Posts tagged with: epistemology

shutterstock_119092402-580x331In his latest column, David Brooks examines the limits of data and “objective knowledge” in guiding or directing our imaginations when it comes to solving social problems.

Using teenage pregnancy as an example, he notes that although it may be of some use to get a sense on the general drivers of certain phenomena, such information is, in the end, “insufficient for anyone seeking deep understanding”:

Unlike minnows, human beings don’t exist just as members of groups. We all know people whose lives are breathtakingly unpredictable: a Mormon leader who came out of the closet and became a gay dad; an investment banker who became a nun; a child with a wandering anthropologist mom who became president.

We all slip into the general patterns of psychology and sociology sometimes, but we aren’t captured by them. People live and get pregnant one by one, and each life and each pregnancy has its own unlikely story. To move the next rung up the ladder of understanding you have to dive into the tangle of individual lives. You have to enter the realm of fiction, biography and journalism.

For the solution, he points to Augustine:

[Augustine] came to believe that it take selfless love to truly know another person. Love is a form of knowing and being known. Affection motivates you to want to see everything about another. Empathy opens you up to absorb the good and the bad. Love impels you not just to observe, but to seek union — to think as another thinks and feel as another feels. (more…)

God is rational, and the universe is governed by unchanging natural laws instituted by Him. The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.” God is not arbitrary; the Bible also tells us that He is just and that He keeps promises to His people. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God has established “ordinances of heaven and earth.” Since they come from a perfect lawgiver, we know that these laws do not change on a whim.

These beliefs were radical, and given historical trends in philosophy, they remain so. Pagans argued that truth exists, but that it is dependent on the will of the gods. Since these gods were capricious rulers of the universe, there were no unchanging laws that could be discovered by humans. In our own day, postmodern constructivist philosophers like Giambattista Vico also argue that objective truth is unknowable. For them, this is because truth is only accessible to humans insofar as we agree with something we have manufactured and labeled as the truth. As Vico put it, “the norm of the truth is to have made it.” If pure naturalism is correct and there is no role for God, then Vico can reasonably argue “the mind does not make itself as it gets to know itself and since it does not make itself, it does not know the genus or mode by which it makes itself.” After all, our ability to understand things as they truly are is difficult to argue in the absence of any reason to think that human reason itself is reliable.

Christianity offers just that reason by asserting two main points: that God has made the universe according to natural laws and that He has given humanity the means to understand them. As God asks Job, “Who endowed the heart with wisdom or gave understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?” God gives understanding to the mind so that we may know Who has made the world and the universe as it is.

God intends for us to exercise our reason and seek to know reality. Jesus says that He is the Truth, and He promises His followers that “the truth will set you free.” The truth that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, purely scientific and rationalistic. It is the truth of the universe and of humanity. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates this in Caritas in Veritate, where he writes, “Truth, by enabling men and women to let go of their subjective opinions and impressions, allows them to move beyond cultural and historical limitations and to come together in the assessment of the value and substance of things.”

Since truth is objective, reason can discern it. Reason is the universal nature of humans, regardless of our race, culture, language, class, or religion. We all have access to the truth. In a world where subjective truths compete, humanity can no longer find common ground and rise above struggles for power and influence. The truth about humanity and natural reality becomes “Nordic,” “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” or “chauvinist.” The idea that truth is subjective does not set us free. It pits us against each other and fails to let us seek the truth.

Caritas in Veritate points out the dire social consequences: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present.” If we are to seek true solidarity and the creation of a humane world, we must commit ourselves to pursuing the truth. Otherwise, humanity’s divisions will only grow.

By choosing instead to follow constructivism, fundamentalism, fideism, and the consensus view of the truth, we are enslaving ourselves to error and cutting off the truth that unites us. We are also rejecting the duty that God has given us to use the gift of reason to seek Him out. Since this sin only gives us error in place of the truth about us and the universe we inhabit, it results in suffering, tyranny, and conflict.

The truth will set us free in the measure that we are willing to seek it as God commands us to, and in the measure that we reject anything less than the full, universal, reasonable nature that it has.

Last week I attended a lecture on the campus of Calvin College given by Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, University of Oxford. His lecture was titled, “God and Morality,” and was the fourth in a series of lectures for a summer seminar, “Science, Philosophy, and Belief.” The seminar was focused on the development of Chinese professors and posgraduate students, and included lectures by Sir John Polkinghorne, Alvin Plantinga, and Owen Gingerich.

Swinburne, who is a convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, has recently turned his attention to questions of morality, having previously dealt with most every aspect of the philosophy of religion. I will not attempt a summary of his presentation here. The lecture has been digitally archived on the seminar site (downloadable MP3 here), and the comments and critiques I offer below will best be understood after having listened to the presentation yourself.

Swinburne’s list of publications includes a forthcoming article, “What Difference Does God Make to Morality?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics, ed. R.K. Garcia and N.L. King (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), scheduled for release in October of this year later this month. This article will presumably present a similar case as appeared in Swinburne’s lecture. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
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Here’s a link to the introduction to Frederick Crews’ new book, Follies of the Wise, which includes the following statement:

Having made a large intellectual misstep in younger days, I am aware that rationality isn’t an endowment but an achievement that can come undone at any moment. And that is just why it is prudent, in my opinion, to distrust sacrosanct authorities, whether academic or psychiatric or ecclesiastic, and to put one’s faith instead in objective procedures that can place a check on our never sated appetite for self-deception.

This follows his description of the purpose of his book, to lay out the two sides in an “intellectual clash”:

One is scientific empiricism, which, for better or worse, has yielded all of the mechanical novelties that continue to reshape our world and consciousness. We know, of course, that science can be twisted to greedy and warlike ends. At any given moment, moreover, it may be pursuing a phantom, such as phlogiston or the ether or, conceivably, an eleven-dimensional superstring, that is every bit as fugitive as the Holy Ghost. But science possesses a key advantage. It is, at its core, not a body of correct or incorrect ideas but a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses, and its trials eventually weed out error with unmatched success.

Of course, belief in the reliability and truthfulness of “a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses” which then “weed out error with unmatched success” smacks as much of a sort of fideism as any confession of religious faith.

I’ve noted this interview before, but Dr. Tim Lessl’s thoughts on science and rhetoric are quite applicable to Crews’ position:

The approach that would sell the public on the worth of science on the basis of its practical payoffs is like making it a scientific patron on particular issues – which only feeds science for a day. But if the scientific culture can convince us that deep down we are all scientists, or at least that we should all aspire to this elite realm of knowing, then science might enjoy patronage for life. Priestly rhetoric, in other words, tries to recreate society in science’s image.

Priestly rhetoric is not so much about a disdain for “dumbing science down”. Scientists have reservations about “popularization” for good reasons. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view – by creating a public culture based in scientism.

In this way, Crews is attempting to corner the market on access to knowledge and the rhetorical construal of the scientific method as the only real source of knowledge is attendant to this. After all, “A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength” (Proverbs 24:5 NIV). So much for distrust of all “sacrosanct” authority.

More from Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Bavinck here on the foundations of belief in first principles.

What is Crews first principle? “We materialists don’t deny the force of ideas; we merely say that the minds precipitating them are wholly situated within brains and that the brain, like everything else about which we possess some fairly dependable information, seems to have emerged without any need for miracles.” Crews himself admits this takes the form of a first principle and is not empirically verifiable, “Although this is not a provable point, it is a necessary aid to clear thought, because, now that scientific rationality has conclusively shown its formidable explanatory power, recourse to the miraculous is always a regressive, obfuscating move.”

HT: Arts & Letters Daily