An Apologia for Tentavism

I tend to rag on postmodernism leading to relativism, so, to see a much more charitable description, you should pop over to Christian H’s blog to read his apologia.

[O]ne of the recurrent complaints my peers and I had about some of our English Masters classes was that, at the end of it all, we were afraid of making any positive statements. All we were doing was problematizing. But when all positive statements seem to do damage (to women, to Asian Canadian populations, to First Nations populations, etc.), the stakes are rather high; if I make positive statements about Hamlet, not much can go wrong (accept my transcript average, perhaps), but positive statements about minority populations can have catastrophic repercussions.

But I worry that we do too much accepting, or at least that we accept in the wrong way. I sometimes joke that I’m not a postmodernist but I am a tentativist, and here’s what I mean by that: a proper postmodernist will act as if a thing is true without intellectually confirming its truth, and I’m quite similar in that I will tentatively accept things as true without committing outright to them. I will take them as true for now. I suspect that Tushnet has something different in mind when she describes taking a leap of faith, but I could be wrong; I sometimes use the phrase “leap of faith” to describe the tentativist style of believing. After all, one of the things that really can differentiate all-or-most postmodernists from all-or-most modernists is that they believe differently. Postmodernists do practice a kind of belief, but it is a kind of meta-belief; modernists lack the sort of self-consciousness that postmodernists cultivate (which in po-mo terms is called “irony,” but as with all technical terms it may not always mean what you think it means). Or, at least, that’s the story postmodernists tell.

…Anyway, I don’t think modernism (as described by postmodernism) and postmodernism (especially not as described by modernism) are the only options on the table. Tentativism isn’t belief-as-commitment or belief-as-play, but instead belief-as-working-hypothesis. I will believe such-and-such for now, and I’ll tolerate some contradiction (after all, I don’t think we can make many claims that lack différance), but at a certain point I will abandon a belief if it just isn’t working. I think it was Wallace Stevens who said we need to ride metaphors until they break down; I will ride a belief until it breaks down. I generally see belief-content as metaphor anyway, so it’s not even an analogy.

As you can probably tell, Christian is responding to Eve Tushnet (specifically, an essay she wrote for AmCon: “Beyond Critical Thinking”) and Eve wrote him a reply:

I got nothin’ re postmodernism, modernism etc, but I did want to comment on this bit: “Keeping that in mind, maybe the only thing that differentiates my belief-as-working-hypothesis from Tushnet’s belief-as-commitment is the attitude we have in picking up the beliefs; I hold mine lightly because I have it in mind that I might have to let go, and she holds hers tightly because she has it in mind that she might hold on for a long time. This doesn’t mean that I will let go before she does.”

I would frame this as: “Commitment” in the sense I’m using it is one of the actions of love. I’m not sure it makes sense to say I hold my beliefs “tightly,” but I do think if you hear a certain appassionata strain in my voice, it’s because I’m talking about when we should love; and once we let ourselves love then of course we should hang on, yes? Not always forever–we can be wrong, and damagingly wrong–but of course you hold the one you love tightly. And of course you picture a future together…

I’m in transit, but I’ll try to jump in (I do like Christian’s framing of beliefs as working hypotheses) sometime this weekend or early next week.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

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  • http://www.facebook.com/fischerjoe Joe Fischer

    I look forward to your future post Leah. Perhaps Christian can clarify, I have trouble understanding how you can have beliefs as-working-hypotheses. Perhaps I am too dogmatic in my thinking or you all are talking about different sorts of beliefs or ideas. I usually only claim to believe things I am positive are true. It is very difficult for me to imagine not saying, yes this is true, or no that’s false, or I don’t know. To say something like “I will act as if this is true.” Strikes me as dishonest.

    • Christian H

      It’s not dishonest if you are up front about it. Sometimes you still have to make a decision if you don’t know for sure which is the right decision, yes? You have to make a gamble (which is acting as if something is true even though you’re not sure it is). The main difference is that I think that almost all decisions are made without justifiable confidence, but sometimes you still have to make the decision. What’s dishonest is saying that you’re sure when you aren’t.

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  • TheodoreSeeber

    Even Modernism leads to relativism. In fact, I suspect the enlightenment itself, and most certainly the Protestant Rebellion away from truth-as-certainty, leads to relativism.

    So of course postmodernism leads to relativism. And the type of nonsense that says abandoning taboos is a good thing, as opposed to trying to figure out why the taboo exists to begin with.

    • Christian H

      We’re obviously using the word “modernism” in entirely different ways. In my use of the word, you are a textbook case of modernism (and, when you know how I use the word, I don’t think you’ll consider that an insult). I just wrote a post on it at my blog defining my terms: http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.ca/2013/05/define-your-terms-christian.html.

      Also, even if postmodernism (or whatever it is you mean by modernism) leads by logical necessity to relativism, that doesn’t mean other people will follow that logical necessity. I might be wrong to think that I my Protestantism and my belief in an objective morality are mutually compatible, but that doesn’t mean I can’t persist in my error.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        There’s the reply I wanted to reply to.

        Yes, you are correct. I’m a lot less offended by THAT definition of modernism, than by the heresy defined by Pope Pius IX.

        Hmm, interesting point that any given Protestant doesn’t need to follow it, but when it comes to the psychohistory of the society, I’d say the overwhelming urge is indeed to follow it- which is why there are 30,000 different “Bible Believing” Christian theologies out there.

  • grok87

    “I sometimes use the phrase ‘leap of faith’ to describe the tentativist style of believing.”

    I don’t see anything wrong with tentavism but I think a “tenative” leap of faith is pretty funny! Better not be leaping over anything large I suppose…

    More seriously, I don’t think conversion is often so dramatic as Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. We long for the flash of light from above, but there is only the long slow turning of the heart.

    Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Paul’s conversion happened on a long journey. Long walks and creativity may be linked. Some recent articles:

    “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings”
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0051474

    WSJ: “Tactics to Spark Creativity: Even People Who Lack Ideas Can Set the Scene for Inspiration; Just Walk Away”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323611604578398342398991844.html

    • Christian H

      “I think a “tenative” leap of faith is pretty funny! Better not be leaping over anything large I suppose…”

      I hadn’t thought of that. It is funny.

      Re: conversion, I wouldn’t know. I’ve always been Christian. Though you could say I converted from certain kinds of Christianity to another…

      • grok87

        Thanks. Looks like you’ve landed in a good place. St. Thomas’s looks like a nice church.

        • Christian H

          Mmm, well, I’m no longer there. I live elsewhere now.

  • Randy Gritter

    Tentativism is more like agnosticism. It does not seem to have content. It just has a dogmatic belief that there are no dogmas. So it is self contradictory. It is also unworkable. You cannot live life with a question mark in the center. You need an exclamation point!

    You end up living atheism as a default just because it feels like you are committing to nothing. But you are committing to something. In fact, committing to the worst possible belief system by accident. A terrible way to live your life and an awful legacy to leave your children.

    BTW, I think Christian is female.

    • Christian H

      I’m pretty sure I’m male…

      • Randy Gritter

        A fine working assumption to be sure! Sorry, not sure what on your blog gave me that notion.

    • stanz2reason

      That there is a great deal of uncertainty in our very basic understanding of the world, agnosticism is in many ways the only honest position to take on a great number of issues. There’s nothing really dogmatic about saying ‘I don’t know’ so I don’t see any contradiction. Agnostics & others who fall under the tent of skepticism don’t really have any dogma to speak of, at least not in the sense you would speak of catholic dogma or hindu dogma.

      You cannot live life with a question mark in the center.

      Why not???

      You need an exclamation point!

      But WHY!!!!

      You end up living atheism as a default just because it feels like you are committing to nothing. But you are committing to something. In fact, committing to the worst possible belief system by accident. A terrible way to live your life and an awful legacy to leave your children.

      This is equivalent to lazy name calling. You’re better than that Randy, aren’t you??

      • Randy Gritter

        This is equivalent to lazy name calling. You’re better
        than that Randy, aren’t you??

        Not sure. After refection, I did feel like it was a bit strong. My point is that this often happens to people. Like men who are afraid to commit to a woman and find themselves alone late in life. By making no choice they made a choice worse than any of the options available. People refuse to commit to a faith. They end up in a perpetual state of searching. Chesterton called the open mind unwilling to close on anything as silly as an open mouth unwilling to close on anything.

        Is atheism or agnosticism the worst choice? Actually many atheists don’t even argue that. You say yourself it is honest not that it is good. Almost agreeing that if it is true it is a horrible truth. I would extend that to saying that if it is false it is a great tragedy to live your life that way and to raise your children that way.

        • stanz2reason

          Think Picard & Kirk in the god awful Star Trek Generations movie. There is part of both men that genuinely wanted to have had a family, wife, kids, house and whatnot. The benefits of their ultimate choice to remain star fleet captains doesn’t suggest it came without cost.

          Similarly, perhaps bedding/wedding is one of your man’s many goals. That he preoccupied himself with alternative pursuits doesn’t necessarily make his choice not to commit to a woman a bad one.

          Many people find evidence for and against religious claims to be ultimately inconclusive. Agnosticism may seem an un-commital cop out, but I feel it’s a fair position to take. You’re dismissing a position that someone feels inadequate to make truth claims from and the subsequent search for stronger grounds as a fruitless venture. I disagree.

          Is atheism or agnosticism the worst choice? Actually many atheists don’t even argue that. You say yourself it is honest not that it is good. Almost agreeing that if it is true it is a horrible truth.

          There’s value in the search and skeptical examination, if for nothing else than it’s honest. Whether it is good or not is entirely dependent on what your goals are, so simply trying to differentiate between the choices of belief and disbelief doesn’t break down neatly into good or bad, better or worse. For me the apparent dishonestly of religious belief is far more offensive to my moral sensibilities then the profoundly sad reality of losing everything when you die. You can use this horrible truth to focus your life’s efforts in a different manner than you would were you to accept groundless religious claims. Whether this is a net positive or net negative is dependent on the individual, however as the trends appear to be more more people moving from belief to disbelief, I’d have a difficult time accepting so many people would actively choose a net negative to their lives.

          I would extend that to saying that if it is false it is a great tragedy to live your life that way and to raise your children that way.

          You could say the same of any beliefs, even your own.

          • Randy Gritter

            You’re dismissing a position that someone
            feels inadequate to make truth claims from and the subsequent search for stronger grounds as a fruitless venture. I disagree. .

            I actually did find stronger grounds after I converted. I
            was raised Christian but chose to discard the working hypothesis and make the leap of faith at about age 25. That was as a reformed protestant. I converted again and became Catholic when I was about 40. One might say I completed my conversion. The point is that making a choice does not imply you stop searching for deeper truth. There is a point where further analysis is not what you need. Acting on that analysis is what will lead to continued growth.

            For me the apparent dishonestly of
            religious belief is far more offensive to my moral sensibilities then the profoundly sad reality of losing everything when you die.

            I am not sure exactly what you mean here. Nobody will believe something they feel is dishonest. They will look at Jesus and feel an attraction. Then there is a choice. Do I embrace Jesus as Lord or do I reject Him? But many avoid making that choice. They don’t feel the claim is dishonest but if it is true they need to reorder their loves around it. They don’t want to do that either. That is what this notion of tentavism brings to mind.

            I do think that dying without ever embracing your true purpose is profoundly sad. If you tired and failed that is one thing. If you suffered from the paralysis of over-analysis that is another. Picking the wrong road can
            lead you to realize it eventually and make a correction. Perpetual indecision has short term advantages. At any given point the status quo is easier than making serious changes in your life. At some point it become what Catholics call sloth. That is a lack of seriousness or lack of energy towards the matters of faith and morals.

          • stanz2reason

            I feel we’re referring to agnosticism as two different things. Many people who are effectively atheists with respect to specific beliefs, such as catholicism, might still be considered agnostics over the actual existence of god. For others, the focus on such things simply isn’t important enough to care about, kind of like demanding to know whether someone was a Yankee Fan or Met Fan when they don’t care about or follow baseball. Here they might technically be a non-committal agnostic, but not due to over-analysis or an unwillingness to choose a route in a dilemma. When your honest answer is ‘I Don’t Know’, that’s not necessarily a sign of the indecisiveness you speak of.

            Say you’re in a casino and walk up to a roulette wheel. There are folks putting money down and gambling while others stand around and watch. Those gambling probably feel there is enough information available to make a decision. Some watching might be interested enough to find the game entertaining, but aren’t confident enough to wager one way or the other. Others might be there for the lights, sounds, food and don’t really care about gambling at all. This position might unsatisfying to the players at the table putting money down, but it doesn’t follow that because of this the person is somehow living a substance-free unsatisfying life.

            It’s inconceivable to people who gamble frequently, or hold strong religious or political views, or who are rabid sports fans, or traders on the stock market, or who don’t shut up about how good ‘Homeland’ is how people can lead full lives and be completely disinterested about something they feel strongly about. This isn’t a sign of sloth. It’s a sign of preference and personal priority. For many people ‘Don’t be a jerk’ is all the thought they have to put into their moral worldview and they’re fine.

          • Randy Gritter

            Gambling and baseball are not in the same category as religion. There are certainly going to be things some are passionate about and some don’t care. Religion is different. I actually think almost everyone cares. Those that think they don’t care about religion have typically manufactured a religion. You are right that labels are very hard when it comes to religion. The bottom line is the basic questions of religion. Where did I come from? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What happens to me after I die? Where can I find my deepest happiness? Anyone who tries to answer questions like that cares about religion. So people are not going to not care in the same way they might not care about baseball. Likewise people are not able to not put their money on the table. It is just not an option. We choose how to live, how to think, how to love. We know those choices deserve serious thought. We can say, “I like to smoke and I just prefer not to read the medical research on the subject.” But if the subject deserves serious attention is that really a valid preference?

          • stanz2reason

            Gambling and baseball are not in the same category as religion. There are certainly going to be things some are passionate about and some don’t care. Religion is different. I actually think almost everyone cares.

            For the purposes of this discussion they are in the same category. We have a finite time here and are limited on what can can focus on during that time. For many, the exploration into religious matters is simply not a priority. I’m sure most people have at least once considered what might happen when you die or think about where we came from, but beyond a fleeting thought here or there, they focus on other things.

            You find the search for answers to that laundry list of questions to be a compelling endeavor. Others do not. I’d have a tough time justifying the categorization of a metaphysical examination as demanding of our attentions as in many ways it’s a pursuit that is all but guaranteed not to get bear fruit while you walk the earth.

        • Fr.Sean

          Randy, and Stands2reason,
          One of the things I think believers can be frustrated by is that if the faith isn’t tried, one will never discover how it effects one’s life. what i mean by that is that in this country we’re fed the idea that we’re constantly in the “pursuit of happiness”. Happiness comes from getting my needs met. the problem with that is that people can fall into a cycle of confusing things that bring a brief moment of excitement with happiness. but things that bring a brief moment of excitement often bring emptiness. true happiness, or joy comes from living one’s life for God, or being Christ centered. (anthony demello) I visit with elderly nuns once a month, other than children, they are the happiest group of people i meet week in and week out, because their lives are centered on Christ, and not because they are attempting to have their needs met. it’s one thing to learn about the faith, but it’s another to apply it to one’s life. when one does they discover what joy and peace is all about. Just try it, read through the gospels, apply Jesus teachings to your life, it will have a profound effect and you will know what Jesus meant when he says, “the truth will make you free.”

          • stanz2reason

            Fr. Sean, you haven’t given me any reason to buy into what you’re selling, so to speak. For people who demand more thorough evidence to support such claims as the church makes, accepting them with blinders on is a non-starter, akin to asking us to stick our heads in the sand before we get talking. A persons happiness can come from many sources, many of which are no less true in the experiential sense than any other. A difference between you and I might be that you can’t conceive how someone can be fulfilled WITHOUT god, yet I CAN conceive how someone can be fulfilled WITH god. I see the appeal of filling a void or unpleasant portion of your life with god. I see how it helps people who might other wise be broken (criminals, drug addicts, etc.) and gives their lives a structure and makes them better in most ways. You could of course accuse me of an obvious bias by claiming a privileged vantage point in that I can see your way but you can’t see mine (though in fairness you’re doing the same), however I’m not convinced that’s the case (though of course this could also be further bias). That religious belief generates a net good in the lives of many people speaks nothing to actual claims about the truth of it all. To evaluate truth claims about religious beliefs (or anything for that matter) we must posit certain things as factual, preferably the minimal amount, and follow our reasoning from there. Asking to posit gods existence in matters concerning whether or not god exists, especially one as specific as the catholic understanding of god, is a far greater leap in reasoning than you should expect anyone to make, and I’d venture a guess that it’s not one you’d make in any other facet of your day to day life. For many, this appears to be as obvious a myth as Hercules or Paul Bunyan. What it would take to convince us of the truth of your claims will have to be much stronger evidence than 2 millennia of questionable hearsay and some vagueness about the trinity. Further still, while you might feel some lives are better and happier due to belief, doesn’t make it so for everyone. I can apply the teachings of christ to my life, and find great value in them while doubting if Jesus, even a non-divine just a man Jesus, ever walked the earth.

          • Fr.Sean

            Stanz2reason,

            You make a good point, there should be some credible reason to believe and not just believe because someone thinks you should. when i was younger I went to church every week, and usually prayed every day because i felt that was what i was supposed to do, to go to heaven, and because my parents wanted me to. when i was in my early 20′s i realized i can’t just go to church because mom and dad want me to go, i needed to go because i wanted to go, so i started to read and pray a little more, simply trying to learn more about the faith and to see how true it was. one day when i went to pray i had an unanticipated experience of God, i pondered my life and never realized how real God was, or that he loved me and wanted to be involved in my life. i discovered internally that God was real and that God is love. Now, since then i’ve come to realize that when i do what i think the Lord wants me to do i have a sense of peace and joy, when i go against what i think the Lord wants i lose my peace. i believe most believers have had some kind of similar experience of God being real etc. Now that’s a subjective experience, i can’t put that experience on you but you can experience it for yourself. i believe if you follow a similar path, read the bible, (particularly the gospels) read mere Christianity by c.s. lewis, spend some time in prayer and see what happens? simply start with this proposition, is Jesus who he says he was in the gospels? Try to answer that question for yourself then you can ponder various denominations etc. there’s no sense trying to convince you the Catholic church is what Jesus intended for his church if you don’t first believe Jesus is who he says he is? i remember reading about Leah’s conversion when she said that she realized “morality” is a person, and that “morality” loved her, after that she began to see other things in a similar light. furthermore, you said suggested you needed definitive proof before making a decision. when you chose your occupation in life were you 100% positive it was going to work out? If you’re married, were you 100% it was going to be a good marriage, or did you make an educated guess? you make other decisions in life without being 100% positive, you make decision that are a bit of a leap of faith. secondly, within the realm of evidence you can start with a couple of presuppositions. 1. there was a man named Jesus who claimed to be the messiah. 2. There were 11 apostles who were all hiding, trying to avoid being caught by the religious authorities after the crucifixion. something happened that made all of them go from hiding in a locked room to going out in public, where they could be caught and boldly proclaiming that he had arisen, not to mention hundreds of other followers also claimed that he had arisen. those two events should at least give you a reason to investigate the issue. if you can figure out a way to e-mail me or get my e-mail address i can be a bit more detailed.

    • Christian H

      I can personally assure you that I am not functionally agnostic in the sense that you seem to mean it. I do live my faith. I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the work of Richard Beck. This is a good place to start: http://www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2006/05/psychology-of-belief-part-8-quest.html. I also suggest this: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2007/04/summer-and-winter-christians.html.
      Also, see my response to Ted Seeber.

      • Randy Gritter

        I read a bit of Beck. He seems to identify problems that lead to religious violence. He starts with certainty about doctrine like that is the root of the problem. I don’t agree with that. What is essential is a respect for the rights and dignity of those we see as immoral. Some religions like Catholicism have that. Other religions, like Islam fundamentalism and to a lesser extent Christian fundamentalism lack that. So it is not a matter of how sure you are about doctrine. It is a matter of having sound doctrine. Bad religion is dangerous just like bad marriages are dangerous and bad government is dangerous.

        The response to mandate uncertainty is a religious response and it is a response that fails the test about the rights and dignity of those who are seen as immoral in this new religion. That is those that are seen too certain of their religion can become targets of persecution.

        • Christian H

          I should have been clearer. I’m not asking you to internalize Beck. I’m using Beck as an example of a Christianity that does not require certainty and yet does not result in functional agnosticism/atheism. If you accept that Beck is functionally Christian, then the progression from tentativism to functional atheism does not hold.

          • Randy Gritter

            I am not sure I accept Beck as functionally Christian. I would wonder what would happen when questions get hard. When a Christian teaching is seriously attacked by the culture. When a personal choice that Christianity mandates becomes very hard to face. If the answer is that the Christian teaching loses out then I would say his Christianity is a very liberal Christianity and that is functionally more similar to atheism than true
            Christianity.

            He does associate tentativeness with quest. That seems
            strange. People who feel they have not arrived are not the same as people who are unsure of whether they are on the right road. He talks about them having a
            positive view of doubt. I don’t know what he means. Bl John Henry Newman says, “1000 difficulties don’t make one doubt.” Does he make that distinction? I can’t
            tell. I can’t tell whether or not I am a Quest type Christians as he defines it. It is important because I would
            associate tentativeness with doubt but not with difficulties. In fact, a tentative person cannot travel a difficult road. You need to be determined to make progress on such a road.

    • Christian H

      Oh, also, I’m tentative about my tentativism. I totally could be wrong! Please, since certainty would be so much more comforting than uncertainty, I would love it if you would convince me to embrace absolutist beliefs. But I haven’t managed to convince myself to do it, so don’t get your hopes up.

  • Michael Blume

    I’m not certain if I’m missing something or if this all dissolves in the face of “my epistemic state is not a collection of propositions, it is a collection of states of belief which (as much as I am able to make them) follow the laws of probability theory”

    • Christian H

      I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. But I was talking about states of belief in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t come out in the excerpts, but my discussion of postmodernism v. modernism was that it was about styles of belief which I would argue is just a way of describing the quality of a state of belief (though it might be a poor description). Does that clear things up?

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes. If “Tentativism isn’t belief-as-commitment or belief-as-play, but instead belief-as-working-hypothesis.” Then how does it really differ from “Modernism”. Since that kind of tentativism is right at the heart of the scientific method.

  • Christian H

    I’m interested to hear what you say.

    To be clear, though, I’m not claiming to be postmodernist. I coined a new word for myself specifically because none of the existing ones would quite do. For instance, Baudrillard (a postmodernist) writes that “the map precedes the territory,” and I’d say that’s only occasionally the case.

    • grok87

      “Tentativism isn’t belief-as-commitment or belief-as-play, but instead belief-as-working-hypothesis.”

      In today’s Gospel Phillip seems to have tentavist leanings:
      http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/050313.cfm
      Philip said to him, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.”

      In his homily today, the priest cited what we might take as the Tenatvist prayer “I believe; help my unbelief!”
      http://bible.cc/mark/9-24.htm

  • http://twitter.com/spiffy74 Ron Turner

    I don’t think any amount of exclamation points will help. The topic (if there is one) is simply boring.

    • Christian H

      There is a topic, but I actually rather agree with you. I don’t know if you clicked through to my full post (which I suspect would be necessary for anyone to pass judgement about whether the topic is interesting and/or extant), but I start it out by saying I don’t think anyone would be interested at all in the post topic. I’m kind of surprised that even Eve responded, let alone that Leah re-blogged it.

  • Emily

    I’m so with Eve here. Belief, to me, is an action, a re-positioning of the self. “Tentativism” sounds like trying to make statements about the outside world that don’t risk changing you too much.

    • Christian H

      Belief is a re-positioning of self! I like that. I suspect a lot of postmodernists would agree with you. Belief, for some postmodernists, is a lot less about correspondence between proposition content and reality, and a lot more about ways of being, etc. Obviously I cannot speak for all postmodernists, but they can be a really playful bunch, and since they have a fluid sense of identity, I imagine quite a few of them would relish the opportunity to change themselves by adopting certain beliefs.
      Re: your accusation that I don’t want to risk too much change… it’s true that I’m afraid to change in some ways, yes, but I’d love to change in other ways. (The specifics are personal; I hope you don’t mind that I’m not divulging them. You might get some of a sense from reading my blog, of course.) All that said, I don’t think you know me at all well enough to argue that such a fear bears any relation to my epistemology.

  • Iota

    I probably SHOULD be commenting on the Thinking Grounds but I just like this blog so much I’ll take the liberty of doing it here, since Christian apparently does drop in on this comment section.

    I have a problem with labels like modernist, postmodernist (and, therefore, maybe also tentativist). The shortest way to phrase it is that these labels, to me describe “purely theoretical alignment”, i.e. how people think they think or how they think they write, but not how they act in normal life.

    The reason for this is that while thinking and communicating are linear processes (and so it DOES matter what you put in your main thesis and what in your disclaimers), they are also extendable. You can extend your writing or thinking by adding disclaimers and then some more disclaimers. Decisions on action, on the other hand are not so extendable. There is a very limited space for disclaimers or indecision.

    On the other hand, in thinking or speaking you may insist on a level of certainty that you do not actually necessarily experience in action, simply because life doesn’t wait for your 100% approval and a double-blind trial on every decision you make. I’d assume that many people in favour of certainty experience uncertainty quite often.

    Very simplistically you could even, I think, think most everyday of actions as strings of binary choices. “Do you leave the house?” Y/N; “Do you go to that party you were invited to” Y/N; “Do you introduce yourself to your host’s college friend?” Y/N and so on. Every choice limits your set of future choices on the one hand, while opening another set in front of you.

    The only way for a decision to be tentative, IMO, is that you always stay at the entry level in a given string of choices. “We’re tentatively friends”, because neither of us has invested much in this. “I’m considering moving to another city” (but haven’t really done it yet). If you do decide to move deeper into a particular sting of choices it will progressively become harder to be tentative about the actions you take, i.e. you will have “committed yourself”. And this will, I’d argue, be both because how you act influences how you think AND because actions will condition your future set of choices – if you went and got a degree in sociology it’s highly unlikely you can now go and get another one in experimental physics.

    And given the way life works, staying at the beginning of EVERY string of choices indefinitely isn’t practical, so I’d assume most of us end up being committed to something, the difference being probably that some of us are committed willingly while others are committed unwillingly (and I ‘d argue, you can be committed unwillingly only to a certain subset of things).

    Given all of the above, modernism and postmodernism, when described as antithetical epistemological positions, are IMO, useful mostly as shorthand for “I/you/they have a tendency, I this context, to seek closure, stability, certainty” and “I/you/they have a tendency, in this context, to approve of/seek instability, uncertainty and a lack of closure.” Which is a very limited usefulness. But the moment you start introducing other terms, the dichotomy crashes and even that sliver of usefulness is lost…

    So my question would be: how does your epistemological position, belief as-working-hypothesis, impact how you ACT? How do you think it’s different, in practice, from other positions?

    (it’s perfectly fine to just give me links to your previous posts – I’m willing to do the reading on my own, so long as it’s pre-selected for me – right now I don’t have the time to go through the whole contents of the Thinking Grounds)

    • Christian H

      1. Have you read my newest post clarifying how I use the terms modernist and postmodernist? You sound like you have a very good handle on the movements already, but I’m sure you know that different people do use them differently, so it might help explain how I could claim to be something different from either (because I think that the definitions you give, while great shorthand, aren’t quite complete, and the more details you add, the more chances there are of making a hybrid between the two).

      2. How does this impact my actions, because it seems like it wouldn’t? This is a VERY good question; as soon as Leah re-blogged my post, I knew the question would come up because it is probably the single most troubling problem with what I’ve said (that I noticed, anyway). To start with, while I may be guilty of tentative action at times, that’s not my default and even if it was it wouldn’t be a consequence of my epistemology. For me tentativism’s worth comes out in how act with regard to other people’s actions (think conversations); the less certain I am, and the more willing I am to concede that I could be wrong, the more charitable I normally am to other people’s actions when those actions are predicated on beliefs that differ from my own. (In other words, I’m less of a jerk and I’m better at empathy when I’m not certain that I’m right.)

      3. How does this impact my actions?, part two. Tentativism also impacts how and when I change first-order beliefs, at least a bit. Those beliefs impact my actions. So tentativism indirectly but nonetheless saliently impacts my actions by impacting the particular beliefs that I hold. (In Leah-terms, it reduces the number and strength of ugh fields.)

      4. How does this impact my actions?, part three. Tentativism also encourages me to hedge bets when possible. If it’s impossible to hedge a bet then I obviously will not, but often it is possible to hedge a bet somewhat. I do not think it will rain, but I will bring an umbrella anyway because I could be wrong.

      5. I don’t really have any links in previous posts on my blog worth your time if it’s this topic you’re interested in, but there are posts on another blog that I think are relevant to this topic:
      http://www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2006/05/psychology-of-belief-part-8-quest.html
      http://www.experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2007/04/summer-and-winter-christians.html
      These posts articulate something I’ve long suspected but did not have empirical evidence to support. (Yes, he has empirical evidence to support the point about being less of a jerk when you’re less certain.)

      6. Instrumental reasons for being tentativist aside, I do think tentativism follows from a number of other premises I hold and experiences I’ve had. I don’t care terribly much whether it pays rent, to use Leah’s phrase; it just strikes me as true. (I acknowledge I could be wrong, though! I’ll listen to opposing evidence! It’ll have to be pretty good evidence; I’m pretty wary.) <–That's how you do tentativism.

      7. I feel really awkward about this whole thing now. Tentativism isn't supposed to be a strict epistemological position. It was just a word I made up to describe my disposition toward belief, which seemed different from the other people participating in Leah's Turing Tests (the context for which I made up the term). It was kind of a joke…

      8. Yeah, I'd have preferred it if you commented on my post rather than this one, but I realize commenting here was the better choice for your purposes. On the up side, more people will see both your question and my response.

      • Iota

        > 1. Have you read my newest post

        Yes, I have.

        > you sound like you have a very good handle on the movements already

        Thank you most kindly. Just for the record, in case this is useful, I’m doing a Ph D in English Literature (as foreign literature, in my case), so I do kind of have to try and get a handle on these things. It’s not my main field of interest, though, so – given the reading you are referencing – you are probably the bigger specialist.

        > It was kind of a joke…

        And this is what happens to interesting, philosophical jokes on the Internet. :-) They get reblogged by Unequally Yoked and then a horde of people descends upon you demanding serious explanations. In another combox :)

        Seriously though, there’s still something that’s kind of bugging me and I’d like to ask you about it, but only if I get your permission to spoil the joke with some more inordinately serious questions.

        (also, I might take the time to familiarize myself with the Thinking Grounds, if you’d prefer me to post there, although the question is hardly a big debate starter)

        • Christian H

          Ask away. I make no promises that the responses will be satisfactory, though. What I’m describing is more a facet of who I am than a philosophical position, so it’s not like I have a lot of good defenses. It would maybe be best to ask them here…though keep an eye on my blog, because I’m going to write another post on this subject soon.

          • Iota

            > so it’s not like I have a lot of good defences

            Perfectly fine by me. I generally don’t expect people to *defend* positions, so much as *explain* them to me. And whether I consider the explanation satisfactory or convincing or whatever isn’t really very important, so long as the discussion is honest.

            My minor problem with describing people and people describing themselves as modernist / postmodernist (part of a more general one, with people self-identifying through labels derived from particular disciplines) is that I can’t see the usefulness of that term anywhere outside the academia (and even there I’m less and less likely to think it has substance). I just don’t buy the narrative that posits a pre-modernism, a modernism and a postmodernism. I COULD buy those terms as idealized descriptions of epistemological states individual people go through, but even then I’d posit that most people are, for practical purposes, operating somewhere between them, in a grey area.

            Given this, I’m likely to “translate” terms like postmodernist / (tentativist?) / modernist into a declaration of preference for (un)certainty. And I admit I’m approaching this discussion with you in this fashion – if this results in a
            misunderstanding of some sort, I’d being corrected.

            All the influences of “tentativism” that you listed and explained are basically limited to communication and prediction-making. Which is (a) what I expected but (b) might obviously not be the whole picture, possibly due to the fact that revealing anything else would involve disclosing too much to random people on the Internet.

            Here’s what I wonder about:

            (1) What do people mean when they speak about “certainty” (so in this case, what do YOU mean when you refer to the certainty of modernists) because I have an inkling that, while I would be called a modernist in this framework, my idea of what certainty looks like is a little different than the idea of people who prefer to actively maintain uncertainty.

            (2) Whether the thing that has the tendency to make people judgemental jerks is a sense of groundedness / certainty or some other disposition.

            If, for example, being a judgemental jerk is the consequence of a mixture of certain temperamental tendencies and certainty (or cultural tendencies and certainty, or generally certainty and some other factor) then you can decrease your chances of being a judgemental jerk by dialling down EITHER on certainty / groundedness OR on this other thing. The issue I seem to have with a lot of self-styled postmodernism is that it looks like dialling down on certainty is actively valued higher than dialling down on any other factors that go into the jerk-mix.

            So my second (more complex) question would be: what (if anything) besides certainty is, in your opinion, necessary for a person to behave like a judgemental jerk, how much (if any) certainty did you have to jettison to become a tentativist and if that amount is higher than zero AND you think there is some other factor that is necessary for a person with a sense of certainty to become a jerk, did
            you jettison this other thing too? If yes, why jettison both? If not, why did you choose to jettison certainty?

            (if you didn’t actively *choose* to jettison certainty, you just – for example – had none of it to begin with, that part of the question is irrelevant)

          • Christian H

            I won’t answer in precise order, but I think this will address most of your parts.

            1. I agree that Anderson’s trajectory of pre-m, m, post-m is an incomplete image of things. (I was hoping that when I wrote, “At least, that’s the story postmodernism tells,” I would have sufficiently implied that it wasn’t quite the story I would tell. But I probably wasn’t clear enough.) My biggest complaint is actually with the pre-modernism concept; it’s so colonialist! I suppose I use Anderson’s metanarrative because even if it isn’t a helpful view of history, it’s a helpful way of framing pluralism and our reactions to it. The question might be, which of these is our society most like? That would be a beginning place for thinking about how to approach pluralism (of a given kind, because of course we shouldn’t approach religious pluralism the same way we’d approach political pluralism or aesthetic pluralism; those are all very different pluralisms).

            2. I think a lot of people don’t really fit precisely in modernism/postmodernism as I defined them. (I mean, a great example is Leah. What is she?) In part this is because the history is faulty (see #1), but I think a large part of it is that some postmodern ideas are entrenched enough in the culture, albeit confusedly so, that lots of people will have already responded to them. My contention is just that we’re better off responding to them when we’re well educated about postmodernism than responding to them when we don’t actually know the history and reasoning behind those ideas (and I guess a second contention is that most people aren’t well educated about all that). So, for example, the Less Wrong people are actually starting with a very postmodern concern–how do we approach knowledge when our very minds/brains are faulty tools?–but I think their avowed ignorance of postmodernism (or any other philosophical school they didn’t make up for themselves) limits their abilities to work out the problem effectively. So you don’t think you are quite modernist as I describe it (or even you describe it)? That’s sensible. Lots of people aren’t, which is great. (Unfortunately, lots of other people are modernists.) I guess my question would then be, what are you doing to describe the position you occupy? Is there a framing you find more helpful than the mod/postmod one? Because if there isn’t, or if it doesn’t work for me, then I’m sticking with mine.

            3. I was thinking about the question of whether other factors go into jerk-ness late last night. I realized that my terror-response to certainty (I assume you’ve read my newest post as of last night?) might be misplaced, because of course the real evil is, you know, evil, not certainty. I do think that less certainty would mean less evil, but I concede it might not be the only thing that we could collectively work on. It still seems necessary, though: if someone is really certain that they must do all in their power to stop same-sex marriages, then the first thing you need to do to convince them to stop is to make them less certain. That’s a prerequisite to changing their minds. If they were already less certain…well, that would be so much better.
            Personally, it is acting like I know what I’m talking about that can make me more of a jerk. (I will admit that it might not be so with others. I may be generalizing too much from my experiences.) So you could, if you like, frame it as an increase in humility, not a decrease in certainty, but an increase in humility would entail more than a decrease in certainty, but it would still entail a decrease in certainty. So, yes, there’s more to decreasing jerk-ness than decreasing certainty; I would say it’s necessary but not sufficient?

            And, yes, postmodernists can be big jerks too. However, I might say that some postmodernists are jerks because they are overly certain about their postmodernism.

            4. I guess I’m thinking about certainty as an unwillingness to concede that you might be wrong about a given belief/that you are probably (maybe 99.9%) wrong about some of your beliefs, though of course you do not know which. I want people to be eager to concede that they might be wrong. However, I do know I need to interrogate my use of the word ‘certainty’ a lot more, because I’m obviously also concerned with what a person does with that concession.

            5. The thing about labels: I do hear you on this. I have a post on labels w/r to mental health: http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.ca/2013/04/the-freedom-of-labels.html. It’s not the same thing exactly, but it might help you see why I like labels. They can legitimize behaviours (and, therefore, me) by giving those behaviours (and, therefore, me) a place. But you’ve got to be tentative about the labels or they really go south on you!

            6. Final thing: I’m thinking it may not have been necessary to bring up postmodernism for my response to Tushnet. The things I most like about postmodernism are these: 1. its history with feminism, anti-racism, etc., b/c I do believe that postmodernism, via anti-essentialism, was hugely important to these movements, cf bell hooks; 2. related to #1, deconstruction as a tool; 3. postmodern views of the self; 4. the idea of metanarratives and why they’re bad; 5. the idea of culture in the anthropological sense. Most of the rest of po-mo is less interesting to me. But I can’t bring up metanarratives without bringing up po-mo, and I wanted to invoke metanarratives in my response to Tushnet, and then I got carried away like I always do, and then the Internet got carried away like it always does… *sigh*

            (Sorry this is so long. It’s just that your questions are good and I want to do them justice.)

          • Iota

            > But I probably wasn’t clear enough.

            Oh, I got the fact you don’t sign your name under the narrative. My bad for not making that explicit. But I think we do differ in how strongly we reject it – my take is that this is so flawed, it doesn’t even pass as a useful model for anything (even pluralism). There are just too many implications you’d have to make disclaimers around. But I do come from a country that didn’t exactly have, at least as per those simplified definitions, either a pre-modern or a modern period, IMO…

            > Is there a framing you find more helpful than the mod/postmod one?

            Tricky. When I do define my philosophical positions (which I don’t do all THAT often) I prefer to do it descriptively, by listing a bunch of postulates I agree with, rather than using a label. I will freely use a label only once I’m more of less “certain” (pun intended) that the audience knows what I mean by it. And I’m likely to choose whichever I think makes some sense and the audience is most conversant with. I think labels deriving from particular disciplines are actually unhelpful, in the long run, when talking across disciplines or across spaces of personal experience (for example: most people would be excused for not knowing there’s a Catholic-specific understanding of the term “modernism” that has nothing whatsoever to do with the literary theory kind of “modernism” and, therefore, calling someone a “modernist” might end up meaning radically different things, depending on which space of reference people use). The only situation when I self-identify with labels without having first established that we all know, more or less what I mean, is when I really don’t have the space/time/resources to be descriptive or when I count on the meaning being more or less already agreed upon in the social context I’m in.

            You say that many people are kind of postmodern but their lack of awareness of postmodernism impairs their ability to solve philosophical problems and it would have helped if they knew more about postmodernism. I’d approach the problem form the reverse direction – I’d say that there are certain characteristics, mechanisms, cognitive stances and whatnot that are part of the general,observable human condition, that literary and cultural studies rounded up, demarcated chronologically (cf. the fact scholars are debating whether it’s fair to claim works of earlier generations were “postmodern”) and slapped the “postmodernism” label on them for a reason I’m not entirely sure I understand (or approve of, if I actually DO understand correctly).

            In short, I’d be more likely to write or say the kind of thing you posted recently on TG, rather than go into an explanation involving technical terms and labels. Of
            course, this might be just my communicative preference, and it’s rather difficult, privacy-wise, to do on the internet (as opposed to face to face, over a beer), AND no one would have any compelling reason to follow that procedure if they were writing mostly for themselves (which is what you, it seems (?) you assumed you were doing.

            > (I assume you’ve read my newest post as of last night?)

            When I was writing out the questions, nope. I’ve read it now though.

            > It still seems necessary, though: if someone is really certain that they must do all in their power to stop same-sex marriages, then the first thing you need to do to convince them to stop is to make them less certain.

            But that’s a very big thing to be certain about. The way I see it, it’s actually a whole series of certainties. First you have to be “certain” that same sex marriage is a bad thing (full disclosure: I am…), then you’d have to be “certain” that it’s your business to oppose it, and then that you have an obligation to use ALL means. I think I could imagine someone who thinks #1 and #2 are certain and that #3 is wrong. Or that #1 is certain but #2 is debatable and #3 is wrong. Or… you get the drift.

            The problem with what I think is the general postmodern total preference for uncertainty is that it seems to envisage certainties as big, monolithic wholes. And for me most issues I’m certain on are actually pretty nuanced or “small”.

            (in the sense in which Catholic dogmas are “small” — as far as I understand, the dogma is only exactly the thing that has been made dogma and nothing besides it: you
            can have a look at how that works by looking at arguments about who, according to the Church, will be in heaven and who won’t – the dogmatic answer, as far as I understand it, is “we have no clue – we hold as dogma that there is a hell, but it does not follow we have any idea who, and in what numbers, is there”)

            I’m no expert on whether I’m a jerk (you’d have to ask my friends and enemies, obviously) but my working hypothesis is that it’s perfectly possible to have a very large set of small certainties and not be a jerk., Only certain configurations of certainties contribute to jerkiness. The problem with pre-emptively striking at all certainties is roughly the same as the problem with pre-emptively shooting anyone who walks onto your property – in the long run, it may be doing more harm than good. Or at least that’s what I think.

            > and then the Internet got carried away like it always does

            Well, having a blog is dangerous like that. :-)

            > (Sorry this is so long.)

            The apologies are all mine. :-) Sorry if THIS is too long. If you have any comments or anything *you* want to ask me, go ahead.

            Also: depression is rather horrid. If you don’t mind and I have enough self-discipline, you’ll be in my prayers.

          • Christian H

            This is probably the last substantive comment I’ll make on this thread…probably…

            1. You’re maybe right about the academic labels. I’ve been in the tower too long… in my defense, I did make a note about how I used my terms, and then when I realized that was not enough I wrote a post defining them… but I’ll seriously think about the labels thing. I’m not sure what alternative there is, but I’ll think about it.

            2. “AND no one would have any compelling reason to follow that procedure if they were writing mostly for themselves (which is what, it seems (?) you assumed you were doing.”

            I did assume I was writing for myself. No question mark necessary. Also, most people who have read my blog for the last four years should have a decent sense of what postmodernism means to me. I wasn’t writing for the Unequally Yoked audience. I do not think I’m responsible for the contexts in which I’m quoted. So even if I wasn’t talking to myself, I think in the context of my writing it was fair to use the terms. But, as I said, I will think about it.

            3. “The problem with what I think is the general postmodern total preference for uncertainty is that it seems to envisage certainties as big, monolithic wholes. And for me most issues I’m certain on are actually pretty nuanced or “small”.”

            Yes, I’m probably guilty at least of using the word “certainty” to mean “big monolithic whole,” which is really sloppy (though I like monoliths rather a lot and I wish they were not blemished by the metaphor). I’m all for certainty in local truths. An example: I’m certain that the tea I am currently drinking is mint-flavoured. It’s really metanarratives I don’t like, the kind of certainties that are supposedly universally applicable. (Though I’ll exempt great bunches of science, obviously. But the experimental method is one of my models anyway, as other people have noticed in this very combox!) Also, it’s not like I’m absolutely nixing metanarratives, either; I’m just extremely wary of them and I find them kinda scary. (OK. Very scary.) Some postmodernists (I think most?)–including those of my friends who call themselves postmodernists, or might as well do so–are willing to concede local, particular, and/or contingent truths. (In other words, I disagree that postmodernism has a total preference for uncertainty. I’d really recommend Pauline Marie Rosenau’s writing on affirmative vs. skeptic postmodernists for more on that.) It’s metanarratives, not local truths, that they (and I) don’t like. So I’m probably making myself sound harder on certainty than I actually am. Mea culpa. On that note, my recent-ish posts called “To Exist is to Differ” are relevant. Also, if someone showed me a metanarrative that was, very metaphorically speaking, sweet and gentle and especially fuzzy, I would consider adopting it.

            4. Yeah, sometimes–most times?–I do think people would be better off if they understood postmodernism, but what I should have been complaining about is that people will knock ideas when they haven’t really followed up on the history (says someone who has probably done so in the last week without realizing it). I’m thinking of the kind of claims that postmodernism necessarily leads to relativism. (Also, really, the terribly shoddy understanding some people have of relativism, too, because there are lots of kinds of relativism. Most people are aesthetic relativists, for instance: few people think that only one style or movement of art is good art. Just because you’re a relativist about one thing doesn’t make you a relativist about another.)
            But I’m maybe being unfair. I hadn’t thought of this until just now, but I suppose that if you don’t know that there’s a history behind these ideas, why would you bother looking into it? In my library school classes, the readings frequently point out that ignorance in a topic correlates negatively with self-awareness of that ignorance; the more you know about something, the better sense you have of how little you know. And I don’t have complete knowledge of the history of thought, so why should I expect anyone else to? I’ve been violating my own principles here! I’ll bear it in mind and be more understanding in future. Or try, anyway.

            5. I now want to know how Catholics use the word “modernist”. This might be important for when I’m talking to my Catholic friends…though they’re clever folks and most of them know of my love affair with postmodernism, as a friend of mine puts it, so they won’t likely misunderstand my use of the word. (Also, I just love to know how other people use words. I get unreasonably excited about jargon.) I can’t think that Anglicans use the word in any coherent way… but my knowledge about Anglican theology isn’t terribly robust, so I wouldn’t be the one to ask.

            6. Thanks re: depression, prayer. I appreciate it. And I appreciate your offer for turn-around, but… I’m just too tired. If you have blog posts that elucidate this topic, I’d love it if you gave me links and if I have any questions, I’ll ask. I’m super grumpy about Discus because I can’t figure out how to get to your blog–if you have one–from here. When I click on your name it just shows me comments you’ve made.

            It’s been wonderful conversing with you.

          • Christian H

            Oh, this just occurred to me: from what you’ve written here, you seem like a non-jerk to me. In case you are worried that I’m going to accuse you a jerk-dom based on your position re: certainty. I agree that certainty is only one element of the mix, but it feels–to me–like a good one to target when trying to fight jerk-dom.

          • Iota

            > You’re maybe right about the academic labels. I’ve been in the tower too long…

            Well, I’ve probably been there longer, unless you took a huge amount of time to write that Masters. I don’t think linguistic exclusivism (if I can make up a label on the fly…) follows necessarily from being in a given environment. What I do think is that once you ARE in an environment that has its own jargon, it’s good to try and frequent jargon-free zones and learn to translate thoughts across jargons.

            I even think that might make a better academic (this is also something I really like about this blog – I absolutely love the picture that went with this post).

            In short, my point is not that I want to accuse people (e.g. you) of anything and make them defend themselves, because I don’t think that’s particularly productive.
            It’s more like a suggestion of a strategy.

            > No question mark necessary.

            Well, I thought I’d better be tentative while talking to and about a tentativist. :-)

            #4 – I suppose your local-truths and what I call small certainties are two different kinds of things (to a significant extent, not entirely – I suppose the sets overlap somewhat), but maybe I shouldn’t go into a long session of hair-splitting with a sprinkling of technicalities on top just now. You’re already tired as it is and have been most obliging in answering my questions.

            > Also, if someone showed me a metanarrative that was, very metaphorically speaking, sweet and gentle and especially fuzzy…

            I guess that kind of depends on your tastes. I suppose some of the meta-narratives I think are true ARE rather metaphorically snugly.

            #5 It’s a little complicated and I’m not a specialist so I may be simplifying things a little unfairly, but the cliff notes version goes something like this:

            In the late 19-th and early 20th century a number of Catholic theologians tried “explaining” the Catholic faith my using the such sciences as psychology, cultural studies, historical criticism and so on and the key problem word here is “explaining”. Essentially, because they were trying to explain faith by means of the sciences rather than use what input the sciences had to better understand the faith, they ended up completely subjectivising the religious experience and pretty much denying that there is any objective metaphysics. This was declared a heresy (i.e. a teaching a baptized and well informed person cannot hold in agreement with the Church) and given the name “modernism”. A TL;DR, horribly simplified version is “You make your own God, Church and Dogma while calling yourself Roman Catholic, because really only your *consciousness* of religion matters, not any definable, indisputable content”

            The tricky thing is that modernism wasn’t, AFAIK, really a coherent movement. It wasn’t a bunch of guys that self-declared as modernists and then got told off. Rather, a set of propositions, tendencies and such got branded with the name. So I suppose most actual modernists – in this sense – would ever call themselves modernists.

            Most Catholics probably don’t care much about this bit of Church history, insofar as Catholicism isn’t (I suppose) primarily about defining yourself against all the things we don’t believe. That said, you may occasionally bump into people who do care and who might be justifiably confused if you told them they are modernists. In some very specific parts of Catholic-dom (ones I usually see only on the internet) an accusation of modernism may be levied against someone (or, as in the case of some dissenting groups, against most of the Church) as a way to declare that the person/group has no real Catholic “street cred” whatsoever. It’s sort of problematic since random people on the Internet don’t have the jurisdiction (and often the education) necessary to establish if someone actually IS a heretic, in the highly technical sense.

            A more respectable, if possibly slightly dated, resource about modernism would be this one here (click).

            > When I click on your name it just shows me comments you’ve made.

            Might have something to do with the fact I don’t have a blog. The mode of “conversation” that comes with having a personal blog makes me rather uncomfortable. So I haunt other people’s comboxes instead.

            The offer to interrogate me, if you ever feel like it, stays good pretty much indefinitely. I’m aware that being the critic of another person’s position is the easiest role to play so it would be very unfair of me to play it all the time.

            > It’s been wonderful conversing with you.

            Same.

  • Christian H

    Actually, you speak for me rather well. You’re also right about where we differ.
    Or maybe not. I’m not tentative about the existence of gravity, for instance. Maybe I just think fewer categories of evidence are knowably definitive than other people do.

    • KG

      If Christian beliefs are working hypotheses that can fall under the intellectual framework of the scientific method, then I pose this question: why hasn’t the evidence that has piled up over the years that matter/energy doesn’t disappear into thin air effectively dispelled the hypothesis of the Resurrection? If Leah is listening, I’d also put the question this way: the Bayesian prior probability that conservation of matter/energy applies universally is pretty high, isn’t it? Why hasn’t the equally strong counter evidence that ought to have turned up not been discussed in detail here?

    • KG

      1) The Resurrection is a claim about an event within the physical world, and so it does fall into the scope of scientific inquiry
      2) Pretty much the same as #1. The conservation law to which I refer, which has withstood centuries of empirical investigation, applies to all objects that exist within the physical world, as Jesus did/does.
      3) This is the key response. My contention is that this line of thought is not consistent with a scientific outlook. The problem comes in the manner in which one evaluates the evidence for the occurrence of particular miracles, those events which are pure violations of centuries of empirical study. Right now it seems to me that the evaluation of this evidence comes through literary criticism of the Bible, and this leads Catholics to comfortably conclude that the Resurrection occurred but, say, the golden tablets of Mormonism are not true miracles. All pretension of a scientific worldview seems to me to evaporate at this point, because evidence is weighed based on non-empirical and subjective factors. Finally, I am most interested in how someone who used to discount this sort of evidence has come to treat it as irrefutable.

      • KG

        Hrm, my comment above was meant as a reply to a user named Erick whose comment is no longer present. I’ll do my best to recall the points to which I’m responding

        1) God is a spiritual being, not a physical one, so by definition acts of God lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry
        2) The Resurrection was a transfer of material from the physical realm to the spiritual realm, so no conservation law was actually violated
        3) The Resurrection was a miracle, and so by definition it violates physical regularities and is unexplainable with conventional scientific study.

  • KG

    ” So, if Jesus is omnipresent, then can we really say His matter/energy disappeared from the universe? Hence, the conservation rule is not a positive/counter evidence against God. ”

    I don’t understand this. Is your claim here that Jesus did not disappear from the material world, but evaporated in some sense? That would still pose a problem with energy conservation, because there would need to be energy supplied to unbind the molecules of his body.

    “Here, my basic point was that because God is defined the way He is, what seems like lack of scientific evidence constitutes incapability of human understanding instead of lack of truth.”

    This is again the heart of the matter. If scientific techniques can’t be applied here, then what exactly are the techniques that are applied to ascertain that some miracles are valid and not others? I understand perfectly well that for many practicing Christians, this comes down to a leap of faith. Fair enough. What confuses me are those people who take the idea of Bayesian treatments of evidence and/or the scientific method seriously yet who still make this leap of faith.

    • Erick

      Let me put it to you this way. Where is the physical location of Heaven?

      The answer is no one knows. For you to apply the conservation rule, you have to assume that Heaven is outside of the material universe, outside the system. But this is not a proven premise.

      If you can’t know where Heaven is, then you can’t even assume the processes of getting Jesus there, so you don’t know if conservation rule even applies.

      If there is an important unknown variable in your equation, you can’t posit improbability based on a process you don’t even know applies.

      • KG

        “If you can’t know where Heaven is, then you can’t even assume the processes of getting Jesus there, so you don’t know if conservation rule even applies.”

        Why don’t I know if the conservation rule applies? I’ve seen it apply every time it’s been tested. Jesus existed in the material world, so he played by the material world’s rules. The material world has a complete set of laws for how matter moves through it – there really isn’t any wiggle room for something like the Resurrection to occur. No wiggle room, that is, unless you posit that miracles exist from time to time that violate those rules. You can certainly posit that, but in that case don’t go on to claim that you’re evaluating hypotheses based on evidence.

        • Erick

          I’m not asking you to give an answer with any certainty, just to evaluate the evidence for such a claim.

          Ok. I’ll just say this plainly. Your claim is poor.
          In order to evaluate the probabilities of a violation of the conservation rule, you first have to demonstrate that a violation actually occurred. You have not.
          You keep saying Jesus has to play by the material world’s rules. I agree.
          However, as I keep pointing out and you keep ignoring, you have not proven that a resurrected body residing in Heaven has actually been removed from the material universe.
          Until you can show that Jesus’ matter residing in Heaven has actually been subtracted from the material universe, then you cannot say that a violation of conservation occurred during the Resurrection.

          • KG

            Erick, I’m really interested in the fact that you have agreed that Jesus did not leave the material world. Is that the canonical wisdom amongst Catholics? If it is, then I admit that some of my points have been off the mark. Please forgive me for that. I feel that we’ve really made progress though by agreeing to limit the discussion to a materialist framework – that was precisely my intention when I kept pressing the mass/energy conservation argument.

            Now that we’ve established ourselves firmly within the material world, then the problem becomes not so much a problem of conservation as a problem of how you render a body invisible, in a completely sealed off environment. And isn’t that the claim, that the tomb was sealed off completely before its emptiness was discovered? I certainly grant that the body could have been carried off and the tomb could have been resealed, but I don’t think that’s your claim.

            As I pointed out earlier, if you are claiming that what occurred was some sort of evaporation, then you still have to account for the energy to unbind the molecules of the body. Or, if the body somehow passed through solid stone, you’d also have to explain how that could happen within the laws of physics that we have determined apply in our material world. Please do help me understand how this fits within a materialist framework.

          • Erick

            I’m really interested in the fact that you have agreed that Jesus did not leave the material world. Is that the canonical wisdom amongst Catholics?

            There is no canonical wisdom from the magesterium on this matter AFAIK. The process of ascending a physical body into Heaven is an unknown to Catholics.

            It is canonical wisdom, however, that Heaven is not a physical location that can be determined in the way that our location can be determined. So it is factually incorrect to say that Heaven (and Hell) is removed from the material universe. We cannot say that Earth is here and Heaven is there spatially.

            It is also canonical wisdom that God is omnipresent, including Jesus post-Resurrection.
            The idea I put forth is most clearly evident in Eucharist. Jesus’ body and divinity entirely in each consecrated wafer.

            a problem of how you render a body invisible, in a completely sealed off environment.

            How exactly is this a problem? Yes, it’s unexplained, but you have to show that it is impossible for the science to even be valid. At best, this line of reasoning (to me) has given you 50/50 probability, which is not good enough.

            My original point 1 and 3 was to show that the scientific evidence has to be 100% definitive. Heaven and God are not only variables beyond scientific inquiry, but variables defined to make a lot of unexplained things possible.
            For example, if we somehow found Jesus’ remains, that is positive proof that God is not the Catholic God.
            If the science is not definitive, then logic dictates going with omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. over fallible, human science.

          • KG

            “So it is factually incorrect to say that Heaven (and Hell) is removed from the material universe”

            Duly noted. Thank you again for correcting my confusion.

            “It is also canonical wisdom that God is omnipresent, including Jesus post-Resurrection.”

            This is the part that still seems problematic to me. Jesus is omnipresent in the physical world, just not in a way that can be probed empirically? This sounds a lot like Sagan’s purple dragon. You can feel free to insist on its presence if you want, you’ll just have a hard time convincing other people who don’t share your original insistence but who instead rely on empirical methods for probing the material world. Do you agree with my characterization of your worldview as a rejection of empiricism? If so, great, that’s really all I was after.

            “How exactly is this a problem? Yes, it’s unexplained, but you have to show that it is impossible for the science to even be valid.”

            We’ve hit on the root of the matter again. Science can’t show that anything is 100% impossible, just that certain claims can be extremely unlikely. I admit it gets confusing, with the talk of “laws” of science. A law is actually just an extremely well tested hypothesis, one that would require an overwhelming amount of new, contrary evidence to overturn it.

            This post proposed framing beliefs as working hypotheses, and that’s the type of thinking I am trying to probe. If some of those belief-hypotheses concern the physical world, then how can you put them to the test without some sort of empiricism?

            “For example, if we somehow found Jesus’ remains, that is positive proof that God is not the Catholic God.”

            I think we are in agreement there.

            “If the science is not definitive, then logic dictates going with omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. over fallible, human science.”

            But not there. I would love an elaboration and justification of this final claim.

          • Erick

            This is the part that still seems problematic to me. Jesus is omnipresent in the physical world, just not
            in a way that can be probed empirically?

            Do you agree with my characterization of your worldview as a rejection of empiricism?

            I don’t want to deal with undefined terms. Tell me what you mean by empiricism and I will tell you if I reject it or not.

            If you mean the standard definition, that knowledge comes only from sensory experience, then yes I reject
            that view. I believe that deductive reasoning and history are equally as valid as sensory experience. Each has its
            place.

            We’ve hit on the root of the matter again. Science can’t show that anything is 100% impossible, just
            that certain claims can be extremely unlikely.

            And you have hit the problem with science. It is not foolproof, so we should not treat scientific knowledge as a trump over all other knowledge. Especially in cases where it is giving probabilities and not answers.

            “If the science is not definitive, then logic dictates going with omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, etc. over fallible, human science.”

            But not there. I would love an elaboration and justification of
            this final claim.

            This is a bit like Pascal’s wager. If science is not definitive about God’s existence, then it is a better bet to be wrong on
            the God side then to be wrong on your side regardless of the odds. To be wrong on the God side has no consequence. To be wrong on your side has heavy consequences.

            It is also a question of trust. Probabilities mean that there is evidence for each possibility available. At which point, a decision comes down to which grounds one trust. Logically, you should not trust the evidence that is possibly wrong (fallible science). If you agree that there is any evidence for
            God (which you would by not definitively disproving Him), then that evidence will never be wrong because of God’s nature.

            This post proposed framing beliefs as working hypotheses, and that’s the type of thinking I am trying to
            probe. If some of those belief-hypotheses concern the physical world, then how can you put them to the test without some sort of empiricism?

            You are free to put some of the beliefs to an empirical test. What I have continually asked you to do is to put the correct beliefs to the correct tests? I have said that conservation and tomb escape are not the correct tests to conduct for the Resurrection. You haven’t made the case that those tests
            are relevant to the case.

            Resurrection in itself is admittedly highly unlikely (even impossible naturally), so what do the conservation and tomb escape tests even add to the empiricist’s side of the conversation?

          • KG

            I agree that we’re at risk of a language barrier here, so your call for definitions is quite appropriate.

            “If you mean the standard definition, that knowledge comes only from sensory experience, then yes I reject
            that view.”

            I would say that the *sources* of knowledge only come from sensory experience. I don’t deny that an intellect/mind is needed to host the knowledge, which applies the rules of logic to make sense of observations. (Whether this intellect/mind is physical or not is a separate issue). Deductive reasoning certainly plays a role in this process, but so does inductive reasoning. Certain observed regularities will be generalized into “laws”, and a proportionately large amount of counter-evidence needs to turn up in order to show that those laws can be violated.

            “I believe that deductive reasoning and history are equally as valid as sensory experience.” In my view history also has a role, but must be continue to be informed by the parameters of plausibility set forth by past observations and experiments. Historical records can be unreliable. (Sensory evidence can be unreliable, too, but it can be continually probed and improved with future observation and experimentation, which is not available for historical claims). It is precisely the unreliability of historical evidence that I am interested in exploring.

            There is a fascinating conversation unfolding in another comment thread on this blog about the historical records concerning early Christianity. Both sides conceded that a certain level of doubt and skepticism is appropriate when approaching these records, but in the end they arrive at entirely opposite conclusions about whether the evidence is satisfactory. The advantage that I think the skeptics have here is that they can support their doubts with facts about the physical world that have been firmly established through experiment and observation performed today. These facts include the solidity and impermeability of stone, the huge amount of energy required to unbind the molecules of a body, and the observational signatures that would have accompanied such a transfer of energy. The historical claim that the resurrection occurred has to stand up to those facts.

            “Logically, you should not trust the evidence that is possibly wrong (fallible science). ”

            All interpretation of evidence is possibly wrong. Some of it is less wrong (and no, I am not actually a fervent reader of the site Less Wrong, although I am guessing I’d agree with a lot of it). I have given you my reasons for why I think the empirical views of the plausibility of the Resurrection outweigh the historical ones.

            “I have said that conservation and tomb escape are not the correct tests to conduct for the Resurrection.”

            What are the correct tests, then?

          • Erick

            I would say that the
            *sources* of knowledge only come from sensory experience.

            I reject this claim. A lot of (likely most) knowledge can only
            come from sensory experience, but I believe that there are instances where one can determine things without the benefit of sensory experience.

            Just as an example, the book of Genesis deduced that the universe began from nothing without ever having benefit of sensory experience. That is thousands of years before observation made it possible for science to argue for the same idea.

            The advantage that I think the skeptics have here is that they can support their doubts with facts about the physical world that have been firmly established through experiment and observation performed today.

            The key word to me is “today”. But what about tomorrow? Considering the history of science, one should not be so comfortable by whatever is established “today”. There was once a today when the Earth was the center of the universe. There was once a today when Troy was just a myth. There
            was once a today when the atom was the smallest, indivisible component of matter.

            These facts include the solidity and impermeability of stone, the huge amount of energy required to unbind the molecules of a body, and the observational signatures that would have accompanied such a transfer of energy.

            And as I have pointed plenty of times, these “facts” require premises about how Jesus resurrected and was assumed into Heaven. Premises that have no actual basis for assuming, since no one has ever described the hows. Where in Christian theology is it said that the molecules of Jesus’ body was unbinded or transferred into energy or removed
            from the material universe?

            What are the correct tests,
            then?

            Whatever they are, they would actually be based on known information about Jesus’ resurrection. Not assumptions or guesses.

          • KG

            “Just as an example, the book of Genesis deduced that the universe began from nothing without ever having benefit of sensory experience. That is thousands of years before observation made it possible for science to argue for the same idea.”

            First of all, there exist ex-nihilo creation myths that predate Genesis. But I doubt you take every claim of those religions seriously just because they made the claim “the universe was created out of nothing” first? Also, science has argued for something far more specific than the universe beginning from nothing. The Big Bang theory predicted the existence of microwave background radiation, for example, which has now been measured to extraordinary precision. If the Bible made any such specific, falsifiable claims, than I’d take it more seriously.

            “The key word to me is ‘today’. But what about tomorrow?”

            I’ll update my view of the physical world if and when appropriate physical evidence comes along. I’ve already done that, for example, with regards to the accelerated expansion of the universe, the first evidence of which was in 1998. The key here is that it seems that no physical evidence will update your belief about the physical plausibility of the resurrection.

            “Premises that have no actual basis for assuming, since no one has ever described the hows. Where in Christian theology is it said that the molecules of Jesus’ body was unbinded or transferred into energy or removedfrom the material universe?”

            Again, I’ll take your word that no material was removed from the material universe. But the claim is that the body left the tomb without being carried out. Somehow a corpse, whose material composition we know very well, became invisible or passed through the cave walls, whose composition we also know very well. There’s no wiggle room in the laws of motion of matter and energy to allow that to happen (Another alternative is that the body didn’t leave the tomb but was instead vaporized, but you seem to discount that possibility). Maybe, just maybe, it did happen, and our understanding of the physical universe is just incomplete enough to allow this to be consistent. But the only evidence for that conclusion comes from historical accounts written years after the event took place. If you would like to base your worldview around that evidence, then I can’t stop you. I’m more curious as to how Leah has come to base her worldview on that historical evidence after having previously dismissed it on this very blog.

          • Erick

            .

            First of all, there exist ex-nihilo creation myths that predate Genesis.

            My use of Genesis as an example does not mean I exclude other myths. It’s just the one I am most familiar with.

            But I doubt you take every claim of those religions seriously just because they made the claim “the universe was created out of nothing” first?

            Where exactly in my example did I argue that Genesis was knowledge about the existence of God? You are deflecting. The fact that other ancient myths were able to know that the universe was created out of nothing only strengthens my point that knowledge can be found even without sensory experience.

            Also, science has argued for something far more specific than the universe beginning from nothing.

            The fact that science has added anything does not eliminate the fact that the ancients knew something without sensory experience.

            The key here is that it seems that no physical evidence will update your belief about the physical plausibility of the resurrection.

            As I’ve already mentioned, I’m willing to update my belief as long you can give definitive proof. Proof you readily admit is not available, because science is not built that way.

            Somehow a corpse, whose material composition we know very well, became invisible or passed through the cave walls, whose composition we also know very well.

            Catholics already believe that resurrection is physically implausible (even impossible), so I ask again what does this line of reasoning get you?

            Forget the walls for a minute; we are talking about resurrecting after death! The reality of death is probably the most attested physical knowledge humanity knows. Once I can get over the probabilistic hump that death is, what exactly is the probabilistic hump of walls supposed to do for me?

            Catholic faith is built around a conflict between physical knowledge and sensory experience. We know rising from death is (quite frankly) as implausible as anything we know. Yet, people keep seeing and interacting with Jesus alive after death. That is what we are dealing with.

            In other words, we’ve already dealt with the probabilistic evidence and decided to believe the sensory experience. You went the other way. Adding more probabilistic evidence does not get us anywhere.
            So to update these beliefs means getting definitive, not probabilistic proof either for or against. I, therefore, now move on to other forms of knowledge like philosophy to find my definitive answers. When you find new, definitive physical evidence, then I will listen. But you keep saying that you don’t have it, so how exactly am I to act to that admission?


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