A Teleological Thesis

On its face, my thesis consists of exploring Kierkegaard’s models of epistemology and determining whether it would be a helpful model to appropriate in the present. I think it’s worth it for many reasons, especially because, as I’ve said previously, “Many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.”

The deeper reason I’m focusing on Kierkegaard is because he’s helping me do what I mentioned in my recent post on teleological blogging. In other words, for something to be worth our time and energy and focus, we need to be able effectively answer two questions about that thing:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

My thesis is going to be a long-winded, academic treatment of the issue of religious epistemology, or what we can know about what we believe ethico-religiously. The questions I’ll end up asking (and attempting to answer) are (1) What is religious knowledge? and (2) What is religious knowledge for? I find the model of applying these two questions to a problem helpful, because it forces me to parse down the categories further, and helps me to think analytically and historically. For example, I cannot answer question 1 without first answering the question “What is knowledge?” in general. And then further, how do we justify the claim that we “know” something? What can we know with absolute certainty, and we can we only know approximately? And are those things that we “know” even knowable in those ways? Are there other types of knowledge (knowing “that” something is true vs. knowing “how” to do something)? How do we determine which things we say we “know” belong in which categories?

This is how my thesis gets built. Keep asking the questions until I get to a point of clarity. I cannot honestly say whether I’m even in complete agreement with Kierkegaard. He offers what I think is an extremely useful model through his Johannes Climacus literature, and I hope that it helps me to clarify my own thinking. But even more than that, I hope that it helps me to live my life in a truer way than I did before, and that he serves as a guide for living a more faithful, Christian life.

God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of René Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.

Subjective Knowledge is the Only Knowledge That Matters

The main point of my thesis work this year is to address the realm of “religious knowledge” — whether such a realm of knowledge is legitimately understood as knowledge, and if it is, what is required of us if we say we “know” something religiously.

This is where Kierkegaard’s understanding of types of knowledge is helpful. He doesn’t explicate any kind of explicit system for “kinds of knowledge,” but M.G. Piety, in her book Ways of Knowing, teases out some of the implications of Kierkegaard’s writings (especially Concluding Unscientific PostcriptPhilosophical Crumbs, and his Journals and Papers). To paraphrase Piety, there are two distinct fields of knowledge in Kierkegaard’s thought: objective and subjective.

Those fields break down even further. Objective knowledge has two distinct categories. The first of which (and most people agree on this) is “strict” — that is, anything absolutely provable mathematically or logically. The second form of objective knowledge is “loose” — that is, knowledge about the natural world or history. This second category is inherently a little fuzzier, even though it is still considered objective. We can know things about history and nature with relative confidence, even if we hold that knowledge loosely (and we should, considering that new, objective evidence could show that our previous conclusion was false).

I find the field of subjective knowledge extremely helpful for talking about religion and moral action. For Kierkegaard (via Piety) subjective knowledge also has two distinct categories: “proper” and “pseudo.” Proper subjective knowledge requires the combination of action and understanding. This means whatever ethical or religious norms that have been revealed to us must be enacted in our lives in order for us to consider those religious or ethical norms properly subjective. (And it’s important to note here that this is an entirely different use of subjectivity than we often use today. Kiekegaard [through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus], when he writes a phrase like “Subjectivity is truth,” doesn’t mean that truth is whatever you want it to mean. It’s closer to say that he thinks religious or ethical truth must be embodied and internalized if it can properly be said to be “truth.”) Psuedo subjective knowledge, then, is abstracted knowledge of ethical or religious truths. In other words, it’s kind of like armchair theologizing — taking great pleasure in knowing about and discussing theology, but not appropriating that theology within one’s existence.

And this is the reason I love Kierkegaard — he’s not really a philosopher or someone that’s interested in abstract system-building. What he’s interested in is making us more honest with ourselves.

Kierkegaard on Disengagement

Kierkegaard, despite many claims to the contrary, was not an irrationalist. He did not think that one can believe whatever one wants to believe, and his famous claim that ‘subjectivity is truth’ was never meant to convey that truth is simply relative. In fact, Kierkegaard clearly indicates in both Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript that objective knowledge (in certain areas) is entirely attainable. In particular, he references the spheres of mathematics and logic, where absolute (ideal) knowledge can be attained. He also affirms at least approximate knowledge in the case of empirical observation and, to some extent, historical knowledge where evidence is available.

When Kierkegaard claims that subjectivity is truth, his main goal seems to be to claim that objective knowledge in the ethico-religious sphere is impossible. But this is not necessarily because ethical or religious truths are not objectively (in themselves, without reference to anything else) true. Rather, those kinds of truth can only be known subjectively. Human beings cannot know those truths objectively because knowing those truths objectively requires a disengagedabstracted stance. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible for humans to hold such a stance while also living in the truth of the ethico-religious claim. Let’s take an example from SK (through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) directly:

If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 179-180)

This understandably makes contemporary Christians squeamish, because most of us have been taught that our faith is built around having a right, true, objective conception of God. We must objectively know that the God we worship is the true God, otherwise our worship is meaningless. This stance fundamentally misses at least a few points. First, can our conception of God ever be accurate? We may find some way of approximating something about God, but in the long history of human attempts at understanding God, the best we can come up with is that God is infinite (a relatively meaningless concept in everyday life), God is love, etc. If we were required to objectively know the God we are attempting to worship for our worship to be valid, wouldn’t all of our worship necessarily be invalid?

Second, Kierkegaard is not denying the objective existence of God (or anything else for that matter). He specifically mentions in the passage above that the one living in Christendom has a “true conception of God.” His project, at least through the Climacus writings, were an attempt at making hard distinctions within the spheres of human knowledge. There are things that are knowable by humans objectively, but there is also a hard limit on what can be knowable that way. When we attempt to know ethical or religious truth objectively (i.e., cross the knowledge boundary), we make a category error. Further, humans do not have the ability of holding on to knowledge objectively without being dispassionate and disengaged, and this is exactly the wrong stance within ethical and religious truth. Therefore, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny objective truth directly, but the function of holding on to knowledge objectively. Function and existential application were his primary concern.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.

Knowing in Ways That We Cannot Articulate

We tend to think that we can only know things if we are able to express them in language. E.g., if I can articulate that the word “square” refers to the shape with four equal sides and each corner of those sides meets at a 90º angle, then I have “knowledge” of that fact. But aren’t there ways of knowing that are inexpressible by or through language? By that I mean, aren’t there things that I know to be true that (even if I cannot empirically verify this fact) I am incapable of saying with words: the feeling I know I’ll feel when I see my hometown again, or the particular melody of a song, or the difference between the way the air feels in summer and winter.

So, then, if language does not comprise our ability to “know” something, what does? Perhaps in some cases it functions that way, but in other ways, language is not only inadequate, but incapable of capturing the various ways in which we know things. And this is probably because language, despite what we have been taught, does not function solely as a representative or referential system — it can do that (poorly, in many cases), but that is not how we use language. Language, instead, is functional, contingent on the context in which we are using it.

Thus, our attempts at objective philosophizing about reality, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, are doomed to failure. We can only do so with language, and language doesn’t do that really well. It cannot name concepts in with pure, one-to-one accuracy. And if that’s the case, then knowledge that we have articulated via language is necessarily contingent — in other words, our knowledge is relative to something (a community, a tradition, a social context).

Working Thesis

The thesis that I’ll be working on in the spring, I hope, will consider and argue for a singular idea (and this may not be its final form, but this is what I keep kicking around in my head):

When humans evaluate empirical data and rational arguments to make a religious commitment, they are only capable of doing so from a foundation of pre-formed desire (for what they believe is “good” or “true”), which is in turn shaped by experience and habit.

In other words, we are incapable of evaluating reason or evidence objectively, especially as it relates to reason or evidence about religious claims. The evaluation of such information is determined by what we believe is good or beautiful or true about the world. Theologically, I think this might mean that, in order for us to make a decision to become a Christian, something internal must be changed before we are capable of evaluating any information presented about Christian claims and affirm those claims on the basis of the arguments with which we are presented.

That internal change that is required to evaluate the information and make that faith decision is formed by a complex web of factors, including social and political contexts, individual experience, and the habits (or cultural/religious liturgies) in which we participate.

I’m going to attempt to prove this idea with a range of philosophical/theological ideas, and I’m hoping to also discuss the implications of the idea as well (i.e., How do we deal with this? How do our current cultural habits and practices [materialism, constant political news consumption, the ubiquity of porn, etc.] shape our lived reality?)

This idea is really intriguing to me. I had already been thinking about it internally for a while, when I was discussing with a friend of mine what my thesis would be about. Initially, I thought I would be doing working on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but I couldn’t nail down exactly what I wanted to write about. During the conversation, we began talking about life and why Kierkegaard is interesting to me, and he suggested that, instead of doing some extended survey on Kierkegaard’s work, I should use the thesis to attempt to prove an idea, specifically this idea.

When I returned to faith, I found that it was not solely arguments for the rationality of faith, nor could any amount of evidence have purely convinced me that Christianity was true. For me, I needed an internal shift, a new way of seeing the world. I was convinced by authors that wrote about the crucifixion as the true standard of beauty in the world, and the notion that there is an underlying goodness at the heart of reality. Those things are not provable, but when I began to internalize those ideas, making a new religious commitment to Christianity again seemed not only plausible, but right.

Other Minds and Generous Commentary

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I’m starting blogging again. One particular reason I can point back to is this post by Alan Jacobs, whose blog I follow semi-regularly. I think all the time about Twitter and attention and how the internet and social media have affected our lives. Re: all of this, Jacobs writes:

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

Anyway, that was actually an aside to my point here. My real point is the following. I was perusing Jacobs’s blog this morning, just because I like the simplicity of his site and way in which he seems to be apathetic to how others may think of him. He allows no comments, for example, and the whole site seems to be geared more toward his keeping track of his own thought life. I’d like to do the same. Sorry – that was another rabbit trail.

I came across another blog of his, called Text Patterns through his normal blog, and one of his more recent posts about Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Two things struck me:

  1. The comment section in this post was incredibly charitable. Radner himself jumped into the comments and he and Jacobs had a back and forth about Jacobs’s inability to understand some of Radner’s writing. Not something you see often. I have generally trained myself not to read comments because they either do not add to the discourse or cause me to lose my faith in humanity. This was a delight to see.
  2. Within the comment section, Jacobs wrote the following in a reply to Radner:

It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

This touches a bit on something I’m planning to write about in the very near future: essentially that we are (at least sometimes) incapable of “genuine mutual understanding” between minds. My work is leading me to the realm of knowledge and faith and how those two things interact with one another. My suspicion is that our desires and emotions and cultural/social contexts form a complex web that we can neither see nor transcend. Further, it is this foundation of desire/emotion/social context that forms our (pre-reflexive) response to propositional claims to truth. In other words, we are incapable of evaluating fact claims – empirical or purely rational –  via objective reason. Our responses to and evaluations of those things are always pre-formed by a more foundational part of our being – desire/emotion/social context. Perhaps it is the same when we try to gain “genuine mutual understanding,” in Jacobs’s words, between two minds.