Review of Warranted Christian Belief (2000)
Chapter 1 - Kant
The interest of Plantinga's book, Warranted Christian Belief (referred to here as WCB) is whether Christian belief is rational, reasonable, justifiable, or warranted. (p. 3) The first two chapters form Part 1 address whether there is a question. That is, are we even able to talk, sensibly, about "God." Says Plantinga,
"It seems many theologians and others believe that there is real difficulty with the idea that our concepts could apply to God - that is, could apply to a being with the properties of being infinite, transcendent, and ultimate. The idea is that if there is such a being, we couldn't speak about it, couldn't think and talk about it, couldn't ascribe properties to it." (4)
The first chapter addresses that great philosopher, Immanuel Kant:
"It seems to be widely accepted, among theologians, that Kant showed that reference to or thought about such a being (even if there is one) is impossible or at least deeply problematic, or at any rate much more problematic than the idea that we can refer to and think about ourselves and other people, trees and mountains, planets and stars, and so on." (5)
The first thing that Plantinga notes is that Kant, himself, seems to refer to "God" and to issues of "faith." Plantinga references Kant's famous statement, "I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith." (9 note 13)
The next matter is a problem of interpreting Kant. Specifically, it has to do with his concept of noumena (or Dinge an sich) and phenomena. Plantinga differentiates two interpretations: A "Two World View" and a "One World View." The more traditional view is the Two World perspective. Here the noumena is completely separate and distinct from the phenomena. We can experience the phenomena, but not the noumena. Plantinga explains by way of summary the Two World View:
"This is the more traditional way of understanding Kant, the way Kant was taken by his great successors. To put it briefly and all to baldly, there are two realms of objects; our experience is only of one realm, the realm of phenomena, which themselves depend on us for their existence; if we should go out of existence, so would they. That is because the phenomenal realm is somehow constructed by us out of the given, the date, the raw material of experience. The noumenal realm, however, is not thus dependent on us but is also such that we have no intuition, no direct experience of it." (12)
Yet on the One World view the noumena is basically the world, while the phenomena is the way that we perceive that same world. Of this view Plantinga says,
"There is only one world and only one kind of object, but there are (at least) two ways of thinking about or considering this one world. All objects are really noumenal objects, and talk about the phenomena is just a picturesque way of talking about how the noumena the only things there are, appear to us. The phenomena-noumena distinction is not between two kinds of objects but, rather, between how the things are in themselves and how they appear to us." (12)
Plantinga's concern is not with which interpretation of Kant is correct, but whether either interpretation of Kant, so taken, constitutes a reason that we cannot think about God or discuss the question of who God is. As such, Plantinga deals with both the One World and Two Worlds interpretations as they relate to the question of whether or not it is possible to speak of God.
Plantinga dismisses the One World view rather quickly stating that the issue of "God" on this view poses no special problem, for if everything is noumena then this includes God and there is no problem with knowledge of God that is not true of other knowledge:
"For present purposes, what we need to see is that on this way of thinking, it would not really be the case that our concepts fail to apply to God in such a way that we cannot refer to and think about him. What would follow, given that he is a noumenon (of course, in this way of thinking, everything is a noumenon), is that God would not have any of the positive properties of which we have a grasp....Here there would be nothing at all special about God; what holds for him also holds for everything else." (16)
The Two World interpretation becomes more interesting, particularly the more "radical" view. Plantinga sees two different forms of the Two World interpretation. The first is the "moderate" subpicture. Here, we may refer to the Dinge (the noumena), but it is merely a matter of speculation. There is no real knowledge of Dinge, rather it it is reduced to opinion and conjecture. "God" would be a part of the Dinge and all of the concepts we apply to "God" is just guess work. Still, Plantinga does not find in this moderate view the suggestion that our concepts do not, in fact, apply to God, and as such it does not represent a threat to any project (such as Plantinga's) that seeks to inquire as to whether it is rational/reasonable/etc. to believe in God.
I find the moderate subpicture very interesting because it does not eliminate the "speculation," but rather makes the more mild (and perhaps more threatening) suggestion that such speculation is trivial. In this way, then, we have a reflection of much of the greater American culture at large, that is, that our speculation about God is only as important as the meaning that it produces within the believer. So, the speculation is "trivial" because what we say about God is nothing that we know. If, however, it produces something significant for the believer then it becomes valuable.
On to the more "radical" subpicture.
"On both versions of the two-world picture, the appearances are distinct from the things in themselves. The appearances are objects; they exist; they are empirically real. But they are also transcendentally ideal. And what this means, in part, is that they depend for their existence on us (on the transcendental ego[s]) and our cognitive activity. We ourselves are both noumena and phenomena: there is both a noumenal self and an empirical self." (18)
This view becomes more complicated. For example, we are now "transcendental egos" such that we are both noumena and phenomena. As a transcendental ego we undergo experiences, which is a result of the things in themselves impinging upon us. This "impinging" is the experience. This is a rather confusing state of affairs, as Plantinga notes, "As it is initially given to us, this manifold of experience is a blooming, buzzing confusion with no structure." (18)
That we are both noumena and phenomena, then, implies to me that we have the noumena impinging upon us, but that we also impinge upon other(s) is some way. Regardless, we have the manifold of experience, which is a blooming and buzzing confusion. So, what do we do? Impose structure, of course: "We impose structure and form on it, and in so doing we construct the phenomena, the appearances. So the phenomena, the things fur uns, are constructed out of the manifold of experiences." (18)
Interestingly, for Kant this structuring does not necessarily occur at the conscious level: "Kant says we are largely unconscious of the activity whereby we structure the manifold and construct the phenomena. Still, it proceeds by way of the application of concepts to the blooming buzzing manifold of experience." (18)
How does the structuring occur? Through "rules" and "law." Plantinga cites Kant as saying, "Sensibility gives us forms (of intuition) but understanding gives us rules." (19) What is the relation of "rule" and "law"? Again Plantinga cites Kant,
"Rules, so far as they are objective...are called laws. Although we learn many laws through experience, they are only special determinations of still higher laws, and the highest of these under which the others all stand, issue a priori from the understanding itself. They are not borrowed from experience; on the contrary, they have to confer upon appearances their conformity to law, and so to make experience possible. Thus the understanding is something more than a power of formulating rules through comparison of appearances; it is itself the lawgiver of nature." (19)
So, Plantinga suggests that the rules synthesize the manifold of experience. The lawgiver of nature structures the blooming and buzzing confusion of experience. Plantinga calls this the heart of the radical subpicture. On this view, the process of structuring experience results in the "phenomena."
Plantinga provides an example of a "rule" providing structure: "Consider your concept of a horse: it instructs you to associate, think together a variety of representations, a variety of items of experience, thus unifying that bit of manifold into an empirical object: a horse." (19)
In the One World view and also on the moderate subpicture Plantinga did not see a threat to applying our concepts to God. However, such is not the case on the radical subpicture. On this view God is noumenon: "God would not be something we have constructed by applying concpets to the manifold of experience (God has created us, we have not constructed him.) So, on the radical subpicture, we can't refer to, think about, or predicate properties of God." (20)
The results of the radical view might be damaging and stop us in our epistemological tracks, but Plantinga concludes that the radical view "displays a deep incoherence." (20) After discussion various possible solutions to the perceived incoherence Plantinga concludes by way of summary: "If we really can't think the Dinge, then we can't think them (and can't whistle them either); if we can't think about them, we can't so much as entertain the thought that there are such things. The incoherence is patent." (29)
One of the issues that I see as problematic for the radical viewpoint is how it is that the noumena "impinge" on us while at the same time remaining unthinkable and distinct. That is, if they are truly distinct and disjointed - if the noumena is truly transcendent - then it would seem problematic that it could still "impinge" in such a way as to create "experiences" for us to structure. I do note, however, that this problem is the same that theology must reckon with. For example, how is God truly and wholly Other - transcendent - and yet immanent enough to intrude into our reality and impact the world in which we operate. So, it seems as though some of these problematic issues surface in various areas of thought.
Having concluded that the radical subpicture is incoherent, Plantinga concludes this chapter by noting, "It doesn't look as if there is good reason in Kant or in the neighborhood of Kant for the conclusion that our concepts do not apply to God, so that we cannot think about him. Contemporary theologians and others sometimes complain that contemporary philosophers of religion often write as if they have never read their Kant. Perhaps the reason they write that way, however, is not that they have never read their Kant but rather that they have read him and remained unconvinced." (30)
Notes and References
 In regards to whether the One World or Two World interpretation is correct Plantinga does say the following regarding the One World interpretation: "Although this second picture is perhaps now the majority opinion, it seems a bit difficult to reconcile it with Kant's own view that his thought constituted a revolution - his famous second Copernican revolution." (13) Plantinga also cites Kant regarding the "Copernican" nature of his thought: Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But also attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus' primary hypothesis.
 This idea of "unconscious structuring" raises many important issues in the history of philosophy as far as it relates with psychology. The fact that structuring occurs at the unconscious level is an obvious are of intrigue for those of us Post-Freud. Yet the idea that there is "structure" to this unconscious activity raises an issue of debate that finds a full expression in various postmodern philosophy and psychology. I would recommend three posts by John Doyle, who currently practices psychology and holds a Ph.D. in the field. These intriguing posts by Doyle integrate this philosophical issue of "structure" with the psychological implications of the un/conscious, while sifting through various implications for counseling:
"The Self as Something Spoken"
"Decentering the Self"
"The Anxieties of Free Play"
In comment 10 from "Decentering the Self" Doyle states, "Descartes placed consciousness at the center of the self. He followed a long tradition dating back at least to Plato and Aristotle, for whom the rational self resonates with pure Logos that is the center of the universe. Certainly for the Greeks the passions were of lower quality than reason; the challenge of the virtuous man was to subject the passions to the mastery of reason. The Greeks were very structural in their tripartite topography of the self: body, passions/emotions, mind/spirit. Freud was too, though his categories were different: id, ego, superego. For Freud the reasonable ego was demoted from master to arbiter, balancing the more powerful structures of id and superego."
In "Anxieties of Free Play" Doyle notes, "Derrida begins by contrasting structure with event, stability with “rupture.” Historically, structures have been constructed around a center, a fixed point of origin. The center serves as the basis for coherence and balance within the structure. Having a fixed center makes it possible to “play” with the elements of the structure, but this play is also limited by needing to remain compatible with the center. The center, while giving shape to both the form and the freedom of the structure that surrounds it, isn’t really part of the structure....The rupture, says Derrida, came with the realization that the center was not the center, that the actual center was the desire for security rather than the specific presence on which this desire happened to land."
The above citations go to the overlap and interaction between one's view of "structure" and the activity of the "conscious" or "unconscious" mind. All of these are issues of our philosophy of "self" and the questions that Kant is raising in regards to how the self interacts with the world. Plantinga notes that for Kant the impinging of the noumena/Dinge produce "experiences", which is a "blooming and buzzing confusion" until it is structured by the unconscious (though perhaps at times by the conscious) mind.
A LOVE SUPREME
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Saturday, October 13, 2007