Delight Springs

Saturday, October 26, 2013


The TPA keynoter turns out to have been an undergrad at Vandy all those years ago, just prior to my arrival from Mizzou for grad school. His teachers were mine, he singling out two (Hodges and Dore) for particular appreciation. They, he says, taught him to do what he did last night.

What he did was give us a good argument. I was in fundamental accord with his "atheological" conclusion that, in one narrowly specified sense of "rationality" (not the "Sentiment of Rationality" sense of William James) theism is irrational.

I know that I was in accord with our speaker because his densely detailed handout spelled it all out, step by numbered, lettered, clever acronym-laced step. It's a style I recognize, from all those years ago. It's a style I can no longer sit through, let alone perpetrate. I don't, and I didn't.

By my early departure I intended, and by my recap here I intend, no disrespect for the speaker or my old teachers. He was witty, intelligent, friendly, gracious, all good things. They were and are, too. One remains (I hope) a good friend.

It's just that this epistemologically-driven style of philosophizing, the search for a reductive/coercive argument that aims to compel assent by force of logical erudition and structural perspicacity, now strikes me (as it had begun to strike me even back in the day) as irrelevant. Even when successfully hitting its mark, such a style of argument tends to miss the point of its subject.

The subject being theism and rationality, what got missed? The story angle.

Since coming across it again in Carlin Romano's America the Philosophical, I've been reviving and repeating the late Richard Rorty's contention that a good story beats a good argument. What's that mean?

For one, it means we humans don't live our lives inside structures built of words, symbols, logical annotations, abbreviated and capitalized acronyms, precious pseudo-verbs (last night it was "scrute," derived from "inscrutable," that was my tipping point and exit line) and inference rules. On occasion some of us do, or should, use those tools. But that's not a good place to live permanently, and it's not good to think we can "settle the universe's hash" (as WJ liked to say) in a numbered finite series of steps.

Wittgenstein figured that out sometime between his numbered Tractatus argument and his posthumous Philosophical Investigations, btw. I think I recall Prof. Hodges saying so, in fact. He came to value the narrative complexity and nuance of "forms of life" as truer to life than good arguments. Even the best arguments.

Well, it's my turn this morning at TPA first to listen and then respond to an argument and a story about AA. My story, possibly in scandalous defiance of conference convention,will be informal and personal and bloggish. It will begin thus:

I thank Sam for his paper, an exemplary piece of applied philosophy in the authentic spirit of William James, brought to bear on just the sort of life-centering issue he and other pragmatists became pragmatists to address. We must applaud its relevance and its deeply practical implications for one of the more vexing, momentous, and frequently ruinous problems faced by actual men and women who would look to philosophy for guidance and support, were it on offer. My comments aspire to share in that same spirit.  
I have no sharp criticism to offer, of Sam’s general analysis of James’s pragmatic defense of faith and advocacy of the right of individuals to invoke their willing natures when confronting major life choices whose resolution is not conclusively settled by normal evidentiary criteria. I do offer questions and a point of view that I hope will provoke illuminating discussion. My questions center on the place of personal will in bringing people to recovery programs like AA or its secular alternatives, and on how best to understand and apply James’s philosophy when thinking about addiction and self-possession.  
It’s well known that AA founder Bill Wilson was heavily influenced by James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and that aspects of James’s thought-- especially those concerned with the ethics of belief (as articulated by Sam in his essay)-- directly support the use he made of it in founding AA. I do not dispute this.
But, I question whether Wilson and AA have adequately comprehended the full bearing of James’s philosophy. James was not hostile to the personal invocation of Higher Powers, but he was a naturalist about the human assimilation of supernatural belief.
In other words: effective supplication was unthinkable, for James, when and if coupled with a total confession of abject impotence (“powerlessness”) on the part of an individual seeking recovery and redemption. One must not renounce one’s will, if one wills the recovery and maintenance of health and self-possession.
The decision to submit to God (or to AA) is, in the final analysis, a willful decision and an exercise of personal will, albeit one typically undertaken only on condition of support from other supportive and willful humans. 
I also offer, with your indulgence, an unorthodox style of commentary. For better or worse, I have developed something of an addiction-- though I’m told that may be a confusing misappropriation of a term that has come to signify something more precise, for many, than I intend-- to the blogging medium. If I shouldn’t call my dependency on that form of expression an addiction, I’ll happily entertain any alternative suggestions you may propose. But by whatever name, it is the format in which the following remarks were drafted.  
Our topic is very serious, and so is the intended tone of my remarks. But blogging is by its nature a dated and informal exercise, at my keyboard anyway. Rather than perform potentially mutilating surgery on this text, to remove references and allusions and an occasional lightness of tone that might risk seeming to some misplaced in the context of an academic exchange, I’ve opted to leave them in. I mean allusions to baseball, mostly. I think they lend a thematic relevance that will help me convey the attitude I mean to communicate. If not, perhaps you’ll still indulge an old Cardinals fan.
So I'll put on my World Series tie, that being one of my ritual-devotional ways of professing belief in something high (if not Higher), something without whose support I cannot succeed: my team.

What makes my team the best in my eyes, as Dan Dennett once wrote of his Red Sox, is not that it's objectively the best but that it's subjectively mine. That's the natural form of belief for humans.

Having a team, and belief in your team, can be meaningful and gratifying (or galling, Braves fans?) if you don’t forget it’s only a game. 
I am a Red Sox fan, simply because I grew up in the Boston area and have happy memories of Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, Carl Yastrzemski, Pudge Fisk, and Wade Boggs, among others. My allegiance to the Red Sox is enthusiastic, but cheerfully arbitrary and undeluded. The Red Sox aren’t my team because they are, in fact, the Best; they are the Best (in my eyes) because they are my team.

Same here. I grew up in the St. Louis area and have happy memories of Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, and Mike Shannon, among others. Those Cards went all the way in '67 against the Sox. The two teams next met again in '04. Different result, nice movie.

As another great baseball philosopher, Crash Davis, put it in another nice movie: Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, sometimes it rains.

The late great baseball commissioner, also a Red Soxer, said the game breaks your heart. It was designed to do precisely that. Here's that story, the story of the green fields of the mind. One of the many unseen worlds James says its natural for us to believe in, act on, cherish.

Then comes the long hard winter. Stories are told, the heart heals, then it hopes again. It reports to Spring Training.

Go Cards.

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