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.