Sunday 24 January 2021

Ask an abstract question, and you'll get an abstract answer

It has been a problem of theology since the early days of the Christian church; that people ask abstract questions and get abstract answers. 

The problem is that all abstractions are on the one hand 'models' of reality, not reality itself - and consequently they have an unreal and unsatisfying quality about them; so that 'human psychology' remains unsatisfied by abstract explanations, at a deep level*.  

Yet the identity of abstraction is typically un-clear, and the meaning of infinite likewise. So, this is an explanation that does not explain - rather, it layers incomprehension (mystery) upon incomprehension; while apparently explaining. 

What about the power of God? For Christians, God is the creator. Because 'creation' is an abstraction, this, statement invites explanation of what exactly is created - from what? Orthodox theologians say that God creates everything (except God himself) from nothing (termed creation ex nihilo). 

But creation ex nihilo is an assertion of something beyond natural human experience and understanding. Indeed, the concept of a phenomenon of creation ex nihilo seems to have arisen among Greek philosophers, who were abstractly reasoning about ultimate causes. Before this, there was no such concept, and certainly there was no such concept for the ancient tribal Hebrews who wrote the Old Testament. 

Therefore, to explain the abstract property of creation in terms of an abstract ultimate is not to 'explain' but to layer abstractions, and to create intrinsic mystery. If abstraction is regarded as the real-reality, then we get a root un-clarity that becomes definitional; as happened with orthodox Christian theology.

As another example: How great is the power of God? 

Power is an abstraction - and indeed, it is very difficult to provide as satisfactory definition of power. But in trying to explain the scope of God's (undefined) power, the philosopher finds it impossible to conceive of a clear boundary to God's 'power'.

(...Especially if the philosopher is already assuming that God is capable of creation ex nihilo; which seems to suggest that God can make anything thus do anything.) 

So the abstract philosopher then reaches for another abstraction and states that God's 'power' is 'infinite' - i.e. that God is omnipotent

This layering of abstractions - which abstractions are then taken as definitional - then creates all sorts of (as I would regard them artifactual) problems. Especially when it comes to explaining the presence of evil in a reality created from nothing by a Christian God axiomatically described as wholly good. 

(In that a wholly-good God, that created everything from nothing, and was of infinite power - would seem to be incapable of creating evil.) 

The apparent conclusion was that there is no evil in reality, that therefore the apparent evil which Men observe must be an illusion... 

And at this point, the philosophers - leaping from abstraction to abstraction, layering one upon another, and taking each abstraction as definitive - have apparently demolished Christianity!  

I am, myself, in search of clarity; and I am not satisfied by explanations that create mystery, and then rationalize mystery on the basis of asserting that ultimates are intrinsically mysterious. 

And, further, rationalize this by asserting than anyone who seeks (or even attains) clarity of understanding is necessarily misguided. 

A clear explanation is then regarded as a false explanation; an over-simplification, an instance of childish, human-sized, perhaps 'anthropomorphic' modelling of reality - on the basis that the philosophers have pre-decided that only abstractions can capture reality.  

For myself, this is an error traceable back to an original prejudice in favour of abstractions; which probably relates to the Platonic assertion that this earthly world of time and change is illusion; and real-reality lies elsewhere in a world of timeless-hence-changeless ideas, of archetypes: that is, a world of abstractions.  

My point here is (as so often!) that we get-out what we put-in, if we start with abstractions, we will end with abstractions; and noticing that primary (i.e. metaphysical) assumptions structure and dictate reasoning and what counts as 'evidence'. 

I believe that these abstractions are essentially alien to the core of Christianity, and have deformed and distorted Christianity since its early years. 

Christianity was originally common sense, simple and clear; as it was taught, explained and exemplified by Jesus - especially in the most-authoritative source of the Fourth 'John' Gospel; was later picked-up and rapidly, but wrongly, inserted-into a framework of pre-existing, not-Christian, philosophical and abstract modes of explanation. 

This led to all kinds of insoluble paradoxes, which were then explained-away (but not actually explained) by further abstractions; and the paradoxes were dealt with by re-labelling incoherence as mystery. 

It is such factors which led me to trying to understand Christianity is a simple, natural, spontaneous, and (so far as possible) non-abstract way - while accepting that language is itself an abstraction. 

So we can only take the process so far as to point-at a direct and intuitive comprehension in non-linguistic thinking

By this, I find that clarity is attained only when regarding reality as consisting of Beings in personal relationships (an 'animistic' world view); which is therefore the primary assumption of my own metaphysics.     

*Wittgenstein seems to have noticed this problem with his early (Tractatus) philosophy, and tried to resist it in his late (Philosophical Investigations) philosophy - but without much success!


edwin faust said...

Just to offer a clarification: it was Aristotle who thought our knowledge comes from abstraction, that is, forming concepts based on sense perceptions, which concepts organized those perceptions into discrete objects. Knowledge for Plato was not derived by abstracting from the senses, but from intellectual vision, which rested on prior knowledge: we would never be able to recognize truth if we did not know it, were not formed by it, were not essentially beings of truth. The Platonic forms were not abstractions but productive, creative principles: the one, the good, the true pouring itself out, so to speak, until it manifests for the senses in material objects. I think your notion of intuition has more in common with Platonic thought than you may realize. And the Fourth Gospel begins by identifying Christ with the Logos - the creative principle from which all the logoi - the manifest forms of life - proceed and are sustained. "kai xoris autou egeneto oude hen ho gegenon - without him was made not one thing that was made." The logos as the fount of creation goes back to Heraclitus and was obviously well-known to the writer of the Fourth Gospel, which Gospel goes somewhat beyond the bounds of "common sense."

Freddy Martini said...

Thanks for your good work on this subject over the years. In reading tons of theology over the decades, it seems to me that I understand what they are TRYING to say, but, ultimately, what they say is irrelevant at best, and harmful at worst, especially when trying to shoehorn arcane rules or regulations (In our language, Ahrimanic arcane bureaucracy) to these irrelevant abstractions. Good work much appreciated on your part. Just a thought: it seems to me that it has a lot of parallels to Anglo-Saxon Common Law, using common sense, and precedence, versus, the more continental-style Napoleonic Code law systems, based more upon abstractions, and not as much precedence and Common Sense.

Adil said...

Although I think the apophatic approach has its merits for certain purposes, I agree with you that simplicity is important, and one should always strive to reduce unnecessary complexity. The simpler you are able to convey something, the more accomplished it usually is. Our personal relationship to God should be a natural and spontaneous thing.

I dislike the idea that atheism somehow is the more 'natural' position, whereas God is something that has to be 'imposed' as an 'extra' belief from the outside, making it 'unnatural' and abstract. I think that atheism is the unnatural position, and one should 'fall back' to the natural state of faith. Most people still have some amount of natural faith and yearning for spirituality, even if they don't consciously acknowledge any belief in God.

Of course, the birdemic situation seems to attempt to squeeze out any good faith people had left in life.

TonguelessYoungMan said...

"I dislike the idea that atheism somehow is the more 'natural' position"
Do advocates of atheism actually use this position? It doesn't surprise me, but they would have a hard time arguing that (from a historical/anthropological perspective) seeing as how mass atheism is clearly a modern phenomena.

Reminds me a bit of those feminist "anthropologists" arguing that humankind is naturally matriarchal and sometime long ago (before the historical record, of course) patriarchy (somehow) was imposed upon every civilization (for some reason).

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - Maybe I was too brief in what I said, but I was referring to Plato.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adil - "I agree with you that simplicity is important, and one should always strive to reduce unnecessary complexity."

One problem, however, is that people (I've done it myself) sometimes mistakenly believe they have simplified by using a large abstraction - all that has happened is that a lot of disparate stuff is brought under a single broad and poorly defined word.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Freddy - There is something in that, but all law is abstract. Common law relies on the abstraction that 'this case' is not unique, but ultimately similar in essence to a previous case - this is an abstraction, albeit lesser than with Roman Law because it relies primarily on the 'human judgment' of the judge.

fitzhamilton said...

Hmmm. I'm really taken by your thought, by your blog, Dr. - should I call you Professor? It seems somehow more apt, even if you are not currently on a faculty - Charlton. What you have been saying here is deeply resonant to me.

But. It seems to me that Christianity, which is to say Christ Himself in his Incarnate essence, is deeply paradoxical. "The Father and I are One." "I AM who AM."
"He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.. I am in the Father and the father is in me."

What can all this possibly mean? Even more perplexing: "Father, why hast thou abandoned me?"

All of this nothing but paradox.. Almost impossible to accept. But I do.

I've tried to preach this to Muslims. I've lived in both Turkey and Egypt, and have on many occasions discussed Christianity with them.

We don't understand how deeply the idea of the Incarnation permeates our culture. The babe in the manger. The man on the Cross. It's in the fabric of our minds, so that the very strangeness, the natural absurdity of it, rarely strikes us. Most of us never even acknowledge the weirdness of these ideas. Few Christians even. Most of us are in fact functionally Arian, deists. Protestants verge into Arianism by instinctively - naturally - assigning Mary's ontological reality to Christ..

Because the paradox is, in absence of grace, too much to bear.

You say that creation seems abstract. It's true: it's the problem of impermanence, of change. Heraclitus still has a hold on our minds. But consciousness - I speak for myself - seems solid, real. I am. I exist. I defy Descartes, though. My consciousness testifies to the reality beyond myself.. It testifies to your reality, for example. It's assertion of radical faith, but one that I have no problem at all making. Your existence. It seems self evident to me.

So - thus, ergo - even if everything is in apparent incessant flux, I believe in the eternity of each moment as it slips ineluctably into the past. It is still real, still and nevertheless always there, if somehow inaccessible in its essence.

God, Christ, is somehow even more real to me than you are. I think that this is a grace. I feel his presence palpably in the moment, right now. Meditating on the Incarnation led me to immediate faith in the Trinity.. I knew Christ present in the eucharist as a child, long before I associated his presence there (in the tabernacle, in the host particularly, in a more intense way than he is present everywhere in everything - another paradox that offends the mind, how is it so? it simply is so..) with the doctrinal or dogmatic truth of the Trinity. The graces are manifold and multivalent. They concatenate and augment one another exponentially..

I've tried to explain all of this, to muslims and atheists, but it is somehow like trying to explain color and light to someone congenitally blind.

I think the fundamental problem in modernity and even more in post modernity is that nihilism is baked into the culture in a layer atop this primordial mystical core. The "values" of Christ echo aimlessly ("human rights" "compassion for the weak and persecuted" etc.) about us, while the pulsing source of these vibrations is dismissed and ignored, taken for granted, simultaneously scorned.