Monday, August 25, 2014

Death to metaphysics?

Logical positivism was a philosophical school of thought that was hot during the 1920s. The bedrock of this philosophy was the explicit rejection of metaphysics as a valid mode of inquiry into the nature of reality. The positivists believed that metaphysics was essentially meaningless, and that the only statements that harbored meaning were statements that could be, at least in principle, empirically verifiable. The first fruits of this philosophy could even be seen in the writings of David Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, "Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number?" No. "Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?" No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

While logical positivism as an organized philosophy has died out, there still remain many who, along with Hume, would affirm a death sentence to metaphysics. This contemporary school of thought still takes metaphysics as essentially ambiguous and superfluous.

 I myself, as a Scholastic, would disagree with this. The Scholastics—a school of philosophy which is actually increasing in adherents—would claim that not only should metaphysics be utilized, but that it must. It would be claimed by them that metaphysical concepts like identity, essence, form, substance, and act/potency etc., describe fundamental properties of reality, and therefore that such concepts are necessary for a sound framework regarding the nature of reality in the first place.

 However, the contemporary positivist scoffs at such assertions. They would claim that concepts like the ones mentioned above are, even if remotely accurate—of which the positivist would most likely claim they are not—completely superfluous for describing reality. Physics already tells us how one event can, and does, follow another, and thus the need for a description riddled with the act/potency distinction is not necessary. Likewise, physics and chemistry already enlighten us regarding what physically composes and makes up a certain empirical object, so that to add descriptive concepts like identity and essence on top of these physical explanations and descriptions is to upset the principle of parsimony. Science, it is seen by contemporary positivists, already tells us (or will eventually tell us) all we need to know about the objects and phenomena that make up our observable universe. Hence, the need for any metaphysical description is seen as completely superfluous.

 While such a position might seem rational, especially since science has been extremely successful in a pragmatic and predictive sense, I maintain that said position is not only false, but demonstrably so--and for multiple reasons at that. First, the picture that science provides of the material world can only be seen as comprehensively descriptive if one assumes ahead of time that reality can only be described in scientific terms and concepts. Theologian David Bentley Hart, in his amazing book The Experience of God, articulates such fallacious thinking:

And naturalism’s claim that, by confining itself to purely material explanations for all things, it adheres to the only sure path of verifiable knowledge is nothing but a feat of sublimely circular thinking: physics explains everything, which we know because anything physics cannot explain does not exist, which we know because whatever exists must be explicable by physics, which we know because physics explains everything. (p. 77)

The problem here should be obvious. Moreover, the claim that science gives us an exhaustive portrait of reality is itself a claim that only metaphysics, and not science, can make. So, even ignoring the question begging nature of positivism alluded to above, the positivist still has the problem of utilizing the very method they’re attempting to overthrow. They’re basically claiming the following: all metaphysics is meaningless, except for the metaphysical statement I’m making currently.

 The second problem that positivism runs into—as if being subject to question-begging and self-refutation weren’t bad enough—is that the scientific method already a priori rules out the kinds of descriptions that could be considered metaphysical in the first place. You see, the objective of science was to be able to control and predict the world around us using the language of mathematics. This means, and this is crucial here, that science is, already at the outset, only looking for a quantitative description of reality—thereby paying no attention to anything qualitative or metaphysical. This is to say, the scientific method already stipulates what kind of answers and descriptions it’s looking for. It’s not as if science, looking for the quantitative, will somehow stumble upon the metaphysical, because it’s not looking for the metaphysical. To use an example, science will not stumble upon the ‘essence’ of a substance, because science is not looking for ‘essences’ in the first place--precisely because a thing’s essence cannot be modeled by the language of mathematics and prediction. Philosopher Edward Feser, in his (also) amazing book Scholastic Metaphysics, further articulates my point:

The reason qualitative features don’t show up is not that the method has allowed us to discover that they aren’t there but rather that the method has essentially stipulated that they be left out of the description whether they are there or not. (p. 14)

And again, David Bentley Hart reinforces the point:

If we look exclusively for material and efficient processes, then indeed we find them, precisely where everyone, of nearly any metaphysical persuasion, expects them to be found. All this shows is that we can coherently describe physical events in mechanical terms, at least for certain limited practical purposes; it certaintly does not prove that they cannot also be described otherwise with as much or more accuracy. To paraphrase Heisenberg, the sorts of answers that nature provides are determined by the sorts of questions we pose of her. (p.65)

Moreover, there is a third problem for positivism. You see, science, and physics most importantly, only enlightens us regarding how nature tends to behave, or how certain events produce or tend to be produced by others. Atheist Bertrand Russell articulates:

[Physics] lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure[…] All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent.

 Now, the reader might be inclined to part ways with Russell here. “Surely” one might claim, “physics does tell us the intrinsic nature of things. Physics give us comprehensive knowledge of the physical characteristics of certain objects, and describes how it is possible for these objects to behave the way they do.” But this is only half true. No matter what explanations and descriptions that physics gives of certain characteristics of an object or event, these descriptions themselves will still only boil down to abstract mathematical equations and functions. For example, for physics to describe the behavior of object (x), physics will posit the description that A events follow B events, of which object (x) is a part of. But, A events and B events will also only be subject to further descriptions of certain other objects following certain other sequential events.  So, no matter how many layers of physics one traverses to explain a certain object or event, one will invariably run into nothing but abstract behavioral descriptions dancing to the tune of mathematics—and this, again, only gives structure, and does not enlighten us regarding any sort of intrinsic nature that these objects or events have themselves. I’ll pass the baton once more to Feser:

By the very fact that physics tells us that an abstract structure of such-and-such a mathematically describable character exists, then, physics implies that there is more to reality than structure itself, and thus more to reality than what physics can reveal. (p.18)

These three problems (there are others) articulated above suffice to show that positivism is, quite frankly, vacuous. Nowhere have we uncovered any cogent reason to believe that metaphysical descriptions are superfluous, nor have we seen any reason to believe that science gives an exhaustive description of reality. On the contrary, we’ve seen that metaphysical explanations and concepts are completely necessary, and are required, even in light of, and because of, science. Metaphysics, then, is here to stay. Thus stated, we shouldn’t be worried about utilizing metaphysical inquiry, but rather we should be worried about utilizing it fallaciously, and I think the positivist position is a good example of how this can be done.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thom Stark on faith

Christian Thom Stark--upon answering atheist John Loftus a few years back regarding a review of his great book The Human Faces of God--perfectly articulated what faith is, in a very profound and intriguing manner:

To me, if a Christian is certain that God exists and that everything Christianity teaches (whatever brand of Christianity they think is truest) accurately describes metaphysical and physical reality, then they don’t have faith. To think that you can “know” that these things are true is by my definition of faith precisely to reject faith. What faith is by my definition is action based on hope, and hope is a direct response to profound uncertainty. Let’s put it this way. Loftus and I both agree on what resources we should utilize to figure out what the moral thing to do is in a given situation. But for me (and maybe Loftus doesn’t have this problem, and if not, more power to him), what I’m not sure about is whether being moral is itself morally significant. I see people suffering, I want to try and alleviate their suffering, but I struggle with the question of whether my doing so has any point, beyond the obvious one of the immediate alleviation of their suffering. Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out.

I really don’t know. This isn’t a hypothetical or an argument for the existence of God from the undesirability of a morally absurd universe. The universe may well be completely amoral. I’m afraid it might be. And because I’m human, that troubles me. (I doubt it troubles raccoons.) That doesn’t mean I believe because I’m emotionally weak. Anyone who’s read my book will know, so it’s really no surprise, that I don’t by a longshot believe everything Christianity says is true. But the question is, when I am faced with human suffering, and I set out to alleviate that suffering, is there a point to it? Does it matter, not just in that moment, but in the long run? Does it ultimately matter whether human beings continue to exist or not? I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that it doesn’t. I really don’t know whether it does or not. But here’s the point: I earnestly hope that it matters; and when I act on that hope, that is, when I act as if human suffering matters, I am acting in faith. That to me is what faith is. It is action based on hope, which in turn is a direct response to profound uncertainty. If I weren’t profoundly uncertain, I couldn’t hope that our existence has a profound meaning; and if I didn’t have that hope, then I couldn’t have faith (which is action, not assent to metaphysical propositions).

So, I have faith because I really don’t know if any of this has any meaning. But I act like it does, because I hope that it does. I can’t be “wrong” (about this) because I haven’t made a claim one way or the other. And this isn’t Pascal’s Wager. Another thing I really don’t know about: I don’t know if there is a God that sends unbelievers to hell, but I hope that there isn’t. Not because I don’t want to go to hell, but because it would really suck if God turned out to be less just than most humans. I’m not talking about Pascal’s Wager. I’m simply saying that my uncertainty about the meaning of our existence goes so deep that any time I try to do what is right for right’s sake is an act of faith on my part. Maybe others (maybe Loftus) aren’t as profoundly uncertain as I am. Like I said, that’s great for them.

If somebody could show me beyond doubt that the universe is a cosmic accident and everything is ultimately meaningless, then I’ll accept that and find some way to go on, but it’ll be a different way, most likely. I’m not talking about needing a reason to live by rules. I’m not saying that if the cosmos has no meaning then I’d rather blow off my family and party till I’m dead. I’m not talking about that kind of morality. I’m talking about the very core of human endeavor itself.

It may well be that there is no meaning and that we can only create meaning for ourselves. But if that’s the case, then the best I can do is try to create the best meaning, and that’s what I’m already doing. I’m trying to find out what’s good and true and to pursue that. And I think that when it comes to such truths, the processes of “discovery” and the processes of “creativity” are virtually the same processes. All human beings can do is create their own meaning, and hope they got it right. The Bible is the product of such efforts, as are all cultural artifacts. To create meaning and believe in it is, I am convinced, what it means to be human. It’s when we refuse to acknowledge that our creativity is a response to profound uncertainty that it loses its human quality—that’s when we’re trying to be more than what we are, or rather, other than what we are. To be human is to have faith—to act on our hopes which arise consciously in response to our own ignorance and uncertainty.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The metaphors of theology

Christianity (like other religions) is founded upon centuries of theological doctrine—e.g., the Trinity, the atonement, the virgin birth etc. And many of these doctrines that have been passed down are seen, especially by fundamentalists, to be unquestionable and infallible. Fair enough. But, the question can be posed regarding whether or not some (or many) of these doctrines are necessary, useful, and, more importantly for this specific post, univocal. That is to say, my point in this post is to ask “Can the meaning of these doctrines be pinned down unambiguously?”

Take the doctrine that I so vehemently oppose, namely, the inerrancy of scripture. Christians who adhere to inerrancy believe that God, in some sense, was behind the authorship of scripture and rendered the nature of scripture error-free. Ok, but if you ask an inerrantist exactly in what sense God “authored” scripture you run into problems. Did God himself take up a pen and a paper and write out the Bible? Of course not. But then how did it happen? Did God supersede the consciousness of the writer of scripture and control his mind? Some inerrantists will say yes, and some no. But, therein lies the ambiguity in the doctrine. How can we even promulgate this doctrine with certainty if the means by which it was carried out are extremely obscure?

This example can be multiplied over and over again: Was Jesus literally God, or only metaphorically God? And does Jesus have to be seen as God himself in order to be our Lord? Was the story of the fall really meant to be predicated of an original pair of humans, or is it simply a story that illuminates that humanity as a whole has “fallen”? Is Hell an everlasting torture chamber of fire, or is the language predicated of Hell mostly metaphorical, and Hell is a different place altogether? Etc.

My point regarding these examples is not that people disagree about doctrines, though this is an important periphery here. The point is that the language and concepts usually utilized about these doctrines is ambiguous and obscure. These doctrines are wrapped in so much metaphor, analogy, and mere approximations that it seems difficult to state some of them literally. The question of what exactly we mean when we promulgate a doctrine can always be posed, and clear answers are not always forthcoming. But, if this is the case, then can we really say that some doctrines are unquestionable and infallible? If there is so much semantic wiggle room with regards to a certain doctrine, then I don’t see how questioning or offering radical interpretations of said doctrine can constitute heresy.

Let it also be remembered that the doctrines that we have inherited from the Christian tradition were originally expounded by fellow humans; humans who share the same semantic and cognitive limitations as us. And those doctrines were based on those individual’s own subjective interpretations of scripture—interpretations that we still disagree on today. So, even though most of our doctrines have had a long line of tradition to back them up, this does little to help our confidence in their univocality.

All that being said, I do not mean to insinuate that Christian doctrine is useless and void. Far from it. It is through Christianity that I believe we come into the closest contact with God and Jesus, and I don’t believe that the metaphorical nature of doctrine negates this. What it should do, however, is make us more sensitive to the differences that our doctrinal interpretations produce. We shouldn’t be quick to put our own Christian denomination on a pedestal and proclaim that the other denominations” have it wrong”. We should realize that different interpreters necessitate different interpretations, and that we can still be fellow servants of God while harboring these differences.