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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Stoopid

Lots of you by now have probably spotted Stanley Fish's most recent column in the New York Times. If you haven't he reviews the book "Reason, Faith and Revolution" by Brit author Terry Eagleton. Eagleton, evidently, has written a book castigating the so-called New Atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, whom Eagleton collectively refers to as "Ditchkins"). Particularly, he seems to be advancing the NOMA system of the late Stephen Jay Gould, arguing that religion and science fundamentally address different questions and thus cannot speak directly to each other. I, generally speaking, agree with this position in that I think that science speaks very nicely to matters of fact but is poorly suited to dealing with questions of value. So, for example, science can tell you what will happen if you do a certain thing, and why that is the case, but cannot tell you whether you should do that thing. The difference between terraforming and catastrophic global warming, after all, is largely one of perspective.

Now, I haven't read Eagleton's book, so I don't want to criticize it. From Fish's summary of it, I rather expect it's the same sort of dreary apologetics I often run across and it includes the usual degree of goalpost shifting (e.g. Eagleton apparently claims that religion was never meant as an explanation for anything material, a perspective that I regard as patently false based on both the assertions of many creeds and thousands of years of recorded history) but I have not actually read it and so cannot form an opinion. It is, after all, extremely inappropriate to form a strong opinion about a work you have not actually read and no serious scholar would do so.

What I have read, however, is Fish's review of Eagleton's book and that review is, in a word, a clusterfuck. Arguably Tom has already made that point more amusingly than I can, but I do want to belabor one particular issue. Fish* argues this following in his review:

“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny. [emphasis added]

So, in short, since any logical chain of inference must start with an assumption of some kind and this assumption must be taken as true without evidence, then any thinker must, at some point, develop a degree of "faith." This is the premise outlined in Rene Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum, the notion that we must take something as true in order to reason outwards and, indeed, quite possibly the sole thing we can be certain of is that we, ourselves, exist. In order to avoid total solipsism, many of us accept certain other things are true (e.g. that the world is more or less as it appears to be, that others really exist, etc) but we cannot truly prove these things correct and, therefore, must accept them in a sense on faith. Thus, to this extent, I agree with Fishelton.

The difficulty emerges in the second paragraph where Fishelton refers to the "spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason," and speaks comparatively glowingly about "a flawed but aspiring religious faith." Leaving aside the puzzling question of what "unaided" means in "unaided reason"** I think Fishelton is engaged in a certain amount of sleight of hand with this argument. That all chains of inference must begin with a leap of faith is certainly true, but some leaps are more like short hops while others would require some sort of rocket-booster to complete successfully. Assuming that the world I sense is more or less the real world is a much smaller assumption than that an omniscient, omnipotent, invisible being exists, loves us, and designed the entire universe around us. One of these (the former) simply accepts what we already experience as being true while another (the latter) accepts that and postulates a whole bestiary of additional things that we cannot actually experience in the first place. Perhaps we are guilty of hubris if we atheists believe that humans are capable of understanding their world and finding good ways of acting, but at least we're not so arrogant as to make shit up out of whole cloth and then accuse others of small mindedness for not believing it.

Fish concludes by commenting on Eagleton's sources of anger when writing the book, and has this to say at the end:

The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.

I suppose all I can say in response is that I am far more weary of fending off limp attempts by the faithful to convince me to believe in the implausible and unobservable. And, if I say so myself, I suspect I have spent more time defending my lack of belief than Fish has ever spent on the arguments for his own.

It's not so much that I fault the emperor for his love of new clothes, but I do wish he wouldn't demand quite so much admiration from the rest of us.

UPDATE: P.Z. Myers has apparently read Eagleton's book- twice- and has rather a lot to say about it. Also, check out the comments section where TDEC helps to account for Eagleton's closing remarks. Enjoy!

* In honor of Eagleton's spectacular snark, whenever I bloody well feel like it, I shall refer to Fish and Eagleton as Fishelton.

** For example, I would argue that science is, in a sense, an aid to reason since logic alone has proven insufficient for unravelling the universe. Likewise, computers and math seem helpful.

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Blogger TDEC said...

In response to your very last point about Eagleton's supposed anger at having to defend himself/his beliefs. Let me do the TDEC thing here for a moment, because I do think there is a massive cultural difference between the UK/Europe and the US in play here.

I have been an agnostic since I was six, and went to one Catholic University in Belgium, one quasi-protestant one in Northern Ireland, and one state university in Canada. Throughout this education I never spent a moment defending or explaining my beliefs (or lack thereof) to anyone. It was only when I moved to the US that people would be "surprised" that I am not religious. Conversely, the few people I knew in college who were actively religious would often have to respond to questions from fellow students about their beliefs (mostly curiosity, but some hostility, I'm sure).

Mainland Britain is not a very religious place, and I can easily imagine that Eagleton would find a lot of resistance to his beliefs - perhaps more than Dawkins would. The belligerent tone adopted by many of the most vocal atheists is a response to the American climate of mutual recrimination, but it ends up sounding very strident and aggressive in the more moderate European context. It is not too much of a leap to think that it might make the already somewhat beleaguered European Christians feel harassed. I can't speak for Fish - or for Eagleton really - but I do think two different debates are being mixed up. And I do think many Europeans don't understand why science and religion should be arguing at all.

Even as an agnostic, and a liberal, I feel like I am getting yelled at by Hitchins when I read his books, like a passer-by being punched out by somebody coming out of a bar fight. If the atheists want to change this debate, they have to do better than be the academic version of Keith Olbermann. If that's not fair - and it's not, because the religious right does use all of the propaganda tactics - then tough luck. The last election shows that you can be complex, nuanced, non-combative and yet wildly successful.

Anyway, that's my emotions talking, and the eight-year-old who got told that the only way to be agnostic/atheist was to work harder at being good, principled and kind. What a defense for a rational belief system...yet I am convinced that the aggressive stance of Dawkins and his kind makes it easier to take the debate away from them and dismiss them as angry God-haters. Anger, on either side, is a weakness. I could criticise the religious side of this debate, but as long as I feel more ashamed of the tactics of my side of the debate, I don't really feel entitled to. Can we really not have the reasoning without the rant?

Yeah, I see how that's ironic, not to mention off-topic.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009 7:06:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...


I think you make a good point about the European versus American contexts here. Thanks for adding it, because I really do think it contributes.

As regards Dawkins et al., I actually agree with you that they're too strident. Given the climate in the U.S. I don't think I'm prepared to say that they shouldn't pursue the course they're on, BUT I will say that I think they take the argument to extremes. And I particularly find it annoying when atheists say nasty things about agnostics.

So, hey, there you go.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009 7:11:00 AM  

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