Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lawino, Philosophy and Confusion

TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
-Phillis Wheatley


Yo. I have set out to make some points, as usual, about your latest blog. But in order to make them I have had to induce or assume some things about certain beliefs that you might hold. If I make a claim about what (i think) you believe and get it wrong, please let me know so I can think differently. Once again we are running up against the limits of written communication.

Regarding the propagation of Jesus' racial identity, "Done a disservice" is a bit of an understatement. People who live under an image of a savior that does not resemble them are doomed to negatively evaluate themselves and maybe even their cultures for no good reason. This is true when the image of supreme value is basic, as the old school doll test has shown. It is certainly true of White Jesus. Still, I am glad you see my point.

Yeah. I don't hate science, but i don't really have much love for the processes of investigation that comprise the natural sciences. I don't share the same concerns as most scientific communities and I think very often the scope of their influence on society is much wider than it should be. Dr. Dawkins is probably a good case in point. I will say that Dawkins' acknowledgment of the possibility that space aliens left life matter on earth that eventually became us isn't ridiculous. It's just pathetic. Granted, I didn't see the interview with Dr. Stein. But "space aliens" is an answer given by a person who is convinced that good explanations must have empirical content. Meanwhile, when people like Dr. Stein or probably you ask the question of how did we get here, it is usually something much deeper than that. it is, quite simply, a question that most scientists don't really care to answer. And they shouldn't, in my humble non-scientific opinion, since they shouldn't be about assuming the existence of entities that they can't possibly prove and that don't expand their domains of empirical knowledge. And this would certainly include the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will also note that wanting a particular kind of answer to such a question from a scientist, especially one that thinks God is a "delusion" or whatever his stance is, is ironically granting authority to him and his processes of investigation. Like, oh, if we can get the scientist to agree to the possibility of this, we can have more credibility. That is just the trap that I don't wanna get it when i think about other arenas of human action and i am sure that you don't want that either. Let's work together on this and reference scientific methods less.

What also strikes me about your concern with a scientist's unwillingness to consider God as a possible explanation is that it calls to light the old conflict between religion and rationality. It seems to me that you are subtly trying to pull the rules of rationality (scientific or otherwise) on your side in regard to justifying a belief in God and all that such a notion entails. This has been tried. A good deal of the work of philosophy from the medieval era on into the enlightenment was simply the quest of religious people to make religion "rational." Unfortunately, a good deal of the enlightenment period was the project of showing why this could not really ever happen. Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm-- rational-religious arguments from guys like these ultimately faced criticisms from Kant and others. One should never speak to definitively in matters of life and philosophy, but most of the cats I know are pretty sure Kant and his homies won. But then again, I mostly know cats who think like I do.

At the same time that you vie for the authority of reason, you demean it with an allusion to smoke, mirrors and confusion. You don't seem to care whether investigations into the nature of truth have come up with answers different from whatever you think is contained within the Bible. I am not sure, but I think this is because you regard most processes of reasoning that conclude contrary to your biblical interpretation to be bad processes. Not because you have investigated the correspondence or pragmatic or functional or coherence theories of truth and find them lacking, but because they don't have anything to say about the absoluteness that you seem to locate in Scripture. From this perspective, philosophy, along with indigenous belief systems, never had a chance to not be confusion, since the only way to not be confusion is to be Christian-y.

You said that I, too, seem to hold to a collection of books. I think you meant to say that I have authoritative sources of knowledge just as I believe you have. I hope to have shown in the foregoing why this analogy doesn't work. Books I read don't contain their own authority. They contain arguments that I can like or dislike, criticize or not. If the reasons are good enough for me, I roll. If they aren't I request more justification or toss it out altogether. The project of justification can go on for quite a while. Some philosophers say that all of reason, maybe our understandings of the world, are justification or interpretation all the way down. I might be talking to a straw man (for which I apologize) but i think that the possibility of such a regress is offensive to your sensibilities, since, once again, the authority of the Bible, for a lot of people with Biblical commitments, is quite final and, so long as we are not going to try to imitate science, seeks no justification outside of itself.

Which may bring us to your friend's point about being able to have a rational conversation with you. Your friend misspoke to be sure. You are plenty rational. But perhaps he thought that there was a point after which a discussion with you would stop. That he would run up against a wall of unreasoned belief, that is, faith, and not be able to say anything after that. It is a sensible fear poorly expressed by a guy who thinks aliens made the temples of ancient Maya. But that is not a problem for me. I don't want to stop you to suddenly become "rational" or believe in aliens or some such. I just want you to stop trying to convert people who have pre-existing systems of belief on the grounds that you hold your beliefs to be more awesome. Your beliefs are alright. But they turn suck when you turn colonial. And you turn colonial when you export them, it doesn't matter how gentle you think your hand is or how much you think you are merely presenting an option that they can simply choose or not choose for themselves. It is the coercive imposition of a perspective because of the colonial circumstances of your presence in the first place.

This weighs on me heavily because of the loss of history I sometimes feel as a black cat in america. Any project of doing a genealogy comes to a definite end before i can trace anything back to Africa. I think it is partly the fact that I can't do it that makes it significant, you know? So then i have to rely on echoes of that heritage. Of which there are many. But they are so faint because of this form that has cloaked everything, this religious form that ancestors down my bloodline quite definitely did not autonomously choose. They had it beat into them.

You seem to be resistant to the idea that there are forces over and above a person's autonomy that pushes them into adopting religious perspectives. I think maybe you should consider the weight of authority that comes from being the sovereign ruler of your own nation or even the comparatively more powerful and wealthy bearer of potentially life-saving communication technology. I don't doubt that people choose. Everybody in Henry VIII's kingdom chose to be Protestant. Kunte Kinte chose to change his name and religion. People that you convert choose to be Christian. But in each of these cases there is a serious power imbalance that tips the scales in such a way that your reference to full autonomous choice obscures the reality of tactics of coercion. Since all of these changes happen in the face of very powerful authorities who make it exceedingly difficult or impossible to hold on to previous ways of life and belief. Sometimes that authority is the sovereign. sometimes it is a whip-holding enslaver. And sometimes it is an economically superior missionary with this colonial history on his side.

So yeah, these ancestors that I can't know anything about, they had it beat into them. And they brought up kids in it who did not have the beating to remember. But I know it happened. And I just can't roll with Phillis Wheatley when she says that she is thankful for slavery because it was through the peculiar institution that we came to know the One True God. Though I kind of feel like you would have to implicitly be cool with this. You roll into a country whose history of belief depends exclusively on its previous domination at the hands of the British. Many Zambians are Christians because the British forced them to be so. Just like Ocol was trying to force Lawino. And it is this history of domination that is responsible for the warmness of the welcome of you and your religious perspective. By rocking the missionary aspect of your style over and above the technical capitalist element of your project, you simply continue the British colonial project of conversion. I know the happiness and thanks you experience make it hard to believe this. But Ocol's other wife was happy and thankful to be converted as well.

You said that you suspect people are threatened by the possibility of having to deal with God, since then they would have to account for themselves. I hope you don't think that that moral accountability (or accountability of any kind, really) is dependent on an appeal to God's existence. Because if you believed this you would also have to believe that I am fundamentally immoral, or at least amoral, since I make no reference to such a being in my own moral reflections. But I just can't imagine you thinking this of me or people like me. So perhaps you should consider the possibility that a person can live a morally good life without subscribing to the criteria that you need to fill in order to live such a life for yourself. Which means that I can be a good person without holding the metaphysical commitments that you hold. The commitments, then, would be supererogatory to my general goodness. I recognize that if you consider this, you would probably not experience the imperative to convert others to your style. Because you wouldn't be able to morally evaluate their life situations according to whether they believed in the same stuff you did. And this is pretty much exactly how I'd like you and everybody like you to be.

So this is what I am thinking right about now. It has been increasingly more difficult for me to put these thoughts into words. Which is probably a good thing.

Hope to hear from you soon, sucka.

Oh, here go some books for any who are checking our style to check out.

Nietzsche, The Antichrist and On the Genealogy of Morals.
Rabateau, Slave Religion
Spivak, Other Asias
Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars
Jones, Is God a White Racist?
Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and Colonized
Nelson, Ethics Without God