Monday, April 10, 2006

Deep Thought: What Was the Question?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief.

You know, sometimes I get really frustrated with my ability to communicate. My last post, Is There Universal Agreement? took me a full three hours to write, which works out less than one byte per second, including HTML markup. And judging by Ernie's response, Ontologically Correct, the rate at which I actually communicated my intended meaning was rather less than that. Hopefully I can correct some of that tonight.

The majority of Ernie's reply is aimed at the latter half of my post, in which I gave my reaction to his proposed trinitarian universe, where one can meaningfully speak of a material universe, a rational universe and a spiritual universe. (Can there be more?) Now Ernie had also proposed, and I agreed with, this definition:

The universe is the objective reality behind our subjective experience.

Note that the definition speaks of the universe and the subjective reality. Singular. But yet we also have, potentially, three universes related to (according to Ernie) three kinds of experience. In his prior post, The Universe, And Three Examples he used the term "sub-divinity" to refer to the cosmoverse, logoverse and (by implication) the pneumaverse. I could go on, but the point I am trying to make is that we see to be in danger of going off of the deep end, where we will next begin to discuss what the definition of "is" is.

Let me put it this way. I am skeptical of classifying our experiences as simply sensations, cogitations and emotions, as if an experience can be only one of these. They are abstractions, yes, that we can use to categorize our experiences, but when those abstractions become the basis for separate but inter-related universes, it seems to me that the universes that result are conceptual models or linguistic constructs. They are ways to "classify reality" in some loose sense, but not necessarily because there are really these separate or even separate-but-connected realities.

Perhaps with sufficient care in our definitions we could make progress here. From where I sit, it does not look promising.

Still, I will try to answer some points Ernie makes.

Now, if I understand Alan correctly, he is asserting naturalism, which in this context appears to mean:

5-A. The character of economic divinity is identical to that of physical reality

Which would seem to imply conceptual and relational experiences are illusions created by physical processes, and do not reflect any underlying reality. Thus, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Further, it would imply that the statement "It is Better to Believe Truth than Choose Self-Deception" is a non sequitor. Is that a valid inference, Alan?

I don't deny Alan's right to make such an assertion, but I would like to point out that it is essentially a religious assertion, and a fairly strong one at that. Also, I find it completely inconsistent with his earlier assertions about Truth and Choice -- not to mention Good -- so I worry that I may have missed a definition somewhere along the way.

I am not entirely following Ernie here, but then he's worried he's not following me, so we are probably both right. Let me try to clear things up. First of all, I have tried to be clear that my assertion of naturalism is of a tentative sort, wherein I do not think there is sufficient reason to go beyond naturalism. I do not pretend that I can provide entirely satisfying natural explanations for everything: consciousness and choice are good examples of concepts that have no compelling natural explanation (that I know of). My comments about the possibility that there is no true choice were not intended to be an assertion that there is no true choice, only that it is possible. If so, we would have to make some adjustments to our concept of morality, though I think such adjustments may be possible without discarding the concept of morality altogether. (Please note the abundance of "weasel-words": "I think", "may be possible", "altogether".)

Is that still a strong, religious assertion? It seems anything but strong to me to say that something is merely possible.

Apparently I need to clarify this statement:

Positing a separate spiritual existence to explain them does make things easier, but it strikes me as being very much a sort of "God of the gaps" explanation when we attribute to something "unnatural" anything we cannot (yet) explain.

Ernie responded:

To be sure, Alan might counter that my assertion of the existence of relational and conceptual reality is similarly religious. However, I would riposte that -- unless he is willing to a priori deny the validity of mental and emotional experiences -- it is merely an inevitable consequence of our definition. There is no "God in the gaps" here -- in fact, there is no god at all, yet; merely an inference from empirical observations.

We seem to be coming at this from very different angles. I am (or was) viewing the "pneumaverse" as a kind of separate-but-connected reality, a la Cartesian-dualism, where the soul/spirit/identity of a person resides. That kind of universe cannot, as far as I can tell, be an inevitable consequence of our definition. As I reflect on this now and as I look back on how Ernie originally defined pneumaverse, I think it likely that I misunderstood Ernie here and that I am still not grasping his use of the terms "universe" and "real" and "independent". And "is". :-)

So I have to ask again, how do we proceed? I raised several questions and possible avenues for continuing, which Ernie kindly summarized. If he has touched on the first two questions he listed, the ones concerning historical truth vs. philosophical considerations and concerning whether belief in God is real, imaginary or complex, I missed it. I am truly curious about both of these, though I suspect the first one has greater potential for developing our common understanding. Can you respond to those, Ernie?

No comments: