Friday, 8 January 2016

The un-understandability of abstraction: or, let's be clear about God (reflections on Owen Barfield)

First, the abstract version...

Abstract thinking, thinking about things in general, is very difficult - so difficult that it is difficult to know when you know - and when you have got lost in abstraction.

A lot of the philosophy I read is made more difficult by lacking a basis in metaphysics - the philosophy just 'hangs there' in mid air - not really explaining, lacking context.

It is an advantage of theology when God is put into position at the top of the explanatory scheme - rooting the further speculations. But then again, for most philosophical writers, God is conceptualised with extreme abstraction - impersonally, as a collection of attributes or non-attributes.

Only when God is understood as a person with personal attributes; a man with a plan; a man who has motivations, hopes and can feel sorrow and joy: our Father... only with such concrete clarity are the abstract schemes rooted.

I find that what was a complex and hard-to-follow explanation often enough becomes something simple enough to tell a child - when expressed in terms of what God wants.

All this is a factor when authors leave-out God. They may leave Him out because they suppose they don't believe him (although their scheme entails implicitly that they actually do), or in deference to the conventions of the genre that they are writing in, or in hope of attracting a wider audience.

But there is a price to pay - misunderstanding by others, on top of the danger of self-misunderstanding.

Is abstraction more explanatory? Maybe not. Maybe the greater scope of abstract explanations is merely the result of a wider deficit of understanding?

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Now the concrete version...

Understanding the work of Owen Barfield has been made far more difficult than it need be by the omission of God from the explanatory scheme. In particular, the failure to link the philosophical scheme to what God wants, and why.

For example, great effort is made to explain the evolution of human consciousness through three phases from Original Participation and aiming at Final Participation - but it is never explicitly explained why, what this epic drama of millennia is all for. Nor is it explained why God needs to achieve His goals by such a long-drawn-out and unreliable process. 

Now, all this can be answered, and the answers are implicit and can be quarried out. Barfield was a Christian. But the fact is that most of Owen Barfield's advocates and admirers were and are not Christian (or, if they are, never mention the fact) - and indeed may be 'post-modernists.

Clearly, the modern Barfeldians do not realise that the evolution of consciousness metaphysic is neither-here-nor there without God.

In the first place, it is a metaphysical scheme which, as with all metaphysical schemes, intrinsically cannot be proven empirically. Barfield says he came upon it by studying the changing meaning of words, but that is autobiography. Observations of changing meanings of words can be 'explained' in innumerable ways that do not entail a fundamental restructuring of metaphysical reality. 

But secondly - even if it is true (which I believe it is!) the evolution of consciousness has no significance unless there is some reason for us to live by it - we need to know whether the new metaphysics of consciousness is Good for us to believe, no just whether it is coherent and consistent with the facts.

I presume that Barfield left-out God partly in order to make his work accessible to a wide audience who did not share his Christianity, and partly because he did not himself see his work as flowing-from his Christian belief - but rather as pointing-at it. Whatever the reason, there was a price to pay - and the price was:

1. His work became very difficult to understand , due to its abstract nature. and,

2. People who misunderstood his work were unable to detect their own misunderstanding - again due to the difficulties of extended abstract thinking. Consequently,

3. Most writer about Owen Barfield seem to leave out God, and thereby implicitly reduce the significance of his work to being some kind of conceptual metaphysical schema simply floating in a space somewhere in-between our personal lives and the ultimate basis of reality.

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The trouble is that when we force or allow ourselves to be crystal clear about God, it comes across as childish which puts off most intellectuals and academics - thereby destroying ones' audience. It also makes things so clear and easy to understand that people immediately feel able to mock, criticise and to reject - whereas an abstract scheme can seldom be understood well enough to reject it outright, and will be ignored rather than mocked.

So, what should Barfield have done?

Well, I am not sure how Barfield understood God - and probably he had the rather unclear conception which is usual among most Anglicans - that is, he probably regarded God as in some symbolic way our Heavenly Father, but probably felt embarrassed and uncomfortable about 'anthropomorphising' God - and preferred to discuss Him abstractly, symbolically and so on.

But my own view of God is derived from Mormonism, and is straightforwardly anthropomorphic and concrete - also I believe that we can and do know what God wants for us and from us in general terms: he wants us to grow spiritually to become divine like him, so we can eventually have a relationship of 'friendship' rather than a parent-child relationship (or rather, a perfected loving relationship like that between a grown-up child and his Father rather than like the relationship of a perfect Father and his infant son).

Anyway... I think that what Barfield needs is something on the lines of explaining that God wants us to grow up, and attain adult consciousness (which is Final Participation) - but we must ourselves want this to happen. It can happen by the experience of living - experience is necessary, therefore the process takes time.

By our innate agency, we are free to accept or reject each step in our spiritual growth - and this applies not only to the individual soul but to the (various type of) group soul. The individual soul can achieve final participation (albeit temporarily and imperfectly during mortal life), but at the level of the group soul - e.g. the nation, or civilisation, the process is much slower.

This happens because, as the Bible makes clear, God works with 'people's as well as with individuals - because individuals are actually, in fact, like it or not - part of peoples. We began as immersed in a group consciousness, and that link to the group remains. 

The stages in the evolution of consciousness which we may observe in history are the deliberations of the groups soul in moving through the developmental process form childhood consciousness, through adolescent consciousness - but none have yet reached adult consciousness (and indeed the current most advanced civilisation has turned-away-from adult consciousness).

I could go on - but this is just supposed to illustrate how the ideas are easier to express and understand when they are put into the full context.

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Men need, Men must have, purpose - and purpose entails a divine plan and the reasons for it - reasons which we can understand and agree to.

If we leave-out purpose from our explanations then those explanations will be abstract, and become very difficult to understand, and more difficult to make sense of; and easy to misunderstand without realizing...

But if we include purpose, clearly and explicitly... everything gets much simpler. The difficulty is then related more to doing what is required, rather than (as so often) getting stuck on trying to understand what it is that we are supposed to do.