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May 22, 2005


Dr. Meek,
So great to see you here! We've been thinking about you a lot lately. I'm reading Longing to Know at long last and trying to get a readers group going on it at a church here on Bainbridge Island, Washington. By all means post the 2nd installment.
Many Blessings

Dr. Meek:

A very interesting post!

I agree that epistemology is central to living -- whatever anti-intellectual types want to say (of all political stripes). How do we know what we know, or think we know?

The kind of fashionable relativism you decry (rightly) does exist. But: a couple of points. One, it's as much a "pose" as a well-thought-out position -- probably more so, and definitely by the teens/youth you mention. It's a knee-jerk reaction to power, and thus, not in and of itself evidence of civilizational decline. It's as often (I've taught at many educational levels) an ultimately healthy critical sense all-too-lacking.

Be all that as it may, true relativists are hard to find, though they exist, and think they are relativists. I went to two Ivy-League schools: I was in the heart of "liberal academia" -- funny, I saw it as corporate, not liberal -- but I really knew very few actual relativists. Good reason: thoroughgoing skepticism is impossible to maintain.

But the choice is NOT absolutism (whether based on religious texts or unreligious political ideologies, or both, or some admixture of the two). The real difference is between all absolutist claims (and relativism is absolutist: if we can't know everything for certain, we can't know anything to any degree of certainty, e.g.) and those that see knoweldge as probabilistic. The probability of a given knowledge claim might be 99.9[bar] (i.e., gravity), or anywhere along the spectrum.

How to accept knowledge claims? On what basis? This is the divide. To me, faith doesn't cut it. Too much must be ignored (except by certain theologians, like Tielhard de Chardin); the empirical cost is too high. Reason is imperfect; no doubt. Freud argued that pretty persuasively. We are limited by our biology; we are fallible humans.

I think it's when we act in concert, via the checks and balances of the scientific method, we can average out our biases, identify them, confront them, and move on as a population, if not as individuals all the time.

Now, the really messy question is ethics, not epistemology. I think that's what bugs people -- is there an absolute basis for ethics? If there isn't, does it matter? I've posted on Allen's blog about this. I bet y'all will say, Yes, to both questions, but I'd be happy to debate it, respectfully as always, if you like. I think -- the short version -- that a fairly robust, but not absolutist, ethics grows out of an understanding of human nature and the organization of people in societies. We have a lot of evidence, historically, of what has worked, and what has not. I don't expect much from people -- but I do know that any social organization that requires people to be saints (as in, better than they are) is doomed to failure. That's why I love this country: its founders were crystal clear on human nature, from Deist TJ and Paine to Christian Adams to probably atheist Franklin. Didn't matter; they all got it.

Would love hear comments.


One further comment: Does anyone else see a connection between "no truth, no truth" and the rise -- I would say the triumph -- of PR, advertising, and marketing in our daily lives, corroding all belief in validity of any kind by their always-accepted lies? (4 out of 5 dentists? Really? Show me the study! :) )

I think marketing has done a lot to corrode our national thought processes and debate. It's getting quite scary: marketers are working with nueroscientists to study how marketing works. This is either a silly waste of money or right next door to evil, in my book (based on whether it's a wild-goose chase or actually could yield real insights).

We're right back to the consumerist culture; which is one old tenet of our nation, and one of Protestantism in general (not a dig, just a fact): Max Weber wrote convincingly about the Protestant connection to the industrial revolution and Veblen carried that on in his denouncement of conspicuous consumption.

But it's not just a Protestant issue; I think the acquisitiveness and tribalism that made us survive up to this point is now our greatest threat. The irony of human evolution; and the usual tale: traits that were once advantageous can become deleterious, given a change in environment, social, biological or otherwise.

It's gotta change, or we're all done -- civilizationwise, if not species-wise. We still make and target nuclear weapons. This is suicidal behavior; ditto, the greenhouse effect and carbon fuel consumption; ditto, our lackadaisacal response to HIV/AIDS.

So, I agree. We are a sick culture. What's the cure? I'm not sure the NT is it, with all due respect. I'd like to see a new Enlightenment, with religions respected but separated from government and politics. Folks have got to get up on science in order to fight the ignorance -- those things we don't want to face, too -- and move on. We have huge problems in this century (listed above are some); they require a global response.

Bono, of U2, argued for just that -- inclusive of all people, in the concert I saw in NYC, with Kofi Annan in the audience. My kind of Christian, Bono, and a quite devout one, as far as I can tell.

Quote: "We must respect faith. We must respect science. We must have faith that God works through scientists to bring us amazing cures and advances." Seems right on the money to me.

Out, Dug

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