Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What is Truth?

I think, therefore I am

“I was especially delighted with the mathematics, on account of the certitude and evidence of their reasonings; but I had not as yet a precise knowledge of their true use; and thinking that they but contributed to the advancement of the mechanical arts, I was astonished that foundations, so strong and solid, should have had no loftier superstructure reared on them.”
René Descartes
A Discourse on Method

Area of Rectangle
A = area
b = length of base
h = height

A triangle of the same height and base length as the rectangle containing it will always take up half the area of the rectangle.  This formula will hold true no matter the shape of the triangle.  In the countless uses of this formula by humans on a human scale there has been no instance where this has proven not to be true.  Thus it can be said that no amount of empirical data has ever contradicted these formulas.  In science that would be a very high probability of truth.

Area of Triangle

Truth is always subjective because the only truth I know is what it is I believe.  This holds true for you, as well.  Ultimately all truth is subjective because it is an inner belief.  You can make the same claim regarding mathematics.  I might say the formula for finding the area of a triangle is one half the base times the height and that this is an objective truth because I read it in a book and it is what is taught at school to kids everywhere.  It is a fact that no one has yet found to have a fault according to what I have been told.  What can be a more objective truth?  Still, I have to believe it for it to be true to me.  Maybe the formula to find the area of a triangle doesn’t make sense to me.  I don’t believe it.  Now the formula is no longer true in my mind.  The formula may, in fact, be true to most everyone else but it is false for me.  Truth is ultimately subjective.  Maybe I am right.  There is possibly a flaw in the formula that makes it true most all the time but not always.  It is possible that if the triangle were large enough that we would have to take into account the curvature of the earth then this simple formula would no longer be true.  If I believe the formula for finding the area of a triangle then I believe something that is objectively false.  But I believe it so it is subjectively true. 

Kierkegaard says that objective truth is an abstraction.  Basically he is saying that objective truth has no meaning unless someone believes something to be true.  He says, “Truth is subjective.”  Does that mean that if I believe the Area of a Triangle formula to be true then it must be objectively true?  Obviously no.  If the object, the formula, is objectively false then my believing it to be true does not make it true.  What is true is my belief that the formula is true.  The truth of the object, the formula, is irrelevant to my truth – my relationship to the object.  So what is true is not the object itself but my relationship to it.  This is Kierkegaard’s subjective truth.  In this regard objective truth is irrelevant to what one believes is true.

Certainly we cannot rely on anyone’s subjective truth to land a man on the moon but for truth to have any meaning, for mathematics to have any meaning, it must first become subjective truth - someone must believe it for it to exist.  This statement would be true for Kierkegaard but not for Descartes because Kierkegaard sees truth in purely human terms.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 26 January

When our dreams lead

Good Morning Jack…

There was no fanfare for me over deciding on a resolution for this year.  I didn’t choose from a list of self-improvement items that I’d so far avoided.  I’ve never succeeded at sticking with beneficial behaviors unnatural to me and tasks I dread undertaking.  No, I just sort of fell into this idea because the time seemed right to make some long-delayed explorations that are on my own terms.  So much of what we’d like to do finds its way to dusty recesses of our mind because there are always more pressing personal concerns we need to confront.  It begins for us at a very early age, starting about the time we show up for our first day at school.  Maybe we just want to play with blocks all day but time must be set aside for our own personal growth into becoming responsible members of our society.  After a while the time for education extends beyond school hours and we find ourselves setting aside our interests to do homework.  Don’t forget we also have household chores.  The older we become the more challenging the homework.  Even when we are not attempting to solve assigned problems our minds may well be dwelling on the consequences of not measuring up to the expectations placed upon us.  We seem constantly confronted with new challenges that test the limits of our capabilities.  Those among us that are particularly conscientious and have lofty ambitions soon find themselves fearing to stumble at any point as it can only mean a contraction of their dreams for the future.  God forbid the world discovers us average at anything we undertake.

It’s been more than forty years since I got my first degree.  It was easier then because a college education was cheaper.  I didn’t have to take out huge loans to put myself through school.  I didn’t have to concern myself with getting a high-paying job to pay off my debt once I graduated.  I could take courses of interest to me without having to calculate how they would advance my career.  I could just learn and give myself the time to think about things I had never thought about before.  What a wonderful life!  Of course, I didn’t exactly handle my years in school that way.  I had a job.  I chased girls.  I was in a big hurry to get on with my life.  I would take five courses a semester, any one of which deserved my full attention.  I cut corners and studied to make it through the course without becoming a victim in chemistry or calculus or some other nasty test that would leave me left for dead, a scalped student on the academic battlefield.  So much of my education seemed a blur – like touring Europe in five days.  Instead of getting my passport stamped I received a grade and moved on to the next subject.  The most important piece of knowledge I retained was how to prepare for tests.  Don’t ask me anything about plant physiology two weeks after the course ended.

 Now I’ve reached the other end of my life.  I’ve begun thinking about things I’ve never before given much thought.  Some of these thoughts are actually questions that possibly have no solvable answer.  What is the length in time of now – the instantaneous present?  Does instant have a length?  Isn’t time made up of a series of instants?  Why would I want to know the answer to that?  Maybe my question really has to do with the nature of time.  What is time?  Is it linear as it seems to us or is that possibly an illusion?  Is time linked to space – if no space then no time?  I hear the nature of time is linked to gravity.  Why?  If true, what is the significance of that piece of evidence?

I’m also puzzled about consciousness.  Just for the sake of argument let’s say that our mind, our consciousness, is the result of the physical processes of our brain.  What property or properties of all this biochemical activity provides us with human intellectual thought?  What is the nature of thought?  How is it we find human reason so useful in deciphering much of the physical realm?  Is mathematics a human discovery or is it a tool of our invention?  Of what use it is to human beings that we have curiosity of this nature?  Asking such questions doesn’t put food on the table and they may never come with an answer of any certainty.

Over four decades ago we sent men to the moon.  It was an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking and it cost us a fortune to accomplish.  As a result our astronauts brought us back some rocks.  People may criticize the mission as a boondoggle – a giant publicity stunt that resulted from some ill-conceived competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War.  In fact, much of the technology we take for granted today – from smartphones to GPS navigation – has its inception in the Apollo Moon Program.  The challenge of manned space flight brought about a scientific revolution that we are still benefitting from today. 

I’m not going to find the answers to the questions I’ve posed for myself.  My effort in investigating these questions, though, will result in new mysteries to consider and intriguing new speculations that should stimulate my imagination.  My process of researching these ideas can only result in rewarding new thoughts for my consideration.  I have no idea as to what path my curiosity will lead me but I do know that it will take me far away from where it is I am today.  I’ve started a voyage that promises no material reward.  I’m doing it just because I can.  It’s human nature.  Really.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Bound to the Subjective

One draws a magic circle around oneself
To keep everything out that doesn't fit
One’s secret games
Each time life breaks through the circle,
The games become puny and ridiculous
So one draws a new circle
And builds new defenses

Ingmar Bergman
Through a Glass Darkly

I parted with Kierkegaard to find Descartes:
Cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am
All is in doubt outside the strictest empirical knowledge
Yet, somehow, truth remains bound to the subjective
And the troubled realm of Kierkegaard.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to my Daughter
Sunday, 19 January

What it means to be human

Good Morning Jessicca…

Numbers and words have no existence outside the human mind.  A world without people reveals no evidence as to the validity of these concepts of intellect.  Until recently the surface of the planet Mars simply existed, without the need to account for itself in any way that might be construed as a reason for being.  Then came machines.  They crawl about the land of Mars, occasionally stopping to break its surface and dig into the soil.  They were sent by humans inhabiting the neighboring planet Earth.  These mechanical devices are missionaries that bring the first evidence that there now exists a mental construction, fashioned from words, which humans refer to as meaning.  These roving devices are precise constructions of a preconceived purpose.  Purpose is like numbers and words.  The idea of purpose is of no consequence outside the boundaries of the individual human mind.  This mind is unique in a number of ways.  It is self-aware and wonders of the nature of its own existence.  The mind is a form of consciousness that endlessly explores itself and its perceived surroundings, armed with a revolutionary potent tool – the question.  The question is a mental device that goes beyond the biological instinct known as curiosity because it is based on a formally constructed purpose we will call intent.  Questions displaying intent rely on the analytical words how and why as well as specific fact-seeking words such as what, when and where. The intent-based question requires another tool unique to human consciousness.  This is a tool fashioned from a capability human’s have developed over time and we’ve termed it reason.  Reason is a concept founded on the growing belief that every object and every event in existence is the result of one or more specific causes and that this cause-and-effect phenomenon is potentially predictable because existence is fundamentally neither random nor arbitrary.  The human mind has grown increasingly confident that the brain’s ability to reason makes understanding existence within the realm of possibility. 

Why did human beings go to the expense and trouble of sending a machine to Mars?  There are many reasons having to do with the intent to answer arcane scientific questions and to further develop human technological capabilities but, uppermost in most people’s mind, is the question whether life has existed on another planet.  If it is determined that no life ever existed on Mars then the question becomes, “If not Mars, where?”  If, on the other hand, life or its remnants have been proven to exist on Mars then the minds of human beings are flooded with new questions.  We humans find renewed motivation to speculate on numerous intriguing avenues of possibilities.  What is the source of life?  Are there other forms of consciousness comparable to ours?  Do they believe in God?  If not, why?  If yes, then what is the nature of their God?  Is the concept of God inherent to the thought of higher consciousness?  If God is absent in the consciousness of others then what does that imply about human spiritual beliefs?  Does our hope for God’s existence have to do with our desire for meaning in life?  What is the nature of meaning without God?  A machine searching the sands of Mars for evidence of life is invested with the meaning of what it is to be human.  We don’t want to be alone.  We want our lives to have purpose beyond generating our biological offspring.  We want something of greater value than just merely existing.  The many monuments we have created throughout human history – churches, statues, a flag on the Moon, a simple blue ribbon – all have to do with instilling in us the value of meaning.  We matter.  No one celebrates the life of an individual sparrow.  Who mourns the rose separated from its stem? 

Numbers and words – we have each a name.  We each count the length of our solitary existence and share our sentiments with those close to us.  We all have ingenuity, love, happiness and fear that together makes us each somewhat unique.  Here, then, is the kernel of our meaning – modest as it may seem.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 12 January

Genius can afford to be eccentric

Good Morning Jacob…

The sun doesn’t rise unless there’s someone there to see it.  You can’t ignore a big production and expect it to take place without the fanfare of appreciation, even if it’s only a birdbrain rooster clearing its throat.  That’s the way the universe works.  Prove me wrong if you don’t believe it.  Could you hand me that?  I believe it’s my drink.

I was beyond remembering the night before.  Whatever happened never took its required place in my memory.  Once I awoke the following morning the first thing I did was go to the window and see if my car was there.  Was it in one piece?  And what of the people I made myself known to the prior evening?  I should prepare my apologies, whatever they might need to be.  I could have done or said most anything imaginable.  My sober mind would have cringed at my insulting and boorish manner, but drunk, I would have considered my remarks stringently witty, if not downright welcomed for being so obviously necessary.

I put down the drink a long time ago and the chaos of my life has been lifted but the nature of my personality remains fiercely intact.  It’s just better caged.  That’s good enough for me.  I’m not working on changing who it is I am.  It would be like substituting someone else’s version of life for mine and I don’t see that a winning point.  We respect others while remaining true to our essential nature.  People aren’t required to accept our authentic selves but we do ourselves a favor by limiting our real friendships to those that truly know us.  We tend to the business of living our life as best we can and leave to society how they choose to value our contribution. 

Governments are always busy mediating the boundaries that protect individual rights while ensuring the stability of society.  Culture, history and contemporary context all help determine the extent of our freedom to pursue our desires and promote our beliefs.  We make ourselves known, letting others observe and judge for themselves the validity of our chosen practices.  Unless the spirit of the individual is repressed this scenario will make for a noisy affair.  The many conflicting points of view will be passionately debated.  What we have created in a healthy society is a marketplace of individual ideas endlessly seeking validation.

How annoying it can be to hear so many arguments for ways of living that go against my own common sense.  I smother my outrage.  It’s quite apparent to me the life I’ve chosen for myself has very little appeal for the vast majority of the people around me.  Should I take offense to this?  Why?  Fortunately we are not all shaped from the same cookie cutter.  A society made exclusively of people like me would soon starve.  My attitudes and skills are at best a fringe benefit to the population of this tribe.  There is need for very few people like me.  But it is good that I am represented because I believe diversity is fundamental to human success.   Look at all the niches human society fills.  We didn’t get to where we are by practicing herd behavior. 

We all have traits clearly meant for us and they do not transfer well to those we know.  This has a lot to do with what it means to be human.  Not everything about us is admirably polished on close examination.  We have our quirks.  They can be surprisingly useful.  Every individual known to history has oddities that are familiar to all.  They may seem laughable at times but I suspect our peculiarities are often unrecognized contributors, instrumental in making for brilliant and heroic acts.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Happy Birthday Justin!

Happy Birthday Justin!

Now you are a teenager.  The last image I have of you is of a small child with a spaghetti-stained tee-shirt, unhappy with me and unwilling to give me a hug.  Had I been you in your position I’m sure I would have felt the same.  Many of the characteristics that give you your energy and drive your passions are also found in your mother but you have behaviors peculiar to me, as well.  I found it remarkable how your manner of drawing picked up where I left off when I was your age.  You also made a curious facial squint when you became deeply absorbed in a project much as I did for many years.  Then, too, there is an irreverent, farcical humor you portray that I once recognized in myself.  All and all your mother has provided you a fair basis for the talents of a Mickey Mantle will I’ve offered you a hint of Sid Caesar.  Unfortunately you have no idea who these people are so let me just say that I suspect your friends will find your contradictions intriguing.

Of course, my characterization of you overstates the genetic contribution of your mom and myself in deciding your identity.  You’ve inherited certain genetic predispositions but where it truly counts then you remain the master of your own course.  Despite the beliefs of some modern day behaviorists I remain in the camp of romantics that presume individuals act mostly on the basis of free will.  We’d make a dull subject for literature were it otherwise.  Still, the number of facets to our complex nature could conceivably provide enough variations that give us the illusion of having made conscious choices when, in reality, events and our own personal history are the more likely determiners of our particular genetic response.  If this is true then we are no longer actors upon the stage.  We can all be more accurately described as computer avatars representing individuals caught up in an impossibly complex web of variables that determine all human existence.  If that is the case then it is theoretically possible to predict the precise nature of the cake you have for your thirteenth birthday and for all birthdays to come.  I should caution you now that designing the computer and the program needed to crunch the nearly infinite number of variables required to make such predictions would lead one to inevitable madness.

Need I remind you that any descent into madness on your part is also foreseeable based upon your genetic possibilities in combination with your personal history of reacting to events.  A future based on these formulations of human behavior will find no enlightenment in probing our human psyches using the dramatic talents of a William Shakespeare.  What amusement could we possibly find in the theater when we are so much better served by consulting computerized actuary tables listing genetic probability responses to the variations of likely events?  I know you’re thinking this doesn’t sound the least bit appealing.  Doesn’t this mean that when you fall in love you consult your actuary tables to determine the date, time and precise nature of how your relationship finally comes to an end?  Isn’t there something to be said for adding mystery to one’s life?  I suppose so if you prefer enduring the unexpected heartbreak that may occur in a life that isn’t thoroughly planned.  Had you access to computerized fortune telling then you could avoid all those passionate love affairs that wind up going nowhere.  Sure you will miss out on all the charged moments of intimacy but think of the time you save.  Life can be so much more efficient when you already know everything in advance.  What a waste it is not to wring out the greatest amount of productivity in every moment of your life.

I think we will need a new definition for leisure.  Some of us may be concerned that our emphasis on personal efficiency may adversely affect the nature of poetry.  Quite the contrary.  There will be special edition actuary tables dedicated to enhancing our artistic endeavors.  Imagine the joy you will experience no longer having to worry about pursuing a creative dead-end.  Every stroke of the brush, every conjuring of thought into a sentence can be celebrated as a personal triumph.  The Oscar goes to everyone all the time.  Now this truly is Heaven on Earth.

I’ve seen the future and already I fondly remember the days when a birthday present contained a sweater in place of the longed-for NFL autographed football.  Having consulted my actuary table in determining my life-mate I now fervently wish for her to runoff with my best friend.  Remember when life contained surprises?  Even the unpleasant ones are now cause for nostalgia.  I want you to know Justin, that as your loving Dad, I wish you all the best on your birthday and a few jarring bumps in the road, as well.

Happy Birthday Justin!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Kierkegaard: Abraham's Paradox

Abraham chooses faith over morality

Kierkegaard is finding a paradox in faith while adhering to morality – the ethical – as dramatized by the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac at the command of God.  Here is a translation from Fear and Trembling different from the one we have been using.

Now the story of Abraham contains such a teleological [purposeful] suspension of the ethical… Abraham’s relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall love his son more dearly than himself.  Yet within its own compass the ethical has various gradations.  Let us see whether in this story there is to be found any higher expression for the ethical such as would ethically explain his conduct, ethically justify him is suspending the ethical obligation toward his son, without in this search going beyond the teleology of the ethical.

This is fairly easy to follow.  You will find it far more concise than the same material provided in the translation we have used so far. 

The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical

Now the two accounts differ in that the quote above uses an ellipsis to let us know the editor is leaving out material.  What is omitted detracts from the storyline but is necessary to fully appreciate Kierkegaard’s thinking.  Here is the omitted material.

There is no dearth of keen minds and careful scholars who have found analogies to it.  What their wisdom amounts to is the beautiful proposition that basically everything is the same.  If one looks more closely, I doubt very much that anyone in the whole wide world will find one single analogy, except for a later one, which proves nothing if it is certain that Abraham represents faith and that it is manifested normatively in him, whose life not only is the most paradoxical that can be thought but is also so paradoxical that it simply cannot be thought.  He acts by virtue of the absurd, for it is precisely the absurd that he as the single individual [can we substitute here something like a ‘particular person’] is higher than the universal.    This paradox cannot be mediated, for as soon as Abraham begins to do so, he has to confess that he was in a spiritual trial, and if that is the case, he will never sacrifice Isaac, or if he did sacrifice Isaac, then in repentance he must come back to the universal [I presume here that universal refers to moral standards that are as absolute as the ten commandments Moses brought down from the mountaintop – for example:  Thou shall not kill].  He gets Isaac back again by virtue of the absurd.  Therefore, Abraham is at no time a tragic hero but is something entirely different, either a murderer or a man of faith.  Abraham does not have the middle term that saves the tragic hero.  This is why I can understand a tragic hero but cannot understand Abraham, even though in a certain sense I admire him more than all others.

There is a lot of material here worth further consideration but let me, for now, continue with the quotation in contrast to the one presented in my initial paragraph and provided by a different translator, or at least, a different editor.

In ethical terms, Abraham’s relation to Isaac is quite simply this:  the father shall love the son more than himself.  But within its own confines the ethical has various gradations.  We shall see whether this story contains any higher expression for the ethical that can ethically explain his behavior, can ethically justify his suspending the ethical obligation to the son, but without moving beyond the teleology of the ethical.

On comparison there appear to be only minor variations in translation – the first attempting to read more like the recounting of a story.  The big difference is in the intent of the editor.  The editor of the first entry treats much of Kierkegaard’s rationalizations as asides that get in the way of the story’s flow and would probably be cause for an impatient reader to put down the book.  Different people have different purposes for picking up a book on philosophy.  There is nothing wrong with that.

What is more interesting to me is that I have struggled with understanding Kierkegaard’s meaning until this relating of Abraham’s dilemma.  Until now I have been fumbling with unfamiliar terms and thoughts relayed as difficult and vague abstractions.  I couldn’t find a point.  Now I have a biblical story.  I have something concrete.  Here is Abraham, a pious father who deeply loves his son.  He lives a moral life based on God’s commandments – ethical in this context referring to social morality, at the least, and probably an all-encompassing moral standard.  Morality is absolute and has no relation to anything external to it.  You can’t modify the rules of cosmic standards no matter the reason.  That is certainly Abraham’s thinking.  Suddenly, Abraham hears the voice of God.  Abraham you are to sacrifice your beloved son as a demonstration of your strength of faith in me.  This is clearly a greater act of faith to Abraham than Noah dealing with the ridicule of his neighbors for building a huge boat in the middle of the desert.  Noah will be rewarded with the saving of his life and his family’s.  Abraham will always have to deal with the memory of killing his cherished son. 

As Kierkegaard say, Abraham is faith.  He will break with Godly morality in order to render himself on the altar of faith.  Kierkegaard asks, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?”  Does faith have a higher purpose than morality?  Having to decide this as just one particular person can truly lead to absurd behavior and results.  This story brings to focus the fundamental paradox in Kierkegaard’s problem.  One simple story has gone a long way towards reducing my confusion.  Can you imagine Jesus being remembered today if he hadn't spoken in parables? 

We aren't done with Kierkegaard.  I like puzzling over this paradox.  It can so easily branch into other fertile areas.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 5 January
Sigmund Freud:  marvelous story-teller

I've come to the conclusion that philosophy is going to be my science.  I simply haven’t the time to patiently wait for physicists to develop their hypothesis, design and run their experiments and then analyze the results in order to arrive at some conclusion.  I won’t be around to enjoy their final act.  What I intend to do, instead, is to brush up on what is already known and then, using my best efforts, extrapolate from these facts in order to fashion my own ending.  The careful, earnest nature of my effort should qualify my thoughts as being mildly philosophical.  Of course, I could be very wrong in the conclusions I draw but, for me, the greater danger is to have lived life without having drawn much of any conclusion at all.  I would like to go on record as having said something more than a short parting word on my tombstone.

I am immersed with reality but I respond to only carefully measured snippets.  These are mostly simple impressions about how I feel after glancing at a colorful shirt, partially untucked.  What is the meaning behind that downturned mouth?  Soil is rich.  Soiled is diseased.  Hug the woman with smiling eyes.  Price checks add forever to an already too long line.  I make it a rule to only add and subtract when it comes to math.  Health comes first unless it tastes really good.

Anyone remember B. F. Skinner?  His friends called him Fred.  I think he said something to the effect that people have no inner life.  There is only this biological organ called the brain that processes information as it is designed to do.  I think his study of pigeons led to this idea.  It’s easy to think his parties are a pretty stale affair.  What lively nonsense can one expect from someone making a living as a scientific behaviorist?  Actually I’d go to his party were I lucky enough to be invited.  These guys can really surprise you.  He’s probably got a bowl of dried prunes in place of Doritos just to get a few startled laughs.  Hey everyone!  The party’s moved to the bathroom. 

Have you ever seen a toad smoke a cigar?  When’s the last time you saw a photo of Sigmund Freud?  Don’t let the beard fool you.  I bring him up only because he made his reputation selling us on the richness of our own inner lives.  I can’t help wake from a dream without thinking of my own gurgling subconscious.  I’m far more fascinating than I would have ever thought thanks to Freud.  There’s a family quarrel going on right now within my head and my id and my ego are barely speaking to one another because of it.  It turns out I’ve been fantasizing about sex since the age of six months.  What’s not to like about Freud?  Now here’s a guy you might think would throw wild parties.  The fact is, though, he’s anal retentive – very big on punctuality.  Can you imagine all his guests showing up precisely at eight?

Fred Skinner thought Freud a hopeless romantic.  Freud always saw neurotic behavior as a symptom of some deep inner maladjustment that needed intense investigating.  Skinner said Freud was weaving fairy tales.  Fred would have flunked any of his students that wanted to analyze mental processes when they should be measuring neural brain activity.  You don’t waste time putting someone on the couch and play word games in order to solve their problem.  You work directly at modifying their behavior – positive rewards to encourage the desired response and a dose of punishment to discourage unwanted actions.  How do you think they get rats to run a maze in record time?  For extreme problems a couple of prescription pills can work to get your brain back in its proper chemical balance.

I’d like to rethink the party invitation.  If Freud would only invite me during office hours and I could come and sit on his couch.  He’d smoke cigars while I drank coffee.  We could swap stories about our childhood.  I suspect he has a truly droll sense of humor.  I’d look forward to our weekly talks.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Kierkegaard: Faith

Søren Kierkegaard     1813 - 1855

I’m stuck on something and it’s probably going to take me a while to digest it.  I’m passing it along to you for your input if you are so inclined.  It’s only a snippet of something very involved and I suspect it will lead to a broader inquiry.

I was reading from Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and I came across this one very challenging sentence.  I haven’t yet deciphered it and I can’t let it rest. 

“Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but as superior – yet is such a way, please note, that it is the single individual who, after being subordinate as the single individual to the universal, now by means of the universal becomes the single individual who as the single individual is superior, that the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute.”

I would like to pick at elements of this sentence in an attempt to find its meaning but first let me add the writing’s next two sentences in order to give it some meaningful context.

“This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought.  And yet faith is this paradox, or else (and I ask the reader to bear these consequences in mente [in mind] even though it would be too prolix* for me to write them all down) or else faith has never existed simply because it has always existed, or else Abraham is lost.”

*prolix – long and wordy; unnecessary, tedious length

Are we picking apart the concept of faith as though it were an exquisite watch – always knowing, possibly, that to understand it we will be required to reassemble it accurately enough to have the watch once again run flawlessly?  I think yes – this is our challenge.  Let me provide some preceding sentences as clues to solving the problem sentence.

“The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.  It rests immanent* in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its TÉYOÇ [end, purpose] but is itself the [purpose] for everything outside itself, and when the ethical has absorbed this into itself, it goes not further. “

*immanent – 1. indwelling; inherent  2. (of the Supreme Being) omnipresent

I suspect that when Kierkegaard speaks of ethical he is somehow referring to something more than being morally correct in human conduct yet I can’t find a definition in any dictionary that goes beyond the sense of being virtuous.  My Webster’s Third New International Dictionary weighs about as much as my left leg and it doesn’t give any more complete a definition.  Kierkegaard was Danish and there is always the question of translating a concept from one language into another.  There are so many judgment calls having to do with shades of meaning.

I offer you now another piece of evidence in our detective story.

“The single individual, sensately* and psychically qualified in immediacy, is the individual who has his [purpose, end] in the universal, and it is his ethical task continually to express himself in this, to annul his singularity in order to become the universal.  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal.  Every time the single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in a spiritual trial [Anfægtelse], from which he can work himself only by repentantly surrendering as the single individual in the universal.”

*sensate – to feel or apprehend through a sense or the senses

This leads me to wonder what Kierkegaard means when he refers to the universal.   Are we talking about a concept of Oneness?  Let’s hold that thought and continue with Kierkegaard’s immediately following text.

“If this is the highest that can be said of man and his existence, then the ethical is of the same nature as a person’s eternal salvation, which is his [purpose, end] forevermore and at all times, since it would be a contradiction for this to be capable of being surrendered (that is, teleologically* suspended ), because as soon as this is suspended it is relinquished, whereas that which is suspended is not relinquished but is preserved in the higher, which is its [purpose, end].”

*teleology – final causes exist; purpose, design in existence (inherent)

How can I equate the ethical with a person’s eternal salvation?  Kierkegaard was a Christian and, possibly, a very early existential thinker.  Wouldn’t his concept of personal salvation have something more to it than following the Golden Rule?  I have to think that his use of ethical does not accurately and fully translate into English.  I am currently befuddled by the contradiction illustrated in his final thought here.  I think he is pointing out the absurdity of a conclusion being drawn.  Does the idea alone lead to this absurdity or does the limitations of language contribute to this seeming contradiction?  Like it or not, mathematics is cleanly defined and precise while words are fuzzy.  Unfortunately not all thoughts can be expressed as numbers.  What is the equation for beauty, as a ‘for instance’? 

Bear with me.  I must travel a bit further.

“If this is the case, then Hegel is right in “The Good and Conscience,” where he qualifies man only as the individual and considers this qualification as a “moral form of evil”, which must be annulled [ophævet] in the teleology of the moral in such a way that the single individual who remains in that stage either sins or is immersed in spiritual trial.  But Hegel is wrong in speaking about faith; he is wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against Abraham’s enjoying honor and glory as a father of faith when he ought to be sent back to a lower court and shown up as a murderer.
Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal – yet, please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the individual isolates himself as higher than the universal.  If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed.  For if the ethical – that is, social morality – is the highest and if there is in a person no residual incommensurability* in some way such that this incommensurability is not evil (i.e., the single individual, who is to be expressed in the universal), then no categories are needed other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought.”

*incommensurable – lacking a common basis of comparison in respect to a quality

I am left questioning what Kierkegaard’s means by faith.  I am not yet seeing the basis of his conclusions about the nature of faith in this paragraph.  And this leads us to our initial sentence:

“Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual… “

As you can see it is the initial sentence I used to introduce Kierkegaard’s train of thought.  There is a lot to absorb here.  It would be useful to me to move beyond the linear presentation of these ideas and attempt to isolate the main ideas and then identify their subordinate concepts and arguments much as I would in creating an outline.  The organization may help me in visualizing Kierkegaard’s presentation.  I have one last quotation to leave you with because I believe Kierkegaard’s concept of social morality finds its way into Sartre’s existential views.  I think this quote from Sartre’s Existentialism and Human Emotions may be relevant in our understanding Kierkegaard further.

“From the Christian standpoint, we are charged with denying the reality and seriousness of human undertakings, since, if we reject God’s commandments and the eternal verities, there no longer remains anything but pure caprice, with everyone permitted to do as he pleases and incapable, from his own point of view, of condemning the points of view and acts of others.
I shall try today to answer these different charges.  Many people are going to be surprised at what is said here about humanism.  We shall try to see in what sense it is to be understood.  In any case, what can be said from the very beginning is that by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and, in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity.”

Continue now with your journey.