Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Da Vinci Dilemma

Pope Benedict XVI's recent, notorious, speech at the University of Regensburg managed to achieve a range of outcomes. Some obvious, trivial even, others more difficult.

First the obvious: causing Islamist reaction so over the top as to make parody impossible. Dynamiting fish in a barrel is a Herculean task in comparison.

Of the more difficult tasks, he confronts head-on the amalgam of faith and reason, which, in turn, provides the springboard for asserting that even mere materialists have a stake in faith, and a reason to choose.

For much, if not all, that follows, I am indebted to Mr. Lee Harris's Socrates or Muhammed: Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason.

Ordinarily, I would refer directly to the source document, for fear of unwittingly integrating a reviewer's biases or mistakes with the author's intent. In this case, though, I chose otherwise for two reasons. First, the real fear that my take on the Pope's literary stylings would require a great deal of time to introduce no end of my own mistakes. Second, and more important, Mr. Harris's article appears the model of learned, unbiased, and balanced explanation.

Putting aside the predictable reactions of Islamists, whose volatility exceeds, and whose self awareness does not, that of a pint jar of nitro glycerin in a hot August day, Pope Benedict's stated intent was to urge those relying upon reason to self-critically examine their own beliefs; clearly his expectation is that such an examination would not yield the naively anticipated answers.

The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?

The Pope urging "... a return to Socratic doubt and self-critique?" As Monty Python would probably have noted: Now for Something Completely Different.

But why should Pope Benedict XVI feel the need at this moment in history to emphasize and highlight the role that Greek philosophical inquiry played in "the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe"? Christian Europe, after all, was a fusion of diverse elements: the Hebrew tradition, the experience of the early Christian community, the Roman genius for law, order, and hierarchy, the Germanic barbarians' love of freedom, among many others.

This description of Europe's sources, though, leaves out several factors of at least equal importance to those listed.

The breakdown of Roman law and order left just as great a mark as its existence. The result, a host of competing mini-states, the exact opposite of a monolith like China, forced Christianity to become what should be a near impossibility: a Baroque/Monarchic-Meritocratic belief system(1). Had the Roman empire broken into a small number of unitary states with the power of imposing widespread orthodoxy within their borders, the outcome would have been far, far, different.

Probably of equal importance is the English Channel: sufficient impediment to ensure England's independence, yet narrow enough to allow easy commerce. English balance of power politics from the 1500s on have been as instrumental as anything else in the formation of Europe, hence Western Civilization, yet it scarcely ever merits mention in the self laudatory citations of Christian apologists.

Be that as it may, Pope Benedict's acknowledgment of Greek philosophy's influence, the "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history" is striking in its conclusions. Whether that amalgam is Divinely inspired or merely fortuitous, Lee Harris is on solid ground when he states "[i]t is a legacy that we in the West are all duty-bound to keep alive--yet it is a legacy that is under attack, both from those who do not share it, namely Islam, and from those who are its beneficiaries and do not understand it, namely, Western intellectuals."

It is here where Pope Benedict seems to go slightly astray:

Ratzinger, it must be stressed, has no trouble with the truths revealed by modern science. He welcomes them. He has no argument with Darwin or Einstein or Heisenberg. What disturbs him is the assumption that scientific reason is the only form of reason, and that whatever is not scientifically provable lies outside the universe of reason. According to Ratzinger, the results of this "modern self-limitation of reason" are twofold. First, "the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity." Second, "by its very nature [the scientific] method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question."

As an aside, I think it would do everyone a great deal of good to no longer use "science" and "reason" as if they are interchangeable terms. Science is impossible in the absence of reason, but using the term confuses what reason, and by contrast, faith do(2).

Like color, the balance between Reason and Faith is not binary, but rather occupies a spectrum. Where the truth values of mutually exclusive statements are completely discernible, one is dealing in pure Reason; where they are impossible to distinguish, one is dealing in pure Faith. If for no other reason than the inscrutability of the future, most of us, most of the time, deal in the broad middle ground comprised of various proportions of both Faith and Reason.

It also seems Pope Benedict has failed to note that one way of proving the existence of something is to assume that thing does not exist, then force a contradiction. Reason does not exclude the question of God, in the sense of asserting God does not exist, but rather proceeds as if God has no hand in the material world. To make such an unnecessary assumption would stop Reason dead in its tracks.

Unnecessary? If God does have a discernible hand in the material world so that we may discern between mutually exclusive statements about God's Hand, then the contradiction is forced, just as is the case in a similar approach to mathematical proofs. So, contrary to Pope Benedict's assertion, Reason cannot disprove the existence of God, but it can (though it hasn't yet) prove God's existence.

In any event, as a materialist, I am aware of all the difficulties Reason presents for the faithful, yet manage to avoid laying awake nights worrying about it.

Pope Benedict, however, thinks I should lose some sleep:

Modern reason argues that questions of ethics, of religion, and of God are outside its compass. Because there is no scientific method by which such questions can be answered, modern reason cannot concern itself with them, nor should it try to. From the point of view of modern reason, all religious faiths are equally irrational, all systems of ethics equally unverifiable, all concepts of God equally beyond rational criticism. But if this is the case, then what can modern reason say when it is confronted by a God who commands that his followers should use violence and even the threat of death in order to convert unbelievers?

If modern reason cannot concern itself with the question of God, then it cannot argue that a God who commands jihad is better or worse than a God who commands us not to use violence to impose our religious views on others. To the modern atheist, both Gods are equally figments of the imagination, in which case it would be ludicrous to discuss their relative merits. The proponent of modern reason, therefore, could not possibly think of participating in a dialogue on whether Christianity or Islam is the more reasonable religion, since, for him, the very notion of a "reasonable religion" is a contradiction in terms.

He is half right, in the sense that, for an atheist, deciding among competing Gods is a fool's errand.

However, within the space of a few words, he poses a false dichotomy, and makes a serious category error.

True, for atheists to discuss the relative merits between competing Gods is a contradiction in terms; but just as true, putting proponents of various religions in a room to discuss the merits of their competing Gods is a recipe for endless cacophony. One conversation would never start, the other would never get anywhere.

Surprisingly, he fails to make the distinction between debating God and religion. No matter what one might think of the existence, or preferences, of God, even the most adamant materialist must acknowledge that religions exist, that they are different, and those differences have material consequences which are certainly within the realm of discussion. This mistake is understandable, though, as many proponents of reason fall into this same pit of their own making: regardless of one's opinion of its objective truth, religious belief is part and parcel of human existence, and can no more be wished away than can gravity.

Here is where Pope Benedict throws, unintentionally or otherwise, gasoline onto the fire:

by calling his educated listeners' attention to a "dialogue--carried on--perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara--by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both." In particular, Ratzinger focuses on a passage in the dialogue where the emperor "addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness" on the "central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'

And where, by the way, the Mr. Harris becomes singularly disingenuous:

Ratzinger's daring use of this provocative quotation was not designed to inflame Muslims. He was using the emperor's question in order to offer a profound challenge to modern reason from within. Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion?

The question answers itself just as surely as Muslims will thereby promptly demonstrate that Islam is nearly beyond parody. The Q'uran and Haddith are both repositories of violent universalist intent eclipsing even Mein Kampf; we do ourselves no favors by failing to note that comparison.

Mr. Harris points out that reason's solution is to leave problems of ethics and religion to individuals, for "[a]ll such choices, from the perspective of modern reason, are equally leaps of faith, or simply matters of taste; hence all are equally irrational." In Pope Benedict's words:

[Reason asserts that questions of ethics and religion] have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science," . . . and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.

Here Pope Benedict assails Reason as it is applied, particularly in Europe. It is a source of continuing mystery why so many non-believers so completely fail to comprehend that applications of belief have material consequences which are amenable to critical analysis, no matter how "irrational" the core belief may be(3). The basis for ethical decisions may be beyond Reason, but the results most assuredly are not. As a materialist, it is not particularly pleasant to have it demonstrated so forcefully that so many fellow-thinkers are nothing more than heedless quislings.

Since it would be nigh on impossible to improve upon, or argue, Mr. Harris's exposition of Pope Benedict's message, I won't even try:

Modern reason, to be sure, cannot prove scientifically that a community of reasonable men is ethically superior to a community governed by violent men. But a critique of modern reason from within must recognize that a community of reasonable men is a necessary precondition of the very existence of modern reason. He who wills to preserve and maintain the achievements of modern reason must also will to live in a community made up of reasonable men who abstain from the use of violence to enforce their own values and ideas. Such a community is the a priori ethical foundation of modern reason. Thus, modern reason, despite its claim that it can give no scientific advice about ethics and religion, must recognize that its own existence and survival demand both an ethical postulate and a religious postulate. The ethical postulate is: Do whatever is possible to create a community of reasonable men who abstain from violence, and who prefer to use reason. The religious postulate is: If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.

Chicken, Egg? Egg, Chicken?

Pope Benedict then goes on to address the chicken and egg problem: how is it a community of reasonable men emerged without there being a community of reasonable men?

To collapse several paragraphs, Pope Benedict's preferred answer is:

modern scientific reason was the product of European cultures of reason, but these rare cultures of reason were themselves the outcome of a well-nigh miraculous convergence of traditions to which Ratzinger has called our attention as constituting the foundation of Europe: the world-historical encounter between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry, "with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage." Thus, for Herder, modern scientific and critical reason, if it looks scientifically and critically at itself, will be forced to recognize that it could never have come into existence had it not been for the "providential," or perhaps merely serendipitous, convergence of these three great traditions. Modern reason is a cultural phenomenon like any other: It did not drop down one fine day out of the clouds. It involved no special creation. Rather, it evolved uniquely out of the fusion of cultural traditions known as Christendom.

As I noted above, this conclusion, while not entirely wrong, is too self congratulatory. What's more, it ignores a great deal of history. More accurately, the complete absence of central authority following the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe created a competitive environment within which Reason provided a decided advantage. The credit Christianity may claim is that it is not as wholly antagonistic to Reason as other religions.

But whether one credits Christianity for Reason, or merely views Christianity as being an insufficient impediment, any reasonable reading of history must conclude that under the aegis of any other religion, Reason would have been retarded at best, or stillborn at worst.

Wherever one places the balance point, though, one must note

... that Socrates' mission was to challenge and critique the myths of the Greek gods that prevailed in his day. These gods were imagined as behaving not only capriciously, but often wickedly and brutally. The famous line from King Lear sums up this view: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods--they kill us for their sport." But, asked Socrates, were such gods worthy of being worshiped by reasonable men, or by free men? True, we may feel abject terror before them; but should we have reverence for them simply because they have the power to injure us? In The Euthyphro, Socrates quotes a Greek poet, Stasinus, who, speaking of Zeus, says "where fear is, there also is reverence," but only to disagree with the poet's concept of God. "It does not seem to me true that where fear is, there also is reverence; for many who fear diseases and poverty and other such things seem to me to fear, but not to reverence at all these things which they fear." For Socrates, it was obvious that good was not whatever God capriciously chose to do; the good was what God was compelled by his very nature to do.

In this regard, Judeo-Christianity is markedly different from Islam, and, indeed, just about any other religion one might care to mention. God, in this conception, is by definition, not omnipotent: God is self-limited.

This is where Emperor Manual II Paleologus's debate is pivotal:

How can a god who commands conversion by the sword be the same god as the emperor's god--a god who wished to gain converts only through the use of words and reason? If Allah is happy to accept converts who are trembling in fear for their lives, with a sword hovering over their necks, then he may well be a god worth fearing, but not a god worth revering. He may represent an imaginary construction of god suitable to slaves, but he will not be an image of god worthy of being worshiped by a Socrates--or by any reasonable man.

Or, one might add, by any reasonable Muslim.

Here is where the Da Vinci dilemma rears its ugly head.

Religious criticism of The Da Vinci Code was self defeating where it wasn't tepid. Arguments of questionable provenance, historical inaccuracy and dodgy scholarship rebounds just as forcefully on conventional belief as it impacts Mr. Brown's book.

In other words, Christians are in no position to criticize Islam, for any faith based critique wounds the critic just as much as the criticized. There simply is no Faith based argument against a Faith based argument. The tie breaker is Reason, and is posed by this question: which consequences do you prefer, those attending Christianity, or those attending Islam?

The only effective repudiation of Islam's universalist notion of submission is through Reason, and it is precisely here where the prime beneficiaries of Reason have been wholly inadequate to the task: the are incapable of employing, and very likely understanding, that which they profess.

Christianity needs Reason; Reason needs Christianity.

That Pope Benedict XVI understands this, and so few materialists do, is a testimony to his intellect, and a sorry reflection upon theirs.


(1) Belief systems may be characterized by the number and complexity of their entering arguments (Spartan, Baroque), and the manner in which they support their conclusions (Monarchic, that is, argument from authority; Meritocratic). In theory, four combinations are possible; but as a practical matter, all but Spartan/Meritocratic and Baroque/Monarchic are unstable over time. Well, almost all. Christianity seems to have managed the trick of being both Monarchic and Meritocratic; see, for example, interest on loans.

(2) All conscious thoughts are, in essence, statements, the construct of which are independent of the thought's basis; consequently, both Reason and Faith are attributes which apply in various proportions to all such statements.

(3) Perhaps the mystery is not such an enigma. As Larry Arnhart continually demonstrates, thoroughly applying Reason inexorably leads to conclusions scarcely distinguishable from modern Christianity. I suspect reaction formation is what is really at work here.


Blogger Duck said...

Christianity needs Reason; Reason needs Christianity.

Skipper, you lost me on this one. Why does reason need Christianity?

Modern reason argues that questions of ethics, of religion, and of God are outside its compass. Because there is no scientific method by which such questions can be answered, modern reason cannot concern itself with them, nor should it try to.

God may be outside its compass, but ethics aren't. Developing an ethical code requires no metaphysical reasoning. The area of ethics requires nothing more than that which is available through experience. It is, or should be, a thoroughly emprical practice. That people have consistently forced metaphysics into the mix when forming ethical codes is the problem that religion poses to civilization.

The ethical system of Islam can be challenged on purely empirical grounds, on the resultant social problems inherent in Islamic cultures. Our war against Islamic radicals isn't a critique of Islamic metaphysics, it is a critique of behavior of the people who act under the name of that metaphysical banner. It is their ethics, not their metaphysics, that modern reason can and should critique. No metaphysical assumptions are required to make that critique.

October 07, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

(Slaps self upside head) 'Thanks, Bennie. I needed that. None of us ever would have thought to examine the basis of how we apprehend the world without your novel advice.'

What a maroon.

October 07, 2006 11:08 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Skipper, you lost me on this one. Why does reason need Christianity?

Well, it is based upon the concept of a self-licking ice cream cone. Or, alternatively, that one of the reasons women need men in their lives is to protect them from other men.

Reason needs Christianity because there is simply no wishing away true religious belief. It is a material part of the world.

Compared to the Bible, the Q'uran has far fewer escape clauses from literalist interpretation, and far more content that is truly vile.

Hence, if forced to make a choice -- and I agree with Pope Benedict that dunnoists are -- I will plump for Christianity. Particularly since the lack of widespread religious belief seems to have very corrosive effects upon the spine.

I find this conclusion very disappointing, but then reality scarcely requires my approval.

Note: Pope Benedict's speech begged including many different concepts. The consequent demand on my time I was scarcely able to meet, never mind the intellectual demand.

In particular, I didn't have enough time to treat the Faith - Reason dichotomy. Some commentators view Reason as a subset of Faith, but are only able to do so by failing to note that Reason and Faith both entail identical actions. The degree to which a statement is composed of one or the other is directly related to the ability to discriminate among competing statements.

Reason is not a subset of Faith, but rather its inverse, and vice versa.

As such, there is no way to distinguish between a pure Faith statement, and one of pure Ignorance.

October 08, 2006 6:56 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I disagree that Pope Benedict is a maroon. He may not follow the consequences of his statements far enough, but I (granting my limited knowledge) think it is nearly unprecedented for a religious leader to make what is essentially this argument: given the choice between two nonsenses, pick the one less nonsensical.

We should keep in mind, though, that Orrin has concluded that Pope Benedict is wrong about Christianity.

Talk about reconciling competing Faith statements.

October 08, 2006 7:12 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

OK, that makes more sense. I still don't wholly agree with it. What you're saying is that since religion is inevitable, and that religion will inevitably insist that reason account for its metaphysical presuppositions, then reason needs to marry itself to that set of metaphysical presuppositions that place the least restrictions on it.

In other words, reason needs to hire the protection racket that charges the smallest fee.

That may have been true when societies and governments were founded upon singular religious assumptions and could not survive if those assumptions were questioned. But modern secular society is not founded upon religious assumptions and can survive with multiple competing religious traditions coexisting in its midst. Modern secular societies have largely shaken off the old protection rackets.

Benedict is saying that Western reason cannot survive without the whole array of Catholic metaphysical presuppositions. He's trying to convince us that we need the protection racket back, at least to be able to "reason" with the Islamist protection racket, since he can talk to them "gangster to gangster".

I'm not buying it.

October 08, 2006 8:57 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, he sure didn't go very far, because he assumes there's only one Christianity-- his. If the poll out last week is anywhere near correct, something like 50 million people in America follow versions of Christianity that endorse the concept that demons cause disease.

Some of them in his flock, too.

I don't think reason has anything to say to or to hear from these people.

Skipper's argument sounds to me just like the Hindus who worship smallpox because they couldn't think of anything else to do about it. (Query: do they still?)

He's right, so far and as far into the future as I am ready to forecast, but that doesn't mean we have to pay serious attention to a man who dresses in a clown suit to cast spells on helpless beads.

October 08, 2006 12:27 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Can you post a link to the poll?

October 08, 2006 12:52 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Look at Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

I read it in my newspaper, hidebound traditionalist that I am. The AP story begins:

A new 10-nation survey of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians . . . shows they are deeply influencing the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches and are poised to make a big impact on global affairs.'

It goes on to say they make up at least one quarter of the US population, which would be around 75 million.

Since not all these people believe in demon-caused disease -- just most of them -- I conclude that a 50 million estimate is reasonable (dare I use the word in this context?).

October 08, 2006 1:24 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I think that an entirely post-religious world, where religious belief just fades away to nothing, is eminently possible, and spine corrosion is a myth that I'm surprised Skipper has fallen for.

Besides, Christian conformity never gave the Spanish or the Italians much in the way of spine.

October 09, 2006 1:46 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Well sure. After all, you secularists can be one rough, tough bunch.

October 09, 2006 3:31 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Indeed. Who needs a gun under the pillow?

Plinking pooftas.

October 09, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


The problem with my post (or one of them, anyway) is that I'm not trying to advance an argument of my own, so much as to understand Pope Benedict's. While I do think he overlooked some things, and doesn't really come to terms with what constitutes an act of Faith, or Reason, none of those things substantially undercut his argument.

Which, BTW, includes a lot more than just the headlined statements to annoy Islamists; that they remain resolutely ignorant of the Pope's remarks outside the headlines says something about their analytical skills. None of it good.

What I believe Pope Benedict is saying is more like this: using reason alone will suffice to establish a preference for Christianity over Islam. This isn't the same as coughing up for a protection racket.

His accusation is that people who rely upon Reason a) don't know their heritage, and b) fail to apply that to which they adhere.

With regard to Europe, I think he is absolutely correct.

Whether wittingly or not, though, Pope Benedict seems to have given the game away. If I may use reason to adjudicate between Faith claims ...

October 10, 2006 2:04 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Nice post, hey skipper. I just finally got around to reading it. Your analysis nearly exactly conforms to my view of Christianity: the least of the evils (sort of like my small pox and religion post), and most conducive to reason (and prosperity).

October 22, 2006 12:07 PM  

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