Epistemology and Practice: Thoughts

One of my chief interests in philosophy has always been epistemology. I even wrote a really bad paper in high school about whether or not one could know religious truths (it has thankfully been lost to the sands of time). For those who do not know, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines epistemology as

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief.

While epistemology has, in many ways, been and probably will remain fun to study, one of the aspects of it that troubles me is that it often ends up fruitless. The arguments end up confusing practical people who use know-how in their careers and hobbies. On top of that, the arguments often seem never ending for the philosophers in question. Note, I am not claiming that they are fruitless, they only seem that way.

Personal Speculation

As an educator, I’ve come to view epistemology from a more pragmatic perspective (not like William James though). Epistemology, by nature, should outline the varieties of evidence and habits of reasoning that justify claims to know. In this sense, epistemology is a piece of pedagogical theory. So, the study of epistemology is ultimately and ideally the study of not only how one comes to know, but how one imparts knowledge and skill to others. This is important because it ends up connecting back to Aristotle’s rhetoric and dialectic distinction, the relationship of practice vs theory, and the fact that some people have differing levels of evidentiary rigor.

For instance, a deductive geometry proof will be absolutely demonstrative, for students who know logic or who have an intuitive grasp of how it functions. On the other hand, for students who do not grasp logic, a geometry proof will tell them nothing until A) they learn logic or B) they use the theorem in the physical world and then attempt it on paper.

The thing about sin

The thing about sin is that it is so pernicious.

It is both alien and completely habitual and enculturated.

Sin is alien in the respect that it feels shameful and is shocking when we see it.

Sin is habitual and enculturated in that the beliefs, habits of thought, and habits of body that lead to sin are in the zeitgeist of every human culture.

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy

Yesterday, while doing some science in my science laboratory, I discovered a new logic fallacy:

The Hurt-Feelings Fallacy:

When the premises or the conclusion of an argument hurt somebody’s feelings or hypothetically could do so in the future, then the argument is fallacious and the conclusion and the premises are all false. Similarly, if the corollaries of the argument could cause hurt-feelings then the whole argument is false. Also, and most important of all, if the person making the argument has or potentially could stimulate hurt-feelings, then all of the arguments that person makes and totally false.

This is a pernicious fallacy and one which is difficult not to commit. For instance:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Could be responded to thus:

I do not want to die, that hurts my feelings. That argument is unsafe.

Also, one could say,

If I accept the records about Socrates, then I might have to consider the historicity of the Bible, but the Bible hurts my feelings.

This fallacy has allowed me to disprove almost everything. My favorite example is this:

You have disagreed with me. You have given me hurt-feelings, therefore your whole ideology is wrong. Also, you are not a person.

Happy nihilism!

The Outsider Test for Logic

A quasi-famous thought experiment which is intended to show why any particular religion is silly is the “Outsider Test for Faith.” I think it was developed by John Loftus.

I think that it is very clever. It may even be the best argument against Christianity I have ever heard. What I’ve enjoyed the most about the experiment is that it provides a rather exhilarating perspective on familiar ideas and habits.

The outsider test for faith essentially proposes that somebody who already rejects all other religions (and presumably the gods worshiped therein), consider their own religion from the perspective of an agnostic (because they already reject all other religions). The idea is that any particular religion, from that agnostic perspective, would be laughably improbable and should therefore be rejected. I think that the test is flawed on a few levels, but those flaws are not the point of this post. I’m more interested in applying the outsider test to logic.

The Test

Imagine yourself as an outsider to the practice of logic. You do not believe or know about the law of non-contradiction, you do not utilize syllogisms (explicitly or implicitly), outside of basic counting you know of no mathematics, and outside of trial and error you have no system of testing ideas cognitively outside of physical experiment.

Then somebody comes along who tells you that there is a thing called logic. “Logic is a symbolic, abstract, non-physical reality that can be used to clarify thought.”, they say. You’re told, “Logic can be used to solve problems in mathematics, human relationships, economics, history, crime scene investigation, ethics, philosophy, and so-on. Logic is no where physical like water or light.”

You stand awed and confused.

“Logic is not made of anything like dirt or wood. Yet, despite being no where and made of nothing, it functions in all times and places. It allows for the most complex mathematical calculations,” they say waving a logic textbook around. “Logic”, they say, “gives you the tools to calculate the distance around the earth, between the stars, and to create calculating machines that utilize the powers of lightening.”

*End Test*

The outsider test for logic allows us to see how weird the world is and how convenient simple things like syllogisms, basic mathematics, and the idea that A and not-A cannot be true at once really are.

Now, I do not think that somebody would, I hope they wouldn’t, reject the use of logic based on the outsider test. I think that a convinced religious person (whether for good or bad reasons) would probably find their faith more interesting and astounding after taking the test. Anyway, the outsider test for faith didn’t convince me not to be a Christian, but it did give me a useful tool as a teacher to help students understand how great things like math, scientific method, logic, medicine, school systems, and other things are. It is also a neat tool for evaluating important cultural artifacts like abortion. The outsider test to determine the rationality of behavior for the longevity of civilization is very intriguing as well as the outsider test for how one spends his or her time.

John’s Apocalypse and Missing the Point

When the book of Revelation is read by Christians today, it is often read as a pastiche of horrifying portents, full stop.

Whether this is a wise reading or not, I’ll leave that to others to determine. But it is, most certainly, a truncated and incomplete reading.

The author of Revelation actually makes this claim:

Revelation 19:10 ESV  Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

The testimony of Jesus is nothing other than the gospel message about the fulfillment of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. Despite what else it is, the book of revelation is a call for the Christians in John’s age and our own to turn their minds and allegiance to Jesus as he has been explained by the apostles. For Christians today, this means the Jesus of the gospels.

The spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus. Another way to say this is that the point of prophecy is to make the message Jesus taught clear.

Speculative Theology and Universal Creatorship

I had lunch with a friend yesterday to talk to him about, among other things, a video game he is programming. He mentioned this thought experiment that came to him in the process:

Every hypothetical universe that would allegedly be as good or better than this one has a creator, even completely random ones created by rolling dice to determine constraints (for role playing games and so-on). Even hypothetical universes imagined for the sake of thinking about multi-verse theory are imagined. Thus, anybody who finds the argument from suffering compelling, but accepts various writers, thinkers, and other hypothetical universe constructors to be good or real is inconsistent.

Imaginary is not meant to mean unreal, but simply conceived in the mind. One might object, “but in our universe, real, conscious beings suffer.” That’s fine, it’s a thought experiment, but if there is a creator behind the entire cosmos, one must imagine that any involvement in the life of humans on earth would have to be a statistical anomaly (we’re zero percent of the universe). This is a crass anthropomorphism, but the Bible is full of them, so deal with it.* An omniscient being (if we imagine for the sake of argument that this being is like us…which God isn’t really) who is managing the cosmos would find any individual event incredibly insignificant.

Also, he noted that this isn’t meant to be a proof of any sort, but a thought experiment to determine whether or not a world created in which suffering is conceivable or even necessary is necessarily created by an evil being.

Anyway, it’s an interesting experiment. My mind has gone several directions with it over the past 24 hours.

Your thoughts?

*The Bible acknowledges that it uses anthropomorphisms (Deuteronomy 1:31 and Numbers 23:19) in order to help people repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. Even calling forgiveness, ‘forgiveness’ implies an anthropomorphism because God isn’t literally a banker who tallies up our moral debts.

Music Monday: Tuesday Edition

Yesterday I had Diff-EQ homework and lesson plans to write and I forgot to post this. But one of the coolest songs I have ever heard is In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth 3 by Coheed and Cambria.

The song is a embedded in a multi-volume space opera style sci-fi epic. When I first heard this song, just like by buddies Jeff (not me) and Nathan (not my brother), the part at about 6:20 onward got me complete hooked. The song apparently describes a conversation that takes place during an attack on a spacecraft with guns called jackhammers.

It’s important to note that lines in the song do not reflect the author, but the characters in the narrative, because some of them sound pretty weird.

Anyway, enjoy.

Reflections on Colossians

I had a discussion with my pastor and a mutual friend today about Colossians 1:15-20 the other day. The ESV translates it like this:

Colossians 1:15-20 ESV He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (16) For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. (17) And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (18) And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. (19) For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, (20) and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

There is a lot to say about this passage. Scholarly debates multiply like loaves, though they may not be as filling. Indeed, of the writing of books about Paul’s theology there is no end and reading them all is a great weariness, especially in comparison to reading the works of the interesting, infuriating, and often opaque apostle. But what came up was this question, “If this is true, so what?”

Paul answers this very question in the letter. He does it in steps:

  1. Paul notes that in Christ, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid (2:3). This is a huge claim, but it is meant to help the Colossians see that theoretical disputes and philosophical rhetoric has a definite terminus: Jesus. Why is this so? Because of what 1:15-20 say and more succinctly, what 2:9 says, “For in him, the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily…” In some way, then, to be connected to Christ through the gospel, is to be directly connected to ultimate reality or God.
  2. Because of this, Jesus is superior to philosophical reasoning as well as to divinely inspired regulations of which Christ is the form which gave a shadow to the regulations (2:11-23).
  3. But, since Christ is seated at the right hand of God, Christians are to focus on the things above (Colossians 3:1-4). These things above are not, as is commonly supposed, heaven instead of earth, but rather the truths of the gospel about Jesus: self-denial, God’s love, compassion, and so-on instead of destructive and evil habits like greed and wrath.
  4. Then, before Paul gives advice to people in different social spheres, he ends his general instructions with this:
    “Col 3:16-17 (ESV) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (17) And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
    The command in bold has two possible meanings, “let the message about Christ…” or “let the teachings of Christ.” In my mind, it is both because “the word of Christ” to the New Testament authors seems to be what ended up in the four gospels.

While Paul certainly says more in his letter to the Colossian Christians than, “Here is how you connect with ultimate reality,” he definitely does not say less. If we are to apply Colossians 1:15-20 to our lives, then the way Paul says make the most sense. We keep our minds focused on the facts of the case concerning Jesus and the things he taught and then put them into practice in our churches.

Theologians and Their Weird Interests

  1. My friend and I
    A good friend and I have been going back and forth on the question of infant baptism lately. In many ways, this question is important. In many other ways it probably isn’t. For instance, a guy who grew up Roman Catholic and is an evangelical Protestant these days overheard us and just said, “I accept both.” He’s an academic with different doctoral programs wanting him: history and education. He’s no slouch intellectually. So he’s not one of those people who says, “Thinking sucks, so don’t bring thinking into Christianity.” On the other hand, my buddy and I were literally discussing a side tangent of the literary/rhetorical purpose of the genealogies of Matthew and how that relates to the nature of the New Covenant vis-à-vis circumcision. So, you can see why our other friend, who loves questions about historical trifles, could consistently find that particular question uninteresting.
  2. The centrality of the gospel and the simplicity of Christ
    Anyhow, this comment reminded me of something: theologians and Biblical studies experts have eccentric interests. Ever hear this one?

    “The only person in town who drives to church on Sunday morning wondering what sort of treaty documents the Hittites used is the pastor.”
    In a real way, interests of this sort, are so incidental to the purpose of the Bible that knowing about them or even being wrong about them is completely inconsequential. If Christianity is true and in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3), then the most important thing that pastor or theologian can do is make sure that people understand how to be connected to Christ by faith. People need to know the word of Christ and what it means if they are to let it dwell richly among them in the churches. Christians need help with things like learning how to do what Jesus says. We need to learn to pray, deny ourselves daily, memorize Scripture, bless those who curse us, saving money in a debt-loving culture, and so-on. Christians need somebody to sit with them in the hospital, pray with them over hard decisions about college, marriage, and career. We need somebody to minister the word of “justified by his blood” when we confess our sins. And while this all remains true, theologians often argue about whether or not the Trinity is best understood socially or psychologically. Bible scholars use ever novel methods to explore the same texts over and over, world without end. There are dozens of articles and books written about how best to translate the same Greek phrase (πιστις χριστου). I have written the outline of an article I’m going to write about how best to translate one word as it appears three times in two of Paul’s letters. Yet, few of these ideas have any direct bearing on the Christian life as practiced by parents, lawyers, nursing home inhabitants, doctors, garbage men, and fast-food slingers.
    The Christian life relies upon a body of knowledge about which there are bound to be disagreements, gray areas, and gaps. Certainly the main emphases of ministers should be upon the clearest aspects of that body of knowledge. But does this mean that there should be no exploration of areas of obscurity or lesser significance? I think that the answer is no. Here’s why:
    1. Worldviews are complicated and the same skills used for exploring minutiae can help ministers, theologians, and Bible scholars explain the big ideas of the gospel to people with various worldviews, weird beliefs, and background knowledge.
    2. The questions being asked are questions about truth and knowledge, so they are valuable to explore regardless of immediate practical import.
    3. It is possible that the practical importance of certain lines of questioning won’t be immediately relevant, but could be down the line. Even the most obscure mathematics often ends up finding physical use just as some of the weirdest pieces of trivia about the ancient world periodically help us (like weird remedies for infections that turn out useful see page 89 of the abstracts for this conference). One example might be that at certain points, deeper study into specific issues like the meaning of “justification by faith” or “first born of all creation” have been very helpful for individual Christians. Similarly, obsession over Greek and Hebrew word usage, as in the case of Cruden helped make the English Bible more comprehensible. Or, even more importantly, Erasmus’ obsession with creating an accurate majority text for the Greek New Testament catapulted Bible translation as an art. One may think, “will this or that weird hobby horse of an obscure theologian really help Christians obey Jesus?” And the answer truly is, “we don’t know.” Mechanics don’t necessarily care about advances in thermodynamics and physicists often cannot work on cars, but the progress of one justifies the existence of the other and the progress of the one assists the other.
  3. What is the point?
    1. Christianity, as a body of knowledge, is generally simple and capable of being grasped and applied by anybody capable of the most basic reasoning.
    2. But, like any body of knowledge, it has complicated aspects, incomplete data, and unclear relationships to other data-sets. This is because theology deals with Scripture and it’s relation to the thought categories contained therein and used without. Biblical studies deals with the data of linguistics, literary theory, history, and so-on and uses this data to understand the Biblical text. Putting all of this together with ethics, habit formation, and keeping a community cohesive is not an easy task.
    3. Many of the aspects of point ‘2’ directly above have no bearing on the cognitive content or personal practice of the gospel for most people. But this does not automatically imply that such efforts are useless. These pursuits, though useful, are not central. Few people on their death bed will ask their minister if infralapsarianism is true.