Saturday, January 31, 2009

Said, Was, Saw

God said:
  • "Let there be light,"
  • and there was light.
  • And God saw that the light was good.

In Genesis 1, God created the world by speaking. John 1 draws attention to the role of the Word in creation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
The word and the world star in Creation, but there's another element in the story--"and God saw that the light was good."

God is omniscient--what does it mean for Him to "see"? Is this just an anthropomorphism? Is it just another way to say, "The light was good"? Or is God's seeing just as real as His saying?

I know just enough about quantum physics to get myself in trouble, but a passage like just begs for a quantum explanation. The scientists say that natural law and physical matter, by themselves, don't produce what we see around us. It takes an observation to collapse the wavefunction of the universe into any particular actuality.

In a quantum universe, God's seeing could be as just as real and effectual as His saying.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rationalism, Empiricism, Subjectivism

John M. Frame suggested a new framework for knowing what knowledge is in 1982. (This philosophical sub-discipline is called "epistemology.") He begins by listing three general types of epistemology throughout the history of philosophy:
The first tendency is rationalism or a_ priorism, which I shall define as the view that human knowledge presupposes certain principles known independently of sense-experience, principles by which, indeed, our knowledge of sense-experience is governed. The second tendency is empiricism, the view that human knowledge is based upon the data of sense-experience. Thirdly, there is subjectivism, the view that there is no "objective" truth, but only truth "for" the knowing subject, verified by criteria internal to the subject.
I tend towards empiricism, myself, with a healthy respect for rationalism, but I have long despised "subjectivism." Frame's description of subjectivism convicts me of intellectual snobbery:
Then comes the third member of the triad, human nature, which correlates with philosophical "subjectivity." Self-knowledge has always been philosophically difficult. As Hume and Wittgenstein especially have pointed out, the self is not one of the things we see as we look on the world. Yet it is through our­selves that we come to know everything else. All we know, we know through our own senses, reason, feelings, through what we are. And it is thus in knowing other things that we come to know the self. The self seems to be everywhere and nowhere. We know it, but only as we know other things.
Frame does not take two opposing principles and merge them into one synthesis, as Hegel would do with his dialectic. He affirms three different perspectives as co-equal--like the three dimensions of physical space.

My approach to knowledge, up until now, seems two-dimensional at best? Has my epistemology been just a cardboard cut-out with no subjective depth to it?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Observer

Perspectivalism has me looking for thirds to every old dichotomy. There is a perceiving subject for every fact/value distinction, and a moral actor who decides between deontology and teleology. Frame and Poythress articulate this triad as "subject, object, norm."

Who is this "subject"? Does the "subject" really make any difference to what we know and do? Is the "subject" important enough to sit side-by-side with physical reality and natural law?

Rene Descartes brought the "subject" into the center of this philosophy when he said, "I think, therefore I am." The observing self provided the first fact for Reason (the norm), which used it to deduce Reality (the object).

Descartes left the "subject" behind once he got his feet on the familiar ground of philosophy, but his younger contemporary Blaise Pascal had more interest in the "subject." Pascal, who said, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing," is often claimed as a forefather of existentialism.

I'm not ready to write about existentialism yet--although I delight in the great "Christian existentialists" (Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky), I could never force myself to take existentialism itself seriously before Frame and Poythress showed me how. So let me jump to something that I actually believe in--quantum physics.

In the weird world of quantum physics, what we think of as "reality" is arguably less real than the observing self. Twenty-first century scientists believe the laws of physics govern time, space, matter, and energy, but this does not result in a single predictable world. Instead, physical realisty and natural law produce a "wavefunction of the universe" which includes all possible worlds. The "actual world" that you and I observe is a collapsed subset of that wavefunction. Most quantum physicists say the act of observation causes the wavefunction of possibility to collapse into any one actuality.

Who is this Observer? Does the subject matter? And should I master existentialism or quantum physics to find out?

I feel like Odysseus, sailing between Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other.

But if Truth lies on the other side, I must sail on...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Law and Logos

Perpectivalism opens up new ways of seeing everything. The fact/value distinction that used to irritate me now invites me to see more than I did before. As I meditate on the "is" and "ought" of things, the Word looms larger in my mind. (By "Word," I mean the "ought" of things, the Logos, the norm, the law.)

Imagine our universe without the Logos--take the laws of physics away from space, time, matter, and energy. The result is a blind, biblical Chaos, "without form and void." Chaos is not nothing--that is a pure and perfect zero, the elegance of an empty set. Chaos is indescribably different from nothing--but there are no words for a world without the Word.

But then, as any biblical inerrantist or physics geek knows:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Is, Ought, Am

I went to worship yesterday morning pondering three perspectives. It was a mind-expanding experience! The hymns and sermon exploded with "is" and "ought" and "am." My brain raced to keep up with all the implications of each verb.

I caught one transcendent glimpse of something I never beheld before. Our text was Ephesians 4:22-24, which tells us to
put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Here's what I saw as I considered this from three perspectives.
  • Is: my old self belongs to my old life, but there is a new self created after the likeness of God.
  • Ought: that old way of life is corrupt and those desires are deceitful, but there is a new way of life that is righteous and holy.
  • Am: I am new-made, I am recreated, I am my Father's child, my Savior's love, the Spirit's home!
It was the third thought that took me off my guard and swept me off my feet. My mind is so trained to think about what is and what ought to be that the good news of who I am in Christ startled and delighted me.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Am, Is, Be

Perspectivalism provides a live alternative to the three dead ends of modern ethics. John M. Frame explains how perspectivalism can operate as a "metaethics" that unites teleology, deontology, and existential ethics.

I first grasped the concept of perspectivalism as it applied to ethics, which seems to be a natural starting point for people who have struggled with the frustrating state of that discipline these days. Frame says:
Although I published my epistemology before my ethics, I developed the threefold scheme in ethics before applying it to epistemology. Ethics is its natural home, and I think the ethical applications of it are more easily understood than the applications to epistemological theory.
Here's Frame on the three schools of modern secular ethical theory:
1. Existential Ethics: Existential ethics is the view that ethics is essentially a matter of human inwardness, a matter of character and motive....

2. Teleological Ethics: ...The teleologist sets forth one relatively simple, objective goal for ethics which, he thinks, no human being can legitimately question. That goal is usually called “happiness” or “pleasure”...

3. Deontological Ethics: The third tendency is toward “deontological ethics,” or an ethic of duty.

Frame calls these different "perspectives," and labels them "self, world, and law." It seems to me that each of these perspectives has its own grammar--"I am," "it is," "you be!" To stretch the grammatical observation just a bit, one might even argue that each has its own grammatical mood: interrogative, indicative, and imperative.

It is easy to draw the analogy between the indicative mood, physical reality, and teleological ethics. Each is about "facts, "about what "is." It isn't hard to see the correlation between the imperative mood, the "logos," and deontological ethics. Each is about "values," what "ought to be."

Having got this far, symmetry begs us to explore the possible relationship between the interrogative mood, subjectivity, and existential ethics. In the interrogative mood, I ask "Am I?" instead of asserting "I am" (in the indicative) or commanding "Be!" (in the imperative).

There's something about that question--"Am I?"--that hints at depths to come.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What is Perspectivalism?

What Is Perspectivalism?

"Perspectivalism" is a post-modern way of thinking about thinking that has been articulated by Vern Poythress and John M. Frame. Frame's brief Primer on Perspectivalism outlines the method.

Frame starts by observing that every (human) act of knowing takes place from some limited perspective. Recognizing this makes us more humble about the extent our own knowledge and more eager to increase it.

One way to increase our knowledge and our level of certainty is by supplementing our own perspectives with those of others. When our own resources fail us, we can consult friends, authorities, books, etc. We can travel to other places, visit people of other cultures. Even to get a good understanding of a tree, we need to walk around it, look at it from many angles.

It often happens that someone’s idea will seem ridiculous when we first encounter it; but when we try to understand where that person is coming from, what considerations have led him to his idea, then our evaluation of it changes. In such a case, we are trying to see the issue from his perspective, and that perspective enriches our own.

Perspectivalism Is Not Relativism

Perspectivalism seems safer than absolutism and wiser than relativism. Friedrich Nietzsche captured the core of relativism in The Will to Power:
There are many sorts of eyes. The sphinx too has eyes; consequently, there are many sorts of "truths," and consequently there is no truth. (Will to Power, section 540)
Perspectivalism does not confuse the blind stone eyes of the sphinx with the many sorts of eyes that really see.

Perspectivalism Is Not Absolutism

Perspectivalism is not absolutism because it does not confuse any (finite) individual's ideas with "Truth." This is not to say that Frame and Poythress deny the existence of absolute truth--they are both theology professors (Poythress is at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Frame is at Reformed Theological Seminary near Orlando). Perspectivalism distinguishes between the finite perspective of any created being with space and time, and the ultimate perspective of the Creator of space and time.

The Power of Perspectivalism

This humble but hopeful theory of knowledge could be a breakthrough in epistemology (which seems to have fallen on hard times recently). It could also provide a "grand unified theory" of ethics, by fusing deontology, teleology, and existential ethcs.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Every Good and Perfect Gift

James tells us:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
But Paul says:
To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
The gift may be "good" and "perfect," but I am not. The Father may not change, but I do. How can a bad man get any good out of anything?

Objectively, the gift are good. Subjectively, I am bad. This would be the end of the story, but for the normative word of God, which reconciles the two:
"What God has made clean, do not call common."
God's imperative presents me with a choice--I can be impure, unbelieving, and disobedient, or I can step into His universe full of good gifts.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Come on now, little man...

My pen name here is "Anselm's Apprentice." St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, had the kind of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated passion that I'm looking for.

Anselm had a passion to know God. He said:
Come on now little man, get away from your worldly occupations for a while, escape from your tumultuous thoughts. Lay aside your burdensome cares and put off your laborious exertions. Give yourself over to God for a little while, and rest for a while in Him. Enter into the cell of your mind, shut out everything except God and whatever helps you to seek Him once the door is shut. Speak now, my heart, and say to God, "I seek your face; your face, Lord, I seek."
Anselm's imagination took him past anything the Church had come up with in the ten centuries before him. He asked why God became a man and helped form the substitutionary theory of the Atonement (a foundation of Catholic and Protestant thinking ever since). He is best known for his "ontological proof of the existence of God," which depends expressly on "what can be imagined."

My passion is "imagination"--but is it the kind of God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated imagination Anselm had?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Don't Waste Your Life

John Piper says that tragedy is when an couple retires to sail their 30 foot sloop, play softball, and collect shells on the beach. That's a tragedy because they have wasted their life. In Don't Waste Your Life, Piper begs us to seek better things.
Whatever you do, find the God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated passion of your life, and find your way to say it and live for it and die for it. And you will make a difference that lasts. You will not waste your life.
I know what I am passionate about. Since I was thirteen, I have been actively probing the edges of what humans can know--doing my first science project on relativity, taking nuclear physics in high school, diving into philosophy in college. I can't say that it has been a God-centered or Christ-exalting or Bible-saturated passion--much of it has been driven by my human cravings. I want people to be impressed at my knowledge or intelligence.

I know now that I felt rejected and self-pity tempted me to seek and show off knowledge. My heart said, "Someday they will see that I was right!" It took me a long time to realize how misguided that conviction was--there is a Day coming when every eye will see Jesus.

Any God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated passion will triumph on that Day.