knowledge from and to faith

The advance of knowledge makes it less and less possible for the whole of what is known to be known by any one person, making each person more and more dependent on the trust he puts in the testimony of another whom he sees as in a position to know what they are talking about. Such trust is basic sense of faith even as Christianity uses it.

Knowledge does not have to advance very far before it becomes simply impossible for even the very intelligent to know the whole of the field he is talking about, or even a sub-field of a sub-field. This occurs even though the sub-field can only exist on the basis of the very knowledge that is impossible for the individual to have. At best, one might know a sub-field but have to take its basis on trust; or know the most general field and have to take its further subdevelopments on trust. Furthermore, the dependence of the general and sub-field runs both ways: for the sub-field not only has its basis in the general but the very concrete meaning of the general can only be made clear in the sub-field.

Thus, in its concrete existence science is not the name of something anyone knows but a network of testimony held together by relationships of trust and confidence in those deemed in a position to know. The purpose of this network of trust is to make possible what small subset of knowledge we can actually have, along with what benefits we might draw from it. And so we have a sense in which all knowledge is both based on and tends to faith, since it both requires trust in testimony and tends toward requiring such trust.

This account of knowledge contradicts most accounts of science from the Greeks to the Enlightenment. For all their many differences, the dream of all science in a single human mind was a shared ideal from Plato to Thomas to Descartes to the 19th Century Cursus and Systema manual writers. The dream only died very recently – though not all of us have recognized it, and fewer of us have come to terms with what it means. I certainly haven’t.

Lecture on Kant

1.) The basic data or problem. You go to algebra class and you learn what is essentially Cartesian algebra; you go to physics class an learn classical or Newtonian physics (it will later develop into something else, but only after you learn the Newtonian sort first); you go to a geometry class and you learn a more or less Euclidian geometry as adapted through Descartes. But philosophy is not like this: you come to a philosophy class and you learn philosophies. Why is there no broad consensus on method? Why haven’t we decided on one philosophy and just gone with it? Why is it that when we raise the fundamental questions about God, the universe, the human self that we think we can’t teach one thing but only many? Notice that this is in spite of philosophy being much older and much more broadly practiced than many sorts of math and all sorts of sciences. Isn’t this a scandal?

2.) The Kantian solution. Kant’s solution is simple: you can know things like math and science but not philosophy, or at least “philosophy” so far as it deals with the fundamental questions of God, the universe, and the soul, i.e. metaphysics.

3.) Some jargon. I think that Kant’s fundamental insights are startlingly simple and even self-evident, but they can be obscured by his jargon. We’ll start with one key term: pure. The pure is a cognitive power considered without an object. So an eyeball is “pure vision”; an ear is “pure hearing”. They’re just a structures for seeing and hearing, and considered just as structures we don’t think of them as seeing or hearing, just as divided up into parts (think of a picture of an eye on an optometrists wall. That’s “pure vision”.)

We’ve already seen the a priori and the a posteriori as divided into the necessary and the changeable. We’ll now add the idea of the analytic and the synthetic. Synthetic knowledge is more or less new insights, analytic is just an explication of what one already means. Saying that water is a liquid or wet or clear are all analytical claims, since they are simply ways of making clear what one means when he’s talking about water. Saying that water is H2O is a synthetic statement, since it involves something more than just what one means by “water”. The line between the synthetic and the analytic might not always be clear, and it might vary slightly on our experience, but the basic distinction is sound.

Now in order to have science, or at least the sort of science that would get past the problem we spoke of in (1), it would have to be both a priori – more or less necessary; and synthetic, that is, involving a deepening insight beyond or initial or first experience of a thing and what we first mean by it. This is why Kant sees the basic problem of the search for knowledge as trying to figure out whether synthetic a priori knowledge is possible.

4.) A definition of knowing. If this is right, then an actual piece of knowledge is just the combination of “pure reason” and an object in the world. The world pours into the eye, and the eye picks up on some information and not on others. But we can distinguish different aspects of the world and pure vision. The world seems to explain how there can be any content to our knowledge at all, but it is the eye that explains why we see this color as opposed to another. If we were deer, then we wouldn’t see bright orange and a different color from a tree; if we were a bee we’d see two colors on a sunflower petal and not just a single uniform yellow. If we were dung beetles, we’d experience the sweet scent of dung. This is even true of things like shape – that we see things as curved or straight or three dimensional or two dimensional is due to the structure of the eye. We saw these sorts of arguments in Berkeley, though they can also be seen as applications of the Scholastic principle that all that is known is known according to the mode of the knower.

5.) The fundamental distinction in something known. All knowledge gets its content from the world and its structure from pure cognition. Both are completely unintelligible in themselves. To be more precise, we can know that the world and pure reason exist but not what they are in themselves. Without the world, mind would have no content at all to detect or respond to; without the pure reason, the world would have no determinate features.

6.) The fundamental determinations. The fundamental determination in experience appear to be space and time. The combination of the world and pure reason takes time and happens somewhere. The various divisions in this “somewhere” give us geometry; the various numerical divisions we make in time (like on a clock) give us numbers and hence arithmetic. The possible determinations of this field are not given from the beginning, and so knowledge in this area can be really synthetic. At the same time, since they are fundamental to all thought, they can be a priori. And so math can be a veritable science.

It makes sense that so far s we understand nature formally through math, then nature too can take part in synthetic a priori knowledge. But this is the basic Newtonian program, which was not fundamentally altered even by Einstein. And so the basic Newtonian program of physics is also synthetic a priori knowledge.

7.) The fate of metaphysics. We’ve already seen that what we know is not the world nor pure reason, but only the product made from them. We can know that there is a world but nothing about it, whether it is one or many, material or non material, finite or infinite in time, etc. This includes a fortiori whether it is caused or uncaused, and this rules out any inference to God from nature. Said another way, metaphysics wanted to be a study of how the world is in itself, but this is “the world” that is never known in itself, but only as the purely undetermined content for pure reason.

Just as the world is not known, so also the self isn’t. We can’t know if we are soul or body, or some mix of the two. Self and world are two limits that are never given in themselves. We can no more argue to God from the self, as Descartes did, than from the world.

8.) An important label. The fact that the world is only known so far as it receives determinations from the pure cognitive power is called The Copernican turn. 

9.) A line of critique. Any Critique of Kant must happen on a very fundamental level. St. Thomas would probably deny the claim that knowledge is a combination of pure reason and the world. This is fine as a description of sense knowledge, he would say, but intellectual knowledge has no determinate structure. This is exactly what STA means when he says that the intellect is immaterial or that it cannot have any determinate form since this would impede its knowledge of being. If this is right, the dispute between Kant and Scholastic philosophy will trace back to the question whether the intellect has a determinate structure. It seems clear that if it really knows being or substance that, in fact, it can have none. But it is only in Kant that this dispute becomes really clear.

Euthyphro, cont.

Euthyphro: I confess that I cannot explain what my duty is to the gods, but I still know that I have such a duty, even if I can’t say what it consists in, or ground it in some more basic reality, like what the gods love.

Socrates: And by a duty you mean that you owe something to the gods? That they have some right to your action?

E: That is exactly how I feel.

S: But you still agree that there is no commerce or exchanging things with the gods?

E: Yes.

S: But how can I owe you something without giving it to you? And how could I give you what I owe without settling my debt?

E: That seems to be a problem.

S: Indeed. How can we give what we owe without this being the settling of a debt?

E: Can you see a way, Socrates? It seems like I am saying we must pay our debts to the gods, but they can never be payed.

S: That is just what I find so hard to accept about what you are saying, Euthyphro, though I did not see it until now. You want to settle your account with the gods, but it seems to me that the only reason one would do so is if he wanted to be free of the gods. You call this action you are doing pious, but I see it as impious.

E: But how can you possibly say that, Socrates? I would never feel like I had paid my debt to the gods, and could be done with them!

S: And why not, Euthyphro? You clearly think you have paid your debt to your own Father, and now can be done with him! You would even now expose him to the penalty of death!

E: … But that …I don’t … I don’t think that at all. I would merely put the gods before anyone, even my father.

S: And so are the gods usurers? Or loan sharks?

E: I don’t see what you mean! You keep saying ridiculous things.

S: Not at all, dear Euthyphro. I only mean to ask you this: when the gods give you a debt that you can never repay, do they do this like loan sharks, shackling someone with crippling interest rates, and other pernicious and unjust tricks?

E: Absolutely not. It is in complete justice that we cannot ever repay the gift to the gods.

S: Yes. But if there could be any just debt that one must pay but could never repay, it would certainly be due to the one who gave him his own existence. But your very presence here in court denies that you owe any such thing to the one who gave you your own existence. You feel free to offer him up to executioners for murder.

E: So what should one do then? Do we have to consult our family tree before we can know whether to let someone get away with murder?

S: No, but you can never show your piety to the gods by raising your hand against your own father. I truth, this is all I wanted you to see from the beginning.

Burden of Proof and Anchoring

When we take the idea of “burden of proof” outside its legal context, in an attempt to apply it to some supposed property of argument as such (e.g. “the one who makes a positive statement has the burden of proof” etc.) it has the terrible consequence of making us forget that the reason presumption of innocence belongs in the legal context as a corrective to our bias to suppose that a guy must have done something when he is accused of a crime. We are biased to start with the first piece of information we get about someone and then adjust our opinion of his guilt up or down from that; and so if one makes an accusation ugly and serious enough (like treason against the king or molestation of a child by a priest or satanic daycare worker) then it’s all but inevitable that we’ll assume the accused did something horrible, though on no evidence beyond the accusation.

Presumption of innocence can also a corrective against our bias toward believing certain accusers, e.g. those in authority or those with accusations that we find easy to remember.

We give the presumption of innocence to the accused in an attempt to have a proceeding start from real equality. Giving this presumption to the accuser (out of the laudable attempt not to punish the victim or out of a desire to play it safe with the possibility of the accusation being true) makes it much harder to make a rational decision.

Chance and divinity

We oscillate between seeing chance as divine and as refuting God’s existence. We can’t help discovering meaning in events that, so far as nature or our own intentions were concerned, happened completely by chance: the meeting of a spouse, the finding a mentor, the personality of our children, etc, and any such discovery would, by definition, have to come from outside of nature or our own intention. At the same time, bad luck and the causality of chance are the paradigm refutations of any providence or design in things: which is what people seem to be gesturing at with all their ways of replacing divinity with “Darwin”.

At times, however, these inferences reverse: in the throes of bad luck we can insist that it must have a meaning, and so that it too falls under providence; and while living high on a string of good luck we might think that luck is all there is to it and that “the search for a deeper meaning” is asking too much of the world.

Say that we said both inferences cancel each other out, or that neither was definitive of themselves. It seems to me that this does a good deal more damage to the refutation-of-God side than for the chance as divine side. Bad luck is more or less the heart of the argument from evil, and chance-as-a-cause is the heart of the “Darwin” based scientific critique of theism. The inference from chance to divinity, however, is a much less significant argument in theism, and is in fact more suggestive an intuitive than explicitly asserted. So theism loses very little, but atheism quite a lot.

Dialectic, revolution, and the timeless

Revolutions stir the blood and open the possibility of total renewal and rebirth. In the intellectual sphere, this spirit of revolution is dialectic, or the habit of thought that takes the liberty to run across all domains and which feels just as free to start with a premise and work out the consequences as it does to deny a consequence and refute the starting points.

Dialectic tends to something other than itself, since we wouldn’t even start to argue if it didn’t think some things could be definitively ruled out. But this gives us the paradox that dialectic presupposes both a termination in some timeless truth and the promise of eternal revolution.

This paradox of dialectic is now playing out in what gets called science, where we find ourselves convinced we have found something both timeless and forever up-for-grabs. Half the time we politely insist that all that we prove in the sciences can be falsified, and that we will simply follow the evidence wherever it goes; while at the same time we dogmatically insist that the method itself and its fundamental presuppositions are not just one philosophy among many possible. On the one hand we want all our scientific beliefs to be open to review, on the other hand we insist that they couldn’t all just vanish like an opium dream – which would, in fact, make them merely an instance of the sort of mythology that we take them to be the antithesis of.

Divine inferences

1.) From a trait in the universe had from another. We find something in the universe that it cannot have of itself. The reality of insight tells us that we can see what things are in themselves. But for various reasons, when we consider  necessity  or causality  or existence or a mover we see no way that what they are of themselves could be found in anything like the universe. Our “eureka” moment or “Newton’s apple” moment into these things can’t involve a vision of what is sensible, law based, comprehensible by a finite mind, etc. This is the dominant mode of inference in cosmological arguments, though not the only one.

2.) From the aporia of the universe itself. Evil both forever arises with the good and yet is secondary and derivative to it. This derivative nature requires that the non-existence of evil be a real possibility. But possibility exists only relative to acts; and so if evil will never be really conquered its non-existence is not a real possibility. Some eschaton becomes necessary, and so also the God who is alone capable of accomplishing it. This is why the two great parts of the Our Father end with invocations of the eschaton: sicut in caelo et in terra and libera nos a Malo. 

3.) From the superabundant being of the universe. The imperfection of the universe (point 1) and its being at odds with itself (point 2) are balanced by the fact that it is superabundantly intelligible and sublime. How can it possibly execute a motion as difficult as difficult as the ones physics describes? How can human beings execute something as complicated, intricate, and confusing as their own history? It is not just a matter of “whatever happens, happens” – there are intelligible archetypes here, but we seemed destined to forever chase after them. But, pace Nietzsche, an intelligible archetype is relative to an intelligence, and an actual archetype to one actually knowing it.

Neuro-philosophical account of addiction

Addiction appears to be a habitual dopamine release in the reward system of the brain, and one of the best explanations of dopamine in this system is that it triggers the expectation of a good (for example, when dopamine is supressed, people still enjoy doing pleasant things but they don’t look forward to them; and when dopamine is artificially released people describe feelings of continually expecting a good thing to happen.)

If this is right, then addiction is the habitual attempt to generate good things from the mere expectation of good things. We look at the cigarette or sugar or drug not so much as something we enjoy, but as something that promises enjoyment. To actually enjoy requires more than tingles and itch-scratching – we have to feel like we’ve accomplished some human excellence, like one we can look back on with pride.

In fact, we can chemically fake both the expectation of the good (dopamine) and the sense that we have had it (seratonin), but not the sense of actually enjoying it. Human enjoyment is either an accomplishment or a sheer gift of the gods, though it is the latter only in relatively rare and intermittent flashes.

Scotus’s argument (pt. 3, the dispute)

We’ve known for a while that Scotus’s “univocity of being” was a purely logical univocity that did not mean to assert a single genus for God and creatures or substance and accident. But St. Thomas seems to insist that even such a logical account of being is impossible, since he thinks all logical abstractions are at least attempts to articulate some real nature; and so wherever there is no real nature common among things there is no logical abstraction unifying them either.

The question St. Thomas never quite addressed was how we could get the sense that God and creatures or substance and accident formed a real totality. Analogous naming doesn’t do this: the light of the intellect does not form a real whole with the colors of the rainbow, only a whole of things called “light”. Said another way, what am I thinking of when I tell you “I am thinking of something that exists, guess!” and you can answer either God or some substance or some accident? Sure, we could play a game that started by saying that I was thinking of something called existent, and then you could run through various analogical names. But this just changes the rules. What makes the original rules possible?

Some responses open to St. Thomas:

1.) He could say that the concept of being just confuses a linguistic whole with an ontological one. We think we have an idea of all existents when in fact all we have is an idea of all things called existent.

2.) He could say that “all existent things” is an idealization or a counter-factual idea. Just as science has point-particles, black boxes, ideal gasses, cannonball calculations that treat the earth as flat, etc. so too metaphysics might imagine an idea of being that is useful for some application or another but which has no reality corresponding to it.

3.) He could say that the idea of all existent things is an anticipation of knowledge to come. On this account, or idea of being is might become eschatological or at least historical. It is a fundamentally restless knowledge that anticipates completion in some other state and/or with some other object.

Scotus’s argument (pt. 2, w/ response)

Scotus points to a sort of 20-Questions game that starts with a guy saying “I’m thinking of something that exists” according to the rules of the game, you know the thing exists, but you don’t know if it’s God or a creature, substance or accident, instrument or agent, etc.

St. Thomas, however, seems to think that all indetermination in thought has to reduce to some indetermination in things, or that a generic thought has to correspond to some potency in things.

that from which the difference constituting the species is derived, is always related to that from which the genus is derived, as actuality is related to potentiality. For animal is taken from the sensitive nature by way of concretion, since a thing is called an animal when it has a sensitive nature; or rational when it it has an intellectual nature. [Animal enim sumitur a natura sensitiva per modum concretionis; hoc enim dicitur animal, quod naturam sensitivam habet, rationale vero sumitur a natura intellectiva, quia rationale est quod naturam intellectivam habet]

The same argument holds good in other things

ST. 1.4.5. co

So logical determinations are seen as real natures “in modo concretionis” which STA takes as equivalent to saying that a thing has some real nature. Thus there is no indeterminate concept which is not at least the attempt to speak about some indeterminate nature.

But then what do we say about the twenty-questions game? Presumably STA wouldn’t deny that you could play the game, but only that the thought you started with was of real existence. Perhaps he’s call it a failed attempt to visualize existence or a counter-factual visualization of existence; one that could only be true if God had a divine nature instead of being it.

This is the foundation of the strange Thomistic claim that God is beyond being.

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