Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On the Divinity of Christ Part 3: The Religious Turn

I have really forgotten where I am now in this long story. Obviously, by now, you have a sampling of my thoughts, and how I approach the world. I have not given a long treatment of phenomenology, nor of those thinkers that I have listed as an influence. As such, if you do not know philosophy, you might get a tad bit lost, and at this point, it is a little too late "not to be a philosopher." As I am defending my dissertation this year and going on the market, I am very much the philosopher, and I am at the highest point I have ever been as a scholar in training. Soon, the training wheels come off. Much of what I will say here presupposes familiarity with the content of philosophy. I will attempt to make it as approachable as I can. 

I approach my philosophy of religion through Kant. Kant wrote his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason. In that text, Kant distinguishes between two types of reasoning. First, he called what Descartes had been doing a constitutive form of reasoning. Constitutive reasoning is an extension of pure concepts that make no reference to experience itself, but they move beyond it and take the speculated object as real. This is what we do when we speculate. Descartes speculated that there were two substances, an extended substance and thought substance. With this constitutive reasoning, Descartes concluded there were two substances that comprised all reality. In fact, reason is taken as a faculty that can speculate about the truths of reality. For Kant, this is bullshit (the reasons being too large to explain here). 

To free us of the false illusion and pretension of constitutive reasoning, Kant defended a different conception of reason. Kant defends a regulative use of reason. In regulative reason, we look to how reason regulates the knowledge we already have, and how to give that knowledge unity. In this way, regulative reason says nothing about reality, but the conditions under which we achieve knowledge. Regulative reason does not posit any content about what constitutes reality; it only serves as an evaluation of how we know the appearance of reality. We can never gain knowledge of how the world is in itself for Kant, but only make sense of the way in which reality appears to us. Thus, it is fair to say that the constitutive use of reason was presumed whenever anyone engaged in metaphysics. Kant supplants the metaphysical use of constitutive with the epistemological regulative use of reason. Plainly put, Kant's first critique devastates metaphysics and attempts to replace metaphysics with epistemology. 

Given this distinction, we can now say something about how we cannot know God with a constitutive use of reason. Put plainly, God is not available for metaphysical speculation. Kant brilliantly shows the futility of speculating about God in a section of the Critique of Pure Reason entitled the Antinomies of Pure Reason. Speculation can generate two logically consistent proofs. Reason can affirm God's existence, and it can also disprove God's existence at the same time. If constitutive reason can prove both with equal precision, then the problem is not with either proof. Instead, the worry is about constitutive reasoning itself. Put plainly, constitutive reason just assumes a power of reasoning we don't actually have and if we were to follow that conception then we will just be chasing our tails. Round and round we would go so to speak. 

This is the reason why I am against the extremes of the culture wars when it comes to creationism versus evolution. Both camps talk past each other all the time, assuming and asserting their point of views as someone might defend with a constitutive use of reason instead of a regulative one. Moreover, Kant did say that he wanted to "make room for faith". This room for faith is made possible by delimiting reason to be strictly about the appearances of the world and securing limits to knowledge. Kant, therefore, in my eyes opens up the possibility to have faith and abandon the tedious task of metaphysical speculation. The implication is that we abandon apologetics altogether as much as defending physicalism in the sciences. Both reify their opponent, commit the strawman fallacy against the other and finally commit to a use of reason we don't actually have access to whatsoever. By extension, we give up on trying to defend a literal account of Biblical passages and we also give up on attempting to prove God's divinity. The want for certainty about God's divinity in Christ is the misplaced thought that religious matters should be as certain as sensory knowledge. I know with a lot of certainty that I am writing this post on vacation at my mother's house in Pennsylvania. 

Now, you might be bothered. I am simply about having faith in something I cannot know with certainty. If I sought out certainty for my beliefs, I would be walking in a Cartesian fog. For Descartes, certainty is truth-entailing about the particular belief this attitude corresponds, yet this association arose out of conception of reason we don't have or will ever have. On this score, Kant is brilliant, and I have never looked back at the want to do metaphysics. In practice, this means that philosophers like Richard Swinburne have spent a lifetime under the delusion that Christianity warrants a defense of its most sacred doctrines. Usually, these philosophical defenses amount to clever tricks of reasoning, assume a lot of rationalism about the world, and lastly commit to constitutive reasoning. 

Given that we have no constitutive reasoning, or ability to speculate about reality's content, the positive story is a bit messy. On my score, we might do several things to philosophize about religion. Like James, we can study the practical effects of religious experience, and see how such concepts play out in human action. We can say a lot about how we experience the world, and how we find the consequences of an ideal meaningful in our experience. We just can't affirm if they correspond to an inherent reality. This is how I read Kierkegaard's defense of the subjective orientation to the experience of religion. It is not a form of irrationalism that Kierkegaard defends, but he elucidates the concepts of what such a stance would entail. Likewise, we might engage in a phenomenological description about religious experience and see exactly what that might entail. From Kant's defense of the limits of reason, I look to both phenomenology and pragmatism as ways to explore how we experience the world. 

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