Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the new normal for western civ

It’s the middle of summer, and like many of my colleagues, I’m realizing that I need to get to serious work. So what do I do? I procrastinate! I post a long, rambling blog entry that is more like free associating. Well, perhaps it’s my own version of therapy.

Every semester, I teach a team-taught course on western civilization. The teaching team, consisting of faculty from Philosophy, History, Political Science, and Religion, attempts to convey a coherent narrative (NOT a totalizing one!) that does some justice to the thorny, complicated, and contradictory relations between the phenomena of western civilization.

Here’s the kicker: This class is entirely populated by freshmen from every major in the University!

It has been a challenge to me as a thinker because I’m more of a “special problems” kind of guy – meaning, that I like to focus on technical puzzles in philosophy or narrowly constrained phenomena. The notion that there is a “broad sweep of intellectual history” is a bit daunting, but that’s exactly what I’m tasked to help convey in this team-taught course.

From a personal perspective, it’s been quite enlightening. I am a person of religious faith (of some [progressive-liberal] Christian flavor), but I confess that at least two days out of the week, I find myself wondering if I “drank the Kool-Aid.” I am well aware that not just from a psychological but from a rational point of view the naturalist perspective of reality (or indeed, say, the Buddhist view) makes sense and is quite coherent. I very easily switch between these alternate interpretations of reality, much like the Gestalt perspectives of the famous “duck-rabbit” or the Necker Cube.

I know I’m not alone in this; in fact, several of my colleagues from several departments of my faith-based school resonate deeply with this sensibility.

The benefit of teaching in this team-taught course is that it has helped clarify for me at least a few factors that explain this.

First, I want to disavow any commitment to the following standard story: Human progress = demystification tout court. The standard story suggests that there is a rational core of human reason that is buried under several layers of superstitious husk. Progress involves sloughing off the layers that somehow impede essential human rationality from perceiving The Real as it is, where The Real = Naturalized-with-no-remainder. That strikes me as too simplistic. It downplays the way that social realities are products of creative forces – emphasis on creation. The standard story asks us to believe that there is some view from nowhere that is obscured by our benighted superstitions. This is the distortion that is the root of the “science versus religion” trope that is so overplayed.

Second, I want to acknowledge that the rise of the sciences from medieval optics to the golden age of the 17th century did play a huge role, but not in isolation. Here’s an analogy: Ask a room full of historians what caused World War I (or WWII). A few usual suspects will make an appearance, but beyond naming them, there’s not likely to be overwhelming interpretive consensus. The same goes for invoking the scientific revolutions of the early modern period. Yes, these were huge, but they were able to play the role they did because of the intersections with all sorts of other secularizing influences.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch (in media res! still coming together in my head):

The scientific revolutions did play a role. They were a final nail in the coffin of the view of the universe as “haunted.” Back in the old days, the idea that spirits (good or bad) could exercise power on the human agent was taken very seriously. In the distinctively Christian appropriation, this is the root of sacramentalism, pilgrimages, and relic veneration. It's the world of bad-magic versus good-magic. It's the world of stories about Moses' staff of snakes that heals poisonous bites. It's a world of stories where long hair + Nazarite vows = superhuman strength. It's the world of stories about miraculous handkerchiefs that, imbued with the magic of St. Peter and St. Paul, heal the sick. In these foregoing stories, the idea was that the good-magic from God was absolutely essential to protect oneself from the bad-magic of the bad spirits, because haunted worlds are dangerous places where the ordinary person is perpetually vulnerable to forces beyond understanding and control. The best recourse is to secure some loan on the magic of God. It's a world of stories about the Sons of Sceva who get their asses kicked because their good-magic was not powerful enough (perhaps the wrong lender) to combat the bad-magic.

With the mathematization and mechanization of nature, this magical view of material substance is diminished. There is neither a great chain of being nor a qualitative difference in matter or its properties, whether in Heaven or on Earth. Heretofore “spiritual” phenomena is liable to an alternate form of explanation that is intelligible and predictable under conditions of technological progress. Rather than relying on the inscrutable purposes of spirits, a way is open to interpret and even control to a degree the exigencies that beset the human condition. Similarly, the cognate metaphysics of Aristotelian forms, and along with it teleological explanations, suffers a diminishing. This is a great boon for the agent, because she is now no longer hopelessly vulnerable to forces beyond either understanding or control. There is now at least the promise that she can exercise, from her own power rather than supplication to a spirit or inspection of a moribund metaphysics, some degree of control over her own destiny.

This is all occurring at the same time that social hierarchies are collapsing along with the great chain of being. The realization that one is not locked into a fated level in the cosmos and the Protestant emphasis on the sanctity of ordinary life and work (Weber later appropriates this his analysis of the Protestant work ethic) combined to create new social realities, new moral visions of (a) goodness divorced from Church interpretations of hierarchy, (b) goodness exclusively connected to what was formerly considered “lower” or “secular” considerations, and (c) the continual eviction of ghosts from the natural world that emancipated folks from fear of the unpredictability that comes from (the bad) spirits/demons.

(You don't really have to worry about evicting the benevolent ones, right? I find it funny that folk sometimes talk literally about their “guardian angels” but not about their “pestering demons.”)

Because of these considerations, for perhaps the first time in modern Europe, the raw materials are in place for a positive, content-rich moral vision of a human life in a universe that does not need to make explicit reference to the supernatural or divine as a justification for its orientation as a life philosophy. The power of old religious authorities to police such new realizations is largely gone. Other social structures are in place that wield greater sway over the sentiments, hopes, and dreams of ordinary folk – emphasis on “ordinary,” as in mundane.

This is the centuries-prior seed for Dawkins’ claim that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist (a true statement). In this case, it’s about being a morally-fulfilled secular person, or, at any rate, a morally-fulfilled non-Christian European. In the background, it goes without saying that the Protestant Reformations and the subsequent Catholic Reformations deconstructed the notion that there was some unitary moral vision of human life that was credible for once and all.

Fundamentally, I think it’s these new moral possibilities and visions that made for the epistemological and social changes. Of course it’s in reality a messy cycle, but some feedback loops are stronger than others.

In this rambling blog post, I’ve tried to articulate some of my intuitions/interpretations drawn from teaching in this team-taught course about western civilization. I started by asking how it can be the case that someone like myself can be simultaneously committed to a particular religious point of view, all the while acknowledging the rationality and indeed compelling force of alternate, incompatible interpretations of reality – perspectives that I find myself drawn to quite powerfully several days of the week (this is how philosophers experience doubt, which is different than skepticism). In previous centuries, this tension is less pronounced, more rare, and for many, unthinkable. In our century, it’s so utterly normal as to be hardly worth mentioning.

I’m sure that there are going to be those who would promote this as a virtue and others who would say that it’s a damnable vice. For persons of faith such as myself, I’d say it’s both in different respects.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

two kinds of inference errors

We’re in the midst of a searing heat wave in Minneapolis. It about 91 degrees, and I’m sitting in my backyard enjoying a tasty Hefeweizen while thinking about cognitive errors.

Here are two different kinds of breakdowns in inference (among the multitude of types).

The first one is really simple to understand, but an example is better than an explanation.

type one

In a game of chess, the bishop can only move diagonally. This rule governing its movement is built into the chess universe. This rule has no exceptions.

A player has two bishops, one on a red-square and one on a black-square.

If one of the given bishops starts on a red-square, then one might be tempted to conclude that the bishop must always be on a red square and never can be on a black square. It can seem like this corollary is every bit without exception as the diagonal movement rule.

In many cases, a bishop that starts on a red square will stay on red squares for as long as the game is live.

But there are exceptions. Suppose the bishop is captured. The player who lost her bishop may promote a pawn that manages to cross to the other shore. Suppose that the pawn is promoted on a black-square. That reincarnated bishop is a black-square bishop, contrary to the ersatz-rule that it can only be on a red-square.

This illustrates in a stupendously nerdy way the threat of too hasty inferences in a game context in which there are more complex but accessible rules that would otherwise block or temper the mistaken inference.

Again, this seems to be the most common and straightforward kind of inference breakdown.

type two

There is, however, another kind of breakdown in inference that has less to do with failing to account for accessible rules. It’s subtler and more interesting in that the complete rules themselves are not quite available, yet the person who makes inferences cognitively acts under the fiction that they are. But how does this occur? It seems that it has to do with a blindness to the changing conditions of observation, where the conditions change because of either a technological or cultural innovation.

Again, an example is better than an explanation.

For a long time in physics (immediate qualifier: limiting the discussion to scientific realism), it was thought that the mass of an object does not change even under conditions of motion. From the point of view of the crude observations of macro-sized objects, this appears true. Even at the micro-level of most observations that any of us would make, this is sufficient. Even objects that are moving extremely fast relative to how most animals move retain the same mass in said motion.

Generate a rule of physics: The mass of an object is independent of speed.

This rule about mass and motion is mostly correct modulo the context of ordinary conditions of observation. In fact, for a long time (not too long ago, in terms of the scale of the history of science), it was sufficient for physicists!

This changed when our technology changed. This changed when we became able to inspect a bit deeper into the nature of material substance.

Contrary to the former rule, mass does appreciably increase with velocity, but only at velocities near c (speed of light).

It’s not that Nature changed; rather, our conditions of observational access to Nature have evolved in a good way. As our evolution moves us forward in our observational powers, we reform old rules, replace them, and find new mysteries of material substance that suggest that even our reformed rules may be overturned in time. Orthodoxy in physics is (or should be) always hypothetical – meaning, that allegiance is a complex negotiation between Nature’s presentation of herself, our observational technologies, our theoretical models of explanation and prediction (prediction is explanation with time’s arrow imaginatively reversed), and a judgment about acceptable alienation between the theory’s predictions and current anomalies that have yet to become recalcitrant.

The nice thing about some scientists (and some philosophers) is that this complex relationship involving both observation sentences and value sentences (the epistemic and aesthetic values of simplicity, parsimony, elegance, etc., that inextricably are entangled with theory assessment) is front and center of their theorizing. There is no need to hide what is obvious under even minimal analysis.

This more subtle epistemic orientation is a nice contact point for science and philosophy, whose interrelationships have been written about voluminously. While not immune to breakdowns in these more subtle epistemic orientations, I see more numerous breakdowns occurring elsewhere.

The possible breakdown in inference in these sorts of contexts is when an agent makes a mistake about the quality of his observational placement. He is not properly taking into account the likelihood – much less, the possibility – that further evolutions in observational conditions may provide further insight into the very nature of the subject matter about which he exhibits dogma.

I’m sad to report that this happens noticeably in reasoning about religion and God/god/G-d/g-d/gods/The-Real.

Over the years, I’ve come to see the affinities between on the one hand the Kuhnian (but not the more baroque readings) and Lakatos-ian interpretations of the history of science and on the other hand the notion that Christian theology should operate with some formal family resemblances to the earlier aforementioned complex negotiation of rationality that exists in science. (I focus on Christian theology only because (i) I’m more familiar with it, and (ii) I self-identify as some form of Christian 4 out of 7 days a week.†)

But this dynamic isn’t even acknowledged – much less fretted about – by a huge contingent of religious folk.

I think I’m beginning to understand Christian Fundamentalists* a bit more, in that they tend to make both types of inference errors: (a) mistakenly believing that they have the right rules (as opposed to the hypothetical “right now” rules) and (b) not taking into account the probability that the conditions for observation evolve and in fact alter (and should alter) our allegiance to hypothetical “right now” rules (or propositions or creedal statements or…). They forget the motto Ecclesia semper reformanda est (“The church is to be always reforming.”).

Please allow me to head off a red herring at the pass. The bogeyman of “relativism” does not apply at all, precisely because the whole enterprise is premised on progress. In science (well, in scientific realism, to which I subscribe), the march towards better and more accurate representations of The Real is prosecuted hand-in-hand with – for lack of a better phrase – epistemic humility on the part of the scientists and philosophers of science I resonate with most. In the philosophy of science, we even invented a term to describe this orientation: verisimilitude.

In religion, I don’t see why it can’t be the same. (Actually, I see why, but it has nothing to do with rationality.) One specific analog for religious programs and religious ethics of the new observational possibilities and technologies in science should be the complex cluster of new social, political, and economic possibilities that exist for women, racial/ethnic minorities, and other types of under-represented or historically-repressed groups in the West and increasingly other global places. These new “encyclopedias of reference” allow for deeper insight into religiously important phenomena such as scripture, hermeneutics, nature/function of religious communities, etc., while simultaneously correcting a gross distortion – namely, the distortion that religious/doctrinal history floats somehow free of other social and historical realities such as the political economies that largely determined the modern consciousness, to name just one. (This is not a reductively Marxist claim! Adam Smith could say the same!)

The character of these new insights cannot be controlled, and hence they may and perhaps should be expected to subvert older “rules.” None of this can be legitimately controlled in advance, unless “legitimacy” is narrowly defined as “not contradicting orthodox understandings of Scripture.” That narrow definition wears on its sleeve the logical fallacy of begging the question, since the very conversation that is of most interest to religious believers whose brains are turned on revolves around questions such as “In what ways might Scripture gesture beyond the confines of its historically situated representations?” and “What new discoveries and semantic horizons – possibly in tandem with evolving conditions of observation/reading/interpretation – does Scripture have for us who sincerely seek to live from a religious point of view?"

Well, it’s getting hot out here, and this simple blog post has inflated beyond my intention. I’m headed back indoors to retreat to air-conditioned bliss.

Signing off on this really hot Sunday afternoon…

Peace be with you.

* Any form of Fundamentalism (religious or otherwise, left or right, etc.) will do, since various forms of Fundamentalism share the same tendencies towards inference errors.

† Gospel of Mark 9:24.