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.”

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Thinking Outside The Box 2

Thinking outside the Box 2

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Thus speaks Hamlet to his good friend at the end of Scene V, Act I of Hamlet.  They have just encountered the ghost of foully slain old Hamlet.  Young Hamlet has just got his friends to swear an oath upon his sword that they shall never breathe a word of what they have heard and seen to anyone.

“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”  These last were the words of Horatio that called forth Hamlet’s famous and often quoted riposte.  There are so many famous quotations from this stark and engaging tragedy that one could fill many a page with commentary thereupon.  I mention this one in particular because it is one of my favourite quotes of all time.  Why?  Well, it’s philosophically sound.  No one can comprehend everything.  The days of “Renaissance Man” are long since gone.   This is as good a place as any to start a disquisition on the philosophy of knowledge which is called by the horribly pretentious term “epistemology”.  

Another good quotation to use as a spring board in epistemology is: “I know nothing except my ignorance.” This was uttered by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Obviously from here one can begin one’s journey into the infinity of knowledge.  [I owe this quotation to an excellent philosopher who taught me way back in the autumn term of 1976. Fr Patrick Carmody, M.A., M. Phil. (Louvain) – he was and is possessed of a brilliant mind.  He also taught me classical Aristotelian logic.  He is now Parish Priest of Celbridge, Co. Kildare].  Speaking of the infinity of knowledge, I was always quite taken with Karl Popper’s comment that “Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”

I have also been taken in by that classical symbol of perfection, namely the sphere.  My personal concept of the theory of knowledge is to let the sphere (no matter what its radius is, obviously) represent the total of known facts.  Then, it follows, that all that “empty” space that lies outside its bounds represents the infinity of unknown facts.  As humankind learns ever increasing facts quite obviously the sphere grows, leaving an ever greater surface area in contact with the unknown.  Hence, here we have a beautiful metaphor for the increasing nature of knowledge.  Also, it is a graphical representation of that often quoted contention that “the more we know, the more we know that we do not know!”

St Augustine of Hippo used a beautiful phrase, obviously inspired by Socrates through Plato and Aristotle.  He praised what he called a “docta ignorantia” as a starting point not alone in knowledge of facts, but also in wisdom, and as an approach to knowing something of the Creator of the universe, namely God.   I’m obviously not presenting here any partisan contention as to whether the latter exists or not.  I am merely quoting Augustine’s contention from the fifth century A.D.  [I owe this quotation to Rev Dr Gervase  Corcoran, OSA who taught me theology way back in 1983-4.  I don’t know if Gervase is still alive, but he was a marvelous classical scholar (Greek and Latin) and was steeped in Patristics – that is, the study of the early Greek and Roman Fathers of the Church.]

Over the long history of theology (which owes much to Greek philosophy within the Roman Catholic tradition especially and this latter has only quite lately shaken off some of the influence of Greek categories.  More of this in another post) there have been many learned books and tracts called “De Docta Ignorantia.”  It is beyond the scope of this post to say anything about them.  Should the reader wish to pursue knowledge of this arcane area all he/she need do is google this Latin quotation.

I will finish this post by a quotation from Plato which balances and expands on the tenor of Hamlet’s riposte to Horatio which I began with.  It goes thus: “You are young, my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting yourself up as a judge of the highest matters.” [Dialogues, Theatetus, Greek author & philosopher in Athens (427 BC - 347 BC) ]