Monday, May 15, 2006

Christians, contingency and crisis

Stephen Jay Gould on Freud:

"Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud's three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to ‘descent from an animal world’; and, finally Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind."

One of the nice things about pragmatism is that it knocks the arrogance of statements like this off their own pedestal. I don't know if Gould is paying any attention to the way that people continue to operate in 2006, but as far as I can tell, these revolutions have limited bearing on the average person's life: what they do have the most bearing on is the people who spend all day thinking about them, like Gould or Freud. To say that human arrogance has been knocked off its pedestal has to involve a claim about the way the entirety of humanity operated in the past--so you'd have to assert that in the 12th century, say, every single person alive was arrogant about their own self-importance, and now they're not. On the contrary--despite the fact that past thinkers might have insisted on some cosmic silliness, like that the earth was at the center of the universe, this was still a belief that was dictated to them by the ruling class. Whether to live in the universe of the South American tribes, whose harvests were arbitrarily forced on them by capricious gods demanding human sacrifice, or that of Gould's mechanistic loneliness: what a choice! I'll take neither, thanks. The victims of the black plague in the 14th century were offered no comfort by their or the clergy's cosmology, and neither is Gould offered any by his view of the universe. Luther was terrified by God; Pascal was terrified by the beginning of science.

I made the point here that beliefs are flexible creatures. That we live on a planet orbiting the sun, and that we most likely evolved, has about as much bearing on how most people keep doing the things they love as any. Gould thinks he's being purely scientific, but he's not: he's offering normative claims about how people should live disguised as pure empiricism. How we put beliefs and scientific statements into practice is largely but not completely up to us, as Rorty points out.

Maybe Gould could have gotten Kim Jong-Il to set North Korea free by telling him that our self-importance has been irrevocably shattered by the advance of science.

10 Comments:

At 12:59 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Nice post. I agree. We lost a lot of good men down there.

 
At 3:08 PM, Blogger Mair said...

"...this was still a belief that was dictated to them by the ruling class."

UNCLE KARL LIVES!!! :o)

 
At 5:39 PM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Charles, good work. My only concern is that discussing Rorty forces you to deal with Douglas Groothius' enlightening comment on his project: "Ethics: [godless] postmodern style". I don't think there is any way out of that one.

 
At 3:10 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

“I don't know if Gould is paying any attention to the way that people continue to operate in 2006, but as far as I can tell, these revolutions have limited bearing on the average person's life: what they do have the most bearing on is the people who spend all day thinking about them, like Gould or Freud.”

I don’t think I agree with that. First of all, average people don’t matter. They don’t decide anything. Elites – what you call “people who spend all day thinking” – matter. Elites set the terms by which average people live and set the vocabulary by which average people justify those lives. That is why, in making normative statements, we reference elites and not the average person. The Medici define the normative character of the Reneisance, not the peasant, even for the peasant.

Which brings me to my second point: I don’t think we can make a sharp distinction between the beliefs of people like Gould and Freud and average people. By setting the terms and providing the justification, what elites hold to be true trickles down to average people, although that process of trickling down severely degrades the sample. So, for instance, most people have never read Freud or have ever made use psychiatric health care, but order their lives around a therpeutic ethic – one that minimizes psychic destress. Now, they couldn’t attribute that to Freud, but that is where it comes from. Every time Mrs. Midwest uses her electric can opener, takes a Prozac, thinks about the dream she had last night, or worries about her daughter’s “self-esteem,” she is actualizing normative ordering principles that she has inherited from, among other elites, Freud.

“To say that human arrogance has been knocked off its pedestal has to involve a claim about the way the entirety of humanity operated in the past--so you'd have to assert that in the 12th century, say, every single person alive was arrogant about their own self-importance, and now they're not.”

I don’t think it involves any such claim. Gould (and Freud) was making a normative statement, not a demographic statement. Again, he is referencing elites and is making a cultural claim; one that gets at the unquested asumptions by which all of society is ordered. Those assumptions are so embedded and taken-for-granted that they are rarely discussed or acknowledged, yet they have strong implications for what and how people think, how instutions operate, what constitutes true and false; right and wrong. Simply because people diagree with it in a demographic sense, doesn’t mean that the assumption isn’t an unquested, ordering principle in their society (e.g. there are quite a few people who in 2006 think the Earth is flat, but a) would acknowlege that the round-Earthers set the terms and b) accept other basic assumptions that are rooted in the round-Earther worldview).

“On the contrary--despite the fact that past thinkers might have insisted on some cosmic silliness, like that the earth was at the center of the universe, this was still a belief that was dictated to them by the ruling class.”

But I don’t understand; that is how knowledge works (actually, it is not only dictated by the ruling class, but by language, art, institutions, and all sorts of things). You and I don’t make up ordering principles as we go; we assume all sorts of things that are “dictated” to us as taken-for-granted ordering principles. That is inescapable; that was my point about elites. So I don’t exactly understand how Pragmatism – or anything really – gets at that.

“Gould thinks he's being purely scientific, but he's not: he's offering normative claims about how people should live disguised as pure empiricism. How we put beliefs and scientific statements into practice is largely but not completely up to us, as Rorty points out.”

I absolutely agree that Gould is not being straightforward about what he is doing. I am completely with you that this is a normative claim whether or not he will fess up to it. What I don’t understand is how, if what I said above is true, then Rorty’s point can be true. Interpretation, belief, “facts”, knowledge, taste, etc. almost never operate at the conscious level. You accept that your name is Charles as much as you accept that rocks are hard and can give no justification for it, only account. At a normative level, everyone accepts that the Earth goes round the Sun and that we have a subconscious and we operate as if that we true. We (normatively) don’t question that and cannot justify it and we remember our dreams and don’t beat our kids and have NASA because it. It makes a huge difference in how people live completely apart from how they chose to assimilate it.

 
At 4:32 PM, Blogger Hans-Georg Gadamer said...

Two comments:

1. This is one of the best statements in history:
"First of all, average people don’t matter. They don’t decide anything. Elites – what you call “people who spend all day thinking” – matter."

J. Morg, where would we be without you?

2. I think J. Morg is making quite similar claims to those made by Alvin Plantinga in his whole debate about warrant and properly basic beliefs, so I am total for that. Beliefs definitely spend most of their time in the subconscious level unless we take them out to polish and repair them from time to time (say on a bench in a sunny park or something). Therefore God exists. q.e.d.

 
At 7:28 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

That's an amazing post, JMC. But isn't Charles correct to specifically note that "human arrogance" has not been much shifted by these scientific revolutions? (I don't mean that as a rhetorical question.)

The elites are arrogant in their way, and the non-elites in theirs; arrogance finds new rationalizations, or does without rationalization and is arrogant just because it can be. People are self-centered now in a Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian universe rather than in whatever one they lived in before.

 
At 10:05 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

“But isn't Charles correct to specifically note that "human arrogance" has not been much shifted by these scientific revolutions…. People are self-centered now in a Copernican, Darwinian, Freudian universe rather than in whatever one they lived in before.”

Yeah, I absolutely agree with that; sorry that I didn’t make that more clear. I guess the unstated premise of my point was that Gould (and Freud) had something very specific in mind (Genesis 1:27) when they made this claim. My sense is that arrogant here is understood in terms of the cosmology that ordered all of existence before Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, which was one that is (objectively, to them) arrogant in the sense that it is homocentric (and claimed/s human privilege). That is why I agreed so strongly that this is a normative judgment dressed up as an empirical one. From Gould’s perspective, though – and I think this is crucial to understanding him - the point is an empirical one: culture really was homocentric despite the objective reality (the one we know now) that humankind is not at the center of things, is descended, and is not completely rational.

To clarify then, my objections, I guess, concerned a) the nature of Gould’s claim and b) how Pragmatism gets around the problems pointed out in the post.

 
At 11:08 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

J. morgan: thanks for the analysis. Dadman: thanks for the support. Let's deal with this statement first:

"Culture really was homocentric despite the objective reality (the one we know now) that humankind is not at the center of things, is descended, and is not completely rational."

I think I agree with that on some level--but what exactly does it mean for the people of the 12th century? That's what I'm not clear on, and I'm open to suggestions/discussion.

As for your question about pragmatism, I can answer that. Beliefs assented to don't dictate conduct the way that some people think they should. This gets into all sorts of thorny doxastic issues, but the point is that it seems (to me at least) that Gould really thinks that the new cosmology should somehow force people to act a certain way (in this case, with less arrogance.) That it doesn't is an empirical fact we need to take into account. Can we agree about that?

Your insight that

"You and I don’t make up ordering principles as we go"

cuts both ways--just as we can't make them up, so we cannot simply reorder our lives every time there is a shift in the science of the day. This is why cultural history (Nietzsche) and sociology (Mair) is so damn hard.

 
At 4:42 PM, Anonymous dadman said...

Thanks, JMC. I get it. The regnant cosmology was overthrown, but of course human arrogance in an everyday sense of the word was not, and you and Charles are both sniffing out Gould making normative claims in the guise of descriptive ones. All of us, including Gould, are playing with the different senses of "arrogant," which leads to Charles's interesting question about the way beliefs shape behaviors.

 
At 10:10 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...

“Beliefs assented to don't dictate conduct the way that some people think they should. This gets into all sorts of thorny doxastic issues, but the point is that it seems (to me at least) that Gould really thinks that the new cosmology should somehow force people to act a certain way (in this case, with less arrogance.) That it doesn't is an empirical fact we need to take into account. Can we agree about that?”

We can absolutely agree about that. I am on board and I think you are right that, as dadman pointed out, in at least one sense of Gould’s use of arrogant, he is making a moral claim about how people should act or understand themselves (which, empirical, as you have pointed out, they don’t). I am also on board that there is no one-to-one correlation between belief and action.

That said, it gets again tricky when beliefs that aren’t at the level of assent come into play. For example, I don’t in any meaningful way assent to the belief that your name is Charles; it is nothing more than an unquestioned / unquestionable assumption. Yet, it directly influences – maybe even determines – my conduct. I call out “Charles” in a crowded room when I want your attention, rather than calling out, “Norman.” To do the former would be unjustifiable in any real sense, only accountable (it would entail probably an empirical appeal like “…because his name IS Charles”); to do the latter would either be a) impossible for me to imagine doing, b) senseless and unintelligible to those around me, or c) require explanation and justification to make imaginable, sensible, and/or intelligible.

This is where linguistic / structural / cosmological issues come into play. So, you say:

“I think I agree with that on some level--but what exactly does it mean for the people of the 12th century? That's what I'm not clear on, and I'm open to suggestions/discussion.”

I understand the implications of the above to be that the range of possible beliefs - that is, those things to which I actually and/or meaningfully assent - is limited by the range of linguistic / structural / cosmological assumptions available to me. A person, then, in the 12th century, I would argue, had a different range of things to which (s)he could give assent than we do in the 21st century.

Because I don’t know anything about how common people actually lived in the 12th century, I will just use my earlier example of the people who, in 2006, believe that the Earth is flat. These people, despite their beliefs (and however that may play out in terms of how they consciously act), cannot help but affirm that which they overtly disbelieve because it has become structurally foundational (e.g. their kids probably wear Velcro shoes, even though Velcro is an actualization of a whole set of assumptions they reject). It becomes, then, increasingly difficult to believe that the Earth is flat because the range of beliefs has shifted and the new beliefs have attained structural, cosmological dominance. That is why Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud are important; they have altered the unquestionable, foundational assumptions that function as the boundaries of beliefs.

So, for most people, what is assumed to be true and, as a result, to be foundational, influences – maybe determines - a lot about how they live and what they do and think, just maybe not at the level of meaningful assent. Once belief moves out of the structural and into the agential, we can’t necessarily talk like Gould and Freud.

 

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