Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pessimistic about Pessin

Both Jerry Coyne and Jim at Apple Eaters have worked over a thoroughly confused article written for the Huffington Post by Andrew Pessin, chair of philosophy at Connecticut College. I want to attack it from a different angle, however. At first glance it seems to be a piteously easy target; Pessin unveils what he thinks is a panacea to religiously motivated political and social conflict. He somehow thinks the missing key is to have believers

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Got it? You can simultaneously be certain that Christianity is true and everything conflicting with it is false, and yet acknowledge that you may be wrong without taking away your certainty. You can thus keep your certainties without having to claim that you are, in fact, and grossly implausibly, infallible. It's what everyone (other than bakers) has yearned for since time immemorial: the proverbial cake, both eaten yet had!

Yup, that's basically it. Not only is it logically confused, it's not even that new. As Jim points out

He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along. But why would he think this? There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet.

Pessin's argument is truly embarrassing, not least because he completely misses the way in which religious violence is often predicated on just the sort of muddled mindset he wants us to adopt. Religions are, at core, a set of rationally indefensible beliefs that the believer is ordered to protect from all inquiry and doubt (Yes, the miracle of faith!). This means trouble of course; in their everyday lives every human is constantly using reason to make their way about the world. When I get up from my laptop and head to the kitchen to make more green tea I'm going to have to make countless judgments informed by past evidence to guide my actions: walk around that box on the floor and not through it, use the doorhandle to open the door otherwise it will be rather difficult to get to the next room, it's inadvisable to try and drink the tea faster by placing the teabag on my tongue and pouring the boiling water straight out of the kettle and into my mouth, etc. This applies just as much to believers, or else they would never be able to get out of their house in the morning in time to make it to their “Xtreme Teen Bible Reading”. All this (often unconscious) reasoning with regards to how to navigate our material environment predisposes us to prefer confirmation to uncertainty.

Thus, for the believer, having to quarantine and protect their unfounded beliefs from the sort of reasoning they use everyday makes them very sensitive to any sort of threat to their contradictory mental balancing act. Certainly the theme of “great doubt” and “the dark night of the soul” popping up interminably in religious literature tells us that this contradiction is alive and kicking in the hearts of believers, not to mention the ubiquitous praise of faith.

This tension is present in formal religious institutions no less than in each individual believer. Throughout history religions that have attained political power have found scriptural justification for executing heretics and doubters of all kinds. These are all examples of defense mechanisms that have accumulated in the ideological structure of religion. Comprehensive knowledge structures (ideologies) that must protect unjustified beliefs from critique and inquiry accumulate such little gems or perish. We can see these defenses at work most blatantly in religion but also in one other significant area- political ideologies! We don't see these sorts of “epistemological quarantine” as internal features of science and philosophy, but we do see them when science is distorted in the service of political concerns. Political ideologies that are dependent on covering up power relations or embarrassing facts in order to keep exploited populations quiet have these very same mechanisms. Ask any dissident who has been denounced for being “unpatriotic”, a “traitor”, “not a real american”, or simply “crazy”. Without these safety measures present, no religious knowledge structure would have lasted for long without being whittled down to a toothless deism.

What follows from this, I think, is that we must see the repeated history of vicious inter-religious warfare as deeply connected to this “epistemological quarantine” demand that is right at the heart of religion qua religion. The repeated attempts by religions, once they have attained hegemony, to "cleanse" themselves of heretical elements are partly an outgrowth of this unavoidable tension. Pessin, then, is mistaking one of the causes of disease for its cure. Encouraging believers to simultaneously ramp up their “certainty” while constantly encountering threats to that fragile, cherished certainty is a dangerous prescription.

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