Archive for February, 2008

There are 10 kinds of people…

…those who know binary and those who don’t.

Russell Jacoby knows binary and likes it!  For Jacoby, there are two kinds of people:  those, like Jacoby, who think in binary oppositions, and those who think that things are (or ought to be made) more complicated.

Here’s an example of what we’re talking about:  In the February 15, 2008, issue of Commonweal, William T. Cavanaugh reviews George Weigel’s latest book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihad:  A Call to Action (pp. 21-23).  The essence of Cavanaugh’s critique is that Weigel is a “binary” thinker, and that the situation is far more complicated than Weigel sees it:

Weigel approvingly quotes David Gelernter: They believe in and cultivate death; they are the party of death. And we are the party of life-and they hate us for that and hope to destroy us because of it. They do not hate us because of the coup in 1953; or because we used to support Saddam and the Shah; or because we currently support repressive regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Indonesia; or because UNESCO said that our sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq were causing a half-million children to die each year and Madeline Albright said it was ‘worth it’ (she later called that ‘a mistake’); or because our military occupies two Muslim countries; or because we give carte blanche to Israeli occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory; or because of Abu Ghraib or Halliburton or Guantanamo Bay or ‘extraordinary rendition.’ No. They hate us because they hate life. Such self-serving hogwash ironically reproduces the worldview of jihadism: the binary division of the world into good and evil, the dehumanization of the enemy, and the inability to engage in self-criticism. [p. 22]

Cavanaugh wishes to complicate matters for Weigel.  A political philosophy–if that’s what you’d call it–of Good vs. Evil, the “West” vs. the “Rest,” etc., tends to idolize “our” side and demonize “their” side.  Other than for purposes of demagoguery, it is practically useless for analysis.

Cavanaugh is arguing that to miss the complications of the situation is to misunderstand it and to ultimately provide a false and unreliable analysis.  But could it be argued that Cavanaugh is overly-complicating things?  Isn’t it arguable that there are some meaningful differences between the “West” and the “Rest,” differences that look a lot like binary opposites?  For instance, check out what Mark Steyn has to say about the situation (and the struggle) of women in the “West” vs. in (a large segment of) the “Rest.”

What would it mean to “over-complicate” matters?  What is at stake in complicating matters?  Russell Jacoby, in a bit of a rant in the Chronicle Review (“Not to complicate matters, but…“), wonders where an apparent new-found enthusiasm among academics for complicating matters comes from.

The world is complicated, but how did “complication” turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn’t scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or – egad! – simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?

The refashioning of “complicate” derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to “problematize,” “contextualize,” “relativize,” “particularize,” and “complexify.” They will denounce anything that appears “binary.” They will see “multiplicities” everywhere. They will add “s” to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like “pluralistic,” “heterogenous,” “elastic,” and “hybridities.” A call for “coherence” will arrest the discussion. Isn’t that “reductionist”?

Okay, academics–especially, perhaps, postmodern academics–are easy to poke fun at.  But I am certainly no great fan of “reductionism,” and Jacoby knows full well that the world is a complicated place and that simplistic explanations just won’t do if we are to attain any deep insights.  “Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous.”  But his concern is that

The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can “complicate” our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be “problematized.” We rejoice in discarding “binary” approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing – once again – that everything varies by circumstances. We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity. We seem to believe that truth and falsehood is a discredited binary opposite. It varies according to time and place. “It depends,” answer my students to virtually every question I ask. That notion permeates campus life.

In Jacoby’s piece, all this is a wind-up the specific episode that aroused his ire, a few lines from UCLA’s statement on academic honesty that appears in official exam books, lines that would be hilarious if they weren’t pathetic.  The statement asserts that there are “alternatives to academic dishonesty”!  Jacoby teases:  besides academic honesty, how many alternatives are there?  Here is an example, says Jacoby, of the deleterious effects of “complicating” things.  If that’s all he’s means, no one in her / his right mind would disagree. (Did I just over complicate that sentence…?)  This “policy” statement is simply foolish.

This discussion, I think, illustrates yet again the “sweet spot” in which we need to be:  between “idolatry” and “foolishness,” between thinking that things are simple and that we have all the answers once and for all, and thinking that nothing can be said for fear of falling into “binary oppositions” or “metaphysics” or “privileged regimes of ‘truth’.”

There are two kinds of problem:  Thinking “that (whatever “that” may be…) says it all” and thinking “nothing meaningful can be said.”  As Jacoby rightly notes, over-privileging “non-privileging” can lead to all sorts of nonsense.  But a lot of the “ingredients” that Jacoby denigrates in his recipe for foolishness are, in fact, necessary to keep us appropriately humble in our quest for truth.

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Some friendly advice…

Make for thyself a definition or description of the thing which is presented to thee, so as to see distinctly what kind of a thing it is, in its substance, in its nudity, in its complete entirety, and tell thyself its proper name, and the names of the things of which it has been compounded, and into which it will be resolved.  For nothing is so productive of elevation of mind as to be able to examine methodically and truly every object which is presented to thee in life, and always to look at things so as to see at the same time what kind of universe this is, and what kind of use everything performs in it, and what value everything has with reference to the whole, and what with reference to man, who is a citizen of the highest city, of which all other cities are like families; what each thing is, of what it is composed, and how long it is the nature of this thing to endure.

–Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

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Peripatetic Potpourri

Ram Manikkalingam offers his recollections over at Three Quarks Daily of sitting in Roberto Unger‘s class with Barack Obama.  Manikkalingam nicely summarizes Unger’s voluminous writings in political theory and “critical legal studies” by telling us that Unger argues for

a world of economic and political experimentation, where the state’s function is to first provide the social and political tools (including insurance for individual and collective failures) to encourage innovation, and then to get out of the way. Innovate and experiment, till things get stuck, either because the strategy has failed, or you have come to a fork in the political road. Then let the people decide how to get unstuck through a plebiscite.  The heroic class of his theory are the petty bourgeoisie, dismissed by marxists, and disregarded by liberals.  He believes they are the wellspring of innovation as the classic boundary crossing group – finding new ways of surviving in an institutional and ideological environment that is inhospitable to them.

I am intrigued by the idea of the petite bourgeoisie as a “boundary crossing group,”  and I’ll have to consider whether transdisciplinary work (an eminently boundary crossing endeavor) is nothing but petite bourgeoisie thinking (and whether that is necessarily bad…).

Over at An und für sich, alert contributor “Adam,” fresh from his jaunt on the “way-back machine,” evidently, found Kant commenting on Zizek (and I’m thinking lots of other writers, too).

Jack Caputo responds to some readers of his his latest book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, at the Church and Postmodern Culture blog.  You can read an except of Caputo’s book  along with other reviews and comments at the Global Spiral.  And Bruce Ellis Benson reviews the book for Christianity Today.

Negri reviews Agamben [.pdf] at the Journal for Culture and Religious Theory (nice score for my friends over there!).

Robert Bellah has a new piece posted at the Immanent Frame entitled, “Religious Reasons and Secular Revelations.”  Here’s some wisdom:

Since the religious life is no more lacking in rational argument than any other sphere of human life, whenever religious views are expressed that bear on issues in the public sphere, it is legitimate to argue with them not only in terms of their implications for the common life, but also as to the adequacy of their expression of religious truth. If in my view a commitment to radical individualism not linked to an equally radical commitment to the common good undermines the very existence of a democratic society, then I can make that argument on purely secular grounds. But if that position is put forward on biblical grounds, I am equally entitled to argue that the Bible, taken as a whole, does not support such a view. In short, argument is argument, and once something is in the public sphere it can claim no privilege of revelation. No one, secular or religious, has to prove the validity of his or her transforming encounters. But as soon as one draws publicly relevant conclusions from those encounters, then one must defend them in public discourse.

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New Peripatetic Praxis Blog Rules

Now, you don’t have to enter your name or email address to comment.  Just comment.  Politely.


your email address

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ISSR issues statement on Intelligent Design

The authors of this statement constitute a group set up for the purpose by the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. Through a process involving consultation with all members of the Society, the statement has now been accepted by the Executive Committee for publication as a statement made on behalf of the Society.

The Society retains the copyright of the statement, but gives general permission to reproduce it, in whole or in part, provided that the statement in the paragraph immediately preceding this is reproduced.

The International Society for Science and Religion is a scholarly society devoted to ongoing dialogue between the sciences and the community of world faiths (see It was established in 2002 for the purpose of promoting education through the support of interdisciplinary learning and research in the fields of science and religion, conducted where possible in an international and multi-faith context.

The society greatly values modern science, while deploring efforts to drive a wedge between science and religion. Science operates with a common set of methodological approaches that gives freedom to scientists from a range of religious backgrounds to unite in a common endeavor. This approach does not deny the existence of a metaphysical realm but rather opens up the natural world to a range of explorations that have been incredibly productive, especially over the last 400 years or so.

The intelligent-design (ID) movement began in the late 1980s as a challenge to the perceived secularization of the scientific community, which leaders of the movement maintained had been coloured with the philosophy of atheistic naturalism. ID theorists have focused their critique primarily on biological evolution and the neo-Darwinian paradigm. They claim that because certain biological features appear to be “irreducibly complex” and thus incapable of evolving incrementally by natural selection, they must have been created by the intervention of an intelligent designer. Despite this focus on evolution, intelligent design should not be confused with biblical or “scientific” creationism, which relies on a particular interpretation of the Genesis account of creation.

We believe that intelligent design is neither sound science nor good theology. Although the boundaries of science are open to change, allowing supernatural explanations to count as science undercuts the very purpose of science, which is to explain the workings of nature without recourse to religious language.  Attributing complexity to the interruption of natural law by a divine designer is, as some critics have claimed, a science stopper. Besides, ID has not yet opened up a new research program. In the opinion of the overwhelming majority of research biologists, it has not provided examples of “irreducible complexity” in biological evolution that could not be explained as well by normal scientifically understood processes. Students of nature once considered the vertebrate eye to be too complex to explain naturally, but subsequent research has led to the conclusion that this remarkable structure can be readily understood as a product of natural selection. This shows that what may appear to be “irreducibly complex” today may be explained naturalistically tomorrow.

Scientific explanations are always incomplete. We grant that a comprehensive account of evolutionary natural history remains open to complementary philosophical, metaphysical, and religious dimensions. Darwinian natural history does preempt certain accounts of creation, leading, for example, to the contemporary creationist and ID controversies. However, in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels.  In many religious traditions, such as some found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the notion of intelligent design is irrelevant We recognize that natural theology may be a legitimate enterprise in its own right, but we resist the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science – just as we oppose efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism).

Those interested can find information on recommended reading and other resources at the ISSR website:

The “ID” issue has certainly not gone away, despite the resounding legal rebuff in the Dover case (see especially Judge Jones’ ruling, complete text here [pdf].)  Just this week the state of Florida mandated that “evolution” be taught in the schools.  I put the term “evolution” in quotation marks because the science standards in Florida did not even mention the word until these changes were adopted.  No wonder Florida students posted some of the worst science test scores in the country.  And evolution still won’t be on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test until 2012!

A key sticking point in this story is that critics tried to insert language safeguarding “academic freedom” for teachers who resist evolution–a move that failed.  Instead, the proposed change to the language of the standards was shifted from simply “evolution” to “the scientific theory of evolution.”  Many news outlets reported that the language was a hedge, trumpeting to the effect that “Florida mandates teaching of evolution, but only as a mere theory.”  But “only” and “mere” have nothing to do with scientific theories–that’s just popular parlance.  As Brandom Keim at Wired astutely put it:

Not only will Florida’s students learn about evolution; they’ll also learn that the scientific definition of a theory is different from the everyday definition, referring not to wild-eyed speculation but to a vast body of observation and testing that confirms a hypothesis so strongly that it might as well be considered fact.

Alert readers of this blog will have noticed in yesterday’s posting (“Metaphysics Matters“) some disparaging words about “evolution” by E. F. Schumacher, cited approvingly by me.  Let’s not confuse issues, though:

  • The scientific theory (nothing mere about it) of evolution should be taught in schools on pain of our students being (or continuing to be) scientific illiterates.  “Intelligent Design” is not science (and not any kind of a scientific theory) in any recognizable sense, and should not be taught in biology classes. 
  • It cannot be ruled out in advance that there could be alternative scientific theories to account for the plain fact of evolution.  Arguing otherwise turns the scientific method to dogmatism.  Scientific theories can be challenged in at least two ways: for their failure to adequately account for the phenomena or on the basis of significant conceptual flaws.  Granted that there are never hard divisions between the “disciplines,” the first type of critique derives normally from scientific research; the second (and much more rare) critique is generally launched by philosophers, especially philosophers of science.  These might be termed “meta-critiques” or “meta-scientific” critiques.  Much more would have to be said to get all the caveats and nuances of this, but my point here is that it is legitimate to raise questions of a theory’s adequacy (in fact, it is an ongoing imperative–although good theories like evolution will survive these questions unscathed).  One might offer philosophical criticism of the theory of evolution (which purports to account for the plain fact of evolution–the phenomena being observed), without necessarily being a “know-nothing” or religious fanatic.
  • “Evolution” in the sense that Schumacher was criticizing (along with “reductionisms” of various other sorts) is not the “scientific theory of evolution.”  I doubt very much that Schumacher wanted to change what students are taught biology class–unless the teacher strays from the biology into philosophy or political philosophy.  Schumacher was not being anti-scientific, and neither am I.  On the contrary.  If science develops the hybris of over-reaching, then you can just expect that strong counter-arguments will be offered.  Science is the cultural jewel it is because it generally knows its place.  That demands all our support and protection, to keep ideology from corrupting science and to keep science from becoming corrupted ideology.

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Metaphysics Matters

Part One:  Metaphysics as the Science of Presuppositions

R.G. Collingwood, in his An Essay on Metaphysics (1940), attempts to defend metaphysics from attacks upon it leveled by early analytic philosophers.  To make his defense, Collingwood has to separate two Aristotelian propositions regarding “first philosophy.”  On page 11 of his text, Collingwood notes them:

1.  Metaphysics is the science of pure being.

2.  Metaphysics is the science which deals with the presuppositions underlying ordinary science.

Collingwood believes that in order to defend metaphysics one must deny Proposition 1 and properly understand Proposition 2.  As an Aristotelian, I am dubious about Collingwood’s skepticism regarding Proposition 1; as a postmodern, I am sympathetic to his Proposition 2.  But for the moment, let’s grant Collingwood his argument, that metaphysics properly understood is the uncovering and articulating the historical and contextual presuppositions without which we cannot think systematically at all, let alone engage in science.

What are our ruling presuppositions?

Part Two:  Food, Not Nutrients

In an earlier post, I noted that my version of postmodern peripatetic ontology–a term that Collingwood would have us do without–would be based on such things as apples, things you find and sometimes eat.  I contend that we run into trouble if we don’t start with such things. 

Michael Pollan, in his writing about food, gives us plenty of examples of such problems.  Look, for instance, at his New York Times essay, “Unhappy Meals,” from January 2007.  Pollan shows us what we all ought already to know:  whereas we used to eat “food” (for instance, apples), now we eat “nutrients” or else we try to avoid certain chemical elements that come in (what we used to easily call) “food.”

More important than mere foods, the presence or absence of these invisible substances was now generally believed to confer health benefits on their eaters. Foods by comparison were coarse, old-fashioned and decidedly unscientific things — who could say what was in them, really? But nutrients — those chemical compounds and minerals in foods that nutritionists have deemed important to health — gleamed with the promise of scientific certainty; eat more of the right ones, fewer of the wrong, and you would live longer and avoid chronic diseases.

This way of looking at our understanding of food is known as “nutritionism.”  Pollan warns us not to confuse “nutritionism” with “nutrition.”  Like any -ism, nutrionism is “not scientific subject but an ideology.”  He reminds us:

Ideologies are ways of organizing large swaths of life and experience under a set of shared but unexamined assumptions. This quality makes an ideology particularly hard to see, at least while it’s exerting its hold on your culture. A reigning ideology is a little like the weather, all pervasive and virtually inescapable.

And, like most ideologies, they would seem to require someone, some sort of avant garde, visionary, expert, or elite to interpret reality for us in terms of the ideology.  In this case,

the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

The experts will “help” us to think and act in terms of some dubious propositions: 

  • that the sole purpose of eating is to maintain health (and not enjoyment, community, even worship)
  • that different foods are not really different if the same “nutrients” can be derived from them; so fish is beef is soy is chicken [note: does this not have the ring of the “ethics” of PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk:  “A rat is a pig is a boy is a dog. They are all mammals”?]
  • that processed food and whole or raw food are simply delivery systems for nutrients, with no essential difference between them

“Nutritionism” is a goldmine for manufacturers of what Pollan calls, “edible foodlike substances.”  Raw and whole foods are a commodity–you can’t do much to a banana or avocado (not yet, anyway).  But you can add all sorts of “nutrients” to cereal grains, tout their “healthfulness,” and jack up the prices.  Pollan writes,

So nutritionism is good for business. But is it good for us? You might think that a national fixation on nutrients would lead to measurable improvements in the public health. But for that to happen, the underlying nutritional science, as well as the policy recommendations (and the journalism) based on that science, would have to be sound. This has seldom been the case.

But, if this “value added” processing of what used to be food is both good for business and not so good for those of us who eat this stuff, the source of the trouble can be traced to the presuppositions under which we are operating here.  There is a generic name for these sorts of ruling presuppositions:  reductionism.  Pollan writes (with emphasis added):

Most nutritional science involves studying one nutrient at a time, an approach that even nutritionists who do it will tell you is deeply flawed. “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, “is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet, and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

If nutritional scientists know this, why do they do it anyway? Because a nutrient bias is built into the way science is done: scientists need individual variables they can isolate. Yet even the simplest food is a hopelessly complex thing to study, a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in complex and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another. So if you’re a nutritional scientist, you do the only thing you can do, given the tools at your disposal: break the thing down into its component parts and study those one by one, even if that means ignoring complex interactions and contexts, as well as the fact that the whole may be more than, or just different from, the sum of its parts. This is what we mean by reductionist science.

Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. [But…] There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong.

Not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.  As Pollan notes: 

Also, people don’t eat nutrients, they eat foods, and foods can behave very differently than the nutrients they contain. Researchers have long believed, based on epidemiological comparisons of different populations, that a diet high in fruits and vegetables confers some protection against cancer. So naturally they ask, What nutrients in those plant foods are responsible for that effect? One hypothesis is that the antioxidants in fresh produce — compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc. — are the X factor. It makes good sense: these molecules (which plants produce to protect themselves from the highly reactive oxygen atoms produced in photosynthesis) vanquish the free radicals in our bodies, which can damage DNA and initiate cancers. At least that’s how it seems to work in the test tube. Yet as soon as you remove these useful molecules from the context of the whole foods they’re found in, as we’ve done in creating antioxidant supplements, they don’t work at all. Indeed, in the case of beta carotene ingested as a supplement, scientists have discovered that it actually increases the risk of certain cancers. Big oops.

Reductionism and methodological analysis, powerful as they are, when jacked up into an ideology usually end up leading to the “big oops.”

Part Three:  Working Against Reductionism

So we need to be working against reductionism (emphasis on the “-ism” of course!) if we are to avoid certain tragic consequences.  It is good that we engage in this work.  It is good work.

E. F. Schumacher has given some thought to the notion of “good work.”  He writes (and you can find the essay from which I quote in Mindfulness and Meaningful Work:  Explorations in Right Livelihood, edited by Claude Whitmyer (Paralax Press 1994, pp. 130-135.):

Traditional wisdom teaches that the function of work is at heart threefold: (1) to give a person a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; (2) to enable him to overcome his inborn egocentricity by joining with other people in a common task; and (3) to bring forth goods and services needed by all of us for a decent existence.

The trouble, says Schumacher, is that we seemed to have lost the ability to distinguish between good work and bad work.  Why is that?  Good work is the joy of life, but bad work is that which is “meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking,” that which makes a person “the servant of a machine or a system.”  But we’ve no right to expect good work when we have

been conditioned to believe that man himself is “nothing but” a somewhat complex physico-chemical system, “nothing but” a product of mindless evolution.

Schumacher writes (with emphasis added) that

it is interesting to note that the modern world takes a lot of care that the worker’s body should not accidentally or otherwise be damaged.  If it is damaged, the worker may claim compensation.  But his soul and his spirit? If his work damages him, by reducing him to a robot–that is just too bad.  Here we can see very clearly the crucial importance of metaphysics.  Materialistic metaphysics, or the metaphysics of the doctrine of mindless evolution, does not attribute reality to anything but the physical body: why then bother about safety or health when it comes to such nebulous, unreal things as soul or spirit?  We acknowledge, and understand the need for, the development of a person’s body; but the development of his soul or spirit?  Yes, education for the sake of enabling a man or woman to make a living; but education for the sake of leading them out of the dark wood of egocentricity, pettiness, and worldly ignorance? {…}  Materialistic metaphysics, therefore, leaves no room for the idea of good work, that work is good for the worker.  Anyone who says, “The worker needs work for the development and perfection of his soul,” sounds like a fanciful dreamer, because materialistic metaphysics does not recognize any such need.

Schumacher argues that unless we alter our metaphysical presuppositions about human beings and about work, we will never really be able to distinguish good work from bad work, let alone be able to educate human persons for good work.  Schumacher warns:

If we continue to teach that the human being is nothing but the outcome of a mindless, meaningless, and purposeless process of evolution, a process of “selection” for survival, that is to say, the outcome of nothing but utilitarianism–we only come to a utilitarian idea of work: that work is nothing but a more or less unpleasant necessity and the less there is of it the better.

Our ruling presuppositions will prevent us from learning the nature of humanity and of good work, unless we revisit them.  And the presuppositions that Schumacher draws our attention to are just those of scientism, yet another dangerous “-ism” that prevents us from attaining a richer education.

Our ancestors knew about good work, but we cannot learn from them if we continue to treat them with friendly contempt–as pathetic illusionists who wasted their time worshipping nonexisting deities; and if we continue to treat traditional wisdom as a tissue of superstitious poetry, not to be taken seriously; and if we continue to take materialistic scientism as the one and only measure of progress.

Schumacher reminds us:

The best scientists know that science deals only with small isolated systems, showing how they work, and provides no basis whatsoever for comprehensive metaphysical doctrines like the doctrine of mindless evolution.  But we nevertheless still teach the young that the modern theory of evolution is part of science and that it leaves no room for divine guidance or design, thus wantonly creating an apparent conflict between science and religion and causing untold confusion.

Not only do our guiding presuppositions make it difficult or impossible for us to know and pursue good work, those same presuppositions have created the illusion that there is a conflict between science and religion.  Now this illusion has become a cash cow for certain faux-philosophers, dogmatic philosophasters who supplement their income by mass-marketing this set of narrow-minded presuppositions as if it had dropped from heaven ready-made (how’s that for an ironic turn of events?!). 

But this illusion has a cost for the rest of us:  it damages our ability to seek and be provided with a full, rich, genuine, human education, an education that frees man from his ego, “so that the divine element in him can become active.”  This is not simply “philosophical fluff.”  And it has real world consequences.

“The world of work,” as seen and indeed created by this modern metaphysics, is alas! a dreary place.  Can higher education prepare people for it?  How do you prepare people for a kind of serfdom?  What human qualities are required for becoming efficient servants, machines, “systems,” and bureaucracies?  The world of work of today is the product of a hundred years of “de-skilling”–why take the trouble and incur the cost of letting people acquire the skills of a craftsman, when all that is wanted is a machine winder?  The only skills worth acquiring are those which the system demands, and they are worthless outside the system.  They have no survival value outside the system and therefore do not even confer the spirit of self-reliance.  What does a machine winder do when (let us say) energy shortage stops his machine?  Or a computer programmer without a computer?

I think there might be a corollary to Schumacher’s point.  Consider what has become of higher education.  It is mainly a fragmented smorgasbord of disciplinary practices (defined with analytic rigor by breaking things into parts without context) that have their own set of “skills” that students must learn to be “competent.”  Think of how we train our philosophy students.  Are they trained to become wise?  Or are they taught a series of argumentative tactics and “research” skills that lead to a debilitating disdain of metaphysics–even as the very practices in which they are engaged are caught in the iron grip of the metaphysical presuppositions of scientism and reductionism?  And, yes, that includes a lot of you “Continentalists” who have been Pavlovianly trained to attack at the very sound of the word “metaphysics,” which, ironically, you take (rightly) to be at the root of scientism and reductionism!

Is Schumacher pessimistic?  No, but a change is going to have to come:

Maybe higher education could be designed to lead to a different world of work–different from the one we have today.  This, indeed, would be my most sincere hope.  But how could this be as long as higher education clings to the metaphysics of materialist scientism and its doctrine of mindless evolution?  It cannot be.  Figs cannot grow on thistles.  Good work cannot grow out of such metaphysics.  To try to make it grow from such a base can do nothing but increase the prevailing confusion.  The most urgent need of our time is and remains the need for metaphysical reconstruction, a supreme effort to bring clarity into out deepest convictions with regard to the questions:  What is man?  Where does he come from? and What is the purpose of his life?

The work we do, the “we” who are engaged in a transdisciplinary approach and a renewed quest for wisdom, think we are engaged in good work, work that takes us out of the safe-zone of our academic disciplines, out of the security (sometimes, at least) of our institutional regimentation, but that leads us to opportunities for enrichment, intellectual and spiritual growth, the development of our whole person, the chance to engage in collaborations and common tasks, and to bring forth a service to our fellow human beings who all too often are chained up in meaningless work they trained for in meaningless curricula at institutions that have lost their way.  In our exploring and learning and teaching, we want whole food, solid food.  This kind of intellectual and spiritual food, the food for which we offer our daily labor, our good work, this food will still have all its nutrients and constituent parts.  How could it not?  Transdisciplinarity requires the disciplines.

Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, the specific cognitive abilities we will need to confront our common problems for a better future, include:

  • The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of
    major schools of thought, including
    science, mathematics, and history, and of
    at least one professional craft.
  • The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to
    integrate ideas from different disciplines
    or spheres into a coherent whole and to
    communicate that integration to others.
  • The Creating Mind: the capacity to
    uncover and clarify new problems,
    questions and phenomena.
  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and
    appreciation for differences among
    human beings and human groups.
  • The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s
    responsibilities as a worker and as a

Certainly we must have disciplined minds.  But without synthesis, creativity, respect, and ethics, by reducing our mission as intellectuals, researchers, teachers, and students to the merely disciplinary, we allow our full humanity to recede from our horizon.  [Listen to a provocative talk by Philip Clayton on minds for the future at the 2007 Metanexus Conference on iTunes.] 

Seeking “whole food” does not mean avoiding “nutrients.”  Seeking wisdom does not mean denigrating knowledge.  But we must not stop short.  If we think “what is” can be reduced to this or that disciplinary knowledge, we do no more than generate yet another “-ism.”  We cut ourselves off from any hope of wholeness, any hope of wisdom.

Hope, not guarantee.  A recovery of metaphysics means to move deftly and hopefully between the “foolishness” of thinking the whole is wholly inaccessible, and the “idolatry” of thinking that the whole is wholly articulable in some sort of “superdisciplinary” form.  It is a fine line, and it is of vital importance to preserve this hope.  That’s why we do what we do.

What are you going to do? 

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Independents of America, Disunite!

Although I had the title (more or less) first (well, okay, not that it’s very original…), the Feb. 16-22 issue of The Economist continues the irriation of Stanley Fish–if, that is, he read the piece, “A Declaration on Independents.” Back in January, as you will recall, Fish had nothing good to say about us political independents. But as The Economist trumpets:

Independents are back from the wilderness and ready to determine the outcome of the presidential election.

Of course, you might want to consider the case against voting all together (and here and here). The case goes beyond whether you are simply dissatisfied with the current field, which relatively speaking is not all that bad. Liberal Michael Kinsley, for instance, is miffed that the Republicans pulled the “dirty trick” of putting up a decent human being as its presumed nominee (he’d prefer Rush Limbaugh). National Review tends not to say bad things about Sen. Obama, but maybe that’s just because they love to see the race be against Sen. Clinton and “Mr. Right.” (Although as I write this the evening political news is on in the other room, and I can’t help hearing one dopey statement versus another; for instance, “The Mr.” is going on about how if you are really pro-life you’d be in favor of throwing women and doctors in jail. Maybe you could make a case against voting just on the persons….). No, the argument against voting goes much deeper than that. Example: Ask yourself, which Goldman-Sachs candidate do you prefer and why? You get the picture.

Reminds me of Wendell Berry’s “Questionnaire,” which I found online here.

  1. How much poison are you willing
    to eat for the success of the free
    market and global trade? Please
    name your preferred poisons.

  2. For the sake of goodness, how much
    evil are you willing to do?
    Fill in the following blanks
    with the names of your favorite
    evils and acts of hatred.

  3. What sacrifices are you prepared
    to make for culture and civilization?
    Please list the monuments, shrines,
    and works of art you would
    most willingly destroy.

  4. In the name of patriotism and
    the flag, how much of our beloved
    land are you willing to desecrate?
    List in the following spaces
    the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
    you could most readily do without.

  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
    the energy sources, the kinds of security,
    for which you would kill a child.
    Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.

And, as we pondered earlier, your vote might not count anyway–and not just due to party rules that have affected Florida and Michigan.

So as interesting as this election season seems to be, you might think about going a little deeper in your considerations. I’m trying….


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