Friday, June 29, 2007

Po' baby

Kenneth at Time Immortal demands an apology for putting words in his mouth and assorted snarkiness. I've refused to apologize, so until I hear one way or the other, I'll post my response, rather than comment on his blog.

Does anyone here (other than Kenneth) interpret the sentence,
Kenneth denies the charge of rococo metaphysics: They're not "rococo" he says, just elaborate, multi-layered, arbitrary and entirely unnecessary. Oops, my bad.
as me saying that Kenneth literally says that religious metaphysics are arbitrary and entirely unnecessary? Or is it clear from context and the lack of quotation marks that I'm drawing a conclusion about his essay? If I'm wrong or misleading, I'll apologize, but I don't think I'm wrong.

Kenneth charges that
Barefoot seems to have completely abandoned [his original essay] from consideration, which I can not count as a credit to him.
This charge is more or less accurate; the discussion has wandered a bit afield. I can plead only limited time to respond to an enormous post with many points. Kenneth—if he chooses to continue the conversation—is free to pull me back to the original essay.

Kenneth says he "cannot count on him to indulge any of my methodologies with a similarly open mind." In what way am I not being open-minded? I'm willing to read and respond to his arguments as written, but open-mindedness does not entail uncritical acceptance.

I have to freely admit that
Notably absent in Barefoot’s own posting, though, is any substantiative, consensus-driven, non-abritrary “meat” of the argument. When he’s not mocking me he’s…not…saying much else, really.
I have to plead only that Kenneth did not offer much of substance. Keep in mind that my criticism is not that one cannot form a principled consensus about religion, it's that the principles required are rococo, in the sense that they are over-elaborate and ornamental. So rococo, in fact, that there is such disagreement in the principles necessary to even begin a discussion of God that the inability to reach a consensus is pushed to the choice of principles.

I skip over a one ore two of his "principles" in my first response, so let me make as complete a list as I can:
  1. Choice of scripture: nothing
  2. Choice of canon: "religious fervor" (good) vs. politics (bad)
  3. Masoretic vs. Septuagint: New Testament quotation (good) vs. original language (bad)
  4. Literal vs. metaphor: whatever fits one's theological preconceptions using the “Message-Incident Principle”
  5. Overall: coherence: "truth cannot contradict truth"
All of these principles, except the last are completely arbitrary, and two of them (religious fervor, and the "Message-Incident Principle") are completely subjective. Not only that, but most of these principles are fairly complex (especially the "Message-Incident Principle"), hiding even more rococo ornamentation.

More importantly, all of these principles except coherence are completely unnecessary. There is nothing that stands in need of explanation that demands we adopt them. There is simply no justification to seek reasons or principles in the first place to buttress the specifically scriptural character of any text. Rather, these reasons are all post hoc rationalizations: One first accepts the scriptural character of some text and then chooses the principles which support that preconception. No logical contradiction or false-to-fact conclusion can be reached by adopting the inverse of these principles, different principles, or just rejecting scriptural character altogether.

Even coherence is honored by the religious more in the breach than the observance. If some "theologically necessary" event is required to be literally true but contradicts established science, one simply invokes a miracle. If one can invoke miracles to cover any contradiction with science and fact, one can justify anything; hardly conducive to generating principled consensus.

In his subsequent response, Kenneth offers a few clarifications. He mentions that "Luther’s rejection of the expanded canon of the Septuagint was for purely political reasons, as opposed to having some reasoning grounded in religious faith or spiritual inspiration." First of all, how does he know Luther's reasons were purely political? Second, he accuses Luther of adjusting the canon to fit his preconceived theology and politics, but that's exactly what Kenneth himself does: He just adds another rococo layer of picking the principles that justifies the text that supports his preconceived theology. Last, in what way can reasoning be "grounded in religious faith or spiritual inspiration?" Kenneth offers no explanation.

Kenneth charges that I draw an all-or-nothing false dichotomy between literalism and metaphor:
Barefoot to be a little more…open to the idea that there are more ways to interpret Scripture than just assuming that it’s either all meant to be taken literally or not meant to be taken literally at all.
This is an egregious misrepresentation. I'm not saying it has to be one way or another (although the thoughtful person wonders why an omnipotent God would ever utter words that are not only literally untrue but ludicrously so) but rather I'm asking how does one choose for any specific passage? I don't insist on an all-or-nothing answer, but just saying only that one chooses a "combination of both" on the purely subjective "Message-Incident Principle" is not much of a principle.

Let me take a brief detour into the Message-Incident Principle:
[S]eparate the message of a body of Scripture from the incidents described within the raw text; if the message is such that the events in the text are required to be literal (for example: Christ’s death and resurrection) in order that both be true, then the text should be interpreted as such until a fundamental conflict between sources occurs. If, on the other hand, the message can be true even if the events in the text, if interpreted as literal, cannot be reconciled to other evidence at hand (for example: the order and duration of Creation in Genesis), then the text should be interpreted as metaphorical (i.e. as a way the Spirit communicates to humanity that God is the Creator without the need for complex explanations of stellar physics and biological processes).
In other words:
  1. If the text fits your preconceived notions and doesn't get you laughed at, it's literally true
  2. If you can't swallow the text, arbitrarily choose a metaphor to read into it
  3. If you have to swallow the text anyway, invoke a miracle to choke it down
This is what passes for "principle" in religious "reasoning".

Kenneth acknowledges that there can be multiple "messages" in a text, but calls this observation a "semantic quibble". But this observation is directly on point: How do you reach a principled consensus on which message or messages to adopt as true? Remember, these are messages that in some way contradict the literal meaning of the text, which has been abandoned by the principle. He then yet again confuses rococo with validity:
But even if a particular passage of text can have multiple messages that we might derive from it, does that render our method invalid?
You can make anything valid: Validity is formal, not alethic. This is my whole point: that religious belief is a rococo post hoc rationalization to make outrageous and ridiculous notions "valid", as if this sort of validity had any value whatsoever.

Kenneth does not seem to understand "principled consensus", making an inapt comparison to scientific fraud:
One could be dishonest in using the Message-Incident principle, twisting the “message” of the text to suit whatever particular end one wants. But then, a scientist can distort his results to fit a pre-determined conclusion.
The difference is that we can detect a scientist's distortion by appealing to the parsimonious principles of the scientific method. How do we detect in a principled manner whether one is being "dishonest" in using the Message-Incident principle? How do we know in a principled manner whether or not one is tendentiously "twisting" the message? Just calling something a principle doesn't make it one. Kenneth again doesn't answer.

Kenneth is an intelligent guy: I chose his ideas to examine precisely because he's not just a "God said, I believe it" idiot. But, bottom line, I argue that religion is nothing more than rationalized self-delusion, and if that position troubles him, too bad. I don't assume that religion is just "making shit up and calling it true", that's a conclusion that I've draw from years of study. I may be wrong, and Kenneth (or anyone else) is free to argue the point, and I'll examine the arguments as written. But I'm not going to swallow a line of bullshit just to show my "respect".


  1. >>> If I'm wrong or misleading, I'll apologize, but I don't think I'm wrong. <<<

    As a data-point, I interpreted your statement the way he did too. Things might have been different if I'd read his article first, but I didn't. Perhaps I skimmed yours a bit quicker than I normally do too. Either way, my first reading was that you were paraphrasing him, not drawing a conclusion as such.

    That's not to say I agree with most of his complaint -- I think your conclusion is pretty much spot-on -- but at least one other person read the statement in question the wrong way.

    (For balance, I do think you can on occasion be more, er, hard-edged, than is strictly necessary, but I've spent a lot of time around places like Pharyngula, so you appear quite placid by comparison...)

  2. Thanks for the feedback. The apology and clarification have been inserted in the earlier post.

    You don't have to be reticent: I can be quite the bastard when it suits me. It's just who I am. I don't easily suffer fools.

  3. Well, I'll try not to be too much of an idiot in your presence then...

    You know, reading this Kenneth chap has finally put the boot in for any idea I might have had about theology being anything other than a waste of time.

    Kenneth is, as you point out, a very sharp cookie. He clearly knows his stuff, and can reason cogently. But all the arguments appear to rely on the fact that the scriptures are a reasonable place to begin. No, no, no. First tell me why I should take the scriptures seriously, then we'll tackle the arguments based on them.

    I think I now see both why Dawkins was given such a hard time for not covering enough theology in TGD, and why he was absolutely right to do what he did. No-one (not even smart people like Kenneth) appears able to give a satisfactory basis for the authority of scripture, but they don't seem to care. I keep waiting for the killer argument, but even when they do recognize the need themselves, they fall back on moves like the "different ways of knowing". Which is, er, not entirely convincing.

    (Tell you what, it's hard work writing comments like this. Editing down all the random thoughts I have on this topic to a readable couple of paragraphs that still reflect the meaning in my head is darn tough!)

  4. I'll try not to be too much of an idiot in your presence then

    You're succeeding handily! You seem not only clever but sensible as well.

    Which is, er, not entirely convincing.

    You have a talent for understatement as well.

    I hope you'll stick around.

  5. You seem not only clever but sensible as well.

    Ha! I'll have to show my wife that. She doesn't believe me when I tell her!

  6. I have the same problem with my wife. Like mine, she probably knows you better than I do. :D

  7. If the problem is still not resolved, reinstall Internet Explorer . If you are using the version of Internet Explorer that is included with your operating system, reinstall or repair your operating system.


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