Feb 17 2011

New atheism, bad philosophy

If there’s one thing that distinguishes the so-called “New Atheists” from the old atheists, it’s that the New Atheists are notoriously bad at philosophy, something I’ve said before. Edward Feser writes on this topic,

Philosophers and theologians are constantly told that they need to “learn the science” before commenting on quantum mechanics, relativity, or Darwinism.  And rightly so.  Yet too many scientists refuse to “learn the philosophy” before pontificating on the subject.  The results are predictably sophomoric.  What an arrogant and clueless amateur like Hawking or Dawkins needs to hear before putting on his philosopher’s toga is this.  And if he doesn’t get the message, this.  Instead, the reaction from equally clueless editors, journalists, and “educated” general readers is: “Gee, he’s a scientist! He’s good at math and stuff.  He must know what he’s talking about!”  It really is no more intelligent than that.

The new atheists are, for the most part, scientists, or at least adherents to scientism, the thinking that science is the answer to everything. Sam Harris even claims that science is a proper foundation for morality.

Something else that I’ve pointed out before is that science, which is a great tool for studying the physical world, suffers from some philosophical problems, mostly stemming from the so-called Enlightenment. The Enlightenment turned man’s ability to reason into an object of worship, as well as doing some other things for which we are still suffering.

As an example of bad philosophy, the new atheists love to refer to David Hume’s thoughts on miracles, however they ignore his thinking on inductive reasoning and science. Hume argued, I think correctly, that conclusions of causality are inductively, not deductively, reasoned; and he went on to propose that such inductive reasoning is justified by its success (which begs the question, “how does one measure scientific success, unless we have already determined what the desired results are?”).

Hume also concluded, again I think rightly so, that such inductive conclusions are limited to past causes and effects; one cannot predict the future based on past evidence. Predictions about the future are based on faith that the past will repeat itself, not on any proof that A always results in B.

What this means is that just because A has caused B for the last 100 years doesn’t mean that A will cause B tomorrow. Science simply cannot tell us that for sure. If science is at all successful, past evidence of cause and effect should give us, at best, a probability for what could occur in the future. If a certain drug worked for these other folks, it should work for you. Maybe. However, science’s ability to replicate past results is now being challenged.

The Decline Effect

In December of 2010 Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting article for the New Yorker discussing the so-called Decline Effect, which has been noted over the past few years. Basically, what is happening is that conclusions proven by past studies, to the extent they are considered scientific facts, are suddenly showing themselves to be not true. Drugs that worked 10 years ago show no sign of working today. He writes,

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. In the field of medicine, the phenomenon seems extremely widespread, affecting not only antipsychotics but also therapies ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E and antidepressants: Davis has a forthcoming analysis demonstrating that the efficacy of antidepressants has gone down as much as threefold in recent decades.

Lehrer posits that some possible causes of this decline effect is the subjectivity of the scientists (tending to prove things they want to believe), and bias in scientific reporting. Of course, this doesn’t explain why scientists today who want to confirm past findings are suddenly unable to do so, or why the law of gravity doesn’t give predictable results.

How Firm a Foundation…

Regardless of the cause of this decline effect, the reality is that science, at least at the present time, is not able to establish sufficient causation to predict future results, or to even correctly establish past causation. Medical and pharmaceutical beliefs are suspect, as are some of the “facts” of physics.

So, while I still believe that scientific studies have value, it seems that the ability of science to serve as a foundation for morality or religion—or atheism—is quite suspect. The decline effect just re-emphasizes some of the philosophical issues of those who hold science in too high a regard, and who have put their faith in man’s ability to reason and be objective (neither of which can be reasonably shown to be exist). The New Atheism—holding itself out as the pinnacle of reason and objectivity—suffers from bad philosophy, and a resulting misplaced faith in science’s ability to give us answers.

Dec 17 2009

When Skeptics Collide

It seems that skeptics love other skeptics – up until the point such skeptics becomes skeptical of something that other skeptics accept.

Massimo Pigliucci is a skeptic, philosopher (meaning he teaches philosophy), and blogger who occasionally has some interesting things to say, which is why I subscribe to his blog.  Massimo is apparently a fan of James Randi, the well-known debunker of all things mystical.  Today Massimo writes:

James “the Amazing” Randi is an icon of skepticism. The man has done more — over a span of several decades — to further the cause of critical thinking and to expose flimflammery of all sorts than arguably anyone else in the world, ever. That is why I was struck with incredulity and sadness yesterday when I read Randi’s latest take on global warming.

Massimo opines on why James Randi would write such an article (besides the obvious reason that Randi is simply applying his same skeptical eye to the AGW claims that he does to everything else). Randi makes some interesting observations, and Pigliucci tries his best to hand-wave them away.  Which ever side you’re on, or especially if you have no side, it’s interesting reading.

(“Skepticism” poster linked from Xenocrates)

Nov 23 2009

Exploring the Twain 2

In the first post in this series, I introduced my thesis that Western theology is so tainted by a number of influences that did not affect the Eastern Church that the best way to evaluate Western theology is to start at the beginning, exploring where the West diverted from the East. I also proposed that the true “great schism” was a worldview split, and without understanding this aspect we can’t really appreciate the theological issues.

Father Michael Azkoul (an Orthodox Priest) appears to be a contemporary authority on this issue. He writes in a 1994 article:

Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith. Unlike Roman Catholicism, she does not build on the results of philosophy and science. The Church does not seek to reconcile faith and reason. She makes no effort to prove by logic or science what Christ gave His followers to believe. If physics or biology or chemistry or philosophy lends support to the teachings of the Church, she does not refuse them. However, Orthodoxy is not intimidated by man’s intellectual accomplishments. She does not bow to them and change the Christian Faith to make it consistent with the results of human thought and science.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, places a high value on human reason. Its history shows the consequence of that trust. For example, in the Latin Middle Ages, the 13th century, the theologian-philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, joined “Christianity” with the philosophy of Aristotle. From that period til now, the Latins have never wavered in their respect for human wisdom; and it has radically altered the theology, mysteries and institutions of the Christian religion.

This difference of “philosophy of philosophy” explains much of the difference between East and West.  While Eastern scholars will make references to Plato, etc. (as does the Gospel of John with its discussion of the logos), it only borrows concepts as illustrations.  Augustine, who belonged to the Latin side, not the Greek, took a different approach.

Augustine – Saint or Heretic?

Augustine was a Manichaean as well as a neo-Platonist before he was a Christian, and a major focus of his thinking was merging his philosophical ideas with Christianity – ideas which included a continued belief in the eternal forms of Plato as existing alongside God, dualism, and the fallen man.  Augustine, who was largely unknown in the Eastern Church until the 14th Century or so, is the major shaper of Western Christianity, introducing – I’ll even say inventing – concepts like the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man.  His views not only heavily influenced the Roman Catholic Church, but also is the foundation for Reformed theology (Calvinism).

While accepted as a saint by the Orthodox, his ideas are largely rejected by them, with some recent Orthodox scholars taking the position that he was a heretic, and see him (rightly, I believe) as a major cause of the East-West schism.  Of course, the Orthodox don’t consider the Church Fathers to be inerrant, and some are more inerrant than others.  Augustine is seen as being in the “more” category.

What this means is, of course, that many of the doctrines and concepts that we take for granted, such as original sin, inherited guilt, total depravity, penal atonement, dualism, a Roman judicial interpretation of justification, and the concept of the “angry God” do not exist in the early church or in the Eastern church.  Furthermore many of these concepts are not Biblical or derived from Apostolic tradition, but began as philosophical beliefs that Augustine felt needed to be reconciled with Christianity.

Aquinas to Ockham to Luther

Thus began a Western tradition of basing theology on philosophy.  Subsequent to Augustine was Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle instead of Plato.  Aquinas’ shift away from Plato caused a bit of strife in the Roman church, but eventually the majority of the church adopted his rationalistic approach. While Thomas still believed in a God limited by the eternal forms, he further altered Christian thought by basing all revelation on our 5 senses.

It wasn’t until William of Ockham (or Occam) – one of my heroes – that we got rid of the eternal forms, and finally back to a Biblical concept of God who actually had free will, who was not limited by some external ideals of “good,” “just,” and so on.   This is what Occam’s Razer was all about, but that’s another topic.  It was this school of thought – away from the limitations of Plato and Aristotle, and Augustine – that provided the backdrop for Martin Luther’s theology.  As I stated in my prior post, Luther also saw the error of basing theology on reason.   Luther also saw the error of Augustine’s concept of the angry God, instead finding that the Bible taught a loving God.  While Luther inherited much from Augustine – as did everyone – his theology was a major correction in a number of areas, and is probably the closest to the Eastern church than any other major Western theologian, even teaching the concept of theosis.  Calvin, however, is another story, and I’ll get to him soon.


We now have a Western church tradition that has been tossed to and fro by every wind of philosophy.  Meanwhile, back East, nothing has changed.  They’ve had 7 major church councils to deal with some issues, but essentially nothing’s changed.  No new theories about the nature of God, no new theories about justification, and no need for a reformation.

My original question was, how can we find a pure expression of Christianity that is unaltered by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine or the Enlightenment?  Especially after Descartes, in the west, we’re pretty much toast.  Our worldview – our entire context for understanding the Bible and early church teaching – has been hijacked not once, but several times.  In this context, it seems that to even try to discuss evangelical theology is pretty much a bust.  Even if the church is semper reformanda (always reforming), it’s reforming into what? To the 1800’s?  The Reformation?  Augustine?  It seems to me that the only way to evaluate theology is to compare it to that of the Eastern Church; even if you don’t accept that as “true,” you have to admit it is the only theology free from all of the Western baggage.

Again, I’m still a rationalist.  But, God does call for us to think, just not to let our ability to understand control our belief.

NOTE:  A friend on Facebook questioned my comment, “I’m still a rationalist.”  It was a poor choice of words, or at least not adequately explained.  What I meant was that I’ve been steeped in Western rationalism, and still naturally think like a rationalist.  However, I am not a rationalist in the sense that I don’t limit my ability to believe on my – or someone else’s – ability to understand or explain something.

Nov 18 2009

Exploring the Twain

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”  – Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-room Ballads

Years ago, I got to know a Greek Orthodox Priest (who was, in fact, from Greece) who tried to explain to me the difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches; to me, both the RCC and the EO were quite similar.  However, to him, the RCC was closer to evangelicalism than it was to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I didn’t quite understand it then.  Now, 30 years later, I find myself considering the issue once again.  This time, however, I am beginning to understand.  Besides reading some Orthodox theology, I’ve also been trying to catch up on 1500 years of Western theology by reading summaries of the major theologians, and I’ve been listening to a great series from The Teaching Company called Philosophy and Religion in the West by Phillip Cary.

Western theology: Fundamentally Flawed?

As I learn more about the history of Western theology, I am finding I have more and more problems with the theological and philosophical direction taken by the Western theologians (as I have dealt with a bit in my Webber series and elsewhere).  In fact, I am finding that it is fundamentally flawed, and that it is very, very difficult to filter out potentially errant presuppositions, as I am so saturated in them I don’t even recognize them.  Such is the problem of worldviews.  My theory, then, is that by understanding the differences between East and West, I may be more able to find a more pure theology.  Even writing this, however, I am aware that this is a purely Western approach to the problem; but, I have to accept that I am rooted in the West, even while I look to the East.

Understanding the Schism: A little history

Even trying to understand the Great Schism, as the split between the Eastern and Western church is known, is difficult.  I have decided that the best way to approach it is by favoring the Eastern interpretation, while not ignoring the Western; reading Western points of view merely tends to reinforce the problem.  However, both sides do point to a number of political, cultural, philosophical and theological issues that contributed to the Schism.  Constantine perhaps set the stage for the split by establishing a 2nd capital city in Constantinople. This, I think, made it easier for the Eastern Church to eventually ignore Rome.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, of course, is  a major factor.  Many people are perhaps unaware that in the East, the Roman (Byzantine) Empire lasted for about 1,000 years, which contributed to more stability in the Eastern church.  The Roman Bishop (Pope), with Europe in chaos, turned to the Franks (Charlemagne) for support (which led to other problems). Besides these political differences, there was a language barrier, with the East speaking Greek and the West speaking Latin, and both churches insisting the other should convert.

Eventually, as we know, the Pope took on a quasi-political role in Europe.  While this did have a stabilizing effect on the region, it didn’t do the church any favors.  Soon the Pope was considered to be the highest source of spiritual authority in the West; the Eastern church, however, maintained a flatter church structure with a plurality of leadership among the patriarchs.  Today the Ecumenical Patriarch is still considered “first among equals” in the Eastern church.

The issues between East and West grew over several hundred years.  Possibly the biggest factor in the increasing schism was the role Charlemagne played in the late 8th and early 9th Centuries.  At this time what is known as the “Filioque Clause” was being added to the Nicene Creed in various places in the Western church.  The clause changes the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Trinity, adding that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father “and the Son.”  While debated even in the West (Pope Leo III disagreed with the addition), it was Charlemagne who adopted it and subsequently accused the Eastern Church of heresy for failure to use it. Charlemagne had no authority in the East, and I suspect he thought that he could use the Church to extend his political clout.

The final straw came in 1054 with the Roman church “excommunicating” the entire Eastern church.  The Eastern church to my knowledge never officially broke ties with the West (although they finally realized that the Roman Church had, by their own actions, left Orthodoxy). Relations, however, got even worse when the Romans sacked Constantinople on the Fourth Crusade in 1204.  As one could expect, things have never been the same.

Theological Aspects of the Schism

While these issues are important in understanding the Schism, I’d like to focus on the philosophical and theological differences.  Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an evangelical-turned-Orthodox theologian, writes this concerning the theological split:

In the early Church there had been unity in the faith, but a diversity of theological schools. From the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their own way. At the risk of some oversimplification, it can be said that the Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative; Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law, while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worship and in the light of the Holy Liturgy. When thinking about the Trinity, Latins started with the unity of the Godhead, Greeks with the threeness of the persons; when reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the Victim, Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of deification; and so on. Like the schools of Antioch and Alexandria within the east, these two distinctive approaches were not in themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and each had its place in the fullness of Catholic tradition. But now that the two sides were becoming strangers to one another – with no political and little cultural unity, with no common language – there was a danger that each side would follow its own approach in isolation and push it to extremes, forgetting the value in the other point of view.

Ware, I think, does a pretty even-handed job in his analysis, and also points out in this chapter that while the contributing causes to the Schism were many, it was really the theological differences that divided the church, and which still divide it today.  The 2 primary issues that he sees are Papal authority, and the Filioque Clause. However, the issues he mentions above show a more fundamental difference which, I think, resulted in more than just a church schism; what developed seems to be more of a philosophical or worldview schism, which I will discuss in my next post.