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Rorty on Religion and Science

Analysis of Characteristic Three of R's account of pragmatic philosophy of religion:

This might be the most telling set of passages in what we have read by Rorty. Here he claims that he wants to replace the distinction between the cognitive and the non-cognitive with that between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self-development. The former he writes require "intersubjective agreement" while the latter presumably do not. Rorty calls these "projects of social cooperation" vs. "projects of individual self-development, echoing his stipulation earlier that beliefs are "habits of action." 

He says in order to carry out the first sort of projects, that is to act on them as programs, we need what he calls "intersubjective agreement." What is that? I think it means projects in which many different people have to agree to do certain things, to develop interlaced habits of action, which could include things they all routinely say. But in his description R does not tell us which projects of social cooperation requiring intersubjective agreement he means and which ones he does not. In the characterization there is no specification. So we could hypothesize that a monastery full of monks, who undertake a shared project of social cooperation that requires intersubjective agreement, and a group of frat brothers who do the same fulfill R's definition as well as do a lab full of natural scientists whom he really seems to mean.

Under this description the ongoing life of a religious community or a fraternity might be seen as projects of social cooperation, because there would be no monastery or frat life if there were not people cooperating to make it happen. And to do this more than one person has to agree to do what we all agree are monk-like or frat-like things. Note that neither sort of project mentions belief, but I would imagine that the monks especially would not be doing what they do together unless a large part of what they do is to assert, both through the act of living together and praying ensemble, but also by actually stating what they collectively believe, as they do every day when they recite the Creed, that they all believe in the same God, and all believe that what they are doing counts as serving Him in a right way.

The fraternity brothers might not have quite as complex a shared belief system or set of shared rituals but they do definite fratesque things together, and do share beliefs that they both enact and sometimes state, all of which are essential parts of their cooperative project.

Note that both communities are projects that require social cooperation, that both involve beliefs and the statement of beliefs as part of their cooperating and that in both cases the projects could probably not go public beyond a very limited membership: very few people believe deeply enough in God to be monks and all sorts of people have absolutely no interest in belonging to a college fraternity. Also the beliefs they collectively assert as part of their project probably would not hold up as beliefs that any large segment of a public made up, say, of citizens, would share or reaffirm as true. 

The monks and frat bros both share certain practices that they do in public and both embrace certain beliefs that they state as part of their shared practice, their collectively pursued habit of action. To this extent the frat guys and the monks are indistinguishable from the scientists. But the scientists are actually quite different because, despite this distinction, R really thinks that the frat members and the monks are not collectively pursuing truth or producing it, even though both might think they are. Even though the monks for example believe that their collective activities and experience demonstrate the presence and work of God in the world, and that what they are doing is god for the human race, R must state that the monks, even though they live in a collective filled with social cooperation and have a high level of intersubjective agreement, are not producing truth about a God. They may be producing social justice or less suffering or more general uplift but they are not creating, and cannot be creating, truth, because that is not something that R thinks that religious believers, no matter how socially cooperative, and no matter how much in agreement, can ever under any circumstances produce.

Tellingly, R's model, what he calls his "paradigm", of a project of social cooperation and intersubjective agreement is neither monks nor frat bros, nor, interestingly, a democratic society and its citizens, but natural science defined as a “project”, that is, not as a body of knowledge but as an ongoing collective activity. The point or outcome of this activity or project is still, however, and despite R's insistence that for religion truth does not matter, the achievement of truth. Even though R says a little later when he discusses the fourth quality of a prag phil/rel that we have no instinct for truth (something with which Peirce agrees) in this case he makes it clear that what distinguishes natural science as a project is that it gets to truth.

We note in passing that science as a project is often as competitive as it is cooperative.


Also, R defines the project in a most interesting way. he says that science = the project that “improves man's estate” -- but in a particular way – namely, by “taking account of every possible observation and experimental result.”


The monks and frat boys apparently do not do this, not because they have no interest in improving man's estate – they do or at least they claim to – but because such obsessive attention to physical detail is not part of their project as they conceive it.


Two thoughts: first, is n't this a rather naïve idea about how natural science proceeds even though it does contain an important kernel of truth, namely that scientists do obsess over details. But ther obsession is highly selective. R needs to specify that science is not a monolithic project but is made up of many sub-projects, each of which attends to a different, non-overlapping range of observations and experimental results and ignores many o0thers that do not concern that subproject.


Second, I have deeper worries about something else, something Nietzsche mentioned in criticizing utilitarian accounts of the origins of moral concepts. He suggested that people do not at first act in order to achieve a pre-known goal. The reference here is to the idea that when people do science, or many other activities, they may or may not do them with anything at all, much less improving man's estate, in mind. They may just do them, or do them for unclear motives, or do them because they love the sense of control such theorizing and testing provides, or because they want power or because they are obsessive people who are driven by curiosity, or just because. The point is that it seems disingenuous to claim that science gets done for socially constructive reasons rather than to provide pleasure to odd people. Saying this does not mitigate R's point that people do things to produce pleasure, but admits that there are many sorts of pleasure not all of which have something to do w/ helping society, even if such pursuits do help society.


Now we come to the toughest part and return to the question of truth. R then writes that scientists cooperate in studying experimental results and observations “in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true.” Here it is clear that R is stretching or seems to be stretching what he has been saying about truth. He seems to be suggesting that the socially cooperative projects of natural science do something that he never claims for monks or frat brothers – they predict truth. And this is also something he never claims for individual self-improvement projects. among which he lists religious beliefs. Further he writes under his discussion of the fourth characteristic of the prag phil of religion that “It is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it.”


So, science projects produce truth while rel beliefs do not have to – because, dear reader, R thinks that they never do and never can, and that this complete inability to produce or predict truth does not disqualify them as candidates for belief, because they should never, properly, appear as public claims or purport to be the outcomes of socially cooperative projects, even though most religious beliefs claim exactly this status.


Reader Comments (1)

I think you're overstating Rorty's reticence to point out the good that organized Religion might do. I think he dislikes the idea of organized religion because he sees it from the perspective of a secular liberal; as an institution which, for the most part, inhibits creativity and lends support to the notion that there is a non-human truth which is a shortcut to happiness. He objects to it in the same way that he objects to Kant. Not because it never does any good to think in terms of moral imperative or of God, but because he thinks it is wrongheaded in terms of motives. The right way to think about truth, for R, is to think of it as a purely humanistic thing. I don't think he would say that it
never gets to viable truth, but more likely, that he thinks its done all it can in the way of creating new, and better, truth.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCorbyn

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