Jan 292013

As I go over chapter IV more thoroughly, so many avenues of philosophical inquiry open up and I know these would be distractions but I still have to make note of them as I work my way through my “mental furniture.”

To mention just one, at the very end of his section on Profession as notional assent Newman goes into a digression that touches on group theory, the ontological nature of God, the distinction between notions and the “things themselves” – each of which open up enormous vistas of philosophical discourse – quite a digression!

To touch on just one of these, in the last sentence of the section on “Profession”, just before the section on “Credence” he reminds us of what he demonstrated in an earlier chapter where he shows how an assertion can be converted to an assent by making the assertion the subject of a proposition, and predicating of the proposition that it is true. Once I read him say it this way, I recalled that this is exactly what Frank Ramsey denies in his redundancy theory of truth (“Facts and Propositions” 1927, which is a very fruitful theory in mathematics according to what I have gathered of it).

Ramsey says that adding “is true” to a proposition is equivalent to asserting the proposition itself. Ramsey asserts that it is a “linguistic muddle” to treat “is true” and words like “truth” and “fact” as separate from the assertions they are attached to and denies that the word “truth” corresponds to a “thing” in reality, but is merely a convenient way of speaking. “‘The snow is white’ is true” is the same as saying “The snow is white” is an example frequently given.

We have now entered the realm of group theory and puzzlers like “This sentence is false” (which is false if true and true if false) and other paradoxes dealt with by Russel and Godel and soon we find ourselves faced with dealing with the entire thrust of the Vienna Circle, suddenly realizing that this digression has become quite serious and quite perplexing enough that men have spent their lives here.

These are just the sorts of discussions in which one begins to feel as if caught in a very deep and dangerous quicksand. It was just these sorts of problems which can leave the student of philosophy (this one at least) at a loss, and wondering, if ever a conclusion can be reached, who could follow it? For just as Newman puts forth his idea of converting an assertion into an assent with the predication of “is true,” so have men have put forth great tracts disputing this, and men disputing them back in turn and so on, and on and on.

And so one begins to wonder: how, if truth be this arduous to find, will anyone ever make their way to it? And if we were once and for all able to convince the world and solve these puzzles, what exactly would we have gained? For once we have come to some conclusion, if we are able to do so, what is that we have won? Imagining ourselves at this endpoint, having fought our way through Vienna and all the logical positivists who gather against us, I have to wonder if we would have at last satisfied the yearning that originally sent us on our quest? Imagining ourselves here, victorious in truth, what now of the mystery that originally captured our minds and our hearts?

Again, I imagine Job and his philosopher/theologian friends going back and forth and round and round these paradoxes and puzzles until they have developed a highly symbolic, rigorous system of logic that has stripped away all equivocation from propositions, seeking to avoid all the contradictions brought forth by the metaphors of our common language, only to end up with the “Incompleteness Theorem” which says nothing less than that the crystal palace they sought to construct (which I like to refer to as the Tower of Babel) can in fact never be built.

But again, even if it could be built, even if we could build a bridge to total and complete understanding and knowledge, would this satisfy? If we were able to construct a machine that could compute any answer, or if we were so brilliant as to be able to solve all the puzzles and mysteries ourselves, would we be satisfied at last? In short, is it really answers that we seek, after all?

I think the book of Job has much to say about this. And I sometimes think of philosophy as a tool, perhaps for sharpening the mind, but perhaps not for finding answers or resolving disputes. Like many tools, it can be used for and against the same purpose. Whether as an aid to finding God, or as an aid in losing God, perhaps it is the philosopher, not philosophy, which determines which of these paths is ventured. I like this thought because it corresponds to the gift of our human freedom. If philosophy had the power to resolve these questions in the way that mathematics has the power to resolve an equation, where would that put man’s relation to God vis-a-vis his human freedom? There would be no more room left for making a commitment, for keeping a covenant, or for love.

I used to think that what I sought was answers and that the mystery of life was about solving some puzzle, but I have come to believe that the mystery of life is not about solving, but rather about choosing. I have adopted the motto, “There are no answers, only choices.” Perhaps this goes too far, but I like the idea that some questions have not (and will not) be solved because some questions involve me so deeply as a person that the last thing I want is for those things to be resolved by some clever algorithm that has nothing to do with me as a person. The last thing I want for myself and my life is to be solvable. No. I do not want a solution for my life, I want a commitment. I want to choose. I want to exercise the fullness of my freedom and experience all the anguish and joy that comes with making a choice; with making a promise, and keeping it.

As Pope Benedict XVI says in “Introduction to Christianity” – “There is no escape from the dilemma of being human.” I am thankful that there is no escape, because what would it mean to escape this dilemma? It would mean the loss of my freedom as a person to choose, and more to the point it would mean the loss of my freedom to choose Christ, for if this were truly “solved” then I would have no more choice in the matter of Christ than I do in the matter of some maths equation. This is why faith is faith and not mathematics. It is at this point in the “digression,” when I see philosophy wanting to become a mathematics, that I have to realize that I am very far from what I seek.

And so, in the end, the consolation of philosophy is for me the acceptance that while I may make use of it for my ends, I do not feel the urgency of finding within it some solution that will resolve the problems of my life, or answer the quest I am on. Only whether I am able to make the choice that is before me, and keep it, will determine this.

 Posted by at 6:21 pm

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