Thursday, January 21, 2010

Knowing things

I'm banging on about epistemology all the time. It gets boring, I know, but I'm just not convinced that we've got any sufficient answer to the question 'how does one come to know anything?'

It seems like that could be quite an important question to me.

This week, a lecture (on romanticism and theology - intriguing stuff) has got me thinking about the different factors that have an effect on my coming to know something. I'm sure there are loads, but I've been pondering six of them. I suspect that all 'coming to know' or acquiring knowledge involves a mix of at least these six things in different measures. And I further suspect that this makes the process much less straightforward than is often assumed. My six things were:

1. Sense experience. This is the 'given' of our knowledge, the stuff that is just external to us and over which we have very limited control. It is sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste - and perhaps other things too. But it is very limited by itself, being just sensations and nothing more.

2. Reason or understanding. We 'think' our world together into a whole. (Yes, this is Kant. So he wasn't wrong about everything). We don't experience pure sensation, but objects and scenery. That is a product of our brains putting our sensory information together.

3. Imagination. I'm thinking here of the way in which we tell the story of our lives. This experience, this thought, is not isolated, but fits into a pattern. Imagination tells me who I am, and where I have come from. Of course, this is not just me telling my story, although there is that. It is also me fitting my story into bigger stories, the stories of my culture, my religion, and the like. Just to clarify, I don't say 'imagination' because these stories are untrue, but because they are not 'there' in my experiences. The stories are a (necessary) way of construing and understanding our experiences.

4. Will. I believe things because I want them to be true. I am capable of resisting conclusions which appear to follow from my experiences, and of avoiding the obvious explanations to make my experiences fit different stories. As an aside, that is why in the Biblical narrative it is a sin, not just a mistake, to disbelieve in God. Again, this is not purely an individualistic experience. There is such a thing as a collective will, which expresses itself in expectations of belief and behaviour - what we might call, if it didn't have automatic negative connotations for us, peer pressure.

5. Memory. The storehouse of my previous experiences and knowledge is obviously a major source of knowledge, not only because of its basic contents but because of the connections and arrangements between 'things known' that are reflected there. Failure to remember - whether deliberate or accidental - is also, of course, important here. Again, not purely individualistic but includes cultural memory, often reinforced by ritual, like Remembrance Day, or the Lord's Supper.

6. Relationships. Much of my knowledge - indeed, most of it by a long way - is acquired from other people. Often in the process of coming to know something, my opinion of the person giving testimony can be the decisive factor in whether I adopt their point of view or believe that their testimony is fact.

Note that I haven't distinguished between 'coming to know' and 'coming to believe' in any of the above. I'm not sure I can think of any good way to do that. At least psychologically, there doesn't seem to be any difference. I know that there is a God; many people know otherwise. Neither of us would accept that our position is 'mere belief'. Besides, I think that language of belief is too often used to remove metaphysics and religion from the realm of what is 'really true' in a thoroughly illegitimate way.

Complicated, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of kings and temples

I'm intrigued by the way Israelite kingship works. Permission to appoint a king "like all the nations that are around" is given in Deuteronomy 17, along with some laws about the king's behaviour. These laws do serve to differentiate Israelite from pagan kingship. The king of Israel is the Lord's deputy, bound by his law. But a king nevertheless. The book of Judges seems at first glance to add to the impression that Israel is not only permitted a king, but needs a king. Without a king, everyone does what is right in his own eyes, and social and religious chaos ensues. Gideon's misgivings (Judges 8:23) seem to be the minority report.

But when the people ask for a king, using words that are almost a citation of Deuteronomy 17, they are condemned as having rejected the Lord as king over them (1 Sam 8:7). Odd. And even more odd that they are granted a king anyway. The first two kings - Saul and David - in different ways embody the ambiguity attached to the office. It is never absolutely clear whether it is good for Israel to have a king or not.

Something similar happens with the temple. When David suggests building it, his court prophet is initially in favour. But God's reaction is essentially to say 'whoever said I wanted a house?' (2 Sam 7). It sounds like a rebuff. The Lord doesn't need a house; he's happy in his tent. And yet it is followed by the promise that, although David cannot build the temple, Solomon his son will do just that. The ambiguity surrounding the temple is in many ways deeper than that surrounding the king. This is God's house, but even the king who built it must confess that heaven and the highest heaven could not contain the Lord - how much less a human building! As the history of Israel rumbles on, the clearing of the temple by good kings and its desecration by bad ones becomes a running theme. And behind that, the presence of the temple fosters false security. Is the temple, at the end of the day, good for Israel or not?

A couple of theological questions off the back of that:
1. If this isn't about Jesus, what on earth is it about?
2. Is there something inherently dangerous to God's people about fixed structures and 'settling down'? (Think about the tabernacle vs. the temple, the judges vs. the king).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Party of privilege?

I've been meaning to write a political post for a little while. So here it is.

A week or so ago I heard Ben Bradshaw MP make a comment contrasting the Labour party - the party of the majority - with the Conservatives - the party of privilege. I imagine we can expect to hear a great deal more along those lines in the next few months. What is being said is pretty clear: the Tories favour the wealthy and the elite, whilst Labour speaks for the 'ordinary' folk. But is it true?

It won't come as much of a surprise to learn that I think not. But I do think this gets at something which lies at the heart of the disagreement between these two parties, and perhaps constitutes the major fault line in British politics. It's all about fairness, and what fairness means. Allow me to attempt a discussion.

To start with, here are two statements which I think most people in the UK would agree with (If they weren't looking at them side by side):

It is only fair that the wealthy pay proportionately more tax than the poor.

Fairness means treating everyone the same.

Since I have put these statements side by side, I trust it's clear that they are quite contradictory. As soon as we have different rates of taxation, we are no longer 'treating everyone the same'. In fact, we are pretty clearly discriminating. For now, please assume that 'discrimination' is a value-neutral term: it may or may not be bad to discriminate. In fact, this lies at the heart of the argument. But what is clear is that either one of these statements is just false, or two different definitions of fairness are in operation here which are not compatible.

I would suggest that what those on the left tend to see as 'favouring the privileged' is in fact simply adherence to a view of fairness which would include the second of my two statements: treating everyone the same. Treating everyone the same means not 'picking on' one section of society and treating them differently. There is a long (and surprisingly radical) tradition in political theory standing behind this view, from Rousseau to Rawls. It does not just extend to taxation. This would also mean, for example, that 'positive discrimination' would be ruled out as unfair (as would what we might call 'negative discrimination'). Fairness means a level playing field, in the sense that the state at least does not apply different rules to different people.

I totally understand why this view could be seen by those on the left as 'unfair'. It leaves some people rich and others poor. But I support it. I support it because of its corollary in civil liberties: nobody is discriminated against, either positively (the government won't push a particular social agenda) or negatively. Laws are not passed which favour some of us over others. I think that's right. I also support it because I think it will generally lead to a state which does less: interferes less in our lives, makes less claims on our resources.

As an important aside, I do not think this view of fairness can be carried through with complete consistency, and that doesn't bother me. I think an instinct to treat everyone the same, coupled with the common sense to occasionally and in a limited way over-ride this instinct, is the ideal for government. So, I believe in limited 'progressive' taxation, I believe in reducing the tax burden on families with children etc. Consistency doesn't hugely bother me: it's unobtainable, and dull to boot.

It is worth noting one other thing. A party holding my view of fairness - everyone treated the same - can realistically claim to be protecting the interests of everyone. This is true even for those who currently would be better off under a left-ish government holding the other view of fairness. After all, why assume you will always be in that position? Poor today doesn't have to mean poor tomorrow. By contrast, the left-ish view of fairness inevitably makes the Labour party a sectional concern. They do not stand for everyone, but avowedly only for a particular section of society. I can't help thinking this is a bad thing in a national government.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The limits of reflection

This is my belated 'it's a new year, hurrah' post...

Despite the new year being a fairly arbitrary point on the calendar, it's a useful time for a bit of reflection. For people, like me, who generally don't like reflection, it's especially important not to pass up these opportunities. I need to keep an eye on myself - how are things going? Perhaps more importantly, in what direction are things going?

But a thought that occurred to me during this process a week or so ago was this: although reflection on the direction of life, and self-analysis, is very useful stuff, it has a pretty stern limit to its usefulness. In the final analysis - an analysis which will not be performed by me! - my life in 2009 can be divided into two categories: things I did which were bad enough to merit hell, and things I did which were not good enough to merit heaven.

So I guess I'm pretty thankful for what Jesus has done!