Thursday, May 27, 2010

Earned myself a post on Pharyngula!

My recent Religion Dispatches essay inspired a direct reply from the infamous PZ Myers himself, on his atheist blog "Pharyngula." Myers is the biologist whose "Courtier's Reply" I discuss in the RD essay. I must profess to being a bit...honored? He does, after all, compare me to the Dalai Lama (although, for him, it's not intended as a compliment).

A key element of his response is his summation of a passage from my essay, in which I point out that theistic belief is not a belief about the empirical world but rather a component of a worldview which interprets the world of immediate experience by positing a transcendent dimension to reality. Here's how he summarizes that claim: "Let me clarify that for you, Dr Reitan. You are saying that religion is a nice fairy tale that makes you feel good."

Um, no.

I'm saying that the question of whether there is more to reality than what we encounter in direct empirical experience is not a question we can answer through empirical means, and that there is a difference between a claim about the empirical world and a "way of seeing" the empirical world (a distinction I make at some length during my recent podcast interview for "Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot," over at Common Sense Atheism).

I am, furthermore, saying that some "ways of seeing," or interpretive worldviews, are made possible by positing realities that transcend the empirical world, and that the way to assess alternative interpretive worldviews (besides looking at their internal consistency and fit with experience) is to provisionally adopt them, see how well they work in practice, revise them accordingly, and continue doing so--in terms of a roughly Hegelian process that I sketched out, among other places, in my talk at the University of Tulsa last fall.

And I am saying everyone has an interpretive worldview--but that some have their interpretive lenses plastered so firmly to their face that they don't realize it. And I'm saying that immersing oneself in the writings of those who consciously attempt to understand and refine their own worldview in the light of lived experience can help those who are blind to their own assumptions realize that they have them and perhaps begin the process of internal critique. And I'm saying that the best theological writings (but not all theological writings) do this.

Among other things.


  1. "I'm saying that the question of whether there is more to reality than what we encounter in direct empirical experience is not a question we can answer through empirical means"

    This is such a simple and sound point that it is quite disconcerting how many people seem unable to grasp it; as if giving validity to even such a basic point means admitting overall defeat.

  2. The fact that we may not be able to answer some questions about reality through empirical means does not mean that we can answer them though "other ways of seeing".

  3. Hook: You misunderstand the point. A "way of seeing" is not a method of answering non-empirical questions. Rather, we HAVE ways of seeing the empirical world (all of us, including materialists), and which way of seeing is correct IS the question that can't be answered through empirical means.

    The question is whether there IS a way to pursue an answer. To simply assume that there isn't is dogmatic. Hegel offered a methodological approach to addressing this question that, in the couirse of pursuing it, he thought proved itself to be the method for addressing the broader question of which "way of seeing" or worldview to adopt.

    I think he's onto something. But since my kids are clamoring to go on a bike ride I won't be giving a lecture on Hegel's methodology tonight, and I don't have the space to do it justice in a brief comment in any event.

    I did, however, give a lecture at the University of Tulsa in which I offered a layperson's intro to Hegel's method in a roundabout way, the link to which appears in the main post (if you're interested). And I'm beginning to think that a post (or series of posts) on Hegel may be in order as soon as my summer class is finished.

  4. Thanks for writing the RD piece. Considering that PZ Meyers has now gone out of his way to attack your arguments, I'd say Dawkins and his devotees can no longer limit you to "flea" status. :-)

    The comments over at RD only go to show how completely oblivious too many atheists are to the question of worldviews and their significance. Even many professional philosophers like Daniel Dennett seem completely unaware of the slender foundations on which scientific materialism rests. I am just wrapping up my career as an undergraduate philosophy major, and extensively discussed in some of my classes the difference that our worldviews make... but many atheist philosophers seem to have never had similar discussions.

  5. Eric: I have not had an opportunity to give Hegel the time it deserves so I’ll be sure to check out your Tulsa lecture.

    There is no reason for the assumption that there isn’t a way to pursue, however it seems likely that some ways are better than others. I honestly don’t know the best way to differentiate between alternative worldviews, but lately I’ve been thinking about the virtues of falsification (at least potentially or tentatively). It seems to me that ways of seeing that are not subject to falsification can resist differentiation indefinitely, thus leaving us in no position to determine if there really is a best way to pursue an answer.

  6. The sketch of Hegel's method appears during the final 20 minutes of the lecture, in connection with my exegesis of the progressive religious approach to revelatory experiences & scriptures. I'll offer a more careful and direct treatment of it sometime this summer.

  7. There may actually be a clearer sketch of Hegel's methodology in the post from last fall in which I commented on the UT talk and discussed what I SHOULD have said in response to one of the questions posed after the talk. The post is here:

  8. Is Dawkins directing his followers to mob your RD piece or something? Because maybe it's just me, but you sure seem to be getting a lot of letters repeating exactly the same ignorant talking points over there.

  9. Evan--I would say that it's probably a result of PZ Myers posting his "critique" of my RD essay on his blog. By late yesterday afternoon it had generated close to 200 comments, one of which bemoaned the "fact" that this Eric Reitan guy would never actually read Myers' supposedly decisive refutation of his arguments. This may have sent a few of them scurrying over to RD to post them where I was likely to see them. Of course, Myers said it better, even if WHAT he said better was no more sound.

  10. that's a great post. It seems like Dr. Reitan says the same (good) stuff over and over again in different ways, but still some people just don't get it. I think some people's interpretive worldview keeps getting in the way.

  11. I'm always amused about the fact that most people - even PZ Myers! - don't really understand the Courtier's reply. If you look at the original story by Andersen you can see that nobody actually thought the emperor had clothes - they all pretended they saw clothes in order not to look stupid. In order for the Courtier's reply to make sense, the entire world would have to be atheists with some pretending to be theists so as not to look stupid. But this is obviously not the case in the actual world (there are actual theists in the real world0. So Myers' fable has very limited value to the atheist-theist debate.