Friday 15 March 2013

Absolute abstractions can make people crazy


There are some words, quite a lot of them, that name absolutes - and they can drive us crazy.

We can, it seems, quite easily get to the point where the abstraction takes over from immediate reality, such that the absolute requires nothing short of absolute submission to... to what?

To the absolute truth of the absolute.


An example:

Properly speaking, equal means the same - and 'the same' means no more than that things are in the same category - to say that humans are equal before God, or the Law, or whatever, means only that they are members of the same category.

Thus, there is a relationship with God which is characteristic of humans, and the category of humans includes (for Christians) men and women, children and adults.

The word equal is doing no necessary work here (or anywhere else), but instead - by its pseudo-mathematical and un-human precision, making our brains go into convulsions.


But in politics, equality has become an absolute abstraction.

As an absolute 'equality' comes first, as an abstraction it can never be known whether any specific reality matches up to the absolute value of being wholly 'equal'.

Because we cannot measure the concordance between reality and an absolute abstraction, yet hold the absolute abstraction as primary - equality becomes a concept which requires absolute submission.

Even to discuss the reality, achievability or degree of equality is an appalling thing - because equality is absolute.


Substitute for equality 'justice', we see the same.

There are many examples: freedom, democracy, human rights, poverty, oppression...

There can be, there is, often a gross dissociation between a person's adherence to what would seem to be the implications of equality, or justice and their actual lives (both outer and inner). But once the absolute abstraction holds-sway, then that doesn't matter - because of course there never can be any proportionality between an absolute and reality...


To refuse to submit to a concept like equality is to insult equality.

To refuse to say the right things about equality, to put equality first, to swear by the concept of equality... such things are seen as a gross act of aggression against society.

What matters is submission to the concept: public, and preferably private, submission to the validity of the idea in all its abstract purity.


In philosophy the 'omni' words when applied to God are similar absolute abstractions.

In terms of human understanding, to have 'total' power, knowledge, extent doesn't mean a thing.

We could imagine power, knowledge and extent which had no definable bounds, but our minds implode at the matter of absolute power, knowledge, extent...


And in religion these unimaginable incomprehensible absolute abstractions operate in an analogous fashion to equality and justice in modern politics...

People are not required to understand the omni words, because they are un-understandable; they are not required to live-by the omni words, because their implications are abstract and disconnected from life.

People are required to submit to the omni words; because to do otherwise is seen as insulting God (to whom these absolute abstractions have been linked).


So these omni words, and the absolute abstractions which lie behind them, come to rule religions; despite that nobody knows what they mean, and nobody even knows what it would mean to live by them.

It should be possible to make a one-sided rejection of omni attributes; to say, that don't make sense... and leave it it that.

But anybody who challenges an omni attribution is assumed to be stating the opposite as an alternative in philosophical terms.

And the opposite to an absolute abstraction is a terrifying thing, not least because it is necessarily perceived as incomprehensible and as craziness-inducing as the abstraction to which it is put in opposition...

So to oppose an approved absolute abstraction is to be perceived as proposing something so vast and total as to be mind-numbing in its horribleness.


So we recurrently get the situation in which submission to the official absolute belief system, in all its abstract perfection, becomes the hallmark of orthodoxy, and indeed in practice the one and only absolutely (!) required mark of orthodoxy.


For some religions that is appropriate, but not for Christianity.

For Christians, the essence is the personal relationship with God: that is the essence, not the whole thing, but we must work outwards from that.

And we cannot work outwards from a personal relationship to meet an absolute abstraction - if we try to do this, if we insist on doing that - at some point we will leave behind the personal relationship.

For all matters of doctrine, the  Christian hopes and aims to achieve a conviction in his heart; to understand is to have that conviction - and that conviction is of the form of a personal relationship.


The Christian must strive above all to love God; but we cannot love an absolute abstraction, only a person.



Anonymous said...

I give assent to the omni words. Yet I have a personal relationship with God, and the words, and the concepts they represent, don't drive me crazy. To my mind, refusing to submit to the omni words is not necessarily an insult to God. It is however a refusal to submit to the truths which he has revealed through his Church. And that's not an insult to God either, it's just a lack of faith.

It’s not clear to me what you mean when you say that “equality [or justice or whatever] has become an absolute abstraction”. What’s an “absolute abstraction”?

I would get your meaning if you were to say that in modern liberal democratic society, submission to the idea of equality requires absolute submission; by which is meant, submission without question or reservation.

Now it’s true that the omni words require submission without question or reservation – at least in the Catholic faith. But so does every article of the Catholic faith, including such non-abstract matters as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. They require submission because they are believed to have been revealed to us by God, through the Church and the Scriptures – God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Therefore to reject them is to reject God’s trustworthiness and veracity.

“But anybody who challenges an omni attribution is assumed to be stating the opposite as an alternative in philosophical terms.”

I wouldn’t say that challenging the omni words is to be stating the opposite. I would just say that you lack faith in the revelation provided by God through the Church.

“The Christian must strive above all to love God; but we cannot love an absolute abstraction, only a person.”

Well of course. But while there are some things about my wife that are abstractions -- I can say that she is bold or brave, confident, earnest, enthusiastic, affectionate -- that doesn’t mean I have to make a choice between loving my wife’s earnestness or loving my wife. Neither is a choice required between loving God’s omniscience or loving God. “Omniscient” is simply an adjective that describes one of God’s attributes. You can love him regardless of whether you happen to be thinking of the word and what it signifies at any given moment.

dearieme said...

Some abstractions are rather difficult to phrase satisfactorily. My father, who was the firmest of atheists, was perfectly content to instruct me that man's equality consisted of being equal in the eyes of God, and equal before the law. My point isn't that you and he would have agreed, but that he'd found no better phrasing of the first point than the traditional one.

(I, as a teenage pest, of course pointed out that that first one ruled out Papal Infallibility. He replied that it might well rule out the validity of all priesthoods, depending on what exactly the priests claimed for themselves.)

Kristor said...

So far as I can tell, messing about with abstractions is important to faith only insofar as it allows us to remove the impediments thereto that arise from our misunderstanding of what the faith actually proposes.

For example, the Problem of Evil is a huge impediment to faith. If we can show folks how to think about evil properly, we can remove it as a stumbling block. If they "get" our explanation based on abstract reasoning, they can stop worrying about Evil - it can stop being a Problem – and they can buckle down and get on with the quotidian business of being a Christian – including serious prayer to God as a Person, worship and adoration, service, and so forth.

For some folks, of course, this process of getting clear on what the faith proposes has no definite point of completion. Indeed, it is hard for me to see how it could: there are an infinite number of things to understand about God. My experience is that for most folks, once they get their major stumbling blocks cleared away to their satisfaction, they are able to proceed into a life of faith without too much trouble, and without further intellectual confusion, doubt, or uncertainty. Most of those on the other hand who are deeply into theology, for whom the work with abstract concepts never ends, find that as they gain more and more clarity and knowledge about the arguments of the faith their devotion increases more and more.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - I agree; with the added point that the Problem of Evil is a huge impediment to faith and one that is difficult to remove by abstract reasoning, precisely because it is caused by abstract reasoning.

People can (or can suppose that they can) *get* an omnipotent God that can do absolutely anything He wants to whenever and however He wants.

They can *get* a God which is wholly Good (a loving Father, whom they should love). What they cannot *get* is why such a Good and loving God would allow/cause such pain and evil when they have been told that He can do absolutely anything.

(That is not how real Father's behave, is it? There are limits to the suffering we would impose on our children deliberately and for their own good - and these limits are much lower than what happens to Men on earth. Thus - or thus many people reason - an omnipotent God is apparently less loving and Good than Man, than us - than a real life Father would be. You can see how ascribed omnipotence causes the problem; and how any effective solution is just too complex - many-step, unintuitive and incomprehensible to be really convincing. And you can see how, the official Christianity of the intellectuals can tend towards submission and pure monotheism with a (de facto) omnipotent impersonal un-loving abstract God, which folk Christianity ameliorates by adding beneficent supernatural intercessors such as the Saints or the Blessed Virgin Mary.)

Simple people and children cannot believe in omnipotence-plus-the-auxiliary-hypotheses-necessary-to-make-an-omnipotent-God-also-Good; because it makes no sense to them.

(In practice simple people and children will believe - at any specific moment - in one or the other - either an omnipotent God to whom they owe submission (or else); or a loving God who is their Heavenly Father and who will always help them; but who must often help them in an indirect, roundabout and delayed, fashion - in this respect just like a real-life Father.)

The kind of omnipotence-plus-the-auxiliary-hypotheses-God seems too obviously contrived, too obviously cobbled-together, and not-enough-like-a-person for us to love.

As well as potential benefits, there is always a price to pay for abstraction - and the longer it goes and the more complex it gets - the greater the price.

George said...

I still feel the Garden of Eden contains the full mystery of good vs evil if only we were able to fully comprehend it.

On the surface it is a simple allegory, and that should suffice for the simple explanation, yet we say "obviously it has deeper meaning or is to some degree simply incomprehensible" and find our material literalistic mindset unsatisfied. Yet mythology remains common to all traditions, and is similarly structured in a simple way with apparent mystery embeded.

It seems that may have been sufficient at one time in history, but our mindset has somehow changed so that we can not accept the embeded mystery and find the story too childish or impossible to accept for need of material literalism.

Agellius said...

Kristor writes, "Most of those on the other hand who are deeply into theology ... find that as they gain more and more clarity and knowledge about the arguments of the faith their devotion increases more and more."

Exactly. I don't think it's warranted to conclude that interest in the more abstract aspects of theology must cause one to neglect charity. It can, but no more so than an abiding interest in the intricacies of music, or mathematics, or medicine, or any other interest that can be indulged in inordinately.

It's a matter of keeping things in their proper perspective. And theology, I submit, helps one to know what the proper perspective is, and to teach it to others.

Imnobody said...

I guess you will enjoy this quote:

"Greek philosophy as a whole tends to depersonalization and abstraction [...]

It was characteristic of the genius of the Greek mind to run into abstractions. It is inherent in all apostate thought to think abstractly [...]

It will be found [...] that all three of these characteristics just enumerated [...] (b) a tendency toward depersonalization and abstraction [...] will be found to be characteristic of all non- or antitheistic thought"

A Survey of Christian Epistemology. Cornelius Van Til

Your ideas about abstraction are also coherent with "The Master and Its Emissary"