Tag Archives: John Locke

Quiet Ignorance

thinkingOver the past several years, I have frequently returned to a question that a friend asked me many years ago, the question that in many ways is the central question I have been considering in this blog over the past four-and-a-half years: How can you be a Christian and a philosopher at the same time? There are all sorts of answers available to this question, the simplest of which is “I can’t.” This would open the door to choosing one or the other. I know myself well enough to realize that if “choose you this day whom you will serve” was truly the only option, I would choose philosophy and try to find ways to walk away from my faith tradition. The spirit of critical thinking and skepticism is too strong in me to accept a framework of belief without constant challenge and questioning. I spent many years—most of my life, in fact—attempting to compartmentalize philosophy and faith. For me, at least, it did not work. critical thinkingThe time came to either walk away from faith, as many philosophers have done over the centuries, or to find a new way.

That “new way,” for me at least, involves allowing the energies of critical thinking and faith to interact with each other regularly and vigorously without pre-conception. It requires re-imagining basic concepts such as “evidence” and “fact,” as well as learning to create a large foundational space for subjective experience in my edifice of belief. This new way demands that I both allow that there are limitations to our natural human powers of reason and logical thinking, while at the same time never assuming that I know where those boundaries lie nor when I have reached them. Perhaps most importantly, this new way embraces both the reality of what is greater than us and the expectation that the lines of communication between that transcendent place and our human reality are open and available for exploration. My most recent engagement with these issues is focusing on the relationship between critical thinking and hope, the tension between cynicism (too much critical thinking) and naïveté (too much hope). As is often the case, I have found the work of Marilynne Robinson useful here.givenness

In “Metaphysics,” one of the later chapters in her recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, Robinson engages with the dynamic interplay of faith and critical thinking. Her baseline commitments are similar to my own—she is committed to excellence in reasoning and critical thinking, but is equally committed to her faith. Her faith commitments are to Calvinism; her essays frequently include advocacy for a faith framework which in the minds of many is rigidly conservative and suffocatingly restrictive. The faith I was raised in has many Calvinist features, most of which I no longer accept. Robinson’s effective use of reason in defending her faith is always impressive and occasionally convincing; in “Metaphysics,” however, she bumps directly into a boundary from the reason and critical thinking side.

Some issues are just beyond the reach of our natural abilities, Robinson thinks—predestination and the problem of evil are her two examples—in such cases she suggests that we take the advice of the great philosopher and occasional theologian John Locke. Locke-JohnNoting that Locke seeks to “free thinking of artificial constraints by acknowledging real and insuperable limits to the kinds of things we can think about fruitfully,” Robinson writes that

When there is no way to understand without compromising the nature of what is to be understood, I heed Locke’s advice. I am content to “sit down in a quiet ignorance” of those things I take to be beyond the reach of my capacities.

This is a loaded suggestion, to say the least. As much as I admire Robinson’s work, I find at least two troubling matters here.

First is “the nature of what is to be understood.” It is one thing to believe that beyond the reach of our natural capacities there is something we should seek to understand—with that I fully agree. It is quite another thing to assume that the nature of what is to be understood is known clearly enough that we can sort between which proposed ideas compromise that nature and those that do not. Their is an inherent contradiction in saying that “there is something important beyond the reach of our natural capacities, and the nature of that something is as follows . . .” Such parameters are far too close to dogma and doctrine for my taste. Robinson’s own example of the problem of evil is a case in point. For centuries thinkers have approached this problem armed with various assumptions concerning the nature of God—calvin and hobbesGod is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and so on. And with these assumptions, the problem cannot be solved or even addressed fruitfully.

Robinson chooses at this point to adopt “a quiet ignorance”—we cannot figure this out. I choose, instead, to test the assumptions—what if one or more of our “givens” concerning God are wrong? How might taking that possibility seriously open new avenues of thought and exploration? Perhaps my favorite of all the courses I have taught in the past twenty-five years, a course that I am currently teaching, is built on just that possibility. Maybe rather than giving up in reverential ignorance, we should step into the tension between what we think we know and what lies beyond. Citing Locke, Robinson writes that “thinking that we know more than we do . . . blinds us to our ignorance, which is the deep darkness where truth abides.” I suggest that to assume that we know much about the nature of the divine is a prime example of “thinking that we know more than we do.”

My second concern has to do with “the reach of my capacities.” A number of months ago I read an interview with a philosopher who is also an atheist. She said that the issue of God’s existence “is settled to my satisfaction”—God doesn’t exist. atheist-theistThe larger issue is “when do I stop asking? When is enough enough?” This is a highly subjective matter, one that will be settled by many things in addition to logic and reason. In this Marilynne Robinson is not different from the atheist philosopher. Each of them has established the extent of “the reach of my capacities” to her satisfaction, something that all of us do but that no one should pretend to be an objective boundary that applies to all human beings. Each of us has a self-imposed limit beyond which we choose a “quiet ignorance.” I find more and more that wherever my boundary is, I have yet to reach it. Accordingly, “quiet ignorance” is not an attractive alternative.

Channeling John Locke one more time, Marilynne Robinson writes that “assumptions and certitudes imposed on matters that should in fact be conceded to ignorance warp and obstruct legitimate thought.” Point taken. Let’s also be aware that these very assumptions and certitudes frequently are clothed in the garb of unquestioned preconceptions. One person’s ignorance is another person’s legitimate thought.

Something Under Construction

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. Maria Popova`

In the 1992 Vice Presidential debate, with Al Gore on one side and Dan Quayle on the other, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, asked two questions that have become part of Presidential politics lore: Who am I? Why am I here?

Stockdale took a great deal of criticism and heat for his performance as well as triggering a lot of laughter from those who supposedly knew better. But the Admiral was asking questions that those of us who have had to suffer through week after week of painful and embarrassing debates during our current political cycle would be happy to hear someone ask of themselves. Sometimes a bit of self-analysis and awareness is appropriate. Furthermore, Stockdale’s questions are two of the most fundamental timeless questions of philosophy. who am IWho exactly are we and what the hell are we doing here?

The “who am I?” issue is often packaged in philosophy classes as “the problem of personal identity.” How does a person stay the same over time? To get things going, I often ask my students how many have ever said something like “I’m not the same person that I was back then.” Every hand goes up, since everyone knows that even those parts of ourselves that we consider to be most important—our attitudes, beliefs, commitments, and so on—can radically change over time. Add that to the fact that scientists tell us that there is no cell in our body that will still be in our body seven years from now, and it becomes a challenge to identify exactly what it is about me that stays the same over time so I can still call myself the same person as I was throughout all of the changes that every person encounters.

Many philosophers and theologians have cheated (in my considered opinion) by saying that it is the “soul” that stays constant in the human person throughout all of the physical and experiential changes that each of us encounters throughout a lifetime. formsPlato insisted that the human being’s tool to engage with the unchanging and eternal Forms was the unchanging and eternal soul, an idea that traditional Christian theology has been more than happy to adapt to our connection with the divine. But press someone concerning what the soul actually is, and you will undoubtedly instead find out what it is not—it isn’t physical, it isn’t subject to change, is impervious to time, and so on. In short, the soul is the “whatever it is” that stays constant throughout a human being’s changes, but don’t ask for its positive characteristics. It is just a necessary placeholder. Unfortunately, one of the most important rules of logic is that one cannot define something negatively. lockeTheological issues aside, the soul hardly works as a standard for personal identity.

One of the most interesting and influential explorations of personal identity comes from John Locke, the great 17th century British philosopher. Locke suggests that one’s personal identity extends as far back as one’s memories extend—my identity, in other words, is the collection of all of those experiences stretched over time that can appropriately be owned as “mine.” “I” am the subject of all of these experiences. As my students point out in short order, there are plenty of problems with this notion.

  • Does this mean that a person with no memories, someone with advanced Alzheimer’s or in a comatose state, is technically not a person? Locke’s definition requires that we say “yes.”
  • Suppose that at (time A) 5 years old I go to disneyDisneyland, at (time B) 45 years old I am promoted to full professor, and at (time C) 90 years old my sons commit me to a nursing home. At 45 I remember going to Disneyland; at 90 I remember getting promoted but no longer remember going to Disneyland. Locke’s analysis requires me to say that Morgan B and Morgan A are identical, as are Morgan C and Morgan B. Morgans C and A, however, are not the same person. That violates the transitive law of mathematics and logic (A=B, B=C, therefore A=C), but who said personal identity is mathematically precise?
  • Human memories are notoriously inaccurate. What impact, if any, does this have on Locke’s proposed standard?

These and other puzzles arising from Locke’s analysis reliably produce great class discussions—but are we any closer to figuring out who we are?

brain pickingsIn a recent conversation with Krista Tippett, Maria Popova provided a 21st century version of Locke’s suggestions.

Identity for all of us is this perpetual process. It’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones . . . We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely curated catalog of those.

Popova’s reflections highlight a feature of a Lockean analysis that is easily missed—each of us has both the responsibility and the privilege of creating our own identities. under constructionAs Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “the human being is always something under construction.” We do not control much of what happens to us, but we do get to choose which features will rise to the level of “definitive,” which memories will serve as the foundation of who we are. Each of us, as Popova might say, is a curator of our identity. The more items there are to curate, whether experiences, texts, or other people, the more dynamic and nuanced each identity has the potential to be.

Popova is also willing to nod favorably toward the notion of the soul. It may not be the best choice as an anchor of personal identity, but Popova suggests that whatever the soul is, we have reason to think that it is real.woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote that “One can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” And she talks about the slipperiness of the soul and the delicacy and complexity of the soul. But I think the fullest people, the people most whole and most alive, are always those unafraid and unashamed of the soul. And the soul is never an assemblage of fragments. And it always is.

Philosophers are likely to complain that there is still no evidence to support believing in the existence of such a thing. But perhaps the best evidence in its favor is that multitudes of human beings seem bound, even hard-wired, to believe in it. Maybe that’s enough.

Unforgettable

671[1]Although not much of an athlete, I’m a big sports fan. Actually, that’s a serious understatement—I’m a rabid sports fan, especially of pro baseball (Boston Red Sox) and college basketball (Providence College Friars).Primary-friars-rgb-250[1] These are passions that go beyond rational explanation, especially in my line of work. My colleagues, if they care at all,  probably file my fanaticism about the Red Sox and the Friars in the “there goes Morgan again” file. Over the past several years, the problem of steroid use has frequently threatened to tarnish the reputation of pro baseball; every time it seems to die down, yet another superstar admits, usually under duress, to having used banned substances in the recent past. In the face of what appears to be solid evidence, however, some accused players steadfastly refuse to admit such use. A few years ago, for instance, Roger Clemens, whose Hall-of-Fame-certain pitching career has been darkened by the cloud of steroid use allegations, was asked how he responded to the testimony of a former teammate who stated under oath that he observed Clemens being injected with a banned substance on several occasions. That teammate, Roger Clemens, Debbie ClemensClemens answered, had “misremembered.”

Memory is tricky, an often unreliable something out of which, for better or for worse, we construct our past, interpret our present, and envision our future. I’ve been thinking about memory recently, as my colleagues and I introduce freshmen to the literature of the ancient world in the interdisciplinary program I direct and teach in. The notion of oral tradition is completely foreign to contemporary eighteen-year-olds, as is the idea of extensive memorization being what made the transmission of such traditions from generation to generation possible. storytelling[1]Ancient people possessed remarkable memorization abilities which atrophied with the advent of writing. I’ve observed my own memory erode over the years simply because of new technology that made memorization unnecessary. I used to easily hold several dozen ten-digit telephone numbers in my memory, even remembering my childhood home phone numbers and those of my girlfriends when I was in high school. Now I know my cell number and two office numbers, can remember Jeanne’s cell number if I think for a second, but have no other phone numbers available in my memory files. Why? Because all I need to do is tap my cell phone two or three times and I can find any one of the hundreds of numbers stored in it. The part of my brain that used to do that can now do something else (or atrophy).

Bible Memorization[1]But some things are unforgettable. My memory in my youth was developed both by my piano training and by forced Bible memorization. Although I’ve not made a study of it, I’ll bet that memorizing music and memorizing the written word involve two different parts of the brain, because I was always much better at memorizing Bible verses than passages from Mozart, Bach, or Debussy. Of the Old Testament verses I was required to memorize, the majority of them were from the Psalms, passages that remain some of my favorites from Scripture. Psalm 23, of course, but also Psalm 91 (“He who dwells in the secret place of the most High”), Psalm 103 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”—I_Will_Lift_Up_M_4b73106922b8d[1]a text that is forever set in my memory to the music from Godspell), Psalm 121 (“ I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills”) and many others stayed with me as welcome companions even after I sought to walk away from my heritage in my young adulthood. In class the other day, I enjoyed reciting two or three Psalms to freshmen (it was Old Testament week)  as some of them followed along in their texts to track the difference between the NRSV and King James translations. Those who were not following along stared at me as if I were some sort of pony-tail-wearing mutant or trained monkey.

Of all the Psalms from my youth, Psalm 19 was and still remains my favorite.

The heavens declare the glory of God;

Tangalooma%20Sunset[1]And the firmament showeth His handiwork.

Day unto day uttereth speech,

And night unto night showeth knowledge.

There is no speech nor language

Where their voice is not heard.

Their sound is gone out into all lands,

And their words unto the end of the world.

Even in the stilted and outdated language of the King James Version (I wasn’t sure what a “firmament” was, nor were “showeth” or “uttereth” verbs my people used often), I recognized it as beautiful poetry as a mere child. And it was one of the pillars (along with passages from Romans 1 and 10) of my church’s answer to the question “Are those who haven’t heard about Jesus going to hell?” The thought that they would always seemed unfair to me, but in Romans Paul insists, as does the writer of Psalm 19, that God’s presence and truth is there for the observing for those who care to pay attention; Paul says that those who do not “are without excuse.”

So it was disconcerting to find out while on sabbatical that I had “misremembered” Psalm 19. My first clue was when Psalm 19 was up to the plate one day during noon prayer (all of the Psalms get a turn at bat during the four-week cycle of the hourly office the Benedictines use). We read, in the Grail translation,

The heavens declare the glory of God

Copyrighted_Image_Reuse_Prohibited_745585[1]and the firmament shows forth the work of God’s hands.

Day unto day takes up the story

and night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard

yet their span extends through all the earth,

their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

As usual, reading a Psalm that I memorized in the King James Version in another translation was weird, as if someone had messed with the text of a Christmas carol or something. My curiosity was piqued as I compared “No speech, no word, no voice is heard” with the “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” of my memory. I try not to be a philosopher at noon prayer, but I didn’t have to be a philosopher to realize that these comparative lines had exactly opposite meanings. Either what the heavens and the firmament have to say is heard in all languages or it is not heard in any voice or language at all. When I got back to my apartment, 115042273[1]I checked my KJV and read “there is no speech or language; their voice is not heard.” I had misremembered—I had replaced a semicolon with a “where.” My memorized “there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard” had exactly reversed what Psalm 19:3 is saying. And another small piece of my past—this time my favorite Psalm—bites the dust.

Our core selves are essentially created out of our memories—the philosopher John Locke,JohnLocke[1] one of the pioneers of investigation into personal identity, once wrote that “one’s personal identity extends only so far as one’s memories.” But what happens when my memories are faulty?  I recall how jarring it was when I was a teenager to learn that a picture in my baby book (Facebook was not even a glimmer in anyone’s imagination in those days) of me looking angelically at a candle flame taken when I was a year or two old was actually a picture of my brother (my grandmother spilled the beans). That picture had become a part of my identity, and grandmaw ripped it away. How many other cornerstones of my identity, constructed out of my memories, are inaccurate or figments of my imagination? I feel an existential crisis coming on.

PI1-1[1]But perhaps the accuracy of my remembered history is far less important than the need for me to embrace it as mine. I’ve spent a long time over the years trying to delete corrupted files; now I want to spend just as much time inserting them into my present as core parts of my past projected into my future. Because “day unto day takes up the story” doesn’t just apply to the heavens and the firmament—it applies to me.