Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pragmatism, Evolution and Faith

Having been released into the murky, intellectually questionable waters of the real world, I've recently come into visceral contact with a species whose existence has, in the last few years, been merely an intellectual concept: the evolution-denier. This contact, like any primordial experience, thrusts one into the moment--my pupils dilated, mouth dry, fists clenched, I drop into a crouch and reach for my gun, only to realize that I pawned it away in a moment of naivete. Pitifully attempted poetics aside, I have recently been forced into a reevaluation of my stance in the evolution debate. It is not that I have begun to question that evolution occurred, or that it's the best possible explanation of the current situation vis-a-vis life on earth (how could a thinking god have created dull zionists from the University of Florida?). Instead, I'm asking myself why I engage in the same old evolution argument at all. I've been yelling at dumb-ass creationists for years, at least since summer camp '96, when I earned the rather dubious nickname of "Fishboy", and I have not convinced one creationist to lay down her superstions.
Enter pragmatic epistemology, which (according to my simple and rather uninformed interpretation) demands that we value an idea on the basis of its practical value. At first glance, the idea of evolution, or its existence in the minds of our populace, has significant day-to-day: consider advances that the evolutoinary perspective has yielded in psychology, biology, medicine, pharmacology, neuroscience, etc.
But the benefit that life science reaps from evolution can't justify my arguments with co-workers and others. It seems that only an ideological or aesthetic explanation will do; a narrow, unaesthetic pragmatism would have to sit this round out. Alternatively, we could embrace a less banausic and self-serving pragmatism in favor of one with a society's-eye-view, as I believe that any true believer would. Human beings have evolved with a need to share common beliefs with others around them because disagreements on these kinds of issues can indicate that other, more dangerous disagreements may be lurking.
So what exactly is the point of these arguments? The answer gets to the origins(Ursprungen!) of pragmatism itself--pragmatism does well on this issue probably because its roots are so closely tied into darwinism. Peirce defined pragmatism as "faith in reason"; belief in evolution can easily be seen as that faith in practice. Challenging evolution is not challenging the facts; instead, it is challenging the very method that pragmatism embodies. Thus an ideological response in this area is the only one that can be expected, precisely because it is the only thing that pragmatism is ideological about.
This leads me to a further point. Local politics is often praised by intellectuals, although I've never been sure why. Instead, I choose to praise local social interaction, of the kind that Tocqueville noticed. This is the kind of interaction that is not political because it does not involve exerting force over others (in the traditional definition of force). Instead, it requires that you demand an account from others of their ideas.
But there's another reason that this social interaction should not be called politics, namely that it does not require universalism or altruism. Rather, it demands only a firm conviction that you are right and the desire to convince others of this fact. And that, my friends, is something I, at least, have plenty of.


Blogger Scantron said...

Excellent observations all around. I have had similar experiences with the evolution question, with similar results (nary a "soul was saved," to use their language).

I'm also reminded of a certain day in a Feminist Theory class I took, where many exasperated feminists were trying to figure out the Perfect Strategy for convincing people that abortion was not murder, and furthermore still that it should be legal and even encouraged with birth control programs.

At this point the anti-rationalist (or, I would prefer, the "realist") in me came out and I attempted to show that the majority of views about abortion (or at least, those that "count" in the culture war arena) are so entrenched and ideological that it is basically impossible to argue people to your side. Forget trying to convince that Southern Baptist that a fetus is not a person (or perhaps we should use the Sheriff's appellation "uterine lumpy mass"). The best we can hope for in the long-term historical sense is a decrease in the religious fervor of the US. This decrease is not something we just passively sit and wait for; no, we can encourage its progress by 1) voting for people who share the same views as we do (the "packing the court" method), 2) supporting strong and secular public education, and 3) for our own part, leading responsible, respectable lives as "pro-choicers" and spreading these ideas to our friends and families. Just forget the raving dude or dudette on the street. A confrontation with them is just going to lead to bloviating and deeper polarization.

The evolution problem is even more interesting because unlike the abortion question, you're absolutely right. Or at least, as right as you possibly can be about anything in this world, and certainly right compared to the idea that a god made the earth 6000 years ago. You're just so right. And so, whether you choose to have the argument or not, you can always walk away with the smug knowledge that your opponent is a Stupid Person.

I should pause here a moment at the introduction of the Stupid Person, because it's not a term you can just throw around flippantly. I have already said that the "pro-lifer" is not a Stupid Person. This should be readily apparent. There are so many twists and turns to the abortion argument, some religious, some secular, that it would be totally irresponsible to dismiss everyone who opposes abortion. Similarly (and this may shock people who know me), if someone says they think George Bush is the greatest President in American history, they are certainly not a Stupid Person. If someone says we should lob a nuke into Iran and kill every person in it, they are not a Stupid Person (but perhaps an Evil one). Actually, when it gets down to it, I can't really think of anyone else who qualifies a priori as a Stupid Person. If anyone knows anyone else, let me know. I suppose I harbor my Stupid Person label exclusively for extremely religious types, but it still depends on which ones. Thus, the Pope is a borderline Stupid Person because despite all his learning he actually seems to believe that at every Catholic mass a wafer and a sip of wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. However, evangelical Christians who believe the second coming of Jesus is imminent and similarly Shiite Muslims who await the return of the 12th Imam are not Stupid People, because the reappearance of a person who is long dead has no historical precedent and thus admits of no methodology for predicting its occurrance. In other words, it's not a Stupid-question, it's a Not-question.

So, to sum up: young-earth creationists and the Pope are Stupid. Is anyone else?

The only thing I would say about your local politics epilogue that I won't reserve for other threads is that unless you think politics is a mask for violence, it seems to me that it has historically stood against the things you associate with it: force and universalism. At its best, it is a circumventing of violence and dogma in favor of "the firm conviction that you are right and the desire to convince others of this fact." Thus, social interaction=politics. QED 00111000101011000111000

10:36 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

I just finished reading a book by Jacques Barzun, which I will recommend again - "Darwin, Marx, Wagner" - in which he addresses this exact question. Having just typed myself out on the local politics thread, I will say only a thing or two about Barzun's argument and then be gone.

For Barzun, Darwinism and/or neo-Darwinism is opposed to pragmatism, not concomittant with it. Darwin proposed a mechanism of causality, natural selection - this is about all he did that was in any way novel, and even then he was neither a great innovator nor a particularly good writer. For Barzun, Darwin represents the triumph of materialism in science and intellectual thought, by which the course of events, human and biological, may be explained - and explained away - by his selecting mechanism. In our present situation, this sort of thought persists and is pervasive: genetics is the final cause of our time (if it isn't a monotheistic god) and everything wrong with the body, mind, and socius is viewed to be curable by impartial and perfectly autonomous scientists.

As Barzun sees it, pragmatism is exactly opposed to this sort of "realist" materialism: pragmatic thought, championed by William James in the early 20th century, argues that no vein of inquiry, whether scientific, artistic, etc, is without aims and goals. To Austin 5000's claim that pragmatic epistemology "demands that we value an idea on the basis of its practical value," Barzun would reply that every idea is already valued, whether consciously or not, for its practical value; as for scholarship, its aim must be to root out value where it has been allowed to go unobserved. The theory of natural selection may be right (although it has its amendments) but it is right for us, and for purposes which, whether ours or not, we uphold when we fail to question their absolute appeal.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Barzun's argument seems to be a bit forced, to me. To say that "Darwinism is about X" and "Pragmatism about Y" and so "Pragmatism is opposite of X" is fairly simple reasoning. While Darwinism may have been about "mechanism of causality, natural selection," it cannot be said to be ONLY about these things. Absent from this rather facile schema, after all, is the broad theory of evolution itself, is it not? And while Darwin may not have been the first to consider evolutionary mechanisms, he was the one to popularize it, and it was his popularization that influenced the pragmatists.

You may be right about James, and you're certainly right that he was one of the fathers of modern pragmatism, but Peirce (who Austi mentions, and who coined the term) was hardly a fan of the sort of relativistic thinking you rightly attribute to James. It was James who foolishly claimed that truth is "the good in the way of belief," and who so desparately (and futiley) tried to argue that if believing in God or ghosts led to goodness, or to positive consequences, then it was true. What nonsense! When Peirce talked about truth (and Dewey for that matter) is was more about the application of the scientific method, and of applying science's criteria of truth to other truth-claims. Indeed, I would say the whole crux of Peirce's philosophy is one that emphasizes just the opposite of James' belief. That is, while it may be so that "no vein of inquiry, whether scientific, artistic, etc, is without aims and goals" that doesn't mean there aren't some veins of inquiry which are really Stupid. How many angels could dance on the pin of a needle without running into each other? was one vein of inquiry St. Thomas was supposed to have spent time debating. The answer (12? 136?) I doubt will actually have any practical value, and if it does, there's something really wrong with you.

While it may be unpopular, or old-fashioned today, it remains the case that science DOES have the best mechanisms for determining truth -- a belief I think implied by the Scantron's very characterization of the Stupid Person as somehow who holds metaphysics higher than physics. I agree with you that our genetics-obsession has us believing that medicine can cure that which may not be genetically caused. However, the beauty about science is that it will be science that tells us if it's unable to cure something. If depression, for example, turns out to be untreatable by medicine, and by these "autonomous scientists" -- the opposite of what seems to be the case -- then they'll be the first ones to tell us.

It is not Darwin's fault that evolutionary theory became Social Darwinism, after all (that was the humanists' doing, wasn't it?), or that its "universal appeal" may have something to do with factors outside of natural selection. What't more, if we look at the "good" things pragmatists did with evolutionary theory in education, in psychology, and in law, I think there's much to be quite pleased about.

Also, an (intellectual) historical question: couldn't we say the blank in "_____ represents the triumph of materialism in science and intellectual thought" could be filled in one or another equally by Darwin, or Marx, or perhaps most of all, Freud? Why single out poor Darwin for the attack? (The "consequences" or "absolute appeal" of Marx's ideas, after all, ended up killing a lot more people, contrary to Scantron's now revised revisionary history of the Soviet Union?)

Lastly, my intolerance with regard to William James -- who every great American philosopher worships like he's the Anointed One -- and my remarks on the nasty consequences of Marx's ideas made me think that both of these men are "rolling over in their graves at the moment." This thought, in turn, caused me to think back to a wonderful piece of video art I saw at the Bilbao Guggenheim's exhibit on Russian art. In the post-Soviet portion, there was a short, repeated video clip, projected from the ceiling onto the floor, of Lenin rolling over in his grave. He looked uncomfortable. The rolling was not done easily, but seemed rather forced. I liked this a lot, and hope none of our remarks, likewise, cause any disturbances to these great minds' sleep.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Contender for your "triumph of materialism" question: Jeremy Bentham ("quantity of pleasure being equal, a push-pin is equal to poetry")

Also, a latecomer, B.F. Skinner (shudder).

James's unfortunate pronouncement about truth, which you cite, coincidentally is still held to by a certain R Rorty. This has led in his writing to some rather embarrassing imbroglios where he says things like "The geocentric model of the universe wasn't wrong, per se, because it helped medieval writers make sense of the world." He then cites the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn to support him. Is Kuhn dead? He might roll over a lot.

How do you figure Freud was so materialistic? Materialistic, I suppose, in the sense that his ideas pointed towards the irrational, primal, sexual aspects of people as opposed to "reason," but didn't he create a highly *abstract* language for all these aspects? What I mean is, if some hardcore determinist contemporary with Freud were presented with ideas of "taboo," "penis envy," "Oedipal complex," etc, would they not find all that rather silly and, well, immaterial? (Not that they are silly, just from the point of view of a strict materialist)I say this because if you look back at the "slaughterbenches of history," there's an Altar of Stalin and an Altar of Hitler but not so much an Altar of Freudianism. (Unless we're *all* victims of Freud, man. Like, we're the medicated generation. I just wanna *feel*!)

6:50 PM  

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