Drinking from the Well of Academia

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I've been accused by some Christians of having skewed judgments because I've drunk deeply from the well of academia. I've also been accused by atheists of having skewed judgments because I'm too willing to let my religious views shape how I think about issues where an unbiased person would come to an obvious conclusion opposite my own. So maybe I'm just suspect from both ends, but I wonder if in some ways I'm in a more ideal position to be able to see through ways people in both sides have allowed their preferences, value judgments, and assumptions to shape their thinking in non-rational and perhaps even irrational ways.

I spent a good deal of time last summer in commentaries on Proverbs, and my daily Bible reading has taken me back to Proverbs again, so I've been thinking about the secular basis of this fairly large biblical book. Scholars have found similar collections of proverbial material in Babylon and Egypt, and it's pretty clear that both wisdom traditions predate the biblical proverbs. Some of these proverbial collections include material that's extremely close to particular proverbs in the biblical book. The biblical narratives about Solomon, one of the few places outside Proverbs to discuss the content of the book, seem to indicate that had access to the wisdom traditions of other nations.

Daniel reports the righteous behavior of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends who were exiled to Babylon. They refused to worship other gods and insisted on keeping Torah dietary restrictions as much as possible, even to the point of eating no meat at all since they couldn't guarantee any of it had been killed properly. One thing they didn't do is refuse to learn the Babylonian wisdom traditions.

On the other hand, the prophets roundly condemn pagan prophets as unedifying and full of lies about false gods. They're not worth listening to. Paul speaks of the philosophy that the Colossians had been listening to as empty and something to avoid (though it's not clear that he says this of philosophy as a discipline or field of study, as most translations wrongly convey). Pagans like Ruth are perfectly kosher for intermarriage when they convert but completely forbidden when they don't, as the concluding evaluation of Solomon in Kings makes clear. Rahab seems to be another example.

What should we conclude? There's a spiritual threat from listening to false statements that have a bearing on important spiritual matters. But the biblical picture is not to avoid that at all costs. There are certain settings where avoiding it is the only thing to do, but those settings involve marriage and worship. There are other settings where learning it and considering it, as long as it's with discretion, are presented as entirely unproblematic. There are even strong indications that an entire book of the Bible derives from material that includes a significant amount of secular reflections on life.

As with many things in Christian life, there's a tension here between two principles that are both morally important. God created humans with the ability to reason and to arrive at truths about life and reality, and fallen humanity has found ways to corrupt and avoid using that capacity, in some cases leading to an ability to see the truth at all. One case that's especially so is our ability to come to understand the good news of the salvation God offers to us in Jesus the Messiah. But even with an inability to appreciate the gospel message apart from the Holy Spirit, that doesn't mean we're incapable of coming to understand true things that are related to that issue, and we're also talking about Christians who do have the Holy Spirit, who can indeed and according to Jesus' teaching are in fact guided into truth by the Spirit.

So why the absolute prohibition on drinking from the well of academia, whose secular assumptions and goals can certainly be obstacles to the truth but whose God-given abilities and resources for understanding the truth are nonetheless present? Why even the extremely strong resistance, even if not absolute, that many Christians have? Surely there's a need for discernment, and for some people that discernment might require staying away entirely from certain kinds of things, as with anything. But it seems to me that a lot of the resistance I see is highly unbiblical, despite its appearance of piety.


Thanks Jeremy, I think you hit the nail right on the head. This post was very encouraging.

I think people may have different biases, and some see value in recognising, challenging and testing them; those who don’t, don’t need to do philosophy. A religious person turning to philosophy seems odd, if one already felt ‘guided into truth by the Spirit’: Is it because one can’t tell for sure between a Cartesian demon and the Spirit? Or to show that one can get at truth independently of the Spirit? I can see why this may smack of arrogance, from a religious point of view. And if you tell non-Christians that they’re unable to get at the truth you’re privy to because they’re corrupted and while the Spirit has a soft spot for you it can’t be bothered with them, I think you can see why this smacks of arrogance too. So if you’re in an ideal position, it’s at some considerable cost. But I can’t quite make out how philosophy can be an obstacle to the truth, and I’m puzzled by the role of ‘discernment’: Is philosophy OK only for people impervious to reason and to be avoided by those likely to be moved by rational argument? It sounds sad.

It's not about feeling guided by the Spirit. It's about being guided by the Spirit. This isn't about having an internalist epistemic justification by which one knows which sources of information are reliable. It's about being in fact guided by the Spirit, whether one is aware of it or not. This guidance could take place by means of being aided to think well about which philosophical arguments are well-supported. You seem to have the idea that this is all some internal feeling that something just seems right or wrong. While I'm not ruling that out, I don't think Christians have historically thought of the guidance of the Holy Spirit as being exclusively in that sort of way, and many Christians don't think it's the typical way the Holy Spirit guides believers.

I've always thought the guidance of the Holy Spirit could include careful reasoning through evaluating philosophical arguments. Anyone who holds to divine inspiration of scripture has to recognize that there are arguments given in certain parts of scripture, and the human author has to have written those while thinking through why those arguments are convincing. Those who believe the Holy Spirit guided those authors, then, must be willing to see the divine inspiration process as including bringing those human authors to conclusions through making reasoning clearer to the person and guiding the person's reasoning capacity as they considered whether those arguments are good reasoning. So I just don't see this exclusive disjunction between being guided by the Holy Spirit in one's discernment and doing careful reflection in a philosophical way.

Plantinga has a whole book reflecting on how it might work for the proper functioning of one's reasoning processes, as guided along by divinely-teleological processes largely consistent with natural causation, can lead to more truth-conducive belief.

As for arrogance, I don't think the view that I'm unable to arrive at the truth about salvation myself without aid from God can constitute arrogance. It's about as far in the other direction as possible. At least in the Reformation tradition (and I think a fair amount of Catholic thought agrees, e.g. Thomas Aquinas), there's a heavy emphasis on the need for God's grace as a necessary condition for coming to accept the truths necessary for pursuing a genuine Christian life, and God's grace isn't something anyone can bring on to themselves or deserve beforehand. If anything, the more likely danger in this kind of view is to diminish our human capacity toward understanding truths, which is what I was trying to mitigate against in this post.

As for how philosophy can be an obstacle to the truth, I would have thought that was obvious. There is no shortage of examples of philosophers coming up with crazy views in order to satisfy some set of philosophical desiderata. Even if some crazy views are true, most of them aren't (since they're incompatible with each other). That means philosophy is leading a lot of people into false views. It's not entirely clear to me that it's philosophy that's doing this, but the occasion of its occurrence is certainly philosophical engagement with arguments. (For example, those who accept moral nihilism may or may not be doing so on the basis of arguments. Perhaps they just don't want to believe they face any moral obligations. But they certainly accept the non-existence of moral truths in the context of considering philosophical arguments, whether their view is entirely caused by that or at least partially caused by their desire for how they would like things to be.)

OK then, over e.g. contraception do you happen to be aware if it’s you or the Pope who is guided by the Spirit? Because you seem to disagree with the Pope and you wouldn’t want Christianity to turn into an obstacle to the truth. We’ve discussed externalism before and I’ve tried to explain why I think it can't help us escape epistemological limbo. I accept that who the Spirit guides is guided by the Spirit and that incompatible views can’t all be true, but I still miss a way of telling which view is rationally preferable.

I note that you’ve introduced a qualification, ‘the truth about salvation’. So perhaps it’s the truth about damnation that’s inaccessible, which is something I find remarkable about Christian belief: That it’s only available to the winners. Because as soon as someone gets to believe there’s a divine lottery one’s handed a winning ticket. People may be unlikely to refuse undeserved favours, though perhaps they ought to, but I think you’ll recognise symmetry, in terms of ‘their desire for how they would like things to be’, between Christian believers and those philosophers who come up with crazy views, which must be all philosophers.

We may be able to weed through irrationality sometimes but a passion for reason is still a passion. So I’m not particularly concerned about estimates of human capacity toward understanding truths. I guess philosophers can’t set out counting on any favours from any spirits.

I can tell if I disagree with the Pope by looking at his philosophical arguments and seeing if I think they're good arguments. I can look at his interpretation of scripture and see if it really requires the view he says it leads to, judging by whether the Hebrew or Greek exegesis is correct and whether his interpretation relies on historically-sound reconstructions of the social background of the text or historical setting and practices that might inform how we should take what it says. I can evaluate whether the text's statements were intended to apply in only certain settings or in larger settings that include my own.

I can judge his reliance on tradition and see if I think the tradition is correct. I'm not sure why you're insisting on guidance by the Holy Spirit being incommensurable with the usual methods people use to arrive at beliefs. It's not a claim about how we tell whether we're guided by the Spirit. It's a claim about what's actually going on when Christians are being aided in their understanding.

I'm not sure what you're getting at with the truth about damnation. If God rearranges my desires to enable me to understand the gospel so that I will believe, doesn't that in effect also get me to see what sort of life leads to damnation? Don't the two go hand in hand? Knowing what leads to salvation entails knowing what doesn't (and thus knowing what leads to damnation).

You think people ought to refuse all undeserved favors? So suppose universalism is correct, and God chooses to save everyone even though no one deserves it. In such a scenario, are you saying that everyone ought to reject that and go to hell? Or are you just resisting the idea that someone should accept such an offer if not everyone is given it? I think the implication even in that sort of case is that no one ought to accept a plea bargain for a diminished sentence in exchange for testifying against someone who committed a more serious crime. It also means that, whenever a friend forgives you for something you did, you should not allow them to begin treating you as if you are back on good terms. You should encourage them to continue to resent the evil thing you did and insist on never being reconciled. After all, they might not have forgiven someone else.

There certainly is symmetry between people who accept non-mainstream views in holding to Christian teaching and people who accept non-mainstream views in holding to unusual philosophical views. My point isn't that we should never hold oddball views. Certainly some oddball views are probably true. Quantum physics is definitely oddball, but I have no reason to think it's not true. I'm not talking about when we should or shouldn't believe unusual views. What I'm saying is that philosophy sometimes shows us that any consistent position we take will involve some unusual or even some unwelcome position, and we just have to figure out which unusual or unwelcome view we'll prefer. The fact that philosophy is hard means we won't always agree with each other on which unusual view to take. That means philosophy is leading some people to take the wrong view, because they can't all be right.

I'm not saying philosophers should count on favors in getting to the truth when it comes to philosophy. I don't think there's any reason to think the existence of the Holy Spirit and desire of the Holy Spirit to help me lead a good life is necessarily going to mean that the Holy Spirit will help me figure out whether three-dimensionalism or four-dimensionalism is true or which criteria of simplicity are the most truth-conducive in comparing competing metaphysical systems such as those of Spinoza, Locke, and Berkeley.

Unfortunately this is very true. Most of mainstream christianity seems to think that academia is the enemy. Some take it further and put any kind of philosophical work, or rigorous thought outside of the confines of theology as bad too. Its crippling.

I think we’re on the same page about the Holy Spirit; as you say, it’s a claim about what's actually going on, not a claim that we’re able to tell whether we're guided by the Spirit or not in any particular instance. So given that we can’t tell either way this looks like a claim we could safely bracket off when evaluating competing theories, on independent grounds. Anyway, I understand you’d wish to limit the claim about divine guidance to views on matters theological, though it would be nice if it extended to other areas so that, say, all the top scientists and Nobel prize winners were Christians from your denomination; it would impress the Pope, and make the claim sound less ad hoc.

I haven’t really thought about undeserved favours, or forgiveness; people do all sorts of things for love, but what’s rational about that? Plea-bargains are conditional offers and so not quite ‘unearned’; I don’t think the practice is morally unproblematic, or particularly prevalent outside the US; nor that turning supergrass in the circumstances makes one a better person. Pardons may be a more apt example. Forgiving oneself is sometimes harder than forgiving others, so it may help psychologically if it’s left to a forgiving God to forgive one; but if one feels forgiven by God and isn’t forgiven by the person wronged that seems problematic too; too easy perhaps. Favours are a temptation. Alexander is said to have spilled water he’d been offered onto the ground because there wasn’t enough to go round for everyone to have a drink; and they were all thirsty. This may have had something to do with his managing to lead an army from southern Europe to the Indus river. (Of course he’s also reputed to have said he’d wish to have been Diogenes the Cynic weren’t he Alexander, when he offered to do Diogenes any favour and Diogenes asked him to move a bit because he was blocking the sun.) In our private life I don’t think it’s necessarily immoral to forgive one person everything and another nothing; just irrational.

Those philosophers who might endorse a moral view because they don’t want to believe they may have moral obligations I pictured in court, challenging speeding tickets on the grounds they’re not bound by speed limits, and I thought it funny; I’m not aware of any evidence that e.g. moral realists are better behaved than other ethicists anyway. I just couldn’t see why philosophers wouldn’t want to believe they’re immortal, God’s favourites and destined for eternal life in bliss, which is what Christians believe; or at least that they’re immortal. Why is it not possible to discern the set-up at all unless one is favoured by it, or why should there be a preponderance of corrupt humans among philosophers in particular? It would be unreasonable to object to getting what one deserves. But perhaps feeling that one’s being unjustly punished is part of the punishment. So I wouldn’t wish to make you feel bad about your preferred status; perhaps you’ve been made the unturndownable offer, and perhaps ‘Euthyphro’ is a brand of Belgian chocolate (and if I knew how to import a smiley face I’d put it right here).

I’d like to say that I’m sympathetic to your plight, and hope I didn’t sound otherwise; if I have it’s because I have a grudge about the way Christianity has historically interacted with philosophy, I think it’s been mutually detrimental or at least to philosophy, and a prejudice against mediaevals and scholasticism. So you’re right that we all have biases though I’d strive not to have any that aren’t negotiable. But I can empathise with the psychological toll of juggling, all the code switching and suppression of premises that seem so obviously true because one must abide by the rules of the game; and having people claim to be able to see through the act, though perhaps inevitable, must add insult to injury when one tries as hard as you do. I'm not sure what else to say that won’t expose you to the other side, except perhaps that if your thirst is ever quenched it won’t be because you’ve drunk any deeper from the well of academia.

I quite like what this stark image communicates about the modern academy, and indeed Western culture as a whole, and particularly the American academy.

1. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~spanmod/mural/panel17.html

I would suggest that many, and perhaps most, Christian universities are enmeshed in this dreadful paradigm too.

For instance: How many Christian universities receive either direct or indirect funding from the military-industrial-complex, or the Pentagon death machine.

Plus how many Christian universities and ideologues provide philosophical and cultural support for the deadly applied politics of the said death-machine?
For example, by providing justification for the war against Iraq.

To EU: The story you say of Alexander is actually very similar to one in the Bible. Before David was king, when he was an outlaw hiding from Saul, one of his soldiers risked his neck to get David some water to drink, and David poured it out because he couldn't drink something that had cost so much. That strikes me as immoral, actually, but I think the reason the narrator/compiler includes it is as an example of self-sacrifice to show that David wasn't a power-seeker in the overall account of his rise to kingship. So it does demonstrate one virtue, even if it also demonstrates a vice.

I think forgiveness for humans is about ridding ourselves of resentment, and I think it's a highly rational thing to do. I would distinguish it from legally holding someone responsible, thinking someone is morally justified or excused, or refusing to trust the person, which are all compatible with forgiveness. Those who set emotions up in contrast with rationality, such as the Stoics, would certainly agree that it's always best to forgive anyone, because resentment would count as an emotion worth ridding ourselves of. I wouldn't accept the whole Stoic position, but resentment does seem to me to be an emotion that's never helpful.

I don't think divine forgiveness, at least as it's discussed in biblical writings, is of the same sort. It's not so much about removing a negative emotion as God treating the sin as if it never occurred. Maybe it is more like pardoning, then. Divine favor is not always presented as being based on a group of people or individual being better. Israel is told they are a chosen people, but they're also told that it's not because they're better than anyone else. There could still be a rational reason for choosing them rather than another group, but that reason might have to do with how certain people's being chosen might accomplish different things than another group's being chosen (e.g. Paul's previous persecution of the early Christians and training as a Pharisaical rabbi both played a role that he saw as positive in how his early instruction and apologetic argument took form, but both of them were things he later came to see as either evil or decidedly mixed in value despite the good results of having had them happen to him).

Actually, there are philosophers who argue that we shouldn't want to be immortal. A number of metaphysicians think we wouldn't be the same person if we lived long enough to lose psychological continuity. I know Ted Sider thinks 1000 years is far too long for us to be the same person by psychological continuity (although he thinks personal identity is indeterminate between psychological and biological continuity). I've also seen a number of philosophers defend the view that we shouldn't want immortality anyway. They either see it as something we'd get tired of or see finality as important for some reason. They don't see death as intrinsically bad. I happen to think it's sour grapes, but plenty of philosophers have said such things.

But what I was getting at is that many people don't like the idea of some external authority telling them what they ought to do. That's why a lot of people don't like the idea of God. Kant happened to believe that an ideal divine reasoner would arrive at the same conclusions we do when we function ideally in moral reasoning, so he didn't find any problem with a divine lawgiver (in fact, he thought it necessary to the idea of morality). But he did insist on morality making no sense unless we can arrive at the exact moral picture with no help from a divine being, which seems to me to be the sin of Genesis 3 (he at least thought so, which is one reason he rejected the Bible as a moral guide). Thinking our reasoning should be the sole source of our understanding of morality is at odds with the biblical view of our limitations in such matters, and some prefer the Kantian insistence on our moral autonomy. So Kant is actually an example of what I was talking about, and it's not because he's rejecting morality. He's even got a pretty conservative moral picture and one that necessarily involves God (as he sees it; contemporary Kantians disagree). But there's a sense in which he's rejecting a significant part of what many religious people see as crucial to religion.

I don't think there's any suggestion that philosophers should be more likely to have false views than the general populace. The idea is that philosophy is a method that can lead to true or false views, and therefore its ability to lead to false views is something to watch out for. But that's compatible with other methods leading to false views, such as believing what your surrounding culture tells you. Paul lists the wisdom of the Greeks of his day and the desire for miraculous signs among Jews of his day both as obstacles to accepting what Christians taught. But he also saw sinful desires as reasons to resist it.

Sue, I don't have much patience for conspiracy theories. I'm not about to attribute all that's wrong with the world to some proposed military-industrial complex, and I'm not going to impugn the motives of those whose divinely-given responsibility it is to seek justice in the world. As it happens, I think the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was morally justified, and I'm not being paid any money by any military-industrial complex, so I'm not going to be inclined to see those who come to the same conclusion I do as doing so merely because some conspiracy is causing academics to hold the views they do because of where funding comes from. People give arguments for their views, and resisting those views by argument is a good thing. Resisting them by using morally-loaded terminology without acknowledging the moral reasoning you disagree with, all the while insisting on impugning motives of fellow believes, strikes me as wholly unChristian. You won't find much tolerance of that kind of thing at this site.

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