Theological Intuition

I would like to take up the challenge that Bill and Ed have laid down regarding the difference between good and bad kinds of precision. I reproduce the relevant comment:

I’d be interested to hear Alec and Brendan say more about when, if ever, analytic precision becomes false precision, or at least unhelpful precision– especially in theology. I take it that this question is at the heart of Ed’s challenge, and it’s a question well-worth taking seriously.

To make a good distinction too often elided by those unschooled in analytic thinking, there is both a (broadly) metaphysical issue and an epistemological issue here. Firstly, we might ask what features good precision possesses that bad precision lacks: this is what I call the metaphysical issue. In response to it, I’m tempted towards two very different styles of answer. One is a hopelessly flatfooted deflationist response, which says that good precision is simply good, and there’s nothing more general to be said about it. The other is a hopelessly ambitious and metaphysical response, which says that good precision is precision tuned to the objective structure of reality (see Ted Sider’s Writing the Book of the World for the sort of view I have in mind). But I will lay the metaphysical issue aside, and concentrate on the epistemological one: how do we tell the difference between good precision and bad precision?

At first, I was drawn to a flatfooted response to this issue too: we tell the difference by exercising sound judgement, which judgement is honed by example and by practice, as I have already suggested. But now it strikes me that the notion of sound judgement at work here would repay sustained interrogation. So here goes.

In his lectures on analytic theology as liberal theology, Bill instructively compared the appeal to intuition so characteristic of analytic writing to the appeal to experience as a theological norm. Now I don’t remember the details of the discussion, and hopefully Bill can say more about what exactly he had in mind here. Still, I think that this is an excellent starting point for some reflection of my own.

The issue of intuition has been fiercely contested in recent years. Some say that our philosophical intuitions are unreliable, and that this indicates the methodological bankruptcy of analytic philosophy as it is now practised. In what is an ironically Wittgenstienian move for defenders of the analytic status quo to be making, others reply that philosophers have been bewitched by surface features of language into assuming that there is a unified category of intuition, while the underlying reality is rather more heterogenous. I think that this response is – at least within limits – a promising one.

On a traditional model, the attainment of precision and the appeal to intuition come at different stages of analytic writing. To be crude, we first give a precise statement of our premises and conclusion, exhibiting clearly the logical structure of our argument:

1: P > Q
2: P
C: Q

Once so much has been settled, we then motivate our premisses: ‘Intuitively, P implies Q; equally intuitively, it is the case that P’. And that, we say, is why you should accept our thesis that Q.

This simple model, however, is liable to conceal the epistemological complexity of the situation. It can seem as if there is some specific and distinctively philosophical faculty delivering purely a priori insights into the nature of things. Instead, there are just our ordinary capacities for judgement, continually used and continually honed in the daily business of living, which simply happen to have been drafted in to support a philosophical argument. Moreover, we exercise the very same capacities for judgement when crafting our premisses as we do when defending them. Clearly the judgment that ‘P’ is a true sentence is closely connected with the judgement that ‘P’, if true, is the most perspicuous description of the case at hand.

Back to theology. I have said that philosophical intuitions are just the employment for some theoretical purpose of the same capacities for judgement that are used in daily life. The obvious extension of this view is that theological intuitions are just the employment for some theoretical purpose of the same capacities for judgement that are used in our daily life with God. That is, we use and hone our theological intuition by our habitual engagement with God – in worship, in prayer, in the reading of scripture.

Lest we fall for the unpalatable (and implausible) conclusion that those without religious commitments are simply incapable of doing theology, it is worth stressing that our engagement with God is not confined to our obviously religious activity. All our activity is an engagement with God: or, as the person without religious commitments will prefer to put it, our concept of God is a construction out of the totality of our activity. To delight in beauty, to detest injustice, to long for love, to fear death: all of these are ways of engaging with God.

Therefore, the proper method for distinguishing good precision from bad precision – the proper method of analytic theology – is quite simply to live in relation to God.

-Alec

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2 thoughts on “Theological Intuition

  1. I’ll simply note my enjoyment that your proper method of distinguishing good from bad precision relies on something so vague as living in relation to God 😛 (which, of course, everything does…)

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