Monday, May 10, 2010

The Promise and Perils of Authorial Voice--Academic Edition

Recently I’ve been thinking about how the literary concept of authorial voice relates to my scholarly life. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how authorial voice influences what I read, and by implication the direction of my research.

In a world where you can’t possibly read everything (especially if you’re a slow reader like me), you have to decide what you’ll read closely from cover to cover, what you’ll skim, and what you won’t read at all. The reality is that, for me, most books (even in my own field) fall into the last category. And at least in my own case, many end up there because of the author’s voice.

Here’s the idea behind authorial voice: authors have personalities, and reading their work can be as much an exposure to them (or at least to the personality they convey) as it is to the topic of their writing. An author has a “voice” in the literary sense to the extent that her personality comes out on the page—or even, I suppose, to the extent that it doesn't (generating the cold, impersonal voice characteristic of some academic writing). When I read, I’m exposed not only to ideas or thoughts or stories, but to the personalities that animate them.

Sometimes what this means is that I really enjoy reading the work of people I disagree with immensely. Sometimes it means that even though I don’t enjoy what they write, I’m captivated by it. And sometimes it means that reading a book is like spending an entire day with someone I can’t stand. Some people I can only take in small doses, and the same goes with their writing—I can manage an article, but an entire book would drive me mad.

There’s no question that the most successful “new atheist” authors—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—all have distinctive authorial voices. And those voices are part of what makes their books so successful. As much as I disagreed with The God Delusion, I enjoyed reading it. Dawkins’ wit and energy made it not merely an irritating read but a fun one. And while Sam Harris’s The End of Faith often made me irate (because of how I think it promulgates the kind of in-group/out-group ideological framework that I find so dangerous), the writing was elegant and compelling. Whatever else might be said about Harris, his written work has a certain charisma.

And I must confess to having a real soft spot for Christopher Hitchens. His book, god is not Great, is probably the least well-argued of the recent atheist bestsellers; but Hitchens himself may be the most compelling character. And that character comes out in his writing. While he’s prone towards pugilistic excess, it’s the sort of excess I’m inclined to forgive because of the passionate personality that motivates it. Although I not only disagree with what he says but also with the zero-sum approach he takes to debate, Hitchens nevertheless has a personality I’m drawn to. He seems like someone I’d enjoy hanging out with at a bar.

In short, "authorial voice" refers precisely to one of those things that, as a philosopher, I'm supposed to ignore so as to be able to focus on such things as the defensibility of the author's assertions, the soundness of the arguments, etc.

It is true that I have learned the art of extracting the argument in a piece of writing, then formally laying it out premise by premise, so as to assess its validity and identify possible objections. And once this work is done, I can look at the resultant argument as an artifact divorced from the personality of its originator. But even though I have been schooled in doing this, that doesn't mean authorial voice has no impact on my scholarly work. Most significantly, it impacts what I decide to read--and hence, which arguments I end up stripping of their authorial voice so that I can look exclusively at their logic.

When you commit yourself to reading a book, part of what you commit to is spending extended time in the author’s company. And if the author’s voice has the drone of that Chemistry professor who mumbled into the board every class period, then you’d better be darned sure the substance of what he has to say is worth the time, because you won’t enjoy his company.

And then there are the times when I confront what amounts to a personality clash. Despite myself, there are people in the world I just don’t like. Being in their presence is like being around an ex-spouse from a marriage that didn’t end well (but without the history to back up the feelings). Other people may get along famously with this person, but I’d just as soon eat raw chicken liver as spend an afternoon with them.

Often I can’t quite pin down the reason. Of course, they often stand for things I oppose, and this is part of my negative reaction. But there are others with the same opposing views or allegiances who don’t inspire such aversion. My aversion has to do with their character—or at least with prominent aspects of it that clash with my own.

But let me be clear. There are some people whose character I disapprove of in all sorts of ways, but I still find them fascinating. If they are authors, this personality is so arresting, and comes out so vividly, that I'm swept up by it even as I say to myself, "What a horrible person."

These are authorial voices that should repel me but don't. What I want to focus on here are the authorial voices that really do repel me. While these voices usually express character traits that I'd classify as vices, the vices aren't always those I find the most abominable on an intellectual level. Rather, they're the vices that grate most strongly against me--perhaps because they clash with vices of my own.

Sometimes this fact poses a scholarly challenge, because I find myself facing a strong aversion to reading things that, professionally, I probably ought to read.

I'm hesitant to give examples because talking about authorial voice--unlike talking about ideas and arguments--is necessarily personal. If I say that I don't like your ideas or I think your argument is fallacious, I'm not talking about you, whether or not you decide to take it personally. But when I discuss authorial voice, I'm talking about the personality of an author, at least as it comes across to me on the page.

But the grim reality is that no matter how much we might pretend otherwise, personality matters, even in academia. We are persons, affected by our perception of the personality of others--sometimes drawn together, sometimes repelled. And so, despite my hesitance, I'm going to give some concrete examples--not of people especially likely to read this blog, but of people that at least some readers of this blog are likely to have encountered and had their own reactions to (likely different from my own).

Let's begin with the conservative Christian apologist and philosopher, William Lane Craig. Whatever else might be said of him, Craig is a very smart man well schooled in philosophy who often (if not always) offers arguments worth wrestling with. And sometimes I do engage with them. For example, I challenge one of his arguments (effectively, I think) in my 2002 Religious Studies article, “Eternal Damnation and Blessed Ignorance.”

But I hate to read Craig’s work. Why? I might point out that his philosophical arguments are rigidly constrained by strict allegiance to conservative Christian dogma, and that this allegiance sometimes forces him to seriously entertain some deeply disturbing views (about, for example, the eternal fate of those who died without ever having encountered the gospel message). But there are other Christian philosophers about whom I’d be inclined to say the same, and to disapprove of for the same reason—and yet reading them doesn’t leave me feeling as if I’ve spent time with a particularly unpleasant relative.

The problem, in this case, lies with the personality on the page. There are many things that reveal that personality even in academic philosophical writing--obvious things like choice of topic, positions held, views expressed; less obvious things like word choice, strategy of argument, which objections and alternative views are taken seriously and which ignored, which metaphors or analogies are used, which ideas connected, which distinctions made.

But the truth is that when it comes to authorial voice, one doesn't deduce it from an assessment of these factors. Rather, one takes it in on an intuitive level. It's an holistic effect of the writing--sometimes one that emerges gradually, after reading quite a bit from the same author; sometimes one that hits after only a couple of paragraphs. One finds the author's voice agreeable, engaging...or not.

In the case of Craig, if I read enough for the voice to emerge (usually several pages), what strikes me is best captured by a series of personality snapshots. The first comes from my childhood. Back when I was growing up in Buffalo, NY, Michael Tilson Thomas (now music director for the San Francisco Symphony) was the conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Once, as I recall, I was at some fairly snooty gala event when Tilson Thomas swept in.

The impression he gave in that moment is surely not representative of his overall personality. It's just a snapshot of one small piece of it. But it's a piece that stuck with me. It wasn’t precisely arrogance. It wasn’t exactly showmanship. It had something to do with a sense of being entitled to the eyes that turned his way as he entered, as if he really believed himself to be somehow more real than everyone else in the room.

Such a personality trait, when it finds its way onto the page, isn't enough to repel me. But let's combine it with another, captured in a second snapshot--this one from an ancient philosophy class in college. The class didn't have any prerequisites, and hence was filled with students from other majors who were satisfying an upper level general education requirement. There was a philosophy major there who clearly longed to be up in front doing the teaching, and made every possible effort to achieve that dream from his seat at the back.

Three or four times every class period his hand would shoot up, all eyes would roll, and he’d begin (in a nasally voice), “This reminds me of…”—followed by a lengthy discourse on some 20th Century philosophical work nobody else had heard of. We stopped paying attention to his actual words fairly early in the semester. What we heard instead went something like this: “Look at how smart I am, and how much more I know about this stuff than any of you. I’m going to shove all your faces in my genius just the way people like you used to shove my face in the toilet back in middle school. Take that, you fools! And that! And that!”

If I weren’t so annoyed at him for hijacking the class, I’d have felt sorry for the guy. Without other characteristics woven in with it, a voice like that wouldn't repel me, although I'd tire of it pretty quickly.

But let's add a third snapshot. It comes from an event I’ve already talked about on this blog, when I was giving a talk about my book for OSU’s Fellowship of Christian Faculty and Staff. I had an exchange with a conservative member of the group, a conversation which came to a crashing halt when I expressed disagreement with him and he replied, “Then you disagree with God.” There was an expression on his face at that moment, a tightening of his lips, that sent all the blood to my face.

Weave these three things together, and you have the authorial voice of William Lane Craig, at least as it presents itself to me. It may be that the impression he gives when you meet him in person is nothing like this—but the impression that comes to me off the page is just like that.

Any of the elements by themselves wouldn’t generate the level of aversion I experience, although the "If you disagree with me you disgaree with God" trait comes close. (These words, by the way, are something Craig has the good sense never to actually voice out loud, but I nevertheless hear them in the background). But when woven together, these traits so grate on my nerves that I want to reject everything the author says—even when, as does occasionally happen in Craig's case, I agree with him.

And I suspect that my research program is influenced by this. Among other things, I simply haven’t done any scholarly work on the Kalam Cosmological Argument. None. Because there’s no possible way to do so without seriously engaging with Craig's work.

Consider another case. This one relates to a book that it seems to me I ought to read but haven’t. The book (which I think came out at around the time I was finishing my manuscript of Is God a Delusion?) is John Loftus’s Why I Became an Atheist . Loftus is a former evangelical Christian apologist and preacher who “de-converted” to atheism, and who now energetically pursues what he calls “counter-apologetics,” not only through his books and speaking engagements but through his blog, Debunking Christianity , which I make an effort to check out every once in awhile. In these respects he's very similar to the young atheist who maintains the Common Sense Atheism blog, Luke Muehlhauser. But whereas I really enjoy Luke's authorial voice and can spend considerable time reading his stuff, the same cannot be said for Loftus.

Why I Became an Atheist tells the story of Loftus’s intellectual journey from Christian apologist to proselytizing atheist, and in the process makes a case against theistic religion in general and Christianity in particular—a case that, from what I can tell, is likely to be more philosophically astute and informed about evangelical Christianity (if not progressive theology) than the bestsellers I responded to in my book.

But I haven’t read it. I suppose there are several reasons for this. One has to do with the book’s content. A driving idea behind it is what Loftus has come to call the “Outsider Test of Faith”—essentially the view that Christians should test their faith according to the same standards they use to reject rival faiths. His argument is that Christians have reasons for rejecting Hinduism and Islam and Judaism, etc.—and consistency requires that they use the same criteria to assess their own faith that they invoke in assessing others.

This principle seems sound enough within its sphere of application, but it is clearly framed in response to an exclusivist brand of religious epistemology radically at odds with the pragmatic and neo-Hegelian approach that I find compelling—an approach which leads me to articulate an inclusivist respect for alternative religious traditions conditioned by what I call (in my book) “the logic of faith”—a logic which imposes standards on when it is morally and intellectually appropriate to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true. These standards are ones I apply to my own religious life as well as to the religious lives of others. It is according to these standards that I extend conditional respect to a diversity of religious traditions—the condition being that they fall within the parameters of the logic of faith. And it is according to these standards that I trenchantly oppose more fundamentalistic expressions of Christianity.

In other words, Loftus is not talking to people like me—whom he tends to dismiss rather precipitously on his blog as engaged in little more than intellectual gerrymandering to avoid atheist arguments. As far as I can tell, he never takes seriously the possibility that our perspective was arrived at through critical reflection in the light of a range of experiences, ideas, and arguments, including those pointed out by atheists like Loftus.

And this is one reason why I haven’t read his book. But it’s not the most important reason. The most important reason has to do with authorial voice. I’ve read enough of his blog to get a sense of it. And while I sometimes don't mind it (especially when he gets caught up in the substance and details of an argument), there are too many occasions when what I'll call a belligerent self-certainty saturates his words. And it grates on me.

This aversion to his authorial voice has led me to a not-so-trivial scholarly decision: Instead of reading Why I Became and Atheist, I will look at the anthology Loftus has recently edited, The Christian Delusion, which appears to be framed around some of the same core ideas and arguments that shaped his own de-conversion. While Loftus is the author of several entries in that anthology, his voice is interspersed with those of other atheist scholars (including the anthropologist David Eller, who wrote an uncharitable review of my book which I still haven’t carved out the time and energy to responded to, even though the several key misconstruals of my thinking deserve to be corrected—if someone wants to do it for me, please feel free).

In any event, despite being a bit put off (and astonished) by the nature and scope of Loftus’s book-promotion efforts (he even has a post in which he invites readers of his blog to become mini-sales reps for the book, going so far as to encourage them to “buy up copies to hand out” to Christian family and friends), I’ll probably get my hands on a copy of The Christian Delusion. Because I can manage Loftus’s authorial voice in small doses. What I can’t handle is spending 400+ pages in his company.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Loftus, before he de-converted, was not only an apologist in the same mold as William Lane Craig, but was his student. Maybe the character triats they inculcate in evangelical apologist circles are harder to shake off than the doctrines, and it is these traits I'm reacting to in both Craig and Loftus.

Be that as it may, there's no doubt that authorial voice matters. But despite its significance, it's not the sort of thing writers should attempt to manipulate or control. If one's readers don't like the personality on the page, the solution is not to fake a different personality. No author will get far with an inauthentic voice. And nobody has a personality that everyone finds congenial.

But if our authorial voice puts off a lot of people, it may be worth asking why. That is, it may be worth asking if we have vices that are manifesting on the page, character flaws that we can and should do something about. But we don't do something about them by changing how we write. We do something about them by changing who we are--by cultivating our character. The change in our writing--at least if one of the things we cultivate is authenticity--will follow.


  1. Eric,

    Thanks for a very entertaining post. I am familiar with all the authors/speakers you mentioned. I enjoyed Loftus' book as it engaged conservative/traditional Christianity on the level of established/historic philosophical arguments.

    Yet I too do not enjoy his blog. I was kind of shocked actually, at how different the voice was there. There's a lot of "internet-y" trash talk mixed in with a few interesting things. In his book, I felt he came off as a bit sad, but someone who really, really cares about the truth.

    I too like Luke's blog quite a bit. I enjoyed your interview on his podcast. I had sent him an email a month or two earlier asking him to interview you - he told me you were already on the list. What an interesting podcast.

    Luke throws a few low blows now and then, but it has a spirit of fun to it. Mostly, however, he puts a lot of time and effort into his thinking, writing and speaking. And as a super liberal, agnostic, sort-of Christian type - I agree with him on many things. I think we all rejected the God that he did. Some became atheists and some sought a continuity of thought and feeling with their previous notions of God. I fall into the latter category.

    Craig is a fascinating figure. I have listened to 15 or 20 of his debates. He is super smart and organized in his thinking. And he's a rhetorical magician - he's a master of switching around the burden of proof or holding a microscope up to one small part of an argument.

    have you listened to his debate with Shelley Kagan on morality? It's one of the few that Craig has lost, I think, mostly because Kagan kept a narrow focus throughout.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Eric,

    Bellow I am not really commenting on the gist of your post, but on issues taken from older posts of yours you mention here, and which interest me more. The only thing I’d like to say about the personality of William Lane Craig is that he probably feels like a Christian soldier out there to demonstrate that Christians can yield the weaponry of reason much better than atheists, and particularly those atheists who fancy that religion is irrational. The only problem I have really with Craig is that, it seems to me, he is not out there fighting just for God, but also for his church and/or tradition. But one can’t serve two masters. We belong to God, but we don’t belong to any church; rather our church, and all churches, belong to us.

    In an older post you write: “I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf.

    There is a third interpretation, which strikes me as the most direct and literal one. After all when Jesus in that passage says “No one comes to the Father but through me” the onus is on us, the “coming” is something that we must do, that we must walk on the path that is Christ’s. And walking on the path that is Christ clearly means to follow Christ’s commands. In my mind this couldn’t be clearer. Indeed in what I consider to be both crystally clear as well as the very heart of all gospel Jesus says “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; according as I did love you, that you also love one another; in this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you may have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35) The disciples of Christ then are those who love (and hence live) the way Jesus did; not those who believed like Jesus did, and even less who just cry “Lord, Lord”. The true followers of Christ are those who follow the same path He did, no matter whether they are Christians or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or whatever. That’s why I think that interpreting John 14:6 in an exclusivist sense is to understand the opposite of what it actually says.

    Further you write: “ And it also expresses my Lutheran theological disposition that our salvation is rooted in something *God* does rather than in something *we* do.

    I think that’s a false dichotomy. Of course salvation is rooted in something God does, for God is the creator of all: of us, of the opportunity of salvation, of the path towards salvation, of illuminating and motivating us through knowledge and through evil and through grace to follow that path, and of the ultimate universal salvation that God’s untiring love guarantees. But also, salvation is a path we must walk on ourselves by our own free will. After all, we are not mindless, spineless, will-less, babies. We are persons made in the image of God, and called upon to become like God in perfection, by imitating Christ and following His path.

  3. Eric,

    I was thinking that if one truly embraces the idea that no-one comes to God but through the path that is Christ’s then one becomes an inclusivist and the whole problem about which religion is “right” disappears. For true knowledge is experiential knowledge, and knowledge of God can only be had by following this one path that is Christ’s. As far as we are concerned then, this path is all the reality of God. And this one path is there, wherever and whenever our birth into this world took place, whatever we have been taught as children, and whatever we may believe now. As long as and to the degree that a religion teaches and inspires one to follow this one path towards experiential knowledge of God, this religion is true. (For, from its fruit you know the truth, as the gospels say.) And, as far as I can see, all great religions beside Christianity, including nominally non-theistic religions, inspire and teach people to take exactly the same path, the only path of spiritual growth there is, namely the path of simplicity, of humility, of self-transcending love for all creation.

    Sometimes people argue that all religions cannot be “true” for they claim contradictory beliefs, for example Christianity claims that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of God, but Judaism and Islam claim he was not. But the reality of God is not subject to the rules that govern propositional logic. As isn’t the reality of a mountain, for that matter. After all, a mountain is the same mountain even if it looks different from the point of view of people at different sides of it. If one says: “the peak of the mountain is sharp and blue”, and the other says “the peak of the mountain is round and green”, it does not follow that one of them must be wrong.

  4. "... leads me to articulate an inclusivist respect for alternative religious traditions conditioned by what I call (in my book) “the logic of faith”—a logic which imposes standards on when it is morally and intellectually appropriate to live as if a hoped-for possibility is true."

    This is very interesting. I think it ties in nicely with your fascination with the theater, and its suspension of disbelief. It is almost as though you don't care what is true or not, but more about the care with which a person embodies the positive aspects of the myth they have chosen to adopt as their tradition/system/totem, etc. This is very sensitive to the mythical basis of most human cultural systems, and to our concrete cultivation of compassion. But it is a funny position for a philosopher to take.

    Can we do something about our character flaws? What a typically American idea! What would the Greeks have said? Sorry, but I had to express that, involuntarily.

  5. Steven--What you say about Loftus's voice in his book may inspire me to rethink my decision not to read it, especially if the tone is substantially different from what comes out in the blog. I may hunt around for a good used copy.

    Dianelos--Yes, you correctly articulate a third reading of John 14:6 that should be considered alongside the others. It is an oversimplification, I think, to say that our chief theological difference has to do with the weight we give to works and grace in theology--especially insofar as I think there is a clear dialectical relation between the two. But there probably are some important differences between how we conceive of the relationship between works and grace. I'm inspired to explore this issue more fully in a later blog post, when I have the time and energy.

  6. Burk--It isn't quite right to say that I don't care about the truth. I care a great deal about the truth. My trouble is with how we arrive at the truth, and whether the methods developed in the sciences for optimizing true beliefs concerning the empirical world are the ones we should invoke generally for all conceivable species of belief.

    In my own thinking about epistemology I make some distinctions--between claims about the world of experience and holistic interpretations of experience (interpretations that actually influence the CONTENT of that experience); and between beliefs that are derived from evidence once we've established what is to count as evidence, and beliefs that determine what is to count as evidence.

    These epistemic distinctions isolate a class of what we might call "interpretive-lens" beliefs. And I think it is a mistake to suppose that the epistemic strategies that are invoked on the basis of our interpretive-lens beliefs can be invoked to assess those beliefs. But neither do I think that these interpretive-lens beliefs therefore get a free pass, and that anything goes with respect to them. Instead, I think we need to test these beliefs by a kind of ongoing, collective, and critical experimentation--that is, by communally trying out a set of beliefs to see how well they work, refining them in the light of problems, etc. That is, we test them pragmatically.

    But part of the trouble with a pragmatic test is that whether it "works" depends on your standards of success--and these standards are PART of the interpretive lenses that are being pragmatically tested. This makes things truly tricky.

    In any event, I think that one important outcome of just this sort of collective, critical experimentation is the set of beliefs about what counts as evidence and how we should interpret observations that defines the scientific method. But I am skeptical of the view that the interpretive-lens beliefs that define the scientific method are those best suited to EVERY field of inquiry--including those that ask how we should live and whether there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.

    I suppose I am skeptical in part because I don't think that such a view WORKS--in other words, because I look at the outcomes of this view through my own interpretive lenses, which include standards of success by which an expansive scientism fails but according to which a more circumscribed role for the scientific method is eminently successful. The metaphysical naturalist, by contrast, invokes different standards of success to find an expansive scientism the best approach to belief-formation. Who is right? Well, you can see that it would be question-begging to answer this question from within one framework or the other.


  7. All of this gets very hard very quickly, as you can see--but the broad upshot is that I take religious communities to be engaged in the kind of collective, critical experimentation with respect to holistic interpretive worldviews that needs to be done--but that the experiments have been bogged down by dogmatism, by the silencing of critical voices, etc.

    I think the solution--the pathway most likely to get us closer to the truth about ultimate matters--is to encourage each of these communities, not to abandon its worldview in favor of metaphysical naturalism or some other alternative, but to live out its worldview critically, with an openness to revising and developing it when--in terms of the full range of human experience, including moral and aesthetic and spiritual as well as empirical--maintaining the worldview is like trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole.

    I think there is something to what you say about my emphasis on "the care with which a person embodies the positive aspects of the myth they have chosen to adopt." But I'd say instead that the positive and negative aspects of a mythic tradition are best discovered when it is embodied; and that what we should do is on the basis of that discovery revise the myth to preserve what has been discovered to be good, and set aside what has been discovered to be bad. We then live out the revised myth and repeat the process. But instead of this being indifferent to the truth, I think of it as the best pathway to it. The mythos that is the culmination of this process (in practice never attained) IS the truth.

  8. The book is well organized into sections, so it's not one you have to read cover to cover. I just picked chapters here and there. I still don't think Loftus comes off as a super sympathetic character - he often seems to blame everyone but himself when he writes about some details of his personal life, or it just comes across that way at times. But it's a serious book - the product of serious time and research, and it's not overly difficult to read for non-professional philosophers like me.

  9. Hi, Eric-

    Thanks for your sensitive response.

    "I think the solution--the pathway most likely to get us closer to the truth about ultimate matters--is to encourage each of these communities .."

    I think the problem is right here. Communities of faith (and non-faith) are certainly testing and embodying pragmatic solutions to living as humans. There is no question about that, or about its utility, if guided in positive ways. But ultimate matters? That is an entirely different kettle of fish! Communities with what I agree are pragmatic criteria and methods are light years from touching on, let alone resolving, ultimate matters.

    Now, perhaps you would say .. you meant matters of ultimate concern to us, which are the sort of meaning constructions that these communities focus on as their totems- god, Jesus, salvation, etc. But it seems that claims about ultimate matters- philosophic, scientific, historical, cosmological are all mixed up together as a matter of course, and while pragmatic criteria are great on the political, ethical, and humanistic level, how can we possibly use them at the level of factual claims which undergird both our models of honest-to-goodness reality (science and philosophy) and the mythos that may guide an effective community?

    The issues seem completely imcommensurate. I recognize that an effective mythos needs to claim its reality & truth for believability, so an effective mythos is in a bit of a bind. I just think that that bind should be resolved in favor of exploding the mythos if necessary rather than bowlderizing the science/philosophy. I guess that is where our disagreement lies.

  10. I guess what I was trying to say was that a bunch of people enjoying a hymn at church are not doing cosmology, whatever cosmological models they may harbor. It is typical for religions and the religious to make ultimate claims, but they simply don't have the resources to know what they are talking about, let alone come up with correct models. Honestly, they are not even trying.

    This is not just a scientific issue, but applies to all sorts of philosophical questions and forms of veridicality. Communities pursuing pragmatic harmonious living (or not) are doing one thing, and if they pull into this project all sorts of wild claims for clairvoyance, cosmic ontology, deities, the nature of consciousness, etc.. these claims have no additional merit due to their hard community work. That is because their work is on one thing, while their claims are about other things entirely. Sociological claims might have more merit, such as the utility of cosmic myths for community happiness. But the reverse is not true- community happiness says nothing about the truth of a cosmic myth.

    If the ultimate matter at issue is the meaning of human life, such a community may come up with relevant conventions that serve its purpose of harmony, but again there is no reason to think its solutions have any particular veridicality. Their conviction may be strong, (indeed, it must be in order to be effective), but this still doesn't amount to evidence.

    Insofar as human meaning is self-fulfilling- that what is meaningful is what gives us meaning, then none are right, and none are wrong (though some are better by their fruits). Truth doesn't enter into the question, though utility certainly does. Insofar as human meaning is objective, the only answer is psychological and Darwinian, which is not much of an answer, really- no competition with constructed, imaginative, mythos-imbued answers.

    To tie this back into the authorial voice issue, you might easily crank up a theology of authorial attractiveness, with absolute imperatives, undergirded by the desires of an etiquette and style maven in the sky who tells you through revelation what to like and what to dislike (which conveniently agree with your previous thoughts on the matter). This might even afford you a happy home and community now that the rules are clear not only to you, but to everyone. Does this result say anything about celestial etiquette and the existence of the sky style maven?

  11. Excellent essay. You've explained to/for me why I cannot stand Robert Gagnon's work in "large doses".

    Also, I LOVE (and feel the same way as) the following from your essay:

    "Hitchens nevertheless has a personality I’m drawn to. He seems like someone I’d enjoy hanging out with at a bar."