Auctions and the Fear of Failure
Fishing for Troughton

A Secular Age (7): The Immanent Frame

Richard_Lewontin By this term, the immanent frame, Taylor designates the perspective on the universe that has emerged as a consequence of disenchantment, the buffered identity and other changes in our social and cosmic imaginaries. This frame “constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one. It is a perspective that, broadly speaking, we all share – although our interpretations of it may differ.

Taylor states in this regard:

And so we come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order; or better, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social and moral… these orders are understood as impersonal. This understanding of our predicament has as background a sense of our history: we have advanced to this grasp of our predicament through earlier more primitive stages of society and self-understanding. In this process, we have come of age… The immanent order can thus slough off the transcendent. But it doesn’t necessarily do so. What I have been describing as the immanent frame is common to all of us in the modern West, or at least that is what I am trying to portray. Some of us want to live it as open to something beyond; some live it as closed. It is something which permits closure, without demanding it.

This outlook effectively voids all mystery by splitting nature from supernature. Taylor notes that this provides the modern concept of the “miracle” as “a kind of punctual hole blown in the regular order of things from outside, that is, from the transcendent.” He notes that this is a view “shared between materialists and Christian Fundamentalists. Only for these, it provides proof of ‘miracles’, because certain things are unexplained by the normal course of natural causation. For the materialist, it is a proof that anything transcendent is excluded by ‘science’.” The materialist position is thus that the immanent frame is closed; there is nothing beyond it, while other belief systems allow for transcendence.

There is a certain draw towards treating the immanent frame as closed among certain people (and in particular, the scientific establishment) – Taylor talks of a “sense of being menaced by fanaticism” as being “one great source of the closure of immanence.” As in nineteenth-century France, an anti-clerical movement turns into rejection of Christianity, or later into atheism. By adopting a closed interpretation of the immanent frame it seems as if society can shrug off the chief source of fanaticism – but this impression rests on the fallacious idea that fanaticism emerges solely from religious beliefs, but of course, it is perfectly possible to be a scientific fanatic, a Marxist fanatic, or some other fanatical position which rests wholly upon the immanent frame. Fanaticism is a facet of humanity, not of religion.

The perspective that Taylor builds, therefore, separates the immanent frame itself, which is not a serious subject of dispute, from the two equally possible “spins” – open versus closed:

Some people will undoubtedly feel that the immanent frame calls out for one reading. True, we can adopt the other view by dint of a determined (and not quite intellectually honest) “spinning”, but one reading is the obvious, the “natural” one. In the nature of things, that claim is made today most often by protagonists of the “closed” reading, those who see immanence as admitting of no beyond. This is an effect of the hegemony of this reading, especially in intellectual and academic milieux… By contrast, my understanding of the immanent frame is that, properly understood, it allows of both readings, without compelling us to either. If you grasp our predicament without ideological distortion, and without blinders, then you see that going one way or another requires what is often called a “leap of faith”.

Mindful of the reluctance of people who have a closed reading of the immanent frame to recognize any aspect of their belief system as requiring faith, let alone a “leap of faith” (because of the religious tenor this term has acquired), Taylor expresses this idea in more neutral language by saying “both open and closed stances involve a step beyond available reasons into the realm of anticipatory confidence.” He states that no-one who can see solely the closed or the open reading as valid is fully lucid of our actual situation – one must recognize that “one’s confidence is at least partly anticipatory”. But it is far easier to fall for one kind of “spin” or the other, to avoid seeing the neutral space between them, because this “spin” is “a way of avoiding entering [neutral] space, a way of convincing oneself that one’s reading is obvious, compelling, allowing of no cavil or demurral.”

Much of his discussion of the immanent frame focuses upon the closed reading, but Taylor notes: 

Of course, there are those who think that the open reading is obvious and inescapable, because, for instance, the existence of God can be “proven”. But such people are perhaps less numerous today than their secularist opposite numbers, and certainly cannot approach the intellectual hegemony their opponents enjoy, and so my arguments here will mainly address the latter.

In footnotes, Taylor explores some examples of the “spin” of the closed stance. He talks about Professor Dawkins’ “reasons for believing that science can sideline religion” and notes that these rest on an “oversimple distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘science’. He quotes Dawkins as saying: “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion,” whereas science “is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith”. Taylor counters this naïve view by observing that “to hold that there are no assumptions in a scientist’s work which aren’t already based on evidence is surely a reflection of blind faith, one that can’t even feel the occasional tremor of doubt. Few religious believers are this untroubled.”

Against Dawkins’ fanaticism, Taylor offers evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin’s perspective as an example of a proponent of the materialist viewpoint who is “quite lucid about their prior ontological commitments”. Lewontin (who is pictured above) is quoted as follows:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to understanding the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori allegiance to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.

Exploring the force of the closed interpretation, Taylor introduces the idea of a closed world structure (CWS), which is to say “ways of restricting our grasp of things which are not recognized as such.” He stresses that while such closed world structures may be unfounded (they exclude possibilities for which there is no basis for exclusion), this is not the same as saying that the beliefs that people in the grip of closed world structures hold are necessarily wrong: “all CWSs may be illegitimate, and yet there may be nothing beyond the immanent frame. I will not be arguing either for or against an open or closed reading, just trying to dissipate the false aura of the obvious that surrounds one of these.” Of course, there are closed world structures to accompany both the open and the closed “spin” – but these days, most people have little difficulty dismissing the former, while the latter can still seem quite compelling.

We can be held within certain world structures (which are aspects of “the way experience and thought are shaped and cohere”) without awareness of alternatives. A “picture” can “hold as captive”, as Wittgenstein said. Much of the force of the CWS comes from how epistemology is conducted within it – a chain of inferences is constructed that begins with knowledge of the self, before passing onto external reality and other people. This perspective places the transcendent at the end of a chain of inferences, and makes it appear weak because of it.

The philosopher Heidegger presents a rival epistemic position, however, one which upturns the chain of inferences by denying that the most reasonable initial step is to ascertain with confidence our knowledge of the self. Taylor observes in this regard:

The “scandal of philosophy” is not the inability to attain to certainty of the external world, but rather that this should be considered a problem, says Heidegger in Sein und Zeit. We only have knowledge as agents coping with a world, which it makes no sense to doubt, since we are dealing with it. There is no priority of the neutral grasp of things over their value. There is no priority of the individual’s sense of self over the society; our most primordial identity is as a new player being inducted into an old game… The whole sense that [transcendence] comes as a remote and most fragile inference or addition in a long chain is totally undercut by this overturning of epistemology.

Taylor examines other approaches to the closed “spin” on immanence, but the demands of brevity make it difficult to encapsulate these here. However, some of these relate to the position discussed three weeks ago – the epistemic position that sees scientific materialism and related belief systems as a stance of maturity:

This means that this ideal of the courageous acknowledger of unpalatable truths, ready to eschew all easy comfort and consolation, and who by the same token becomes capable of grasping and controlling the world, sits well with us, draws us, that we feel tempted to make it our own. And/or it means that the counter-ideals of belief, devotion, piety, can all-too-easily seem actuated by a still immature desire for consolation, meaning, extra-human sustenance.

This CWS might be even more influential than the chain of inferences discussed above. A related belief is the idea that we have become our own “legislators of meaning”, a view that can exhilarate us or terrify us, depending on how we feel facing an interpretation of the universe as meaningless. But this position too, Taylor notes, is problematic since our ethical concepts are not quite as malleable as they first seem: “…it is clear that, although there are important choices to be made… nevertheless much of what we accept as normative is deeply anchored in our past and identity.” The cultural and historical backdrop of ethics cannot be wholly eliminated.

Something fundamental can seem to be missing when one adopts the closed spin on immanence and discards the open interpretation in its entirety. We are beset by what Taylor terms “malaises of immanence” – a dissatisfaction born of narrowing our world system to exclude any notions of transcendence. There are three such malaises in particular that Taylor identifies: firstly, the sense of the fragility of meaning, and its accompanying search for an over-arching significance; secondly, the flatness felt in the absence of a way to solemnize the crucial moments of passage in our lives; finally, the utter flatness, the emptiness of the ordinary. These are characteristic elements of the modern era, and they each result from believing that the immanent frame is “all that there is”, that there are no sources of transcendence. The yearning for “something more” creates a cultural cross pressure, something we shall explore shortly.

First, however, we must complete our examination of the circumstances surrounding the immanent frame by exploring the narratives that support the closed “spin” on immanence, the subtraction stories that help to make the resulting closed world system seem undeniable, and which Taylor’s account in A Secular Age is intended throughout to challenge.

Next week: Subtraction Stories


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