Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Descartes Demon, The Problem of Induction, and the Death of Certainty

Well, after a whole bunch of biblical studies posts, I figure it's time to get back to some philosophy, keep it interesting around here.  In many ways, the history of modern philosophy can be looked at as an attempt to ground reality in some sort of certainty.  The big names in philosophy, like Descarte, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, etc. were trying to build a system from the ground up, so that we can be sure of everything we know.  Once we get the foundation, they reason, we can start securing to that foundation, and in that way build up a massive tower of knowledge from a few simple premises.  It was a noble goal, and it is very interesting to chart the path of this quest, and to see the shambles it is in today.

Descarte has been called the father of modern philosophy, because he did something very interesting when he started his quest into philosophy.  What if I was just put into this world knowing nothing, and I had to figure out what is real going solely by my reasoning powers?  If I strip away every belief it is possible to doubt, what will I be left with?  These are the questions he set out to investigate.  They name this type of skepticism "Cartesian Doubt" because of this contribution he made.

It was from this doubt that he comes up with probably the most well known philosophical statement of all time.  Descarte realized that there was one thing he couldn't doubt, even if he assumed all his senses were unreliable.  From the cold dark depths of utter scepticism, a small voice rings forth.  "I think, therefore I am!"  What he saw was that to deny his own existence was to believe a contradiction, because without existing he couldn't perform the act of denying.  He had it!  This was the capstone upon which he could build his system.  The goal to derive all knowledge from a set of a-priori truths we can know intuitively is known in philisophical circles as "rationalism".

There was a slight hitch though.  Even acknowledging his own existence, he had to admit it was possible that everything else he believed was a lie.  It was totally possible that there was an evil demon, incredibly powerful, who was manipulating Descarte to believe in the existence of other people, a physical world, etc.  There is another version of the argument called the "brain in a vat" argument.  Descarte believed he could get around the implications of this argument by his peculiar versions of the causal and ontological argument, then saying that a good God wouldn't deceive us in such a fashion.  In that way he was able to reclaim most "common sense" knowledge and ground his philosophy in certainty.

It wasn't too long before people began to realize that Descarte's foundation had some cracks in it.  He hadn't eradicated skepticism, and a new group of philosophers were soon to come along and undermine much of the ground he had gained.  George Berkely argued quite convincingly against the existence of a physical world (check out "Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous" and think about how you would engage in the conversations).  David Hume came along after that and took the wind completely out of the rationalist sails.

Hume is an awesome writer, and his ideas are clear and devastating to the search for a solid foundation for philosophy.  Many of the best arguments for skepticism can be traced back to him as the first to really eloquently lay them out.  For instance, it was he who introduced the "is - ought" gap in ethics, as well as an argument against the miraculous that is still talked about today, though in slightly modified form.  I want to talk about another one of his contributions that hit me like a brick when I first grasped the sense of his argument.  It's known as the problem of induction, and I won't be able to do it justice, but I shall try.

Hume was an empiricist, which meant that he believed all truth was gained through experience, and that we can't know anything a-priori.  One might say that empiricism developed as a reaction to the rationalism espoused by Descarte, as well as by the philosophers Spinoza and Leibniz.  Now-a-days, there aren't many pure empiricists left, however it has left an indelible impression in the fields of philosophy in general, and has been helpful in developing modern science.  This empiricism created a problem for him when he looked at the relationship between cause and effect. 

He asked himself how we can know that the future is going to be like the past.  He wanted to find the connection that exists between the cause and the effect in an event.  These two questions are intricately related, as once we find that "necessary connection" we can be assured that things will continue as they are right now, for like effects will follow from like causes.  When he looked into this area, he found something disturbing.  He uses the example of a pool ball.  If we were dropped to the earth with all our faculties, but no knowledge, and saw one pool ball rolling towards another, we would have no way of knowing what would happen when the two hit.  Would they stick together?  Would the one pass through the other?  Would they explode?  Any of these are possible until the 2 balls strike, and we see the change in momentum from one to the other.

Furthermore, there is no way to determine the effect simply from the cause.  Examine a pool ball all you want, it will tell you nothing about what happens in a collision without actually watching it collide.  This goes for all of our "inductive" reasoning.  You can't be able to derive what something will do in the future without observing what it has done in the past and then making a prediction.  There is no logically necessary connection between the two.  The more we see an effect issue from a similar cause, the more sure we are that the one is causing the other.

The problem here that Hume points out is that all our causal reasoning is formed completely in our mind.    The events are all the same.  There is nothing different happening when the ball hits the first time than when it hits the 100th time.  The only difference is in how we perceive the event.  You learn in critical thinking class that correlation doesn't imply causation (<---hint: click this one) but it turns out that causation is simply the assumption we make on the basis of correlation.  It gets worse though.  The arguments that are used to try to solve the problem typically just argue in a circle.

It goes something like this:  We know the future will be like the past because past futures have been like past pasts.  Do you see the trick there?  The argument is that things will continue to operate as they always have because they always have operated that way.  It really isn't an answer at all.  It's the same thing with arguing that probability theory solves the issue.  That goes like this:  Though there is no logical connection between cause and effect, we can add up the times that these 2 events happen together and approach a nearly probabilistic certainty that it will happen in the future the same way.  This is subject to the same criticism as before though.  The probability calculation is only valid if the future operates the same as the past, and we have no way of knowing that will be the case.

There is a way out of the problem posed by Hume, but it involves the death of that quest for certainty that had so characterized the modern philosophers.  We can admit that there is no way of knowing that things will always continue on as they have, but keep living as though they will.  The scientific method operates on the assumption of the uniformity of nature.  It has been incredibly useful, but it is simply an assumption.  I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to believe, and will continue to believe it.  It is simply one of those things we believe that we can't really have any proof for.

P.S.  I put belief in the uniformity of nature in the same category as belief in free will and the material world.  Arguments can cause us to doubt them, but they are a "basic" belief that we can't consistently live doubting.  G.E. Moore argued that we have more reason to doubt the academic skeptical arguments than we do to doubt that the world is pretty much how it seems.  For further reading, I would really recommend either Hume's Treatise of Human Nature Vol. 1, or his "Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding."  They are both really good works, and free on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams Movie Review

Over the weekend we went to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the Magic Theatre.  It was in 2-D so I can't comment on the 3-D aspects of the movie, but from what I have heard the 3-D is well done, and adds a good deal to the images presented.



The movie is a documentary, directed by Werner Herzog, about the Chauvet Cave in France.  It is the location of the worlds oldest cave paintings, between 30,000 and 40,000 years old.  The cave was sealed up by a landslide about 20,000 years ago, and only discovered in 1994.  There are a ton of paintings in it, and they are remarkably well preserved.  Very few people are allowed in the cave, and typically for limited times for research purposes.  The movie has a lot of footage from inside the cave, and interviews with various people associated with the paintings.  First I will talk about the movie itself, and then afterwards about the subject matter of the film.

The movie was beautiful.  The images it captures, both inside the cave and in the surrounding areas, are breathtaking.  They used a variety of techniques to get some very cool shots, and the entire time I was mesmerized.  I thought the score was great, and overall it was one of the most artfully done documentaries I have seen.  The interviews were informative, and it covered a lot of different aspects of the discovery, from the science side of things as well as the historical and archaeological side.  I learned much I didn't know about prehistoric people and the beasts they lived with.

The movie was an experience that washed over you.  It wasn't meant to be merely educational or entertaining.  Much of it simply displayed art from the cave, or the natural formations in the cave, to music with some minimal narration.  I liked how it was put together, as most of the time the videography spoke for itself.  I definitely feel like if I had watched it at home it would have lost some of the grandeur it had on the big screen.  It is a very visual movie, and so I think part of what made it so good was having a medium that allowed us to really be surrounded by the movie.  It isn't one to watch whilst distracted.

The post script was very odd.  I tried to give Herzog the benefit of the doubt, but for me at least it was a bit jarring, and took me out of the mindset he had been generating for the rest of the movie.

Now to the content.

The whole movie left me dumbfounded, with so much to think about, I have spent the last few days processing it.  The thing that Herzog didn't call too much attention to in narration is just how amazing the artwork is on the walls.  The paintings are beautiful, with an incredible sense of proportion and personality.  There are tons of images, and they are all really cool.  I think you can tell from the styles that there were many different artists that worked in the cave, and the carbon dating shows the drawings were made over the course of about 5000 years.  They said that Neandrathal man was around when these paintings were made, as well as the early humans that made the art.  The Neandrathals didn't have the culture that early man had though, as far as we can tell from archaeology.  From that time period they have found cave art, sculpture, and musical instruments, which is just amazing to me.

The times involved were such that much of the formations inside the cave were created after the art in it was.  The time between us and the people who did the drawings is almost unimaginable to me.  6 times the distance between us and ancient egypt (roughly).  It's incredible to me that almost as soon as mankind emerged on the scene, art was being created.  It speaks deeply to who we are as a species.  As one of the interviewers in the movie said, we are not so much "homo sapiens" man who knows, as we are "homo spiritualis", spiritual man.  Innate within us is the ability to create, and to transcend the simple gratification of our basic needs.  It is a part of what it means to be human.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Redaction Criticism

As I mentioned, I have been getting way more into academic studies of the New Testament, and it's actually a lot of fun, as well as being educational.  I feel like I am beginning to re-cultivate a lot of the areas in my brain that had gone to seed for a while, which is always a good thing.  I want to talk about some of the things I am learning as I go, just to cement them into my head and maybe help some others learn along the way as well.  I can't go through everything I am learning because that would be too much writing, but I want to start with redaction criticism because it is something that is pretty cool, and easy to see when you start looking for the opportunities.


In this post, I will be operating under the assumptions that there is a literary dependency between the "synoptic gospels" and further that Mark was written first, with both Matthew and Luke using it as a source.  This is known as "Markan Priority".  I won't be defending those assumptions, simply using them.  Also, I will be using the traditional names of the Gospel writers, though they were originally anonymous, because saying "the gospel attributed to Mark by later tradition" gets old pretty fast, and so know that's what I mean when I  just say "Mark".

Secondly, this will be extremely useful for looking at the example that I am going to use to illustrate my point (the NIV is a little clearer though).  Scroll down a bit for the english versions, and look at the key at the top to figure out the color scheme.  That site is useful for any look at the Synoptic problem, I would recommend it.

Redaction Criticism is a way of building on the findings of the Synoptic problem in order to discover more about the goals of the people who wrote the gospels.  Specifically, it looks at what the gospel writers have changed from their source materials, and then tries to find out if there is any sort of reasons the author makes the changes he does.  When you look at parallel passages from the gospels, you can see that there are similarities and differences.  Redaction criticism tries to answer why the differences are there.

All of the gospel writers have certain themes that they want to bring out in their accounts of the life of Jesus.  A cursory reading of Matthew will show that he has a huge interest in tying Jesus' mission to fulfilling old testament scriptures, portraying Jesus as something of a second Moses.  Looking at John we can see his strong desire to show that Jesus is equivalent with YHWH and how he structures his writings to demonstrate that.  Mark has been described as a "passion narrative with an extended beginning" and we can see when we read it his goal to show that Jesus' crucifixion is an integral part of the plan all along.

Sometimes all these things can be seen more clearly if we look at how an author is using his sources, to see if there are things he wants to bring out more clearly, or things he wants to leave out because they don't portray what he wants to portray.  I was going over this because of a conversation with somebody who mentioned James as a sceptic in the bible that later believes in Jesus, based on the fact that he is seen in Mark doubting Jesus, then is later a major church leader.

A major theme in the book of Mark is that Jesus is misunderstood by those that are closest to him.  Constantly his disciples are missing the point of what he is saying, and seem clueless to what his actual mission is.  As the reader we are priviledged to know what is happening, and we can see how clueless everybody else is.  A great example of this is when Jesus family comes to get him, in chapter three (20-21, 31-35 is what we are looking at).  His own family comes to get him because they think he is out of his mind.  Jesus uses this incident to show those around him what it means to be part of the family of the kingdom (what we would later call the "christian family").  At this point you should probably follow the link at the top and read the actual texts in all 3 gospels.

In the context of Mark, the section on his family's unbelief are key for the overall structure of the gospel.  This passage, however, is one that is taken over by both Matthew and Luke (triple tradition), and it is interesting to see what they do to it in their versions (again, I am assuming that Mark was written first, and the other evangelists had access to it).  I am not making any judgements on the historicity of the passages, simply looking at what the text says, and what the literary reasons for the differences might be.

You will notice if you followed the link that neither Matthew or Luke have included the bit about his family thinking he is out of his mind.  It is skipped over while the rest of the section is very similar.  I find this to be quite interesting.  Why would that particular verse be skipped in this passage?  What is it about his family not believing in his mission that would cause the other evangelists to omit that bit of information?  Without reading the Markan account, could you infer the reason that Jesus' family was there in Matthew and Luke?

I think that the reason for this omission has to do with another part of the Jesus story, this one that is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.  I am referring, of course, to the Virgin birth.  Because Mark's gospel begins with Jesus as an adult, we have no way of knowing whether he knew of the interesting circumstances of Jesus' birth and chose not to mention them, or if he hadn't heard that story.  Matthew and Luke relate the same basic facts about Jesus' birth, but with little overlap as far as the specifics are concerned.  Both of them relate the story in such a way as there is no question as to whether or not it is a very miraculous occasion. 

I think the fact that the birth narratives play such a major role in their gospels give Matthew and Luke a strong incentive to leave out any mention of his family (his MOTHER no less) thinking he is out of his mind.  They both go through great pains to show how Jesus' mission and calling were set since before he was born.  Luke in particular shows Mary's joy in the specialness of her son, "treasuring all these things in her heart".  How would it look if she then, shortly after he began to fulfill his calling, came to get him because she thought he had gone crazy?  That section just doesn't fit in with the narrative that Luke is constructing.  Same thing goes for Matthew.  He shows clearly how Jesus' birth and childhood fulfilled a bunch of OT prophecies, in a way that it isn't possible without miraculous intervention.  In both of these cases, it wouldn't make sense to have the kind of doubt from his family that we see in the Markan account.

I think those are some specific reasons to leave out that verse, but there are some more general reasons as well.  They have to do with the overall portrait that the Gospels are trying to paint.  I have given some suggestions to this effect above, but I feel it's much more enriching to actually try to discover such things for yourself, so I will offer no more conjectures.  Read through the Gospels, trying not to let them influence each other, and look for what makes each of them unique.  Take a section found in 2 or more of them and compare them.  The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are a great starting point, just don't skip the genealogies.

Look at the Gospels not in terms of the history they contain, but in terms of literary works, written to convey a message by authors who were artistic in their presentation of their material.  It can make for a very different experience, and you may learn a lot from the experience.