Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What it Means to Be a Prefatory Footnote: Preliminary Notes on the Presocratics

What I typically post here resemble essays more than journals, usually with an argument that is, if brief, fairly complete. This, alternately, will be something of a "think out loud" piece, in which I speculate on the rhetorical implications and possible reasons behind referring to a group of Greek philosophers between the eighth and third centuries BC as "Presocratics." Since I don't know much about them, the entry is really more a way of describing my ignorance than in rectifying it. Hopefully, there will be a followup piece that binds some of the loose ends introduced in this one.

I think that it should be fairly self-evident that something goes on when we label something a precursor to something else: the precursor becomes last year's model, so to speak, and is immediately devalued. One need look no further than what Jesus did to Isaiah or, depending on where one lives, what Mohamed did to Jesus. In fact, both the latter two traditions speak specifically of their Messiahs/prophets as being the culmination of historical processes that had the end point specifically in mind. This creates the mental effect that prophets who had previously been a kind of a plateau are now merely steps on the way to a plateau.

Naturally, the idea of Presocratics carries much the same effect. The title itself implies that none of these thinkers should be troubled over too much for what they said or wrote, but that their significance instead lies in that they paved the road for the more complete philosophical synthesis that we see in Socrates and Plato (to whatever extent we can extricate the two).

So let's examine some possible reasons that this group of teachers/philosophers/mystics might be taught to modern students in this manner. A few forms spring to mind: first, a lack of material. It could simply be (and I suspect that this is the case) that we encounter few or no texts directly attributed to the Presocratics themselves. This would be unsurprising, and the standard course of events, given the length of time since the purported historical existence of these men, but itself doesn't explain much. We have, after all, no original texts of the Bible, Socrates, Plato, or virtually any works from the ancient world that weren't, literally, carved in stone.  (Conversely, we apparently have a painfully large, and mostly painfully dull, collection of written records from the Babylonians and other such cultures that recorded everything from poetry to grain requisitions on unwieldy-but-durable clay tablets.) Yet all of these latter works are still considered of major importance and discernible historical provenance.

Secondly, we can look at the reliability of the accounts that we do have from the earliest extant sources. This probably helps some, as the earliest texts of Plato are, as I understand, from his students at the Academy, but one would imagine that the tradition by which the Presocratics reach us is probably similar. So maybe that's not much help, either, although the continuity of the Platonic tradition for centuries after Plato probably lends an authenticity that the Presocratic texts lack.

On a conceptual level, one could suppose that Socrates represents an interesting synthesis of ideas that had existed separately, much in the way that Newton created what we consider the first usably comprehensive theory of gravity, or how Darwin took the various evolutionary ideas roaming the 18th century and turned them into something elegant and parsimonious. But that only works so well, as we nevertheless view, on the one hand, Kepler, Brahe, and Galileo as worthy objects of study in their own right. (Although Lamarck, Robert Chambers,  and Erasmus Darwin fare only slightly better than do the Presocratics; perhaps we should call them the Predarwinians.)

Finally, this form of grouping could simply be a historical convention, something we approach this way because some influential scholar or group of scholars once imagined it to be the "natural" progression of the material. In any case, it's helpful to think sometimes of the categories into which we group material, and the ways that they can influence and constrain the ways that we approach learning.  As such, "Presocratics" belongs to a tradition containing such terms as "local historian," "minor battle," and "regional writer" that, perhaps intentionally, limit the amount of attention any given individual or event receives from a student of the relevant discipline.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

There Are No Experts: Why Theologians Are Full of Hot Air

Stephen Hawking recently started what I shall oh-so-cleverly term a "nontroversy" with the exceptionally innocuous statement from his recent book, The Grand Design, declaring, "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."  Naturally enough, this has enraged theologians, who have dusted off the familiar saw that they have used intermittently for years against the British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins: Hawking is a freelancing amateur, they say, offering an opinion on a subject in which he has no expertise.  He's a fine physicist but at best an inept metaphysician.  Best leave this God stuff to the philosophers and theologians, to whom it rightfully belongs, they say, for they are the real experts on the topic.

Now, the following argument breaks no new philosophical ground, and so it is assiduously frustrating that it requires continuous popularization.  But nevertheless, clearly it does, so here we go: there are some very clear, distinct, and simple requirements to be considered an expert in a field of knowledge.  Theologians satisfy none of them.  We are left with probably only two possibilities: either theologians are talking about nothing, because their object of study is imaginary, or what they are talking about is real, and so impossibly difficult to comprehend that nothing about it can be known.  In either case, they all need to get real jobs.

Let us think about any other area of inquiry: it is not strictly relevant whether we choose an academic field such as history, a field that has applications within and without the academy, such as computer science or architecture, or a professional field that is mainly practical, such as plumbing or carpentry.  The requirements for expertise vary somewhat between the first and last, but this simply multiplies the number of standards that theologians cannot meet.  All of the fields listed above share several important aspects that overshadow all of their differences: first, in order to be acknowledged as an expert, one must have command of at least a tentative and generally agreed-upon set of facts.

For instance, if we interviewed a panel of ten purportedly expert historians about the key dates, figures, and locations of events in the American Revolution, and were given ten widely divergent and mutually exclusive sets of answers, we would be forced to conclude that either: a) they were all mistaken; or, b) all but one of them was mistaken.  If we were thoroughly convinced that these were the best historians available, we would additionally be led toward the conclusion that either: a) no one or almost no one, in fact, knows anything about this particular period of history; or, if contrasted with other, well-established episodes in history, b) the American Revolution may never have happened at all.  This is much like when a police investigator asks a suspect for an alibi and is given answers regarding whereabouts that are neither internally consistent nor consistent with other witness accounts: she would suspect, charitably, that the suspect is confused, or, less charitably, that the suspect is lying.

But these are, of course, exactly the kinds of answers that we get when posing questions about God.  Christian thinkers cannot agree whether God wrote, influenced, or merely witnessed the book attributed to him; whether he is essentially nice, as the Methodists maintain, or merely mighty, as the Calvinists would have it; whether he reveals himself through miracles or operates within the laws of physics; whether his plan is apparent or inscrutable; whether he consigns most people to eternal damnation or whether eternal damnation even exists; whether dimensions such as Limbo and Purgatory are real; when the soul enters the body; if said souls preexist the humans they occupy or not; what it means to have the omnipotence or omniscience attributed to him, if attributed at all; whether lesser spirits such as angels and devils exist and can influence human affairs; whether we are saved by reading the Bible or building houses for the poor.  The list could get very long, indeed, before we even left the major issues and started into lesser ones such as those of proper ritual or prayer, at which point the list would become nearly infinite.

Naturally, every discipline has serious disputes about its details, and it would be arrogant and foolish to pretend otherwise.  Resolving these disputes is, in the world of academe anyway, one of the principal reasons that these disciplines continue to exist.  But God's general nature, plan, system of revelation, and system of salvation are not questions of detail: they are foundational questions.  The fact that theologians have formed no consensus on them means that, again, they are either questions about imaginary things, or they are questions that simply have no reliable answers at this point.  In either situation, there is simply no expertise to be found anywhere in the sense that we use the term regarding any other subject.  If we accept even general and tentative agreement as a qualification for expertise, those claiming theological expertise are either lying or mistaken.

The other basic requirement for expertise in a discipline is the existence of a generally accepted method of study.  Here, we'll set academia aside and look at a mainly applied field of knowledge such as plumbing.  Imagine that you called a plumber to address a leak beneath your kitchen sink.  There are certain things that you will expect every single plumber that you would call to do.  You would expect him or her to look underneath your sink and in the surrounding area to determine the precise location and cause of the leak; to inspect the materials from which your plumbing is constructed; to make a determination whether the problem can be rectified with the existing hardware or whether additional replacement components will be required; to possess and be able to employ a set of hand tools common to all plumbers; and so on.

If instead, in an alternate world in which you knew nothing yourself about plumbing, you called ten plumbers and each took a radically different approach to your problem, you might well wonder if this plumbing thing was worth what you were spending on it.  If one read tea leaves to diagnose the problem, and another did a dance, and a third recited poetry, and each was dead certain that he was right and the others wrong, you would conclude that at least most of them, and possibly all of them, had no idea how to properly investigate leaking pipes.  And this is before we even ask the question of whether the problem was addressed satisfactorily; theologians fail that criteria as well, but that is a topic for another day.

And so again, let us apply this criterion for expertise to theology: some theologians maintain that study of the Bible is the essential technique for knowledge of God, although even within this method the answers are widely divergent and often mutually exclusive; others insist that deference to the authority of clergy is the key; still others feel that personal prayer is the way to go; others service; others philosophy.  In each instance (except, perhaps, the second one), the answers rendered will, once again, be widely divergent and frequently mutually exclusive.  In any other field, we would assume that there is likely no expertise to be had, or that at least no one had yet acquired it.  Someone might be right by sheer luck or intuition, it is true, but the lack of consensus would make it nearly impossible to know who that person was.  We would certainly not consider anyone an expert, anymore than we have experts about specific plant life on a particular planet millions of light years away.  We might concede that there might, in fact, be such a planet with such organisms, but at the same time we would, if we were honest, have to confess our total ignorance about anything other than its bare possibility.  Without some system of verification, we would quickly recognize all pronouncements on the topic to be talk of nothing or wild speculations.

So when pious and learned fellows like the Catholic theologian Robert Spitzer set themselves up as experts on the question of God's necessity, with the implicit or explicit suggestion that Stephen Hawking is out of his depth, we should realize that they are half right: if we are kind enough to assume that theologians are not simply frauds, which is a kind assumption indeed, then they are all in the same boat with Dr. Hawking.  Based upon the practical and scholarly output from the last 20 centuries, we can confidently conclude that no one knows much of anything at all about this God fellow.