How Should I Be A Sceptic -- contra contradictions

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

I have explained why I reject a flat presumption of our inability to reach true and useful conclusions about the existence and character of God through reasoning: in essence, I reject the presumption because it involves (one way or another) self-contradiction.

I have also explained why I reject much (though not all) of circular Presuppositionalism theories: in essence, I reject some of their claims because they are also self-contradictive. I do recognize some real usefulness in such procedures, (although I do not consider such methods to be the best tools for the goal of my book). But at the same time, I allow such methods have some real usefulness precisely because there are certain (limited) goals of such methods, which are not self-contradictive! I am willing to consider the feasibility of the parts which do not gut themselves; but I reject the parts which do.

However, we live in a society of people who not only accidentally produce self-contradictive theories (no ages and topics are free from that risk), but who often positively embrace contradictions. I find these positions in the theories of the religious and non-religious alike. Worse, I find people on both sides who vocally reject contradictions, yet who go on to intentionally (not accidentally) foster them in order to 'bolster' their point.

I call this 'the 6=16 paradigm'.

I do not accept the 6=16 paradigm. I hope I do not have contradictions in my own work; but if I do they are there by accident, not by design. I think nothing real is gained by including them or resorting to them, and virtually everything is lost by the attempt.

Let me begin by examining this issue from the 'believer' side of the aisle.

When we humans try to wrap our brains around a contradictory set of propositions, we experience an emotion. Put bluntly, I think this emotion is 'confusion'. It is the same emotion we feel when we try to mentally 'picture' or 'account for' something too large or complicated for our picture-thinking to adequately express: our thoughts cannot 'take it in'.

Now, the Independent Fact of existence--the Final Ground upon which all other facts depend (which I have begun to mention already, and which I will be discussing more directly throughout future entries, including if I should believe there is only one or more than one)--whether it is sentient or non-sentient or natural or supernatural, is not an entity our thoughts can completely take in. Indeed, even if Nature (the system we perceive when we look around us) is not the IF, it is still an entity--and contains entities--which we cannot fully understand.

Please remember from my previous chapter that I do not therefore mean the IF must be completely unintelligible; if it was, we would never have discovered even that--for the utterly unintelligible can only be something about which no one ever thinks at all. There is a major difference between something being not completely intelligible to us, and being completely unintelligible.

Nature, for instance, is not completely intelligible to us. But we nevertheless know quite a lot about it; and in fact the more we discover, the clearer we can see the lines of demarcation through which our knowledge cannot reach.

So, for instance, we can detect the effects of quantum events in many ways, but we know we cannot simultaneously calculate the velocity and position of an electron. Yet (mathematically speaking) we can still understand and explain why this is so.

Similarly, we can look into the 'past' of our physical universe by looking in various physical directions, but at a certain distance in space-time our ability to discern events breaks down--and we cannot see effectively at all into the physical 'future'!

No theist (who understands the principles) would claim the 'visual time-travel' trick illustrates a supernatural limit of perception (although perhaps quantum effects could); and certainly a philosophical naturalist is committed to the proposition that these are all natural phenomena. Yet they are blocks to our ability to perceive and comprehend reality; they are opaque to our reasoning. The best we can do is to understand why nothing intelligible can be forthcoming from these 'directions'; and, to our credit as a species, we seem to be doing a good job at this.

The atheist, then, should be able to understand that if God exists, there will be aspects of Him that our minds cannot quite 'take in'; not through contradiction, but because the Divine characteristics in fact express themselves that way--the way certain characteristics of Nature must necessarily block some (not all) of our inquiries.

I say again: these are not contradictions. It would be contradictory if, given these characteristics, we could find them all, even in principle, intelligible.

The sceptic will very wisely suspect the theist will use these conceptual 'twilight zones' as a safety-box. I admit this strategy has been widely overused by some of my brethren; and I will try not to do it myself.

At the same time, the sceptic should remember the example of Nature; and also remember that we can always learn more about the phenomena: the causes and effects of these conceptual 'twilight zones'. We cannot see into the cosmic future the way we can see into the cosmic past; and we know why we cannot; and we have some idea of what characteristics of Nature this is an expression of. God will have conceptual 'twilight zones' as well; but we should be able to discover why we cannot functionally discover any more in that direction, and this would itself be a (further!) knowledge about God--if He exists, of course.

Now, what a devout theist (such as myself) feels when he considers the 'edges' of God's comprehensibility, also happens to be the psychological 'feeling' any of us experience when we consider anything beyond what our minds can 'take in'.

When we are discussing God or Nature or anything considered (by us as individual thinkers) to be 'real', this feeling may be called 'the Awe of the Sublime'. Many theists consider this feeling to be proper to the study of God; and I agree that it is. Many theists (and atheists, for that matter) consider this feeling to be proper to the study of Nature; and I do agree that in one way or another we thus perceive Nature's "grandeur"--it is not a useless feeling, but reflects our perception of objective facts we cannot totally grasp.

But a theist--especially one who has been trained to value emotional response over intellectual understanding--may be led to equate this feeling particularly with God. Because this feeling is linked in a positive way with something the theist really cares about, he might fall into one or both of two errors: anything dealing with God must produce this feeling (else it doesn't deal with God), and/or anything that produces this feeling must be positively linked to a real aspect of God. In the end, a theist may combine these two errors to reach this conclusion: the best (or maybe only) way to think about God is to seek out or even fabricate expressions of this experience.

As I have said, this emotional impression arises whenever we try to mentally 'grasp' something that by its own character cannot quite be grasped in such a way. And as it happens, a contradictory proposition cannot be grasped in such a way; consequently the attempt to do so generates this feeling. A theist in the state I have just described will thus consider contradictions a Divine hallmark (or sanction) for expressing thoughts about God.

The entire situation becomes more complex because often we must express multiple aspects of real things as paradoxes. In today's language 'paradox' often means only 'contradiction'; but in antiquity a 'paradox' could mean a set of propositions (or even an event) which, although true, looks at first glance like a contradiction.

This is a very important distinction. The proper use of paradox denies real contradiction of the propositions, while recognizing the appearance of contradiction as an alert that further knowledge must be gained to better understand the situation.

For instance, photons paradoxically exhibit properties both of waves and particles. Very few people deny photons are real; and most people who study them understand and affirm that the exhibition of these characteristics points to something real about the photons that we haven't quite figured out yet. We might eventually discover, that thanks to the 'character' of 'Nature', we will always 'naturally' lack the ability to reconcile these two phenomena; but we will know this because we have discovered and understood some real principles which clearly mark the border of a photon's 'intelligibility'--just like we can mathematically explain, and understand, why it must be impossible for us to simultaneously calculate an electron's velocity and position. No proper contradiction is involved.

Similarly, there may be (and we might reasonably suspect probably will be) real paradoxes concerning the character and existence of God; aspects which at first will look like contradictions, and which we may discover cannot be resolved--not because they are contradictory, but because the necessary characteristics of God, even as a real entity, exclude that type of inquiry. Yet this means we will, in that case, have positively understood something else true and useful about Divine characteristics. We will not be left absolutely with no true and useful information about the subject.

But you, the reader, should be able to see that no matter the topic, the risk always exists that the mere appearance of contradiction in a legitimate paradox may be confused with a proper contradiction.

Furthermore, it doesn't take much imagination to see that if for some reason the 'feeling' that accompanies these phenomena should become valued in itself, or as a pointer toward something else; and if rational inquiry into these aspects should for some reason (irony intended!) be disparaged; then people who value that feeling and disparage rational inquiry will begin to treat contradictions as having real value, to be fostered and defended as 'true contradictions' (again, irony intended.)

Although this process is certainly not limited to religious philosophies, I think something like this has happened in many religions--including, I'm sorry to say, in Christianity.

[Next week: why I'm sorry to say this.]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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