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EXTREMISM: IS SCIENCE AS GUILTY AS RELIGION?

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science_religion

“He’s got a good heart!”  

What does this mean?

It becomes clear after the briefest reflection that the answer to this question depends on the context of its utterance. Was it said during cardiac surgery or during a charitable act?

Clearly the empirical / factual / scientific framework is appropriate for one type of interpretation whereas the metaphorical / allegorical / ethical framework can be seen as appropriate in another. There is no single Archimedean point of semantic reference (or what Nagel famously called a ‘view from nowhere’) for understanding here.

Similarly when one reads Aesop’s fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ it would be equally as absurd to claim that it either was all nonsense because animals cant really talk or to insist that it makes sense as animals really DO talk – ie claim historical accuracy for the tale.  

In a like manner it would be naïve to think that there was literally a ‘talking snake’ in the Eden story (illegitimate de-allegorizing) or claim that Dickens’ Christmas Carol was a load of rubbish as there are no such thing as ghosts.  The latter is also illegitimate de-allegorising – albeit from the opposite direction.   The Eden story legitimately concerns the loss of innocence and the Dickens story the folly of selfishness. Neither can be coherently said to involve empirical or ontological claims – and to maintain they do misses the point of each.

Yet problems of misinterpretation can often be seen to arise when we are gripped so strongly by one frame of reference so as to be blind to another. For instance when looking at an ambiguous picture such as Hill’s famous ‘old woman / young girl’ , it may be the case that one is so strongly taken with the youthful image that the very idea of the old lady is both repugnant and invisible. This is one way of characterising the position I held in my youth – namely that I was so absorbed by the scientific picture that that the religious one became excluded by default. Such a position I now describe as ‘naïve scientism’.

Such may be described an example of what the Gestaltists termed ‘ASPECT BLINDNESS’ and is often evident in the polarization in debates between the extremes of the religious and the secular. Thus we have Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Religion poisons everything’ and Ted Haggard’s ‘Godlessness is the root of all evil’ – both can be seen as examples of ‘aspect blindness’ – invoking pictures which are mutually exclusive.

In this masterpiece the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described ‘aspect blindness’ as “akin to the lack of a musical ear” – but nevertheless it may not always be an incurable condition.

One may have seen Orwell’s Animal farm as an innocuous cartoon for many years then after studying the history of the Soviet Union come to see a totally different picture in the story. This phenomenon can be described as ‘aspect dawning’. Similarly, after studying Freud an individual may come to see their personal history within a picture frame of Greek Mythology.

This phenomenon is a semantic version of what the Gestaltists described as ‘emergence’. Philosophical analysis may be able to help break the deadlock in such intransigent discourse by cultivating what could be described as the EMERGENCE OF A MUTUAL ‘ASPECT DAWNING’ via an exposition of both the deep / valuable and shallow / damaging beliefs in both traditions (the latter being the cause of extremism).

The imagination to be able to see aspects from either paradigm will eventually lead to a position where both pictures can be seen. This latter ‘pluralistic’ position could also help one differentiate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ more clearly.

Examples of shallow beliefs within the religious tradition may include that of ‘life after death’, the ‘causal efficacy of prayer’, the ‘interventionist’ conception of ‘miracles’ and the view of God as a ‘person’.

The work of the late great DZ Phillips did much to help uncover the true character (‘depth grammar’) of religious language, which is not referential in character, but which rather moves us to see the world ‘sub specie aeternitae’ (under the aspect of eternity) as Spinoza put it.  Seen thus ‘Immortality’ is not more life, but life seen under the aspect of eternity (the Platonic form of goodness). Prayer is not a pseudo–causal (superstitious) means of bringing things about but rather an expression of ones deepest desires and allegiances. Miracles are beneficial coincidences viewed religiously and God is seen as infinite love.

For those who can be described as ‘coherently religious’ or what professor DZ Phillips called ‘deeply religious’ to tell a story such as ‘The Good Samaritan’ is not to talk of empirical facts, but to allude to the whole set of doctrinal stories and confess allegiance to them. What is critically RELIGIOUS about a tale such as ‘The Good Samaritan’ it is that its moral message (agapeism) remains valid even if even if its factual basis is questionable. Indeed the historical accuracy of such a story is, a la Aesop, beside the point!

IN SHORT RELIGION AT ITS BEST CAN BE SEEN AS A PASSIONATE COMMITMENT TO A MORAL FRAME OF REFERENCE MEDIATED THROUGH CULTURALLY IMBUED STORIES.

The characteristic difference between the major religions can thus be seen as one of adopting a different set of stories (parables, myths, fables etc) as we see in their distinctive ‘creation myths’.

Within the scientific tradition shallowness is often manifest in reductionist theories of social phenomena, such as morality and aesthetics for example. When one sees beauty or repugnance in a piece of art – this is not determined empirically! Love is not just a neurophysiological process – but a social phenomenon!

When we speak of ‘the language of love’ (as we see for example in some poetry) it does not mean we speak of a special vocabulary – like the language of Physics (technical terminology) – but because the words are used in a particular way. Not to grasp this would be similar to someone who knows that a flower is a plant blossom, but who cannot see the aptness of Shakespeare’s description of Juliet as ‘the sweetest flower in the field’. Such an inability to understand cannot be remedied by, for instance, pointing at Juliet and a flower and commenting, ‘she is like that’, but rather by bringing their attention to aspects of the flower that make the comparison with Juliet meaningful. If this still does not help, then perhaps getting the individual to read more poetry will gradually make understanding dawn.

This kind of cultivation of a conceptual reorientation is what I mean in this context by ASPECT DAWNING and such experiences can enrich life via an active exercise of the imagination.

Similarly as regards understanding ethical, religious and artistic concepts, one could speak of cultivating certain virtues of character said to be necessary for making such understanding possible.

To use another example, someone, for instance, who lacks a musical education and does not possess a ‘musical ear’ will not be able to contradict the judgement of a master composer; indeed such a person may not have sufficient (musical) sensibility even really to understand what the composer is saying. In other words, such a person will neither possess the vocabulary nor have the appropriate concepts that would enable them to say anything genuinely meaningful about a musical work, short, perhaps, of finding it ‘pleasurable’ or ‘relaxing’.

For analogous reasons Wittgenstein, in his Lectures On Religious Belief, feels that he cannot contradict what the religious person is saying, since he, as yet, lacks a real grasp of the concepts involved. To put it another way, just as there is musical sensibility and tone deafness (and much in between), perhaps there is also religious sensibility and blindness for religion, and neither musical nor religious sensibility is acquired by learning a set of theses, doctrines, by heart – or about who the great composers were, about the laws of counterpoint or about transubstantiation – since this would only bring about an ‘external’, that is, purely intellectual, understanding of the subject comparable to having learnt a code.

It could likewise be claimed that in order to be able to contradict a religious statement, you not only need to understand what the ‘atoms’– that is, the individual words – it is comprised of mean in ordinary contexts, but what the sentence as a whole means, and, for this to be possible, you must understand how the words are functioning in their natural home. That is, you must understand their technique of application in this particular context – for as Wittgenstein noted in his Lectures On Religious Belief, what often happens is ‘my normal technique of language leaves me’.

Being able to see this is not possible, if Wittgenstein is right, independently of having some familiarity and grasp of the religious form of life and the phenomenology of experience that gave rise to it. Much more than rote-reciting is required. However this is not to say that therefore the ‘doctrine’ – of for instance the Christian claims – are irrelevant. For to use another of Wittgenstein’s examples, this would be as absurd as thinking that because a song can be sung both with and without expression, you could have the expression without the song…

An open attitude to another’s culture and way of life may be the best starting point on the road to such understanding.

WHEREAS IN MY YOUTH MY WORLD WAS NARROW AND UNPLURALISTIC I NOW FEEL AS A MORE MATURE MAN THAT IN THE ADVENTURE OF LIFE WE CAN ACTIVELY STRIVE TO NOTICE PATTERNS OF MEANING WHICH COULD OTHERWISE BE CLOSED TO US. IN SO DOING WE COULD NOT ONLY HELP DIFFUSE POLARIZATION AND EXTREMISM, BUT PERHAPS MOVE CLOSER TO MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING WITHIN OUR COMMON HUMANITY – AND A SAFER WORLD FOR OUR CHILDREN TO INHERIT…

Written by zygruntee

March 24, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Adopting children: How final should it be?

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http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/norfolk/7885047.stm

Basic story is that a couple had their 3 kids taken away from them because one had 6 broken bones.

This later turned out to be the result of rickets.

Kids should go back to the parents right?

Well, apparently not. It has been ruled that they should stay with their new parents. Even though the real parents did NOTHING wrong.

The argument is that if you start taking people away from adoptive parents then the whole adoption process will break down as parents will always feel that their new kids can be taken away.

Thoughts?

What is really troubling me is what on earth they told the kids throughout this process? Do they still think that their parents beat them up?!

Written by jackshaftoe

February 14, 2009 at 11:33 am

Was Diana murdered?

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/news/newsbeat/061214_diana.shtml
I know we don’t really give a shit on a personal level but we cant have MI6 bumping people of like the Al-Fayed suggests.
So: Do you believe the conspiracy theory that Diana/Dodi were murdered?
My vote: No.

Written by jackshaftoe

December 15, 2006 at 11:51 am