Is theology baloney? Reflections on the latest Sokal-styled hoax

Posted on 09/28/12 24 Comments

I an indebted to Ray Ingles for making me aware of this blog post which chronicles a clever Belgian philosopher’s appropriation of Alan Sokal’s modus operandi. (Sokal, you may recall, was a scientist who famously submitted a nonsensical article to the postmodern journal “Social Text” which passed peer review. He did so as a way of exposing the postmodern discourse that regularly went on in the journal as baloney.) In this case, however, the conference was put on by the “Association for Reformational Philosophy” which, as best I can see, seems to be associated broadly with continental and specifically Dutch Reformed philosophy.

This is a perfect illustration of why I wrote the essay “Theology as a Bull Session” (Analytic Theology, eds. Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp, Oxford University Press, 2010), 70-84.) It would probably be poor form to say I am gratified to see this confirmation of my claim that much contemporary theological (and continental philosophical) discussion suffers from inadequate controls to identify and prevent bullshit (where “bullshit” is defined in the technical, philosophical sense for which see my discussion here). Instead, my reaction is more a sober “I told you so”, like the structural engineer who, after having warned for years that the levees wouldn’t hold, is now witnessing the first breach.

Suffice it to say, any theological or philosophical conference that observes the rigorous standards of analytic philosophical expression would never allow such a baloney proposal to pass muster. Perhaps we need more folks like Maarten Boudry (the philosopher behind this hoax) who can test the peer-review standards of theology and philosophy journals and conferences (especially those under an obscurantist continental influence) to submit nonsense proposals and papers to see which slip through and get confirmed for presentation or publication. This may be ultimately the most effective way to point out the shoddy standards of some academic discourse.

As a final word, let me stress that we need to be careful that we do not draw wholly unjustified conclusions from an exercise such as this. Consider an analogy. Imagine that you want to test the cleaning staff at a hotel to see whether they change the bed sheets every day, so you leave a mark on a bed sheet in invisible ink. That evening you return to the room, pull out your black light, and confirm that the bed sheet was not changed. You would now be wholly justified in concluding that the cleaning staff had not changed the bed sheet. But it would be unjustified to conclude that they never change any bed sheets or do any cleaning.

Likewise, the fact that a nonsense abstract gets accepted into a theology or philosophy conference with dozens of papers does not warrant one to conclude “See? It’s all baloney!” Rather, it would only warrant one to conclude that the peer-review processes for this conference were inadequate to ferret out nonsense.

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  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    This post reminds me that the academy academizes the Scriptures. Whether they do so reputably by the rules of their profession or they don’t, is secondary to the point that the such academization does not constrain the word of God.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      What does “academize” mean?

      • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

        Making it an academic matter – like any of the other things taught and studied in an institution of higher learning (e.g. biology or philosophy)

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Are you saying that it is wrong to study theology in an institution of higher learning? If so, what is it that constitutes an institution as one of higher learning? And why is it wrong?

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            I do not think that studying the scriptures in an academic setting is wrong. In fact, in many ways it is quite helpful. For example, analyzing them as documents of history and textual criticism as a means of refining our understanding of what the original writings most likely said – just to mention a couple.

            Where it become problematic is, for example, in the area of theology when a proper understanding of God is deemed a matter for peer review and only those properly credentialed are considered to hold a worthwhile opinion of His nature. God is free to bestow an understanding of Himself and His word upon anyone He chooses, and He is not limited to those with proper academic credentials.

            The point of my point was not to lower appreciation for academics but to heighten appreciation for the word of God which can be studied by academia but not controlled, or even defined, by it. I think this often gets lost.

            • Tim

              Mike,

              Don’t mean to be harsh but you’ve got to be one of the most incoherent people I’ve ever read. I remember visiting your blog once for the exact purpose of trying to discern where you were coming from on a number of different issues only to leave it more confused than I was at the beginning.

              • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

                I work hard to be coherent. Please be more specific about where I’m failing you.

                • Tim

                  Mike,

                  Alright, let’s consider this comment of yours for a moment:

                  “I think the line gets drawn by the Holy Spirit. That is, we should use
                  all the tools at our disposal to get the best possible understanding we
                  can from a human perspective of what the Scriptures say. However, when
                  the Holy Spirit gives an interpretation of what something means, it transcends human judgments.”

                  On the one hand, I have a raw intuitive sense of what you’re trying to say here, but when you get down to brass tacks I have no idea what you’re trying to say (maybe you don’t either!). In particular, when you say that “the line gets drawn by the Holy Spirit” and that “when the Holy Spirit gives an interpretation of what something means” I have no idea what you’re talking about, it just reads like pious nonsense to me. What does it looks like when “the line gets drawn by the Holy Spirit?” Similarly, what does it look like when “the Holy Spirit gives an interpretation of what something means?” I suppose in the latter case you could be referring to the Holy Spirit speaking and/or enlightening the minds of God’s people so that they can rightly interpret the scriptures, but in that case there are many people who claim such things only to come up with different interpretations of the same scripture and they can’t all be right.

                  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

                    If I say that there is such a thing as objective truth, that doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to have objective truth actually has it – me and you included. Similarly, to say that the Holy Spirit is able to give interpretation which transcends human judgments does not mean that everyone who claims to have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit actually has it – me and you included. There is such a thing as objective truth and the Holy Spirit is able to open our eyes to it. That there won’t be unanimous human consensus regarding this process in general, or in its many specific instances, is beside the point. The point is that God is able and willing to grant us understanding of issues that academic efforts might not ever achieve.

                    What does it look like when the line gets drawn by the Holy Spirit? There are several instances of this in the book of Acts: 1) In Acts 4 Peter (with no educational pedigree) claimed that the proper interpretation of Ps 118:22 was that the Sanhedrin had crucified Jesus – to which the Sanhedrin (with the equivalent of a basketful of PhD’s) took issue. 2) In Acts 13, at the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, Paul tells his listeners the proper interpretation of Hab 1:5 turns on acceptance or rejection of the gospel of Jesus. 3) In the closing chapter of Acts, while in Rome, Paul tells Jews who would not believe his teaching that Is 6:9-10 was properly interpreted as condemning them.

                    In all three cases the Holy Spirit was giving the interpretation of the Scripture (see 2 Pet 1:20-21) to the speaker, and this interpretation transcended any human judgments that were contemporaneously being made. (While we’re not given transcripts of the dissenters’ responses I can’t imagine them having said, “You know. you’re right; we’re just a bunch of slugs.” On the contrary, I’m sure they had plenty of erudite explanations of why Peter and Paul were talking way beyond their station.)

                    Now, you may disagree with any and all that I’ve said – but, first, please tell me if I’ve been incoherent or not.

                    • Tim

                      Mike,

                      I know what it looks like when the Holy Spirit “draws the line” and “gives interpretations”…in the book of Acts! Unfortunately, in the extra-biblical world it’s much more difficult to discern these things.

                      For what it’s worth, I completely agree with at least one of your points in saying that God’s spirit regularly gives understanding to people regardless of their academic credentials (or lack thereof).

        • http://www.retheology.net/ Jared Miller

          And where does that line get drawn? If it weren’t for intellectual forays into scripture we would miss the deeper or obscure (in English) meanings of a host of passages (I’m thinking especially of the Restoration of Peter passage in John) not to mention the abandonment of all historical contexts or historically relevant materials.

          To say, simply, plain uneducated readings of scripture are all we need is to marginalize huge parts of the Bible. So if we want to take it to an extreme, we need to burn our commentaries and shutter our seminaries. And then we need to get rid of translations that are influenced by academic institutions … but then we’re back to reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew (which I’ve only learned in University) so we’re hooped …

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            I think the line gets drawn by the Holy Spirit. That is, we should use all the tools at our disposal to get the best possible understanding we can from a human perspective of what the Scriptures say. However, when the Holy Spirit gives an interpretation of what something means, it transcends human judgments. At least that what the Scriptures teach (or should I check with a professor to see if that’s so?).

            • http://www.retheology.net/ Jared Miller

              So it’s completely arbitrary? Consider Acts 10: as a Presbyterian I look at this passage and in the inspiration of the Spirit of God I see the first Biblical instance of Covenant Baptism taking place. My Baptist colleague looks at the passage and in the inspiration of the Spirit sees a passage affirming the vitality of regenerate immersive Baptism. We come away with two interpretations, each in the inspiration of the Spirit. If that’s where the line stops, then it is an arbitrary line indeed.

              • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

                You might as well argue that there’s no such thing as objective truth because you and another guy don’t agree about whether something is true or not.

                Your fundamental concern, however, is a valid one: How do we take the theory of inspiration of the Holy Spirit and put it into practice? The biggest obstacle to doing that is that in this age and on this continent we have too little experience with the Holy Spirit. The first step toward removing that obstacle is to stop asking God to referee sectarian debates like the one you reference and instead ask Him to open our eyes to the sin in our lives that we might remove it from His sight.

    • epicurus

      In order to translate the ancient texts into English or another language one has to academize the Bible/ ancient wiritings. The translator has to say they meant this or that so I will translate it this way or that way.

      • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

        For this reason the more literal translations are preferable, as they, generally speaking, keep the translator focused on what the text says rather than what it means.

        • epicurus

          That makes sense, but wouldn’t a more literal translation make much of it confusing, since the word order, expressions, etc of an ancient language (and even many modern ones) are much different from English? I imagine the goal is to shoot for a middle ground, but by doing that I think the translator is still going to have to academize in some way. Full disclosure: outside of 1st year university classical Latin and a bit of tourist German, I have never translated anything of substance or complexity.

          • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

            I’m not trying to micro-manage the work of a translator, I’m just expressing a bias for faithfulness to the text. And, yes, that is easier said than done.

            As I’ve said elsewhere in this thread I’m not against higher education focusing on the Bible. I’m against the knowledge of God being defined as academic issue. This happens most often in theology, where an expert is deemed someone who is properly credentialed and peer reviewed. That’s not necessarily correlated with the degree to which a person actually knows God.

  • John Coleman

    It is not even close to a Sokal-type hoax. Sokal was able to publish an entire peer-reviewed paper of nonsense . Boudry was able to get a nonsensical abstract included in some conference program. Big deal – conference programs are not peer reviewed. They are not meant to be. If you submit an abstract you are in effect putting your ideas in the queue for peer review — to have your colleagues listen to your talk then respond. I gather that he didn’t actually deliver any talk. It is not at all clear that Boudry has the requisite panache (a quality that Sokal had in spades with his hoax) to pull off an entire talk. Now if there is a YouTube video of him giving a talk which has the same tone of the abstract and if a roomful of theologians give him a standing ovation *then* you might have something which is worthy of being compared to Sokal. As it is – yawn. If anything, Boudry is being somewhat disengenuous in that he seems to be trying to impress people who don’t know how little weight academics give to submitted (as opposed to invited) abstracts in a conference. I have published peer-reviewed papers in mathematics (a gruelling process that sometimes takes a year or more of back-and-forth exchanges with a picky reviewer) and I have also submitted abstracts to conferences (and then, unlike Boudry, I followed through with actual talks). In my experience, the difference between the two is dramatic. Not once did anybody ask a single question about the abstract. Getting into the program seemed to be mostly a question of meeting deadlines, having relevant credentials — with an implicit honor system that you are not lying — and having a topic which is in the right ballpark. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boudry timed his submission so that it arrived on the very last day possible, when an over-worked secretary who was primarily concerned with scheduling rooms and times simply copy-pasted the abstract into the program after no more than a quick glance. Nothing but a cheap parlor trick.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Hmm, you and I have very different experiences with conferences. I’ve been on a review panel for conference paper submissions and the abstracts were evaluated in terms of topic and content, with the best candidates being selected for inclusion in the program. If an abstract literally made no sense to me then I would not have approved it. If there was not even this minimal threshold of peer review for this particular conference then they ought to consider implementing one. I never suggested that peer review for a conference is the same as peer review for an academic journal. Obviously they’re different. But there is (or should be) a form of review for the former as surely as the latter.

      This brings me to the real issue. Mathematics has little tolerance for academic bullshit, but sadly enough it is true that some strands of the humanities (contemporary theology included) have a high tolerance for it. It starts in places like the graduate seminar. A friend of mine told me once of enduring two hours of his fellow graduate students in English speculating on what the plums mean in William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say.” Finally, his friend erupted “The guy just likes plums!”

      Theology is full of terms which can be appropriated for the work of what GA Cohen called “unclarifiable unclarity”. “Perichoresis” is a great example: an impressive-sounding word that has just enough meaning to be used in a seemingly endless series of applications from quantum physics to familial relations. But when you actually try to move beyond the opaque terminology to glean some real clarification, the content evaporates like the morning dew.

      This is a real problem in theology and it is spurred on by the demands of publish or perish as young scholars scramble to find a job and then secure tenure.

      • Tim

        I am a math guy myself, and the low tolerance that the mathematical community has for “bullshit” is a built-in feature of the mathematical enterprise at this point. Also, the fact that John has to spend more than a year haggling with a reviewer isn’t a good sign for the discipline. I’ve spent weeks trying to understand poorly motivated claims in the proofs others only to find out that an error was made. It’s a discipline that struggles to talk to itself.

        The rough equivalent for mathematics would be the tolerance that this community has for irrelevant technical verbiage that commands the interest of only a handful of souls. Pages and pages of accurate nonsense are regularly published in that world for seemingly no other reason than to secure tenure.

      • Tim

        All that complaining aside about my own community, I agree with John’s point. It’s hard for me to get worked up about an abstract that some conference approved. Perhaps the number of submissions was low and they didn’t feel the need to be as critical as they might otherwise have been if the number of submissions was high.

  • markpm

    The synchronicity of this blog and what I’ve been reading continues! I just read this review of Plantinga’s latest work 2 days ago by this same philosopher (Maarten Boudry): https://sites.google.com/site/maartenboudry/teksten-1/plantinga I’ve seen it making the rounds on the atheist blogs. It be interesting to see your take on his critique.

  • skendo

    I challenge anyone to start reading the abstracts (starting around pg 35) and the be able to tell which one was the hoax.. Then tell me that Theology isn’t a pile of baloney:

    http://cpc.ziltsysteem.nl/customers/cpc.ziltsysteem.nl/documents/Program%20Book%20CPC%202011.pdf