Responses to the ‘New Atheism’, Part 1: Ravi Zacharias & Sam Harris



A conservative Christian family member recently sent me Ravi Zacharias’s book The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (2008) and asked that I offer a reply.  The following is my reply.

_____

1.  Introduction

1.1  The Author
Ravi Zacharias, born in India and now a Canadian/American, is a well known “international” Christian apologist. Zacharias preached in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, participated in Harvard’s first Veritas Forum, and has given presentations at Princeton. He spent a brief time as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting professor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. In all other respects, he appears to enjoy the general career of the apologist: books, website, ministry, conferences, and radio.

1.2  The Occasion
The End of Reason (2008) is Zacharias’s response to Sam Harris’s bestselling Letter to a Christian Nation (2006). As indicated by the subtitle (“a response to the new atheists”), Zacharias intends to also implicitly address Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins.  These other authors are explicitly noted intermittently: Zacharias refers to “Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and a few others” (16), “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett” (30), “Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris” (43), “Christopher Hitchens, a man too intelligent to write a book as base as The Missionary Position” (101), and “Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others” (126).  Dennett is on my view the most interesting intellectual out of the four (Hitchens the most notable), yet Zacharias has nothing to say about him. Dennett remains lurking in the evangelical shadows of “and others”.

_____

2.  The Opening Tale

2.1  Paragraph One
On my view, the most intriguing part of The End of Reason is the opening five paragraphs (13-15), the first two serving as the foundation. Here is the opening paragraph:

A university student arrives home and informs his parents that, after reading a popular atheist’s book, he has renounced his family’s faith.  His mother, particularly, is shattered by the news.  The father struggles to engage his son in dialogue, but to no avail. The deepening grief causes them to distance themselves from their son.  When the game of silence does not work, the mother is plunged further into depression and despair.  The grandparents become involved, watching in anguish as beliefs that have been held dear in the family for generations crumble.  Before long, this family that was once close and peaceable is now broken and hostile.  Abusive words between mother and son are exchanged with increasing frequency and intensity, and the siblings blame their brother’s new strident atheism for the rift in the family. After a long night of arguing with her son, pleading unsuccessfully with him to reconsider his position, the mother takes an overdose of prescription medication and ends her life, unable to accept what she interprets to be the destruction of her family.

This is certainly a sad tale.  But can even the discerning, charitable reader predict what the moral of this story will be?  This short narrative entertains some events that are unquestionably fanciful, such as the son’s declaration that he has “renounced his family’s faith” and the fact that it is the religious father who “struggles to engage” in “dialog”. It is improbable, if not incredible, that a University student would refuse to dialog about an influential book he has just read. With these narrative details put aside, however, the rest of the story appears to me sufficiently realistic given the level of ‘dysfunction’ in many families. It seems reasonable to suppose, for example, that parents as characterized generally by this story would naturally cling not to the seeking after what is empirically true, enlightening, and that which promotes the common good of society, but rather, to the “family’s faith”. Similarly, it is not implausible that grandparents are watching on as traditional beliefs held “for generations crumble”. This appears to be, in fact, a universal story of the conservative mind meeting a changing world.

All we know about the son from this short story is that he was sincerely convinced, after reading a book, that God does not exist, and further, that he is willing to confess this to his parents. The level of grief experienced by the parents is therefore not what we might consider a healthy response.  That it is the parents that distance themselves reveal a particularly unhealthy, albeit common, set of social habits. I appreciate Zacharias’s willingness to include the real possibility of unjust and irrational shunning that often takes place in social situations like this. Zacharias calls this shunning “a game of silence”, implying some level of intentional manipulation. This increases the injustice of the parent’s initial response exponentially. Given this shunning, game of silence, and despair on the part of the son’s parents, the larger family unit becomes “broken and hostile”.  The mother is willing to engage in “abusive words” with her son, which the son now, apparently, begins to offer back. The parents are willing to allow their son’s other siblings to blame his new sincerely adopted and studied beliefs to be the sole cause of the family’s suffering. The university student is therefore unjustly accused by his immediate peers under the oversight of his very own parents.  Even after all this, the parents take it upon themselves to berate  their son long into the night, “pleading” with him.  The mother is apparently unwilling to reconsider her manipulative game of shunning her own son and unwilling to stand up for her son against the unjust accusations from her other children. Rather, so determined that her son’s new beliefs have been the sole cause of the “destruction of her family”, she commits suicide.

2.2  Paragraph Two
So what, then, is the moral of this story?  Why did Zacharias open the book with precisely this moving narrative?  Did the father or mother do anything wrong?  Is there anything they might have done different?  Did their other children respond in ways that were unjust?  Should the parents have rather corrected this problem between their children? Is the shunning, the game of silence, and the accusations against the ‘black sheep’ of the family the target of the forthcoming lesson? As it turns out, none of these issues are to the point of the story.  Rather, the point is that the book that this university student read that helped lead to his new beliefs should not have ever been written.  The person who wrote the book is immoral and deluded. (more…)

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Good Creationist Art Illegally Censored



Update: An attorney from the Alliance Defense Fund sent a letter  to the CEO of the rocket center on the behalf of their “client” Vision Forum. The CEO of the rocket center in turn welcomed  the use of the facilities.

_____________

Doug Philips’ new movie  The Mysterious Island was banned after initial go-ahead from the theater of the Davidson Center Auditorium at the United States Space and Rocket Center:

a government-run agency and taxpayer-subsidized venue which is open to the general public for private rentals and screenings. According to federal law, it is not supposed to discriminate on the basis of religion.

Phillips claims that officials “have rejected the film which is critical of Charles Darwin, as being too controversial.”  While not doubting the unscientific propaganda in the movie, my past experience with Phillips would suggest that this report is accurate.

I do not have time to investigate. Any comments or information welcomed.

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A Recent Debate: Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?



 ”Speaking for the motion, Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe MP. Speaking against the motion, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.” To watch all five segments of the debate, go here.  I have embedded the second segment below (press ‘HQ’ if you find pausing):

The audience was polled before the event: 678 people thought the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. 1102 poeple thought that it was not. 346 people were undecided.

After presentations were made by all four speakers, another poll was conducted: 268 people thought that the Catholitic Church was a force for good, and 1876 thought that the Catholic Church was not a force for good in the world. Only 34 remained undecided.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 9: Something To Die For



Hitchens tortured I did make it to the Landmark in L.A. for the premier of Collision.  A good deal into the movie, Hitchens was asked the leading question:

 ”What are you willing to die for?”

 Hitchens needed no pause for the riposte:

“Enlightenment.”

As you watch Hitchens put upside down on a cross, you might want to play this music (update: the Kirker who authored this video, Daniel Foucachon, permits downloads for embedding from his site, but soon after signing up as a registered user of Pooh’s Think, he removed your ability to watch it here. But just click below and you can listen to the nice music on Daniel’s page):

New Saint Andrews Choir from Daniel Foucachon on Vimeo.

(Picture is of Hitchens discovering what it is like to be him while water boarded; although the aftermath was an important element as well.)

 ___________

The conclusion of Collision is a tired Hitchens in the back seat of a not so large car casually recounting a personal conversation with the atheist pontifex Richard Dawkins. The context was this question: would Hitchens, if he could “convert”, or, ahem, “convince” every last theist of atheism, would he decide to do it? Hitchens would not.

Would Hitchens “drive religion out of the world”?

Hitchens soberly recounts his words to Dawkins: “I would not drive it out.”

Hitchens continues, “The incredulity with which he [Dawkins] looked at me [pause] stays with me to this day.”

Music hits and the screen goes black.  Not a bad ending.

___________

Since I have made myself clear about Amy Miller’s recent hate-the-white-man silliness, I will let you know that while waiting for Collision to begin, I bought Miller’s suggested alternative: Doubt by Jennifer Michael Hecht.  You should see the picture on the back of the book guys; Hecht is hot! What an Object to write about such a fascinating, linear, logical Subject.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 8: My interview with Christianity Today – sort of.



I can remember my first experience with a journalist.  I was interviewed after an elementary school band performance that traditionally gave me trumpet solo time on center stage.  I suppose this is as close as I have every come to stardom, but despite the lowly context, the media was there to accommodate.  I was asked a question by a journalist, I answered, and my mother naturally pointed out the next day’s result in newspaper print. All I recall caring about was the fact that I was misquoted.

Fast-forwarding a few years: I found myself on a university campus in Michigan as a philosophy graduate student and teaching assistant. It was before the snow blew and the winds reached 30 miles an hour, a nice day for a traveling sex-suppressed fanatic to preach to college students away from the safety of their homes and immediate family. I had some time before my class, and so I joined the half-nervous, half-amused crowd. I found myself seated by a writer for the school’s student paper after I had successfully challenged some of the questions blasting this old Prophet (amazing psychology here: when someone within ‘the group’ answers back). And so I was interviewed. No doubt recollecting, however unconsciously, my past experience with journalists, I asked this writer to repeat what she just wrote down as she listened to my answer.  “No, that is not what I said,” I replied. It is perhaps likely that this student journalist also bears in memory this contact with an old Prophet and a fundamentalist philosophy graduate student.

After the interview, I was off to teach my critical thinking class, in part to go through a sample text from Galileo I believe. After class, a student came up to me and made some derogatory comments about the old Prophet’s views on homosexuality. I will never forget the look of horror on this young man’s face after I gracefully explained that I agreed with the old Prophet. I then spent 15 minutes at the board with this young man schematically going over redemptive history.  Soon after, my Christian professor found out about an article I just published in Credenda Agenda, and I was banned from teaching the history of philosophy.  But that is another story . . .

A few years later, now back at the Kirk and whirring along with Pooh’s Think, Part 1, I was asked for an interview by a local journalist.  ‘Hmmm,’ I thought, ‘a local journalist here in the hills of north Idaho.  Not so sure about this.’  I explained that I was only willing to interview in writing. At that, the journalist claimed he did not see anything all that distinctive about the situation with Wilson anyway, and that was that. I still wonder what that journalist was really up to. Roy Atwood, President of New St. Andrews, is a good politician and was head of the communications department at University of Idaho before making the switch. The journalism in north Idaho has been pretty well buttoned up for a while now.

So when an editor for Christianity Today was interested in an interview a couple months ago, I just re-instantiated the drill: In writing pal.  After some days, however, the interviewer sent me some thoughtful questions for me to answer in writing.  I doubt Christianity Today will publish my answers and I have heard no answer back.  So here they are:

  

Tell me about your childhood experience with Christian faith? Would you characterize it as primarily positive or negative?

I would characterize my childhood experience with Christian faith as primarily positive.  The conservative Christianity of my family brought me in contact with a number of small to medium sized independent and Baptist churches. This contact comprised most of my experience with unified interaction between parents, peers, and a broader community. Our tradition was standard evangelicalism and the simple faith of a child was accepted on face value with an expectation that greater commitment and understanding would lead to baptism in the future.  My parents considered me born again at a very young age, but I was not baptized until I was in Junior High. My father was no Big Brother, and so there is little child psychology to toy with as far as I can tell. The story gets complicated  after about eighth grade. Moral hypocrisy in the church was the primary reason our family ceased church attendance, and it was not until I experienced a crisis, followed by a conversion experience in high school, that religion became a topic in the home again. 

 

Who was the most formative influence (for better or worse) in your spiritual development?

This is a difficult answer to get quite right, but I will offer at least some primary personal and situational influences that come to mind: The crisis I mention above began in eleventh grade when my girlfriend treated me in ways that I found incomprehensible and hurtful. I was also becoming exasperated with the using, manipulation, lying, bragging, and womanizing from the cooler bunch of guys that I found myself associated with. I recall in particular noting that there was no sense of justice, and no care to defend the honor of another friend.  My good friend from tenth grade had moved away, and I found myself socially thirsty and perplexed. I was particularly unsettled when one fellow offered his surprise that he could offend me by lying to me: “I lie to you and you lie to me, that is just the way it is.”   In 12th grade, now alone in my own apartment for zoning purposes, I was poised for a good deal of fun. But, more relationally inclined than the average male of my age, I was already a bit tired – prematurely perhaps – of heading in the direction of dissipation. One night, at a high-school football game, I came back in contact with my old youth pastor from the local PCUSA church (this church had a program that was popular among the High School students). I had always respected him for the sincerity and gentleness that he gracefully conjoined with a more sophisticated intellectual demeanor. On the spot I felt dirty – to use what still seems the best word.  He mentioned the new youth pastor at the PCUSA (he was now an assistant pastor at a PCA church) and on the spot I committed to going back and checking it out. 

The next few months were a whirlwind and one evening, while lying awake in bed, I had a somewhat mystical experience – as if I could peer up through the heavens and into the infinity that lay beyond and have a sense of what God – who had been lovingly yet regretfully watching me all my life – was now thinking, which was what I was thinking: you are such a fool.  My girlfriend of 11th grade became the idol, the false god that broke my heart, and God was now the one that told the truth after everyone else had lied. I wrote a song soon after with the chorus “I’ve seen love shine, through the darkness of my life; he wouldn’t let me go, he set me free, he died for me.” Almost overnight I had lost my fits of anger, profanity, bitterness, and was keenly interested in exploring the truth of the bible, prayer, time with parents, Christian friendship, and evangelizing. I became a bit ascetic and had what evangelicals would certainly consider worship experiences in the evenings. Oddly, I also became academically inclined, went from a C student to an A student, and for some reason found the nearest bookstore and bought a philosophy book on infinity and the mind. I was now fascinated by literature, physics, the bible, and a naive exploration of what I now know is the classical problem of evil.  That original syncretism has stayed with me until today.  Ironically enough, latent in this year of conversion was perhaps my eventual apostasy.  

 

Tell me about when you first started to think of leaving the faith, or the moment when you realized that you were slipping away?

There is no clean answer to this.  I was deeply situated in Douglas Wilson’s Christ Church, or as he used to call it, the Kirk.  I was a ministerial student and contributor to Credenda Agenda, and I was well connected with the Kirk and larger Moscow community, including New St. Andrews faculty and elders at Christ Church. The first notions of ‘falling away’ – I was limited to conceptualizing it as just this – coincided with a growing desire to leave the Kirk community altogether. However, I  simply withdrew from these thoughts in horror and suppressed them. Any sign of doubt I found in me was my enemy. Although I never focused too much on the doctrine of hell, it is clear in hindsight that I was psychologically guided by implicit threats and fear.  

Soon after a year long mentorship with Douglas Wilson, I began suspecting him capable of deceit and manipulation. But it was not until I started publishing my analysis of ‘berith’ (covenant) in the Kirk’s cultural journal that I began seeing the intellectual vacuity in the community at large – starting with Wilson, extending to the pastoral students, and then filtering through New St. Andrews, elders, and younger theologically inclined laymen (and even extending to reformed theologians I made contact with over this issue). I concluded that at bottom, the point of reading, writing, and disputing in the Kirk was not truth as conventionally construed, intellectual carefulness, or an honest interaction with broader society (I would make an acception for John Schwandt [greek professor], who always intentionally had one foot out of the Kirk, and I might make an exception for Peter Leithart, and perhaps Mitch Stokes only for things pertaining to mathematics) . I had been wrestling with the tension between Faith and Reason over the years, but now the tension became a personal/community issue that I could no longer avoid.  The local controversy (Wilson was always at war with Moscow back in those days) afforded me opportunities to poke my head outside of the Kirk, and I became gradually horrified by what I was seeing from this external point of view. I began offering mild concern and I signaled a willingness to consider carefully the side of the Other. It was all down hill from there. 

Eventually, I was attacked in every ‘legal’ way: socially, financially, psychologically, verbally.  At the time, all this was symbolic not of my slipping away from the faith, but rather from the particular Christian Community I had known – although Kirkers, with some justification, would see little distinction here.  I did not realize that this was my way of beginning my journey from the faith altogether, but it in fact was.  Once I had gained the ability to question, regardless of the costs to my coherent and comfortable world, there was really nothing left standing in the way from an outright rejection of Christianity. I progressively drew connections between my experience with the Kirk and broader Christianity, and then expanded the analogical reasoning to religion in general, the biblical texts, and the protagonists of the New Testament story.  The work of Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens  gave me the tools to finally pull the plug and come clean this last year.  Harris was my first introduction to how anti-theists see the morality of Christianity. Dennett pulled together a good deal of anthropological and philosophical topics. And Hitchens revealed the extend of the rhetorical weapons available to the anti-theist. Hitchens’ seasoned journalism also gave a broad perspective from which to handle the topic of Religion.  Christianity no longer needed to be treated as ‘the’ religion to reject, but rather a knowledge domain of personal experience that fit into the human drama as a mere species of a broader reality I was previously shielded from.

 

Ultimately, why do you think you left the faith?

Given the nature of exit from the Kirk, it was all quite inevitable and violently thrust upon me. However, I could say that I have left the faith in part on moral grounds: I now see the bulk of institutionalized Christianity as immoral: it is political, hypocritical, the power domain of the priesthood. I now understand religion to be primarily a mechanism of control (whether perceived so by practitioners or not) and Christianity – however unique the story of redemption might be – to be little different from other institutionalized religions. During an early meeting with Dr. Peter Leithart at New St. Andrews, I began explaining my concerns about the violent and arrogant way the Kirk was treating the local community, contrasting it to the idealized narrative of Jesus. And it just hit me. I began weeping.  The issue is also certainly intellectual, although I do not see a strong distinction between the moral and the rational on this topic. I concluded that Wilson was intellectually dishonest, but now I see how this is so more generally with fundamentalist Christianity at large. 

 

 Spiritually speaking, where are you at right now?

How would you describe your world view or life philosophy?

[I answer both of these questions here]

I am still dealing with the post traumatic stress of exiting the Kirk. Making a final clean break more recently has been therapeutic in this regard.  From my view, Christians were unable to understand or admit the implications latent in my exit experience from the Kirk, and secular culture and academia has provided me with a far better fit for all the conclusions I have drawn from that experience that might be otherwise neutral to the question of atheism.  My closest professor and long term friend at the University, as well as the University as a whole, provided a refuge for me during my exiting of the Kirk, and I have found some of the most gentle, sincere, and intelligent people to have very little religious inclination at all. It seems as though the last place I have found myself is in the gutter with the prodigal son. 

I had always wrestled with discussions about consciousness and intentionality in the philosophy of mind. Either personality was ultimate or the atomos was ultimate, and the derivation of meaning and intentionality had to go in one direction or the other. As a Christian apologist, my task was to argue that the emergent properties of the human brain were a derivation from, albeit in an ex nihilo sort of way, eternal personhood. With the late apologist Greg Bahnsen, I concluded that the ‘mind was the body,’ but the direction of intentionality necessarily went from God to matter. This left me with a philosophical problem on my hands. The Churchlands were therefore the enemies of the faith and Daniel Dennett, bless his humble heart, just had things backwards (Kinds of Minds, 1996, p55).  I had to therefore refute some of the greatest philosophical minds of the 20th century, and the developing empirical evidence seemed to give me nothing to work with while just lending support to the Churchlands’ original materialist thesis.  Part of my final rejection of the faith was my coming to terms with the spiritual implications of all this.

It is now hard to imagine that creationism has any credible challenge to offer the scientific community and I am growing more convinced that our traditional notions of beliefs, desires, action, deliberative conscious control, guilt, blame, and responsibility will many years from now be understood as explanatorily useful as the Cartesian theatre, the ghost in the machine, and the gods that moved the winds and made the crops drink rain.  A new appreciation for science is therefore an important part of my new ethos – swinging all the way towards eliminative materialism (although I doubt I would ever be drawn to any mystical devotion of infinity or the origin of the big bang). The most important conclusion is that we humans are really a bunch of dumb mammals – our unconscious minds far more sophisticated than our linguistic blabbering and ignorant social practices.

My newly developed rough edges and mild skepticism to traditional morality is certainly something I need to force myself to be honest about.  There is something sad about losing the beauty to be had in a Christian Cosmos, and likewise a degree of cynicism in the writing of H.L. Mencken and Christopher Hitchens. I would not say I am in that spiritual/emotional camp just yet, but as much as I would like to be the new Friendly Atheist, you will find the nature of my adoption of what I find to be the truth to leave me with some permanently raised prickles.  Although, I doubt these prickles will ever become nearly as deadly as what I was or could have been capable of dishing out as a fundamentalist theist loyal to a Dear Leader speaking for God.

 

What do you miss most about being a Christian? What do you miss least?

I miss the way the Christian view allowed me to make the world more enchanted, meaningful, and at times, lovely.  It is a very comfortable place to be at times emotionally and psychologically.  You can stand within the grand tradition of Western Culture and have a robust sense of your place in the cosmos – conveniently right at the center. The classical education tradition, the gloomy days on the Palouse, and the talent of Douglas Wilson certainly helped augment this effect. You are also given the tools – fashioned and refined by priests over the course of thousands of years – to psychologically and rhetorically suppress or reinterpret the incongruence between your Christian story and the world around you. What I miss the least about being a Christian is the constant battle of standing in and out of the world at the same time. During and soon after my conversion, this was a moral battle, where the world represented selfishness, deceit, and debauchery.  But over time, the attempt to take the claims of the faith at face value created a different tension.  Much in the world was good and lovely and true and much in the church was not. I think the honest determination to be in the world but not of the world inevitably leads to some degree of fanaticism, which becomes most apparent when considering the apostolic claims about hell, the status of non-believers, and the ‘foolishness’ of the world’s wisdom.

  

How have Christians treated you since you left the faith?

The majority of Kirkers have ridiculed and shunned me. Almost all the rest have at least kept a distance from me. The few that do not keep a distance do not want to discuss the issues with me; there might be a couple borderline cases, but the complexity of the story neutralizes this I think. The treatment I have received – whether the harmful kind or the silence – seems to be just more justifying evidence supporting my change of direction.

 

Do you have any fears or lingering regrets about leaving the faith?

All that comes to mind is how difficult it seems to be to leave an anthropocentric world with one’s self in the middle, only to find a vast, meaningless, and uncaring cosmos that will ultimately burn out and die. Curiously, it is at just this cosmological level where the philosophical arguments of the Christian gain some common ground with the atheist’s.  I no longer find any fear or regret on the issue of morality or social solidarity since I do not believe religion fosters genuine morality, which is grounded in empathy on my view. But the cosmological issue is certainly something to come to terms with.  A corollary to this is a reconsideration of one’s creativity, morality, and smarts: I now find myself only ever so slightly creative, moral, and smart, and this relative analysis is made possible only after a comparison is made between myself and the monkeys! I would perhaps see myself as more intelligent, creative, and moral if I was comparing myself with the various gods of our more distant past – or perhaps the Old Testament’s fickle, jealous, and angry father.  I regret this is the only alternative to the divine spark that one gets with theism.

  

What’s your opinion about Jesus? How about the church?

 H.L. Mencken summed it up well:

 ”If there is a bishop in this great Christian land who has not, at some time or other, composed and uttered an article of diatribe entitled “What Is the Matter with the Churches?” then the present subscriber is prepared to pay $10 cash for his name and address, or if he has been translated to G.H.Q., for a hair of his episcopal head . . . the bishops join the lay pathologists in arguing that the only salvation for the church is to go back to His teaching.  It has taken on crusts, excrescences, an unhealthy and forbidding patina.  It is covered with boils, and racked interiorly by grinding pains.  The world has debauched it, and it shines with a baleful light. Its deliverance lies in the fifth chapter of Matthew, among the glorious asseverations known as the Sermon on the Mount. Let it throw off its gaudy trappings and its lust for pomp and power, and teach once more that the poor in spirit are the really blessed, and that theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Let its ordained pastors abandon their bloodthirsty wowserism and delirious money-chasing, and give ocular proof that the meek shall inherit the earth. Let its customers cease their attempts to dispose of one another by the sword, and so restore the old saver to the salt. . . . . But I regret to add at once that I cherish no hope that they will accept.  More, I find myself impelled to say that I believe they are too intelligent to accept.  For bishops, whatever their liking for hollow and lascivious utterance, are surely not ignorant men.  Their magical trade makes them privy to the secrets of the human heart.  They understand mankind, even though they often act as if they do not.  And at no time do they give better proof of their understanding than when they forget their own soft murmurs, and give their customers rough and bloody shows.  It is, indeed, the rough stuff that maintains them in their levantine luxury; it is hatred that they feed upon, as lawyers feed upon folly.  The minute they really went back to the Beatitudes, that minute the business to which they have consecrated their lives would blow up, and the name of Christ would disappear from His Churches, and follow that of Mithras into learned and unreadable books”

 – H.L. Mencken, What’s the Matter with the Churches?, American Mercury, 1928

  

What advice would you give Christians, to help them speak in an inoffensive, meaningful way, to people like you?

As for personal communication generally, I think your question answers itself. I – and I am sure countless other thoughtful, moral,  non-believing Americans – would require inoffensive and meaningful exchange.  What I have seen so far is either silence, clearly offensive approaches that are not intended to draw me in to a rational dialog, or pious platitudes that would not count as truly meaningful exchanges at all. I am at a loss recollecting more than a few relations or events that do not clearly fall in one of these three categories. Brian McLaren diagnosed this problem but was hung on a cross for it.  

Given the advances of the social, psychological, and brain sciences, we are growing more sensitive to manipulative rhetoric and what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfort has famously referred to as ‘bullshit’. Christians will therefore need to more than ever resort to sincere, charitable, and intelligent exchange with our growing skeptical culture.  Personally, I think this might lead to nothing more than a fruitful growth of ecumenicity between academia, the sciences, and Christianity. But on the Christian’s assumptions, this could lead to a spiritual awaking. After all, journalists have aptly noted that the recent wave of anti-theist literature has failed to suggest a cultural replacement for religion. Religion less its cussedness would seem to still have something to offer. Personal liberty, social justice, and a cosmopolitan vision do not replace our need for the bonds of local community and a commitment to the nurture and education of our children.  Religion remains the most potent mechanism available to us for this.  

I have an M.A. in philosophy and continue to study the literature on various topics, and I was always a philosophically inclined apologist while a Christian. I would therefore like to speak directly to the issue of apologetics.  I have come to see a good deal of apologetics as philosophical priest-craft.  On my view now, the practice of apologetics – generally speaking – never was meant to offer a formidable intellectual challenge to non-believers, but was rather intended to sanitize Christianity’s barbaric roots. The general goal of apologetics is to keep the laymen comfortable amidst the significant skeptical challenge that surrounds them.  In my opinion, this is why you do not see apologists dealing with their authoritative text as narrative (which, by the way, seems to be an important consideration in interpreting the recent debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig).  Plantinga’s integration between epistemology and theology is perhaps the most successful intellectual success the faith has had in a long time; however, Plantinga’s argument stays rooted within the traditional conceptual analysis of analytic philosophy, and is thereby less accessible to broader culture and easily outdated academically. More importantly, Plantinga’s argument is solely defensive and hinges on the antecedent “if Christianity is true.”  But non-believing academia no longer takes this possibility seriously. Getting academia to take this possibility seriously would seem to be a main challenge for a Christian apologetics that wishes to be offensive in strategy, rather than merely defensive.

There is something to be said about taking a front and center, cultural approach, and the Kirk has been a successful prototype.  There are ways to make folks take you seriously. A humble, intellectually honest Kirk could have gone a long way in penetrating American culture it seems to me.  A formidable Christianity worth the attention of the American people would have to be a community without the cult, provide leadership without the cult of personality, and offer an alternative approach to education that is more than a marketing platform (e.g. the rediscovery of the ‘medieval’ trivium).  Christians need to determine what the crucial elements of the Christian story/truth are, stick to their guns only on this score, and show the world how these crucial narrative elements can mitigate the problem of evil and leaven ecumenical discussions about the real problems and needs of our new global society – all the while honestly clinging to the claims of their authoritative text. This latter part will be a trick, but necessary on my view.

I leave this final note with the theist that would should like to either convert me or use me as an example for those who remain in the flock:  The more I ponder semantics and how we accrue knowledge of the world, the more I am convinced that we move forward in understanding not through the abstract concepts and propositions the more superstitious philosophers like to talk about, but rather by means of embodied analogy. This is how I have moved forward in my understanding of Christianity and religion in general. I gained unique and emphatic personal insight into a leader, a church, and a community, and I have moved on and applied this knowledge domain to the world outside. The argument could be made, then, that I have seen the outside world too much in terms of my experience with the Kirk. I have reasoned metaphorically and the metaphors are not sufficiently apt:  Religious leaders are Douglas Wilsons, the church is the Kirk, and Religion is the priestcraft I found on the Palouse.  My metaphors have not successfully predicted reality outside my experiential knowledge domain of the Kirk, but has rather merely exaggerated my extended interpretation. This is one possible line of argument I would recommend.

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Analytic Outline of My Entries Related to Hitchens, Wilson, and the Movie Collision



 wilson and hitchens in pub

The following is an index of links to entries I have made – ordered by date – related to Hitchens, Wilson, and the Collision Movie.

The Moral Argument Series:

Part 1    (February)
In this entry I introduce the central argument between Hitchens and Wilson: the Moral Argument. According to Hitchens, morality is innate and based on empathy, thereby implicating God as an immoral, blood-thirsty tyrant. But according to Wilson, Morality is only paradoxical: without this apparently tyrannical God, there would be no wrong and right to begin with and no basis for protest. (Wilson does not grant a tyrannical God but refuses to explain why throughout the debate).  In order to investigate the idea of ‘innate’ morality, I turn to anthropologist Colin Turnbull’s moving story about the Ik girl named Adupa.

Part 2: Summary of Debate     (March)
Here, I introduce C.S. Lewis’ more successful and humanitarian version of the Moral Argument and then provide a summary of the debate between Hitchens and Wilson, published on-line by Christianity Today and by Canon Press.

Part 3: Ethical Information     (March)
In this entry I map out my analysis of the debate under four headings and provide my analysis for the first. I argue that the debate is largely over by Round 2:

Hitchens points out that Wilson is “trapped in the net” of his own making. Genocide and slavery have been “positively recommended in holy writ,” and abortion is denounced in the Oath of Hippocrates (and I add, not holy writ).

Part 4: Immoral Defense     (March)
On my view, this is the most important part of my analysis since I am able to draw on my personal knowledge of Wilson; this helps explain the implied sociopathology of Wilson’s attempt at grounding morality. (The last two subjects of analysis appear less consequential, although I plan to finish this analysis sometime soon).

Part 5: Collision Movie     (May)
Next, I introduce the Collision movie, transcribing part of a released Sneak Peak. Hitchens says, “One of us not just has to lose the argument but has to admit real moral defeat. I think it should be him.”

___________

Molly Worthen on Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens (April)
Worthen published an article on Wilson in Christianity Today, and begins by noting Wilson’s foxtrot with Hitchens. I sought to provide more depth to Worthen’s analysis and corrected some factual errors. One reputable person commented on this entry:

Your piece is f-ing brilliant, and I’m glad I found it after reading Worthen’s interview with The Controversialist in the April 09 Christianity Today. You bring to light a lot of questions I had after reading Worthen’s article, and answer them brilliantly.

Letters To A Middle Aged Contrarian     (April)
I enjoyed Hitchens’ book a good deal: Letter To A Young Contrarian. So in this entry I provided some of those citations that I appreciated most. A bizarre dialog transpired in the comment section, involving some Kirkers.

___________

The New Enlightenment Series:

Part 1: The New Enlightenment     (September 25th)
After studying the work of Seana Coulson and the cognitive science tradition of Lakoff, Johnson, Fauconnier, Fillmore, and Turner, I read Lakoff’s new book The Political Mind. Lakoff’s announcement of the New Enlightenment fit nicely with Hitchens’ call for a renewed Enlightenment in god is not Great. Many disparate items clicked and I set forth a formulation of the New Enlightenment: “a progressive, interdisciplinary demeanor that weds the emerging mind sciences, meta-critical philosophy, the arts, and the work of the public intellectual.”

Part 2: Mind, Law, & the Naive Cynicism of Tetlock, Wax, and Mitchell     (October 12th)
This is a long essay. I began by framing the New Enlightenment in terms of Daniel Dennett’s recent thoughts on philosophy and cognitive science. I had been intrigued by Jon Hanson’s and Adam Benforado’s article in the Emory Law Journal, ‘Naive Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates,’ particularly by the cast of characters in the footnotes, who are cynical about the alleged value of the mind sciences in the study of law and public policy. I went on to outline some of these characters’ more recent work and concluded that Greg Mitchell, flirting with conceptions of the unconscious mind that are similar to my own, none-the-less still offers a strong form of naive cynicism.

Part 3: Mind Science and the Humanism of Christopher Hitchens, Flannery O’Conner & C.S. Lewis     (October 23rd)
This is another long essay where I critique and expand an anti-reductionist tradition from the philosophy of Mind, and I put some flesh and blood on it through provocative narratives from Flannery O’Conner and C.S. Lewis. I brought in Hitchens to provide a more humanistic frame for the New Enlightenment, but just half way through the rough draft I was alerted to the spike in the media over the premier of the movie Collision. So I introduced Wilson’s and Hitchens’ tango and referenced some of the previous entries above.

Part 4: Newsweek’s Prattle     (October 24th)
To my surprise, Amy Miller of Newsweek gave me a reason to get out the old boxing gloves of Pooh’s Think Part 1. Miller encouraged her readers not to watch the movie Collision – and for no good reason, to put it modestly. I am not so modest about it in this entry.

Part 5: Christopher Hitchens & Douglas Wilson: The Collision Movie     (October 25th)
Here, I provide what I think is some helpful immediate context for Collision and note the crucial broader context not just pertaining to Wilson’s current moral argument but to Douglas Wilson, the man. A narrative, historical, anthropological method still awaits, as does the continuation of my book, The Kirk: Mother of War.

Part 6: My Reply to Hitchens’ Reply to Miller     (October 26th)
Hitchens replies to Amy Miller’s Newsweek article in Slate. In this entry I comment on Hitchens’ reply by noting the similarity between his defense of the Collision movie and H.L. Menken’s comments on Dr. Machen in 1931. However, I note the dissimilarity between Wilson and Dr. Machen, and I state boldly the importance of what we can know about Douglas Wilson. I write, for example,

Wilson has a plan, he lusts incessantly for attention and control, and, I have come to fully believe after years of painful experiment and research, he has the full capacity to rape and maim any sentient organism that might get in his way. This is true, at least, so long as the world would allow him keep his pulpit and halo. In other words, he plans to do nothing he cannot get away with. And, thankfully, the backlash to Wilson has been vehement and loud and sustained enough, particularly from his close neighbors in his small town who actually know enough about him, to all but neuter this old bull.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 7: Collision Movie Premiers in L.A. Thursday Evening



wilson and hitchens in pub

You can keep up with Hitchens and Wilson in the media at the Collision website.  For more information about the movie, the Collision website has a well done summary  (perhaps too well done).  You can also find the link to buy tickets for Thursday’s premiere in Los Angeles (29th); or, you can go directly to the ticket booth here.  I will be at the Landmark Theatre  (or nearby, such as the Barnes & Noble) around 6:00 or so for the 7:00 viewing.  So let me know if you wanted to hook up for a cup of coffee.

________

The Collision website sent me to a Kirkers’ website to listen to the Laura Ingraham Show’s coverage, and I was not able to access it.  So here is an alternative link: you can listen to the show, with commercials deleted here, at Life Without Faith.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 6: My Reply to Hithens’ Reply to Miller



Over the last 15 years, I have not been fond of the thought of stumbling upon an old high school buddy at the airport who knows just enough about my Pioneering days – now, thankfully, finally placing me in San Diego, California – to say, “So why did you move from Orlando, Florida to north Idaho?”  My answer would likely vary according to the fanaticism of my mood. 

I can thankfully now just say, ‘glad you asked, Christopher Hitchens just wrote an article about just this point in Slate, titled Faith No More .  I’ll email you a link.’  Now Hitchens has to explain himself – and so I find my answer vicariously. Miller’s recent silliness in Newsweek is perhaps in part due to her puzzlement of Hitchens’ new attraction to yokels and one of their old Prophets in hills of north Idaho. In reply to Miller, Hitchens writes:

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing. (Incidentally, just when is President Barack Obama going to decide which church he attends?)

This approach to religion in America, I think, will be an important part of the advance of the New Enlightenment.  We need to look genuine religion – the real thing – directly in the eye and distinguish it from all the other superficial spin offs, whether it be the mush, the kitsch, the hand-waiving, the arid modernism, the irrational Bacchanalian rites of the holy rollers. It is all these past times of Americans that protect the real thing. Consequently, the real thing remains just enough alive to keep generating the spin offs. To stop the cycle, a disciplined focus on right up the [fill-in-the-blank] real Christian religion in America is in order.

Wilson enjoyed the writings of H.L. Mencken before concocting his social engineering project, which he later coined ‘The Kirk’.  In fact, Menken provided what was one of the first lessons at New Saint Andrews – at least when I was a student there. Wilson lectured on Menken’s appreciation for Dr. Machen and thought such appreciation was a mark of real success. Machen was a zealous opponent of all the sloppy mind-muck that allowed ‘Christianity’ to flourish as it did in the 20th century, and consequently, the founding father of the new conservative Calvinism in America – from Princeton to the fundamentalist Westminster Theological Seminary, where Hitchens and Wilson debated.  In 1931, H.L. Menken wrote the following about Dr. Machen for American Mercury:

 . . . this Dr. Machen believes completely in the inspired integrity of Holy Writ, and when it was questioned at Princeton he withdrew indignantly from those hallowed shades . . . I confess frankly, as a life-long fan of theology, that I can find no defect in his defense of his position.  Is Christianity actually a revealed religion?  If not, then it is nothing; if so, then we must accept the Bible as an inspired statement of its principles.  But how can we think of the Bible as inspired and at the same time as fallible?  How can we imagine it as part divine and awful truth and part mere literary confectionery?  And how, if we manage so to imagine it, are we to distinguish between the truth and the confectionery?  Dr. Machen answers these questions very simply and very convincingly. If Christianity is really true, as he believes, then the Bible is true, and if the Bible is true, then it is true from cover to cover.  So answering, he takes his stand upon it, and defies the hosts of Beelzebub to shake him. . . . Does he encounter witches in Exodus, and more of them in Deuteronomy, and yet more in Chronicles, then he is unperturbed.  Is he confronted, in Revelation, with angels, dragons, serpents and beasts with seven heads and ten horns, then he contemplates them as calmly as an atheist looks at a chimpanzee in a zoo. . . His moral advantage over his Modernist adversaries, like his logical advantage, is immense and obvious.

 At some point, however, now that Hitchens has helped redeem Wilson, he will need to go on and face some additional facts about the “sincerity” of this particular Dear Leader. Unlike Machen, a celibate professor of koine greek and “member of both Phi Beta Kappa and the American Philological Association”, Wilson built his career in the ways of a slightly evolved, plotting Orangutan. Living sparingly on honey and locust heads, Wilson generated tithes and offerings for himself and progeny through imprecatory chants against local professors, ravings against science, the censoring of the media, the lying to his lambs, and the spawning of many Roman-like ‘persecutions’ against himself by any stick big enough for the job, which included a plagiarized booklet on the wonderful harmony between slave and free in the old South. Many enemies were generated from within the tribe as well, making the imprecations of David all the more apropos.

 Wilson isn’t laboring for an academic tradition, or the glory of God, or love, or out of empathy for his fellow man. Wilson, rather, studied H.L. Menken early in life so that he could get this write-up published in Slate magazine much later. Wilson has a plan, he lusts incessantly for attention and control, and, I have come to fully believe after years of painful experiment and research, he has the full capacity to rape and maim any sentient organism that might get in his way. This is true, at least, so long as the world would allow him keep his pulpit and halo. In other words, he plans to do nothing he cannot get away with.  And, thankfully, the backlash to Wilson has been vehement and loud and sustained enough, particularly from his close neighbors in his small town who actually know enough about him, to all but neuter this old bull. 

But becoming evangelicalism’s new apologist does not change the kinds of biological vestiges our priestly and bloody ancestors have bequeathed to this valiant defender of God’s rule and crown.  Wilson could care less whether or not he added anything to the apologetic arsenal for Christians that out live him; he – or at least an important part of his unconscious mind – would burn the entire thing to the ground for some more camera clicks, some more glory, and some higher seats for the males that have sprung from his loins or married within the clan. Wilson is some form of sociopath, for sure, but he does at least feel strongly and intensely over the moral virtues of loyalty (to him) and the power and wealth he is able to hand to his covenantal, biological, direct decedents. 

 The psychological complexities and the unusual brilliance of the unconscious mind the Lord has bestowed upon pastor Wilson is certainly a confounding factor in building the proper theory of this particular portal to heaven, but this just makes it all the more rewarding.  And so my thanks to Hitchens for presenting him to the world, not bound and lashed, but just as he is.

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The New Enlightenment, Part 4: Newsweek’s Prattle



Well, now, somebody finally did it. I must roll up my sleeves for a brief moment and allow pooh bear, Part 1, to express a few sentiments.

Lisa Miller’s Newsweek commentary on Collision is unfortunate (for context, see part 3). One would have thought that journalism involving a colleague that writes for the same magazine would have at least made an attempt to offer journalism. This is perhaps more than unfortunate; this seems to be a bit of political cannibalism in the journalism industry.

Miller notes that, for her, the Collision ‘movie’ was boring. As will be seen, Miller’s boredom is not the best litmus test for worthiness. However, I have no doubt that the Collision ‘movie’ was disappointing for many. I do not need to see it in its entirety to know why: it is a 90 minute ‘movie’ of Hitchens having center stage to preach to, educate, and admonish fundamentalist Christians, punctuated at times with Wilson muttering in reply the same non-interactive silliness about Dr Pepper cans fizzing (you know, referencing the recent advance in neurobiology). The Collision thing is a Kirk thing, in case no one has yet noticed; it is Wilson and marketing crew’s latest successful grab at some more public attention – this time by merely attaching itself to Christopher Hitchens – rather than foaming about persecution, or ridiculing local neighbors, or disproving the Shroud of Turin, or discovering real medieval pedagogy for first graders, or exhorting Americans about the wonderful hierarchical harmony that existed between black slaves and their owners in the deep South, or quibling over the theological meaning of a word in an old Presbyterian confession.  Hitchens was a good sport and attended the events. Personally, I prefer this latter Kirk strategy.

And yet Miller would like us all to see the Collision occasion as an opportunity to finally put to rest our intellectual interest in the claims and consequences of fundamentalist religion. Miller questions the motives of Hitchens on the sole basis of how many books he has sold lately and asks Americans to stop finding interest in Hitchens’ talking. He is just a middle-aged white man talking, after all. Who would be interested in that? There are many problems with this part of Miller’s ‘journalism,’ but I will focus on just one: Miller is middle aged, and white – from the looks of the picture – and although I grant she is not male, she is just talking too, and just like us men do. And after reading this tripe just when I expected to read some journalism, I can certainly say that reading Hitchens’ books – in which he just talks – is far more exciting than Miller pretending to offer a journalistic piece on religion. In fact, making the comparison between two middle aged people taking, I would liken Hitchens’ writing to a ride in a fighter jet and Miller’s to pulling out a large splinter.

Miller lumps together the pompous frill of Dawkins’ recent work, Harris’ single shot, and Hitchens’ most recent book, this time on religion, and she claims that Hitchens, as with the rest of them, has now become a celebrity. Sure, Hitchens, still a struggling unknown journalist was just looking for that right moment to finally gain an audience. Miller appears fond of exiciting tactics, at least when poisoning the well through forced association and obtuse, manipulative use of stereotypes when it comes to the unthoughtful denigration of another proven journalist. But when it comes time to sell her own academic selections, she is more than boring. She becomes inane. Instead of Hitchens’ literary approach to communicating what he has seen on the ground, such human suffering under authoritarian regimes throughout the world, we should rather enjoy the more “productive” ways to frame the discussion, illustrated by Jennifer Hecht’s statement: “I don’t think it’s so bad if religion survives, if it’s getting together once a week and singing a song in a beautiful building, to commemorate life’s most important moments.”

Profound! Now this is the exciting stuff waiting for us if we just get away from that middle-aged male talking. It’s just not all that bad if religion survives. I’m cool with that, Hecht avers. So long, that is, as its just people getting together once a week to hang and to commemorate life’s most important moments. I have another suggestion for discourse on religion in America: the Hallmark store. I would also recommend Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, but he is just a late aged white man talking, and I doubt Miller would understand this more philosophically astute approach. I am sure she would be quite bored after the first five pages.

Miller’s piffle is related, I suspect, to her inability to understand the arguments on display in the Collision ‘movie’. She fails to notice that Hitchens’ approach to religion is not in line with traditional “sparring over God” and it is certainly not a matter of “submitting God to rational proofs and watching God fail.” She did admit to loosing concentration after the 13 minute introduction; maybe she is just guessing here. This sort of thing, generally, does not appear to be Miller’s cup of tea: she admits that “The whole thing has started to feel like being trapped in a seminar room with the three smartest guys in school. . . “  But she seems equally uneasy over discussion at a pub, or the drab halls of Seminaries and colleges. Just what kind of guys and what kind of places did Miller prefer as a school-gal?   Two white guys in a bar are boring, but her alternative, she admits “won’t be sexy.”

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The New Enlightenment, Part 3: Mind Science and the Humanism of Christopher Hitchens, Flannery O’Conner & C.S. Lewis



5.1 Tarwater, The Schoolteacher, & The Unconscious Mind

flanneryjpg“Children may be attracted to mad eyes. A grown person could have resisted. A child couldn’t. Children are cursed with believing.”
        The boy recognized the sentence. “Some ain’t” he said.
        The schoolteacher smiled thinly. “And some who think they aren’t are,” he said, feeling that he was back in control. “It’s not easy as you think to throw it off. Do you know,” he said, “that there’s a part of your mind that works all the time, that you’re not aware of yourself. Things go on in it. All sorts of things you don’t know about.”
        Tarwater looked around him as if he were vainly searching for a way to get out of the boat and walk off.
        “I think you are basically very bright,” his uncle said. “I think you can understand the things that are said to you.”
        “I never came for no school lesson,” the boy said rudely. “I come to fish. I ain’t worried what my underhead is doing. I know what I think when I do it and when I get ready to do it, I don’t talk no words. I do it.” (Flannery O’Conner, ‘The Violent Bear It Away’ in Collected Works, 1988, 436)

 

5.2   Introduction

In Part 2, I allowed Daniel Dennett to frame the spirit of the New Enlightenment, and I contrasted this frame with the continued naive cynicism of Greg Mitchell, which is representative of the backlash within legal theory to the widening terrain of the mind sciences (Mitchell in press; see Part1, section 3.2.2. For a good example of the widening of terrain, see The Situationist’s new post Law Students Flock to Situationism). In what follows, I give room to the emphasis of Christopher Hitchens, which will provide me opportunity to expand the notion of a genuine interdisciplinary method. Just such a method, I will argue, is necessary to mitigate the scientism latent in any new scientific advance, in particular, the advance of the mind sciences. I do this in part by expanding the structure of traditional anti-scientism arguments within philosophy of Mind; I add substance to the philosophical point by drawing on provocative narratives by C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Conner. This will, I hope, provide a way to diminish the tension between the growing explanatory province of the mind sciences and the natural backlash this incurs.

 

6.1   Hitchens’ Humanism

My focus on Hitchens in what follows is timely, although coincidental. The media spike over Hitchens to-do with my spiritual father - a north Idaho prophet, known to some as Dear Leader Douglas Wilson – is getting ready to reach what should be its zenith. This is good news, since it means more marketing of Hitchens’ book, god is not Great (2007). Those of you new to this subject might not know of the events a few years ago when I went from loyal apologist for the Kirk, Wilson’s engineered community, to ridiculed outcaste. During this process, Wilson became my object of investigative journalism and specimen for informal social psychology research. This approach transformed sobering tragedy to a suffering into a good deal of truth – for myself and also for many of the readers of Pooh’s Think, Part 1. I am writing a book about this titled The Kirk: Mother of War.

After writing the rough draft of this entry, I received news that the Collision ‘movie’ or ‘documentary’ of Hitchens’ and Wilsons’ three day tour will be premiered in New York City on the 28th, with Hitchens and Wilson in attendance, and in L.A. on the 29th. Aaron Rench, one of my old Kirk ‘friends’ is the ‘producer’. (Many words require quotation marks, given the Kirk’s somewhat turn-key and nepotistic approach to saving civilization). You can read a recent exchange between Hitchens and Wilson at the Huffington Post’s web site. Hitchens and Wilson will be making appearances this Friday, 10/23 10am ET, live on the Laura Ingraham show (oops, this just took place as I go over my final edit); Sunday 10/25, on NPR “All Things Considered” Weekend Edition; and Monday 10/26, on the 7am hour on Fox News’ “Fox And Friends”.

I have already offered some analysis of Hitchens and Wilsons’ original ‘published’ ‘debate’ (again, quotation marks prove helpful); you can find my summary of that ‘debate’ here and what I consider my primary analysis entry here . Timeliness turned to a bit of irony last night, after my wife brought home a random DVD selection from the library titled the Trials of Henry Kissinger; in the early days of dissent, I and some others dreamed about the Trials of Douglas Wilson, and at one point I began a fictional narrative of the trial. Christopher Hitchens is qualitatively the primary interviewee in this documentary on Kissinger, which appears to be based on Hitchens’ book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This is a helpfully sobering documentary, by the way, and I highly recommend it.

With that said, I return to the subject of mind science and the New Enlightenment. Hitchens concludes god is not Great (2007):

Above all, we are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman. This Enlightenment will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people. It is within the compass of the average person. The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected. The pursuit of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Very importantly, the divorce between the sexual life and fear, and the sexual life and disease, and the sexual life and tyranny, can now at last be attempted, on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse. All this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.

Extrapolating from Hitchens’ emphasis here, I submit that science does not gain automatic entry into this renewed or, according to Lakoff, New, Enlightenment (2008). Scientism, pinhead researchers, and political authoritarianism within scientific institutions do not get a free ride, of course, but even scientific fact, as such, can be held suspect in certain contexts. It is worth noting that in this quote from Hitchens, science comes last, after literature and poetry. As seen in Part 2, science captures the spirit of the new enlightenment in virtue of the humility, checks and balances, and freedom of inquiry latent within scientific practice, but there is more to be said; context has the power to critically shape to the meaning of any given scientific ‘fact’. My preliminary description of the New Enlightenment, in Part 1 , was intended to capture this point: “a progressive, interdisciplinary demeanor that weds the emerging mind sciences, meta-critical philosophy, the arts, and the work of the public intellectual.” Here, the mind sciences do not receive privileged weight.

 

6.2   Interdisciplinary Method & Being Human

By ‘interdisciplinary,’ I reference a demeanor that covers cosmopolitan trans-human experience and concern. The New Enlightenment is a renewed humanism, the study of man, and woman. Our human nature is repulsed by any hard, premature reduction since being human entails its denial – emotionally and intellectually. We all know to some degree what it is like to be human, and as Hitchens pronounced, literature and the advance of science is now in the reach of everyone. In reach is not membership in an elite band of literati within the hallways of Oxford and Cambridge – poised with status and wealth as much as, or more than, intellect, curiosity, and passion. The New Enlightenment is rather a demotic literati of noble intellect. A farmer in Oregon and a house painter in Kansas, connected through local culture, mentors, and access to the internet, are often better poised as future literati than the average frat boy enjoying the first two years of parent-paid college (although I remain an elitist with respect to graduate focused work at top-ranked research institutions). Something could be said even for the extreme contrast to academia; one of the most important mentors I have had (a Stanford PhD) expressed to me the noteworthy experience of teaching classes to convicts while on leave. The students of this kind of classroom had a deep ‘appreciation’ for the topics discussed; to understate the case: they took far less for granted than the average American college student.

 

6.3   The Noble Intellect

The noble intellect, at some sort of minimum, understands its need for ecumenical discussion, discipline, and tutelage, while also refusing to turn the cheek to vain authoritarianism – in the home, in the government, in the workplace, in the school, in the scientific establishment, in the media, in any social context where mechanisms of control are naturally operative; the noble intellect says with humble finality, ‘they will not tread on me.’ Truth and liberty, and their cultural descendents, are too precious. The free intellect is, as those who possess it know intimately, self-justifying (see Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001, and the curious discussion that arose in the comment section of my entry  regarding this book).

When I think of a noble intellect, as apposed to, say, a noble savage, I do not yet have anything worthy of conventional definition. I envision, roughly, an imagination best captured by the phrases, taken only in their combined unity: Cosmopolitan Society, Justice, Peace, Mercy, Dignity, Human Flourishing, Liberty, Freedom, Freedom of Inquiry, Freedom of Speech, Inquisitiveness, Nurture, Love, Family, Love of Children, Village, Culture, Mitigation of Suffering, Sensitivity to Ecology, Love of Nature, Discipline, Frugality, Hard Work, Humility, Checks and Balances of Necessary Power, Love of Beauty, Art, Realism, Passion, and Compassion.

 

6.4   Scientism, what-it-is-like-to-be, & what it is to be Human

Scientific fact qua fact (or diagram, chart, equation, 3-D model, image, or simulation) is subservient to the noble intellect and the humanism entailed by genuine interdisciplinary inquiry.   What it is to be human trumps scientific fact.  But I must contrast what it is to be human with the close and also important conception of what it is like to be human. The latter has been conceived by philosophers – Thomas Nagel, for example – to be a cross-modal phenomenal unity as well as a phenomenal unity through time. However, the imagination of philosophers, as it is, has often relegated this intuition to some sort of Cartesian Theatre (Dennett, 1991). So I will here attempt a more accurate picture:

 1) What it is like to be human is not what it is like for Sally to simply be Sally. Nor is it what it is like for Sally to engage in some generalized activity: What it is like for Sally to see Paris by Moonlight (although Dennett dissents, 2007), or more abstractly: What it is like for S to V. For a correct statement of this point, albeit with a wrong application and conclusion, see P.M.S. Hacker’s ‘Is There Anything it is Like to be a Bat?’ (Philosophy 77, 2002.).  Rather, what it is like to be human is a generalization from the concrete and the specific. In this case, the concrete and specific is what it is like for Sally to be Sally at time t.

 2) Time slices do not really exist, though, and so ‘time t in reality references a time sequence, or, a unity through time. This is at least true in some sense. Traditional philosophy has not been quick to perceive any illusions that can spring from reconstructing our own awareness, or consciousness. We do after all seem to have a continuous, singular stream of consciousness, which in turn appears to be structured according to coherent frames and narratives. Yet, the mind sciences are revealing anything but such a simple and intuitive picture. So only roughly and tentatively, I reference a unity through time in order get past timeless slices of experience – given their non-existence.  

 3) Most importantly, the traditional ‘Hard Problem’ of philosophy of Mind can be expanded to the larger interdisciplinary project of the New Enlightenment. The Hard Problem has conventionally pertained to whether or not qualia ghosts exist (the sort of ontology that comprises consciousness, what it is like to be), and if so, whether or not these ontological items may be somehow thoroughly explained through scientific practice.  I submit that this is not the Hard Problem – more ideally construed – but only one confused part of the Hard Problem. The Hard Problem is larger than this; the Hard Problem is conceiving of a mind science that successfully encompasses all there is to encompass, including, for example, the cognitive mechanisms responsible for the scientific imagination of the cosmologist.

  

6.5    What Mary Didn’t Know

 This brings me to the structure of an old argumentative tradition in Philosophy of Mind. Although Nicholas Maxwell (1966, 2000) might have been the first to tell the story about a girl named Mary, the story’s classical expression, known also as the “knowledge argument,” was given by Frank Jackson in his essay ‘What Mary Didn’t Know’ (1986).  The context was, roughly, the war between physicalism and metaphysical dualism, and a concern over ‘scientism’ often protruded itself. Mary, a scientific goddess-like little girl, grew up in a black and white laboratory and happened to know all the physical facts about the universe there were to know. If Mary, once finally leaving her black and white environment, did in fact learn a new fact upon seeing red for the first time (a fact related to what it was like to see a certain shade of red, for instance), then there must be a class of facts that are “non-physical” – a conclusion that for some philosophers had momentous metaphysical import. 

 According to Frank Jackson, “What she knows beforehand is everything physical there is to know, but is it everything there is to know?  That is the crucial question.”  David Chalmers’ intuition ten years later is similar, but a bit stronger: “If a materialist is to hold on to materialism, she really needs to deny that Mary makes any discovery about the world at all” (1996; my emphasis). (Dennett’s more recent discussion about Mary’s surprise [2007] is a bit too X-rated for my purposes here.)  Somewhat similarly, Thomas Nagel famously argued in ‘What It is Like to be a Bat’ (1974) that there seems to always be some sort of discovery – at least in principle – with a change in a subjective point view. 

 This argument can be expanded, so it seems to me, within a more interdisciplinary context. However, I have traditionally criticized how this argument has been played out. Nagel assumed the existence of facts that were beyond the human conceptual system, likening facts to numbers – an idea no less bizarre than countless other platonic ideas philosophers have proposed. Thus, materialism was somehow intractable given the existence of facts about, for instance, what it is like to be a bat, which are beyond the ability of a human conceptual system to know.  But, as I have noted for the last decade, propositions do not exist, and without the context of human linguistic practice, a ‘fact’ is nonsensical.  Yet, Jackson likewise dismissed Paul Churchland’s criticism by claiming that the only metaphysical point of interest was whether or not Mary came to know a new fact upon seeing red. Gained ability, experiential knowledge, or surprise was beside the point. Chalmers’ approach differed slightly from this, and I think he states the problem most satisfactorily.  Again,  “If a materialist is to hold on to materialism, she really needs to deny that Mary makes any discovery about the world at all.” Jackson’s statement remains apt and complimentary: “. . . but is it everything there is to know?  That is the crucial question.”  But the word ‘know’ here is unfortunate; it has led to disputes over whether this knowledge encompasses abilities in addition to knowledge of fact, while leaving, to my continued astonishment, the knowledge of what it is like to be entirely alone.

 I therefore prefer to leave explicit reference to phenomenology and knowledge out of my expanded formulation:  the Hard Problem is conceiving of a mind science that successfully encompasses all there is to encompass.  If we are going to discover a solution to this one confused part of the Hard Problem – the problem over the existence and metaphysical/scientific status of qualia (or phenomenal concepts, or higher orders of representations, or the like) – it will from here take all the resources of the mind sciences within the interdisciplinary context of the New Enlightenment.

 But, given this expanded context, there is a good deal more to encompass than the qualia of consciousness. There is unity that we find between brain and mind, mind and body, body and the full embrace of a fine-tuned environment. Further, many of our artifacts are in a sense extensions of our mind (Dennett, 1995). This fine-tuned, delicately balanced environment is the warm cradle in which our minds have been fashioned: above water and roughly above sea level, close to the equator (at least, without technological life support systems that have come lately, such as a fur jacket). Our own individual experience of place is a microcosm of the dependency of one kind of life on another and of our dependence on a larger social world, typically involving other humans (but at times relying on slightly lower level intentional organisms, such as fish, lizards, gerbils, cats, monkeys, and closest to the human heart, the domesticated canine). In sum, the brain would be almost powerless – meaningless even – without the body. The brain and the body comprise an organic whole; there is no clear line to be drawn between the two. Further, there would be no mind as we know it unless is was an embodied mind; and there would be no embodied mind as we know it without a world in which embodiment took place. 

 The Anglo philosopher might not be content with such a move: No sense in snooping around in the dark alleyway after we have located such a precise formulation of the Hard Problem right under the lamp post.  I have two tentative, preliminary responses to this just concern:

 1) There seems to be universal agreement among philosophers of Mind (for example, the nonreductivist John Searle, 1991) that further scientific discovery will provide explanations for how consciousness arises. Neurons do it, for sure, we just do not have a clue how. There seems to be agreement that neurobiological advance will surely provide significant constraints on what there will then be to discover, which I contribute to the power of scientific discovery to change our conceptions of what we are and how we relate to the world around us. However, lower level mechanisms will not thereby provide the final field of study of all there is to discover.

 2)   Further, what we have seen so far in the mind sciences is a significant blurring of any line we conceive between consciousness and unconsciousness. The embodied, conceptual metaphor often employed is Consciousness is Space Above, where consciousness is above and unconsciousness is below a horizontal line, such as the boundary between ocean and sky, or between what is above or under a car hood. But the mind sciences continue to fuzz this line.  This helpful conceptual metaphor may end up little more than a passing, temporarily helpful, illusion. We mistake sophisticated unconscious mechanisms for special access to qualia, and we mistake simulations of reconstructed episodic memory for the products of original, stable unconscious ‘perception’. My theory is that much of our ‘intentionality’ is not the product of conscious intention at all, but rather a product of more primitive, albeit more sophisticated, forms of unconscious intentionality (integrating metaphor theory with Dennett’s Intentional Stance, 1995).

 3) There is therefore no clear boundary between unconsciously produced language and discursive thought, between the imagination and unconscious narrative scripts and frames, between the searching for the right word and the creative on-line construction that right word cues (Seana Coulson, Semantic Leaps, Cambridge, 2001), between knowledge of what it is like to be human and knowledge of what it is to be human, and between our knowledge of what it is to be human and our timeless literary traditions. We are all anthropologists never really knowing if what we have derived came from inside or from without.

  

7.1    Lions, Brains & Neurons, Oh My!

In consideration of this, I am not shy to wonder out loud if the new rave about ‘brains’ and pictures of ‘neurons’ is just not quite right, and perhaps, even to a degree pathological at times. Jurassic Park comes to mind here, as a parable, if not a sound philosophy of science illustration. Recall the disdain the paleontologist had for the arrogant boy that did not find old fossils of much interest, and the resulting scary lesson involving a raptor claw. Even better, consider the aesthetic, sensual scripts implicit in the paleontologist’s conceptual tools while digging for dinosaur fossils, revealed explicitly the moment the park’s new visitors come face to face with bones enfleshed.  It was the awe of the scientist and not the naive observer that brought them to their knees upon seeing the real thing. The wonder and shock was in part noticing the fine grained differences between the real dinosaurs and contemporary scientific imagination. I found a main web site  for Jurassic Park, and sure enough, the main page begins automatically playing the precise footage I have in mind here. 

 The brain sciences work in reverse; in many respects we have the wonder of the human experience already captured within our local purview, and less mundanely, in the experience recorded in our literature. Locating neuronal networks, and even, higher level cognitive mechanisms, and saying “here it is, this just is the human life” would be to commit the reductionist fallacy – regardless of how many folk illusions are uprooted in the process.  But this is the natural ‘pull’ of the scientist, resulting in the natural, intuitive fear responsible for the backlash. At once, our freedom, our transcendence, our morality – the beauty and awe inspiring world of the imagination, all our cherished humanity – all this vanishes, leaving us locked within an ugly, meaningless, deterministic prison. Wilson, lacking any form of sophisticated argument or noble, compassionate sentiment (as coyly noted by Molly Worthen, and less coyly by Hitchens [Canon Press, 2008]), resorts to an incessant play on this natural fear. This is in fact the primary thrust of Wilson’s response to Hitchens in the recent Huffington Post exchange I linked to above (6.1):

 The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not. Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time . . . if the universe is what the atheist maintains it is, then this determines what sort of account we must give for the nature of everything — and this includes the atheist’s thought processes, ethical convictions, and aesthetic appreciations. If you were to shake up two bottles of pop and place them on a table to fizz over, you could not fill up an auditorium with people who came to watch them debate. This is because they are not debating; they are just fizzing . . . Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

 

 7.2    C.S. Lewis & Flannery O’Conner

 C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Conner, both Christian theists, make no such crude claims, in part because they wished distance themselves from the cussed fundamentalism that Wilson has been rhetorically committed to his entire life. (Although there are different attitudes in Christendom about this sort of distinction, as seen in the different stances taken on the idea of ‘fundamentalism’ by N.T. Wright [Fortress Press, 1992] and Alvin Plantinga [Oxford, 2000]). In fact, the story I have drawn from by Flannery O’Conner (cited at the beginning of this entry and more exhaustively in what follows) captures all transcendence within an immediate psychological interpretation; throughout the story, there needs be no assumption on the part of the reader, or even within the denouement of each remaining character’s life, that theism be true or false.  

  

7.3    The Gaze of the Giant

 In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis captures both the fear and the feeling of confinement, determinism, and even imprisonment that most have towards a prematurely reductionist assessment of the human experience.  The following is the entirety of the short section called ‘Facing the Facts’:

 John Lay in his fetters all night in the cold and stench of the dungeon.  And when morning came there was a little light at the grating, and looking around, John saw that he had many fellow prisoners, of all sexes and ages.  But instead of speaking to him, they all huddled away from the light and drew as far back into the pit, away from the grating, as they could.  But John thought that if he could breathe a little fresh air he would be better, and he crawled up to the grating.  But as soon as he looked out and saw the giant, it crushed the heart out of him: and even as he looked, the giant began to open his eyes and John, without knowing why he did it, shrank from the grating.  Now I dreamed that the giant’s eyes had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent.  Consequently, when John looked round into the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons.  A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because, through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes.  And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had cancer.  And when John sat down and drooped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the working of his own inwards.  Then I dreamed of all these creatures living in that hole under the giant’s eye for many days and nights.  And John looked round on it all and suddenly he fell on his face and thrust his hands into his eyes and cried out, ‘It is the black hole.  There may be no Landlord, but it is true about the black hole.  I am made.  I am dead.  I am in hell for ever.’

I see no reason not to draw the same conclusions about some contemporary talk of ‘the brain’ and the significance of the ‘neuron’ – although touting just this for a neuro-science program seems perfectly natural!  The most basic cognitive abilities we share, such as somehow seeing a seagull as a seagull or unconsciously recognizing a word, are higher-level mechanisms realized by efficient parallel processing among hundreds of thousands of neurons and billions of connections among them (for some excellent recent scholarship on mechanism, see William Bechtel [UCSD] generally, and specifically: Bechtel and Abrahamsen, ‘Dynamic Mechanistic Explanation: Computational Modeling of Circadian Rhythms as an Exemplar for Cognitive Science’,  to appear in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A).  Further, these mechanisms are embodied, and the seagull or a semantic item is part of our fine-tuned environment in which and for which our mind was designed. I attempted to describe my experience of a seagull not too long ago on Eric Schwitzgebel’s blog, the Splintered Mind :

 I recall my intense gaze on Saturday, when I was tempting a seagull to get 18 inches away from me with some treats. The social context was implicit and certainly not fully unconscious. . . .I must have had some kind of conscious employment of sensory-motor simulation, since I could perceive the softness of the feathers around the entire seagull-object. I watched the seagull turn its head back and forth, apparently more concerned about what was going on all around more than with me. I could therefore in some sense consciously grasp the seagull’s motions through my own embodied emulation mechanisms. Further, this perception must have involved a conscious aspect of the mapping of this embodied emulation to a “survey” view, since part of the emulation was an immediate awareness of seagull’s 360 degree tracking of the environment.

Explaining such a common, basic event in human experience will be informed more and more by the neurosciences, but there will  remain an unbridgeable chasm in our scientific imagination between basic level neuronal mechanisms and the higher level mechanisms of perception and simulation they realize – and even more so with respect to the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind during perception. Patricia Churchland explains “network-level research” as intended to bridge the gap between “coherent global, system-level change” and the level of neurons (‘How do neurons know? Daedalus Winter, 2004).  But such an explanatory bridge will not remove the need for an imaginative toggle between lower level and extensively higher level mechanisms. The natural fear produced by some hard reductionist symbols and suggestions, is that this lower-level explanation will become the new, authoritative eyes of the scientific imagination, now looking down upon us in our new dungeon, admitting to meaningful experience only the inner workings of our brains. But this is not a consequence of the progression of the mind sciences so long as they are kept within a broader, humanist, and more realistic interdisciplinary methodology – the methodology of the New Enlightenment. 

 

 7.4    Fear & Backlash

 So it is with the natural backlash (see Part 2) explored by Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson in “Naive Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates” (57 Emory Law Journal 499, 2008).  Human experience will remain to a degree ‘free’ and transcendent regardless of what we discover about the intentional nature and sophistication of the unconscious mind – which, recall, was perfectly ambiguous in Gregory Mitchell’s recent expression of backlash. This is because the change in our conceptions of ourselves and how this change effects our life experience is limited. The fear of determinism here is little different from the theist’s fear of losing meaning and morality upon losing belief in God.  Such a conceptual and emotional transition certainly removes thick layers of meaning, which can be frightening at first, and does have consequences for human morality (I speak in part from first person experience).  But it does not remove meaning altogether and in fact permits greater conceptual and emotional – not to separate the two – access to just what robust, genuine morality is: empathy rather than obedience. But the fervor of scientism is fairly careless about these kinds of cultural distinctions and can produce a good deal of repulsion from the common man – perhaps on occasion with sinister intent.

  

7.5    Flannery O’Conner & the Fear of The Unconscious

 In one of her two longer stories, ‘The Violent Bear It Away’  (Collected Works, 1988), O’Conner gives a compelling view of the psychology of a determined and fearful old man and his two nephews: Tarwater, a naive and confused boy and the schoolteacher, a reductionist. Both the old man and the boy are afraid to ‘become’ scientific data within the schoolteacher’s head; they both desperately seek their freedom, freedom to act, as the gaze of Lewis’ giant threatened to reveal the powerful workings of their unconscious mind. The third paragraph into the story begins:

 The old man was in a position to know what his ideas were. He had lived for three months in the nephew’s house on what he had thought at the time was Charity but what he said he had found out was not Charity or anything like it.  All the time he had lived there the nephew had secretly been making a study of him.  The nephew, who had taken him in under the name of Charity, had at the same time been creeping into his soul by the back door, asking him questions that meant more than one thing, planting traps around the house and watching him fall into them, and finally coming up with a written study of him for a schoolteacher magazine.  The stench of his behaviour had reached heaven and the Lord Himself had rescued the old man.  He had sent him a rage of vision, had told him to fly with the orphan boy to the farthest part of the backwoods and raise him up to justify his Redemption. (331)

 Now alone in a shack surrounded by a corn field miles from a regularly traveled path, the old man, a self-appointed prophet, lectures Tarwater, the boy he stole from the schoolteacher’s house:

 ”I saved you to be free, your own self!” he had shouted, “and not a piece of information inside his head!  If you were living with him, you’d be information right now, you’d be inside his head, and what’s furthermore,” he said, “you’d be going to school.” (339)

 This appears to be the sturdiest thread throughout the story, and comes back again and again:

 . . . indistinguishable from the herd, and in the schoolteacher’s head, he would be laid out in parts and numbers.  “That’s where he wanted me,” the old man said, “and he thought once he had me in that schoolteacher magazine, I would be as good as in his head.”

            The schoolteacher’s house had had little in it but books and papers.  The old man had not known when he went there to live that every living thing that passed through the nephew’s eyes into his head was turned by his brain into a book or a paper or a chart. The schoolteacher had appeared to have great interest in his being a prophet, chosen by the Lord, and had asked numerous questions, the answers to which he had sometimes scratched down on a pad, his little eyes lighting every now and then as if in some discovery.

            The old man had fancied he was making progress in convincing the nephew again of his Redemption, for he at least listened though he did not say he believed [Note that Dennett's Heterophenomenology is free of such hypocricy, 1991]. He seemed to delight to talk about the things that interested his uncle.  He questioned him at length about his early life, which old Tarwater had practically forgotten.  The old man had thought this interest in his forebears would bear fruit, but what it bore, what it bore, stench and shame, were dead words.  What it bore was a dry and seedless fruit, incapable even of rotting, dead from the beginning.  From time to time, the old man would spit out of his mouth, like gobbets of poison, some of the idiotic sentences from the schoolteacher’s piece.  Wrath had burned them on his memory, word for word. 

            “His fixation of being called by the Lord had its origin in insecurity.  He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called himself.”  “Called myself!” the old man would hiss, “called myself!” (341)

 . . . “Where he wanted me was inside that schoolteacher magazine.  He thought once he got me in there, I’d be as good as inside his head and done for and that would be that, that would be the end of it.  Well, that wasn’t the end of it! Here I sit.  And there you sit.  In freedom.  Not inside anybody’s head!” (342). 

 After the old man died, a stranger, who knew of these events, explained to Tarwater:

 [The old man] favored a lot of foolishness, the stranger said.  The truth is he was childish.  Why, that schoolteacher never did him any harm.  You take, all he did was to watch him and write down what he seen and heard and put it in a paper schoolteachers to read.  Now what was wrong in that?  Why nothing.  Who cares what the schoolteacher reads?  And the old fool acted like he had been killed in his very soul. (345)

 Going back in time – as is O’Conner’s habit – we are given a scene in which the old man lectures a lawyer in the city:

 ”Listen, ” his uncle said, “all the time he was studying me for this paper. Taking secret tests on me, his own kin, and crawling into my soul through the back door and then says to me, ‘Uncle, you’re a type that’s almost extinct!’ Almost extinct!” the old man piped, barely able to force a thread of sound from his throat.  “You see how extinct I am!” (348)

 In later confrontation with the schoolteacher, now posed with the Problem of Evil:

 ”Yours not to ask!” the old man shouted.  “Yours not to question the mind of the Lord God Almighty.  Yours not to grind the Lord into your head and spit out a number!” (351)

 O’Conner now takes us back in time when the old man originally read the article in the schoolteacher magazine, finally realizing he was reading about himself:

For the length of a minute, he could not move.  He felt he was tied hand and foot inside the schoolteacher’s head, a space as bare and neat as the cell in the asylum,  and was shrinking, drying up to fit it.  His eyeballs swerved from side to side as if he were pinned in a strait jacket again.  Jonah, Ezekiel, Daniel, he was at that moment all of them – swallowed, the lowered, the enclosed.

 And so, the old man explains to Tarwater back at their cornfield,

 . . . “It was me who could act,” the old man said, “not him.  He could never take action.  He could only get everything inside his head and grind it to nothing.  But I acted.  And because I acted, you sit here in freedom, you sit here a rich man, knowing the Truth, in the freedom of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

 After the old man was dead, Tarwater was united with the schoolteacher. The schoolteacher received Tarwater as would any inspired scientist:

 ”Now you belong to someone who can help you and understand you.” His eyes were alight with pleasure.  “It’s not too late for me to make a man of you!” 

            The boy’s face darkened.  His expression hardened until it was a fortress wall to keep his thoughts from being exposed; but the schoolteacher did not notice any change.  He gazed through the actual insignificant boy before him to an image of him that he held fully developed in his mind. (388)

 A good deal later, the schoolteacher attempts to educated Tarwater about the mechanisms of the unconscious mind, bring us back to the citation at the beginning of this entry:

            “Children may be attracted to mad eyes.  A grown person could have resisted.  A child couldn’t.  Children are cursed with believing.”

            The boy recognized the sentence.  “Some ain’t” he said. 

            The schoolteacher smiled thinly.  “And some who think they aren’t are,” he said, feeling that he was back in control.  “It’s not easy as you think to throw it off.  Do you know,” he said, “that there’s a part of your mind that works all the time, that you’re not aware of yourself.  Things go on in it.  All sorts of things you don’t know about.”

            Tarwater looked around him as if he were vainly searching  for a way to get out of the boat and walk off.

            “I think you are basically very bright,” his uncle said.  “I think you can understand the things that are said to you.”

            “I never came for no school lesson,” the boy said rudely.  “I come to fish.  I ain’t worried what my underhead is doing.  I know what I think when I do it and when I get ready to do it, I don’t talk no words.  I do it.” (436)

 

 8.1    Conclusion

 Forthcoming – although I try to stay clear of these kinds of conventional dogmatic stances.

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Faith & Reason, Part 7: Here I Stand



the-death-of-sapphira-wife-of-ananiusPlaying armchair chess with technical terms – what the mathematical monkeys and theology wonks consider precisely defined natural language – just might reveal a tension between Faith and Reason. Or it might not. Either way, it does not matter. We are after a real tension between faith as it is in the world and reason as it is in the world. Further, as we have seen, even a more sensitive armchair approach to central topics such as Belief, Knowledge, Narrative, and Metaphor has left us with the opposite of what we were out to accomplish. These topics, comfortably off the ground and up snug in the arm chair, evidence a harmony between Faith and Reason. Indeed, the two concepts, under contemporary and considerably subtle scrutiny, begin looking much the same.

Once we begin poking reality as it is now and as it has been recorded in world history, the situation changes a good deal. Despite the assuring platitudes of the rationalist cleric or the mystic philosopher, tensions, disharmony, polarization, enmity, and violence are seen everywhere. Faith is at war with Reason. But if this is reality, so much for the armchair.

I of course speak banality for the ignorant, although I feel the effort may be worth it given the size of this constituency, which comprises, H.L. Menken informs us, 99.8% of the civilized populace (an idea that took me 35 painful years to finally venture believing). And so I remind the idiots reading this blog: once we get off our armchair and quit our sanitized chess game, it becomes much easier to imagine opening a window or, even, venturing outside into the sun and one’s more natural place in the food chain – which, by the way, is fairly low. One is not educated unless they travel; but this need not be to Paris; it could be a trip to the cry closet of a lonely child, the sandbox where four year olds tussle, the den where grown men rape a thirteen year old girl, or the dusty battle field scarred with the rotten flesh of the latest empire and the latest theonomic regime. Getting out – and generalizing a bit – helps prepare one for the inescapable fact that they are a dumb and frail animal that knows more of its petty lusts for comfort and control than truth and justice.

Those aspects of the environment that pertain to Faith and Reason reinforce the idea nicely, as they are, despite the dictates of armchair philosophy, all bipolar: we see the church and the academy, the monastery and the University, Jerusalem and Athens, the monk and the philosopher, religion and science, the hypothesis and the creed, the sage and the self-critical, the loyal disciple and the free-intellect, dogmatics and the inquiry, the authoritative Bernard of Clairvaux and the denigrated Abelard.

And indeed, we see the Apostle Peter killing layman and hurling insult and condemnation at any political opponent in the new ecclesia; the Apostle Paul threatening the ‘rod’ for his baby birds at Corinth that dare think more highly of the classically trained teachers than they do of their jealous, manipulative father – exalting his flights into the seventh heaven over all the combined genuine wisdom of the ancient world; the author of Hebrews threatening – page after venomous page – nothing short than torture for those who wish to stop attending the mind-altering liturgies or wish to not ‘obey those that rule among them.’ Should it therefore be surprising in our own day that Dear Leader John Piper has warmly invited the harmful, raving orangutan in North Idaho to instruct the evangelical world about the glories of John Calvin’s Big Brother? This is just the New Testament of love I am here dealing with – with a final sprinkling of some Romans 9. Shall we even dare turn back and investigate the dark, barbaric violence alleged in the histories of the Old Testament?

Perhaps you see what kind of new methodology that awaits us: the anthropological, the historical, the investigative; in sum, the empirical.

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Faith & Reason, Part 6: The Nature of Knowledge, Part 2



knowledgeIn the hopes of populating a conceptual domain that contrasts with ‘faith’, it would seem – on the face of it at least – that the search be well served by sticking close to those realities we refer to as ‘knowledge’. But ‘knowledge’ is a word with a broad use; in addition to propositional knowledge – for example, ‘knowing that eggs are not green’ – we can also get to know a person (including God), know how to question a fool, or come to know what it is like to worship God in Holiness. We are already up to four kinds of knowledge here: propositional, personal, practical, and experiential. And the Hebraic mind was often quite satisfied with just the latter three. Thus, for a fundamentalism bound to the language of Old Testament scripture, emphasis may be properly placed on the knowledge of how to live in community, the knowledge of God the person, and the knowledge of what it was like to worship God and love the brethren.

Drawing exegetical support for this general point is not difficult. Consider, for example, one of the most important claims about knowledge in the New Testament, a reference to personal knowledge of God:

. . . that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks. (Romans 1:19-23)

Our Hellenistic tradition has often assumed this to be a reference to our natural ability to derive propositional knowledge about God. But this is a gross imposition on the text. Paul is not making the more difficult claim that all the non-Christians in Rome have propositional knowledge about the true God; this could have been disconfirmed with a simple probe of basic questions. Rather, this is a presentation of a more mysterious notion – more true to the apostle’s ethos – that there is a personal relationship felt on some level; a personal knowledge of God’s unique personality and divinity; a conscience, an impulse to respond in relational ways: “…even though they knew God they did not . . . give thanks.”  In addition to this innate, irreducible, and relational kind of knowledge, we are confronted with the possibility of the mystical, the numinous, a special connection to the transcendent.

Now recall last entry’s topic. This is Plantinga’s sensus divinitatus working, naturally, on half steam and grinding away on a number of broken gears and pulleys, but now knocked off its analytic armchair and handed over to the literati.

If the fundamentalist did know what it was like to worship the true God, did know how to live in community with wisdom, and did know the personal God in whom we live, move, and have our being, then it is not clear how much need there would be for the knowledge of facts about God to begin with. The skeptic’s point about knowing what you know might just be beside the point of knowledge.  Propositional knowledge of fact, pace Plantinga, is not properly basic; there is no need for a cognitive belief generating module to be zapped back into place by Big Brother. Rather, propositional knowledge is properly irrelevant.

But again, our concern about the tension between faith and reason is a very reasonable one, a very sound, practical concern resonating with the intuition of most over many centuries. So where do we turn to address this tension? I have already found armchair investigation of Belief (Part 1 & Part 2), Metaphor , and Narrative to give us nothing, and now Knowledge is also a dead end. I will therefore abandon philosophy proper altogether.  A new methodology awaits.

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