Lapo Lappin: Hello and welcome to the seventh episode of the Metaphysical Laboratory. With us today is Ulf Jonsson, Professor of Philosophy of Religion at the Newman Institute in Uppsala, and a Catholic priest. He is also editor-in-chief of the culture magazine Signum, and is very active in the public debate. His research interests are philosophy of religion, arguments for the existence of God, questions of knowledge theory and the relationship between religion and science.
The first question we usually ask everybody we interview is: could you name three philosophical profiles that have played an important role in your own thinking?
Ulf Jonsson: One is of course influenced by a lot of different thinkers. But there are some that one finds particularly interesting, which also shape one’s thinking. I would mention Emmerich Correth, who is quite unknown in Sweden. He was professor of philosophy at Innsbruck, just when I started studying philosophy in the mid-eighties. He was the one who made me interested in metaphysics – something I had never done before. It was he who made me interested in metaphysics, which is an incredibly exciting and interesting field.
Then, of course, I must mention Bernard Lonergan, about whom I have written my doctoral thesis. (I wrote about his arguments for the existence of God, which he formulated in the 1950s.) Then I’d say Thomas Aquinas. He has meant a lot for my philosophizing.
I have also worked a lot on Jürgen Habermas. I have written a book about Habermas and his views on religion, in comparison to Joseph Ratzinger. But the first three are the ones that have meant the most to me.
Åke Gafvelin: Then we guessed two right! We guessed Thomas Aquinas, Bernard Lonergan and Joseph Ratzinger. Would you say that was a good guess?
UJ: That was a very good guess! The book about Habermas compares him to Ratzinger. So it was right on the spot!
ÅG: What would you say the role of philosophy is, on a very general level?
UJ: In my own life, philosophy has meant a lot. Since my teens I have been interested in philosophy.
If you look at the role of philosophy if you look more broadly in Sweden, I find it regrettable that philosophy plays a rather reclusive role really. It is still present in the public debate. But doesn’t matter as much as I would like it to. For me, philosophy is a very basic kind of reflection. It’s not science in the specific sense. But it is a kind of systematic basic reflection on important issues in life about how life is to be lived. So I personally would like to see philosophy play a greater role in Swedish culture. It plays a bigger role on the continent than it does in Sweden.
ÅG: How would you say that that reflection is brought to life now during the Corona pandemic?
UJ: There could be a lot of connections there. If I can make a real philosophical connection first, and dive into metaphysics…
ÅG: We like that!
UJ: [laughter] Corona pandemic gives rise to many kinds of reflections. And a kind of reflection that occurred to me when I jogged in the Botanical Garden one morning: the Corona pandemic reminds us of a philosophical insight, namely metaphysical realism. It may seem very long shot to make that connection. But the Corona pandemic is a kind of surprise to us, because we thought we understood the world and had control over the world. We thought we could predict things, through our thinking and knowledge of the world and how it is. And then comes something that beats our plans at least partially down. We did not have much control over what was going to happen; we couldn’t foresee this. It reminds us that the world is quite independent of us humans. There is a reality that we do not construct, that is independent of us, and that can disturb us, and does not really care about how we think and act.
This is an insight that the Corona pandemic can remind us of. It’s a very philosophical and abstract insight. But it is useful to sometimes remind yourself to have a kind of humility in one’s way of life. We may have less control over the world than we might think, notwithstanding our knowledge and technology, etc. I have nothing against knowledge and technology; I think it’s fundamentally very good. However: it can also lull us into a false certainty about the illusion that that we are more or less constructing life, engineering the world to suit us. We cannot do that. For the most part, things are independent of us.
So it’s a philosophical reminder. Of course, the Corona pandemic itself is a terrible thing. Especially for all people who suffer and get sick themselves. Then, of course, there are other questions: how we deal with suffering, and so on…
LL: Most philosophers we have interviewed so far have a secular starting point. Why do you think it is so to such an extent, and do you think it affects the way you conduct philosophy?
UJ: I think it has to do with culture. Most people in Sweden think in a secular way. It is no wonder, then, that philosophers do. I think it is in itself a general cultural thing. If the majority were believers in Sweden, the philosophers would also be. In other countries there are many prominent philosophers of faith.
I think it affects your way of reflecting. But I think you can be a very good philosopher whether you have religious beliefs or not. But for me, religious and philosophical issues have a lot of connections. I imagine that you still pursue philosophy differently in some questions if you are a believer compared to if you are not.
ÅG: Then perhaps we will ask such a question where secular and religious philosophers think differently. Björn Ulvaeus has recently written in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that he does not understand why people pray in these times of pandemic. In some sense, it is God who caused this: it was part of the blueprint that this would happen. What would you say to Ulvaeus: if God exists, why are we in the situation we have right now?
UJ: We are in the world of suffering whether it is a pandemic or not. There are always many forms of suffering in the world. The question for me is the question of suffering and misery and evil in the world. It’s always a question. It becomes relevant in different ways. It arises on a personal level when one is afflicted by a serious illness, for example. But it is brought to relevance again and again all the time. It’s a question that believers work on all the time. I would not say that the Corona pandemic fundamentally poses the question in any particular way. It is a fundamental issue all the time. Basically, it’s a question that all people are grappling with: how do you socialize with suffering?
There are various forms of what is called ”theodicy”, that is, a justification of God or of faith in God in the face of the existence of suffering and evil. But I don’t think Corona is asking the question in a more pointed way than many of the other experiences do. What I have noticed, however, is that the discussion has moved on. It was another post the other day by Mats Wahlberg (in Umeå) who just raised this issue with evil and suffering. The problem with Ulvaeus is that he has little to add, to put it bluntly. In part, this is because he has a view of religious belief as non-cognitive, thus he believes that the meaning, for reasons, does not matter to religious beliefs. He holds this view. If you really hold that view, then there can be no answers from theology by definition, because you cannot argue about it. If, on the other hand, one held a different view of religious belief, that is, a cognitive view: evidence and arguments, are also relevant to religious beliefs, then one can begin to discuss. I hold such a view. I think you can discuss these issues rationally. I do not think that the issue of evil and suffering is a simple matter, certainly not. It’s not simple for any human being. But it is no more difficult for a believer as it is for a non-believer. There is a notion that evil and suffering are incompatible with the idea of a maximally good God who is omnipotent. But it turns out that if you want to make the proof strict, it’s more complicated than people think. It’s hard to put it together so that it holds as an argument.
Above all, however, my criticism of Ulvaeus is that he has a different view that either you are religious or not: if you are absolutely sure, then you are a believer. You’re not open to any arguments or anything. That’s why you keep praying, and believing, and so on. I believe that the religious faith is open to argument, and even to reconsideration.
LL: Speaking of suffering, one issue that has surfaced many times in this interview series is the question of priorities in health care. That is, about who should take precedence in health care when there is a lack of resources. I wondered how one views that debate from a Christian perspective. Do you have any thoughts on that?
UJ: From a Christian perspective, man is created in god’s image. There is a special relationship between man and God. This means that a special community with God that man has like other entities and beings does not have- it means that man has a special value and must be considered an end in himself.
The answer cannot be that we should find a method that allows people to be used to the maximum benefit of society or something like that. That wouldn’t be enough. Naturally, in an optimal world, it would be so foresighted that we would have all the equipment needed to care for the sick as far as possible.
It’s not like that. We have limited resources. We must set priorities. This is not the case in this urgent situation where resources are not actually sufficient. By that I mean, it’s the kind of thing that a person is in a position to benefit from care, that is, that the person can actually be helped. Then you should prioritize it over a person you know will still not survive. Even younger people, for a kind of fairness reason. A young person who has only lived 15 years should be given priority over someone who has lived for a very long time. Such methods may be used.
I’m not an ethicist, so I don’t have a refined theory about that. I have to admit, I’ve not been working with ethics especially much. Nevertheless, I try to live quite decently anyway, although I do not reflect very much on ethical dilemmas and so on. My ethical compass and some basic principles go that way.
ÅG: If you look at a more general level – the Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell was recently out and said that Sweden could have done more.
UJ: On the one hand, you can always do better after the fact. When you have the benefit of hindsight, everything is so much easier. I absolutely understand that it may be that we will say afterwards here in Sweden that this strategy was not the optimal one. It may well be so.
My gut feeling is rather that we’ve been too lax. We could have been stricter, I think. I don’t have any really, really good arguments for this. We have the veil of ignorance before us. We don’t know. It is therefore difficult to assess. I would go on some sort of precautionary principle, and say that when we don’t know, when we have bad skills, and maybe less knowledge than we might have thought we had, and are less prepared than we thought… Then there are all the reasons to be more careful, precisely out of ignorance. Then I would rather say that because we know quite a bit apparently still, that we should be careful. But probably so that all the strategies will certainly in different respects turn out to be not quite optimal.
ÅG: When we spoke to Folke Tersman, he expressed skepticism about the precautionary principle, because he thought it was unclear what one is being cautious about. One could say that the Swedish strategy has been to prioritize the future – economic development and mental health – rather than saving life now. You are cautious about the future rather than what you are careful about now. As a Christian, would you say that ”life” is such a high value that such a trade-off cannot be made?
UJ: I think it can be done. It is the case that life, and especially human life, is a very high value. But it is not actually an absolute value in Christianity. You can de facto sacrifice your own life to save many other people. It’s not immoral. In Christian theology, that’s what Jesus does.
LL: If we continue on the ethical trail and at the same time move a little more towards metaphysics… If I understand correctly, you are a supporter of a tradition called natural law. What is nature law? What arguments speak for it?
UJ: Natural law is an ancient ethical position that has its roots in antiquity. It eventually incorporated into Christianity. Christian ethics is a kind of amalgam: it is a kind of deontological ethics (with commandments and obligations) but also has traces of Aristotelian virtue ethics and natural law. All these currents have influenced Christian ethics, to different degrees in different confessions.
Nature law is the idea that there is a right that is not only positive, or codified, law. We have a law-book in Sweden and the lawyers know what laws apply. That’s the codified law. You can find them in a printed text, and there are legal processes to create them. Natural law comes to the idea that there are basic laws that are not codified but which are universally human anyway. A concrete example of the public in natural law is the Nuremberg trials after The Second World War. There was no codified law that could be referred to in order to convict the Nazis. In part, they had acted according to the law of Nazi Germany, but they had also committed crimes against humanity. These were such serious crimes that they are criminals even if they are not codified in a country’s law. It’s called natural law.
I believe that natural law is a very important part of the Western ethical tradition: that there are fundamental values that do not need to be codified because they are so fundamental that our legislation reflects them. In Germany there is a legal system other than Sweden. There is a court that examines whether a concrete law is in accordance with the fundamental values of the State. There is natural law at the bottom of German legislation. The German Constitution notes that there are certain fundamental values to which the State relates. We don’t have this in Sweden. We only have the positive law. But as soon as we have conflicts of conscience and civil disobedience, we face this: there are fundamental values that precede the codified law.
Of course, when you have to be applied, it becomes complicated, precisely because it is not codified and precise. But these are basic ideas like life, you can’t torture, you can’t kill… These are absolutely fundamental values. I believe that it is rational to refer to them, especially if there is no legislation that can be applied, then we must be able to do so.
ÅG: How do you view God’s relationship to these fundamental values? Is God in any way necessary for these to exist, or would the right of nature also exist if God did not exist?
UJ: It is an issue that is very controversial among both theologians and philosophers. That’s a very good question. On a very, very basic level, I would say that nothing at all would exist without God! In that sense, natural law would not exist without God either. If we take it very very fundamentally.
One can ask, however: can you argue for natural law without being a believer? I think conscience is an instance that man has – and if we are not totally ideologically brain-washed with something else, then I think we have some kind of conscience where we have a sense of what is right and wrong. I do not think it necessarily has to be religiously based. On the other hand, I believe that a religiously based natural right can be stronger, at least as motivation. It has a stronger foundation in that way.
Jürgen Habermas has spent a lot of time thinking about religion even though he is an atheist. He believes that religious belief is one of the best motives for moral action. It provides a motivation that is very fundamental. I also believe that this applies to the law of nature. But it is not necessary to have to believe in God in order to have a natural reasoning.
LL: To return to the Corona pandemic, this time in relation to the relationship between science and religion. A few weeks ago, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, when his restrictions succeeded in bringing down death rates in the state, ”God didn’t do this, faith didn’t do this, we did it.” It reflects a way of thinking that has had quite a big impact, there are traces of it in the debate around Ulvaeus, where one imagines that God is a competing player with science. Something has either a religious explanation or a natural explanation… How do you see statements of Cuomo’s kind?
UJ: I can start with a little story. God and a person competed in building a boat. The man had to start, man then went out into the forest, chopped down a tree (or rather, was going to start chopping down a tree) and then God said ”Wait up, I created that, you can only use your own resources!”
I would say that God is the foundation of everything, and then there is absolutely no competitive relationship between causes in the world and God—whatever kind of causes it may be. For example, whether it is man who, with his intentions, does a certain act or if it is events at the subatomic level or whatever kind of causes we are talking about (conscious, intentional causes, natural causes, and so on)… Regardless, they are created by God. I believe that God is equally present and acting in any kind of act. I do not see any kind of competitive relationship at all.
God is a cause of his own kind, he is not a cause in an ordinary, in-world sense. Therefore, we cannot measure God as a cause in the world, no chance. God is a fundamental cause of a completely different kind. It is a metaphysical question: what is the ultimate basis for everything? So God is not the answer to any scientific question, and God is not a competition to man’s actions. I’d say it’s the case that we play on different halves of the court.
ÅG: To return a little to normativity but keep within the context of science and religion… The philosophers we have spoken to up to now have been quite critical of the fact that science has its own normative position, but it is something that some philosophers have criticized, such as the economist and philosopher Vivianne Walsch, who said that science is black with facts and white with convention and that it is speckled red with values. It is not possible to conduct science without actually having values, science itself has values. How do you feel about this? Would you say that science is steeped in values?
UJ: If you go way back, it was very popular to distinguish between facts and values very sharply. This has proved increasingly difficult to do. It turns out that they were woven into each other in a way that was not envisaged at the beginning of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century, facts and values were very strongly separated. That ideal is much more difficult to realize that anyone thought before. The one who has convinced me the most about it is Hillary Putnam, whom I read quite a lot. I am convinced that he shows that even the most neutral and objective thing in the science conducted is embedded in values, that is, scientific practice itself. Just as we need to have a conceptual system, a conceptual system, in order, for example, to interact with data in a meaningful way, we need to use a system to categorize our data. We cannot carry out science without certain values. It simply cannot be done, every person has values in one way or another. Where they come from is then another matter.
Even such a thing of our own as separating between different research projects – why do we do it? Because we finally believe that some questions are more interesting and more important to get answered than others. It’s a valuation – we value it as something more important to find out that now maybe for example: we value it as very important to produce a vaccine against covid-19. That’s why we’re promoting that kind of research, while other research might be scuba to back. Not because we think it’s bad or unscientific in any way, but because we have other problems right now. It’s an example of how it works. The idea is that the scientific practice solved from values is a chimera, it does not work. It should not work because science is, after all, run by humans.
LL: We thought we’d go a little deeper into metaphysics actually and ask you what truth is. Do you have a preferred theory of truth?
UJ: I have! (laughter)
The word ”truth” is used in so many different ways. Even when we say things as a ”true friend”, for example – it’s quite obvious that I mean something different with a ”true friend” than with a ”true theory”. We use the word ”truth” in very different senses.
There are different truth theories, and they try to overcome different types of problems. There is no theory of truth such that it solves all kinds of problems, but that would be a very unusual predicament if there were in any case – not just in philosophy. The traditional theory of truth, which one might say has its roots in Aristotle, is called correspondence theory. It basically means that when we say it as it is, it’s true (to put it a little simply).
There is something to do with honesty, there is also in the consistency that our language somehow expresses how things are. This theory is very intuitive, which is why it is very popular. So it has been in all times, ever since antiquity. But it has its problems. Many of the theories that have come as alternative theories try to solve problems in a correspondence theory. For example, coherence, which we can regard as an element of correspondence theory. The coherence theory takes out one aspect and tries to use it so the only criterion… But it is difficult to make this enough.
And so it is with others too: consensus theories of truth, for example, claim that if you agree, you are right. Since a group that is united may still be manifestly wrong, you then qualify this and say that when the experts agree, you are on the right track. But the experts are never agree! They are never in agreement and that is quite as it should be. It is they who know things and know how complicated it is. So the consensus theory isn’t right either.
I believe that the correspondence theory (this that truth is a relationship between how we describe things and how things are) captures an incredibly fundamental intuition. And that is why I think it is the most convincing theory, although we may not have solved all the problems. A philosopher I work with a lot, Lonergan, has his own special solution to some problems. I am quite optimistic about the possibility of obtaining at least a reasonably functioning correspondence theory. But at the beginning of the 20th century, there were some ideas about imaging and they have crashed. But I think there are other variations.
ÅG: A problem that is often raised by correspondence theory, is what these facts are that we can refer to through our language. This is usually taken up as the Achilles heel for the theory. You don’t want these weird entities, these ”facts.” What would you say about that?
UJ: The concept of fact has its own history. I don’t know if it’s always been such a happy history, actually. I am what is called an essentialist. It’s not the most popular thing to be. But I think that things have characteristics, and that what one thing is depends on what characteristics it has. A park sofa and a pair of glasses have very different characteristics; it’s those qualities that make them different things. It is essentialism in a very short formulation.
If one assumes that things have certain persistent qualities, which make them exactly what they are — then the truth, when we describe an object or a matter of fact, is when we do justice to these qualities. Then we’ll hit it right. It’s not about mapping the properties. Sometimes you imagine a kind of mental depiction of reality, much like a mental photograph – I don’t believe that at all. On the other hand, However, I believe that rational judgments can be made on the basis of the evidence. Then you can describe things in a more or less apt and correct way. You could say that glasses are made of ground glass and arches, and so on. The park-bench has some kind of seat that is constitutive for park-benches. They have strikingly different qualities and when we correctly express the characteristics of things, then we talk about things in a truthful way. I’d look for a solution that way anyway. This does not mean that all problems are solved. But when I compare that way of thinking about truth, and how to base truth, with the alternatives I’ve found, I think it’s the most appealing and sensible.
LL: I thought a little about the theory of correspondence, and wondered whether a Christian worldview does not really require a broader and more expanded concept of truth than any kind of truth of pure propositional correspondence . For example, when Jesus says, ”I am the way of truth and life” or when the Gospel of John says that he who exercises the truth is in the light. There it seems that the concept of truth is being extended as propositions that are consistent with the world to person or thing or even actions.
UJ: Can I be a little cheeky here, I’ll get a book. Let’s see here. [Ulf disappears and retrieves a book.]
This is a book called Ende der warheit? It’s a German habitilation thesis. I read it a lot of years ago when it came out. Armin Kreiner is a philosopher of religion in Germany, one of the better known analytical philosophers. He asked the question: Is there a particular concept of truth in religion? The question is very much justified. It is clear that truth is being spoken about in every possible way, as we do in other contexts, not just in religious contexts. Like this thing about ”you’re a true friend.” It is not a specific religious expression, but it is something quite different from some kind of correspondence theoretical statement. So we use the word ”truth” in different ways.
When Jesus is asked by Pontius Pilate, ”What is truth?” If one had then given the definition of correspondence (laughter), Pilate probably would not have understood what he was saying but he also had difficulty grasping what Jesus actually said. Because Jesus, of course, was not looking to give such a kind of explanation. Different explanations belong in different contexts: we talk about truth in different ways in different contexts. I have no difficulty with that, as the whole thing works, as we can only say. But I still believe that the philosophical concept of truth, which is a very general concept of truth, it has its relevance also in religious contexts. But that does not mean that religious truths can always be expressed in propositions. But this also applies to other kinds of contexts. I like propositions a lot, even in religious contexts. But they’re not everything.
I’d draw a parallel here. Try to express the experience of music in a very precise way. Try to do justice to the experience in a very precise way in a proposition, and you will find it very difficult. And it’s more like a parable of this, it’s actually the case that propositions – and especially if you take them in the univocal [unambiguous] sense. In religious contexts, a lot of parables are used and so, it is not by chance because parables are open to different interpretations. They are deliberately open to different interpretations. Religious statements are often of that nature, and intentional. Just like a poetic text is open to different interpretations. It is not a weakness but a strength of a poetic text – that it is open to interpretation in that way.
This is the case with many religious statements. I imagine that it is perfectly legitimate and justified. But I think there are also univocal propositions in religious contexts. However, I do not believe that one has an univocal concept of God. Finally, we are talking about a reality that cannot fully express in an unambiguous linguistic way when we talk about God. It may be that this also applies to worldly things, I do not know, but the question is whether we have a language for everything in the world, that is, a language that is totally univocal? It already applies to the world, but when it comes to God, we are also talking about something that transcends, transcends the world. That our human language cannot express it in any unambiguous way — yes, it is clear — otherwise we would not be talking about God.
ÅG: One area that you are into in your work is the question of comprehensibility. We seem to understand the same things about the world, we seem to understand the world (even though perhaps we cannot understand God with our human language). But is it we who make the world or sensations comprehensible or is the world itself comprehensible?
UJ: Yes, that’s a real classic. That depends both on what theory of knowledge and what metaphysics and truth theory you have. Everything’s connected there. Trying to get that really coherent is hard. One who tried was Kant, who has his own solution to it, and I’m not convinced of Kant’s solution, but it also says interesting things. (So it is often in philosophy, that you can learn things from thinkers that you do not agree with in many ways but they still say something important.)
We humans and our ability to know are not some kind of scanner that just scans reality. It’s not like that. It was perhaps a picture of people’s ability to know, and in particular how science worked a very long time ago. At the beginning of the 20th century, we believed in this kind of objectivity: that we only measure and weigh in a completely objective way and then we get straight from what it really is. During the 20th century, we have discovered more and more that, for example, our categories and our language shape how we describe reality. So that look ”out of nowhere” – we don’t have it. It invites a certain humility, it applies not only to science but to human knowledge at all, a certain humility. It’s not that we’re some neutral scanners that take in how reality is straight off, so it doesn’t work.
There are clearly constructive elements in the way we gain knowledge, otherwise we would not be able to read a text: try to read a text without interpreting it. It’s very fundamental. We are involved, and interpreters, as soon as we try to find out about something. It is absolutely the case that we have constructive elements in our process of knowing, otherwise we would not have any knowledge at all. But that doesn’t mean the elements are everything. In fact, there is input from a reality that is partly completely independent of us. That’s what’s interesting, this interaction. Some things are completely independent of us humans. How many moons the planet Jupiter has, that’s not our creation; it’s just the way it is. What is it that is our own contribution and what is the input of things that are even radically independent of us. It is not that some knowledge is such that it is completely independent of man: all our knowledge is human knowledge, it is on our terms. We have certain sensory organs, they allow us to perceive certain things, other things we cannot perceive and so on. It is clear that our knowledge is our knowledge, we have a ”realism with a human face”, as Putnam says.
It’s really like that, ”a realism” (although I don’t agree with Putnam’s metaphysical realism, but it’s a different story). There is something deeply true about this. Our knowledge is always marked with our stamp. It’s our knowledge. But that does not mean that we are constructing the whole reality, on the contrary, very much is completely independent of us. I would say that some things we have knowledge of that are radically incorporated into us – for example, self-awareness. When I have knowledge of myself, it is not an object I examine completely independently of me, it would be absurd to say. Or if I browse a book that I myself have written, self-absorbed as I am [laugh], then of course I’m investigating something that has to do with me. But if I examine how many moons Jupiter has, I may simply humbly bow to the fact that this is not caused by me. I think we need to have an ontology that is very differentiated. I’m a cognitive optimist, I think we can also have knowledge of things that are independent of us, and that’s amazing.
ÅG: One person who has been on a somewhat similar lines of thought regarding ”realism with a human face” is the physicist Ulf Danielsson, who released a book called The World Itself (Fri tanke Publishing), where he wants to point out that humans are biological beings and that science is a human project, and that our thinking has been shaped by evolution. I wonder how you think the idea of intelligibility comes under pressure from evolutionary biology and that we see that humans may not have been shaped to see the world as it really is, but rather shape perceptions to survive.
UJ: That’s true. It was something of a shock when you realized that evolution does not have truth as a goal. It’s goal is survival. Are we actually put on the trail to survive? If so, we must consider knowledge purely instrumentally. It will be that we use a knowledge that serves our survival. Even beliefs that are not true but help us survive are something we strive for. It also undermines our view of man and his quest for knowledge. It is a rather sceptical attitude towards the human quest for knowledge.
I would say that the theory of evolution is a work in process. It is not that we have a ready-made theory of evolution prepared for all questions. To what extent our knowledge apparatus can be said to be completely guided by survival, I leave to the biologists. I have nothing against them answering it, but I am convinced that there is something in man such as an intellectual curiosity. We acquire knowledge of things that are of no use to our survival. In fact, a lot of what we do is not at all very useful in that sense of survival. It is for me an indication that our quest for knowledge cannot just be a matter of survival. But it is actually the case that we are interested in things, think it’s funny to know, there is a curiosity.
Aristotle says that knowledge begins in curiosity, you don’t take things for granted, you want to know what things are because, you get curious, you can be completely absorbed by it, that’s what metaphysicians become, they become completely fixated on things that are absolutely completely useless but that are very exciting to try to understand. I think it is the case that for some reason we have this within us. The philosopher I’m most into, Bernard Lonergan, has this as a kind of core idea: ”There is an unrestricted desire to know”. An unlimited desire to understand and gain knowledge. I think we actually have this aspect of our existence, where it comes from is another issue, but it is there. I think people have a real intellectual curiosity and that is one of the most beautiful and exciting things in man and we should take advantage of it. That is where I think it really goes according to the question of truth.
ÅG: A very influential philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga, has been concerned that evolution gives us reasons not to trust our intuitions, especially given a philosophical naturalism. The fact that we have this intellectual curiosity just shows that we are entering territories where we have no reliable processes to identify what is true or false. It seems to be an argument against many philosophical positions, we are curious about things we simply cannot get answers to. What do you think of that?
UJ: Well, that is, one now has a perception that evolution determines us humans very strongly and that it is really about survival. Then you don’t have a good reason to think we’re interested in truth. Then we can close down the kind of business that philosophy is.
LL: Thanks for that concise answer!
Many of the philosophers we have had here in the metaphysical laboratory have been critical of the idea that one can examine nature or the essence of certain concepts or ideas – such as truth, for example. Rather, they believe that concepts are something we choose to do the best we can from our sensations and organize them in different ways. In contemporary analytical philosophy, people are keen to talk of ”conceptual engineering” – that one ”engineers” concepts to different purposes. What do you think of that approach?
UJ: There is an idea that we only have access to a conceptual reality: that the reality we are accessing is already the reality we have set concepts on. I don’t think that holds up. It comes to a point where it gets very strange. I would definitely agree that language and conceptuality are absolutely fundamental to our knowledge. It’s not a new idea. Sometimes we are a bit unhistorical and think that we have discovered things for the first time in the 20th century, or in the 21st century. The idea that the concepts are constitutive in all knowledge exists much earlier. It goes even into theology: the word that became flesh. The conceptualized, i.e. God, the word, takes existence in man and thus makes existence understandable.
It is true that we humans are linguistic beings. Now maybe there are some people who do not have quite the same relationship to the language in the narrow sense as others, such as those who cannot speak, or hear and then it becomes much more difficult, not everyone has access to language in the same way. The language is incredibly central, but I would say that there are boundary experiences where language is not constitutive in that way, opening up a kind of metaphysical window into a non-conceptualized world. For example, my own experiences of body sensations, i.e. my own body, I can feel them without putting into words.
Now I am talking about languages in a qualified sense, then others might say that I am talking about languages in a broader sense. But how wide can that sense be? Sometimes when philosophers talk about the world being nothing but our concepts, I think this language becomes so incredibly thinned out that it says almost nothing.
Then you might say that it is a human being who potentially has the ability to use language. I have a potential ability for all sorts of things. But is this potential really relevant in every situation? If you talk about languages in a more narrow sense, that is, language that can be used to create propositions and so on. I mean that there are actually experiences that we do not put concepts on. For example, when we listen to music, or when we feel something in the body. We interact, I think, even with nonlinguistic aspects of reality. As soon as we start talking about it and thinking about it, we have a language, I agree with that. But my body, for example, does not consist of linguistic entities, it is there even if no one talks about it.
LL: Åsa Wikforss mentioned something of interest when we talked to her: she believes that religious beliefs are private because they are based on a personal religious experience that is not publically available. Would you agree with that or are there religious beliefs that can be objectively verified, such as perhaps the existence of God or the attributes of God, or certain beliefs?
UJ: Yes, the way Åsa Wikforss describes religion is not entirely unusual in Sweden. But it’s a very late view, it wasn’t common until modernity. Just think of the church and the role of religious faith in medieval society. There was nothing private about religion, it was something very social. It shaped public culture. The idea of religion as just something private, I think, only comes up in the late 19th century so it’s a very late story. From the political side, the German Social Democratic Party is defining religion as a private matter sometime in the 1880s. That’s a new story.
Sören Kierkegaard’s thinking about religion goes in this direction. One could say that in certain swaths of Christianity there is a theology that goes more in that direction. It is a more Protestant thinking, although not all Protestants think so. However, in Protestant theology, there is greater openness to such thinking because the Church, the sacraments and the so-called social around religion do not matter as much there. You can be a Protestant much more as an individual, you can be in your chamber and read the Bible and you don’t have to celebrate the sacraments together and like that. It has to do with Protestant theology, the view of religion as something private.
Historically, and still globally, religion is something very social. That does not mean that I mean that we should have a state church or something, I am not a supporter of something like that – I think religious freedom and the separation of church and state are very good. But religion is not by definition private, it manifests itself in culture, it can manifest itself in many different ways. It is above all a social thing. It shapes the way people act. On the one hand, religion is practiced together in the service. But they also act together in ecclesiastical and social aid organizations inspired by religious beliefs. I do not agree that religion should be a private thing. I think it is a very narrow view that has a short history and which really misses very important elements of the religious faith.
LL: But what would you say about the fact that epistemic access to the content of religious faith is something that depends on personal experience rather than that it is objective meaning to point to or argue for?
UJ: There are some who believe that religious belief comes from their own religious experience, so it may be, but it is far from all believers who have no such thing. I’d say it’s a small minority. For example, mystics who have a special experience, but that is not common. I think there is mystical experience, but it’s not something most believers have. Sometimes it can be that a person has undergone some existential experience that has been very pervasive and so you interpret it religiously, it is also a possibility, I think there are all sorts of variations on that. Both mysticism experience and existential experience that are interpreted religiously. But I think the vast majority of believers have nothing like that.
The vast majority of believers have a completely different approach to the belief: that it is actually part of their worldview. Part of how they view the world, both values and practices and beliefs. Religion is a multifaceted phenomenon. It’s both theory and practice and values, everything goes in there. Someone can become convinced of God’s existence on a purely theoretical level, there are such people. You find that there is an argument that is so good that it is only to give in, there are quite a few who do so but they exist. Then there are those who connect different arguments and make a kind of cumulative. Personally, I have great sympathy for that, I think that if you consider a religious belief as a kind of worldview. I think it works that way: it is an overall interpretation of life in which both values and practice and theoretical beliefs are included. I believe more that it works cumulatively. That experience and arguments together mean that a person will interpret the world religiously.
In our secular part of the world, default position is a kind of agnostic one. Many would say atheistic, but there are quite a few real atheists. It is quite rare that one has some reason why God does not exist. You’re more an agnostic: you don’t believe in God, you don’t know how to relate to that. Then it becomes ”default position”, then it becomes so that there is reason to come up with arguments for religious faith. In a culture where religious belief is default position, religious beliefs do not need arguments, but the atheist view instead requires arguments. It is a social and cultural thing, what is ”the default position”. The fact that we have an a-religious culture that default position changes, I mean, not basically the question of religious rationality or how to come to believe or how to justify it. Some people rely more on personal experiences, which is also okay, and then you build on it, and some people trust other people’s experiences. Trust in others is of course very important in all possible contexts. And of course if I meet a person who tells me about an experience that is very pervasive, then it concerns me.
I simply believe in cumulative arguments, that there are many things that make God or do not believe in God. For those who are very interested, you can start digging in some place, and if it’s religious experience or theoretical arguments or so, it might not matter that much. You can get very far on both sides.
LL: You mentioned that some are completely convinced by a single striking argument for god’s existence.
UJ: I think so.
LL: Do you think there is one? What does that argument look like?
UJ: There’s such an argument that I’ve been working on for a lot of years, and that’s one such argument. But it’s very abstract. It is an argument for the existence of God, which is a variant of the so-called argument from contingency. It has several different layers. It is prepared by Bernard Lonergan, on whom I wrote my thesis. I have examined some epistemological aspects of this argument.
The argument itself is very interesting: it is a variant of a very traditional type of argument, namely the so-called ‘argument from contingency’. There are different types of arguments, but this argument it is based on a combination of this difference between the contingent and the necessary. It is a distinction that can be found already in Aristotle. Some things are necessary and others are contingent (they are the case although not necessarily). That distinction was taken up in the Middle Ages and created an argument. It was actually Muslim, Arab philosophers who started with it, then the arguments were translated into Latin and during the High Middle Ages the contigency argument was drawn up as an argument. It is based on the difference between what is contingent and what is necessary. God is necessary existing and the world does not necessarily exist, but it requires an explanation.
Lonergan has attached this tradition but combined it with his own theory of knowledge. That’s what’s special about him. He brings this up with the counter-argument, but connects it to the question of whether the world can be understood at all. It’s an even bigger metaphysical issue. He believes that if the world is contingent, at least everything in the world does not seem necessary. There are contingent things: for example, our existence is not necessary. Given certain conditions, we would not exist. And that goes for everything, name anything! It is based on conditions; it depends on something else. Or it depends on something, anyway. You are the reason for your actions, for example, but there are contingent aspects of things in the world.
If you combine this with the question: ”How is it that things can be understood at all?” Then there seems to be only one solution, namely that there is an act that both understands, exists and causes. It is very abstract reasoning, but can one imagine an act, an act, in which there are three different aspects of the same act. To understand something, to cause something and to exist. This solves the problem of contingents, solves the problem of things being understood and something existing. One can think of such an act, it is possible. And it also solves the question that sometimes pops up: ”Who created God?” If there is a full explanation for God’s existence, God needs no explanation. So it also solves that problem.
It is a very sharp argument, and like all arguments, it is based on certain premises. There is no argument for anything where certain premises do not have to be accepted. Therefore, there is no argument that convinces just anyone, because the premises can always be called into question. A good argument of God, or a good argument for anything, is an argument that has such premises that are so intuitive and obvious that one simply has to become irrational in order not to draw conclusions. This argument is of that nature. It seems to be the case that the principle of sufficient reason must be rejected. But then you can’t do anything anymore. It’s kind of a full stop.
ÅG: I think I’s also time to put a full stop for this interview.
Or soon, perhaps, after I’ve asked our last question, which we’re asking everyone but it’s pretty lame, really. Is there a question that you would like to have but that we have not asked, (and it must not be this question)?
UJ: I think we’ve combed through quite a lot now. From ethics to knowledge theory to the existence of God and Corona. I can only mention one thing, which we cannot mention because it takes too long, but I am involved in a very interesting project at the moment, a European project on causality. It’s very interesting. We don’t seem to have a good idea of what causality is really. What are causes, how do they work and how do they relate to laws of nature and such things. We thought for a while that we had pretty good control but we certainly do not seem to have, a little bit like Corona, we do not know the situation. [Laughter] And that’s a really interesting thing I’m doing right now….