Friday, October 30, 2009

Adams on Virtue for the Sinner, 10/30/09

Today I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Robert Adams of UNC Chapel Hill give a lecture entitled "Virtue for the Sinner." He responded to two objections to virtue theory, one articulated by Karl Barth questioning the value of virtue, and the other being the empirical evidence of psychology against the existence of real virtues.

It is important to understand, Adams implies, the viewpoint of Barth in rejecting the value of intrinsic goodness of virtue. Barth asserts that God the Son is concerned only with obedience to the Father and that his actions all align with this one overarching goal. So perhaps the virtues would only suffice to describe dispositions tending to produce the sort of actions which, ultimately, are valuable in that they defer to God's commands. But Adams wants to argue here that Christian ethics is not simply an account of good actions, but rather of good agents-- what kind of people we are, what kind of precursors to action our intentions and desires and thoughts are. "God cares about obedience for the sake of love, and not the other way around," he says, citing the commandments which Jesus states as of chief importance. Perhaps virtue produces obligation; perhaps being the kind of person which God would have us be, a person who "images" his Son, Adams might say, will result in our feeling a self-obligation of the Korsgaardian strand to act in accordance with certain moral laws. Just a thought. Anyway, Adams also refers to the passage in which Jesus says, "I have no longer called you slaves but I have called you friends" as one which supports that thesis that God is not concerned with our being useful, that is, producing actions which are beneficial, but rather with our relation to Him and the sort of men and women we are. I think this is a pretty biblical account of virtue.

However, a point which Dr. Pruss raised after the lecture got me thinking: Is love a virtue or an action? I am inclined to call it an action rather than a disposition, because while we certainly have dispositions that make us apt to care about people, the caring for them is a reality only when it is in action. And maybe that action can be as slight as considering their interests broadly; for instance, at this very moment I am doing nothing to love my mother, but I also am taking into account my relationship with her in a broad way by not posting examples in ethical dilemmas which draw on her personal life or even in my refraining from using foul language at which she might be embarrassed if she read this. And in a sense, because I care about her, I am doing the kind of work I think she would be proud of, and in so doing maybe caring for her in some small way. In any case, the caring for her is wrapped up in practical realms of action.

Then, in Adams' reply to the second prong of the arguments against virtue, he grants that the kind of virtue we have is clearly fragile. It falters in cases of social pressure to act in ways adverse to our virtues. So, he says, we may not have the virtue perfectly but we can still be virtuous in that way. A trait does not have to be so robust to be excellent that it never fails in any circumstance. We cannot learn to live well simply by learning to live under general ethical rules, he says, for our virtues are just not permanent. But we can try and persist in certain virtues, extend them over ourselves and our future selves (to put it in terms of Parfit's view of identity which I think is a relevant one here). So in conclusion, there is a chance of virtue even for the sinner.

P.S. I started reading a book called Intellectual Appetites by Griffiths that I highly recommend to any Christian seeking understanding and knowledge. :)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thoughts on "Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right"

I just read Frankfurt's Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting It Right, and I think he does get a lot of things right. But I have qualms with his rejection of objective realism because I think he actually sneaks in an objective value at the end. He says, "Nothing is inherently either worthy or unworthy of being loved"-- so what's the big deal with loving itself?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Thoughts on Death, Christianity, and Nietzsche

Nietzsche criticizes Christians for being magnetically drawn to suffering and death, arguing that in longing for another world, Christians are giving up the will to life and actually willing death.

I was on a plane yesterday and I couldn't help but think of this. I always get those jittery feelings in my stomach during take-off and brace myself for the possibility of a crash ending in death (this is bizarre, I know...). Anyway, I went through the usual argument I put forth for myself on airplanes-- that I cannot rationally fear death because it opens the door to life in heaven, and heaven is essentially infinitely better than life here (that's the defeater for "fomo": fear of missing out). But I stopped myself in the middle of my premises this time, because Nietzsche, who has moved in to the upstairs of my brain recently, said that I was willing death for myself. My relationship with Nietzsche is a strange one; I really appreciate his criticisms of Christians because I think they are largely right, but I'm also constantly trying to explain and defend real Christianity to him, because most of the time it doesn't really conflict with what he's saying.

So am I willing death by desiring heaven? I'm going to argue no. There are two reasons for this: first, if I believe what Jesus said about the importance of sharing the gospel, then my life on earth has a mission with high stakes, and second, there is an aspect of being human and being fallen that makes for a different knowledge of God than the angels have.

The first point refers to the great commision, when Jesus says, "Go and make disciples of all nations." We are meant to tell the millions of people who don't know God about Him. If we don't, if we really will to die, salvation terminates with this small group of Christians who believe right now, and we are essentially willing the eternal death of the rest of the world. Jesus Himself demonstrates the importance of an earthly life with His coming down into the world and spending time revealing the Father to men. Teachers spend time in the classroom not to relearn the material, but to pass it on, and they value time in the classroom because presumably they realize that they are the best medium for the transfer of vital information. If everyone who had an education went on to his or her own trade or field and no one went into teaching, we would lose the chance of education for younger generations all together, and that's absurd. So we stay on earth while we can; we will our own lives, because we realize that we are teachers and what we're teaching the whole entire world desperately needs.

Secondly, and I'm not as sure that this one holds up such that it could stand alone as a reason, we relate to God differently as fallen beings than as perfect ones. The longer I live, the more aware I become of my own wretchedness, to put it bluntly. Even if I am trying to become a better person, the harder I try, the more I realize how deeply sunk I am and how far I have to go to really "be better." It's like going to the hospital for a headache and the doctor telling you that you have a brain tumor; it doesn't preclude your chances of getting well but it definitely makes the process harder.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More on Relations

As I was reading Chisolm's "The Myth of the Given" today, I stumbled upon another reason for thinking that properties are relations. Part of Chisolm's argument validating self-justified beliefs actually included an attempt to rule out the necessity of relating things to other things outside themselves. He says:

"Common to both 'pragmatism' and 'idealism' ... is the view that to think about a thing, or to interpret or conceptualize it, and hence to have a belief about it, is essentially to relate the thing to other things, actual or possible, and therefore to 'refer beyond it.' It is this view which we must oppose..." (Chisolm in Sosa's Epistemology Anthology, 89)

Chisolm tries to establish that these relations only come up when we state the belief aloud; for instance, once I say "this appears white," then I am implying references to things like other people using the word "white" for the same experience, other events which cause statements about "white," etc. So, he says, the relations expressed in justification do not really matter for a person's belief about the experience of being appeared to whitely.

This seems intuitively refutable, because I learn to define by distinguishing. I learn what white is by distinguishing it from other colors. The content of my beliefs and knowledge (I actually don't think I have any of the real stuff at this point), entail these relations. My feeling a smooth surface necessarily involves my body and the surface, if I hear birds outside the window there must be both birds and air in which the sound can travel and ears or some sort of mechanism for the hearer. When I see green, there is not only my perception of green- there is me, the light, and the surface instantiating the green. Nothing comes in isolation. At least I think not... but then we must posit God as at least two persons.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Whether claims of knowledge with low epistemic standards are bullshit.

I was joking with Gideon yesterday about epistemic standards of knowledge and he made a claim that he knew I would do well on my philosophy of religion paper. I argued that he had insufficient justification to claim that knowledge. There was certain evidence inaccessible to him at the time he asserted that I would do well-- he was unaware that I would try to stay up all night and so the end of my paper would be reflective of my exhaustion, he was unaware of the cat at Diane's house distracting us, and perhaps he is generally unaware that although in class I may sound like I have coherent thoughts, my paper writing skills are less than impressive. Is Gideon's statement that he knows I'll do well on my paper "bullshit"?

My intuitions said it was precisely the kind of corner-cutting Frankfurt describes in the example of the modern architect up against the architect of Notre Dame cathedral. He puts up a grand statement, much like an aesthetically pleasing building, without studying the details, analogous to learning the trade of building-making. So Gideon's statement is bullshit (no offense, friend :) ).

But Gideon has come back with this reply: while his epistemic standards for knowledge are low, he is still respecting some sort of justification scheme for knowledge, whereas true bullshit has absolutely no regard for the truth. So on this view, Gideon would have to tell me something with misleading implicatures for it to be bullshit.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kenoticism, Relational Essence, and the Mutability of God

I've been reading about Kenotic Christology this weekend, the view that in coming to earth, Jesus emptied Himself of certain attributes like omnipotence, omniscience- those things which are incompatible with human existence. Defining divinity proves to be a difficult task for kenoticism, because if Christ is really fully divine but at the same time has really emptied Himself of powers we usually associate with divine attributes, either we must concede that Christ is not fully divine, or we must modify those attributes which we call "divine."

I think the latter makes a lot of sense- for instance, to say that the divine attribute "omnipotence" must be understood as possibly self-limiting. If Jesus does not express His omnipotence while human, but lays it aside in an act of self-limitation, then perhaps preserving His divinity means tweaking the definition of being "all powerful" to something like this: God is all-powerful except when He limits His own power.

Obviously this has implications for what we have traditionally called the "immutability" of God; if God can put aside His omnipotence for a time and then re-assume it, doesn't this signal change within God? Aquinas, addressing God's changelessness, says, "Because God understands and loves Himself, in that respect they said that God moves Himself; not, however, as movement and change belong to a thing existing in potentiality, as we now speak of change and movement" (Prima Pars, Q. 9, Art. 1). So if God is moving Himself maybe this does not represent a true change in potential within God. I'm not so convinced this works, though, because in Jesus it still looks like His omnipotence is hovering in a potential rather than actual state. Which is okay, because kenoticists gladly grant the changeability in God.

Here's another interesting move prompted by Aquinas: if the divine essence is a relation between persons of the trinity, then Jesus' self limitation may be a temporary change of His attributes, but one which does not change the relation of Father to Son and Spirit to Son and Father to Spirit which is the divine essence. In Article 1, Question 39 of the Prima Pars, Aquinas discusses distinctions between persons of the Trinity but concedes that the divine essence is a relation:

"in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person, and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. For person signifies relation as subsisting in the divine nature."

So a distinction between the Father and the Son in terms of the actuality of their omnipotence would not be problem for divine attributes which kenoticism would have to solve; instead, the kenoticist could say that the attributes which Christ gives up in self-limitation do not rob Him of any divinity, because divinity is that relation between Christ and the other persons of the trinity which is not altered by His coming to earth as a man.

Enter Hans Urs von Balthasar: in his book on the descent of Christ into hell, he argues that on "Holy Saturday" Christ was really forsaken by the Father. Writing on von Balthasar, Edward T. Oakes argues that we cannot ignore "the transformation inside the Godhead itself that occurred when the Son of God descended as a dead man to be among the dead" (Oakes, "He descended into hell: The Depths of God's Self-Emptying Love on Holy Saturday in the Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar" 238). If von Balthasar is right and Holy Saturday was a real event of "Godforsakenness" inside the Trinity, then we are still forced to concede the mutability of God even under Aquinas' conception of divine essence.