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.

1 comment:

  1. Here are the basic points I want to say defending Reitan from Shook’s attack.

    A) He never even addresses Reitan’s contention that neither materialism nor supernaturalism is falsifiable. Instead he focuses on the consistency of supernaturalism with “empirical facts”. They are not the same, but I wonder if he thinks they are.

    B) Shook seems to put all religions and religious experiences in the same category (as species of supernaturalism), and thus fails to distinguish between different sorts of religious experience as well as between different sorts of religion. I am inclined to think that much pagan religion can be well accounted for in the way Lucretius and Hume thought it could—by noting that primitive men did not have scientific explanations for any number of phenomenon and so posited the existence of anthropomorphic deities to explain such phenomenon. Such religions were typically grounded in fear (as both Lucretius and Hume noted) not in a sense of intrinsic value and, ultimately, they are not so different from naturalism since the gods of such religions evolve from matter. But the great world religions were rooted in a sense that the ultimate explanation of contingent, changing existence must be sought in a transcendent, uncreated, perfect “being”, a being which they all understand to be spiritual even if some forms of Hinduism do not understand this spirit to be a spirit. These religions are grounded in a deep appreciation of the worth of persons and of moral action. So, both naturalism and the old pagan religions are on one side, reducing spirit to matter, and what is truly valuable to what has no (or little) value, while the supernaturalism characteristic of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Christianity, etc. does the reverse. Finally, the great world religions have commanded, and still command, the allegiance of truly great minds, minds which have fashioned powerful arguments in favor of their central doctrines (e.g. Mardan Faruck for the Zoroastrians, Sankara, Ramanuja and Udayana for different branches of Hinduism, Aquinas, Suarez, and Lotze for Christianity, etc.) Can anyone claim the same for the worshipers of Zeus? (I realize Plato referred to Zeus, but this was just his way of referring to God—he did not believe in the Zeus of the myths). Shook’s attack on all religion as irrational seems to me to be a haughty dismissal of some of the greatest philosophers who have ever lived.

    C) In arguing that Reitan’s Christian supernaturalism would require him to explain away the religious experiences of Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Christians, Shook fails to distinguish between a type of experience and various possible interpretations of it. Some persons who have near death experiences interpret them religiously, others don’t. (Ayer feared that his near death experience proved there is life after death, but comforted himself with the thought that it could be explained naturalistically after all!!) Moreover, Shook seems to fail to notice that none of us experience all there is to experience of any person we know. This can lead to disagreements about whether or not a certain person X that two other persons, Y and Z, know does or does not have certain attributes, about what X’s motives were for doing certain actions are, etc., but it does not follow from this that Y and Z did not have veridical experiences of X. I have rather darker interpretations of Cheney’s motives than my republican friends, but that does no mean that neither of us have had any experience of him, nor does it mean we can’t really refer to the same man, the vice president of the United States, even if we disagree about certain of his attributes. Similarly, Zoroaster and Udayana and Suarez may all be referring to the same being, the all knowing all good creator of the universe, even if Zoroaster believes he has an eternal enemy, while the other two do not, and Suarez believes that his is “one in three persons” while the other two do not. (This is not the same as believing that God does not have the attribute of being one in three persons). Kripke showed all this long ago.

    D) I do not see how Shook’s evolutionary account of moral values touches Reitan’s contentions concerning naturalism and moral values. It seems to me he wants to say (as the evolutionary ethicists do) that we all (or most all of us) intensely disapprove of killing small children, for instance, because such disapproval helped our race survive. (I suppose that he thinks that the survival of our race is good, but the reason he thinks that, according to his own views, is just that he likes the race to survive and he likes that for evolutionary reasons But this is simply not the same thing as saying that it is wrong to kill small children because they have a certain intrinsic value and that killing them would, in some way, contradict that value, be in disaccord with it. For any X, if X has intrinsic value then it would be objectively appropriate to value X for its own sake, to prefer its existence to its non-existence, all things considered, and to seek to benefit it, if it can be benefitted. Now, humans, if they have intrinsic value have it whether or not God exists. But the naturalist has a hard time defending the existence of humans (at least if he has taken the time to consider exactly how a number of mindless, meaningless micro particles united, no matter how tightly, could constitute one thing—see Liebniz and Lotze), and if humans don’t exist then they can’t have any intrinsic value. Moreover, although one could account for the unity of human beings by supposing that they are souls ordered to being united to certain kinds of arrangements of atoms, most naturalists find souls as “queer” as God. Finally the naturalist tends to deny the existence of such queer properties as the property “having intrinsic value” since the existence of such a “queer” property cannot be known via sense perception nor can its existence (or non-existence) play any role in the sorts of explanations scientists are after. Now, I don’t want to argue for the existence of such a property as the property “having intrinsic value” here; I just want to note that Shook’s insistence that naturalism can ground an objectivists ethics seems to me silly. Why doesn’t he have the guts to say (as Makie) did, that Ethics is a useful fiction (though I can’t quite see what it is really useful for if Makie is right in supposing that it comes from a projection on to things of what we happen to like or dislike, not because of any really likable or dislikable properties of things but simply because of the way we happened to evolve.)