Intellectual Lockdown


I can never forget the words of Helena Eckdahl in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander as she muses one rainy afternoon to the shade of her deceased son Oscar:

I grieved terribly when you died… My feelings came from my body and although I could control them they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has been broken ever since, and oddly enough it feels better that way. So I don’t bother to mend it. I just don’t care if nothing makes sense.

Instantly, I felt the same was true of me, only the death in question was that of the God I once believed in. The question then became whether I ought to try to assemble a new worldview to replace the old one. I think of Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus: it appears to have shattered from some collision or internal instability, only to reintegrate, again, right where it was before, just a fist-full of cosmic debris. Gravity forbade any really new beginning for that moon. It was not at liberty to turn into something much different. But do we have that freedom once the whole thing blows? I think maybe we do. When an old worldview pops, can we, shall we, do something other than blow a new bubble? Do we need a worldview, and can we survive without one?

I think it is worth a try. How would one start? The first thing to do is to remind oneself how little of reality we as human beings are likely to know and understand. Don’t you think it is more realistic to arm ourselves with a mixed bag of insights and hypotheses that seem to be applicable to different aspects of perceived reality? We need several different working hypotheses, heuristic devices, tentative paradigms for making sense of aspects of reality we happen to be involved with, and none of them need bear on other areas than the one it fits. Experience is a succession of many different types of situations, many different language games, different types of problems requiring different types of solutions.

The late Paul Feyerabend (Against Method and Farewell to Reason) suggested that the only guiding rule of thumb that would not inhibit scientific research is “Anything goes!” For each problem one ought to adopt a schematic that seems inductively suited to the particular subject matter, not one dictated by (or extrapolated from) success in a different field of inquiry or even one deriving from a similar, successful experiment. This seems counter-inductive to us because we admire the architectonic symmetry of cathedral-like theory systems. And we dislike the tolerance for open ambiguity it would take to admit we can see and work on but one aspect of reality at a time. We cannot see the whole thing, so why should our theorizing, our way of making sense, of Z be the same we used when we were trying to figure out A? Thus our approach to this subject matter need not be an extension of the approach we used last time out. Leave it to the course of further research to see whether the lines will meet in the distance.

Does Acupuncture fly in the face of the assumptions that seem to be borne out so well in most medical experience? Does the theory underlying it not seem to fit the medical paradigm that usually explains things? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.

If you are at all familiar with me and my work in religious studies, you may already be thinking how what I have said here begins to make sense of some things that may hitherto have struck you as inconsistent. As an historian of early Christianity (and, yes, as pretentious as that designation may sound, I think I must lay claim to it), I insist that one must apply to our sources the principles of “methodological atheism” or “methodological naturalism.” No ancient report of a miracle can ever be judged more probably a piece of history than a bit of legend. But that stance in no way implies I embrace a dogmatic philosophical naturalism and that I deny that miracles can ever have occurred. How could I, a puny collection of molecules, pretend to know a thing like that? I realize the principles of historical criticism are applicable to certain lines of inquiry and not others. But where they do apply, I am immoveable. I will not compromise.

I get a lot out of the experience of church-going (as long as it is my favorite Episcopal Church, that is). I sing the hymns with gusto! I listen with awe and veneration to the ancient scripture lessons. I meditate on certain verses from John chapter 6 every week as I partake of the Eucharist. I join in the prescribed prayers, seeking for God to scrutinize me and show me my heart, and to empower me to will and to do the right thing. This is the way it works in church. God is a function of worship. But is there a God independent of human experience? Was there an historical Jesus? Who the hell knows? No religious experience of mine can ever beg philosophical or historical questions. I am playing different language games at different times.

Long ago, a Pentecostal pastor told me that I could keep on doubting, waiting till I had resolved all questions before I would be able to enter into worship with a clean conscience, but then that would probably mean I would never worship, because there would never be a way to settle all questions about God. I must simply decide (now) whether I was going to worship God. I see he was right. He would not have put it this way, but what I see in his sage advice was the realization that the two issues (of deciding what to think of “God” as an intellectual problem versus deciding whether to walk with God) belong to different language games, and that to solve one is not to solve the other. Thus, why wait to solve both before you can make headway on either one?

I find, too, that I must alternate between ethical paradigms. On the one hand, when it comes to interpersonal relations, as it does all day every day, I feel I ought to follow the Christian ethic, deferring to others, returning a word of peace, etc. On the other, when it comes to the dangers of war and tyranny, I favor what I like to call the Klingon ethic. It is an ethic of courage, honor, and even of rejoicing in our animal instincts to kill the foe and beat one’s breast. To try to evolve past that “barbarism” (not that I think it’s not) would be decadent and effete. So the Christian ethic applies here but not there. And to see the difference is inconsistent but not hypocritical. Martin Luther was trying to express this insight when he called the hangman the Left Hand of God. The absurd impotence of Pacifists whose axioms lead them not to oppose tyranny is a perfect example of someone carrying a moral principle from its proper area into a different one where it doesn’t apply at all. Sometimes, as they say, you just have to set aside your principles and do what’s right!

Let’s pan back for a wider shot. Even the great meta-ethical systems, Teleological and Deontological ethics, must be used as tools, each in certain kinds of situations, as our best instincts whisper to us. This seems absurd, as each perspective would seem all-embracing. Teleology tells us that actions are rendered morally right according to their (intended) results, while Deontology (Kant’s preferred option) says we are always obliged to keep certain moral laws, no matter the result, let the chips fall where they may. Righteousness dwells nowhere else than in doing one’s prescribed duty for its own sake. I feel that Deontology usually does apply. It is the best answer to the cheater, for instance: he is doing something inherently degrading and shameful, I don’t care if his student aid is on the line. Too damn bad. But I find that the famous example of the murderer at the door draws a line where Deontology becomes absurd, even monstrous. We have reached the limits of the paradigm’s ability to deal with the data of experience, so we must seek another: Teleology. Which item in the tool box is best for the job at hand?

Do we need a comprehensive party-line? To have one presupposes we believe there is a moral calculus for everything, and a place for every possible action to fit in. But there probably isn’t. The resistance to neat categorization of things like abortion and stem-cell research shows how arbitrary it is to neatly carve up reality, as if it matched our game-board squares. We are in the position of settlers trying to make a hostile new continent amenable as a habitat. There is a lot of hard work to do, as well as answers to be discovered or created on the spot. The wretched stem-cell thing is a case in point. We all share the value of improving the human lot through medical innovation, and stem cell research serves that end. But if the cells come from unborn infants who will be cast aside in the process, this violates a different but equally valid good: that of protecting innocent human life. It is futile to accuse one another of knavishness for taking either side of the debate. To declare any answer the “right” one appears to be over-simplification. We just have to hash it out and take our best shot. We may decide to go ahead with the research at the cost of the unborn, as a matter of triage and lesser evils. Or we may be able to do an end run around the problem by discovering some alternate way of getting workable cellular material (which I gather is happening). We are winging it, creating morality as we go, and there is nothing else to do.

We do well to remember the contextual applicability of values. Most of us don’t agree with Kant that we owe the maniac the truth as to the whereabouts of his intended victim. We can tell pretty easily that the maxim “Do not lie” (not one of the Ten Commandments, by the way) is just not relevant in such a context. In the same way, “Freedom of speech” is not relevant to some nut’s inclination to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. And I for one think that “A woman’s right to choose” is simply not relevant once she is pregnant, since someone else’s rights are now involved. But I realize I am just calling them as I see them, which is what I am asking you to do, too.

Look what I have done here: I have defended a position rationalizing the simultaneous embrace of rules of thumb, methods, language games, each of which fits disparate aspects of experience and which cannot yet be harmonized into a single comprehensive system. Have I been fooling myself? Is my rationalization itself one more attempt at a comprehensive schema that will allow me to put everything into a place, like all the animals on Noah’s ark somehow not killing and eating each other? I don’t think so. I think I have managed to jury-rig a consistent stance, but a stance is more modest than a system. The six blind men, after all, were right insofar as they stuck to their private perceptions, albeit fragmentary, of what the elephant was. They only erred in thinking there would be nothing else to the pachyderm. I don’t pretend to know the form and outline of the whole elephant of reality. I touched the tusk, so that’s all I’m talking about.

I’ll stick with mini-maps of the little zones of reality I do visit. I don’t need a map of the universe to get to the pizza joint or the movie theatre, thanks. Who needs a worldview? Not me.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
April 2007


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