In my latest copy of New Humanist, Jonathan Rée reviews a book by postmodernist Bruno Latour, who has written several books about the lack of objectivity of science. Latour’s new book, On the Modern Cult of the the Factish Gods, actually came out in 2010, and I didn’t know of it. But the sentences below in bold, taken from Rée’s review, piqued my interest, so I got the book from the library:
Readers with a limited appetite for paradox may quickly tire of Latour; but they should not close the book without looking at the final pages. On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods concludes with a brief and brilliant essay entitled “How Not to Misunderstand the Science and Religion Debate”, featuring a notable act of self-outing. There is, Latour confesses, a simple crass label for the kind of thinker he has always been: “I have been raised a Catholic,” he says, and it seems his faith has never wavered, even though – “in my tradition, in my corner of the world,” as he puts it – he could never mention it without embarrassment. “I cannot even speak to my children,” Latour says, “of what I am doing at church on Sunday.”
How could I resist a demand that I read a brilliant piece on the science and religion debate? Not knowing Latour, I jumped in. What a mistake!
Here’s Latour’s thesis as described by Rée, which I won’t belabor except to say that Latour rejects attempts to harmonize, or even compare, science and religion because of their different ways of handling “truth”:
Abjuring facetiousness for a while, Latour offers a moving comparison between religious words and words of love: their truth, he says, is a truth of transformation rather than a truth of information. Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.
. . . Religion, it seems, is far more intelligent than most philosophers give it credit for, and there is nothing in it that need offend or alarm the intelligent scientist, the intelligent humanist or the intelligent atheist. Or so Latour would have us believe.
Well, yes, some religious practices encourage introspection, but who can deny that many believers prop their faith upon the factual truth of things like the immortality of Jesus, Mohamed’s status as a prophet of Allah, and the hope of immortality?
Latour’s dissing of science is annoying, and his prose is leaden (this is characteristic of postmodernism—why do they write so dreadfully?). I offer a sample of that vaunted last chapter, which, though mercifully brief, is far from brilliant. Put on your hip boots and wade through this penultimate paragraph of postmodern piffle:
In religious talk, there is indeed a leap of faith, but this is not an acrobatic salto mortale in order to do even better than reference with more daring and risky means, it is a somersault yes, but one which aims at jumping, dancing toward the present and the close, to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation, to prepare oneself to be seized again by this presence that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time. As to knowledge, it is not a direct grasp of the plain and the visible against all beliefs in authority, but an extraordinarily daring, complex, and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, through many different types of proofs, lead toward new types of visions that force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense. Belief is simply immaterial for any religious speech-act; knowledge is not an accurate way to characterize scientific activity. We might move forward a bit, if we were calling “faith” the movement that brings us to the close and to the present, and retaining the word “belief ” for this necessary mixture of confidence and diffidence with which we need to assess all the things we cannot see directly. Then the difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms—“belief ” applied to vague spiritual matters, “knowledge” to directly observable things—but in the same broad set of competences applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions. The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped—namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.
Kudos to any reader who can tell me what this means. I’ve read a fair amount of postmodern lit-crit and philosophy, but it always boils down to the same conclusion: “lots of fancy words; poorly written; no content.”
All I can say is ZOMG, that I’ve done the hard work for you, and there’s no need at all to read Latour’s “brief and brilliant” last chapter.