Over at Mormon Matters they have a podcast of Jim McLachlan and Dan Wotherspoon debating Dennis Potter over the clarity of the Mormon view of God and whether he’s worthy of worship. I’ve not listened to it yet but I’ve known all the involved people and am intrigued with where they take things. I’m downloading the MP3 to listen to at the gym. (The philosophy nerd version)
In the past, my disagreements with Dennis have largely come down to the Continental – Analytic divide in both style and substance. I like to think of myself as straddling that divide but appreciate aspects of both traditions. Of late I’ve preferred people make Continental points with more analytical clarity and analysis. That is I’ve pretty well become annoyed at excessive style in Continental Philosophy. However I also appreciate that the Continental style is significantly related to its substance. If many of the phenomena and “concepts” we discuss in philosophy are unfinished and perhaps slightly off should we discuss in terms of what is present to our minds or in terms of what will be their final state.
To give an example of that consider the free will debate. The structure the debate has taken in analytic philosophy is to make clear the meaning of the words in the question of whether free will and determinism are compatible. Philosophers do this by considering boundary cases to flesh out their intuitions and thus the meaning of the sentence “are free will and determinism compatible?” Once they have done the concept analysis and paid close attention to language and intuitions they can have clear definitions that make the question easy to answer. For most the result is some form of libertarian free will being the meaning of free will. Of course it isn’t compatible with determinism. (Different philosophers will disagree about which to pick as actual, although I think most tend to reject libertarian free will even if they think that or something close to it is the meaning of free will)
A hypothetical continental rejoinder1 might be to ask what would happen if physics comes up with some proof of backwards causality or a substantial space-time. That is, assume physics shows that there are truths about the future now. That would invalidate the existence of libertarian free will. However would people stop talking about being free or having free will? Almost certainly not. Most of our intuitions would still demand it. We’d continue to act as if we were free. Given a few centuries the intuitions of arm chair philosophers would change and the meaning of the words would change. Then we could do the same concept analysis as now yet have very different senses for the terms and thereby a different debate.
Now, the question goes, which sense of “free will” and “determinism” is right? Should we talk about our current understanding?2 Or should we actually be talking of this sense in the future as we grapple with more and more knowledge of the physical world? Perhaps if we are doing philosophy we should recognize that our definitions apply to situations and judgments we’ve not yet made. Our philosophical arguments should take that into consideration. So when we speak we can’t speak of a finished clearly definite definition. Rather we have to speak in terms of what is absent from our definition. But we can’t know in advance how our definitions will change.
This is nonsense to many analytic philosophers since it seems to enable words to become anything. If they can become anything then they are so open that our philosophy must mean nothing. There’s some danger to that and less skilled students often fall prey to what some call word mysticism. That is they manipulate words without really understanding what they mean. It’s pretty easy to see that in the excesses of postmodernism in the 80′s and 90′s — especially among many literature and anthropology students. However technically many of the key figures are doing phenomenology. That is there is always an experience in play that limits what the words mean and do. This ends up being, I’d argue, a kind of back door empiricism that is similar to analytic philosopher’s musings about their intuitions yet importantly different.
I won’t get into the minutae of how phenomenology avoids the problem of intuitions being malleable yet having a kind of universality to them. Especially since most of the interesting philosophers to me see it arising out of a kind of stress and open to change. So to them the issue is how we just can’t know yet can still draw out interesting implications. We can debate whether they are correct or not. But that ends up being a deep and big topic. Basically you start with Husserl and look at his critics in Heidegger, Derrida, and others. With Husserl there’s still a lot of overlap with analytic philosophy I think even if there are some big differences. With Heidegger and more significantly Derrida the criticisms change how we think about all this.
How does this relate to Dennis? In a certain way I can’t know yet because I’ve not yet listened to the discussion.3 What I think Dennis wants to say though is that we can only worship God to the degree we know him. Now in a certain way that’s a very Mormon thing to say.4 After all Joseph approved5 in the early catechism for members we had the following:
Let us here observe, that three things are necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, the idea that he actually exists. Secondly, a correct idea of his character, perfections, and attributes. Thirdly, an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to his will. For without an acquaintance with these three important facts, the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive; but with this understanding it can become perfect and fruitful, abounding in righteousness, unto the praise and glory of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Lectures on Faith, 3:2-5)
What I think Dennis wants to say is that to exercise faith and worship God requires a correct understanding of his attributes. Within Mormonism his attributes are too vague. Therefore according to Mormonism’s own self-understanding we can’t exercise faith in order to worship God.
My counter argument is that while we don’t know everything about God we are coming to know him. So our faith is limited to a few key things we do understand. But those understandings are by appeal to common experience — not definitions. So when we say God has a body we may not know all that is entailed in that. However we know it’s something like ours. That common phenomena of living in a body enables us to know God is like us and that knowledge enables us to exercise faith.
The contrast6 might be to traditional Christian explication about God in terms of clearly defined characteristics such as “greatest being.” That is in terms of the traditional Almighty of Greek philosophical formulations. The problem is that we really don’t have experience with such things. Indeed this becomes a key part of the mysticism in the paganism of late antiquity and taken up in various guises by Christian figures like Anselm. Anselm’s own “a greater than which can not be conceived” is easy to definite and analyze but rather hard to understand in terms of experience. That is what appears to give clear understanding instead (to my eyes) leads us to it’s opposite. Which is why the key document of God’s nature in traditional Christianity, The Nicene Creed, seems so hard to really analyze when you get right down to it. (See for example Richard Cartwright’s famous article, “On the Logical Problem of the Trinity.”)
Dennis might agree the Nicene formulation is problematic but that doesn’t say much positive about the inherent vagueness of Mormon theology of God. My reply would be that the key difference is that Mormonism sees an understanding of God fundamentally in terms of direct encounters with God rather than in terms of texts and definitions. A person may have difficulty using clear language to express an experience well. That doesn’t mean they only have knowledge about the experience to the degree they can speak well. Which, really, when you get to the root of things is the fundamental issue. Is knowledge as knowledge really about clear definitions and speaking? I’d argue it’s pretty problematic to say they are.
Don’t believe me? Think about how you’d explain how you love your spouse. I bet you end up with vagueness, metaphors, and the like. Or for an even better classic example, describe salt to someone without the ability to experience the taste of salt. At a certain point words fail and it’s all about experience.
- So far as I know most continental figures simply see the debate as silly and pointless and would be deeply skeptical but I’m attempting to explain why they probably see it that way. I don’t think any have actually engaged the debate. ↩
- Which, many might argue, often as not we create by making up new narratives we have to judge. Our society’s intuitions, which we inherited, were never prepared to make those judgments. The narratives are largely outside of the types of judgments making up our intuitions. Or so many might say. ↩
- Hey, hey — see what I did? Yeah, there’s a bit of demonstrative moment here. ↩
- Dennis was actually for a long time a Mormon and was actually in many of my philosophy classes at BYU. ↩
- I say approved because it’s clear he didn’t write it all. Most appears written by Sidney Rigdon. Second Joseph’s ideas in some areas changed as the Church evolved and new revelations were given by Joseph. ↩
- Which Dennis may subscribe to now — I honestly don’t know his current religious beliefs. Some might say I ought not speak of them whereas I think there’s some value in speaking the unknown. ↩