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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Personalism and Impersonalism

OK, I'm finally getting around to posting an explanation I promised in the comments section of 'This Just Wasn't the Year for Jesus'. Long ago, in a conversation with a Hare Krishna, I was introduced to a basic division in spiritual paths that has stuck with me ever since, between 'personalist' paths and 'impersonalist' ones. (Although it just happened to be a Hare Krishna whom I heard about this from, the distinction is not original to that sect, but pre-dates them in Indian theology.) The gist of the idea is that 'personalists' are focused on seeing the divine as an individual similar, in important ways, to a human person, while the impersonalists are focused on the divine as 'cosmic law', 'the great light of the void', and so on.

When asked to declare my 'religious affiliation', my answer is 'Mahayana Buddhist', since the teachings of that school happen to be the ones that have hit home the hardest for me, and not because I think it is 'the best' or 'the one true' path. In any case, Mahayanists are very alert to the foremost danger of a personalist path, which is the temptation to turn one's conception of God into a giant version of one's ego, so that, instead of achieving transcendence, the devotee winds up fortifying his ego and inflating it into a world-filling monstrosity. (There is absolutely no assertion involved that this is the inevitable outcome of personalism!)

That gives some background on the perspective from which I criticized Zach Johnson for crediting Jesus with his win in the Master's golf tournament last year. It was not that his remarks were so objectionable in themselves, as much as that they represent a small step towards the theistic ego-inflation exhibited, for instance, by our current president, whom, I suspect, really believes that he is president not because he got lucky in the Florida fiasco but because God wanted him to be president, and can no doubt justify all of his killing and usurpation of power because he was 'chosen'. Perhaps Johnson thanks Jesus for everything that happens in his life, such as getting stung by a bee or catching the flu, and not just the things he likes, but his declarations certainly are open to the reading that faith in Jesus is a way to achieve worldly success. (And hey, it's not only Christians who fall prey to that spiritual trap: There is that awful Buddhist sect that promotes chanting as a way to get nice cars and better jobs!)

Of course, the impersonalist path has dangers, too. One need only consider the typical sorts of complaints lodged against various Eastern gurus by traditionalist Westerners to understand what those dangers are. Impersonalist, rather than trying to follow principles of conduct laid out in detail by a personal God, rely on more general dictums such as 'Don't cause fellow beings unnecessary suffering'. While I think that a genuine application of such a rule would result in conduct not remarkably different than that of someone following the Ten Commandments, it is all too easy for the impersonalist to fudge things and wind up justifying all sorts of chicanery because 'no one is really getting hurt'.

Nor are the two routes, as I see them, really in conflict. They are both partial views of the divine. As Roderick Long has pointed out, the greatest Christian theologians have always held that regarding God as a 'person' is only a metaphor, since the divine transcends the distinction of 'is/is not a person'. None other than C.S. Lewis warned that reducing the divine to a comfortable image of a well-understood person denies the reality of the living God whose nature is beyond any of our conceptions of Him.

Lastly, in no sense are these musings intended to 'convince' anyone that all religious paths are equal, or that their own religion does not offer some special insight. I am a great admirer of Christianity, and am quite open to the possibility that I have missed something that my Christian friends have seen, a possibility to which I regularly devote serious attention. These remarks, rather, are offered in a spirit of dialog, in the hope of prompting the recognition that, even if one religion is in some important sense superior to others, we still have things that we can learn from each other. For instance, even if you are convinced that I am making a fundamental mistake in not recognizing Christ as the unique appearance of the logos in human history, it could nevertheless be true that my perspective still might offer valuable insights. Furthermore, I would suggest to members of the other great world religions that we are natural allies, as individuals who are convinced that there is something sacred and holy at the heart of the universe, even if we conceive that center differently, in the fight against the sophists and nihilists who would try to reduce human existence to the meaningless and random play of brute, material forces.

16 comments:

  1. the sophists and nihilists who would try to reduce human existence to the meaningless and random play of brute, material forces.

    Hey! I take comfort in the meaningless and random play of brute, material forces. Please don't deny me my comfort! :)

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  2. Micha,

    I realize you are largely making a joke, but this is an area where Gene really changed my mind. (It was back when we both were still on the anti-state forum.)

    Our specific argument was over Searle's Chinese Room argument or something like that. Anyway, at the time I was a materialist and now I can't believe how ridiculous my position was.

    I'm not saying a materialist is going to go out and kill people because he has no higher values, I'm just saying it is a very seductive viewpoint that I now think is totally--and patently--absurd.

    (I realize I am making assertions here. I'm just saying this now so maybe in five years you will think back and say, "Oh yeah, that guy Bob warned me about this...")

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  3. Gene,

    I don't have any problem with this post; in fact I am a bit embarrassed that you were so obviously trying not to offend Christian readers.

    It's true, I think Jesus was who (the Bible accounts say) He claimed to be; hence the perhaps annoying capitalizations when I use pronouns referring to Him.

    I also think that it is very important to realize that God does have a personality; He is an actor in the Misesian sense. That's my biggest objection to Buddhism. Based on an extremely limited exploration of it that I undertook in grad school, I came away with the following synopses:

    Christian route to happiness: Try to want what God wants.

    Buddhist route to happiness: Stop wanting.


    But having said all that, I definitely think all religions see different aspects of the truth. Certainly Confucius was a "holy man," as was the Buddha, etc. (I don't know jack about history, mind you. I'm basing this on their sayings.)

    But I would just repeat that at least for me, even though these other people seem very wise, there is a qualitative difference between them and Jesus. It is just amazing how easily He smokes the Pharisees et al. when they try to trap Him with riddles from the Bible etc.

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  4. Araglin4:13 PM

    Bob and Gene:

    While I agree with Gene's general point about how, as transcendent, God surpasses the distinction between personal and impersonal (here, I go with the more neoplatonically-tinged theologies of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, John Scotus Eriugena, Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart), I think that one point that needs to be brought out is as follows:

    The framing of the discussion of whether God is a person like ordinary humans are persons presumes that we start out knowing what it truly means to be a human person.

    One of the implications of simultaneously taking seriously the more apophatic thrust within Christian orthodoxy (that says we're not going to be able to completely grasp how God is in Himself, and that the truth of our predications of Him can only ever be analogical rather than univocal), and the fact that Mankind was created in God's image and likeness, is that perhaps we can only come to understand the nature of human personhood by way of reflection upon God (and the substantive relations among the persons of the Trinity). In this way, one could even say that the predominant modern conception of human personhood (as hypostasized subjective will) is largely the product of a highly-dubious Late Scholastic and Voluntarist conception of God (that is traceable largely to Scotus, Ockham, etc.).

    Cheers,
    Araglin

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  5. "Christian route to happiness: Try to want what God wants.

    "Buddhist route to happiness: Stop wanting."

    But Bob, you've got to remember what happens next in the story: Buddha sits down under the tree and sheds his own desires. He's done with the world, finito. And then? He's suddenly filled with compassion, and determined to enlighten all sentient beings. In other words, in personalist terms: Having extinguished his ego-centered desires, Buddha was filled with God's desires.

    And here, I think, is the basic distinction between the mahayana and hinyana paths: The hinyana path strives to bring one's desires into alignment with the divine will. The mahayana path aims at directly cutting out one's own desires at the root, at which point the mahayanist feels the rest follows naturally.

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  6. "but this is an area where Gene really changed my mind."

    And do you realize what an accomplishment it is to change the mind of one of these stubborn Mick donkeys?

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  7. Gene,

    Nice. No I didn't take it to the next step. I thought the whole point was to stop thinking your actions could influence what happens.

    Araglin,

    I understood about 50% of what you said, but it sounded cool.

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  8. Bob,

    Meh. I've never really found Searle's Chinese Room argument very convincing. Part of what it means to learn a language simply is rote, mechanical repetition. Do enough of that, and you've "learned" the language.

    Luckily, unlike many other philosophical debates, the possibility of strong AI and artificial consciousness is getting closer and closer to being empirically testable. Actuality would certainly prove possibility, and would end most of the debates surrounding philosophy of mind.

    And unfortunately, if I do ever come to change my mind about materialism, it won't be Bob Murphy that I credit as my first exposure to dissent and warning. I've been involved in these sorts of discussions for years. :)

    But I would just repeat that at least for me, even though these other people seem very wise, there is a qualitative difference between them and Jesus. It is just amazing how easily He smokes the Pharisees et al. when they try to trap Him with riddles from the Bible etc.

    Well, that's sort of like concluding Socrates was qualitatively wiser than the rest of us based on how easily he smokes Euthyphro and many of his other dialogue buddies. The record of the dialogue was written with an obvious bias towards making Socrates look wise and his opponents foolish. Euthyphro as told from the perspective of Euthyphro might look very different.

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  9. "Part of what it means to learn a language simply is rote, mechanical repetition."

    Micha, I think you've confused what it means to learn a language with how one learns a language. "Mechanical, rote repetition" is no part of the meaning of learning a language.

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  10. Micha,

    Meh. I've never really found Searle's Chinese Room argument very convincing.

    Yo yo yo check it out. BTW, what's shocking is that I googled to find this, and the first hit was that I am referenced in the Wikipedia article on Searle's Chinese Room argument. !!! I think that's a testament to disproportionate libertarian geeks on the Internet, even more so than Ron Paul's ratings on polls.

    (BTW I still think Searle's argument is useless, but now I think he assumed at the outset something true in order to "prove" it. Before, I thought he assumed something false in order to "prove" it.)

    And unfortunately, if I do ever come to change my mind about materialism, it won't be Bob Murphy that I credit as my first exposure to dissent and warning. I've been involved in these sorts of discussions for years. :)

    Well duh, Gene Callahan wasn't the first dualist I'd encountered either. And it's too late--if you ever change your mind, you will remember this day...

    Well, that's sort of like concluding Socrates was qualitatively wiser than the rest of us based on how easily he smokes Euthyphro and many of his other dialogue buddies.

    Two responses:

    (A) Socrates was qualitatively wiser than the rest of us. But I'm saying Jesus was qualitatively wiser than even Socrates.

    (B) I confess I haven't read up on this dialog since my immersion in Western majesty at Hillsdale College. But just to clarify, the Pharisees were very learned men; they weren't lobbing softballs at Jesus.

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  11. I was just rereading my critique of Searle to see how much I still believed. It's funny to see how wedded I was to materialism/Darwinism at the time. But even so, I think this was a great objection:

    Furthermore, the rulebook had to be written before the test. But this means the book can't take into account changes in the data. For example, the outsiders could apply heat to the wall of the room, and ask (in Chinese), "It is getting hotter or colder in there?"

    As Ralphie would say, "Wow that's great."

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  12. Gene,

    Micha, I think you've confused what it means to learn a language with how one learns a language. "Mechanical, rote repetition" is no part of the meaning of learning a language.

    True, what I said was kind of sloppy. Let me try to be clearer. My point is that, at least in humans, engaging in the process eventually produces the outcome, whereas Searle's argument depends on making a solid distinction between (the rote) process and the outcome (of understanding).

    Searle is asking us to imagine that this person, stuck in the room, only engages in the process and never reaches the outcome. But that's not how humans work! Most of us, were we to be stuck in that room "reading" symbols in Chinese and "writing" back answers according to a pre-set list of formulaic words, would eventually come to understand the language we were working with.

    Now, Searle can say that robots aren't humans, and they are just simply stuck at the first step and can never get to the second step. But since his example uses a human, it's difficult for me to see how he demonstrates that rather than merely asserting it. And if Searle says, "Well, from a third-party observer's perspective, putting a computer in the room looks exactly the same as putting a person in the room, at least until the person reaches the second step of understanding," the strong AI proponent will respond, "And put a sufficiently advanced AI in the room, and it will reach the second step along with the human."

    So what does the room argument give us apart from the conflicting assertions that we already had?

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  13. For what it's worth, I do think dualism has some things going for it, just not enough to sway me.

    What eventually pushed you over to the dark side, Bob, if not Searle? The religion stuff? Or something else?

    But just to clarify, the Pharisees were very learned men; they weren't lobbing softballs at Jesus.

    Meh. As someone who spent a significant portion of the first 20 or so years of my life studying Pharisee doctrine, aka Orthodox Judaism, I know what Jesus was up against. The problem is, religions have their own forms of "logic", their own rules regarding what constitutes good evidence for or against some idea.

    Bridging the gap between two religions is even harder than bridging the gap between neo-Darwinism and ID, because at least the latter two don't put as much weight on appeals to authority to cut off debate.

    Even within a religion (and I suppose early Christianity in the time of Jesus was "within" Judaism in a certain sense), debate isn't gonna fly if the two sides can't agree on what counts as a valid argument. I can see Jesus' appeals to the orthodoxy being just as pointless and falling on just as many deaf ears as the various contemporary debates between different denominations of Judaism. It doesn't matter how wise you are or how strong your argument is if the other side doesn't accept that particular method of argument as valid.

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  14. Micha,

    Three things:

    (1) I don't think the person in Searle's room would learn Chinese. He would have no context clues; he would literally just be mapping from one meaningless (to him) set of symbols to another. I'm pretty sure that if young children watch TV in another language, even that's not enough to learn the language. So a fortiori, just learning the If-Then rules wouldn't ever allow you to discover what the underlying content was.

    (2) I don't remember exactly what changed my mind. I think that yes, I became a Christian (or at least a theist) and then dropped materialism, but I'm not sure about that. I think the one really poignant point that Gene made (and which stuck with me) was when we were arguing about consciousness, and I said (following Dennett) that it was a user illusion. And he asked, "Which user is it fooling?" or something, which at the time annoyed me because it was so dumb, but now I think is just an argument-winning question.

    (3) Can you explain what orthodox Jews think of Jesus? I've never gotten a good answer to that. E.g. was he crazy? Was he a false prophet? Because orthodox Jews believe a messiah is still coming, right? And they just think Christians mistakenly think it was Jesus of Nazareth?

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