Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Logical Positivism, Ethics, and Hope

I’d like to expand on a comment that Franklin Mason made on my last post, regarding logical positivism. As I understand logical positivism, it is a philosophical theory about the meaningfulness of propositions, according to which the following proposition is said to be true:

A proposition is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic (roughly, it is a statement about how ideas or concepts are logically related to one another) or empirically testable (in other words, the truth or falsity of the proposition would make a difference in what we would or could observe).

I will call this proposition the Logical Positivist Thesis (LPT).

Franklin points out, rightly, that logical positivism fell out of favor among philosophers as soon as it was noticed that LPT simply cannot be true because it is self-referentially incoherent. If we look at LPT, we can see quite readily that it is not simply a statement about how concepts are related to one another. Nor is it empirically testable. As such, if LPT is true, it is meaningless and can be neither true nor false.

But what follows from this? Here’s my reasoning:

1. If LPT is self-referentially incoherent, it must be rejected. That is, we must assert that “It is not the case that a proposition is meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically testable.” In other words, we must assert that other kinds of propositions, besides analytic and empirically testable ones, are meaningful too.

2. In order for a proposition to be meaningful, it has to have a truth value. This is not the case with exclamations or questions, etc., since these don’t make a claim about anything. Wittgenstein rightly noted that we play different language games, and that the meaning of a term is given by how it is used in a language game. But the language game of stating propositions is precisely this: the activity of saying that something is the case. And when one says that something is the case, what one is saying has to have a truth value: either it is the case or it isn’t.

3.It follows from this that there are propositions that have a truth value which are neither analytic nor empirically testable. And since every false proposition is such that it’s contradictory opposite is a true proposition (and since the contradictory opposite of a proposition that’s neither analytic nor empirically testable will itself be neither analytic nor empirically testable), it follows that there are propositions which are true, but which are neither analytic nor empirically testable.

4. From this it follows that there are truths that we cannot access through conceptual analysis/logic nor through empirical investigation of the world.

If all of this is right, we should ask ourselves several questions. First, how is this possible? What is the truth-maker for these non-analytic/non-empirical propositions? If they are true not by the logical relations among the ideas in the proposition, nor by correspondence to the empirical world, there must exist some other standard of truth. What is it?

Second, can we discern propositions that are meaningful even though they are neither analytic nor empirically testable? How can we distinguish between propositions of this kind and meaningless pseudo-propositions?

Third, can we access the truth-maker for this third kind of proposition so as to have knowledge with respect to propositions of this kind? And if not, what are we to do in relation to propositions that qualify as being meaningful propositions of this third kind (assuming we can discern them)? Should we just be agnostic in relation to them? Or are there reasons of some kind that can guide us in deciding what to affirm and what not to affirm in this third category even though we can’t have knowledge?

To bring these questions out of the realm of mere theory, let me consider a claims that I think might be a good candidate for a meaningful proposition that is neither analytic nor empirically testable. Here it is:

“It is morally wrong for someone to extinguish a cigarette in a baby’s eye just to see how loudly the baby will scream.”

Now I think this claim is meaningful. In fact, I think it is true. But it isn’t true by virtue of the logical relations of the ideas in the proposition. And there is no empirical test one could conduct which is such that a certain empirical observation, if made, would falsify/verify it.

But with respect to this last point, I need to pause for a moment. Logical positivists were of course confronted with moral statements, and they wrestled with how to fit them within their system. They didn’t want to reject them as meaningless. What they did, therefore, was to subjectivize them. They said that these statements were really statements about the attitudes of the speaker. The statement above would therefore translate into something like the following: “I (the speaker) disapprove of someone extinguishing a cigarette in a baby’s eye just to see how loudly the baby will scream.” Others said they weren’t statements at all, but mere emotive expressions of one’s desires. Thus, Bertrand Russell would translate the above into, “Would that no one would extinguish cigarettes in the eyes of babies just to see how loudly they’ll scream!”

The former move is attractive to logical positivists because it makes moral utterances meaningful propositions with a truth value, even given the logical positivist thesis. After all, if moral utterances are just claims about the speaker’s attitudes of approval and disapproval, then the baby-torture statement becomes empirically testable: If it is true, then we shouldn’t expect to observe the speaker extinguishing cigarettes in babies’ eyes to see how loudly they scream. If we do make this observation, then the speaker doesn’t actually possess the attitude expressed. (Some room for controversy here, but I’ll let that pass.)

The latter move, by contrast, makes moral utterances into mere exclamations, akin to “Ouch!” By stripping them of their status as propositions, one thereby dispenses with the need for empirical testing altogether.

But there are deep worries about either move, some of which are lucidly expressed by Baruch Brody in his classic essay, “The New Subjectivism in Ethics.” My own problems with this kind of subjectivism in ethics can be summed up as follows: When I say that gratuitously torturing babies is wrong, I mean to be saying something about gratuitous baby torture that is true of gratuitous baby torture (not something about myself as a speaker that is true of me). And this is, in fact, what most people intend when they make moral utterances. They intend to say something about actions and people and states of affairs. They do not intend merely to express their own attitudes. If they did, they’d say, “Yuck!”

Put more simply, when people say that some action is wrong, they mean that the action has this non-empirical property of wrongness. And so they are operating on the assumption that non-empirical moral properties are something “real” that can be truly or falsely attributed to actions, states of affairs, etc.

Our moral language is riddled with this assumption. Moral disagreement would make no sense in the absence of this assumption. Our view that some people make mistakes in their moral judgments would make no sense otherwise. The sociopath who approves of gratuitous baby torture “all the way down” wouldn’t be evil in any absolute sense; instead, by the only standard of morality that there is, this sociopath would be doing something that would be truly right for him even if it were truly wrong for us. He wouldn’t be mistaken any more than we would.

Our view that people can make moral progress by abandoning misguided attitudes and adopting more fitting ones would also make no sense—and we can say goodbye to the coherence of some of our most cherished stories. Scrooge would have simply gone from one set of attitudes about love and community and money to a radically different set of attitudes—but the change could not in any meaningful way be declared an improvement, since that would require a standard outside of the attitudes themselves by which the attitudes could be assessed.

In short, our ordinary moral language has a meaning that is very different from the meaning that logical-positivism-inspired subjectivism foists upon it. When people use moral language, they think it is perfectly coherent to talk about improvement in someone’s moral attitudes, errors in someone’s moral attitudes, and genuine disagreements about the truth of moral claims (so that when I say that abortion is always wrong I am saying something that is inconsistent with your saying that it is not always wrong). But if morality is purely an expression of the subjective attitudes of the speaker towards things in the world, and nothing more, then none of these things that are treated as meaningful by ordinary users of moral language end up being meaningful at all.

And this means that subjectivism in ethics is not just a radically new theory of ethics. It is moral nihilism in disguise. What I mean to say when I use moral language—that actions and the like have this property of wrongness or rightness—is something that the logical positivist insists I cannot meaningfully say, because there is no such property. Let me repeat that: according to the logical positivist, there is no such thing as morality in the sense of morality that actual users of moral language have in mind. There is only this other thing, described by subjectivists and called morality, which cannot sustain any of the linguistic moves that characterize the “moral language game.”

One could, of course, bite the bullet here and embrace all of these implications: morality as we ordinarily understand it is a delusion, and our ordinary moral discourse is so much nonsense. Or one could decide, since logical positivism is self-referentially incoherent, and since there must be a third kind of meaningful proposition besides analytic and empirically testable ones, that moral claims are claims of this third kind. On this view, it can be true of gratuitous baby torture that it is wrong—it can be true that it has this property of wrongness, even though this property is not reducible to any empirical property.

But then we need to ask, of course, what is the nature of this property? What gives something this property? What makes it true that gratuitous baby torture has this property? Here we might pursue a neo-Kantian approach and say that “rightness” is equivalent to “conformity of our will to the motive of respect for a rationally universalizable law.” While such an equivalence makes moral utterances a bit more like analytic ones insofar as reason plays a crucial role in determining their truth value, it nevertheless thrusts us into a view of reality in which there are real entities that are not empirically discoverable.

Any Kantian will tell you that the possibility of conformity of the will to a motive of respect for reason requires a non-empirical conception of the self, according to which the self is moved to action by abstract principles as opposed to by empirical causal laws. That is, the possibility of analyzing morality in neo-Kantian terms depends on positing a “noumenal self” distinct from the “phenomenal self” that empirical study can describe—a self in which the will cannot be explicated reductionistically in terms of the interplay of brain states, in which “acting for reasons” amounts to something that is not part of the physical world—an intellectual abstraction called a “reason”—effecting the physical world through the mediation of this non-physical thing we call “the will.”

The empiricist may well say, “So much the worse for Kant.” But my point goes beyond Kant. There is this thing called morality that is extremely important to me. More than that, I have a strong and immediate intuitive sense of the truth of certain moral claims, every bit as immediate and determinate as what I find in my empirical experience. Certain moral claims seems to be clearly, obviously true (such as the claim that gratuitous baby torture is wrong). And it’s not some redefined sense of these claims that strikes me as clearly true. It is these claims understood in the ordinary sense—the sense which says that gratuitous baby torture has this property of being wrong independent of what someone’s attitudes happen to be, so that those who feel nothing but approval towards baby torture are rightly judged to be deeply flawed in their character, with attitudes that are fundamentally at odds with the moral truth.

Logical positivism eviscerates morality in this sense. Thankfully, logical positivism is necessarily false. This means that it is possible for moral propositions to be meaningful and true (or false) according to some standard of truth other than logical analyticity or empirical testability. But as soon as we begin to attempt to unpack a standard of moral truth—a truth-maker for morality that preserves the robust meaning of moral claims that is part of our moral experience of the world—it is (in my experience as well as the experience, I think, of most moral philosophers) essentially impossible to do so without positing more to reality than your typical reductionistic empiricist is prepared to allow.

I was a moral philosopher long before I got interested in philosophy of religion, and there is no doubt at all that my philosophical interest in religious ideas springs from my interest in finding an understanding of morality that does not eviscerate my moral experience of the world, but actually conforms to what my conscience tells me is true. Like Kant, I was motivated by the question, “What makes morality possible at all?”

The beginnings of the answer I’ve found most compelling depend on the following hypothesis: Goodness is something that is objectively real. It is a property possessed by things in the world, especially persons. And this objective value, which exists independent of anyone actually engaging in the act of valuing things, makes certain acts of valuing appropriate (treasuring my children) and others inappropriate (regarding women as mere things to be used). As such, both ethical subjectivism and divine command theory are appalling to me, and for basically the same reasons. Divine command theory is just subjectivism projected onto God.

But what must reality be like more broadly in order for goodness to be this objectively real property possessed by things, especially persons? To be blunt, I don’t know. But I'm convinced that it cannot be the way it is described to be by the most popular forms of naturalism—the reductive materialism espoused by Dawkins and the rest.

Although I don’t know the answer, I do have suspicions, and I do have hopes. And these suspicions and hopes are aligned with the Christian picture of the universe—not as it is presented in its crass legalistic formulations or its fundamentalist instantiations, but in the deep theological ruminations on love and grace that we find in the greatest thinkers of the Christian tradition. In these works I discover what in my book I call “the ethico-religious hope”—the hope that reality is fundamentally on the side of goodness, that goodness is not some subjective projection onto reality by a few critters in one corner of the vast universe of pitiless indifference, nor is it merely a property possessed by things in the universe; it is, rather, of the very essence of reality.

I’m not convinced (as Kant was) that the fulfillment of this hope is a necessary postulate in order for morality to be possible at all. But I am convinced that the decision to live as if this hope were fulfilled helps people to be better than they would be otherwise (Alcoholics Anonymous offers evidence of this). And when I say that people are better, I am making this judgment based on my immediate, intuitive sense of the good, the sense that is given to me directly by this thing I call my conscience.

And if the Good is something real and not merely a subjective projection, then an exploration of the nature of a reality in which that is possible will benefit from living my life in a way that seems to attune me with the Good. And the decision to live as if the ethico-religious hope were fulfilled is precisely such a way of living. It’s value transcends its philosophical value, of course—but I’m convinced that the kind of life you live opens up insights into the nature of reality that would not otherwise be possible. And since the kind of life one lives is shaped by one’s beliefs about reality, this means that we may need to make practical (and provisional) decisions about what to believe that go beyond the evidence available to us in the present moment. The refusal to do so may insulate us from error, but it may also insulate us from a fuller contact with truth.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Authority Without Inerrancy? Part III: A Fuller Explication of the Progressive Christian View of the Bible

As I was preparing my discussion of the third objection to the progressive Christian view of the Bible ("The Argument from Human Hubris"), I found that I needed to offer a more careful and complete account of exactly what I have in mind when I speak about "the progressive Christian view." That account started out as a section of a blog post discussing the Argument from Human Hubris, but it became so lengthy in its own right that I have now decided to make it a post of its own.

Most of what I say in what follows should be familiar, since it elaborates on points I’ve already made. But I think it will be helpful to put all the points together, and explain them a bit more fully, so as to offer a more perspicuous picture. It is not my intention here to defend the progressive Christian view, but simply to describe it and contrast it with the dominant alternative.

According to the progressive Christian understanding, the Bible is an important authority in the Christian’s life but not an inerrant one. The progressive Christian does not accept the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration (the doctrine which holds that the Bible says exactly what God wants it to say from cover to cover). Rather than viewing the Bible as the very Word of God, the progressive Christian views the Bible as a seminal human testament to divine revelation.

The idea, roughly, is this: God has revealed Himself to humanity in a number of ways through history: in profound mystical encounters, in providential events, and through our relationships with one another (especially insofar as those relationships operate as channels through which divine love can flow in the world). For Christians, however, the most significant revelation of God is that which occurred some two thousand years ago in the person and life of Jesus.

On the progressive Christian view of things, the Bible collects the writings of people who have experienced divine revelation in these various ways, and who have sought to express their understanding of those revelatory experiences through poetry, words of wisdom, stories, theological ruminations, etc. The Bible also collects and redacts other things—such as transmitted oral histories, religious myths, and folk tales, as well as records of the laws and holiness codes of earlier peoples. In many of these cases, the actual writers were probably not striving to express their own experience of divine revelation so much as striving to faithfully put to writing stories that expressed the religious experiences of earlier generations.

Put more simply, the Bible collects both first-hand and second-hand (and sometimes third- or fourth-hand) human testaments to divine revelation. On this progressive Christian view, the testaments themselves do not bear the stamp of divine inerrancy, since they are human testaments and as such are subject to the fallibility of their human authors. And this means that approached on a verse-by-verse basis, one cannot confidently say, simply because the passage appears in the Bible, that it truly expresses the will of God or offers us an accurate understanding God’s nature.

Instead, it is the collection, viewed and read holistically, that has the greatest value. On this point, two issues are of particular significance. First, a collection of fallible testimonials can, when read holistically, offer a clearer and more accurate picture of the truth than any of the testimonials can offer in isolation.

Although I’ve used the following analogy before, it bears repeating here: If a police officer arrives at the scene of an accident and has the good fortune of having multiple witnesses to interview, he is more likely to arrive at a reliable understanding of what transpired than if he had only a single witness. While each witness will have seen the events from only one perspective (in some cases through the filters of their own biases), and while each witness may misremember this detail or that fact, the officer can still get a good sense of what really happened by putting together the various perspectival stories, accounting for the influence of discernible prejudice (which may require some investigation into the characteristics of the various witnesses and the biases that might have influenced them), and identifying common themes and recurring observations.

The second point has to do with trajectories or trends. When belief systems are seen to evolve over time and across generations, there is at least some reason to suppose that what we are observing is the outcome of an ongoing collision between culturally inherited worldviews and a reality that transcends culture, one which imposes itself on the experience of people within a culture in ways that force them to revisit their inherited presumptions.

Such change is often going to be piecemeal, especially given the extent to which the possibilities of experience are shaped by cultural inheritance. In effect, our culturally inherited belief systems effect both how we experience reality and how much of reality we are able to experience. And so a deeply imperfect belief system will produce a deeply imperfect (both incomplete and error-riddled) experience of reality. But even as this happens, the collision between the belief system and reality will expose flaws in the belief system and will force revisions. The revised belief system, while still imperfect, will be more attuned to reality than its predecessor, and so may offer a fuller and truer access to the reality that lies beyond and behind experience.

But the process is ongoing and, in philosophical terms, "dialectical." As more of the reality "out there" is allowed in by our belief system, there is more opportunity for reality to correct that belief system. And so a belief system that is closer to the truth may in some cases encounter more flaws, more "contradictions," as more of reality breaks through to enlighten us. This leads us to revise our belief system yet again, and experience the world through yet another set of intepretive lenses. And the process continues.

Put briefly, it isn’t until our cultural inheritance has been modified by a deeply imperfect experiential encounter with reality that it becomes possible to have a somewhat more accurate experiential encounter, which in turn forces a further modification, etc.

The result is the development of our belief systems through fits and starts, with cultural conventions warring against experiences that don’t fit naturally with those conventions. Often, when we step back and look at a history of change within a culture’s worldviews, we can see a trajectory, one which may actually tell us something about the character of the reality that is impressing itself persistently upon a resistant human psyche.

The progressive Christian tends to look at the Bible as just such a record of evolving ideas about God within a broad cultural tradition. On such an interpretation, an inerrantist approach is going to be viewed as an impediment to getting at the lessons of the text. If every claim about God is taken to be a perfectly accurate description of the divine, then the reader will suppose there is no trajectory of development to look for. In the resultant picture of God, every culturally inherited prejudice will have to be accommodated along with the insights derived from God’s efforts at self-disclosure. Instead of seeing earlier biblical images of God as stages in a process of fuller and truer understandings of the divine, the biblical inerrantist has to adopt a picture of God in which these earlier ideas about God are fully accommodated along with the later ones, resulting (perhaps) in an absurd mishmash of opposing characteristics.

It would be as if a student of science found a collection of historically important science writings from the seventeenth century on, and decided that the writings of the earliest scientists had the same authority as later ones, and so insisted that our view of nature must fully accommodate everything said by every scientist in the book.

More significantly, if we follow the progressive Christian view here, seeing the Bible as recording a rich assortment of evolving ideas about the divine over time, we are likely to be led to the following conclusion: the process of refining our understanding of God probably didn't end in biblical times. The journey is an ongoing one, a journey in which each succeeding generation participates.

If so, we need to ask how we can make the most progress in this ongoing journey of discovery. It seems clear, with respect to this question, that we do not make the most progress by disdaining what we inherit and throwing it out, nor by treating what we inherit as an infallible treasure to be protected from all criticism. We make the most progress when we revere the progress made by generations past, receive what they pass on to us with respect, and then honor their legacy by building off of that inheritance—by critiquing it fairly and honestly in the light of our own experiences (recognizing all the while that those experiences are fallible).

The progressive Christian view of the Bible, in short, treats the Bible as a resource of seminal writings in an evolving tradition through which God is still revealing Himself. As such, progressive Christians obviously approach the Bible very differently than do inerrantist; but they also approach it very differently than do secular scholars, insofar as they treat the Bible as offering a seminal testimony to a divine reality that transcends our finite human understanding. Reading the Bible is thus not primarily about learning about what ancient peoples believed. It's primarily about participating in a journey in which the aim is a deeper connection with God.

Progressive Christian are, however, also characterized by their allegiance to Christ. And that makes the Biblical witness especially important. Insofar as Christians believe that God effected His most profound revelatory act in history through Jesus of Nazareth, the earliest stories about that revelation (the Gospels), and the earliest theological reflections on its significance (the epistles), have a profound kind of significance. There is reason to suppose that it is still in and through our encounter with this central revelation that the greatest progress in our understanding of God will come. But for the progressive Christian, the questions, "What precisely happened?" and "What does it mean?" are questions that were not necessarily answered perfectly by the biblical writers.

But this is not to say that what the biblical writers had to say was so much chopped liver. A source can be authoritative without being inerrant--as is the case with our senses, a point I made in the first post in this series. But there's another point to be made here: in a way, the progressive Christian's willingness to question the perfect accuracy of the biblical account of Jesus' story reflects the seriousness with which they take the resurrection story.

Above all else, the resurrection means that Jesus is someone with whom we can have an experiential relationship now, today. We, today, can become His disciples every bit as much as those who followed Him two thousand years ago--not just in the sense of following His recorded teachings, but in the sense of sitting at His feet and experiencing His love. And so our understanding of Christ is not wholly dependent on the mediated reports of the biblical writers. Those reports--themselves mostly second-hand reports by those who had become Jesus' disciples after His death--are important for orienting us, by introducing us to the seminal story around which Christianity was born.

But the empty tomb (the dramatic ending to Mark's Gospel) tells us that the story isn't finished. We can become a part of it, with our own experiences to share. And as a community of would-be disciples, we can learn from each other as well as from the disciples who lived long ago.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Podcast Interview Now Posted at Homebrewed Christianity

For those interested, "Homebrewed Christianity" recently interviewed me about my book. You can listen to a podcast interview here.

A Few Thoughts Concerning Naturalism: Five Sketches

A Partial Response to Burk Braun

While I am almost done with the next post in my series on biblical inerrancy, I spent the last hour writing up my thoughts on another issue, which I share here. Recently, I have pursued an exchange with Burk Braun concerning naturalism. In response to my partial defense of Goetz and Taliaferro’s NATURALISM , Burk offered a lengthy post of his own.

One of the points he makes—accusing G&T of making use of rather impenetrable technical philosophical language and ideas—I will not contest. What I will say is that their book reads as if it were aimed at an audience of fellow philosophers for the purpose of trying to dislodge the naturalistic presuppositions that prevail in so much of the philosophical community today, or at least to spark a discussion with naturalistic philosophers. Prior to the recent atheist literary wave, I suspect G&T would have been right to assume that virtually no one but philosophers would read their book.

The other dimensions of Burk’s post amount to a defense of naturalism, largely by appealing to the dangerous free-for-all that he thinks results if one has beliefs that aren’t subject to the testing ground of empirical evidence.

There is no way I can address the substance of his post adequately in a brief post of my own, and I don’t have time to address it fully at present in any event. But what I want to do here is enumerate and briefly sketch out some of the thoughts I would like to take up fully at some later point, perhaps on my own blog when I’m finished with my series critiquing biblical inerrancy (although I may, depending on the “personality” of the post, submit it to Religion Dispatches instead).

1. The terms “naturalism” and “supernaturalism” are probably not the most helpful, because they have become so loaded and are used in so many different ways. Stipulative definitions become necessary to avoid talking past one another. So let us contrast two theses. First, there is the thesis that once we have offered an exhaustive account of the content of empirical experience (an account that proceeds on the assumption that such experience is veridical), we have fully characterized reality. Second, there is the thesis which is the negation of this, and as such affirms the reality of the transcendent (“that which transcends what we encounter in empirical experience”). I call the former thesis “naturalism” and the latter “supernaturalism.” Empirical experience as such can speak to neither thesis.

2. It is simply not the case that belief formation relative to the transcendent is cut loose from anything to which it might be accountable (other than the laws of logical consistency—a qualification of Burk’s claim that I’m sure he’ll accede to). This would follow were empirical experience the only kind of human experience. But it is not. There is also moral experience, aesthetic experience, mystical religious/spiritual experience, and the immediate consciousness of oneself as a subject of experience and as an agent.

3. The most popular form of naturalism today extends a preferential bias to empirical experience. It begins with the assumption that only experience of this sort is veridical (that is, it assumes that only experience of this sort connects the subject to a reality “out there,” tracking it in such a way that one can learn about that reality through the kind of careful examination of the content of the experience that scientists engage in). It then constructs an account of reality on the basis of this kind of experience alone. And when other kinds of experience, were they to be treated as veridical, would require one to posit orders of reality transcending this “naturalistic” account, naturalism explains away these other experiences as epiphenomenal by-products of entities whose reality is endorsed by the naturalist metaphysics (e.g., the brain).

Hence, for example, my immediate sense of my daughter’s intrinsic value is not treated as an experience of something real “out there.” Since there is nothing in the naturalistic account of reality that corresponds to “intrinsic value,” the experience I am having is explained away as nothing but an inner psychological phenomenon, a product of brain activity whose neural subroutines probably evolved because of their role in promoting reproductive fitness.

All of this can be done, of course. But the adequacy of the resultant worldview is likely to be exaggerated if the focus of one’s attention is the world of empirical experience (for which it works very well, for obvious reasons). The inadequacies of the resultant worldview come into focus if and only if one ceases to prioritize empirical experience in an ad hoc way and focuses on other kinds of experience (moral experience, religious/spiritual experience, subjective experience of self as subject and agent), taking seriously the possibility that they might be veridical, too. Taking these other modes of experience seriously in this way does not require one not to take empirical experience seriously. But if one takes all modes of experience seriously without, ab initio, extending preferential favoritism to one of them, it will no longer be obvious that materialistic worldviews offer the best fit with our experience. The quick and unexamined line that Burk draws between “outer reality” and “psychological reality,” between what is going on out there in the world and what is only going on in our heads, is not nearly so easy to draw in an uncontestable and presuppositionless way.

4. Burk seems to have no clear understanding of the conceptual distinction between a belief about that which transcends the empirical world and a superstition, as is evidenced by his example of Peter Pan pushing around tectonic plates. I refer readers to chapter 4 of my book, including a careful reading of footnote #2, for a fuller discussion of this issue. In effect, beliefs of this sort reveal an unwillingness to allow empirical beliefs to be subject to the constraints of empirical observation. I share Burk's disapproval of that tendency. But this tells us little about whether there can be intellectual constraints on belief formation with respect to the transcendent.

5. It is simply not the case that contemporary science has left Aristotelian metaphysics or other older metaphysics in the figurative dust as useless relics of the past. The reductive materialist metaphysics that dominates in so much of the sciences faces, among other problems, a crucial difficulty when it comes to avoiding an infinite regress of reductionistic explanations—a difficulty that arises whenever it is presupposed that the properties of a thing are given by the spatio-temporal arrangement and interaction of its parts. A neo-Aristotelian metaphysics of natures can be helpful in ending the regress. In effect, unless there are entities (“the basic building blocks of the physical world”) that have the properties they have in themselves by virtue of what they are (in some non-reductionistic sense rather than as an emergent consequence of the interactions of their parts), the reductionistic method of explanation is not ever really explaining anything. It is simply shifting the need for explanation down one level, ad infinitum. For this reason, I think, quantum physicists tend to be neo-Aristotelian in their thinking about the most basic particles (even if they remain open to the question of whether the most basic particles have yet been discovered, and so continue to be methodologically reductionistic so as not to exclude this possibility).

This is not to say that such neo-Aristotelianism is without difficulty. There is no metaphysics yet devised that is free from legitimate controversy and serious conceptual difficulties. This includes the metaphysical theories favored by naturalists. What distinguishes naturalists of the reductive-materialist school is that they pretend they don’t have a contestable metaphysics. But they do. It is pragmatically impossible to function without one.

The contestable metaphysical view they adopt has been enormously useful for scientific advances in the last two hundred years—a fact which implies that we should not dismiss it when it encounters difficulties. Instead, we should supplement or modify it. I favor a method of synthesis that focuses on what alternative metaphysical approaches are good at doing and why, and then seeks richer and more encompassing metaphysical systems that can incorporate the useful elements of all.

Such a synthesis is going to be impossible if thinkers focus only on one kind of usefulness—usefulness in making reliable predictions in the domain of empirical experience, and creating tools for more effectively achieving our aims within the empirical world—and treating all other metaphysical systems as “completely vacuous” if they do not exhibit this kind of use. There are, after all, other kinds of usefulness: there is usefulness in terms of promoting joy, and usefulness in terms of promoting social harmony, and usefulness in terms of nurturing our capacity for moral goodness in the face of various contrary temptations and drives.

The project I am proposing here, which plays no favorites with respect to which of the different kinds of human experience are to be treated as presumptively veridical, and which plays no favorites with respect to the different ways in which ideas can be useful, is not a project that can be finished in anyone's lifetime. As such, we should all admit that we do not know the fundamental nature of reality. I am deeply bothered by naturalists who operate as if they do, just as I am by religious fundamentalists who operate as if they do.

But for practical purposes we need to make choices among worldviews. While the intellectual project I describe above is being pursued, how should we make such choices? Here, I don't think we will find an approach that necessitates a single choice. We will, instead, encounter parameters that demand logical consistency, conformity with the empirical experience available to us, and a responsiveness to our conscience, but which allow us to follow the deepest longings of our souls.

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.