Poverty, Peace-making, Postmodernism, and the Heart-breaking Jerry Springer Show on Science Blogs?

            I haven’t posted for awhile. I’ve been visiting other blogs and doing a bit of writing on those sites, and it has made me sad, all over again. What Bethany just said in her comment (thank you), along with the courteous and thoughtful comments from the science side (Gavin and Hi) have given me much-needed comfort.  

           I’ve been depressed by the way that otherwise wonderful science blogs turn into the Jerry Springer Show the minute any mention of religious faith comes up.  And I’ve been thinking hard about it. And also, I’ve been discouraged by the scornful dismissals of postmodern theory on all sides, by scientists and (often) by thoughtful theology blogs as well. 

            I love science, theology, theory.  They are endlessly challenging, insightful, brilliant, nuanced, precise…. And I am sooo tired of these arguments, of hearing the same narrow-minded positions proclaimed over and over again.  Lately, I find myself obsessed with the word “irenic.” It means “peaceable,” or “contributing to peace.” (I can’t find it in my trusty American heritage Dictionary but it comes from the Greek word for peace and an early Christian bishop was named Irenaeus. Help me out, someone?)

           Irenic (eirenic?) interventions are something we all really need these days. I was pondering this — really,  it’s true — even before Bethany wrote her comment here on this same topic.  

           And I’ve been thinking about “the beautiful,” as when human minds working together in a disciplinary community come up with new and better ways of formalizing “the elegant formalities of things,” whose beauty and startling intelligibility started the liberal arts among the ancient Greeks. 

         And about “the humble human desire simply to know” (seen as a profoundly spiritual response to life and the natural world, undergirding both science and religion, in  John Haught’s profound book, Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, 1995).  As the Greek philosophers used to say: “The beautiful things are difficult.”

           Everywhere I go on the blogosphere, mostly to science or theology blogs, I  find thoughtful, perceptive, and often compassionate writing going on, and  genuine intellectual excitement.  But I also find people slinging stereotypes and derogatory language and (especially) amazingly dogmatic and narrow simplifications of all kinds, back and forth. I am so tired of refutation for its own sake. (The Sophists, anyone?)

            I think I am seeing that for me, my own work needs to be eirenic and to express the richness and beauty all of the genuine avenues of thought that have so enriched my own life journey: physics, the history of science, linguistics and literary theory, theism and theology, and the literature and philosophy from the Greeks, medievals, and Renissance thinkers.

             Hi is not the only person to have noticed my animus against the Cartesian paradigm, for instance (a viewpoint separating mind and matter, which has hurt me deeply in my life). But my animus has got to go! I have to stop writing polemically. (My former students will be disbelieving, at this point, I am sure!)

              I started this weblog conversation hoping to raise some interest in the lecture sessions on Plato and Aristotle (and on later theorists of “the literary fiction”) over on the right under “Pages.” But now, I want to recast all of that material, in order to place it in the context of this current American debate, and to direct it to speaking peaceably to the (rather vicious) conflicts between science and religion, and between  science and “cultural studies” (all the fields that deal with social and linguistic structures).

            I’m a theist, I’m a student of science, and I’m a poststructuralist thinker (because of an extensive training in continental linguistics) — I have three feet planted firmly in all three camps(!)  I don’t want to be polarized and polarizing, I refuse to get angry (God help me!), and I have read and listened sympathetically to all these communities of thought for decades. Most of all, I believe in the vision of the liberal arts and sciences! (That is: no one single kind of formalization works for all the  subject-matters humans desire to know about and to have a deeper contact with. )

              So I’m going to ask thoughtful and peaceable individuals from all the camps to “read some text with me,” as my grandfather would say…. One of the funniest and  wittiest of Plato’s dialogues, the one called “Ion,” in which the whole long history of conflict between “philosophy” (i.e. reason)  and “poetry” began.  Plato stages the first-ever debate between the “lit-crit” types and the science-geeks…. 

              I think the results will surprise all sides!

              Most of all, I want to re-introduce Palto’s original theory of the arts and sciences, or “what makes a way of knowing rigorous and legitimate, deserving of study by any thoughtful citizen who want to be a free and self-determining member of the city-state?” How do we evaluate any discipline, taking its different subject-matter seriously but also holding it to high standards of rigor?  This is precisely what Plato and Aristotle worked out, and it founded the great universities and worked for 2000-plus years.

           Ever since the rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Modern West, the arts and sciences have been divided against themselves, into two categories:  the”objective” (or “hard”) sciences and the “subjective” (or “fuzzy-wuzzy” —  “soft”-headed) arts.

             Yes, there are many differences, fascinating ones, between various fields, and science is remarkable in its own right, but there is not only one kind of knowledge and truth, because there is not only one subject-matter.  Everyone who’s studied this knows it, including the scientists, but it seems perfectly unknown to the scads of current debaters who are so heatedly abusing one another. Doesn’t anyone take courses on this?

             But I’m not going to rant, am I? I’m going to explain, irenically.             

             Maybe the older educational theory, which motivated such passionately dedicated thinking for about 2000 years in the West,  could serve once again as a useful and refreshing intervention, at our own moment in history. (Those older thinkers weren’t such slouches, after all.)

             If the various warring camps with their fortress mentalities could be distracted, entertained, and engaged by another way of looking at human knowing, one that offers some common ground but also some lucid distinctions, mightn’t this help? We could do with some fresh vocabulary; a new heuristic model, as Einstein would say (his 1905 papers).

             I think maybe it’s time for all the irenic people to stand up and say, we’re tired of all the yelling and name-calling, and we’re not going to do this anymore. We’re going to talk to each other.  We’re going to find some paradigms that might help us understand and evaluate each other more fairly and generously. More liberally.

             Most of all, maybe we’re going to stay faithful to our cherished disciplinary communities, by humbly trying to explain what is best in them, but we are also going to accept and humbly own the bad parts of our traditions. (Postmodern thought shows exactly how and why you can’t have a pure positivity; there are always the unpredictable shadow sides that emerge, because of the very nature of human thought structures themselves. This does NOT mean that science “is merely socially-constructed.” Lacan, for example, emphasizes the “objectivity” of science .) 

              Instead of flinching and denying, we are going to admit and study the many misuses of what we most deeply love, which have occurred now and in the past (whether it is science, religion,  postmodernism,  the Enlightenment, or all of the above). 

             If we can stop being so defensive, and try to look on all things with equanimity, and even magnanimity, then Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would all stand up and cheer! 

                   Now I’ll sign off, with just a couple of long-overdue mentions. 

                 1) I realize that readers, especially Hi, have brought up some very fundamental issues of fairness and self-critique that I haven’t yet responded to. (I certainly been been thinking about them.)  So I want you to know that I have been reviewing the famous Sokal hoax article (1996) and his follow-up book Fashionable Nonsense, the Postmodern Abuse of Science. It makes me heart-sick. I will post on this. (Many scientists have told me their negative impression of postmodernism comes from these Sokal sources. The book is so unfair, yet so plausible. Thanks for bringing up whether the Continental thinkers are “innocent” in this matter of abusing other disciplines, Hi, and making me research this book.)

             2) I saw a quip  on the science blog Pharyngula that really tells it like it is.  Something to the effect that “whenever I see a thread that’s gotten up to  more than 80-90 comments, I know that some fresh Christians must have turned up to be roasted.”

             How true! That same particular comment-thread is now up to #190 last I looked, with #185 being me, in fact, who gets roasted repeatedly, along with “Guy in the Pew.”  So if you want to read a much-deserved take-down of Sam Brownback’s op-ed piece in the NY Times (he’s one of the Republican Presidential candidates who raised his hand as not believing in evolution) and then a typical set of comments that will show you  a science blog turning into the Jerry Springer show as soon as any Christian writes in to say, “We aren’t ALL like Sam Brownback,” please “enjoy” yourselves there. It is very saddening, but characteristic. The militant defenders of Reason are just as reductive and closed-minded as the Fundamentalists…. And yet, before we condemn THEM,  don’t we all recognize in ourselves that joyful glee we feel when roasting a position that we deeply dislike, when we get together with our like-minded fellows?

               Finally, 3) Sojourners (a great group of progessive Evangelicals who have no problem with science — yes, they exist) has hosted John Edwards, Barak Obama, and Hilary Clinton to talk with them about the overwhelming biblical insistence that we care for the poor. Here’s the link if you want to listen to an excerpt from each candidate and you can also click there to email all the presidential candidates about addressing poverty and health-care.  (Jim Wallis is their leader — great political writer and thoughtful citizen.)               

              Now believe me, I really understand there’s a lot going on out there that could make any scientific person want to rend and tear and savage the nearest Christian. (A lot of us Christians struggle with the same impulse, as you’ll see at Sojourners.) But it’s the ugly, savaging tone of all the various factions that is the really terrible and rather terrifying thing these days. So please go to Sojourners and click to send those emails?            

14 thoughts on “Poverty, Peace-making, Postmodernism, and the Heart-breaking Jerry Springer Show on Science Blogs?

  1. June:

    As “The Guy in the Pew”, I have to agree with you about the discussion of the Brownback op-ed on PZ Meyers website–a very insightful discussion until a few of admitted to being Christians who beleive i evolution. I left logn before you did. You are braver than me. I will continue to read these blogs, but don’t know that it is very productive to engage in dialogue on them. the militant atheists make Jerry Falwell look tolerant.

    In any event, you blog is now on my news reader so there is a silver lining to the experience. (By the way, drop by my blog sometime! Grin).

  2. An excellent, thought-provoking post. I like the Science Bloggers, in general, but they are definitely weighted towards those derisive towards any kind of religion, across the board. It’s too bad, because they end up only reaching like-minded people, when they could be reaching people like you — the much-needed antidote to the conservative Christian movement…

  3. Janet

    Thanks Jennifer, but fear not, I love science too much to be alienated from these wonderful blogs, especially your own!

  4. Oh, I had no fear of that. :) You can handle the Science Bloggers. BTW, if you haven’t already, check out Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions. He’s a theist and one of his first posts at ScienceBlogs was on that subject.

  5. Janet

    One thing really makes me despair. Not a single person of all the people who read this post clicked on the sojourners website to send a ltter on poverty to the presidential candidates.

  6. JScarry

    One reason people have a hard time thinking that religious people are rational is because the people the most run into are like this one “A British teaching assistant is suing an elementary school in London after being disciplined for refusing to listen to a child read a “Harry Potter” book. ”
    These are real people that work to make schools and society conform to their bizarre beliefs. I’m sorry but their beliefs don’t deserve any respect. No one, not Dawkins, not PZ, nor any blogger or commenter that I’ve ever read has said that they should be stoned, jailed, or ostracized for their beliefs, unlike Mr Falwell who has said truly hateful things about people. The so-called “militant atheists” are doing nothing more than pointing out that a belief in fairies, hippogrifs, and gods are equally nonsensical. It is the beliefs that have no value, not the people.

  7. Are we to believe that this universe to which we are all bound by the same natural forces, is divided into separate truths? That would suggest some unrecognized law permits localized pockets of reality to exist inside universal reality — specifically bubbles of unique reality occupying human space. That would require Poetry and Music, for example, to have natural laws — and all natural laws can be examined by Science. Unless, of course, these arts are supernatural — in which case they could neither be observed nor measured. Thus we know if natural laws govern Poetry and Music, they must be natural in origin.

    Rhythm, common to both art forms, is the repetition of pattern as experienced by sensory organs and interpreted by the brain — the human brain to be precise. Yet Elephants can communicate many miles with ultra-low frequencies they generate with their enormous chests and sense with their feet. They too must have the ability to recognize patterns. And then there are the songs of Whales that do not display any repetition obvious to human standards. Does that preclude their sonic creations from being poetry or music? Does that mean truth is relative to species? And if so, what physical reality prohibits separate truths to exist on the individual level? What standard is their for any kind of truth?

    That’s why truth exists in only one form. Universal truth. Humans, Elephants, and Whales (oh my!) all share a brain mammalian in origin. We all use chemical/electrical impulses within the brain to sense the world, recognize patterns, analyze data, respond emotionally, and make decisions. All of those functions exist on the natural realm – not the supernatural. And so does the ability to deceive, to lie, to choose an explanation of reality that is not true.

    But the universe can not lie. It just is. From its point of view, lies do not alter reality but the perception of reality for a given organism. The actual reality continues to exist uninterrupted by the untruth held by the individual. Nor are there any divisions to truth. The rhythms of sound and light are just expressions of the fundamental properties of the lone, common universe.

    (No time to proofread – sorry for any errors – pizza is here!)

  8. I took the pledge! Thank you so much for writing this blog, Dr. Blumberg. It has been a source of encouragement to me in my studies since I started reading a couple weeks ago.

  9. Janet

    Thanks, Sara. Email me at my SPU address so I know who you are, okay?

    R Hampton, your remarks are so helpful. I realized that you are reading the exact same sentences I wrote and hearing something very different from what I was thinking. And I can now see why. So I have to be clearer.
    I believe in “genuine human knowing,” NOT in universal or absolute knowing, because those words universal and absolute come into usages this way during Enlightenment/Newtonian times. We’ve gotten much more sophisticated since then about the nature of our efforts to know.
    I am going back to Plato and Aristotle to show how we come to know things by working out and formalizing the Order within different kinds of phenomena. But different KINDS of things require us to think in different ways. A great musician is just as highly trained and formalistically aware as a great physicist or a great mathematician or a great semiotic theorist , but they are all using their minds rigorously (thinking), in different ways, with different methodologies and different standards of evidence. Yes, reality does not lie. But it is so complex that we know it ONLY AS WE ARE ABLE TO, which Plato and Aristotle first laid out as meaning that we know through the practicing of MANY different arts and sciences. There are laws in every field, and science cannot study many of them. They do not concern matter-in-motion on the fundamental level, which is science’s beat, but they are working with other levels and dimensions of our experience of reality. Does this make any sense? (P.S. Eventually it is possible everything could come under one grant TOE but we are nowhere near that!)
    I am NOT talking about “separate truths.” I am talking about the search for “truth about different KINDS of things.” What the Enlightenment and rise of science did on the postive side was to enable a vast new enterprise of scientific knowing. What it did on the negative side was to make us forget that the other non-scientific fields are also rigorous. Aristotle specifically pointed out that a discipline that deals with things that are not as highly determined as geometry or maths, for instance, should not be despised for trying to know them to the degree of determinacy that is possible for those kinds of things. The type of results (in terms of exact prediction, for instance) will be what is possible for THAT kind of thing. But today I hear some scientists saying, if it isn’t science then it isn’t knowing. Yet we all know this isn’t true, so then we start saying well, I suppose that subjective knowing has its place…. But no, there is an entire world of rigorous thought and knowing in between those spurious polar opposites of “objective” and “subjective” thinking.
    By the way, I’ve been reading Roder Penrose “The Road to Reality” and I wonder what you think about the incredible complexity of physical reality he deals with? These leading-edge thinkers have real doubts about our ability to know or hold in our minds anything like the complete reality of reality. And they think our current scientific paradigms will shift in huge and unpredictable ways before we get there. So will scientists please give the other fields a little break here, and stop dissing them because they don’t produce resluts science does? We are all trying to know our areas as hard as we can and should be supporting one another!

  10. But you are, in fact, talking about “separate truths” because of two reasons:

    1) “There are laws in every field, and science cannot study many of them.”

    Science is nothing more than a rational process of observation > postulation > experimentation > validation > dissemination > peer evaluation. The ancient Greeks were well versed in Reason, but without methodical testing of their “philosophies,” even the greats like Plato came to believe in false concepts like the Four Elements. If you want to study a true master of observation and reason, then study Archimedes. Using the same basic tools of thought as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Archimedes went beyond reasoned opinions to discover actual Universal truths.

    But perhaps more applicable to this conversation is Leonardo Da Vinci, who, applying the same thought processes, learned as much about Art as Science. He carefully observed the world around him, noting the mathematical symmetries of life from which human psychology derives the concept of beauty. But what “Truth” is there to Beauty (Art) when it is entirely dependent upon the individual’s tastes? The reality, as described by Science, is that the formulation of concepts such as Beauty are subjective whereas Symmetry is objective. Leonardo understood Reality’s truth, and so was able to paint and sculpt surprisingly objective representations. Leonardo also understood the culture in which he lived, and therefore created works to please the subjective tastes of his clients.

    2) “I believe in “genuine human knowing”

    The Universe has existed for billions of years without us, and billions more when we depart. At no point before, during, or after human occupation will Reality have been altered unless universal forces so alter it. Our notions about subjective concepts like Beauty are unquestionably human. But I have to admit to myself that humanity by itself is not the measure of the Universe, but only of ourselves. Non-human life has as much right to opine on the nature of Beauty as does Plato and Aristotle, and to believe in its own self-evident “truths.”

    So if you’re really “NOT talking about ‘separate truths,’ then Beauty must be Universal. Hence, its laws can thus be understood regardless of time, place, or species. Because there is only one reality, Truth can never be reasoned opinion — although it’s a good place to start the methodical examination that leads to discovery.


    “These leading-edge thinkers have real doubts about our ability to know or hold in our minds anything like the complete reality of reality.”

    One of the great shortcomings of humanity is our habit of using our own consciousness and abilities as a model to understand the consciousness of others. Rare conditions like Synaesthesia and Savant Syndrome, and rare individuals like Newton and Mozart show just how adapt the human mind can be intuiting the Universal patterns of reality. Frankly, I doubt that any philosophy unbound by Science will ever be amount to anything more than relative truths.

  11. Janet

    RHampton, I cannot resist asking you….
    So do you think our universe had to be exactly the way it has been? Or could it have gone in a somewhat different direction at any point, or even at each point (quantum indeterminacy)? Is where our universe is headed absolutely predetermined or, if we knew everything about it, would there be any indeterminacy about its future? Is ours the only universe? If not, are the others run by the same exact Universal laws (that’s what Universal means, after all)? Could there be other universes, with different laws? What is the absolute and final reality — our universe as it has and will be, or the Universal laws that run it, or if there can be many universes, the Hyper-Univeral laws that underlie all of those sets of universal laws? Or are there mathematical laws or possible mathematical universes out there existing somewhere, quite apart from whether there is an actual universe in which they are operating? Are there any parts of our own universe that might obey very different physical laws? If so, are they only part of a those laws and the ones we know only subsets of a deeper set of laws? I’m curious about how you would answer some of these questions.

  12. Those are possibilities being explored by Physicists today as they try to unite quantum and relativistic models of the universe. As of yet, there are no good answers.

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