Ivan Ilych and Meaning

Today I gave a presentation on The Death of Ivan Ilych and the poems of Hopkins.  I will be posting the audio and video soon.  What we see from Tolstoy, through Ivan, is this: if we cannot understand then there is no meaning, and if there is no meaning then there is nothing–nihilism.  It is this connection that moves Ivan from a hardened heart and refusal to repent into asking forgiveness.  Before this, he refuses to consider that perhaps he has lived the wrong way.  When he makes the connection that if we cannot understand we cannot have meaning and this entails nihilism he is forced to reconsider.  It is one of the best short stories dealing both with the problem of evil and our need for meaning and the consequences of rejecting the possibility of knowledge.

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Carnap and Quine

I was looking through some old things and found a research paper I had written in graduate school on the philosophers Carnap and Quine.  It brought back many memories about how the analytic tradition had been presented and understood by my professors.  In the paper I critiqued these two thinkers by 1) looking at the problems that occupied their attention, 2) identifying the assumptions that led to these problems, 3) locating these problems in the history of philosophy, specifically as due to post-Kantian skepticism, and 4) noted both their consequences and ways to avoid the Kantian inheritance.

One of the problems is the division between the noumenal and the phenomenal and the assertion that reason is not ontological (it may apply to the phenomenal but not to the noumenal).  Why should anyone believe that?  Did Kant even believe that?  Was he consistent in his application of that?

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Philosophy Out West: 2019

I began the Philosophy Out West speakers series in 2015.  We will continue this spring with conversations on Christianity and Philosophy, Academic Skepticism, and Epistemology and Apologetics.  This year I am the faculty senate president and so I may also include discussions on the topic of the purpose of the University.

One of our presentations from last semester was by my friend Joshua Danaher. He is the chair of Communication Studies at Grand Canyon University.  You can watch his presentation at this link.  He asks the provocative question: Has the Christian Church Failed?  There might be many senses in which a critic will want to say ‘yes.’  He goes through these and specifically looks at the mission of the church and the elements of the Gospel.  Has the Gospel been communicated?

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PHI 101

Back to teaching next week.  I appreciate how ASU’s catalog describes PHI 101: “explores issues that philosophers have traditionally considered, including morality, reality, and knowledge.”  Philosophy has always studied these basic questions:

  1.  How do we know?
  2. What is real?
  3. What is good?

Not only that, you can piece together a given philosopher’s system by knowing how they answer the first question.  Class includes looking at examples from the history of philosophy while also wrestling with these questions ourselves.

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New Book: Retrieving Knowledge

My friend, Dr. Kelly Burton, has a new book out that can be found here.  In this book she looks at the idea of knowledge in early Greek philosophy and its connection to the logos.  Contemporary philosophers have attempted to get around problems in defining knowledge by weakening the definition to something that does not include certainty.  Dr. Burton begins her study by picking up with the Socratic problem of distinguishing between true opinion and knowledge.  Weaker contemporary definitions of knowledge still fall under “true belief.”

Socrates asks us to consider what is necessary to have knowledge.  When we know we have a belief, it is true, and we can show or give an account (a logos) of why it is true.  In this way, Socrates tells us that knowledge is permanent where true opinion is not.  When we have a true opinion and are questioned on it we are unable to explain why it is true and it slips away from us.  But when we actually have knowledge we are able to give this account and it is still with us, it is permanent and unmoving.

Contemporary attempts to define knowledge in a way that avoids “giving an account” nevertheless affirm our need for this in knowledge by attempting to give an account.  The externalist, or fallibilist, or reliabilist all attempt to give an account that their view is true.  Whatever new definition arises tomorrow will nevertheless have this in common with the early Greeks.  It is an essential part of the philosophical enterprise and has been there from the beginning.  More broadly, it is an essential part of the human search for meaning.

Dr. Burton uses the insights she finds in Socrates to consider attempts at anti-reason, or anti-logos.  The most notorious of these is Friedrich Nietzsche.  Could it be that reason is not ontological?  Could it be that reason only applies within a language but does not apply to being?  Nietzsche claimed that all of our thought is determined by our language.  He argued that reason cannot get us to reality.

It seems true that language has a significant influence on us.  But could it be the case that our thought is only a reflection of language and does not apply to being?  The century after Nietzsche has been dedicated to the philosophy of language so that we can see his shadow down to the present in both the continental and analytic traditions.  And yet to say that all thought is determined by language is itself a claim about being.

It is in this sense that reason it ontological.  This is an inescapable truth about reason and thought.  Any attempt to deny it affirms it.  When we deny reason we are using reason.  Thinking is itself an activity of being and so there is not a strong distinction between thinking and being such that reason can be about one and not the other.

Dr. Burton traces some of the impacts of this anti-reason position on philosophy in our day.  She makes the case that there is a connection between this strong form of skepticism and nihilism.  Nihilism, as the loss of meaning, is the consistent outcome of denying reason.  However, this meaninglessness is also unbearable.  She offers a solution to this in our need to revisit the concept of the logos and more consistently apply it in philosophy.  Can we retrieve the concept of knowledge?

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Death of Ivan Illych and Christmas

I’m reading through “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Tolstoy and this seems like a perfect Christmas story. Just as with Scrooge, we are given a look at the hardness of the human heart and what suffering it takes to repent.

Sometimes philosophers discuss what they call the hiddenness of God. This takes seriously the idea that God is absent and tries to explain why. Not only does this contradict the reality that the eternal power and divine nature are clearly revealed in general revelation so that we must deny our rationality to avoid seeing them, it also misses God’s loudest call back to us in natural evil.

Ivan asks why God is absent while he is at the darkest point of his struggles. He asks himself what he wants. His answer is he wants a return to the pleasant life he had envisioned for himself. However, the more he suffers the more he sees this was always a falsehood and never existed.

Slowly it occurs to Ivan that perhaps he has not lived as he should have. He refuses to consider this and chases it from his mind. Like Scrooge during his encounter with the third ghost he cannot consider that perhaps his life has been unrighteous. Ivan lived according to the conventions and traditions of his peer group and can’t imagine that this might have been incorrect. Indeed, he even did things that violated his conscience because others seemed to accept them and eventually these actions no longer bothered him.

In his deep agony and wrestling with suffering all of his pretensions and vain glory are stripped away. Even his false religiosity and hope for a cure must be seen for the idols they are. He alone realizes that he is dying and is unable to endure the falsehoods of those around him who try to continue pretending like death isn’t present.

God has not been silent or absent from Ivan. Natural evil is God’s call back to Ivan. And finally Ivan is able to ask for forgiveness. He is too weak and the word comes out “forgo” but he knows that the one who matters can understand it.

I found parallels here with Job that I’m guessing Tolstoy intended.  Job repents in sackcloth and ashes for not having known God as he should have. Ivan repents for not having lived as he should have and all the falsehoods he accepted. In the end, Ivan sees that God has not been absent. He finds that he is more alive than ever before, even as his body dies.

What Ivan never does is thinks that death is natural. This is the main falsehood that sickens him as he observes the continued pretense of those around him. Death is the interruption of life. He never flees the body for some gnostic heaven. When he repents it is for not having lived the way he ought to have lived.

Sometimes Dickens is criticized for not having explicitly Christ references. I can imagine Tolstoy being criticized in the same way here. However, before the incarnation in John 1:14,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

We have the rejection of the Word in John 1:10,

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him,the world did not recognize him.”

The ministry of Christ begins with “repent”. We see in the death of Ivan what suffering it takes to accurately assess how he has lived and ask for forgiveness.

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Ask a Philosopher: Can We Knowingly Do Evil?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Why do we need to work at knowing God?  Isn’t the problem for people that they know what they should do and they don’t do it?  Or, they know God and don’t obey him?

Reply:  This is a view called voluntarism.  It says that the will is primary over the intellect.  Evil actions, choosing to do what is evil, are a problem with the will and not with knowing.

It is common for persons in a given religion to say that everyone else knows the essentials of that religion to be true (say, God exists and there is a moral law to be followed) but that their problem is not doing it.  These essentials are said to be obvious or easy to know. The hard part, on this view, is acting on them or doing what is right.

It is common for villains in popular culture to be portrayed this way.  They will be confronted by the “good guy” with what is right and affirm they know it is right but they don’t want to do it.  “Bad guys” are bad because they know what is good but put self-interest ahead of others.

Importantly this view shares a kind of intuition that responsibility requires knowledge.  To be held responsible we must be able to have known what we should do.  This is why the standard course syllabi have grown to be book length.  Students expect to be told exactly what they are expected to do.  If they are given a bad grade for something not clearly stated in the syllabus they will argue “I wasn’t told that I needed to do that.”

However, voluntarism confuses “clear” with “easy” and asserts that since people are responsible they must have already known.  An alternative possibility is that they are responsible, they don’t know, but they could have and should have known.

This second possibly preserves the relationship between the intellect and will where voluntarism divides them.  When we make a choice, at that moment, we choose what we believe is good (all things considered).  We might choose what society called “bad,” or our Sunday School teacher called “wrong,” but insofar as we choose it we are making an assessment that it will somehow benefit (be good for) us.

And so when we choose what is actually evil (wrong), we are responsible not just for the choice but for our failure to know.  We ought to have known it was evil.  If someone were to say “I did know it was evil” it is easy to test them on this.  They can be asked to give a proof for what is good; demonstrate they have knowledge and not merely tradition and custom.  At the time of the choice they did not know.  20/20 hindsight is different.  Hopefully they learned their lessons, many do not.

I should add that “right/wrong” are generally relative terms defined in light of some end.  So “good/evil” are the ends, and an action is “right” insofar as it leads to what is good, and “wrong” insofar as it leads away from the good.  A person could knowingly do what is wrong in the sense of being able to show it leads away from some good while not themselves believing this to actually be the good.

Voluntarism comes short.  Our problem is much worse than a problem with the will.  People do not “know deep down” and it is easy to demonstrate this by asking them to show what they supposedly know deep down.  The widespread failure to do what is good is due to a widespread failure to know what is good.  Or, all have sinned because none seek and none understand.  These are well known verses.

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Ask a Philosopher: Isn’t Energy Neither Created Nor Destroyed?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Does the 1st Law of Thermodynamics say that energy is neither created nor destroyed?  Doesn’t this mean that energy is eternal?

Reply:  The 1st Law of Thermodynamics is about energy conversion.  It says that in an isolated system the total amount of energy remains constant during energy transfers.  It doesn’t make any statement about the origins of matter, energy, or the universe.  But, once there is matter, hot and cold interact to become sameness, and in these transfers energy remains constant.  There is not a creation of new energy nor does any energy go out of being.  Combine this with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which states that entropy is increasing and we have a sound argument that the material universe has not existed from eternity.

An example of a view which says that matter is continuing to be created is the Steady State Model of the universe.  Developed by Fred Hoyle in the mid-20th century, this model states that the density of the universe remains steady due to the continual creation of new matter.  This is in contrast to the Big Bang Theory and is not popular even among materialist cosmologists.

Therefore, the 1st Law of Thermodynamics is a law about how energy behaves in our observations.  It is not, nor could it be, a statement about the origins of being.

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Ask a Philosopher: What Does It Mean To Renew Philosophy?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: What does it mean to renew philosophy?

Reply: Renewal philosophy is the study of how to achieve knowledge of the answers to the basic questions philosophy has always asked.  In the history of philosophy attempts to give a theory of knowledge face challenges and result in the antinomy of skepticism and fideism (see: The Natural Moral Law).  The current stage of history is sometimes called post-modernism to denote that it comes after the failure of modernity in its bold claims to knowledge through philosophical naturalism and radical empiricism attached to the technological achievements of science.  This skeptical age of post-modernism is asking for a renewed attempt to find knowledge as a ground for public discourse and personal choice.

Skepticism, when consistently lived out, leads to nihilism.  Skepticism is supported by false antinomies that result in an impasse.  These are produced by uncritically held but shared presuppositions.  Examples of these are the tensions between hedonism/utilitarianism and legalism/deontology in ethics; or literalism/empiricism and allegoricalism/rationalism in interpretive theory; or naturalism and supernaturalism in metaphysics.  By shining the light on these presuppositions we can begin the process of examining them for meaning.

Skepticism, and its attendant nihilism, empties concepts of meaning.  This lack of meaning extends throughout a person’s worldview and a culture’s shared life.  When concepts are emptied of meaning then thought is not possible.  When thought is not possible there is a move made to non-cognitivism.

This renewal comes through application of the philosophical dictum: know thyself.  Specifically, know your basic beliefs.  Know how you have answered the basic questions of life and how these answers shape what you think and do.  This is true at the individual level, and this is true at the cultural level.

Knowing oneself involves application of another philosophical dictum: the unexamined life is not worth living.  This teaches us that to be wise we must seek wisdom.  Without seeking we will not be wise; we will not know the truth or ourselves.  If we are leading the examined life then we will know our basic beliefs.  If we are seeking wisdom then we will critically examine these beliefs for meaning and truth.  Individuals can lead the examined life, and cultures can lead the examined life.

The history of philosophy involves an attempt to answer basic questions that support all other questions (see: Retrieval Philosophy). For instance: 1) how do I know?; 2) what is real?; 3) what ought I to do?  The answers given to these questions shape what other questions are asked, and answered, and give rise to a worldview.  A worldview is used to interpret, or give meaning to, the experiences of life.  It shapes an individual and it shapes a culture.

Renewal philosophy attempts to: 1) study how these basic questions have been answered in the past and by all of the human philosophies/cultures that have come to expression in history; 2) study the dynamics of these answers in history as they work through a process of challenging each other and responding to each other; 3) apply these insights to the present age of skepticism as the world comes together in a new way in the pursuit of knowledge and shared human good.

If knowledge is not possible then it is futile to seek knowledge.  If we cannot know the answers to the basic questions outlined above then we cannot know the answers to questions built on these basic questions.  The work of philosophy, to know thyself, to lead the examined life, assumes that knowledge is possible.  It assumes that some things are clear because the denial of this is existentially and logically impossible (see: Philosophical Foundation).

To deny what is clear to reason about what is good is without excuse.  To seek what is clear will result in knowing what is clear.  The failure to know what is clear is culpable ignorance and results in the failure to do what is good.  By studying what is clear renewal philosophy also studies the reality of the problem of evil and the need for restoration from failing to seek wisdom.  This reality permeates human history and ours is a unique time of studying the need for restoration and how this is accomplished.

Renewal philosophy seeks to reinvigorate the study of the basic questions philosophy asks and to inspire a more in-depth understanding of how these questions shape all of human life, culture, and history.  Philosophy done in this way will result in a life full of meaning.  This is a renewal of philosophy, but also a renewal of our own lives.

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Ask a Philosopher: Why Study Philosophy?

Ask a Philosopher:  I often get questions in emails about my blog or books.  I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.”  Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?

Question: Why Study Philosophy?

Reply:  Part of answering this question is knowing what is meant by “philosophy.”  Sometimes this means something like learning the history of ideas, or learning how to play complicated mind games.  Here I mean something different and I cover that in a video you can watch at this link.  This does not necessarily translate into studying philosophy at a university to earn a degree.  I will address this in another post.

Philosophy in the sense I am studying it begins with an attitude of the love of wisdom.  This means it affirms that wisdom is attainable in contrast to what can be called “academic skepticism.”  The Academy itself began in contrast to skepticism.  Skepticism is the claim that no knowledge is possible.  Instead, the professional teachers, called the Sophists, taught their students how to argue well for whatever personal conclusions they held.  These might be for personal gain or for some professional office.  Either way, it was taken for granted that knowledge was not possible and there were only personal opinions of varying complexity.  If knowledge is not possible then there is no rational justification to study (it might be a personal hobby at most).

So step 1 in answering this question is that we study philosophy because we love wisdom and we believe wisdom is attainable in contrast to skepticism.  Wisdom is both knowing what is good and knowing how to achieve what is good in life.  Philosophy addresses questions like “what is good” and teaches the tools to critically analyze various answers for meaning.  This is similar to what Plato did in founding the Academy, and can be called “classical philosophy,” but is dissimilar to what is done in much of “academic philosophy” today which looks more like academic skepticism.

In my book “Reason and Faith at Early Princeton” I look at the origins of Princeton and compare them to the origins of the Academy and think about similarities in progression from initial goals into academic skepticism.  I consider the image of Cicero giving a lecture with the ruins of the Academy as a backdrop.  There are common patterns that help explain this change.  These include a lapse into false dichotomies including empiricism vs rationalism, hedonism vs virtue/deontology, and monism vs dualism.  These are used by skeptics to argue that knowledge is not possible.

Why study philosophy?  Because you love wisdom.

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