January 7, 2010

We traveled through snowbound, nighttime neighborhoods, silent beneath deep, white drifts to reconvene the brotherhood of the briar after a two-week absence.  Six souls showed, refusing to be daunted, and six tumblers of Tomatin 15 year single malt were handed round and held close in gloved hands. We met between snowstorms, and as the night grew old more snow began to fall, settling on our shoulders as we hunched over the fire. As Jerry later acknowledged, it was a monologue night, but as none of us have ever minded this in the least, we filled our pipes and settled back to listen.

Jerry spoke of the  mind/brain debate and the evidences that we have souls that are beyond mere physiology which he had presented to a Sunday school class. In preparing for the class, he read about a neurosurgeon who wrote a paper in 1961 about his experience with an epileptic patient. The doctor was operating on a patient’s brain, but the patient was conscious to enable him to respond. The doctor touched his cerebral cortex in the motor section with an electrode, and the patient’s left arm went up. The doctor asked “Why did you do that?” The patient replied, “I didn’t, you did.”  Doc then realized that his patient had self-awareness independent of his body.

“Or, look at  C.S. Lewis and the materialist. The materialist says that  lovers don’t really love, it’s just physiology. A guys sees a woman; this projects an image on the retina of his eye along the optic nerve, electrical synapses stimulate the brain which cause secretions of hormones and he says it’s love. The materialist concludes: not love, just chemistry. We can explain all this stuff. So it’s heavy on the brain, while suppressing the mind. Lewis realizes that if the lovers can’t say “love,” why can the materialist say it’s “chemistry?”  Lewis saw the inherent contradiction behind this approach and rejected materialism.”

A few validations for the existence of the soul:

1. Doctor and patient scenario
2. Inherent contradiction built into the materialist position
3. Common sense, or what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called primary imagination; we possess five senses which give us empirical data, but don’t synthesize the data, so the synthesizing has to be something independent of mere physiology.  Coleridge called it “common sense,” that which takes data and makes sense of it.

“But then how can one be sure one knows something? Historically, epistemology (how we know) was based on the classical triad of authority, reason, and experience. This is seen in the following scenario. In the Apology by Plato, Chaerephon comes back from Delphi and tells how the oracle there said that the gods had revealed that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Socrates says he’s not going to dismiss it, maybe the gods did say that (authority), he needs  to check it out. So the majority of the Platonic dialogs are him engaging with various intellectuals in Athens who claim to have knowledge about something. For example, Ion, a rhapsode or performer of epic poetry, has knowledge about Homer, so  Socrates asks if he really understands poetry, and Ion says he has certain knowledge about these things.  Socrates proceeds to find contradictions in his explanation, so Socrates makes the judgment, “You say you know, but you have contradictions, so clearly you don’t. I know I don’t know, therefore mine is the truer knowledge.” (reason).  Finally, Socrates says “I don’t know if the prophetess is right, but with every one of these dialogues I’ve had, I’ve found the same sort of problem. I don’t know much, but I know I know more than these people who claim to know.”  So he’s using experience, the gathered experience of these dialogs. The triad was the way in classical epistemology to say you know that you know something. Even biblically,  in Acts 15, in the Jerusalem Council they are debating if one must be circumcised to become saved. Paul and Barnabas have had these experiences of Gentiles coming to faith (experience), then they bring out the scriptures and they seem to indicate that Gentiles will come to faith (authority), and then James stands up and ties it all together (reason). So it was throughout history.”

Jerry paused to take a few pulls on his enormous pipe, then plunged on.

“Then challenges to this system crept in. It was believed that anything from here to the moon was in the realm of mutability; changes occur. From the moon outward was thought to be immutable, or unchangeable. Then the great supernova happens in late 1500’s or early 1600’s and Descartes (who is a Christian) realizes that what he had been told was false. So he says “What can I believe? If this is wrong, everything could be wrong.” So he begins doubting, coining his famous maxim “I think, therefore I am.” But in the process, he begins with reason only, and breaks with the traditional epistemology of the triad.  He uses reason alone.  English philosopher John Locke, another Christian, says “That can’t be right, it’s not reason, it’s experience.” He says the mind is like a blank tablet and experience writes on it, but the problem with that, as C.S. Lewis says, is if the mind is a tabula rasa, then it will always be blank unless it has something prior to experience whereby it can remember it, compare it with other things, sort it out, engage in superlative judgments, etc. It requires memory, which must precede it (which, by the way, is another confirmation of the soul).  Bishop George Berkeley of Ireland then says “It’s not what actually happens out there, but  my perception of it that matters.”  So he becomes a subjectivist and idealist. Scottish philosopher David Hume, who is not a Christian, says “Well,  if that’s true then I can’t know that I know anything for sure.” Hume becomes a skeptic, which is inherently contradictory: if you can’t be certain of anything then you can’t be certain that you’re not certain. German philosopher Immanuel Kant enters the stage, trying to save the way we know,  and comes up with categories of understanding. Now things move toward a more mechanistic understanding of  the mind, life, and the world, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel  comes up with a philosophy of history, or dialectic which involves a thesis, anticipation of an antithesis, and a  resolution into synthesis. Then Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who is fighting for the soul,  reacts against Hegel, saying that the person is lost in the process, so Kierkegaard becomes an existentialist. Then the atheist/existentialist French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre says the human has to have validity and we validate ourselves by our choices.”

So there you have it. A partial history of the fight to understand how one can really know something.

Moving on.

I had recently heard about the formation of the C.S. Lewis College.  Formerly the Northfield Mount Herman School, begun by D.L. Moody in 1879  in Northfield, Massachusetts,  I asked Jerry what he thought about it.   “It’s interesting to me, I’m actually glad to hear it, but it’s going to be a tough go. I know Stan Mattson (head of the C.S. Lewis Foundation) pretty well. I got to the place where I started to take him with a grain of salt, because he would go around and say “I’m going to start this C.S. Lewis College,” and I’d think, not unless you know Bill Gates really well, you’re not. How do you go out and start a college? How much money do you think it would cost?  So I just thought this was nuts. But the guy who owns Hobby Lobby footed the bill and bought the facility. Okay, well tha
t’s a huge step.”

We had the following humorous interchange, after Jerry decided I should teach at the college.

Jerry: You’re the kind of guy they want, because they want a liberal arts guy. They want somebody who can touch on a lot of subjects.

Me: Hmmmmm

Carl: Yeah and they need a pipe smoker.

Me: I’ll smoke while I lecture!

Jerry: You know, you could do it there. They’re not going to have restrictions.

Carl: Where is the college?

Me: Massachusetts.

Carl: I don’t think you’ll be able to smoke anywhere in Massachusetts. They’re pretty liberal.

Jerry: Well you could do your lectures outside.

Carl: As long as you’re more than 15 feet from the entrance.

Jerry: I’m sure they’ll have a pub. Well you can get your group around and sit on the grass outside. My philosophy prof in college was a Christian, best teacher I ever had. He always smoked a pipe while lecturing.

Carl: Isn’t it something, in the old days people could smoke!

Jerry: In the old days I went to college carrying my 30/30 into the dorm room! I didn’t even have it in a case. Just walked in with my gun! It was a different world. You know, you could drink scotch with your students! Well, you couldn’t drink it with the undergrads, but you would have your graduates who stay around, stay connected and get together and drink Scotch. And you could call it continuing education.

One of our group quietly said, “that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Continuing education, discussion-style.”

“Well I feel bad,” lamented Jerry, “tonight it’s been  more of a monologue.”  There was a moment of silence, and then perking up visibly he said, “Okay,  let’s go that way then.  So you all get invitations to teach at C.S. Lewis College. You get to teach there, go there. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, what would you do if you could teach four years in the curriculum of the Great Books classical education? What are the must-knows for the kids? You want to inspire a love of education that will be ongoing for the rest of their lives. Benjamin Jowett, a translator of Plato who taught in Oxford in the 1800’s, said that the great thing about Plato is that he believed that education needed to be a lifetime pursuit. So, consequently, what would you do that would inspire the kids to want to continue growing beyond commencement? You go back to Coleridge’s “common sense.” Students have the resources to access the data, but that doesn’t give them the ability to make sense of it. You want to know how it begins to inform you, your decision making, your development of character. Most kids get the data and regurgitate it and the transcripts that say they got an “A” are lies because they pushed the delete button the moment they walked out of the last class.”

I said, for me it was Samuel Johnson who sparked that desire. What was it for you?

“Well, I became a Christian and thought I should read the Bible. Friends asked questions I had never thought about asking; the problem of evil, how can Jesus say he’s the only way, what about other religions,  how do you know the Bible’s really true, what about people who have never heard, and the babies that die in Africa? I started reading to find answers and I started growing. But Malcolm Muggeridge was once asked by Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker theologian, who was the greatest Brit that ever lived. Trueblood was expecting it would be Shakespeare or Churchill.  But without missing a beat, Muggeridge said Samuel Johnson. Here’s one of the reasons. The French academy had forty scholars working for forty years to come up with the first exhaustive dictionary, but Samuel Johnson did it by himself in English in nine years by keeping nine secretaries working full-time.”

From this subject of education and books, Jerry then proceeded to ask, “what are the five books you would take with you if you were stranded on a desert island for thirty-odd years?” We were stunned into momentary silence by this question. I agree with G.K. Chesterton that I would want Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. We agree they should be works that bring new meaning and revelation each time they are read. Some suggestions: complete works of Shakespeare, Dialogs of Plato,  Mere Christianity, City of God, The Phantom Tollbooth, a volume of poetry.

“You know, the best poet in the world is Anonymous,” says Jerry, and laughs. “I don’t know who he was, but he was good.”

There are rumors that a $600 bottle of the rare Johnny Walker Blue Label will make an appearance at the brotherhood sometime soon. It is a blended whisky, which we normally revile as sub par and plebeian, but it’s price tag will, I think, help us overlook its inherent heresy.

Well, patient readers, thank you for staying with me on this one. I know it’s long. Future posts will be shorter.



~ by Mark Neal on January 11, 2010.

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