Archive for the ‘epistemology’ Category

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

What Does Helen Keller Reveal About Intelligence?

Robert J. Fitterer, in his relatively recent book called Love and Objectivity in Virtue Ethics, uses the example of Helen Keller to explain Bernard Lonergan’s theory of insight. Fundamental to Lonergan’s cognitive theory is the concept of insight. Insight, mentioned in the last post, is the grasping of some content, the coming to comprehend or understand some reality. It is the “Aha!” moment of the light bulb going off in your head, when you can say “Oh, I get it!”

Insights can be dramatic. I am reminded of my husband and I toiling over the NYTimes crossword puzzle night after night where we experience a lot of dramatic insights. But insights can also be more subtle and continuous. We are constantly experiencing insights throughout the day as we encounter both external reality and the reality of our minds.

Insights are the bridge between the concrete object and the abstraction of that object that exists in understanding, or, in other words, “insight is the link between sense and understanding; between presentation and implication; or, on a higher order, between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing why.’ It is by insight that we grasp, within concrete particulars and states of affairs, the characteristics on which will hang generalizations, analogies, taxonomies, and theoretic constructs” (36).

Insights are one of the concepts that make up Lonergan’s “Generalized empirical method.” This method includes a discursive process between apprehension (perceiving the data), insights, and judgments (conclusions about the data). Included also in the GEM are memory, imagination, and attention. Insight is the link between perception and understanding, the difference between seeing something and understanding what it is. The GEM leads to decisions, choices, and actions

Fitterer uses the example of Helen Keller to illustrate how the process works. Helen Keller was famously blind and deaf, cut off from the world of sense save only through smell, taste, and touch. Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, broke through Helen’s isolation and was able to teach her how to read and write, leading eventually to Helen becoming the first blind/deaf person to ever earn a bachelor’s degree.

In an event which has now become famous, Anne Sullivan took Helen’s hand one day and traced the signs for W-A-T-E-R as she ran water running over it. Helen describes it in “The Story of My Life:”

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

This “new sight” which Helen describes, explains Fitterer, is a prime example of the general empirical method at work, specifically in terms of the three cognitive operations of attention, understanding, and judgment.

The first act of intelligence is to pay attention to some data. Attention is intentional, a paying attention to something. “Attending is not itself an act of sense, but is a shift in intentional focus directed, according to Lonergan by the subject’s own concerns, wants, needs, and so on” (38). Keller showed attention when she turned her focus to the feeling of the signs for W-A-T-E-R on her hands and the experience of the cool, wet water flowing over her hands at the same time.

Second, attention can lead to an insight which grasps “the intelligibility immanent within experienced data or that may apply to these data” (38). An insight is a possible way of making sense of the data. It’s a possible means of explaining what it is which attention has apprehended. Helen describes this moment as a “misty consciousness” and a “thrill of returning thought” as she first becomes aware that the feeling of W-A-T-E-R on her hands is the sign for water.

However, the stage of insight is still a hypothetical stage. Further work must be done to confirm the insight. This third level of cognition is judgment whereby we “discern the actual from the possible, the real from the merely apparent.” Judgment is marked by assent, “an act of intelligent apprehension that fulfilled conditions compel affirmation” (39). For Helen, judgment came about by testing other tactile objects to see if they too had a different sign. Once she had run this little experiment, she could assent to the fact that the feeling of W-A-T-E-R on her hand did indeed mean “water.” This judgment completes the process by which Helen came to knowledge.

Judgment goes beyond insight in not just grasping what something is, but also why something is. This process is self-correcting as a person is attentive to more relevant data. As a person makes a judgment, their attention turns outward again, intentionally seeking out any other relevant data that may help answer “is this really the case?” For Helen, this attention led her back through her house, which she almost literally saw with new eyes as she experienced insight after insight concerning the familiar objects of her life.

The general empirical method seems like common sense and it is. Lonergan isn’t trying to event a way of coming to know, but rather simply describing how it is that we do come to know. The important implication is that by knowing how it is that we come to know, we can take conscious responsibility for it, or as Fitterer writes, we can “take a conscious process and turn it into a self-aware, self-critical method” (53).

The Reason Behind the Artist’s Madness

In his monumental Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain cites a somewhat disturbing poem by William Blake:

All Pictures that’s Painted with Sense and with Thought
Are Painted by Madmen, as sure as a Groat;
For the Greatest the Fool is Pencil more blest,
And when they are drunk they always paint best.

For a Thomist, this poem sits ill because it seems to say that the best artists are the ones who are not rational, but for Aquinas, the human good is to be in accord with reason. What is even more disturbing is that the best artists really do seem to fit Blake’s description. In Caravaggio, Van Gogh, even Mozart, creative energy seems more tied with madness rather than reason. At first glance, the Thomist has to say either that Blake is wrong, that the goodness of the irrational artists is only a semblance of goodness, or that Thomas is wrong, and that the human good is not to be in accord with reason, or at least not always.

This is the question Maritain raises in Creative Intuition. “Art Bitten by Poetry Longs to Be Freed From Reason,” he writes, introducing his chapter on the preconscious life of the intellect. Modern art, he observes, seems to violate a basic Thomistic principle, namely, that art is an intellectual virtue. Modern art longs to be freed from reason.

Maritain is not saying this from the perspective of criticism. Unlike certain thinkers, and especially religious thinkers, Maritain is not trying to deny the value or beauty of modern art. He is trying rather to identify and describe the sort of knowledge integral to art. He calls this knowledge “creative” or “poetic intuition.”

A poetic intuition is an obscure knowledge, born in the preconscious of the spirit, in which the artist grasps both hiss own self and things together in a sympathetic union of connaturality effected by means of an intentional emotion, and which takes shape, bears fruits, and finds expression only in a work.

Because poetic intuition is knowledge, it cannot be divorced from the intellect. However, such knowledge is not the kind we normally associate with the intellect, that rational, abstractive, discursive, and above all conscious form of knowing distinctive of rational creatures. Poetic intuition is preconscious. It is the efficient cause of conscious intellectual awareness, as Maritain so beautifully describes it:

It is enough to think of the ordinary and everyday functioning of intelligence, in so far as intelligence is really in activity, and of the way in which ideas arise in our minds, and every genuine intellectual grasping, or every new discovery, is brought about; it is enough to think of the way in which our free decisions, when they are really free, are made, especially those decisions which commit our entire life–to realize that there exists a deep nonconscious world of activity, for the intellect and the will, from which the acts and fruits of human consciousness and the clear perceptions of the mind emerge, and that the universe of concepts, logical connections, rational discursus and rational deliberation, in which the activity of the intellect takes definite form and shape, is preceded by the hidden workings of an immense and primal preconscious life (93-94).

Art, therefore, is not a rejection of reason but a deepening understanding of what constitutes reason.

Reason does not only consist of its conscious logical tools and manifestations, nor does the will consist only of its deliberate conscious determinations. Far beneath the sunlit surface thronged with explicit concepts and judgments, words and expressed resolutions or movements of the will, are the sources of knowledge and creativity, of love and suprasensuous desires, hidden in the primordial translucid night of the intimate vitality of the soul (94).

Such knowledge seems like madness because it transcends the conscious activity of reason. Poetic intuition is not logical, nor can it be encapsulated in logic. Poetic intuition is emotional. One grasps an object by poetic intuition only by a means of a particular emotion. Poetic intuition is also not linguistically intelligible. It is obscure, anti-logical, unintelligible. And in this ways, modern art is truly an expression of knowledge but also a freedom from reason. Modern art is

a process of liberation from conceptual, logical, discursive reason. Though it may accidentally entail a general disregard for the intellect, and a suicidal attitude of contempt fro reason, it is by now means, in its essence, a process of liberation from reason itself, if it is true that reason possesses a life both deeper and less conscious than its articulate logical life. For reason indeed does not only articulate, connect, and infer, it also sees; and reason’s intuitive grasping, intuitus rationis, is the primary act and function of that one and single power which is called intellect or reason. In other words, there is not only logical reason, but also, and prior to it, intuitive reason (75).

The madness of artist, at least from the Thomistic vantage point, does not compel us to reject the role of reason in the greatness of the artist, but rather, to come an appreciation of the wider role of reason, and its integral connection to the emotions. An appreciation for the madness of the artist reminds us that we are not disconnected minds, but embodied spirits, who know the world only by sensing and feeling.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

I just finished listening to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Yes, I said listening. Living in Boston, you walk everywhere and I have tried to maximize my efficiency in my scholarly pursuits by using that walking time (up to three hours each day) by listening to audiobooks. Some books are more difficult to listen to than others. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was one of the easier ones.

Most generally, the book (or “essay,” as Kuhn calls it in the preface) is a work in the philosophy of science which is trying to explain how scientific knowledge, and more specifically, scientific theory, develops. Kuhn is adamant that scientific theories do not emerge as the product of a mere accumulation of scientific facts and data. Rather, new theories emerge as products of changing circumstances and and a new intellectual milieu. New theories are the expressions of a new way of seeing, of perceiving the world.

The framework in which a scientist perceives the world is what Kuhn calls a paradigm, and a shift in perception leading to a new way of perceiving the world is called a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is the result of an anomaly, a failure of a paradigm to explain certain phenomena. For example, in the Ptolemaic universe, the solar system was made up of a series of concentric circles with Earth as its center and the planets moving in perfect circles around the earth. This was a paradigm, a way of seeing the world. According to this way of seeing the world, Mars appears to go backwards in the night sky, what astronomers call retrograde motion. This discrepancy in observed astronomical data could only be explained with the development of a new heliocentric (Copernicus) solar system with elliptical orbits (Kepler). This paradigm shift is literally a new way of seeing the solar system and indeed the entire universe. The knowledge that Mars is not actually going backwards is not just the accumulation of new knowledge but a new mode of perception.

Kuhn basic insight is a psychological one–the expectations we bring into our observations influences our conclusions. He cites an interesting experiment in which subjects were quickly shown the playing cards of ordinary deck except for certain cards in which the suit of a certain color was exchanged for its opposite. So, for example, a subject might be shown a red three of clubs or a black king of hearts. The subjects overwhelmingly identified the card according to color–what they expected to see. So instead of correctly identifying the card as a king of hearts (despite its black color), the subjects would say “king of spades,” changing the suit according to what they expected to see. The more they were exposed to the anomalous card, the more uncertain they would become, but at first, what they saw matched their expectations, or in Kuhn’s language, their paradigm–black curvy suits are spades, not hearts, and are identified accordingly. The moral: our expectations shape what we see. Two scientists immersed in two different paradigms can observe the same phenomena and actually see two totally different phenomena.

Scientific knowledge is a lot like this, according to Kuhn. New scientific knowledge and new theories are not just the result of an increase in knowledge (though this is certainly a part of it, as more refined tools for observation are developed). But to even develop new tools, we have to know what it is that we are measuring. So new knowledge is not just the result of better tools, but rather, the result of shifts in perception, the ability to see what we once thought was a duck as a rabbit, to cite the example Kuhn himself uses. In another example, Kuhn cites an experiment where a person wears certain glasses which flip her vision, causing her to see everything upside down. Within a few minutes, her vision adapts, allowing her to see everything right side up. A person wearing the inverting lenses and a person not wearing the inverting lenses would then see the world in exactly the same way despite the fact that each had two opposite retinal impressions (one right side up, the other upside down). If the person were to take off the inverting lenses, at first, she would see everything upside down again, until her vision re-adapted. At this point, she and the person who had never had the inverting lenses on would see two different things (one right side up, the other upside down), despite having the same retinal impressions.

What Kuhn wants us to take away from the text is that there is no such thing as purely objective or purely neutral observational language. Scientists don’t get to claim that they just “examine the facts.” The “facts” are always products of perception. Some may call this relativism, but at least at this point, I would disagree. I think its a nice way of introducing epistemic humility into the sciences.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.