Harry Frankfurt, Please Call Your Office

A few years ago Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a book with Princeton University Press called On Bullshit. While it's tempting to make jokes about "most unintentionally ironic book title of the year", there is one aspect of the book that makes it relevant to the world of academic theology (if not the real world). This from the publisher's blurb:
Bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
The insight here was brought into particularly high relief for me today upon reading this post at Benjamin Myers' popular blog called Faith and Theology. Ben Myers is a very promising young scholar and theologian, and goodness knows I admire his industry. Of course it isn't fair to judge a theological approach on the basis of a blog entry, but sometimes blog entries can give something like a flavor an author's outlook, and in the present case I think that this is so: there is a distinct redolence of Bultmann here that is difficult to miss. It's not so much that Myers is wrong about his chosen topic, rather it's that his approach to it is so full of shit that one simply has no idea where to begin wiping down the walls, and just as Frankfurt predicts, the shittiness of Myers' approach is couched in language that is clearly intended to "convey a certain impression...without being concerned about whether anything at all is true." This stuff is mental masturbation at its worst, and the great irony of it all is that Myers is actually a faithful Christian, not some ditsy postmodernist deconstructor out to show that the genealogy of belief vitiates the very possibility of belief itself.

He begins with the question, "Can we ever 'prove' the resurrection of Jesus", and we're presented with three possible proof-types, historical, probabilistic, and scientific. Although we are never told what is meant by "prove", we are told that we can't do it and, besides, we're not really talking about proof anyway, if what you mean by "prove" is "trace a causal chain from start to finish that is consistent with classical mechanics" (which is not what most people mean by "prove", but maybe things are different in Australia, where everything is upside down and toilet bowls swirl the other way and all, giving one the sense that Newton just had to be wrong):
I’m not talking here, of course, about a Newtonian notion that the world is a closed causal system (so that “divine intervention” is impossible by definition). Instead, my point is simply that the resurrection must be understood theologically, as the eschatological act of God in which the existing structures of the world are torn open and something wholly new is brought into being.
Well, gee, that really is a simple point, isn't it. And yet we started with this whole proof thing, and we were told that proving the resurrection is
neither possible nor desirable. For resurrection is not a natural or historical possibility, but it is precisely a contradiction of the whole order of the possible. It is not one event alongside other events within world-history, but it is the end and boundary of history as such.
In short, the thing cannot possibly be understood at all, even in principle, so we must, um, well, "understand" it, uh, theologically. Yeah, that's it.

As is the case with most bullshit, there is a kernel of truth here, but to see it we must draw a distinction between the epistemological and the metaphysical. On the epistemological side, it is probably true enough to say that there is no way to "prove" the resurrection to the satisfaction of all possible epistemic agents, whether or not we agree beforehand that, as events go, the resurrection is sui generis. As long as people continue to disagree about standards of evidence, materialism, empiricism, naturalism, determinism, and a whole host of other epistemological -isms, it will be impossible to put forward a single set of assertions that compels assent in every individual of every epistemological persuasion. This is, quite simply, a matter of human psychology, not postmodernist bullshit about the "end" of history or inexplicable yet meaningful events that are not really events in the ordinary sense. On the metaphysical side of things, however, the resurrection (whatever we decide that it is) either happened or it didn't happen, it was/is an existent, or not, whatever a very industrious and popular theologian/blogger might imagine. So he is certainly right that the only approach to the resurrection is the approach of faith--there is simply no denying that, but then, who denies it? Is it because Myers came originally from a fundamentalist background that he thinks that there is some danger of folks being spooked by "failed proofs" of the resurrection? And we are to imagine that these folks will feel better about the resurrection if they are told, well, this bullshit? The resurrection, in its original context, was an event that unfolded among uneducated and very simplistic people, and it is rather difficult to imagine them having anything like the ideas that are on offer here. In short, the ideas on offer here are mere inventions of a fertile mind.

Now, when one invents whole new ways of looking at reality, it is not impossible that one could thereby help others to see reality more clearly. This is what theology is all about, after all, the exploration of various metaphors and approximations to the truth for the purpose of gaining insights into God, his nature, our relationship with him, etc. This is what the doctrines of the Trinity, Transubstantiation, Divine Filiation, Original Sin, and, yes, the Resurrection ultimately amount to: feeble attempts to make comprehensible what is literally incomprehensible to our limited human cognition. Given that this is what theology is, one wonders why anybody would make theology itself incomprehensible by stuffing it full of invented categories and flights of fancy that, far from illuminating things, actually pull the wool over our eyes:
Since the resurrection contradicts the very structures of reality, it could be called an impossible event – impossible in the strictest sense of the word! It is not a “historical” event, since it punctures the linearity of history and confronts history with its own shattering “end.”
Ohhhhh...kayyyyy.... I didn't know that impossibility came in degrees....

In the whole essay, probably the best (and most meaningful) sentence is this one:
All this means that the concept of “resurrection” can never be introduced as the most likely explanation for any historical data.
Quite true. And yet, again, no thoughtful person holds otherwise. In fact, I don't know anyone who uses concepts to explain historical data. Probably what he meant was that the resurrection itself, rather than somebody's possible conception of it, cannot be used as a historical explanation, but it's difficult to tell, given the way this guy likes to sling his hash. If I notice that my propane tank is getting colder when I cook on the gas grill on a hot, humid summer day, do I explain it by appealing to the "concept" of thermodynamics, or the "concept" of the ideal gas law, or the "concept" of--what? In giving an explanation in a case like this, don't we ordinarily go mechanistic? Boyle's law, if one accepts a rather straightforward conception of lawlike regularities in nature, is just a summation over a broad spectrum of experience. Clearly Myers is right that there can be no such explanation for anything like the resurrection, which happened only the one time and, contrary to Myers, is not the end of history, but the very center of it.

Oops, I'm sorry, that was a little bullshit of my own there. Suffice it to say that this simplistic and uneducated person prefers his theology a little more on the Thomistic side, and that fact in itself may suffice to explain my distaste for this kind of approach. In the end, all that really matters is that Myers at least believes in something he calls "resurrection" (the "concept" of resurrection?) and that already puts him way ahead of folks like Shelby Spong in the "rational Christian" department.


Ben Myers said…
Hi Scott — thanks for your interesting and entertaining critique! I'm a big fan of Harry Frankfurt's book, so I enjoyed the many allusions to "bullshit" — especially this sentence: "it's not so much that Myers is wrong about his chosen topic, rather it's that his approach to it is so full of shit that one simply has no idea where to begin wiping down the walls..."

If my post was indeed "full of shit", then I reckon it was worth it to be able to prompt such a hilariously blistering critique!
Scott Carson said…
Hi Ben

Thanks for being such a good sport about it. I hope that, in spite of the critique, and some reservations about certain kinds of approach, my admiration for your work generally still shone through. I certainly enjoy reading your blog, and I have no illusions about the general bullshit level of my own blog.
Scott Carson said…
Oh, and I hope the phrase "a distinct redolence of Bultmann" didn't slip past you. That one was stretching things a bit, I confess, but I couldn't resist.

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