A German Joke

It’s pretty obvious who said this, but one thinks better of him for it anyway:

bq. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the _universitas scientiarum,_ even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.

Even the Pope, you see, knows that he should preface “his speeches”:http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html with a joke. This is the one which is aerating Muslims all across the Middle East. It’s well worth reading, actually, both to get a flavour of the way that he actually thinks — and, boy, is he easier to read than the last one — and because it is a very clear statement of his beliefs about the relationship between science and faith. In particular, this …

bq. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.

leading towards this

bq. modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: ‘It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss’. The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby.

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4 Responses to A German Joke

  1. Drew says:

    Once again the Pope demonstrates his extremely poor grasp of the world’s big ideas. (His comment about the “dictatorship of relativism”:http://andrewandlaura.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_andrewandlaura_archive.html was the first to catch my attention). I applaud the sentiment, but the Pope’s diagnosis of something like ‘modern thinking about science’ exhibits some seriously fuzzy thinking, and worrying lack of simple acquaintance with fundamental philosophical terminology. So, for starters, there is probably no way of making this sentence come out true, even if we could clear up what it means:

    “This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.”

    You would have to have a pretty wacky notion of what a concept is for it to be based on a ‘synthesis’ between such abstract and ambiguous theories (as if there is any agreement on the meaning of ‘Platonism’ for example). Moreover, since when are Platonism and Cartesianism the same thing? (One is a metaphysical view and one an epistemological one, to put it crudely). Then there is the connection, just begging to be spelled out, between these abstract doctrines and the ‘success of technology’ (or for that matter, some explanation of what that ‘success’ amounts to). And then there’s the fact that if our modern thinking were really so heavily influenced by Cartesianism, then we really ought to be much more theistic than we are. After all, Descartes proof, his ‘divine veracitas’, which is supposed to establish that we actually know something about the world and are not being deceived by an evil demon, appeals to the benevolence of God.

    The pope’s words also get worse before they get better.

    “On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.”

    I can’t imagine what he thinks he’s alluding to or saying here, but his claim is just nonsense, and no-one in their right philosophical mind would assert it. The notions of verification and falsification typically come attached to logical empiricism and the philosophy of Karl Popper respectively. Neither has any real truck with the notion of ‘ultimate certainty’. Indeed, any scientist or philosopher of science who believes they science deals with ‘ultimate certainties’ would be missing something pretty fundamental about the fallible, inductive nature of scientific reasoning, experiment and thus method.

    Once again, the leader of one of the world’s largest religions demonstrates a pretty appalingly poor grasp on some of the most important philosophical ideas of the last few hundred years. If this were his first year essay, I’d be seriously tempted to fail him. So I guess it’s just as well the papacy doesn’t require an entrance exam.

  2. Rupert says:

    So the Pope believes a load of bollocks. Well, well, well.

    I don’t care. It would be nice if he actually knew what he was talking about, but the sense of what he’s saying is clear: science is fine when dealing with material things. Pace PZ’s Wrekkin’ Krew, I’m down wi’ dat. Even Einstein had problems pondering how it was that the Universe should appear comprehensible, and I’m not aware of any philosopher of note who’s attacked that particular problem in a useful way, so why not let Papa preach?

    So far, he’s saying that science should be left alone to be science and that violence is a bad idea. I don’t care if he gets that from back issues of Peanuts (it’s unlikely to be Calvin and Hobbes) while misrepresentiing it as a synthesis of Derrida and Duran Duran. I can see that the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons may demur from this flip analysis, but really – it’s one of the more harmless things he can concern himself with.

    Meanwhile, what do you do with people who say “If you call me intolerant, I’ll cut your head off”? Are global supplies of irony sufficient, or should we consider mining the nearer asteroids?

    R

  3. Drew says:

    bq. Even Einstein had problems pondering how it was that the Universe should appear comprehensible, and I’m not aware of any philosopher of note who’s attacked that particular problem in a useful way, so why not let Papa preach?

    Charles Sanders Peirce, grandfather of American Pragmatism, devoted most of his work to this problem, and said a lot of fascinating and enlightening things – unlike our preaching papa.

    I’m sure the millions of Catholics who look to the pope for spiritual guidance, and other interested parties seeking reassurance that those millions are on the side of sanity and the common good, probably hope for something more than fortune cookie wisdom from the pontiff. I don’t think we should excuse the pope’s ignorance and inanity on the basis that he’s saying vague and apparently harmless things, any more than we should excuse George Bush for doing it – after all, look how he turned out.

    I don’t think the problem with the pope is that he doesn’t know his Augustine from his Immanuel Kant, but I do think his ignorance in this matter is indicative of something genuinely worrying: the lack of a real _mind at work_ in the world’s most visible and significant religious leader. Perhaps it’s this lack that explains how it’s possible that the Catholic church’s official policy remains that condoms do not prevent HIV. How’s that for confusing your science of the material world with spiritual matters?

  4. Rupert says:

    Yes, it does fall down rather with HIV and some of the other ways the church deals with sexuality, and perhaps it would be nice to have one who put rationality above superstition. But I don’t think you get to be Pope if you’re too original a thinker – you need a bit of the old hard-wired medieval. I’d quite like a Royal Family that could get a flicker out of any sort of cultural, intellectual or emotional scanner too. But that won’t happen either, so as long as they’re not raging fascists in public I reckon it’s bearable.

    Thanks for the Charles Sanders Pierce lead. One can spend a long time frolicking among the philosophers without coming near to collecting the set.

    R

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