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December 19, 2006

Retreat to My Study

After a year of mostly daily blogging on this site, I am cutting back.

As most of you know, I am writing a book on the history of disbelief for Carroll and Graf. The blog -- produced while working on the book -- was an experiment conceived by the Institute for the Future of the Book. It has been a success. I have been benefiting from informed and insightful comments by readers of the blog as I've tested some ideas from this book and explored some of their connections to contemporary debates.

I may continue to post sporatically here, but now it seems time to retreat to my study to digest what I've learned, polish my thoughts and compose the rest of the narrative. The trick will be accomplishing that without losing touch with those — commenters or just silent readers — who are interested in this project.

If you would like to be notified of any major activity on this site and of the status of the book, please leave your email below. I will not, of course, use it for any other purpose. Otherwise, do try to check back here once in a while. There will be some updates and, perhaps, some new experiments.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 19, 2006 7:14 PM


May you benefit greatly from your time in retreat.

One question - What kind of copyright license will govern the work in the book?

Posted by: Peter Rock at December 20, 2006 2:15 AM

I assume it will be a standard publishing copyright. why?

Posted by: mitch at December 20, 2006 6:41 PM

Good luck!

Posted by: MT at December 20, 2006 11:02 PM

I'm curious how you're imagining the book now, in relation with/to this blog's archive of comments, as well as the blog for the seminar paper with its own sets of comments. Might the seminar paper show up as a kind of preface, for example? I assume the quieter sensation of working only in print will be pretty refreshing. Best of luck with the thinking and writing...

Posted by: JM at December 21, 2006 11:29 PM

Remember that the book is to be a narrative history; it will proceed more or less chronologically. (I have placed a draft of the Prologue here somewhere.) Some passages that I've posted on the blog will appear in the book, but often in different contexts -- extended narrative not being within the capabilities of the upside-down, chopped-up form of a blog. Pieces from the seminar paper on the emptiness of the Holy of Holies will mostly appear in the chapter on skepticism (which, in my view, has a lot to do with that hollowing out); that chapter will also make much of Ecclesiastes. Comments on this blog have directed aspects of my research or redirected my thinking on a number of subjects, and I will undoubtedly return to those comments as I push on.

Posted by: mitch at December 22, 2006 10:08 AM

Besides good luck I must add: Go without god.

Posted by: MT at December 22, 2006 1:57 PM

"Such evidence is, of course, spotty and unscientific."

What branch of science would you be turning to for the answer? What is the refractive index of belief?
The molecular weight of freethinking? Your meaningless genuflection towards science is a perfect demonstration of how science has replaced, or rather *is* religion today. The big question is to what extent is the belief in science similarly groundless, similarly superstitious, similarly based in awe before authority rather than direct knowledge, and similarly a prostration before the custodians of power? Really, science is simply today's most powerful religion. Atheism today doesn't raise eyebrows, but deny science and you are considered as mad as Shelley or Kit Marlowe, in quite the same way and for quite the same reasons. Don't go to church, no problem. Don't get vaccinated, deny the necessity of exploring Mars, of billion dollar particle accelerators, of computerized voting machines, of fluoride, etc, etc, or in any way reduce the unlimited flow of public funds to the scientific priesthood and its monopoly on the noble quest for Knowledge, and you can be in real trouble. This is the direction that brave atheists should explore, not Sunday school mythbusting.

Really, an atheism that retains optimism has a lot of explaining to do.

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at December 23, 2006 12:42 AM

If I may coninue in the same vein, I would suggest that often, if not always, and certainly these days, the atheism argument is really a covert defense of science, and, as you lamented that atheists seem to lack a positive side, and are definitionally stuck in a negative, anti stance, you might frankly admit the belief in science/rationality as some sort of spiritual anchor. This, of course, throws you into another quite different, lively debate. It is not, after all, insignificant that Richard Dawkins is officially Oxford's Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at December 23, 2006 1:00 AM


You are right about science being the current most popular version of faith, but you only have to step one step back to see any understanding of reality is faith based. To use words relies on faith in shared pre-defined meanings.
We are all blind to our own bullshit. And as soon as I see how my current version of truth is wrong I create another one to replace it, made of the same faithful belief in my perception of reality.


Posted by: Jay Saul at December 23, 2006 4:06 PM

I may be reading you wrong, but I take that you think there is a position on truth that is better than faith in science? As long as you depend on your perceptions to guide you through life, you have accepted your own version of faith in reality. Whether that is science or Scientology or your unoptimistic version of atheism makes no difference. Any construction of reality has some splanin' to do! And no communicatable explanation will work. Pair o ducks.

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 23, 2006 4:20 PM

** Even if we accept Jay Saul's view that any view of reality is just a construction (and I highly recommend Jay's song/video "Society," which is available on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7j1sEwJl9A ),
** even if we accept Derrida's characterization of knowledge and faith as "believing one knows and knowing one believes,"
** I remain highly suspicious of the notion that science can simply be dismissed as another religion.
** Yes, we must watch out for any discipline that pretends to sum up or pin down reality. Yes, we must be alert to attempts by the followers of science to transform their information and analyses into meanings, purposes or goals.
** But I am not at all comfortable with efforts to erase all distinctions between understandings that succeed as explainers or predictors of the behavior of the universe and those that fail, "between," to borrow Aristotle's perhaps crude wording, "those who rely on myth and the supernatural to explain the world and those who rely on natural forces."
** I won't, to be blunt, surrender the distinction between faith healers and liver-transplant surgeons -- despite the occasional successes of the former and the occasional failings of the latter.
** The book I am writing will find occasions to consider the limitations of Aristotle's distinction, but it will spend much time honoring the struggles of those who established that distinction -- in the process giving us the concepts and the freedom with which we might consider its limitations.
** Questioning science can indeed be a "brave" form of "atheism, as Mark Shulgasser argues. However, we must also be aware that many use such questioning as an excuse to scurry back to "Sunday-school myths."
** Those new to this blog can find more on the relationship between religion and science by clicking on "science" in the idea cloud atop its home page or by searching on the blog for "scientism."

Posted by: mitch at December 26, 2006 12:39 PM

Thanks for the "even if" and the song plug. But I think you may misunderstand my words. I believe in science, it is my brain's best guess as well. My point is we all HAVE to believe in our reality to speak or even think. I do not dismiss science as just another religion. I dismiss reality as being real. To me that is a BIG difference, but one very hard to communicate.
Because all symbols come from faith in their meanings, they cannot be used to de-faith the world. For everyone's sake, I'll quit while I'm behind.

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 26, 2006 2:15 PM

You write: "I won't, to be blunt, surrender the distinction between faith healers and liver transplant surgeons . . ."

Really, as if anyone could. The intellectual challenge is to pursue the comparison.

Seems like the instant the faith in science is questioned
you fearfully shudder at the terrors of pain and death and cross yourself gratefully with the thought of how science is our great protector. Is this rational thought or evidence of pervasive underlying panic? Anyway surgery is way older than science, medicine least exemplary instance of modern rational science, and the liver is the affliction of the first mythic atheist, Prometheus. It takes you about three seconds to fall into primitive archetypal miasms. You seem no more able to challenge the role of science in the modern psyche than a 13th century peasant could doubt the Pope.

And enough misusing Derrida. You were lucky enoughh to meet the man. "believing one knows and knowing one believes" is far from "Derrida's characterization of knowledge and faith". Quite utterly to the contrary, in context of a long, profound and difficult essay, he specifically says that between the two "the alternative is not a game" and he painstakingly discourages us from accepting the phrase in your simple way.

Incidentally, difficult as it is, the essay (in Religion, by Derrida and Vattimo, 1998) contains passages as powerful and beautiful as anything he ever wrote, which I am happy have the opportunity to point out to anyone reading this -- for instance paragraph 22.

I don't recall your treating the Prometheus myth, certainly crucial in a discussion of atheism, especially Shelley's version.

Don't miss NYRB's demolition of Dawkins. Good night.

Posted by: mark shulgasser at December 28, 2006 1:49 AM

We are all too secure in our own constructions, butt hey, that is the only way humans survived--a common social construction of what is and is not.

To me, the real intellectual challenge is to recognize the absolute limits of the intellectual challenge.

However, how do we explain the fact that it is science that will transform us into the man-machines that will connect us and make us into different animals with completely different awareness of what is and is not? I can't. Why try?

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 29, 2006 10:59 AM

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