Unknown to many post-Reformation Christians, early centuries of Christianity—through authoritative teachers like Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great—encouraged as many as seven “senses” of Scripture. The
- eschatological (the trajectory of history and growth), and
- “primordial” or archetypal (commonly agreed-upon symbolism)
levels of a text were often given serious weight among scholars. These levels were gradually picked up by the ordinary Christian through Sunday preaching (as is still true today) and presumed to be normative by those who heard them.
These different senses of Scripture were sometimes compared to our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which are five distinct ways of knowing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” After both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western Europeans reduced our ways of knowing to one for all practical purposes—the supposedly rational/literal/historical. We have largely compacted and limited the Bible to this single sense for several centuries now, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Our bandwidth of spiritual access to the Bible was consequently severely narrowed, it seems to me—and as many would say—to the least spiritually helpful level. That something supposedly literally happened in one exact way, in one moment of time, does not, of itself, transfer the experience to now, me, or us. I believe that such transference is the transformative function of any spiritual text.
The narrow, rational/literal/historical approach largely creates an antiquarian society that prefers to look backward instead of forward. In my experience, it creates transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart.
Literalism was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which differ in many ways. Which is the “inerrant” one?
The earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer to the trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching (which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). The Gospel says, “He would never speak to them except in parables” (Matthew 13:34). The indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or parable seems to be Jesus’ preferred way of teaching spiritual realities.
Almost all of Jesus’ parables begin with the same phrase: “The Reign of God is like. . . .” Jesus fully knows he is speaking in metaphor, simile, story, and symbol. But in recent centuries, many Christians have not granted him that freedom, and thus we miss or avoid many of his major messages. We are much the poorer for it.
Unfortunately, the monumental insights of the Axial Age (800-200 BC) began to wane, descending into the extreme headiness of some Scholastic philosophy (1100-1700), the antagonistic mind of most church reformations, and the rational literalism of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). Although the reformations were inevitable, good, and necessary, they also ushered in the “desert of nonparticipation,” as Owen Barfield described, where hardly anyone belonged, few were at home in this world, and religion at its worst concentrated on excluding, condemning, threatening, judging, exploiting new lands and peoples, and controlling its own members by shame and guilt. This happened on the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant sides; the primary difference is what we shamed.
Sam Harris wants to help non-religious people understand how it feels to be a believer confronted with scientific rationality. Toward that end, he offers the fireplace delusion. The idea is simple:
.. A better analogy than the fireplace delusion might be something derived from it. I offer, instead, love.
Love is not rational. It cannot be refuted by rationality and facts. Scientific reasoning may suggest that my entire biological purpose is to pass my genes on to my children. Yet my deep and abiding love for my wife does not enter into it. It might be argued that love evolved to increase the chances of human genetic success, but such argument neither supports nor refutes my love the way scientific research refutes the value of fire. It simply is.
.. It’s not just love and religion that work like this, that are a-rational. Art. Jazz. Hacking. That which motivates, that drives passion, dedication, and creation, that embodies culture in the Anthropological sense—including, yes,the pursuit of scientific research and reasoning—is a-rational. No, better: it’s extra-rational. That’s part of what makes it beautiful.
You cannot refute love. You cannot refute art. You cannot refute faith. Because they are not in the domain of refutation, are not subject to the facts. They are something else entirely. Often—not always, but often—they create beauty.
And beauty isn’t subject to refutation, either.
Come on, as technologists, hn readers cant seriously favor structuralism over post modern thinking.
To put it in CS terms: structuralists would think that general AI would be obtained by coding expert systems. Structuralists were the ones who believed the semantic web would work. That as engineers, we could write a structure, a schema, a program, that would underlie all things and ideas in the universe.
This of course has been quite a failure. The bottom up approach to AI, which appeared with neural networks, is deeply postmodern. It assumes that all experience is relative and that human intelligence grasps with reality in a reflexive way. reacting to stimuli rather than building a unique model of the world that would fit all situations.
You may say that post modern philosophy is written in a hard way, but it cant be denied that there are a lot of people here who are postmodern without knowing it!
.. You realize that most academic philosophers in the US and other English-speaking countries share your attitude toward post-modernism, right? TFA even points out the divide. You must have gone to a program with a “traditional” philosophy department, perhaps in Europe?Most university philosophy departments in the US focus on logic, analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, cognitive science, etc, etc. I can’t even think of a single philosopher at my university’s department who would have done anything but chuckle at post-modernism. In fact, it was a philosophy prof who told me about the book “Fashionable Nonsense”.
From the article:
“Outside France, the dominant philosophical school was analytic philosophy. A broad church, its foundations had initially been articulated by, among others, Bertrand Russell, GE Moore and the early works of Wittgenstein. Founded on the notion of conceptual clarity, analytic philosophy (in its crudest form) regards philosophy as a branch of the sciences, often subservient to the natural sciences, or at best continuous with them. It proposes that through the logical analysis of philosophical propositions, the basic questions of existence can be clarified, and possibly solved.”
So why would you generalize all philosophers into the bucket of post-modernism? Many of the founders of modern analytic philosophy were mathematicians: Russell, Frege, Whitehead, Peirce, etc.
.. The rationalists say that a major purpose of language is to communicate facts about the world.The postmodernists say: “What are ‘facts’? What is ‘world’?”
So with facts gone and the real world gone, that leaves only one purpose for language, for saying anything at all: to get others to do what you want them to do. (This is a simplification of Wittgenstein’s “language-games” of the form of e.g., the Builders’ Game.)
I’ve always maintained that Derridean postmodernism is, in actuality, a form of long-form trolling whose main purpose was to provoke traditional philosophers by baffling them or getting them to fruitlessly debate the propositions. In this it’s sort of a language-game: Derrida produced words, and the philosophers reacted in just the way he intended them to when he wrote the words. Whether it was for his own amusement, to show those stiff-necked rationalists that they’re not immune to cognitive or deductive traps, or whatever — who knows? But the interesting bit is that trolling survives as a valid intention for Derrida to produce the philosophy he did, whether or not he took his own propositions seriously (though if he did, he would have to consider whether the academics he was trolling existed just in his own head).
.. Postmodernists deny the reality of shared, objective truths, then try to begin a dialogue requiring what’s just been denied.
Scott calls the thinking style behind the failure mode “authoritarian high modernism,” but as we’ll see, the failure mode is not limited to the brief intellectual reign of high modernism (roughly, the first half of the twentieth century).
Here is the recipe:
- Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
- Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
- Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
- Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
- Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
- Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
- Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly
Central to Scott’s thesis is the idea of legibility. He explains how he stumbled across the idea while researching efforts by nation states to settle or “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives:
.. The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs (and indeed, is part of, rather than “above”). It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic.
.. The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties.
High-modernist (think Bauhaus and Le Corbusier) aesthetics necessarily lead tosimplification, since a reality that serves many purposes presents itself as illegible to a vision informed by a singular purpose. Any elements that are non-functional with respect to the singular purpose tend to confuse, and are therefore eliminated during the attempt to “rationalize.”
.. If my conjecture is correct, then the High Modernist failure-through-legibility-seeking formula is a large scale effect of the rationalization of the fear of (apparent) chaos.
.. And no, the currently popular “pave the cowpaths” and behavioral-economic “choice architecture” design philosophies do not provide immunity against these failure modes. In fact paving the cowpaths in naive ways is an instanceof this failure mode (the way to avoid it would be to choose to not pave certain cowpaths).
.. For the technologists among you, a quick (and very crude) calibration point should help: we are talking about the big brother of waterfall planning here. The psychology is very similar to the urge to throw legacy software away. In fact Joel Spolsky’s post on the subject Things You Should Never Do, Part I, reads like a narrower version of Scott’s arguments. But Scott’s model is much deeper, more robust, more subtly argued, and more broadly applicable. I haven’t yet thought it through, but I don’t think lean/agile software development can actually mitigate this failure mode anymore than choice architecture can mitigate it in public policy
The economics profession that Mr. Thaler entered in the early 1970s was deeply invested in proving that it was more than a mere social science. But economic outcomes are the result of human decision-making. To achieve the same mathematical precision of hard sciences, economists made a radically simplifying assumption that people are “optimizers” whose behavior is as predictable as the speed of physical body falling through space.
.. Professor Thaler’s narrative ultimately demonstrates that by trying to set itself as somehow above other social sciences, the “rationalist” school of economics actually ended up contributing far less than it could have. The group’s intellectual denial led to not just sloppy social science, but sloppy philosophy.
.. When businesses use cost-benefit analysis, for instance, they are applying a moral philosophy known as utilitarianism, popularized by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century.
.. Compared against alternative moral philosophies, like those of Kant or Aristotle, Mill has relatively few contemporary adherents in professional philosophical circles. But utilitarianism does have the virtue of lending itself to mathematical calculation. By giving the contentious philosophy a benign bureaucratic name like “cost