Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #4

Are you sure?

In the last note, we dealt with one method – propounded by Rene Descartes – of dealing with the inadequacies of our human condition for grasping ontological certainty.

The second method of acquiring epistemic certainty is rooted in what philosophy considers self-evident principles, statements which might be considered axiomatic to logical thinking.

Let’s begin with the Law of Non-Contradiction. If the statement “A” is true, then the statement “not A” is false. If Socrates is a man, then we can’t say Socrates is not a man.

On closer inspection, this Law can be ultimately reduced to the definition of “word” as a referent: words identify themselves with substances existing in physical or metaphysical reality. This property is illustrated beautifully that that famous speech in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: “What is in a word? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

This referential property is what we mean when we speak of the meaning of words – they may be defined according to the substance by which they are identified. Moreover, the meaning of words is exclusive, for the nature of a thing excludes that which it is not. This is the universal common premise of any argument, a prerequisite to even speaking in coherent sentences.

However, as may be readily seen, the whole exercise of self-evident truth operates on a tautological loop, for here we see a cycle of definitions and meanings that relies entirely on itself to demonstrate its own veracity. The Law of Non-Contradiction can be neither proven nor disproven on its own grounds. Indeed, any proof of that Law must operate prior to our acceptance of it, and therefore needn’t exclude an equally valid disproof.

Confused?  Me too.

In general, the problem with axioms is that they are not intrinsically demonstrable. We do not consider truths to be self-evident in themselves -- it is not in the axiom that we find confirmation, but in its antonym. The thesis is not self-proving. Rather, it is the perceived impossibility of the antithesis which provides the fuller confirmation.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

New Beginnings

My life is in a state of flux.  For instance, I turned 21 today.  I also might get a new job, new house, and new life within a few weeks.  And then there's the annual celebrations of the birth of Christ and beginning of a New Year that always seem to brighten the mood.

This blog is in the middle of a fairly long (and admittedly dry) series of notes on epistemology -- treating ideas of evidence, proof, logic, judgment, and most recently certainty.  Once that series is over, I want to turn towards more theological (rather than philosophical) topics.  There are so many possibilities weighing on my mind, however, I've decided to put the choice to the few who read my blog and my Facebook notes.

A few potential topics for a note or series of notes:

1) Medieval cosmology

You may have wondered why I describe myself as a "Protestant Medievalist."  The insights of medieval theology were vital to my spiritual rejuvenation in the summer of 2007, and have remained a key driving force in my spiritual life since that time.

Related topics: joy, sorrow, contemplative life, love, human nature, relationships, peace, self-sacrifice, prophecy, enlightenment, general and special revelation, mythology, paganism, glorification

2) Catholic dogma

I am a Protestant. Being well aware of the many spiritual dangers and pitfalls to which Protestants are susceptible, I recognize Catholicism as a fully legitimate branch of Christianity, albeit one subject to different dangers and pitfalls than those arising from my own background.  I want to explore the insights that I as a Protestant might glean from their theology, especially in areas of Catholic dogma that I don't easily relate to.

Related topics: canonization, communion of the saints, glorification, papal infallibility, authority, tradition, prophecy, Mary (mother of Christ), Church life, fellowship, transubstantiation, sacraments

3) Spiritual gifts

Quite a few years ago my church suffered a split over the very issue of spiritual gifts, and the emphasis that ought to be placed on them. As many of you are no doubt aware, contentious and difficult issues seem to have a particularly strong pull on me.  I was apathetic at the time, but now I have an approach to the issue, and also have a few experiences that may be worth sharing.

Related topics: prayer, leadership, teaching, healing, discernment, prophecy, evangelism, apologetics, tongues, miracles, Holy Spirit,

4) Spiritual warfare

I am profoundly uncomfortable with the subject of spiritual warfare, and I think that is just how it ought to be. I think that we ought to educate ourselves, but keep our focus on the worthy things ("Whatever is noble, whatever is pure...")  I've had some past experiences that may be worth sharing.

Related topics: Holy Spirit, angels, demons, prayer, love, courage, Armor of God

5) Doctrine of freedom

Galatians is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and also one of the more challenging. The doctrine of freedom it presents is one of the more compelling and intriguing aspects of Christian theology.

Related topics: Holy Spirit, discernment, prayer, Church life, virtues, purification, glorification

6) Predestination

I grew up firmly entrenched in a mentality of "free will."  However, I know many devoted Christians who believe in predestination or election, and many other devout Christians who have no idea what to think. I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon thinkers and thoughts who provide answers to crucial aspects of this issue, and am quite comfortable with my answer for the rest.

Related issues: free will, sovereignty of God, divine foreknowledge, divine election, Presence of God, divine creation, love, goodness, evil, heaven, hell

7) Other topics

I view this blog as a ministry, an outreach to those who try to follow Christ's command to love the Lord thy God with all your mind. If you struggle with a particularly thorny, knotty, or in some way challenging question of theology, let me know and I might be able to open up a conversational thread.

God bless you all!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #3

Are you sure?

I've previous stated that the sensation of psychological certainty is generally unwarranted. This is based on the problem of epistemic certainty -- the limited ability of humans to directly discern any kind of objective truth. This seriously hampers our efforts at ascertaining ontological certainty.

There have been a number of historical attempts at responding to the problem of epistemic certainty. One of the more famous methods was developed by the philosopher Rene Descartes.

Descartes began by asking, in what way is human knowledge limited? He noted that human knowledge is uncertain to the extent that our material senses are finite. Our senses are imperfect and may often mislead. If we could transcend our senses, might we transcend our uncertainty in the same moment?

Descartes posited a method by which objective truths might be ascertained. Conceding for argument’s sake the most extreme of systematic doubts, he closed his eyes and imagined himself in a vacuum, an infinite void, cut off from all physical sensation. In the realm of pure mind, what could be discerned?

Descartes stumbled across a profound fact while his mind scanned the vacuum for truth: namely, he was aware that he was searching.

In the absence of any sensation, in a world of pure thought, Descartes realized that he could think about his own thinking. He could observe his own thought processes. This discovery, and the realization that any observation requires an object to be observed, led him to his first and most famous dictum:

Cogito, ergo sum. "I think, therefore I am."

Absent any sensory experience, Descartes could conclude with absolute certainty that he existed and that he was capable of rational thought.

The problem of epistemic certainty might lead us to believe that nothing can be truly known. Descartes postulated at least one fact that can be known, and used this as his foundation for further inquiry.

Do you think Descartes’ argument in this regard is valid? Does this method enable us to circumvent universal and systematic doubt?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reflection on Certainty: #2

Are you sure?

Argumentation relies on shared premises to move to novel conclusions. Knowledge is regressive, such that any conclusion relies on the premises that precede it. The question remains, how far back does knowledge regress?

Let’s begin with the concept of ontological certainty, the statement that absolute Truth exists and that there is an objective reality to things, the only difficulty being in ascertaining it.

The problem is twofold.

The thesis of ontological certainty is tautological. In order to state the absolute truth of this ontologically objective realm, you must first assume that such a reality exists and that your truth statement is an expression or reflection of it.

It should be noted that tautological statements are not intrinsically false.  The true statement “all dogs are mammals” is tautological, since “dog” is taxonomically defined as a subset of “mammal” and therefore the sentence reads “a subset of A is A.” The problem is that tautological statements are generally devoid of actual content; they rely on the definitions of words, rather than on the reality of things that those words describe.

Second, the thesis of ontological certainty is in a sense almost self-defeating. Assuming an objective reality exists, there remains great difficulty in perceiving it. Indeed, knowledge of absolute truth is so far from our grasp, that our primary reason for asserting the existence of objective truth is not that we might comprehend it, but that we might be inspired to keep seeking it.

By this view, ontological certainty may be considered an almost utilitarian concept: it keeps us focused on the knowledge being pursued and not on the challenges of the pursuit. If there were no princess in the castle, would the knight ever brave the dragon to save her? Belief in objective reality drives us beyond the epistemic cynicism that might otherwise confound us.

Thus seems the contradiction: the thesis of ontological certainty grounds truth in the reality of things, yet is itself asserted as true because of the utility of believing in it.

Neither of these counterpoints prove objective truth to be objectively false. Indeed, as a Christian and more broadly as an Idealist, a belief in an absolute True, Good, and Beautiful is at the core of my philosophy. But I do not wish to take that belief lightly, and therefore look towards the real philosophical challenges that might hinder us on our way.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Book Review: "The Imitation of Christ"

The blurb on the back of my copy advertises The Imitation of Christ as "second only to the Bible as the source of religious instruction and inspiration." Whatever the historical merits of that claim, I can hardly contest it for myself.  Alongside C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," this book was directly responsible for my spiritual rejuvenation in the summer of 2007, and has continued to inspire me ever since.

Originally published anonymously in 1418, De Imitatione Christi was written by Thomas à Kempis, subprior at the Augustinian monastery at Windesheim, in the Kingdom of Holland. It originally served as a manual for novices and junior "canons" under his charge, but it disseminated widely and became a classic in Christian devotional literature. Saint Ignatius of Loyola added it to the official index of "exercises" for the Jesuit order. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, cited it as a primary influence at his conversion.  John Newton, the slave trader-turned-abolitionist who wrote "Amazing Grace," was reading the Bible and The Imitation of Christ when he committed his life to Christ.  This is powerful stuff.

The Imitation was written in four books, translated in my edition as "Thoughts Helpful to the Life of the Soul," "The Interior Life," "Internal Consolation" and "Invitation to Holy Communion." The first book has been the most helpful for me.  In organization it reads like Proverbs -- every sentence or verse being relatively self-standing, though organized as a coherent whole. In tone and content it reads like Ecclesiastes on steroids.

This is a Saturnine work.  Written for monks and ascetics, its primary exhortation is to remember the relative worthlessness of things of this earth, and concentrate fully on the goodness of God. It urges us to pursue a serene life of contemplation, untroubled by the vanities of fame, riches, wisdom, or even human companionship.

In this sense, The Imitation of Christ is both beautiful and dangerous. In encouraging the contemplative life, this work pushes us further and deeper into God's Presence, but it also pushes us into the mystery and ineffability that we find there.  We ought not lose our bearings, or forget the other virtues that we are called to balance against this. James 4:9 bids us to "Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom." Yet we are also to rejoice in the Lord, and remember His triumph.  We ought to love God and not be troubled by things of this life; yet we are also love others and sacrifice ourselves for them.

The Imitation of Christ is an immensely valuable resource to those seeking to deepen their spiritual life. It is not Holy Writ, so each statement ought to be weighed carefully for its merit, but it still comes awfully close. The Imitation of Christ may have been written for Late Medieval Catholic monks, but it's still remarkably applicable to the spiritual walk of modern Protestants and Christians of all denominations.

This was cross-posted at Worthy of Note.