Sunday, April 20, 2008

An Interesting Juxtaposition

I came across this in Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog. It's a quote from Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form:

“The Catholic Church is a complex of opposites, a complexio oppositorum. There appears to be no antithesis it does not embrace…. Ultimately, most important is that this limitless ambiguity combines with the most precise dogmatism and a will to decision as it culminates in the doctrine of papal infallibility."

Ignoring what Schmidt's book and the blog post is about (politics and the Church), what I find interesting is to compare this quote with one from a book I read recently, How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox to Create Mathematics by William Byers.

"...the power and profundity of mathematics is a consequence of having deep ambiguity under the strictest logical control." [p. 77]

It is a pity that, in theology, decision tends to come down to something on the order of papal infallibility, but lacking the means for applying the strictest logical control, what else is there? Well, one can at least step back from the 19th century, when the doctrine of papal infallibility was made explicit, and consider control by the magisterium. As I've mentioned previously, I have to admire what the magisterium did with respect to central Christian doctrines, namely that of the Trinity, and of Christ's nature, as described in part 4 of Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend. What it did was to preserve the ambiguity. The doctrines should not be taken as saying how it is that God is One, yet Three, or how it is that Christ is 100% human and 100% divine. Rather, they should be taken as saying that in denying or fudging or in any way lessening either side of the contradiction one is being led into heresy.

And that, according to Byers, is how mathematics operates. Take the concept of 'zero', (or better for those acquainted with elementary set theory, the concept of the empty set which is used to define 'zero'). There was mathematics without 'zero' for a long time, but with it, it could do much, much more. Yet 'zero' is inherently ambiguous. It is the presence of absence. True, within ordinary language one can say "I don't have any apples", so in that sense, there was always an implicit concept of 'zero', but what happened in mathematics is that that concept became reified in such a way that it could be used with "strictest logical control".

Now I do not expect that this ability can be carried over to theology. Spinoza's dream remains unfulfilled. But what I do expect is that the principle of "preserving the ambiguity" can be more heavily emphasized, and of course the Path of Reason that I've been describing has that as its method. Its method and its content:

"Whereas the attempt to make a definitive object out of a "deep" concept cannot succeed, the drive to do so is itself an expression of the Absolute. Mathematics, we could say, is driven by the need to express the "Infinite" in finite terms, and this very drive is the "Infinite" in action." [Byers, p. 296]

Can this not be just as true for theology?

14 comments:

Andrew Louis said...

This reminds me of Capra's book "The Tao of Physics". Which convered the parallels between eastern philosophy and modern physics.

I suppose you could say the same patterns of thought that created mathmatics also created religion.

scott roberts said...

Well, I'd be more careful, and say that good religious thinking and mathematics work similarly, since a lot of bad religion gets created through bad thinking. But of course the big difference between religious thinking and mathematics is that bad mathematics disappears quickly, while bad religion stays around.

Andrew Louis said...

Point taken.

Good religion vs. bad religion seem to differ on grounds of intention. Where on the one hand good religion has a certain (honest) intuitive grace and bad religion seems agenda driven wih a focus on social constraint.

I don't tend to regard the latter.

Are you familiar with Capra's Book?

scott roberts said...

I read it a long time ago, and it did influence my thinking in (I think) a positive way, i.e., getting me to think about the relevance of quantum physics to metaphysical speculation. But there is a cautionary note, namely that the theory used by Capra to make some of his points, the bootstrap theory, has been out of favor among quantum physicists for some time, having been superceded by the Standard Model. This doesn't imply that the bootstrap theory is wrong, and given the current flux in foundational thinking among high energy physicists (whether string theory is good or bad science, etc.), it is not out of the question something completely different from the Standard Model could show up, possibly a return to something like the bootstrap theory.

The point being that it is dangerous to lean too much on whatever quantum physicists are saying at any given time, as, e.g., Ken Wilber has warned. On the other hand, I think one can argue that physics tells us that reality is very different from what common sense assumes (see here for a brief idea of what I mean by this).

Andrew Louis said...

No no, I here you.

I'm not suggesting that anything is right or wrong necessaraly. That is, I don't tend to look at physics or science in general as saying anything universal and/or static about the world we live in. Perhaps merely as a continuing interpretation of the human experience where mathmatics is simply a language/tool for talking about that experience. In other words Newtonian physics does not describe the way the universe works in itself, but is a language to describe the way we experience it.

It's simply interesting to see the close relationship between the ideas of the Classic minds vs. the Romantic minds (thinking of Pirsig here).

Andrew Louis said...

"Argument for the Reality of Eternity"

You mind if I use this?

scott roberts said...

Not at all.

Andrew Louis said...

On the "Argument for the Reality of Eternity".

A few things:

A.) Paragraph 3. Certainly I agree with you that quantum physics is merely a language that allows physicists to make predictions, and predictions only. But, in order for this to work, what is the analogous religious language? (or better put mystic language) and/or what form does it take? Furthermore, how does it speak to and/or predict, and what does it predict. Essentially, it seems like that’s a loose end here.

B.) Paragraph 4. I smell some Kant and Pirsig here. Pirsig said in some way or another that Quality is that tiny moment of time which exists between the moment you sense (in this case see) something, and the time you intellectualize over/about it. (the whole analogy of the train and the cars and bla-bla-bla, you know Pirsig) NOTE: I take Pirsig's word intellectualize to be a package word that contains within it the process of Kants transcendental aesthetic and the idea of synthesis, he was a fan afterall). I take you to be saying the same thing here - which is that your using the language "spatiotemporal" in the place of Quality and that our consciousness makes connections via synthesis after the fact - or rather, after that tiny moment. But I’m not certain where you get “your” tiny moment from (your extended now)? I’m with you, but how do you lock that? Certainly quantum physics is fuzzy enough that it looks to be there, (I’m thinking of the photon light test and the slits in paper bla-bla-bla). I’m missing something.

C.) Second to the last paragraph. You state, "It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion." I'm curious to know what you mean by religion. Certainly if we're talking about Buddhism sure, but I'm not so certain this translates to western Christian traditions and Muslim traditions (essentially western Plutonic traditions). Unless of course we're talking about forms of Gnostic Christianity. Not only that, but where is God in all this? And how do you define God? Are you saying he’s the eternal? Is God “Quality”.

I think this is some great sht here by the way.

PS,
I always thought it was interesting that Pirsig came up with the only philosophical trinity. Quality/object/subject. father/son/holy ghost. Where the father is transcendental, the son is objective, and the holy spirit is internal and subjective. Interesting, but perhaps childish.

Andrew Louis said...

Ahh, I got you,

your post on defining God....

scott roberts said...

On (A), the traditional answer to the use of mystical language is to be cautionary: the via negativa, to preach "learned ignorance", and so on. What I am advocating is different, though I would certainly not deny that use in its role of fighting against idolatry. But where I go beyond it is that I think -- based in part on what Merrell-Wolff said -- that in thinking the logic of contrafactory identity one is, albeit in a "through a glass darkly" manner, touching on the basic creative "method". That is, I suspect that contrafactory identity is "how things happen" at their most fundamental level. Of course, I can't prove any of this, but I do think it is worth thinking about. See here and here for more.

On (B), yes there is a Kantian flavor, in that I hold that time and space are created in the act of perception. So when I said "Consciousness, on the other hand, puts together zillions of these separated events to form the "now"." I am being misleading. That is, the sentence should be expanded to something more like "If one assumes that the spatiotemporal separation of events exists prior to perception, one has the insoluble problem of how consciousness puts them together". So what I am saying is that the problem lies in denying the eternal, and I point out that if one accepts the eternal, and that space and time are created in the act of perception, then the apparent paradoxes of quantum physics have a straightforward explanation as well. Well, "straightforward" is not the right word, as we lack the ability to think the eternal, but -- if one accepts what mystics say -- that's why mystical states are desirable.

I've got a lot of problems with Pirsig, but the main one in this context is the way he treats intellect. As I see it, Quality without Intellect is impossible, which is to say that on a fundamental level, Quality, Intellect, and Consciousness are the same (non-)thing. As far as the train metaphor goes, the obvious problem I have with it is that it treats the Quality event (the leading edge of the train) as occurring within time, while I think that it creates time (and space).

Andrew Louis said...

I'm at a loss. I feel like you’re working yourself into a stalemate of oppositions. You’re reasoning yourself intentionally into obscurity and contradiction. It reminds me an elaborate modern day koan. It all makes complete perfect sense, but not in a way I can even comment on.

It reminds of this:
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"

scott roberts said...

You’re reasoning yourself intentionally into obscurity and contradiction.

Correct. "The universe is not only queerer than we think, it is queerer than we can think." (Jeans or Haldane, I forget). Or Goethe: "One is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through." In other words, if we limit ourselves to that which is clear and non-contradictory, we won't move beyond existing static intellect.

Whether it leads to stalemate or not is, of course, the big question. That's why I call this blog an experiment in religious philosophy.

Andrew Louis said...

Scott,
perhaps you could elaborate on this this:

"Consciousness, on the other hand, puts together zillions of these separated events to form the "now". Within the "now" is the experience of time passing, but how is that possible? "

This seems to suggest you're reasoning is following the idea that the mind processes information serialy.?.

If you consider this:
A human being has about 100 billion brain cells. Although different neurons fire at different speeds, as a rough estimate it is reasonable to estimate that a neuron can fire about once every 5 milliseconds, or about 200 times a second. The number of cells each neuron is connected to also varies, but as a rough estimate it is reasonable to say that each neuron connects to 1000 other neurons- so every time a neuron fires, about 1000 other neurons get information about that firing. If we multiply all this out we get 100 billion neurons X 200 firings per second X 1000 connections per firing = 20 million billion calculations per second. And this is done in Parallel, not serialy. Which means as I'm processing smell, I'm also processing the other 4 senses at once.

I've been thinking about this for the last month now, and I'm not sure I understand how you get to it not being possible for the mind to do this within a spaciotemporal process.

scott roberts said...

Andrew,

The argument is the same regardless of whether the processing is serial or parallel (or, as is the case with the brain, both). For there to be an extended "now", serial processes have had to be temporally transcended, and parallel processes have had to be spatially transcended. The problem is, if one assumes that sensation "just is" neural activity, how does one of those 20 million billion events connect to the rest. The event will cause subsequent events, but that just puts the problem off -- now the subsequent events have to hook up, not only to its precedent events, but all the ones going on in parallel. My argument is, in a nutshell: if one assumes that space and time are fundamental, then all of those 20 million billion events are isolated events -- nothing spatiotemporal can make them "add up" to seeing a tree or smelling coffee, because it is space and time that has isolated them -- space isolates parallel events, and time isolates serial events.