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Archive for January, 2013

It may be a little indulgent but this post is intended to be a reference point regarding the conversations I have with people on ethics after metaphysics¹. Perhaps more indulgent is that this post is predominantly critical, contra my earlier resolution to do more positive up-building. Hopefully the critical nature will in some way be uplifting?

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Firstly, with the end of metaphysics there is no objective basis for ethics. Metaphysics posited something beyond ourselves as a basis for ethics, traditionally God, although as thinkers got more critical of this tradition they came up with a non-theological, metaphysical basis for ethics (eg. Kant) before metaphysics was done away with completely. Whatever the objective reality beyond our physical selves was, it held some pattern for ethics, like loving others because they are made in the image of God or following actions through because in abstract terms they are right or wrong. Now, via science, what separates us from the animals has been relativised so that we are essentially no different from them. Further, what separates life from non-life, the animate (breathing) from the inanimate (breathless) has been relativised so that in the grand scheme of things we’re all just collections of atoms arranged uniquely. The laws of the universe are fundamentally a power-play, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest. There is no right or wrong. Why should we consider anyone beyond our own will to survive?

http://www.toonpool.com/user/398/files/ethics_333515.jpg

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Secondly, ethical behaviour can be explained through evolution but evolution cannot provide a basis for it outside of itself. So (and this is crass because I don’t know my stuff) but say we care for others based on an instinct to preserve our species (Actually I couldn’t think of a good example, so critique it if you will but alternatively find me a replacement). We can say this is the case but we can’t say this should be the case. In our current, individualistic context, what interest do we have in something our instincts lead us to do when we can quite happily do otherwise than our instincts?

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Thirdly, is there not a practical basis ethics? Just because we lack an objective basis for ethics we cannot dismiss that the operation of ethics, what it does, may be the real deal that all those airy-fairy metaphysicists missed with their heads in the clouds. Or maybe we can define it hedonistically: Because I have a desire for the good of others then it is good for me that I attend to that desire. The main problem I have with this is the subjective nature of a practical ethics. And if there are different ethical stances then the dominant will be sustained by power. Those who believe in equality will be fighting against those in power with antithetical interests. And if these egalitarians ever succeed then their vision will need be sustained by a continued power-play: Those opposing will have to submit to the laws of equality unless they can sway whatever power they have to do otherwise. If practicality is the basis for ethics then let those who wish to do unethically do so for their practical advantage! The other problem I have with practical ethics is that self-interest or other-interest, etc (whatever the basis for practical ethics), not rooted in a metaphysics, cannot go beyond itself. That is, if I do good for others in response to my own desires, for what reason do I respond to my own desires? I have a practical reason for ethics but I cannot call that reason itself good or meaningful. What stakes do I have in becoming happy? Because it is interesting and fills in time until I die?

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In conclusion, this is just a statement of the way things are (as I see them) and I’d love to hear further thoughts on why we/you do ethics. It is not my aim saying there is no basis for ethics to criticise people for acting ethically regardless. People who reject a foundation for ethics may rightly choose to act ethically. I just want to encourage an honesty behind this acting ethically. And if life lacks meaning so what? I admire those who continue in it anyway out of curiosity or interest, even some unacknowledged affirmation of the value of life. Neither do I intend this critique to be an apology for metaphysics or Christianity, etc. I cannot say that someone who does not have a basis for ethics should have a basis and therefore should convert. My faith exists for greater reasons than a desire for a basis for ethics.

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¹That is the general acceptance in Western academia over the last 200 years that there is no objective reality beyond material existence: What we have is what we have. There is no God, soul, spirits, afterlife, Beyond, etc…

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Hey friends, it’s nice returning to WordPress after being ‘away’ for a short while. In this away time I managed to have a little holiday, arrive back in Aotearoa, write a third of a novel (which is indefinitely stowed away somewhere on my personal internets for future completion), apply for bible college in March, read some more and then spend this last week playing far too many games. On a ‘more personal note’, I’m still recovering from a decisive dip in faith some readers will have picked up in the posts last year, a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment, creating truths to revenge myself against existence. Many of my thoughts still stand; I just hope now to express them with more grace and humility, not so much to tear things down, which is the easy and boring thing to do, but to focus on upbuilding, on actually say something. The purpose of this post is a kind of preparatory for my course this year. Ideally it would be beautifully referenced, demonstrating my wide reading on the subject and attempt to answer all the appropriate questions and reservations. Yet this is not so. See it as a kind of journal, something intended for self-reflection, but in this case happenchanced upon by others.

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Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:20-25 NRSV).

Theology is the study of God. If you want to narrow that down then you can have a g/God, or the point of access to God, like good Christians will tell you that Jesus is the starting point for theology. Alternatively, you can have a specific focus, ecclesiology, the study of the Church, which is rooted in theology, etc. You could also give theology a wider application by saying something like the study metaphysics, that which is beyond the ‘physical’¹. That’s theology, or at least my sloppy definition of it. What, then, does it look like?

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“If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.” — Dostoevsky

Some time ago on a jaunt through Wikiquote I discovered this awesome statement. It raises many questions. Why would you want something other than the truth? Does a good Christian not accept Christ as truth anyway? What does Christ have above the truth? Some beautiful deception? Having not read the context in which this quote appears, the best thing I can do is to possibly misunderstand Dostoevsky by taking his word for it. So what does ‘his word’ mean to me? Here truth operates within the circle of reason and language; Christ operates in a circle beside that. Language, composed of words, structures and myriad other complex nuances, signifies reality/experience and all that is contained within it (this includes what is only contained in it as a possibility, like absolute zero).  Reason can be the manipulation of ideas expressed in language (although there also exists a pre-linguistic reason, coming to conclusions without reference to language, not even an internal one²). The problem then with reason and its position in language is that it signifies; it is not identical to the reality it expresses.

Be careful not to misunderstand me. This is not traditional apophatic theology: our corrupted reason cannot express or think God (although I accept this in another time and place). Nor is this philosophy’s equivalent: How do we know that what we know is true? This is only to assign reason and language to their proper places within experience. It is a redistribution of wealth. As Heidegger says of Descartes, the doubting subject is not the centre of epistemology (method of knowledge), yet it is not absent from it. The doubting subject is not the source of epistemology but only a mode of it. We are thrown into the world before we make sense of it. This is the next point: although language is not identical to that which it expresses, it still expresses it. There is definitely some identificating going on. This, then, is the correct place of language and reason: A part of the whole, one site in reality where the rest of experience can be conveniently bottlenecked.

Note that this applies also to my description of language and reason. A mutiny is occurring at this moment. I cannot assume some metalanguage with which I deal with language, etc. What I can do though is to point somewhere with this contradiction in an attempt to distract the reader. Imagine a politician speaking to a large crowd and attempting to convince them of a certain ideology. Just when the speaker is reaching the crux of their argument, the crowd, as one, suddenly turns and leaves. There is no one left. The speaker may continue but their words will not be received. Or consider rehearsing words in your head for an upcoming job interview, but a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio and you can’t ignore it. The rehearsal sinks out of sight. This is the critique of reason, not with reason itself, but a force from the outside. I will acknowledge that my examples full short because they only exist in the language I am using here rather as actualities. This gap will always be present when speaking of such examples. All I can say is that if you want to take me up on this one I can just disable commenting on the post.

Language is one mode of epistemology. There are infinite others³, such as joy. I ‘know’ something about reality through the extent, variety, etc of joy I experience. Joy as a mode and the knowledge gained from it both exist pre-linguistically. If I am joyful semi-regularly then I experience the world with joy before I can translate that it into words and ideas. Maybe my experience is accompanied by words and ideas. This does not negate pre-linguistic joy as a mode of knowing but only shows it occurs beside our most linguistically recognisable mode, language.

If you’ve still energy after that little excursion then follow me back to the issue at hand, Jesus, who is theology. Jesus is intermodal. I want to avoid saying he is a particular mode because he appears in many modes (you could possibly say the same about joy and language). He is not confined to reason and therefore cannot be ‘reached’ through reason alone. He could possibly be reached without reason, but this would require a strict definition of reason and exceptional circumstances which I have no mind to express. Saying this is akin to saying it’ useless waiting for snow in the middle of Australia but it is possible we could still reach snow if we were somewhere else. Enter Dostoevsky’s Christ. This is the elusive ‘If’ with which Dostoevsky introduces the statement. Now reason is not an end, nor a meaningful end to an end. Reason can only be contributory, the ‘If not’. If Christ is not outside truth then I can reasonably say that this blog post can contribute to myself and others ‘reaching’ Jesus (or, as a good Christian would say, contribute to a medium for Jesus reaching us). As Peter Rollins writes,

a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe). — Still my favourite, accessed here.

Jesus appears in our beliefs only if they have operative value. A person who practises prayer but often doubts its value believes in it more than a person who merely affirms it intellectually. Or Kierkegaard, “Even if one were able to render the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith”. That appears on banner of my blog. For me it sums up not only Kierkegaard but theology. A cute argument is not the site of God. Jesus exists not in saying “The watch must have a watchmaker”. He was a carpenter. Sound theology will always exist not in the abstract, the beautiful sermon or the journal article of intellectual depth alone, but in the lives of those who practise it. If I am to do theology it be in the open air, rather than in a vacuum. Theology encompasses more than the use of reason and language. A true theologian conforms to the character of Christ and takes part in the Kingdom of God4.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sisterin need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

(1John 3:16-18 NRSV).

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¹Physical literally meaning soul-like. Is the irony intended? That metaphysics is defined as that beyond the metaphysical? Maybe metamaterial (metasomatic?) would be better, but perhaps I’m missing the history involved in this coinage.

²This, of course, is a very lazy definition of reason. Linguistic and pre-linguistic reason are only relatively, not absolutely, distinct: The latter will make use of some non-linguistic signification as it needs to signify reality in some way in order to operate within, which therefore makes it linguistic, as language signifies. Linguistic signification must also depend on the non-linguistic for it to make sense to the subject, ie. we are distinct from the language we use. Therefore when I speak of two kinds of reason, I speak as a good relativist, of two different poles.

³’Language’ is a convenient way of naming a mode but in reality it will be composed of infinite infinitesimal parts which are also modes, the same going for any other examples I give.

4I must also anticipate here any Pentecostal ‘amen’. Reason, thinking, theology as mental education, writing books for Jesus, etc — these are not bad. They just need to be situated in their appropriate context.

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