Monday, July 23, 2012

The Postmodernism Translator

James T. Kirk using the Postmodernism Translator to learn deep thoughts from the French.

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry was having trouble with a paragraph from postmodern scholar Bruno Latour. I happen to speak postmodern, so the table below gives Latour's sentences on the left and my liberal translation on the right.

Latour Tanner
In religious talk, there is indeed a leap of faith, but this is not an acrobatic salto mortale in order to do even better than reference with more daring and risky means, it is a somersault yes, but one which aims at jumping, dancing toward the present and the close, to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation, to prepare oneself to be seized again by this presence that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time.

As to knowledge, it is not a direct grasp of the plain and the visible against all beliefs in authority, but an extraordinarily daring, complex, and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, through many different types of proofs, lead toward new types of visions that force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense.

Belief is simply immaterial for any religious speech-act; knowledge is not an accurate way to characterize scientific activity.

We might move forward a bit, if we were calling “faith” the movement that brings us to the close and to the present, and retaining the word “belief" for this necessary mixture of confidence and diffidence with which we need to assess all the things we cannot see directly.

Then the difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms—“belief ” applied to vague spiritual matters, “knowledge” to directly observable things—but in the same broad set of competences applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions.

The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped—namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.
Religious people take "leaps of faith" [in talking about the substance of belief]. But it's not just fancy, meaningless talk, and it's not trying for mere poetry or emotion. Instead, it attempts to articulate the wonder and extra-ordinariness of the present moment, of its present-ness. Where the events of our lives could be seen indifferently and as mundane happenings, in a religious frame the events are grand and worthy of amazement.

Religious knowledge--that is, feeling sure that God exists, is watching, and is at work--is not like knowing in everyday life. It is, rather, a heroic assertion and a point of view that finds new and beautiful ways, every day, to confirm that assertion. The assertion, perspective, and continual connecting of the two make the knower a supremely open-minded learner.

Religious belief therefore transcends ordinary speech. Language cannot convey the complexity of what the religious seeker is actually doing and learning in active seeking. Neither is the word knowledge appropriate to the learning done by anyone who actively looks at and in the world.

Current discussions of religion and science might progress if we all shared a more nuanced understanding of the difference between "faith" and "belief."

The more nuanced understanding would help locate the real difference between science and religion: the different cognitive skills and ideological commitments each brings to bear in inquiry. Science and religion are, in other words, different ways of knowing and and of advocating for personally held values.

Science orients the thinker to the invisible reality that only mathematics and high-powered instrumentation can access. That reality is far from us and behaves in ways we often find counter-intuitive. Religion also orients the thinker to the invisible, but this invisible reality is the now, the unique present. It's here and close, but only momentary and unrepeatable.

Latour's prose is dense, but not inscrutable. Unfortunately, it's hard to be overly impressed with the logic of his grand--and beautiful--claims for what religion is, does, and knows.

For Latour, to be religious, to think in the religious mode, is to elevate oneself and the now. One is introspective and amazed to be part of a singular narrative in time. Every facet of one's life now is imbued with higher meaning and purpose. And exercise of religious thinking is equally noble and equally important compared to the exercise of scientific techniques.

His aspirations and dancing prose notwithstanding, Latour ultimately fails to make his case. Religious thinking and talk, by his characterization, are little more than very deep navel gazing. They are solipsistic exercises, the dramatic cry of one unable to escape time, and thereby death. In Latour's ornamented formulation, religious introspection re-states William Saroyan's famous quote: "Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case." Religion is the fantasy invoked to come to grips with the fact that no exception will be made.

The Why Evolution Is True crowd notes, as I do, the rhetorical game Latour is playing: "science" is the standard, and Latour wants to bring religion up to or--even better--past the standard. Science has a presumed preeminence and authority he wants conferred also to religion.

It's a silly game, and unnecessary. Religion can be very beautiful. It can make one introspective, and it can yield breathtaking insights into one's life and one's moment. It can help one question common sense and one's own prejudices.

But religion really isn't like science and today bears no relation to it. There's no basis for comparing the two.

Religion is not about truth or knowledge, even self-knowledge. Rather, religion is about understanding, about feeling rationally justified to hold a certain view. The key here, as far as I can tell, is "feeling rational." We're not talking about pure rationality but emotional sanctification with the idea that one is intellectually attuned to forces at work in the universe.

Religion taps into an enticing fantasy, the fantasy of somehow knowing something. But it's just a fantasy. It isn't true, not in the sense of modelling, observing, or schematizing a phenomenon.

I wish people could be OK with that, with the fact that religion isn't true. After all, they can still go to church. They can still pray. They can still observe the rituals and special days. They can still read holy books and discuss teachings. They can still imagine heaven. They can still contemplate hell.They can still fantasize about knowing, all by themselves, deep secrets of the universe.

Religion does not need to be true for people to be interested in it, inspired by it, educated by it, moved by it. But it needs to be true if people are going to learn about the universe and about people.

And it's not true, so let's not ask it to be, and let's not try to extract knowledge where there is none to be had.

In the end, Latour's prose and point are ineffectual because they misguidedly inflate religion into areas it cannot influence. A reformed postmodernist myself, I hope my prose and my arguments are more compelling than his indulgent apology for the unsubstantive.

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