Friday, September 30, 2011

From the Archives: Norman Malcolm's Ontological Argument

Because I wasn't able to get to a discussion of it in my philosophy of religion class this week, I'm posting on this blog the main portion of an earlier post outlining and discussing the version of the ontological argument that Norman Malcolm develops in his essay "Anselm's Ontological Arguments."

What Malcolm discovered as he reread Anselm's Proslogion was this: what everyone seemed to take to be just a rewording of the argument Anselm is most famous for is actually a different argument. The first argument holds that existence is, in effect, a great-making property, and that therefore the greatest conceivable being must exist. Malcolm agrees that this argument is unsound, accepting Kant's contention that "existence is not a real predicate." But the second Anselmian argument, rather than focusing on existence, focuses on existing necessarily rather than contingently. Anselm argues, in effect, that it is greater to exist of necessity than to exist contingently. Hence, it is part of the very concept of a greatest conceivable being that this being exist necessarily.

What Malcolm notes is that the property of existing necessarily rather than contingently does meet the test of being a "real" predicate in Kant's sense. That is, it adds to our concept of the thing, describing what it is like rather than merely stating that the thing as described has an instance in the world.

For this very reason, of course, it remains an open question whether there actually exists an entity which possesses its existence in this unique way--necessarily rather than contingently. So we haven't defined God into existence by noting that the very idea of God presupposes necessary existence. We can still reasonably ask, "Does there actually exist a greatest-conceivable being?" If the answer is yes, then that being does not exist merely contingently but necessarily. But Malcolm goes further than this. He argues (and here he is following in the footsteps not only of Anselm but of Leibniz) that the only reason why a greatest-conceivable being wouldn't exist would be because the concept named something whose existence was impossible.

In other words, a crucial feature of Malcolm's development of Anselm's argument is his insight that, as conceived, either "God" names an impossible being or a necessary being that actually exists. Put another way, if God is possible, God is actual.

This is a very interesting result in its own right, but Malcolm goes on to argue (in a manner reminiscent of at least some of Gödel's efforts to construct an ontological argument) that God's existence must be deemed possible.

Another feature of Malcolm's argument is that he sets aside Anselm's language of greatness (perhaps worried about this term being understood in subjectivist ways). Instead of defining God as the "greatest" conceivable being, he defines God as "an absolutely unlimited being." Now certain kinds of properties, he thinks, imply limitation (for example, having a shape--since a shape is defined by its outer boundaries). On this definition, then, God would not have a shape. More generally, physical existence in time and space seems to require boundaries or limits, and so God wouldn't have such spatio-temporal properties. God would be "eternal" and "transcendent." But the possession of power (capacity to do something) does not similarly imply limitation. Nor does the possession of knowledge. If this is right, then these are things an unlimited being would possess without limit.

What Malcolm argues, following Anselm, is that necessary rather than contingent existence is also something that would have to characterize an unlimited being. Here is an outline of his argument for that conclusion:

1. “God” means an absolutely unlimited being

2. Any being whose existence depended on something else, or which could be prevented from existing by something else, would be limited by something else and so would not be an unlimited being.

3. For every proposed being, B, its existence is either possible (but not necessary), necessary, or impossible

4. To say of B that its existence is possible but not necessary is to say that it exists in some possible world (call it PW1), but not in another (PW2)

5. If B existed in PW1 but not in PW2, then either (a) there is something that exists in PW2 that prevents B from existing, or (b) there is something missing from PW2 that B requires in order to exist.

6. Hence, if B’s existence is possible but not necessary, then (a) or (b) is true.

7. If (a) or (b) is true, then B is not an unlimited being.

8. Hence, if B is possible but not necessary, then B is not an unlimited being

9. Hence, if God is possible but not necessary, then God is not an unlimited being

10. Hence, it is not the case that God is possible but not necessary

11. Hence, God is either impossible or exists necessarily

At this point Malcolm takes up the question of whether God, conceived as an unlimited being, is possible. To make his argument here, he invokes two ideas: first, that an entity's existence is impossible only if it is characterized by contradictory properties (e.g., a round square); second, that such contradictions arise only when one property-attribution negates what is affirmed by another property attribution. But to negate what is posited elsewhere, a property attribution must embody, at least implicitly, a limitation. Roundness negates squareness because it imposes boundaries or limits on the space occupied by the object precisely where squareness does not, and vice versa. These concepts, in other words, are partly "negative" concepts--they don't merely ascribe some property to an object, but deny something of it. But an absolutely unlimited being would be such that no real "positive" attribute could be denied of it (we could only deny "negative" properties of it--that is, properties which ascribe absence or limit). As such, Malcolm concludes that an unlimited being cannot embody a contradiction, since that would require the possession of both a positive property and a negative property that denies the former. But an unlimited being would only possess positive properties. This part of his argument can be outlined as follows:
12. In order for the existence of some proposed being B to be impossible, the concept of B must imply, with respect to at least one positive property P, each of the contradictory claims “B has property P” and “B lacks property P.”

13. To lack a positive property is to be limited.

14. If 13, then the conception of an unlimited being cannot include or imply anything of the form “B lacks property P.”

15. Hence, God is not impossible.

16. Hence, God exists necessarily.

Critics of this argument are often skeptical of the idea that the positive and negative property distinction is a meaningful one. If it's not, then we might be forced to say that the failure to possess certain properties is a limitation, whereas their possession would contradict the possession of the opposing property (which one could not deny possession of without imposing limitation). But while it might be difficult to offer definitions of "positive property" and "negative property," there does seem to be an intuitive distinction here. Some property attributions assert that an object lacks something ("ignorant" or "impotent" or "empty"), while others that it has something ("knowledgable" or "capable" or "full"). Others are mixed, in that they assert than an object has this but lacks that ("round" or "green"). Nevertheless, especially when we get to the idea of mixed properties we wade into thorny territory. To use what is perhaps a silly example: Is heat the presence of something and cold the lack of it, such that we must say of God that God is infinitely hot? Or does being the sort of thing that's subject to heat and cold imply a limitation, such that anything of any heat is limited, and an unlimited being would therefore have to be something to which the categories of hot and cold simply do not apply?

Other questions arise, of course, when we consider moral properties. Can there be such a thing as unlimited goodness? And if so, what does that look like? To adhere with traditional theology, we'd need to hold that evil is a lack (something Augustine affirmed), such that any presence of evil implies limitation. If we think of evil as something positive, we get a God who must embody unlimited evil (as well as unlimited good--and hence must embody a contradiction). As such, Malcolm's argument leads us directly into a consideration of the nature of good and evil.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

For the Bible Tells Me So

This evening I will be leading a discussion of the documentary film, For the Bible Tells Me So, on the OSU campus. In case you're local and want to attend, the event--hosted by OSU's Sexual Orientation Diversity Association (SODA)--begins at 5:30 PM in rm 112 of the Classroom Building. Discussion will follow a screening of the film.

The film offers a powerful look into the lives and struggles of several families with strong Christian roots and a family member who is gay or lesbian. I know one of the profiled families pretty well: the Reitans. The parents, Phil and Randi, are the godparents to my son--which kind of makes their son, Jake, my son's godbrother? Dunno. In any event, Phil is my first cousin.

But even apart from this personal connection, I would be a strong advocate for this film. I don't think anyone can honestly and sincerely reflect on the traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality without considering its human impact, at least not if one is motivated by an ethic of love--which is, after all, the sort of ethic that Christians profess to endorse. To love our neighbors requires, first of all, paying attention to them. And this includes paying attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors and their families. It requires paying attention to how our choices, our actions and our attitudes, our teaching and preaching, affect them.

The makers of this documentary did just that. They paid attention. And in so doing, they have afforded a way for others to pay attention, too. Not that a documentary film is a substitute for actually sitting down with real live human beings, finding out about them and their lives, listening with compassionate attention. But it can be a starting place.

And even those of us who have close gay and lesbian friends may not always be comfortable initiating those hard, intimate conversations, the conversations which expose truths about the human condition that may challenge or even convict us. Sometimes it can be helpful for a filmmaker to ask those hard questions on our behalf, and record the answers for us to see. Sometimes that is what it takes to stimulate real, face-to-face conversations among human beings. Sometimes, that is what it takes to motivate someone to seek out people they otherwise avoid, people they are afraid of because they are entangled in misinformation and prejudice.

And so, even if my cousins weren't one of the featured families in the film, I'd encourage you to see it. It's a moving film (not long ago, for what it's worth, Katy Perry tweeted that the film had moved her to tears). But it's more than that. It's a window into human lives, an invitation to empathy and compassion. And it's a challenge to all those who sit easily in righteous "Christian" judgment on their gay and lesbian neighbors. Christ's warnings against Pharisaic self-congratulation and judgment are bound up, intimately, with his prioritization of love. His aim was to break down those things which prevent us from being channels through which love flows in the world.

Many such impediments have been in place, for a long time now, in the Christian community's relationship to those whose sexuality doesn't fit with the conventional pattern. As I've said before, the Bible becomes such an impediment to love when people plug up their ears with Bible verses so that they cannot hear the anguished cries of their gay and lesbian neighbors. If nothing else, "For the Bible Tells Me So" is an invitation to unplug our ears.

And in case that's not enough to spark your interest, here's the trailer:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Of Heaven and Triathlons

I was thinking about heaven over the weekend. More precisely, I was thinking about how Christians should envision heaven.

Let me try to explain what I mean. It is easy enough, I think, to offer a Christian portrait of heaven. In classical theological terms, “heaven” names the state of eternal loving union with God and the blessed. To be in heaven is to experience and be transformed by the “beatific vision,” that is, the immediate experience of God. And that experience is thought to have two primary effects: perfect bliss and moral sanctification. Since Christianity defines moral goodness in terms of love, the “sanctification” element means that heaven involves being perfected in love by virtue of an unfiltered experience of God’s love.

Those in heaven become, in effect, channels through which divine love radiates outward to everyone and everything else. And so, to be in heaven is not merely to experience perfect joy; it is to experience that joy on account of belonging to “the beloved community” (as Martin Luther King, Jr., called it). In part it is the joy of being loved in such a community, but more deeply it is the joy that comes from loving as purely as it is possible to love.

This, I think, is a pretty good theological description of the Christian notion of heaven. But what I was thinking about this weekend wasn’t about how to describe heaven in abstract theological terms. A description doesn’t always evoke a sense of what it would be like to experience that which is being described. Unlike recipe-book descriptions of dishes, which prompt us to almost taste the explosion of flavors and textures, theological descriptions of heaven don’t typically produce a similar experiential echo.

But, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute, I think the concept of heaven needs to be more than just a theological abstraction. Events over the weekend inspired me to think about how such abstractions should be fleshed out—and then, coincidentally, a posted link from a facebook friend yesterday morning directed me to a rather interesting short essay on Randal Rauser’s blog, one that dovetailed remarkably with my own thoughts.

Apparently, there is this phobia called “ouranophobia”: the fear of heaven.

Randal Rauser opines that this fear is rooted in a conception of heaven as one endless church service. We hear theological descriptions of heaven like the one offered above—a community of the faithful united with God—and Christians quite naturally think about church, where people come together in a deliberate attempt to form a community defined and shaped by God’s presence.

It happens, I think, almost out of a sense of duty. We’re supposed to associate our church experience with nearness to God. And so we’re supposed to think of heaven in terms of that model. But the result speaks for itself: heaven becomes an endless church service.

And this is clearly the wrong way to think about it. In Rauser’s words:

…we are better off thinking of all the greatest moments of beauty and goodness as more appropriate icons for our heavenly destiny. You don’t look at an icon so much as through it to the transcendent reality beyond. And so it is for the world. All that is most wonderful and glorious about earth now is but an icon, a pale image like a shadow flickering on the back of Plato’s famous cave, which draws us to look at the unimaginable glory that awaits.
I remember the first time that my thoughts took me in something like this direction. I was in my late teens, and I was in Norway for the Christmas holidays (for the first time in many years). I went with my relatives to a “Sølvguttene” concert in the National Cathedral (Sølvguttene are the Norwegian version of the Vienna Choir Boys). I remember sitting in this beautiful building, surrounded by loved ones, listening to Sølvguttene sing, in Norwegian, the lovely German Christmas carol, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”

I was swept up in that moment, in the wash of sounds and the presence of family and the prospect of having a big Norwegian Christmas Eve with my extended family, complete with all the family traditions…and I found myself thinking, “I wish heaven were like this.”

Not “I hope heaven is like this.” Not “Perhaps heaven will be something like this.” My thought was a counterfactual one: I was sitting there thinking that this moment was so much better than heaven was going to be.

And then I stopped and asked myself, “Why am I thinking that? What, exactly, is my image of heaven anyway? Puffy white clouds and people with wings and harps?”

I wasn’t quite sure, but one thing became immediately apparent: I believed in life after death, in heaven (and, at the time, in eternal hell), but my image of heaven was linked to one feeling above all others: tedium.

Heaven was about being bored.

And as I sat there listening to the beautiful music, I thought to myself: “Then I’ve got the wrong idea of heaven.” But the problem wasn’t with my theory of heaven. While I probably couldn’t have provided precisely the theological account sketched out above, I believed something in that ballpark.

I say “believed,” but it was mainly a matter of rote endorsement. I didn’t believe it in the way that I believe in the promptings of my senses, an automatic and irresistible affirmation hardwired into me and rich with content. I knew that my grandmother, sitting near me in the cathedral, believed in God and heaven in something like that way. She couldn’t help it. She believed as automatically as breathing, and it was a belief full of color and substance.

My belief wasn’t like that. But it wasn’t a matter of hope, either. If heaven was something to be dreaded (not for its horrors, as one might dread the idea of hell, but for its tiresome monotony), then how could my belief be a matter of hope? It didn’t spring from the yearnings of my soul, from my longing for the good. After all, what filled my image of heaven wasn’t the good at all.

Or maybe the problem lay further down. Maybe it’s better to say that what filled my image of the good wasn’t the good. I had the kind of deficient view of the good that leads people to insist that evil people are more interesting than good ones. Goodness, for me, was uninteresting—as if being interesting weren’t a good thing. And so, armed with my deficient view of the good, God and heaven became utterly banal.

“But that’s upside down,” I thought to myself. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my head, I was recalling the phrase “the banality of evil.” And I knew that here, in this moment, there was rich vibrancy that was not the least bit boring. At the same time, of course, I was aware of others sitting around me who were, indeed, bored to tears.

You always see them at classical concerts. They have no sense of the music, of the transcendence of that moment when dissonance resolves. There are enough times in my life when I have been one of them, bored in the presence of exquisite music. What makes the difference is the extent to which I am in the music, living in it and through it, invested wholly and completely in the moment-to-moment depth and flow. It’s a matter of attention and love.

And as I sat there in that concert, something shifted in me. What changed was my vision of heaven. That word, “heaven,” started to be fleshed out with new content, new resonances. It ceased being about some alien future on the other side of death, something I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from. As is true of music, disconnection means disinterest, and so tedium. To put heaven wholly on the other side of death is to strip it of the very things that make it meaningful—or, perhaps better, of the kind of substance that fits with its meaning.

Our concept of heaven needs to be filled up with things that seize us and hold us, the moments that are deepest in their savor, the things that inspire, not ordinary desire, but yearning, that soul-hunger for the good.

Let me explain this distinction a bit. Desire is a kind of unpleasantness that we feel on the wrong side of getting what we want. We don’t notice the unpleasantness if the desire is readily satisfied. And the process of satisfying desire is pleasant enough, often intensely so. But desire smacks of pure subjectivity: the object of desire is good because we desire it, whatever it happens to be.

When I speak of yearning, I have in mind something different. Yearning fills us when we have intimations of something we didn’t know to desire. The yearning is a foretaste of something greater than we could hope for or imagine, a good whose worth is utterly independent of our desires. And yearning is not pain, but an exquisite and at times terrifying movement in the direction of something that has brushed against us, something whose touch we never expected and can barely comprehend.

When we desire, we feel a lack that needs to be filled, and we know exactly what will fill it (if only for a time). When we yearn in the way I have in mind, we feel as if some lack we never knew about is being filled, as if we are closer to complete than we have ever been. And as we lean urgently in the direction of what is filling us, we sense a great not yet. We aren’t ready yet, not for the totality of what is there. What promises to complete will only swamp us if it comes in all its fullness now.

But there is no disappointment, no frustration of the sort that accompanies thwarted desires. Instead, we feel more alive, more real, more whole. To yearn in this way is to stand on a threshold.

It is moments of such yearning that, in the years since I sat in that cathedral, have been filling in for me the conceptual space of “heaven.” But I never really thought about it that way, not explicitly, until this weekend.

On Saturday, my wife participated in Oklahoma City’s Redman triathlon, competing in the half-Iron (70.3 mile) distance. She and I went down to the city the night before so she could pick up her race materials and put her bike in the transition area, and we stayed in a hotel down there so that she could sleep a little later (until 4 AM instead of 3). Unfortunately, the folks in the hotel room next to us decided to host a party there. Requests for quiet and phone calls to the front desk finally succeeded, but not until closer to 1 AM. The remaining hours of sleep were, at best, fitful. When the alarms went off, I joked that she was really doing a quadrathlon: go a night without sleep, then swim 1.2 miles, bike 56, and run 13.1.

We drove to the race venue in the darkness. Once we were parked it was a brisk 15 minute hike to the starting area, much of it in a darkness so deep it was hard to see the sidewalk in front of us. When we reached the venue, it was alive with activity. Athletes were hurrying around in the artificial light, taking care of last minute preparations, transition-area setup, and, of course, potty stops. As the sun began to rise over Lake Hefner, I helped my wife into her wetsuit and shared her nervous anticipation. It was the longest endurance event she’d ever done, and she’d been training hard for months. Her body was ready. She was ready.

Finally it was time. I wished her luck as she pulled on her swim cap and headed into the starting chute. I snapped pictures as the full-Iron-distance athletes trotted down to the water for their mass start. Then came the half-Iron athletes in waves. After I watched my wife’s wave scramble into the water and begin swimming, I turned and headed back towards the car. I had a two hour drive ahead of me: one hour up to Stillwater to get the kids and my mother-in-law, then another hour back to the race venue.

I walked along the path that had been shrouded in darkness two hours before. Now the sky was a brilliant blue and I saw the white heron fishing by the lighthouse, and the sunflowers, while behind me I felt the weight of dreams, of human struggle and aspiration, and ahead of me my children, who would likely clamor about me as I came into the house, demanding hugs. And I paused and breathed deeply. I had to choke back tears.

There it is, I thought. Not some rote belief but a real presence pressing in on me, filling the moment with almost more than I could hold.

For awhile I just stood there, yearning, leaning against the threshold of joy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Love, Freedom, Universalism...and Abortion.

In his blog post today, Richard Beck has offered a beautifully accessible and compelling case for universalism in the form of a critique of Rob Bell's "conditionalism" (the idea that God's offer of salvation is unlimited, but whether all are saved depends on the free response of creatures). Really worth checking out if you are interested in the topic.

Beck's essay is so nicely done that I'm inclined to let it speak largely for itself. But since his essay bizarrely dovetails with the class discussion I had today about Judith Jarvis Thomson's essay, "A Defense of Abortion," I can't help but say a few words about that connection.

Thomson makes a distinction in that essay between the question of what you ought to do and the question of what you have a right to do. There are some things we ought not to do--it would, in Thomson's words, be "indecent" of us to do them. But we might still have a right to do them.

Thomson's distinction here led to a class discussion about what it could mean to have a right to do something that, morally, you ought not to do--especially if it's not merely a legal right we're talking about, but some more basic right that is invoked to justify the legal right. In what sense can I affirm your right to do what it would be horribly indecent of you to do? I can't mean that your choice is a matter of moral indifference, so that either choice is morally "alright." So what, then, could I mean?

The basic idea seems to be that, in some sense, the choice should be yours. The choice should be left up to you. But what, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean I've violated your right if I try to talk you out of it? If I point out that it would be an indecent thing to do? If I seek to persuade you not to do something so terrible?

(I'm not implying here that the choice to abort is necessarily indecent here, although it might be. Thomson certainly doesn't think abortion is always indecent. But she thinks there are choices which are indecent which we nevertheless retain the right to make. So let's have in mind a different choice: Suppose your sister is dying and urgently needs a bone marrow transplant. You are the only one who can provide it. But to save her life means being out of comission during the championship baseball game that you finally have a chance to play in. The choice, we might say, should be yours. But many, I think, would regard the decision to play the game and let your sister die--assuming this was a certain outcome--as the wrong choice to make. Seriously wrong.)

In our class discussion, we generally agreed that there was a difference between persuasion and coercion, and that the right to make a choice is more clearly a right to be free from the latter than from the former. Of course, there may be efforts at persuasion that are pursued in deeply intrusive ways--I may, in effect, force you to put up with my persuasive diatribes, shoving my opinion down your throat so relentlessly that the persuasion becomes coercion. The message becomes, in effect, "Unless you choose as I want you to choose, I will hound you relentlessly."

And, clearly, one can be coerced into being subjected to persuasive efforts one would rather not hear. In short, there are legitimate question about how to draw the line between persuasion and coercion, or about when persuasion is as problematic as coercion. The line here is not neatly drawn. But still, there is a difference.

We also talked about species of coercion. If I make it clear that I don't want to associate with you any more if you make that indecent choice, is that coercive? Presumably it has a different status than putting a gun to your head or telling you that I will inflict financial ruin on you if you choose to let your sister die. But still, might it not qualify as coercive?

On the one hand, it seems I have certain rights about who I will and will not associate with. And it may be only fair to let you know how I will exercise those rights if you choose in ways I find detestable. We might think you have a claim on making a fully-informed choice, aware of the consequences for such things as friendships. If I just can't spend time with a person who would choose to play in a baseball championship rather than save their sister's life...well, shouldn't I have the right to tell you that, even if I acknowledge that the choice between playing the game and saving your sister is yours to make?

Then again, telling you something like that may be manipulative or even coercive, a way of intruding illegitimately into your choices. One might imagine that a great deal depends on context. In any event, there may be a difference between threatening a cost if you make the "wrong" choice, and letting you know what I will do if you make that choice, where what I will do is something you won't like. Not every case of the latter is necessarily a case of the former.

These were the sorts of things we talked about in class today. And what is the lesson that my class drew from this discussion? Well, there were more questions than answers, I think. But I would guess that the following constitutes one small point of consensus: To say that the choice should be yours is not to say that others--others who care about you and your choices--must abandon you to your choices, so as to ensure that you operate in a social and personal space completely free from others' thoughts, feelings, and convictions.

And here is where my class discussion about what it means to have the right to choose merges with Beck's line of thought.  There is, obviously, room for discussion about the concept of freedom at work in Beck's argument, his idea that what you care about has a more basic status than what you choose. But even if you lean towards a more strongly libertarian view of freedom than Beck seems to have, there is something to be said for Beck's conviction that the kind of God affirmed in Christian theology would never merely abandon us to our choices--especially not when those choices are rooted in confusion and ignorance and deeply misguided priorities.

It is possible to let a person make choices without abandoning them to their choices. It is possible to be involved, and involved in a loving way, even though there are difficult boundary issues, even though the line between persuasion and coercion--or between stating intentions and making threats--is sometimes hard to draw. Consider again the case involving the choice between a playing a championship game and saving your sister's life with a bone marrow transplant, but now imagine that a loving parent is on the scene. Would staying out of your choice be the most loving thing? Could she still respect your freedom while urgently pleading with you to make the life-saving choice?

And what about a choice more akin to what is at stake in salvation--a more choice without a time limit and more clearly about one's own fate, one in which the resources to turn away from a destructive path remains available. Imagine an addict and a loving parent who cares deeply about the addicted child, who has resources that can help break the addiction. Is the parent violating the demands of respect for freedom by staging an intervention?

There are difficult boundary issues here, lines between respectful persuasion and coercion, between manipulation and loving confrontation. But a God of love who knew the heart of every creature would, it seems, be uniquely situated to maneuver those complex boundaries, to preserve the balance between loving involvement and letting people choose.

Love does not walk away, even if it does not coerce.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


On what should we base our beliefs? "Reason and evidence," some are inclined to reply. Sure. Fine. But what is reasonable, and what counts as evidence?

Biblical fundamentalists think that something being asserted somewhere in the Bible is a piece of evidence that the asserted proposition is true. Why do they treat such a thing as evidence? Because, we might say, they believe a certain story about the Bible and its origins, a story which, if true, implies that biblical assertions have enormous evidentiary weight. But why think this story about the Bible is true?

Most everybody thinks that sensory experiences can serve as evidence for the truth of claims about a world external to the mind, claims prompted by our sense experience. Why?  Maybe there's a story here, too, a story about our senses and their relation to the world that would have to be very different from the story told in the first part of the movie "the Matrix." But why believe that story? Or maybe there isn't a story here at all. Maybe we just believe the deliverances of our senses, period. There is no reason. We just can't help it.

Leibniz thought that the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), much like the principle of non-contradiction, was a self-evident principle (self-evident to our intellect) which could reliably guide our reasoning. As such, he thought he could reason from some pretty uncontroversial propositions to the conclusion that a necessary being must exist. We might say that, based on his understanding of "reason," the existence of contingent things is evidence for the existence of a necessary thing. Why does Leibniz accept PSR? Why does Hume reject it?

In each of these cases we are led to think about foundations. Our reasoning has to have starting points from which we reason--things that are either immediately taken as having evidential value, or are taken to have evidential value on the basis of some broader system of beliefs--perhaps organized into a narrative framework. And our reasoning doesn't merely need evidential starting points. We also need to have standards of reasoning--principles which guide our inferences, leading us to take some body of evidence to be evidence for a conclusion.

In short, to base our beliefs on reason and evidence, we need rational and evidential starting points. Foundationalist epistemologies treat our starting points as that upon which our whole network of beliefs is ultimately built.  Following the metaphor of building construction, we need a solid foundation or the whole edifice becomes unsound.

In my last post, I suggested that Hegel could be viewed as a foundationalist, but of a special kind--namely, a fallibilistic foundationalist. In this post, I want to distinguish some different species of foundationalism, locate Hegel's dialectic within this taxonomy, and offer a case for the advantages of Hegel's approach.

I'll begin with a broad distinction between what I’ll call absolute foundationalism and fallibilistic foundationalism. Absolute foundationalism treats one’s foundations as beyond challenge, and might be further divided into two sub-species: what I’ll call Cartesian-style foundationalism, and what I’ll call dogmatic foundationalism. Cartesian-style foundationalism seeks to discover which foundations are, in fact, beyond dispute—through something like the methodological doubt pursued by Descartes in his Meditations—and then rely only on such foundations. Dogmatic foundationalism, by contrast, treats its starting points as beyond dispute but makes no attempt to offer a philosophical case for doing so.

In fact, dogmatic foundationalism might be viewed as arising out of the perceived failure of Cartesian-style foundationalism, based on a pair of prima facie compelling critiques. The first critique runs basically as follows. To rely on nothing other than those starting points which are indubitable is to rely on starting points that can’t get you anywhere. If you insist on believing only what can be grounded on such starting points, you are driven to a kind of solipsism: the only thing you can trust is the existence of your own thoughts, and you are unwarranted in believing that any of those thoughts correspond to any reality outside your own mind. This is a kind of extreme skeptical outcome that is intolerable—it makes living a human life impossible—and can only be overcome by allowing in foundations that don’t have the Cartesian stamp of indubitability.

The second critique should be familiar to followers of this blog: No attempt to prove that one’s foundations are beyond dispute can be successful, because no such attempt can be ungrounded. How, then, can the attempt itself avoid relying on foundational starting points? And these will be either the very ones one is attempting to establish, or different foundations which, therefore, have not themselves been proven to be beyond dispute.

In effect, dogmatic foundationists draw three lessons from these critiques of Cartesian-style foundationalism: (a) everyone has foundations, (b) everyone has more foundations than the class of indubitable ones (assuming this class has members at all), and (c) no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones, since all such efforts are either circular (and hence dogmatic) or appeal to deeper, unconsidered foundations that are held to dogmatically.

This third lesson is what leads them straight to dogmatic foundationalism: we have no choice but to be dogmatic foundationalists, but we do have a choice about which dogma to embrace. On this view, the only difference between the empiricist and the biblical fundamentalist is which foundations are being held to dogmatically—"who" one has chosen to treat as one’s ultimate epistemic authority.

The problem with this argument, of course, is that it is a false dilemma. There are more options than the two versions of absolute foundationalism (Cartesian-style and dogmatic). There is fallibilistic foundationalism.

The fallibilistic foundationalist accepts (a) and (b), but isn’t prepared to embrace an unqualified form of (c). Instead of insisting that “no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones,” the fallibilistic foundationalist wants to say instead that “no set of foundations can be justified or shown to be the right ones prior to their adoption.” But once one has adopted a set of foundations, a critical stance becomes possible with respect to specific foundational beliefs.

Hegel's dialectic can be seen as falling into this class. I will concede that there are those who would resist using the term "foundationalism" to describe Hegel's method, but this is a linguistic quibble in which I'm not much invested. I recall that once, at a party in graduate school, I announced that Hegel "has a coherence theory of knowledge but a correspondence theory of truth." In so doing I classed him as a coherentist rather than as a foundationalist. But these are terms of art in the discipline--and there is something about Hegel's epistemology that strikes me as warranting the foundationalist label (as I noted in my last post).

In describing Hegel's approach as it relates specifically to philosophy, Michael Allen Fox notes in his surprisingly accessible book on Hegel (called, interestingly enough, The Accessible Hegel) that Hegel was largely indifferent to one's starting point in the philosophical journey. Wherever we start, "our philosophical journey will inevitably be a prolonged process of self-examination in which thought interrogates itself and remedies its deficiencies as it progresses." The end result of this process will be what "'justifies' the starting point we have chosen by proving its fruitfulness in yielding knowledge."

We have to start somewhere--to think at all requires us to have rational and evidential starting points that characterize what that thinking will look like. But as we engage in whatever style of thinking these starting points entail, we will inevitably encounter and transcend deficiencies. Whatever we think about, we will eventually be forced inward to thought itself, and called upon by its failures to revise our starting points.

In fact, Hegel thought this was true not just of philosophy. The same dialectical process plays out not just in the history of philosophy, but in human history. The efforts of human societies to engage with the world drive humanity towards "self-interrogation" in which deficiencies are discovered and remedied.

As a way of clarifying and defending this Hegelian approach, I want to consider a version of fallibilistic foundationalism out of which Hegel's species might be thought to arise. I’m inclined to give it a big mouthful of a name: defeasible-but-trustworthy doxastic practice foundationalism. After all, it’s important for academics to come up with pretentious-sounding names, or they wouldn’t be academics. But to save space, I’ll call it DTDP foundationalism for short.

To understand this species of foundationalism, we need to know what a “doxastic practice” is. The term is one I get from William Alston, and it basically refers to any belief-forming practice one might engage in. Here are some examples: 
Assign a set of contrary beliefs to heads and tails on a coin, flip the coin, and believe in accord with the outcome of the coin flip.

Use your senses to investigate your environment, and believe whatever propositions you find yourself immediately inclined to believe based on such sensory investigation.

In attempting to form beliefs about what happened to you in your past, consult your memory.

In forming beliefs about regularities in nature, make predictions about what one ought to observe under given conditions if the supposed regularity holds, then create or put oneself into the given conditions and determine if one observes what was predicted. Keep doing this. If the supposed regularity remains unfalsified after extensive testing, accept it as true.

In forming beliefs about what happened in Europe in the 19th Century, consult your old “History of Western Europe” textbook.

In forming beliefs about what happens after bodily death, consult the Upanishads and the Vedas and believe whatever is clearly stated on this matter in these texts.
 DTDP foundationalism attaches credibility to some but not all of the range of possible doxastic practices, in effect treating as foundational any belief that comes from this select list of “trustworthy” practices. But a belief coming from a “generally trusted” practice is not immune to criticism. Rather, any such belief, call it B, is believed unless and until it is confronted with “defeaters,” that is, other beliefs that arise out of trusted doxastic practices and which call B into question.

There are different sorts of defeaters, but I won’t get into that now. What this rough characterization makes clear is that this species of foundationalism acknowledges the fallibility of our foundations, and builds a kind of checks-and-balances system into our belief-forming practices. The checks and balances cannot be implemented apart from embracing the presumptive trustworthiness of a set of doxastic practices, but insofar as the trustworthiness of their deliverances is only presumptive rather than absolute, it allows for specific foundational beliefs produced by the agreed set of doxastic practices to be rejected based on the total deliverances of the entire set.

But how do we arrive at which doxastic practices to trust in the first place? Here, there seem to be a range of alternatives. You could take an essentially social approach: identify those doxastic practices that enjoy both wide social use (they are widely relied on in the formation of beliefs) and a high degree of intersubjective corroboration (they typically lead most people to the same beliefs when used in the same circumstances).

Then there’s the introspective approach. You look to the “phenomenological features” of the doxastic practice and its deliverances—that is, those qualities or characteristics available to introspection. Perhaps the beliefs formed by the practice consistently just seem right to you, so much so that you essentially “cannot help but believe them.” Or maybe the practice itself has an inner “veridical feel”—a sense of putting you in touch with truth as you’re engaging in it.

Or maybe you identify those doxastic practices you pretty much have to trust if you want to live anything remotely like an ordinary human life, and you trust them and only them.

Alternatively, you might take the approach of someone like Alvin Plantinga, saying that those doxastic practices are trustworthy which involve the use of cognitive faculties under those conditions in which the faculties are generally reliable. The problem here, of course, is that there may be a difference between a doxastic practice being reliable and our being able to tell that it is reliable. Plantinga has famously proposed that we have a cognitive faculty dubbed "the sensus divinitatus" which is responsible for theistic belief and which produces that belief reliably. His critics instantly cry foul--but part of Plantinga's point is that we have no inner guarantee or non-circular proof that any of the things we treat as reliable cognitive faculties are reliable cognitive faculties. That a congitive faculty is trustworthy, in the sense of consistently delivering true beliefs, does not clearly entail that we have immediate access to this fact.  And that, of course, is part of the problem. How do you decide which doxastic practices to presumptively (not absolutely) trust?

However you decide, it appears at least initially as if you confront variants of the same troubles that plagued absolute foundationalism. The problems have simply shifted from the level of foundational beliefs to the level of foundational doxastic practices.

Consider: Suppose I adopt a social version of DTDP foundationalism—trusting my senses, the pronouncements of certain socially agreed-upon authorities, etc. Either I have grounds for believing that doxastic practices embodying the relevant social features are more likely to produce true beliefs than those that lack these features, or I don’t. If I do, what would those grounds be like? Wouldn’t they either be circular (relying for their support on beliefs that are ultimately derived from these very same doxastic practices) or based on different doxastic practices that then fall outside the scope of justification in terms of their social features? Aren’t we then driven to being dogmatic in our embrace of the doxastic practices we embrace, simply shifting the problem from unjustified trust in certain foundational beliefs to unjustified trust in certain foundational belief-forming practices?

Here is where we are, I think, pushed towards something more Hegelian. The reason why DTDP foundationalism offers a basis for critiquing foundational beliefs, even when they come from trusted doxastic practices, is because the whole set of trusted practices can generate defeaters for individual beliefs. But by the very same mechanism, DTDP foundationalism also provides a basis for critiquing the doxastic practices themselves.

Here’s what I have in mind. If a doxastic practice that was initially put into the “trustworthy” class keeps encountering defeaters for the beliefs it generates, it might eventually be bumped out of that class. Or if the doxastic practice encounters defeaters in a certain context, it might be judged untrustworthy in that context. We might find that it encounters fewer defeaters when certain refinements are made to the practice, and so the practice might evolve to embody these refinements. It is very easy to see the scientific method as emerging out of precisely this sort of refinement.

But keep in mind that all of this evolution is influenced by one’s starting points—that is, by which doxastic practices one has initially included in the generally trustworthy set. What set of doxastic practices one treats as trustworthy will shape what defeaters, if any, drive the evolution of the whole set. Start with too narrow a set, or get “unlucky” in your starting points, and you may be left with only a few refined doxastic practices that you trust—and can you really trust even them? Maybe their having escaped defeat is mostly a function of the shrinking set of possible sources of defeat.

The worry here is this: The smaller the set of trusted doxastic practices, the less likely any of them are to encounter defeaters—simply because of how few they are, rather than because of their intrinsic merits. And as the evolutionary process described above continues, you won’t be pumping out new doxastic practices. Defeaters destroy. They don't create. As the evolution continues and the number of trustworthy doxastic practices shrinks, we’ll thus be put into a position in which we should be increasingly less confident that continued-failure-to-be-defeated is a good gauge of trustworthiness.

Perhaps this worry isn't decisive, but a different worry looms nearby. Even if one's remaining doxastic practices are deemed trustworthy based on their success in producing undefeated beliefs, we might worry that the subset of beliefs generated by these practices is far too narrow to be representative of reality, or that it is too narrow to help us live our lives in a way that meaningfully embodies the truth about ourselves and our world. We may have evolved certain practices to a point of high refinement but left ourselves with a set of practices that is nevertheless deficient, because the boundaries of the knowable that they establish are too narrow.

But once one treats doxastic practices as mutually evolving in the light of each others’ deliverances, one can begin to ask whether this fixation on nothing but doxastic practices might not itself speak to a set of unconsidered presuppositions—some hidden starting points that shape our ideas about what should be our starting points. Why should we make doxastic practices the sole underpinnings of our belief system? Why not, instead, begin with an interpretation of the whole of experience, embrace a set of doxastic practices based on that interpretation, and then critically live out this whole?

In other words, starting with doxastic practices as the foundation for all our beliefs is not the only way to start, nor is it the only thing that can lead to an evolutionary process. So, why not allow as a legitimate starting point a perspective which treats a narrative picture of reality as foundational, and doxastic practices as derivative?

A process that treats only doxastic processes as foundational, and then evolves by successively refining and discarding doxastic practices in the light of experience, is in danger of ultimately leaving one with too small a set of foundational beliefs on which to build. As noted above, while experience with the failures of doxastic practices can refine and rule out ones that were already part of your epistemic arsenal, it doesn’t generally introduce into your arsenal wholly new doxastic practices that you’ve never thought to try.

Consider the analogy of natural selection: to take advantage of all the "niches" available in the environment, it’s not enough to have a mechanism that kills off unsuccessful species. You also need some creative wellspring from which new species arise. Storytelling, speculative philosophy and theology, mythological narrative—these things are the creative side of the human endeavor, and it is in part from them that new ways of engaging with the world, of wrestling with what to believe and what not to believe, come about. Perhaps, then, we shouldn't just allow holistic interpretations and narratives as potential starting points, but should allow a place in our epistemological lives for the creative process by which such interpretations and narratives arise. In other words, we should treat storytelling and speculative thinking as not just an entertaining diversion but as helping us in the quest for truth.

This is not to say, of course, that every story we tell should be immediately embraced as true or anything like that. But some stories resonate in such a way that people are moved to live them out as if they were true. And in some cases these initial experiments don't immediately come crashing down by virtue of a volley of defeaters. Instead, the experiments knock down some parts of the story but not others. And some elements in the narrative motivate new doxastic practices which themselves prove extremely fruitful, in the sense of pumping out beliefs that resist defeat. Many see the birth of the scientific method in these terms: the Christian conviction that the universe is essentially orderly, that there must be a regularity and structure beneath even the most chaotic-seeming dimensions of our experience, set the stage for science.

And of course there’s more to life than telling stories and engaging in doxastic practices. We have artistic and athletic activities, cultural and religious rituals, spiritual practices, ways of life that embody value systems and moral codes. Engaging in the business of living impacts, in all sorts of ways, our beliefs and our ways of forming beliefs.

The point is that doxastic practices are not isolated from human life in all its richness and diversity. To allow them to evolve in isolation from the rest is to presuppose that there isn’t anything in the rest that has the power to promote the quest for coming into alignment with the Truth. And I would say that the fallibilism implicit in DTDP foundationalism calls one to be suspicious of any such presupposition. So, not only does DTDP foundationalism move beyond criticism of the deliverances of one’s adopted doxastic practices and towards lived-out criticism of the practices themselves; it also moves towards allowing for more than just doxastic practices into the class of legitimate starting points one might legitimately live out critically.

And so we've made our way towards something that looks more like the Hegelian approach. But how does it work, you may ask? How does one framework give rise to another? What sorts of deficiencies motivate a change in one's system?

Here I must confess to an attempt to be clever. In case no one’s noticed yet, this post has not merely been an attempt to make a case for the Hegelian dialectic. It’s also been laid out, however imperfectly, to serve as an example of the Hegelian dialectic at work.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hegelian Foundationalism

Some comments on my last post (mostly received in private correspondence) suggest that my use of the term “epistemic foundationalism” was a bit too broad—implying, in effect, that one had to choose between epistemic foundationalism and some more nuanced alternative such as the one offered by Hegel.

In putting things this way, I oversimplified matters by lumping a range of foundationalist epistemologies into the same category. More significantly, I gave the impression that Hegel was not a foundationalist. But there’s a sense in which that’s exactly what Hegel was, insofar as he thought we had to have starting points from which to build the belief systems that we then make use of to engage with the world—starting points that, among other things, determine the parameters of what counts as evidence.

What distinguished Hegel was his consciousness of the diversity of potential starting points and our human fallibility in their selection. And he wanted to endorse an approach that took these seriously. His question thus became what we should do given the fact that our judgments about what should and should not be foundational might be mistaken. His Hegelian method was intended as an alternative to dogmatic allegiance to a set of starting points.

But that’s not to say that he didn’t think we have to have starting points (it's just that we have to adopt them in a way that reflects our fallibility). Nor is it meant to imply that all starting points are seriously suspect.

Consider the principle of non-contradiction. Hegel’s entire dialectical process depends on assuming the unacceptability of “contradictions” that emerge as one seeks to live out one’s worldview (I think of a worldview as being a product of one’s starting points as they interact with the field of experience). And while Hegel’s sense of “contradiction” may be broader than what the principle of non-contradiction focuses on, it clearly includes contradictions in this narrower sense. As such, any evolution in one’s worldview that did away with the principle of non-contradiction would also do away with the dialectical process itself. It would be a kind of evolutionary dead end. All progress would stop, because no “failures” in the resulting system could be called failures.

“Yes,” the advocates of this failed system might say. “It is true that our system systematically fails to achieve any of the ends that the system endorses. But such failure does not rule out calling the system a total and perfect success. To rule out perfect success simply on the grounds that what we have here is abject failure is to endorse a principle of non-contradiction that we reject. Since we reject the principle of non-contradiction, there is nothing stopping us from saying that our ends are most perfectly realized when those ends are completely thwarted at every turn. Since we reject the principle of non-contradiction, ruling something out should never be taken to mean that anything has been ruled out.”

You get the idea. Deny the principle of noncontradiction, and you’ve got no epistemology, no methodology for guiding belief formation, Hegelian or otherwise. I doubt any human being could actually do this in practice. And this means, of course, that whether he was explicit about it or not, Hegel has to treat the principle of non-contradiction as a starting point that isn’t going away in the course of the dialectical evolution.

And there are probably other starting points that will be like this, although it seems clear that no one’s actual foundations are limited to these. But while I’m pretty sure Hegel would have to say that some foundations are, in fact, secure (that is, they’re not going to be exposed as inadequate in the course of the dialectic), it doesn’t follow from this that Hegel believes we are infallible in our judgments about which of them is secure and which isn’t.

We might get this wrong—being convinced that one of our foundations is rock-solid, only to find out in the course of the dialectical evolution that it is crumbling underfoot. But this fallibility cannot prevent us from treating our starting points as foundational. Not only don’t we have any choice but to start somewhere, but he thinks that it is only by presumptively trusting our starting points enough to live them out seriously that we come to discover their inadequacies.

In this sense, then, Hegel remains a foundationalist. But it is a different kind of foundationalism than, say, the foundationalism of the die-hard empiricist or the strict biblical fundamentalist. It is, if you will, a fallibilistic foundationalism--one that acknowledges the fallibility of our starting points by inviting us to live them out critically, that is, live them out with an eye towards noticing their shortcomings, the ways in which they fail us, and then revising them to overcome these failings.

In short, there are different species of foundationalism, and Hegel's strike me as a species that avoids the failings of others. In my next post, I want to offer a kind of taxonomy of foundationalisms, situate Hegel's dialectic within this taxonomy, and show what I take to be Hegel's virtues.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Cherry Picking Problems

Greta Christina thinks religious progressives have a cherry-picking problem. Since I launched this blog with a response to her infamous post on atheist anger, and since her cherry-picking essay is getting some attention, it seems fitting for me to say something about this so-called problem. And I seem to be uniquely situated to do so. After all, not only am I a self-professed religious progressive, but I also have experience picking cherries.

Back in college I had a summer job at a fruit orchard in Orondo, Washington. At the height of the cherry harvest, I was pulled away from trimming apple trees and spreading paraquat so that I could help pick cherries. And I must admit that I did have something of a cherry-picking problem.

The thing is, when you pick cherries at an orchard, you need to be fast. One of my co-workers, Rippin' Rod Ripley, had his name for a reason: He ripped those cherried from the tree so fast that he was actually able to earn enough for a few weeks of hotels, booze, and whores when the season was over (Rippin' Rod was a Vietnam vet who lived in a trailer on the orchard grounds during the fruit-picking season, but was homeless once the season was over and the money ran out).

You need to be fast--if not as fast as Rippin' Rod, then at least fast enough so that you aren't losing the orchard money. But you also need to be picky. Some cherries are split. You don't want too many of them in your bucket, or that whole batch becomes a lower grade. More serious are the cherries that have mold on them. If those go in the bucket, they can ruin the cherries around them.

And you don't just need to be fast and picky. You also need to be skillful. You see, when you pluck a cherry from the tree, it's very easy to leave the cherry stem behind. It's hooked onto the branch at least as strongly as it is to the fruit, so that if you just rip a bunch of cherries down off a branch into your bucket, chances are it'll be a bucket full of stemless cherries.

But consumers want their cherries with stems. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's so that they won't lose out on opportunities to be entertained (tittilated?) by those rare individuals (such as my wife) who can pop the stem in their mouth, work it around for a minute with their tongue, and spit it out again with a perfect little knot tied in it. Yes, my wife can do that. It's part of why I married her.

In any event, back to cherry-picking. While I could be fast, it was at the cost of selectivity and skill. And while I could be selective and skillful, it made me really slow. I never did get the knack that Rippin' Rod displayed out there among the trees, this ability to rip cherries from the trees at a frenetic pace and end up with buckets of pretty, unsplit, mold-free, stem-sporting cherries.

So, I confess to having a cherry-picking problem. But here's the thing: This problem has absolutely nothing to do with my religious progressivism. In fact, back when I was picking cherries at that orchard, I wasn't a religious progressive at all. That was the time in my life when I got sucked in by a more fundamentalist form of Christianity. I was recently "born again." I occasionally spoke in tongues and convinced myself I wasn't just making $#!t up. While at the orchard, I went with a friend most Sundays to a small Seventh Day Adventist church with a pastor whose mantra was "Just believe!"

Oh, wait.

Just glanced back at Greta Christina's post. Looks as if this "cherry picking" language is a metaphor. Whoowee,  am I embarrassed.

Well, taken in those terms her argument's a bit more interesting. But all kidding aside, I think my earlier conclusion still stands: I do have a cherry-picking problem. We all do. So does she. It's called "the problem of the criterion." The problem arises whenever we consider our judgments about our standards of judgment. By what standards do we decide that we have the right standards? How can we be critical of our own starting points without either implicitly abandoning those starting points in favor of different ones which we then use to critique the earlier starting points (but then we're still not critiquing the starting points we have now) or relying on our starting points and so begging the question?

But this problem isn't a problem with my religious progressivism. Instead, my progressivism is an attempt to pursue a solution to the problem--a Hegelian solution, if you will.

I think her framing of the problem as a special problem for religious progressives is rooted in the same misconceptions about the nature of progressive religion that Sam Harris falls prey to when he calls religious moderates "failed fundamentalists" who betray both faith and reason equally. I talk about Harris's mischaracterization in Chapter 1 of Is God a Delusion?, and much of what I say there is applicable to the cherry-picking challenge.

But here I want to pursue a slightly different line of response. Greta Christina, like Harris, is assuming a foundationalist epistemology, and in effect arguing that if you "cherry pick" the Bible you are rejecting the religious fundamentalist's foundational source of evidence--namely, Scripture--in favor of the standards you're using to distinguish the "bad" biblical cherries frome the keepers. And these standards, she argues, are either the same one's that serve as the epistemological foundations for naturalism, or they're standards that are clearly unreliable ("what's in my heart").

And so Greta Christina concludes, in effect, that if you're prepared to "pick cherries" you have in effect abandoned the foundations of faith (blind allegiance to The Holy Book) and so need different ones--and the only tenable ones are the foundations that scientists rely on. And as soon as you limit yourself to those foundations you pretty much have to throw out God and the Bible altogether. And so you should be an atheist rather than a religious progressive. (I just had to go back and correct an interesting typo at the start of this paragraph--I'd mistakenly written "Great Christian").

But this whole argument is premised not only on an implicit embrace of a foundationalist epistemology (as opposed, say, to a more Hegelian approach). It is also premised on an understanding of the Bible that's drawn from Biblical fundamentalism (in which Scripture serves the same foundational evidential role that, for example, sense experience serves for the empiricist) and on a sweeping dismissal of alternative foundations (moral intuition, mystical experience, "first principles of the intellect," etc.)--a dismissal that implicitly relies on an indiscriminate lumping together of all of these things into the same "what's-in-my-heart" subjective category that, while defensible if you assume the naturalist's view of what counts as epistemically foundational, is not defensible if you want to avoid begging the question about what can and cannot qualify as foundational. We need a way to decide among foundations that doesn't beg the question, which means we need to replace epistemic foundationalism with something more nuanced--like the Hegelian dialectical method I favor.

In fact, I think religious progressives in general have made just this kind of shift, even if they've never heard of Hegel. They have lost faith in foundationalism--or, more broadly, they've lost their confidence in the human capacity to "get it right" with respect to evidential foundations. Often, this loss of faith starts with the foundations posited by fundemantalist religious traditions--but their sketpicism extends further than that. Not that they reject the conclusions that scientists reach based on their foundations, but the lived experience of progressives suggests to them that what science can offer based on those foundations is far too limiting, that there is something deep and profound beneath the empirical surface that science explores. To rule this out in advance, to rely on an epistemology that makes any such "something more" eternally inaccessible should it prove to be there, seems as bad as the Biblical fundamentalist's insistence that the Bible offers unassailable foundations from which to build a system of beliefs and a way of life.

And as progressives look at their religious traditions, inherited stories, holy books, and oral teachings, they begin to see that viewing them according to a foundationalist lens is a very modern distortion of what is going on, a misconstrual of what the tradition had been up to until Cartesian Foundationalism got a hold of it. What they see in, say, the Bible, is not some singular "source of evidence" a la sense perception, but an evolving worldview, a holistic way-of-seeing the totality of human experience which, while it presupposes standards for evaluating beliefs, is constantly refining those very standards and methods in the light of lived engagement with the world.

The picture of God in the Bible is not univocal, but evolving. The ethical notions are not univocal, but evolving. There is a direction, a trajectory, that suggests viewing the Bible as a record of the growth and development of a way of seeing a reality that's more mystery than clarity, but which impresses itself upon us and transforms us no matter what standards of evidence we happen to be working with. No matter how inadequate out interpetive scheme, the reality that lies behind experience has a way of breaking through, producing cracks and fissures, exposing inadequacies.

And the religious progressive sees promise in the process. The progressive sees a trajectory that this evolution is taking, and so steps with a hopeful spirit into the evolving tradition to be part of its further evolution in the light of lived human experience. And in taking on that tradition and modifying it in the light of experience, the proper metaphor is not "picking cherries" at all. A better metaphor--derived from my recent history--would be road-testing a new bicycle.

You take it out on the road and, in the light of what you experience, you adjust the seat a little bit upward. You move the handlebars a bit. You decide that the saddle isn't right for your butt, and so you buy a different one. The tires are perhaps the wrong kind for the gravelly roads on which you have to ride--making you too susceptible to a flat. So you get "armadillo" tires. When you start out the process, you don't even really know what you should be looking for. Does the disturbing numbness in your unmentionables mean you've got the wrong seat, or just that your body needs to adjust to riding? What about the ache in your lower back? The very standards by which you decide what changes to make are part of what you discover over the course of road-testing the bike.

If someone watching this process were to say, "Hey, you're cherry-picking!", you'd probably scratch you're head in befuddlement. If they went on to say that you were just being a hypocrite for not trading in the bike for a car--well, you get the idea. The "picking cherries" metaphor presupposes that we have in place a set of foundational standards of judgment (freedom from splits and mold, etc.) that are clearly distinct from the cherries being selected on the basis of those standards. But when we're talking about a holistic worldview, there is no such ready dichotomy between the "correct" standards of judgment and that which is being judged. The road-testing metaphor is far more helpful here.

And you need a vehicle in order to do a road test. It's not something you can dispense with. Even Greta Christina has her metaphorical "vehicle"--her metaphysical naturalism with the evidentiary standards it implies (and the ones it rejects). While there might be a time and a place for telling someone that their bike is a piece of crap and they should consider a new one rather than keep tuning up and replacing parts on the one they have, the mere fact that someone is pursuing such refinements isn't evidence that the bike should be thrown out. The person who tunes up their bike is not thereby a hypocrite. And just because a bike needs more frequent maintenance than a minivan doesn't mean that people should give up riding bicycles. 

I could develop these ideas more precisely in terms of the Hegelian dialectic and its implications. But I already intend to offer a more rigorous treatment of this Hegelian approach as it relates to religion and science, and since I'm getting ready to leave for a conference in the morning, I'll leave matters at that for now. If you want more detail, you can always check out the online video of my University of Tulsa lecture, in which I respond to this species of challege if not to Greta Christina's specific formulation of it. Or you can look at this post, in which I describe the progressive approach to the Bible.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Gods of September 11

Over the last week or so I’ve heard more than one person say that September 11 has served our generation as a vivid reminder of the reality of evil, of the gravity of the problem of sin—in Christian terms, of what it means to exist in alienation from our creator.

I don't disagree. There is no question in my mind that what we witnessed on that day was evil—not that the agents of the attacks were essentially evil (as so many claimed), or that their religion was evil (as too many still insist), or that religion as such was evil (as Sam Harris boldly declared in The End of Faith). But what was done, the indifference to life, the deliberate pursuit of atrocity followed by its celebration…if there is anything that deserves the label “sin,” surely this qualifies.

But when Americans point to September 11 and say, “Here is sin,” their fingers are pointing away from themselves.

Let me say this again, more inclusively: When any one of us who has not personally presided over the extermination of human life points at the September 11 attacks and says, “Here is sin,” we are pointing away from ourselves.

And when sin becomes about pointing fingers, rather than about self-transformation and transcendence, the invocation of "sin" becomes part of the problem of sin.

To be transformative, "sin" must be an inner recognition, not an outer judgment. It must be seen, not as a positive reality that has claimed the wicked Other, but as something in ourselves—not something that calls for a response of self-loathing, but an absence that cries out to be filled. As such, sin is like hunger: a symptom of our need to reach beyond ourselves for sustenance. When we are hungry, we do not hate ourselves. When we are hungry we look for food.

And what will feed us? “God,” comes the answer. But what does that mean? For Fred Phelps it means a steady diet of hate. Is that God? Is that what fills the absence, what completes us?

As we confront the horror of September 11, we feel, urgently, the need to be filled. What do we turn to? When confronted with atrocity, where do we look for God?

Some look for vengeance, convinced that it will satisfy. Is their God the one who casts sinners into a fiery hell? Will vengeance fill the emptiness we call sin?

Some link arms and sing patriotic songs, and wave their flags and insist on unity, but it becomes more than just solidarity. They seek to be filled by national pride, by standing up with the tribe that has been struck, by standing together against the enemy, by retooling the very same us/them ideology that allows whole communities to be legitimately targeted in the chosen people’s holy war against its enemies. Is our God a tribal God?

Some scramble for security, taking every possible step to make certain it never happens again—as if, in Stanley Hauerwas’s provocative terms, they can thereby manage to get out of this life alive. Is that the answer? Will sin be defeated if principle gives way to fear, if in the name of security we are prepared to extract information under torture, or let the hungry starve so that our bank accounts are comfortably padded?

Some are like that alpha boy on the playground when he finds himself hurt. Others feel his pain and reach out. But compassion strikes him as pity, and pity is for the weak. And so he sets out to prove that he doesn’t need anyone. The community of mutuality, of interdependence, of shared vulnerability and strength, this community that is suddenly trembling on the tongue of that strange girl leaning down to ask if he’s alright—it terrifies him, and he bats it way.

Is self-reliance our God?

Some, when confronting tragedy, look for ways to fit it into all their old patterns of thinking, rather than allow the enormity of the moment to inspire silence. Some use what happened opportunistically, to pursue the same agendas they’ve always had, rather than let the cracks in their world inspire the humility to ask what their agendas ought to be.

Some seek to use the tragedy—and all the confused fears and longings it inspires—to manipulate their way into power or privilege. They represent themselves as having the answers, if only others will follow where they lead. If they become the thing that feeds the emptiness in others, perhaps their own will disappear. But emptiness cannot feed emptiness.

Some look at the September 11 terrorist attacks and say, “Where is God? Where is God in this horror?” They mean it as rhetorical, but the question doesn’t strike me as rhetorical at all. We all have our answers. But which one will fill us?

"Christ has bidden us," said Simone Weil in a letter to her friend and confidante Father Perrin, "to attain to the perfection of our heavenly Father by imitating his indiscriminate bestowal of light....Every existing thing is equally upheld in its existence by God's creative love. The friends of God should love him to the point of merging their love into his with regard to all things here below." And when we love as God loves, when we cast out this web of indiscriminate love, we become "the bird with golden wings" who pierces the shell of the world.

Perhaps sin, in the end, is about all the futile answers we choose, all the absurd alternatives to love.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

This morning, while my wife swam in the Tall Chief Open Water Challenge, I walked along the shore with my kids. At one point I saw my son juxtaposed against the liquid light of reflected sun, and it was almost hard to tell where he ended and the blazing water began. I snapped a picture of it. It was one of those rare times when he held still long enough for a picture to actually preserve at least some of the moment's resonance.

And as I watched him by the water's edge I was thinking about ten years ago, when this boy hadn't yet existed. This image of life and light became juxtaposed against another set of images, ones that are imprinted in the collective consciousness of a nation, perhaps the world.

It would have happened at about this time, perhaps at the very moment when, on this day ten years later, I stood watching my son by the water. Then, I was sitting in my apartment, watching it all unfold on the television because my fiancee had called from the car on her way to work. I was one of those who saw the second plane as it hit. I was still watching when the towers came down.

We'd been engaged for a little over a week. We'd had our own private betrothal ceremony by a pond, exchanging wedding bands and vows. There'd been light on the water, moonlight and street lamps fragmented by the fountain's ripples.  I remember the days that followed, the sense of promise, of nestling joy. And then, ten days later, I saw the shattering of so many lives, so many hopes and promises, watching on live television as the force of the collapse exploded outward through the streets of Manhattan.

What do you do after that? In a kind of daze I got into my car and drove to the university. I went to my first class--a freshman honors seminar on the ethics of community service. We were used to sitting in a circle, facing one and other. Those who were there had come because they hadn't heard. And so I told them, breaking the news to these kids, bright and hopeful kids who were just starting their college careers, their journeys to adulthood.

And ten years later, after a moment of silence, after the national anthem had been sung by the clustered athletes, after the starter pistol and the surge of brightly colored swim caps spreading out across the sun-glazed water...after standing for a moment trying to discern which yellow head belonged to my wife, trying to decide what had been happening at this moment ten years ago...I became aware again of my children, playing with sticks and flowers, tossing rocks into the water, rummaging through the backpack for some snack more tasty and less healthy than the granola bars and apples that I'd packed.

The moment of silence had been nothing but a fidgety affair, something to get through so they could whistle again without fear of a scolding look. The voices raised in the anthem hadn't carried any special resonance at all, at least none they could hear.

They hadn't existed then. To them, it's just something they'll one day read about in history class.  There'll likely be a picture at the start of the chapter, perhaps of the collapsing skyscrapers, perhaps of the ruins. A static image on a page.

It united a nation for a few weeks, a few weeks of shocked solidarity, before sincerity and purpose and opportunism reinvented politics and history, leaving us arguably more divided than before. It set us on a course of war, of soldiers called to leave their children, their parents, their lovers, their homes, to fight battles in the heat and the dust far away--to make us safer, or less safe, depending on who you ask.

But here, by the water's edge, is the timeless liquid light. Here is a little girl picking flowers--tiny little yellow wildflowers--and forming them into miniature bouquets. Here is a boy stepping out onto a rock on the water, getting his shoes wet, not caring at all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Hegelian Dialectic: Escaping the Problem of the Criterion

My last post was a reposting of an archived essay on evidentialism--one which I replayed partly as a springboard for considering some related issues I've been thinking about recently, issues having to do with traditions of belief and the epistemic foundations on which they rely. Part of what I want to do in considering these issues is provide a deeper portrait of the Hegelian dialectical method, since I find myself strongly influenced by it. In this post I want to say a bit about Hegel's dialectic as a solution to the problem of the criterion. In subsequent posts, I may have more to say about Hegel's method as it bears on science, religion, and their intersections.

In the previous evidentialism post, I introduced a version of the "problem of the criterion." In a nutshell, the problem is this: If one is to form one's beliefs in accord with the weight of the evidence (which even the greatest fideist thinks we should do in many contexts, even if not in all of them), one needs to determine what counts as evidence and what doesn't. But how do you decide what counts as evidence?

Consider any belief of the form, "This sort of thing is good evidence on which to base beliefs." For any such belief we can ask, "On what basis do we believe that?" In attempting to answer this question, we find ourselves quickly faced with the prospects of circular reasoning, infinite regress, or dogmatism in one's beliefs about what counts as evidence.

In posing this problem, it is not my intention to imply or suggest that the problem is insoluble and that all of us are therefore in the same epistemic boat...whether our epistemic starting point is shared sense experience or every pronouncement proceeding from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. I'm not one of those people who defends the reasonableness of Christianity by insisting that since anything can count as one's evidential foundation, Christians are fully in their epistemic rights to treat every sentence of the Bible as so foundational that the "biblical evidence" trumps all other sources of evidence (including reason and sense experience).

But I do think the problem of the criterion reveals something important: all of us, no matter who we are or what we believe, are unavoidably bound to have starting points--starting points which are not themselves believed on the basis of evidence, but which, in many cases, serve as the basis for deciding what counts as evidence and what does not. These starting points might take the form of a narrow set of "foundational beliefs," or we might start with something much bigger--a broad network or web of mutually reinforcing beliefs where none are clearly "foundational," since each is defended in the light of others (a kind of circle). In the latter case, each member of the network may be supported on the basis of the "evidence" offered by other members of the network, but the network itself is not. And so the network is our starting point.

In either case, there is a givenness built into our belief system--and there are therefore things that we believe in a way that cannot meet the strict demand imposed by the evidentialist. But this doesn't mean that we are doomed to dogmatism, with the only remaining question being which starting points we will hold to dogmatically.

The question is how we escape mere dogmatism in relation to the criteria we depend on for assessing our beliefs. And here is where I am powerfully influenced by Hegel, who thought the enlightenment had failed to attend with sufficient care to the problem sketched out above, and hence fell back into the very dogmatism they were criticizing. The enlightenment, Hegel thought, was simply not being skeptical enough. What is remarkable is that, if one follows through on the Hegelian alternative to dogmatism--an alternative that carries the skepticism down to the level of one's own starting points--one isn't reduced to radical skepticism. One is, rather, led to a critical and progressive appropriation of tradition.

Hegel's solution to the problem of dogmatism, given the inescapability of starting points, was to adopt one's starting points in an experimental and provisional way. One has to start somewhere--so do so. Start somewhere. Better yet, start where you are--with ordinary consciousness embedded in the social ideas of your age and culture. But be conscious of what your starting points are, and live them out critically. In other words, attempt to engage the world--cognitiviely and practically--from the starting points you happen to have, and see how well they work out. The result will be an evolutionary process to which Hegel gives the name "dialectic," and the goal will be a progressive disclosing or revelation of the "Absolute" (ultimate reality or Truth with a capital "T").

This Hegelian experimentation with one's starting points should not be confused with the sense of "experiment" that we have in mind when we think about the work of scientists. Scientific experiments take place within the context of a set of methodological assumptions, ideas about what counts as evidence and what does not, etc. The experiments test the adequacy of a hypothesis, not the adequacy of the methodology used to test the hypothesis. What Hegel is recommending is that, in the course of doing the former, we also do the latter. Or perhaps it is better to say that we are inevitably doing the latter as well, although we may do it poorly if we are insufficiently attentive to the lessons that speak to the fruits of our methodology-defining premises.

What this shows is that Hegel's dialectical "method" for approaching an understanding of the "Absolute" may not be properly described as a method at all. Perhaps we might call it a meta-method, the path to ultimately getting our method right. But Hegel thinks that perfecting our method is inseparable from the quest for the Absolute, so inseparable that, in effect, to perfect one's method is to achieve one's goal: One knows how to properly get in touch with the Absolute only once one is properly in touch with the Absolute.

It is also important to keep in mind that Hegel does not have in mind simply testing the methodology of science against its knowledge-expanding fruits. He has in mind all our ways of understanding ourselves in relation to the world, all the ways we attempt to "know" and "understand" who we are, what is out there, how we should live, etc.  For example, our foundational conception of the subject-object relationship leads us to distinguish between the "facts out there" and the "subjective projections" (values, desires) of the self who is engaging with those facts. Implicit assumptions about that relationship help to define the scientific method and its understanding of what counts as evidence and what doesn't, but similar assumptions permeate every aspect of our engagement with our world: ethical, aesthetic, religious, introspective. Even our notions about the differences between art and science--their goals and achievements--are a function of implicit presuppositions of this kind.

Or take the method of doing epistemology--studying knowledge--that prevailed (thanks largely to Kant) just before Hegel muscled his way onto the philosophical scene. Here's how Charles Taylor describes it in his monumental book, Hegel:
Hegel starts off the introduction to PhG [Taylor's shorthand for The Phenomenology of Spirit] attacking those who begin with a critique of our faculty of knowledge as a tool we use to get at reality or a medium through which realty appears to us. It is not just that this makes the problem of knowledge insoluble, since ex hypothesi we cannot get at reality as it is in itself, untouched by our tool, or unreflected in our medium. It is also that this approach assumes that the absolute, what is to be known, is something which is quite distinct from our knowledge of it, that 'the absolute stands on one side and that knowledge, though it is on the other side, for itself and separated from the absolute, is nevertheless something real' (PhG 65). This, Hegel points out, is to prejudge the issue; something he is less willing to do in this case since he wants to come to a conclusion diametrically opposed to this common assumption.
Put in concrete terms, consider the tendency to put "subjective projections" of our wishes and longings on one side, and dispassionate empirical investigation on the other, and to regard the latter as giving us knowledge of objective reality while the former as mostly an impediment to such knowledge--unless what we want to know about is human subjectivity itself (in which case we need to engage in a dispassionate empirical investigation of them, making them into an object of study while trying to free ourselves from the very things we are studying so that we can know what they are objectively like). For Hegel, this way of dichotomizing things makes deep assumptions about the ultimate nature of reality--that is about the Absolute--assumptions we are not in an epistemic position to make.

This is just an example. There are myriad other foundational assumptions that impact a lived engagement with reality, a reality that doesn't just have an empirical dimension but other dimensions as well. In every part of life, from our love affairs to our efforts to find meaning, our activities pressupose basic starting points--and in all of life, the business of living out those starting points becomes the testing ground for their adequacy. 

Hegel understood the dialectical process to be one of continual and ongoing refinement in the light of what he called "contradictions"--that is, deep inadequacies in one's holistic understanding of the world-in-relation-to-self that emerge in the process of living out that holistic understanding. Metaphorically speaking, by approaching the world with a square hole, one soon discovers that not every peg is square, because the effort to push the peg into the hole causes the casing around the hole to crack.

What is called for in the light of this "cracking"? Well, often enough what we do, in effect, is throw out the square hole and pick up  a round one. We abondon our original "thesis" in favor of an "antithesis". But then what happens? Our round hole cracks as we start shoving square pegs into it. Insofar as some pegs do fit into the square hole, simply discarding the square hole in favor of a round one proves to be a mistake. Likewise, it would be a mistake to ignore the apparently round pegs, or to insist (with a dogmatism that undercuts Hegel's experimental approach) that these apparently round pegs must eventually be explicable in terms of an underlying square-peggishness that, with sufficient diligence, will eventually be exposed to allow easy passage through the square hole.

In other words, it would be anathema to the Hegelian approach to simply dismiss, given one's own allegiance to squareness, those who explore the value of introducing rounded contours into their openings. Of course, it would also be inappropriate to dismiss those who aren't willing to give up the squareness approach quite yet. The cracks might indicate, not the need for adding rounded contours, but the need for some other modification that preserves the commitment to straight lines and righ angles. A contradiction might well lead to divergent paths of exploration, disparate experiments.

One of the things that became clear for me as I struggled my way through Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is that "what comes next" in the dialectical evolution isn't necessarily mandated by what came before and the nature of the "contradictions" it generated--even though Hegel sometimes writes as if this is what's going on, as if the "next stage" he explicates is the only one that makes sense. But if you look for what it is that requires the specific moves he decides to make, in many cases you'll be looking for a long time with little hope of success. Instead, it seems clear that "what comes next" is the result of a creative, almost artistic act. Some new developments and directions take hold because, to put it simply, they're proposed by better artists.

In sum, the Hegelian dialectic--his solution to the problem of the criterion (or the version of it he addressed)--involves experimentally modifying predecessor ways-of-seeing-and-interpreting in an ongoing, evolutionary way. And this process does not merely proceed on an individual level, but also a communal one--when communities live out a holistic vision collectively (discovering things through communal engagement that might be missed in merely personal life), and then passing on the lessons to the next generation, who continue the process in an evolving tradition.