Skip to comments.THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE WITHOUT DUALISM
Posted on 05/19/2003 9:53:42 AM PDT by betty boop
THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE WITHOUT DUALISM
by Elizabeth Newman
Both modernism's disinterested spectator and postmodernism's deconstructed self lead to the gnostic belief that we are in bondage to the world. Biblically informed myth offers an escape.
That theology and science have been haunted by epistemological dualisms is an unremarkable claim. Current postmodern efforts to think beyond such dualisms as objectivism versus relativism include recent attention to knowledge as socially constructed, communitarian, and nonfoundational. Such efforts share the assumption that knowing and doing are internally related. Thus theology and science, like all knowledge, emerge from the practices of concrete, historical communities rather than from abstract principles or universal experience.
Yet, despite these efforts, various dualisms continue to haunt the epistemological landscape, dualisms seldom explicitly stated or endorsed but nonetheless pervading the atmosphere "like chronic depression." Does having no epistemological "foundation" mean that relativism is our only alternative? If all knowing, as some argue, is not only "tainted by interest; [but] is interest," does this mean that knowledge as "social construction" not only reflects the relativities of time and place but also is inevitably a mode of domination? Given that science and theology are nonfoundational, isn't it still the case that scientific language is more direct and descriptive than theological language? Such queries often rest on the suspicion that knowledge, if nonfoundational, is ultimately unreliable. In this essay, I will argue that we can have reliable knowledge that does not conform to an objectivist model, but that also does not regard a chaos of interpretation, in which all knowledge is inevitably domination, as the only alternative. The aim of my essay will be to give a nondualistic account of knowing more radical than both objectivism, and its after-image, relativism.
To give such an account, I wish to describe an alternative epistemological landscape, one where "the problem of dualism" does not arise. My essay will not engage theology and science primarily as separate disciplines. In other words, I will not place a scientific view alongside a theological view in order to see how they match up -- where they are in conflict, in dialogue, independent or integrated, as for example, Ian Barbour does. I do not wish to deny all that is gained by examining the *variety of ways theology and science as disciplines can engage in conversation. My focus, however, is to describe a framework in which knowledge, both scientific and theological, moves beyond dualism.
My investigation is as much ethical as it is epistemological; I argue that these two cannot be separated. This may sound like a startling claim. However, as many in our postmodern context have argued, knowing is neither a disembodied activity, nor an activity resting on universal foundations accessible by autonomous reason. Rather, knowing always grows out of certain contexts and develops within specific traditions. It involves particular commitments and convictions: what could be called a sense of place or orientation. Thus, a central question is, "Where does one place herself in her efforts to come to know?" One much criticized response to this question has been to assume a "godlike" position in which all knowledge is regarded as an accomplished fact. As philosopher William H. Poteat notes about this decontextualized knower, however, "to be deprived of place is to become disincarnated, to be driven mad, to become an alien -- to have no home or not to be at home?" While I will return later to how disincarnate images of knowing continue to sustain inadequate epistemologies, suffice it to say at this point that our description of how we come to know, and who we are as knowers, is an ethical task. That is, one's apprehension of the world, and one's place in the world, is inherently evaluative. If one understands "ethics" according to its Greek root "ethos" -- an accustomed place or habitation -- when we do ethics "we ask where we belong; we try to place ourselves in our proper location. "The challenge of epistemology, then, is also an ethical venture because both have to do with how we locate or place ourselves in the world. If it is true that we are not godlike, disincarnate knowers, then how are we to understand or locate ourselves as knowers? What mythos or imaginative resources can we draw upon to give us a truthful account of scientific and theological knowing?
In this essay, I ask where one belongs if knowing, whether scientific or theological, is not to become objectivistic, relativistic, or hegemonic. First, I will show how, despite efforts to the contrary, the dualism of objectivism versus relativism continues to haunt both modern and postmodern imaginations. Then I will describe more fully a knowing place, biblically informed, that moves beyond objectivism and relativism.
Professor Loyal Rue, in his essay "Redefining Myth and Religion: Introduction to a Conversation," sets out to integrate science and myth, which he adequately defines as "a story of comprehensive scope that concerns. . . . the origins, nature or destiny of life." Rue warns, however, that "in the face of static myth, if science is allowed any license at all, it will begin to drift away from myth and religion until it is perceived to be their enemy." Such polarity, Rue states, results in "those who reject the advancement of science, those who reject tradition-binding stories (religion) and those who desperately engage in the futile activity of reinterpreting the old stories to make them appear compatible with the new knowledge. This is obviously a caricature, but not one that we fail to recognize." What is Rue's alternative? Since religion lacks the universal epistemic authority provided by scientific knowledge, Rue hopes science, and science alone, will provide a new and universal myth that will unify the globe. Rue continues, "So whence comes the story that can unify the globe? Not from Islam, not from Judaism, not from Christianity. . . These traditions tell somebody's story. We are asking, 'whence come the elements for everybody's story?' "
Rue's proposal rightly acknowledges the pervasiveness of story or myth. Most interesting for my purposes, however, is his assumption that he himself has left behind "static myth." In his hopes of finding a new myth that is not "somebody's" but could be "everybody's," Rue is in fact reenacting the mythos of modernity. As has been extensively documented, this mythos positions rationalistic science against irrationalistic religion, posits a universal standpoint, and regards the particularity of tradition as something to be overcome. Yet, Rue fails to see how his own imagination is not dependent upon science and science alone but relies upon the mythos of modernity to give his proposal coherence. In other words, he places or locates himself squarely within the modern mythos; this is the locus of his "ethos," the accustomed place from which he judges that science can give us a universal myth.
Philip Hefner describes a similar failure of the imagination in his analysis of the PBS series on science entitled The Human Quest. As Hefner describes it, while the documentary shows a long distance runner moving through the extinct civilization of the Anasazi (Southwestern Chaco canyon), a narrator comments: "It's easy to assume that evolution has peaked with the creation of humans. . . . but evolution is an ongoing process, the race is never won. We're always being judged by the forces of natural selection and we have no. . . . guarantees." In the face of this unending proem, The Human Quest urges its viewers to search for "moral resources that will help us confront the threat to human survival." Where, the documentary asks, do we turn for such moral resources? The narrator assumes, like Rue, that "Myth may have produced stories of yore, but science can give us new and. . . . presumably better stories." As Hefner recounts, this "better story" includes the following: "Big Bang cosmology writes the scientific story of creation, chemistry writes the story of origins, biology writes the evolutionary epic, neuroscience provides the tales of the mind, and complexity sciences are producing still newer stories that cross traditional disciplinary lines." This scientific story, above all, describes the ultimate human quest as a search for order and harmony. But as Hefner importantly notes, this noble story is reminiscent of ancient Stoicism and of Buddhism; "it calls to mind Aristotle as well." The point is that The Human Quest "slips" in the same way that Rue does: both assume that science gives us a better and different story while failing to see in what ways earlier "myths of yore" nourish the "new" scientific story. Such failure again indicates how thoroughly the authors' imaginations have been captured by the myth of modernity, which tells us, "the story of the emergence of a story which transcends story, which indeed puts an end . . . to the cultural primacy of mythos." Philosopher and chemist Michael Polanyi refers to such slippage as moral inversion: the "coupling of moral passions denied according to scientific skepticism yet active in the assertion of ideologies and principles as scientific facts." In other words, both Rue and The Human Quest assert as scientific fact that which in reality is derived from a larger mythos. They fail to understand that their own projects are not fueled by "science alone" but are sustained by the mythos of modernity, and, in the PBS series, the ancient mythos of Stoicism. Thus both Rue and the authors of The Human Quest fail to acknowledge the sources (deep in culture, history, and time) of their own moral passions, sources which extend well beyond the modern scientific story as they describe it. Yet it is precisely their moral passions that lead them to interpret science as the universal story, or to describe the ultimate human quest as one for order and harmony. As Polanyi also notes, however, any moral objection to these accounts "can be brushed aside by pointing to [the] 'scientific' correctness" of such accounts.
The overwhelming postmodern response to the modern myth the above authors endorse has been to claim the impossibility of achieving a truly universal story that provides "right answers." Political theorist Murray Jardine succinctly describes the postmodern response to modern foundationalism:
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, what is now called "religious belief" conflicted with the model of exact, impersonal knowledge and was relegated to the realm of mere opinion; by the late nineteenth century, morality, which the Enlightenment philosophers had thought could be placed on a firm, secular footing by skeptical rationalism, was well on its way to becoming a matter of subjective value; and by the mid-twentieth century it had become an open question whether even the hardest sciences could meaningfully be described as objective.
In some strains of postmodernism, not only are theology and science equally socially constructed and "tainted by interest" but knowing itself is interest. Thus knowledge not only reflects the relativities of time and place but is inevitably a mode of domination, a far cry from Rue's hope that scientific knowledge will provide a common story that will be everybody's. Furthermore, according to this postmodernist response, language that is embedded in hegemonic social practices so structures the self that even the individual is eclipsed. It is not the scientific story that replaces religious myth, as Rue and the makers of The Human Quest hope, but rather incredulity toward any metanarrative. The solution lies not in creating new metanarratives, scientific or otherwise, since all are would-be structures of domination, but in recognizing the "relativity of truth and thus the inevitability of domination." The postmodern challenge, as John Milbank notes, "turns out not to be the challenge of knowledge that mirrors, but of a knowledge that is power. . . [I]s there, anything but power? Is violence the master of us all?" The pathos of postmodernism, so understood, is a lingering nihilistic relativism. If all knowledge is social construction, how are we to discern if one social location is better than any other? Yet even to ask this question, for some, is seen as an assertion of hegemonic power.
As others have noted, however, postmodernism, though apparently a radical criticism of modernity, shares some ground with it. First, the postmodern effort to show that science too is nonfoundational and hegemonic often revolves around the same axis as Rue's modernist effort to create a new myth on the basis of science alone. Nicholas Lash aptly describes this affinity between modernism and postmodernism: "it is as if the ideals of seventeenth century [have] been reversed. . . [W]e find ourselves enmeshed in endless labours of interpretation, all discourse seemingly unstable, pregnant with possibility and unforeseen disaster, heavy with allusions, dreams, and nightmares." Second, modern and postmodern views of language often share common ground. The postmodern arguments against stability of meaning, as Nancey Murphy among others has noted, "all trade on modern assumptions about the nature of language. . . . if reference is the basis of all meaning then texts have no fixed meaning." In other words, both modern and postmodern deconstructionist views of language derive meaning from reference to a kind of static, fixed text; if reference is not in place, all becomes destabilized. Finally, modern and postmodern views of the self are often continuous in that both reflect an alienation from the self and the world, whether the "disinterested spectator" of modernity, or the "deconstructed self" of postmodernity. In the latter view, the existentialist "I" ceases even to exist since authors become mouthpieces of hegemonic ideologies. Michel Foucault provides an example of this alienation: "It is not man who takes the place of God, but anonymous thinking, thinking without a subject." Such anonymity and alienation, intensified in modernity, "ends with its consummation in the humanus absconditus; the writer has disappeared; the reader disappeared; even the critic who tells us this and its telling have disappeared."
Rue's primary question was, "How can we move beyond particularistic (and interest-laden) religion or myth to a universal scientific story?" The postmodern answer has often been, "Isn't science also contingent, relativistic, and interest-laden?" Both of these responses, however, remain trapped in the "haunting dualism" of objectivism or relativism. I wish to address more fully how we might loosen our imaginations from this modern/postmodern hold. As I will argue below, the central mythos that supports this modern/postmodern framework misconstrues the nature of language, gives us a distorted picture of the knowing self, and thus easily leads us to misdescribe our knowing practices.
Gnosticism as a Central Mythos
To develop a genuine alternative, I wish first to consider more fully the mythos that informs this modern/postmodern framework. In asking this question, I am assuming that the knowing self is always "storied." If it is true that the self is "historical through and through," and that "we make sense -- or fail to make sense -- of our lives by the kind of story we can tell," then what myth or story has enabled the modern/postmodern dualism of objectivism or relativism to capture the contemporary imagination? I believe the modern/postmodern axis described above owes a profound debt to Gnosticism. If I am correct in this, then an alternative to these haunting dualisms can be found in an alternative to Gnosticism: an alternative that affirms the goodness of the created world, and by implication the faithfulness of God the Creator.
Let us first, however, recall briefly the shape of the gnostic narrative, and what "models of thinking" are available within this story. While Gnosticism is a diverse phenomenon, flowing into "vast streams of mythical narration, thence to mingle and intertwine," the gnostic myths share certain beliefs in common: "the fate of the divine spark present in humanity and its fall into a hostile world of shadows, where it forgets its true home, while unconsciously longing to return there; its wanderings and hopes, and the eventual arrival of a Saviour who will reveal its true origin and thus enable it to regain consciousness of its essential alienation from this world of shadows." The Gnostic seeks to overcome his or her basic alienation from the world by means of escape through a special gnosis. This salvific knowledge liberates the Gnostic from the created world, a world that includes both history and nature. The gnosis reveals that the creator-God has no power over the spiritual self and thus removes from the God beyond the creator-God, the stigma of creation. A radical dualism governs the relation between God and the world, and analogously, between humans and the world. Gnosticism thus sees human bondedness to the world as bondage, and understands our particular places in the world in terms of negative limitation.
The modern/postmodern axis, described earlier, shows striking similarities to some aspects of the gnostic drama: (1) the belief that our world -- in all its rich particularity and concreteness -- cannot be trusted, (2) the desire to abandon our world, and (3) the belief, then, that salvific knowledge lies in escape from the world. For modernists such as Rue, the limits of our particular worlds are divisive and therefore need to be overcome through the "disinterested spectator" of science. For the postmodern deconstructionist, such limits represent hegemonic control, and therefore must be unmasked through the "deconstructed self." Both the disinterested spectator of modernism and the "deconstructed self" of postmodernism reflect an alienation of self from the world, and salvific knowledge is found either in moving to a place which is "everybody's," or by denying that the self has a place.
Modern/postmodern beliefs that fail to accept the created world and our bondedness to this world as essentially good thus reenact, at least in part, the gnostic mythos. John Milbank, in his analysis of "ontological violence," observes how Derrida's grammatology relies upon an ancient myth: "And here one has to insist that it is not that the myth of Thoth concerning the supreme god and the treacherous scribe anticipated the positive truth of grammatology, but rather that grammatology just repeats (identically) the myth of Thoth." In a similar vein, the mythos that gives us "objectivism/relativism" repeats the myth of Gnosticism, "a falling into a worldly prison from which we can alone be saved by the gnosis of our in principle ecumenic doubt." Both objectivism, the belief that we can create a universal story, and relativism, the belief that knowledge is nothing more than a reflection of our interests or desires, fail to affirm that we live in a world created (and thus given) by a good God, in whose image we are made. Because of this belief in the world as essentially a place of negative limitation, a "prison," both display affinities to Gnosticism.
As my analysis indicates, a genuine alternative to the dualism of objectivism/relativism lies in an alternative myth: one that provides different conceptual resources for what it means to live and speak in the world. I wish now to turn more fully to a theological account of creation and covenant as an alternative to gnostic dualism. Creation and covenant, as displayed in the fullness of the biblical narrative, give us alternative understandings of speaking and knowing, and can thus enable us to understand theology and science beyond objectivism and relativism.
As indicated earlier, such an alternative, like the objectivistic/relativistic dualism itself, is both ethical and epistemological because it locates the knower in a particular place (ethos), a place that shapes how and what one comes to know. As Rowan Williams elaborates, "Certain models of thinking (epistemology) come to be available because of the presence of certain narratives about God and God's people."
For the purposes of my essay, it is significant that in the Genesis account of creation, God creates the world through speech. God's word, which creates the world, is simultaneously God's deed. As some have interpreted the opening lines of John's Gospel, "in the beginning was the deed." Most theologians have interpreted this story to mean that God speaks and creates the world out of nothing. The biblical account does not portray the world as eternally present, but rather describes the world as radically contingent upon God's word. Here we see displayed a conception of speech that is not driven by correspondence or noncorrespondence to an external reality. In other words, as noted earlier about modern/postmodern views, "reference" is not the basis of meaning. Rather words are deeds, modes of acting. The meaning of the word (deed) lies not in its reference (or lack of) to an external reality, but is derived from the faithfulness of the one who speaks/acts; in this case, God. The Psalmist captures this close alliance between God's words and deeds when he writes, "For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded and it stood forth" (Ps. 33:9). This notion of the faithfulness between God and God's words and deeds grounds the biblical understanding of covenant as well. God's covenant with Abraham and subsequent generations is contingent in that God does not have to establish such a covenant; it is something radically new. This act, however, reveals the nature of God to be one of utter faithfulness. That is, fulfillment of God's word is not measured in terms of something external to God, but rather by God's faithfulness to God's own word/deed.
The ancient Hebrews, oriented around such a notion of speech, thus located reality primarily in the spoken word. Yet, within this understanding, words are not primarily entities that mirror reality, nor are they simply entities that mask difference. Thorlief Boman notes that an Israelite would not have been able to "burst out contemptuously like Hamlet, 'Words, words, words!' for 'word' is in itself not only sound and breath but a reality." For the ancient Israelite, the opposite of a faithful word, understood as deed, is not simply a mere word (might we say "relative"?) but "a counterfeit word, an empty word, or a lying word which did not possess the inner strength and truth for accomplishment or accomplished something evil." Such negation or evil is conceptually parasitic on creatures who can speak and act faithfully as God does: who are created in the image of a God who created "on account of the love of His own goodness." In contrast to Gnosticism in which evil rests in "the state of being in the world, the misfortune of existing," this biblical understanding claims that the evil which humans confess is more the act of speaking and doing evil. Míguez-Bonino describes this as follows: "The faith of Israel is consistently portrayed, not as a gnosis, but as a way, a particular way of acting, of relating inside and outside the nation, of ordering life at every conceivable level, which corresponds to God's own way with Israel."
Such a perspective does not deny the violence, domination, and conflict present in the world. Postmodernism rightly notes how our words easily become oppressive, deceptive, and hegemonic. No external and static "text" can rescue us from the radical contingency and instability of our words. What saves us from the woes of our failed speech/deeds, however, is not a flight to some universal foundation. Neither is it simply the acceptance of the instability of all discourse. Both of these responses underwrite gnostic alienation from the created world.
Yet, if we acknowledge that our words often miss their mark, that our language may be oppressive to others even though we are unaware of it, what saves us from this predicament? Hannah Arendt provides interesting insights into this dilemma in her discussion of the irreversibility (and thus the instability) of speech and of the chaotic uncertainty of our existence, all of which the postmodernist rightly observes. How can one reverse or recover from the negative consequences, whether intended or not, of one's words? And given the unpredictability and contingency of the world in which we live, what prevents the systematic domination of the powerful? Arendt notes:
The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility -- of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing -- is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past, whose "sins" hang like Damocles' sword over every new generation; and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between men.
Arendt observes that both of these practices, asking or giving forgiveness and making promises, depend upon a plurality, the presence and action of others. In Arendt's view, our words are not bound by that to which they eternally correspond, but this does not mean they are completely "unhinged." Rather, our words are bound or "stabilized" by our promises, and unbound or "destabilized" by our acts of forgiveness before others. At this point, Arendt herself is drawing from the Hebraic conception of speech outlined above: words are deeds, or modes of acting.
Even more significantly, however, in her analysis of words as modes of acting in the face of the seeming irreversibility of the past and instability of the future, Arendt turns to the Hebraic biblical understanding of covenant. Though Arendt does not develop this, she acknowledges her conceptual debt to the discoverer of covenant, Abraham, the man from Ur, "whose whole story, as the Bible tells it, shows such a passionate drive toward making covenants that it is as though he departed from his country for no other reason than to try out the power of mutual promise in the wilderness of the world." Rather than alienation from the world, "covenant" places Abraham even more fully in the historical world. No longer is Abraham's existence defined primarily by tribal life rooted, as it was, in cyclical nature. Rather his life becomes defined most ultimately by the promise God makes to him in time. Such a promise does not entail escape from the world -- the gnostic hope -- but rather affirms Abraham's existence within the world. God wants to bless the world through Abraham and thus validates Abraham's existence by making a covenant with Abraham. Yet Abraham, for his part, is called to imitate the faithfulness of God. What saves Abraham from his failed deeds/words (i.e., passing his wife off as his sister) is God's faithfulness and Abraham's ability to renew his promise with God.
This story of the man who leaves Ur of the Chaldeans and sets out for the land of promise may sound far afield from the problems inherent in the modern/postmodern framework outlined above. However, central to the biblical concept of covenant, reflected not only in the story of Abraham but throughout the Bible, is the notion that who we are and how we come to know rests in our bondedness with others through our words and deeds. Nicholas Lash makes this point quite eloquently when he writes, "Whether in physics or in politics, in psychology or prayer, to grow in knowledge is to grow through trust: trust given, trust betrayed, trust risked, misplaced, sustained, received, and suffered." Certainly Michael Polanyi's persistent claim that knowing is always "fiduciary" points to the essential role of trust in our feats of knowing. Polanyi describes knowing as "a fiduciary act which cannot be analyzed in noncommittal terms." In other words, in all our knowing efforts we strive under the guidance of antecedent beliefs conveyed to us by other persons. Thus knowing proceeds by trust, a fact that neither objectivism nor relativism fully acknowledges. Rather, since both objectivism and relativism fail to reveal fully the stories that fuel their epistemologies, the result is that both ultimately relieve the knower of responsibility for the holding of his or her beliefs, and blind her to the necessity of shared beliefs in our heuristic epistemological efforts.
An understanding of knowledge as rooted in trust, however, is consistent with an affirmation of the goodness of the created world. Thus, the picture of the self that emerges is neither the unencumbered self of modernity, nor the eclipsed self of postmodernity. As suggested above, such disincarnate and ultimately gnostic images of the self give us distorted epistemologies that remain trapped in the objectivistic/relativistic dichotomies. From a covenantal epistemological perspective, however, we have no uncreated self that is alienated from the world of time, history, and community. Rather "covenant" places us as speakers and actors before others within time and history, and not only before others, but also ultimately before God. A biblical understanding indicates, in fact, that the speaker/actor par excellence is Yahweh, whose words and deeds are always faithful.
An emphasis on the goodness of the created world, on the trustworthiness of our created humanity, does not deny division, violence, and evil present in the world, all of which the Gnostic rightly perceives. But the solution is neither escape from the world to a universal foundation nor an acceptance of the world's fundamental instability and domination. Rather, within the biblical narrative, the violence and evil present in the world are ultimately overcome by hope in the faithfulness of God, who has acted and acts in creation and human history. William Poteat contrasts this Hebraic notion with early Greek thought: "For the Greeks the particularity and transiency of our particular truths are overcome in the eternal logos; for the Hebrews they are comprehended and affirmed in the dynamic but ever faithful will of Yahweh."
In this essay, I have tried to move beyond the haunting dualisms of objectivism (associated with modernism) and relativism (associated with postmodernism). To do this, I have argued that both modernity and postmodernity have been informed by a gnostic mythos that alienates the self from the world. From the perspective of modernism, this takes the form of the "disinterested spectator." From the perspective of postmodernism, it becomes the "deconstructed self" To overcome these dualisms, I have proposed the biblical concepts of creation and covenant as an alternative central mythos.
In both theology and science alike, an understanding of the self as covenantal, of words as deeds, and of knowing as involving acts of trust, provides a way beyond the dualisms that have haunted the modern and postmodern landscape. Such conceptions of selfhood, language, and knowledge are themselves grounded in a myth that is biblically informed; a story which centers on a God whose words are deeds, a story in which the central characters derive their identity from a binding covenant, and finally, a story in which the goodness of the world is affirmed, and therefore found trustworthy.
* * * * * *
ELIZABETH NEWMAN, assistant professor of theology and ethics at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, has published essays on teaching religion and science, theological knowing, and the Eucharist. She is currently at work on a project entitled Remembering How We Know: Theology without Dualism. The present essay, a revision of a paper she presented at the 1996 Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in New Orleans, is reprinted with permission from the Winter 1997 (vol. 17, no. 1) issue of the CTNS Bulletin, Richard O. Randolph, editor, copyright 1977, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, California.
All rights reserved; posted for fair-use educational and discussion purposes only.
What say, 2 points for this höflich lumpenschlumper?
... a much criticized response to this question has been to assume a "godlike" position in which all knowledge is regarded as an accomplished fact.
It occurs to me that objectivists pretty much have to assume this to be the case, in the sense that their principles supposedly are, in and of themselves. (Theists, too, assume this....)
For adjustments, I suggest that a distinction be made between "mythos" and "history" Likewise between "concept" and "covenant." A forgivable slip, for sure. Also, a further elucidation of the kinds of dualisms at play to prevent the reponse, There is no duality .
The author fails to prevent that red herring.
All too often, and yet no better substitute has been found for a dopamine high. An undeniable experience. Try it, you'll love it.
I expect she's seen it.
Great call, cornelis. Shall we take a stab at elucidating the distinctions to be observed with respect to these pairings? Please do correct me if you think I've come up short.
Mythos is a "place-bound" (or tradition-bound) story that gives man his own sense of place in the world. It is not the result of a private act, but of shared, lived understandings held in common with other members of the community of which we feel ourselves to be members. In this sense, "myth" is not meant to denote the idea of "fiction" or "superstition" or anything of that sort. As Newman demonstrates, every man has a myth whether or not he is aware of it. Even scientists, objectivists, deconstructionists, and gnostics. Its function is primarily social.
History is the study of the succession of human events that have occurred in the past, as best as they can be reconstructed and described. Unlike the myth, a construction of history is typically a private act, but one which is not directly concerned with the historian's particular place in the world.
A concept is an abstract or "generic" idea generalized from particular experience of the world, as conceived and held in the mind. We might say is is an abstraction from experience, and thus usually a reduction of it.
A covenant is a formal, solemn, and binding agreement between two or more parties promising or pledging the performance of some action. Typically, it involves promises of mutual performance to be carried out by the parties concerned.
(Please feel free to improve on my humble effort here, cornelis.)
As for dualism, my view is probably pretty childish. I'd have to explain it thusly: Dualism is the belief that the universe exists quite independently of our participation in it; that its existence is somehow "final" and "complete"; that it is somehow "corrupt," threatening, and dangerous to us. It's putative "imperfection" is a rebuke to us, and must be "overcome," if man is to be "saved."
A fuller definition would take further meditation -- which I can't do right now, for I've just been handed new a project to work on (I'm at work....) Maybe later!
Meanwhile, please share your thoughts?
How do you know that, Humvee? Have you always lived, such that you know everything about the past, not to mention everything that may happen in the future? Yours seems to be a statement of "faith."
This is a very interesting essay and I applaud the authors acknowledgment of the ancient Hebrew wisdom: oriented around such a notion of speech, [they] thus located reality primarily in the spoken word.
She says with regard to decontextualized knowing:
I would have liked to have seen a paragraph or two there...
That would have been fascinating, A-G. But I don't think that falls within the scope of what Professor Newman is up to here -- she's not dealing with issues of ontology per se, or eschatology/teleology. Ethics is certainly implicated, however -- and on that score, I do have to applaud an insight of Hank Kerchief's on a recent thread, in which he recognized that truth is the ultimate moral criterion.
The task Prof. Newman has set herself (if I'm understanding this essay correctly) is the epistemological problem of the "disincarnate knower." This is the case of a "knower" who presumes he can stand "outside" the totality of the universe that he observes -- to stand at some Archimedian point "outside" the universe, as if he himself were not part of what he is attempting to observe; as if his observation didn't "constitute" what he sees from a very partial (in a double sense) perspective. For the disincarnate knower assumes that what he observes is already "final" and "complete" -- instead of being a process in which he participates, and which he must view from the perspective of a finite stream of time, measured in terms of his own life span. In effect, the disincarnate knower has made himself the complete measure of what is.
This constitutes a fallacy that is so common today that very few people notice it, even when it's right under their noses, or when they're committing it themselves. In effect, this "discarnate knower" stance is implied in the position that Humvee took in saying that "there is nothing new under the sun." We may believe that we know this for a certainty -- but how can such a thing really be known, unless we are adopting a "godlike stance?" (Which we cannot do without fooling ourselves as to our own capabilities.)
Hahahahahaha!!! Ain't that the truth, beowolf! (Er, that "institutes" part -- yeah, you're right -- maybe such folk really do need to be institutionalized....)
I could launch a full-scale attack on Hegel here, right about now, in connection with the problem of "dualism." But I'll spare you!
It's good to see you, too, beowolf. Hope all is well with you and yours.
You are so kind, you're giving me a lot of slack here, Alamo-Girl. I wonder whether I've clarified anything so far, just in general.
What does it mean when we say there is a problem with "the 'disincarnate knower,' a 'knower' who presumes he can stand 'outside' the totality of the universe that he observes...?" What is the practical effect of this phenomenon? And how does the phenomenon arise in the first place?
At the sacrifice of a bit or two of technical accuracy, in the interest of ease of understanding, the problem might be put this way:
The "disincarnate knower" wants to abstract himself out of the "real" world so that he can entertain the notion that he is only his mind. All other "parts" of his being have been dropped down the ol' rat-hole of memory (hopefully never to be recovered). This "abstract mind" wants to "engage the world" of total reality, as if the world were something entirely separate from himself -- as if it were just another ordinary, normal "object of cognition" that lies in the familiar field of the space-time reality that we humans normally experience.
The fallacy mainly consists in the fact that there is no such thing as a 'disincarnate knower.' With the one exception: God. Only God stands "outside" what has been made -- for He made it, and therefore cannot be identical with it, or in any way subject to its rules.
All the rest of us, being "made," participate in all the rest of what has been made.
To pretend otherwise is to put on "divine boots." Yet the fact is, we humans never see the whole of creation, entire. To do that, we would have to be perfect in our knowledge of everything that ever took place in the past, and everything that can or will take place in the future -- not to mention possessing complete, perfect understanding of what is going on in our immediate present. (Arguably, we don't even have that.)
Thus I conclude that the "disincarnate observer" is a theoretical mistake of the first magnitude.
And the result of that mistake is to commit the fallacy of dualism: For the essence of dualism, practically speaking, is the the attitude of "me (e.g., my mind, my thoughts) against the world (e.g., in effect, "what I choose, or will, to think about").
The latter observation brings to my mind, at least, "shades" of the language of QM. I may well be misappropriating the language of quantum mechanics here, but to me it seems that the act of "selecting objects" for the "abstract mind" to think about is pretty darn close to the idea of the "observer" causing quantum state vector collapse to occur. When the vector state collapses, a "selection" has been made. It, together with its associated contents, become the reality envisioned.
But this is a only a partial reality -- for the other probabilities in the state vector, given time, may yet come to pass. But we, from our current vantage point, cannot know anything at all about how that turns out, in the end.
All we can take away from this line of thinking, IMO, is the idea that the "knower" -- QM's "observer" -- is inseparable from reality, and does far more than we currently appreciate to "constitute it," and thus, to make it come out the way it does.
To speak of a "disincarnate knower," therefore, is absurd.
Anyhoot, perhaps you'd agree with me that we've stumbled on an interesting problem here, Alamo-Girl. Hugs!
BB, If I had a boat, I could go for a cruise on this endless sea of meaningless psuedocognitive, psychomasturbational jargon
Well, with that confession, all I can say is I strongly doubt you have gotten into the spirit of this piece. Or its mind, by a long shot. No offense intended, e-s.
Now, if you want to think about for a while and maybe come back later, that would be great by me.
Indeed, we have stumbled on an interesting problem though that was not my original intent in making the remark. I felt that the author was being dismissive on that particular subject.
The way you have defined the disincarnate observer includes a motive (wants to abstract himself out of the "real" world so that he can entertain the notion that he is only his mind.) and a perspective ( This "abstract mind" wants to "engage the world" of total reality, as if the world were something entirely separate from himself -- as if it were just another ordinary, normal "object of cognition" that lies in the familiar field of the space-time reality that we humans normally experience.)
I did not understand the phrase, disincarnate knower, to be constrained in that fashion. Indeed, I dont believe a theoretical physicist is playing God when he is conducting a thought experiment relative to subjects outside of space/time. IMHO, his effort would be temporally prejudiced (and self-defeating) - if he could not imagine his perspective discarnate.
The same kind of discarnate perspectives in thought experiments may reach to quantum mechanics as well. You mentioned the observer problem, where the observation itself effects a quantum state and thus, the classical world such as the life or death of Schrödinger's cat. But even the concept of reality or locality at the quantum level is questionable by violations of Bells inequalities at distance and is in jeopardy from research concerning time and gravity at such scales.
Nevertheless, I am already quite convinced that consciousness is both non-spatial and non-corporeal and thus would appear to fit the bill as a disincarnate gatherer of knowledge. But that of course is without any motive, such as a desire to be god-like or me against the world or I am only my mind etc.
Thank you so much for the informative article and discussion! Hugs!!!
There's nothing wrong with "abstraction," as long as we're aware that's what we're doing. New insights are often gained from the process; but then they need to be "reconciled" with the facts of reality (which is not "abstract") in order to be truly useful. Hegel thought he could dispense with that latter step, facilitating the production of numerous ideologies that were inspired by his technique, and which still plague us today.
Are we really supposed to read beyond this parody of intellectualism? The Onion could not come up with a better lead.
I thougth it would be a good idea for bb to post this article, which I happened to discover immediately after reading this post, by her. You may choose to see especially the writing where the bold text lays. Or, you may choose not to.
To: unspun; Alamo-Girl; Kudsman; Phaedrus; logos; Diamond; beckett; cornelis; eastsider; OWK; ...
I don't mean to poo-poo the Ancient Greeks "originality" but, hey, everybody tends to use what he finds best and available. And as you've seen "continuous improvement" knows no rights of possession.
Hope you don't mind my stomping accross your posts and their subject matter.
Not at all, unspun! I've already indicated that I think the great Greeks did in fact overplay Mind at the expense of Spirit. But being Greek, they were just doing "what came naturally" to them; for the great Greeks were, preeminently, thinkers. That doesn't mean they weren't aware of Spirit. It just wasn't their "most interesting problem."
Man is not just mind (nous). He is heart-and-mind -- as you suggested in a recent post. He is pneuma and nous both.
Have you read Blaise Pascal's Pensées? I'll bet you'd love Pascal. Like you (presumably), he regards passion -- thoughts coupled with feelings arising in the body -- as the essence of the human condition. The very formula of his definition (just given) bespeaks the intimate, irreducible integration of mind and spirit in Man. Not to flog a dead horse, but for Plato, to emphasize mind over heart (or spirit) represents a particular shift and focus of attention. This is different from the experience of our own time, where we see a fatal tendency of separating the two absolutely, with questions of the heart denigrated, and mind -- Reason -- made absolute. Arguably Plato never did this. And I strongly doubt he would regard this dualistic "divorce" as a healthy thing.
To try to make this issue plain: Pascal makes the distinction between two types of mind, one rigid and inflexible (the "geometer's mind"), the other open to the mysterious complex of total being ("intuitive mind" -- "supple and born with the impulse to love, especially what is beautiful," as Jacques Barzun has described Pascal's intent in his elucidation of the subject in Pensées). Pascal does not regard these two modes as either-or propositions or "classifiable types." Rather, both can coexist in the single mind of any individual.
Barzun presents this case brilliantly (IMHO) in From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present (New York: Harper Collins, 2000). So I will simply quote him at length:
"By geometrical [mind], Pascal means the mind when it works with exact definitions and abstractions in science and mathematics; by intuitive, the mind when it works with ideas and perceptions not capable of exact definition. A right-angle triangle or gravitation is a perfectly definite idea; poetry or love or good government is not definable. And this lack of definition is not due to lack of correct information; it comes from the very nature of the subject.
" 'Geometrical' matters are handled by all good minds without any argument over their interconnections, and mistakes in reasoning are quickly noticed and readily admitted by the culprit; whereas in matters of intuition...the details to take in are so numerous and fugitive that reasoning about them is chancy and good minds arrive in all honesty at different conclusions. Pascal might have added that this large number of elements rules out the use of Decartes' method: one can never be sure of having found all the parts of the problem or of having put back [as in the final stage of a jig-saw puzzle, i.e., its completion] all those one thinks one has found -- no complete analysis is possible of Love or Ambition.
"It is from this incapacity that the belief in science and mathematics as the only forms of truth has arisen. Such has been the faith of most scientists and mathematicians, who in turn have persuaded the people that apart from their experimental findings and deducings all is mere opinion, error, and fantasy. Even so, in every generation, thinkers -- including some notable scientists -- have maintained that the geometrical spirit and the method of Descartes do not apply to everything. Truths of a different order are attainable by finesse [i.e., intuition], even if consensus is lacking. The language iteself recognizes the source of the distinction: to know and to know about express the difference between intimate awareness and things learned. Some languages in fact use different words for the contrast: wissen and kennen, savoir and connaître. Man as scientist has come to know a great deal, but as human being knows and feels intuitively love and ambition, poetry and music. The heart-and-mind reaches deeper than the power of reason alone.
"Longing for unanimity in belief is understandable. The bloody conflicts of the world have their source in the realm of finesse, and to deplore the fact leads to such skepticism as Montaigne's. It is also the best argument for toleration. But although the realm of finesse does not yield unshakable conclusions, it is not alone in variability. Science is continually revising its declarations and at no time do its practitioners fully agree with one another. The unbroken confidence in it rests on the fixity of the objects defined, which makes every worker talk about the same thing and deal with it in the same way, thanks to numbers. But not even this amiable rigor ensures eternity to the results of its application. Still, when by a combination of science and finesse, useful inventions are created and benefit the common life, the public is doubly convinced that science has the monopoly of truth.
"The two 'minds' that Pascal describes do not constitute two species of individuals. They are but two directions that one human mind can take. Pascal himself is proof that one can be a great geometer and a profound intuiter. And in fact any good mind properly taught can think like Euclid and like Walt Whitman. The Renaissance...was full of such minds, equally competent as poets and engineers. The modern notion of 'two cultures,' incompatible under one skull, comes solely from the proliferation of specialties in science; but these also divide scientists into groups that do not understand one another, the cause being the sheer mass of detail and the diverse terminologies. In essence the human mind remains one, not 2 or 60 different organs.
"What, then, is the importance of Pascal's distinction? It is as an axiom for the critic and a warning against SCIENTISM. Ten succinct paragraphs of the Pensées state it with finality. Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue. [Bold added to this "best statement" of the fundamental premise of scientism I've ever come across.] Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, 'If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right <indicators>, we can then measure and reason flawlessly....'
"The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual: genuine curiosity in search of the truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The 'findings' have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion. At the same time, the workers in the realm of intuition, the gifter finessers -- artists, moralists, philosophers, historians, political theorists, and theologians -- were often diverted from their proper task, while others were looking on them with disdain as dabblers in the suburbs of Truth. The case of Karl Marx is typical. Infatuated with the kudos of science, he persuaded himself and his millions of followers in and out of the Sooviet Union that he had at last formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically....
"The clue to the fallacy of SCIENTISM is this: geometry (in all senses of the term) is an ABSTRACTION from experience; it could not exist without the work of the human mind on what it encounters in the world. Hence the realm of abstraction, useful and far from unreal, is thin and bare and poorer than the world it is drawn from. It is therefore an idle dream to think of someday getting along without direct dealings with what abstraction leaves untouched. The meaning of this contrast is that the enterprise of science has its limits.
"Pascal does not stop at showing the difference between the two distinct grips that the human mind has on the world. In a widely quoted passage he adds: 'The heart has reasons that the reason does not know.' The heart here is not merely the seat of affections; it is desire in general, the impulses to action, and Reason is the discriminating servant that carries out some of them. Note that the word reason in the dictum is used in two senses: the reasons of the heart -- its needs and motives -- are not products of reasoning, or there would be no spontaneity in conduct, no sympathy, friendship, or love in the world.... [Pascal quips,] 'Whoever tries to turn angel turns beast,' punning on bête, which also means stupid....
"[F]or Pascal it is precisely the uncertainty arising from human truths that requires taking refuge in the bosom of God....
"For Pascal, man is miserable and great. On the scale of the universe, he is puny -- 'a drop of water can kill him; he is a feeble reed.' But he is a 'thinking reed.' The blind universe destroys him and all his works, but he is conscious -- he knows that which is stronger than he; that is why the silence of space fightens him. Yet thought (and here one includes science) remains master of that which does not know its own size and power."
* * * * * * *
That 'the silence of space fightens him' Pascal freely admits in Pensées: "the eternal silence of this infinite space frightens me." In this, as Barzun notes, he was "seeing the cosmos like an existentialist -- empty, bleak, and meaningless. How had all these rotating spheres come to be? Why all this void? And how absurd was that enigma, Man!... God's design was inscrutible."
Yet pace Jesse Ventura, who famously said that "religion is only a crutch for the weak": For Pascal, "Christ was the sole link with Meaning, and Christ's message was forgiveness and love. The divine was no abstract essence in which to merge for the ecstasy of forgetting self [which is the essence and goal of mysticism]; it was the living God [the God of the Presence -- Christ]. His miracles were all humane in purpose, and the miracle and mystery of His existence mediated for man the mystery of the infinite space and silence of creation."
In other words, the Unknown tetragrammatical God is perfectly inscrutible to the human mind. But Christ as divine mediator brings man into harmony with what Is, and alone gives man his place and meaning in the universe.
Though he died young (39) and was in poor health most of his life, Pascal was no weakling, but truly a strong man, heart and mind. And also a very great man, as both scientist and humanist.
It might look very much like a "parody of intellectualism," js1138. But the fact of the matter is there really are people who fit the bill of the modernist disinterested spectator (e.g., Hegel and his ideological epigones) and of postmodernism's deconstructed self (e.g., Jacques Derrida). These folks have been incredibly influential in transforming Western society by promulgating and reinforcing the intellectual habit of sheer irrationality. Personally, I find this a matter of great concern. For thanks to these folks, rational discourse is becoming increasingly impossible.
If you don't worry about this, then just take a pass on this essay.
So do I. And the fallout of these disruptors you name is an attitude at large against words. Our self-respect overwhelms the courtesy of others. Instead of recognizing others, we claim a special right to dispense with history and substitute just any word we like. This is an unbelief of language to be meaningful.
It seems that a resistance to these distractions from civil respect is an attempt to first learn from the best teachers what those who have gone before have really said. This learning would itself be subject to correction from others. Graduation might then consist in assuming the postponed freedom to finally choose one's position.
Some have thought that it is not possible to step in someone else's shoes. This again is the unbelief of language to be meaningful.
If the dignity of the human person includes the freedom to choose, is not the knowledge of that choice a prerequisite? Of course, children grow up accepting the presuppositions uncritically, but that is not our understanding of human nature. We recognize there are qualities which make the human person mature.
It would seem that a test of that knowledge would be the faithful exposition of the motives and understanding of those we are free to disagree with. This is a tall order, but I think the necessary for the resistance to error.
Dismissal of one's opponent is part of debate. But a typical sham dismissal is the assumption that one knows the opponent's position merely on the basis of a conviction that one's own position is right. I think that is dangerous, especially in a democratic age where every Joe Schmoe thinks they can be president.
Sorry if this steps back a bit from the issue at hand: dualism. Analysis allows us to isolate the difficulties in dualistic thinking, however it does not allow us to exempt ourselves from the other difficulties that we participate in as historical and social beings.
It's very concerning, true. But as for the philosophers such as Hegel, and Derrida whom you cite (and the vast number of philosophers) how much do they drive culture compared to reporting it by its rationale? They may mean to cause, but are they more effect?
Who is driving our culture lately? The brunt of it seems to be the practitioners, the Hugh Hefners, John Lennons, Martin Scorseses etc., who lean an elbow on the rationale of their philosophy of choice.
There are moments of tragedy even for the best. The human predicament is not an us-them situation.
Seems we may have even heard from just this attitude among those who took a look-in at this article/thread.