No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?

Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for? Read the rest of this entry »

“Analytic Theology” in the new JAAR

I am reading through the essays on the so-called analytic theology in the  new issue of the JAAR (18.3).  I have seen the fellowship announcements, sessions, and some publications in this new, seemingly emerging field.

I am curious:  Is it just that many of us are unfamiliar with analytic philosophy or that we just find its resources and methodologies to be uninteresting or unimportant to our questions and discourses?

And:  Why let these divisions, which unfortunately plague the discipline of philosophy, and introduce them into theology, a field already deeply guilded and specialized?  Read the rest of this entry »

A rant on neuroscience and philosophy

Neuroscience has given rise to one of the most absurd and pathetic versions of reductionism ever seen, one that purports to “explain” one of the most complex realities we know — the subjective experience of consciousness — simply by pointing to physical phenomena that seem to accompany it. It’s like saying that cheese tastes good because it’s made of atoms. Far be it from me, of course, to disparage the idea that cheese is made of atoms or that the brain is the seat of consciousness, but it seems like this approach not only doesn’t answer, but actively blocks the asking of the most important and interesting question: how did the observed complex phenomenon arise out of the physical process?

The attempt to “explain” subjective experience by reference to the physical processes of neurons and hormones consists essentially in trying to explain what we already basically know (I feel sad) by what we can never directly experience (my hormones are acting up). In many cases, the “explanation” is simply a translation of typical descriptions of subjective experience into the terms of neuroscience. A great example of this is a New Yorker profile of the Churchlands from a few years ago, which portrayed them doing just that in their everyday life. Instead of saying that they were exhausted from work, they would describe the chemical process at work. It struck me as pathetic and sad that they would think further information was being added in this process.

People were able to learn a lot of interesting things about matter without knowing that the level of chemistry was grounded in the level of sub-atomic particles — indeed, without knowing what “atoms” were at all. They were able to learn a lot about evolution without knowing about the genetic vehicle, and in fact scientists still don’t really know precisely how genes give rise to traits. It’d be insane to say, “Well, now that we know about quarks, all the questions of chemistry are answered,” or, “Now that we know about genes, there’s no need to study actual animals anymore.” Doubtless more information about the “lower” or more “foundational” level would contribute to the study of the “higher” or “phenomenal” level, but not if the study of the lower level leads you to believe the study of the higher level is already redundant.

It is probably the case that an account of the connective tissue between the brain and the subject — the “dream-work,” if you will — is going to have to be much more speculative than most contemporary philosophers would really be comfortable with. It would probably look a lot more like Freud’s metapsychological writings or Beyond the Pleasure Principle than like a work of “proper” science or philosophy. I honestly wouldn’t even know where to begin. But unless people are willing to do that kind of work, it seems to me that just bracketing the brain and reflecting directly on the experience of consciousness is going to be a lot more useful than any direct reference to neuroscience could ever be under present circumstances.

Approaches to theology and philosophy: As observed in the wild

It seems to me that there are three ways of bringing together Christian theology and philosophy that are both common and fairly uninteresting:

  1. The punching bag: The philosopher’s ideas are so bad (in whatever way) that they demonstrate the urgent need to rush back into the arms of the church.
  2. The proto-Christian: The philosopher’s ideas are good because they have independently discovered the vast riches of thought that we Christians already possess.
  3. The outside standard: The philosopher is granted some kind of moral authority, and it turns out that Christian theology does not measure up to the challenge.

Why are these methods uninteresting? They presuppose that theology and philosophy are two clearly separate entities that must be brought into a relationship that is always somewhat arbitrary. Read the rest of this entry »

Science envy

The hottest new trend in continental philosophy is scientism. Where all of us benighted continentalists worry over meta-commentary on previous readings of interpretations of old German texts, you see, scientists are really engaging directly with the real!

Well, let me tell you: I’ve actually been doing science this semester in the Shimer Natural Sciences 1 class I’ve been auditing. I’ve laboriously read through foundational texts of pre-modern and modern chemistry. I’ve taken part in modern adaptations of classical lab experiments, such as the experiment with the calcination of tin that allowed Lavoisier to definitively disprove the existence of phlogiston and cleared the way for the recognition of oxygen. I daresay that this experience, however rudimentary it undoubtedly is, represents a more concrete engagement with scientific practice than most of our current science fetishists have had since high school.

As a result of this engagement, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions. First, the natural sciences are conceptual disciplines and mostly don’t want to admit it. Experimental results are not unmediated encounters with the real, but tests of concepts — often requiring extremely contrived set-ups that would never be even approximated in a thousand years of passive “empirical observation.” Any number of “wrong” systems can account for observed results (viz., the phlogiston theory, which was actually pretty robust, until someone thought of the question it couldn’t answer).

The scientific method is obviously extremely powerful, but its (often willful) blindness to the real nature of its practice and its totalitarian ambition to explain everything (i.e., reduce everything to “scientific” terms) also make it extremely dangerous. Hence one of the most important jobs of philosophers is to be critics of science, in the Kantian sense of the word. In other words, Husserl and Heidegger and Foucault were basically right.

Moral dilemmas as intellectual bullying

In my social science course, we’re reading Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan on moral development. Kohlberg uses longitudinal interviews based on moral dilemmas to measure moral development, which for him moves essentially through self-interest to social conformity to something like a liberal respect for human rights. The only problem with his system is that it doesn’t appear to work for women’s development, and Gilligan points out that in many of Kohlberg’s interviews with women, the problem seems to be that they resist the simplistic set-up of the scenarios and refuse to accept the implied either/or of the dilemma.

For instance, one of the dilemmas features a man who has to choose between stealing medicine and letting his wife die. This is perfectly calibrated to measure Kohlberg’s stages, because it poses a sharp contrast between legal and moral obligations. It also makes no fucking sense, and the women tend to pick up on that, essentially asking, “Are you sure these are the only two options?”

It strikes me that what Kohlberg regards as “retrograde” answers are actually more useful as concrete moral reflection. His dilemmas are meant to measure moral deliberation, but as Gilligan points out, they are really meant to produce a certain type of answer (in this case, the one correlated with one’s developmental stage).

As I reflected on my experience, it seems that that has always been my experience with the moral hypotheticals that populate Anglo-American philosophy as well as political punditry. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is not meant to produce any real insight into torture, for instance, but to shut down any actual reflection and force one’s interlocutor to say that torture is permitted. It’s similar with discussions of drone warfare: the moral dilemma posed is always that between land invasion and drone warfare, and what kind of monster would prefer a land invasion? Yet I daresay those aren’t the only two options. Or we could even take the example of voting for Obama: yes, I prefer Obama over Romney, Democrats over Republicans — but is that really where the discussion has to end?

This is the dark side of reasoned argument, where debate itself becomes a form of violence. Who hasn’t laboriously constructed a bulletproof argument and been blinded by rage and frustration when one’s interlocutor could not be forced to agree? “But surely,” you sputter, “you have to admit that…” And at this point, only one response is possible: “I don’t have to admit anything!”

A Gentle Nudge

Far be it from me to tell you who to vote to win this year’s 3 Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize, but I can not only tell you which post I voted for — #17. “Meditations Hegeliènnes: Kritik des unreinen Gedankes” — but also link to it.  It was written by a fine young man & friend of mine, Ryan Mullins (I  hope he doesn’t mind me divulging … I don’t see it on his site), who I believe at least a few of you have met. Such an honor would do him well as he plunges deep into the graduate school waters of Germany & France. Smart man, he, high-tailing from the US.

I’ve turned off the comments here because if you want to engage the piece you should do so at his site.

Posted in Hegel, philosophy. Comments Off

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