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Thursday, January 19, 2006

E-mails from a philosopher: Part II

Dearest Gnu,

Please do pray. I don't think anything you wrote was "bull". Furthermore, even though when I wrote to you I wasn't clear about what sort response I longed for, now I feel that your response is exactly what I longed for.

I am currently in the position of having stopped being a disbeliever, but it's not a static position, for I feel that I have a direction of inquiry. I am glad to see that there is practical and intellectual advice you can give to someone in this position. I did not know that such an agnostic position could have value. "I see this as an intrinsic motivation, I desire for restored communion with the previously alienated God rather than seeking "fire insurance"." (I used to think that, if God exists, then someone in such a position would upset God almost as much as the position of someone who just disbelieves. Granted, you never wrote in terms of what makes God happy and what upsets him--I take it that these are not applicable predicates here. But I seem to digress...) What I was trying to say was that I am happy that there is some intrinsic value to the position I am in. To the extent that, even if merely remained in this position, I am at a better place than I was before. Like I said, though, my feeling is that this is not a static position, I feel a directedness. But appreciating the value of being this way takes off some pressure. "Oh my! There may be God, and if there is, then I should start believing as soon as possible." This pressure is uncalled for, as I undestand now. (It wasn't a constructive sort of pressure anyway.) But the curiosity remains, which is what is driving me to understand.

You said "This [the naturalist-externalist standpoint] seems to at least point us in the direction of questing for God even if we cannot yet simply believe in him. But whether or not one chooses to do so seems to depend on whether or not a person has certain values. (Another Humean point in my would-be Christian apologia.) Some people value a certain self-sufficency here rather than perhaps recognize humble dependence and frailty to humanity and such an attitude would stip such a search before it starts. Perhaps we may have residual attitudes of both kinds and the tension between them tracks with whether and how intensely we search for God. This is one place where the Christian concept of the Fall comes in, which is a picture of the moral deminsion of this whole thing. An important contrast between believers and non-believers is whether they have one certain set of attitudes or the opposing set. But these passions, affections, emotions, whatever, are part of the externalist story too. God could provide the set which points in the right direction and this seems to be what grace in part means. "I would not have sought you unless you already had found me." This emotional difference plus externalism may not be relativism but the only possible cure for it. "

I grew up as a member of the self-sufficient camp. All the while thinking that even if God exists, he cannot be mad at me, for I am a good person after all. I of course wasn't understanding that "being mad at people" is not quite the right predicate here after all. Whether I was doing the right thing is different from whether I was doing it for the right reasons. But I also always thought that being good to your parents because you are afraid of burning in hell cannot be as good as being good to your parents because that you believe that's the right thing to do. It's hard not to think so, and thinking so pschologically fosters one's self-sufficient perspective. However, there is a fallacy here. One's reasons for being good to one's parents is one thing, the causes of one's being good is another. Not the reasons but the causes of one's good behavior are relevant to the self-sufficiency vs. humility issue.

You know what it was that helped me understand the concept of grace after all? My reaction to Galen Strawson's "Basic Argument"--just to remind you, the one that goes "You do what you do because of the way you are in psychological respects. You are not responsible for the way you are. Therefore you are not responsible for what you do." Of course many students think that we would find ourselves in a state of anarchy if we all bought this argument. Well, their mistake is obvious. But what's interesting is to see what you're left with (in terms of morality) upon being exposed to this argument. I am copying from my handout for my students: "I am more aware now [upon being convinced by Strawson's argument] that if I want to act better than I usually do, I must try to do the things that would change my personality. I can’t expect myself to miraculously act out of character. I should rather try to change my personality. And if I succeed, I can’t get credit for it. If I fail, I shouldn’t blame myself. All in all, I am lucky that I turned out to be the kind of person I am rather than a worse one. I try to spread the luck by being a good influence on the way other people are. What’s wrong with this ethical outlook?"

So, I have moved to the humility camp already. One other major influence was Derek Parfit's work. I take him to have shown, once and for all, that any (non-dualist) relations (between earlier and later states of putatively enduring people) we see near and dear for our continued existence are duplicable relations in the sense that they can hold between two pairs of entities such as a now and each of b and c later. And since one earlier person cannot be identical with two later persons, the relations we see near and dear for our continued existence are the important relations even though they don't necessarily grant our continued existence. With continued existence off the table, he then shows how nice and comforting it actually can be to cherish the existence of future persons who merely happen to be causally and psychologically related to you as you are now. One step from here it to notice how unimportant you-as-you-are-now is (once its continued existence if off the table.) Next step--but this is where I take the liberty to read into Parfit : there is no categorical difference (such as the difference between self and non-self) between you-now's being the cause of happiness in some future entity which is psychologically continuous with you-now and you-now's being the cause of happiness in some future entity which is not so continuous with you. There is no terribly important reason for favoring to please a future entity which is continuous with you-now, rather than doing something to please some future entity which is continuous with your-neighbor-now.

I am not sure that either the Strawson-inspired or the Parfit-inspired humility is consistent with the Christian metaphysic of personhood. (Though I suspect they would be reconcilable) But I see that as beside the point right now. The main point it that there is already good reasons in favor of humility. At any rate, the self-sufficiency idea is already undermined. Moreeover, when combined, Parfitian and Strawsonian humility is very much in tune with the agnostic's prayer. (One interesting Parfitian result is that if there is God but people don't have souls, then the wish for salvation uttered by me-now can be granted by grace being given to some future entity which is not psychologically continuous with me-now. This of course, in the Parfitian-inspired view of happiness, must be a result me-now should equally welcome. The Parfitian's agnostic prayer is for entirely selfless desire for restored communion--not for oneself but for someone, whoever it is.-- It is interesting that you brought up that such prayer is not necessarily selfish.)

You said: "But if one sincerely and seriously prays that prayer and maintains the seeking attitude of which the prayer is a paradigm exhibition, one spins a certain pragmatic context between themselves and God, if he exists. One perhaps should not expect the kind of knock down evidence that one craves as a way of being able to assure oneself of the truth. But God may act in such a way in response to that prayer which by all appearances seems to be God responding to the seekers prayer. In such a case it would be to wrong God and resisit the good that God would do us to be overly suspicious of it are to suddenly impose impossible epistemic standards on the whole thing."

I am afraid this is exactly what I was doing at the church last Christmas. And I feel a certain amount of guilt for having done so. Except that since there is paranoia and schizophrenia in my close blood line, the question as to whether I was hallucinating the whole thing was pressing. (But then again, I read how Jesus was got angry at his disciples when they were very scared upon seeing Him walking on water.) But since I thought it through again, spoke with Mr. Smith, started reading the Bible, and finally today read your words, I feel a lot more open-minded.

"If we request something of God and it looks like he has answered we have already committed ourselves in our request to respond appropriately, I think. "

I understand, I am thankful for your making me notice this.

About how to approach the Scriptures. I have so far only read Matthew. I am continuing to read. It makes me very happy to now see that I was reading with the right attitude. Not with a view to refute, obviously not. Since my direction is not the direction of one who is trying to be skeptical but rather the opposite, reading the Bible with a pen of skeptical criticism in hand would have been irrational. At any rate it didn't occur to me to do so. I possess a concept of God which I seek to understand better, but that concept itself is consistent with the passages in the Bible (that I have read so far) which would be the obvious targets of a skeptic.

"There might be some clear principles here but the basic idea is that you may already be able to judge for yourself whether what you taste is good. This sort of use of reason though may be applied to all the great religious traditions of the world and I think that there is a sort of thing we might call religious rationality by means of which religions are comparable in some sense. "

This I find puzzling. Suppose that God exists but you don't know which religion describes Him and His rules best. It doesn't seem to be such a good idea to follow your own intuition. What seems to me to be not bad may be very bad in God's eye. To take a crude example, if I follow my intuition, I would probably end up choosing a religion according to which not all abortion is sin. Similarly for other aspects of conduct. But practically this is nothing but finding a religion which fits to your currect way of life and thought. However it is likely that in God's eyes my current ways of life and thought are in need of reform. I'm sure this is not a new puzzle; maybe you can help me. Mr. Smith pointed out the psychological predicament to have to follow your nose in this matter. I had basically asked him: suppose I believe. How do I decide whether to be Catholic or Protestant? Or which kind of Protestant? I understand the psychological predicament. But noticing that it is a predicament doesn't make it rational.

However, you wrote of "religious rationality". Probably, my problem, once again, stems from seeking certainty as we do in our non-religious studies. Probably, the externalist-naturalist line of reasoning should be helful here, combined with the thought that if I believe, that's only because God let me, and He would also be directing the way in which I follow my nose--steering me away from a sect that gives thumbs up to practices that He doesn't want me to perform even if my previous tendencies were to agree with those practices. Probably this is the answer to this puzzle. Am I right?

You wrote: "Obviously this is all very unsatisfying philosophically and evidentially, but it illustrates how I think that someone might be persuaded enough tomake a decision. There is such a thing as a moral certainty to faith even if there cannot be a philosophical certainty, a sense of knowing that your doing the right thing. The possibility remain open that someone will come up with a decisive argument or evidence that defeats such a faith, showing it to be false or incoherent. If so, that will be the end and a responsible believer will give up his belief. ... But still, the believer can only be dogmatic in certain contexts, he cannot claim absolute certainty and must at some level continue to be open to criticism. But in practical matters, a person cannot suspend judgment until the investigation is resolved.... But even though we can't be certain philosophically, I think that something like the above story shows we need not be the parochial fools that Socrates and Bertrand Russell are always chiding religious yokels for. Socrates knows nothing and neither do I if knowledge is internal). As someone with at least some philosophical sesnibilities, I regret having nothing more satisfying but it is clear to me that this is sufficient ..."

Ahh Bertie... I should show you my paper on his work about the existence of the external world. In essence he reinvents the method of logical constructions (formerly only used in philosophy of math and geometry) as an epistemological tool, through a principled use of which you can get something like-- "well at least I know these logical constructions, and if the external world exists, then since I can know these constructions thereby I know the external world." It seems like a big circle but it's not. It's a lot less agnostic than "we can't know whether there is an external world". It's not dogmatic acceptance of the existence of the external world either--the whole thing is built on sense-data only (almost only). The constructions are out of sense-data. But if the external world exists, then sense-data are not merely image-like entities and qualia and whatnot but rather particular properties of the things themselves. If there is no external world, then we haven't made a mistake, for what we assert is merely that we know the logical constructions. If there is an external world, then what we know happens to be the external world and not merely a representation of it. It's rather ingenious. I actually think it's the right sort of proof for this kind of inquiry. The resemblance between this and a religious proof is a bit tenuous of course, but the common idea is to notice what sort of proof is impossible for a certain subject of inquiry, and to hope to approximate. And that, Bertie would say, IS rational--in the philosophical sense. (So, if he were consistent, Bertie should have been the last person to be disrespectful of the religious rationality you mentioned. But he was never charitable when it came to other belief systems. ) So, I think that religuous rationality may be worked out rigorously. The key is to notice what form and amount of rigor should be the desideratum. (And you explained that very nicely in your message.) Once a reasonable postulate of this is made, then belief in God would cease to be seen as philosophically and evidentially unsatisfying. Besides, what you describe as "But in practical matters, a person cannot suspend judgment until the investigation is resolved" is just an instance of a rational principle of reflective equilibrium. (Which Russell himself championed but is not given credit for in the literature.) What do you think of this?

The funny thing is, a couple of months ago one of my major worries was to figure out how to reconcile my professional standards of belief-forming with the seemingly looser standards of religious faith. (I should emphasize "seemingly".) I was wondering, for example, how Dean Zimmerman can reconcile his religious side with his philosopher side. Mr. Smith was thinking that you can't-- all you can do is to bracket one of the sides when you are focusing on the other. That seems hypocritical, and I understand that's a sin itself. So I wasn't satisfied with this answer. But just when I was writing this I noticed how reconciliation may be possible. So your response had an additional good consequence on my thinking --one which you most likely didn't intend. (How ironic would it be if you found my previous paragraph helpful!)

I am grateful for all the advice here. If I can say so, I sure hope that you'll remove the adjective "failed" from your future letters to me, for your words in this letter are not of the sort to be uttered by someone who has failed but rather someone who is at the very least in the process of succeeding. (I would like to think so, especially since I consider you a mentor to me in my search.)

With love and in hopes of peace,

Mrs. Smith

My dear Mrs. Smith,

Please forgive my melancholy moments. I'll try to mitigate the "fail" language in the future but it seems to be an intransigent aspect of my personality that is always besetting, especially when i am about something that I care a lot about or think is very important -- like this exchange.

I am really fine with the Strawson and Parfit stuff. I think that it is important to allow that folks in the Bible were not metaphysicians and wrote mainly in terms of folk psychology and folk metaphysics and folk epistemology without raising deeper questions. And I think that it is important to be aware of this when translating between biblical stories as in some sense or another being instances of ordinary discourse and theoretical reflections on all this. God is not exclusively interested in dealing only with those few with the gifts for theoretical thought and is 'happy' to accommodate to folk conceptions to reach widely -- and thus divine accommodation finds folk conceptions to be sufficient for communicating. Calvin is singled out especially for his thoughts on this -- God 'lisps' to us as a parent does to a toddler with more limited capacity to speak in such a way that accommodates to the child but is sufficient to carry out the parents good purposes for it. It may be a kind of economy of means that God "does not bother" to produce elaborate theoretical schemes to appeal to the brilliant. And one may perhaps discern a kind of brilliance in all this simplicity behind what is meant to be effective for all.

Further, you might want to pick up Pascal's Pensees on both this theme and the problem with "religious rationality" that you mentioned. Mr. Smith has got it about the following your nose problem. It is possible and in some sense likely that as I am aware that my passions may influence my thinking it may be that my passions so corrupt even my religious intuitions. We thus get a skepticism based on our resistance to the views the intuitions support. Christian tradition introduces the limiting notion of common grace here. Suppose such fatal corruption where really to have full sway what a mess! It must be that such corruption is under restraint - mankind is prevented from being as bad as it can be. In fact, we see that humanity is capable of doing great things and exhibiting substantial moral character outside of the church (in fact, it seems to me that some non-Christians are more "holy" than some Christians). But this general restraint gets labeled "common grace" that benevolence of God toward all humanity that will not allow evil dispositions to be unrestrained. This makes a religious rationality basically possible but not inevitable. It becomes a desideratum of religious rationality as to how well different religions handle this problem. It turns out as I recall that the great world religious traditions have something to say about it.

Pascal illustrates this in his own work and spends a great deal of time clarifying this as a desideratum. Man is a puzzle because he exhibits greatness and smallness, both dignity and depravity. People exhibit the greatness in their capacity to think but the universe may still crush them. Man is a reed, but a thinking reed. Also, man exhibits graet marvels of character and integrity but also even in the same person great monstrosity and inequity. Man is a chimera; who can account for it. According to Pascal, Christianity accounts for it particularly well; "created in God's image but fallen". You might want to look at Tom Morris' study on Pascal "Making Sense of it All", Grand Rapids : Eerdmans).

I am actually really keen on your Bertie paper. I didn't expect Russell to make that sort of argument but it seems to be in the classic vein of philosophy, see my post about "Natural Theology as Mythology" which is a meditation on Plato's Meno. I do like it very much -- I'll certainly buy that or something like it and I will look into it some more. Maybe you can send me your paper.

As far as Catholic/Protestant stuff goes, I learned an important lesson while in seminary watching other people behave in religious controversy. My observation was that the level of histrionic vitriol in overt conversation was inversely proportional to the relative importance of the question -- as if the relative shallowness of the issue permitted one to sport more drama in debate. This tends to be less visible as the questions get more and more important. I think that in spite of the apparent and dramatic looking differences between various expressions of the church there is a universal unity in the following sense. Christianity embraces several distinctive views but these fall into a hierarchy of concerns such that the greater the importance of the doctrine the greater degree of consensus among the churches and there is a meta-consensus about the ranking of the most important questions. Consequently the things that unite us are more important than what divides us. I think there is such a thing as "Mere Christianity", a basic consensus of the most important beliefs that represent the framework from within which all other concerns are assessed. I would rather urge that. I am not concerned that you become a Presbyterian even though I am.

It's a pleasure to save you. ( I mean, serve you.)

The Gnu

(The exchange continues here.)

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