Response to David H

July 23, 2010

This discussion started with me taking issue with Templeton Prize winner Francisco Ayala trotting out the old platitude about science and religion being different ways of knowing. A conversation ensued on various threads – Blathering for $$$$$$; Fuzzy Thinking, and Science & Religion among them – until June 3rd when David made (what he hoped would be) his final sally. Finally shaking the steamy torpor from my head, i am re-posting David’s June 3rd comment (in italics) below, with my own commentary in normal text.

You asked about what the Judeo-Christian tradition had contributed to knowledge.

What is interesting is that the scientific method emerged from a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world.

I would say it emerged from a Greek understanding of the world.

Firstly there is the insistence that God is the Creator of “all things visible and invisible”, ex nihilo, which in turn assures us that the universe has a rationality that reflects that of God the Creator.

Whose insistence? Why couldn’t god/gods be fickle and irrational? These are mere assertions.

Secondly, the act of creation was free, proceeding from God “not out of any necessity whether of being or of knowledge or of will but out of pure freedom which is not moved, much less necessitated, by anything outside of itself so as to be brought into operation” (Duns Scotius)

How does he know? On what authority does he assert this? Wishing something were so doesn’t make it so; that is infantile reasoning.

From this we understand that the universe had a beginning, is rational and is contingent (not necessitated). Its ultimate “ground” is beyond itself although in itself it has an integrity – a contingent order – of its own.

Theologians know none of this; they merely assert it.

Thirdly, the theologians of the early church period were engaged in working out the relationship between God and the created universe in the light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. That God revealed himself to man through the Incarnation of the Son suggested that God was both separate from the created world and the upholder of it as opposed to the Greek tendency to see cosmology and theology as much the same thing. This freed up the study of the creation from the contemplation of the Creator, separating the study of the works of nature (which ultimately developed into modern science) from theology. The rationality of the universe was a given, based on the rationality of the creator. These ideas emerged out of a dialogue between Judeo-Christian and Greek thought – you can see the influence of both in the NT.

Well, the discoveries of science and the desperate retreat of theologians have historically judged in favour of the Greeks; there is no evidence whatsoever to support theologians.
The second half of the paragraph is more interesting.

Without these ideas, which originated in Judeo-Christian theological reflection – especially in the Christian theology of the early church (and were taken up again by Duns Scotius and I guess by Roger Bacon) – on the nature of the universe, and which are essential to the modern empirical sciences, those sciences would not have developed as they have.

Well, these ideas (if one accepts this analysis) finally allowed empirical inquiry to get going after the dead hand of Christianity had suppressed it for a millennium. Far more pertinent in this regard to emphasize that after Constantine banned the schools of philosophy, Christianity impeded the development of philosophical naturalism for 1,000 – 1,500 years. But your argument, which i don’t deny has some merit, depends of blaming the Catholic Church. (When do you date your religion from? From the time of Paul, of Constantine, of Luther?) And, i presume you are claiming the scientific enterprise for Protestantism. Yet, your point comes down to the necessity of freedom from religion as being essential to scientific advance. Insofar as Protestantism removed the ossifying hand of Catholicism it can claim to have advanced science but that is very different from claiming that Protestantism is a way of knowing (to bring the argument back to its original terms) or ….. well i’ll come back to this at the end.

The idea of contingence was obscured for centuries during the corrupt ascendency of the Papacy and the authority of Aristotelianism, until the former was shaken by the astronomers and the latter by Francis Bacon (plus his more practical contemporaries).

Yes.

Newtonian physics seemed to suggest to the followers of Newton (if not to Newton himself) that the universe was a closed, stable system based on causation (as opposed to contingence) and operating within the bounds of the two constants of time and space. (Marxists have yet to get beyond that stage of rational development.) It is not surprising, therefore, that the notion of an eternal universe and co-eternal God or “World Spirit” (as Shelley came to see it) or simply “nature” lent credence to various forms of pantheism and atheism, for if the universe were closed and had no creation there was clearly no creator. Shelley: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/percy_shelley/necessity_of_atheism.html

You know as well as I do that that position no longer holds and that the atheist no less than the theist has had to shift his ground in the light of scientific advancement, which is something that both should celebrate.

Well, apt here is Laplace’s “no need of that particular hypothesis” reply to Napoleon when asked about the place of the Creator in his theories. That’s what it comes down to and that is why all the historical talk is ultimately irrelevant to the present-day question as to, say, the philosophical compatibility of science and religion as well as the specific question we are discussing here.

The emergence of relativity theory and quantum mechanics vindicate the view of the Nicene church that (1) there was a beginning to the universe and that (2) it is contingent and (3) although bounded, is open and not ultimately grounded in itself but beyond itself [I’m tiring – this will have to be gone into in more detail…] – ultimately beyond the capacity of our
reason to penetrate.

To quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”

What is clear, however, is that the methods and the discoveries of western science do not stand outside of the insights of the Judeo-Christian tradition and therefore the knowledge they bring us are one of the chief ornaments in this world of that tradition.

Ha! marvellous stuff … scientific knowledge is ultimately Judeo-Christian knowledge … and in so saying you concede that Ayala was wrong!

What actually happened was that the very notion of revelation and authority thereby derived was overturned by evidence-based free inquiry and theists have been desperately theologizing to cope with the destruction of their worldview. Naturalism is triumphant and we owe much to the Greeks, not the obscurantist Christians (with a modest nod of gratitude to the reformation’s role in freeing northern Europe from the yoke of Catholicism.)

Finally, let me quote Jerry Coyne on this subject; pretty much an unanswerable point:-

“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right.”

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4 Responses to “Response to David H”

  1. >I would say it emerged from a Greek understanding of the world.

    I don’t disagree, but nor do I think it is a matter of reducing the question to an arid and reductive “either/or”.

    >Whose insistence? Why couldn’t god/gods be fickle and irrational? These are mere assertions.

    >How does he know? On what authority does he assert this? Wishing something were so doesn’t make it so; that is infantile reasoning.

    > Theologians know none of this; they merely assert it.

    All this may be so, but it is missing the point I was attempting to make.

    > Well, the discoveries of science and the desperate retreat of theologians have historically judged in favour of the Greeks;

    “The Greeks” believed many different things, but I think a fairly common supposition of the Greeks seems to have been that the universe was eternal and did not appear “ex nihilo” (as orthodox theologians have always and everywhere maintained). So from one perspective you might see this as an “advance” for orthodox theologians.

    >there is no evidence whatsoever to support theologians.

    See above.

    >The second half of the paragraph is more interesting.

    Thank you!

    >Well, these ideas…

    I will come back to these points as there’s a lot here that needs to be unpicked and responded to…

    >Yes.

    Phew! We can move on…

    >That’s what it comes down to and that is why all the historical talk is ultimately irrelevant to the present-day question as to, say, the philosophical compatibility of science and religion as well as the specific question we are discussing here.

    That may be so, but I am responding to your HISTORICAL QUESTION so please don’t move the goal posts unless you want me to desist from making the effort of responding at all.

    >To quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”

    I guess you were getting tired at this point. I’ll await a considered response.

    >Ha! marvellous stuff … scientific knowledge is ultimately Judeo-Christian knowledge …

    Again, please address the issue. That is not what I said.

    >and in so saying you concede that Ayala was wrong!

    This is an interesting point and not one that I’m bothered about. Didn’t we begin with Ayala? I am not at all committed to defending him. To be honest I may be breaking new ground (new for me, I mean).

  2. >Finally, let me quote Jerry Coyne on this subject; pretty much an unanswerable point:-

    >“Religion is not a way of knowing because it doesn’t have a way of knowing that it is wrong. And without that, you don’t know if you’re right.”

    The quotation is logically incoherent, as I’m sure you’d accept if you had another look at it. In that sense it is certainly “unanswerable”.

  3. ukdonjp said

    The alternative historical narratives that we are sketchily (and largely implicitly) attempting to delineate here will be settled academically over the course of centuries with massive tomes by extremely knowledgeable historians.

    So shall we return to the original question?

    You dismiss Jerry Coyne’s comment, but the substantial point he makes bears on the question of what could (possibly) constitute religious knowledge.

    Scientific knowledge is contingent upon surviving attempts at falsification (to give the straightforward Popperian view). No such test applies to religious hypotheses and so no status of “knowledge” can attach to religious assertions.

    Scientific knowledge is not absolute, but rather proportioned to evidence.
    (There’s a further point about the contingency of scientific knowledge related to the pragmatic role of specific speculative elements in a wider web of hypotheses/theories (that is, Popper didn’t entirely capture the scientific enterprise within his falsifiability stipulation/description), but ultimately the test is [yet-to-be-gathered] evidence and so the point stands.)

    Religious assertions are blessedly free of such mundane considerations and are therefore to be considered alongside literature.
    Religion does not furnish knowledge. Nor does literature.
    This, of course, begs the question of what we can learn from them. This is a separate and important question. I’ve just read William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” and certainly feel that i have learned important things. But the disconcerting truth is that what i’ve learned may well be wrong!

    (Incidentally, all the Gnu Atheists i’m aware of extol the virtues of reading and take it for granted that an educated person is immersed in present and past literature.)

  4. ukdonjp said

    Eric MacDonald says something relevant to all this:-

    “I get the same feeling when I read most history that uses Christianity as a (very often hidden) foundation. … It is almost as if the religious dimension of European culture is being given a kind of honorary priority, so that, at its heart, at a deep level, there can be no conflict between religion and science because the culture itself is, somehow, Christian.”

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