Late Thoughts on Pragmatism and Religion, Pragmatism and Trascendence

These remarks might be or seem to be a little off the points we have been discussing but I think they are relevant and I hope I can show you how. 

I begin with a discussion and a hunch. The discussion took place at a friend’s home at an Easter supper. After we had eaten I fell into conversation with a woman I will call Rachel who was hosting the dinner. She belongs to a group who discuss the Torah and we began discussing the events around Mt. Sinai when Moses receives the tablets of the law. She offered an intelligent and plausible set of reads, in which for example the fact that the Israelites turned on God was explained by the fact that they were afraid of change and wanted to return to Egypt. And she also conjectured that Moses’ “sidekick”, Aaron, led the collective effort to set up a golden calf and worship it in direct contradiction to God’s orders because he was afraid the people would turn and go back to slavery in Egypt.

I was struck by this intelligent misread and it reminded me of something I consider important, a hunch I have about reading but also about the way the world might be. When I read Scripture or any anonymous sacred text, such as Qu’ran or the Gitas,  I try as hard as I can to be a fundamentalist in the sense that I try to take what I read seriously and take a look (thanks, Mr. H) at what it says without interpreting it, and also, most importantly, without trying to make it all coherent, without filling in the narrative holes and lacunae in order to make the story hang together in a neat way. There is a very strong human tendency, a longing to make things hang together and it has a lot to do, I think, with Hacking’s styles of reasoning and with Rorty’s idea that truth making has to do with establishing claims and habits that allow us to predict and control our world. In both cases the point is that it matters to make a higher level of sense about things because we are very smart apes whose flourishing must depend on our ability to master and manipulate our complex environment, which we are always testing with our intelligence, and trying to remake to suit ourselves. 

And I saw this same tendency in my intelligent host. She wanted, and her friends wanted, to manufacture a version of the Mt. Sinai story that made sense of what happened, a version that would implicitly reassure them that the world and events in it make sense and that even religious matters offer a clear, consequential narrative curve. But the Biblical texts themselves are odd amalgams of coherent accounts - especially, long, extraordinarily detailed descriptions of altars, sacrifices, and ritual clothing, among other things ritual. But interspersed with these accounts are very strange stories that offer no clear account of either motives or intentions. For example the people of Israel go to great efforts to melt down all their gold ornaments in order to fashion an idol, a clearly false cow-god, as they camp in front of Mt. Sinai, which is covered with clouds and where they know that Yahweh is in residence, conferring with Moses. They also know that His very first rule was that they should worship Him alone and that, second, they should not erect competing false gods. There is no ambiguity here — their beliefs are definitely habits of action, or should be habits of action, arising from what they see and hear and touch, in this case the palpable presence of God. And yet their first instinct, unexplained, is to create a belief, a habit of action — dancing around the golden calf that they know they have created — that treats the calf as if it were a god,  and God who they know is right there on the mountain, as if He were not there at all and had not laid down any rules. 

Even more strangely the effort to make and worship the cow is managed by Aaron, Moses’ right-hand guy, a guy who has seen God and heard Him speak on more than one occasion. This is perverse, untoward behavior, which is never explained or justified. It opens a hole in the fabric of interpretation, an empty spot for which there is no filler. Why are the people of Israel so fickle? Why did Aaron run the thing when he knows that there is a real God? Why did God make such undependable creations, and how can it be written that these endlessly perverse ann untrustworthy beings are made in His image? 

My Torah friend wanted to make sense of this. She conjectured that Aaron went along with this weird program because he was afraid that if he did not the people would turn around and go back to slavery in Egypt. But there is no mention of such thinking in the text. Nor does it explain the people’s behavior except to say that they are wicked and stiff-necked. What happens to the world if we embrace the idea that it might be filled with explanatory holes, what Derrida calls aporia, pathless places, incidents and events that do not lead anywhere else, that have no connection, beyond ‘plausible’ semi-explanations, to anything else?

In this read of the world the question of whether we have an instinct for truth is irrelevant, as is the idea that we can develop styles of reasoning to order our experience beyond what common sense offers. I think that both Rorty and Hacking are right, and that our grandiose tendency to want Truth diverts us from the more important business of developing ways to tell smaller local truths that make us happy and allow us to flourish. And I agree with Hacking that it is important to study how these local truths emerge from styles of reasoning whose rules and whose objects we create from our own intelligence.

But what if there are still holes, openings to something else, for which we do not have an instinctive yearning, which is in no way an answer to questions we ask, either practical or romantic? What if there is just something else there, some Other with which we find ourselves in contact but which we do not understand? Rorty tends to see religious belief as most highly educated and rational people, including almost all such believers, see it — as a constructed response to a felt need, as a story crafted to answer a huge metaphysical question about who we are and why we are here. And most religious or ethical or generally spiritual or philosophical answers are exactly that - brilliantly constructed responses to Big Questions. 

But what if items like the Torah account of the meeting with God at Mt. Sinai suggest first that there might not be an instinct for God, that is, that even if we have metaphysical longings for Meaning, the strange whatever the Jews meet is not even close to being such an answer, but is, on the contrary, a delay and obstruction to that sort of quest? And what if religious formulations, in any faith, are at their best when they verge on the incoherent, when their fragmented, ambiguous, or just weird character indicates that what they encode, or try to encode, is a glancing, unsatisfying but real meeting with something utterly not us, rather than with something we were seeking?

If we read in this way we can on one hand agree entirely with the pragmatists and with Hacking that we make up truth to suit ourselves, and with Hacking that this does not mean that the truths we make up are any the less objective for being made up. We can agree that we are smart apes who do not face a Real, that there is no way for us to rise above our evolutionary circumstances and attain Truth. And we can also believe that such accounts as the Torah story of Mt. Sinai suggest that some of the apes have also run into something whose meanings cannot be successfully or happily translated, that in our experience there really might be an indigestible, incommensurable other that cannot be assimilated to wish fulfillments or consoling dreams.



I have also been thinking about Rorty’s claim that we have no instinct for truth, and the suggestion that in our public projects we aim at creating truths or beliefs that can be tested in intersubjective ways. He then says that we can pursue any self-creating individual projects we like without such intersubjective agreement. Here’s the question: if Rorty believes that we need to develop a society in which we stop categorizing people in ways that lead to their abuse or oppression, then mustn’t we develop intersubjectively agreed-on public projects ? If so, what sort of intersubjective testing of such rules might there be? Why would we adopt them in the first place? On what basis would they be reinforced?


And do such sanguine, compassionate public projects arise in the public realm or do they emerge from private dreaming, from individual projects of self-development that stress compassion? 

Second, are such projects — egalitarianism in general, support for gay rights, feminism, antiracism, and so forth, vehicles for transcendence? I mean does dedication to such causes take us beyond ourselves and involve our lives in something greater than our lives, as happens when we embrace a religious perspective, whatever that is? And is such transcendence, a transcendence that art might offer as well - poetry, music, film, visual arts, etc., -something everyone needs, or is it peculiar to some people and is such a “need” conceivably a function of the quality of one’s education?

Third, have you discerned any clear political or social or moral direction in Hacking? I think that his ideas on making up people have serious political and ethical implications because he is suggesting that, in a sense, society can put clones in place, made-up people who would not be there otherwise, and this is very provocative. He is not of course saying that we literally create people but that we create them as the kind of people they are. I do not think this leads to the general charge that Hacking believes that all people are made up. If I am right in arguing that he sees a difference between regular uninteresting truth that anyone can get, and self-reflective truth created by styles of reasoning, then I think we can extrapolate this same template to his theory of identity and guess that people can either develop in the “regular” way, inside their respective cultural and historical settings, with no special designation, or they can be created by, and react to, highly developed clinical identities foisted on them by ‘experts’ whose style of reasoning makes their existence possible. 

On the other hand I am not sure that the same dualism can apply to people because of course everyone is definitely shaped by family history, ethnicity, gender, religious belief, geography, socio-economic level and so forth. Are any of us just folks or are we all functions of some style of reasoning or other, or of several, or some styles of reasoning overlaid on less fully articulated but nonetheless powerful rules for identity offered by our particular backgrounds? I am just not clear on any of this. 


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