Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Path of Reason

My favorite mystic, Franklin Merrell-Wolff, says that there are two ways to salvation, that of Love and that of Reason. But, he emphasizes, they both lead to the same place, where (in theistic language) God is Known as Loving Intellect, or Intellective Love. (Please excuse the neologism 'intellective' -- just that 'intellectual' and 'intelligent' have connotations I want to avoid. Also, the excessive use of capital letters can, I realize, be annoying. But it serves a purpose: to remind one that God's Love must be distinguished from human love, and the same for Intellect/intellect).

Christianity has emphasized the path of Love, while Buddhism has put more emphasis on the path of Reason. But, of course, neither downplays the other (except for certain Christian Protestant strains). The Catholic Catechism, for example, says that "sin is an offense against reason", while the Buddhist should never let Compassion get under the radar.

Some notable names who have taken the path of Reason are the Buddhist Nagarjuna, the Vedantist Shankara, the pagan Plotinus, and the Christian Nicholas of Cusa. And, of course, Wolff, who has, I think, provided the contemporary reader with the most articulate expression of this path, in his two books Pathways Through to Space and The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, both reprinted in a single volume: Experience and Philosophy. Another philosophic overview, not of the path, but of the resulting worldview, can be found in Owen Barfield's What Coleridge Thought.

Both paths have dangers. Love can be misdirected, and reason can go astray, which is to say that both are susceptible to idolatry. For this reason, one might say that the first commandment of the path of Reason is to learn to think with the danger of idolatry in mind. Buddhism has a tool for that, which I will get to shortly. First, though, there is a need to make a distinction within the general category of reason. Unfortunately, different authors have used different words, or the same words in opposite ways. In particular, Cusa distinguished between intellectus and ratio to mean what Coleridge meant by reason and understanding respectively. Hence I will borrow some terminology from Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ -- see his book Lila) and call the first 'dynamic intellect' and the second 'static intellect'. I should mention that the concept of 'dynamic intellect' does not occur in the MoQ, which in my opinion is a major reason that it fails as a metaphysics, but that's another story. Pirsig applied the words to Quality: dynamic quality and static quality, with the idea that dynamic quality is the undefinable creative whatever (force? power?) that leaves in its wake static quality. Hence, I am using the words in the same way: dynamic intellect is creative, while our understanding of the created is static intellect. But they cannot really be divided, in the sense that they are mutually dependent, but that is getting ahead of the story.

The story begins, and never gets past, the intellectual confrontation with mystery. Mystery is that which is real, but can never be captured by static intellect, which is to say, can never be understood. Idolatry and heresy consist largely of replacing the mystery with something understandable (a practice that is not restricted to religious mysteries). But if there is no possibility of understanding, why pursue the matter with intellect? In fact, many mystics, and writers on mysticism, enjoin just that -- better to drop it and take the path of Love, for example. Well, that is an option, no question, and I make no claim that one should pursue it intellectually. But for those who choose to do so...

Goethe said: "One is only truly thinking when that which one thinks cannot be thought through", and that's the kind of thinking we are talking about. The path of Reason is one of purifying one's intellect. Hence, both Plotinus and Wolff recommend as therapy the study of philosophy and mathematics. It is not that one will find in either discipline the answers to mysteries, but that both serve as discipline in purifying one's intellect. One thing to note in philosophy, though, is that certain issues constantly recur without resolution (which is to say that resolving them leads to bad philosophy): free will and determinism, the one and the many, being and becoming, and so on. The path of Reason, however, has a tool that consists of holding these oppositions in tension without resolving them. It has various names. Cusa called it the 'coincidence of opposites', which I think as a name does not work well. Coleridge called it 'polar logic'. Nishida Kitaro called it the logic of contradictory identity, along with various variations like 'self-contradictory identity'. I shall adopt this but with one change, thanks to a remark of Barfield's in his discussion of Coleridge, and that is to substitute the word 'contrafactory' for 'contradictory'. Hence: the logic of contrafactory identity, or LCI. The reason for the substitution is that the logic does not just apply to a situation where two words are needed that contradict each other, but that in emphasizing one word, the need for the other is made. This situation has been admirably expressed by Wolff:

While in the State [of High Indifference, as he called it], I was particularly impressed with the fact that the logical principle of contradiction had no relevancy. It would not be correct to say that this principle was violated, but rather, that it had no application. For to isolate any phase of the State was to be immediately aware of the opposite phase as the necessary complementary part of the first. Thus the attempt of self-conscious thought to isolate anything resulted in the immediate initiation of a sort of flow in the very essence of consciousness itself, so that the nascent isolation was transformed into its opposite as co-partner in a timeless reality....It seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures. [Franklin Merrell-Wolff, Experience and Philosophy, p.286]

It is that "sort of flow" and "transform[ing] into its opposite" that I mean to get at with the word 'contrafactory'. What this says about consciousness in particular is also to be looked into, briefly below, but I hope in more detail in another post.

Nishida's logic of contradictory identity was a contemporary version of something that has long existed in Buddhist philosophy, stemming from Nagarjuna, and codified into what is called the tetralemma. It is invoked when one is confronted with one of these perennial philosophical puzzles, like "does the self exist". What the Buddhist logician does is refute the following four possibilities: (1) the self exists, (2) the self does not exist, (3) the self both exists and does not exist, and (4) the self neither exists nor does not exist.

Now the actual refutations are carried out using familiar Aristotelian logic: one assumes (1) and deduces a contradiction, then one assumes (2) which also produces a contradiction. Now at this point, I believe I am veering off from the original Nagarjunic approach (though perhaps not Nishida's -- I'm just not sure). For as far as I can tell, (3) is considered to be refuted simply because it violates the law of contradiction, and (4) because it violates the law of the excluded middle. One reason for veering off is that nowadays we have quantum mechanics to consider: is an object in a superposition of states an existing somewhat that violates the principle of contradiction and/or the law of the excluded middle? I think there is an interesting question here, but tangential. But sticking to questions like the existence of the self, I see (3) and (4) as having more to them. Now (3) may just be an acknowledgment that we cannot think what it means to both exist and not exist, but (4) I see as a commandment: thou shalt not stop asking the question. This, by the way, is in defiance of the pragmatist, who says: it is a question that is not worth pursuing. Or more accurately, it is in defiance of the nominalist pragmatist, who believes that words are simply human inventions, and if there are areas where the application of a particular word (like 'self') gets problematic, just back off from those areas. In contrast, the path of Reason says "don't stop the question", because the mystery is real and can't be ignored -- in this case, without the word 'self' how can one say that it must -- in some mysterious sense -- die, as most mystics are wont to say?

There is more to say, of course, but for now I want to conclude by referring back to the Wolff quote, in which he is talking about noetic experience while in a mystical state of consciousness. It ends with "It [the flow from one state to its opposite] seemed to be the real underlying fact of all consciousness of all creatures." What this indicates to me -- and I'll grant that I am speculating here -- is that the LCI is not just a way for fallible human intellects to confront mystery, but is "in fact" what consciousness is. (The scare quotes are -- as usual -- needed because this is of course not some fact lying around to be observed.) That is, what Wolff seems to be saying is that consciousness "works" by contrafactory identity. And it is possible that one can say the same about dynamic/static intellect.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Argument for the Reality of Eternity

In response to a student who complained that he didn't understand quantum mechanics, Von Neumann is supposed to have answered: nobody understands it. You just get used to it. Of course, quantum physicists have a set of mathematical tools that -- though they do not allow one to visualize what is going on in the subatomic world, at least allow one to make predictions that coincide with measurements -- and so they have something to work with which helps in "getting used to it".

Believers, in response to arguments against religion from non-believers, claim that such arguments do not take mystical reality into account -- that God, or more generally, the transcendent, is real, but ordinary language is incapable of dealing with it. The non-believer responds with charges of obscurantism, that the believer is evading the issue by taking refuge in nonsense.

But there are two issues here. The first is whether or not there is anything that is real but where all attempts at description -- staying within the confines of common sense language and Aristotelian logic -- fail. The second is what we do about it. I would argue, first, that the subatomic world is such a reality, though that alone does not grant license to the believer to believe (in God or whatever). To the objection that there is a mathematical language (which of course obeys Aristotelian logic -- the laws of identity, contradiction, and the excluded middle) for quantum physics, I repeat that this language does not describe the reality -- it just allows the physicist to make predictions. Hence there are a multitude of interpretations of that world, all of which are metaphysical positions, not scientific.

But, secondly, I would argue that there is an even more obvious reality that qualifies, namely plain, ordinary, everyday consciousness. The reason it qualifies is that the "now" is not an instant -- a point on time's continuum, but instead is extended over a small stretch of time (and space). Because the now is extended, I don't see any way that it could emerge from a strictly spatiotemporal process. In a spatiotemporal process every event is separated in time and/or space from every other event. 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? Consciousness somehow connects those zillions of events into one flowing whole, while within a strictly spatiotemporal process there is no way for events to aggregate as experience of anything larger than a single event. As I see it, this means that consciousness transcends time (and space), and so cannot itself be a consequence of a spatiotemporal process.

Granted, the argument in the preceding paragraph is no more than arm-waving. But there is enough of a mystery to consciousness that it leads a diehard materialist like Colin McGinn to assert that he doesn't expect there ever to be an explanation of consciousness, and another (David Chalmers) to hypothesize what he calls "naturalist dualism" to account for consciousness. What I propose instead is to assert the reality of the non-spatiotemporal (which in theological language is called the eternal -- not to be confused with time everlasting). What if the reason that quantum reality defies comprehension is that it too is non-spatiotemporal? That would "explain" how an unobserved electron could be in a superposition of states, that the position/momentum uncertainty is there simply because -- unobserved -- quantum particles are simply not at definite spatiotemporal locations, because at that level there is no space and time. And, of course, it would "account for" the non-locality observed in the Aspect experiments. But note that I put the words "explain" and "account for" in scare quotes, because appealing to non-spatiotemporal reality is not an understandable answer. But the point is that if one buys into this line of argumentation, then one should not expect one. Yet something definite has been argued for: that there is a reality for which our ordinary language fails.

What clinches the argument for me -- and is the reason I became religious -- is that mystics have been saying for millenia that fundamental reality is not spatiotemporal. And they have said so, or so they claim, by virtue of knowledge (of "experiencing" non-spatiotemporal reality), not by metaphysical guesswork. Should we believe them? Given the argumentation above I have no problem believing them. But it should be pointed out that mystics also say something else, that just arguing from consciousness and/or quantum physics does not, and that is that the eternal is not merely real, but also Good, and that it is possible to realize that Goodness. It is that addition that turns all this from metaphysical speculation to religion.

This, then, is my answer to the first issue: there is a reality that defies common sense language, and why it must be dealt with. Still to come: how to forge a language to deal with it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pragmatic Religion

Pragmatists will point out that they consider many things to be true, but deny that there is likely to be one sufficient theory of truth. Instead, there are varieties of scientific truth, artistic truth, historical truth, etc., and each has its own ways of establishing themselves. There is, then, no overarching method or criterion for all truths, but if one is a scientist, say, then there are ways of working that are better than others in leading one to new scientific truths.

I add to that list of varieties of truth what I call salvific truth, and it has its own criterion: the truth will make you free of sin and death. (I'll set aside for now what being "free of death" might mean.) Thus, a point of doctrine X is salvifically true if by believing in it, one is helped on one's way to salvation. Some things that follow:

- First, I am being more flexible than the Athanasian Creed, which held that to be saved one must believe the items in the creed. I would counter that claim by saying that I think the Buddha became free of sin and death, yet couldn't have believed in the Resurrection.

- Second, the logic of the criterion does not require X to be itself true in some objective sense. Suppose, for example, that the Virgin Birth was not historically true. Yet, in believing it, one might have been helped in believing in the power of Jesus to save. On the other hand, if one has no need of believing in the VB in order to be convinced of Jesus' power to save, then the question of the truth of the VB becomes irrelevant.

What these two points indicate is that salvific truth varies from culture to culture, epoch to epoch, and person to person. Yet that does not mean that anything goes. For there is a test to be made, and that is whether believing in X or Y has actually helped anyone on their way to becoming free of sin. Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since -- from the non-saved perspective -- how can we know? Of course, one way to approach this thorny issue is to think that one is saved simply by declaring that, say, Jesus is Lord. And I think this is how early official Christianity had to deal with this issue, due to its denial of reincarnation and universalism. But nowadays that sounds too arbitrary -- one is not inclined to believe in a God that orders things in that way. Another way is to claim that everyone is always already saved, and we just don't know it. This might be true in some ultimate sense, but seems to me to be irrelevant. For I can't see any practical difference between "not saved" and "not knowing that one is safe". Just change the criterion to "knowing the truth will make you free of sin", since the problem is one's propensity to sin. So, given that we have no mechanical way of applying the criterion, what do we do?

What, I think, we need to do, and what seems to me to be missing in most discussions of Christian doctrine, from a pragmatic standpoint, is ask the question of how a salvific truth works. I don't mean by this that one should expect to find some formula, the following of which leads to salvation. It is rather a matter of thinking about what revelation has to tell us about ourselves and reality in general (metaphysics) , to get some idea of why we are obstructed by false beliefs. That is, I think that salvific truths work more through negating than through positing. As various people have pointed out (I learned it from Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend) a heresy is substituting something understandable for that which must be maintained as a mystery. We can't understand how Jesus could be fully divine and fully human, but we can understand that he could be not fully divine, or not fully human, and in so understanding we fall into error. Hence, to believe in a salvific truth -- and to think about it -- is to face mystery on its own terms, not on what we as sinners substitute for it. What we are doing, then, is learning to think in a new way. As Coleridge put it, it is making a distinction between Reason and Understanding. Only the former works creatively.

(I'll have more to say about this in future posts.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Religious Philosophy

"Religious philosophy" is what I put down as my "interests" in my profile. It is not "philosophy of religion". The term is a generalization of "Christian philosophy" (as used in the opening chapter of Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy), or "Buddhist philosophy", etc. That is, it is philosophizing from a religious perspective, or "faith seeking understanding". But, it may be objected, there can be no such thing as a general religious philosophy, since the faith of one religion is different from that of another. To this I respond that I think of myself as religious, but since I am not a practitioner of one or the other of these more or less established faiths, I have no choice but to, in effect, define my own religion, though of course drawing on the wisdom of the established faiths. As I see it, this is one way of responding to the problem raised, for example, in Peter Berger's The Heretical Imperative. We live in pluralist society, and if I am unable to bring myself to, say, choosing some Christian denomination, or some Oriental tradition, then this is the only way forward for me -- given that I reject the agnostic option.

William James characterized religion (in Varieties of Religious Experience) as (my paraphrase)
1. Acknowledging that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, and
2. Seeing the fix for that wrongness in reconnecting to something transcendent.

What I shall be doing in these posts is taking that characterization as a definition of religion. (By "definition", by the way, I only mean to indicate that when I define X, that this is how I shall be using the word 'X'. Others may use it in other ways, which is ok as long as one is aware of the different usages.) And what I see myself as doing is carrying out a religious experiment. Could it be that -- now that modernism is failing, yet there are good reasons to not fall back into a pre-modern monocultural form of religious practice, that the time for "being a Christian (or whatever) is passing? To be clear, I do not think it is wrong to belong to a religious tradition (on the other hand, I do think it is wrong to be without religion altogether), so the experiment is to see if being religious without signing up for a particular tradition works out. Not that I expect anything conclusive to come of it.

Initial orientation

I don't know what the author of the song "Church of Logic Sin and Love" (by The Men) meant by it. I've just borrowed the three words, since they serve as central figures around which I can discuss what I think religion is about.

Love: There won't be much if anything on this topic, not because it isn't supremely important -- just that I have nothing new or unusual to say about it.

Sin: In my view, religion isn't religion unless it acknowledges Original Sin, or something similar. In Hinduism there is Maya, in Buddhism, Ignorance. Granted, I don't think the Christian tradition of Original Sin as being "disobedience" plays well any more, nevertheless, I accept the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and it has to do with being out of touch with the transcendent. They are most out of touch who deny the reality of the transcendent.

Logic: In this blog, the word "logic" should be treated as the adjectival form of the word "Logos", as in: By [the Logos] was everything made that was made. Logic, then, becomes a means to Logos. The usual meaning of the term, which I shall identify as Aristotelian logic, is what you get when you restrict one's thinking to the sense perceptible (the spatiotemporal). It is of little value when directed at the mental, or the transcendent. But (see Sin), attempts at creating a logic that is of value in these areas is fraught with peril. Which is why the apophatic tradition exists. I think, though, that something can be done that is more positive.