Sunday, June 30, 2013

The External World

Among the perennial questions of Western philosophical tradition is one about the existence of the 'external' world. In its most basic form, the question asks, Do things exist apart from our thoughts about things? Is it true, in other words, that to be is also to be perceived?--to borrow a phrase from the 18th century Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley. Does the tree exist because you think about it, or does it exist prior to your thinking about it?

But the answer to the question is not as obvious as it first appears. The longer you think about the question, in fact, the more obscure the it becomes.

We have good reasons for thinking things exist apart from our thoughts about them. To begin with, we fall asleep at night and wake up to find the world much the same as we left it. We travel familiar routes to home, school, or work, navigating by means of familiar landmarks. The continued presence of objects in our physical environment provides a very strong reason to think they exist apart from our conscious perception of them.

As far as a naive faith in the external world goes, philosophers seem the worst of the bunch. They can always be found talking about Kant's view of this or Heideigger's view of that, as if Kant and Heidegger, and their views of this or that, were out there waiting to be looked at, thought about, and discussed at great length. Which, of course, they are--recorded for us in books.

We are very comfortable with the thought that an external world exists apart from our thought about that world. It helps us make sense of learning, discovery, and being in error. Something 'external' to our thinking provides a standard against which to measure the truth of our thought. Our thought runs up against it, tries to comprehend it, arrives at a provisional understanding, makes a decision as to its adequacy, and so on. We presume the existence of an external world whenever we communicate our thoughts with others. At least, those of us do who have not yet figured out how to communicate directly, one mind to another. Not only do we make use of the external world as a medium of communication, much of our communication has to do with calling others attention to consider some object found there.

Not everyone is happy with the language of an external world, nor the implied idea that the world is one thing and thought about the world another. (The aforementioned Kant is a good example.) The philosopher Daniel Dennett has coined the term 'Cartesian theatre' to capture how strange the idea of thinking about the world as external to ourselves. The most obvious reason for why the idea just doesn't measure up, of course, is that we find ourselves in the external world: our bodies. We are, in some very real sense, our bodies. As our bodies move, so we grow. As our bodies grow, so we grow. Where our eyes look, our conscious attention seems to follows--or does it lead? Dennett enjoys mocking persons who think of themselves as looking at themselves (their body) from an undefined location (their mind). The mind is not the brain, after all. The brain is something that can be seen, picked at, pulled apart, sliced into sections. The same cannot be done to the mind, per the definition of mind. But if it can't be observed and studied, it seems legitimate to wonder whether the thing exists at all.

I haven't much time for Dennett's endless refusal to say anything positive about this thing I call myself, though I find his line of questioning to be a helpful foil. Thomas Nagel has it exactly right when he says that Dennett merely redefines consciousness as an external property, ignoring the essential problem, which is the subjective first-person perspective that each of us occupies, and no one else does for us. Indeed, it's the individual's first-person perspective (which, if re-ified, is called an immaterial soul, the life of the rational animal) makes the external world a problem in the first place.

The individual first-person perspective throws a monkey wrench into any abstract formulation--whether it's Berkeley's to be is to be perceived or Dennett's critique of the 'Cartesian theatre'. Certainly the logic of these positions can be tried and tested; but logical analysis aims at universal applicability, which is precisely not a first-person perspective. If the world exists only because I perceive it, the rest of you have a real problem. Likewise, if a first-person perspective is nothing, or at least nothing worth thinking about, then we, each individually, all have a real problem.

Bishop Berkeley had an answer. To be can still be to be perceived, even if no human being is perceiving every single object in external world all the time claimed Berkeley, because the being we call God perceives everything, which allows them also to exist apart from partial human perspectives. That not a solution open to Dennett, at least not one he thinks is open to him. So he runs away from the first-person perspective; and, we might say, trips over the elephant in the room--himself.

The idea of a world external to ourselves, it seems to me, helps us all make sense of our individuality. It allows me to say your perspective on things may differ from my perspective on things by creating a buffer zone between the part of me only I have access to and the part of me the rest of the world gets to see. You are external to me. We can talk things out, but we won't necessarily come to an agreement, or even an understanding. And that is okay.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Fletcher, Historian

Richard Fletcher was a rarity among historians. A medievalist, Fletcher published books on Anglo-Saxon England and Moorish and Christian Spain prior to the actual beginnings of the Reconquista in the 11th century (which is usually dated to the 8th century). Another of his impressive scholarly accomplishments was The Barbarian Conversion (1999), which looked at Christian missions into the dark heart of Europe between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Reformation, with an eye to happenings in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Middle East, and North Africa. It is not hard to imagine Fletcher thought himself picking up where Edward Gibbon left off, only with a much less jaundiced eye towards events and persons who didn't obviously exude the material greatness and organizational power of the Antonine Dynasty.

It is my experience that history books can all be arranged on along a single axis stretching from a purely objective perspective on the historical subject matter to an investigative perspective that gives readers a glimpse of the difficulties historians encounter trying to interpret their sources. Most historians fit into the former category. They may talk a good talk about the multiplicity of perspectives from which the sources can be studied; but they rarely reflect on the limitations imposed on historians by the limited availability of materials. History textbooks assigned in undergraduate classes, as well as most survey texts, fit into this category. They tell what happened when, and why things happened the way they did. Narrative threads are woven together presenting 'the present state of the field of study'. Specialized historical studies also follow this general pattern. In their introductory chapter, the historian usually tells you what other historians have written, what new evidence they have found, and how it confirms what we have already discovered or how it should radically change how the field of study is understood.

Fletcher's Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England (2002) is one of those rare histories that let's you follow a historian reading texts, trying to discern where all the pieces fall. The roughly half-century stretch of time from the establishment of Anglo-Saxon rule in 577 until the Norman Conquest in 1066 comprises the England's participation in the Dark Ages. The earlier in the period one finds oneself, the more scarce the evidence becomes. Though in the last leg of the period, from the Danish Conquest in 1016 until its conclusion, much is left to be desired.

The northern-most English province Northumbria was ruled by Earl Uthred, celebrated with the title 'the Bold'. In 1016, Uthred came to pay his respects in the court of the Danish king Canute (or Cnut) at a place called Wiheal. The location of the meeting, Fletcher indicates, is part of the mystery. We don't presently know where it is. Uthred and forty of his clients and retainers died that day. His death set into motion 'a bloodfeud that lasted for three generations and almost sixty years'.

Bloodfeud patiently sifts through what evidence remains in an effort to discern the motivations behind the different persons involved. Sometimes all that we have to go on are single sentences carelessly dropped into The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a document contemporary to the period in question. Often we are drawing imaginative inferences from what we known generally about what life was like from more general studies of comparable materials drawn from elsewhere, what sort of commonly accepted rules bloodfeuds were prosecuted under, and so on.

Fletcher's gift was to convey the difficult constrains any historian, especially those who work from such a great distance in time, must work under. The gift is rare. The problem I want to think through is why the gift is rare.

A few of reasons come immediately to mind. The first is that most people are not trained as historians. Those who do pay some small amount of attention to the human past by reading survey texts or specialized studies are more likely to assimilate the historian's conclusions than they are the historian's experience coming to those conclusions. This occurred there and then; or this happened because that happened; but not our lack of certainty on this or that point. The second is that the immense amount of materials published on any one place and time in human history is likely to shore up erroneous assumptions about just how much evidence is available. Readers don't necessarily contemplate the fact that single lines in an ancient text can generate exponential growing amount of commentary, none of which can get around the simple problem of a lack of additional evidence needed to corroborate this or that interpretation. The third is that a majority of people, if they are interested in the past at all, are more likely to be interested in the recent past. And it is precisely in the recent past, especially the very recent past, that we encounter of glut of material evidence.

Put together, these give rise to what I will call an 'empirical fetishism'. For every question, there should in principle be an answer. If there isn't an answer, we allow ourselves to hypothesize about a 'best fit' answer. Empirical fetishism means that our knowledge of the world ought to be a seamless whole. We don't like holes in our seamless whole, so we fill them. Fletcher points out that the village of Wighill has been suggested for the location of Earl Uthred's murder at Wiheal, along with a number of other candidate whose name begins with W. Wikipedia names Wighill as the location of his murder, in fact, but without any comment on the interpretive dilemmas of identifying this particular place with that particular name in that hoary tome. History it seems, like nature, also abhors a vacuum.

Let's not make fun of Wikipedia on this point. They are only doing what most everybody else does in their situation: drawing conclusions, filling in blanks. Because of the impossibility of constructing a consistent account of the whole body of our knowledge about the world and its past. empirical fetishism itself gives rise to perspectivism. Everyone has their own perspective on things. You can think about things in as many ways as you want, of course. The interpretation of the human past, even the immediate past, but especially the distant past, however, often leaves a person with nothing to have a perspective on. That sort of empirical sensitivity is why we need more historians like Richard Fletcher, as it's very easy to assume a perspective on things can replace due attention to the things themselves.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Religion and Canadian Secularity

The very few people who find their way to this page (like my father; or Tyler, who may find later part of the article interesting because it reflects to very different legal cultures) may be interested to read an essay published by an old classmate and housemate of mine: 'Bringing Religion into Foreign Policy' by Robert Joustra.

The essay is a compressed version of Rob's thesis on the public debate around the establishment of an Office of Religious Freedom in Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs. The Canadian discussion has been divided between two rival versions of secularism: Laïcité and Judeo-Christian Secularism. The former sees secularism as a rejection of a role for religion in politics, while the latter sees a secular political sphere as the special creation of a Judeo-Christian outlook on life. What happens when an office of religious freedom is  charged with monitoring religious freedom around the world as part of Canada's foreign policy? Obviously the two secularisms come to blows. Laïcité secularists gets uncomfortable about the an overlap it thinks shouldn't exist. Judeo-Christian secularists sees oppourtunities to promote their own Judeo-Christian outlook on life. The story is naturally a little more complicated than I just described. Rob does an excellent job detailing the holy mess. He concludes with a quote of Jacques Maritain discussing how the committee drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were able to achieve consensus despite being of very different intellectual persuasions. If any of this interests you, the article is well worth a read.

My quibbles with the article are a little more esoteric. The meaning of terms like religion and secular has changed over the centuries, Rob rightly points out at the beginning of the article, and that's where things begin to fall apart. It's seems that Rob has adopted the problematic phenomenological language of 'neutral' description of 'historical entities'.

Here are a few of the examples:
  • Scholars need to do 'a better job of making sense of a thing called religion'.
  • 'These efforts to engage with religion are motivated by the misguided belief that the inclusion of religion encourages a more peaceable global order.'
  • 'But it does not necessarily follow that there is no historical thing as religion and its freedoms.'
  • 'Only once we clarify these meanings can we decide if we are prepared to truly acknowledge religion’s contested nature in the structure and aims of our foreign policy.'
A few points to note: religion is a thing, religion has the capacity to encourage, religion has a contested nature. Turn these phrases over in your mind a few more times. The more you think about them, the stranger they get. Religion is a 'thing', but I bet no one has ever seen it. Religion encourages peace, which seems to imply that is has a capacity to act like a human being acts. Religion has a contested nature--but then again, so do most invisible entities you can't see or touch, but encourage you to love your neighbour and seek the welfare of your fellow human beings.

While Rob does a really good job dissecting different versions of secularism, he doesn't really clarify what he means by religion. If I was in an uncharitable mood, I might venture to suggest that the initial talk of religion being an essentially contested concept is just a smoke screen to cover over...something. I am not sure what.

Rob himself uses the term religion in two distinct and readily discernible ways. The first is as a way of talking about communities. When politicians want to engage with religion, that usually means engaging with religious communities through their clerical leadership. Whenever we talk about religions in history, more generally, we aren't actually talking about something called religion, but about a profoundly powerful way of organizing communities. The second is the way people think about themselves in relation to other things, other people, and ultimately to the world at large.

Instead of telling his readers how he uses the term religion, why does Rob hide behind postmodern rhetoric about the fluidity of meaning? I mean: anything is better than talking about a spooky something that you can use to make people do things, which is the upshot of calling religion a thing, trying to figure out its uses, what it does, how it works, and so forth.

My suggestion is that Rob is actually a Laïcité secularist. My evidence? Talk about the humanity is incredibly sparse. In Laïcité secularism, religion is something added onto human nature in the course of human history, and can be excised from human nature via the application, for example, of scientific thinking. So the Laïcité secularist talk about religion as if it were an object out there that human being can talk about, but which has no necessary relation to the human being.

And that's exactly what Rob does. As I pointed out above, it's obvious he is talking about religion either as a form of community defined by clerical leadership or a way persons think about themselves in relations to the wider world. But he doesn't draw those conclusions. My best guess why he does not do so is because he thinks about religion as something extraneous to the human being. If he had thought about religion in relation to humanity, he wouldn't be hiding behind the smoke screen of an 'essentially contested concept'--which, I note, is exactly what it seems to be: an idea in a person's head, a way of thinking about things, and maybe even a way of thinking about ourselves in relation the rest of the world.

My conclusion: Rob is practically an atheist. Emphasis on the practically. Cheers, Rob.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Catholic Ecumenism

I was reminded of how difficult it is to determine what motivates people to do the things they do while reading an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs on 'The Church Undivided: Benedict's Quest to Bring Christians Back Together'. The author Victor Gaetan does a very fair job describing the Catholic Church's idealism, it's desire to be reunited with old friends and foes alike. He describes Pope Benedict's deliberate steps towards reconciliation with the Lutheran, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches. The perception of a papal misstep in the now infamous Regensberg Address, in which the pope appeared to disparage the Muslim faith, is ably shown to be faulty.

In Gaetan description of Benedict's papacy, something of the spirit of the Renaissance Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa's idea there is only ever one religion for all human beings, even if the rituals are various and sundry. A concluding comment on the tenor of Francis' papacy sees more of the same.

What (for lack of a better term) caused or 'gave rise' to these new efforts towards ecclesiastical reconciliation--and even inter-religion understanding? This is where the narrative gets a bit thin. Gaetan notes two contributing factors to the contemporary rise in ecumenism: the need to respond to the marginalization of religion in a secular age and a shared sense of vulnerability in response to an escalation of violence.

It's at this point I scratch my head. Is that the only two things that could be mentioned? Both are external causes acting on the Christian community, forcing it to react to a new situation. Like the theory of natural selection, they are environmental factors determining the development of the social organism. That means internal motivations, like a common confession or the biblical testimony about the desirability, aren't treated on par with the external causes, which would surprise Benedict and Francis, and their counterparts in the Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox communities.

Gaetan's explanation also seems to me to be too narrow. Once the importance of internal factors are discounted, or at least demoted in order of importance, those broad inter-generational shifts that sweep everyone up as they make children collectively doubt the wisdom of their parent,s also get missed. Of course, Gaetan is aware that the age of polarizing ideologies has been over since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The story of John Paul II's papacy cannot be told without reference to that epochal event.

But something I have notice while reading works published through the 20th century and growing up in the last two decades is that we no longer take our ideas as seriously as our parents and grandparents once did.  We are no longer idealists in the high modern sense of the word. And this has a number of obvious consequences. We no longer think of communities as wholes to which we belong. We don't love abstractions like humanity or a nation like we used to. The boundaries between us and them are being recast on different social fault lines. Where those will lie is not yet clear. Certainly socio-economic divisions, for example, in North America, will be more pronounced than they were in the middle of the 20th century.

That sort of shift in attitude cannot fail to effect on the broader Christian community. In my own life, I witnessed the bottom fall out of a belligerent indifference to other Christian denominations in the Christian Reformed Church. The more Evangelical among the members found common cause with a wider Evangelical community, while the more intellectually inclined became more sympathetic to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Some regretted the loss of theological distinctiveness; but that only confirms my thesis that we no longer take our heady ideas so seriously.

I am not claiming we have stopped thinking, only that we think differently about ourselves. It seems to me the   papacy's push for ecclesiastical reunification makes sense in the context of our mounting disillusionment with old intellectual idols. The election of pope like Francis, a pragmatic servant of the people, is entirely of a piece with the intellectual climate.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Discovery of the X-Files

I missed the X-Files in its hey-day. The nine seasons running from 1993 to 2002 corresponded almost exactly with my teenage years. But I was too busy watching Star Trek: TNG, DS9, and Voyager, too busy reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy, or quickly paging through the latest literary addition to the Stars Wars universe. Though the literary quality of the latter, it needs to be said, went quickly downhill after Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy.

For the longest time, the X-Files lay just over my cultural horizon. Until this summer, actually. Netflix offered a free month subscription a week before its installment of a fourth season to the Arrested Development franchise went online. Watching the new episodes took an effort three or four days, which left the greater part of a month on the subscription. The X-Files was on my recommended list. Netflix had followed the path I wandered through its offerings of movies and television shows. By the infinite wisdom of a selection algorithm, I discovered the truth really is out there.

I am now almost through three seasons. The show exercises a strange sort of persuasive power over its viewers. Which speaks to its quality, since it can no longer fly on its innovative cinematographic techniques alone.

The backstory has the US government continually suppressing evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Each episode uses the pretext of an FBI investigation to chase some conspiracy theory down a rabbit hole. The name of the show is taken from the name of a supposed FBI office of investigation. The names of its only two assigned agents, Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, have found their way into a grab-bag of references that help us navigate webs of cultural significance.

I admit I did not quite get the show until the scriptwriters used the latter part of the 2nd and 3rd season to develop Dana Scully's Catholic background. Until that point Mulder's willingness to entertain the strangest of explanations played off against Scully's rabid faith in empirical explanations. Between the two characters, the limitations of methods of scientific study were poked an prodded. The point, I take it, was to show how credulity is an attitude a person takes to the evidence, not something produced by the evidence.

With Scully's Catholic background a possibility for comparison opens up considerably. We discover Scully's willingness to believe the sorts of things faith required--but believe on faith, which means an open, questioning attitude towards the things required by faith.  Whereas Mulder believes the sort of things the Ockham's Razor allows him to believe. In the absence of definitive evidence, the simplest explanation may not be the expected terrestrial answer.

Written through the contrast between the two  is a fairly profound disagreement about the nature of human intelligence. What standard is it measured against? Measure the human intelligence against a divine standard, Scully's anthropocentric convictions follow as a matter of course. But if the divine standard is absent, Mulder's speculative suggestions become much more plausible. With a God above, the human being finds meaning within themselves. Without God, we want to look further afield. 

The genius of the X-Files is to leave the viewers to decide whether what they saw was real. (Yes, I know, aliens all but parade across the television screen.) Even when the existence of actual alien life is all but confirmed with an appearance on screen, the viewer can still take a credible repose in Scully's skepticism. Aliens might instead be the unfortunate victims of genetic experimentation. The suggestions are not always made explicit. They do not need to be. Scully's incredulity makes it possible to question what you believed you saw.

Most of the way through the third season, I am not eager to discover how the show gradually declines into mediocrity after the fifth season.