Engaging the spirit, challenging the mind.

Category: Philosophy & Theology

An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments–Faith Edition

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” -Richard Feynman


I happened upon an interesting little book by Ali Almossawi called An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments which is exactly that.  It takes the reader through a series of informal (and one formal) logical fallacies, explains what is wrong with the reasoning used (or lack thereof) and provides a nice little cartoon to go along with each one.  As one would expect from an author so devoted to logical reasoning, it’s fairly clever.  And in the spirit of service to the public good, it’s also free, and can be read online here:  An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments

While reading, I was often aware of the tension that is posited between faith and reason.  To be more precise (which good reasoning requires), I often thought of the attacks upon religious belief lobbied at the devout mainly by those who consider themselves to be secularists or more scientific in their thinking.  I must admit that I could definitely think of fallacies that apply to reasoning by Christians; the “No True Scotsman Argument” very much reminded me of the knots reformed Christians tie themselves in (when apparent believers sin egregiously) due to their belief in eternal security.  It was also implied that political conservatives often use reasoning beset by an Appeal to Fear (for example: “Be aware–if gay people get married, it will completely destroy the institution of marriage”) and an Argument from Consequences (for example: “Implementing additional environmental regulations will make doing business more expensive and inhibit job growth; we maintain that climate change is natural, not man-made.”).  Any of those conclusions could be true, but the argument used does not support the conclusion because relevant evidence is not given to support it.

I found the book at an apropos time, as I had been thinking a lot about a seeming rise in the assumption that religious faith is fundamentally opposed to logical reasoning.  That is not really anything new (though Western society is becoming more secular) but it is sticking out to me more and more because I notice that liberal secularism in the culture is often less logically rigorous in the formation of its ideological beliefs than that of religious doctrine.  (Full disclosure–what I just did there could be considered an informal fallacy because I made a generalization that is not supported by any concrete evidence.  However, I am not asking you to draw any conclusions based on that observation; rather it provides context for understanding where I’m coming from.  You can decide whether my observations match yours.)

The main issue I see with die-hard skeptics is a failure to recognize the difference between logic and epistemology.  Logic is a process that enables one to move from a premise to a valid conclusion.    Epistemology is the study of knowledge, how we know what we know, and perhaps even what evidence is sufficient to induce belief.  Logic deals with conclusions, epistemology with premises.  One can reason logically about a premise that is entirely fabricated.  But a valid reasoning process does not make an untrue premise true; nor can a valid reasoning process assure you that your premise is true.  If you happen to have a false premise, then however airtight your arguments, your conclusion will be logically valid but nevertheless untrue.  When it comes to believing that one’s premise is true, there comes a point at which the nature and amount of evidence sufficient to induce belief is highly subjective.  There are some doubting Thomas’ who cannot believe something they have not physically touched or seen or heard even if plenty of others have said they have touched and seen and heard it.  There are others who have had experiences that they cannot fully or accurately communicate to others.  I know a bible scholar who converted to Christianity from athiesm.  He mentioned during a lecture that many skeptics dismiss personal experience as evidence for religious belief.  But personal experience is empirical.  It is an observation of a phenomenon and it does count as evidence, even if it is not evidence that is sufficient to induce someone who has not had the experience to believe.

Thomas AquinasThe Christian tradition in particular has generally evinced a stringent reasoning process through the Catholic Church.  It would be difficult to read Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and find it anything but doggedly logical.  For every doctrine formulated, every question answered, one can generally find hundreds of pages in tome after tome of explanations, reasoning, history, etc for any given issue or concept.  In Christendom more generally, there remains a highly active intellectual tradition that has been and continues to be populated by brilliant minds.  But for all its reasoning, the Church recognizes that there is an uncaused cause, a premise underpinning its structure of belief that one simply either accepts or rejects.  The athiest’s view that the Big Bang is the uncaused cause (not whether it happened, but whether it is the only beginning) is not something that has been or can be proven, but is essentially an ideological choice.  And from that chosen premise, they reason in a manner that excludes any religious influence.

Beyond that uncaused cause, for Christians, is the question of Jesus of Nazareth whose identity as bodily resurrected Lord and God is explicitly posited by Christianity as its defining belief.  Even though by the standards of historical documentation, it is perfectly reasonable to accept the manuscripts comprising the biblical canon as authentic (and not fabricated in some grand conspiratorial fashion), there are plenty who offer alternate theories of Jesus’ identity–not because they have more evidence to that effect, but because belief in an alternate explanation is easier to grasp psychologically or more neatly fits their ideological preferences.  Like Thomas, though having good reason to believe, they either cannot or will not.  But note, the ability to create a sound theory starting with certain premises and proceeding to a conclusion that flows logically is not proof that one’s premises are themselves true or encompassing enough.  This is where the potential for self-deception on the part of the skeptic and the believer runs high.

Also, Carlos Flores writes a really excellent response to those he calls the “new athiests” that is short, clear, and really worth reading.  It’s called “Strawmen and the God of the Athiestic Philistine.”  You may read it here.

As far as those who are not really skeptics, but more or less secularists or humanists (those who don’t mind religion so long as it doesn’t interfere with what people want to do), I offer the following bad argument examples:

Argument from Consequences & Circular Reasoning: “If we allow prayer in schools or public displays of Christian images, non-Christians will feel alienated; therefore the separation of church and state demands that such things be forbidden”  (Whether or not the concept of separation of church and state requires the prohibition of public prayer and displays of Christian images cannot be determined by how certain people feel about it.  Furthermore, there is an unstated premise in the conclusion that the separation of church and state is, one, a Constitutional concept, and two, forbids feelings of religious alienation.  Neither can be taken for granted.)

Straw Man:  “With all of their talk about morals, you know those Christian conservatives just want to set up a theocracy with the Bible in place of the Constitution!” (Having strong beliefs about what is right and what is wrong does not constitute advocating for a theocracy, and such claims are caricatured versions of certain political views.)

False Dilemma: “Christopher loved science and his Christian upbringing, but he knew deep down he had to choose between his reason and his faith.”  (This dilemma falsely assumes that faith and reason are mutually exclusive.)

Hasty Generalization:  “I’m done with Christians–what a bad lot.  The people I went to church with were so gossipy and mean; and the pastor ran off with the deacon’s wife!”  (An experience in one church or even a dozen does not provide sufficient evidence to make a judgment about all or even most churchgoers, as one has only encountered a very small fraction of the whole.)

Appeal to Ignorance/Argument from Personal Incredulity:  “It’s ridiculous to think that a man rose from the dead.  As what, a zombie?  Surely such a tale is mythical.” (One’s feeling of incredulity toward an assertion does not provide any evidence that that assertion is false.)

No True ScotsmanNo True Scotsman:  Friend 1: No well-educated, reasonable person could allow his life to be dictated by some ancient religious text.  Friend 2:  Hmm…Chris has gone to good schools, has always been smart and level-headed, and he’s very devout in his faith.  Friend 1:  Well obviously, Chris is not truly well-educated nor reasonable.  (In any other context, Friend 1 would have accepted that description of Chris as qualifying as well educated and reasonable.  But when Chris had attributes that didn’t support his assertion, he moved the goal post.  The fallacy of Equivocation is also implicated here.)

Genetic Fallacy:  “The view that masculinity and femininity are natural differences and not socially constructed comes from the same patriarchal belief system that prevented women from voting and having careers.  We need to leave the 19th century behind and become true 21st century women.” (The question of the nature of masculinity and femininity is independent from any belief system, patriarchal or otherwise.)

Guilt by Association:  “Look at the hateful antics of Westboro Baptist Church.  With all of these crazy fundamentalists out there, I really cannot take anything Christians say seriously.”  (Guilt cannot be Assigned to all Christians because of what a particular group of Christians have done (usually independently) and to do so is using faulty logic.)

Appeal to Hypocrisy:  “Christians say that they care about the institution of marriage?  Ha!  Why don’t we talk about all the divorces that happen in churches.”  (The nature or significance of marriage does not depend on whether Christians have upheld that standard.  Also, there is guilt by association being used here, as there are plenty of Christians who are faithful in their marriages, so they would not be being hypocritical to speak about it.)

Appeal to the Bandwagon:  “Legions of young people are leaving their churches and not looking back.  Why would you hold onto something that is so outmoded?”  (People leaving their churches does not provide support for one doing the same.)

I thought it important to share these examples because I think they constitute about 90% of the arguments I hear most often against Christianity and faith in general.  The fact that they are fallacies is telling, as it indicates that people are making judgments based on completely faulty thinking while at the same time often asserting that it is Christians who are anti-reason.  Strange times we live in, indeed.

A note on ad hominem arguments.  While attacking a person’s motives does not address their argument, I do think that discerning motives can be relevant for deciding whether to engage someone in discussion.  The entire point of discourse is to reach greater clarity and truth.  Someone who comes to the argument not interested in either, but who is only attempting to deconstruct, is probably not someone worth spending time debating with, as they will not be willing to admit when you’ve made a sound argument.  There were times in the Gospels when Jesus refused to answer the religious leaders directly because He knew they were only attempting to trap Him.  As I recently heard someone say, “Just because someone invites you to an [argument] doesn’t mean you have to go.”

Why I “Came Home” to Catholicism

I was brought up in Catholicism by way of schooling and an independent decision at age 10 to formally enter the Church.   As a teenager, a desire to grow more deeply in my faith, knowledge, understanding, and fellowship with other believers led me to drift away from Catholic circles.  In the 10 years since then, I’ve been a part of a Southern Baptist church, participated in an Orthodox parish, was received into the Anglican Communion, became a postulant to the Episcopal priesthood, ultimately left and fellowshiped in Pentecostal circles (picking up the gift of tongues and a strong understanding of demonic deliverance) as well as very small corners of Protestantism, until I was recently led to reconcile myself to the Catholic Church.

I have pages and pages that I have written detailing my spiritual journey, and the thoughts and experiences that ultimately led me to return.  Each item on the list could be the length of a book chapter.  I wouldn’t say that the list is in order of importance necessarily–all the reasons ultimately created a critical mass of assurance that it was time for me to pack up and head home.

1)    I ultimately concluded that I could trust the Church’s teachings to most effectively lead me into a deeper knowledge of God and a life of obedience and virtue.

2)    After leaving, I only became increasingly more Catholic in reflecting on God, mankind, and the world, despite being out of communion with the Catholic Church.

3)    I believe division in the Body of Christ is inherently scandalous; the interminable fracturing of the Body both burdened and wearied my spirit.

4)   Both the fruit and power of the Spirit have been made manifest in my life through distinctly Catholic concepts and teachings, namely receiving the Sacraments and praying the Rosary.

5)   Increasingly, I began to see a certain light and quality of virtue in the lives of some around me, and *almost* invariably, they were Catholics.

6)   I believe that the prevailing understanding of “sola scriptura” has much more to do with adherence to modern epistemology than with faithfulness to God.

7)   I believe that the prevailing understanding of “sola fide” gives young believers a strong religious ideology, but an incoherent spirituality.

8)   I believe that every believer is following a final authority of some sort, even if it is simply one’s own reason.  I became increasingly skeptical of the idea that I should be the ultimate arbiter of doctrinal truth, regardless of how sound I find my own arguments.

9)   I do not believe it possible that the Lord left His Church without a means to preserve the faith and authoritatively settle questions of doctrine.  The most prevalent mode of preservation of the faith across denominations is to further fragment in response to disagreement; and the most well-known, historically Protestant institutions of learning have by and large dropped the torch.

10)    I became increasingly concerned that most denominations were putting the ball on the hard pastoral questions, even where those questions have serious spiritual implications (e.g., When do divorce and remarriage constitute adultery?)

11)   I believe Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11-15 indicate that the Body of Christ is to be growing in its unity and knowledge, meaning that Christendom should have stronger ties and deeper spiritual insight today than it did 100, 500, 1500 years ago; I believe the Catholic tradition enables the Church to grow without having to continually reinvent the theological wheel.

12)   I came to understand that the emptiness of theological education and spiritual formation in Catholic schools and parishes had a lot more to do with the lack of catechesis after Vatican II than with deficiencies in the Catechism itself.

13)   I realized that even in Scripture, moral defects in leaders did not undermine their authority unless and until God saw fit to dispose of them in judgment (Saul, Eli’s sons, the Pharisees—Matt. 23:1-3).  Peter’s sin, neither before nor after the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, disqualified him either from apostleship or authoring Scripture.

14)   Whenever I was done with the debates and wanted a definitive answer, I would turn to Catholic sources and see them as offering the most coherent explanation and depth of insight, regardless of whether I believed in the Church’s authority.

15)   I refuse to allow my faith to be scandalized by scandal.  As a fellow believer returning to the Church told me, “I can outlive him.  I was baptized before he was a bishop, and I’ll be Catholic longer than he’ll be an $!?%*#&.

Postscript:  I received many blessings in my time away from the Catholic Church.  I fellowshipped, learned, and grew with some wonderful believers.  I would hope that nothing I’ve said suggests otherwise.  Like I mentioned, the fracturing of the Body of Christ was a significant part of my thought process in returning, and I wouldn’t do anything now to intentionally alienate myself from fellow Christians.  It’s time to mend the broken pieces.


The Way of the Lord Jesus by Germain Grisez

The Journey Home with Marcus Grodi

Return to Rome by Francis Beckwith

Thoughts on Inspiration, via Schleirmacher & Barth

Liz Asher Christian Artwork

 “For the word of God is living and active…”

Whenever I feel the need to ground myself spiritually, I often find help the writings of Christians of previous times:  John Wesley, Bunyan, C.S. Lewis, Teresa of Avila.  In particular, Wesley’s journals have always been a source of encouragement and inspiration to me, as Wesley’s single-hearted zeal pours out in abundance from his reflections on his adventurous life.  Wesley’s sermons are good, but his journals are great.  They are not expositions on specific theological questions, but are essentially stories about his relationships and encounters with those around him as he preached the Gospel.

                Perhaps naively, and always feeling slightly guilty, I have often wondered why Christians could not view Wesley’s writings, as well as those of others, as being a little weightier, maybe more authoritative, perhaps a bit more…canonical.  I do not question the wisdom of the leaders of the Church who “closed the book,” so to speak.  But it seems that in some respects the writings and reflections of extra-biblical authors stand on par with biblical writings.  No one, no matter how great, can compete with a book that has been designated “God-breathed”; and yet, why do we recognize the Holy Spirit in the authorship of some works and not in others?  The answer has to be more than that we are sure that what is contained within Scripture is “right,” for many stories—particularly those of the Old Testament—are factually inaccurate or are clearly not suitable for emulation.  And in reading the New Testament, one might ask, “What is the essential difference between Wesley’s journals and the Book of Acts?”  Paul and Wesley are doing similar things.  God calls both to preach the Gospel, and both obey.  Though Paul’s call is undoubtedly more dramatic and convincing than Wesley’s, presuming that Wesley is telling the truth, evidence of mighty acts of God are seen in his account as well as in Luke’s.

                If I turn to the writings of Friedrich Schleirmacher for an answer, I am encouraged in my inclination to stretch the bounds of the canon and of the category of scripture in general.  Contrary to the metaphysically based dogma of institutionalized religions, Schleirmacher finds genuine religious experience in one’s perception of the infinite and the feelings attending that perception (“Second Speech,” On Religion 29).  The true purpose of religion is to connect our finite selves with the infinite.  In this vein, any writing which facilitates this experience, which opens up a window to the infinite, could be called scriptural.  After asking “What is inspiration?” Schleirmacher answers that “It is merely the religious name for freedom.  Every free action that becomes a religious act, every restoration of a religious intuition, every expression of a religious feeling that really communicates itself so that the intuition of the universe is transferred to others, took place upon inspiration” (“Second Speech,” On Religion 49).  So, in Schleirmacher’s thought, if a person is able to communicate the mystic vision to another, he is a priest, and his words are inspired. 

This understanding of inspiration satisfies at least one desire:  the desire to see the writings of those who surely have vision to be given more weight.  It acknowledges that there is a special quality to some writings that goes beyond artistic skill.  At the same time, with respect to Christian experience, this understanding of inspiration is lacking.  In one respect, Wesley’s journals do testify of  his own religious experience.  He speaks of movements of the Spirit and of the presence of God.  Still, his writings are not about that experience as Schleirmacher understands it—a perception of the infinite coupled with feeling.  Wesley no doubt believes in an infinite God, but his narrative is just that—a narrative.  It is about events, not intuitions and feelings, though they may be present.  It would be more accurate to say that Wesley’s journals speak more of encounters than of experiences.  As he preached on hilltops, thunder crashing and lightening flashing about him, those listening to his voice were convicted and cried out to God.  Others suffered, but were made well, by his stern rebuke; and still others had demons cast out of them.  One is reminded of the passage in the Gospels in which John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Messiah, or do we seek another?”  Jesus answers them, “Tell John that the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life.”  Could their question be rephrased to ask, “How do we know that God has visited us, and that you are He?”  Jesus points to the sign of His miracles to answer them, “Yes, God is with you.”  John’s disciples were not seeking a religious experience, they were seeking a Savior—God Himself. 

One might argue that Schleirmacher would accord traditional biblical narratives “inspired” status if they successfully communicated the religious intuition.  But then one must ask whether those narratives actually point to Schleirmacher’s intuition and feeling.  Barth, in “The Strange New World of the Bible” asks, “Is that all?”  Is that all of God and his new world, of the meaning of the Bible, of the content of the contents?” (47).  Barth does not pose the question to Schleirmacher, though the same question could be asked.  In comparison with the dogmatic religious faith from which Schleirmacher distinguishes himself, his mysticism and call to every person to seek after transcendent experiences comes as a relief.  And yet, after reading through the testimonies of others who have “sought the face of God,” one might find that compelling experiences are not limited to the Schleirmachean variety.  In fact, after following a John Wesley for a day, or walking through the world of the Bible, one might well see Schleirmacher’s religious experience as too small.  As Barth writes:

The powerful forces which come to expression in the Bible, the movements of peoples, the battles, and the convulsions which take place before us there, the miracles and revelations which constantly occur there, the immeasurable promises for the future which are unceasingly repeated to us there—do not all these things stand in a rather strange relation to so small a result—if that is really the only result they have?  Is not God—greater than that? (“The Strange New World within the Bible” 47)

Again, Barth’s questions are not posed to Schleirmacher.  But the commonality that Schleirmacher shares with Barth’s intended audience is a type of religious life and expression which makes the active presence of God in history nearly irrelevant.  This a historical characteristic can also be read back into the Bible itself, and which can be seen in the uneasiness with which we approach biblical texts which, if we are honest, show no immediate relevance to the Christian faith.  If we take the emphasis away from religious experience, and also away from doctrinal questions, and simply read the stories, we have a witness to God’s acts and to man’s encounters with Him.  Wesley’s journals share that trait with many biblical narratives.  Both narratives are a witness to the acts of God, and Wesley’s finds its “inspiration” by the presence of the Lord in the events seen there.  If I believe Wesley, then his journals carry the message of the Gospel to me in the same way that the book of Acts does.  I do not believe that everything that Wesley did or said was infallible; but neither does the Church believe that everything done and said by biblical characters is infallible either.  The canon is closed, but the Church ought to be continually pouring out pages and pages of epistles and stories which bear witness to the fact that Christ is alive and well amongst us, and is still encountering the world through the Church, just as He did millennia ago.

Intelligent Design: Not So Unscientific

Teleology Revisited: A Scientific Take of the Question of Design

“From the point of view of a physicist,” writer James Trefil notes, “whenever anything happens in the world, it happens because of the action of some combination of four fundamental forces.”[i]  All of the interactions between matter are governed by these four.  Generally, everyone is familiar with the gravitational and electromagnetic forces.  The other two are the strong force, which holds nuclei together, and the weak force, which governs radioactive decay.  Each of these forces is characterized by its range, and its strength in relation to each type of particle.  These are known as the coupling constants.[ii]  In order to make a point about a concept known as the anthropic principle, scientists often like to perform thought experiments by changing the values of the constants which govern the four fundamental forces.  Trefil comments that “One way of getting to the principle is to play ‘What If’ games with the forces of nature.”[iii]  “For example,” he writes, “if the force of gravity were about 100,000 time [sic] weaker than it is, a good pitcher with a 100 mile-per-hour fastball could propel a baseball fast enough to allow it to escape Earth’s pull and move into space.”[iv]  He continues the thought by saying that by diminishing the gravitational force a bit more, “you could join the baseball just by jumping.”[v]  As interesting as one might find such facts to think about, they are trivial unless viewed in light of their implications on reality.  The fact of the matter is that the constants of nature are incredibly fine-tuned to the existence of the structures and organisms found within our universe.  Lee Smolin comments that “We must understand how it came to be that the parameters that govern the elementary particles and their interactions are tuned and balanced in such a way that a universe of such variety and complexity arises.”[vi]  The fact of our existence is so significant because the chance of the constants of the four fundamental forces having such values as they do, and the probability that we would exist, is one in 10229.   

This terrific number expresses the core issue of the anthropic principle, which is that “the cosmos—against all odds—[is] perfectly tuned for life.”[vii]  It would be one thing if there were a law that required the forces to be as they are.  However, scientists have yet to discover such a Theory of Everything that holds the entire universe in one equation, and thus are left wondering how we just so happened to come into existence.[viii]  What exactly to do with this information and its subsequent questions is precisely what the two basic versions of the anthropic principle attempt to answer.  As quoted by William Lane Craig, John Barrow and Frank Tipler define the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) as the knowledge that “The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable, but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so.”[ix]  Basically, this principle says that if we are observers in the universe (although the observers needn’t be human), then of necessity, we are observing a universe which has characteristics that are conducive to our type of life.  There is a degree of self-selection, as Brandon Carter put it, whenever we look out into the cosmos.[x]  It would be foolish, then, to be particularly surprised by the fact that we observe that our universe is conducive to life—for we are the life-forms within it already. 

The WAP is relatively tame, then, in that it does not offer any explanation, but is “‘just a restatement…of one of the most important and well-established principles of science:  that it is essential to take into account the limitations of one’s measuring apparatus when interpreting one’s observations.’”[xi]  As Barrow explains, “If you are unaware that being an observer in the Universe already limits the type of universe you could expect to observe then you are liable to introduce unnecessary grand principles or unneeded changes to the laws of physics to explain unusual aspects of the Universe.”[xii]  Craig is careful to warn that it would be a mistake to assume from the WAP that no further explanation for the universe need be given, as Barrow and Tipler seem to do.  They emphasize that “the enormous improbability of the evolution of intelligent life in general and Homo sapiens in particular does not mean we should be amazed we exist at all.”[xiii]  They compare it to the absurdity of “Elizabeth II being amazed she is Queen of England.  Even though the probability of a given Briton being monarch is about 10-8 , someone must be.”[xiv]  The error here is one of philosophy rather than of science proper.  For while it follows from the WAP that “We should not be surprised that we do not observe features of the universe which are incompatible with our own existence,” it does not follow that “We should not be surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with [our] existence.”[xv]  Believing the latter would assign more significance to the WAP than it rightly has, and unnecessarily bars any further search for an explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe, contending “that no explanation is needed.”[xvi]  Thus, any attempts at providing one, such as God, would be viewed as gratuitous.[xvii]

There is, however, a version of the anthropic principle which does seek an explanation.  As defined by astrophysicist Brandon Carter, the Strong Anthropic Principle is the assumption ‘that the universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.’”[xviii]  This step, as attested by Barrow and many others, is much more speculative than the WAP.  Thus, the theories are varied and can be creative to the point of seemingly belonging in science fiction rather than textbooks.  And the ideas range from the purely naturalistic to the religious.  In the former camp, there remain scientists who reject the significance of the anthropic principle and who look to the discovery of a law which “dictates the values of those key cosmic numbers,” and will thus perfectly predict the state of the universe, eliminating the need for the anthropic principle.[1]  One scientist says that the anthropic principle is merely “the duct tape of cosmology.  It’s not beautiful or elegant, and it sure…is not going to be permanent.”[2]  Others, however, have embraced the Strong Anthropic Principle as a means to further the debate on intelligent design.  As Kevin Sharpe and Jonathan Walgate write, “Religiously minded persons use the strong anthropic principle to argue that the universe is specifically designed for us to live within.  The remarkable life-supporting properties of the universe could not be coincidences, they say, but are evidence of a divine intention at work:  a divine whose intent was our creation.  For them the universe didn’t just happen, it was built.”[3]   

 It seems somewhat ironic that, in the end, while the religious have been dismissed as intellectually closed and overly mystical in their argument for intelligent design, the issue returns to the question of design anyway.  Of course, there are scientists, such as David Berlinski, who reject the scientifically groundless speculation of their peers.  But everyone has come to recognize that the structure of the cosmos demands an explanation.  It is simply that the question is no longer whether there is a God, but what “God” is responsible.  For Gods can be made of anything and need not refer to the God of Christianity.  Philosopher John Leslie exemplifies this when he admonishes the reader “not to forget that the Many Worlds hypothesis may face serious competition from the God hypothesis,” saying that “God (not necessarily the God of Christianity or of any other religion) is best described as a creative ethical requirement that the universe exist or (which is just to phrase things differently) that God is the world’s Power of Being, i.e., its creative ethical requiredness.”[xix]  When God is removed from a religious context,  Stephen Hawking attempts to avoid the question of a creator, by arguing that “‘Instead of talking about the universe being created, and maybe coming to an end…one should just say:  the universe is.’”[xx]   Berlinski comments that “this is a conclusion to which mystics have always given their assent; but having concluded that the universe just ‘is,’ cosmologists, one might think, would wish to know why it is.  The question that Hawking wishes to evade disappears as a question in physics only to reappear as a question in philosophy; we find ourselves traveling in all the old familiar circles.”[xxi]

[1] Lemonick and Nash 2

[2] Ibid.

[3]            Sharpe, Kevin and Jonathan Walgate. “The Anthropic Principle: Life in the Universe.” Zygon, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Dec. 2002):  927.

[i]            Trefil, James. “Was the Universe destined for life?  Coming to terms with the anthropic principle.” Astronomy. June 1997. 54.

[ii]            Smolin, Lee. “Cosmological Natural Selection.” The Book of the Cosmos. [Cambridge: Perseus, 2000]. 467.

[iii]           Trefil 54

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Smolin 473

[vii]           Lemonick, Michael D. and J. Madeline Nash. “Cosmic Conundrum: The universe seems uncannily well suited to the existence of life.  Could that really be an accident?.” Time. 29 November 2004: 58.

[viii] Ibid.    

[ix] Craig, William Lane. “Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design.”  The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1988):  389-395.

[x] Barrow 162

[xi] Craig 390

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Craig 391

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Craig 392

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Craig 391

[xviii] Barrow 164

[xix]           Leslie, John. “Observership in Cosmology:  The Anthropic Principle.” Mind. New Series, Vol. 92, No. 368 (Oct., 1983): 578.

[xx]            Berlinski, David. “Was There a Big Bang?” The Book of the Cosmos. David Danielson, ed. [Cambridge: Perseus, 2000]. 496.

[xxi] Ibid.

Science Beyond Materialism in Thomas Khun

Gone are the days of Aristotelian physics, when “natural philosophers” believed that more could be read from natural phenomena than the fact of their occurrence.  If any metaphysical truths could be drawn, the physical world was the only place from which to draw them.  Granted, it is probably unfair to say that contemporary science is only concerned with the fact of phenomena.  It would be more accurate to say that they are interested in how these phenomena occur, but within a fairly limited scope.  In an essay on semiotics, author Walker Percy writes that “For most scientists, it seems fair to say, these same wonders, including the behavior of organisms, can be explained as an interaction of elements” (Percy 89).  As an explanation of how something happens, this dyadic approach is a valid as any.  But seeking an explanation for how something occurs is different than seeking to understand the nature of an object. 

One could explain an atomic bomb “objectively” as a chemical reaction, or “subjectively” as an instrument of destruction.  It is not generally thought to be within the purview of science to deal with the latter.  Objectivity has come to mean interpreting objects and events as the end of a series of other events.  And the subjective explanation of things is the responsibility of the humanities, or of philosophers.  In any case, that explanation most certainly would not come from the scientific data.  But to draw such a sharp distinction between what science can tell us and what philosophy can tell us glosses over the deeper claims made by science—those which say that science (“knowledge”) actually defines what we can and cannot truly know.  If science is the term that we use to describe our inquiry into the world, and “scientific truths” are those which express our conclusions about the world, then it makes sense that the limits of scientific inquiriy would also serve as the limits of our knowledge—or at least what we believe to be the limits of our knowledge..   

It is not good enough to say that philosophy can answer those other, “non-scientific” questions if the truths that fall outside of the purview of science will not be accepted as knowledge.  What will happen is that science will preclude anything outside of its borders from being knowable.  And so, science—or at least the philosophy backing it—is inseparable from epistemology.  Historically, one can see a common epistemological trend in both philosophy and science, as one makes way for the other, and that one redoubles the influence of the first.

         The question Kuhn’s Structure answered differently was largely epistemological.  The latent empiricism in the modern scientific community at the time was challenged in Kuhn’s thesis.  One of the criticisms of the empiricist John Locke’s tabula rasa comes from skepticism about our ability to make data intelligible to us without some prior framework in which to place the data, or with which to interpret the data.  What Locke (and Bacon) proposed was that we are able to construct our knowledge of reality solely by taking in raw data about the world around us.  Locke’s stark empiricism has not lasted in large part because, despite the epistemological variation, it is relatively clear that raw data have very little meaning simply in themselves.  This epistemological question is not quite the thesis Kuhn’s Structure attempts to address.  But it does present the problem that gives rise to Kuhn’s thesis.  Scientists deal with facts, but if those facts must constantly be interpreted and given a context, then how do we know that the interpretation or given context is correct? 

            On the tails of this question lies the observation of Kuhn’s Structure.  Kuhn’s thesis was grounded in his rejection of the perspective that historians of science had toward the knowledge gains made by science.  Kuhn saw that these historians viewed scientific discovery as a linear, logical and rational progression from era to era and from theory to theory, in a march toward an increasingly more accurate description of reality.  Old theories were replaced by new ones when scientists found the old theories to falsely describe reality, where a new theory could better acount for it.  From this perspective, the youngest generation is ever on the precipice of a truer account of the world, with the bounding hope that in time, scientists will finally “get reality right.” 

            Historians who approach science in this way can only evaluate the truth claims of previous generations through the lens of the current one.  In which case, not only may it be predetermined that previous generations were in error, but it will also be difficult to uncover the erroneous assumptions of the current one.  In response to the latter point, one might argue that the errors of currently prevailing scientific theories are uncovered when the data show nature to be other than what we thought that it was.  But that is precisely what Kuhn challenged.  He argued for a view of scientific discovery that admitted to the role of underived assumptions in the acceptance of new theories.  More specifically, Kuhn argued that scientific knowledge is attained within a distinct paradigm, or pattern for understanding the universe as a whole.  As scientists make discoveries, they interpret new data in light of their broader understanding of reality.  And this broader perspective on reality that determines whether scientists see particular pieces of evidence as compelling or not.  In his lectures, Steve Goldman speaks to the “collective character” of scientific enquiry.  He gives an example using the astronomer Halton Arp’s hypothesis that the redshift of light does not necessarily indicate motion.  Though Arp collected years of evidence from highly redshifted quasars to back his point, the scientific community labelled him an outsider.  His ideas appeared ridiculous in light of the expanding universe hypothesis; the prevailing paradigm depends on the redshift of light indicating motion.  Because scientists have accepted this paradigm and its latent assumptions, Arp’s evidence is automatically viewed as not compelling.

            According to Kuhn, when information cannot be assimilated into the paradigm, a crisis in the scientific community occurs.  In response to this crisis, scientists must look for new underlying assumptions and a different framework for interpreting data.  As they do this, a paradigm shift occurs which gives us a new “reality.”  For Kuhn, scientists do not simply discover something new about the reality of the current paradigm, but they must completely reconceive that paradigm in order for certain pieces of information to make sense.  And successive paradigms cannot be incorporated into one another in Kuhn’s view.  Being “incommensurable,” we are unable to assimilate knowledge gained in the previous paradigm in the current one. 

            Although some found this assertion to be too strong, the overall thesis of Kuhn’s work was more than supported by his predecessors.  In fact, Steve Goldman goes so far as to say that there was nothing original in Kuhn’s Structure, but that the intellectual climate at the time of its publication most likely provided the impetus for its success (Lecture 17, I.1,4).  For this reason, Kuhn’s Structure serves not only as philosophy of science, but as a sociological tool.  Under Kuhn’s thesis about the incommensurability of paradigms lay his rejection of the assertions of the scientific establishment regarding its knowledge claims.  The traditional method of conducting history of science, which placed the current generation on the cutting edge of “truth,” gave scientists the ability to claim to have the most accurate account of reality.  This could only hold if scientific knowledge were truly universal and unaffected by human perspectives, which Kuhn disbelieved. 

            Others disbelieved as well.  In particular, the immunologist Ludwik Fleck wrote that fundamentally, science can only be conducted and understood as a social activity.  Though an individual may do science in isolation, in order for his discoveries to become general knowledge they must be articulated in a way that can be understood and accepted by the broader scientific community.  Fleck believed that science was practiced by “thought collectives,” a community of scientists who stand in agreement about ideas and values (Lecture 16, III.C.1).  He wrote that unless a person has internalized the thought patterns of the broader scientific community, others will not recognize that person as thinking scientifically.  Again, Harold Arp serves as an example.  Moreover, Fleck attacked the empiricist assumptions underlying traditional beliefs about scientific knowledge.  He argued that, unlike empiricist claims, sensory data is not self-evidently one thing or another.  But, through our active interpretation of that data and through our associations between phenomena, we collectively come to an understanding of reality.  However, the stance that this conception of reality is “true” must be mitigated by the fact that the collective determines the assumptions and the associations, there being nothing in the data itself which demands any particular interpretation.  This means that, while the deductions which flow from certain scientific premises may flow necessarily, the truth of those deductions is contingent upon the truth of the premises, which always remains undetermined.  This contingency is quite similar to the contingency found in Kuhn’s shifiting paradigms.   In his shifting paradigms, data only have a particular meaning within a given paradigm.  If a crisis occurs and new assumptions must be found, then many pieces of the same data will be re-interpreted to mean something different. 

            Furthermore, before both Kuhn and Fleck, other scientists and philosophers had begun to chip away at the prevailing assumptions about the nature of scientific knowledge and progress.  In particular, Henri Poincare asserted that the furthest we can go in perceiving a truly objective reality is to perceive the “internal harmony” of the world through mathematics.  What makes reality objective to us is the common way that we conceptualize and experience it.  Similarly, Percy Bridgman thought that what we call scientific knowledge could not be matched with any independently-existing reality.  Rather, scientific concepts are “the set of operations specified for measuring it” (Lecture 13.III.B,2).  In this line of thought, scientific knowledge is not actually knowledge about nature itself, but is rather a means of intervening in nature.  Neither thinker would have argued that reality itself does not exist, or that scientific concepts are purely constructions of our own minds.  In all of these thinkers, from Poincare to Kuhn, scientists are dealing with “actual” phenomena.  However, the “knowledge” that the scientist has of these phenomena must be seen as dependent upon the community doing science at the time.

            At this point a person studying the history of philosophy would see a number of similarities in the theories mentioned, name in the transition away from epistemological certainty that was begun in Hume, and picked up in Kant. 

            No matter how much these thinkers qualified their departure from tradition, the mainstream intellectual community took it to its extremes, rejoicing at the apparent end of scientific hegemony in the realm of truth.  Where Kuhn still held that “normal science” (science conducted within a given paradigm) was still a valid enterprise, the academic community—particularly the social sciences—viewed Kuhn’s work as a delegitimation of scientific knowledge and the power that it weilded.  Moreover, as others note, Kuhn’s Structure could not be seen to be as radical as many would like since his theory of shifting paradigms does not actually advocate for science to be performed differently, nor did his view of science make the discipline relevant to the public.  In fact, Kuhnian science is isolated from the public because of the requirement that only those who “speak the language” can take part.  The outside is therefore unable to criticize, and insiders can only be hear insofar as they are going along with the prevailing paradigm.[1] 

            As written by scholar Gordon McQuat, Steve Fuller argues that the “Kuhnian analysis of science removed any critical teeth from a field most poised to offer just such a political engagement in the late modern world. It went Kuhnian and internalized.”  This internalization was a boon to “normal science” during a time when that science was being increasingly undermined by government interests.  Again, Fuller argues that “these Kuhnianisms are all classic Cold War insulators for science caught up in political crisis. Science, in a Kuhnian world, could and should chug along, hermetically and happily sealed from both origins and consequences.”[2] 

[1]               McQuat, Gordon. “The Mistaken Gestalt of Science Studies: Steve Fuller Takes on Kuhn.” Canadian Journal of History. Dec. 2001.

[2] Ibid.