The Academic Tyranny

Having been a student of almost three years at the University of Chicago, a place known for its commitment to living the “life of the mind” and its receptiveness to rigorous, intellectual debate, I never would have thought that I would be criticizing the very “business” of the people who make up such a community.

I’m writing this for two reasons. One is because I was especially intrigued by Hawking’s claim that the philosophy of science is dead. Hawking’s argument is that philosophers have not caught up with the latest advances in science. I think his argument, which may be true, is nonetheless a very bad reason for why we should regard the philosophy of science to be irrelevant. However, I think his claim may have some truth to it.

Note that this is coming from a big fan of the philosophy of science. My favorite writers on this topic include people like Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Francis Bacon, Thomas Kuhn, and of course, David Hume. Many problems—important ones in philosophy—are still in the air, and I doubt they will ever be conclusively solved. After all, it was C.D. Broad who noted that induction, the basis for all scientific inquiry, remains “the glory of science and the scandal of philosophy.”

Yet, science as we know it today is largely separate from philosophical circles. Scientists in general are not involved in ceaseless debates over predictive models and Bayesian inference. They work overtime not in philosophy discussion groups but on labs and journals, and they follow the most practical standard: do the theories work, and are the results consistent? That’s it. It matters not if we can’t prove the existence of cause and effect in the philosophy department. Science will continue, and it will keep working.

The separation between the philosophy of science and science itself is a healthy one, and it resists the academic tyranny of well-meaning thinkers of philosophy. These are people who often clog the practical, real-world side of things. Even the venerated Karl Popper, for example, had to ruin it for everyone else by arguing that Darwinian evolution was on the level of psychoanalysis, a sort of untestable, wishy-washy pseudoscientific paradigm. Note he wasn’t arguing from the point of view of a scientist (looking at the evidence); instead, he was arguing from the standpoint of somebody who wanted to solve problems of epistemology. Fortunately, he retracted his criticism later on.

The second reason I’m writing this is that there’s a real academic tyranny going on, and that’s in the field of religious studies. It goes something like this:

4 Claims of the Academic Tyrant:

1. Academia, and western academia in particular, is one of the best and most enlightened places to understand religion and religious texts.

2. You most likely don’t have an informed opinion of religion without participating in the academic activities of the circle above.

3. Religion is often practiced in an unenlightened, fundamentalist, and narrow-minded way by those who are outside academia.

4. The existence of disagreements within academia should stop all others from reaching any practical conclusions about religion.

Let’s take a trite example. There are many people who warn me to not even talk about this, at least not in a way that paints Christianity in any broad brush.

I would argue that in all practical circumstances, the idea that God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac makes God an cruel murderer. It directly implies that Christianity, as represented by this god, is a immoral religion that celebrates credulity and the willingness to kill your own child to show your love for God. It’s a call, in other words, to religious insanity and violence.

Not so fast, says the academic tyrant. After all, there are disagreements about how to interpret this, aren’t there? Have you read the latest opinion from [fill-in-the-blank] theology school? Have you read the latest philosophy? How about older writers like Kierkegaard, who argued that there’s a vast difference between the transcendental morality of the Bible and worldly morality that we judge God by? What about people who don’t take this literally, people who just think it is a nice metaphor for the intensity of love and faith for God? And what about all the other love and peace stories from Jesus?

Oh, and there’s more. We must read all the other theologians, people who are all incidentally part of the same westernized, liberalized academic circle before we should even mutter anything about Christianity. We just shouldn’t say anything. Really.

I hope you are getting the picture. There’s a very large disconnect between people in academia and religious people in the real world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, confusion, and misunderstanding too:

A. Religion is supposed to be an individualized conception of lived experience and religious texts, but academics often see religion only through the lens of peer-reviewed debate and critical textual analysis. They don’t acknowledge the possibility that people can get real and valid conclusions by reading it outside of the academic environment.

B. Religious texts, as you may know already, are self-contradictory and inconsistent sources of information. Yet, academics are often confused by this when they assume that there must be differing valid opinions about interpretations. They think these differing opinions come from differences in people, not from the contradicting, man-made nature of the books themselves.

C. Academics rashly insist that fundamentalism is not a valid way of understanding religions and texts. They assert this, saying that there should be context, but they provide no context of their own. They think the Koran is a historical document, for example, just like any other. They read it in their academic sort of way, ignoring the fact that, as Ibn Warraq notes, “the Koran remains the infallible word of God, the immediate word of God sent down, through the intermediary of a ‘spirit’ or ‘holy spirit’ or Gabriel, to Muhammad in perfect pure Arabic; and everything contained therein is eternal and uncreated.” Academic tyrants, in other words, want to bind the hands of people who want to criticize Islam on its own terms.

I really want to ask my fellow readers: what kind of world do most people live in? A world dominated by liberalized theology schools and enlightened philosophical circles, or a world of real darkness and superstition? There are people who willingly look at religion through a glass darkly and can’t really understand why there are so many fundamentalists, why so much is wrong with the world precisely because of religion.

I think we need to step back a little and open our eyes, not as westernized academics but as human beings.


Posted on April 1, 2011, in History, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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