Reasoning About Faith: New Skins for New Wine

new-wineskinsCritics of Christianity and Christian apologists alike tend to approach Christian truth-claims as a set of content which either are, or are not, to be accepted, according to some previously determined–though generally unspoken–set of criteria. Public discourse occurs within various language communities, with sets of rules for determining whether a given argument is received as successful or not. Though individuals, and smaller sub-communities and sub-cultures frequently have their own sets of rules for making some judgments, there are nonetheless cultural logics which are effectively hegemonic, which provide a basic set of axioms and logics that most people, most of the time, employ when making or evaluating public arguments.

The actual set of such meta-rubrics, as we might provisionally call them, change over time. For a long period of late antiquity and the early medieval period in western Europe, neo-Platonism provided the basic structure for public reasoning, as witnessed in the works of writers like Augustine or John Scotus Eriugena. In the middle period of the medieval age, Aristotelian logic and metaphysics became ascendent in the west, especially through the work of Thomas Aquinas, who had the benefit of Arabic translations of works lost to Latin. (And it is of course worth noting how much overlap there is between Platoni and Aristotelean modes of reasoning.) At the end of the medieval period, both of these threads–the Platonic, still represented by the work of many Franciscans, like Bonaventure, and the Aristotelean, generally employed by Aquinas’s fellow Dominicans–both faced a crisis of confidence which led to new attempts at “first philosophy”, most notably in the work of Rene Descartes and John Locke. These and other figures of the 17th century ushered in “modern” thought, which has itself both evolved and been challenged by the panoply of critiques covered under the umbrella label of “post-modernism”. Nonetheless, some version of modernism itself still provides, in modified form, the basic set of criteria which most people employ in public discourse.

What exactly qualifies as the basic set of modernism’s truth-criteria is, of course, up for debate, but some basic assumptions like the following are generally seen as uncontroversial: the homogeneity of space and time, the limitation of the real to the perceivable or conceivable, the sufficiency of human reasoning to draw all valid inferences, and the individual thinker as the final arbiter of truth-claims. Each of these has come under some fire from both traditionalists (e.g. Thomists) as well as postmodernism (e.g. Foucault or Baudrillard), but by and large modernism’s basic structure of reasoning remains in force throughout most public discourse today–not only in the West (wherever exactly that is) but, increasingly, throughout the whole world.

Thus, not only the critics of Christian truth-claims but most apologists engage in their rhetorical struggles on this ground. Christian claims are understand as particular content–a set of pronouncements, each of which must be evaluated according to this over-arching meta-logic. While, in one sense, this is unavoidable and is ultimately necessary, I think there is reason to see such an approach to arguing about Christian truth-claims as highly problematic. This is because I think it is a mistake to see Christianity–or indeed any serious political or religious system of thought–as simply a collection of claims to be evaluated by whatever set of logics a given thinker happens to value and employ. Instead, such systems are, well, systematic. Christianity is not just a collection of claims (“there is only one God”, “Jesus is God incarnate”, “Jesus was raised from the dead”, etc.) but rather a complete system of thought–a set of axioms and logics that underpins those truth claims. That is to say: the claims, the content, arrive after one engages in reasoning according to the axioms and logics of the system. If one attempts to make sense of Christian claims apart from Christian axioms and logics, then it is unlikely one will find any of them convincing; indeed, one may not be even able to make sense of some of them in such a context.

Now, this is not to say that making judgments about Christian truth-claims outside of Christian axioms and logics is “wrong”; indeed, this is the whole point: to say that a given argument is wrong, or its conclusion false, or its method invalid, is to make a judgment–and as suggested above, whenever a judgment is made, one should ask: according to what criteria have you made this judgment? Judging, for example, Christian truth-claims according to certain modern logics–especially according to the assumptions of positivism–will yield one set of conclusions, while judging it according to other structures of thought will yield quite different ones. Likewise, judging the act-of-judging Christian truth claims according to, say, certain set of traditional Christian axioms and logics will yield one set of conclusions, while judging this act-of-judging according to modern logics will likely yield another. That’s a huge part of the difficulty in even discussing this issue. When we reason about the criteria we employ to make judgments, we are employing criteria to make judgments–we are making judgments about how to make judgments. The chicken and the egg both arrive on the horizon, but we never reach either.

However, the difficulty in seeing the complexity of this situation only gets worse when we recognize that, actually, few humans only employ one set of totally consistent systems of criteria. Most people employ at least two, and frequently they blend them in unpredictable ways. Thus, many Christians employ one set of axioms and logics when thinking about “religious” issues, but then, at their jobs, employ very different sets. Likewise, many non-religious people employ different sets of reasonings when thinking about scientific questions than they do when thinking about ethical or moral ones. Frequently, the systems of thought are incompatible, to the point of being mutually exclusive (this is actually not the case, I think, between science and religiosity broadly conceived, but consider the gap between evolutionary logic and the political ethics that most people hold dear, and a more glaring inconsistency makes itself clear. But this is a topic for a separate post.)

ouroborosSo each of us individually, and groups of us as communities, find ourselves attempting to adjudicate various truth-claims, many of which rest on differing assumptions, according to a blended set of axioms and logics, which are often actually rather obscure–that is to say, we often reason without being conscious of the rules according to which we reason. If and when we attempt to reflect on our own processes of reasoning, we find an intellectual mine-field, in which we have to employ the very criteria we wish to observe and study in our studies and observations. Reasoning about reasoning ends up resembling the unfortunate Ouroboros.

Of course, to some extent, this is just repeating some of the critiques leveled at modern logic over the past two centuries by thinkers often grouped together as post-modern (despite that term being largely indeterminate–though again, the difficulty of making sense of this term can’t be dwelled on here). But one should not allow any association with post-modernity–often a term of abuse employed by lazy thought that doesn’t want to truly engage critique–to obscure the real difficulty here. What I hope I have shown above is that the serious, self-conscious evaluation of any truth-claim always comes with an immense amount of baggage. Truth-claims do not sit, pristine and discrete, to be evaluated by some kind of Archimedean Reason. They always exist within a context and system of reasoning and axioms which themselves must be explored if we are to truly understand the original claims. But this is extremely difficult, the work of a lifetime.

Above, we’ve run through an extremely truncated summary of the formal dimension of the difficulty I want to discuss here: we have talked about reasoning in the abstract, outlining how any act of judgment is always an act of applying some particular set of criteria to a given question, and observed that this leaves questions about which criteria to employ wide open. I also claimed that most of us today, most of the time, employ some version of what I loosely called “modern” modes of reasoning to questions, after having suggested that such criteria may not always be appropriate to every question. Now I’d like to apply this formal argument to a particular claim.

The collision of Christian truth-claims and modern criteria of judgment is evident in some of the most basic claims of the faith. The idea that Jesus died but was somehow risen from death and then appeared to his disciples is an excellent example. Modern reasoning, in evaluating this claim, employs some of the basic assumptions listed above. Space and time are assumed to be homogeneous; therefore, any claim about what happened to Jesus must comply with the laws of physics as we now understand them. Likewise, the mechanics of this purported act of resurrection should be understandable to human reasoning. Any appeal to “mystery” is seen as only an attempt to dodge accountability, for all of reality is assumed to be either perceivable or conceivable by human thought. Finally, each thinker him- or herself assumes final authority and autonomy in reaching his or her own conclusion about the matter. Appeals to authority are likely to fall on deaf ears.

What kind of response can a Christian offer? One could attempt to argue each of the above assumptions philosophically, point-by-point. For the sake of keeping this post somewhat briefer, I will employ Scripture itself to model some of the logic that I think informs the Christian claim, to highlight the fact that in the claim about Christ’s resurrection we do not simply have a particular content, a truth-claim, which should be evaluated by whatever reason any given thinker brings to the table, but rather a truth-claim that sits within a broader context, a system not only of other truth claims, but of axioms and logics which anchor those claims. To assert the resurrection of Jesus is to assert a specific way of thinking about reality. Christianity is a way of thinking, not just a collection of content.

genesisilluminatedPerhaps the clearest way of pointing to this general system of thought is to appeal to the very opening of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis chapter one, the cosmos in general and humanity in particular are pronounced “good”; indeed, we humans are said to be made “in the image of God”, the imago Dei. This is not a reference to our bodily form, but rather to our intellectual, moral, and/or spiritual nature and capacities. The upshot of the first creation story, the very opening of Jewish and Christian Scripture, is that reality has not only a descriptive content, but a moral or valuative one as well: it is good.

Yet the second chapter introduces a wrinkle in this optimistic opening. Something goes wrong, terribly wrong, with the good cosmos. The Accuser, metaphorically imaged by the snake, tempts humanity into transgressing the boundaries that support our very being, and by so doing, the good cosmos is cast into chaos. (The philosophical question here of the problem of evil more generally is one worth exploring, but which I can’t pursue here.) So we have a tension in the text, only a few pages in: in its essence, the cosmos is good, yet in its existence here and now, it is far from good. It is “fallen” from its true state.

These two stories appear themselves as collections of truth-claims about the way in which our world came into being, but they must be seen as providing a philosophical architecture to Jewish–and therefore–reasoning. To claim that the world as it is now is not how it is in truth is to announce an axiom of Jewish and Christian reasoning: Truth cannot be judged only according to how things appear to be for us now. Truth, Truth with a capital “T”, is, to some extent, other than how things currently appear to be. Current existence is a fallen version of Truth.

Once these stories are understood as presenting, through allegory and metaphor, a philosophical system, it should not be hard to see how this touches on our previous discussion of formal systems of reasoning and of the particular question we tackled above: the Christian claim of the resurrection of Jesus. For the axiom just outlined in Jewish and Christian reasoning is in direct conflict with some of the axioms of modern reasoning. Whereas we said that modernism (again, assuming a simple and homogeneous meaning to this thorny term) assumes the homogeneity of space and time, Genesis argues that how things are now is markedly different from how things are essentially. Likewise, by arguing that humanity is itself fallen, Genesis argues that human epistemic capacities–our abilities to perceive, to conceive, and to reason–may themselves be limited, may fall short of being able to fully grasp the Real.

Apart from providing these formal challenges to some of the axioms of modern reasoning, these Scriptural axioms also provide a grounding for understanding claims about Jesus’s resurrection. If in the resurrection, this one part of the fallen cosmos, Jesus’s body, is restored to its essential character as good, as unfallen, then we might expect that it would not “play by the rules”, as it were. Indeed, the fact that Jesus’s resurrection does not play by the rules of being in its mode of existence now is essential to the message. For if one understands the world in its current existence as less than it should be, then only an event that transcends the limits of being as it currently is constituted, the limits that confine being to suffering and dissolution, could possibly be seen as truly manifesting the restoration of being in its essential Truth.

This application of Scripture as a source of axioms and logics shows, I hope, that Christianity–and again, other religious, political, and philosophical systems as well–cannot be understood as simply a set of truth-claims, a disparate content. Instead, the faith must be seen as a system of axioms and logics, as well as the conclusions which are then seen as particular truth claims.

Now, this is not to say that any of what I have said above “proves” Christian claims. Indeed, my whole point here has been to assert that thinking of proof as some kind of absolute and unquestionable conclusion is inherently invalid. Once we recognize that all judgments are made according to sets of accepted criteria, then we can see that any act of “proving” an argument will only prove that argument according to the criteria applied. Proving a point is simply the concluding of an argument according to the axioms and logics accepted at the outset; so long as we ignore that different thinkers can accept different sets of axioms and logics, we will miss the fact that there is no automatic set of criteria that any reasoner must accept. (Here my “postmodern” proclivities are on full display, though this term is even less useful than “modernism”–again, there is much to be said on this score which I cannot pursue here.)

Thus, it is crucial to see that what has been laid out above does not “disprove” modern modes of reasoning. It simply offers an example of an act of reasoning according to different criteria. Now, if one wanted to ask whether there was a process for determining which criteria to accept, that’s a wholly different–and far thornier–question: we would be seeking a criteria for determining criteria, a meta-criteria. For the time being, I would only like to point that even if one accepts the Scriptural criteria of reasoning outlined above–that the existential is not necessarily the finally True–this does not in any way require one to reject modern criteria of reasoning for other questions. That is to say, there is no necessary conflict here between “religion” and “science”. To the extent that one is seeking to understand being as it exists here and now, then modern modes of reasoning seem to be the best tool for the job, considering how much of natural phenomena they have explained and how effectively they allow us to develop new technology. However, if one has questions that move beyond simply how things are, and instead inquire into why things should be that way, or why things should be at all, or as to the value of being as such, then one may find that such modes of reasoning are less useful.

That is to say: it seems clear to me that there are properly scientific questions, which we ought to pursue with scientific (i.e. one specific set of “modern”) modes of reasoning. There may be other questions, however, for which scientific reasoning is not applicable. It is only the assumption, common in the modern period, that all judgments must be adjudicated by scientific modes of reasoning that is being critiqued here. Refuting this position, however, does not necessitate holding that scientific reasoning is never proper for any question. Instead, the refutation of scientific modes of reasoning as hegemonic should lead us to conclude that this mode of modern reasoning is appropriate for some (indeed, many) questions.

It is worth pointing out that this conclusion is relevant to all human thinkers, whether one considers oneself “religious” or not. As suggested above, moral and ethical judgments also fall into the range of questions for which scientific reasoning is not appropriate–though, considering the length of this post already, I will not tackle that claim here.

The upshot of all of this, for an understanding of Christian thought, is this: Christianity is not just content, it is form. Accepting Christianity does not just mean accepting a jumble of truth-claims, but rather a whole system of reasoning. It is not just new wine, but also a new wineskin appropriate for holding that wine. This has far-ranging implications, I think, for Christians struggling to be both “in the world, yet not of the world” (John 17:14-19). We should neither accept that all of our truth-claims can be meaningfully adjudicated by accepted modes of public reasoning nor insist that all questions must be adjudicated by specifically Christian modes of reasoning. Indeed, there may be many questions for which Christian modes of reasoning–which focus on the essential, the eternal, and the moral–are not appropriate.

We can only walk this fine line, balancing differing systems of reasoning for different kinds of questions, however, if we are aware of the often-unspoken assumptions which guide human thought. I hope that in the above, I have contributed to our efforts to not only think well, but also to think self-consciously.

Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

individualism71315Jason Evans penned a short piece over at his blog making a crucial point clear: the Church is not “special”, some kind of holy elect who can do no wrong. We have much to learn from non-Christians, whether from other religious traditions, secular political movements, or new scientific research. For more politically progressive Christians, this is an obvious point; those of us who are strong advocates for, say, women’s ordination or equality for LGBTQ Christians will be quick to point out that in many ways, progress on these issues resulted, at least in part, from the willingness of Christians to listen to arguments from outside the Church.

Of course, theologically, this could be restated as: the Spirit moves and speaks where it will. The Spirit hopefully speaks in and through the Church, but can just as easily speak elsewhere. And to this pneumatological point one might add an ecclesiological one: the Church is, as Cyprian of Carthage said, a “hospital for sick souls”. The only requirement for membership is recognition of one’s being caught up in sin. We are Christians because we recognize our desperate need to be renewed–not because we already have all the answers.

And there is no doubt that this is a message that needs repeating. We Christians do have a long history of Church-exceptionalism, thinking that only what comes from within our walls could possibly be worth listening to. Jason’s reminder is the kind of thing one might feel more ‘conservative’ Christians need to hear. (It should be pointed out here how vague this term ‘conservative’ is: political, cultural, religious, and fiscal conservatism are, for example, all quite distinct, and one could be conservative in one field and yet not in another. Nonetheless, lacking any more suitable term, I will use this one here, though one should keep in mind its vagueness throughout this piece.) Such Christians are much more likely, for example, to question evolution, forbid their children from listening to secular music, adopt less-compromising attitudes towards Scriptural interpretation, etc. If I am taking Jason’s point correctly, he is simply reminding such Christians of a basic theology of creation: God created us and everything else to be good. No matter how far we and others hae fallen, we should never forget that Truth can arise from anyplace whatsoever. Let’s not forget that it was the Assyrians of Ninevah and not the pious Israelites who heeded Jonah’s warning.

As far as all of this goes, I agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s point. But I also think we have to actually make the same sort of criticism in the opposite direction. Just as more ‘conservative’ Christians need this reminder that Truth may appear outside the boundaries of the Church, I think it should be said that more ‘liberal’ Christians need to be reminded of the ways in which Christian discipleship may demand confrontation with the culture around them. (And again, all the same caveats made above must also be made about this term ‘liberal’.) Just as there are undoubtedly situations in which the Church must be prepared to hear wisdom from non-Christian sources, there are also times in which we must be prepared to hold the line on our values and speak prophetically against problems we see in our culture.

Of course, precisely which issues require which response is itself a controversial matter. The point I want to make here is more formal and structural, rather than to advise compromise or confrontation on any specific issue. Indeed, though, I think it is precisely on structural issues that we Christians perhaps need to be most confrontational.

We humans tend to think that the structure of our thought and language just is what it is, and just reflects what is, more or less exactly and clearly. It’s very hard for us to imagine thinking about things in a completely different way. Examples of this are hard to come by, precisely because of the very issue itself: how does one think about thinking about things differently? One has to use the very structures of thought one wants to reflect on in the very reflection. How does a nearly-blind person inspect her own glasses?

Modern American Christians are, of course, modern and American just as much as they are Christian. We participate in, and are formed by, the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the broader society. While we should absolutely be prepared to learn hard lessons from that society, we also need to reflect on it critically. Are there assumptions about humanity that our society accepts and promulgates uncritically? Are any of these assumptions at odds with Christian perspectives? I certainly think so. The best example is one that desperately needs more serious discussion, but which is increasingly hard to discuss precisely because it is so often treated without sufficient critical rigor: consumerist individualism.

Now, if your eyes are already rolling–“not another blog thinkpiece about consumerism!”–I can understand. Attacks on consumerism are now commonplace shibboleths in our culture, to the point that they seem drained of all importance. But I think this is precisely because such critiques themselves continue to operate out of the very perspective they seek to criticize, which is one reason I refer to ‘consumerist individualism’ rather than simply consumerism.

Frequently, consumerism is presented as a danger to an authentic individualism: consumerism is bad because, in consumerism, individuals are made to express themselves through the purchase of mass-manufactured items rather than expressing themselves through some other, presumably more legitimate, means. But this dodges the deeper issue, which is: what do we think we are talking about when we talk about individual identity in the first place?

This may seem like an odd question precisely because the idea that particular human beings have a more-or-less set identity–as well as the idea that being able to live that identity without interruption is the definition of a good society–are bedrock, fundamental principles of American political, social, and economic thought. This is well evidenced, I think, by the fact that both self-identified conservatives and liberals are likely to completely agree with the above statements, even if they tend to differ on which elements of identity are most important and on when compromise of self-interest is or is not valid. Individualism is ultimately a subterranean feature not only of our political system, but of our social culture and even our own ideas about our selves: we form an image of ourselves based on the way we are taught to think about ourselves–which, in our culture, is as individuals.

Beginning with the individual as the operative unit of political, social, and economic activity has a massive array of consequences, of which a specific few are I think crucial to note. Firstly, thinking of ourselves in this way first means that we think of society as something that individuals make. This is abundantly clear in Rousseau’s myth of the social contract, and is also clearly in play in the way we think of constitutional forms of government: people come together and agree to certain rules.

And this leads to the second major consequence: the assumption is that “self-interest is the proper goal of all human action“. A just society, from this perspective, is that society that allows individuals to act on their own interest without obstruction or interruption. Of course, compromises can be made on this through legislation of certain rules that everyone, or at least a majority, agree to. But the baseline assumption is that the goal is to allow for maximum individual autonomy, all other things being equal.

Thirdly and finally, what it means to be an individual here is basically to be either a property-owner or at least a potential property-owner. If the individual is defined by autonomy, and never by any social context, then no religion, nationality, ethnicity, family or culture can be defining terms of a particular human being. Since any such attribute is either changeable (e.g. religious conversion) or rendered abstract and meaningless (e.g. the relative unimportance of nationality in the identities of most natural-born US citizens) by choice, it is only the choices one makes relative to property ownership that ultimately really display the identity of the individual. Indeed, each of these other possible identities is viewed as just this–property. One can choose how, and whether, to present one’s ethnic or religious identity, and treat it more like clothing worn for reasons of fashion rather than a context which actually helped to determine the identity of the individual in the first place.

It’s worth noting that most contemporary Westerners, especially in the English-speaking world, seem to take these positions as facts, rather than as cultural interpretations. And when one points out that, for example, Chinese Confucian social theory has a radically different take on human identity, or even that Western Europe had very different views on it before the 17th century, this is generally seen only as evidence of the great progress that has been made. That is, we almost always perceive our own cultural and political structures as obviously true and right, and as either the default for any discussion of politics or anthropology, or at least as the high-water mark of human culture.

Now, at this point, we could descend into any number of discussions–on ethnography, for example, discussing the vast variety of human cultures, or on political ethics, perhaps discussing the virtues of these political and cultural structures. There is material enough for books upon books in this rich vein of possible topics. But I want to get back to the original discussion, on the Church’s response to non-Christian culture, philosophy, and achievements.

I want to suggest that though, as I said above, I strongly agree that we Christians must always be prepared to recognize truth when it is spoken, regardless of the source, we also must be critical of the larger culture which forms both our own communities as well as those outside the Church. And, more specifically, I think we must begin to consistently critique the assumptions of what I have outlined above as consumerist individualism. For one thing, as Christians, we simply cannot accept the claim that the ideal society is one where each individual simply pursues his or her own self-interest. Indeed, we should be clear that such a society would often be little more than an expression of our human sinfulness. Christ teaches us that it is love for others, and not the sating of self-interest, that is the mark of a just society.

And in admitting our sinfulness, we are also admitting that our very identities have been formed by political, social, cultural, and economic forces which manifest the rebellion against God’s love which is the problem Christ came to solve. This means accepting two things that the culture of consumerist individualism treats as heresy: first, we do not have identities which arrived out of the ether, some sacrosanct personality which exists apart from the world. Our personalities are not really ours at all: we are the complex structure(s) that result from our biology, our environment, our parents, our peers, and our educators. The society which we claim ownership of, in fact, actually shaped us into who we are. We define our individual uniqueness over and against the very set of factors which generated that unique identity.

Second, much of what makes us who we are are features that are, well, bad. I am often lazy and judgmental. This really is a part of my identity. But these are not features to be celebrated! Rather, they are marks of the ways in which I, and the world at large, has not developed into what God has created me, and the whole of existence, to be. So long as I hold onto the idea of a sacrosanct “I”, I will be blind to the depth of the ways in which I am not who God has made me to be. Which is to say: for the Christian, our true identity is a goal to be worked towards, not some inner and inherent possession.

All of this is ultimately a long and drawn-out, but I hope not useless, way of saying that the Church needs to be prepared to confront elements of our society that are problematic, elements that work against the mission that Christ sends us forth to. At times, we may find that it is actually us, the Church itself, that is the biggest impediment to Christ’s work. Other times, however, we may find that we must speak a prophetic word to secular thought. And in still other times, we may find that we and secular folks alike share a set of tragic assumptions which prevent us from speaking the Truth and working love. So I agree with Jason that it is important to remember that we Christians have much to learn from others. But I hope we also remember that at times, we may really have a unique and necessary truth to proclaim.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so long as we remember that we live in a complex world. But I think we nonetheless need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, the Church’s mission is not just to get by, reproducing its structure generation after generation in human cultures. God has and is acting to renew creation, to complete a work undone by sin. And that means that at our root, the Church must be ready to challenge the structures that keep us blind to the truth and unwilling to love in fullness.

Epistemology and the Dialectic of Hope

EpistemologySo, in my last post, I promised that with the end of schoolwork, I’d be posting more here. That was 3 months ago, and I’ve been revealed as a liar. I spent this summer, for the most part, preparing for the dreaded GREs, and spent the rest of the time enjoying the green and quiet of Richmond, which, after the urine-soaked madness of Manhattan, I clung to with a nearly religious vigor. School will be starting again in about a week, and I will try to learn from my previous hubris and make no promises to post more often. Part of the problem is that, whereas in the past, theological musings would often lead to a post on here, now I immediately wonder if such musings should be turned into an academic paper. So being a (wannabe) academic ends up nipping my blogging impulse in the bud.

However, after coming across Paul Burkhart’s blog, I’ve been blog-invigorated, and want to “enter the conversation” (to use a trite but useful expression). Although my guess is that Paul and I may not see eye to eye on everything, I’ve found his posts extraordinarily thoughtful and thought-provoking, and am glad to see another Christian who is simultaneously concerned with orthodoxy and systematic thought. It was some comments on a joint post he did with an atheist writer that have prompted me to write here and now. A somewhat trollish commenter dismissed Paul’s faith and defense of it, rather summarily. The comments (by the user “meat”, whose gender is unclear, so I will refer to them with “they” and “them”) can be seen at the bottom of this post (I should note that I don’t particularly agree with much of what Paul had to say in the post itself, but that’s immaterial to what I want to talk about here).

Essentially, meat argued that Christianity was a priori indefensible. He seems to think that, if one simply analyzes Christianity according to a given set of historical, metaphysical, and existential methodologies, one should conclude without controversy that the faith is false. Fair enough, there’s nothing irrational about this. Perhaps Christianity is false. But  meat went a step further, and suggested that such an approach is akin to “set[ting one’s presuppositions] aside and then make [one’s] determination from naught”. In other words, meat seems to think that his preferred methodology rests on no biases or presuppositions, that s/he is operating from pure reason alone, like some 21st century Kant. So, according to meat Christians assume a host of problematic presuppositions, but meat does not; their approach is Reason Manifest.

Of course, the reality is that such a hermeneutic of pure reason is impossible; human beings always process data according to some pre-arrived-at set of assumptions. And this isn’t a bad thing, because otherwise, we could never draw any conclusions from given data or experiences. Each new moment would be completely unique, a new instance of pure becoming, which we could not link to any previous data or experience. In order to make sense of existence, we have to draw connections between past and present, and that means emphasizing some data over others, and making assumptions about how the world functions. I don’t doubt that if I am holding a brick in my hand, and then release it, that it will fall. I assume gravity will function–and such an assumption seems well-validated! But it’s an assumption, nonetheless. There is always a chance, however slim, that gravity might not function in this new moment. Yet few (if any) of us actually live our lives open to the practical possibility of such unpredictable world-states.

Such an assumption about gravity probably seems rather innocuous, but we engage in a similar sort of assuming in all of our critical reflection. Whenever we evaluate a historical claim, for example, we try to fit that claim into an already-existing body of historical knowledge and assumptions. Critiques of Christianity are keen on pointing out that Christians certainly do this–and they are quite right, we certainly do. However, they are often not so willing to admit this about themselves. So, meat is adamant that Paul should be aware of his having been brainwashed as a child: “I’m being serious when I discuss childhood brainwashing, it takes a lot to overcome and yet you seem fully aware of your being affected and simultaneously unable to set it, which is the reason for your presuppositions, aside.” Paul has assumptions that he should question, but meat doesn’t seem to think that they have assumptions they might need to put aside.

A great example of how this functions is the Historical Jesus Movement, which indeed Paul mentions by way of a Russ Douthat column (I’m generally not a fan of Douthat, but I think he hits the nail squarely on the head on this). The Historical Jesus crowd assumes a boatload of foundational ideas about how history works, what is possible, and what Jesus’ life could or should mean, and then crafts a version of Jesus’ history that fits these pre-arrived-at (and ideologically-entangled) views. Of course, this in and of itself is fine, but what’s problematic is that they seem to think that their image of Jesus is just the correct, historical one, not an ideologically and methodologically-tinged one. My opponents have biases, but not me! I’m honest and open-minded!

Now, I want to be clear: I am not arguing that while meat, Reza Aslan, and DF Strauss are chock-full of bias, I am some bias-free machine of logic. We all have biases and worldviews, and, as I suggested above, this is good! Worldviews are our attempts to make sense of the world; without them, our experience would be a disorganized jumble of sensations. Seeking truth means taking the risk of ordering, and often times being wrong. We have to order, even while admitting that our ordering will likely be wrong, and therefore be prepared to correct our ordering, to try again. This entails constant risk-taking, constant vulnerability to past positions being revealed as erroneous. We are always ready, indeed gleefully so, to point out when our opponents fall into error. We seem less prepared for our own eventual failures on this score.

In other words, everyone in any debate has entered with presuppositions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. Someone who tries to argue that they are working from no presuppositions but just reason and logic is lying either to themselves or to you, quite possibly both. Human knowledge always implies some system of ordering information, a complex set of rules for how knowledge can be received and validated. Theologians can’t deny this about themselves, but neither can their critics. We are all biased. Indeed, even the reliance on reason itself reveals a bias: that the world is indeed an orderly place governed by a strict causality, laws that are fully laws (not just rules) that are wholly consistent and homogeneous through space and time, and that humans possess the capacity to discern all necessary truths about the world to understand it. This is actually an incredibly credulous package of assumptions, which not only theologians but indeed the whole of continental philosophy (and Hume, and classical skeptics and the Cynics…) has called into question. So even reasonability itself implies a very specific worldview, a set of assumptions and commitments which should be open to question, not relied on as a prima facie foundation for all thought.

Indeed, humans are not just logical agents, but beings-in-the-world who are constantly affected by their emotional and physical needs and urges as well as by their capacity for reason. Indeed, this capacity is often overwhelmed by the two former sets of motivations. Even people who value reason highly still have to navigate their own existential, emotional reality. And so, now having discussed the ridiculousness of any debater ignoring their own biases and worldviews while pointing out their opponents’, I’d like to discuss one of the most fundamental worldview-determinants. The post that spawned meat‘s comments was a sort of back-and-forth between Paul and an atheist friend, Dan. Dan seemed interested in plumbing Paul’s reasons for maintaining his Christian faith, and Paul presented a number of scenarios which would cause him to question that faith.

For me, the whole premise of this debate/discussion, though, is deeply problematic. I don’t think it gets at the fundamental set of assumptions that I think really fuels people’s belief or non-belief. Ultimately, physical or historical evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection, or metaphysical reason applied to the Event in the abstract, are not the foundational causes for belief or non-belief. We enter this debate, as we do in all debates, as stressed above, already with a set of presumptions, assumptions, biases, ideologies, and worldviews. The critical issue when it comes to our existential e/valuation of a claim like the Resurrection is extremely fundamental to us as persons. It is, in an important sense, pre-rational (on the personal level).

Developing into a person–not just a human being, but a full person–is, above all else, the process of developing self-consciousness. We have been thinking, feeling beings for years before we begin to have any awareness of the fact that we think. I can feel hungry without being aware that there is a process of feeling hungry. There comes a point when a thinking being recognizes that it is not just a detached subject taking in sensory data about an alien world, but actually also an object-body in that world. My thinking is something that my brain/body complex does. I am an object in the world. And this means I am vulnerable. I can die. I can be harmed. I can experience pain. These possibilities, I come to realize, are not just events that might occur in the process of my thoughts and feelings–they will or will not occur depending on what happens to my mind/body complex. I don’t have control over my own future, at least not in a final sense. I am contingent.

Such a realization is the beginning of existential reflection. It is the occasion of a sense of self. I have to navigate my own existence in the world; I am not just a sovereign consciousness sensing things. My future is tied up with the future of the world: my world. An awareness of my vulnerability introduces a new dialectic to human thought. Though it may have existed in embryonic form before, the rise of self-conscious realization forces it fully into our awareness. I have taken to calling this the Dialectic of Hope. Once we recognize ourselves as beings-in-the-world, we recognize that we have a future, that we will (or at least might) experience new thoughts and feelings in the future, and that what we will experience is largely going to be determined by forces out of our control. We, at this point, cannot help but feel hope: we hope that our future will be pleasant, pleasurable, peaceful, fulfilling. And we fear that it will not be, that we will die, that we will suffer, that we will be unfulfilled, that we will experience ugliness. This is the Dialectic of Hope. And our expectations along this dialectic–whether we are more likely to trust in hope or not–will greatly influence our credulity vis-a-vis claims like the Resurrection.

An essentially hopeful person will find the story of the Resurrection, at least some tiny kernel of it, reasonable, possible, and meaningful. The Resurrection is the vindication of self over other, of life over death, of subject over a deterministic object-order. Conversely, someone who is predisposed towards non-hope or fear will likely find the event unreasonable, impossible, and meaningless or even deceitful. What’s important here is that such a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness is brought to the event prima facie. In other words, no one simply evaluates the historical data about the Resurrection in a cool, detached fashion. Everyone has an axe to grind, a dog in the fight, because everyone is already committed, I believe, to a stance of hopefulness or non-hopefulness (I don’t think this is a binary, but rather a spectrum strung upon the dialectic; two people could both be hopeful in general, with one more, and the other somewhat less, hopeful).

Being or not being hopeful is, in and of itself, not some totally independent position. Obviously, our previous life experiences, our understanding of our family’s, ethnicity’s, nation’s, and species’ history will help to form our sense of hopefulness or non-hopefulness. But, that said, in each moment of evaluation of a given event, our stance of non/hopefulness is a prima facie stance that will color our evaluation. So, in an important sense, faith in Christianity is, even before faith in the Resurrection, a willingness to hope, in general.

Of course, this neither proves or disproves the Resurrection; I am not making any objective claim about the truthfulness or lack thereof of the Resurrection claim. I am pointing to the hermeneutical and epistemological bases from which all of us–believers and non-believers alike–make our evaluations. There is no neutral ground, there is no pure reason. There are only living, self-aware beings with complex histories struggling to understand, to live, and to thrive. Too often, modernism’s static, lifeless, narrow epistemology is asserted as some sort of necessary starting-ground for serious thought. But such a starting-ground already rests on a mountain of assumptions. It may turn out that such assumptions are correct–but serious philosophical, historical, and metaphysical reflection demands a willingness to analyze, critique, and deconstruct them. The idea that only those thoughts consonant with a given framework of modern thought are even worth considering is itself intellectually naive and embarrassingly credulous.

Albert V. Krauss; or, A Few Well-Known Scientists’ Ignorance of Science

Larry Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing

Last year, Lawrence Krauss wrote A Universe from Nothing in which he explained how physicists’ current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests how quantum probability fields relate to one another to create matter and how, therefore, a state in which no matter existed could yield a state in which matter existed: in some arrangements, quantum fields yield no particles, but if their arrangements shift, matter would basically “appear”. So something (that is, matter) could appear from “nothing”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Krauss pressed this point to try and argue that theological and philosophical arguments about cosmogenesis were now obsolete–through the mechanism described above, physics showed how the universe came into being.

Except that…it doesn’t. What’s so surprising about Krauss’ claim is how jaw-droppingly misguided it is. He seems to think that a quantum state in which fields exist but do not generate matter is “nothing”. But of course such a state isn’t nothing–the fields still exist–and since these fields are the very basis of just about everything, at least as quantum mechanics tells it, this means that essentially the same something that is now present would be present in such a state–just in a different configuration. This is like arguing that while a diamond is something, a piece of coal is nothing, because the carbon atoms are arranged differently.

This is obviously ridiculous, but I don’t think Krauss is pulling a Joaquin Phoenix here–he seems to be dead serious. This reveals that he basically doesn’t understand what the word “nothing” means, which is pretty scandalous, because I’m pretty sure he’s a native English speaker. Now, Krauss’ book ended up eliciting a scathing review from one David Albert in the New York Times–to which Krauss responded with a bitter interview with Ross Anderson in the Atlantic. I would really recommend reading both as they provide the central material of the debate. Neither is horribly long, and they give some real insight into the two camps that have basically lined up in this debate.

As for those two camps, lots of people have been posting on blogs and elsewhere, flocking to this academic dust-up. Two articles I found particularly worthwhile were Adam Frank’s post in NPR’s 13.7 blog and Massimo Pigliucci’s post in Rationally Speaking. Both seek to understand why Krauss–and some other scientists–seem so hostile to philosophy in general. The fact that Krauss’ book was plastered with an enthusiastic blurb in which Richard Dawkins compared the work with Darwin’s The Origin of Species only underscores this theme: Dawkins is well known for his hatred of religion and his dismissive attitude towards theology, but he’s equally hostile to–and ignorant of–philosophy.

Both Krauss and Dawkins are, essentially, dogmatic scientists. Science, as a methodology, has finally been around long enough that people can practice it without understanding what it actually is and how it works. The philosophy of science attempts to continue analyzing science as a discipline, but this often leads to philosophers pointing out that scientists themselves overreach in their claims–which understandably frustrates those scientists. But instead of giving well-thought-out defenses of their positions, increasingly scientists just dismiss philosophy altogether.

This rhetorical tactic is as psychologically interesting as it is logically deficient. You can’t actually win a debate by simply saying that your opponent’s opinion is wrong a priori because they have one doctoral degree instead of another; but this is exactly what Krauss and Dawkins do. Albert’s central critique of Krauss’ book is the one outlined above: the English word nothing means just that–nothing. No thing, not structure, no space, no time, no matter–no nothing! Krauss explains how one state of existence, one structure of being–quantum fields aligned in a given way–can lead to a different state of existence–quantum fields aligned in such a way as to bring matter into existence. But he seems to think he’s actually explained how something came from nothing–when in reality he’s explained how one thing came from something else, or, really: how one set of relationships resulted in a different set of relationships.

This is really no different from claiming that when the first sufficiently heavy star exploded in a supernova and generated really heavy elements–like gold and uranium–for the first time, that this was creatio ex nihilo–the creation of something (i.e. gold and uranium) out of nothing (i.e. hydrogen, iron, oxygen, and incredible amounts of energy). Obviously hydrogen, iron, etc. are not nothing. Perhaps less obviously–but no less truly–quantum fields are not nothing. They are, as said above, actually everything–they and their relating account, as far as we currently know, for everything we see (although I gather that the laws simply assume space-time rather than account for it–but I’m not sure). They are, actually, the opposite of nothing.

It’s hard not to wonder if the materialist realism that underpins modern science hasn’t so uncritically ingrained itself on the minds of folks like Krauss that they can’t even understand the implications of their own work. I’m not saying this unequivocally, I’m really wondering. But he seems to think that the absence of matter-as-particles is equivalent to “nothing”, even as he spearheads research in a field that seeks to explain particles as composite realities determined by something other than particles. In other words, his field assumes that particles are generated by the reaction of something more fundamental than particles. And yet he still seems to think that the absence of particles signifies the absence of anything. Which draws the question: so, quantum physics is the study of…nothing?

In short, Krauss knows how to pursue empirical methodology–and he seems very good at, I’m not aiming here to criticize his actual theoretical and experimental work as a physicist–but doesn’t seem to actually understand it. He seems to essentially be “ontologizing” his epistemology. In its radically skeptical form, empiricism basically accords no reality to anything except sense perceptions. Hume certainly held to this view. But quantum mechanics, crucially, claims–and with lots of indirect empirical evidence–that the reality we see and experience is governed by forces that we cannot directly detect. In other words, empiricism has itself led to a denunciation of its most extremely skeptical variety.This is in no way a refutation of science, but actually science itself progressive, developing, and critiquing itself in a very healthy way. Note that while Hume hewed to a very skeptical empiricist view, Netwon and Bacon did not.

Interestingly, quantum physics seems to have almost as much–perhaps even more–in common with objective idealism as it does with materialist realism. Traditional materialism along Netwonian lines simply took particles, space, and time as givens–particles were completely simple, with no composites. Modern physics has dramatically overturned this view; now it is forces, laws, and probabilities that are most fundamentally real. This actually mimics, at least in broad outlines, the thought of people like Immanuel Kant and HGF Hegel–not to mention the likes of Spinoza and even Plato. The various forms of idealism that each developed tended to see logic, mathematics, and reason as fundamental to the reality of the universe (though each differed from each other in crucial ways, and obviously quantum mechanics is not idealism–nonetheless, the parallels are, I think, intriguing). It might be better, though, to say that quantum mechanics seems to be affirming some of the fundamental insights of both objective idealism and material realism.

This sort of discussion is precisely the sort of thing that philosophers of science do, and it’s important to the practice of science because science, like all epistemological methods, only works when it is properly understood and well-guided. Once scientists themselves lose sight of how their discipline works, they are unlikely to be able to advance their field as quickly and are also likely to make erroneous and wild conclusions–just as we have seen Krauss do. This isn’t to say that somehow philosophy should “rule over” science, but rather than its voice and its discipline are valuable. It’s also well worth pointing out that many, many scientists are interested and educated in philosophy and even theology–I am not here criticizing all scientists en mass, most of whom actually do take these questions seriously. There is, however, a troubling trend within popular science writing of dismissing philosophy for a pure sort of empiricist materialist realism that dis-serves the public and damages the credibility and progress of science itself.

Sam Harris, Science, and Morality

Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 in which he argued that science can–and should–be used to define morality and ethics. His argument essentially boils down to this: moral decisions are decisions made about facts. The more we know about the world, the more facts we have about it and the better and more sophisticated our understanding of those facts, the better decisions we can make. Therefore, morality should be guided by science (and presumably not religion) because it is the scientific process that allows us to test which ethical decisions work well, and which are deficient.

At its core, I don’t disagree with this argument. For example, if we want to help children grown up healthily, I think it makes sense to research nutrition, to see what foods tend to help children grow quickly and healthily. Such an approach would be broadly scientific, and it’s hard to argue with. But it also seems clear to me that Sam Harris both misunderstands the traditional “science can’t define an ethics” argument and is overly credulous when it comes to science’s general merits. The presentation video is below:

First off, though Sam Harris seems to think that he is debunking the argument that science can’t provide the basis for ethics, he actually never discusses it. He is either woefully, even shockingly unaware of what the real debate is about, or is being disingenuous in his presentation. The claim that ethics and morality are beyond the realm of science is a claim about the foundations of ethics, not its application. It’s one thing to say that “assuming that X is good, science can help us achieve X”. I think this is a pretty uncontroversial statement. But what if someone questions the goodness of X? Sam Harris argues that science can help us to figure out how to help conscious beings live more fulfilling lives. But why is helping conscious beings live fulfilling lives good?

This may seem to be some sort of trick question, but it’s not. Harris simply assumes an ethical system, and then argues that science can help us to apply that system–and he’s right. But he completely ignores that science is essentially agnostic when it comes to the basis of ethics. Why is it wrong to kill a person? Science can help us develop better ways of saving lives, of fighting disease, perhaps even through psychology it can help us to deter people from attempting harm one another. But what does empiricism have to say about why it’s wrong to kill someone in the first place? The traditional approach has been to build on some sort of pragmatic or utilitarian philosophy, but again these simply assume the right- or wrongness of given activities, and argue how best to organize human activity so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Science simply gives us data on causality and being: it helps us understand why and how A leads to B. But ethics is interested in whether A leading to B is good, bad, or neutral. And this is always subjective. Is my taking $100 dollars from your wallet a good or a bad thing? Obviously that depends on who’s asking. I may argue it’s a good thing; you would probably argue it’s a bad thing. Most observers would probably agree with you. But what if an extremely poor man stole $100 dollars from Jamie Dimon to feed his starving children? Dimon might actually argue that this is still a bad thing, but I imagine that most of us would not agree. Could science ever provide a definitive answer to this? It might very well provide better systems for preventing theft, it could also provide better thieving systems. But could it provide conclusive reasoning for deciding what actions are bad?

In short, why is it good to help conscious beings thrive? Viewing such thriving as a good thing is an act of valuing. I value conscious beings, but not for truly, or directly, rational reasons. I am delighted to see a dog playing, for example, but it’s not because I somehow think that the dog’s play will indirectly help me. It’s an emotional response, deeply complicated. Now, it is true that that science, in the form of psychology or neurology, could help explain why I find a dog’s playfulness enjoyable, and why I might choose to, for example, build a dog park, or rescue a dog from the pound. But is my choice to do so the right choice, from some sort of factual, objective standpoint? What does that question even mean? How would we determine the rightness or wrongness of my rescuing a dog, from a scientific standpoint?

The point of arguing that science cannot speak directly to ethical issues is to make it clear that science cannot give definitive answers as to why something is ethical or unethical. It can help us achieve a more ethical society (at least in theory) but science could be marshaled to defend any number of ethical systems which would conflict with one another. Science itself is ethically agnostic, because it objectifies the world. Science analyzes things into their components to understand them. Ethics is a subjective process in which unified wholes are valued for a complex set of reasons; different subjects value differing things, and there is no objective way to prove or disprove either valuation. Although science certainly can explain how the valuing occurs, it can’t comment on whether the valuing is good or bad, right or wrong.

Harris doesn’t seem to grasp this, which is amazing, because this is really fundamental philosophical stuff. He wouldn’t have to open the Bible or any other religious book to explore this conundrum; Sarte or Nietzche would do just as well. The disconnect between the world seen as an object and the world experienced as a subject is probably the oldest problem of philosophy, and one that still dominates it. That Harris could spend years writing about religion an ethics, and seemingly never come to understand this, is quite amazing and perplexing. But his position also belies a subtler, but still significant confusion.

Harris seems extremely confident that empiricism–science–will allow humans to build a better and better world; he seems to believe in the inevitability of human progress: as we learn more about the world, we can manipulate it into a better and better place for us to live. The evidence suggests, though, that science has had a much more equivocal impact on the world and on human life. Science has, on the one hand, brought us vaccines, and sanitation systems, and medical intervention, and increased food production, and all sorts of creature comforts. This can’t be denied, and let me be honest: I’m sitting in a heated room, typing on a computer. I have refrigerated food here, and all sorts of books, food, clothes, etc. that were shipped here on technologically advanced ships, trucks, and trains. I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not here to say that science is inherently evil.

But science has also brought atom bombs, machine guns, mustard gas, mercury poisoning, and global warming. It’s not some unalloyed good; progress isn’t guaranteed just because we are applying science to our problems. In fact, it could be argued that though science has improved the lives of a relatively small number of fortunate people, on balance it’s proving to be a growing catastrophe for life in general. This remains to be seen, though. Many people hope that we can use science applied through technology to address the problems caused in the past by science applied through technology. “Green” energy sources, for example, can hopefully be deployed to replace fossil fuels. I hope they are right, but I have to be honest that I’m not particularly confident. “Green” technology may prove to be extremely damaging to the environment; let’s remember that when people started burning coal on a large scale in the 19th century, they had no idea it would lead to the problems we now face. Manufacturing millions of solar panels and wind turbines will involve vast mining operations and the expenditure of huge amounts of energy, and their deployment into the environment may prove to have unforeseen negative consequences.

Of course, perhaps not. I’m not trying to define a wholesale anti-scientific pessimism, but I do think we should be aware of the limitations of our knowledge and the real possibility of serious problems arising from the solutions we are so enthusiastic about today. Ultimately, this credulous approach to science is very much an ideology; some have called it “scientism”. It boils down to a fervent confidence bordering on faith (though they would hate for me to use that word) that human beings, through the application of reason and empirical investigation, can fully understand the world, and apply that understanding through technology to master the world as on object. I am decidedly unconfident about our odds here; as we just discussed, our history suggests that science’s advances nearly always come with huge downsides, major vulnerabilities. I don’t think we are as in-control as “scientismists”, as it were, would have us believe.

And, interestingly enough, this gets us back to the subject-object dichotomy discussed above. A highly credulous view of science ultimately depends on a fully object-focused view of the world that is reductionist and even mechanical. Such a view is less and less capable of making effective predictions as more and more complex systems are added to what is being observed. We are coming to find that the earth, as a biosphere, is far more complex, and sophisticatedly balanced, than we realized before. The argument that we can simply apply our ever-increasingly knowledge to the objects before us and increasingly develop a more convenient environment runs into the real experience of humans, that as we manipulate the biosphere to garner given benefits, real costs are extracted, though often in hard-to-predict ways, and often on people who were not involved in the development of the original technology (i.e. these effects are often “externalities”).

Harris, then, misses the mark, I think, both in his basic philosophical confusion, and in his over-enthusiasm for science as a sort of panacea for all human ills. Again, none of this is to say that I do not believe we should apply science to our problems. But, first, I think we have to recognize the science itself is built on a wide base of philosophical assumptions, some of which may prove to be false, and that there are questions that this system of though cannot effectively answer in full. Ethics is perhaps the best example of this; science can certainly  help us to apply our ethical system, but it can’t answer the basic, fundamental, crucial questions at the very core of our ethical investigations. Second, science itself is a bit of a fickle mistress: what it gives with the right hand it takes with the left, and I think we need to be much more cautious with it than many modern science-boosters would have us be. Harris seems to make massive errors in both of these areas of thought, and I am sad to see his public influence continue. It’s especially ironic that he fancies himself a trusted ethicist, considering that he apparently believes that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith, p. 52). Harris really seems to be the epitome of polarized, hyper-empirical “scientismist”: fully confident of his own moral rightness and his capacity to understand anything and everything. He is much more similar to the oppressive religious leaders he is so (rightly) critical of than he seems to realize.

I would submit that the video below, an abbreviated (and wonderfully animated) recording of a presentation that Iain McGilchrist gave to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, portrays a much more accurate, useful, and sophisticated view of human decision-making than Harris’.

[UPDATE: this post appears in slightly modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog]

Subject and Object: Reality as Person or Thing?

The distinctions between various philosophies and religions are often spelled out in hyper-technical language. An understanding of the millennia-old conflict between Idealism and Materialism, for example, demands an in-depth discussion of the nature of observation, causation, the nature of being, formal logic, and a host of other relatively arcane knowledge. It’s interesting, and even important, especially for those who want to understand all the twists and turns of the historical development of philosophy. But for most people, understanding the details of the conflict between these two philosophical approaches won’t result in any life-changing revelations–particularly since there are many conflicting subtypes of both Idealism and Materialism.

But at the heart of even such a seemingly arcane debate crucial questions lie. The origin of the Idealist v. Materialist debate was an attempt to explain the coincidence of thought, on the one hand, and the material world, on the other. Though modern science has basically resolved this conflict in favor of materialism’s view that thought is an “epiphenomenon” arising from specific structures of matter, modern existentialism and post-modern philosophy, especially in artistic and literary criticism, suggest that there is something yet deeper at question. Ultimately, one of, perhaps the, central question in philosophy is how to account for subjectivity and objectivity in one approach. It’s one thing to show how matter and energy, when organized in a very specific way, can generate, as it were, thought. It’s another question, though, of how to account for the experience of subjectivity. In other words, describing the physical and energetic causes of thought is still an objective understanding of it–how do we understand subjectivity itself?

Ultimately, the neuroscientific explanation of thought can only account for a broad matrix of electro-chemical interactions–billions a second–but there’s no clear reason that such a series of synaptic firings ought to yield anything but a piecemeal computation system. We don’t experience each of our sensory stimuli, each of our emotions, each of our cognitive responses, as individual events. They appear to us as a holistic experience that we call “I” or “self”. While there seems to be some evidence pointing to certain regions of the brain as the center of self-awareness, this would only explain the capacity of our cognitive processing system to analyze its own data–the actual experience of consciousness is not reducible to any specific physical action. It seems only to occur as a relationship of energy-matter in space-time. But its important to point out that it doesn’t “exist” at any given place or time; it occurs at certain places and times in very specific systems, but it’s impossible to actually witness–unless you are the consciousness in question! Consciousness, in other words, can never be reduced down to any simple system, it only occurs when a very specific and complex relationship exists. Yet, as subjective beings, our subjectivity is not some abstract philosophical idea–it’s literally the most real thing we ever encounter.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that what I experience as subjective, everyone else can only understand objectively. This is a central issue that Martin Buber took up in his I and Thou: he defined two ways in which people can interact with the world. The first is the I-It paradigm. In this frame, we look at everything in the world as a body of matter which we can interact with, modify, combat, destroy, or cooperate with to our advantage. Thus everything–from minerals to plants, animals, and other people–is seen only as a physical phenomenon, which we can understand and master through analysis and technology. The other frame is the I-Thou relationship, in which people experience whatever they are encountering as a “thou”–an independent center of reality and meaning. Essentially, in the I-It frame we treat the world as object; in the I-Thou frame we recognize the subject in what we encounter. But this recognition of the subject is always taken, as it were, on faith–I can never experience another’s subjectivity, I can only respect it.

Buber had no intention of denigrating the I-It objective frame; he recognized its vast importance in human life. But he did argue that it is only in the I-Thou subjective frame that we can build real communities, love each other, experience God, and work for the renewing of the world. Where Idealism failed to build a separate sphere for the mental world independent of the material, Buber succeeds, not be cordoning each off the other as Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, et al. tried to do, but to show that they were actually united in a paradox. The objective is reductive and analytic; the subjective is relational and synthetic.

But a central question is to what extent this view of reality can be seen as scientifically valid. And on this question I turn to Fritjof Capra, a physicist who, in The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point, explored the links between the spiritual and the scientific. What was most crucial and interesting, however, were his points that, in fact, even the most reductive science is relational: the fundamental forces of physics (the weak, the strong, the electromagnetic, and gravity) only explain what various particles and fields do when they interact with one another. It’s not possible–not even theoretically–to analyze a particle without interacting with it energetically, and thereby engaging it in relationship. This fundamentally challenges the classical understanding of atomic physics developed pre-Einstein that assumed a sort of unchangeable basic “stuff” which was sort of stacked together to built the universe. Strange as it is, quantum mechanics, at least as Capra explains it, suggests that there is no fundamental stuff–the stuff only comes into existence as various probability fields interact with one another. So the idea that consciousness is nothing itself but a relationship, which would have been scandal to pre-Einstein science, seems, under the light of contemporary physics, not only be a valid route of philosophical inquiry, but perhaps the only way forward in an attempt to understand subjectivity.

For modern people–or at least for one modern person, me–this is crucial for “rescuing” not only subjectivity, but value and meaning in a scientific world. A relational approach to the world allows us to integrate the lessons of analytical empiricism with our subjective experience of the world as a place populated with persons, not just material-energetic activity. This has clear implications for spirituality, ethics, politics, economics, and almost every human social endeavor, which I hope to explore in later posts.