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Monday, September 11, 2017

Quote of the Day (36)

If Professor Bret Weinstein is not quite Washington State’s answer to Jordan Peterson, at very least he’s managed to make a bunch of the same enemies by refusing to kow-tow to political correctness on campus, and good for him.

Weinstein is an evolutionary theorist and a professor of biology at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. He and Peterson got together on Joe Rogan’s show recently (ostensibly to discuss Hitler, of all things) in a wide-ranging, almost three hour brainstorm-fest. (Rogan may have an ‘everyman’ sort of appeal, but he too is no intellectual slouch.)

At least part of the three-way exchange might interest other Christians as intensely as it interested me.

The Best of the Best

These are highly intelligent, well-educated men putting their heads together collegially and obviously with very good intentions. They are fun to watch, and one can learn a lot from them.

So I pull this particular set of quotes from Weinstein not because I think either of these men are idiots, but because their exchange serves as a great example of why young, well-taught Christians should not be uncomfortable facing up to what is currently being expressed by the great minds of our day. As persuasive as the arguments of the intellectual elite may sound to us initially, they have been constructed on a foundation of sand.

The Evolutionary Utility of Untruths

Here, then, is Bret Weinstein on the evolutionary utility of beliefs that are not quite true:
“We tend to think of intellect as having evolved because knowing what’s true gives you an advantage, but there’s actually nothing that says knowing the literal truth is where advantage lies. And so I have a category that I call ‘literally false, metaphorically true’. These are ideas that aren’t true in the factual sense, but they are true enough that if you behave as if they were true you come out ahead of where you would be if you behaved according to the fact that they’re not true.”
Now, Weinstein’s too-broad use of the word “true” here is the first problem.

Truth and Wisdom

To be fair, he’s picked that up from Peterson (or maybe it’s just the way all the educated talk about truth today). Peterson uses “truth” to mean all kinds of things (and defends that historically and linguistically, though I’m not sure he’s got his facts quite right). Rogan calls both professors on it later in the program, at which point they begin to use “data” and “fact” for what they earlier called “literal truth”, and “wisdom” for what they earlier called “metaphorical truth”.

The tags are less important than the fact that to understand the discussion, everybody needs to be speaking the same language. But no Bible student I know even encounters this sort of muddle. It seems to me that the word of God quite consistently uses “truth” to describe that which is honest and reliable, consistent with reality, and conforming to the facts, while it uses the word “wisdom” to describe advice or commandments that purport to apply truth to human experience. To maintain any kind of coherence, Peterson and Weinstein eventually find themselves doing pretty much the same.

Score 1 for the Bible.

Porcupine Design Facts

Weinstein then goes on to illustrate the difference between what he calls the two sorts of “truth”:
“Let me give you a couple of trivial examples that won’t be controversial:

‘Porcupines can throw their quills.’ It’s not true. However, if you live near porcupines and you imagine that porcupines can throw their quills, you’ll give them some space. If you don’t, you may — realizing that they can’t throw their quills — get really close to one and it may wheel around and nail you with a porcupine quill, which can be extremely dangerous, because they are microscopically designed ...”
Wait. Stop. Stop. Stop. You caught that, right? Evolution doesn’t “design” anything, which is something Dr. Weinstein knows all too well. Now, perhaps he is just slipping into metaphorical language. Perhaps he’s being poetic. Almost surely he doesn’t really mean it, and I would be inclined to let this sort of inadvertent creationist Freudian slip slide right on by if it were not something every single atheist I’ve watched does regularly as a matter of course.

The evidence of intelligent purpose in the world is so apparent even to an evolutionary theorist that he can’t help but slip repeatedly into the language of creationism. One might even conjecture that God’s invisible attributes have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made.

Score 2 for the Bible.

Literal Falseness and Metaphorical Truth

Sorry, back to Weinstein’s porcupine quills:
“... they are microscopically designed to move in from where they puncture you over time, and they can puncture a vital organ, or you can get an infection. So the person who believes that a porcupine can throw their quills has an advantage that isn’t predicated on the fact that this is actually a literal truth, right?

Another one might be that people say, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Well, unless you’re talking about physics as the reason, everything doesn’t happen for a reason. However, if you are the kind of person who believes everything happens for a reason, and then some terribly tragedy befalls you, you may be on the lookout: ‘Well, what’s the reason that this happened? Maybe it’s supposed to open up some opportunity.’ And you won’t miss that opportunity the way somebody who is preoccupied with their misfortune would.

So literal falseness but metaphorical truth is actually, I would argue, the category under which religious truth evolves.”
Fair enough, at least from his perspective.

A Relevant Point Made

But as Rogan later points out (and here’s where the everyman’s common sense sees right through educated bafflegab), the first old wives tale is untrue in any sense. You cannot rightly describe the projectile porcupine yarn as “metaphorical truth”; it is simply false. The second example is at least questionable, in the sense that if by “everything happens for a reason” you mean that God actively made it all happen, I think you’re well into superstitious territory and are confused about how the universe operates. It’s a platitude, neither accurately expressed nor particularly useful in practice. Worse still, if you mean that everything happens for a good reason, or that good will ultimately come of every bad thing that happens to everyone, well, let’s just say you really haven’t been paying attention.

But regardless of the confusion in terminology, Weinstein IS making a relevant point here, and it’s one that is increasingly at issue in Western thought. There can indeed be legitimate short-term utility to holding an incorrect belief, however it is you managed to arrive at it. It can keep you out of trouble, give you comfort, motivate you to do good things for society, and so on. This is why increasingly we hear talk about how Christianity is one of the pillars of Western civilization and that society needs its effects to survive even if the Faith turns out not to be literally true.

The Bitter Pill Goes Down the Wrong Hatch

Weinstein goes on:
“Now the problem — the bitter pill I mentioned — is that I’ve heard you [Peterson] say that the truths that are captured in the religious version of things are basically ... like, you know, there’s an individual truth, and then there’s a truth of your family, and there’s a truth of the population you’re living in; and these things are all encoded in these doctrines.

Which is true, and you would expect it to be because the doctrines are carried along in the population. The problem is what I hear you arguing — and you tell me if I have it wrong — is that we should therefore expect the encoded metaphorical truths in these religious traditions to be morally right. But there’s nothing that actually says it actually will be morally right, because there are metaphorical truths that might in fact be reprehensible but nonetheless effective. And so the overarching point here would be that you’re right that the documents that contain these descriptions of things are full of things that are true in some sense that is not literal scientific truth, nor was that their purpose. What isn’t true is that those things are inherently up to date.”
Here is where Weinstein’s underlying assumptions turn his argument into nonsense and reveal its essential poverty. If only for reasons of utility, he clearly values what is “morally right” and most “up to date”. These are the two metrics by which he wants to either retain or discard the teaching of scripture.

A Thesis with No Foundation

But his evolutionary perspective gives him no logical basis for preferring morality, or even for defining it. As he points out later in the discussion, he believes evolution is amoral and unthinking. He may defend the concept of moral rectitude on a purely utilitarian basis, but then he would have to stop and ask himself why it is that moral behavior should be valuable at all. If it is because morality “works”, then he needs to ask himself why that is (one good answer might be that it was handed down by God and represents genuine truth). On the other hand, if, as Weinstein incoherently claims later in the same conversation, immoral behavior is actually evolutionarily advantageous in getting ahead, on what basis does he value morality at all? In an evolutionary economy, taking the high road would appear to be a losing strategy.

Further, his use of “up to date” reflects an uncritical and entirely unsubstantiated belief that society is progressing morally. That’s awfully hard to defend when much of the “progress” that has been made (and which Weinstein values) is arguably due to the influence of the Christianity whose relevance he questions. Further, if moral progress is indeed the natural order of things, then why does the envious malevolence of the students currently calling for Dr. Weinstein’s head bring to mind the response of Adam’s son Cain to the success of his brother, a tale that goes back at least 6,000 years?

You may not like how the Bible addresses the issues of modern life, but it does have the great advantage of at least being internally coherent.

Game. Set. Match.

All My Teachers

The world is full of very smart people; many of them are a whole lot smarter than me. But their arguments are full of the sorts of logic-holes a well-taught Bible-believing sixth grader could see through in a heartbeat.

Or, as the psalmist well put it, “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.”

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