Saturday, May 6, 2017

Sunday: Doubt

Solipsism: the position in Metaphysics and Epistemology that the mind is the only thing that can be known to exist and that knowledge of anything outside the mind is unjustified. It is a skeptical hypothesis, and leads to the belief that the whole of reality and the external world and other people are merely representations of the individual self, having no independent existence of their own, and might in fact not even exist. It is not, however, the same as Skepticism (the epistemological position that one should refrain from even making truth claims).
There are people who make their livings talking like this.

"Thomas" means "twin." Doubting Thomas is a twin; his other twin is "belief," the product of doubt. But that is not true for all.

Several modern currents of thought are rushing us toward the rapids. One is doubt itself, as a philosophy, a tenet of modern life.
Descartes asked, "What can I know?" He described us as isolated individuals whose knowledge was individually subjective. But this comes at a price. I can doubt the existence of the external world, and I can doubt the existence of what appears to be my body. But when I try to also doubt the existence of my inner self, my thinking, then I find that I am still there--as a doubting mind. Doubting is the thing that in the end I cannot doubt. Doubting, however, is thinking, and the existence of thinking implies the existence of a thinker. Hence Descartes' famous conclusion: "I think, therefore I am." So the self sees us as isolated individuals prioritizing our subjectivity above all else. And the agent of thought is doubt. And, unlike Thomas, those doubts are never answered.

This has more than implications to the individual. "Community" implies shared beliefs, things held in common. But what happens when belief in the solitary self as sole arbiter of meaning and value becomes the cultural norm? The Church has historically been the unifier in the West. What happens if it fades? Is secularism able to shoulder the burden the Church used to carry? Theologian  Joan Lockwood O’Donovan's critique of liberalism postulates that “it never really does arrive at political community, because political community presupposes a shared communicating in a wide range of spiritual goods from the beginning – and that’s just what liberalism denies."
(Joan Lockwood O'Donovan is Honorary Fellow, School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh and received her Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto. She has written extensively in the area of the history of Christian political thought.)

So the historical connecting social forces--family, tribe, nation and religion--are beginning to dissolve and the entity that purports to substitute for them essentially doubts the truth of inter-connectivity?

Hide the women.

The single most important doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism was Luther's insistence that every individual had an immediate relation to God, and that this relation could not be mediated through the offices of a priest or a church hierarchy. By reading scriptures himself or herself, every Christian had direct access to the truth; the authority of the Pope and his councils became irrelevant for how the Word of God was to be interpreted by the believer. Luther and other Protestant leaders initiated the translation of the Bible from the traditional Latin into native languages, languages that ordinary people could understand. Intensive study of scriptures, unsupervised by priests, became a widespread practice. The Catholic church found this individualistic circumvention of clerical authorities so threatening at the time, that it targeted Bible translators for special persecution. Tyndal, the first translator of the New Testament into English, was captured by the Inquisition while studying on the Continent, and eventually executed by garroting.

Socrates’ work and example were an important beginning of this individualistic legacy. Socrates’ inner independence from the community in which he lived set an important precedent for the way in which a person could conceive of himself or herself as a separate and distinct being. However radical Socrates’ individualism was, however, he never ceased to think of himself as a member of a community. His very individualism was defined as a social role (as his self-conception as Athens’ “gadfly” clearly shows). And no Greek philosopher in Antiquity ever thought of the individual as anything else than a social being.

This became different at the beginning of the Modern Age. Modern philosophy developed a concept of the individual that was far more solitary than that created by Socrates and Antiquity. The modern definition of the self disregards any reference to society or social context and fastens exclusively on what the self is in itself. Because of this approach to understanding and defining the self, modern philosophy ended up with a conception of an individual that was besieged by the problem of solipsism and the question of how a person could possibly relate to the outside world.

Descartes, held by his critics to have sown some of the most fertile seeds of modern atheism by introducing a hugely influential model of the self which sees us as isolated individuals prioritizing our subjectivity above all else. This gave rise to the traditions of radical skepticism about the integrity – and even the existence – of the public world, and to what has been called the “fundamental illusion” of modernity: belief in the solitary self as sole arbiter of meaning and value.
So, for example, art no longer has a "teaching purpose," one no longer "learns" from art. Art is what it is, or what the individual observer thinks it is. Every man is the--or his--creator.

For, if we are not self-created, we are answer­able to a truth we do not make.

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