A fascinating discussion of Dawkins and Eagleton by Asad Raza over at www.3quarksdaily.com — suggests that it isn’t just atheists and believers who are talking right past each other in the current heated conflicts between science and religion — in these conflicts that are keeping me up at night on a vigil for the the life of the mind….
No, Raza suggests that “the rhetorical excess [of both Eagleton and Dawkins] does not belong to the debate about God itself, but to their competing disciplines, which struggle for social capital and resources.”
According to Raza, then, it’s the same old story of the “two cultures”? The sciences vs the humanities? Empiricism vs culture studies? The same old classical modern impasse. But hang on a minute. We aren’t in that era anymore!
Now do you realize, gentle readers, that some of you who are reading this post are English majors, some of you are physicists, some are scholar-teachers, some are grad students in theory, and some are former honors students of mine, who used to be drawn from every single major across campus, all of you (as I came to know) personally scarred in various ways by our entrenched cultural divisions between science and faith, and yet learning that if you could stop competing and listen to one another for awhile, there wasn’t a single discipline on campus that couldn’t bring a (different) healing perspective to the common problem?
I can’t do anything about the personal and factional pettiness of human beings, or the political pressures that are inflaming the climate of opinion today, or the constant testosterone wars that go on in academia (and elsewhere), or the fearful defensiveness that marks all our rhetoric at times. But I can deal very efficaciously with the intellectual issues of why we don’t understand each other even when we are trying to.
Why? Because I’m a great teacher of theory and epistemology. I can leverage you right out of this culture we’re in and immerse you in other thought-worlds. I can teach you “not to patronize the past and to view the present as itself a period.” I can give you insightful and liberating perspectives on the historical development of science and of Christianity in the West.
Why can I do this? (And why do you care?) Because I so very deeply believe that “it is natural to all human beings to desire to come to know.” That’s Aristotle, of course, and he and Plato and the martyred Socrates before them all passionately loved to think.
They invented “the arts and sciences,” and ever since then, for 2400 years, Westerners have been fired by their vision of the vitality and power of the life of the mind. And now, when a Western-style education is no longer confined to those born in the West, the rigorous and pluralistic dialectical conversations the Greeks originally envisioned as our deepest joy and satisfaction as human beings — and the Christian thinkers who came after them for 1400 years wholeheartedly agreed with them — can be that much more fascinating and thrilling than ever before.
The legacy of theoretical analysis has so much grace to offer us right now, if only we are willing to grasp it anew. This is why I want to teach how to “think theory,” no matter who you are or what your background is. I want to teach about the ways the most brilliant minds in philosophy have theorized about how we come to know as human beings.
And I can do this — because I’ve worked all my life to figure out how to do it. I can do this because my branches of philosophy are literary theory and epistemology (“the formal study of how humans come to know, and how they know that they know, when they think they do”). And for a long, long time I have wanted to explain these things, just the same way I now see gifted physicists on their popular weblogs explaining the complexities of all the various branches and sub-branches of physics to the uninitiated and partially initiated. (Check out Mark on “Why E=Mc^2” at www.cosmicvariance.com)
Theorists and philosophers — direct inheritors of the Greek vision — have come to a sorry pass if they talk only to one another in esoteric journals and at conferences, and in such highly specialized languages that the public is excluded. (Raza, btw, has a marvelous quote from Zizek, the only current theorist who talks pop-culture.) Of course, most theoretical work must be done on that highest level. But its fruits belong to everyone by right, because it belongs to all “who desire to come to know. “
What I want to convey vividly is how the Greeks believed that we can only come to know because there is order in the world. But they did not believe there was only one kind of order. On the contrary, they observed that every kind of thing in the world has its own formal kind of order, and every discipline must therefore have its own way of thinking rigorously.
I can show you how and why we lost sight of this for awhile in the West, during the birth of the Modern Era, and how the twentieth-century critique of modernity (and current postmodern thought) has given it back to us.
I can help you think through the very different kinds of evidence and discovery-procedures and validity-testing in each of the arts and sciences, and the way that different modes of thought open up different avenues of learning for us, but also limit our knowing at the same time.
This last is a tough pill to swallow, but I believe it is the irreducible paradox of later twentieth-century thought, and it has led us towards (a redemptive) epistemological humility. (And no, this isn’t relativism, either. It is a rigorous and lucid intelligibility for our times, even though it in turn will need to be rethought and superceded by those who follow us….)
All you need to do is work your way with me through the course sessions I’m placing to the right (under Pages). I’ll keep weblogging and I’ll keep posting excerpts from those sessions, but you need to think your way through the course-sessions, bit by bit. Print the first one out. Put it in the bathroom. Take it with you hiking. Do whatever it takes!
There’s going to be one problem, though. If you’re not a theist, you’ll have to get over the fact that I am one. And if you’re a Christian, you’ll have to get over the fact that you disagree with me, perhaps profoundly, on some things regarding faith.
Trust me, though, I will be utterly responsible in teaching my discipline. You’ll learn a lot of philosophy. And if you think I’m being sloppy or dishonest or biased or polemical, just say so. But if the sessions are (perish the thought) boring, well, for heavens sake do something else!
But I’m not going to hide my full humanity from you in my lectures. I’m going to ask you to accept me as the whole person (and the flawed person) I am. It’s part of that epistemological humilty I was talking about.