Tuesday 25 October 2011

Abstraction & cohesion v clarity & simplicity


Over the past few years I have read about 'time' and God in the 'Western' philosophy and theology of Boethius and Thomas Aquinas, and also some Eastern Orthodox theology.

It brought out for me a very general point about abstraction and the cohesion of philosophical ideas, and how they can only be attained at a cost.

Whenever we ask a philosophical, abstract question, and accept an answer; the process narrows our understanding even as it completes our understanding.


When reading about God and time in the Western tradition, there is a fascinating theme concerning eternity versus the transient world; the idea that God is outside of time; for God (being omnipotent, omniscient etc.) all time is necessarily present simultaneously; yet for humans on earth time is serial and linear - with a past, present and future.

And there are vital transitions between these states of eternity and time : for example the soul after death and Christ's incarnation: the soul moving from time to eternity, Christ moving from eternity to time.


By this account, prayer for the souls of the dead make (philosophical) sense, no matter when they are prayed in linear time, because prayer operates in divine eternity, which includes the past (and also the future).

Prayer on earth is arranged in a linear sequence but all prayers from all earthly times are simultaneously present in Heaven.


For me, these matters of abstract theory are at the outer limit of my comprehension, yet I can comprehend them; and so I find the answers of Boethius and Aquinas to be (pretty much) perfectly satisfying.

But for someone less intelligent than I, these explanations would no doubt be incomprehensible; and for someone of greater intelligence than mine, no doubt there would be further problems of inconsistency which I cannot perceive.

So, the philosophical explanation of time and eternity is not true for all humans, does not answer the questions of all humans; its truth has been attested by Saints and Martyrs (for example) so we can say it is true by revelation, really is true - not just a made-up stop-gap explanation.

And yet its truth seems incomplete and distorted somehow. Many great Saints did not know this, could not understand it; certainly did not explain things in this fashion in their teachings from revelation.


When, on the other hand, I read in Orthodox theology about Christ's incarnation, death and resurrection; and about what happens to the soul after death, I find that all are dealt with in 'common sense' fashion using earthly linear and serial time: for example that the soul after death is escorted by two angels, passes toll houses of temptation for 40 days, at which point there is a choice/ judgement of Heaven or Hell - hence on earth there is a 40 day programme of prayer for the immediately deceased, prayers which ought to be done on earth at proper times.

Now, this is apparently regarded by the advanced Orthodox as both true and/ but also very partial, metaphorical and limited an undestanding - because of the inevitable nature of human limitations of knowledge and understanding and sin.

So/ yet the advanced Orthodox will strictly adhere to the earthly linear time program of particular rituals in particular sequence; there seems to be the simultaneous awareness that this is a simplified view yet it is the best that can be managed or the best that we know - and therefore imperative.


But in Orthodoxy (so far as I see it, not far) there is not the same sense of trying to reach an intellectually coherent and satisfying answer as there is with Western Catholicism.

For the Orthodox there are these parable-like narrative theological explanations, mostly comprehensible to the common man - and beyond these simple explanations there is mystery.

If you want to go further, the path is spiritual not philosophical. The understanding aimed-at, therefore, is not more complex or logical, but (presumably) an understanding which comes directly by revelation, and is not (perhaps) communicable to those of lower levels of holiness.

Intellectuals who pick-holes in  common-sensical narrative explanations of theology are regarded as lacking in true understanding of their meaning, as having misplaced concerns; because deeper understanding can only be gained on the other side of a process of purification and sanctification.


The Orthodox idea is apparently that it is - in general - a mistake to strive for philosophical explanations beyond simply comprehensible linear narratives; and to seek ever more-complete intellectual understanding is slippery slope, a never-ending fool's errand by which we come to mistake the ever-more-abstract and ever-more-partial for the reality and the whole.

For the Orthodox tradition, truth becomes knowable only from greater holiness (and  holiness is achieved by monastic 'Hesychast' disciplines of incessant prayer and ascetic practices - fasting, vigils, endurance of hostile environments).


Therefore both Western and Eastern Catholic traditions are hierarchical and esoteric, holiness being stratified, and the fullest understanding being only available to a few.

But for the West (in general) the fullest understanding requires a high level of theological and philosophical education - this understanding is not communicable to the majority who are low in intelligence, those who lack diligence and concentration, those who are ignorant.

Whereas for the East the few may be relatively unintelligent; may indeed by simple-minded - Holy Fools. But understanding is only available to, communicable to, those of advanced spirituality.

From this, I believe that the Eastern Orthodox understanding is the higher, the more true - although I personally fail to live by this truth.


Taking this into account; it seems to me that one of the worst things that Western intellectuals have done over the centuries, and continue to do, is to mock and denigrate simple narrative theological explanations and understandings - debunk them for their lack of abstract logical coherence, for their child-like quality.

At root this incessant debunking displays merely the lack of holiness of intellectuals as a class; that instead of seeking to understand the simple explanations by striving further on the path of sanctity, they choose the easier and more deceptive path of increasing further and further the complexity of explanations.



PatrickH said...

The question is: which is the more efficacious? Which has greater saving power? The western explanation is intellectually satisfying, and beyond the reach of the unintelligent. But that is not the problem: it is that the western approach is intellectually satisfying only, and even those who can grasp its meaning are not thereby saved. Linear narrative is precisely the appropriate mode for the human story, including its post-mortem stages, because it is how our salvation (or damnation) plays out for us.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PH - I think you are right. The way I *try* to use Western Philosophy/ Theology is to 'put my mind at rest' and move to to the real business.

However, it is difficult to do this - and there is a tendency to keep pushing on and 'discover' more... which is why philosophy has historically been a slippery slope for Christianity.

An amateur can sometimes keep philosophy in its place and get the advantages without the disadvantages; but a professional - be they a teacher, scholar or researcher - almost always takes or follows philosophy too far.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that C.S. Lewis' essay "Myth Became Fact" has some bearing on this.

Also, Gandalf's admonition that "He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom".

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bob - if I ever write anything sensible, it's fairly safe to assume that the idea has been stolen (whether consciously or not) from Lewis and/ or Tolkien!

Kristor said...

i have been searching for a substantive conflict between Western and Eastern philosophical theology for many years, and have yet to find it. My impression is that Eastern mystical theology is actually far more difficult, intellectually, than its Western brother. It goes further in resolving the apparent paradoxes of theology (e.g., Incarnation, Atonement, Trinity) - these are resolved at a higher more spacious level of abstraction than is usual in the West. So much so that it is apparent to me that Anselm and Aquinas - the greatest Westerners - at their most sublime & expansive resort in the final analysis to the Eastern approach in order to achieve an ultimate resolution of the difficulties. They try harder than the Easterners to explain things in a way that profane intellects can understand, the better to lay doubts to rest and open psychological room for the questing intellect to gird its loins and enter the portals of the Temple.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I find Western theology efficacious for both salvation and intellectual understanding, but then I'm not particularly mystical by nature. Different approaches work for different types of people, which might explain the multiplicity of approaches made to what is, after all, unitary truth...


The Crow said...

"...and for someone of greater intelligence than mine, no doubt there would be further problems of inconsistency which I cannot perceive."

Intelligence is irrelevant here. It's not about intellect. Indeed, intellectual engagement is a guarantee of achieving a non-starter.

Revelation has shown me, more clearly than any clear thing, so that questioning it never even occurs, that all time is now.

In this state of revelation, there is no emotion, no reaction, not even wonder, as we generally describe, or know wonder.
There simply are no more questions. And so no more answers, either.
The Divine is exactly that: Perfection that is unimproveable-upon. Everything fits, follows, leads, meshes as it should, could, and does.
One is able to be everywhere, everything, always. Although what "one" is, in such a state, is not easily described.

This state is not pleasurable. It is not unpleasurable. It is not anything. It just is.

Achieving it, one does not reside there (here), for one is still living. Returning, as one must, is natural and inevitable.
I view it as a preview of death. And as such, one forever leaves behind any fear of death.

Can you really claim that there is anything un-Christian about any of this? Other than dispensing with the "rule-book"?

What would be the point of Christianity, if it did not actually move one closer to God?

Mr Tall said...

Another superb post and comment thread; my thanks to all.

I will add only that I think there is a rough analogy running here between philosophical/rational understanding vs mystical/intuitive apprehension of Truth; and the reason/revelation problem that anyone conducting serious Biblical study must confront at some point, i.e. the question of inerrancy.

BTW: PatrickH, are you the former frequent commenter who went that handle at the old 2blowhards site? If so, it seems our interests coincide yet again.

Mr Tall

Kristor said...

One way to explain the tension between the God of faith and the God of the philosophers is to say that reason finds a God in its own image. On the one hand, this is a true God, but on the other hand it could only satisfy a being that had nothing to it but intellect, and no such being exists. Intellect is so hopelessly awkward and nerdy in the face of the divine that, as a rule, it doesn’t cross its mind that it needs to worship it when it finds it.

James Chastek at http://thomism.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/note-on-pascals-axiom/

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - One little-mentioned aspect of the Western Psyche is impatience.

Of course this is very extreme nowadays. And, although myself infected by exactly such Western impatience, at times it has driven me to distraction, professionally.

(Outsiders could hardly imagine how *hastily* major decisions, major reorganizations and reallocations of resource, are made in modern large organizations. When driven by impatience, there is never any time or tolerance for decisions based on principle, only short-termist expediency.)

But I now perceive that such impatience is vital for the dominance of Leftism/ political correctness - and so its presence among those in authority is no accident, and non-voluntary.


But this impatience permeates even Western philosophy, which is continually pushing-on, ignoring the insecurity of its foundations.

At times this impatience and moving-on has worked well - it worked well in science for a couple of hundred years, when it was not too extreme and was reined in by honesty and common-sense observation and experience.

But when science became even-more impatient - driven by bureaucratic management which was too impatient to discuss the irrational destructiveness of its own impatience - then honesty and common sense crumbled and 'science' became a PR exercise.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - excellent Chastek comment - says something deep about the intrinsic arrogance of intellectualism; and the way that intellectuals are seldom truly-serious about what we/they do - memorably depicted in the Damaris character of Charles Williams novel The Place of the Lion.

Kristor said...

Re impatience; I'm not sure. I would describe my state of mind when in the midst of my own most "Thomistic," most "philosophical" moments as one of patient waiting: resting the mind on the apparently intractable problem, and waiting for the resolution to appear. The process can't be forced, or rushed. When resolution does eventually appear, it has the effect of a general relaxation, a deepening of serenity, at the same time that it is quietly exciting. Often, as the multifarious integrations of widely disparate phenomena made possible by the resolution make themselves manifest, stretching away vastly into the far depths, there is a feeling of sublime spaciousness, and humility, and joy, and gratitude. It is theoria - contemplation - in the best sense. It is the opposite of hurrying.

In fact, it is not uncommonly the case that a long-sought resolution arises during Mass.

I recognize that this is the opposite of the bureaucratically driven procedure you here describe. But it seems to me that most of Western philosophy has been produced from sessions of theoria, such as I describe; especially the sublimest bits. Think of Spinoza, dirt poor, grinding away patiently.

I can always tell when a book of philosophy has been written for purposes of advancing an academic career. They are dreadful, a mush of vacuous jargon, name-dropping via citation, and self-aggrandizing scholarly showiness – “look at all the books I’ve read,” they seem to shout. Real philosophy, on the other hand (even when I disagree with it) is precisely not concerned to add the author’s voice to some professional discourse or other, but rather to communicate to the reader his apprehension of what he cannot but take to be truth. It’s noble, ennobling stuff.

It cannot be read, much less produced, in a spirit of ambition – ambition to encompass what is with one’s mere mind, and so to master it. That’s the spirit of the magician, not the philosopher. On the contrary, real philosophy must be written and read in a spirit of humble petition and radical openness, not far distant from, “seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

Kristor said...

Chastek also has this to say on the subject (at http://thomism.wordpress.com/2011/10/24/psalms-and-meaningfulness/):

One rapprochement between the God of faith and the God of the philosophers is through the idea that those who are righteous – whether by repentance or by virtue or, if one is young, by baptism – cannot suffer any evil that renders their lives meaningless. In this sense there is an infinite power of meaning behind the righteous ones, and a corresponding abyss of meaninglessness that is opened before the unrighteous. For the righteous, gratuitous evil is logically impossible, since any evil (even their own) can be made a part of their own meaningful life; while the unrighteous life itself is a gratuitous evil since nothing in it can be ordered to the good of the one who is living it. This is very suggestive of the God of the psalms, not because their central theme is “meaningfulness” in so many words but because they see an unshakeable solidity to the life of the righteous and a fundamental vanity, instability, and groundlessness to the life of the wicked.

Now this is a beautiful, wonderful insight Chastek has had. It is a product of theoria. And I don't believe it to be peculiarly Western, or Eastern, or anything; just true.

Stoyan said...

"What should I have been, and how should I have spent my life, if I had not had these beliefs, if I had not known that I must live for God and not for my own desires? I should have robbed and lied and killed. Nothing of what makes the chief happiness of my life would have existed for me." And with the utmost stretch of imagination he could not conceive the brutal creature he would have been himself, if he had not known what he was living for.

"I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question--it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given, because I could not have got it from anywhere.

"Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one's neighbor reason could never discover, because it's irrational."


Stoyan said...

"But why attribute to God, the God whom neither time nor space limits, the same respect and love for order? Why forever speak of "total unity"? If God loves men, what need has He to subordinate men to His divine will and to deprive them of their own will, the most precious of the things He has bestowed upon them? There is no need at all. Consequently the idea of total unity is an absolutely false idea....It is not forbidden for reason to speak of unity and even of unities, but it must renounce total unity - and other things besides. And what a sigh of relief men will breathe when they suddenly discover that the living God, the true God, in no way resembles Him whom reason has shown them until now!"


PatrickH said...

Mr. Tall, good to see you here! Yes, it is I from the good old days at 2Blowhards. I run into old commenters from there on sites from time to time, more usually HBD sites. It cheers me considerably to see you here. So yes, we do seem to have interests in common. I am also a daily reader and occasional commenter at the James Chastek blog cited by Kristor, whom I encounter over at Lawrence Auster's. So connections abound.