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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, May 04, 2009

Why Chris Schoen is not a rationalist

Since Chris Schoen has taken the trouble to write this long blog post, which he has dedicated to me, I should at least draw attention to it. I'm quite touched that he's gone to so much trouble, and there's no overt snark aimed my way, even though I take it that he's trying to explain to me - or perhaps show me by a kind of linguistic performance - why there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my rationalist philosophy; and he wants to help me reach an understanding that I'm labouring under the Ionian Enchantment (along with Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Steven Pinker, and Jerry Coyne ... all people with whom I'm very pleased to be associated, by the way). The Ionian Enchantment is said to be "a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws." (Do I really have a conviction quite like that? I'm not sure that I do, or that I don't. I certainly don't have any conviction to the contrary, but that's as far as I'd want to commit myself.)

So anyway, I thank him for this. Despite having read it quite carefully, not once but twice, I can't extract from it any overall argument that I find at all convincing, but that's okay. Actually, I don't quite get the overall argument at all, though I do get bits of it. There seem to be quite a few puzzling logical leaps, changes of subject, and so on, but it certainly reads nicely and must have taken a lot of thought.

But I'm worried, for example, by the analysis of a recent book review by A.C. Grayling (a contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief, in case anyone has forgotten), of a book by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale. In the passage that Chris draws attention to, Grayling claims that Polkinghorne and Beale attempted to obtain some of the prestige of the Royal Society, by association, when they conducted a book launching at its premises. I don't see how this claim is weakened by Chris's statement that Grayling's prose is "dressed up in the language of the caste system" - particularly when it is not. Allow me to explain.

The actual quote from A.C. Grayling's review is as follows:

Of course the point is that Beale-Polkinghorne and their tuppence-halfpenny religious publishers wish to get as much of the respectability of the Royal Society rubbed off on them as they can. This is the strategy adopted by the Templeton Foundation too, of sidling up to proper scientists and scientific establishments and getting their sticky religious fingers on to respectable coat-sleeves in the hope of furthering their agenda - which, to repeat what must endlessly be repeated in these circumstances, is to have the superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds living several thousand years ago given the same credibility as contemporary scientific research.

Grayling certainly uses some aggressive language here, but that's plain enough on a naive first reading before any critical analysis is carried out. What would such an analysis show? Well, most strikingly, there is a strong pattern of binary opposition between what Grayling thinks of as genuine science and what he thinks of as meretricious pre-scientific thought - with a threefold pattern of representatives of the latter attempting to obtain some of the prestige of the former. This idea is presented, on the three relevant occasions in the passage, with changing images, examples, and prose rhythms. The examples move from the more particular to the more general; simultaneously, the changing rhythms produce a sense of increasing vehemence, rising to a final crescendo of denunciation.

Thus, Grayling (1) contrasts the (legitimately prestigious, as he sees it) Royal Society with (disreputable or suspect) "tuppence-halfpenny religious publishers"; he next (2) contrasts genuine scientists (and their organisations) who have legitimately earned prestige with disreputable persons associated with the Templeton Foundation, imagined as having sticky fingers that reach out to touch the clothing of the scientists; finally, he (3) contrasts contemporary scientific research in general with the "drunken lucubrations" of prehistoric tribal pastoralists (presumably at the dawn of religion). Thus, the rhetorical pattern is of a twice-repeated (but varied) binary opposition between what Grayling thinks of as the legitimately prestigious pursuit of scientific knowledge and what he thinks of as disreputable religious doctines. The overall message is more than just, "Science, good; religion, bad." It is a condemnation of those who advocate religion but at the same time attempt to obtain the prestige legitimately accorded to science.

This analysis of Grayling's rhetoric shows how it conveys such a strong tonal effect, combining, as it does, suggestions of anger and distaste. However, to explain how a rhetorical effect is achieved is not to show that it is achieved unjustly. After all, doesn't Grayling have a point here? In any event, if he's actually wrong about attempts by certain religionists to associate themselves with the prestige of science, that can't be demonstrated just by examining how he's imbued a few sentences with a certain tonal quality (something that he probably did without needing to conduct much or any of this conscious analysis).

Furthermore, having carried out this little job of practical criticism on Grayling's prose, I just don't see why Chris mentions the caste system. Obviously, Grayling is distinguishing between (1) individuals, organisations, and practices that have merited prestige and (2) those that do not (but try to obtain prestige by association). It's a binary hierarchy (though, again, not just that).

Perhaps Chris finds that unattractive because, in a sense, it is inegalitarian. Grayling is emphatically suggesting that science and religion are not epistemic equals. To say the least, however, he's not obviously wrong about that. Although there's a simple, two-level hierarchy, moreover, there's no reliance on anything to do with the caste system - which is just as well for Grayling, given the poor regard in which the latter is held by most Westerners (or anyone else likely to read his review). If he had done anything of the sort that Chris attributes to him, it would have been a rhetorical blunder. But it's not as if he is arguing that some people are analogous to brahmins, others to ksatriyas, others to vaisyas or to sudras, and that each kind must act in accordance with its particular dharma (or duty), as defined by an individual's caste and stage in life - or anything even remotely analogous to this. Comparison to the caste system (which is intricately entwined with doctrines such as karma and moksa that have absolutely nothing to do with the passage) neither sheds any light on the passage's rhetorical force nor undermines its message.

In short, the caste system isn't there in Grayling's sentences. Sorry.

But, really, go and have a look at Chris's post, dear readers and you may be more persuaded by it than I have been.

Meanwhile, Chris, thanks again for going to all this trouble. I'm not being sarcastic, either, just expressing some friendly bemusement. Put yourself down as playing the role of Ludwig Wittgenstein to my uncomprehending Bertrand Russell if it pleases you to do so.


D said...

(cross posted at Chris Schoen's blog)

Hey Chris. Just read your post, thought it was beautifully, even melodiously written, and found it a surprisingly pleasurable read for subject matter this recondite. Looking back on it though, I have to say that I was more baffled by it than anything else. Reading it, I had the uneasy sense it wasn't primarily meant as academic prose.

Perhaps my bewilderment is best expressed by contrasting to Russell Blackford's response. In that reply, I am able to detect arguments, that presumably may be systematized to desired extent, made intricate - or simplified for children - as appropriate, have detail and nuance added or elided, be agreed or disagreed with. I detect beginning, middle and end, in quite prosaic five para form.

Your post by contrast had the tenor of poetry, though perhaps the effect on me is closer to that of ambient music (or plainchant). It seems that examining the argument - assuming that the piece IS intended as a series of arguments - is almost beside the point, that we are really meant to experience - imbibe, soak in - an artistic performance. Checking to see if I agree with particular parts seems something of a piece with wondering if Prufrock has the form of a syllogism.

Is this a matter of our laboring under rival "enchantments", or is it deliberate stylistic choice? Is the intent perhaps to wrench the reader discontinuously into a radically different contemplative framework? If the former, have you a for-dummies version of this argument, a possibly misleading but more tractable popsci version? I suspect it'll be easier to proceed to grad seminar Chris Schoen once junior-high C.S. readings are concluded!

Blake Stacey said...

If I were to cast an enchantment upon myself, the Ionian one would be my first choice. Labouring under that burden would be like being cursed with a life of good wine, requited love and starlight.

Chris Schoen said...

Thanks for the reply, Russell.

While I surely (in retrospect) could have written more clearly and deliberately on this, and edited out the "puzzling leaps and changes of subject," I didn't really expect the piece to be a one-stop-shop in getting across my view. There's always a fantasy in the back of a writer's mind that one will have the effect of a beloved TV lawyer's closing arguments, perfectly complete and persuasive, but in real life we often have the same arguments over and over, with any real persuasion or mutual comprehension happening in microgradients, at best.

I'd prefer, ideally, to zero in on other aspects of the post, than the Grayling citation, which was practically a footnote, but since you specifically address it here, let me respond by saying I did not mean to make a precise comparison between Grayling's rhetoric of prestige and legitimacy with the Indian caste system. The word seemed (and seems) more rhetorically fruitful than calling him a classist, or elitist, especially as these dispositions continue to fade in the West. In the passage I quoted, Grayling does not erect his shibboleth on methodological grounds, but strictly on social associations. The Royal Society is prestigious (we're all supposed to agree) and the religious publishers are "tuppence-halfpenny." The sleeves of "legitimate" scientists are clean and finely made ("respectable"), the hands of the pretenders are grubby.

A metaphor, yes, but why this metaphor, and on what justification? Does being "self-published" equate to being crack-potted on some sort of statistical foundation? He doesn't say; it's just a slur. Does a "prestigious" institution like the Royal Academy have some claim to our epistemic trust on the grounds of its illustrious past, or on its dedication to a methodology?

It's much easier to dismiss Beale-Polkingham on the grounds of their social pretensions, by suggesting that they don't know their place, (which is the sum of his argument here) than to point out their error in work on philosophical or scientific grounds. I'd be likely to agree with any conclusions so derived, as I mentioned in my remarks.

In context, the Grayling cite was supposed to illustrate a point about intellectual humility. His statement on Polkingham-Beale was stuck in my mind as a signal example of the kind of hauteur I was thinking of when I cautioned against treating other people's delusions as so much more ridiculous than one's own. If you click through to the Quodlibeta piece, the writer makes the important observation that "superstitious lucubrations of illiterate goatherds living several thousand years ago" dismisses out of hand an enormous conceptual apparatus that had an critical influence on the development of our secular notions of justice, democracy, and human rights.

In this context, it matters that Grayling chose a stance that had nothing to do with the actual merits of either Polkinghorne-Beale, or the Royal Society, the latter of which he presumes the legitimacy of needs no defense. This is precisely the kind of conceptual blinkering that I set out to analyze in the piece, where metaphysical naturalism is off the table in a way that no other stance can aspire to.

It's fine for Blake Stacey, for example, to be happy in this state of affairs, but that's hardly a philosophical defense of its self-evidence. (To Blake I would reply, I think you are ordering your enchantments from an old catalog. Some of the newer models offer many the same benefits--and more!--without the hangover.)

Vicki Baker said...

I'm much too shallow and flippant to be joining this discussion, but I got the impression, based on the content and style of the original Grayling quote that the "caste system" being referred to was the British Victorian one.

Becos this Grayling bloke is well out of order, he could be doing wiv updating his ideas that science is only for the upper-claahhrsses, innit?

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, so you meant that the wording had British-style social class associations for you. I'm clear on that now. I must admit that I struggled for quite a while trying to work out how it had anything to do with "the caste system", which is something quite specific.

Anonymous said...

"I certainly don't have any conviction to the contrary, but that's as far as I'd want to commit myself."

Isn't that the basis of rationalism? We can't rationally have convictions about what is true but we can be pretty sure of what isn't.

Brian said...

The Ionian Enchantment You yauna you! (Ionia, was not pronounced EE-onia, of cause, it was yown-ya. Like onion is pronounced on-yon. From this pronunciation the Persians (think Xerxes) heard yauna. Something akin to the Turks hearing the Greeks say is tan poli (to/at the city) when referring to Constantinople and thinking this was the name of said City (Quines translation problems might come in here) and so calling that city Istambul (Is-tan-pol(i)) according to their phonetics...........

So anyway, I thank him for this. Despite having read it quite carefully, not once but twice, I can't extract from it any overall argument that I find at all convincing, but that's okay. But that's because you're applying your Ionian presuppositions......

anik said...

Russell: after reading this twice and visiting the blog, I rather think you are correct - this was not intended as academic prose. In short, mate, I think he's pulling your pud! The alternative may be that it is seriously meant and the reason he is not a rationalist is that he is genuinely incapable of rationality. Your choice.....no prize awarded either way.