Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

I was reading the entry on Philosophy of Religion in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  If you don’t know the SEP, it is an online encyclopedia of philosophy that solicits its entries from professional philosophers and is peer reviewed to ensure the quality of its entries.  As with anything, sometimes it fails to be perfectly neutral, as each author presents what he thinks is most relevant, but since the replies are done by professionals, often those outstanding in the areas they are writing about, and since they are vetted and peer-reviewed by other professionals, the general level of the SEP is very high quality.  It would be perfectly acceptable, for example, to cite the SEP in professional publications. In other words, it is not, for example, Wikipedia.

In the course of the entry, I came across a description of an argument strategy employed by Dr. Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, expert in Theory of Knowledge and Philosophy of Religion, author of 8 books and 151 published articles, editor of 16 books, etc. Here’s his Curriculum Vitae for the curious. And a list of some of his books. I mention all this to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Moser is an expert in the philosophy of religion and also in theory of knowledge.  This is relevant since his argument involves both.  Here’s the bit from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Taking a very different approach to theism, Paul Moser has recently criticized what he refers to as the preoccupation in philosophy of religion with what he calls “spectator evidence for God,” evidence that can be assessed without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously. Eschewing fideism, Moser holds that when one seeks God and willingly allows oneself to be transformed by God’s perfect love, one’s very life can become evidence of the reality of God (see Moser 2008, 2010). While this proposal may worry secular philosophers of religion, Moser is not out of keeping with the pre-Christian Platonic tradition that maintained that inquiry into the good, the true, and the beautiful involved inquiry in which the inquirer needed to endeavor to be good, true, and beautiful.

Being me, I made it into a picture card, so

GenericManSpectatorKnowledgeOfGod

The picture isn’t of anyone in particular. It’s a detail from a painting by Nicolai Fechin that I use sometimes. It didn’t seem appropriate to use a picture of Moser, since these aren’t his words, but a description of an argument strategy of his.

To the point at hand: It’s important to note a couple of things:

1. This is not an argument. This is a description of an argument strategy by Moser.

2. I have not studied Moser’s work as of this writing. The above argument strategy is intriguing—I have had some ideas along similar lines—and I found it interesting enough to (1) share it on Twitter, and (2) get a copy of Moser’s book, which I will be reading in the near future.

Naturally, Twitter being Twitter, I was immediately attacked for my “bad argument” by an angry atheist, the fact I wasn’t making an argument notwithstanding, the fact that Moser’s argument is not even being presented here, but only described notwithstanding—naturally, said angry Australian atheist felt that he had all he needed to dismiss the ‘argument’ in question out of hand.  This is not untypical of the level of discourse one finds on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 4.41.18 PM

Now, since just from the description it is clear that Moser is not making either of the following arguments,

  1. I imagine God exists.
  2. This makes me feel better.
  3. ∴ God exists.

or

  1. I have certain feelings.
  2. ∴ God exists.

it’s clear that MrOzAtheist is indeed constructing a straw man, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and I (and others) called him on it. He belongs to that particularly noxious breed of online atheists who insist on telling you what you really mean and then ‘refuting’ this “real meaning” that he has told you you really mean—in other words, they have raised the straw man to a high art form.

In their defense (sort of), I honestly think that many of them are incapable, for whatever reason, of conceiving that there are or could be serious and substantial theistic arguments.  They are so ideologically blinded by their atheism, that they are literally unable to recognize the possibility that there might be strong evidence or good arguments which dispute their position. This is one reason that it is always unpleasant to argue with ideologues.  No doubt many of them have encountered Christian ideologues and are unable to see that they have become exactly what they think they are against.  Personally, I have primarily encountered this kind of ideological blindness among atheists, feminists, and Objectivists (i.e. Ayn Rand cultists).

I do have a point concerning Moser’s position and ideological blindness.  I think it is noncontroversial that certain belief-commitments and emotional commitments can induce a kind of blindness or inability to see, or to fairly or reasonably evaluate evidence and arguments.  In other words, one’s cognitive powers can become corrupted or distorted both by certain convictions and/or by certain passions.

If this is so, then it is entirely possible (and in fact very likely) that human cognitive powers, our reason, is not merely an existentially neutral instrument, as one of the usually unquestioned dogmas of the Enlightenment/Modernity suggests.  Indeed, going back at least to Plato, in the Image of Cave and elsewhere, the Western philosophical tradition has usually maintained that human cognition is existentially non-neutral, that there are things that one cannot know, that there are things one is necessarily blind to, depending on the condition of one’s ψυχή (psychē or soul).  Here’s an enjoyable presentation of Plato’s Cave Image in claymation on YouTube.

Plato compares the νοῦς, the intellect, to “the eye of the ψυχή” or “eye of the mind” and extends his analogy, arguing that just as it is not possible for one to turn one’s eyes around to see what is behind one without turning one’s head or whole body around also, neither is it possible to turn one’s νοῦς to the higher realities without a turning-around or reorientation of one’s entire soul or ψυχή in the direction of the true and the good, a μετάνοια. In other words, one must be in a certain state of the soul analogous to health, which Plato calls ἀρετή, virtue, to be able to see or comprehend certain truths about what is.  Those who are not in the right state of soul, those who are vicious, will be unable to see what truly is, due to their being “turned” the wrong way, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, who are not only facing the wrong way, but chained in such a way that they are unable to turn around.

Plato’s Cave Image is complicated (I hold that it recapitulates the entire Republic in miniature, occurring at the dramatic center of the dialogue, or the 7/12ths point—I don’t have time here to get into the musical significance of 7/12ths or Plato’s musical compositional structure)—but one thing it safe to say is that one primary meaning of the “chains” that bind the prisoners in the cave in place are their beliefs about the nature of what is.  Plato has in mind, I think, the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form in all cultures as well as the ordinary beliefs human beings tend to form by growing up in a given culture—but in a democratic society, there is no reason one cannot forge one’s own chains by the adoption of an ideology.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of ethics, as C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man.  One who has not been raised well and educated well (these are the same) will be unable to apprehend the principles of ethics:

CSLewisVirtueTraining

Lewis is of course simply affirming the classical teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Christian tradition including thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Not everyone is equally capable of apprehending the good; in particular, the evil cannot do so, and this blindness to the good is, in no small part, what enables the evil to be evil. We are apt to say things like, “How could anyone do a thing like that? Couldn’t he see how wrong it is?” Sadly, no, he couldn’t.  Here’s Aristotle:

AristotleRightEducation

Aristotle emphasizes the role of passions, and particularly of pleasure and pain in human education/upbringing.  Philosopher Edward Feser has an illuminating account of Aquinas’ teaching that disorder desire, particularly disordered sexual desire, has directly corruptive effect on the mind.  In “What’s the deal with sex? Part II” Feser discusses Aquinas’ argument that the first “daughter of lust” (there are eight) is “blindness of mind”:

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither. Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much. The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble. The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it. The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career. And so forth. That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned. Indeed — and this is part of Aquinas’s point — precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad. In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered. For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad. Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality. In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Put another way: certain kinds of knowledge, knowledge about the highest things, e.g. the good, the beautiful, and the true, are existentially non-neutral kinds of knowledge: there are truths, that is, which are evident only to the wise and virtuous, because folly and vice, of themselves, have a corruptive effect on our natural cognitive powers.

It seems perfectly evident to me that this is true.  The Enlightenment conception of reason as calculative ratio is a wholly unwarranted reduction of reason to one of its lower functions, although it is perhaps true that reason as a merely instrumental ratio is a typical case of existentially neutral knowledge; at least I see no reason in principle why vice or folly or ideological dogmatism would make a person less able to do mathematical calculations and certain other types of reckoning.  But it seems flatly absurd to assert that all knowledge is like this.  Those who do seem to be people who are paradoxically and paradigmatically blinded by an ideology, namely, scientism.  Since their ideology requires them to conceive all knowledge as scientific knowledge, and they almost always insist that scientific knowledge is existentially neutral knowledge, they must deny that there is anything that can be known to the wise and virtuous that cannot be known to the unwise and vicious—despite the fact that this is evidently false.

To return to Moser’s position: if I read it correctly, Moser is asserting that knowledge of God is not a case of existentially neutral knowledge, or what he calls “spectator evidence of God,” but rather argues that evidence of God cannot be properly apprehended or accessed “without involving any interior change that would transform a person morally and religiously.”  In other words, to come to know God will necessarily be an existentially transformational event for a human being which will by its very nature involve a reorientation or “turning around” of the ψυχή—Plato’s “turning around” of the soul becomes in Latin convertio, conversion.  One cannot see God without a turning around of the soul (as a condition of the possibility) and one cannot see God without a being turned around of the soul (as a necessary consequence).

Again, I have not actually studied Moser’s argument.  So, necessarily, I am not elucidating Moser’s argument nor defending it. What I am doing here is showing how something like what I understand him to be saying is plausible—and also how it is manifestly not “God exists, because of feelings I have.”

Atheists tend to become angry and indignant when they are told that their atheism is a result of cognitional malfunction, but neither anger nor indignation is a sound counterargument.  As I have written elsewhere (following Plantinga), if God does exist, then it is highly likely that properly functioning human cognitive powers are such as to dispose us to believe this, and in a warrant-conferring way; and it would also then be the case that atheism is necessarily a result of some kind of cognitive malfunction or cognitive blindness.  This would explain why around 90% of human beings (at least) in all times and places do in fact form a belief in the existence of God or the divine.  Atheists need to account for this phenomenon, and needless to say, “atheists are smarter than everyone else” is false (although it is obvious that many atheists do believe this, and indeed, the pleasure they take in feeling themselves smarter than everyone else is one of the main motivators of their atheism).

It seems to me that “cognitive God blindness”, something loosely analogous to color-blindness, is a much better explanation—especially when one recognizes that some kinds of cognitive blindness are willfully motivated on the basis of ideological belief-commitments and passions.  Atheism is certainly an excellent candidate for a willfully-motivated dyscognition; recognition of the existence of God would require a radical reorientation not only of one’s belief-structure and comprehensive worldview but of one’s entire existence or being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s apt term)—no part of one’s life is likely to be unaltered.  And if one has a strong desire not to alter one’s life in a fundamental way (perhaps because one is habituated to some vice that he recognizes he would have to give up, and therefore the pleasure he his habituated himself to experience in indulging the vice—as, for example, St. Augustine’s addiction to womanizing), then one eo ipso has a strong motivation to prevent oneself from seeing evidence that might force one to recognize the existence of God, a recognition which would necessarily result in the upheaval of one’s life.

It seems likely that a common motivation for atheism in modernity is our peculiar conception of freedom as autonomy combined with our implicit belief that freedom as autonomy is the highest good—in such a conception, the existence of God becomes existentially intolerable, because God is necessarily a threat to my personal, infinite autonomy, more, God is necessarily incompatible with such a conception of personal autonomy.  If God is God, then I am not God, and modernity teaches that not only am I God, but that it is both my right and my highest good to be God.  Both these things are false, of course, since I am not God, but I cannot even maintain the fantasy of being God, if God truly exists and confronts me as God.  It also seems likely that the root of contemporary Western nihilism lies somewhere in this area; see for example David Bentley Hart’s “Christ and Nothing“, or consider Jacobi’s remark, contra Fichte, (which incidentally is from the same essay where Jacobi uses the word “nihilism” for the first time in a serious philosophical context):

JacobiGodOrNothing

To sum up:

  1. I promise a fuller account of Moser’s position once I have worked through his book.
  2. It should be obvious that it is possible both (1) that there is existentially non-neutral knowledge and (2) knowledge of God is almost certainly of this sort.
  3. The concept of existentially non-neutral knowledge as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Lewis, and others cannot be dismissed out of hand as a mere appeal to feelings. This is a completely absurd straw man that barely merits even the minimal response of pointing out that it is a straw man.
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2 comments on “Plato, Moser, and Existentially Non-Neutral Knowledge

  1. Dirk says:

    Interesting and fairly engaging attempt to explain your positions. Personally I found too much language unabashedly anti-atheism language to really take it seriously overall. It makes it difficult to believe that you’re trying to start a serious conversation when you try to admonish someone for paraphrasing what Moser’s statement quite reasonably by saying they’re resorting to straw man and then doing the exact same thing about what you consider to be an average atheist’s intentions.
    Seems to be a lack of self reflection and effort to avoid bias to me.

    Like

    • Eve Keneinan says:

      I have to admit that I find it extremely difficult to take atheism seriously as a rational position. I do take it very seriously as a phenomenon, but as I’ve said elsewhere, as a kind of cognitive malfunction or dyscognition.

      I have more or less the same response to atheism as I do to Paul and Patricia Churchland’s position of eliminative materialism, in which they deny the existence of consciousness.

      It is simple unintelligible to me how one could honestly deny the existence of consciousness. Thus I am forced to be uncharitable and to suspect dishonesty on the part of the Churchlands. “Let’s make ourselves professionally successful by espousing a manifestly absurd position.” I think this about certain postmodernists as well.

      I have a very hard time believing that most atheists really know what they are talking about, and most of my discussions with atheists have borne this out: time after time, I find that I am an atheist in exactly the same way they are. I also do not believe in the things they do not believe in. But they have somehow failed to comprehend what the real issue is. As David Bentley Hart writes:

      An absolutely convinced atheist, it often seems to me, is simply someone who has failed to notice something very obvious— or, rather, failed to notice a great many very obvious things. This is not any sort of accusation or reproach. Something can be incandescently obvious but still utterly unintelligible to us if we lack the conceptual grammar required to interpret it; and this, far from being a culpable deficiency, is usually only a matter of historical or personal circumstance. One age can see things that other ages cannot simply because it has the imaginative resources to understand what it is looking at; one person’s education or cultural formation may have enabled him or her to recognize meaning where others will find only random disorder.

      Hart, David Bentley. The Experience of God (p. 13). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

      I’ll try to moderate my acerbic tone a bit. Maybe. 🙂

      Like

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