Category Archives: Philosophy

The Light

A year or so ago I read Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light, a mind-blowing book about how capital “H” History can be understood as an oscillating tension between the Platonic and Aristotelian understanding of the world.  Sounds thrilling I know, but it’s a gripping biography of ideas played out across centuries and continents.

For Plato, this world is a shadowy reflection of a higher truth.  The philosopher’s objective is to scratch his or her way out of the cave and bask in the unadulterated light beyond.  Then along comes Plato’s greatest student who observes a few peculiarities of the mortal world and embraces the inherent goodness of the cave itself.  For Aristotle, a more perfect understanding of the cave is the path to Wisdom. To put it crudely, Plato looks up, Aristotle looks around.

This is a gross simplification, but I am still shocked at how many disagreements can be reduced to a variation on this theme.

Despite my best efforts to embrace this world like a good little Aristotelian, I remain, at my core, a Platonist.  I long for the transcendence of the glorious reality of which this life is a second order approximation at best.  I do not despise the flesh as some neoplatonists and later Christian Platonists would.  But I’ve always loved the sentiment best described by the boy who never grew up:  “To die would be an awfully big adventure!”

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The Inadequacy of Logic

Via Ricochet:

Sometimes a question is the best response.

Answer: I am a true solipsist. (Gorgias)
Question: So why tell me?

A: There is no truth. (Gustave Flaubert)
Q: Is that true?

A: Knowledge is unknowable. (Francisco Sanches)
Q: How do you know?

A: It is irrational to assume that tomorrow will be anything like today. (David Hume)
Q: So you learned to speak, read, and write because…?

A: All cultures are equally valid. (Franz Boas)
Q: Including those that teach that all other cultures are invalid?

A: Truth is created, not discovered. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Q: Did you just make that up?

A: There is no free will. (Baron d’Holbach)
Q: What makes you say that?

You see, every one of the “answers” above follow from valid, methodically reasoned logical arguments.  But these narrow conclusions cannot stand beyond the boundaries of the premises that lead to them.

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Reclaiming Faith

Faith has become a vacuous word which more closely connotes blind wistfulness than it should.  Somehow Faith has been positioned as the antithesis of Reason in the battle for the modern mind.  And even in the realm of religion it is largely divorced from action and reduced to mere belief.

True Faith is a principle of power and action.  It is the power whereby universes are created, sins remitted, lives changed, innovation actualized, papers published, and all progress realized.  It is more powerful than Reason alone because Reason cannot produce anything but enlightenment without Faith.  But even the philosopher’s journey is a faith-based one.

True Faith is (1) seeing something that may not yet exist anywhere else but in your own mind (2) which is true, and (3) exerting all your energy to see it realized.  These are the essential ingredients of True Faith.  Faith without works is hope.  Believing in something that is false is vain even if you work yourself to the grave to bring it to pass.  And if it is seen or known in some other way, it is not faith but knowledge which does not guarantee actions based on that knowledge.

If faith ceased academia would crumble because research epitomizes acts of faith.  CERN would close its doors.  Even the determinist’s efforts to explore the neuroscience and philosophy behind determinism would necessarily cease.

And the only Faith that can lead us to stand in the presence of God is centered on Jesus Christ.  As Alma in the Book of Mormon put it:

15 Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body?

16 I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?

19 I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?

~ Alma 5:15, 16, 19

Remember that True Faith must be belief in something unseen but true, and this is true.  So I will envision what Alma suggests and do all things that lie in my power to ensure their fulfillment.

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Free Will: Part II

Samuel Johnson wrote that  “all theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it.”  I tend to agree but believe that he overstates the strength of the theory.  Nowadays determinists drape themselves in controlled experiments and neuroscience and make conclusions based on weak but statistically significant results and claim to have proven determinism.  Can you say, “naked emperor?”

These neurological studies draw conclusions that cannot be determined from the study itself.  They measure the effect of thought on the organism not the origination of thought (and by extension choice.)  Look at this picture.  Respond to this question.  We’ll scan your brain and determine that these stimuli triggered activity in this part of the brain which guides moral judgment.  Therefore moral judgement is determined by external stimuli only.

A recent article over at Reason.com discusses several presentations from the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies on moral judgement, free will, and sacred values.  A fair portion of the article discusses the ideas of William Casebeer,  that “holding agents responsible depends on the notion of being in or out of control. Being in control depends on what he calls the functional architecture of a well-ordered psyche.”  The obvious question is ordered by what or whom?  It’s the conundrum of Plato’s Cave: who frees the philosopher?  If the goal of shaping society is a question of developing a citizenry with well-ordered psyche’s, how do the shapers know what it means to be well-ordered?

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Victims of Vanity

Archeology is a funny science.  It is inherently non-testable, the evidence is always changing and hypotheses are constantly revised.  When rummaging through the rubble of the Ancients we should also remember that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.   Yet archeology is covetously defended by many and used by some to “prove” the non-existence of God.  (We partially addressed that here.)  But the best we can really hope for with Archeology is to believe a theory that is consistent with the data.  The problem is choosing a consistent theory; there are almost always more than one.  And this is true in many aspects of our lives.

We can all approach the same experience and draw very different conclusions.  A man struggling to get by pays an honest tithe and gets two job offers the following week.  He shouts praises to the Most High while his friend calls him petty and condescendingly recites, “post hoc ergo propter hoc.”  The thing is, it’s all in the past.  It is no longer a testable hypothesis for either party.  Yet both will feel satisfied, the one with reverence and the other with pride.

Religious or not we believe the explanation that is consistent with the data and our bias.  Our confidence in our own rightness is fortified.  The problem is, once we’ve accepted a set of premises that regulate our bias, the conclusions that follow rest upon something that cannot be proven.  So let’s at least be honest enough to admit the possibility that another theory is consistent with the data even though it aggravates our own bias.

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All Roads Lead Where?

Can it be true that many paths lead to Exaltation?  If it were, then all paths would be equal and equally true.  This can’t be because many belief systems are contradictory; resurrection and reincarnation are fundamental yet mutually exclusive doctrines.  But what if all belief systems have some truth?  I know this to be true because I felt it deeply as an eager teenager devouring the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah, and other exquisite, primary sources.

All religions contain doctrines and principles that are true and can lead from enlightenment to enlightenment.  Mormons are perhaps more sympathetic to such a notion because we believe in the idea of revelation upon revelation, receiving line upon line, and as I’ve discussed earlier, we believe in an open canon.

We also believe that God has spoken to all nations at various times.  Sometimes undefiled records were kept and hid up to come forth as a voice from the dust as happened with the Book of Mormon.  But even without such a tangible first-hand account much truth, while corrupted by false traditions, endures among all peoples.

We also believe that the Holy Ghost will manifest the truth of all things to those who honestly seek it, and that this is not an exclusive right limited to Latter-day Saints.  We will not receive a complete knowledge of all things all at once, but we can come to know truth when we hear it.

Organizations as well as individuals grow line by line.  The Lord did not reveal to Joseph Smith a perfect, complete organization, nor did He reveal such to Moses or Peter.  In fact, the Lord commanded Peter to preach the Gospel to all the earth.  To Peter that apparently meant all the Jews in all the earth.  It wasn’t until some time after the Ascension that Peter required and received a poignant revelation about preaching to the Gentiles (Acts 11).  Then even later, confusion arose about whether or not non-Jewish converts to Christianity ought to obey the parts of the Mosaic tradition still in force.  The Twelve met in council and received another revelation about which parts of the law were applicable to gentile converts (Acts 15).

Receiving enlightenment line upon line is a feature, not a flaw of how the Lord deals with His children and builds His kingdom.  So we should not be surprised when things change; we should expect it!  There are, of course, unalterable truths.  But there is nothing to indicate that institutions, organizations, or cultures are immutable.  Covenants are eternal, but the method of administration might change with no loss of generality.

Just because things change, however, doesn’t mean that many roads lead to a fulness of Salvation.  It means there are authorized servants of the Master who can navigate us through new terrain or provide a more perfect set of guidelines that suit current needs.

The challenge, then is to discover how to recognize truth and recognize who is authorized to make such alterations to the true path.  That will be left for another post.

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