Friday, December 08, 2006

Sam Harris, Nicholas Kristof, and God

[note: I've been wrestling with this one for a while, and am still not done with it. changes may occur.]

Given the astounding number of galaxies and potential worlds arrayed overhead, the complexities of life on earth and the advances in our ethical discourse over the last 2,000 years, the world's religions offer a view of reality that is now so utterly impoverished as to scarcely constitute a view of reality at all.
That's Sam Harris on Edge, responding to an unscented powder puff by Nicholas Kristof in the Times. Times "Select." Readable here without unconscionable fee.

Kristof measures God the way newspapers employ polls to gauge the dimensions of political candidates. He find irreligious intolerance quite as disturbing to his peace of mind as the religious variety. He would like everybody to play nice.

One could simply ignore Kristof, as several of the commenters at Dawkins' site recommend. goddogit, for example, muses:
I'd get upset, but this guy is the classic ineffectual kind of cat box liner that the NYT uses to maintain its thickness, in both senses. His opinions are so trifling, yet so predictable in their method of pandering, he really should be a sportswriter.
Many atheists believe the Times is composed of unimpeachable objectivity, fairness, and news sense. Enlightenment fundamentalism indeed.

Pace Kristof, there's something at work in Harris's comment that isn't just tone or manner. There's a compacting of "the world's religions" with a certain USian segment that practices a straighened interpretive approach to a particular publication, i.e., the Bible. What seems impoverished here are the premises of Harris's attack language, not the ostensible object of his attack.

For the sake of argument, let's assume all the world's religions derive from the study of a single sacred text, as Harris prefers, and let's call it the Bible. If so, it behooves to read the text. Leave aside fundamentalist readings, give it the benefit of your very own attention. Even just Genesis. What's going on in there is anything but simple; there's an unfolding of a world view radically distinct from whatever else has survived from yore, an original vision of time and the place of the human and the workings of the human in time. It's quite a tale, pocked with remembered moments fraught with ancient memory lapses looming out of vastnesses of time and space. There's an enigmatic benightedness that is familar and contemporary, peopled by vivid and diverse actors, of whom God is but one player.

It 's a text that knows a lot about the problems of knowing. For something supposedly written by a guiding godhead, it's rife with illogic, with narrative gaps that might or might not be gaffs, difficult to parse and perplexing scenes, actions, characters and events that nudge the problem of intelligibility into the foreground, so that the riddling character of the signifier -- the shadowy, broken, paratactic and irregular texture of the telling -- is inseparable from the burden of the tale.

Genesis holds up as literature. Personally I'm always enthralled up to that point in Exodus when we hit the the Japanese instruction manual on how to assemble the Tabernacle. Twice. Where is a competent technical writer when you need one? But that's just me. To Sam Harris I'd say, after spending some time with Genesis, have a look at Erich Auerbach's Mimesis - the first chapter anyways, and perhaps Robert Alter's commentaries. Then ask yourself whether you're taking on the Bible, or rather some insipid sliver of a reading of it which you then like a good fundamentalist assume is the only possible way to interpret the text.

All of which merely goes to suggest that Harris's choosing to unleash his whoopass container upon poor Kristof in hopes of wresting the Tolerance Merit Badge back to his side of the ledger is somewhat self-defeating. If there is intolerance here, it resides in Harris's niggardly sense of what a text is -- in his resistance to exploring how the act of intepretation can open into something a bit more complicated than
Half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old.
Come to think of it, Genesis itself is full of folks like Joseph's brothers getting into serious trouble by refusing to entertain the possibility of other than simplistic readings.

Harris apparently wishes to equate one benighted and politicized strand of atrophied USian text abuse with the Bible in toto; would he find it equally plausible to reduce all scientific endeavor to Adam Felber's account of the World's Largest Molecule? Would he enjoy mindless readings of his own books?

For all intents and purposes, as AKMA has argued, we live amid contesting readings, all partial, all incomplete, among which some single text is pretty much nowhere to be found. If Harris truly wished to impress upon us his genuine concern for the future of civilization, he might begin by allowing for the myriad unimaginable acts of interpretation that fall between a text and the communities generated by its readings. A tolerance of that uncontrollable genesis by which certain texts extend their demiurgic powers across time and space, in advance of the lives they deform.


Blogger AKMA said...


12/08/2006 5:14 PM  
Anonymous ray said...

Amen. and spot on.

12/08/2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger clocke said...

re AKMA's, above: GUFFAW! I'm still laughing.

12/10/2006 2:41 PM  
Anonymous tutor said...

The lesser cannot contain the greater. The Word entering our consciousness shatters it. But that does not suggest the Word is incoherent. We read a work like the Bible entirely at our own risk. It searches us like an internet Worm. And once successfully embedded launches itself through our misinterpretations into hundreds of other minds. As we carry brands with us on our T-shirts, so we become carriers of the Christian tradition. The Word uses us to propagate itself, as do Brands. The Word no more cares whether or not we interpret it correctly than the Company cares what we wear with the logo. The Text, commercial or spiritual, takes the human as a substrate and replicates madly. If you are lucky the parasites your mind harbors are benign, but no one is whole. We are all carriers for the signs of which our thought patterns are formed. We are one way or another creatures of the text.

12/10/2006 4:16 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

We are one way or another creatures of the text.

Reader: Shattered, searched, embedded, launched, metastasized;
Text: viral parasitism, self-propagation. replication.

Bend over, reader, the text shall enter.

This view - reminiscent in some ways of Mr. Turbulent Velvet - renders us as action figures - completely compatible with the wealth bondage model of power and puppets. Not much left of the human to exercise one's philanthropic urge. Why then bother to read?

Or, strong texts produce strong readings:
OT -> NT.
OT + NT -> Islam
OT + NT + Islam -> feetdontfailmenow

Is there no point to seeing how a text works - to opening it up and showing its tricks and tropes - does this hold no wisp of apotropaic virtue?

12/11/2006 7:47 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pinatubo said...

Tom, T.V.'s argument, as I read it, is that within some social circumstances a text will not be read outside certain parameters. People will be effectively cut off if they try, and there are some texts that are deliberately made conducive to producing those locked down circumstances.

12/12/2006 12:35 PM  
Blogger Juke said...

feet s dontfailmenow
Lately I've been thinking we don't move through time, but time moves through what we are, what we really are, in toto, like a catalytic process changing liquid to solid, something like that, and the fixing of essence involved is crucial toward some other range of existence, thus the interest of meta-physical presences in humble ungainly we here in our leaky Shakespearean dome, the spirits in their spirit world can see but not touch exactly, not without taking over in a way that renders what this is worse than moot, less than useless.
Because that's the adolescent's first heretical postulate, init?
What does anything that big and powerful and that eternally-lived want with puny buzzing ephemeral us?
The rat.pot.s would say nada and nada, there or here nada, nothing to say nada but we who so say, so the question dissipates sucked out into the vacuum around everything. No meaning, no foundation, nothing down there in the little but tiny blank atoms in the empty dark, nothing out there in the big but soulless processional stars in their own dark empty.
We as inheritors of accidental self-improving complexity have only our own sui genetic valence to compare and contrast things with and to, so meaning is, uhm, you know, meaningless, pretty much.
Me I don't believe that.
Much of the faithful catechism as practiced is just survival skills for an aggregate of parasitical union with a thread of subversive anchorite-energy carried forward in the great tapestries of liturgy and numinous myth - subversive like the prayers hidden in our names.
But the dogma says we're as important as the will of God - put baldly that's what it says.
Me I find that hard to digest.
Over and over again the OT shows the precipitate tip - Abraham with his promised children in generations like the sands and the stars spilling from his loins, Noah with his wooden biosphere beginning all of it again, the passed-over rising to the sound of the mortuant carts wheeling away the Egyptian dead, and of course that primal couple fecund and simple, carrying their cold refusal away from the garden and into the world.
The power's what's latently described in each instance, that just by being, just through existing these figures hold what will be, what will come to be, within them.
I believe that. That the birth of one is the birth of many, and death too vice versa. You can only measure the tangible, so it's what gets codified and ruled on, but the tangible's only the tip of the archipelago, an island in the sea of our real presence, here.

12/12/2006 1:09 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

scruggs: can you point to some place or places where one might read that or parts of that?

12/12/2006 5:22 PM  
Blogger Chuck Pinatubo said...


I would call Disciplinary Optimism his best work on cutting people off for reading outside the canon.

12/12/2006 6:39 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

juke: Abe and Noah, Jacob and Joseph - who could credit what they were being asked to credit, these promises, hanging there, ripe fruit, but watch yourself. Over and over, the rational expectation is raised, brought in, only to be blown to smithereens by the impossible result. It isn't about what reason can imagine; it is what reason can't imagine. By all means let's listen to reason -- which can't be reasonable unless its incidental angle of reflection is proportional to the accidental angle of the coincidence of the computation of the tangible -- what if we miss the whole, shrouds athwart our bow, undetected.

12/12/2006 8:49 PM  
Blogger T.V. said...

Well, agency's a bitch and no mistake. Not much progress on that issue after a couple thousand years. I've played with that viral-parasite view sometimes, like any thoughtful person, mainly as an oscillating corrective to its agentic and problematic opposite ("Every Man His Own Decider"). I haven't come across any "philosopher" with anything to offer but more of that harried oscillation as a supposed way out of the conundrum. You ventriloquize the viral view in your last sentence, don't you, before recoiling at Tutor's re-presenation of it? And Richard Dawkins outdoes all of us in mythologizing it in a celebratory way, before declaring that the way back to human agency is passing through the mystery of abjection to his wing of the scientific-technocratic elite. Agency for analyst me, no agency for thee! The issue between the Dawkins-Harrisites and the humanities cult-studs has never been a philosophic one about agency or texts or anything else. It's about fantasies of rule. Both groups think they see more deeply into the scary abyss than the herd, and both say: "It's not something most people can handle, but if only people like us were in charge, everything would go well." Self-designated members of this or that Higher Rationality always get to decide who the fundamentalists are: people unlike them.

I'm puzzled that you would take me to have ever fixated in some binary way on the masochistic view of textuality. I suppose you could think I think that, if you confused what I specifically say about specific texts and their reception (e.g., Nietzsche's, or occasionally the Bible's) with saying something general about Textuality in Toto...whatever the hell that is. But that conflation is very specfically what I object to, since it very specifically prevents saying specific things or making specific attributions about certain specific texts. For certain specific reasons and interests. (One of the things you don't ever get to ask, and about those two texts particularly, is: "Isn't your celebration of this text a cagey way of rehearsing cruel authoritarian affects under plausible denial, affects that you 'officially' purport to despise? Authoritarian affects that you think will support your tribe while winning for yourself the moral authority & innocence of being opposed to cruel authoritarianism in general? And which celebration will probably just feed into the general slide toward cruel authoritarianism, which is founded on affective rather than rational investements?")

I think Scruggs gets me right here. The itch for me is always about what can't be said institutionally. I've lived most of my life among paeans to heroic clearthinking hermeneutic investigation, lived in an institution full of people with just that conception of their own heroism. It's a lie. It's founded on just as many blind unsayables as the discourse of Sam Harris. But you can't get at the unsayables by way of the hermeneutic-ideological-sociological theory. You can't turn those theories on their makers, because the institutional lacunas are built into them from the very start. You can only get at the unspoken by eavesdropping in the faculty lounge or around the dumpster out back, as Phil has discerned. Or by deliberately making people angry in specific ways, so they drop their guard. And even then, you can't package whatever insights you glean back into those discourses that are being used inside the building, because those discourses are already designed to assimilate and defuse any insights back-applied to the self. And the demotic discourses outside "obviously" have no status, or else have already been celebrated as a subversive Calibanism, precisely as a form of pre-emptive inoculation. It's a perfectly constructed circle. Socially constructed.

None of that amounts to a metaphysics of puppetry. It's more an exasperated complaint about terminal bureaucratization, and an attempt to ruthlessly follow out all the corollaries that follow from realizing its full extent. None of this crap that makes us suffer, none of it, is metaphysically necessary, even if it's become almost "metaphysically" inescapable. I think that's what makes it so unbearable.

12/13/2006 10:42 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

TV - thanks for the help with this - there certainly was an (unasked) question for me of whether your readings of Nietzsche (as the most detailed example I have) were continuous with some overarching theory of text/reading, or otherwise. I would suggest what you have even here is more than mere "complaint," though. It circumscribes a "perfectly constructed circle" - the analysis begins a reflection, the very thing whose utility you appear to be despairing of; but that reflection could carry antigens as well as light, both of which tend to travel rapidly. What you are, I think brilliantly, depicting is how a rhetorically sophisticated system of defenses works. Nuthin' to complain of about that -- a net gain in useful insight, at least for me.

12/13/2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Juke said...

Both groups think they see more deeply into the scary abyss than the herd, and both say: "It's not something most people can handle, but if only people like us were in charge, everything would go well."
None of this crap that makes us suffer, none of it, is metaphysically necessary, even if it's become almost "metaphysically" inescapable.

All those men-who-stare-at-abysses have full bellies and relatively well-landscaped grounds around them.
None of them are standing at El Mozote, or Fallujah, or etc.-bloody-grotesque-etc.
Holbein's Dance Macabre is helpful there.
None of them are viewing the intricacies of moral exigency from anywhere other than the still-standing moral cathedrals of where we are. As opposed to the unmunicipated streets of say Juarez, or some bomb-pocked village in western Sri Lanka/Eelam.
Comfort and leisure in degrees as we all know are conducive. But a lot of what drove what's there now that's gotten so profane and inhuman began in compassionate regard, as immediate, necessary, almost triage. We need, not just something to explain what we go through, but something to get us through it.
The integuments of all this back-and-forthing are made from jury-rigged nonsense and received practicalities, yes? So a lot of the conflict can be seen as almost an auto-immune disorder.
And most pertinent I think is none of them neo-Pharisees betray that self-sacrificing love of the common folk that created the stories myths rules codes and - as I understand what you arcane Phd. sumbitches are referring to - texts that purport to hold the central McGuffin of this mystery, to begin with.
Moral guidance shaped for its pragmatics first, then for its theoretical purity. As opposed to proceeding from arrived-at-through-speculation fundamentals toward truthy meta-realistic law.
Which leads to the second bit there.
Flat statements of metaphysical certainty are hard for me personally to get arranged in my head when I can't see the uniform of the speaker.
The choice seems to refine toward a binary of Darwinian improvement with no valence whatsoever but self-interest on the part of whatever extant dot matrix is doing the eval., or, contra, some higher (highest maybe) purity, which from here we don't get to know whether it's even there or not.
Enter faith. Enter pyramid scams of the centuries. Enter the cartoon disfigurations of almatic nebulosity and cheap comforting horseshit.
The opiate that relieves the mass can be ever so lucrative when you're holding the franchise. How much of Harris' intent is bent toward acquisition of that? This would not be to malign pain relief generally.
A grasp of the full boundaries of human pain as lived would be fundamental there.
Moving the great what-we-are away from certain doom or a long inclined plane of unhappy futility would also pertain.
Course correction at that scale would involve the deaths of millions no matter what, already in fact has, with consequent suffering. Politicians flounder in those ditches, don't they?
And at its fullest, the whole thing we've done so far looks like an electorate crowd in the gaslit street outside the newspaper office, abeyant, teetering, hopeful, wondering.
Where at full resolution the thing at the heart of what it was we are moves so monumentally empires rise and fall in its dust.
This has no metaphysical component directly, but the template maps well I think.
The ethical concerns of Charlemagne, and Attila, and Red Cloud, as opposed to Descarte's elimination of local noise, or Lao Tzu's transcendence of it.
Where that dusty movement tends. Back to what produced us. Or never forever. Unsourced light, beginningless essence, all those stumbling metaphors for the ineluctable.
Death is horrible and necessary. Or it isn't. Meaning death along with its sidekick and tight runninbuddy, suffering.
The arrogance that says it's not is maybe the one most common flaw in all the debate I've seen. We have this programmed aversion to pain duh, and death yes, but in the overall - it's like the day is when it's light out and yet also the day is the full run from dawn back around to dawn, which includes a lot of celestial dark. All of it matter of fact.
We're immortal, we're not. Already I mean.
But we are most definitely poised on the brink of the verge of getting the physical cellular keys to it no matter what. And the clads that stand most ready for first access are generally repugnant in lots of important ways. Not to mention that accession is neck and neck with the burning away of heretofore stable domestic terran safety and shelter.
So the question of metaphysic alignment. Because we can't stay here forever. Or we can.
So the shove and push toward prominence of Harris and Dawkins and Dennett. Because that's where the metric is coded, where the contest is, because we're going somewhere - or we're not.
Which is what metaphysics treats with, as I understand it.

12/13/2006 4:59 PM  

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