. Indeed, everything that Dawkins has to say about the world, aside from his popular expositions of science, could be explained to an intelligent person in a few minutes; it doesn’t take a whole book, let alone all the books he has written. Having nothing new to say, he has decided to say the old things with increasingly unrestrained boorishness. Surfeited as I am with Dawkins’ highly polished put-downs and elegant sneering at his intellectual foes, I am happy to be able to experience his latest book (The God Delusion) at second hand through the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s incisive review in the New Republic.

Nagel is not impressed by Dawkins’ “attempts at philosophy.” One of Dawkins’ pet arguments against God as an explanation of design in the world is that it leads to an infinite regress: “A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right.” As Nagel points out, this argument would only have force if theists conceived of God as a complicated brain rather than as an incorporeal being.

It is true that we have no experience of minds that are not associated with complicated brains. And from this fact materialists like Dawkins infer that mind is just a feature of matter that emerges when matter is organized in certain complex ways. As Nagel notes, this inference is also encouraged by the great explanatory success of the physical sciences:

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

Nagel is clearly correct about this. Physics is ultimately about quantities—quantities that are calculated through equations or quantities that are measured with instruments. However, from matter in motion through space and time, and from the equations that describe it, such things as consciousness and sensory experience cannot arise. So, as Nagel says, the project of “physicalist reductionism” is “doomed.”

It may be that minds of the sort we encounter in living organisms arise as a consequence of the activities of complex physical structures. However, that “consequence” cannot be one that is physically explicable, in the sense that it follows logically from the mathematical laws of physics. There must be other kinds of explanations in the world than the kinds theoretical physicists are able to give. As Nagel puts it,

We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal.

Dawkins regards belief in God as a “delusion.” In my judgment, physicalist reductionism such as his is not a delusion but an illusion caused by a trick of perspective. If one’s knowledge of nature remains at the rather superficial level provided by “natural history,” one can easily get the impression that everything is built (or builds itself) from the bottom up; in other words, that the most basic level of reality is the ontologically simplest and most trivial, and that everything emerges somehow out of that. For example, we have learned that swirling clouds of gas and dust gradually formed themselves into galaxies, stars, planetary systems, and other orderly structures. On those planets there was some primordial soup or ooze or slime, the atoms of which combined into larger and larger molecules and finally into self-replicating ones. Simpler organisms evolved into more complex ones, and eventually sensation and thought made their appearance. It may seem that science is telling us that the arrow always goes from lower to higher, from simpler to more sophisticated, from chaos to order, from matter to form, from body to mind—mind only emerging at the very end.

However, the deeper understanding provided by the more fundamental branches of science presents us with a very different picture. That order which appeared to “arise spontaneously” from chaos or slime did no such thing. It arose from profound principles of order that were there from the very beginning. The wonderful structure of the solar system emerged because the dust and gas from which it formed obeyed the deep and beautiful laws discovered by Newton. Those laws in turn flow from the deeper and more beautiful laws of General Relativity discovered by Einstein. The slime from which life arose was made of atoms that had all the structure and intricacy and potentiality that chemists devote their lives to studying. Those laws of chemistry are themselves the consequence of the beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, which in their turn come from the even more profound structures studied in “quantum field theory.”

As one moves deeper into nature—to levels about which the natural historian and zoologist can tell us nothing—one encounters not less and less form but increasingly magnificent mathematical structures, structures so profound that even the greatest mathematicians are having difficulty understanding them. This is what Pope Benedict was referring to in his Regensburg lecture when he spoke of “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, . . . the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature.” It is what the great mathematician Hermann Weyl meant when he said, “[I]n our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.” It is what the great astrophysicist James Jeans meant when he said, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”

At the foundations of the natural world, we do not find merely slime or dust or some dull insensate stuff. We find ideas of sublime beauty. Dawkins looks at mind and sees atoms in motion. Physicists look at those atoms, and deep below those atoms, and see—or, at least, some of them have seen—the products of “sublime reason,” “a great thought,” a Mind.

In other words, in nature we see a different arrow: It moves from Mind to ideas and forms, and from ideas and forms to matter. In the beginning was the Logos, St. John tells us, and the Logos was God.


This convinces me all the more that religion is an aesthetic critique on existence. Note the words Barr uses to describe the reductionist, bottom up materialist explanation of existence: "rather superficial level provided by 'natural history'", "ontologically simplest and most trivial", " primordial soup or ooze or slime". But when he is describing the nonreductionist, Platonic explanation involving mind, Logos and God, he uses phrases like "profound principles of order", "wonderful structure", "deep and beautiful laws discovered by Newton", "deeper and more beautiful laws of General Relativity discovered by Einstein", "beautifully elaborate laws of electromagnetism and quantum mechanics", "even more profound structures studied in 'quantum field theory'", "magnificent mathematical structures", " flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason".

This poses the question of whether philosophy should be about explaining the universe or painting a pleasing portrait of it. Is philosophy an investigative reporter trying to uncover the truth about exstence or a publicist trying to portray it in the best possible light? These arguments from aesthetics are the most unconvincing to me. Aesthetic judgments are by their very nature subjective, and really tell you little more than what it is that you find beautiful. In what way are Newton's laws of motion or Einstein's theories of Relativity "beautiful"? What is so magnificent about mathematical structures? Only a science geek will find these things beautiful.

Churchmen were offended by Galileo's discoveries of mountains on the Moon, because it upset their aesthetic vision of God, whom they saw as creating celestial spheres of precise geometrical perfection. Ideas of beauty are too idiosyncratic and personal to offer any useful guidance for determining the truth. So why do serious people continue to invoke the "beauty" argument when trying to understand existence?

It is because most people don't want to know the Truth, ie. the universe as it really is. They want to hold a pleasing truth in their mind.

38 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go.'

Or, if you are a Scholastic Roman Catholic, an unsuccessful one.

It takes a chutzpah for a member of a school of thought that was completely unable to master any aspect of the physical, observable world to tell the ones who did master it that they are incompetent .

October 21, 2006 9:39 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Eager;

It seems to me that it is more of a claim of over extension than incompetence. I don't see where he disputes the successes of modern science in its primary areas.

October 21, 2006 9:46 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

So what? Prior to the secular arguments that he now accepts, the religionists made positive claims about the physical universe.

They weren't just chatting, either. They killed people who disagreed with them.

Every single one of those claims was incorrect. These people batted .000 in understanding the apprehensible world.

As this jerk says, it is even harder to understand the inapprehensible world (impossible, in fact, since it does not exist). If they weren't up to understanding the material world, they aren't up to understanding anything.

October 21, 2006 12:54 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

harry eagar wrote: "These people batted .000 in understanding the apprehensible world."

What's the current batting average and how do you know?

October 21, 2006 4:25 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Whose current batting average?

'I shoot an arrow into the air
'It falls to earth I know not where . . .'

Actually, given proper instrumentation, we know where it falls.

It does not, as the Church taught until only about 300 years ago, go up in an arc and drop down vertically.

For pete's sake, the pope in Rome is still exorcising actual demons, or imagines that he does.

October 21, 2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

'I shoot an arrow into the air
'It falls to earth I know not where . . .'


Actually, given proper instrumentation, we know where it falls.

Harry, that is wonderful. Talk about summing up the fun side of scientific rationalism in one image. Hey, I know just the guys you should call on to get the coordinates of that arrow pinned down properly. They understand aesthetics very well that know that serious truth-seekers describe reality rather than waste everybody's time painting pleasing portraits.

October 22, 2006 2:42 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck, Duck, Duckity, Duck, Duck:

Just because some religious person, or institution, or Holy Mother Church, has an opinion on something does not mean that that is a religious opinion.

The Bible is silent on whether the Earth moves or whether there are mountains on the Moon. (In fact, I think that properly understood, Genesis implies a heliocentric solar system, but who cares?) The Church's scientists didn't disagree with Galileo because they were Christians but because they were Aristotelians.

Galileo called into question a perfectly good model of the solar system that had survived and worked well -- better at that point than Galileo's -- for more than a millennia. They're allowed to be a little skeptical. Compared to how the scientific and pop-science establishments treat global warming skeptics today, challenging the received wisdom of, gee, the last seven years, the Church was downright welcoming to Galileo and his Moon mountains.

They were, of course, annoyed at him, but that wasn't because he said that the Earth moved, it's because he said "The Earth moves, and the Pope is an idiot." And, including Galileo, the number of people the Church has killed for the sin of advancing science is roughly zero.

The Church came to accept that the Earth moves, just as it accepts evolution. In fact, the irony of your anti-Catholicism is that the Catholic Church is the most science-philic of churches. They employ scientists and try to incorporate their findings in their understanding of G-d's creation. Because you have a brittle understanding of religion, you think that religion is brittle. But most successful religions are necessarily supple, and all agree that reality is consistent with G-d -- how could they think otherwise?

Harry: I have no idea what you're going on about. Galileo was a Catholic scientist, and saw himself as such. Drawing an arbitrary line between Galileo and the Church and saying that the Church's science was wrong while Galileo was right is designed solely to justify your own apostasy.

And, in any event, "Catholic" is just a small subset of "religion."

October 22, 2006 9:28 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David,
My post wasn't primarily or exclusively aimed at the Catholic church. That example was just one of many I could have used, and if it originated with Aristotle, it is still a valid critique. I'm arguing against this whole notion that beauty and truth are connected.

The argument from aesthetics is used most nowadays in relation to evolution. As Barr describes it, a universe that is the manifestation of a Logos is full of beauty and wonder, whereas a universe without a Logos is drab, shabby and slimy. There is no power of persuasion in his argument other than the appeal of his aesthetic judgments. He is like the Mr Blackwell of scientific criticism. It is a useless avenue of inquiry, one only destined to ensconce pleasing myths into the psyche.

October 22, 2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Not a single person killed, David? Did you forget about this person?

October 22, 2006 11:20 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'A little skeptical'?

It took them close to 250 years to surrender.

That the error originated in Greek rationalism -- which was just as infirmly founded as Christian rationalism, which may be why they found each other so compatible -- does not change the fact that the religion adopted not only the results but the method, and stuck to it in the face of apprehensible evidence to the contrary.

Galileo was right, the pope was an idiot. He was punished for saying so.

In religion, the truth shall not set you free. It will get you imprisoned.

It is true that at the margins, where theories are not yet demonstrable, the physical scientists like to talk about 'beautiful' or 'elegant' solutions, which they suspect are closer to the natural world than kludges.

In biology, however, while Darwin's theory in its simplest form is elegant, it has turned out that Nature does not act simply. In life, everything looks kludgy.

Darwin himself was notably unimpressed by the esthetics of nature, which he found beautiful but horrible. Compare the tangled bank with the ichneumon.

October 22, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This review of The God Delusion is a mess, consisting at least as much of ad hominem as actual analysis. Unfortunately, the book itself is something of a mess, giving religious reviewers plenty of opportunity to avoid Dawkins' central argument, which itself is less coherently put than it could be: religion is inherently evil, in direct proportion to the fervor of belief. (A point that seems lost lately in the moral relativism that has swamped some commentators recently.)

Nagel replaces rapturous phraseology for argument, while insisting [Dawkins'] argument would only have force if theists conceived of God as a complicated brain rather than as an incorporeal being. If I wanted to illustrate the meaning of the saying "distinction without difference," it would be hard to find a more effective candidate. As well, in a sentence it makes the point that God's real name should be OAOB (On Account Of Because).

Peter:

Harry, that is wonderful. Talk about summing up the fun side of scientific rationalism in one image.

This is OT, and worse, self referential. Sorry. One of the moments of, well, joy, I remember from college was using calculus to derive, and thereby prove, Newton's laws of motion. I never lost sight, of course, that I was only tracing a well worn path, while continually astonished that I was using Newton's calculus, which (with credit also due to Leibniz) he got around to inventing on top of everything else.

Thereby demonstrating the utter sterility of Aristotelieans.

David:

It is quite true that the Church's hostility to rational inquiry is somewhat over egged.

That doesn't mean, though, that it was nonexistent. The Index scarcely welcomed contrary inquiry. Through 1948, Copernicus was still listed, and it wasn't until the early 18th century when heliocentrism was no longer part of the Index.

Just because some religious person, or institution, or Holy Mother Church, has an opinion on something does not mean that that is a religious opinion.

Every opinion accompanied by the charge of heresy is de facto religious; Galileo was charged with heresy.


Duck's point about argument from "aesthetics" is well put. I doubt Barr has the tiniest notion of what Einstein's theory entails, and is therefore in no position to pass judgment on its "beautiful laws." Nor would Relativity be less valid if it offended Barr's sensibilities.

October 22, 2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger David said...

Harry: Simplification has been a powerful tool, but it might have taken us as far as it can. In any event, if you want to dislike the Church as an institution, I've got no problem with that.

Duck: We're still at zero.

October 22, 2006 12:38 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Thereby demonstrating the utter sterility of Aristotelieans.

Well, with Duck decimating the Platonists and you terminating the Aristolians with great prejudice and both of you proving what nonsense Judeo-Christian thought is, let's just abolish history and philosophy and get with the programme, right?

October 22, 2006 4:26 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
Somehow I sense that your heart isn't in it.

October 22, 2006 4:36 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

Newton put an astonishing amount of effort into his achievements, and measured the results against nature.

Aristotle pretty much decided how it must be, and left it at that.

With respect to rational inquiry, which approach has proved fruitful, and which sterile?

I'm not decimating anything; the results speak for themselves.

October 22, 2006 6:08 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It would be fairer to call Aristotle a transitional figure.

It was Plato who decided how things ought to be and declared that, therefore, they were.

Aristotle did a lot of field biology, and although some of his speculations were far off the mark, he did refer his ideas back to apprehensible nature.

But the church interrupted the transition to naturalism.

The church did not so much adopt Aristotelianism as adapt it to dogmatic theology. It kept the bathwater, threw out the baby.

There are two really remarkable things about this:

1. There was and is no reason in religion to have done this. Religion is not obliged to describe the cosmos.

2. After having had its mistake demonstrated to it about a million times, it still hates to admit it. This suggests that religion, at least the Christian religion, is all about exercising arbitrary power and strongly supports Dawkins' assessment that religion is fundamentally evil. Or stupid.

I will leave it to the religionists to decide which is worse.

October 22, 2006 10:10 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

My heart was very much in it to the point I was musing carefully about your thoughts, but before I was able to craft a comment your fellow Duckians took down poetry and the core of ancient philosophy as well and left me breathless and unable to keep up.

So I'll just reply to your post with a few bullets:

A) Your argument seems to be built on a view of religion as a take-no-prisoners competitor with secular science in a contest over who has the most provable natural history. You forget that there is only one side that is trying to eradicate the other and dismiss everything it says. I am as troubled by what churchmen around Galileo thought about the moon as you are by the equations worked out by medieval alchemists, but I do note how fond you are of reaching far into the past to attack religion in 2006. We who challenge scientism and rule by atheistic rationalism are generally well-grounded in modern times. That gives me comfort we must be on the right track;

B) I doubt most religious folks beyond the age of twenty would have any difficulty admitting that religion is awash in aesthetics, although "just about aesthetics" they wouldn't agree with obviously. This is hardly surprising about a venture that sets out to try and know the unknowable and fathom the unfathomable. You seem to think you have scored a telling blow, but I'm not sure what it is. It's as if I tried to convince folks that science should be opposed because it is complicated or boring.

C) Yeah, this "beautiful laws" bit makes me squirm sometimes too, but Dawkins and a lot of his pals talk this way as well. Skipper has it right that it comes from studying what you know and love. For him it's calculus. I've felt it about the historical development of common law, but I've learned not to try and share the beauty of that at dinner parties. People who go on about what they see in paintings leave me cold but I can bore with the best of them about my favourite music. The only issue here is the tendency of the modern philistine to dismiss it as subjective and no more significant that the beauty he sees in misogynist rap. Or, even worse, "just aesthetics". :-)

D) But my main problem is that, once again we have a moving target. That awful religion, as we all know, is responsible for ignorance, repression, bloodshed, death and all manner of misogynist sexual warping, right? You and Harry have alluded to its dark influence in your personal lives. Ecrasez l'infame! Then all of a sudden it's like a warm, beautiful nursery keeping us all comfortably swathed in aesthetic beauty and safe from things that go bump in the rational night. C'mon, can't you guys at least decide on that one?

How about taking a gander at Chapter VI here and posting your thoughts? How can something you think any bright and critical mind should dismiss as irrational, wrong, destructive and unnecessary be so many contradictory things at once?

October 23, 2006 3:38 AM  
Blogger David said...

Of course, within our circle the progenitor of the "everything is aesthetics, Christianity is just the most beautiful story" theory of religion is OJ. Now Duck agrees. Sort of like Pat Buchanan running for president with a communist running-mate.

You guys are being unfair to Aristotle and the Church. Aristotle's model of the solar system worked fine -- in fact, it worked better than Galileo's, which was, of course, just as wrong, albeit it in a different way. The Church needed astronomy not because it cared very much about what the solar system really looks like, but because it needed a calandar. This is a universeral problem for expanding religions, which need to keep track of what day it is in Rome/Mecca/Jerusalam. Aristotle gave them a perfectly workable calandar, but when Copernicus came along and they found that he gave them an even better calandar, they were more than willing to ignore the fact that Copernicus' model was set up as if the Earth orbited the Sun.

Interestingly, this is a problem that Islam has never solved, which is why Ramadan advances by two weeks every year, and they can't tell you when it will begin or end until it does.

October 23, 2006 7:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I wouldn't say religion has had a dark influence in my life. But it has done so in people I care about.

To say, complacently, that the Aristotelian (or Pythagorean) description of the cosmos was 'better' or 'more accurate' requires ignoring a lot of observations.

Comets, for example. The church thought a lot about comets and assigned them great significance.

But everything it thought about comets was wrong.

The issue, however, is not which description was approaching closer to reliable observations but that the church arrogated to itself the right to declare which was acceptab le.

You cannot have religion and liberty. The best you can hope for is an uneasy compormise.

October 23, 2006 10:05 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

With respect to Duck's argument, I don't think it is addressed at religion, but rather at Nagel's argument, which is both florid and empty. Appeals to aesthetics so mire the appealer in subjectivity as to leave me astonished every time a religionist does so. Especially when the appeal, as in Nagen's (probable -- I don't know anything about him, so can't say for sure) case, is based upon pure ignorance.

Per Duck:

. As Barr describes it, a universe that is the manifestation of a Logos is full of beauty and wonder, whereas a universe without a Logos is drab, shabby and slimy. There is no power of persuasion in his argument other than the appeal of his aesthetic judgments. ... It is a useless avenue of inquiry, one only destined to ensconce pleasing myths into the psyche.

Its galloping uselessness is contained wholly in the first sentence. The universe is what it is, and cannot be two things at the same time. "Because I discern beauty and wonder, therefore Logos" is as preposterous a combination of antecedent and conclusion as I have ever seen.

You and Harry have alluded to its dark influence in your personal lives.

Speaking only for myself, particular revelation, combined with universalism, was all it took for me.

How about taking a gander at Chapter VI here and posting your thoughts?

I did.

As for my very first thought, a writer that includes such horrors as a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind is at the very least no fan of brevity, In the bargain, his analytical skills should be suspect, because rampant verbosity and rigor seldom go hand in hand.[/snark]

GK Chesterton poses Christianity as divinely establishing a perfect Euclidean balance of contradictions, and, through accomplishing this high-wire act, is thereby rendered True and consequently worthy of belief.

Well, that is one way of looking at it.

There is another (See footnote one). I know your patience is tried every time I even think to type "Baroque" and "Monarchic", those terms do provide the ability to categorize belief systems by their properties.

The other way of looking at it is that Christianity's ability to be whatever it needs to be, with varying amounts of institutional inertia thrown in, means that balancing act Chesterton points out makes Christianity a Baroque belief system that, while largely Monarchic, also has no small amount of Meritocratic thrown in.

This makes Christianity responsive, to some extent, to Reason (per Pope Benedict), in ways that Islam simply is not.

David:

Of course, within our circle the progenitor of the "everything is aesthetics, Christianity is just the most beautiful story" theory of religion is OJ. Now Duck agrees.

Sorry, but you completely lost me here.

Also, IIRC, Aristotle's calendar was not perfectly workable, otherwise there would have been no need for the Gregorian correction. That isn't to say Galileo's was more correct in its ability to supply predictions, but it was far closer to the mark than what had gone before.

Interestingly, this is a problem that Islam has never solved ...

That is interesting, isn't it? That seems to underscore the point that Islam is so immune to anything approaching Reason as to be destined for failure. Unfortunately, that failure is unlikely to be graceful.

October 23, 2006 5:44 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

OK, so I've been a little too oversimplifying. I should have written "among other things, religion is an aesthetic critique of existence". Your complaints are duly noted.

I read Chesterton's chapter on the paradoxes of Christianity, and I have to say that his defense is quite creative, if unconvincing. I'm sure that the critiques of Christianity were all over the map, but that is just because Christianity itself is so. Chesterton thinks it improbable that one thing could have so many contradictory facets, but Christianity is not one thing. It has been and continues to be a sprawling mass of interpretations suitable for every conceivable cultural zeitgeist. It has been adapted to suit wimpy pacifists and agressive builders of empire, dopey Jesus freaks and uptight Puritans.

Chesterton's style is a little too self-serving to persuade anyone but the persuaded. Just as the athiest's self-serving pose of being the free-thinking iconoclast surely grates on the nerves of the believer, Chesterton's poses are equally grating on the unbeliever, like the paragraph closing the chapter:
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to
Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure;
and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth
reeling but erect.


He's not so much arguing for truth as he is spinning a romantic image of orthodox Christianity as some dangerous, wild beast. It is quite hard to force myself through his writing, because he is so verbose and florid, and his images just build upon each other like frothy waves, and you know that nothing he says is going to convince you in the least. He is much like C S Lewis, in that the believer who reads him feels such an emotional connection that he can't imagine anyone not being persuaded on the spot, yet there is really nothing that can prompt even a moment of doubt in the unbeliever, because the self-serving nature of the arguments are so transparent. The unbeliever comes off as a colorless, one-dimensional stick figure, while the Christian is such a full-bodied, vibrant dynamo of passions, colorful and excusable human foibles and admirable virtues that you wonder how they keep from bursting through three dimensions.

But I'm not sure everything he writes paint Christianity in such a good light. Take a gander at this passage:

Last and most important, it is exactly this which explains
what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of
Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology,
the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair's breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading,
but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically
for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through
a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.


This sounds like the way you would describe Communism in the 20th century, or Islamic fundamentalism today. It's a portrait of an unstable brew of fanatical utopian ideologies waiting for a match to set it and the world aflame. Is that how you see Christianity?

October 23, 2006 9:01 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

What's worse, in the sense of being nonsense on stilts, is the pervasive, yet implicit, assumption that all along Christianity was navigating shoals towards a certain destiny.

Who knew mere people were so good at remembering the future?

October 23, 2006 9:37 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Wow. You can't have found Chesterton that hard to get through because you've started to write like him. I must say that your last comment is just brimming with aesthetic richness!

Granted my link may have given you the opening to shift from basic belief to your first love--bashing bad old Christianity (just awful until compared with Islam, at which point it suddenly becomes full of sublety and reason)--, but it is really too bad Chesterton isn't around anymore because the Ducks would have given him yet another paradox to wrestle with. On the one hand any proper reading of scripture would reveal staightline beliefs and commands only the lazy or hypocritical Christian (maddening for atheists) would question. On the other Christianity ...is not one thing. It has been and continues to be a sprawling mass of interpretations suitable for every conceivable cultural zeitgeist. Hmm, sounds like the makings of a good flic. How about "Secular Rationalists Can't Dance"?

Duck, I'm trying to argue philosophy with you, not convert you. Your whole post seems to be about how religion is a aesthetic myth (in the true sense of that word) that explains existence through a common langauge and imagery, some of which is very comforting and some of which is not. I gather we are now at the point where we agree that it is that but it's also all sorts of other things too. Cool. But isn't the issue why you feel the case for faith is undermined bigtime when the aesthetic image of one era is found wanting in another?

BTW, there are lots of common themes between Christianity and Communism. There are also lots of common themes between autocratic rule and Judaism. There are lots of common themes between the Founders and Larry Flynt. However, there are lots of differences too. Spice of life.

Skipper:

I know your patience is tried every time I even think to type "Baroque" and "Monarchic"

Got it in one, but I wonder if you understand why. It isn't so much the horrible and tired generalizations that frustrate me. It's how you use these concepts to lump everybody in the world on one side and American libertarians on the other. It's basically an exculpatory legerdemain you use to define yourself as immune from the dangers of irrational faith or political fervor--no moral flies on you. I get the impression you somehow think that your meritocratic focus on "what works" guarantees non-oppressive behaviour and that therefore the world has nothing to fear from your denial of objective morality. The problem is that while you rend your garments over the Inquisition or religious wars or other horrible "baroque" stuff, you calmly move from "what works" to "America works" to "American exceptionalism" to "Let's bomb the Serbs from 20,000 ft" and see that progression as an expression of value-free logic and science.

October 24, 2006 3:18 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

First off, "Baroque" and "Monarchic", like "Spartan" and "Meritocratic" are not generalizations. They are reasonably well defined terms allowing the categorization of various belief systems and, thereby, allow grouping those systems by their characteristics, rather than their details. Those categories are either accurate and defendable, or not, but they are neither horrible nor tired.

Second, and I probably should have been more expansive, what I wrote was complimentary towards Christianity. Where I would have once discounted the possibility, on further inspection, Christianity appears to be sui generis in that it manages to be simultaneously both Spartan and Meritocratic.

Given the parameters of Spartan / Baroque and Monarchic / Meritocratic, there are four possible combinations. Of those, Spartan - Monarchic and Baroque - Meritocratic belief systems are always unstable over time, becoming either Baroque - Monarchic, Spartan - Meritocratic, or extinct.

Well, almost always. While I think Chesterton's conclusion is faulty, and his writing seriously depletes the world's supply of words, his argument does point to why Christianity, as a belief system, is so unique.

Consequently, I have come to conclude that whatever the merits of Christianity's claim to objective truth, subjectively it has a great deal going for it that other religions, Islam in particular, do not.

Pope Benedict's Regensburg speech said a great deal in this respect. All of it directly refuting, among other things, the moral relativism that has overtaken some prominent bloggers.

October 24, 2006 4:01 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Aaargh.

to be simultaneously both Meritocratic and Monarchic.

October 24, 2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

If Christianity has any merit, it is that it has absorbed secular ideas without admitting them to itself.

It is past amusing to see 21st century religionists claim what used to be secular heresies as Christian goods, innocently (or not) ignoring the fact that these parasitical growths are not Christian in origin and would have gotten an earlier iteration of Christian killed or condemned for pushing.

I have long ago mentioned John Bosworth's 'Kindness of Strangers,' the history of how abandoned children were treated in the classical world.

A Christian with a short memory can point with glee at Rousseau, who had his wife deliver their 5 babies to the nuns through the secret gate. A longer memory would reveal (per Bosworth) that Christians learned to do this from pagans. It is not a biblical idea.

If anything that suits one's fancy is 'Christianity,' then why have priests?

October 24, 2006 5:36 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

But isn't the issue why you feel the case for faith is undermined bigtime when the aesthetic image of one era is found wanting in another?

I think your sentence is missing a clause, because I'm not quite sure what you are asking me here. I'd agree that since aesthetic values can change from one era to another, or even between separate cultural groups within an era, that it makes a poor foundation for faith in what is purported to be objective, transcendent truth. A philosopher should be able to examine his own mind and distinguish those judgments that are subjective from those that are truly objective. The error of the Platonic tradition has been to miss this distinction, and to promote subjective judgments of truth and beauty to the transcendental, objective realm of eternal forms.

Barr makes a point that I do agree with when he says:

The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

The point being that to handle those subjective aspects of existence we need to use a separate form of reasoning than that employed to examine the non-subjective. This is something that Dawkins and the scientific community understand very well. It is the faith community, particularly the neo-Platonists like Ed Feser and Pope Benedict that seek to find objective, scientifically precise answers to subjective problems like morality.

One of OJ's favorite lines is that atheists cannot derive morality for themselves, because they don't posit a transcendental source from which to derive it from. The problem is that transcendental sources are precisely the wrong places to look to derive moral principles. The only reliable source for deriving moral principles is human experience. Morality is exclusively a human concern. To the extent that humans have established moral values and principles, they have done so because our collective experience has proven that they are necessary for our own continued existence, prosperity and happiness here on Earth, not for some promise of otherworldly reward. Morality is not an intellectual exercise derived from abstract principles, it is an existential imperative. Subjective human experience is the only place to derive and validate moral principles and moral values. It is not a science, it is an art, the only necessary art that humans practice.

The Platonists want to treat all endeavors to dicover truth as intellectual exercises in logic based on metaphysical principles pulled out of thin air. Pope Benedict wants to hand moral reasoning back over to ivory tower philosophers. That is the worst thing we can do, apart from giving up all moral reasoning and submitting to the authroty of someone's revelation, as the Islamists do.

October 25, 2006 10:40 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That was well put.

October 25, 2006 1:06 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes Duck, you are on your game with this one. The Sophists would be very impressed.

We have hashed over your quaint belief that the sincere faithful must believe in timeless, literal injunctions outside of time, place and history many times before, as well has your even quainter belief that scientific orthodoxies must be considered immutable fact even though the whole project is by definition constantly evolving and self-correcting. So let me focus on one juicy bit of modern cant you threw in there:

The only reliable source for deriving moral principles is human experience..

In the first place, you are showing your age. That's the creed of an aging man bruised and battered on the rocky shoals of life who has left most of the exciting parts behind him and now spends too much time philosophising and contemplating his autobiography, which he would surely write if he had a bit more energy. Is that what you would say to a twenty-year old newlywed contemplating adultery or a young man with power of attorney thinking of "borrowing" his aged widowed mother's life savings for a short time to take advantage of a sure-thing stock tip? Trust your experience? How can life's experience be a guide to anything for those who haven't had any?

The second obvious objection is that, as everyone has different experiences, so everyone will have different moralities if they are their sole guide and source. You are too dismissive of OJ's freeloading argument, but even if I allow that a strict secularist can indeed deduce a noble morality (which I would), I'd like to hear you explain how two strict secularists can possibly agree on any moral principles to guide the community beyond bare legal arrangements. David has made the point many times that the libertarian who wants maximum freedom and minimal legal prohibitions had better understand that such can only be built on commonly understood, socially enforced moral principles. Your arguments explains how everyone can have them, but not how they can have the same ones. Sorry, you need some common notion of ...shudder... Authority for that.

A good example is the modern sexual harassment codes that generally drive conservatives and libertarians nuts, the conservative because they are based on one-sided subjective feelings rather than objective behaviour and the libertarian because they restrict his constitutional freedom to...God know what. But they didn't jump out of nowhere, did they? they came about because certain things inevitably happen when men and women are put together in close quarters with no common ground rules. So, assuming you don't like those laws, can you explain how everyone deducing his own morality from his own unique experiences with no deference to religion, tradition or custom can agree on a common code of social behaviour at the office that will maximize freedom, minimize legal coercion and give women security?

October 28, 2006 3:54 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
You're missing my entire point. Human experience is a collective thing. I'm not suggesting that people derive their morality strictly from their own personal experiences without any consideration of the collective wisdom of the society or past generations. I do not reject authority. But the most powerful and persuasive authority is the authority of experience.

When young people are taught the rules without the experiential history behind the rules, they are left morally defenseless when they are put in situations that call the reasonsing behind the rules in question. One thing I noticed growing up in the 60s and 70s is that many of the young boomers flaunting the sexual mores of their parents were never given any reasons why free sex was wrong, they were just told it is wrong. If parents had shared with their children the consequences of "free love" via the stories from their parent's past, they would have been better armed to evaluate the wisdom of these radical social ideas.

After I was an adult my parents began to share with me some of the family "dirt", the sordid details of my aunts and uncles and grandparents , the mistakes they made and the consequences of those mistakes. Each of these stories could have provided me with experiental wisdom if shared with me at an earlier age. But it wasn't respectable to be so open with family secrets back then.

My point is that all moral derivations are trumped by experience in the end. It is fine and dandy for religious people to say that they derive morality from eternal transcendent ideas, but it is nonsense, because in the end they have inherited moral rules dictated by experience. Experience trumps revelation and theology in the end. We all derive morality from experience. Morality is an empirical art, not a theoretical art. The moral theories derived from theology are merely a gloss on the collective record of hard won experiential wisdom.

October 28, 2006 8:58 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

The second obvious objection is that, as everyone has different experiences, so everyone will have different moralities ... explain how two strict secularists can possibly agree on any moral principles to guide the community beyond bare legal arrangements.

It is extremely unlikely I can improve upon Duck's response, but I will add a couple of cents anyway.

Morality isn't certainty, it is statistics. No one knows, a priori, the consequences of any action. But society adopts a moral opinion about actions based on a collective estimation of potential outcomes and consequences. For almost all elements of what we consider morality, the balance between the two changes over time, no matter the basis for moral judgments.

Several things are almost always left out of assertions that non-believers are unable to deduce moral behavior.

First, all morality is materially based. (I purposefully exclude such purported sins as failing to observe the Sabbath, worshipping the wrong god, etc. Sins they may be, but matters of morality they are not.) Murder, theft, adultery, all have significant material consequences. So asserting a non-believer cannot deduce moral behavior is tantamount to asserting non-believers are somehow incapable of observing and assessing material consequences.

Second, symmetry. There is no preferred moral frame of reference. There is absolutely no material basis to conclude that one person's considerations trump another's. (This gives the lie to OJ's repulsive charge that non-believers are somehow unable to comprehend the principles upon which the US is based, BTW.)

Third, there is no such thing as a lone human. People are irrevocably social beings, whose personal welfare is dependent upon a great many things besides immediate personal gratification.

Based upon those three things alone, I'll bet that any number of materialists will come to as close agreement on any particular moral question as a similar number of believers. What's more, I'll bet there will be little difference between the two groups.

This result isn't due to freeloading, unless one concludes both groups are freeloading upon experience.

David has made the point many times that the libertarian who wants maximum freedom and minimal legal prohibitions had better understand that such can only be built on commonly understood, socially enforced moral principles.

A maximalist Libertarian has at least a couple unresolved contradictions, but I don't think David's objection is necessarily one of them. Such a Libertarian would counter, and I largely agree, that, to a very great extent, government coercion is simply not required for, and may run counter to, commonly understood, socially enforceable principles. (It is worth noting that one is a libertarian to the extent one believes in limited government)

The common notion of authority is that ladled out by experience -- that is the authority no one escapes.

So, assuming you don't like [sexual harassment codes], can you explain how everyone deducing his own morality from his own unique experiences with no deference to religion, tradition or custom can agree on a common code of social behaviour...

Well, I sure don't like them. But do you really want to rely upon religion?

Agreeing that sexual harassment is vile is the easy part. Deciding precisely when it exists, and what to do about it, is the rub. And I doubt religion offers much help there.

Sexual harassment isn't an invention of the late 20th century. The laws exist as part of the secular trend of extending the symmetry argument, a particular weakness of religion.

That isn't to say religion has no strengths -- the additional continuity it provides to moral assertions cannot be denied.

October 28, 2006 2:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck/Skipper:

...all morality is materially based.

Tis' Not!

At some point we must agree to disagree or shoot one another. That is your belief and I hope you will at least agree a belief is what it is. It flows nicely in theory, but just cannot hold up to experience.

Look, let's imagine a guy unhappy in his marriage who is contemplating leaving his wife and three younguns' for the foxy number in the next office. I simply don't understand what you mean when you say he should look to experience, whether his or everybody else's, as a guidepost. What in the world is that "experience" supposed to tell him? Who is capable of digesting the collective experience of his family, let alone that of all of human history? Are you suggesting that all rational people can deduce the right and consistent answer from history? Or are you saying nobody can say for him and either choice may be the right one, depending on his experience? I am assuming we can agree on what the right course is. Can we? If not, please stop using the word morality and substitute opinion instead, because that is what you are actually talking about and I hereby accuse you of philosophical and linguistic free-loading. Let's get real. If you honestly think a typical guy in that situation is capable of making a carefully-considered rational assessment of the material pros and cons, you should get out a lot more. The only way we can have any confidence he will make the "right" choice is if we know he hears a voice within repeating: "Thou...shalt...not!"

One intriguing result of this postmodern Western insistence on default materialism as the explanation of all things can be seen in our fumbling response to the war against Islamicism. It seems the typical Western mind can no longer digest the idea of a religious challenge that will only be defeated by a religious response or a religious resistence. We keep coming up with all manner of "materialist" explanations (poverty, existential despair, ignorance, authoritarianism, psycho-sexual misogyny, American arrogance, etc., etc. etc.---take your pick) and they just keep on laughing and digging in for the long haul.

October 29, 2006 5:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I simply don't understand what you mean when you say he should look to experience, whether his or everybody else's, as a guidepost. What in the world is that "experience" supposed to tell him?

Well, somewhere in his past someone prabably reneged on a promise to him or betrayed him. He can reflect on how that betrayal hurt him, and then he can use that feeling to imagine how his infidelity will affect his wife. He can ask himself "do I want to do that to her? Is the excitement of this one little fling worth it, for me to carry around with me the guilt of having betrayed her for the rest of my life?"

Or he can reflect a little more selfishly on the impact to his own life. He can ask himself "do I want my marriage to come to and end? Do I want to risk it? Will this one night of illicit excitement compensate for the years of loneliness and regrets that I will face for blowing this marriage?"

I don't see what the problem with this approach is, it seems rather commonsensical and obvious.

October 29, 2006 12:47 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Aha! On the one hand, The Commandments are an irrational, outrageous and archaic imposition of oppressive control that demeans man and denies him his existential freedom. On the other, they are just common sense any boobie with half a brain will deduce if he understands his material self-interest.

Nice work, if you can get it. Remind me, Duck, what were those big liberating thoughts you had when you left the Church?

October 29, 2006 4:06 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

That I can deduce right and wrong without needing to defer to men in paper hats.

October 29, 2006 5:13 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

And btw, the first five are archaic and irrational, the second five are common sense.

To expand further on my liberating thoughts on leaving the Church, it is that morality and religious faith are two separate things. Man needs morality, but he can do without religious faith. There are no secret eternal principles about morality that need to be revealed to us by God or divined by philosophers. Morality is a human affair, it is about how humans live with one another.

As far as freeloading goes, we all make use of the patrimony of our ancestors, but it is only freeloading if you don't put anything in for the next generation. We get to learn from our ancestors triumphs and mistakes, and our children will learn from our triumphs and mistakes. Religion does not own human experience.

October 29, 2006 5:41 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

When I say all morality is materially based, I mean that there is no such thing as a moral prohibition against something that doesn't have material consequences.

Well, except for the prohibition against wearing white after Labor Day.

What in the world is that "experience" supposed to tell him?

Well, as Duck mentioned, symmetry should tell him that what goes around, comes around.

And that he must know, from experience, that he is going to go through a fairly extended period of personal and financial turmoil, and will probably lose the respect of a great many people.

Beyond that, he probably knows of others that have trod that same path to perdition.

None of that means he won't make the wrong choice -- humans are notoriously incompetent at balance present benefit against future cost.

But all the signposts are there. No one need go to church to see them.

October 30, 2006 9:49 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

But all the signposts are there. No one need go to church to see them.

So you think the purpose of going to church is to learn what symmetry has to tell us and see the signposts of human experience?

We have to talk.

October 31, 2006 1:25 AM  

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