Knowledge Spackle

So, we had a hole in the wall. I don’t mean the tiny urban apartment we shared in the first year of marriage, but a literal gap in the plaster. We had to call maintenance to patch it up. (I could try to do it myself, but then we have to pay for my goofs. If maintenance goofs, management pays the bill. Or so I’m told.) One of their workers came over with some spackle and patched it up nicely. Now, if it were a deeper or larger hole, then the use of that same spackle would have been sloppy and ineffective. You need to use the materials that the job demands.

There is a similar problem in the world of evangelicalism. Really, it is the whole problem of modernity and postmodernity. With apologies to Babylon 5, “There is a hole in our mind.” Specifically, there is a knowledge gap. Faced with philosophies that question the possibility of religious knowledge—or any certain knowledge at all—the Christian often reaches for any spackle at hand to fill the gap. And too often, we are tempted to use the concept of authority to shore up—or shut up—our anxieties about knowledge and certainty. But that distorts the actual purpose and role of authority in the framework of Christian faith and practice. And if we use the doctrine of Scripture (or the Magisterium for our Catholic friends, or the Fathers for the Eastern Orthodox) simply as a bulwark against critical epistemology, we misuse it to our overall harm.

The authority of Scripture is an important doctrine for a great many reasons. The same is true with the distinct-but-related doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. But there is one thing they are not: a theory of knowledge. They have implications for epistemology. Different accounts of knowledge and its basis can be more or less compatible with these doctrines. The divine authority, origin, and reliability of the scriptures mean that the Bible gives us a true and certain hope in the promises of God.  Faith is not just a good feeling or a desperate scramble; Christian faith is a gift of grace that lets us know and trust what God has revealed. But the doctrine of scripture does not tell us how we have certainty, or even a general account of what “certainty” means. It is not spackle for the hole in your mind.

Neither does that other favored recourse of young evangelicals, namely the flight to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. But pointing at the Holy See or an ecumenical council is no better an answer to the critics than pointing at a book. Whatever promises the Magisterium or the Great Church may seem to offer, they can’t spackle the holes in the truth-wall any better than the doctrine of scripture.

Because that is not the main purpose of authority and revelation. God did not forge covenantal bonds between Himself and us, send us prophets and apostles, and finally come personally to reveal Himself and open the door to salvation, in order to answer the problem of the criterion. For the great work of salvation and restoration, God does not leave us at the mercy of liver quivers and guesswork, or even rigorous reasoning from first principles. He sends messengers, including the Son and the Spirit, to publicly proclaim the message. The work of the whole Trinity also starts to correct the damage to our faculties that worsen the limits of our finite nature. He works with and within our human limitations to lead us into His truth. But the epistemic implications of that work are, in the scheme of salvation, at best second or third level implications.

So, the fullest answer to the critic’s doubts about Christianity is the proclamation of the Word, the illumination of the Spirit in the faithful reading of the Word, and above all the gracious workings of God’s effectual call. The answers to the skeptic’s questions about truth in general, or about religious knowledge in general, come from the philosopher’s corner. They are questions of natural reason, and natural reason can settle honest questions within its scope and competence. God’s gracious revelation certainly has something to offer in that field; the distinction is not absolute. But it is the difference between using the right material to fix your wall, or a material that’s not made for that purpose.

When we use the authority of Scripture (or the authority of the Church, or modern prophetic voices, etc.) to cover the gaps in our epistemology, our knowledge about knowledge, we ironically end up breeding more of the same cynicism and doubt. Our answers, our ideas, our confidence start to bubble up and crumble like bad wall plaster. (Alas!)

So, we had a hole in the wall. I don’t mean the tiny urban apartment we shared in the first year of marriage, but a literal gap in the plaster. We had to call maintenance to patch it up. (I could try to do it myself, but then we have to pay for my goofs. If maintenance goofs, management pays the bill. Or so I’m told.) One of their workers came over with some spackle and patched it up nicely. Now, if it were a deeper or larger hole, then the use of that same spackle would have been sloppy and ineffective. You need to use the materials that the job demands.

There is a similar problem in the world of evangelicalism. Really, it is the whole problem of modernity and postmodernity. With apologies to Babylon 5, “There is a hole in our mind.” Specifically, there is a knowledge gap. Faced with philosophies that question the possibility of religious knowledge—or any certain knowledge at all—the Christian often reaches for any spackle at hand to fill the gap. And too often, we are tempted to use the concept of authority to shore up—or shut up—our anxieties about knowledge and certainty. But that distorts the actual purpose and role of authority in the framework of Christian faith and practice. And if we use the doctrine of Scripture (or the Magisterium for our Catholic friends, or the Fathers for the Eastern Orthodox) simply as a bulwark against critical epistemology, we misuse it to our overall harm.

The authority of Scripture is an important doctrine for a great many reasons. The same is true with the distinct-but-related doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. But there is one thing they are not: a theory of knowledge. They have implications for epistemology. Different accounts of knowledge and its basis can be more or less compatible with these doctrines. The divine authority, origin, and reliability of the scriptures mean that the Bible gives us a true and certain hope in the promises of God. Faith is not just a good feeling or a desperate scramble; Christian faith is a gift of grace that lets us know and trust what God has revealed. But the doctrine of scripture does not tell us how we have certainty, or even a general account of what “certainty” means. It is not spackle for the hole in your mind.

Neither does that other favored recourse of young evangelicals, namely the flight to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. But pointing at the Holy See or an ecumenical council is no better an answer to the critics than pointing at a book. Whatever promises the Magisterium or the Great Church may seem to offer, they can’t spackle the holes in the truth-wall any better than the doctrine of scripture.

Because that is not the main purpose of authority and revelation. God did not forge covenantal bonds between Himself and us, send us prophets and apostles, and finally come personally to reveal Himself and open the door to salvation, in order to answer the problem of the criterion. For the great work of salvation and restoration, God does not leave us at the mercy of liver quivers and guesswork, or even rigorous reasoning from first principles. He sends messengers, including the Son and the Spirit, to publicly proclaim the message. The work of the whole Trinity also starts to correct the damage to our faculties that worsen the limits of our finite nature. He works with and within our human limitations to lead us into His truth. But the epistemic implications of that work are, in the scheme of salvation, at best second or third level implications.

So, the fullest answer to the critic’s doubts about Christianity is the proclamation of the Word, the illumination of the Spirit in the faithful reading of the Word, and above all the gracious workings of God’s effectual call. The answers to the skeptic’s questions about truth in general, or about religious knowledge in general, come from the philosopher’s corner. They are questions of natural reason, and natural reason can settle honest questions within its scope and competence. God’s gracious revelation certainly has something to offer in that field; the distinction is not absolute. But it is the difference between using the right material to fix your wall, or a material that’s not made for that purpose.

When we use the authority of Scripture (or the authority of the Church, or modern prophetic voices, etc.) to cover the gaps in our epistemology, our knowledge about knowledge, we ironically end up breeding more of the same cynicism and doubt. Our answers, our ideas, our confidence start to bubble up and crumble like bad wall plaster. (Alas!)

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The Philosophical Muddles of Postmodernism

At the urging of a friend, I sat down and read Phillip Kenneson’s essay on the nature of truth in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. I almost wish I hadn’t.

Count me among the not impressed.  The essay is an example of what happens when you replace one philosophical muddle with another–namely, nothing good.

The essay starts by describing what’s called the “correspondence theory of truth,” which simply means that for a sentence to be true, it has to stand in a particular sort of relationship to reality.  If you suggest that it’s raining outside on a day that happens to be pleasantly sunny, you have uttered what your grandma might call a “falsehood,” or a statement that in fact describes a state of affairs that simply doesn’t exist.

Kenneson contends that this theory of truth introduces a dichotomy between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ that we need no longer be bothered by (a problem that, if he’s right, should probably trouble more grandmas than it seems to currently).    The postmodern approach to truth is a “new paradigm”–a phrase repeated with some persistence–which apparently is not a theory of truth at all.  Indeed, Kenneson later gives up the point:  “In short, because I have neither a theory of truth nor an epistemology, I cannot have a relativistic one.”

Kenneson is caught in a tangle, and doesn’t seem to be able to see his way through it.

Allow me to point out my agreement with him.  The language of “objective” and “subjective” with respect to truth is utterly useless, as is the language of ‘absolute truth.’  Youth pastors, if you’re using it, stop.  It’s simply not helping, as it’s the sort of philosophical vagary that a fellow like Kenneson loves to disabuse people of, even while he simply perpetuates the problem that it rests upon.

For Kenneson, “objective” truth means something more than simply a statement that corresponds to reality.  Rather, it includes within it how we know whether a given statement corresponds to reality.  As he puts it,  “Indeed, the whole point of claiming that something is “objectively true” is to say that any person, unhindered by the clouds of unreason and the prejudices of self-interest, would come to the same conclusion.”

All well and good.  Except when Kenneson uses the rejection of “objective truth” to summarily dismiss truth-as-correspondence (or what we’ll call the grandma theory from above), he commits a category error that seems to be rampant among proponents of postmodernism:  he conflates how we know what the truth is with what truth is.

Those questions–the epistemological and the metaphysical, to use the “twenty centers”–have to be kept distinct if we’re going to make any reasonable way through the questions of either discipline at all.   What’s more, Kenneson’s dismissal of “objective truth” contains a sort of psychological assumptions about how we come to know truth, which isn’t necessarily unphilosophical, but it might need to be kept distinct from the question of how the structure of justification for our beliefs.

Of course, all this is probably to put the “old paradigm” which was so terribly anxious about making sure our views line up with “reality.”  And who needs that when you have a warm-fuzzy linguistic community to help you sleep at night, rather than staying up nervously fighting off Cartesian demons?  Kenneson is at least honest in that when evaluated from grandma’s standpoint, his position is nonsense.  His goal isn’t to reshape the conversation about the nature of truth–it is to kill it altogether (a desire which should be treated with wariness in any intellectual system).

The whole essay leads up to this provocative claim:  “I realize there are plenty of Christians who think it makes good sense to say that the proposition “Jesus Christ is Lord of the universe” is objectively true; that is, our temptation is to insist that this is simply true whether we or anyone else believe it or not.  But succumbing to such a temptation is deadly for the church.”

If Kenneson is right, then someone forgot to notify the evangelist Luke–not to mention the fellow riding the donkey.

Is Religion Relative?

In a recent homily, Pope Benedict described the current intellectual climate in the world as a ‘dictatorship of relativism.‘ While the phrase was welcomed in many corners (like mine), it was challenged as disingenuous and incoherent at The Corner by John Derbyshire, one of the Corner’s resident atheists.

Of course religious belief is relativistic. Religious people say it is! Suppose I line up a Christian, a Moslem, and a Hindu, and ask: “You guys all promote a different set of ‘fundamental truths.’ How can I figure out who’s right and who’s wrong? What external test can I apply? What can any of you point to in the beliefs of the others that doesn’t square with observable facts about the world, or about human life?” What will they say? After a lot of babbling and pointing, it will boil down to: “You gotta have faith. You have to feel the truth within yourself.” In other words, it’s an interior, subjective experience. What’s more relative than that? There is no objective test one can apply to confirm or falsify statements like “Jesus was the Son of God,” or “Mohammed was the Messenger of God,” or “Vishnu has four arms.” You just gotta believe. How is that not relative?

Derbyshire is a smart guy, but he commits three errors here. One, he presumes that for a thing to be true, there must be some “objective test” that can “confirm or falsify his statements.” This smacks of logical positivism in its least sophisticated version. To the extent that Derbyshire’s approach is positivistic (and it seems it is), it suffers from the traditional weaknesses of the theory. For instance, it’s not clear whether Derbyshire’s claims measure up to his own standard of ‘testability.’

Second, Derbyshire clearly thinks that special revelation is a private, subjective experience. That is a hard claim to make given the manifestly overt and public nature of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if he had limited himself to private, subjective revelations he may have saved himself the trouble of dying on a cross. Alas, he did not. It is fair to claim that Jesus was in fact not the Son of God. It is, however, an odd claim to make that he revealed himself as such in public fashion. The question of the veracity of his claims is a question for theologians and historians to answer–and answer according to the standards of their own respective disciplines.

What’s more, Derbyshire has committed a basic philosophical category error: he has conflated his epistemology with his ontology. Even granting him that there is no “test” that would demonstrate the truth of religious propositions, it is not at all the case that such propositions are in fact relative–i.e. subjective, personal, and true for some people but not others. Rather, it simply means that the access to those truths is limited to those to whom access is granted. But this in no way makes them true for only those to whom they have been granted.Derbyshire makes a great political commentor, but a terrible philosopher. For his own sake (and ours), let’s hope he sticks to the former.

(HT: John Schroeder)

Character, Skepticism, and Prayer

In the context of a discussion about the method in which God develops a conversation relationship with us – by forming our character – and our appropriate response, Dallas Willard writes of the serious barrier our culture’s skepticism poses to genuine intimacy with God.

From his book, Hearing God (p. 218), Willard writes:

We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than one who believes. You can be almost as stupic as a cabbage, as long as you doubt. The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character.

Willard goes on to point out how much this attitude can hinder prayer life. A Christian is ready to explain away possible answers to supplications by naturalistic means. There is a kind of Christian that accepts events in life too readily as answers from God. However, I venture to say most of our readers are folks who need to be reminded of the reality of God’s intervention in our lives and real-time responses to our prayers.

Here is a final remark from Willard, driving at the truth of the epistemological conditions in our culture at large:

Today it is the skeptics who are the social conformists. Though because of powerful intellectual propaganda, they continue to enjoy thinking of themselves as wildly individualistic and unbearably bright.

At what price shall we gain this attitude? The better way is to start from an position of belief and take the disconfirming evidence as it comes, rather than rush to explain away the supernatural in our lives.

Examining a proverb

“He who knows others is learned. He who knows himself is wise.”

– Lao Tzu

With the reading of many books comes learning. With the in-depth analysis of a broad range of topics and issues comes the reputation for being intelligent, clever, smart, or at least well educated. Leaving aside the humanities, with the many-year long commitment to studying applied mathematics in areas of physics and chemistry, or the related disciplines of engineering, medicine, biology, astronomy, etc., comes an ever higher cultural elevation as one of the holders of true knowledge in the world today.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is an unquenchable thirst for many people. (I mean “scientific” in both the narrow sense, ie, the modern empirical sciences, as well as the broad classical sense, ie, of any true learning about unchanging principles and facts of the universe, its infrastructure and workings, and the creatures within it.)

The sustained effort to quench this thirst, it seems to me, inevitably pushes the thirsty to make one of two decisions: 1. One decides that scientific knowledge, in all of its varieties and taken as a whole, is a means to self-knowledge. Or, 2. One decides that self-knowledge one of many means to scientific knowledge, in all of its varieties and taken as a whole.

There is no third alternative.

Lao Tzu has so pithily provided an assertion of his opinion. Does anyone care to assert theirs, along with a supporting argument? Or to provide poor Lao Tzu with a support for his?

On Engineering Deficits and Papal Pronouncements

This story seems particularly ironic in light of the Pope’s speech in Germany yesterday. While the numbers are tendentious, popular perception in America is that we are recruiting students to the engineering profession no better than Germany. Trends indicate that we will follow Germany’s engineering decline.

The irony, though, lies in the fact that where “science” dominates the intellectual landscape, fewer people actually enter the hard sciences. Why is this? As Pope Benedict points out, science depends upon a philosophical framework for its own existence:

Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

When the philosophical framework is excluded from the outset, it is as though science is cut off from it’s oxygen. It can’t continue to exist when the fundamental principle of the world is chaos rather than logos. My hunch is that the fact/value dichotomy that the Pope identifies is at the heart of the (alleged) decline in the hard sciences, both in Germany and America. I’m not sure what the casual relationship is, but the correlation of the phenomena in both countries suggests that more is going on than an unhappy accident.

Do we think in language?

The linguistic turn taken by most 20th century philosophers included a tendency to assume that when we think, we think solely in language. When reading Dallas Willard’s mind-blowing website, I came across this piece that he wrote in the ’70s refuting the supposition that we think in language.

Here is an excerpt from near the end of the short article:

Now it is very certainly true that some processes clearly involving thinking as described above depend for their occurrence upon linguistic behavior and the sensible signs which it involves, for example, the processes of learning algebra or the history of the Basques, or learning how to counsel emotionally upset persons. But it is to be noted that these are not themselves processes of thinking, but rather are extremely complex processes involving all kinds of events and entities other than language and other than thinking–e.g., feelings, perceptions, buildings, other persons, days and nights, books, and so on. None of these processes is a process of thinking; and for that reason alone it is invalid to infer from them that thinking is linguistic behavior, or that one thinks with language. What is essential to things or events of a certain sort must be shown essential to them taken by themselves, not in combination with many other things. With reference to the involved processes in question, it might be more appropriate (though it would still be wrong) to say–as some have said in recent years–that we live in or with language. Nevertheless, it is certain that some kind of dependence relation–probably similar to feedback mechanisms–exists between linguistic processes and their sensuous signs, on the one hand, and certain sequences of t-states on the other.

(T-states are states in which we are thinking.) If Willard is correct that it is insufficient to say we think in language alone, he reinstates the problem that has plagued modern philosophy: what are our thoughts (and perceptions) of? Of course, he does not offer a solution here. His purpose is only to cast doubt on the mission of analytics to solve the problem by reducing thoughts and perceptions to language.

Thoughts on Theaetetus: Volume IV

Why Volumes? I have no idea. It just seemed right.

I missed last night’s session due to grading, but these are a few thoughts from tonight.

Socrates’ relationship to Theaetetus is as a midwife to a person in labor, or so the famous analogy goes. It is curious, though, that rather than only asking questions to bring Theaetetus’ ideas to birth, Socrates gives Theaetetus a long exhortation that is more sermon than question. It is as if Socrates is inducing labor in Theaetetus through his sermon, as he says in 149D: “And what’s more, the midwives by giving drugs and signing incantations are capable of arousing labor pains…” If there is no room for articles of faith in purely Socratic education, there is room for rhetorical challenges to pursue knowledge. The ruse works, as Theaetetus finally accepts the task of saying what knowledge is. He is en-couraged. Socrates has “manned” him with his words.

Unfortunately, Theaetetus’ definition is not very sound. He derives it from Protagoras, and it is essentially a post-modern approach to knowledge: knowledge is simply perception. As the dialectic unfolds, Theaetetus (and by extension, Protagoras!) is trapped in an obvious contradiction, recognizes it, but to escape it affirms the ridiculous (154D). The rebuke from Socrates is swift. The scene is troubling. Theaetetus’ claim that “it’s shameful not in every way to be eager to say whatever one has,” which he had uttered just after Socrates’ incantation, is forgotten when Theaetetus realizes that what he said was nonsensical. Why? It’s quite possible that Theaetetus is not willing to break ranks with Protagoras, a man of no little distinction. For the young learner, association with “the right people” is more valuable than actually understanding the truth.
The lessons are many: one, “waking students up” to the dialectic can be done through exhortation and incantation. Rhetoric is a useful tool for education, but obviously not sufficient, as Theaetetus reverts to his old ways very quickly. Though Socrates proclaims no ‘article of the faith’ to Theaetetus, he does move the learning process along through a long exhortation that is centered around Socrates’ role as midwife. (150C-151). Additionally, learning sometimes demands departing from those who taught us, particularly if they taught us badly. It is no easy task, especially for young people who may still be very much attached.

Theaetetus’ demonstrates an “a-rational” attachment to his ideas, an attachment grounded more in his affective state than in his perception of the truth. Overcoming these affective roadblocks is difficult, but necessary. It will be interesting to see whether Theaetetus becomes the sort of man who is able to become the sort of learner Socrates thinks he might be.

Thoughts on Theaetetus: Volume III

The relationship between teacher and student can take many forms. Modern educational approaches value the teacher insofar as he imparts information to the pupil. But traditional education is more akin to soul-nurturing. In the Theaetetus, Theaetetus is praised by his teacher Theodorus as a star pupil, but what we quickly discover is that Theaetetus lacks the courage and confidence necessary for learning, at least at this point. His soul has been lulled to sleep by Theodorus, a geometer of no little skill, but also a man lacking in wisdom. Theaetetus is caught in his shadow: he is a “yes-man” of the worst sort, totally dependant upon Theodorus and Socrates to do the real thinking for him.

Even worse, Theodorus seems to continue to be the “gate-keeper” for Theaetetus. He remains with Theaetetus throughout the dialogue, repeatedly pushing Theaetetus into conversation with Socrates and potentially hindering Theaetetus’ development. They seem to intentionally avoid discussing whether knowledge and wisdom are the same thing, possibly to preserve Theodorus from the shame of being exposed as a knowledgable, foolish man. Theaetetus must go beyond his former master, but do so while Theodorus is present.
The dialogue is an appropriately terrifying reminder of the great power educators have over their students. We hold their souls in our hands, and it is ours to wake them up and help them to see, or to let them lie in their slumber. The charge for the educator is that we must become the sort of people that we wish to create, as we can not produce anything other than we are.

Theodorus’ has been educated by a bad man and stands in need of redemption (to use Brian’s fine phrase). Will Socrates be able to help him, or will his relationship with Theodorus prevent him from learning? This is the drama of education, and of the Theaetetus.

Thoughts on Theaetetus: Volume II

Theaetetus is introduced by Theodorus, a teacher of geometery who praises Theatetus for being acute, manly, and above all, a man of unique and peculiar gentleness.
But is Theaetetus, a man of some nobility, a good student? Theodorus praises him for being like “the quiet flow of a stream of oil,” for a sort of placidness or docility that Theodorus marks out a good student. This tranquility of spirit seems impossible for any learner, especially for a learner who is yet young. The learning process is a difficult process–it demands tripping and falling, stopping and starting again, but Theaetetus apparently has not yet begun this process.

In this way, he resembles many of the homeschool students that I have met in my short years teaching. He is gentle, well-behaved, and noble, but lacks the spiritedness necessary for true greatness. It’s quite possible that his time with Theodorus, who lectures, has lulled his once noble soul to sleep. The entertainments my students are used to in learning, even in homeschooling, prevents them from entering the difficult disruptions of the learning process.
But this is what we will eventually see in Theodorus, who resists entering the conversation until absolutely compelled to by Socrates. He wants only to be entertained, and so he likes students who are similar.