A Fine Tuned Universe? 1 (RJS)

A fine tuned Universe ds.JPG

Today we begin a series of posts looking at Alister McGrath’s new book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology. This book is an enlarged version of his 2009 Gifford Lectures in which McGrath examines the evidence for and interpretation of fine-tuning in the universe.  You can find the texts of his lectures online.

CS Lewis is quoted as saying “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

This quote provides a theme for McGrath’s understanding of Natural Theology and his understanding of fine-tuning in the universe. There are two related questions he addresses.

Is it reasonable to suggest that the universe was designed for our existence?

What theological conclusions can we draw from the nature of the universe we see?

Before delving into fine-tuning and the nature of the universe it is useful to consider what natural theology is and what natural theology is not – at least according to McGrath.

Natural theology is not a “proof” for the existence or nature of God. The Enlightenment project attempting to find an objective basis for belief in God must be considered a misguided failure. McGrath highlights three specific aspects of this failure.

  1. Objective rational certainty is unattainable. The rise of postmodernism has led to a realization that much of the ideal of 18th and 19th century natural theology was intimately connect to modernist thinking.  But much of what was regarded as universal and necessary is now seen to be local and contingent  – certainly interpretation is influenced by social and historical factors.
  2. Observation of nature alone is not enough. The idea that observation of nature alone can provide a foundation for reliable knowledge of the triune Christian God has been tried and found wanting.  While nature can point to God, reliance on nature alone leads to heterodox notions of God. More than this “Nature many now argue, is religiously ambivalent, leading as much to a natural atheology as to a natural theology. Writers such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have produced … [treatises] … advocating a natural atheism (or atheology). (p. 18)  Science becomes, in the hands and minds of some, a weapon against faith.
  3. We must rely on God’s revelation. Finally, following the writings of Barth, natural theology as a foundation for faith undermines the importance of God’s self-revelation in scripture and in Christ. In fact it represents a desire to assert human autonomy and control over our relationship with God.

If knowledge of God can be achieved independently of God’s self-revelation in Christ, then it follows that humanity can dictate the place, time, and means of its knowledge of God. … The human desire to assert itself and take control over things is seen by Barth as one of the most fundamental sources of error in theology, leading to the erection of theological towers of Babel – purely human constructions erected in the face of God. (p. 19)

But all of these criticisms of natural theology are really criticisms of natural theology as proof for the existence of the Christian God.  They do not undermine all aspects of natural theology.

Reclaiming a vision for natural theology. According to McGrath we can develop a useful and workable natural theology – but within limits.

natural theology … is best interpreted as an attempt to find common ground for dialogue between the Christian faith and human culture, based on a proposed link between the everyday world of our experience and the transcendental realm – in the case of the Christian faith, with the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3). It represents an “intertwining of knowledge and belief,” two habits of thought that are often seen as antithetical in the twenty-first century yet actually have the potential for creative convergence. (p. 5)

And later

Natural theology is therefore best understood as the enterprise of engaging and interpreting nature on the basis of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition. It is the way of seeing nature that is made possible and made appropriate by the Christian faith. … One cannot therefore speak meaningfully of natural theology “proving” God’s existence; it is, however, entirely appropriate to speak of a “resonance” between theory and observation, in which it is confirmed that the fundamental themes of the Christian faith offer the best explanation of what is seen. (p. 20)

Natural theology helps us make sense of the world in which we live, it helps us see and understand God’s mission and power.

What is your opinion? Is natural theology a worthwhile endeavor? What theological conclusions can we draw from the nature of the universe we see?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

  • http://www.danwilt.com Dan Wilt

    Scot,
    Our aggressive work in natural theology is, in my mind, one of the most vital undertakings of the Church in the 21st century. There are times historically where ‘balance’ is not to be preferred above a’radical, peaked addressing’ of issues pivotal to faith and the age.
    We live in an age where the glories of the created order have been triumphantly explored by biologists and astrophysicists (as well as others) – in such a way as to demand that the Church come up with a clearer line of reasoning about this material world.
    Confusion over the natural world and its connections with faith bubbles in the culture and the Church – reasoned approaches to healing that confusion are both pastoral and vital. The arrogance that marks the discoverer must be addressed, without sabotaging the spirit of discovery that is a gift to our day.
    Our dualisms must not die a slow, silent death; they must be brutally betrayed in all their vile forms (sacred/secular, spiritual/physical, faith/science) for us to move forward.
    Our thinking must change related to embedded theologies we hold about the nature and glory of the cosmos. Cultural listening, education and prophetic provocation will aid this most quickly.
    Secondarily, living out a profound theism, embodied in a Christology expressed in human terms, rather than simply Christian terms, is our way toward addressing the atheology that runs rampant in culture today.
    In other words, arguing the existence (or lack of existence) of God with a Mother Theresa is always harder than arguing with one’s colleague. We must live out a thick, meaty, strong love before our world.
    Generously lived theism, marked by joy, discovery, open-mindedness, passionate creativity and vibrant love of neighbor and enemy is the only path forward in the faith-antagonistic soup in which we abide.
    Our capacity to be missional through all creative expressions of the human spectrum (right and left brainded), as well to simply enjoy and understand life, absolutely hinges on this aggressive approach to natural theology.
    Christians somehow have come to believe, in our age, that the Christianity of the scriptures demands that life be distilled into simple, manageable categories. Natural theology exposes this naked and superficial vision of God and His world, and demands that we see nuance and complexity via a joyful approach to co-discovery with our human family.
    If the covenant family of God does not get this now, our human family will be the poorer until we do. We could actually move ahead here, and gain credibility at the roundtable of cultural discussion. Lead on, Alistair and friends. We need the books, words, ideas and visions of possibility to heal our small thinking.
    The cosmos speaks of complexity, with simple truths governing it’s flashes and fortes. The Church must begin to see the goodness of God afresh in the vibrant, pulsing created order all around us – or we will die within before we even begin to lose our current impact.

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1)
    But not that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and rose again the third day according to the scriptures.
    We need the Bible for that.

  • Scot McKnight

    RJS,
    I wonder if McGrath doesn’t give away too much. Yes, I do think faith steps in to provide an explanatory apparatus of what we see in that faith provides a comprehensive reading of nature. But, there are still elements of nature that drive us, on the basis of that evidence, to wonder about cause and design. The combination of vastness with intricacy — amazing at times — leads me to think of something beyond, something more. Does McGrath discount this sort of thing?

  • pds

    peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
    RJS, thanks. I have been curious to learn more about McGrath’s approach.
    Is he saying that we have no common ground with nonbelievers and skeptics to discuss the evidence of design in nature until they accept “the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition”? In Romans 1 Paul speaks of evidence of God in nature so that everyone is without excuse.

  • Jason Powell

    I saw a special on Discovery once…or was it PBS?….and it’s basic premise said that one of the most remarkable things about the position of our planet is that we can actually “see” anything out there. If we were farther out on our galaxies position, we couldn’t survive…too far in and gravity would be too strong. The planet seems to be positioned in the perfect place to both sustain intelligent life..and allow that life to explore its place in the cosmos. Fascinating!

  • pds

    peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com
    Jason,
    What you saw might have been this, now available on youtube:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnWyPIzTOTw

  • http://bobbyorr.wordpress.com MatthewS

    I don’t recall if it was RJS or someone else who recently pointed out that our climate is just right for scientific discovery. If the clouds never broke, who would have seen the stars and the moon, etc.? We have varied weather patterns that invite people to ask questions and try to figure out what is out there as well as how our own environment behaves. Cool, man!

  • Randy

    I appreciate McGrath’s approach; (and regarding Scot McKnight’s comment)I do not think he gives too much away. Discussing this stuff with Christians who accept (but do not always understand) ID, I tell them if I were with a scientist, I would rather go outside and share a beer with them while looking on the heavens or the soil, than argue ID with them.
    I believe precisely that Natural Theology ought to provide opportunities for dialogue and imagination. But Christians ought not expect the dialogue to be so loaded so loaded as ID tends to make it. I am glad to see someone of McGrath’s stature making the case.
    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse

  • dopderbeck

    IMHO, McGrath’s approach is very close to exactly right. Scot McK (#3) — McGrath’s thinking is very subtle on this point (see also his prior book on natural theology, “The Open Secret”). I think he would agree that the beauty and order we see in creation moves us to wonder if there is a God. However, he notes that we also see what looks like ugliness, disorder and randomness in creation, and that our perception of the beautiful is also marred by sin. His natural theology is an effort to hold all these tensions together, unlike many contemporary “design” arguments, which seem to ignore entropy, the probabilistic and “random” aspects of natural laws, and the noetic effects of sin. He says is that we only really “understand” the beauty of creation and the longings the experience of it stirs within us as our minds are renewed by the Spirit within the framework of Christian theology.
    In my view, McGrath’s perspective on natural theology is vitally important to the “intelligent design” debates. It seems to me a proper ordering of fides quaerens intellectum, rather than the more scholastic strong-ID approach which seems to put intellectum first.

  • Scot McKnight

    dopderbeck, thanks much for that clarification.

  • freelunch

    My experience with discussions about natural theology is that the proponents of the idea always appear to start with the assumption, admitted or not, that the God they worship exists and then they go around collecting information that they claim fits with that view. That doesn’t work.
    If you want to engage in a valid argument for God using natural theology, you must start with the null hypothesis, “God does not exist or has nothing to do with our universe” and then take evidence that has been properly gathered by science to see if this null hypothesis can be disproven.
    Reading your precis of and quotes from McGrath shows us that he is rejecting what has been known as natural theology because it fails, but he tries to avoid offending those who subscribe to the argument by creating a new approach, the one that is invalid as an argument, of assuming God first.

  • dopderbeck

    Freelunch (#11) — I think you’re right that some kinds of natural theology take the approach you suggest, notably Paley’s design argument. However, I agree with McGrath that this is largely a development in response to the Enlightenment, which does not represent the classical or Patristic (or Biblical) notion of natural theology.
    You raise an interesting question about religious epistemology, however: who bears the burden of proof concerning the question whether there is a God? The approach you take here is typical of many atheists, who insist that the person who believes in God bears the burden of proof. However, it seems to me that this begs the question of what constitutes “proof,” or better, “warrant,” for belief in God. If you assume an epistemology that is essentially positivist, then yes, the person asserting that God exists bears the burden of proving that assertion through empirical evidence. But positivism fails on its own terms, so I don’t think it’s necessarily the case at all that the theist bears the sort of burden of proof you’re suggesting here.

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig V.

    “Natural theology is therefore best understood as the enterprise of engaging and interpreting nature on the basis of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition.”
    This raises red flags for me though I’m curious to see McGrath give some examples. The red flags are in the implicit assumption that the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition are somehow a kind of meta system for interpreting the world. It’s as if he believes that Christian beliefs can be articulated and stand outside of human culture. This is the infamous view from nowhere in Christian garb.

  • AHH

    Not having read this or his previous book, I suspect I would be in agreement with at least McGrath’s overall view of natural theology as something modest and suggestive (rather than proof), worthless in isolation (unable to get us to the triune God), but of potential value as part of a bigger picture.
    Maybe a way of looking at this is that traditional natural theology (as practiced by Paley and his successors in the ID movement) is an Enlightenment effort, foundationalist in its epistemology. Claiming to start with self-evident facts and proceed to proven conclusions, as the base for further building toward modern truth. McGrath seems to be advocating something non-foundationalist, with the testimony of creation acting as part of a mutually reinforcing web of belief, giving people hints toward a creator, opening up conversations about coherence of world views, and confirming that things make sense for those who already follow the Creator and therefore have eyes opened to better see his hand in nature.

  • pds

    “Natural theology is therefore best understood as the enterprise of engaging and interpreting nature on the basis of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian tradition.”
    I think this is too narrow. Design arguments from nature can function as “clues” to the existence of God for anyone, no matter what their starting point. I think Tim Keller deals with it more broadly and better, since he takes into account how different people respond to the evidence:
    http://peelingdragonskin.wordpress.com/2009/06/11/tim-kellers-5-clues-for-the-existence-of-god/

  • freelunch

    dopderbeck (12) -
    I bring this up only in the context of natural theology and how people choose to use it. If the argument made by the proponent of natural theology is essentially that God makes Himself known through His creation and therefore all can see Him through His works, then he has the duty to show that. In this context, it seems to me that it is very much the responsibility of the believer to make such an argument properly. If one merely states that a believer will see the Hand of God in nature, there’s little to object to.
    I’m not sure why you assert that my point is positivist or that positivism fails on its own terms, but that isn’t the point I am trying to make here.

  • freelunch

    Design arguments from nature can function as “clues” to the existence of God for anyone, no matter what their starting point.
    Arguments are not clues. Only the evidence upon which an argument is based are clues. The problem for design arguments is that they make assumptions in places that they should have evidence, where they should be doing research. Based on the evidence gathered to date, there is no need for a hypothesis of design in science because there is no evidence for design.

  • pds

    Freelunch (#17),
    Evidence + argument can be “clues.” “Design arguments” includes the underlying evidence.
    Your comment is full of dangling “shoulds.”

  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig V.

    Freelunch (17)
    What does it mean to have a need for an hypothesis? If the need is generated by evidence, then I suppose you might say that we need an hypothesis when we have evidence that we can’t explain. What does it mean to explain the evidence? Is it the ability to make predictions that we can test? For this, we might never need an hypothesis of design. What if our goal is to listen rather than to explain? Then we might hear murmurs of clues or better yet the heavens declaring the glory of God.

  • RJS

    Scot (#3)
    dopderbeck did better than I could at explaining McGrath’s nuance. I don’t think that McGrath gives too much away. But I do think that he is careful not to oversell the power of “natural theology” as an apologetic.
    I’ve been offline all day (working) or I’d have responded earlier – now waiting at Washington National to leave Arlington as you arrive. Weather has made everything here a bit of a mess.

  • Cam R.

    Freelunch,
    I wonder if we are dealing with the differences between how science operates and how philosophy or theology operates.
    If we are talking science then I think you are right then we need to be testing theories, gathering evidence, and having the conclusions testing by peers. Then those theories should be published and make their way in to textbooks.
    I think the ID movement has tried to go the science route but their theories aren’t testable and the evidence hasn’t stood up against testing by their peers.
    I think this post on natural theology and where a lot of ID work resides are in the realm of philosophy and theology. Here arguments are all you have.
    Did I miss understand you?

  • freelunch

    Cam R. and the others,
    It is no problem at all to have faith that God created the universe or humans or anything or everything else in whatever manner you choose to believe, but you need to remember that it is your faith. It is your belief. It is not something that rests on facts that you can point to. You cannot say “God created and here is the evidence,” because that evidence does not exist.
    When someone makes an assertion about nature, that puts it in the realm of science, not in the realm of theology or philosophy. If you make the claim that there is design in nature, that would be as a result of observation, a fact that can be pointed out and tested.
    There is no evidence for design in nature. There is no hypothesis about design in nature that can be tested that has not already shown itself to be false or meaningless.

  • Kyle

    freelunch and Cameron,
    As a Christian theist, I agree (kinda).
    People can believe whatever, but as Christians we are called to test those beliefs. In fact, we can’t help but test those beliefs or else we are forced to deny our experience of reality.
    We all come to believe things based on our understanding and perception of reality. The scientific method can only answer some of these questions though, such as, “Why does the sky appear blue?” Others come from experience or recollection such as, “Did my grandfather love me before dying?” Some come purely from history, such as, “Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?” Others come from philosophy such as, “Is this statement true?” or even beyond that statement, “Is anything true?” As you might know, hard materialists (such as the Churchlands) would deny that anything is true at all, because matter holds no value such as truth, beauty, goodness, etc.
    We have various experience and data that we attempt to fit within our worldview and we test it in various ways. If I make the claim that “God can be found within this rock,” we can simply smash the rock into bits, analyze it with a microscope or whatever and see what conclusions we can find. When making material claims, they are testable using certain methods obtainable by the scientific method.
    Of course, mathematical investigations into the number of rocks on the ground, and ideas about what would happen were we to remove certain numbers, etc. are inaccessible by the scientific method. They fall in the realm of mathematical knowledge.
    If we make the claim, “Jonathan placed this rock on the ground,” we can test that hypothesis historically by studying clues concerning why the rock lies on the ground. If we find clues that the rock actually migrated downstream a few hundred years ago before washing ashore and setting in its place, then we can make a strong assumption that the Jonathan did not place the rock on the ground. This is the realm of history.
    If we say, “God is the contingent cause of the rock’s existence,” then we can test the hypothesis philosophically using proofs such as Mortimer Adler’s contingency argument. Are there any faults in the philosophical premises? Does the logic conclude that God or not God is the best answer? This is the realm of philosophy (and a little bit of theology).
    If we make the claim, “God placed this rock on the ground for the purpose of having you analyze it,” then we are clearly in the realm of theology. From what we know of God based on a variety of factors (revelation, experience, the structure of various religions, etc.) does this hold true?
    Of course, our world is much more complex and even the simplest scientific, mathematical, philosophical, historical answers rely on the other fields of inquiry as well.
    I say all of this to say that belief “is not something that rests on facts that you can point to” is too simplistic, and I don’t mean that to insult, because I think we largely agree in substance. The very idea of “fact” and “theory” is bound up in history, philosophy and probably even theology when considering its origins.
    I do not expect to be able to find a rock that has some irreducible part leading us to assume its design. That’s too simplistic, and not something that theologians/philosophers would expect in the first place. With that said, reducing reality to a simplistic, “Only what is ascertained by the scientific method is true,” diminish our experience and does not provide adequate answers for the full experience of reality.

  • Kyle

    RJS,
    I think it’s interesting to see the recent change (last 6-7 years) in McGrath. He is, and has been, one of my favorite theologians for awhile. You have surely heard of the Barth/Brunner discussions over natural theology. Earlier in his career, McGrath clearly aligned more with Barth. McGrath is also a student of T.F. Torrance. Torrance was especially Barthian early on in life, though made a movement toward Brunner as his interactions with science increased. McGrath has made a similar shift. Brunner disagreed with Barth vehemently in regards to natural theology, because he saw it as giving a hand to the reductionistic Enlightenment, by claiming nature “proved” God. Barth was unhappy with the god which nature could prove apart from revelation and therefore rejected the entire enterprise. Brunner didn’t see using natural theology as a means to “prove” theology though, but instead to refine it. As you and dopderbeck have already mentioned, you can clearly see that change in McGrath, starting clearly with his volumes on scientific theology and growing into his present position in these Gifford Lectures.

  • Kyle

    “Brunner disagreed with Barth vehemently in regards to natural theology, because he saw it as giving a hand to the reductionistic Enlightenment, by claiming nature “proved” God.”
    Oops. Obviously I meant to say that “Barth disagreed with Brunner vehemently”

  • RJS

    Kyle,
    I learn a good deal in these conversations from you, dopderbeck, Scot, and others because I have spent most of my career as a scientist (time consuming enough)- not spending a great deal of time thinking about theology or even science and theology.
    All to say – I am learning about Barth and Torrence, and even McGrath as we go. McGrath does think Barth took the rejection of natural theology too far – but agrees that natural theology can’t replace self-revelation.

  • dopderbeck

    Kyle and RJS — absolutely correct, McGrath leans toward Barth concerning natural theology. But more precisely — McGrath’s mentor here is Thomas Torrance. Torrance developed a modified or dare I say “chastened” Barthianism concerning natural theology. Conservative evangelicals, particularly those of the “Biola” school, think Barth was wrong about natural theology, and therefore take a different tack than Torrance and McGrath. This is the real deep theological divide concerning ID theory. BTW, if you like McGrath at all, read Torrance — a brilliant gem of a theologian to whom most of us sadly lack exposure.

  • dopderbeck

    freelunch — I think you evidence some important misconceptions here.
    In #16, you say “If the argument made by the proponent of natural theology is essentially that God makes Himself known through His creation and therefore all can see Him through His works, then he has the duty to show that.
    In response: that is not exactly the classical view of natural theology. In Romans 1, Paul argues that creation testifies to God’s attributes, but that no one acknowledges that testimony. In other words, it is not the case that “all can see Him through His works,” because everyone is blinded by sin. All could see Him through His works if not blinded by sin. In short, as the Church has acknowledged throughout its history, “faith” precedes “understanding.”
    You are correct that some Christian ID advocates seem to want to reverse this calculation, and I would agree that the burden then falls on them to provide empirical evidence accessible to people who lack faith. But this is NOT the only version, or in my view the most orthodox version, of Christian natural theology.
    You also make some category mistakes in #22. For example, you say, “When someone makes an assertion about nature, that puts it in the realm of science, not in the realm of theology or philosophy.” That is obviously false. In fact, once someone makes an assertion about the philosophical or theological implications of an empirical observation of nature, the conversation has moved out of the realm of “science”. By definition, “science” is incompetent to adjudicate questions that concern other than material causes.
    You also say “It is your belief. It is not something that rests on facts that you can point to.”. Here, you are making an unworkable and simplistic distinction between “belief” and “facts.” There is no such thing as a “fact” that is unconnected to “beliefs.” The proper question is, what is the justification or warrant for the beliefs I hold? Empirical observation — what you seem to be calling “fact” — is one important source of justification or warrant, but it’s by no means the only source.
    And finally, the above is why positivism fails on its own terms. Prove to me through empirical observation alone that positivism is the “best” or “proper” or “true” or “only” way human beings can “know”. Of course, you can’t. Most basically, you can’t prove that empirical observation is the best or most reliable way for humans to gain knowledge, because you have no way of getting outside the limitations of human perceptual apparatus to empirically test the reliability of that apparatus. Moreover, there’s no way to empirically test the proposition that “knowledge is justified true belief,” or any other claim about what “knowledge” means. At the end of the day, even the positivist must take some basic beliefs on faith. This is widely acknowledged in contemporary epistemology, which is why most non-religious epistemologists rely on “modest foundationalism” or pragmatism.

  • freelunch

    dopderbeck -
    While it is true that someone can discuss philosophy or theology in the context of nature, it is still science that shows us what nature is. If you ignore the discoveries of science or you jump to unwarranted conclusions about nature without regard to science, you are engaged in discussion that cannot be reliably successful. There is nothing about nature that implies anything other than material causes.
    I intended to be clear in comment #22 that I was equating faith and belief in that particular context. The distinction was between faith and facts. Belief isn’t a useful word here because it is easy to accidentally switch meanings without realizing it. What statement, other than empirical observation, warrants being called a fact?
    I hadn’t brought up positivism in the earlier post, that was why I was curious why you decided I was. I’m pragmatic in my outlook on life and our ability to understand reality. Yes, I realize that nothing proves that there isn’t more than what we see, what we can observe, but I also realize that what we see is all we know. At this point, it is all we can know. We do know that this approach works. Humans using tools can perform all sorts of repeatable actions.
    Pragmatism, like a comprehensive mathematics, may be inherently incomplete, but that doesn’t matter to us. yet. We haven’t run into an area where there are real observations that cannot in principle be understood. That may be the case at some point in the future. There are areas in quantum physics where it is possible that this will be the case. There may be other areas that we haven’t discovered for study yet that might have this problem. Today, no, there’s nothing we can point to to say we cannot know, and even if there were, how does theology or philosophy solve it?

  • dopderbeck

    Freelunch (#29), you said: “There is nothing about nature that implies anything other than material causes.”
    I respond: that’s an enormous conclusion, which by definition can’t be demonstrated empirically! The term “nature” itself is a clue to the problem. From where do you get the concept of “nature?” That is a philosophical construct, not an empirical observation. Your logic is circular.
    You said: it is still science that shows us what nature is.
    I respond: You are confusing categories again. “Science” offers us empirical observations and inferences from those observations, within the limits of methodological naturalism. If by “nature” here you mean that which can be described within the limits of methodological naturalism, then, fine.
    But if by “nature” you mean the ontology of the universe, the “science” cannot “show us what nature is,” because by definition, science is not competent to comment on aspects of the ontology of the universe beyond material aspects. “Science” by definition cannot comment one way or there other concerning, say, whether there are “spiritual” angelic beings, or gods, or God, or whether people have “souls.” Now, if you want to argue that materialism must be correct and that therefore science describes all of reality, you are caught again in circular reasoning, because that is a proposition outside the competence of your method to adjudicate.
    You say: but I also realize that what we see is all we know. At this point, it is all we can know.
    I respond: this simply begs the question of what it means to “know.” I’m pretty sure that virtually no contemporary epistemologists of any variety would agree that “what we see is all we know.” Not even Locke and the 18th Century empiricists would agree with such a strong statement; even for them, we can “know” lots of things by inference from observation.
    You say: Pragmatism, like a comprehensive mathematics, may be inherently incomplete, but that doesn’t matter to us. yet.
    I respond: I can’t agree. Pragmatism can’t offer any meaningful response to some of the most pressing questions of life, from the very personal (“what does it mean for me to ‘love’ my disabled child”) to the global (“why would it be ‘good’ for Iran to have free and transparent elections?”), and so on. Essentially, pragmatism is a non-philosophy, because it tells us nothing about how we “ought” to live.

  • freelunch

    Essentially, pragmatism is a non-philosophy, because it tells us nothing about how we “ought” to live.
    Pragmatism is also humble. It doesn’t presume that there is some magical way to know that some god or other exists or that there is something that that god wants.

  • Cam R.

    Freelunch,
    If you are going to take a pragmatist view, doesn’t it make sense to vary your approach to epistimology depending what “works” or is useful?
    If empirical methods can’t prove questions like “did your grandfather love you” then wouldn’t it be useful to vary your method?
    Is one of your presuppositions that “known” reality is restricted to what we can observe? What would you say are your presuppositions regarding questions like “Does God exist?” or “What is the nature of reality?”

  • RJS

    freelunch,
    I have not quite figured out your intent here. I am essentially pragmatic and realist with respect to science and the workings of the world. Natural theology, fine-tuning, cosmic blind chance are interpretations of the data – not data.
    Ultimately I come down to one question as a starting point. Do concepts such as love, meaning, purpose, mission, duty, human dignity, etc. have real meaning or not?
    If we have nothing but the natural world with laws of physics and blind random chance these concepts are all ultimately fictions perpetuated because they facilitate the reproduction of particular molecular ensembles.

  • unapologetic catholic

    “If empirical methods can’t prove questions like “did your grandfather love you” then wouldn’t it be useful to vary your method?”
    But empirical evidence supports (but does not prove) my grnadfather loves me. I saw him attend my First Communion but he was a Southern Baptist. He bought me my fist fishing pole and he showed me how to use it. he was patient with a young boy. He called me “The admiral” when I was a seaman recruit. He taught me magic tricks.
    All empiricial facts that lead to a conclusion and none in opposiotn to that conclusion. The empirical facts support that comclusion. I suppose he actually was a cold hearted bastard who didn;t care for me inthe slightest. But facts supporting that conclusion are scant. When I empiricially tested the conclusiosn nby livign my life as if the conclusion that my grnadfather loved me, I was not disappointed.
    “Ultimately I come down to one question as a starting point. Do concepts such as love, meaning, purpose, mission, duty, human dignity, etc. have real meaning or not?”
    The pragmatist would say, “Of course they have real meaning!”
    “If we have nothing but the natural world with laws of physics and blind random chance these concepts are all ultimately fictions perpetuated because they facilitate the reproduction of particular molecular ensembles.”
    I don’t weant to confuse pragmatism with material reductionism. Matrerial reductionism is not the inevitabel result of pragmatism. This particular molecular asesembly finds a great deal of meaning in life and cares quite a lot about several other molecular assemblies.
    Great discussion!

  • dopderbeck

    Freelunch (#31) — I’m not so sure that the Pragmatism you’re espousing here really is humble at all. After all, you seem to be certain that belief in God cannot qualify as “knowledge,” and you seem to be certain that Pragmatism is the best / proper philosophical perspective for an educated contemporary person.
    RJS (#33) — “Pragmatism” here is a formal approach to epistemology, particularly as developed by Charles Peirce and espoused by William James, John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and others (Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatism). I think it’s fair to say that “Pragmatism” is the preferred epistemological approach of most of the New Atheists. In fairness to Freelunch, Pragmatism is a well-developed approach, which cannot be taken lightly, and which has some merits (IMHO) in the realm of political philosophy (see the work of Jeffrey Stout, who argues for a Christian version of Pragmatism) — so I overstated by calling it a “non-philosophy.” However, as used by the New Atheists and IMHO as used here by Freelunch, it seems rather presumptive and circular to me.

  • RJS

    Unapologetic Catholic,
    I agree – pragmatism and material reductionism are not inevitably linked. Pragmatism can lead to a conclusion that these concepts have real meaning – and we go from there.
    dopderbeck,
    Interesting – both from wikipedia and from my favored source for such information: a rather dense article. Although it doesn’t appear to be the new atheists who have appropriated it – but to have been pushed as an inherently atheistic approach to knowing pretty much from the beginning.
    My point is that we know such concepts are real on an experiential and pragmatic level. Yet material reductionism requires these concepts to be ultimately meaningless. Most (essentially all) atheists I know live as though they are real but ultimately without ground for this conviction.

  • Cam R.

    RJS and Dopderbeck,
    I know this isn’t the main topic of the post. I am not an epistimology expert but I am interested in it.
    What is your approach to epistemology?
    Dopderbeck you mentioned “modern contemporary epistemology” what exactly are the presuppositions and basics to your approach?
    A pastor friend of mine and I have often talked about how we determine was is true. He has been leading his community to adopt something very close to a pragmatist approach. Truth is based on what works for the individual. For given doctrine, it is true if you feel it works for you in connecting or experiencing God.
    For a church community, it seems crazy to me.
    Can you recommend an alternate approach?
    Thanks,
    Cam

  • freelunch

    As far as I can tell, pragmatism has, like science, not tried to make claims about theology. Pragmatic analysis of what we claim in theology doesn’t lead to any usable conclusions.
    It is true that those who are not theistic have no problem with pragmatism, but those who are theistic are split, some, as seen above, treat this as a stalking-horse for atheism that must be guarded against while others treat it as an analysis that doesn’t have anything to say about theism because there’s really nothing about a specific doctrine that can be evaluated pragmatically and is essentially neutral on it.
    I don’t know what approach would allow one to claim that they have knowledge of X because they have belief or faith in X when they have no evidence for X and their argument for X rests upon assumptions that are not strongly defensible. It is true that one cannot use a pragmatic approach to conclude that X exists.

  • RJS

    freelunch,
    What kind of assumption is “strongly defensible” and what constitutes evidence?
    So I asked:
    “Do concepts such as love, meaning, purpose, mission, duty, human dignity, etc. have real meaning or not?”
    Unapologetic Catholic said:
    The pragmatist would say, “Of course they have real meaning!”
    Do you think that one can demonstrate on the basis of evidence and strongly defensible arguments that such concepts have any real meaning?

  • dopderbeck

    Cam (#37) — my approach to epistemology — depends on what day of the week it is! No, seriously — when I personally consider various options, I tend to lean toward “Reformed epistemology” and/or “critical realism.”
    Alvin Plantinga is the leading light concerning “Reformed epistemology.” Nicholas Wolterstorff is also a brilliant Christian scholar who writes in this vein. In ways that are too complicated to discuss in a blog comment, this view answers most of Freelunch’s arguments about whether belief in God is “properly basic” (i.e., something that can be taken as true without direct empirical proof — like the belief that the laws of nature are uniform).
    In theological circles, Alister McGrath is a good expositor of “critical realism” (also N.T. Wright, Thomas Torrance, and I would say Karl Barth). Outside theology, the leading light for critical realism is Roy Bhaskar. For Christians leaning towards Pragmatism, I think critical realism is good to consider. A key difference is that Pragmatism leans towards being relativistic and materialist, while critical realism asserts that we can begin to gain true knowledge about God and nature.
    Some other options:
    Strong foundationalism: true beliefs must ultimately be based on an indefeasible foundation — usually self-evident propositions and logic; true knowledge must be “certain” — logical positivism is a version of strong foundationalism
    Weak foundationalism: true beliefs must ultimately be based on a foundation that there at least is no apparent reason to question — again, usually self-evident propositions and logic; but true knowledge can be probabilistic. This is the position of many contemporary analytic philosophers and of many conservative evangelicals.
    Presuppositionalism: true beliefs must ultimately conform to revelation from God that is not independently subject to question (Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer) Some variation of this view is the position of many conservative evangelicals.
    Virtue epistemology: “knowing” is more about cultivating virtuous habits of the mind than about formal definitions of knowledge (Jay Wood of Wheaton College has written on this)
    Personal knowledge / intuition: not a formal epistemological view, but emphasizes the intuitive and “personal” aspects of knowing (Michael Polanyi, Roy Clouser, Esther Meeks Lightcap (great website: http://longingtoknow.com/) — often tied to critical realism and/or Reformed epistemology and/or presuppositionalism and/or virtue epistemology.
    I’m sure a trained philosopher would quibble with some of my definitions and would add others. In short, there is an extensive range of ways of thinking about what it means to “know,” with many overlaps and areas of nuance among them. Every position is defended and contested by capable philosophers. One guidepost for me is whether my view can sustain itself — can I “know” my view is likely correct based on its own criteria for “knowledge”? In my view, strong foundationalism and pragmatism fail this test, and weak foundationalism probably fails it as well.

  • dopderbeck

    Oh I forgot!:
    Coherentism: true beliefs comprise a system that is internally coherent. Nancey Murphy writes theology somewhat in this vein.
    Postmodern constructivism: “knowledge” is partly or mostly or entirely a social construction, with no connection to a “reality” outside the social world of the “knower.” John Franke and James K.A. Smith have written excellent theological work adopting some postmodern perspectives. “Radical Orthodoxy” also can be read along these lines (e.g. John Milbank). Check out John Franke and Stanley Grenz, “Beyond Foundationalism.”
    Postmodern nihilism: there is no such thing as “knowledge”; all claims to “knowledge” are merely power plays. Some read Derrida and other Continental Postmodernists this way; I don’t think I agree with that reading of them.

  • Cam R.

    Dopderbeck,
    Thanks for taking the time to lay out some options. I definitely have some reading to do.
    Cheers,
    Cam

  • AHH

    Let me add my recommendation to that of dopderbeck with regard to Beyond Foundationalism by Franke and Grenz. Even if you don’t come down where they do, I think it lays out well the problems with the Enlightenment approach that tends to dominate U.S. evangelicalism.
    I do think it was a bit misleading for dopderbeck to put that in his paragraph about “Postmodern constructivism”. I’m no expert, but I would peg that book as being a lot closer to the “critical realism” and/or “coherentism” categories than to postmodern constructivism — of course both critical realism and coherentism make some use of postmodern thought, but without going to the reality-denying extremes I associate with the term “constructivism”.

  • dopderbeck

    AHH (#43) — Yes I agree, Grenz and Franke in Beyond Foundationalism aren’t “constructivist” in the absolute sense, i.e., they clearly believe God is a “given.” I found their notion of the Spirit’s construction of the eschatological future in and through the language of the Church very thought provoking.


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