Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams of Certainty

     Last week, I was reminded of a dream I once had, many years ago as an undergraduate in philosophy. Perhaps it was because I fell asleep while listening to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but in my dream I had been working through a philosophical question, and suddenly had an epiphany: all the pieces of a proof suddenly fell into place. In that moment, I knew, I really knew with absolute certainty, that I had just proved with perfect logical rigour, relying only on unassailably self-evident premises, the existence and immortality of the soul!
     And then I woke up, and it evaporated. I could not remember anything about my proof, other than the conclusion, which by itself is no proof at all. I tried my best to reconstruct it, but I came up with nothing.
     There were two choices I had at this point. I could take my dream at face value, relying on that feeling of certainty to assure me that the proof actually existed and was still out there for me to rediscover, which I dearly wanted to do. Or, I could recognize that in all likelihood, what I had dreamed was not the proof itself, but the feeling of having found it, and there was no particular reason to believe any such proof actually existed. Eventually, and with some disappointment, I had to accept that the dream was just a dream.

     Although I hadn't consciously thought of this experience in many years, it seems to have played an important role in shaping the skepticism that has characterized most of my thinking since then. In particular, if you've read through the lengthy comment threads on some of my more theological postings here, it illustrates why I have never accepted the subjective claims of certainty promised by my anonymous commenters. They assure me that if I would only open my heart to Jesus, I would then know, really know with absolute certainty, The Truth. And once I had that sense of certainty, I would need no further proof.
     But I know that sense of certainty already, and I am unimpressed by it, because I am aware of the possibility that it can be mistaken. How certain you feel about something bears little relationship to how likely you are to actually be correct, and so even if you promise me that I'll feel certain and even if I believe you that I will feel certain, none of that amounts to an assurance that I'll be any closer to knowing the truth.
     Some people are really uncomfortable with uncertainty. They crave that feeling of certainty, and feel it gives them strength, and maybe it does that. I will probably never know that kind of comfort outside of a dream, but I'm okay with that. I find a different kind of comfort in being aware of my own fallibility, in knowing that while I'm very likely wrong about most of what I believe, I am wrong honestly, and willing to correct my errors when I become aware of them. In a way, it's kind of exhilarating, like taking off the training wheels or jumping in at the deep end of the pool. It isn't that I find the risk of being wrong a thrill; it's that I've learned that the apparent safety of the training wheels or the shallow end of the pool are illusions.


  1. Very well said.

  2. It is good to see you reaching for something important again. it is clearly your pride that is keeping you in darkness. You cannot bear to accept the truth on terms that you do not dictate, but you can never get truth on the terms you set. God sets the terms. He calls you to humble yourself. I Corinthians 1:20 ff speak very much to the issue. You seem to feel like a hero because you will not budge from your rules of engagement. But Jesus did not die to make you a hero. He died to save you from your sins. Surrender to Him on the many fronts of your life. Come to know what a joy it is to know.

  3. It is clear to me on many levels that you do not understand (or even care to consider, it seems) my thinking here, which is unfortunate because you cannot overcome my objections without addressing them somehow. And urging me to just forget them doesn't count as addressing them.

    Of course I will only accept claims on my own terms. If I am the one accepting or rejecting a claim, then I am the one accepting or rejecting it. You're not trying to convince God, here, you're trying to convince ME, so God's terms are irrelevant. And even if I were to embrace "God's" terms, it'd inevitably be MY version of what I (fallibly, always fallibly) believe God's terms to be.

    You don't just want me to join you in your dream of certainty. You want me to forget the very possibility that it could even BE just a dream. Sorry, I have awakened from similar dreams before.

  4. You speak of certainty in a way that does not ring true. I do not have what you are calling "certainty". God calls us to walk by faith. We have strong reason to trust the One who has revealed Himself in the Scriptures. He has satisfied our longings for reality in spiritual things. He has reassured us of forgiveness for the many ways that we have botched up our lives. We have strong reasons for believing, but we still walk by faith. We live in hope. Certainty awaits the denouement. You have a kind of confidence that you are on the right track, and you do not wish to budge from what you see as favorable ground. But the issue is not that the Christian has certainty. The Christian has faith.

  5. I have no interest in the pious credulity you call "faith", because I do not see credulity as pious. I have already defined what I mean by "faith" in the first post to this blog, to which I refer you if you want to talk more about faith.

    As for certainty, I simply mean beliefs in which maximal confidence (i.e. 100%) is warranted. I argue that maximal confidence is unattainable, although we can certainly FEEL like we have attained it, but since that feeling can be illusory it is not to be taken as evidence.

    All of your arguments in these threads have implicitly and circularly relied upon a confidence in your beliefs that I do not share, and which therefore carries no weight with me. You appeal to Scripture, but I do not have any confidence in Scripture as being divinely authoritative. If you want to persuade me, you have to proceed from premises that I do have some confidence in.

    It's not as if I haven't expressed a lot of strongly held opinions in my blog. You shouldn't have a hard time identifying some of the beliefs in which I have a high degree of confidence. Try to find some, and then use THOSE to argue why I should accept some of your premises as likely to be true. But just constantly repeating what you believe is ineffective and tedious.

  6. I Corinthians 1:10 ff guarantees that you will not find wisdom by the method you hold. It can be found, but it will require a surrender of your method in favor of God's. It would do you harm for me to try to reason you into faith, since faith is not the result of reason. It is an acceptance of the testimony of God, believing that what He has said is true. You do this with regard to the Copernican perspective as opposed to the Ptolemaic. Simply on the authority of the theory, you have changed your perspective on what you see with your eyes, and you understand truth that many generations of careful thinkers did not see. The reasonableness o-f the theory has become axiomatic. But you began by believing what went contrary to what you could see. Obviously, you are able to perform this function, mentally. When it comes to spiritual things, there are many areas of sin that are challenged by the Word of God, so we all have a natural tendency to find reasons not to believe. But the truth of the Scriptures is as certain as the Solar System, (perhaps moreso). And you are called to believe.

  7. I Corinthians guarantees nothing, if you don't already accept Paul as authoritative, which I don't. I'm not persuaded that he -- or you -- are talking about any sort of wisdom that is worth having. So if you tell me I can't get to it by the path I'm taking, I don't care; the wisdom I'm interested in is apparently of no interest to you.

    You also do not understand how and why I accept the Copernican view rather than the Ptolemaic. I do not simply accept any theory as authoritative, and change my perspective to accord with it. Rather, I am willing to entertain any hypothetical explanation of observations long enough to consider whether its predictions are reliable. The Copernican model does NOT go contrary to what we can see, by the way; it only is contrary to the intuitions we use to INTERPRET what we see. Properly understood, the Copernican model is completely consistent with the evidence of our senses; if it weren't, it'd be a useless and irrelevant theory.

    I am more than willing to entertain your theory as a hypothetical explanation of the world, and in fact I HAVE entertained it at great length. I have found it not just inadequate, but in some ways downright absurd. That it's nonsensical isn't necessarily fatal -- quantum mechanics and relativity both have some profoundly counterintuitive elements -- but while the apparent absurdities of modern physics are key to improved understanding and prediction of physical phenomena, the absurdities of your brand of Christianity serve only as a shrug at unknowable mysteries. As theories go, this one doesn't.

  8. It sounds silly when you say that the Copernican theory does not go contrary to what we see. No one can see the earth spinning, and everyone sees the sun rise and set. It took thousands of years for anyone to doubt the geocentric perspective and Copernicus knew that he was arguing against what people see with their eyes. Whatever can you mean?

  9. It does not go CONTRARY to what we see; it goes contrary to what we ASSUME about what we see. We see the stars and the sun change their positions relative to a vantage point on the Earth's surface, which they absolutely do. But we do not observe the Earth's surface to be fixed in space; we simply ASSUME that it is (or we did, before Copernicus). Copernicus' brilliant insight was in recognizing that something we all unconsciously assumed wasn't necessarily true; the rest of us didn't even realize we were making an assumption at all.

    In any event, you have profoundly misunderstood how scientific knowledge works. You say that I changed my perspective based on the authority of Copernicus' theory, and that's just wrong. His model survives because, so far, it give more reliable predictions of the movements of the sun and the stars in the sky than the Ptolemaic model. (Actually, if you want to get picky, his model does NOT survive, because Kepler's model had the planets moving in ellipses, not circles, and then Newton's model had Earth orbit not the Sun but the common center of gravity, and then Einstein's model changed gravity from an attractive force to a geometry of spacetime itself, etc. etc.)

    Copernicus is no authority. Neither are Newton or Kepler or Einstein. They merely offered models, conceptual prediction-machines, which we used until something better (more precise or more efficient) became available. (We still use Newton's, actually, even though it's not the most accurate, because it's accurate enough for everyday purposes and it's easier to work with than all the complicated math of Einstein's.) If you think I accept their theories the same way you accept the Bible, you're hopelessly wrong. If you think I ought to consider your Bible with the same critical openmindedness I use on Copernicus, well, I already have. That's why I'm not a believer.

  10. Presuppositionalism is just incredibly bizarre. But, I can sort of understand how someone could be blinded by it.

    It would be interesting to meet someone who had once been a hard-core presuppositionalist, but who is now a skeptic.

    By the way, this is Ben. I don't feel like signing in, because it's a hassle.

  11. Good to hear from you, Ben. It seems bizarre, yes, but less so if you consider how Euclidean geometry was taught, at least at the basic introductory level. There are fundamental axioms about lines and points on the plane, and then everything you can know about squares and circles and angles must be derived from those unquestioned assumptions.

    But that's not all there is to geometry, and Euclid himself undoubtedly devoted a great deal of effort to identifying and articulating his postulates; they were not the result of a flash of divine revelation, but careful and repeatable (and implicitly fallible) effort. Moreover, as we have since learned, other meaningful geometries with different sets of postulates exist. As well, as thinkers like Russell and Godel have shown, all axiomatic systems are subject to unavoidable limitations: sets whose membership cannot be defined, true statements that cannot be proved true within the system, etc.

  12. Ben's comment about presuppositionalism is interesting. Of course he and Tom are as much presuppositionalists as I am. You presuppose that your method of discovering what is true is valid, and you hold to it tenaciously, even though those who also hold this view have concluded that there is no truth. But you won't abandon the presupposition. If you ever are converted to Jesus you will have changed your presuppositions. But to pretend that you operate without presuppositions is silly. To think, one must start somewhere, and wherever you start involves presupposition.

  13. I don't "presuppose" my method is valid. Quite the contrary: I explicitly recognize that I can always be mistaken. Good heavens, have you not read a word I wrote?!

    I use my method of thinking, not because I presuppose it to be valid but because I have this brain and this is just how it works. I have tried to improve my thinking technique over the years, and I've gotten better at it, but I'm still stuck with this fuzzy-logic neural network wetware. It's the best I can do, but I am under no illusions that it's perfect or infallible.

    Is there a truth? I believe there is, but I also believe I can always be mistaken about what it is, so I am very wary of holding up anything and proclaiming "This is TRUTH!" without at least qualifying it heavily: "I have a very high degree of confidence that this proposition corresponds as closely as realistically practical to objective reality!"

    You are right that thinking necessarily involves SOME assertions, but they need not be presuppositions or unshakeable axioms. We can do all sorts of thinking about provisional, tentative hypotheses, without ever committing ourselves to a belief in their truth values. We can say IF X is true, then this and that and these other things follow, and still remain neutral on whether or not X is true.

  14. But that you are approaching things in the right way is a presupposition.. You think that your method of shifting presuppositions makes your fundamental presupposition the right way to think. God does not expect us to work without presuppositions. He posits the first one in the first verse, " In the beginning, God..." He does not argue for His existence, He declares it and builds upon it. If you do not start with God you cannot get to God. Your presupposition is that this is the wrong way to use your mind. In fact, it is the right way, and you will never find Truth unless you start with the One who is Truth. Your thinking might help you if you begin with the right presuppositions.

  15. Tom,

    Well, you do implicitly presuppose that your method works to some extent, right? Not perfectly, but you do presuppose that it works at all.

    What differentiates you from them is that you are probably willing to doubt and/or questions your presuppositions. (But that makes them no less presuppositions.) We should emphasize this difference, not deny that we have to make certain assumptions, albeit implicit ones, to get our thinking off the ground.

    We should also stress that the presuppositionalist is in much worse shape with regard to the plausibility of his view. It might be possible to construct a presuppositionalist worldview which is technically coherent, but only by denying a lot of inductive evidence such as, say, the evidence for common descent and the evidence against the efficacy of prayer. A presuppositionalist also has to posit the existence of an unembodied mind with supernatural powers. It is all very weird and bizarre, and we should press them on those points, if we want to be convincing.

    To anonymous:

    By "presuppositionalism" I am referring to Bahnsen-type apologetics in particular, not some general notion of using presuppositions in reasoning. This should have been obvious from the context.


  16. I HOPE my methods work, but I do not choose them because of any presupposition that they do; I am constrained by the physical structure and capacities of my brain. Moreover, my attempting to improve my thoughts doesn't necessarily mean I presume it is possible to do so or that I will succeed by the means I choose; it only means I do not presume improvement is IMpossible.

    I can say that my methods SEEM to work. I feel like I have a better understanding of things as a result of my efforts to understand things better, though of course I may be mistaken about that.

    If there is any real underlying presupposition, it is simply this: that there is some sort of objective or absolute truth out there, and that different beliefs may differ in how successfully they approach that truth (i.e. it's meaningful to compare beliefs in terms of accuracy). I don't pretend to know what that truth is, or how reliably to find out.

    But that presupposition, that there is truth and beliefs can vary in their accuracy, is a fundamental prerequisite to ANY kind of inquiry, thought or belief, and Anonymous is simply wrong to pretend that it's on the same order as his/her presupposition of Genesis. Anonymous ALSO presupposes that there is such a thing as truth and that beliefs can be accurate or inaccurate; the belief that the Bible-God IS that truth is just an additional supposition overlaid on top of it. It's a supposition, not a pre-supposition.

    I have supposed it, and found it unhelpful, and discarded it. Anonymous seems to think I just didn't suppose it hard enough.

  17. God is trying to reach your whole person, Tom, and you are using your mind to parry every thrust. Your position intellectually will keep you safe from ever knowing God, but personal struggles, emotional setbacks, family tragedies, felt inadequacies, life perplexities, relational struggles may yet bring you to hear the voice of Jesus calling you to Himself. Have you read "The Hound of Heaven?" I know that I cannot argue you into the kingdom. But I can testify to the reality of a God that meets us in all our need and welcomes us to Himself. That people perish eternally is always their own fault. That they are ever saved is always by the wonderful mercy of God. May that mercy reach you through some door into your complex life! When it does, your mind will be transformed, too. So long, and thanks for the fish!

  18. Here is why I describe myself as an atheist of faith: I trust that if the truth of God is indeed truth, I will not be able to parry the thrust, no matter how skillfully I try. Meanwhile, you stand by and urge me to throw the fight, to let God win, as if He needs your help or mine.

    You say you cannot argue me into believing. Well, maybe YOU can't, but give God some credit. I am and have always been receptive to whatever argument there might be for God. I do not rule out the possibility of being persuaded. But I do think your testimony is extremely unpersuasive, and the fact that you do not seem to understand my concerns only diminishes my inclination to accept you as a reliable witness.

  19. I Corinthians 1:20 through 25 is a valid argument to your perspective, Tom. The way you argue makes it look like you have not bothered to read it. Don't hide behind preconceived notions of authority. See what it says to you and to the way you are determined to think.

  20. I read it. Paul's smug and self-serving rejection of reasoned argument is not wisdom. It may or may not be God's wisdom, but Paul was a mortal human being and every bit as susceptible to having his head up his ass as you or I, and claiming that his opinions about God are specially exempt from the requirements of critical reasoning is a cheap way to avoid ever having to admit he might be wrong.

    Frankly, I don't care if Paul or you think me foolish. I'm always open to being persuaded that I've gone astray, but your reasonless insistence isn't going to convince me you have a better path.