Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Atheist philosopher pulls Sokal-style hoax on theology conference

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Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry
I know many rationalists are sceptical of the intellectual value of theology (I'll say no more - one to debate in the comments), so I thought I'd share an amusing story I just read on the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.

I'm sure many of you will be familiar with the Sokal Hoax but, for those who aren't a summary: at the height of postmodernism's academic popularity in 1996, the New York University physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the cultural studies journal Social Text entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

So far, so intellectual. Except Sokal's article was not a serious work of critical theory, but rather, "a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense". Or "bollocks", as it's sometimes known in the trade.

You can read more about the Sokal Hoax, which triggered a fascinating debate about the value of postmodern philosophy and the academic standards involved, all over the web (since we're on the subject of academic standards, why not start with Wikipedia?). But for the purposes of this post, the reason I mention it is because a Belgian philosopher, Maarten Boudry, has just pulled a similar hoax on the discipline of theology.

As Boudry, who is a a research fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University, explained in an email to Coyne, he "wrote a spoof abstract full of theological gibberish (Sokal-style) and submitted it to two theology conferences, both of which accepted it right away".

His abstract, entitled "The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence" and published under the pseudonym Robert A. Maundy, was even published in the program for the Reformational Philosophy conference held at VU University in Amsterdam last year (see page 42 - PDF link). And to cap it all off, the fake Dr Maundy hailed from the non-existent College of the Holy Cross in Reno, Nevada.

You can read the full abstract on Coyne's blog, or in the programme linked to above, but to give you a sense of what it involves, here's an extract:
"In the Darwinian perspective, order is not immanent in reality, but it is a self-affirming aspect of reality in so far as it is experienced by situated subjects. However, it is not so much reality that is self-affirming, but the creative order structuring reality which manifests itself to us. Being-whole, as opposed to being-one, underwrites our fundamental sense of locatedness and particularity in the universe. The valuation of order qua meaningful order, rather than order-in-itself, has been thoroughly objectified in the Darwinian worldview. This process of de-contextualization and reification of meaning has ultimately led to the establishment of ‘dis-order’ rather than ‘this-order’. As a result, Darwinian materialism confronts us with an eradication of meaning from the phenomenological experience of reality."
Theological genius, I'm sure you'll agree.
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