The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Monday, April 21, 2014

Imagination, abstraction, and limits

Rod Dreher wants to talk about the trouble with nominalism.  That’s above my pay grade, I am afraid, even as I am thinking that I am going to eventually have to learn more about this area (from what I understand about it, it seems that a strict approach to nominalism is clearly fatally flawed, even as it surely provided some answers for other philosophical theories that did not seem able to account for the complexity found in the world). 

Will have to tackle that more later….  For now, let’s deal with modern ideas of what constitutes knowledge we can be pretty sure of and the proper use of such knowledge….

The ELCA Lutheran philosopher Tom Christenson is a smart guy:

The powers of human imagination are necessarily linked to the powers of abstraction.  An architect imagines a building as floor plan or section.  In order to do so she must abstract from many aspects of humanly experienced space.  A physicist imagines masses in gravitational fields.   In order to do so he must abstract from many aspects of the bodies considered.  These aspects are irrelevant to his study, though they may be very relevant to him in some other facet of his life.   This is not how he experiences the world, but it is how his science requires that it be seen.  An economist imagines the world as a network of realities measurable in monetary units.  This imagined world is an abstraction of certain features from among a continuum of features including ones the architect and the physicist (and the economist herself in a different context) find relevant.  Only certain measurable features of the world enter into an architect’s, a physicists’s, or an economist’s way of imagining.  The world thus imagined is simplified and clarified.  The relations between focal quantities are expressible in formulas.  The economist’s quantities do not fit as variables in the physicist’s formulas; the physicist’s do not fit the economist’s formulas eithers.  Different features of the same thing (e.g., of steel girders or the midday sun) may appear in the imaginatively clarified worlds of all three thinkers.  

Human imagination and focused attention allow us to perceive and interpret the world in many patterns.  The variation in those patterns of imagination/abstraction make possible such widely diverse things as space flight and short stories, computers and mythology, skyscrapers and pornography, relativity physics and the work of Shakespeare, chemistry and ethics.  Because each is an imaginative reconstruction of the world, it is an abstraction of the world.  Because each focuses something in, it also focuses something out.  Because each expresses a way things are, each also expresses a way things are not.  Each is able to tell a truth because each does not tell the truth. 

[Nathan’s note: yes, I too was wondering what pornography was doing in a list of otherwise undeniably good and useful things]

Herein lies one of the sources of our difficulty as humans.  We have been so highly and perhaps naturally impressed by what we have been able to see and understand from our imagined/abstracted points of view that we have become seduced into thinking that these abstractions are reality itself.  So we have created religions on the basis of our mythologies, and schools of thought on the basis of our disciplines.  We have declared alternative views heresies, reduced others’ ways of thinking to nonsense, and persecuted those who have not occupied our thought-world, calling them savages, uncivilized, and uneducated; calling those who did not know our stories and languages illiterate and barbarian.  We have turned these abstracted worlds into playing fields on which all must play in order that we can win and they will lose.  Their loss justifies their poverty and disenfranchisement.  They cannot complain.  They had their chance.  We have called it equality of opportunity. 

Thus our accomplishments in imagining and abstracting have often been accompanied by claims for the comprehensiveness, absoluteness, and exclusivity of the views based on them.  The appropriate response to this realization is not to abandon or accuse this human ability to imagine and abstract.  The proper response to learning that tools can be dangerous is not to stop using them.  The proper response is to be much more critical of our own claims to exclusivity and comprehensiveness.  We must realize that it does not follow from the fact that my view reveals a truth about the world that alternative views must be presumed false.  Monet painted many pictures of Rouen Cathedral.  Each of them does not refute the others.  He was not a failure for not being able to paint the picture.  Our failure lies not in imagining and abstracting, but in taking our imaginings and abstractions as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  It isn’t that we need to find a newer, truer view.  We need to find the power to criticize ourselves honestly and then go on to celebrate the variety of our own and other’s limited successes.  Let us be happy we have as many paintings of Rouen Cathedral as we have without lamenting the fact that we do not have the picture of Rouen Cathedral, whatever in the world that might be… (pp. 74-75)

I think that Christenson says some things that are helpful here and some that are not so helpful.  I will refrain from doing a detailed exegesis of what he is written here.  Suffice it to say that while he wants to just talk about painters, I would like to talk also about photographers as well – which can indeed sometimes provide a “newer, truer view” (contra 76 ; see 80)  

It seems to me that for Christenson, taking into consideration the subjective aspects of knowing (i.e. the fact that knowing is something done by individual persons of various backgrounds and views) must necessarily go hand in hand with a dismissal of rigorous attempts to “size up’ the cosmos that exist outside of us in a manner that has at least some concern for notions of objectivity (see p. 103 in particular) and the notion that some descriptions and viewpoints of this or that may be superior (“newer, truer view”) to others across a variety of cultural contexts (see p. 76, paragraph 1). 

In spite of his words on p. 106 that a key aspect of knowing is that it is “object-focused” (and it does not need to be prejudiced, unobservant or untrustworthy), I think that his view leaves him unable to defend himself versus the charge that his very own way of seeing things is nothing more than a way of advancing his own agenda (his own “transcendent, global claim[-making] power-defined epistemology” [p. 104] ; see his own remarks about being wary of this on page 126, paragraph three) at the expense of a rigorous concern for truth, including seeing things as they really are (which he also wants to do, shown, for example, in the John Updike quote he uses on page 122). 

In other words, for some Christians in particular, he can be dismissed as just another garden-variety ideologue (albeit a “soft power” one and not a “hard power” one) and indeed a sexual-libertine one at that! (not just because of his remarks on pornography – there are other reasons for thinking this might be the case).  Of course, saying this may not be fair to Christenson himself, but it seems to me that more robustness is actually needed in his systematic treatment of epistemology – one that is more explicitly self-aware vis a vis other viewpoints (I get the impression that he thinks that since he perceives that he does not hold to his own views “in a dogmatic way”, that he would never be capable of “beati[ing] someone over the head with [his] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness” [or worse!, p. 79], which is basically what I thought was happening to me throughout much of his book, since I disagreed with several of his views, descriptions, assertions, etc.). 

This reminds me of a book I recently read by the integrationist linguist Roy Harris (I appreciate integrationists and am somewhat attracted to their theories), called After Epistemology.  In it, he says that “Classical thinking, imposes an epistemological hierarchy, in which linguistic knowledge takes priority over non-linguistic knowledge” (AE, p. 78), but I submit that that this is a recurring human story.  It seems to me that human beings have a tendency to suppress any “non-linguistic knowledge” – or any kind of knowledge for that matter – which they find inconvenient, that “cramps their style”. “Inconvenient truths” and annoying contextual knowledge, sometimes seemingly trivial, sometimes more clearly of wide consequence, (this is not to insist that apart from our own or other’s lies, deceptions, and illusions that our senses and minds are perfectly reliable – i.e. that what is within us [our “personal equipment”] tracks in a perfectly “one-to-one” way with what is external to us – but that it is reliable enough for helping people do what they are meant to do) are to be mitigated – and it only makes sense that they would do this with our words – to create our own meaning.   

I agree with Harris that Classical thinking was unique in that it was “a bold attempt to move knowledge into the public domain” (AE, p. 79, emphasis Harris’), but I think that whatever the motives of those who did this, overall, it served to help fight against our tendency to suppress our knowledge of ourselves and the world.  Overall though – of course – suppression still reigned and reigns – and new kinds of knowledge suppression were undoubtedly introduced and made possible by this new “public language” as well.  A little stability, a little order, a little love, a little pleasure, perhaps a little justice (however conceived): what more could one ask from life?  “What is truth?” indeed.     

In any case, from this Christian’s perspective, Both Christenson’s and Harris’ ideas are certainly able to be easily molded towards the service of moral pursuits at odds with the Scriptures.  Any view of the world that assumes there always have been and always will be some stable categories – even if only during our time on earth! – must be suppressed, or at the very least, mitigated.

This goes along with the spirit of the age.  Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot

(quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

Now I would not say that we can never, a la Kant a la Plato, talk about “Instantiations (creating concrete representations of abstract things or ideas) of noumena (a “thing in itself”) for phenomena (a “thing as it appears to be”, i.e. through one’s sensory experience and construction by the mind)”, but this should be the exception, not the rule – especially in theology!  Aristotle, for all his imperfections, is more in line with biblical thinking here.

For more reflection on Christianity, epistemology and history, also see the series I did elsewhere on my other blog, What Athens needs from Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

We know more than we can tell

Thus said the 20th century scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi.  Tom Christenson, in his book “The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education” tips his hat to Michael Polanyi on several occasions.  In one instance, as Christenson explains what our approach to knowing should be, he says the following:

“Our own approach, I would argue, should be the opposite of Descartes’ exclusivism.  Let us begin by looking at knowing inclusively, by noting the variety of ways of knowing there are and then examine the variety of modes such exemplars embody:

-Being able to recognize one’s own camel in a herd of 200 camels
-Knowing how to successfully turn the corner on a bicycle
-Driving a car – safely getting where we wanted to go
-A doctor diagnosing a disease
-A teacher detecting that a student does not yet understand
-A young man discovering that he is gay [note: I would say has homosexual inclinations]
-A child learning to recognize that she is experiencing a headache (not as simple as it seems)
-A person realizing she was born (or do we only know this on someone else’s authority?)
-A person realizing that he will die (Tolstoi’s Ivan Illich)
-A student concluding on the basis of lab experiments that the unknown substance is aluminum oxide
-A psychologist diagnosing a patient’s problem
-A physicist concluding that the earth is in motion
-Knowing what time it is in spite of not being able to say anything non-metaphorical about it (St. Augustine’s puzzlement)
-Einstein postulating that time is the fourth dimension
-Shakespeare seeing deeply into the human psyche
-A reader seeing deeply into Shakespeare
-Annie Dillard experiencing “the tree with the lights in it”
-A parent realizing deep love for his children
-A child learning the language of his parents well enough to say, “I don’t want to eat because I amn’t hungry”
-A student of Buddhism understanding the truth of the teacher’s claim: “The self is a cultural construct, not a reality”
-A young woman knowing her self well enough to set priorities for her life, turning down a proposal of marriage
-A man discovering that some of his most basic beliefs about human fulfillment were false
-A grandmother once again making flawless piecrust
-A student finally “getting” a poem by Wallace Stevens
-A witness to a crime testifying under oath
-A couple dancing a samba

(pp. 105 and 106)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part III of III)

Picking up from part I and part II

There is no doubt that all of us have the desire to know. It has been said that “knowledge is power” and while that is undoubtedly true, we are not only trying to simply gain more control of the cosmos when we endeavor to learn.  There are many things in life that we are simply curious about.  We seek “knowledge for its own sake” even as we sometimes seek to know things that others around us may not deem to be appropriate, relevant, or even true.   This was true of human beings even before the Enlightenment. 

That said, perhaps even this should give us pause, especially after considering the metaphysical claims of the Sprint ad embedded here (take some time to look at it).  Consider these challenging words from Parker Palmer’s To Know As we Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey:

Curiosity sometimes kills, and our desire to control has put deadly power in some very unsteady hands.  We should not be surprised that knowledge launched from these sources is heading toward some terrible ends, undeflected by ethical values as basic as respect for life itself….  If curiosity and control are the primary motives for our knowing, we will generate a knowledge that eventually carries us not toward life but death.

But another kind of knowledge is available to us, one that begins in a different passion and is drawn towards other ends.  This knowledge can contain as much sound fact and theory as the knowledge we now possess, but because it springs from a truer passion it works towards truer ends.  This is a knowledge that originates…. In compassion, or love (pp. 26-27, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, quoted in Christensen, p. 99)

In addition, wisdom would tell us that some knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands, some knowledge is simply dangerous, and all will agree that there are at least some things we know (until they are shown to be false!) that need not and perhaps should not be doubted!  All this said, what does this mean for our conversation about this issue of neutrality?  Can more be said?  Is this something that we should strive for at all, even if it is nothing more than an ideal?

While there are certainly times in life where it is wrong to be “neutral”, I do think that there are times and places to strive for this – and to encourage such efforts – as much as possible.  By “neutrality” I simply mean giving a voice to persons who attempt, by their education and reasoning, to persuade others regarding issues that are very important to them and others.  In times such as these, it is a very special teacher who can hold student’s interest and is able to not tip his or her hat as to which way she leans about what she thinks about this or that – even if it is philosophically na├»ve to say that any person can truly be neutral!  As regards libraries, striving for some kind of neutrality – across a narrow or broad selection of topics – may not be able to be much of a focus for some as their missions will understandably guide the material that they select.  That said, libraries in aggregate can get very close to just this ideal, via the modern marvel of interlibrary loan, allowing the exchange of perhaps very disparate materials from very disparate institutions!

In the end, I think all real neutrality is impossible: we are all idealogues, every one.  The fact that evidence which is public, relevant and convincing is (evidently) important to many of us cannot change this fact – a fact that I do not think is necessarily bad.  The real problem and question, I suggest, is what kind of idealogues are we?  It seems to me that libraries are often made up idealogues who at least occasionally like to have their views challenged, which is another thing that attracted me to the profession.

That said, I can’t necessarily say the same thing for some other persons of the “liberally educated persuasion”.  Just the other day while listening to N.P.R., I heard a program in which highly educated men – men whom I have generally found to be quite reasonable – made it clear in no uncertain terms that “religious freedom” – that is the practices which flow from the beliefs I have discussed in this series – will need to be a casualty of the continued march of progress (ah, progress).  It was a jarring and disconcerting experience, even as I certainly am not ready to resort to feverish language about persecution. : )

Nevertheless, experiences like these makes statements like the following, from Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s book “Libraries and the Enlightenment”, all the more interesting to me: “Devout religious believers who also believe that everyone should worship as they do understandably dislike or even fear freedom and autonomy” (p. 35)

Is it possible that the “devout religious believers” Bivens-Tatum mentions might be a broader category than he thinks?  Is it possible that the number of those who fear “freedom and autonomy” might be more than he suspects?  In any case, I am always curious to know where men and women who sign on to the purely secular version of Enlightenment think “the rights of man” came from – if not simply from the “will to power”!  It seems to me that even highly educated persons can be as unreflective about questions like these as can those who produced the mind-blowing (or destroying!) Sprint ad above.  No, if this series of posts has caused anyone to even doubt the veracity of Bivens-Tatum’s statement above – as regards some devout Christians at least – it will have been worth my efforts. 

Just because I, for example, might have extremely strong convictions about what is true – that I generally don’t think are good to doubt – does not mean that I can’t genuinely engage other’s views and “learn from the disagreement” (the Catholic Christian and librarian Gabriel Naude [1600 – 1653] said: “God permits us to profit from our enemies”, quoted in Bivens-Tatum, 153).  And it definitely does not mean that I do not sometimes wonder whether I could be wrong about this or that.  And if even after confronting numerous persons and books of the contrary opinion I continue to hold on to a fierce conviction that everyone should indeed worship Christ, this certainly does not mean that I need to, as Christensen says, “beat someone over the head with [my] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness”.  Much less that I need to, as some frequently imply, pick up the sword about it if we disagree, i.e. be a “human[] willing to destroy for the sake of their abstractions”!* (p. 79, 80, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, 2004 ; see p 123 and 192 as well)  The New Testament, after all, informs those who believe that Jesus Christ is God speaking to them in these “last days” that their weapons are not fleshly, but spiritual.  There are some judgments that only God is meant to administer.

But here is one judgment I feel confident in making: libraries – and perhaps “Enlightenment libraries” most of all – are a wonderful gift of God.

Soli Deo Gloria.

*though I certainly consider Christian doctrine more than an abstraction!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part II of III)

Picking up from part I

The main problem with Bivens-Tatum’s argument, as I pointed out to him, is that he is assuming that there actually can be topics that have nothing to do with religion.  To say that this is not the case does not mean that religion needs to be explicitly mentioned whenever a topic is discussed, but simply that it could be, because “all truth is God’s truth” as one second century believer said.  To a Lutheran’s ears, it sounds a bit strange to talk about a Christian theory of economics, psychology, or physics – as Calvin college actually does – and yet, as Christenson points out in his book, this approach has often yielded some rich insights (p. 94)

Notice also that a lot of this approach certainly seems to go hand in hand with some of the rich insights from thinkers like Michael Polanyi, E.F. Schumacher, and Charles Taylor, Christian men who wrote, or have written, for “secular” audiences throughout their careers.  Michael Polanyi, for one, is known for his observation that “we know more than we can tell”.  He further asserted that knowledge was fundamentally personal and always involved “passionate and personal commitment” – and that we can speak of “knowledge as performance” or being “embodied”.  No one can stop the passionate desire human beings have to know, and it permeates the whole of our lives!   As Christenson says, “knowledge contains its own morality”.  Needless to say, this means that the Enlightenment efforts of men like Descartes (“the only things that can be proved, demonstrated, and verified beyond a doubt can be called ‘knowledge’”) and David Hume (there is a “fact-value split”) were, at the very least, “a bit off”.  It seems the Greek philosopher Aristotle would fall short here as well. 

So at the very least, one could say that the approach towards knowledge that Calvin practices is analogous to the various feminist and minority perspectives that have generally come to be seen as being valuable when it comes to “the discovery and promulgation of the truth” (as John Hopkins University, the first research university in America, describes its mission).  That said, of course from a Christian perspective this would not be going far enough – for the Christian “worldview” would seek to distinguish itself from feminist views, Marxist views, etc.  After all, it is not just another perspective, but one that includes claims rooted in a narrative of the cosmos’ origin and destiny – and with human beings at the center of the whole show.

But of course, this viewpoint has always been vigorously questioned by Christianity’s opponents.  As Bivens-Tatum implies in the statement quoted earlier, what gave the Enlightenment project an advantage over beliefs that were religious or political was its central focus on not only “autonomous” human reason and consistent methodologies but also various kinds of physical evidence.  As he says in his article: “Having no publicly available evidence to support a statement is prima facie proof that statement is false. The burden of proof is on the person without evidence, not the skeptic.”  Here the views of Michael Polanyi become even more interesting.  While his views can indeed be used to defend Christianity from views of reality that do not give enough time to the subjective, or personal, aspect of knowledge, there is also something that tracks very nicely with these Enlightenment concerns in Polanyi himself.  The fact that knowledge is subjective – meaning that it cannot be separated from the experience of living persons – does not mean that the “objective”, as we have come to call it, should be minimized. In fact, Polanyi tells us, increased “objectivity” is the accomplishment of personal subjects, who, having been guided by apprentices, willingly dedicate themselves to making contact with the external world. 

Concerns about knowledge’s relation to objectivity are no doubt reflected in recent comments in the N.Y. Times from Mark A. Chancey, who is concerned about the topic of religion teaching in public schools, which the law says is supposed to happen in a “value-neutral” way.  He says: “So many people who love the Bible and read the Bible, especially in America, under the influence of Protestant sensibilities, read it as a historically accurate text.”  Note that while this man is concerned about neutrality of some who teach this, he himself brings certain assumptions to the table – and is clearly not neutral either!  Of course none of us can be, even if we can in due diligence try our best to accurately (and perhaps even winsomely) represent the views of others.  That said, the most critical question this example brings up is not whether or not persons from various religions believe their sacred texts are true (in this or that sense), or whether or not it is even possible to teach a class on world religions class in a truly “value-neutral” way, but whether or not the topic matter really is true, in a sense akin to what Polanyi says about objectivity.  This question, of course, is always right beneath the surface, and it can’t be held underwater forever. 

 I cannot speak for other religions, but I find it very compelling that Christianity not only claims to be true, but purports to offer the kinds of publicly available evidence that Bivens-Tatum says is necessary.  In Acts 17:31, the Apostle Paul spoke of the fact and meaning of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and proclaimed it as God’s “proof” to all men.  In Acts 26, he notes to a fellow Jew that the event was not done “in a corner” and that the words he speaks about it are “true and reasonable”.  In his first Epistle to the Corinthians he says that if Christ is not raised the faith of Christians is in vain.  In other words, when Paul writes of the crown of God’s interventions in history – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – he states radical words that completely undercut modern secular understandings of what “religion” is all about.  So while it is true that Christianity is not so much an ethic but an epistemology, or an approach to knowing, as Christensen says, it is also an epistemology that cannot be untethered from historical circumstances – from God’s own work in the past which has come down to us.  It really is good “news”, as the word Gospel implies. 

To say it in a different way, Christianity does not just purport to be a “way of life” on par with other ways of life, but the truth itself – and further, a truth rooted in the empirical, that is, in past events that really happened.  Christensen says that “hope is what makes us endure in spite of our realism” (130), but I note the Biblical claim is that we have hope precisely because of God’s real actions in history.  First, Jesus Christ, the self-proclaimed “Way, Truth and Life”, “took on human flesh”, and second, he was raised by God to vindicate His claims of being both God and God’s mediator vis a vis all others who would claim to be prophets of the Divine.  As regards the resurrection in particular, I think that the modern skeptic who would question this proclamation – but would seriously examine it – will find that the evidence is surprisingly plentiful and rich (for example, see here and here). 

If he allows it in his courtroom.  If he believes “open inquiry” includes inquiry even here.

In the next post then, we will finally zero in on this series’ title one more time.