2012-07-09

The Meat of the Matter

A friend mentioned to me yesterday that her online voyages had encountered philpapers.org, for philosophy papers. She typed in my name and discovered my sole publication as an academic philosopher: an essay from 17 years ago called "Neither Absolutism Nor Relativism." (You can see the first page here.)

After some rummaging around, I located a copy of the article. It seems that not only did I think that both absolutism and relativism shared a false assumption, but a variety of other seeming-opposites similarly derived from a shared error:
"foundations" vs. "culturally-influenced intuitions"
"correspondence with reality" vs. "internal coherence"
"representation of the way the world really is" vs. "descriptions useful for a purpose"
"objectivity" vs. "intersubjectivity"
"moral reality" vs. "human-created systems of values"
"essentialism" vs. "anti-essentialism"

All of these supposed oppositions collapse. The participants on both sides of these arguments have been confused, I said. There was, however, something that they really were disagreeing about. I called it "convergentism" vs. "anti-convergentism." 

I realize that I'm still working on collapsing oppositions -- while at the same time seeking to recognize and honor real differences of perspective.

"Supernatural" and "Not supernatural," for instance. The term "supernatural" originated in about 1520 within a very specific context of Catholic theological development. There was a very specific concept of "laws of nature" which the 16th-century theologians then distinguished from that which is not subject to the laws of nature. The rest of the world -- along with pre-16th-century-Europe -- simply didn't draw this distinction between "laws of nature" and "events not subject to laws of nature." Outside the context of a shared sense of what "natural" is, it makes no sense to either affirm or deny belief in the supernatural.

I can't quite tell what to make of "materialism" -- sometimes proferred as a way to do the job for which "anti-supernaturalism" fails. The work in quantum physics has made "matter" seem far stranger than any "immaterialist" theory.

I once reflected in a sermon along lines that seemed rather materialist to one of my listeners. "You speak as if we were mere meat," he told me after the service.

What's mere about meat? What could be more awesome and wondrous than that there is something, rather than nothing? And that somehow this something is expanding at the speed of light -- and consists of 4 basic forces and 12 basic particles? And that, in amazing and mysterious ways, they make atoms, which in equally amazing and mysterious ways make molecules? And that some of these molecules formed into such shapes that they made copies of themselves? And that life developed with specialized parts like muscle tissue?

Every electron is ultimately a field that extends through the whole universe. How much more then, the sinew of my body?