Tag: philosophy

We Are “Storied” Creatures

In Part I of The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright offers a great synopsis of his view of Scripture — especially the Jewish scriptures. To do this, he makes the argument, first, that humans are creatures that cannot help but see the world and our lives through story. Knowledge and worldviews, which we often see as the driving, fundamental forces of why we act the way we do, are consequences of the stories that we tell and hear:

Human life, then, can be seen as grounded in and constituted by the implicit or explicit stories which humans tell themselves and one another. This runs contrary to the popular belief that a story is there to ‘illustrate’ some point or other which can in principle be stated without recourse to the clumsy vehicle of a narrative… Stories are a basic constituent or human life; they are, in fact, one key element within the total construction of a worldview.

NTPG, 38

Human beings are the kinds of creatures that tell stories. Further, it is story that helps us to make sense of the world. This may run contrary to how we normally see things. We moderns like to think that the world is inherently material in nature, and we can understand the world primarily through a scientific lens. No “ultimate” story necessary, because the universe is fundamentally meaningless. The way to truly understand the world is through understanding how things really are, on a material level. Moderns like to think we can come to some basic beliefs about how the world works through rigorous empiricism and rationalism.

This ignores a fundamental fact of human existence, however, which is that how we see the world is inherently encoded in story (along with practice, symbols, and basic questions about what it means to be human). Beliefs do not come before our stories, but after them.

Worldviews, the grid through which humans perceive reality, emerge into explicit consciousness in terms of human beliefs and aims, which function as in principle debatable expressions of the worldviews. The stories which characterize the worldview itself are thus located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formed beliefs, including theological beliefs.

ibid.

Explicit beliefs come after our pre-rational worldview and that worldview is encoded in stories we tell, the practices we engage in, and the symbols we use to remind ourselves of how we see the world. This means that the stories we tell — from the grand one about where humans come from to the novels we read to the movies and shows we watch — are all continually forming us in particular ways. Ways that are “pre-critical” (i.e., that are shaping us often before we get a chance to see how they’re shaping us).

Information without Meaning

In the Information Age (the one in which we are living now), it’s really easy to assume that more information is always better. More information means being more informed, which should theoretically make us better citizens, better friends, better human beings. It should lead to increased knowledge, and to having a more coherent picture of reality.

As the amount of information available to us grows every moment, however, I think it’s safe to say that access to more information has not led to these outcomes. More information, somehow, makes us feel less informed. It also seems to lead to less coherent and cohesive understandings of what the world is like, and what it should be like.

Neil Postman makes this argument in Technopoly:

Information has become a form of garbage, not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions, but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems. To say it still another way: The milieu in which Technopoly flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (69-70).

In other words, we live in an age where the overarching cultural assumption is that more information leads to progress — scientific progress, human progress, economic progress, etc. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The glut of information that overwhelms our senses on a day to day basis leads us to question whether we know anything at all. And because of that, it leads to a lack of a unified theory about what human beings are and what human beings are meant to be.

In this kind of a situation, information becomes its own end, and a not a means to some other end, which it ought to be. Postman again:

To the question, “What problem does the information solve?” the answer is usually “How to generate, store, and distribute more information, more conveniently, at greater speeds than ever before.” This is the elevation of information to a metaphysical status: information as both the means and end of human creativity. In Technopoly, we are driven to fill our lives with the quest to access information. For what purpose  or with what limitations, it is not for us to ask (61, emphasis added).

When reading this yesterday, my first thought was that, in some ways, the way information seems to act of its own accord in society to grow for its own sake is similar to the way capital (money) acts of its own accord within capitalism. Within capitalism, money always optimizes for the growth of money. Within what Postman calls “technopoly,” information optimizes for its own growth.

Without some overarching system in place that allows us to set information or money up as a means to some actual end, both of these become devourers of our time, attention, and ultimately our lives.

Forsaking Christianity for the “Greater Good”

3:16: How would you summarize Kierkegaard’s Socratic point of view?

PM: I think that Kierkegaard saw himself as trying to help the citizens of nineteenth-century Copenhagen in much the same way as Socrates had helped the citizens of fifth-century Athens. He seems to have aimed his writings at a particular group of people who, under the illusion that they were leading Christian lives, had to be addressed in a specific manner so that they might overcome this illusion and change their lives accordingly. But while Kierkegaard held a lifelong interest in Socrates and selected his life as a model for his own, he also sometimes worried that relating to others as Socrates did might be incompatible with living an authentic Christian life. He worried that in playing the role of philosophical midwife for his fellow citizens, he himself might be sidestepping difficulties that every Christian must personally confront. If the Christian is to model his or her life after the life of Christ, then, Kierkegaard thought, doing this will include being open about the sort of life one is trying to live regardless of what others might think. In fact, he thought Christians should expect the world to reject what they believe (to find Christian beliefs absurd or ludicrous or perhaps even blasphemous) and, in many cases, to persecute them accordingly. Yet, in order to play the part of Socrates, he would sometimes have to be personally elusive, employing various forms of indirection to shine a light on others’ lives while keeping his own life an enigma. Withholding or concealing oneself is thus sometimes a Socratic requirement, while revealing or disclosing oneself seems to be an essential feature of an authentic Christian life. So I think Kierkegaard sometimes felt a tension within himself, between a Socratic part of his nature and that part of him that placed his trust in Christ.

From the “Pursuing Kierkegaard” interview with Paul Muench on 3:16 AM, emphasis added

I am no Kierkegaard, and no “philosopher” (If by philosopher we mean some genius with academic and perhaps cultural clout, which is often how we use the term — wrongly. But I digress.). But I have sometimes wondered whether my own desires — to “be” a philosopher or a theologian, to be a teacher, to write and to think and to be someone who does those kinds of things — are actually just a way for me to avoid the difficult, internal work of what it means to “become a Christian” (as Kierkegaard would say). Kierkegaard was truly brilliant, but I think he struggled with this in ways that I get but can never fully comprehend. It’s almost as if he forsook his personal religious conviction in order to bring to light the peculiar religious situation of nineteenth-century Denmark. It’s a remarkable way to live, and a remarkable choice to make.

Philosophy is Simpler Than You Think

Philosophy — both as a discipline and as an idea — is often thought of as too cerebral, overwhelming, or mysterious to most people. That’s a problem, because the act of philosophizing is not historically or in itself meant to be overly cerebral or mysterious. The intellectualization of the discipline and its corresponding solidification as an inherently academic practice is what brought on the notion that “normal” people don’t “do” philosophy.

Throughout my academic career, as I studied philosophy deeper and deeper, I kept looking for some radical, life-changing answer about what philosophy really was. It was as if I thought that by studying philosophers’ writings I would be able to find some long-hidden secret about life, about what it means to be human, about what reality really is. That’s not what I found. Instead, I found a long history of people asking simple questions and attempting to answer them. Some of them answer poetically, some prosaically. Some look to mathematics as a sure foundation for knowing reality. Others look to religious experience, or physical evidence, or the phenomena of everyday life.

At its roots, however, philosophy is simply the love, pursuit, and appropriation of wisdom. That’s it. And this love, pursuit, and appropriation has been grounded in asking three basic questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. What is it for?
  3. How do we know?

(1) is the basic question of metaphysics. (2) is the basic question of axiology, or value theory (this is usually broken up further into ethics and aesthetics, and is ultimately bound up with the idea of teleology, or the design/purpose of a thing). (3) is the basic question of epistemology. Now, if I had just opened up this post by saying, “If you want to study philosophy, you need to understand its basic categories: metaphysics, axiology, and epistemology,” your eyes would have glazed over, and you would have become immediately disinterested. That’s what’s so frustrating about intellectualized philosophy. It is no more and no less than the three questions above, but academics (like myself) often get too puffed up and concerned with sounding like we know more than we know.

That’s not to say that the love and pursuit of wisdom ought not be difficult. In fact, I think the ultimate task of what it means to be human is to become wise. And that, in itself, ought to be difficult. Not because it requires a lot of academic study and pedantry, but because becoming wise requires suffering and the experience of uncertainty and the acceptance that life is finite.

No Conversation Is Too Scary

As many of you know, I’m currently a high school teacher (in the fall, I taught philosophy, and this spring I’m teaching a class called “senior practicum,” which is mostly personal finance, although I’ve taken a few liberties to discuss digital habits as well). The pairing of the two classes together is interesting for two reasons.

First, the philosophy class was inherently academic, and required reading, study, and heavy critical thinking. Some of the concepts we explored were abstract, ranging from free will and determinism to how we can say that we know anything at all. Second, the senior practicum class is clearly meant to be distinct from the philosophy class. It is not abstract; in fact, it’s fairly pragmatic. In some ways, it can be seen as an outworking of the philosophy course — at least in the sense that philosophy is meant to help the students frame and understand the world, and the senior practicum class is meant to help the students navigate “daily” life.

What I didn’t expect in the course of teaching these two classes is that I would get the chance to have other, deeper conversations with the students. Because the two classes are touching on issues that are deeply personal, we sometimes end up navigating tough waters. It’s not uncommon for the students to bring up political issues (even in the form of a joke), moral issues (abortion has come up more than a handful of times), or unsolvable philosophical or theological problems. My real goal in these conversations is not really to convince the students that they ought to think the way I do on these topics. That would be far too easy, to be honest. That’s not to mention the fact that they are all Christian students, raised in Christian households, so their viewpoints are highly similar, if not outright identical, on many of these issues.

My goal, instead, has been to open their minds up a little bit to other viewpoints, and I think I’ve come up with a solution to how to do try and do this. Part of my solution is driven, I think, by my concern with social media and its effects on public discourse. We currently find ourselves in a societal moment wherein social groups are dividing and divisive — primarily along political and theological lines. This leads to two things: digital echo chambers and the inability to engage in rational, calm conversation about difficult issues. In response to this, I’m trying to teach my students two things:

  1. No conversation is too scary to have.
  2. When discussing a tough issue, our first goal should be to ask “What does this person see that I don’t?”

These are actually relatively difficult to implement in real life. It can be easy to prefer avoiding tough topics of conversation, thinking that our interlocutors might be offended or appalled at our ignorance or disagreement. It’s also easy for us to be the person that is easily enraged, morally or intellectually. (Moral outrage, in fact, is an easy emotion to latch onto — just look at how social media companies have benefited from taking advantage of that emotion). But if we come at difficult conversations with an attitude of humility rather than pride, of curiosity rather than fear, our local community and the broader society stand to benefit.

Of the second point (asking, “What does this person see?”): this is a key skill when engaging in philosophical or theological inquiry. If we don’t actively try to envision why a person sees the world a certain way, or thinks that their moral position is superior to others, we don’t have any chance of gaining conversational favor. This means we lose the chance of having a dialogue, and of having the opportunity to persuade someone of our own position. I think many of us fear taking this step, however, because it requires risk. Alan Jacobs writes about this in How to Think:

To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction. (36)

I take Jacobs to mean here that too often the conversations we have are means to the end of happiness: either by way of conversing only with those who agree with us, or by seeking the satisfaction of arguing with others for the purpose of proving the superiority of our position. But to actively think, to engage in dialogue, to be willing to see from another person’s viewpoint means that we must accept discomfort and even the pain of changing our position on an issue.

We’d do well, in the long run, to abandon our desire for comfort, for happiness, for satisfaction. The health of both our individual selves and society at large may rely upon this very truth.

Kierkegaard’s Reflections on Job — On Becoming a Human Being

In the Upbuilding Discourses, SK reflects on two simple verses in Job:

Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1:20-21)

First, he gives a general reflection on the passage, and Job’s significance for humanity at all times:

When one generation has finished its service, completed its work, fought through its struggle, Job has accompanied it; when the new generation with its incalculable ranks, each individual in his place, stands ready to begin the pilgrimage, Job is there again, takes his place, which is the outpost of humanity. If the generation sees nothing but happy days in prosperous times, then Job faithfully accompanies it; but if the single individual experiences the terror in thought, is anguished over the thought of what horror and distress life can have in store, over the thought that no one knows when the hour of despair may strike for him, then his troubled thought seeks out Job, rests in him, is calmed by him. (110)

He then focuses in on the final two clauses of the verse: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Lord gave:

With thankfulness resting in his soul in quiet sadness, he said a gentle and friendly farewell to everything all together, and in this farewell everything vanished like a beautiful recollection — indeed, it was as if it were not the Lord who took it away but Job who gave it back to him. (116)

Then, speaking of the person who, when faced with a Job-like situation, cannot be thankful for the goodness of what was given in the first place:

What his soul had delighted in, it now thirsted for, and ingratitude punished him by picturing it to him as more delightful than it had ever been. What he once had been able to do, he now wanted to be able to do again, and ingratitude punished him with fantasies that had never had any truth. Then he condemned his soul, living, to be starved out in the insatiable craving of the lack. (117)

The Lord took away:

How powerless is the assailant’s arm, how worthless the schemer’s cleverness; how almost pitiable is all human power when it wants to plunge the weak person into despairing submission by wrenching everything from him and in his faith he says: It is not you, you can do nothing; it is the Lord who takes away. (121)

Blessed be the name of the Lord:

Just as faith and hope without love are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so all the joy proclaimed in the world in which sorrow is not heard along with it is but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal that tickle the ears but are repulsive to the soul. (122)

What I really love about Kierkegaard’s work in the Upbuilding Discourses (and this might be my favorite one so far — it’s written in a trio from 1843, at the peak of the early part of his writing career) is his interest in entering into the realities of human life. Kierkegaard is demanding and time consuming to read. He can be difficult at times, and his work is often complex and hard to follow.

But his work here is clearly filled with passion and interest for what it means to be human, and what it means to live in real life. These discourses are some of the few early works that he wrote in his own name, and not under a pseudonym, which I take to mean that this is what he wanted people to remember him for. That all our philosophizing and theologizing and rationalizing has a telos: to become a human being.

Who’s Afraid of “Relativism”?

Richard Beck is doing some interesting work over at Experimental Theology right now regarding the metaphysical grounding of ethical truths. Basically, he’s making the argument that all of our ethical reasoning (and, I think it could be argued, reasoning in general) requires “metaphysical” (or “axiomatic”) truths. I.e., truths that we take as given, or, as Plantinga might say, “properly basic.”

I’ve spent a fair amount of time making this argument in the philosophy course I’m teaching. The basic idea is this — regarding religion, morality, knowledge, and so on: at some point, we hit a brick wall. We can reason and reason and reason all the way down to try to understand the most rational course of action, or what we can know about how we ought to act. However, at the bottom of all of our reasoning is what I call the “brick wall” — the thing that stops us from being able to reason anymore, where we simply must take certain truths about the world for granted. That doesn’t necessarily mean that these truths are beyond rational evaluation; only that there is little that evidence or reason can provide when attempting to evaluate those claims about how the world really is. Thus, the brick wall.

Anyway, Beck writes of Euclidean geometry as an example of a system that begins with “self-evident” truths, from which reason can depart to determine other truths:

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can’t tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can’t lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it’s a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

Two things. First, I think his point that reason is basically a “computational” function is an incredible image. We ought to trust that reason (in its purer, logical forms) can give us access to certain truths — but it can only do so within a system that has given rules about what the world is already like. Further, humans cannot be purely rational creatures — in fact, that’s undesirable! Second, Beck’s paragraph here brought to mind James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, where Smith addresses the notion that the concept of “relativism” may not be as scary as some Christians have been led to believe. To say relativism is at least partially true, for Smith, is to say that our rationality is contingent on claims about the world that we have taken to be true outside of the realm of rationality.

Embracing contingency does not entail embracing ‘liberalism’: in fact, to the contrary, it is when we deny our contingency that we are thereby licensed to deny our dependence and hence assume the position where we are arbitrators of truth. We then spurn our dependence on tradition and assume a stance of ‘objective’ knowledge whereby we can dismiss aspects of Scripture and Christian orthodoxy as benighted and unenlightened. (35)

We all “take” the world to be a certain way, prior to our use of reason to determine other truths about the world. The problem is when we assume that our use of reason is what got us to how we “take” the world to be in the first place.

Test Day

I love test days when I’m teaching.

Granted, I really love every day that I’m teaching. I have had several people ask me over the course of this semester how teaching this philosophy class has been going. My answer, every time: I absolutely love it. Since the moment I stepped into the classroom to teach, I realized that teaching is something I seem to have been “built” for. I was never taught how to teach. I’ve spent most of my time observing how others teach, either in high school, undergrad, or graduate settings.

People teach so differently in so many different situations, and I find that I’m wary of prescribed methods of pedagogy (although I’m sure I could do with some more formal pedagogical training). It’s been so great to just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. There are tougher days, when it’s like pulling teeth to get students to engage. There are amazing days when we talk about something I didn’t even plan on. And there are days when teaching the students is actually a method of teaching myself.

But today? Today is a test day. Which is glorious on its own, because (1) I had little prep work, and (2) I’ll get to see the fruit of our labor over the last four weeks (we’ve been discussing philosophy of religion, faith and rationality, and the problem of evil).

Syllabus Selections

I just finished up my syllabus for the philosophy class I’ll be teaching (starting Monday!). A couple of excerpts —

On Biblical Integration:

Students will examine the Western philosophical tradition in the light of Christian belief, along with the various proofs of God’s existence and their historical relationship to Christian thought. They will also have practice in handling and presenting a Christian response to the issues which could be brought before them in a college philosophy class. We will follow the Apostle Peter as a model for engaging with current philosophical thought: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Some of our “Classroom Rules”:

1. Students will engage with each other respectfully, even (and especially) in disagreement. Disagreement is encouraged! Disrespect – not so much.

2. Students will actively engage with both the content of the course and with each other during class discussions. This course will only be valuable if we actively dialogue with one another.

3. Students will be brave. This class is an open environment, meant to facilitate the discussion of difficult and challenging ideas. Sometimes this can make us nervous or frustrated. Bravery in such contexts is key!

I stole that last bit from Alan Jacobs in How to Think. Hopefully we will see some engagement and students find the class meaningful. It’s either going to be incredible, or I’ll go down in flames!

Teaching Philosophy

I’ve been spending a ton of time organizing curriculum and a semester-long schedule for a high school (senior-level) philosophy course that I am teaching this fall. It starts in two weeks, and I’m pretty excited to get a crack at teaching in a subject I find both meaningful and necessary.

In the first section of the course, assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be discussing what philosophy is, why it’s important, and how to determine whether we are thinking critically or not. I’ll be using several different resources and articles to make the point, but one of the main things I hope to use is Alan Jacobs’s How to Think — especially “The Thinking Person’s Checklist,” which he placed at the end of his book, but which summarizes his thoughts throughout the book nicely. Here are a few of my favorites on the list:

2. Value learning over debating. Don’t ‘talk for victory.’

6. Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuie cmmunity and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7. Seek out the best and fairest minded people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

12. Be brave.

Those last two, in particular are extremely important. One of the values I hope to instill over the course of the beginning section of the course is having no fear when engaging in thought and conversation about a topic that might otherwise make us anxious, afraid, or angry. Not only do those emotional responses hamper good quality discourse, they prevent us from stepping away from ourselves and our biases and incapable of even remotely rational thought. The truth (whatever it might be) ought to make us excited, not scared. And an opinion that is contrary to ours (even if the conclusion fundamentally affects the way we currently view the world) is worth engaging with — otherwise, we are not honestly interested in the truth at all.

We haven’t touched necessarily on what philosophy is (my usual number one question when thinking about a subject), but we are a little closer, by following the rules above, to answering the question, “What is philosophy for?”