Sunday, May 30, 2010

note taking
Posted at Practical Ethics Blog
Religion is formal law as public record. If you want to know what a Christian believes you can look in a book. The text, or law, is a ground. Reason has no single ground. It's fundamentally private. That fact more than anything is why democracy is founded in the rule of written public law and not the rule of reason. The primary function of law is that a people come to some form of agreement. What they agree upon is secondary. Absolute truth is not a goal.
Courtrooms are chambers for decision-making not truth production.

I asked my dentist why he crossed himself before he began work on my root canal."To remind me that there's something out there bigger than I am." I said my family were atheists but that for us history served the same function. He paused for a minute before smiling and nodding.

The logic of law is conservative, even pessimistic. The logic of science is optimistic.
Simon Blackburn, in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines Humanism as "most generally any philosophy concerned to emphasize human welfare and dignity, and optimistic about the powers of unaided human understanding.” The best that can be said is that his may be the contemporary definition. As a matter of history it's simply incorrect The link is to a passage by the art historian Erwin Panofsky [this page se/dg] 
The most famous image in the popular imagination of the power of reason alone is in the character of the Mad Scientist. And it's not uncommon in philosophical circles to read arguments claiming that unaided reason shows that history is bunk [Alex Rosenberg] There's no similar myth of the mad historian, what there are are horror stories in fiction and life of people who claimed that history no longer applied to them.

What drives me up the wall reading through Anglo American academic writing is that there are so many arguments based so much on what the authors know or assume, that actually adding something from outside is impossible. Someone can say "All language is English" and if someone responds in another language they're ignored as spouting gibberish.

Interesting parallel to the mad scientist in American culture is the lone hero. Sadly such discussions have no place in discussion of philosophy.
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"I'm intrigued by Seth's view of religion as public and reason as private. Can't both be either? There's no way I can find out what a Christian believes by looking in a book. Christians have all sorts of idiosyncratic beliefs, some more Bible-based and some less.

As for whether absolute truth is a goal - well, that depends on your values. It can be if you want it to be. Nor, I think, does democracy have to be founded on the rule of written law. It's a mechanism by which the people (as opposed to an élite) take decisions, usually by voting (either directly on issues or by electing officials). It's usually enshrined in written law but I don't see this as a logical necessity.

With regard to English-speaking academic writing, I wonder if the real problem is that native English speakers tend not to read extensively in other languages because of the dominance of our own."

Posted by: Peter Wicks

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Colin McGinn: Relativism and Democracy
I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: "I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men." Toqueville's point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says "considered" not "really". So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?
I think in a very basic way, McGinn is right and in a more important way he's very wrong, to the degree that I find his argument almost obscene. McGinn to me is an arch-Catholic who calls himself an atheist. His idealism is anti-democratic and I'm a defender of democracy. He's also an arch individualist which is another conflict.

My point above was that a faith understood in a common language (Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Hindu) as opposed to a personal experience, is a public record and that it's most important function to society is in that. Not that it isn't also private. And the texts don't have to be written they just has to be collective. The myths of a group bind the group together. And the availability of others myths makes them less foreign. "Oh, you believe in a book too" For some people that book is the Constitution. In a sense I told my dentist I believed in books, and that worked for him, at least to the point of respecting my choice. For someone like McGinn and many others that's not enough. They want "truth."

The structure of law courts are strictly formal. "Due process" even what's now called "substantive due process" is not a guarantee of more. "Beyond a reasonable doubt" is vague. Adherence to precedent, "Stare decisis" got Galileo in trouble, but we still refer to it in courts. Justice is called "imperfect justice" and it's all we'll ever have. And trying to perfect it is less important than raising people who can argue and re-argue articulately, that understand all sides of an argument. So my questions about religion and religious people are not just about what they believe but how those things functions to them: structure and subtext. And my comments above were based on observations of that. It's that kind of reading that interests me, of texts, paintings, and people. Philosophy prefers to decontextualize and read for intention.
I grew up around literature professors and lawyers so that's where I get my "relativism." But it's also where I learned to read the way that brought me to my response to the post about atheists and trust.
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"I also agree that philosophers (as opposed to "philosophy") makes an error if it reads this type of intention into writing that was not intended to be precise in this way."

Even the most precise language needs to be read that way. Your argument reads like the conservative legal argument for "original intent" in readings of the Constitution. But the Constitution is a text just like this post, which used words, "favouring logic and abstraction" which I read. against the grain, to criticize.

This is referred to I think as anti-naturalism and it makes no sense to me. Open-ended empiricism can't be formalized and that's the conflict. The formalism of numbers works as more than form because numbers generally manifest relations in the world. Words "represent" relations and those relations change. Mapping the change in those relations (in time and by geography) is not anti-naturalist. To me it sounds like Santayana (and it wasn't his idea) but Santayana is linked with Quine, which really throws me for a loop. Quine was a scientific anti-cosmopolitan, so I don't get the connection. I don't think Santayana would have a problem with my analysis. And it seems to me to have supplied a better description of the relations of believers and atheists than that supplied by an analysis based on philosophical intent. It gives a better model of the world (of experience).
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" 'Your argument reads like the conservative legal argument for 'original intent' in readings of the Constitution.' Why? How?

I don't think "favouring logic and abstraction" should be read as a criticism (if this is what you meant). Whether it is useful in describing the relationship between believers and atheists is another matter.

With regard to history (and pessimism) versus science (and optimism). History cannot be pessimistic or optimistic because it's about the past, not the future. Science is (in itself) neither pessimistic nor optimistic because it is an attempt to uncover the "laws" of nature. I would be a naturalist more than an anti-naturalist, in the sense that I consider social systems to be legitimate objects of scientific enquiry. But only to the extent that our objective is to understand, rather than (directly) to change. If we want to change something, then we need not only history (for lessons) and science (to suggest new approaches) but also clarity of purpose. What are we trying to achieve? How cautious do we want to be? What kind of risk are we willing to accept and how should we deal with uncertainty? If we want to bring something to that debate, and not only say "we should agree on something", then relativism can only take us so far."

Posted by: Peter Wicks
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I think we're arguing at cross purposes. History is never about the past, but about our understanding of the past, in the present. There will always be another history or biography of "X" for each new period of any civilization; history is interpretation. History pessimistic in the sense that the knowledge of history leads us towards pessimism, or conservatism. The rule of law is founded on conservatism. Again I'll go with Santayana: we rarely make new mistakes, mostly we just repeat old ones.

If we want to understand experience we need to understand that we experience the world through perspectives, which change over time. The difficulty is in recognizing and marking those changes. The history of the Catholic church isn't written by theologians, who will strive to see continuity, but by historians. Philosophers descend from theologians, and historians are still here doing the same job they always have, examining everything made by man, with and against the intended logic of the makers.

I'll end where I came in: religious people in the US distrust atheists because of an association of atheism with the atheism of pure reason (and arrogant technocracy) which gets a lot of press; professional atheists include people like McGinn, who hasn't convinced me he's an atheist at all. This is an American or Anglo-American phenomenon with a long history. The secularism of books is much less threatening because less arrogant, and frankly less dangerous. Spencer Coxe, the director of the Philadelphia ACLU from 1952-79, called the ACLU "a conservative institution." If we lived in a stronger democracy it would be more clear to more people what he meant.

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