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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Baudrillard is dead.

A leading postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard is dead. And Jaques Derrida also passed away in recent years.

Perhaps it is interesting to consider what postmodern theory is and what its impact is and will be in the future. What is the impact of postmodern theory on western culture? On Christian doctrine/theology? Or on church practice?

If you have read through my blog with anything that resembles a passing interest you could easily guess that I have never perceived postmodern theorists as the threats that many of my fellow conservatives have so violently reacted against. In my opinion, these extreme reactions have simply played into the hands of po-mo writers who take a certain twisted delight in raising the ire of the establishment.

But what of their ideas and contributions? Will they last? Or will they simply be an inconvevience? Does postmodernity signal the end of the Enlightenment/Modern projects, or was it simply a bump in the road? All good questions....

Many of us in conservative circles perceive theorists like Baudrillard as a threat to some of our core values of truth, objectivity, capitalism, etc. Liberals tend to see the same thing and seize on the perceived opportunity to discredit traditional institutions...But on my reading (which is still very much a work in process) the main thing I see is that it is difficult if not impossible to fix “the right answer.” That there is, perhaps, space. And yet this is not to say that we do not continually fix things. The pragmatic nature of life demands that we fix things like economic/political theory, absolute truth, Christian doctrine, etc. And so it is good for us to “fix” things, and to "close" our theories. It is good to say that we have arrived at the right answer.....And yet as soon as we fix things it opens up the possibility of “play,” and there will always be someone who comes along to find the openness in the systems and institutions that we have closed...Just a few of my thoughts on the matter of postmodern theorists...

Here are a few quotations about Baudrillard from articles reporting his death:

Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist and philosopher and critic of globalisation and consumerism, has died in Paris at the age of 77.

Baudrillard died on Tuesday at his home in Paris after a long illness, said Michel Delorme, of the Galilee publishing house.

Baudrillard was a prolific writer and renowned photographer who first attracted worldwide attention in 1991 with the deliberately provocative claim that the Gulf War "did not take place".

He was one of Europe's leading postmodernist thinkers known for his provocative commentaries on consumerism.

[From http://mwcnews.net/content/view/13033&Itemid=1]

Baudrillard argued that mass media and modern consumerist society had built up such a complex structure of symbols and simulated experience that it was no longer possible to comprehend reality as it might actually exist. [From http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=365872007]

Baudrillard first attracted worldwide attention in 1991 with his deliberately provocative book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place in which he argued that neither side could claim victory by the end of the war and that the conflict had changed nothing on the ground in Iraq.

Nothing was as it appeared in the war, he said, claiming that the public’s - and even the military’s - perception of the conflict came filtered through images from the media. As a result, the conflict was best seen as a simulation - Saddam Hussein was not defeated; the US-led coalition had scarcely battled the Iraqi military and did not really win, since the political state in Iraq altered little after the carnage.

[From http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article1482711.ece]

News of the death of Jean Baudrillard provokes mischievous and possibly disrespectful thoughts about how he would have reported his own passing. "It never happened" would be the obvious choice. For those of us who didn't know him personally, the "death of Baudrillard" is an entirely media event, one which we only observe through the filter of news, the internet and television. To believe otherwise is to fail to recognise the nature of our "hyperreal" society, in which we are no longer able to distinguish between reality itself and its simulation....

The recurring theme of Baudrillard's work is that we live in a world in which representation and simulation have come to dominate over what was once thought of as reality, to the extent that our reality now often is our simulation of it. That's why it is now not only possible to be "famous for being famous", but it's what many young people actively have as an ambition. Because of thinkers like Baudrillard, we have come to think better and deeper about such issues, which is why we should be more prepared to forgive him for his many excesses.

There is some irony in the fact that many of those quickest to dismiss Baudrillard don't actually have any knowledge of his philosophy at all, but only secondhand representations of it. Perhaps the oft-derided Baudrillard got the last laugh, after all.

[From http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/julian_baggini/2007/03/the_shadow_of_his_former_self.html]

There are also some interesting links at Ktismatics:


ktismatics said...

I feel the same way about Baudrillard's "attack" on science as you do about his "threat" to Christianity. Opening up realms where fantasy trumps reality and the subconscious suppresses conscious thought? Sure, let's explore those universes for awhile.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, I can see that angle....From my experiences I have observed that for the Naturalist "science" is the functional equivalent of "god." We all have to worship something, right?

ktismatics said...

Truth, objectivity, the right answer, fixing things... these were the themes you were exploring in your post that Baudrillard tended to upset. As with the truths of Christianity, so too with the truths of science: this was the common ground I meant. Worship? The functional equivalent of God? Dude, you're hallucinating again.

Jonathan Erdman said...

What is worship?

Isn't worship first and foremost the dedication of one's self and life to another? A prostration of humility and surrender? Wouldn't you say that the Naturalist humbles him/herself before the methods and results of science? That science guides the direction of the mind and the life of the Naturalist?

ktismatics said...

You know, I just don't see it except as a very loose analogy. If you want to say that the scientist makes man the god, and that he uses science as a tool to extract truth out of the world for his own edification, then maybe. But even then you've got a piss-poor scientist on your hands. Knowledge is the end, science is the means toward that end. I think a good scientist does maintain an attitude of humility toward what he discovers/theorizes, knowing that it is always subject to being falsified. It's an intrinsically humbling methodology, science -- it never proves anything; it is a tool for disproving, for debunking, for casting down idols. The temptation is to forget that scientific knowledge is always tentative, and also to forget that there are ways of knowing besides the scientific. The scientist who enshrines science as a pathway to the only and absolute truths is going to be just as disturbed by Baudrillard as is the fundamentalist Christian who says the only and absolute truths come from the practice of religion.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Scientific theories are "proved" through experimentation. Hypotheses are formed and then subject to experiment. The outcome is a theory, which becomes a hypothesis to be tested. We develop "laws" that explain and define the natural order of things. These are natural laws, and for the Naturalist they exclude a belief in god....or, perhaps the weaker position is that we cannot use natural law to determine the existence of god.

A Naturalist, by definition, excludes belief in god on natural grounds (again, either science dissproves god or god simply cannot be proved). This is a substantial worldview commitment that centers on science, which as you state, is the means for knowledge.

Worship is not always a conscious act. "He adores his wife...he simply worships the ground she walks on!" "Kobe Bryant is such an amazing player. He's better than Jordan. Dude, he's like a god." These statements are half-jokes, but they are also half-truths.

I mentioned that science was the functional equivolent of the Christian God. Worship and the ascription of deity can occur on many levels. One does not need to develop a formal, religious worldview in order to set up the idols of his/her life. Likewise, one merely needs to hold something in highest esteem in order for that thing to achieve the god-head in life. We functionally set up gods by consiously or unconsciously (usually the later) ordering our lives and setting our affections on them as the highest pursuit.

I find it interesting that I have touched a nerve here....I honestly would not have thought you would take issue with any of the above comments that I have made (although I am glad you have!). Some of this is right down your alley as a psychologist and a student of the unconscious motivations that drive us.

Do you believe the old stereotype that Christians are the weak-minded who worship a fairy tale "god" of the imagination, while the Atheist is the bold, objective intellectual who does not allow him/herself to be mastered or guided by anything greater than him/herself? I am the first to acknowledge the folly of Christianity, (1 Corinthians 1-2) but I tend to think that Atheists, by and large, are fooling themselves if they think that they are not servants of anything. Science, I have usually found, is their master....but maybe you have had different experiences....I know you interact with more of the secular crowd than I do....after all, you do live in France.

Interesting line of thought, though.....

ktismatics said...

First and least importantly to the present discussion, scientific method explicitly doesn't prove; it disproves. You test your new hypothesis by demonstrating that the alternative hypotheses are probably false, mostly by showing that the data you obtained in your study would be extremely unlikely (usually less than a 5% chance) if the alternative hypotheses are true. E.g., when an environmental scientist tests the global warming hypothesis, the onus is to show that the collected data would be extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance if there was no global warming. So science can pretty much disprove the no-global-warming hypothesis by rendering it extremely unlikely in study after study. But the scientific method can never prove global warming; all it can do is say that it is increasingly unlikely to be disproved.

By the way, the body of research on global warming is a good example of the scientific method demonstrating that natural causes are almost certainly not the cause of global warming. In all statistical likelihood an intelligent agent -- man -- caused the results. This is what creation science would need to do if it was going to demonstrate a divine intelligence as a causal agent: come up with a testable hypothesis that would disprove natural causes of some observable phenomenon. Tough to design that kind of study if you assert that God causes the natural causes themselves. You're left with studying purportedly supernatural phenomena: miracles, answers to prayer, and so on. So far in these studies the results haven't looked so good for the supernaturalist hypothesis...

Now on to the worship question. As you know, I've been working on Hegel's master-servant discourse. Everyone is a servant to everything that gives him a sense of self-sufficiency. So to the extent that science is regarded as an independent source of Truth, to that extent the scientist may subject him/herself to science. Or, go the other way: the scientist through his work creates/discovers new science, thereby building up Science with a big S as the master and finding for himself a degree of personal plenitude in serving the master. The relationship is always an ambivalent and ambiguous one, continually slipping back and forth between being a master of science and its servant. Neither position stands by itself; each always implies the presence of its opposite. There is no pure mastery and no pure servitude. So: the master depends on the servant for recognition, the servant attains mastery through service to the master. The motivation for both postures, though, is the same: attaining self-sufficiency.

This oscillation takes place mostly beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. And it's always ambivalent: the scientist glorifies science in order to be recognized as a good and faithful servant of scientific truth, or the scientist becomes a rigorous slave to the method in order to get his name on the next incremental advance in knowledge.

I suspect you'd agree that, for Christians, making yourself a servant to God is an ambivalent project at the subconscious level. You serve God and you receive recognition from God as a good and faithful servant, or you get eternal life, or you get the fruits of the Spirit. Are you serving God in order to receive these self-affirming benefits? It's always an inner struggle to combat this sense of self-assertion, is it not? There's a whole theory and praxis of die-to-self, but the hyperattuned conscience of the devout Christian knows that deep down the self is always asserting its primacy. Still, the objective is servitude in Christianity.

I don't think that's the case among scientists. The ambivalence between mastery and servitude is there, but I don't think the scientist has dying to self in mind. However, the scientist realizes that ego can get in the way, conflating one's contribution to knowledge with one's personal superiority and desire for recognition. There's an inner battle underway, where the scientist struggles to seek truth for its own sake and not for its positive or negative impact on his/her career.

Now I would hope that the scientist isn't serving science as a servant serves a master. Rather, I would hope that the scientist both uses science as a tool and subjects him/herself to the rigorous adherence to its methods, pursuing knowledge via the debunking of error and ignorance. That's about as altruistic as a scientist can hope to be. Similarly an accountant can hope to achieve accuracy by detecting and eliminating errors and deceoption. Similarly a Biblical exegete tries to see the revelation in its clarity, removing the clouds of bias and error. Is valuing truth for its own sake the same as worshiping truth? Is saying that the creation is good the same as worshiping the creation?

So now I've joined you in the realms of the subconscious and uncertainty, where worship even of God can be an impure motive and where admiration may or may not slide into idolatry. I think it's a wealthy lode to mine indeed. And we've undertaken thes science and worship discourses in a tribute to Baudrillard -- how strange is that? These are two of those big meta-areas that differentiate the Christian and non-Christian worldviews. Baudrillard might light a torch to the whole discussion if he was here to play his game. I think pursuit of truth is important, as is opening up new areas of ignorance.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well said. Wordy and long-winded, but well said.

Do we worship for sake of worshiping the object of desire? Or do we worship for sake of receiving what we desire? Do we worship God for all of his glory and out of love for him? Or does God become a means to an end for us? A basis for institutionalization of a religion, or the Meta-rewarder of my good deeds, etc., etc. All good questions.

But I'm getting the feel that you do not think that the Naturalist "worships" science. Does s/he worship anything? In your view?

I've interacted with a lot of Naturalists whose life and philosophy all revolve around "science." From my experience to say they "worship" science would not overstate the case....also, many such Naturalists that I've encountered were extremely arrogant, and, in my opinion, not very bright when all was said and done....

ktismatics said...

Most scientists I know do it for a job. Some are more ambitious than others, some take themselves and their work more seriously than others. But worship? No more than anybody else who does a job, I don't think. It gives them some status, some money, some colleagues to shoot the bull with, something to do with their time; maybe they contribute something to the world through research and teaching. Are scientists more arrogant than, say, salespeople or executives or physicians? I don't know. Maybe they're resentful that they don't get paid as well as some of these other professions. When you don't get money you gotta settle for status.

I'm not sure what you mean by a "Naturalist," though. Can you clarify?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm probably just beating the proverbial dead horse here....It's just interesting to think about whether we are creatures who are predisposed to worship, and that if one takes away the god-notion is there a compulsion to channel our worship-desires to something else....

ktismatics said...

I think perhaps we have a desire to associate ourselves with greatness, to identify with and live vicariously through the great ones -- or at least the famous and powerful ones. But there's also a certain amount of envy and hostility that goes with hero-worship, a desire (perhaps subconscious) to overthrow and replace the hero. Freud would contend that worship/hostility directed toward heroes and gods re-enacts our ambivalent relationships with our fathers. Maybe the bipolarity, the mimetic desire/rivalry of the "worship instinct" is a characteristic of the "old man": something to be overcome rather than cultivated. One way is to resist all relationships based on worship, the other is to replace the worship instinct with a more authentic and conscious worship that doesn't have the resentful and violent flip side.

Joe Rivera said...

I hope I am not too late to the discussion. I just wanted to breifly throw in my 2 cents. Let me re-phrase the question: do scientists have a strong tendency to worship scientific theories and science in general?

Let me say this very quickly. I think the simply answer is yes (contra ktismatics). The reason I think this is because of a controversial yet fascinating book on the philosophy of science: Thomas Kuhn's "scientific revolutions." This guy proposes that their is something like "dogma" that exists in scientific circles. This is to say that scientists have a hard time with disassociating their belief in their theories from their desire to remain objective and removed--a posture that science thinks necessary for good theory to emerge. But low and behold, many scientist are quite emotionally attached and dogmatic about their "normal" scientific theories that it boarders on the practice of religion. I could explain much more, but I will leave it at that. I'm sure you two have heard of Kuhn's famous "paradigm" theory and all that. Very interesting stuff, and he think he was on to something.

ktismatics said...

I think it's hard to remain impartial, even when it's you're business and professed belief. Our brains lock the pieces of information into fixed structures, and sometimes it takes awhile for us to realize that the pieces might hang together better in some other structure. Plus it often takes a work of real genius to think up the new structure that goes so radically against the status quo.

Is it "worship" to lock into a belief even when the data might suggest that an alternative belief might be more justified? If so, then it's the kind of idolatry that science tries to overcome. It's not always easy, though, for any of us to abandon ideas that have served us well for a long time.

Joe Rivera said...

Not sure if you were disagreeing with me or not..but let me say this.

To remain "impartial" is impossible. Nothing is neutral and nothing is theory-free nor free from ideology...not even "science." And so scientists, according to Kuhn, are no more innocent of bias than let us say the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler was against Deism in his day...or Jonathan Edwards was against the half-way covenant in his own era.
now let me say this about whether scientists are engaged in "worship" of their scientific theories. Painting with a very broad brush (because not all scientists are atheists or naturalists or materialists or followers of Aristotelians..there are many who are Christian), I think that simply because scientists strive to overcome their idolotry does not mean that they are not actively engaging in idolotry. Precisely because scientists are seeking to overcome their idolotry to a certain grand, totalizing theory is evidence that they "worship" in one way or another. Obviously they don't pray to it or do any of the ritual that is associated with religion, however, their worship may consist in the scientist deferring to and believing in and having faith in such and such theory as the best way to explain part of the world (or universe, as in string theory).

Jonathan Erdman said...

JR says...To remain "impartial" is impossible.

Hey! That's what I was thinking!!!

Let me add one more thought to this discussion....if we are not actively engaged in "worship" of something - anything! - are we truly living??? What happens if we never commit ourselves to anything and always remain in a strange land of neutrality?

What does it look like in this age of pop-relativism to say, "Ta-hell with my intellectual insecurities, I believe in it and I'm going to go for it!"

Joe Rivera said...

JR? that's what my football coach used to call me...brings back memories.

let me say this about neutrality. To not committ oneself to anything is a commitment in itself. to be free of commitments is the same as being free of a will (which we know can't be true, human "will" is part and parcel of who we are). Also, see JOnathan Edwards on the definition of the "Will" and u will know what i mean.

JE you said:

'What does it look like in this age of pop-relativism to say, "Ta-hell with my intellectual insecurities, I believe in it and I'm going to go for it!"'

as regards this, I am unsure what you mean. Are you asking what does it "look like" to me? Or to the wider society of the West? Or what would it look like from a Christian perspective? Or, are you saying this attitude opens up possibilites for the viability of Christian belief in the public arena?

Jonathan Erdman said...

As I understand Edwards he is the king of compatibilists. He would reduce the will down to the collective desires and inclinations of a person. On this view for me to "will" to go for a run is to have inclination and desire to do so. Maybe I don't feel like going on a run just now, but I am inclined to keep myself in shape so that I can be healthier and not fall out of shape and be able to run the marathon next fall, etc. etc. So the greatest desires win out in the end. As such God can know and predetermine our wills because the "will" is simply the greatest desire....

This would be over and above those who believe that for a will to be free it, by definition, cannot be known ahead of time. Freedom of the will is incompatible with foreknowledge.

I know I am rehashing what you are already aware of, but I do this to question your assertion that a non-commitment is a commitment. Can we really be committed to nothing??? This is what I wonder because on Edwards' definition of the will it is the collective desire and inclination. But what happens to those who either 1) Have no desire to really do anything or 2) Their desire is has been neutered or it is extremely weakened.

Contrast an enterprising and optimistic entrepreneur with a dope head. The entrepreneur is relentless in his drive and will to accomplish and to do. The dope head just kind of goes with the flow. He might need to get dope every once in a while, and that might "drive" him, but no one would say that these two are equally "committed"....or perhaps you would say so.....

What I am driving at with the entrepreneur/dope head example is that there seems to be levels of commitment. Our culture in the states seems to be such that we can remain rather lethargic towards our faith commitments. Is this weakened state of commitment really a commitment at all? That's what I'm kind of wondering.

ktismatics said...

I understand that we can't transcend, that we're mired in biases and presuppositions, many of which we don't even realize are there. But that doesn't mean we can't try to get a couple inches off the ground. It's a commitment for sure -- to clear out some of the clutter in order to see a little more clearly. Absolute truth might be unattainable, but trying to correct errors and to arrive at more accurate human views of truth seem like pretty good activities. And yes, I do think the scientific method is helpful in this regard. Paradigm shifts aren't just random; the new paradigm usually offers some improvement over its predecessor: more predictive power, wider scope of application, more aesthetic elegance, etc. Science is a discipline to which the practitioner commits him-/herself. There probably is also an implicit faith that you can get progressively closer to knowledge. I am not nihilistic with respect to scientific progress: I think we really do know more about the world than we did 500 years ago. Don't you guys?

You can try to become a better, more objective and creative scientist. Just like you can become a better computer programmer or painter or lawyer. Some commitment, some faith in the techniques and yourself and the likely results, some work, maybe some joy in the doing and the achieving. Maybe it's all pointless in the long run, but there is a certain drive toward self-transcendence that in my value system is better than just trying to have as much fun or have as many friends or make as much money as you can.

I presume there are praxes of faith that can move you closer to God -- exegesis, prayer, meditation, walking the walk. You'll never get all the way there in this lifetime, you're always going to see through a glass darkly, but you can at least wipe some of the dirt off the glass, no?

Joe Rivera said...

Ok, I see your point...you want to rescue science as a legit discipline that produces some fairly "objective" results about the world around us. Allow me to be an antagonist for a moment regarding scientific objectivity.

Put yourself in the shoes of a scientist for a moment. The scientist assumes that their techniques are the best at retrieving the facts of nature. Their techniques then require certain instruments such as microscopes, etc (which by the way require enormous amounts of money to design and manufacture). Then, their theories emerge, which are derived from their techniques...remember those techniques are dependent entirely on the equipment or instruments available.

Now, just think about the vicious circle that is going on here. The theories that the scientist comes to are not determined by access to all the the facts...but rather only the facts that their techniques and instruments are able to lay bare to the scientist. It goes the other way to: the instruments and techniques constantly reinforce the theories because they are providing the theory with the crucial data.

Thus, as Kuhn would say, many scientist become enclosed in their own world or "paradigm" which is a full-blown system with its own theories, techniques, instruments, grammar, terminology, language, nomenclature,etc. Every theory is based on data retreived from an instrument, and every instrument is created based on a theory that requires that instrument.

Now...here's the kicker: that whole process ain't so bad. I do think we know more about the world now than we did 500 years ago. Here is my only problem: many people love to grant science a privlige beyond its means. That is to say that many think science is quite superior to any other discipline, that science somehow is more "objective" and possesses the capacity to set the rules by which all other disciplines must play. This "scientific imperialism" bothers me and is precisely, like Kuhn, would enjoy problematizing. I don't think science can transcend the finitude from which it emerged, namely humanity. In other words, to think science can transcend into a level of objectivity would be tantamount to saying that humans can transcend themselves...since science is a product of the human product and humans are not objective. whew. sorry so long.

Overall, I think I am saying something similar to you. I agree that science is a worthwhile pursuit, however, I just want to challenge its hegemony that it has acheived in our society. Somehow science is the end all-be all for too many people.

Joe Rivera said...


as for jonathan edwards, he does believe in a kind of compatiblism.

at bottom, he states that we do in fact possess a free will...just not the same free will arminians (or semi-pelagians) presume we exercise. in short, edwards re-defines free will.

he redefines as the following: we can choose freely upon our will. that is, we never choose anything contrary to our will, we are never forced into a decision. edwards calls the will a form of "mind choosing". further, the will is never never neutral. it cannot adjudicate between opposites, that is, it cannot choose between opposites. it does not have a priviliged point of reference that can sit between two opposites and deliberate...and then make a choice after considering the pros anc cons of each position.

edwards simply says we choose what we "will". the will either loves or hates, is please or displeased, enjoys or doesn't enjoy, etc. there is no in between. it is rooted in the affections (read Religious Affections, the first chapter of section III). And so, we either love or hate something...for example, if we choose to run it is because we enjoy running, otherwise we would not run because we don't choose it if our will dislikes it. there is no indifference.

Now, regarding whether a pot-head who seems indifferent and lethargic can remain truly uncommitted to anything in life is something i can answer very briefly. according to the theory of the will by edwards, the pot-head still exercises his will or "mind choosing". he does this by choosing to be lethargic, to spend money on pot, to not work hard a finding a career, to sit on the couch a lot, etc. now, whether he is uncommitted is not the issue. the issue is whether or not what the pot-head is committed to is more noble and virtuous than what the successful entrepreneur is. so to answer your question i do think the pot-head and the entrepreneur are equally committed...the latter is committed to working hard and earning money while the former is committed to smoking pot, watching lots of old kung-fu movies, stealing money from his/her parents to buy pot, etc. now, what you are really concerned about is whether these two seem equally worthy or noble. i would say of course not. but that does not cancel the fact that they are both exercising their wills full throttle and constantly making choices and showing themselves to be committed to certain positions. remember, no neutrality is possible for Edwards.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm going to have to continue to disagree with you on this one, though I find your/Edwards' position interesting. Let's continue to narrow the scope of our analogy....

The pothead is "committed" to watching old kung-fu movies. No, let's say a specific kung-fu movie on a specific Tuesday afternoon. Let's say that on that same Tuesday afternoon our entrepreneur is faced with a choice: He must borrow a large amount of money at a very high interest rate to make his company work or else the idea and dream will die. Let's go further, shall we? Let us say that this entrepreneur has been working 80 hour weeks for the last three years because he deeply believes in his dream and his company-to-be. He has forsaken other, more stable offers, and has also spurned the cultivation of friends and lovers. All of this because he has his eye on the prize.

On Tuesday afternoon the pothead switches on the television at the exact same time that the entrepreneur signs the paperwork that will lay everything he has on the line for his company. I can't possibly see how these two acts of the will and that these two people are both equally committed.

I would think that we must, in this scenario, speak of levels of commitment. The pothead and the entrepreneur might both be committed to something but they are not equally committed. And I would venture to say that the pothead's level of commitment is so low so as to barely register on the radar! There is a risk level and a motivation level that is seriously lacking. Really, the pothead hasn't committed himself in a way that is risky or demonstrates motivation. Frankly, it is probably the only thing to do at the moment, and he would just as well be blowing up pop cans with firecrackers if it had crossed his cloudy mind before he turned the tv on.

ktismatics said...

Interesting discussion, but it's after 2am here and I just can't carry on coherently -- presuming, of course, that I have been doing so up till now. Anyhow -- I'll catch up tomorrow.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Derrida has suggested that sometimes he is "more awake" when he is in a sleep-like state and that he is "more asleep" during the day....


Joe Rivera said...


let me say that I like your concern, and that it does serve as a bit of a corrective to my position.

I think I could admitt that "committments" can have levels of intensity or degrees of quality, or whatever. I think that is something that could be agreed upon. But, my only qualm is with your assertion that the pot-head's committment to watching kung-fu barely registers or is barely a blip on the radar. instead, I would maintain that the pot-heads "mind choosing" is heading down a wrong path and that the degree of quality of his committment is quite low.

Let me say this as a challenge to your position on the pot-head. if we assume for a moment that his lifestyle involves no real committment to anything so as to render his will fairly inactive, then how does the pot-head ever climb out of his slumber? how does he jump start his lifeless will if it does not already have plenty of life in it? i say this because i have had a couple of pot-head friends who turned their life around, which i am not sure would have been possible if they weren't already committed to something. in other words, they were able to change the quality of their commitments they already had.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I guess I ask this: Did they simply change their commitments (from pot, kung-fu, and firecrackers), or did they increase the level of their commitments? Perhaps something finally clicked in their cloudy minds one day and they thought, "Dude, I need to get a job and do something." That, in my view, would represent a change in commitments, but more importantly it would demonstrate a desire to actually increase their level of commitment. They would go from deciding their life as it goes to signing on with an employer to be at work everyday from 9-5.

That's what I question about American culture as we continue to progress: What is the level of commitment? Do we have it in us to really sell out to our God? Or do we live in a culture that has relegated spiritual commitment levels to an all time low?

Joe Rivera said...

well, well...bring in Derrida. Isn't that fun. Well, you might want to uncover the meaning a bit for me of that cryptic Derrida statement. Who knows what he means half the time...i don't even think he knows what he is saying. a lot like pearl jam's lyrics if you ask me. try understanding "yellow ledbetter" by pearl jam. who the hell knows.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes!!! I love it! Compare Pearl Jam and Derrida!

That's the stuff of a good blogger post!

ktismatics said...

Good morning! There's a lot of stuff going on in this post, so I'll pick and choose from topics that were alive when I dropped out.

Joe talks about how science is dependent on instruments, which he says isn't so bad. However, he says, I don't think science can transcend the finitude from which it emerged, namely humanity. In other words, to think science can transcend into a level of objectivity would be tantamount to saying that humans can transcend themselves...since science is a product of the human product and humans are not objective.

I agree: man can only arrive at man-like understandings of the world, not what the world is in and of itself. We're dependent on our sensory apparatus to gather data about the world, and on our brains for making sense of the data. Scientific instruments, experimental methods, analysis techniques, and so on are like robotic extensions of the basic biological human apparatus: wider spectrum of detection, more sensitive to small differences, more powerful computing power, and so on. It's all built from the ground up, so it never gets all the way off the ground.

But that ability to extend innate capability from the ground up is what separates humans from all other species. We're not dependent exclusively on instinctive capabilities to make sense of the world. We can extend ourselves, not just as individuals but collectively. Science taken as a whole -- its methods, theories, findings -- is a big cultural extension of human capability built from the bottom up in small increments. And since we can learn, this whole apparatus is available to everyone without having to reinvent the wheel every time. It is a form of self-transcendence -- a transcendence of culture over nature -- that's uniquely available to our species. It's a self-transcendence built from the ground up by man-made cranes rather than dropped down onto us from heaven by skyhooks, to use Daniel Dennett's analogy. Can science ever aspire to absolute, objective truth? No. But it can aspire to better and better human-level understanding.

I sympathize to a degree with the Christian urge to debunk science, to point out its limitations rather than its accomplishments, its limits rather than its potential. But it seems so extremely negative. Maybe it reflects a broader ambivalence, or rather mistrust, about the free exercise of innate human ability. There's this sense that only God can create anything good or reveal truth, that man's unaided efforts are intrinsically corrupt, self-glorifying, idolatrous, self-deceptive. It's a theology of the Fall that's in play here in part, don't you think?

ktismatics said...

I think the discussion has moved on from science to commitment and will, so you can ignore my persistence on science if your want. This discussion of Jonathan Edwards' position on will sounds interesting. I know nothing of Edwards, but in Joe's thumbnail it sounds like will is a kind of subliminal process of sorting out competing affections and desires, eventually landing on the most-desired course of action (or inaction). So your conscious commitment is a kind of after-effect, a rationale for explaining to yourself why you seem to have chosen the way you did? Is that close?

Joe Rivera said...

Ok Ktismatics, I will respond to your argument regarding science.

As long as you define human self-transcendence as culture rising above nature, then your argument will remain necessarily vague. Here is why: the line between nature and culture is blurry. Surely nature conditions culture and culture conditions how we understand and categorize nature. There is no simply process, increment by increment, of transcending nature. The reason I say this is because I take seriously Heidegger's notion of Dasein, which develops into his notion of being-in-the-world. It is really a quite simple concept that claims that we as humans are inescapably products of the time and place in which we live...we are Dasein, literally "being-there", that is, there in that place and we always carry around with us our "there-ness." Human nature, then, if conceived of as Dasein is something that conditions all of human culture. I hope that this is somewhat clear...maybe?
As for your claim that we do not have to reinvent the wheel constantly in terms of human knowledge is, well...obvious.
Sure I think science has undoubtedly increased "human" knowledge about the world we inhabit. All I want to maintain, though, is that that knowledge is radically human...which I may reiterate is a severe limitation on science. At the same time, I am not seeking to be overly dismissive or pessimistic regarding the achievments of science. I surely believe that some of the tenants evolution (if not many?) could be embraced while similarly embracing Christian theism. I don't think evolution and the Bible are mutually exclusive if that's what you are assuming I want to say.

Really, my only point is to challenge the supposed hegemony of science over theology that so many in contemporary western society simply presume without two thoughts. Of course I also find equally distasteful those fundamentalists who think science is fundamentally opposed to theology, as though it is a scary force that can render irrelevant the need for god. that fear is equally ridiculous. let the debate continue

Jonathan Erdman said...

Good point, Joe. Interesting tie-in with Heidegger. Ktismatics has been blogging on Heidegger a bit recently, so I am intrigued that you have used his own philosopher and turned it against him!

Joe Rivera said...

About Jonathan Edwards' doctrine of the will:

I think that K you are not quite on. It may help for you to read the third section of "Religious Affections" if you want to here it from the source himself. Be that as it may, let me just say this.

Edwards may or may not believe in some kind of subliminal debating process that sorts out competing desires. All i know is that Edwards roots the will in the affections (the heart), and because he does this, he is constantly telling us that our will is EITHER pleased or displeased by something...we either love or hate, like or dislike, etc. He sets up these pairs of opposites that seem to disallow for any possibility of deliberation or adjudication. at the very least, neutrality is an illusion for him. Now of course, Edwards does not simply divorce the head from the heart...he only "roots" the will in the affections. In other words, the will is also informed by head knowledge--the heart is blended with and informed by head knowledge. In fact, many times the head and heart so interpenetrate each other he uses the term heart knowledge, as if the heart can actually possess knowledge (heart = affections)....let me stop here. not sure if this helps.

ktismatics said...

Woke up in the middle of the night, not just up late...

Joe and Jonathan - Your elaboration on Edwards have been enlightening for me. Per Joe's recommendation I read some of Edwards' "Religious Affections." Really interesting - I should spend more time on it. Here's a quote: In every act of the will for, or towards something not present, the soul is in some degree inclined to that thing; and that inclination, if in a considerable degree, is the very same with the affection of desire. And in every degree of the act of the will, wherein the soul approves of something present, there is a degree of pleasedness; and that pleasedness, if it be in a considerable degree, is the very same with the affections of joy or delight. And if the will disapproves of what is present, the soul is in some degree displeased, and if that displeasedness be great, it is the very same with the affection of grief or sorrow. Such seems to be our nature, and such the laws of the union of soul and body, that there never is in any case whatsoever, any lively and vigorous exercise of the will or inclination of the soul, without some effect upon the body...

That's really interesting. The affections incline the will toward a decision, such that the act of deciding per se constitutes a conscious assent to the inclinations that have already formed themselves in your affections. Our affections, in turn, may be shaped by sensory impressions, or physical desires, or spiritual influences (either godly or satanic). It's a very different idea of will than the whole "choice" paradigm that characterizes our culture -- as if we're at the mall scanning all our options lined up on the shelves, systematically and consciously decide which one we want to buy. But, Edwards reminds us, we're already inclined toward certain decisions by the affections. Edwards proposes ways of judging affections and their source (flesh, external sensory input, devil, God). So I suppose there's the possibility of rejecting the influence of certain affections -- assuming, of course that you've got the indwelling Holy Spirit to help you make these judgments.

There's something distinctly contemporary about this way of seeing the operation of the will. It's an acknowledgment that the rational decision-making process is itself on the receiving end of various other operations taking place "upstream" or "beneath the surface," depending on what topological model you like. There's not some rational homunculus reading the sensory and cognitive input streams and rendering the executive decision. Instead it's a distributed and integrated operation that doesn't split neatly into a dualistic rendering. I'm glad you and Jonathan got into this whole Edwards thing.

Joe says: As long as you define human self-transcendence as culture rising above nature... I thought you were going to say that then we're in agreement. Instead you said ...then your argument will remain necessarily vague. Oh well. Anyhow, I'd like to think we are in agreement. Culture is a human apparatus built on natural capabilities, allowing man to do things he couldn't do (like science and theology) if all he had to rely on were the capabilities he shares with all other animals. It's all natural, from the ground up, embedded in the world. The cumulative construction of culture and our ability to transmit/learn it without reinventing it may be obvious, but it's no less remarkable for that. And, despite Erdman's (fleshly) affection for turning discussions into arguments, I'm entirely with you on Heidegger also. He too proposes that through a certain kind of effort man can uncover human-level truths even if his being is inextricably a "being-in."

The possibility of progressively building a culture "on top of" the natural world in which we're embedded, an apparatus for enhancing human fitness that's light years faster than biological evolution, an apparatus that's not just for adapting to the world but for altering the world itself -- this is a rising above the limits of raw instinct within the boundaries of nature. In this regard I'd certainly call culture a kind of bottom-up transcendence over raw nature, entirely within the context of "being-in" nature.

So you're resisting the hegemony of science as the only source of human knowledge -- I agree, there are other sources. I'm resisting the denigration of science because it is merely human -- and you agree that science does lead to knowledge and progressively so. It's a beautiful story, no? Now I can go back to bed and rest easy -- except I have to get up again in an hour and a half.

Joe Rivera said...

Let me just say that Jonathan Edwards, once you get to know him, will strike as one of the four most brilliant theologians the church has ever produced. the other three being Augustine, Aquinas and Barth (Calvin is a close 5th).

Here is something else to think about...Edwards calls the "sense of the heart" a new simple idea--a direct appropriation of John Locke! If you have the Yale University edition of "Religious Affections", that reference is on p.205 (i memorized that page# from my Edwards research days...it is a huge deal in Edwards scholarship that JE actually tried to integrate Lockean empiricism into his theology). I'm telling you, he is a fascinating thinker...very philosophical, very platonistic--read "the end for which god created the world". Ok, I must quit salivating over Edwards...but you get the point.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Perhaps we will see some Jonathan Edwards posts on your blog sometime soon????

Jonathan Erdman said...

It would be interesting to explore how modern/postmodern Edwards may or may not be. As JR pointed out there is the presence of Lockean empiricism....but Edwards was a deeply spiritual theologian and a Determinist (Compatibilist to be precise) and as such it is easy to see how Ktismatics could say that there is something "distinctly contemporary" in the Edwardean way of seeing the operation of the will. Does this show anticipation for Heidegger's being-in-the-world? Does this anticipate 20th century psychological thought of the below-the-surface forces that shape our actions/anxieties/thinking? And what happens when we find ourselves possessed with competing "affections" that are battling against each other? Maybe in this case the competition is so strong that rather than producing one, simple action they produce a psychological disorder of some sort....I suppose there are many possibilities here.

ktismatics said...

I'm thinking about psychological models of cognition and brain function. Edwards seems considerably less dualistic than his contemporaries or than the way most people today think about how thought and will work. There's a whole lot of neural action going on leading up to anything that you could point to as the decisive moment of choice. Dennett says that a lot of what we regard as our choices and beliefs might better be regarded as rationalizations after the fact. What Edwards might call our affections lead us toward a path of action where the conscious decision is almost anticlimactic.

Also, it seems that for Edwards the affections can be influenced by external sources -- sensory impressions, even ideas that are introduced into our minds from outside rather than from our thinking them up. This is a lot like meme theory which, even though introduced by Christian nemesis Dawkins, is still pretty cool.

Again, I've just briefly looked at Edwards' book (it's online for free). But that line of argument seems like the anti-dualistic, distributed processing brain science models, coupled with this sort of evolutionary meme idea. Less the pomo philosophers, more the cognitive science stuff that struck me on first read.