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?


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.


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.


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.


David said...

Bruce, perhaps you can help me by way of illustrating how you imagine God. I tend to agree that concreteness is preferential to abstraction generally but I have some difficulties with the notion of God being a physical person beyond v general and vaguely defined terms. I can't seem to manage it without deliberately censoring all resulting thoughts extending from that original image. If I close my eyes and imagine God I get an impression of a wise father figure, an ideal man, well build, perhaps of Greek God like stature, dressed in plain or white toga or biblical clothing, a beard and long hair perhaps, his body even glows or emanates a light or warmth. He is normally smiling with an expression of consummate wisdom and warmth. I normally stop there. When I imagine him listening to my prayers I may imagine that I am the only audience he had at that exact time and that he is devoting his entire attention to me like a doting parent concerned to understand my childish gibberings. It is what might be summarised as 'quality time.' Quite a lovely sentiment and a wonderful privalege to participate in such 'imagined' conversations with him standing in a nest of clouds somewhere. At least that is what I see when I close my eyes and imagine talking to God, what do you see when you imagine him?

My problems come a bit later. If I imagine that I was talking to you and I knew you were on your mobile phone or watching TV as we were talking, I would probably think you a bit rude or distracted or both. The time we were spending together would not be 'quality time' as by definition, this would require that we listen and speak intimately to the exclusion of all else. In fact, in my experience this is what typifies the most rewarding and productive conversations. If I really listen then the other person really feels heard and valued. If I am thinking what I will have for dinner or what I will say next when you stop talking,or you are really listening to someone else, the conversation will be significantly impoverished...

David said...

Now imagine God talking to me, in real time, but also to you, but obviously not just us both, to all of the millions of Christians across the planet who are in direct conversation with him in prayer right now. But not only that, to the other billions of souls including all those who have ever died and all those not yet born, in every language that has ever been or will be or none. After all he knows every hair on my head and on yours. Suddenly the mobile phone doesn't seem so rude any more compared to this. Would it not require a billion individual God's to do this instead of a God to billions? And then how can he be simultaneously experiencing joy at a child's first word and horror at an evil murder, many will likely be happening right at this exact moment somewhere in the world as I write this. Somewhere a soul will have moved to perdition in sin another repented and returned to the fold and yet I imagine he only has attention just personally for me in prayer. There seems to be a nonsense developing here?

In contrast, If I think of an abstract super-intelligence then that seems to be an end to the problem fairly quickly. After all why shouldn't abstract super intelligences be able to get around these kinds of problem, especially if they are outside of time, which you profess is not the case. But a concrete flesh and blood living God? Surely this must be difficult for others to conceive of and I am not alone in this? Does he wear strippy Trousers sometimes, for example, or have a range of evening clothing and a monacle? Does he eat? Does he use the bathroom? If you applaud the advantage of child - like anthropomorphic conceptions this would lead to these kind of arguably valid childlike questions? What would your answer be to such questions or would it just be...don't ask or don't be childish? But then to imagine as a Child in such terms is the supposed litmus test of transcending the confusion of abstraction. But does it not quickly seem absurd to ask obvious and simple child - like questions extending from the simple metaphysical assumption of God having a body?

David said...

Furthermore if God had a human body from the outset of creation what did he stand on before he created the universe or was he just floating in the ether before he installed the laminate flooring in heaven? If God was the greatest original primordial intelligence compared to the lesser primordial intelligences such as you and I or my brothers Cat, would he not need to create his own tabernacle first before he could create ones for the first humans? Did he imagine the blue print for a humanoid and find it pleasing and so assumed it for himself first before he made us in his image or did he try out a few other possibilites first before settling on a bipedal humanoid as his favourite corporeal form. Surely a winged creature would be best placed to navigate the realm that by logical extension must have existed prior to his creation of the ground? And so at present I find myself believing in God but it is abstraction that saves me from these kind of ridiculous, comedic encounters with trying to conceptualise things concretely. Almost though I must admit it is fun, I can't see him wearing a monacle, except perhaps to make a child laugh with the brightness of his warmth and affection which is infinite and transcendent! Oh dear, I seem to have resorted to abstraction again. Seems difficult to do away with the thing? Which leads me to surmise by intuition that he doesn't necessarily want me to do so?

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - If God is known real, and creator, and is our Father then these questions become matters for curiosity and speculation rather than challenges to faith.

I have always said it is trivially easy to come up with streams of questions upon questions. Three year old children sometimes do it when then ask 'why?' again and again, until the adult runs out of answers; and it doesn't prove anything either way - a computer could do it.

It is not a serious way to proceed, it is indeed a snare - and you need to learn to stop taking it seriously and seek answers only to the questions (or most likley the single question) you *really* need answering in your heart.


This is the practice of Eastern sages and of othe Holy men through the ages:

You may ask one question.

You will receive one answer.

That answer must, of necessity, be brief.

(Hence incomplete, hence distorted, hence enigmatic at best - probably ambiguous - at worst misleading.)

Tough - that's all you can have. Choose well.

David said...

I see.

Well I wasn't stating it necessarily as a challenge to faith, I just wanted to know what other people imagine when they close their eyes and think of God and how you imagined him, and whether you find you must resort to abstractions through the lack of being able to be more concrete as I find. I don't see anything wrong at all with such speculation. Indeed it only seems natural and healthy. Perhaps young children are just not quite as closed-minded yet to ask probing questions. If people did not enjoy imagining such things then the world would be a rather dry and humourless place. We would not have had they joys of Terry Pratchett and the disc world series or Douglas Adams 'Hitch hikers Guide to the galaxy' or many other wonderful works of literature.

There again what is so wrong with the humility of just saying "I don't know" Which seems to be the actual situation here on both sides. It is increasingly clear to me that most other people know less than they admit they do about the mysteries of existence and hence the evasiveness on direct questioning. The real answer is we just don't know the answers to many many things...or through a glass darkly as the quote goes...

I do hope my 'why?' questions have not irritated you too much. Have a good day :-)

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Never mind what I think about it - I have read many scores of your comments - and it seems clear to me that *for you* asking question after question (without thinking enough about the questions, or why you are asking them, or what you expect to do with the answers) is not just idle curiosity; but a snare, destructive, and perhaps your personal demon.

David said...

Ok. I trust that your are telling me this because you feel that it is for my own good and I will try and learn what lessons I can from that, especially about thinking about why I am asking the questions. I would like to understand who God is and what he wants from me and learn to overcome my short comings and to grow spiritually. I have a long way to go but I am learning a great deal every day.