Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Emergent and Truth: Why Believe in Truth?

Over the past several months I have enjoyed some of the back-and-forth I have been able to have with Public Theologian on this site. Most of all, PT has remained civil and thoughtful in disagreement, and for the most part, we have been able to discuss controversial issues with each other without resorting to flaming. PT commented on my last post, and in response, I decided that an entire post of my own was appropriate. PT’s views expressed in the latest comment highlights, I think, one of the most significant divides in Christendom. Forget Orthodox vs. Catholic-I am talking about a certain kind of fideism vs. a belief in objective truth and the use of reason; a theology that swallows language games whole and a theology that requires transcultural communication of truth.

I will comment on some of the highlights from PT’s latest thoughts, but this post is as much a reaction to what I am reading on the web and in articles and books as any single person’s comment.

I too believe in the reliability of the scriptures, but I do so as a matter of faith, not as matter of reason.

These kinds of sentiments cause me to wonder what kind of hard and fast distinction people have between “faith” and “reason.” Doubtless there are differences in the two means of knowing, but the mistake occurs when people make them mutually exclusive. For instance, I believe astronauts landed on the moon. How do I know that to be the case? It is only because of my trust (faith) in historical record and my reliance on authorities in the field. Those reasons for my belief are reasonable and not a matter of blind faith (the kind of faith I think PT advocates). My faith in historical record actually makes my belief that people landed on the moon more reasonable than the contrary belief. In fact, we consider those who disagree with the historical record to be unreasonable.

Despite pious sentiments to the contrary, faith is not opposed to reason.

My disagreement with those who want to advocate objectivity is that they have no theory which will stand to scrutiny either in language or physics whereby to make such absolute statements.

This is simply not true. Linguistics is by no means a homogenous field of study, and there are certainly those who believe that language is a “game” or a kind of metaphysical trap we cannot get out of, but they are far from the standard. Early in theological and philosophical thought, language was seen as signs pointing to referents. Augustine made the point that language is pointless unless it points (forgive the pun). And he was right. If PT is right that the realities of language cannot admit any kind of objectivity (if it doesn’t really point anywhere significant), then I literally don’t know what PT is saying. Maybe it is some kind of grunt or special mantra those in his linguistic community utter, but it makes absolutely no sense to me.

And though I am not an expert on the latest theory in physics, it is my understanding that a common mistake made by many is taking something like Relativity Theory or Chaos Theory and misapplying them ethically or ontologically. It would be like arguing, “We live in a free country, so I am free to club baby seals with aborted fetuses and you can’t stop me!” And I may be wrong, but I am not sure Rodger Penrose or Frank J. Tipler would agree with PT.

Why isn't it enough to simply say that we share a language game with most people in our environment and that probably 99% of our utterances, verbal or written, are intelligible based upon that shared framework, but that at certain points our experiences differ and agreement cannot be reached on the other 1%? What is wrong with that?

Well, several things. The primary problem with that is that there has been no acceptable definition of what a “culture” or a “social environment” really is. If we are going to limit truth and truth-communicating utterances to cultures or environments, then is it absolutely necessary to adequately define those terms. Unfortunately, no one has been able to do that. Very serious attempts have been made, but they all fall prey to the same kind of simple but devastating critique: we all belong to many of those cultures. So which is actually formative, or important? Which one forms our sense of ethics or language, and what if it is more than one? Very literally, no two people share 99% of their “cultures” with each other.

Secondly, do any of us share 99% of our language game with an ancient Hebrew or a Jew at the peak of the Roman Empire? I dare say not. So how is it we are able to communicate with Scripture-specifically, what ability does the Bible have to communicate the Gospel to us today?

Thirdly, reducing truth-communication to probabilities guarantees the inconsequential nature of your communications. Which leads me to the heart of our disagreement.

There is a lot of fear mongering about what will happen to the world if we can't spell truth with a capital T but no decent evidence as to why it is necessary that we should….Why is it so important for you to be able to assert a universally valid, universally applicable language and logic?

First, it is important because it is true. And while that may sound tautological, it is merely me assenting to the facts of reality. Saying that logic is “universally valid” is not an argument I make; it is a fact of life not all that different from gravity. To say that there isn’t any evidence why we should believe that is just utterly silly.

Second, it isn’t fear mongering; it is trying to teach Christians how to think well. Relativisms based upon the supposed triumph of language games are not much more than self-defeating goofiness. There are sociological lessons to be learned about the facts of how people communicate, but the classic blunder of applying the description of language games to a prescription about reality is committed far too often. If Christians want to think well, they will know the profound and worldview-changing consequences of descriptions versus prescriptions.

Thirdly, and this point has been glossed over so many times it have become almost to slippery to state: if we cannot believe in “T”ruth or some kind of universally applicable realities (accurately communicated through language), than we simply cannot assert that Christianity is true and all other religions are false. This point cannot be made too often, and yet a growing chunk of our evangelical culture today asserts contradictory theses without really grasping the actual consequences. We cannot assert, “Christ is Lord,” not believe in universally valid truth, and believe the simple meaning of Scripture all at the same time.

17 comments:

Public Theologian said...

Phil--

Thank you for your cordial response.

A couple of follow up points:

1. I think generally you still confuse relativism with nihilism. To say that a sign can mean more than one thing doesn't mean that it means nothing.

Moreover, how can you possibly disagree with this basic point if you ever looked at a dictionary? There are dozens of meanings listed under all kinds of words. What is the guarantee that in any given act of communication that there will be 100% conductivity of meaning from sender to recipient? Surely as a pastor you have done enough counseling to know that even between people who have lived side by side for years that this is not even always possible. How can you possibly insist on there being some absolute truth when in any given communicative act, you could not guarantee whether the meaning of a given word corresponded to definition number 1 of that word in the citionary, or definition 27? Multiply that by the number of words in any given exchange and you have an almost infinite number of possible lapses/losses/misunderstandings of meaning. Philosophers of langauge have grown to recognize this since the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Pierce became prominent a century ago.

2. I think you have great confusion on the disticntion between faith and reason. Your illustration of taking the truth of men on the moon is way off the mark. We don't take that on faith. There is an chain of evidence that can be followed which can demonstrate that the deed was done and that it is repeatable. If this is something that is taken on "faith" then we would have to take everything which we could not verify ourselves (e.g. the length of a meter, since I have never visited the Bureau of Weights and Standards in Colorado, or the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE) as a matter of faith. But that reduces faith to the reasoning process of building an evidentiary chain of custody for a given datumn-- which has nothing to do with faith. On your view, faith and reason are thus one in the same, whereas scripture speaks of faith as a "gift from God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." If faith is the product of human strivings and it is the key to our salvation, then you just constructed the means whereby we save ourselves. And if we can save ourselves, what need have we of the gift?

This is the great problem that the Reformers had with medieval Catholic scholarship which, following Aquinas, had constructed a parallel path to salvation apart from the grace of Christ. So your position does have a long history in the church, just not in the Protestant branch.

3. In answer to your question "what ability does the Bible have to communicate the Gospel to us today?," the answer is "None." When Jesus left his disciples, he didn't say he would send him the Bible and that ot would lead them into all truth. He said he would send the Spirit. The greatest problem that I have with all of this capital T truth business is that it is an implict denial of the Church's Trinitarian theology, specifically the fundamental work of the Holy Spirit to reveal Godself to the world. With an inerrant Bible, an all encompassing worldview and a wholly transparant language, evangelicals don't really have much need of the Holy Spirit for anything. They've got absolute Truth all wrapped up without him, thank you very much. On the other hand, the postmodern view that you criticize is absolutely dependent, not on ots own sinful reason or any other human capacity,but rather on the transforming work of the Spirit who leads the Church into all truth and who makes up for all of the lapses in our communicative practice and understanding.

Regards,

PT

Tim Van Tongeren said...

What is the guarantee that in any given act of communication that there will be 100% conductivity of meaning from sender to recipient?

Because of the events at the tower of Babel, I think we are guaranteed that there will never be 100% shared meaning.

There are dozens of meanings listed under all kinds of words.

It seems, using this argument, we must also believe that there is no absolute winner of any sporting event. After all, everyone speaks about the game in a different manner, remembering different details. And the words which are used come loaded with all sorts of individual meanings based on past experience, unique cognitive schemas, and cultural baggage.

Unless, of course, there is an underlying truth about which people are communicating. Then, we might say that the underlying truth about which we feebly attempt to communicate, is true, while the constructs with which we attempt to communicate are flawed. Perhaps, flawed by sin because of an event like the tower of Babel.

Public Theologian said...

Tim--

The sporting event is the classic example of what I am talking about, hence the word "game" to describe it. Of course we know who won because there was an already agreed upon framework for playing the game and determining its outcome. Sure a play or two may be disputed and we might get the owners together offseason to tweak the rules, but there is wide agreement as to wins and losses. The game works, in short, not because it corresponds to some ideal Platonic form of the game in the mind of God, but simply because the players agreed to how it would be played. If they didn't agree they would play something else or start their own game (like the USFL or the Indy Racing League).

That is completely different than saying that there is some absolute standard to which what appears to be a matter of convention actually is something which metaphysically must of necessity conform to the absolute Truth of The Gane. Who believes that something like this exists or has any reality? Certainly the ancients did, as did many people influenced by Platonic and later Augustinian views of language, but do modern people think like this? Is this what we are supposed to be teaching Christian young people is the "Christian worldview"? It isn't--it's Plato.

Regards,

PT

C Grace said...

Hi guys, Hope you don't mind a few questions. I am not real familiar with the underpinnings of postmodern thought on knowledge.

1. PT,

What relation do linguistic signs have to our experience? In other words how does our language relate to objective reality (define objective as that reality which more than one person shares - for example if we were both looking at a ball, the ball would be the objective reality, as compared to subjective reality which is what is going on in our own heads)

I don't think the game works because inside our head or outside of it are some Platonic ideals that correspond to reality but because the words in our mind point to an objective reality.

I'd like to make a comment on your point 3. but I want to understand where you are coming from first.

Phil,
"Early in theological and philosophical thought, language was seen as signs pointing to referents." By referents do you mean something outside or inside your mind?

Public Theologian said...

Dear Grace,

There isn't really objective realuty as such. What we call "reality" is shaped by the language we use to describe our perceptions. "Objectivity" is more or less the implicit agreement that groups have to understand and name those perceptions in a similar way. What postmodernists object to is the attempt to mask the function of language and the way it requires shared communal assumptions, by people who want to present reality as a given and who want language to be understood as perfectly and seamlessly corrresponding to that reality in order to use a particular view of the world in an ideological fashion, in other words tyring to pass off what is cultural as what is "natural."

Certain branches of Christians do this in order to pave the way for apolgetics. They require a stable, uncontested reality and a transparent, superconductive lamguage in order to make what they believe are universally rational claims about the Christian faith that are not dependent upon Scripture.

Christian groups such as my own Reformed tradition, who believe in slavation by grace apart from human reason, have no interest in apologetics and are thus comfortable with the postmodernist insights, which also are demonstrated by some interesting physics experiments in which the perspective of the observer changes the reality of the object observed, to that of either a particle or a wave.

Regards,

PT

Brian B said...

PT said:
The game works, in short, not because it corresponds to some ideal Platonic form of the game in the mind of God, but simply because the players agreed to how it would be played.

Well, that's a minority view amongst philosophers of language. Luminaries in the field such as Donald Davidson famously argued that the very possibility of communication demonstrated not only the existence of an objective (i.e. mind-independent) reality, but that it would be impossible for the bulk of our beliefs about that reality to be false. What else could explain the universality of human experience? How else would it be possible for multiple observers to coordinate behaviors in relation to the physical world? Sure, words are agreed upon by convention; but the things they are agreed upon (by convention) to refer to - well, that's the one single objective reality we all commonly inhabit.

Conventionalism applies to syntax; at some point, however, language must make "contact" with the world, or there would be no possibility of successful communication. (Ask yourself - what is causally responsible for me having the perceptions that I do? Certainly the features of objective reality figure into that equation, do they not? It can't be conventional "all the way down"!)

Public Theologian said...

Dear Brian--

Your post illustrates nicely my point, which is namely the attempt to simply impose, without demonstration, the universality of experience onto everybody. It is an ideological move without support that dominant groups (or groups that seek dominance) try to foist on the rest of us in order to maintain (or to acheive) their dominance.

We do not experience the world in the same way--there is variation in all of the senses across the population. Nor is "reality" a constant datum, waiting for human perception to grasp it, as the physics experiments I mentioned demonstrate. There is a constant movement both on the side of the subject and the object that defies such a universal explanation of perception and perceptability. That's the trouble, of course, with universals: you only need one example to falsify it. Fortunately, in this case there are loads.

Regards,

PT

Brian B said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response - I wanted to say a couple things in reply...

We do not experience the world in the same way--there is variation in all of the senses across the population.

How could you ever demonstrate the truth of that claim without appealing to some objective and common framework within which to adjudicate the competing claims? What clues would reveal that two people don't see the world the same way?

But supposing you are right, there remain (at least) two issues. First, the fact that there is variation in the senses or perception of a thing does not, on its own, imply that there is not one underlying reality that is being differently perceived. The existence of different "perspectives" guarantees, at most, only epistemic relativity, not ontological or metaphysical relativity.

Second, the existence of perceptual variation is consistent with massive perceptual agreement, because it depends on the degree of variation. Sure, we don't experience the world in EXACTLY the same way, just like when 2 people attempt to measure out 1 cup of water, they will not fill a beaker will PRECISELY the same amount - but they will be, nevertheless, very similar in their estimates.

Consider: how do you explain the fact that when one person points to an object and says "apple," the other person nods in agreement? Why would both be willing to eat it? Why would both call it smaller than a breadbox (and be able to give largely overlapping, even if not identical, descriptions of breadboxes?) Why would no one, upon being trained in the appropriate conventional label for the object, act toward the apple in the way that most people act toward a horse, or toward the concept of justice? No one perceives an apple and announces "behold, I have witnessed the abstract notion of a harmonious marriage"? The existence of differences in perception does not guarantee the kind of relativism you seek. A perception of some event or object is constrained by many things; one such constraint is the set of properties "out there in the world" that impinge upon our experiential/sensory apparatus.

This is not to deny the obvious fact that language and concepts are, as you say, (mis-)used for ideological purposes in a great many cases. But to extrapolate from such cases to ALL cases of experience is totally unwarranted.

Finally, I think you overestimate the significance of the quantum mechanical experiments. For instance, it is not the case that 3 observers will have different perceptions of one and the same experiment, and hence "reality" is actually 3-fold, ontologically dependent upon the 3 different perceivers. There seems to be some (odd) dependence relation between observation and reality, but it's not some free-for-all perspectivalism that allows just any old perspective to "define" reality somehow. Once again, there is massive agreement on the results of the experiment (e.g. the photon bounces off the mirror, or tunnels through), not a group of scientists all disagreeing with one another (and being right) about their own perceptions of the single event.

Lindsey said...

I just want to say...

RIGHT ON!

wonderful post!

Phil Steiger said...

First of all-Lindsey: Thanks for the compliment-your brevity stands out on this thread!

Grace: Don’t be fooled by the false confidence exuded by relativists. There is such a thing as objective reality, there are plenty of ways of showing that to be the case (including the self-referential incoherence of relativism), and it is not a power trip or a political game. Those who don’t like the absolute truths of morality or metaphysics tend to brush reality aside with a political wave of the hand and talk about those who do in rather elitist ways.

And when I speak of “referents” I am talking about pieces of reality with their own existence separate from ours. The truth value of propositions will be the case long after I am dead and gone, or even long after some linguistic community is dead and gone.

PT: Wow. A lot to think through, and I must admit that reading some of your responses has made me think in some fresh ways. I appreciate that, but I am not sure you have hit on anything convincing. Because of the volume of ideas, I am going to limit my response to a couple of narrow points.

You said I confused relativism with nihilism. I never actually asserted that, but I will not deny that relativism is nihilistic. There is no such thing as a definable culture within which any individual can find or construct meaning without it being logically reduced to a society of exactly and no more than one. In many ways, that is precisely what philosophical nihilism is: I am all that matters (in large part because there is no objective meaning to the world) and my will to power is the highest goal. The problem I see with many postmodernists and relativists is that they don’t have the philosophical gumption to see that. For whatever else he was, Nietzsche was a brave man.

Secondly you are making an argument regarding communication and truth that I think is a non sequitor. Forgive me if Brian has hit on this by the time I post, but your argument confuses what might be an epistemological claim with an ontological claim; your premise is an assertion about a probable fact about some communication, and your conclusion is a sweeping assertion about all of ontological reality. Quite literally, your conclusion is illogical-it does not follow. Put more straightforwardly, miscommunication only guarantees miscommunication, not relativism. In fact, the very fact that we recognize anything at all as “miscommunication” speaks to our innate and accurate sense that we should correct and clarify our communication so that we may speak with each other about what reality is like instead of past each other.

Frege’s famous example of connotation versus denotation is case in point. Whether we call an object “the morning star” or “Venus,” we are referring to the same object in a rather provable and knowable way, even if there is a period of miscommunication while we sort out our terms and our referents.

C Grace said...

PT,

Thank you for the response. I am fairly sure I understand what you are saying, but with Brian, I don't think the philosophical arguments for this position hold up. However, I do think your arguments about how some evangelicals view their theology is valid. Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding has defined ideas as that which we apprehend when we are concious. This leads to a view which locks us up inside our own head. If the only thing we can apprehend are our ideas then we can have no direct apprehension of reality. This leads to the belief like you said that there is no objective reality as such (or at least we can't know it)
One set of people in trying to deal with the problems this causes in separting us from reality, suggested that ideas are representations of things that really exist. This way of looking at things, I think, is what you are reacting against.

If however, ideas themselves are non apprehensible but are that by which we apprehend the objects of which we are conscious. Then we are living in a physical universe which we can directly access through our perceptual experiences. We can communicate about it with each other because we are both percieving an independent reality rather than just percieving our ideas.

These thoughts are not my own, and I realize that I present no proofs here for my assertion that Locke was wrong. Mortimer Adler deals with many of the philosophical mistakes made by modern philosophers in his books. A summary of them can be found in his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes. It's well worth reading even if you end up not agreeing with it just so you can understand where others are coming from who are neither postmodern nor Platonists.

Just a side note here. I do not believe that we have to have our philosophy, or theology for that matter, "right" in order to have a relationship with God. The history of the church teaches that many men with many different philosophical and theological paradigms have had a sincere faith.

Public Theologian said...

Brian--

Again you make my point for me. Both you and Phil seem stuck on this idea that if you are relativist then everything is possioble, meaning is infinitely malleable etc but what postmodernist is arguing that? You say that perception falls into clusters of possibilities and that the physics experiments only lead to several possible variations. Agreed. But as I said, all it takes is one exception to break a universal, so the admission of clusters and at least more than one possible outcome of the experiments is an admission of the correctness of what I am asserting.

Instead, you make the unsubstantiated leap, based on your false either/or that, because there are clusters of perception rather than the same number of possible perceptions as there are people (i.e. your caricature of relativism) that therefore your hypothesis of a singular reality must in fact be correct, when all you have demnstrated, in fact, is that there are clusters, i.e more than one reality, but not an infinite number.

Regards,

PT

Public Theologian said...

Phil--

I can't figure out why you are stuck on this point with the Nietzsche business. I 'm sure he's an easy target but neither I nor any other po-mo Christian thinker is advocating that kind of nihilism other than say, Thomas J.J. Altizer.

Po-mo is a lot bigger tent than you have imagined with far more subtlety than you are willing to grant it credit.

Regards,

PT

C Grace said...

Phil,
I ran into an idea of propositions as somehow actually existing pieces of reality on another sight. If this is what you are referring to I can't agree. This belief has it's roots in the philosophical error I talked about above. I can't tell from your short comment if this is what you are talking about.

In the book I mentioned above there are a number of other philosophical mistakes that Adler covers that have led to nominalism, solipsism, existentialism and a lot of the other beliefs that deny our ability to relate to the real world or communicate with each other clearly. As far as I understand it postmdernism is an offshoot of some of these but since I have not studied it, I don't know exactly where it falls. Here's a quote though from the end of chapt 3. "Language doesn't control thought, as contemporary linguistic philosophers appear to believe. It is the other way around"

He backs this statement up with very well reasoned arguments.

Phil Steiger said...

Cramped for time, but one quick comment...
PT-I am not hung up on the Nietzsche business-you raised the nihilism issue and I simply asserted that pomo is, once its consequences are embraced, nihilistic. And for his embrace I called him brave.

As for nuance in the pomo system, I have spent a great deal of time with writers like Rorty and listened carefully to their nuance and have decided that it ultimately boils down to nothing but a local assertion of conversational power. Not much nuance to that, despite a flood of ink.

Tim Van Tongeren said...

PT said
That is completely different than saying that there is some absolute standard to which what appears to be a matter of convention actually is something which metaphysically must of necessity conform to the absolute Truth of The Gane. Who believes that something like this exists or has any reality?

PT - Do you believe there are any absolutes in Christianity?

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