Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ontologically, All Experience is on an Even Playing Field

Response to kmabom

First of all, thank you for your compliment and for commenting on my blog. You, likewise, seem very handy with words.

Now, for my critique, I find your blind faith in reason to be a bit naive. You yourself admit the limitations of subjectivity, but then go on to act as though we can know things through "physical evidence," without providing any reason why so called "physical evidence" is preferable to so called emotional, spiritual, intuitive and personal evidence.

All physical evidence is mediated through our faculties, meaning there is no guarantee of any fidelity to any objective reality. Furthermore, we have very good reasons to believe that we are not very good at observing reality, free of interpretation. Hence, Nietzsche's statement that "there are no facts, only interpretations." That which we observe is more a reflection on internal mental structures than on an external objective reality. Philosophers of science Kuhn and Feyerabend have shown very clearly that paradigms determines the observations (and not the other way around) - phenomenon that contradict theory are simply unobservable prior to the acquisition of a new conceptual framework from which to observe them. Hence Copernicus precedes Galileo.

Furthermore, I find it interesting that you should use Galileo as your example of someone who used "physical means to uncover a better explanation," because both ideas - that Galileo relied on physical evidence and that his explanations were better - are highly problematic.

In Against Method, Paul Freyerbend has conducted research that shows that Galileo's theory was not only radical, but was also just flat-out irrational.

None of Galileo's observations or experiments could ever be duplicated by his peers in the scientific community - i.e. the academics of his age. Records tell of Galileo bringing his instruments to dinner parties. He would claim to observe incredible things in the night sky, but no one else at all could ever see the things he was claiming to see. As reproducibility of outcomes is a central tenant of "objective" scientific research, it cannot be said with a straight face that Galileo's theory was based on reasonable "physical means". Furthermore his drawings, "maps", of the moon and mars appear to be entirely works of fiction, as they have absolutely no fidelity to the surface of the moon, as viewed today from modern telescopes (And again the people of his day never saw anything like Galileos drawings when they looked through his primitive spy-glass). Furthermore, Galileo's calculations, derived from his theory, of the movement of celestial bodies, were grossly inaccurate; On the other hand, the much more strongly developed Aristotelian theory with its mathematically sophisticated epi-cycles, was much better at predicting the movement of planets in the night sky. Thus, Galileo's theory actually confirmed much worse to physical evidence then the dominant theory of the day.

Therefore, given that, at the time, the Geo-centric Aristotelian theory produced results which were more closely aligned with observed phenomenon, it is ironic that you would stake your claim that "reason" and "physicality" should be the basis for determining beliefs on Galileo. It was only because people like Galileo pursued their theories in spite of the irrationality of said theories that these beliefs were eventually developed - through arduous series of refutations and refinements - into what we have today. Therefore, the take-away lesson from Galileo is that if one feels intuitively that something is true and right, then one should develop that belief, regardless of the irrationality and "physical" evidence to the contrary. All beliefs systems, theories, and religions should be developed into their most sophisticated manifestations. The pursuit of truth is thus multifaceted and conditional, with multiple lines of inquiry.

Finally, there's also a good argument that your insistence on "reason" as a way of revealing nature, is part of an ongoing heterosexual male narrative of dominion (domination) of nature, which is not entirely devoid of sexism. But I'm not going to develop this idea any further at this time.

Now, what you fail to recognize is that among the myriad of interpretations and "truths" out there, there is no singular "Truth" with a capital 'T'. In assuming that there is an objective knowable Truth out there which can, and should, "sort among all these" differences in an authoritative fashion, you make the same mistake of idolatry (trying to force the name of God unto something physical and therefore transitory and unsustainable) as the inquisitors of Galileo's day (and all other absolutists). (This mistake is limited to your logic, and I don't mean to trivialize the awful experience of those who live in oppressive regimes, and I'm of course not saying that you are guilty of the inquisition, merely that your guilty assuming something without basis.) All phenomenological experience exists on an even playing field - so called physical evidence is just as compelling as intuitive and "spiritual evidence" - and no more so.

I'm afraid many mormons, like me, also commonly make the same mistake of idolotry in assuming they have "the Truth". I'm hoping to somewhat disabuse some of them of their naivety with this talk. However, I share a common paradigm with the mormon community within which I was raised. Furthermore, I have had experiences which seem to support these beliefs, and therefore feel comfortable expressing this shared communal beliefs with others - such as how prayer, love of neighbor and community involvement (church) all seem to better my life. If someone feels something as a result of hearing my words, and wants to join this community of church-goers that's fine, if they don't that's fine too, I'll still try to love them, because they have their own truth to pursue. This is the proper attitude for mormon missionary work.

The Invisibility of the Other

Empathy and its negation as a basis for ethics

Empathy is an injunction to understand the other. We feel the weight of the other's gaze and in recognizing them as human (or part of us) we seek to empathize with them. This injuction however, is impossible to satisfy. We are trapped in the mirror-world of our own consciousness; wherein, everything we see is merely a reflection of that which is inside of us. Consciousness is characterized by intentionality - consciousness is what we view consciously, or with attention (intention). The eye takes in many things, (light streams into the iris from all around at all times) but we are only conscious of that which is viewed intentionally (intentional objects). Everything outside of our intention is outside of consciousness - i.e. subconscious. In order to be conscious of an object we must intend to see it; meaning that what we see is only that which we intend to see. As such, the objects we view are not external to the gaze, but rather are part of the gaze. Objects exist inside our minds rather than without - and the external world cannot be reduced to the objects that we create and place in it. Therefore, objects are mirrors of consciousness, which show only that which is inside our own mind.

The mirror-world is a necessary implication of my subjective existence. Therefore, I can never experience the 0ther as such, because I can only experience myself and my own phenomenological objects. I can never experience the other as the other experiences themselves. Which is to say I can never be 0ther - a literal impossibility as it would require me to cease being myself and become other, which would then render 0ther as part of myself and thereby make it not-0ther (because it is I). Empathy is impossible. I can never know the other, I'm trapped in my own head and can't experience the other as such.

Therefore, how can one satisfy the impossible injunction to empathy, given empathy's impossibility in the face of our subjective existence?

Jean Luc-Marion contemplates this same difficulty in his attempt to chart a philosophical path to love, through the lonely expanse of subjectivity. Here is a passage from Prolegomena to Charity in which Marion finds that it is through a renunciation of seeing the other which allows one to begin to experience the other as such (as alterity):

"Of the face offered to my gaze I envisage only what cannot be seen in it - the double void of its pupils, this void that fills the least empty gazes imaginable - because if there nothing to see there, it is from there that the other takes the initiative to see (me). Gazing on the other as such, my eyes in the black of his own, does not imply encountering another object, but experiencing the other of the object. My gaze for the first time, sees an invisible gaze that sees it. I do not accede to the other by seeing more, better, or otherwise, but by renouncing mastery over the visible so as to see objects within it, and thus letting myself be glimpsed by a gaze which sees me without my seeing it - a gaze which, invisibly and beyond my aims (invisablament), silently swallows me up and submerges me, whether I know it or not, whether or not I want it to do so. The gaze of the other, or better, alterity as gaze, is not 'hypertrophied consciousness, but consciousness that flows against the current, overturning the consciousness' (E. Levinas). Consciousness that flows against the current, indeed the counter-current of consciousness: the other does not become accessible by means of intentional consciousness, but at the price of consciousness's very intentionality. Consciousness, my consciousness, should not claim to reach the alterity of the other by diving into its own depths as intentional consciousness; for intentionality merely radicalizes the irreducible and solitary primacy of the gaze of a subject on its objects. In short, with the best intentionality in the world, consciousness can intend and see only objects, thus forbidding itself the alterity of the other. The other remains invisible to my consciousness, not despite intentionality, but because of it... Of the other, who slips away as visible object, I can only passively experience the invisibility - losing consciousness of him. The other, or my loss of consciousness. But if the very moment wherein my consciousness exteriorizes itself confirms the imperially self-enclosed primacy of my consciousness, that is, if my opening still belongs to me, as the horizon where the sun of my power never sets, is it necessary, if we are to have any hope of loving, to enter into a twilight of all consciousness, to expose ourselves in all unconsciousness to the black sun of an invisible light?" (Emphasis added by me.)

The injunction to empathize - upon which rests ethics most sure foundation and humanities brightest hope - brings us to a point where we are forced to renounce empathy for its own sake (or at least empathy as a conscious project). The other is invisible to our conscious gaze. Therefore in order to understand (or at least get a sense of) the other as such we must turn our gaze away from the other and accept the invisibility, indivisibility, and infinite contingency (or haecceity) that is the essence of the other.

I understand empathy as a dialectic - a conversation between two impossibly irreconcilable positions. We feel the injunction to understand and therefore better accommodate the other, but in so doing we nuetralize the other and render him or her as an object of our intentional gaze (the other slips away as we turn our gaze towards him or her). Therefore, we must turn our gaze, and let the other be other - impossibly unknowable and irreducible to the object(s) of our gaze. This process characterizes ethics. There is a movement towards the other, but that movement can never bridge the gap that separates us from the other (and will broaden the gap if we assume we have grasped the other - thereby creating an idol). Therefore, empathy, love and ethics are never-ending projects whose completion will always allude us. Learn to love the journey. Constant progress and constant set-back (push and pull) is the most we can hope for.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Language, Representation and Missionary Work

“Now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor 13:12)

“whether there be propheicies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away…” (I Cor 13:8)

-The Apostle Paul

Language mediates reality. In trying to express the profundity of experience and phenomenon we rely on language. However language is always an imperfect substitute for raw emotion and experience – this insight is captured nicely in the common phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Indeed, a thousand words word be a rather pathetic attempt at re-creating the phenomenon readily accessible to our mind in a very simple picture. Therefore, at the level of experience, a thousand words can never actually re-present the experience involved in seeing a picture. Words are thus not only a representation – they are usually a rather poor one – like a painting of a scene captured through a glass, darkly.

Plato was among the first in written history to seriously cast doubt on language’s ability to accurately capture reality.

In Plato’s Apology, the hero Socrates tells of various confrontations with supposedly “wise men.” Socrates discovers that all the politicians, artisans and poets all presumed to know something. However, the mediating influence of language was such that the moment they proclaimed to “know” something, Socrates could immediately invert their so-called knowledge and prove that it was not. Therefore, Socrates went about demonstrating that knowledge is impossible, or at least language as knowledge is impossible, as in the proclamation, “I know”.

Socrates has an advantage over the wise man, as he explains, “I neither know nor think that I know. In this particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage…” Therefore, even though Socrates did not know any more than his interlocutors he did possess an attitude towards knowledge that they all lacked, in that he did not pretend to know anything. This ontological bent (or this way of being) was, according to Plato, the distinguishing factor that separated the hero Socrates from every other person in Athens.

Plato writes, “The truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using [his] name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” (Emphasis Added)

To reiterate, the second one tries to put something true into words; one begins to engage in representation, which is a lie (a representation is a copy, an inauthentic simulation of some supposed original). As such language can never reveal “the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). (And for this we must look somewhere else.) Furthermore, to proclaim, “I have the Truth,” is to immediately give voice to a lie. Hence, like Socrates, truth must always be defended through negation, included in our system of belief by its exclusion. However, this acknowledgement of human weakness and frailty, need not cause us to despair. Rather, saying, “I know nothing”, should help prepare the way for faith, which is essential both in that it is inevitable (because we cannot know, the most we can do is trust), and in that it defines our relationship to Deity (faith is the most basic attitude we cultivate as we trust in the Lord).

The application of this insight to missionary work is really quite simple. You will never reveal “truth” to another human being – how could you when truth cannot even be conveyed in language. Instead, the promise given to us is that, given heartfelt prayer and preparation, when we preach, despite the inherent weakness of language, truth will be revealed via the power of the Holy Spirit. “Unto what were you ordained? To preach my gospel according to the spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” (D&C 50:13-14) When we engage in missionary work we engage in a lie (language), in the hope that truth might be revealed inside the other through the Holy Spirit. This occurs to me as rather strange, but I am reminded that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks states, “The Lord knows more than any of us, and if we are His servants, acting under His Spirit, He can deliver His message of salvation to each and every soul.” We can and should strive to rely on the spirit. For, “If ye receive not the spirit, ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). Before acquiescing to the call to preach we should do our best to give place for the spirit. I believe words of teaching and exhortation have the potential to signal and point to divine truths (which I believe to be contingent truths with a small ‘t’). Preach with an eye not to the perfection of words but with an eye to the perfection that the words cannot access. In other words, “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Nephi 28:31)

The other lesson I would like to draw from this analysis is a simple injunction to be humble.

The Apostle Paul, in his letters of exhortation to the Corinthians, expresses very beautifully the highest ideal in the Christian lexicon, which is Charity:

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4-7)

Charity, a pure love of the other, excels and exceeds all else. The apostle Paul’s long list of what constitutes Charity makes clear the fact that Charity is irreducible to any singular, temporo-material act. Therefore, no one of the actions or mindsets listed by Pual perfectly encompasses the absolute ideal of Charity. Furthermore, no list of attributes and/or actions, no matter how long, could ever perfectly capture the divine perfection of Christ’s love – just as no words can ever perfectly re-present a picture to our mind. Therefore, just as Truth can never be mediated through language or representation, Charity can never be perfectly mediated through actions.

Psychiatry and simple deduction both point to the fact that we never fully understand the motivations for actions. The reasons for our actions are as likely an after-the-fact justification. Since we don’t have direct access to what Nietzsche called the “affects” within us we can never know for certain if it was love or else a desire for reciprocation or physiological superiority which determined our gift to the Other:

As Theologian John D. Caputo says, “Love can be a very clever way to possess, to make demands, to build up credit. Just like a good banker who happily extends credit—beware of bankers bearing gifts—so that he can some day collect on his IOUs, the lover can also at a strategic moment demand payment on all his I-Love-Us. Love is a very clever way to seduceLove follows the cunning logic of the gift: as soon as it makes itself visible, it begins to put the beloved in its debt and makes the lover look good, that is to say, to annul itself.” (John Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles).

I think this problem often manifests itself to LDS people by those who express frustration at being treated as a “project” rather than a person. These people may be non-members who we attempt to fellowship, or home-teachees, or acquaintances in the Elder’s quorums, whom we readily reduce to our easily understandable obligations towards them, rather than as a uniquely situated and irreducible Other. In these cases, we mormons are likely guilty of giving ourselves to missionary work for the sake of feelings of righteousness and superiority rather than the out of love and caring for the other. But how does one distinguish between these two motivations? After all, self-righteous feelings of superiority may very easily disguise themselves as a righteous concern for and love of the other. This risk is inherent in all missionary efforts, and to deny its possibility is merely to live in denial, and risk halting one’s progress, rather than come to terms with an uncomfortable reality – “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” (John 1:18).

The pursuit of charity is an irresolvable dialectic between acting as though we could fulfill an impossible demand, and then simultaneously acknowledging that we never could and never will. In other words, in order to engage in missionary work, we must act as though we could be perfectly loving and caring, while simultaneously acknowledging that we cannot. This attitude inspires introspection. There should be a constant give and take between recognizing our lack and then pushing onward in spite of it. I believe this attitude will nourish a proper ontological bent toward the Other, whom we seek to love in our missionary efforts.

I’d like to share another passage form John D. Caputo:

"So we must love the other and respect the distance of the other, which means to love the other without trying to reappropriate the other for ourselves, without deploying love as a cunning strategy in a war we are waging with the other. We must constantly fear the strategies of love, but we must not fear to take the risk of love, which means both to make ourselves vulnerable to rejection and to risk reappropriating the other. We must love the other in ourselves and so love ourselves… But of course that is all quite impossible, a paralyzing impossibility.

Still, like it or not, that is the axiomatics of love… That aporia does not defeat but defines love. After all, when we go where we have gone many times before and where we know full well that and how it is possible to get there, that is not ‘going’ anywhere, not in any robust sense. We are really on the move, really underway, just when where we want to go is impossible, when it is impossible to take a single step forward. That is why Derrida is so fond of the verse from Angelus Silesius, ‘Go where you cannot go.’"

“Love is a passion for the impossible."

(John D. Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles)

Recognizing the impossible demands of perfect love we must, as John D. Caputo says, “surrender” to the impossibility of love; This does not mean to be paralyzed and frozen by indecision. Rather, despite the impossibility, move forward and take the risk inherent in love. Hopefully, this surrender to the impossible, will teach us to give ourselves more fully to faith in Christ and his grace. After all what is grace if not the possibility of the impossible?

Missionary work is a daring act, in that it is so likely to fail. It’s impossible to love others they way you should, but that shouldn’t stop you from loving others the way you should. I encourage you all to engage in attempts to love your neighbor as I believe you can find a great deal of excitement and fun in engaging in such a ridiculous (by which I mean logically improbable) project. May the Lord guide you.

Finally, I’d like to bear my testimony that sharing our understanding of the Gospel with others can brighten and deepen our own insights into Deity and Her/His love.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.