Sunday, December 4, 2011

Terrence Malick, And What they Didn't Teach About Epistemology in Sunday School

There is something I want to say here that is really important, but I don't know if I can be clear about it.  The problem isn't with the "listener" but with me, the speaker.  I want to talk deeply about philosophical matters. The bottle-neck of getting my ideas from my head into your head is my limited ability to use language.  I don't have a degree in Philosophy. My vocabulary of expression is limited. It reminds me of going shopping in Cairo (for a lot of different things) and having an Arabic vocabulary of just a couple hundred words.

First I will state my premises and define my terms. Next I will describe how I got here (talking about this topic) and then dive into the actual discussion.

My premises are; 1) That epistemology is a very important topic, 2) We (Christians) make many wrong assumptions about knowing and we minimize it as a subject and 3) We do a very poor job of teaching our kids about epistemology.  Now if you will patient while I talk in theoretical terms, I will get down to the nuts and bolts of the practical in the end.

I must start by defining "epistemology" in the way I'm using it here.  I am using it as strictly a philosophical term, not a theological term.  Epistemology is of course the study or science of knowing.  When it is used in theological settings, it usually means the science of knowing what the Bible is really saying. That isn't what I'm talking about here.  What I'm talking about is the fundamental philosophical study of knowing the very basics about reality and how we know or the process of searching for truth.

Okay, why am I talking about this?  It has to do with my movie club.  I've started a movie club and my new church, enthusiastically, signed on to "sponsor" it. That's a good thing. My old Evangelical church was very doubtful about my movies clubs . . . seemed secular to the pastor at least. Our first movie, last month, was The Adjustment Bureau.  Our film this Friday is The Tree of Life.

Before I show a movie I spend some time researching the writers and director.  For The Tree of Life, it is one in the same, Terrence Malick (pictured above).  As I was just starting to do my homework I came across this article by R. Greg Grooms (an old LAbri guy whom I had met years ago) about the movie.  At my club, we always have a time of discussion about the movie afterwards and that is the whole point, to understand it at a very deep level.

The thing that caught my attention in the Grooms article was the statement about the writer/director Terrence Malick, "He is a philosopher who makes movies."  That was profound . . . and it sent me on a journey to find out more about the man. I'm not going to waste a lot of time here discussing Malick, but, I do want to explain how he is related to how I started thinking about this topic of knowing.

The other reason I want to take on this topic in my blog, is that I want to get away from talking about Evangelicals misbehaving in a sexual context. I know that Trevor was asking me why I see so much misbehaving and he hasn't (my words not his).  I don't know.  I think it is common.  If you google "Pastor arrested" you come upon page after page of either A. Christian pastors arrested in the Muslim world for proselytizing or B. An American pastor arrested for sexual crimes. But it starts to seem like I want to continuously beat up on Evangelicals for being frauds. So I want to talk about something else for a while.

Malick is a brilliant man. He graduated (per Wikipedia) summa cum laude from Harvard in Philosophy in 1965.  He went on t study philosophy at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.  However he never finished his PhD because he had a strong disagreement with his professors at Oxford over their understanding of the Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein.

I know it sounds a bit strange that you couldn't finish your PhD because you didn't agree with the dean or professor.  But I know it is true. I studied psychology before I moved into medicine. My psychology program has greatly influenced by B. F Skinner.  There was (ironically) tremendous social coercion to agree with Skinner.  I know that I was Bs instead of As at times simply because I didn't agree with Skinner.  So I can see how Malick could have been limited by his personal views.

So I'm almost at my point.  You see, as Greg Grooms describes, Wittgenstein was a Logical Positivist. My simple definition of this philosophical movement is taking epistemology and putting it under the same rules as natural sciences (empirical science). So, you end up with a situation that it is complete nonsense to ask any question about reality that can not be answered definitively with empirical data. So they would see the old, basic philosophical questions such as; 1) What is reality? 2) What is the meaning of life? 3) Does God exist? 4) What is right or wrong? as complete silliness.

Malick, while raised as an Orthodox Christian,  certainly has no claims of being a Christian now. But his view was that these non-answerable questions were worthwhile to ask.  To to arrive at definitive answers but asking them, contemplating them and living by what you think the answers are, does add significance to life.

Now I must add in closing, that I read somewhere that Malick saw this process of asking and answering as cyclic.  He would work through, say a ethical question, and arrive at an answer. But years later, he may cycle through that same question and arrive at a totally different answer.

So now you know, how I got on this topic of knowing. But here is where I want to go next time.  I want to talk about this whole issue as it applies to the Christian.  We are taught that we can know with certainty all the basic Christian truths.  I oppose that view. My point will be, that if you teach that you must know with certainty,  but in reality you can not, then it because a farce.  You learn to smile and say the cliches about how "I've never doubted God for a second, because He revealed Himself to me, " while, in the middle of the night, when you wake up a lone in your bed . . . you know in your most secret places, you do doubt.  I just think it is much healthier to be honest about it.

I'm at the coffee shop and I was just told that I have to go. So, once again, no proof reading. Sorry about the typos.


trevor said...

Ah, an interesting direction to go in. All I know about Wittgenstein I read in the excellent book 'Logicomix', (an exploration of the lives of Bertrand Russell and his contemporaries in the form of a graphic novel.)

I've been wrestling with some of the same questions over the last few months. As you say, there are some things that we can know are true because we can observe them empirically. Specifically, we can measure them. We don't just say 'gravity exists', but we say 'we observe that objects accelerate at 9.8 metres per second per second when dropped'.

But then there is the huge area of things that we talk about but we can't measure. Things like values, human interactions, hope. I believe that it is TRUE that we should, for example, act honestly. But I can't MEASURE that statement in any meaningful way. Likewise, it's true that I love my family, but I can't put a unit of measurement on that love.

As a physicist and as someone with a deep respect for empiricism, this paradox bothers me a bit. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I mean by 'non-empirical truth'. I'll be interested in reading your further explorations of this.

(btw, in my early comment I wasn't so much speaking about sexual behaviour, as the very aggressive authoritarianism that you've described several times: I haven't witnessed these to the extent that you have. )

jmj said...

Yeah, Trevor you are welcome to comment as we discuss this difficult problem.

Oh, the authoritarianism. I think my perspective is skewed because I spent about 14 years in a very authoritarian Christian organization. The only other time I've seen it since (and I left that organization 20 years) was my previous church experience here. The pastor was very authoritarian and always wrapped his control over people in "Biblical mandates." That's why my leaving his authority was so ugly (in reflected in that epilogue).

Dana said...


you might like Wright's lecture "Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?" Scroll down the wrighpage (
until you get to Faraday Institute under the audio/video section. The audio link is temporarily unavailable, but you can listen to the audio of the video link:

It's one of my favorites.

jmj said...

Dana, that article sounds interesting. Here is the direct link: . I've printed it up and hope to read it tonight.

Eagle said...

MJ....I'd love it if you could compile a list of about 20 movies that you like that deal with spiritual themes and faith.

A couple of monthes back I sat down in my humble Washington, D.C. abode and watched "Spiderman III". I couldn't believe all the spiritual take aways and faith stories woven in the plot. But I am curious....what is your list?

Eagle said...

BTW...I'm not trying to give you work. I think you have stumbled upon something and i am intrigued.

jmj said...

Eagle, the way I pick my movies isn't necessarily because they deal with spiritual or theological themes. I'm mostly looking for movies that raise questions about the human experience. For example, they can raise questions about why we are here, to what is true (romantic) love, to how do we care for the dying to political issues.

Some of my favorite, off the top of my head, are; Run Lola Run (about the role of chance in life), The Adjustment Bureau (about fatalism in life), Revolutionary Road (about superficiality of life), Of Gods and Men (just an interesting story about faith and service in the face of death), hmmm . . . let me see. Of course The Tree of Life (about the a. loss of childhood innocence and b. the battle between "grace" and "nature" or beauty and discipline. Brazil looks at society run by the machine of bureaucracy. What Dreams are Made of, challenges a. our view of Heaven and Hell, b. the depths of true (romantic) love. I'll stop there.

jmj said...

Dana, I worked late so I didn't get the chance to read the entire article, except to slim it over. It certainly looks good. You can correct me but it appears to be a evidentual-apologetics piece, along the lines of Josh McDowel's earlier works or "Who Moved the Stone" By Morrison. Those works certainly have their place.

What I want to talk about her is more basic. I want to talk about how we know . . . meaning know anything (speaking philosophically).

Dana said...

Mike, it isn't an "apologetics" piece. Wright doesn't touch our notions of "proof" with any pole, ten-foot or otherwise :) He rather quickly leads away from that idea to the question about how we know. Do listen to the audio. You will need almost two hours for it. I find that hearing the nuances in his speaking is very helpful, and transcriptions sometimes don't include the Q&A session after the address, which is usually at least as good as the address itself.


jmj said...

Dana, that does sound interesting. I'm sorry if I mis-characterized it. It looks like I need the full content to appreciate it.

jmj said...

Dana, I hope I can listen to it. I'm trying to figure a way to download it into a m3p so I can listen to it on the run.

solarblogger said...

I ran into this at the right time. I watched The Tree of Life a couple weeks ago, and went on to rent Days of Heaven. (I had earlier loved The New World. But hated The Thin Red Line.) What Malick does with images is amazing.

Wittgenstein did spawn both Logical Positivism and Ordinary Language philosophy. But I've read a case (found in Wittgenstein's Vienna by Stephen Toulmin) that the book that spawned the former, his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was written for the sake of the last section, on "das Mystische," things of which we cannot speak and must pass over in silence. Malick seems to hope that he can point to them.

He has used voice-over in other movies, but this one seemed to put it to different use. Very primal statements to a few people. As these are not the things actually said, they seem, like the images, to stand for what cannot be said. These are things that he fails to say NOT for lack of courage. They are not said because they are not themselves the right words, some of which the characters do find when they are there to be found.

jmj said...

Great commentary. It is a very moving film without the words. It takes patience to reflect and capture the questions he raises like you have.

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