Reasoning About Faith: New Skins for New Wine

new-wineskinsCritics of Christianity and Christian apologists alike tend to approach Christian truth-claims as a set of content which either are, or are not, to be accepted, according to some previously determined–though generally unspoken–set of criteria. Public discourse occurs within various language communities, with sets of rules for determining whether a given argument is received as successful or not. Though individuals, and smaller sub-communities and sub-cultures frequently have their own sets of rules for making some judgments, there are nonetheless cultural logics which are effectively hegemonic, which provide a basic set of axioms and logics that most people, most of the time, employ when making or evaluating public arguments.

The actual set of such meta-rubrics, as we might provisionally call them, change over time. For a long period of late antiquity and the early medieval period in western Europe, neo-Platonism provided the basic structure for public reasoning, as witnessed in the works of writers like Augustine or John Scotus Eriugena. In the middle period of the medieval age, Aristotelian logic and metaphysics became ascendent in the west, especially through the work of Thomas Aquinas, who had the benefit of Arabic translations of works lost to Latin. (And it is of course worth noting how much overlap there is between Platoni and Aristotelean modes of reasoning.) At the end of the medieval period, both of these threads–the Platonic, still represented by the work of many Franciscans, like Bonaventure, and the Aristotelean, generally employed by Aquinas’s fellow Dominicans–both faced a crisis of confidence which led to new attempts at “first philosophy”, most notably in the work of Rene Descartes and John Locke. These and other figures of the 17th century ushered in “modern” thought, which has itself both evolved and been challenged by the panoply of critiques covered under the umbrella label of “post-modernism”. Nonetheless, some version of modernism itself still provides, in modified form, the basic set of criteria which most people employ in public discourse.

What exactly qualifies as the basic set of modernism’s truth-criteria is, of course, up for debate, but some basic assumptions like the following are generally seen as uncontroversial: the homogeneity of space and time, the limitation of the real to the perceivable or conceivable, the sufficiency of human reasoning to draw all valid inferences, and the individual thinker as the final arbiter of truth-claims. Each of these has come under some fire from both traditionalists (e.g. Thomists) as well as postmodernism (e.g. Foucault or Baudrillard), but by and large modernism’s basic structure of reasoning remains in force throughout most public discourse today–not only in the West (wherever exactly that is) but, increasingly, throughout the whole world.

Thus, not only the critics of Christian truth-claims but most apologists engage in their rhetorical struggles on this ground. Christian claims are understand as particular content–a set of pronouncements, each of which must be evaluated according to this over-arching meta-logic. While, in one sense, this is unavoidable and is ultimately necessary, I think there is reason to see such an approach to arguing about Christian truth-claims as highly problematic. This is because I think it is a mistake to see Christianity–or indeed any serious political or religious system of thought–as simply a collection of claims to be evaluated by whatever set of logics a given thinker happens to value and employ. Instead, such systems are, well, systematic. Christianity is not just a collection of claims (“there is only one God”, “Jesus is God incarnate”, “Jesus was raised from the dead”, etc.) but rather a complete system of thought–a set of axioms and logics that underpins those truth claims. That is to say: the claims, the content, arrive after one engages in reasoning according to the axioms and logics of the system. If one attempts to make sense of Christian claims apart from Christian axioms and logics, then it is unlikely one will find any of them convincing; indeed, one may not be even able to make sense of some of them in such a context.

Now, this is not to say that making judgments about Christian truth-claims outside of Christian axioms and logics is “wrong”; indeed, this is the whole point: to say that a given argument is wrong, or its conclusion false, or its method invalid, is to make a judgment–and as suggested above, whenever a judgment is made, one should ask: according to what criteria have you made this judgment? Judging, for example, Christian truth-claims according to certain modern logics–especially according to the assumptions of positivism–will yield one set of conclusions, while judging it according to other structures of thought will yield quite different ones. Likewise, judging the act-of-judging Christian truth claims according to, say, certain set of traditional Christian axioms and logics will yield one set of conclusions, while judging this act-of-judging according to modern logics will likely yield another. That’s a huge part of the difficulty in even discussing this issue. When we reason about the criteria we employ to make judgments, we are employing criteria to make judgments–we are making judgments about how to make judgments. The chicken and the egg both arrive on the horizon, but we never reach either.

However, the difficulty in seeing the complexity of this situation only gets worse when we recognize that, actually, few humans only employ one set of totally consistent systems of criteria. Most people employ at least two, and frequently they blend them in unpredictable ways. Thus, many Christians employ one set of axioms and logics when thinking about “religious” issues, but then, at their jobs, employ very different sets. Likewise, many non-religious people employ different sets of reasonings when thinking about scientific questions than they do when thinking about ethical or moral ones. Frequently, the systems of thought are incompatible, to the point of being mutually exclusive (this is actually not the case, I think, between science and religiosity broadly conceived, but consider the gap between evolutionary logic and the political ethics that most people hold dear, and a more glaring inconsistency makes itself clear. But this is a topic for a separate post.)

ouroborosSo each of us individually, and groups of us as communities, find ourselves attempting to adjudicate various truth-claims, many of which rest on differing assumptions, according to a blended set of axioms and logics, which are often actually rather obscure–that is to say, we often reason without being conscious of the rules according to which we reason. If and when we attempt to reflect on our own processes of reasoning, we find an intellectual mine-field, in which we have to employ the very criteria we wish to observe and study in our studies and observations. Reasoning about reasoning ends up resembling the unfortunate Ouroboros.

Of course, to some extent, this is just repeating some of the critiques leveled at modern logic over the past two centuries by thinkers often grouped together as post-modern (despite that term being largely indeterminate–though again, the difficulty of making sense of this term can’t be dwelled on here). But one should not allow any association with post-modernity–often a term of abuse employed by lazy thought that doesn’t want to truly engage critique–to obscure the real difficulty here. What I hope I have shown above is that the serious, self-conscious evaluation of any truth-claim always comes with an immense amount of baggage. Truth-claims do not sit, pristine and discrete, to be evaluated by some kind of Archimedean Reason. They always exist within a context and system of reasoning and axioms which themselves must be explored if we are to truly understand the original claims. But this is extremely difficult, the work of a lifetime.

Above, we’ve run through an extremely truncated summary of the formal dimension of the difficulty I want to discuss here: we have talked about reasoning in the abstract, outlining how any act of judgment is always an act of applying some particular set of criteria to a given question, and observed that this leaves questions about which criteria to employ wide open. I also claimed that most of us today, most of the time, employ some version of what I loosely called “modern” modes of reasoning to questions, after having suggested that such criteria may not always be appropriate to every question. Now I’d like to apply this formal argument to a particular claim.

The collision of Christian truth-claims and modern criteria of judgment is evident in some of the most basic claims of the faith. The idea that Jesus died but was somehow risen from death and then appeared to his disciples is an excellent example. Modern reasoning, in evaluating this claim, employs some of the basic assumptions listed above. Space and time are assumed to be homogeneous; therefore, any claim about what happened to Jesus must comply with the laws of physics as we now understand them. Likewise, the mechanics of this purported act of resurrection should be understandable to human reasoning. Any appeal to “mystery” is seen as only an attempt to dodge accountability, for all of reality is assumed to be either perceivable or conceivable by human thought. Finally, each thinker him- or herself assumes final authority and autonomy in reaching his or her own conclusion about the matter. Appeals to authority are likely to fall on deaf ears.

What kind of response can a Christian offer? One could attempt to argue each of the above assumptions philosophically, point-by-point. For the sake of keeping this post somewhat briefer, I will employ Scripture itself to model some of the logic that I think informs the Christian claim, to highlight the fact that in the claim about Christ’s resurrection we do not simply have a particular content, a truth-claim, which should be evaluated by whatever reason any given thinker brings to the table, but rather a truth-claim that sits within a broader context, a system not only of other truth claims, but of axioms and logics which anchor those claims. To assert the resurrection of Jesus is to assert a specific way of thinking about reality. Christianity is a way of thinking, not just a collection of content.

genesisilluminatedPerhaps the clearest way of pointing to this general system of thought is to appeal to the very opening of the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis chapter one, the cosmos in general and humanity in particular are pronounced “good”; indeed, we humans are said to be made “in the image of God”, the imago Dei. This is not a reference to our bodily form, but rather to our intellectual, moral, and/or spiritual nature and capacities. The upshot of the first creation story, the very opening of Jewish and Christian Scripture, is that reality has not only a descriptive content, but a moral or valuative one as well: it is good.

Yet the second chapter introduces a wrinkle in this optimistic opening. Something goes wrong, terribly wrong, with the good cosmos. The Accuser, metaphorically imaged by the snake, tempts humanity into transgressing the boundaries that support our very being, and by so doing, the good cosmos is cast into chaos. (The philosophical question here of the problem of evil more generally is one worth exploring, but which I can’t pursue here.) So we have a tension in the text, only a few pages in: in its essence, the cosmos is good, yet in its existence here and now, it is far from good. It is “fallen” from its true state.

These two stories appear themselves as collections of truth-claims about the way in which our world came into being, but they must be seen as providing a philosophical architecture to Jewish–and therefore–reasoning. To claim that the world as it is now is not how it is in truth is to announce an axiom of Jewish and Christian reasoning: Truth cannot be judged only according to how things appear to be for us now. Truth, Truth with a capital “T”, is, to some extent, other than how things currently appear to be. Current existence is a fallen version of Truth.

Once these stories are understood as presenting, through allegory and metaphor, a philosophical system, it should not be hard to see how this touches on our previous discussion of formal systems of reasoning and of the particular question we tackled above: the Christian claim of the resurrection of Jesus. For the axiom just outlined in Jewish and Christian reasoning is in direct conflict with some of the axioms of modern reasoning. Whereas we said that modernism (again, assuming a simple and homogeneous meaning to this thorny term) assumes the homogeneity of space and time, Genesis argues that how things are now is markedly different from how things are essentially. Likewise, by arguing that humanity is itself fallen, Genesis argues that human epistemic capacities–our abilities to perceive, to conceive, and to reason–may themselves be limited, may fall short of being able to fully grasp the Real.

Apart from providing these formal challenges to some of the axioms of modern reasoning, these Scriptural axioms also provide a grounding for understanding claims about Jesus’s resurrection. If in the resurrection, this one part of the fallen cosmos, Jesus’s body, is restored to its essential character as good, as unfallen, then we might expect that it would not “play by the rules”, as it were. Indeed, the fact that Jesus’s resurrection does not play by the rules of being in its mode of existence now is essential to the message. For if one understands the world in its current existence as less than it should be, then only an event that transcends the limits of being as it currently is constituted, the limits that confine being to suffering and dissolution, could possibly be seen as truly manifesting the restoration of being in its essential Truth.

This application of Scripture as a source of axioms and logics shows, I hope, that Christianity–and again, other religious, political, and philosophical systems as well–cannot be understood as simply a set of truth-claims, a disparate content. Instead, the faith must be seen as a system of axioms and logics, as well as the conclusions which are then seen as particular truth claims.

Now, this is not to say that any of what I have said above “proves” Christian claims. Indeed, my whole point here has been to assert that thinking of proof as some kind of absolute and unquestionable conclusion is inherently invalid. Once we recognize that all judgments are made according to sets of accepted criteria, then we can see that any act of “proving” an argument will only prove that argument according to the criteria applied. Proving a point is simply the concluding of an argument according to the axioms and logics accepted at the outset; so long as we ignore that different thinkers can accept different sets of axioms and logics, we will miss the fact that there is no automatic set of criteria that any reasoner must accept. (Here my “postmodern” proclivities are on full display, though this term is even less useful than “modernism”–again, there is much to be said on this score which I cannot pursue here.)

Thus, it is crucial to see that what has been laid out above does not “disprove” modern modes of reasoning. It simply offers an example of an act of reasoning according to different criteria. Now, if one wanted to ask whether there was a process for determining which criteria to accept, that’s a wholly different–and far thornier–question: we would be seeking a criteria for determining criteria, a meta-criteria. For the time being, I would only like to point that even if one accepts the Scriptural criteria of reasoning outlined above–that the existential is not necessarily the finally True–this does not in any way require one to reject modern criteria of reasoning for other questions. That is to say, there is no necessary conflict here between “religion” and “science”. To the extent that one is seeking to understand being as it exists here and now, then modern modes of reasoning seem to be the best tool for the job, considering how much of natural phenomena they have explained and how effectively they allow us to develop new technology. However, if one has questions that move beyond simply how things are, and instead inquire into why things should be that way, or why things should be at all, or as to the value of being as such, then one may find that such modes of reasoning are less useful.

That is to say: it seems clear to me that there are properly scientific questions, which we ought to pursue with scientific (i.e. one specific set of “modern”) modes of reasoning. There may be other questions, however, for which scientific reasoning is not applicable. It is only the assumption, common in the modern period, that all judgments must be adjudicated by scientific modes of reasoning that is being critiqued here. Refuting this position, however, does not necessitate holding that scientific reasoning is never proper for any question. Instead, the refutation of scientific modes of reasoning as hegemonic should lead us to conclude that this mode of modern reasoning is appropriate for some (indeed, many) questions.

It is worth pointing out that this conclusion is relevant to all human thinkers, whether one considers oneself “religious” or not. As suggested above, moral and ethical judgments also fall into the range of questions for which scientific reasoning is not appropriate–though, considering the length of this post already, I will not tackle that claim here.

The upshot of all of this, for an understanding of Christian thought, is this: Christianity is not just content, it is form. Accepting Christianity does not just mean accepting a jumble of truth-claims, but rather a whole system of reasoning. It is not just new wine, but also a new wineskin appropriate for holding that wine. This has far-ranging implications, I think, for Christians struggling to be both “in the world, yet not of the world” (John 17:14-19). We should neither accept that all of our truth-claims can be meaningfully adjudicated by accepted modes of public reasoning nor insist that all questions must be adjudicated by specifically Christian modes of reasoning. Indeed, there may be many questions for which Christian modes of reasoning–which focus on the essential, the eternal, and the moral–are not appropriate.

We can only walk this fine line, balancing differing systems of reasoning for different kinds of questions, however, if we are aware of the often-unspoken assumptions which guide human thought. I hope that in the above, I have contributed to our efforts to not only think well, but also to think self-consciously.

Albert V. Krauss; or, A Few Well-Known Scientists’ Ignorance of Science

Larry Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing

Last year, Lawrence Krauss wrote A Universe from Nothing in which he explained how physicists’ current understanding of quantum mechanics suggests how quantum probability fields relate to one another to create matter and how, therefore, a state in which no matter existed could yield a state in which matter existed: in some arrangements, quantum fields yield no particles, but if their arrangements shift, matter would basically “appear”. So something (that is, matter) could appear from “nothing”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Krauss pressed this point to try and argue that theological and philosophical arguments about cosmogenesis were now obsolete–through the mechanism described above, physics showed how the universe came into being.

Except that…it doesn’t. What’s so surprising about Krauss’ claim is how jaw-droppingly misguided it is. He seems to think that a quantum state in which fields exist but do not generate matter is “nothing”. But of course such a state isn’t nothing–the fields still exist–and since these fields are the very basis of just about everything, at least as quantum mechanics tells it, this means that essentially the same something that is now present would be present in such a state–just in a different configuration. This is like arguing that while a diamond is something, a piece of coal is nothing, because the carbon atoms are arranged differently.

This is obviously ridiculous, but I don’t think Krauss is pulling a Joaquin Phoenix here–he seems to be dead serious. This reveals that he basically doesn’t understand what the word “nothing” means, which is pretty scandalous, because I’m pretty sure he’s a native English speaker. Now, Krauss’ book ended up eliciting a scathing review from one David Albert in the New York Times–to which Krauss responded with a bitter interview with Ross Anderson in the Atlantic. I would really recommend reading both as they provide the central material of the debate. Neither is horribly long, and they give some real insight into the two camps that have basically lined up in this debate.

As for those two camps, lots of people have been posting on blogs and elsewhere, flocking to this academic dust-up. Two articles I found particularly worthwhile were Adam Frank’s post in NPR’s 13.7 blog and Massimo Pigliucci’s post in Rationally Speaking. Both seek to understand why Krauss–and some other scientists–seem so hostile to philosophy in general. The fact that Krauss’ book was plastered with an enthusiastic blurb in which Richard Dawkins compared the work with Darwin’s The Origin of Species only underscores this theme: Dawkins is well known for his hatred of religion and his dismissive attitude towards theology, but he’s equally hostile to–and ignorant of–philosophy.

Both Krauss and Dawkins are, essentially, dogmatic scientists. Science, as a methodology, has finally been around long enough that people can practice it without understanding what it actually is and how it works. The philosophy of science attempts to continue analyzing science as a discipline, but this often leads to philosophers pointing out that scientists themselves overreach in their claims–which understandably frustrates those scientists. But instead of giving well-thought-out defenses of their positions, increasingly scientists just dismiss philosophy altogether.

This rhetorical tactic is as psychologically interesting as it is logically deficient. You can’t actually win a debate by simply saying that your opponent’s opinion is wrong a priori because they have one doctoral degree instead of another; but this is exactly what Krauss and Dawkins do. Albert’s central critique of Krauss’ book is the one outlined above: the English word nothing means just that–nothing. No thing, not structure, no space, no time, no matter–no nothing! Krauss explains how one state of existence, one structure of being–quantum fields aligned in a given way–can lead to a different state of existence–quantum fields aligned in such a way as to bring matter into existence. But he seems to think he’s actually explained how something came from nothing–when in reality he’s explained how one thing came from something else, or, really: how one set of relationships resulted in a different set of relationships.

This is really no different from claiming that when the first sufficiently heavy star exploded in a supernova and generated really heavy elements–like gold and uranium–for the first time, that this was creatio ex nihilo–the creation of something (i.e. gold and uranium) out of nothing (i.e. hydrogen, iron, oxygen, and incredible amounts of energy). Obviously hydrogen, iron, etc. are not nothing. Perhaps less obviously–but no less truly–quantum fields are not nothing. They are, as said above, actually everything–they and their relating account, as far as we currently know, for everything we see (although I gather that the laws simply assume space-time rather than account for it–but I’m not sure). They are, actually, the opposite of nothing.

It’s hard not to wonder if the materialist realism that underpins modern science hasn’t so uncritically ingrained itself on the minds of folks like Krauss that they can’t even understand the implications of their own work. I’m not saying this unequivocally, I’m really wondering. But he seems to think that the absence of matter-as-particles is equivalent to “nothing”, even as he spearheads research in a field that seeks to explain particles as composite realities determined by something other than particles. In other words, his field assumes that particles are generated by the reaction of something more fundamental than particles. And yet he still seems to think that the absence of particles signifies the absence of anything. Which draws the question: so, quantum physics is the study of…nothing?

In short, Krauss knows how to pursue empirical methodology–and he seems very good at, I’m not aiming here to criticize his actual theoretical and experimental work as a physicist–but doesn’t seem to actually understand it. He seems to essentially be “ontologizing” his epistemology. In its radically skeptical form, empiricism basically accords no reality to anything except sense perceptions. Hume certainly held to this view. But quantum mechanics, crucially, claims–and with lots of indirect empirical evidence–that the reality we see and experience is governed by forces that we cannot directly detect. In other words, empiricism has itself led to a denunciation of its most extremely skeptical variety.This is in no way a refutation of science, but actually science itself progressive, developing, and critiquing itself in a very healthy way. Note that while Hume hewed to a very skeptical empiricist view, Netwon and Bacon did not.

Interestingly, quantum physics seems to have almost as much–perhaps even more–in common with objective idealism as it does with materialist realism. Traditional materialism along Netwonian lines simply took particles, space, and time as givens–particles were completely simple, with no composites. Modern physics has dramatically overturned this view; now it is forces, laws, and probabilities that are most fundamentally real. This actually mimics, at least in broad outlines, the thought of people like Immanuel Kant and HGF Hegel–not to mention the likes of Spinoza and even Plato. The various forms of idealism that each developed tended to see logic, mathematics, and reason as fundamental to the reality of the universe (though each differed from each other in crucial ways, and obviously quantum mechanics is not idealism–nonetheless, the parallels are, I think, intriguing). It might be better, though, to say that quantum mechanics seems to be affirming some of the fundamental insights of both objective idealism and material realism.

This sort of discussion is precisely the sort of thing that philosophers of science do, and it’s important to the practice of science because science, like all epistemological methods, only works when it is properly understood and well-guided. Once scientists themselves lose sight of how their discipline works, they are unlikely to be able to advance their field as quickly and are also likely to make erroneous and wild conclusions–just as we have seen Krauss do. This isn’t to say that somehow philosophy should “rule over” science, but rather than its voice and its discipline are valuable. It’s also well worth pointing out that many, many scientists are interested and educated in philosophy and even theology–I am not here criticizing all scientists en mass, most of whom actually do take these questions seriously. There is, however, a troubling trend within popular science writing of dismissing philosophy for a pure sort of empiricist materialist realism that dis-serves the public and damages the credibility and progress of science itself.

Sam Harris, Science, and Morality

Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 in which he argued that science can–and should–be used to define morality and ethics. His argument essentially boils down to this: moral decisions are decisions made about facts. The more we know about the world, the more facts we have about it and the better and more sophisticated our understanding of those facts, the better decisions we can make. Therefore, morality should be guided by science (and presumably not religion) because it is the scientific process that allows us to test which ethical decisions work well, and which are deficient.

At its core, I don’t disagree with this argument. For example, if we want to help children grown up healthily, I think it makes sense to research nutrition, to see what foods tend to help children grow quickly and healthily. Such an approach would be broadly scientific, and it’s hard to argue with. But it also seems clear to me that Sam Harris both misunderstands the traditional “science can’t define an ethics” argument and is overly credulous when it comes to science’s general merits. The presentation video is below:

First off, though Sam Harris seems to think that he is debunking the argument that science can’t provide the basis for ethics, he actually never discusses it. He is either woefully, even shockingly unaware of what the real debate is about, or is being disingenuous in his presentation. The claim that ethics and morality are beyond the realm of science is a claim about the foundations of ethics, not its application. It’s one thing to say that “assuming that X is good, science can help us achieve X”. I think this is a pretty uncontroversial statement. But what if someone questions the goodness of X? Sam Harris argues that science can help us to figure out how to help conscious beings live more fulfilling lives. But why is helping conscious beings live fulfilling lives good?

This may seem to be some sort of trick question, but it’s not. Harris simply assumes an ethical system, and then argues that science can help us to apply that system–and he’s right. But he completely ignores that science is essentially agnostic when it comes to the basis of ethics. Why is it wrong to kill a person? Science can help us develop better ways of saving lives, of fighting disease, perhaps even through psychology it can help us to deter people from attempting harm one another. But what does empiricism have to say about why it’s wrong to kill someone in the first place? The traditional approach has been to build on some sort of pragmatic or utilitarian philosophy, but again these simply assume the right- or wrongness of given activities, and argue how best to organize human activity so as to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

Science simply gives us data on causality and being: it helps us understand why and how A leads to B. But ethics is interested in whether A leading to B is good, bad, or neutral. And this is always subjective. Is my taking $100 dollars from your wallet a good or a bad thing? Obviously that depends on who’s asking. I may argue it’s a good thing; you would probably argue it’s a bad thing. Most observers would probably agree with you. But what if an extremely poor man stole $100 dollars from Jamie Dimon to feed his starving children? Dimon might actually argue that this is still a bad thing, but I imagine that most of us would not agree. Could science ever provide a definitive answer to this? It might very well provide better systems for preventing theft, it could also provide better thieving systems. But could it provide conclusive reasoning for deciding what actions are bad?

In short, why is it good to help conscious beings thrive? Viewing such thriving as a good thing is an act of valuing. I value conscious beings, but not for truly, or directly, rational reasons. I am delighted to see a dog playing, for example, but it’s not because I somehow think that the dog’s play will indirectly help me. It’s an emotional response, deeply complicated. Now, it is true that that science, in the form of psychology or neurology, could help explain why I find a dog’s playfulness enjoyable, and why I might choose to, for example, build a dog park, or rescue a dog from the pound. But is my choice to do so the right choice, from some sort of factual, objective standpoint? What does that question even mean? How would we determine the rightness or wrongness of my rescuing a dog, from a scientific standpoint?

The point of arguing that science cannot speak directly to ethical issues is to make it clear that science cannot give definitive answers as to why something is ethical or unethical. It can help us achieve a more ethical society (at least in theory) but science could be marshaled to defend any number of ethical systems which would conflict with one another. Science itself is ethically agnostic, because it objectifies the world. Science analyzes things into their components to understand them. Ethics is a subjective process in which unified wholes are valued for a complex set of reasons; different subjects value differing things, and there is no objective way to prove or disprove either valuation. Although science certainly can explain how the valuing occurs, it can’t comment on whether the valuing is good or bad, right or wrong.

Harris doesn’t seem to grasp this, which is amazing, because this is really fundamental philosophical stuff. He wouldn’t have to open the Bible or any other religious book to explore this conundrum; Sarte or Nietzche would do just as well. The disconnect between the world seen as an object and the world experienced as a subject is probably the oldest problem of philosophy, and one that still dominates it. That Harris could spend years writing about religion an ethics, and seemingly never come to understand this, is quite amazing and perplexing. But his position also belies a subtler, but still significant confusion.

Harris seems extremely confident that empiricism–science–will allow humans to build a better and better world; he seems to believe in the inevitability of human progress: as we learn more about the world, we can manipulate it into a better and better place for us to live. The evidence suggests, though, that science has had a much more equivocal impact on the world and on human life. Science has, on the one hand, brought us vaccines, and sanitation systems, and medical intervention, and increased food production, and all sorts of creature comforts. This can’t be denied, and let me be honest: I’m sitting in a heated room, typing on a computer. I have refrigerated food here, and all sorts of books, food, clothes, etc. that were shipped here on technologically advanced ships, trucks, and trains. I’m not a Luddite, and I’m not here to say that science is inherently evil.

But science has also brought atom bombs, machine guns, mustard gas, mercury poisoning, and global warming. It’s not some unalloyed good; progress isn’t guaranteed just because we are applying science to our problems. In fact, it could be argued that though science has improved the lives of a relatively small number of fortunate people, on balance it’s proving to be a growing catastrophe for life in general. This remains to be seen, though. Many people hope that we can use science applied through technology to address the problems caused in the past by science applied through technology. “Green” energy sources, for example, can hopefully be deployed to replace fossil fuels. I hope they are right, but I have to be honest that I’m not particularly confident. “Green” technology may prove to be extremely damaging to the environment; let’s remember that when people started burning coal on a large scale in the 19th century, they had no idea it would lead to the problems we now face. Manufacturing millions of solar panels and wind turbines will involve vast mining operations and the expenditure of huge amounts of energy, and their deployment into the environment may prove to have unforeseen negative consequences.

Of course, perhaps not. I’m not trying to define a wholesale anti-scientific pessimism, but I do think we should be aware of the limitations of our knowledge and the real possibility of serious problems arising from the solutions we are so enthusiastic about today. Ultimately, this credulous approach to science is very much an ideology; some have called it “scientism”. It boils down to a fervent confidence bordering on faith (though they would hate for me to use that word) that human beings, through the application of reason and empirical investigation, can fully understand the world, and apply that understanding through technology to master the world as on object. I am decidedly unconfident about our odds here; as we just discussed, our history suggests that science’s advances nearly always come with huge downsides, major vulnerabilities. I don’t think we are as in-control as “scientismists”, as it were, would have us believe.

And, interestingly enough, this gets us back to the subject-object dichotomy discussed above. A highly credulous view of science ultimately depends on a fully object-focused view of the world that is reductionist and even mechanical. Such a view is less and less capable of making effective predictions as more and more complex systems are added to what is being observed. We are coming to find that the earth, as a biosphere, is far more complex, and sophisticatedly balanced, than we realized before. The argument that we can simply apply our ever-increasingly knowledge to the objects before us and increasingly develop a more convenient environment runs into the real experience of humans, that as we manipulate the biosphere to garner given benefits, real costs are extracted, though often in hard-to-predict ways, and often on people who were not involved in the development of the original technology (i.e. these effects are often “externalities”).

Harris, then, misses the mark, I think, both in his basic philosophical confusion, and in his over-enthusiasm for science as a sort of panacea for all human ills. Again, none of this is to say that I do not believe we should apply science to our problems. But, first, I think we have to recognize the science itself is built on a wide base of philosophical assumptions, some of which may prove to be false, and that there are questions that this system of though cannot effectively answer in full. Ethics is perhaps the best example of this; science can certainly  help us to apply our ethical system, but it can’t answer the basic, fundamental, crucial questions at the very core of our ethical investigations. Second, science itself is a bit of a fickle mistress: what it gives with the right hand it takes with the left, and I think we need to be much more cautious with it than many modern science-boosters would have us be. Harris seems to make massive errors in both of these areas of thought, and I am sad to see his public influence continue. It’s especially ironic that he fancies himself a trusted ethicist, considering that he apparently believes that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (The End of Faith, p. 52). Harris really seems to be the epitome of polarized, hyper-empirical “scientismist”: fully confident of his own moral rightness and his capacity to understand anything and everything. He is much more similar to the oppressive religious leaders he is so (rightly) critical of than he seems to realize.

I would submit that the video below, an abbreviated (and wonderfully animated) recording of a presentation that Iain McGilchrist gave to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, portrays a much more accurate, useful, and sophisticated view of human decision-making than Harris’.

[UPDATE: this post appears in slightly modified form at the Tikkun Daily Blog]

Richard Dawkins: Metaphysician?

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In my previous post on the first 120 pages, I focused mainly on Dawkins’ incredibly–and indefensibly–narrow definition for the “God” he then refutes. By defining God in a way that few serious theologians today–or before 1300–would accept, Dawkins is able to build a straw man easily knocked over and burned down. Any more robust–and traditional–doctrine of God as being-itself, as Aquinas famously wrote, is simply ignored. Essentially, Dawkins only addresses a very modern (or, perhaps more accurately, counter-modern) understanding of God: a fundamentalist God–and therefore an understanding of God that most of the world’s Christians would understand as heretical.

Anyway, if that discussion interests you, head on over to that article. Although I will dig more into just what God as being-in-itself actually means later in this post, let’s start with with some of the foundations of Dawkins’ ersatz theology:

First off, it’s clear that not only is Dawkins only interested (or able?) to debate the god of fundamentalism, he also only seems to think that the only interesting theological debate is between creationism v. natural selection (pp. 112-114), as if God has only ever served as a mechanical explanation for the arising of life on this planet. Of course, if this were the case, the Bible could have ended after the second chapter of Genesis! The idea that many–as in hundreds of millions–of modern Christians both firmly believe in God and accept fully and even enthusiastically the theory of natural selection seems to not have occurred to Dawkins whatsoever (pp. 60-61).

Dawkins also simply sidesteps the assertion that God is simple, as in not a complex structure or being. Since Dawkins defined God in the second chapter as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence (p. 31), it follows that he cannot interface with any idea of God as simple. But of course here lies one of the deepest flaws of his whole position: he seems to have never really researched much traditional Christian theology, except when he cherry-picks some of its weaker examples (as when he brings up Anselm’s famously inadequate ontological ‘proof’ pp.80-81). He earlier (pp.78-79) critiques some of Aquinas’ ‘proofs’ of God’s existence, but never addresses Aquinas’ most famous, and significant, definition of God as being-in-itself (as I have mentioned earlier). This oversight is worth repeating because Aquinas, in fact, goes out of his way to make it clear that God must be understood as simple, from an ontological standpoint, precisely because all relation and structure arises from God as being-itself: the very cause or ground of complexity, logically, cannot itself be complex, at least not in any way that is grammatically meaningful to us.

But that’s a nerdy discussion for a later (and, I suppose, nerdier!) section below. We’re not quite at the point in Dawkins’ thought to address a robust understanding of God. Although Dawkins is mostly concerned with dismissing God as an alternative to natural selection, he also sees God as an alternative to (rather than an interpretation of) purely scientific understanding of the genesis of the physical universe itself. Nevermind that discussion of God is really always about teleology (meaning and value) rather than mechanical explanation (and anyway, Dawkins simply refuses to treat teleology as serious when he dismisses why questions out of hand (p.56). In any event, Dawkins then later brings in contemporary physical cosmologies, the most interesting of which is the “multiverse” theory (pp.143-145). Dawkins begins with a discussion with the ‘anthropological principle’, which points out that if some of the central constants in the laws of physics were to change only slightly (for example, if the one of the strong force’s constants changed from 0.007 to 0.006) then life would, as far as we understand it, not be possible. In such a universe, no atom more dense than hydrogen could ever form, and the universe would just be a misty sea of hydrogen gas. The tantalizing question is: why is that that our universe seems to “fine-tuned” for life? This is, essentially, just a more technical way of asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” which is a central theological question (but, as Paul Tillich made clear in his Systematic Theology, it has no conceivable, explicable answer). The multiverse theory attempts to answer this mystery by proposing an infinite number of universes–collectively, a multiverse–in which the laws of physics are set at random values. We simply happen to be in one of the–presumably very, very rare–universes with a set of physical laws that allows for complex structures, including life.

Now, the multiverse theory may or may not be true, but it simply does not provide an answer to the question Dawkins asked, because a multiverse would simply shift the question back one step further. Even if we grant that there are an infinite number of universes which laws are determined by chance or randomness, we still might ask why there are any universes, rather than none. More to the point, such a system of universe would demand, quite literally, a meta-physics. It would demand some set of laws that governs how the ‘lower’ physics would be determined. Something must govern the fluctuations in the physical constants, even if that something is simply logic mediated by mathematics and chance. Such a system would still beg for an explanation. It’s curious–and telling–that Dawkins doesn’t seem to see this. While he repeatedly points out that the “God hypothesis” fails to answer the question of the origin of existence because God would then simply demand an explanation, he misses completely that this critique is true of any rational, non-paradoxical attempt to answer the question of the arising of being. This is precisely why Aquinas ended up asserting God’s radical simplicity as being-itself, or what Paul Tillich would famously call, more than 700 years later, the “ground of being”: God is not a structure, a being, or a person: God is the very ‘ground’ that allows for existence to occur. Of course, under this understanding, as Tillich himself pointed out, it may not make sense to say that God “exists”: things exist, and beings exist. But God is simply being-itself: existence itself. And existence doesn’t exist. But the crucial insight is that whatever verb we might conjure for the reality of God, it is more, rather than less, than existing.

But I admit this is a mysterious sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo: The trouble for Dawkins is that he can’t escape it any more than I can. The multiverse will demand the same sort of ad nauseum regression of cause that Dawkins criticizes theism for requiring (p. 143). The fact of the matter is that this problem is one that any philosophy, theology, or theory has to address–even though no rational answer seems conceivable, since we are ultimately asking how logic itself arose, it seems unlikely that a logical answer can ever fully suffice. But instead of admitting the mystery of this, Dawkins prefers to lean heavily on an interesting but ultimately futile answer to the problem, myopically ignoring the fact that it contains the very flaw he so relentlessly points out in his opponents. Dawkins stumbles into metaphysics without even realizing it, even while outlining a literal meta-physics!

Richard Dawkins’ God Confusion

[Update: Fixed a typo below in which I misspelled Christopher Hitchens’ last name as ‘Hutchins’]

I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion the last few days. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, but I’ve found the book so frustrating so far that I wanted to write down my impressions so far. Dawkins is one of the “New Atheists”, a group of writers including not only Dawkins but Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchins, and many others. These authors have, over the last 10-15 years, begun a sort of evangelical atheist push, aggressively attacking religion and the concept of God writ large. The theological response has been as paltry as it has been quiet. While fundamentalist writers have simply dismissed Dawkins et al. with barely a response at all, more sophisticated theologians seem embarrassed in the face of Dawkin’s assault, and seem ready to cede the debate before its even begun. Alister McGrath, whom Dawkin’s interviewed for his documentary The Root of All Evil? failed to respond consistently to any of Dawkins’ questions and failed to really get at the heart of the matter, at least as I see it.

The heart of the matter is, I think, that although the New Atheists raise plenty of valid critiques of religious institutions, their arguments are really only valid in repudiating fundamentalism. And most religious people around the world agree with Dawkins that fundamentalism is wrong. The hard-line assertion that the Bible is a literal document whose veracity is totally beyond question is a modern development, a short-sighted and desperate response to modernism, as I point out in my (admittedly short) post on fundamentalism. But a refutation of fundamentalism doesn’t address, at all, the issue of the existence (as it were) of God. But Dawkins seems not to really understand this distinction, and accepts without comment or thought that the literalist approach to Christianity simply is Christianity. In The God Delusion, for example, Dawkins defines God thusly:

there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything it, including us.

This definition works well in Sunday School, but it’s hard to imagine any but the most doctrinaire of fundamentalist theologians defining God in this way. So right off the bat, Dawkins defines God in a narrow way, seemingly intentionally reading as literal what has always been understood as metaphorical and analogical. Later in the same book, on pages 77-79, Dawkins briefly discusses some of Thomas Aquinas’ (in)famous “proofs” of God’s existence. He not only dismisses the valid questions that the “causation” proofs raise, but, much more importantly, he ignores that Aquinas’ central definition of the Divine was that God was being-itself (ipsum esse subsistens). Dawkins never even mentions Augustine in this chapter, but its worth noting that Augustine understood God in the same way.

The point of this brief detour into the history of theology is that understanding God as a superhuman, supernatural intelligence and understanding God as being-itself are two totally, radically different understandings of the nature of God. The former has often been affirmed in Christian communities, but almost always (at least until the rise of fundamentalism in the 19th century) as a metaphorical, analogical, anthropomorphic way of describing what is un-describable. The latter much better captures the center of Christian theological thought. And as Terry Eagleton points out in Reason, Faith, and Revolution, academic and intellectual rigor demands that you take your opponents at their best–not worst–arguments.

Such an omission from The God Delusionsuggests that either Dawkins hasn’t bothered to read any theology, or that he is intentionally misrepresenting the position he wants to argue against. Neither conclusion reflects well on Dawkins’ usefulness as a voice in this matter. The former would reflect an arrogance and hubris that would likely blind him to any real dialogue; the latter would suggest that Dawkins isn’t even capable of making any statements in good faith on the subject at hand. Now, if Dawkins wants to write books decrying creationism, defending evolution, or dismissing fundamentalist literalist bibliolatry–I’m all for it! As a decorated biologist with decades of experience, he’s well qualified to discuss the intersection of biology and religious belief. But again, a takedown of fundamentalism does not an atheist make: I certainly agree with him that evolution is a much better and more likely explanation for the nature of life and its diversity than creationism; I also assert, along with him, that every sentence of Bible isn’t literally true. Yet I’m a practicing Christian. Clearly there’s a gap in his methodology, his knowledge, or his intellectual honesty.

And this isn’t just a bunch of technical theological mumbo-jumbo. Most modern people would be highly suspicious of claims that God is some sort of superhuman watchmaker. And yet many modern folks continue to value spirituality and many people who are not religiously active often describe themselves as believing in God, or some sort of God-analogue (Life Force, Spirit, etc.) It’s clear that fundamentalism can never serve these people’s search for truth or understanding–but that doesn’t mean that the only approach left is a militant, semi-nihlistic atheism. Approaching God as being-itself is not only more traditionally defensible than the modern fundamentalist nonsense, it also offers a much deeper approach for people searching to understand the nature of existence. In short, much like American politicians like to simplify political theory into capitalism v. communism, it seems that Dawkins et al. would prefer to define philosophy and theology as fundamentalism v. atheism, excluding all the multivarious ways in which people actually grapple with the terror, mystery, and glory of existence.

Granted, I’ve just opened a big can of worms, and I do hope to address in greater detail some of what I’ve raised here: especially the idea of God as being-itself. But to keep this post at a more manageable length, I’ll conclude here, hopefully having at least made the case that Dawkins isn’t addressing the “God debate” with the intellectual rigor, honesty, and curiosity that the issue demands. It’s especially frustrating considering that someone wrote a book 50 years ago that explores the question of a modern view of God in a much more sophisticated and valid way: John Robinson’s Explorations Into God. But it seems clear that Dawkins sees the debate only in terms of evolution v. creation, but instead of limiting himself to that topic–which as I said above, he’s well-qualified to tackle–he instead delves into territory he refuses to actually explore, already confident that his conclusion is unassailable.

You can read my next post on The God Delusion here.