Chesterton Aftermath (Part 1)

Chesterton Aftermath (Part 1) February 3, 2011

Thanks for all the comments and questions that you’ve left on my Monday post on my attraction to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.  I’m working my way through them and I anticipate that will be my main source of inspiration for posts this week and possibly next if your questions continue.  So here goes…

Matt asked a question that was aimed at the heart of my post:

It’s weird to me that someone would use theology to substantiate their own claims about the world. Wouldn’t you use investigation and reason to substantiate those claims?

In other words, reason and empirical investigation are “truth-telling” things, and they directly conflict with theological claims. I’m surprised to read an atheist that values Lewis for anything other than his literary prowess. He was an absolutely horrid apologetic and most of his arguments were riddled with logical fallacies and faulty premises. His “three L’s” argument should be mandatory in any introduction to logical fallacies.

Ok. So I’m not going to defend C.S. Lewis’s Mad, Bad, or God trichotomy, which I also don’t find logically compelling.  I’m going to return later this week to the question (which others have asked) about what specifically about Lewis’s world view attracts me (in the meantime, check out the posts tagged C.S. Lewis).  What I want to address is Matt’s claim that empiricism and rationality are intrinsically opposed to and a negation of theological thinking.

Theology is not prima facie irrational, or, at least, it’s not necessarily any more rational than philosophy generally.  Some religious questions can be studied empirically (medical effect of prayer = pretty much zilch), some make empirical predictions that are hard to falsify and test (God was the force behind the Big Bang, Jesus turned water into wine at Cana), and some are outside the realm of empirics all together.  When religion and empirics intersect, I trust empiricism and the scientific method as my truth-telling thing.

Unfortunately, not all interesting questions fit into a this epistemological paradigm.  I do think of it as a truth-telling thing, but it’s not complete.  There are true (or probably true) propositions that are unprovable using empiricism.  The actual existence of the physical world (contra the brain-in-a-vat) is hard to prove according to my usual empiricist standard.  Also hard to pin down with empiricism alone: causality, absolute morality, and consciousness.

These questions are too interesting to pass over in silence, so I have to make a choice.  I don’t think empiricism negates or disproves these claims, so if I want to examine them, I’ll need a new truth-telling mechanism.  It may be that these two schemata exist in non-overlapping magisteria, or I may need to figure out which one trumps the other.  But if I want to talk about them at all, I’m going to need to tweak my epistemology.*

*The last option is for me to decide that I am more sure that empiricism is the correct truth-telling thing than I am sure that morality exists and needs a truth-telling system that helps me examine it.  As you can guess, I’m more confident in morality than the scope of empiricism.

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  • We have to make the leap of faith that the external world, and minds, exist. To do otherwise is to invoke solipsism which, while entirely (or not, see next para) valid, stops all investigations dead. Or we say, "even if this world is made up in my mind, let's see what rules I have invented and if it remains consistent." Which I quite like.The "brain in a vat" has always bugged me since it shows such a lack of imagination. It is only fractionally better than the Evil Demon. Why must there be a brain? Why must there even be an I? If this life is the imagination of a superior intelligence how would I know? Worse, if this is simply the memory of an imagined life then not only would there be no I, everything would be fated to happen since it already had and this was simply the memory of it.Causality is not universal. Absolute morality does not, and cannot, exist. Consciousness may not exist in the sense we normally mean it.

  • Eli

    Actually, I'm a bit confused about this. Let me see if I understand you right: "not all interesting questions fit into a epistemological paradigm," which means that logic and evidence together are not sufficient to answer all the "interesting questions," like whether or not this is the real world or whether there are other minds. So you take it to be the case that either you need to find another philosophical tool (either just to talk about the special stuff or to govern reason and evidence) or you have to give up on things like morality. Is that about right, Leah?If so, it's the last step that gets me. Let's leave aside for the moment whether morality or other minds or whatever actually are outside the scope of our usual truth-finding mechanisms – that's not really the problem. At some point something is going to be unprovable by any philosophical system: one, because some things presumably just are and so can't be proven by any system at all; and two, because you can't use a system to prove itself. So given that there are always going to be unproven things, I'm not sure why it's necessary to look for a new philosophical tool every time you bump up against one.I guess you could say that morality (e.g.) is just so important that you have to be able to handle it with a certain amount of sure-handedness, but I guess I don't really see it.

  • @Leah – Lovely post. The method of inquiry varies depending on the subject matter. If you are trying to prove the Pythagorean theorem, you use logic. You do not use the scientific method. You might try to find experimental evidence for the Pythagorean theorem by measuring a bunch of actual triangles and seeing whether a^2 + b^2 = c^2, but as I'm sure you realize, you wouldn't get to mathematical truth in the same way while doing that. If someone refused to do proofs and insisted on just measuring a few triangles, you'd get annoyed with him or her. In the same way, you cannot learn about morality using the scientific method.Aristotle explains:"…it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

  • Sigh … I understand the objections overall stated here, but I'm afraid they're confessions of failure where conceding failure is unwarranted.There's always one or more routes of inquiry practiced by people, but to say so is not to add wisdom, it's just to state a current state of affairs. Wisdom is in showing one route of inquiry can be analogized to another so that the two demonstrably belong to a common category. Or wisdom is showing that two routes of inquiry are of different orders, i.e., that to analogize from one to the other is impossible. Or wisdom, once a proof of similarity or difference has been made, is to use that proof in new contexts. But there's no wisdom in separating routes of inquiry when no proof yet exists that they're different.To view a foundation of wisdom, check out this URL: to the vat in a brain issue, I'd suggest it's misstaken. Order is built on assumptions, and assumptions are made by brains in vats. Or (less stigmatizable) by avatars of the Greek god Apollo. Science and math is when one can make a successful analogy from a model developed by a brain in a vat to the world. And the world can be in the model (i.e., a model can be recursive) or in the world.Because models and patterns exist, and so do brains, empiricism is insufficient, and grossly so. The *disciplined* solipisist can build structures of analogical power that can have influence over the world. Especially when amplified by tools and machines.The solipcist has an added advantage over the empiricist. Empiricists will read the Aristotle quote cited by Lukas to presume that classes of things and subjects are both external, because "the subject" suggests one can point to it as a separable object. Solipsists on the other hand have the power to create. They can create new classes to annihilate the separation between classes an empiricist would say must be different.

  • Great post. I can see where you're coming from. I've kind of landed on something like, "All knowledge is provisional." Perhaps that's somewhat of a pragmatic approach — if it works, use it. Maybe not always satisfying of the "Why?", though.What do you think of THIS? I had a lot of dialog with the author after reading it and find it quite interesting.