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An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two)

February 8, 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 22.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part Eighteen)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: February 8, 2020

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 4,041

ISSN 2369-6885

Abstract

Richard Sheen is a young independent artist, philosopher, photographer and theologian based in New Zealand. He has studied at Tsinghua University of China and The University of Auckland in New Zealand, and holds degrees in Philosophy and Theological Studies. Originally raised atheist but later came to Christianity, Richard is dedicated to the efforts of human rights and equality, nature conservation, mental health, and to bridge the gap of understanding between the secular and the religious. Richard’s research efforts primarily focus on the epistemic and doxastic frameworks of theism and atheism, the foundations of rational theism and reasonable faith in God, the moral and practical implications of these frameworks of understanding, and the rebuttal of biased and irrational understandings and worship of God. He seeks to reconcile the apparent conflict between science and religion, and to find solutions to problems facing our environmental, societal and existential circumstances as human beings with love and integrity. Richard is also a proponent for healthy, sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyles, and was a frequent participant in competitive sports, fitness training, and strategy gaming. Richard holds publications and awards from Mensa New Zealand and The University of Auckland, and has pending publications for the United Sigma Intelligence Association and CATHOLIQ Society. He discusses: the full scope of philosophy; and the ethics driving or motivating him.

Keywords: Auckland, CATHOLIQ, faith, God, New Zealand, philosophy, religion, Richard Sheen, science, theism, Tsinghua University.

An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the full scope of philosophy to you? Does philosophy have limits?

Richard Sheen: I think every form of human reason, or more broadly speaking, all linguistic, logical and/or systems of meaning in general, are fundamentally limited in their scope to discover and comprehend truth and reality to their fullest extent. This includes all empirical frameworks as well, such as science, as empirical input must be processed by the mind via rational procedures that conform to a particular logical framework, e.g. probability and causal inference.

From one perspective, the world can be seen as a series of gigantic puzzle pieces, with each domain consisting of their own mysteries and wonders waiting for us to discover, but our ability to fully comprehend the completeness of truths in the form of information — any information — is fundamentally limited by the inherent incompleteness of formal logical systems and language in general (which I perceive as the “building blocks” of all other emergent properties). On the other hand, our experience of reality is limited by our perspective as observers, and in strange ways, elements of perception seem to influence our reality, as observed on the subatomic level in quantum physics. What this entails, is that our world of truths is fundamentally limited, or “capped”, by the inherent, systematic restrictions of the foundational building blocks (or perhaps the “operating system” of the universe) in which our reality is grounded upon. In some ways, this is analogously similar to how virtual realities such as computer games must be built upon coding systems called “engines”, with each “engine” having their own maximum processing rates and other systematic limitations. Our world in many ways resemble such a virtual reality, and comes with all the possibilities and limitations of its own “engine”, as seen in the limitations of logic, mathematics, and the laws of nature.

Aside from inherent limitations in the information and truth systems that formulate and describe our reality, as human beings we are also limited by our emotions, cognitive biases, fallacious reasoning, and other limitations in cognitive ability in general. As a result, we often find ourselves faced with a world filled with complex and seemingly chaotic information. As our mind struggles to find patterns and make sense out of the chaotic continuity of “sensory data” that fills our horizon, we inevitably contemplate upon the meaning behind our existence — what is the meaning, purpose, or at least a subtle reason for our own existence, and for the existence of the entirety of reality? Why is there something rather than nothing? 

While scientists have wrestled with this question for ages, their answers fall short of the demands of reason itself — for what can be scientifically proven, must necessarily lie within the realm and expectation of tangible and repeatable observation and experimentation. But beyond the scopes of our observable universe, or even the possible multiverse, a priori laws or truths (such as the law of identity) formulate and sustain the “functional premise” of our physical reality, similar to how strings of basic code formulate the foundations of an operating system. These a priori laws must necessarily be unconditional in order to give rise to the conditional that is our universe (or other higher-order conditional functions and frameworks that are not yet known to science and logic/mathematics, but nonetheless provable through human reason) and its existents. As Immanuel Kant famously exclaimed, human reason is naturally inclined to deduce, from the limited existents of the conditional the unconditional that forms the foundations of the entirety of reality and existence, whereby the discovery, or even subtle awareness of the unconditional, may finally lead the mind to rest within the completion of knowledge, or at least the faith of it (this of course does not necessarily entail that the unconditional is already given).

Some may say that to seek the unconditional is a fool’s errand, for not every question can be answered, nor should every question have a definitive answer. I tend to agree, as there may very well be no answers for the greatest questions in life, the metaphysical and the philosophical — questions that go far beyond mere explanations of the scientific and the physical like the Big Bang; questions that seek to unravel the mystery of being itself: why there is something rather than nothing, instead of simply how the universe came to be.

Why, we ask? The keen thinker may have already noticed that the question “why?” pertains to reason and purpose. It seeks a motivation, rather than a mechanism. It seeks meaning amidst the coldness of time and space, and it is not satisfied with merely the explanations of the “how”. It seeks an answer of philosophical nature, of the purposive, the axiological, and the teleological. It is of course very easy, and extremely comforting to bury one’s head in the sand and proudly proclaim that such questions of meaning and purpose are “meaningless” or that the entire universe is “meaningless” (if such a claim is even sensible, given that we are a part of the universe), and that to even ask such questions requires a particular sort of naivety and foolishness that only a delusional daydreamer may entertain. However, reason is not satisfied with knowing only the functional relations of facts and numbers, no more than how humanity cannot survive only on food and other functional, biological and practical necessities alone. We require reason, motivation, value, and ultimately, purpose and meaning in order to find ourselves in this world, to truly actualise our potential, and testify to our freedom and dignity. We must align ourselves with the grand teleology of existence, and that answer lies far beyond the reaches of science and mathematics alone.

Philosophy is hence, the complex framework of thought that pertains to truth, reason, value, meaning, and ultimately faith, that constitutes the very nature of our humanity and existential reality. To philosophise is to ponder upon the eternal questions of life, questions of meaning that lie beyond science and logic/mathematics alone. As we struggle to piece together the grand puzzle of existence, by linking every domain of truth, applying every school of knowledge, and filling every blank as we seek to contemplate the “Mind of God”, we are attempting to understand, and appreciate, with great humility and reverence, the miracle that is life and existence itself. To understand, in spite of our weaknesses and limitations, and to love, despite our flaws and imperfections, and ultimately, to believe, despite our fears and uncertainties. This contemplation of the exalted, and this pursuit of the virtuous, I believe, is the ultimate purpose and the fullest scope of philosophy – philosophy is not only of the mind and thought, but also of action and application. Philosophy must change the world, beginning from the tiny, positive things that the virtue of thought brings in oneself, and gradually to share it with the world.

2. Jacobsen: What ethics drives or motivates moral acts and thoughts in life for you? Why those ethics?

SheenFor me, ethics is one of the most important aspects of both one’s social life and one’s spiritual life. Ethics must not only consist of the attitudes and ways in which we treat others, but must also encompass all values that pertain to a good and healthy life in general. To be ethical, one must not simply conform to the standards of ethical laws or other forms of formal demands, but also wholeheartedly love the good, as it is entirely possible for one to have no regard for the inherent value of the good yet simply conform to ethical laws as a means to an end, e.g. getting their own way in society, or merely “following” ethical laws due to fear of punishment or simply as conditioned behaviour. As such, to me, ethics and morality must be treated as one and the same. While these terms cannot be used interchangeably from a strictly academic perspective as ethics generally refers to external, societal expectations while morals are largely internal values, I do not believe that one can truly respect and act ethically if one does not have faith in the value of ethics or at least believe that goodness itself is important to some degree, whether intrinsic or extrinsic.

The first part of my ethics stems from my firm belief in the power of rationality and the value of goodness in itself, in this sense I would refer to myself as a rationalist. I am confident that reason is capable of showing us objectively why some things are good and others bad, albeit just like all other areas of philosophy and all dimensions of science (and human reason in general), the ability for reason to arrive at objectively “correct” answers in ethics is also limited, and to a greater extent than the limitations in science and logic/mathematics. This is often seen in highly complex hypothetical scenarios that theoretical ethics deal with, such as the (in)famous trolley problem and its variations. However this does not imply that we should discard ethics, or at least objective normative ethics altogether and adopt a form of blissful, nihilist, and ultimately irresponsible (individual)relativism that so many resort to nowadays. I believe, just like how we cannot discover and prove the consistency and completeness of all truth systems there is to know within our reality, we cannot know for certain all objectively correct moral values and always apply the “best” ethical frameworks or solutions, for in many situations we cannot fully determine what the “best” frameworks or solutions must necessarily entail, less apply them effectively given each unique circumstance. But this does not render the pursuit of truth and goodness in itself meaningless like some would claim, for the pursuit of goodness is in itself its reward, and speaking from my past experience of a dark, lonely, and “wasted” childhood, I am confident that there are beautiful and meaningful things to be discovered even from the most mundane pursuits and the most mediocre perspectives. This then leads to the second part of my ethics: faith.

The incompleteness of truth and the limitations in our understanding of goodness in itself leads me to the realm of faith. I identify as Christian and believe in the transcendent ultimate reality that most of us would refer to as “God”. While my understanding of the term “God” may perplex many readers, the simplest way to express this understanding in our current context is to see God as “the highest good in itself”. The same understanding of God applies to all truths, facts, and all other possible existents and cognisable concepts. Of course this simplistic understanding brings in many logical dilemmas such as the problem of evil or the existence of the “perfect island”, and may strike a nerve for those who are sentimentally predisposed to scoff at the mere idea of a higher power. But the idea simply seeks to provide an ultimate foundational framework for us to interpret our reality, and more or less, to grant peace to our mind and soul, in spite of the fact that we cannot truly comprehend the unconditional ultimate reality within our limited minds. To me, just like if mathematics were false, we would have no good reason to trust in architecture; if the highest order laws and frameworks of the ultimate reality that formulate the foundations of our rationality and reality are false, then we would have no good reason to trust any lower order laws and frameworks of truth and interpretation that are derived from or necessarily “anchors” on them, such as logic, mathematics, causality and all patterns of nature and science in general.

It is of course possible to argue that such highest order laws, frameworks — the ultimate reality (God) which possesses, encompasses, upholds, or perhaps manifests itself as these unknowable truths that exceed our limited reality, are simply false, imaginary, and nonexistent. It is entirely possible, and relatively common today, for even highly educated individuals to subscribe to a form of naïve realism for our physical, empirical world and to adopt a non-realist position in logic, mathematics and abstract truths in general. One’s solution would necessarily depend on the order of supervenience in which one associates between the relation of the physical and the non-physical. It is equally logically untenable from a philosophical perspective to fully subscribe to a form of naïve realism and evidentialism, as Hume has proposed, we do not have purely logical reasons to account for the reliability and consistency of causality, as causal inferences are by definition non-deductive in nature. As such, purely evidentialist epistemic frameworks are also doxastic in nature – that is, they rely on the belief in a series of unprovable premises, such as the reality and existence of the external physical reality, the existence of material or matter itself, and the complete reliability and consistency of causality in nature in the particular way we experience it.

By far, many attempts have been made to debunk the validity of and to scoff at the nature or meaning of these questions raised against naïve realism and “pure” evidentialism, but none have successfully refuted them no more than how no attempts have successfully established truly logical reasons for us to trust in, and only in, the power of observation and evidence alone. The Logical Positivism movement of the Vienna Circle was by far the most sophisticated attempt at this endeavour, but the problems they faced, which ultimately led to the demise of the movement, have largely been forgotten today (As A.J Ayer, a major proponent for Logical Positivism later remarked, “nearly everything about it was false”). Similar to how the profound knowledge of medieval theologians and Enlightenment philosophers have been largely ignored or even forgotten by both the religious community and the academic community today, what we are often given now then, is merely a dumbed-down version of fanatic scientism/crass materialism and religious fundamentalism/blind faith, neither of which possess the merits of independent thought and rational analysis, and in many ways, devoids the human mind of its freedom and dignity as attained through the capacity to reason and discover truth by its own will and desire.

From a logical, and partly doxastic perspective based on my limited knowledge, I am inclined to believe that the physical supervenes on the informational (logical – mathematical) — otherwise we would have little reason to trust the consistencies of our scientific understanding and predictions through logic and mathematics –, and that the informational frameworks that sufficiently determine the existential state of our physical reality must necessarily anchor themselves upon a highest-order framework that transcends our limited epistemic and cognitive frameworks. This highest order framework that is necessarily required for the completeness, consistency, and predictive validity of our logical and empirical frameworks, would pertain to what we refer to as “God”, or at least what we should refer to as “God”. This however does not mean that I am proclaiming complete and definitive knowledge of God, I cannot and will not make such an arrogant statement regarding that which is ultimately beyond my limited scope of understanding, and so much transcends my horizon and very being in a way that exhausts even the wildest of my imagination. My statements only lay out a foundational framework for an order of hierarchy of truths and reality and its corresponding epistemology. It is a way for us to interpret reality from a more “holistic” or “complete” perspective, to make sense of reality by combining both the logical – factual, and the axiological – teleological.

The rationalist nature of my ethics and my faith in the ultimate reality leads to my conclusion that reason is, metaphorically, God’s greatest gift to mankind, and in some ways, bears the truest image of God. This means most of our questions regarding the ethical and moral may be answered through applying sound reasoning in the correct way, which has been the traditional endeavour in our philosophical traditions of ethics such as Deontology, Consequentialism, Utilitarianism and other newer or less popular philosophical traditions and systems.

One may reasonably ask, as a self-identified Christian, why I have not referred to the Bible or any sort of scripture for answers to ethics and morality in general? My answer is simple: in order to correctly interpret scripture or any form of information in general, one must first humble oneself down, and apply one’s reason and comprehension to its fullest extent. It is very easy to be lead astray if one simply follows, without independent thought or introspection regarding the soundness of, any sort of external guidance — be it divine revelation, humanly guidance, or perhaps from the patterns of nature. As such, while we can often find sound guidance from external references, it takes dumb luck to never be lead astray if one never applies introspection to the information one is given. Hence, reading the Bible, or any other book etc., also falls under the category of reason, for without reasonable interpretation, knowledge and wisdom is necessarily lost in the process, and are very often misinterpreted or even twisted, either deliberately, or as a result of cognitive immaturity.

What about Jesus, the central figure of Christianity? What is his purpose in this system of ethics? I would first answer by stating that, at least through the proper teachings of Christian philosophy and theology, it is generally understood that Jesus was the perfect embodiment of “the highest good in itself”, the “Son of God” (this is not to be understood in a purely literal way). He was the perfect human being who demonstrated the utmost highest moral and ethical qualities as laid out by the highest frameworks of goodness, both demanded, and later deduced via reason, and in the context of scripture revealed through divine revelation. Jesus was not a conventional Jew, but rather, a “heretic” to the Jewish tradition. He was a challenger to the old ways, and laid out many of the foundations of modern ethics through his teachings, such as the Golden Rule, later formally elucidated by Immanuel Kant as the Categorical Imperative. To be a Christian entails a very huge moral and ethical responsibility – to be more Christ-like in one’s beliefs, intentions, motivations, and ultimately actions and impact to this world. This includes learning from the teachings of Jesus Christ, most importantly to learn, understand and apply the nature and essence of love to one’s life– to fill oneself with a gentle patience and kindness through love, to cleanse one’s hatred and prejudice for this world with forgiveness, and to genuinely will for and aid in the good for others for its own sake, despite the dangers and risks. As I see it, this transformation of love is the greatest of all miracles that is possible for us – to transform oneself through learning and following of the teachings of Jesus, and subsequently, to find salvation within the embrace of love that is reflected in our truest image of God that is reason for the highest goodness itself.

To sum it up, rationalist ethics combined with an element of faith in the ultimate reality that is God and the perfect example of a good life as shown by Jesus is what drives my pursuit of moral goodness and my dedication to an ethical lifestyle. The element of faith is necessary for me because our reason is limited and highly fallible, and in order to account for the completeness of knowledge and the integrity of goodness in itself, we must go beyond the ambiguous evidence, and make a ‘doxastic venture’ into the realm of the highest epistemic and axiological frameworks and truths that forever lies beyond the reaches of our finite logic, rationality, and the limited and systematically ambiguous evidence in our world. (I will go further into this in the subsequent sessions)

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Independent Artist, Philosopher, Photographer, and Theologian.

[2] Individual Publication Date: February 8, 2020: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020: https://in-sightjournal.com/insight-issues/. Image Credit: Richard Sheen.

*High range testing (HRT) should be taken with honest skepticism grounded in the limited empirical development of the field at present, even in spite of honest and sincere efforts. If a higher general intelligence score, then the greater the variability in, and margin of error in, the general intelligence scores because of the greater rarity in the population.

Appendix II: Citation Style Listing

American Medical Association (AMA): Jacobsen S. An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two) [Online].February 2020; 22(A). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

American Psychological Association (APA, 6th Edition, 2010): Jacobsen, S.D. (2020, February 8). An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two)Retrieved from http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

Brazilian National Standards (ABNT): JACOBSEN, S. An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two). In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A, February. 2020. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two>.

Chicago/Turabian, Author-Date (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott. 2020. “An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A. http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

Chicago/Turabian, Humanities (16th Edition): Jacobsen, Scott “An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal. 22.A (February 2020). http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

Harvard: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two)In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A. Available from: <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two>.

Harvard, Australian: Jacobsen, S. 2020, ‘An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two)In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, vol. 22.A., http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

Modern Language Association (MLA, 7th Edition, 2009): Scott D. Jacobsen. “An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two).” In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal 22.A (2020):February. 2020. Web. <http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two>.

Vancouver/ICMJE: Jacobsen S. An Interview with Richard Sheen on the Full Scope of Philosophy and Ethics (Part Two) [Internet]. (2020, February 22(A). Available from: http://www.in-sightjournal.com/sheen-two.

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