Sunday, 29 June 2014

Not Very 'New Atheism'

Even if the sense fades of there being something to oppose in the posturing of scientistically-minded writers on human nature, or the learned ignoramus in one's midst, one can still be grateful for writers and thinkers who have done this most effectively.

Here is the opening paragraph from a 2010 piece by Edward Feser in "The American Magazine", entitled "The New Philistinism".

"I once heard a fundamentalist preacher “refute” Darwin by asking rhetorically: “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” He didn’t elaborate. But he did chuckle disdainfully, and since his audience of fellow believers did the same, no elaboration was necessary. They all “knew” that he had just posed a challenge no Darwinian could possibly answer, and that was enough. None of them had ever actually readanything any Darwinian had written—and I highly doubt the preacher had either—but never mind. What would be the point? They “already knew” such writers could not possibly have anything of interest to say, in light of this “fatal” objection to evolution."

Feser's piece exposes the tendency, in the rhetorical performances of certain 'New Atheists', to avoid thought by appealing to a concept that is assumed (consciously or otherwise) to be true and already shared by the audience. (See footnote).

What can irritate is the opportunism of certain of these para-scientific writers, when performing, to meet criticism with such appeals to, say, "common-sense", with a complacent self-assurance which rests on their knowing the audience is already with them, and they have no further work to do.

As Melvyn Bragg said in his address to the Sydney Institute in 2012, "they are using religion as an excuse and a camouflage because it aggrandises what they do".  

Or as J S Mill wrote of Jeremy Bentham (in his essay 'Bentham' in 1838):
"The bad part of his writings is his resolute denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognises. By that alone has he exercised any bad influence upon his age; by that he has, not created a school of deniers, for this is an ignorant prejudice, but put himself at the head of the school which exists always, though it does not always find a great man to give it the sanction of philosophy: thrown the mantle of intellect over the natural tendency of all men in all ages to deny or disparage all feelings and mental states of which they have no consciousness in themselves."

Or as Marilynne Robinson said in her address to the RSA in 2010, referring to an article in a science magazine on the imbalance between "matter" and "anti-matter",:
"a theistically minded person reading that thinks 'That's really amazing'; a scientist reading that thinks 'That's amazing'; I think a New Atheist reading that thinks 'Well, we answered that question'."

For me, the motivation not just for New Atheist noise-making, but for much in the way of disparagement towards things that claim assent that are yet not science, emerges from a desire to dispel lack, our not feeling what is given by esteemed others to be felt.

As I have written elsewhere, not as well as I would like, I think Karl Popper's is the philosophy addressed to a scientific community (in his case the Vienna Circle of scientist-philosophers) which shows science to be not self-supporting. His work is an appeal for modesty. What a pity he couldn't give as much effort to examining how we judge the value of work that is non-science.
But he gave an amusing and robust Darwinian response to Edward Feser's fundamentalist preacher's question about the chicken and the egg: "an earlier kind of egg".

Staged debates between 'New Atheists' and their critics are rarely anything except farcical. The crowd anticipates a clash, and the opponents split apart and see in their adversaries only a comforting caricature.
In Dr Dr Feser's article, he points out the common New Atheist rhetorical device of appealing to some already-accepted idea, or truth, as a kind of argument, or as a stand-in for argument.
But here, one might think of what Stefan Collini has said (Guardian, 16th August 2013) about the criticism FR Leavis made of the 1959 Rede Lecture by CP Snow. Collini points out that Leavis would often appeal to a value judgement with the mention of  a name of a writer, or a term such as 'Life''. This appears very like the tactic of Dr Feser's preacher criticising Darwinism. The difference is the implied work that has been and is being done to enact the value judgement. Collini writes:

"[By] the very fact of his critical writing [Leavis] is tacitly assuming that there is an audience capable of recognising the truth of his critique, so the power of cliche, though great, is not invincible, the system not entirely closed."

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Paying attention to responses to culture and nature

"The reason that aesthetics is so significant in questioning the ends of modern philosophy is that an area of philosophy concerned with subjective responses to the natural and cultural worlds necessarily involves a kind if objectivity which differs from that present in warranted scientific knowledge."

Andrew Bowie, "Adorno and the Ends of Philosophy", 2013, Cambridge, Polity

"Explanation has the moment of reducing what is unknown to what is familiar, of translating unfamiliar elements into thoughts, experiences, states of affairs, which are already present to one.
But art gravitates towards what is not known, what does not yet exist. What has not yet been subsumed, what was previously not there emerges precisely in works of art as their content."

Theodor Adorno, "Lectures on Aesthetics", 1973 (quoted in the above book, p.145)

Friday, 13 June 2014

Janick & Toulmin, "Wittgenstein's Vienna" - reflections on TLP and Popper

After having read a review (see Bob Corbett, Webster University, USA) I went on to read this book, and subsequent to that read Paul Engelmann's Memoir and letters from Wittgenstein.

I found Toulmin and Janick's book to be more or less the appeal, by two thinkers brought up in so-called "Anglo-American" "analytical" philosophy, to their contemporaries also brought up that way, that what they had been taught of what Wittgenstein was on about was not in fact what he was on about. (A view shared by Bryan Magee in his autobiography "confessions of a philosopher").

A toe-hold in philosophy may give some sense of the problem that might have motivated a Wittgenstein to attempt something like Tractatus Logico Philosophicus.

Even after getting some indirect understanding of Wittgenstein's situation in philosophy, I never wanted to read TLP, because it always seemed to me that it would require me to take on his problem situation (existentially, and not merely intellectually) and I sensed that it would be too awful to really situate myself in that place, out of which Wittgenstein wished to pull himself by the writing of the book.

For me, the awesome aspect of the problem that motivated TLP would be something like having an attitude towards art that it (art) cannot contain anything that couldn't be put in simpler terms. A faith, in other words, that there can be nothing that is more, or signifies more, than the sum of its parts.

Works of art, perhaps of architecture, or poetry, may (in their capacity to excite mental-aesthetic response) invoke a feeling of indignation, perhaps because art object is freely created, it exercises or symbolises a freedom not available to oneself. There may indeed be a kind of envious reaction to art objects, because they may incorporate something (or they may be held to incorporate something) that one lacks, and with this there may be a determination to destroy it by breaking it down, by making it translatable into what is familiar.

I think this is the kind of response to art (or more precisely, poetry) attributed by J S Mill to Jeremy Bentham. Mill describes Bentham's reception of poetry as hindered by a "deficiency of Imagination". Mill writes:
"Bentham's knowledge of human nature ... is wholly empirical; and the empiricism of one who has had little experience."

("Bentham", J S Mill, 1838)

Bentham was given to "denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognises."
This of itself would not much matter, except that Bentham seems to have taken the mere presence of things not transparent to him as reason to break them into simpler terms, transparent to himself, but with a kind of impatient indignation. He didn't merely deny truths he could not see; he seems, sometimes, to have wished to refute them.

It strikes me that the task Wittgenstein attempted in writing TLP was not unlike setting out to persuade Bentham, in a language Bentham could understand, that what he (Bentham) called "vague generalities" in fact "contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race". (Quotes are from Mill's essay on Bentham).

Mill's charge, or one of them at least, against Bentham is that Bentham was unable - by deficit of imagination - to believe that there could be any range of feelings beyond those he himself experienced. If Bentham regarded poetic utterance as a kind of "misrepresentation", this went hand-in-hand with his impulse to wish to demonstrate that it is indeed "misrepresentation" by breaking down wholes into their constituent parts so that they can be seen in simpler terms, that is, in terms intelligible to him. Behind this, and perhaps motivating a great deal of Bentham's reforming efforts, I would say, is a feeling of indignation that "others feel what I do not feel" or "others perceive what I do not perceive". It is wonderful, I think, to grasp both Mill's gratitude for Bentham in bringing opaque practices under scrutiny, yet his condemnation of Bentham as a far-seeing but ultimately "one-eyed" man.

Mill never set out (so far as I know) to persuade or, better, show Bentham that he was indeed "one-eyed", by having Bentham perceive his own "one-eyed-ness".
But I think this is the character of Wittgenstein's TLP, where the place of Bentham is replaced by Russell and Frege.
I also believe this is the character of Karl Popper's critique of the programme of the Logical Positivists. 

I understand Wittgenstein met Popper only once, and I understand that Popper always regarded Wittgenstein's concern with language (and with what can and cannot be proved to be true in language) as mis-placed. In return, I think Wittgenstein was not accepting of Popper's brand of Kantianism, that is, not accepting that there are, or can be, "philosophical problems".
(Perhaps Popper's essay "the nature of philosophical problems" was a response to that 1946 meeting).

However, in seeking to bring to the Vienna Circle to an appreciation of his criticism of the doctrine of verification, Karl Popper was also at great pains to communicate with the Circle in terms it would not reject. He wanted to be accepted by the Circle as one of them (in so far as he was sympathetic with their general political outlook and intolerance of irrationality) and had to work very hard to bring his argument to them in a language they would accept. It seems to me that he would have been extremely wary of being seen to be a Kantian, knowing that it was the programme of the Circle to banish Kantianism (and metaphysics) from philosophy. It seems to me that he sought to show to scientifically minded philosophers bent on eradicating metaphysics - and succeeded in showing - that science itself has a metaphysical under-pinning. (I think Hacohen's biography of Popper shows the very great efforts Popper went to in order to gain acceptance by the Circle where Wittgenstein seems to have been the one actually sought out by the Circle, by Moritz Schlick, for example. It's possible to see Popper being very annoyed by this!)

I think Popper's project can be seen as similar to Wittgenstein's in so far as both sought to uphold themeaningfulness of things that were yet not science. The difference would seem to be that Popper was not that much interested by non-science (not, that is, greatly interested to explore the relationship between non-science and science, though himself a sometime composer etc, or to consider the grounding - say in Kant - of non-scientific thought), whereas Wittgenstein seems to have been passionately and perhaps primarily concerned with the realm of things not accessible to science or "utterable" in philosophy, and yet apparently disappointed at having his work misunderstood and misinterpreted by philosophers as a claim that all that is non-science is meaningless.

Thank you again for your blog-post review.

Yours sincerely

Here is a transcript of a 1997 interview with Stephen Toulmin.