Friday, January 13, 2006

Knowing the Truth

Tom Kreitzberg has been posting a number of interesting meditations on the teaching of Vatican I that God can be known through the light of reason, here, here, and here. I had intended to jump into the fray right away, when the first one went up on Tuesday, but what with my son's birthday coming up, three classes to teach, and some fine Ardbeg to sample, well, I guess I got a little behind in things.

At issue is the teaching of the Second Canon:
2. On revelation

1. If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.

2. If anyone says that it is impossible, or not expedient, that human beings should be taught by means of divine revelation about God and the worship that should be shown him : let him be anathema.

3. If anyone says that a human being cannot be divinely elevated to a knowledge and perfection which exceeds the natural, but of himself can and must reach finally the possession of all truth and goodness by continual development: let him be anathema.

4. If anyone does not receive as sacred and canonical the complete books of Sacred Scripture with all their parts, as the holy Council of Trent listed them, or denies that they were divinely inspired : let him be anathema.
To help clarify things, Tom adds the following quotation from the Second Chapter of the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:
The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.
For Tom and, I suspect for many, the Council's teaching appears to be clear. Tom paraphrases it as telling us that we know the God of Christianity with certainty by means of reason, and that we know the truth of the teaching (that is, the truth of "We know God with certainty by reason") by faith.

Of course, my favorite parts of Tom's posts are the parts where he goads the philosophers:
If human beings are able to know things with certainty, we can toss out a bunch of modern philosophical positions.
Or again:
It also makes the assertion that Who can be known by the natural light of reason is none other than "the one, true God, our creator and lord." This, I think, is a stronger assertion than the old "God of the philosophers" wheeze -- or perhaps the old God of the philosophers is not the remote, featureless Cause He's sometimes taken to be.
There's lots of good stuff in the other posts, as well--this it Tom Kreitzberg we're talking about, after all. A couple of things have me worried, though.

It's one thing to say that philosophers are being too fussy when they worry about proofs of God's existence or about the contents of our concepts having to do with God. Some of them are professional fussbudgets, after all, and it would be silly to deny that they are ever being too fussy. But the fussiness of philosophers aside, what exactly does it mean to say that "God can be known with certainty"? The Council does not make it at all clear what it would mean to "know God" in any sense, let alone "with certainty". Does the Council mean only that we can know the truth of the proposition
God exists.
Or does the Council mean something more profound, something along the lines of what Tom suggests (that is, that we can know some of the attributes of God)?

And do we know these things propositionally (that is, can we put the content of our knowledge into propositions, assertions), or in some other way? For the uninitiated, it seems that there are a variety of ways "to know" things: I can know that Columbus is the capital of Ohio; I can know how to ride a bicycle; I can know of Benedict XVI (that is, I can recognize him when I see him, or recognize that some text was written by him), and these various modalities do not seem to be clearly interchangeable. I can tell somebody else that Columbus is the capital of Ohio, and they then know the same thing that I know. But I cannot tell somebody else, just in words, how to ride a bicycle and thereby communicate to them the same expertise or ability that I have in bike riding. So clearly knowledge is not reducible to propositional content. If the claim is that what we know with certainty is only the proposition "God exits", that seems like a rather tepid sort of knowledge to have about God. If, rather, what is intended is some kind of acquaintance knowledge, we're told remarkably little about what our knowledge consists in or what it is like to have it--or where it comes from.

Here's one of Tom's remarks that seems apropos of this line of thought:
In any case, the Church asserts that from philosophy we can learn that God is one, that He is true God, that He is our creator, that He is our lord, that He is the source and the end of all things, and perhaps most importantly, that His nature is perceivable in creation.

You might run that last bit by a philosopher, but to me talk of perceiving an invisible nature goes beyond uncaused causes and unmoved movers and starts getting at the kind of God Who created this particular universe. That anything exists tells us some things about the Creator, but the things that actually have been made tell us even more.
Well, OK, I'm a philosopher, so let's see what happens when I run this stuff by myself. The way Tom has put it ("the Church asserts THAT...,THAT...,THAT...") the "knowledge", such as it is, is all propositional. So it is like my knowledge that Columbus is the capital of Ohio. So I can pass on this knowledge just by telling it to someone else.

So if I say to Richard Dawkins, "God exists, He is One, He created the universe", Richard Dawkins now know all of that.

One of the well-worn definitions of propositional knowledge that philosophers like to bandy about has these three necessary and sufficient conditions:
1. Knowledge is a form of belief.

2. Knowledge is always true.

3. Knowledge requires an understanding of the reason why one's belief is true.
Arguably Richard Dawkins, whatever it is that he might know, certainly does not believe that God exists. How is it possible for somebody to know something with certainty when they don't even believe it? Tom's answer:
It has also been pointed out that the Richard Dawkinses of the world don't necessarily want to be convinced.
This seems to turn the question of knowing into a psychological, rather than an epistemological, problem, and that doesn't seem right to me. I don't know the things that I know because of the sort of personality that I have--after all, plenty of other folks with very different psychologies know precisely the same things that I know. Even people with very deviant psychologies know that Columbus is the capital of Ohio, for example.

I am happy to assent to the teaching of Vatican I in spite of the fact--or perhaps because of the fact--that it is hopelessly vague. It's vagueness, I think, is at least partly to blame for the misbegotten debate between adherents of Intelligent Design and those who see it for what it is, but it is not a fatal vagueness, since doctrine develops over time and this doctrine, like all others, will be clearer for future generations than it is for us. I think it is a mistake to worry too much about our "flawed intellect", as Tom does in some of his later posts. It is true that some people have flawed intellects, but it is not because humans lack perfect reasoning that there will never be a logical proof of God's existence. Some human beings, somewhere, at some time, may very well have perfect powers of reasoning. There may even be someone somewhere right now who has such a faculty. But there will still be no logical proof of God's existence, and since no empirical proof is possible even in principle, we really do have to coordinate our reason with our faith. I'm not sure I'm a lot closer to knowing what my knowledge is really like just by saying I have it by faith rather than by reason, or by some admixture of the two, and it may be that there is no way to state, propositionally, what my knowledge is like anyway. My own suspicion is that the most important aspects of our knowledge of God are entirely non-propositional, being more like the knowledge-by-acquaintance that Plato maintained is the foundation of the most secure, most certain kind of knowldge. Like Plato, however, I understand that there can only ever be approximations to this kind of knowledge when it comes to putting things into words, and so I don't concern myself too much with the sorts of philosophical fussiness that many philosophers fill their time with.

To quote Professor Kirke: "It's all in Plato. What dothey teach in those schools?"

No comments: