Posted by: dacalu | 1 March 2012

Applied Theology

I want to turn now to applied theology.  In very practical terms, I want to ask, “What is theology good for?” Not religion, mind you.  That’s much more complicated.  Theology, broadly speaking deals with the intellectual constructs of religion and I think Christianity provides some very useful theories.

I experience agency.  That is to say, I think I do one thing, when I could have done another.  I have the sensation of choice.

One can take a position of experiential skepticism and say, “yes, but the experience of choice may be an illusion.”  Granted.  All existence may be an illusion.  If you’re a Buddhist, recognize that this is a meditation within the illusion that highlights the fundamental absurdity of individual existence.  If you’re just a skeptic, all fine and good, but complete skepticism leads nowhere.  I can talk about tables, so I can talk about choices.  You know what I’m talking about.  The perception of agency is neither ambiguous or rare.

As I spelled out yesterday, the mechanic philosophy – and therefore science – is incapable of dealing with individual agency.  Therefore, if we are to have a theory of agency, it cannot be a scientific theory.  Annoying, but true.

People may choose randomly or capriciously.  Let us assume for the moment that you, as I, wish to make choices informed by reason.  In order to make rational choices, it will be necessary to have a theory of choice.  For some given value of self, I must posit that a self exists with the ability to choose between two outcomes.  In order to have any concept of “being convinced” in an argument, I must either believe “convincing” to be a mechanical process or accept that there is a “self” which either chooses to accept the argument or reject it.  In the first case, there is no difference between rhetoric and logic; the only distinction is between those arguments that effect change in mind and those that don’t.  (In this case, I have no interest in “convincing” you.)  The latter case necessarily invokes agency.  I could be wrong, but I believe this to be a true dichotomy.  The distinction between successful rhetoric and logic requires agency.  Thus thinking about thinking requires agency.

I have not claimed that this is an empirical or deductive truth.  I do claim that it is a practical necessity.  I must invoke the concept of agent to think about myself thinking well.

I conceive of myself as an agent.  I may treat others as though they were solely mechanisms without choice of their own.  It’s one way to achieve a simpler model of the universe.  (This by the way, is another way to misapply Ockham’s razor.)  Logically, I am not compelled to believe that others experience choice as I do.  I have no access to their internal experience.  The move from a single agent to multiple agents, then, is axiomatic.  The first agent may be invoked experientially, if not empirically.  Many agents requires a leap of faith.  No other words for it.

When Christians (and Jews) invoke the idea of a soul, created in the image and likeness of God, they are at a very fundamental level, saying that every person has inside them an agent.  Each individual has motivation that changes the way the universe operates – just as God set the universe in motion, so we set in motion individual chains of events.

This has immense predictive value.  It says I can cause preferred outcomes.  It says I can act differently and achieve different results.  It says I can change your mind in a way that magnifies the change to the universe.  I have done more than simply posit a different substance, I have posited a different kind of force: a non-universal force that changes local conditions unpredictably.  Science itself rests on this assumption implicitly.  I choose a series of actions or observations that differ minimally in order to record the variations in outcome.  It presumes an underlying order to the universe such that I might be convinced or unconvinced that I have the correct model.  In a purely mechanical universe, no agent exists to prefer the model that corresponds to reality over the model that does not.  The illusory self simply has a model.

In addition to predictive value, the presumption of multiple agents has moral value.  If I presume I am the only agent, then I am the only one with preferences that can be actualized.  I might choose what I believe benefits others, but I cannot account for their preference, only their responses.  Christian (and many other) theologies set up a system whereby one might assume the existence of multiple (and multivariate) preferences in making personal choices.  We even go so far as to say you cannot truly love another individual unless you respect their will and choices.  [Mind you, respecting does not always mean agreeing with or not working against.]

Science does not get you to agents and agency.  Christianity posits the existence of agents closely correlated with but not equivalent to bodies.  We name the agent, soul and say that it is created in the image and likeness of God.  That need not invoke ontological dualism or supernatural realities.  It does mean that a second functioning model of the universe must be created parallel to the mechanical model of science.  Personally, I hope the two will be reconciled, but that currently cannot be.  In the meantime, I am unwilling to give up either the utility of agency or the utility of empirical models.


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