Tag: objectivity

Power, Politics, and Faith

I have a running theory that political ideologies are always at odds with the Christian faith. In other words, political ideologies are always attempting to displace loyalty to any other forms of faith. Especially religious faith, and even more especially orthodox Christianity.

But let’s put this more simply by way of practical examples.

Let’s say I’m a moderately liberal Democrat in the US in the 21st century. This might mean that I hold to certain policy positions such as:

  • We should expand healthcare to as may people as possible, especially those in financial need
  • We should implement a carbon tax and other policies that reduce carbon emissions in order to help mitigate climate change
  • We should support a woman’s right to choose an abortion and provide the means by which to obtain an abortion
  • We should provide the opportunity of a quality education (including and up to higher education) to all US residents
  • We should require more oversight of police authorities – especially as it relates to the use of force on US residents – and adequately fund other means of community protection and care (mental health workers, social workers, etc.)

These are just a few examples, but you get the picture. I could have done the same thing for someone who identifies as a libertarian, a moderate Republican, or a democratic socialist.

If we’re trying to see why a political ideology like this or any other is at odds with the Christian faith, we have to ask two questions:

  1. Are these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith? (and a secondary question to this might be – how would we know where these policies stand in relation to orthodoxy? hint: we’d first need to know what is required of us if we call ourselves “Christian”)
  2. What are the means by which these policies be implemented? In other words, is the how we pursue implementing these policies in accordance with, opposed to, or neutral towards the Christian faith?

Question two, I think, may get at my point more deeply than question one. That’s not to say that question one is unimportant. On the contrary, it could be argued that the in history of US politics, the focus has been on some version question one. E.g., what policies should we implement, and do these policies help make a more just and equitable society that supports the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The reason that question two is more important is a Kierkegaardian stance. His concern is less about the content of faith (perhaps because of the time and place in which he lived) and more about the “how” of Christian faith. What is our relation to the things we believe? Do we hold those beliefs abstractly in objectively (in our heads)? Or do we actively and subjectively attempt to live in the implications of our beliefs?

This is why political ideologies are at odds with the Christian faith. There are no political affiliations I know of that do not attempt to implement policies via power. It may be authoritarian power or democratic power, but it is power nonetheless. To implement societal change – new laws or ordinances, abolishing old laws, etc. – power is required.

Not so with Christianity. In fact, I think it is arguable that attempting to follow the way of Jesus is to relinquish the right to use power to effect change. Rather than use power, the Christian way to effect communal (and yes, even societal) change ought to be what humans often think of as weak and foolish. That is: faith, hope, charity, and forgiveness.

Political ideologies, regardless of their content, are always attempting to displace Christian faith and practice. One attempts to change the world via power and policy. The other attempts to change the world via love and forgiveness.

The question is, which one do we have the courage and faith to align our lives with?

Theology as Meaning-Making

My last post ended with this line: “It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.”

Obviously, I don’t think theology is pointless. I love it too much to think that. But aside from what I mentioned before — that theology is at its best when it drive us to action – I’d also like to explore the idea of theology as a meaning-maker in our lives.

I’ll be recording the sermon on the Holy Spirit this week. One of the things I’ll be saying is something along the lines of this: Most of us have a sense that this universe isn’t just a bunch of atoms floating around randomly. Instead, many of us have an intuition that this whole thing means something. The biblical account helps us to see just a little bit under the surface of our lived experience. This isn’t all there is. From the Genesis creation stories to the prophetic literature to the Gospels to Paul’s letters, we’re reminded that there’s maybe something else going on.

In my mind, when we try to evaluate human existence, we have to start somewhere. By that, I mean that if you want to actually believe that life has meaning and purpose, you have to decide whether it can have meaning and purpose. For meaning and purpose to objectively exist (that we’re not just “making it up,” so to speak) the universe cannot be a random ball of material floating on infinitely until its eventual expiration.

In other words, if I affirm that there is nothing “under the surface” of the material universe in which we are experiencing consciousness, then I cannot logically affirm that human existence is inherently meaningful or has an ultimate purpose. There is no good or bad. There is no right or wrong. There is no “better” or “worse.” Everything that is just is. And I have no objective reason to act one way or another.

The corollary to this argument is that for human existence to have meaning and purpose, the material universe cannot be all that exists. Somehow, some way, we need a guarantor of meaning. A foundational, divine, supernatural *something* that makes life meaningful and imbues it with purpose.

So, put simply: Objective meaning cannot exist without the supernatural.

This is not a post claiming what kind of supernaturalism or divinity one ought to believe in if one wants to claim that human life has meaning. Only that meaning requires the supernatural.

And this is where theology comes into play.

If we start with evaluating our lives at the “material” level — i.e., what I can see, hear, smell, taste, touch — we can only get so far. I can eat an apple and know that it tastes sweet. I can jump and understand that I won’t fly into the air. But when I start to think about my very existence, I am left with nothing. When I start to ask the question “Why?” — my senses come up short.

Theology is an attempt to answer that why with a foundation in the supernatural. In Christian theology, if the question is “Why am I here?” the answer is somehow related to the fact that God has breathed life into this universe, and has some expectation about what that life should consist of. If the question is “Why am I in pain?” or “Why am I suffering?” the answer should be related to the fact that something in our experience is broken.

Again, my senses can tell me that I am here. They can tell me that I am in pain. They cannot give me some ultimate answer for why these things are the way they are.

If we want to engage in meaning-making (that has an objective foundation) we all have to engage in some form of theology.

Philosophy in a Crisis

As we’re all slowly coming to grips with the craziness that is COVID-19, one of the things that will likely be on our minds is the question “What really matters?”

Personally, I’ve been thinking through the particular problem of whether the abstract subjects of philosophy and theology have much to offer in a time like this. When there are people being infected by and dying from a new virus, states and countries are locking down and issuing shelter-in-place orders, and people are hoarding supplies like it’s the end of the world, what can an obscure branch of philosophy called epistemology provide us? On first glance, it’s easy to think the answer to that is simply “Nothing.” People are fighting for their lives in hospitals, losing their freedoms, or anxious that our day of reckoning has come. Asking the questions “What is knowledge?” and “How is knowledge possible?” seems a little silly.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

Let’s take the problem of what we know about SARS-CoV2. Now, I can’t personally say that I know all that much. Maybe *slightly* more than the average person, assuming the information sources I have are accurately reporting research, and the research being done is abiding by the appropriate scientific standards. But let’s talk about data for a second. If you’re anything like me, you’re seeing many different datasets, graphs, or other visualizations every day. (I’m starting to limit myself now due to a rising sense of anxiety about my lack of control over the whole situation, but I digress.) The problem with all of this data, simply stated, is two-fold:

  1. Our data collection methods are probably not built to accurately get all the information we’re trying to get. Testing in the United States is only just now ramping up. Which means that all the information we had up to this point was likely TERRIBLY inaccurate. There weren’t only 14,000 COVID-19 cases a couple days ago. That was just confirmed tests, and lots of people who showed the right symptoms were being told to go home and take care of themselves because no tests were available! That’s a problem, because we all think we have some kind of knowledge about reality (the number of cases), but the available data told us almost nothing except that 14,000 people (41,000 as of today) got tested positive. Examining the data further may tell us things like where testing is happening the most, but will tell us almost nothing about what we actually want to know.
  2. “Data” is never just data. For data to be meaningful, it must be interpreted. This is why we have graphs, charts, and whole industries built around data visualization. Because humans are really bad at looking at a million single pieces of information and compiling them together for meaningful analysis. And every time you look at a chart or a graph, you know what’s really happening? You’re looking at that information through the lens of the person + computer that compiled the data. You’re seeing information that has been filtered. You’re seeing charts that have intentionally removed bad pieces of information. And you know how got that data? See #1 above. That data was collected with data collection methods that were inherently flawed somehow.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love looking at data. My favorite math class I ever took was statistics, and in my previous job, I tried to use data frequently to help make better decisions for my team. But we were working with a set of 2000+ students and a relatively small set of variables — most of which had values that had been determined for months or years. When it comes to this pandemic, we are right in the middle of it. Things are changing every day, and we don’t even know all of the right questions to ask yet that will help us see things a little more clearly. We’ll never know how many people were really infected, and we’ll also never know how much our current efforts of social distancing and shutting down the economy were. That’s the nature of the finite human condition.

So again, we might ask, what use is philosophy in a crisis? It’s quite useful — just maybe not in the way we would like it to be. When we ask how we “know” things, it helps us to see through shoddy claims just a tiny bit better. It allows us to think through our own systems for what we accept as verifiable fact, logical claims, warranted claims, and unwarranted assumptions.

This is why Kierkegaard is my philosophical hero. He had a clear, systematized understanding of what constituted objective and subjective knowledge, and why those distinctions were important. Maybe reading long philosophical tomes is boring. But it can help us to learn how to think with clarity, both in a crisis and when things feel “normal.”

Sanctified by Subjectivity

From “Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction” by Maireed Small Staid (I encourage you to read the whole article. It isn’t long, and there are some beautiful thoughts here):

Loneliness is what the internet and social media claim to alleviate, though they often have the opposite effect. Communion can be hard to find, not because we aren’t occupying the same physical space but because we aren’t occupying the same mental plane: we don’t read the same news; we don’t even revel in the same memes. Our phones and computers deliver unto each of us a personalized—or rather, algorithm-realized—distillation of headlines, anecdotes, jokes, and photographs. Even the ads we scroll past are not the same as our neighbor’s: a pair of boots has followed me from site to site for weeks. We call this endless, immaterial material a feed, though there’s little sustenance to be found.

And then, I loved this line from Birkerts, quoted in the piece above:

The book—and my optimism, you may sense, is not unwavering—will be seen as a haven, as a way of going off-line and into a space sanctified by subjectivity.

Sanctified by subjectivity — perhaps, as opposed to marred by objectivity and even objectification. Maybe my growing discomfort with the online world is that it is a space that is built towards understanding the what humans are in objective terms. That is, understanding humans algorithmically and biologically, rather than as subjective creatures. The online world is built around understanding human impulses as computer-like: push the right buttons, show the right images, and you can get a human to do whatever you want them to do. That’s probably true.

Unless we enter into a space that is “sanctified by subjectivity.”

Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

Epigraph

If given the chance, this quote will be attached as an epigraph to my thesis:

One makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine — instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear… And one relates impersonally (objectively to this impersonal thing); and at the peak of a culture of the world, at the head of the cultured public, scholarly research, one asserts defiantly that this is earnestness and culture. If possible, we pityingly put those personal subjective wretches into the corner!

Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination

The Objectification of the Body

Silicon Valley, not content with external devices, has pivoted to the self as its next great frontier. And in order for its vision of your body to take hold, it needs you to speak its language. Dieting is no longer a necessary problem of vanity, as it has been historically termed, but a problem of knowledge and efficiency—a rhetorical shift with broad implications for how people think of themselves. Where bodies might have previously been idealized as personal temples, they’re now just another device to be managed, and one whose use people are expected to master. We’re optimizing our performances instead of watching our figure, biohacking our personal ecosystem instead of eating salads.

“The Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger Language of Dieting”

When I think of Kierkegaard’s distinction between objectivity and subjectivity, I’m most often thinking of knowledge, and how we, as individuals treat those objects of knowledge with which we interact. I wonder, though, if the objective/subjective divide can be applied elsewhere — not only internally, but externally.

Here would be a prime example: the body. The ever-growing tech industry demands that our very selves be quantified, measured in bits, and analyzed for optimization. This was  and is true for Facebook, the ad industry, Amazon, and so on; now it seems to be true for how we think of our very bodies. The human person, body and mind, is simply a complex set of algorithms — code that can be re-written with the right amount of objective understanding.

Maybe Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction can be appropriated here, in defense against the quantification (and thus, the objectification) of our own bodies. [An aside: we often speak of objectification and bodies as if the only way to objectify bodies is “sexually.” Although I am not denying this is a reality, it seems as if the current health trends in tech show that we are moving towards the objectification of our own bodies.] We are not computers. We are not programs. We are whole human beings, with wills and hearts and minds and bodies, more than the sum of our parts. Therefore, instead, maybe we need a subjectification of the body: a being-in and enjoying-of the body.

What is reading for?

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

Joseph Epstein – “The Bookish Life

My struggle with reading is my desire to attain absolute knowledge. I want to be “immensely knowledgeable or clever” and “learned.” The reality is often the opposite when it comes to reading — we rarely fully retain the information we take in. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember a snip from a passage and where it’s located in a book. Reading, instead, is for gaining wisdom, for being formed a certain way. Not so that our objectivity is changed (i.e., our distanced knowledge), but so that our subjectivity is changed. We need the our perception of the world to be shifted, and our actions toward the world and toward others to move in response to what we read.

Know-How and Technology


Reducing knowledge to know-how and doing away with thought leaves us trapped by an impulse to see the world merely as a field of problems to be solved by the application of the proper tool or technique, and this impulse is also compulsive because it cannot abide inaction. We can call this an ideology or we can simply call it a frame of mind, but either way it seems that this is closer to the truth about the mindset of Silicon Valley.

The trouble with this way of seeing the world is that it cannot quite imagine the possibility that some problems are not susceptible to merely technical solutions or, much less, that some problems are best abided. It is also plagued by hubris—often of the worst sort, the hubris of the powerful and well-intentioned—and, consequently, it is incapable of perceiving its own limits.

Zuckerberg’s Blindness and Ours– L.M. Sacasas

I wonder if a connection can be made back to Kierkegaard here on his distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. In CUP, although he is specifically writing about our relationship to Christian existence, he writes:


In a logical system, nothing must be taken on that has a relation to life itself, nothing that is not indifferent to existence. The infinite advantage over all other thinking held by the logical, by being objective, is limited in turn by the fact that, seen subjectively , it is a hypothesis, it is a hypothesis just because it is indifferent to life in the sense of actuality.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 94- Johannes Climacus

Kierkegaard is writing here on the inability of humans to objectify existence, and to subsume existence itself to some logical system that we can somehow control and understand. The Hegelians of his day spent their time on speculative metaphysics, on grasping reality as it really is. The thought was that the building of a speculative system would allow for absolute understanding. I wonder if the same is true of our current techno-modern situation. We cannot fathom a scenario where all knowledge, all problems, all of existence itself could not one day be subsumed under our technological prowess.

That’s why I think we don’t need to get rid of individualism — we just need a better one. We need an individualism that recognizes the necessity of subjective knowledge; one that doesn’t assume that objectivity (of the kind found in our relentless desire for technological solutions to humanity’s problems) is the only valid sphere of knowledge.

Objectivity is Disinterested

In what will be a key passage for my thesis, Kierkegaard writes on the nature of doubt:

Reflection is disinterested. Consciousness, however, is the relation and thereby is interest, a duality that is perfectly and with pregnant double meaning expressed in the word ‘interest’ (interesse [being in between]). Therefore, all disinterested knowledge (mathematics, esthetics, metaphysics) is only the presupposition of doubt. As soon as the interest is canceled, doubt is not conquered but is neutralized, and all such knowledge is simply a retrogression. Thus it would be a misunderstanding for someone to think that doubt can be overcome by so-called objective thinking. Doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness.

This is from Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (which means Everything Is to Be Doubted). This unfinished work of Kierkegaard’s is written in narrative form, and would have been a precursor to his later works written under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. Both of those other works of Kierkegaard’s will function as the backbone of the primary sources I use in my thesis (along with that book on his epistemology by M.G. Piety).

As far as I have found, there is no clearer passage that Kierkegaard wrote which touches on, not only what it means to doubt, but also the actual function of objective and subjective knowledge (he builds his understanding of subjectivity later, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript). This is sort of his first step in that direction, and he makes the case here that we need a subtle shift in how we understand “objective knowledge.”

Doubt, he says, cannot be “conquered” by objective knowledge — rather, doubt is “neutralized.” Why does he parse this out? Because is necessarily an interested stance toward the subject that is being doubted. Objectivity, on the other hand, is disinterested in its subject. In other words, knowing a subject objectively necessarily removes the knower sufficiently far away from the subject so that the knower can reflect on the subject abstractly. Objective thinking, in fact, requires this to be the case, because being interested (existentially speaking, “interest” is better understood as being emotionally or spiritually or otherwise vested in the outcome of something) in the subject leads to bias, and humans, by definition, know a something objectively while also being biased in the outcome of whether a claim is true or not.

That’s why only mathematics and tautologies fall within the realm of true objective knowledge — the knower can effectively and easily remove oneself from the equation, so to speak. Ethico-religious knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be known objectively because those kinds of truths are existentially meaningful. We are interested in those truths, vested in those outcomes.

All of that to say: I’ll need to argue for a subtle shift in the meaning of both objectivity and subjectivity if I am to make my case effectively.