Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Victory of Reason

Sam at Elizaphanian suggested going through a read of “The Victory of Reason” in January, so I had my old man pick it up for me for Jesus’ birthday and I skimmed through the first few pages (although I am in the process of finishing another book at the moment). At any rate I’d like to start piecing my thoughts together on it for comment at Sam’s..

Again, I skimmed through the first few pages, which was really an introduction, and surprisingly I already find myself at odds (I was hoping to really like this book). However, upon quick reflection I’m not certain I’m at odds in a good way or a bad way; I’ll move on.

In the first section Mr. Stark seems to be suggesting that the existence of Theologians in the west has led to ‘reason’ due to the continual and dynamic search for God’s nature. By contrast we did not see this sort of proliferation in the east as i.) there wasn’t any theologians, because ii.) the east denies God’s existence and relies on rhetoric like, the Tao is “always non-existent” yet “always existent”, “unnamable” and the “name that cannot be named”, “both soundless and formless,” it is “always without desires.” Stark goes on to say, “one might meditate forever on such an essence, but it offers little to reason about.” Which is really the point good sir.

This offers to me a key to an inference about the rest of this book that I’m really worried about. Is he suggesting that, since the west doesn’t refuse to place definitions on God that this leads to reason – i.e. because the Bible and the manner by which it defines God is seemingly irrational, it leads one to taking up the mantle of reason to make rational what is not? But he doesn’t make that contrast, (as a result he seems to be being a bit dishonest here) rather, instead of characterizing God from a western perspective as he did for the eastern perspective, he simply says, “In contrast, Christian theologians have devoted centuries to reasoning about what God may have really meant by various passages in scripture…”

Wait, how is this a contrast? On the one hand he’s talking about eastern definitions for God, and on the other hand he’s talking about western interpretations of scripture. There are ‘scriptures’ in the east just as there is the west, why didn’t he make the accurate contrast? This seems a bit of a dishonesty…

So what I gather is simply this (as I’ve already stated), the bible is irrational, or in the least does not conform to the rational thoughts of the day and as a result this leads to a rationalization of the scripture in attempt to gain conformity between the issues of the day and what is said in the Bible.

As well, didn’t Cardinal Bellarmine reject Galileo’s claims? Surely Galileo wasn’t a theologian? On the other hand, surely we can say he had a Christian upbringing, so perhaps the argument was that he was merely exercising his force of reason as a result of inconsistencies and incongruence’s he found in the bible. So he said to himself, “This Ptolemaic idea the Theologians are offering simply doesn’t make sense, so I’ll have a look see for myself.”

At best we can say that Bellarmine admitted that perhaps Copernican theory was really just an ingenious heuristic device for, say, navigational purposes and other sorts of practically oriented celestial reckoning, he was admitting that the theory was, within it’s proper limits, accurate, consistent, simple, and perhaps even fruitful. Which is more then we can say for those Christians today who reject the claims made by evolutionary theorists; why not at least take the leap and say of evolution that, evolution is a theory that is, within it’s proper limits, accurate…..so on”

On the other hand, perhaps the Bible from it’s beginnings represent the first such case (and/or the beginning) of the “hermeneutic-circle”? Where hermaneutics is the hope against the commensurable, i.e. an epistemology who’s goal is to define a set of rules to tell how rational agreement can be reached and an end to inquiry may be seen. Further, it see’s subjective view points as those which do not bring in considerations which are relevant, where on the other hand, the hermeneutic approach is one that leads to the continual question and see’s subjectivism not as personal opinion, but a relevant belief that lacks mere justification at best. Now I rather like that approach, it essentiall says, we know our forefathers were talking about something, what was it and how does it apply to us? In this sense I can see how eastern culture avoids this dialogue as it continually avoids the dogma’s that arise from it.


  1. Sam recommended this book? Hunh.

    It sounds like his thesis is like that old sawhorse, "Even if we can't ever find Absolute Truth, it is the search for Absolute Truth that has produced the West's knowledge and technology." It seems like a bigger stretch than that Plato's search for Truth produced quantum mechanics, but maybe it's similar to the old Cornford evolutionary thesis, from religion to philosophy. The difference between East and West, I suppose, would be the Greek philosophers and their influence on the Semitic religions. Anything like theory about God didn't really start until the Orphics, and particularly their influence on Plato, where the Euthyphro seems closest to what we think of as theology. And then remember that what we refer to as "metaphysics" because of the sequence of his books, Aristotle actually called "theology" his "study of being qua being."

    I don't know--maybe secular story tellers have been shorting the role theological discussion has had in spurring on intellectual movement. Medieval philosophy is practically skipped entirely in most undergraduate philosophy programs. You nod at Augustine and Aquinas, but that's about it. And certainly the monasteries' transformations into universities probably played some sort of role. Still one of our greatest reflections on the "idea of the university" is Cardinal Newman's. One of the most stimulating books of philosophy I've ever read was Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought, where she recasts the primary motivations behind modern philosophy from Leibniz, Hume, Kant and on from epistemology--and she singles out Rorty for construing modern philosophy this way--to the problem of evil: theodicy.

    On the other hand from all that, though, there's Pierre Hadot, who in his amazing What Is Ancient Philosophy? argues that it was Christianity's effect on Greece, rather than Plato's effect on Judaism, that produced over-theoreticization, away from what Hadot calls "spiritual exercises." I find the assertion fascinating, though a little fantastic.

    I don't know about the Bible itself breeding one thing or another, but I would venture that the Jewish tradition, both Oral Torah and the Tanakh, of "theology" is more in line with the Rortyan appropriation of "hermeneutics," the word coming from the Rabbinical tradition in the first place. Though the Talmud and such all used to be considered to be without error (which is why they studied so hard, to untangle surface inconsistencies), the Jewish approach always seemed more adaptive to current environments, unlike the idea of Papal Bulls. I'm not sure why.

  2. Sam,
    yes, he's going to post on it come the 1st.

    "Even if we can't ever find Absolute Truth, it is the search for Absolute Truth that has produced the West's knowledge and technology."

    Agreed, it certainly seems that way (there seems to a certain sense in that though...I don't know). I'm really interested to see how he pieces this together as you don't generally find positive accounts of how Christianity may have lead to western success.

    Again, I just skimmed over the first few pages as I’m currently entrenched in my 4th futile battle with Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, and by all accounts I’m getting my ass kicked and will soon retreat fully to “The Victory of Reason”. (I've never made it all the way through)

  3. I'll stick up my first post on Stark in the next few days.