Introduction to Professor Richard Rorty's Lecture:
"Is Science Compatible with Religious Belief?"

I would like to welcome everyone here this afternoon.  Before I begin, I would like to first thank some people who have supported me from the beginning in bringing Professor Richard Rorty of Stanford University to HSU:

Prof. Mary Ann Creadon, Prof. Barry Dalsant, Prof. Tom Gage, Prof. Emeritus Bob Burroughs and Karen Welsh of the English Dept., Prof. John Powell, and Stephanie Chism of the philosophy dept., and Dean Karen Carlton.

In thinking about what I was going to say when I got up here this afternoon, I remembered a philosopher’s anectdote I had read that I thought would be perfect, and which would also illustrate the philosophical backdrop from which Prof. Rorty works against.  The anectdote goes something like this:

A frenchman, an englishman, and a german each undertook a study of  the camel.

The frenchman went to the local zoo, spent half an hour there, questioned the guard, threw bread to the camel, poked it with the point of his umbrella, and, returning home, wrote an article for his paper full of sharp and witty observations.

The englishman, taking his tea basket and a good deal of camping equipment, went to set up camp in the Takli Makan Desert, returning after a sojourn of two or three years withn a fat volume, full of raw, disorganized, and inconclusive facts which, nevertheless, had real documentary value.

As for the german, filled with disdain for the Frenchman’s frivolity and the englishman’s lack of general ideas, he locked himself in his room, and there drafted a several-volume work entitled:  The Idea of the Camel Derived from the Trancendental Concept of the Ego.

In giving a brief intellectual background of Professor Rorty’s though, anything I leave out, as it seems to be, is sure to be important.  Thus my cutting and pasting here should be seen only as fragments of a language that is vast, diverse, and constantly changing.

In  the preface of professor Rorty’s most recent book, Philosophy and Social Hope, I found what I believe to be the most important feature of his work, the feature that kept me  coming back to his texts for insights on how to approach problems I had been facing in reconciling some of my fears not only about the pointless jargon of leftist academia--the rhetoric I have been indoctrinated in using,  but also of the malignant rhetoric of people like William Bennett, Jesse Helms, and Pat Buchanan. Professor Rorty’s words go like this:

“My candidate for the most distinctive and praiseworthy human capacity is our ability to trust and to cooperate with other people, and in particular to work together so as to improve the future”

These, I think, are the ideas that not only exemplify what is best in Professor Rorty’s work, but are, on the contrary, some of the ideas that have been viewed as unrealistic and vehemently attacked by both intellectuals in the academy and the politicians who decide on what types of laws should be passed to best make the comfortable constituency, more comfortable. 

Professor Rorty’s social and political concerns have long been argued--as he puts it--in “the priority of democracy to philosophy.” But the purely academic philosophy that has been Professor Rorty’s arena for the last forty years, has given way to a more overt political philosophy that goes something like this:

Philosophy as it has traditionally been practiced in the West, which basically lies within the Platonic-Aristotelian-Cartesian-kantian lineage, has done nothing but put us in a morass which keeps assuring us that one day there will be a final and unarguable basis upon which we will be able to organize and judge our actions; that we will be able to once and for all know the truth.  Roughly 2500 years of this has yielded mixed results indeed.   As Professor Rorty argues,  we should instead embrace a future where all that matters is that we have made certain agreements between each other about what kind of place we want to live in, defending that world and defending others who have joined us here in consensus. 

But a problem arises in this, as Professor Rorty himself has noted: What if someone comes up with a philosophically convincing argument in defense of children who labor in sweathouses in Malaysia making our $140 Nike sneakers we buy in our local mall?  Or what if someone also comes up with a philosophically convincing argument for re instituting slavery? -- And both of these are consentually agreed upon?  Of course, someone can mount an attack on each of them too.  That one can do the former (even without conviction) indicates that anyone else can too--and with some conviction.  The point is that none of us want to keep arguing about these things if that continuing argument allows these social injustices to persist.   

What I am saying, and what Professor Rorty undergirds his political writings with is the fact that where there is consentually agreed upon laws there is no need for moral discussion.  It may be that we sometimes want to revise the laws, and that is where we may discuss what we need to change and how to go about it.  All of us implicitly accept such consensus-binding in every part of our lives, and we understand that this is how societies stay together and are able to cooperate with each other.

Professor Rorty’s version of philosophy, of inquiry, and of knowledge is that “ The purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends.”  This is what our politicians in Washington, scientists in Livermore, clergy in Salt Lake, activists in Seattle, judges in Chicago, and academics in Cambridge should be doing--finding ways to make sure that future generations may have better, more decent, more equitable, and more hopeful lives in which to carry out their projects.

Professor Rorty will be speaking to us this afternoon on the topic of:

“Is Modern Science compatible with religious belief?”

24 March 2000

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