Here continues the first person account of Randal’s extensive tour of the Eastern seaboard in which he was the center of attention at tickertape parades in New York, New Brunswick, and Princeton.
On Monday evening I led a discussion on the doctrine of hell at the “Philosophy on Tap” meeting at a local coffee shop in New Brunswick. About 18 people showed up and we discussed the doctrine of hell for two hours. I presented some of the many problems with the traditional doctrine of hell including a common misconception that comes at the beginning: many people think that people who die outside of Christ simply go to hell when they die. Do not cross Go. Do not collect $200. But it is actually more complicated (and morally disturbing) than that. That traditional view trades on the assumption that human beings have essentially immortal souls and thus that they simply must go on existing forever. But in fact scripture speaks consistently of a resurrection to judgment. Rather than just leave the unregenerate dead, God brings them back to life with a perfected new body in the resurrection so they can be subjected to an eternity of damnable torments in body and mind. This prompts the rather glaring question: if their fate is eternal, agonizing torment, why wouldn’t God let those damnable souls simply stay dead? After considering this issue and surveying a number of similar problems with eternal conscious torment I concluded with a case for universalism from scripture (that is, the view that Christ’s atoning work on the cross will ultimately reconcile all to the Father so that God may be all in all). I did not argue that universalism is most likely true (not least because I am not persuaded by the universalist’s case), but rather that there is more credence to the position than Christians traditionally recognize. Suffice it to say, I argued that so long as there is the smallest chance that universalism is true, we ought to hope for it.
This day began with an afternoon seminar with Dean Zimmerman’s philosophy of religion and metaphysics graduate students at Rutgers Univesity. I had come so that we could discuss three of my academic papers, “Let Nothing that Breathes remain alive” (on biblically mandated genocide), “Theology as a Bull Session” (on bullshit, academic discourse, and theological realism / antirealism) and “The Immorality of Disproving Peter Unger” (on the ethical implications of reviewing arguments negatively that otherwise might lead people to act morally). We had a great discussion, mostly about the nature of bullshit though we touched on the other papers as well. Sadly, the pizza we were expecting never showed up. But the feast of ideas more than made up for it. (Yeah, right. What was that main topic again?)
From there it was on to my evening lecture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton was what I expected: the quintessential university campus. You feel smart just walking around the campus. The University Chapel, although built less than a century ago, looks straight out of the fifteenth century and reminded me once again of the importance of investing time, effort, and creativity in the construction of sacred spaces (in marked contrast to the pragmatic sanctuary/performance theatres of most churches these days). I had a great time with the students who came to the lecture and we continued to talk for more than an hour after the lecture had ended. I was also happy to see Gordon Graham, the philospher at Princeton Theological Seminary.
While the lecture was to be based on my “Theology as a Bull Session” paper, I tweaked the taxonomy from what I had in the paper. Originally, I distinguished between two kinds of bullshit. The first is that which was identified by Harry Frankfurt in his famous book on the topic and it involves a case of bluffing where you do not care about the truth of what you say (more particularly, you don’t care whether it is true or false): You just say it to get a response from another person. This is the bs of the advertiser who will associate the product with whatever images and phrases might sell it. It is the bs of the lawyer who will make any argument to create reasonable doubt, even if any objective person can see his client is guilty. It is the bs of the public relations firm that is employed to buff up the politician’s image to make sure he is elected.
The other kind of bs is that identified by G.A. Cohen. While Cohen agreed that much bs was indeed bluffing in Frankfurt’s sense, he also recognized that in many cases, particularly in academia, it is not bluffing at all. In many cases people are desperately earnest about what they say and yet what they’re saying still seems to be baloney. Imagine a continental philosopher who insists that “Being negates the being of becoming” or the theologian who is adamant that “God is one in the perichoretic relations of the persons in giving and taking”. These people are not bluffing: they really care about what they’re saying. And yet their statements are, as Cohen says, “unclarifiably unclear”. Cohen suggests that we should call these kinds of confused statements bs as well.
This is where I diverged from the original paper in my presentation. Instead I distinguished three different types of “truth failure”, what I called the “Trinity of Truth Failure”: bullshit, bunk and bafflegab. Bs is simply as Frankfurt describes it. But I was unhappy calling what Cohen identifies — unclarifiable unclarity — bs, since the serious intention of this speaker seems to put it in a wholly different category. I thus opted to analyze unclarifiable unclarity as “bunk”. Finally, I identified a third kind of truth failure which is identified by two marks: the unnecessary use of technical nomenclature (or terminology!) and excessive verbosity. This is bafflegab, a type of communication which may be focused on truth but nonetheless is not primarily focused on communication with the reader / listener. Rather, it has as a partial or primary intention the goal of confounding the person. (Laura Penny refers to this as “expert bullshit”.) For a good example of bafflegab try reading a credit card contract. That contract is intentionally written to obfuscate, to confuse the reader, and to ensure that they don’t actually read and understand the commitments they’re making. In that sense bafflegab is bluffing. But the bafflegabber also is concerned with the truth of what they say. (This is, after all, a legally binding contract.) Bafflegab has also been referred to as “clarifiable unclarity”.
If we want to be agents of good communication we must strive to eliminate bullshit, bunk and bafflegab from our communication. The disturbing thing is to take a step back to look at the way that we communicate because all three are much more a part of our common discourse than we would tend to acknowledge.
I got up at 3:40 for the hour drive to Newark Airport. It was snowing in New Jersey. There was a blizzard in Minneapolis (which delayed our flight two hours). And (surprise surprise!) it was snowing in Edmonton too. But at least the snow wasn’t radioactive.