Thursday, June 28, 2007

Rococo metaphysics

I mentioned in my previous essay that
[I]f you accept a scripture and some extremely elaborate and rococo interpretive system, you can generate principled agreement, but the obvious flaw in this method is the choice of scripture and interpretive schema (exegesis). ... And once you've chosen a scripture, how do you interpret it?
Kenneth denies the charge of rococo metaphysics: They're not "rococo" he says, just elaborate, multi-layered, arbitrary and entirely unnecessary. Oops, my bad. [Update: I apologize for being unclear here. Kenneth admits to multi-layered; my conclusion is that his supposed principles are arbitrary and unnecessary.]

Keep in mind that I reference Kenneth because he's the most intelligent, literate, philosophically astute theist I've come across in many a year. What's even better is that he doesn't retreat immediately to weaselry.

As I mentioned in my earlier essay, the choice of scripture is critically important, because choosing a scripture brings in a whole book's worth of (depending on how you look at it) metaphysical assumptions or the totality of your authoritative evidence. Kenneth addresses this important choice by... completely ignoring it.
The first step, then, in religious epistemology is to isolate and consider only one religion at a time, at least at first. ... Which one is considered is not so important at this point, although it will become more relevant in a while.
Apparently "a while" exceeds the considerably time necessary to read his whole essay; he does not return to the question. Nor, of course, does he address the question of why we should accept any text as scriptural.

Kenneth then details the rococo elaborate and multi-layered arbitrary assumptions that constitute religious "epistemology". He substitutes verbiage for actual substantiation or argumentation, so I'll condense.

He addresses first the choice of a specific canon within a family of scripture:
The first answer to determining whether a particular canon is valid is to look at its origins. A limited Old Testament canon, as the Protestants employ, is easily rejected as a valid source for serious scholarship because its limitedness is not a decision born out of religious fervor so much as it is born out of politics...
Apparently "religious fervor" is a principled epistemic method.

His historical analysis of the scriptural sources of Catholicism vs. Protestantism is completely tendentious, revealing a lack of even an amateur understanding of history. He condemns the Protestants for using politics, but completely ignores the political dimensions of the First Council of Nicaea and the history of the Catholic Chruch. Constantine I and a host of Popes running enormous empires and institution have political agenda? Perish the thought!

Kenneth gives us yet another principled epistemic layer, criticizing the Protestant adoption of the Masoretic (Hebrew) Old Testament text because it was not motivated by "any particularly holy or divinely inspired reason." Divine inspiration: That always yields consistent results!

Once we've chosen a canon by a "more reasoned, analytical method" (I guess it's more reasoned than simply spouting gibberish), we now face the problem of interpeting that scripture. "Do we approach it with strict literalism? Strict non-literalism?" Kenneth has the principled answer: "[S]ome combination of both." We can even use extra-Scriptural sources!

Kenneth asserts that coherence is some great invention of Catholicism:
Pope John Paul II expanded upon this fine start with many different writings on the relationship between faith and science, building up a profound understanding in Catholic learning that truth cannot contradict truth...
Sorry, Kenneth; Pope John Paul II was about twenty five centuries late on that one.

It's certainly true that "both Scripture and science can be fully reconciled to each other in all important matters." It's trivially easy if you look at scripture as a purely human literary endeavor. It gets a little more problematic when you start talking about things like the resurrection of the dead, virgin births, the sun standing still in the sky, and the like. We'll leave the whole issue of parsimony to another day; the question here is can you reconcile science and scripture—while still keeping the specially scriptural quality of the text—in a uniform, consensual way?

Kenneth offers us a little help here, referencing
Sir Francis Bacon’s “Two Books” philosophy and the concept called the “Message-Incident Principle” — separate 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...
But this is pure double-talk. The idea that there can be a single "message" apart from the literal text (even the idea that the literal text can be univocal) ignores a century of linguistics, philology and analytic philosophy. This "principle" allows the reader to arbitrarily change the meaning of the literal text to extract a "message" from it.

Kenneth again tries to wriggle out from under the charge of "rococo metaphysics":
And again, these are not rococo methods at all, but widely accepted techniques of theological epistemology that most serious Biblical scholars employ in their analysis.
But of course wide acceptance does not mean that what is widely accepted is not rococo.

Kenneth has not actually given us any real principles, just arbitrary, subjective preferences hardly better than flipping a coin.

He does go on to compare religion not to epistemology but to art. Well, art consists pretty much of making shit up. As a metaphor for religion, I can't find much to argue there. But at least artists don't go around making shit up and then calling it true.

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