Sunday, May 16, 2010

the black scab over our birth wound

More Kant-roversial Kant-versation between Noah and Bert about the feasibility of faith. It gets acrimonious, I promise!


Bert:

Here's the thing I've realized I can't resolve satisfactorily, which may please you. Law, difference, multiplicity, all emerge as secondary, albeit essential, phenomena-- because essence is meaning, and meaning is symbolic. This would include the subject, the conscience, moral knowledge, all those things. That which is primary but arises contingently is what cannot be seen or quantified-- the semiotic stew of feelings arising in the womb, when we are indistinguishable from our mother, which is synonymous with our embodiment, our meat nature, which precedes any ideas about law, which subsequently rebuilds us in its image. This could also include Darwin-- evolution is, in some way, based on everything changing imperceptibly but miraculously, beings not arising in an instant but over time, the visible product of a process of ravenous expansion.

The problem is that I end up with reason embodied in matter on one side and spirit embodied in matter on the other. So there's that. To your point, Kant is pretty much okay with the former, the symbolic realm being essential (and encased) in its absoluteness. I think he more or less expects our consciences to function as transmitters of a absolute natural force of moral truth, known as "duty."

I don't contend that this is bad or evil. I just see it as an extension of the Protestant automaton problem. Respect is a poor substitute for humility, tolerance is a poor substitute for love, just like revolution is a poor substitute for detachment.

I've been looking at Kant on contingency and necessity (in Critique of Pure Reason). His contingency realm is the empirical realm. endless deferral (why doesn't anyone ever accuse him of being pomo?). The necessary, the ground for being, if it existed (it's phrased sort of hypothetically), would be transcendent, separate from worldly experience-- exiled in the mind. That's language. It's inside of us.

However... in discussing hand-washing with the Pharisees, Jesus says that what is unclean is what comes out of us. Our hearts are unclean (just as the sin in Eden was not nakedness but shame). What we take in is from God. Goodness is in the world, but only in its presence, not in its symptomatic inevitability, which is indistinguishable from our understanding of its symptomatic inevitability. Same difference between obeying and judging. Conversely, I think there's not really a Spirit in Kant. "Spirit" is more like "principle," like as opposed to "practice." Moral truth exists transcendently, in your mind, but so do space and time and math.

What I was talking about with materialism was, to use Zizek's example of quantum physics, empiricism has reached a limit of comprehension, like a lo-res image blown up to a blur and then flat pixels, which are the absolute atom of the image. The perceptual apparatus is caught up in the phenomena being perceived such that you can say our brains are meat and electricity, you can say the universe is virtual reality, but either way your comprehension has allowed you to dispense with the world outside of your apprehension. Ergo, materialism is idealism.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, dispenses with comprehension, merely apprehending-- specifically apprehending possibilities, specifically those with the most authority. This isn't any less related to self-worship. If authority is mystically asserted (like people speaking in tongues in Paul), or politically asserted (like Caesar levying taxes in the Gospels), that's well and good, but hardly as important as our own responsibility to obey and love-- acts of will.

Noah:

I'm not sure what you mean by saying reason is embodied in matter on one side and spirit is embodied in matter on the other. It seems to me like reason is embodied in language — which can certainly be seen as material if you want, though is also evolutionarily so bizarre and contingent that you can fairly easily point somewhere else and say "god did it" without falling into any obvious logical fallacy that I can see. In any case, I don't really see at all why spirit has to be embodied in matter. I don't really see why the body/language split has to do with spirit at all, actually. In fact, it seems like spirit is a fairly logical other; a way out of a binary maybe?

I guess the point is that Kant is making spirit language rather than something else? Which is possible I guess...though, on the other hand — I think to me the point is maybe that if spirit is a third term, if you don't really have a binary, then everything doesn't have to be this or that, one or the other. The moral law (or language) can be connected to spirit in some cases, and not in others, I'd think. That's where contingency comes in; god intervenes in ways which aren't predictable or quantifiable. If they were, they wouldn't be contingent. When you see spirit, it's always in terms of matter — which is why we see through a glass darkly. Sometimes you can hear it in your heart, perhaps — which is what Kant is saying — though he does sometimes make it seem more rote or certain than maybe makes sense.

Sort of the anti-Einstein position; god to be god doesn't do anything except play dice with the universe.

Bert:

Saying "how you look at it" is a meaningful qualifier there. Because if "chance" is really crazy random entropy (although entropy itself isn't really random), "chance" resulting in amazing new levels of complexity and beauty maybe shouldn't be slandered with such a pathetic label as "chance."

Yeah, you could call it a Freud thing. Language and law are absolutely related. Language wires us. It is the black scab over our birth wound on which all of our reality can cohere and rest.

Morality is not optional. The difference between morality and ethics is extremely important to me, and I think one part of it is the sovereign guarantee of morality, and the fact that ethics (as in Kant) does not address free subjects, but is an primal authoritarian prop which (as in capitalism) allows no end of loopholes, loopholes so large that the rules might as well, except for their fig-leaf function, completely disappear.

Eckhart claims that justice (at least for "the just man") is more important than God. To me that means that justice is always our reponsibility, whereas we are God's responsibility.

I don't think that means that God is inside or outside the law, precisely, but it is attached to Him. But God is not the Law. The Law was the Word of God. But then the Word became Flesh.

The emperor was a motif for Paul, Jesus, etc., not Kant-- Kant is too modern for that. My Kant issue has more to do with what I would call personal responsibility. If morality is just some sort of base for logic, like exploitation is the basis for capitalism, it is a kind of Real, but an abject one that allows people to get away with what is not explicitly denied.

I am certainly not saying that language is not material. And materialists believe in the void more ardently than anyone, Zizek says that explicitly, which is also my issue with Kant, since idealists and materialists are indistinguishable in my argument. I'm just saying that there's a contradiction in the very fact of using language to push reality (the referent) further and further away from solid matter, untill even space and time start to disintegrate. The mall is now the internet. And the future of everything is heat death.

Once one has arrived at the void, why does anyone want to stay there? What are they hiding from?

Noah:

Darwin calls chance "natural selection". Probably not the different label you wanted quite, though.....

I'm not sure I get your morality/ethics distinction. I'm not sure either why you feel that ethics for Kant isn't about free subjects. As I said, Kant definitely thinks that choosing morality is about choosing freedom (or that the only way you can be free is to choose morality.) Maybe I'm wrong, but I don’t think he set out a list of ethical codes which you were supposed to follow. Morality is about conscience for him, which is also God, or God speaking in us. It's not clear to me why that involves loopholes; I know Kant is supposed to be super-legalistic, but he just doesn't seem that way to me especially.

Your arguments about morality just don't sound unKantian to me, which makes it weird that you keep disavowing him. Probably I should go back and read Kant again, is what should happen. In theory.

Why are idealists and materialists indistinguishable? And how are they pushing language further away from solid matter? I'm totally not following that.

Again, I think with Kant God is inside and outside; he's transcendent (outside the universe) but reaches inside (especially inside us). It's both/and I think, not either/or — and you need both/and if god is going to have some material affect, since if he's entirely outside he can't move anything, which is deism.

I still don't know that I'm getting the materialism=idealism thing. I guess you're saying that they're the same in that they both assume a human vision of the world is sufficient or fully explanatory (whether physical or mental)?

I'm also not sure I follow your emphasis on will precisely. Are you saying god exists through a human act of will? Or (more likely) that the important part of religion is not understanding god but deciding to follow him (which sounds somewhat like what that essayist you sort of half didn't like was saying....)

Bert:

Okay, let's deal with one thing at a time. Marxist materialism, which is really what we're talking about nowadays, says that history reflects a shifting set of relationships that boil down to who controls material resources. What keeps this from being just a pure power analysis is that there is a progressive teleology, an emphasis on economic production as the engine of that teleology, and a strong emphasis in production on the human source of value, known as labor. Marx inverted teleological Hegelian idealism, interestingly enough, rather than borrowing from Hobbes or Bacon or Epicurus or something. Hegel the idealist basically boiled the universe down to irony, and Marx the materialist made it tragic irony.

Materialists now cling to the notion of relations (social relations in the case of Marxists) because of (note the root) relativity, which sort of equates, or at least problematizes distinctions between, matter and energy. What makes it materialism is really its hard core-- phenomena are evidence of causes, and these causes wind up with some Ultimate Cause-- whether it's technological appropriation of resources for Marx, or the monad for Spinoza. Or, for idealists, it's the void of multiples (Hegel), or the a priori (Kant). So, to continue to cling to either mind or substance as the only truth (after relativity and neuroscience and quantum physics), you end up with mind and/or substance dissolving before your very eyes.

There is no inside God and outside God. Those are all arbitrary designations (inside, outside, and God). There is only the Absolute, and then there's the phenomenal smokescreen that obscures our clear perception of the Absolute. Language has some connection (often through math) to the fabric of reality. So relations are real, relativity is real, but not relativism. That's where pragmatism comes in, and the whole embracing (rather than denigration) of arbitrary terms, but I'll stop there for now.

Do you see where I'm coming from?

Noah:

Well, I see where you're coming from more or less. I don't know that I'm coming from quite the same place.

"There is no inside God and outside God. Those are all arbitrary designations (inside, outside, and God). There is only the Absolute, and then there's the phenomenal smokescreen that obscures our clear perception of the Absolute."

I mean, sure, the distinctions are arbitrary. They're metaphors, which is language, which is what we have to talk about the world. When you say "Absolute" and "phenomenal smokescreen", you're not getting anywhere outside of metaphor, though. You're just using a gnostic metaphor rather than a Kantian metaphor. I actually think Kant, who doesn't break things down into perception and absolute, but rather places absolute in a (confusing, metaphorical, but nonetheless) relationship with the world we've got is more subtle than the idea that the world simply obscures our idea of the absolute. The absolute is in the world too, though not the same thing as the world. We see through a glass darkly...but maybe not always, and we do see something.

Perhaps you're saying that as well, I'm not sure....

Bert:

How Wittgenstein. Just throw up your hands-- "it's all metaphors, you say God, I say potato salad."

In Kant, God is a limiting principle of possibility. Space, time, morality, it's all projected by the subject, that's what makes it transcendent. God is what a "thing in itself" would be.

I don't dismiss C.S. Lewis' Christianity, so I don't dismiss Kant's. But Kant ABSOLUTELY breaks things down into two categories: phenomenal and noumenal. There is only contingent and necessary, conditional and unconditional. It's entirely a logic founded on an empty center.

Noah:

It is all metaphors...but that doesn't make me throw up my hands. God is in metaphors too...very much so in Christianity, which is based on a book. You're the one who seems to think that metaphors, or the physical world, is somehow keeping us from apprehending God.

You're really demanding I read Kant and refute you (or else cave, as the case may be.) Unfortunately, I'm reading more Niebuhr now, so it'll take me a while to get to some other theology....

Bert:

Noah my friend, I don't need you to go back and read Kant, but you want to focus on him as a problem in my (thoroughly seat of my half-assed pants) attempt at a divine ontology. Which is totally reasonable of you, and I'm sorry if I was snide, but I am trying in my own bumbling way to respond.

And, speaking of ontology, it may be what philosophers mean when they say metaphysics, since Kant was trying to dispense with both of those things centuries before Nietzsche and William James and Heidegger. Milbank rather sympathetically reads Zizek trying to use Hegel as a way to have a metaphysics after metaphysics (via nihilism, quoth Milbank). Similarly, I think "God is dead" is not a meaningless soundbite, and there's some plane in which resurrection needs to be re-enacted, although, as with metaphysics, I think it actually probably has to happen all the time, every century or generation or decade.

Not to be a jerk, but Kant really does open up Chapter III of Pure Reason talking, with very self-conscious metaphors, about truth and illusion. "We have now... traversed the region of the pure understanding...But this land is an island, and inclosed by nature herself within unchangeable limits. It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the sea of illusion..." He then goes on with the topical metaphor of colonial exploration, sort of as a rather futile exercise in adventurism and blind alleys, which is a great way to use that metaphor. However, all of this truth about the transcendent schemata of knowledge are inherently without content, which is where the phenomenal world comes in. It may be futile to leave the island, but it is utterly barren, so there's sort of no choice. It's like Plato, but more tragicomic and less heroic.

I'm still figuring out what I think. But your third option is definitely where Milbank is. Hegel submitted that the Divine was in Being rather than Essence, the void of multiplicity, which is Deleuze's thing as well. My thing is definitely to go with Jesus on the point that nothing pure issues from us, and the mind is definitely the seat of Essence. There is something dangerous in idealizing the Stoics, which Paul was very cautious about, but, liike Kant, he was not trying to abandon language and knowledge and reason. Unlike Kant, I thnik he was much more willing to turn them back against themselves.

A God that pursues us, that moves in and out of us, is not an abstract principle of wisdom, nor a form of primal electromagnetism, but something else that contains elements of both of those things. Our wanting and changing and experiencing and relating are the things that are most relevant to God and to faith. I'm not totally satisfied with the way Kant addresses this, but he certainly tries, and for faith after the death of God, that's an important start.

Noah:

I need to lend you this Niebuhr book, maybe. He's really smart — he has fun things to say about the stoics for example, where he argues that obviously they're wrong in many ways, but that Christians can learn from their refusal to believe that God has given them a special dispensation.

He's also way more concrete than Kant/Zizek/etc.; more concerned with Christians relationship to God and to the world in a somewhat straightforward way than with the questions about ontology and language and reason — which I think may be helpful.

Bert:

I would, as a perhaps petty parting shot, mention that bracketing off those murky abstruse topics (from something as relevant as theology), is a pragmatist take, which Kant can certainly underwrite, even if it's not exactly what he's doing.

Noah:

I guess it is pragmatist. I wonder though...is there a theological imperative of some sort to talk in a way so that some non-negligible group of Christians can actually understand what you're talking about? This is actually a real problem for Kant and later Hegel — they were both thoroughly elitist, and not at all interested in having anyone except university professors understand what they were talking about. C.S. Lewis is obviously very different from Kant in that way, if not in others.

Niebuhr is very concerned with politics, and many of his essays in the book I'm reading are sermons, so there's definitely some effort to talk to other people. And Zizek obviously doesn't necessarily care whether anyone understands him or not, really.

I guess I feel like you seem to be in a position where you're pushing God away from the world in a way that looks somewhat like gnosticism, and then you're coming down hard on the idea that you can approach god through metaphor. That seems to be cutting God off from everybody, especially from everybody who doesn't have some fairly extreme interests/training in philosophy. How does that fit into an idea of a Christian community, is the thing I guess I'm wondering about.

Or, to put it maybe another way...

human beings pretty much have to be pragmatist in a lot of ways. Being a pragmatist is another way of saying you're in the world, or subjected to the world. I don't really see how you get out of that, or find an intellectual position that doesn't rely on pragmatism to some degree, without an appeal to grace.

Bert:

Okay, now you're ragging on Kant. I'm definitely having fun now.

I don't know that, if we're speaking pragmatically about my religious ideas, that my words are the place to look. My practice is that I attend a church every week, I participate in church activities, I'm working on a project with my church, and my job, whatever its gaping flaws, is vaguely philanthropic, if it has any redeeming quality whatsoever. I also write about contemporary art, a somewhat obscure topic to many people, in a pretty populist idiom. Hardly a crusader for the underclass, but not an ivory-tower pundit wank either.

My words reflect something other than practice. They relfect inner experiences, and an attempt to put them into words. And I beg to differ with that highly pragmatist last assertion of yours, which attempts to assume that strange tautological authority, "Everyone is doing pragmatism even if they think they aren't." How humanist can you get? "You're a human, so you must be humanist. Your profoundly demystified self-awareness told me so." I don't want to just accept that. I have other things on my mind.

Religion is where everyday people go to process deep issues of the cosmos. Certainly there are some lower- to medium-educated people, whether or not they read William James, who have no time for issues like death and existence and morality and truth. But I find it far more elitist to presume that a "community" of people don't care about the nature of love.

And I'm inquiring about these things on my own behalf. I am perfectly willing to try to explain my philosophy or my beliefs to my custodian, if he cares, but he really isn't that kind of guy. I probably wouldn't use the word "ontological." I would use metaphors.

Which brings me to that point-- I would care about my metaphors. I wouldn't say, "oh, they're just metaphors." If they were inadequate, then I would try to find better ones. Such os language. My probelm is with calling the whole thing a big game (or mall) and just throwing the whole thing back on some sort of question of "efficacy." I'll worry about my own efficacy-- but ideas are important in a different way.

God is in the world, all the time. He is in me and outside of me. But he's not in what I perceive. He is in the impossibility of my perceptions being somehow "true," and in the impossibility of communicating my perception to anyone else. He is in me wanting to perceive true things and share those perceptions. He is very, very hard to describe. He is just, but he is not utilitarian.

Noah:

I don't disagree with most of that. I will point out that when you were sneering at my metaphors, you were sneering at them as far as I could tell because they were metaphors, not because they were inadequate metaphors.

I didn't say everyone was doing pragmatism. I said that pragmatism — a basic interest in how things work, in how we feed ourselves, in how we find a place to go to the bathroom — is pretty universal; it's what the philosophical movement glommed onto, rather than the other way round. I think I reject the argument, which you seem to be inching towards, that pragmatic concerns can't have anything to do with god, or are by their nature less true, or more corrupt, than other kinds of concerns or ideas. I think there's maybe an effort to get away from Marxism there which I'm not entirely on board with. People do worry about the nature of love, but they worry about other things too. I don't need to privilege the second, but I'm leery of privileging the first all the time at the expense of the second too.

I do like Niebuhr a lot on this sort of thing. Basically, he adopts relativism through universalism. He sees god as an ideal, and human actions and ideas and points of view can participate, or really look towards that ideal, though they're always partial and corrupt.

Niebuhr talks a bit about a utilitarian perception of God (I will pray and God will help me.) He points out that it's a pretty natural take on religion, though not a Christian one. But he also talks about self-preservation and really capitalism and democracy as having a place and a kind of justice, though never as much of divine justice as its proponents like to tell themselves it does.

"God is in the world, all the time. He is in me and outside of me. But he's not in what I perceive. He is in the impossibility of my perceptions being somehow "true," and in the impossibility of communicating my perception to anyone else. He is in me wanting to perceive true things and share those perceptions. He is very, very hard to describe. He is just, but he is not utilitarian."

Why isn't he in what you perceive? Who made your eyes? Who made the light? Who made the computer screen you're staring at? How can the created world be good if you have no access to it?

You can't see all of what's true, because you're not god, but that doesn't mean you're isolated in some sort of blank bottle with your eyes taped shut. I feel like in your eagerness to reject materialism in its various forms (utilitarianism, pragmatism, etc.) you're drawing some sort of impassable border around your brain. It's like in trying to outfox the enlightenment you've decided to be more cartesian than descartes. Is that really where you want to end up?

Also, I don't mean at all to say that you're somehow not sufficiently involved in your community — I mean, obviously you do way better than that than I do. But it seems like you're really bracketing that kind of experience when you talk about this stuff in a way that seems limiting to me.

It could be that I'm just not understanding you, though.

Bert:

Au contraire, good sir. Allow me to point out who was sneering at whose metaphors:

"I mean, sure, the distinctions are arbitrary. They're metaphors, which is language, which is what we have to talk about the world. When you say "Absolute" and "phenomenal smokescreen", you're not getting anywhere outside of metaphor, though. You're just using a gnostic metaphor rather than a Kantian metaphor."

I merely sneered back. And I certainly didn't cal you anything on the scale of "gnostic." That's a low blow. And "elitist?" "Cartesian?" I just compared you to Wittgenstein, who is widely respected. And potato salad, a perennial picnic favorite.

Now you can call me a martyr.

Remember that Ambrose Bierce quote about reality as it really truly is, seen through the eyes of a toad? Pragmatism is (in a way) like that, or like Paul Fussell's "Class X"-- the modest observer seems transcendently immanently value-neutral, until you really think about it. Making acknowledgement of the divine something special is very important to lots of people. They use special words, they go to a special place, they do special things.

But, back to the profane, I brought up going to the bathroom before you did. The whole thing about how Jesus says everything that comes out of us is unclean. Doodoo!

When Chesterton has that thing in "The Man Who Was Thursday" about the anarchist exulting the tree over the streetlamp, and the protagonist points out that right now you're looking at the tree by the light of the streetlamp, or the miracle of good digestion, I think one legitimate way to see that is that everyday reality is more meaningful than fantasies about magical primeval nature. True enough also for your point about my eyes or the computer screen. But it's also the case that Chesterton, as with the sun rising every day in "Orthodoxy," emphasizes the way in which everyday things are viewed, and the fact that they exist, quite in opposition to their mundanity.

Gratitude, obedience, and responsibility are essential. Those all have to do with the everyday. I'm not denigrating the world, but rather our way of knowing it.

I'm a Zizek fan. Of course I don't hate Marxism. Marx, Freud, and Jesus are my modern Jewish troika of anti-humanism. But I don't see the death of God (or the Big Other) as a trivial issue or a desirable state of affairs.

If you want to talk about economics, let's talk about economics. But that's at least somewhat changing the subject. There is basically no attempt to deal with religion progressively other than as a model for economic or legal liberation (civil rights, liberation theology), and when God becomes a stand-in for Human Rights, I think it's a problem for many people. Not that pursuing justice has to be a religiously inspired pursuit, or that justice cannot subsume all other aspects of God for the just person (after Eckhart). But justice is not my only interest in religion. It connects to lots of internal questions, and I don't think that makes me elitist.

Simply put, I reject an instrumentalist God. Or an anstract God. They don't appeal to me. And that may form some political opinions, but it doesn't make me reject the world.

Noah:

You sneered first!

Besides, I said sneering at particular metaphors made sense. The point was that you appeared to be sneering at the use of metaphors at all, which I think is really problematic.

"Simply put, I reject an instrumentalist God. Or an anstract God. They don't appeal to me. And that may form some political opinions, but it doesn't make me reject the world. "

I presume that's abstract God?

You say that rejecting an instrumentalist God doesn't make you reject the world...but I'm not sure that quite lines up with claiming that you're unable to perceive anything. Denigrating "our way of knowing" the world — whose way is that? Where did it come from? How is our way of knowing the world not part of the world, and how is rejecting the big part of the world we call "knowing the world" practically (there's that word) different from rejecting the world?

I don't think religion has to be only about justice...but I do feel like it should probably be about people (at least insofar as it involves people.) And if it's going to be about people, it really has to exist in language, because that's where people are. I don't know; maybe you agree with that. But it seems in part like you want to get out of language, or put god outside language, or make language equivalent to the law which christ unravels (back to eden.) Which is mysticism, basically, which certainly has a long pedigree and, as they say, a witness. At the same time...I think you maybe get it right when you say "it doesn't appeal to me." I think there are maybe other witnesses you could have too, and I don't think they're necessarily more corrupt.

I guess I just don't see calling language corrupt, or duty corrupt, or the law corrupt in an absolute "this is not what god is about" way. In part because it seems like there's a suggestion there that outside duty and the law (and perhaps language (in the womb?)) there's a place which isn't corrupt, which I would say isn't true.

I guess the point is, you can certainly reject an instrumental god on the basis that that isn't the god you want...but it's not clear to me that everyone should reject that god, or that liberation theologists are really substantially on the road to hell more than most people. I think it's definitely worth pointing out the downsides — self-righteousness probably being the big one. But I think there can be problems with entirely rejecting an instrumental god too (which I think does maybe involve losing touch with or rejecting the world.)

And it is limiting, because everybody's limited, because that's the thing about not being god. Certainly I remain extremely limited by, in this instance, still not being entirely sure I know what you're talking about. And the whole not being a Christian thing, making much of my dialogue here more than a little absurd....

Bert:

I can see how you took my Kant critique as a sneer at you, since you are a quasi-autistic philosopher who never left Konigsberg and has been dead for centuries.

For the record, I do not think that liberation theology is the road to hell. And I do not hate the law. Quite the contrary. I'm just trying to say that progressive people who can handle Christianity when it means overthrowing oppression but not when it means identifying with a charisma that recognizes and nurtures people-- maybe can't handle Christianity.

God exists in language, but not owing to any lack of people trying to purge him for hundreds of years. I'm using language right now to try and understand things. But, as they say, "it ain't all good."

Do I really need to justify that for me, as for lots of people, the internal part of trying to understand God relates to my external activities in the world?

Noah:

You're welcome to sneer at poor Kant. I promise not to take it personally. I'm not sure who it is who you think can handle Christianity exactly, though. I'll agree progressives have their troubles...but I understand from reliable sources that it is in general a narrow road.

I think I said it wasn't all good. I said it a bunch even.

You certainly don't have to justify anything to me. But in general throughout this conversation, I've had a lot of difficulty figuring out what was at stake for you. I don't doubt that there's something at stake, and that it relates to how you deal with the world, but either because of a problem of language or simply a failure of understanding on my part, I'm really not getting it. You can try to explain again...or you can drop it and maybe try again later. But it's pretty clear that I'm not following you.

All right; I have trouble letting something go when it finished so unsatisfyingly.

So the thing is; I understand that what's at stake broadly is your understanding of god. I don't understand why the particular issues you're circling around are so compelling for you, perhaps because I don't really understand what they are.

Might it be helpful to talk about a concrete example? I'm reading about pacifism currently, which it seems like falls in an in-between place in at least some of your categories. That is, it is, or can be seen as instrumental on one hand (the best way to deal with resolving conflicts) while on the other hand it can be seen as about obedience/faith/love regardless of instrumental consequences. Is there a way to think about your concerns about materialism and idealism in relation to arguments about pacifism? Or am I totally on the wrong track?

Here is some shithead explaining that we need to update our ideas of

peace because now we have evolution:

http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j26/pacifist.asp?page=6

"This evolutionary vision has already begun to impact the work of a

number of pioneering philosophers, mystics, and theologians, who see

in this conception of nature not a pacifist God, but a creative,

self-transcending divine impulse seeking ever higher expressions of

itself in this world. And as this vision begins to work its way

through our culture, many believe we will see paradigm-changing

effects on the way we think about a host of issues, not the least of

which are war, peace, and conflict resolution. As Thomas Berry points

out, “Everything depends on a creative resolution of our present

antagonisms. I refer to a creative resolution of our present

antagonisms, rather than to peace, in deference to the violent aspects

of the cosmological process. . . . Neither violence nor peace in this

sense is in accord with the creative transformations through which the

more splendid achievements of the universe have taken place.”"

We are progressing ever forward....

Bert:

See, this makes me want to start our argument all over. Of course this is bullshit. Anything involving Carl Sagan and spirituality is automatically bullshit.

But what makes it bullshit has a lot to do with who God is. I guess if we all have the Ten Commandments programmed into us (or beamed into us from a satellite outside of reality) that's one way to dispute his idiot argument. But obviously that dude can feel self-assured for the exact same reason. We have natural selection programmed into us, so that trumps your ethical programming. We're back to competing arbitrary dogmas, allegedly bolstered by some kind of (if you will) gnosis.

Force and destruction are absolutely a God thing, and so is pacifism. Sorting it out involves reflection of some kind, or so I claim.

My response to that pseudo-Hegelian quasi-Norse nonsense begins to get at this, but (to use a fictional example) how do you deal with Aslan as a non-tame lion?

But I have zero problems with pacifism. There are the various just-war scenarios (as in Niebuhr). At the same time I think there can be good actions undertaken in a violent situation, which might of necessity involve non-passive behavior. The thing that crank is right about is that violence is a fact. But it's worth recognizing that the reason why a person's life is worth more than an animal's is connected to the fact that peace is a choice a human can make.

Noah:

See, I'd argue that what makes it bullshit is the usual progressive fallacy — i.e., things are getting better, everything is improving, original sin doesn't exist. You don't need the Ten Commandments to see that this is silly, do you? Surely you can just use your eyes.

(I mean, it's a little unfair, because this guy doesn't even understand evolution as far as I can tell, since evolution itself is not a progressive theory and transposing evolutionary theory to spiritual truths just proves that you don't understand elementary logic. But presuming he could make a better case, he'd still be wrong.)

Are you saying you can't dispute him without referring to a God whose existence you can't demonstrate? Because that seems weird to me; I don't at all think you need to be a Christian to believe he's full of shit.

I mean, yes, there's no way to prove him absolutely irrefutably wrong in such a way that he will confess himself and fall on his face — but you never get that sort of victory in ethical or philosophical arguments. I don't even know that I'd want that kind of victory, really....

Bert:

And why does the progressive fallacy make him wrong? It doesn't make Marx wrong. I mean, Marx can't really be called right or wrong. This shmuck is wrong because he thinks you can justify violence transcendentally using common observations (things blow up, cats eat birds) and pretending it's specialized knowledge.

He is stupid, evil, incorrect, and misguided. We do agree. Now, do you care why, beyond that? Or is that as far as it goes for you?

Noah:

The progressive fallacy is a real problem for Marx too. It does make him wrong, and evil as well (not just evil, of course, but still.) Marxism's belief in human perfectability — progress — has killed a lot of people. I mean, even compared to the number of people killed by social darwinism, it's killed a lot of people. (Has it killed more people than capitalism's various idols to progress? Hard to calculate, there.)

I probably am willing to rest the charge of wrongness on "killing millions of people = bad" more or less, which is an ethical argument which I presume you will dismiss as hopelessly material. I mean, I can probably go beyond that metaphorically and say that worshipping human beings (i.e. progress) is essentially blasphemous and a sin, since it puts human beings in a divine position that they aren't meant to occupy. (This is why I don't think I would ever vote for Zizek for anything, incidentally. A smart guy, someone I admire, not someone I want anywhere near actual power ever. (Presuming he acts on his philosophy, which is actually an uncharitable presumption, and one which probably isn't necessarily true at all.))

I'm curious what you feel the why beyond that is, though.

Bert:

Man, you just can't decide on Marx. I attempt to deconstruct the moral logic of revolutionary massacre, and you don't like that. I say his theory of history isn't right or wrong (which it isn't), and you don't like that.

But I'm willing to say, yes, he's evil, and yes, it's because millions died because of his calls for revolutionary massacre, but not because he's incorrect. Because it's all just metaphors. The workers' utopia isn't going to happen, but it's an unprovable Messianic assertion (ask any Marxist if the "real" revolution has happened yet). On the other hand, his analysis of how capital abstracts and concentrates power has hardly been disproven by history.

People are always trying to dismiss religion on the basis of the suffering inflicted in its name. It's not a trivial or irrelevant charge. I think it's less applicable to Christianity than to Marxism, but that's not prima facie obvious, especially to Marxists.

The social Darwinism Carl Sagan guy (can I just call him a Saganist?) really was trying to say three things are the same which (to almost everyone) aren't: evolution, violent actions of any kind in the universe anywhere, and the nature of the divine. Progresivism seems to be the ideological.rhetorical fuel for that mistake, and it might have some evil consequences, but I doubt you would reject human perfectability if it were renamed human improvability. You and Niebuhr seem to like capitalism and democracy just fine-- which, compared to pre-industrial society, Marx did too.

Noah:

I think I mentioned that capitalism had killed maybe as many people as Marx. And I'm curious as to when exactly I said that human improvability was something I even remotely believed in. I think that we've got better medicine now than we used to, but I don't think people are any better morally. We've gotten rid of slavery, which is good, but we seem on the way to making the planet uninhabitable, which is bad. I think democracy is a better system of governing nation-states than many, and I think to the extent that we've moved towards equality before the law that's a good thing — but it won't necessarily last forever, a, and b, there are always trade-offs (see possibly destroying the world above — also, certain amounts of misery in other locations round the globe.)

Metaphors can be wrong or right, in a metaphorical way, surely. And the Christian church really isn't Christianity in a thoroughgoing way that I don't think works for Marxism, precisely because Marxism is materialist. For Christianity, you don't get perfection on this earth, for Marx you do. Marxists can say, "hey, whoops, that wasn't really Marxism," but 5-year plans are in fact what Marxism is about, in a way that it's really hard to pin the inquisition on actually striving to attain Christian goals (because Christ really was not especially goal oriented.)

I think the point would be that, while you can say Marx was using metaphors, it's very unclear that Marx thought he was using metaphors. Thinking reality should conform (over time) to the inside of your skull in some sort of one-to-one way is the problem I think we're discussing.

It's worth pointing out too that, since humans are corrupt, everything they're involved in is going to be evil. It's about degrees and trying to figure out, with the corrupt thinking apparatus you have, which you think is worst and what you want to do about it. I certainly don't hate Marx or marxists in general, though. And I'm not sure what I'm supposed to decide upon in relation to him either. I mean, it's Marxism. It's a fairly complicated and influential system of thought. I can't have more than one thing to say about it?

I don't think his theory of history is right or wrong. It is progressive though, which, as I said, seems problematic to me. The class analysis stuff and looking at economic causes, though, seems right to me, for what that's worth.

I was going to say, too — I think there are metaphorical, or spiritual uses of evolution that appeal to me. I think you can look at evolution and say, this means all creatures are related to me — or look at it and say, I'm contingent and really unimportant. It's like anything about nature I guess; it can head towards a pantheism that seems to me (with my corrupt brain) a lot less objectionable than shiny progress, both in its hippieish we are all one implications and in its more naked reveling in blood sacrifice. I think pantheism is a lot easier to square with Christianity than progress as god, in any case, since god made creation but didn't make humans perfectable (which is why C.S. Lewis has Bacchus rather than Superman acting as a servant of Aslan.)

Bert:

"Thinking reality should conform (over time) to the inside of your skull in some sort of one-to-one way is the problem I think we're discussing." Bingo, yes. My interest in figuring out God definitely has something to do with figuring out the difference between reality and the inside of my skull.

I think evolution (and pantheism) have appealing attention to the nature of a life-force that exists through particular organisms, but can only be understood as necessarily outside of (bigger than) all organisms everywhere always.

But violence doesn't go away. The most reasonable progessives (Obama) seem somewhat fond of war and capitalism. The fact that we are so urgently obliged and so pathetically unable to reject violence represents something about both our alienation from nature, and our alienation from God.

Someone told me that the Dalai Lama was a Marxist. I should look that up.

Noah:

I wonder if Niebuhr's ideas about love and the law would be helpful to

you. He argues that divine love is both the fulfillment of the law

and the ultimate contradiction to the law. So divine love (and divine

mercy) are a stinging rebuke, opposite, to human justice (and

presumably to language)...but at the same time, human justice (and

presumably language) look towards, or take part in divine love as

their ideal and the ground of what worth they have in their

provisional human way. The contradiction is unresolvable — which is

where divine mystery (or spirit) comes in.

The language bit is me not him, but I like it. It points to the way

that language is a connection and a prerequisite for love rather than

a chain which keeps us from love, the latter being maybe

overemphasized by structuralism to the extent I understand

structuralism.

Bert:

I got a Kirkegaard book-- I went for Fragments of Philosophy and now I think I should have gotten his love book. He definitely has thoughts on language and love and law-- love is a duty, a matter of conscience, but it also does impossible, indescribable things. Structuralism is a nicely weird counterpoint-- arbitrary and contingent and momentary, utterly and hermetically immanent, rather than universal and eternal and anchored transcendently.

13 comments:

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