Thursday, March 20, 2008

Are There Jurisdictions of Ideas?

Have you ever tried to have a discussion with someone in which you’re trying to persuade them of the truth, or to perhaps get the truth out of them, and instead of dealing with truth as though it were a unitary and seamless whole, they seek to avoid dealing with sticky problems of things we don’t know or things that appear contradictory by invoking a jurisdictional barrier between different sorts of ideas? For example, in the debate over intelligent design it is popular today for scientists to say “Oh I’m sorry, intelligent design is theology or philosophy, it just isn’t science.” In other words, they seek to rule out a discussion about what really happened by saying that the question of what really happened belongs in some other discipline that they’re not willing to talk about. I’ve found the same weakness in Aristotle. Aristotle is happy to assume that things have a telos or purpose within their design or nature. But Aristotle is unwilling to discuss the issue of the designer that must have been present for the design or nature to have normative implications. I don’t know enough about Ayn Rand to know if this is true of all her followers, but I’ve had at least one very intelligent believer in Ayn Rand’s philosophy tell me that she takes the human mind’s capacity to understand and reason through concepts for granted while having no explanation as to exactly why this capacity exists. Apparently Ms. Rand would say that that is an issue for science to discover rather than an issue for philosophy to determine. But of course this is an essential part of developing a philosophical system. The epistemology must not only explain that we have knowledge, but provide some coherent internally consistent theory about how it is possible for us to have that knowledge. If we do, in fact, have a knowledge of universals and, if as seems to be the case, universals cannot be known purely through empirical experience, it would seem that there must be a God who in some way illumines our minds or created our minds so that we can know, understand, and communicate universals like love, beauty, truth, and unity. And isn’t it also the case that we all have a knowledge of the greatest universal of all—God Himself. We both know He exists and have very little trouble understanding what sort of being He is despite the fact that while there is evidence for Him in the empirical world, His precise nature is not exactly like anything within the material world. Christians are not innocent of this either. One of the ways in which some Dutch Reformed political scholars have sought to deal with the problems of apparent conflicts between law, morality, science, etc. is to give them each spheres or jurisdictions in which each discipline is to be allowed to reign and rule regardless of the contrary implications of the others.

I don’t really believe it’s proper to divide up ideas by jurisdiction. God Himself is the source of all real truth and knowledge. God is a unity. While we can discuss His various attributes in a loose sort of way, those attributes are a unified whole within Him. We know what love is because of God embodying love. We know what justice is because of God’s embodiment of justice. It isn’t really possible though to truly separate love and justice completely because they all find themselves in God and God is a unified whole, not a patchwork quilt or picture puzzle assembled from unique pieces. And so it is with all truth. While human beings cannot know everything, both because of our lack of ability and our lack of time, we divide ideas up into disciplines that we study independently like nibbling at various items on a smorgasbord, but truth itself is not easily divided. There is no dividing line between realities scientific, philosophical, theological, or ethical. Things are either real and true or not. The demarcations between areas of study do not indicate demarcations between areas of reality. I would suggest that when we invoke the jurisdictional barriers, we are often trying to escape from truth rather than to pursue and discover it. It is almost always a mistake to try to escape from truth. Fleeing or repressing the truth almost always has negative consequences. Indeed, since truth is tied up in and bound to God Himself, whenever we say yes to genuine truth, we are saying yes to God, and whenever we flee genuine truth, we are fleeing God Himself. Of course I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to say that we always know particular things to be true or that we will in this life know everything that is true or only believe things that are true. But as a philosophical predisposition, we ought to pursue genuine truth rather than seeking to avoid it. And I think that when we invoke jurisdictional barriers as a means of avoiding contradictions within our thought, we are, in fact, often trying to escape the truth.

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