Epistemology and Being II

Some time ago I posted on the subject of epistemology and being within the context of David Bentley Hart’s ‘practical idealism’ and T.F. Torrance’s scientific theological realism. I’m going to try and flesh out a few more points on that subject. (Pretty much all of this is a riff on Torrance’s first chapter in ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’)

A key point in Torrance’s thought is the rejection of the ‘image in the middle’ as the object of the intellect or as the object of knowledge. He identifies this as a product of Aristotelian metaphysics, in which the intellect abstracts its object of knowledge directly from sensory experience (‘there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses’). Instead of abstractive processes which produce an ‘image in the middle’ in the mind which is the object of knowledge, Torrance holds that ‘being’ is the primary object of the intellect – knowledge of being is brought about by an immediate and direct intuition of reality. Here he sides with Scotus against Aquinas.

Torrance sees a danger in the famous ‘fit of the intellect to reality’ formula developed by the medievals: it’s very easy to slide unnoticed from that to ‘knowledge has to conform to the understanding’ and from there to various forms of idealism. But that formula seems to make a good amount of sense, so how can the slide to idealism be avoided?

Torrance grants that the agent is active in the process of ‘knowing’ – but instead of imposing its a priori categories onto the raw data of experience (which Torrance argues imposes a necessariatinism and determinism on the world and forces the world into static categories) the concepts and categories of the mind ‘hook onto’ the structures of reality. These structures are controlling, in that our concepts and categories have to be revised, reformulated or discarded as the reality which we inquire into discloses itself and its own inner ‘rationality’ to our questions and investigation.

What the mind does do is act as a formal cause – not of the shape of reality, a la Kant – of patterns which emerge by virtue of the inherent intelligibility of the universe. While these patterns, like our hooking concepts, are open to revision, these patterns are what shape our experience of reality. While my sympathies lie with Hart, I suspect Torrance is closer to the mark – the neccesary/determinism criticisms that Torrance levels against Kantian idealism and transcendental categories are pretty powerful.

Interesting Criticism of Kant

Take from here:

‘In response to Kant’s view that we impose form and order and intelligibility on the content of our sense experience by drawing on the a priori forms of intelligibility that are innate in all human minds: ‘

“[H]e has no explanation at all, and can in principle have none, of the miraculous fit between the structures we have imposed on the world, apparently independently of anything in the world, and the way the world responds to our practical action on it based on the predictions thought up by our minds – successfully coping with the challenges of nature, technology, etc. Nor can he explain – in fact he never tries – how we can know other human beings as just as real as ourselves and successfully exchange information with them in interpersonal dialogue. For if it is really I that am structuring your being and the messages you seem to be sending in to me through my senses, then it follows that you are also structuring me and my messages – which cancels out into incoherence: both can’t be true at once. No, we are open to truth-grounding communication about themselves from the real active beings that surround us, across the bridge of their self-expressive, self-revealing action. That is what it means to have a mind open to being.”

[W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), pg. 12-13]’

Thought Notes 7/25/2014

I was reading Nussbaum’s ‘Therapy of Desire’, and it occurred to me that Epicurus might well be the first eliminativist (whether or not this is a novel insight I don’t know). Epicurus holds that our senses are completely reliable faculties in terms of giving us true knowledge (contra Plato) – all our errors (specifically moral/ethical) come from belief. He effectively distrusts people’s natural reason, noting that reason can easily be twisted, corrupted, ignored and otherwise rendered ineffective and even harmful – hence why he directs us to our senses. Epicurus’ method involves a theraputic dialectic designed to show how we can remove these false beliefs – a surgery, if you will.

This started me thinking: do beliefs play the large role in ethics that they are usually assumed to do? Ethical approaches are typically ‘intellectualist’ or ‘cognitive’ – our doing the good depends on our knowing the good. I’ve wondered if this is the case, though, especially after reading James K.A. Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’, where he points out that the intellectual/cognitive aspects of our ‘acting’ in the world (whether moral, ethical, or whatever) are pretty much the last aspect of our actions.

Bonhoeffer spends a fair amount of time in his book ‘Ethics’ deconstructing the idea that ethics is a matter of knowing good, or knowing the good, via dialectic or deduction. He considers the idea that ‘the good’ being an objbect of human knowledge the devil’s first lie – this knowledge must be invalidated for any true ethic to be formulated. The ‘good’ isn’t derived from natural knowledge via dialectic or deduction but from the the presence of the Truth itself. I’ll spend some more time thinking on this, because I actually think there are some intersections between his thought and the classical ethical tradition.

Thought Notes 7/20/2014

Some of these come from things I’ve tweeted – I wanted to format them and consolidate them a bit more here.

It seems like a lot Christians think that explaining, or harmonizing, Scripture is almost like doing an injustice to Scripture. Folks like that seem to be the ones who always insist that Scripture is ‘messy’, so to try and harmonize it is to go against what Scripture is. I guess if you accept that definition of ‘messy’ and everything that goes with it, that’s a reasonable position to take. But what exactly does ‘messy’ mean, and does it entail necessarily that Scripture can’t be explained or harmonized? I blogged on this before in the context of theology and spirituality, but the same points apply. For me, I guess, the idea that Scripture is fundamentally ‘not supposed to be’ harmonized/explained/systematized is just odd. I do think that a general resistance to systematization is the underlying issue. Systematic theology has a place, obviously – but those who are opposed to the ‘finality’ of some systematics no doubt disagree.

Imagination is an important thing when thinking about philosophy, but it all too often is merely invoked instead of examined. Not there seems to be anything even remotely resembling a consensus on what the imagination is. James K.A. Smith has interesting ideas on it (he draws mostly from Merleau-Ponty, at least in the book I’ve read), but they seem to just be a rehash of the Aristotelian active intellect. I do think that he’s correct to move discussions of the imagination away from thinking of it like a ‘making things up’ ability – ‘use your imagination’, for example, and more towards a faculty of formal causality, albeit one oriented in an ’emotional’ and ‘affective way’. But, like I said, that seems to be the active intellect, with a slight tune-up.

I’ve begun to realize that a big problem in philosophy of mind stems from what I’ll call the ‘philosophical anthropology’ that is more or less the received wisdom. The general idea is that humans are primarily cognitive, knowing creatures, who are distinguished primarily by the rationality – and that’s it (yes, I’m aware that this isn’t a universal picture). Everyone knows, however, that there is far more to being human than merely being cognitive. Actually, as James K.A. Smith notes, the cognitive aspects of how we know and acquire knowledge really seem to be the last and possibly the most minor aspect of our existence – and recent cognitive science really seems to back that claim up. So much of our ‘knowing’ (for lack of a better term) is done on the tacit level (Polyani) that it almost seems like most philosophy of mind doesn’t really know what a human is. Think of how many arguments hinge on something like ‘knowledge’ in the abstract – when ‘knowledge’ in the abstract seems to really be something that doesn’t exist.

Reading Notes 7/19/2014

I’ve almost exhausted the Lovecraft volume I have.  I’m not really sure which Lovecraft story has proven to be my favourite, though. Possibly ‘The Colour Out of Space.’ His use of ‘blasphemous’, ”unspeakable’, ‘unnameable’, and ‘infinite’, do get a bit old though – especially since it’s already difficult to picture exactly what is supposed to be so mind-numbingly horrifying. I’m gearing up to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’, now. Not just any old version, though – this is the unabridged and expanded version, coming in at roughly 1200 pages. I’ve started reading it (only about a dozen pages in so far) and I can already tell it’s going to take me a good minute to get through this one.

Earlier this week I started going through part of Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, specifically the sections where he criticizes liberal theology (Bultmann primarily, but also Tillich, Schweitzer, Dodd, and others). As is par for the course, he’s incisive and occasionally devastating, though I do get the feeling that some of his criticisms are a bit overblown.

I started dipping back into Plantinga and Wolterstorff – ‘Where the Conflict Really Lies’ and ‘Warranted Christian Belief’, from the former and ‘Divine Discourse’ from the latter. WCB is just outstanding – as far as analytic philosophy goes, this is probably some of the better writing out there. Clear, balanced and to the point. Wolterstorff, though he’s one of my favourite philosophers (the breadth of his thought is very impressive, ranging from music, architecture, ontology, metaphysics, politics, human rights, justice, art and more) is not one of my favourite writers. He has a very dense, very academic style – if you don’t pay attention to every single line, you’ll likely get lost. His criticisms of Ricouer are pretty interesting -Wolterstorff argues that there’s no ‘sense of the text’, against Ricouer.

Along those lines, I bought the Plantinga/Wolterstorff volume ‘Faith and Rationality’, yesterday, which is where a lot of Reformed epistemology got worked out. Alston (and others of note) contribute(s) as well, and I’m looking forward to getting into it.

A Few Notes on Liberal Protestantism

– A good deal of older liberal Protestantism (Tillich et al) seems to conceive that reality can only really be understood and participated in by virtue of ‘symbols’

– When it comes to Christian beliefs and dogma, the agenda seems to be primarily one of stripping away the time and space elements from Christianity to transform Christianity into a kind of ‘timeless symbol’.

– This idea, as far as I can tell, comes from the belief that the if there are genuine time and space elements within the kerygma, then that entails that the kerygma depends on contingent time and space elements.

– Thus, the time and space elements are stripped away, leaving the ‘timeless’ message (Bultmann, for example).

– I see this as a reaction to the perceived ‘modern’ world, but ultimately a misunderstanding of the ‘modern’ world.

– There’s also a genuine distrust of metaphysics (perhaps this comes from Heidegger?).

– Finally, there is a loss of realism (moreso in, say, Tillich, than in others) – theological statements and formulations don’t have an external reference but have only symbolic value.

Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.



Thoughts on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion

This is actually a comment I made here – but I’ve been wanting to do a post like this for some time, so I’m reproducing it here.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy of religion (if it can even be called that – his writings on religion are very scattered and don’t form one precise picture) is, more or less, fideism. This is likely a result of two things: first, his Roman Catholic education. John Haldane notes that:

‘First, Wittgenstein had been raised as a Catholic and in that period catechetics, the teaching of Catholic doctrine, favoured a question and answer style that derived from scholasticism but only gave abbreviated formulae and not arguments. He would have found this a betrayal of the religious quest and could not fail to have been reminded of it by the lists of questions and answers in the Summa. Second, In the first decades of the twentieth century there was a good deal of triumphalist Catholic apologetics in which people cited Aquinas as if he had an answer to everything and contained no errors or omissions. This again would have struck him as profoundly unphilosophical and also unspiritual.’ (from here, a brilliant interview)

Secondly, his love of Kierkegaard:

‘Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century.’ (As quoted in “Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on the ethico-religious” by Roe Fremstedal in Ideas in History Vol. 1 (2006) {stolen from wikiquotes}

Taking the two of those together, it’s very easy to see why Wittgenstein takes the route that Christianity is more about practice than belief that can be rationally grounded in philosophical proofs (IE Aquinas).

I said on twitter that I have three main objections to his PoR – I’ll confine the rest of my comments to those three for brevity.

(a) A misunderstanding of Kierkegaard and (b) the relation of history to truth (Lessing)

Kierkegaard is profoundly misused by Wittgenstein – who builds on what he perceives to be Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of faith’ – i.e., the rejection of the need for rational proof the the affirmation of pure belief. Not only do we not need proof for faith, but faith as such isn’t even about ‘belief’ but about ethical practice.

The misunderstanding is this: Kierkegaard was not describing a fideistic ‘leap of faith’ but rather a rather stunning epsitemological move born out of wrestling with classical Christian ideas. I’ll let physicist/theologian T.F Torrance set Wittgenstein straight on Kierkegaard:

‘…(in ‘Philosophical Fragments’) Kierkegaard developed a sub-theme which turned out to have the greatest signifigance, the relation of truth to time, which had been conspicuously missing from Anselm’s thought. Behind Kierkegaard’s concern, as we can see from some of his other writings, lay his engagements with problems he found in Aristotle. Kant, Lessing and Hegel and the stimulation of some ideas he derived from Trendelenburg’s critique of Kantian notions of time. But what really gripped Kierkegaard and forced him to come to terms with it was the fact that in the Incarnation, “absolute” truth moved into time in Jesus Christ and became “historical fact”, which implies that we cannot know the truth except in a dynamic way involving a temporal or historical relation to it. If the truth has moved into time and become historical event, then movement or kinesis belongs to truth and has categorical significance.

In wrestling with this problem of transition Kierkegaard found he had to abandon a way of thinking from a point of absolute rest, and opt for a kinetic mode of reason with which to apprehend movement, continuty, dynamic truth, without resolving them into something quite different in terms of static necessities or timeless possibilites. He referred to his act of reason variously as a decision, a resolution or a leap, and spoke of faith as having the required condition.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 90)

(c) Dictotomization (my new word) of practive/belief

Wittgenstein’s error here is an old one – assuming that things that are distinct are opposed. Practice is better than only belief, so Christianity has to be more about practice than belief. Had he simply payed close attention to the Christian tradition, he would have found that the concerns he had were more than addressed by Christian thought, though not in his language. The classical Christian ethical tradition holds that ‘doing the good’ requires ‘knowing the good’ because our actions have as a ‘formal cause’ our desires and beliefs. Desire/belief effects practice, and practice effects desire/belief. Virtue ethics is an appropriate reference point here.

To be sure, the Christian faith is about affirming certain truths – we could rephrase that to ‘making truth claims’ in modern lingo. However, as Torrance showed above, these aren’t static timeless propositions that one merely assents to – the knowledge effects the desires, which effect the actions (praxis), which in turn effects the desires. The ethical dimension of Christianity is far more than Wittgenstein’s ‘meaning is use’ move.

EDIT: I made a comment (scroll down if you’re on the post or click on it to see comments) here:  which hopefully clarifies and fleshes out some of what I layed out here.



Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

Reading Notes 7/6/14

I received N.T. Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’ the other day, and it’s a great book so far. Wright’s popular works are for the most part pretty well-written, but they do tend to require a pretty full engagement with his more academic works to really make sense – i.e., he uses a lot of ideas he’s developed at length in more academic works without unpacking them in his shorter, more popular works, so there is the potential for confusion there.

Read an interesting essay by Edward Feser on the concept of ‘laws of nature’ as understood in the modern sciences – his thesis is that they are a theological formulation designed to replace the Aristotliean concept of ‘law of nature’ which was based on things like immanent essences and substantial forms – pretty interesting.  Read it here (still no hyperlinks, sadly): http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2014/07/carroll-on-laws-and-causation.html. If you’re itnerested in philosophy of science you’ll enjoy this article.

Any Lovecraft fans read this blog? I have the ‘Necronomicon’, a lovely best-of collection of his works. I prefer his short-medium length stories over his longer works personally. He’s quite adept at crafting an atmosphere of unease – and his use of old-thyme language and names lends a quasi-biblical feel to his stories. Personal favourites would be Innsmouth, Colour Out of Space, Dunwich Horror and most of the other shorter stories.