Reading Notes 5/31/14

I’m two-thirds of the way done with ‘Second Foundation’, and it just keeps getting better. I don’t remember the last book I read that I thoroughly enjoyed so much – during a long day at work, I read about seventy pages without a break and didn’t even notice it until it was time to go home. I’m not looking forwar to finishing the series – but thankfully I bought ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and borrowed ‘The Gods Themselves’, from the library. Crisis averted.

Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ has proven to be a fairly challenging book. Aspects of it are brilliant – for example, his analysis and critique of the formative powers of social media. I’m a bit less impressed by one of his major themes, which is a critique of ‘intellectualism’, or the idea that we as humans are primarily knowing agents, or rational agents. I understand that it’s not a scholarly monograph and that it’s more geared towards the on-the-ground beliefs of people, but at the same time, who really thinks that we are purely and only passive receivers of (say) sensory data, academic or otherwise? Smith lays a lot of blame at Descartes feet – all fine and good, but there isn’t any quotation of Descartes, no real argument – just a kind of critique of some kind of Cartesian-ism. He doesn’t offer much by way of argument, which is fine by itself – not everything has to be supported by deductive arguments – but at some point, it’s be nice to see something more substantive than ‘We’re not primarily intellectual creatures’, supported by a Merleau-Ponty quote and an anecdote from a movie.

His overall point, however, runs something like this (this is a necessarily rough breakdown): We need to move past ‘worldview-ism’, past cultivating a way of merely looking at the world. Imagination is a kind of perception of the world and a means by which we constitute the world – therefore, we need to sanctify our imagination (imagination for Smith, ‘…that preconscious, emotional register on which we percieve the world and that, in turn, drives or “pulls” our action.’ p. 158). We do this by immersion in the Story in the liturgy, by which our imagination is sanctified, realigned, rightly ordered, etc. Nothing to really argue with here – though I’ve been struck by the similarity between Smith’s project and Aristotelean ethical thought. It would have been interesting to see him engage a bit with that side of the ethical tradition, because there’s really a lot to draw on there. 

Overall, the book is solid – some of the existentialist language I don’t buy into fully (lots of ‘being-in-the-world’) and it feels like at points he really should have just said ‘Go read Merleau-Ponty and you’ll get what I’m saying’, (lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from Merleau-Ponty) but it’s a solid piece of philosophy/theology.

I found Nussbaum’s discussion of emotions in Aristotle quite interesting – Aristotle argued that emotions require certain beliefs and to that extent can be rational or irrational, true or false (Smith would disagree with this, as a side note). The centrally important thing, however, is the belief(s) that the emotions are based on. A correct view of the good life is essential to Aristotle’s ethical project:

‘Emotions, in Aristotle’s view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated, and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life. But, so educated, they are not just essential as forces motivating to virtuous action, they are also, I have suggested, recognitions of truth and value. And as such they are not just instruments of virtue, they are constituent parts of virtuous agency: virtue, as Aristotle says again and again, is a “mean disposition” (disposition to pursue the appropriate) with “with regard to both passions and actions”. What this means is that even were the apparently correct action to be chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions, it would not count for Aristotle as a virtuous action: and action is virtuous only if it is done in the way that a virtuous person would do it. All of this is a part of the equipment of the rational person of practical wisdom, part of what practical rationality is. Rationality recognizes truth; the recognition of some ethical truths is impossible without emotion indeed, certain emotions are centrally involved in such recognitions.’ (‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 96)

Kantinomies

Antinomie are well known in philosophy mostly because of Kant – but, so far as I can tell, Kant’s antinomies are simply a philosophical idea that have arguments for and against it (it may be appropriate to call an antinomy a paradox). Why does he consider this so devastating? There’s antinomies in all of philosophy – though well-known because of Kant they certainly aren’t unique to him, they go all the way back to the Greeks and carry through the medievals to the present. Perhaps why he’s so dazzled by them is that he wasn’t willing to engage in the kind of methodological philosophical investigation that, say, the medievals were willing to engage in to solve them. Kant would have no doubt included the medieval project in his critique of all metaphysics, but the fact remains that his antinomies have been solved by a very rigorous method. Perhaps the more significant fact, however, is that antinomies of much greater power are also found throughout the history of philosophy.

Reading Notes 5/26/14

Finally finished ‘Foundation and Empire’. Oh em gee. That ending was great. The Mule is a brilliant character, and I really didn’t see his big ‘reveal’ at the end of the story coming. I’m going to start ‘Second Foundation’ tonight, and very much cannot wait.

I got Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’ the other day – it’s a massive study of Hellenistic ethics, which is something I got interested while reading Wolterstorff’s criticism of eudaimonistic ethics in ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’. I love reading books like this – books in which a real scholar does real scholarly work without being pretentious. I’m about 45 pages or so in, and her handling of the subject is masterful – she’s a scholar who has truly immersed herself in Hellenistic ethics, and it shows. 10/10.

I also got James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’. The first part of the book is basically constructing a liturgical anthropology and phenomenology of perception as well as a ‘theory of practice’ based on the whole person over against what Smith calls ‘intellectualism’ or the idea that all man is is a thinking thing. Lots and lots and lots of interaction with Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which is cool, because he’s not someone with whom I’m familiar with except for the name and that he’s French. Big focus on the roles of habit and narrative in how we perceive and constitute the world.

Metaphysics, Science, Metaphysics

Stanley Jaki, one of my favourite authors, says in almost every one of his books that one can go from philosophy to science, but not from science to philosophy. It’s a one-way street. To build a philosophy from science (assuming the common definitions of both) is a conceptual confusion – or is it? How often is it said that a given scientific area of research is answering questions previously reserved for philosophy only?

Think, for example, of determinism. Determinism is a metaphysical theory – that any given state of affairs is causally necessitated by preceding states of affairs. Now, if the road truly is one way, then a metaphysical theory cannot be falsified by empirical data. Two things come to mind, however, that would ‘disprove’ determinism: quantum mechanics and Ilya Prigogine’s work in the field of non-equilibrium thermodynamics (http://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/prigogine.html). Both of these scientific enterprises seem to show that determinism is a bankrupt idea.

How is this possible, though? How can empirical scientific discoveries falsify a metaphysical theory? I suspect that the answer can be found by looking closely at what I’ve argued is the intimate tie between science and metaphysics. If a scientific discovery appears to falsify a metaphysical theory, then that ought to be a sign that what we hold as a metaphysical theory is simply a scientific theory in disguise – by the same token, if a metaphysical theory is taken to falsify a scientific theory, then what we have isn’t a metaphysical theory but a scientific theory disguised as metaphysics. If the above scientific enterprises falsify determinism, then it merely serves to demonstrate the deep concord between metaphysics, science and language.

The extent to which (say) determinism is falsified by a given scientific discovery shows the extent to which science and metaphysics are bound up together – while the metaphysics of causality aren’t empirical (Hume), the empirical correlations we see in scientific research do give us insight into the realm of causality. T.F. Torrance actually goes into a bit of depth on causality in light of the resurrection of Jesus – see here: http://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/the-implosion-of-classic-causal-determinism-through-resurrection/

If I could formulate a maxim of my own on this subject, in might be something along these lines: without metaphysics, there is nothing by which we can study the empirical, and without the empirical, there is nothing which we can study.

I wanted to say more, but my dog barked and I lost my train of thought.

Gilson on Truth

‘There is an ethical problem at the root of our philosophical difficulties; for men are most anxious to find truth, but very reluctant to accept it. We do not like to be cornered by rational evidence, and even when truth is there, in its impersonal and commanding objectivity, our greatest difficulty still remains; it is for me to bow to it in spite of the fact that it is not exclusively mine, for you to accept it though it cannot be exclusively yours. In short, finding out truth is not so hard; what is hard is to not run away from the truth once we have found it. When it is not a “yes but”, our “yes” is often enough a “yes, and…”; it applies much less to what we have just been told than to what we are about to say. The greatest among philosophers are those who do not flinch in the presence of the truth, but welcome it with the simple words: yes, Amen.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, p. 49)

Reading Notes 5/23/14

On a whim, I started reading an excerpt of Kripke’s ‘Rules and Private Language’. Actually, it wasn’t a whim, I was reading Wittgenstein and remembered that I had a volume on philosophy of language which included Kripke. Anyway, it’s the excerpt where he breaks down his ‘plus and quus’ argument, and it’s pretty interesting, and surprisingly well-written and readable. It reminded me of Hume, actually, only with language instead of causality, and then lo and behold, he compares his skeptical argument to those of Hume. This was the first time I’d read Kripke, and I was quite impressed by how enjoyable it was. I realized, however, that I need to purchase ‘Philosophical Investigations’.

Over this last week I reread Timothy Ferris’ ‘Coming of Age in the Milky Way’ which is a history of astronomy and cosmology, from ziggarauts to string theory. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and certainly ranks as one of the most accessible history/exposition of science volume I’ve read – Ferris can break down complex ideas in a way that is purely delightful reading. His expositions of quantum physics in the latter parts of the book are probably as good as you’re going to find anywhere, and I found the chapter on Darwin to be an outstanding breakdown of Darwin, the man, and his ideas. In my opinion, the greatest strength of the book is the detailed and anecdote-filled accounts of the lives of the great scientists – Ptolemy, Archimedes, Kepler, Brahe, Darwin, Newton, Einstein, Gell-Mann, etc – which, to repeat myself, are purely delightful. Please, buy this book.

I also re-read Jaki’s ‘Road of Science and the Ways to God’ – which is my personal favourite book on science/metaphysics/philosophy of science. Jaki is a penetrating thinker, leading you from China, to Greece, to Copenhagen and back again as he examines all the major developments in the history of science. The medievals, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Fichte, Hume, Kant, Newton, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Comte are all decisively critiqued, some ruthlessly, some less so, as Jaki argues for moderate realism – of all the books I own, this is my number one.

Gilson’s account of Ockham and nominalism in ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’ is brilliant – I highly recommend purchasing that book, if only for that section and the breakdown/critique of Kant, which remains the best exposition of Kant I’ve been able to find.  As an account of metaphysics, this volume ranks as one of the greats.

Jaki on Science

‘It is a fundamental shortcoming of science that on its exact and formal level it gives the appearance of being severed from that reality which is a vast network of events standing in causal relation. Yet, while science may and should appear in that sense severed from reality, science becomes an illusion if that appearance is declared to be real.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p. 275)

Metaphysical Thought Notes

The recent babblings of Neil deGrasse Tyson have made one thing clear: when it comes to philosophy and metaphysics, there is exactly one choice: do metaphysics and philosophy. That, however, opens up to exactly two choices: one can either do philosophy and metaphysics well, or poorly, and if you do it poorly…well, philosophy always buries its undertakers, but not before embarrassing them first.

Well, regardless of whether one does metaphysics well or poorly, what’s the goal of it all? Here’s where things start to get confusing, because at this point, most people assign metaphysics a role as quasi-empirical science, trying to answer certain questions (it’s usually the ‘big questions’) and develop theories and conclusions. Now, being the good Wittgensteinian that I am, I think that trying to develop philosophical theories is a profound kind of confusion known as the conceptual confusion.

By trying to develop philosophical theories that can be defended, philosophy commits the error of trying to play the metaphysical game by the rules of the natural sciences – conclusions must be found, and either falsified or not. This is the conceptual confusion: to impose the rules of the game of natural science onto an entirely different game. No doubt some good can and has come of it – if one imposed the rules of Risk onto Monopoly, one could probably, given enough time, figure out a way to play and so to make some kind of ‘progress’ in the game, or at least enjoy the game.

Now, this doesn’t take away from the deep inter-connectedness of science and metaphysics. The two exist together in an intimate tie – without a grammar of metaphysics, there is no grasp on reality, and without science, there is nothing to form a grammar about. But as metaphysics has as its subject matter the most general of subjects, its methods must also be the most general – since metaphysics aims at grasping the most universal, its method must transcend the particular, and since conclusions of any significance have to be formulated by way of particulars, its must also transcend the formulation of specific metaphysical theories.

I admit that I don’t follow my own rules here all of the time – I haven’t quite worked out the mechanics of what I’m saying above.

Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Knowledge of God

Calvin takes as a basic axiom that the knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is the most important aspect of knowing in general – of religious epistemology. They are tied together in an intimate way, Calvin says – from our knowledge of ourselves, we’ll come to a knowledge of God. However, no one can come to a true knowledge of themselves without a true knowledge of God. The two are tied together intimately.

Calvin treats knowledge of God first, and descends to the self later on – from the knowledge of ourselves, we can deduce only that we’re in a world of misery, and that we desire to rest in something greater. Our natural knowledge of God is suppressed or ignored, despite there being a kind of imprint of the divine on the heart and mind (this is an axiom for Reformed epistemology). The basic point, however, is that the knowledge of the self is tied together with knowledge of God – in Calvin’s case, our self-knowledge is knowledge of our need for God. For a brief exposition, see:  http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/01/15/a-calvin-clarification/

What happens, according to Bonhoeffer, is that when we begin to think and reflect upon ourselves, all our knowledge becomes self-knowledge, and takes part in the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Man knows good and evil, but because he is not the origin, because he acquires this knowledge only at the price of estrangement from the origin, the good and evil he knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23)

Knowledge of good and evil is the cause of all the disunion in man’s life – and the cause of death in man’s life. The problem isn’t that we know good and evil, and try to do the good, but fail, and see that we need God – the problem is that we know good and evil, apart from God, against God. In Bonhoeffer’s terminology, we become a god against God:

‘…man, knowing of good and evil, has finally torn himself loose from life, that is to say from the eternal life which proceeds from the choice of God…Man knows good and evil, against God, against his origin, godlessly and of his own choice, understanding himself according to his own contrary possibilites; and he is cut off from the unifying, reconciling life in God, and is delivered over to death. The secret which man has stolen from God is bringing about man’s downfall.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23-24)

Bonhoeffer, contra Calvin, says that the knowledge of the self isn’t tied to knowledge of God – knowledge of the self is born out of disunion with God. This is an inversion of what’s a fairly key point in a lot of philosophy and theology – the knowledge of the self.

 

Note on Barth’s Failure

I’ve noticed a common refrain in those who oppose Barth – it usually falls under one of two categories (which are actually fairly close to each other):

1. Barth capitulated completely to modernity.

2. Barth was a prisoner of modernity and limited modern thinking.

I’ve worked with (2) before, and I’ll quote myself briefly:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

‘This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.’ (https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/barth-rant/)

Now, regarding Barth’s rejection of classical theism under orders from Modernity (according to the most recent version of this story) – this is just wrong. A great deal of Barth’s thought as right in line with classical theism (as an aside, ‘classical theism’ is a bit of a fuzzy term – it tends to mean ‘Thomism’ nowadays but generally is seen as the main consensus of Christian thought from Chalcedon forward). A lot of the classical categories are modified by Barth (impassibility, for example) and some are rejected more strongly.

What’s at issue here is exactly why Barth rejected what he did. The recent article at FT asserts that it was modernity that caused Barth to reject the classical tradition (which, as I’ve claimed, he didn’t reject out of hand). What led Barth to reject/modify what he did wasn’t the voice of modernity – though modern categories did, in fact, inform his thinking (just as our own culturual categories inform our thinking). Barth did what he did because of profoundly theological convictions. There’s been a lot said on this topic the last couple of days so I won’t rehash it – but Barth’s conclusions are informed by theological concerns, not by a capitulation to modernism. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Barth completely.

Here’s a roundup of some of the responses:

http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-modernity-response-to.html

http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/barths-failure/

http://theologyoutofbounds.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/karl-barths-failure-modernity-and-the-capacity-for-god/