Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Hermeneutics of Superstition: the Epistemic Implications of Original Sin

With apologies to Paul Ricoeuer and "the hermeneutics of suspicion," I give you the hermeneutics of superstition (HOS). It is part of the doctrine of original sin. It refers to the tendency of individuals and organizations to prefer interpretations that best fit the ideology and self-interests they bring to the consideration of any issue, especially new ones.

Some examples will make the concept clear. It is not surprising the tobacco companies resisted the causal connection between smoking and lung cancer as long as they possibly could find scientists or use the lap dog scientists on their payroll to refute the notion. Only a few years ago a row of them to a person expressed to Congress the view that cigarette smoking is not addictive. Why? An ideology that served their monetary interests was at stake. In such instances, the hermeneutics of superstition raises its ugly head.

Is global warming taking place, and is it in part due to human activity? If you have an organization entranced by the wonders of the free market and is supported by businesses and individuals dedicated to that ideology, it will likely prefer to believe that recent global warming is a part of long-term natural cycles and that human activity plays a minimal role. This is the idea President Bush also supports.

Was racism involved in the treatment of poor blacks after Katrina? You can supply names and organizations as well as I that were absolutely sure there was. Conservatives thought the idea was ridiculous. Good evidence was in short supply from both sides.

Is it safe to import prescription drugs from other countries to make them cheaper? Pharmaceutical companies are sure it is not. Consumer groups insist that it is or can be made to be. Do Pharmaceutical companies need to charge high prices for new drugs to recoup their research costs? Of course we do, say they. Of course not, say the critics, since the government pays for for much of the basic research and the amount spent on marketing costs and cultivating the good will of physicians with lavish goodies is inordinate and inexcusable.

How doe we account for this? Why the hermeneutics of superstition, of course. We could make this list as long as we wanted to. Just take any new issue and proponents and opponents will find that the evidence fits their preconceived outlook on life and/or is beneficial to their own interests.

Will tax cuts to the wealthy benefit the economy? Of course, say conservatives. There is a better way to do it say the liberals that does not inordinately gift the already filthy rich with even more wealth. The hermeneutics of superstition is like the universal solvent that will dissolve anything, but, unfortunately, there was nowhere to put it. The HOS is universally relevant (or almost so), but there is a place to put it -- in our minds where we use it to be skeptical of all points of view, including our own.

Overcoming this obstacle to truth requires eternal vigilance, agnosticism about what fits the natural predilections of proponents, and hard-headed insistence upon clear and convincing evidence to counteract the seductive appeal of HOS. We need especially to be critical of ourselves, since, like original sin, it corrupts everybody.

By the way, the HOS also applies to thought about religion and morals. I have said this so well in other writings that I need only repeat it here. As I once wrote:

"The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe. I suggest a theological version that I will call the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability. This law states that the Bible can be interpreted so as to make it compatible with nearly every conceivable doctrine. The greatest proof of the operation of this Law is that irreconcilable positions on nearly every theological and ethical question are extant, all of which claim to have the sanction of Scripture. The sublime form of the Law indicates that reasons can always be given to demonstrate that Jesus himself would have approved of the conclusions reached by a given individual or community. When the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability is in operation, it is nearly always accompanied by the Phenomenon of Total Surprise. I prefer the description of this Phenomenon in its "Lo and Behold" form: When individuals and groups find the Word of God in the Bible, the results, lo and behold, turn out to be identical with what they themselves believe"!
(From myToward a New Modernism, p. 31,1997)

Want an illustration? What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Tell me the theological point of view of the interpreter, and I will tell you in advance what they will conclude after examining the evidence. There are, of course, renegade modernists like myself who say it doesn't matter what specific passages say. The question is whether same-sex love is healthy and beneficial to all concerned. See the dictum of Paul in Romans and I Corinthians : Love is the fulfilling of the law, the whole of the law. Moreover, all things are permitted but not everything is healthy and beneficial, but we should not be enslaved to anything. I add that that enslavement includes bondage to our own point of view that we bring to scriptural exegesis.