Monday, February 22, 2016

My Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian Worldview

There are answers if you know where to look for them Faith in Christ Lives JOIN the Faith in Jesus Network My Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian Worldview
by Steven Yates, Ph.D.
[Author’s note: an earlier version of this material first appeared on my personal blog at I have reworded a sufficient number of passages and added enough material to make this a stand-alone essay, however.]
I am an outsider who for various reasons ranging from personal blunders (such as taking his advanced degree from a crap doctoral program in an unranked university) to circumstances beyond his control (affirmative action) never found a tenure-track job in academia. I've since embraced my status as an outsider and gone into self-imposed exile living in a foreign country fairly well away from the avalanche of stupidity that has largely consumed the U.S. over intervening years. Being an outsider isn't necessarily bad! One sees things the insiders miss! And if one chooses to continue thinking, one does one's own, and draws appropriate conclusions. One of mine is that the most salient fact about academia in our time is the dubiousness of nearly everything of import that comes out of it. This calls for a separate and far longer essay. In accordance with this stance, however, I’ve been increasingly inclined over the years to make up my own mind about matters of philosophical theology, and of faith. I am unimpressed by the tenured faculty member (or devotee of such) who wears his atheism as a badge of honor, unless he can show that he or she has actually read a few lines of the New Testament — or has an explanation for those curious events many of us have experienced that don’t quite add up given the materialist view of the universe, or can account for our actual lives as moral agents with a moral philosophy that can be sustained under truly rigorous criticism. All of which sets the stage for our topic today.
These days I think of myself as a Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian. What does that mean, and how does it differ from some kind of fundamentalism? Does it speak to moral philosophy? In this piece I will be primarily concerned with the first: what a phrase like Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian drives to articulate.
I’ve long maintained that Western civilization is the scene of a long “cold war” between two worldviews. I wrote a slim book about this back in 2004 (published in 2005). Its title was Worldviews: Christian Theism versus Modern Materialism. The title tells all. One worldview is that of Christianity. The other is materialism, or materialistic naturalism. There are other worldviews in the world, of course (example: Islam), but they are not major players in Western civilization, at least not yet. And there are variations on both Christianity and materialism. There are the many Christian denominations, leading to arguments over how you identify a person as a Christian. And there is Marxist materialism, which differs quite a bit from the varieties of materialism found in the so-called capitalist world, including that of the academic capitalism of the neoliberal university.
I am more interested in what these have in common than where they differ. What all forms of Christianity have in common is the existence and centrality of the Christian God, and the believer’s fealty to His dictates, including how Christian salvation occurs (we are born in sin; Jesus Christ offers salvation to sinners; we do not save ourselves through works — Ephesians 2: 8 – 9). Prior to these matters for the Christian philosopher, however, is a question far more basic: can God’s existence be proven? Should attempts to prove His existence be made? These are two of the most longstanding debates in philosophical theology. The upshot of over 2,000 years of conversation is: probably not. The three most widely studied arguments for God’s existence of interest to philosophers, the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, all face well-known and daunting criticisms. But where do we go from here? is the really interesting question. We can, of course, simply become atheists. But atheism does not follow logically from the failures of the arguments. How about agnosticism? Agnosticism might seem to be on safer ground epistemologically, but not existentially. Sooner or later, you must choose: belief or unbelief? You must commit to one or the other. And be willing to accept the consequences. To choose agnosticism is to become an operational atheist, one who lives life under the assumption that God does not exist. One may deem the whole matter irrelevant to practical affairs in the Secular City. To refuse to talk about it and live a life under the assumption that belief in God has no part to play in it is again to commit to God’s nonexistence. Are there grounds for belief, absent a decisive argument for God’s existence? Is an argument for the existence of a Being such as God even a good idea? This was our second question above. An argument is possible that attempts to prove God’s existence with logic, e.g., to ground the necessity of a Prime Mover on Logos, is not a good idea, and that such efforts really are a misuse of whatever rational faculties we have, however understood.
From the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) we obtain the idea that the human mind is structured to operate in a world of three dimensions plus time. He developed this idea in great detail in Critique of Pure Reason. To make this as easy as possible and hopefully without oversimplifying too much, Kant had the idea that the world of experience is a kind of construction of consciousness, via forms of intuition (space, time) and categories of the understanding. Reality apart from the constituting human consciousness is an unknowable Ding-an-Sich (thing-in-itself). What Kant had realized (among other things) was that traditional philosophy in the hands of both the rationalists of his homeland and the British empiricists had come essentially to a dead end. The latter in particular assumed that we begin with neutral experience (“impressions,” Hume called the units of experience with which we begin). Kant launched what he called a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy by introducing the idea that instead of our concepts or categories conforming to putatively neutral experience, our experience conforms to a priori categories of the understanding. The human mind, that is, is an active shaper of the world of experience, not a passive recipient of it!
To make this more accessible, all we need to say is that we cannot step outside our humanness, to see what reality looks like from a totally neutral vantage point, outside the structure our cognition, or conscious intellects, bring to experience. We cannot cease being human. As the saying goes, we do not have a “God’s eye point of view.” If God exists, only He has a “God’s eye” perspective outside of three-dimensional space plus time. Subtract the theistic element here, and we have what has been a common theme of much philosophy since the collapse of logical positivism, explaining the increasing importance assigned to such matters as historicity, culture-centeredness, and so on. For if it is true that we cannot cease being human, nor can we cease being members of particular cultures, or divorce ourselves from their histories. How to construe these apparently genuine limits on our cognition remains a problem, because if they are pursued too far in the extreme, they lead to various forms of self-stultifying relativism and subjectivism, the postmodern trap into which most of the humanities world has fallen over the past half-century.
A realist, non-constructionist version of Kant’s ideas is possible that would enable us to avoid a variety of problems. It would hold that the objects of our our world of experience, physical nature, that is, is real insofar as it goes, as indicated by our ability to act effectively in it, learn how its parts (e.g., physical objects and processes) work, and manipulate them to meet our needs (technology, or technique). The objects of experience, that is, are real, but our experience is only of certain elements of them. I have a visual experience of the table my computer is sitting on as I type this, that is, but not of the atoms and molecules which comprise the table, and given the limitation of my visual perception resulting from the way my eye, optic nerve, and visual center in my brain is put together, this is to be expected. Physical nature extends well beyond the senses, in other words, and this is the testimony of modern theoretical physics.
Physical nature, in this case, hardly needs to exhausts reality (the difference between materialism and all other worldviews). Theoretical physics appears to support this idea as well. Theoretical physics is based on higher mathematics, not experience; higher mathematics is, in turn, based on necessity. It is not arbitrary, even if we can find many cultures that make no use of it. The mathematics of, e.g., superstring theory, appears to require higher dimensions: nine, according to one count (the number may have increased). The details are unimportant for our purposes. All that is required is that we have a realist ontology about mathematical entities, as it is unclear what an alternative ontology (nominalism?) would amount to. There are then two kinds of realist ontology: the Platonist one and the Christian one. The Platonist one leaves mathematical entities as inexplicable primaries. The Christian one supposes that God is the Ultimate Mathematician! We find ourselves with a transcendental Christian realism vastly different from the world we experience. Empiricism, on the other hand, makes both our knowledge of and the utility of, mathematics, ultimately as mysterious as Platonism.
The most advanced modern science is at variance with the requirements of materialism but compatible with Christianity. Note carefully: compatibility is a logical relation. Two propositions are compatible if both can be true in the same possible universe. Physical science may not prove or even offer direct evidence for the existence of a deity, or set out to do so. It, like experience, begins with the assumption of a physical universe of three spatial dimensions plus time, at least until reasons appeared for questioning that assumption. Its presuppositions that this universe is both ordered (not chaotic) and that its order is comprehensible to the human mind, are suggestive. For are these presuppositions true? What does it mean to ask this?
All of which brings us to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Some historians of ideas label Kierkegaard’s philosophy “Christian existentialism.” He himself had no label for it, and would have rejected such labels with contempt. And he would have been suspicious of the above presuppositions, which are just too easy — thrown into doubt by what we would today call “black swan” events: inherently unpredictable and destructive of our comforting mental edifices. Kierkegaard emphasized that God’s existence is impossible to prove. He singled out the design argument, popular in his day, and still popular now among many Christian theists, who use the term Intelligent Design (ID) even though the items of evidence ID theory relies on do not entail that the Designer must be the Christian God. The point Kierkegaard made: perceived disruptions in the design would cause the perceiver to throw out the whole of Christianity if this is its basis (cf. Philosophical Fragments, ch. 3), given the absence of logical entailment from ID to Christianity’s God. An agnostic friend once reasoned to me, “There’s no proof.” It dawned on me that day: that’s true, and it’s the key! Christianity is based on faith, on a Kierkegaardian “leap” (his term), and cannot be based on anything else.
Lest the materialist rise up in a gesture of triumph and declare that we Christians have just given away the game, because materialism is based on reason / evidence, we must note immediately: no other worldview can be based on anything else. Materialist arguments do not work, i.e., are not compelling unless the materialist presupposition is introduced at the start and maintained throughout the argument. The presupposition, too, rests on a “leap.” Materialist naturalism seems to me refuted by recent findings of theoretical physics, the many experiences we have that do not align with it (mostly now subsumed under the phrase the hard problem of consciousness), as well as careful attention to what goes on with language and our understanding of it (is the grasping and understanding of a word or phrase a material process?). I know that materialists reading this will complain that I either haven't understood, or have misrepresented, materialism. It is a common ploy by defenders of a very basic idea to state that the critics do not understand it. Moreover, it is always possible to reinterpret experience so as to fit the favored point of view, usually by ignoring or discounting those elements that “don’t fit.” The point I would make here is, materialism is not a finding of any science. Nor does any scientific theory entail it, not even the ones on which there is largescale consensus, like Darwinian evolution. Those who believe otherwise, all they have to do is lay out the logic leading from specific findings of these sciences to the general thesis that materialism is a true account of reality. I submit that this cannot be done. Materialism is, if anything, a presupposition of a certain way of looking at physical reality alone through science. Empirical science, therefore, has not refuted Christianity, nor could it do so. Much modern philosophy of science begins by having science on an epistemic pedestal except for a few writers such as Paul Feyerabend (1924 - 1994): positivism and its immediate descendants. Remove it from this pedestal, and this becomes instantly and abundantly clear.
We can say all this before we even get to moral philosophy, or political philosophy, or legal philosophy, with all the practical problems they lead to. I submit: in all three of these areas, if our goal is to base our conclusions on reason instead of obedience to secular authority, materialism leaves us at sea. You can see this by googling the essay by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), “A Free Man’s Worship,” and reading it carefully. It is a classic statement of the secularist’s stance based on purported findings of modern science … and dilemma. In different ways, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) and the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), had far more dramatic and compelling accounts of the actual consequences of “God [being] dead.”
But this must do for now. Normative matters require a far different discussion than we’ve provided here. I will turn to them in a future post. Just as a teaser: while it is possible to quarrel with Christian ethics, or claim that there are many points where the Christian worldview is unclear, all I can say at this point is, Christian ethics is no worse off than any of the available secular theories, all of which fail miserably if the idea is to establish them with something more than, “This is where I make my stand.” As for legal philosophy, I will invoke the idea of legal positivism: an idea that boils down to the law being what those with enforcement power say it is, no more and no less. Legal positivism stands unnoticed in the background behind social issues ranging from abortion to Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to put her name on marriage certificates for gays, and behind Judge Bunning’s contention that natural law would set a terrible precedent. It would at that, because it would destroy the entire edifice of legal positivism that those who would change existing law wholesale depend on! But … I get ahead of myself. More on a future occasion. Where we will end up … there are propositions worth believing … even if you cannot prove them true! Indeed, we have no choice except to believe a few things we cannot prove: among the upshots of the Kantian “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology is that we are not “wired” to do otherwise! This ought to be compatible enough with all the modern and postmodern tendencies to be of some interest!

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