Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Cherished Enemy

I have been following the really amazing response to the bloggingheads debate between me and Eliezer Yudkowsky. So much of it is thoughtful on both sides that it is a joy to read and learn from. There is also, sometimes, a line of reasoning which I have encountered before which always makes me sad. In the science vs. religion debate there are those on both sides who simply don't want to hear any attempts to develop a different perspective on these two long-lived human endeavors. There is an enemy out there - strident myopic atheism or religious dogmatism - and they want it to stay.

Even after one acknowledges the pointlessness of the extremes these poles can take and begins to argue for an alternative, the combatants seek to bring the argument back to the original line of antagonism. It's as if there is more comfort in having that enemy present then in finding a new line of reasoning which allow those who reject the extremes to build a useful language for a very different kind of discussion. An atheist who finds value in the domains of human spiritual endeavor is therefore not atheist enough and becomes an enemy for one side of the antagonism.

This is not new. History is rife with historical antagonisms and combatants who carried their ageless grievances around with them like talismans. The enemy became their meaning, their reason for being. The enemy became cherished for who would the combatants be, what would they become, without their enemy? How different this is from the perspective articulated by someone like the Dali Lama who spoke from the depths of wisdom and compassion about "our friends, the enemy."

Polarities are easy to support and can provide a sense of order and place but they don't require much work. We can fight against intolerance, we stand up against dogma and prejudice, we can retain the integrity of our cherished values and still allow ourselves the courage to look anew. Our creativity is best served not by holding a view of the war between extremes but in imaging an alternative.


  1. Adam, I think this post ties in well with the last paragraph of your previous post and together they get at a dynamic that I think we need to develop language for. In my own attempt to put this dynamic into words, I would say you are distinguishing between a way of being where a person grounds their reality in some abstracted form, or dogma, (dogma can be a religious statement or a professional code etc.) and a way of being where a person grounds their reality in being itself.

    How does my surmising compare with yours?

  2. @ Adam, On a more personal note,

    I mentioned earlier that this is my first experience in the blog world. The irony is, that while there are a couple of blogs published by some rather progressive Christian thinkers who I think are doing some cool and radical stuff, I feel more kinship here and I have yet to comment with them over there.

    As a theological thinker and an aspiring follower of Christ, I have been looking for a way past religiously styled interaction, and can think of a couple of reasons for my ironic kinship.

    1. We're theorizing; It's been fruitful to interact with yours and everyone else's ideas. For me, this has been a creative experience.

    2. I like not being religious, and your blog isn't. But I wouldn't call it secular: The spirit of this blog has been in a very real way, sacred; not in the big cosmic awe way, but in a way that comes from the glowing red coals of an established fire bed.

    The "enemies" are missing out. Still, I hope we're building on a voice here, that our culture will be able to hear more clearly than the self-established fighters.

  3. Adam you say "...imaging an alternative" (to the polar extremes). Yes, I agree, necessary, but I would maintain, far from sufficient and not even the most important. Here I refer again to Robert Putnam's work on social capital. The real work has to go into creating bridging networks and bonding networks. Immersion in networks created as result of social capital is what will not only create alternatives but make them liveable. By broadening and deepening our empathetic mesh we bridge polarities, creating tolerance, understanding and new alternatives.
    I am very hopeful because the Internet is acting as a catalyst to enable this process, allowing us to self-organise in a way that transcends normal boundaries. The Open Software movement is a marvellous example of self organisation across national and commercial boundaries to produce something (Linux) that is stunningly better.

  4. Damn you, Blogger! I just lost another comment. So frustrated. But I'll try again:

    The need for enemies is a necessary evil, especially when we're young. Declaring war is motivationally or inspirationally beneficial, and young people need the extra push to think about deep subjects, as few people are naturally attracted to doing this, at least not until they've been habituated, or have had an experience of insight etc. The problematic thing is when enmity is taken too seriously. And so, predictably, I again arrive at fictionalism as the key for how to eat your cake and have it, too.

    Animosity, like other emotions, should not be quelled, but cultivated and employed to something good. Socially, this is hard, and one should perhaps avoid even trying. But personally (i.e. internally), I find this perspective healthier.

    I realize that what I'm talking about here lands quite a bit to the side of your post, Frank, but it did make me wonder: Are you of the "quell" view?

  5. This animosity is an issue. But why? I've stated my biases: for context only: I don't care one lick whether or not you adopt my ideas concerning god,etc. Here, I would only reject attempts by someone to be snarky: I'm as thoughtful and rigorous in my thinking as anyone else. Barring snarkyness, I'm open to anyone's sincere insight. Long for it actually.

    I think for me this is an evolutionary issue: Life is intrinsically ambiguous, and ambiguity F's up our simple orienting systems; the result is that we would rather fight and bolster our clarity, than enter into murkiness and find a better way: even if it means destroying ourselves...how did this trait get past natural selection?

    William Byers, in his book, How Mathematicians Think, writes brilliantly on ambiguity and its creative power. Here, he builds the idea that an ambiguity exists when at least two domains of reality, each with their separate frames of reference and logic, contradict each other, but are held together by a higher form of order. I would argue that Human Being is embodied ambiguity: we exist by processes that can be termed physical; but equally, we exist by processes that are non-physical; do we see with our eyes? or do we really see with our ideas, for instance? Cancel either side of our innate ambiguity, and we lose full Human Being.

    One way, and the easy way- at least at a spiritual level (spiritual here, referring only to our non-physical processes) is to reframe an ambiguity as a contradiction and then beat up the side who's wrong: Largeness and clarity restored; anxiety of being alive held at bay: But we miss out on evolution's hope for Human Being- our learning to be truly Human.

    The way I see it, "god" existing or not existing are each credible ideas which also have coherence to the reality before us. I have no interest in shaping this into a contradiction though- I'd like to evolve into the ambiguous.

  6. Gorm, I was glancing at Alva Noe's work about Action in Perception when I saw your comment which seems sort of related. We need to feel the pushback or feedback for our own action to have any kind of existence. It may be that immaturity needs stronger pushback hence the more extreme positions. So then maturity, whether of society or the individual, is more sensitive, allowing more moderate or nuanced positions.

  7. @gottschalk, >...how did this trait get past natural selection?<

    Maybe we're living in a time where the inability to embody ambiguity will be selected out- But then again, those who insist on a contradicting way of being might be more fierce and lead a battle into singularity.

  8. @gorm So I am definately not in the "quell" camp becuase the cool thing about democracy is allowing/tolerating all kinds of opinion and behavior. I do see the point about the need for an "enemy" to push against and this is very true about the young. We all need our mountains to claim or monsters to vanquish in our youth. What I am arguing against I think is entrenchment.

    One of the most important books I read over the last decade was "War is a force that gives us meaning" by Chris Hedges. I was struck by how correct he seemed to be is arguing that how every much people talk of peace they often want war. Now its not like I want everyone to take the same view but an authentic dialogue means stepping away from caricatures of arguments which is what I think often happens in the Science vs Religion debate so that nuance never even gets a chance - all positions get centrifuged into the extremes so that they can get shot down with the usual applause lines.

    Buddhist talk about Dharma combat where you really argue deeply over principles and ideas. That is great. So its not the arguing that is in anyway problematic. It's the listening and allowing learning to happen that matters.

  9. @gottschalk I agree with your distinction between dogma and (I think you are saying) experience itself. Part of the reason the entrenchment I was talking about above happens is when people hold more closely to a set of principles than to their lived experience. Our humanity with its inherent ambiguity should come first. A cherished set of statements defining a position should not be set in higher regard.

    I am so down with what you are saying about Mathematics and Ambiquity. There has been a lot of writing which shows how this most rational of human enterprises has a place for intuition, aesthetics etc. We will need an apprecition for ambiguity and nuance in the future that has been sorely lacking in the past.

  10. @Occasional I am not familiar with Putnam's work. How does the creation of bridging and bonding networks happen? How do they keep from being pulled apart by the polarities we have been discussing?

  11. Adam we create social capital in the mundane everyday activities of interaction in clubs, seminars, volunteerism, church activity, bazaars, fetes, etc, etc. By giving in frequent, widespread social interactions we create a shared pool of trust, reciprocity and values. This is the one place where Dawkins overinterpreted idea of a meme is useful :)
    Our polarised groups have their roots in our powerful need for identity. We adopt the badges of a group to define and reinforce our identity. Then conflict ensues when we defend our identifying group against suspected encroachment.
    Social capital, by building trust, reciprocity and shared values, broadens our identifying groups and creates more tolerance of other groups. In other words we build larger, more inclusive groups and are less suspicious of other groups.
    You have lived in the world's largest experiment with social capital. It is called the USA. As an outsider I look on with bemused admiration and amazement and wish that my tragic, benighted country would adopt your institutions. We are also living in the world's next large experiment with social capital. It is called the Internet and is an early work in progress with uncertain outcome.

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