Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Der Fall Rorty (Explication de texte)

 Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, p. 19:

If we try to clarify the orthodox notion of ‘the divine’, we seem to have either a merely negative conception, or else one explicated in terms of the notions of ‘infinity’ and ‘immateriality’. Since reference to infinity explains the obscure by the more obscure, we are left with immateriality.

            Rorty seems to have solved the Packing Problem:  This is ten pounds of bullsh*t in a five-pound bag.
            The first clause first, though it is the least exceptionable.  It neither says nor presupposes anything false; the bias is merely rhetorical.  We “try to clarify” (evidently doomed in our efforts, so obscure is the clarificandum) – as though clarification were not likewise a necessity for everything from rocks to snowflakes to the Continuum Hypothesis.  Bishop Berkeley tried, and failed, to clarify Newton’s fluxions; Cauchy succeeded.  Next!  -- And then those little tweezers, the squotes:  I use them myself, so I know what they’re used for.  Preferably not to denigrate divinity before we’ve even begun (“…of ‘the divine’ ….”).   
            The “merely negative conception” does point to a real current in theology (both Christian and Islamic), but a current so rich, that the “merely”, while essentially an emotion-word, almost rises to the status of a lie.  For the “negative conception”, the  via negativa, (discussed elsewhere in this series;  just click on the label) is nothing like nihilism, nothing like negativism, nothing even like skepticism.  It is a stance arrived at after a long – centuries-long – attempt to characterize, in positive terms, what is… well, it turns out, very difficult to characterize, at least in terms of the predicates we inherited from our hunter-gatherer and pastoral past.  We might compare it to the history of our contemplation of the Continuum Hypothesis.  In the early days, red-blooded mathematicians naturally set out on their stallions to prove it (positively) true; or, failing that, to prove it (positively) false.  The current position (after much intermediate agony)  is:  It is true in some models; false in others; and independent of the axioms as usually deployed in set theory.  This whole “independent of the axioms – neither true nor false, exactly, but not nonsense either” is a rich notion, almost too rich to digest,  which required millennia to arrive at.  It is indeed a kind of (unanticipated) negative result; but not “merely negative”.  And since the problem of God is a superset of the problem of the Continuum Hypothesis, we cannot well expect a simple etch-a-sketch portrait of the guy (as it were, posing along the boardwalk at Ocean City).  (Indeed, if you follow me closely, my adducing the C.H. for comparison, so far from being some typical theistical opportunistical move, if anything undermines our naïve conception of the Creator; at least, its initial effect on myself was sickening, as bad as the Beagle on Captain FitzGerald.  And there will be no post-initial effect for quite some time, until – God grant it – I gain greater insight into the thing.)

He goes on:  ”or else one explicated in terms of the notions of ‘infinity’ and ‘immateriality’.”
(Note again the sneer quotes, offered in lieu of argument by this ‘philosopher’.)
Being passably ignorant of theological history, I cannot say whether these two epithets, among the many that might be hazarded as regards the Godhead, are the two statistically most prominent ones, but let us suppose they are.  No theologian, and no widow lighting a candle, ever imagined that these were the crux of the thing.  The integers are infinite and immaterial; so is the Infinite Penguin; we worship neither.  How about “Creator”, “Redeemer” and “the ground of our morality”, yo?

  “Since reference to infinity explains the obscure by the more obscure…”    Good… Lord.  I wish it were so.   If the nature of the divine were actually clearer than the nature of infinity – I wouldn’t need to write this essay, it could be left to the kindergarten teacher, while the rest of us dance table-top, champagne in hand.   Infinity – by which I shall here always mean, the very teensiest flavor of same, aleph-nought – has been very well studied by now.  It is virtually suitable for the nursery.
            If I have hesitated to push the infinity-of-the-integers business too far (their infinity, as opposed to their Necessity), it is not because it is too obscure:  it is rather too simple, too almost shallow.  I can tell you a lot more about little-omega (that least, most modest infinity, with the ordinal type of the natural numbers) than I can about, say, something really difficult, like a duck.

            As for “immateriality”, that’s… immaterial.  Is He immaterial, or nonmaterial, or intangible, or  ethereal, or abstract, or funereal  -- wholly or partly so? Some say He once walked through Jerusalem, leaving footprints in the sand.  That is intriguing, if true (trust Rorty to latch on rather to the boring possibility); but as for immateriality, that is no part of our interest in, or devotion to, Him.  Smurfs are immaterial for the matter of that, and I don’t go to Smurfs on Sunday.  In fact, given a choice (say, by a dating service) between a Material entity and an Immaterial, I’d go with the Material every time.  It might tickle our idle curiosity to find out, whether He is – or rather, for that is nonsense, to what extent and in which ways He is ` ` ` immaterial ‘ ‘ ‘ (and here it is the philospher’s use, not the possible pis-aller use by the theologian, that I am punctuationally excoriating), -- how like a ghost, like the air, like the integers, like the non-algebraic numbers, like the angels, like aleph-one, like our late great-grandfather, like a poem once spoken but never written down, how like a prayer we would have uttered, but that the Reaper came too soon …. You’d need a lot of terminological tidying-up for the question to even make sense, and it isn’t worth doing.  Those who believe they have had some actual experience of God, have a number of tart things – be they true be they false things, but – a number of sharp and hard things, to say, about these experiences, which in no way resemble the mumblings of a sociophobic agnostic concerning the silences of a fog-enveloped all-encompassing blancmange. To ignore all this and focus on “immaterial”, is like never bothering to learn Relativity, yet loudly wondering (peevishly) about just what was Einstein’s favorite flavor of ice cream. (My understanding, incidentally, is that he preferred minkowskian, with sprinkles.)

            Nothing hangs on this red-herring of the “immaterial”.  Most folks who have had (as they imagine; again, righly or wrongly) any immediate experience of God, tend to emphasize the personal.   My own conception of the Creator is actually more immaterial than most, because I’m emphasizing the actual nature of the Creation, than which the Creator is logically-necessarily more complex: a Creation which has – I mean just plain in terms of Measure Theory -- far more of the mathematical (call that abstract or immaterial or whatever you like) than it does of rocks, or turds, or mxlnthnkxs. (These last are certain purely material items of Universe #138; they greatly outnumber our atoms, but there are far fewer of them than there are  integers.)  Were I someday actually to run into the chap, and were He to appear in the quite tangible aspect of Mr. Natural seated beneath a tree, I should, to be sure, feel mildly surprised, but philosophically neither cheated nor refuted.

(Key to that last paradox:
 While we dub the Lord the “Necessary Being”, that description, like that of “Father” or “Creator” or the “Lord of Hosts”,  does not exhaust Him.  It is impossible to conceive of Him as being nothing but the Necessary.  For in that case He  really would be just a giant math book. Hence the boring quality of the ontological argument (whether valid or not). We can conceivably deduce certain things about God along those lines, but nothing of His concreteness.)


Rorty adds, later down the page:
If it makes any sense to speak of the existence of universals, it would seem that they must exist immaterially.

First:  It does indeed make sense to talk of universals, if it makes sense at all  to talk about integers, or modus ponens, or “all men are mortal”, or “the most wonderful mom there ever could be”   -- this “existence of” pre-modifier is something of a rogue.  It makes sense to talk of Hamlet, unicorns, democracy, love, and prime numbers; what is added by this “existence of”?  “Please pass the existence-of  salt.”  No, nonsense.
Next: These universals may “exist”, if you like, `immaterially’, or in any other fashion – I wouldn’t insist on the point, nothing hangs on this. For all I care, they exist in a pickle-jar; none of their properties (in universe after universe) are affected thereby.  As it happens, I personally tend to see Hilbert space as rather more concrete and well-defined, and mountains as rather more abstract and ill-defined, than has hitherto been customary. Likewise, Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat is – abstract /ideal/ immaterial/ call-it-what-you-may, it is still acoustically-ontologically tangible, and each recording or performance thereof is quite concrete.

And yet further a bit (Rorty goes on):
“…the immaterial – the mystery beyond the bounds of sense…”

Now this is a nice phrase, suggesting in particular  the existence of something beyond the confines of the lavatory, where nominalists spend so much time; so we receive it with respect.  Still, conscience oblige, we are compelled to observe, that the “bounds of sense” are a purely relative, species-bound, even individual- and moment-bound notion. A pickle-jar exists beyond the bounds of the blind bat, that doesn’t make it a mystery.  Hilbert space exists beyond the bounds of certain uninstructed individuals; whose bad?  The Blorks of the planet Fnoid can neither see nor touch a stationary object, but they can move it, and then sense it, using their solutions to the equations of motion, and this more accurately than with the eyes.   Cantor and Gödel had a sense for the infinite that compares favorably with many an ear for music or nose for wine. 
            And as for “mystery”, a term often used as a sort of hand-waving dismissal: many things, both physical and immaterial, are mysterious until you study them; others, unmysterious until you study them.  Rocks are much more mysterious after the discovery of atoms (my my, mostly empty space. And yet so solid).  Fractions, which every kindergartner now takes for granted, spooked the Egyptians, who for some reason expressed them, not in the simple form of today, but as an elaborately calculated sum of reciprocals.  Algebraic numbers, imaginary numbers, lose their mystery in a single intellectual wedding-night.  Transcendental numbers like e and pi, retain – or rather have gained, in mystery, but in a specific sort of mystery in each case: indeed, we have a solid handle at the hither end of it.  It is a mystery we never would have discovered, let alone elucidated, had we adhered to a Rortyan agnostic-proctological underview.


Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 190, re Rorty’s replacement of epistemology with hermeneutics:
Discourse among scholars, in short, can proceed without worrying about consilience.  About rigor too, it would seem.  Although this concession is welcomed by postmodernist scholars, it is a premature surrender that would drain much of the power and joy from scholarly inquiry.

Wilson counsels eschewing such a replacement, “except at cocktail time” -- a wise proviso, since indeed, prattling on about hermeneutics is much more likely than epistemological discourse  to get you laid.

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