a blog by josef johann

Friday, December 11, 2009

Wrigley Field is a perfect copy of Wrigley Field

I'm supposed to bury this insight at the bottom of the second to last paragraph, put the magic phrase in italics, to spin a narrative that progressively unravels a mystery, but fuck it. To persuade someone, you convince them that what you are saying is an even stronger affirmation of their values than their own position (you'll see this sentence both as self-description and material to my point). This highlights, I think, the hypocrisy under which our most closely held beliefs are formed. We start with a belief, or rather a very specific prejudice, which is something like self insistence, something like what causes you to laugh which is so irreducibly personal, a truth you would kick over the Taipei 101 clear space for, if it came to that. (That's metaphorically speaking, to those FBI, CIA, and homeland security web-bots crawling the internet which probably outnumber my readers 5 to 1.) That is, a belief about what is good, about where good things come from is necessarily built from the inside out and after the fact its outward coherence is the ostensive basis for its superiority over competing explanations.

So I stopped believing in capitalism when I started believing in the internet, which is to say that what I want isn't capitalism, but that which I thought was synonymous with it: the low barriers to entry, the fact that truly anonymous people can put themselves or their kids through college with initiative and a good idea (or even stupid idea). How empowering that is! But this desirable confluence of opportunists and opportunity came along with a bureaucracy or two, and a measure of centralization, which I had previously believed antithetical to the freedom needed to "put ideas into action" (if you'll forgive my stagnantly Hillary Clintonesque phrasing). I couldn't move away from capitalism until I realized I wasn't losing anything at all.


This brings us to blogger Santi Tafarella, who may or may not be a dualist. Santi has responded favorably to Intelligent Design (but may or may not subscribe to it), and has been receptive to global warming skepticism (but may or may not think the skepticism warranted), and, though this last one is different, is critical of new atheism (but is himself an agnostic). In a similar spirit you'll find the title of nearly half his blog posts end in a question mark.

Santi made an admirably candid admission in justifying his own ambivalence, which, in one of its forms is essentially an ambivalence with respect to the truth of naturalism.


I absorb your critique of me taking to hand anybody who puts forth a plausible anti-naturalist argument that keeps me in my agnostic abivalence. I like agnosticism. It gives me a space for irony and emotional range that I can’t find in theism or atheism. I like the Whitmanesque freedom of swinging all sorts of ways, and dropping into the shoes of others. It’s a personality thing. I think people who are atheists and theists also have personal motivations for their beliefs, and contingent (not just rational) reasons for arriving at their beliefs.

Santi, you use this ambivalence as an opportunity to pose questions, to occupy that space of contemplative wonder, analogous to what many of us might claim we are doing when we make music.

So, where most of us would wash our hands of (for instance) Intelligent Design and walk away, you perceive a spiritual space closing up, and come to the defense of the indefensible Michael Behe. For fear of so-called new atheists closing the debate on the truth of religion entirely (which seems to have nearly happened in analytic philosophy circles), you defend discredited ideas and regard their gangrenous creep into the philosophical establishment with sympathy.

Let me make clear that my quarrel is not with ambivalence itself, but ambivalence about truth claims, as though each next question and attempted answer is just another excercize in a normal life of spiritual creativity. There is a difference between the creative activity of imagining something to be true, and literally suggesting something is true. Naturally this same imaginative capacity must be at play in understanding new things about the world, and bringing ourselves before an open question seems always to inspire what is called a religious feeling. But many (I would say most) activities of spiritual exertion have nothing whatsoever to do with this, nor should they.

When George Will says that "God, supposedly, and Wrigley Field, actually, are perfect" what should we take to be his meaning that Wrigley Field is "perfect"? Surely the field came first and perfection grew into it. If I didn't know what baseball was, if I couldn't think that the team in some sense represented me and that their victories were mine, I would see no perfection there. But if I'm a Cubs fan it gives me a history, it gives me numerous openings for investing empathy and hope.

Not unlike a slug, we glide along a surface of our own flesh and the payoffs are reflective of that investment (though one might object that the Cubs don't offer much in the way of emotional payoff). What this should make clear is that Wrigley Field isn't actually perfect, but by spending time there and accumulating experiences, the joy spills over into every accidental association until there is no friction, and Wrigley Field appears to be the platonic form of perfection. In truth it was only a vessel.

There is nothing wrong with vessels, and it's true that they really can be fountains of spiritual wonder even when the vessels are completely artificial constructions (as I think religion is). The problem is that these must be physicalised, actualized, the word must be made flesh, as it were. If you've ever really loved dancing, for instance, you'll know that it brings out the feeling that you really have a role in creating the music, just as important, just as participatory as if you were plucking the strings yourself.

And I recall once, bringing groceries out to my car to find a church flier on my dashboard. It had started raining while I was inside, and someone had rolled up my windows for me. If no flier was left, perhaps I wouldn't have even noticed the act of compassion. But, more than an act of compassion, leaving the flier made clear that it was a religious act of compassion. I think the kind person, whoever she was, was "doing God's work" in more ways than she realized.

Unfortunately, one way of acting creatively is to insist on a truth claim, to stand for it, to in some sense defend it and live for it. "I know there are angels out there, making sure my breaks won't fail!" I wouldn't suggest that there is no exertion of passion in the preceding claim. But the kernel of inspiration motivating the truth claim is misattributed to something that really isn't there. And this entails a tornado of confusions, as you mistakenly defend angels in your car, mistaking your flaring heartstrings, and your right to them, for evidence of something else.

This class of creative acts, apart from others, must be attended with responsibility, precisely because it mingles evidence claims with the freedom and fruits of introspection, the latter of which everyone is right to defend furiously. And when an evidence claim becomes so personalized admitting you are wrong is like killing yourself. Most of us just won't do it, and couldn't.

Lukeprog of Common Sense Atheism summed up well when talking about Christian apoligist William Lane Craig's approach to evidence:

Basically, Craig defends his faith against the evidence the same way my mom does – “I know because I know that I know that I know.” And that’s it. “I know in my heart that Christianity is true, and I know my heart is right because my heart tells me it is right.”

And thus, I think, Santi misperceives his heart as being between the jaws of an atheism-theism divide. And in valiant defense of it, you get such spectacles as an embarrassingly bad defense of Michael Behe, wherein Santi implies that it is reasonable to doubt random mutation can produce macroevolutionary changes, which any casual stroll through wikipedia might easily disabuse one of. To that I say, Santi, no! Your heart is over here!

(In the four wiki links referenced above, the third one directly addresses Behe's skepticism about how random mutation works, the others deal with general arguments made by William Lane Craig.)


Santi Tafarella said...


Your critique expresses a fair concern. In my defense, I do think that it would be more alarming if I were perverse in my doubts. For example, if, just for the hell of it, I sought out something true about young earth creationism, however trivial, and then promoted young earth creationism on my blog, I think that would be obnoxious. But I won't just sleep with any old idea---I have to see something interesting or true about it before I metaphorically take it into my intellectual bed.

Also, I think that it's very, very important to make distinctions. For example, you can reject (as I do) the ideas of global warming denialists, and yet still find a lesson about science in the "Climategate" email scandal. I've actually never expressed doubt on my blog about global climate change being anthropocentric. The problem is that whenever you bring up issues that "the other side" in a dispute raises, you are presumed to be in the camp of the other side.

It is true that I bring up issues that might cause agnostics and atheists to do a double take, and I do so deliberately. It is because I'm a secular liberal. If I were a religious conservative, I'd raise more questions about the Bible, and annoy my fellow religious conservatives by asking the questions that the other side raises. But for me the Bible is a dead issue (in terms of its historical accuracy and scientific value). Because I am an agnostic, it is precisely at the edge of agnostic and atheist ideas that I am interested, and I am probing my own side of the fence, looking for truths and nuances. If you can't press ideas hard, they don't deserve your belief.

Also, I think that keeping issues alive keeps thought alive. Once you are certain of something, or dismissive of something, you stop thinking. For example, in (I believe) March of next year, a big book is coming out by two heavy hitting intellectuals on the mechanism of evolution (natural selection working on random mutation). It's not an Intelligent Design book, and it's bound to send the atheist community into a tizzy of reproach, but I want to hear what they have to say. The book is already at Amazon available for preorder and is titled, "What Darwin Got Wrong." Maybe it's crap. But I think that we shouldn't be so fast to close questions.

As for Craig, I find his rigorous loyalty to reason admirable. I think that when you get an argument from Craig, it is going to be formulated as clearly and cleverly as he can muster, and whereas I cannot go with him on his Christianity, he represents theistic arguments well and deserves a hearing. Where he says something I regard as probable or interesting, I've got no problem discussing him on my blog.

Lastly, with regard to the poetry of experience: if we treat our perspectives as poems or windows from which things can be reflected upon from very different vantages, I think that we needn't be so obsessed with the right answer. Even wrong answers can contain the seeds of very large truths. For example, I think that Intelligent Design people, not being under the spell of Darwinism, can see its eugenic implications much more clearly than the average atheist.

Love is blind.


josef said...

Thanks for stopping by Santi.

Lastly, with regard to the poetry of experience: if we treat our perspectives as poems or windows from which things can be reflected upon from very different vantages, I think that we needn't be so obsessed with the right answer. Even wrong answers can contain the seeds of very large truths.

This is all well and good, and in fact I made pains to say so myself. But it doesn't begin to explain why you would go to the lengths of saying its legitimate to question how random mutation works as though there wasn't enough evidence to be confident in it.

For example, I think that Intelligent Design people, not being under the spell of Darwinism, can see its eugenic implications much more clearly than the average atheist.

That's a straw man. What's worse, even if it weren't a straw man, it would still be misguided, because the best criticisms of eugenics were made before Intelligent Design even existed. And they were made by biologists and geneticists.

For instance, before you get to Intelligent Design, you have to reach past A.V. Hill (a physiologist), Rene Dubos (microbiologist), Marston Bates (zoologist), Theodosius Dobzhansky (evolutionary biologist), George Gaylord Simpson (paleontologist), H.J. Muller (geneticist), Joshua Lederberg (molecular biologist), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (geologist), Garrett Hardin (ecologist), Edmunt W. Sinnott (botanist), Loren Eiseley (anthropolist), Julian Huxley (evolutionary biologist) and on and on and on and on, all of whom have published papers on the ethical implications of evolution, many of them forcefully condemning eugenics. Should we really suggest that people in these fields are so incapable of intellectual flexibility that they need a good helping of intelligent design to "balance them out"?

To think we need ID to keep our moral bearings in order is like saying we need the counsel of the Ugandan parliament to keep fresh perspectives on homosexuality. It's to flatten everything down to a binary worldview, to stretch yourself between two opposing sides for the sake of stretching yourself between two opposing sides. When balance mandates positions like these, balance has become a defective concept, which essentially was the point of my post. Sure, there may be a grain of truth in there, but there are grains of truth everywhere, perhaps even the same ones you think you'd find in ID, and for this one you have to sift through gallons of filth with the risk that you'll inadvertently carry away far more than the grain of truth you were looking for.

josef said...

I say "even the sames ones" and "for this one" in the last sentence of that comment. By "one" I mean grain of truth.

Santi Tafarella said...


I think that you're being a bit ahistorical with regard to eugenics. All the scientists that you mention were writing in either postwar America or Europe, sobered by the Nazis' conceptual use of "survival of the fittest" and eugenics. Of course, in retrospect, you will get forceful caveats about mixing Darwin with social policy. But history isn't done. We're only at the beginning of a new century. Eugenic temptations are now lurking in every genetic research advance, and it will be one of the central questions of the late 21st century: Is it ethical, if evolution is true (and it is), to improve the human genome (eliminating diseases, enhancing intelligence and physical strength)? And who will have access to this technology? The strains and tensions inherent in these questions are things that contemporary enthusiasts for Darwinian ideas have yet to concertedly address (at least it's not a topic of general conversation). But the issue is coming like a locomotive.

You are right that ID isn't needed to tell us this, or inform us about what to believe. But ID people are at least talking about the issue. I'm thinking of Richard Weikart's new and very good book, "Hitler's Ethic" (Palgrave 2009). And I think that your comparison of ID people to the Ugandan parliament is ridiculous. ID books are not larded with filth. In fact, by their intellectual sparring with atheists, their books, over the past decade, are hewning themselves rather nicely into very careful and respectable propositions. You are conflating a book like Meyer's, which has very little nonsense in it (even if you don't draw his conclusions), with a book by a young Earth creationist like Duane Gish. I think distinctions are important, and that atheists have, in fact, made ID modest and focused.


josef said...

Hey Santi. It's been a while but...

I think that you're being a bit ahistorical with regard to eugenics.

My argument can't be ahistorical unless I'm making a historical argument. With respect to eugenics, I'm not. Besides, eugenics is being over-represented in this conversation. Philosophy is already light years ahead of ID on the moral implications of any subject you can think of choosing. And they got there without needing to be prompted by a factually false, unnecessary theory.

But ID people are at least talking about the issue.

And philosophers aren't? They are if you are looking, Santi.

And I think that your comparison of ID people to the Ugandan parliament is ridiculous.

That's not how analogies work, Santi. Analogies assert the similarity of relationships, not the similarity of subjects within those relationships.

There are many other people doing a much better job at tackling the same subjects the ID people purport to tackle, without the added intellectual dishonesty. If you don't like the Ugandan example, then there's this: There are many other people doing a much better job at tackling political issues than Glenn Beck, covering the same issues more in depth and more sensibly. That makes him worse than unnecessary, because of the added baggage and confusions he brings.

Anonymous said...


Good philosophy link. Thanks for that. I have homework.


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