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Failure to engage

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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.

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Written by Curt

October 4, 2006 at 7:24 pm

One Response

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  1. Fantastic post. In reading Fesser’s passages I can’t help but test myself with them, since I am a six-day creationist who believes most of the world has it wrong. In that sense I might well be seen as one of Fesser’s paranoid conspiracy theorists. But I note the following exceptions, and include them here in case they are of interest:

    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.

    Actually, I would never argue that evolutionists are stupid, dishonest, or ignorant. What I do argue is that they interpret evidence from their perspective, which is biased and self-serving in that it protects the current status quo from criticism.

    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.

    This is precisely the sticking point of origins: none of us were there. And while Darwinists would claim that rejection of evolutionary science is a rejection of all science, creationists really have no quibble with everyday matters — the observational sciences that are testable within our own timeframes. It is the interpretation of that evidence into the distant past that we question.

    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.

    I could not agree with this criticism more. I was inculcated in evolutionary thinking throughout my public school education and into college. Then I began asking questions, noticing holes in the evidence and logic that was presented to me, and found myself an immediate target of ridicule. Asking larger questions, pointing out and challenging assumptions — these are not generally respected practices among the scientific community unless they fall within conservative parameters of what has already been accepted.

    On to your thoughts on Spengler:

    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.

    Is it our job, as Christ followers, to forge Islamic theology or publish Qu’ranic commentary? While I agree with this statement …

    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.

    … I nevertheless feel that we as Catholics and Christians are disqualified from explaining to Muslims what their faith is about. Imagine how we would respond if Muslims attempted to explain to us, through Old and New Testament exegesis, that God is indeed a God of caprice? Do we suspect that they would succeed? Do we suspect that they would gain any ground whatsoever?

    I think we need to allow Islam to define itself, and instead make clear demands about the practice of tolerance, dialogue, and diplomacy that we will hold ourselves to, and that we expect them to hold themselves to as well. Whatever theologic contortions that requires of them is not of any concern to us. Coexistence within a pluralistic world requires a certain amount of good-neighborliness from all sides. Let us start, and let us actively and optimistically invite them to join us.

    This isn’t treating Islamic culture as “contemptible, as if they need simply to be forgotten or expunged” — it’s anticipating the best out of what we hear is a religion of peace.

    the forester

    October 11, 2006 at 1:57 pm


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