Philosophical skepticism and original sin

Things are not always what they appear to be. People who recognize this are sometimes said to possess a degree of "healthy skepticism" because they will not be easily convinced of a truth claim until they have a chance to investigate the evidence.

Philosophical skepticism, however, goes much farther than such "healthy skepticism." Philosophical skepticism makes the broad claim that man is completely incapable of obtaining true and reliable knowledge about the world using his natural faculties. His reason and his intellect are simply unreliable.

Such philosophical skepticism is a difficult position to defend. After all, it seems incoherent to argue that reason is unreliable.

Nonetheless, Christians sometimes adopt a stance of philosophical skepticism based on the doctrine of original sin. The argument goes something like this: Since the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the garden of eden, man has been separated from God. He is a fallen and corrupt creature. This means that all of his faculties are utterly corrupt and unreliable. His reason, as one of his faculties, must therefore be unreliable.

But are man's faculties really so utterly corrupted that they are incapable of performing their intended function? Certainly the hand can still grasp tools; certainly the eyes can still see shapes and colors; and certainly the stomach can still digest food. Why, then, should the mind be considered as uniquely in-capable of its proper function? Is the mind -more- corrupt than the hand or the eye or the stomach?

In our reading selection for this week from The Embers and the Stars, Erazim Kohak explores philosophical skepticism from both a historical and a theological perspective. Let's talk about this chapter, titled Shadow of a Doubt.

Leisure, Creativity...and Skepticism

At Wisconsin Lutheran College, new faculty are exempt from sitting on committees for one year. Why is this? It is because leisure (not just necessity) is the mother of invention.

How I lost and found my scientific creativity, written by Jeffrey McDonnell of the University of Saskatchewan, describes the pressure exerted on faculty in the University setting that crushes so many young researchers. It is a warning and an encouragement to faculty, whether beginning or nearing retirement.

If we finish this short article, let's return to The Embers and the Stars. Last week, we concluded the section called Humanitas; the next one is called Skepsis. In the chapter titled, Shadow of a Doubt, Kohak begins his discussion of skepticism: the philosophical system that denies the possibility of knowledge.

As usual, we meet at 4pm on Friday.

A Philosophy of Personalism

Prior to the 17th century, the prevailing view among natural philosophers was that the world was a meaningfully ordered whole. This world-view was shared by many ancient pagans (such as Plato), medieval muslims (such as Averroes), and early modern Christians (such as Copernicus).

During the 17th century, however, there was a pronounced change. Increasingly, people began to think of the world as matter in motion, and nothing else. That is: all the stuff we see around us is composed of inert and powerless atoms bouncing around in the void of space according to certain laws that were arbitrarily imposed from without by a distant God.

To be sure, it was still thought (at least for a a couple more centuries) that God had given man something additional: a vital soul. Nonetheless, all other things (sapphires, dandelions, hummingbirds) were just matter in motion: machines having varying degrees of complexity but no discernible intrinsic significance. The question is: were these so-called "scientific revolutionaries" correct? As Erazim Kohak puts it:

shall we opt for the model and posture of a meaningful cosmos ordered by a moral law, or shall we opt for the model and stance of a chance aggregate of matter? Is the Person or is matter in motion the ultimate metaphysical category?

At LARGe this week, we continue our discussion of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars. The reading this week is from the section titled A Philosophy of Personalism.

Humans and Persons

What does it mean for a tool to be "my tool"? For a house to be "my house"? For a body to be "my body"? For a spouse to be "my spouse"? For a family to be "my family"?

Last week, we enjoyed a lively discussion of the concept of property and its ownership. Erazim Kohak, in his book The Embers and the Stars, suggests that we should have no more than we can love. This mandate tacitly assumes that if we own property, that is—if it belongs to us—then we should love it. But what does it mean to love a thing? And is this antithetical to the Epistle of John, which states that we should not love the world or anything in the world?

In any case: this week, let's continue our discussion of Erazim Kohak’s book The reading this week is from the chapter titled Of Humans and Persons.

A Human's Place in Nature

By surrounding himself with the work of his own hands—technology, such as alarm clocks and artificial lights—modern man has become confused. He has lost sight of the distinction between art (techne) and nature (physis). More precisely, man no longer understands nature as it presents itself to him.

The antidote to this modern confusion, according to author Erazim Kohak, is not to abandon technology, but rather to recognize how all technology points toward, and is predicated on, a pre-existing natural order. This natural order is both moral and discernible by carefully observing the world. (Yes, David Hume would be dismayed at Kohak for rejecting his now-popular "is-ought" distinction.)

But what, then, is man’s particular place in nature? If man is special, then what justifies this special place in nature? This week, we begin the second section of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). The first part of this section is titled A Human's Place in Nature.

The gift of moral law

Until modern times, the existence (and the truth) of a moral law was understood as being discernible from observing nature—just as discernible as the phases of the moon or the law of gravity. In other words: to deny the moral law was as implausible as to deny the phases of the moon.

Today, the moral law is understood rather differently by many. The moral law is understood as (i) an arbitrary set of human rules that is imposed by an act of man’s will, or else (ii) an arbitrary set divine rules that is discernible only by studying the Bible (or some other sacred and revealed text).

This week at LARGe, let's plan to finish our discussion of chapter two of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). The present chapter has dealt with the topic of Physis, which is the greek word for "Nature". In the reading selection for this week, Kohak will be dwelling on "the gift of moral law” (pdf available here).

The gift of the word

This week at LARGe, let's continue exploring Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Last week, we discussed the gifts of solitude, night, and pain. This week, we will look at The Gift of the Word.


This week at LARGe, let's continue exploring Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Last week, we read the Prolegomenon and the First chapter. This week, we can continue our discussion of the first chapter (there is a lot in there) and perhaps move on to the next chapter, titled Physis.

The Embers and the Stars


Here are a few reviews of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984)

"It is hard to put this profound book into a category. Despite the author's criticisms of Thoreau, it is more like Walden than any other book I have read. . . . The book makes great strides toward bringing the best insights from medieval philosophy and from contemporary environmental ethics together. Anyone interested in both of these areas must read this book."—Daniel A. Dombrowski

"Those who share Kohák's concern to understand nature as other than a mere resource or matter in motion will find his temporally oriented interpretation of nature instructive. It is here in particular that Kohák turns moments of experience to account philosophically, turning what we habitually overlook or avoid into an opportunity and basis for self-knowledge. This is an impassioned attempt to see the vital order of nature and the moral order of our humanity as one.”—Ethics

Let's plan to look at the Prolegomenon and the First chapter over the next week or two.