Stanley Fish, on his blog for the New York Times, reviews a book by Terry Eagleton (what an American sounding name), Reason, Faith and Revolution. The book and the blog post are rife with inaccuracies about the structure, function, and basic nature of science and reason. Some choice excerpts, and my responses:
British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”
The most universal and absolute of truths? Truths for whom? Certainly not me, nor many other countless millions of men and women, who regard religion as utter balderdash. And regarding direct links, I assume you write on a computer, which is connected to a huge network of other computers we call the Internet. Do you work from your climate-controlled, well-lit home? If not, did you drive your automobile with the internal combustion engine to your well-lit, network-connected structurally sound place of employment? I think you’re getting the idea as to my view of what is intimately connected to the lives of men and women in the bulk of the Western world, most of Asia and Oceania, and so on. The commonality of technology, and its’ integration into everyday life, didn’t come from divine inspiration, it came from the work of those you devalue: people engaged in the practice of science and reason.
…“A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.” By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”
Certainly not from religion – the inherent contradictions within religious traditions render them as questionable sources of wisdom – even then, it was wisdom that may or may not have been useful 2000 years ago in the Middle East, among superstitious tribesmen. In terms of a question like “Why is there anything in the first place?”, I don’t need to point out how vague it is, but I will indicate quite simply that science and reason don’t generally get applied to questions of that nature – ‘Why’ in a philosophical sense is generally irrelevant. ‘Why’ in a cause-and-effect sense is relevant, and takes a great deal of experimentation, observation and careful documentation before we can find an acceptable answer. Ponder why humanity is here if you must, but don’t fault science for not finding answers to unanswerable, and inherently illogical, questions.
…Eagleton, of course, does not tell us [what religion is after], except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”
Ah, I love the smell of demonization in the morning. Smells like… sour grapes. And, yes, I’m well aware that I’m doing the same thing – this is a rebuttal of sorts, not a news story. By the way, I work for the government (not the U.S. government, but still…), and I have been pleased to work with some of the most caring, dedicated individuals you could ever hope to meet. They feel the tragedy and pain of the human condition as keenly as anyone else, and strive daily to alleviate it.
(In response to the basic question, “Who needs religion?”) Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.
First, historians are an edgy bunch, I wouldn’t pick on them if I were you. Second, scientific principles of human behavior can and are applied to the past to help illuminate our shared history, and, as indicated above, have been intimately connected with humanity’s everyday life, and indeed, with its’ history, particularly over the last century and a half. Longer lifespans came because of better understanding of population health, the current level of access to information is unprecedented, the potential to view firsthand the countries and cultures previously inaccessible to most people (with the added bonus of fun diseases!), these are just a few of the important ways in which science and reason have positively intertwined themselves with human affairs. Not to mention military technology, but there’s no point in going there for the moment.
… Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
What is real and important, again in a philosophical sense, is only relevant to an individual as it is relative to the utility of the ideas presented. The laws of evidence do indeed need to start somewhere – without a theory to lend context to evidence, it is not evidence, merely a collection of items, facts, statements, what have you. The context arises from the culture in which the science is embedded, which, in the case of scientific culture, is more universal across international borders than any religious tradition. And you may read up on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer (as just one example) as an introduction to the efforts of some scientists to curb excesses. Who curbs religion’s excesses? Not a lot of trials for those who inflicted the Inquisition, were there? Not much in the way of censure for the religious officials who supported fascism, hmm?
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.
It is valueless to you if you feel it is so. If that is the case, feel free to disassociate yourself from it and live in a cave with your stone knives and bearskins. If not, if you do truly care about your fellow human being and aren’t just concerned with YOU and how YOUR soul cries out for help from YOUR god and YOU are involved in a PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP with an all-powerful deity, then try to make it better. Don’t just throw stones and ask us to abandon the benefits of science and reason in favor of superstitious falderol.
Religion may have a useful place in people’s lives – fine by me, as long as they keep their religion to themselves. I frankly don’t care if they feel it will help me – I don’t want or need that kind of help. I recognize the weaknesses inherent in humanity and how progress can rush headlong in front of morality and law, but that doesn’t mean I throw up my hands, close my eyes, plug my ears and give up. That is cowardice, intellectual and moral cowardice. To help the world, you must understand the world – to understand it, you must systematically observe and record it. There is no salvation for humanity except through the work of dedicated women and men who are curing disease, building stronger structures, and linking us together to facilitate the exchange of ideas.
It’s when you fragment the world into the personal, superstitious fiefdoms of religion that we lose touch with each other and we fail utterly to lend a hand to others without a price. Religions preach peace, but fail to use the tools with the most potential to help achieve it. If you’ll excuse a cliche from the ’80s: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.