Category Archives: Epistemology

Spectrum of spectra

Right and wrong, black and white, male and female, salt and pepper.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking in binary; something was either one thing or the other.

My liberal arts education, even at a Christian college, helped rattle that notion, that things like morality were black and white, but the binary thinking is largely still there. I suppose another part of the reason it lingers is my hatred for ambiguity. Whatever the case I propose that we think more along a spectrum than we seem to about many things : politics, gender, race, etc. Here I want to consider sexual orientation, mental health, and belief.

I owe my housemate on this one. One night I was talking with a friend and my housemate at a bar about sexual orientation and my housemate offered up that he thought of sexual orientation as on a spectrum. This was some time ago, and initially I balked against this; my knee-jerk reaction was to think “No – what’s natural is for men to be attracted to women and women to men. Our society is pulling up its own anchors in the name of freedom and confusing its citizens by giving them the freedom to choose to be attracted to something unnatural. There is no spectrum; only the choice of affirming the natural heterosexual desire or denying it.” But, since then I have come more to agree with my housemate. The things we observe seem to support him: there are people who are attracted to people of the opposite sex, same sex, both sexes, neither, etc. And he used a helpful analogy. He said though he had a low score on the Kinsey scale he knew if he had to have sex with a man he would pick a man he thought was attractive (in this case, Brad Pitt). That he has an idea of who are and are not attractive men does not support his spectrum view of sexuality but that we can conjecture about the strength of our own attraction to men and/or women with something like the Kinsey scale does.

Thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a spectrum makes more sense out of human experience than the traditional binary I was raised with. Adopting this view raises many questions but it can also help someone (in this case a man) with an upbringing like mine (conservative Christian) to be at peace with a thought like “Wow — that is a handsome guy” and not worry that I have become homosexual or been abandoned to sin by God or something like that. I don’t think many conservative Christians intentionally push those messages, but they don’t try to eliminate them either. And, of course, “homosexual/gay” do not have to be bad words or be equivalent with “abandoned to sin” either. The American church, especially the conservative church, absolutely needs to abolish moral judgments made on others solely based on their orientations.

Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. All these are words we attach to certain sets of symptoms. We then typically define ourselves or others by them. People become “depressed” or “OCD”. Using labels we or others become the illnesses we have. And then, through Baconian-inspired evaluations of human bodies and minds, those with mental illnesses become inferior, lesser, worse, even more wicked than those “without”.

I talk with others about “my depression” to the point that I hate the sound of the words as they pass my lips. I think its helpful to call things what they are and speak frankly, but I say “depression” as if I am lumped in some category setting me apart from anyone without clinical depression and putting me in with everyone with it. Is my story as boring and simple as that? No, in fact I experience life in ways that could be common to anyone from Rasputin to Norman Rockwell and particular to no one but me. It seems the truth is that we all have ways we think or feel which are not ideal, which are harmful or debilitating to some extent. Because of this, I probably shouldn’t even use the word “depression” to define my own experience: I must be defined by something else. (That’s for another post.)

Lastly I wanted to address belief. Again, “my agnosticism” are words I have come to hate the sound of (the way I pronounce them is particularly grating to the ear any way, and I’m particular about sounds). But besides being discordant, perhaps such terminology is wrongheaded. Sexuality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs — these things are so personal and individuated. Rather than thinking in terms of either belief or disbelief/unbelief, would it not be better to think across a range? We would have to agree on the content first; the easiest example is god, or god’s omni-benevolence. But then rather than asking “Do you believe?” we could ask “How do you believe? What do you believe less? What do you believe more?” And talking about belief, or any of these matters, as if it’s something static, unchanging seems puerile too. We each have our own individual paths of belief and who can say where they’ll take us?

We’ve discussed the “spectra”; now for the “spectrum”. (This is where it gets meta.) I don’t want to get nominalistic or abuse our entire language of abstract ideas. But I want to consider some linkages. Sexuality, mental health and belief. Could these things not be each other? More than merely affecting one another, can I talk about sexuality as mental health and belief, and mental health as sexuality and belief, and belief as sexuality and mental health? Rob Bell talks such in SexGod, and better still, Rowan Williams writes beautifully about sexuality and faith in “The Body’s Grace.” We could tease these ideas out further but a benefit of this view is the integrating factor it bears on the individual.

These are just some thoughts I’m exploring. Feedback welcome.

 

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House of Cards

The following are writings of C.S. Lewis on faith and understanding. He reached these realizations through great suffering, but you don’t need to suffer like Lewis to hear his point: our perceptions of reality are often skewed and unfounded, in need of razing (He writes “All reality is iconoclastic.”). Hence the beauty and truth of, and opportunity for new creation from, a scattered house of cards.

“Bridge-players tell me that there must be some money on the game ‘or else people won’t take it seriously.’ Apparently it’s like that. Your bid — for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity — will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it. And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high, until you find that you are playing not for counters or for sixpences but for every penny you have in the world. Nothing less will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.

And I must surely admit — H. would have forced me to admit in a few passes — that, if my house was a house of cards, the sooner it was knocked down the better. And only suffering could do it. But then the Cosmic Sadist and Eternal Vivisector becomes an unnecessary hypothesis.

Is this last note a sign that I’m incurable, that when reality smashes my dreams to bits, I mope and snarl while the first shock lasts, and then patiently, idiotically, start putting it together again? And so always? However often the house of cards falls, shall I set about rebuilding it? Is that what I’m doing now?

Indeed it’s likely enough that what I shall call, if it happens, a ‘restoration of faith’ will turn out to be only one more house of cards. And I shan’t know whether it is or not until the next blow comes — when, say, fatal disease is diagnosed in my body too, or war breaks out, or I have ruined myself by some ghastly mistake in my work. But there are two questions here. In which sense may it be a house of cards? Because the things I am believing are only a dream, or because I only dream that I believe them?

…. God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.

…. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not.”

— C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Language games

Language is a game. We all play it. We can bend its rules. But if we break the rules too frequently, we are no longer playing the agreed game; we are playing a different game. Only others who are initiated into that game and familiar with its rules will be able to successfully play with you. Those who have played the card game “Mao” know something of what I’m talking about.

These are more or less the ideas of Wittgenstein anyway. And this all makes sense to me: I think it’s a fitting description of what language is: twin systems of rules (grammar) and pieces (words) that we manipulate in order to communicate meaning.

I’m starting to think of this in other ways too, now. Even my studies and the disciplines encompassing them are language games. Cynics would say that’s all they are (I entertain this cynical sentiment in Rough Day).

I write to say that I’m learning to play those games. And, actually, I think this is a good thing. Even if we’re merely spinning words that don’t affect anything outside, I’m learning what the rules of the games are and how to play them. I hope I’m even beginning to succeed, start winning.

This sounds really cynical but I don’t mean it that way. I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps helpful insight to fellow students, that one way to think of our task is that we need to become fluent in the language of our disciplines. That requires gathering all the right pieces, knowing all the rules and beginning to learn strategy, effective combinations and moves.

Who are we playing with? Our peers and future colleagues, and teachers. I can’t say there are no losers. There are. When someone destroys another’s argument, book, or opus using his own words, that is a major loss. Ouch. I don’t know what you can do after that, but fortunately that’s not for me to worry about yet. However, the objective is not necessarily to squash the competition; there can be room (somewhere…) for them and they are needed, too (to write the top review for the book jacket of your next book).

There is a comfort in knowing that (in one sense) it’s all a game as well. Playing does not require you to believe in or love the game. You just have to be good at it. Which is what I’m hoping to do. For now. And if I’m not good, if I’m not “picked”, there are other games I can play. I must take hope in this.

Chiming in: the red pill reveals that there is no red pill

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It’s been a while. Here’s a brief update of where I am right now.

Still pretty happy in my agnosticism. It took some philosophical hits recently as I was thinking about the ontological and cosmological arguments for God, which I know have their problems but also have some merits. Meaning in language/behaviour and the intelligibility/order of our world – these things too have given me pause. But I think I’ll need sufficient reason to return to faith, and these things, even as a cumulative case, fail to give it.

Depression is moody. I mean, some days are good, some are not. As said in my last post (Rough day – for what it’s worth the following Wednesday was great!), I’m coming to terms with the lifelong daily battles I will have with it.

I also have come to think of myself as having Modernist objectives in a postmodern context: I want some kind of absolute objective Truth in an intellectual world where that whole enterprise has been laughed to scorn, and rightly so. I feel as if I am for the first time running up against the fish-tank walls of my existence and recognizing them for walls, knowing they limit my perspective and capacities for problem-solving and can never be transcended (O, to be a fish with wings!). Up to now, I was swimming in the same tank but blissfully unaware that I was in a tank. You might ask how I can know I’m in a tank – touche. All the same, I believe there are limits to my understanding and reasoning based on what “respected academics” tell me about the world I inhabit. (Is this a reductio ad absurdum within post-modernism? That if one’s perspectives are limited and socially-conditioned, she may be unable to perceive those limits and that conditioning?)

The following quasi-verse (quasi-poem would suggest I actually went to the trouble of reading it back to myself after writing it) intimates what I have been discussing decently well. Bear in mind, I have freely borrowed many phrases and lines here.

In.

Pulling the curtain back, and going through.

Beyond the man frantically at work behind the curtain.

Beyond the machine that makes him more than a man.

Beyond the table, the incense, the ark and its mercy seat.

Going still further back.

“I’m breaking through, I’m bending spoons, I’m keeping flowers in full bloom, I’m looking for answers from The Great Beyond.”

Why must I hunt this wily snipe, chase this wild goose, pursue this damned chimera, as if answers are there to be found?

I don’t know what I think.

I am aware that I am not fully aware…

Damned red pill. Can’t I go back to conservative evangelicalism or even fundamentalism and stay there?

The religion of Naturalism

Every worldview necessarily has presuppositions that can only be accepted by presuppositions canonical to that worldview. Jenny believes God exists because she believes the authority of Scripture and testimony of others; she believes those witnesses are trustworthy because they exalt the name of God. George believes god does not exist because he believes certain philosophers’ words on the matter; he believes those philosophers because they don’t posit anything as ridiculous as a god. These are facile examples but I really think all reasoning and argument is ultimately circular.

Naturalism itself is a kind of religion. It has…

A myth of origin: evolutionary, non-Big-Bang theory science

A definition of the human “problem”: insufficient knowledge, superstition, ignorance

A salvific event: the Enlightenment

A church: the secular academy

Prophets: the philosophes, e.g. Voltaire; other philosophers; Darwin and other scientists

A means of redemption: rejection of theism, superstition, and ignorance

A trajectory: death after life but hopefully progress and prosperity for future generations

As a skeptic, I cannot even accept a system like Naturalism except as another form of religion.

And unfortunately, skepticism has its own problematic presupposition: that nothing can be known for certain, which is self-defeating, because if nothing can be known for certain, then we can’t know for certain that nothing can be known for certain and thus that presupposition is nonsense.

What I must accept is that life is mystery. In fact, no one knows very much. And little to nothing for certain. So I’m no less able to know what the hell is going on than anyone else. And that’s OK. At least, I need to try to be okay with that ambiguity.

I don’t quite know
How to say
How I feel

Those three words
Are said too much
They’re not enough

— Chasing Cars, Snow Patrol

How do I feel? Do my feelings really matter?

A friend recently saw through something I have known for a while. My questions and philosophizing about faith are pointless.

Everything hinges on the resurrection. Either it happened (for which there might be decent arguments), or it didn’t (for which there are decent arguments). I have decided I cannot reason my way to God, I can only Jesus my way to God, meaning I can either historically and spiritually accept Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at Christianity or historically and spiritually deny Jesus’ resurrection and arrive at non-Christianity. This seems to fit Jesus’ words on the subject (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” — John 14.6). A third option for now would be to continue as an agnostic.

But the point is, all these “intellectual” questions I’m asking are not going to accomplish anything. Philosophers have both “proved” God’s existence and God’s non-existence. As mentioned in my post “Miracle?“, I think Donald Miller is right on about people not converting for intellectual reasons but for emotional ones.

“Emotional reasons” may be too much of a reduction. Our relationships (as I argued last week), bodies, wills, locales, education, hobbies, habits and choices surely factor in as well. How arbitrarily and complexly we are formed!

Henceforth I want to examine these non-rational issues regarding faith and life. I want to look at the intersection(s) of feeling and thought and belief and decision, etc. If mental disorders have taught me anything, it’s that many pieces constitute the whole given whenever someone drops the question “How’s it goin’?”. The same goes for “What are you thinkin’ about?”.

What are you thinkin’ about? Does this make any sense? Should I give “reason” another chance?

“You are who you hang with”. Must I be?

It would be worthwhile to explore the effect community is having on my beliefs even while it is happening.

I mean this:

I came in as a conservative, inerrantist-leaning believer. Then I found Christian pluralism and the silence of God in my life too hard to reconcile with my presuppositions. So I dropped belief and became a skeptic and agnostic.

Skepticism provides no m.o. so I have defaulted to certain patterns. To name them, I would say I am operating under pragmatism, self-interest, and Christian-informed ethics.

My skepticism allows me both to question the point of divinity school in general if there is no god, but also opens me to the idea that, if there is a right way of believing and practicing, Duke — with its mainstream, sola scriptura sed non nuda scriptura (idea I take from Daniel Treier, that Christians best use Scripture as the only divine authority but not divorced from tradition) approach to scripture and tradition, historical-criticism-informed biblical interpretation, and narrative based ethics — might have it. (I should probably drop the idea there is one right way of doing anything…)

If I do not come into contact with communities I can trust and identify with that hold different belief systems, I will probably eventually accept some version of Ducal Christianity. It would be the only option I have; there is nothing else before me.

In fact, I’m calling it now — I am going to become a Christian believer again. Considering my background and environment, the community of friends I most identify with here, I just see it so plainly before me. And that excites me; I’m happy about it: frankly, agnosticism/skepticism, while eradicating much of my guilt, have a metaphysical emptiness resulting in an existential sadness.

But I’m not at that point yet, and I also find this fated “return to the fold” sad, a failure on my part to push the skeptical envelope.

What could I do to avoid merely “becoming who I hang with” (to paraphrase dear old Mum)?

1) Drop out (problems here — I need a job, I want to teach something in university someday, Mum and Dad would not be happy).

2) Study somewhere else for a semester (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), for example – I could be comfortable in that environment if simultaneously frustrated with the foreshortened scholastic inquiry. However, now that I’m in Durham I don’t want to move).

3) Temporarily associate with a church or religion quite foreign to me (I don’t want to do this).

Questions: What other options do I have? Should I reconsider any of the above three?

How can we avoid being conditioned by the ones we most trust into the beliefs we have and hold?

If we can’t, how can we really believe Christianity is truth?

If people’s beliefs are determined by those they most closely associate with and if Christianity is truth, how can people growing up in non-Christian societies be faulted by God, a long-held soteriological position?