"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Response to Comment on Cum Laude

The following is my response to the comments of Anonymous on my Cum Laude talk. For the full text, click on comments at that site.

To Anonymous,

Thank you for responding to my talk.

Your comments indicate two things very clearly: that you take neither the concept of God nor that of religion very seriously, and that you take the concepts of “balance,” “nuance,” “pragmatism,” “democracy,” “honesty,” “social animals,” and “doubt” very seriously indeed, in fact worshipfully. Because so many issues are raised by your comments, it may be best for me to respond sentence by sentence.

“I agree with Evander that there ought to be a balance between the absolute and the relative.”

Could you explain what such a “balance” would be or what it means? If you think that I’m advocating that everyone be absolutely sure of everything and have no doubts about anything, you are seriously misreading my argument and my intentions. I tried to emphasize how difficult it is to live in the world in which we must try to apply certain values—the absolute ones (justice, kindness, truth, love)—to particular situations, and how difficult it is to balance our loyalties to two apparently opposing absolute values (like justice and mercy) in daily life. In that sense, balance is indeed necessary. But I simply don’t understand what you have in mind when you say the “balance between the absolute and the relative.” What would that mean?

Obviously many things are relative and some things are absolute. People should not go around being absolutist about relative things. Nor should they make the mistake of imagining that absolutes are relative. If that is what you mean by “balance,” we are in agreement. If not, I will need a clearer explanation of what you do mean.

”However, I don't think you can include God in the discussion because it makes the discussion less honest. Firstly, not everyone is religious, and not all religious people (esp. in this generation) actually believe in the existence of a superhuman ‘God’.”

I don’t understand the logic here. How am I less honest because you don’t believe in God? Are you saying that because you don’t believe in God then I shouldn’t? Or because you don’t believe in God I should not mention my belief in God in my speech? Wouldn’t it be dishonest to pretend that I don’t believe in God when I do? Do you think that anyone who believes in God is ipso facto dishonest? I really don’t understand the logic of your point.

“I think faith is a great value that can be used very positively,”

First of all, how do you measure the value of faith? What absolute principles are you assuming to be true in order to gauge the value of faith? You seem to have perfect and undoubting faith in “using” things “positively.” What does that mean? Can you define “positive use”? If you try, you will find that the thread of your thought must lead you back to certain absolute values which cannot be proven but simply have to be taken as axioms. In this connection, I highly recommend your reading a book by C.S. Lewis called The Abolition of Man. (Don’t worry, he leaves God out of the discussion, as you wish I had done.) It is a very important work that will show you on what logical grounds your phrase “used positively” must rest.

“I think faith is a great value that can be used very positively, but in conjunction with religion can be dangerous (I'm sure you are aware of the many examples- forget 9/11, even the practice of sati is one of them).”

The implication here is that religion is dangerous. This is true. But you are not admitting that lack of religion is even more dangerous. Many evils have been done by human beings in the name of religion and God. True. But we know they are evils partly because religion has taught us that they are. Unlike non-religious movements of thought, religion has much that is self-correcting in it. And far greater evils have been done by human beings in the name of the Godless worship of nature or progress or power or the human mind or knowledge or “social change” or sheer nihilism. Just measure the total depravity perpetrated in the centuries in which religious faith was the norm against the total depravity perpetrated in the twentieth century by anti-religious movements like Hitler’s and Stalin’s and Mao’s and Pol Pot’s and Idi Amin’s and those of twenty others. Your assumption simply must fall to pieces before the facts.

”Secondly, I think the bit you wrote about "We aren't God so therefore we don't know what the absolute truth is", is dangerous. This is dangerous because human beings will do many things in the name of religion based on what they BELIEVE. But there is no way to realize those beliefs. There is no way to prove that there is a superhuman God that somehow knows all the truths.”

So many matters are raised here, and some of them so clearly based on prejudice, that I’m not sure how to address them all. I think the most important is the assumption that human beings do bad things because of belief in God. But as I said, human beings do bad things because of belief in anything that humans believe in, and more if they don’t even acknowledge that there are certain universal principles that dictate what human behavior should be and what behavior is bad.

The main error is in thinking that the alternative to belief in God is knowledge. This is false. The only alternative to belief in God is belief in something else: nature, human reason, political equality, pragmatism, progress, nothingness, chance. These too are doctrines of faith. Even physical science, one of the most rigorous forms of knowledge that man has developed, is founded upon certain axioms of faith: for example that the natural world is consistent and orderly and that the human mind can comprehend that order. Without faith in those axioms, our trust in science, for all its practical validity, would fall apart.

Of course there is no way to prove God’s existence. There is also no way to prove God’s non-existence. There is also no way to prove that the laws of nature are constant when we aren’t looking. There is no way to prove that you and I should be honest. Because to prove something means to engage in a rational process in which hypotheses are found to be consistent or inconsistent with fundamental axioms that cannot themselves be proven. God cannot be proven because faith in God is a fundamental axiom. Any concept of God that could allow God to be reduced to a proof contained within a human mind would not be what believers mean by God. Or, as Wendell Berry has it, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.” So your statement that God’s existence cannot be proven is true, but the implications of that statement are not what you think they are.

”What we can do, is appreciate the nuances between relativism and absolutism.”

I don’t know what this means. What are the “nuances between relativism and absolutism”? This phrase seems too vague for me to attach a concept to it, to your use of the word “between” in relation to “nuances.” Perhaps some examples would help.

“That is democratic. Democracy is pragmatically listening and contributing to what other people around you think. Democracy isn't going into the world and saying "You are wrong, and we know." Democracy is having doubts. Take your example of sati, which existed because of a religious belief. No one ever "doubted" that sati was wrong. If they had been introduced to more democratic values, they could have fixed the problem themselves.”

You are arguing against a position I did not take. My claim that we must all believe in the existence of certain absolute values is not the claim that we should all walk around presuming we know all and ignoring what other people think. If you say “I think the Democrats are right and the Republicans are wrong about taxation,” one certainly ought to listen to your arguments, just as you ought to listen to the arguments of one who says “I think the Republicans are right and the Democrats are wrong about taxation.” After listening, one thinks, and thinking, one judges the arguments in the light of facts, experience, insight, and certain fundamental principles that are universal, like logic and truth and coherence and justice and kindness and the other absolutes. That is how rational people come to conclusions about how to vote.

But it is one thing to have doubts about how best to go about taxing people. It is quite another to have doubts about whether justice is a good thing. If you have doubts about that, there is no point having a conversation with you about justice or taxation or anything else. I certainly do not think that everyone ought to be absolutely sure about everything they happen to think at any given moment. What could be more foolish? I am advocating faith in the existence of the absolute values which give meaning to all other judgments we are called upon to make as human beings. You yourself would not be so sure that the “problem” of sati should be “fixed” if you didn’t believe, absolutely, that it is wrong to kill a woman just because her husband has died. (The idea that this is a “problem” with a “solution” as opposed to a human situation calling for a response is an issue for another discussion.)

”Even if the religious institution never existed, we still would have developed to where we are today. As social animals, we would have been able to recognize that killing a widow is wrong.”

Are you sure? You have no doubt about this statement? Can you prove that it is true?

I would argue that you believe this because you are a product (as we all are) of the Romantic age, in which Rousseau’s notion that human beings are naturally good and it is society alone that corrupts us has become the unacknowledged religion of the time. You seem to believe that if we just get rid of God and religion, we will naturally evolve into fair, democratic, doubting, kind, just, reasonable people. I say that this conviction takes a heck of a lot more faith than belief in God does!

“Obviously I don't advocate strictly for relativism, and I do agree it is somewhat of a ‘plague.’

It would be interesting to know how you see this plague plaguing us. I agree, of course. It was part of my point.

“But you do need the balance.”

Again, I don’t know what this means. Balance between what and what? And how does one know what is a right or good or proper balance unless one has certain absolute values to judge by?

“Having no doubt endangers the ability to make informed decisions that would otherwise make you sound dumb. Doubtlessness defined the conviction of white southerners who genuinely believed that the black race was inferior. Doubtlessness defined the ignorance that fueled the rage of gay-hate crimes. Introduce a little doubt.”

This is a non-argument. Doubtlessness also characterized the abolitionists and the Civil Rights movement. They had no doubts that slavery was wrong and that Jim Crow laws were bad. And they were right to have no doubts on those subjects. They would have been wrong to be thinking, “perhaps we need to strike a balance between civil rights and Jim Crow.” Such generalizations must be clarified or they lead to nonsense.

Of course I am not against doubt. Doubt is the other side of faith, as wiser heads than mine have said. But doubt makes a very poor absolute value. Let’s have a little doubt about doubt itself, shall we? Let’s agree to look for those underlying principles that we share and that do not admit of doubt, so that we will have a court of reason in which to try all the other difficult questions that arise in life about which we do have legitimate doubts. As C.S. Lewis says, “It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles [i.e., absolute values]. . . . To 'see through' all things is the same as not to see.”

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Comment on Cum Laude and "Who's to say?"

In 2005 my friend and former colleague Richard Kirk posted an excellent discussion of the "Who's to say?" subject of my Cum Laude talk. It makes the essential point logically and succinctly. Read it here.