A View from Everywhere: Metacognition & the Limits of Reflection

“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” —Buddha

reflections

While I think I would be hard pressed to produce Thomas Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere,’[1] or even the perhaps more realistic ‘view from everywhere,’ it is nonetheless my aim for this blog to gain some perspective on our perspectives, specifically metacognate about the religion-science relationship (see the mission statement). Beginning with the observation that concepts are fluid and the borders between knowledge systems are porous, I then ask: how can we define the relationship when the things being related are already questionable? I am not interested in providing a definitive definition of ‘religion’ and ‘science,’ which is impossible without essentialization — and thus not historically informed — and without partiality, since these terms vary from context to context. I want to be as neutral as possible, taking all perspectives seriously, even taking into account my own situated perspective and thus creating a ‘view from everywhere.’ But at the same time I want to bring some awareness to the limits of neutrality and reflective analysis.

The first thing to be aware of is that I, along with the rest of us, am a historical being and, in many ways, a product of my time. Even my desire to gain perspective on our perspectives can be historically situated in the postmodern movement of poststructuralism, which denies intrinsic meaning and unmediated access to ‘reality.’ If perception is mediated, to reflect on our perspectives is a desirable method for analyzing the social constructs of knowledge. The aim to be neutral could be seen as influenced by the pluralism, and even to some degree the postmodern relativism, of the day and the necessary complexity in defining fluid concepts, a product of critical discourse analysis. Going beyond context and overcoming concepts is a distinctly modern Western notion of freedom of the autonomous individual from cultural, social, and institutional conditioning. Hmm … too bad my idea to be free of societal conditioning came from society. I so wanted my perspective to be a unique snowflake, but someone else thought of it first.

The Not-so-outer Limits.

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“When we acknowledge our containment in the world … Our problem in this sense has no solution, but to recognize that is to come as near as we can to living in light of the truth.” —Nagel [2]

To take a step back as if to provide a ‘view from nowhere’ or even one from ‘everywhere,’ is a tall order. As I’ve shown, even my approach has a historical context. Thus this must be an object of reflection also, and well, you can see where this is going: round and round. All approaches are intrinsically linked to the context. How do we get off of this not-so-merry merry-go-round? As suggested by Kocku von Stuckrad (staff page here), in the footsteps of Michel Foucault, while we cannot free ourselves of the discourse of the time, we can instead take a discursive perspective and “focus on describing, analyzing, and demarcating … fields of discourse.”[3] This includes an examination of how concepts change through time and how knowledge is communicated, organized, and legitimated in a social process. And I apologize, you scientistics, but that includes science![4]

Where does this leave us in the field? Well, the answer to that question is central to my PhD project and is currently under construction (wink, wink … you know, because it is a construct … don’t you hate it when people explain their jokes?).  One approach is to define the objects of the academic study of religion and then contextualize those objects in the discourse. Hmm … maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I want something a bit more stable, like what the essentialists were going for plus historicization, but an approach that also captures the dynamism of concepts. Stability and dynamism? I guess I want it all!

One way this might be accomplished, following in the deconstructionist path, is to analyze how meaning is attributed in relative perspective — that is how concepts gain meaning in contrast to other concepts. Thus to analyze the religion-science relationship, I will examine not what ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are, but how these terms are understood relative to one another. That covers the dynamism part, but what about the stability? It is my idea that two things, any things (ideas, objects, etc.) can only be related in so many ways, starting with the most basic subdivisions of identical or non-identical. While there are many more subdivisions and thus levels of complexity, they are finite. While particularities of difference could in principle be infinite (e.g., the lines could be drawn at ‘methodology,’ or more specifically ‘empiricism,’ or further delineated at ‘intersubjective observation,’ etc. on and on), the relational construct remains constant (e.g., ‘religion’ and ‘science’ are oppositional, negatively correlated).

Did I lose you? Think of it like this: name brand or generic? While generic brands may be the ‘same,’ some will still prefer the name brand. Why? Because it’s just different. There may be some remarkable differences to the name-branders, such as confidence in the brand or the cultural currency of popularity, but whatever those particularities, the relationship between Vogue and Value is one of difference. Others will have arguments for sameness, like the same chemical constitution in the case of medicines and beauty products for example. There will always be infinite particularities that support the constructs of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference,’ depending on how the concepts are framed, but the question of how they are related (are they the same or different?) is more limited. So my point is not to delineate what particularities make religion and science the same or different, but to analyze how sameness and difference, and other relational constructs, are applied in the discourse. (For a terribly technical description of various relational constructs, see my PhD proposal here.)

But wait! I must subscribe to some relational construct if I am relating them, right? What’s behind secret door number three? I still seem to be on the eternal merry-go-round of hell, in that even talking about religion and science as a discourse is part of the discourse. Secret door number three is not so secret: my own perspective is just a perspective, one way of constructing the world. So I can’t give you eternal truths (shocking, I know). But there is some usefulness to this approach: to gain perspective on our perspectives, leading to knowledge unbound by the fetters of presupposition; but at the same time to be aware of the limits of our reflection, and maintain humility and neutrality in the face of such a daunting task as tackling the three most successful epistemic enterprises of all time: religion, science, and philosophy.

Look for upcoming posts on the social construction of ‘religion’ and ‘science,’ beginning with the widespread idea of ‘conflict’ in “Science as ‘Not Religion’: The ‘Conflict’ Construct.”

Endnotes:

1. Although, Nagel’s view was not really that this is possible to a full extent, but rather this phrase refers to our ability to gain larger perspectives outside of our own position. There are limits to this ability, as we can never fully escape our perspectives.
2. Nagel 231.
3. von Stuckrad 1.
4. E.g., Latour and Woolgar. Don’t worry, I’ll have more discussion on the social construct of ‘science’ in later blog posts.

References:

Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).
von Stuckrad, Kocku, “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2010): 156–169.

Further Reading:

Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980).

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