The Counsel of Trent

writing is thinking

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Reason, Paradox, and Religion

I think I have finally settled down to a dissertation topic. I still think the previous two outlines will make a couple of good books, but are very big projects, too big for a dissertation. Most of my graduate work has focused on paradoxes: knowability paradox, lottery paradox, paradox of the preface, sorites paradox, liar paradox, various semantic and logical paradoxes of set theory, ship of Theseus paradox, and several other puzzles about spaciotemporality (problem of co-location, problem of the many [even Ethics has been explored primarily as a puzzle about the consistency of liberty, justice, and equality] ). Paradoxes are interesting and easy to write about, but very hard to say anything original on (a blog is due about originality for sure) because they've been studied to death by some of the smartest people in philosophy and for thousands of years in the case of the ancient puzzles. About the best one can reasonably hope for is to find a new perspective from which to view the paradox that hopefully makes some slightly tweaked version of a proposed solution look a little better. To expect to solve the problem would be folly (a blog due about that as well) but one can hope to add to the reasonableness of one or another attempt. Incrementalism is the order of the day. I'm all for path-breaking and paradigm shifting, but that's the exception, not the rule and bold attempts are often merely foolish (the foolishness that rushes in where Angels fear to tread) and full of hubris; they are bad for philosophy for they are often wild-goose chases. (from just perusing the Harvard U. Press catalog "pathbreaking" seems to be the catchphrase of reviewers these days) Anyway, one cumulative effect of studying philosophy via paradox is a sense of the limitations of human reason. At the very core of logic and metaphysics are pernicious paradoxes. The most basic levels of logic seem to yield flat-out contradictions. In the hands of the irresponsible it would be fuel on the fire of "Eastern" ways of thinking (remind me to blog on that mess as well). My disdain for that sort of hackneyed psychobabble makes me very cautious in advancing my own form of mystical response to the paradoxical. For I do think there is a religious lesson to be learned from the limitations of human reason to sound the depths of reality (for a meandering but fascinating study of the paradox consisting of our ability to comprehend our own incomprehension and understand ourselves less than anything else see famed existential novelist Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos or for classic treatment, Pascal's Pensees). I have been secretly developing this view for some years. In the 90's I came up with the term "Thomysticism" (mysticism for Thomists), the idea being that the true mystics are not the ones who are too lazy to distinguish between muddy waters and deep waters, but rather the ones who take human reason absolutely as far as it can go and only then turn themselves over to the Other. Aquinas -- unfairly branded a rationalist due to the over-anthologizing of his proofs for the existence of God -- was a mystic himself. For years one of my web-handles was "Nilnisite" which was a syncopation of "Nil nisi te" the phrase reportedly uttered by Aquinas when Jesus, in a vision, asked him what he would like as a reward for his faithful service. After this, he said his theological works were "as straw". OK, now for the bottom line. The upshot of the systematic study of philosophy (or science or psychology) is a lot of uncertainty. Fortunately, there is a logic of uncertainty which Pascal pioneered (yes it has its own paradoxes: Newcombe's paradox, St. Petersburg Paradox, Two-Envelope Paradox, etc.). Now Pascal famously (or infamously) thought that God was the best bet in uncertainty. In short, I think he is right and aim to defend the "Wager" in my dissertation. Most of the critiques of it are either trivial or totally misguided. I have excellent faculty for such a dissertation and am fine with becoming known as Pascal's arch-defender. He had it right on so many levels (for an introduction to Pascal I highly recommend Peter Kreeft's Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees). I may end up having to write on one of the paradoxes of the logic of uncertainty for the sake of brevity (I could really get carried away by Pascal) but look for this (the unavoidable role of uncertainty in human thought) to be a theme in my thought for the duration.


At Saturday, January 27, 2007 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Vlastimil Voh├ínka said...

is my comment on catholic view on definite solutions in philosophy. Take a look.
is a relevant paper by A. Pruss to your dissertation.


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