"Conjectures and Refutations"

"Conjectures and Refutations"

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Is it gnostic or not?

"Were we to start the race where Adam started, I know of no reason why we should get any further than Adam did" (Karl Popper)

There is isn't a deadlier distinction in life than that between the inner and outer, spirit or flesh. I believe so much of our propensity to accept any religious tradition depends on it and does so because, among other things, of the interesting logical distinctions it is heir to (The devil's in the distinctions!). Perhaps the greatest evil to afflict the religious consciousness is that to which the distinction between traditional Catholic orthodoxy and a latent Gnosticism will always expose it. And that evil is self-contradiction.

To the gnostic wise serpent and sagacious Eve there is the orthodox malignant tempter of the gullible and naive temptress; to the Creator residing in the Monad (state of absolute solitariness) there is God the ipsum esse subsistens who doesn't ever abandon the creation; and to the poet-heretic Valentinus there are, of course, the great early apologists for the Roman church (Irenaeus, Tertullian) who offer their Synoptic and Apocalyptic New Testament authors in place of the spurious Nag Hammadi texts (Gospel of Thomas,The Apocryphon of JohnSecret Book of James, Apocalypse of Paul, Gospel of Philip and others)

I will, however, isolate the one consequence of this unfortunate distinction (after Elaine Pagels) that has had most to do with the contemporary debate and is the most troubling to the postmodern believer: namely, the authoritarian and rigidly hierarchized nature of the Church that has followed from the "one God" tenet of traditional Catholicism and the consequent "one bishop" system of transmission of doctrinal Christianity that vests authority and power in the hands of bishops, priests and deacons, excluding the rest. It does seem to run intuitively counter to the radically 'egalitarian' impetus of the Gospel message. At least, that is the conjecture.

The argument for the view of transmission of doctrinal Christianity along a clearly evolving notion of the church as a graded body of worshipers may run as follows:

If Catholicism is a body of truth sanctioned by history, authority and convention, then a part of that body of worship most consistent with the above will also be consistent with a notion of apostolic succession.

Not to swear by the usual 'genius of the emperor'--usually a condition of escaping certain death at the hands of Roman authorities-- or follow prevailing pagan customs of the polytheistic state would have been considered the grossest sort of impiety to the early Christian, Death is always better than impiety.

Certainly a radically 'egalitarian' view of the early church community, faced with real external threats to their existence, would have considered the usual jealousies and resentments of competing interests a potential weakness in their nascent communities to be exploited (or used as deadly leverage) by the political authorities.

The early church would therefore have instituted a system of doctrinal transmission fortified by a show of doctrinal and communal strength consistent also with its 'upon this rock' justification (and fearful always of daily attacks by civil and religious authorities of the day).An early community of the "simple and weak and inexperienced" (Tertullian) would have had to be reined in by both doctrinal and social controls in precisely this way.

It makes sense, on historical grounds, to justify this show of strength to very menacing temporal powers. But what is its relevance today? How does a top-heavy church structure satisfy the needs of a congregation hungry for the "bread of life"? Can we justify today the same sort of peaceful transition of power and authority as had taken place between early worshipers anxious about personal salvation and a "one bishop" system? The answer is that we cannot.

The full scope of this line of questioning can't be fully appreciated unless we assume that the 'gnosis' of old is today wearing the mantle of postmodernism. The two are interestingly similar. The search, in other words, for the 'divine within' is tantamount today to the search for the deconstructive meanings lying hidden within the text. We've in a very real sense come full circle: ending with the 'gnosis' bugbear of radical egalitarianism and the discovery (by mostly 'rogue' Nag Hammadi authors) of liberatory meanings to be unearthed in sacred writings.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A note on methodology and one very popular 'fake' conjecture

"I can therefore gladly admit that falsificationists like myself much prefer an attempt to solve an interesting problem by a bold conjecture, even (and especially) if it soon turns out to be false, to any recital of a sequence of irrelevant truisms" (Karl Popper)

I will try, as far as possible, to draw from contemporary events for our pool of faux wisdoms. Sometimes old philosophical chestnuts will be introduced, but more often than not issues with a more contemporary flavor.

I have provided in the blog's sidebar some few good places (such as Reuters and Wikipedia widgets)  to locate, research and reformulate issues of the day (which are legion!), mostly for my own benefit but hoping also readers will access them as aids to their replies.

Let's take the hotly contested American presidential election as an example and see if presumed illegitimacy of a Trump win (taken here as a growing anti-GOP uprising) has earned the right to be called a reasonable 'conjecture'.

The outline of the case is clear and can be stated as a very general categorical proposition of the traditional type (using Popper's own notation):

A is b
C is d
All e are f
A is g

Now the same proposition translated into subject-predicate statements will look something like this:

Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States
Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, ran as Trump's presidential running mate
All lawfully elected presidential and vice-presidential candidates  will be sworn into office on January 20th, 2017

Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence will be sworn into office on January 20th, 2017

The statements of the proposition can be seen as logical and not empirical content: in other words, conclusion follows consistently from well-formed premises whereas the claim of individual statements to conform to the facts (in this case, of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle) can be subject to 'tests' and therefore can call logical content into question. The more 'tests' such as these can be envisaged the stronger the proposition put forward. Attempting to delegitimize the 2016 presidential race will always take the critics into the arena of the less comfortable and less probable.

Is it not straightforwardly clear enough to Trump's enemies that (in form alone) the fight for the White House has been both legitimately contested and won? Do not the statements of the argument contain (in Popper's words) great explanatory power precisely because in contemporary America many things (such as ballot tampering, Electoral College defects, Russian interference) may act as empirical evidence to the contrary? Does not the logical form alone, and precisely because its strongest physical features have been tested and criticized rather extensively already, make it true though improbable?

Does not, in other words, the proposition's high degree of refutability (as media outlets and a great deal of liberal 'wisdom' daily reveal to us) just make it seem the most highly informative truth there is? In the end, we believe in a Trump presidency because it is improbable to think otherwise, that is, until the proposition that claims to correspond to the facts of the presidential race is subject to better tests.

By all accounts, Donald J. Trump will be the legitimate 45th President of the United States.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What I wouldn't give for one Russell today!

Time was when thinkers (like Bertrand Russell, Bernard Williams, A.J.Ayer) brought a entire arsenal of sound analytical reasoning (given in the form of clearly outlined propositions and  inferences) to their views on things like the nature of reality and the existence of God. It was both good and instructive to listen to them, whatever your own views happened to be. How things have changed!

The contemporary debate on God's existence, for example, has changed sound reasoning into a form of garish social media in which participants gain points not by logic but by the outward show of 'cleverness' only: voice, body language and an outlandish sort of 'showmanship' oftentimes indistinguishable from 'bullying'. We are in need of better intellectual role models. Intellectual debate today is more 'media-' than 'word-' centric, the aim always being to serve up  more interesting sound bite to an audience hungry for them. Contemporary atheists, indistinguishable from their media caricatures, have quite intentionally undercut the possibility of real intellectual 'dialogue'. It's clear: without the theatrics their ideas will look shallow and largely indefensible.

Jacques Rancière is somebody who understands media and the potentially pernicious image of itself and media users it likes to unleash on the public. It's, in his view, in the service of the new image of the real tied indissolubly to media that media users quite literally dictate the terms of discourse everywhere. It's pure 'image' dissociated from reality  : "The visible can be arranged", Rancière says " in meaningful tropes; words deploy a visibility that can be blinding." And as a result what purveyors of the new 'discourse' (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett) do is offer skim rather than real depth, the simulacra of intelligence only. They, and their YouTube followers, have no time for patient and respectful exchange of ideas: their role is to be iconoclastic, offensive and fleeting.

They can, in other words, tell their audiences what they need to see since audiences do seem incapable of separating the proverbial tares from wheat. There's always something menacingly anti-intellectual and anti-social at work here. In the absence of real sustained theorizing the 'new atheists' (as Chomsky has correctly said) actually look like propogandists for their own brand of state religion. It's not conversion to a different viewpoint they seek so much as state-sponsored suppression of religious ideas in general.

And how well they exploit media spectacle to do this.Things like an affecting accent, credentials and aggressive delivery--amounting at times to character assassination-- always carry the day. Their audiences (except for the attentive few) can't see (as if quite invisible) what is there in front of them. Indeed, a contemporary audience wouldn't be able to see a logician's well-formed proposition as anything but a poorly 'trending' moment.

I offer the following as just one good example of the 'dumbing down' of much contemporary discourse. Jacques Derrida-- perhaps this century's greatest intellectual--  has gotten so far only four YouTube responses for his comments on atheism and belief! I take responses rather than views to be a more meaningful gauge of audience engagement and interest. It certainly isn't fashionable (and nor do I think most people today have the ability) to patiently follow through a rather complex train of thought based on faithful reading and study . Argumentative strength has taken a backseat to 'image' understood  in this peculiarly contemporary sense . In a typical YouTube debate forum Derrida would necessarily look like a stammering amateur.

 Logic, in short. just doesn't enjoy that crucial 30 second sound bite advantage over its opponents: for that the new media intellectuals rely on all the available 'video manager' tips and tricks available. Rather than following in the philosophical tradition of Russell and Derrida  the 'men of ideas' today have become little more than virulently self-satisfied "fools and fanatics" of a bread and circus world always happy to receive & applaud them.

"Conjectures and Refutations"

I'll give credit where it's due and in this case might cede to the critic (hopefully only imaginary at this early stage) who takes exception to naming a blog after the distinguished philosopher of science who's stood the inductivist prejudice on its head. To do something like this assumes that (a) I'm a philosopher with an axe to grind and (b) that I'm well versed in the history of science. But, true to the Popperian impetus of my blog, I'm only going to say now that I'm really led solely by a spirit of rational inquiry and that assumptions, like the ones I've given, have to be tested. I'll take things on a case-by-case basis.

In short, this is not a blog about the great man nor one about his writings.

I'll make a defense of philosophy (and the turn it's taken in the postDerridean world) at some point and even of the legitimacy of competing accounts of the nature of reality. In any event a thinker like Popper who's said that avenues to Truth can be as diverse as the irrational, supra-rational or poetic wouldn't mind this appropriation of his name and the title of his most influential work. I certainly don't think he'd have minded either  a discussion not just of philosophic topics (which in his view are really only irrefutable and probably false) with the usual panoply of inferences and truth-statements : even literary and theological works are to be actively mined here for inconsistencies and misappropriations of sense.

I'll even admit that a blog like this may show a daring pretentiousness on the part of a somebody like me who's only had poetry to offer as a sort of 'intuitive' understanding of the world; who's only entitled to talk about what has been to this point a preoccupation with literary matters. But that, too, is disputable.