Towards A Good Samaritan World

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The commend thread inspired more thoughts about epistemology...

Tradition. If one takes the foundationalist view of epistemology-- that certain truths are "foundational," i.e. known a priori or directly from experience, while other true beliefs are discovered by deduction or induction from the foundational ones-- knowledge becomes possible in principle, but in practice the justification-chains from our everyday beliefs back to foundational beliefs are not feasible for an individual to perform. In real life, knowledge is a social phenomenon: we rely on a myriad of sources-- books, newspapers, other people's reports-- in order to form our belief-systems, without undertaking, or being capable of undertaking, a thorough, independent evaluation of the trustworthiness of these sources: implicitly, half-consciously. Self-conscious rationalism, along the lines of Descartes' "doubting everything," adopts a more individualistic epistemology: it insists that we cannot simply believe what we're told, we must test it, confirm or disconfirm it, for ourselves. But this epistemic individualism can only be adopted selectively, because our minds/lifetimes are radically inadequate to the task of proving/justifying even the belief-system that is minimal for sanity. Also, the greatest genius would not be capable of recognizing and culling all the beliefs that he had inherited or absorbed uncritically from others. Every rationalist will display many beliefs that are obvious local/contemporary prejudices from the point of view of those who come after, and no doubt also-- if only they could observe his work-- those who came before. This is not to do say that rationalists have not done us much good; they did so because tradition could react to and/or absorb them, like the grain of sand in an oyster creating a pearl. The rationalist style of exposition of a subject from first principles is an admirable exercise that often enhances knowledge, and even the rationalist ethos has its place; but it should never be applied without a certain irony.

Another reason to respect tradition has to do with the human life-cycle. The perspective of the young is inherently biased, as they know only the early phases of a human life; the perspective of the old a bit better, but they too are biased, since inasmuch as the interests of their young selves went against the interests of their older selves, they are biased in favor of the latter. Moreover, there is in youth a sense of wonder which is a true wisdom, which the old maintain with difficulty. Ideas about how a human life ought to be lived are best dealt with in a forum that includes representatives of the several stages of the life-cycle, and that is what tradition is: it is a conversation among the generations, honed in the course of centuries.

Finally, a respect for a tradition reflects an awareness that for most people, the ratio of the unsaid to the said is a hundred to one; any old tradition probably has more and richer justifications than are likely to be articulated at any given time. If a tradition seems odd or inconvenient, it may indeed be obsolete, or have been a bad idea from the beginning, but it is generally wiser to adhere to the tradition for some time and look for unrecognized reasons behind it, rather than abandoning it immediately.

Revelation. Why would God reveal His word to man directly, rather than letting man figure out the truth for himself? If he does, how would He do it exactly? And why doesn't He do it more often?

I won't try to give a complete answer to those questions, but I think the discussion of "explanation" with respect to physical/scientific and mental/non-scientific observation/knowledge leads into the question of revelation. Basically, revelation is needed because while we can establish agreement through evidence and argument as far as the "public" issues of the natural sciences extend, but when it comes to that which we experience "privately," i.e. in the mind, proof through evidence and argument is hostage to different subjects' willingness and capacity to accept portrayals or characterizations of their private experience, and to the somewhat feeble and unreliable power of words to convey inner experience through empathy and metaphor. The mental life matters more; indeed the physical world in a sense matters not at all, and it is permitted to us to regard it as merely the parchment for us to write our stories on; but about the mental life it is much harder to advance our knowledge. We might simply never figure out enough on our own. A quarrel among natural scientists can be resolved by a clear demonstration of fact, but when the theme pertains to the experiences of the human mind or soul, there is no way to resolve the quarrel, and we will stray down false paths; our work is in vain.

How can revelation help? If we cannot unravel the truth on our own, perhaps we can still recognize it when we hear it. Or, if we cannot recognize it fully, we can hear enough of it to be fascinated, to be invited deeper into contemplation upon it. Our comprehension of a revealed truth can only be limited, but here we can help one another, provided that many individuals' limited comprehension of it persuades them to accept it as the truth. In that case, the believers can assist one another and deepen one another's understanding. And precisely because the truth is entire and perfect this does not lead to a syncretistic muddle like ancient paganism, but instead, to the Church.

So what is this truth, entire and perfect? Not the Bible. The Bible is historically contingent: it is a collection of writings, on holy themes and much of it written by holy people. The authors of it had free will and could have chosen not to write, or to write something different, and other holy writers could have written things that would have been included: if that had occurred, we would have a different Bible but the same Church. The message, the truth entire and perfect, is the Good News, the Gospel.

By this conception, revelation inspires belief because a believer recognizes the truth of revelation, which thenceforth is confirmed by his faculties: it does not imply that the believer should override his faculties in order to be in agreement with the Bible. On the contrary, to do so is to commit the sin of dishonesty, and also to impair one's capacity to understand-- to really read-- the Bible, and the traditions of the Christian faith.

The epistemologies of tradition and revelation are conceptually quite separate, but a certain kind of individualistic rationalism is the enemy of both. The sociality of knowledge, the need for tradition, may be deduced from a commonsense recognition of human cognitive limitations; the revelation of the Gospel cannot. The mental habits of one who has learned to accept tradition-- deference even if only provisional, a willingness to wait for insight about opaque passages rather than rejecting them, an assumption that the texts and rituals have hidden meanings and justifications, a persistence in searching for these-- will equip a person to approach revelation with an appropriate attitude.

But to accept the claims of revelation requires a certain boldness that is at odds with the epistemology of tradition. In this respect, perhaps, the Christian has more in common with the rationalist than with the traditionalist. Or is it that European rationalism's impetuosity, assurance, and optimism-- in contrast to the tentative twilight philosophies of Greco-Roman antiquity-- is an emulation, an echo, of Christianity?


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