Testing, Testing

May 13th, 2004 7:45 pm | By

A reader raises some interesting objections, in Letters and then at my suggestion in a comment, on our Freud-skepticism.

For example, there may be an alternative explanation for Jedlika’s finding that children of mixed race couples are more likely to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent, but it is prima facie evidence for oedipal feelings that cannot be ignored.

I haven’t read the study in question – but just to deal with what is said in that sentence, I have to say I am not convinced. I am in fact quite skeptical. It seems to me that it is not at all obvious that oedipal feelings are the only possible explanation for why children of mixed race couples would tend to marry someone of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Other explanations leap to mind – for instance the idea that marriageable people in general are of the same race as the opposite sex parent. Of course one can by fiat simply equate notions of what makes people ‘marriageable’ with oedipal feelings, but again, that’s not the only possible conclusion. And in any case, the basic disagreement with Freud’s Oedipus complex is not mostly to do with sexual feelings for the opposite sex parent, but with such feelings in infancy. It’s the infancy part that Freud was adamant about, and that many colleagues disagreed with him about. Freud wasn’t just saying that everyone has sex on the brain, he was saying that everyone has sex on the brain starting with infancy. Would Jedlika’s findings as described above seem to corroborate the Oedipus complex in infancy? I don’t see why they would.

I googled Fisher and Greenberg, and found a review by Richard Webster. Not a fan of Freud’s, of course – but let’s see what he says all the same.

Once again, they have failed to recognise that Freud was at least right about one thing: that psychoanalytic theories, being based on the psychoanalyst’s unique access to the hidden realm of the unconscious, are not susceptible to empirical investigation.

And they are both clinical psychologists themselves, so the same problem arises in their own line of work. Clinical psychologists have an as it were vocational skepticism about the value of empirical investigation.

In an effort to discover whether Freud’s penis=baby equation was correct, and whether it is indeed true that some women have babies to supply themselves with the penises that they lack, Fisher and Greenberg tell us that they ‘reasoned that if pregnancy is somehow a penis equivalent for women, they should have increased unconscious phallic sensations or feelings at that time’. Omitting to consider the equally plausible Freudian hypothesis that pregnancy, by supplying a ‘real’ phallic substitute, might lead to a decrease in phallic fantasising, our intrepid researchers go on to devise a ‘phallic scoring system’ based on a count of responses to the Holtzman Inkblot Test involving ‘projections, protrusions and elongations’ that Freud would have deemed phallic. Having administered this remarkable test to a group of presumably puzzled pregnant women, they concluded that (though no data are given) ‘the findings were nicely congruent with the hypothesis’. No doubt they were also nicely congruent with all manner of other hypotheses that Fisher and Greenberg, intent on looking at the world through Freudian spectacles, never paused to formulate.

Well…you see what I mean. If that’s Fisher and Greenberg’s idea of an empirical investigation, then – I remain unconvinced.

Whither the Arts

May 11th, 2004 9:40 pm | By

Art, shmart. Oh dear, I’ve gone all philistine – but people do talk such nonsense about ‘art’ sometimes. Here’s some nonsense on stilts – a lecture by Helen Vendler.

I want to propose that the humanities should take, as their central objects of study, not the texts of historians or philosophers, but the products of aesthetic endeavor: architecture, art, dance, music, literature, theater, and so on. After all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered. For every person who has read a Platonic dialogue, there are probably ten who have seen a Greek marble in a museum, or if not a Greek marble, at least a Roman copy, or if not a Roman copy, at least a photograph.

And – ? Because ten people have seen a photograph of a Greek marble for every one who has read some Plato, therefore the humanities should center on art rather than philosophy or history? Er – why? The reductio is certainly all too obvious. By the same token, for every person who has read a Shakespeare sonnet, a thousand (ten thousand? a hundred thousand?) have watched ‘Survivor’. So what?

But it gets worse – it gets into territory that always sets my teeth on edge.

The arts bring into play historical and philosophical questions without implying the prevalence of a single system or of universal solutions. Artworks embody the individuality that fades into insignificance in the massive canvas of history and is suppressed in philosophy by the desire for impersonal assertion. The arts are true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived–as singular persons swept by drives and affections, not as collective entities or sociological paradigms.

Oh, bollocks. That only makes even a little sense if you substitute the word ‘novel’ for ‘the arts’ in that passage, and even then it doesn’t make much sense. There are plenty of novels that don’t do any such thing, and most of the rest of ‘the arts’ don’t either. It’s all just sentimental bilge.

There’s a lot of sentimental bilge about ‘art’ and ‘the arts’ out there. I probably used to believe a little of it myself – at least about literature, if not about all the arts. I don’t any more. I gave it up. For one thing I’ve read or started too many vacuous pretentious ‘literary’ novels, and I’ve talked to too many people who think all ‘serious’ novelists, no matter how ignorant and unthinking, are ‘creative’ and somehow important and significant in a way that no writer of ‘non-fiction’ can possibly be. Oh I see – so one kind of writer knows a lot and writes about it well, and the other kind just writes well, and the second one is better? Hmm.

Brian Leiter quotes from an anonymous (to us) poet who puts it this way:

As to poets giving insight into life (or whatever the words are), I have been struck time and again at how plain dumb sentimental religious (‘spiritual’) so many well-regarded poets are. Do they understand life, humanity? Through a glass barely. People like Vendler live in a political vacuum and worship purity and refinement of sensibility which is fine if joined with social responsibility and authentic concern for the victims of injustice.

Just so. I’ve talked to a good many plain dumb novelists, too. I don’t think they suddenly become less dumb just because they write stories, and I don’t believe they have more insight or wisdom or ability to be ‘true to the way we are and were, to the way we actually live and have lived’ than philosophers or historians, or psychologists or sociologists, either.

This is relevant to what we’ve been talking about lately because of the ‘Freud was a novelist’ line of defense. Of course the main problem with that is that he wasn’t, that he was in a completely different kind of work, and that calling him a novelist is basically just a face-saving ploy. But even apart from that, I think there is a further problem in the sentimentality about novels and novelists in that defense which is related to the sentimentality about Freud himself. There is some underlying idea about the power and insight of novelists-and-Freud – about profundity and depth and complexity that are considered unique to fiction-writers. I don’t buy it. I like and admire really brilliant novelists as much as anyone, but I don’t think they’re magic. I don’t think they necessarily do tell us more than really brilliant writers and thinkers in other fields do. And in fact I think it’s a form of anti-intellectualism to claim that they do. So I may be a philistine but I’m not an anti-intellectual.


May 11th, 2004 3:03 am | By

One or two commenters have wondered where I was getting all this ‘Freud was wrong’ stuff, so I thought I would offer a small sample. There is an interesting article on Frederick Crews on Freud, and on Freudianism in general, for example.

One tip off to the pseudoscientific nature of psychoanalysis is to describe its institutional structure. In a real science there are no central organizations that function to ensure doctrinal conformity, expel those who deviate from the accepted truth, and present a united front to the world. It has long been apparent to observers, however, that this is exactly what psychoanalysis has done and continues to do…Unlike a real science, there is a continuing role for Freud’s writings as what one might term the sacred texts of the movement, both in teaching and in the current psychoanalytic literature. Arlow and Brenner (1988) note that Studies of Hysteria and The Interpretation of Dreams are almost 100 years old, but continue to be standard texts in psychoanalytic training programs…None of this is new to people even marginally acquainted with the scholarship on psychoanalysis. But it bears repeating because psychoanalysis, unlike a scientific theory but very much like certain religious or political movements, has essentially been immune from attacks leveled at it either from inside or outside the movement. Insiders who dissented from central doctrines were simply expelled and often went on to found their own psychoanalytically-oriented sects, typically with the same disregard for canons of scientific method as the parent religion.

And much more. And there is Crews’ reply to Jonathan Lear, which is an amusing read as well as an informative one.

Lear himself cites Plato, Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Proust as sharing Freud’s insistence “that there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness,” but he fails to pose the obvious question implied by such a list. What did Freud add to the previously garnered pearls of wisdom, and do his innovations constitute actual knowledge or merely a set of overweening speculations?…This paradox–one of several in Lear’s tremulously irrationalist article–rests on a fundamental confusion of categories. Although interpretation may preoccupy the analytic hour, the claims of psychoanalytic theory are not interpretations but determinate propositions about how the mind regularly works…But Lear has still another escape route handy, the contention (borrowed from Richard Wollheim) that Freudian propositions need no proof because they are merely “an extension of our ordinary psycho- logical ways of interpreting people in terms of their beliefs, desires, hopes and fears.” If we can guess why someone heads for the refrigerator, Lear believes, then we ought to be able to guess why, let us say, Freud’s Little Hans developed a horse phobia…Psychoanalysis as we know it blossomed when Freud, instead of admitting that he had tried to browbeat his patients into believing they had been molested, turned his own misdiagnosis into “false memories” supposedly generated by them in childhood to cover up their shameful and noxious practice of masturbation. Only later did he add his still more grotesque signature touch: the “memory” of having been abused could in most cases be regarded as an unconscious screen for the child’s desire to fornicate with one or both parents.

The complete articles are available online, in case you don’t already have any of the books. No need to take my word for all this.

Learning From Error

May 10th, 2004 7:03 pm | By

Questions arose the other day about whether there is any point in discussing whether someone – in particular, Freud – was wrong or not. Is there anything to be gained by looking at errors, mistakes, delusions, wrong directions. I certainly think there is. I think one can learn an enormous amount by studying inquiry that goes wrong, in all sorts of fields. One can learn about epistemolgy, psychology, how evidence interacts with theory and how theory interacts with evidence, how preconceptions and confirmation bias and hopes and wishes can confuse matters. One can learn and re-learn how difficult it can be (how impossible it can be until new instruments are invented) to tell what is really going on.

I found a wonderful quotation on the subject in Richard Webster’s Why Freud Was Wrong (p. 581 n. 3):

It may be argued that historians ought to pay more attention than they have done to scientific hypotheses which proved to be failures. The trouble with the history of science, and of scientific medicine, is that it has too often been presented as one long success story; whereas, in fact, a striking feature of the history of science…has been the tenacious persistence of supposedly scientific ideas long after they ought to have been abandoned. I think the historical study of scientific failures is important, not only because it is likely to give us a keener insight into the nature of the scientific process, but also because it may lead us to examine more closely the soundness of some of our own pet ideas. (E.H. Hare, ‘Medical Astrology and its Relation to Modern Psychiatry’)

Freud makes a fasinating study in the whole subject. Some of his mistakes are quite understandable as results of the absence of those new instruments I mentioned. Everyone was groping in the dark when it came to a lot of organic diseases that were then invisible and now are not – temporal lobe epilepsy, for one. Others are less excusable – excusable in terms of good practice in his own day, I mean. That’s one objection people have been raising in the comments: that of course Freud isn’t a scientist in contemporary terms, but it’s not fair to judge him in contemporary terms. But that’s not right: much of his way of working was not good scientific practice in 1904 any more than it is now, and there were scientists who said so at the time. But – as the case of Melvyn Bragg and his guests makes clear – that’s not as widely known as it might be.

Freedom, Freedom, Freedom

May 9th, 2004 12:06 am | By

It’s only a ruddy parking ticket.

But seriously. Speaking of Burke and Kirk, and the joys of tradition and custom…I thought the answer I got to my question at the Chronicle’s colloquy was not all that satisfying. Possibly the fault of my question. I took seriously the instruction to be brief, so my question was pretty simple-minded – then I saw that other people asked very long questions, and I gnashed my teeth in impotent fury. But all the same, I did find the answer a bit off the mark.

A widespread hostility exists, especially among those of a liberal or libertarian orientation, toward any body of thought that seeks to impose restraints upon the will of either individuals or popular movements. Unable to bear any norm of conduct above that of individual feeling, critics argue that any external or internal restraints placed on the spontaneous will of the individual by society, government, culture, or religion constitute barriers to the fulfillment of his true humanity. Hence, the removal of all moral, cultural, and legal restraints is a prerequisite to the realization of the full potentiality of the individual.

Yes yes, I know all that. I even agree with it to a considerable extent. I don’t like libertarianism, and I get intensely sick of hearing Americans insist on their right to do anything they want to – you know, drive their SUVs at high speed while chatting on the phone, smoke anywhere they damn please, pay their workers whatever the market will bear. But that doesn’t mean that tradition and custom is always to be preferred to change, and it doesn’t mean that tradition and custom is never antithetical to important, valuable, non-frivolous non-destructive freedoms. It’s traditional and customary for women to be treated like livestock in much of the world. It’s traditional and customary for dalits to be oppressed in India. Those two groups could do with less tradition and more real freedom, if you ask me. And there are other groups in similar situations. I’m not bleating about individual feeling or the spontaneous will, I’m talking about the ability to live a real life as a rational autonomous (i.e. non-dependent and non-subservient) adult. I’m also talking about asymmetrical ‘moral cultural, and legal restraints’ as opposed to just restraints, period. But since I didn’t ask a long enough question, I didn’t make that clear.

Lateral Promotion

May 8th, 2004 7:36 pm | By

Okay, let’s discuss this question of whether Freud is a philosopher, and whether it matters. Should we just all agree to call him a philosopher whether he is one or not because hey who cares? If so, why? If not, why not?

For one thing there is the question of what words mean. Is it useful for them to have such a broad meaning and application that they mean nothing? Or is it more useful for them to have a narrower, more precise meaning, so that we know what we’re talking about when we use them and so that we have some chance of talking about roughly the same thing as opposed to thinking we’re talking about roughly the same thing when in fact we are talking about diametrically opposed things. Surely it makes a difference in discussions of, say Freud and truth-claims and philosophy, if by ‘philosopher’ one party means, say, someone who tries to justify her arguments, and another party means, say, someone who has some ideas about things and talks about them well.

This reminds me (parenthetically) of a discussion on Front Row yesterday, a brief chat about the meaning of the words ‘arts’ and ‘culture’. Mark Lawson and David Crystal noted that art has to be ‘inclusive’ rather than ‘elitist’ and that that means more and more activities have to be included in the arts. Why is that though? one wonders, or at least I do. What does ‘inclusive’ mean, for one thing. Does it mean that various activities will feel hurt and excluded if they are not called ‘arts’? Or that people who enjoy doing them or consuming them will? Or both, or something different? And for another thing, why is that an argument for broadening the definition when it’s not in other areas? Cutting up a chicken for dinner isn’t called surgery. Wandering around aimlessly isn’t called gymnastics or polar exploration. Why are the arts expected to be ‘inclusive’ when other fields are not? Sport is not, for one example. Sport is allowed, in fact encouraged, to be ‘elitist’ – so why is it different for the arts? I wonder.

So, back to philosophy. Is there a difference between a philosopher and a ‘thinker’? Is that a useful distinction? Or are the two categories simply identical. But ‘thinker’ is a pretty broad category, isn’t it? And – correct me if I’m wrong – doesn’t it imply a certain flexibility, a certain license? Aren’t philosophers in fact expected to justify their assertions as opposed to just making them? If they don’t, aren’t other philsophers quick to point that dereliction out to them? Doesn’t the phrase ‘That doesn’t follow’ turn up?

The trouble with Freud as a philosopher is that he was so very wrong in his own field, his truth-claims have been subject to such thorough and exhaustive examination and found so profoundly wanting, that it seems more than a little fraudulent to airlift him out of science and drop him into philosophy, which as a discipline tends to be quite keen on the truth. It’s as if the idea were ‘Well, Freud made a mess of things in his own field but he was so profound and he wrote so well that we can’t just write him off, so we’ll just move him sideways. Now, where to. Literature? Hmm – no, that won’t do, literary theory is too demanding and rigorous, we can’t just slide people in with no training. Okay, philosophy then. They won’t mind. And if they do mind, tough – it’s about time philosophy became more inclusive and less elitist.’

Is that what happened? Who knows. It would be interesting to find out…

Einstein’s Mythology

May 6th, 2004 7:49 pm | By

If you read Allen Esterson’s dissection of the April 22 ‘In Our Time’ on Freud, perhaps you were inspired to listen to the programme. Interesting, wasn’t it? The matter-of-factness, the confidence, with which the participants talked of Freud’s discoveries as if they were settled knowledge (or normal science, as one might say). As Richard Webster amusingly points out, it’s as if people sat around the Radio 4 studio agreeing on how flat the earth is. Just so. Or how pretty the fairies look as they dance around the lawn, or how alarming it is when the poltergeists throw the dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor, or how long and tedious the trip to Alpha Centauri is and why doesn’t the airline serve better food.

Possibly the most irritating bit of all is toward the end, when Juliet Mitchell talks enthusiastically about Freud’s correspondence with Einstein after the War. He told Einstein that he – Einstein – would think Freud was talking about mythology – but then so is Einstein himself, Freud and Mitchell concluded, in Mitchell’s case at least with an air of triumph. Oh for heaven’s sake, I muttered, throwing dishes and boxes of pasta onto the floor. Mythology indeed! Oh yes, that’s all it is, that’s all everything is, it’s just stories, it’s just narrative, all of it, astrology, psychoanalysis, physics, geology, therapeutic touch, quantum mechanics – it’s all just a story someone makes up that other people find persuasive and/or explanatory, and that’s all there is to it. You bet.

Melvyn Bragg did at least take issue with that bit of nonsense, though he didn’t take nearly enough with the rest of the show. But there’s something so – so having it both ways about that maneuver, that it sets the teeth on edge. When talking about Freud, treat his work as well-founded settled knowledge; when talking about Einstein, treat both of them as purveyors of mythology. It’s very similar to the maneuver often used by defenders of religion. When rationalists take issue with the truth claims of religion, pretend that religion has nothing to do with truth claims, it’s merely an attitude of awe and wonder, or an impulse to be good; when rationalists are not around, talk about God and God’s will. On the one hand, Freud is not nonsense, he discovered true things about hysteria, repressed memory, the unconscious, jealousy; on the other hand, Einstein and the rest of the scientific gang are story-tellers. More heads I win tails you lose. It won’t do.

What Would Burke Think?

May 5th, 2004 10:44 pm | By

There is an article about Russell Kirk by Scott McLemee in the current Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ve meant to read some Kirk for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve also meant to read some Burke, but haven’t done much of that either. (Yes, I know; just never mind. I’m studying 7th century vaudeville, and that takes time.) Kirk was a Burkean conservative, not a libertarian cheerleader for capitalism nor a neoconservative.

What Kirk extracted from Burke’s thought — and found embodied in the work of British and American figures as diverse as John Adams, Benjamin Disraeli, and T.S. Eliot — was a strong sense that tradition and order were the bedrock of any political system able to provide a real measure of freedom…The “reason” that Kirk found so objectionable, writes Mr. McDonald, caused liberals to define themselves “as enemies of authority, prejudice, tradition, custom, and habit.”…By contrast, Kirk’s “moral imagination” enabled people to see their lives as part of, in Burke’s words, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The obligation to preserve old institutions and ways of life — and to change them, if at all, only very slowly — was not a matter of nostalgia. “The individual is foolish,” wrote Kirk in The Conservative Mind, “but the species is wise.”

An interesting idea, but I must say I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t see any reason to think the species is all that wise, for a start. And as for old institutions and ways of life – well, like most if not all of us, I’m the product of a time that got rid of some pretty undesirable and unjustifiable institutions and ways of life, and also saw some re-imposed on other people. Imagine being an urban educated woman in Kabul and seeing the Taliban arrive. ‘Oh good,’ you think, ‘the old institutions and ways of life are coming back, hurrah hurrah. I’ll be locked in the house, I’ll be beaten up if I go outside and accidentally show a toenail, I’ll have to obey my male relatives – I can hardly wait.’ Ideas like Burke’s may sound okay to people who do well out of the old institutions and ways of life, and who don’t mind being surrounded by other people who don’t do so well, but to people who don’t fit that description, the appeal is doubtful. So I’m curious about how Kirk made a case for them.

Hazlitt has many interesting things to say about Burke in this essay.

He constructed his whole theory of government, in short, not on rational, but on picturesque and fanciful principles; as if the king’s crowns were a painted gewgaw, to be looked at on gala-days; titles an empty sound to please the ear; and the whole order of society a theatrical procession. His lamentations over the age of chivalry, and his projected crusade to restore it, are about as wise as if any one from reading the Beggar’s Opera, should take to picking of pockets: or, from admiring the landscapes of Salvator Rosa, should wish to convert the abodes of civilized life into the haunts of wild beasts and banditti. On this principle of false refinement, there is not abuse, nor system of abuses, that does not admit of an easy and triumphant defence; for there is something which a merely speculative enquirer may always find out, good as well as bad, in every possible system, the best or the worst; and if we can once get rid of the restraints of common sense and honesty, we may easily prove, by plausible words, that liberty and slavery, peace and war, plenty and famine, are matters of perfect indifference.

There is a live online colloquy with the author of the book on Kirk at the Chronicle site tomorrow (Thursday) at 11 a.m. my time (US, Pacific) which is 7 p.m. UK time. I sent a question yesterday; you should send questions if you’re inspired to.

Save Breath to Cool Porridge

May 4th, 2004 11:06 pm | By

We have an idea – don’t we? – that discussion is always a good thing, that more of it will work things out, that if we discuss our differences long enough and throughly enough, sooner or later we’ll resolve them. But of course that’s not true, it can’t be true – not on this planet, with this species. Consider a thought experiment. The lamb and the lion can speak, and can speak the same language. They sit down to discuss their differences. Would that resolve them?

I once heard Amos Oz say much the same thing, chatting on a local radio station (then I went to the bookstore where he was appearing, and got a stack of books signed). Americans think if only Israelis and Palestinians would sit down over coffee and really talk, they would work it out. But Oz thought it would just never be that easy – and this was several years ago.

And even in less urgent matters than who eats and who is eaten or who gets this territory, discussion doesn’t always work – ‘work’ in the sense of getting anywhere, accomplishing anything, giving both sides a better clearer more grounded and fact-based understanding of each other’s views, or giving each side new ideas, or finding some common ground, or agreeing to differ but with a better grasp of each other’s premises. As a matter of fact discussion sometimes merely makes things worse. Phil Mole talks about this in his article on why it can be so frustrating to argue with religious believers, and it applies to other kinds of believers too. Often the parties just talk past each other; often they both talk past each other and irritate each other. Sometimes one party grapples and the other party refuses. One party does its best to talk about the central issues in clear precise language and avoiding non sequiturs, while the other party does nothing but evade and elude and wriggle away: changing the subject, translating what has been said into what has not been said, ignoring corrections and clarifications, obfuscating, introducing irrelevancies, non sequituring. If the party of evasion is possessed of brilliant rhetorical and linguistic poetic literary gifts, the conversation may be aesthetically rewarding, witty, a literary or dramatic pleasure, but it won’t be successful as a discussion of the ideas in question.

So it seems reasonable to admit that some discussions are just a waste of time and effort. Life is short, time is finite, there is much to do, the soup is about to burn, so unless one actually enjoys arguments that don’t go anywhere, there is not a lot of reason to engage in them.

Catching Up With ‘No False Medicine’

May 4th, 2004 6:36 pm | By

Amardeep Singh has been busy lately. I had been checking his blog every day and then things got busy, and now look at the result – I have to catch up!

There is for instance this very interesting post on Gandhi, in which Amardeep partly agrees but partly takes issue with Meera Nanda. He is reviewing her book for a journal, which will be something to look forward to.

I’ve been reading Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backwards this week (and even last week — it’s been slow). It’s an excellent book, which I would recommend to anyone thinking about questions of the history of science, secularism (in India and elsewhere), or postmodernism. I’m planning to write a proper review of it for a journal, so I’ll spare you detailed analysis for now. But one interesting problem comes up in the question of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — aka the Mahatma. For Nanda, Gandhi’s influence is the source of much of the nativist resistence to ‘western’ rationality amongst recent Indian social scientists like Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy.

Amardeep thinks the question of Gandhi’s modernity is a complicated one, and goes on to explain why. Very interesting subject and also a very important one. Scrolling up, there’s a link to a story on ‘honor’ killings and a brief comment, and up again, a fascinating post on the BJP, Naipaul, and a controversy over both. Read ’em.


May 3rd, 2004 11:26 pm | By

It’s been a busy day – and a good one. Arts and Letters Daily linked to that wonderful article by Edmund Standing on postmodernist views of gender, for a start. And I posted another terrific article, this one by Allen Esterson. And various other odds and ends – such as this takedown of Kent Hovind in Flashback. I particularly like the quoted extract from his dissertation (with proper names altered because Hovind doesn’t allow his dissertation to be quoted, which is not normal scholarly practice, but he clearly has his reasons) –

He was born in 1809 and died about 1880. He was very anti-Christian and tried to influence anyone he could not to believe in God. He was very full of godless ideas. He was a very avid agnostic, racist, and an evolutionist. He believed in a great infinite age of the universe. He was very influential in furthering the ideas of evolution, particularly in the country of England.

Is that some impressive writing or what! You’re supposed to learn to stop writing Noun Verb Object sentences over and over again when you’re about six, a year or two before it’s time to write your dissertation. And then there’s the question of what an ‘avid’ agnostic is, and what ‘great infinite’ might mean, and why he thinks readers might think England was not a country but a hat or a wheelbarrow or some other random noun. And then there’s the ‘about’ 1880, and the question of what it’s like to be ‘full’ of godless ideas, and – all that in such a short extract! Quite amazing, isn’t it. But there is much more of substance wrong with it, from what the author of the critique says.

And there is an interesting discussion at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. I posted something at The Panda’s Thumb a few days ago, and that alerted one of the Pandas or Thumbsters, Ed Braydon, to the existence of B&W, which, inexplicably, he had hitherto been unaware of (how can such a thing be in a just universe?!). So he commented on it, which led one of his readers to have a look and ask some searching questions:

Is there some room in such a polarized debate for some Humanist intervention in science? I’m a poet & a literature professor with a life-long interest in & respect for science. I have nothing but contempt for the ideas of the creationist lobby, whether young- or old-earth. But I have also read anthropology & sociology of science, as well as Kuhn & his successors. I accept that there are loony-left versions of science that deserve nothing but scorn; still, the way that scientists sometimes respond to Humanist or lit-crit critiques of science pretty often have a tinge of the fundamentalism they decry when it comes from the right. I’m talking here about the uncontroversial (to me, anyway) notion that scientists, even at work in their labs, are embedded in a cultural & social context that influences their “objectivity.”

Ed answered, I answered, and so it went. More productive than talking about religion, I think.

Say What?

May 1st, 2004 9:57 pm | By

It’s all been quite instructive – in fact, now I think of it, it couldn’t have been better if I’d planned it that way. I didn’t, I hasten to add, but it would have been fiendishly clever if I had. I’d be another Milgram or Rosenhan, a designer of some sort of thought experiment: what happens when a rational, secular empirical form of inquiry attempts to combine with a non-rational religious ‘faith-based’ form of inquiry? Sparks fly, is one answer.

There is more than one problem with trying to mix religion into non-religious enterprises like history or science. The obvious, glaring problem of course is the fundamental difference between making up one’s findings and discovering them. But even beyond that, there are further problems. There is for instance the way religion is saturated with non-cognitive elements that obstruct and interfere with – that are fundamentally hostile to – cognitive endeavours. Religion is all about things like loyalty, commitment, love, belief, hopes, desires, fears, wishes, consolation, community, tradition. Most of them good things, in the right place and used wisely, but not the right way to judge truth claims about the world. The weird non-sequitur of that absurd quotation – ‘All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.’ – is a good indication of that.

And it all goes round and round in a circle, because this very emotion-saturation is also what makes believers unable to see religion as a problem, unable even to hear what non-believers are saying. The two sides just talk past each other. As we saw in the discussion here: it wasn’t mere disagreement, it was complete incomprehension, even at the level of vocabulary. Which is interesting in itself. It’s interesting the way beliefs can shape what people are able to hear and perceive and take in – as my colleague put it, hearing not the argument as it is but the argument they want to hear.

That’s not to say that believers are all emotion and secularists have none, of course. But it is to say that emotions and commitments are central, avowedly so, to religion in a way they are not to history and science. And that does make a difference – an unbridgeable one.

Irreconcilable Differences

May 1st, 2004 12:03 am | By

Okay, I finally jumped. I took pity on the poor anguished people at Cliopatria, one in particular, who urged me to leave four or five times yesterday. No actually that’s not true – the taking pity bit. The urging five times is true! Ding, ding, ding, in came the emails, one after another, rebuking me for my sins and asking ‘Are you going to go?’ Terrific fun, because yesterday was also the day we were doing the last final positively last edits on the Dictionary, and I wasn’t really in urgent need of extra interruptions. But that’s okay, that’s no one’s fault. At any rate – of course as soon as people started pushing me toward the door I came over all stubborn and wouldn’t go. Isn’t that awful. What a sadist. But I didn’t feel like it yesterday. I felt like making him fire me if he wanted to get me out, rather than making it easy for him. Cruel, I know. But then…after all those endless repetitions of ‘You can say anything you want to’ followed by the instantaneous yells of rage as soon as I did say something – well I just didn’t feel like going quietly. Nope. I wanted to do a Diana and be difficult and stubborn. So I did.

And I might have gone on awhile being difficult and stubborn, too – though probably not. The fact is, I don’t want my name on a religious site. It’s that simple. But I wasn’t sure how overt it was going to be, so I was waiting to see. The answer came promptly – and it was certainly the perfect way to get rid of me! Yet another evangelical post – this one about Christian history. Urrrggghh. So I’m gone. Not out of pity at all, out of sheer revulsion.

The post quotes from an article by a ‘Christian historian’:

While ordinary history might look quite secular, Noll sees it as fundamentally Christian in its presuppositions and worldview. He compared it to science. Christian scientists do their work with confidence because they believe that the world will make sense, and that God has made it possible for the human mind to understand the world. So with the historian. “If I want to study the history of the American Revolution, I’m presupposing that something real took place, that the evidence left corresponds in some way to what really took place, that I’m intelligent enough to understand that evidence, that I’m able to put together a plausible explanation of cause and effect that might get us close to the truth,” Noll said. “All those enterprises I see as implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God.”

Eh? Presupposing that something real took place is implicitly dependent on a Christian view of God? Really? Who knew! There’s no other possible set of ideas that those presuppostitions can rest on then? Er – why?

Oh never mind, who cares. But we can see the problem. And we can also see why I felt inhibited about confronting it head-on at Cliopatria itself. Because I didn’t want to be rude, that’s why. But I must say, I didn’t think I had to censor myself here as well. I mean, be fair, as Monty Python used to say. On someone else’s territory, okay, I’ll shut up, I’ll be polite – but on ours? On territory that was set up precisely in order to expose and resist woolly thinking? It’s asking a bit much to expect me to shut up here too! But that was precisely the grievance: that instead of talking about it there (which of course I was perfectly free to do, oh yes, I could say anything I wanted to) I talked about it here. Ah. And things would have gone swimmingly if I had discussed my thoughts on the Holy Spirit and God’s will and the inerrancy of the Bible over there? I don’t think so! But we’ll never know, because I didn’t, and it also doesn’t make any difference, because there’s no way I would stay on a group blog that’s staging a Third Great Awakening. So I’m off. I prefer secular rationalist sites, thanks.

My Baby Done Come Back and Gone Again

Apr 29th, 2004 8:36 pm | By

My baby done gone last month but it came back for a little while for some last improvements. We’ve improved the squalling little thing within an inch of its life, and now we’re through. Finished. Done. That baby is so over. That baby is history. That baby has to go out and make its own way now. We’ve got better things to do. At this point, having nails driven through our eyes would seem like better things to do.

And yet, oddly, however sick of it all I am, I still find it funny. There I am proofreading away, with my eyes glazing and the lower half of my body getting ever more paralyzed – and I still find myself snorting with laughter. It’s also interesting that on more and more entries I can’t remember which of us wrote them. There are a good few now that I stare stupidly at thinking ‘Did I write that? I think I did…but…no I didn’t…or did I…no…’

So that’s that. There is champagne dripping down the walls and pooling on the floor. The baby’s clothes and toys and boxes of zwieback are in bundles at the curb waiting for the Salvation Army truck to collect them. The baby’s room has been converted into a stall for a musk-ox. And I’m going on the streets.

Class Dismissed

Apr 29th, 2004 6:49 pm | By

I belatedly added a couple of blogs to the select few in Links yesterday: The Panda’s Thumb and Pharyngula. I’ve been meaning to add both for awhile, and finally got around to it yesterday. I’m very picky about blogs in Links, partly because my colleague doesn’t like blogs to begin with, and much more because I think the longer such lists are the less useful they are. There are lots of interesting, entertaining, well-written etc blogs out there, as well as lots of the other kind, but they’re on subjects that are not all that relevant to B&W, so I don’t include them. Thus you can assume that if a blog is in Links, it is [clears throat grandly] On Topic. Now I’m going to add another, also belatedly – in fact I should have added this one months ago, but kept forgetting. But having just found two excellent stories linked on Black Triangle I realized the time had come. If you don’t know about Black Triangle, check it out; the guy does terrific work. Same goes for Pharyngula and Panda’s Thumb.

The article by Max Steuer is on a subject we’ve seen a fair bit of. Pretend science, nonsense masquerading as science, claims that knowledge is old hat and now we have discourse instead.

a growing proportion of social science departments are not doing social science at all. Many are actively opposed to science in any form, especially when it comes to studying social matters. Instead, they engage in what they think of as literary or philosophical activity, but it is practised at a level so pitifully low that it would not be tolerated in any serious department of philosophy or literature…Science in all its forms is just another discourse, so they maintain. Being unwilling to undertake the demanding work that is science, they assert that one opinion is as good as another.

That last bit doesn’t get pointed out often enough, I think. It is a hell of a lot easier to learn to call everything a discourse and leave it at that than it is to learn actual physics or biology. That’s why I don’t know any physics or biology myself! I’m as lazy as the next swine if not more so, but I try not to pretend my laziness is either a virtue or a new and improved kind of insight.

A university education should involve learning how to think more effectively. It should involve the ability to sift sense from nonsense. It should encourage the ability to question, and to know when one understands something, and when not. A certain humility and the willingness to recognise one might be wrong does not go amiss. Education can be sheer pleasure. It also should include an appreciation of the need for sustained effort. Those social science departments afflicted with the modern disease encourage exactly the opposite of what an education should provide. Students learn to be dismissive. The ability to discriminate is weakened, along with the ability to follow an argument. Fancy style is what matters.

Learning to be dismissive – just so. There are more valuable and far more interesting things to learn.

Ineffable and Unknowable?

Apr 28th, 2004 8:02 pm | By

I was going to post this as a reply at Cliopatria, but then it went on a bit longer than I intended, and seemed (yet again) less anodyne than I feel I need to be on this subject in that location. Maybe I’m wrong to feel that way, but…I’m not convinced, and so far what people have said has just convinced me of the opposite. At any rate. Ralph said this in answer to a question about why say G_d –

As I suspect you know, there is a long tradition in Judaism of using g_d. It transliterates the Hebrew which has no vowels and it respects the unknowable, mysterious, ineffable qualities of ultimate reality. It isn’t a “naughty” word, though without naming any names there are apparently some people who prefer not to hear it uttered in their presence, except as a curse. My use of it is a little affected, since I am not Jewish. It’s not my only, my best, or my worst affectation.

And I started to answer this way, and then decided not to.

Well (without naming any names) how would you go about uttering it in our presence? What does it sound like without the vowel?

But seriously folks. If ultimate reality is unknowable and mysterious and ineffable – then why discuss it at all? Why claim to know something about it? Why, specifically, claim to be able to know what God’s will is and that it ought to be prior to politics?

That’s not a rhetorical question, and it’s also not a purely provocative one, though I daresay it will be taken as such – and the reason I daresay that is because I keep being told that I should say whatever I want to and then when I do say something (something quite mild) at B&W I’m told I’m calling for a “ban” when I’m not. Hence my chronic expectation that any disagreement with religion is likely to be greeted with – shall we say, acerbity. At any rate, that’s not a purely provocative question. One of the problems with religion when one is trying to have a rational discussion is that kind of having it both ways. God is ineffable etc. but that won’t stop us from knowing all about him. That kind of move doesn’t work in secular discussion, and doesn’t get resorted to as much. But with religion – well, you know, everyone means something different, and it’s ineffable, and you can’t pin it down or define it, and if you try to you’re just being literal and scientistic…

And that’s where I decided to stop, and transfer over here, instead. But that is a serious question. I am constantly being told that when I disagree with religion on substantive issues I misunderstand because that’s not what it’s about, it’s about awe and wonder, or love, or inner experience. But that’s not what Hugo’s post is about at all. It’s about taking the Bible as a guide to morals, and without picking and choosing, because that’s a bad habit. It’s about replacing one’s existing suppositions about justice with God’s will. It’s about taking direction from the Holy Spirit – not metaphorically but literally. That is the kind of thing that worries me, not awe or wonder, and not ineffable things (provided people don’t then decide that they’re effable after all when a different argument is going on).

Why no G_d

Apr 27th, 2004 11:31 pm | By

Writing God as “G_d” isn’t just irritating because there isn’t a God, though that’s part of it. It is irritating because, in certain contexts, it is indicative of a casual assumption that religious belief is something which cannot cause offence. Why should it cause offence? Well, let’s skip over the whole horrors done in the name of Christianity thing, and also the whole religious right thing, and the whole Intelligent Design thing, etc. It’s got to do with double-standards. If I flaunt my atheism, or if Ophelia flaunts her atheism, then in certain contexts this is considered hostile, aggressive, bad mannered, etc. But it just doesn’t work the other way around. It doesn’t seem to occur to the religiously minded that just occasionally we’d rather not be confronted with their faith. This is not to say that we don’t welcome debate with the religiously minded. But it is to say that we expect them to respect our atheism in the same kind of way that in certain contexts we’re expected to respect their theism. And that means not flaunting articles of their faith in our faces.

Abandon Ship

Apr 27th, 2004 7:09 pm | By

It’s fundamental disagreement time. I disagree radically with a line of argument at Cliopatria, and what’s worse, the kind of argument it is makes it very difficult to dispute as directly and bluntly as I would like to – or as I would like to in one sense but would not like to in another. That’s exactly the problem. I may decide to leave Cliopatria as a result – because as it is, I seem to be semi-acquiescing in views that are anathema to me.

My politics are derived from my faith, not the other way around. When I was younger, and a secular liberal, my politics were the only faith I had! Since coming to Christ (and yes, I do call myself “born again” without embarrassment), I have had to rebuild my politics from the ground up. When I consider political questions, I am forced to ask myself what position I believe Christ calls me to. This isn’t easy, for any number of obvious reasons, starting with the fact that the New Testament is not a modern political manual. This is why I can’t merely allow myself to hunt and peck through Scripture, finding passages that support my already-in-place suppositions about justice. (Many liberal and conservative Christians alike do this; it’s an understandable habit, but a bad one). Rather, I have to be open to what the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and my church community are telling me about right, wrong, peace and war and so forth…The Christian left must be faithful to Christ first, not secular dogma. Where our agendas and our understandings coincide, so much the better. But at times, we will stand with our Christian brethren on the right of the political spectrum, not out of sectarian loyalty but out of a sense that, as Carter said, “discerning God’s will and doing it is prior to everything else.” It is no easy thing to claim to have discerned God’s will. No wise Christian tries to do it alone. We do it in the light of (thanks Wesley) Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience; above all we do it prayerfully, humbly, and together.

History is a secular subject. Historians work in archives and libraries, they don’t seek revelations. They examine and analyse evidence, they don’t ask what Jesus would think about it (at least I think they do, most of them, and when they’re doing their job properly). They rely on logic and reason, not prayer and the Holy Spirit. I don’t even know how to have conversations that have to do with mental constructs like God’s will and what Christ calls people to. In fact I’m having a hard time even writing this, here at B&W, where regular readers know perfectly well that I’m an atheist and a secularist, and where most regular readers are similarly inclined. I’m having a hard time saying bluntly how I react to talk of the Holy Spirit.

I can say this much though. I think this: ‘This is why I can’t merely allow myself to hunt and peck through Scripture, finding passages that support my already-in-place suppositions about justice. (Many liberal and conservative Christians alike do this; it’s an understandable habit, but a bad one).’ is a truly terrible and dangerous line of thought. It is not a bad habit to ‘hunt and peck’ through the Bible, leaving out the disgusting bits. It is not a bad habit to have pre-existing suppositions about justice that are better than those of the people who wrote the Bible three thousand years ago.

Either there is an omniscient benevolent being taking care of us and the world, or there isn’t. If there is, it does make sense to rely on what it tells us to do. But if there isn’t, then it doesn’t. If there isn’t, we need to get very very clear that there is no force that will make things come out all right ‘eventually’ – just for one thing, there is no ‘eventually’! We need to get very clear that however appalling it is that humans are the most intelligent compassionate beings we can look to – that is nevertheless how things are. Thinking we get to overrule human judgment because there is some kind loving wise person in the sky running the puppet show is a hideous irresponsible delusion. It’s a recipe for abdication at best and theocratic tyranny at worst.

Hugo cites this article by Stephen Carter. I’ve mentioned Carter here before – I think he’s the source of a lot of the guilty leftish spinelessness about religion – the deep unwillingness to resist it, to point out that it is in fact a comforting fiction and should not be treated as if it were on all fours with other more rational ways of thinking.

And if the narrative is truly about the meaning God assigns to the world, as Christianity’s narrative is, the follower of the religion, if truly faithful, can hardly select a different meaning simply because the state says so. If a religionist believes that God’s love does not allow some human beings to enslave others, no amount of teaching by the merely mortal agency of the state should cause the religionist to change. Quite the contrary: the religionist, if he believes that the state is committing great evil, has little choice but to try to get the state to change.

But what if a religionist believes that God’s love does allow some human beings to enslave others? Eh? Has Carter forgotten that that’s exactly what a great many ‘religionists’ did indeed think not very long ago? What recourse is there then but to disagree with them? To apply one’s ‘already-in-place suppositions about justice’ to the matter and say that they’re wrong? To argue, in fact, in a secular manner? None that I know of.

Intersection of Interests

Apr 26th, 2004 5:50 pm | By

Amardeep Singh’s blog is full of interesting matter. He’s thinking about a lot of the same issues that B&W thinks about. This post from a few days ago for instance is about his shifting views on – his on-going struggle with – postmodernism and theory and theory-jargon.

I was trained at one of the centers of postmodernist thought — Duke — and for my entire professional career I’ve defined myself as a postmodernist, poststructuralist, and postcolonialist. Only lately I’ve found that these modes of thought have been distinctly unhelpful in dealing with the major topic I’ve been grappling with, namely secularism. Many humanities academics are privately skeptical of these theories, only they don’t say so because theory-jargon sounds so intimidating. Even as people in other disciplines or outside the academy mock our obsession with deconstruction and psychoanalysis, within the humanities there has been no strong mode of resistance to ‘theory’ other than overt conservatism. The fastest track to career advancement goes through Derrida and Foucault, not through teaching or overall mastery of the subject of literature. Doubters are immediately suspected or accused of being reactionaries, or even worse, dumb.

Wonderful, isn’t it? If you’re not an ardent ‘theory’ fan, then you’re a reactionary or dumb (or a dumb reactionary). Umm…what does that remind me of? Oh yes! Our dear president – if you’re not with us you’re against us. Otherwise known as Manichaeanism – reactionary and dumb, in fact. The ‘Only Two Possibilities’ view of life – the ‘binary opposition’ view of life that theorists themselves often make mock of. Not to mention the idiotic muddle of literary theory and political stance, and the perhaps even more idiotic muddle that thinks postmodernism is automatically progressive. Thanks to the work of people like Alan Sokal and Meera Nanda, it ought to be blindingly obvious by now that postmodernism can be extremely reactionary.

Some academics do feel comfortable dismissing high theory, but retain the basic belief-system that high theory created, chiefly the understanding that there are multiple modes of reason and a general sense that cultural relativism is right, even if other names are used in its stead. Essentialism, cultural nationalism and standpoint epistemology are all variants of this relativism. One might be in favor of women’s rights, for instance, only wary about insisting that some rights should be universal: like the right to protection from violence, the right to divorce, the right to work, and the right to education. Similar issues come up with the way different societies treat various kinds of minorities (ethnic, linguistic, religious). I find I no longer accept that basic human rights are relative. Instead, I believe that some ethical values are universals, at least at the level of the ideal.

Just so. It’s just that wariness about insisting that, say, the right to protection from violence should be universal that can make postmodernism such a great prop of oppression and injustice – of sadism and murder, in fact. It is, to adapt a famous remark of Bernard Williams’, a wariness too many.

Here is another post, this one from April 10, which mentions Meera Nanda and Romila Thapar.

Romila Thapar is one of India’s most important historians. She has become the focus of a campaign by the Hindu right in India (and here in the U.S., unfortunately)…I myself signed onto a pro-Thapar petition that circulated following the VHP attack…Thapar uses hard, empirical evidence — traces of the written language from the Indus river cities, as well as archeological fragments — to show that those cities were definitely not “Aryan.”…John Pincince, of the University of Hawaii, mentioned Meera Nanda to me as we were chatting after the Gandhi conference that took place at Yale on April 5. Nanda has a new book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India where she draws a provocative link between the Hindu right’s attempt to assert that “Hindu science” has some validity.

There are links to articles on Amardeep’s site.

Let Me Explain

Apr 25th, 2004 8:40 pm | By

Right, where are we. How much ground have we conceded and how much can we keep. We’ve admitted what we’ve always known and would admit when pressed: that aesthetic opinions are opinions, not facts. Very well. That’s the sum total of our concession, and I’m sure we can all remember conceding the same thing when we were fifteen and judging the contest between Austen and Bronte or the Beatles and the Stones or folky Dylan and rock Dylan (yes, thank you, I am a dinosaur, I told you that, I said on my birthday I was 175) or NWA and Eminem or whatever it may be. De gustibus non est disputandum. Fine. Granted. But we go on disputing just the same, and a good thing too.

It’s all an illusion, but what of that? So many things are illusions, aren’t they. As a matter of fact I wrote an essay about that for TPM Online recently. We live in a great sea of illusions, that we know are illusions if we think about it, but we need to live as if they weren’t. We need to think, or half-think, or think in an ‘as if’ sort of way, that what we do matters, that our lives mean something, that there’s some point to long-range planning. It’s the same with aesthetic opinions and judgments. We need to pretend they are meaningful, or at least sort of meaningful, semi-groundable, quasi-real, or else why bother? And since not bothering is boring and depressing whereas bothering is interesting and engaging, we keep the illusion.

And then, what if they were groundable? What if aesthetic judgments were in fact factual, like judgments about evidence or documents? What if someone could prove mathematically that ‘Hamlet’ was better than Bridget Jones’ Diary or vice versa? Would we even want that? Hardly! In fact the idea is revolting. So perhaps the very ungroundedness, the subjectivity and dependence on personal experience, association, resonance – on the individual mind and self – is what we like about art? I don’t want to prove that Austen is better than King, I want to explain why she is, so if you have interesting reasons why the reverse is the case, I’m interested to hear them.

It all has to do with exploration, I think. As well as with what Schiller (and wmr in comments) said about play. Art is gratuitous, and it needs to be gratuitous to do its work, and to work. If it’s not (at least somewhat) gratuitous it stops being art – what we think of as art – and becomes something else. Vitamins, or education, or discipline, or some such. Good things, but different from art, and answering different needs and desires.