Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label philosophy. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Determinists' Delusion

Before I get to this topic I want to apologize. I have been over a year without an entry (I have been busy but that's a lame excuse). Before I get into the meat of this issue I want to talk about what started me thinking about this issue. I got into a short discussion on Facebook about the HBO show Westworld and the ramifications of artificial intelligence (AI) (I have since started also watching the British TV show Humans). They both deal with AI and how humans would interact with very human-like robots.

The premise of the show Westworld is complicated and I won't give any spoilers away. Essentially a group of people (only one of the founders of this company appears to be still alive, that is somewhat of a mystery) started a theme park. At this theme park, instead of riding roller coasters, you get to experience a fully authentic style Old West town (and surrounding area). The visitors to the park are free to do, say, behave, kill, rape, etc., etc. anyone and anything they can imagine. The park is set in the future (obviously, since we don't have human-like robots today) and the park's technology keeps the visitors safe. The "hosts" (the term the show uses for the robots) can fight back, and they're programmed to behave in the typical manner of an Old West town, but the "hosts" are incapable of hurting the visitors. The "hosts" can try to shoot the visitors but the bullets don't really hurt the humans (they sting a little), and if a "host" tries to stab or otherwise seriously harm a visitor their primary programming stops them and they freeze (usually). I can't say that I actually recommend the show ... I wish HBO hadn't done it. It intentionally and brazenly uses nudity/sex/violence/etc. to sell the show to a crass, sex-addled society. I understand the nudity (in a sense); basically, when the "hosts" are in the shop for "repair," they never (unless it's to practice a scene from the theme park) wear clothing. So, there are lots of scenes with lots of naked "people" in them. Also, there are a wide variety of sensuous and violent scenes, including rape scenes and scenes depicting slaughter of random "people/hosts" (I don't recall if there are any scenes directly displaying the slaughter of children). What often happens in the theme park is, visitors come to the park and live out their wildest fantasies. There appears, the non-violent characters are not highlighted, that there are some who just come to the park and have fun, explore, play games, get their picture (there is an old-timey photographer often shown in the background), and leave. But, of course, the show revolves around several characters living out their darkest, vilest, cruelest dreams in the park.

The show Humans (technically the 'a' is upside down) is a much less (so far, I'm only on episode three of season 1) dark show. There certainly is much less nudity, the "synths" are nude in some scenes but they're mostly covered or clothed throughout the show (the nudity has not been full-frontal-nudity as it is Westworld several times). However, the show tackles similar philosophical and existential issues with AI. It seems, so far, that the theme is, some of these "synths" are gaining full consciousness or at least seem like they are (what does it even mean to have full consciousness). And, in a sense, some of them seem to be rebelling against their human masters. There are some clear displays of how "synths" are enslaved (some even in the sex industry), but mostly they are just unpaid, unfeeling, slavish (but most often not mistreated) household servants. For example, the primary family characters bought their "synth" to help around the house because the mother was often away on business and the father also worked outside the home and just neither of them had time for domestic issues like cooking or cleaning. So, they bought a "synth" to cook and clean for them and to free them up to spend time together as a family. There are a couple side-plots that haven't fully developed, but apparently, "synths" are hackable and some have gained a certain level of independence/consciousness. They're governed by something similar to Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. It isn't overtly stated that they must obey these laws (the Will Smith movie I, Robot makes these laws a quintessential part of the plot, but the writers of Humans are more subtle. The "synths" aren't permitted to touch a human unless given direct, explicit permission. Also, and this comes up in the plot, children are not permitted to be "primary users" and may not be touched by the "synths" unless given express permission by an adult/"primary user." Anyways ... I prattle on. These two shows illustrate human depravity like few others I've ever seen. But, all that is just the precursor to what I really want to talk about. That is something that Sam Harris and Paul Bloom discussed in this podcast.

Sam Harris is (in)famous as one of the "four horsemen of atheism" and is an outspoken author and speaker on the subject of atheism. Even in this podcast, which isn't really about atheism/theism, Harris seems to be unable to control himself in deriding the Christian God. He says that God is the worst possible "mind criminal" (a term from an author that he references in the podcast). He says this because God created minds, and then tortures them in Hell (I believe he may have phrased it, "consigns them to torture in Hell"). Nevertheless, the discussion is very interesting. They talk about empathy and compassion. They talk about it with regard to how we will or should treat (future) AI (I'm not going to keep calling these "robots" by the monikers used in the TV shows, I'm just going to call them "AI"). The biggest thing that hit me in this whole conversation wasn't directly about AI. In the course of the conversation Harris insisted (without much argument or support) that though determinism leads us to less anger when people do evil, but doesn't lead us to less desire or love of empathy/compassion (those are not the same, but in this discussion we can treat them together). This inexplicable insistence leads me to think that Harris (and presumably his guest) is deluding himself. Let me put this more straightforwardly. Determinism is the idea that everything and I mean everything, is determined. There is no escape. This is not the "nature versus nurture" argument. This is a combination of nature and nurture that says, essentially, given the combination of one's genes and upbringing that one will behave exactly the way one behaves. So, we cannot blame the despot because he was programmed to be despotic because of his genes and upbringing. If the despot had been born with different genetic makeup he would be different, and if the despot had been born to different parents, he would be different. Regardless, one cannot change one's genes or upbringing, so we shouldn't be mad at the mass murderer because he's just acting out his genes and upbringing. People are just complicated forms of biological machines.

On the other hand, though, Harris insists that we can praise the virtuous person. How does this make sense? He says that we can praise this person because she chooses to care about the wellbeing of others. But wait, doesn't determinism mean that a person is merely the sum total of his/her genes and upbringing, there's not really any such thing as "choosing" something at all. Choosing requires an agent, a person. But determinism destroys personhood. The bad person is just being bad because his genes and upbringing make him do so, just as the good person is just being good because her genes and upbringing make her do so. Harris phrases it something like, people with compassion want the best in others. When I heard him say this, "With loving kindness, you really just ... you want that person to be happy." Isn't "wanting something" a choice? He says that it's different in two ways: first because in hating a bad man, we're assigning ultimate agency to the man, and under determinacy, there is no ultimate agency. But, loving kindness doesn't ascribe ultimate agency to the good person, it's just wanting that person to be happy. Well, no offense to Harris, but his logic is clearly flawed here. The statement may technically be true; that loving kindness doesn't claim that the good person that you're loving has ultimate agency. However, what he's clearly ignoring (perhaps unintentionally), is that his idea of loving kindness clearly ascribes ultimate agency to the person doing the loving kindness. Also, the good deeds for which Harris is saying one might show loving kindness to someone requires that he/she must have ultimate agency (despite Harris' claim otherwise). Harris is deluding himself if he thinks he can have his cake and eat it too. Either determinism absolves both bad and good behavior or the determinists are just lying about their insistence on determinism. Harris (and many, many others) only really claim determinism in a way that suits their preconceived notions.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Atheists, Agnostics, Deists, and Theists

I once read a post on freethinker.co.uk about defining atheism/agnosticism/theism.  Unfortunately, that entry doesn't appear to be available anymore.  I really liked his diagram so I was quite unhappy to not find it again.  So, I'm going to move forward with my own diagram:
The colors are arbitrary, just the standard colors from Microsoft Word.
Edit: At long last I have finally found the original article, see here.

Now, the original diagram had parts of the extremes cut off.  The original author said he cut off the extremes because there are very few people that hold the extreme positions.  The ideas are NOT from current word usage and more from the traditional concepts behind the actual words.  The word gnostic in the diagram is in no way related to the term given to the heretical view called gnosticism (from ancient Greek) except to use the same Greek term, "γνῶσις gnōsis, knowledge" (from Wikipedia).  Also, this table is not an attempt to make new terms.  There is an important distinction to be made though, philosophically.  The discussion about the existence or non-existence of God often asks, "On whom is the burden of proof?"  Well, the burden of proof is on the person that is making the claim.

If a gnostic-atheist stands up and says, "There is no god, and I know it."  That person bears the burden of proving that claim.  Also, the strict (original meaning of the term) agnostic, if he/she stands up and claims, "We cannot know whether or not god does or does not exist."  That too is a claim and must be defended.  Likewise, if the gnostic-theist says, "I know there is a God."  Then he/she must prove it.  Now, this is all philosophically speaking, and thinking like a debate wherein there are rules by which one must abide.  If, you're simply seeking a worldview that makes sense, there aren't really "rules," it becomes more about what evidences and arguments to which one is willing to listen.

I would argue that no truly honest thinking person would ever be on the top half of this diagram.  Here's the problem though, people talk "big talk" and in books, lectures, blogs, etc.  People talk like they know one way or another when really all the "gnostic" positions are lying to themselves and everyone else.  Here's something I heard a while back from Ravi Zacharias and lately I read from an apologist on Facebook, and though I don't know the exact words I'll try to capture it the way it comes to my mind:
To absolutely affirm a negative, is to claim infinite knowledge.  To affirm the negative that there is no God, is to claim infinite knowledge that there is no being that has infinite knowledge.
I assume you see the contradiction there, though some don't see how affirming a negative is claiming infinite knowledge.  Here's one way to think about it, I affirm the negative that there are no such thing as unicorns (an affirmation of the negative).  That means I know for certain that there are no unicorns anywhere or at any time.  Ironically, unicorns are often used as examples of things that everyone knows don't exist.  There's an interesting conundrum with that claim.  Take the initial premise that there are an infinite number of universes, a multiverse.  *This is a common claim which runs counter to the claim that the universe is uniquely fine-tuned for the existence of our galaxy and life itself.  So, here we are with an infinite number of universes, and within at least one of those universes a unicorn must exist.  If you don't think so, then you are misunderstanding the concept of infinite!

Back to the diagram.  There are so many positions on this continuum.  There's rarely anyone on the far extremes, but there are lots of people that sit somewhere in the middle.  People that don't think there's a god, but allow that there might be one.  People that think there might be a god, but aren't sure about his/her/its existence.  There are people that don't care and sit right in the middle.  Let's not redefine terms, let's stick to these ideas.  Language is vague and that makes things difficult.  People might say, "I'm an atheist," and they're really saying they're an agnostic-atheist.  Same with theists, some claim that God exists, and if they're being honest they mean they're pretty sure that God exists, but they're not sure.  I often hear internet-atheists claim that atheists aren't making claims at all, which is pure ignorance.  If you say you don't believe in god because there's no evidence you're not being honest with yourself or those you're dealing with.  There is plenty of evidence, the problem isn't the lack of evidence, it's what you will accept as evidence.  Will you accept a simple straightforward argument?  If not, if you try to explain it away with some kind of untestable theory (like the aforementioned multiverse) then it's not about a lack of evidence, it's about outright dismissal of evidence.

Edit: After a short conversation with a coworker there may be an edit in order for affirming a negative.  Here's a possible exception to the idea that affirming a negative requires infinite knowledge.  If I make the claim that there is no such thing as a square circle, I do not think it requires infinite knowledge to affirm a philosophically contradictory claim.  So, to say, there is no such thing as a square circle or a married bachelor, is affirming an already established contradiction and does not require infinite knowledge.  Here's an interesting point that this route would take an atheist should he/she go down the route of philosophical arguments.  Many atheists, including John Loftus (though to be fair, he only speaks out against the philosophy of religion and not philosophy itself), are against philosophy, and for good reason too.  Looking at this site, the logical arguments against theism are just weak.  I'm only an elementary philosopher and I can see through these arguments like glass.  Also, in all my discussions with atheists both face-to-face and online, they have always appealed to science.  In fact, all I've ever heard from atheists, including in their books, is the mantra "science, science, science."  Philosophy is on God's side, in a manner of speaking.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey

Another Essay written for my philosophy class.  Here is a link to a copy of the article. 
A Response to, “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey
This essay is written as a response to the article entitled “On Being an Atheist” by H. J. McCloskey as published in 1968. As this article is clearly an attack on both Christianity and theists in general, we need to be always ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ (I Peter 3:15). A verse, which has a much deeper meaning in the context of McCloskey’s claim that because of the problem of evil, “theists should be miserable just because they are theists.”

At first, McCloskey tries to offer snippets of a much grander discussion on some of the primary arguments for God and refers to the arguments as “proofs,” claiming that they cannot definitively establish a case for God. However, these couple pages are not nearly enough to cover such deep arguments and his attempt to dismiss them are reminiscent of Dawkins’ work in The God Delusion, which philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls sophomoric (Plantinga, 2007). McCloskey, like many other atheists, sets up a straw man and easily knocks it down. The arguments for God that McCloskey mentions, ontological, cosmological, teleological, and the argument from design, are combinatorial in nature. If one argument is apparently weak the other arguments more than make up for supposed weaknesses in each other. Also, McCloskey dismisses the ontological argument apparently only because ordinary theists do not typically believe in God as a result of these types of proofs, which isn't an argument.

In terms of the cosmological arguments, McCloskey seems to be commenting on both the temporal and the non-temporal arguments for God at the same time, using what has become a worn-out critique, “Who created God?” That question, used by many atheists who seem to smugly stand up as if they have won the argument, is completely unimportant to the question. The cosmological argument from contingency has nothing to do with an infinitely old universe, which is where the critique only makes sense. Saying, “Who created God?” is like asking who created the uncreated, or who made this square circle, it's nonsense. It is a philosophically useless question considering the contingency of the universe. The only serious issue with the contingency argument, is that just because everything we have experienced in the universe appears to be contingent, does not necessarily mean that the universe itself is contingent. That too can be answered in that, the fallacy of composition, though technically can be applied to certain premises in the argument, the entire argument does not hinge on whether everything is contingent or if the universe itself is contingent. If any part of the universe is contingent then there must be a non-contingent, necessary being.

McCloskey makes the same mistake Dawkins makes in his books and Professor McGinn makes in his lecture series on philosophy, that is, take one argument for God, point out its weaknesses then apply that to other, completely separate arguments for God (McGinn, 2003). No one, that this author knows of, is claiming that the cosmological argument “entitle[s] us to postulate an all-powerful, all-perfect, uncaused cause.” As professor Kreeft says of Aquinas’ “ways,” “They claim to prove only a thin slice of God, so to speak, but enough to refute atheism” (Kreeft, 2009). Why do so many make the logical leap from, “a God exists” to “the Christian God exists” when no legitimate Christian apologist does so?
Then McCloskey turns to the teleological argument for God and claims that one would need “indisputable examples of design and purpose.” Again, a huge logical leap is being made here from the possibility or probability of design to indisputable examples of design. Why, when counterexamples are given from evolution, is plausibility the only thing needed to disprove creative design, and yet one that argues for creative design must give indisputable examples? Many atheist evolutionists seem content to give plausible explanations of how time, chance, and natural selection can explain away professor Behe’s irreducible complexity, however the question isn’t is it certain that a creative designer was involved, merely is it more probable that a designer was involved. In all these arguments the goal is not certainty, but plausibility. It is more plausible that an intelligent designer was involved than mere time/chance/natural selection.

There are so many examples of design it is difficult to choose just one. However, the so-called “fine-tuning argument” seems to be the most powerful argument because it circumvents any natural selection critiques. Though some seem to think there is an evolutionary answer, that some invisible, untestable, un-provable multiverse theories or universe generating machine theories, and no matter how unlikely these objections may be, are accepted by dogmatic atheists. But at its very core the fine-tuning argument is a powerful argument as our knowledge of the universe deepens.

As the fine-tuning argument makes teleological arguments more probable, so does the idea of abiogenesis. There is no designer required in either of these portions of the teleological arguments for God. However, even conceding evolution as true, the question of design is still not answered. The evolutionary process appeals to the laws of nature to work in a certain way, which implies a goal or an end. The very idea of an end or goal in a process requires the existence of a mind to imbue the process with a purpose. Purely natural or chemical processes, though at times orderly e.g. crystal formation, they don’t in themselves have any purpose. One possible critique is that the only purpose is to live and reproduce, but even that is a purpose and requires an explanation. And, if that is true, the entirety of McCloskey’s article is rendered worthless. If all of life has no meaning or purpose or goal save to live and reproduce, the atheists’ attempts at conjuring meaning in life come up empty.

Again McCloskey attacks a conclusion from an argument that has not (yet) been made. He has only answered the cosmological and the teleological arguments and ignored the ontological and the moral arguments for God. The teleological and cosmological arguments only show that it is reasonable to conclude that an all-powerful entity created the universe. These arguments do not speak to the characteristics of this entity other than power, creativity, and intelligence. The problem of evil must be made in the context of a particular view of God, that is, a theological context. It can be said to perhaps show that a particular view of God might be wrong, but it does not show that there is not a God at all. These direct philosophical questions and claims of inconsistency, which William Lane Craig seems to claim that current philosophers (even atheists) have abandoned (Craig, "Reasonable Faith Podcast", 2007), fall short of the goal of proving that God does not exist. The apologist need only show that it is possible that an all-powerful, all-good God to have reasons for permitting the existence of evil, to answer direct claims from the problem of evil.

Despite the more modern philosophers’ neglect of the logical problem of evil McCloskey seems to be clinging on to it saying, “No being who was perfect could have created a world in which there was unavoidable suffering or in which his creatures would (and in fact could have been created so as not to) engage in morally evil acts, acts which very often result in injury to innocent persons.” This completely ignores the concept of the “greater good” “second-order goods.” The former is best illustrated in the heroic soldier falling on the grenade to save his comrades, wherein the death of the soldier is evil but is required for the greater good of saving his comrades. Also, it is required for suffering to occur if one is to learn patience in the face of adversity.

Both Mackie and McCloskey have made similar claims against the free will answer to the problem of evil McCloskey saying, “might not God have very easily so have arranged the world and biased man to virtue that men always freely chose what is right?” and Mackie, “why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?” (emphasis added). At first glance it doesn’t seem like a response is needed, because part of the idea of freedom is the ability to choose otherwise. Even so, Plantinga gives an interesting answer that illustrates how that question forms a possible world that even an omnipotent being cannot create because it hinges on the choices of the created beings’ choices.
As McCloskey closes this article, and indeed the whole purpose as stated from the beginning, he claims how, in light of the problem of evil, atheism is more comforting than theism. There is little comparison between this article and Professor Craig’s “The Absurdity of Life without God” chapter in the book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Dr. Craig references dozens of atheist writers and philosophers who have all come to a similar agreement, there is no meaning in life. Who are we to trust? McCloskey’s blatant appeal to emotion essentially claiming, because theists have to answer the philosophical questions of why God would permit certain evils, their worldview is less comforting than the humanists’ perspective of self-reliance and self-respect. But as Nietzsche, is quoted by Craig from “The Gay Science,” in The Portable Nietzsche, “Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? God is dead. … And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (Craig, 1994, p. 77). Which is actually more comforting, the idea that there is an all-powerful creator that imbues the entire universe with meaning and life, or dust that is only on this dust ball for a blink in the eye of eternity blindly flying through space? The answer is intended to be rhetorical, but the picture is clear. Despite the theists’ need to explain the existence of evil in the context of an all-powerful, all-good God, it is much better than being nothingness’ accidental offspring.
References
Beebe, J. R. (n.d.). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Logical Problem of Evil. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/#H4
Craig, W. (2007, August 5). Reasonable Faith Podcast. iTunes. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/reasonable-faith-podcast/id252618197?mt=2
Craig, W. L. (1994). Reasonable faith: Christian truth and apologetics (Third ed.). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Dawkins, R. (2006). The God delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
McCloskey, H. J. (1968). On Being an Atheist. Question 1, 51-54.
McGinn, C. (2003). Discovering the philosopher in you the big questions in philosophy. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, LLC.
Plantinga, A. (2007, March). The Dawkins Confusion. Books and Culture. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2007/marapr/1.21.html

Ruse, M. (2003, August 30). Creationism. Stanford University. Retrieved May 4, 2014, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creationism/

Friday, April 25, 2014

Essay on Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last week.  I took a more informal approach than my professor wanted, and my grade suffered for it.  However, I think it's appropriate for my blog.

In all honesty I think this part of philosophy is one of the main reasons many people dislike philosophy in general.  Imagine you're an ordinary student attending an ordinary college and you bump into a doctoral student who's sitting at the college coffee shop and you strike up a conversation.  This student is doing some sort of doctoral work in epistemology and is working on skepticism.  What student would enjoy being grilled with such questions as, "How do you know that's true?"  And, even after giving what a regular person would accept as a common sense answer to that question.  The philosopher asks, "Well, how do you know that's true?"  The student gives another different explanation of justification, to which the philosopher asks again, "How do you know that's true?"  After only a few times most regular people would give up, shaking his or her head walking away from such conversations wondering why some people are so wrong in the head.  Here's another tack.  When I asked my wife some questions about justification and epistemology, after pressing the idea a bit she finally gave up and responded, "people need to think less and go to the beach more."  (We live on a sub-tropical island in the South Pacific.)  Epistemology, especially justification and skepticism can eventually devolve into an infinite regress.  Now, these questions may make for interesting movie ideas like The Matrix and Inception, but it's more akin to irritating to an ordinary non-philosopher.  So, let's talk about three different approaches to skepticism and how/why justification is such a hard topic.

First, and oldest of these three is Plato's cave analogy from Book VII of The Republic.  During this book-long conversation Plato brings up an allegory of people that are chained in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows that are cast along the wall.  An interesting side note, different philosophers see this allegory differently.  I noticed this as I had just listened to The Republic audiobook and then heard a philosophy lecture.  The professor giving the lecture seemed to twist the idea and the people making the shadows into the villains.  The point as I understand Plato's meaning in the allegory is not we should be necessarily be skeptical of reality.  It seems more about how philosophers are the only ones that really explore the depths of reality and it's our responsibility to go back into the cave and teach those people what we've seen.  Yes, every part of The Republic is full of depth and meaning, but the people stuck in the cave and their misunderstanding of reality is not, in my opinion, the point of the allegory. (Plato, Book VII)

Then in chronological order, we come to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Specifically, Meditation I paragraph 2 stood out to me.  I think this bit is key,  “ … it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach …" and this, "… it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt."  Though it may seem like it and indeed people often take Descartes for a supreme skeptic, he is not setting out to cause people to doubt he’s merely searching for the only thing that he can really know for sure, without a doubt.  In this search for what can be known with epistemological certainty he says, we'll never reach the point where he could show everything to be false, nor does everything have to have some doubt, just the foundational ideas.  If the foundation is dubious the whole edifice can be considered faulty.  However, in the end, Descartes finds a foundation: I doubt, which is thinking, therefore I exist.  So despite all the doubting and tearing down of the edifice of knowledge, Descartes found the foundation and we can start from there. (Descartes, 1641)

Now we come to the 1999 pop culture treatment of skepticism.  Though not as deep as Descartes’ or Plato’s treatment of not being sure of what anyone knows, it’s still an interesting portrayal of skepticism.  How would it feel to be hooked up to some kind of super-computer?  It seems like it’d be impossible to know unless there were some way to break out.  There has to be someone there with the red pill offering answers to all our questions.  Despite the implausibility of a select few having the unexplainable ability to twist the matrix to their desires, including Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’ character) ability to twist reality and give himself god-like powers in the computer-world that is somehow controlling everyone else’s thoughts.  Though the movie does paint a rather interesting dystopian picture of what it would look like for computers to control everyone’s mind, it seems completely implausible to me.  Though of course, that’s just what the mind-controlling supercomputer would want me to think. (Wachowski, "The Matrix", 1999)

So, how can we escape these epistemological puzzles?  How can we prove that we’re not all in a deep Inception-like dream, or Plato’s cave, or haunted by Descartes’ evil demon? (Descartes, 1641, p. I 12)  Well, short answer is, we can’t.  Well, not enough that we could dispel all doubt and forever put to rest any metaphysical skepticism.  One challenge would be to ask the skeptic how one can live with complete doubt of everything at all times.  Also, the self-refutation of the claim that we’re in a computer, that doesn’t need proof that we’re in a computer.  In other words, prove to me that we are just brains in a vat or disembodied thoughts swimming through an intricate computer SIM world.  However, to me the best test for the metaphysical skeptic is to change something with your mind.  I’m not asking for a miracle.  I’m just saying that if all we consist of are brains floating around in a vats, we should be able, at least a small amount, to manipulate the world around us with only our minds.  I understand that to do so in front of a group of people would seem impossible because not only would one have to change their own mind’s perception of a thing, but everyone else’s as well at the same time.  However, in the privacy of one’s own room or even just one’s own mind, one should be able to change something simple.  Like the bending spoon scene in The Matrix, everyone, with practice should be able to convince oneself that “there is no spoon” and make it appear however he or she wanted.

Despite the character Cypher’s opinion that deception is better than the truth, I’m going to have to side with (well Morpheus and) Plato that it is much better to seek the truth and when one has at least caught a glimpse of it, pass it along so that everyone tries to unhook from the matrix or break the chains binding them in the cave.  Though we can never get to that point, it’s better to live as if that isn’t the case and seek out knowledge than to slog on or stick one’s head in the sand doubting that we even have heads.  Much like Professor Kreeft says of Aquinas building a huge philosophy on a single small foundational point. (Kreeft, 2009)  We can rest on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and build our epistemology from there.  Even if we’re just brains in vats, at least we’re somebodies.  Even without a body, our minds still exist.  If this is some elaborate dream someday we’ll wake up.  We should build our noetic structure a bit like this dome:


(Geodome, 2004) and have the foundation, though shaky it may seem, if rooted deeply in the foundation that no matter what parts of the dome are doubted the pile upon which it rests is immovable.

Once we’ve established that foundation let us add some depth to the foundation by placing it in God.  That’s not to say that we cannot or should not take the existence of God on faith.  But, if one is driving down the road looking at street signs one cannot live as if every one of them is a lie.  And there are so many signs that point to the existence of God.  So, though I may have, like everyone else, started life taking all knowledge through the evidence of authority; I have since grown up and matured and thought through my philosophy quite a bit.  I have come to a point where the foundation is firmly fixed on my own existence and that existence only makes sense with the existence of God.  On that foundation I build my beliefs.  If someone were to prove to me without a doubt that JFK was assassinated by conspiracy with two shooters; my geodesic dome of knowledge wouldn’t fall apart.  In fact I see this as a kind of synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism.  I really only hold one (or two) basic belief as my central belief.  This is how the coherentism system gets started, with at least one or two foundational beliefs upon which other are built.  My foundation doesn’t depend on my senses.  If anything, my foundation can be said to be the only possible guaranteed a priori knowledge, that is, that I exist.  If I don’t exist and I don’t know that I exist, how can I be asking myself if I exist?  Sure, it might be that my body doesn’t exist and my senses are all untrustworthy, but I most certainly exist and I can use deduction, induction, blind faith, gut feelings, and whatever I want to justify any belief above the foundation.  Each different justification has its own level of importance in the structure that is my belief system.  I can’t escape the question, “how do you know?” any more than any other thinking person, but I can justify what I know in many different ways and the more I defend something the more difficult it is to take it away.

If only everyone could hang out in places like this.
References

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Geodome -- Geodesic design software. (2004, November 11). Geodome -- Geodesic design software. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://geodome.sourceforge.net/
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
Plato, The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave” Book VII, 514A1-518D8.
Wachowski, A. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures :.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Long Time no Writing

I've been busy so let me give a bit of background before I get into what I've been thinking about lately.

I went to Korea to study Korean at Kyunghee University (경회대학), and I had a great time.  I made new friends, ate good food, and got to practice Korean quite a bit.  My wife and kids came to visit Korea for a week after my class was finished and I got to be their tour-guide/interpreter.  It was tons of fun!  We went to a bunch of places, but where I felt I did the best job as guide/interpreter was at the planetarium/kids museum in Namsan Park (남산공원) I basically translated the entire planetarium show for my boys and I felt like I only missed a few things.  My wife loved the fabric market in Dongdaemun (동대문시장) though that was one of the hardest parts for me as an interpreter, because there are so many specialized terms for various types of fabrics and they're different dependant on what you're using it to make.  Fortunately Michelle can just tell by feel and look which fabrics she wanted, and I just had to help with prices and amounts.

After returning from that month-long trip I get back to work and I'm the busiest I've ever been with work.  As many of you know I work for the US Air Force and I fly on an airplane to do my job.  Well, we have multiple planes here now and we don't have nearly enough people to cover all the positions in all the planes so I've been flying much more than I've ever flown before (with the exception of being deployed to the Middle-east a few years back.  On top of being super busy with work I restarted online classes and I'm taking Theology 202 and Philosophy 201 through Liberty U Online.  It's a bit disappointing so far because Philosophy is one of my favorite topics and while I feel like I have a good grasp of the concepts taught so far (it's only an intro to Philosophy class), I have the lowest grade I've ever had in any of my online courses.  The thing that bothers me about the class (it's also true of my current Theology class) is that they don't seem to be really trying to test whether I understand the material through the quizzes.  Rather they seem to be testing whether or not I read the assigned chapters.  For example, there was a question on a recent quiz that asked very specifically what a particular text says is important in a certain situation.  All the possible selections were logical and would have worked in the particular situation but the answer was specifically what that author said.  One could (in fact my coworker said something to this effect) that the reading is the material to be tested and that's what the quiz is getting at.

To me it's more important to encourage critical thinking, not test to see if students can parrot back what an author has said on such and such a subject.  I'm glad that there's more than just the quizzes in the class (there are a few essays).  I feel that, in both theology and philosophy, as long as one can give reasonable defenses and logical support for one's statements they've learned the material.  The point of theology is to understand the different belief systems surrounding humans trying to understand God as He has revealed Himself.  So if a student can come up with a commonsense, logical and biblical defense for a particular belief then that student has succeeded in theology.  Same with philosophy though one can remove the biblical component.  That's not to say one cannot apply biblical beliefs to the study of philosophy and vice versa, rather that philosophical answers that contain biblical arguments are not considered basic philosophical arguments.  That's the philosophy of religion or theology, depending on what the presenter is arguing.

Which brings me to yesterday.  I had to work and this particular time I was teamed up with a coworker that completely disagrees with me in almost every aspect of life.  After some random(ish) conversation about our recent exploits we started talking about philosophy.  I opened up with attempting to quote this section of one of the texts for my philosophy class, from Hasker's Metaphysics; Constructing a World View and I hope the exact same can be said of me:
". . . [I am] a Christian who loves philosophy and would like to consider himself a philosopher; he is a philosopher who loves Jesus Christ and want to be known as a disciple. A Christian first, a philosopher second—but neither one at the expense of the other. The insights I have gained from my Christian faith and experience prove to be of immense value as I do my philosophy, even though I cannot appeal to biblical authority as the basis for a philosophical argument. And the results of philosophical study enhance Christian understanding in many different ways—some of them already hinted at, others yet to be shown."
I think every Christian interested in philosophy should be able to say something just like that!  Well, I wasn't able to capture the words of the quote, but I talked about the basic idea that I want to be a philosopher and a Christian and that neither one detracts from the other.  One of the things we touched on was not using biblical authority/quotes to make philosophical arguments.  He basically didn't seem to believe that so we launched into a long conversation about the beginning of the universe, meaning of life, source for morality, and other philosophical interests.

It seemed that he accepts Big Bang cosmology for what it is, and that chains of events cannot cause themselves, but insisted that the universe is actually eternal, we just can't see beyond that beginning.  So, we have an immeasurable, invisible, impersonal properties of physics that led to the Big Bang.  He gave the analogy that time and space is a wave that we're surfing on, we can look back and see the top of the wave but we can't see the other side, but we know it's there.  He claims that theism is irrational because theist postulate that God was the one that started the series of events called the universe at the Big Bang.  Implying that it's more reasonable to assume that there was just something before the Big Bang that caused it, we just cannot see or measure anything that might have happened before the Big Bang.  This is even though I defined the whole of the universe as a closed system encompassing all that actually exists, past present and future.  Basically, the way I understand his argument is pure materialism forcing him to ignore the evidence of the Big Bang and postulate that that must not actually have been the beginning.

He did does seem to understand that his position is a position of faith.  But, it doesn't make sense to me that he could consider his position to be the more logical.  We both arrive at the same beginning, and that something had to start the beginning but rather than accept that it must be something outside the something that exists, a timeless limitless being that started all the somethings, he insists that it's not really the beginning that there's an invisible immeasurable something before the beginning that became what we call the initial singularity from which the Big Bang originated.  I tried to use multiple tactics that show that that argument is enough to reach the conclusion that there is something out there that started all this, then when one takes that as an acceptable premise, the other arguments for God point to other characteristics.  That initial premise will only allow that that something is incredibly powerful (at least in the concept of power that we have), and that it must be limitless by all physical essences.  For example this entity must be timeless/eternal, because time is a function of the physical universe and this something is outside the physical universe.  There are other points but he refused to budge on the assertion that before the Big Bang was not really the beginning, that the universe is eternal.

I did "win" one point!  He asked what one had to do to be saved.  I don't know his full religious educational background except that he was once a Mormon.  He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that one doesn't have to do anything to be saved.  I presented to "ABC" method of describing "attaining" salvation.  That is, Admit you've sinned (makes sense, since if you refuse that you don't need saving and wouldn't be asking these questions in the first place), Believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and Choose to accept that payment for the penalty of your sins.  I hope this was able to dispel the common notion that Christianity is about doing certain things.

I've already shared this photo once but I really like this cafe (and apparently the previous gif was bothersome)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hope

So I posted the other day of a pop culture surprise and how I randomly ran across a song by Selena Gomez with some positive lyrics.  This week while out on a run (I'm prepping for a Feb marathon), I happened to hear this song by MIKESCHAIR:
MIKESCHAIR - "Keep Changing The World" Lyrics by http://www.sweetslyrics.com/
Something here is wrong
There are children without homes
But we just move along to take care of our own
There's so much suffering just outside our door
A cry so deafening
We just can't ignore
To all the people who are fighting for the broken
All the people who keep holding on to love
All the people who are reaching for the lonely
Keep changing the world
Chorus: 
Take a look around
Before the sun goes out
What's lost can still be found
It's not too late now
It only takes one spark to make the fire burn
So reach inside your heart and let this be the start
Chorus (X2)
I know you see this suffering
How they gonna recover when
People just look over like,
Like they don't even notice em,
Everyone who's focusing,
On ending all this hopelessness
You can change the world
By changing Who the world is hoping in.
I see the sun coming up
It's a brighter day
Let's show the world that love is a better way
So lend a hand join the fight
'Cause time is ticking away
Keep changing the world
Chorus (X2) (Italics mine.) 
Now, I understand that MIKESCHAIR is a (so called) "Christian" band.  The reason I phrase it like that, is the simple fact that a group technically cannot fall under the category of Christian.  Because a Christian is a person that follows/believes in/bases one's life on Jesus Christ.  But, a band can be comprised of Christians, and can seek to write God-honoring lyrics/songs, but it cannot really be in that sense of the word.  So, I wasn't really surprised hearing such a great message, but I did want to bring it up here as it really hit me.

I don't know if you're a regular reader, or first-time visitor, or whatever but I often talk about/discuss/debate apologetics and other philosophic issues through this site, and I love a good debate/discussion about the existence of God, morality, philosophy, etc.  But, in all that, sometimes I lose sight of what the Gospel is really about.  I mean the word actually means, "good news," but I don't think about the hope of the Gospel.  This song really put that back into my thoughts.  Is apologetics important?  Yes.  Does it offer strong arguments for Christ?  Yes.  Will it (alone) bring people to the hope that is in Christ Jesus?  Probably not, it's too confrontational.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Splitting Hairs Theologically Speaking

I've recently been studying theology as part of my major at Liberty University Online.  I'm currently taking Theology 201 and let's just say, it's been an uh, interesting time.  To me, when it comes to religion I've always been very inclusionary.  Especially when I hear discussions about doctrinal issues in churches that actually drive people away from God, or make people not want to come to church.  That's one of the reasons I've always like apologetics more than theology.  It seems that apologetics is about bringing people together to reason about the things of faith, but theology is about arguing the minutiae about what "[f]or in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" exactly means.

The reason I bring that particular verse is the subject in theology class for the last two weeks has been Christology.  I won't go into the details, because I'm sure many of you don't care, but even though the class has interesting things to teach me, I don't really like the divisiveness of theology in general.  Take Christology for an example.  It is vitally important to accept that Jesus Christ is God and man, called hypostatic union.  Now, how Christ did so, is called kenosis (κένωσις) that relates to "pouring out" from Philippians 2.  Now, as an amateur philosopher, these ideas pose some interesting problems.  How can two completely different things occupy the same exact space at the same time?  Obviously, nothing is to difficult for God, as Mary was told when she questioned the impossibility of her giving birth.  But, as Prof Kreeft taught in one of his lectures on the Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, God is the God of logic and we shouldn't claim God breaks the laws of logic (even though I've thought that way before).

Now, maybe it's just a problem of teaching.  Because as much as I don't like to bash the college from which I'm seeking a degree, I don't feel like there's anyone to explain why these theological puzzles are the way they are.  On that topic of Christology, there was a section in the textbook about the wrong views of kenosis.  One of them said something to the effect of Christ set aside His attributes of deity when He was born on earth as our Savior.  However, according to the text, the "right" view is that Christ "veiled" His attributes of deity.  As I'm reading this section, I couldn't help but think that there's such a fine line there and does it really make a difference?  It's obvious from various parts of the Gospel accounts Jesus is limited.  Like, He doesn't know various facts that an omniscient God would know.  In fact He specifically says, that He doesn't know (Matt 24:36).  So, obviously Jesus didn't have His attribute of omniscience.  But wait, He did have knowledge that no mere man could have.  In several places it's said of Jesus that He knew what was in their hearts or a similar phrase.

All these doubts can be explained in the simple fact that God is omnipotent and nothing is too difficult for Him, as was noted before.  But, that makes this a mysterious concept and I distrust anyone who claims complete knowledge of any detail of these high-level theological questions.  I really have a problem with people who not only claim to have the truth but also reject those that partially disagree with their view.  I talk about this all the time, though I don't see any past entries about this... I really dislike any teaching or theology that drives people away from Christ.

Now, don't get me wrong, theology is important, and it's important to make sure we have definitions that match the teachings found in the Bible.  But, as my dad always liked to say, "let's keep the main thing the main thing."  As part of my studies I think it's important in my life to draw a line in the sand theologically speaking.  Here's an important thing to remember though, while I hold the following list to be true and in accordance with God's Word as revealed in the Bible.  If there's a mistake or a misunderstanding in the following list I can revise it without feeling I've betrayed myself somehow.  Everyone makes mistakes, I could be misunderstanding something and that's okay.


God the Father:
Almighty maker of Heaven and Earth infinite, holy and actively working in the world today.

God the Son:
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, second person in the trinity, coequal with God the Father and Holy Spirit who came to earth as a man.

God the Holy Spirit:
The third member of the Trinity who is always working to convict of sins, persuade unbelievers, and comfort the saints.

The Bible:
God's inerrant Word, His Truths written by men as they were carried along in the Spirit that we might hide in our hearts that we might not sin against God.

The Depravity of Mankind:
All have sinned and no one can save oneself from sin's hold.

Salvation:
Salvation is not by works but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection.

Resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead on the third day, and it is through that work that sin and death are defeated.

Return of Jesus Christ:
Jesus Christ could return at any moment and His followers should live with that in mind.

Resurrection of the Dead:
Just as Christ rose from the grave and rules in Heaven, believers and all the dead in Christ shall someday join Him in everlasting peace and joy in Heaven.

Church Family:
As followers of Christ we need to be happily and actively involved in a local community of believers.

I've purposely left certain dividing terminology out, e.g. "Total Depravity."  I've recently had a long discussion with my theologian/friend +James Hooks and he makes a powerful argument for Calvinism/Reformed Theology.  But, I still don't see eye to eye with all the views in Calvinism.  Mainly because how it is apparently irreconcilable with the concept of free will.  I'm sure the answer there lies in some different definition of freedom and will, but that still doesn't work with the way I view free will and choice.  I'll save that for a future entry.

This same list is now on a separate tab as I'd like to join with other believers that agree with these statements to join me in sharing through this site.  I've put out the call several times, but apparently no one is interested in sharing.  The invitation still stands, if you agree with these statements of faith, and would like to share your thoughts on my blog I welcome you.  That doesn't mean that I won't host people that disagree with these statements, as I've hosted several entries in the past even from people that I don't really know, including the regular Faith and Philosophy Blog Carnival.  What I mean to say, is that if you would like to partner with me in this blog you'll have to agree with this statement of faith, but if you have something you'd like to share, as long as it doesn't contain any ad hominem attacks or illogical/irrational statements, I'd still welcome dissenting entries.  As the (current) sole administrator of this blog I reserve the right to refuse any entries.  Though I commit to fairly assess any entries and give my response with reasons for acceptance or denial of any entry.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vagueness

I've been thinking about this for a while and I'd like to address it here.

As a bit of background, I've often mentioned the History of Philosophy podcast.  Unfortunately, I don't get the chance to take notes, so I'll be honest, I don't remember many of the names of the philosophers mentioned in the podcast.  The other day however, one of the Hellenistic philosophers had a thought lesson that goes something like this.
Philosopher: Here is one grain of sand.  Is it a "heap of sand"?
Respondent: No of course not.
P: Here is two grains, it is a heap?
R: No.
P: Here are three, it is a heap?
R: No.
.... This continues, then eventually the respondent will answer, "Yes."
P: Let me take away one grain of sand, is it still a "heap"?
R: Well...
P: Certainly you don't mean to tell me that ONE grain of sand constitutes a "heap of sand" because earlier you said it wasn't.
This speaks to many different issues, one of which was that the sage (wise man) will withhold judgement, and the topic I have been thinking about, vagueness.

This basically falls into the philosophy of language subset of philosophy but it has serious ramifications for all levels of philosophy.  Think about it, the term "human" as clear as it seems, has at least some vagueness to it.  From Dictionary.com; the Science Dictionary, "A member of the species Homo sapiens;  a human being."  A member of any of the extinct species of the genus Homo,  such as Homo erectus or Homo habilis,  that are considered ancestral or closely related to modern humans.  Assuming darwinian or neo-darwinian evolution, when does that start?  How many human characteristics does something need to have to be human?  How can you define something so vague?  No matter how detailed a dictionary may be, there's always going to be some level of vagueness.

Obviously I've picked one of the hardest definitions to start out with, but this relates to epistemology as well.  If there's skepticism in everything including definitional issues, how can we communicate at all?  How are you reading this blog?  What if you don't even define blog the same way as I do?  Granted my definition is the correct one!  Obviously we're standing on some amount of common ground, but that brings up what type(s) of common ground we need to communicate.  There's vagueness within my talk about vagueness.  Definitions, what's a definition?  We need a definition of definition before we can talk about vagueness because we need that common ground.  Are definitions subject to the will of the people?  Dictionaries change and disagree, which one do we trust?  Even if we agree on which dictionary we should use, what about when dictionaries change?  Do we both agree with the new definition?  What about what made the definition change, do we agree on the reason why the dictionary decided to change the definition?

Now that we've not decided on that bit of common ground, now we need to decide how much common ground we need to have before we can communicate.  So we don't completely completely agree on the exact word-for-word definition of each and every word used in this discussion, does that mean we can't communicate?  Apparently not, because I'm assuming you can read and understand what I'm writing here.  So now, even if we have a level of acceptable vagueness in definitions and definition change, what about agreeing on how much difference is acceptable?  There's vagueness in the amount of vagueness acceptable for communication.

I don't have any answers for you here, only questions.  Just casting doubt on everything we say and the very basics of communication.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Intermission

Obviously I haven't been able to continue my writings on my series on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas but here's the kicker.  My lack of time for the series is hindering me from writing any other entries.  Honestly, I haven't had much to write about lately but I think I'm going to pause the series to write more on random topics.  I've been busy with college courses online and I don't really have that much time to write, but now I won't have the series getting in the way of writing other things.  Well, I'm sorry for the long delay and I'll get back to writing as much as I have time for soon.

Also, I have a request...  I've been trying to revamp my website to be a collaborative blog site for philosophers/theologians that are wanting to share their ideas together.  If any of you are interested, please submit entries and your testimony or statement of beliefs via the "Contact Me" tab above.  That's one of the reasons I'm taking a break from the series on Aquinas, I feel a bit swamped as the only writer for this blog and I would like to join with others and share the load of coming up with content.

One last thing, I've recently started another site for my photography pieces.  The site is http://samuelronicker.smugmug.com/ and I plan on sharing as many of my photos there that I can.  I will probably only upload the best of my photos there, but they are available for purchase from the smugmug printing company, and in the interest of full disclosure I do get some amount of commission on each sale of my picture(s).

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Part 5: Our Knowledge of and Language About God

Continuing the series on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas with lecture five how much can we know about God and what we can say about God.  Let's jump right in, Prof Kreeft starts off with an analogy of the premodern thinking with a preteen child, interested in the world around them, curious and asking questions about objective reality like, "what is God?"  They spend less time than modern thinkers who asked more subjective questions like, "How can we know God?" or "How can we express our knowledge of God?"  One is not better than the other, just different.

The three questions laid out are the same anyone can ask of anything, What is it? How can we know it? and How can we express it or communicate it?  The Greek word Logos (λόγος) is a powerful word to express all these ideas together, intelligible being/reality, human knowledge/wisdom/reason/science, and language/communication.  The ancients/premoderns focused on the first part, metaphysics, and moderns, starting with Descartes, were more concerned with the second question, epistemology.

After Thomas' five ways to God he summarizes the way he's going to approach these questions about knowing God (as quoted in the lecture notes, the brackets are Prof Kreeft's interjection):
"When the existence of a thing has been ascertained, there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. [“Essence” means “manner of existence” for Aquinas.] Now . . . we cannot know what God is but rather what He is not . . . therefore we must consider, first, how He is not, second, how He is known by us, and third, how He is named."
Though Thomas believes that faith, divine revelation, and religious experience are all valid ways of knowing God, this discussion focuses on philosophical/epistemological knowledge by natural reason.  Thomas seeks to show that there are (at least) four metaphysical principles that answer how man can  know God: creation, cosmic hierarchy, the analogy of being, and human reason as participating in divine reason.  If any one of these weren't true then man couldn't know God by natural reason.

Creation, this doesn't tell us much about God, but it does tell us some.  As Thomas' five ways show that God created the universe, now the fact that He did so tells us a bit about Him.
From effects not proportionate to the cause no perfect knowledge of the cause can be obtained. Yet from every effect the existence of its cause can be clearly demonstrated, and so we can demonstrate the existence of God from His effects even though from them we cannot know God as He is in His essence.
So we can know that God is a God of cause by the effects we see, though that doesn't tell us much about Him.  Not a complete rationalist/gnostic or agnostic, but a little more agnostic.

Cosmic Hierarchy, implied in creation is a sort of hierarchy that God is the top of the cosmic ladder of existence and mankind is somewhere on this ladder below God.  Incidentally, Thomas didn't think you could prove the existence of angels, but he thought it would certainly make sense that there be at least one level of existence between God and mankind, just as there are different levels between mankind and a slug.

Analogy of being, this goes along the same lines as cosmic hierarchy that along the cosmic ladder of existence there are bit of analogy.  In the case of life, there is an analogy in that there are lower forms of life but they're still life and there are higher forms of life.  The highest in divine life, not that God's existence mirrors ours but that we mirror God's existence because we get our existence from Him.  This same chain of analogy is in logos/orderliness.  Even the simplest pieces of matter are orderly.  In fact, to me the more order we see at these "lower" levels is a clear indication of design.  So, along the rungs of this ladder of analogy the higher levels have more order and reflect God's orderliness (and other characteristics) better.  Until you get to the top of the ladder, God, from which all orderliness and design comes.

Divine reason, this is not some mystical experience, it's more akin to the idea that all logic and reason finds its source in God.  This part of the lecture actually reminds me of presuppositional apologetics (as I've discussed with +James Hooks a few times).  To medieval logicians there were three basic acts to the mind conception, judgement, and reasoning from judgements.  First, one must recognize concepts, "man," "apple," "animal," "is," "not" etc.  Then one judges from these simple concepts, "man is an animal," "apples are not animals."  Then finally, the reasonable moving from premises to conclusion(s) "therefore man is not an apple."  Thomas is referring to all three of these acts in saying that man's intelligence is a dim reflection of God's divine intelligence.  God doesn't have to judge and reason, He just knows everything all the time, but mankind as a small reflection of that, can only do bit by bit.  As a dim reflection of God, we share in His divine reason/intelligence as participating in His intelligence.  One of the main presuppositions in this part of the argument is that God is rational/mind, not just a blind force.  There are many assumptions in Thomas' philosophy as it's more like a mapping of a complex universe than the dry-step-by-step-deduction-only-philosophy of the moderns.

Now, in light of these four assumptions we should try to understand what Thomas actually says about knowledge of God.  Remember that he's closer to agnosticism than rationalism (gnosticism).  Prof

Kreeft has this to say about the articles immediately preceding the ways to God in the Summa, "...God’s existence is not self-evident to us, though it is self-evident in itself. So it has to be made evident to us... God is not directly and innately known—our mind is not that strong—but His existence can be made known by reason, can be demonstrated—our mind is not too weak for that."  (Quote from the lecture notes, emphasis mine.)  This is from the next part of the Summa about being able to know about God.
Since the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest power, which is the operation of the mind, if we suppose that the created intellect can never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude or its beatitude would consist in something else besides God. This opinion is against reason, for there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees, and thus arises wonder in man. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, this natural desire would remain void. But no natural desire is in vain.
So, we may not be able to fully know God in this life but we will attain sure knowledge of God in the next. Thomas uses this statement many times, that “no natural desire is in vain.”  Seems reasonable to assume that the desire for a more perfect understanding of something and that that desire can be fulfilled though perhaps not fully in this life.

There are two levels of understanding here that we must distinguish.  Comprehension and apprehension, we as created beings will never be able to surround in knowledge, God.  But, we will someday, be able to apprehend God. Just how far can we get? Thomas give four things we can know: He exists, He is the cause of creation, that He has a certain deducible attributes, and what He is not: He is not a creature and not at the same level as creatures.  In His being, He is infinite, unlimited being in itself, while creatures only have being in a limited way sourced from God.

According to Thomas outside of analogical knowledge our knowledge of God is only negative.  The reason for this is the fact that we are created, finite creatures and cannot know by experience things that apply only to God, like infinitude.  We can see the art that only resembles the Artist but we cannot know all that is in the Artist.

This next bit I really liked so I'm just going to let Prof Kreeft speak for himself (quote taken from the lecture study guide):
"I suspect that most of the time, belief or unbelief in God’s existence depends on understanding the meaning of the term “God.” I never met an atheist who I thought fully understood what an intelligent theologian like Aquinas meant by “God.” After talking for a while with an intelligent atheist I always find myself agreeing with him in denying the God he denies; only I claim that’s not the God Aquinas is talking about. For instance, a God who moves around in time and changes, and therefore gets either better or worse in some way, or a God that’s timeless and changeless by doing nothing. Both of these concepts of God are imperfect. Aquinas says God’s perfection is pure act, pure actuality, and pure activity of knowing and loving. He doesn’t change, He doesn’t learn truth because He is all truth, and He doesn’t fall in love for the same reason water doesn’t get wet: because He is love. "
I've seen this in many arguments against God, including my previous series from Prof McGinn.

This next question is also eloquently answered by Prof Kreeft, it's the question commonly brought up even as recent as this post on Google+.  The answer isn't really all that complicated!  It's a linguistic problem, that goes something like this: God has infinite power so asking this question is like asking if a rock could exist that infinite power couldn't pick up.  So, the easy answer is no, but not that God isn't all-powerful, it's a misunderstanding of infinite power.  A similar answer can be given to many of the questions concerning God.  Who created God?  That's like asking, what existed/happened before infinity past?  That's a contradiction.  My personal view is that we shouldn't limit God to a logical anwer, but within our limited perspective, these questions don't make any sense.

One last point (sorry these posts tend to be so long).  There are two more critiques of Thomas' view of knowing God.  One from Hindu philosophy that sees god as a meaningless personless entity, that beings cannot be eternal.  They see one of the definitive aspects of being as finite.  The recent pope John Paul II answered this with an ontological argument that personhood is the pinnacle of being not a defect of it.  One other argument is from science/logic, that says these arguments only give a start.  Which is exactly what Thomas wants to do here.  Build a foundation upon which the rest of theology can be built.