Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bukiet on Brooklyn Books

After the splash of posts that I linked to the other week in the “Mimetic and Maieutic Fiction” entry, a long discussion kicked off on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, with the focus spreading out in all sorts of ways. One subject touched on was the question of just how much the “literary” fiction faction was really as snooty about the “genre” fiction faction as the “genre” fiction faction tends to assume. These days? Me, I suspect there’s a generational change, with a lot of younger writers not simply indifferent but steeped in paraliterature, happy to use the strange (that which breaches mimesis in terms of credibility warp) and the diegetic (that which breaches mimesis by telling rather than representing.) And not just in an ironic way a la postmodernism but with the sincerity you find in magic realism and fabulism.

Anyway, this put me in mind of Melvin Bukiet’s attack on “Brooklyn Books of Wonder”, as a cute example, I think, of an old guard reaction against the generational change in “literary” fiction. What he’s talking about is “the literature of our time as exemplified by Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers, along with everything McSweeney’s, the magazine founded by Eggers.” Says Bukiet: "Take mawkish self-indulgence, add a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia, season with magic realism, stir in a complacency of faith, and you’ve got wondrousness." In other words: diegesis as storification of self and past; the marvelous; and the non-cynical view of reality these engender. And it’s a generational thing. These writers: “Coddled and cosseted, they’re the first generation of novelists who grew up reading the young-adult pap that they’ve now regurgitated with a deconstructive gloss learned in college.” Pretty consistent infantilisation imagery there. We’ll come back to that.

Interesting how Bukiet sets up Brooklyn as the target of his scorn. It is the “overlooked sibling among the boroughs”, “relegated to a role as Manhattan’s unglamorous adjunct”. It is the exterior into which the bohos have moved and in doing so become an object of repulsion, all those callow hipster-types (i.e. those of a certain age and class and education) dismissed contemtously as "a horde of latte-swilling sensitives". It’s an image of that which was once part of one’s self and now isn’t. That which is disdained and reviled, because at some level it still is, and that’s a horrifying thought. That there are still “latte-swilling sensitives” left in the East Village. And probably in Bukiet’s neck of the woods. Maybe even in the chair he sits in when he’s drinking coffee.

The rhetoric of abjection is obvious.

So what’s the marker of difference here, the focus of abjection? Bukiet compares these works to “so-called young-adult novels that ostensibly face ‘issues’ but pull punches for their tender audience. Like many YA novels, which are constructed for a pedagogical market, the BBoWs insist on finding a therapeutic lesson in their dark material.” Note the ironising “so-called” to tell us “young-adult” is a label to be regarded with suspicion, (at a guess, because of the “adult” in there.) Note the “ostensibly” and the scare quotes around “issues” to tell us that such works don’t just “pull punches” when they face problems; in fact, they are only pretending to face problems that aren’t even real problems. Note the way that “therapeutic” begs to be stressed, spoken with an arching of the eyebrow — cynical, skeptical, scornful.

The end-result in such works is that no matter how nasty the shit that goes down, “the individual has grown through his or her experience, and that’s all that really matters. History and tragedy foster personal growth.” The devaluing is disingenuous, this identification of singular purpose and import, this assertion that prose and plot and all other textual features are of no consequence, unravelling to a refusal to recognise any purpose or import other than pedagogic consolation. That this is “all that really matters” simply means it is is all that matters to Bukiet. This is the only thing that you and I should be considering when we measure the value of such works. If it’s sharply written, that doesn’t matter. If it tells a good tale, that doesn’t matter. All that matters with the abject is that which by which it is marked out for abjection. The scare quotes Bukiet attaches to “growth” reveal that this is what he rejects, that it’s really about the fact — the fact, damn it — that no such growth is possible. That the wonder is a lie. To crib from Stevens: Do not speak to Bukiet of the greatness of poetry; there are no shadows in his sun; there are no shadows anywhere; the earth for him is flat and bare.

Bukiet reveals his aesthetic absolutism when he says, “Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find ‘growth’ in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” This is an arrant assumption that is utterly fatuous. All human experience? The only thing? One doesn’t learn not to play with fire by getting burned, both literally and metaphorically? One doesn’t learn, perhaps, as an adolescent absorbed in his own suffering of self-pity, from the sudden shattering of one’s life by the entry of death into it, a new perspective? One doesn’t learn from the confrontation with the profound suffering of parental grief for a dead child, how trivial self-pity is? One doesn’t learn, by staring into the hollow eye-sockets of Death, the value of life? Certainly experience may teach us that pain creates pain, that suffering degrades, that the kicked dog becomes a vicious cur. This is hardly the only thing we learn in the suffering of empathy though, when a work invokes a sense of desire and duty to struggle against suffering.

In Bukiet’s aesthetic though, wonder is never a hard choice to refuse surrender, but rather always must be a panacea, an easy answer that denies the stone-cold certainty of defeat. So, these are just “escape novels, albeit garnished with intellectual flourishes.” And: “Whether wonder is an expression of extreme depression that cannot abide confrontation with grotesque reality or merely a convenient avoidance of same, it uniformly evokes deep nostalgia for the personal or political past that existed before we came to this pass of maturity or social, national, or international distress. To reiterate: would that it were, but it ain’t.” It couldn’t be that a confrontation with “grotesque reality” may lead one to see it as ultimately baroque, to marvel in its complexity and confusion even as one is terrifyingly lost in it? No?

No, not to see reality as a grand monstrum means that “beneath the intellectual hijinks lies a maudlin sensibility.” Any sense of marvel at loose in the world implies at best a “mock encounter with enormity.” It’s simply cowardice for these callow anti-miserabilists “to write about bad things and make you feel good.” Not to face the truth which Bukiet has, apparently, hardwired into his intellectual understanding of the world, the searing light of his reason burning away all shadow of uncertainty. Where Bukiet acknowledges exceptions it is in Brooklyn books that match his vision of reality as grotesque: “Besides BBoWs, Brooklyn has given birth to books ranging from Hubert Selby’s morbid noir Last Exit to Brooklyn to Neil Gordon’s garrotte-tight thriller The Gunrunner’s Daughter.”

I’d be curious to read Bukiet now. I’m guessing his fiction contains exactly the qualities he’s abjecting here. I’m guessing it’s maieutic fiction, reflective realism that sets up a problem (but a real one, you know), faces it (but actually rather than “ostensibly”,) and doesn’t, as far as he’s concerned, “pull punches”. Bukiet is, I suspect, all about the personal growth; it’s just that the growth is a burden of experience, the growing weight of awareness that: “What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.” I suspect this is all shot through with the depressive’s conviction that depression is the only valid response, that the world “just is” the shithole they see it as. Stevens again:

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’


All I see in Bukiet’s rejection of wonder is a rationalist dogma that serves as self-fulfilling prophecy, the axiom of the maieuticist for whom only their grimacing stone-graven image of reality is truly mimetic. Ignore the fact that rapture is a part of life, that reality is sometimes just incomprehensibly weird; this is irrational and therefore disturbing. The intellect that strives to conquer all, control all, must establish the security of certainty in a denial of these illusions of romance. What is, is. And what is strange or diegetic, is not. But putting the intellectual at odds with the sensational, rejecting rapture as irrational, this can only render all passions torturae. Even the roses look rosy must only seem so because of one’s tinted glasses. The miserabilism is not a conclusion but a premise: What is, is.

Bukiet is right, I think, to see The Catcher in the Rye as the “ur-BBoW”, because “Holden’s famous denunciation of the ‘phonies’ of the world and his own inability to see the way he manipulates the reader is radical wonder. He pierces the veil of appearances that adults are too jaded to perceive. He knows; he understands; he dreams of saving anonymous children. He’s utterly phony.” But that’s just it. Cauldfield’s cynicism is the irony of the postmodernist, an affected detachment as defense mechanism, bitter at the souring of its dreams, but as much at its own surrender to that souring, projecting that outwards onto those who would pretend that they haven’t also cynically surrendered.

The generation of writers that Bukiet is deriding simply recurse that cynicism, apply it to itself. Isn’t it phony to see everything as phony? Yes, it’s all absurdity and bullshit, but isn’t it equally bullshit to decry everything as absurdity and bullshit? View that cynicism with cynicism, and don’t you end up allowing for the marvelous, for exactly the “faith” and “hope” and “wonder” that Bukiet is denying in favour of a view that’s pure Cauldfield: that “the dull truth is that pain is tautological”; that “[t]he only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” To take this stance and leave it at that is not to deal with it. Even to deal with it tommorow is a form of engagement is some respects.

Isn’t Bukiet simply trying to one-up these writers by being cynical about the oh-so-trite folly of being cynical about being cynical? It collapses back into the same rhetoric of phoniness: “Not to begrudge success in any form because the BBoWs are one and all (well maybe not Sebold and Kidd) better written than the vast majority of genre books that comprise most bestseller lists, but this is bunk.” Bunk meaning phony, of course. It collapses back into the Last Man’s adolescent disdain, his posture of disavowing the naivety of passion: “When they speak in tongues, they channel voices that suggest Archie and Jughead in a puerile fixation on pop culture, often music (some practically come with CD mixes), and comic books.” That infantilisation imagery above? Here it is again in the phrase “puerile fixation.” God forbid one actually feels enthusiasm about pop culture, about the trivialities of music and comics. For the Last Man has put away such childish things.

It collapses back into the rhetoric of “genre”, using it as a benchmark of impropriety — "their books are more insidious than simpler genre novels wherein people manage to triumph over trauma" — but with these “literary” works viewed as even worse. At least the naivety of those “genre” novels has been put in its place; these pretend to be proper books, with complex approaches to trauma, even as in their use of the strange and the diegetic they seek to infiltrate and undermine the literary order — which is to say the self-sustaining absolutes, the “what is, is” of maieutic miserablism. They have the temerity to suggest that “Why the fuck not?” is a valid answer to “Why fucking bother?”

77 Comments:

Blogger Chris said...

God, I have a million things to say about this topic and I have to get something ready to present to a client in the morning. Fucksocks. Maybe later.

Anyway, great post. Come south for beer soon, Hal. The beer, the beer, it calls (cthuls?) you hither!

10:11 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Overall it might have been more convincing to take issue with some of his actual specific judgments. Attacking him for cynicism instead of defending The Lovely Bones is easier no doubt. Especially since the sale of feel good may be cynicism in action?

"Ignore the fact that rapture is a part of life, that reality is sometimes just incomprehensibly weird;" Rapture is a feeling, and obviously part of a character's internal life. From what I read, Bukiet believes that rapture is not part of physical nature. Which viewpoint seems to be much less hateful than you feel.

As for reality being incomprehensible, this really is a philosophical position, related if I recall, to (surprise!) Cynicism as a philosophical movement. Historically, it has ranged from virulently reactionary to quietistic.

Esthetically speaking, the notion that the magical is the wonderful is puzzling. There is no magic. Does that mean nothing is wonderful?

4:58 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I’m not interested in arguing any of his specific judgements, no more than I’d be if he’d identified a group of writers from the Castro in San Francisco, say, whose books had queerness in place of wonder, if he were slamming all these “Castro Books of Queerness” on principle because he considered that queerness a violation of mores. This is essentially Bukiet’s argument with these BBoWs, that the wonder in them is such “a violation of human experience” it’s just not proper. On principle.

Nitpicking that this or that book does not, in fact, fit his model of the BBoW, or that it somehow has this or that other feature which compensates for it is accepting his terms in the debate — terms which I see as a rhetoric of abjection. If this were about “Castro Books of Queerness”, to argue that this or that work wasn’t utilising queerness, or that it was somehow still a good book for various specific qualities (i.e. despite the queerness) would be to tacitly accept the principle that queerness is morally wrong. He is proposing a stereotype as a negative standard, an anti-ideal. So my aim is not to mount a trivial defense of each individual work on this count, that count, or the other, showing how it doesn’t fit the stereotype, but to call shenanigans on his whole argument, to reject the anti-ideal as invalid.

I am not arguing with his stance on wonder because it is “easier”, but because this is the fundamental principle that I disagree with. Actually, even challenging his stance on wonder is secondary to the main purpose of identifying it as, to my mind, a reactionary attack on a younger generation’s different aesthetics.

(cont.)

3:53 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The reason Burkiet sees this fabrication of wonder as improper — as opposed to the basic fabrication that takes place in all fiction, in and of itself, as fiction — is that it is, as far as he is concerned, naive and consolatory. This is where he draws my interest, in his rejection of the validity of an affective state — wonder — as an experience, on a rather superficial basis. Where he offers two suppositions of the purpose of wonder (as a symptom or evasion of depression) and an essentialising definition of a core component (nostalgic yearning for infantile security), I find this dubious to say the least. Not because wonder cannot be appropriated to this purpose, but because he is, as I read him, refusing to recognise any other possible purpose. A writer could not simply experience wonder and seek to represent that experience as part of the fabric of existence; rather wonder is, for him, dishonest in writing because it is dishonest in life — a denial of suffering.

Personally, I’m happy to consider appropriations of wonder to the service of delusion, and one such literary pathology is, I’m sure, a co-opting of wonder as compensatory avoidance of grim truth. I do not deny that this is possible. M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock have been fairly outspoken in attacking the use of wonder in traditional fantasy, seeing in Tolkien and his imitators the same infantilising and nostalgic escapism that Bukiet sees in BBoWs. See Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, the essay “Epic Pooh” in particular, for a dissection of fantasy in such terms. I have a large degree of sympathy for Moorcock’s views, but the anti-escapism critique is, in and of itself, contentious enough that I think one does well not to take it for granted that escapism is Just Plain Bad. The cliché that jailors are the most prominent adversaries of escape is glib, but this doesn’t mean it’s unfounded.

Better, I’d say, to interrogate each individual use of wonder: is it actually escapist? and if so is consolation here an effective or ineffective strategy in ethical terms given this situation? Any essentialist position for or against it remains, in my opinion, unproven and unfalsified. Which makes it a highly pertinent subject of study via fiction. That question is exactly the sort of question one is asking thematically, putting to the test in the fiction as experiment. Where is wonder a lie and where is it a truth? Where it is a lie, when is it a necessary and ethical one? Where it is a truth, when is this terrible and unacceptable? The journalist Michael Herr makes a pointed comment in his book of essays from the Vietnam War, Dispatches, that glamourising war is a foolish critique, because war is in many respects glamourous; it has a glory to it, and this is at the very heart of its horror.

Ultimately, to disacknowledge the use of wonder as a representation of what one sees as wonderful about the world is, I think, a disregard of its primary purpose, as basic a folly as if one considered all expressions of empathy a mask for cruelty. It is simply unrealistic. If one’s project is the mimesis of mind as part of the mimesis of reality — i.e. representing how we respond to the world affectively, our affective responses a part of the world being represented — it seems to me that this project requires one to observe and represent all affective states as objectively as possible, not to reject one as essentially invalid (having only a base purpose of self-delusion) and valorise another as recognition of a tautological truism. That sort of written-in bias seems pretty much incompatible with the core aim of the project.

(cont.)

3:53 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

So the idea that Bukiet is fundamentally misrepresenting wonder is of far more interest to me than quibbling over the successes or failures of individual books. How so?

You say, “Rapture is a feeling, and obviously part of a character's internal life.” I agree. So is the suffering, the trauma that Bukiet essentialises as the “truth” masked by wonder. One might argue that pain is “more real” as a physical experience, what we feel when the hammer hits our thumb, when our face slams into the wall. But where Bukiet talks of trauma persisting he is talking of trauma in a psychological sense, not in the vocabulary of the emergency room. He’s talking of emotional trauma, the character’s internal life, not a blunt force trauma to the occipital region of the cranium. The suffering he’s talking of is also a feeling. Both wonder and suffering are affective states. This seems to me to be a fair starting point. So why is wonder false and suffering true?

Well, what exactly is wonder? Wonder, rapture — whatever one wishes to call it — is a subtle affect that, as I see it, blends joy (admiration, pleasure, desire both titillated and fulfilled) and suprise (astonishment, stupefaction, shock) at such an intensity of stimulation that the sense of interest an object of wonder commands is ramped-up to fascinating. In so far as wonder borders on awe there may well even be more than a hint of fear — c.f. Yeats’s phrase “a terrible beauty” as one of the neatest encapsulations of the sublime — but it seems fair to say that wonder is more generally on the positive side of awe, more joy and less fear. Joy, suprise and interest — I would tend to consider these affects designed (in evolutionary terms) to make us engage with an object, much as suffering is, I’d say, our body’s way of telling us that something’s wrong, that a problem needs to be fixed, an absence needs to be filled. This seems as banal a truth as to say that disgust is primarily our body’s way of stearing us away from that which revolts us.

Hunger is designed to make us eat. Curiosity is designed to make us tinker with the world. Wonder could well be considered curiosity cubed, though with a caveat that a note of caution is introduced in the degree of reverence, of awe, of fear, that comes with the most intense fascination. Wonder draws us to an object, but it simultaneously tells us we must be wary in how we engage with it. It is, in part, I’d say, an understanding of our own lack of understanding. It has a paradoxical tension at its very heart, between the yearning to understand and the joy in being faced with something beyond our understanding. This is a tension at the heart of much strange fiction.

(cont.)

3:54 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

It’s a trite criticism that in such fiction — in the commercial genres particularly — the wonder is insincere and consolatory. A more pertinent critique in many instances is that it’s sincere and conservative, designed to paint the powerful as wondrous, to valorise individuals as heroic and empires as grand. The argument that it’s all just escapism is actually a strategy of excuse for apologists of trad fantasy’s feudal fascism, one that stands challenging not just there but in art in general. The wonder in The Birth of a Nation is not a sign of it being escapist fluff. We are meant to see the KKK riding into a town to save it from a slave revolt as glorious heroes, objects of wonder. A pretence that it’s not sincere on the director’s part, even in fact an accurate reflection of how many at the time viewed the KKK (and how many still do,) seems pretty irresponsible to me. Denial of the primary purpose of wonder is a denial of the power of propaganda.

With all of these BBoWs, wonder is being ascribed to different aspects of reality, “found” in different places, even in the most terrible suffering. Sweeping them all away as escapism is simply an active ignorance of the thematic drift, which will be different in each work according to what it is in the world that each work is attaching the wonder to. Crucially, rather than allowing that one work may be trite Oprah Winfrey feel-good nonsense and another may be profound — rather than considering that the things to wonder most profoundly at in the world may actually be banal but all the more important because of that, because we gloss over them in everyday life — Bukiet adopts a position that is in itself trite in its blanket dismissal: what is, is; life is suffering; wonder is wank.

This is sophomoric.

(cont.)

3:55 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

When I say “there are no shadows in his sun” I do not mean Bukiet is dismissing “magic” in some crass generic sense. Your confusion of magic and wonder is disingenuous, a side-issue. Magic is only one fictive form of the marvellous. Even aside from the fact that the use of it as a conceit in magic realism and fabulism is purposefully aimed at a figurative representation of what is marvellous in actuality, in reality, Bukiet’s complaint has little to do with what I’d term alethic quirks and credibility warp. Rather it is, as I say: “about diegesis as storification of self and past; the marvelous; and the non-cynical view of reality these engender.” To see the marvelous in fiction as being a valid modelling of reality does not require that one actually believes in the balderdash and piffle of love potions or angels. A clock can be marvelous. A kiss can be marvelous. A kitten can be marvelous. To be an objective mimeticist does require, I think, that one does not automatically write off the marvelous in fiction as tosh and flummery. The marvelous is, I will happily maintain, as much a part of reality as is suffering. Sometimes we do truly relate to clocks and kisses and kittens that way.

I am cynical about the marvelous, more so than Bukiet, I’d say.

You say, “From what I read, Bukiet believes that rapture is not part of physical nature.” I agree; this is how I read him too. I prefer a more scientific materialist viewpoint myself, that affect is rooted in the kinaesthetics of physiology and is therefore as much a part of physical nature as any other sensory experience. As the rippling pattern of a reflection on a puddle is part of physical nature, so the rippling pattern of sensory experience is part of physical nature. I don’t hold with the mind/body dichotomy, which I see as a fundamentally religious nonsense carried into the discourse of rationalism by way of Descartes, a mumbo jumbo all the more worthy of challenge where it sets mind in the place of soul and couches superstition in an obsolete “Enlightenment” terminology of intellect, thought and consciousness, all of these treated as a sort of “spiritual substance” confined within the vessel of the mortal flesh. Humbug and hokum.

Rationalism has an inveterate tendency to represent the intellectually “independent” Reason as like a driver at the wheel of the-body-as-vehicle, with the emotionally “embodied” Passion as a dangerously insistent back-seat-driver, constantly urging the guiding intellect to take capricious wrong turns into dead-ends and one-way-streets just because they’re there to be taken. Where it does so, it is carrying over a root metaphor from the very religious worldview it’s opposed to. It is a metaphor not without its uses, but it is profoundly irrational, hogwash worthy of Blavatsky. One might as well be imagining the pure chaste soul fallen from Eternity into the Black Iron Prison of the material realm, walking around in flesh of clay stitched into a suit of skin, with invisible serpentine demons of compulsion whispering temptation in one’s ear. This is the thinking of the Dark Ages. If one is claiming that rapture — or indeed any psychological state, intellectual and/or emotional — is somehow “not part of physical nature,” one is buying into a medieval mysticism that undermines any pretence that one is being more rational than the fool seduced by the maya of material marvels.

(cont.)

3:55 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Arguably, this dichotomy is a deeply unhealthy attitude, a neurosis situating self entirely in the superego and demonising the libido as a base and bestial “animal nature” that must be mastered, rather than the natural self-correcting impulses of a homeostatic system designed to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. Granted, the idea that the psyche is fundamentally a homeostatic system is a premise open to interrogation, but I’d say this is the most rational hypothesis given the evidence. Hunger is designed to make us satisfy (i.e. neutralise the disruption of) our hunger. Curiosity is designed to make us satisfy (i.e. neutralise the disruption of) our curiosity. Most psychological pathologies appear quite comprehensible as distortions of that homeostatic system into vicious cycles, destabilising feedback loops that render an individual dysfunctional because the system has become self-disrupting rather than self-correcting. A superego at war with the libido is pathological, and this is what’s written into that mind/body dichotomy. That ascetic antagonism of reason and passion, which ultimately has its clearest articulation in the religious axiom, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” is a profound schisming of the self.

The inner agon of the anhedonic depressive has no small amount to do with, I’d suggest, the vicious cycle in which this enmity of superego for libido is both symptom and axiom. The grand lie that depression sustains itself on is that the pleasure principle is a base deceiver, that we are only “papering over” the reality of permanent suffering, incurable trauma, with ephemeral pretences of consolation. Where Bukiet raises the idea of wonder as symptom or evasion of extreme depression I see the perverse logic of depression at work in his own argument. He’s making two spurious and highly suspect claims about how affect works: 1) misery only begets misery; there’s no capacity to use the feedback of negative emotions — suffering, trauma — in order to re-evaluate one’s behaviour patterns and affective responses, in order to become more capable, more balanced and ultimately happier because of it; 2) wonder is essentially an escape mechanism; it does not exist as positive feedback — like pleasant tastes and smells, the sense of satiation, post-coital bliss, or other such positive aesthetic responses — but is instead a self-delusional artifice of denial.

Bukiet presents both of these positions as axiomatic, more or less explicitly. I can’t help but see them as a cyclic logic that can only lead to fatalistic surrender and neurotic anhedonism as symptoms that, as psychological states, validate the axioms that create them.

(cont.)

3:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The idea that a view of reality as incomprehensible in parts might relate to Cynicism as a philosophical movement comes as no suprise to me. This is entirely compatible with my own brand of cynicism. You mistake my attack on Bukiet’s position as an attack on cynicism when it’s quite the opposite. I’m arguing that this is failed cynicism, panty-waist, chickenshit cynicism that pussies out and collapses into easy, posturing fatalism. Rigorous cynicism logically requires that one apply a keenly critical eye to cynicism itself, interrogate it for artifice. My point is precisely that Bukiet fails in this regard, that his attitude — that misery begets misery and wonder is just a fool’s palliative — is piss-poor cynicism because it doesn’t interrogate its own absolute essentialism. It is a cop-out.

One could argue that there’s an extra couple of levels. Everything he says about Eggers’s work is a critique of it as cynicism doing exactly what I say it should if it is to be rigorous, consistent. He makes a point of how self-aware Eggers is, how he questions his own motives, how he is cynical about himself, about the entire process of making fiction out of life. He makes it clear that what he rejects is Eggers taking the final step and being cynical about that cynicism, finding hope in the end, in the interrogation of a callow fatalism that would dismiss everything as phony, in seeing that fatalism as itself phony. As I say, one can argue that Bukiet is being cynical about being cynical about being cynical.

But this is not cynicism that actually functions to dismantle a system of thought, to find the weak points in it, the fallacies and follies. Rather it simply functions to bolster and barricade Bukiet’s fatalistic axioms: “What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.” and “In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” This is not cynicism, not even remotely. It’s not even good nihilism, which as the ultimate expression of cynicism likewise requires that one treat such proclamations of Grand Truths as the absurdities they are. It is instead simply the shallow self-sustaining logic of a depressive and defeatist miserabilism.

The irony is he could be right, in all practical terms, with regards to the works he chooses to condemn — they might all be using wonder to gloss over the harsher realities of the world — but he would still be wrong in his absolutist poppycock that they can only be failures, that this is How It Is, because the world is one big stinky shithole, where the bad shit just makes us shittier people, and there’s no shinola ever anywhere, no, not really, not truly. I say this is the miserabilist’s fallacy, the depressive’s core incapacity of judgement:

They can’t tell shit from shinola.

3:56 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"I’m not interested in arguing any of his specific judgements...."
"Better, I’d say, to interrogate each individual use of wonder..."
It seemed to me that the only real interest in Bukiet's review essay was his comments on specific works. The whole Brooklyn thing is a covert appeal to snobbery. But he talks about Kidd and Chabon and has to exempt Brookland. The actual reviews are not even really about the newer generation: The infantilization rhetoric is just that, rhetoric in the negative sense, a covert appeal to generational resentments. But Bukiet harks back to Salinger, Helprin and Auster. Whether Bukiet is sincere, or is merely being provocative, is irrelevant. That stuff is boring because it doesn't mean anything. If it's offensive, it is, but not every ox is gored. To answer the essay, you must engage the substance, not the cheap rhetoric. (Unless you're attacking cheap rhetoric itself.)

2:47 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"Wonder, rapture — whatever one wishes to call it — is a subtle affect that, as I see it, blends joy (admiration, pleasure, desire both titillated and fulfilled) and suprise (astonishment, stupefaction, shock) at such an intensity of stimulation that the sense of interest an object of wonder commands is ramped-up to fascinating." When I look at his specific remarks, it seems, again and again, that he's not even thinking of the portrayal of affect in the a character, much less arguing with it. He's seeing a projection of affect into the fictive universe, even at the expense of making that fictive universe unlike our world. The affect becomes a revelation: The events unfold as a revelation; the characters either announce the revelation or serve as the contrasting shadow of unbelief; the laws of nature kneel in obedience to the revelation; human society as something beyond the revelation does not even exist. Answering Bukiet, I think, lies more in demonstrating how his targets sharpen reality.

2:48 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"It has a paradoxical tension at its very heart, between the yearning to understand and the joy in being faced with something beyond our understanding." On the other hand, your point seems to be expressed most succinctly and sharply here. In my real life experience, the joy of something beyond our understanding is invariably the emotion propelling a personal commitment to religion and magic. Sadly, the yearning to understand perhaps is not so common that there could even be much tension. Real tension demands some sort of equality between opponents.
"Your confusion of magic and wonder is disingenuous, a side-issue." Not to be rude, but that's just wrong. I think it's even wrong for Bukiet, but it certainly is why his essay is interesting to me, despite the tiresome snark. We (or just I) might be mistaken, but this is pretty much exactly what is disturbing about this old but growing trend.
"But this is not cynicism that actually functions to dismantle a system of thought, to find the weak points in it, the fallacies and follies. Rather it simply functions to bolster and barricade Bukiet’s fatalistic axioms: “What is, is. The real is the true, and anything that suggests otherwise, no matter how artfully constructed, is a violation of human experience.” and “In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.” This is not cynicism, not even remotely. It’s not even good nihilism, which as the ultimate expression of cynicism likewise requires that one treat such proclamations of Grand Truths as the absurdities they are. It is instead simply the shallow self-sustaining logic of a depressive and defeatist miserabilism." Of course everybody hates negative people!

2:48 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

It is tautological to say, What is, is. This can't be fatal, just a waste of time. To say that the real is the true is not fatal, either. To conclude that fiction that says otherwise falsifies life is reasonable. Whether his specific points actually have any connection with these rather general remarks is another question, left unanswered.

As for the tautology of suffering, I really rather read that in context of the criticism of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Doesn't the special venom directed at it show what he's really saying?

2:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

To answer the essay, you must engage the substance, not the cheap rhetoric. (Unless you're attacking cheap rhetoric itself.)

Rhetoric is substance. And it’s the particular substance I’m interested in here, the agenda revealed by those “covert appeals”. As I say, “even challenging his stance on wonder is secondary to the main purpose of identifying it as, to my mind, a reactionary attack on a younger generation’s different aesthetics.” Which is to say, I’m not aiming to fight the fires he lights under this or that work, but to interrogate why he wants to burn the heretics. If you want a defense of The Lovely Bones, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

But Bukiet harks back to Salinger, Helprin and Auster.

Only as the roots of the BBoW. He’s just legitimising his notion of the BBoW by tracing its ancestry, and he’s completely straightforward about that, explicitly setting Salinger et al. as part of a “complex lineage”, as the “recent progenitors of the genre”. From the opening sentence, he characterises this as an emergent phenomena. “Something nice this way comes.” This is “apparently the literature of our time“. And so on. The infantilisation is not just a ploy. He is quite openly predicating this as a current trend among a younger generation of writers.

It’s a “kids these days!” reactionary nonsense that’s as old as the hills. You might well see it as boring because of that. I think it’s interesting because it is attached to the marvelous and the diegetic. This “doesn’t mean anything”? On the contrary, this means that Bukiet sees the features by which he characterises these works as “insidious” — i.e. infiltrating and corrupting — qualities of paraliterature that do not belong in “proper” high-brow fiction, qualities that have in fact been largely absent from it but are now sneaking into it, to the detriment of the field. Bukiet is revealing two things: 1) that non-marvelous, non-diegetic fiction is established enough as the “literanormative” mode, as far as he’s concerned, that he can see it as a paradigm under threat; 2) that marvelous and/or diegetic fiction is nevertheless becoming prevalent enough that he can see it as a threat to that paradigm.

Whether Bukiet is sincere, or is merely being provocative, is irrelevant.

You’re right, of course. It doesn’t matter if abjection is motivated by an actual irrational response or if it’s all just a performative show. Functionally speaking, it works the same way, so I tend to assume sincerity. I’m not sure of the relevance of this comment though. Where I critique that “wonder is phony” stance as “phony”, I’m not saying he’s only adopting it to be provocative; I’m saying he’s exempting himself from cynical interrogation, doing the same thing he (rightly) condemns Holden Cauldfield for doing. Which is a failure if your aim is realism.

11:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

He's seeing a projection of affect into the fictive universe, even at the expense of making that fictive universe unlike our world.

Ah, yes: the pathetic fallacy. In part, I agree. Bukiet’s clearly no fan of that Romantic conceit, as is entirely consistent with his realist aesthetic. I don’t doubt this is at the core of his rejection of the strange and the diegetic: never concretise a metaphor; never warp credibility. But his argument goes further. He’s not really focused on the alethic modality of what “could happen” or what “could not happen”. Rather he’s focused on boulomaic modalities — on how the numen (what “should happen”) is used to achieve resolution in a work dealing with a monstrum (what “should not happen”). (Sorry, this is a personal lexis, but I use it in the aim of precision. See the “Notes Toward a Theory of Narrative Modality” post for the technical definitions. Or just substitute “monstrous” and “marvelous” with an understanding that these are defined in terms of affect not possibility.)

He sets this out from the start. “It begins with the awful…” — i.e. with the monstrum — “and then finds comfort” — i.e. in the numen. This is, for him, invalid. It’s the product of a naive worldview he writes off sarcastically as a “pristine vision of the deep oneness of things”. He impugns the sincerity of any such view, implying that it’s really conceit in both senses of the term — fanciful and self-aggrandising (“they alone are qualified”). Ultimately he calls into question the whole notion of a “search for love and meaning” with the innuendo that this is performative kids’ stuff (“young people gather to share…”) and that what drives it is merely bad philosophy (“Brooklyn principles”).

In other words, you have this unworldly philosophy of overgrown adolescents foolish enough to see everything as interconnected and with the narcissistic audacity to think they’re equipped to find love/meaning in it. That they can face the monstra of reality and not drown in despair simply staggers belief for Bukiet: “Whereas physical danger or emotional grief leaves most people lonely or ruined or dead, they triumph over adversity… To achieve this miracle” they produce these books. It’s not the alethic quirks he’s against. Not being left “lonely or ruined or dead” is a miracle in and of itself. Anything more than abject misery is a miracle.

This is the opening statement of his thesis, the basic premise: that coming to terms with the horrors of reality is miraculous in and of itself. He is, in effect, guilty of a pathetic fallacy himself. He’s not arguing against projecting wonder “into the fictive universe, even at the expense of making that fictive universe unlike our world.” Essentially, his view of the world has misery so projected into it, so pervasive, that for another to simply represent the numina in it is, as far as he’s concerned, an unconscionable warping. He’s insisting that his grim — and entirely subjective — view of reality is this Hard Truth. With the very narcissism he’s accusing the BBoWs of, he thinks he has found the meaning they’re searching for — in misery. This “tautology of suffering” is not specific to The Lovely Bones. It is laid out in the first three paragraphs as the basic principle of his objection to BBoWs as a group.

I mean, seriously... Do you really think his “What is, is” is just a banal truism? That he’s condemning all fiction as “a violation of human experience” given that all fiction presents the untrue as if it were real, the unreal as if it were true? By the logic of your apologia, that’s what he’s doing. No, he’s insisting that fiction must reflect the Hard Truth he believes in, as he says explicitly, that “it’s false to all human experience to find ‘growth’ in tragedy.“ I repeat: all human experience. There never is, was or will be “growth” in tragedy. So sayeth Bukiet.

11:44 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Actually, there’s a quite interesting implication in that sentence, “To achieve this miracle, certain writers produce Brooklyn Books of Wonder.” And it’s an implication I’m not sure Bukiet is aware of. I mean, this rather implies that engaging in art which accomodates the marvelous and the diegetic is an effective way to process trauma and come to terms with it. Which kind of blows his whole premise apart. If you want to say therapeutic writing is a self-indulgence best left unpublished, well, that’s a matter of personal taste. If you want to say it has no relevance to anyone other than the writer, well, it’s a representation of personal human experience that stands or falls by the same criteria we use to measure any work of fiction. It is a valid project of mimesis, representing (in itself) one instance of the very process by which growth can be found in tragedy. As it was in that writer’s personal human experience.

I suspect Bukiet would argue that this “growth” is false; the writer is “not really” coming to terms with their trauma, just finding “false” solace in wonder, a “shallow” consolation. The “hope” that Eggers finds is hollow, a sham. He’s secretly miserable deep inside, just pretending to have come to terms with his parents’ death, distracting himself with fripperies of wonder in a frippery of a book. If Eggers says, “No, really, in the end I came out of all this bad shit with hope,” then Eggers is a liar.

That’s pretty much just a flat denial that anyone could possibly ever reach the fifth stage of grief — acceptance — a blank assertion that we must always and forever remain trapped in one of the four earlier stages — denial, anger, bargaining or depression. In its refusal to countenance the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel, it actually sounds like stage four, digging its heels in, slapping its hands over its ears and shouting LA LA LA LA. Granted, in stage four, a survivor’s story of acceptance may be the last thing one wants (or even needs) to hear, but denying that this is how grief works (with, yes, a never entirely healed scar that can be re-opened if one pokes it,) is simply a denial of the reality many of us have experienced first-hand. You can come out of it. It can make you stronger. I don’t find that denial, the insistence that this is just fooling one’s self, offensive as much as I find it… wrong. Because it’s really, in its proclamation that “growth” is a Damn Lie, aimed at defending that depression, if not propagating it.

Shame on Eggers for trying to get past the death of his parents! Shame on him for having the naivety to think this possible! Shame on him for fictionaising his own experience as a means to that end! Shame on him for warping it this way and that in a search for meaning! Shame on him for finding a false solace that allows him to carry on and not blow his fucking head off! Shame on him for disseminating this pernicious lie that might encourage others to do the same! Shame on him for denying the all-powerful Truth and Might of depression!

Yeah, misery loves company.

11:45 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

But let’s take that idea that it’s the pathetic fallacy Bukiet is against a little further. This is bad in realist terms because it warps the fictive universe:

The events unfold as a revelation; the characters either announce the revelation or serve as the contrasting shadow of unbelief; the laws of nature kneel in obedience to the revelation; human society as something beyond the revelation does not even exist.

I can’t speak to the text of the book that Bukiet offers as exceptional, in line with his “the real is the true” argument, but this is a perfect description of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn. It’s just that the revelation is negative rather than positive, a revelation of the essential degradation of humanity. The gang rape scene is not just brutal realism; the queuing of those involved presents it in an iconography of communion that’s almost certainly deliberate, to my mind. This short commentary on the book itself — http://biography.jrank.org/pages/4722/Selby-Hubert-Jr.html — lends weight to that interpretation, with its references to “biblical epigraphs”, Bosch and Francis Bacon, how Selby “works with a timeless symbology of darkness overwhelming light,” and how this is “conveyed to us by depth associations with Ecclesiastes, Poe's Raven, and our own disillusioned black ‘Bird,’ Charlie Parker.” See also this interview with Selby himself: http://www.outsideleft.com/main.php?updateID=10 Selby’s later works sound even more artificed.

My point? Bukiet is entirely happy to see affect projected into the world, as long as it’s the correct affect. LEtB is a Brooklyn Book of Misery, and that’s fine and dandy as far as Bukiet’s concerned. That’s “true” to human experience. Nonsense. It’s selective and warping and every bit as false as any BBoW.

Of course everybody hates negative people!

Sorry, that’s just a glib misdirection. Negativity is not the issue. The issue is whether this fatalism is honest and realistic or dishonest and unrealistic. And it’s only an issue because this is what Bukiet is condemning BBoWs for. Because he’s claiming that his brand of unrealistic dishonesty is the Hard Truth. Bollocks, it is.

Personally, I fully intend to get round to Last Exit to Brooklyn some day, and if I appreciate it half as much as the movie, I’ll have a very high opinion of it indeed. I might well see it as the product of a self-destructive spiral of drunken misery it is, as a highly biased work focusing on the darkest aspects of reality to the extent of utterly denying hope. But that doesn’t mean I’ll write it off as “false to all human experience”. I might well prefer it to any of the BBoWs. I might well see this or that BBoW as somewhat vapid and narcissistic in its positivity, a rose-tinted view of the world that glosses over the brutalities. But that doesn’t mean I’ll write these off as “false to all human experience” either. I might well see it as no less valid a subjective view of reality, with no less relevance to the world than the opposite extreme.

Ultimately, I’d hope to be able to see both books of wonder and books of misery as filtered by the subjectivity of the writer, worldviews where the mimesis is always already coloured by the filters, narrowed by the blinkers. I will at very least take them as sincere, honest attempts to articulate the writer’s personal human experience, not call them a Damn Liar because they’re at odds with my idea of how everyone responds to tragedy. I’ll be open to the possibility that where I disagree with them, maybe that’s my filters in action.

11:45 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ultimately, I think you’re reading your own concerns with wonder-as-magic into Bukiet’s concerns with wonder-as-numina. He’s quite happy with books “which are fraught with terror of the half known” or with a “horrifically unredemptive suprise ending”. He hates The Lovely Bones because it “ends with a glow” not because it’s narrated by a ghost. He doesn’t exclude fabulism from “serious fiction” which “sharpens reality”. When he decries Eggers and Kunkel who are “not overt fantasists”, the wonder he’s talking about is not magical but “maudlin”. The problem is that “they mistake sincerity for authenticity”. In other words, they are blinded by sentiment. They don’t see the Hard Truth.

This last, then, is still a side-issue as far as I’m concerned, but the rationalist in me is happy to address the relationship of the marvelous and the magical:

In my real life experience, the joy of something beyond our understanding is invariably the emotion propelling a personal commitment to religion and magic.

To be honest, I think this is a complacent illusion of orthodox rationalism that fundamentally misunderstands religion, and dangerously so. It glosses over the extent to which such things are designed to actively structure thought, appropriating wonder to the service of moral, social and practical purposes, using it as fuel in mechanisms of power. Not recognising the deeper motives of those commitments, pinning it all on wonder, is dangerous because it disinclines one to recognise those mechanisms at play in secular -isms like totalitarian ideologies or — most perilously of all , to my mind— scientistic rationalism. I’m happy to get into this but it’s a whole nother argument.

Sadly, the yearning to understand perhaps is not so common that there could even be much tension.

And this is, I think, a somewhat self-serving illusion of orthodox rationalism that projects primitivism on the common “mob”. I mean, I assume you see yourself as having that yearning to understand, a curious mind, right? But Joe Bloggs Down the Street, the Man on the Clapham Omnibus… he lacks that keen thirst for knowledge, yes? The common man doesn’t want to understand things. Only we precious few of a truly intellectual disposition are really interested in answers. The uncultivated proles, the pre-Enlightenment peasants, the primitive natives, they’re happy with their mumbo-jumbo mysticism. Rght?

Dead wrong, I think. The yearning to understand is widespread, I’d say; it’s at the heart of the notion of “common sense”, an often ferocious rejection of anything which thwarts our desire for certainty, for absolutes. The real pernicious trick of religion is to redirect that yearning either outwards to the ineffable or into highly intricate (and self-contradicting) systems of scripture and ritual. It’s not that the yearning to understand is absent, simply that it’s not aimed at the material world. It’s rewired to point at that which we can’t understand (because it’s utter hokum), so that religion can step into the vacuum and offer easy answers to sate that desire. If that yearning to understand seems less common it’s because the system does its best to beat it the fuck down in case it challenges the orthodoxy which legitimises authority.

But, yeah, this is moving on to a different topic altogether.

11:49 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Last Exit to Brooklyn does strongly suggest Bukiet's fundamental issue is not mine. Specifics always carry more weight.(He specifically critizes Eggers for the fraudlence of his "lattice," not his ego, though.)

There will always be a difference between people who tend to object to fairy tales on the principle there's no "happily ever after." Some will think it's because people are too sorry to be happy or even that happiness. People like me just think there's no "ever after."

Fantasy, the kind of science fiction that disdains science, "magic realism" and such do seem to share a commitment to "ever after" at some level. And I do find it unfulfilling, boring and a disturbing trend expressing an all too common desire to believe in magic.

The vast majority of people (in the US, where I live) are believers, and the vast majority share a firm belief in common sense. The difference is over what constitutes knowledge. The notion that what isn't is real will never permit real understanding.

The amount of time television devotes to science, or the sales of science books, or the quality of science reporting are far better indicators of a desire to understand than a faux populist attack on my elitism. In fact, the amount of time Christians actually spend reading the Bible makes my point far better than you realize.

3:24 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Apologies if the attack on elitism came across as belligerent, but it's not faux-populism, simply... "know thy enemy". I mean, ultimately I’m adamantly opposed to religion and a whole-hearted subscriber to the notion of the scientific method. I’m a staunch atheist, to the extent that I have, in the past, devoted several thousands of words on a reductio ad absurdum of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, extending its logic to “prove” that God must, by definition, be the greatest cocksucker in existence. I actively disbelieve in God because the entire concept is incoherent, never mind inconsistent. I actively disbelieve in an “ever after” or, as I like to call it, Pie In The Sky When You Die, because you can’t have the kinaesthesia we call affect or the recombination of sensation we call thought, memory, consciousness, without a fricking body. I’m minutely less adamant about the latter because the theory of sentience I’m working with is yet to be formulated into a solidly scientific hypothesis that can be proven or falsified; but Occam’s Razor rather suggests we’re sentient for the exact same reason that lemurs are, and probably in pretty much the same way — sapience being a different matter, but hardly a reason to suppose more than a nifty ability that exapts memory to the manipulation of notions.

But that’s exactly why I’m suspicious of rationalism when it looks to me like it’s surrendering to easy answers, taking preconceptions as facts. When it becomes scientistic rather than scientific, based on dogma rather than doubt. To quote the New Scientist, the belief that "the world is accessible to and ultimately controllable by human reason" is "a profoundly unscientific idea... neither provable nor refutable." The whole basis of rationalism is weakened when it moves from reactive doubt to active disbelief (i.e. active belief that X or Y just can’t happen because they don’t fit the current paradigm,) and is further weakened when all those active disbeliefs cohere into a belief-system in its own right, one with all sorts of wandering signifiers and subtle assurances of certainty. All too often, I think, rationalism does take on the very qualities of the faiths that it’s designed to challenge. And faiths are pretty much invariably complacent and self-serving.

This is why any hint of a “most people are just sheep” dismissal will bring out the cynic in me. And this is the way I took your comment on magic — rooting its popularity in a characterisation of the general populace as predominantly drawn to mystery and uninterested in understanding. It sounds like a belief held on the basis of faith — faith in one’s own nous, and faith in a very broad-brushstroke model of human behaviour that explains away credulity as regards religion and magic as, ultimately, an inferiority of interest, curiosity. When you look at the dearth of science coverage (or arts at any higher level than entertainment, for that matter,) and the time and energy people invest in religion (as you say, reading the Bible, etc.,) especially in the US, it’s certainly easy to conclude that the strain of anti-intellectualism in the culture is to do with a general incuriosity on the part of the everyman. But your portrait doesn’t hold true in the UK, which is vastly more agnostic and atheistic. Where “atheist” is a dirty word in the US, it barely raises a shrug in the UK. A huge proportion of people here identify as agnostic. Despite influence from the US media, the BBC has a strong heritage of science programming that’s (largely) of a far higher quality than the When Insects Attack! pabulum churned out across the Pond. Are British people just naturally more curious, less credulous? Unlikely.

11:26 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Like most other quantifiable responses, It seems a more reasonable hypothesis that natural curiosity-level falls on a bell curve, and as a logical characteristic of a primate designed for scavenging, the mean level of curiosity would, I’d expect, not be so low as that the vast majority would seem entirely incurious to those few at the top end. This is, of course, speculative, but it’s the sort of thing you could probably test for. Especially when you have noticeable differences between cultures, it just seems like a sensible default, a good starting-point, to assume that people are not, on the whole, bovine followers whose base state of comfort is the bliss of ignorance. A far better comparison, to my mind, is another domesticated omnivorous scavenger which lives in highly status-oriented packs rather than grass-munching herds — the dog. That curious, cautious canine with a whole range of reactions to the unknown — digging its nose into everything, barking at cars and caravans, attacking vacuum cleaners. Some dogs are indifferent to the strange, just not that interested in it, but more often than not they have to be trained not to sniff visitors’ crotches or run over to dogs they haven’t met before in the park.

The reason I prefer that metaphor, that model, and the reason I’ll take a hard poke at any elitist intellectualist paradigm is that, if you’re a rationalist suspicious of religion, I reckon it serves you well not to underestimate it — which I think that elitist view does. If we’re mostly sheep with a natural tendency to buy into bunkum because a) we enjoy our awe at the ineffable; and b) we’re not that interested in real understanding, then religion is just this nebulous nonsense that naturally emerges from those tendencies. It’s a silly frippery we can frown on as rationalists because it’s utterly unfounded. Its detrimental effects are follies, by-products of the empty ritualism and muddled thinking it’s simply reifying. Turn it around and look at it from the other perspective though. If we’re mostly dogs with a natural tendency to get all excited at what we don’t understand because a) not understanding is in and of itself a state of excitation in the form of surprise that binds to both joy and fear; and b) we’re scavengers wired with a drive to investigate that which we don’t know in order to figure out if it’s a threat or an opportunity, then religion isn’t a naturally emergent feature of that mindset but an active counter-measure designed to limit it. Its not just a silly frippery but a purposed control mechanism. Its detrimental effects may well be part of that mechanics.

To me religion looks like a chew-toy designed to distract, to stop the dog from going at the furniture. It looks like a muzzle, desinged to stop the dog from barking at what it doesn’t know, announcing the reality of the unknown. It looks like a leash, designed to stop the dog from straying off the path, nosing around wherever it will. It looks like a whole sodding training regime, designed to stop the dog from even thinking of leaving its master’s side. It’s an active suppression of curiosity, designed to eliminate, to the best of its ability, any impulse towards investigation and understanding that qualifies as “disruptive”, whether that’s Galileo curious about what’s happening in the sky or a child curious about why those two men are holding hands. The differences between US and UK culture are, to my mind, largely to do with the fact that US culture was founded by Puritan separatists.

Anyway, apologies if I was projecting more into that comment than was intended. It’s just my doggish tendency to tear open the shiny package when I catch a scent of what smells like rationalism as faith. Partly it’s because this seems to be a prevalent feature in the discourse of SF, a rationalism that actually flies in the face of the scientific method with all sorts of idealising— ultimately romanticising — beliefs in Clear Thinkers versus the Superstitous Masses.

11:26 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Bringing it back to magic and fiction:

“Fantasy, the kind of science fiction that disdains science, ‘magic realism’ and such do seem to share a commitment to ‘ever after’ at some level.”

Agreed-ish. I’d wire in some extra caveats for fantasy and magic realism; there are distinct approaches here. Some fantasists play with the strange far more intellectually, from a basically fabulist position, where it’s all to be understood as conceits, read just as figuratively as the absurd conceit at the heart of Catch-22 or the weird shit that goes on in various New Wave novels. Extended metaphors a la Gormenghast. Otfen this is consciously oppositional to orthodox religion (and even traditional fantasy) using its tropes only to deconstruct them. At its most intellectual, you’ll get metafiction and pomo, or expressionistic and surrealistic works — in most of which the strange doesn’t really fit the label “magic”.

Other than that though, yup. Some strains of strange fiction that fall under fantasy or magic realism buy into common religious belief systems (or uncommon ones for that matter) because the writers hold to them view. SF — even scientific SF — isn’t immune to this because you do get those SF writers who know theoretical physics but are steeped in that US anti-atheism. But generally you get the politics of Christianity rather than the angels, maybe because these people are WASPs; their belief system has a Newtonian watchmaker running the show but with a strict non-intervention policy. Or maybe because they’re just more about the politics anyway.

The bulk is trad fantasists who play with folkloric tropes from a commercial impulse to romanticism, because they make for ripping yarns. There’s little real credence here, but its often done with scant thought to the subtexts. Again SF isn’t entirely immune to this because it’s coming from the same pulp background; every pulp hero partakes of the folk-hero of legend, so even when you’re dealing with some rigorously scientific technothriller, you can have a sneaky undercurrent of the Knight in Not So Shining Armour. Fandom does get a little cultic around such stuff, but the New Agey, crystal-wielding unicorn-fiddlers do have their complement in the cult of Trek, with Roddenberry’s atheism not countermanding the utopian and romantic appeal. And, yes, Trek never had much regard for science, but the point is that its scientistic utopianism only adds to the Wagon Train to the Stars… “secular religiosity”.

More often than not, I think, the emphasis is on “happily after” rather than “ever after”. The marvelous is in the service of the diegetic. The message is less Pie in the Sky When You Die, than it’s Good Guys Beat Bad Guys. Watching Buffy doesn’t make me any more prone to believe in vampires than watching The Quick and the Dead makes me imagine the “Wild West” was like that. So, I’m not bothered with escapist fluff unless it’s ethically dubious. It’s just adult play. Hell, sometimes even a theoretical physicist likes to sit on top of a mesa, playing the bongos, dancing and chanting like a Native American while his colleagues work on the Manhattan Project. Tthe New Age adult make-believe beyond that? Being a skeptic doesn’t mean I have to be a killjoy, but I am a wary sort and those fascists were all about the dress-up and the Wandervogel and the romanticism. And then you got Hubbard’s cult, based on pure pulp fiction. The difference between us here is maybe just that I focus on the diegetic, the storyfication, rather than the magic, because I think detectives, cowboys, lederhosen-wearing peasants and all manner of non-magical tropes are a big part of the picture. I’m less worried about people taking magic seriously than I am about them taking the notions of Good Guys and Bad Guys seriously.

12:17 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I suspect I’m also more blasé about “magic” as the rationalist’s bete noire. In line with that New Scientist quote, I don’t have a problem with the idea that the universe might defy rational explanation in some respects — not in a cop-out, “oh, well, let’s all just believe in pixies then” sense, but in a “show me some weird shit that’s not a parlour trick and then I’ll be interested” sense.

I mean, I’m acutely skeptical of all hocus pocus, parapsychology and other such malarky because I’ve seen no evidence remotely worth consideration and an overwhelming mass of proven charlatanry. I retain an open mind to some tiny extent, in so far as being willing to consider new evidence should it arise, but if it’s observable then it’s part of nature and if it’s part of nature it is, by definition, not supernatural; in the extraordinarily implausible event that the human race suddenly discovers an ability to jaunte through space and time in seeming contradiction of the Laws of Physics, I’ll be expecting them what work in theoretical physics to be looking for an explanation of how the fuck this works. Until such time, I’ll tend to regard someone who says they can click their heels three times and teleport to Kansas as a liar, a fool or a lunatic.

Thing is, the rationalist rejection of “magic” is a weak front of attack, it seems to me. All of that “magic” is actually an incoherent mass of contradictory claims regarding a morass of contradictory pseudo-philosophies and purported mechanisms for achieving this or that effect via this or that ritual. It’s profoundly non-scientific to cordon all of this stuff off as magic and simply say it’s impossible. As the transition from alchemy to chemistry teaches us, with its crucibles and transformations of substances, a “magical ritual” might well have a very real effect; it’s just that all the explanatory garbage is utterly bogus. This is not in any way to suggest we take magic remotely seriously, rather that we don’t err by taking it seriously as a coherent theory that can be dismissed a priori. That way lies scientistic dismissals of heavier-than-air flight because this would clearly be in contravention of the law of gravity. Ultimately, the risk is of turning rationalism into a counter-faith, defined by opposing beliefs (“heavier-than air flight is magic and therefore impossible” versus “witches can fly around on broomsticks”) rather than doubt.

The liars, fools and lunatics can always play a simple shell game, by pointing to weird shit now explained by science, the impossible that’s been made possible, claiming this or that as “evidence” of that or this, and ultimately distracting the rationalist into trying to “disprove” a theory that doesn’t actually exist to be disproven. You either have to rule it all out as “primitive superstition” and risk them going “AHA! See!” when some herbal remedy turns out to have actual medicinal properties, or firefight each utterly spurious claim individually as if you were actually dealing with a proper testable hypothesis (in which case they’ll just produce yet more “evidence” of the same thing or something else entirely). In all of those cases, I’m less worried about the random content of the lie, the folly or the delusion, than I am about what exactly it’s in the service of — which usually takes us back to religion and social control.

12:39 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Historically, the scientists who thought they were studying something real, not just correlating sense impressions of measuring devices, have been the ones making the advances. If New Scientist believes that science cannot grasp the ineffable truth of reality because it is beyond reason, they have pretty much conceded all to every magician and priest who ever walked the Earth. But then, science isn't about pure reason grasping reality at all, even if mathematicians are prone to Platonism. And I certainly have no clue what reason controlling reality could possibly mean. It sounds very much like New Scientist is slaying a straw man. Experiment is not dogma, even if people who hold to its results are infuriatingly "dogmatic," i.e., refuse to accept the argument against them.

The notion that accepting the very concepts of knowledge or truth is somehow dogmatic doesn't compute for me. Nor do I hold to coherence concept of truth. In fact, I tend to distrust Popperian notions of disproof and related notions like doubt. In Popper's case, it has led to gross scientific errors like rejecting evolution! Any implication that reality is not consistent or is paradoxical is extreme. It should be looked at askance, as the important people say.

Here in the US I know far more religious people than the wicked scientistic rationalists. The ones I know would rather not read the Bible because they are quite satisfied with miracles accepted at face value. They have no interest in how the Trinity makes sense, for instance, but generally are unhappy with questions about it. And most of them are quite proud of their common sense. It is interesting to hear that the situation is different in the UK.

Religion is also a social institution. "Control" would be one of its functions but it is not clear that it is always a bad thing. If religion is just a swindle, where's the man behind the curtain? If you think that religion is bad because it's not true, then atheism makes sense.

2:19 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Historically, the scientists who thought they were studying something real, not just correlating sense impressions of measuring devices, have been the ones making the advances.

The contingency of our alethic knowledge has nothing to do with "sense impressions" and "measuring devices". Yes, the ones making the advances had little doubt they were dealing with epistemic certainties; the alternative is pretty much solipsism. However, a scientific theory is an alethic model and as such, however airtight it is in terms of validity, it can only be proven to be relevant to those epistemic certainties, not an epistemic certainty in and of itself.

If it fits the empirical facts -- those epistemic certainties -- that's great. If it predicts behaviours we later observe, that's even better. If it predicts behaviours we don't observe, or we observe behaviours it doesn't predict, then we need a better theory; this one is not as relevant as it could be.

The whole history of science has been a constant uphill struggle against those who ascribe epistemic truth to their favoured alethic model. Religion has always been, and will most likely always be, the chief opponent. Scientistic rationalism is however equally non-scientific where it mistakes a highly relevant alethic model for an epistemic certainty.

If New Scientist believes that science cannot grasp the ineffable truth of reality because it is beyond reason, they have pretty much conceded all to every magician and priest who ever walked the Earth.

New Scientist doesn't believe any of the sort. The article is simply pointing out that any grandiose claim that reality is ultimately completely explicable by human reason is not a scientific proposition but a statement of faith. It is an alethic theory that does not and cannot produce predictions testable against epistemic certainties. As such, it is pure metaphysics. That quote is actually a refusal to concede to the exact same type of spurious wish-fulfillment fantasy of Divine Order pandered by those magicians and priests.

It sounds very much like New Scientist is slaying a straw man.

I disagree. Many who profess to a rationalist worldview are no less prone to taking their alethic model as epistemic certainty. The opposition to the heliocentric cosmology of Copernicus came largely from religious adherence to the Ptolemaic alethic model, but the astronomers who held out against Kepler were largely being scientistic. Their alethic model seemed more "ordered", more "rational", because its cycles and epicycles were still simple circles, a more basic geometric shape. None of this crazy talk of elliptical orbits and the area law; that made the alethic model less neat, less symmetrical.

Similarly, while Einstein may have believed in a God, this didn't stop him overthrowing the Newtonian mechanistic model with relativity. Nevertheless, he remained resistant to quantum mechanics because it introduced an element of uncertainty -- an implication that reality is not consistent or is paradoxical, one might say -- at odds with his faith in the universe being ordered, rational. He expressed this in openly religious terms, "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice," rather indicating that he recognised this as a metaphysical position. Flensing the anthropomorphic deity from that faith still leaves a fundamentally religious conviction; the idea that this belief is "scientific" is pretty much what distinguishes one as "scientistic".

6:18 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

As for Popper and evolution, see this:

http://atheism.about.com/b/2006/06/20/karl-popper-and-evolution-is-evolutionary-theory-based-on-a-tautology.htm

Popper, as a philosopher, misunderstood the nature of the claims made by evolutionary theory. When he understood them, he retracted his criticisms.

6:27 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

If religion is just a swindle, where's the man behind the curtain?

In every mirror. I calls him Senor Morales.

If you think that religion is bad because it's not true, then atheism makes sense.

But what if I don't? I mean, I don't think fiction is bad because it's not true. I don't think kiddies playing cops and robbers is bad because it's not true. Or adults playing D&D, or going on some murder mystery weekend, or roleplaying in a therapy session, or telling the kids that Santa's coming, or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy -- I don't think any of this is bad because it's untrue. What's wrong with a little make-believe?

Even a lot of the catholics I've known who believe in the core metaphysics, shrug off the whole blood-into-wine ritual of communion as symbolic -- ritual as theatre, a meaningful fiction. Hell, some Christians I've met don't really believe in Mary's virginity or Christ's resurrection. Nothing in the "it's bad because it's untrue" argument says why this type of make-believe is any worse than any other.

The untruth only becomes patently bad in your argument when it moves from fiction to delusion, when the suspension-of-disbelief becomes permanent and dysfunctional -- a cultural schizophrenia. And then: well, if someone really believes that wine transubstantiates into blood, your argument fails because they don't accept the premise it requires -- that the delusion is untrue.

Why should they be athiest? Because it's a sensible choice. Why is it a sensible choice? Because religion is bad. Why is religion bad? Because it's untrue; God doesn't exist; atheism is the only sensible choice. That's a circular argument that ain't going to work on them. (Especially if you take a "you only believe this because you're bovine imbeciles" approach. Cause, yeah, insults are really gonna win them over.)

And it's worse if you're dealing with a higher level of hokum. Here in the UK, there's a lot of irreligious agnostics who basically dismiss all the miraculous stuff but nonetheless give credence to woolly-minded theism as long as it doesn't involve Jesus walking on water or making a jumbo jet vanish. All they really believe in is some sort of vague Divine Order to reality.

With scientistic rationalism, you're left arguing a metaphysical proposition -- that God has no place in a rational model of the universe -- which actually feeds into their teleological notions of a Divine Watchmaker because it insists that the universe is essentially ordered -- as in "to order", as in a verb taking both object and subject, as in an action carried out on something by something. You're not actually far from the non-anthropomorphic metaphysics of Taoism or (some) Buddhism.

7:16 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

So, pragmatically, I think science can do a better job against religion by arguing psychology and sociology -- showing how such beliefs come about, how they are maintained, what functions they perform, and how this is fundamentally dysfunctional -- than by making metaphysical claims that an alethic model is epistemic certainty.

Don't get me wrong, I think one can and should attack on that front as well, but that's a job for philosophy, not science. But if most people aren't interested in how the Trinity makes sense and suchlike, they're unlikely to be interested in dissections of the ontological and teleological arguments that show how God is bad metaphysics. (Doesn't stop me from trying in the "Halls of Pentheus" posts.) What they might be more likely to listen to, I think, is arguments aimed at rendering the mechanics of religious thought transparent.

Point is, if the model is accurate it's like describing how sounds are articulated phonetically, how the /b/ sound is a voiced bilabial plosive. The person you're talking to only has to think about what's going on when they make that sound to get that the model is accurate. "Yes, my glottis is vibrating which makes it a /b/ rather than a /p/ -- 'voiced' rather than 'voiceless'. Yes, it's formed by closing both lips -- 'bilabial' -- rather than using tongue and teeth. Yes, it's about a complete cessation of airflow with a sudden release -- a 'plosive' -- rather than a restriction causing 'fricative' turbulence. By golly, I see what you mean! I never thought about how the system worked, but now it's obvious!"

7:17 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

One of the people who rejected Kepler was Galileo himself. He did not do so because he was scientistic.

Einstein's principal opponent was Niels Bohr, who denied that science studied reality while simultaneously accepting everyday reality uncritically. Nor was Einstein religious in any normal sense of the word. Cosmology has shown that Bohr was wrong to think questions about reality could be verbally whisked away.

Popper was wrong to accept the correction, because survival of the fittest was not and has not been demonstrated. It was more politic of him, because his falsifiability criterion failed. Darwinism was always a scientific theory. Creationism was always falsifiable, and by Popper's standards is scientific. Popper's absurd schema is politically motivated. I was fortunate enough to read his The Open Society and Its Enemies.

As ever, specifics are more informative. The way that your specific examples don't quite mean what you think show there's something wrong. The vague notion that "science" is an explanation of reality is incorrect. Science is what we know, by observation and experiment, about reality.

Epistemic certainty in the sense you seem to be using it is not knowledge at all. Knowledge is not some abstract metaphysical proposition that must be true. Mathematics is science, knowledge, but it is not the model of knowledge. Mathematics itself does not have epistemic certainty in the sense you appear to mean. That is an illusion.

The implicit contrary, that reality is inconsistent, disorder, irrational, or whatever, fails to correspond to anything in reality. I reject the notion. I also think it happens to be a prime example of an incoherent concept, so I don't know why you don't reject it.

The foundations of mathematics are inconsistent (the last time I looked) because mathematics is a human creation. Perhaps you are lumping in issues of perfect or complete knowledge with the notion of knowledge proper?

The idea that being nice will convert the believers is like the notion that true Christianity will change the world when enough people believe. People seem to think they are being practical or something. They are not. One hundred fifty years haven't managed to get people to accept evolution.

Since the whole thread of comments started when I was sympathetic to what I thought were Bukiet's concerns about untruths in fiction, well, obviously I would be concerned about untruths about real life.

Yes, there are people who regard religion as some sort of pleasant fiction. They seem to share your beliefs about the nonexistence of truth, so while it is obvious why I disagree with them, I'm not sure why you do.

And, if everyone is the controller of religion, then religion is pretty democratic.

5:18 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

One of the people who rejected Kepler was Galileo himself. He did not do so because he was scientistic.

So he was attached to his own heretical heliocentric model over another heretical heliocentric model. As a commited progressive himself, a fierce defender of Copernican astronomy, he failed to recognise the significance of Kepler’s work. (As I understand, he just never wrote about it.) Possibly because the elliptical orbits lacked that nice clean symmetry. And how does this relate to the argument that those who were commitedly arguing against those elliptical orbits were doing so on the basis of an irrational rationalism, an aesthetic preference for the order of symmetry?

Einstein's principal opponent was Niels Bohr, who denied that science studied reality while simultaneously accepting everyday reality uncritically. Nor was Einstein religious in any normal sense of the word. Cosmology has shown that Bohr was wrong to think questions about reality could be verbally whisked away.

As I understand it: Einstein took issue with complementarity and indeterminacy, the whole probabilistic paradgim and the notion of uncertainty as an actual ontological state; he was convinced this just couldn’t be the case, that the theory just was not complete; his criticisms were met with and repudiated by Bohr each time; Einstein ended up modifying his position over the years as quantum mechanics proved more and more compelling; ultimately Bell’s theorem shows that it isn’t possible to “complete” quantum mechanics locally with hidden variables. As I understand it.

How does this negate the fact that Einstein’s problem with quantum mechanics was “because it introduced an element of uncertainty -- an implication that reality is not consistent or is paradoxical, one might say -- at odds with his faith in the universe being ordered, rational”? How is his conviction that uncertainty could not be an ontological state not metaphysical? If Bohr took for granted that everyday reality existed but was able to accept the possibility that science was inherently limited in its capacity to describe it, and in fact sought to define what those limitations might be, how is this dismissing “questions about reality”?

1:08 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Popper was wrong to accept the correction, because survival of the fittest was not and has not been demonstrated.

Neither has the Copernican heliocentric model, because its circular orbits were only partially right. It still brought the study of the stars into the domain of science, by making the model theoretically valid and practically testable, as classic Darwinism does with the study of the origin of species. That a scientific theory turns out to be not demonstrable because it’s not actually quite right does not make it non-scientific. Few evolutionists now, as I understand it, hold to the basic paradigm in its crudest form or even talk in terms of “survival of the fittest” but rather in terms of selection. And you don’t think its principles are demonstrable? Are you now arguing that evolution is obvously true, but we can’t actually support that with a solid theory backed up by hard fact? That Popper was right initially that it doesn’t fit the criteria? So Popper should have continued to argue against it?

Huh?!

(cont.)

1:08 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Creationism was always falsifiable, and by Popper's standards is scientific.

Nonsense. What does creationism predict and how can we test that? It’s not even a theory, let alone a scientific one. It’s a story, hence you can change the main character from God to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If you really think creationism is falsifiable and scientific by anyone’s standards, I’d say some fundie has spiked your Kool-Aid. “The world magically popped into existence yesterday or… um… 6013 years ago tomorrow,” is not falsifiable, any more than, “The world is an illusion and you’re actually a God who got bored, made up an entire universe, with a role for himself and fake memories to boot and set it all running just two seconds before you read this sentence… but obviously you don’t remember that, Lord Johnson Almighty!” It’s outright fancy, with bolt-ons and loopholes and all manner of nonsense specifically designed to avoid it ever being falsifiable. Like the epicycles and epicycles on epicycles chucked into the cosmologies that refused to countenance the idea of elliptical orbits.

And this is a complete meta-argument anyway. Like the question of his politics. So what? We don’t get to define (or redefine) the scientific method to exclude things we find crazy or unethical or dubiously motivated from ever being considered valid theories. Although, honestly, I’m beginning to suspect you might respond to this with, “Yes! We can and must!”

(cont.)

1:09 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Here’s the nub of it:

The vague notion that "science" is an explanation of reality is incorrect. Science is what we know, by observation and experiment, about reality.

OK. I think it’s you who’s being vague here, in using utterly informal terms like “know” and “knowledge”. Your vocabulary of “knowledge” and “truth” is the vocabulary of medieval metaphysics. It has as little place here, where we are talking epistomology in modern scientific terms, as a taxonomy of humours — sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic — has in biology. They blur the very precise and crucial boundary I’m pointing to between statements of alethic and epistemic possibility/certainty. The term “knowledge” entirely glosses over distinctions between a priori and a posteriori, subjective conviction and objective actuality. It is a muddled and muddling wave in the general direction of any number of things it might be signifying.

To be clear then, when you say “knowledge is not some abstract metaphysical proposition that must be true,” this is precisely the distinction I’m making. An epistemic certainty is articulated as a concrete, physical proposition that happens to be true. It has a modality of “is” or “did happen”. When you say, “Mathematics is science, knowledge, but it is not the model of knowledge,” this is precisely the distinction you’re failing to make. An alethic proposition is a theoretical supposition, an assertion of subjunctive possibility which addresses what “can happen”. It abstracts from what “did happen” into meta-statements about the potentialities of a physical system, a description of the system’s morphology. It is precisely a modelling of that system.

Mathematics is the prime linguistic medium in which we articulate these systems of abstract potentialities divorced from the messy concrete actualities. We use it to create alethic morphologies like Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry. Then we apply these to our knowledge — the epistemic certainties — and see which alethic morphology fits. You can describe these morphologies informally as “knowledge” if you wish, but they are never epistemic “knowledge” — i.e. of actuality, of reality — only alethic hypotheses which are valid or invalid. If you have a conviction that this or that alethic morphology is relevant, that conviction is only a subjective sensation. If you have empirical evidence that your conviction is correct, that evidence is only inferential proof of relevance, not of truth; at any point more evidence may come along that negates your inductive reasoning that the alethic proposition “If A then B” is “proven true” by a reality where every time you see A, B follows. You do not have knowledge there. You do not know that the day will never come when B does not follow on from A. All you have is a justified belief that must be abandoned if and when that day comes. It may be very justified, but it is still a belief.

What distinguishes physics from metaphysics is the recognition of that basic epistemological reality. Every time someone talks about the “knowledge” or “truth” of science and they’re not referring to epistemic certainties but to theories, this is metaphysics. Let me ask you a serious question at this point then: are you insisting that scientific theories are “knowledge” in this sense, “truths” of how things are, that science has actually built up a great stock of axiomatic truths of the form, “If A then B,” that you consider beyond disbelief, beyond the doubt that you distrust? If so there’s no real point in my arguing with you because you’re a religious acolyte of your own fabricated faith. It doesn’t have a God, but hey, neither does Taoism.

Can you at least understand why I might think this irrational?

(cont)

1:10 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I’ll make my position as clear as I can.

What we “know, by observation and experiment, about reality” is only the raw data of science, the recorded empirical actualities — these are the epistemic certainties I’m talking about. What is. What is not. What happened. What did not happen. Your comments about “sense impressions” and “measuring equipment” assumed I was talking about epistemic uncertainty — “what might/might not have happened” — which is exactly why I clarified that, no, this is not my position. The position that “we can’t really claim epistemic certainty of ‘what is’, only express an epistemic notion of what ‘might be’” is impracticable solipsism. I repeat, this is not my argument here. Right now, as I write this, it is raining outside my house. I’m happy to claim this as an epistemic certainty; I don’t think I’m living in a PKD novel. When you project onto me a belief in “the nonexistence of truth” you are labouring under a radical misapprehension of the points I’m making.

The key point is this: science is more than just a mass of empirical facts. It is the ongoing attempt, and the product(s) of the attempt, to make sense of those facts in terms of systems expressed as interrelated statements of alethic possibility — statements of what “can happen” and what “cannot happen”. Theories. We examine those facts, try and find principles to their consistencies, premises which taken together allow us to deduce conclusions. Over the millennia we’ve developed formalised languages in the form of the propositional calculus of logic and the whole structure of mathematics in order to properly articulate our theories, to ensure that conclusions are rigorously derived from premises, to ensure that the theories these build into are mathematically or logically valid. Mathematics and logic are powerfully coherent systems of theory in the form of abstract propositions. They are the purest semantics you can get — theory as pure syntactic formulae. There is much reason to suppose that the theories generated relate to reality — this is in many cases what they are designed to do — but that is never more than a supposition.

Perhaps you are lumping in issues of perfect or complete knowledge with the notion of knowledge proper?

No. Consistency and completeness are also not the issue. Yes, there are issues of consistency born of mathematics being a human invention. There’s also inherent limitations as shown in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. But these are not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the fact that the map is not the territory, the alethic morphology is not the epistemic actuality. This is really very simple if we cut through the obsolete rhetorics of pre-Modern philosophy. The distinction between alethic and epistemic possibility should not be hard to grasp. All I am saying is that where epistemic assertions can be wholly resolved to certainty, alethic assertions cannot; they are at most probabilities.

(cont.)

1:10 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Let’s assume that a pair of theoretical physicists working together — Duncan and Johnson — come up with a Grand Theory of Everything. The Duncan-Johnson GTE is mathematically and logically rigorous. It unites relativity and quantum mechanics, unifies the four fundamental forces, describes exactly how the universe could have come into existence from nothing, predicts how it will end, and seems to explain everything in between. All of this is derived from a single simple premise as easily articulated as E = mc2. It is, in short, the most consistent and complete theory of the universe in the history of humanity. It is still only a theory, an alethic morphology. With all the epistemic certainties in the world, all the empirical evidence in the cosmos, shouting at us, “This fits! This fits!” we can still only say that it is the most probable theory. It might be so very almost certain it seems entirely insane to imagine that’s it not really, actually, epistemically certain… but that’s the foundation of scientific thought, to never mistake that alethic morphology for epistemic actuality, to never assume that the map is a perfect description of the territory.

The ascription of an alethic morphology to the mass of epistemic certainties is always ultimately a premise in and of itself, a supposition of relevance. For millennia it was supposed that the alethic morphology of Euclidian geometry was the only relevant geometry to the epistemic certainties of the reality we live in and that it was, indeed, completely relevant — i.e. that the alethic statements were actually epistemic certainties, that this was a “known” fact of how reality worked, that it was essentially “true”.

It wasn’t.

It wasn’t “knowledge” and it wasn’t “true”. It was, and remains, immeasurably relevant, but where relativity describes space-time curvature it does so with non-Euclidian geometry that was hitherto thought irrelevant, “untrue”. No, said Einstein, that alethic morphology is not an epistemic certainty. On the contrary, the epistemic certainties — what we know to be true — are at odds with it. Look. There are anomalies that require explanation. We can explain them, but to do so requires abandoning the faith that Euclidian geometry is the right model, the notion of it as an essential truth about reality. If we do so, if we relate both Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry to the epistemic certainties, we get a better map of the territory. One in which space-time is generally flat — Euclidian — but curved in the presence of matter — non-Euclidian. This is still not “knowledge”, still not “true”. It is simply more relevant.

(cont.)

1:11 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

What you seem to be just not getting is that no matter how much we wish otherwise, the epistemic certainties are apparently inconsistent. And please do note the “apparently” there; I’m not saying, “Reality is senseless chaos! Chaos, I say!” only that it behaves in ways that it is difficult to make sense of. Because we have alethic morphologies that say “X and Y can’t happen together” when sometimes it very much looks like they do. This tends to indicate those alethic morphologies are inadequate, not wholly relevant. Which is the point.

Science is driven by the recognition of anomalies that don’t fit the prevailing alethic morphologies, and by the attempt to reconcile conflicting alethic morphologies (e.g. the wave and particle models of light) that seem incompatible — like a street map of a city versus a topological map of its underground system. At the moment we don’t have that Duncan-Johnson GTE that accounts for all the epistemic certainties and binds the variant theories into a unity. We have relativity and quantum mechanics, some theories which have made steps in showing how they can be reconciled, alethic morphologies like string theory and m-theory which are hotly disputed. Why? Because in abstracting to a level at which a satisfactory explanation can be achieved, for many they seem to unfortunately move out of the realm of being testable. The scientists arguing against them are doing so because they consider this a step out of the domain of physics and into metaphysics.

The bottom line? Your statement that, “The implicit contrary, that reality is inconsistent, disorder, irrational, or whatever, fails to correspond to anything in reality,” is not only wrong, it is exactly wrong. An alethic model of true chaos says that anything can happen. It doesn’t say that it will, just that it can. By asserting no limitations whatsoever it does correspond to our reality. All those epistemic certainties? They’re just the somethings that the “anything could happen” happened to resolve into. An alethic model of true chaos doesn’t just correspond to our reality, but to every possible reality. It maps to every possible reality that is consistent in and of itself, whatever permutations of the various cosmological constants one might select, whatever laws of physics results. It maps to every possible reality that is partly or wholly inconsistent. It maps to the entire multiverse of possible realities that could randomly emerge out of that unlimited potentiality.

This is what makes it a useless model. That’s why we assume consistency, order, rationality. Consistency is the only logical starting point. A basic premise. It is still only a premise, a foundation stone of alethic morphologies that Gödel, Heisenberg and many others have, for solid scientific reasons, brought into question over the last century or so. It is not the scientist’s Kaaba. It is not the grailstone of rationalism. It is not the philosopher’s stone. It is not the stone that was thrown away, upon which the temple was built. It is not to be bowed down to and revered as some empty throne assuring us that all is right in the heavens, even if there was never a God to make it so. The moment one starts believing it is, one has forsaken science for religion.

1:21 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Let me reiterate that crucial question then, cause this is the core of it: are you insisting that scientific theories are “knowledge” in this sense, “truths” of how things are, that science has actually built up a great stock of axiomatic truths of the form, “If A then B,” that you consider beyond disbelief, beyond the doubt that you distrust?

I am saying those are beliefs and should be recognised as such, always. That’s pretty much all I’m saying. If you disagree, let’s not get distracted into who turned their nose up at Kepler and whether Popper’s arguments can be co-opted by creationists. It’s a simple question, and if that’s the nub of our disagreement, how you consider to be knowledge what I consider to be belief is way more pertinent than all this splatter of side-issues.

1:21 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"And how does this relate to the argument that those who were commitedly arguing against those elliptical orbits were doing so on the basis of an irrational rationalism, an aesthetic preference for the order of symmetry?"

But, who were they? Kepler himself wrote a whole book deriving the orbits of the planets from the Platonic solids, which you argue is why people opposed Kepler. Did Kepler oppose himself because of his scientism? I am pretty sure that the opposition to Copernicus was because of resistance to the notion that the Earth is moving, when we don't feel it moving. And because it contradicted the Bible. I don't think there was much opposition to Kepler's discoveries as such. I think his results were basically accepted by most who accepted the Copernican model, the only exception I know of being Galileo.

The claim that scientistic bad guys like me have been causing bad things with our evil ideology is as imaginary as the good things happening because good people avoid the metaphysical trap of scientism. To put it another way, the notion of scientism functions much like Godless evolution functions in religious discourse. As scientism is just metaphysics too arrogant to call itself by its right name, evolution is just another nontheistic religion. And just as scientism is merely another metaphysics with no more claim than any other, the religion of evolution has no more claim than any other. Therefore, adherence to scientism is merely cover for the lust for power, just as adherence to the religion of evolution is merely cover for amorality. Heretical thinking leads to immorality. I think superstition leads to bad thinking, which really does cause bad things. The way religious notions of the soul and divine providence are inextricably intertwined with the psychology of racism are a simple example. People can verbalize metaphysical propositions for evolution in particular, or science in general, but that's rhetoric.

4:26 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"How does this negate the fact that Einstein’s problem with quantum mechanics was “because it introduced an element of uncertainty -- an implication that reality is not consistent or is paradoxical, one might say -- at odds with his faith in the universe being ordered, rational”? How is his conviction that uncertainty could not be an ontological state not metaphysical? If Bohr took for granted that everyday reality existed but was able to accept the possibility that science was inherently limited in its capacity to describe it, and in fact sought to define what those limitations might be, how is this dismissing “questions about reality”?"

The first question tacitly assumes that a paradoxical reality is a reasonable (in your favorite sense, i.e., coherent) counterproposition, or not a metaphysical proposition, or that reality does not exist. Or, somehow, all at once. (Which appears to be Bohr's position. Bohr was notorious for being incomprehensible.) The faith that the universe isn't real is Vedanta or something like that, no? Citing Einstein vs. Bohr as scientistic faith vs.true reason forgets this. Or perhaps forgets that Einstein didn't object to commonplace uncertainty. He objected to the idea there was no reality. Bohr took the obscurantist position that there were just correlations between measurements. Isn't the real question why historically the Einsteins, with their evil scientism about the real existence of reality, who generally make the discoveries?

The second question is rhetorical. Defining it as metaphysics is still like Christians defining evolution as a religion. How, really, is this relevant, except to transfer the issues to a different ground than actual experience, observation, experiments, data, the whole history of humanity, into some abstract, impoverished realm where problems become Gordian knots slashed by Alexandrian swords of logic?

4:28 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

The third question is the easiest. Bell's theorem, that you refer to, was produced by a man who realized that it was Einstein who proposed a scientific definition of reality and who suggested a possible way to test it (albeit one that, like superstrings or m-theory does not yet seem amenable to testing.) Bell's contribution was to find a practical way to test it. Aspect's experiments confirm that Einstein's provisional theory of reality doesn't work. It does not prove Bohr's notion that quantum unreality mytically produces everyday reality. In the early days of quantum mechanics, issues could be avoided. But the advance of cosmology has progressed to the point where we realize that the universe was once so small that quantum effects were paramount. How did classical reality emerge from this state? Bohr couln't even explain how quantum measurements could be made. He just decreed that trying to answer such questions was not science, but metaphysics. Obviously this is dismissing questions about reality. Pure rationality can not find a proof that reality is real or consistent. But pure rationality cannot disprove solipsism either. Pure rationality can prove the existence of God, though. Going beyond pure rationality, to what we know about the world (that wicked "science,") there is nothing we know that corresponds to ontological paradox. Everything we know suggests that there are laws of nature. The apparent origin of the notion of laws of nature in theological expressions of monarchy, an imaginative projection of the power of the King into Nature, doesn't matter. What matters is that experience confirms this notion, but disallows the anarchy of nature.

(Einstein, being one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, as well as pretty much the sole father of relativity, was never disposed to be savagely critical of his baby. For instance, he didn't harp about the problem of the reduction, or collapse, of the wave function, or the quantum measurement problem, in ways that more critical thinkers have. Even scientists like Planck, the one who is most like your impression of Einstein, were far too committed to experiment to reject quantum mechanics for its logical aka metaphysical problems. After the personal humiliation of the cosmological constant catastrophe, he did turn more towards mathematical modelling from scratch, not to be mislead by mistaken "facts" that weren't so, and got a little far ahead of experiment. He still wasn't doing metaphysics. Or so I think.)

4:29 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"And you don’t think its principles are demonstrable? Are you now arguing that evolution is obvously true, but we can’t actually support that with a solid theory backed up by hard fact? That Popper was right initially that it doesn’t fit the criteria? So Popper should have continued to argue against it?'

Of course Popper was right initially that evolution doesn't fit his theory of falsifiability, which by his definition means evolution is unscientific. And I believe that Popper clutched at a straw to withdraw his position because it is nonsense. If he were honest about his own beliefs, he should have continued to argue against it. It's Popper who's wrong, not evolution. Darwin didn't make falsifiable predictions. For one thing, evolution is historical, and history doesn't make experimental predictions. Popper is basically an anticommunist who thought if he defined science as testing experimental predictions, he could refute Marxism as not making prophecies about the future, without even troubling to actually study Marxism and Communism, etc. On the positive side, if he limited science's realm to the laboratory, there would be a space left for metaphysics and religion and everything else, about which science could not even speak, because those are all metaphysics and religion but science is about experiments refuting hypotheses. The unbelievers could play in their sandbox and the believers could play in theirs. Mapmaking is science but it's not falsifiable in any useful sense. Evolution is not falsifiable in Popper's sense (even if he's prudent enough to claim otherwise,) but it is demonstrable. Falsifiable and demonstrable are not the same.


"What does creationism predict and how can we test that?"

Michael Behe, one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, suggested that blood clotting was too biolchemically complex to have evolved. Since he made the suggestion, other uses for some of the proteins in the process have been found. Thus, these proteins could be exapted by natural selection for clotting. Prediction made, and falsified. Or was it? The complete series of proteins have not been found to have other uses. Nor have genetic lineages been found, so far as I know. Doesn't this mean that the evolutionists are making a metaphysical leap of faith, finding their religious dogma in nature by exercise of imagination? Everything we know says, no. But Popper and such (idealists such as Hume, Berkeley and Kant in philosophy,) do not admit the we can validly induct laws of cause and effect, much less historical processes. Intelligent design isn't scientific, because there's no evidence for the entity doing the designing, nor any mechanism by which it can do the actual engineering. The gaps in the demonstration of evolution will always exist. And in that sense, evolution is unfalsifiable! Always was, and always will be. That doesn't make it unscientific.

4:32 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Epicycyles were scientific enough to correctly predict the positions of the planets for a long time. Copernicus was scientific, even though his predictions were false (at least, falser than Ptolemy's.) If, by some curiosity of mathematics, there were no way to calculate ellipses, we would have to use epicycles still. The difficulty of believing the Earth is moving, when it so obviously isn't, is why science is not just common sense. On the other hand, what material was strong enough to constitute the Ptolemaic sphere? What material was transparent enough? What force could turn those spheres? How was the machinery and holes arranged for the epicycle? Why couldn't we hear the vibrations as they turned? That last one was answered, badly, by suggesting that the music of the spheres was beyond human hearing. That fit with nothing we know about sound on Earth, where the frequency is always related to the size and structure of the vibrating substance, of course. All these simple questions, that show difficulties in the Ptolemaic model have one thing in common: They assume the intelligibility, the consistency of nature. Newton's great advance, that really confirmed Copernicus and Kepler, was based on assuming the consistency and intelligibility of nature. That's why it's the universal law of gravitation. Historically, this has always been true.

"Like the question of his politics. So what?"

It isn't directly relevant. It's a tipoff that there are political issues that cloud the judgment. It's a warning that preconceptions or agendas might be afoot. Frankly, I suspect you strongly favor many aspects of Popper's politics (especially belief in totalitarianism as something real, instead of a propaganda construct.) It's an invitation to look under the rock, so to speak.

4:34 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"Let me ask you a serious question at this point then: are you insisting that scientific theories are “knowledge” in this sense, “truths” of how things are, that science has actually built up a great stock of axiomatic truths of the form, “If A then B,” that you consider beyond disbelief, beyond the doubt that you distrust? If so there’s no real point in my arguing with you because you’re a religious acolyte of your own fabricated faith. It doesn’t have a God, but hey, neither does Taoism.

Can you at least understand why I might think this irrational?"

There are no axiomatic truths of the form, If A then B. Axiomatic truths are mathematics and part of science, but there is no absolute knowledge in that sense. The content of scientific theories, which are explanations tested by observation, experience, experiment, addressing all the evidence available, as consistent as possible, are the only knowledge we have. We know that it is mathematically impossible to reduce all truth to a set of axioms and the theorems based upon them. We know that there are some problems we cannot compute answers to. That's why some sort of metaphysical truth can't exist. The conclusion there is no knowledge assumes the conclusion. Science (all the centuries of knowledge hard won by innumberable lives and struggles) shows us that materialism is true. The trite observation that maybe, somehow, some facts will emerge to force us to change that position is like insisting that facts may emerge to show there really is reincarnation, or that the Tao runs between Schenectady NY and Shanghai, PRC. It's like insisting that solipsism is a valid philosophy. No, solipsism is only a valid philosophy if you hold to some implicit individualism, some sort of philosophical anarchism.

The idea that you can be saved from the logical consequences of chaos (instead of a consistent, orderly, intelligible reality) on the grounds that chaos does not lead to testable predictions is Popperism writ large. Unsurprisingly, rejecting Popperism writ small, I don't agree. A chaotic reality would have kept science from its achievements, which first and foremost has been finding cause and effect. This isn't Popperian falsifiability but, again, Popper is wrong. There is no reason to believe in chaotic reality, any more than to believe in God. Indeed, in some respects, chaotic reality seems to be some sort of substitute for God, a Godhead as fountain of wondrous possibilities instead of a person. The preference for the well of miracles doesn't make it plausible. People often do not believe in cause and effect, and find it cold or inhuman. They are concerned with human motivations and are indifferent to material reality. This difference in preference doesn't refute materialism, even if you list the metaphysical assumptions of materialism.

What's been confusing me is that what you call epistemic certainties is what I would call data. That confuses me because simple facts (sensory impressions or instrumental measurements alike) are just as contentious in the kind of philosophy you (seem to) espouse as theories are. I repeat, Popper doesn't accept the legitimacy of inducting cause and effect from experience. Although you explicitly say that issues of consistency and completeness (in the sense of Goedel, Church, Zermelo/Frankel and so on,) are not the issue for you, it still seems to me they are lurking in the background.

4:36 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Suppose the Duncan-Johnson GTE happens to be a numerical theory, with a certain number of constants. Perhaps one would include the maximal volume of space/time (time being an illusion, which is by the way the current majority opinion as I understand it.) (The notion of emergent phenomena is more a hope than a functional research strategy as of yet.) The maximal volume of space/time would involve measuring the time it took the universe to expand and cool to the point where the only energy was zero-point energy. As might be guessed, the Duncan-Johnson GTE might be solved approximately, with favorable experimental results so far. But in the end, exact solution, including calculations allowing exact falsification, is impossible, by principle, since people cannot exist when the only energy available is zero-point energy. (Science fiction about zero-point energy are fictional science, physically equivalent to a device that breaks the laws of thermodynamics,) Is the Duncan-Johnson GTE science? If it's not science, what is? If there's no such thing as knowledge, which may be your fundamental principle, what is there to talk about?

Since these are rhetorical questions, let me forestall misunderstanding. Yes. Nothing else. Nothing.

I appreciate your time, and regret frustrating you. I would suggest rethinking Popper in particular. May I suggest Feyerabend might particularly appeal to you?

Best wishes.

4:39 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Who were they?

Ismael Boulliau, Seth Ward, David Fabricius, Michael Maestlin.

I am pretty sure that the opposition to Copernicus was because of resistance to the notion that the Earth is moving, when we don't feel it moving. And because it contradicted the Bible.

So am I. But opposition to elliptical orbits had sod all to do with either.

I don't think there was much opposition to Kepler's discoveries as such. I think his results were basically accepted by most who accepted the Copernican model, the only exception I know of being Galileo.

As I understand, the historical record says otherwise — exceptions I know of noted above. Yes, many accepted his ideas. But it was not only Galileo who resisted them. There was clearly resistance among other Copernicans who accepted the counter-intuitive notion that the earth is moving and accepted the contradiction of the bible. Part of the reason is indeed that cycle-and-epicycle models actually worked quite well. But from what I’ve read many simply couldn’t accept the asymmetry and said so explicitly. I’m not an expert here, but I’m given to understand this is the accepted historical picture. If you’re arguing that your ignorance of opposition equals a lack of opposition, this is hardly firm footing.

The claim that scientistic bad guys like me have been causing bad things with our evil ideology is as imaginary as the good things happening because good people avoid the metaphysical trap of scientism.

You’re right that it’s imaginary. It’s a straw man. I say nothing about “bad” guys, “bad” things, or “evil” ideology. I’m simply saying that this is a faith and as such undermines it own good intents, weakens your own case. I’ve been pointing to arguments in history that demonstrate the principle not to say, look! look! evil scientistic people doing bad things! I’m simply pointing to evidence of a bind spot in rationalism where it forgets the very qualities that make it such a powerful tool. I’m more concerned with the ramifications of this viewpoint in the present day, in terms of undermining the very rationalism you uphold. My specific charge is simple: you shoot yourself in the foot when you express dogmatic faith in science. You cease to be (wholly) part of the solution and become (partly) part of the problem.

How so?

As scientism is just metaphysics too arrogant to call itself by its right name, evolution is just another nontheistic religion. And just as scientism is merely another metaphysics with no more claim than any other, the religion of evolution has no more claim than any other.

Yes, this is the argument you invite by treating science as a faith rather than… well… science. The scientific rationalist response to this is simple: evolution is not a religion, not even “just a theory” (which is where the creationists jump in with their “Gotcha!”, yes?). Rather evolution is a domain of science — like astrophysics, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. Saying that “the theory of chemistry is just self-evidently ‘correct’, you fool, and the theory of alchemy is wrong, poopyhead” is a step backwards, onto their (metaphysical) turf. We’ve established chemistry and evolution as domains of science, areas where faith has no place other than in the form of a sensible assumption of working paradigms, tempered by a recognition of their contingency. I’m not urging you to defend a weaker position. I’m urging you to hold the line further out, rather than retreat into a bunker of metaphysics. The bunker is empty and of no use. Lurking back there and firing flares into the air only tells them where to aim the shells and blow your position to fuck. Which only makes them think they’ve scored a victory, reinforces their faith.

2:49 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I think superstition leads to bad thinking, which really does cause bad things. The way religious notions of the soul and divine providence are inextricably intertwined with the psychology of racism are a simple example.

And a Christian will answer: I think lack of faith leads to bad thinking, which really does cause bad things. The way irreligious notions of the material world and base pleasure are inextricably intertwined with the psychology of rapists are a simple example.

You are both glossing over the real problems by declining to look at the intricacies of human motivation, prefering to blame it all on those other people, that type of other people, with their errant belief-system. In your scientism, the religious are just “heathens” by a different name. This is a legacy belief of Christianity, a religious meme ported to a new platform. It’s an easy answer: superstition > bad thinking > racism. It is, at a deeper level, the same answer. Early Judaism saw the idolatry of polytheism as “superstitious”. Protestantism saw the ritualism of Catholicism as “superstitious”. Enlightenment thinking inherits this directly. And that answer is a fricking cop-out. If we could just convert the heathens you think everything woud be fine? It’s sheer fantasy that prejudice is such a simple effect of such a simple cause.

You’re making a superficial connection here, short-circuiting complexity. Your “simple example” of racism is related to religion in a far more gnarly way than as an “effect” of “bad thinking” with religion as a “cause”. The superficiality is downright dangerous, I think, in glossing over the fact that you can suppress theistic religion and end up with worse racism — c.f. anti-semitism in Soviet Russia — because atheistic ideologies can function in exactly the same way to create exactly the same type of “bad thinking”.

Racism (and homophobia and most other types of abjection) are logical fallout of a Kohlbergian “law and order” mentality, where social mores are understood as reifying a social order that is also (or part of) a “natural order”, hierarchised and boundaried, inculcated during infancy, taken as received wisdom. In such a mentality, “wrongness” is understood as transgression, which is understood as deviance from the “natural order”, which is understood in terms of the received wisdom of norms-as-law. This factors up in a society where that mentality is conventional (which is to say, a conventional society) to the abjection of groups identifiable by any marker of deviance. How? The pride-reward of enforcing and propagating any mores creates a feedback loop. Prejudice is positively reinforced by the self-righteousness of defending/advocating the “natural order” in which blacks are seen as “sub-human”, homosexuality is seen as “perversion”, etc.. Scapegoating serves as a bonding mechanism for those within the norms, strengthens the very social order that generates it. It creates figureheads in which irrational anger and disgust are bound to the notion of deviance, abnormality, degeneracy, etc. that they act as signifiers of.

When it comes to validating the notion of “natural order”, religious notions of the soul and divine providence are Public Enemy #1. But notions of “natural order” are in themselves religious, don’t actually require particular symbols. The figurehead of a God is supremely useful, but the “empty throne” works just as well. Whether your philosopher’s stone is Marxist economic theory or Social Darwinism or whatever, the end result is the same: people believe that there’s a “natural order” which validates mores, including arbitrary dicta of transgressions and hierarchical relationships — prejudice.

If all you can say is that “superstition” leads to “bad thinking” which leads to “bad things”, your contribution to the discourse is the same as if you replaced “superstition” with “sin”.

2:49 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The first question tacitly assumes that a paradoxical reality is a reasonable (in your favorite sense, i.e., coherent) counterproposition, or not a metaphysical proposition, or that reality does not exist.

Not as I see it. It only allows that a paradoxical reality might be the actual challenge we’re faced with, that reality might be coherent rather than consistent. Coherence being looser than consistency, comprehensiveness looser than completeness, but both being qualities by which we can judge thought to be rational, I’m saying that it is not irrational to speculate that material reality — solidly existential material reality — might be such that we can only hope to describe it coherently and comprehensively. The more coherently and the more comprehensively the better, obviously. And conflicting schema which are consistent in and of themselves, but incomplete and in contradiction with each other might prove to be the nearest we can get to that GTE. This is not to throw one’s hands up and abandon science to the snake-oil salesmen. The goal would always be to resolve those contradictions. This is simply to recognise that the metaphysical premise may be wrong.

Yes, one could advance this as a metaphysical proposition in its own right, that reality is paradoxical. Bohr might well have believed this, advocated it as an underlying metaphysics, but I’m not arguing Bohr was right and Einstein wrong. Rather I’m pointing to the tacit assumption that the principle of contradiction holds true with matter, energy and spacetime, saying that this is metaphysics, like it or not. This is a core tenet of rationalism. We are agreed on that, yes? You seem to think I’m dismissing it as evil and wrong. I am not. It is utterly practical. I may even accept that all indications are that it is, practically speaking, indispensable — because even if we fail, I want us to get to that coherent and comprehensive model, and generating internally consistent models that are externally consistent with reality… this is the scientific method by which we strive towards that goal. I simply don’t hold to this tacit assumption as an article of faith. Because however justified it is as a belief, it remains just that — a justified belief.

2:50 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Everything we know suggests that there are laws of nature. The apparent origin of the notion of laws of nature in theological expressions of monarchy, an imaginative projection of the power of the King into Nature, doesn't matter. What matters is that experience confirms this notion, but disallows the anarchy of nature.

Actually, the theological roots very much matter here. Because “laws” are arbitrary bindings that “disallow” behaviour only in the sense of limiting it by decree. Because the presence of an absolute “rule of law” is set in opposition to “anarchy” as the utter absence of any limitations, and connotatively bound to mayhem! chaos! havoc! bedlam! pandemonium! What we have is a root metaphor in the discourse that may well be inappropriate, and loaded with an irrational fear of uncertainty. Pare away the notion of law and look at it in terms of consistency of human social behaviour not legislated by a King, not codified in terms of dicta. You still have mores. You still have ethics. You still have just plain social psychology. You still have system. Primate societies are far from anarchic in the absence of this codified “law” we have no evidence of before Hammurabi.

Everything we know suggests that there is a coherent dynamics to nature. Everything we know suggests that this dynamics is not comparable with law. Nature behaves that way not because it will be punished if it doesn’t, but because this is how it works. If we were talking mechanics, the cogs of a watch don’t turn because they’re ordered to, can’t decide to not turn in defiance of an unjust “law” from the Watchmaker. In terms of dynamics, the tides of the sea don’t rise and fall in accordance with Canute’s Law. Everything we know suggests that the dynamics is a matter of relationships, that nature does not need artificed order — dams to stop a river, pumps to make it flow, men planting seeds to decree where plants sprout. Strip away all human orderings on nature and it does not collapse into “anarchy.”

Further, “laws” are quite capable of being incompatible, which is surely at odds with your faith in the consistency of reality. Humans may well be forced to break one law in accordance with another, as when conscripts are sent off to war. There’s little constinency between the laws of different nations (even different states in the US), and what internal consistency there is, is largely the product of exclusion clauses, loopholes and other such provisos. “Law” is an appalling paradigm for nature as you’re approaching it. It’s another own goal in any argument against the creationists.

2:50 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Recognising that, actually examining the ramifications of the root metaphor, it becomes obvious that the actual behaviour of individuals where they’re not “ruled” by “law” is complex and mercurial, but does display coherence. Conflicting instincts are born of conflicting imperatives but at the higher level we do find normative principles. Are these “laws” of human behaviour? Is it sensible to treat them as such? Maybe so. Maybe it is sensible to take that as a starting point. But, we are still trying to make sense of a complex interaction of forces that are often acting against each other. Not laws but imperatives. Maybe not even imperatives but inconsistent protocols resulting in complex processes if you want to get right down to the programmatic nitty gritty and treat human consciousness as epiphenomenal.

Everything we know, all that experience has confirmed, surely, is that the behaviour of nature itself is also a matter of forces interacting. The palpable reality of time, of change, proves that the dynamic system we call the universe is unstable. It is in flux. That’s a pretty basic flaw in any metaphysics that proclaims it to be absolutely consistent. Oh, look! The universe just changed. It’s not the same as it was. You want a universal law? Shit happens. Things change. And don’t cry, “anarchy! mayhem! chaos! blah blah blah!” All I’m saying that the reality we’re studying is a reality-in-progress, a dynamic system. Describing it in a metaphor of stabilising limitations imposed from above — laws — may not be the best tack, dig?

It seems to me that “laws of nature” might be as primitive a way to describe what’s really going on in real, material reality as, say, treating colour perception in terms of “red”, “yellow” and “blue” and how they mix in ratios to produce various shades in a subtractive colour theory. Or in terms of “red”, “green” and “blue” and how they mix in ratios to produce various shades in an additive colour theory. The reality we’re dealing with, in neurological terms, is the three opponent processes — red-green, blue-yellow and black-white — that actually construct colour in a system of oppositions, conflicts. There’s no reddish-green, no greenish-red, only because the phase-space of colour is defined in terms of their inhibition of each other. It is constructed by these adversarial relationships that render any shade essentially a state of tension in the medium.

Personally it wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years we’re talking about the opponent processes of reality, and have a much more coherent and comprehensive understanding of how material reality works because of this, while only the creationist crazies are clinging to the notion that nature is governed by “laws”.

2:50 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Isn't the real question why historically the Einsteins, with their evil scientism about the real existence of reality, who generally make the discoveries?

No, the real question is why historically it has been the Einsteins and Newtons and Galileos, with their superstitious religious beliefs in God, who generally made the discoveries?

I mean, this all kicked off with you rejecting anyone willing to countenance the notion that reality might be in some respect incomprehensible — rejecting any validity to this view whatsoever — as the credulous nonsense of magicians and priest, swallowed willingly by the bovine masses who lack your will-to-understand. This is a lamentable state, you claimed, because superstition creates bad thinking that creates bad things. This is how it is in the US, in your experience, so this is how it is, period.

To this I said, nay! nay! that sounds like some sorta self-serving untermensch illusion that’s a) false (i.e. a straw man) and b) founded on scientistic rationalism to me. I consider such views profoundly non-scientific — c.f. that there New Scientist quote way upthread. Evidence is, I claim, with reference to variations in UK and US culture, that religion is a bad thing in its own right, a product of general human socio-political psychology which inhibits doubt, thereby creating the “bad thinking” and the “superstition”.

You declared the New Scientist surrender-monkeys to the magicians and priests. They’re saying it’s all in vain! They’re saying the universe is inconsistent! Another straw man, one which serves only to cover your failure to justify your claim. While you said it was interesting to know that the situation in the UK was different, you made no attempt to reconcile this contradictory data with your thesis that superstition creates bad thinking that creates bad things. You just diss the New Scientist instead.

I argued that this is not what the New Scientist is saying at all. Instead, what they’re saying is in line with the scientific method (as one might expect of the New Scientist) and that your trenchant dismissal is exactly the attitude it’s criticising. What’s wrong with scientistic rationalism is precisely that it rejects doubt in the same way as religions do, thereby becoming a faith.

You projected onto me a pure Popperian view of falsifiability, which you reject as justifying creationism! denying evolution! Again a straw man given Popper’s retraction. You simultaneously admitted that you distrust doubt, yet denied that faith in science has ever been a real issue. You misconstrued me as rejecting all possibility of knowledge, (another straw man,) and returned to your core argument: that superstition creates bad thinking that creates bad things. This is a patent avoidance of the notion that “bad thinking” is in fact independent of religion and quite capable of taking root within a purportedly rationalist faith in science.

I offered various historical examples of where it is not superstition creating the bad thinking, but rather a faith in a scientific paradigm. I detailed the basis of my notion of the scientific method as recognising that an alethic morphology is not an epistemic certainty. I attempted to make it as clear as possible that I am not holding some rigid Popperian view of what is acceptable as science. All I am arguing is that treating an alethic morphology as an epistemic certainty is an act of faith.

2:51 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Now you blankly reject the examples of non-religious opposition to Kepler, on the basis that you don’t know of any other than Galileo. This is argument on the basis of ignorance. You glossed over my point as regards Einstein’s metaphysical views with a vague handwave about his religion being individual, and brought Bohr into it in order to project onto me his wacky metaphysics as yet another straw man, this time of anti-materialism. I am not Bohr. I think I’ve made that pretty clear. Now you throw in some more fuzz with the question of induction — Hume, Berkeley and Kant as new straw men. I’ll make it clear here: I am not an idealist either. I am not arguing that induction is “invalid”, simply that the “knowledge” produced by induction is not a “law” that’s “true”. It is only a justified belief. This is not idealism but pragmatism.

None of the above justifies your spurious assertion that superstition creates bad thinking that creates bad things. All of it is avoidance of the challenge to your faith posed by a contention that religious/metaphysical idealism may take a form quite different from what you dismiss as “superstition”, may in fact take the form of a dogmatic faith in science. If it confuses you that “simple facts (sensory impressions or instrumental measurements alike) are just as contentious in the kind of philosophy you (seem to) espouse as theories are” this is because you are projecting onto me a philosophy I don’t ascribe to. Why are you doing this? Because your faith rules out certain alternative philosophies as unthinkable heathenism, maybe, so you react against the merest hint of them in what I’m saying, rather than actually taking what I’m saying as a viewpoint to be considered?

Let me torch the straw men. I am not Bohr, or Hume, or Berkeley, or Kant, or Popper. I’m a materialist and a pragmatist. I defend falsifiability as part of the scientific method. I am however happy to recognise demonstrability as another strategy of empiricism. There are different ways to test alethic morphologies. Remember that New Scientist quote? Its point was that the scientistic faith it was criticising was neither provable nor falsifiable. We could happily substitute demonstrable for provable there, no? So what’s the nub of it?

I see this as the most pertinent comment:

“Epicycyles were scientific enough to correctly predict the positions of the planets for a long time. Copernicus was scientific, even though his predictions were false (at least, falser than Ptolemy's.) If, by some curiosity of mathematics, there were no way to calculate ellipses, we would have to use epicycles still. The difficulty of believing the Earth is moving, when it so obviously isn't, is why science is not just common sense. On the other hand, what material was strong enough to constitute the Ptolemaic sphere? What material was transparent enough? What force could turn those spheres? How was the machinery and holes arranged for the epicycle? Why couldn't we hear the vibrations as they turned?”

Precisely. The scientific method rests in questions like those, in doubts like those. The Ptolemaic system was simple but Copernicus doubted it. Pre-Copernican “astronomers”/astrologers could predict plenty, but those questions were waiting to be asked by a doubter. After Copernicus, everyone still assumed that orbits would be circular but Kepler doubted it. Doubt is crucial because what is considered demonstrable may turn out to be a common-sensical misconception of the facts. It would have been considered demonstrable — demonstrated even — to many that the earth was not moving. I am simply saying that a theory held as “true” because its relevance has been demonstrated is, in fact, only a justified belief. It may have been demonstrated such that we consider it “proven” beyond all reasonable doubt, but I will not treat science as a faith by blurring the boundary between belief and knowledge. And you refuse to accept that.

2:51 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I do hope you understand that my frustration here is not personal animosity. Frustration equals stimulation and I welcome debate, even heated debate where I may feel at times like I’m slamming my head against a brick wall. The thing is, I would contend that you have in fact demonstrated my point. Rather than take on board my contentions about the differences between UK and US culture, the view of human psychology as innately curious, or the potential socio-political control functions of religion, rather than thrashing out facts and theories as to why and how “bad thinking” might relate to “superstition” at any deeper level than “it just does”, you’ve consistently and commitedly used redirections and straw men to defend the faith you perceive as under attack, right up to the panic at (OMG!) absence of such faith meaning a complete collapse into anarchy! mayhem! chaos! Schroedinger’s kittens!

Isn't the real question why historically the Einsteins, with their evil scientism about the real existence of reality, who generally make the discoveries?

No, the real question is why historically it has been the Einsteins and Newtons and Galileos, with their superstitious religious beliefs in God, who generally made the discoveries?

And the answer to both is because they still doubted. They weren’t wholly in thrall to those religious beliefs. But one can see how sometimes they or others like them, here and there, in this aspect of their view sometimes cease to doubt, or simply consider certain things — like the existence of God or the ordered nature of the universe — simply beyond doubt. Some will, like many religious people, go so far as to deny that their faith is belief. They’ll claim knowledge for what is, at most, a justified belief. I doubt those claims. I may not even doubt the belief myself, but I doubt your faith in the Undivine Order of the Cosmos just as I doubt Pastor Joe’s faith in the Divine Order of the Cosmos.

I won't ever accept your faith, and I'll continue to challenge it as faith. That's the crux of it. If you want to project onto me someone else’s view, Richard Feynman is a better template than Popper or Bohr or Hume or Berkeley or Kant. Really, this is a pretty good summary of my position, my idea of what a truly scientific and rational view of the world is like. If you want to reject everything I’m actually arguing by confusing yourself with the idea that I’m arguing something else, so be it. but at least watch this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeCHiUe1et0

Peace.

2:55 am  
Blogger S Johnson said...

It was hard to decide whether to continue. There's no pont in being quarrelsome for its own sake. And it's pretty obvious that your emotional commitment to a fixed view of the world is at stake. I know it's very hard to think objectively about such challenges. Please understand that it is because I have hopes that over time the ponts I raised may in time make their truth felt that I answer again, not from a desire to anger you. Hard as it may be to accept, it is difficult for me to understand how someone can have positions on specific issues that you claim, while reconciling them with your philosophical positions, much less seeing them as logical consequences.

"Ismael Boulliau, Seth Ward, David Fabricius, Michael Maestlin... opposition to elliptical orbits had sod all to do with either."
One reason for the delay is to do what inteternet research I could on these gentlemen. (No, a good university library is not within reach. A good city library, good at least by US standards, is only in reach by interlibrary loan. And this library doesn't have Koestler's The Sleepwalkers.) From what I could find, Boulliau was a supporter of Kepler, specifically including elliptical orbits. Seth Ward is noted more as a Bishop, which leaves the idea that he opposed Kepler primarily for nonreligious reasons doubtful on the face of it. Fabricius is not known at all as an opponent of Kepler. The criticisms by Maestlin, Kepler's teacher, that I can find have nothing to do with ellliptical orbits, but to speculating on physical interpretations of Kepler's laws. The attitude that seems to express, that physical reality is unknowable or irrelevant because not intrinsically lawful (i.e., rational) or notnecessarily consistent with everyday reality (which is unquestionable because it's common sense,) seems to be your position. (Science is not just common sense.) Boulliau's opposition was to Kepler's hypothesis that the sun exerted a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance to the planet. Boulliau thought instead the force was inversely proportional to the square of the distance. Nothing about opposition to elliptical orbits as such from any of these people. Unfortunately the just plain factual wrongness is pretty typical.

7:28 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"My specific charge is simple: you shoot yourself in the foot when you express dogmatic faith in science. You cease to be (wholly) part of the solution and become (partly) part of the problem."
Your definition of it as dogmatic is the issue, because you have never justified it. It is arbitrary, purely verbal rhetoric. My desperate efforts to find some sort of justification by assimilating it to Popper or Hume behind him and such did you the credit of having a reason other than: This is what's nice and I'm the judge of nice. My joke about everybody hating a negative person really did have an uncomfortable amount of truth.

The scientific rationalist response to this is simple: evolution is not a religion, not even “just a theory” (which is where the creationists jump in with their “Gotcha!”, yes?). Rather evolution is a domain of science — like astrophysics, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. "
As I said, you say the science minded people have their sandbox, and the religious minded people have their sandbox, and we're all equal. Except, the real world is not divided into domains, while subjects of science are practical necessities in organizing knowledge (no less, but no more.) When the religious care to claim that their domain includes miracles, for example, you have no principled ground to oppose them, because you have already agreed that religion's claim to truth and science's claim to truth is equally false. Religion and science have overlapping magisteria in practice, with no theoretical separation other than the kind of stuff put out by the likes of Popper, which fails the test. Worse than that, religion has no magisteria. "Religion" in the real world means all those specific religions which agree on exactly nothing. There is, therefore, no such thing as knowledge in religion, just dogma, in the true sense of the word. Science is knowledge. It is true that you can create a metaphysical formulation called materialism, but that doesn't make science metaphysics.

"And a Christian will answer: I think lack of faith leads to bad thinking, which really does cause bad things. The way irreligious notions of the material world and base pleasure are inextricably intertwined with the psychology of rapists are a simple example....If all you can say is that “superstition” leads to “bad thinking” which leads to “bad things”, your contribution to the discourse is the same as if you replaced “superstition” with “sin”."
I didn't bother to point them out, but I could have mentioned clergymen preaching the curse of Ham as justification for slavery; the epistle of Philemon; the separate existence of southern churches to defend slavery; the abolitionist commitment to pacifism, even to the point of contemplating the permanent existence of slavery in the US; the uncritical projection of notions of divine order into society. A Christian who says rape is due to irreligion and materialism (in the sensual meaning) says there is dissimilarity of rates of rape between Christian and nonchristian societies, or between churched and unchurched areas; that rape is motivated by sexual desire; that rape is higher in areas with more masturbation and pornography and unwholesomely dressed or improperly behaving women.. Similarly, I say supersition played a role in witch burning. A Christian would say sin (which includes things like not circumcising males or eating pork or drinking any alcohol at all or having sex with some one of the same sex) determines which people or even whole nations are punished by God. What I is said is not equivalent to widely held Christian positions whose falsity are so well known that they are standard arguments against religious bigotry. Only by abstracting from all meaningful content can the claim even be made. Religion is a social institution, not a creed. Religion emerges from history, not psychology. Saying there is truth isn't religion, and saying science is true doesn't make it religion. Rejecting doubt is no more the defining characteristic of religion than

7:29 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"I simply don’t hold to this tacit assumption as an article of faith. Because however justified it is as a belief, it remains just that — a justified belief."
The tacit assumption being the principle of noncontradiction applying to reality. A justified belief is not faith. A justified belief is not dogmatic. Justified belief is the pragmatic definition of truth or knowledge. When you concede this, you've conceded your case. All you can do is covertly redefine faith as the concept of knowledge, abstracted from any human process of discovery. The fact that in practice believers will offer various attempts at justification may confuse you. Most believers inherited their faith, whether they took it seriously or not, and their efforts at justification are commonly efforts to admit some minimal practicality or basic sanity to their religion. Most people have no problem seeing irrationality in converts to every other faith, but diplomacy forbids acknowledging this, offering pretexts instead, which also appears as justification.
The laws of nature are not like the laws of men, even if men first imagined something like that. The long experience of measurement and experiment shows this. There was always more to science than that, as people often do not (on bad days, I think usually) intuitively grasp the concept of cause and effect, rather than intentionality (as in human law.) My experience with people suggests that many have a visceral emotional resentment of this concept. But the idea of contradictions in nature, rather than in human mathematics or logic or ideas or ideologies demands a justification of how a contradictory reality could exist. If you would rule out incoherent ideas as nontruths, how can you accept an incoherent reality? Part of the problem is that I accept that science can be true, yet still open to criticism and revision, which by your lights is not truth or knowledge but wonderful doubt. In the real world, there is nothing but mischief to be made by insisting that because science is knowledge that is yet open to criticism and revision it is not knowledge. Does it seem impossible that science could be knowledge but not beyond your doubt? It's not nearly as impossible as the notion of a contradictory reality. "Knowledge" and "truth" are names for abstractions. Surely it must be easier to deal with contradictions within mere names?

7:32 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"Rather than take on board my contentions about the differences between UK and US culture, the view of human psychology as innately curious, or the potential socio-political control functions of religion, rather than thrashing out facts and theories as to why and how “bad thinking” might relate to “superstition” at any deeper level than “it just does”, you’ve consistently and commitedly used redirections and straw men to defend the faith you perceive as under attack, right up to the panic at (OMG!) absence of such faith meaning a complete collapse into anarchy! mayhem! chaos! Schroedinger’s kittens!"
To be blunt, I don't think you're a very sophisticated observer. I am much more inclined to put stock in opinion surveys. They indicate cultural differences between UK and US are temporary and that you all are moving in our direction. I believe that your views about the inadmissiblity of science's claims to truth are part of the campaign leading to a more religious culture, a trend that will not be reversed until a different poltical climate is forged. As for your views about religion as a control mechanism, on the one hand, you abstract from every real religion Taoism is characterized by many varied superstitions, such as the search for physical immortality, not the empty throne you impute to me, for instance. I think you put altogether too much stock in your ability to understand society by introspection. You said Senor Morales, the man in the mirror, is the man behind the curtain in religion as a socio-political control mechanism. Apparently I wasn't clear. The idea that everyone is in control of religion really is reactionary, blame the victim nonsense of the sort you have been too freely imputing to me. Examining religion in real life, one vital justification is the insistence that religion has its own domain, where it is valid. Which is what you have been advocating. I'm sorry but I see nothing that suggests you have anything worthwhile to say about religion, because you religiously avoid specifics. You want to play in the dictionary instead.

7:33 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"No, the real question is why historically it has been the Einsteins and Newtons and Galileos, with their superstitious religious beliefs in God, who generally made the discoveries?

And the answer to both is because they still doubted."
Nobody doubts more than solipsists. But idealists who deny the existence of change, like Parmenides, or the existence of material reality, like Berkeley, or the existence of cause and effect, like Hume. But those people who didn't make discoveries. The people who made the discoveries believed that doing experiments would find out the truth, that the results were knowledge, were the ones who made the discoveries. They thought that there was something to be found, that it made sense if they could only figure it out.

"Some will, like many religious people, go so far as to deny that their faith is belief."
Religious people deny that faith is belief? Of course, they say that their faith is belief. They also say belief is an act of will. If some claim knowledge, they are claiming divine inspiration or boasting of their certitude. When religious people claim justification, they use standards of proof incompatible with real knowledge.The difference between science and religion is the notion of what constitutes knowledge. There is no case for the validity of religious notions of knowledge. But since you deny real knowledge, there can't be any standards of proof, hence no justifications can be justly refuted. When you get down to specifics, much as you hate the idea, rreligion has no facts in the way science does. Or, religion is wrong because there's no supernatural. In principle, I don't have any quarrel with religions that disavow superstition and bigotry. But, do you know something? There aren't any. The vague notion that if we all just disavow the folly of thinking there's knowledge instead of justified belief that religious people will suddenly acquire sane ideas of justification for belief is as silly as the claim that getting rid of superstition will cure all ills (By the way, I never implied the latter.) The problem with religion and scientistic persons is not their arrogance in thinking they know something. That's merely an idiosyncratic personal foible.

The part I cut off accidentally up thread was "any a belief in elections is the definition of democracy. There are religions that do not have creeds to believe in at all, but are still marked by superstition and bigotry in the service of the social order."

7:40 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

PS The Feynman loop was moderately interesting. A few thoughts come to mind, and one question.

First, when he casually refers to how it really is, he puts himself into a totally different metaphysical position than you espouse. HIs book The Character of Physical Law is not in the library but I was fortunate enough to find an inexpensive copy of his QED. Feynman is comfortable us mathematical intuition available to most of us. He eschews metaphysical talk because he uses math. I don't know for certain, but I suspect he exempts math from doubt.

Second, when he talks about doubt, he is talking about religious doubt, not existential doubt about the validity of science. He does not doubt that what "really is" as revealed by science really is so in a way not revealed by any religion.

Third, cautions about preconceptions or final answers are not rejections of metaphysical absolutes. And being capable of living with uncertainty is like being capable of living with the knowledge you're going to die. Lots of luck with the alternative.

How does any of this relate to the nonexistence of knowledge?

7:59 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And being capable of living with uncertainty is like being capable of living with the knowledge you're going to die.

Which is why I say: Yay uncertainty!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeCHiUe1et0

2:20 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Boulliau: “The axiom that the celestial motions are circular or composed of circles must stand, and therefore I reject and repudiate his ellipses unless he should suppose them to be described by means of a Copernican or Tychonic epicycle.” (letter to Gassendi 1633)

Fabricius: (after urging that the principle of uniform circular motion should not be abandoned) “You can excuse the ellipse by another small circle.” (letter to Kepler, 20th January 1607)

Maestlin: Can’t find the reference I found before, but given your stress on the idea that scientists are studying something real, this seems pertinent: “His [Kepler’s] aptly named Astronomia nova or 'New Astronomy' relied heavily on looking at the physical causes of planetary motion — a critical departure from the past, when astronomers used strictly geometrical modelling to explicate the heavens. Even Kepler's teacher and mentor, Michael Maestlin, urged him to forget about physics and stick to astronomy (that is, geometry). But Kepler believed in a physically real cosmos, and even ahead of Galileo advocated the Sun-centred system… It was Kepler's requirement for plausible physical explanations that drove him ultimately to postulate an ellipse as the basic form of planetary orbits, ironing out these difficulties.” (Nature, January 2009, my italics.)

The point being that Kepler, for all his mysticism, was still a scientific progressive in one respect while his teacher, who believed Copernicus (and one would presume passed his teachings on to Kepler in private despite having to publicly teach the Ptolemaic model,) held to a rationalism that was big on modelling but low on testing. I’ll see if i can’t track down a reference for Maestlin actually rejecting elliptical orbits, but I’ll happily admit that it was a passing mention on tinterwebs, so that data could be unreliable.

Seth Ward is noted more as a Bishop, which leaves the idea that he opposed Kepler primarily for nonreligious reasons doubtful on the face of it.

Kepler was a mystic. Newton was an occultist. And yet they didn’t oppose themselves because of that. Had Ward been opposing Kepler for religious reasons, one would expect him to have held to the religious model, the Ptolemaic one, no? His religion had no beef with elliptical orbits because it was still rejecting the heliocentric model wholesale. Ward rejected his own church’s faith in the Ptolemaic model, in favour of Copernicus, so he clearly wasn’t towing the party line. He was rather in the position of a Victorian bishop and naturalist who accepts that creationism is a myth but clings to classic Darwinism, rejecting concepts like exaptation because it complicates the picture, messes up the pure notion of “survival of the fittest”. Of course, it’s precisely my point that his faith in uniform circular motion was religious in the sense of being a metaphysical faith, even though it’s a faith in symmetry rather than spaghetti monsters. Where I see such a faith sans spaghetti monster entirely, I still consider it a faith.

Another nice quote: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me." (Newton, the world’s foremost alchemist)

I say again: Kepler was a mystic; Newton was an occultist. These superstitions did not prevent them from creating modern astronomy. One might, if one were feeling mischievous, even suggest that their superstitions were a major motivation behind their studies.

11:00 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Your definition of it as dogmatic is the issue, because you have never justified it.

You reject out-of-hand a criticism which challenges that faith, refusing to countenance the notion that scientists resisted elliptical orbits because of a faith in the symmetry of the cosmos, arguing that it could not be so largely, it seems, because this doesn’t fit with your preconceived notion of the rational versus the superstitious mindset, arguing that it is not so on the basis that you’re ignorant of any cases where it was. In a good few days doing research on the examples I give where it very much appears to have been the case, you fail to find the substantiating quotes I give above, so you proudly declare my facts wrong. This is dogmatism.

As I said, you say the science minded people have their sandbox, and the religious minded people have their sandbox, and we're all equal.

Again, you misunderstand me. As science establishes its domains it makes that territory its own, takes it away from religion. Where in the past, “the study of the stars” was in a religious domain — astrology — by establishing astronomy as a domain of science we make “the study of the stars” no longer part of religion. Astrology has its ground taken out from under it and becomes just a game of symbols, exiled to the margins of the sandbox. Does that still leave it room? Not as far as I’m concerned, because all symbols are in the domain of art. That corner of the sandbox is already occupied, and art tends to dislike the sandbox-bully of religion for its own reasons. So I’m not leaving the religious to their own domain, their own sandbox. I’m saying that between science and art (and maybe) we can kick religion out of the sandbox altogether. But science can only stake its claim by refuting dogmatism.

When the religious care to claim that their domain includes miracles, for example, you have no principled ground to oppose them, because you have already agreed that religion's claim to truth and science's claim to truth is equally false.

On the contrary, having established the domain of biology, we have firm grounds for the exceedingly justified belief that a purported miracle such as the virgin birth is an unjustified belief. If we argue that it Just Couldn’t Happen because that’s not How Things Are we’re making the same argument-from-dogma as if we were advocating Islam or Judaism or any other dogma that rejected this purported miracle. We’re making the same argument from dogma, in fact, as Christians used against the “superstitious heathens” who believed in different “miracles”. The very principle that gives science its ground is that it refutes faith and requires justification for all belief.

There is, therefore, no such thing as knowledge in religion, just dogma, in the true sense of the word.

I would very much agree. This is why I respect a view like Feynman’s as exemplary of the scientific outlook, grounding its justified beliefs in epistemic certainties but refuses to claim Absolute Certainty for them in and of themselves. It’s why I see the term “knowledge” as you’re using it as a guise for dogma and therefore essentially religious.

11:01 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

A justified belief is not faith. A justified belief is not dogmatic.

I agree. Here’s where we differ:

Justified belief is the pragmatic definition of truth or knowledge... Part of the problem is that I accept that science can be true, yet still open to criticism and revision, which by your lights is not truth or knowledge but wonderful doubt. In the real world, there is nothing but mischief to be made by insisting that because science is knowledge that is yet open to criticism and revision it is not knowledge. Does it seem impossible that science could be knowledge but not beyond your doubt? It's not nearly as impossible as the notion of a contradictory reality. "Knowledge" and "truth" are names for abstractions. Surely it must be easier to deal with contradictions within mere names?

But it’s easy enough to talk about “comprehension” rather than “knowledge”, and to talk about “truth” only in terms of epistemic certainties, established facts of what “did happen”, treating alethic suppositions in terms of their validity and relevance. We are reducing this to a semantics argument, but it’s about precision and pragmatics.

Precision because true/false is a binary operation and “knowledge” is unquestionably distinct from “justified belief” in common usage, signifying a similarly either/or status of outright certainty. “Knowledge” applies not simply to a justified belief but to a true belief, and that which is true is in that discrete unqualified state of truth, unless explicitly modified with a caveat of contingency. “I understand this to be the case,” is a quite different assertion from “I know this to be the case,” and both are quite different from “I’m sure this is the case,” or “This can only be the case.” A basic level of precision in terminology as regards subjective conviction, objective certainty, formal validity and verifiable relevance seems rather fundamental to the project of science.

Pragmatics because I see a greater mischief in applying “knowledge” and “truth” the way a religious person does every time they say, “I know that God exists,” when their only justification is the aesthetic sensation of conviction. Or centuries of bogus teleological arguments that take the whole cosmos as “evidence”. Or some direct experience of snake-handling, glossolaliac rapture involving being “filled with the Holy Spaghetti Monster”. All these people have is beliefs they believe justified, but they can and do consistently talk of this as “knowledge”. My experience with people is that we’re all too prone to conflating conviction with certainty, taking even unjustified belief as epistemic certainty. My experience is that the dogmatic ones are generally identifiable by their refusal to accept that their belief is no more than that, their insistence that what they have is knowledge.

Here’s but one example: http://www.thercg.org/books/wirf.html?cid=g0199&s_kwcid=ContentNetwork|2547622171&gclid=CMntjv6h-5sCFaAA4wodsVSB-g There’s a nice example of “KNOW” capitalised just to drive the point home, if you can stomach scanning through the garbage for more than a few seconds.

Hell, just Google “faith" with “know god” and you get a whole Googleglut of people wittering on about how unjustified belief is really an acceptance of “knowledge” of God.

We don’t use terms like phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric and melancholic when talking about the nuts-and-bolts of psychology as a soft science. You’re free to use “knowledge” and “truth” as substitutes for “justified belief”, if you want. The fundies will just see that as what it is, a contradictory faith. Me, I’ll stick with Feynman’s notions of “investigating” and “exploring” and the explicit proviso that when it comes to “finding out” what’s “true”… well, “everything is possibly wrong”.

11:02 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I’m not espousing a “different metaphysical position” here. I’ve explicitly stated that my position is articulated quite succinctly by him and that I do not espouse the metaphysical position you’re ascribing to me. I do not deny the possibility of epistemic certainty, for example, so I can hardly be denying the existence of truth or reality. I’m quite happy to disregard pragmatic quibbling about the fallibility of sensory and measuring equipment and admit of the existence of knowledge. I just distinguish it from faith by accepting that “everything is possibly wrong” precisely as Feynman does.

Nobody doubts more than solipsists.

So what? Quantity is not quality. If I don’t believe in faith, I’m hardly likely to subscribe to the notion that doubt is the One True Path, am I? Saying that a brain is really quite indispensible if you want to think, that this is really sort of a requisite component of the scientific method, is not the same as saying that the paragon of human evolution is to become A BRAIN IN A TANK!!! This is just another straw man formed of silly hyperbolic inflation.

They thought that there was something to be found, that it made sense if they could only figure it out.

Interesting choice of words, “made sense” and “figure”. I’m very fond of notions of understanding and comprehension based on the concept of making sense of (our sensations of) the world via a process of figuration. What I talk about as alethic models can very much be considered figurations constructed in such a way, made to be tested for relevance as regards empirical data.

11:02 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

“I am much more inclined to put stock in opinion surveys. They indicate cultural differences between UK and US are temporary and that you all are moving in our direction. I believe that your views about the inadmissiblity of science's claims to truth are part of the campaign leading to a more religious culture, a trend that will not be reversed until a different poltical climate is forged.”

The surveys I’ve seen indicate, if anything, a shift to a differently religious culture rather than more — i.e. from conventional organised poppycock to random New Age poppycock. Like this one: http://matei.org/ithink/2009/04/29/romanian-belief-in-astrology-suggests-change-in-global-religious-outlook/

Simultaneously though this survey shows atheism having risen between 1990 and 2008 in every US state: http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-ARIS-faith-survey_N.htm

This seems to indicate something similar: http://bunda.org/2009/03/10/aris-2008-survey-atheist-ranks-are-still-growing-%E2%80%93-anti-atheist-bigots-we-have-you-to-thank/

And Western Europe is well ahead of the US in stats of existing self-identifying atheists. From everything I’ve heard, read and seen with my own eyes, atheism is growing here, though this quote from the Wikipedia article is annoyingly unsubstantiated: “What is certain is that in the some areas of the world (such as Europe) atheism and Secularization seems to be on the rise.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism) And you can scorn my powers of observation, but having travelled a fair bit across Europe and worked in Romania, Turkey, Mexico and North Carolina, spending a lot of time with fairly average blue-collar punters of each nation, I’m pretty confident that the US attitude to faith is, comparatively speaking, not a good base-line in this respect. I mean, have you travelled outside the US much (at all?) and interacted with the locals, or are you projecting from (Middle?) America’s engrained culture over the centuries and its apparent crisis, in more recent years, which seems to me like some sort of mad panic in the face of (post)Modernity? Serious question. If you’ve got experience and/or stats to back up your case, bring ‘em on. I’m quite willing to consider more facts.

But here’s just one illustration of how different the cultures are. Before I went out to work in NC, colleagues who’d been out before were fond of telling the story of a casual conversational opener in North Carolina that went, “So what church do you go to back home?” The response being a composite of embarassment and baffled amusement at the sheer naivety of the presumption. Honestly, my colleagues at the time were not bolshie atheists like me, just typical of the general agnosticism that’s virtually the default here. They considered that opener as… quaint.

And just for the hell of it, here’s another wee link that might mitigate your sense of impending doom at how we’re all surrender-monkeys at the End of the Enlightenment: http://friendlyatheist.com/2008/04/05/atheist-statistics-2008/ It’s a bit of fluff, and clearly propagandist, but I’ve seen discussions of it (it seems to be all over the interwebs) by people pointing to links that validate the stats as from reputable surveys.

11:02 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I didn't bother to point them out, but I could have mentioned clergymen preaching the curse of Ham as justification for slavery; the epistle of Philemon; the separate existence of southern churches to defend slavery; the abolitionist commitment to pacifism, even to the point of contemplating the permanent existence of slavery in the US; the uncritical projection of notions of divine order into society.

“Still more disturbing was the fact that many of the key ideas of the Enlightenment could easily be turned against pleas for the abolition of slavery. If human bondage was, as Voltaire said ‘as ancient as war, and war as human nature,” then the institution might be justified by the doctrine of sufficient reason, or be seen as part of the natural economy of forces. Gordon Turnbull, who drew heavily on Hume and Montesquieu and who pictured his abolitionist opponents as religious fanatics, condensed in a single pasage the conservative side of the Enlightenment:

Negro slavery appears, then, to be, as far as reason can judge, one of those indispensable and necessary links, in the great chain of causes and events, which cannot and indeed ought not to be broken: or, in other words, a part of the stupendous, admirable and perfect whole, which, if taken away, would leave a chasm, not [to] be filled up by all the wit or the wisdom of presumptuous man.” (The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, David Brione Davis, p 392)

See also the footnote Hume added to his essay “On National Characters” in 1754 where “he expressed a view of the natural inferiority of Africans, which became one of the founding texts, even within his lifetime, of the defence of slavery” (The Atlantic Enlightenment, Manning & Cogliano)

Hume position on religion was pretty much somewhere between atheism and agnosticism: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/mar/27/philosophy-religion-hume

Voltaire? His biographer Besterman concludes “that Voltaire was at most an agnostic; and were any tough-minded philosopher to maintain that this type of agnosticism is indistinguishable from atheism, I would not be prepared to contradict him."

And what of those “religious fanatics”? I guess Turnbull was referring to the Committee for the Abolition of Slavery, consisting of 9 Quakers and 3 Anglicans, including Granville Sharp who described Hume as “the first broacher of that uncharitable doctrine” that “Negroes are an ‘inferior species of man’” for that footnote. These were the people who persuaded William Wilberforce (a convert to evangelical Christianity) to take up the abolitionist cause, in the campaign that led to The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, not just abolishing the trade (already done in 1807) but making slavery illegal in most of the British Empire. Which then went on to exert pressure on other countries and to actively suppress the trade (though how much effort it really put into this is arguable, and this is no excuse for setting it up in the first place.)

The Epistle of Philemon was used by both sides in the debate and, like the (spurious) notion that the curse of Ham was black skin (which is at odds with the begatting Ham does of most of Babylonia), is evidence only of religion being (re)interpreted for use as post facto moral justification for prejudice, the dehumanisation at the heart of it, and the abhorrent socio-political exploitations born of it. The foundation of the SBC rather evidences the idea that the schism with the northern baptists over slavery was a product of the different socio-political investment between the cultures of northern and southern US states.

The “uncritical projection of notions of divine order into society” is largely what I’m talking about vis-a-vis Kohlberg’s “law and order” mentality. It’s simply that “natural” can and does substitute for “divine”, as in the eugenics-based racism seeded by Francis Galton, or similar anti-feminist and homophobic prejudices given “rational” justifications.

11:03 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The above is not meant as a defence of religion, by the way, though I have little doubt you’ll read it that way as another straw man. I’m the last person to excuse Christianity of its role in persecuting “witches” (along with Jews, homosexuals, Jews, heretics, Jews, apostates and more Jews.) The point is simply that your own chosen example fails miserably when one looks into the details. With the examples bracketed above, one can trace the historical (re)interpretation by which the story of Sodom, for example, is made into a moral validation of homophobia (in Medieval times — see Michael Carden’s Sodomy for its roots in penitentials. Rabbinic Judaism does not interpret the story this way.) Or make the quite arguable case that Judas is a late insertion into the gospels specifically designed to scapegoat the Jews and excuse the Romans at the point, understandable given the cult’s shift of its evangelical focus to gentiles and its existence under the Roman Empire. (See Hyam Maccoby, John Shelby Spong and Aaron Saari.)

A Christian would say sin (which includes things like not circumcising males or eating pork or drinking any alcohol at all or having sex with some one of the same sex) determines which people or even whole nations are punished by God.

Apart from the last, when you’re talking about Christian notions of sin, you’re wrong on all counts. Circumcision, eating kosher and abstinence are not matters of taboo or moral dicta in Christianity. The latter is associated with some evangelical protestant denominations and less mainstream sects, but the Roman Catholic, Russian and Greek Orthodox and the mainstream of Protestantism and Anglicanism are pretty much OK with drinking the old Jesus-juice. The first two ritualistic weirdnesses haven’t had much effect on inhibiting the millennia of Jewish intellectuals or that whole period of Islam where it was preserving and building on the Classical texts and traditions we inherit largely by way of the Moors. Can the conceptual infrastructure of religions be put to purposes that are sickening even to contemplate? Absolutely. But you’re making no real case that homophobia exists simply because crazy people believe that Sodom story.

(And for any crazy people that do try to justify homophobia on that basis, their prejudice is largely so rooted that it overrides that supposedly all-important belief in the literal word of God: the hard-ass interpretation is that this is a crime of mob rape in place of hospitality; better still there’s Ezekial 16:53 — “I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters”.)

I’m not just stroking my chin and musing introspectively on why those meanies don’t like my sort. One reason I’m very fond of science is that people have made actual studies of the psychology at work here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-wing_authoritarianism which responds to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authoritarian_personality. Note that Altermeyer’s statistical testing of Adorno’s survey results in him dropping the “superstition” trait. While he also finds “exaggerated concerns over sexuality” not part of the picture, other studies have found arousal reactions more common in self-identifying homophobes exposed to gay porn than in individuals not identifying as homophobes. This paints a picture of homophobia quite in tune with my personal experience of it within a largely secular society where any kid who could be singled out as deviant was roundly disparaged as a freak, and this included one poor girl in my year who was studious to the point of scary (possibly pushy parents, possibly a defensive withdrawal into booksihness) but far more importantly Christian. It wasn’t bad enough she was uber-smart; she wore one of those rainbow-striped Jesus badges like a frickin target on her lapel. The kids picking on her were the same ones taking verbal potshots at me for being unconventional, and not one of them was remotely religious.

Religion emerges from history, not psychology.

Scientology, anyone?

11:04 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And lastly, to reiterate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeCHiUe1et0

11:04 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Reading the Boulliau quote, I got very excited at finding one of those fascinating cases where the secondary literature uncritically repeats nonfacts. As in:
"1645 -- Publication of Ismaël Boulliau's (1605-1694) Philolaic Astronomy, perhaps the most influential work published between Kepler and Newton. The large folio volume is widely cited for promoting acquaintance with Kepler's elliptical planetary paths. For all that, Boulliau roundly rejected Kepler's peculiar mix of ideas concerning the physical causes of the planetary motions."

But reading the quote, it doesn't show why Boulliau then rejected the ellipse. Taton and Wilson in Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the the Rise of Astrophysics detail extensive difference in the way Boulliau called eccentricity of orbits. (That would be decisive proof Boulliau changed his mind only if the mathematicalmeaning of eccentric were the same as today.)

Maestlin wouldn't even be remembered were it not for teaching Kepler; Fabricius is remembered for observational discoveries; Ward is much better remembered as a bishop.

The claim was, there was widespread nonreligious opposition to Kepler's ellipses on metaphysical grounds, implicitly because the circle was the perfect figure. Despite the argument that the ignorant should not dare to proffer an opinion, the claim is not strongly supported.

3:25 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

This would explain why you fail to see the point. "Of course, it’s precisely my point that his faith in uniform circular motion was religious in the sense of being a metaphysical faith, even though it’s a faith in symmetry rather than spaghetti monsters. Where I see such a faith sans spaghetti monster entirely, I still consider it a faith."

"Faith" in symmetry is not faith when abstract ideas like symmetry lead to explanations of empirical data, lead to new discoveries. Spaghetti monster concepts do not do this. Your "alethic morphology" phrase blurs the difference between scientific concepts, like "force" or "momentum" or "temperature" or "atom."

Willfully creating meaningless phrases, with spurious precision, to arbitrarily limit science to the crudest empiricism, measurements is a way to limit the domain of science.

Yes, I read you claim to believe that science's domain has expanded at the expense of religion's. I say that science's domain has expanded, irrevocably, since science is knowledge, and knowledge wins. There is no reaon for you, and the religionists who delight in your denial of science as knowledge, to give science title to any domain.

No, arbitrarily decreeing that science is justified belief while religion isn't, doesn't count. Being true is justification. But you don't think it is true.

3:38 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

"We are reducing this to a semantics argument, but it’s about precision and pragmatics." The difficulty is that the live and let live approach, where science has its domain, and religion has its, has been tried, for centuries. It has been tried in all sincerity, inasmuch as most scientists have been sincere believers who truly believed there really were two domains. And it has failed. There is no pragmatism there, except a pragmatic defense of religion.

There are many religious who share your belief that dogmatism is someone's bad attitude. Your extended effort to acquit religion in general as having negative effects on popular thinking is noted. I now understand you have no motive for rejecting religion as such.

3:54 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

Lastly, there is the story about the Christian girl, tormented by the nonreligious students. Might I suggest to you that these young gentlemen shared your belief that at some level science might be completely wrong about everything? Therefore, they are at some level aware that Christianity might be true.

This girl threatened their insecurity in their scientific worldview (assuming they had such.) Or even her superiority as a Christian made them feel inadequate in the face of such a possibility. The mechanism is very much like homophobia's.

Or, were they motivated by a philosophical rejection of dogmatism? Except, that's your bag, isn't it?

Both the use and misuse of religious ideas, as rated by personal ideas of good use and bad use, are wrong, because they're not true. The abolitionists who thought they were religiously motivated made a weaker case because they used religious ideas. Notions of true and false religion are lurking in there. In the end, the distinction will always mislead, because they are all false.

4:11 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

In the post above, the phrase "alethic morphology" blurs the difference between scientific concepts (short list of examples above,) and genuine religious dogmas, like "soul" and "Trinity" and "plenary inspiration."

By the way, one of the epistles of Peter gives the correct interpretation of the OT story of Sodom. The notion that the Bible should be taken as a whole, that gives a divine revelation is an "alethic morphology." If you protest that it is an invalid "alethic morphology," plainly I agree. But why would you protest, since no "alethic morphology" bears any more truth value than any other?

For my part, I repeat, science's "alethic morphologies" are justified by experience, experiment, evidence. This makes them knowledge, which is what the "alethic morphologies" of religion are not.

4:21 pm  
Blogger S Johnson said...

In the post above, the phrase "alethic morphology" blurs the difference between scientific concepts (short list of examples above,) and genuine religious dogmas, like "soul" and "Trinity" and "plenary inspiration."

By the way, one of the epistles of Peter gives the correct interpretation of the OT story of Sodom. The notion that the Bible should be taken as a whole, that gives a divine revelation is an "alethic morphology." If you protest that it is an invalid "alethic morphology," plainly I agree. But why would you protest, since no "alethic morphology" bears any more truth value than any other?

For my part, I repeat, science's "alethic morphologies" are justified by experience, experiment, evidence. This makes them knowledge, which is what the "alethic morphologies" of religion are not.

4:21 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

For my part, I repeat, science's "alethic morphologies" are justified by experience, experiment, evidence. This makes them knowledge…

And for my part, I shall just nod and smile, nod and smile. If you say it three times, you know, that makes it true. And if you say it five times, the candyman appears. And he gives you a pony. For my part, I shall give you a doff of the hat and henceforth refer to all scientific theories that constitute justified beliefs as “knowledgeses”. Such certainty is reassuring, comforting. Yes! I will believe! By Troth above, I am a convert to the faith!

Lastly, there is the story about the Christian girl, tormented by the nonreligious students. Might I suggest…

You can suggest anything you want; I feel inclined to believe — yea, verily to believe — now that Troth is in mine heart. And yet… my faith is weak. Most of your suggestions on that score, well, they sort of make me marvel at your gazelle-like leaps of imagination in the bid to avoid the evil lion of those knowledgeses established in the social sciences that might suggest — Troth forbid! — that the nonreligious are quite capable of prejudice too. This concerns me. Am I to understand, Pastor Johnson, that I should disregard these as heretical to your teachings? I really do suggest you go read up on some of the literature regarding prejudice, its motivations and functions, so you can lead me in this ecumenical matter. Did I include this link before?

http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/rainbow/html/prej_func.html

The abolitionists who thought they were religiously motivated made a weaker case because they used religious ideas.

As opposed to the pro-slavery lights of the Enlightenment, yes; I totally agree. Hume’s argument was ace! And I bow to your magical mesmeric powers of ESP, in delving into the subconscious of the dead spirits, drawing forth the knowledgeses that they only thought they were religiously motivated. A stupendous feat, sir! My faith grows stronger by the second, by Troth. I feel the knowledgeses growing in my heart.

There are many religious who share your belief that dogmatism is someone's bad attitude.

Oh noes! Troth forbid we mistakenly use dogmatism to mean “positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant” or “a viewpoint or system of ideas based on insufficiently examined premises”. Why, we must henceforth nail our declaration to the doors of the church, that yea and verily all must recognise that such conviction on the basis of unquestioned premises (premises which are indeed held unquestionable) if we but invoke the great Troth and say, “Nay! For these be knowledgeses!” Let me be the Calvin to your Luther!

Praise Troth!

7:27 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

The difficulty is that the live and let live approach, where science has its domain, and religion has its, has been tried, for centuries.

Would that be the approach I reject in favour of applying both art and science to kick religion out of the sandbox?

It has been tried in all sincerity, inasmuch as most scientists have been sincere believers who truly believed there really were two domains. And it has failed.

But Pastor Johnson, hasn’t it given us all those precious knowledgeses of science? Didn’t science actually succeed in establishing all our knowledgeses despite the heathens? Are you saying that the history books are not the word of Troth? If so, perhaps we must write new ones, reflecting the Troth of your knowledgeses. This might well work. We could, I’m sure, develop a New History in which science failed utterly to advance our knowledgses at all in the face of the heathens — with their wicked heathenism on the rise, no less! —until the Great Flood swept away the magicians and priests, with one man alone, Galileo in his ark, surviving to beget his three sons, Newton and Einstein and the accursed Bohr. I can imagine it well, I say. And, if I may be so immodest, I have some small renown as a fiction writer, so I might be suited to scribing such a history. On your dictation, of course. I should only polish the prose that the Troth of your knowledgeses might better shine through.

Your extended effort to acquit religion in general as having negative effects on popular thinking is noted. I now understand you have no motive for rejecting religion as such.

Again, I apologise for the weakness of my faith here. I had foolishly thought that one might have motives for rejecting religion more complex than the vague notion that it has “negative effects on popular thinking”? I oppose slavery, after all, because this consequence of “bad thinking” has palpable negative effects on human beings. And I had thought religion a similar evil, its causes to be understood the better to fight it. Now I see that I must simply damn it as the heathenism it is. Praise Troth and pity this fool who has strayed from the path!

But I am heartened at least that you fulfill my prediction: “The above is not meant as a defence of religion, by the way, though I have little doubt you’ll read it that way as another straw man.” Hitherto, I would have said that this was a mere reasoned understanding on the evidence of our previous conversation, a logical extrapolation. Hitherto, I would have pointed to this as more sad evidence of your zealotry, of your absolutism, this notion that anyone who does not hold to your faith must, by definition, hold to a singular faith of Evil Heathenism rather than to one of a myriad of diverse worldviews, this notion that if one is not rejecting religion in the name of Troth (blessed be its knowledgeses,) one is not truly rejecting religion. But now as a zealot myself, knowing that one must let Troth enter one’s heart there to cast out religion, there is no need. For you and I have Troth and the knowledgeses of science within! Now we can gaze into the hearts of all men, living or dead, abolitionist or scientist rationalist, and simply proclaim, proclaim! As Troth gave uto you the knowledgeses of the secret motivations of the abolitionists, so Troth gave unto me the knowledgeses of the fact that you would react thus, reading my references to the hard cold facts of who said what and did what in the abolition debate as a defence of religion.

Praise Troth!

7:28 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

"Faith" in symmetry is not faith when abstract ideas like symmetry lead to explanations of empirical data, lead to new discoveries.

Ah, I understand now. It is not faith when the underlying assumptions yield models consistent with the known facts, and the revelation of new facts. It is not “confidence or trust in a person or thing”, a “belief that is not based on proof” as long as the explanation that results is passable and of practical utility. That passability and practicality is proof! And by Troth that makes such articles of “faith” no mere “justified beliefs” but knowledgeses! Yes, yes, and thrice yes! Oh, what a glory it is to be born again into the love of Troth, to be washed clean in the blood of the Lamark, to feel the spirit of certainty descend upon me! Oh, to have all our passable and practical beliefs transformed to knowledgeses in an instant of enlightenment!

The claim was, there was widespread nonreligious opposition to Kepler's ellipses on metaphysical grounds, implicitly because the circle was the perfect figure. Despite the argument that the ignorant should not dare to proffer an opinion, the claim is not strongly supported.

You are right, of course. As a convert to this One True Faith, I hereby abjure all evidence, strong or weak, that might challenge our claim that this faith of Troth and knowledgeses does not, has not, and cannot ever lead one to abjure evidence inconsistent with it. For this is what we claim — nay, what we know with our knowledgeses, the Troth! Our position is strong, brother, not just strong but unchallengeable, for all we need do is shut our ears to the challenge, sing our hymn of “la la la la la la la.” We stand together and say, “We are armoured by Troth! Immune to the sins of the heathens! Do not speak to us of psychology and sociology. Do not speak to us of studies and research. We offer none but stand proclaiming Troth, because to challenge Troth is to be a damnéd heathen! You, you who question us, have fallen to the wicked ways of the world, and that you challenge us is all the evidence we need of this!” And if they say, “this is a spurious assertion you have no proof,” why we shall say, “I speak the knowledgeses of Troth and you must prove us wrong!” And if they throw examples in our face, why we shall deny the truth of these examples! And if they show the truth of these examples, why we shall deny the import of the truth! For if a man’s name be of little repute to us, yea, what matter it if he stand as an example of what we deny?

Thus we need never argue our claim that this faith of Troth and knowledgeses does not, has not, and cannot ever lead one to abjure evidence inconsistent with it. Thus, by abjuring evidence, we may defend this claim against the damnéd heathens!

Praise Troth!

7:28 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And damn the heathen Feynman!

ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeCHiUe1et0

7:31 pm  

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