Tag Archives: Religion

In what sense?

"In what sense" has got to be one of the most basic philosophical questions.  It aims, at the very least, to get clear about what we're talking about.  Because, as it turns out, words and concepts and such have different senses.  Justice, for instance, seems to mean different things.  And it would be important to avoid obvious equivocations.  So, for instance, if I am talking about a normative notion of justice, and you come back at me with empirical observations about the criminal justice system, I will be confused.  This seems to be a really straightforward point.  But alas.  Here's Stanley Fish, The New York Times' idea of an intellectual:

I don’t think that’s the way it happens or could happen. Let’s say (to give a humble example from literary studies) that there is a dispute about the authorship of a poem. A party to the dispute might perform comparative analyses of the writings of rival candidates, examine letters and personal libraries, research the records of printers and publishers, look at the history of reception, etc. Everyone who engages in the dispute will do his or her work in relation to well-established notions of what counts as evidence for authorship and accepted criteria for determining whether or not the evidence marshaled is persuasive.

But suppose, you think (in the manner of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault) that the idea of the individual author is a myth that emerges alongside the valorization of property and property rights so central to Enlightenment thought? Suppose you believe that the so-called author is not the source of the words to which he signs his name, but is instead merely a site transversed by meanings neither he nor any other so-called “individual” originates? (“Writing,” says Barthes, “is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”)

I am not affirming this view, which has religious (“not me, but my master in me”) and secular (it is the age or zeitgeist that speaks) versions. I am just observing that there are many who hold it, and that for those who do the evidence provided by printers’ records or letters or library holdings will not be evidence at all; for they do not believe in the existence of the entity — the conclusively identified individual author — it aspires to be evidence of. If no one wrote the poem in the sense assumed by the effort to fix authorship, that effort is without a point and the adducing of evidence in the absence of something to be proved will seem quixotic and even perverse.

The example might seem to be to the side of the (supposed) tension between faith and reason, but it is, I believe, generalizable. Evidence, understood as something that can be pointed to, is never an independent feature of the world. Rather, evidence comes into view (or doesn’t) in the light of assumptions – there are authors or there aren’t — that produce the field of inquiry in the context of which (and only in the context of which) something can appear as evidence.

Holy Crap.  The "valorization" of property has an empirical component ("your property is valorized at less than it was valorized at before") and a normative component ("your property ought to be valorized at more than it was before") and a conceptual component (your property is valorizable), among other components.  The question for the literary studies people is whether some person x wrote some poem y.  This is an empirically verifiable fact–just ask Foucault's estate.  The question for Foucault, I take it, is whether such knowledge will tell us anything about anything (well, in particular, about the "meaning" of the poem.  They're different questions which Stanley Fish has hopelessly confused.

And he has confused these two different sorts of claim in order further to confuse the difference between the methods of faith and the methods of science.  They're not, to reorient the analogy where it should (!) be, talking about the same thing.  And to make this all a tomayto-tomahto question of evidence just ignores one pretty basic philosophical question.

Crystal balls

Like his colleague David Brooks at the New York Times, William Kristol has been pretty much wrong about everything in the past several years (and probably before).  But wrongness, when it happens, just doesn’t happen.  There’s always a reason for it.  So I believe now, at least.

I’m not going to explain the wrongness of William Kristol–he’s wedded to an incoherent ideology, for instance.  I don’t know if that’s true, and besides I don’t have access to Kristol’s mental states.  So if  you read this and you’re a conservative, notice that I haven’t said "conservatives are wrong in their core beliefs."  Wrongness always happens in the particulars. 

I’m interested in the wrongness of his reasons.  To that end, let’s take a look at one or two.  In today’s column, he opposes the following claims:

But it’s one thing for a German thinker to assert that “religion is
the sigh of the oppressed creature.” It’s another thing for an American
presidential candidate to claim that we “cling to … religion” out of
economic frustration.

And it’s a particularly odd claim for
Barack Obama to make. After all, in his speech at the 2004 Democratic
convention, he emphasized with pride that blue-state Americans, too,
“worship an awesome God.”

That’s obviously not a contradiction or some kind of less rigorous "tension" or "inconsistency."  As explanations go, Obama’s seems fairly innocuous.  He’s clearly talking about a certain motivation for religion as distinct from say, God, the object of those religions.  Attacking this weak version of Obama’s remarks is what you might call a "straw man."
A little charity on Kristol’s part would help him see this.  But I ask perhaps too much.

Here’s another:

Then there’s what Obama calls “anti-immigrant sentiment.” Has Obama
done anything to address it? It was John McCain, not Obama, who took
political risks to try to resolve the issue of illegal immigration by
putting his weight behind an attempt at immigration reform.

Furthermore, some concerns about unchecked and unmonitored illegal
are surely legitimate. Obama voted in 2006 (to take just
one example) for the Secure Fence Act, which was intended to control
the Mexican border through various means, including hundreds of miles
of border fence. Was Obama then just accommodating bigotry?

Anyone ought to be able to see the difference between criticizing "anti-immigrant sentiment" (which applies to both legal and  immigrants) fomented by Kristol’s partners on the right and supporting "unchecked and unmonitored illegal immigration."   Being against the latter, of course, doesn’t make you for the former.  This amounts to, I think, a kind of red herring.  Concern about "Illegal immigration" bears only a slight resemblance to "anti-immigrant sentiment" of the "bigotry" variety.

In your head

One cause of sloppy reasoning is fixing the argument around the position rather than the position around the argument.  When you’re settled about what position you must hold, then your options close in around you.  To that end, there is an interesting article on the Monty Hall problem in the New York Times (by John Tierney of all people).  Another cause of sloppy reasoning is simple incoherence.  Richard Cohen, liberal pundit for the Washington Post, is sometimes guilty of this.  Today, for instance, he returns again to the issue of race and Obama.  Here is how he closes his argument:

From time to time, Obama is likened to John F. Kennedy
— both charismatic and inexperienced politicians when they launched
their presidential campaigns. But Obama could be like Kennedy in
another way as well. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and no Roman
Catholic had ever been elected president. In the 1960 Wisconsin
primary, he ran into a version of Cohen’s Law. He won the state but did
poorly in Protestant areas. A month later, he won in overwhelmingly (95
percent) Protestant West Virginia and did so because he bought a half-hour of TV time and confronted the religion issue head on. It was a landslide.

Maybe Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race served the same purpose. The results from the upcoming primaries, particularly Pennsylvania,
will tell. My guess is that he still has not put the race issue to rest
— maybe because he failed to do what Kennedy did in West Virginia. In
that speech, Kennedy told Protestant West Virginians that when
presidents took the oath of office, they were swearing to the
separation of church and state. A president who breaks that oath is not
only committing an impeachable offense, he said, "but he is committing
a sin against God." In other words, he told West Virginians that their
major fear was baseless.

Obama in his Philadelphia speech said nothing as dramatic. On the
contrary, when it came to the perceived threat posed by young black men
(one out of every nine is in criminal custody), Obama built a fence
around the issue by citing his grandmother’s "fear of black men who
passed her by on the street" — suggesting it was comparable to what
his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had said. He did not confront white fears. Instead, he implied that they were illegitimate.

This is not 1988, and much has changed. For one thing, the GOP
nominee is going to be an aging foreign policy hawk with no coattails
to run on. But if the upcoming Pennsylvania primary simply echoes
earlier racial divisions, Obama has to give yet another speech — this
one directed not at the pundits he so enthralls but at the very people
who have so far rejected him on account of race. Will it matter? John
Kennedy proved a long time ago that it might.

In the first place, who are the pundits Obama enthralls?  And why do pundits like Cohen use the word "pundits" as a term of abuse?  He must not consider himself a pundit.  Or maybe he thinks you’re not a pundit if you use the word pundit to describe pundits.  Besides this, he clearly doesn’t read the pundits, for they’re not enthralled with Obama.  They, the pundits that is, often claim that we’re supposed to dislike Obama on account of his popularity among people, not pundits.

Besides this, there is a rather significant disanalogy between race and religion.  Kennedy could cease at any time to be Catholic (and, if the gossip is true, he ceased quite often and with different women), Obama cannot at any moment cease to be black.  No amount of swearing on the Bible will lay to rest fears that he’s going to continue to be black. What is Obama supposed to say?  "I’m not, you know (wink wink), one of those people"?

King of the Faeries

Sometimes it gets rather tiresome sorting through the nuanced yet sloppy reasoning of the typical national newspaper pundit, so let's just gaze with wonder at how bad things could be.  Enter Pastor John Hagee, unrepudiated and unrejected friend and supporter of John McCain, maverick:

HAGEE: All hurricanes are acts of God, because God controls the heavens. I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are — were recipients of the judgment of God for that. The newspaper carried the story in our local area that was not carried nationally that there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. So I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demur from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment. And I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.

Let's say it was.  Now the parade might have been canceled, but lots of non-gay people had their lives and homes destroyed.  I suppose they were just collateral damage. 

UPDATE 4/26/2008

Pastor Hagee has retracted this claim.