Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Priority of Insight over Concept

In my most recent post I mentioned the idea that insight comes before concept. This apparently struck a couple readers as quite, well, insightful, so I want to unpack it a bit more.

First, let me state, for the record, that this formulation does not originate with me. I heard it from Michael Vertin, a professor at Regis College in Toronto who was a close friend with Bernard Lonergan. For me thought it helped sum up the brilliance of Lonergan's achievement. What follows however is purely my exegesis of the formulation, for which no one but myself is to blame.

It is really a way of summarizing the distinction in Lonergan's thinking between attending to the data of experience and making intelligible sense of what I have noted in attending. Through attending I gain insight, then I set out to render those insights conceptually intelligible. This is really an incredibly powerful tool. In the field of religious studies, which is broadly speaking my area of expertise, it allows for some significant breakthroughs. For instance, I have long wondered why it is that all the earliest known religious traditions seem to have some sort of spirit-belief. I can now understand this is the result of three things: 1) certain experiences so common as to 2) recurrently generate comparable insights, 3) combined with limited heritage of conceptual resources. For instance, there is a common experience of the wind. This experience leads to the recurrent insight that the wind blows on its own accord. The limited conceptual resources lead to a recurrent tendency to describe this in anthropomorphic terms.

As humanity moves along the course of history however new data, new insights, and concepts will emerge. Two general tendencies will likely emerge. Such different groups will tend to have comparable experiences they will also tend to generate comparable insights; however, as they generate ever-new conceptual resources there will emerge a diversity in how these insights are articulated. Thus there will tend to be greater diversity on the level of concept than insight. Let us consider a particular set of insight and concepts. Much conceptual work in metaphysics has, for the last three or so millennia, been focused upon explaining the insight that although the world is constantly changing nonetheless it always remains. The Abrahamic traditions tend to articulate this in terms of God's creative work: change expresses the will of God, even as his ever-presence in the world ensures continuity. The Indian traditions tend to articulate this by defining reality as a sort of undifferentiated monism and the existence of differentiation and thus change as a product of illusion. Conceptually these are very different ways of thinking about reality, but when thinking in terms of insight they might not be as far apart as they might first seem.

The reality is that unless we can find better ways to coexist the 21st century promises to be no less bloody than the 20th, and given our present capacity for destruction I'm not sure that we can survive that as a species. Any tools that can allow us to identify our human unity despite and even through the din are to be welcomed. I am inclined to think that the distinction between insight and concept is such a tool.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mythicism and Freeze-drying

I haven't blogged in awhile, largely because I've been preoccupied with finishing a paper that I'm delivering next week to the Lonergan Research Institute at Regis College in Toronto (and which can be found here). The LRI is the centre for Lonergan studies. Lonergan had close ties with Regis, and the centre houses the Lonergan archives and oversees the publication of his collected works. It was a significant honour to be invited to speak at the Institute, so I feel a real responsibility to ensure that what I present is my best work.

As I wrote the paper I returned to Meyer's scathing book review of John Dominic Crossan's The Historical Jesus. Here I will quote a passage that comes near the end of the view.
Historical inquiry, with its connotations of a personal wrestling with evidence, is not to be found. There are no recalcitrant data, no agonizing reappraisals. All is aseptic, the data having been freeze-dried, prepackaged, and labelled with literary flair. Instead of an inquiry, what we have here is simply the proposal of a bright idea. But, as Bernard Lonergan used to say, bright ideas are a dime a dozen—establishing which of them are true is what separates the men from the boys.
As I reread this passage, which I quote in the paper discussed above, it occurs to me that this describes well what we see in mythicism. It's always good form to critique the best version of a position, and for mythicism that is surely Richard Carrier's work. It's well-written, an exemplar of rhetoric and of making one's historiography appear like a hard science. But that's all smoke and mirrors. Carrier's got a bright idea, but that's all. That bright is that there is a 2 in 3 chance that Jesus did not exist. That doesn't tell me that Jesus did not exist. In fact, "Did Jesus exist?" is not even Carrier's question but rather "Is there a conceivable world in which Jesus did not exist?" And the answer to that is "Yes." But that's not enough. One must further ask "Is that world the one that best accounts for the totality of the relevant data?" Does it account for the most data whilst adopting the fewest suppositions? Does it resolve problems throughout the field of study, or does it in fact create new ones? And on those matters Carrier fails, as has been shown repeatedly by various NT scholars, professional and amateur, here on the interwebs (which, one should note, is just about the only place that this "debate" is taking place. It's certainly not taking place in the academy. Kinda like what fundamentalist Christians euphemistically call the evolution "debate"; the debate, it turns out, exists primarily in their heads).

I can conceive of many things. I can conceive of a world that sprang into being fully-formed last Tuesday, with all our memories and the appearance of age prefabricated by a deity named Goozawana. But conceiving of such a world does not make it so. There is a reason that we distinguish between fiction and history. The objects are different. One aims to suggest what might be, the other to define what actually was. That's a significant difference. I have yet to see Carrier move beyond the realm of the what might be into the realm of what is. I'll check back when he does.