Caputo: Introduction, Part Three

A key term and component of postmodernism is hermeneutics.  Technically, it is a theological term which refers to the art and science of interpretation.  It has been used more and more now however by many disciplines (I’ve seen it used in geology) as a way to recognize the fact that all evidence is interpreted evidence.  We see everything from an angle, a perspective, a “way” of seeing that is rich in presuppositions.  This is not bias.  This is, in fact, the only way to understand anything we encounter through our senses and even our inward personal world.  An angle, a perspective, is always already present.  Otherwise, no theory, no reflection, the ability to drawn connections, to think abstractly, would even be possible.  We would simply sit and stare at the world like mindless cameras recording (but not processing) meaningless images of matter-in-motion.  
“…what we today mean by hermeneutics is a more general theory, that every truth is a function of interpretation, and the need for interpretation is a function of being situated in a particular time and place, and therefore of having inherited presuppositions…“Hermeneutics is the art of negotiating multiple finite, lower-case truths, coping with the shifting tides and circumstances of truth while not allowing any eight-hundred pound gorillas into the room.  In the past, before the Enlightenment, the overweight primate was theology.  In the Middle Ages (and not just then), if someone said, ‘The Church teaches…’ that tended to reduce everyone in the room to silence.  But if ever there were a candidate for a Big Truth nowadays, it is science.  Science is our gorilla.  Whenever anyone says, ‘Science says…’ we tend to think the conversation is over.  So we postmodern hermeneuts must be bold as brass and be willing to stand up both to bishops and physicists.”
And please let me just head off the completely, unequivocally, beyond a shadow-of-doubt, without hesitation, wrongness to think when he says we must stand up to physicists he is calling gravity into question.  Can we just get beyond those ridiculous tenth-grade readings–the sorts of comments or questions that can only confirm one has no idea what anyone is talking about?  Okay?  Thanks.
I would also just add here that the eight-hundred gorilla never knows it’s the eight-hundred pound gorilla.  It thinks it is- “just the way things are” and because it is so big, it doesn’t even perceive the other stories in the room.  It certainly never conceives itself as narrative.  These beasts think they represent the “actual” or “true” world.  Once it does perceive another story in the room, it looks down upon its feeble rival and with a stern glare makes sure it remembers its place (you’re a fairy tale).  The time we are living in now however is that the big monkey has been told he’s a narrative too and will no longer have the last word.  Big monkey not happy–thus the ongoing modern-postmodern conversation.
Now, Caputo goes on to talk about the physicists’ goal of coming up with a “Theory of Everything” or TOE.  He notes that even if one were to be had, it itself, would not be “everything” because there is more to life than just matter-in-motion or “just” physics.  He also notes the connection, with this idea of a TOE and the comparison between science and religion.
“Nonetheless, the big TOE raises a big problem which pits it against religion as a pretender to the throne previously occupied by religion.  It is also an interesting comparison between religion and science.  They both hold that over and beyond the everyday world we live in, the buzzing, blooming, noisy multicolored world we experience, there lies the ‘true’ world, and consequently they are inclined to take each other on about which true world is really true.  For the one, the true world is delivered by mathematics; for the other, it is delivered by Revelation.  The contribution hermeneutics makes to this debate is that, when it comes to truth, there are many ways to be, and we have to keep an eye out for the one Hegemonic Discourse (a bully) in the crowd who claims to know it all and to be able to identify the True World.”
The point is that there is more than one way for something to be true.  When we say the earth is round we are telling a type of truth, but not the ONLY type—and not a type that “trumps” all others.  A statement like, “The Holocaust was evil,” can also be true and not merely a reporting of one’s inner psychology or personal preference.  This is why Caputo told us he holds out the, “right to say that some things are not just different, they’re wrong.”  And he means as truly wrong as the earth is truly round.
He finishes the introduction thus: 

“So think of this book as a guided tour you have been enticed to sign up for, a pause from your busy postmodern life, where you are promised nothing less than the truth.  We will be visiting the three basic models of truth: the premodern idea that God is truth; the modern idea that Reason judges what is true; and the postmodern idea of truth as an event, where neither God nor Reason enjoy pride of place.  But be forewarned: the tour closes with a question, not an answer, and there are no refunds on the price of your ticket.”
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11 Responses to Caputo: Introduction, Part Three

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    Delightful, as usual. But there is a problem with the theory of everything. TOE is not theological at all, or apposed to religion, etc. It is a strictly physics issue of arriving at a coherent universal theory of physics that encompasses relativity, quantum mechanics, and one might hope dark matter, the origin of the universe, and heck, perhaps time. Some of these are dabbled in by theology, but not very effectively, so the theories are all on the physics level, and any theological implications would be derivative in the extreme.

    That there are stories and perspectives, that is not problematic at all. But when a story goes to the length of empirically proving its validity and practical and theoretical coherence, then it is something quite a bit better then a story, whatever you wish to call it.

    And why would your author place god and reason in such a parallel construction at the end? It is rather problematic in an argument that presumably rests on reason alone.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “TOE is not theological at all, or apposed to religion, etc.”

    But it is philosophical. And whether or not it opposes religion just depends on who’s talking. It is called a “theory” of everything. Of course it is based upon all the factors you mention. However, it is not done in a vacuum. It is done in a context and it is done where someone tries to sum up what all those factors might mean—and they theorize. That is the point.

    “That there are stories and perspectives, that is not problematic at all. But when a story goes to the length of empirically proving its validity and practical and theoretical coherence, then it is something quite a bit better then a story, whatever you wish to call it.”

    Right, that is the eight-hundred pound gorilla talking.

    “And why would your author place god and reason in such a parallel construction at the end? It is rather problematic in an argument that presumably rests on reason alone.”

    Not sure your point. He is saying we have to find a way between the absolutism of both religion and science.

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  3. Hi Darrell

    I've not read Caputo, and so can't be sure how much time he spends getting his definitions clear, but you may be able to help, and head off considerable confusion later.

    When we speak of the fact that all evidence is interpreted evidence (similar to the claim that all facts are theory dependent) there are senses in which this seems obvious, and senses in which it doesn't appear to hold.

    As physics was used as the example, we might consider the ways in which the evidence of physics (so experimental results) are necessarily interpreted. It's true that much observation is theory dependent, so a person who understands the theory in question is more likely to see things in an experiment that a novice would miss. It's also true, I think, that understanding the evidence (so making links to other evidence, applying the evidence etc) is dependent upon understanding many other theories (it's difficult to think about entropy without some notion of probability, for example). And, at the banal level, one can not discuss or think about evidence if one doesn't have the requisite vocabulary.

    On another level, we can think of our knowledge of physics as being an ever increasing store of experimentally verified relationships that are independent of theory. You build an airplane, give it sufficient thrust and it rises into the air, irrespective of any theoretical commitments you bring to the table. You may be a theist, an idealist, and anti-realist or a Popperian, it makes not a jot of difference. Build it right, and it flies.

    In this respect, physics and religion are very different beasts. It is entirely possible, perhaps even common, for physicists to slip into metaphysical speculation, based upon their knowledge of experimental results, but it's not clear to me that it's necessary. Could it not be that a physicist might simply get on with the business of designing and carrying out experiments, and using them to contribute to the incrementally extending reach of shared knowledge, without ever moving into the type of interpretation that appears to be hinted at by Caputo in the quotes you provide here?

    Perhaps, though, I've misunderstood what is meant by interpreting evidence, and you can clarify that.

    Bernard

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  4. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I think we should not play down Caputo's very loose use of examples in physics. Of course we have to keep in mind that physics (or science) is not what he's primarily talking about but, nonetheless, these are his examples and he must believe they are significant.

    Burk is right about the TOE. This has nothing to do with putting science against religion, at least not more so than the rest of physics. It stays entirely within physics and aims, for example, at unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics under a single coherent theory. If Caputo wanted to mention the TOE in a larger philosophical context, he could have said so very easily. His treatment is, at best, misleading.

    We saw the same in a previous post when you quoted him saying the postmodern effect showed up in relativity, QM and mathematical logic. You very generously interpreted him as meaning something completely different but, again, if he wanted to say something else, why not say it clearly?

    The problem illustrated by these examples is, of course, that if we need to change the meaning of his text to read him correctly, how are we to do this? Note that in both these cases he could very easily have formulated his examples otherwise to convey what, according to you, was his real meaning. Why not do so? Or, perhaps, your interpretation is wrong and Caputo really meant what he wrote, in which case he didn't make much sense.

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  5. Darrell says:

    Guys,

    Caputo is addressing comprehensive narratives here such as the Enlightenment and Religion. He is not addressing science on a practical level or as method. Again, this is a philosophical book not a science book. His passing references to specific areas of science should still be understood in the context of what this book is about which is a postmodern perspective on truth.

    So the fact that all evidence is interpreted evidence means at the level of philosophy. It is the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. It is the difference between what scientists and engineers do everyday methodically at the lab or work site level and what people like Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne do telling us what the results means in comprehensive philosophical ways, in a, “at the end of the day” sort of way. Caputo is addressing this level of interpretation (narrative).

    As a side note, if we were to take the everyday (at the B.A. or M.A. level) scientist, biologist, engineer, or mathematician and ask them to stop their work and talk to us about their philosophical views, they certainly would have ones. Many would agree with Krauss and Coyne. Many would not. Does the work go on? Of course. But it never goes on in a vacuum.

    If you are going to constantly look for ways you think someone is saying that there is a postmodern science or math and a modern science and math, and the two differ in their solutions or answers you are never going to understand anything in this book or conversation. This is a perfect example of reading “into” Caputo what is not there because of the very presuppositions he is calling into question.

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  6. Hi Darrell

    The point that some people (scientists and non-scientists alike) make mistakes in their interpretation of scientific findings is a perfectly reasonable one, and if that's all Caputo's getting at, then who could argue?

    Some of the rhetoric quoted here leaves him a little vulnerable to misinterpretation, however. If, when he speaks of standing up to the scientists and bishops alike, he actually means standing up to those who misunderstand scientific findings (which may well include the occasional bishop, I would have thought) then he is almost willfully creating a false conflict.

    To the extent that science is in the business of building up ever more reliable models of our physical world, then it's not at all clear why anybody should be seeking to stand up to science at all.

    Bernard

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  7. Burk Braun says:

    Darrell-

    The problem is that science and naturalism is not trying to generate some comprehensive, master narrative, so as to defeat some enemy. The enlightenment in very general terms, and its scientific arms, as well as historical, linguistic, and other forms of analysis as far as they are rigorous, simply worked to find out one damn thing after another, and after a while it turned out that the whole story we had gotten from the theologians was a pile of BS. What to do about that?

    Well, one can fume all one likes, or use political power to put down the inconvenient facts. Or one can try to throw up some dust like “intelligent design”, or postmodernism, which I would put in the same class, at least in its rather desperate theological guises. For the interest that theologians have in actually analyzing the world in some new holistic, heuristic, and honest paradigm is, rather clearly and to be frank, nil. They simply want to obfuscate inconvenient findings, mystify their own field, (kerygmatically!), and hopefully come out with a viable social practice that someone out there still finds believable. Or unbelieveable- that would be OK, too, as long as the community remained under the spell.

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  8. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    No, you misunderstand. This has nothing to do, whatsoever, with anyone “mak[ing] mistakes in their interpretation of scientific findings.” This has nothing do with findings. Again, you are “reading” into this that it is about science at those levels or as something that is questioning science at that level.

    I already noted in my post how not to read the part about standing up to the scientist. I hope this isn’t how you guys plan to read anything Caputo says when science is mentioned.

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  9. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “The problem is that science and naturalism is not trying to generate some comprehensive, master narrative, so as to defeat some enemy.”

    Science (as a methodology) is not a narrative—it is a practice. Philosophical Naturalism is not trying to generate anything—it is already a narrative. The fact you don’t understand what is being talked about here tells us all we need to consider as to your other comments. Just more from the eight-hundred pound gorilla. But it is a shrinking gorilla.

    And clearly Lawrence Krauss, Coyle, Dawkins, and their ilk do see religion as the enemy.

    Burk, just a suggestion: We know you think all this is bunk. We know you are as committed to the faith of atheism as strongly as any fundamentalist out there is committed to their deity. So all the soapbox stuff, all the pontificating, all the blather, is wasted on us. Yawn. To keep anyone’s attention, you would have to actually understand the conversation and engage it in a serious way. And if you don’t think it deserves serious engagement, then just say so and I won’t waste my time reading your responses.

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  10. Hi Darrell

    I do misunderstand then. If standing up to scientists doesn't involve standing up to the way they interpret their findings (so the way Dawkins interprets evolution to support the notion of a Godless universe, for example) then what does it involve?

    I would have thought, the enemy in all of this, is simply poor reasoning. If an atheist can mount a convincing case that moves from current physical models, to a Godless universe, then we ought to listen, I'd have thought. And if they attempt to make such a case, but make errors along the way, then we should point those out. Isn't it really that simple, that we should address each argument and piece of evidence on its own terms, rather than opt for the inevitable vagueness of global arguments, which lend themselves all too easily to us and them positions.

    I do think, that by talking in terms of gorillas, bullies, and standing up to physicists, the author is gearing up for battle, rather than just quietly and reasonably going after specific arguments and case studies.

    Admittedly, this might be where the book itself goes, the but the initial rhetoric feels tribal to me.

    Bernard

    PS Away from the computer for a week or so now.

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  11. Darrell says:

    Hi Bernard,

    “If standing up to scientists doesn't involve standing up to the way they interpret their findings (so the way Dawkins interprets evolution to support the notion of a Godless universe, for example) then what does it involve?”

    As long as we understand this doesn’t entail a discussion where one side is saying something like, “See, I checked your math here and you have the decimal in the wrong place—so that is why your belief in a Godless universe is wrong.” So yes, if you mean “findings” in a comprehensive way—the sum total of what we know of the evidence and research in an area and then the interpretation of that sum at the philosophical level. I just want to make sure we understand the difference.

    “And if they attempt to make such a case, but make errors along the way, then we should point those out.”

    Yes, of course. But by “error” we have to be careful to avoid what I note above. The error is not going to be in somebody’s math (or a similar type mistake) being wrong or even wrong in a radical way as far as the basic rules of logic.

    “I do think, that by talking in terms of gorillas, bullies, and standing up to physicists, the author is gearing up for battle, rather than just quietly and reasonably going after specific arguments and case studies.”

    I’m not going to defend his tone—I hope we can discuss something more substantive that his tone. And he is gearing up to battle fundamentalism on both sides. I don’t have a problem with that—and any tone that has an edge he reserves for that fundamentalism alone. If one falls into that camp, then yes, they will feel that edge. I think it’s about time they did, again, on both sides.

    “Admittedly, this might be where the book itself goes, the but the initial rhetoric feels tribal to me.”

    Standing up to bullies is never tribal. It helps everyone, especially the weak no matter where they may be found. And to echo Ron, you only seem to hear “tribal” when it comes from the “other.” I am here supporting his critique of the fundamentalism in my own camp—my own tribe. When he opposes Religion and Reason [Enlighgtenment]when either acts the bully- he is not being tribal.

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