Friday, April 27, 2012

Idealism Misused

Recently I've become something of an Idealist, at least as I understand that term. Like with all my philosophizing, I'm no expert; I'll proudly admit to having read none of the sources and to not being terribly familiar with the "academic" landscape of these discussions. 

However, I do know that I've long perceived that we can't make any "objective" arguments outside the structure of human consciousness and meaning-making itself. Descartes "I think therefore I am" is less an argument against skepticism, and more simply a statement of the relation between "thinking" and "being," between the categories of knowledge and existence. As I recently saw it phrased on another blog, "We are the true architects of the cosmos, not so much because we make everything, but because we give it meaning in our minds. In the end, that is the same thing." The only caveat I would add to this is that God is the ultimate Subject, the Supreme Meaning and Meaning-maker (the same thing at that point) and so this is not about some sort of solipsistic humanism. 

This is why I am, perhaps, inclined more towards "epistemological arguments" for God rather than "ontological" arguments, and why I really can't understand the materialist worldview that would deny miracles; if a miracle is constructed as having occurred (which would be an event of consciousness)...then a miracle has by definition occurred!

However, I think some people make a serious error here when it comes to Idealism. I think many people, attempting to "save" Christianity or the supernatural from materialist arguments against it...appeal to Idealism, but then undermine that very appeal by doing so in a way that implicitly concedes materialism as the fundamental "real" of reality. In other words, they think that they can make religious plausible again by simply redefining the terms of the argument, but without actually following through on the paradigm shift. To me this is like the hierarchy trying to adopt the language of modern liberalism but then not realizing the philosophical implications of this and trying to maintain the underlying Catholic dogma or premises.

Specifically, as I discussed in the comments to my last post, I think this can best be demonstrated in certain attitudes towards the miraculous and most especially towards the Resurrection. You will get many liberal Christians nowadays who, attempting to appease the materialists who reject the idea a priori that a body could never "really" rise from the dead, essentially concede that to them but then say, "But! The Resurrection was an 'event,' a revolution in human consciousness, a meaning constructed by the community in such a profound way that it becomes 'the Truth' even if it isn't a 'fact'. Jesus rose from the dead because He redefined what it even means to be 'alive.'" 

However, this cleaving of Truth and "fact," or an attempt to save the dogmatic formulae of Faith through meanings changed to fit "reality" actually a bastardization of Idealism as I understand it. In Idealism, in some sense, being is meaning, and meaning is being. Reality is constructed, and something "is" only inasmuch as it is a potential object of construction. Without that, a chair is a pile of wood (and a pile of wood is just a collection of atoms, and a collection of atoms is just...etc etc, until you reach mere pure potentiality; in other words, all these being labels are ideas imposed or, perhaps rather, "read into" experience by intelligence). 

As such, to posit a sort of materialist "real reality" and then the idealist "constructed reality" on top of to miss the point of Idealism. The point of Idealism is that there is no "real reality" underlying "constructed reality," because constructed reality is all that "is" by the very meaning of "is" as it relates to conscious intelligence and meaning-making. It is thus incorrect to say anything like, "Jesus may really be dead, but not according to the new Christian definition of Alive." No, the whole point of Christianity is that the Christ event (should I shudder at having used that term?) is very much constructed according to the old meaning of "alive." It's not that the meaning has been fudged to fit reality, it's that reality has been constructed (by both God and the Church) according to that meaning.

So someone who says that "Christ is risen from the dead" but then "really" believes this means something other than what would commonly be imagined as "rising from the dead" (because he believes the Resurrection was really a meaning constructed by the community, or a "revolution of human consciousness" etc.) actually don't understand the theory they themselves are cribbing from. The whole point of the idea of reality constructed would be that, in constructing that "event" as "Jesus rising from the dead"...there is at that point then no meaningful distinction between the "revolution of consciousness" and the "commonly imagined literal image" idea. To construct that event as a bodily Resurrection is to mean that it is literally equivalent.

If, however, we can "secretly assert" that the two things are "really" different, then that defeats the whole purpose of the "constructed reality" idea which requires that there be absolute equivalence of significance in our understanding. Of course, there are always differences between any two events or objects; the whole point of the idea of reality-as-constructed is that we impose (or, again, "read onto") the ideas of similar and different onto experience. If we say a swan "glided across the water like a motorboat" there will be some ways this is true and some ways it is not; if we mean that it did so powered by gasoline, it would not! 

All language is analogical like this. So when we speak of the idea of "rising from the dead" we are already invoking analogies. One seems to be the idea of rising from the dead being like rising from sleep. It also, of course, depends what we mean by "alive" and what is the essence of that description. And indeed, we do make some distinctions too: Christ's "glorified" Resurrection from Lazarus's temporal restoration to natural life, etc.

It is invalid, however, to read the Gospel accounts of Christ's post-resurrection appearances and then say something like, "Well, they didn't really-really happen, but they also did really happened because there really were events of constructing those meanings in those experiences in the community." This is invalid because it assumes there is a "really-really" (ie, some sort of semantic "absolute frame of reference," which for some reason is just assumed to be the materialist account) and that the "meaning" of the Resurrection is layered on top of this. But the whole point of Idealism is that there is no "objective" frame of reference or system of meaning that is "more real" (except, of course, God's perspective; His subjectivity is our objectivity). 

If we understand that this whiteness and roundness is no longer "bread" but Christ, and believe God is defining things this way too; then it is true, because there is no "is" outside of that framework. This is why the Eucharist is perhaps the supreme demonstration of how Faith is supposed to work. Yes, we'd fully admit (especially in admitting that the "accidents" are still those of bread) that the reality there could be interpreted a different way by different people and, in fact, that there is a sort of "more obvious" interpretation based on the "natural" common sense system of meaning or framework of constructing reality. However, the whole point of asserting that it nevertheless is Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, is to say, basically, that the reality-construction of Faith admits of no judgement or interrogation by any of these external standards or systems. We simply have to ignore the World, ignore unbelievers, even ignore our own "natural" sense-based system of "common sense" meaning, and nevertheless assent to the reality based on Faith in the testimony of divine authority alone. We must accept that this is the only "really-really" and that these other notions of real, these other systems of constructing reality...are the ones that must answer to the understanding of Faith, to its definition of the real, and not vice versa.

Likewise, if we understand Christ as risen from the dead, and not just under the accidents of other things, but in His own sensible body as described in the Gospels, and we understand this as God's understanding as well, then that is true and there is no external standard of "really real" to which we can compare that. The Resurrection is different than the Eucharist in this way, then: with the Real Presence in the Eucharist, we'd fully admit that systems of construction other than Faith can (and will) construct the reality differently (as bread; this is what it means that the accidents are maintained). But the Resurrection admitted no such distinction and the claim is that what occurred...occurred in a manner that its substance would have been compellingly and immediately evident and agreed upon to anyone who experienced it (albeit it was mainly only those with Faith already, except Saul/Paul, who got to experience it).

So the "naive" imagining of Christ standing in a room talking to the Apostles is absolutely a valid way to imagine it. Can we say that what we're imagining when we here the Gospels is a photographic image of what the Apostles experienced? No, but we can't do that when anyone describes any event to us via language; details are always left out, no description can convey all the information an experience contains. But, we can say that in its essential features it is a totally valid and legitimate representation of what occurred and was described, and so is substantially as "real" as the construction "I am sitting at my computer typing this." 

You can debate about what "body" means or what "seen by the senses" means or "talking" or "communicating," I suppose, as you can in any description. But the moment you seem to be drawing a distinction between that "bodily presence" and bodily presence as we otherwise commonly understand it, in a manner that concedes that the Resurrection's similarity is (under any framework or standard) somehow "less real" or somehow only equivalent in a manner substantially or essentially different than the normal use of those words (ie, such that someone could have experienced the same thing and still constructed it differently) have slipped into damnable heresy, and are condemned by Paul's "If Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain."

Saying "Christ is risen" may be a construction of reality, a meaning read into experience by the community of Faith (and its God, its supreme Meaning). But when you say that, you have to apply this paradigm across the board and remember that, at that point,  the idea "I'm sitting in a chair reading this" is just as much a constructed reality admitting of just as much deconstruction because, in this sort of Idealism, there is no "really-really" that is "underneath" or "behind" meaning-constructed reality, and there's certainly no reason to concede that the materialist notion is the "default."

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