Thursday, April 5, 2007

What is a Rational Animal?

The reactions against Cartesianism in analytic philosophy of mind have made possible a revival of the Aristotelian term for a human being -- the idea of a rational animal. Descartes famously (or infamously) dismisses this description in Meditation II, where he denies that the cogito can be identified with the Scholastic animale rationale, on the grounds that it is requires categories that cannot be derived from the solipsistic stance of self-consciousness.

By contrast, in the work of Donald Davidson, Alastair MacIntyre, and especially John McDowell, the idea of a rational animal has resurfaced. In doing so, we must confront two questions: (a) what makes an animal rational? and (b) why must the rational entity, so conceived, be an animal?

To be rational, on a model broadly shared between Davidson and McDowell, is to capable of making moves within what Sellars called "the space of reasons": it is to be capable of asserting, of giving reasons for ones assertions, and to be capable of asking others for the reasons for their assertions. McDowell emphasizes that this point holds not only for episodes of knowing, as in Sellars, but for all thought as such. To put the point in terms developed by Bob Brandom, to think is to make a material inference.

An animal is rational if it is not merely sentient but also sapient. "Sentience" entails consciousness, affectivity, and responsiveness to changes in its environment. An animal may be sentient and yet be extremely clever in manipulating objects in its environment, even its fellow creatures. "Sapience" differs in that sapience entails a capacity for reasoning and for recognizing that it is taking up a view on the world and not merely occupying a place in an environment. (Heidegger's distinction between Welt and Umwelt, mediated through Gadamer, is an important influence on McDowell's version of this distinction.)

But McDowell, more than his fellow Sellarsians Brandom and Rorty, insists that the bearer of rationality must be an animal. It must be something intrinsic to the way of life of a particular kind of animal, a human being -- an animal that can acquire culture, Bildung, Geist. Thinking and knowing are part of how we are as animals, as web-weaving is part of how a spider is as an animal. And it is part of McDowell's critique of "para-mechanism" in philosophy of mind -- Millikan and Dennett in particular, also fellow Sellarsians -- that they lose their grip on the fact that what is rational must be animal, and what is animal must be rational.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Haiku for Levinas

Wild yet unhidden
Open to the elements
Time grows in the mind.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Challenge to Modern Atheism

Over the past year I've become a frequent lurker at Uncommon Descent, a website devoted to discussion of "intelligent design theory." There are sufficient criticisms of the epistemology of intelligent design theory that it would be overkill to add yet another, and in any event, there are many far more competent than I to do so. Rather, I want to direct attention to a specific feature of the sort of arguments favored by intelligent design supporters: the critique of materialism.

The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: the problem with Darwinian explanations is that they entail a materialistic metaphysics, and that is bad because materialism is incompatible with deeply-held assumptions that are necessary for social functioning and for personal fulfillment. So Darwinism, apart from being false (as it is held to be) is also extremely dangerous.

This argument finds an eloquent expression in the work of C. S. Lewis (esp. Mere Christianity) and a more sophisticated elaboration in Alvin Plantinga's "self-defeater" argument against naturalism. Here I want to present one version of the argument; in subsequent posts I'll begin to examine what I think is wrong with it.

The conundrum of modern atheism is that it is committed to two seemingly incompatible theses: materialism and rationalism. The commitment to the first consists of the premise that only entities that can figure in a physical theory (however broadly construed -- dark energy is in, pixies are out) can count as real. The commitment to the second consists of the premise that the world as encountered in everyday experience is intelligible to human reason. Historically speaking, the commitment to the second premise has required a denial of the first, for we can be assured of the intelligibility of the universe only if there is an Intelligence who was responsible for its creation.

At work here is the following line of argument, very powerful but surely in need of critical examination:

P1: Only a rational agent could produce a structure that could be comprehended by a rational agent.

P2: This structure can be comprehended by a rational agent (namely, us).

C: It was produced by a rational agent (if not us, then God).

The foremost arguments against modern atheism, as seen for example in C.S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga, are supposed to show that materialism and rationalism are incompatible, so that if one accepts materialism, then one must reject rationalism. Conversely, if one accepts rationalism, then one must reject materialism.

Another way of putting this point is in terms of versions of naturalism. Materialism can be interpreted as metaphysical naturalism: nature, however broadly construed, is all there is. Rationalism can be interpreted as methodological naturalism: the methods of the natural science have priority in adjudicating between competing assertions. The Lewis-Plantinga strategy is to drive a wedge between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. Thus metaphysical naturalists such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are put to one side, and methodological naturalists such as Quine are put on another. Dembski says of Quine:

Quine, though a naturalist, was not wedded to the methodological and metaphysical naturalism of Van Till. Quine was a pragmatic naturalist. This pragmatism allowed him to entertain the following possibility: "If I saw indirect explanatory benefit in positing sensibilia, possibilia, spirits, a Creator, I would joyfully accord them scientific status too, on a par with such avowedly scientific posits as quarks and black holes. (from "Naturalism; or, Living within One's Means," Dialectica 1995, vol. 49); see Naturalism's Invincible Ignorance

The alleged incompatibility of materialism with rationalism, and so the alleged incoherence of modern atheism, is closely connected with the alleged incompatibility of materialism with morality. As rationalism is an epistemological thesis, and so is concerned with what one ought to believe, so morality concerns what one ought to do. In both cases, then, what is concern is “oughtness” or normativity.

In both science and in morality, in our theoretical and practical lives, we are rational beings; we occupy what Wilfrid Sellars called, “the space of giving and asking for reasons.” So one way of seeing the Lewis-Plantinga objection to modern atheism is to see it as raising a skeptical challenge as to how anything merely material, and so fully describable in terms of deterministic laws, could nevertheless also be capable of normative guidance, whether epistemic or moral.

The prevalence of normativity in human life is so obvious as to seem undeniable. (And even philosophers who seem to deny it, such as Spinoza and Nietzsche, may seem to sneak it in the back door having kicked it out the front.) In any event, I shall simply take for granted the basic distinction between "the realm of law" (what is material/physical) and "the space of reasons" (what is normatively oriented, i.e. science and morality). What I shall deny is that accepting this distinction requires that one reject materialism/metaphysical naturalism. Instead I shall show, in the course of working through some thoughts of John McDowell and Hilary Putnam, just how one can have one's cake and eat it, too.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Darwin, Freud, Hitler

The discoveries made by Darwin, innovations made by Freud, and atrocities committed by Hitler have exploded any hope one may have had for the Platonic fantasy that the soul is immortal, neither created nor destructible. Darwin's work shows how beings without souls could have gradually, by incremental changes, given rise to ensouled beings. Freud's work shows how the human soul emerges and changes over the course of a lifetime. Hitler's work shows how human beings can destroy both their own souls and the souls of others.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

How Do We Believe?

If, like me, you're one of those "secular-progressives" that Bill O'Reilly is warning us about, you may be slightly alarmed about recent surveys which indicate that, not only do 95% of your fellow Americans believe in a God ("of some kind"), but that 55% accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, just under half believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed, usw.

Is this cause for alarm? Depends, I think, not just on what believe, but on how they believe it -- and also, and more importantly, on whether our fellow citizens really believe these things -- or just think they do.

Can one be mistaken about one's own beliefs?

Saturday, February 17, 2007


In today's cultural-political climate -- and that which has prevailed for most of my entire life -- there is a certain strain among the residues of "the left" which takes pride in a cynical and generalized anti-Americanism. America, it is sometimes thought -- not entirely without justification -- has a massively destructive foreign policy, consumes a massively disproportionate share of the world's resources, and has citizens that are not only apathetic and ignorant, but apathetic and ignorant about their apathy and ignorance.

To combat the dangers of cynicism in myself, and perhaps also a few friends who stumble across Impure Reason from time to time, I want to begin a list of all the things about America that I love and that are worth loving, in no particular order:

1) Bob Dylan
2) Transcendentalism (Thoreau, Emerson)
3) Jazz (Davis, Coltrane, Brubeck)
4) Pragmatism (esp. James and Dewey)
5) the liberal-arts college curriculum
6) the Constitution
7) Walt Whitman
8) Yellowstone National Park
9) Manhattan
10) hip-hop
11) baseball

Add your own in the comments below; I'll update the list as it grows.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pragmatism, Realism, Etc.

I've begun reading Putnam's Realism with a Human Face. It's a difficult book, a collection of essays on epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and history of philosophy, and it interweaves both highly technical discussions about quantum mechanics and logic with a sensitivity to broad cultural and social concerns. It's not that one cannot see the forest for the trees -- one can! -- but that there are so many trees.

In the first section, Putnam provides a quick sketch of two recent developments in quantum mechanics and in the logic of semantic paradoxes. In both cases he examines the temptation of providing a "God's-Eye View," a theory of the totality. In quantum mechanics this temptation expresses itself in the desire for a theory that includes the observer within the system under examination, even at what Putnam considers to be extravagant metaphysical cost (many world interpretation, Bohmian mechanics). In logic this temptation expresses itself in the desire for a resolution of the paradoxes of self-referential sentences.

Putnam concludes that both temptations stem from an evasion of the Kantian lesson: one cannot include oneself within the system, because -- to rephrase the Kantian point in Wittgenstein-esque terms -- the norms of representation are not themselves among the objects represented. Putnam builds on Kant and on Wittgenstein in developing further the failures of metaphysical realism and the turn towards the life of the agent, towards practice or praxis. But, also like Kant and Wittgenstein, Putnam is mindful of the allure of metaphysics.

What is metaphysics? Is metaphysics possible in any sense "after" Kant and Wittgenstein? If so, how?

Next: Hegel and Deleuze as rival versions of self-consciously post-Kantian metaphysics!

And: the secret affinity between Nietzsche, Carnap, and Rorty!

Immediacy and Mediation

Immersed as I've been in the Hegel/Marx tradition, and in particular "Western Marxism" (Adorno, Marcuse, and Debord), I tend to frame problems in terms of the relationship between "immediacy" and "mediation." (One can even see criticisms of Hegel in terms of this frame -- for example, by reading Deleuze as responding to Hegel's critique of pure immediacy.)

This frame of reference opened up for me a certain picture of Internet communication. It may seem, to the naive, as though the Internet in general, and blogging in particular, has made possible a new avenue of immediate encounter between human beings. And there is something both true and seductive about this naivete. But this must not be allowed to obscure the fact that I am sitting alone in my apartment as I type this, in a state of undress that would not be widely received in public, and that as you read these words under conditions entirely outside of my capacity to affect.

The situation is not dissimilar from writing in general -- and some theorists have argued for a causal relation between writing as technology and the cognitive transformation that made abstract thought possible -- but for the instantaneous character of Internet communications. The previously unimaginable speed of Internet communications have seemingly collapsed the distance between "the private" (me, in my apartment, lounging in a bathrobe) and "the public" (everyone else).

Yet the distance has only been transformed. When we talk with others in our real lives, the interplay of voices takes place within a context of somatic sounds -- sighs, breaths, pauses, grunts, sniffs . . . lively debates while eating or drinking result in a dialectic of what is going into one's mouth and what is coming out. (Sips of coffee or beer create the openings in which another may speak.) The art of writing removes the somatic cues and rhythms, but in all writing up to the Electronic Age, this was implicitly acknowledged; consequently there was an art of writing in which grammatical and rhetorical structures complemented the loss of somatic context. But the art was informed by a sense of time -- a sense that writing well required an investment of one's time, and that it took time also to read well.

In the Electronic Age, we do not read -- we scan -- and consequently we no longer write in order to be read. What is written is to be read immediately, thereby instilling in us a false sense of immediacy. The mediation is concealed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Truth about Types

There are two types of people: those who divide people into two types, and those who don't.

I was reminded of this adage, if it is an adage, when mulling over the basic difference in temperament between Kant and Hegel. Kant is a thinker of dualisms: sensible intuitions vs. pure intuitions, intuition vs. understanding, understanding vs. reason, pure reason vs. practical reason, practical reason vs. pathological inclination.

Hegel is, while not quite a monist, some sort of "non-dualist." The dialectic is designed to overcome dualisms: the dualisms of mind and body, reason and nature, religion and philosophy, are all to be overcome (sublated, aufgehoben) in the process of the actualization of the Absolute. Or, to put it more precisely, the dualisms are overcome as dualisms; they are retained as distinctions at the same time as they are undermined as dichotomies.

This is perhaps the most important contribution Hegel has made to philosophy; this insight does an enormous amount of work for Dewey, whose debt to Hegel is considerable, and in more recently this insight has been put to significant use by Hilary Putnam; see for example his recent The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Why I Am (Almost) a "Militant Atheist"

There's been quite a buzz and stir in both mainstream media and the blogosphere over "the New Atheism", as ushered in by a troika of advocates for a militant, take-no-prisoners-rhetoric: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Richard Dawkins. Of these, I shall restrict my attention to Harris, because I've read The End of Faith recently. Despite the adage that "a philosopher is someone who knows what is in books he has not read," I shall err on the side of caution.

Harris' basic claim is, I think, exactly right: we give religious claims a "free pass," and exempt them from the critical scrutiny we routinely give to claims offered in politics, science, economics, history, and so forth. If someone says, "I oppose single-payer health care!" it is expected that others will say, "on what grounds?" But if someone says, "I believe in a God who has revealed Himself in history!" the usual response is not "on what grounds?" but rather "golly, I'm very impressed by the sincerity of your conviction." Harris, much like Slavoj Zizek, shows that this is, at best, mere condescension. Critically examining the beliefs of others, and offering up one's own beliefs for critical examination by others, is precisely how one demonstrates respect for the other as a mature and rational person -- and that one deserves to be so recognized in turn.

Harris defines "faith" as acceptance of unjustified assertions about history and metaphysics. Thus, claims about the revelation at Sinai, or the Crucifixion, are taken to be assertions about matters of fact, both historical and metaphysical. But they fail to pass the test of warrant, or of justification, by the best standards currently accepted. This is the core of the argument. He also makes some slightly hysterical assertions of his own about how religion is the cause of much of the world's suffering and violence, and he ends up taking a position very close to that of Christopher Hitchens: the secular and enlightened West is engaged in a struggle to the death with fundamentalist Islam, and since "they" cannot be permitted to prevail, any action undertaken against "them" is justified, including pre-emptive war, torture of "enemy combatants," etc. I shall not engage with that part of the argument, except to note in passing that it's not an obviously stupid thing to say, and that it deserves a more thorough fisking than it has thus far, to my knowledge, received.

Instead, I want to return to the heart of the argument: that religious claims are unjustifed (and, though Harris dodges this point, he clearly insinuates that such claims are also unjustifiable) assertions about matters of fact. In response, I would offer up several related considerations:

1) that the vast majority of religious practictioners do, in fact, regard their beliefs as assertions, and that religious narratives are taken as on an epistemic par with scientific theories, that is, as actually explaining something;

2) that all assertions and explanations are subject to what the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars calls "the space of reasons," a notion much expanded upon by Richard Rorty, John McDowell, and Robert Brandom -- that is, no assertion is exempt from the question, "why do you believe that?"

And (1) and (2), taken together, would seem to put me squarely in Harris' camp as a "militant atheist." Nevertheless, I must demur, because

3) I deny that interpreting religious vocabulary as consisting of assertions is the best way of making sense of religious language.

This might seem to commit me to a sort of "emotivism" or "subjectivism" about religion. I don't think so, but maybe. Certainly there are many proponents of religious claims who are deathly allergic to any attempt to interpret religious language in "symbolic" term (Tillich is anathema to many of the soi-dissant "Christians" I've met). To do so, in their view, is to trivialize religion -- to give it a marginal, rather than central, cultural role.

If one accepts the priority of science, in either a metaphysical or methodological version, then it would seem that the only place for art or literature is as an emotional outpouring -- without any truth-value (i.e. neither true or false). (Harris' commitment to both metaphysical and methodological scientism comes to the fore when he considers Buddhism. Buddhism is exempted from the general critique of all other religions because, he claims, Buddhism consists of assertions that can be empirically confirmed.)

As a pragmatist, my fundamental epistemological commitments are different from Harris' version of scientific-metaphysical realism. I take it that there are many different vocabularies at our disposal -- the language of physics, the language of neuroscience, the language of literature. It is therefore no marginalization of religion to say that religious language is more like literature than it is like physics.

And that is why I am almost, but not quite, a militant atheist.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

It's True, I Tell You!

72.5% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Taking the Bait

Kirby Olson at Lutheran Surrealism has "tagged" me with a game suitable for the MySpace/FaceBook generation: I'm supposed to reveal five secrets about myself. Why, I haven't the faintest idea. But since I shan't let it be said that I'm not, at least, a good sport, here goes.

1) When I was a child I was fascinated by the process of metamorphosis, especially tadpoles to frogs. My brain is wired to grasp processes and transformations, and it didn't take me too long to see the similarities between metamorphosis, evolution, and embryonic development. (This was around the age of five or six.) I used to keep jars and tanks of tadpoles every summer. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, over the course of my childhood. With only one exception -- a bullfrog named Capricorn -- every single tadpole I ever had died on my watch. So did a salamander named Brian.

2) For a few months, when I was about 9 or 10, I also had a dog named Seiko. My parents didn't know how to take care of a dog properly, and I didn't, and I didn't have anyone to teach me. Why we even got a dog, I don't know. I guess I must have wanted one. One time, the puppy was chained up in the yard behind our house, and it was barking incessantly. I became furious, and I ran at it and I beat it up. All I remember at the time was that I was full of a terrible rage that I couldn't do anything with. Now I'm filled with shame every time I remember how badly I hurt that puppy. We gave him away a few months later because we didn't know how to housebreak him.

3) Given (1) and (2) above, it's hardly surprising that I became what's known as a "cutter": someone who intentionally mutilates him or herself. This began when I was thirteen or so; I'd dig my nails into my arm until it bled. Later I switched to carving patterns in my left forearm with a swiss-army knife. The cutting started up in earnest the night after my first kiss, in freshman year of college. I didn't know how else to deal with the whirlwind of emotions I was going through. The main thing that makes me different from most cutters is that I've never tried to hide the cuts. I have scars all over the left forearm, and I think that this is why I wear shirts with the sleeves rolled up -- to show off the wounds, as if they were prizes earned in battle. (Note: the last time I hurt myself was in 2001.)

4) I was in Kenya for six weeks in the summer of 1995, and while there I was side-swiped by an irate hippopotamus. The impact broke a bone in my wrist and I had to be sent to a hospital in Nairobi. This technically isn't a secret, since it's known to most of my close friends, but it's not known to the friends I've formed in the past two years, nor to my colleagues in the blogosphere.

5) While in Istanbul several years ago (and isn't it wonderful to begin a sentence like that?), I befriended a keyif-smoking carpet salesman who showed me a little archeological find in his backyard -- literally. He'd found, in his backyard, an entrance to a small buried Byzantine palace. There were three or four rooms, huge beehive shaped structures with a central pillar maybe ten feet in diameter, that he'd rigged up with floorboards and track lighting. He asked the Turkish government to help him excavate, but they refused on the grounds that government funds were only available for archeological excavations that post-dated the Muslim conquest of Constantinople. (Why they changed it, I don't know.)

What I'm Reading Now

Books that I've least half-started, and plan to finish within the new six months:

Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life (Robert C. Solomon)

Adorno and the Political (Espen Hammer)

Stations of the Cross: Adorno and Christian Right Radio (Paul Apostolidis)

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Rodney Stark)

A Pluralistic Universe (William James)

The Denial of Death (Ernst Becker)

Minimal Theologies: Critiques of Secular Reason in Adorno and Levinas (Hent De Vries)

Realism with a Human Face (Hilary Putnam)

Truth and Justification (Jurgen Habermas)

Why Blog?

Having been trolling through the blogosphere for a few years, I decided to go in all the way. Why blog? For my part, I think of blogging as a way of attempting to reconstitute community in the age of the "society of the spectacle" and the concomittant fragmentation of "the public sphere." To be sure, I have turned to the blogosphere (and why "sphere"?) for consensus-formation on key political, cultural, and philosophical problems and issues. To that extent the blogosphere plays a vital role formerly occupied by cafes and salons, a role that cannot be performed by either mainstream media (whether "news" or "entertainment") or by communications technologies that serve the interests of specific institutions. Moreover, the blogosphere is the best forum currently available whereby experts -- artists, scholars, scientists, intellectuals -- can share their expertise with others.

On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that blogging is a rationalization of collective graphomania, an obsession with reassuring oneself through compulsive writing that one, after all, really does exist. But this is all the more reason to admire blogging, for it is a way of keeping alive the semblance of personalization and personality in a time where the forces that constitute the conditions of daily existence are increasingly depersonalizing.

It is, in other words, the superficial aspects of blogging, the ways in which it is akin to everything faddish and tawdry, that grant it whatever redemptive potential it may have.

A New Year's Resolution

Like all of us, I begin each year by going through the charade of making up a New Year's resolution, the annual ritual of achieving escape velocity from history and character through pure exertion of will. (Could the New Year's resolution be found anywhere but in America?) I, too, shall affirm my cultural identity, my annual expression of hubris, with -- as is always the case -- the same New Year's resolution that I make every year:

Resolved: No more New Year's resolutions!

(This post is devoted to the memory of Kurt Goedel and Alonzo Church.)