Monday, October 1, 2007

Which is the bolder statement?

I am cognitively certain that I exist.

I am not cognitively certain that I exist.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"I" Must Exist

In the English language the word “I” never denotes anything other than the entity which happens to be employing it in thought or speech at a particular time. “I” references one and only one thing – the self. This self-referential aspect of the word's usage automatically imports the concept of being into its meaning. In fact, a proper use of “I” requires the existence of something. The same cannot be said of those words frequently used in third-person contexts, or even those commonly called “nouns”. Saying “I exist” isn’t the same as saying “horse exists,” or better yet, “chimera exists,” because the nouns “horse” and “chimera” do not carry the added implication of existence. Horses and chimeras may not exist. The referent to which “I” refers, on the other hand, cannot be non-existent, at least not at the time the reference is made. In fact, one cannot say “I do not exist” without entering upon a contradiction.

As previously stated, the chimera may not exist, but then again, it didn’t assert its own existence now did it? Whatever deliberately thinks “I exist” must exist, and this applies to the chimera as much as it does anything else. If the chimera asserts its own existence using the formula “I exist,” then it must exist for it has declared it so, albeit in a pleonastic fashion. The chimera (or any other entity for that matter) really only needs to say “I” in order both to state the fact of its own existence and avoid the embarrassment of speaking redundantly, because the “I” can never be used properly without the added implication of being. In other words, it need not use the fomula “I exist,” which really means that “this entity, which must exist in order to use the term ‘I’ properly, exists.” The chimera should just say, "I," and nothing more.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What is "I": A Crossroads in My Life

A few weeks ago I had an experience that I hope one day to reflect upon as a defining moment in my life. It all started innocently enough. I was looking on my bookshelf for something to read. I don’t recall exactly what I was thinking about at the time, but I’m sure it was something like, “What am I in the mood for today?” That’s when it hit me.

I suddenly realized that there was no rhyme or reason to my reading patterns. There was no aim or purpose. In fact, I would describe my choice of reading material on any given day as being all over the map. I might read Hume one day and Melville the next with no justification for the switch other than my mood. When I look at my bookshelves, I see Dostoevsky, Kant, Augustine, Russell, Dante, and so forth. I’ve read much of what I find there, but why? Why do I read at all? My answer to this question was not very satisfying. Until that moment, my primary motivation for reading was little more than a desire to know what a particular author said about a particular topic, which he or she happened to be discussing in a particular publication, and which I happened to be interested in at that particular time. I read Kant to see what he said epistemology. I read Dostoevsky to see what he said about humanity and the problem of evil. I read Melville to see what he said about the destructive nature of a heart bent on vengeance. My choices were driven by my mood at the time of the selection. In fact, I am notorious for reading part of a book and moving on to something else. I frequently get bored with whatever the author is discussing, and I go on to another book having never really looked at the material critically or having used it as fuel for my on thoughts on the subject. I now believe that the my primary reason for failing to do so was my lack of direction. Either I didn’t know what I was looking for; or I wasn’t really looking for anything at all.

You can’t imagine the impact that this realization had on me. I felt lost and without purpose. I sat down on my bed in dismay and stared at my bookshelf. Suddenly a question popped into my head. It was a simple question, but it had a profound effect on me. The question was this:

What is it that you want to know?

I asked myself, “If you could have any question answered, what would it be?” You might suppose that formulating “the question” would take considerable time and contemplation, but I assure you that in my case it did not. A question entered my head almost immediately. It wasn’t the one that I most wanted answered, but it was instrumental in getting me there. The question was this:
Does a real world exist outside of my mind?

I can remember sitting in my yard as a child, looking at a tree, all the while thinking, “Is this real?” In a similar way, I have often asked myself if the people around me are real. I wondered if they were actually intelligent beings, thinking and acting independently of myself, or if perhaps they were mindless automata created by some being for my amusement, or if they were simply a creation of my mind. Is the world around me real or is it . . . well . . . something else? That’s a question the greatly interests me, but it still was not “the question.”

In thinking through these things, I recognized that there was at least one question which was more fundamental than the one above. It was “the question” for which I was searching. I had contemplated it many times before, and I recognized it immediately as the one that I most wanted answered. When one asks “Does a real world exist outside of my mind” he makes a critical assumption. He assumes the existence of the “I”. Before one can inquire into the nature of the external world, he must inquire into the nature of the one who perceives that world. It was this line of thinking that led me to ask myself: What is “I”?

For the first time, I no longer needed to depend on my mood for book selection. I was no longer going to read simply for the sake of knowledge acquisition. I was no longer going to snatch up volumes of philosophical ponderings at random or on the basis of some fleeting mood driven whim. Oh, I can imagine that there will be times when I want to break from my search and read an unrelated work of intellectual value for purely entertainment purposes; or perhaps I will occasionally get side-tracked by some curiosity that has gotten the better of me; but those times will be few and far between. I knew that from that day forward, I would be reading to see what conclusions others had reached about the nature of the mysterious “I”; and I would use their thoughts to stimulate my own original thinking on the subject. I am excited to see where my journey to find the “I” will lead me!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Was Jesus Really Tempted in Every Way?

I have often wondered how it is that a man who only lived to be approximately 33 years old could have been "tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin." (Heb. 4:15 NASB) There are many, many ways that man can sin against God, and there is no doubt that we who are wicked have been creative in our pursuit of evil. I'm not sure that I have been tempted in every possible way, and I'm older than Jesus was when he was crucified.

Now, I suppose that one might say that Jesus was tempted to do every evil activity imaginable or that man has faced. I have met people who interpreted Heb. 4:15 in that way. I don’t agree with this interpretation, because I don’t see that Jesus was ever tempted to look at internet pornography given the fact that the internet didn’t exist during his lifetime on earth. Most any sin that you can think of, on the other hand, can be categorized under a broader heading. For example, the temptation to look at internet porn, the temptation to have sex before marriage, the temptation to commit adultery and so forth might be categorized under the broader heading "lust." Therefore, a person need only experience one of these particular temptations in order to say that he has experienced the categorical temptation, lust, which has undoubtedly snagged a person or two during the course of history. A man who succumbed to lust and committed adultery could rightfully relate to a man who succumbed to lust and had pre-marital sex. I believe that this is a healthier way of looking at Christ's temptations than the first, but I also think that there might be a better way to understand the author of Hebrews when he says that Jesus was tempted in every way.

I was attending a weekly Bible study group recently where the question was asked: What attributes characterize a Christian? As a contributor to the conversation, I stated that a Christian abides by the law of love that Jesus laid down in Matthew 22:37-39: a) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” 2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NASB) I continued to say that every sin can be chalked up to a violation of one or both of these commandments. Actually, one might argue that any sin can be attributed to a violation of the first, and that for the sake of simplicity, we need not attempt to distinguish those sins that are in violation of the second; but since Matthew (and ultimately God) elected to state them separately, I will follow their lead. As I said before, I commented that sin in general is first and foremost a violation of one or both of these commandments, which by Jesus’ own admission undergirds the Law and the Prophets.

The conversation eventually drifted away from this topic, and at some point, my wife, Tracey, began talking about a scenario where one person might say, “Well, you don’t understand the temptation that I face because you’re not tempted by that which tempts me.” At that point, I commented that if what I had previously said was indeed true, that every sin is a violation of at least one of the two greatest commandments, then no brother or sister in Christ could ever say that another did not understand his or her temptation. As true Christians, we all understand the temptation to put ourselves above God and others, which is the very heart of sin. Isn’t this what we generally teach about Adam and Eve in the garden? It was at this point that my mind turned to Hebrews 4:15.

The following thought occurred to me: If the temptation to violate the two greatest commandments is at the core of every sinful act, and if Jesus was ever tempted to put himself above the Father and others, then he was truly “tempted in all things as we are,” even if it he only faced one temptation in his entire life. If I am not mistaken, the Bible only speaks of three temptations that Christ faced. Some may consider his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane as a temptation as well, but even so, I think it is possible that these are the only ones that he ever faced. If this is truly the case, then he would still be able to claim that he was tempted in every way because he would forever be able to say, “Like you Gary, I have been tempted not to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind; and I have been tempted not to love my neighbor as myself.” The difference between him and us, however, is that he never forsook the love of the Father and the love of others in favor of a love for himself. He obeyed the Father unto death on a cross, and he did it in our stead, in order to bear our punishment, so that we might be saved, because he loved God and man.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Foundationalism: The Criteria for Proper Basicality

In his article, “Fundamental Problem with Foundationalism,” Dan Allen explains the basic concept of classical foundationalism and the problem of infinite regression. His article provides the context for this article, so I would suggest that if you have not read it or if you are unfamiliar with the terms classical foundationalism and infinite regression as they apply to epistemology, his discussion would be a good place to begin. In his article, Dan points out a problem that one might say is foundational to classical foundationalism:

How does one know when he or she has identified a foundational proposition?
As Dan explains, simply stating that a proposition is true or foundational does not make it so. If that were the case, then I might just as well claim that a proposition positing the existence of Santa Claus is foundational. What we are concerned with here is a set of criteria that will allow us to identify whether or not a claim can be rightly called foundational or, to use more modern terminology, properly basic. From this point further, I will use the terms “foundational proposition” and “properly basic proposition” interchangably; and for the sake of this discussion, I will define a properly basic proposition as one which does not rely upon the truth of any other proposition for further justification. In other words, a properly basic proposition requires no other justification in order to demonstrate its truth. It is simply true, and universally recognized as such. Philosophers, logicians, and mathematicians have offered up a number of candidates for proper basicality. As Dan mentions in his article, the law of non-contradiction is a popular example. The law of identity and law of the excluded middle are some others. Some have suggested that sense experience, both internal and external, are properly basic. Regardless of the propositions that have been suggested, however, once a list has been compiled, one cannot help but wonder about the criteria by which they were chosen.

Many criteria have been suggested to help identify properly basic propositions. I am not going to discuss any specific criterion here, nor am I going to argue in favor of a particular set of criteria for identifying properly basic propositions. I am going to discuss a major problem with identifying that criteria in general. The following conversation gets pretty hairy, so take your time and wade through it carefully. I believe that it will be well worth your time and effort if you are interested in this conversation.

Suppose that I made the claim that any properly basic proposition should have properties X, Y, and Z. The prudent philosopher would probably ask, “How do you know that foundational propositions have properties X, Y, and Z?” In other words, where did I get that criteria? Did I just make it up? This is place where things get mighty sticky for the classical foundationalist.

For any given proposition, including one that attempts to state the criteria for proper basicality, that proposition is either properly basic or not. If it is not properly basic, then it requires justification. That justification must come in the form of other propositions, whose justification must come from further propositions, and so forth. As Dan stated, this chain of justification will either regress into infinity or it will terminate at some proposition or propositions that do not require any justification. This applys to any proposition that attempts to define the criteria for proper basicality as well. The claim that “Properly basic propositions are defined by characteristics X, Y, and Z” is a proposition, and it is either properly basic or not.

Here’s the rub:

If the proposition that defines proper basicality is not properly basic, then it must be justified by some other propositions, which in turn must be justified by other propositions, until the foundational propositions are reached. In order to know when we get to the foundational propositions, we must know what they look like. In order to know what they look like, we need the criteria for proper basicality, but the proposition that states the criteria for proper basicality is the very proposition that we are trying to establish! We don’t have the right to use the criteria until we know it is true, but if it is not properly basic, we will be forced into a situation where we must use our unestablished set of criteria in order to demonstrate the truth of our criteria. In other words, we would have to assume the truth of our criteria in order to identify the properly basic propositions that we need to establish the truth of our criteria. This is a major no, no. It is a serious logical fallacy that philosophers often refer to as begging the question.

As far as I am concerned, this entire process is a dead-end. I can only see one way for the foundationalist to get around this problem. If there is a criteria for proper basicality, then the criteria itself must be properly basic. In other words, the criteria for proper basicality must be identified in the absence of any criteria for proper basicality, and once identified, it must account for it’s own basicality. This is a very tall order indeed.