Saturday, April 10, 2010

From "Sacred" to "Self-Evident" to "Subjective"

When Philip Rieff referred to the "sacred order," it was not in the strictly anthropological sense with which René Girard used, for instance, to term, "the primitive sacred." That difference is made clear in a reference Rieff makes to the founding document of American democracy.
Jefferson's declaration of dependence was transformed into Franklin's declaration of independence. Perhaps it was the sentiment of the vacuity at the limits and dark heart of what Benjamin Franklin called "Providence" that led him to persuade Jefferson to change the opening line of the Declaration of Independence to read, instead of "we hold these truths to be sacred," the canonical and more ambiguously philosophical "we hold these truths to be self-evident," which is far from the case. Franklin was a profoundly shrewd operator. If those truths Americans are to hold are understood to be absolutely directive -- that is, sacred -- then every human being is absolutely dependent on them. . . . Thus began the process of inversion ... the transformation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness into the pursuit of freedom to transgress and the happiness of transgression.
For a 1986 update on the "process of inversion," Rieff refers to the key sentence from the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court case, Bowers v. Hardwick.
A Supreme Court ruling states: "The most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men" is "the right to be left alone." The right to be left alone here is an utterly blind version of the rebellion against sacred orders; Justice Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens have not the slightest idea of what they are saying.
Will Justice Stevens be replaced by someone with a better understanding of the cultural and historical consequences of defining freedom as the right to be left alone?

45 comments:

Doughlas Remy said...

Rieff appears to think the pursuit of liberty became “inverted” into the pursuit of freedom to transgress. But he doesn’t make the case that this inversion really occurred or that the exercise of liberty was not always a “transgression” from someone’s point of view. It is in the nature of authoritarian systems to lay down absolutes and declare them to be “sacred.” From an authoritarian perspective, acts grounded in personal freedom are always an affront and will be denounced as transgressive. Of course they are transgressive, but “transgressive” is a value-neutral term. Kurt Cobain was transgressive, but so was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We are, all of us and at every moment, transgressing someone’s notion of what is appropriate, ethical, and even “sacred.” Fortunately, our constitution protects freedom of conscience, and so we may claim that freedom to transgress arbitrary codes of conduct based in religion or tradition (not reason). Everyone—religionists and secularists alike—benefits from this freedom.

Bowers vs. Hardwick failed to overturn one of these arbitrary codes—a Georgia law prohibiting oral and anal sex between members of the same or opposite sex, even when the parties are consenting adults acting in private. Fortunately, Bowers was overruled in the 2003 “Lawrence v. Texas” Supreme Court decision and private sexual acts between consenting adults are no longer considered a matter for state intervention.

Was the Court’s 2003 decision a “rebellion against sacred orders,” in Rieff’s words? Well, I suppose any Supreme Court decision that provokes the ire of some religious constituency is bound to be described in those terms by the members of the constituency. But I fail to see that Rieff’s argument will have much appeal in the wider public sphere, though he is certainly entitled to advance it.

I haven’t read any of Rieff’s works, but a quick Wikipedia search turned up the following somewhat mangled but interesting sentence:

He has repeated in print his conviction that the old forms of cultural authority—those church-faith based “Nos” of what he terms “the second world”—are largely failed and exhausted, and that to return to them would likewise fail to provide this “third” world with the new articulations of eternal authorities requisite to a healthy culture.”

Maybe someone who has read Rieff can clarify or refute?

Dean said...

What I find most irritating about intellectual bean counters like Rieff and his ilk, is that when you get through unpacking his profundity, there's really nothing there, except a loud cultural squeak. For some, it's the comforting obscurity of a pretentious philosophical labyrinth where you can temporarily hide from direct questions. No one can really interact when everything is endless parsed to death by disputing its relevance.

From everything I know of Jefferson and his distaste for the excesses and dangers of religion as the dominant controlling influence of government, he was certainly not interested in enshrining dependence on anything, much less the instrument of the country's founding. If he commiserated with Franklin, it was to the advantage of everyone in the elevation of a lasting and truly noble principle. Self evident truths of course have a context: We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. So Rieff is arguing against his own argument. He somehow sees the wording as Franklin gave it to be "ambiguously philosophical" (leave it to a blow hard like Rieff to make that charge of someone else) That dependence is somehow preferable to active conscience, that the sacred has to be spelled out to be effective, or that the pursuit of happiness is a corruption of the pursuit of God. What he fails to realize, is that without liberty there is no dependence on anything just resistance, and that sacred directives do not inspire people to imagine themselves free much less to live as though they actually were. That's why we have both a New Covenant and a Declaration of Independence. What Jefferson and Franklin understood is that freedom for all its dangers is superior to a form of enshrined legalism that is ultimately more corrupting than liberty pursued and its attendant risks.

As for the "freedom to be left alone" what an ironic and mistimed thing to denounce in the midst of the thousands of abused, violated and destroyed lives whose dearest and final hope is to be permanently and unremittingly left alone by those whose enshrined directives and institutional dependence on "sacred" authority have robbed both themselves and those they came in contact with of anything approaching real liberty.

John said...

Dean,

The thing that you decry with such vituperation is manifest in your very first sentence, and then throughout your rather angy rant. “Cultural squeak”, indeed! And though you apparently abhor the thought of “dependance”, you seem to agree that “We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights”. I don’t get this. And I find myself wondering if you have asked yourself what the name of the Creator is? (Spoiler alert: He said his name is “I AM”) What does the acknowledgement that there is a creator require of you? And most salient to Rieff’s point, what are the implications for humanity of the universal endowment of rights by this creator? From where I sit, once we agree that there is a creator who has acted upon us by “endowing” us with anything, we ackonwledge a relationship with that creator. Further, if we are all equally endowed by this creator, then we are, by virtue of that universal divine endowment, in relationship with one another. Therefore, to declare the desire to be left alone as the “right most valued by civilized men” is to fundamentally miss the point of the “truth” that we are endowed with inalienable rights. And, if I may be so bold, I think that’s what Rieff is getting at.

One final point needs to be made: your cheap shot at the Catholic Church was, to be kind, sophomoric.

truepeers said...

Dean,

Is Rieff really arguing that the sacred has to be spelled out to be effective? If so, why his plaint against the claim on the "self-evident" and merely philosophical? I think a paradox lies behind the assumption that the sacred is "absolutely directive": it always is of course, but not in a way we can entirely spell out.

On the one hand, that which we can reveal does tend to lose its sacred charge on being laid bare; but humanity abhors a vacuum, and so we can never stop trying to capture the power of the sacred. Seems to me it is the compounding effect of the latter activity and attendant exchange that insures we will never do but a piecemeal job of the spelling out. This would suggest our continuing dependence on "things hidden"; but I'm not sure how that relates to the claimed sentiment of vacuity at the limits of the dark heart... Is Rieff suggesting Franklin misinterpreted the sacred as the basis of nihilism? Or, since the dark heart is indeed a vacuum, is the claim that Franklin merely wanted to avoid too frank a recognition of something with both a positive and negative charge?

Doughlas Remy said...

...that which we can reveal does tend to lose its sacred charge on being laid bare.

This is a critical insight, but I would have made it more forceful by changing “does tend to lose” to “loses.” But I like the pronoun “we,” because I don’t believe there is any other agency than “we” in the revelation of the Cross. God didn’t reveal anything. “We” (our species) saw the truth and captured it for a fleeting moment. We revealed it and then quickly forgot what the revelation meant because we were nowhere near ready for it.

...but humanity abhors a vacuum, and so we can never stop trying to capture the power of the sacred.

My understanding of the sacred, as that which one does not approach too closely (e.g., the Ark of the Covenant) and which, above all, one must never question, prompts me to rephrase this slightly: “...but humanity abhors a vacuum, and so we never stop trying to protect the power of the sacred.” There is major shift in meaning, however. At the heart of the sacred, there is a vacuum that must be protected. The Holy of Holies is just empty space, and we must at all costs shield ourselves from the knowledge that it is empty. The sacred loses its power when its mechanisms are revealed.

Here’s a Tibetan Buddhist teaching that I ran across recently:

Emptiness is the unfindability of things, which is achieved by an ultimate inquiry into their nature.

An ultimate inquiry. What happened in the revelation of the Cross was an ultimate inquiry into the nature of the sacred, and all that was found there was emptiness, the vacuum. The sacred is a cover-up, a lie. It pretends to contain transcendent meaning, so mysterious and inscrutable that only certain priests can possibly grasp it. But in reality, the sacred contains nothing more meaningful than technique. The technique is about propagating myths, rituals, and prohibition/obligations. Its purpose is control, and its ends are purely political, whether for good effect or ill. It uses transcendence to achieve “realpolitik.”

The desacralization that began early in the Old Testament reached a peak in the Passion Story, relapsed, and then once again began a slow and halting progression. I think of the “sacred” as something we will someday transcend—that is, if we survive beyond the present century.

truepeers said...

Doughlas,

I'm glad you found some interest in my comment. However, we are in contest over the sacred, as is inevitable i think.

I like the pronoun “we,”...

-I was not being careful in my choice, merely recognizing that an unfolding self-understanding is a human or historical phenomenon. And yet I doubt such can happen without some kind of i/thou dialog, which need not presuppose God, though it helps. In other words, can we have revelation without something like prayer, a way of living or activating a necessary faith in the possibility of finding, in relation with others, the revelation we feel we need to renew our common relationship to the sacred?

So I don't think we are just concerned to protect the sacred. I think its re-presentation is an ever-present historical concern, though I think i can understand why you might think it best to accent the more definite experience of shared presence on the scenes of history, and not the more problematic or contested or eventually disappointing figures of transcendence.

The Holy of Holies is just empty space, and we must at all costs shield ourselves from the knowledge that it is empty.

-i think i might agree that any representation of the holy may well be experienced, ultimately, as just another place holder. But i don't see why realizing this should lead one to discount any and all experience of holiness (in which representations always play a necessary part). If we've had some such experience, why turn around and say it was all a chimera, a false consciousness? why should we deny the reality of our experience (of the sacred) just because it rests on some constitutive mystery? If you and I can have a conversation about the sacred, surely we can't deny its meaningful existence however we may differ on what to make of it...

But in reality, the sacred contains nothing more meaningful than technique.

-before i became a student of the kind of anthropology discussed here, i was a student of history; i became quite upset with the tendency in the academy to interpret history as a conspiracy of power. But my problem was that I could never quite articulate how history could ever be understood as anything other than the realization of certain interests at the expense of others. Retrospectively that's how things look - there seem to have been relative winners and losers. Still, that doesn't explain how history works. While there can be no neat formula to explain how it works, I am ever more convinced that it is a process of exchange in and around the sacred, a process that cannot be reduced to a conspiracy or technique of power. Power is something in which all have a share and no one can thus control it, even if one is often on the "right" side of it; and the attempts to reduce human social power to technique or method always fail - history always overwhelms the would-be controllers and, sooner or later, leaves them behind. So, I think we need an anthropology of the sacred that speaks to its dynamism and renewability, to its infite possibilities for re-presentation. Any passing technique leads to conflicts and that conflict has to be mediated in ways no one can foresee or control.

I think of the “sacred” as something we will someday transcend

-but then this would be a "transcendence" notable (or not) for its absence. It's telling that you seem more willing to give up the concept of "sacred" than that of "transcendence". The existence of a transendent domain of human consciousness is a fact that can never go away as long as there are humans. And I believe transcendence or consciousness is ever dependent on something being sacred, i.e. (symbolically) meaningful to more than one of us.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers,

I think our conversation itself gives a clue as to why Philip Rieff’s plaint about our nation’s founding document is misguided. The last two words of “We hold these truths to be self-evident” may be vague and even ultimately untrue, but at least they do not wander into the minefield of the word “sacred.” We can spend centuries calmly discussing whether it is “self-evident” that all men have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but, historically, the highly polyvalent word “sacred” has evoked powerful sectarian passions. You and I may discuss it dispassionately, but for many people it sets off tremors along all the familiar fault lines of religious belief. Rieff characterizes Franklin (who persuaded Jefferson to avoid the word “sacred”) as “a profoundly shrewd operator.” Indeed he was, and that is to his everlasting credit.

Monotheism might or might not have been a brilliant short-term solution to the problems plaguing the ancient Israelites, but it was destined to fail from the outset. Throughout the Old Testament and into the New and beyond, we find endless speculations about God’s nature (See Jack Miles’ book, God: A Biography ), devolving into trinitarianism, Mariolatry, worship of saints, relics, bleeding statues, and even popes (God’s vicars). The problems inherent in getting everyone “on the same page” about their experiences of the sacred are overwhelming and, in the end, insoluble. Deities pullulate in Western culture just as they do in Hinduism, and now we have an overpopulated pantheon of fantasy heroes (Spiderman, Batman), sports heroes, and pop celebrities in the music and entertainment worlds. Catholic writer Garry Wills has written an historical account of American “Christianities” (in Head and Heart), and a number of surveys (e.g., from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion) have revealed that Christians alone have four basic and distinct views of God’s personality (authoritarian, benevolent, critical, distant), with multiple subsets for each. And then there are the Muslims, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Mormons, and the Scientologists... There are as many ideas of the sacred as there are individuals.

This is why Rieff is wrong if he is suggesting that “sacred” should have replaced “self-evident” in the Declaration. Religion has flourished in this country because our constitution established a robust public sphere not dominated by any particular confession or even beholden to faith at all (references to “our creator” excepted). This is probably a fragile state of affairs, however, and so we have organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Council for Secular Humanism to thank for trying to maintain and strengthen the wall of separation. This wall, where it has held, has been a boon to everyone, most especially people of faith. People like Rieff should think carefully before advocating any return to systems of government that we left behind several centuries ago. We don’t want to experience the birth traumas of secularism all over again.

(I’m about to reach my character limit, but I will try to address some of your specific points about experiences of the sacred in a future comment.)

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers,

I don’t deny either the reality or the power of profound life-changing experiences of the sort that you might identify with the sacred. I have had them myself and have experienced their power. But I do deny supernaturalist explanations for them. This is not a reductionist view, and it does not diminish them in any way. In fact, it may make them even more wondrous. Scientific explanations have a way of decomposing a single mystery into a thousand puzzles, each of which can be as breath-taking and as meaningful as a religious experience. To me, Carl Sagan’s cosmos is infinitely more awe-inspiring than the Biblical one.

We now know that the type of experience that is commonly interpreted as an encounter with the sacred can be induced by a number of agents, including drugs and other means of neural stimulation. And we mustn’t forget the role played by mimetic effects, which are rife in experiences of the sacred. Seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 swore they saw the sun tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down on them. We can say without any doubt that this was an hallucination, but the pilgrims described it as an experience of the sacred.

It is only when we misunderstand these experiences that we ascribe them to mysterious and transcendent powers. We are hard-wired to look for intention behind unexplained events, and religion provides ready-made agents of intention. We have also been, for thousands of years, under the spell of mind-body dualism, from Plato through Christian neo-Platonism and on further through Descartes. This dualism has been dust-binned in science and philosophy but persists in religion and in everyday thinking. What we think of as “mind” or “soul” is really brain and body. Again, this is not to diminish human experience in any way. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Ordinary sensory experiences are perceptual in the sense that they are caused by some independently existing object. And they are veridical (because they generally convey accurate information about that object). But religious experiences may not be either of these, and the value of their truth claims is not determined by how we feel or what we think about them. While I would never deny the reality of a so-called experience (i.e., the fact that you had one and that it was meaningful and profound for you), I might reasonably disagree with your explanation of its origins.

My use of the word “transcendence” in my earlier comment was purely ordinary and etymological, i.e., “climbing beyond.” I don’t believe there is any supernatural or “sacred” realm that transcends the material one.

truepeers said...

Doughlas,

Monotheism might or might not have been a brilliant short-term solution to the problems plaguing the ancient Israelites, but it was destined to fail from the outset.

But your discourse is itself a product of a monotheist world view, i.e. it supposes that notwithstanding our many differences or "gods", there is ultimately one human species, one kind of Being such that we can talk about it in the kind of high-cultural, universalizing language you use here.

So in what sense did the Israelites fail? They didn't promise perpetual peace; they didn't suppose a world in which all nations would become assimilated to Israel. No, I think what they offered us was a new way of understanding and seeing human conflict and its mediation - a kind of anthropology if you will. I guess you know the associated jokes: find two Jews, get three points of view; the lonely Jew on the desert island who shows his rescuer two synagogues - "and that's the one I don't go to..." I suspect this kind of humour has been with Israel from the start.

What the monotheist worldview allows us is to recognize that monotheism is already implicit in polytheism - polytheists do not assume that the other humans worshiping other gods are another species; but rather these various forms of worship are implicitly seen to have a common human purpose notwithstanding the differences in interest and form. The monotheist worldview also formalizes a concept of tolerance in recognizing a need to make explicit what is at best implicit in polytheist "tolerance".

So I think the move towards an anthropology that recognizes better our common reliance on various, differing, forms of the sacred - a concept now more seriously expored - is just another step in this direction. Yes, of course people come into conflict over the sacred but how is not talking about that a good way to mediate the problem, as if we can banish something by just hopin to "transcend" it? Similarly is it wise to build a nation that does not admit it too must have a politics that trades, somehow, in the sacred? Without this recognition in one form or another I think we do fall into what the Pope calls the dictatorship of relativism. But this dictatorship has its (unacknowledged) forms of the sacred too - the figure of the victim of "particularlism", most generally, a religiously necessary figure it can hence be too (violently) keen to produce.

The separation of state and church makes sense inasmuch as it is the refusal of any established national church on the model of the Church of England. Inasmuch as it is an attempt to remove all religious thinking from the public sphere it is simply incoherent and anti-human and a refusal to recognize that certain "liberal" or "secular" cults are themselves fundamentally religious in nature. This refusal is simply a power play: we are not religious in public life therefore we have a greater right to speak than do you. The liberal may not be traditionally religious but i don't think we can point to any coherent anthropology that does not recognize the universal dependence of humans on the sacred in some shape or form. When science enters politics or tries to assert itself on questions of human purpose, it too must associate with religious thinking.

truepeers said...

I don’t believe there is any supernatural or “sacred” realm that transcends the material one.

-then what do you make of language and consciousness? In what sense is this "material"? (let's leave aside God questions for the moment). Do you appreciate that while these letters we are typing have a material presence, as do the various sounds we emit to speak words, this material presence is merely indicating words, which we somehow grasp by associating the letters or sounds. The whole words themselves do not have any kind of material subsistence: they are purely transcendent, and their meaning is symbolic, i.e. not, in the first place, directly or unproblematically referential to the things of the world. Meaning is in the first place dependent on shared memory of the scene on which the word was first created. And any scene needs a centre of attention, a sacred object/sign, in order to be memorable as a scene. I don't think we can explain how memory and language works, absent some accounting of the sacred, whether we are believers in a "supernatural" God or not. (Here, as you may recognize, I am talking in the language of Generative Anthropology) It is enough, for starters, to recognize that all human language is, on some level, "supernatural".

And so when our language-constituted beings confront the things of the world, we are open to the kinds of spiritual experiences we both recognize. I don't think it is true that "We are hard-wired to look for intention behind unexplained events". Our need to attend to intention is not so much biological as linguistic. We do not see other animals seeking intention, either through religion or science. We have this need because we have a sense that it is the sacred that has somehow saved us, or hurt us, or been denied us, or made things happen humanly in one way or another. Animals have sensory experience in the way you describe but this is not akin either to human science or religion.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers,

But your discourse is itself a product of a monotheist worldview, i.e., it supposes that...there is ultimately one human species...”

My view that there is one human species is simply a scientific worldview. I fail to see why it should be grounded in monotheism, which is about there being one god. Early monotheists may have believed there was only one human species, but they also believed there was only one sun and one moon. I don’t think monotheism deserves the credit for my belief in these propositions. My language is indeed universalizing, as you point out, but, again, there is a scientific basis for it, whether or not such language was earlier used by adherents of monotheism.

So in what sense did the Israelites fail?

They failed in all the usual ways that people fail, but I’m not judging the Israelites, and, like you, I appreciate their having offered us “a new way of understanding ... human conflict and its mediation.” My claim was simply that monotheism had failed because the Israelites could never agree about who God was and may have only imagined they were all worshipping the same one. This fiction was sustained in the same way it is sustained today, by simply claiming, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that our monotheism is intact, that each of us worships only the true God and that everyone in our faith cohort worships that God as well. The God of the Old Testament has too many faces to be a single, integrated person. The early Christians obviously found monotheism unsatisfactory but continued nevertheless to claim they were monotheistic even as they were fissioning the diety.

I doubt that any sort of rigorous monotheism would have been possible, and we have witnessed the human devastation that has resulted from trying to achieve it. The idea that everyone’s experience of the sacred has to map to some template from a holy book was bound to cause problems, and it did, in spades.

Though I see the sacred as eventually evaporating (over a longer span of time than we probably have remaining to us on this earth, however), I like your idea of an anthropology that moves toward “various, differing forms of the sacred.” Furthermore, I see nothing wrong with coming into conflict over the sacred as long as the conflict occurs in a public sphere that is not politically, governmentally dominated by any one confession. I believe the conversation about religion is healthy and that it should continue. Far from banishing it from the public arena, I would like to bring it more fully into that space.

Is it wise to build a nation that does not admit that it too must have a politics that trades, somehow, in the sacred?

I’m not sure exactly what you meant by this, and the word “somehow” leaves a lot of wiggle room. I don’t believe we “must” have a politics that trades in the sacred, but I strongly believe that the sacred must have a place in public discourse, with the understanding that it will inevitably inform policy at times. However, I don’t believe government should ever give preferential treatment to any one religious faith or base legislation on explicitly religious principles. This is a complicated topic that we can explore further later.

...certain “liberal” or “secular” cults are themselves fundamentally religious in nature.

This may be so. I’m not sure which ones you mean. The secular humanist movement in this country (represented by John Dewey, among others) certainly would not fall into that category. I was puzzled that you paired “liberal” with “secular” in that sentence. Certainly, being “liberal” does not predispose one to being either religious or irreligious.

I don’t think we can point to any coherent anthropology that does not recognize the universal dependence of humans on the sacred in some shape or form.

First of all, it is not at all certain that humans are universally dependent on the sacred. If they are not, then a coherent anthropology would have to recognize that fact.

(to be continued...)

truepeers said...

My language is indeed universalizing, as you point out, but, again, there is a scientific basis for it, whether or not such language was earlier used by adherents of monotheism.

-my point is that modern science was dependent, for its emergence, on a certain monotheism - do you know Girard's dictum: "we didn't stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches"? I don't think it is at all coincidental that modern science emerged in the Christian West. The question then becomes can a scientific culture sustain itself absent certain religious/ethical values with which it first came into the world?

I find it curious that you think monotheism "failed" because there has never been a consensus on what God is. To my mind the point of monotheism is to mediate the problem that no single system of representation can ever satisfactorily capture the divine - the point, paradoxically, is to insist on oneness while discounting idolatry. Thus, monotheism is an opening to the possibility of human science that supposes oneness (as an ethical discipline unlike the natural sciences) but does not attempt to have the final word. Jews don't just worship God but theorize about "Hashem", endlessly. I am frightened to ask what you think is the "human devestation" this culture of dialogue and debate has engendered. One of the points of jokes about the Jew on the desert island who builds two synagogues is to point out the unreality in the worldview that sees in Judaism/monotheism one or another violent conspiracy to enforce a singular will. Jews don't have such a collective will. The conspiracy theorist is looking in a mirror. Judaism is like a family, where one is loyal to relatives notwithstanding their crazy, sometimes dogmatic, views. I think a meditation on the cross may lead to similar conclusions. A similar idea is not non-existent in the Islamic world, but it seems difficult to sustain there, though it's interesting that a culture of many supposedly unquestionable Koranic demands is married to a dogma that Allah is unknowable, not limited to any shape or form. (Is that really monotheism?)

The secular humanist movement in this country (represented by John Dewey, among others) certainly would not fall into that category.

-one needs to distinguish between formal doctrinal or philosophical statements, and the anthropology of how a "movement" actually works. People live in groups, with some foundational sense of common values, howevermuch they pretend to be "non-religious". And the process by which we assume our group's values is never simply rational or "scientific", nor can we be simply argued out of them by some exercise of competing reason. We (as in Judaism) argue and debate in order to deepen our ability to articulate our fundamental commitments, not to cast them off. When a fundamental conversion takes place it is not so much a rational process but a reaction to events and our sense of an inability to accomodate them within our existing ethical framework. We convert when our "common sense" no longer works for us and we go looking for another one. Every group has a "common sense", not least the "progressives", and that is a religious phenomenon.

Certainly, being “liberal” does not predispose one to being either religious or irreligious.

-i suppose we can only be irreligious because we are also religious. I follow Eric Voegelin's argument that modern liberalism is just a slower road (than more obviously dogmatic political religions) to a Gnostic worldview. What starts with Dewey ends up as worship of Obama as Messiah.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, I am backing up first to our earlier thread where I denied the supernatural and you pointed to language and consciousness as evidence of it. There is nothing supernatural about either language or consciousness. There is no evidence that either of these is independent of brain activity. When the wave on the electroencephalogram goes flat, language and consciousness cease. Language is acquired through mimesis, an entirely naturalistic phenomenon, and it is controlled in the Broca’s area and the Wernicke’s area of the brain. When these areas of the brain are injured, language is impaired. And like language, communication also occurs through processes that are purely physical and natural—the expulsion of breath through the vocal cords, the shaping of the resulting sounds by the lips, tongue, and teeth, the propagation of pressure waves through the air, and the reception and decipherment of the resulting sounds by the listener’s ear and brain. No supernatural explanations are needed to explain any of this, and no examples of either language or communication have ever been found to occur outside the material realm.

Symbolization is simply a highly-evolved brain function requiring endless negotiation over signification. Symbols aren’t handed down from on high. Though highly structured, they are hardly immutable, and the evidence for this claim can be found in the study of world languages, where deep structures are cross-culturally stable and continuous while surface characteristics vary according to place and time. If either symbolization or consciousness were independent of the material realm, then we would see evidence of that, and we do not. While consciousness is not yet well understood (neuroscience has been late out of the starting gate), we should not make the mistake that religion has made time and time again over the centuries when confronted with puzzles and mysteries—i.e., the mistake of assuming supernatural explanations and thus abandoning further rational inquiry. To do so is to retreat from the rigorous verification challenges of the objective and into the private and comforting certitudes of the subjective. We are still witnessing this retreat in the form of creationism (aka “intelligent design”) and other religious defenses. It is one of the traps of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance.” (Dennett is author of one of the most authoritative works on consciousness, “Consciousness Explained,” 1991).

Dennett claims that the ability to detect intention is indeed hardwired into all animals that have true mobility. Clams will react to any vibration or bump by withdrawing their feeding foot. The more mobile animals have evolved the ability to discriminate between motion that is banal (e.g., the rustling of leaves) and the “biological” motion of another agent, another animals with a mind, who might be a predator, a prey, a potential mate, or a rival. There has been a kind of “arms race” of intentionality discernment among primates, and as many as five levels of intentionality can be identified in certain childhood games that have to do with, e.g., a child’s wanting another child to pretend not to know what the first child wants the other to believe, etc. (See Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell,” pages 108-115 for more about this.)

Dennett writes, “So powerful is our innate urge to adopt the intentional stance that we have real difficulty turning it off when it is no longer appropriate. ... The false alarms generated by our overactive disposition to look for agents wherever the action is are the irritants around which the pearls of religion grow.”

Dennett’s essay suggests to me that the highest level of development in our powers of intentionality discernment may finally occur when we learn to “turn off” those interpretive urges when they are inappropriate. And thus I see the possibility of an evolution away from the sacred, though, again, I don’t think that is likely to happen anytime soon.

Doughlas Remy said...

I don’t think it is at all coincidental that modern science emerged in the Christian West. The question then becomes can a scientific culture sustain itself absent certain religious/ethical values with which it first came into the world?

Modern science is the beneficiary of many traditions stretching back to the earliest pre-Christian and polytheistic civilizations, most notably the Greeks and the Egyptians. Scientific knowledge in the first millennium CE was far more advanced in Islamic cultures than in Christian ones, and many of the great scientific breakthroughs in Europe occurred during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Neither of these periods represented a high point of Christian culture in Europe.

In the modern era, Christianity has what I would call a pretty poor record on acceptance of scientific knowledge and is in fact at odds with science on many fronts. The enemies of Darwin in this century are, quite likely, all Christians and oppose evolutionary theory on thinly and sometimes not-so-thinly veiled religious grounds. The Catholic church has steadfastly refused to accept the scientific consensus on homosexuality, condom use, and a host of other issues.

So, to ask whether a scientific culture can sustain itself absent certain religious/ethical values sounds somewhat tinny to my ear. Scientists the world over do not perceive religion as their ally, and most religions have deeply entrenched doctrines that can only be described as unscientific. I personally doubt that science and religion will ever be compatible, because their methods for arriving at faith (doubt vs. faith) are so fundamentally at odds.

We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches.

I’ve read Girard and remember that particular observation. It’s a nice turn of phrase, but I don’t think it supports a view that science has been made possible by the Biblical revelation. It’s not as though we “invented science” after the last witch was burned (in Salem?) Let’s not forget that the Chinese were doing four-color printing on paper a thousand years before Gutenberg, and that the Aztecs and Mayans were in some ways more scientifically advanced than their Spanish conquerors.

We stopped burning witches because the voice of the victim was finally heard and the mythical spell (about her guilt) was broken. Undeniably, that demythification would have fostered a more peaceful and rational society in which science could flourish, but Girard may have made the mistake of seeing that demythification as something other than scientific by its very nature. In other words, he finds an opposition where there is none. The persecuting crowd surrenders itself in an act of faith to the mimetic suggestion of the Other, as in hypnotism, and when it wakes up it doesn’t know or understand what it has done. The individual who breaks the spell is compelled by doubt and by conscience to introduce doubt into the mythical process, like sand into the gears of a machine. His or her inquiry may actually have the power to close down the victimage mechanism. For a brilliant dramatization of this process, see Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film classic, “12 Angry Men,” where Peter Fonda, as Juror #8, stops a runaway process of scapegoating by introducing “reasonable doubt” into the deliberations of the other jurors. He does this by questioning their assumptions. This is a process that I would consider “scientific” in the best and purest sense of the term, and I believe we find it throughout the Bible. Hence the gradual desacralization that occurs there.

So I think Girard may fail to see how scientific thought is responsible for the demythification that delivers the victim from persecution—a demythification that has occurred because someone has had the courage to break the spell, to speak the unspeakable, to refuse surrender to the mob mentality, and to keep asking questions. The Israelites were good at that, as were plenty of others throughout history.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, thanks for the article by van Oort, which I haven't fully absorbed yet.

And a correction in paragraph 4 of my most recent comment: The first "faith" should have been "truth" in this sentence:

...their methods for arriving at faith (doubt vs. faith) are so fundamentally at odds.

Doughlas Remy said...

The Biblical injunction against representing God is certainly useful as a preservative of monotheism, because any representation may drive a wedge of dispute between the faithful, who experience God differently in their subjectivity. (Philip Rieff would probably have described Moses as a “shrewd operator.”) The challenge for the early Israelites was to form a strong and coherent society that could inflict military defeat on the Canaanites. All they needed was a story, some rituals, and a set of laws. One of the laws was that you don’t deviate, and most of the stories were about the extreme perils of deviating. One of Moses’ first acts after bringing down the Decalogue with their injunction against killing was to order the slaughter of several thousand of his own people... for deviating. Pour encourager les autres, as the French would say. Stalin could hardly have done it any better.

This is the human devastation to which I was referring earlier. There was no “culture of dialog and debate” in early monotheism, and monotheism began to unravel as soon as there began to be any. Because dialog and debate are so highly suspect within the sphere of the sacred, certain rules must be strictly observed. Certain questions may not be asked under any circumstances. All the interlocutors understand this at some level of consciousness, even while imagining they are engaging in free and open discussion. Accusations of apostasy and blasphemy are swords held over one’s head. Exclusion is the worst fate imaginable, worse even than death.

I believe the sacred began to evaporate as the questions became less bounded and the challenges more strident. The disputatious character of the Jews in the OT ultimately found God wanting so much that he virtually disappeared from sight after the Book of Job. (Job did give him a hard time...) The earliest Christians—all Jews—abandoned monotheism in fact while pretending they hadn’t, and that trend has continued through our time. The gods worshipped by most Christians today have almost nothing to do with the God of Moses or Abraham except a historical filiation. He is only a distant ancestor.

People live in groups, with some foundational sense of common values, however much they pretend to be “non-religious.

People do live in groups and have shared purposes and values, but some groups are religious while others are clearly not. If this is not so, then the word “religious” simply has no meaning. An organization of secular humanists can hardly be described as religious except by broadening the definition of that word to an absurd degree.

And the process by which we assume our group’s values is never simply rational or “scientific,” nor can we be simply argued out of them by some exercise of competing reason.

I would agree with the first part of that statement. Reason isn’t a perfect tool, but it’s about the best we’ve got. I would qualify the second part of your statement with insertion of “always” after “can.” (“...nor can we always be argued out of [those values] by some exercise of competing reason.”) The goal is to be amenable to reason, and sometimes that goal is achieved. The chances of success are much greater when reasoning processes are respected.

Finally, and again, I believe your implied definition of religion is too broad, and I don’t see evidence for the assertion that we are irreligious because we are also religious. We probably should decide on a good working definition of religion, and of the sacred, of God, and a number of other inscrutable mysteries. After all, how can we know what something is not until we know what its negation is?

truepeers said...

Doughlas,

I can't keep up! I will only give you a quick summary of why I think differently and then perhaps we can agree to disagree.

I believe I put "supernatural" in quotes since i did not intend it in a conventional sense. I think that what we intuitively mean by "supernatural" corresponds to the qualities of language - its ability to encompass and transcend the material world to the point some even think we can construct pretty much any reality simply by insisting on everyone, or someone special, saying the right words, abracadabra. Language is, in some sense, natural but it is natural only to humans; and it is not explainable in purely materialistic terms. If it were, it would be well known. All you have pointed out is that there are physical aspects to using language - no doubt - not that these are sufficient to explain it. Keep reading van Oort and friends and this argument will become more familiar.

Language is not "highly structured", at least in the sense that Levi-Strauss and Co. once argued. But all human languages do share some minimal structure; I believe this is because they all share a common origin, a common "gene". Accordingly, tHere are some minimal necessary conditions to generate language, such as the assumption that things can be made sacred, that they can be accorded a significance that transcends their mute materiality.

Language works by allowing us to step away from biological instinct, to create another kind of space and consciousness. What you say about Dennett and "intention" surely is not as insightful as what van Oort/Tomaselli say. What you are describing with clams, etc., is not intention as humans know it but merely different kinds of instinctual response. Our sense of intention depends on our ability to understand and reflect on each other's desires - my cat can just sense that I don't like her to scratch my belongings and that it might just make me angry and dangerous. But she has no way to understand why, because she does not share with me in a consciousness of a scene on which certain things have a lasting or transcendent value. She has no sense of things being sacred because the sacred only "exists" as part of a scenic consciousness - something we acquire not within but from stepping out of natural time and instinct (through a covenant only humans can create) - and while the scene is composed of material things, our consciousness of it is not reducible to any material formation that brain scanning will ever be able to point to. Whatever the complex physiology of the brain in associating numerous signals, no amount of studying the brain will be able to explain, say, why Charlie Chaplin doing Hitler means something quite different from Riefenstahl's Hitler. The difference only exists in a consciousness that transcends the physical. Yes, it takes human physiology to "get" this difference, but we do not begin to explain what "getting" it is all about as long as we are looking for purely biological explanations. Consciousness is only a total mystery to scientists inasmuch as they don't ask the right questions about how a shared language and memory is generated.

truepeers said...

What is generally meant by "modern science" is something distinctive from earlier advances in knowledge that were tied, as all advances are, to different social-political-religious systems for producing and recognizing knowledge. Modern science, as it emerged in the seventeenth century, entails a way of doing experiments, of constructing, recognizing, and institutionalizing specifically "scientific" facts, of forming and testing hypotheses. It is, all too simply, a way of separating the construction of "scientific facts" from an earlier kind of social and theological authority and systems of knowledge, and allowing a new kind of gentleman of independent mind and means, working through new forms of association with other such men, to seek and accredit discrete truths. As such, it lends itself to a simplistic historical interpretation that pits science against "religion". But we need to recognize that men of science are still bonded by ideas, however new and modern, about how to construct political and social order. The scientific revolution was in no small part a reaction to the religious wars of the era, an attempt to find new ways to constitute a sacred authority that could transcend the differences that had led to war.

And so the more complete historical analysis has to ask how or where these new ideas came from. And it is tautological to simply invoke "the enlightenment", as if we can explain the emergence of a new attitude by the emergence of this new attitude. No, we need to see how a challenge to one kind of religious or political authority was a possibility first discoverable, at least in part, from within the forms of sacrality already existing within that order, a potential that had always been there but had not yet played itself out. Long story short, I think it is what was always inherent in the Christian tradition or revelation that allowed for a potential to be realized in the scientific revolution, a revolution that required a furthering of the sacrality of *personhood*, of independent witness to divine truth. To my mind, the Enlightenment was a way of making more explicit what was always implicit in Christianity (a religion I see as inherently radical). Of course many involved in the scientific revolution articulated their positions in both pro and anti religious terms, but ultimately they were all part of a larger tradition that was capable of an evolution in that direction. And, as I am arguing, even men of science have a kind of religion (often, i think, a poor one) that gives them a sense of purpose and code of conduct. I see the religion of many to be a kind of Gnosticism, but as such a heresy still coloured by the Judeo-Christian worldview from which it stems.

You may not like my broad conception of the "religious". But to my mind, those things, like the sacred, that are fundamental or original to humanity cannot be gotten rid of. (Some things just are everywhere.) They can only evolve one way or another. Modern secular society has all kinds of sacred things. When we ask how that sacrality is generated, we may see that the anthropological processes are not fundamentally different from those that generate more conventionally "religious" forms of sacrality. To speak of a "scientific consensus on homosexuality", for example, is really not to point to discrete scientific facts but rather to invoke modern (scientistic) forms of sacrality. Anyone with a sense of history and different cultures (or biology for that matter) should know how potentially polymorphous human sexuality always is (man-boy sex, for example, is widespread in certain cultures, and not so much in others - the difference cannot be biological or genetic - we must be all born capable of different forms of sexuality - and as such it does not lend itself to any scientific "consensus", let's be honest). One need not appreciate the Girardian understanding of learned desire to recognize this.

truepeers said...

There was no “culture of dialog and debate” in early monotheism, and monotheism began to unravel as soon as there began to be any. Because dialog and debate are so highly suspect within the sphere of the sacred, certain rules must be strictly observed.

-no doubt these things are relative. Compared to the uniquely correct codes of ritual conduct in earlier tribal societies, the kind of societies formed by monotheism are freer, however limited. I think you maybe don't appreciate how any form of freedom requires also certain forms of renunciation of desire, or sacrality. Human freedom is something shared; it is what one or another form of social technology makes more or less possible. Without a shared discipline, and rules, there is no freedom. And just because early Judaism entailed a lot of rules did not mean that there wasn't a lot of talk about them - and this is what is quite different from earlier forms of tribal society. The very fact that someone has to be threatened with the consequences of going astray is the sign of a certain freedom, of a potential argument to be had. In more ritually-bound societies, scapegoating or exclusion is the kind of invisible or mythic process Girard talks about. To the extent that monotheism entails a personal God, in our image, it is inherently a conversation/prayer though that too is surely something open to evolution in scope and scale.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, I finally had a chance to read Van Oort’s paper on the anthropology of Michael Tomasello and did a bit of independent research as well.

Tomasello’s approach to language acquisition is called a “social-pragmatic” approach. He rejects Chomsky’s idea of an innate universal grammar and believes children learn language through reading intentions and finding patterns in their discourse with others.

According to Van Oort, Tomasello believes that certain differences between chimps and humans cannot be explained in purely biological terms, and thus he rejects evolutionary theory and its insistence on continuity between the species. He reasons that human culture is too complex and evolves too rapidly to be explained by the mechanisms of biological evolution. Humans are fundamentally, qualitatively different from the other primates.

All this begs a huge question: “If not biology, then what?” Tomasello has identified vast differences between human cognition and that of the other primates—differences that he is hardly alone in having recognized. And he is certainly correct that these differences exist. But is he saying that these differences have no basis in biology? If Tomasello has an answer to this question, van Oort does not disclose it. Furthermore, van Oort claims that “the vast majority of scientists...deny or ignore the obvious differences between human and nonhuman animals when it comes to symbolic phenomena such as culture and language.” Based on my own readings over the years, I don’t believe this to be true at all, and van Oort does not support his claim.

Having claimed biological discontinuity for our species (without evidence), and having ignored the huge explanatory vacuum that he (or Tomasello) has thereby created, van Oort goes on to a fascinating account of some of Tomasello’s key concepts about emulative vs. imitative learning, joint attention, etc., all of which is very helpful in understanding mimesis.

I haven’t read Tomasello and don’t know how much van Oort may be reading “into” him. I would be very interested in finding out how Tomasello accounts for the fundamental discontinuities that he claims to have found between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom. If he or van Oort are suggesting a divine spark, then I think they should put that on the table.

Doughlas Remy said...

Language...is not explainable in purely materialistic terms. If it were, it would be well known.

Though language has not yet been fully explained in any terms—either materialistic or supernatural—it can only be explainable in purely materialistic terms for the simple reason that no other terms are open to empirical verification. Explanations have to be falsifiable, and supernaturalist ones are not. Van Oort (or Tomasello?), as we saw, rejects biological continuity between our species and others, but he offers no alternatives. The word “sacred” is conspicuously absent from his discussion of the “discontinuities” he posits, confirming once again that the sacred is a void that cannot explain anything. The fact that the human sciences have not yet fully understood language should not be construed to mean that language cannot be understood in materialistic terms. Explanations that are consistent with evolutionary theory have had a much better record of success than supernaturalist ones, and I would put my money on them for that reason alone.

Yes, certainly, symbolism seems mysterious, and there is a strong temptation to attribute it to the supernatural, but studies of primate communication offer sufficient evidence of an evolutionary continuum from the apes to ourselves. Filling in all the gaps is hardly necessary in a theory of hominization any more than it is in the general theory of evolution. The “god of the gaps” approach to discrediting Darwin’s theory has itself been thoroughly discredited. As Richard Dawkins points out, every time a gap is filled, two more appear on either side. The lack of an uninterrupted continuum between other primates and ourselves does not constitute “lack of evidence.” By analogy, in a court of law, a series of still photographs of an knife-wielding assassin approaching his victim is considered evidenciary, notwithstanding the “gaps” in the photographic account.

And so it would appear that purely naturalistic explanations, while incomplete, are our best hope of understanding language and culture. The human brain may be one of the last things that science will understand, but our progress in understanding it has been impressive during the last half century. All culture—human and non-human alike—is grounded in biology and is explainable in terms of material phenomena occurring in and between organisms. (The space “between” organisms is a physical medium, e.g., air, water, light.) If this were not so, then we would hardly have need of our sensory organs, let alone any other physical attributes needed for interaction with other organisms.

Language is not “highly structured...but all human languages do share some minimal structure.”

Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar claims that there is an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans. I’m aware that Tomasello disagrees with Chomsky about this.

...there are some minimum necessary conditions to generate language, such as the assumption that things can be made sacred, that they can be accorded a significance that transcends their mute materiality.

The fact that objects and events were once accorded a significance that transcended their materiality is not in itself evidence of transcendence or of the sacred but only of archaic and pre-scientific modes of understanding that populated the world with souls, spirits, and minds. As I said before, Cartesian dualism, one of the last and most tenacious of these modes of understanding, has been dust-binned in science and philosophy, though we still find traces of it even in scientific theories like Tomasello’s. (Again, I do not know how accurately van Oort represented Tomasello’s ideas, and I sensed that he was wedging in a bit of Intelligent Design theory in his opening remarks.)

truepeers said...

Well, first of all my gratitude to Mr. Bailey for letting this debate go on here. I don't want to drag it on much longer though (my word verification is "resess")...

But is he saying that these differences have no basis in biology?

-i have not read Tomasello but it seems clear from seeing him on tv that he would say that certainly there is some biological basis to these differences, but that biology alone is not sufficient to explain them - necessary but not sufficient. In other words, (as van oort says) we need some account of the co-evolution of human physiology with culture, without thinking that either determines the other.

Based on my own readings over the years, I don’t believe this to be true at all

Having claimed biological discontinuity for our species (without evidence)

-these two statements seem contradictory, by the way - if scientists do in fact recognize fundamental differences in animal and human communication systems, how do they "explain" them without posing some kind of biological discontinuity? I don't believe any such satisfactory explanation exists, as you are suggesting; i've never heard one, which is why I am attracted to arguments for a new discipline of Generative Anthropology.


If he or van Oort are suggesting a divine spark

-i have no idea of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, but i imagine van Oort would argue, in the spirit of GA, that we have historically needed concepts like "divine spark" because we cannot begin to understand the mystery of how human language generates itself without some such terms. Whether or not God exists, humans cannot simply banish the concept of the divine because it is original to or implicit in any and all use of human language. It speaks to the leap of faith necessary for humans to solve the various forms of the prisoner's dilemma that are at the origin of cultural innovations. Anyway, do not look to "intelligent design" to understand van Oort; look to his work within GA.

The fact that objects and events were once accorded a significance that transcended their materiality is not in itself evidence of transcendence or of the sacred but only of archaic and pre-scientific modes of understanding that populated the world with souls, spirits, and minds.

-just how do you think science operates as something transparent to the material world? Science is a vast network of carefully-constructed experiments/systems of measurement and notation and representation. The fact that science actually tends to work in empowering humans does not mean that it leaves behind human systems of power for some other way of doing business. And these systems are constructed, "naturally", in humanly-significant terms - shared understandings about what is significant, measurable, etc., and of how to represent these to others. What is important to scientists reflects what they have established as normative. And those norms exist within overarching paradigms of thought that are susceptible at times to non-evolutionary paradigm shifts. None of this can be explained in terms of simple, transparent observation and unproblematic linguistic reference to nature "just as it is". Science is not an exception to the dependence of all human communications on shared (political) understandings of what is significant or sacred. For example, however grounded in good science belief in AGW may be (or not), it is still, nonetheless, something in which many scientists want to believe and hold as a sacred belief (absent any certainty about the future). Religion and science are not in any complete sense separable, howevermuch the use of science may (or not) strengthen some religions over others.

truepeers said...

it can only be explainable in purely materialistic terms for the simple reason that no other terms are open to empirical verification.

-well, i'm arguing that we are never going to have empirical verification of just how language works. Empirical science can point to certain faculties required for language, but it cannot explain why or how one day proto-human apes jumped from one kind of non-linguistic social order to another based on the use of signs and religion. The question requires instead the use of logic and the construction of intellectual paradigms that appeal to us according to their relative explanatory power, something that can never be complete unto themselves, a closed system. The basis on which humans agree to recognize some gesture as a sign, constituting a shared sense of contingent significance, founding a shared memory of a shared scene, entails they do what they often do not - i.e. take together a leap of faith in something that does not work according to unthinking biological instincts. You know, there are all kinds of fundamental questions in the humanities that are not open to emperical verification - this is the norm rather than the exception. Show to me the empirical basis for thinking the jazz i am listening to is beautiful. Tell us just why Shakespeare is a genius. Some important things just can't be reduced to the empirical. The question, then, is what is the discipline proper to questions of language origin. I think you are looking to disciplines that can never provide you with a full answer.

Explanations that are consistent with evolutionary theory have had a much better record of success than supernaturalist

-No one here is arguing that only a "supernatural" explanation for language will suffice. What I am saying is that our conception of the supernatural is a product of how language works. This is so whether or not there is a divinity. And no one is arguing that language is not itself evolutionary, just that it does not evolve in the same way or at the same speed as biological entities. In other words, i am pointing to a way of thinking that claims, for its purposes, to make the existing debates between atheists and theists almost irrelevant, to reduce the necessary difference between the two points of view to something vanishingly small, in the attempt to get people to focus on what we first must all share in common in order to have a debate and to differentiate ourselves. In this way of thinking, religion becomes a form of anthropology and all people are seen to be religious. Why? Because a compelling hypothesis of language origins as something requiring a leap of faith, and a shared recognition of the sacred, reduces the choice between God created man vs. man created God to something very small.

The lack of an uninterrupted continuum between other primates and ourselves does not constitute “lack of evidence.”

-Again, it is not a question of evidence and cannot ever be. It's a question of logic: one day there was a world without human language, and the next day there was a world with it. How could this have occurred "seamlessly"? Can we explain how language works without assuming that its origins are eventful and memorable? I don't think so, and at present there is no such "seamless", purely evolutionary account that is intellectually satisfying to critical minds.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers: Thanks for your continued interest in this discussion. I will respond to your latest comments later today or maybe tomorrow.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, the differences between humans and other primates have to be based in biology because there is nowhere else for them to be based. You’ve set up an opposition between “physiology” and “culture,” as if only physiology were biological. But culture is also biological, i.e., based entirely in organisms and their interactions. These interactions are shaped both by nature (genes) and nurture (memes), but again, both genes and memes are biological in nature, both are self-replicating, and neither exists outside of physical organisms. They don’t originate anywhere else, and they don’t float around in any sort of Platonic realm of ideas or wherever. I realize the concept of “mind” is solidly built into our language, but body (including brain) is all we’ve got. Mind—if it means something independent of the living, physical body, is just an imaginary construct, useful though it may be in everyday discourse.

Biological discontinuity is not required for understanding the development of human language. Language is only one of many amazing adaptations among living things, and one must remember that more than 99% of all species that ever lived on this planet are dead and gone. So it can hardly be surprising if there appears to be such a radical discontinuity between humans and other species.

In your final paragraph you invoke logic, as if a biological continuum between other species and our own were illogical. It is not, and your scenario of the world of language appearing overnight is not part of evolutionary theory. There is no need to suppose that language appeared so abruptly. “Can we explain how language works without assuming that its origins are eventful and memorable,” you ask. Well, no. We don’t need to assume that, but to go from “eventful and memorable” to “not part of the evolutionary process” is unwarranted.

Only evolutionary theory has succeeded in offering plausible explanations for biological differences. If humans have developed higher-order functions generative of culture, these functions are still biological in nature.

If van Oort is arguing that we have historically needed concepts like that of the “divine spark,” I would agree with him. But I would not agree that we still need such concepts or that they are locked into human language. Language changes to reflect human needs and understanding. For example, the words “soul,” “mind,” and “self” are in the process of changing in our present era.

...however grounded in good science belief in AGW may be (or not), it is still, nonetheless, something in which many scientists want to believe and hold as a sacred belief.

Perhaps there are scientists who “want to believe” in AGW, but they are not very good scientists, their numbers are insignificant, and they are not responsible for the consensus on AGW. That consensus does not rest on any sort of irrational belief system. Scientists constantly gather and evaluate evidence, and they review each others’ work. The way a scientist can make his or her fame is by disproving other scientists’ theories or finding flaws in their data, and so science—good science, at least—has built-in self-correcting mechanisms. Science is very unlike religion in that fundamental way. It is based on doubt and inquiry rather than faith, and so I believe it is a huge stretch to ever describe AGW as a “sacred belief” held by scientists. This is where I think we need to reign in some of these words lest they become meaningless. Words need to make distinctions. War is not peace.

This is not to say that science is a perfect tool or that scientists always behave rationally. But science and reason are probably our best hope for understanding the nature of our world and addressing its problems.

Doughlas Remy said...

I’m arguing that we are never going to have empirical verification of just how language works.

The fact that science has not succeeded in explaining everything does not mean that everything is not ultimately “explainable.” There are things about the past that we will probably never understand because all traces have disappeared, and there are things about the universe that we may never understand because (1) our tools aren’t powerful enough, (2) time/space constraints are too great, (3) we aren’t smart enough, or (4) we are running out of time. But these things are “ultimately” (if not “proximately”) explainable because they are part of the material universe.

We have already made huge strides in our understanding of language. There is no reason to suppose that we are approaching an outer limit of that understanding. Our progress in understanding a great number of phenomena has been exponential in recent years. Who would have expected, 200 years ago, that we would ever have a solid scientific theory explaining the origin of species? Who would have expected that we would ever understand the structure of an atom or the nature of gravity? Who would have thought 20 years ago that we would be carrying around devices about the size of a matchbox that can not only store but playback thousands of video and audio recordings and display untold millions of text characters?

Even the beautiful intricacies of Jazz and the genius of Shakespeare can be partially explained by empirical methods, though a host of natural constraints may prevent our ever having the “full answers.” But the fact that we don’t have full answers is not a reason for abandoning our efforts and giving up on empirical inquiry. The reward for our persistence may be an even greater sense of wonder and amazement. This has happened in astronomy. Why not in Shakespeare studies?

But even if empirical methods can never provide a “full answer,” the next question has to be, “Who or what can provide such an answer, the “true” answer? And what possible basis is there for claiming that that answer is true?

What I am saying is that our conception of the supernatural is a product of how language works. This is true whether or not there is a divinity.

If you are suggesting that the supernatural “comes with” language in the sense that they are indissolubly linked, I can only say that I haven’t seen any evidence—nor even a logical argument—that would support that claim. I am certainly open to the idea, but I am not yet persuaded.

In this way of thinking, religion becomes a form of anthropology and all people are seen to be religious.

I don’t understand this idea. It probably needs more unpacking. I suppose it rests on your earlier claim that the supernatural is a product of how language works.

I realize this discussion is a bit long in the tooth, but I’d welcome some clarification on these last two points if you’re still up for it.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, Gil has just offered a definition of the sacred (from Philip Rieff) in one of his latest posts. I am planning to comment there.

truepeers said...

the differences between humans and other primates have to be based in biology because there is nowhere else for them to be based.

-some of the differences are physological, no doubt. But only in degrees - you know it is possible to teach chimps how to use human signs, if you invest a lot of time and energy. However, if you then leave them alone they don't continue to develop their sign systems. They have no need to. It would seem that the difference between humans and apes has to be explained in terms of a necessity that founds the freedom that is characteristic of the human and the linguistic. This necesity, we might posit, first emerged as a function of proto-humans evolving to the point where they became their own greatest threat to their own survival. One might say biology (and its mimeticism) was ripping the proto-humans apart. They had evolved to the point of facing extinction at their own hands. The pecking order could no longer hold. Something new had to be invented if the species were to survive. They invented or, for the religious, were given, a completely new form of social order based on a community organizing not in the one-to-one relationships of dominance and submission characteristic of the pecking order that no longer held, but in terms of the humanly distinctive formation of a (sacred) centre and a desiring periphery. We are the only species in which the "alpha" must address and seek support from the community as a whole, and not just address his immediate rivals.

As I have already said, I am not denying that our capacity for language has a biological foundation. But that does not mean we can explain language and culture by pointing to some material analogues of, say, great art. There are none. There is no way to show, say, how Shakespeare is derived from the material world of genes. No, there really is a transcendent domain in which all language and culture and consciousness exists, a domain formed through events where people agree that certain arbitrary distinctions or signs (distinctions we must re-member through making associations since these distinctions (e.g. gay/straight) are imprinted nowhere within or on us) will henceforth hold a "sacred" meaning. Humans who have both the requisite physiology and someone to teach them language (those few children "raised by wolves" who are abandoned or neglected and who have no one to teach them language do not learn to speak and after a certain age, a certain point of brain development, cannot learn how to speak) can access this domain of shared human consciousness. But this consciouness has no material analogue; it is a new kind of system that has emerged from an older one but that is not reducible to it. Freedom is real. You will never be able to point to it as something "material". That may be hard to wrap your head around, but there it is (joke). If you will permit some frankness, i think you have bought into a violent, materialistic modernism that is destructive of a serious understanding of a human reality that is both biological and transcendent.

truepeers said...

Instead of continuing your dialogue of the deaf with the religious, why don't you study some Generative Anthropology and learn better what a leading form of secular reason suggests the religious is about.

Accordingly, as for "memes", it is a silly idea

On the supernatural as a product of language, again see Gans, here

TP: In this way of thinking, religion becomes a form of anthropology and all people are seen to be religious.

D: I don’t understand this idea. It probably needs more unpacking. I suppose it rests on your earlier claim that the supernatural is a product of how language works.

-i am saying all religion is "anthropology" avant la lettre because religion is an attempt to understand human origins and the fundamentally human fact of the sacred, sacrificial and sacramental. In other words, religion is trying to understand the anthropological fact that human consciousness exists in a transcendent domain. This idea, that religion has always been about anthropology, is what Rene Girard has made explicit in our times. And now, once we turn back to look at humanity in light of Girard's anthropology, we see that all humanity has some kind of relationship to the sacred in one form or another. We see that what is commonly called the "secular" is just another form of the sacred. And consequently one can now argue that even the "secular" are in some sense religious - not in the sense of belonging to traditional religions but to new kinds of cults that are nonetheless founded on shared faith, shared icons, shared events whose meaning cannot be scientifically determined but is rather accepted, in one way or another, according to the demands of the shared "religion" and not just of "science". These new religions may well use science, good science, but they cannot explain their shared human needs and purposes in strictly "scientific" terms, unless it is a truly anthropological (hence open-ended) "science". And the more they try, the more they fall back on primitive forms of mythology at the expense of the Judeo-Christian revelation that unveiled the workings of that mythology and founded a new anthropology.

truepeers said...

Sorry, I'd like to clarify one point i just made: No, there really is a transcendent domain in which all language and culture and consciousness exists, a domain formed through events where people agree that certain arbitrary distinctions or signs (distinctions we must re-member through making associations since these distinctions (e.g. gay/straight) are imprinted nowhere within or on us) will henceforth hold a "sacred" meaning.

-what I meant to say is that these kind of cultural distinctions are not something we are born with nor are they a permanent or unalterable fact of our material existence because written on our genes or neurons, or what have you. But we do indeed mark ourselves and get marked by others in all sorts of ways. And this marking may take on a physicial appearance - we can read acquired character in a face or body, to some extent.

Doughlas Remy said...

Thanks for the clarification, Truepeers, and thanks also for the links to some of the relevant articles by Gans. I am particularly interested in his take on meme theory (that “silly idea,” as you put it) and will be reading back and forth between Gans and Dennett in the weeks and months to come. If you know of any other good rebuttals of meme theory, please send them my way. I’ve been looking for good discussions about the linkages (or lack thereof) between mimetics and memetics for some time, but was just too lazy to dig them out. If you haven’t read Dennett, I would recommend doing so, and I believe you will find his prose to be both elegant and lucid.

One reason I come back to Gil’s site again and again is that I always find plenty of opportunities here to test my assumptions and learn from different points of view. And I find, moreover, that my views do subtly change over time as a result of the conversations that I have here.

Your remark that I had “bought into a violent, materialistic modernism” caught me by surprise and I didn’t understand where it was coming from. Could you explain what you mean by that? If you know something about me that I don’t know about myself, then please share the details. Gil tells me that my “lifestyle” is dangerous and pathological, and you find that I subscribe to a violent and materialistic modernism. All in all, I must be a pretty nasty character. This comes as a surprise to me (I just turned 66 and have never been in prison. No felonies, no DUIs, no addictions, no STDs, happily partnered, active in family and community, environmentally responsible, employed, and in good health except for back pains). What must one achieve in this life to avoid being called dangerous, pathological, violent, and materialistic? Your bar—and Gil’s—are perhaps unrealistically high. Is there no difference between me and Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer?

Instead of continuing your dialogue of the deaf with the religious,...

And deaf, too? My shortcomings are mounting by the minute. But let’s keep some perspective. I am old enough to recognize that people who don’t make themselves clear sometimes become frustrated and lash out at those who haven't understood them, claiming that they are either deaf or ... just dumb. It’s okay. I do it, too, and I always hope someone will point it out to me when I do.

And then, too, you may have mistaken disagreement for deafness.

For example, your claim that gay/straight distinctions are not imprinted anywhere within us is probably untrue, as you will discover if you read any of the scientific research on this subject. Again, I’m too lazy to dig it out now, but can offer help if you have difficulty finding it. Look for the word “hypothalamus.”

If your claim about imprinting is untrue, then your conclusion that the gay/straight distinction holds a sacred meaning is probably unfounded. This is an example of what I mean by legitimate disagreement.

I usually find that trying to discuss the sacred is like trying to nail jello to a tree. The best we can do is to start with a good working (and hopefully succinct!) definition. The Rieff’s “unique unalterability” is certain short (and could have been even shorter by a word), but it completely inadequate in every other way. In fact, it’s so close to an absence that it nearly disappears altogether. (Somehow, everything brings me back to the notion that the sacred is a void.)

Doughlas Remy said...

Does Gans offer a relatively simple and free-standing definition of “sacred”—one that doesn’t require years of study to understand? I really do not know how to evaluate a lot of what you’ve written without some definitions. We need “transcendence,” “sacred,” “religion,” “sacramental,” for starters. You and Gans are using words in a very special way, and then sometimes you put them in quotation marks, suggesting a more conventional meaning that you’ve “transcended,” if I may use that word in that way. (“Which way?” you may well ask...)

Who’s on first? Who is.

When you write that “[Humans] invented or, for the religious, were given, a completely new form of social order...” you’ve offered two possible understandings of where the new form of social order came from. Which one is yours? This seems to me an important point, because our attitude toward that “form of social order” will be radically different according to our view of its origins, and the social implications are monumental.

After reading thousands of words that you’ve written about the transcendent, I don’t recall your taking a position. Is there in fact an immaterial God who intervenes in human affairs?

What do you think of Rieff’s “uniquely unalterable?” Is there such an animal?

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, I was just listening to an interview with Steven Pinker, an experimental and cognitive scientist at Harvard. He was asked about the genetic origins of (exclusive) homosexuality and replied that about 30% of variation in sexual orientation can be accounted for by genes. He didn’t break down the other 70% but reported evidence pointing to the influence (in males) of the pre-natal environment where the mother had already birthed one or more males and had therefore experienced higher-than-normal levels of testosterone exposure. (Pinker didn’t mention female homosexuality.) He also reported that there is no evidence pointing to any adaptive function for homosexuality.

The other study that I was only dimly remembering was by neuroscientist Simon LeVay, also once at Harvard and now at the Salk Institute. In 1991, LeVay published “A difference in hypothalamic structure between heterosexual and homosexual men,” in Science. Apparently, the third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus, known as INAH3, is more than twice as large in heterosexual men as in homosexual men.

LeVay’s findings are contested, as you might expect, but he never claimed to have found a genetic cause for homosexuality, only a link in the chain. Obviously, a great deal more research needs to be done, but Pinker claims there is a scientific consensus supporting the presence of significant genetic and hormonal factors.

So, these straight/gay distinctions are probably not arbitrary, if by “arbitrary,” you mean invented. Homosexuals’ new-found sense of themselves as a group with a political agenda is probably a result of the persecution and discrimination that they’ve faced over the years. And yet, there is not just one agenda or one experience, but many, and what those Canadian gays (in your earlier link) described as the “gay community” is actually many communities, some of which have little in common and even less to do with each other. I think one thing all gays can agree upon is that negative stereotyping and stigmatization must be stopped. This is going to require public education and constant reminders that the kinds of slanders we’ve repeatedly heard from public figures like Gil are out of bounds.

Selecting the worst behaviors of a group and then identifying them as the group’s “lifestyle” is the very mark and essence of bigotry. For this to sink in, you only need to imagine how an anti-Catholic individual might choose to characterize the “Catholic lifestyle” following the revelations about child sex abuse and cover-up at the highest levels of the Church hierarchy. Or what are we to say about the “Catholic lifestyle” after a visit to Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro, or to the horrifying crucifixion re-enactments that occur every Spring in the Philippines—complete with real nails hammered through hands and feet and real crowns of thorns and whips tearing into bleeding flesh, backs literally covered with bloody wounds? Is this Catholicism?

One sure way we can show respect for each other is to both accept and offer reproof when it is warranted, regardless of our affiliations. Child sexual abuse is not just an internal matter for the Church. It is a civil matter that everyone has a right to speak out about. If gay men are engaging in unsafe sexual practices and spreading disease, then everyone has a right—and even a responsibility—to complain and take appropriate action. But let’s not use the destructive behaviors of certain individuals to attack entire groups that they belong to. This is just political divisiveness at its worst, and history shows us what extreme dangers it poses.

truepeers said...

Your remark that I had “bought into a violent, materialistic modernism” caught me by surprise and I didn’t understand where it was coming from. Could you explain what you mean by that? If you know something about me that I don’t know about myself, then please share the details.

-well, first of all, I think we are all implicated in violence to a degree; second, I said you had bought into a violent world view but this does not mean you are personally particularly violent, anymore than someone who bought into Communism need not have been personally responsible for Stalin's mass murder.

If someone seems keen to deny certain fundamental facts of human reality - in this case, the denial that there is a domain of shared transcendence, i.e. that human consciousness subsists in a transcendent, non-material reality that is not reducible to biological determinants - then in my view they are violently fighting with the human as, in my view, was most of the modernist movement that sought a social "science" to empirically determine and control humanity. At the extreme, this attitude became a license for mass murder.

To say this is not to say that anyone in particular is a "Ted Bundy"; it is to to say that certain ideas in which we have a share in propagating can and have led to violence.


Furthermore, I didn't say you were deaf. I said that when it comes to religion, you are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf which means that there are two sides which fail to appreciate each other's perspective because they can locate little in common to talk about. In order for you to have a conversation with people who take the sacred and transcendent seriously, I am suggesting that you try looking at religion in some new, more specficially anthropological, ways that will help you recognize that the sacred is not a question of whether or not we believe in God, or when we can hope to outgrow this childish infatuation.

truepeers said...

Does Gans offer a relatively simple and free-standing definition of “sacred” —one that doesn’t require years of study to understand?

-In Gans' anthropology, the sacred is something we experience in the course of a communal event; it is not in the first place a concept. Gans generally speaks of the experience in terms of the deferral of violence or the deferred appropriation of an object of shared desire. The sacred is not quite the same as the significant and so does not lend itself to a "free-standing definition". Gans is not trying to construct a metaphysical system where words are given precise definitions. What is important in his way of thinking is to study how words are used in an attempt to minimize - reduce unnecessary assumptions - our understanding of what is necessary for humans to have a memorable event or experience.

you’ve offered two possible understandings of where the new form of social order came from. Which one is yours? This seems to me an important point, because our attitude toward that “form of social order” will be radically different according to our view of its origins, and the social implications are monumental.

-I don't think the implications are at all monumental once you adopt my kind of anthropological perspective. I tend to be a theist though I have to work at it in the sense that I am aware how an experience/conception of the divine is a necesary part of being human, of sharing with others scenes on which we defer our shared capacity for violence. In other words, belief in God is not really the choice. It is more a question of what is God, as far as humans can know. Anyway, ultimate questions of how much God is a human creation and how much a pre-condition for humanity can be bracketed and don't determine in any way I am aware how I reflect on anthropology, society, politics, culture, etc. What it affects perhaps is more one's readiness for spontaneous actions in good faith, or one's willingness to engage in the necessary work of prayer/faithful thinking.

What do you think of Rieff’s “uniquely unalterable?” Is there such an animal?

-Rieff seems to be talking about the experience of religious orthodoxy, in which generation after generation return to remember founding events, renunciations, and imperatives in much the same way. He no doubt has much to teach us about what it means to live in a shared covenant across time. However, this understanding of the sacred does not account for all possible experiences of the sacred. There are secular forms of the sacred, of the experiences of our desire being simultaneously attracted and deferred in creating order, such as the systems in which consumer society operates.

truepeers said...

He was asked about the genetic origins of (exclusive) homosexuality and replied that about 30% of variation in sexual orientation can be accounted for by genes. He didn’t break down the other 70%

-I have no doubt that we are all born with a certain kind of individual nature or personality whose kernel is already formed. And, depending on the historical or social context into which we are born, this will tend to play out in various ways and not others. But it seems to be laughable to think one can break down sexual orientation by percentages into its genetic and other components. The possible ways of being human are largely historical in nature, and any attempt to reduce these to genetic factors that supposedly operate much the same away across time seems to me a game only for those who have little concern for how desire is learned in the domain of non-material culture.

Homosexuals’ new-found sense of themselves as a group with a political agenda is probably a result of the persecution and discrimination that they’ve faced over the years. And yet, there is not just one agenda or one experience, but many

-of course, the attempt to reduce sexuality to any standard experience is a fool's game. It is a choice and we cannot beg off arguing about it as such for all choices have social implications. You know, one of the interesting things about victimary politics is that much feminist thought today goes out of its way to deny that there is any essential difference between men and women, while the latest "queer" ideology goes out of its way to insist on some essential biological difference. But this tactical difference between feminists and queers seems to me largely pragmatic - not based on a coherent anthropology - within a common antinomianism. What unites them is a denial that we have to choose to live according to one or another set of shared social norms, and I think that is an error.

Which gets us to this: This is going to require public education and constant reminders that the kinds of slanders we’ve repeatedly heard from public figures like Gil are out of bounds.

-I don't think Gil is slandering homosexual persons when he says that homosexuality leads to ills like depression or suicide. Rather he is offering an interpretation, debatable, of certain observable tendencies. As the story of the "Rainbow Health Coalition" I linked in the other post shows, homosexual activists, when they think it is is in their interest, also admit that there is a correlation between homoexuality and higher rates of depression and suicide. Now, logically, if we accept this correlation it must be that either people more inclined to become depressed or suicidal turn to homosexuality or homosexuality leads to mental illness more often than with "straight" people, or both.

This leads us into a discussion I just don't have the time or energy to begin right now. Nor do I think we have a right to impose on Gil to such an extent. I suggest if you want to continue this and understand why i think the liberal worldview that we should just live "each to his own" - without defending certain norms and trying to convert others to our norms - doesn't work, we do it at some point in the future when I'm less busy, and via email: truepeers@gmail.com

i really need to attend to some other matters for the next few days at least. best,

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, you have probably signed off the discussion, but I’ll add this for anyone who happens to still be following it:

Your reaction to the scientific evidence that I offered about the genetic and hormonal causes of homosexuality was that it was “laughable.” But you did not offer any counter evidence and instead only expressed a personal opinion that you did not even bother to support with an argument. I’m always taken by surprise when anyone just “dismisses” science in this way, especially because I know how selective that dismissal must be in a world such as ours.

It may be true that there is a higher rate of depression and suicide among gay males in general. I know for a fact that the suicide rates among gay teens are alarmingly high. This is not at all surprising, considering the treatment they receive. They are not just “playing the victim.” They are victims. How can anyone who reads the daily newspaper pretend not to know this? Do you not know how gay Mormon youth are treated? Or how gay youth in fundamentalist and Catholic homes throughout this country are shunned and put into “therapy,” which more often than not drives them further into depression? Did you not read recently about the high school prom that was cancelled in Mississippi because a female student wanted to bring another girl with her? How do you think such shunning might have affected these two young persons?

But you conclude that, “logically,” there can be only two reasons for these higher rates of suicide and depression. The first is that depressed people turn to homosexuality, and the second is that homosexuality leads to mental illness. (The first of these, I presume, is a throw-away?)

Your conclusion ignores available evidence and relies too heavily on logic—a logic that, in this case, is fatally flawed. Consider for example the fact that Mormon women (straight ones) use antidepressants far more than other women in this country. How are we to explain this? If there were not billions of non-Mormon women with whom to compare them, we might conclude that being a woman causes depression. But this is absurd.

The answer is obvious: Mormon women use anti-depressants at a higher rate because of the way they are treated. The problem in their case is a serious imbalance of power in relationships and a loss of control over their own lives.

Or consider the higher rates of violence and drug use among black youth in this country. Would you conclude that being black “causes” these problems? I would hope not. You may answer that homosexuality, unlike race, is a chosen identity. But I would, once again, point you to the large body of scientific evidence that says otherwise. Your dismissal of that evidence does nothing to make it go away.

More serious forms of ill-treatment, including shunning, stigmatization, harassment, discrimination, bullying, physical assaults, and incarcerations can also cause depression and even drive people to suicide. This is just Psych 101, and it also happens to be common knowledge.

The view that people commit suicide only because there is something wrong with them is not only unscientific but mythical in the Girardian sense. The victim must be perceived as guilty.

But I can tell you one thing for sure: When a bright and talented 13- or 14-year-old youth commits suicide because he has experienced an overwhelming sense of his own guilt and worthlessness over being gay, then something in our society badly needs fixing. The persecutions and disinformation campaigns need to stop, and gay youth need to know not only that they are valued and respected but that there is a positive path for them in life—a path that includes full access to all the rights and opportunities that straight people enjoy.

truepeers said...

Doughlas,

You are right to point out that I could have qualified my argument by pointing to the way homosexuals are treated by others. But i was pointing to a larger question I don't want to get into now because I can't make it briefly: how can we live in any kind of free society without there being norms (perhaps many more possible norms than we presently know, but norms nonetheless) that will lead to some people being treated as heretical? If there is not prejudice, common sense, can there be freedom? Or, what kind of prejduices serve a greater freedom and which don't and need to be gotten rid of? I don't see your discourse as seriously grappling with these questions. I see a desire to avoid them by defending a general attack on all prejudice, defending a "freedom" that somehow exists in a historical vacuum. And whatever the places for homosexuality in a free society, this avoidance is dangerous and violent. I do not assume that "homophobia" is something we can one day just outlaw (because i believe we are all born capable of homosexual desires and some will always see fit to resist this); so i take that into account when considering what homosexuality necssarily entails as its risks - I cannot just pretend the prejudice out there is not inevitable. I am no gay Utopian.

I was out for a drink recently and there was one gay guy going on about how much his community "privately" hates bisexuals - apparently, they are a threat to certain politicized genetical assumptions, and social practises, of his community. He bitchily assumed a right to such prejudices because he was gay. I would accord him the right and the need, not because his is "gay", but because he is human, fallen.

I believe in a free society with individual rights to live as one sees fit. However, if this freedom is to be sustained I don't believe that this can mean anything other than arguing with others about the common terms on which all our shared freedom depends and is reproducible across time from generation to generation. Freedom does not operate in a vacuum; it grows from the "common sense" assumption of shared limits, renunciations, disciplines. A liberal society is always at risk of devolving into tyranny under the guise of "human rights" to the extent it would deny to people the need to rule themselves according to half-grasped experience and to defend the normative in one shape or another, to the extent it appoints centralized overseers who get to determine what is or isn't acceptable "discrimination".

truepeers said...

My belief is that rare are the occasions when we can make unproblematic distinctions between recognizing someone as an unquestionable victim, and someone wanting to see themselves as a victim. (This may be particularly true in our postmodern culture where victim status has recognition and rewards but it has always been true to a degree - for example the Aztecs were surely only able to sacrifice thousands in a few days in elaborate festivals/procedures of blood letting because the victims helped go along with it...)

The widespread desire in our times to defend the status of an unquestionable victimhood leads to tyranny for it licenses an endless inquisition against all norms, as all social differences, the necessary and the not, are ultimately seen to be illegitimate assertions of someone's power over another. This does not lead to freedom but an elite of centralized power policers who can never have enough "science", i.e. to another falsely "scientific" "communism". A return to freedom will require each of us to defend certain time-tested norms as preferred when it comes, for example, to raising young people. This is not to say there can be no place for homosexual norms; but it is to say we need argue seriously about what kinds of family life are more or less conducive to recognizing our covenant with generations past and present and raising free individuals who are not so inclined to see in any and every necessary social distinction the sign of an illegitimate power and victimization. That only needs to nihilism, depression.

To assume that 13 or 14 year olds who commit suicide "because they're gay" are uniquely the victims of homophobia and not at all those who push on youth an agenda of identifying themselves as having fixed and essential sexual identities which may or may not lead to a victim status and all that goes with that - is outrageous. There is a sacrificial violence inherent in your argument, though this is the point I doubt i can make to you in any quick and easy way.

I laugh at certain claims of "science" because I have seen, as a student of history, how often faulty are supposed sciences of the human that take the natural sciences as their model. I have countless times seen the absurd logics of scientism on display. We cannot study the human from the outside, "objectively". Human sciences are inherently political, and ultimate accounts of causation are never really graspable, because we are free. Human science is a market phenomenon; its "findings" are used in all kinds of unpredictable ways. And why lecture me on being too lazy to engage a certain body of literature in a world where time and energy is limited? Do we engage here presuming such a commitment to be normal? I am not offended that you earlier admitted being too lazy to make the "scientific" argument. But why should I take seriously anything that you, as an engaged amateur, in an amateur's forum, holding up as point of pride, cannot demonstrate in short order?

Doughlas Remy said...

...how can we live in any kind of free society without there being norms (perhaps many more possible norms than we presently know, but norms nonetheless) that will lead to some people being treated as heretical?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t, though I would change that last part to “...that will lead to some behaviors being treated as unethical and immoral.” (We should probably avoid language that evokes the Inquisition.)

If I believed otherwise, then I wouldn’t be chiding Gil for his negative stereotypes of homosexuality.

Norms are absolutely essential to the functioning of a free society. The question we are all facing in our increasingly pluralistic world is, “Which norms are justified and which are not?” ...and the associated philosophical question, “What is to be the basis for a system of ethical norms?”

You came close to stating this question yourself when you asked, “What kind of prejudices serve a greater freedom?” But why would you choose the word “prejudices” instead of “norms?” You had started out with norms, and then switched to “prejudices,” as though they were the same. But they are not. Prejudices are unreasoned judgments, and they are made before evidence or rational argument are presented. I can’t think of any prejudices that serve a greater freedom, though there are plenty of norms that do. Maybe you can help me with some examples.

I don’t see your discourse as seriously grappling with these questions.

That could be because you hadn’t raised them or because we hadn’t zeroed in on them yet. I’m certainly up for grappling with them all you want.

I see a desire to avoid them by defending a general attack on all prejudice, defending a “freedom” that somehow exists in a historical vacuum. And whatever the places for homosexuality in a free society, this avoidance is dangerous and violent.

It is dangerous and violent to attack unreasoned a priori judgments (prejudices)?

So when I defend homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, women, African-Americans and historians against negative stereotypes (prejudices) that can clearly lead to violence against them, I am avoiding questions that would presumably lead me to appreciate the historical value of these prejudices? (And my avoidance is dangerous and violent?) Hmmm. Something about this just doesn’t add up.

I cannot just pretend the prejudice out there is not inevitable.

I can.

Doughlas Remy said...

You appear to have misgivings about according victim status to certain people, e.g., homosexuals, who were not traditionally regarded as victims but as guilty and deserving of punishment. You used the words “tyranny” and “Communism” in this connection, and I infer that you see these as the dangerous outcomes of an “endless inquisition against all norms...” This seems somewhat hyperbolic to me. Why call free inquiry an “inquisition?” And how could free inquiry about norms lead to totalitarianism? And isn’t the revelation of the truth of the victim what we all came here to celebrate?

A return to freedom will require each of us to defend certain time-tested norms as preferred when it comes, for example, to raising young people.

A return to freedom? Did we lose it? I realize that we’re never completely free, but was there a time when we had more freedom? And were the old ways of raising children necessarily better? I get uneasy when anyone starts talking about “time-tested norms.” I don’t think I would care to roll back the social reforms of the last few centuries in favor of a world in which women were considered property, children’s creativity was brutally suppressed, black people were considered racially inferior, and homosexuals were treated as criminal deviants.

You appear to think those advocating for gay rights are among those who “see in any and every necessary [!] social distinction the sign of an illegitimate power and victimization.” I actually do not know of anyone who believes such things. I myself believe that the “social distinction” enshrined in discriminatory laws is unnecessary and illegitimate, but I would hardly agree that “any and every” social distinction fits that description. Obviously, there needs to be a social distinction between those who make bigoted remarks about Jews (or homosexuals) and those who do not. What you are describing is a kind of confused nihilism that one might find in extremely troubled and asocial people. I don’t think we really need to go there.

And lastly, I did plead laziness in not fetching a citation from scientific literature for you, but I did offer to find it if you couldn’t, and I did supply that citation shortly thereafter, even before you requested it. The important thing is that I did not favor an argument that was unsupported by either evidence or logic over one that had such support, however inconclusive.

Science is certainly flawed, as you claim, but much less so than pure speculation unfettered by either evidence or logic. To dismiss the scientific method in a quest for truth is, I think, dangerous and misguided. Even in historical investigations, you gather data, you form hypotheses, and then you test them against available evidence. This is just science of the sort that we practice every day of our lives in countless ordinary ways. This is why I remarked that your dismissal of science was “selective.” The next time you have surgery, I suggest you share your views about science with your surgeon.

Doughlas Remy said...

(Truepeers: This comment somehow didn't make it. It should be in a middle position between my last two.)

How generous of you to accord the gay guy in the bar the right and the need to express his hatred for bisexuals. Did it occur to you that you might have had a moral responsibility to challenge him or at least to get up and leave in protest? What if he had been spewing hatred of Catholics, Jews, or historians? Could you have tolerated his diatribe because you enjoyed hearing him bash bisexuals and thereby confirm your low opinion of him?

Elie Wiesel wrote, “I swore to never be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides, Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim, silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

This is what I mean by moral norms. You yourself said it: “How can we live in any kind of free society without there being norms...?” Indeed. But your norms do not require you to speak out against hateful speech? You complained about him to me, but not to him directly. What good does that do?

Freedom ...grows from the “common sense” assumption of shared limits, renunciations, disciplines.

Certainly that is true, but some negotiations are needed to determine who is going to renounce what. Should homosexuals accept renunciation of their sexuality? Or should we ask that certain hard-line Christians renounce their desire to control everyone’s private and adult-consensual sexuality? I would vote for the latter and would offer both evidence and rational arguments to support my choice.

My belief is that rare are the occasions when we can make unproblematic distinctions between recognizing someone as an unquestionable victim, and someone wanting to see themselves as a victim.

I don’t believe these occasions are as rare as you suppose. All those forms of victimization that I mentioned earlier—shunning, stigmatization, harassment, discrimination, bullying, physical assaults, and incarcerations—are clear cases, and they are in the news almost every day. Are you aware of what has been going on in Uganda, where legislation was pending to allow the execution of homosexuals? If this is not victimization, then the word “victim” has no meaning.

You argue that the sacrificed “victims” in Aztec rituals were in some way complicit in their own ghastly suffering, and I infer from the context of your paragraph that you are citing them as examples of individuals who see some advantage in victim status. So they don’t need our sympathy, right? They were only doing what they wanted to do, and it gave their lives meaning?

What about Jesus Christ? Though he may have asked his father to spare him, he was ultimately willing to be crucified. Does this mean that he was not a bona fide victim? Is a victim to be defined as someone who has to be dragged kicking and screaming to his/her death? If Jesus was not a victim because he understood and accepted his death, then Girard’s mimetic theory is in shambles and we can all go home.

We know that most women in fundamentalist Islamic societies accept their inferior status and will even defend the very men who impose it on them. Nevertheless, those who withhold education from them,who restrict their freedoms, and who mistreat them can only be described as victimizers, and the women are victims whether or not they dare to acknowledge that fact.

truepeers said...

What follows is a response to the first of your last three comments, written before i saw the other two which i won't have time to respond to...

But why would you choose the word “prejudices” instead of “norms?” You had started out with norms, and then switched to “prejudices,” as though they were the same. But they are not. Prejudices are unreasoned judgments, and they are made before evidence or rational argument are presented.

-I'm glad you said this because i think this gets us to the nub of the matter. I do not think our norms are constructed largely through rational argument. Reason is largely a defense or critique of what already is, not the core of the process by which something new emerges. In a process of which I have yet a very imperfect grasp, norms are the product of revelations, renunciations and habits that over time become formalized or memorialized as common sense norms. Adam Katz at the GABlog has been writing a lot about this. Also see Theodore Dalrymple's essay on Prejudice which readily equates prejudice and the normal. Anyway, my talk of "transcendence" is trying to point out the importance of attending to the mystery of just how our lived experience is rendered into narratives and norms. It is anything but a straightforward "scientific" process.

It is dangerous and violent to attack unreasoned a priori judgments (prejudices)?

-in the particular instance maybe not; but in general, it is dangerous to live without a respect for folk wisdom, common sense or norms (we need not call this prejudice if it is too jarring); and it seems you agree on this to some extent so I maybe have been beating around the bush, failing to make my point or wrongly assuming you are one of these gung ho "progressives" who declare a war against any and all "discrimination" and leave little thought for how any society could operate without some system of "discrimination". Sorry!

truepeers said...

So when I defend homosexuals, Jews, Catholics, women, African-Americans and historians against negative stereotypes (prejudices) that can clearly lead to violence against them, I am avoiding questions that would presumably lead me to appreciate the historical value of these prejudices?

-well, as I suggested, these questions need much more articulation than i am willing or able presently to give. IN general, I am with you as far as you are against "stereotypes" that amount to real scapegoating and a refusal of a proper share in equality and freedom. I am not so much against stereotypes that point to important differences in rough and ready fashion. Not all social differentiations are the product of scapegoat myths. We still need "prejudices" or standards by which we can articulate or give shape to the experience of the conflicts and co-dependent imperatives of equality and freedom. And in our present culture, we witness a popular mentality that aims to deconstruct all norms and standards as somehow illegitimate and a blow against equality. This leads to nihilism and stateism. We see few young people interested, not in "deconstruction", but in actively constructing the normal as a product of free people interacting with minimal state intrusion. So maybe we can move the discussion on to how we can better articulate figures that could become standard bearers of both equality and freedom. But how can we construct icons of a new normal strictly through the exercise of reason and evidence? I would say our figures must emerge in the course of events; they must emerge from within and memorialize our conflicts and interactions and cannot be imposed from outside by some "scientific" authority.

As for the last line you quote about my belief that prejudice is inevitable... well I did not mean to suggest that just any old prejudice is inevitable but i am writing quickly here. I think it is important to recognize that resentment is an inevitable part of the human condition and it will always emerge in relation to the exercise of our desires. We need prejudices or norms to the extent these are ways of mediating our inevitable conflicts of desires and the resentments they generate. We need certain forms of common sense because we can't come up with some perfectly nuanced system for capturing and judging and directing reality in its fullness. The attempt to do so leads to Gnosticism and tyrannical political religions.

Doughlas Remy said...

Truepeers, in the domain of morality, norms and prejudices must be different. A norm is a statistical description of how widely a given belief is held, whereas a prejudice is a belief that is unsupported by either reason or evidence.

Norms (beliefs held by a majority of people in a culture) may be arrived at through processes that may be either closed and irrational or open to free inquiry and revision. That is to say, they may be the result of prejudices (as in the case of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves), or they may be the products of careful thought and a commitment to certain universal values of justice, fairness, and human decency (e.g., the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). These latter principles are not arbitrary; many of them have a clear adaptive basis and are found in every human society.

Not all prejudices result in unjust moral or ethical conduct, but there comes a time when every prejudice should be identified as such and examined under the full light of reason and evidence. No moral norm should ever be based on prejudice for long—and need not be.

I detect in your analysis an exaggerated respect for norms. But in fact, not only is the term “norm” value-neutral, but norms themselves are constantly in flux. (This is as it should be; they should be open to revision.) In Germany of the Nazi era, the norm was to persecute Jews, and in the ante-Bellum South, slavery was considered the norm. It took two major wars to dislodge those odious norms. In most modern American cities, allowing one’s dog to befoul the sidewalk is considered an unacceptable variance from the norm, but this was not the case in Paris until fairly recently. The norms regarding smoking in public places vary from country to country, as do norms regarding homosexuality, environmental responsibility, abortion, etc. So your claim that “norms are the product of revelations, renunciations and habits that over time become formalized or memoralized...” says nothing about the value of such norms. To invest them with any kind of sacred aura is nothing more than an attempt to secure and protect them from scrutiny and change.

...in general, it is dangerous to live without a respect for folk wisdom, common sense or norms.

“Dangerous?” I would agree that there may be dangers in pushing the bell curve around. You could get killed. But in some cases, wouldn’t that be the moral thing to do, i.e., to accept that risk? When you look at all the great heroes of history—and even literature—how many of them do you find were afraid of bucking norms? Certainly not Jesus or Martin Luther King, Jr. Or what about Darwin, Galileo, Spinoza, and John Galt? What of all those great characters that Jimmy Stewart played in films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”

Indeed, doesn’t Gil Bailie attack certain norms? Don’t you?

So I suspect that you are being selective in your respect for norms. I sense that you might like to bracket certain norms so that they are removed from public scrutiny. When discussing homosexuality, certain religious folks often cite “tradition” or “time-tested norms,” or they use other language that attempts to bind their prejudice to something transcendent and “uniquely unalterable.” I see this as a ploy to stop the inquiry and to impose an authoritarian verdict regarding homosexuality. Prejudices such as we’ve seen expressed by Gil (where he characterizes “the homosexual lifestyle [sic]” as “dangerous and pathological”) will not hold up under the scrutiny of reason and evidence.