Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bounded in a Nutshell

In a comment to Science, Religion, and Metaphysics, I made this remark which I want to bring up to the front for closer examination:

There is no more conflict between science and religion, nor any more need for reconciliation between them, than there is between carpentry and cooking.

Science, Religion, Metaphysics: Some Preliminaries

A long-standing motivation for my philosophical work has been the relationship -- sometimes adversarial, sometimes conversational -- between "science" and "religion." [I come to this relationship as someone who has strong undergraduate background in science (neuroscience and paleontology) and as someone who does not identify with a particular religious institution but who nevertheless feels the pull of religious experience.]

Much like Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Stanly Cavell, and Jurgen Habermas, I want to find a way of resisting the temptation to endorse or create a doctrinal metaphysics -- not even a metaphysics of becoming, process, or "difference" in the senses of Nietzsche, Dewey, Whitehead, or Deleuze. (Despite my strong affinity for such metaphysics!)

(This is not to say that I think one can simply dispense with metaphysics; rather I tend to think, along with Cavell and Putnam, that the temptation to metaphysics is deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. I would not want to interpret this temptation as a transhistorical dimension of the human condition, but neither is it something that can be lightly thrown off, as Rorty seems to think.)

The crux of my pragmatic pluralism is that the question "what is there?" must always be re-phrased as "what is there in which respect?" For only when that latter question is answered do we have a specified domain the entities of which can be considered. For example, consider the question, "does Sherlock Holmes' wife exist?" This question can only be answered by first specifying the domain of discourse which is relevant. If the domain of discourse is "the real world," then the answer is "no" (but neither does Holmes, of course). If the domain of discourse is "the world of the Holmes stories as authored by Doyle," then the answer is "no" (but for a different reason -- because Holmes never married.)

But this line of thought works not only for literary creations -- it works just the same way for all discursive practices. Quarks and protons certainly exist -- within the framework of modern quantum mechanics. (Whether we will still say that they exist within the framework of whatever theory eventually succeeds quantum mechanics is an open question!) And even in ordinary language, we are confronted with a plurality of ways of distinguishing between aspects of lived experience.

Suppose I had had chicken for dinner last night instead of steak. Then I today would be a different system of molecules. But it seems odd (to say the least!) that I would therefore be a different person. One might be tempted to side with dualism here. But my alternative is to insist that there is no deep and fundamental truth of "what I am", tout court. Considering me as a system of molecules, and considering me as a person, are not different metaphysical realities -- they are different ways of considering, which is to say, different ways of using language. (As Rorty would say, they are different "vocabularies".)

If one succumbs to the temptation of metaphysics (and it is difficult not to succumb), then one will be interpret science, and/or religion, as metaphysical doctrines. And that is the decisive move which is taken for granted, and which I want to avoid. For once that move is made, everything else follows. Only then can one ask if science and religion are concerned with the same reality or different realities, e.g. "natural" and "supernatural". Or assert that where science and religion conflict, one or the other must be rejected. Both hard-core theism and hard-core atheism emerge only once it is accepted that metaphysics is the only way of speaking.

By contrast, the pluralism I want to develop here is a way of sidestepping the metaphysical impulse entirely. Instead, the question is one of which entities we are committed to speaking about when we employ a certain vocabulary (that of genetics, physics, psychology, literature, art, music, philosophy, etc.). In my terms, the temptation of metaphysics is the dream of a final, absolute, and uniquely correct vocabulary in terms of which everything real can be described. And that dream is one from which I have not only awoken but from which I find myself in the process of constantly having to awaken myself from.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Education and Philosophy (Part I)

Doing without the usual fanfare and preamble -- that is, doing it by way of loudly announcing that I am doing without it -- I want to introduce two motifs for subsequent elaboration --

that education is the production of freedom and

that philosophy is education for adults

Thus and so!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Doing Without "Facts 'vs' Values"

In the discussion under Intelligent Design and Evolution, Kirby and Olorin have been going back on forth on the relation between science and ethics.

The proof of the pudding of the sort of pluralism I've inherited and which I'm developing here and elsewhere is in the eating, esp. when it comes to these sorts of issues. Here, I want to contrast pluralism with two bad alternatives.

The first option, and which is in many respects the dominant discourse of academic philosophy and the academy generally, is a version of "scientism." This much-abused term will stand in, here, for the notion that scientific methods are the only legitimate processes whereby objective knowledge (which goes beyond ordinary perceptual consciousness) can be acquired. (I'm not delighted with this definition and may need to revise it subsequently.) On this view, "values" pose a number of interrelated problems. One problem is that when scientific theories are taken as having a monopoly on objective knowledge, values may become seen as "subjective." Apart from the considerable ethical and political problems this causes, it also arouses the philosophical problem of how to fit "values" into a world of "facts." In this case, the relation between science and ethics can be seen as arbitrary, science can be regarded as "value-neutral," and countless other difficulties arise like the heads of the Hydra.

The second option, which stands in a dialectical relation to the first, is to give ethics a metaphysical foundation (see note (1) below). On this view -- which, I must admit, I lack any real intuitive feeling for -- values cannot be merely subjective or conventional, but they also cannot be grounded in the sort of knowledge that science yields (but see note (2) below). Thus values cannot be "natural" but must instead have some sort of transcendent foundation. Alternatively: when the very idea of a transcendent foundation ceases to be rationally compelling and emotionally motivating -- i.e. the moment of "the death of God" -- then the abyss of nihilism threatens to yank out the foundation of civilization from under our very feet. There is something tiring and boring about how this argument then proceeds -- as if on cue, the exhibits are presented -- Exhibit 1: Nazism; Exhibit 2: Stalinism; Exhibit 3: terrorism.

The alternative I wish to explore takes its cue from a remark by John Dewey: "But values are as unstable as the forms of clouds" (Experience and Nature, excerpts available as PDF here). The forms of clouds! Are they not real? To what sort of reductive, scientistic physicalism must one be beholden in order to insist that clouds are not real (are not "really real")? If clouds are not real, I want to say, then nothing can count as "real". And so too are values -- they are as real as anything other aspect of our lived experience as a certain kind of animal -- the sort of animal that engages with its world through a plurality of discursive social practices.

(1) The dialectic, as I see it, can be seen roughly as if each viewpoint is a reaction-formation to the other. Thus, the Greek atomists reacted against ancient Greek religion and made possible the Sophists; Plato and Aristotle reacted against the Sophists; early modern philosophers reacted against Scholasticism; the Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment; religious fundamentalists reacted against 'modernity'. The "culture wars" have been with us for a long, long time!)

(2) Off the top of my head, I can think of two exceptions in the history of philosophy -- Aristotle and Spinoza -- who hold that ethics is grounded in the metaphysical structure of reality and that science provides insight into this structure. But Aristotle is a tricky case, since "science" does not mean for us post-Baconians what it mean to Aristotle or the Scholastics.