january 2008

contra skepticism
Wednesday, January 30th, 2008
This question comes up frequently enough to need an answer. This age is often characterized by skepticism. Skeptical treatment of experience is often frighteningly strong. “You can’t prove that!” “What evidence do you have for that?” Of course the proofs are lacking and the evidence is curiously intangible. But that doesn’t mean the experience is somehow illegitimate or that, using all the tools at our disposal, we can prove the experience legitimate. All it means is that we know more than we can prove, and that outside evidence of mass delusion, one should believe first-person reports of experience.

One of the problems for material science is that it forbids data of a certain type, that is, evidence of “spiritual” experience: ghosts, healing, telepathy, etc. The fact that material science forbids these elements of human experience, doesn’t mean the experiences don’t exist, but that their science is incapable of measuring it. It also doesn’t mean that the reports of these experiences are more than phenomenal. Saying the sun rises and sets is a phenomenal report. It is not the best description, but it is a report. So the report of seeing a ghost may only be a phenomenal description, lacking rigor, yet an honest report.

As I often do, I appeal to William James’s “Essays in Radical Empiricism.” In this volume he appeals to a radical acceptance of all data, irrespective of its ability to fit into a theory of some sort. He refuses to throw out data, preferring instead to leave problematic reports to further investigation instead of throwing it out. That is, even though we don’t have an explanation of the event in useful terms, doesn’t mean the report is illegitimate. Leave the report to further investigation.

The skeptic must roll their eyes at this. “How inefficient, how untidy. So much waste of time spent incorporating elements which do not have any connection to ‘reality.’” Admittedly the data is messy, the data is out of bounds. But that doesn’t mean it is not a true report that sometime in the future won’t have a place in some rigorous scientific framework.

The event that brings this up, the hard-wired skepticism that forces this actually gives no answer to the problem, rather attempts to squash the problem by force of censure. This method of ensuring agreement, really does nothing at all. People who believe contrary to the skeptic’s view will not raise their voices for fear of that censure, but that doesn’t mean they somehow believe the skeptic is correct.

In the truth game we are playing, forces like that of the skeptic are of little value. Why? Because the truth of people’s beliefs are hidden under the force of censure and none of the possible truths about these experiences will ever rise to the surface to be tested in the court of public dialogue. There will be no parrhesiastic event. No truth will surface from this. If it turns out that there is no truth to the event, well, fine, but to prevent the discussion because “it couldn’t possibly be true” is fairly tyrannical.

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the sunflower
Monday, January 28th, 2008
I have just finished reading The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. I began reading it in my wife’s car when I needed to fill in the time. It was in the pocket by the front passenger. I read a bit of it at the Hong Kong Inn during lunches last spring, but never finished it. So, because Lois and I are leading a discussion of it in a couple weeks at Evangel U., I started it from the beginning and read through it today. The symposium makes up the rest of the book, about 180 pages of discussion.

Two days later: I have read a few of the remarks by symposium members. For the most part the remarks both justify Simon’s not forgiving Karl the SS man, and sympathize with Simon’s suffering. The point of the story that becomes interesting to me is the moment Karl and his fellow soldiers break their psyches. This is the moment when, faced with committing what they knew to be a crime against humanity and against these few Jews, opted for compliance to authority. They knew their future was in jeopardy by the hand of their superior officer if they disobeyed the order. They might even have been shot on the spot for desertion or dereliction of duty. It is easy to see that, at least in this case, when faced with the possible loss of life people will choose the death of another over themselves.

It is Karl’s psychological state after the crime that interests me. I understand there is a certain psychic shock to the murderer when he kills. I understand that enjoying that shock is the mark of a psychopath. I don’t know whether Karl had been killing enemy soldiers, which in the time of war, can be justified as a matter of course as combat casualties. I do know that when he and his fellows killed the Jews in the burning house, he was in a state of shock.

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class discussion
Monday, January 28th, 2008
I am deeply appreciative of the energy and effort the contemporary philosophy class put into the discussion on Friday. I am also a bit disturbed at how easily it spun out of control. I don’t mean by this that I couldn’t control it but that it expanded to include so many peripheral ideas that I no longer could see where it was going. In the end I decided to stop it, to let other students give their presentations, but I felt as if we could have gone through the whole class on the discussion.

Guided by Geoff McLarty’s able presentation, we began a discussion of the place of the care of the self in Socratic thinking. I urged a question about the Christian responsibility for the care of the self. All of a sudden, with the remarks by Tim Michaux, who injected a few theological puzzles into the mix, the discussion spun out of control.

I wanted to bring the discussion back to the care of the self, but the cat was out of the bag. Theological and rational justifications either for or against certain lists of priorities were advanced, and we were not getting anywhere at all. Well, I might say that the breadth of the problem that started to show itself revealed that there really is a problem in our view about this.

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can’t we just get knowledge right?
Thursday, January 24th, 2008
Michael Ryswyk asked a question in class on Wednesday that is at the heart of the problem not only of parrhesia but of truth in general. Paraphrased, his question was something like this, “Can’t we just get truth by reason and logic?” I think there was more, but my answer will cover more territory than the question I clumsily recount here. The problem of acquiring truth, and therefore certainty, cannot be solved by logic, authority, reason, inspiration, or even revelation.

What we were troubling in the class on Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008 has to do with choosing whom one should pick as a parrhesiastes, someone who can speak truth to us. Is it knowledge, learning, schooling, or moral integrity, standing in the community, right of birth that justifies selecting someone for the task of speaking the truth?

First of all, logic is mere structure. There must be substance for logic to parse, and logic is only the bones of the body. Alone, it is not alive or meaningful. The body is made up of values, facts, and relations.

Second, since every civilization counts value differently, and every civilization counts what they know to be true differently, it is unlikely we will come to an agreement soon about what constitutes legitimation to serve as a parrhesiastes. Second, since no knowledge can be had disentangled from its relations to power, it is unlikely that one will arrive at a universal comprehension of truth. I say that a criterion of universal truth is unattainable for mankind.

For example, take “orthodox” Christianity, supposing there were just one version of this, is it possible that the truth this orthodoxy supported would count as truth for everybody that came in contact with it? It is not true that any orthodoxy has ever held such a lofty position for all men, ever. So, which orthodoxy should we choose: Eastern, Roman, Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican, Assemblies of God? Does one stand aloof from the problems of acquisition of knowledge? Is any one logically accurate, and at the same time comprehensive of all the scripture? Is one tradition free of the culture in which it was spawned such that it could claim some privileged access to truth?

The obvious answer to these questions is no, none, no, no, no.

But I want you to look at how these orthodoxies relate to power. They have the ability to include or exclude, promote or demote, brand an idea as heresy, enforce laws built on the orthodoxy, punish, alienate, divide. Simply orthodoxy is a way of exercising power within the scope of its governance. The decision to adopt an all sufficient rule for faith and practice is a political one, not a biblical one, and in every age there are groups defined by and defining themselves as insiders and outsiders.

So the knowledge acquired is put to use politically, is not able to be challenged without risk, defines heresy, but is not free from the entanglements of power.

The problem with systems of this sort is that they are reductive and incomplete, cannot by their nature comprehend all of reality either for their own age or the age of their progeny. We have to decide what counts as truth in our culture. This also does not exclude the possibility of any type of truth but it is also not translatable universally into a set of real truths adoptable by all people.

Does this mean there is no absolute truth? Not really. It is logical that there must be some truths which organize all reality. What it does mean is that being human prevents us either from grasping it in its absoluteness, understanding its scope, or describing it in all its richness. It also means we must abandon the psychological balm of certainty and live with the knowledge of our limitations.

What does this way of thinking say about revelation? It doesn’t deny revelation. It says that revelation is perceived and captured within culture not above it, and to understand the revelation, one must understand the enculturated message, again limited by being human.

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living life as an art/instrument
Sunday, January 13th, 2008
Bob mentioned in sunday school class today that I hadn’t mentioned Art as a mode of discipline leading to a form of life. I responded that both Nietzsche and Foucault described the disciplines of living as an aesthetic project. I didn’t mention because of lack of time, the impulse to treat life as an art in general or that both Nietzsche and Foucault described their projects as an effort to become what one is.

I remembered after class that the project of S?ren Kierkegaard’s book Either Or is to distinguish between the project of “Either” which is that of living life as an art and the project of “Or” to live life ethically in relation to God almighty.

It strikes me as impossible to live life as an art without becoming ethical and impossible to live life ethically without the intention that drives one to live artistically. In the first, to live life as Kierkegaard suggested for “Either” one would have to be completely self centered. To think in that mode of being of doing something for the other because it would also profit myself, by enlightened self interest, doesn’t seem to enter Kierkegaard’s mind. And to live life altruistically because it produces beauty of another kind than just self satisfaction also does not seem to enter his mind. But I think both of those modes are modes of living life as an art as well as the one Kierkegaard describes, the life of a completely self-centered individual.

I am quite certain that as with all lives that are completely self centered, one begins to both be bored with the exercise of this mode of pleasure whose end is in nihilistic self destruction and adopt a view of people, even instrumentally at first, that grants them some autonomy, so as to prolong the game of extracting pleasure from them. Eventually interest in the individual overcomes the self-centered pose, and some qualified sense of responsible relationship ensues, an ethical relationship.

So I think Kierkegaard’s description is limited to a steady-state reality, a formal structure of living that will not stand the test of the real world. His “Either” is a straw man who eventually will gravitate to an ethical life.

As well the “Or” part of the doublet, the ethical man, must at some time be forced to recognize both the impossibility of the desired perfection (I think this is built in to the sphere of contact with God which drives repentance) and realize also that life without the artificial protections of a career inside a civilized state, affords no such stability as would make his ethical project possible. It is like offering money management seminars to the hapless soul who has no knack for making money in the first place and lives as a poor man.

So Foucault and Nietzsche who imagine living life as an art, an aesthetic project, become ethical in order to maximize the fruitfulness of the project, and Kierkegaard in the Either/Or project becomes self contradictory attempting to live ethically thinking he has transcended living life as an art. But Either/Or is an early project and Kierkegaard modified his position, I think.

Another question, one that I think Kierkegaard problematized is that of treating life as an instrument. I wonder if that is the only alternative to living life as an art. The reason I pose living life instrumentally is that seems to be the way Christianity in some of its forms drives discipleship. “How can God use me?” “I am nothing. Christ is everything.” “I am an empty vessel to be used by God for his purpose.”

This sort of instrumental thinking pervades the revivalist movements I have gravitated to during my adult life. There is a well-developed pattern of not only self denial, but as Foucault suggests, this is a paradox in the face of the care of the self implied by moving toward one’s own salvation. The effort to efface oneself in proper discipleship becomes a competition to be perceived as the least of the brethren. The project of Christianity has become the decipherment of the heart with the object of the renunciation of the self.

Analogously with trying to live life wholly as an art, when one seeks to become an instrument, one must necessarily acquire the art of its use. One cannot be pure instrumentality without acquiring the art of its delivery.

So back to Bob’s question about life as an art. I think we have the project fundamentally misconceived when either we treat our life totally as an instrument or totally as an art. Life is not as simple as “Either/Or” would have us believe. How does one resolve the dilemma posed by this problem? I don’t know how to resolve it at the moment, but as an instrument of God I will seek to artfully propose obedience to God in ethically becoming oneself.

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contemporary philosophy
Wednesday, January 9th, 2008
I ask myself why I chose the line-up of books I did for this course. I ask what the theme might be. It is January 2008. We have less than four months to drive a course through these materials. What do I hope for the students to get out of it?

I hope that we all get a better comprehension of the problems with government, a closer look at power structures and strategies, a deeper sensitivity to the troubles ordinary people have navigating life, and consciousness of some better description of human nature.

I am pleased with the selection of students that have arrived. I am happy that they seem eager to proceed with the material. I look forward to an interesting ride.

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