Friday, 14 September 2007

What's your alethiology?

In the course of an involved, fascinating, and highly significant discussion on my post below, I have learnt a new word: 'alethiology'. It means “theory of truth” and would seem to be at the heart my disagreement with John Poitier over the Chrsitian credentials of my hero Brevard Childs. The following definition is succinct and provides the key to the crux of our debate:
Alethiology (or Alethology) literally means 'the study of truth', but can more accurately be translated as 'the study of the nature of truth'. It could be argued that this is synonymous with epistemology, the study of knowledge, and that dividing the two is mere semantics, but there is a defintite distinction between the two. Epistemology is the study of absolute or factual truth - or to coin a phrase of 'known knowns'. Alethiology is more deeply concerned with the nature of truth rather than the facts of truth. What is truth, rather than what facts are true.
John is of the opinion that the New Testament evinces an “alethiology of space time actuality”, whereas Childs' so-called 'canonical approach', despite its intentions to the contrary, assumes an “alethiology of storytime actuality”. This then would undermine Childs' claim that the canonical approach represents an authentically 'Christian' way of reading the Bible in the 21st century.

Of course, this argument is fascinating to me, as up until now I've debated with people from the secular end of the spectrum who claim that Childs is too Christian and thus imports an external ideology into ancient texts.

Seitz has commented on the wide spectrum of disagreement on Childs' approach: from both the left and the right. To quote:
Childs's Biblical Theology may prove to be a book in search of an audience, and for that reason it will be judged by the widest variety of readers as learned but unsatisfactory and by an even smaller audience as the most brilliant proposal for theological exegesis offered in recent memory, but one unlikely to gain the sort of foothold necessary to transform the church in its use of scripture. (1998: 108, 9)
I think I'm converted, but the debate goes on. Check out the discussion as central issues are raised which will repeatedly reappear in the course of my thread on 'theological exegesis'.

14 comments:

John C. Poirier said...

If our debate does nothing more than make people aware of the difference between alethiology and epistemology, I'll be satisfied.

To that end, I'm not sure I like the Wikipedia definition that you cite. To say that truth is a matter of "known knowns" is to keep rather too close to epistemic categories. I prefer to say that truth is a matter of "what is the case", regardless of what anyone knows or believes.

Scott Roberts said...

Not being a Biblical scholar, nor even a student, my interest in alethiology (also a new word to me) is just that of an amateur philosopher. So what I have to say here may be naive or tangential to the overall discussion.

First, since there are many kinds of truth (simple matters of fact, scientific, aesthetic, etc.) there will be many theories of truth. I would assume that the kind of truth of interest here might be called soteriological truth, that is, the kind of truth that makes one free of sin and death. Given that, and given the kinds of statements and theories that are proposed as soteriological truths (e.g., in the creeds), I find it difficult to see how saying that "truth is a matter of 'what is the case'" is at all helpful. That is, a soteriological truth claim consists of "believing that X (e.g., the resurrection, or that God is triune) makes one free of sin and death", which is not the same as the truth claim: "X" (e.g., "Christ was resurrected" or "God is triune"). Thus it is logically possible that a soteriological truth claim could be true while the embedded claim (the "X") could be false. Not likely, but I think it could be said that questions about the actual truth of the embedded claim are unimportant, on the grounds that there is no means for establishing their truth (other than, perhaps, in mystical exploration). And that is the case because such embedded claims are not even understandable -- they are mysteries.

What this entails, as I see it, is that with soteriological truth claims, the important question to ask is how believing in X might lead one to becoming free of sin and death. Presumably it is not a matter of being able to pass a true/false test to enter the gates of heaven, so we are talking about a process, that continued belief in X brings about a change in the believer. Thus there are more questions: are some X's more important (more useful? more productive?) than others? Are different believers better off with belief in X than with Y (or perhaps with one interpretation of X rather than another)? Do the same X's work now that worked in the first century? Or perhaps they worked then and work now, but work differently now. For example, to refer back to the discussion, does belief in the resurrection as spacetime actuality work the same in an age when quantum physicists are looking for background-independent theories (that is, theories in which spacetime is derived from something more fundamental)?

James Pate said...

Actually, as you know, there are many evangelicals who think it is a matter of being able to pass a true/false test at the gates of heaven. I mean, that was what I was told at a conference on witnessing: ask a person "If God said to you, 'Why should I let you into my heaven," what would you say?"

Phil Sumpter said...

Scott,

thanks for your thoughts. I don't find them “naive or tangential” at all! I find your suggestion of the category “soteriological truth”, as opposed to other types of truth, extremely helpful and relevant for the up and coming discussion on biblical authority. I also like your suggestion of truth as a continued process. Here discipleship and correct biblical hermeneutic become relevant, as they contribute to the effectiveness of the overall process. I also find your list of questions concerning the how of believing useful.

As it so happens, I've just spent the day hanging out with a physicist! Although what he had to says about “ background-independent theories” blew my mind, he had some interesting things to say about different types of physics theories which I thought may parallel what you had to say about different theories of truth. It goes something like this: physics is objective in the sense that it ties itself to experiments. But the function of these experiments is not to provide us with absolute knowledge so that we can say that we now understand a particular phenomena exhaustively. Rather, they are meant to verify the predictions of particular theories. These theories are 'true' to the degree that they are able to explain the phenomena under analysis. But phenomena can be analysed at various levels of intensity, such that one more simple theory which works at one level cannot be used at a deeper level. The common sense statement, “The cup is there and it's not moving” is true only at the level of someone sitting in a café and telling me where their cup is. Such a statement would be highly problematic for a quantum physicist, however, for whom there can be no definite position and velocity simultaneously!

In sum, each more primitive theory is a limit of the more generalized theory. Sometimes the more primitive is pragmatically more useful. So, for example, if you send a spaceship to the moon, then calculations of its trajectories will be done with Newtonian laws, rather then with Einstein's more abstract theory of relativity.

I'm not sure of the parallel to different types of truth relevant to the Christian reading the Bible, but it sounds relevant ... don't you think?

Question: you say that the central propositions of Christian faith are mysteries and unverifiable. How do you evaluate NT Wright's attempts to make the resurrection historically plausible? I know he does much more then this, but is such an effort misguided and needless in you understanding?

John,

thanks for your qualification. I have to confess, I'm struggling to see where you are coming from. Your suggestion seems to collapse external facts and our human apprehension of them into one category (I think M. Westphal called such a move “cognitive transubstantiation” ...). If not, then how do you relate these facts to the particularity of our perception? No one's arguing that there is a world of facts that actually exist outside our awareness of them, that there is something “that is the case” in the first place. You can call them 'true' if you like, but what are the consequences of that for us, in practical terms, who as Christians are supposed to 'know' the truth (and be set free by it)? How are we supposed to relate to this “truth as what is the case”, when Christian 'truth' is nothing more then a naked fact, inaccessible apart from the epistemic categories we bring to it? How can a text supposed to “train us in righteousness” ignore the way we fallen humans relate to our world in general?

James,

good question!

Phil Sumpter said...

Scott,

thanks for your thoughts. I don't find them “naive or tangential” at all! I find your suggestion of the category “soteriological truth”, as opposed to other types of truth, extremely helpful and relevant for the up and coming discussion on biblical authority. I also like your suggestion of truth as a continued process. Here discipleship and correct biblical hermeneutic become relevant, as they contribute to the effectiveness of the overall process. I also find your list of questions concerning the how of believing useful.

As it so happens, I've just spent the day hanging out with a physicist! Although what he had to says about “ background-independent theories” blew my mind, he had some interesting things to say about different types of physics theories which I thought may parallel what you had to say about different theories of truth. It goes something like this: physics is objective in the sense that it ties itself to experiments. But the function of these experiments is not to provide us with absolute knowledge so that we can say that we now understand a particular phenomena exhaustively. Rather, they are meant to verify the predictions of particular theories. These theories are 'true' to the degree that they are able to explain the phenomena under analysis. But phenomena can be analysed at various levels of intensity, such that one more simple theory which works at one level cannot be used at a deeper level. The common sense statement, “The cup is there and it's not moving” is true only at the level of someone sitting in a café and telling me where their cup is. Such a statement would be highly problematic for a quantum physicist, however, for whom there can be no definite position and velocity simultaneously!

In sum, each more primitive theory is a limit of the more generalized theory. Sometimes the more primitive is pragmatically more useful. So, for example, if you send a spaceship to the moon, then calculations of its trajectories will be done with Newtonian laws, rather then with Einstein's more abstract theory of relativity.

I'm not sure of the parallel to different types of truth relevant to the Christian reading the Bible, but it sounds relevant ... don't you think?

Question: you say that the central propositions of Christian faith are mysteries and unverifiable. How do you evaluate NT Wright's attempts to make the resurrection historically plausible? I know he does much more then this, but is such an effort misguided and needless in you understanding?

John,

thanks for your qualification. I have to confess, I'm struggling to see where you are coming from. Your suggestion seems to collapse external facts and our human apprehension of them into one category (I think M. Westphal called such a move “cognitive transubstantiation” ...). If not, then how do you relate these facts to the particularity of our perception? No one's arguing that there is a world of facts that actually exist outside our awareness of them, that there is something “that is the case” in the first place. You can call them 'true' if you like, but what are the consequences of that for us, in practical terms, who as Christians are supposed to 'know' the truth (and be set free by it)? How are we supposed to relate to this “truth as what is the case”, when Christian 'truth' is nothing more then a naked fact, inaccessible apart from the epistemic categories we bring to it? How can a text supposed to “train us in righteousness” ignore the way we fallen humans relate to our world in general?

James,

good question!

John C. Poirier said...

Phil,

You write that my "suggestion seems to collapse external facts and our human apprehension into one category", but I'm trying to accomplish the opposite: to emphasize the fact that they are two distinct categories. *Truth* is not an epistemic category.

As for the relation of truth to the task of knowing it: I would simply uphold the traditional schema: our knowing is partial, so that we cannot know things as they truly are, but it's unwarranted to radicalize that notion by saying that we do not have genuine (epistemic) access to the author's meaning. In other words, whereas lots of people are going around reminding us everyday that we cannot have a completely (100%) objective thought, we should bear in mind that we also cannot have a completely (100%) subjective thought--the furniture of the real world is always rushing in upon the realm of language. Knowing belongs to the world of physical dynamics, and just as all actions in the physical realm are hampered by friction (given their nature as subject-object systems), we can say the same about knowing.

The proper response to this dilemma is *not* to give free rein to our biases. As I have written elsewhere, saying that the impossibility of a totally objective thought implies that we should not try to be objective is like saying that the impossibility of 100% frictionless automobile engine implies that we shouldn't use motor oil. So I would say: watch out for overproblematizations of our epistemic access to texts. We can read and make sense, and there is nothing that prevents us from knowing the author's intention to a degree that would make our reading successful (from the author's standpoint)--that is, nothing apart from the ordinary interferences that hamper all communication.

I hope this helps.

(BTW, there's no "T" in my last name.)

Scott Roberts said...

Phil,

My first thought was that the only parallel to find between scientific levels and levels of Biblical truth is simply that there are levels. The parallel breaks as soon as one considers how one level relates to another, since in science two levels are addressed to the same thing (making predictions about sensory phenomena) while in the Bible, two levels are addressed to different things (e.g., providing historical information vs. using stories for moral education). There might, however, be some mileage out of the difference between classical and quantum physics, but that arises more from metaphysical questions than the pursuit of predictive power. What I am getting at is that -- depending on how one interprets quantum reality (which is a metaphysical choice, not a scientific one, at least at present) -- it could be said that in going beneath what classical physics could do, one is discovering a whole new kind of reality, rather than a refinement of our understanding of what our senses perceive. That it is not just a question of position being uncertain, but of a reality in which there is no position (or even a particle) at all until a measurement takes place. One might compare this with Biblical narratives where what is narrated is not simply about being informative, but of requiring one to change one's habitual attitudes and beliefs.

I haven't read Wright's argument (though I intend to), so can't be specific. I am in general dubious of such attempts, since, like a good lawyer in the courtroom, one can always pick holes in arguments about historical plausibility. I am not against apologetics, by the way, though I think existing apologetics (that I am aware of) is misdirected, in that it tries to work within modernist metaphysics, while what is needed (and I think possible) is a rethinking of metaphysics.

By the way, while I would say that propositions of Christian faith are not objectively verifiable, my take an soteriological truths are that they are, at least potentially, subjectively verifiable. Though what that means is hardly clear either.

James Pate said...

Here's a problem I have with Wright's argument (at least as I understand it). I have not read his book on the resurrection, but I took a class that he taught on the subject while he was writing the book (incidentally, Westphal was also teaching a class on Kierkegaard at my school the following year, but, alas, I did not take it).

Wright argues that, in the first century, messianic movements folded once the figure died. First century Judaism believed that the resurrection would occur at the eschaton, not before that time. Because the disciples would not have expected Jesus to rise, since it would not have fit into their first century Jewish mindset, then their belief had to come from somewhere other than themselves. For Wright, it came from Jesus' resurrection.

There is some merit to this, perhaps. In the Gospels, the disciples' hopes do seem dashed after Jesus died. But Wright is wrong to assume that NO ONE in first century Judaism believed one could rise from the dead before the eschaton. Herod said that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. One could respond that the Gospels are post-resurrection documents and that some belief in the resurrection is projected onto Herod, but how does that square with seeing the Gospels as historical?

Phil Sumpter said...

The references to Herod and John the Baptist are in Mark 6 and Luke 9.

James, Wright discusses this in Resurrection, especially on pp. 412 - 414 (though more in reference to the physicality of resurrection beliefs in general). I think he sees this as an exception to the general rule that resurrection is something that happens to all the righteous dead simultaneously. To quote Wright:

"The mention of Elijah in all these texts m ay indicate the reason for this exception, in that, ... , the story of Elijah ended with him being taken up to heaven without dying in the normal way, and the prohpet Malachi promised that he would one day return. We should not, I think, regard Herod and his court as the most accurate indicators of mainstream second-Temple Jewish belief; even if it is true that the Parisees and Herodians made common cause on a couple of occasions, we may assume that they did not sit down and sicuss the finer points of proto-rabbinic theology" (p.413)."Perhaps the simplest explanation for why Herod said what he did - or why someone said that he said it - is the general idea, current at least since the maccabees and Daniel, that Israel's god would vindicate a righteous sufferer, and that Herod maight well think of John in that way" (p.414)

John C. Poirier said...

Scott,

I would like to point out that there are other views on quantum physics than the ones you mention. I personally don't think that the quantum realm represents "a whole new kind of reality", and I disagree with your statement that "it is not just a question of position being uncertain, but of a reality in which there is no position . . . at all until a measurement takes place." What you have conveyed is really a postmodernist take on a minority view which unfortunately gets more press than it deserves, as most physicists realize that particles *do* have a position prior to the act of measurement. In the end, there is really nothing in quantum physics that is of hermeneutical significance for reading texts.

See my remarks to this effect at http://jpt.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/15/1/3, esp. pp. 6-11.

James Pate said...

I'm glad to see that Wright addresses that issue. But I think that Herod's sentiment was more than his own belief. Even Jesus' disciples knew the view that Jesus was one of the prophets risen from the dead (Luke 9:19). It must have been circulating.

Phil Sumpter said...

I haven't read this kind of stuff for a while,so I can't say what Wright would say. In these pages he just talks about how 'resurrection' was an explanation for Jesus' miraculous powers, as resurrected dead people were somehow superhuman. He says that there is no other evidence for this belief and that the evangelists might have seen it as a distant and shadowy pointer to their own belief that when Jesus himself was raised from the dead all sorts of new powers were indeed unleashed into the world.

Scott Roberts said...

John,

I thought I was making it clear that what I was describing was my metaphysical interpretation of the findings of quantum physics. I am quite aware that that interpretation is not shared by "most physicists", but I would point out that most physicists operate out of a naturalist metaphysics. Everyone who claims one thing or another over "what is really going on" at the subatomic level will do so from a metaphysical stance, not from what science tells us, because the science is not able to tell us. Thus, your claim that "most physicists realize that particles *do* have a position prior to the act of measurement" is incorrect. What is correct is to say that most physicists believe that, and they do so because that is what their metaphysics demands, not what the scientific evidence demonstrates. The same is the case for me. It is what I believe, not what I can demonstrate scientifically (as to why I believe it, see here.)

Whether this puts me in a postmodern camp is another contentious issue. Since postmoderns tend to dump on metaphysics, I wouldn't think so, though I do share with (some of) them a distrust of the word 'objective' and other features of modernism.

John C. Poirier said...

That's fine. But, just to be picky, I would insist that I use the word "realize" advisedly, as the only reason that people speak in terms of the act of measurement effecting some sort of ontological change is that they are working with a very suspect understanding of statistical probability--one in which the probability of a die roll equaling six suddenly changes from 17% before the die is rolled to 100% once the die is rolled and a six appears. Apart from that very funny way of representing things, physicists have no reason to speak in terms of the act of measurement effecting any sort of change beyond the purely epistemic.