Page 1 John Sobert Sylvest says: March 29, 2010 at 11:52 am

Ben, this is an excellent recap and faithful to the way I experienced that particular Mardi Gras afternoon (the ONLY person in New Orleans virtually at Claremont and not actually on Bourbon Street; forgive me, Lord.).

I would say that we all need philosophical norms to provide a meta-metaphysical perspective but that essential Christian dogma are not inescapably loaded with any particular scientific, philosophical or metaphysical presuppositions, including such as a soul, metaphysical self or even a wholly autonomous free will. There is a probabilistic middle ground, for example, between absolutely free choices and seemingly free choices that can be established even within a socalled hegemony of the physical. I have imported some of my own reflections on the Clayton-Dennett debate into another discussion we’ve been having at National Public Radio about related matters re: philosophy of mind, where I offer an expanded critique of Dennett that keeps his baby but cleans up his bathwater. Should one go metaphysical, that’s fine as long as it is fallibilist.

John Sobert Sylvest says: March 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Ben, another distinction: I tend to lump metaphysics into the same category as natural theology and natural philosophy, where it is useful in framing up our ultimate concerns, disambiguating our concepts, clarifying reality’s putative initial, boundary & limit conditions, maybe even formulating our arguments thru abductive inference but going no further, chastized by past overreaches, attempts to prove too much or to say more than we can possibly know. With a contrite fallibilism, we explore the nature of our questions and the form of our meta-talk. This critique is not the radical apophaticism that’s exhibited by some of those with overly dialectical imaginations; rather, it affirms metaphysical realism but suggests that our deontologies should then be considered as tentative as our ontologies are speculative. IOW, we might severely question how much normative impetus our metaphysics can claim as we move from what we think IS to what we think OUGHT to be.


What I whole-heartedly affirm is the robust engagement of our analogical imaginations, employing analogies and metaphors in what is a essentially poetic rhetoric that has its starting place within the faith and is thus a Theology of Nature. This is how I receive most of the work of Clayton, Bracken, Haught et al. These are elaborate tautologies filled with nature references and even technical scientific jargon that are nevertheless on par with the psalms, St. Francis’ Hymns to nature and such but brought up to date for our postmodern milieu. They have a tremendous amount of interpretive and evaluative significance and the more consonant with what we already know from descriptive science and normative philosophy, the more taut will be the tautology, which means that, while all metaphors eventually collapse, our metaphors can be rather resilient and versatile. IOW, such theologies of nature find their usefulness among those who have already taken the leap of faith, not unaided by reason and not inconsistent with science, but not so much as argumentation for faith, like the classical proofs which were metaphysical. Such a theology of nature-enlivened imagination can, indeed, recursively help further illuminate our understanding of life, in general, as we believe in order to know.

Anyway, that’s my parsing. As for competing metaphysical tautologies, the way I would adjudicate between those is by asking which one might best foster the normalization of gravity and quantum mechanics. Otherwise, they aren’t terribly interesting are helpful. We know that religion as a value-realization approach enjoys epistemic virtue, just like science. But we can’t deny that they otherwise differ in the amount of epistemic risk; we can only suggest that the increased risks has commensurate rewards.

John Sobert Sylvest says: March 29, 2010 at 10:54 pm

Ben, that was a delightful read. It is something I will keep in my pdf library. As for us getting there from opposite directions, your suspicion may be suspect because my philosophical project is called a Peircean-Nevillean Integral Axiological Epistemology [PNIAE] and my theology of nature is called Pansemio-entheism. If I grasped the import of your own thrust correctly, we may be hermeneutical blood-brothers. I am mighty pleased to thus make your cyberacquaintence. I am precisely interested in the application of my PNIAE in the interreligious realm, employing a concept that Amos Yong (my collaborator) calls the pneumatological imagination. Our collaboration remains a work-inprogress. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page , where it reads NOTES, there you will find some summary materials. BTW, I reject the transcendental thomism of Rahner b/c its kantian notions are too a prioristic and rationalistic. I do look to Lonergan but similarly qualify his stuff. Stay in touch! Are there others 2

of you at Claremont with pragmatist leanings?

Jo Ann, I am about at the same place Phil Clayton is with all of this. I just finished archiving all of the stuff I’ve been scribbling over the past 10 years postretirement and have basically given up new investigations of this nature. They have reached a point of diminishing returns for me. You know: So much straw. They reached that point for others much earlier, I know. I suppose I get on discussion forums like this one at National Public Radio only to avoid going cold turkey with my pomotheo process addiction. Still, at times, we must engage others like Dennett and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens on their own terms and with their jargon in order to better subvert their systems from within. At other times, such jargon represents a lapse because it is not audience-appropriate and thus offends charity by excluding people. Then again, on the other hand, it can be a shortcut and will take less time and less space than a more accessible version in an exchange such as the one above. My time and this space is limited but I will gladly address any specific questions as I can, when I can.

John Sobert Sylvest says: March 30, 2010 at 7:29 am

Well, as Radical Orthodoxy might say, Dennett does have a few rather confessional stances, himself. One way to bust the religious move is to avoid getting so apophatic that one imagines that what is wholly incomprehensible is not, at the same time, partly apprehendable or thinks that a failure to successfully describe a reality necessarily forecloses on one’s ability to successfully refer to it. Each stance has risks and rewards. Perhaps one measure of the amount irony that will attend to any given stance is its risk:reward ratio vis a vis what Lonergan has described in terms of a growth in human authenticity through various conversions? John Sobert Sylvest says: March 30, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Ben, I better understand our convergence, now. I am an autodidact w/no academic background in philosophy, religion or theology, plus I lead an almost eremitic life, and this might make my prose a tad dense and my wordings somewhat idiosyncratic.

Below is my defense of what I think you are saying using Peircean categories as I 3

understand them. I think this sets forth how our views resonate. I do not want to presume upon your time. Also, I do not want to suck the oxygen out of this thread with an off-topic consideration so I am inviting Tripp to delete it and send it to you by e-mail for your disposal at your convenience. Whatever protocol dictates. I do not have the luxury of classroom exchanges, seminar discussions and grad dept coffee klatches, so I don’t want to presume upon your generosity, which might be easy for me to do.

In my approach to Peirce, I distinguish between 1ns and 3ns in terms of the in/determinate and un/specifiable, respectively. The indeterminacy is epistemic in nature and results from methodological constraints. Any unspecifiability is ontological, or modal, in nature and results from a putative in-principle ontological occulting. One way these would differ is that any ignorance due to unspecifiability would be invincible, while that due to indeterminacy is potentially temporary and could be conquered with future methodological improvements (e.g. technological) or epistemic insights (e.g. aha moments, abductions, paradigm shifts). Our semantical vagueness thus treats the modal possibilities of 1ns such that excluded middle holds while noncontradiction folds (in epistemic indeterminacy) and the modal probabilities of 3ns such that excluded middle folds while noncontradiction holds (in ontological vagueness). Which modal realities will later present as the actualities of 2ns, where EM & NC both hold, remains to be seen because we cannot a priori know when it is that our ignorance is invincible due to an in-principle ontological occulting and when it might otherwise be conquered due to our overcoming of methodological constraints. Of course, we adopt a methodological naturalism precisely because to otherwise presuppose that our ignorance results from an ontological occulting would be to drive into an epistemic cul-de-sac. A philosophical naturalism a priori presupposes that all ignorance results from what is temporarily indeterminable, epistemically speaking, and issues a metaphysical promissory note for future ontological specificity.

I say all of this to provide me a framework for grappling with your directionality distinctions. Stipulating to the indexical nature of human knowledge, it would seem that any intentionality that moves from humans in the world reaching toward what is unknown, which we cannot a priori presuppose as either temporarily indeterminate or invincibly unspecifiable, would entail a fallibilist, speculative metaphysic, which necessarily employs both positivist and philosophic methodologies. And it would seem that any reversal of that claim in Dewey’s notions of intending symbols mediating the world back to humans is also an integral part of the same triadic inferential process as 3ns play its mediating role in an ongoing recursive interplay with 1ns and 2ns. This would thus correspond to the Peircean rubric that the normative sciences (3ns) mediate between phenomenology (2ns or science) and metaphysics (1ns, incl speculative cosmology and highly theoretical physics). This is to say that it seems that Neville is talking about Peircean 1ns and you are talking about 3ns (vis a vis your 4

reversal). And it is also to suggest that, while your insights are indispensable that they are supplemental and not wholly over against Neville’s account, which would be incomplete per your description.

You appear to be making an additional move, as I see it. I appreciate that the context of Neville’s work hereinabove was theological, but my treatment above prescinded from that theological take to the strictly phenomenological, philosophical and metaphysical. In your treatment of 3ns, you are taking an essentially phenomenological category and coloring it with a theological hue, analogically imagining that the world is mediating to us not only our local environs but also expressions of primal reality (reality’s initial, boundary & limit conditions). Thus you are making a distinctly theological turn and have segued from a natural theology to a theology of nature.

The reason I thus characterize your thrust as a theology of nature is because our natural theology is confronted with what is very likely an immeasurable amount of information erasure due to entropic processes. The deeper we go into the structures of matter and the closer we get to t=0 near the Big Bang, the less information available re: our initial, boundary and limit conditions, much less ultimate reality. The world certainly mediates info to us re: our own horizons but any temporal critical realism looks like it will indeed be methodologically constrained if for no other reason than temporality, itself, collapses, a spatiotemporal reality on which we rely in our common sense notions of causation. The human experience of ultimacy remains fraught with mystery as reality appears terribly ambivalent toward us and incredibly ambiguous to us in the symbols it has intended for us. Thus, if with Blake we do see the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wildflower, holding Infinity in the palm of our hand and Eternity in an hour, we are doing a theology of nature. And so it is that I call my own theology of nature a pan-semio-entheism. I make that theological turn with you and take that existential leap even while suggesting THAT Ultimacy is mediating Herself back to me through manifold and multiform symbols (physical signs at that) even if I cannot give a robust account of just HOW that may be so. On that front, I prefer to remain ontologically vague, if only to return the favor to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. This indeed supports a robustly pluralistic approach to the world’s Great Traditions and indigenous religions. John Sobert Sylvest says: March 30, 2010 at 12:43 pm

BTW, and that’s also why I characterize Dennett’s confessional stance as a(n) (a) theology of nature, also ;) Someone is saying more than one can possibly know, proving too much, taking a 5

leap but not looking over one’s shoulder at the leap and considering its distance and nature.


Natural theology vs theology of nature  
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