Thursday, August 30, 2007

Head benders and humility

If you've taken a peek recently at my "mental diet" (what I'm reading, etc.), you'll see I'm reading Alexei Nesteruk's Light from the East (LFE), one book in Fortress Press' Theology & the Sciences series, specifically about Eastern Orthodox contributions to the "science-religion" debate/dialogue. It had been in my sights for 2-3 years before I finally just decided to spring for it and dive in. Not a regret, now that I'm in. It's good. But oh, it's deep! Oh it's a slog! The font is small, the pages are densely printed and the chapters are long. There are few diagrams so it's just texttexttext, ideaideaidea. And those words are not just the latest Cosmo quiz. The twenty or so pages in which Nesteruk explains the self-transcending limitations of discursive (i.e., dialectical) reason and parses the tension/relation (i.e., antinomy) between apophatic and cataphatic theologia (nous and dianoia, respectively), were, I tell you, some of the roughest going I've had in a long time. Certainly, the words are intelligible and the prose is lucid, so I'm not saying if you picked up the book and read those "head-bending" sections, you'd freeze and dessicate as if in Medusa's garden. I am saying that by putting a focused effort into really grasping the claims, line by line, step by step, while also trying to synthesize them with the previous pages and subliminally seeking connections in other fields of thought, makes it true mental labor. And that is a great feeling. Reading LFE is a probative case of my claim that, when people tell me "you're so smart," I am in fact just very stolid about getting through my ignorance. "I'm not smart, I just work hard." Someone much smarter than me could probably siphon LFE's riches as daintily and expertly as a hummingbird. But for me, having my rockhead bent into something a little sharper is a great and humbling feeling.

There's no question LFE is a "re-read." Reading it once just unrolls the map; reading it again will put things in 3-D. I realize Nesteruk's scattered mention of creation as "intelligible", "contingent", "the event of Christ," etc. make LFE a very good companion-read for Fr. Keefe's Covenantal Theology. In both books, creation is intelligible as gift, as covenant, hypostasized in Christ, not as an antecedently (intrinsically nor extrinsically) determined cosmos.

I got through chapter 4 last night, in the wee hours, and after getting through two chapters of John Searle's Mind, which, while not as arduous as LFE, had its own titillatingly humbling experience. On, say, page 104 Searle mentioned the distinction betwee intentionality-with-a-t and intensionality-with-an-s, which I mistakenly took to refer to two different kinds of objects (as if s stood for one thing and to for another). Then, maybe fifteen pages later, Searle jumps right into explaining the distinction, and I was completely lost. Why doesn't he explain what s and t are first? I kid you not, it was not till I finished that section, scratching my head, making the best of it, the whole way, that I realized he just meant to show a difference between intenTionality and intenSionality! I had learned the distinction in college and grasped it fairly clearly in retrospect once I realized the "trick," but I really had to laugh at myself. I then dutifully re-read the entire section with a 40- instead of a 20-watt bulb over my head. (For the record, though I am still not very confident of my grasp here, intenTionality means a representation of a state of affairs and the conditions needed to make it true [as in volition] or account for its being true [as in belief]. It is how we talk or think about states of affairs. By contrast, intenSionality is how we talk about how we talk about our intentions [as object-indexed representations]. It is the things we need to believe or definitions we need to state in order to make one intenTion "substitutible" for another. IntenSionality describes the representational conditions [i.e., definitions] we'd have to share in order to share the same intenTion.)

My with-a-t vs. with-an-s error reminds me of the time in 8th grade when I kept asking older students and teachers, "What is x?" In my pre-algebra homework, I sometimes had to use x, but I felt unable to do so unless I knew what x was!

"It's a variable," they said.

"Yeeeaah," I answered, slyly, trying to call their bluff.

"So it can be anything," my slippery interlocutor would proceed.

"Well, I know that," I huffed, "so in this problem, what is it?"

Like I said: I'm not smart, I just don't give up.

On a completely different plane, I was happy to get my hands on Book 3 (Twilight Watch) of Sergei Lukyananko's Watch series and indeed burned through its 400 pages in a day or two. Now I've got to wait for the next (and last) two books to come out in English. Hrrumph. One more reason (along with those pipsqueaks Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Nabokov, Lossky, Turgenev, Solzhenitsyn, et al.) I am determined to learn Russian, God willing, before I die.

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