William Egginton

 

On his book In Defense of Religious Moderation

Cover Interview of July 11, 2011

The wide angle

I come to the question of religious belief as a scholar of literature and philosophy. And the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges is a great influence for this work.

As I discuss in several passages in the book, I have found in the writings of Borges a consistent cautionary tale about the excesses of certainty, and an uncanny ability to undermine the pretensions or even hopes of perfect knowledge.

What I’ve learned from Borges, to put it in the simplest way possible, is that human knowledge is essentially, rather than accidentally, imperfect. What this means is that while our desire to know orients itself toward ever-greater accuracy, the goal of perfect or ultimate knowledge is self-contradictory. The fact that our brains and sensory apparatuses must synthesize impressions across space and over time, for instance, implies the necessity of a minimal difference from our objects of cognition as a condition of possibility for knowing them.

But what Borges also stresses in his stories is how the very imperfectability of our knowledge endows us with a kind of will to believe. Like it or not, Borges seems to tell us, this will finds expression, and if we seek to deny it outlets in the imagination, it will find its way into our social and political life, and often at great cost.

Another area of inquiry that is of importance to the book’s thesis is that of neuroscience. Many secular polemicists have cited recent work in the neuroscience of religion as the final evidence undermining the tenability of any religious belief whatsoever. If the phenomena of different beliefs can be shown to have distinct correlates in the electrochemistry of the brain, the argument goes, then so much for God.

In fact what recent research has demonstrated is how untenable anything but a model-dependent realism is for understanding how humans interact with the world. The dependence of the brain on narrative reconstructions, values, and emotional responses for even the most neutral description and perception of reality utterly undermines the pretensions of either secularist absolutists or religious fundamentalists to having the ultimate take on what reality is.