In a very nice response to another poster, N.Pepperell writes:

I just wanted to pick up on these points from anonymous (since I seem to be determined to intervene in this as an epistemological, rather than as a political, debate… ;-P): Two questions that follow, from this, for me (this is not a bait, i’m just seeking to clarify for myself your position):
1. if one is committed to the immanence thesis, does that commit one to being a secularist? 2. Certainly immanence requires rejection of a transcendent being, etc., but does it require rejection of a category of religion?

I would suggest that these questions can become very awkward if someone tries to start with the ontological assertion of immanence – if they assert immanence as their ontological stance. (This kind of assertion is also what can put one on the conceptual terrain where one can get accused of asserting immanence as a kind of theological position…) Once you begin with a strong and, in a sense, a priori ontological stance, this might suggest that questions about secularism, god, etc., are predetermined from the outset.

If, however, we approach the question from a different direction, some of these issues can be approached more agnostically. If immanence is, however, a conclusion we draw when we reflect on certain dimensions of our experience, then we’re more in the position, as expressed in Sinthome’s post back on 29 May:

As Laplace responded to Napoleon when asked about the role of God in the new physics, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypoth├Ęse”. “I have no need of this hypothesis.”

In other words, we may find that we aren’t in need of the hypothesis that there would be a god, in order to explain the phenomena we are seeking to explain. This doesn’t specifically compel us into any position one way or another about whether a god could exist (although it may have implications for claims we could accept about how a god intervenes in this world – it may displace, as has already occurred in theological shifts expressed in a number of traditions, the “involvement” of the divine in everyday life into questions about meaning, rather than questions about, e.g., interventionary causation…). It therefore doesn’t necessarily compel us into secularism, in the sense of requiring a secularist belief system from anyone who accepts a thesis of immanence as an explanatory framework for how humans and their contexts are mutually embedded…

The observation of immanence does, I think, provide a basis for making judgments about certain kinds of religious claims – as it does for making judgments about certain kinds of ethical or theoretical claims. This could be useful, however, if we’d like some conceptual tools for making moral distinctions among religious movements…

I should note that I’m trying to think through logical implications here – I happen personally to be a secularist, just one who has never personally been terribly troubled by other people’s claims to have experiences of a relationship with the divine. As Sinthome has expressed in other contexts, my reaction to these sorts of claims is, essentially, on what basis could I judge them? On any given day, I have any number of experiences and engage in any number of relationships whose existence I couldn’t “prove” to anyone else, but that are nevertheless quintessentially meaningful to me…

This becomes problematic only when I try to appeal to these kinds of personal experiences in order to compel behaviours from those who don’t share the same experiential base – who would have no rational reason to agree… To me, the observation of immanence relates to the attempt to tease out the sorts of experiences that we have – quite inadvertantly, in my opinion – caused to be distributed quite widely across the world. Without meaning to, we have created the conditions of possibility to be united in some specific respects – while being quite diverse and divergent in others… But I’m probably being too loose with my concepts, tossing these ideas out in this form…

I think the key point made here is that of how unprovable experiences are appealed to in relating to others. For me philosophy is essentially dialogical and questions of epistemology are essentially questions of intersubjectivity. This is a lesson I draw from Plato’s dialogues– The dialogue style makes a substantial philosophical point; namely, that questions about knowledge and being are questions of intersubjectivity. It is for this reason that Socrates always has an interlocutor and often that interlocutor has claimed to have a certain knowledge based on authority or special revelation (Euthyphro). While it is indeed true that I might be interested in epistemology so as to avoid error and reliably produce knowledge, the more pressing question is that of what can be reliably persuasive or shared by another person. That is, there is an element of both respect and freedom here. At the level of respect, I strive only to make appeals to another that that other can discover for themselves. At the level of freedom, the philosophical position seems to be that the only valid form of compulsion should be that of reason, where the person can discover the rightness of the conclusion for themselves (rather than being compelled by authority, myth, fear, or emotion). Descartes’ meditations might be conducted in the privacy of his room within which he’s trapped, but the key point is that he is arguing that they are repeatable by anyone, just as anyone can go through the steps of 2x + 4 = 12 to discover that x = 4. Whether or not Descartes is successful in this, of course, is another question.

Whether or not philosophy has ever been fully successful in this task is another issue. My position would be that philosophy has worked at this task in one way or another for nearly 3000 years, and has perpetually re-evaluated its conclusions, subjecting them to critique, and taking into account hidden assumptions that it had formerly overlooked. Philosophy has been the ongoing dialectic between the philosopher and the sophist, where the sophist demonstrates the manner in which the confident philosopher nonetheless falls prey to undemonstrated claims and assumptions, and the philosopher responds to the sophist, taking these assumptions into account and showing how truth is possible within their scope. For instance, today we find ourselves embroiled in how a pure beginning is possible, given that thought, knowledge, and subjectivity is thoroughly pervaded by culture which cannot itself be grounded. That’s the sophists position, advanced by thinkers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Levi-Strauss, Quine, Davidson, Rorty, sometimes Heidegger, and others. The philosopher that would respond to this has not yet arisen, though there are promising glimmers in Deleuze and Badiou.

N.Pepperell’s point about appeals to God is well taken, for these appeals often do more to inhibit this process than promote it. When I appeal to God, I often foreclose questioning of the world about me and attempts to explain that world on immanent grounds. Explanation comes too quickly, too easily. We’re given an explanation for everything. Again, not all believers are of this sort, but it is certainly a phenomenon that often accompanies religious thought.

If we were to ask why the great traditions of philosophy emerged historically, my tentative hypothesis would be that these moments in philosophy have always arisen against a background of cultural conflict or violence. In the case of the great Greek thinkers, Greece was an environment of trade with a variety of different cultures. The question that naturally emerges is that of how it is possible to deliberate with someone who shares very different mythologies than I? How does the Greek communicate with the Egyptian regarding matters of ethics, governance, justice, and the nature of the world given that their mythological visions of how the world works and what the gods demand are so different. Philosophy was the technology that emerged to solve this problem, and sought grounds of belief that could be shared by diverse peoples. An appeal to the authority of Homer has no persuasive power for the Egyptian, but perhaps an appeal to experience or rational concepts such as those allegedly embodied in the forms does. Is it not significant that Socrates’ interlocutor in the Parmenides is the Eleatic Stranger? Isn’t philosophy first and foremost an encounter with the stranger?

The situation doesn’t strike me as being much different with the great epistemologies of the 18th century. What was it that made men like Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant so passionate about epistemological issues? Why were they all worked up? I’ll never forget witnessing professor Paul Moser– a well-recognized Anglo-American epistemologist and philosopher of mind at Loyola of Chicago –undergo his crisis with respect to the field of epistemology. Overnight, it seemed, he suddenly came to believe that all of his previous work was idle and vain, serving no purpose and functioning just as an academic game. Large piles of books appeared outside his office door. Many of us, including myself, were sympathetic with how he felt. The discipline of epistemology had always looked a little silly (as it’s a discipline that produces no knowledge of its own) and had always seemed a little reactionary (as it can be perceived as wanting to police claims). Moser shifted his research from epistemology to philosophy of religion, and astonishingly (for an Anglo-American epistemologist) became an enthusiast of Kierkegaard. Of course, this delighted the rest of us as it meant one less Anglo-American dismissing our “fuzzy Continental orientations” and gave us another faculty member to discuss Kierkegaard with.

In the years since I witnessed this amazing chain of events, I’ve often reflected on my distaste for epistemology that I had projected on to Moser and the way it has sometimes colored my relationship to the great 18th century philosophers. I just couldn’t understand why they were so worked up by these questions. I disliked the notion of policing knowledge. However, as I’ve come to think more about the history of these centuries, the questions of epistemology have come to appear more and more vital to me. These thinkers lived in the midsts of violent religious and political disputes. One need only read the sublime Voltaire’s Candide to get a glimpse at the brutality of the situation.

In one way or another all of these issues came back to questions of knowledge. A certain knowledge was claimed of divine will and the nature of the world, and people acted accordingly. Unfortunately, given that texts are polysemous, very different arguments could be made on the basis of one and the same text. The passion of the 18th century thinkers was thus to reign in knowledge, to determine the limits of what we can know, and to determine reliable grounds that can be shared intersubjectively. They were highly successful in this endeavor and changed the world as a result of their critiques.

If, as Adam Kotsko has contended, I have a hostility to religion over and above my hostility to the actions of the religious right, it traces back to these concerns. I don’t much care what Adam or anyone else believes as to the metaphysical workings of the universe. I do, however, care when these sorts of grounds, grounds that others cannot share but which require an act of faith, are foisted on others as grounds of policy and ethical deliberation. When these things are used as the ground of deliberation it seems that conflict is the only possible outcome, as there’s no longer a shared ground of deliberation that all can participate in. So yes, I am suspicious of the intertwining of religion and politics, and I am suspicious of this intertwining because it smacks to me of a return to arguments based on authority and the assertion of groundless grounds that allow the mind to run wild with all sorts of phantoms as in the case of the believer that scrutinizes the news so as to find evidence that the end of times is upon us (and no, I am not suggesting Kotsko does this). None of this is to suggest that one shouldn’t have their beliefs, only that one’s grounds be grounds that the other too can discover for themselves. This might even include rational arguments for the existence of God, sans appeals to the authority of scripture, such as we find in Descartes or Saint Thomas or Maimonides. Are abortion clinics bombed in Europe?

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