Wednesday, March 12, 2008

note taking. posted (by me) elsewhere
In discussions of dogma the religiously inclined are among the only defenders of the definition of language as the creation of community and not of individuals. There are secularists who would make the same argument, but they usually avoid these sorts of debate. The secularists who fight with believers are knee-jerk individualists. I will respect the faithful more than those who debate them (at this level of abstraction) because regardless of their metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, their observations about the processes of culture, community and language production are empirically sound. The individualists’ arguments are based on faith.
“I’m free! I’m free!”
No, you’re not. You’re utterly predictable.

I suppose it would be an arcane point, but (again) facts are mundane. Truths even at their simplest are mundanities compounded with values. The struggle for “objectivity” is the attempt to separate facts from values.

A month or so ago I scanned through a PBS documentary on space exploration, following the Cassini mission and the Huygens probe. After the landing on Titan one of the project managers, describing her near ecstasy as the data began coming in, referred to her relation to Titan as akin to love. This was said seemingly without self-consciousness or irony.

The rocks on Titan are facts. The landing didn’t change them atomically or Platonically. The desire for them or for knowledge about them, and all the psychological baggage that accrues to the process are something else. I was more fascinated by the wide-eyed childlike expression on the woman's face than by the rocks. That interest is what defines me as a humanist: an awareness of the difference between first and second order awareness, or first and second order curiosity.

I went out for dinner tonight with a friend, a surgeon, who went on a rant about young doctors who test everything and read charts rather than examining anything themselves. Since they have no sense of detail, of cases, and know only rules and generalizations, they miss things. He and four other big shots lounging around after an all day oncology seminar spent a couple hours telling each other horror stories.

What does it mean that the mythologies of the Turkish secularists are more threatening to to the growth of liberal democracy than the mythologies of the Islamists? What does it mean to be unable to recognize that fact!?

I’m sure McGinn agrees about human rights, but they aren’t his focus. His focus is “reason.” Mine is democracy. I’m interested in rationality as result, he’s interested in it as a cause (in both meanings of the term). He doesn’t understand the difference, and neither does the Turkish military.
That’s the key. Democracy is formal. It’s about means, not ends. Under the rule of reason the guilty, and many others, go to prison. Under the rule of law they may go free if the state didn’t follow the rules regulating arrest. At that point actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant. The rational defense of democracy is the rational belief that there are more important things to worry about than absolutes. At some point contempt for “illogic” or “unreason” segues into contempt for formalism and democracy and the drive for “progress” becomes the opposite of what it claims. The title of this post is “Respecting Religious Believers.” My question is whether we should respect people who focus on that question, especially if the discussion is in terms of politics.
I can’t.
Democracy is not utilitarian. It’s strength is in the constant redefinition of “utility.” When utility has one meaning, when the press or any of the branches of government chooses reason over the defense of it’s prerogatives, republican government falls apart. Reasonable government is the result of formalized adversarialism and institutionalized skepticism. Whether its “true” or not doesn’t really matter. Science geeks who want to run the world logically don’t seem to understand that.

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