Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two Passages to be Read Alongside One Another

Stanley Fish favorably reviews Terry Eagleton:

Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
A Papal edict unfavorably reviews Galileo:
We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo, by reason of the matters adduced in trial, and by you confessed as above, have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine—which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures—that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that an opinion may be held and defended as probably after it has been declared and defined to be contrary to the Holy Scripture; and that consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated in the sacred canons and other constitutions, general and particular, against such delinquents. From which we are content that you be absolved, provided that, first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, you abjure, curse, and detest before use the aforesaid errors and heresies and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church in the form to be prescribed by us for you.
The Pope left no doubt as to whether he had, in Fish's terms, "gone far back enough" -- and in that place to which he went back, all of Galileo's operations, however accurately they might run, had to be quashed, and the man who dared to develop them had to be silenced.

It's tempting to review these two passages and take the 'truth is somewhere in the middle' stance characteristic of the USA's leading discount newsweeklies, but no, the sad truth is that Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton -- especially Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton given their place in the world -- should damn well know better than this.

If they look around, as scholars are paid to do, they should notice two relevant things: first, whatever threat heliocentrism posed to the church appears to have been something less than fatal given that heliocentrism is now widely accepted and yet the Holy See continues saying, pronouncing, and declaring things quite merrily, and still commands widespread attention when it does so. Second, while it is no longer 1633, it is still "1633" in many parts of the world -- parts of the world that make headlines daily, places where Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton would have been beheaded a dozen times over for some of the tamer things they've written over their cozy academic careers.

I think Fish and Eagleton need to take a careful look at the Swat valley of Pakistan and the case of Aayan Hirsi Ali before they dazzle us with any more insights about the drawbacks of modernity.

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