Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Critical Problem

I ran across this expression  ('the critical problem') recently, in connection with a discussion of the French neo-Thomists Gilson and Maritain. It actually seems to date back at least to Descartes, but in this formulation, the problem relates to whether we can have knowledge. If we follow Descartes we find that we do have knowledge, at least of ourselves – I think therefore I am – but the problem now remains to show that the world external and independent of us exists (Copleston 255).

We can specify the question a bit more precisely, however: what is knowledge? I suspect that the question that lies behind this is ‘can we have knowledge of God?’ but we do not need to be theological metaphysicians to pose the critical problem. There are, of course, a variety of responses to the critical problem; I suspect that it is so named because it arises from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, rather than because it is regarded as a problem critical to, say, human existence.

One response, from Gilson, to the critical problem is to rule it out. If we remove all our knowledge and then try to decide whether knowledge is, in the abstract, possible, we create a pseudo-problem (Copleston 261-2). We cannot ask ‘what is knowledge?’ unless we already know something, that is, we have to already know what knowledge is to ask whether it can exist. That said, we also have to know the meaning of some other words, the meaning of a question and so far. Bracketing out knowledge before trying to determine whether it exists seems a dead end or, at least, asking the question implies that we already know the answer, that we are aware of a capacity to know.

We can, however, reflect on what knowing is; we can aim to obtain knowledge about knowledge. Maritain observes that there is more than one kind of knowledge, and the danger of the question ‘what is knowledge?’ is that it collapses all types of knowledge into one. Scientific knowledge is one sort of knowledge, but it is only one sort. Physics does not provide information about the being of things, the ontology of sub-atomic particles, but pragmatic information about behaviour and effects. Mathematics provides abstract knowledge, but cannot exist without matter. Metaphysics includes knowledge which is entirely abstract, that is, which does not ultimately depend on something material.

This is all very well, but the fact is that all of these different sorts of knowledge are created by the human mind. Knowledge of all sorts can exist within a single mind if it chooses to turn its attention to the topic in question. While each subject might have a specific method and these methods vary substantially from discipline to discipline, they all can exist within the human mind. I can think about theoretical physics and I can think the question of the existence of God. I might not be able to do both at the same time, and it may well not be a good idea so to do, but I can think both sets of thoughts, I can operate using both methods, indeed, in these cases, while sitting at the same desk.

Another neo-Thomist, Bernard Lonergan, tackles the critical question from another point of view. He asks three linked questions: what am I doing when I am knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What do I know when I do it? (Lonergan, 2016, 35). There are, at least, at first sight, semantic difficulties: we do not go off and ‘do some knowing’. However, we do come to know. Perhaps Lonergan’s shorthand questions should be expanded a little if only to respect a little more the rules of English.

The first of Lonergan’s questions can be rephrased as ‘what am I doing when I learn something?’ When I have thoroughly learnt something, it becomes knowledge. The object of learning is to obtain the knowledge of something, whether that is knowledge of how to change the oil in my car, what the integral of x is, or what neo-Thomists say about the critical problem. All of these things are different sorts of knowledge, all can be learnt, and all can be in the same mind, that is, I can know all of them.

The question Lonergan asks therefore is about how, in general, we come to know anything, how we learn something. The question is not specific, it is not about how we learn to change the oil or integrate. His assumption is that, because there is a single human mind which can learn all these different things, there has to be an overriding process of coming to knowledge.

Perhaps this, then, indicates a problem with the critical problem as stated. Lonergan’s picture of knowledge and knowing is a dynamic one, not a static one. We cannot simply bracket out the process of learning something from the knowledge that we have. Indeed, if we are trying to learn something complex, we have to take it a step at a time (this is the educational technique of constructivism, after all) and, in all probability, go over the same ground several times before it ‘takes’.

We might also start to realise that something we have encountered before pertains to the problem at hand. I recall, in my final years as a physics undergraduate, realising that most of the things I was doing involved, in one way or another, a Fourier transform, a mathematical change of axes from, for example, time to frequency. I had learnt about Fourier transforms the year before but had never quite realised why we had them. This sort of integration of otherwise disparate things that we know solidifies the aspects. Our knowledge becomes more integrated than it was. We see a bigger, more rounded picture of the subject and its aspects.

The suggestion here, I suppose, is that if we stop learning we stop knowing, or at least, we stop being able to integrate things that we already know. Too many people today seem to think that they know enough and should not be bothered with new things. And that is very sad for them and the human race as a whole.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Philosophy and Theology of Hope

Hope is the one thing we got on our side

Hope can be salvaged when all else has died.

Hazel O’Connor, If Only from Breaking Glass (1987, A & M)

What do we do with hope? Perhaps we live in a hopeless world, or at least, one where hope is confined to something material. Wallsi suggests that the Enlightenment discarded, without disproving it, the religious version of hope (along with a lot of the rest of religious belief). It is possible that religious hope was jettisoned in favour of hope in science. Progress, in the Nineteenth Century, was scientific and technological. The idea was that all was needed was a science of man and the unification of a rational society with an industrial-technological economy, and all would be well.

Of course, it was not. The horrors unleashed by the technological and managerial efforts of the Twentieth Century have undermined, perhaps fatally, Enlightenment rationality, and hope in progress. Progress in technology only led to more ways of committing mass murder, as did bureaucratic management techniques. The Holocaust was not only the application of science to killing people en mass, it was an exercise in annihilation by paperwork. The hope of science and managerial technique failed humanity.

The damage done to ‘traditional’ hope persisted, however. The secular version of hope, through progress, education, technology and social reform had been decisively disproven, but the clock could not be, and was not, turned back to the Christian view of the world as progressing towards the Kingdom of God. Hope is out of fashion, in a sense.

The goods which the modern person in the Western world can control are material: possessions. Worldly possibilities are the only objects of hope many aspire to. Curtailed expectations are considered to be wise. Every once in a while, of course, a politician or other snake oil salesman comes along and raises people's hopes, at least for increased material wealth and possessions, but usually, those hopes fail. The system of the world, of countries, of consumerism, is not easy to change.

In Western thought, at least, there are two strands of thinking about hope, the theological and the philosophical. As with most other issues located around virtues and concepts, these two intertwine but they can, at least in thought post-Enlightenment, be separated to some extent. At least, philosophy no longer feels the need to play the handmaid to theology. While some philosophers pay attention to the deliverances of theology, not all do. Similarly, theologians do not feel the necessity of attending to philosophical thought, although often, it seems, they are more open to doing so than the other way around.

Hope is a theological virtue. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness (CCC 1817). Hope responds to the aspiration of happiness (CCC 1818). Hope excludes both despair and presumption.ii Lonergan thinks that there is a supernatural solution to the problem of evil, but that humanism will ignore it, and this humanism will therefore exclude hope.iii

Lonergan is a Thomist, and Aquinas views hope as dispensable, at least compared with charity, and unintelligible without faith. Faith, for Aquinas, is not seeing or knowing but hoping, and the object of hope is ‘eternal beatitude’ and divine assistance. The difference between hope and faith is that hope is oriented towards the future.iv The faithful are also hopeful. Hope is a virtue, which makes its possessor good and their activity sound because hope keeps us in tune with God and God is our ultimate good. This hope is not only for something in the future but a looking forward to what God provides; we hope for God himself.v

Before Aquinas, Augustine also considered hope. In the Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, he says that hope is oriented towards future events and relates to good for the hoper. The theological virtues, faith, hope, and love are seen as interconnected, with love (charity) underpinning the others. If we love the future fulfillment of God’s will, then we will hope for it and obtain the correct form of faith. Love underpins hope which yields correct faith. The faithful have the correct hopes because they love By contrast, Augustine argues, ‘The devils also believe and tremble’ (James 2:19), because the devils have neither hope nor love.

Obviously, these theological ideas about hope are founded on the Biblical text. We can only hope for what is uncertain: ‘For in hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience.’ (Romans 8:24-5). Similarly ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ (Hebrews 11:1). From expressions of hope such as these, Augustine, Aquinas and others have forged Christian hope.

The implication here is that, in a world which has lost its Christian hope and moved to consumerist frenzy or postmodern despair, hope has not been found wanting, it has simply been disregarded. It does not mean that people of faith simply wait for the intervention of God in the world, like some fundamentalist awaiting the ‘great tribulation’, but we recognise the interrelationship of love, hope and faith, and the emphasis on love as the most fundamental.

Without the love and faith foundations of hope, we are left relying on philosophy for our hopes for the future. This might not be a good thing, but to show that we will have to probe the philosophical foundations of hope.

iWalls, J. L. (2012). The Wisdom of Hope in a Despairing World. In P. Moser & M. McFall (Eds.), The Wisdom of the Christian Faith. New York: CUP.

iiLonergan, B. J. F. (1992). Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (5th rev. ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 723-4.

iiiLonergan, Insight, p. 749.

ivDavies, B. (2002). Aquinas: An Introduction. London: Continuum, p. 204-5

vAquinas, T. (1948). Summa Theologica (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.). Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, II-II, 17.2.

viAugustine. (1887). The Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love. In P. Schaff (Ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (Vol. 3). Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co, Chapter 8.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Knowledge – The Basics

 If I have achieved anything so far, it is to suggest that knowledge and its associated concepts – truth, certainty, belief, doubt, meaning, and so on, are a lot more problematic than we imagine in our everyday usage. The problem really emerges when we try to strip everything away and see what we are left with.

The standard example of this is Rene Descartes who, famously, doubted everything he possibly could until he was only left with himself as thinking: ‘I think, therefore I am’ he declared, ‘cogito ergo sum’. This statement and its approach impressed quite a number of philosophers over the centuries but has also been rejected and criticized. For example, it has been suggested that Descartes still went too far, and could only say ‘I think I think, therefore I think I am, I think’, or, more succinctly, ‘there is thinking going on’. But even these adjustments to Descartes’ idea still, in terms of his hyperbolic doubt, go too far. There are still background assumptions involved in these very stripped down statements, including the idea that making a statement in a language is meaningful.

Clearly, if we pursue hyperbolic doubt to its logical end, we land up with nothing and are unable to do, think, or say anything. This is not, to say the least, helpful. Something must have gone wrong, and what seems to be the error is Descartes’ method, at least in this case. We cannot strip everything away which we can doubt and presume that what is left is indubitable. There has to be more to it than that.

The more that there is is that life, thought, meaning and the rest of it is a lot more complex than we usually give credit for. An adult will have a great deal of learning and experience behind them even before making a statement like ‘the sun is shining’. There is a lot about language, the meaning of words, the reference of words, and the use of grammar implicit in the simplest sentence. Without all this, a sentence is just a group of arbitrary sounds or marks on a page (or a computer screen).

The upshot of this is that we cannot separate our thinking from anything else, including memory, imagination, and language. Somehow I know that I have stopped the car in the wrong place to drive it into the garage. How do I know that? The answer seems to be to do with experience, memory, and perception. I can perceive where I have placed the vehicle relative to the entrance, I have done the maneuver before and so remember how the car was placed at that point and, having driven it for a while, I have a feel for how big it is and what I can manage of not with it. If I have not driven it much before, or if I have not parked in that garage before, I am much less certain about how and where to place the car to avoid hitting something. I can, at this point, imagine doing so, even if I have never undertaken the procedure before. How confident I might feel about parking in the garage is a function of all of these factors and probably a few more.

A piece of knowledge, therefore, is accepted or rejected on the basis of a whole view of the world, or at least (to make things manageable) the relevant parts of the world to the issue at hand. This is, in fact, how science works. A new result is found and analyzed in relation to other relevant bits of information in the subject. Questions of coherence emerge, and how significant they are is highly dependent on the view and confidence of the scientist in the result and how divergent it is from expected results. It is, of course, possible for a result to be revolutionary and to be accepted (in due course) and rendering all other results, or at least understandings of the subject, outdated. But these results are rare in science; normally a new result applies to a certain situation or subfield, it does not usually create a new paradigm for the science.

The relevant parts of the world to my parking the car in the garage are my knowledge of the size of the car, the width of the garage door , and so on. There are, of course, background features here as well, such as my knowledge of how to drive a car and the effectiveness of the brakes and the mechanism holding the door open. Once you start considering all these things, however, the ability to act can become paralyzed. To stay sane in everyday situations we do not go that far. The background assumptions remain exactly that and we take them for granted unless we notice some evidence to suggest that they may not be behaving normally. For example, if we notice brake fluid dripping from the car, we might question the effectiveness of the usual mechanism for stopping.

Similarly in science the background assumptions are largely unstated or investigated: The universe behaves in a regular, predictable way. An experiment conducted today will be reproduced tomorrow, and so on. Ultimately, these assumptions are unprovable. The question of why the universe exists at all is not a scientific one, in the sense that it cannot be answered by science itself. The sciences examine the universe, not the conditions of its existence. Somewhere a metaphysical assumption is made, without evidence. The answer that the existence of the universe is a mere brute fact without explanation is just as much an unprovable metaphysical assumption as the answer that God made the universe. Neither can be proved scientifically because neither relates to science.

Ultimate questions depend on metaphysical assumptions. These are part of the background assumptions that people make. If scientists worried every time they conducted an experiment whether the universe they were observing existed, then little new science would be done. If I wondered about the existence of my car every time I wanted to park it, I would never go anywhere. These are simplifying assumptions that enable us to cope with the everyday and, in fact, with the scientific and everything else that we do think about. We cannot, ultimately, divide knowledge of our garage from knowledge of the existence of the universe, but for all reasonable activities we have to, and so we do.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...