Friday, March 31, 2006

Thinking Outside the Box 3

Thinking Outside the Box 3

An ancient method used in theology and spirituality was what was termed the “via negativa,” or “negative way.”  Say for instance, one was discussing any profound question like the nature of God.  Many ancient theologians believed that one could say more about what God “is not” rather than what He actually “is”.  They might say something like the following:  “God is not fallible like human beings.  He is not limited in knowledge.  He is not a person in the same way as we are persons.  He cannot be contained in any one place.  God is not limited in power.  When one has listed all the things He is not, then one can by the implications of logic say something about what He is.    The logical implications these putative theologians might draw from the above listed premises might be:  “God is infallible.  He is omniscient (all-knowing).  He is transpersonal (a rather modern and more recent term.  A more traditional theologian would say simply “He is divine.”) He is ubiquitous (capable of being in many places or all places at the one time).  He is omnipotent or all-powerful” etc.

Quite obviously one’s thinking in these matters is limited by the “box” in which one is thinking.  If one is a believer one is thinking in the believer’s box as it were.  If one is thinking in a certain way, say within the categories of a precisely defined system (say Catholic dogmatic theology or Euclidean Geometry), then one could argue that one is definitely thinking within the confines of that one system.  For example there are many different systems of geometry: Euclidean, Algebraic, Analytical, Differential, Topological and many more.   Each system is perfectly logical within its own confines, and there is no denying that.  However, for different practical applications in technology and engineering one or another of them will be more satisfactory and useful while others will be literally useless.  Here, therefore, we must be what Edward de Bono quite rightly calls “lateral thinkers.”  In modern jargon or in the modern cliché we must “think outside the box!”

I remember years ago being lectured on one of the more abstruse areas in dogmatic theology namely the Trinity.  In traditional Catholic Theology this treatise was called by the lovely Latin title of “De Deo Trino.”  Many a divinity student has struggled with this treatise which is particularly difficult.  We had an extremely brilliant academic for this course.  His course notes went to hundreds of pages, all annotated carefully with references in Greek and Latin from original texts.  It reminded me of the time I had studied mathematics at university some years previously.  I had done a course on Fundamental Analysis with a professor of Mathematics equally as bright and intelligent as my theology lecturer.  I’ve got to admit I found both scholars learned, erudite and intelligent, but both mystified and baffled me.  (In hindsight both belong to what I now in my hard-won wisdom call “the mystifiers” who like to confuse students anyway – in fact they delight in doing so!)  I could see no point in either course, both being totally useless to either my life or my career.  (I passed both courses, one with flying colours and the other by the skin of my teeth, if I may be permitted to mix metaphors liberally)  One might argue that fundamental analysis, the basis of calculus, is quintessentially useful to mathematicians and engineers.  However, for the two years I taught mathematics, I never once remember seeing its relevance.  Be that as it may, I’m not disputing here the lack or otherwise of the merits of these two subjects.  What is at issue here for me is quite simply that every science in the broadest sense of that term (I include all the human sciences as well as the natural within my definition here) is logical within its own system, that is, logical and undeniably right once it is based upon its own a priori presuppositions which we call the axioms of that particular science.

However, here is where the philosopher comes into his or her own.  The philosopher is one essentially who is trained literally “to think outside the box.”  He or she can ask questions like:  “What is the relevance of all this to question X or question Y or question Z?”  He or she can even question the presuppositions made by a particular science.  He or she can ask:  “Are the axioms assumed by this science self-evidently true in actual fact?” (A very good question)  If the expert replies “We have such and such as evidence”, the philosopher can ask further questions like “what is evidence anyway?”  “Is there only one form of evidence?”  “Are there other types of evidence outside the mathematical and scientific?”

It is a truism to state that philosophy is more a method that actually a series of positive or negative statements about some or all possible issues.  It raises simple questions which have huge implications.  It questions our presuppositions and our prejudices.  It does not let us away with half truths and half-baked ideas.  In the end of the day it keeps us “real” to use another cliché on a par with its cousin of instilling in us an ability “to think outside the box.”

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