Getting to the Bottom of Thinking: There Is No “View from Nowhere” (And an Illustration from Differing Beliefs about God)
When I encounter disagreement about which I care, I attempt to “dig down” to rock bottom presuppositions and work up from there. Often, disagreements over philosophical-theological issues have to do with presuppositions. Many years ago I began to think about philosophical-theological (and I might add social-political and ethical) disagreements in terms of governing, even driving, presuppositions.
One of my own governing, driving presuppositions is that there is no “view from nowhere.” In other words, I begin dialogue and debate with the assumption that everyone, including I, myself, view reality from “somewhere.”
What does this deny? During the Enlightenment, especially, philosophers began to dream of what came to be called a “transcendental ego” or “transcendental self” one function of which would be (if it existed) to allow a person to rise above social location and personal experience, governing, guiding presuppositions, and view reality “from above”—from nowhere in particular. Pure, objective rationality was the ideal.
One might trace this back to René Descartes’ obliquely described experience of discovering the one undoubtable truth: “cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.” This supposedly happened one night in a stove-heated room in a hotel as he was stranded during a round-about journey through Europe. Descartes attempted to discover by pure thought one truth that could not be doubted. This, once discovered, allegedly provided the leverage for moving the world—that is, for developing a philosophy that is purely objective and cannot be put down by critics as biased.
Many people who haven’t studied Descartes or Enlightenment thought, however, seem to think they have a view from nowhere, that their thinking is not infected, biased, governed, guided (whatever) by personal experience, social location and/or faith. Some people think they’ve achieved this by strong effort using reason. Others just assume they have it naturally whereas others don’t. Yet others believe it is a gift granted by God.
As I “look” around the “world” of ideas and arguments, beliefs and ideologies, philosophies and theologies, I begin with the assumption that only God, if he exists, has a view from nowhere. (Of course, I do believe God exists, so I do believe there is only one view from nowhere—God’s. My reason for expressing it in that hypothetical way is to appeal to atheists and agnostics to keep on reading!) No human being presently existing on earth has a “view from nowhere.” We are all biased in our thinking. Even “reason” is used and misused according to vested interests, social location, personal experiences and perspectives, opinions, faith, etc.
This raises the inevitable question of how to achieve agreement among diverse people. Is there not a “common humanity” to which we can appeal? To those who would argue for it I can only ask what it includes that could function as ground or basis for universal agreement or even consensus.
One candidate, in fact the only one that carries any weight with me, is the law of non-contradiction. If we do not assume that a blatant contradiction is always a sign of error, there is no hope for achieving universal agreement or consensus or of persuading someone that their particular view on reality is mistaken. Why not “the preponderance of evidence?” Simply because what counts as “evidence” is paradigm-dependent. That is, it too does not “hover,” as it were, above all humanity to be snatched out of the air and used to prove this or that. There is no view from nowhere about what counts as evidence.
However, most sane people tend to recognize a blatant contradiction affirmed as a sign of error—at least in others! Having said that, however, I must admit that identifying something as a blatant contradiction is often extremely difficult. All I can say is that, for me, and I think for most intelligent, reasonable people, sheer, blatant contradiction is considered a sign or error. The problem is that there are really very few blatant contradictions easily identified as such in the works of educated, intelligent people. Most have worked them out. However, I still believe that identifying a real logical contradiction between two or more propositions in a belief system is progress—toward coming to agreement.
Having said that, I qualify with this: There is a difference between a “mystery” and a “logical contradiction.” I do not think there is any allegedly comprehensive belief system that does not include some acknowledgement of mystery. Life, reality, is mysterious—at least around the edges. Mystery is simply what cannot fully be understood or explained; a logical contradiction is two or more propositions, truth claims, that cannot be held at the same time because they fall into essential, necessary conflict with each other.
I could go on, of course, with this discourse on epistemology, but I want to stick to one main point—aside from convincing others that a belief system (however informal it may be) includes blatant logical contradiction(s), there may be no universal criteria of truth that actually works within a large, diverse group of people who operate out of diverse belief systems, worldviews, life perspectives.
What I am affirming is what philosopher R. M. Hare labeled “bliks”—world perspectives that are unfalsifiable and unverifiable but function as “seeing the world as….” We all see the world (reality) as this or that. Peter Berger calls these “plausibility structures.” Within any large, diverse group of people (such as the readers of this blog!) there will inevitably be many bliks, perspectives on reality, seeing the world as something. These are not simply amenable to reason; to a very large extent they determine how reason will be used, what will count as evidence.
The only thing that might transcend them all is the law of non-contradiction. However, everyone who attempts to wield that tool uses it for something or other. Everyone will set it aside in some cases and take it up in others. Even it is not a “view from nowhere” even if it is universally applicable.
Informed readers may think “Ah! Olson is a Wittgensteinian fideist!” Uninformed readers may think “Ah! Olson is a postmodernist!” I might be one or both—depending on definitions. These are essentially contested concepts. I will admit to being strongly influenced by postliberal theology (Frei, Lindbeck, Placher, at al.) even though I do not embrace all aspects of each postliberal theologian’s project. I am a post-foundationalist.
When disagreement erupts here, on this blog, and I take it seriously because it is serious, my immediate reaction is to attempt to go “beneath the surface” of the disagreement to the “subterranean level.” By that I mean presuppositions. I am convinced, for example, that the underlying cause of many disagreements among Christians about God have to do with differing starting points in thinking what “God” means. Some Christians simply assume that in order to be God God must have absolute freedom and power to do anything and that whatever God would do would automatically be good and right just because God does it. This is traditionally called “voluntarism” and is especially associated with the “Subtle Doctor” Duns Scotus. Luther seemed to assume this at least some of the time (for example in his debate with Erasmus). Other Christians simply assume that in order to be God God must be good in some way that is analogous to goodness as revealed in Jesus Christ and God’s will for humanity. In other words, that even God must have an eternal, unchangeable moral character and that, in order to worshipful, God must be good and that “good” in that sentence must mean something other than “whatever God would do would automatically be good just because God does it.”
These two perspectives on God exist side-by-side among Christians and govern much else in their theologies. They are incommensurate perspectives on God. Both can appeal to Scripture for support but Scripture alone does not prove one or the other. How, then, to decide between them? There is no simple answer to that question; perhaps this divide will go on forever (or until God intervenes to settle the question eschatologically).
But when I detect that a conversation partner and I have arrived at this continental divide between subterranean perspectives (to mix metaphors), and I often detect that before he does, I do not know where to go from there except simply to point out some problems with his perspective—the main one being that, in that case, “God is good” only means “God is God” and is uninformative. It is simply a tautology. And, in addition, insofar as he believes God predestines some people created in his own image and likeness to hell, to ask how God is “good” to those in hell (or will be in hell)?
It has long been my suspicion that, in spite of denials, all classical, “high” Calvinists of the T.U.L.I.P. variety (who believe in hell), are voluntarists with regard to God. This suspicion is confirmed when certain questions are asked and answered with sentences that amount to “Whatever God does or would do is ‘good’ just because God does it.” Eventually, I have found, that perspective pops out when questions about the meaning of “good God” are asked insistently enough.
This illustrates my point that, even in Christian theology, perhaps especially in Christian theology, there is no “view from nowhere.” Even equally devout, committed Christians approach the Bible and Christian experience and tradition from incommensurate perspectives “seeing them as” meaning different things.
In my opinion, this perspectival divide is deeper than any other one among Christians committed to biblical revelation and basic Christian orthodoxy. I see no way of closing it other than changing perspectives. I know that I cannot even see God as that—viz., as sheer power and might without moral character other than what God himself decides to have. Such a God is, in my opinion, from my perspective, unworthy of trust, praise and worship. Such a God is simply arbitrary. And “God is good” is, from my perspective in that perspective, a meaningless claim. Finally, as I have argued here several times before, that perspective, voluntarism, undermines confidence in the Bible as reliable revelation. A God without eternal, unchanging, governing moral character could be deceiving us. Our confidence in the trustworthiness and reliability of the Bible, of revelation, requires belief that God cannot deceive. That is only true if voluntarism is not true.
This is a true example, illustration, of the principle that there is no view from nowhere (among mortals). This difference of perspective cannot be adjudicated; it will always exist, at least until the eschaton when all things get settled. From each perspective the other one has profound problems that undermine God’s Godness and much else important to Christian faith.