Saturday, October 6, 2012

Solving the World's Great Mysteries, or Delusions of a Geratric Freshman, Part I

For all none of you reading this, I started work on a PhD in English at the University of Texas a couple of months ago. Unlike most people in English, I don't really "do" literature, but rather focus on rhetoric and composition studies. This is, as a rule, more in line with my self-image as a "generalist." I don't see myself as specializing in any particular field of knowledge, as theories of knowledge ("epistemology" in fancy philoso-talk),and how knowledge is created/found/shared/contested/negotiated within and across disciplines is actually what interests me. Rhet/comp, with its close historical love/hate relationship with "pure" philosophy, and more recently with linguistics, is much more about these things.

The "generalist" label fits me well for reasons that reflect my eclectic academic interests, but also for social reasons that have little to do with academia, or, put otherwise, are ways of me repeating my previous social experience on an academic stage. The generalist is  a floater, someone who studies many disciplines in the hopes of either saying relevant things in several or simply avoiding "drinking the Kool-Aid" of any one in particular, thus acquiring the occupational psychosis/trained incapacity combo that more or less approximates a religious conversion experience on a secular front: a way of coming to see the world within the confines of one's discipline that makes it nigh-impossible to "see" it any other way. To whatever extent it is possible, I either want to drink everyone's Kool-Aid or no one's, depending on how we wish to apply the metaphor. I want to either be able to look at any object/area of study from either several different disciplinary lenses simultaneously or any aggregate lens that resembles none of them in particular.

On a social level, this is, to clarify, high school all over again, a time in which I floated among several cliques without being in the inner circle of any of them. The generalist is accepted in several disciplines (mine being English, communications, philosophy, and linguistics) without really ever embracing or being embraced by any of them. The specialists sense (correctly) that what the generalist is doing is (to add to the disciplinary muddle) a kind of anthropology. I visit everywhere to learn not content but culture, not to pick sides in academic turf wars but to privately document how knowledge cultures are socially constructed, how groups come to accept the "rightness" of their particular orientations toward the world, often (or maybe always) in opposition to other ways that are by theory or method mutually excluded from the view to which one pledges allegiance. Those within a particular field or subfield view this as a kind of intelligence activity, and hence one is viewed as something of a friendly spy.

As one result, generalists (or this one, anyway) perceive right/wrong disputes between academic disciplines that are not actually differences of fact but rather argument over who has the right to name or describe something. The fact that these disputes, such as what to call descriptions of personality (Id? Mind? Behavior? Adjustment? Cognition?) exist at all is evidence of a phenomenon that I draw out of all this discipline-hopping called "linguistic realism": the idea that one's vocabulary exists in a one-to-one relationship with "the thing itself," the object being described, whereas all other vocabularies are abstractions or deceptions or both. From this perspective, disciplinary turf wars, like all turf wars, are not questions of truth but questions of power and influence--or  maybe those re two different ways of saying the same thing.

The physical  sciences, whose practitioners actually believe that they argue "neutrally" and that everyone else is peddling spin, are some of the biggest culprits here. "You thought that you were motivated by reasons," an FMRI-wielding theorist will say, "but in actuality your stated motivations were rationalizations for something else that only shows up on this graph." But there is no good reason to suggest that those "stated rationalizations" were anything other than a description of the thought process as the person herself understood it. The situation is analogous to me saying, "I like cake," and then someone with an EEG and a clipboard saying, "No, you're wrong, your body craves sugar." These are not mutually exclusive explanations; they are different ways of saying the same thing.

And of course they are. While sometimes human beings legitimately disagree about the existence of historical or actual phenomena, one party believing that something has happened or exists (like, say, evolution of species from common ancestry) that the other party does not, these make up, I suspect, the tiny minority of our disputes. We more usually agree in principle about the workings of the world (it is but one place, after all) but use such different sets of language to describe our interpretations that we grow instantly parochial about our semantic choices and subsequently "realize" them. I say, "Cars are like horseless carriages" and you say, "Cars are like four-wheeled motorcycles," and we fight over whose simile is the "correct" explanation.

But we might get past much of this were we to realize, following my new hero Kenneth Burke, that all language is a symbolic representation of reality. Some of it can lead one to better sensory understandings of physical and historical phenomena than others, it can be imprecise, misleading, or offensive, but, fundamentally, it is what it is. No matter how precisely or minutely one defines ones terms (although, in the sciences, this is useful and probably desirable), you are always engaging in a metaphor. Language is a division of reality into blocks that are convenient, illustrative, beautiful, hideous, murky, and sometimes all of these, but it is a division nevertheless. There is no "right" version of it, and the most we can hope to say is that some conventions are better adapted to some purposes than others. (It would make for a very different medicine, for instance, if medical journals were written in iambic pentameter verse, but, had we world enough and time, we might encounter exactly such a society.)

The startlingly common misconception about language--that it is something other than a metaphor, that there is somewhere at root of it a "correct" way to employ it that gets past all the ambiguities--is a species of implicit positivism that I term "linguistic realism." I have come to think that this idea that reality responds to our names for it as opposed to the other way around is one of the great impediments to communication in human societies. And it is everywhere, because all human cultures fall into the trap of constructing language and then attaching "hardness" to it, failing to realize that it is mostly a convention of accident, and that there are, following Burke again, as many ways to slice up reality as there are ways to slice a piece of cheese, and everyone finds everyone else's unsatisfactory.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tim Tebow, God, and Having it all Ways

So, for those of you who follow the NFL, or simply do not live in a cave, Tim Tebow and his upstart Denver Broncos have been dismantled by the perpetually badass New England Patriots 45-10. Tebow had been in the news, partly for turning around the Broncos' 1-4 start to the season after taking over as starting quarterback in week six, but mainly for his Bible-thumping fundamentalism and the concurrent fact that his supporters feel that his unlikely success (his football skills are limited and his statistics poor in key areas), including a wild card playoff victory against the favored Steelers, was the result of supernatural intervention.

For those of us in the skeptical and atheist communities, this is a stirring vindication of...nothing, really. A shitty quarterback and his .500 team were destroyed by a plainly superior squad. We assign no divine significance to the loss, just as  we assigned no divine significance to the previous wins, because we assigned no divine significance to Tebow and the Broncos' statistically unremarkable run of luck. Given enough games, an easy enough schedule, compensatory strengths elsewhere on the roster, and the sheer quirks of probability, a quarterback with lousy numbers will lead his team on a winning streak from time to time. Since we have all of those conditions in spades, the fact that Tebow is a fundie tool never really figured into the in-game analysis of anyone sane.

But the believers have a harder time of things, although you'd never know it based on the way that they silently move on after God gets his ass kicked. You see, Tebow's 316 (get it? 3:16) yards against the Steelers the week before were a sign directly sent from above, a message written in the Sunday biline (although one wonders why the Christian god was rewarding working on his holy day). A win for the Broncos was a win for the Almighty.

But a loss for the Broncos, mind you, is most emphatically not a loss for the Almighty. How does this work? It's easy. As the famed skeptic Michael Shermer has pointed out repeatedly, the garden variety of religious faith works on the same psychology as does victimization at the hands of cold-reading fortune tellers and spiritual mediums. People insufficiently trained or interested in skeptical thinking will invariably count the hits and discount the misses. When people pray for something (typically something scandalously ordinary like finding something lost) and it comes true--well, that's miracle central for you, even when those things happen all the time without any kind of a celestial assist. But whenever one prays for something and it doesn't happen, just as when the cold-reader makes a series of wrong guesses before stumbling upon a correct one, people dismiss it as uninteresting. It seems that we're wired for a particular kind of optimism that way, one that builds superstition faster than corn sugar builds cavities.

Sure, when pushed, the religious often lapse into a garden-variety theological sophism by which  God's plan becomes mysterious or incomprehensible the moment it effectively ceases working, but that simply makes one wonder why the plan is working when they are given what they ask. Could not, every time a prayer is answered, some demon be making them soft by staving off some character-building hardship that God had ticketed for them? Why is it that when people get what they want, simple explanations will suffice and only when they don't does the divine map become suddenly obscured? Really, if God giveth and taketh away irrespective of prayer, then what on Earth is the point of it in the first place?

So the question, then, for a certain flavor of believer is this: If God takes an active role in NFL games (while ignoring, in a curious distribution of priorities, widespread starvation in Africa), and the success of his Evangelical quarterback is evidence of his divine support, then how is the total failure of said player (and against a lousy pass defense, at that) and his team not the failure of God's intervention? One can't have it both ways.