Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Andrew Sullivan replies to Sam Harris

Sullivan agrees with me that science has a narrow scope and that there are truths that should not be categorized as scientific. Writing to Harris, he says,
Take, for example, the question of historical truth. You rely in your books on a lot of historical facts to buttress your empirical case. But these facts are not true - and could never be proven true - by the scientific method that is your benchmark. There are no control groups in history. There are no experiments. But there is a form of truth. Discovering that historical truth is the vocation of a historian - and it is a different truth than science, and reached by a different methodology and logic.

Similarly, mathematics can achieve a proof that has no interaction with the physical world. It may even be the closest to divine truth that human beings can achieve. But it is still logically separate from empirically verified truth, from historical truth, and even from the realm of human consciousness that includes aesthetic truth, the truths we find in contemplation of art or of nature.
Fine so far. But he goes on to say the following.
My point here is to say that once you have conceded the possibility of a truth that is not reducible to empirical proof, you have allowed for the validity of religious faith as a form of legitimate truth-seeking in a different mode.
That seems to me to be a non-sequitur. What do mathematics and history have to do with "the validity of religious faith?"

Sullivan then quotes himself as follows.
If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never grasp, something we can never know - because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren't, it would not be God.
I find Sullivan's discussion quite frustrating. If there will always be something that eludes him, then I wish he would stop claiming to know it as true.

I keep coming back to subjective experience as the essence of what Sullivan is talking about. If only he would acknowledge it. I wouldn't use the term true in describing my experience of, for example red or pain. But this sort of direct experience is pretty much as real as it gets for us. That may be what Sullivan is talking about when he uses the terms true and higher truth for some of his experiences.

Furthermore, there is no way that the experience of red or pain can be communicated in words other than to appeal to someone else's experience of red or pain. My (and your) experience of red or pain is beyond categories. It sounds to me like that's what Sullivan is talking about. But instead of the "humility and doubt" that he claims for himself (elsewhere in his article), he claims knowledge of a "higher truth." In my view it is intellectually dishonest of him to misuse words like true in this way.

On his humble side Sullivan says,
I may believe these things, but I am aware that others may not; and I respect their own existential decision to believe something else.
Is that so? Does he really respect a decision to believe something he knows to be wrong? Does he, for example, respect the decision of someone to believe in Creationism or slavery or that the earth is flat or that the Holocaust didn't occur or that earth, air, fire and water are the ultimate constituents of matter? What does he mean by respecting such a decision? Perhaps he won't make it his business to change someone's mind. But what sort of respect does he grant such beliefs? If I knew people who believed such things, I would not have much respect for their intellectual depth, openness, honesty, or vigor.

Or is he saying that religious truth is so personal, so subjective, that it is up to each of us to find our own truth? If that's his point, I agree. But if that's his point, I wish (again) that he would stop talking about a higher truth that he knows. From that perspective we all have our higher truths — or don't have our higher truths. I don't claim to have any higher truths of this sort. Would he find my lack of a higher truth to be as valid as his higher truth?

Basically I'm finding it difficult to understand what Sullivan is really saying. He seems to me to be both confused and unwilling to confront his confusion. Instead of confronting his confusion he retreats to talking about an oxymoron like a truth beyond understanding. Doing so seems to me to be a way of closing down and refusing look for a way to talk about what he really wants to say.

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