Tag Archives: Epistemology

“No sane man would deny that the Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there a speck of sandstone should be detected in it structure. Not less unreasonable is it to deny the inspiration of such a book as the Bible because one sacred writer says that on a given occasion twenty-four thousand, and another says that twenty three-thousand, men were slain. Surely a Christian may be allowed to tread such objections under his feet.
Admitting that the Scriptures do contain, in a few instances, discrepancies which with out present means of knowledge, we are unable satisfactorily to explain, they furnish no rational ground for denying their infallibility. “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 5:35). This is the whole doctrine of plenary inspiration, taught by the lips of Christ himself. The universe teems with evidences of design, so manifold, so diverse, so wonderful, as to overwhelm the mind with the conviction that it has had an intelligent author. Yet here and there isolated cases of monstrosity appear. It is irrational, because we cannot account for such cases, to deny that the universe is the product of intelligence. So the Christian need not renounce his faith in the plenary inspiration of the Bible, although there may be some things about it in its present state which he cannot account for.

Charles Hodge Systematic Theology Vol.1 VI.2.I (p.170)

“No sane man wo…

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Difference between Knowing and Understanding.

It is important, however, to bear in mind the difference between knowing and understanding, or comprehending. A child knows what the words “God is a spirit” mean. No created being can comprehend the Almight unto perfection. We must know the plan of salvation; but no one can comprehend its mysteries. This distinction is recognized in every department. Men know unspeakably more than they understand. We know that plants grow; that the will controls our voluntary muscles; that Jesus Christ is God and man in two distinct natures, and one person forever; but here as everywhere we are surrounded by the incomprehensible. We can rationally believe that a things is, without knowing how or why it is. It is enough for the true dignity of man as a rational creature, that he is not called upon by his Creator to believe without knowledge, to receive as true propositions which convey no meaning to the mind. This would be not only irrational, but impossible.

Charles Hodge Systematic Theology. Vol 1, III.5.A (p.50)

B. Reason must judge of the Credibility of a Revelation.

.. A thing may be strange, unaccountable, unintelligible, and yet perfectly credible. What is strange or unaccountable to one mind, may be perfectly familiar and plain to another. For the most limited intellect or experience to make itself the standard of the possible and true, would be as absurd as a man’s making his visible horizon the limit of space. Unless a man is willing to believe the incomprehensible, he can believe nothing, and must dwell forever in outer darkness. The most sceptical form of modern philosophy, which reduces faith and knowledge to a minimum, teaches that the incomprehensible is all we know, namely, that force is, and that it is persistent. It is most unreasonable, therefore, to urge as an objection to Christianity that it demands faith in the incomprehensible.

Ibid., Vol.1 III.5.B (p.50)

Hodge on Reason: Its Role, Its Limits

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Recent Guess work on Genre and Epistemology in Genesis

My guess: Partiality reflects testimonial communication. Detail and Sober mood asks for full acceptance but does not communicate exhaustively. This text is to serve as foundation of all other beliefs, and is to be accepted as true testimony. Belief in testimony relies on recognition that the believer isn’t able to make final critical judgment from privileged epistemic status. Knowledge of believer is true yet partial. Just as Adam and Eve, this knowledge is to be subject to God and yet is given much evidence for trusting in it, and much liberty within its constraints. The appeal to submit to and follow God does reject our reason, but gives every reason available. Yet the request to submit is not communicated in terms that assume our epistemological independence or authority.

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Critical Theory in the Place of Truth

I just read this article and really appreciated it. As usual, I got it from First Things, a Catholic blog. They have some great stuff, including this. It is a great warning against simply negative undermining of arguments. Rather we ought to be careful to set forth a clear positive position of Christian belief. After all, its easy to be an iconoclast.

Teaching in the Twenty-First Century

By R.R. Reno
Thursday, May 7, 2009, 12:00 AM

Another college semester is ending. Students are hustling around, trying to finish final papers and prepare for exams. Soon there will be plenty of grading to do. But right now I find myself looking back and wondering. What does a college education really amount to in our day and age?

I am not thinking about the professional value of a college degree or a cost-benefit analysis of education. In general, I am entirely acquiescent to the fact that nearly all college students seek degrees in order to receive a credential that has value in the marketplace. Colleges and universities may fail in many ways, but in the main all the testing and applying does a good job sorting students by aptitude, achievement, and inherited cultural values. The end result: a pretty clear picture of winners and losers in twenty-first century American society—which is why the kids keep coming, and parents keep paying.

Nor do I find myself all that concerned about the academic quality of undergraduate education, or the rise in plagiarism, or the tendency of a legalistic, corporate mentality to dominate academic administration. The problems are real, but many have offered astute analysis.

Instead, I find myself questioning our approach—my approach—to education. I wonder not so much about what we teach as how. I worry about the spiritual outlook presently encouraged by higher education. Do we (often unwittingly, and sometimes contrary to our conscious intentions) promise truth without love?

After teaching for twenty years, I can report that the phrase that can unite otherwise fractious faculties is “critical thinking.” Quite often the invocation of “critical thinking” is meant simply to suggest an ancient and honorable educational goal: the creation in students of a nuanced intellectual mentality, one both warm with desire for truth and cool with careful deliberation. The dialogues of Plato encourage this combination. So does the scholastic method perfected by St. Thomas. In his Summa, the Angelic Doctor carefully chooses objections to his own position in order to bring the truth into sharper focus. His students are asked to entertain what is false. They must delay the impulse to rush to a direct and unopposed affirmation of truth—and they do so in order to sharpen and heighten their perception of what makes the correct view the true view.

We do not, however, live in ancient Athens or medieval Paris. “Critical thinking” has a contemporary meaning that does not clear the way forward to deeper convictions. Instead, the moment of seeing falsehood has become the goal and summit of the intellectual life. One does no so much aspire to critical thinking as critical theory.

For example, when I was a college student, critical theory meant the Marxist analysis of the Frankfurt School. Very few people believed in Marxist claims about history, economics, and politics. In fact, figures such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse were popular precisely because they were “critical Marxists” rather than the dogmatic sort. They offered little in the way of prescription, and they demurred from the grandiose claims about historical progress that makes Marx so comical today. Their contribution was entirely critical. They used a refined version of Marxist categories in order to uncover and expose the oppressive and de-humanizing dynamics of social life.

The same could be said for the role of Freud and Nietzsche in the ecosystem of late twentieth century intellectual culture. There was something very exciting about being eighteen or nineteen and discovering that what seemed like refined cultural sensibilities were, in fact, the excrescences of primitive psychological processes. A person of profound self-discipline is “anal,” and lofty ideals of moral self-sacrifice are actually carefully crafted instruments of power and self-assertion. Or so a dash of Freud and a spoonful of Nietzsche suggested to our young minds.

Paul Riceour once dubbed Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud the “masters of suspicion.” Their stars may have waned in recent decades (though not Nietzsche’s), but the larger role of suspicion has most definitely waxed. Some form of critical theory has become the overriding goal of almost all humanistic study these days. We do not so much read Aristotle or Aquinas or Jane Austen as take their ideas and expressions as instances of a patriarchal culture, instantiations of power-relations, rhetorically coded expressions of class-relations, and so forth. Critical thinking really means cultural studies.

Many have pointed out the gray ideological homogeneity of what passes for critical theory. David Horowitz has amply chronicled the rigidity and intolerance of the contemporary professoriate. Others have noticed that the preening theoretical vocabularies of contemporary cultural analysts tend toward rhetoric rather than argument. Back when deconstruction was the rage, John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of the gimcrack posturing that was being passed off as profound argument.

Yet endless theoretical elaborations of suspicion remain a growth industry all the same. “Truths are fictions whose fictionality has been forgotten”—it continues to be said in a thousand different ways. The reason, I think, is simple. Critical theory plays a significant and important role in contemporary society: it de-mystifies and de-legitimates inherited beliefs. It is not, as some critics would like to think, simply Leftist ideology. Nor is it nonsense dressed up in fancy French words. These days critical theory is an intellectual project, the main goal of which is to show that conventional ways of thinking are hopelessly naïve, if not malign and corrupt. It is a deck-clearing operation—not to prepare students for truth, but to prepare them for life without truths.

Pope Benedict has called this mode of pedagogy a dictatorship of relativism. It is, of course, a soft tyranny. Nobody is imprisoning college students for having convictions. The dominant intellectual regime is satisfied with two basic strategies: continuous assault and a starvation diet. We take apart the belief-systems of adolescents with our multi-faceted and powerful modes of critical analysis—and we give them next to nothing substantive to believe.

Indeed, in the most progressive educational environments, we satisfy the desire for truth with critical theory itself, which is why it plays such an important role in contemporary higher education. The ability to probe beneath the surfaces of language and culture to show how they produce and manipulate beliefs becomes the sine qua non of the well-educated person. One is not wise in the sense of knowing how to live. One is critically astute and undeceived—and quite superior in knowing how others are in the grip of ideologies.

For a long time I puzzled over this image of the well-educated person, especially because so many of the men and women I teach with are actually strongly motivated by a love of truth. Slowly, however, I have come to realize that we tend to teach as much in response to our fears as our hopes. There are, perhaps, two main and very different intellectual fears. The first is a fear of opportunities squandered, of truths unnecessarily missed. The second is a fear of deception, of falsehoods wrongly cherished.

It is crushingly obvious that the present dictatorship of relativism is profoundly motivated by the second fear. Aside from the natural sciences, we give students little more than training in critique. Loyal to our critical principles, we can barely squeak out the slenderest of affirmations. Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment.

I find myself recalling one of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He urges us to remember that love is just sexual intercourse: “it is the friction of member and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus.” We are to apply this method of critical thinking to all aspects of our lives in order to free ourselves from fanciful notions. “Where things make an impression which is very plausible,” he advises, “uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.” The goal is simple: Humanize yourself by disabusing yourself of illusions.

No philosophy or faith worth its salt endorses a witting love of illusions. It’s the truth we want, not fantasies. Yet, there is something desperate and loveless in the triumph of suspicion. Love falls. As the urgent, searching bridge in the Song of Songs reminds us, love risks the dangers of deception and betrayal. We cannot fall into the embrace of truth by way of cool, dispassionate critique. If we fear that truth will elude us, then we must search and seek with reckless desire.

Much ink has been spilt over the future of Catholic higher education. Endowing new programs and buttressing Catholic identity may help somewhat. But I am more and more convinced that the problems have a broader dimension. A pedagogy dominated by the critical spirit of our age will invariably make faith seem scandalously committed. What we need, therefore, is to rethink our educational self-image and subordinate the critical moment to a pedagogy that encourages the risks of love’s desire.

R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is professor of theology at Creighton University.


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Schaeffer on Epistemology; He is there and he is not silent pt. 3

In Schaeffer’s third chapter, he continues to his positive account of Christian philosophy, this time in parallel to the accounts he has already given in ethics and metaphysics. He spends the last two chapters of the book, (this and the next) on epistemology, because, it seems, he understands it as the central problem in our day. I agree.

Apologies for the long quotes previously, I will try to skim and synthesize more this time (not in a Hegelian sense though).

The Challenge of Epistemology

Summarizing epistemology for the Greeks:

“Are the Fates simply the vehicle of the action of the gods or are the Fates the universal behind the gods and do they manipulate the gods? There is this constant confusion between the Fates and the gods as the final control. This expresses the Greeks’ deep comprehension that their gods simply were not adequate: they were not big enough with regard to the Fates and they were not big enough with regard to knowledge. So though Plate and the Greeks understood the necessity of finding a universal, and saw that unless there was a universal, nothing was going to turn out right, they never found a place from which the universal could come either for the polis or for the gods.” (40)

On Nature and Grace:

“In nature you have the body; in grace you have the soul. But eventually we always come down to the problem of particulars and universals. In nature you have the particulars; in grace you have the universal.” (41)

“…there is a principle here; that is, if nature or the particulars are autonomous from God, then nature begins to eat up grace. … Here you can see the fridt toward modern man and his cynicism. It was born back there. We are left with masses of particluars but no way to get them together.” (41-42)

On Da Vinci and the Modern Drift:
“He understood that if you began on the basis of rationalism  – that is, man beginning only from himself, and not having anyoutside knowledge – you would have only mathematics and particulars and would end up with only mechanics” (42)

“Leonardo really became very much like the modern man. He said we should try to paing the universals. This is really very close to the modern concept of the upper-story experience. So he painted and painted and painted, trying to paint the universals. He actually tried to paint the universal just as Plato had had the idea that if we were really to have a knowledge of chairs, there would have to be an ideal chair somewhere that would cover all the kinds of chairs. Leonardo, who was a Neo-Platonist, understood this, and he said, ‘Let man produce the universals.’ But what kind of men? The mathematical man? No, not the mathematical man but the painter, the sensitive man. So Leonardo is a very crucial man in the area of humanistic epistemology.” (41-42)

“In my earlier books I have referred to Whitehead and Oppenheimer, two scientists – neither one a Christian – who insisted that modern science could not have been born except in the Christian milieu. … As Whitehead so beautifully points out, these men all believed that the universe could be found out by reason. This was their base. Modern science is the original science, in which you had men who believed in the uniformity of natual causes in a limited system, a system which could be reordered by God and by man made in the image of God. This is a couse and effect system in a limited time span. But from the time of Newton … we have the concept of the ‘machine’ until we are left with only the machine, and you move in to ‘modern modern science,’ in which we have the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system, including sociology, and psychology. Man is included in the machine.” (43)

“Jean-Jacques Rousseau is crucial at this point, because he changed the formulation from ‘nature and grace’ to ‘nature and freedom,’ absolute freedom. Rousseau and the men around him saw that in the area of ‘nature.’ everything had become the machine. In other words, ‘downstairs’ everything was in the area of positivism, and everything was a machine. ‘Upstairs’ they added the other thing, that is, absolute freedom. In the sense of absolute freedom upstairs, not only is man not to be bound by revelation, but he is not to be bound by society, the polis, either. This concept of autonomous freedom is clearly seen in Gaugin, the painter. He was getting rid of all the restraints, not just the restraint of God, but also the restraint of the polis, which for Gaugin was epitomized by the highly developed culture of France. He left France and went to Tahiti to be rid of the culture, the polis. In doing this, he practiced the concept of the noble savage which, of course Jean-Jacques Rousseau had previously set forth. You get rid of the restraints, you get rid of the polis, you get rid of God or the gods; and then you are free. Unhappily, though not surprisingly, this did not turn out as he expected.” (44)

“It is only a step, really, from men like Gaugin to the whole hippie culture, and as a matter of fact, to the whole modern culture. In one sense there is a parenthesis in time from Rousseau until the birht of the hippie culture and the whole modern culture which is founded on the view that there are no universals anywhere … We can easily see the moral confusion that has resulted from this, but the epistemological confusion is worse. If there are no universals, how do we know reality from non-reality?” (45)

“Kierkegaard, and especially Kierkegaardism that followed him, teachers that that which would give meaning is always separated from reson; reason only leads to knowledge downstairs, which is mathematical knowledge without any meaning, but upstairs you hope to find a non-rational meaning for the particulars.” (46)

“The distinctions between the forms of existentialism do not change the fact that it is the same system even though it has different expression with these different men, namely, that rationality leads only to something horrible in every area, including knowledge.” (46)

“I am convinced that the generation gap is basically in the area of epistemology. Before, man had a romantic hope that on the basis of raiontalism he was going to be able to find a meaning to life, and put universals over the particulars. But on this side of Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard, this hope no longer exists; the hope is given up.” (47)

“So man makes his leap ‘upstairs’ into all sorts of mysticisms in the area of knowledge …. modern man’s mysticisms are semantic mysiticisms that deal only with words; they have nothing to do with anything being there, but are simply concerned with something in one’s own head, or in language in one form or another.” (48)

“And truly there is probably not a chair of pihlosophy of importance in the world today that teaches positivism. it is still held by the undergraduate and by the naiive scientist who, with a happy smile on his face, is building on a foundation that no longer exists.” (48)

“Polyani argues thta positivism is inadequate because it does not consider the knower of what is known. It acts as though the knower may be overlooked and yet have full knowledge of certain things, as though the knower knew without actually being there. Or you might say positivism does not take into account he knower’s theories or presuppositions. You can assume that he approaches the thing without any presuppositions, without any grid through which he feeds his knowledge.

But there is the dilemma, as Polyani shows, because this simply is not true. There is no scientist in the positivistic position who does not feed knowledge through a grid – a theory or world view through which he sees and finds. The concept of the toally innocent, objective observer is utterly naiive. And science cannot exist without an observer.” (49)

“Within positivism as a total structure there is no way of saying with certainty that naything exists. Within the system of positivism itself, by the very nature of the case, you simply begin nakedly with nothing there. You have no reason with the system to know that the data is data, or that what is reading you is data.” (50)

On Wittgenstein:

“…in this early stage,” that of the Tractatus, “he argued that down here in the world (in the area of reason) you have facts: you have the propositions of natural science. This is all that can be said; it is all that you can put into language. This is the limit of language and the limit of logic. ‘Downstairs’ we can speak, but all that can be spoken is the mathematical propositions of natural science. Language is limited to the ‘downstairs’ of reason, and that ends up with mathematical formulations.

…. Even in his early days, there were already the elements of mysticism. In the ‘upper story’ he put silence, because you could not talk about anything outside of the known world of natural science. But man desperately needed values, ethics, meanings to it all. Man needs these desperately, but there is only silence there. Wittgenstein says that there is only silence in the area of the things man desperately needs most – values, ethics, and meanings. Man knows it needs to be there, he argues, but he cannot even talk or think about it. Values, ethics, meanings are all upstairs. No matter how much we need them, there is only silence.” (52)

“The ‘old’ Wittgenstein and the existentialist really are very, very close at this particular point, though it you move from England to the Continent in the study of philosophy you find that people ususally assume that they are completely at variance.” (52)

“Thus we are left with two anti-philosophies in the world today. One is existentialism, which is an anti-philosophy because it deals witht he big questions but with no rationality. But if we follow the later Wittgenstein’s development, we move into linguistic analysis, and we find that this also is an anit-philosophy, because wehere it defines words in the area of reason, language leads to language and that is all. It is not only the certainty of values that is gone but the certainty of knowing.” (53)

“Whether we are dealing with Heidegger saying, ‘Listen to the poet,’ and offering an upper story semantic mysticism which seems to give hope, or with Wittgenstein who moves in the opposite direction and is more honest in saying that there is noly silence upstairs and therefore all we can do is define words which weill never deal finally with meaning or values; whether we looks at Heidegger or Wittgenstein, who move in opposite directions at the point of language, the interesting thing is that modern man has come to conclude that the secret of the whole thing lies somehow in language. This is the age of semantics at this very basic point.

Notice what this means to us. The whole question with Heidegger and Wittgenstein … is whether there is anyone adequately there in th euniverse to speak. … Positivism, which was an optimistic rationalism and the base of naturalistic science, has died, It has been proved to be an insufficient epistemology. But the remaining alternatives – existentialism on the one hand, and linguistic analysis on the other – are anti-philosophies which cause man to be hopeless concerning ethics, values, meaning, and the vertainty of knowledge. So in epistemology we are surrounded by a sea of anti-philosophy.” (54)

Reality and Fantasy, and Other Minds:

“… the modern cinema and other art forms go beyond the loss of human and moral categories. They point out quite properly that if you have no place for categories, you not only lose categories where moral and human values are concerned, but you also lose any categories which would distinguish between reality and fantasy.” (56)

“How do we have any categories to enable us to move into the other person’s though world? This is the modern man’s alienation; this is the blackness which so many modern people face, the feeling of being totally alientated. A couple can sleep together for ten or fifteen years, but how are they going to get inside each other’s heads to know anything about the other person as a person, in contrast merely to a language machine? It is easy to know the facade of a language machine, but how you get in behind the language and know the person in this kind of setting? This is a very special modern form of lostness.” (57)

He hits the nail on the head so many times. What is so exciting about Wittgenstein and others is that as you read them you can hear the image of God crying out “something is wrong”. I would love to work on a project of a theological critique of the later Wittgenstein, epsecially in his work On Certainty.

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Authority V. Objectivity

We all know the difference between when someone hems and haws in answering a question, and when some speaks succinctly and with authority. Our Lord was One who spoke with authority unlike the scribes and Pharisees. This difference between Christ’s way of speaking and teaching (and the apostles for that matter), and the way the Pharisees is the difference between speaking with authority and speaking with an appeal to justification by objectivity. The second seems like a stronghold, but, in effect, neuters itself when analyzed by its own criteria. [If it isn’t subjected to its own criteria, and therefore rejected, it just comes across as pompousness, and we hate it anyway!]

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine about an book called The Interaction of Color, by Josef Albers. It is a work on color theory, and is awesome. This friend said that this book was powerful not only for his demonstrations but because he spoke them so pointedly. You were forced to either agree with him, or disagree. Disagreeing, you were then propelled to think about what in particular you disagreed with.  Either way, you could not walk away unchanged, or without a stance on his proposal. [In fact much of what I realized recently has to do with my friend’s words about all this].

The author, on the subject of color, could have easily given statistics, and built a case stating why colors interact the way they do. Yet this would have been lacking the force needed to make the point clearly. In fact, if he were to have gone into a long discussion on what objections might have been made, or why his assumptions were justified empirically (for instance), his conclusion would have been weakened. A dialectic approach would have returned his thesis to nill, as our dismal and conclusive history of philosophy has shown us.

This does not mean I am advocating a discussion-less dogmatism, where objections are disregarded as dead weight. That would be nonsense. Rather I am opposing the traditional scheme we have of knowledge in the West. Objective knowledge is supposedly what we want. We act as if once we make reference to some epistemological buck stopper (e.g. empirical ‘facts’ gathered by scientific inquiry) our knowledge is holy and untouchable. Yet, this is simply a fiction we have sold ourselves at the cost of our judgment. Our faculty of judgment stands in contrast to the goal of Modern Objectivity; intuitive grasp exceeds the reach of objectivity.

Alston, Plantinga, Wittgenstein have all written agaisnt this sort of modern foundationalist approach. Alston’s account is the most powerful. Epistemic Circularity, Alston says, is what we fall under each time we reference some sort of foundational epistemological buck stopper.  To quickly demonstrate this let’s say: Empirical facts are the foundation for every true belief. In order for it to be true that empirical data is the foundation of true knowledge, it also has to be true that data got empirically is reliable. Why would empirical data be thought of as reliable and trustworthy then? Because empirical data is the foundation of true knowledge. So in order for our original assumption to be true, the implications that rely on it must be true. Thus because neither one arrives at a basic fact, niether is objectively true.

In a different way we see that objective knowledge is mythical creature. Often the criteria we use to judge whether a statement is true doesn’t itself hold up to its own criteria. I guess you could call it Epistemic Hypocrisy, (or at least I would). A statement like this “Only knowledge gotten scientifically is true”, is not itself a scientific statement and so loses savor in its own light, (it neuters itself).

So instead I want to propose (and begin working towards), authoritative knowledge. I call it authoritative because it does not attempt to claim ownership of the mythical creature “objectivity”, but claims to derive truth from the One who has authority over all things; our Lord. I know something, not because I can make reference to a long list of empirical facts, but because I live in God’s creation, and by His authority, I trust my senses and my understanding of the world.  My assumption is the trustworthiness of God and the faculties He has given me because I live in His creation.

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