The Primacy of the Inner over the Outer
(I don’t think this was the thread that NAL had in mind, since Hodge does not interact with Rian in it. Rather, I’m guessing that NAL had in mind this blog entry, in the comments of which Hodge does interact with Rian, and which I have yet to enjoy reading. All in good time!)
Now I have not occasioned myself to read through the entire discussion between Rian and Hays, though I do intend to as time allows. But what I have read so far was more than enough to get me typing – something I haven’t been doing much of lately. While there’s much to say in response to the small portion I’ve read so far, I did manage to get the following reactions of mine written out, and I decided to post them in a new entry on my blog here on IP.
So let’s get to it, shall we?
Rian stated: “the claim that some internal confidence of [or?] feeling of the truth of Christianity leads you to know that Christianity is true seems to be rather fraught to me."
I would say Rian is right to raise this concern: appealing to some internal “feeling” –even if one wants to style it as “revelation” – in order to “justify” one’s position ultimately constitutes an appeal to emotion. “It makes me feel good, so it must be true!” This is an expression of the primacy of the inner over the outer – where knowledge of reality is acquired by looking inward and consulting one’s own emotions, wishing, imagination, etc., as opposed to looking outward at reality, discovering facts and drawing inferences based on those discovered facts. Mysticism is any form of claiming “knowledge” which grants epistemological primacy of the inner over the outer; by contrast Reason holds to the primacy of the outer over the inner.
Curiously, in reaction to Rian’s statement, Steve Hays wrote: “Since that's not what I argued for, your point misses the mark.”
Now I did not read Hays’ blog entry linked to from Hodge’s entry (the last thing I care to do is read another Triablogue screed), but I don’t think I’d need to. Further down in the comments, Hays writes:
“There's a common difference between knowing something's true and showing something's true. By regeneration, a Christian enjoys a tacit recognition of Christian truth. He can experience Christian truth in Scripture, miracle, creation, and providence.”
I recall how, when I was a Christian, I could “experience Christian truth in Scripture” by means of imagination. I would read a passage – say from one of the gospels – and in my mind I would paint a picture of what the text was describing in my imagination. For example, in John 2, Jesus is reported to have turned water in “six stone waterpots” (2:6) into wine at a wedding . I could envision Jesus, his mother, the servants, the headwaiter, the bridegroom, the wedding guests, the house, the waterpots, etc., and I could envision the water in the water pots being magically transformed into wine. So in this way, I was experiencing not only “Scripture,” but also “miracle.” But in spite of how much emotional investment I may have packed into this experience, no matter how much I may have wanted it to be true, at the end of the day I had to admit to myself that my experience was primarily imaginary in nature. No, I didn’t imagine the bible in front of me, and the printed text was indeed real. But as I envisioned the elements of the story I was reading, this was an exercise of my own imagination, inspired as it was by the content of the passage I was reading.
Now, of course, when I was immersed in Christian teaching, at no point was I taught that I should be concerned about the distinction between the real and the imaginary. It never came up in Sunday school, the pastor’s sermons, men’s fellowship night, choir practice (oh yes, I was quite the tenor!). I never found any passage in the bible that articulated any concern for being aware of this distinction, and it did not come to my mind until after I got a little distance from the “brethren,” who never expressed concern for it either. So within the context of Christian practice, there was no instructional impediment to blurring the distinction between reality and imagination. Thus when I read my bible, just as when other believers read it, I built up the stories I read in my imagination and supposed that it was all true. After all, I was urged over and over again, on a regular basis, to do just this. So if anything was “tacit,” it was the license to pretend that what I imagined, inspired as it was by Christian teaching, was in fact real, real enough to scare me, real enough to motivate me to act within the limits set by that teaching. The whole point of going to church regularly, receiving instruction, devoting oneself to bible-reading and prayer, fellowshipping with other believers and even evangelizing on the street, is to reinforce a confessional investment of this very nature in a most deliberate manner.
I recall occasions at the time, when I would sit at a bus stop and wait painfully long for my bus to come. I would pray to “the Lord” to make the bus come quickly (“Behold, the bus comes quickly!”). But often the minutes spooled away like a wasted thread. Having been repeatedly urged to be “mindful of the Lord,” I would have my usual one-way conversation with Jesus – with me doing all the talking, all the thinking, all the worrying – and often I began to wonder if I was being tested. Was I truly “longsuffering”? Was I “longsuffering” enough? Was I measuring up? Was I doing my best? Or, was I “coming short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23)? Was I being punished by my “Lord and Savior” for being a “good servant”? Or, was the devil trying to thwart my movements and thus undermine my Christian soldier’s work? Since I was to always be prayerful and “mindful of the Lord,” naturally my imagination would run away with itself, with no objective bearing whatsoever to serve as a compass. Indeed, on Christianity’s premises, how could I know what to believe about my little ordeal? The Psalms give us plenty of models for complaining to the Christian god, and many of them read as though their author privately delighted in self-pity. This attitude is most infectious for the believer trying his best to be on good terms with the supernatural. To the extent that it has any practical outcomes, it results in a sense of powerlessness; to the extent that it has any “spiritual” outcomes, it results in the sustenance of pretense. But so long as one conscientiously buys into Christianity’s premises, his imagination is sure to run wild. The Christian confession could not survive without this.
Hays continued: “Humans can, and often do, register evidence at a subliminal level. I gave an illustration at the outset.”
The illustration he’s referring to was presented in his initial comment in the thread and had to do with forming the “belief” that it’s daytime on the basis of seeing sunlight. He gave this illustration in the context of affirming “a fundamental distinction between evidence and argument,” stating “we have evidence for things we don’t argue for,” which of course is true. But here I would point out a further distinction between drawing an inference and constructing a formal argument. Using Hays’ example, we perceive sunlight and on the basis of this we infer that it must be daytime. Hays may like to call this “register[ing] evidence at the subliminal level” (what specifically he means by this is not fully clear), but it is an inference nonetheless, and yet one does not need to explicitly identify a number of premises and ensure they’re assembled in a valid manner in order to make such an inference. So in this sense we have an inference without, at any rate, a formal argument.
I’m guessing that what Hays means here by “subliminal”, I would call an automatized thought process – i.e., an inference or series of inferences which a thinker has made many times in the past and now perform as a matter of habit, without needing to carefully think through various steps to reach a conclusion. This is one of the many ways the human mind economizes its tasks: we’ve drawn the inference that it is daytime from perception of daylight many times in the past, so there’s no reason to go through some lengthy inferential process to make this identification every time we see daylight. (Nor do we have to puzzle over whether or not we’re actually seeing daylight!)
But this does not seem to be anything remotely close to what Hays described above when he referenced “regeneration.” According to Hays’ brand of Christianity, regeneration of the believer is not self-initiated – the believer is a passive beneficiary of the regenerative process (however it is supposed to work), while inference – even automatized inference – is self-initiated. What Hays seems to be saying, so far as I can make from his threadbare statement, is that “regeneration” (i.e., a coercive interference from an invisible magic being resulting in some kind of psychic change in the believer) somehow endows the believer with some unspecified mental faculty by which he “enjoys” this alleged “tacit recognition of Christian truth.”
Now, to put it lightly, that’s quite a claim, but I don’t know how else to understand what Hays has written here. And it seems that this would be testable, unless of course it is confined to simply affirming that everything Christianity preaches is true. In that case, it seems to be just another empty appeal to mystical knowledge – i.e., the primacy of the inner over the outer.
In practical terms, given Hays’ additional point that “Humans can, and often do, register evidence at a subliminal level,” it appears that what he attributes to “regeneration” is really nothing more than a habit of referencing the imaginative construct of Christian supernaturalism throughout one’s interaction with the world. A person afflicted with such a habit might very well experience it as though it were a “tacit recognition,” when in fact it is a learned condition that has been positively reinforced through repeated indoctrination.
It is interesting, however, to see Hays apparently drawing a distinction between belief and knowledge. He writes:
“Christians can be justified in believing Christianity is true (indeed, Christians can know that Christianity is true) without having to argue for their belief.”
On that note, if it’s the case, as Hays affirms here, that “Christians can be justified in believing Christianity is true… without having to argue for their belief,” then it seems only fair to say that atheists are justified in their atheism without having to argue for their atheism. If I don’t need to argue for my non-belief in magic pink unicorns, why should I have to argue for my non-belief in any magic beings? Blank out.
Hays writes: “Doubting Christianity presumes a standard of comparison. But that, in term, raises the question of how you justify your standard of comparison. Are criteria infinitely regressive?”
The only proper standard of comparison in any rational investigation is the principle of objectivity and any relevant implications it may have for a given context. Objectivity as such is self-justifying in the same way that it’s self-evident that wishing doesn’t make it so, and for the same reason, namely the truth of the primacy of existence. Indeed, objectivity is essentially the application of the primacy of existence to the task of acquiring and validating knowledge. And no, this criterion of comparison is not infinitely regressive, for it is grounded on a perceptually self-evident starting point, namely the fact that existence exists. Recognizing the fact that existence exists, whether implicitly or explicitly, means that the one doing the recognizing possesses the faculty of consciousness. Thus we have a relationship between the subject of consciousness and any objects it is aware of. The primacy of existence is the recognition that the objects of consciousness hold metaphysical primacy over the subject of consciousness. This is the root principle informing our recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so. If someone tells you that something is true even if you don’t like it, he is, whether he realizes it or not, appealing to the primacy of existence; he’s acknowledging that facts do not conform to conscious intentions. Thus the very concept of truth depends explicitly on the primacy of existence.
The opposite view is the primacy of consciousness, which is any view which reduces to the objects of consciousness depending on and/or conforming to the subject of consciousness. The view that wishing does make it so, is an expression of the primacy of consciousness, for such a view grants metaphysical primacy to the subject of consciousness over reality. The view that consciousness can create existence by an act of will – essentially wishing things into existence – is clearly an expression of the primacy of consciousness.
Thus while objectivity is the consistent and uncompromising application of the primacy of the object in the subject-object relationship (hence objectivity), the primacy of consciousness is the view that the subject of consciousness enjoys metaphysical primacy in the subject-object relationship (hence subjectivism).
No, you won’t learn about any of this by reading the Christian bible. Its authors were careful not to give away the game.
Hays frequently refers to what he calls “the explanatory power of Christianity,” which to me seems to be a rather inbred and self-aggrandizing attribution. It also seems anchored in a very childish view of the world where everything is ultimately explained by an appeal to magic. The old “God did it!” does not explain anything; on the contrary, it is something we might expect from someone who has no explanation whatsoever.
As a worldview, Christianity assumes the truth of the Old and New Testaments as contained in our present-day bibles (content variations notwithstanding). In these writings you’ll learn about model believers who got their knowledge through dreams, offered blood sacrifices to their deity, and affirmed their claims as deliverances of revelation; one might be forgiven for wondering why this deity doesn’t just give everyone the same revelation rather than us finding ourselves in the position of having to take someone’s word for it when they claim to have a message originating in some private revelation and risk the very high chance of falling for some inscrutable string of deceptions. Indeed, why doesn’t the risen Christ appear to everyone, as it is said to have done in the case of the persecutor Saul of Tarsus, rather than to just one individual who we are supposed to believe had such a privileged encounter nearly 2,000 years ago? Thank you, but I’ll go with the explanatory power of science – i.e., the systematic application of reason to some aspect of reality. Thanks to science, we have microwaves and jumbo jets. Thanks to Christianity we have Inquisitions and centuries of cultural stagnation.
But let’s suppose I’m wrong here. Let’s grant, for sake of demonstration, the possibility that Christianity has some impressive explanatory power. How about a test case? For instance, how does Christianity explain concepts? I’ve not found anything in the bible which speaks to this area of interest (of interest to me at any rate), and yet concepts are of crucial import to any discussion of epistemology. We can find out a lot about things like circumcision and blasphemy in the bible, which is well and good if those are important to you. But we can’t find out anything about concepts in the bible. I can only infer that circumcision was more important to the bible’s authors than the form in which we integrate and retain knowledge. (I did a quick keyword search on BibleGateway.com: for ‘circum’ I found 90 hits in the NASB; for ‘concept’ I found two hits – and in each case the word found in the text was not ‘concept’ but ‘conception’ - as in a woman becoming pregnant with a child, and even then only one of them appears in the actual text; the other is a parenthetical heading added by the publisher.)
I know, discovering all these things and pointing them out must make me some stupid “village atheist.”
But is that really my problem?
I trow not.
by Dawson Bethrick