knowing God

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:8-9)

There is a lovely tension in Christian epistemology between our ‘knowing God’ and being known by God (both of which, to be clear, are about an interpersonal kind of knowledge, not about simply knowing an infinite quantity of ‘facts’ about God or us).  One of the central announcements of the NT is that Jesus has revealed God in not only a fresh, unexpected way, but also in a full (and thus final) way.  God can at last be known.

But this knowledge of God in the face of Christ does not catapult humans into a state of omniscience.  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?”, asks Scripture elsewhere.  And in the passage above, Paul suggests that the point is not our knowledge of God, but God’s knowledge of us that matters.

There is continuity and discontinuity here with the knowledge proper to the natural sciences.  Continuity in that in both cases, reality often has to surprise us for us to ‘get it’.  It’s often not what we expected it to be.  Truth has that ring to it.  But it also has discontinuity in the obvious sense that nature does not and cannot ‘know us’ as we know one another – let alone as we can be known by God.

answers, questions & tensions

My few posts on this blog touching on epistemology are a drop in the ocean of literature on the topic, the majority of which I’ll almost certainly never know about, let alone read.  But allow little wee me to suggest that the wisdom of human experience tells us that any proper pursuit of knowledge should be accompanied by all three of the following: answers, questions and tensions.  The opposite way of saying this is that as long as we retain our position as finite observers and non-omniscient know-ers, we must not have only answers, only questions or only tensions.

I reckon this is the case for all kinds of knowledge.  Scientific knowledge of the natural world has all three.  Every answer and natural discovery opens up new questions and fields of natural research.  Science both closes and opens gaps in knowledge, so don’t listen to anyone who talks as if we’ve figured out how the entire universe works from top to bottom.  Personal knowledge of other persons has them too.  Does one every completely know their mate or partner or friend?  The more one thinks, speaks and acts as if they do, the worse mate, partner or friend they will be.  Even theological knowledge of God, which dares to speak words about the Ultimate (only because of its conviction that the Ultimate has first spoken to us), remains a discipline that has real questions.  Don’t listen to any preacher who speaks of God as though they’ve got him easily boxed up and packaged.

When it comes to knowledge and know-ers, sometimes the knowledge claimed says something about that which is known – the melon might actually be a bit browned compared to other melons.  But it can also say something (or everything) about the one doing the knowing – the melon might only appear browned because the viewer forgot she was wearing sunglasses.  Each type of know-er will have their strengths, but strengths become weaknesses if not balanced by the other kinds of know-ers.

The mistake common to ‘answers’ type (or ‘black and white’) people is to be so intent on finding answers that they pushing away questions or not marrying up one answer with another, so they need the question-asking and tension-finding type people to humble and grow them.

The mistake common to ‘question’ type (or ‘grey’) people is to be so focussed on questioning everything that they ignore the answers and tensions that might be right before their eyes, so they need the answer-giving, and tension-finding types to reign in their advocacy to various devils.

The mistake common to ‘tensions’ type (or ‘both/and’) people, which I count myself to be within, is to be so familiar with finding tension and paradox that they fail to acknowledge times when it just might be either/or, or a different both/and than they currently hold to, so they need the answer-giving and question-asking types to disturb and re-frame the tensions they have grown (possibly too?) comfortable with.

methodological indifference

I’m beginning to wonder if so-called ‘methodological naturalism’ ought to be critiqued on purely philosophical grounds (i.e. not as a sneaky pre-apologetic move).

It seems that many people (against the evidence) are under the impression that ‘science’ supports naturalism (All-is-Nature) more than it supports theism (Nature caused and sustained by Supernature).  But if our scientific observations are to be truly objective, then we must admit that when we look at any particular thing or set of things (or any particular process or set of processes) in what we call the world, we do not find accompanying labels or name-tags that tell us “Made by YHWH” or “Purely Natural: No God Required”.  One must go beyond the evidence (though not leaving it behind!) to make such statements.  The theist knows she is doing this, though she will rightfully claim that she has followed reason in doing so.  The naturalist, however, seems to not often admit that they ‘go beyond the evidence’ to their Naturalism.  Why is this?  Do they think the world screams “not made by any God at all”?  If so, why?

I (in all my lack of importance for both science and the philosophy of science) propose a new term: methodological indifference!

same as always

It’s 12-12-12 today ((or was exactly 2,000 years ago to be pedantic)), and we are nearing the day (21-12-2012) which is heralded by some as something of an apocalypse and an end-of-the-world event.

Among other things, this highlights to me the reality that scientific discovery does not wipe out superstition.  People have always been superstitious and will always be.  Conversely, people have always denied any inherent purpose or meaning to the world – and they always will.

Science is great and helpful.  But I think Dallas Willard is spot on when he says “you can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 106; emphasis original)

People wrongly think and speak as though at some point in history we learned some fact that forever sealed off the cosmos from any and all miracles; whereas the ancients, blissfully ignorant of this elusive fact we now know, had no other option.

In addition to ignoring the reality of ancient unbelief and scepticism, this way of thinking also misses the blindingly obvious truth that it’s psychologically and linguistically impossible to think or speak of a ‘super’-natural event if one has no idea of what a natural event is.  As Lewis said, when Joseph learned of Mary being pregnant, he was startled – not because he didn’t know how babies were conceived, but precisely because he did.

science and the Imago Dei

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19)

I’ve long held that this part of the creation story is a lovely expression of what we call science.  Things like taxonomy and zoology explicitly name the creation.  This is basic to a Christian understanding of the Imago Dei, what it means to be humans created in the Image of God.  So you could imagine my childish glee to see that even a proper atheist like Michael Ruse can lament that this seems under-appreciated.

I’m not just a historian, I’m also a philosopher. So I don’t just want to find out what happened, I want to know what we should do. And I’ve been worrying about what is the right thing to do. I think it’s deplorable that we do have this division in American society today. I think it’s deplorable that science is not seen as, if you like, the true mark that we are made in the image of God – that our ability to ferret out the nature of the world shows that we are not just grubby little primates. (from here)

against the flow

another ‘free will’ post came to mind.

Whether or not you believe that ‘free will’ is illusory or not, there seems to be an agreed spectrum from, say, rock to Raymond, when it comes to apparent capacity for self-determination: to determine one’s own action.  Rocks are utterly a slave to physical forces or agents other than themselves; being forced into rock walls or river beds.  Raymond however, though his father’s vocation may affect his choice, determines for himself whether he will be a rock wall builder or a fresh water biologist.

Somewhere in the middle would be plants and animals.  Plants ‘choose’ to grow toward the sunlight, apparently.  And animals can ‘choose’ a mate, etc.  I believe I’ve correctly applied the quote-marks around ‘choose’, because as far as we know, the plant and animals are ‘going with the flow’ of the biological and cultural pressure that presses upon them.

Humans at least appear to be able to swim at or hold their heads above, the surface and breathe the air of self-determination.  Rather than being entirely determined by others, we can choose to reject a religion, a meal, a person, an idea, or life itself ((I don’t think suicide occurs in the animal or plant worlds?)) .  A few observations:

  • As a rock cannot choose to be this or that colour, we cannot choose to, for example, fly or levitate.  So we’re talking about possible choices, not impossible ones.
  • Whilst our heads are above the water, our bodies are under water.  We don’t consciously choose to distribute blood throughout the circulatory system, or say to our toenails, ‘Grow!’
  • We easily (and regularly) slip beneath the surface.  Sleep, for example, takes us under.  By contrast, whilst sleep is a refreshing, re-fuelling, humane subconscious state, getting drunk or taking meth-amphetamines pulls you under in a most dehumanising way.  I’ve been drunk many times in my life (particularly if not entirely between ages 18-20!).  There were periods that I don’t remember at all.  These points I was blurring the line between human and non-human.  My ability for self-determination was decreased to the point of nearly vanishing.
  • In light of the above, some macro-choices seem to set up subsequent micro-choices.  The macro-choice to get drunk (itself preceded by choosing to drink ‘one more’… and ‘just one more’…) will lead to all manner of other, progressively less self-determined (!!) micro-choices – including choosing to drive home sleepy and drunk (as I did at least once!!).
  • Because individual self-determining humans do not exist in a vacuum, there will be all kinds of influence from others (and circumstances) upon this self-determination.  Though a) the mere presence of influence does not determine how the influence will be responded to (the flow of influence may be yielded to or opposed), and b) the mere presence of influence on the chooser does not mean that the choice made is unreal; even an experiment where a subject must ‘choose’ the mathematical equation that is balanced is still a choice, though entirely prescribed.
  • In the same way, I see no reason that the ability to predict a choice means that it is not an actual, real choice.

random choice

Scenario 1: After instructing a person to make a random choice between two options in front of her, a computer detects brain activity in a human subject before she clicks the button to communicate her choice.  The experiment conductor, upon repeats of the same experiment, can predict her choice seconds before she is aware of it.  It is still a choice, for although the choice emerged from brain processes, she was not told which one to choose.

Scenario 2: After asking her son to choose between strawberry or vanilla ice cream, a mother detects a facial expression on her son before he verbalises his choice.  The mother, upon repeated instances of this scenario, can predict his choice before it is communicated.  It is still a choice, for although he has a tendency to choose vanilla, both flavours were on offer.

Scenario 3: Having eternally given to creation (humans in particular) the freedom to move toward good and order or evil and chaos, the omniscient Creator has full knowledge of the direction taken before, after and during the moment (from their perspective) it is made.  The Creator, in all places and times, can predict the direction taken.  It is still a free initiative, for although the result was known, both were live options.

pro evolution young earther

Dr. Todd Wood, a young earth creationist on the scientific credibility of evolutionary theory.  I respectfully (and at the same time resolutely) disagree with his theology and biblical interpretive stance, but I hugely appreciate his scientific honesty.

“Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

I say these things not because I’m crazy or because I’ve “converted” to evolution. I say these things because they are true. I’m motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure. People who say that are either unacquainted with the inner workings of science or unacquainted with the evidence for evolution. (Technically, they could also be deluded or lying, but that seems rather uncharitable to say. Oops.)Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please don’t idolize your own ability to reason. Faith is enough. If God said it, that should settle it. Maybe that’s not enough for your scoffing professor or your non-Christian friends, but it should be enough for you.”  -Dr. Todd Wood, Bryan College (source: FB page – ‘Evolutionary Creationism‘)

a finished beginning?

In addition to believing that the universe was created 6,000 years old, many Christians assume that it began in a ‘perfect’ state.  I’ve 3 main problems, scientific, biblical/theological & linguistic, with this view:

Scientifically, I can imagine some form of string theory or multiverse theory being interpreted or mis-interpreted in such a way that the ‘first stuff’ from which everything we know ‘came from’ was somehow ‘perfect’.  But in addition to being devoid of any observational evidence (says the likes of Paul Davies), I’m not even sure what physical characteristics would be required for a ‘perfect’ universe.  But suffice to say that nothing we yet see seems to be even close – by anyone’s standards or definitions of ‘perfect’.

Biblically and theologically, not only do the creation narratives use the term ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ to describe the creation, in addition, the very first description of the state of creation, quite clearly in the second verse of the Bible, is tohu va vohu (‘formless and void’).  God here is not pictured as a deistic god whose creative activity touches creation singularly and solely at it’s first instant, then leaving it ‘on its own’ as it were.  Rather, the picture is of a Creator who not only initially creates (creatio ex nihilo or creatio originalis) a creation that is other than and distinct from himself, but who creates a creation which is not yet what it will be.  The Creator thus keeps on creating (creatio continua) and ordering the creation – bringing it toward the final goal, end or telos , which in Christian theology is nothing but a full renewal, and healing of it: New Creation (creatio nova).  As Wesley writes of Genesis 1:2, “The Creator could have made his work perfect at first, but by this gradual proceeding he would shew what is ordinarily the method of his providence, and grace.”

Linguistically, in just about any language you slice it, the term ‘perfect’ inescapably describes the state of being finished, completed or perfected.  It seems (contra Wesley above) a flat contradiction that we could (or indeed that God would) call any thing finished at its beginning.

parallel

Before we knew that galaxies tend to form the familiar fractal shape, we perhaps should have rightly expected this from the persistence of this pattern in the parts of nature we do observe.  Indeed, I’m curious if we will observe a fractal pattern in sub-atomic phenomena at some point in the future (or if we already have? any particle physicists stumbling upon this post?).

But more generally than speculations about the universality of the fractal form, it seems an obvious though oft-neglected fact (perhaps precisely because of its obvious nature) that in both our speculations about physical  phenomena we have yet to see, and our descriptions and language employed of that we do see, our scientific vocabulary is restricted to borrowing from pre-existing terms.  Thus, we speak of the brain ‘stem’, the ‘core’ of the galaxy, the ‘heart’ of this, the ‘edge’ of the universe, and so on.((I don’t wish to deny that science is immune to neologisms, but I suggest that all neologisms are either accidental or intentional combinations or corruptions or otherwise representations of existing terms.))  What else could we do?

Theology (particularly natural theology, as distinct from a theology of revelation) shares the same semantic limitations.  Every bottom-up God-word (shall we say every ‘theologism‘?), attempting to speak of the unseen and ineffable, is borrowed from the world of the seen and effable.  Thus, in Judeo/Christian Scripture (neither limited to, nor exempt from the language of natural theology), God is said to be a ‘rock’, a ‘fire’, a ‘woman in labour pains’, a ‘Father’, a ‘mother hen’, a ‘lion’, a ‘lamb’, a ‘land owner’, etc.  What else could we do?

But of course, uniquely, Christian theology claims that the impenetrable veil of perception has been pierced from the other side.  God not only sent an authoritative message or book about Godself, but, to quote (and admiringly negate) Forrest Gump, “God showed up.”  And this revelation has both affirmed and transformed (even subverted) the former types and shadows.  That which was unable to be described with words was the Word made flesh.  “Nobody has ever seen God, but the only begotten Son, in the bosom of the Father, has made him known”, wrote John the seer (John 1:18).  God is not just ‘like’, but was active, present and revealed as a self-giving, dying, rising man.  The nakedly anthropocentric – yet still universal – Lord of All.  In scientific terms, this would be the parallel (not ‘equivalent’) of an extra-cosmological entity (indeed if there be such a thing) entering our cosmos, our Milky Way, our solar system, our planet, our research institutions, and in a Mount-Sinai-like moment, engraving the equations down as the cosmologists shrunk back in a mixture of reverence and fear.