Monday, November 30, 2009

Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays

Michael P. Foley’s Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Fridays: The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything has some distinct similarities in tone and content to Thomas Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilisation. It is the good news and (with the odd minor exception) only the good news about Catholicism and being Catholic. It is concerned with pointing out Catholic contributions to just about everything, particularly in the US, where Catholicism long laboured under the suspicion of not being compatible with the American Revolution and loyalty to the US: out of 44 US Presidents*, only one has been Catholic. (Though the current Chief Justice and a majority of the Supreme Court⎯Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito⎯are Catholic: two Jews, an Episcopalian and a generic Protestant make up the rest.)

That being said, the book is full of delightful historical trivia, many of them delightful medieval historical trivia. It also has some Catholic apologetics, so it is quite a painless exposition to various Catholic doctrines (the author is a Doctor of Theology). There is even a “more Catholic than the Pope” moment (p.165) when he reports in somewhat disturbed tones that JPII adopted an adjusted Nietzschean construction—though he assures us in a footnote that he is not really criticising the Pope.

The book is divided into subject areas. The chapters are lists of examples with short explanations, very easy to read. It is amusing to discover, for example, that Cardinal Richelieu had the points of his table knives filed off so his dinner guests couldn’t pick their teeth with them (p.23). Or that tempura was actually brought to Japan via Iberian missionaries (p.32). That John Wycliff was condemned by the Church for condemning universities as a source of vain heathenism (p.115)—the more things change, the more things stay the same!
Foley credits St Augustine with having founded the genre of autobiography and damns Rousseau for deliberately subverting and reversing the original Augustinian form (p.45). He obviously enjoys the speculation that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic (p.48) and has a nice quote from Pope Gregory the Great about images in Churches:
pictures are used in churches so that those who do not know their letters may be a least by looking at the walls read what they cannot read in books (p.49).
The red of the Cardinals was decreed by Pope Paul II who loved pomp and persisted after the Papal garments changed to white when the Dominican Pius V preferred the colour of his Order (p.108). The original title of Los Angeles was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Le Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula or Los Angeles for short (0.126). St Augustine Florida is oldest permanent European settlement in North America and the oldest continually inhabited city in the US (p.128). We owe the modern concept of integrity to Sir Thomas More (p.146). Drat! is yet another shortened blasphemy (short for God rot!) (p.156). There are many, many more—a book load, in fact.

Some of his examples I found thought-provoking, such as his discussion (p.49 et al) of iconoclasm: the abomination of graven images in deference to the superiority of the Word. It struck me that it was a movement in a literate empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) that was expressed in a new form after the development of printing in a time of greatly increased literacy (the Reformation) and is basic to a religion founded around a sacred text dictated straight from God.

Foley argues that civil law, due to its Roman origins, is a convert to Christianity but common law was Christian from birth (p.138). With some nice snippets of English legal history, such as that equity was taken over by the royal Chancery in 1349 and ecclesiastical courts abolished in 1534 (p.139).

Some of the Catholic quotes are the sort of thing just likely to encourage Protestant prejudices, such as St Augustine’s:
I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not determine me to (p.169).
Which is not as bad as it sounds when put in the context—as Foley does—of the deciding of what books were or were not part of Scripture. Remembering the importance put on Apostolic succession (which which Foley explicates quite well elsewhere [p.158]) helps too.

The “good gloss” on Catholicism gets amusing at times. So jazz kept more African elements than blues because Catholic slave owners were less concerned to wipe out all vestiges of African custom and gave their slaves more free time (p.59). And it was Mary Queen of Scots faith and bloodline which cost her, her head (p.68), not a bit of conspiring to murder her cousin and host. He notes that New York was named after the future James II, Duke of York before he converted to Catholicism (p.125) which led to civil war and his eventual exile. The former is true, the latter overlooks the way James proved impossible to deal with.

The Post-Catholic usages section in the second last chapter is where Foley gets most trembly about modern trends. Clearly, he regards the secularisation of such terms as charity, compassion, confession, hierarchy, charismatic, iconoclast, cult, dogmatic, epiphany as diminutions in meaning and understanding when often it is just the natural product of dealing with other cultures and religions. But if Catholic=true & good then any move away is a lessening. Which leads to the lack of any sense that there might be good reasons for such shifts or criticisms (though he does grant [p.158] that Papal excesses helped motivate a “backlash” which ended up denying Papal authority).

In his introduction, Foley refers to Greeley’s notion of the Catholic view of the universe as “enchanted” as stretching back to the early days of the Church. Secularisation is thus a process of dis-enchantment.

Not that all his complaints are unfounded. He does manage some nice skewerings of Rousseau, always a worthy project. Foley’s discussion (following that of Allan Bloom) of Rousseau’s reworking of compassion so it shifts from fellow feeling to beneficence conveying a sense of superiority is very apposite about where the conspicuous compassion of our time had its origins.

The “only the good news” gets a bit teeth-gritting at times. But overall, it is a fun book with lots of engaging snippets of historical trivia.

* Out of 44 US Presidents, 42 have been Protestant males of Northern European descent plus one Catholic male of Northern European descent and one Protestant male of East African descent. (Descent being counted in the patrilineal sense.)

Unavoidable authoritativeness, self-reference and the empowering constraints of science and mathematics

In his Metaphysical Horror (which I reviewed in my previous post) Leszek Kolakowski wrestles with the problems of self-reference: using statements that refer also to the statement itself. He also wrestles with unavoidable authoritativeness (though he does not express it as such). Particularly when the two run together, as they constantly do in philosophy. So any claim about knowledge has an unavoidable authoritativeness to it: hence the problem with claiming to know that we do not know anything. Similarly with the claim that it is true that there is no truth; that there is no objectivity. And so on. Complete scepticism swallows itself due to the problems of self-reference and unavoidable authoritativeness.

The unavoidable authoritativeness of truth comes from the purpose, the intended function, of language. The first point of language is to talk about the world. Language is stuck with a notion of truth because it matters whether we get things correct about the world or not. That is why we have language at all. All the functions of language are derivative of its truth function. Including the very functioning of language itself, since language cannot function at all unless there are commonly understood meanings and references. 'This word' means X is a truth statement. Language will not let us do without truth.

Nor will being thinking beings let us do without knowledge. Building up, at least mostly, correct beliefs about what is, is central to functioning in the world, starting with simple survival. Any belief that is true, where our believing it is directly connected to it being true, is knowledge. The truth function of language is about conveying knowledge. Truth and knowledge are thus inseparable.

The concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ have inescapable authority to them. (Hence the importance in sabotaging such ‘success’ words for certain sorts of scepticism, as David Stove wittily dissects in Anything Goes.) In the face of this inescapable authority, philosophy also has to deal with being self-referential: making claims that cover the claim being made.

A fundamental problem that creeps into much philosophical thought is treating truth as an absolute feature of statements: as if a statement is either completely true or it is false. I call this the “bucket of shit” view of truth (if one has a bucket of shit and adds a teaspoon of wine, one has a bucket of shit: if one has a bucket of wine and adds a teaspoon of shit, one has a bucket of shit) where any degree of falsity makes a statement simply false. This surely does not treat seriously the reality that, when we think, we abstract from the world. There is no reason not to think statements can be partly true. Indeed, in ordinary reasoning, we use the concept of partial truth (and thus partial falsity) all the time.

If we stop treating truth as an absolute feature of statements, then knowledge stops being absolute as well. Knowledge can be partial (in the sense of being incomplete) and thus subject to being superseded by more complete knowledge, yet still be knowledge. We no longer needed to so bothered, for example, by Newtonian physics being superseded by Relativity. Or by our understandings and perceptions of the world being irredeemably incomplete. Newtownian physics is no longer simply false: it is simply more partial than we were previously aware.

If we are no longer attempting to defend a notion of truth as an absolute feature of statements, much of the sceptical urge loses any target on which it can get purchase and so its inherent self-contradictions become more salient. But, if we do not hold on to a notion of truth as an absolute feature, does that also abolish the question of ultimate foundations? Well, does not any answer to that question imply ultimate foundation? To raise the issue of ultimate foundations is to imply some sort of answer that is ultimately authoritative. I may be unimpressed with all the wrestling with the Absolute that Kolakowski sets out in Metaphysical Horror, but that is because I am not convinced that is a good way to conceive of ultimate grounding. The underlying question(s) are surely the inevitable stuff of philosophy.

I agree with Kolakowski that philosophy cannot look to the success of science as a solution to its own problems, for the success of science is precisely because of its constrained nature. Science constrains itself by what sort of questions it asks, what it attends to, and what answering methodologies it will accept. As Kolakowski points out, philosophy attends itself to the entire universe of meaning and reference.

It is in failing to look at the power of science’s constraint—and to grasp the inevitable ambit of philosophy—that creates the problems I have with the use of the mathematical analogy for logic, particularly for constructing symbolic logic. Mathematics constrains itself in what it attends to (numbers and other mathematical objects) in a way logic does not. It is one thing to formalise—in particular, to formalise via symbols—interactions between numbers (however strange some of the numbers involved) and other mathematical objects. This is what mathematics does, and what gives its great power.

It is quite another to attempt to formalise (in both the weaker, but especially, the stronger sense of symbolic logic) the entire universe of reference. Once logic attempts to operate as if it is like mathematics, then the self-reference and unavoidable authoritativeness problems bite. This then leads to logical paradoxes, where authority is claimed for statements that self-refer, or overlap in reference, in ways that are paradoxical.

Hence the problems with formal logic my teacher David Stove drew attention to, particularly his essay “The Myth of Formal Logic”. Mathematics is authoritative about numbers, number-connected things, other mathematical objects and specific sorts of connections between them. It lacks the problems of authoritativeness over an unbounded ambit of reference, which includes problems of self-reference, that logic, and philosophy generally, has.

Philosophy is itself, it is not some larger manifestation of mathematics or science. Nor is it some sort of analogue to either.

ADDENDA This post has been adjusted slightly for clarity.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Metaphysical Horror

I read Leszek Kolakowski’s Metaphysical Horror for the same reason I read Etienne Gilson’s God and Philosophy. Because the former book and the latter’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (now on my to-read list) had been the subject of a review essay by B. J. Coman on the history of philosophy in the October issue of Quadrant.

Gilson’s God and Philosophy I found an admirable history of Western philosophy’s approach to God, admirable particularly in its clarity of exposition. Kolakowski’s book I found rather less clear. For two reasons: first Kolakowski does not put enough effort into taking the reader with him. One is constantly being expected to remember previous points that were often expressed very briefly in the first place. (Though the occasional flashes of wry wit are welcome: my favourite is:
… I, then a young and omniscient student (alas, I was soon to lose both these virtues) … (p.118)
An oldie, but a goodie.)

The second difficulty is because so much of the book is about philosopher’s concern with the Absolute. I have never understood or warmed to this long-running philosophical obsession. Coman, in his essay, puts the origin of the issue (from a fragment of Parmenides) quite nicely:
There is being, and since being is, it is impossible for us to conceive of non-existence. Being, then, is absolute.
From which Plato went on his philosophical frolic which Western philosophers have been wrestling with ever since. Since much of Metaphysical Horror is about precisely that, it adds to my difficulty in appreciating Kolakowski’s book. Which is, nevertheless, a fine wrestling with the history of philosophy: particularly its inconclusiveness.

Which starts with its arresting first sentence:
A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.
Noting that for over two millennia, philosophers have been wrestling with the Socratic questions of distinguishing real from unreal, true from false, good from evil, Kolakowski presents to us the confronting fact that philosophers have done so without coming to any generally agreed answers.
But attempts to abolish the whole thing do not work either. The issues of being and non-being, good and evil, oneself and the universe just keep coming back (p.8). Even the Karl Jaspers approach of accepting ultimate insolubility but seeking understanding anyway:
… cannot escape the infernal circle of epistemology: whatever claim we make about knowledge, even the claim that we can never have any, implies some knowledge on our part (p.10).
The sceptic turns out to be claiming to know, so is either not a sceptic at all or is intellectually incoherent (p.11).

Philosophers want a language that is absolute in the sense of being:
perfectly transparent and able to convey language as it ‘truly’ is, unadulterated by the filter of naming and describing (p.12).
But, alas, we are stuck with language as it is.

So why not be just pragmatic about it? Why worry about whether there is any difference between what appears to be and what “really” is? One answer is: because it is necessary for science to emerge to have such a distinction. That Democritus on atoms and Pythagoras on mathematics were necessary building blocks.

Well, yes (it matters whether Phlogiston exists or not, for example): but science is, as Kolakowski points out, an incidental result of pre-existing speculations. Humans seem inherently inclined to think there is some deeper reality than what we perceive. Aware of our own fragility, the fallibility and uncertainty of our knowledge and endeavours, we seek a deeper and more reliable reality and understanding (p.17).

Indeed—a continuing argument goes—we are so fallible, fragile and limited that certain understandings could not have come to us on their own, but must have come from some deeper reality (Pp18-19). Rejecting this concern is, Kolakowski, holds one of the building blocks of modernity:
… an implicit normative premise: that the idea of experience should be applied restrictedly, to concepts that are, or might be, useful in dealing with objects, and therefore somehow ‘better’ or ‘genuine’ (p.20).
A utilitarian principle, not one required by the rules of rationality.

Kolakowski notes that the Cartesian and Humean ideas about no certainty apart from no self-contradiction and our own existence had been worked out by late medieval nomimalists, notably John of Mirecourt and Nicholas of Autrecourt (Pp 21-2). But, if the distinction between dreams and reality remain—but we reject any deeper notion of metaphysical reality and unreality—then the notion of existence becomes pointless in its application to two ultimate realities: one’s own existence and God. From this comes the horror metaphysicus, which is:
… if nothing really exists except the Absolute, then the Absolute is nothing; and if nothing really exists except myself, then I am nothing (p.23).
Existence needs some further content to it.

Modern philosophy starts with Descartes’ search for a certain basis for knowledge, his famous cogito ergo sum, whose intellectual history Kolakowski provides an excellent survey of. The subsequent obsession with the problems of subjectivity leads to all sorts of places (such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre). Kolakowski seems to take positive delight in pointing out the medieval antecedents of much of this:
Sartre would not have been pleased to be told that he was a partial disciple of St Augustine. But what he took from Heidegger was deeply rooted in ancient and medieval metaphysics (p.31).
Which brings Kolakowski to the Absolute:
… it is hard not to feel that the quest for the Absolute – the Ultimum, or rather two Ultima, not necessarily identical – arose from a kind of mental compulsion. The objects of this quest are, first, the cause or creator of the visible universe, and, second, the self-supporting, self-rooted, logically necessary ground of whatever exists contingently (p.32).
Philosophy interests and intrigues me, but this question has simply never resonated much with me. Not that the quest has ever been terribly successful:
… the eternal curse of the vicious circle still operates here, as in any search for ultimate foundations. The vicious circle, however, is a natural result of the simple fact that we are not gods: we can never, except perhaps through mystical experience, begin our search from an epistemological point zero, without any presuppositions (p.33).
(Calling Kurt Godel, calling Kurt Godel.) Now, that sort of problem—the limits of reasoning and representation—I find much more interesting: probably because it is grounded much more in the realities of the human condition, not dubious abstractions.

But people keep trying for ultimate foundations:
… the search for ultimate foundations is just as much an ineradicable part of the human condition as the denial of its legitimacy (p.34).
Metaphysical ideas matter because they influence how people think and what they believe (so Proclus leads to Hegel who leads to Marx). More importantly, people desire and seek truth, beyond the:
… normal and obvious need to distinguish illusions from genuine perceptions and mistakes from correct reasoning (p.34).
Once we know that error and illusions occur, the search for a reality that cannot be an illusion, for a truth about which no mistake is possible, is unavoidable (p.35).
Which leads us back to the Absolute. And to the Neoplatonists, who loom large in Metaphysical Horror, including an extended discussion of Damascius, the last significant pagan philosopher, whose Problems and Solutions (aka On Principles) represents the end point of pagan philosophy’s wrestling with the problem Parmenides had posed a thousand years earlier.

Damascius so purged the Absolute of any person-like characteristics, it became the Eschaton, Nothingness, utterly ineffable, thereby falling into self-contradiction, for:
The self-reference trap is unavoidable in any attempt to speak of that of which nothing can be said (p.50).
Damascius arrived at an idea that Hegel expressed as:
Pure Being and pure non-Being are the same (p.52).
Damascius was the last leader of the Athenian Academy when Justinian closed it down. Medieval Christian and Jewish thinkers wrestled with identifying the Christian and the Jewish God with the Absolute. Which led some to Nothingness too:
A theologian who pays tribute to the principle of God’s ineffability but none the less talks about Him at length can be coerced into admission that God, sharing no properties with His finite creatures and being impossible to identify, even negatively, within a discourse that applies only to the world of things, is necessarily not-something or no-thing. And here language breaks down (Pp54-5).
So we are back to wrestling with language, with re-examining cogito ergo sum and thinkers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (and Gilson). Gilson argued that existence is simple but cannot be contextualised, something that, if true, Kowalowski feels would be a strange thing to have been forgotten (p.70).

What modern philosophy is left with as its Absolute—the certain point on which to stand—is the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, the modern equivalent of the God of Moses declaring I am Who am. But the certainty of the Cartesian ego does not lead anywhere, leading to a philosophical world divided between attention to the world, the wider reality, without attending to the ego-identity that takes us nowhere, or an endless attention to the ego-identity that ends up turning the world into the ego’s creation (p.74).

In modern physics, there has been some tendency to see mind-like characteristics in reality, which would be one way of re-connecting across the post-Descartes divide (Pp76ff). Which leads to discussions of Spinoza, Jaspers (again) and Leibniz.

The influence of received tradition (another form of the lack of a presumption-free starting point) turns up in all sorts of ways, such as the equating the ability to create with goodness:
One can argue, then, that apart from the strength of the biblical heritage there are no firm grounds for such an equation (p.88).
Which leads to the question of what we mean by ‘creation’, creation ex nihilo being a philosophical postulate. And the basis of accepting any notion of human creativeness—which certain conceptions of God’s creative uniqueness imply is either non-existent or is inherently malevolent. The Catholic notion that we can refuse Grace creates (a fairly minimal) space for human creativeness: the Cartesian idea that we share choice with God, it is His power and knowledge we lack, gives far more (Pp90-1). Which looks blasphemous to Christian Neoplatonists. But the Biblical God is clearly a Person, something the Christian Neoplatonists resist by claiming such anthropomorphising is a necessary means of communicating with limited human minds. Somehow, however, they can untangle what is “really” the case, trumping the mythic nature of biblical revelation, a treatment of myth Kowalowski strongly disagrees with:
If myths had metaphysical equivalents, they would be dispensable. If they both express and conceal an ultimate reality, it is because this reality is not expressible in abstracto, irreducible to theoretical language (p.95).
Certain intense religious and ritual acts can hint at what is otherwise “nameless and impossible to depict”. The mystical (dare one say existential) tradition in Christianity—the one that holds knowledge of God comes from our devotion, worship, faith, hope and charity and is otherwise not only not expressible, it is not knowledge at all—is strong (including such figures as St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Tauler, Thomas à Kempis, St John of the Cross, St Teresa) and goes right back to parts of St Paul’s epistles (p.100). There is an even stronger example Kolakowski does not mention for even St Thomas Aquinas, the exemplar par excellence of using reason to understand God, at the end of his life had a mystical experience which, he claimed, utterly overshadowed all his intellectual efforts. Kolakowski notes that the Catholic Church has always accepted intellectual paths to knowledge of God.

But this is not only a Christian issue:
… the belief that our knowledge of the Absolute is an aspect of our spiritual life as a whole, and in particular of the way we experience good and evil as our own good and evil, is part of the Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Neoplatonic legacies (p.101).
Though perhaps more as scattered manifestations than any clearly structured tradition. Still:
… the belief that we come to know Being by enlarging or injuring it through our good or evil acts is very much a traditional one – a fact indirectly confirmed by the clear historical link between the enfeebling of metaphysical faith and of religious worship and the gradual disappearance of the very notions of good and evil (p.101).
It is also an approach which is very un-Kantian in content and approach (p.102).

Also very un-Cartesian. The Cartesian ego is cut off from all context, moral and otherwise:
By blocking off the ego, Cartesianism consigned it to nothingness (p.104).
Kowalowski argues the ego needs to be situated (in communication, community, time, space, etc) to be real, but being situated does not deny its reality. Autonomy is real, but it is autonomy in context (which is also real):
Whatever his actual intentions, Descartes, by trying to save the self while at the same attempting to rob it of its communal and historical dimensions, reduced ‘me’ to something as unreal as community, history, good and evil (p.105).
… there is no access to an epistemological absolute, nor any privileged access to absolute Being, such that might result in reliable theoretical knowledge. … This double denial need not lead to pragmatic nihilism; it is compatible with the belief that metaphysical, non-pragmatic insight is possible as a result of our living within the realm of good and evil and experiencing good and evil as our own. But it does explain why philosophy, like Peter Pan, never matures (p.106).
(Kolakowski leaves open the possibility of mystical knowledge, but not as the basis for any theoretical understanding.)

The notion of the self-contained Cartesian ego does not make a lot of sense to me, for much the reasons that Kolakowski adduces. We do start from our own subjectivity in some important sense: we look at things from a point of view that can seem to be the base of our knowing anything. Yet, this is largely illusory, since so much of what we think comes from others. (Such as the Cartesian cogito ergo sum itself: there is also something a little odd about a ground of certainty that has to be discovered.) We did not invent the concepts we use, nor the language we communicate in. Our sense of how to behave has been built up from interactions with others. Even our sense of self has, as has much of our sense of the world around us. The scientific method deals with this quite directly: the requirement for replication tests reality by requiring others to be able to perceive the same thing.

The reality of our subjectivities always existing in particular contexts takes Kolakowski to the inevitably contextual nature of language and the tension between using a particular language to try to express universal and ultimate ideas:
In making one of all possible languages operational and intelligible – and thus making a metaphysical or epistemological standpoint credible – we never start from the beginning. The choice among all possible languages is made not by God but by civilizations. And it is philosophies that voice the aspirations and choices of civilizations (p.107).
(So, one may ask, what does that say of the Islamic claim that the Arabic of the Qur’an is, indeed, the language of God? Particularly in contrast to the Christian notion that God speaks in whatever language His interlocuter uses. The Islamic claim that Jews and Christians have perverted the unchanging message of God, and Islam’s conception of a God who demands submission, fits in with the notion of singular authoritative communication. Just as the Judaeo-Christian notion of successive covenants and a God who seeks friends and partners fits in with the notion of a God who communicates multi-linguistically. Which then also fits in with an instrumental morality of what expands submission to God is good versus a notion of morality as universal.)

That philosophies (and philosophers), and the languages they use, are always situated may be problematic in seeking ultimate foundations but it does give philosophers a major role:
By making the choices and aspirations of a civilization explicit, they help it expand and assert itself – just as we, by an effort of expression, open up new and unexpected avenues in our own evolution (p107)
So, being limited and never impartial, they affirm some aspects of a civilisation at the expense of others. While no civilisation is ever perfectly coherent – just as well, for that way lies stagnation and collapse.

So Kolakowski sees philosophers as both reflecting and changing culture:
By being selective in revealing the hidden premises of a civilization and so providing it with a self-understanding that is partial and coloured by their personal biases, great philosophers, although they can never simply break out of their own time, create points of discontinuity and push ‘the spirit of the age’ in a new direction (p.107).
Though, it may never be clear, even centuries later, whether they are a continuation or a rupture in that history.

In doing what they do, they effectively create new languages. Some of which fail and some of which put down cultural roots and feed into the evolution of the culture. But if the language of philosophers is irredeemably personal, this would explain the constant difficulty they have being understood, even by other great philosophers (Pp108-9). Which is, in itself, an illustration of the lack of an all-encompassing language. This leads us back to the metaphysical horror:
For how can I opt for a particular language (or angle from which to see the world, or rule for interpreting all of existence) and stick to it without believing it has privileged cognitive powers? (p.110)
Any claim to a lack of privileged position for a language cannot be expressed in that language: any such statement moves into a super- or meta- language, in which that position is inexpressible. A metaphysical position cannot be coherently both as good as any other and incompatible with them:
Alas, tolerance and generosity provide no escape from the paradox of self-reference (p.111).
I am not sure this works for me. I get the point about metaphysical ecumenism being incoherent. As Kolakowski goes on to point out, religious worship often involves an implicit, something explicit, statement about there being things which human language cannot express.
Philosophy, on the other hand, makes claims to not only not only to the truth, but to the literal truth (p.115).
Surely the claim in the meta-language that a particular language is not privileged is not actually about that meta-language, it is about the language? That is what makes it meta, even if we are still using the words of that language.

Kolakowski is sceptical about the possibility of people understanding people across cultures, across civilisations. This seems dubious to me on a couple of grounds, for clearly the teachings of religious leaders and philosophers speak to us across time and culture. Moreover, what about science? Science seems to operate happily across such boundaries. The commonalities of human nature, including human cognition, and experience seem to enable rather more communication than such worries about communication across time and space imply (without then claiming there are no difficulties in such). Translation may be an art: it is not an impossibility.

But science can achieve a unity that philosophy patently cannot.
Philosophy’s task was to discover, on a deserted field, the meaning and unity of the world; the tools for this task were the senses and logic (p.119).
One that it has never completed, and possibly cannot:
… philosophy boasts that it was the truth-seeker par excellence; on the other hand, it claims a monopoly on the right to establish what truth really is (p.121).
So philosophy becomes a judge in its own case, all the way down, but there is a price:
… the concept of truth, and consequently truth itself, can become the exclusive property of anyone who wants to possess it (p.121)
With no authority to judge between them:
So the horror metaphysicus, and the spectre of never-ending uncertainty, are bound to appear (p.121)
Which makes the contrast with science I drew above, if anything, more stark. But science constrains itself by what sort of questions it asks, what it attends to, and what answering methodologies it will accept. As Kolakowski points out, philosophy attends itself to the entire universe of meaning and reference.

Between the constrained (but clearly immensely powerful) questioning and answering of science and the unbounded ambitions of philosophy:
… there is a grey area, inhabited by a number of half-sciences (p.120)
As for philosophy trying to replicate the success of science by adopting its approach to truth, Kolakowski argues that both cuts philosophy off from its roots and makes it fairly pointless (p.121). And, in the clash of mutually incompatible philosophies, there is much room and energy for cultural growth (Pp122ff).

We will continue to attempt to “read the world”.
And is it not reasonable to suspect that if existence were pointless and the universe devoid of meaning, we would never have achieved not only the ability to imagine otherwise, but even the ability to entertain this very thought – to wit, that existence is pointless and the universe devoid of meaning (p.129).
Which seems to be as close as Kolakowski is going to come to an ultimate conclusion.

Metaphysical Horror is the fruit of great philosophical erudition and thought by a major C20th intellectual. I could wish for better attention to what the reader needs. Nevertheless, Kolakowski brings alive issues that have occupied great philosophers for millennia.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Undercover Economist

We all know that in most countries the Ministry of Defense is in charge of attacking other countries and that the Ministry of Employment presides over the unemployment lines. Cameroon’s Ministry of Tourism is in that noble tradition. Its job is to discourage tourists from getting into the country (p.177).

This is typical of the engaging style of Tim Hartford’s The Undercover Economist: Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor—and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car! a fun and easy-to-follow trip through modern (micro) economics applied to situations around us. Hartford who works for the World Bank, also writes a column for the Financial Times, so he understands the trick is to communicate but in a way that informs rather than merely dazzles.

Thus, it contains a particularly intelligent discussion of health policy and why Singapore’s system works so well (pp109ff). One understands far more about the techwreck after reading Hartford’s discussion of stock markets (pp137ff). He explains why applying game theory is both an art and a science and how to be really clever about auctions (pp155ff). How globalisation works and why the alleged “race to the bottom” isn’t (pp201ff): the notion that competing jurisdictions compete to perform even worse is one of those bad ideas from bad theory which fairly elementary knowledge of Western history shows is nonsense. (Naturally, contemporary environmentalists are quite fond of it.) The last chapter (pp 231ff) is the best short explanation of China’s astonishing post-1979 economic growth I have seen (not least because he also carefully discusses what happened before 1979) and provides a good way of bringing together themes developed earlier in the book.

Since Hartford is a good economist, he is intelligent about what both markets and governments can and cannot do. This is especially obvious in his discussion of health policy and of China’s recent economic history. I particularly liked his elegant demolition of shock therapy: a clear case of advice from economists being over-simplistic, and in the normal way they are—by leaving out institutions (or taking them for granted). Hartford makes clear that China’s astonishing economic success since 1979 has been very much public policy-as-discovery-process.
I was also very taken by his discussion of Cameroon as an example of why poor countries are poor (pp177ff). The answer is—surprise surprise—incentives matter! Including institutional structures. In particular, Hartford shows how Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit theory of government (suitably amended to include the mass of lesser bandits under the ruler) explains so much. It struck me, reading this section, how shared ideology allows easier coordination at lower cost—it binds ruler and agents in agreed common purpose. Once ideology starts fading, corruption naturally leaps up.

Although Hartford doesn’t say so, it is also perfectly clear that the post-colonial rule has in fact been much worse than colonial rule—Cameroon is still living off colonial infrastructure—because post-colonial rule has been even more exploitative. That post-colonial rule severed all links with the functioning institutional structure of the colonial power had severe downsides.

Reading The Undercover Economist is becomes even clearer why non-economists have often given such bad development advice. They typically have little to contribute to fostering capitalist acts between consenting adults, rather more to contribute to controlling, frustrating or stopping them (particularly as that’s typically the basis of their status game). So that’s the advice they give.

Economics and economists suffer a lot of criticism. Some of it is for being jargon-heavy and highly abstract or stylised. A lot of that is fair criticism, and thankfully does not apply to The Undercover Economist. Early in the book, Hartford is inclined to use that irritating Americanism free markets when what he clearly means is open markets, but one of the strengths of the book is an avoidance of jargon and engaging concern for details of the world around us.

Much of the rest of said criticism of economics and economists is because economics and economists produce the wrong answers. That is, they are too kind to capitalism, markets, private property, corporations, etc. Most of that criticism is just ideological antipathy and not greatly concerned with how the world is or isn’t. Indeed, it typically represents irritation (or worse) with how the world is and often is part of active barriers to understanding the same (since certain answers are “ruled out” regardless of whether they are true or not*). The informative intelligence of The Undercover Economist is a fine antidote to such nonsense.

*After all, if socialism worked—rather than having the persistent pattern of declining productivity—there would be a lot more of it, and if capitalism didn’t work, there would be a lot less of it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Misogyny and queer-hatred

My review of Ronald Long’s book on male homosexuality and religion provoked interest in the connection between misogyny and “homophobia”.

I really dislike the term ‘homophobia’. The issue is typically not fear but hatred. There is a condition of fear of homosexuality (normally, the fear of one’s homosexual feelings, the fear that one is homosexual). But that is a very specific situation. The wider issue is hatred, so I will use the term ‘queer-hatred’ as being both more general and more accurate. (‘Gay’ suffers from being a bit too much of being a very specific term and identity, ‘queer’ strikes me as broader.)

That there is some connection between misogyny and queer-hatred seems obvious enough. The countries in the world that are most violently oppressive of homosexuals are also the countries that are most oppressive to women. Resistance to equal rights to women have come from much the same groups who resist equal rights for homosexuals. It is the most misogynist religions—those for whom the clerical role is a male monopoly—which are the most queer hating. Homosexual liberation has marched along with women’s liberation—it struck me as a very nice historical resonance when I noticed that the word homosexual was coined in the same year John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women.

Discussing the connection runs immediately into sex and gender issues. People are born male or female (apart from a tiny minority), at least in physical form. But how sexual identities are conceived can vary widely.

Modern Western societies take it for granted that sex is properly between equals or near-equals. Which is why paedophilia has become so anathematised: it is such an offence against the notion that sexual partners should be equals, and against consent and personal autonomy (all the more so since it also raises fraught issues about how consent and personal autonomy are to be conceived given the changing cognitive status from baby to adulthood).

But the notion that sex is properly between equals or near-equals is very far from a universal human norm. Indeed, historically it is far more common to have the view that sex is properly between unequals. So a male penetrating a female was fine—that was between unequals. But a “proper” male was never penetrated—for that “unmanned” him, it moved him from the status of superior to inferior.
Ancient Greece and Rome—with their higher status and lower status males—had no problem with same-sex relations provided they did not upset existing status relations. So a mature man could have an adolescent lover—that was between unequals. (Indeed, those oriented towards their own sex were often driven to such relations, as the only socially acceptable way of expressing their sexuality.) A citizen could penetrate a slave—that was between unequals.

But the monotheisms fundamentally denied this notion of lower and higher status males. All males were religiously equal. But sex was still properly between unequals. So, in status terms, sex was only permissible with women.*

ASIDE: This status structure is not the most important factor in the sexual logic of monotheism. The most important factor is that, in monotheism, sex separates us from the divine: from the solitary One God. The only connection of sex to the divine is for it to be procreative, for then we are agents of the One God as Creator. But giving female sexual power any legitimate authority upsets the highly masculinized vision of public authority that monotheism has (religious authority is male, God is primarily God-the-Father). So female sexuality becomes inherently threatening. Which then feeds back into the status point.

Particularly in Islam. Islam has a more positive view of (male) sexual pleasure because it is a religion of layered submission and therefore of layered domination (men over women, believers over unbelievers). So females serving the sexual pleasure of male believers fits its status-structure. That Islam had socially segregated women, was intensely patriarchal and a slave society meant it reproduced many of the features of classical Greece, including status-divided homosexual activity and homoerotic art (mainly poetry). END

The rise of the women’s movement and changing social circumstances has led to the slow overturning of the notion that men have superior status to women. So sex has become something that is properly between equals or near equals.

But if sex is properly between equals or near equals, then that frees social space for homosexuality, since that is patently sex between equals.** It really is a nice historical resonance that the word homosexual was coined in the same year as J S Mill published The Subjection of Women.

Misogyny and queer-hatred naturally march together because both are based on the notion that men are superior to women. That men and women have different roles and that it “unmans” a man to perform a “female” role, such as it “de-feminises” a woman to perform a “male” role.

That homosexuals do tend to be cognitively cross-matched (i.e. female homosexuals tend to show some “male” cognitive traits and patterns and male homosexuals tend to show some “female” cognitive traits and patterns) just reinforces the tendency for misogyny and queer-hatred to march together: if males are superior to females, it is obviously “just wrong” for a male to show “female” interests and patterns of behaviour (thereby “unmanning” himself) and for a female to show “male” interests and patterns of behaviour (thereby “aping” her “betters”). The mixing of the traits of equals is obviously less confronting than the mixing of the traits of unequals.

For some, such crossing of gender lines is confronting in itself: but it is clearly a lot more confronting if it also crosses status lines.

Misogyny is all about men having higher status than women, about there being superior male roles and inferior female roles. In societies without the “right sort” of lower status males for “real men” to penetrate***, queer-hatred is going to march with misogyny because homosexuality and homosexuals violate the status lines of misogyny.

Can a strongly queer-hating man not be a misogynist? According to Dan Savage, not often:
I think a lot of homophobia is hatred of women repackaged, 'cause gay men seem to preoccupy homophobes the most. It's usually about anal sex, and gay men are perceived as taking on the woman's role, and women are despised. The woman's role is less-than. And in a male-supremacy culture, men who take on the woman's role willingly kind of freak out some of the dudes. If you could eradicate misogyny, homophobia would evaporate. That's why I always tell women, "If you're dating a homophobe, you're dating a guy who's secretly a misogynist, who secretly hates you. And you shouldn't."
I can see a man being queer-hating due to inner fears about his own sexuality. (That is, being genuinely homophobic.) I can see someone having strong objections to homosexuals because of strong beliefs about the form of sexual acts. But a queer-hater not being misogynist is clearly not the way to bet.

Can a misogynist not be a queer-hater? Of course: there are misogynist gay men. But that is typically antipathy based on difference. A straight man who is misogynist is someone who, in some important sense, despises his preferred sexual partners. What reaction do you think he is typically going to have to men who “take on the role” of the despised AND are “freed” from the burden of women? Who are “weak” but not burdened with dealing with their "inferiors"? Again, a misogynist not being a queer-hater is clearly not the way to bet.

Misogyny and queer-hatred do not have automatic one-to-one relations. But, in the absence of appropriate lower status males to penetrate, the premises of misogyny fuel queer-hatred.

* There is a lot more that can be said about conceptions of the proper role of sex. (Such as about antipathy to the pleasurable/connective role of sex, that what one did with slave boys was clearly not of great moment in Islam or the flourishing “beat life” in Muslim countries with strong social segregation of women: social prisons producing "prison" sex.) Still, this simple syllogism has considerable power.
** The attempts to tie homosexuality to paedophilia (there is no connection: indeed, paedophiles who are heterosexual in their adult relations are particularly prone to prey on younger boys, since then they have less of the adult male characteristics they are not attracted to) may in part express some notion that sex “just can’t” be between equals, so “naturally” gays are going to prey on young boys.
*** Classical Greece was a strongly misogynist society (imagine a society run by the equivalent of football jocks), but had appropriate types of lower status males.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

About being a touch sceptical about Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW)

I tend to be somewhat sceptical about CAGW, and even more resistant to the moral bullying that comes with it. There are several reasons for this.

(1) Teasing. A lot of people seem awfully certain about such matters, and such certainty is fun to prod.

(2) Resistance. I am a gay man of classically liberal orientation. The minute people start shouting at me that I have to believe something, it gets my back up. Particularly when the list of things “caused” by global warming/climate change has long since become ludicrous. Not to mention all the fun with the ever-moving ice-free Arctic prediction, and so on.

(3) Incivility. There is a lot of bullying involved in the support for CAGW and it is worth quietly resisting it. Or not so quietly, when adherents begin to stray into some politically very nasty territory. And some scientifically dubious ones, as retired climatologist Tim Ball comments in the context of the hacked CRU emails.

(4) Track record. I have seen these tactics before—the self-righteous certainty, the demonising of dissent. They never lead to good places. Particularly for public policy. Indeed, my experience from these sorts of tactics from folk of the associated ideological bent, is that they are more or less guaranteed to get things wrong in a major way, from Cold War policy, to education, to indigenous policy, to environmental policy (notably land use and water), to economic reform … The problem is precisely the cognitive blockages the tactics arise from and encourage. If you have to support X to be a “good person”, then any attempt to show, or even suggest, not-X is immediately ruled out of consideration regardless of the evidence. Monocultures are dangerous, particularly cognitive monocultures which, as this post points out, in by far the best comment I have seen on the CRU emails, is the real story of those emails.
(5) Too much of not-how-science-should-be-done. This is connected to (3) and (4) but is nicely expressed in this post on the hostility to dissent involved. His point that:
One suspects that a reason more people are skeptical of alarmist predictions is that they know enough about human behavior to distrust someone who claims to be correct but refuses to respond to or even allow questions or replication
is particularly pertinent.

(6) Qualms about the science. These include the IPCC’s remarkably silly economic modelling and issues about long-term CO2 and temperature patterns, the relatively quick saturation of the narrow wavelengths on which CO2 blocks heat, dubious CO2 in the atmosphere longevity estimates, the long-term pattern of negative feedbacks in the atmosphere, the mixed nature of warming effects, the difficulties in the temperature record, and so on. This is without even getting to the nonsense of the climate models. It is also noticeable that critics and proponents tend to talk past each other. It is much easier to get to some anthropogenic effects than to “these dominate” and “the best approach is to cut emissions” (particularly if you believe the IPCC’s assumptions about CO2 longevity). That the problematic items in the IPCC’s projections are all dubious in the same direction is a big warning sign. At its most basic, here are some simple questions:
1: What percentage of the atmosphere is CO2?

2: By how much did it warm 1900 to 2000?
(Using 5 year moving averages)
3: By how much did it warm 1979 to 1998?
(Using 13 month moving averages)
4: By how much has it warmed since 1998? ?
(Using 13 month moving averages)
5. What % of atmospheric CO2 comes from human sources?
6. What share of the atmosphere is that?
(0.04%, 0.65oC, 0.6oC, -0.2oC, 5%, 15ppm or 0.0015%: a video presents what 15ppm means) A post like this has become sadly striking in its calm sensibleness. When even the BBC is now admitting that “the scientific debate is over” crap is crap (as it always was), the problems in the science are surely no longer deniable.

(7) History. CAGW does remind me awfully strongly of eugenics. Something based on the “best science” that all the “great and the good” just had to support. (Indeed, with the demonising of “denialism” it is beginning to look a bit like the witch-craze, which was also supported by the great and the good.) Then there is the see-saw nature of climate alarmism (a young Steven Schneider, now friend and advisor to Al Gore, can be seen worrying about coming ice age here). More generally, CAGW is both an obvious gravy train and allows a whole lot of pre-existing agendas that failed on the basis of their previous “we must follow this!” levers another life. It’s sheer ideological convenience is suspect. Not to mention the commercial convenience it has now developed.

(8) Policy Implications. Ian Callinan AC QC put it well (pdf):
Emissions regulation offers government an irresistible opportunity to centralize and control every aspect of our lives; on our roads, on our travels, in our workplaces, on our farms, in our forests and our mines, and, more threateningly, in our homes, constructed as they will be compelled to be, of very specific materials and of prescribed sizes. It is not difficult to foresee a diktat as to how many lights we may turn on and when we must turn them off: the great curfew. The new regime has the capacity to make the wartime National Security Regulations look like a timid exercise of government restraint.
If the issue is so desperately important, then clearly desperate measures are “required”. It is also worth noting that CAGW takes attention away from other environmental issues.

On a lighter note, the best comment on global warming I have seen for a long time:
I love hot weather. But now climate experts are suggesting that there may be one or two decades of cold weather before the heat arrives Great, so I get to suffer the adverse economic consequences of futilely trying to stave off global warming, only to drop dead right before it warms up. And I live in Boston.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theological Incorrectness

The growth of cognitive science has been one of the major intellectual advances of the last few decades. Largely kicked off by Noam Chomsky’s rethinking of the human aptitude for language, and attracting noted popularisers (such as Steven Pinker), it has been spreading across intellectual life. That humans have finally created something that is vaguely analogous to human cognition in its operation (computers)—something, moreover which we can “see” inside of—may have had something to do with this. (Chomsky works at MIT, after all.)

D. Jason Slone’s Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t presents the application of the findings of cognitive science to the study of religion. One of the strengths of the book is its presentation and synthesis of the work of a wide range of scholars.

Slone starts with two observations which are striking, given that religion is supposed to provide absolute truth: there is more than one religion in the world and religion contains all sorts of things people have to guess at (since most of us do not get to chat with the various superhuman beings religion postulates) (p.vii). But it is the difference between what people say they believe when “formally” asked and what they believe and do when making more rapid or personal decisions—the reality that received ideas from one’s culture (including theological ones) play only a partial role in what people say and do (p.4)—which is the starting place of the book’s analysis.
The book has great chapter titles. Chapter One (Religion Is For Dummies and Romantics) notes, building on the work of psychologist Justin Barrett, how common it is, across religions and cultures, for people to believe what they are not supposed to, given the tenets of the religion they adhere to. A fact that, Slone points out, much analysis of religion neither pays attention to, nor can cope with.

When people engage in “online” (rapid, tacitly informed, cognitively constrained, prereflective) representations they often engage in abductive reasoning—constructing general principles to explain particular events (p.10). “God willed it” is a form of abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is efficient, in the sense that it provides answers without the effort of logical deduction (or, for that matter, empirical checking). Slone’s argument is that we use familiar cognitive processes that have evolved in ways that encourage religious belief, but often not theologically correct religious belief.

Before proceeding with his analysis, Slone argues for the scientific study of religion—noting both religion and science display differences between folk representations and reflective theories (p.12)—and critiques various traditional approaches to the study of religion. The first attempts at serious study he divides into naturalists (religion has a natural origin) and nonnaturalists (it does not), the latter further divided into socioculturalists (religion was generated by society or culture) and transcendentalists (religion comes from the interaction with supernatural reality). All of them were subject to postmodernist critique, not least because it became obvious that reliance on texts and “official” doctrine produced idealised, and thus inaccurate, pictures of religion as it actually was in the world (p.27).

Chapter Two, Religion Is What Your Parents Say is an extended critique of cultural explanations of religion. Slone brings out just how porous the concept of ‘culture’ is and how dubious use of it as an explanation (particularly for behaviour that is both variant with cultures and common across them). Included is both a nice description of postmodernist critiques and a useful critique of them. As he says:
Philosophically speaking, postmodernists have not explained anything. They have merely restated the question and affirmed the consequent (p.40).
The collection of data has been very useful, but its use has been greatly restricted by inadequate analytical approaches (p.45)

Chapter Three Religion Is Perfectly Natural, Not Naturally Perfect examines the use of cognitive sciences to study religion. The point is to concentrate on the ‘representations’ (what and how people think about religion) not on the content-claims of religious systems (much of which refer to imagined beings and forces not amenable to direct observation). Slone notes that Chomsky’s work is foundational for modern cognitive science because it gave confidence to the claim that culture is how it is because of the way our brains work, not the other way round (p.48).

The research has found that people use available conceptual schemes, but different ones in different circumstances (p.53). But certain features of the human cognition are more general (distinguishing between objects and agents, for example).

So, what makes a conceptual scheme religious?
A religious representation is representation that postulates the existence of superhuman agents (p.55).
As agents, they can act. Hence humans doing things to gods and gods doing things to humans (e.g. ordination, which apparently occurs in some form or other across religions) are both basic features of religion. And we have a natural tendency to over-attribute agency, since to under-attribute it tends to be more dangerous (p58).

We have an intuitive ontology, a sense of what is in the world, typically covering five categories—natural objects, artificial things, plants, animals, humans (p.60). Objects that people typically categories prototypically, not according to rigorous classical definitions (p.70). Religious representations violate that intuitive ontology, but do in a way that is surprising and thus memorable (i.e. “cognitively optimal”).

Such representations can be transferred doctrinally or “imagistically” but how counterintuitive they are will affect how easily they can be transferred. God being formless but omnipresent is harder to transfer than recently deceased ancestors can hear your prayers (p.63).

Chapter Four, Buddha Nature sets out how powerful and pervasive the notion of superhuman agents is in religion. Even in Theravada Buddhism, which allegedly is nontheistic. In reality, the notion that Buddhism is nontheistic is, Slone argues, a rather modernistic version of Buddhism transmitted to the West in response to the impact of modernist Protestantism and not reflected in folk Buddhism. So, Theravada Buddhism has a nun problem because it took a monk and a nun in lineage (ordination) succession to make another nun: the nun lineages all died, out so it is no longer possible to make another Theravada Buddha nun (Pp81-3).

Chapter Five (W.D.G.D.: What Does God Do?) looks at how people actually think about God (rather than as they are theologically supposed to). In particular, the persistence of the notion that we are a “locus of control” even in the face of theological notions of (for example) Predestination.

We are intuitively inclined to see causes, even when evidence is ambiguous. Add our tendency to abductively attribute agency, and religious reasoning clearly operates with natural human cognitive tendencies and is greatly advantaged in transmission if it does so:
… human beings are more likely to believe and employ a religious idea if it is (fairly) consistent with the accords of everyday cognitive concepts and inferences (p.91).
A nice example is how Calvinism was the dominant original theological position among the Puritans but Arminianism has come to dominate American Protestantism (Pp93-6). Effective preaching (and effective ritual) works with the natural processes of human cognition (p.98), particularly the tendency to attribute agency and cause (p.99).

The hypothesis that effective rituals need to:
… balance the special agent rituals (those rituals in which humans are recipients of actions from gods via priests) and special patient rituals (those in which gods are the recipients of actions from humans (p.99)
is applied to the rise of Baptism in American Protestantism, as the Puritan (now Congregationalist) and Presbyterian downgrading of baptism (to deal with children of members who had not experienced a common conversion event) led to a lot of conversions to Baptism, which used adult baptism as a central ritual event (p.100).

The central thesis Slone draws from the work of scholars engaged in the cognitive study of religion is:
Rituals and other religious activities … seem to follow from religious concepts. Yet the religious concepts do not determine, per se, what follows. Rather, it appears that cognitive processes drive the thoughts and actions of religious believers at both the individual and cultural levels (p.100).
The decline in Calvinism, which its deprecation of human agency, is a case in point.

Slone argues that long-running religious controversies make sense in terms of the patterns of human cognition:
The conceptual tension between divine sovereignty and free will, which has preoccupied some of the greatest minds in history, is a natural tension in Christianity that results from how the mind works. Since humans rely so heavily on notions of self-/human agency, it is difficult to believe that superhuman agents control everything. Yet, if they don’t, what exactly is the nature of their power? (p.101)
A tension which preliminary research suggests occurs across cultures.

One can see how human cognition might find any particular solution problematic. Not sure that that means human cognition is causing the inherent intellectual difficulty, however.

Chapter Six (I Would Rather Be Lucky Than Good) looks at luck beliefs (which show similar patterns across human cultures) and how the mind deals with probability. There is considerable research that humans tend to imbue things with purpose (grist to the natural law philosophy mill, of course) and have often very poor probability intuitions (e.g. ask a class how likely they feel it would be for two of them to have a birthday on the same day: their estimates will be much lower than the actual likelihood—in a class of at least 23, over 50%) (p.116).

The brute fact that Slone bases his analysis on, and explores in Theological Incorrectness is that religious people believe all sorts of things that, in terms of the doctrines of their religion, they should not. That is, religion as a cognitive and cultural experience is not defined by the doctrines of theologians.

But nor is it defined by “culture”. As Slone points out in his conclusion:
… cultural theories of religion are impoverished by lack of understanding of how the mind works and thus of why humans think what they and do what they do. Sociocultural theories of religion assume that the mind is a blank slate that learns what to think from culture. Not only is this mind-blind assumption inaccurate but it is illogical … Were humans merely cultural sponges we would find that each culture would be autonomous, confined and homogeneous … This paradigmatic assumption does not fit the facts.
A better explanation for why people believe what they “shouldn’t” is that people have active minds that are continuously engaged in the construction of novel thoughts and the transformation of culturally transmitted ideas (p.121).
If we look to the human mind we find that:
Three very important aspects of cognition that constrain religion are intuitive ontology (what kinds of things are in the world), intuitive causality (how do these things work), and intuitive probability (how things are likely to work). These basic cognitive capacities not only allow us to perform important functions required for survival, like analysis and prediction of environmental activity, but also produce postulations and presumptions that might be, on reflection, systematically incoherent. In this sense, theological incorrectness is a natural by-product of the cognitive tools in our mind-brains. (p.122)
And it is to evolution that we need to look to understand where those cognitive capacities come from, and why they are like they are. Not that that is a counsel of despair, moral or otherwise:
Religions preach ethics because people are prone to “ethical” behaviour, not the other way around (p.123).
Slone then makes a claim that strikes me as being too strong:
One can say, therefore, that religion is not a cause of behaviour per se. It does not determine how we think or act.
It is not the only determinant, but to suggest that belief does not have logics, and that people do not act on those logics, is just silly. Leninism, Nazism, liberalism: the doctrinal differences between these political ideologies really do matter. I take his point that cognitive habits act upon doctrines, but it is also true that people can (and do) adopt particular doctrines and act upon them. Consider this rather nice TED talk on how basic religious beliefs affect business (and other) practices.

A point Slone then immediately appeals to himself, as he concludes his book arguing strongly that religion can only be studied properly in the light of our understanding of how human cognition works: it must be scientifically grounded. Slone notes that such scientific “reductionism” no more abolishes other ways of comprehending things than knowledge of how light and sight works abolishes appreciation of the beauty of a Monet painting (p.124).

Theological Incorrectness is a fascinating excursion through religion as it ‘is’, its distance from religion as it ‘ought’ and the use of cognitive science to explicate that distance.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Late Capitalism and Late Modernity: a rant

There are, possibly, greater terms expressing intellectual wankerdom than using ‘late capitalism’ and ‘late modernity’ other than ironically, but none that I find so transparently silly, annoying and pretentious.

We have no idea how long modernity has to run. We have no idea how long capitalism has to run.

None whatsoever.

So we have no idea how “late” in the history of either the current stage of human history is. For all we know, a thousand years down the track, people may regard our period as still being part of early modernity and early capitalism.

On the matter of capitalism, consider two things.

First, how much of the world is still not very capitalist: Africa, much of Asia, most of Latin America (hence Hernando de Soto’s witticism that “capitalism is a great idea and Latin America should try it sometime”).

What do I mean by ‘capitalism’? Capitalism is an economic and social system where the factors of production are substantially exchangeable in markets. So, if much of your economy is either state-owned (in a way that clearly abolishes, or otherwise removes from possibility under the rules in operation, such exchange) or is otherwise not owned in a way that allows such exchange, those parts of your economy are not capitalist. Which much of the developing world suffers from, particularly regarding land. Thus, capitalism has quite a lot of the social space available around the world into which it could (but has not yet) spread.
Second, consider how much capitalism as changed over time. Contemporary capitalism has, we can surely agree, some differences in institutional practices than, for example, the sort of capitalism Braudel kept discovering no matter how far back he went in English history. It is otiose to think further institutional development is not possible, particularly in the light of changes in technology (whose direction and extent we have no way of knowing, especially in the longer term). So, the further changes and development of capitalism are unknown and unknowable.

Since ‘capitalism’ as a term has been used since the mid-C19th, it seems likely that, for most of the history of the term ‘capitalism’, people have been claiming we are in ‘late capitalism’. (Do we remember Lenin’s Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism?) Surely, that would give anyone with an ounce of intellectual humility, indeed common sense, pause.

To talk of ‘late capitalism’ is to talk as if one knows—at least good enough for decent taxonomy—how long the history of capitalism has to run: in duration, scope and structure. Given the comprehensive failure of users of the term ‘late capitalism’ to actually predict any of the key happenings in capitalism over the last couple of decades (how many predicted its spread to the former Soviet bloc? To the People’s Republic of China? How many predicted the IT revolution?) we can be confident that such claims are nonsense.

The same point applies (perhaps even more so) to modernity. Attempts to define modernity have proved rather more fraught than those to define capitalism. Indeed, modernity’s habit of overtaking attempts to capture it by definition suggest something fundamental about modernity—that it is a certain breadth and rate of change. Which is how I think of modernity—continuing change of significant breadth (in technology, in attitudes and outlooks, in knowledge, in institutions) that is fast enough to be discernable in a lifetime.

Modernity basically starts with the Renaissance, which is called The Renaissance because, due to the development of movable type printing, it never stopped. We live in the Renaissance that never stopped. The Carolingian Renaissance was brought to an end by the internecine strife of the Carolingian dynasty and the depredations of the Norse. The Renaissance of the C12th petered out in the “calamitous C14th”. The Renaissance just kept going since literacy became cheaper to impart (cheap textbooks) and to service while knowledge became a lot harder to lose.

The most obvious effect of the spread of printing being the Reformation, since the Church found maintaining its intellectual hegemony across all of Latin Christendom too hard. The advent of mass literacy made Protestantism—with its insistence on the first authority of Scripture, which thus provided a direct connection to God—a natural basis of revolt against the Catholic notion of Scripture being a product of the Church (understood as the community of believers) and the priest as the mediator between lay believers and God.

We have come along way since 1450 and 1517. [Not to mention Europeans beginning the process of creating, for the first time since humans left Africa, a common global history.] Do we have any idea how long the changes of modernity have to run? No. If we begin to move off Earth, the period when we were confined to one planet is hardly going to look like “late modernity”.

What someone is really saying when they use the term ‘late capitalist’ or ‘late modernity’ is “I know where history is going”. No, they do not. Using these terms with any seriousness is the triumph of intellectual pretension over intellectual sense.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Father Dr Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality is a short, much reprinted, book setting out for a lay audience current biblical scholarship about the passages in the Bible which are taken to condemn homosexuality.

Biblical interpretation is something of a nightmare of translation and context: particularly so for sexual terms, which tend to be highly colloquial and context-laden.

Some things are fairly clear. The sin of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-11) was rape, abuse, inhospitality and hard-heartedness, something that Jesus makes quite clear (Matthew 10:5-15), as do other passages ( Ezekiel 16:48-49, Wisdom 19:14, Isaiah 1:10-17 & 3:9, Jeremiah 23:14, Zephaniah 2:8-11). To use ‘sodomite’ to refer to male homosexuals, or to those who engage in anal intercourse, is based on a systematic misreading of the original story (it being better, given that rape was happening either way, that the men of Sodom rape Lot’s daughters than Lot allow an avoidable betrayal of the law of hospitality against the servants of God). Apart from the would-be rape of the angelic visitors, and the actual attempted rape of Lot’s daughters, in the Genesis passage, the only sexual sin mentioned in any of the above passages is adultery. There is also a reference to (promiscuity and) lusting after the flesh of angels (Jude 7).
The abomination of Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13 is male-male penetrative sex. It was a ritual violation of the Jewish Law’s notion of the distinction between male and female. Moreover, it is specifically about male-male anal intercourse and no more than that. But lots of things are abominations in Leviticus for reasons of ritual uncleanliness: it is rather a case of take one, take all, or pass on. Passing on being what Jesus said to do ( Matthew 15:10, 18-20). A sentiment echoed by the Apostle Peter ( Acts 10:11-15, 28, 34) and by St Paul (; 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6, Romans 2:29 & 14:14).

The point where things get very tricky is over Romans 1:18-32, which contains what appears to be a clear condemnation of homogenital acts. What Helminiak argues is that Paul is attempting to bring together Jewish and Gentile Christians over the Jewish purity laws, so he says idolatry (the abandonment of God) leads to shameful and impure acts but it is their continuing abandonment of God which leads to genuine evils (what Christians should really be worried about). That is, he argues that Paul distinguishes shameful and unclean acts from genuinely evil acts. Their engagement in same-sex acts is unclean and shameful—an embarrassment and punishment in itself—but not a serious moral matter.

The interpretation is rather complex. The main thing it has going for it is that Paul’s list of things that should not be done doesn’t list any homogenital acts and the interpretation sits well with the aforementioned abandonment of the Jewish purity laws. But I doubt it would be persuasive to anyone who doesn’t want to be persuaded. It is certainly not the traditional interpretation.

Father Helminiak is on much stronger grounds with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1Timothy 1:9-10 where the key words are obviously highly unclear in their meaning, as can be seen in their very varied translations.

The terms are malakoi and the even more obscure arsenokoitai. Malakoi has been translated as: catamites, the effeminate, boy prostitutes, sissies, masturbators, the self-indulgent. Take your pick (current scholarship favours the self-indulgent). Either way, it clearly is not a blanket condemnation of homogenital activity.

Arsenokoitai has been translated as: homosexuals, sodomites, child molesters, perverts, homosexual perverts, sexual perverts, people of infamous habits, practising homosexuals. Again, take your pick (current scholarship is still deeply divided—the term literally means man-penetrator but that does not help much: as Father Helminiak points out, ladykiller means neither a lady nor a murderer). Either way, the passages seem to be about exploitative relationships.

Arsenokoitai strikes me as evidence that St Paul was relying on the thinking of Philo of Alexandria in his use of the very un-Judaic concept of para physin, against nature. Arsenokoitai seems to have been a reference to language used in Leviticus in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (arsenos koitén, “man who lies with”). St Paul’s phrasing in Romans 1:27:
Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion
is similar to Philo’s rhetoric that the same-sex active “waste away as to both their souls and bodies”, that such a person “adulterates the precious coinage of his nature”. While St Paul’s affirmation that long hair is the glory of a woman but an unnatural shame in a man (1 Corinthians 11:13-15) echoes Philo’s horror of men acting like women.

Either way, in the face of such uncertainty in meaning, Father Helminiak is clearly on strong grounds to argue these passages are simply not a reliable enough grounds to condemn folk—particularly not those in stable, loving relationships or who aspire to the same.

One of the strongest arguments is what is not in the Bible. Nowhere does Jesus condemn homogenital activity, or even mention it. It is clearly not a concern for Him. Indeed, in the only case that is arguably of a same-sex couple, Jesus is notably solicitous—when the centurion asks Him to heal his servant ( Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10).

There are also apparent same-sex relationships in the Bible that clearly do not get condemned. David and Jonathon ( 1 Samuel 20:41-42, 2 Samuel 1:26), Naomi and Ruth ( Ruth 1:16-17), Daniel and the Palace Master ( Daniel 1:9).

Father Helminiak dismisses other apparent references to homogenital acts as mistranslations wrongly using the words sodomite or unnatural. In particular, translations of the story of Sodom which use unnatural when the reference is to lusting after angels and translations of the Hebrew qadheshim or 'devoted ones' where the reference is to sacred prostitution.

I did have one very clear quibble with Father Helminiak’s text. To claim that Edward II was assassinated for his gay relationship with Hugh le Despenser (p.23) is to do some violence to the historical record: Edward was killed because deposed kings were a threat (James II, who fled, was the first deposed English king not to be killed). Edward was deposed, not because he had male favourites, but because he sacrificed his kingship to his gonads. All kings had favourites of one sort or another: folk only seriously complained about them if they were incompetent, rapacious or narrowly monopolised all office and preferment. His Queen was mightily annoyed at his humiliation and neglect of her, but if he had been a competent king that would have meant little.

Father Helminiak notes that it was the Stoics who developed the idea that the only proper purpose of sex was procreation—the when-God-made-sex-fun-even-when-the-woman-is-not-fertile-he-didn’t-really-mean-it argument, an argument philosophically pioneered in Plato’s The Laws (through the voice of “the Athenian”). It was reading into the Bible (and translating with those presumptions) a restrictive theory of sex and a narrow version of ‘natural’—one that is clearly simply not based on how either other species or humans actually are but how they are allegedly supposed to be—that generated the blanket condemnation of homogenital activity.

Though, given that all the monotheist traditions condemn same-sex activities (something polytheist and animist traditions are much less inclined to do), I suspect the sexual logic of monotheism encourages such readings. Since monotheism is the worship of the One God, sexuality is not part of the divine (unlike in polytheism or animism). So sex becomes what differentiates, and thus separates, us from God, from the divine. The only way sex connects us to the divine, to God-the-Creator, is via procreation, so only procreative sex (or, at least, sex between procreators) is acceptable.

Even so, homosexuality is simply not a major Biblical concern. Jesus, the Apostles and the Prophets are much more concerned with other issues, which makes the saliency of homosexuality for contemporary political Christianity even sadder. Particularly as the condemnation and persecution of homosexuality—with its hangings, burnings, burials alive, gaolings, floggings, humiliations, poisoning of lives, dividing of families, wasting of talent—has caused far more evil than homosexuality itself (precisely how many same-sex orgasms "equals" one person dying in pyrotechnic agony?)

What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality is a short, highly readable and informative book.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Truth about Muhammad

Robert Spencer produces the blog jihad watch. His The Truth About Muhammad: the Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion is a polemic, but an intelligent and informed polemic, written in an accessible and populist style. One of the strengths of the book is that Spencer builds his case from entirely Muslim sources about the life of Muhammad.

The book is a biography of the Prophet, one written with a cold eye to the legacy of his life and work. In his first chapter, Spencer explains that he wrote this book to counter what he sees as ill-informed tendencies to have far too glowing a view of Muhammad, whose biography matters because the Prophet’s words and actions have such an authoritative status within Islam. To whitewash the Prophet is both to whitewash Islam and to create a barrier to understanding Islam. One of the themes in the book is Spencer citing and critiquing particular Western scholars for whitewashing, obfusticating or simply misrepresenting the evidence in order to project a positive view of the Prophet. (It is clear that one of the problems is that the default vision in Western heads of a founder of a major religion is Christ or Buddha, and Muhammad is very different from either: as are his teachings.)

Spencer then looks at the problem of historical sources, why the Qur’an—due to its often very elliptical nature—has to be interpreted in light of the hadith, the difficulties of the evidence and how it is the traditional beliefs about Muhammad which matter, since these are what inspire Muslims.
Seven chapters on the life and career of Muhammad follow: the book concludes with a final chapter on Muhammad’s legacy. The notion that religion is corrupted by marriage with secular power is an old one: hence claims that Constantine corrupted Christianity, Ashoka Buddhism and so on. In the case of Islam, such corruption occurs right at the beginning under the Prophet himself, since the (later, after he has achieved secular power) Medinan verses are much more intolerant, violent and persecutory than the earlier Meccan verses (when he was just a preacher). And, according to standard Qur’anic exegesis, later verses supersede earlier ones.

It also means that, if one wants to present a nice, “fluffy” view of Muhammad and Islam, you quote the Meccan verses, quietly ignoring the superseding authority of any contradicting Medinan ones. Or the inconvenient bits in his life. For waging aggressive war for Islam, engaging in deceit, defining as good anything which advances Islam (and as bad anything that harms it), taking slaves and booty, sexual exploiting one’s captives, ordering the assassination of writers, beheading captives, selling women and children into slavery, waging war in ways which put non-combatants at risk, taking child brides, killing apostates, insisting on special privileges for believers, insisting men have more rights than women: all these things have impeccable Islamic credentials in the life and actions of the Prophet.

Reading The Truth About Muhammad, one is struck by what an enormous burden the legacy of Muhammad is, particularly on Muslims but not only on Muslims.

Not only the lack of consistency in moral principles due to its overarching moral instrumentalism, but also encouraging a profoundly fatalistic conception of causality, a requirement to believe as God’s Revealed Truth things that are demonstrably untrue (e.g. that the men of Sodom invented homosexuality), that the unpassable benchmark of human political development was achieved in C7th Arabia: the latter in particular being something even someone as intellectually sophisticated as Tariq Ramadan is committed to.

While Christians believe Christianity to be the fulfilment of Jewish history, they accept the Old Testament as is. Islam sees itself as the fulfilment of the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, but the Qu’ran, as the direct Word of God, is uncreated and eternal: so any contradiction with Jewish or Christian Scriptures is due to Jews and Christians perverting the word of Allah.

The burdens in dealing with non-Muslims go beyond this profound de-legitimising of Judaism and Christianity. There are the attacks on befriending Jews or Christians; that laws that treat believers and non-believers equally, or men and women equally, are an offense against Islam; the permission for being deceitful in dealing with non-Muslims, part of the narrowing of the moral compass so that what is good or not for Islam is the highest ethical consideration.

One can see why some Sufis developed the notion that religions were just “masks” for expressing more fundamental spiritual realities. The “mask” of Islam is a very problematic one.

Muhammad established a divinely sanctioned conquest autocracy: a form of rule that, in various forms, has been the standard form of rule in the Middle East for essentially its entire history since rulership began. So the Prophet’s religion fitted both the standard form of rulership and attempted to incorporate (and, to be fair, transcend) tribal politics: a winning combination. (Even if its marriage of the sacred with rulership has left an enduring problem of succession to the Prophet.) It was an imperial religion of conquest in a region whose history has been dominated by waves of conquest: a matching of enduring patterns with belief, a triumph of selection processes.

Muhammad really is a very different figure than, say, Jesus or Buddha, and he established a very different religion. Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad is a useful corrective to wishful writing about the Prophet and his legacy.