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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Currently reading: Philip Kitcher's "Militant Modern Atheism" (Part 5)

I'm now up to the point of explaining why Philip Kitcher wants a softer approach to people who fall into his mythically self-conscious, doctrinally indefinite, and doctrinally entangled categories, while we continue to argue against the supernatural beliefs that are primary for people in his category of religious believers.

Thus, he agrees with the "Militant Modern Atheists" on three points. First, they are correct to assault those kinds of religion that fit the belief model (and to dispute the actual doctrines, such as the existence of transcendent beings). Second, public policy must not be based on supernaturalist beliefs. Third, children should not be indoctrinated in such beliefs without having the opportunity to choose against them (I think Kitcher goes so far as to oppose children being brought up at all in religion that meets the belief model, or at least he disapproves of it; I'm not sure exactly how far he'd take this).

However, he thinks that "all three of the non-secular approaches that accord with the orientation model [i.e. mythic self-consciousness, doctrinal indefiniteness, and doctrinal entanglement] are defensible."

That sounds a bit surprising. It's perhaps not surprising that Kitcher wants us to go easy on the mythically self-conscious. These people, after all, are not much more than cultural Christians, Muslims, or whatever. They may attend a church or the equivalent, and study a holy book or a body of tradition, but they don't have to say that everything in that book or tradition is good or that it's better than what's in some other book or tradition. The thing is, it's their book, tradition, etc., and they find some value in it. They may be interested in good scholarly study of what it originally meant, how it came about, how it can be interpreted and reinterpreted. But they are happy for mythically self-conscious people from other traditions to do likewise with their inherited materials. In fact, mythically self-conscious people from different traditions may be more like each other than either is like a "real" religious believer. In fact, they may be more like secular people than like "real" religious believers - they have no supernatural beliefs, don't propose to indoctrinate children with supernatural beliefs, and don't intend to base public policy on supernatural beliefs. But while secular people may have no problem with mythically self-conscious people, can the same be said about doctrinally-indefinite people and doctrinally-entangled people? Kitcher says:

More problematic, at first sight, are the cases of the doctrinally-entangled and the doctrinally-indefinite. I’ll suggest that doctrinal indefiniteness can be a reasonable expression of epistemic modesty, and that even doctrinal entanglement can be justified when it is the only way of preserving, in the socio-cultural environment available, a reflectively stable orientation.

This is an interesting and important passage. Kitcher doesn't think that any supernatural beliefs have epistemic justification, but he seems to think that it's okay for the doctrinally indefinite not to take a stand. But what about the doctrinally entangled? Surely they do actually believe things that Kitcher argues to be false. Whatever we want to say about that, we can't say they are epistemically justified in doing so. Kitcher seems to think that they can be justified in some other sense.

Here we get into a very important argument, and I should say from the outset that I think Kitcher has a point here. His claim is that under current conditions prevailing in various parts of the world, including parts of the US (the context that he's mainly thinking of), it is unreasonable to expect all people to be able to arrive at a reflectively stable orientation within an entirely secular framework.

Orientations are of primary importance in human lives, and people who cannot arrive at a reflectively stable set of values and aspirations rightly feel incomplete. Thoroughly secular people can have an orientation, as I have already conceded, but it is a fallacy to think that, for any religious person who currently fits the orientation model, that person can attain a cognitively superior orientation by rejecting the beliefs militant modern atheists discern as false.The cognitive gains can simply be outweighed by other forms of psychological and social loss.

Kitcher expresses an awareness that he can be accused of patronising religious people when he says this - as if he's saying they are "insufficiently astute or mature or courageous to come to terms with hard truths."  Rather, he says, it is to "appreciate the difficulties contemporary social environments pose for the attainment of satisfying orientations outside of religious life." Those who are relatively privileged may be able to overcome those difficulties, but not everyone is so privileged. In particular, not everyone is going to be able to join a leading scientist such as Dawkins and a leading philosopher such as Dennett in leading a life based on "contemplation of the cosmos as the sciences have revealed it." Even Dawkins and Dennett, Kitcher suggests, gain satisfaction from such things as their passionate involvement in a community that is devoted to spreading enlightenment.

But, says, Kitcher, even in affluent societies with good education available, this is not an option for most people: "the vast majority will never be able to recognize themselves as important participants in any impressive joint enterprise that contributes to knowledge and enlightenment. For large numbers of people, daily struggles to cope with threats to their physical wellbeing leave little opportunity for contemplation."

For me, this rings true - indeed, I've made some related points in the past, as in an essay on Camus that was published in Quadrant a few years ago. In that essay I praised and more-or-less embraced the viewpoint that Camus argues for in "The Myth of Sisyphus", but I also offered a note of caution. I'll quote this at some length (please, though, let's avoid the scholarly argument as to whether Camus was, strictly speaking, an existentialist; perhaps he wasn't but it's not really germane to the argument):

While his language may be melodramatic, Camus successfully evokes the sense of strangeness and bleakness that many people experience when they contemplate an uncaring universe. His response is that we can, nonetheless, live with zest and meaning by affirming our own values. Our individual lives can be meaningful, in that sense, despite the absurdity of our condition. The authentic life, it might be said, is worth living.

I am not convinced, however, that this is so for everyone, since many people do not have the freedom or resources for projects that express their personal values to more than a minimal extent. Despite Camus' assurance that we must think of Sisyphus—even Sisyphus—as happy in his scorn for the gods, it is not surprising if people whose lives are seriously constrained by personal circumstances find Camus' version of existentialism unattractive and seek meaning in some external purpose, rather than in their "inner freedom". One wonders whether Sisyphus himself would find French existentialism all that attractive.

Putting the matter bluntly, the vision of an authentic, zestful life offered by Camus may well be attractive to a successful intellectual involved in uniquely creative work that gives his life a sense of meaning. It may not be enough for people in general, whose lives may offer far less genuine freedom and unique creativity. That, of course, does not entail that Camus was wrong, either about the human condition or about the most appropriate response to it. It should, however, mute any scorn that we might feel, even if we accept his vision, for those who seem to be living inauthentic lives, people who can discern the bleakness of Camus' worldview, when it is explained to them, without finding anything liberating in it.

Of course, the vision offered by Camus cannot be suppressed in some sense, or rejected on merely pragmatic grounds. That would be intolerable and, in any event, impossible. However, if we seriously wish people to find meaning in their inner freedom, rather than in a worldview that finds human intelligibility in the universe, a great deal may need to be done, culturally and politically, to alter the conditions under which people actually live and work.

There's a further problem, too. Here I'll point to the passage from my essay "Science and the Sea of Faith" that I quoted not all that many posts back. Again, at some length:

I've argued that science provides a view of the cosmos that really does tend to contradict traditional religious views. The view from science is superior, both epistemically (it is gradually getting at the truth) and morally (it can provide us with better guidance for living our lives). But there is still a problem: the vast and ancient cosmos revealed by science contains many wonders that are simply not on a human scale, and may defy understanding. The biologically impossible creatures of myth — centaurs, minotaurs, and fire-breathing dragons — make far more intuitive sense than the bestiary of sub-atomic particles, and their actions are more easily grasped than any quantum-level event described by mathematical formulae or translated into paradoxical sentences. Myths and religions, with their gods and monsters, offer views of the world that, although contrary to the hard-won scientific evidence, are intuitive to creatures like us.

Though fire-breathing dragons do not actually exist, they can stand as metaphors for many human-scale fears. Quantum events, by contrast, simply are. These very small events are, of course, exploited in contemporary human technologies, but they are not an obvious symbol for anything we can grasp intuitively. Even science's great populariser, Richard Dawkins, notes that "it may be that nobody really understands quantum theory, possibly because natural selection has shaped our brains to survive in a world of large, slow things, where quantum effects are smothered" (Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998, page 50). Quantum theory is frequently co-opted and vulgarised — "quantum this, quantum that" — in an attempt to give scientific cachet to all sorts of (usually banal) ideas, but the metaphors are generally inapt.

Reflection on this emphasises the harsh truth that this world was not created for us and does not, in any way, care about us or feel as we do. While the world revealed by science is, in any many ways, more wondrous than anything imagined by mystics or mythmakers, it is also far less intuitively understandable or meaningful. Thus, it is one thing to exult in the amazing phenomena revealed by science, but another to argue convincingly that the scientific picture should be enough for ordinary people — non-scientists — who seek to live meaningful lives within human societies, and who are not absorbed, day by day, in examining the very small, the very distant, and the very old. Can the scientific picture be made meaningful to ordinary people who live, work, love, and die in the middle-sized human world?

Given that I have these sorts of worries - and they are well and truly on the public record! - I'm not going to dismiss Kitcher's concerns. I also take the point that, for many people, such institutions as churches, mosques, and synagogues can supply support, including satisfying orientations.

But if that's so, wouldn't we want people for whom out-and-out secularism isn't a psychological option to move, at least, to a position of mythic self-consciousness? Kitcher has a reply to this, but it will have to await part 6 in my series for me to set it out and examine how satisfactory or otherwise it might be. This is the point where it's starting to get most interesting, so please continue to be patient - and I'll look forward to your comments on the ideas discussed so far.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this series of thoughtful posts on the Kitcher article. The only problem is that I suspect many of us can't get access to the original article and therefore despite the lengthy quotes from it are struggling to fully take in the arguments being made. Is it possible for the full article to be posted somewhere so those of us who lack institutional access can get a copy of it?

Russell Blackford said...

I think you'd have to contact Kitcher about this.

Blake Stacey said...

I can get what Kitcher is driving at, I think — trying to take away something people value when you have nothing to replace it with won't work terribly well — but a big stretch of the argument just seems irrelevant.

Can the scientific picture be made meaningful to ordinary people who live, work, love, and die in the middle-sized human world?

Science isn't just quasars and quantum fluctuations; it applies to the "middle-sized" world, too. For that matter, who spends all their time — not just working hours, not just the daily grind — in the middle world? Aren't religious beliefs supposed to be about something bigger and more significant than mundane affairs? Wouldn't a person who lives entirely in the "middle-sized human world" be at the "cultural Christian" end of the spectrum anyway?

I also take the point that, for many people, such institutions as churches, mosques, and synagogues can supply support, including satisfying orientations.

Or, on the flipside, making their lives a living Hell by convincing them that God hates them for something they cannot change.

DEEN said...

Of course current society makes it difficult, if not sometimes almost impossible, for people to leave their religion. This is not in dispute. But wasn't the whole question whether atheists ("New" or otherwise) should speak up and try and change society or not? This is an obstacle to be overcome, yes, but not a reason to hold back.

Mark Jones said...

Thanks for an interesting and useful series, Russell.

I see a problem with Kitcher's views here, which I think you hint at, and that he is also aware.

His looks very much like a colonial view of other humanity, or, at least, a first world view of third world humanity. Some data shows that a life lived in less jeopardy tends to result in less religiosity, so better conditions would help (although that shouldn't be the main reason for working toward this!). But we surely have examples of non-Western cultures that include many non-theists to allow that this isn't a necessary pre-requisite?

My point is that if 'existential well-being' is to be our aim, I can't see that theism is the *best* route to that goal, and Kitcher seems to be implying this, for some. Even if we were to concede that there are *some* people who cannot achieve this well-being without theism, it's clear that some theisms are worse than others, so I can see no reason why we can't argue for a harmless theism - or a less harmful theism. I would say it's our responsibility to do that, which Kitcher appears to be shirking.

Incidentally, forcefully removing theism from existing theists is not on the table, imo - I would look for education, curbs on childhood indoctrination and a removal of the privileges allowed theistic beliefs to erode its hold on societies. And I see nothing wrong with new atheists pursuing these policies, regardless of the different categories of believers, interesting distinctions though they are.

Mark Jones said...

That should read "His ideas look..." at the beginning of the third para, referring to this:

"Orientations are of primary importance in human lives, and people who cannot arrive at a reflectively stable set of values and aspirations rightly feel incomplete. Thoroughly secular people can have an orientation, as I have already conceded, but it is a fallacy to think that, for any religious person who currently fits the orientation model, that person can attain a cognitively superior orientation by rejecting the beliefs militant modern atheists discern as false.The cognitive gains can simply be outweighed by other forms of psychological and social loss."

Must use Preview more.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think he's shirking it. Don't forget that he's published his own critiques of supernaturalism, including theism, in Living With Darwin in 50 Voices of Disbelief and even in the article under discussion. Whatever else he's saying, he's not saying we should stop criticising theism.

He may have views about tactics and priorities, etc., but I don't think there's anywhere where he's saying that the "New Atheists" are wrong to criticise theism or supernaturalist religion. He's happy to join them in doing that much.

Where this is going to lead for Kitcher is going to be an emphasis on developing a rich, positive secular humanism as a kind of substitute for religion for those who want it, campaigning for changed social conditions, and, I think, a wish that criticism of religion be kind of polite and intellectual rather than using mockery.

But that's a bit of a caricature. He's more subtle than just that. We'll come to it in the next instalment. Meanwhile, I don't necessarily agree with all his conclusions (e.g. I still tend to back away from providing yet another comprehensive worldview and I remain willing to find a place for mockery and satire). But I do think that he's developing concepts that can help to give us insights into what is going on in the current debates and to sharpen up debates about tactics and priorities.

Felix said...

"the vast majority will never be able to recognize themselves as important participants in any impressive joint enterprise that contributes to knowledge and enlightenment."

If this is a requirement for the secular replacement to a religious outlook I am not sure in what way the religious outlook is supposed to provide every individual the sense of being an 'important participant'.

Can somebody please explain? Thanks