40 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Melville

    1. There’s a whole page of questions in that link above. But not the type of discussion most commenters who post here are interested in. (“Word Salad”, no lab experiments, references to liberal arts books, etc.)

  1. This is indeed the crux of the whole game. And it applies to everything. Think about the public education system. Were we to actually talk about the philosophical roots of modern knowledge (what we are supposedly teaching kids), a lot of parents in the U.S would indeed object I think. An empirical reality, and only an empirical reality, combined with teaching skepticism, logic, and rationality would be anathema to the values of many, many parents in this country, I dare say. I really worry that many Americans, maybe even most, would prefer to be living with a pre-Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution view of reality and knowledge.

  2. We want alliances with moderate religionists because. . . ?

    The world isn’t divided between the really religious and the sort-of religious. The real divide is religious vs. non-religious.

  3. It is a good point that can be expanded a little. As Stanley Stowers points out in his critique of certain “political religion” approaches to understand Nazism (The Concepts of ‘Religion’, ‘Political Religion’ and the Study of Nazism,Journal of Contemporary History 2007 42:9), there are two traditions in the study of religion: the expressive-symbolist and the rational-cognitivist or intellectualist approaches.

    The symbolist tradition usually regards religion “as lacking propositional content and thus views expressions of religious faith as being neither true nor false. It trades on a content/form scheme. The content of religion is said to be an
    ineffable experience or an incomprehensible pre-rational something or social structure that is then expressed in a uniquely self-referential symbolic form.” So, while “participants may say that they are praying or making offerings to a certain deity…the scholar knows,
    for example, that the real object of their devotion is ‘the sacred’.”

    Stowers rejects this evidently romantic symbolist approach as practically useless, given the difficulty of identifying reliably what is “sacred”. But it is also dubious because “this romantic understanding of religion was pervasive in pre-war Germany and is prominent in much of the religious language of nazi leaders and their opponents.”

    In contrast, “The rational-cognitivist approach stresses that religious language is not unique or autonomous, but is ordinary language with ordinary propositional content and is subject to all of the myriads of uses to which language is put. The theory agrees with what most religious practitioners think that their religion is about. Religious practices distinguish themselves from other categories
    of practices by referring to a class or agents and beings, e.g. gods, ancestors and other ordinarily non-observable entities.”

    Given the mystifying aspects of the symbolist view, “the fields of cognitive science and evolutionary biology, in which a great deal of recent work has been done on religion, have rejected expressive-symbolist
    approaches and have found a basis for rational-cognitivist theories
    in the structure of the human brain. In such theories, religious language is rational in the basic sense of involving normal propositional content and patterns of inference. Thus, when Hitler and other nazi leaders spoke of ‘the Creator’ and ‘God’s creation’, there is every reason to believe that they were talking about the Christian deity and the idea that he made the world rather than, say, a symbolic expression of the sacred or of religious experience or the
    ‘pure play of meaning’.
    In the rational-cognitivist approach, belief in reference to human-like beings and qualities of the world that are normally non-observable, and often have superhuman capabilities, is a defining feature of religion. It is important to understand what human-like means here and that these beings are often unlike the deities in Christianity, Judaism and Islam with which we are most familiar.”

    What this means is that, according to the cognitivist but not according to the symbolist approach, religious language and modes of expression can and usually do make claims and assertions that have a truth value: they can be true or false. It follows that the usual questions can be asked about the reasons for these claims and usual standards of justification and criticism can be applied to them. In brief, religious language expresses also propositional thoughts that can and must be assessed in terms of their epistemic value.

    The compatibilist position on science vs. religion is much more plausible if we can deny propositional content from expressions of religions faith. Then and only then it would show bad judgment and bad taste to grill the religious on the truth value of their expressions of faith as they would in reality belong to some more-or-less sophisticated language-game having nothing to do with epistemic activities.

    The problem with this view, as I see it, is that while it may be relevant for understanding the religious practices of people who have in effect given up the epistemic aspects of their beliefs (say, because science and reason have compelled them to do so), these sophisticates are a small minority among the faithful, unfortunately. Indeed, their “religion” is a deviant case of a belief-system than has undergone drastic changes.

    The great majority of religious people do have beliefs that have a clear propositional content – and they would be very surprised if and when anyone would claim otherwise. Many Christians, for example, really do believe that Jesus rose from the death and that there is at least some realistic hope of a general resurrection of bodies at the End of Times etc. Alas, these beliefs are in conflict with our best scientific understanding of the world.

    The irony here is that people who have lost their real religious beliefs have either been told that they conflict with the scientific and rational views and/or have found that themselves.

    Why an earth should we now stop the efforts to provide more opportunities for such bildung? Do I sniff a whiff a not-very-carefully-veiled elitism here? “Yes, I survived the ordeal and it made me better, but we cannot expect the same from those less bright and intelligent persons – they would become either angry or despondent but not in any way more enlightened?”

    1. Sorry for rather ugly format: one should never copy and paste straight from the article as funny things will happen to the text. And, yes, in the last sentence, the question mark is mine, it does not belong to the sentence in quotes: “Yes, I survived the ordeal and it made me better, but we cannot expect the same from those less bright and intelligent persons – they would become either angry or despondent but not in any way more enlightened”?

    2. But it is also dubious because “this romantic understanding of religion was pervasive in pre-war Germany and is prominent in much of the religious language of nazi leaders and their opponents.”

      I hear they also ate cheese sandwiches, does that make cheese sandwiches “dubious?”

      Just because you think there should be a strong distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften (unlike say, Daniel Dennett), doesn’t make you a totalitarian:


      In fact, in many ways, it’s just the opposite. You treat peoples’ consciences as something significantly different from the workings of a clock.

      1. By that I mean the implication that the mind can be understood by someone in the know, just by knowing its physical workings. To me, that has more potential for a kind of totalitarianism than getting your philosophy from the continental idealism instead of anglo empiricism.

        1. Materialism is a metaphysical position, not a moral one. Please stop suggesting that materialism implies totalitarian politics. Or if you do think so, come out and state your argument instead of being passive aggressive about it.

        2. There is a moral dimension to “materialism” (although that term can be unclear) but you gotta get through a discussion to get to it:

          (warning: he won a Templeton award!1!1!!!!)

          I wouldn’t have brought up totalitarianism if the commenter above hadn’t started on the subject. Just if you want to dish it out, be prepared to take it…

          1. I think you misunderstood what he was saying. And again, materialism is a metaphysical position. Any “moral dimension” is tacked on ex post facto.

            1. Dan, thanks for defending me against some misunderstandings by Jon…:) Admittedly, this is a very tricky field, and so we must expect a certain amount of confused discussion and debate – also from our own part!…:)

              Nevertheless, while I certainly explained Stower’s ideas with sympathy, I need to say that what was within quotes was Stower speaking and the rest belongs to mine only.

              Anyway, what Stower is arguing, with excellent reasons, is that if we start by trying to tie religion and religiosity to “sacred” and dismiss the obvious cognitivist approach to expressions of religious faith at the outset, we are likely to lose our very object of investigation: it is difficult to fix non-arbitrarily what counts as “sacred” and what not.

              This is not to say that the symbolist-expressivist view lacks all merit, in all situations, but it does mean that as a general approach to the study of religion it is very problematic. More specifically, it is not very illuminating with regard to the study of the religious (or non-religious) views of Nazis. So, when Hitler was talking about “Creator” we can assume that he meant something similar to the Christian idea of God instead of being obliged to link his words to some semantically ineffable
              and non-intentional “sacred”.

              Moreover, we must remember that a naturalist/materialistcan be either cognitivist or non-cognitivist both vis-a-vis religious views and moral judgments.
              Hence deciding the semantics of religious expression in this or that way does not, without separate argumentation, lead to any substantial consequences either in ethics or metaethics.

          2. No, I didn’t. He starts with Hume, and how a certain kind of reduction makes a certain kind of significance or meaning not possible. Someone like Dennett goes even further than that (that discussion is at about 40 minutes).

            1. But materialism is not a priori committed to the reduction in question. I’m not in a situation where I can follow your link. If you have a real argument, please state it.

            2. By “he” I meant Juha Savolainen. He’s not saying that symbolic interpretations of religious language are part and parcel of totalitarianism — just that it’s not the basis of Nazi religious language. In other words, that we can take Hitler seriously when he said he thought he was doing God’s work.

          3. but you gotta get through a discussion to get to it

            This is really presumptuous, by the way. It’s not as though I haven’t thought about the moral implications of materialism (there aren’t necessarily any). I’m a materialist who is interested in philosophy, after all.

            I asked you to state an argument, not provide a link. If you don’t feel competent to argue the point, then don’t make the implication in the first place.

            1. My apologies. I wish I had time to explain it. It has to do with Hume rendering subjective certain evaluations of things that weren’t considered subjective previously.

            2. OK, I can understand that. The “meaningless” reduction does have a pretty strong currency with the current crop of materialists, and it probably does have some political implications. However, I’m fairly certain that materialism doesn’t require this reduction a priori. In fact, I think it’s actually counterproductive for several reasons.

            3. So Taylor’s thesis (if I’m presenting it correctly) is that with the acceptance of Hume’s arguments, something was lost that you had with Aristotle, who still relied on Plato’s forms to some extent, that there were things that had value inhering in them that Hume thought of as merely artifacts experienced by the subject who perceived. (Sorry, maybe a crude summary. Watch the video if you’re interested. At one point in the video, I believe, Taylor couples the Aristotelian view with a religious outlook. )

            4. I think Taylor at one point makes fun of Dennett for browbeating people for “not being materialists”, but I’m not sure what Taylor would say if you asked him whether he was a materialist or not. I’m sure he’s not a matter/mind dualist, probably taking after Hegel– whom he’s written two books about:

        3. Jon, Dan Dennett is certainly a materialist but (a) he is no friend of totalitarian ideas(!) and (b) he has defended the utility of the “intentional stance”, i.e. understanding the behavior and action of humans (and other agents suitably similar) via that stance, i.e. in terms of their beliefs, valuations, reasons etc.

          Indeed, the cognitivist approach to religion, unlike some behaviorist approaches, does not dismiss the beliefs, values etc. of persons – how could it? In fact, even eliminative materialists can accept that beliefs etc. often are useful in prediction and understanding, although they would ultimately belong (according to an eliminative materialist) to folk theory.
          Anyway, my point is that while a naturalist denies a clear and inflexible division in the way Naturwissenschaften vs. Geisteswissenschaften has it, it does not mean that a naturalist/materialist should deny herself the pleasures of anthropological and hermeneutical research. It is just the categorical distinction she must reject, both in terms of metaphysics (because there is no separately existing world of intentional objects and states) and epistemologically (because the explanatory patterns of the intentional stance can be modified and revised in the light of naturalistic investigations).

          This is not to say that I (or Stower, for that matter) would claim that no naturalist/materialist has contributed to the emergence of the Nazi ideology. This is not now the place to go into this question, but I am inclined to think that some naturalists/materialists did play a rather shady role in this respect in pre-WWI Germany. Conversely, there were supporters of Geisteswissenschaften who can be given a clean bill in this respect. All that is true, but not terribly relevant for the point Stower raised, namely, that certain romantic ideas had a negative influence in the development of German culture and that they have had now a rather negative influence for the study of religion. As for Taylor’s ideas of hermeneutics, well, I read his work on Hegel many years ago and do not think that Taylor would object viewing expression of faith, at least some of them, from a cognitive perspective, although he would surely want to chase those demons of philosophical naturalism away.

          1. Well here’s a fairly recent statement from Taylor on the kinds of views held by present company at this blog:

            TOJ: …I wonder if you have any opinion regarding those who are being called the “New Atheists,” say Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, who happen to be quite militant in their rhetoric.

            CT: Yes, I happen to have quite a negative view of these folks. I think their work is very intellectually shoddy. I mean there are two things that perhaps I am just totally allergic to. The first is that they all believe that there really are some knock-down arguments against belief in God. And of course this is something you can only believe if you have a scientistic, reductionist conception and explanation of everything in the world, including human beings. If you do have such a view that everything is to be explained in terms of physics and the movement of atoms and the like, then certain forms of access to God are just closed. For example, there are certain human experiences that might direct us to God, but these would all be totally illusory if everything could be explained in scientific terms. I spend a lot of time reflecting and writing on the various human sciences and how they can be tempted into a kind of reductionism, and not only would I say that the jury is out on that, but I would argue that the likelihood of that turning out to be the proper understanding of human beings is very small. And the problem is that they just assume this reductionistic view.

            1. Well, Charles Taylor is a Catholic, which means that none of that will surprise anyone….:)
              But quite independently of his Catholicism, I have always accepted that (a) human beings are self-interpreting creatures, (b) identifying the shared self-interpretations is important in identifying social institutions and that (c) such institutions are partially reproduced by reproducing some of these shared self-interpretations. Accepting all that need not lead to any problems either with naturalistic metaphysics or naturalistic epistemology. In particular, the cognitivist approach to the study of religion will have no worries from accepting these points.

            2. I love it. This must be a cut-and-paste ‘theologian response’. It is intellectually “shoddy” to expect that people should produce evidence to support their beliefs. It is intellectually “sophisticated” to rise above such a grimy, pedestrian outlook.

              Of course, these fellows never offer any interpretation of “certain human experiences that might direct us to God” that isn’t either completely self-serving, ad hoc, or just downright laughable. And when confronted with “certain human experiences” – the mere existence of which makes God either totally implausible or unimaginably monstrous – they become even more obscure or morally repugnant.

    3. The symbolist tradition usually regards religion “as lacking propositional content and thus views expressions of religious faith as being neither true nor false.”

      AKA “not even wrong”.

        1. Jon, I hope that this was not meant a criticism of my post?…:) But as you have now expressed your wish that some names should be named, I give you a couple of them. They are all related to scholarly study of religion, no big names from the galleries if philosophy are forthcoming.
          Stower begins his discussion by referring to an article by Uriel Tal, ‘Aspects of the Consecration of Politics in the Nazi Era’, and then traces these ideas to Eric Voegelin and identifies their presence in the works of Emilio Gentile etc. But they are fairly prevalent in the scholarly literature.

      1. Tulse, that is indeed one way of putting it! Or, we may say that the symbolists prefer a non-cognitivist interpretation of religious language and ways of expression…The Paulian way of putting it is much more striking, but then Pauli was attracted, in his later days, by some rather weird metaphysical stuff of which that Paulian comment might be apt…:)

  4. Wait a minute — ain’t “epistemology” one of them there “philosophy” words? I thought folks in these parts didn’t cotton to them philosophizin’ varmints?

  5. Mo’n’Jebus is brilliant. Also the verbatim quote gives it a very nice direct touch. In terms of immediate topical relevance this must be one of my favorites.

    Oh, and epistemology!

  6. Epistemology is easy. If the Texas Board of Education says so, you know it’s true.

    Perhaps that should be epistolmology….

  7. I see the thread has subtly been moved for a while from the E-Word to the O-Word. I have moved from materialism to neutral monism.

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