A bit of a break from the discussion of agency. I'm still thinking through a few of the neoPlatonic/Heideggarian issues. So don't think I'm abandoning that discussion. Far from it.
I came upon an interesting discussion about art, literature, Christianity and postmodernism over at First Things. It is primarily a review of Paul Fiddes' The Promised End and George Steiner's Grammars of Creation. The latter book investigates whether "we have no more beginnings." An interesting discussion for a world where few but the fundamentalists truly believe in a coming new world or Messiah. Even the postmodern "religion" that we find in those following Derrida have a Messiah who is endlessly differed. A beginning without beginning. The hope without fulfillment. The discussion is actually somewhat relevant to our thought of the past few days. Especially our discussion of Levinson and his analysis of the place of creation in thought. The place of beginnings, as it were.
Anyway, I found the article rather interesting and some of you may as well. I should hasten to add that I fundamentally disagree with a lot of the comments in the essay. In particular I think they get Derrida completely wrong, taking him as a mere relativist. As I've discussed here before, I think Derrida is far more of a realist in the old medieval mold than many are willing to admit.
On a fairly unrelated note, there is a fairly good paper on "The Metaphysics of Emergence." Not that much original, but a fairly good overview of many of the issues. We've discussed emergence here quite a bit and will probably get into it more in the future. Once again all the topics of late are related in various ways, although it'll probably be a while before I tie all the lose ends together. (Both here and in my own mind -- as I've said: this blog is as much to force me to coalesce my own thoughts as anything else)
I want to get back to the discussion of the sphere of agency, but it may be a few days. In the meantime many of you may wish to check out a fascinating discussion over at Times and Seasons regarding Game Theory and the Fall of Adam. The discussion arises from an article in an online philosophy of religion journal called Ars Disputandi. I'd never heard of this journal before but it looks quite interesting, including an article on pragmatic realism and religion. That discussion is more in the context of Putnam, who has famously written on the topic of realism. His book Realism with a Human Face is a great introduction to his views.
I should add that some would seriously disagree with Putnam's assertion that he is a realist. Of course that may be due to the difference between pragmatic conceptions of realism, introduced by Peirce but found in diverse thinkers such as Einstein, from more traditional realist projects. Putnam considers his version of realism to be "internal realism" to distinguish it from some of the other forms. The main difference between internal realism and what is often called metaphysical realism is the idea that entities are completely independent from our mind. Clearly this has as much to do with Kant as anyone since it suggests that the universe is causally independent of our thinking but not conceptually independent. (I suspect those with stronger neoPlatonic strains would deny the causal independence as well) There's an interesting book review which goes through some of the issues - although I confess I've not read the book reviewed. But the review actually ties together some of the things I was discussing from last month regarding Davidson and others.
I should add that Putnam's notion of internal realism can be problematic to Mormons. The article on religious pragmatism, for instance, suggests that religious knowledge isn't possible. In both the Continental and pragmatic approaches to religion one finds God pushed far off. The critique, as is also the case with reformed epistemologists, tends to simply reject evidence based knowledge as significant to rational belief. Mormons, on the other hand, don't merely assert rational belief, but knowledge of God and religious claims. So while these approaches are interesting, I'm not convinced that they are that useful for Mormon theologians.
I've wanted to get into epistemological issues for quite some time. I've touched on them but haven't really gone into any depth. I should add that while I've read a lot on epistemology, it has tended to not be something I've focused on as much as I probably should have. My epistemological positions tend to be based upon pragmatism and a kind of common-sense realism. Of course I like to think I'm a little more sophisticated than say Reid.
A good generalization of epistemology is that all the basic theories fall into three camps, more or less. We have the basic approaches of coherentism, foundationalism, and reliabilism.
Coherentism is basically the idea that a coherent and consistent system of beliefs produces justification. i.e. a belief is justified by its role in a coherent system. I think Donald Davidson's refinements of Quine's views tends to fall into the coherentism camp. Several of the neo-Kantian philosophers end up adopting variations of coherentism as well. Kuhn would probably fit in there, for example, as might several others.
Foundationalism is the idea that there are foundational beliefs which we know for sure out of which all justification is built. Descartes is the classic foundationalist, although Hume and many other empiricists are also foundationalists, with sense-data being their foundational beliefs.
Reliabilism is the position that a belief is justified if there is either a reliable process or something equivalent that produces the belief. It is often called externalism because knowledge is determined not just by what is internal to ones mind but by some external connection to truth. (Not all externalists are reliabilists though - but we're doing first order approximations here for explanatory purposes) So if you engage in some process resulting in a belief and the belief is usually true, then we can assume that some future use of the process results in a true belief.
Now as I said, these are just sort of vague positions. Actual philosophers tend to be a little more sophisticated when they argue these positions. And many hold positions that don't fit completely in any one category. But by and large this is a good way to think about epistemology. I should urge one further point. Knowledge need not be certainty. That is, one can be justified in a belief that turns out to be false. I think most of the most interesting positions are held by philosophers who adopt a strong position of fallibilism. In particular the pragmatists usually hold to a strong fallibilist doctrine.
Of course all of this is old hat to the philosophers who are reading this. But I wanted to clarify these positions for those who don't have a strong background in philosophy.
Now then, the question arises concerning Mormon epistemology. Specifically Mormons claim to know "spiritual" truths independent of normal processes of verification. (i.e. empirical agreement by communities) I bring this up because many critics of Mormonism adopt the following argument. Two people have religious experiences. (The process) Yet their beliefs from these experiences are contradictory. Therefore religious experiences can't produce knowledge. I've heard these in various guises in various discussions with critics. I'd note one point in connection to these arguments. They assume some kind of reliabilism as the position for LDS epistemology. I don't think they are wrong in this, although some apologists have resorted to other positions. Notably some FARMS articles have adopted various sorts of coherentism as a response to critics over evidence related to Mormonism. I'm not sure this is wise. I think the critics are right in how they perceive our way of knowing.
Unfortunately no one has really written much on Mormon epistemology. So there really isn't much of a textual corpus from which to really build up a discussion of the issues. It also makes it difficult to critics who typically attempt to utilize Mormon materialism and our emphasis on experiences to place us in some form of natural epistemology. (i.e. limit what can be known to what is typically knowable by science - which then excludes all our revelation) I think there is a middle ground.
I will address the details in some future posts. But I wanted an introduction to orient the discussion. I'll just say a few things in response to the typical critic attack that just because two religious experience result in different beliefs it doesn't follow that the two experiences are the same. To draw an analogy, two people might solve math problems with one constantly getting it wrong and the other constantly getting it right. Just because both have mathematical experiences does not imply that we can't distinguish the experiences. (Or, in other words, put them in narrower categories) This response is basically the criticism that our processes of knowing can be vague. If the process results in inconsistent beliefs it may be that we need to narrow down our categories of process. i.e. move from a vague notion of categories to a more defined set of notions. For instance we distinguish our senses of hearing and sight so that if, in one circumstance, one fails the other may be reliable. I believe that in connection to religious knowing this move from vagueness to a more defined process is key. I believe that most attacks on religious knowledge from an externalist perspective fail to do this. (Which has led, unfortunately, to treating all religious knowledge in internalist terms or to even have religious people assume religious knowledge is impossible)
Anyway, I hope to make this a future topic. My apologies for the somewhat rambling presentation. But I wanted everyone to be able to get up to speed on the topic.
Just a reminder that tomorrow (Friday the 19th) is the SMPT conference with lots of interesting topics. I'm unfortunately not going to be able to attend, although I will try and hit the panel on postmodernism at 11:00.
Well it is now Friday evening and it looks like I'm not going to be able to make it. Just so everyone knows the conference continues over tomorrow. My apologies to everyone. I'd really liked to have contributed to the panel on postmodernism and Mormonism. I'm curious to see if some of the problems of the focus of postmodern philosophy relative to Mormon focuses was brought up. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think most postmodern theology still is focused on the ultimate ousia of God as the Trinity. Perhaps that ousia is reconceived as non-presence. But it seems that the fundamental discourse has not really changed. Since Mormonism radicalizes the notion of God so much, I suspect that while we have a lot in common with certain forms of postmodernism that it can't offer that much theologically in terms of our conception of God.
I'd be there tomorrow but I'm in the process of installing a lawn so I'm not going to be able to attend. Hopefully some of the papers get put online or published.
I noticed that Open Theism appeared to be a big topic at the conference. I confess that Open Theism is interesting but to me not as significant a topic as many others. For those not familiar with it (and too lazy to click on the link above) Open Theism is basically a reconception of God, often among Evangelicals, in which omniscience is conceived of as not including all knowledge. Clearly this is the typical Mormon view, Bruce R. McConkie's theology not withstanding. Of course as Bruce R. McConkie's acceptance of a more traditional conception of omniscience shows, the view is hardly consistent among Mormons.
Well, I missed the conference for a variety of reasons. I'm a little bummed as I was rather excited about at least the Friday morning session. Unfortunately it was Friday morning... C'est la vie. Perils of being part owner of a small business and having a customer always comes first attitude.
Just a few things I didn't get to write up over the weekend.
There was an interesting paper I found this weekend that I haven't decided whether I agree with or not. It is basically trying to reconcile he idea of philosophical naturalism with platonism. Naturalism is basically the idea that the only entities that exist are those required by science. A lot of people argue that naturalism is opposed to the very notion of the supernatural. However Mormons, with our strong materialism, really adopt a kind of naturalism. (At least in most formulations) The point one must keep in mind is that what entities are required by the sciences is a moving target. For instance if the superstring theorists ever get their theory out of the speculative theoretical physics stage then we'll suddenly have a new entity in naturalism: tiny 10 dimensional vibrating quantum strings. Naturalism is often attacked, especially by people attacking evolution or even science in general. But as I said, I don't think Mormons really have any reason to do this. Most espoused Mormon theologies, even among literalists, tend to adopt a kind of naturalism.
The paper I discovered (sorry for that tangent - but not all readers are philosophers) is called "Naturalized Platonism vs. Platonized Naturalism." Basically the issue involves whether certain abstract entities from mathematics are required for science. Those who think they do and are "real" in some sense adopt something like Naturalized Platonism. Of course mathematical platonism is still very controversial. I think a lot of mathematicians at least subconsciously tend to that position. I think very few philosophers of mathematical foundations do. The traditional approaches against it are logicism which attempts to reduce all of mathematics to logic and constructivism which more or less attempts to reduce mathematics to a language game. There are a few others, such as pragmatism. However I think pragmatism ends up adopting a kind of Naturalized Platonism even if they don't always admit it.
What the author of this article calls Platonized Naturalism is similar, and the difference tends to be related to causality. Basically if you admit abstract entities but don't necessarily think they interact causally then the author feels you are adopting a more traditional platonism. It's a tad more complex than that. Knowing a bit of history for the notion of cause in philosophy is probably helpful for seeing the issue. I've touched upon that issue in the past. For reasons I won't go into now, I think it an important issue.
How can this be relevant? Well, ignoring the issue of mathematics and physics and why the universe is so surprisingly mathematical, there are other reasons to want abstract entities. If one believes that "good" is something mind independent in some significant way, but isn't a utilitarian, then I think believing in real notions of "good" can be quite helpful. I think that one certainly could read the Book of Mormon in this fashion. Of course I know that all the philosophers far more versed in ethical philosophy than I will be uncomfortable with such a thought. But I think that if Mormons put God within the universe and reject creation ex nihilo that treating the good as something independent of God makes a lot of sense. When I get to analyzing Pratt I'll argue that this notion is in his philosophy as well.
Jim Faulconer has written a little bit about foreknowledge over at Times and Seasons. The most important part of the way of thinking about time is to consider time as a kind of music performance. That's an old neoPlatonic concept that ends up being important for a variety of reasons. It also is, I think, one of the ways to look at the use of rhythm in the Book of Mormon. (i.e. the old repeating cycle of righteousness, prosperity, wickedness, repentence that your seminar teacher drove into you)
Jim includes a link to some excellent notes he's made on the subject. I heartily recommend them. He sent me some early versions of them a few years back and it really revolutionized how I thought about the scriptures, the atonement, and a lot else. Probably it was the one paper that revolutionized my thought more than any other. For those interested in more of the same, I'd recommend some of Paul Ricouer's writings, especially Time and Narrative.