Stemming the Knowledge Drain

Technically relevant to the content of this post

I’ve been following in the footsteps of Luke of Common Sense Atheism and been spending more time on Less Wrong (the rationality/probability theory writings of Eliezer Yudkowsky — author of the fabulous fanfiction story Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality).  I thought I’d share the opening paragraphs of a post titled “Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)

In Orthodox Judaism there is a saying: “The previous generation is to the next one as angels are to men; the next generation is to the previous one as donkeys are to men.” This follows from the Orthodox Jewish belief that all Judaic law was given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. After all, it’s not as if you could do an experiment to gain new halachic knowledge; the only way you can know is if someone tells you (who heard it from someone else, who heard it from God). Since there is no new source of information, it can only be degraded in transmission from generation to generation.

Thus, modern rabbis are not allowed to overrule ancient rabbis. Crawly things are ordinarily unkosher, but it is permissible to eat a worm found in an apple – the ancient rabbis believed the worm was spontaneously generated inside the apple, and therefore was part of the apple. A modern rabbi cannot say, “Yeah, well, the ancient rabbis knew diddly-squat about biology. Overruled!” A modern rabbi cannot possibly know a halachic principle the ancient rabbis did not, because how could the ancient rabbis have passed down the answer from Mount Sinai to him? Knowledge derives from authority, and therefore is only ever lost, not gained, as time passes.

This depressing, inevitable diminution of knowledge seems like it must be equally applicable to many forms of Christianity as it is to Orthodox Judaism.  The endless schisming among sola scriptura sects seems like sufficient proof that the teachings they promote aren’t prima facie obvious and aren’t universally accessible.

However, I tend to talk more about Catholicism than generic Christianity on this blog, and I don’t need to look farther than the Vatican conference on extraterrestrial life to see that Catholicism thinks it is capable of tackling fundamentally new questions.  (Or, at least, giving them new answers, which must be cold comfort to Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for a variety of cosmological heresies, including the idea of extraterrestrial life).

I know that Catholicism and other strands of Christianity allow for both public and private revelation (and, for Catholicism, private revelation can’t be interpreted as binding on all the faithful without a lot of investigation and discussion), but I’m not exactly sure where they fit into new questions and revision of old thought.

To use a math analogy, do the Scriptures provide a set of axioms, and Sacred Tradition guides the derivations of new theological theorems from that set?  Was the set of axioms complete (i.e. capable of implying all necessary teachings) to start with or did revelation and study uncover previously unknown components of theology?  Mark Shea wrote an interesting and thorough exegesis of the Church teaching on the sin of giving scandal, but although I can follow his logic, it’s still hard for me to see how you decide whether something is a valid derivation or a bit of not explicitly contradictory embroidery (cf. the strange homily I heard on Divine Mercy Sunday).

I’d be quite interested to hear how people think the conservation and revision of theology works in the comments.  Does anyone subscribe to the tragic erosion Yudkowsky learned as an Orthodox Jew?  If not, what mechanism keeps your church going right?


Super geeky addendum: If you believed that a certain subset of Christian theology was definitely true, and that several different theological ideas could be coupled with it to flesh it out, but each of these supplemental theologies was mutually exclusive with other couplings, the different pairings would be the theological equivalent of non-Euclidean geometry.  In my head, I like to think of different sects as non-euclidean theology.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Matt Shafer

    There are a couple problems here I want to point out.First, there seems to be an assumption that insofar as tradition, revelation, and reason work together to guide us tow…ard epistemological conclusions, they do so in an epistemologically foundationalist way. (The analogy to foundationalist mathematical structures suggests that this assumption is at play, in this post at least if not in Leah's broader writing). But epistemological foundationalism is, as I understand it, far from a universally accepted theory of knowledge either in academic philosophy generally or in Christian theology. I don't really incline towards foundationalism, personally, at least in my understanding of Christian theology.Second, there's a more fundamental assumption at work here, one that I think is even more problematic. The post seems to take it for granted that Christian theology works from and/or comes up with propositional 'truths' about its subject matter. (This too is reflected by the maths analogy.) But I'm not at all convinced that theology in the Christian tradition must necessarily be structured along these lines. Indeed, there are schools of theology (such as narrative theology) that emphasize forms of theologizing other than the propositional (and foundationalist).

  • Blamer ..

    Another excellent post.Denomination X might assess the credibility of (or confidence in) a revealed truth using their own idiosyncratic (say Catholic) method, or using a theologically objective method (whereby the method can be fairly applied to truths revealed to non-Catholics, for example).Either way, the historical divergence of Christianity suggests to me that the Catholic method – however accurate – just isn’t convincing. At least to non-Catholics. At least not yet.

  • Charles

    there is that old joke that you can always tell when the Vatican is about to change a long held teaching when they begin a document by stating "the church has always taught…."

  • Brian Green

    Two quick responses. First, I have a good friend who is a Bruno scholar who vehemently disagrees with the idea that Bruno was killed for anything scientific, but rather was killed for claiming to do magic and other occult activities which he for some reason used to cover up his scientific speculations. In other words, he made his otherwise strange but non-heretical ideas heresy by occultizing them. Bruno also tended to run from ruler to ruler looking for protection and then insulting them, thus resulting in a rather strong secular distaste for his existence.Second, in the Catholic church private revelation is, as far as I know, never considered to be binding on the faithful. It can be investigated and deemed to be not contrary to the faith, or acceptable for belief, but because it is private revelation, it is never mandatory to believe it.Great questions in the above, I'll try to write something more substantive later, since this is exactly my research area, trying to get Catholic natural law in dialogue with modern science. Suffice it for now, for Catholics tradition does not only degrade as Yudkowsky says he was taught (and as you rightly note), it develops as reason makes more clear what the tradition means. Also as social context changes and so on. Such a great topic!

  • Kevin

    I can only speak for myself, and not on behalf of übersophisticated post-denominational anti-foundationalist revolutionary Christians like Mr. Shafer and Co., but for Catholics, the problem of "conservation of theology" simply doesn't arise.The basis of Catholic faith is not the scriptures or the judgments of the Church fathers, even though these obviously hold a very exalted place in Catholic thought. Neither is the life of Christ the basis of Catholicism, if by "the life of Christ" we understand a completed event contained neatly in the past. Rather, Christ himself, the eternal God present everywhere, is the foundation of faith. Or, recalling the habit of speech according to which the Church is Christ's body, we might say that the Church is the foundation of faith. Christ is as present to us in the Church as he was to his disciples in the flesh. The Holy Spirit, present to the Church in every age, is the true canon of interpretation, and so there is not necessarily any temporal prejudice one way or the other. If Catholics often defer to great scholars and mystics of the past, this is (officially at least) only because such figures deserve our deference on the merits.This view, that the Church is at all times the authoritative expositor of revelation, is not a controversial one in Catholicism. Nonetheless there are two problematic views that follow closely on it. We might call one authoritarian, and the other antinomian. The authoritarian view argues that since God is no less present in the Church than he ever was, contemporary papal documents and contemporary Catholic practice unproblematically represent the great Tradition of the faith. The antinomian view argues that since the Holy Spirit is present to all believers, one is not required to take any kind of authority into account in matters of faith. Currently the first of these errors is more pernicious, but in various times and places they have both had their day.In point of fact both of these errors are similar, in that they take the present as normative (either the opinions of the present pope or the present mental states of the believer are taken as authoritative). But at the risk of sounding like an übersophisticated liberal myself, I'd say the truth is something more like a dialogue. As a Catholic, when I read the works of great thinkers who preceded me, I read them not as items on some syllabus of "historical theology," but in a certain sense as contemporaries. In this sense, Christian theology is a matter of consensus — but it is a consensus among generations.As regards the rules of this dialogue, Leah, you're quite right to point out that it's unclear what's an axiom and what's a "supplemental theology." Some things fall explicitly into one category or the other: the divinity of Christ is clearly an axiom, Limbo clearly a supplement. But there's a lot of gray area — the Immaculate Conception, for example, was in this gray area for centuries before it was "promoted" to the level of an axiom.One thought to close this ramble:Theology is a different science than geometry, and deserves a different method, but it's not entirely wrong to speak of axioms and their elaborations. A real Christian is very interested in the truth-values of the items of the Creed — narrative theology and similar evasions of the question are not worth a Christian's time.

  • Matt Shafer

    Kevin, you continue to remind me why I wish I could be Catholic. Great points all around.

  • Leah

    Brian, I really look forward to your thoughts. Make sure you remind me to post a link to them when you've written them up. Kevin, thanks a lot for your contribution. Studying Catholicism has shown me it's a lot less nitpicky heuristic and more character formation than I thought.So here's a question I've been thinking about: how important is it to have a solid, general moral theory vs. trying to know the problem in front of you. I might be able to recognize a particular excess in myself (and I do: overweening pride) without really knowing the end goal when I start trying to compensate and alter my character. Legitimate? What about when I give advice to a friend?

  • JSA

    It seems conceivable that the ancients were fundamentally superior to us in some ways, while fundamentally inferior in others. Our growing technological knowledge and capabilities have removed many selection pressures, while adding others. The evidence points to the fact that the worshippers at Gobleki Tepe, 11,000 years ago, did not have a hierarchical social structure, yet succeeded in building massive religious monuments. We know that culture co-evolves with genetics, and perhaps there was something unique in that population that has since been bred out of humankind. People 30,000 years ago couldn't consult books or spend a lot of time experimenting — they would have to rely more heavily on their own cognitive capabilities. Let's suppose that there was a genetic basis for a sort of "sensus divinitatus" that helped people attain insights and live in harmony before the neolithic revolution, but which became maladaptive with the advent of agriculture. Such a faculty may well have disappeared. Or maybe there were certain cognitive instincts that were more highly-tuned. Maybe ability to predict the weather or sense danger was more widespread. I'm not saying that any of these theories is true; but saying that we can't rule them out.I strongly support the idea of resurrecting ancient Neanderthal and Human DNA. It would be fascinating to see what phenotype traits; particularly cognitive capability, that has been bred out of the human population in the last 35,000 years.Regarding the relation to theology, I tend to operate by a number of rules of thumb:1) If I don't fully understand the cultural context of the theologian, I'm not going to be able to judge his theology2) I can't guarantee that my cognitive capabilities are on par with an ancient theologian, so any judgment I make must come with a large grain of salt3) When there are competing, mutually exclusive theories that both seem valid (which describes most of the controversy in theology), play it safe. Hold provisionally to the one that is least likely to cause you trouble if you are wrong.

  • Kevin

    That's a great question, Leah, if only because it invites a little freehand Scholasticizing. Actually I think there are two questions you're asking.1. Moral theory vs. moral practice:The ancient distinction between arts and sciences is useful here. An art is a skilled practice, while a science is a knowledge of the principles of a thing. Science can go without art: my mother bakes well without knowing overmuch about chemistry. And art can go without science: to take an example from medicine, people have known for a very long time that eating citrus fruits prevents scurvy, though until the 20th century nobody knew that there was such a thing as vitamin C. What was once merely art (the practical but opaque rule that one should eat limes) has now been supported by the principles of science. Very often the explication of a matter in terms of scientific principle gives us practical insight, but not always — we might know more about the principles of perspective than the Athenians did, but whatever the state of their knowledge, they built a damn good Parthenon.So also in morality: it's an intellectual perfection to understand the principles of moral science, and a practical (i.e. moral) perfection to know how to act upon them. If there is a virtuous way to deal with a certain situation, and I do it without knowledge of the principles of virtue, I've still acted virtuously. And this is true even if, ceteris paribus, it would be better if I knew the principles of the matter. But in the end it's not really a dichotomy between being good and being smart.2. Can you correct a vice without understanding the opposed virtue?According to my old mothworn ideology: absolutely. Virtues are means; vices the contrary extremes. Moving away from one extreme usually moves you toward virtue. Knowledge of the specific virtue is helpful (you can avoid "overshooting" towards the opposite vice), but avoiding vice is already a step in the right direction. If you know what not to do, you already have a kind of moral knowledge, even if it could use the complement of a positive rule. But in this case, I doubt you're at any risk of running into the vice of doormatdom.

  • Brian Green

    Well, let's see what I can do. All I can say here is that this is my understanding of the subject and I hope I depict it accurately. If anyone wants to correct me, please do, I am open to correction. I might slightly mutate your question into the question of how doctrine develops, since I have more knowledge there, and I hope that will overlap your interest. I am also more of an ethicist than a theologian, so that will color my perspective a bit. Also, note that one is allowed to say that doctrine "develops," but that one should not say that it "changes." :)First, I would say that the Catholic tradition actually contains multiple sub-traditions, which contain multiple incompatibilities with each other. For example, the Franciscans are often associated with Divine command theory (ethical voluntarism) while the Dominicans are associated with natural law (ethical rationalism), and the Jesuits with both in various mixtures (currently leaning towards revisionist rationalism, perhaps). (The Franciscan vs. Dominican problem can be more easily understood by how they would react to the command from God: "Hate God!" The Franciscan (traditionally) would obey, since they follow divine commands, the Dominican would not, because the human's rational end is to love God.)The fact that the Church contains conflicting internal traditions is not considered a bad thing, it is a good thing because it means there is plenty to talk about and not all matters are settled. However, sometimes tensions between traditions must be resolved, as when the Franciscans wanted to ban private property (in the 1300s, I think) and nobody else in the Church did! The magisterium had to step in and adjudicate the problem. (And private property was deemed okay.)Generally the magisterium does not want to pronounce on things unless it has to, because that makes the losers in the case mad. It also reduces the future flexibility of the tradition (though this is not usually a concern, perhaps). Now the above is a matter of sorting out undecided issues, which is one form of doctrinal development: just picking between two options already present. These are, then, clarifications. Another kind of development would relate to changes in social context or the meanings of words. One could argue that "usury" became licit in a limited way, for investment purposes, because the nature of money/capital changed in the 1500s, for example; or that the institution of slavery changed between ancient and modern times. And yet another kind would relate to new discoveries, like that apples worms really are not kosher. (Continued…)

  • Brian Green

    (Continued…)New science and the integration of new knowledge with old is a delicate matter to say the least. If a new idea wants to be heard, it should not come out and call old teachings "wrong;" rather what people tend to do is find tensions in the traditions and use the tradition to correct itself. For example, it is traditional that both "error has no rights" and that conscience is primary. By re-balancing these against each other, a major aspects of Church teaching on religious freedom was "updated" or "developed" at Vatican II. This was based not on new science, but on a better understanding of the dignity of the human person; a dignity rooted in the Catholic tradition already, but which was not fully developed.What about evolution, to get into something really new. Evolution could throw natural law into a destabilized state, because NL requires that certain norms apply "always and everywhere" because human nature is a static universal, but evolution shows that human nature changes (or develops) over time. This is a serious and unresolved question, both sides (the pro-stasis and anti-stasis) can cite Church teaching and tradition to support themselves. The tradition has formed a tension, which will have to be resolved by magisterial pronouncement at some point, and most likely in as limited a way as possible.So the better way to think of the tradition is not as a set of axioms and deductions, but as a set of stories. The four Gospels perhaps set the stage for that tradition of multiple traditions right from the start. Having multiple traditions as hand gives one a sort of "armory" of ideas to work with should a problem arise, or perhaps a "toolkit" for addressing new things. Anyway this subject could fill a lifetime if I just droned on. Ask me questions instead, if you like. :)

  • Brian Green

    Just to add one more thing… I think the reason this plurality of internal traditions is considered acceptable and good is that it is understood that God is hard to understand and always bigger than our conceptions. Therefore having more ideas about God is better than having fewer. However, over time disparities are reasoned out, and so the whole tradition gradually moves towards a better understanding of God, as homing in on a target, but necessarily, importantly, very slowly. So rather than decaying over time, tradition progresses through reasoning and experience and reinterpretation.