Category Archives: Epistemology

Check Your Brain at the Door: Faith and Intellectual Freedom

Am I free? Not legally (I’m not in jail) or metaphysically (who knows if I have “free will”?) but intellectually. Do I have intellectual freedom? After all, I teach at a school with belief commitments. To get my job, I had to sign our Faculty Teaching Position. And, if I ever changed my mind on a core aspect of that document, my job would probably be in jeopardy. In that kind of situation, can I have any kind of real intellectual freedom? Or, am I really just kidding myself by thinking that I’m an academic.

If you live in a confessional world, do you need to leave your brain at the door?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether Roman Catholics have less intellectual freedom than other Christians because of the strongly confessional nature of the Catholic tradition. Michael Patton began the firestorm, and quite a few have chimed in since then. I don’t want to rehearse the whole debate, so check out Brian LePort’s summary for his comments and links to other good posts.

Most of the discussion so far has focused on whether Patton is right about Roman Catholicism. (Hint: The answer is ‘no’.) But, somewhat lost in all of this is his argument that true scholarship and confessional commitment are antithetical to one another. His comments on Catholicism are based on his Cartesian commitment to skepticism as methodologically necessary for real academic work. If you’re not willing to doubt every idea/belief, open to the possibility that you might be wrong, then you’re not really an academic.

If he’s right, then, any school with confessional commitments only has limited intellectual freedom (at best). And, based on that argument, the faculty at Western Seminary don’t really have academic freedom. We throw it away when we sign the Faculty Teaching Position. Our job status is connected to at least some of their beliefs. Change those beliefs, and we’re in trouble. So, we’re not really academics. We’re just defending the status quo.

Granted, faculty can always leave and try to find a job at another school. So, we haven’t killed intellectual freedom entirely. We’ve just cut off both its legs. It can still move around, but only by painfully dragging its bloody torso somewhere else.

As someone who teaches at such a school, I think there are some critical things wrong with this (common) argument. Brian LePort explains his reservations (and appreciations) in Five Thoughts on Objectivity, Open-Mindedness, and Scholarship. You should definitely check it out. But, let me add three additional concerns about this argument that I think we need to keep in mind.

1. It over-emphasizes the individual. This is the Enlightenment at its finest. Presuppositions and traditions are the enemy of intellectual progress. They must be challenged and questioned at every turn so that I, as the ultimate human authority in my life, can be confident that I am coming to know things as they actually are and not just how they have been presented to me. You never get the sense that intellectual activity is a communal activity in this approach. Instead, you’re left with the picture of the academic locked away in his/her office or lab, seeking Truth through the power of unimpaired reason. Given Patton’s clear commitments to doing theology in community, that seems like an odd stance.

2. It devalues institutions. This one is connected to the last, but the argument seems to betray a subtle anti-institutionalism. This view of academics makes the professor an independent contractor with no real connection or loyalty to particular institutions. The individual sticks around as long as he/she is satisfied with the institution’s position. And, if you change your mind and can no longer affirm those commitments? No worries, there’s always another one around the block. It’s church shopping at the academic level. (I may comment on this more later. This kind of subtle anti-institutionalism is rampant in evangelicalism.)

3. It neglects the importance of presuppositions. Many people make this mistake. Most recognize that we all have our presuppositions. They’re a necessary evil that we have constantly guard against. And, there is some truth to that. But, people often fail to recognize that presuppositional frameworks have value as well. No scientist is going to waste their time investigating whether the world is flat. They’ll assume that question is settled. It’s part of their presuppositional framework. And this allows them to use their time investigating other issues. The same is true in theology. For me, the deity of Christ is a “settled” issue. Not settled in the sense that everyone agrees, and not even settled in that I think I understand everything about what that means (who does?), but settled in that I think that it’s true and not really open to question. Does that make me less free? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it frees me up to pursue other issues. Recognizing that some doors should stay closed, grants me the freedom to go through others. Being “open” to everything leads to bondage, not freedom. So, it’s not just a matter of acknowledging our presuppositions, but embracing them as necessary for real intellectual freedom.

Do I have intellectual freedom? Absolutely. I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from knowing who I am as a part of an ecclesial community with a clear sense of its history, identity, and purpose. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from a community that raises hard questions and explores new ideas together, supporting each other as we strive toward faithful Christian living in a broken world. And, I have the kind of intellectual freedom that comes from seeing some things as “settled” so that I’m free to spend my time on other issues.

Granted, I don’t have the kind of intellectual freedom that’s willing to throw off all of that in favor of an individualistic pursuit of rational autonomy. But that’s okay. I’m not interested in that kind of freedom anyway.

A Place for Truth (a review)

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life’s Hardest Questions edited by Dallas Willard  (IVP 2010).

★★★☆☆

A Place for Truth is an interesting collection of essays originally presented as a series of talks at various universities through the Veritas Forum. The goal of the series was to reintroduce the pursuit of the “big questions” into American universities so that they can again become “a place for truth.” Whether the forums themselves accomplished that broader purpose, the book certainly raises and explores a variety of interesting truth questions. Since the material was originally presented orally to a general, and largely undergraduate, audience, the chapters are relatively brief, introductory, and easy to follow. So, if you already have a background in any of the subjects covered by the various essays, you will likely find the material disappointing. But, if you’re looking for a readable introduction to a number of interesting questions, this would be an interesting place to start.

Summary

The book has been organized loosely around six main themes:

1. General questions related to truth itself (chapters 1-3)

2. The relationship between faith and science (chapters 4-6)

3. The adequacy of atheism (chapters 7-8)

4. The nature of humanity and the pursuit for meaning (9-11)

5. The Christian worldview (chapter 12)

6. Issues related to social justice (chapters 13-15)

This divisions, however, are fairly loose. It’s best to read each essay as a stand-alone piece on some aspect of “truth,” rather than as part of any intentional structure or organizing motif.

Strengths

Like any collection of essays, the strength of the book lies in its best essays. And, several essays really stand out. Without question, my favorite was Jeremie Begby’s piece on “The Sense of an Ending.” Begbie builds on the idea that the ending of a story is what “gives the whole story a unity, gathering the strands together, resolving the discord and dissonance into…a ‘grand temporal consonance'” (216). He then reflects on tension and resolution in music, before diving into postmodernism, metanarratives, and the importance of “living with a sense of God’s ending” (228). The essay serves as an argument for the power of an eschatological imagination for theology and life today.

Dallas Willards’ essay, “Nietzsche versus Jesus Christ” was also well worth reading. Willard begins by discussing Nietzsche in relation to constructionism, phenomenalism, modernism, and truth, showing how the Nietzschian vision has thoroughly shaped contemporary perspectives on these issues. He then argues that the heart of the debate between Jesus and Nietzsche is the issue of truth and “its relationship to human freedom, well-being, and fulfillment” (163). And, of course, he concludes by arguing that it is only in Jesus Christ that we find a valid and satisfying account of these issues.

Tim Keller’s essay on “Reason for God: The Exclusivity of Truth” offers a nice summary of strategies that people use to reject exclusivity and why those strategies don’t work. He also makes a helpful distinction between “propagandist” secularism (i.e. imposing a secular worldview on everyone) and “procedural secularism” (i.e. creating a neutral space for public discourse).

And, Paul Vitz gave a fascinating essay on “The Psychology of Atheism.” Basically, he uses the pscyhological arguments many people use to explain why people believe, and he turns them around to discuss the psychological reasons that have for not believing. I’m sure no atheist would find his arguments convincing, but believers don’t find pychologized accounts of their faith convincing either. Turnabout is fair play, as they say.

Weaknesses

Since the strength of the book rests in its best essays, it should come as no surprise that its weaknesses lie in the opposite direction. And, many of the essays in the book suffered from three general flaws that hindered their usefulness for me.

Os Guiness‘ lecture, “Time for Truth,” made the mistake of trying to cover too much ground in a relatively short essay. As a result, I felt that he just skimmed the surface, never touching down long enough to say anything really interesting or compelling.

Stemming from the originally oral nature of the presentations, several of the chapters involved a give-and-take between thinkers on opposite sides of an issue. While I like this approach in general, I didn’t think that the chapters afforded adequate space for either party to develop his/her ideas. Instead, the reader is left with some interesting thoughts that do little to advance her understanding of the issue. And, I was particularly disappointed by the essay on “Can robots become human?” That chapter title caught my eye right away, but the bulk of the chapter is devoted to a moderated dialog between the authors that I didn’t find terribly interesting.

Finally, two of the essays, Hugh Ros and Mary Poplin, took an entirely narratival approach to their argument. While some readers will probably find their personal stories compelling and engaging, I had a difficult time seeing that they contributed much to the issues at hand.

Having identified these three areas as weaknesses in the book, however, I’m sure that many others will find them to be strengths instead. There is a place for cursory overviews, give-and-take dialog, and personal narrative. For me, though, these chapters fell fairly flat.

Conclusion

Before concluding, I should comment on a few more of the essays. Several were difficult for me to classify as either strong or weak. That’s because these essays were just solid explanations of arguments that a particular author has been making for quite some time. In this category I’d put those essays by Richard Neuhaus, Francis Collins, N. T. Wright, Ron Snider, and John Montgomery. Since I was very familiar with these authors and their arguments, I found it difficult to get interested. But, if these are new ideas/authors for you, I’m sure you will see them differently.

In the end, A Place for Truth contains several outstanding essays that are definitely worth reading, several solid essays that provide excellent introductions to key arguments, and a few essays that I found less interesting/compelling, but that might impact a someone else quite differently. If you’re looking for good, short essays on contemporary truth issues, this one is worth considering.

Jonathan Edwards on commonsense as a failure of the imagination

Americans have a long history of touting commonsense as providing a solid foundation for sure knowledge of the world. We’re often skeptical of those whose ideas sound too “theoretical” or “abstract,” and we scoff at people who posit ideas that seem radically contrary to the world as we experience it.

This attitude often displays itself most clearly in how people react to scientific theories. People laugh at the idea that the universe could be made of “strings,” because obviously we don’t experience reality that way. And, many mock the idea of global warming because it happened to be colder in their part of the world the last couple of years. Now, I’m not trying to start an argument about whether these theories, and others, are right. My only point is to comment on how many people use commonsense experience to reject or “refute” more abstract ideas.

For Edwards, this suggests a complete lack of imagination.

I’ve been re-reading Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life, and this section stood out to me the other day. The specific context has to do with Edward’s philosophical idealism and how contrary to commonsense it is to suggest that the “physical” is not what is ultimately real. But, Marsden goes on to point out that the same imaginative openness to new ideas also characterized Edwards’ approach to scientific developments.

The problem with thinking that commonsense experience was ultimate, he was convinced, was a failure of imagination….’Imagination’ at the time meant literally the faculty by which one forms images of things. The case of prejudices, said Edwards, was that people get so used to perceiving things in common ways that they ‘make what they can actually perceive by their senses, or by immediate and outside reflection into their own souls, the standard of possibility or impossibility; so that there must be no body, forsooth, bigger than they can conceive of, or less than they can see with their eyes; nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine.” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 80)

This isn’t to say that Edwards rejected commonsense. In most situations, commonsense is a fine guide to understanding the world. But, Edwards point is that our perspective is inherently limited. So, if we insist on judging the world on the basis of our own limited experiences, we will necessarily be prejudiced against much larger truths. And, Christians in particular should be able to look beyond our limited horizons and imagine possibilities that border on the absurd.

So Whadda Ya Know….

By Brian Johnson

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.

It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.

This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”

Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology/). Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?

In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).

Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.

Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)

With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.

He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.

Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.

Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.

What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?