Failure to engage
The Tipping Point with Islam
Here are two articles about the failure to fully and properly engage with a given subject, and “the subject” of the age certainly appears to be coming to grips with 9/11 and its’ fallout.
1. At TCS, Edward Fesser offers a sharp analysis of 9/11 conspiracy theories amd correctly, in my opinion, pinpoints what it is that draws certain people to them like moths to a flame – namely hatred and paranoia “liberated” by an intellectual climate that regularly conflates reason with suspicion. Fesser also offers up a link to Penn and Teller on Google Video for anyone looking for a crib note. Here’s the nib of Fesser’s take, which he opens up pretty nicely:
A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.
Where Fesser really gets interesting is when he successfully robs radicals of the veneer of scientific method and therefore scientific credibility:
To be sure, where phenomena remote from everyday human experience are concerned – the large-scale structure of spacetime, the microscopic realm of molecules, atoms, and so forth – it is perhaps not surprising that human beings should for long periods of time have gotten things wrong. But where everyday matters are concerned – where opinions touch on our basic understanding of human nature and the facts about ordinary social interaction – it is very likely that they would not, in general, get things wrong. Biological and cultural evolution would ensure that serious mistakes concerning such matters would before too long be weeded out. The detailed reasons for this are complex, but when spelled out they provide the basis for a general defense of tradition and common sense of the sort associated with thinkers like Burke and Hayek.
Moreover, the popular image of scientific practice described above simply doesn’t correspond to reality. Thomas Kuhn certainly had his deficiencies as a philosopher, but he was a good historian of science, and his famous description of “normal science” – on which ordinary scientific practice is in fact very conservative, with scientists working within and developing a general theoretical picture of the world that they have inherited from their teachers and rarely think to challenge – is surely correct. Indeed, it has to be correct, since it is really just not possible to treat authority, tradition, and common sense as if they were in general and in principle likely to be wrong. For in forming our beliefs we must always start somewhere, and have nowhere else to start except the general picture of the world we have inherited from our parents, society, and people who due to special experience or study have more knowledge of a subject matter than we do. Of course, we can and do often criticize some particular part of this picture, but the very criteria we appeal to in order to do so typically derive from other parts of it. What we cannot coherently do is question the inherited picture as a whole, or regard it as if there were a general presumption against it.
2. Spengler’s latest column argues that neither the neocons or the left has been able to grab the bull by the horns in the middle east, because neither of them understands religion. They cannot engage the religious with credibility because their starting position is that the religious are – always and everywhere – simply incredible. They can’t get beyond the form of belief and are thus blinded to its’ content. He throws down the gauntlet here:
Western policy toward the Muslim world appears stupid and clumsy because its theological foundations are flawed. It is not what it is, nor what it was, but rather what it does that defines a religion: How does a faith address the paramount concern of human mortality, and what action does it require of its adherents?
Spengler has both praise and doubt about Pope Benedict’s words at Regensburg:
It was an act of great personal and intellectual courage on the pope’s part to state that Islam violates reason. “In the beginning was the Logos,” the pope cited John 1:1, translating logos as “reason”. But why was there a beginning at all? That is, why did God bother to create the world? The mainstream Islamic answer, going back to the 11th-century sage Muhammed al-Ghazali, is that Allah bloody well felt like it. He did not have to, and might as well not have. As Benedict observed, Allah is “absolutely transcendent”, that is, absolutely capricious. It is this arbitrary and capricious God, the pope implied, who demands conversion by threat of violence.
At Regensburg Benedict sought to identify reason in Greek philosophy with the god of the Old Testament…
the god of the Gospel of St John who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” is quite different from Socrates’ god. Although Socrates (in Timaeus) has clever things to say about how the world was created, he has little to say about why it was created. Christianity believes that God created the world in an act of love; the Jewish sages (as Franz Rosenzweig noted) debated whether God created the world out of lovingkindness or righteousness. Muslims through the ages have mocked the Judeo-Christian idea that the Creator of the Universe has a special love for the weak, the oppressed, the crippled, powerless: Allah rewards those who do great deeds in his name. He may have mercy on the miserable, but his favorites are those who fight in his name.
I think that Spengler fumbles when he veers from the Pope’s course and questions God’s will vs. God’s love. Christian philosophy has always seen in God the union of many things that seem disparate or even opposed to man. There is no mistake when Benedict argues that God’s creative act (his will) is an act of both love and reason. Love, Reason, Being – these are all elements of the Logos.
What both of these fine writers are correct in saying is that the tipping point in our dialogue – and, yes, lamentably, our fight – with Islam is not going to come about through firepower or evacuation. The tipping point will be in convincing Islam that God is not capricious but reasonable. Then – and only then – can the real dialogue even begin. We need to find elements in Islamic culture and history that we can use to illustrate our point. We cannot hope to gain ground by treating the entire contents of their civilization as contemptible, as if they need simply to be forgotten or expunged. To do would not only be a masturbatory dialogue of certain Philosophes’ ideas, ideas that have little or no root with those we need to engage.
Pope Benedict, rumaging through literature and history that is shared by our civilizations, is far from uselessly stirring the dust in the library. He is showing us – both of us – the only path that to success.