Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Extensive Comments on Another Blog

I recently stumbled across a blog entry on "Atheist Spirituality." My comment on it sparked a response, which in turn led me to offer a further series of comments (since what I had to say was too lengthy to fit in a single comment). These comments basically amounted to an overview and qualified defense of the recent book by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, entitled Naturalism (it's a critique of metaphysical naturalism). I should probably have simply posted my comments here and offered a link on that website, but what's done is done. And so I do the opposite, and invite readers of my blog to see what I said there.

In any event, this will give my readers something to look at while they wait for the next post in my "Authority without Inerrancy?" series...due out soon, if only I can stop being distracted by such pesky things as grading and commenting on other people's blogs.


  1. Thanks for the post, Eric. BTW, I have been enjoying your series on inerrancy - though I'm a bit behind in my reading.

    I have been posting a series of thoughts on "What is Spirituality?" so this line of thought is very timely. I have many friends who are atheists - we believe the same things, practically, but they simply seen no reason to posit an "extraneous actor" (God) into the equation. I can understand this, considering the negative historical baggage that can come along with the term "God". In defending my use of the term, and once again my actual beliefs are VERY similar to a naturalist's, I hold on to the idea of the personal.

    Theists and atheists alike believe in higher power - even the idea that one choice can be better than another gives the connotation of an "ideal" self. The community is another source of higher power. The difference between atheist and theist, to me, is not whether God exists or not, but rather whether God is a person or not.

    I cannot comment on whether God is a person, that is beyond my ability to know for sure. But I do know that when experiencing nature, love, all that is good, connection - I have a relationship with it. Not necessarily because "God" is a person, but because I am a person. If there is a God, I know that my internal experience is an interface, a conscious (or sub!) construct which represents God - whatever God actually is. But I choose to communicate with God in a personal relationship. of course, this way is fraught with peril, and delusion is around every corner, but that does not mean it is not worthwhile. I feel that it affirms my personhood and the connection I feel with others. Although, I am pretty "naturalist" in my leanings, I can still challenge my atheist friends to not throw out the baby with the bath water. Perhaps they too, in the presence of a beautiful sunset, also feel a connection, a communion with it that reflects their own personhood. God.

  2. Eric,

    I'm a Christian philosophy of religion student and I just want to say that I've found your work to be very insightful and thought-provoking. In the comment you posted on Atheist Spirituality I feel that you really hit the nail on the head with regard to the real question in the theism vs. naturalism debate:

    "The deeper question is whether scientific discovery speaks to a particular metaphysics--whether what we now know about the empirical world tells us that a naturalistic/materialistic metaphysics is the most plausible one. Here, the historical fact that naturalism has emerged alongside science is insufficient. The methodolical naturalism of science--the focus on looking for naturalistic explanations for empirical phenomena--might slide readily into a metaphysical naturalism, but the explanation would be psychological rather than logical. The inescapable premise, it seems to me, is that science cannot discern whether there is more to reality than science can discern."

    It's only to be expected that proponents of a particular worldview would like to claim the prestige of being 'scientific', given science's enormous instrumental success and its connotations of being objective, universal and (relatively) certain knowledge. But despite atheist materialism's rhetoric the truth is that this materialism did not gain any further legitimacy due to the advance of science than it already had, and too many failed metaphysics (such as Comte's 'religion of humanity', eugenics, Marxism, etc.) have claimed the title of 'scientific' for that boast to be taken seriously. It seems quite clear to me that empirical science as such under-determines the range of plausible metaphysical views. It may give us reliable knowledge, but this knowledge is heavily qualified and idealized and cannot be extended to a worldview without making many contestable philosophical moves.

    That said, the content of empirical science, together with the inescapable facts of religious pluralism, the psychology of self-deception and others do constrain those metaphysical views. At the very least a plausible worldview must take the regular patterns science has revealed very seriously. It must also be humble in the face of competing metaphysical claims, each with their own rationale and persuasiveness. I am confident that Christian theology can account for these facts and that atheistic materialism is not the obvious implication of current science. But like you say, that is a promissory note that will never be honored in any of our lifetimes.

  3. Steven--

    I'm trying to reframe your comments in my head. I think they are provocative, but I'm not sure I have them right. So let me run a certain way of being religious past you, a way that coordinates with several themes in my book, and you can tell me how close this is to what you are trying to describe in your own life.

    In my book I defend the legitimacy of "faith" construed as the pragmatic decision to live as if a hoped-for POSSIBILITY is true. As I see it, when we are in the domain of fundamental worldviews, certainty is impossible. All we have are possibilities. For me, the most rational worldview is going to be one that is not merely logically possible, but possible in the light of what we have compelling reason to believe. This is going to include what empirical studies of our world (the sciences) have to teach.

    Naturalism simply asserts that what these empirical studies teach exhausts what is real. As such, naturalism will always be compatible with this body of evidence. But you can believe that there is more to reality than this without rejecting the teachings of science.

    Such "reasonable supernaturalists" (if you will) are going to accept the same factual claims ABOUT the empirical world that naturalists do. And so there will be very many actual beliefs that they hold in common with naturalists (more than they share with, say, the anti-scientific views of Young Earth Creationists).

    And yet, these reasonable supernaturalists are often moved by a hope that there is something MORE, and that this something more makes the world into a place defined ultimately not by blind mechanism and chance, but by such essentially PERSONAL phenomena as care, compassion, love. And hence a mutual relationship with fundamental reality becomes possible.

    But the reasonable supernaturalist recognizes the difference between hope and knowledge, and shares the naturalist's epistemological conviction that any such BELIEF about the transcendent falls far short of being evidentially justified. But the reasonable supernaturalist also sees the profound pragmatic value of living AS IF this hoped-for possibility is true, and orienting their life accordingly.

    Is this close to what you are describing, in your own words, about your own spirituality?

  4. Eric,

    This is really close to how I feel as well. My only difference with you is one of terminology, I think. I do not favor a "supernatural" possibility - a reality that is disconnected from the natural world because of its complete independence of natural laws. I'm not saying it does not exist - but to experience it in any trustworthy way is problematic because physical evidence (this includes personal experience) is completely based on the inter-connectedness of everything - naturalism.

    In other words, any supernatural claims based on natural evidence of any kind is highly problematic. The computer programmer could change anything at any time with impunity, and without the subjects in the program knowing it. Natural evidence probably suggests that something natural has occurred.

    You know the official terms and stances better than I , but I do not believe the following statement adequately describes naturalism in my book:

    "Naturalism simply asserts that what these empirical studies teach exhausts what is real"

    Rather, to me naturalism simply means that everything is inter-connected. The supernatural is, by nature, independent and disconnected from natural laws - cause/effect, time, etc. which form the basis of logic. Logic is inference based on observation. We can only infer if reality is predictable. The supernatural is unpredictable and outside the ability of logic to comment on.

    I prefer the term "intangible naturalism". This seems more parsimonious, because it only supposes that there are quite natural aspects of the "material" world that are beyond us. Both in a temporary sense, and perhaps in a forever sense. Evolution seems to show that our senses have evolved on a kind of "need to know" basis. Surely there is more than we can perceive all around us.

    This difference removes the false dichotomy of science vs. supernatural. The supernatural tends to rely on "gaps" in the natural world to show its plausibility - even though any evidence presented is completely reliant on naturalism (ironically). Therefore science's attempts to further describe phenomena (such as the Big Bang) can be seen as attempts on the plausibility of God. "Intangible naturalism" does not have this problem.

    In essence, however, I completely agree with you. Secularists can argue that our faith (at least in its more tangible incarnations) is extraneous. I think we can defend faith, if we can prove benefits to it.


  5. Your view of faith as something that is "hoped for" is very good to me. I think it has real currency. The answers themselves may lay outside the realm of provability, but the results of the faith can perhaps be shown to have benefit (or harm).

    so, yes, I can experience God as a hoped-for reality - the Universal Restoration of all things, the connection of all, Love.

    If this hope is argued against, as being extraneous and unnecessary, then we can really get into that which is "extraneous." Art? Sports? Fiction? These things can also change lives, enhance lives. Hurt lives, perhaps.

    Of course, faith as something hoped for does show that judgement is not wise against those who do not see the need for this hope. As my brother, a believer, says - the only REASON to believe in God is that you want to.

    However, is there a case for “god” that is different than a hypothetical, hoped-for 3rd party? I think there is. When I close my eyes and try to merely experience what IS, all around me and in me, I do not use any words, because I am trying to simply be as fully aware as I can be. This is an attempt to commune, to have relationship, connection. To feel life! When I engage my thinking-mind a bit more, to consider experience, to relate it to others, then I use the word “God.” Why? Did I experience anything different than my good atheist friend who also likes to meditate? I don’t think so. It’s just that I communicate in terms of relationship, as I said before, not because God (in this form) is a person necessarily, but because I am. Is anthropomorphizing things really an option that a human has? I’m not so sure. I think we do it in some form. I think my atheist friend has a relationship with nature, with mystery, with wonder, and perhaps most importantly, with himself. He may not choose the term “god” despite his personal feelings, but I do choose the term, because I feel it more rightly describes the interaction, the experience. I have heard atheists use the terms “unfathomable mystery”, “awe-inspiring”, etc. I use “God”. Once again, this isn’t to say that God isn’t a third party, that’s beyond this particular argument, but I also recognize that God is here now. God is what IS.

    Another example - My brother describes God as a voice that speaks to him, not by audition, but by leading him to what is right. He insists that he knows the difference between God’s voice and the voice of his own finite, physical brain, although he also recognizes the possibility that the voice is just his own mind interacting with itself. My secularist friend describes this as my brothers’ relationship with his own moral compass. My brother calls it "God" despite its origin. In THIS case, what’s the difference?

  6. Hi, Eric-

    I have created a post to reply specifically to the Naturalism commentary.

    Best wishes - Burk