Monday, April 02, 2007

Proper Deconstruction

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.


Genesis 2:15-17.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Genesis 3:6.

I was not quite two years old and curious when I found the square hole in a wall near the basement stairs. I peered into the hole, saw squiggly objects, and stuck in my finger. I felt a strong buzz and surprising pain. I looked at my finger and saw it wasn't bloodied. I tried it again. Same result. I giggled nervously and pronounced my first scientific hypothesis:

"Dere's a bug in dere."

My mom heard me, saw what I was up to, and yanked me by the arm. She yelled for my dad. He, from my mother's tone and pointing finger, promptly understood the situation. He uttered his standard curse, grabbed a screwdriver, and slapped a cover over the open outlet.

Of course, that didn't stop me from future experiments. I have had a lifelong fascination with electricity and with science. Not many years later, Dad trusted me with house wiring after teaching me the fundamentals.

This memory came back to me as I was contemplating Gordon Clark's Thales to Dewey, A History of Philosophy, especially his section on Descartes. Although the earlier philosophers dealt with important problems, particularly in trying to deal with how we know things, I was struck by how familiar to my own experience this philosopher sounded. It caused me to dig out my old copy of Descartes' Discourse de la Méthode.

Descartes, after going to the "most celebrated schools in Europe" and finding himself overwhelmed with his own ignorance, became disenchanted with the state of knowledge. He was embarrassed to discover that the more he studied, the more he became aware of his ignorance. He was distressed by the state of philosophy and science:

"Not to mention philosophy, seeing it had been cultivated by the most excellent spirits who have lived through the centuries, and which, nevertheless, one cannot find a single thing that is not in dispute .
. . .
"Then, for other sciences, insomuch as they borrow their principles from philosophy, I judged that nothing solid could be built on such an infirm foundation."

Discours de la Méthode, R. Descartes, GF Flammarion, Paris (1966), p. 38. (My translation of the French).

So Descartes embarked upon his Méthode and his Meditations, building from his famous dictum "Je pense, donc je suis." (Or the more familiar "Cogito, ergo sum"--I think, therefore I am.)

Descartes recognized the futility of trying to base certainty upon sensation. Gordon Clark points out in Thales, however, that Descartes could never obtain first principles. Rationalism could not provide the certainty he desired.

Uncomfortable in our skin, we constantly strive to find something solid upon which to rest. Yet when we look to ourselves or our surroundings, original sin raises its head. We find that the solid ground shifts when pressed. And when we look to the abstract world, we find that what is true there has no connection to what we experience. We discover what we cannot know and are naturally ashamed of our nakedness. (See Genesis 3:7-21.)

However, if we take God at his word, we can say that God made us to experience the world empirically. Our knowledge is not grounded in sense perception, it is confirmed (which explains my delight at the repeatability of my early experiment). Our Creator made our nature to have sense perception and to draw intuitive inferences from such perceptions. Things are "obvious" only because we were made to see them that way.

For instance, we often take an isolated experience and quite naturally extrapolate a universal conclusion from it. I touch steaming water and it hurts. I don't need to perform the experiment many times to develop a probability theory that hot water scalds. One experience is enough. That is because I intuitively believe that the universe is consistent. This is what science is all about. Inductive reasoning is practical and useful because our assumption about the universe is apparently true. We can't prove the assumption, we understand it innately.

The problem we have these days, I think, is that we have unconsciously forgotten the original rules. We have sought to disprove the basic assumption that God created the universe and created us with certain attributes to sense the universe and interpret it. Instead, we apply our God-created attributes to disprove the Creator. It is negative bootstrapping: we try to take off our shoes while standing in them.

Here postmodernism is helpful in a backhanded way. Jacques Derrida developed a form of deconstruction that seemed to suggest that language itself cannot convey true meaning. Derrida didn't think that was what he was doing, but people who have adopted his approach say this very thing. And, to an extent, they are right. If you spend your time trying to determine meaning apart from experience, you fall into the trap the rationalists fell into: whatever meaning is, it is not what we experience. And if you spend your time trying to attach meaning to experience, you conclude that meaning is only subjective. Either way, this obsession with nailing down the "Truth" with reference to our selves or to the abstract leads practically and inexorably to the despair of uncertainty.

Even the "hard" sciences are not exempt. In physics, Heisenberg contemplated the impossibility of true knowledge of certain events. Measure velocity of a subatomic particle and you destroy the ability to know its position. The crisis is that these events underlie everything. The self-contained mind finds this unacceptable. Our hubris and confidence demand that we not be denied the forbidden knowledge.

The postmodernism of our day is pointing clearly to the failure of our power. However, it fails itself to account for the failure. It tells us that Empiricism has obviously imploded and Rationalism's closed circle keeps us out. It then tries to accommodate Irrationalism. But its best practitioners are too smart to see this approach leading anywhere useful. They cheerfully tear things down, optimistic that something will be left standing. Others, following the existentialists, are not so optimistic. Either way, they find their current meaning in denying meaning.

". . . he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. "

Ecclesiastes 1:18.

The problem is quite basic: we confront "forbidden knowledge" as if it were an affront to our destiny. We miss the point that the knowledge is forbidden not because God capriciously hides the ball, but because we are ontologically incapable of knowing it. We are caterpillars demanding to understand our existence while denying metamorphosis.

Soon, I think, the world will be ready for a new old truth:

And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.


Ecclesiastes 12:12-14.

God created us to interpret Creation. Yet from the start we seek to define Creation. Ever bent to usurpation, we seek wisdom independent of God.

Much study is a weariness of the flesh, especially when we try to ponder the fundamentally imponderable. But, in our proper role as interpreters of Creation, we should not be wearied at learning. Granted, our faculties are weak and our natural grasp exceeds our allotted reach. Yet we are equipped, and we have a clear direction:

The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.

Proverbs 15:33.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.Hebrews 11:3.

This is the beauty of our Christ, Lord Jesus, and the Word revealed. I often think of myself as a cheerful malcontent. I'm a malcontent because of how disordered our world has become. I am cheerful because I believe that the power of self-generated understanding is about to have run its course. At that point we will rediscover what our original parents learned in their Fall, that we are naked, ashamed, and without excuse. And, God willing, our eyes will be opened to the God of Wisdom:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD;

And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears.


Isaiah 11:1-3.

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4 comments:

Lauren said...

Clark makes the same point in Revelation, Reason, and Religion, that empirical knowledge confirms, but cannot be the foundation of, revelation.

And, in fact, you'll never know there wasn't "a bug in dere," will you? I'm grateful to your folks for that.

Lauren said...

Whoops, that title is actually Religion, Reason, and Revelation.

Vic said...

I'm certain there was a bug in there. It just was an existentialist bug--the same sort that the computer people like to blame.

I remember reading an introduction to one of Clark's books that he prefered to be called a "Dogmatist." He often gets blamed for denying empirical knowledge althogether, but he really is saying what you said in your first comment. I'll never be able to repeat that particular experiment.

Lauren said...

There was a volley of epithets: he was called a rationalist, and finally he called himself a Scripturalist. But names aside, presuppositionalism implies that premise precedes experience.