Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.

Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Tillich On Symbols, Religion, And Myths

This week, I’ve been teaching and discussing excerpts from Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith in my philosophy of religion class. (In particular, we’ve tackled _The Meaning of Symbol_, _Religious Symbols_, and _Symbols and Myths_, all excerpted in From Religion To Tolstoy and Camus, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)  I suggested to my students before we started our conversation that hopefully, on its completion, they would find the rhetorical use of “just/only a symbol” or “merely symbolic” , or “just a myth” to be quite interestingly problematized. I’d like to think it was.

Tillich’s contributions to our understanding of religious language, knowledge, and practice–which show the influence of existential and psychoanalytic thought in channeling both Nietzsche and Freud–are manifold and important, and I cannot do justice to them here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what they might be by pointing in their direction.

First, Tillich attempts to distinguish ‘symbol’ from ‘sign’ to indicate the abstraction, origins, and applications of the former. This characterization lends itself to a broader philosophical discussion about abstraction and meaning-making in general, and which allows an invocation of the use of symbols and signs in natural and formal languages. Most importantly, it invokes questions central to our reckoning of art and poetry: how do these create meaning, what kind of ‘access to reality’ do they afford us, how do the poet and the artist enable a species of experience unlike any other? Second, he tackles squarely the existential nature of the questions–the meaning and the purpose of life, the relations of our finite life to a potentially infinite existence–that lie at the heart of a certain species of religious engagement. This permits a reckoning of the nature of the human condition such that the kinds of questions that Tillich alludes to, matters of ‘ultimate concern’, that transcend the finite particulars of human life, can be understood as being forced upon us so that non-engagement with them is not an option; this also allows analogies to be drawn about how certain kinds of philosophical questions are, as it were, ‘posed for us’. Third, he redefines ‘God’ in a way that removes a certain species of sterile debate–that of disputing the general theistic conception of God–from the domain of religious thought and draws the atheist into the existential fold; fourth, his treatment of ‘myths’ and ‘mythologies’ offers us a new understanding of religious sentiment and attitudes and allows for a criticism of reductionist attitudes to knowledge; (The discussion here of ‘demythologizing’, the attempt to render myths meaningful in alternative orders of meaning, and the ‘broken myth’ is masterful.); finally, he argues that the defenses of religion’s mythologies by ‘literalism’ contribute to a devaluation of religious thought and sentiment.

Tillich’s treatment of religious symbols and language is historical and anthropological and cultural, one that affords a distinctive answer to one of philosophy of religion’s most central questions; religion is an outward, concrete manifestation of an existential, perennial, unconscious impulse, relying on symbols and stories to engage with questions fundamental to the human condition.

Parable of the Sower: Octavia Butler’s Parable

Octavia Butler‘s Parable of the Sower, the richly symbolic and subversive.story of Lauren Olamina, a prophet in the making, one finding her voice and her people in the midst of an America whose social order is collapsing around her, grows on you.  The story line is sparse: the US’ accumulated social, political and environmental dysfunctions have grown out of control thanks to a myopic complacent populace; some fortunate families shelter in gated communities while urban war rages outside; rape, murder, and mayhem rule rampant; a young girl, convinced she has devised a new religion, Earthseed–whose central principles are that ‘God is Change’ and can be ‘shaped’–finds her sheltering life within these walls untenable, and leaves after yet another attack on them convinces her it is more dangerous inside than outside. From that point on, she accumulates a small band of fellow travelers and heads north to possible safety. On the way she finds further gruesome evidence of the end of the new world and dreams about a new one. The haven promised them turns out to be a burnt-out shelter, the larger world on a smaller scale–but she chooses to drop anchor and get to work on it. (I’ve not read the sequel Parable of the Talents yet, but I intend to. Parable of the Sower was written in 1993, and it sets its action in the years 2025-2027. Though perhaps inevitable, I suspect it is besides the point to wonder if its speculations about a collapsing US are on the mark. The real story lies elsewhere. )

Parable of the Sower is subversive because the prophet is a young black girl, not an old white man. She is wise beyond her years. She is sexually active with young and old men alike; she can be harsh and soft.  She is scientifically literate. She is hyperempathic–she can literally feel the pain of others. (This is a dangerous ‘blessing’ in a world with so much pain but Lauren comes to learn its limits and to live with it.)  She is tough and resourceful and clever; we come to admire her as her dangerous journey progresses. We do not normally associate these qualities with people meeting Lauren’s description–not in this society anyway, with its dominant stereotypes and ideological frames of understanding.  Just for this character, Parable of the Sower would have been an interesting and enlightening read.

But there is more. Earthseed seems a little new-ageish, but teasing out some of Lauren’s pronouncements enable an understanding of it as a kind of existentialist creed, one grounded in a richly interactionist. embedded, dynamic view of man and nature and cosmos. Heaven and hell are found here, around us, made by us, shaped by our actions; the old religions shrouded them in mystery but we live in them everyday. (The shrewd prophet uses that old word ‘God’ to make her religion easier to follow by those accustomed to old anthropomorphic deities.) In a world headed for hell in a handbasket this religion offers no solace, facilitates no finger-pointing; the blame is ours, but so may be the rewards for reconstructing it.  No creed can, or should, offer more.


Saba Naqvi on A Supposed Crisis of Indian Secularism

Saba Naqvi has offered an interesting critique of Indian secularism; in it, she writes of the need to:
[C]onfront the great crisis of Indian secularism, that is now so hollowed out that it makes it easy for communal forces to grow….Indian secularism is not about some utterance of the soul as a Jawaharlal Nehru may have once imagined it. It appears to be mostly about electoral management by secular parties that involves first seeing Muslims as a herd and then trying to keep that herd together.

And goes on:

Beyond that, there is nothing much that the Indian secular state has given the Muslim community except perhaps to ensure that they live for eternity in the museum that displays our secularism. That museum is full of stereotypes, most notably that of the clerics as representative of the community, those men with long beards, and women in burqa. Despite being so all-pervasive, the stereotypes are so flat they at times look like caricatures.

Since Inde­pendence, sec­ular parties in India have approached the Muslim community through clerics and in the process given them legitimacy. The maulanas, in turn, have used the cover of “secularism” to keep retrograde personal laws in place and thereby their own relevance intact till presumably they land in paradise. They rarely talk of jobs, employment, modernity. The result now is that having been given “secularism” to eat and a vote to brandish, the Muslims of India have been left in their ghettos with many “sole spokesmen” of the community. It is these clerics who promise the deliverance of that herd during election time. Their projection of their own clout is often a fraudulent exercise.
Naqvi’s observations are acute but I do not know if I agree with her diagnosis. To wit, it is not clear to me if the situation at hand indicates a crisis of secularism–the Indian one in particular, which seeks to cater to all religions equally as opposed to finding a rigid separation between church and state–as much as it it is an indicator that bad things happen when the pandering almost invariably associated with electoral democracies meets organized religion, or a community in which the pronouncements of clergy are taken seriously as a guide to social action. Political parties approaching communities (read: voting blocs) through clerics alone do not give the clergy legitimacy; that standing is dependent on the social structures within which the priestly order finds a space within which to exert power. I wonder if Naqvi is putting the cart before the horse here.
On an intemperate side note: Many are the times when I wonder if organized religion–with its almost inevitable machinery of interpretive authorities, doctrinal mavens, and holy men–is, everywhere, all the time, a pernicious burden on society. Perhaps Diderot had it right: Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Gary Wills has written what seems like an excellent book about how the Catholic religion could and should get rid of its priests; it’s a model worth emulating elsewhere. (I am well aware that Islam is not similar to Catholicism in this matter.)