Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Knowledge and People (postscript)

To clarify all that has gone before...

I do not think that anything that I have written achieves anything more than putting a necessary question mark against the ratio-empiricist view of the world. It proves nothing, disproves nothing. I'm happy with that as a result. Ultimately, it is only the ratio-empiricist view of the world that demands proof in this way.

If I were to begin writing this again, I could begin from a totally different point. Rather than a philosophical starting point, we could have a Biblical one. Consider the throwaway comment of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:9...
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God...
The description that Paul gives of becoming a Christian has two sides to it - coming to know God, and coming to be known by God. They are the two sides of a personal relationship. The 'knowing' here is not an epistemic term, but a relational one. This is therefore a question of revelation - as any personal relationship is. I cannot force you to relate to me, nor can I decide by myself the depth of our relationship: that is decided by the extent to which we reveal ourselves to one another. Similarly here.

But this relationship, for all its genuine two-sidedness, is not symmetrical. The "or rather" is significant. It doesn't undo the first clause, but it does relativise it. Your coming to know God happens in the context of God's coming to know you. His action is decisive in a way that yours is not. He reveals himself - opens himself to personal relationship - in your direction, and you respond. Numerous other Biblical passages, in Old and New Testaments, paint the same picture.

If reality is ultimately personal, this is how it must be. Ultimate reality is personal, therefore ultimate knowledge is relational. This will never sit well with the ratio-empiricist. He demands the right to be a spectator, an analyst. From the point of view of the analyst, all of this relational behaviour can be explained away - and I should say, very successfully and tidily explained away. No person is found here. No relationship is founded here.

Why am I Christian then?

Because I am confronted by an undeniable Thou - the God who reveals himself.

I am confronted by Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Knowledge and People (3)

Apologies for the delay...

Why does all this matter?

I guess there are two effects that I see. One is relational, the other epistemological, but they're very closely intertwined.

Relationally, it becomes very hard to take other human beings seriously. Reductionism becomes the best approach. We think we can analyse the behaviour of another in much the same way that we would analyse the behaviour of an animal. You hear people say things like "love is just a combination of hormones" - meaning, I think, initially, other people's experience of love. Conversation becomes farcical on this view. The fact that we do actually have conversations, and do actually fall in love, betrays that the ratio-empiricist view does not capture all our experiencs: there is a Thou out there behind the face of this human being. Thank God for inconsistency in this regard!

There is an alarming possibility here. Most recently I have heard several people deconstruct their own experience of love in the way demanded by ratio-empiricism. What is happening? I suspect that we are seeing the loss of the primacy of the subject. People are applying their reductionist understanding of the Other to themselves. I cannot believe that this really reflects their experience of being themselves; it is a stifling interpretive grid. Unable to view others as truly human, they come to view themselves as less than human as well. We truly do need other people to know ourselves at all.

Epistemologically, acquiring knowledge becomes all take and no give, or perhaps no receive. In a world where I am the only subject, all learning is by analysis and systematisation of what I experience around me. This seems to lead into the loss of a concept of testimony. Although philosophers acknowledge that testimony is one of the most basic and common speech acts, and although in actual fact we would all have to admit that the overwhelming majority of what we know has been learned through testimony, ratio-empiricism tends to distrust it. In the absence of a genuine other, what can testimony be?

This then has an effect on the way we approach texts, for example (there is at least one person reading this who knows that I am now trespassing on his area of expertise. I'll try not to leave dirty footprints). Is it not inevitable that a text becomes an object to be manipulated in any direction we see fit on this worldview? After all, we cannot be assured of the existence or significance of the author (and this is as true for a living - even a present - author as it is for a dead or absent one), so why should we not take a text in whatever way we choose? I wonder whether ratio-empiricism makes knowing inherently violent...

To this whole worldview, Christianity asks three questions:

1. Given the fact that your worldview cannot account for central human experiences, why should we follow it?
2. Given that all your arguments against Christianity are based on this worldview, why should we take them seriously?
3. Have you considered that ultimate reality might be personal?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Knowledge and People (2)

So, what exactly is my problem with ratio-empiricism?

It's all to do with the way this epistemological viewpoint understands the relationships between me and the world. Ratio-empiricism inherits from its parent views the basic orientation of a thinking/experiencing subject confronted by a world of passive objects. I am the subject; everything else is an object. Now, in one sense this is a simple truism. As Kant so helpfully pointed out, it must be possible for me to attach the label "I think" to every one of my thoughts and perceptions - that is to say, I am the subject of all my thoughts and perceptions. If it were not so, they would not be my thoughts or experiences.

(As an aside - and feel free to skip this paragraph - this is actually not nearly so simple as it sounds. Kant himself ends up reducing the "I" which is subject to nothing more than a logical tag - quite literally, an ownership label which holds thoughts/perceptions together in one consciousness. The problem emerges most clearly when you consider introspection: me thinking about myself. It must be possible for me to say "I think" about these thoughts, or they are not mine. But the "I" in "I think" is the subject of the thought, whereas the thought itself is of me as an object. How "I" become an object to myself is quite difficult. Kant avoids the problem by maintaining that "I as subject" and "me as object" are completely different, the former being noumenal. Well, that's transcendental idealism for you.)

This orientation - a thinking/experiencing subject confronted by a world of objects - will get you a long way in the natural sciences. Any critique of this viewpoint cannot be absolute, but must be simply a qualification - if you like, a "yes, but..." Still, it is possible for a "but..." to raise such a fundamental question that one is forced to revisit the "yes" and reconsider it. This is, I think, one of those cases.

Because there is simply no room in this world of subject/objects for people. There is, presumably (although this concept is not without problems), one person - me - but there are no others. A person, I take it, is someone who can themselves be a subject in the same way that I can be a subject. Obviously, not a subject of my thoughts/perceptions, but a subject of their own thoughts/perceptions - another centre of consciousness.

Qualifications: obviously, there will be a sense in which another person is an object to me. And strictly speaking, ratio-empiricism does not of necessity deny that the object in front of me could be another centre of consciousness.

But ratio-empiricism does make this concept highly problematic (in both the common and Kantian sense). If knowledge really works the way the ratio-empiricist claims, or rather assumes, it does, then I am bound to treat the other person as a passive object. I am bound to approach them, epistemologically, as if they were not a person in the way that I am. The gap between my consciousness and theirs cannot be bridged in any way on this worldview. The idea of other conscious beings becomes something that is strictly beyond my ability to know: it can be thought, but not tested, and therefore lies outside knowledge.

There is no room for people in Kant's world.

If this isn't making sense, I promise it will start to come together tomorrow when I run through some of the implications as I see them...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Knowledge and People (1)

I haven't started writing yet, and I can tell this post is going to contain massive generalisations and over-simplifications, and yet still manage to be really pretentious. I'm sorry, I really am. Try to bear with it, I think it might be important.

Epistemology. Broadly, the discipline which discusses knowledge and seeks to express just how it is that we come to have it. I think we live in an age that is obsessed with epistemology. And I think that this raises quite a few problems.

Let me explain to you how I see the history of this issue. When I was studying philosophy at A level, we used to talk a lot about rationalists and empiricists. Your average rationalist privileges thought over experience, whilst your common or garden empiricist thinks that experience is what is most important. This is, of course, an over-simplification, but it helps us to see two big epistemological traditions in western philosophy. At the head of each stands a greek.

Plato is, if you like, King of the Rationalists. He thinks that what you see around you is all just shadow. What can be thought is much more important than what can be sensed. Plato loves maths, and also a good bit of mysticism, because these things are in the mind. He thinks general and universal things are much more exciting than particular or limited things. He loves to make systems of thought that are internally coherent, and barely cares whether these systems match the shadowy empirical world around him.

Aristotle, on the other hand, is Captain Empiricist. He loves to look around him at the world. He considers the main source of truth to be the senses, and thoughts are to be directed by experience rather than vice versa. He takes a keen interest in particular things - he enjoys cataloguing animals, for example - and is much less interested in mysticism. He likes logic - a lot- but mainly because it helps with the exploration and understanding of the world around him.

The philosophical descendants of Plato and Aristotle bickered for centuries.

The genius of the Enlightenment is the construction of a worldview which binds rationalism and empiricism tightly together. Science - as opposed to the random observation of facts in nature - is a perfect blend of rationalism and empiricism. A system is thought which explains prior (perhaps haphazard) observations, and then observations are made (systematically) to test the system. Plato and Aristotle are friends. Good friends. Their love-child (eww) is Kant, because Kant extends (or attempts to extend) the scientific method to metaphysics, and with it ethics and religion. He is quite explicit about this endeavour, and he really thinks that he has done it in his critical philosophy. No need to go into detail on that here.

So from Kant onward, ratio-empricism rules the roost in epistemological discussion.

Tomorrow: why ratio-empiricism is very, very bad...

Saturday, June 20, 2009


The Christian gospel demands total insecurity from us, and offers us total security. This works itself out in different areas of life - yesterday I was thinking and chatting through three of them with Dan Halpin:

1. Righteousness

The most familiar, perhaps. The gospel offers total righteousness, i.e. the status of complete innocence and indeed moral perfection, through faith in Jesus Christ. But that faith demands that we abandon any and every other claim to righteousness that we might make. It is Christ or nothing. Hence "I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh". Hence, "I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own..."

It comes down to: be insecure in yourself, that you might be secure in him.

2. Planning for the future

The text is James 4:13-16, which speaks for itself really:

"Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil."

Only note the depth of insecurity - it is not "if the Lord wills, we will carry out our plans", but "if the Lord wills, we will live..." But within that insecurity, there is great security. The Lord's will is certain, and if we know him at all then we know that his will is good.

3. Preaching

Just a thought: when I have done everything necessary from a human standpoint to prepare to address people on God's behalf(!), it is still utterly impossible that I should do what I plan to do. I cannot speak God's word. As I mount the pulpit, I am utterly insecure. But God has promised to speak, and so in realising my inability and insecurity I am both able and secure.

(As an aside, you should read Glen's article on preaching at Theology Network - I read it, and behold it was very good).

All in all, I am radically undercut by the gospel. If I am to be justified in any of my endeavours, it must be in God through Christ.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Absolute ignorance and total certainty

Nobody can know the womb, but it is certain everyone came from somewhere.

Nobody can know the grave, but it is certain everyone is going there.

Nobody can know the mind of another person, but it is certain everyone needs others.

Nobody can know themselves, but it is certain everyone is someone.

Nobody can know the will of God, but it is certain everyone is directed by him.

Nobody can know the righteousness of Christ, but it is certain everyone is naked without it.

It seems to me that certainty - absolute certainty - is found only at the boundaries of our experience. Within the limits, there are a lot of shades of grey, but when we hit a wall - a point beyond which our experience and reason cannot take us - then we find ourselves face to face with certainty.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


I'm about to go vote - and if you are in the UK and you haven't voted yet today, get out and do it! There are lots of reasons to vote today, not least defeating fascism. But I am most interested in voting for a party which will substantially renegotiate the relationship of the UK to the EU. I am a Eurosceptic. There, I said it.

But why?

Because I believe in accountable government. The Parliament we are about to elect has insufficient powers to hold the executive of the EU in check. Aforementioned executive is not even elected. Even the Parliamentarians we vote for today are not personally elected by us - we just vote for party lists. How are we, the people, supposed to hold even our representatives accountable, let alone the executive?

Because I believe in local government. The larger and more diverse the area governed, the more likely it is that a majority will be able to override the wishes of a very large number of people. What is more, any link between the government and people is lost. It is too easy for governments to become self-interested rather than acting in the interests of the people.

Because I believe in small government. Do I really need to pay taxes to fund a whole extra level of government and bureaucracy on top of the city, county and national governments? Not convinced. Essentially, more government=less freedom and larger bills to pay.

Because I believe in history. I can't help reading the whole EU experiment as an attempt to force together disparate cultures with diverse histories. Why should that work? Where else in the world has it ever worked? We can barely hold the UK together, for goodness sake.

Because I believe in monarchy. It would take a long time to explain why, and many of you would think I was bonkers. But I actually believe that constitutional monarchy is the best way to govern a country. I therefore tend to see anything that makes the Crown subject to external (as opposed to internal, national) restraints as treasonous.

So, off I go to vote...