Friday, January 23, 2009

Epistemology as a Gestalt Web

Don't worry, I don't know what I mean either. I'll try to break it down for us in a minute. First let me preface this entry with a human interest segment.

So I'm at my folks house for another family council meeting and my favorite cousin, Zack, comes into town so I get to talk with him for a couple hours. He's my favorite because he has a Masters degree in both philosophy and theology. Talking with him always makes me so beautifully and painfully aware of how dumb and under-educated I am! But I think that's healthy. It does make me rue my decision to get married at 18, thereby diverting me to a course that could never include getting masters degrees in my favorite subjects. But then I remember that I have two kids and a wife now, and poor Zack has a lot of catching up to do in that area of life. Take that, Zack! I may be ignorant, but you'll be 70 at your kid's graduation ceremony!

Anyway, I hate/love verbal communication about complex matters like theology/philosophy. Mostly hate. Because the next day or so my brain keeps doing those annoying pop-ups with the stuff I should have said. Not at bad as after arguments, since I wasn't arguing. But just things I could have said to have been clearer, and justified in my opinions. But I do love the energy and passion of people sharing ideas.

Anyway… where was I? Oh right, epistemology. How do we know what we think we know? I don't know. But how do I know that I don't know? I don't. See the world I live in?

Anyway, I was trying to explain how this silliness affects my theology to Zack. He said I'm in a paradox. Which is funny, since the whole point of my mental shenanigans is to get away from paradox. I asked him how I'm being paradoxical. It has to do with my epistemology. I claim that I don't know anything. I thought I was safe from paradox by not claiming to KNOW that that I don't know anything. I say I BELIEVE that I don't know anything. Because obviously, once I quote Socrates: "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing." I've obviously contradicted myself. Because I can't know NOTHING if I know one thing. I'm guessing Socrates was a big joker.

Anyway, by simply stating this sentiment as a belief rather than a Truth, I think I'm free and clear from Socrate's paradox. I rephrase it thusly: "The thing I believe the most, is that I know nothing." But Zack corners me like a good conversationalist should. He pointed out that I still act on the belief. So in that sense it is true for me. Once you order your life and thoughts according to an axiom, you are committing to it as truth. One who lives according to the axiom that "only the strong survive" may claim they don't think the statement is true, but their actions and attitudes contradict that claim. To be clear, neither Zack nor I are saying that one's beliefs define Truth with a capitol T. Only that one is making an intrinsic claim that such and such is true, with a lower-case t. And that is why, Zack claims, my belief in Socrates modified aphorism places me in a paradox. I structure my thought-world around the idea, therefore I believe it to be true whether I admit it or not.

But I don't think it ends there. I still say I'm not being paradoxical, and here is why…

I think that every human thought has its base in a circular argument. The most basic of which is this: "I know that I exist and my observations of reality are accurate and true." One cannot make a good argument for preserving the jungles of Brazil or claiming that classical music is better than rap without first adhering to this statement. But I think the radical skeptics proved that the statement can't be proven. ( )And since we can't know we exist or that our perceptions are accurate, our belief that they are is circular. We simply draw a line in the sand and say that for practical purposes, let's all ignore that basic epistemological problem and get on with our lives. The reasoning being that if we can't take ANYTHING as fact, we can never progress to higher reasoning. I think that's wrong. I think there is another way to both accept that we can't be sure of anything AND move on to higher reasoning. That is what I am calling the Gestalt Web.

Now, as I've said before, I'm dreadfully under-educated, and I'm positive that I'm butchering the terms here… so if it really bothers you, simply send me enough money to get a master's degree in philosophy and I'll rectify the problem in a timely manner. In the meantime, here is my best shot at articulating my epistemology. First let's examine my definitions:

Epistemology: The theory of knowledge. Here is a cool illustration that I don't think is applicable to anyone and I'm not going to comment on it further:

In the great debate on the subject I side with those that Plato called the Earth Giants. ( ) I oppose "the gods" who claim that there can be true and ultimate knowledge of a thing. (At least in this life.) I simply think the skeptic's arguments are unbeatable. I have yet to read anything that overcomes their stance. (Feel free to send my something better though!) The problem is that if you concede to the skeptics, it can be challenging to compose a coherent justification for order, morality, or any of the other goodies we humans desire so much. So let's look at this other field that holds my interest currently as a possible springboard into justified right action.

: a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.

So how does Gestalten theory help me construct a posture of positive attitude with a foundation of skepticism? Well Gestalt psychology demonstrates the way our minds 'see' our reality. We fill in gaps, form shapes from negative space, group like objects and consider them as a whole. When we look at a person, we don't 'see' a nose and a hand and some glasses and a pimple on the right cheek. We 'see' an interpretation: a whole that is greater than the sum of those parts. Upon further analysis we can break down that whole, and describe the parts, but our day-to-day functioning does not occur at that level. If it did, we would never have time to do anything, all our processing power would be wrapped up in building lists. Our brains were created to function in our world, and so we have this Gestalten mechanism that enables us to see more than exists in the physical plain of existence. Our minds build concepts that imbue personhood to a collection of matter operating under the laws of a physical system. Whether or not that collection of matter is worthy of such a designation or not is at the heart of the atheist argument I suppose. Anyway, as a theist, my presumption is that our perceptions are God-ordained for a good reason. In the same way that we are meant to believe we have a free will, we are meant to perceive others in a holistic way rather than a deconstructed way. Everything about our cultural systems are predicated on this.

Here's where I tie Gestalt to epistemology. The thing Gestalt offers to someone like me who sides with the Earth Giants (skeptics) is a map from the dead end of physical or logical reality to the freeway of perception and functioning. My current belief is that there is no way to truly KNOW anything. But every action and thought I have is predicated on the assumption that some things are True, and others are false. These assumptions are created by a massive web of input. My experiences, the way I was trained to interpret reality, and my own critical thinking faculties all come together to create this web. I call it a web because they are all interdependent with each other. There are no strands of belief that are independent from the others. To move or break one strand is to jostle the entire web. For example, I was taught that a god created me and everything else. As a result of this, my approach to interpretation of events and nature is to see them in an organized, designed system. This is exactly what Gestalt psychology is about. Had I been raised by parents and in a culture that taught me there was no god, I dare say the romantic forms of organization that I perceive would be quite different. An example of this is the way I view my divorce. It was painful and incredibly stressful. Since my interpretive faculties are predicated on an ordered and just universe, I see this time in my life as a useful thing. And further, because I believe in the total sovereignty of God, I see it as (ultimately) a good thing. This could be very counter-intuitive for someone who thinks there is no larger purpose in life. A non-Gestalten view of my divorce would see all the time spent crying. The frantic, sick feelings. The countless wasted money. The emotional toll it took on the kids, etc. But my ingrained interpretive mode of understanding takes those details and puts them in a larger context of meaning and an ultimate perfect plan. Obviously this helps me 'digest' the process emotionally in a much calmer manner than if it's all jagged little pills.

I think the modernist bent towards fragmentation and deconstruction provided a way for societies to strip away the Gestalten perception of things, paving the way for radically restructuring the way humans relate to each other and governments relate to their populations. When your grid for organizing reality is perceived as a man-made construct rather than a God-ordained system, you are free to reconfigure it the way you please. So what I'm doing is approaching my epistemological problem by applying a God-ordained system of perception rather than a man-made construct.

Gestalt is a way of seeing the big picture despite what may or may not actually exist. We see a triangle in this picture even though there is no triangle.

Likewise, we operate as though we can Know even though we cannot Know. The mistake in my mind is to lose sight of the fact that there is no triangle and that we can't Know. It's good to understand how our minds create perceptions that aren't real, so we can make better choices and choose better or more appropriate attitudes. Humility being the primary attitude I think this should cultivate. Understanding that our senses constantly deceive us should put us in a receptive posture. Receptive to other people's input and ideas. Receptive to criticism. Receptive to paradigmatic change. When we are aware that the triangle we have always seen is not actually there, we should feel a deep sense of fallibility. And we should recognize that all our views are woven together into a Gestalten web, so when one misperception is corrected there must be repercussions throughout our entire worldview. This should also foster patience for others. Knowing, (or believing in my case) that everyone is suffering under this illusion, and what a huge burden of thought it is to shift from one paradigm to another, means I can't very well get mad at someone for not believing the same as I do, even if they are exposed to exactly the same data I have. Because our minds don't even let contrary ideas get processed without a concerted effort, and everyone who disagrees with me has some kind of reasoning for it.

Blah. I've been over this territory several times on this blog. So I apologize to all my regular reader. I keep driving my head into this wall until I feel like I've got a way through, ya know? Let's see if I've learned anything from writing this mess…

  1. I don't believe any human can Know Truth in this life. (But they can believe it.)
  2. I still want to justify my beliefs as well as possible.
  3. Gestalt psychology shows us that we perceive wholes that are greater than the sum of parts.
  4. I justify my beliefs without claiming true Knowledge by referencing the wholes we collectively perceive in the parts of nature.
  5. I believe this is the best approach to life because it keeps us humble and receptive to revelation that can lead to belief in Truth.

*Sigh* This is how the sausage is made, folks. If Edison could fail as much as he did, and still be a genius, I guess I can fail sometimes too. I'll try again later. Maybe something profound will pop out. Or better yet, maybe I'll find the philosopher who already covered this ground hundreds or thousands of years ago, and just reference them.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Is Jesus God?

Is He? Of course this question only concerns folks who consider themselves Christians as I do. So does answering this question wrongly determine your eternal destiny? That's certainly what I was raised to believe. My branch of Christianity insists that to even consider Jesus as anything less than completely God is not just disrespectful, but will doom you to eternal torment.

Since Jesus never took the time to sit down and write out all the details of how this issue works, His followers have been all over the place on it. Especially during the first 4 or 5 hundred years, as Christianity was defining itself. There were groups that said Jesus was pure spirit, (Some Gnostics ) groups that said He was just a man, (The Ebionites ( ) and every flavor in between. Eventually those on the edges were 'weeded out' and we ended up with a dichotomous orthodox declaration that insists that Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Oh, and throws in a third guy too, because the language used about the Holy Spirit could be interpreted in such a way as to bestow personhood on it.

As I've become more skeptical of my own ability to know these sorts of things, I've also become skeptical of other people's ability to know these sorts of things. This viewpoint erodes the foundations of doctrine as a valid form of revelation or medium for keeping Truth. While I recognize the value of tried-and-true recipes for success in life, I also recognize that bad ideas can come down through the ages just as easily. So I don't think the fact that Trinitarian theology has prevailed in Christian history attests to its truth. What I see in Trinitarian theology is an attempt to keep Christianity balanced, without sliding into the ditches of the afore-mentioned groups. But just because it makes a good steering wheel doesn't make it suitable for eating. By that I mean that all sorts of machinations have occurred within Christendom that preserved its power-base and insured its most-favored status in society. But not all of those things are good to mimic in our personal lives.

The relevant question to me is: Can I leave the question blank and still get a passing grade? When asked if Jesus IS God, can I just say "I don't know."? Or does that automatically forfeit my subscription to Christianity Today? But right now a shrug is all I can honestly give. Not out of apathy, but out of a deep reverence for the scripture that refuses to give a formulated answer on the subject.

As to the divinity of Christ, I leave that to mystery. I neither affirm nor deny it. Because all the recorded words from Jesus on the topic can be read multiple ways, I see no reason to dogmatize the issue. I submit that Christ's work, words, and life affect me identically whether He is 100% God or not. I am saved by His work. I believe in His teachings, and have applied them successfully to my life every time I work at it. He is the Lord of my life. How that all works under the hood doesn't seem like the important thing to me. The important thing is that this vehicle takes me from point A (Selfishness) to point B. (Selflessness) Maybe that's WHY Jesus used stories that are almost impossible to dogmatize rather that writing down a list of bullet-point doctrines.

My dad, who is perfectly orthodox, brought up a tried and true analogy (adapted from Carl Sagan) that I like, but doesn't convince me of the orthodox Christology. I'll elaborate on my own version of it to show my thinking:

Imagine you are a god, and you put your finger into a 2 dimensional illustration of a world. To the 2-D inhabitants, your finger would be a cross section, a circle, that they could go around and examine. You could move your finger back and forth along two plains and they would understand it as a circle moving around. If you put your finger further in, the circle would get bigger, pull it out and it gets smaller. (assuming your fingers taper handsomely like mine)

Now if you could speak through your finger, you could tell all the little 2-D people that you and god are one. That to see you (the circle that is really a cross section of a finger) is to see God. This would be both true and false. True because that finger-circle is the most they could see of you, and false because it does not contain the fullness of you.

You could let them 'kill' your circle, withdraw it from their world for 3 days, then put it back in. Viola, resurrection.

This is my favorite way of visualizing that which can't be fathomed by humankind. Does it mean that Jesus IS God? That's totally subjective, which I think is the way it's supposed to be. The real story is about how Jesus is changing you and me. For that, He is to be loved, revered and worshiped.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Mom’s Letter 1979

April 18th 1979


We had a family council meeting yesterday at my parents house. My mom had a letter that she had written to her family from Japan in '79. It's a fascinating glimpse into the life of my parents in the military overseas. There are a couple reports about things I said as a 3-year-old that I thought were funny and related to the themes of this blog. So here are the questions of a quirky Christian 3-year-old artist as told by his 26 year old mother:


"Josh is really thinking about things. Once as I was driving along, he asked – Why does Jesus love bad people? – After explaining God is love, he said – But if bad people are in heaven, they will try to kill Jesus. – So then I explained how bad people have to love Jesus and let Him change their hearts before they can go to heaven. Then Josh said he wanted to go to heaven and play a little bit and come back which led to a lengthy conversation…"


And from my dad at the end of the same letter:


"As I was taking Joshua out of the bath a couple days ago, he asked me if there were lots of Jesus' and Gods. I said, No. He said – Then how can he be in my heart and in yours and in Mommies and… - I said it was hard to explain. He then asked if Jesus and God were little. I said – No they are very big. – He asked how they could fit in our heart. I said that our God was big enough to fill the universe and still fit in our hearts. He asks good questions."


In the 3 decades since, it seems that my questions have only evolved rhetorically, not fundamentally. My child-like consternation with paradox is what's fueling my heterodoxy. Maybe that should tell me something. Maybe my distrust of paradox is an immature reaction what more spiritually mature believers can incorporate without too much trouble. I don't understand how one can simultaneously embrace paradox and logic, but then I'm not very good at math and I don't understand why any nation would ever leave the gold standard or any parent would lie to their kids about Santa Claus. But while I may not be able to digest paradox, like the Santa Claus tradition and the Federal Reserve, there may very well be darn good reasons for them to exist. Perhaps my questioning and doctrinal wandering is simply an act of immaturity.