Friday, March 19, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: Kaplan, Cobb, Vallicella


See my review of Stephen Kaplan's very interesting Different Paths, Different Summits, a book that offers a creative pluralistic hypothesis based largely on the work of David Bohm. I wanted to return to this briefly today to focus on some of the properties of holograms that make Kaplan's hypothesis atypical.

1. Implicate order and explicate order. The changing holographic images you see would constitute the explicate order of the hologram. The implicate order would be the interference patterns inscribed on the surface of the material being used to create the hologram.

2. Multiple images on the same surface. You can inscribe multiple images onto the same holographic surface, thereby producing many different holograms. Religious implication: one implicate order, many explicate orders. However, Kaplan is firm in the conviction that neither order, implicate or explicate, is logically prior to the other.

3. Wholeness in fragmentation. This has to be one of the strangest properties of holograms. Did you know that, if you break a hologram into pieces, each piece will project a smaller version of the entire image? I didn't know this until I read Kaplan's book. So if you start off with a large hologram of an elephant, then cut the hologram into six pieces, you don't get sections of an elephant-- you get six whole elephants! The religious implication is that every part of reality is a reflection of (or contains within itself) the entirety of reality. This dovetails with how some Taoists used to think. It's also an intuition found in a lot of different cultures.

4. Holomovement. This isn't actually a property of current holograms, though it could become so. The concept of holomovement is necessary, however, for Kaplan's pluralistic hypothesis to hold any water. If you enter the discussion by offering up only a typical hologram as an analogy, someone's bound to come along and say, "But reality isn't static and holographic images are." So underlying Kaplan's argument is this notion of holomovement.

As I said in my review, I don't quite buy Kaplan's hypothesis because it, like all other pluralistic hypotheses, still hangs everything on a single unifying element, which makes it subject to S. Mark Heim's "pluralism that isn't really pluralistic" critique.* Kaplan's model is, as he himself freely admits in describing it, multiple ontologies within a single metaphysic. Kaplan's book is a work in progress, though; he's very good about recognizing strong theological and metaphysical objections to his hypothesis, so perhaps we'll see a revised version of the book in the years to come. It's really an intriguing idea.

[*NB: I take some issue with this critique now, partly thanks to my readings in The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity-- perhaps a discussion's in order for next week?]


A few days ago, Cobb wrote about Donald Sensing's position on gay marriage. Here's the link to that post. I posted the following comment in the thread to Cobb's post:

I'm very much pro-gay marriage, and find the clinging to a specific definition of "what marriage is about" to be futile and foolish. What appeals to me about Donald Sensing's larger argument is that he says, "Look, conservatives-- we already lost this fight long ago. Once people gained the ability to divorce sex from its consequences through birth control, etc., any necessary connection between marriage, sex, love, children, etc. was broken."

Where I disagree with Sensing is on whether this is a good or bad thing. To me, it's perfectly fine. Sensing's a conservative Christian, so naturally, this isn't fine-- it's "against the will of God."

But Sensing's approach gets my respect because it's empirical. He's looking at the situation as it is, not wasting his time pining for how it should be, or making useless declarations about what marriage is or isn't.

My own point of view is very Buddhist on this: marriage is a term describing a reality in flux. You cannot reduce marriage to a so-called set of "essentials." To declare, as Keith Burgess-Jackson does on his philosophy blog, that marriage is "essentially" about children, may reflect past history but says nothing about whether marriage will continue to be this way. Sensing steps in and makes an empirical observation: "Folks, the reality underlying the term 'marriage' HAS MOVED. Deal with that."

I've seen, on your blog, the notion that marriage is "ordained of God." I think that's fine as a religious belief and I wouldn't want to take that from you, even though I disagree because I'm a nontheist. I think what Sensing offers to conservatives is a proper way of viewing the situation: beginning with the empirical and proceeding pragmatically from there, instead of beginning with an indefensible "ought"-stance that has little chance of convincing anyone.

Insistence on what marriage is and isn't is what Buddhists would call "attachment to name and form"-- a classic type of attachment, and debilitating. The best cure is true, direct seeing. I don't think Rev. Sensing is a Zennist in any formal sense (despite his blog's name), but he at least sees this situation directly and truly.

Cobb wrote the following reply:

You cannot be a Buddhist without understanding and conforming to the Buddhist way of seeing things. I've read Karen Armstrong's book on Buddha, does that make me a Buddhist? I see things in a Buddhist way when that way explains things best, but does that make me a Buddhist? No.

When I say 'ordained of God' I mean that in the context of Holy Matrimony, not marriage in the commonly understood way. As well I believe that religions appropriate the value of marriage for their own purposes. I say marriage is ordained of God, just as one could say Relativity is Einstein's idea. It is not really, Einstein merely correctly and properly understood what is right and true of nature. He articulated it in an unambiguous way through the discipline of scientific language and it resulted in the exalted Theory. I am saying this of Holy Matrimony. It is something right and true of nature that various religions have independently verified and they have exalted it through the discipline of theological thought.

What activists for the gay cause are trying to do is overload and/or water down what is meant by marriage, codified in Holy Matrimony, for their own special purposes. I say that it belongs under a separate theory because what is implicit in Marriage is the special responsibilty accorded to the raising of children.

Sensing cops out in an American way I think (if he is copping out at all instead of snidely protesting - certainly he wouldn't disavow his own marriage because of the existence of contraception) because he assumes that the technology changes the value. He accepts the inevitability of contraception in decisions to marry, whereas the Roman Catholic Church does not. This is like bringing a submachine gun to all fights and saying that the value of martial arts and hand to hand combat is meaningless and so are the codes of honor attached to them. What Sensing concedes for conservatives allows hypocrisy. I suggest that the way of the warrior, and similarly the way of traditional Marriage is not dead and remains instructive. I think the burden is on certain feminists in their reconciliation with motherhood to prove how liberating the 'sexual liberation' afforded by the advancing technology of contraception actually is.

Where are the eunuchs in all this?

As for gay couples who adopt children? They fall under the category of foster parents. So what?

I'm not really sure I understand what Cobb's getting at here; his response seems to be all over the place, which isn't usual for him. I've posted this exchange here for Religious Diversity Friday because of the religious tenor of the exchange-- two very different ways of chewing over a problem.

Cobb writes above, "I say marriage is ordained of God, just as one could say Relativity is Einstein's idea." The disanalogy here is that the claim "[the theory of] relativity is Einstein's idea" can be seen as a claim of historical fact: the history books confirm that Einstein did indeed formulate such a theory. Is the claim "marriage is ordained of God" the same kind of empirically verifiable claim? No-- it's a claim rooted in faith and not verifiable in the scientific sense. But Cobb clarifies his position by saying:

It is not really [i.e., relativity is an objective reality, not a subjective formulation], Einstein merely correctly and properly understood what is right and true of nature. He articulated it in an unambiguous way through the discipline of scientific language and it resulted in the exalted Theory. I am saying this of Holy Matrimony. It is something right and true of nature that various religions have independently verified and they have exalted it through the discipline of theological thought.

But this clarification is still disanalogous: whatever the actual reality is, Einstein's theory remains a theory: it's subject to review, verification, and falsification. It could, in principle, be tossed aside in favor of a new, better theory. A theory provides an explanation of reality. When it lacks sufficient explanatory power, a theory is bad. Holy Matrimony, to use Cobb's term, isn't viewed by anyone in this manner. People might see matrimony as a practical reality, or they might see it as infused with religious meaning, but in both of these cases, Holy Matrimony is most assuredly not being viewed as something on par with a scientific theory. Religious notions, as painful history repeatedly demonstrates, are notoriously hard to revise, especially when compared to scientific theories.

But if Cobb is trying to claim that religious notions arise from reality, and those notions are somehow on a par with scientific theory, it should be possible to revise those religious notions, as one does with scientific theories, to reflect an evolving understanding of reality. And this is where Cobb's argument fails: reality does move. As such, religious notions, if they are to retain their robustness, also have to move-- so maybe Cobb is right in spite of himself to equate religious notions and scientific theories! That's how religious notions should be: flexible, revisable, in conformity with changing reality. But at heart, Cobb would like Holy Matrimony to be a fixed a priori reality, something graven in the stone of the cosmos, something containing "essentials"-- why else use "ordained of God" language? But the cosmos isn't unmoving, so nothing can stay graven forever.


[MARCH 20 UPDATE: The link to Dr. Vallicella's response has been updated. it now leads you directly to his response, not simply to his weblog.]

Contra Hominid! For those of you who've been waiting and praying for Dr. Vallicella's reply to my critique of his paper, HERE IT IS! The BigHo gets his ten lashes. Follow the link and scroll down a bit, then look for the sea of red ink-- it's just like I'm back in grad school again! Dr. Vallicella emailed to say that he'll be appending a specific permalink to his reply for more direct access to it. When he does, I'll update my own link accordingly.

I'll want to review Dr. Vallicella's response in depth later on this blog, but I need to chew it over a bit. Some very quick & superficial thoughts:

1. I was glad to get a fuller explanation of "relative permanence," but I'm still not convinced this concept addresses the Buddhist perspective, or is in any way meaningful to it.

2. Although Dr. Vallicella ably defends his critique's narrow focus (i.e., concentrating on a specific exchange in the Milindapanha-- you'll recall that I complained about this), I think there are still problems with trying to critique the anatman (no-self) doctrine with only a single Buddhist dialogue as the focal point of critique.

Dr. Vallicella makes pronouncements about Buddhist metaphysics (series of unconnected moments, etc.) that can't have been extracted from the dialogue in question, then uses those concepts (some of which are debatable, as I argued previously) in the service of his critique of the dialogue. Is this proper? I'm not convinced it is. If you're going to bring in extra-textual concepts, you've got to pay more attention to the larger context in which the intra-textual concepts reside.

A good question to ask oneself is how much of a doctrine is being delineated in a given snatch of text before assuming one has enough data on which to base a critique. To conclude on scant evidence that a doctrine is indefensible/unpersuasive is to arrive at a potentially false conclusion. In this case: does the Milinda-Nagasena exchange in question provide the critic with enough information to understand the anatman doctrine in toto? My answer is no, it doesn't. We need to read around more. And the moment we decide to bring in data from outside of that text, we widen the scope of our critique. Fairness would require a lengthier treatment of the issues and problems: as many of the sources of a "doctrine" as possible should be considered. Anatman is a doctrine with many textual sources.

To be fair in this way is to exhibit charity in interpretation, I think. For me to crack open the Bible, read the directive of Deuteronomy 23:1 (NRSV; in Catholic Bibles it's 23:2) completely out of context, and draw negative conclusions about some doctrinal point in Hebrew/Jewish ethics might be "focused," but it would be unwarranted. By the same token, a critique of the anatman doctrine as laid out in this one dialogue strikes me as weak from the beginning. Does the dialogue in fact sufficiently "lay out" the doctrine? It's a pretty short dialogue, so I think this is a legitimate question. While holy men might be able to perform lengthy exegeses spun out of a single word of scripture, philosophers need to be a bit more attentive to issues of context, fairness, and comprehensiveness in their analyses and critiques.

[By that same token, Dr. V might argue, I need to realize that he addresses Buddhist issues in more than one research paper. That's only fair. My critique of Dr. V's paper also requires that I read more of Dr. V to get a feel for the larger context of his thought. More on this as it happens; Dr. V doesn't have many Buddhism-related papers online yet, but they're on the way.]

3. I think Dr. Vallicella has rightfully pointed out some of my own missteps in arguing against his thesis, and he's also right to ask for clarification about some of the terms I use. Part of the problem here, on my end, is a sloppiness born of inexperience. I'm woefully behind when it comes to terms and concepts in Western philosophy, and it's in discussions like these that my ignorance is in full view. This doesn't embarrass me a bit-- I engaged Vallicella because I'm a slob looking for a free education in Western philo, and I'm getting one.

There is, however, a meta-problem in discussions like these: because Buddhism arose and developed in one environment, and Western philo arose and developed in another, very different environment, there will always be the danger that interlocutors from either side of the fence will talk past each other. (I'm referring mainly to philosophical discussions like this one, but what I'm talking about is equally applicable to interreligious discussions.)

More than that, there's always the chance that arguing the Buddhist case entirely on Western philo terms is an unnecessary concession to the Western side (by parity of reasoning, vice versa is also true). Trying to make a Buddhist conceptual square peg fit into a Western conceptual round hole is bound to generate static. My point is that it's possible that one can explain a foreign concept only so well before the strictures of the discussion itself preclude further explanation. (How do you bridge the conceptual gap at that point? What role do intuitive, empathetic, and imaginative leaps play in Western philosophical discourse?)

Consider, for example, a staple of Western philo: the principle of non-contradiction. How, exactly, are you going to apply this principle to an analysis of Zen thought and discourse? You can't, and still expect coherent, useful results. People will try, of course: Mortimer Adler, in Truth in Religion, wrote a very rational but very ignorant passage about paradox in Zen thinking which, to a Zennist, would look like idiocy: Adler obviously didn't "get it." The "getting it" in Zen is nondiscursive, nonrational, and nonlogical (not irrational and illogical). If you're planning on having a meaningful Zen discussion, you're going to have to throw out the principle of non-contradiction. It's the only path to sense in Zen. Adler's approach, relentlessly faithful to his philosophical tradition, brought all the wrong tools to the table, from the Zennist's point of view.

The same is true in the opposite direction, of course, and that's the tone underlying Vallicella's response to me. I freely admit there's plenty I don't "get" about Western philo-- terms I haven't learned, concepts I haven't mastered. My hope is that this exchange, which is already very fruitful, will continue to push me to see things from different perspectives. At the same time, I do have my own perspective, a nondualistic one, that makes me skeptical of concepts and arguments that sound implausible even after a second and third hearing. Such is the case with that notion of "relative permanence," which still sounds like a fancy way of evading the fundamental issues to which the Buddhist thinkers addressed themselves.

Dr. Vallicella might be a Zen master in disguise, however. In his response to my contention that the self is constructed, he asks, "Who constructed it, then?"** That's a very Zen question!

"Who is this typing now?"

"Who is eating this food?"

Of course, the Zen master isn't asking these questions for lofty philosophical reasons. His intention is ethical: to address the issue of suffering and show you where its roots lie, and to bring you back to here and now, where you should always be.

I want to think more about Dr. Vallicella's response, and perhaps next week I'll try to formulate an answer. I begin my heavy teaching schedule next Wednesday, so I can't guarantee how long or substantive any of my future blogs will be. My thanks, in the meantime, to Dr. Vallicella for his reply.

[**NB: You'll note that, for Dr. Vallicella, this question very likely presumes a single, unified, transtemporal "who" (or what) acting as the constructing agent. Why this presumption? To me, it's not a given at all.]


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