Sunday, November 28, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #1

Are you sure?

Several years ago, I remember having a conversation with a graduate student in philosophy on the subject of certainty. We discussed the subject for over an hour, weaving references and tangents and explications through our conversation, always coming up just short of agreement. Then we realized something: the entire conversation had been based on two different definitions of "certainty" -- he of epistemic, and I of psychological, concepts of certainty.

This experience may be why I feel so strongly about defining terms before discussing major ideas or issues. Yet our confusion illustrates one of the cardinal difficulties in this topic. I was so sure during the conversation that we were discussing the same thing, but I was later to discover that sense of certainty to be misplaced -- that is, totally in error.

When we commonly speak of "certainty," we mean a sense of psychological certainty: the subjective sensation that we have grasped an objective truth.

These sensations may be felt with varying degrees of finality or confidence. We might simply be speaking of fulfilled expectations, the psychical satisfaction of being proven right.  "Of course he was cheating on you -- he brought you flowers last week." A stronger certainty may arise when we can think of no refutation at a given moment; stronger still when we can imagine no refutation can exist.  The most extreme cases of psychological certainty occur when an idea is perceived as a truth in which no error can ever be found and against which no inconsistent statement can possibly stand.

Sensations of certainty are almost invariably unwarranted.

Humans are, quite simply, human. Our experiences are finite, our perspectives are limited, and our senses may often be misleading.  Given the frailty of the human condition, how can we speak of being certain of anything? Moreover, given the hubris to which humans are so often subject, how can we take seriously any statement of absolute certainty?

Here lies the cardinal difficulty: given our own humanity, what can humans possibly know?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reflection on Judgment: #3

To think is to judge.

Any parent can confirm that humans are driven by an innate sense of curiosity. We see a door, we want to open it. We are stumped by a theological mystery, our minds seek resolution.

Sometimes the immediate cause of our curiosity is discontent with our lack of knowledge, rather than a direct desire to acquire more.  Yet even this is reducible to the latter.  Just as vampires are drawn to blood, and preteen girls seem drawn to vampires, humanity as a whole is impelled by a deep-seated desire for answers.

Why are Sudoku puzzles so popular? Perhaps it is partly because they allow us to pride ourselves on our mental dexterity, but that answer isn’t sufficient. We solve puzzles precisely because they are unsolved, because we want to know the correct answer even if that answer will not possibly benefit us.

Certainly, many people flip through their newspapers without even glancing at the Sudoku puzzle. But they are suspending their sense of curiosity, perhaps out of boredom at a repetitive task, or frustration at the lack of forthcoming answers, or prioritization of other tasks more meaningful than logic games.

Yet, to the extent that we care about such things, we are also pursuing answers for such things.  If we are thinking about a thing, we are searching for answers; to stop searching for answers, is to stop thinking.

Our ability to reason is intrinsic to our humanity, and so in that sense is curiosity. To the extent that we think about a thing, we are driven to understand it – which means we must evaluate it and mentally process it.
The whole endeavor of thinking is teleological, directed at something beyond itself. That ultimate aim – that final cause – lies is our thirst for intellectual satisfaction. We yearn for answers; we yearn for the true.

Judgments are the ends, the final cause, of thought.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflection on Judgment: #2

To think is to judge.

Humans are constantly processing and evaluating new incoming data in order to construct and expand their epistemic frameworks, their systems of thinking about things. Judgments are the means of thought – that is, judgments are necessary to constructing these frameworks.

These frameworks, in turn, catalyze our processing of that new information. they allows us to instinctively prioritize incoming data streams, sorting out the banalities and allowing us to focus on more meaningful and interesting pieces of information.

While I don’t ascribe to a “tabula rasa” view of human development, epistemic frameworks don’t strike me as the sort of thing that may be passed down by our genetic makeup. Thus, as infants and children, we exert tremendous mental effort in constructing these frameworks for our later us.

The intellectual capacity of children is really quite stunning by this view, for while they generate these frameworks they don’t have the luxury of using them to sort incoming information. They are bombarded by more stimuli than most adults could possibly conceive, and manage not only to process it but also to construct mental frameworks with which to sort and process that stimuli more expeditiously in the future.

Without epistemic frameworks, we would be in the same position as infants: everything would be a novelty, and higher thought would be a practical impossibility.

Judgments are the necessary catalysts of thought.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reflection on Judgment: #1

To think is to judge.

Every time we perceive an object, every instant we contemplate an idea, our minds must process any and all new information into our existing classifications and ways of thinking. For instance, when I drive on a new road, I add it to the mental map of the area in my head.

Thinking about new information entails evaluating that new information.

There are several aspects of this evaluating process. For instance, to determine the weight we place in our conclusions, we must judge the relative significance of the information itself, the reliability of the source, the quantity of similar evidences, and a host of other factors

Even when we consciously choose to reserve judgment on information or ideas, we continue to make judgments. We judge that the data set we're drawing from lacks sufficient breadth or depth to justify an ultimate (or even penultimate) evaluation. We judge that we can postpone that ultimate evaluation without serious consequences. We must even judge the relative importance and probability of acquiring further information that might help us make that ultimate evaluation, to determine how assiduously we will work at it.

Judgments are the means of thought.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Apology: The Christian Trilemma

The Christian trilemma originates from a famous paragraph in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which reads as follows:

"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

C.S. Lewis was drawing on the aut Deum aut malum ("either God or a bad man") formulation of earlier Christian evangelists, but his expanded version stuck.  In its simplest form, the trichotomic choice he proposes runs as follows:

If Jesus claimed to be God, then:
1) He was God, and He knew it (Lord)
2) He was God, and He didn't know it (a logical impossibility)
3) He wasn't God, and He knew it (Liar)
4) He wasn't God, and He didn't know it (Lunatic)

In its conditional form, the statement is uncomplicated and unavoidable.  The only question is whether or not Jesus actually claimed to be God.  Thus we arrive at a modified trichotomy:

If "Jesus" means the historical person as depicted in the Bible, then Jesus claimed to be God.
If Jesus claimed to be God, etc. (see above).

Please note that this conditional does not state that the Bible accurately depicted the historical person Jesus ben-Joseph. The modified trilemma only states that the Jesus presented by the Bible did make claims to be divine.

There are internal textual evidences for this:

1) Jesus claimed to have the authority to forgive any sin (Luke 7:48) -- the sole province of God.
2) Jesus claimed to have the authority to judge the world (Matthew 25:31) -- again, that was God's thing.
3) Jesus responds "before Abraham was, I AM" to the Pharisees (John 8:58), identifying Himself by the Name of God. At this undeniable assertion of divinity, the Pharisees sought to stone him, and
4) Peter called Him the Christ, the Son of God, (Matthew 16:16) for which Jesus praised him, and stated that He would build His church on Peter, and by implication on Peter's confession.

There are also a number of external considerations:

5) If Christ didn't claim to be divine, how did His followers manage to become so convinced that He did? Every child in first century Judea could have recited by heart the Deuteronomical Shema ("Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one"). Is there a people in the history of the world who would have been less likely to confuse a human with the One True God?  Yet we're supposed to believe that Jesus managed to inadvertently convince His disciples that He (a mere human) was somehow divine, despite their repeated obtuseness (recorded by Scripture) and the conservative assumptions of their Jewish traditions. At the very least, if Christ didn't claim to be God, then he must have been an almost dangerously incompetent teacher.

6) The Gospel of John begins with the plain assertion that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word was made flesh."  That is John's gospel begins with the statement that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. It's rather absurd to argue that John intentionally omits any Christological claim to divinity, when John clearly thinks that Jesus was God and that He had made such claims.

7) The same principle holds for the other authors of the Gospels. Those who deny that Jesus ever made such claims to be divine, accept that the so-called mistake originated from His disciples.  I don't know a single person who questions whether or not Christ's earliest disciples were convinced of His divinity, at least in their public testimony. Considering, then, that the other authors of the Gospels were convinced of His divinity, it is simply nonsensical to suppose that they would have carefully omitted any record of such claims.

Again, the point isn't that the Gospel accounts are accurate. I think they are, but that it's irrelevant to this modified trilemma. The point is that you have to dispute or discount the Biblical account of Jesus' life in order to deny that Christ claimed to be the divine Son of God.

The final evidential point is that those Biblical accounts are the only widely accepted documentary evidence of Jesus' life and teachings remaining extant. Without the Gospels, our knowledge of the "historical Jesus" would be pretty meager indeed, and indeed I would argue that it's impossible to construct a meaningful account of Jesus ben-Joseph without relying on portions of the Gospels.

But the only way to manage this without including Christ's divinity claims is by importing some a priori hermeneutic standards to reject the distastefully orthodox content while retaining the passages that comport with a more vaguely universalist theology. But this "Jesus Seminar" approach to Biblical hermeneutics is so susceptible to preconceived biases, that it really doesn't bear much resemblance to honest textual exegesis or good faith argumentation.

The Christian trilemma is not the only set of options available.  But in my opinion it is the only set of options that takes the Biblical accounts of Jesus' life seriously.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reflection on Authority: #3

The strongest arguments rely on a multiplicity of shared authorities. St. Thomas Aquinas was the master of this. In his early work, Summa Contra Gentiles, he outlined every argument for Christian faith and doctrine using only those authorities which would be shared by a non-Christian audience -- such as natural science and the Greek philosophers. In his later and more famous Summa Theologica, he expanded his earlier writing and developed a fully systematic theology based on authorities common to a Christian audience -- including Scripture and church tradition.

Authorities allow us to make and judge arguments. However, it should be noted that in order to accept an authority, we must evaluate it first, to determine whether it is reliable, or how to rank the value and reliability of multiple authorities. In other words, the process of accepting an authority is itself a judgment, which must be reached on the conclusion of a separate argumentative process, and must therefore rely on authorities itself.

This illustrates one of the more difficult topics in epistemology: the regressive nature of knowledge. Scientists often like to speak of the progressivity of knowledge: one discovery builds on the foundation of another. Yet even in that we see its corollary: if ideas build on each other, then an idea must have come before it. The reasons we give for one argument, rely on the outcome of another previous argument, and so on.

Epistemology is not self-sufficient. In order to conclude anything, we must first agree on something.

If our common foundation were an authority (an outside source of knowledge), then we would fall into a flat contradiction, for our acceptance of that authority would rely on a prior common understanding that such an authority can be trusted. Only personal experience qualifies as evidence not dependent on others, but not even that will suffice: for that must rely implicitly on the reliability of our own experience. Moreover, personal experiences cannot be held in common, so the point is moot from the start.

The very nature of authority points us to an authority outside itself.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Reflection on Authority: #2

As the previous definition of argumentation should make clear, it is impossible to make an argument without first holding some premise in common. Since most premises are supplied by authority, arguments almost invariably rely on authorities held in common.

Appeals to authority are valid insofar as we consider that authority to be a trustworthy or reliable source of evidence within a particular sphere. Stephen Hawking is a brilliant theoretical physicist and a nearly unimpeachable authority when it comes to his specialized field. In other fields, I do not think him as reliable an authority, as in questions of extraterrestrial life, alien invasion, and the existence of God.

The "appeal to authority fallacy" revolves around the a claim that a particular authority is infallible or beyond criticism in a certain field. Such claims are generally reckless, and unworthy of consideration, except where the claim of authority intrinsically entails such infallibility.

For instance, Scripture claims to convey the words of Christ and of God, transcribed by human agents who were themselves acting under divine inspiration. If these words were anything less than perfectly True, Good, and Beautiful, Scripture would lose its value as an authority. Therefore, the Scriptural claim to infallibility is intrinsic to itself and must be treated separately.

It may be noted that the question of Scriptural infallibility faces the same trichotomy that C.S. Lewis ascribed to the divinity of Christ, the famous "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic" argument. Either Scripture is divinely inspired and thereby infallible, or it's a deliberate lie, or it is a simple exercise in authorial delusions of grandeur.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reflection on Authority: #1

Argumentation is the process of working from shared knowledge or common assumptions, to conclusions that are not shared or held in common.

In argumentation, virtually all of the premises on which we rely are based on authority -- that is, they are supplied by others, not by ourselves. We simply lack the expertise or the experience to know everything of which we speak. I doubt whether we are the ultimate source of even a fraction of our truth claims: only claims of personal experience can suffice.

Even if I were to carry out an entirely independent experiment, I still rely on the education I received from experts in the field to corroborate that I used the proper technique to gather data and reach conclusions; I must trust that others have or will have independently reached the same conclusions and verified my findings; and I must interpret my data and my conclusions in light of the knowledge I share and have received from other scientists.

Human knowledge cannot be objective, for we are fallible humans. Nor, contra Michael Polanyi, is human knowledge an essentially personal activity, though there is an intrinsic human element to all of our intellectual pursuits.

Human knowledge is a fundamentally social endeavor, for all of our efforts to discern truth will rely considerably, if not entirely, on the trust we place in others.

The question of authority -- the extent to which we are comfortable relying on things or persons outside ourselves-- is central to almost every truth claim to which we turn our minds.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Contemplations in Theology: #14

One of my favorite verses is 1 Corinthians 6:3 - "Do you not know that we will judge angels?" It is a deliciously vague verse, dropping the merest hint of our future as restored humanity.

Angels reside continually in the unadulterated Presence of God. It shows. I can't remember a single instance in Scripture where a guy meets an angel and doesn't fall to his knees in incapacitating fear. We're talking about Seriously Tall People with flaming swords, heads of lions, massive wings, circles within circles... you know, the works.

And yet 1 Corinthians 6:3 tells us that the Christian shall not only be able to withstand such a sight, but shall indeed be judges presiding over such creature.

God has something up His sleeves. Angel means 'messenger' or (more broadly) 'agent,' so the angels were made to carry out and communicate His will. I will not attempt a more detailed examination of what angels are, for I will readily admit I could care less. The point is that God made humanity in HIS OWN IMAGE. We are more than agents, more than messengers, more than any heavenly creature. For God implanted in our souls the germ of Himself. Our souls yearn for Him for this reason. We desire the good, the true and the beautiful because those noble qualities reflect Him. We are defined as human precisely in the degree to which we reflect God.

And then we fell.

Salvation is like a Texas Two-Step. First we're saved... then we're really saved. Justification is necessary to get us through the door, past the threshold, to the hearth of Heaven and the arms of God. But what will we do once we're there?

Most Christians, if they're honest with themselves, will admit that an eternity of harps and choral singing sounds -- frankly -- as boring as Hell. Granted, we're supposed to be happy about the prospect because God will be there, and admittedly, that would make up for quite a bit. But why would we ever look forward to losing everything that we enjoy in this life, those things that define us as human?

Such a heaven is a heresy. If our humanity is defined by the image of God, then God could not have intended to remove that image from us when we are saved. If anything, our humanity shall be amplified, purified, pushed to its outer bounds. C.S. Lewis once wrote that humans are like children who prefer mud pies over chocolate, a sandbox over a day at the beach. Our desires aren't excessive; they're too small. We think too small. The harps and the choral singing isn't going to be our full-time occupation in the heavenly barracks. The music is supposed to symbolize the ecstasy we shall experience in the Presence of God, an ecstasy we sometimes find in music. The words of praise speak to the joy of our hearts that will be constantly expressing gratitude towards God.

There is no temple in the New Jerusalem. The city is the temple. Our entire lives will glorify God, and God will glorify our entire lives.

There's the word: glorify. Justification is nice for those first baby-steps, but glorification is the meat of our eternal future. Christ was the firstborn, the Son of Man just as surely as the Son of God. And the saints are the children of God, who died with Christ in His death and are raised up with Him through His resurrection. We owe everything to God, and will owe Him all the more when He lavishes His love upon us.

Please, enough with the heaven of school uniforms, of starchy collars and organ music (unless you actually like organ music, in which case let your imagination run wild). Heaven is going to be beyond your wildest dreams, almost as far beyond description as God is, mostly because it's going to be God's party, put on for all eternity for our enjoyment.

Since before time began, God prepared a feast for you. Now He's waiting for you to arrive, His guest of honor. Traffic's a beast, but the party is worth it.