Wednesday, October 20, 2004

attack of the Vallicella!

REVISION WARNING: This post started off short... then, horribly, it began to grow.

The good Dr. Vallicella zaps me again about doctrine and practice in a recent post. He writes:

...the content of doctrines as opposed to their promulgating, propagating, interpreting, and the like, is irreducible to any form of human practice, religious or non-religious. The doctrines in their propositional content cannot be reduced to practice, and practice cannot be reduced to doctrine.

It's possible I'm misreading this, but it seems the phrase "doctrines in their propositional content" is an unnecessary conflation of issues. To me, there's a very clear distinction between doctrine and the referent of doctrine. More on this in a moment.

Dr. Vallicella writes further:

...although it is true that religious teachings are promulgated and propagated by human beings, they express a content that is either true or false. Thus a distinction is needed between doctrines as human artifacts, for which Kim's "No people, no doctrine" dictum holds, and doctrines as expressing a content that is either true or false.

I'm not sure such a distinction is meaningful. If we accept Dr. Vallicella's typology, we have:

1. doctrines as human artifacts
2. doctrines expressing content (that is true or false)

I'm not clear on whether the above refers to two different types of doctrine, or two ways of looking at doctrine in general, and to be honest, I don't think it matters. In (2) above, the word "expressing" indicates that (2) is clearly a subset of (1), because expressions are human artifacts. I submit that my own schema still stands: there's doctrine, and there's the referent of doctrine.

Whether the referent of doctrine is real determines the doctrine's truth or falsity. But this is neither here nor there for my own purposes: to define doctrine as "teaching" or as "expressing content" is still to talk about a phenomenon tied specifically to the existence of humanity.

My claim about doctrine is unrelated to doctrine's referent. In my original post on the subject, I addressed this issue:

Of course doctrines are essential, but in a real sense, practice and doctrine are not-two. If anything, the formulation of doctrine can itself be seen as a form of religious practice: it is the doing of religion. It requires people in order to exist in any meaningful way.

Both doctrine and practice-- however we parse those terms-- are human phenomena, as is religion itself. This is my point of departure. No people, no religion. No people, no doctrine. No people, no practice. So I disagree with the notion that doctrine exists independent of people. Doctrine exists inside one's head. There need to be human brains and bodies for there to be doctrine. A bunch of scriptures blowing around in the wake of a nuclear holocaust do not a doctrine make.

Please note that my stance says nothing with regard to the referent of doctrine. I'm not addressing any questions about the religious realities doctrines supposedly delineate. There may be a God, but if there are no people, then there's no Christianity, no Christian practice, no Christian doctrine.

The final paragraph, above, still serves as my reply to Dr. Vallicella's latest.

I'll risk an analogy:

The act of seeing requires both a seer and the thing seen. Dr. Vallicella rightly claims that doctrines arise in relation to their referents when he says: " is the nature of reality that makes it so, and not anything that human beings make or do." In the same way, when a sane person looks at a flower, the image of a flower is what the brain processes, not the image of an elephant or a battleship. Sight is, in this sense, very much a function of the thing seen.

But sight (at least for us mortal beings) requires organs of sight. It further presupposes seeing beings,* natural or artificial, that can process the images impacting the sense organs. The notion of sight has no meaning without those beings. While the flower will exist with or without my presence, the sight of the flower is a reality tied to my (or any sighted being's) seeing. There is no seeing without seers, irrespective of the objective referents of sight.

In the same way, the question of doctrine is a question of human thought and behavior, which is why, in my original post, I deliberately bracketed the issue of the objective referent of doctrine, be it God or sunyata or Tao. Whether there are humans or no humans, the objective referent of doctrine (whatever it may be) will continue to exist (if "exist" is the proper term).

It is impossible to talk about doctrine (or practice, for that matter) without talking about people. People do. The doing of religion is practice, and I respectfully continue to maintain that the formulation of doctrine is a subset of practice.

SOMEWHAT UNRELATED PERSONAL NOTE: Dr. Vallicella gave me high praise when he wrote:

As I would put it, entry into the Big Ho's site requires proper accoutrement: gas mask on face, shovel in hand.

*By which I mean, "beings that can see."


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