Monday, November 24, 2008

Gratitude for Skilled Heart Surgeons

I want to take a break from philosophy of religion blogging this week to reflect on something more personal. This past Friday was, to put the point mildly, an emotionally draining one for me. On Tuesday of last week, my father had an angiogram, and the doctor found 90% blockage in one artery and significant blockage in two others. He was declared a "ticking time bomb," and when they visited the surgeon on Thursday to schedule a time for bypass surgery, the surgeon had a cancellation for Friday. And so my father went in for triple bypass surgery on Friday.

It all happened too quickly for me to get a plane ticket to be there, and so I had to rely on family updates. He went into surgery at 1 PM (noon my time), which meant that they were probably cracking open his chest while I was lecturing about Kant. I passed the afternoon by working on my "Species of Hell" paper, which needs to be finished soon anyway (the editor of the anthology has set a December deadline). But as the afternoon wore on and I heard nothing, it became increasingly difficult to concentrate.

I passed the time by going onto Amazon to see if they'd updated the website for my forthcoming book. Last I'd checked, the "Editorial Reviews" section for the paperback version was a bit of a mess (my endorsements were listed together in one paragraph, and then listed separately in two subsequent paragraphs, and my Publishers Weekly review had yet to be listed). When I went on the site, none of these problems had been fixed, but the site declared that it had books IN STOCK and ready for immediate shipping.

I blinked in surprise, since the release date for the US wasn't until December. This should have been exciting news. I'd been envisioning that I would celebrate it's US release in some clear way, if only by drinking champagne with my wife after the kids were in bed. But here it came while I was waiting anxiously for word about my father's surgery.

I found myself tugged emotionally between excitement and anxiety. I worried away the afternoon by sending out e-mails to let everyone know that the book was released. It occured to me only afterwards that many of those I was informing about this hadn't already heard about my father, and so would be startled by the paranthetical comment that the book's early release was a bit of good news to carry me over while I fretted about his heart surgery.

I'd been told that the surgery would last about three or three-and-a-half hourse, and so I began to wait expectantly for a phone call around 3:30. My anxiety grew as I heard nothing. 4 O'clock went by without any news, and then 4:30, and then 5. I decided to go home, but no one had called there either. I began imagining that my mother and sister were too shattered by some tragic turn to be able to make the call. My own chest hurt.

And then my mother called at 6. The operation had gone smoothly. It had taken three hours. My father was recovering well in ICU. My mother had spent some time with him and had just gotten home. I was too relieved to complain that nobody had let me know about this sooner.

The call arrived just as my wife had to leave to get into costume for her show (THE COVER OF LIFE, which finished its run this weekend). I was too worked up emotionally to sit at home with the kids watching some Disney movie, so I began calling sitters--and fortunately one of them was sitting at home doing nothing.

So I went to see my wife's play (for the third time), and was lost for a few hours in the powerful story and the magnificent performances. As always, I was moved to tears by my wife's last monologue, in which her character Sybill's facade of fast living and sexuality is shattered, and her terrible vulnerability is exposed in a final tragic choice.

And in the aftermath, as I watched the characters look for meaning where Sybill had found none, I found myself grateful for skilled heart surgeons, for my children who were at home fighting off the babysitter's efforts to put them to sleep, for my parents, for my talented wife who loves those close to her so fiercely (even the tragic character she plays, for whom she feels such protectiveness), for the single malt scotch I'd sip after the show, for job security in a time of uncertainty, for the opportunity to see my efforts bear fruit, and for the love that surrounds me every day.

"Love is a living thing," says Tood, the central character in THE COVER OF LIFE. "And it can be killed." But it can also be nurtured. I am grateful that in my life there is so much love that has, it seems, been nurtured so well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Objectivity and the Longings of the Soul

A commentator on my last post, Tom Clark, nicely expresses in his own words the same “ethical view” about our epistemic duties expressed by Charles Taylor (a view that Taylor, by the way, does not share). The view is roughly this: Since Christians (and, I presume, other religious believers) are forming beliefs about the way reality is, it is imperative that they do so with a dedication to making sure that they aren’t influenced by anything but the evidence—and certainly not by their desires.

In Clark’s words, “If you’re interested in getting a maximally unbiased, objective view on reality, then you should take all possible steps to insulate your knowledge claims from the influence of your hopes, longings, etc. Since Christianity presents itself as an objective worldview, one that makes claims about what really exists (e.g., god), its followers should…seek to ‘avoid at all cost the risk of being duped by an alluring illusion.’”

This is a compelling view, one to which many are drawn. It is one of the two basic schemes of thinking that William James identifies as vying for our allegiance. But there are complicating factors.

One such complicating factor has to do with the distinction between knowledge claims and other sorts of affirmations of belief. It is always dangerous to claim knowledge where what one has is something else. This is what happens, I think, in the case of fanatical religion. But not all religion is fanatical. Religious belief needn’t adopt false pretensions of knowledge where one’s belief is really a kind of pragmatic decision to live one’s life as if a hoped-for possibility is true (which is what I and many others mean by “faith”). And there is a real question about whether the demand for “a maximally unbiased, objective view” that precludes being moved by your longings and hopes should prevail in every sphere of belief, even at the level of one’s meaning-bestowing worldview, even when it comes to belief that is explicitly identified as a matter of “faith,” not knowledge.

Another factor that complicates any simple picture of our epistemic responsibilities is concisely expressed by Taylor himself when he considers the two stances William James identifies as vying for our allegiance. In Taylor’s words: “Each stance creates in a sense a total environment, in the sense that whatever considerations occur in one appear transformed in the other. They can’t be appealed to in order to decide the issue, because as they pass from one stance to the other they bear a changed meaning that robs them of their force in the new environment.”

From the one stance, the deepest longings of the soul are treated as a dangerous temptation away from one’s “Cliffordian” epistemic duty (to believe only in accord with the evidence), whereas from the other stance they are treated as (again in Taylor’s words) “the hint that there is something important here which we need to explore further, that this exploration can lead us to something of vital significance, which would otherwise be closed to us.”

This religious-leaning stance is routinely viewed by those on the other side as displaying an unacceptable indifference to truth. But that is a mischaracterization on several levels. As James points out, there are two broadly epistemic goals that have to be in view when one is forming beliefs about the nature of reality: connecting with the truth, and avoiding error. And these two goals are to an important degree in tension with one another. An epistemic practice that tries to maximize the number of truths to which one gives one’s intellectual assent may also increase the number of falsehoods to which one assents. And an epistemic practice that tries to minimize assent to falsehood may also, in the process, shut off the possibility of assenting to whole classes of truth.

Every philosopher recognizes this trade off, and few are prepared to give the goal of error-avoidance absolute dominion in the epistemic sphere. After all, the consequence of doing so is a radical skepticism which we cannot really sustain when we get on with the business of living our lives. Likewise, few are willing to open the floodgates of complete credulity.

So the real question isn’t whether one or the other of these epistemic goals should rule the day. The question is really about what kind of balance we should pursue, and what belief-forming strategies are acceptable in the attempt to find that balance. James sees passion as playing an inevitable role in this decision, even for those who choose the strict regimen of pursuing “maximally unbiased” thinking by taking “all possible steps to insulate your knowledge claims from the influence of your hopes, longings, etc.” Ironically, what motivates this decision may be nothing more than a deep longing to avoid error, to escape the risk of living under a false picture of the world. All other longings are sacrificed to this singular one.

My own view is that there isn’t one belief-forming strategy that should be required of all of us on the basis of some a priori considerations. My own inclination here is more democratic and experimental. We should afford space for people to live out different alternatives to see how well they work.

Now in the sphere of scientific inquiry, it seems pretty obvious that a certain strategy of inquiry, one that is error-averse and seeks to insulate the process of inquiry from the inquirer’s desires, has proved extremely effective in advancing human understanding of the empirical world. In fact, the success of science is so obvious to any who aren’t blinkered by ideology that within its sphere of inquiry we can rightly say that it has proved itself.

But it doesn’t follow that this same scientific strategy should be transferred to spheres of human belief formation which in principle lie outside the limits of science. When it comes to meaning-bestowing beliefs about the transcendent, or what might be more simply called “religious beliefs,” the scientific approach would dictate a kind of silence, that is, a refusal to form any beliefs at all (which for practical purposes would amount to disbelief).

And it is here that James’ thinking once again becomes salient. As James puts it, “I… cannot see my way to accepting the agnostic rules of truth-seeking, or willfully agree to keep my willing nature out of the game. I cannot do so for the plain reason, that a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”

The conclusion here is a wholly negative one: the rules of belief formation exemplified by science should not be relied upon when it comes to religious beliefs. What this negative conclusion opens up is a question: What rules, then, should we follow?

Some strategies have been tried and, in my judgment, have proven themselves to be abject failures in the field of human experience. One such failed strategy is the idea that religious questions are best settled by blind allegiance to the literal meaning of some purported revelatory text or central authority. That some still cling to this strategy is, in my view, more troublesome than the fact that some cling in the religious sphere to what James calls “the agnostic rules of truth-seeking.”

So what are we to do? I don’t think we will arrive at the best strategy through some a priori principles. Instead, I think we will do so through a spirit of democratic experimentation. People should be free to live out alternative strategies for forming their religious beliefs. That is, we should establish a secular society in which freedom of religion is guaranteed within certain parameters (parameters that have themselves been arrived at through social experimentation, and have been found to keep the more dangerous experiments from getting out of hand).

In my own life, I’ve found a roughly Hegelian approach to be the most compelling. It is an approach that might be called “critical traditionalism”: live out an inherited worldview to see how well it works, and revise it when it crashes up against lived experience; then live out the revised worldview to see how well it works, etc.

And when deciding which worldview to adopt in this critical way, I don’t think you can do better than to choose the one that sings to you, that resonates most with who you are and with the deepest longings of your soul. Only such a worldview will hold your interest and passion enough to enable you to really live it out, and hence really discover the merits and limitations of doing so.

While this line of thinking is all I want to develop for the moment, I do want to stress that I haven’t developed in the above reflections a stream of argument beautifully advanced by Hermann Lotze, and powerfully summarized in the introduction to his magnum opus, the Microcosmus. Lotze challenges with distinctive eloquence the view that, in the overarching business of living a human life (as opposed to, say, the more narrow business of scientific or academic inquiry) we should set aside our deepest longings in favor of a strict regimen of avoiding being duped. To do so amounts to sacrificing all that is most important in one’s life to the altar of objectivity—and while objectivity is an important value that needs to be afforded its place, it is hardly the only value. The question of how these diverse values should play out in the business of shaping our view of life, and hence how we live, is one that cannot and should not be answered too hastily, or without due attention to the many voices—including religious ones—that have something of significance to say.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Naturalist vs. Supernaturalist: Identifying the Chief Points of Contention

Last week I posted John Shook’s reply to my “Evaluating the Unfalsifiable” post, along with a few general comments about it. But it seems to me that for the sake of a more careful discussion, it might help to lay out the core of Shook’s argument more formally. What I present in this post is, first, my attempt to lay out his main line of argument as fairly and accurately as I can; second, an identification and brief discussion of the premises with which I (and, I suspect, other religiously inclined philosophers) disagree; and third, a reflection on what I ultimately suspect will be the most likely outcome of serious philosophical reflection on the choice between naturalism and supernaturalism. I begin, then, with a kind of formalization of Shook’s argument:

1. Supernaturalism will either be a vague assertion that there is “something more,” or it will involve specific beliefs about the supernatural, that is, endorsement of a particular religious creed.
2. Supernaturalism that is a vague assertion that there is “something more” is what Shook calls “Theology in the Dark,” and such supernaturalism is vacuous and hence unacceptable.
3. So, a substantive supernaturalism will have to involve specific beliefs about the supernatural—that is, endorsement of a particular religious creed.
4. Endorsement of a particular religious creed will require the supernaturalist to “explain away” the religious experiences of all those people (inevitably millions) who ascribe to a different religious creed.
5. If the supernaturalist is forced to explain away the religious experiences of all those who ascribe to a different religious creed, then the supernaturalist’s worldview has no real advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining religious experience.
6. So, supernaturalism has no real advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining religious experience.
7. While some species of naturalism have difficulty explaining the apparent objectivity of value experiences, Dewey’s pragmatic version of naturalism explains (rather than explains away) this apparent objectivity of values as well as any version of supernaturalism does (without smuggling in any assumptions about transcendent values).
8. If (7), then supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining human value experiences.
9. So, supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining human value experiences.
10. If supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of explaining either religious experience or value experiences, then it has no advantage in its capacity to explain human experience (hereafter, its explanatory power).
11. So, supernaturalism has no advantage over naturalism in terms of its explanatory power.
12. If the supernaturalist’s worldview has no advantage over naturalism in terms of its explanatory power, then the simpler worldview (the worldview that posits fewer theoretic entities) should be preferred.
13. Naturalism is simpler than supernaturalism.
14. Therefore, naturalism is preferable to supernaturalism

As a way of helping to isolate key points of contention between myself (and supernaturalists like me) and Shook (and naturalists like him), let me briefly identify the premises with which I disagree in this argument, along with what amounts to a very cursory sketch of the strategy I would pursue in challenging these premises.

First, I disagree with premise 2. While my own theology is more substantive that the vague supernaturalism of, say, many Unitarians, I do not think that this vague supernaturalism is wholly vacuous. Here, I would gesture to R.M. Hare’s idea of a “blik,” a kind of way of seeing or experiencing one’s life. I think that a vague supernaturalism constitutes a different blik than does naturalism, one that has an impact on the overall character of one’s lived experience. It grounds a way of life characterized by spiritual practices that seek to open the individual to a relational connection with this vague “something more.” These practices frequently culminate in “mystical” experiences (of varying degrees of intensity) that feel like the attainment of such a relational connection—and these experiences in turn have impact on the life of the individual, especially in terms of mood (they tend to elevate mood), outlook (they tend to promote optimism), and character (they tend to lead to less self-centeredness).

Second, I disagree with premise 4, for reasons along the same general lines as those mentioned by John Kronen in his posted comments to Shook’s argument. Basically, there is a difference between experience and its interpretation. Much of the disagreement among the great world religions occurs at the level of interpretation (and to a great extent, also, at the level of doctrinal teachings that have little connection with experience). Admittedly, the distinction here is muddier than it sounds, and some careful philosophical work needs to be done to fully develop this line of thought. There are many good thinkers who have done some of that work. Schleiermacher is one. William James is another. And there’s Walter Stace and R.C. Zaehner. More recently, we have John Hick. While these great thinkers have important differences and disagreements, they are all provocative, and their ideas and arguments are worth meditating on.

Third, there is premise 7. Now Shook has devoted a large portion of his career to interpreting and defending Dewey’s thought. And so if Shook says there’s something here worth examining carefully, we should take him seriously. And so, the other day, I tracked down my copy of Shook’s book, Dewey’s Empirical Theory of Knowledge and Reality, and started looking through it. A few things became quickly clear to me. First, it will take a great deal of effort to figure out exactly what Dewey means, even with Shook’s guidance. Second, Dewey’s thought is both provocative and controversial. I am grateful that Dewey has devotees such as John Shook willing to devote their careers to advancing Dewey’s thought, just as I am grateful that Aquinas and Kant and Hegel have such devotees. I’m a bit saddened that some other truly great philosophers (such as Hermann Lotze) do not. But it also seems to me, in the case of all of these great thinkers, that there is both much to admire and much to criticize. What these philosophers are tackling is just too difficult to expect any one of them to have the final word. While I am grateful for John Shook’s devotion to Dewey, I don’t share it.

Finally, there is premise 12, which says that the simpler worldview should be preferred over the more complex one if the more complex one lacks any advantage in terms of explanatory power. Formulated in this way, the premise leaves out something that I’m sure Shook would not want to leave out—namely, pragmatic value. What should really be said here is that the simpler theory should be preferred all other things being equal, where “all other things” is taken to include both explanatory power and pragmatic value. But I also think that both explanatory power and pragmatic value should take precedence over simplicity. We turn to the question of simplicity only once explanatory power and pragmatic value have both been assessed and found to be comparable.

And this leads me to my final thoughts. My own view is that, in terms of explanatory power, we’re likely to find something of a standoff between the strongest species of supernaturalism and the best formulations of naturalism. In other words, the advantages of one will be offset by the advantages of the other in such a way that we are left with a kind of existential choice. This will be true not only when all is said and done (which will never happen), but also at whatever stage of personal or collective inquiry we find ourselves at.

What I mean is this: we are faced with a choice that ultimately cannot be made on the grounds that one worldview is clearly preferable to the other in terms of its rational fit with experience. All surviving contenders will require us to make sacrifices (in terms of “explaining away” elements of experience) to roughly the same degree. And so we will have to decide which sacrifices we can live with, and which we can’t.

Some will likely view this existential choice in the manner expressed by Hermann Lotze in a passage which follows his efforts to show that there cannot be “any real speculative proof for the correctness of the religious feeling upon which rests our faith in a good and holy God, and in the destination of the world to the attainment of a blessed end.” Lotze, in considering what to do on the basis of this conclusion, says the following:

“He who does not share this religious conviction may…very easily from a speculative point of view reach that Pessimism, which is just now the order of the day, and for which there will be on speculative grounds no refutation. But this Pessimism, which reverts to the thought of an original energy without will, that produces the Good and the Bad alike without design, is not a profound view but is just that cheap and superficial kind of view, by which all enigmas are conveniently disposed of—by simply sacrificing all that is most essential and supreme to the unprejudiced mind.”

Others will likely view the same existential choice in terms of the distinctive ethical perspective nicely summarized by Charles Taylor in his masterful (and masterfully brief) discussion of James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, a book called Varieties of Religion Today. Taylor describes the ethical perspective as follows:

“…it is wrong, uncourageous, unmanly, a kind of self-indulgent cheating, to have recourse to this kind of interpretation (a supernatural or religious interpretation of one’s experience), which we know appeals to something in us, offers comfort, or meaning, and which we therefore should fend off, unless absolutely driven to them by the evidence, which is manifestly not the case.”

This is the kind of ethical standpoint so powerfully voiced by Walter Stace in “Man Against Darkness,” and by Bertrand Russell when he said, in reply to someone who asked how to face mortality given his philosophy, that we should face it “with confident despair.”

In short, we are faced with an essentially pragmatic choice. Do we choose to be the kind of people who avoid at all cost the risk of being duped by an alluring illusion, and who forge ahead in life like those mountain men of old to test their mettle against an indifferent world? Or do we choose to be the kind of people who live in the hope that there is truth in the religious inkling, the feeling that something greater and more wonderful lies beyond the horizons of experience, making itself felt most clearly in the deepest longings of our souls?

On a fundamental level, I think this is the perspective sketched out by William James in his works on religion. And so I consider myself, at least in this respect, a Jamesian. The process for evaluating worldviews which I’ve sketched out is a necessary first step towards settling on a worldview, but its function is this: to identify the viable contenders.

I think it unlikely that this process will ever winnow down the contenders to just one. And I also think it unlikely that it will winnow down the contenders to just one kind (natural or supernatural). But when faced with this general choice between natural and supernatural worldviews, I don’t think the choice will ever be judged to be a pragmatically neutral one. And so deciding between naturalism and supernaturalism on the basis of simplicity doesn’t strike me as the appropriate move—unless simplicity has first been invested with pragmatic significance, and in a Jamesian way allegiance to the ideal of simplicity has been adopted over against alternative ideals.

In the end, the choice between naturalism and supernaturalism will be a Jamesian one. If Shook and others want to call this step “faith,” I have no objection. But I would resist having it called blind or irrational.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Reply to "Evaluating the Unfalsifiable"

Last week’s post, “Evaluating the Unfalsifiable,” generated a forceful reply from John Shook, which he invited me to post in its entirety. I do so here. While I have the time now to address some of his thoughts, the rest I’ll have to take up piecemeal as time allows. In the meantime, I invite readers of this blog to review my earlier post and Shook’s reply, and then post your own thoughts. Shook’s response, in its entirety, is reprinted here in italics:

Eric, you have blatantly exposed supernaturalism’s irrationality. And you have attacked only a straw-man naturalism in the process. Your theology must be chastised for these moves. This naturalist will explain what naturalism really is, and show why supernaturalism is now reduced to an irrational fideism.

Reitan writes:

And I think it is a feature of any good worldview that it track onto the empirical world as it is, that is, to fit with the empirical facts whatever they turn out to be. And if this is the case, then any good progressive theologian will be continually shaping and reshaping their religious worldview in the light of the scientific facts, rendering the broader religious thesis--that there is some supernatural dimension to reality--scientifically unfalsifiable.

Shook replies:

Both naturalism and supernaturalism can then agree that both worldviews should be consistent with all scientific knowledge. Now that’s progress. In Reitan’s sense, naturalism is scientifically unfalsifiable too, since naturalism similarly (and much more easily) keeps up with science. But both worldviews should remain empirically falsifiable in the broadest sense of empirical -- that is, they should struggle to explain the entire range of human experience, lest they give up that struggle and confess to complete intellectual vacuousness. Reitan himself insists on this principle of empirical falsifiability, since he accuses naturalism of failing to handle our experience of values while religion succeeds. More about naturalism and values in a moment. What I want to know is this: Is Reitan’s Christianity able to handle all of human experience? Obviously not, since his Christianity is inconsistent with millions of peoples’ objective experience of Allah, and millions more of Vishnu, etc, etc. Most of the planet not only lacks objective experience of anything essential to Christian dogma, but furthermore people positively experience religious entities that imply the non-existence of the Christian god. There apparently are other jealous gods out there, too.

Now, an atheist skeptically refrains from believing in any gods, presuming much less and proposing a much simpler naturalistic worldview. Reitan’s Christian theology, if it really be Christian in any interesting sense, must also explain away billions of peoples’ religious experiences. (Again, something our worldviews have in common!) I’d love to hear how Reitan explains away the seemingly objective experiences of billions of people who can’t and won’t be Christians because of those experiences. Every option available to Reitan only sinks his positive case for his own religion. Every argument why a Muslim’s experience of Allah is either false (simply subjective, erroneous, hallucinatory, etc. -- this is naturalism’s uniform method) or is “really” an experience of Reitan’s god can, by perfect dialectical symmetry, be used by a Muslim theologian against Christianity. And if Reitan claims that any objective experiences of divinity are all really of his god, or he claims that that there must be many gods, then his theology survives at the cost of either degrading into a tautology or becoming so vague and non-empirically falsifiable that it manages to be both non-Christian and irrational. Is Reitan ultimately only selling the Unitarian “let’s believe in Something, but don’t ask what it is”? That’s what I call “Theology Over The Edge” and “Theology Into The Dark”!

And about naturalism and values. Reitan is attacking only one sort of naturalism, a narrow reductive naturalism which, while currently popular, hardly exhausts naturalism’s resources. Reitan must be unaware of the broadly non-reductive naturalism advanced by John Dewey and many other pragmatic naturalists. This broad naturalism does believe that values are experienced because humans are evolutionarily equipped to experience them (like anything else so important in our environment), that where these values are reasonably confirmed by long practice they are judged to be objective, and that values can lose their objectivity by failing to consistently serve their function in guiding action.

Reitan is actually not worried about this objectivity of values, but rather about their transcendence -- he quests for values whose existence and validity depends neither on humans nor nature. Hence he entirely begs the question against naturalism, since naturalism confesses that it knows no transcendent values, by either experience broadly or by scientific method. How convenient for a theology to speculate about entities that naturalism must deny, and then triumphantly “explain” these very entities -- is this a reasonable debating tactic? Still, naturalism maintains the distinct advantage here too: It is positively irrational for anyone, religious or not, to believe in such transcendent values.

Remember how Reitan says that Christian theology should respect all human experience? I doubt he really can do it, and here’s why. First, religions notoriously claim to reveal a wide diversity of contradictory transcendent values -- how could Reitan’s theology neutrally judge which are genuine? No rational option here, sorry. Second, Reitan claims both (1) there are transcendent values, and (2) experience attests that such transcendent values can not only exist in relation to humans (that’s how they get experienced) but that they also exist beyond all experience. Now, how could we possibly know that (2) is true? It proposes an impossibly irrational task.

Can Reitan get around this trap of human experience to locate his beloved transcendent values? Can Reitan appeal to some other mode of acquaintance with transcendence (other than the sum total of human experience -- add mystical and revelatory experience too -- since all these modes are still experiences-in-relation-to-human-experiencers)? Does Reitan think that there is a special kind of human experience or knowledge that is not human-experience-involving-a-human?!? Last I checked, all human experiences exist in relation to humans, whatever else they may relate. Human experience can only reveal what exists in some relation to us. This is NOT silly anything-goes subjectivism, but common sense, upon which empirical science builds its impressive achievements at our collective understanding of objective reality.

If Reitan admits the silliness of all this “experiencing the truly transcendent” then he returns to the ordinary intelligent methods of empirical inquiry, where we all have to sift through the plenitude of human experience to identify the objectively reliable facts and values. That’s where naturalism makes its home, and where no religion could ever “prove” its exclusive and universal truth. The naturalist therefore prefers to withhold judgment about transcendent and supernatural matters, and just stick with ordinary experience and environing nature, which everyone is familiar with anyways.

I truly get how Reitan wishes he could understand some transcendent reality. At this point, even Christians should start wondering what is going on, though. Does he worship things that have no relation to us and make no difference in our experience? And buyer beware -- if Reitan turns around to claim that his god and his theology nicely explains ALL possible human experience, then he has now abandoned his principle of empirical falsifiability and his once-professed admiration for experience. He again succumbs to my original verdict that supernaturalism has made itself permanently unfalsifiable and hence irrational. We should also wonder if all this bother about experience from Reitan is actually just a distraction, since maybe he secretly believes that pure reason or divine grace installs knowledge of the transcendent. What isn’t Reitan telling us?

In conclusion, we all should dearly love to hear how Reitan could justify these wild claims for his Christian theology instead of resorting to mere dogmatic pronouncements. Expecting no rational justification, I conclude that Reitan’s theology amounts to wishful thinking and blind faith.

There’s a lot of material here: the implications of religious pluralism for the reasonableness of specific religious worldviews, issues pertaining to the varieties of naturalism, questions about the distinction between objective and transcendent values, and more fundamental philosophical questions about whether it can ever be rational to postulate that which in principle lies outside the bounds of human experience.

While I can’t address all these issues now, I do want to discuss one thing: Shook is right that in my earlier post I focused only on the species of naturalism that’s currently enjoying special popularity. But I want to be clear about my purpose in that post. It was not to make a definitive case for some version of Christian theology, but, rather, to do two things: first, recommend an approach to assessing the relative merits of alternative worldviews; and second, sketch out why supernaturalist worldviews in general shouldn’t be preemptively dismissed but should be included in such an assessment. But, of course, so should other species of naturalism beyond the one which I focused on.

Now let me say that “naturalism” is used in a variety of ways that are NOT intended to identify a distinctive worldview, and so do not fall within the scope of the project I was sketching out. When reading Shook’s response above, I get the sense that perhaps what he’s advocating isn’t naturalism conceived as a worldview at all, but rather naturalism conceived as a set of instructions for pursuing inquiry and forming beliefs (a “methodological” naturalism). The instructions might be briefly stated as follows: “Don’t investigate the transcendent, because it can’t be done, and don’t adopt any beliefs about the transcendent, because to do so requires you to go beyond what experience has anything to say about, and hence beyond what we can have any rationally defensible views about.”

I want to make three quick points about these naturalistic instructions, none of which I’ll be able to defend in full in this post. The first is this: I think that an important element of experience is that it points beyond itself—that, in effect, a part of our experience of experience is that it’s about objects that seem to possess a reality distinct from our experience of them. When we construct a worldview whose aim is to make sense of experience, this is an element that we’ll have to choose either to explain or to explain away.

My second point is this: A worldview is not a description of experience, but an interpretation of its significance. For that interpretation to apply to actual experience rather than to some fantasy, we’ll first need to describe experience as best we can. But an interpretation goes beyond mere description. It isn’t an account of what one experiences, but more a way of experiencing it, a way of fitting the pieces together and making sense of what they mean, especially for how we should live our lives.

Sometimes, in constructing such an interpretation, we might find it fruitful to postulate things that are not themselves part of human experience. Now it may be that such postulates will prove unhelpful in augmenting a worldview’s capacity to make sense of our holistic experience or (which is also important) provide useful guidance and inspiration for behavior. But I don’t personally see how we will be able to ascertain this fact if we disallows such “transcendent postulates” in advance.

My third point is this: If we take these naturalistic instructions seriously, we’ll not only be precluded from making affirmative postulates about the transcendent, but also from making negative ones of the sort that are made by naturalism when it’s conceived as a worldview. Put simply, the statement that there isn’t a transcendent reality is every bit as much a claim about what lies outside experience as is the statement that there is a transcendent reality.

In short, it may be that Shook’s naturalism not only isn’t a worldview, but amounts to an injunction against adopting worldviews. Perhaps the idea is that we should content ourselves with describing experience as fully as we can, and that attempts to explain its meaning by reference to what might or might not lie beyond it should be done away with. If so, I wonder if it’s even possible for human beings to live up to such an expectation. And I personally wouldn’t want us to. It would seem to me an undesirable truncation of our speculative spirit.

But perhaps I am misunderstanding Shook here, and he is making a case for a kind of naturalist worldview that I haven’t discussed or fully appreciated. And some species of naturalism may well fare better in a comparative assessment of worldviews than does any species of supernaturalism. But if so, determining this would require the concerted work of a community of thinkers, each of whom will bring to the table different areas of expertise (since I doubt that any single scholar will have sufficient familiarity with every species of naturalism and supernaturalism to be able to do the comparative work alone).

What I bring to the table is an understanding and love of what might be called the “progressive religious worldview” (which is really a genus or kind of worldview of which there are numerous species). I hope I will continue to be able to shed light on this kind of worldview, both in this blog and in other venues. But a blog is not the place to fully develop any worldview (unless, perhaps, a picture of it evolves gradually over time, to be pieced together by the reader from dozens of posts). The purpose of a blog, I think, is to stimulate fruitful discussions that might spill over into other venues. It is in this spirit that I started and continue to maintain this blog.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reacting to Obama's Historic Victory

Had Al Gore won the presidential election in 2000, I would have pumped my fist. Had Kerry won in 2004, I would have done the same. But at 10 PM Central Standard Time last night, when John Stewart (yes, I was watching comedy central at that moment) announced that Barack Obama had won the presidency, I didn’t pump my fist.

Instead, my hands trembled. I blinked back tears. I flipped over to CNN and stared raptly at the images of celebration—at Obama rallies in Chicago and New York, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in Kenya. Had Al Gore or John Kerry won in their races, I would have reacted in much the way I react when the Buffalo Bills win an important game: My team pulled it off! Yeah!

But this wasn’t just about my team. This was something more. A black journalist on CNN, who would have been born just about the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, expressed the point in roughly the following way (this is a paraphrase, since I don’t have the transcript):

“Growing up, if a black boy or girl said they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a business executive, their parents and teachers would have said, ‘Go for it!’ But if they’d said they wanted to be the president of the United States, they’d have been gently told that the country might not be ready for that. But now, now if my children say they want to grow up to be president, I can give them a different answer.”

This election didn’t cure the ills of racism in America. It didn’t erase the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, or the persistent inequities that seem to fall so consistently along racial lines. But Martin Luther King’s dream of a world in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin, this dream in which skin color no longer defines one’s place in society or one’s prospects for the future—this dream has become more than just a dream.

As my sister put it in an e-mail I received this morning, “Now let us all pray to keep our new president safe from those who don’t share the dream, and to give him the strength and the wisdom to move forward.”

Amen to that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Evaluating the Unfalsifiable

A few weeks ago my friend John Shook, who serves as a vice president at the Center for Inquiry (a kind of atheist think tank), shared on this blog site his frustration with the ways in which Christianity and other religions render themselves unfalsifiable to critics.

My own view is that the doctrinal component of religion, at least as that component is understood and explicated by progressive theologians, is not a hypothesis about the world, but is rather an overarching interpretation of the world as we experience it—what might be called a worldview. And I think it is a feature of any good worldview that it track onto the empirical world as it is, that is, to fit with the empirical facts whatever they turn out to be. And if this is the case, then any good progressive theologian will be continually shaping and reshaping their religious worldview in the light of the scientific facts, rendering the broader religious thesis--that there is some supernatural dimension to reality--scientifically unfalsifiable.

To think more carefully about this, I want to consider naturalism for a moment. In at least one sense of that word, "naturalism" names a worldview. It says, basically, that the world that we encounter in empirical experience, and which can be studied by science, exhausts what is real. Supernaturalism, by contrast, holds that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye.

Both of these views have in common the fact that science cannot investigate them. After all, naturalism and supernaturalism are alternative answers to the following question: Is there more to reality than science can discern? Obviously, science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than it can discern. And so it follows that science cannot decide between naturalism and supernaturalism. Neither one is empirically testable.

But what I say here about supernaturalism in general does not necessarily apply to all species of supernaturalism. A species of supernaturalism is more than just a general claim to the effect that there is more to reality than meets the empirical eye. While naturalism has clear implications for the meaning (or lack thereof) of our lived experience, the bare assertion of supernaturalism isn’t very helpful in this regard, and so can hardly qualify as a worldview at all.

To offer an interpretation of experience, the supernaturalist needs to say more. There needs to be some kind of account, however vague or incomplete, of what this something more (“the transcendent,” if you will) is like. And sometimes when people speak about the transcendent, they say things about it which, if true, would have empirical implications—that is, scientifically discernible effects. And so while a bare supernaturalism is as empirically unfalsifiable as naturalism, specific elaborations of supernaturalism may fit or fail to fit with the empirical facts.

Now here’s what I think about that. Whenever someone offers a worldview, that is, an interpretation of human experience, a minimum requirement for adequacy is that this worldview be consistent with what we can discern empirically, in particular what science teaches us. Naturalism, of course, will always be consistent with what science teaches, since it has nothing to say beyond the claim that the empirical facts are all that is the case (once again driving home the fact that naturalism is empirically unfalsifiable). But supernaturalist worldviews might or might not cohere with human experience. Hence, supernaturalists need to study what science teaches us about empirical reality and make sure their worldview fits with what we know. Whatever species of supernaturalism they adopt will need to be treated as tentative, as something to be adjusted and refined as new empirical facts become known.

If supernaturalists follow this course—if they fit their account of supernaturalism to the empirical facts and constantly refine their worldview to accommodate new empirical discoveries—then their supernaturalism will meet the minimum condition necessary for a worldview to be acceptable: coherence with the empirical facts as we know them.

Supernaturalists who do this should not be viewed as “slippery” or as “moving the goal posts.” Instead, supernaturalists who take this approach should be appreciated for taking science seriously and making sure that their worldview meets the minimum requirement for a worldview’s adequacy. If naturalists aren’t called slippery for holding to an unfalisifiable doctrine, then neither should supernaturalists who revise and interpret their worldview to assure consistency with the empirical facts--even if this means that at no point will the falsification of a particular formulation of their supernaturalism require that they give up belief in the transcendent.

But consistency with what we have discovered about the empirical world is only one criterion for the adequacy of a worldview. There are others. Two are especially important. The first, which I want to focus on for the remainder of this post, is this: our worldview needs to help us make sense of the whole of our experience, not just its empirical dimension.

Clearly, there is more to human experience than empirical experience. For example, we experience the world as value-laden in various ways. And then there is our experience of consciousness. We’re not just aware of the empirical world around us, but also aware of our own awareness. That awareness of the world is what we call consciousness. Furthermore, we experience our consciousness as unified, as all of a piece, in the sense that all of it is ours. Put simply, we have the experience of being subjects of consciousness. Subjectivity is in a sense the knot that ties our conscious states together. Some of us, furthermore, have mystical experiences of varying degrees of intensity—that is, we have experiences that feel as if they are encounters with Truth or Reality, but which are non-empirical in nature and cannot be adequately described in terms of the concepts derived from our engagement with the empirical world.

Now naturalists have strategies for accomodating all of these aspects of our experience, of course. Naturalists are quite adept at providing, for example, Darwinian explanations of the origins of our disposition to experience the world as value-laden (they have been less successful in explaining consciousness).

But when they explain the value dimension of our experience in evolutionary terms, they are in effect saying that our experience of the “value-ladenness” of the world is not an encounter with values that are in some way real independent of us. Instead, the experience of value-ladenness is the product of something our brains do, and our brains are disposed to do these things because of the forces of random mutation and natural selection. Our brains impute to the objects of experience values that aren’t really “there” at all, and our brains do this for one of two reasons: either (a) the tendency of our brains to do this provides some advantage in passing on our genes and has therefore been preserved and refined through millennia of random mutation and natural selection; or (b) the tendency of our brains to do this is a side effect of other processes that were selected for. The latter option is especially common when it comes to explaining aesthetic experience.

But here’s the thing. When naturalists explain our experience of a value-laden reality as nothing but a by-product of blind evolutionary forces (or the result of cultural conditioning, as is often also the case), they aren’t exactly explaining this dimension of our experience. They are, rather, explaining it away. That is, they are explaining how we could come to have such experiences even though they are not veridical.

According to naturalism, the objects of our experience are not in fact value-laden at all. My daughter is not objectively valuable. Donizetti’s magnificent opera, Lucia de Lammermoor, does not in itself embody aesthetic greatness. An astonishing gesture of mercy isn’t good in itself. When you say that an act of child abuse is wrong, you aren’t saying anything about the act of child abuse as such. When it feels experientially as if we're recognizing value properties possessed by these things, we are (according to these naturalists) suffering from a delusion that natural selection (or cultural conditioning, or some combination of the two) has predisposed us to have.

And it may well be so. Every worldview will be a mix of explaining and explaining away. But it seems to me that one measure of the adequacy of a worldview is how well it balances these two things. The more a worldview can explain, and the less that it has to explain away, the better the worldview is (all else being equal). Given how much of our experience naturalism may need to explain away, it may be worthwhile to consider seriously the explanatory power of supernaturalist worldviews, at least those that fit with the empirical facts (and so satisfy the first criterion for the adequacy of a worldview). In short, there may be broadly philosophical reasons for favoring one empirically unfalsifiable worldview over another. And when it comes to deciding which worldview to go with, it is such broadly philosophical concerns that we should look to.

There is, however, another important criterion for assessing the adequacy of worldviews, one which I haven’t yet discussed. It is the pragmatic criterion: What implications does a worldview have for our behavior, for how we live our lives, and how well does the behavior inspired by this worldview actually work? This criterion is sufficiently important that I want to treat it in its own right. It is with respect to this criterion that John Shook’s comments about the Christian doctrine of original sin are most salient. Stay tuned, then, for a future post exploring “Pragmatism and Original Sin.”