Science and “I”

I’m currently reading Roger Scruton’s “The Soul of the World“, which is a typically articulate and, at times, entertaining demonstration of how a reductionist and materialist explanation of the world cannot account for intuitively necessary elements of existence, such as personality, relationships, moral intuitions, beauty, and so on. While not arguing for a purely subjective existence, Scruton argues that Science cannot explain to me who I am without destroying that which I consider most important in any full account of who I am, let alone explaining where I am.

‘”I” is an indexical term, like “here” and “now” … Although there is a sense in which I cannot mistakenly identify the place where I am as here, and the time at which I am speaking as now, I have no special privilege as to what is going on here and now, other than those privileges that depend on my use of “I”. On the other hand, it is clear that there is no place for indexical terms in science, and that, just as a unified science must replace all reference to “here” and “now” with positions identified in four-dimensional space, so must it drop the use of “I”. As Thomas Nagel has pointed out [1], however, this leads to a singular puzzle concerning the relation of the world, which identifies all the particles and fields of force, all the laws of motion that govern their changes, and which gives a complete identification of the positions of everything at some given time. But, however complete this description might be, there is one fact that it does not mention and which is, for me, the most important fact there is, namely, which of the objects in this world am I? Where am I, in the world of unified science? The identification of any object in the first-person case is ruled out by the enterprise of scientific explanation. So science cannot tell me who I am, let alone where, when or how.’

Scruton, The Soul of the World (Princeton, 2014), p31

[1] Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (OUP, 1986)

The religion of materialism

From Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (Kindle edition), Location 363-387:

…the so-called “war between science and religion” is really a war between two rival philosophical worldviews, and not at bottom a scientific or theological dispute at all. Occasionally you’ll find a secularist who admits as much. Nagel is one example [See this post].  Another is biologist Richard Lewontin [See this post] … Similarly, physicist Paul Davis tell us that “science takes as its starting point the assumption that life wasn’t made by a god or a supernatural being,” and acknowledges that, partially out of fear of “open[ing] the door to religious fundamentalists … many investigators feel uneasy about stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they freely admit that they are baffled.” [1] Among prominent contemporary philosophers, Tyler Burge opines that “materialism is not established, or even clearly supported, by science” and that its hold over his peers is analogous to that of a “political or religious ideology”[2]; John Searle tells us that “materialism is the religion of our time,” that “like more traditional religions, it is accepted without question and … provides the framework within which other questions can be posed, addressed, and answered,” and that “materialists are convinced, with a quasi-religious faith, that their view must be right” [3]; and William Lycan admits, in what he himself calls “an uncharacteristic exercise in intellectual honesty,” that the arguments for materialism are no better than the arguments against it, that his “own faith in materialism is based on science-worship,” and that “we also always hold our opponents to higher standards of argumentation than we obey ourselves.” [4]

Feser’s footnotes:

[1] Paul Davis, The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life (Simon and Schuster, 1999), pp. 17-18, emphasis added.
[2] Tyler Burge, “Mind-Body Causation and Explanatory Practice,” in John Heil and Alfred Mele, eds., Mental Causation (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 117.
[3] John R. Searle, Mind: A Brief Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 48.
[4] William G. Lycan, “Giving Dualism Its Due,” a paper presented at the 2007 Australasian Association of Philosophy conference at the University of New England. The draft is available on Lycan’s website.

The cosmic authority problem

Edward Feser in his book The Last Superstition (Location 321-332, Kindle edition) quotes Thomas Nagel (Professor of Philosophy and Law at NYU) who believes that a “fear of religion” is not merely subjectively felt by secularist intellectuals but that it often underlies their work, leading to “large and often pernicious consequences for modern intellectual life” (Nagel’s words). Nagel confesses:

I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind.[1]

Feser comments:

…as the philosophy C.F.J. Martin has pointed out, the element of divine punishment – traditionally understood in the monotheistic religions as a sentence of eternal damnation in Hell – shows that atheism is hardly less plausibly motivated by wishful thinking than theism is. For while it is hard to understand why someone would want to believe that he is in danger of everlasting hellfire, it is not at all hard to see why one would desperately want not to believe this. [2]

[1] Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 130-131
[2] see C.F.J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations (Edinburgh University Press, 1997), pp. 98-99.

The material element and the spiritual reality

As both my readers may have observed from recent posts, I’ve read Bradley G. Green’s The Gospel and the Mind. This book is a clear, interesting and persuasive book that argues that it is only the Christian worldview that provides a basis for meaningful rationality and that Christianity, correctly understood, fosters the life of the mind rather than discouraging it. It is basic enough for the uninitiated to read yet delves deep enough to keep the more philosophically-inclined believer interested. Before I move on to the next book in my reading list (yet to be decided), I thought I would summarise one of the more striking points that Green makes.

Biblical truth often uses allegory and metaphor in order to express invisible and, in some ways, unthinkable realities. God is the creator of the material that is used as analogy to describe his spiritual realities. Lewis said there is a “pre-existing similitude between the material element and the spiritual reality.” One of the most obvious examples, and the one that Lewis addresses, is that of baptism. He says, “Water, ex naturali qualitate, was an image of the grace of the Holy Ghost even before the sacrament of baptism was ordained.” (The Allegory of Love, 46). Bradley Green points out that, if this similitude is genuine, then it seems that “this relationship is embedded in the very structure of reality, the structure of the created order… When Lewis avers that some words are more fitting than others in reference to the created order, he is echoing Augustine’s suggestion that God has structured the world in such a way that the various aspects of creation might serve as “examples” for us.” (The Gospel and The Mind, p128). As Augustine put it:

Divine providence has carefully provided certain trees which visibly exemplify these invisible realities which are incredible for those without faith, but are nonetheless true. After all, why should we not believe that this was the reason why he arranged it so that a wild olive is born of a domesticated one? Ought we not to believe that in something created for human use the creator provided and arranged what might serve as an example of the human race?” (Marriage and Desire, 19:21)

Television, images and thinking

What is wrong with television? It is not primarily that it shortens attention spans, though it certainly does that. Nor is it chiefly that television glorifies violence and hypes immorality, though it does that too. The chief problem with television is that, for those who watch it consistently, it undermines and eventually destroys the ability to think. This is because it communicates primarily by images, not by words, and words are necessary if we are to perceive logical connections and make judgments as to what is right and what is wrong. An image cannot be true or false. Images just are. Although images can tell a story or establish a mood, they cannot make an argument.

Kenneth A. Myers, founder and editor of the Mars Hill Audio Tapes, has written a book titled All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes in which he demonstrates the limits and failures of television by showing how the medium is unable to communicate even the simplest propositional sentences. He suggests these seven sentences as a test:

1. The cat is on the mat.
2. The cat is not on the mat.
3. The cat was on the mat.
4. The cat likes to be on the mat.
5. The cat should not be on the mat.
6. Get off the mat, cat!
7. If the cat doesn’t get off the mat, I shall kick it.

There is nothing complex about these sentences. They progress from…

1. a plain factual statement, to
2. a parallel negative statement,
3. a statement about the past,
4. a statement of desire,
5. a statement of right verses wrong,
6. an imperative,
7. and a final statement projecting a future hypothetical condition.

We use statements such as these all the time. But as Myers points out, only the first could be presented visually, and even then with uncertainty. We might show a picture of a cat on a mat, but depending on how interesting the cat was, we might react to the cat alone and not notice the mat or the fact that the cat is “on” it at all. Indeed, as Myers says, even the simple verb “is” would probably be missing in any description we might give. We would not tend to say that the cat “is” anything.

And it gets harder after that. How would you “image” the negative statement (statement 2)? Would a cat next to a mat do it? Or a picture of a cat on a mat followed by a picture of a cat next to a mat? We might react to pictures like those by saying, “The cat moved off the mat”, since images, especially in television or in movies, suggest motion. But the simple negative- “the cat is not on the mat”- would probably escape us.

It is even more impossible to convey desire (”the cat likes to be on the mat”) or a condition that should not be (”the cat should not be on the mat”) or an imperative (”get off the mat, cat!”) or a future hypothetical condition (”if the cat doesn’t get off the mat, I shall kick it”). Myers says, “Television discourages reflection, tells us what we already know, relies on instant accessibility, reminds us of something else, and reflects the desires of the self.” But it does not develop great minds. Instead it is forming people who are incapable of any meaningful thought about anything, especially the claims of Christianity…

When we read something that requires us to think, there is distance between ourselves and the printed page. We are not necessarily swept along by the words. We can analyze, ponder, weigh, compare, contrast, and disagree. We can reread a paragraph if we do not understand the argument. We may look up vocabulary we do not know. We may challenge the conclusions. Because there is a distance between ourselves and the written words, we do not cheer a well-written sentence or applaud a powerful paragraph, though we may appreciate how well the work is done. Written words promote thinking. Moreover, the better people read and the more they read, the better and longer they can think…

What does television give us? It gives us entertainment, amusement, or diversion. We should remember that “amuse” is composed of two words: “a”, meaning “not” (the negative), and “muse”, meaning “to think.” In other words, television is not only mindless; it is teaching us to be mindless too.

James Mongomery Boice, Whatever happened to the Gospel of Grace?, p 52-54.

Logical Positivism and A. J. Ayer are dead

Logical Positivism died a long time ago. I don’t think much of Language, Truth and Logic is true. I think it is full of mistakes. I think it was an important book in its time because it had a kind of cathartic effect. It swept away a lot of rubbish and excited people and to a certain extent it gave a new direction to philosophy. But when you get down to detail, I think it’s full of mistakes which I spent the last fifty years correcting or trying to correct.

A. J. Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic, in Roy Abraham Varghese (ed.), Great Thinkers on Great Questions, p49.

Clearly Ayer’s rejection of Logical Positivism occurred well before his experience of “death” for the first time in 1988 (he died properly in 1989). Regardless, his account of this strange episode confirms his view that “God does not exist” is indeed a meaningful statement:

My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.

God: the principium essendi of knowledge

After Van Til’s brief discussion of Idealism, in his Introduction to Systematic Theology, he moves on to discuss the principium essendi of knowledge (p. 29). Van Til claims that all of our knowledge has its origin and foundation in God. The self-consciousness of God is necessary for us to know anything of Him. Indeed, our knowledge of any thing at all depends ultimately upon God’s own knowledge of that thing.

God’s knowledge of creation is archetypal in that His knowledge of things encompasses their essence as well as all their relations to other things. Since the works of creation are products of his own determination and will, the knowledge of God is immediate and He does not require discursive thought to infer or deduce new knowledge. His knowledge is comprehensive and perfect. All of God’s knowledge is present to His consciousness at the same time.

God’s knowledge of Himself is similarly comprehensive. God has no sub-consciousness, but is perfectly and completely self-conscious.  He knows transparently and exhaustively His own reasons and purposes for acting, both amongst the members of the Godhead and in His dealings with His creatures.  There is nothing in the being or acts of God that are not fully comprehended by Him.

It is this self-conscious knowing of God that allows man to obtain knowledge of Him. As Berkhof says:

 “It is impossible to deduce a conscious creature from an unconscious God, a creature that knows God from a God that does not know Himself. We can find the principium of our theology only in a personal God, perfect in self-consciousness, as He freely, consciously, and truly reveals Himself.”

In other words, a self-conscious act of self-revelation of God is required for us to know Him. He actively reveals Himself, rather than passively allowing Himself to be discovered and observed by His creatures. This is why Berkhof follows Bavinck by asserting that “Pantheism [ie a god that lacks self-consciousness) is the death of theology”. A being that is not a self-conscious being cannot be a self-revealing being. Bavinck states that God “is knowable only because and insofar as he himself wants to be known.”

What is a Cow?

“Suppose that I am a scientist investigating the life and ways of a cow. What is this cow? I say it is an animal. But that only pushes the question back. What is an animal? To answer that question I must know what life is. But again, to know what life is I must know how it is related to the inorganic world. And so I may and must continue till I reach the borders of the universe. And even when I have reached the borders of the universe, I do not yet know what the cow is. Complete knowledge of what a cow is can be had only by an absolute intelligence, i.e., by one who has, so to speak, the blueprint of the whole universe. But it does not follow from this that the knowledge of the cow that I have is not true as far as it goes. It is true if it corresponds to the knowledge that God has of the cow.”

From Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology. Quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (1998), p168. Emphasis added.

Van Til and the Idealism of Bosanquet

After some initial comments on the method of systematic theology, Van Til then moves on to address the views of some prominent British Idealists, particularly those of Bernard Bosanquet (Introduction to Systematic Theology (2007), p27-28).

Unfortunately, Van Til’s comments at this point are brief and lack sufficient detail for those unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism to fully appreciate Van Til’s point. Even William Edgar’s normally excellent footnotes fail to provide the correct context for Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet at this point.

Here is my attempt to put some flesh on Van Til’s bones (as someone who, up until 2 days ago, was entirely unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism). I’ll give an exteremly brief overview, and then deal with some of the more specific complaints that Van Til has against Bosanquet.

The dominant presupposition of Bosanquet’s metaphysics is that reality is “composed of contents determined by systematic combination in a single coherent structue (Logic, p5). This structure is called the Absolute, the “logical universal as a living world”.

In order to understand anything fully requires that it be considered in the context of the Absolute, it being the totality of all reality. It is impossible to obtain the meaning of any fact or thing in isolation from the relationship with other facts of things. Using linear inference alone (ie mathematical inference or Aristotelian syllogism) or to consider elements of propositions atomistically is insufficient to gain knowledge. All the knowledge that we possess – all of our experience – is a part of a coherent, complete system of all knowledge and experience – the Absolute.  It is for this reason that Bosanquet’s views are considered to approximate a coherence view of truth

Although the Absolute is complete, coherent and self-contained, we do not encounter this perfect system of facts and experiences in our own experience. Our experience and knowledge frequently contains evil, wayward desires as well as logical contradictions. Through the making of distinctions and finding resolutions to experiential challenges, our thought and experience moves closer towards the Absolute, in which all contradictions and good/evil conflicts are resolved. The Absolute has complete explanatory power for all of our experience. Our knowledge merely becomes more complete and more true, a closer approximation to the Absolute. We can also say that, in some way, our knowledge becomes “more real”, since the Absolute is reality in its totality.

Essentially, the Absolute, or the Universal (the a priori) has primacy and priority over individuals and empirical particulars (the a posteriori).

Before we get carried away with this general overview, let us go through Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet and see if we can throw some light on his comments.

Firstly, we should note that the term “logic” refers not to the discipline of formal logic alone but, far more broadly, to knowledge as a whole. Bosanquet calls logic “the spirit of totality” or the science of knowledge.

Secondly, what are the a priori and a posteriori elements of Bosanquet’s thought? The a priori element is the Absolute, the system of all facts and experiences and desires, etc, that make up reality as a whole. The a posteriori element is our own experience, which seeks its resolution and meaning within the Absolute.

Thirdly, by “Implication” Van Til is referring to an aspect of the Absolute, whereby one part of the Absolute always implies another part. Implication allows us to move throughout a system of truth from one truth to any other within that system. This is why Van Til points out that “implication is really borrowed from the a priori rather than from the a posteriori aspect of [Bosanquet’s] method”. Implication is a function of the a priori system of the whole of reality.

Fourthly, what is this “eternal aspect to reality” that Van Til finds in Bosanquet’s thought? Van Til understands Bosanquet’s Absolute to be eternal, as is T. H. Green’s “eternal consciousness”, or Hegel’s Geist. For only if the Absolute is eternal can it be a complete system of facts and, therefore, the foundation of knowledge at all times. The disappearing of the Absolute would create an epistemological black hole.

Lastly, Van Til claims that, for Bosanquet, “reality is an eternal novelty”, an eternal novelty and an eternal novelty. To help us understand this, we will use Bosanquet’s own example of an eternal novelty, which is the mathematical equation “7+5=12”. On the surface, this appears a simple matter. Yet one reviewer stated in 1922:

In the correct analysis of such a simple proposition [Bosanqet] finds the clue, not only to logic, but to the profoundest problems of metaphysics. On the view which we take of the function of thought in the making of such judgements will depend our attitude to the problems of time, of change, of novelty and necessity, of the relation of mind to its objects, of the relation religion to morality.

To explain Bosanquet’s point in a few sentences is a hopeless task. I’ll concern myself with Bosanquet’s general point: Reality contains within itself change (novelty) and progress yet, as a whole, it maintains its identity. By this, Bosanquet upholds the changeless, eternal character of the Absolute but yet accommodate novelty, progress and difference within reality – something which some other “extreme” (Bosanquet’s word) philosophies do not permit. When we make a judgement that 12 is the same as 7+5 we have an example of an eternal novelty, Bosanquet would say.

After all that, Van Til’s very simple point is this: the a priori of the British Idealists (the Absolute) is radically different from the a priori of Christian theism (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).