Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part IV, an Interlude for Intelligibility

In this fourth post in a developing series on the relationship between Christianity and intellectual freedom, I want to take a break from the chronological progression in order to address some criticism I’ve received on the clarity and intelligibility of my argument. If you’ve arrived at this series de novo, then you might want to start at the beginning in order to follow the progression of what I’m trying to say. As I stated in the beginning, this is still a somewhat underdeveloped idea in my mind. These posts are as much me thinking through writing as they are me trying to write what I already think. 

I appreciate criticism of what I write. My intent here is not to be vague or opaque or to seem smarter than I really am. I want my ideas and my writing to be clear and intelligible. So if you come across something that I am not communicating clearly, please drop a comment below. I love debate and dialogue. And to those who have interacted with and critiqued what’s on this blog: I am sincerely thankful. Now, to the task at hand. 

If you go back to the first post in this series, I wrote that the possibility of communication was a necessary precondition to affirming intellectual freedom. Those freedoms–thought, press, religion, information–are all predicated on the idea that information can be both transmitted and received intelligibly. Take for example the following statement: “The leaf is green.” That statement, most likely–almost certainly–caused you to generate a series of concepts in your mind. The color green, for one. The idea of a leaf, more likely than not, connected to a tree or some other kind of plant. And we could go on. In each of these cases, the words refer to something that you and I both understand about reality. That there is such a thing as a color green. That there are such things as leaves which are attached to other things that exist called trees and that they are part of a larger grouping of things called plants. That the thing called green is part of a larger group of things called colors and that they can function as adjectives to describe properties in other things like leaves, or trees, or plants. 

Or the inserts that go into tables in order to extend them to fit more people: the leaves of a table. 

Or the pages or loose papers bound in a book, notebook, or portfolio–leaves of paper. 

Both of those examples could also be green. It is not logically impossible for such things as green table leaves or green leaves of paper to exist. In fact, I’m quite certain that green leaves of paper exist because I have seen, touched, owned, and used them. I’m a bit more skeptical of green table leaves, not because they are impossible but because I’ve never seen or touched one. But they could exist. 

Of course, neither of those possibilities were likely to correspond to the mental picture and model of reality that you constructed in your mind when you read: “The leaf is green.” However, that I would have to distinguish the special kinds of other green leaves and know that they would need to be distinguished means, at the very least, that you and I share a common, largely congruent concept of the world and its contents. That concept is common and largely congruent because there exists a world that is intelligible and understandable and that contains things like plants, trees, and leaves (and tables, and paper, and colors). If that intelligible world, and the common map we both share, did not exist, then communication would not be possible. And if communication were not possible, intellectual freedoms would not exist or–if they did–they would be meaningless. This is the crux of the argument I’ve been making up to this point. 

In my second post of the series, I connected this idea to concepts within the Old Testament, specifically the concept of law–both natural and revealed–as an objective basis for exercising freedom. The illustration that I think most resonates with this idea is the story of Nathan confronting King David on the issue of his adultery with Bathsheba. I say it most resonates with the idea of intellectual freedom because it presented an historical example of a non-elite, let’s say, using an objective standard against an elite that the elite recognized as both objective and applicable. Looked at from that angle, the function of law in the narrative history of Judeo-Christian thought is both modern and–in the truest sense of the term–progressive. 

The third post–the one immediately preceding this one–attempted to extend this line of thought into the New Testament, mainly by addressing the ideas of Logos and natural law. Through these concepts, I wanted my reader to appreciate that these ideas–Logos and natural law–present what I tried to illustrate with the green-leaf phrase above. That is that we all–everyone, everywhere, at all times–have access to true and accurate information about the universe, the world, and about how the things in them are ordered and related. It is on this basis that we can communicate and, therefore, upon which the idea of intellectual freedom rests. 

That last (third) post was the one that caused a bit of confusion in some readers. If you were one of those readers, my sincerest apologies. My purpose was not to confuse anyone. Instead, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that the New Testament writers had taken the Old Testament idea of an objective and knowable law to which everyone in the community is applicable and universalized it, and they did so by tying that idea to concepts that were already widely present within the wider classical world–the logos and the natural law. Thus, the Law of God and the Word of God was reconceived from being a specific, discrete revelation to a specific, discrete community into something that was not only knowable by those outside of Judaism (which, of course, was already the case) but something that was knowable and discoverable by everyone outside that community as well and absent any specific knowledge of the Old Testament. 

Tying that concept back to the Old Testament, what I want to emphasize is that this means that we all know–or should know–what constitutes the good or the ideal. In terms of creation, we all know, or ought to know, or could know the relationships that exist between various parts of the created order, which means we also know, or ought to know, or could know where those relationships are deficient or depart from the ideal. This matters for intellectual freedom, as John Stuart Mill recognized, because the ability to engage in open discourse and debate is a necessary part of individual and social development. In other words, whether it’s straight journalism, speculative poetry, abstract art, a religious text, or a debate over how information is stored and used, all of it is directed towards gaining a better grasp on reality, on how we relate to one another, and how we relate to the environment around us. And that is predicated on that reality and those relationships being intelligible, discernible, and communicable. 

One of the comments on that last post asked whether I was saying that without a grounding of reality in God’s will there could be no dissent. In short, I would answer yes. The non-theist may disagree that this reality is grounded in the will or mind of God, but what he or she cannot disagree on is that this reality is, well, real. That those maps we have in our minds with things like leaves, and trees, and colors, and tables correspond more or less accurately to the things in the world and the way they are related to one another. 

Of course, my ultimate argument is that although a non-theist can say they believe those things, their belief is in the end irrational. This is, in some ways, similar to the argument that William Dembski employs for the verifiability of intelligent design. That is that where intelligible information exists, there must be an intelligence behind it. But that’s jumping a bit ahead of where I think I’m at in working out my overall argument. However, it is an important digression at this point. And at this point, I’m not focused on the intelligence behind the intelligibility. Instead, I’m focused more on pointing out ways in which we all know that the world is intelligible. 

That may seem like a banal or quotidian point to make, but it isn’t. Not to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but our culture is permeated with relativistic ideas that deny that there are conditions independent of context that make true ontological and epistemological statements about reality. I’m not talking just about evolving social norms–although that is certainly part of it–but the idea that those maps–the leaves, trees, and colors–are not accurate representations of what the world really is but, rather, merely conventions we’ve all agreed on in order to make sense to one another. In other words, the dominant epistemology in our culture today–especially in the social sciences–essentially holds that reality exists because we communicate about it. We just invent labels, like colors, to facilitate our behavior. Against this view, I am arguing for its opposite: that our ability to communicate at all depends on the existence of real things. To put it in simpler terms, what today passes for mainstream epistemic views in academia will tell you that the reason the leaf is green is because we say so. I assert that we say the leaf is green because it is green. And further, we can say it is green because of real properties inherent within it and independent of how we may choose to label it. And those properties also make it a plant, because all plants have those similar properties.

Again, you may think I’m wasting my time, but I disagree. Not to jump too far ahead in what I’m thinking about but, if you have thought at all in questioning how it is that otherwise intelligent-appearing people can say things like, “not all men have penises,” or deny that unborn children are persons, then this is the answer to those questions. As hard as it is to believe, people honestly believe–or at least say they believe–that these things make sense because how we talk about things is itself the definition of what those things are and ought to be. My point in the last post, and in this series, is to assert that they do not really believe this. They cannot believe it because they know it to be false. But, in this–for lack of a better term–insane way of trying to bend nature to fit an autonomous human will, these same people believe that saying they believe what they know they don’t believe somehow means that they do believe. 

But let’s be honest. Saying that not all men have penises holds the same truth value as saying not all trees are plants. Nobody really believes this because it is simply not true. But I’m starting to digress. 

You may be asking what any of this has to do with intellectual freedom. It is this: this insane system of “belief” undermines the very foundations of intellectual freedom that lie at the root of our ideas about liberalism, democracy, and social purpose. If I can change reality merely by what I say, then the purpose of intellectual freedom as Mill understood it has been eliminated. It has been eliminated because what point is there in fostering a marketplace of ideas? If mere agreement on language shapes reality then communication is pointless. If not all men have penises, then words like man and woman have no meaning. If words have no meaning, then there is no communication. And if there is no communication, then the whole project of a cohesive, democratic society has come to an end. When we look at the way our social and mass media are behaving, it now makes sense why dissent cannot be tolerated–because dissent is evidence that the social construction of reality is . . . not real. 

But they already knew that.

In terms of clarifying my last post on the New Testament, my main point was showing the connections that the writers made between their development of Old Testament themes and the recognition in non-Jewish societies that the same or a similar map existed. That men like Heraclitus, Plato, and the Stoics recognized that there was both a map (our mental image of the world and its relationships) and a topography that the map roughly corresponded to (the actual things in the world and their relationships) speaks to the legitimacy of both the map and its topographical target. The distances between points might vary from map to map, but that the existence of those points was affirmed is an important one. 

Again, these concepts are not only endemic to but necessary for our societies as we understand them. What prevails in our culture today is the idea that the topography changes with the map rather than admitting what we all know–that our maps are only as good as they are accurate. We’re being told that we need to abandon the project of constructing accurate maps. My overall goal is to speak not just to Christians but those non-Christians and non-theists who see the absurdity in this project but do not have the resources to deal with it or speak out against it. Those resources exist. They exist in the Bible, in the Christian worldview, and in the worldview substantiated by the bulk of our philosophical and intellectual heritage in the West. But to fight for them we must know them and understand them. And then, we must employ them. 

I hope this clears up my prior lack of intelligibility. Again, please comment below if things need to be clarified or if you have other related ideas.

One thought on “Christianity and Intellectual Freedom: Part IV, an Interlude for Intelligibility

  1. Good post. That makes sense. I think that was expecting to address a different aspect of this, and when you didn’t had that direction, I was lost. Thanks for clarifying. I appreciate you posts, and I would say this post is spot on.

Leave a Reply to Kevin Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s