Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part I.

There are few things more exhilarating than seeing an argument that you disagree with put well. It’s been more than ten years since I first wrote about what atheists have that makes them atheist and what theists lack that gives them a gap for faith to fill (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism). Since then, atheism has become a hot topic, though one inclined at times to give off more heat than light.

Enter Jonathan Sacks, who weighed his Cambridge grounding in formal philosophy and found it wanting, who rose to become chief rabbi, and who now frequently runs the fevered gauntlet of the BBC’s Thought for the Day (in which a cleric must dowse a burning secular issue in the cooling balm of ancient creed).

With such qualifications, I fully expected him to emerge, like the biblical Daniel, unscalded and unscathed from the atheist inferno. I wasn’t awaiting conversion, but I did expect The Great Partnership, the result of his lifelong journey between philosophy and faith, to challenge ideas and arguments that satisfied me in my twenties.

Intending to write a review, I opened the book, sharp of mind and of pencil, filling the margins in my wake. Pretty soon, though, the marginalia ceased and the chief feeling I have on closing its covers is one of disappointment. The argument is largely concerned with reconciling science and religion. But Titanic’s problem wasn’t the tip of the iceberg but what lay beneath—which is why An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, from the start, plunged down to the worldviews that underpin science and religion, where Sacks, oblivious, skims along the surface.

The Great Partnership deserves Titanic’s fate. When he reviews arguments that others have made before him, Sacks is competent. But when his case demands originality of thought, whether to frame questions or offer answers, the result is not searing, but soggy. Not fireproof, but waterlogged. Platitudinous and complacent.

I won’t show this at length. I don’t think the book merits it. What I offer instead is a proxy-review, like those offered to Shmuley Boteach and Fred Reed. I’ll take just one part of the book and show that the high number of basic, easily avoidable errors disqualifies its author from the ranks of serious commentators.

Writing systems are central to how Sacks makes his case. Not only are they prominent in the book, but the difference between Hebrew and Greek was Sacks’ icebreaker on the BBC’s Start the Week. Doubtless, he could have opened otherwise (the book is, after all, mostly meandering and autobiographical, impressionistic and anecdotal). Yet, if aleph-beth versus alphabet is how he chooses to make his big splash, to prove he’s an intellectual supertanker, on national radio, on a Monday morning, then clearly this is not incidental to his thought. This proud prow of his case is thus a fair point for testing how seaworthy that thinking is.

But I must emphasize: this is not a review of the rabbi’s linguistics. Nor am I interested in what led him to make to errors so numerous, basic and avoidable (complacency? hubris? incompetence?). My point is that is if this is the intellectual prowess of this much praised salvo of newfangled anti-atheism—from an academically trained philosopher, a community leader, a veteran of public communication, a stalwart of interfaith dialogue—then it is a very sorry state of affairs. Little could do more to sink the idea that the religious voice will guide us through turbulent seas, or that it constitutes an intellectually defensible position, than this snapshot of (complacent? hubristic? incompetent?) analysis from The Great Partnership.

Big splash or damp squib?

Hebrew runs from right to left and is written without vowels. Greek runs from left to right and is written with vowels. This, Sacks claims, cannot possibly be coincidence. And, in the difference, he perceives deep cultural significance. To reconstitute the meaning of a vowelless text, you have to keep the big picture of the text in mind. Such synthesis is a very “right-brain” activity. To read a voweled script, you concentrate on the each individual sign. Such analytic assemblage is a very “left-brain” activity. Thus, the concerns of Jewish culture are about big picture issues of meaning—wholes and holiness—whereas Greek culture is about taking things apart and seeing how they function. More or less: Greeks are from Mars, Jews are from Venus, and you can see it in how they write.

Just this sliver of thought triggers three clarions of alarm bells: one for culture, another for neurology, and the last for the form and function of writing systems. Of course, the rabbi recognizes—or so he says—that his characterization of the two cultures, and of neurology, is a simplification. I’m not sure this is entirely fair to simplifications. It’s a slippery slope from simplification to oversimplification (or, perhaps more aptly, from dumbing down, down to dumb). Whenever the rabbi talks of left-brain cultures, or left brains, or brains, it feels to me we’re sailing in perilous propinquity to land of “Relativity says all things are relative”.

But many people founder on the logic of neuroscience, and thumbnails of cultures, so diffuse and sprawling, are easily misread, like reefs through water. Alphabets, by contrast, offer solid ground, concrete and familiar. The internet abounds with information for the curious (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts). So, if you’re making claims about alphabets, directions, and voweliness, it’s easy to check your facts, encounter alternatives, and develop and test rival hypotheses.

How far and how successfully Sacks has done this speaks to the intellectual integrity of The Great Partnership, and possibly to that of the new anti-atheist enterprise (of which, to judge by the press, Sacks is something of a flagship). After all, if he can’t figure out how to collect facts and check hunches for such straightforward, well documented, hands-on things as ABC’s, what chance does he have of navigating his way, or his followers, through more abstract arguments, such as the relationship of science and religion, the nature of goodness, and the meaning of life?

Part II
Part III

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