Dec 6 2008

Epistemology in a teacup

Over the last couple of months I have been writing a series related to the issue of epistemology, the study of knowledge and knowing. Epistemology attempts to answer questions like: “What do we know?”, “How can we know something?”, and of course, “How do we know what we know?” When discussing issues of faith and belief, a common topic of debate between people of faith and people of science, it is important to recognize the various epistemological positions in play. The words “faith,” “belief,” “truth” and “knowledge” often have very different meanings, and as a result the conversations often become meaningless haggling (for example, read nearly any series of 20 or more comments on a blog dealing with science vs religion).

I am writing about epistemology not because I am an expert, but merely because I tend to think about these things. Over the last couple of years I have engaged a number of people in discussions concerning the relationship between science and faith, and have learned a few things along the way (including the above revelation about meaningless haggling…). For what ever reason, a few months ago I came up with the Teacup Model, which so far has proven to be fairly accurate, at least as to how I am seeing the current materialist v non-materialist conversation.

Imagine a coffee table (you can imagine your coffee table, if you’d like).  Upon the coffee table sits a teacup and saucer.  Go ahead, use your imagination.  The teacup represents reality as defined by philosophical materialism, which is essentially that which is material: that which has physical properties and that can be experienced by our 5 senses and which can theoretically be measured.  Nothing outside of the teacup can be detected or measured by scientific or mathematical methods.  To the materialist, therefore, nothing outside of the teacup exists. Those believing in God or some other kind of non-material reality are delusional, as they cannot prove by the methods available within the teacup that anything outside of the teacup exists. This position is, as defined, a self-fulfilling hypothesis.

For the non-materialists, it is fairly obvious that the teacup is not hovering in space, but is resting on a coffee table, and also sits on a saucer. They, in fact, do not stay within the teacup, but move back and forth between the teacup and the saucer.  It is quite obvious to them that the materialists are at the very least, myopic.  So, we now have two conflicting worldviews (or teacup views): one sees only what is in the teacup, the other sees both inside and outside of the teacup. For non-materialists, there are actually a number of different points of reference, depending on where you stand on the continuum of points from the inside of the teacup to the outside- and all the way out to the coffee table. Christian moderns tend to be on the inside of the teacup, but either with a view outside, or simply a belief that what they’ve been told about the outside is true.

This teacup model supports my hypothesis that a modern worldview, i.e. life inside the teacup, is not compatible with true Christianity. As John Loftus says, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.” Although, as I’ve said before, when John says it, he is implying that modernism is both superior and correct. However, I don’t believe either; modernism is a philosophy that works akin to the soil in the path in the parable of the sower, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.” (Matt 13:19)  Spending too much time immersed “in the teacup” – that is, looking at things from solely a modernist, materialist worldview – can result in blindness to things outside of the teacup. The logic that says that only the material is real seems reasonable, because by adopting a materialist, modernist worldview, all other input is discounted. The modernist worldview subjects any input, whether material or spiritual, to a rationalistic system of analysis that is only geared – at best – to deal with the material.  It is, again, a self-fulfilling exercise.

I am not for one moment saying that the teacup doesn’t exist. What I am proposing that a worldview which originates from within the teacup – that is, modernism and materialism – is inherently flawed as well as incompatible with Christianity. A proper worldview must see the teacup in its proper context; as I’ve pointed out in the past, Gödel’s Theorem (that a system cannot be properly comprehended from within the system) seems applicable to philosophical systems as well as to mathematical ones. And as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Why a teacup?  I’m not sure; I don’t typically drink tea. However, if I had proposed a coffee cup, I would have been compelled to empty it.  😉

Oct 6 2008

An atheist who understands the importance of epistemology

This is one of the reasons l like John Loftus:

If I have a focus when it comes to debunking Christianity it is with control beliefs. Control beliefs are those beliefs that control how we view the evidence, and so my critique is generally philosophical and epistemological in nature. I’m interested in how we know what we know. How we view that which we know is the difference that makes all of the difference.

How we each look at the evidence is controlled by certain beliefs of ours. Since this is so, I want to know how to justify those control beliefs themselves. For me it’s all about seeing things differently. It’s not about more and more knowledge. It’s about viewing what we know in a different light. …

How do we decide which approach, which bias, and which set of control beliefs are preferrable when looking at Christianity? That’s the biggest question of them all! Why? Because the set of control beliefs we start with when looking at the Bible is usually the same set we will come away with.

After people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, this is a breath of fresh air.  In fact, if you look back through my posts and comments you’ll see that I’ve been saying the same thing.  Whether you talk about worldviews, paradigms, presuppositions, narratives or control beliefs, the point is this: if you don’t deal with the differences at this level, discussion about topics like the truth of Christianity are pointless. Yet, the majority of discussions and debates stay fixed on the minutia rather than at the “meta” level.  Words don’t even mean the same thing in different belief systems.

However, I still have major disagreements with Loftus on many of his control beliefs, and question whether he’s gone deep enough; perhaps there are presuppositions controlling his control beliefs. John is, without a doubt, a modernist, as he makes the point, “I call our modern ways of thinking the Achilles’ heel of Christianity.”

Here, again, I would tend to agree with Loftus. Modernism as a worldview is at the very least hostile to Christianity; it is a competing and contrasting worldview.  However, as it emerged at least partially from within the Roman Catholic church, it became over time the predominant worldview of the West, including that of the Western church.  Now, not all facets of modernism are necessarily bad; but, as modernism reframed how we look at the evidence, as Loftus talks about, and also redefined evidence itself, a Christianity whose apologetics (itself a modern concept) is framed within modernism is essentially cut off at the knees.

I believe the question of “Does God exist” or “Is Christianity true” can only partially be addressed without addressing the question of whether modernism is an accurate worldview.  While modernism certainly still has its adherents, especially those for whom modernism serves as a necessary foundation, it is generally held that modernism is a failed worldview. Whether it simply implodes or is transformed in a post-modern derivative remains to be seen. In any event I have a hunch that the discussions of the next generation will be quite different from those we have today.

Further into Loftus’ post he lists his control beliefs, which I believe are discussed more fully in his book. What I think John is saying is that essentially in order for him to really challenge Christianity, he needs to bring people completely into a modernist mindset.  As I indicated, I would tend to agree with him. My contention, however, is that to adopt a completely modernist mindset is already to abandon a Christian worldview. For those who try to maintain a set of Christian beliefs within a modernist worldview, I think it is quite easy to draw them away from Christianity. To try to maintain a dual worldview is difficult at best, and often requires some type of loss of intellectual integrity. Others take a compartmentalized view, such as Francis Collins; but this, too, seems like intellectual suicide.

Loftus concludes:

I just don’t see how Christians can refute any of these reasons for starting with a skeptical attitude, since they are all practically undeniable (and even obvious) to modern educated scientifically literate people. How much more is this so when these reasons are all taken together as a whole. So it is no surprise that I look at Christianity with the presumption of skepticism. And it is no surprise that I reject it.

While I think some (or perhaps all) of John’s points are able to be challenged from within modernism, I suspect that the more someone is inclined toward a totally modernist worldview, the more likely they are to find these points convincing.  However, I suspect that the opposite is also true: the more someone’s mind has been transformed (Romans 12:2) away from the “pattern of the world,” the less likely that these arguments will have that impact.  Modernism is but one of several philosophies that has challenged a Biblical worldview, as discussed in my series on Webber, and the current evangelical church has been weakened by more than just modernism.  I also suspect that someone whose worldview has been impacted by other contrary philosophies such as romanticism are more susceptible to challenges as their belief system is already impaired.

I appreciate Loftus’ level of thinking here; where many atheists today refuse to deal with worldview issues or discussions about presuppositions, Loftus appears to understand the importance of recognizing and identifying presuppositions, which is probably why people like Norm Geisler recommend his book. However, as I stated earlier, I don’t think Loftus goes deep enough in identifying presuppositions, which is possibly why he and William Lane Craig seem to talk past each other.

Sep 15 2008

How much should atheists know?

While I am by no means an expert, I do enjoy thinking about epistemological issues.  A few weeks ago, I started writing a series of posts on epistemology, appropriately entitled, “How do you know?”  It’s a theme I haven’t quite exhausted, as I’m not tired of thinking about it yet.  For the last week or so, I’ve been discussing similar issues with a couple of nice atheists over at my friend Mike’s blog. Mike started off the discussion with a post asking, “How much religion do we have to study?”, referring to how much atheists have to know about religion before they can proclaim the non-existence of God.

It’s a valid question, I think.  And, I have 2 answers, at the moment:

  1. None. You can choose not to believe in God at any time, even in a completely uninformed state.
  2. Enough to be intellectually honest.

I’m serious about both answers. Concerning answer #1, I think it is perfectly valid to simply not want to believe in God.  I am not about to tell my friend Mike or the others at his blog that they can’t be atheists. That would be silly. You can be an atheist simply because you don’t want to believe that there’s any type of god who you might need to answer to. In fact, I suspect that’s the type of atheism we usually see.  They’re probably not the ones who join atheist organizations and wear t-shirts with a big scarlet A on them, but they’re out there, quietly not believing in God.

Now, if you’re Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, you’d better have something besides pompous idiotic rantings to back up your position. Even if you’re just some commenter on a blog, you’d better be ready to be intellectually honest and discuss your statements.  I think it’s fair to challenge blanket assertions like, “there’s no evidence for the existence of God.”  Seriously, anyone can say that. For some, it’s possibly the atheist version of “positive confession.” It certainly sounds authoritative, and most of the time, it probably goes unchallenged. But, what does it mean?

This is where the discussion on Mike’s blog ended up, with me asking for definitions of evidence and proof. “No evidence …”  What are they talking about?  What if I were to maintain that there’s no evidence for evolution (like some crazies might do).  Of course there’s evidence.  The question is not whether or not there’s evidence, but whether or not someone accepts the evidence as sufficient enough to conclude that it’s true. Of course, I am using the term in the legal sense, not with any implication that evidence equals proof.  Webster’s first definition for evidence is “an outward sign; indication.”  The 2nd definition is “something that furnishes proof.”

Now, proof is another matter entirely.  Can we ever prove anything?  My contention is that no, we can never really prove anything. We can only provide enough evidence or information for someone to choose to believe something. Belief is always a choice.  Even to believe that 2+2=4 is a choice, to some extent. However, mathematical and logical proofs are probably the only things that we can say are proven, by the respective laws of math and logic.  Every belief represents a decision – a Kierkegaardian leap, as it were – from collected information (including emotions, etc.) to that belief.

If we are to say that something has been proven to us, I think all we are saying is that we have sufficient information in order to make a certain leap to a belief.  What is proof, then, differs from person to person, and from decision to decision. If we are predisposed to not believing in God (for any number of reasons), I think the level of information necessary to believe in God is much higher than that necessary for the same individual to believe in no God. To be fair, the opposite would be true for someone who is more open to a belief in God.  Star Trek‘s Spock is about the only person I can think of who could possibly evaluate every decision equally. Of course, I am oversimplifying a number of things, but that’s the only possible way to deal with the issue in a blog post.

Peter (1 Peter 3:15-16) admonishes Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…”  This is what I try to do, and hopefully do it with gentleness and respect.  All I ask of atheists is that they do the same with respect to their position.

Now, I’d like to see both Christians and atheists better educated in their respective beliefs, as there’s just a whole lot of ignorance going on. But, that’s a subject for another time.

Jul 15 2008

Epistemology: faith and reason

In keeping with my series of posts dealing with epistemology and worldview, BarryA over at Uncommon Descent has – almost as if on cue – written an excellent piece discussing how both Theists and materialists rely on a combination of faith and reason.  He makes a number of points that I had planned on making in upcoming posts, so rather than duplicate efforts, I will direct you over there to read the full article.  I will revisit these points in a future post.  Just to whet your appetite:

Materialist believe that a real world exists outside of themselves and that they have trustworthy perceptions of this real world from their senses. Surprise. Those two beliefs are not based upon any evidence. Materialists hold the beliefs based on pure faith, a frequently unacknowledged faith to be sure, but faith nevertheless.

If we accept the rules of basic logic (which is itself a presupposition), we have to agree that when it comes to accepting either evidence or the methodology for evaluating evidence, we eventually come to a point where we must take a leap to faith (or at least, a leap to presupposition). At this point, the materialist typically calls the philosopher names and walks away.  But, I think the arguments tha BarryA makes are valid; either we must agree that we lack evidence for materialistic presuppositions, or else we must call into question logic itself, at which point modernism and all that comes with it implodes.

Once again, isn’t epistemology fun?