Knowing Knowledge II: The God Behind Problems of Knowledge, Dialogues, 12/03/2015

My exchange with Steve Fuller about his latest book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History continues with a discussion of some of the major themes of the book's first proper chapter and the larger field of issues that dominates the recent period of his research career.

Dear Steve;

Chapter one continues to pack ideas together with incredible density. But I see two threads here, integrated with each other, and playing off each other in philosophically productive ways. I'll start with the framework idea of your historical analysis that first struck me reading the introduction, the theological roots of modern secular epistemological issues. 

The three faces of contemporary popular atheism, (l-r)
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens,
have a stupidly unsophisticated view of religion, and
more often spout racism about Muslims than
interesting philosophical critiques of religious belief.
I personally don't like to say I'm an atheist in all public contexts, because I have a complex engagement with spiritual ideas (and a personal connection with Jewish spirituality and conceptions of divinity rather than Christian ones). But I've lately shied away from identifying publicly as an atheist because the most prominent atheists in our culture today are shrill, moronic imbeciles who describe every religious person as believing in an invisible man living in the sky whose strict rules get you into paradise. And they usually throw in a closing comment about how being a devout Muslim means you have to rape and kill women. 

People who believe in their religion in such a pedantic way don't deserve to be called religious. And people who call themselves atheists because they oppose such juvenile thought about the divine don't deserve that label either.

I mention this context of how I engage with the popular discourse about religion and religious ideas today because of how difficult this atmosphere makes it to discuss theological ideas with any nuance. For this reason, I suspect your understanding of the core issues of modern epistemology will face an undeserved backlash.

Here's how I understand your account of the overarching dual camps of how Western philosophy generally understands knowledge. On one side, the foundation of knowledge lies in an individual's common sense. We each have basic intuitions about how the world is as it is, these intuitions are simple and ubiquitous, and philosophy can systematize these intuitions into the more complex frameworks of our scientific knowledge. 

This notion is all over Analytic epistemology, but also philosophy of mind, where I've seen debates in journals and classroom seminars devote themselves to figuring out a consistent conception of the mind that accords with our intuitions about what our minds are. I've also seen this reliance on intuition in environmentalist philosophy, a comprehensive account of which is in my own upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available this August from Palgrave McMillan. 

One of the landmark instances of public philosophy of
my generation was Stephen Colbert's demonstration
that intuition and gut feeling produced not truth, but
only truthiness.
I've long been skeptical of philosophical reliance on common sense for the simple reason that humanity's common sense is usually dead wrong about most of what appears intuitively true. Rhetorically speaking, the sun doesn't actually orbit the Earth, but it looks pretty intuitive.

I can't get behind common sense as a ground for knowledge because it's nothing more than a gloss over a groundless hunch. But when you identify the theological roots of the concept of common sense – the epistemic dimension of the divinity in all humans, made as we are in the image of God – I understand. 

I still can't get behind it myself because the Christian theological tradition of philosophy means so little to me. My philosophical priorities include articulating and promoting a non-reductive conception of atheism that grounds divinity in nature itself (call it a touch of Spinoza's Deus sive Natura) that scientific, ethical, and political practice discovers.

Which brings me to the conception of knowledge you call collective memory, formulating epistemological problems in terms of historical processes of scientific institutions and inquiry. You describe the theoretical basis of this concept, as God's test of a human community's powers to build its own authentic history. But the other analytic thread of Chapter 1 shows an atheist approach to this notion.

You describe social epistemology as analysis of how we manage our knowledge as a community's, nation's, and globe's resource: knowledge as itself an economy. Managing our knowledge with a focus on building demand focusses our collective energies on adaptation to change by changing ourselves. Accepting that our world is always going to be uncertain and surprising, we use our knowledge to develop powers to deal with what might happen. This contrasts with a supply concentration in developing an economy of knowledge, where we secure established knowledge and work to keep the future as much like the past as possible to avoid destabilization and risk. 

I'm a demand-sider in my own philosophical perspectives. Change is inevitable and permanent stability impossible, even though adaptation and what you call self-transcendence is very difficult and many of us may not have enough courage in our personal constitutions to deal with it. 
• • •
Dear Adam;

Yes, you’ve got chapter one right, and you and I are on the same sides of the distinctions I draw, though I wonder what you think is the philosophical payoff of endorsing something called ‘atheism,’ however you define it. 

As you gather correctly, I take theology quite seriously as constitutive of meaningful philosophical discourse – and also a meaningful human life. A ‘philosophical anthropology’ that has nothing to say about God is not really doing its job. I say this as someone who viscerally dislikes the sorts of mystification of God one finds in much religious discourse – you know, all that stuff about the ‘awe of nature’, the ‘mystery of being’ and even the ‘sacredness of life’.  

I sometimes wonder whether religious people – including many theologians – are really interested in having a serious discussion about the God they claim to believe in – even when there are no atheists in the room! But maybe that’s just my Jesuit education rearing its ugly head….

However, to get a fix on my own beliefs about God, the following four points are important:

A. Like it or not, science would not be as it is today, especially the overriding significance accorded to the abstract physical sciences, were it not for the continuing influence of the Christian belief that we’re created in the image and likeness of God, which was spun during the 17th century Scientific Revolution to mean that we are capable of understanding all of reality – aka divine creation – as a coherent whole.

B. Informed people are willing to entertain – if not outright believe – many strange superordinate ideas that are connected to evidence in rather indirect and perhaps even tenuous ways. ‘God’ is hardly alone in this respect. Check out the latest cosmological theories in physics or, for that matter, accounts of the legitimacy of state authority. (Hence, the elective affinity between atheism and libertarianism.) It seems to me that God is unfairly subject to a much higher standard of proof than we normally require of big theoretical ideas.

If I can offer a further definition of 'Manga Metaphysics,'
it would be when philosophical concepts and movements
are given personalities and the power to craft and deform
narratives and fiction tropes to remix and express ideas
anew. The best example that comes to mind is the cult
classic Dirty Pair, about which Vaka Rangi has written
quite a lot.
C. Ludwig Feuerbach was on to something when he suggested (and I’m putting his point rather positively) that theology provides the most uncensored forum for a full discussion of human aspiration. It’s like operating in a philosophical ‘second life’ or, as I once put it, a ‘manga metaphysics,’ whereby abstractions acquire personalities and arguments morph into plotlines. Hegel saw this clearly, but atheists recoil from the idea that theology might tap into an ‘unconscious’ to reason that is not simply irrational (à la Freud).

D. Atheism is a purely negative view, which at its most intellectually respectable amounts to classical scepticism, whereby a principled judgement is reached that one can never decide the matter of God’s existence. To me, this is just the mark of a diffident mind attempting to convert a self-imposed sense of ignorance into a positive discovery about the world. It’s the precautionary principle writ large. But of course, as you observe, atheism can get much worse, amounting to little more than anti-religious bigotry.

In light of the above, let me pick up your comments about common sense, which I dislike as much as you do. However, I think that common sense can be declared ‘wrong’ only if one equates truth with a standpoint that involves self-transcendence. Common sense, after all, was originally presented as the wisdom with which humans are equipped as creatures specifically designed to dwell on the Earth in a relatively dominant yet profoundly fallen state, at least as seen by God.* 

* Leon Kass, of G.W. Bush’s Bioethics Panel fame, continues to peddle this line, one example being his appeal to the ‘wisdom of repugnance’ – or the ‘Yuck Factor’ – as grounds for prohibiting certain biomedical innovations, such as stem cell research. 

Clearly common sense is not about aspiring to what Thomas Nagel calls ‘the view from nowhere’ where you imagine all of reality from some infinite standpoint, as if you were God. That’s simply blasphemy. Kant, no stranger to religious scrutiny, secularized the point when castigating Leibniz and the rationalists in The Critique of Pure Reason.  Thus, Kant carefully distinguished two types of philosophy: ‘transcendent’ (the blasphemous presumption to think God’s thoughts) and ‘transcendental’ (the reasonable presumption that our own thoughts require envisaging those of a deity). But the rationalists were basically right all along, or so I believe.

Giordano Bruno didn't exactly meet the most
pleasant end after his free thinker's critique
of Catholic orthodoxy in metaphysics.
What made the transition from a commonsensical geocentric worldview to the much more counterintuitive heliocentric worldview so difficult was not that the latter was so hard to understand. Even the ancient Greeks found it pretty easy to understand it as a hypothesis. What was difficult was imagining that it might be true and not simply a compelling fiction. 

Christian theology, with its close correspondence between ourselves and the divine creator, nurtured the idea that ‘the view from nowhere’ might be quite a fruitful perspective for humans to adopt towards the world, especially if we wish to receive God’s Grace. Of course, as the likes of Bruno and Galileo learned the hard way, this always had the potential of upsetting the Roman Catholic hegemony, which was all about people knowing their place in a geocentric world. 

As I see it, theology is the discipline most responsible for both limiting and expanding the horizons of the human condition. So, it’s hard for me to see why you find ‘atheism’ appealing, unless it’s simply a by-word for ‘anti-clericalism.’

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