David Bradshaw on Kant's view of Religious Experience

01.13.2019 / Philosophy

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In the recent volume on Kant’s views about God and religion edited by Nathan Jacobs et al., David Bradshaw discusses Kant’s claim that there can be no direct experience of God. In this post, I’ll briefly summarize that discussion and share my reactions to it.

Bradshaw’s thesis is that “Kant seriously misunderstands the relationship between experience of and conceptual beliefs about God.” Once this misunderstanding is cleared up, Kant’s skeptical claims about the possibility of experiencing an infinite, good God, lose their force.”

Bradshaw’s first section outlines Kant’s classification of God as a “pure concept of reason” and shows why, on Kant’s stipulation, God is not a possible object of experience. God is “unconditioned” and so no conditioned experience – say, an experience of a psychological or physical character which are by definition limited – can suffice to give one an experience of God. Furthermore, it seems necessary that one’s experience of X match with some rational concept of X. If I experience a thing for which I have no rational concept, a bewildering I-know-not-what, it is difficult to assert that I have had an experience of any particular thing – I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that I just experienced a narwhal, or angel, or hobbledehoy. Finally, our concept of God includes that God is morally perfect. So it is difficult to judge, Kant avers, if and when one has experienced a being of infinite moral perfection.

Section two provides the substance of Bradshaw’s responses. There are three, but I’ll focus on the one I found most interesting. He says: “When one approaches Kant’s criticisms from a biblical [perspective]… the narrowness of what Kant thinks of as a possible experience of God… leaps to the eye.” Why is Kant’s arbitrary limitation on what the experience of God must be like “narrow”?

Because Scripture records many different types of experience of God: burning bushes, voices from heaven, dreams, speaking through priests, tablets, visions, direct revelations (think Moses talking with God “face to face as with a friend”), angelic messages, and eventually the incarnation of the Logos of God in the flesh.

Bradshaw comments that of these types of experience of God, “most of them bearing little relation to the private visions that Kant seems to regard as paradigmatic.” To take but one example from the Psalms, he points out that the psalmist reports directly perceiving the honor, majesty, and power of God when “directly perceiving nature, the heavens, the sun, and so on.”

Importantly, character counts. One’s character is the organ for perceiving divine glory – even in created things. To mix biblical and Kantian language, we might say that, for the psalmist, perception of nature is conditioned by obedience to God and his law. The biblical language is that the “law makes wise the simple.” That is, the obedient, law-abiding servants become able to experience God through any number of prosaic, mundane objects. Bradshaw’s conclusion is that “the range of what counts as the experience of God is, for the psalmist, virtually unlimited. Everything counts… There is nothing through which God does not speak, if one is attuned to listen.”

Bradshaw acknowledges the skeptic’s concern that the experience of God may not be veridical. The minimal point being asserted here is that the traditional conception of “the experience of God” does not fall into Kantian strictures.

If I am understanding the argument here, here’s an analogy to what I think Bradshaw is saying.

Suppose Kant said, not that experiencing an infinite God is impossible, but that experiencing even finite human beings is impossible because “people’s hearts are so deep and wide.” If I can’t experience the depth of another human being’s heart and soul that I cannot be truly said to experience the person. The response would be the same: Why assume that “experiencing another human being” necessitates experience their heights and depths? Why can’t I experience them in their face, their characteristic movements, their self-disclosures through speech (admittedly limited, but revealing nonetheless).

Bradshaw criticizes Kant’s view of God, and the nature of religious experience, along a couple of different lines I do not summarize here.

The Notre Dame Philosophical Review responded (partially) to Bradshaw’s arguments, but I do not think they adequately appreciated the force of Bradshaw’s case. The reviewer, Stephen R. Palmquist, says that “Bradshaw’s arguments inadvertently affirm Kant’s actual position, that those who claim to have encountered God must never construe such experiences as providing scientific knowledge.” The rhetorical force of the term ‘science’ in that sentence depends on assuming a reductive definition of science. But that definition is by no means the only, nor automatically the best, one. Is logic a science? It isn’t reductively empirical. Is computer science a science? Differential geometry? It would seem that these “formal sciences” belong in the host of sciences. And the German concept of wissenschaft allows for such disciplines as history.

The same formula can be run for all the relevant terms: ‘science’, ‘experience,’ ‘empirical,’ and even ‘natural’ have both (more contemporary) reductive and (more traditional) non-reductive senses.

In the non-reductive sense, the experience of God is both empirical (as belonging to experience), and scientific (as rewarding one with real knowledge – scientia). Likewise, it is natural to experience God because man is by nature made in the image and likeness of God and by nature longs for communion with God. The use of such words as science, knowledge, experience, and so on is traditional in the Christian tradition.

So yes, the Psalmist would likely aver that his own experience of God is knowledge-granting experience in a way that would break through the narrow, neurotic, and frankly arbitrary, strictures of the Kantian definitions.

Check out Jacobs’ volume here.






Reflections on Norm MacDonald

12.31.2018 / culture · humor

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I just read Norm MacDonald’s “Based on a True Story”, after receiving it for Christmas (Good Christmas gift!)

While I can’t publicly recommend it because of the seedy and lewd content (drug use, gambling, and fornication), I will say this: it was hilarious qua ridiculous psuedo-memoir as well as thought-provoking qua literature. (Who is the ghostwriter? Isn’t life, in the end, an all-or-nothing gamble?)

It’s also sad that his life has been… well, not very meaningful.

Unexpected was an incredibly tragedy in the first few chapters (I actually choked up reading it) when he sets up and makes a casual punchline out of his experience being molested by an older man when he was 8-years old. You can’t just drop that as a punchline, Norm!

There are enough sexual abuse victims in my family for me to know just how deeply he was injured by this, and to speculate that he has spent a life and career never healing from that injury.

It’s strange. It seems to me that some comedians seem to be effective fools (think court jesters) but also competent human beings who are self-controlled with pleasure. Gaffigan, maybe. Brian Regan, maybe. My generation of comedians growing up were dudes like Steve Martin, who is still doing good work and seems (for all I know) to be a decent human being.

Some seemed consumed by their fame and overindulgence in madness: Jim Carrey, perhaps. Mitch Hedberg, definitely.

Some, like Cosby, fall from grace because of immoderation and vice. But it was never part of his comedy.

Others, like Louis C.K., Artie Lange, Norm MacDonald make their comedy about their own horrifying lack of character. That’s the joke. “I’m such a bad person, isn’t it hilarious? No really, I’m this bad off stage as well!”

Why is it that these modern comedians sacrifice their life and happiness at the altar of being funny? Is it that the funniest thing possible is not jokes or stories about fools, but watching a fool throw his actual life away in folly? If so, are the laughs worth it?


Image Credit: Greg 2600






Restoring the Liberal Arts -- Part I

11.17.2018 / Classical education

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For the past twenty years or so, I’ve been trying to understand this concept of “Liberal Arts.” I don’t think I fully understand it yet. And I don’t think you do either.

One would hope that any college-educated person steeped in liberal arts institutions would have a clear idea just what those things are. But we don’t.

For example, I went to a “Liberal Arts” university: Biola University. There, I majored in Humanities and studied the “Great Books” of western civilization at the Torrey Honors Institute.

Then, my first teaching job was equipping young minds to join the “Great Conversation” by reading and discussing Great Books.

Since that time, I’ve been involved in multiple schools and non-profits aimed at rebuilding Western Civilization through modern education – schools that cultivate the disinterested pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and restoring a love of transcendent goods such as goodness, truth, beauty, harmony, justice, and fidelity.

For the past seven years, I studied theology and philosophy at the graduate level – two subjects that are presumably liberal arts or closely related.

And yet despite this exposure and reflection on the topic of liberal arts, I’m still not certain that I (or anyone else) really knows what these things are.

Sure, people use the term. But do they have more than a vague idea of its reference?

When a college labels itself as a “Liberal Arts” institution (as opposed to a “research” institution), they might mean no more by that than that they value a smattering of different subjects.

Wikipedia defines the goal of liberal arts colelges as being to “impart a broad general knowledge and develop general intellectual capacities, in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.” Liberal arts often stands for “general” knowledge as against specialized knowledge; or humanities as against STEM; or abstract, genteel, white-collar subjects as against concrete, blue collar subjects.

But these vagueries are insufficient in the minds of an educator. One would expect clear answers to fundamental questions such as: how many liberal arts are there? What distinguishes them from other arts? Where did they begin and how did they evolve, if they evolved at all? Is mathematics a liberal art? How about physics? If “grammar” is a traditional liberal art, then why don’t liberal arts schools teach grammar?

My football coach used to say that “it’s all about fundamentals.” Today, sport commentators in the National Football League say the same thing just about every week.

In education, it’s all about the fundamentals: What is education? What is its true nature and purpose? What methods or strategies are universal and what methods are particular to the group of students toward which they are aimed?

My goal in this first part of the series is to suggest that we don’t very well know the fundamentals.

In later parts, I want to offer a brief answer to the question of what liberal arts are and why they matter.

Discussion questions

Did you go to a “liberal arts” school? Did they teach you what liberal arts are? Or did they just offer a smattering of knowledge from the humanities and sciences?






16 Year Olds Agree -- Philosophy is Practical

10.12.2018 / Philosophy · classical education

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Overheard last week: A 16 year old said to her peers, “So, we all agree – metaphysics is practical. Does anyone disagree? No? Let’s move on to the next question.”

Wow.

A bit of context: In my discussion classes, I have to use tricks to get myself to stop speaking and leave room for the students to talk. My thoughtful, attentive silence gives them an opportunity take responsibility for themselves, to shoulder some of the responsibility for directing the class, and simply gives them a chance to speak.

Last week, we were discussing whether philosophy in general – and metaphysics in particular – is practical. After setting up the question, I set a timer for 15 minutes and shut my mouth, pulling out some modeling clay which occupied my hands during my self-imposed vow of silence.

Using Peter Kreeft’s masterful “Summation of Philosophy”, students were able to consider both sides of this question of the practicality of philosophy. They came – without my prompting remember! – to a consensus that indeed philosophy is practical.

How could this be?

Obviously, philosophy seems impractical to most people most of the time. But there are surprising attributes of philosophy that must be taken into account.

Your metaphysics is your set of beliefs about what is real and (perhaps) even what is valuable. Is a fetus a person? Is God real? Is it possible to reach the end of life as a happy, successful, wise, and good old man or woman? These are metaphysical questions you probably cannot avoid having at least a de facto answer to.

Surprisingly, then, any life-plan or form of living represents a de facto metaphysics. And anyone living a certain way means you have a de facto life plan. So any one who is living a certain way has some metaphysical commitments, however vague or unreflective they might be.

Even to say “I don’t have any metaphysical commitments” or “Metaphysics isn’t a real science” is a metaphysical claim – to assert that a discipline is or isn’t ‘real’ is one of your metaphysical commitments.

So metaphysics represents a way of life, and everyone who lives has a way of life. So everyone who lives has a (de facto) metaphysics that they are not so much thinking through as enacting.

Just as it pays to update your map of the terrain before you go on a hike, in case old paths have closed or new ones opened up, so it pays, then, to reflect on your metaphysics and adjust any errors or omissions in it, in case old priorities need to die or new ones need to be formed – so you can live a truly good life.






Decluttering

09.15.2018 / Life coaching

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One of the most painful things we can do in life is sort through past emotions. Big emotions do not “go away” with time. They only go away with attention. They have a life cycle, like the weather. Emotions evaporate when we feel them. Children do this instinctually – they cry as long (and as hard) as they need to to feel the feeling, then they are done.

This post is not about emotions – not directly. This post is about clutter. It’s about “stuff.” One of the most painful things I have ever done is sorting through past stuff. In my childhood, I saw a lot of people crippled by the inability to throw things away, give them away, make them useful, or get rid of them. My adult life has been a slow, painful, process of unclenching my fist and getting rid of things: artwork, clothes, batteries, papers, bills, knick-knacks, picture frames, books, notes from college, journals, shoes, hats, food, boxes, computer files, videos, CDs.

These two – sorting through feelings and sorting through stuff – are related.

“Clutter is unmade decisions.” (paraphrasing Christina Scalize*) I would add that clutter is unprocessed emotion.

A stubborn pile that refused to be organized, put away, thrown away represents a pile of emotion that has to be felt. The same probably goes for stubborn pounds that refuse to go away. Extra weight on the body and extra stuff around the house are spiritually identical.

Read the rest...






Trump's real genius and real danger lies in one and the same habit

08.08.2018 / Culture

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I read hundreds of anti-Trump articles during the primaries and the election season two years ago. Very few, almost none, of them, “got” the real problem with Trump. They said things like “he is evil, racist, sexist, xenophobic” which were so patently untrue of this liberal New York billionaire who that they didn’t stick. By overstating their case, they weakened their case.

Jonah Goldberg gets it. The real genius and real problem of Trump are one and the same thing: exaggeration. Bluster. Hype. Kayfabe.

Everything he says and does is exaggerated beyond reality. He’s not a habitual liar, he’s a habitual BS-er. (Scott Adams got this early and has never wavered.)

Trump’s philosophy is the WWE concept of “kayfabe”. Make the act real enough to seem real.

A professional wrestling term, “kayfabe” means presenting staged events as if they’re real. Pro wrestling is theater, not sport. But it thrives on the illusion that it is the latter, not the former.

Kayfabe philosophy means “fake it to make it”, and Trump takes faking it to the extreme. Even his approach to exaggerating is exaggerated. That’s what makes Trump so hard to parody – he’s already a parody version of himself.

It’s also what makes Trump so hard to put down: his version of reality is extremely clear. The patriotism is extremely patriotic; the law-enforcement is extremely lawful; the good deals are extremely good and the bad deals are painted as historically bad. For better or worse, this is his approach to life, business, and now, to international politics.

Critics would do better to understand the power of kayfabe, and supporters would do better to understand its dangers.






Chris Pratt, actor, troll, and preacher.

06.18.2018 / Culture

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Chris Pratt just received a generation achievement award from MTV so he decided to preach a sermon.

It’s not really a sermon because he had to make it funny, too. He went all Jordan Peterson on us and gave “Nine Rules from Chris Pratt, generation award winner”. The nine rules consist of 33% jokes (#1, #4, #7), 22% life advice (#3, #5), and 44% gospel lesson (#2, #9, #6, #8).

He mixes in the jokes with the gospel and even explains what he is doing: rule #4 is to trick a dog into taking his medicine by putting the medicine in a little piece of hamburger… which is exactly what he is doing.

Here’s his “gospel lesson.”

(#2) “You have a soul, be careful with it.”

(#9) “You are imperfect.”

(#6) “God is real, he loves you and wants the best for you.”

(#8) “Learn to pray. It’s easy and so good for your soul.

He even alluded to patriotism and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ when he said:

“grace is a gift. Like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.”

Beautiful work from Chris Pratt.

To see his whole speech, click the link below or here’s all the lessons in order:


Number one: breathe. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate.

Number two: You have a soul. Be careful with it.

Number three: Don’t be a turd. If you’re strong, be a protector and if you’re smart, be a humble influencer. Strength and intelligence can be weapons and do not wield them against the weak. That makes you a bully. Be bigger than that.

Number four: When giving a dog medicine, put the medicine in a little piece of hamburger and they won’t even know they’re eating medicine.

Number five: Doesn’t matter what it is, earn it. A good deed, reach out to someone in pain, be of service, it feels good and it’s good for your soul.

Number six: God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you. Believe that. I do.

Number seven: If you have to poop at a party, but you’re embarrassed because you’re going to stink up the bathroom, just do what I do. Lock the door. Sit down, get all the pee out first. Okay? Then, when all the pee’s done, poop-flush-boom. You minimize the amount of time that the poop is touching the air because if you poop first, then it takes you longer to pee and you’re peeing on it, stirring it up and the poop particles create a cloud that goes out and then everyone at the party will know that you pooped. Just trust me, it’s science.

Number eight: Learn to pray. It’s easy and it’s so good for your soul.

Number nine: Nobody is perfect. People are going to tell you you’re perfect just the way you are; you’re not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there’s a powerful force that designed you that way. And if you’re willing to accept that you will have grace and grace is a gift. Like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.

God bless you. Please get home safely.


Watch the video here






Rejoice!

06.15.2018 / Philosophy

Elder Porphyrios

My own idea, for what it is worth, is that all sadness which is not either arising from the repentance of a concrete sin and hastening towards concrete amendment or restitution, or else arising from pity and hastening to active assistance, is simply bad; and I think we all sin by needlessly disobeying the apostolic injunction to ‘rejoice’ as much as by anything else. Humility, after the first shock, is a cheerful virtue.

– C. S. Lewis

Cheerfulness is a choice. Or rather, it is downstream from a choice. We can choose to focus on the good, to be stubbornly grateful for the gifts we have been given, and to notice beauty whenever it arises.

We cannot avoid virtuous empathy for the suffering. We cannot avoid virtuous contrition for our own failings. But we can and should avoid almost every other form of sadness: sadness for wrongs done to us, or for our own ill fortune, or for the world not going the way we want it to.

Those who rejoice, and those who don’t, will see the consequences appear in the very lines and contours of their faces.






Oh look, another article criticizing Jordan Peterson

06.11.2018 / Politics

I recently stumbled across a Facebook group compiling Jordan Peterson “character assassinations”. It requires some scrolling to read all the articles, so I decided to put all the links into a single list.

Why? As a Peterson fan, it’s useful to consider these critiques, to hear the other side. Secondly, it’s also amusing to read the more unhinged and vitriolic hot takes people keep writing. Thirdly, if you’re not a Peterson fan, these articles might help you articulate your criticisms.

You’ll notice a smattering of articles from November 2017 through April 2018, followed by a rapid uptick of articles in May. Will June bring have another flood of articles or not?

Without further ado, a (fairly complete) list of articles criticizing JBP:

November 2017 - February 2018

  1. “Jordan Peterson is causing problems at another university now”. By Drew Brown. Vice. Nov 20, 2017
  2. “The Professor of Piffle – The dangerous underside of Jordan Peterson’s crusade against the humanities” by Ira Wells. Nov 27, 2017
  3. “The Jordan Peterson Paradox: high intellect, or just another angry white guy?” by John Semley. The Globe and Mail. January 31, 2018
  4. “Jordan Peterson’s Bull***t.” by Harrison Fluss. Jacobin Mag. February 2, 2018.
  5. “The Right’s Favorite New Intellectual Has Some Truly Pitiable Ideas About Masculinity – why does anyone take Jordan Peterson seriously?”, by Jacob Bacharach. Alternet. February 13, 2018.
  6. “Why Are So Many Young Men Drawn to Jordan Peterson’s Intellectual Misogyny?” by Grant Maxwell, APA Online. February 20, 2018.
  7. “A Serious Man”, by John Ganz. The Baffler. February 7, 2018.

March

  1. “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism”, by Pankaj Mishra. NYR Daily. March 19, 2018.
  2. “The Intellectual We Deserve”, by Nathan J. Robinson. Current Affairs. March 14, 2018
  3. “A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits: On Jordan B. Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life””, by Houman Barekat. LA Review of Books. March 8, 2018.
  4. “How Anti-Leftism Has Made Jordan Peterson a Mark for Fascist Propoganda”, by Noah Berlatsky. Pacific Standard. March 2, 2018
  5. “Sorry, Jordan Peterson: rage isn’t a great look for a self-help guru”, by Nesrine Malik. The Guardian. March 23, 2018.

April

  1. “A (Scorching) Review of 12 Rules for Life”, by Richard Poplak. Johannesburg Review of Books. April 4, 2018.
  2. “Thus Spoke Jordan Peterson – The best-selling psychologist isn’t leading young men to salvation — he’s delivering them to authoritarianism.” by David Livingstone Smith, John Kaag. April 4, 2018.

May

  1. “Is Jordan Peterson Enabling Jew Hatred?”, by Ari Feldman. Forward. May 11, 2018
  2. “Jordan Peterson Exposed as Globalist Operative…” by Shane Trejo. PB News. May 14, 2018.
  3. “How white male victimhood got monetised”, by Damien Walter. Independent. May 16, 2018.
  4. “Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy” by Nellie Bowles. New York Times. May 18, 2018.
  5. “The New York Times Enters the Icy Domain of Jordan Peterson, the Incel’s Intellectual”, by Whitney Kimball. Jezebel. May 20, 2018.
  6. “Jordan Peterson Revealed as a Men’s Rights Activists”, by James S. Fell. Body for Wife. May 22, 2018
  7. “Jordan Peterson Seems Like a Terrible Therapist” by Jonathan Foiles. Slate. May 22, 2018.
  8. “Why Reasoning with Jordan Peterson Fans Can’t Work, Or: Privilege is a Feeling State”, by Matthew Remski. May 21, 2018
  9. “Jordan Peterson and the Rise of the Cargo Cult Intellectual”, by Helen Lewis. New Statesman. May 23, 2018
  10. “Jordan Peterson may be a ‘public intellectual’, but his latest theory isn’t very clever”, by Hadley Freeman. May 23, 2018
  11. “Jordan Peterson’s moment of fame — and the dangers of patriarchal pseudoscience”, by Jared Yates Sexton. Salon. May 22, 2018.
  12. “Don’t Fall For The New, Well-Groomed Alt-Right. It’s Still The Alt-Right”, by Max Koslowski. Junkee. 23 May 2018.
  13. “Solo: A Star Wars Story shows us the hero all feminist men have been waiting for”, by Damien Walter. Independent. May 23, 2018.
  14. “Jordan Peterson Is The New Chief Lobbyist For ‘Nice Guys’ And Incels” by Davide Mastracci. Huffintong Post. May 31, 2018
  15. “I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter. Now I think he’s dangerous”, by Bernard Schiff. The Star. May 25, 2018.

June

  1. “Jordan Peterson is the Flat Earth Society of psychology and philosophy” by Caitlin Cohen. Dead State. June 2, 2018.
  2. “Jordan Peterson’s Anti-Christian Vision”, by Nirmal Dass. Hedge Accordingly. June 3, 2018
  3. “The Fundamental Errors of Jordan Peterson”, by Scott Oliver. Vice. June 4, 2018
  4. “Christ on a bike – the strange case of Jordan Peterson”, by Richard Cooke. The Monthly. June 6, 2018
  5. “A feminist philosopher makes the case against Jordan Peterson”, by Sean Illing. Vox. June 6, 2018.

I’ll update the list if this post is useful (just leave a comment if so). But for the most recent examples, join the Facebook group!






Where Tolkien got the Hobbit Names

05.28.2018 / Culture

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I just finished “reading” (i.e., listening to the audio books of) a few Dostoevsky novels and stories, hence my reading queue had an opening. I decided to finally return to the Prose Edda, a 13th century collection of Norse Mythologies and one of the great classics of Scandinavian literature.

It’s rough going at points. Lots of Icelandic names. That’s one of the reasons I’m listening to it on audio, as I do with Dostoevsky, rather than slogging through the text.

Anyhow, I’m stumbling through the Prose Edda, minding my own business, when I come across a remarkable passage I want to share with you Tolkien fans.

The surprising passage is from the second part of the Prose Edda, titled “Gylfaginning”, which is about the adventures of Gylfi.

In this passage, Gangleri is quizzing Harr about what he knows. Harr is then showing off his knowledge of gods and nature. At the end, Harr explains how the “dwarves” were made under the earth.

The first two long paragraphs I include to give you a flavor. Then notice the names of the dwarves at the bottom.

Read the rest...







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