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Monday, September 08, 2014

Straw Gods and Puny Gods

I was the surprised and grateful recipient of a public attribution from someone far more acclaimed than I, and was taken by the thoughtfulness and integrity of it.  

GoldsteinLast spring, I attended a session of the Cambridge Roundtable at which the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was the speaker.  Her topic, taken from her recent book, Plato at the Googleplex, touched on "mattering," and specifically the not-so-pleasant consequences of privileging what matters to me or to us, and forgetting or not recognizing that if something matters to me or us, then things (although possibly not the same things) must also matter to others.  If what matters to us is meaningful, then to recognize that things matter to others is to acknowledge their personhood.

In an email to her after the session, I suggested that if, per Wittgenstein, there are no private languages, there is no private mattering.  What was surprising was not just that she responded graciously to my email, or that she adopted the idea in an interview with The Humanist just a week or so ago, but that she bothered to give me, a relative nobody, credit for the idea.  If she hadn't, only she and I would have known.

But intellectual integrity is not the only reason to heap praise on Ms. Goldstein.  Even though, as I'll describe after the break, she and I appear to disagree about how to define the playing field when we talk about belief, and particularly the beliefs we often refer to as atheism and agnosticism, I love her work.  She is a public intellectual with full philosopher chops, including a Ph.D. from Princeton and a Tanner Lecture at Yale in 2011.  What she writes isn't for everybody - she's drawing on ideas that cause you to have to exert some brainpower - but even her novels, like The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, draw you into issues like the hard question of consciousness or theodicy.

So, after the break, a comment on straw gods and puny gods.

Like her protagonist Cass Seltzer in 36 Arguments, Ms. Goldstein is "the atheist with a soul."  As she makes clear in The Humanist interview, 

philosophy is focused on increasing our coherence, seeing the implications of beliefs and attitudes we hold, and reconciling them with one another. Philosophical dialogue unmasks the presumptions that hide our inconsistencies, including our moral inconsistencies, compelling us to expand the circle of moral concern. It’s a real driver of moral progress, and we need to understand both why this is and how it works.  

But the danger, even with philosophy, as she attributes to Plato, is 

that philosophy itself had the potential to harden into ideology. And [Plato] was right to worry because over the course of its history, philosophy  has, at various times, become ideological. It’s a sad irony that Plato’s ideas have been used to shore up ideologies of both the religious and secular varieties. But philosophy, to be true to itself, is the struggle against ideologies, both personal and collective.

And this is where it gets nuanced.  Her view is that humanist, secular attempts to set the map of what matters and what does not are less ideological and more responsive to reasons and evidence than religious attempts to do the same thing.  As I've written, that view, as an intellectual rather than an empirical matter, posits axiomatically a straw God that doesn't give reasons and evidence and believers who don't care about reasons and evidence in deciding what matters.  (When I say "empirical," I mean that I don't know if there are more religious ideologues in the world than secular ideologues, and I don't know if religious dogmatism has been responsible for more misery than secular dogmatism.  And I'm skeptical of metrics on this particular issue.)

In other words, notwithstanding all the things we seem to agree upon, Ms. Goldstein calls herself an "atheist," and I wouldn't so describe myself.  That is, there are things I just don't know, or for which I can't assess truth-propositions, and the existence of God is one of them.  But as I cannot assess the proposition, I can no more claim it false than true, at least as a categorical matter.  Or put another way, if we define the god concept (the "theism" of atheism) as limited to any anthropomorphic (physical or moral) human representation of a god purporting to be real, then I'm an atheist too.  

That's the straw god argument people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins make in condemning religious dogmatism.  Again, for all I know, they are correct empirically in saying the world would be a better place if nobody believed in the personal God of the Abrahamic religions.  As an intellectual argument, I think it's too easy.  It avoids the deepest mysteries in reconciling precisely those things Ms. Goldstein identifies in her own wonderful work (the hard question of consciousness, the incompleteness of formal logic, the problem of evil).  It's as to those problems, the ones the reasons and evidence tell me that science and logic will not solve, that leave me agnostic about the something out there or in here for which there is no truth proposition.  That's my point.  We all anchor ourselves in something for which there is no truth proposition.  

Instead, the process of line drawing, of reasoned distinctions, is itself a reflection of a certain epistemic orientation.  The particular insight Ms. Goldstein brings to the party here is that there turns out to be less than otherwise meets the eye when it comes to "mattering" in distinctions between "I", on one hand, or "You" or "They" or "It", on the other.  That's the point on which she so kindly gave me attribution.

But I don't see the most important intellectual dichotomy as being between religion per se and Greek-style secular philosophy, as much as it is between any kind of dogmatism and a kind of epistemic humility that indeed recognizes that if something subjectively matters to me it has to be because mattering is something that exists for everybody, objectively, even though when it comes to expressing what matters, even for the other, it is a subjective expression.  (Spoiler alert: I think that's the point Ms. Goldstein was making, whether she realized it or not, in the final plot twist of 36 Arguments.)

As Ms. Goldstein notes, secular philosophy has tended to temper the dogmatism of religion (see, e.g. John Mortimer's delightful interview with Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie that I've referred to before).  But as she acknowledges in the interview, Plato was concerned about philosophy becoming ideological (I would use "dogmatic"), and I don't see a principled distinction between dogmatic or ideological philosophy and dogmatic or ideological religion.  

My experience as an academic after a long career as a lawyer and business executive is that the world really does separate between those with epistemic arrogance and those with epistemic humility, and that does NOT map on the religious/secular divide.  Indeed, to her point in The Humanist interview, when secular philosophers are ideological or dogmatic, the problem of having masked inconsistencies is even more acute because of the belief that indeed one is responsive to reasons and evidence when in fact that belief is its own self-deception.

The reality is that we all, believers, agnostics, and atheists, have some foundational beliefs that really are resistant to reasons and evidence.  As an empirical matter, it's almost certainly the case that religious dogmatism is easier to spot because it's just so out there and in your face.  But pointing to religious dogmatism may simply be a way of avoiding the problem of secular dogmatism, particularly when there are dogmatic strains at the core of attempts to reason a binary distinction between religious belief and secular belief.

I strongly suspect that Ms. Goldstein's response (my words not hers) would be something like "you have so diminished the concept of God from what the vast majority of people in the world think of when they think of God as to make your view interesting but trivial.  In other words, you may think I'm attacking a straw God, but your defense is to posit a puny and powerless God.  And your overly intellectual reconciliation of all the unsolved mysteries that presently seem to be beyond the cognitive abilities given to us by the process of evolution provides no basis for any theism of any kind.  Or, in even other words, if you are going to propose there is something rather than nothing, the burden is on you, and if you aren't willing to call yourself a theist then you are an atheist."

I have no knockdown answer to that very powerful argument.  The 17th century philosopher Pierre Bayle proposed the idea that God could be all-good or all-powerful but not both.  The contemporary rabbis and popular authors Harold Kushner (When Bad Things Happen to Good People) and Harold Schulweis (For Those Who Can't Believe) propose something like that - give God credit for all the good stuff and acknowledge God's puniness when it comes to preventing evil.  Those appealed to me once, but I see them now as simply more sophisticated theodicies.  

Or maybe, unlike Ms. Goldstein, I'm just a wimp, stubbornly refusing to draw the conclusion that the "a" belongs in front of "theism," despite the fact that her views and mine are almost wholly congruent except on the issue whether we should call ourselves atheists or agnostics.  What we seem to agree about wholeheartedly is reflective affect or emotion; the epistemic humility - whether religious or secular - that makes one receptive to reasons and evidence, and is the affective opposite of  dogmatism or fanaticism or epistemic arrogance.  

What I know from Rebecca Goldstein's writing is she appreciates how much science cannot offer on the subject of what matters, that she understands the paradoxes at the heart even of logic (see her book Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel). While we don't seem to agree on how to define the playing field when it comes to the existence of deities, we both appear to be more committed to the humane (and, I hope, civil, but that's another subject) dialogue that characterizes the journey than a pre-ordained destination.  Most of the time, it is indeed better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

As I've suggested before, the most profound philosophical observation in Jewish liturgy is that when we start to draw lines, whether between the Sabbath and the rest of the week, between light and dark, between us and them, or between what is sacred and what is ordinary, we've headed down that infinite regress toward the limits of our ability to understand anything at all.  Like Ms. Goldstein, I'm an atheist if it means I have to credit God with having created those separations, but I get the point of the prayer:  this is an area in which human reason wants to tread humbly.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on September 8, 2014 at 01:37 PM | Permalink


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