15 April 2006

'The Question to Everyone's Answer...'

Yes, my title is a Steve Miller Lyric. I defend my use of it: no matter how much cheesier Steve Miller grows to be at time goes by, he still had some great lines.

However, I use the line as the connector to Paul's recent post.
Paul has been discussing both statistics (shocker) and 'the zone'. I have one brief comment about the latter, and that is to say that the question of the 'the zone' really should be dissociated from questions of statistics and statistically anomolies. There is the question of 'being hot' or 'being due' that can be sorted out through statistics, but being 'in the zone' should not be reduced to being 'on a streak'. 'The zone' ought to refer not just to doing 'better than the odds' would predict beforehand, but to a mental and physical state as well. It's a state in which one is not only excelling in one's performance, but one knows that one will excel, and one also has the sense that this success is coming from...somewhere else.

But what I really wanted to get at was Paul's conclusion, where he asks the question to my answer:
So what is it about things that, while they have in fact occurred, somehow seem unlikely to have occurred? It's the only thing that's keeping the Creationists going at this point, for instance. It seems to point to a hole in our model of history, of how events transpire, of how we got from there to here.
It does point to a hole in our model of history. Or, put otherwise, it reveals the progressivism and linearity that underlies that model. We both demand and presume a sort of linear causality in which all events are explained by their source causes. The question 'what are the odds of that' - the question Paul hammers on so relentlessly - implies that most of the time 'the odds of that' should not be unreasonable, that any event should have a simple, causal explanation. But that's not how history works; it's not how time works; it's not how the world works. We only get those sorts of explanations post hoc. The process of history itself, as its going on, is filled with randomness. It's our resistance to that randmoness that makes 'intelligent design' sound like something other than a sham to many Americans (according to my students, it still sounds only like a sham to the Brits).


tenaciousmcd said...

Are you being too dismissive of the instinct behind "intelligent design"? Although I won't defend that theory as applied by many contemporary Christians, it was at one time the hot theory for enlightenment philosophers and deists everywhere (a nice irony given how it has turned into a last gasp protest against scientific explanation). It once gave metaphysical heft to their contention that "nature" is a rational and lawlike place that is amenable to scientific principle. Kant, of course, rips this up by suggesting that, since the mind is merely applying categories to experience, it is limited in how far it can extend its causal explanations--but he also does so partly in the name of God. For Kant, the effort to understand nature as a fully predictable system put man, impiously, in God's place.

Nonetheless, the desire to project the rationality of our minds upon nature itself and then see this as a sign of providence is as natural an anthropomorphism as imagining a God who "looks like" us--a wise and benevolent old man, etc. And why shouldn't we, if our own structured rationality is itself a manifestation of that nature?

Sam said...

I probably am being too dismissive of ID, as it was more of a rhetorical point here than anything else. And certainly you're right about the role that the notion of something like a 'divine spark' played in enlightenment philosophy. But you'll not be surprised to hear that I'm not the biggest fan of those enlightenment philosophies, as I don't think that either the world or the self is as rational as Hume or Descartes thought they were.

I'm much more comfortable with the idea that we might want to call the mysterious or unpredictable element of the universe divine, than I am with the notion that the universe is perfectly rational and the explanation for that must be God. I'm no James expert, but I think I most like the way that he combined a critique of rationalism with deism.

tenaciousmcd said...

Sam, I'm with you to some extent here. I'll take Kant's restraint over Voltaire's confident rationalism any day, for example. The unfolding of events, on a macro level, is certainly less "rational" than any number of modern philosophers (Descartes, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, etc.) would have us believe.

But human rationality does pose something of a puzzle. How, for example, could any structure--even one we, creatures of nature that we are, superimpose--come from shere abject randomness, or how sense out of nonsense? Nietzsche seemed to think this was some cruel cosmic joke (itself an anthropomorphism, of course), one we need simply accept. But once you take Nietzsche's leap into the "will to power," you really are left with the "nothing" of nihilism. And yet, human life is structured in a whole variety of ways, not just intellectual or even aesthetic, but "moral" as well, and these things cannot all be simply reduced to power relations. I know that you, like a lot of others with "post-mod" sympathies accept this, but often have trouble acknowledging it or explaining it. I'm thinking, in particular, about Rorty's weak attempt to chalk it all up to "the kind of people we modern liberals ARE", or maybe Derrida's contradictory (and absurd) claim that "justice is not deconstructable." ID may be a poor attempt to grapple with the problem, but at least there's some recognition there that there is, in fact, a problem.