Archive for the ‘Epistemology’ Category

Article on Humility

March 15, 2019

Article on Humility


St. Augustine said that pride was the first sin; in his book Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre identifies this identification of pride as the deadly sin and humility as the cardinal virtue as distinguishing characteristics of the Augustinian moral tradition.

Much later, Kierkegaard made humility a central concept in his epistemology and ethics also.

Later still, Diogenes Allen identified humility as the cardinal virtue, and again linked its epistemic and ethical aspects.

Sadly, we don’t live in an era where humility is treated with respect.  Instead, as Harry Frankfurt points out, we live in an era of bullshit, where arrogance is admired and the greatest, most respected leaders and pundits are the ones who neither lie nor speak truth, but who simply make noise, without regard or often even knowledge of whether what they say is true or false, simply to get noticed and have influence:  the very apotheosis of arrogance.

In his article, “Vices of the Mind,” Quassim Cassam offers his reaction to the book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.  In this work author Thomas E. Ricks discusses the planning (and lack thereof) of the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration.  Repeatedly the political leaders were advised by career military officers with experience and expertise that hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary to establish order once the Ba’athist regime was overthrown; but not only was this advice ignored, the generals who dared speak truth to power were belittled and undermined by Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz in particular. Having had successful political careers, they were self-assured to the point of arrogance; and lacking the relevant military knowledge, they were incapable of raising any questions themselves.  Ricks concludes that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowiz were “‘arrogant’, ‘impervious to evidence’, and ‘unable to deal with mistakes’.”

For Cassam, what this points to is the dangerousness of intellectual vices.  These four men in particular combined power with pride. Their career success proved to them that they knew more than the experts, and didn’t need to listen to anyone else.  They were simply so smart in their own eyes that they didn’t feel any need to check their own assumptions.  When the generals who were experts proved right, their political bosses couldn’t process the clear evidence and change course quickly enough.  The vices of these individuals led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the misery of millions, creating two failed nation-states and a terrorist caliphate that makes us long for the days when Ba’athism and al Qaeda were the worst we had to worry about.

This article is a powerful example of why philosophy matters.  The supposedly dusty and obscure writings of Aristotle on vice and epistemology, and the esoteric research of psychologists like Dunning and Kruger, explain one of the greatest foreign policy blunders of our nation and the one that took the promising end of the 20th Century and turned it into the clusterfuck of Republican administrations in the 21st:  an international economic collapse we are still recovering from, increasing environmental disasters that continue to surprise everyone except those who paid attention to “An Inconvenient Truth,” humanitarian nightmares in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and elsewhere, international terrorism by white nationalists, all while the government of the most powerful nation on the planet fixates on whether late-night comedy and Twitter parody sites should be censored.  The common thread is that in all these cases, expertise and ethics are rejected, while unfounded confidence and will-to-power are allowed to run unchecked, causing chaos and decay while demanding veneration.  Intellectual humility is treated as uncertainty and weakness, because we have long since ceased teaching our children and future leaders to recognize virtue and vice.  We need to learn to embrace the intellectual virtues that will allow us collectively to recognize and value truth, for without it we cannot hope to find successful solutions to the many dangers we face.


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII

Why Epistemology Matters

November 6, 2017

These days, it seems everyone should study philosophy.  Consider this article.  It discusses the social and political implications of the victory of relativism.  Humans run this planet because we are better able to organize ourselves than can any other species; and we are losing that ability.  Our ability to lie so effectively that even the liars are suckered is outrunning not only our ability to sift out the truth, but even our interest in doing so.

Sixteen years ago, I began to reevaluate my own appraisal of my chosen profession.  I have a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology, which was an interdisciplinary program combining Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Before that I earned a M.Div. with a concentration in Philosophy, and before that a B.A. in Philosophy with enough Religion courses to qualify for a double major if I’d wanted to.  I’ve been working the seam between Philosophy and Religion for longer than many of my students have been alive.  Arguably, I’ve been doing it since I read Walden when I was fourteen years old.  I always thought it was important for someone to do it.  I could see that most of the people around me were unhappy with the lives they were living, or were living lives that others had lived already and found unsatisfying, so the rest maybe just weren’t unhappy yet.  But I also thought, as almost everyone around me said, that philosophy was too hard and strange for most people, so it would be up to the few of us to sort this out and then teach it to others.  Just as hardly anyone really understands calculus, but our modern world couldn’t exist without it, I thought some small subgroup of academics were all that were necessary to philosophize for the rest.  And furthermore, I figured that if most people ignored us, that would be okay too; they’d muddle along, we’d try to influence things around the edges by teaching a few future politicians and legal scholars a little morality before they set out shaping the world.

In 2001, I realized how dangerous that had become.  Everyone thought the “important” things to study in school were the things that could make you rich:  business, accounting, engineering, law and medicine, maybe sports and a few others.  Philosophy, religion, humanities, history—- who needs them?  But no one is flying planes into buildings because of a disagreement over the Pythagorean Theorem or the relative merits of whole-life vs. term-life insurance or even over how to fight cancer.  They are committing acts of mass murder because they have given up on the possibility of rationally defending their own world-view.  They have given up on logic and observation leading us to a shared sense of reality, within which we could solve problems that affect us all.  They have given up on trying to understand people who disagree with them or who have different values, who love and fear different things.  The religious fundamentalist isn’t dangerous because he is religious, any more than the atheist is dangerous because she isn’t.  What is dangerous is the person who resorts to force to impose his or her standards on another, or on a group, without understanding their views.  Such a person generally hasn’t even understood his or her own views.   “Those who know only one religion know none,”  said Max Müller, and it is true:  to understand anything, you have to have some sort of comparison.  To understand your own beliefs, you have to briefly step outside them and look at them from another angle; that’s what analysis and reflection are.  So the fundamentalist usually, probably always has a truncated view of his or her own faith, whether it’s the religious fanatic or the Communist fanatic or the racist or some other ideology.  They don’t understand others or even themselves, but they’ll fight and maybe kill to defend their mistakes from any real and imagined threats.

Through 2015, I mostly believed that greater understanding could lead, if not to consensus, at least to mutual tolerance and agreement on rules of engagement.  That was the motivation behind this book.  In 2002, the economy of the nation was sliding towards recession, and there was a debate how to respond.  One side said that the best way to stimulate and repair the economy after the 2008 crash was to increase aid to the poor, such as food stamps.  That would undoubtedly have worked, since poor people spend what they get right away—they have to, they’re poor, they have debts and bills and mouths to feed.  Rich people don’t need more money, by definition, so when they get more money they are less likely to immediately stimulate the economy by spending it.  They might invest it in new businesses, but more likely they’ll squirrel it away in tax havens—-they already have thriving businesses, remember: they’re rich.  Middle-class people will save a little, pay down debts, maybe finally open that small business they’ve always wanted to.  So, practically speaking, according to the vast majority of economists, Bush should have pushed for a one-time bonus to the food stamp program, together with a modest but noticeable rebate in taxes for the poor and middle classes, leaving the rich alone.  But this suggestion was met with seeming moral outrage.  How could you punish the hard-working middle class by rewarding poor people?  (The implication was that if they’re poor, they don’t work hard enough; anyone who thinks that has never done real manual labor.)  How could you punish the rich for working hard and being smart?  (The implication here is that everyone who is rich must have worked hard and be really smart; I’ve met too many rich people to believe that.)  So I set out, in this book, to examine how we came to have such different moral judgements about how we share the profits of our joint economic activities as a nation.  My hope was that if people could see that the other side was not evil or lazy, but just had different moral and practical assumptions, maybe some sort of conversation would be possible.

What I’ve seen since that book was published is nothing short of epistemological genocide, a wholesale annihilation of truth.  Cardinal Ratzinger once complained about a “dictatorship of relativism,” but today we have something perhaps even worse:  sheer anarchy.  We live in the epistemological version of a Hobbesian state of nature, with war of each truth against all others, and the life of every truth is nasty, brutish and short.  Perhaps once there was a dictatorship, imposing mutual tolerance and a cease-fire at the expense of rejecting the possibility that any truth could be real; but in these days there is no king and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes (Judges 21:25).  And like that Biblical story of anarchy, rape and murder, the epistemological breakdown leads to political chaos and moral collapse that starts to make a Hobbesian totalitarianism seem almost preferable, or at least acceptable.  Hence, in 2016, the yearning for a “strong man” who would impose his view of reality on everyone else and give us order.(1)    But historically, dictatorships never end well for the dictated to.  Hobbesian monarchism gave way to Lockean representative democracy, because politically speaking a participatory government that depends on mutual discussion and mutual agreement to at least fight according to non-lethal political means rather than guns is more stable than a totalitarianism that leaves dissenters no option but violence.

Democracy dies when the majority choose to opt out; the society becomes an oligarchy, a ruling elite of actual voters and those who serve them dominating the nonparticipants.  Something similar happens in the realm of epistemology.  When the majority decide it is too hard to figure out what is true or false, they allow others to dictate reality.  Once you’ve handed your eyes over to someone else who tells you where to look and what to see, and handed your brain over to others who tell you what to think and your heart over to others who tell you what to feel, you are a slave, no matter how badass you feel because your masters tell you you’re tough and strong and better than those others.  And that is why epistemology matters, for everyone, and why every single individual citizen needs to learn some philosophy.  We need to learn enough to not just accept, but understand this:

  1.  Truth exists.  Some things are real
  2. Truth matters.
  3. Truth is hard to find but it’s worth the effort.
  4. You will never have all the truth; it’s too big for one person to see all at once.  But you can at least see the side that’s facing you.
  5. Everyone can, with effort and discussion, figure out more truth, by hearing from people who have other perspectives.
  6. When you don’t know, sometimes it’s okay to withhold judgement.
  7. When you can’t wait for certainty, you may have to choose without being certain.  If you’ve headed out on the wrong direction, though, you can still realize this and turn around.
  8. It takes humility to admit when you might be wrong.  It takes courage to stand your ground when you might be right.  Therefore, you need to be both brave and humble to find any truth in this life.

I think everything else—-Aristotle vs. Plato, Locke vs. Descartes, and all the other epistemological and ethical debates of philosophers through the ages—-are less important than these few, simple principles.  And maybe this list is not complete (I’d be breaking my own list if I insisted it was).  If you have some others, or think any of these is wrong, let’s discuss it like reasonable people.  But the important point, which I will not yield, is this:  You may not know much about Plato or Aristotle or Kant, and get by just fine; but you need to know something like these principles here to function as a citizen, or even as a rational being.  Otherwise, you’re liable to end up cowering in your basement waiting for the mythical hordes of antifa marauders or Mexican rapists or zombies or whatever that someone has invented to keep you terrified—-and submissive. (more…)

Is this Real Life? Is it Just Fantasy?

April 6, 2016

Recently a serious panel discussion debated whether or not the reality we experience is, in fact, just a hologram, a computer simulation.  I haven’t posted anything in awhile, so I thought I’d like to jump in.  I won’t swim out into the deep waters, just wade around a bit.

This isn’t actually a new idea at all.  One standard variation that comes up often in Introduction to Philosophy classes was put forward by Bishop George Berkeley in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous between 1710 and 1713 (full text here).  Bishop Berkeley was an Anglican cleric, and also heavily influenced by the English empiricist John Locke.  Locke and Descartes are often treated as co-fathers of the Enlightenment, with Descartes the founder of Rationalism and Locke the founder of Empiricism.  Descartes had famously argued, “I think, therefore I am.”  All the sense information we have is potentially mistaken, so we have to discard it; since the only thing I am certain of is my own existence, I must start there, and try to logically deduce knowledge of the rest of existence.  Descartes claimed to be able to do this because there were certain innate ideas, inborn in his mind; most importantly, he claimed innate possession of the concept of God, a concept that could not have come from his senses and which must be real.  Locke argued that this is impossible.  Locke asserted that the mind is like a blank piece of paper.  Experience writes on that paper.  Until experience provides us with some words, the paper is and remains blank; once we have some words, we can rearrange them imaginatively in new combinations.  Thus for Locke, all knowledge originates in the senses.  Everything we know is known either through the senses, or by abstraction and recombination from the senses.  For example, I know the color white because I have seen it; if I had been blind from birth the concept “color” would not exist for me.  I can imagine a white even whiter than any I have seen in real life.  I can imagine a white object, like a white lawn, even though I have never seen white grass, by combining my memories of lawns and whiteness.

One problem with Locke’s original philosophy, though, is that it is so experiential, but also strives for common sense.  We “know” that some events cause other events, that there is a material substance that we don’t experience that underlies the qualities we do experience (we say, “That flower changed color” as if there were something besides the color we see, some unseen reality, a “matter” underlying the “accidents”), and that the material substance can affect our minds and vice versa (my material body is supposedly directed by my mind and somehow can make “me” feel pain or hunger or joy).  Locke does not adequately explain how this can be, and for that matter, neither does Descartes.

Berkeley’s solution is as elegant as it is apparently insane:  there is no material world.  There are only minds:  God, and all the other minds God created.  God sends sensations to those other minds directly.  I see my glowing white computer screen with black letters because God is sending me those visual sensations, just as God is sending me the physical sensations of touch through what I perceive to be my fingers while I type.  As I tell my students, Berkeley really thought we were in the Matrix, with one essential difference; if we were disconnected from God, there would be nothing physical remaining, not even our bodies.

Once one gets past the initial shock, this theory actually makes some sense.  First, as a bishop, Berkeley accepts Christian teaching that the universe exists every instant solely because God sustains it.  In his philosophy, that is quite literally true; if God ever stopped sending out these sensations to the other minds, they would have no world.  They would not even perceive each other.  The only world that exists is the world that God projects to each mind individually; the only connection they have to one another is the connection through God, as God sends you the sensation of me saying these words.  As an empirical metaphysician, Berkeley is able to answer most of the difficult questions Locke chose to ignore, like how we could know that “substance” exists when we never perceive it and our only source of knowledge is perception.  For Berkeley, “to be is to be perceived;” what is not perceived literally does not exist.  This is the source of that famous philosophical riddle, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?  For Berkeley, there is no tree and no sound unless someone hears it.  If it exists in God’s mind, then God perceives it and it is real; but as far as we know, it has no existence at all when we are not around to witness it.  God may shut down those parts of the Matrix until someone’s thoughts wander into that part of the program.

The existential/pragmatic question is, what difference would this make?  The fact is, Berkeley says, this literally is the only reality there is.  It is not “real” in the sense you thought it was, but it is the only game in town; if you want to play, you have to play this hand.  Reality still operates under the same physical and moral laws you always thought it did; there is just a different reason why.  This raises another question:  if we still live our lives the same whether we believe in a material universe or not, is there even a meaningful sense in which we can adopt either Berkeleyan or holographic idealism?  Wittgenstein raised the question, suppose someone believed that thieves broke into his house every night, and stole everything he had and replaced everything with exact replicas.  How would he live his life any differently than someone who believed that the objects he left in his house in the morning were the same as those he found when he returned at night?  If in fact this “belief” had no difference, then it is hard to say he even has a belief at all; perhaps the notion is literally nonsense.  If the holographic idealism theory is anything other than nonsense, then, it has to suggest some sort of difference in our lives.  Perhaps it could inspire us to try to contact the programmers we believe set up the computer simulation we live in, or otherwise try to verify this theory.  In the absence of some way to to this, without some Morpheus to lead us to the “real world,” we have no choice but to keep swallowing the blue pill.

Notes on “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues”

March 3, 2016

Cochran, Elizabeth Andrew.  “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues:  a Response to Monika Hellwig.”  Theology Today Volume 65 (2008), pp.  81-94

  1. Looks at the idea that Christians should explore how a consideration of the cardinal virtues can help the church to understand and articulate its public witness.”
  2. If the virtues are, as Aristotle says, rooted in an understanding of human nature independent of faith, this would give the church a natural common ground with moral thinkers outside the Christian faith.
  3. By contrast, Augustine is committed to the idea that we only understand the virtues by seeing them expressed in Christ.
  4. God is the Good, so any goodness must approximate God
  5. The virtues are those character traits that help us to lead a more faithful life, since a life spent in imitation of God is a “good life.”
  6. We know what God is like by looking at Christ, so a life lived in imitation of Christ is a life spent in pursuit of the good. We have no knowledge of what God is like, and thus no idea of how to live, apart from this revelation.
  7. So to fulfill our human nature, we cannot simply look at human nature from various angles and conclude that the virtues are those habits that fulfill our human needs; our knowledge gathered in this Aristotelian manner would be only an examination of fallen human nature by corrupted human reason. Instead, we must look to Christ; living the virtues as revealed in his life will fulfill our own lives.
  8. Aristotle is committed to the idea that the virtues are interconnected, but not simply one. Augustine believes the virtues are ultimately one thing, and thus vice is ultimately one thing.
  9. Humility is seen in God’s Incarnation; God humbled Himself in becoming a human being for our sakes.
  10. Humility is seen in the life of Jesus as a humble person who submits entirely to God

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13



This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 3)

October 22, 2012

First, we see that James dedicates his Pragmatism to J. S. Mill, so it would seem he leans towards the empiricist position.  He writes that the difference between the empiricist and the rationalist is that, “’empiricist’ meaning your lover of facts in all their crude variety, ‘rationalist’ meaning your devotee to abstract and eternal principles.”[1]  He then defines the pragmatic approach as “THE ATTITUDE OF LOOKING AWAY FROM FIRST THINGS, PRINCIPLES, ‘CATEGORIES,’ SUPPOSED NECESSITIES; AND OF LOOKING TOWARDS LAST THINGS, FRUITS, CONSEQUENCES, FACTS.”  This would seem to make pragmatism either synonymous for “empiricism,” or at most a variation of it.  However, James offers his theory as not just one form of empiricism to oppose rationalism, but as a mediating position between the two.  How can this be?

The first six of James’ eight lectures seem to tilt far to the empiricist side.  He agrees that knowledge starts with the senses and that the rationalist impulse for “absolute unity” or “monism” can be understood as an aspirational horizon at most, but not an established truth.  Instead, he defends the pluralistic “truths” of empiricism over the absolute and universal “truth” of rationalism.  He writes:


Pragmatism, pending the final empirical ascertainment of just what the balance of union and disunion among things may be, must obviously range herself upon the pluralistic side. Some day, she admits, even total union, with one knower, one origin, and a universe consolidated in every conceivable way, may turn out to be the most acceptable of all hypotheses. Meanwhile the opposite hypothesis, of a world imperfectly unified still, and perhaps always to remain so, must be sincerely entertained. This latter hypothesis is pluralism’s doctrine. Since absolute monism forbids its being even considered seriously, branding it as irrational from the start, it is clear that pragmatism must turn its back on absolute monism, and follow pluralism’s more empirical path.  This leaves us with the common-sense world, in which we find things partly joined and partly disjoined. [2]



So pragmatism follows “pluralism’s more empirical path.”  It is inductive, a posteriori, drawing from human experience rather than deducing from a priori principles as the rationalist does; the rationalist’s claim that logically everything is One must yield to the experience of reality as at least partly disunited.  For the empiricist, generally (since general inductive truths are the only truths for empiricists, they would be the only ones true about empiricists too), “truth” means “reflects factual reality.”  A true statement is one that corresponds to the state of the world.  James identifies this with the “common sense,” “popular” and “dictionary” understanding of truth:  “Truth, as any dictionary will tell you, is a property of certain of our ideas. It means their ‘agreement,’ as falsity means their disagreement, with ‘reality.’ “[3]  James writes that pragmatism has several problems with this definition.  For one, what if there is no precise “object” to be copied?  Perhaps, for example, you have only an imperfect understanding of your object.  I say “there is a clock on the wall,” without knowing how the thing looks on the inside; it looks like a clock and tracks the time and that is enough for me.  Also, some words and statements refer to abstract concepts.  In that case, what exactly is being copied by our knowledge?  How do we judge whether they are “true”?  James gives this answer:


Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”



To the empiricist and the rationalist alike, says James, “When you’ve got your true idea of anything, there’s an end of the matter.”  You pursue truth in order to know it; once you know it, you’re done.  Pragmatism is intentional.  Truth must be relevant to a particular situation.  It must be useful.  While intellectualists claim there is a “categorical imperative” to pursue truth, James writes:


A truth must always be preferred to a falsehood when both relate to the situation; but when neither does, truth is as little of a duty as falsehood. If you ask me what o’clock it is and I tell you that I live at 95 Irving Street, my answer may indeed be true, but you don’t see why it is my duty to give it. A false address would be as much to the purpose.


So James cannot wholeheartedly adopt the copy-theory of truth.  He begins with experience, but he does not end with it.  As James puts it, “…all our theories are INSTRUMENTAL, are mental modes of ADAPTATION to reality, rather than revelations or gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.”[5]  All knowledge begins with some person or persons encountering reality and trying to achieve some purpose.  We invent categories and rules to help us better handle reality.  By “we,” I mean some particular person or persons initially makes some discovery that treating reality in a particular way will be particularly useful.  If that way is indeed useful, it spreads among humanity and through time.  Eventually, this truth-claim becomes so universally accepted that it seems as if everyone has always believed it.  At that point, we label it “common sense.”  And as long as these categories serve us to solve the problems we face, we do not challenge them.  When a new, novel fact comes along that does threaten to undermine our store of established categories and rules, we attempt to assimilate it into our established understanding with as little alteration to the rest of our beliefs as possible.  My new belief must not only be useful; it must also be consistent with my other beliefs. My other beliefs have their own benefits; to give them up would be to lose the benefits of those beliefs.  Therefore, my new beliefs must be reconcilable with old beliefs.   As he writes, “In other words, the greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths. Truths have once for all this desperate instinct of self-preservation and of desire to extinguish whatever contradicts them.”[6]   It is a pragmatic version of the coherence theory of truth.  To the rationalist like Descartes, there were certain truths that were indubitable; other truth claims have to be derivable from or at least consistent with those bedrock truths. To the pragmatist, there are no utterly fixed, immutable truths; every truth is tested for its “cash value,” and those that have real use are adopted.  But according to James, those truths must not only be useful; they must also learn to live together.  Thus, the new truths I accept will be as compatible as possible with the old truths that still serve me well and which I hold dear.  They must be coherent, perhaps requiring some adjustment but not wholesale jettisoning of the body of truth by which I live my life.

To be continued….

[1] William James, Pragmatism:  A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking; 1907; The Project Gutenberg,   accessed 10/1/12; lecture 1, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy.”


[2] Pragmatism, lecture IV, “The One and the Many.”

[3] Pragmatism, lecture VI, “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth.”

[4] Pragmatism, lecture VI

[5] Pragmatism, lecture V, “Pragmatism and Common Sense.”

[6] Pragmatism, Lecture II, “What Pragmatism Means.”

Epistemology, Anxiety, Faith, Sin (pt. 2)

November 20, 2011

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  As far as knowledge of the world goes, I would start without wasting much time on theories like the Cartesian evil genius or The Matrix, if only because they are largely non-starters.  Evolutionary theory says that we have the senses we do because they work; they allow us to find food and mates, to avoid predators and other threats, and in general tell us about the world.  They don’t have to be perfect to do this job; in fact, we know many creatures that have superior senses.  The classic arguments of skeptical philosophers, like the stick that looks bent in water, are not really problems at all as far as pragmatic, survival-value knowledge of the world goes.  We are material, our senses evolved as part of the material world to know the material world, and in a sense it isn’t really a separation between subject and object here since the material world is reacting physically to the material world.

(The creationist could even admit some of this; after all, Adam was created from the earth, so again Adam and the world are substantially similar and the physical senses are part of the physical world.)

While some philosophers have worried about the problems of knowledge of the physical, the real problems seem to stem from knowledge of the metaphysical.  Even if, as Plato said, we can’t know the physical world because it’s always changing, we can know it well enough.  But what about the principles on which we depend for our scientific activity, or just our reasoning?  What about causality, or object permanence?  Hume said that these are abstractions from our sense data and hence are imperfect.  Therefore, we should only assume them as far as we need to.  Kant wanted certainty, and therefore concluded that the laws of nature were like the laws of logic:  principles that are necessary for our thinking of the world.  Because we (or any rational finite being) must perceive reality in this way, the laws of nature are just as universal as the laws of logic.  Hamann said that if knowledge is that, then it is empty; for it to be knowledge of the actual physical world it has to come from outside us.  But he would go on to say that if we let it, the world will disclose itself to us; so the principles of causality and so on are in fact true of the world as it is.  (At least, I think Hamann would say this; he is considered the most obscure writer in the German language, and that is saying a lot!  Even Kant found Hamann a hard read.)

What can we know, then, about the world, besides what we immediately experience?  On the surface, the pragmatic tests would seem to be pretty good.  If I can make predictions based on my assumptions that this action will cause that reaction, that my test tube won’t disappear when I turn my back and so on, then principles of causality, object permanence and so on seem to be born out.  True, they are creations of our mind, above and beyond the immediate sensations; but our minds are largely our brains, and our brains are also physical objects which evolved/were created to understand and react to the world, so it is reasonable to conclude that we wouldn’t have these concepts if there weren’t something in the world that made the suitable impact on us.  Eyes exist because there is light and physical objects that make something like eyes useful ways to perceive them.  Brains exist because the world does in fact follow rational patterns that can be discerned, rational principles that can be inferred and which will prove useful and effective.  But Hume is right about one thing:  this cannot be the same sort of certainty that we see in logic or math.  Just as our physical sensations, perceptions and conclusions from these can be mistaken, so too our metaphysical reasoning can be mistaken.  At some point, we have to simply accept that the evidence is good enough.

That may be the problem with so much scientific debate these days, and where the second phase of an epistemology needs to begin:  Aside from the inexactness and limitations of our finite senses and finite minds, what other sources of error exist?  And, given our limitations and any other sources of error, what can we do to avoid or correct error?

To be continued…..