Faith vs Reason – What’s Involved in Knowing What is True? Part 5: Polanyi

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In the quest for truth, philosophers through the ages struggled to make sense of how our minds relate to the world to determine knowledge.

The sceptics wanted us to hold back from accepting universal truths unless they were either confirmed by our senses or coherent to our minds. But the end point of this approach is the we can’t really know anything for certain.

Immanuel Kant tried to bridge this divide by describing the pursuit of knowledge as a rational discernment of the perception of our senses. But in practice he tended to rely on the power of the mind, as the things of the world cannot be known in themselves.

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) suggested this gap between passive sensation and active reason can be resolved if we’re prepared to admit that our senses aren’t inherently deceptive but are simply limited. We don’t live very long, we can’t be in more than one place at once, and so the quest for eternal and universal truth is not something we can obtain in a lifetime – it will always be bigger than us.

Therefore, we must participate in a community of knowledge if we are to learn anything beyond what a single limited individual is capable of discerning.

This is where faith comes in. In order to know anything, we must trust (‘have faith in’) some community of knowledge.

Polanyi argued that to learn, we must have some form of ‘faith’, manifested expressed in:
1. Tacit assent – a willingness to learn.
2. Intellectual passion – a desire to pursue knowledge.
3. Sharing of idiom – a common language within a learning community.
4. Cultural heritage – a tradition of testing and sharing ideas

Consider the picture above: the student must be willing to (1) trust the doctor knows what he’s talking about, (2) be keen to learn, (3) share the idioms of language and images and model of the brain, and (4) engage with a tradition of testing and sharing ideas about the brain from other medical experts throughout history.

Learning therefore takes place within an ecosystem of expanding network of knowledge communities.

David Höhne

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Why Human Reason Will Never Find God.

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Humans tend to think that we can work out truth for ourselves. But human reason is evidently flawed, not least by sin.

Why do we need revelation?

  1. Because of who God is. God is personal and also transcendent. You only know people as they make themselves known.
  2. Because of who we are. We are creatures. We are made to receive relationship from God.
  3. Because of what we have become. Our sinfulness keeps us from knowing God as we ought.
  4. Because of God’s determination to be known. God reveals himself because wants to be known.

Calvin spoke of the limits of the seed of religion in us, as we are affected by the impact of the fall. We need a special revelation from God in order to know him.

Bavinck described all revelation as an ‘act of God’s grace.’ It’s not functionally provable from the systems of the world, so unless there is revelation religion is only speculation.

Revelation is anchored in history – a real people. But the problem is that you can’t see the significance of history until the end of history. It takes God’s explanation of historical events to reveal to us their theological significance.

Our modern world is offended at the concept of revelation. The main reason, according to Gunton is that we have a problem with authority. If God has indeed spoken, then it means we don’t get to decide what’s the best way to live. This is a threat to our strong desire for autonomy. Which is why it takes a supernatural work of the Spirit to illuminate God’s revelation to us…

Mark Thompson

How can we know anything about God?

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What conclusions about God can be drawn from observations of the world? Theologians have debated this idea (sometimes called ‘natural theology’) throughout the ages.

Thomas Aquinas described ‘5 Ways’ of establishing the existence of God from natural theology:

  1. From motion to unmoved Mover. Otherwise there would be disorder.
  2. Every effect has a cause. Therefore there must be an uncaused first cause.
  3. Everything is contingent. Therefore there must be a necessary being who creates all the contingent beings
  4. Degrees of perfection. If everything is on a spectrum of perfection, there must be a Most Perfect being.
  5. From design to a designer. There is evidence of design in creation, therefore there must be a designer.

But Aquinas’ never saw these as a complete revelation. Calvin argued we can know God exists through natural theology, therefore we are ‘without excuse’ (Romans 1:20), but we cannot be saved by that revelation. Not least because our reason has been corrupted by sin.

So there is a limited value to Natural Theology:

  • Creation points us to the existence and glory of God
  • Creation corroborates God’s revelation rather than sit as its foundation.
  • The fall has impacted the way we think – our natural inclination is towards idolatry.
  • It won’t necessarily lead you to the Christian God.

Who takes the initiative in knowledge of God? Is it man or God? The doctrine of revelation seeks to defend that it is by God’s initiative alone that we can know him.

Mark Thompson

Faith vs Reason – What’s Involved in Knowing What is True? Part 4: Rationalism vs Empiricism

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The problem with Aquinas’ metaphysical reality based on Aristotle’s “chain of being”, and the subsequent emergence of a ‘grand metaphysical vision’ in the Reformation was the question of who’s truth is the right truth?

Culminating in the 30 Years War, where 30% of the German population were killed, people began to realise the need for a better way of deciding what is true other than slaughtering each other.

Thus two schools of philosophy emerged in the 17th century:

  1. Descartes and Rational Skepticism

Descartes rekindled Greco-Roman anti-Platonic Skepticism: the philosophy of doubting everything.

Descartes sought for “pure ideas” – undeniable truths. His famous phrase “I think therefore I am” meant that the only thing he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he was doubting. Thus truth could only be determined by the working of the mind.

  1. Locke and Empiricism

For Locke, it was important for us to look to our senses for the evidence of what is true. Our minds are a blank slate upon which sensations leave their mark. We therefore cannot help but formulate our truth based on our experience.

Immanuel Kant worked to bring these two schools together. The observation of our senses has to be linked to concepts. We are to learn from the world, not as a passive pupil trusting everything it tells us, but as a thoughtful judge asking the right questions to seek out the information we require.

But by this method Kant realised we cannot know things as they are in themselves (the “Noumenal realm”), but only as they are presented to us (the “Phenomenal realm”).

And so the search for truth continues…

David Höhne

What Does it Mean that we are Made in God’s Image?

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The human soul uniquely reflects the spiritual nature of the triune God, that is, the capacity for reasoning and moral deliberation. Being made in his image, we can only find truth and morality if we love God.

In the fall, most of our desire as his image bearers to seek God was lost. The soul remains, but it is corrupted. In Jesus, we have the exempla of the uncorrupted image of God. Only he can enable us by his Spirit to seek after and love God.

The highest expression of God’s image is not in our physical or functional attributes but in our moral likeness to God. This is demonstrated in Jesus – whose key uniqueness was not his biology but his character.

Every element of creation was designed to bring glory to God through Adam. Creation is like a musical instrument sitting there waiting for someone to come and play it. Image bearing is thus bound up in relationality – how we relate to God and creation in a way that glorifies God.

There are therefore different degrees of image bearing. Christians bear the image of God more distinctly, since they have the mind of Christ and are being transformed into his likeness. Christians are in this world only provisional in our likeness to God, which will be made complete on the last day.

Andrew Leslie.

What is a Soul?

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Historically (since Plato) the body has been viewed as a temporary, morally suspect place where our souls dwell. Material reality is a mere shadow of true reality.

More recently the soul is seen as a figment of our imagination. There is only a physical reality of chemical reactions going on in our brains.

So what does the Bible teach us about the human soul?

The soul is the locus of the intellect and the will, reason and desire, mind and heart. But these faculties are dependent on the operations of the body for their function.

The proper object of the mind is truth, the proper object of the will is goodness. The fall distorts our perception of truth and goodness but we retain a remnant of these faculties.

Our human nature is a composite integrity of both soul and body. The greatest state of human integrity is both body and soul.

Therefore separation of body and soul (ie. death) is something not good. It’s a result of the curse of God on sin. The temporary state of separation of soul to be with Christ and body in the grave is actually a lingering effect of the curse. It’s something that remains unresolved until the final resurrection.

Human nature by its very design is a mediation between spiritual and physical – because we have both body and soul, we are uniquely equipped to be God’s regents on earth as a visible image of the invisible God.

Andrew Leslie

Faith vs Reason – What’s Involved in Knowing What is True? Part 3: Augustine and Aquinas

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With the rise of Christianity towards the end of the Roman Empire, Christendom introduced a new way of seeking the truth.

The famous 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo lived in the era of Neoplatonism, which sought to combine Plato’s teaching of the Forms with some salvific divinity, often referred to as the Demiurge.

Augustine reasoned that Rationes Seminales – the “Divine Ideas” – are the truth behind the world. Within the world there are these “divine ideas” made real. Much like Plato’s forms.

His approach isn’t too bad. It’s not in contradiction to the God of the Bible. God creates from his wisdom. Things are ordered. But the problem is that even though it’s in a Christian form, we’ve brought the same problem along with us: there are concepts in the world that don’t explain how the mind is related to the world through the body.

Thomas Aquinas, a few centuries later, sought to Christianise Aristotle’s system in a similar way. He noticed in Aristotle a parallel with the God of the Bible,  that there was a great “chain of being” which began with the “unmoved mover”, and moved down to lesser beings and eventually to simple matter.

The problem was that the further down the chain you get, the less true you become – and once again we begin to doubt the material things like our bodies.

And so the quest for truth continues…

David Höhne