Saturday, September 28, 2019

A personal review of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics

It behooves anyone wishing to think well to consult chiefly with the most original and influential voices. Aristotle is one of these. Though he lived centuries before the codex, beforen the crucifixion, before Caesar’s crossing, his work was foundational for shaping the Greek mind. He got in early. But he wasn’t just lucky, he was also a polymath—a man whose questions were too loud and of too great a variety for him to ignore. And it did not hurt that he came from money.

The ancient world was as interested in self-help and success as we are today. So it is no surprise that Aristotle wrote three works on ethics, which for him meant not how to live but what is the best way of living. The most influential of these is called the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter, the Ethics). Since its publication sometime after 335 BC, it has been loved, hated, reviled, annotated, misappropriated, memorized, cut-and-pasted, highlighted, sold, resold, reprinted, retranslated, shipped, and, yes, slowly and silently, in shops and on planes and on boats and in libraries, dorm rooms and kitchens and bedrooms (and bathrooms aplenty) it has been read.

And it should be read. Why? Because the best writing is fertile—that is it—words and thoughts excreted by fine, muscular minds. It can smell bad, sure, but it begets growth.

The big ideas of the Ethics are the mean, friendship, and the happy life. But those all presume a certain kind of person. The Ethics requires its actor being a certain kind of human being whom Aristotle calls a good person: “the good man’s view is the true one.” This person acts well for the sake of good acting. Such goodness is not necessarily moral, as we hear that word today, but right or fit as in right thing done or said at the right time. The good man properly judges the rightness of act and activity. And he also judges his own place on earth and under heaven. Happiness is the well-ordered life lived well.

“We ought, so far as in us lies, to put on immortality and do all we can to live in conformity with the highest that is in us; for even if it is small in bulk, in power, and in preciousness, it far excels all the rest. Indeed, it would seem that this is the true self of the individual, since it is the authoritative and better part of him; so it would be an odd thing if a man chose to live someone else’s life instead of his own.” (1178a)

Simply knowing the what of a thing or the how to of a thing is not enough. Technique and technology cannot deliver the happy life any more than an answer, no matter how correct, truly comprehends its question. Act without understanding is the way of the sophist. Aristotle says, “We do not find people becoming qualified in medicine by reading handbooks.” One must live their life. One must enter in to it, in all its complexity, and by effort and action; by dialog, education, and contemplation; by love, friendship, and association, and with a bit of luck and talent, one discovers what it is to be a human being. No shortcuts.

Now, what is life without friendship? Thus, Aristotle’s chapters nine and ten on the kinds and grounds of friendship have forever been beloved. “Nobody would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other good things,” he says. For “friends are a help both to the young, in keeping them from mistakes, and to the old, in caring for them and doing for them what through frailty they cannot do for themselves; and to those in the prime of life, by enabling them to carry out fine achievements. Between friends there is no need for justice. [So, then,] good men and friends are the same.” (1155a)

It is worth noting that Aristotle encompasses in the word friendship much more than we do today. For us, friendship is an affection between people who are otherwise unrelated. Married people will sometimes call their partner their best friend, true. But we would not call business relationships, local governance, or the bond between parent and child friendship. Aristotle’s friendship has the generality of friendliness without the superficiality of a greeting on the street. It is stronger stuff. It is the “bond that holds communities together.” Nevertheless, Aristotle begins to divide friendship into types almost immediately. What at first he lathered indiscriminately becomes a sorting of the most discriminate sort.



Quotations from Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. trans. J. A. K. Thomson. Introduction by Jonathan Barnes. New York: NY. Penguin Classics. 2004.

Working Outline of this Post for Use and (later) Deletion

We should read good things, and Aristotle is one of those.
Aristotle wrote on Ethics.
It is going to help us out.

Presumption of a Good Character
The happy life
Friendship and Politics
The Mean

Can we be good without others?

Saturday, September 21, 2019

on panentheism

Christian metaphysics, or perhaps generally just philosophy of religion, is concerned with questions of whether god exists, of how god exists in such-and-such a way should there be a god, and about how such a god might be related to the world. Panentheism falls into this last question, as does pantheism and theism. Panentheism is a compromise between the other two. That is clear. And do any reading in contemporary theology. In Pannenberg. In Moltmann. In Polkinghorn. In Tanner. One runs into the term. It seems contemporary and trendy. But what is it?

Panentheism, a word derived from the Greek πᾶν ἐν θεῷ, begins in Ancient Neoplatonism (from Heraclitus to Plotinus) and comes up through Spinoza's Deus siva Natura to arrive in contemporary western theology in the process theologies of A. N. Whitehead Process and Reality and Charles Hartshorne The Divine Relativity. (The term was coined by Prussian philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause in 1832 to distinguish between the cosmologies of Hegel, Schelling, and Spinoza.) Panentheism posits that all that exists is in God and is part of God without ontological distinction, and yet, God has a unity and identity of his own distinct from that of his finite parts. It reminds me of emergence. There is a connection, but not an identity. God lives his own life, yet he lives it in and through the cosmos. The world is God’s body, and we ourselves are parts of God. Our experiences are God’s experiences. God is, to quote Whitehead, “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.”

Panentheism retains many of the religious resources of theism even as it criticizes theism’s separation between God and the world. William Hasker says, “Panentheism acknowledges that certain aspects of God’s being are unchangeable, but it stresses God’s involvement in temporal processes in a way that is mean to correct what is felt to be classical theism’s overemphasis on the immutability of God.” Where theism stresses the self-sufficiency of God from creation and characterizes their relationship as totally one-sided, panentheism says God and the world are interdependent. The god of panentheism is deeply involved in the world.

So, why choose panentheism? I can see two reasons. First, panentheism is friendly to scientific materialism and philosophies of science. But, at the same time, it can raid the cookie jar of theism. The second reason is existential: what is good for you is good for god. You can be a panentheist and follow New Thought, management-positive-thinking-optimism books at the office. There is a deep optimism in panentheism. Panentheists aren't judging anyone. And a panentheist can affirm wildly different expressions of religions with no problem.

For the Christian theologian, though, there are problems. Consider panentheism’s identification of godself with the world. If God came to earth to save sinners, then was God’s being damned? And is God quite literally saving himself? If we "fall short of the glory of God," then hasn't God's glory fallen short of itself? Furthermore, aside from dogma, only considering scientific cosmology, this unity creats a problem. Panentheism states that God needs the cosmos in order to live his life in a manner analogous to how human beings need their bodies. But consider this against our scientific understanding of the origin of our universe. God did not begin alongside the universe. That would be absurd! Yet panentheism requires an infinitely regressing series of universes.

There are difficulties that arise from distinction as well as unity. The Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition has always understood a distinction between the world and God. In the doctrine of creation, panentheism understands a creation ex deo, out of God’s own nature for creation is a necessity for the divine existence. Theism teaches creation ex nihilo, from nothing, and it specifically characterizes this as an act of grace from God to the world. The doctrine of creation and of soteriology relate closely together; if creation isn’t an act of grace, then what happens to salvation by grace? In addition, there is the matter of God as the Absolute Good. God is, in the classical categories, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful — originally, perfectly, and normatively. God is the ultimate standard against which any other good is judged. The universe is merely good in part, true in part, and beautiful in part. Panentheism ignores this. And, in doing so, it swallows evil. For if the universe is a mixture of good and evil, then so is god. God cannot then be the Absolute God, yet panentheism has no replacement. Such a standard would be independent of God. But, of course, there can't be anything independent of God. By confusing, as some have called it, the norm and the normed, panentheism drains its universe of good and evil. Sure, God cannot judge anyone, but there is also no judgment. Any act toward judgment, no matter how wise, is an expression of power, but no one can say whether it is done well or poorly or generates good or evil ends. God may be a fellow sufferer with the suffering, but he simultaneously exults with the tyrant.

To conclude, though panentheism in the form of process theology seems to bring the goods, there are deep cracks in the dogmatic engine. Redefining the classical categories, removing the ontological distinction between creature and creator, and remaking grace over in a new image--all of these are serious problems. I like the way Hasker ends his discussion, “Panentheism," he says,

"seems to the theist to be nothing more than a disguised naturalism overlaid with a veneer of religious language. . . . The theist may even find naturalism preferable to pantheism. A naturalist, at least, rejects religion and religious values in a forthright and direct manner. A panentheist, in contrast, makes what seem to be substantive religious assertions, but when closely examined the substance tends to disappear, leaving behind only a vague aura of pious emotion.” (114)

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Exegeting the Widow's Mite: A first look at the story in English

The story of the widow's mite is a cash cow for workaday ministry. Thanks to this story, the needy pastor need not fear when the once-a-year stewardship campaign or a building fund fundraiser comes due. He or she has it covered. Yes, from the very lips of Jesus himself drops money talk heaven-sent to open the wallets of the faithful. It is textual. It is orthodox. It is guilt free.

The story of the widow's mite is simple enough. Jesus is sitting near the treasury on the temple grounds. He with his retinue are watching people toss money into an offering box. A widow comes in. She tosses in a few mites--a tiny amount of money and probably the last bit of cash she had. Jesus sees it and says something like, "See! This widow is better than these other people. They give from their extra, but she gave even the last few coins she had to live on." And so the usual conclusion is to be like the widow. Dig deep. Give much.

But is it really that simple? I confess to feeling a twinge of suspicion whenever I've heard this passage preached. Not to say that I felt the sermon wicked or the speaker a villain--not at all! Good people do they best they can at hard texts. I just knew that there was more to it, hearing as it were a kind of distant echo. And, sure enough, there is more--a lot more.

The best way to find out what is there is to dive deeply into the story itself. There is a fecundity to scripture. Even the most obvious bit of story, if you sit with it, will slowly widen out into a satisfying tableau. This story, or periocope, (A pericope is a set of verses that forms one coherent unit or thought. Pericopes are the bits of scripture read aloud in liturgical worship.) is found in Mark 12.41-44 and Luke 21.1-4. I am going to focus on the Marcan instance. Mark is the earliest gospel, and Luke does not use the periocope any differently than Mark. The goal is to arrive at a defensible, understandable, and meaningful interpretation that gives it reason in its lexical setting and makes its teaching available to us today. I will be using the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), as it is the critical English text used in universities and seminaries. I also want to stay with English as far as possible before consulting the Greek. So the text reads

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When I begin to examine a pericope, I always start with two techniques: observation and structural analysis. Observation is what it says: focused looking. It is helpful to make a list of what is observed. Observation is all about the details, and each should be listed on its own line. Doing so helps the mind dismiss assumptions and see what is there. Like pulling up carpet, one sometimes finds new layers underneath. Structural analysis is different from observation in that it is not concerned with what is being said, the meaning of content, but with how it is said. Structural analysis uncovers the framework in which content is presented. The reader is after the purpose of a text. He or she wants to know the main idea and how other ideas are arranged around it. The structure usually tells you that. To do structural analysis, I use grammatical techniques like sentence flowing or sentence diagramming. You can also underline parallel constructions, highlight verbs with a highlighter, and so on. Any technique is useful. Here is the diagram I made of this pericope. I do not use verse numbers or include chapter headings. The point is to discover grammatical and rhetorical structure.

Beginning with observation, here are several written in the order they were made. The more observations one makes, the better.

  • The people in the story are the crowds, rich people, Jesus, his disciples, temple benefactors, and the widow
  • The place is the temple treasury (Where is that?)
  • Why is each person there?
  • Money is important to the story and how much or little of it there is
  • Economic class is part of this: some have "abundance," but the widow lives in poverty
  • The story has Jesus going through a series of postures: he sits, he watches, he calls, he speaks.
  • Jesus praises the largest gift, but based on a value completely other than the currency values of the day
  • No one is concerned about what happens to this widow after Jesus's pronouncement
  • The author makes a point to tell the reader how much the widow's coins were worth
  • There is a lot of the verb "put" in this story
  • The dramatic engine of the story is fueled by compare and contrast: wealth and poverty, large and small, the crowd and the individual, Jesus and the disciples, a wide view versus a narrow view, the value of the crowd and Jesus's value, watching silently and speaking aloud
  • The story doubles up on its description of the amount the widow put into the treasury: everything she had, all she had to live on
  • Are these two adjectival phrases about the widow's gift meant to give us more information about the widow, or is this just repetition for emphasis?
  • Jesus begins his teaching with "Truly, I tell you." Is this important?
  • The disciples are not present in the story until Jesus calls them
  • The reaction of the disciples nor of anyone else is unrecorded
  • Why are all the verbs in the simple past tense save the ones in Jesus's pronouncement. Those are all in the perfect tense?
  • Is there a reason Jesus contrasts the verbs "have contributed" and "has put in" in the final comparison?
  • Does their giving to the temple equate to our giving to the church or to charitable giving today?
  • What did this story mean to Jews or God-fearing gentiles circulating it twenty years before the temple's destruction?
  • What comes before this story? What comes after? How does this story "work" between then?
  • What status or position in society did widows have in first-century Palestine?
  • Who is Jesus at this point in the gospel?
  • What does this story say about Jesus? How does this story advance the story about Jesus that Mark's gospel is telling?

And now for the structural analysis.

The fun begins when structural analysis is finished (to whatever degree one desires). And it is fun! Sometimes I find it hard to complete an analysis for the insights jumping off the page! Highlighting structure words like then, therefore, and, but, etc. reveal the machinery of the text. It becomes easy to see how each piece, each paragraph, each sentence, fits together. And, in doing so, it guides the reader toward the main idea.

The main idea of a pericope is the pearl inside the grammatical clam. Discovering it not by whimsy or by guesswork but based on grammatical structure is one of the most important tasks of the exegete. Grammatical structure tells the hearer or reader what is important and what is not. It communicates the choice of meaning that a writer or speaker is making. Grammatical structure is a treasure map. And following it means that the exegete will not only emphasize what is meant to be emphasized, but make correct decisions about the importance of other parts of a story. Exegesis is not only understanding the words and sentences; it is understanding how the author has structured information for meaning.

The main idea is discovered by looking at the structure. So one begins looking for words that reveal it, such as relative pronouns or conjunctions that begin sorting material into independent and dependent clauses. In this case, the temporal adverb "then" divides the pericope into two halves. The first half comes before Jesus speaks and the rest follows after. Before is the factual world of action and after is the mental world of interpretation. The transition movement makes dramatic suspense. A division can also be made in the first half to create the diagram above. This pericope is a story in three acts: the opening scene at the temple treasury; the cast of characters, rich people and the widow; and the teaching that results from it all. I labeled these the Scene, Introduction of Characters, and the Lesson. But does this help to discover the main idea? Yes it does.

The main idea of a pericope will be located in structures that are supported by everything around them. It will not be found in dependent material beginning with because, for example. It will not be found in introductory material. In this pericope, then, the main idea is not to be found in the first two acts. It is located in the third.

In the third act, too, some digging for the main idea is required. The act is divided into three parts: Jesus's assembly of the disciples for instruction, Jesus's surprising announcement, and the reason for the announcement. Now, the main idea cannot be in the first subdivision because it is introductory. So, it must be in one of the other two parts. Again, structure comes to the rescue. The third portion begins with the subordinate conjunction for. That section, then, supports the second section and depends grammatically on it. Thus, the main idea can only be in the second section of the third act: "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury." But this is a comparative clause. And so, of the two, the first assertion is favored. Thus, the main idea of the pericope is "this poor widow has put in more."

Now, there is another structure in the pericope that deserves investigation. It involves a rhetorical device called syncrisis. Syncrisis is a kind of comparison or antithesis. And it is easily observable in the A B B A structure of the third act.

     A   this widow has put in more
     B   than those
     B1  all have contributed
     A1  but she has put in everything

Ancient rhetoricians used syncrisis to contrast people in order to evaluate their relative worth to society. Syncrisis is a subset of a larger genre called epideictic rhetoric which is designed to publicly praise (or shame) someone for the purpose of emulation (or shunning). Jesus's speech in the temple treasury is certainly an example of epideictic rhetoric, of a sort called an encomium, and syncrisis forms a major part of the way he structured his speech. But Jesus did not begin its use in the story. The gospel writer employed syncrisis in the second act of the pericope before Jesus's encomium. The story is built around them. I should also say that epideictic rhetoric would sometimes include some introductory narrative information. One was, after all, about to praise or damn someone, and so some factual information to set up the story might be helpful. This factual warmup is called by rhetoricians the narratio. So, then, Mark's story of the widow's mite is a three-part, dramatic, epideitic narration that begins with a bit of narratio and then uses syncrisis to publicly praise one of two contrasted people. Its hero is a widow. Its main idea is "this poor widow has put in more."

The temptation now is overwhelming to apply this as a kind of moral of the story. The sermon writes itself: "Just as this widow gave all she had out of her poverty and was praised, so you have no excuse, out of your abundance, to give to the work of the kingdom." But consider: almost none of the observations made above have been satisfied. The setting and action of the first two acts of the tale are ignored by this conclusion, as are any criticisms made by the story about class and wealth. Structural analysis has provided a framework. But there is more work to be done later in another post.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A brief survey of evolutionary explanations for why math works

Space has been given on this blog for Plantinga's argument about the difficulty natural selection has in explaining higher functions. My naturalist friends have dismissed such arguments, and this post is meant to explore that perspective. The perspective, to restate, is that natural selection is sufficient to explain the existence of higher-order cognition, such as mathematics. I will be summarizing from a paper given by Russel W. Howell, who was professor of Mathematics at Westmont College.

Recall that what I'm after are evolutionary explanations for rationality, and the first of these that Howell mentions is that natural selection selected for meaning. Evolutionary process selected for survival forms whose inner models of reality best matched reality itself. A variant of this, argued by Geoffrey Miller in his book The Mating Mind, says that any greater capacity can be sexualized. Therefore, rational operations such as logic or math may set one apart from the herd and increase one's chances for sex. Howell says of these, "These speculations, while certainly not disprovable, seem to have no good evidence in their support."

Stephen Mithin is next, with a module approach to rationality. Specialized psychological processes for this or that, once brought into contact with one another, create emergent psychological domains. Plantinga's criticism is leveled at this pillar.

And finally, the author mentions work by Pascal Boyer, whose theory he calls the byproduct hypothesis. The idea is that many higher functions of mind are not evolutionary adaptations in themselves, but are byproducts of the same. They piggyback on adaptedness. Howell writes, "If one if going to argue for something using an evolutionary frakework, it behooves that person to supply a detailed model or story that will support it."

Perhaps, going forward, I can flesh out these criticisms and competing arguments with greater depth. But I hadn't had them in the blog yet, and this at least gives me a place to begin. Also, let me say this: natural selection has to have played a great role in human cognition and the existential fact of higher thinking in human beings. To deny this is to deny that matter matters and that natural processes and law have meaning and truly affect a true world. But there does not have to be an either/or. I deny sufficiency without cutting out the bone. And so I retain my Chalcedonian anthropology.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Penciling in a gesture toward providence, determinism, and liberty

What follows is embarrassing in its lack of precision. Let's call it what it is: sloppy. As a matter of fact, it is so bad that I've edited it four times since the original publish. So come back and check it later and it will probably (hopefully) be better. Nevertheless, William Hasker's little survey of metaphysics keeps me blurting out what I think about his subjects. And today, his subject is the impassible way between determinism and libertarianism. (Libertarianism here is not to be confused with the quasi-economic position assumed by many of the Rand-loving, conservative, twenty-something males that I know. It is, rather, a technical term for what is popularly called free will.)

A Reformed Protestant, I begin every thought in this area with a confession of God's providence, for "he himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (συνεστηκεν)" so that "he sustains (φερων) all things by his powerful word" (Col 1.17; Heb 1.3b NRSV). "The will of God," said Augustine, "is the necessity of all things." Not only, but the first, stated pattern of my theological pattern language is simply, God leads out.[1] But this beginning throws me and similar theists into a certain bind. I like the way Hasker sums it up:

It is quite clear that the doctrine of predestination entails determinism: specifically, theological determinism. God has effectively determined everything that shall happen, and no creature has the power to act otherwise than God has decreed. It is clear, furthermore, that the theological determinist, at least if he is a Christian, must be a soft determinist, for the view that humans are responsible for their actions is central to Christian belief. Thus one has the very difficult problem . . . of explaining how a person is responsible for his actions when he was unable to act otherwise. And there is the additional problem of explaining how God himself is not responsible for human wrongdoing, even though it is God's decrees which necessitate that the wrongdoing occurs. (51)

So the Christian may confess providence, which is a scripture-affirming thing to do, yet providence creates fundamental ethical problems on the human and divine sides. This is why the free will question is unavoidable even if it tires you--as it does me. If humans do not have free will, can they be held responsible for wrongdoing? Is there meaning to human action? Should we trust or value or include as evidence the experience we all have of decision making? Is there a way to avoid Calvin's abhorrent second predestination of the wicked to destruction which, it can and has been argued, makes God unjust, the author of evil, and responsible for the suffering of innocents?

I am not going to discuss the divine side of the equation, but I am going to talk about the rest. Taking up the first question: I believe that people do act with a kind of qualified freedom (a soft libertarianism.) We are embedded (thrown) into layer upon layer of historical and cultural context, and these deeply shape who we are as the actor (see the card "Every Action a Reaction.") And, theologically, the nature of the heart, whether it is unregenerate or regenerate, will figure in. Real human freedom (not divine, but human freedom) is impossible to the unregenerate. It is a struggle for the regenerate, but there is at least a kind of advancing freedom. We can act according to where and who we are in a moment over-and-against the future. And, with maturity, that freedom better and better reflects the true freedom of God the Son.

Going back to the conflict between determinism and libertarianism, I think the frame of reference makes a big difference in understanding. If one is looking out of human eyes, actions are messy but still, in a way, free. But if one imagines oneself into a divine state, determined providence seems only natural. The thing is, human beings think about things from both angles, theory and praxis, nor can we eliminate one. We must, instead, choose which we will emphasize.

To the problem of settling these two perspectives, God's timelessness comes to the rescue (though it too, Hasker says, is qualified and disputed). Because God is timeless, tensed words like now, tomorrow, yesterday, or talk of the future or past do not apply. As Hasker says, God "believes things timelessly, entirely out side our time sequence . . . And what it is that God timelessly believes depends, in part, on what I will freely choose to do tomorrow morning." (55) God's timelessness allows for human free action. And it tells us that providence must effect itself in a manner much different than the two-dimensional before-then-after of Aristotelian sufficient causation. Something like what I'm getting at I find in this bit from Reformed theologian Paul Helm:

"In creating, God does not add to his reality. The creation does not distend God’s boundaries, for he has no bounds. So thinking of God as if has he has boundaries would be inconceivable. The contrast between God’s ways and ours is not one of degree, but one of kind. For this reason the decree of God may be considered as the eternal aspect of his mind."

There is another way, of course: the way of the process theologians and the panentheists. Going that way, God limits himself, opening up a space of some kind (logical or spiritual or metaphysical or metaphorical) from which his divine power is removed. That process they call creation, and in it, evil and choice have their temporary arena.

At any rate, it just occurred to me that I have thought of providence as either an organizing force of matter or events in space-time or as a soteriological act whereby God saves sinners. What I haven't considered is that providence provides a horizon of meaning. Because of providence, truth, justice, and beauty have a horizon from which they derive significance.[2]

And, finally, meandering to an end, allow me to say this about discussions of providence and free will or, if you like, determinism and libertarianism. A friend today asked me whether this wasn't majoring on the minors. I don't think he knows how much I dislike the whole of it myself. I would much rather talk about other aspects of dogma. Nevertheless, I said to him that though there is no ultimate resolution to these questions in our present state, they have persisted and will persist as long as thinking and confessing persist. And joining in that argument means laboring alongside some of the best minds humanity has ever produced. It is a labor they found valuable because it connects so many other portions of real thinking and living. And shouldn't we, with the life and the minds given to us, be part of this human work? I would look askance at someone who beginning at the door of thought did not eventually arrive at this chamber. And I would doubt the abilities of anyone who found a way to move further in without discomfort at the choice they had to make. Either choice means pain and ongoing discomfort and shouldering the unreasonableness of reason.

[1] Note that "God leads out" does not suggest the lure-theory of the process theologians but a kind of strong pull where the future and the God of the future providentially pull all things to their appointed end. Another way of saying this is that the doctrine of creation is not a static doctrine but an ongoing on. The creation is not yet in the state to which its creator desired it. It is advancing toward that state according to his providence and promises.

[2] Charles Taylor has usefully distinguished between self-referentiality of content and manner. Self-referentiality of content sees nothing in discourse except the self and its desires. Self-referentiality of manner recognizes a horizon against which the self finds significance. (Ethics of Authenticity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991], 81-82.) In Michael Polanyi's terms, the self-referential is subsidiary to the focus of education: the pursuit of justice and truth. (Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962], 55-57). // this copied from Hasker pp 490-491n64.

Monday, August 05, 2019

a brainy argument against determinism (and also materialism)

For some beach reading, I picked up a two-dollar paperback survey of metaphysics by William Hasker, part of the IVP series Contours of Christian Philosophy. My goal was pure curiosity: I wanted to see what topics the author included under this heading. I will probably blog something in dialogue with this book again in the near future. But, for now, it includes an argument against determinism (and, by extension, against materialism) worthy of reproduction against future forgetting. From pages 47-48, italics rendered as in the text:


"It is clear . . . that rational thinking must be guided by rational insight in the light or principles of sound reasoning. That is to say, one must "see," rationally, that the conclusion is justified by the evidence--and one is helped to see this by principles of reasoning, such as the laws of inductive and deductive logic and the like. Furthermore, and this point is crucial, one accepts the conclusion because one recognizes that it is justified by the evidence. It is this recognition which brings about the acceptance.

"Now let us suppose that all human thinking is physically determined in the following sense: (1) Every thought or belief accepted by a person is a result of that person's brain being in a corresponding state. (2) We assume, provisionally, that the physical indeterminacy which exists at the quantum level makes no perceptible difference in the overall functioning of the brain. So that (3) every brain state, and therefore every thought and belief of the person, is fully determined by the physical functioning of the brain in accordance with the deterministic laws of physics.

"Is it not evident, on this supposition, that rational thinking is an impossibility? It cannot be true, on this assumption, that anyone's thinking is guided by rational insight; rather, it is guided entirely by the physical laws which govern the brain's functioning, which proceed with no regard to whether the thought processes they generate correspond to principles of sound reasoning. Occasionally, to be sure, it may happen that the thought processes generated by the physically determined functioning of the brain will arrive at a conclusion which is correct. But this, when it happens, is simply a fortunate accident--and to say that a conclusion is reached by accident is incompatible with the claim that that conclusion was reached by rational thinking .Therefore, if all human thought is physically determined, then no one ever thinks rationally.

"Nor is the situation changed if we modify our assumptions (and our definitions of "physically determined") so as to allow that sometimes random, physically undetermined events within the brain have a perceptible effect, so that a different conclusion is reached than would have been the case without the random event. For such a random event is no more responsible to rational insight than was the physically determined brain process of the previous model. What is needed for rationality is not simply an injection of randomness into the physically deterministic brain functioning, but rather an infusion of rational insight as a factor which guides and directs the thought processes. But to accept this is to give up physical determinism altogether. And so our conclusion: If physical determinism is true, no one ever thinks rationally."


The summary of the above is simply this: that a car, acting according to its own structure, cannot take you where you want to go. Even should it, somehow and by your good fortune, deliver you safely to a desired address, the result says nothing about the cause. Rational insight, one's reason, and in this metaphor the driver, must come from elsewhere.

What this means for emergence, I'm not wholly sure. Emergence theorist assert that the driver emerges from the complex and perhaps ineffable workings of the machinery, subject as it is to physical laws. If that is the case, doesn't this but shift the problem? In that case, the emergent property becomes our metaphorical car, and we are left asking how it knows where to go.

Some time ago, I wrote a post akin to this one called "Plantinga Pulls a Sampson." In it, Alvin Plantinga invokes natural selection, whereas William Hasker, who wrote the above, was addressing the debate between free will and determinism.

As I consider both posts, I can begin to see my own outline. I see a skepticism of reductive materialism, scientism, and "nothing but" physics--no surprise there. What is embraced is more interesting: a qualified dualism:

  • the mind as not the same as the brain but connected, perhaps as an emergent property
  • the self as a (qualified) free agent [not theologically free, but naturally so]
  • a humanity that, though subject to material laws, transcends them
  • reason/ethical judgment, the derivation of which could be the community or someplace altogether mysterious in origin

Note: this post does not well address the point of the quotation itself which is epistemology, which is about determining what is true.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

checking in with epistemology, 2006

It is a good thing that ideology progresses slowly. I am finally reading an issue of Christian Scholar's Review from the summer of 2006. I kept it in stack for years and years, and I am glad that I did; the opening paragraph is a nice snapshot of the present state of western epistemology. It reads:

"This special issue . . . explores the implications of a world of relative values for the scholarly enterprise. The postmodern fixation on relative values has a certain appeal for a young man or woman interested in sex without entanglements, but it raises a different set of issues for scientists who desire 'honest' reporting of research data. With quantum mechanics we discovered that certainty has its limits, but have we also begun to discover that relativism has its limits as well? How do we preserve the cognitive knowledge and aesthetic achievements we have acquired and build on these if the culture no longer has a basis for judging between ideas? One of the insights of our age that people have increasingly recognized is that knowledge is multi-dimensional. Without a basis for judging and comparing ideas, however, the pursuit of knowledge and the gains of culture are threatened. The modern period made the mistake of reducing knowledge to facts, but the postmodern age has the tendency to confuse knowledge with information, and in its use of the World Wide Web, information is traded for data." (447)

The conclusion of the introduction picks up the thread:

"The postmodern critique of modernity has had its impact on the academic disciplines, but it presented little constructive help except in pointing out that the modern emperor had no clothes. These essays [which make up the summer 2006 issue] suggests how a few of the disciplines have begun to cut new cloth. These essays illustrate that the discussion belongs to more disciplines than philosophy and literature. The discussion of beauty belongs to the sciences as much as to the arts. Discussions of 'the good' belong to economics as much as to ethics." (449)

Monday, June 03, 2019

Identifying my problem with religious education

I have always had a problem with religious education.

Since I was a boy--as far back as I can go: the flannelgraph and the coloring in pictures and the whole thing--religious education felt flat. I felt like teachers were either keeping information from us or were well-meaning idiots. (No lack of ego on my part.) So today, when I think of curricula that I have seen, I cluck at a lack of depth or the maudlin perspective. Jesus is your friend. Jacob trusted God, so you should too. I am over-critical, it is true. But I don't mean to be. Mine is a criticism of love. What I want is pedagogical richness. I want something that feels as true and alive as its very subject. My criticism arises from some hidden fault. Lucky me, it is hidden no more. Ethical philosopher Agnes Callard has named it.

In a piece titled "Against Advice" in May's edition of The Point, Callard uncovered a subtle problem in the giving of advice. Her subject are the how to do it tips that artists are always giving out to inquiring fans. Authors like Margaret Atwood are always asked to give out the secrets to writing. And they do share tips. But, says Collard, it is all bland, e.g. write every day. It is "empty and canned." None of it gets at the nub of what makes Atwood a great writer. And it isn't as if such lights are being selfish. The advice is sincerely given, and yet falls flat. Why?

Callard's answer is that there is a kind of type mismatch going on between what is being asked for, advice, and what would truly need to be given, which is something more akin to coaching. And because of that mismatch, the whole exchange deflates. What is needed, then, is a clear understanding of the types of language at play.

"Let me make a three-way terminological distinction between “advice,” “instructions” and “coaching.” You give someone instructions as to how to achieve a goal that is itself instrumental to some (unspecified) further goal--here is how someone might get to the library, if for some reason she wanted to go there; this is the way to put toner in a printer, etc. Coaching, by contrast, effects in someone a transformative orientation towards something of intrinsic value: an athletic or intellectual or even social triumph.

"Instructions make you better at doing what you (independently) valued, whereas coaching makes you better at valuing—-it cues you in to what’s important, at an intellectual or physical or emotional level. Coaching takes many forms—-teaching philosophy is coaching, and I see my therapist as a coach of sorts—-but one thing it always requires is the kind of time-investment that generates a shared educational history. Coaching is personal."
In other words, the would-be-writer sounds like she is asking Atwood an instructional question: What can I do to become a better writer? But she is really asking for a kind of transformation of the sort that made Atwood herself Margaret Atwood. Though Collard doesn't say it, what she is discussing is a mismatch of tekne, instrumental knowledge, for arete, mastery gained from lived experience.
"Instrumental knowledge is knowledge of universals: whenever you have an X, it will get you a Y. I can give you such knowledge without our having any robust connection to one another. Knowledge of becoming, by contrast, always involves a particularized grasp of where the aspirant currently stands on the path between total cluelessness and near-perfection. What are her characteristic weaknesses; where does she already excel; what nudges could she use? Only someone who knows her knows this. An aspirational history is full of minute corrections, dead ends, backtracking, re-orientation and random noise. It is as idiosyncratic, odd and particular as the human being herself."
The needy questioner is unsatisfied because what she is asking for is real contact and what she gets is advice. "The myth of advice is the possibility that we can transform one another with the most glancing contact." She doesn't need advice, she needs a teacher. In the words of a youth minister I heard once, "Sometimes you have to get in the car." That is what she wants, and, of course, the Atwoods of the world can't give that.

As a subject of religious education, I have always been that fan. I haven't asked how to become a writer, but how to become a Christian. That is the interrogation I have always leveled at poor Sunday School teachers and the like. And my expectations always produce a type mismatch. What I want is a sensei or a jedi master, but all that formal programs can give me is advice, and that is the problem.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Scriptures that inform my politics

What follows is a short review of scriptures, in English with their originals, that inform my politics. They are here for reference and to provide a mirror for personal critique. They are listed in the order that they came to mind.

Political Power is Worldly Mammon to be used for Kingdom Ends

"Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes" (Luke 16.9)

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager found in Luke 16.1-9 is a foundational text for my political approach to how Christians should function in democratic states. Knowing the temporary nature of human power, the state is that worldly mammon, that τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας that should be used for Kingdom ends and not for its own.

οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου φρονιμώτεροι ὑπὲρ τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ φωτὸς εἰς τὴν γενεὰν τὴν ἑαυτῶν εἰσιν. (9)

Jesus is King and Other Powers are Not

"Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place'" (John 18.36 NIV).

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου· εἰ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἦν ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμή, οἱ ὑπηρέται οἱ ἐμοὶ ἠγωνίζοντο [ἂν] ἵνα μὴ παραδοθῶ τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις· νῦν δὲ ἡ βασιλεία ἡ ἐμὴ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐντεῦθεν. (NA28)

The passages in the Pauline letters detailing the supremacy of Christ over all powers, for example, Ephesians 19b-23

"That power [identified in the previous clause as being "his incomparably great power for us who believe"] is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." (NIV)

καὶ τί τὸ ὑπερβάλλον μέγεθος τῆς δυνάμεως αὐτοῦ εἰς ἡμᾶς τοὺς πιστεύοντας κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν τοῦ κράτους τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ.ἣν ἐνήργησεν ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ ἐγείρας αὐτὸν ἐκ νεκρῶν καὶ καθίσας ἐν δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοιςὑπεράνω πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας καὶ δυνάμεως καὶ κυριότητος καὶ παντὸς ὀνόματος ὀνομαζομένου, οὐ μόνον ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τῷ μέλλοντικαὶ πάντα ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ,ἥτις ἐστὶν τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ, τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν πληρουμένου. (UBS 5)

God's Kingdom is God-Breathed and Does Not Require Human Agency

"[Abraham] was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. . . . [He, with the rest of the OT saints] were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them."

ἐξεδέχετο γὰρ τὴν τοὺς θεμελίους ἔχουσαν πόλιν ἧς τεχνίτης καὶ δημιουργὸς ὁ θεός. . . . νῦν δὲ κρείττονος ὀρέγονται, τοῦτ᾽ ἔστιν ἐπουρανίου. διὸ οὐκ ἐπαισχύνεται αὐτοὺς ὁ θεὸς θεὸς ἐπικαλεῖσθαι αὐτῶν· ἡτοίμασεν γὰρ αὐτοῖς πόλιν.

The People of God are a Nation of Priests, Imaging His Care to Creation

"Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.' So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'" (Genesis 1.26-28 NIV)

יֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְעֹ֣וף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִםוּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמֹ֔ו בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹתֹ֑ו זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּבִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְעֹ֣וף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

"But the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8.19-23 NIV)

ἡ γὰρ ἀποκαραδοκία τῆς κτίσεως τὴν ἀποκάλυψιν τῶν υἱῶν τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεκδέχεται. τῇ γὰρ ματαιότητι ἡ κτίσις ὑπετάγη, οὐχ ἑκοῦσα ἀλλὰ διὰ τὸν ὑποτάξαντα, ἐφ᾽ ἑλπίδι ὅτι καὶ αὐτὴ ἡ κτίσις ἐλευθερωθήσεται ἀπὸ τῆς δουλείας τῆς φθορᾶς εἰς τὴν ἐλευθερίαν τῆς δόξης τῶν τέκνων τοῦ θεοῦ. οἴδαμεν γὰρ ὅτι πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις συστενάζει καὶ συνωδίνει ἄχρι τοῦ νῦν οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν ἀπαρχὴν τοῦ πνεύματος ἔχοντες, ἡμεῖς καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς στενάζομεν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπεκδεχόμενοι, τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τοῦ σώματος ἡμῶν.

"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1 Peter 2.9 NIV)

Ὑμεῖς δὲ γένος ἐκλεκτόν, βασίλειον ἱεράτευμα, ἔθνος ἅγιον, λαὸς εἰς περιποίησιν, ὅπως τὰς ἀρετὰς ἐξαγγείλητε τοῦ ἐκ σκότους ὑμᾶς καλέσαντος εἰς τὸ θαυμαστὸν αὐτοῦ φῶς

Jesus's Summary of the Torah

"Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22.37-40 NIV)

ὁ δὲ ἔφη αὐτῷ, Ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ καρδίᾳ σου καὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ σουκαὶ ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ διανοίᾳ σου αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ μεγάλη καὶ πρώτη ἐντολή. δευτέρα δὲ ὁμοία αὐτῇ,Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν. ἐν ταύταις ταῖς δυσὶν ἐντολαῖς ὅλος ὁ νόμος κρέμαται καὶ οἱ προφῆται.

The Parable Teaching of Jesus

Rather than post these parables and the Greek text, I am going to supply hyperlinks.

The Good Samaritan (English | Greek)
The Sheep and the Goats (English | Greek)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Heidegger's entanglement

"Had Heidegger ever come up with a saying to sum up his philosophy it would have been: ‘I dwell, therefore I am.’ For him, identity is bound up with being in the world, which in turn means having a place in it. We don’t live in the abstract space favoured by philosophers, but in a particular place, with specific features and history. We arrive already entangled with the world, not detached from it. Our identity is not secured just in our heads but through our bodies too, how we feel and how we are moved, literally and emotionally.

"Instead of presenting it as a puzzle to be solved, Heidegger’s world is one we should immerse ourselves in and care for: it is part of the larger ‘being’ where we all belong. As Malpas puts it, Heidegger argues that we should release ourselves to the world, to find our part in its larger ebb and flow, rather than seek to detach ourselves from it in order to dominate it." ~ Charles Leadbeater summarizes a lot of what I like about Heidegger in as clean a language as one could care for.


A quick word about Heidegger's Nazism: I want to say that Heidegger was like Ezra Pound, whom I feel gets a pass for being a good poet, but a political and social idiot. Pound was selfless enough to encourage many world-class poets. But, Heidegger wasn't selfless. He was man of poor character, a bigot, a coward. He did not practice what he preached. Reading Heidegger is like coming back to what was a family home, now made rubble by a spring twister. Tragedy everywhere, but some keepsakes remain.