Monday, October 27, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 1

(Bacon and Descartes)
Alice C. Linsley


"I think, therefore I am." --Rene Descartes

"The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits 
to grow sharper." -- Eden Phillpotts

"In truth, truth inhabits fiction as the master of the house." --Jacques Derrida

"The world is governed more by appearances than realities,
so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it." --Daniel Webster

"Hell is truth seen too late." --Thomas Hobbes


Epistemology explores questions related to knowledge. It is concerned with how knowledge can be acquired and how to substantiate truth claims. Is it possible to know the true nature of something? What can be known? What are the limits of human understanding?  How can I verify that this claim is true? Does our knowledge represent reality as it really is? Does innate knowledge exist? Is is possible to know to understand natural phenomena solely on the basis of observation and the senses?

From the dawn of human existence, the need to know about things in nature has contributed to human survival.  It moved early humans to explore and discover new places.  It motivated them to sample berries, nuts and grains. Through trial and error they came to know which fruits were good and which would make them sick. Archaic human populations gained knowledge by interacting with their environments, by observation of patterns in nature,and by reasoning.

Plato would say that the earliest humans had some innate knowledge of Truth, assuming that they had souls. Ritual burial, symbolic markings, primitive counting devices, and stone works such as the 70,000 year old carving of a python in the side of a mountain in Botswana, indicate that archaic human populations were essentially "religious" and concerned about knowing what is beyond their day-to-day lives.

Some ideas we have about reality may have been found to be inadequate. If we are thoughtful people, we will re-evaluate these ideas. Throughout history, philosophers have shown that many ideas are not true, or at only partially true, and therefore not reliable. We are wise to exercise a certain amount of doubt, especially when it comes to following people who have shown themselves to be careless and/or pig-headed.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) showed that the senses can be fooled and that appearances can be deceptive. Yet more than any other thinker of his time, he urged that the senses be used in a methodical way to discover the nature of heat, light, wind, motion, the tides and the stars and even the human being. He believed the future belonged to "Those who aspire not to guess and divine," wrote Bacon, "but to discover and to know... who propose to examine and dissect the nature of this very world itself, to go to facts themselves for everything."
Bacon
Bacon is regarded as the father of modern empiricism. His method of investigating natural phenomena involved inductive reasoning, in contrast to deductive reasoning, which had dominated science since Aristotle.  Bacon introduced an inductive method of testing and refining hypotheses by observing, measuring, and experimenting. An Aristotelian might deduce that water is necessary for life since it is evident that organisms cannot survive without water. A Baconian would test the hypothesis by experimenting. The results of those experiments would lead to more informed conclusions about the necessity of water for organic life.

After centuries of knowledge shaped by Roman Catholic beliefs, Bacon issued a summons to feast on knowledge acquired by the senses, through experimentation and logical principles. He organized his first book the Advancement of Learning in two parts. The first was called Experientian Literata. In this section he proceeds from one experiment to another. The second part, the Interpretation of Nature, moves from experiments to general principles or axioms, and then on to new experiments. Bacon loved to innovate!

In The Advancement of Learning and in New Organon, Bacon sets forth the idea of technological and scientific progress.  He is the first to articulate the popular notion that human advancements are progressive, rather than cyclical, static or in linear decline. He held a Utopian view of the gradual acquisition of knowledge, and he advocated this progressivism with the ardor of an evangelist.

Just as Bacon is considered the first modern empiricist, so René Descartes (1596-1650) is regarded as the father of modern philosophy. He sought to set aside his previously held views in order to begin from a point of logical certainty. He believed that most of what he "knew" was not reliable. He wrote, "All that up to the present time I have accepted as true and certain I have learned either from the senses or through the senses; but it is sometimes proved to me that these senses are deceptive, and it is wiser not to trust entirely anything by which we have once been deceived." (Meditations on First Philosophy) Here Descartes sets out a principle that guided his epistemology: If there is any reason for doubt, then the entire category should be treated as doubtful and unreliable. His method was simple: don't accept anything as true if there is the slightest possibility that it is not true. This is known as the Method of Cartesian Doubt. Modern philosophy begins with doubt.

In attempting to toss out what he had believed and later doubted, in order to construct a system of belief based on certainly, Descartes began with this: "I think, therefore I am" or "I am thinking, therefore I exist." (Cogito ergo sum.)  His awareness of his own self constituted the point of certainty from which he intended to consider and verify knowledge.

Descartes is often considered the founder of modern philosophy with its bent toward empiricism. He conceived of all the branches of science as a whole and sought a methodology that worked toward a unified science. He wrote that “philosophy is like a tree: the roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches that issue from the trunk are all the other sciences . . ." The metaphor is strange in the context of what he attempts. Descartes attempts to show that what is not mental or mind-like is extension, that is, it takes up space. However it is not possible to speak of philosophy as taking up space as a tree does. Here we recognize an inconsistency in Descartes’ thought.

Descartes
Descartes viewed mind and body as distinct entities or substances. He concluded that the basic features of material objects are geometrical. They have size, shape, volume, etc. The mind can not be measured in the same way. It is characterized by thinking, reasoning and imagination. For Descartes the essential property of the mind is that it thinks and the essential property of the body is that it is “extended.” Extension is the property of taking up space. In this view, action or movement is explained by the impact of one extended object upon another. How then can mental events, that are by his definition without extension, have an impact on objects that take up space?

Descartes has been criticized for separating mind and matter into two distinct substances and failing to explain how they may be said to be related and/or interactive. This Cartesian dualism gave rise to the concept of other minds and in particular the Mind of God, which Descartes believed to be the Principle which unites the realms of Mind and Matter. Later George Berkeley (1685-1753) would take this to a logical extreme with his immaterialism and the idea that all things are an extension of the Mind of the Creator.

Cartesian doubt influenced many thinkers of the modern era. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is one of them. He began is operations with three theses that he came to appreciate in the conversations of many modern philosophers. They are: (1) philosophy begins with doubt; (2) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted; and (3) modern philosophy begins with doubt.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)


When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But precisely because he has the lantern lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason, he cannot see the stars. For his light obscures the stars, which the poor peasant, driving without light, can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good day they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable - but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars. --Soren Kierkegaard


Alice C. Linsley

Kierkegaard was a brilliant philosopher who was critical of 18th century Romanticism’s emphasis on naturalism. He was also critical of Empiricism’s claim that moral judgment must be based on reason and verifiable data. Kierkegaard believed that the basis for forming moral judgment is always subjective and that the purpose of Philosophy should be to enhance the individual’s quality of life and freedom.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared an overarching realization that anything decided to be meaningful or important must come from within the individual. It is the human race itself that attributes meaning. They both regarded the objective truth of the Enlightenment as a concept that ultimately leads to frustration, despair and anxiety. In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, each philosopher sets out to discover the importance of subjective human emotion, and the role of human freedom in the universe.

In his personal life Kierkegaard suffered from depression. Before age 21, he lost his mother and five of his family members. He never married because he regarded marriage as “the deepest form of revelation” and he doubted that he could so thoroughly self-reveal as to fulfill his ideal of marriage. Evidently his struggle with depression didn’t hinder him from expressing his ideas, as he was an extraordinarily prolific writer, contributing in the areas of philosophy, theology, psychology and social criticism.

Kierkegaard refers to biblical Abraham as a “knight of faith” and sees him as the embodiment of his existentialist philosophy. For Kierkegaard, true individuality comes through surrendering one’s individuality. Abraham discovers his meaning in the cosmos through losing himself in God, but when one tries to explain this to another person, the explanation seems absurd.

Kierkegaard wrote, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, if underlying everything there were only a wild, fermenting power that writhing in dark passions produced everything, be it significant or insignificant, if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?” In this statement, Kierkegaard expresses “existential anxiety” or “angst.” Existential angst is not the same as normal fear. It is not caused by outside events that signal danger, it never leaves, it touches every area of our lives, and it does not respond to counseling.

Although Kierkegaard never used the term "existentialism" in his writings, he is regarded as the founder of Christian existentialism. Kierkegaard believed that the value of a philosopher's ideas should be judged by the person's life. (He would have judged Nietzsche's ideas as lacking moral and intellectual value, which Nietzsche would have applauded!) According to Kierkegaard, the individual’s life is the basis upon which he is judged by God. A writer's work is an important part of his existence, but his life as a whole is what ultimately matters to God.

This is why he was attracted to the lives of the saints, especially John Climacus, a 6th century monk who spent much of his time in solitude, prayer and fasting.

While at the monastery on Mount Sinai, Abbot John wrote “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” a work arranged into thirty chapters or “steps.” Each step details the vices that the individual must conquer and the virtues that the individual must perfect in order to ascend the spiritual “ladder” to the Kingdom of Heaven. Here are some of John Climacus’ famous sayings:

Step 1: A Christian is one who imitated Christ in thought, word and deed. A lover of God is one who lives in communion with all that is natural and sinless.

Step 5: Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent inflicts his own punishment upon himself.

Step 9: If you forgive quickly, you, too, will be quickly forgiven.

Step 15: Purity is putting on the nature of angels. It is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart.

Step 17: He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below. He who has not, only finds joy in possessions.

Step 25: Humility is a divine shelter which prevents us from seeing our achievements.

Step 50: There remain three virtues that bind and secure the union of all: Faith, Hope and Love--- and the greatest of these is Love.

Kierkegaard published Philosophical Fragments under the name of John Climacus. In this work, Kierkegaard poses three important questions:

• What is the relationship between history (temporal existence) and human consciousness (eternal existence)?

• Is there any purpose or meaning to events in our temporal existence other than historical interest?

• Is it possible to base eternal happiness upon historical knowledge?

Kierkegaard’s solution was to find a link between the historical/temporal and the eternal/nontemporal. He does so by explaining knowledge as miraculous or supernatural. He agrees with the Socratic-Platonic view that there is no learning, since one can’t learn what one already knows. Drawing of John Climacus’ understanding of spiritual enlightenment, Kierkegaard argues that learning involves a mysterious change that takes place in the learner at a specific moment of his existence - a moment of enlightenment. In this moment, the learner is absolutely certain that he/she has grasped eternal knowledge. He maintains that this is miraculous and supernatural because it only can be initiated by God through a series of historical/temporal events. This learning (or enlightenment) is highly individual and subjective, and it is unique for every learner.

Kierkegaard argues further that individuals are unable to know anything that is certain except through this supernatural intervention in history. In this sense, Kierkegaard is a Skeptic. He doubts that humans are able of our own faculties to learn or know anything.

So what makes this learning or enlightenment possible? Kierkegaard recognizes that human existence involves suffering, anguish, pain, sickness and death. That being our plight, we naturally desire an escape. This desire is very powerful. It is a yearning for the eternal that leads us to “leap into absurdity.”

What is the absurdity? For Kierkegaard, it is the supernatural intervention of the divine Person Jesus Christ entering history, making it possible for us to know that God exists. The existence of God can’t be proved by reason, by experimentation, by logic or through observation. Only by faith in this divine intervention can one hope to escape the suffering of this life and move from ignorance to enlightenment. This is Kierkegaard's “supernaturalism” and it is clearly the opposite of the naturalism of Nietzsche and the Romantics.

Whereas Nietzsche rejected the prevailing morality in favor of his “immoralism,” Kierkegaard presents social norms as the universal measure of service to the community. Even human sacrifice is justified in terms of how it serves the community, so when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia he is performing a tragic sacrifice in order that the Greek expedition to Troy may succeed. Were Abraham’s intention in sacrificing Isaac to gain worldly success, he would simply be another tragic hero like Agamemnon. But as Kierkegaard understands the story of Mount Moriah, it is Abraham’s absolute surrender to God that makes possible his receiving back his offering and much more. Kierkegaard explains, “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith …for only in infinite resignation do I become conscious of my external validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”

Kierkegaard recognizes an existential duty to a creator God as more authoritative than human social norms. Ultimately God's definition of the distinction between good and evil outranks any human definition. He holds up biblical Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, not as an example of obedience to social norms, but as the consequence of a "teleological suspension of the ethical.”

That is, Abraham recognizes a duty to obey something higher than both his social duty not to kill an innocent and his fatherly commitment to his son. (Fear and Trembling)

From Kierkegaard's perspective, the distinction between good and evil is dependent not on social norms but on God. Therefore it is possible for Abraham to live and act beyond the prescribed norms of his day to fulfill a spiritual destiny that he alone can fulfill. This renders ethical cases such as Abraham's problematic, since we have no public policy to guide our decision about whether Abraham is obeying God's command or is a deluded would-be murderer.

In the end, Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy can’t be used to formulate specific ethical guidelines for society. It is simply too personal and too subjective. While existentialism would become a popular philosophy in the 20th century, ethics in the post-modern world would be influenced more by analytic and linguistic philosophy, and especially the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Related reading:  Modern Trends in Ethical Thought



Monday, September 22, 2014

St. Cyril's Philosophical Theology


Dr. David Bradshaw

Dr. David Bradshaw, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky, has written an interesting paper on The Philosophical Theology of St. Cyril's Against Julian. It is available to read here.

In this paper Dr. Bradshaw teases out Cyril's understanding of God acting in "separate, discretely considered acts" in history and whether this suggests that "God acts differently at different times and how it is possible given divine eternity and immutability."  There is also the question of whether deliberation and change in proposed course of action suggest deficiency in God's perfect knowledge.

Related reading:  David Bradshaw on St. Augustine and Divine Illumination; St. John Chrysostom on Grace and Free Will; St. John Chrysostom on Lamech; St. John Chrysostom on Lamech's Speech






Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Nakedness of Emperors


Father John Hunwicke

Fr John Hunwicke points a finger at skeptical Biblical scholars. He also talks about the kind of scholarship that is truly Anglican. This presentation by Fr. Hunwicke will confirm suspicions concerning Biblical "scholars" whose the prejudices support their industry insiders who push a strange "Christianity" in the contemporary world.

This comes from the website of GloriaTV.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The School of Athens

Rafael's The School of Athens hangs in the Pope's private library in the Vatican.

In this famous painting, Aristotle points down, and Plato points up. Here we have the great philosophical tension between the natural and the supernatural. This creative tension has largely been lost in modern philosophy, especially in the West. Jacques Derrida believed that the overthrow of Plato in the West has brought the philosophical project to a dead end, and he urged a recovery of Plato and the tension between Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle seeks answers to questions by studying the natural world. He wrote:

"Metaphysics involves intuitive knowledge of unprovable starting-points (concepts and truth) and demonstrative knowledge of what follows from them."

"The first philosophy (Metaphysics) is universal and is exclusively concerned with primary substance. ... And here we will have the science to study that which is just as that which is, both in its essence and in the properties which, just as a thing that is, it has."

Plato seeks answers to questions by pondering the innate knowledge of the eternal soul. Plato seeks answers by considering the things above or beyond the natural world, as did Thales of Miletus. Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to the gods.  His interest in astronomy was such that he reportedly fell into a ditch while contemplating the stars. Plato wrote of how he was similarly mocked by a servant. Just like Thales … while star gazing and looking up he fell in a well, and some gracefully witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a jest at his expense—that in his eagerness to know the things in heaven he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy. (Plato,Theaetetus 174a, Seth Benardete translation)

In reality, both philosophers were interested in the natural and the spiritual aspects of reality and to portray them more accurately, each should be pointing up and down.


Related reading: Plato's Debt to Ancient Egypt; Getting Acquainted with AristotleEthics of Ancient Greece


Monday, September 8, 2014

Wolfhart Pannenberg RIP



Dr. William Witt, an Anglican scholar, has this to say about Dr. Panneberg's work:

Pannenberg was the first “serious” theologian I read in detail. (Later I discovered Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Torrance and Hans urs von Balthasar and numerous others, but it all started with Pannenberg.) By focusing on the resurrection of Jesus as the starting point of theology, he challenged both Bultmannian de-mythologization and Barthian Word theology at a time in which eschatology was either ignored or left to the fundamentalists. He also made a strong argument in favor of engaging contemporary culture head on rather than retreating to an intellectual ghetto, insisting that, above all, Christian theology is rational. Sorry to think that his work here is done, but, perhaps more than any modern theologian, he would have agreed with St. Paul that “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Michael Root, professor of theology at the Catholic University of America, has written:

Wolfhart Pannenberg has produced an impressive range of work that is learned, intelligent, and faithful. His ambiguous relation to his time is itself instructive. It should make us think about what theology is, what it is called to do, and how theology and church inevitably reflect one another.

Pannenberg is now well into his eighties and we can expect that his theological work is complete. From the beginning of his career, he has employed his formidable intelligence and scholarship in the service of careful thought and writing about the God present in Christ and the Spirit. Lives and talents so spent are blessings.

Read Professor Root's full essay on "The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg" at First Things.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Immortal horrors or everlasting splendours


"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."-- C.S. Lewis