Belief and uncertainty

I wrote in my philosophy blog about whether we are able to choose what we believe. The answer for most Christians will probably be, “of course”, but many secular philosophy students don’t understand how it could be. Aren’t we predetermined to believe what seems true to us? And don’t things seem true to us or not based on what we’ve been exposed to about them? We don’t really have the choice to see something that we don’t see, or vice versa.

My answer there was that we set the bar for how much evidence we will require before we believe something by our own choice. We decide how much proof is enough.

We also decide what kinds of things count as proof for us.

I think we do this constantly in our Christian lives, and we make mistakes in both directions. Sometimes we are too skeptical. Sometimes we are too naïve. Always, though, we have a tendency to be too arrogant. We are convinced, down deep, that we and we alone are seeing the world as it really is. All the other people around us don’t understand. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12.

The biggest thing for us to come to terms with is that we simply don’t know much of anything for sure. We are at the mercy of our senses, of our experiences, of our culture. We are almost certainly wrong about a great many things we take for granted. This should make us all the more hungry for the God who is truth.

It is fashionable in our Christian world to suggest that our era’s most dangerous intellectual error is the rejection of absolute truth. I disagree. I believe in absolute truth: God is omniscient, and so whatever he knows to be true is absolutely true. However, in practical terms, we are not so blessed. We are almost certainly swimming in half-truths (including this one). It’s not that dangerous to give up the pretense of knowing things for sure.

In fact, in my strong opinion, it is when we get comfortable with the idea that it is part of the human condition to be slightly uncertain about almost everything that the claims of Christianity become really attractive.

Christianity is not merely a series of true doctrinal propositions. Christianity is a relationship with a Person who is Truth. The Bible is not merely factually accurate. It speaks to us with power. We encounter the Logos through the written Word. Absolute truth exists, but it is a Him.

We all make assumptions

I wrote in my philosophy blog about why philosophy never seems to make much progress. Well, sort of. I describe a paper by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in which he says that philosophy is almost never able to settle arguments definitively. The idea is that every proof depends on the assumptions you start with, and people can always reject the assumptions if they don’t like where things are going. Furthermore, the most important assumptions in philosophy are things that seem intuitively self-evident to some people and not even true to others.

This leads to, and is part and parcel with, a view of knowledge which says we don’t start from a neutral point of view. To think well at all, we need a rich set of beliefs about the world and ourselves and truth and so on. No one makes progress by throwing out all his assumptions to start with. (Perhaps there is no assumption we cannot examine, but we cannot reexamine them all at the same time.)

In other words, life is not like mathematics. In math, we pick a few axioms – maybe just 10 or so – and then prove all sorts of things based on those axioms. All the rest of our mathematical knowledge unfolds from those axioms. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter which axioms we pick, as long as we get interesting results.

Life is different. First of all, we can’t possibly reduce all the assumptions we need for thinking about real things to just a handful of axioms. Second of all, we can’t just pick the simplest or most interesting axioms, we have to try and pick the true ones. And that is the hard question – which axioms are really the true ones?

I think Christians should have this view of knowledge. It would affect how we defended and used Scripture. Instead of thinking of Scripture as a collection of facts and principles that we reason from – like a collection of several hundred axioms we use in doing our theological proofs – we would think of Scripture as a collection of (true) stories and statements and examples that are intended to push back against our network of pre-made assumptions. I don’t let Scripture teach me by clearing my mind and starting from scratch with no assumptions at all. I let Scripture push back on my ideas about life. I let it make me uncomfortable. I keep having to modify how I think to make it fit what I see in Scripture. Over time the Bible begins to mold the way I think to make it more Christ-like.

One cool thing about this is that we don’t have to make people agree with us first and then show them the Scriptures. We can carry the Scriptures right over to them in the middle of their muddled intellectual worlds and then let the Word begin to do its work.

Quality of life and suffering

In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”

One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.

Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?

I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God.  Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.

Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.

(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)

Book review: Suspicion & Faith

Suspicion & Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism, by Merold Westphal

Westphal is a philosophy professor and a Christian.

The book is about the three modern philosophers Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. (OK, Freud isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he wrote philosophically relevant stuff, so I’m calling him one for now.) These three have become known as the “masters of suspicion” for the common approach they took in attacking Christianity.

As Westphal explains in this book, most of the atheists we’ve been exposed to practice skepticism rather than suspicion. That is, they try to debunk Christian claims by showing that they are false. The three discussed in this book took a different tack. They exposed the unworthy motives that they insisted lay behind Christian claims. Freud argued that religious beliefs are subconsciously generated by our secret desires and the guilt we feel about them; Marx said they arise as the inevitable result of class conflicts, and represent the justification of the rich and the pacification of the poor; Nietzsche saw them as the disguised resentment of the weak and cowardly against those who are willing to act powerfully, joyfully, and courageously. All three agree that Christians are not aware of their false motives, but they have them nonetheless.

There are ways to defend ourselves against such criticisms, but that isn’t Westphal’s point here. He wants to ask whether we can learn from the critiques. Should we take the charges seriously? Should we search our hearts in humility and repent of the things we’ve been charged with?

I really like that approach, and I want to take several paragraphs to discuss my view of it.

First, I think there is a place for doing apologetics, for defending ourselves against attacks by opponents of the faith, but I think there is also a place for asking whether we are guilty as charged. In my opinion, most attacks on Christian motives are exaggerated, but there is nearly always a seed of truth in them, and we need to consider how we should respond to that truth. We know that because of the example of David and Shimei (2 Samuel 16:5-12) and because of what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:1-5.

Furthermore, this approach is very much in line with my own gifts and personality. I thrive spiritually when I listen carefully to critics of Christianity. Once I understand clearly why they feel as they do, it deepens my own walk with God. (I have a corresponding weakness, in that it is difficult for me to shoot down false teaching when it needs to be refuted. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, but I am not sure what to say about it at this point.)

Anyway, there are a few different ways to respond to someone who is as hostile to one’s faith as the masters of suspicion. One, of course, is to reject everything they say as nonsense. I think that’s a bad approach.

Another is to capitulate too quickly; to just accept whatever charge they make as true and try to fix things. That way of dealing with their attacks isn’t much better. Freud and Marx and Nietzsche are so thoroughgoing in their rejection of everything remotely Christian, and their objections are so emotionally charged, that it isn’t spiritually healthy to accept their assumptions uncritically.

So a third way is to hold onto one’s Christian beliefs and then use the complaints of our critics to alert us to little things here and there that we can do a better job of. This is easy enough to figure out on a surface level. Marx says that Christianity is a justification of the rich and an opiate for the poor, so we think, “How can I be sure I am not ignoring the plight of the poor?” Nietzsche talks about disguised resentment, so we double-check our attitudes to be sure we have forgiven people. That’s not a very good response either, though; it’s too superficial.

The fourth, best way of responding to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche is to go deeper. We can’t just think about how they view Christians, and then try to make ourselves look better than that. To be content with that would be to miss their point. They claim that our wrong motives are a) embedded into our very identities at a deep level and b) almost completely unconscious. We can’t see the problem by simple self-reflection.

What we have to do instead is wrestle with some deep theology about original sin and the nature of self-deception in Scripture. We have to find the precise connections between that and the suspicions these three raise. We have to track down the ways in which the views of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche are themselves corrupted by original sin. Finally, we have to look for ways to apply the insight this gives us to our lives, but we have to find, not just any application we can think of, but those which go to the heart of the matter.

Doing all this takes more than intellectual analysis: it takes humility, wisdom, balance, and especially time. It may take months or even years mulling over the basic charges being made, and doing so in inward conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Back to the book: that’s what I felt was missing when I read it. Westphal is completely right that there is value in working through how we need to repent in light of the masters of suspicion, but he didn’t help me see how to do so in any depth. I felt as though he used approach three. He just grabbed some obvious superficial applications and wrote some mild exhortations and platitudes about them.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he’s carefully thought all of this through, and what seemed glib was deep. Maybe he just presented it simply for the sake of his audience. If so, I needed less simplicity. I needed to see the depth.

So much for my disagreement with the book. There were also several things Westphal did well. That he wrote the book at all is great, because his general point is one that needs to be made. His explanations of all three philosophers were clear, thorough, and easy to understand. He is doctrinally sound and reasonable throughout.

Would I recommend the book? Probably not to most people, but I wouldn’t be worried about recommending it either.

Would I reread it? Probably I won’t, but if I wanted to take a closer look at his summaries of each philosopher, it’d be worth doing.

Even though I was hoping for more, I didn’t dislike the book. It didn’t raise any alarms in my mind. It didn’t make me mad. It was a mildly enjoyable read. On a scale of 1 to 10 I would put this around 4.

God and fictional worlds

The hopelessness of fictional atheism

Sometimes TV show writers have a habit of torturing their shows’ characters for dramatic effect. Especially at the end of a season, there is a tendency to have something horrible happen to keep the audience interested. I don’t mind it when the cliffhanger is action-adventurey and leaves the protagonists in great danger. When it leaves the protagonists in emotional misery, though, it can really bother me.

Why does a fictional character’s distress cause me distress? I think it’s because a good story is supposed to be telling the truth about life. Even if the character and plot details are made up, they are made up in such a way as to say something about how things really are. To open myself up to a story is to let myself believe in its deeper truth. When writers invent tragedy just to play on my emotions, it angers me, but it also causes a lot of turmoil for me.

One of my children suggests I just invent a new ending, if I don’t like the old one. The reason I have trouble with that is that is seems somehow dishonest. When a writer invents a world, he gets to make the rules for it. To re-make the events of the story is just to pretend something about the characters that isn’t real within that story. It wouldn’t be appropriate to imagine away real-life tragedies; neither is it okay to imagine away fictional ones.

In real life, when I am faced with suffering, I cling to God for comfort. I rest in His unswerving love and sovereign control of everything that was going on. Even when it is people around me who are suffering, and they don’t believe in God, I can still take solace myself in the fact of God’s essential goodness.

In stories, though, it has often seemed wrong to do that, if there is no God in the story. If the writers have described a world without God, it seems as though in order to take the story seriously I should read it with that in mind. Atheist fictional worlds, properly interpreted, are worlds without God. The characters in it are in that sense without hope.

Or so it seemed to me up until recently.

The last time I got really upset about the random tormenting of a favorite character, I went for a walk to mull things over. As I was asking God for insight into my distress and how I should respond, an odd thought from philosophy passed through my head.

God exists in all possible worlds

Time for a quick detour.

First, there are these things that philosophers call possible worlds. In the twentieth century, philosophers struggled to pin down the precise meaning of statements like “X might have happened” or “If Y had happened, then Z would have happened.” They invented a discipline called modal logic, the logic of possibility and necessity.

As part of defining modal logic, they appealed to the concept of a possible world. A possible world is any way in which the world could have been, logically speaking. Possible worlds include those that are very much like ours, differing only in a detail or so, as well as those whose in which the universe operates according to completely different laws.

If something is possible, it means that it is true in some possible world. If something is necessary, it means it is true in every possible world.

Second, there is this strange proof for God’s existence known as the ontological proof. At first glance, it seems to try and prove that God exists from the definition of God, which seems pretty goofy. Even most theists reject the validity of the ontological proof.

In recent decades, however, a new version of the ontological proof based on modal logic has arisen which is a little harder to refute and perhaps more plausible. I won’t go into the details here, but it hinges on the idea that God exists necessarily. That is, God is the kind of being for whom it is impossible not to exist. Which means that God exists in all possible worlds.

So there you have it. God exists in all possible worlds. That means, he exists in any possible fictional world. So God is there after all!

Is this for real?

Well, sort of.

First, I am not sure the ontological proof works. It doesn’t matter, though. I don’t need to start from the mere definition of a necessarily existing God and get to a God who really exists. Rather, I start from the assumption that God already exists, and exists necessarily, and then work out the implications of that.

Second, possible worlds don’t actually exist. They aren’t worlds in the sense of being locations in space-time. A possible world is merely a set of logically consistent statements describing how things could be. Take any statement about how things are: “The sky is blue” or “The sky is green” for example. Add as many other statements as you like. Work out all the logical implications of all the statements, and you get a possible world, but calling it a world doesn’t mean we should think of it as being in any particular place. “World” is being used metaphorically.

Since possible worlds don’t exist anywhere specific, saying that God exists in a possible world doesn’t have anything to do with Him being anywhere in particular. Rather, it means one of the implications of any set of logically consistent statements is that God exists.

Fictional worlds are the same as possible worlds in this respect, though. When we say that a story takes place in a fictional world, we don’t mean that it happens at any particular place in space-time. (Even when the story is set in a certain time and place, as in a historical novel, we only mean that the story’s setting matches the real time and place; we don’t mean that the events in the story actually happened in history.)

In fact, the fictional world of a story, to the degree that it is logically consistent, is a possible world. What does it mean that God exists in it? It means that the implications of the rules of the world include the existence of God. Every story carried to its logical conclusion would end up stating that God exists. Worlds in which atheism is explicitly stated are worlds which are, strictly speaking, logically contradictory, whether or not the author recognizes it.

In other words, I am free to imagine God being a part of every story, without worrying that I am not taking the author seriously.

With that settled, I can return with a clear conscience to picturing things in terms of worlds. Every story describes a world. Within that world, God is there, even if no one else in the story thinks so.

That’s kind of cool. I love the thought that God is so omnipresent that he even shows up in fiction!

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. — Psalm 139:7-10

Book review: Freud and Philosophy by Paul Ricouer

(‘m working on finishing up the 30 or so books I’m in the middle of and posting quick reviews of them here as I do.)

Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation, by Paul Ricouer

What a fascinating book! Paul Ricouer is perhaps my favorite philosopher. He’s a phenomenologist, which is perhaps my favorite branch of philosophy. He’s a Continental philosopher who works at being clear and precise, which is a combination I love, and he’s a Christian trying to understand how the way we interpret the world affects everything.

There are two camps in philosophy, Analytic Philosophy, and Continental Philosophy. Analytic philosophers are very precise. They define their terms precisely, put their arguments into precise form, and prove whatever they can prove. Then other philosophers pick on the argument in some minor detail and re-define terms their own way and put together another precise argument proving something slightly different from the first proof. It all feels very mathematical, and it tends to attract people whose mission in life is to clarify things. Like mathematics, though, it has the drawback that sometimes it isn’t really about what people actually wanted to know. What people actually wanted to know was too vague to express. Most philosophers in the US are analytic philosophers.

Continental philosophers are fond of pointing out all the stuff that we can’t quite put into words. They know that no one starts out their philosophizing as a blank slate, from a neutral position. They love to track down all the things that we just take for granted as we think because we couldn’t even think at all otherwise. They love to focus on the way in which we are shaped by our culture and our bodies and our human situation. They are fond of noticing how the words we use are limited and limiting, and they love finding ways to talk about things that can’t be precisely articulated. This leads many of them to write almost poetically or use wordplay. It also means, unfortunately, that some of them tend to makes things obscure almost for the sake of doing so.

Ricouer has a great interest in hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) which means in this context that he is interested in discovering how the way we interpret everything affects what we think about and express.

I believe Ricouer is the one who formed the phrase “masters of suspicion” to talk about three important philosophic figures in the 1800s, namely, Freud, Marx, and Nietsche. Each practices a “hermeneutic of suspicion”, meaning that they assume that when people make arguments for, say, the existence of God, they are doing so from hidden motives (hidden even to themselves). Therefore, rather than take their statements seriously, the proper response is to show what they really meant, or would have meant, had they known what their words were repressing.

Ricouer analyzes Freud’s hermeneutic of suspicion in the book, and tries to find a way to bring it fruitfully into tension with an opposite hermeneutic, one of faith. When a hermeneutic of suspicion is applied to almost any statement, it starts by viewing it as a mass of self-deception. It attempts to strip away all the falsehood and reduce it to the bare elements from which it sprang. The hermeneutic of suspicion eliminates as much extraneous meaning as it can. It narrows the meaning pretty radically.

Ricouer wants to combine this with a contrary approach, a hermeneutic which instead of stripping away false meaning attempts to find possibilities for as much true meaning as possible. Instead of finding out all the things a statement does not actually say, it attempts to make the statement blossom with meaning. Its aim is to use the text to “open” additional possibilities for us.

To reconcile these two opposite tendencies, Ricouer proposes to use the idea of symbols. A symbol means one thing in a way that really also means another thing. Thus symbols have a dual meaning, and point in two directions at once. Freud sees symbols everywhere – in dreams, in art, in apparently innocent everyday statements, and considers that they all point back to the instincts of the id. Ricouer wants to suggest that at the same time they point forward to the future, toward ideas bigger than ourselves, toward certain ideals and aspirations, toward faith and toward God.

Except that I’m oversimplifying. And except that I may have missed most of what Ricouer said. Seriously, trying to understand this book was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in a long time. I loved it, and want to read more, but it assumed a philosophical background I don’t have and used terminology according to conventions with which I’m unfamilier. It even used several words I didn’t know at all (“ascesis” and “maieutic” for example)

What fun, anyway!

So…

Would I recommend it? Not to very many people because it would just baffle them :-). Not only is it complicated, but it reaches me because so much of it is personally relevant to my own philosophy of life and faith. I don’t think that would be true for most people.

Would I reread it? Definitely. I need to read this again, because I didn’t understand all that much the first time, and it seems worth understanding. It also makes me want to read other things by Ricouer, because all his books seem connected. I think reading others will help me understand this one.

How would I rate it? High. Maybe 9 out of 10, which is good because I am not sure I ever give 10s to anything.

 

The Meno Paradox

The “Meno Paradox” is the argument that it does no good to seek for knowledge about something, because a) if we know what it is we don’t need to look, and b) if we don’t know what it is we won’t know how to recognize it when we’ve found it.

I wrote something about it for my philosophy students. If you are interested in logic and the philosophy of knowledge, feel free to check it out here.

 

A new blog

When I started this blog, I had two audiences in mind. One of them was my philosophy students.

I’d like to be able to point them to my blog in the classes I teach, but this blog is so explicitly Christian that I’m a little uncertain about doing that, so I created a separate blog for them.

It’s called musingoutloud-philosophy.com.

If the posts there seem relevant to this blog, I may cross-post them here or link to them from here. In the meantime, if you are really interested (*I* think they will be interesting :-)), be sure to check that blog out from time to time. There are a couple of posts there already.

Jacques Ellul

I’m currently reading Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, and finding it really fascinating. It’s a study of the way that the city in Scripture stands for the pride of man as he attempts to live without God (like a smaller version of “the world”). Babylon, especially, tends to signify this, all the way from the Tower of Babel (Gen 11) to the fall of Babylon near the end of Revelation.

In the most recent chapter, Ellul was talking about how we are called to live in the city as Christians and seek its welfare without adopting its values or worldview (like being “in the world but not of the world”). I’ve been feeling more and more in recent years that God is calling me to do the best I can in my secular job - teaching at a community college – and have been sorting out how to do this without getting tangled up in world-centeredness. Ellul’s ideas have made it a lot easier for me to think clearly about that question.

Ellul has also been emphasizing the judgment God has already pronounced upon the city (and the world), and that Christians wait for that judgment. That’s something else that resonates with me because in the last few years I’ve become aware how much the expectation that Jesus was coming back to earth one day was an important part of the gospel for the first-century Christians. In our day, we’ve replaced it by the hope of going to heaven, which means we’ve made the gospel something relevant only to individuals. We don’t see Jesus as the Lord and eventual Redeemer of society as well.

Ellul closed the chapter I just finished reading by emphasizing that even though we are waiting for judgment to fall, we should also be praying for mercy and revival, praying that it won’t fall yet. That’s an important corrective for some of the things I’ve been struggling with as I sort out our political duties as Christians.

Finally, Ellul’s approach to interpreting Scripture is one I find really valuable, although I was keenly aware as I was reading that most Christians would say it was bad interpretation. That’s got me reconsidering and expanding my views of what it means to interpret Scripture. I think we have sometimes been too narrow in our understanding of what the right kind interpretation must look like.

Schopenhauer and I are kindred spirits (apparently)

I just started reading a book with selections from Schopenhauer. To my mild surprise, I *love* what I’ve read so far. Half the time it’s made me think “Hey! That’s just what *I* believe too!”, and the other half I’ve thought “Oh! Great idea! I should have thought of that!”

In particular, his view of the relationship between direct intuitive perception and reasoning about concepts is close to mine.

My belief is that there is a world out there that we experience at a pre-verbal level. Then when we *think* about this experience, we frame it conceptually. That means, essentially, that we form abstract concepts to represent what we experienced. Those concepts are a model of our direct knowledge, but are no longer direct, and there is always a small gap between the concepts we have and the truth we are trying to capture using them. That gap can be exploited to create liar’s paradoxes and other strange things.

Schopenhauer adds that by means of concepts we can make our knowledge last beyond the experience. We can reason about what we’ve seen without having to *see* it right now. We just manipulate the concepts logically and follow where they lead. But we do well to remember that we aren’t dealing with the direct perception anymore, and so there is always the possibility of error being introduced — even if our conclusions are based on valid deductions, they may not map directly to what we *meant* by the concepts.

For example, suppose I want to understand justice. I may start by defining it, but I will test the definition’s plausibility by “trying it out” — by thinking of examples in which I just *know* what justice is, and checking to see if the conceptual definition I am using matches that knowledge. Then I work out the consequences of my concept of justice, abstractly, without worrying much about intuition. Finally, I check the consequences against what I intuitively know about justice again. At this point, I may say, “No, that’s wrong somehow. That must not really be what I meant by justice”, or I may say, “Wow, that seems right, but I never noticed that before. Now that I notice it, I can see (intuitively) that it is true.”

Is this exactly how things work? Of course not. (It couldn’t be. My description is itself an abstract conceptualization of how things work, and so if it is true there must be a gap between what I’ve said here and how things *really* are.)

But I think it’s pretty close.