3.288 anti-intellectualism, etc., cont. (226)

Wed, 26 Jul 89 08:32:40 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 288. Wednesday, 26 Jul 1989.

(1) Date: Tue, 25 Jul 89 14:48:00 EDT (19 lines)
From: Martin Ryle <RYLE@urvax.urich.edu>
Subject: RE: 3.275 anti-intellectualism, etc. (218)

(2) Date: Tue, 25 Jul 89 14:47 EDT (187 lines)
Subject: the status of intellectual culture, clerics, and a

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 89 14:48:00 EDT
From: Martin Ryle <RYLE@urvax.urich.edu>
Subject: RE: 3.275 anti-intellectualism, etc. (218)

Sheldon Richmond denigrates the value of seeking rigorous definition of terms
in intellectual debate, and he demands that we must admit the existence of
transcendent reality, if we are to escape our cultural malaise. Unfortunately,
I am unwilling to admit to such a "reality" without being persuaded of its
existence, and to be persuaded I must understand better than I do now what the
term is meant to imply. Does "transcendent reality" mean something like
Plato's world of forms or something like Aquinas' First Mover or something like
Voltaire's clockmaker or something like something else. I hope that SR will
not assume malice or psychosis of those who attempt to understand his thesis in
terms that resonate in their own experience. As a prof once told me in my
youth, "'Self-evident' really means only 'evident to one's self'
." Until I
have some confidence that SR and I are talking about the same transcendence, I
will be forced to assume that the term carries connotations that he may not
intend. Try again, Sheldon.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------192---
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 89 14:47 EDT
Subject: the status of intellectual culture, clerics, and a

A hypothetical debate between a Critic and a Cleric, and a fish story
Here is a hypothetical discussion about a hypothetical group of clergy that
might be helpful to illustrating what is meant in the question of the
intellectual status of intellectual culture. Any resemblance to new wave
theology is purely coincidental. I only use this hypothetical example for
illustrating the thesis about the irrelevance and debate-closing nature of
seeking definitions:
Critic: Are clergy crypto-atheists?
Cleric: My goodness, I don't understand your question. You don't define
'clergy', and you don't define 'crypto-atheist'. So,I cannot answer your
Critic: People who are members of the clergy usually practice their profession
by leading congregants in prayers, giving sermons, and talking about a book
that mentions a deity. However, most of these clergy do not agree with the
views expressed about this deity they find in the good book, nor do these
clergy agree with the views of their congregants. Hence, from the point of
view of their congregants, if the clergy ever clearly expressed their
understanding of "GOD" to their congregants, they would be deemed to be
atheists. Instead, clergy disguise their views about "GOD" to themselves and
their congregants by interpreting religious belief as a metaphor for
existential problems. So, clergy are crypto-atheists, i.e. covert atheists.
Cleric: Well, I still don't understand what you mean by "clergy" and "crypto-
atheist". You haven't defined the terms.
Critic: The crypto-atheist position involves the following tacit framework:
1. One should not believe a position unless it is understandable to a member
of modern culture.
2. Assertions about the literal existence of some supreme being, i.e. "GOD",
who literally created the world, and who intervenes in nature through
miracles, and talks to various people, etc, are unintelligible to modern day
3. We should restrict our discussions to that which is within current
standards of intelligiblity or understanding.
4. Therefore, the traditional views about "GOD are not worthy of discussion,
though we can re-interpret them metaphorically as symbols for human suffering,
hope, and salvation.
Cleric: Now that you have DEFINED "crypto-atheist", though not rigorously
enough by my standards, I don't know too many clergy who would agree with
every criterion you state, and so most cannot qualify as crypto-atheists. It
would seem sufficient to explore current re-interpretations of the biblical
views, rather than to critically evaluate those views of a past culture. So,
we do not have to decide the issue of whether "GOD" exists. That issue is
beyond current standards of intelligibility.
Our mythical defender of a hypothetical clergy postpones discussing the
hypothesis that clergy are crypto-atheists by insisting on having criterial
definitions. Firstly, is he correct about insisting on having a definition of
of 'clergy' and 'crypto-atheist'? Secondly, is he correct about asserting that
if one disagrees with some of the above 'definitional' statements for
'crypto-atheist', then one is not a crypto-atheist?
Firstly, insisting on definitions or treating definitions as a necessary
pre-requisite for a discussion, particularly criterial definitions, reduces the
variety of methods to gaining mutual understanding about the questions and
views under discussion, to the singular and narrow method of proposing the
necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of terms.
Secondly, the point about calling a position 'crypto', (or, tacit) is that
those who hold a position tacitly, would for various reasons either deny the
position or claim not to understand it when asked about it explicitly. The way
to argue for the thesis that a person has a certain tacit position is to argue
that the tacit position is a logical presupposition or logical consequence of
other explicit positions.

Why insist on definitions? Is it the only means to gain understanding of
the content of a statement or question? There are alternatives means. For
instance, one can seek an understanding by requesting examples or analogies;
by paraphrasing and asking if the interlocutor would accept the paraphrase or
summary. However, when one seeks a criterial definition, one demands a set of
necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of a term. Thus, a
criterial definition states the denotation of words, rather than the content of
propositions. In effect, the demand for a criterial definition shifts the
discussion from asking substantive questions, making statements,
interpretations, analyses, and arguments by way of seeking the premisses and
consequences of propositions, to talking about the use of terms. One can gain
an understanding of a question and viewpoint without shifting ground from
directly answering the question, or discussing the truth-value of the
answers. One can re-state the question and viewpoint in one's own words, and
one can provide one's objections to the viewpoint, or the question. When one's
objections to those re-stated views are answered directly by one's
interlocutor, then mutual understanding has been achieved. In short, seeking
definitions is a strategy for closing debate rather than continuing debate.
Furthermore, demanding that definitions be a pre-requisite for a discussion is
a strategy for sabotaging the commencement of discussion.

Let us momentarily, return to the question, Is intellectual culture, anti-
intellectual? The answers are either, Yes, or No. One of the symptoms of
anti-intellectualism is an over-concern with terminology. Instead of directly
confronting issues i.e. --"Does God exist?"-- the anti-intellectual will talk
about the terminology of "exist" and "god-talk". One would think that part of
intellectual honesty involves concern with the proper use of language. Yes,
of course it does. But, the point is not to evade issues by terminological
discussion, but to use language to gain an understanding of what the real
issues and problems are. When one is asked, "Does God exist?", the
intellectually honest approach is to state either Yes or No, and provide an
explanation for one's answer if requested. The evasive technique is to avoid
the question by asking the interlocutor to give a definition of every term in
the question, and then to find loop-holes in the definitions, i.e. by finding
ambiguities, and cases where the term is applied similarly but differently.
In other words, the interlocutor demands criteria for the acceptiblity of
definitions which are impossible to meet given the ambiguous and metaphorical
nature of language. Indeed, the most intellectually challenging
questions--the meta-questions about disciplines-- are the ones where language
is most ambiguous because what we are questioning is the adequacy of the
current standards for asking questions and evaluating answers in various
domains. To refuse to answer the meta-questions about a given domain because
the terms of the meta-question do not accord with the way the terms are
defined in a particular domain, merely self-legitimates the domain. For
instance, to refuse to answer questions about the rationality of a culture or
domain because 'rationality' applies to individuals and not to domains, avoids
the question. When asking about the rationality of a culture or domain we are
asking whether the standards of a domain help us to gain a better grasp of
reality--help us to understand the challenges reality poses, and help us to
better evaluate our tentative answers. Those who refuse to answer such
questions because of a terminological fiat about the proper use of
'rationality' as restricted to individuals, tacilty assume that all cultures
are by definition rational, and in the same breath, claim not to understand the
assumption. As 'realistic', they would admit that most members of a given
culture are 'irrational' much of the time, but would deny any sense to asking
whether the standards of rationality are themselves rational. So, to deny
that one can question the adequacy of the standards of reality, truth, and
rationality of a culture is to tacitly admit that all cultures are rational;
that rationality achieves reality and truth; and that all standards of
reality, rationality, and truth --as culture-dependent --are historical. One
can assume those positions without asserting them; and moreover, one can even
deny them explicitly because standards are self-legitimating; or, because the
terms 'rational', 'real', and 'true', apply individually and contextually.
The more sophisticated manner of assuming a framework without having to
articulate the framework, and without even having to admit that the framework
is intelligible, is to assert that the intelligibility of all terms is
relative to highly specified contexts.
The human situation is that we are faced by problems that have a basis in
objective reality. When we are intellectually honest, we wonder whether the
approaches or domains we use allow us to adequately interpret or understand
the problems, and whether the approaches we use help us to adequately improve
upon our mistakes. Here is a story about a fishing community that might help
convey what is meant by the general form of the realist meta-question: "Does
such-and- such a methodology get us closer to reality?"

Suppose a fishing community goes about trying to do their job, and comes
home with empty nets. They refine their nets; and still return from their
trips with empty nets. We ask them, what is the purpose of going fishing when
you come home with empty nets? Well we just want to improve the quality of
our nets. Surely, that is good enough. Of course, it is. That is a wonderful
thing to do: we improve the quality of our nets, but don't have to catch any
fish, they tells us. In fact, who is to say there is any fish out there? The
goal of fishing surely cannot be to catch fish; it must be to make better and
better nets. By which standards, you ask? By our standards, whatever we
decide to invent; for our standards by DEFINITION determine what is a
legitimate standard for improving the quality of fishing nets. But you say
that we are supposed to catch fish and we come home with empty nets. Don't
you see that either the nets chase the fish away, or the 'fish' are nothing
above and beyond the motion of our nets in the water. Our nets are the only
means we have for observing fish in our murky pond; and to observe fish is to
catch them. As soon as we approach the fish, the fish turn tail and swim like
scarred rabbits. When we don't approach the fish with our nets, they are
there, but of course, we can't directly observe them. Well we see pertubations
in the water, and that's good enough. By the Verificationist Principle of
Meaning, a 'fish'=(df.) 'perturbations of the murky water of our pond when we
have the nets in the water', 'catching fish'=(df.) 'observing or measuring
perturbations in the murky water in our pond when we have the nets in the
water'. To wonder what 'causes' the perturbations; i.e. our nets, our some
hidden invariable, is to ask a meaningless question. A 'fish' is the
phenomenology of the movement of water around our nets. We can't capture
'noumenal' fish. At best, according to Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty,
we can increase the certainty of our measurements of the position of
observed-fish, when we only slightly move our nets in the water; and we can
increase the certainty of our measurements of the momentum of observed-fish,
when we rapidly drag our nets through the water. The precision of the
measurements of the two uncertainties varies inversely.

So you ask, why do we go fishing? Just for the sport of it; to improve our
skills at fishing, even though we don't 'catch' fish. Indeed, how can you
raise the question, 'are our nets adquate to catch fish?'. Firstly, the
adequacy of our nets is determined intrinsically by our own standards of
adequacy. Secondly, it is a bit jejeune, given what we now know about how our
nets disturb fish, to question whether there are any fish out there in our
pond. In any case, what do you mean by "out there" and "fish"?
Luckily this fishing community buys its supply of "fish" from the grocery
Sheldon Richmond