We at The Christian Watershed would like to wish you a happy Valentine’s Day! As a token of our love we offer you this post from our new contributing author Jameson Cockerelle . . .
We all have friends who profess a major obstacle to belief in God and Christianity because of the sinful behavior of the people that do believe. Who wants to associate with hypocrites and liars? How could God? This is truly a scandal, a road-block, for onlookers and outsiders. The quick rejoinder is, thank the Lord they are in the Church (or one of its traditions) or we’d have to suffer their true wrath divorced from any transcendent restriction and duty. This is of course a wisecrack, but perhaps more wise than it appears.
The first thing to be said is that belief in God and belief in Christian Revelation are two quite distinct things. God, the omnipotent, omniscient, un-moved mover and bedrock of all reality has been found a necessary inference by some of the brightest minds on record. This is first of all a philosophical question, which is to be considered by reason divorced from the specifics of the faith of Christianity, just as we would infer a quark based upon the observational data we collect in physics. To explain existence as we know it a first (highest) principle is required.
God is not thought to be a physical being, or a substance like water or fire or rock, a combination of chemicals, or even an old man in the sky. That idea is absurd, and every atheist who professes to not believe that the spaghetti monster exists is quite right in his suggestion. If that is absurd, then this is a question of a reality that we cannot see. To accept this should not be as difficult as it has become in our physical-science drenched perspective. We try to solve every quandary by measuring it and cutting it up, and if that doesn’t work, we deny it because we already think the real is always physical.
This is a seriously questionable position, which philosophy throughout recorded time has treated as such. Problems concerning universals, the mind or soul, propositions, mathematics, and morals cannot be resolved nicely into a material principle without damaging our raw data: we cannot explain them along physical lines without explaining them away. One must deal with Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and Descartes, and many, many, many others in the great tradition before floating away blissfully on the materialist’s river. For they suggest that river ends in quite a spectacular fall. Otherwise, one is prematurely closing themselves to protect their desired preconception. How could absolutely brilliant and sober minds believe the invisible world is quite real and that it’s ultimately incoherent to disavow it? Simply because they couldn’t fly to the moon or study cellular biology? We should shudder at avoiding this profound question.
Philosophy in its essence is not some specialized, arid, desert where only oddball hermits should wander; in short, it is not its current academic face. Philosophy is simply the orderly attempt to make explicit and coherent what we know about allof reality, and it uses as its primary data our common and full experience. We would not be good scientists if in the study of all we pre-screened part of the allout of our purview. In philosophy we come to a determination about man and the universe. The praeambula fidei are the foundational propositions about reality that reason can attain, if considered carefully and patiently (to be clear, no one has said that understanding these is easy, or even attainable for everyone; consider, is understanding quantum physics attainable for everyone??). It is in the least true that, via reason alone, it is not absurd, illogical, patently false, or unreasonable to affirm the existence of that which we cannot see or sense and ultimately of God.
It is from this platform that one must begin to consider the possibility of revelation and the God of the Bible. Divorced from clear thinking about reality, how could we possibly undertake an examination of the essence of Christianity? If we do not have the truth about man from a natural perspective, how could we possibly grasp what it means to the “new man”; if we don’t have a good understanding about creation, how could we possibly come to understand the “new creation”; if we do not even understand the meaning of the word God, how possibly can we come to grasp (ever so slightly) the Trinity? Would it shock anyone to learn that faith per se, far from revolving around the existence of God, properly pertains to the promises of Christ about himself, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the eternal life we might attain a share of? We don’t have faith that God exists, but that God is three persons in one divine nature. And certainly, even with the clearest rational eyes, we cannot fully comprehend the transcendence of the revealed truth. While robust reason is necessary, it’s not capable of exhausting the mysteries of the faith because they are in their essence beyond our capacity to understand. A mystery is not wholly incomprehensible: we can know God is a Trinity, but we cannot know how this works or how this is. Our term “Trinity” is a flimsy sign to a deeper reality that we cannot articulate but is used by necessity for the sake of communication.
Belief in the Christian Revelation means one believes that God has reached out to man. In fact, it’s the more incredible Creator “coming down” to the level of man to rectify his seemingly impossible separation from Him. As Peter Kreeft says, it’s a divine rescue mission. It’s completely and utterly gratuitous, and done simply because of God’s love for mankind. To believe this, one must have some very good evidence; and in this case, it is primarily historical evidence that one must examine. To “believe” anything is to mean that you accept the testimony and the message of someone else’s knowledge; I believed my astronomy professor’s testimony about whatever physical principle he told us in class that day; and he believed his professors’ on and on until the discoverer of it “saw” it. One must judge the evidence to determine if Jesus was a credible witness, and if so accept his revelation about the divine.
Now on to the issue about hypocrisy. Man is a sinner. The Church is man’s seafarer to redemption, but there are rough waters until the very end. People in the Church are not sinless, and that is not apart of the content of revelation. They are obligated to seek perfection, and that means through grace to attain virtuous behavior like being just, prudent, humble, patient, etc. and to have faith, hope and charity. They will not, however, be without sin no matter how well they respond. The Catholic Church, acting in the person of Christ, offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), precisely because man is going to be with sin even after he is in the Church. Being a Christian is an act of the will, to accept the grace that God has offered and to offer one’s self back in light of the incredible gifts one has received (starting with life itself). It is not a magical ticket to immediate reform of one’s behavior.
In the end, the scandal of believers’ sin should not be a real obstacle to faith, because if one is honest in examining the situation, one will see even more the need for relief from it. We have heard many telling us that sin is illusory, or that it can be cured by better education, or a more loving and prosperous home life etc. Ultimately, sin resides at the heart of man, the very center; the divide is so deep that it reaches the depth of his being; and there is no relief except through Christianity. Nothing proves original sin more clearly than the horrible behavior of people, within or without the body of Christ. Chesterton memorably stated that original sin is the only tenant of the Faith that can be proved by simply looking at the newspapers.
Further, if one only sees the hypocrisy of believers, then one is not looking at the full picture. There are saints among us and people selflessly forgoing comfort and even the “American dream” to spend their time in effort to help those least among us. Love, honesty, virtue, faith, compassion, sacrifice, suffering etc. These all exist here and now in believers. If one mistakes tenets of traditional Christian moral teaching as being “hate speech”, then they are regrettably confused about its true nature and true meaning. Christ absolutely never wanted us to hate another person; but he absolutely did want us to hate sin and evil behavior. If one denies the existence of sin and evil, then they are going to have quite a hard time understanding the Christian revelation. If, on the other hand, one doesn’t believe in the full veracity of that revelation (e.g. in some of its moral teachings), then they have a different issue altogether.
I will quote someone much more learned than I in nature of the human heart at length:
All your dissatisfaction with the church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.
Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to go back centuries to find Catholic thought, and to be sure, you don’t. But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either. It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it…
It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for. Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love. We have our own responsibility for not being “little ones” too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you.
It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church — the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty — wherever we find them and however we can… You don’t serve God by saying the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.
To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer. (Flannery O’Connor, December 8, 1958)
It occurred to me the other day that Nietzsche is right. The only thing I could possibly have faith in, if God is dead, is me. This thought, I must confess, is rather unsettling (namely, because I know myself far too well). But, if there are no transcendent values, if there is no meaning, what else is there to put my faith in?
I suppose I could put my faith in “science” or in some abstract notion like “humanity” or “the universe”—but these things are only meaningful, in a world devoid of intrinsic value, if I consider them meaningful. In such a world, I, the subjective knower, am the arbiter of truth, meaning, and value. It is clear, therefore, that, in actuality, “I” (and not some objective reality outside of myself) am what I truly have faith in. I have faith in my beliefs, my intentions, and my desires (e.g., my affection for science is the source of my trust in science; for science in and of itself has no objective meaning or value).
This, however, is truly a miserable, and hopeless, state of affairs. I am finite; I am mortal; I can be (and will be) destroyed. My existence is a temporary blip—a shifting shadow like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall. I am merely the byproduct of cold, impersonal, meaningless, physical processes which blindly, and uncaringly, march on without direction until the final death and collapse of the universe. In such a world, I am not a subject; but, merely, an object—a passive object. All of my thoughts, longings, desires, and emotions, as well as my ability to reason, are merely physical happenings—unimportant, undirected, predetermined, events. Thus we see the sickening irony of the situation: there is no “I”—at least, not in any traditional sense of the term.
To make matters worse, I am unreliable. I fail to understand or to comprehend or to communicate effectively. I am forgetful and can easily be deceived. I fail to keep my promises. I tell lies and cheat and steal and have pity parties. I lack self confidence and lack the power to change anything about the laws of nature which completely hold sway over my fate.
As I ponder these things I realize that, in the absence of God, there is no hope; because I am my only hope . . . and I have no delusions of grandeur.
When we recognize that placing total faith in ourselves is utterly useless and ultimately futile, we are finally in a position to understand the paradox that Truth presents us with: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
“I” is an absurdity—a meaningless illusory object—operating under the delusion that the world has value. Life is hopeless; the universe is impersonal; I will end; I can’t save myself. This is because I live in a fallen world disconnected from Truth and estranged from the Giver of Life. I remain in this despairing state so long as I worship “self”; so long as I pin my hopes on a temporal, finite, feeble, dying blip in the universe. This is why Truth tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him. Only He can give us life; only He can restore meaning and value. Apart from Him, we remain in the void, in the darkness, and held captive by death.
Previously posted on Truth is a Man.
Consciousness Explained. By Daniel C. Dennett. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. 511 pages.
It is, by now, common knowledge that it is far easier to explain something which ultimately does not need to be explained. Take, for example, the birth of Pegasus. If you were to ask me to explain how it is that Pegasus was begotten from the blood spilling out of Medusa’s decapitated head, I should simply respond, “Pegasus and Medusa do not exist. What is there to explain? Perhaps, what you really want is a historical account of how this mythological tale came to be.” One does not need to explain how a creature like Pegasus, who only seems to exist (i.e., whose existence is grounded in our imagination), is begotten from the blood of a dead goddess. Likewise, if we are to accept Dr. Dennett’s stance, one does not need to explain consciousness—at least, not in the traditional sense. For, according to his view, consciousness only seems to exist; it is mythology. What we really want, when exploring the nature of conscious mental states, is a scientific, third person, account of how the notion of consciousness arises. It is in this sense that consciousness is explained (or, perhaps, more fairly, explained away) in his book.
Setting the Stage
Dr. Dennett sets the stage by introducing the means by which he intends to “demystify” the notion of consciousness. His first move is to reject Cartesian Dualism as a matter of principle. It will strike some readers odd that, save for a couple of humorous comic strips and a handful of vague comments regarding the, all too cliché, problem of interaction, he seems entirely uncompelled to provide rigorous argumentation against the Cartesian view. Most, however, will be sympathetic to the fact that it is far more economical in a lengthy work of philosophy to simply pronounce, ex cathedra, the death of an opposing point of view. Such an approach, I might point out, makes the task of promoting one’s own view far easier. To be fair, though, it must be conceded that Dr. Dennett makes several strong assertions about why we should ignore dualistic theories of the mind. He declares that dualism is both unscientific and mysterious. As he states:
[The] fundamentally antiscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up (37).
Rather than wallow in mystery (and, really, who wants to wallow?), Dr. Dennett proposes a more sensible way—materialism. But not just any form of materialism, a materialism that faces the problem of consciousness realistically; without ignoring the key features of conscious mental states which render them so difficult to account for. The bulk of his book, therefore, is spent attempting to provide a broad materialistic framework by which we might account for all of the features of consciousness.
From this standpoint, his book is essentially a conglomeration of various materialist theories on human cognition, neurology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and biological evolution pulled together to provide a cumulative case against those who might view consciousness as being at odds with a materialist ontology. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that his real goal is to undercut traditional assumptions about the nature of consciousness (ie., the ones that need to be explained), and thereby remove the obstacles facing empirical scientific approaches. He achieves this by redefining or calling into question these assumptions—such notions as a “center of consciousness,” intentionality, identity over time, and qualia—which continue to mystify scientists.
The Death of Qualia
One key feature of conscious mental states that resists any and all materialistic explanations is what philosophers call qualia. Material things can be described, almost exhaustively, from an objective or third person stance. For instance, I can examine and explain nearly everything there is to know about a rock—its mass, weight, location, geological history, chemical makeup, etc.—without invoking any subjective or first person properties. Conscious mental states, in contrast, seem to possess a quality that rocks, and all other material objects, lack. As Dr. Dennett explains:
Don’t our internal discriminative states also have some special “intrinsic” properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)? Those additional properties would be the qualia (373).
Recognizing that subjective experience poses a serious problem to his materialist proclivities, Dr. Dennett spends a considerable amount of time on the issue. I will highlight several of the more innovative approaches he utilizes to “disqualify” qualia as being a serious obstacle to materialism.
First, he wisely chooses not to quote any philosopher who makes a case that qualia is: (a) a legitimate property of consciousness and (b) a serious challenge to materialism. This is a very smart move, because it frees him from having to deal, directly, with their arguments (an understandable choice to make, considering the book is already 511 pages). Instead of engaging the literature on the subject, Dr. Dennett utilizes a fictional character named Otto (a.k.a., the Straw Man) to represent the opposing side. He then proceeds to deconstruct the problem of qualia as it is espoused by Otto. I will deal with this in greater detail in a moment.
The second approach Dr. Dennett uses, which proves to be very effective, is what philosophers call equivocation—the ambiguous use of a key term in an argument. At the beginning of chapter twelve, Dr. Dennett correctly identifies qualia as being a “subjective, private, ineffable,” property that constitutes, “the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us, etc.)” (373). A couple of pages latter we see a subtle shift in his use of the term:
When Otto, in chapter 11, judged that there seemed to be a glowing pinkish ring, what was the content of his judgment? If, as I have insisted, his judgment wasn’t about a quale, a property of a “phenomenal” seem-ing-ring (made out of figment), just what was it about? What property did he find himself tempted to attribute (falsely) to something out in the world (375, emphasis mine)?
Note how seamlessly he shifts from qualia being an internal subjective property to an external property we attribute to something out in the world. Such sophisticated sophistry is a rare gem.
Following this subtle shift in the meaning of the term, Dr. Dennett spends multiple pages discussing color and providing a very lively and entertaining third person scientific account of how various organisms perceive reflective light surfaces. He then draws the following conclusion:
What property does Otto judge something to have when he judges it to be pink? The property he calls pink. And what property is that? It’s hard to say, but this should not embarrass us, because we can say why it’s hard to say. The best we can do, practically, when asked what surface properties we detect with color vision, is to say, uninformatively, that we detect the properties we detect. If someone wants a more informative story about those properties, there is a large and rather incompressible literature in biology, neuroscience, and psychophysics to consult. And Otto can’t say anything more about the property he calls pink by saying “It’s this!” (taking himself to be pointing “inside” at a private, phenomenal property of his experience). All that move accomplishes (at best) is to point to his own idiosyncratic color-discrimination state . . . but not to any quale that is exuded by it, or worn by it, or rendered by it, when it does its work. There are no such things (382-383).
If this passage leaves you feeling confused, you are not alone. At first, Dr. Dennett seems to be discussing the “property of pink” and the “surface properties we detect with color vision” (i.e., external, third person properties); then, without warning, he declares the death of qualia. It is impossible to appreciate Dr. Dennett’s argument because he does not make one, but I submit that we can admire this paragraph for what it is: a powerful form or rhetoric.
This leads us to the third approach Dr. Dennett utilizes to disqualify qualia: begging the question. It should be noted that this approach is perhaps one of his greatest strengths. Rather than disprove the existence of qualia (or, for that matter, any of the key features of consciousness) he simply assumes materialism is true. With this assumption in place, it is all too easy to explain qualia away. Consider, for example, how he handles the problem of inverted qualia. Dr. Dennett starts with the assumption that materialism is true and that our subjective qualitative experiences are simply reducible to our “reactive dispositions” (392). He then utilizes these assumptions to undercut the thought experiments propounded by those who consider inverted qualia a serious challenge to materialism. For example, his response to one thought experiment which demonstrates that, even with perfect technology, “no intersubjective comparison of qualia would be possible,” is merely to point out that it, “provides support, however, for the shockingly “verificationist” or “positivistic” view that the very idea of inverted qualia is nonsense–and hence that the very idea of qualia is nonsense” (390).
It seems that by placing quotation marks around the terms verificationism and positivism, Dr. Dennett hopes to downplay the self-contradictory nature of both views. Unfortunately, sarcasm and well placed quotation marks do not negate the fact that verificationsim and logical positivism are dead-end’s which have been abandoned by serious philosophers for years. The reason being that both views promote a hopelessly limited epistemology. Dr. Dennett, however, seems undeterred by these problems because, after all, in his view materialism is true; and, if materialism is true, there must be some empirical (i.e., materialistic) way to verify the existence of qualia (outside of the fact that we all have subjective qualitative experiences). Naturally, if we accept this, our inability to compare our subjective experiences through some sort of third person objective standpoint leads to the conclusion that qualia is nonsense.
The process of question begging demonstrated above is utilized repeatedly, and with great rhetorical flare, throughout the chapter. Consider Dr. Dennett’s response to Frank Jackson’s much debated thought experiment: Monochromatic Mary. The point of the experiment is to demonstrate that Mary, a super intelligent color scientist who has never personally experienced color, learns something knew upon her release from her monochromatic prison. Although she has learned everything there is to know about physical third person explanations of reflective light surfaces, human vision, neurology, and biology, she learns something knew upon personally experiencing a red rose for the first time. This “something new” is of course qualia–her subjective qualitative experience of the outside world.
His response to the problem this story generates for materialism is merely to assert the truth of materialism. He does this by telling his own version of Mary’s first color experience:
And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors. As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever. Mary took one look at it and said “Hey! You tried to trick me! Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!” Her captors were dumfounded. How did she do it? “Simple,” she replied. “You have to remember that I know everything–absolutely everything–that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision. So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object . . . would make on my nervous system. So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the “mere disposition” to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?). I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue . . . (399-400).
Note how his story simply assumes the non-existence of qualia–the very thing in question. Admittedly, this method works very well to Dr. Dennett’s advantage. Why argue for your position when you can simply assume it to be true?
The hard problem of consciousness, as it has been called by David Chalmers, is exactly the type of problem one would expect to be solved in a book entitled Consciousness Explained; ironically, quite the opposite is true. It is, rather, the hard problem of consciousness which is explained away by Dr. Dennett. The most significant features of consciousness, the one’s that incessantly resist materialistic explanation, are simply dismissed as being some sort of illusion. Qualia, intentionality, and other irreducible features of consciousness are no different from mythology in his view. Harking back to the analogy I presented in the introduction: the story of Pegasus and Medusa is exciting, and even thought provoking, but at the end of the day it is not based on reality. Likewise, for Dr. Dennett, our subjective inner qualitative experiences are a nice story but do not correspond to reality. Reality, if we accept his understanding, is anything explainable in terms of evolutionary biology, neurology, cognitive science, and the overarching laws of physics; period.
As disconcerting as this may be, it is not quite as disconcerting as the means by which Dr. Dennett arrives at his conclusions. Arguments against dualism (in any way shape or form) are completely absent from the text. Materialism is, thus, taken for granted and consistently used as a defeater for any feature of consciousness that poses a challenge for materialism. A great deal of time is spent providing third person scientific accounts of physical processes without directly addressing the actual arguments of those who would object to Dr. Dennett’s materialism. For these reasons his book should not be considered a serious work of philosophy. It should, however, be praised for its good humor and readability. If anything, it is a shining modern example of sophistry and should be read diligently by anyone who seeks to learn how to make the weaker position seem strong.
It’s currently fashionable for scientists to dismiss philosophy as a viable activity – some have even pronounced its death! One branch of philosophy, which particularly gets singled out, is metaphysics. For those of you unfamiliar with this term please note that I’m not referring to the occult or astrology; but, rather, to the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of reality. A metaphysicist will ask (and attempt to answer) questions like: What is truly real? What is personal identity? What is the nature of the mind? How do things persist over time? What is a cause? What is time? Etc..
Unlike a scientist, a metaphysicist approaches these questions, primarily, through rational discourse. They are more concerned with abstract generalizations than with explaining concrete particulars–with the theory underlying our scientific presuppositions than with specific details regarding particular things. As Stephen Mumford explains:
“When we consider what exists, the philosopher’s answer will be at the highest levels of generality. They may say there are particulars that fall into natural kinds, there are properties, changes, causes, laws of nature, and so on. The job of science, however, is to say what specific things exist under each of those categories. There are electrons, for instance, or tigers, or chemical elements. There are properties of spin, charge, and mass, there are processes such as dissolution, there are laws of nature such as the law of gravitational attraction. Metaphysics seeks to organize and systematize all these specific truths that science discovers and to describe their general features.”
A good example of a metaphysical problem would be the laws of nature. Scientists, largely through observation and testing, attempt to detect and record regularities in nature in order to explain particular events (e.g. the falling of an apple). These regularities, over time, become laws of nature (i.e. the law of gravity or the law of thermodynamics). Metaphysicist’s, in contrast, are less concerned with explaining particular events, and more concerned with explaining the nature of the laws themselves. Hence, a philosopher will ask: What are the laws of physics? Are they objective realities that we discover about nature or merely a construct of the mind?
Both questions are extremely important, but the methods we use to arrive at a proper answer are very different. One must primarily rely upon empirical methods (i.e. observation and testing) in order to explain particular events; but to answer metaphysical questions, one must primarily rely upon reason.
Because philosophy focuses on the abstract, and utilizes slightly different methods than science, many scientists are suspicious of, and even antagonistic towards it. Without realizing, they slip into a form of anti-intellectualism known as scientism. Scientism, to put it crudely, is a stunted or incomplete theory of knowledge. It is roughly the belief that science is the only viable source of knowledge and that all other disciplines are either useless (e.g philosophy or theology) or incomplete. Scientism’s adherents will typically claim that empirical methods, alone, are capable of giving us genuine knowledge about reality. Thus, they proclaim the death of philosophy!
Immediately, however, one should be suspicious of this point of view: namely, because scientism, itself, is a philosophical position. It is not possible to prove the claims of scientism through purely empirical means. From the outset, therefore, it refutes itself and demonstrates why we need philosophy.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke brings up another important point, with regard to empiricist limitations on knowledge:
“One central flaw in all such theories of knowing is that they are in principle unable to do justice to the very subject or self that is asking the questions, since this is at the root of every conscious sense experience and quest for understanding, but not out in front of our senses as an external object to be sensed by them. In a word, the inner world vanishes in its very attempt to understand the outer world. The empiricist way of thinking also cripples the age-old natural longing of the human mind to understand, make sense of, its direct experience in terms of deeper causes not directly accessible to us. The human mind cannot be satisfied to operate only within this straightjacket of an arbitrarily restrictive epistemology.”
Inherently, we all desire to find answers to the questions philosophers ask. We all want to know the nature of ultimate reality and the value of our existence; we all want to understand how it is that we can know anything about the world; or what knowledge is to begin with. Scientific research is incredibly important, and empirical methods provide us with a vast number of interesting facts about particular things in the universe. Science, however, does not give us the deeper meaning behind these amazing discoveries.
Science has especially failed to provide us with any meaningful answers to the questions of personal identity and self consciousness—the “subject or self that is asking the questions” as Fr. Clarke just put it. It gives us innumerable, and important, facts about our biology and brain chemistry, but it fails to explain the value or purpose of the observer. More pointedly, it fails to provide a viable explanation for the self’s existence at all. These questions, along with a host of others, are primarily the subject of philosophy and theology.
Philosophy is not dead–and as long as subjective knowers (i.e. human beings) exist it shall never be. For Philosophy – the love of wisdom and the desire to understand the deeper, underlying, questions about the nature of our world – is rooted in and flows out of our very nature as beings made in the image of God.
Re-Posted from: Truth is a Man.
In the above video, Lawrence Krauss speaks about the importance of students learning science and the greater importance of teachers feeling comfortable with what they are teaching. Certainly, Krauss is correct that our students are undereducated in American schools (overall, the United States is ranked 13th in the world in education, though that number is skewed by our appreciation for the liberal arts). Our teachers, likewise, are severely underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts. Why is it an engineer at a car company makes more money than the person who trained the engineer?
Moving away from where Krauss is right, let’s focus on the two points where he is just completely wrong.
1) Science is not the motivator behind the big questions of existence – those questions have been asked, and answers have been sought, long before the scientific method found its way into the world. In fact, the scientific method itself was born from the womb of epistemology. In asking “how can we know the physical world,” the scientific method came about. Thus, science is a child to philosophy, it is a tool of philosophy; the tool can never overcome the user.
Now, Krauss has a history of making philosophical statements and claiming they are scientific statements. In fact, when it comes to philosophy, Krauss is simply ignorant. For instance, he argues the following;
Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.
Now, no philosopher would ever discount scientific discoveries, we would only claim that science is a tool of philosophy to test claims about the physical universe. Even some of Aristotle’s (and later philosophers) most erroneous claims about our world – such as the earth being the center of the universe – came from observations, not theoretical conjuring. That the ancients lacked the technology needed to gain a better understanding of the universe is quite irrelevant; the fact that they still based their ideas off observations shows the first use of science, albeit in a primitive manner, as a tool of philosophy.
Philosophy, not science, asks the big questions, mostly because science in its proper definition is incapable of asking questions. Asking “how does this work” is inherently a philosophical question. The scientific method cannot cause you to ask a question, it can only supply an answer to a question. While more questions will undoubtedly arise in the search for this one answer, each one is based on the curiosity of humans, which is by nature philosophical.
The problem with what Krauss is promoting is that it leads to scientism, or the idea that science counts as the basis of all knowledge. It also betrays an absolute ignorance of the importance of philosophy not only within scientific research, but as the controller of scientific research. Sure, it’s easy to discount philosophy when one is pursuing physics and see no consequences (at least no immediate consequences), but what about biology, specifically human biology? The study of human biology without the guide of ethics and philosophy (namely a basis in metaphysics) can and has led to eugenics. Even in this day there are numerous scientists who promote the abortion and even infanticide of “less than desirable” humans (of course, such an idea is promoted under the guise of compassion).
The point being that scientific advancement needs philosophy, just as a child needs a parent. In both situations, there is a need of a moral voice. Science cannot tell us why it is wrong to kill someone because of his or her deformities. Science cannot produce a value statement on life. Science cannot even tell us why survival is something we ought to strive after, and therein lies the problem with science: in terms of ethics, science can never supply us with an ought, but without an ought there can be no science. That is, if philosophy did not take its primary place in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance world, science would have never been born.
Thus, while science is important, it does not ask the big questions, nor can it answer the big questions. It can provide us tidbits of information and be used as a tool in searching out the answers, but it is not the end-all of knowledge and is eternally subservient to philosophy. One can use a hammer to build a house or to bash in the skull of an opponent, both of which hold scientific equations. Only philosophy can tell you why one is better than the other.
2) Krauss then argues that science and math teachers should be paid more than their humanities counterparts, mostly because of the field of competition out there. Yet, this ignores the fact that humanities degrees actually end up making just as much, if not more, than their hard science counterparts.
A person with a degree in the humanities, specifically philosophy, can turn around and get a job in human resources (which typically comes with a six figure average), marketing, speech writer, communications manager, content manager, legal analyst, and the list really does go on. Thus, if we base our teacher’s pay scales simply on monetary worth in the private sector, there is little to no difference between what a scientist is worth and what an English major is worth. If anything, those with degrees in the humanities have tended to show themselves more versatile in the jobs they can accomplish, which is why they tend to see more success outside the university.
If we want better qualified people teaching, then we need to increase the salary for everyone across the board. Of course, where the school is located will determine what field is more competitive. For instance, a computer engineer will face a more competitive field in Silicon Valley than in Fargo, ND. The school in Fargo would have to pay far less for the teacher than the school in California. Yet, the same remains true for the humanities. While I agree we need to pay our teachers more, the logic of paying a science teacher more because he could make more by not being a teacher is just absurd; every qualified teacher could make more by not being a teacher, regardless of one’s choice in degrees.
Many teachers in the soft sciences, in fact, face a far more competitive field than scientific research. Companies will shell out quite a bit of money right now for people who have a background in ethics. Due to the increase of the internet over the past two decades, content managers and proof-readers are needed now more than ever for websites. That sociology teacher or english teacher could make far more money in the private sector, even more than her scientific counterpart.
In the end, Krauss betrays his bias, that he thinks science to be the only thing we really need in this world. He gives lip service to English teachers, saying, “Well, at least they teach us how to write and communication is important,” but he views science as the queen of all learning. Yet, one can easily prove that science is not the queen of the sciences, nor is it even primary. It is a tool, one that we must learn and use, but never forget that it is nothing more than a tool to be used by the philosopher.
The point of this post is to promote meaningful dialogue between Theists and Atheists. I’m neither attempting to prove the existence of God nor trying to disprove good arguments in favor of Atheism. Rather, my aim is to examine several statements Atheists have made to me, on several occasions, which demonstrate they do not fully understand where I’m coming from.
I’ve labeled them “common” because, not only have I had these statements said to me, but I have read or heard them repeated by many Atheists (even several academics can be found making these assertions). I call them “mistakes”, not to belittle the people who make them or to say that Atheism is false, but to point out that these assertions do not actually respond to what Theists are trying to communicate. They are “mistaken” primarily because they are shots fired at straw men—they are, essentially, irrelevant to the discussion—they make unwarranted assumptions, or, because they prevent meaningful dialogue about the actual issues at stake.
Furthermore, I’ve presented each mistake in the form of a statement rather than trying to classify them with some cool designation. I’ve done this partly because I couldn’t be bothered trying to come up with a fancy label for each mistake; but, primarily, because these statements, I think, simply reflect how many Atheists respond to Theists in every day conversation.
So, without further introduction, here are the five common mistakes or, misguided statements, Atheists make when debating Theists:
I. “Atheist’s are not inherently immoral people; you don’t need God to do good things.”
To my surprise, several books (see: Epstein and Armstrong) have recently been published by noted Atheists which focus almost entirely on this point—a point which virtually every Theist would agree with. Hardly any Theist would deny that Atheists can do good things or can be morally responsible without believing in God. This is especially true of Christians, who believe that all men are made in the image of God (whether they believe it or not) and are, thus, capable of having knowledge about moral truths and making good decisions, that is, of doing something morally right. Furthermore, Christians believe in the concept of Natural Law—they believe morality is objective and woven into the very fabric of reality—and that all men are capable of comprehending moral truths regardless of whether they’ve read the Bible or believe in the Holy Trinity.
When Christians argue that moral values do not exist if God does not exist they are speaking about objective moral values—that is, moral values which exist and are true independently from observers. Stated more precisely, moral values which exist and are true whether you, or I, or society believes in them or not. This is significantly different from arguing that Atheists are inherently immoral people or are incapable of doing anything good. It is also different from arguing that you must believe God exists in order to be ethical.
The Christian argument might start off like this: “so, you (the Atheist) and I both believe it is evil to rape and murder a ten year old child–surely, we can stand in solidarity on this point. However, I as a Christian have solid philosophical reasons for believing this is objectively evil and you do not . . .”
II. “Atheists believe many things in this world have value—people, in general, find the world to be full of value—hence, you don’t need God to believe that values exist.”
Once again, we must distinguish between objective values verses subjective values. Objective values are ontologically grounded outside of the human mind—they are real in the sense that they are said to exist whether individuals acknowledge their existence or not. Objective values may be discovered through our subjective experience of reality but are not ontologically grounded in subjective experiences. Understanding values objectively, one could make the following statements consistently: “human beings have intrinsic value, dignity, and worth”, “men and women have inalienable rights,” or “one ought not rape and murder a ten year old child.”
Subjective values have no existence apart from the human mind—they are rooted in and relative to the observer or the community. They are merely accidental properties. In this sense values are not said to truly exist in an ontological sense—they are simply social conventions, or feelings, or mindless products of evolution. Understanding values subjectively, one could never make the value statements we made in the preceding paragraph. We certainly couldn’t make the statements, “X is valuable” or “one ought not do X”. We could only say things like, “X has value to me”, or “society considers X taboo”.
The reason I’ve gone through such great lengths to explain these terms is because they so easily get muddled in conversation. When a Theist argues that values do not exist if God does not exist, she means that objective values do not exist. So, when an Atheist responds to such an argument with the statement, “people, in general, find the world to be full of value—hence, you don’t need God to believe that values exist” he is completely missing the point. The Theist would agree that values become subjective if God does not exist, in fact, this is the very thing the Theist has a problem with.
III. “I don’t believe in God because I believe in science.”
I’ve heard this line more times than I care to remember. This assertion is usually thrown out as a conversation stopper—that is, it is usually intended to show that religious belief is outdated, simplistic, mythical, irrational, opposed to scientific discovery, and hence not worth talking about. However, the statement carries with it many underlying assumptions which are typically never supported by anything like coherent argumentation.
First of all, it creates a false dichotomy—it suggests that one must choose between “belief” in God and “belief” in science. It assumes, without supporting argumentation, that the acceptance of one belief necessarily excludes belief in the other. Furthermore, those who make this statement often fail to explain what they mean by “I believe in science.” If this statement means “science provides the only valid path to knowledge” then one must provide good reasons for holding this epistemological view (which, by the way, is self refuting).
The Theist, on the other hand, often holds science in high regard and, in fact, many Theists are scientists. Historically speaking, modern science grew out of a culture which primarily accepted the Christian worldview—in point of fact many of the greatest scientists were Christians or at least Theists of some sort. Don’t simply throw out this statement and call it a day—open up the doors for a deeper, more nuanced . . . more rational discussion.
IV. “I don’t need any arguments to justify my lack of belief in God; it’s up to you to prove that God exists.”
Sure, you don’t need arguments . . . if you’re not interested in holding your beliefs rationally. Consider this example:
If I came up to you and forcefully asserted that the past is not real and that history is just an illusion you’d respond by saying, “prove it, and give me a reason why I should believe you”. Would you take me seriously if I simply replied, with a smug look on my face, “I don’t have to prove anything; it is up to you to prove me wrong”? I must have reasons why I believe history is an illusion (even if they are bad reasons) and I should share them with others if I want them to agree with me or, at least, take me seriously. If, however, I have no reason to accept this outlandish premise, why should anybody give me the time of day?
So, unless the thought “God doesn’t exist” irrationally popped into your head one day and you just decided, without reason, to adopt it as a fundamental truth, you have reasons to justify your lack of belief in God. Please don’t be afraid to share them—open them up to critique or reevaluation. Give the Theist a reason to accept that God is dead. The burden is on you as well; don’t be intellectually irresponsible.
V. “I’m not having a discussion with you about God; people who believe in God are delusional and probably psychopathic. It is impossible to have a rational discussion with someone who is delusional.”
Frankly, statements of this sort are just an excuse to avoid critical thinking and indicate that you are a narrow minded bigot. If this isn’t a mistake I don’t know what is?