The Violence of Understanding

One hangover our culture has from modernity is the belief that the only way to achieve positive things in the world is by having an accurate view of the way things really are.* It seems like our churches, educational systems, and even the worldview of the so-called New Atheists all rely on this image of thought. Again, I find it ironic that Church Leaders and the New Atheists seem to obey the same logic.

To put it in Zizek terms, understanding the world as it really is, is the fundamental objet petit a, the “if only,” of American life. With a commitment to the view that “if only we understood as it really is,” the world would be better, comes “the world won’t be a better place until we reach the top of the mountain of understanding.”

This seems to be why New Atheists are so angry at religion. Religious people’s faulty understanding is keeping us from a better world. But that presupposition privileges the solution in a way that doesn’t seem warranted, cutting off all possibilities to see the multiplicity of solutions that are by-products of the process itself. It makes understanding some sort of savior.

This is why we privilege truth, as though it, and only it, will lead us to freedom. But propositions necessarily always and already inhere within the mind only. It is poor logic to assume that just because we understand the world, that something happens to make that world a better place. That is, there is an assumed mechanism between the truth of a proposition and a corresponding reality, one that has ethical implications. It’s like putting a quarter in a vending machine. The proposition is the quarter. The getting what “is best” (in reality, what we want or think is best) is the product that comes out of the vending machine, “in real life.” But where is the button? And where is the finger that pushes the button? People often assume that a propositional statement has within itself this mechanism, that it is the quarter, and the button, and the finger, and the relation, all in itself.

But that has not proven to be the case. Instead, our understanding is an insatiable appetite, a quest for control that limited human beings will never conquer.

So my, along with many others, modest request is that we must abandon the project of understanding the world as it really is, a violent project by definition, and begin to relate ourselves to the world, so that understanding is subject to a higher goal, that of the relation. The most important thing we can do as humans is not understand the world, but relate to it.

What do you think?

*Warning: heavy philosophy language. I am working at being less critical and more constructive. But in so doing, I have to go through the process of working it all out in philosophy-land before I begin translating it into everyday-speak. These ideas will show up again again but hopefully they will be more and more clear as I process. Thanks for bearing with me!


24 responses to “The Violence of Understanding

  1. This seems to be along the lines of a challenge you posted on one of my FB posts a couple weeks ago. In response I stated that understanding in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a “better world” but rather that understanding is a tool used to become incrementally more effective in solving problems which in turn could lead to a better world. I also qualified that an accompanying moral framework would be required to help us identify problems and solutions; suggesting that such a moral framework might look like a prioritization of living creatures’ well-being and reducing their net suffering. Now I’m confused that I’ve already explained how you may have misunderstood those of us who promote understanding and yet you still continue to present the idea that we say “, and only it, will lead us to freedom”. This seems to be an intentional strawman argument given that we just recently had the conversation.

    Why not present the argument proponents of understanding are actually making rather than reframing it on your own terms? I feel you are misrepresenting the position in order to make your own views more appealing in contrast. Your views certainly may be preferable, but I’d ask that the alternates you argue against are not unfairly presented.

    • Yes, my thoughts were exactly the same. Most people think that if we “just understand”, we’ll act in the “right” way. The depravity of man guarantees that we won’t.

      Suppose everyone comes to believe in global warming. It won’t change a thing, other than to give megalomaniacs the justification to do geoengineering on a global scale; others to make money and still others to tax the hell out of all of us.

      Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  2. huh…it cut out a portion i had placed in brackets… here’s the fix (hopefully will keep the text this way)
    “yet you still continue to present the idea that we say ‘{{Understanding}}, and only it, will lead us to freedom'”

    • I agree that if I were thinking of you when I wrote this I would be straw-manning. But unfortunately (and I mean that sincerely), you are not the only person I have had this conversation with. You have been thoughtful about it, so thank you for putting your comment here to help with me avoiding a strawman. But secondly, I don’t think we disagree, so I’m not sure saying I am straw-manning you makes any sense. Your qualifications that “understanding is a tool used to become incrementally more effective in solving problems which in turn could lead to a better world” is almost exactly my point. The point for me is that understanding is a “tool,” not the “goal.” And right now, it seems that Singer’s preference utility (which seems to be the ethical system you’re referring to as a viable moral framework) is a great option for non-theists.

      All that to say, I am not sure we are disagreeing. Now, it’s clear that I’m not nearly as optimistic about this “better world” coming as a result of scientific advancements as you are, but I apologize if my “I am not against understanding but think it should be subjected to relation” statement wasn’t clear enough at the end.

      Do you feel like we are still disagreeing about something fundamental?

      • I’m still not really sure who is actually promoting the idea you are arguing against. You claim that the “New Atheists” are promoting this (by whom I assume you mean Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc); yet I’m pretty familiar with their work and they all hold moral frameworks that accompany their quest for understanding. Can you provide evidence (apart from quote-mining) that they are actually seeking to make a better world through understanding without an accompanying moral framework? I am pretty active in the communities and I’ve never come across an atheist, new or old, who argues the way you present them to. I suppose it’s possible that given a single youtube clip or quick quote in a critical article some might be under this impression.
        At this point I just can’t tell whether you are arguing against an idea you have about what “new atheists” think or with what “new atheists” actually think.

  3. I would have to ask what you mean by “relate”. The concept of understanding the world “as it really is” makes plenty of assumptions and creates an unreachable goal. Also, it acts as though truth is the highest good.

    In the same way “understanding the world” can be abused, so can the abandonment of truth in favor of “relation” (i don’t want to write a long response without knowing what you mean by relate). My thoughts go towards the people who refuse pray instead of taking their children to a doctor, or the religious people who refuse blood transfusions for their children. In those cases, at some point I do want to say to those people that a blood transfusion will not send them to hell; they need to get a sense of reality. I wouldn’t want them to argue that they relate to the world differently, so I have to respect their opinions and consider them equal to my own.

    I always give you the benefit of the doubt when I find myself disagreeing with you; I assume that I have misunderstood or need clarification.

    • Reading your response to the above comment, I realize what you are saying and agree with you completely. Don’t bother responding. For some reason, the comments weren’t there when i went to comment.

  4. Also understanding is violent “by definition”? What definition are you using? Maybe you are using hyperbole but the accusation that trying to understand the world is an act of violence is pretty damning and harsh. I’m pretty sure there’s no dictionary defining “understanding” as violent and I’m at a complete loss at how you can just throw a blanket on all those who seek understanding as committing acts of violence. If you are going to malign us the least you could do is give reasons for doing so…not just assert that we are violent offenders “by definition”. Furthermore are you not cheaping actual violence by using it in this way? By violence I mean behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. If seeking to understand the world for the purpose of making it a better place is “violence” it seems the word has been stripped of all it’s practical meaning.

    • I mean violence in the technical philosophical definition that ethicists like Immanuel Levinas would use it wherein the act of understanding is an act of control, so that ironically understanding becomes a standing over. This definition, and others used by sociologists and philosophy outside of just ethics, like Derrida’s “doing violence to the text” do not involve any sense of physical force. Why so defensive today Jim? Why not give me the benefit of the doubt and ask me what I mean by violence rather than coming to the conclusion that I’m using hyperbole or am being damning and harsh and that I am cheapening “actual violence”?

      Again man, I do apologize if I’ve offended you or misrepresented your view.

      This is, by the way, why I often avoid philosophy in my posts. Too much misunderstanding (ha! no pun intended).

      • Thanks for clarifying the use of the word “violence”…I know you primed it with the “philosophical disclaimer”; maybe an actual definition of terms would have helped.
        On that note, an act of understanding doesn’t necessarily need to be an act of control. It could be passive. It’s only when it’s accompanied by the aforementioned “moral framework” that it would actually cross the line into an attempt to control. Translating this control into the word “violence” does seem to give it a negative connotation though. Why would we automatically perceive all “control” as negative or violent? Is it not possible to “control” for benevolent purposes? If we had the means to understand cancer and it’s cure would it be “violent” to use that understanding to produce the cure?
        Anyways, given your explanation perhaps my problem would be more with Levinas and other philosophers who would equate all control with violence than with your article per se.

      • So on defensiveness; sorry if it comes across that way. I just feel the post presented a group dubbed “new atheists” with positions they don’t necessarily hold and wanted to clarify. It seems to be criticizing a group in general with blanket assumptions about what they believe when it doesn’t appear to me, as somebody who is associated with and familiar with the community, that the position isn’t really even held in any significant proportion.

      • You might be right. To be honest, I have too much work to do to try and justify my comments. Perhaps in the coming days I will just delete “new atheists” from my list.

      • Fair enough, if you come across any information or arguments from new atheists that would support your presentation let me know; I’d be interested in looking into them.

    • And I’m not sure why saying that the New Atheists are angry at religion because they believe their “faulty understanding” is the cause of much of the world’s ills is that controversial. Isn’t that their main thesis? I know some, if not much, of Dawkin’s political writings on Islam claims this.

    • I’m not sure about “main thesis”, but I’m not necessarily arguing with you on that point. They do believe that a lot of the appeals to the authority to ancient religious codes is among many hindrances to progress. I know that all the talk about “religion” is what gets the most play in media and discussion…but they (dawkins, harris, hichens, etc) do a lot of other work aside from criticisms of religion. My push back was actually on the proposition you make that new atheists believe that understanding, and it alone, is a savior that would bring about some utopia. In my experience the hope for the future is far more nuanced and diverse than that. I think many new atheists would cringe at your word choice of “mountain top of understanding”. Seeking measurable progress isn’t the same as achieving a peak. Furthermore, using Harris’ work in particular, he doesn’t even argue that such a peak even exists. He does on the other hand argue that there would be better and worse ways of conducting ourselves and our collective communities as it relates to well-being. He uses the imagery of a “moral landscape” with lots of peaks and valleys…all with different relative elevations. If you wanted to learn more on an actually popular view among the group dubbed “new atheists” (and I know you said you don’t have a whole lot of time) you could read up on Harris’ propositions on the relationship between knowledge and morality in his book on the subject.

      • That’s the best kind of defensiveness I’ve ever heard of. I’ll probably take you up on it soon! Let me know days and times you’re likely free.

  5. I think you may some Ecclesiastes in mind?

    “Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.”

    You said, “The most important thing we can do as humans is not understand the world, but relate to it.”

    That makes me uncomfortable when said that way, it sounds like trying to understand the world is not important at all. Are you talking about relative priorities of the two: “The most important thing we can do as humans is to prioritize relating to the world above trying to understand the world.” I might agree with that (or maybe not). I don’t think there needs to be a division between the two though. It is good and important to both try to understand the world and to relate to it. Often hard to do either well without the other.

    The beginning of wisdom is: acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding.

  6. You caught my attention with: ” It is poor logic to assume that just because we understand the world, that something happens to make that world a better place”. This makes sense – understanding should not be considered a panacea for anything. However, I would contend that understanding beats ignorance any day of the week.

    • Well put! And I would just argue that before I agree with you about what beats what, I would need to know the goal. Yes, understanding beats ignorance much of the time but oftentimes ignorance keeps us from arrogance, which is important I would think to our own happiness. For at least some of us.

  7. Peter Rollins said “The term ‘knowing’ in the Hebrew tradition (in contrast to the Greek) is about engaging in an intimate encounter rather than describing some objective fact: Religious truth is thus that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it.”
    I would add that knowledge alone is not transformational. While knowledge has its place, the ability to explain or understand does not guarantee a response. Thus in a subtle form there is a direct violence involved in every exchange. Our encounters demand response, thus there is either violence (of change) through action or violence within as result of inaction.

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