The Burden of Proof Naturalism versus Supernaturalism: Gary’s Robertson’s Response to Post 4

Gary Robertson replies to Hugh’s post 4 based on the essay:Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy”

 

In Part 1 of his rejoinder to my previous post (Post 3: ‘Is Naturalism More Probable than Supernaturalism?’) Hugh argues that the burden of proof in debates pitting weak naturalism against theistic supernaturalism rests solely with proponents of the latter. His justification is that, while the supernaturalist’s position involves a claim to knowledge, the weak naturalist’s position does not. However, this justification is based on a very broad definition of weak naturalism that even encompasses non-naturalistic beliefs and, crucially, the justification contradicts Hugh’s narrower definitions of the term. But far more problematic for Hugh’s naturalistic worldview is that it is based on a self-defeating epistemology that renders it either false or meaningless.

Claiming Knowledge

As with the essay and ensuing discussion this debate is based on, Hugh equivocates on the meaning of the term ‘weak naturalism’ to sidestep an obligation to provide sufficient warrant for his position.1 Sometimes Hugh defines weak naturalism as merely disbelief in a supernatural realm “given the lack of evidence,” or as “simply lacking belief in the supernatural dimension,” while at other times his characterisations are more forthright. For instance, Hugh defines weak naturalism in his rejoinder and in his preceding post as follows: “As far as we know, the natural world is all there is.” But clearly a claim that fundamental reality is comprised only of the natural world is a knowledge claim. And Hugh cannot credibly argue that the qualifier “As far as we know” exempts his definition from knowledge claim status as many claims to knowledge are based on currently available evidence (that is, what we ‘know’ at present), including the competing ontological claim of a transcendent reality that I’m defending in my posts. Therefore, since Hugh’s version of naturalism entails a claim to knowledge about ultimate reality, the onus of proof lies with proponents on both of sides of this debate.

Key Contradictions

Hugh retorts: “Proposing weak naturalism does not entail ‘appealing to the fact that nature exists rather than providing any positive evidence showing why it’s probable nothing transcends nature’. Rather, it appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural, period.” This contradicts his earlier statement: “in my essay Naturalism versus Supernaturalism – the false dichotomy – I argue that the observance of the natural world along with its laws combined [emphasis added] with the absence of any evidence of the supernatural, amounts to a strong prima facie case for naturalism”. It is also inconsistent with his explanation of weak naturalism in his rejoinder, wherein he states the view involves “asserting the existence of the natural world”.

Not only does Hugh contradict himself in his definitions of weak naturalism, his naturalistic stance, which he concedes “is indeed a philosophical position,” does not even meet his own standards of justification – that is, his criteria a proposition must fulfil to have epistemic credibility. For example, Hugh concludes from the premises in his essay (i.e. (1) nature exists; and (2) there is no evidence of a supernatural reality) that nature is all there is (which, of course, does not follow). Instead of withholding judgement and assuming an agnostic stance given the supposed absence of evidence for or against a supernatural reality, Hugh makes the unsubstantiated knowledge claim that there is nothing beyond the physical world. But since his claim is philosophical and thus “beyond the limits of empiricism,” using Hugh’s logic the claim is “unknowable by nature, and thus, by definition, lacks any epistemic likelihood.”

Let’s look at it another way: We know the natural world exists as we have definitive proof of its existence, but is the natural world all there is? Does the natural world comprise all of reality? According to Hugh’s epistemology, we don’t know the answers to these questions because there is no empirically verifiable evidence available. Following Hugh’s logic, if the answers cannot be known scientifically or empirically then metaphysical views based on answers to those questions are without any epistemic credibility. So, since naturalism is a philosophical position and its central claim that nothing transcends nature is not empirically verifiable, to be consistent we must also regard naturalism as having no epistemic likelihood. Hence, ultimately Hugh shoots himself in the foot. Moreover, as I argue in the next section, Hugh’s standards of justification not only invalidate his own position of weak naturalism, they also reveal the reliance of his position on several self-defeating philosophical concepts, which serves to further deepen an already gaping wound.

Self-Defeating Epistemology

Hugh says “Without relying on the accepted definitions of naturalism (i.e. philosophical naturalism, methodological naturalism), or of the rich philosophical history, weak naturalism is justifiable on its own terms.” I suspect we have only been informed of some of these terms up to this point with more of the key ones still to be revealed, but from what I’ve seen so far in this debate weak naturalism is far from justifiable as a rational worldview, or as an evidence-based one. Indeed, as I pointed out in my last post any reductionist or non-reductionist naturalistic belief system that incorporates evolutionary theory is epistemically self-defeating since, if the worldview is true, it means naturalism (and all other human beliefs, which would be selected purely for their survival value rather than for their truth value) cannot be rationally adhered to. (More on this point in my upcoming response to Part 2 of Hugh’s rejoinder).

Additionally, it is quite evident from the first part of his rejoinder to my last post that a number of Hugh’s assertions relating to the epistemology of his type of naturalism exhibit elements of scientism, empiricism and verificationism – all of which are either self-refuting or meaningless concepts. For instance, we’ve already seen that Hugh deems a proposition that is “beyond the limits of empiricism” to be “unknowable” and therefore lacking “any epistemic likelihood.” He also maintains that “methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science” can be used to justify “any belief whatsoever,” and that propositions which are “beyond the purview of science” have “equal epistemic justification” with propositions claiming the existence of “fairies, unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.” Further, according to Hugh “all causes are empirical and naturalistic” (Post 2) and if evidence is not empirically verifiable “then it is not really evidence”. These views are archetypal examples of scientism.

Further, although Hugh is correct when he states “it’s not scientism to expect knowledge-claims to be verifiable, or testable,” he follows with: “The scientific method has become the accepted method of inquiry.” But this is only correct when referring specifically to a posteriori inquiry, such as the investigation of natural causation, and quantitative research into physical phenomena. Applied generally, the statement is incorrect as the scientific method does not pertain to a priori knowledge or aspects of reality not amenable to experimental testing. We would certainly not use the scientific method to check the validity of the statement ‘There are no unmarried bachelors’; instead we would assess its logical coherence. We could confirm whether Leonardo da Vinci produced the mural painting The Last Supper by examining public records and historical documents without recourse to measurements or scientific methodology. Naturalists would attempt to reconcile the existence of numbers and other entities lacking spatiotemporal locations with their naturalistic beliefs through philosophical analysis and argument – not via “Hadron colliders, telescopes and space probes”. As crucial as science is for discovering and understanding the world around us, there is obviously more to knowledge than only scientific knowledge. (See the sections ‘Philosophy is Prior to Science’ and ‘Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground’ below for more on this).

A few standard definitions of ‘scientism’ should suffice to demonstrate the purely scientistic character of Hugh’s comments:

“Scientism is a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method” and it is a hallmark of scientism to believe in “the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or the most valuable part of human learning — to the exclusion of other viewpoints.” (Wikipedia: ‘Scientism’).

To borrow from Wikipedia again: the term scientism also describes “the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measured or confirmatory.” (‘Scientism’) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines scientism as “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry.” (Blackburn, 2005)

Unfortunately for Hugh scientism is self-defeating as the truth of the view that no proposition is valid unless it can be verified scientifically or empirically cannot itself be scientifically or empirically verified. The Skeptic’s Dictionary explains scientism’s self-referential incoherency as follows:

“Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless.” (‘Scientism’)

Philosopher Edward Feser provides a more elaborate explanation:

“Despite its adherents’ pose of rationality, scientism has a serious problem: it is either self-refuting or trivial. Take the first horn of this dilemma. The claim that scientism is true is not itself a scientific claim, not something that can be established using scientific methods. Indeed, that science is even a rational form of inquiry (let alone the only rational form of inquiry) is not something that can be established scientifically. For scientific inquiry itself rests on a number of philosophical assumptions: that there is an objective world external to the minds of scientists; that this world is governed by causal regularities; that the human intellect can uncover and accurately describe these regularities; and so forth. Since science presupposes these things, it cannot attempt to justify them without arguing in a circle. And if it cannot even establish that it is a reliable form of inquiry, it can hardly establish that it is the only reliable form. Both tasks would require ‘getting outside’ science altogether and discovering from that extra-scientific vantage point that science conveys an accurate picture of reality—and in the case of scientism, that only science does so.

The rational investigation of the philosophical presuppositions of science has, naturally, traditionally been regarded as the province of philosophy. Nor is it these presuppositions alone that philosophy examines. There is also the question of how to interpret what science tells us about the world. For example, is the world fundamentally comprised of substances or events? What is it to be a ‘cause’? Is there only one kind? … Scientific findings can shed light on such metaphysical questions, but can never fully answer them. Yet if science must depend upon philosophy both to justify its presuppositions and to interpret its results, the falsity of scientism seems doubly assured.” (Feser, 2010)

Philosophy is Prior to Science

Professor Feser’s comments not only demonstrate the futility of scientism, they also illustrate the philosophical underpinnings of science, such as science’s dependence on philosophy for establishing its rational basis, interpreting its results and justifying its methods. It is therefore absurd to state that the only way we can know about the world is through scientific inquiry, since this activity is dependent upon assumptions that are not determined by science. In Australian Rationalist, writer Terry Noone reinforces Feser’s insights on science’s reliance on philosophy with the following astute observations:

“Underlying the empirical method are a number of assumptions which are not themselves justifiable by that method, nor by any other product of materialism. … The problem with all of these assumptions is that, in an empirical materialist sense, their existence is not provable by observation. They are classic examples of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which states, more or less, that no system can explain itself from evidence arising exclusively within that system. This is not to say that the assumptions are incorrect. As stated above, science works and we are all grateful for its positive achievements. What science cannot do is explain itself on its own terms and this should lead us to be at least cautious in embracing materialist empiricism as the sole acceptable method for acquiring knowledge in all areas of human experience. The fundamental basis of science is not material, or susceptible to empirical examination. It is on a different level to the physical. It is in fact metaphysical. This may explain the traditional hostility of some philosophers of science to so called speculative philosophy. It may be that is simply too difficult to understand metaphysical concepts from the standpoint of materialism. It requires not so much pulling a number of rabbits out of a hat as pulling the hat itself out of nothing.” (Noone, 2013)

Thus, it would appear that philosophy is the rational basis of science. Further, philosopher John Kekes makes a strong case for regarding philosophy as the very paradigm of rationality:

“A successful argument for science being the paradigm of rationality must be based on the demonstration that the presuppositions of science are preferable to other presuppositions. That demonstration requires showing that science, relying on these presuppositions, is better at solving some problems and achieving some ideals than its competitors. But showing that cannot be the task of science. It is, in fact, one task of philosophy. Thus the enterprise of justifying the presuppositions of science by showing that with their help science is the best way of solving certain problems and achieving some ideals is a necessary precondition of the justification of science. Hence philosophy, and not science, is a stronger candidate for being the very paradigm of rationality.” (Kekes, 1980)

On that basis, philosophy has a serious claim to being prior to science. Indeed, since everyone has an ontological perspective, and since engaging in metaphysics, ethics, logic, and philosophy in general, is unavoidable, philosophy could be considered the predicate of conceptual thought.

Empiricism vs Rationalism vs the Middle Ground

Given its vigorous exaltation of empirical evidence, Hugh’s version of naturalism seems to either disregard or downplay the crucial interaction between theoretical analysis and experimentation in research within physics and other scientific disciplines – an interaction that is an inherent part of much of the scientific endeavour. As notable English astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Eddington noted some time ago:

“Observation and theory get on best when they are mixed together, both helping one another in the pursuit of truth. It is a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in a theory until it has been confirmed by observation. I hope I shall not shock the experimental physicists too much if I add that it is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational results that are put forward until they have been confirmed by theory.” (Eddington, 1935)

Such a middle-ground approach is adopted in “a moderate version of naturalistic epistemology” described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It states that an extreme version of naturalism argues that:

“To bring epistemology on the right path, it must be made a part of the natural sciences and become cognitive psychology. The aim of naturalistic epistemology thus understood is to replace traditional epistemology with an altogether new and redefined project.”

In contrast, a moderate version of naturalism:

“does not require of its proponents to replace traditional epistemology. Rather, this moderate approach accepts the need for ‘cooperation’ between traditional conceptual analysis and empirical methods.” (SEP: ‘Epistemology’)

In terms of epistemic justification, the competing fundamentalist positions of rationalism and empiricism miss the mark. A moderate or middle-ground approach is the most sensible position as we know that the empirical and the theoretical are both of value and often intersect, and that there are limits to the applicability and epistemology of each domain.

Take the limitations of empirical science for instance:

“It is generally accepted by philosophers of science that scientific theories can never be finally confirmed. For starters, the past may not be an absolutely reliable guide to the future, so that what has been observed might not be what will be observed in the future, even in the same circumstances. This is part of the problem of induction. Moreover, for any given experimental result, there might be several theories capable of predicting that result, so how do you know which is the correct theory, given that evidence? This is the so-called under-determination problem.” (Wilkinson, 2016)

Moreover, the success of Albert Einstein’s methods abolished the prevailing notion since Newton and Hume that hypotheses may be derived only from observation. For Einstein, creative ideas leading to deductions were just as important, if not more so, to generating theory as inductive generalisations from sensory experience. Einstein stated:

“It seems that the human mind has first to construct forms independently before we can find them in things. Kepler’s marvelous achievement is a particularly fine example of the truth that knowledge cannot spring from existence alone, but only from the comparison of the inventions of the intellect with observed fact.” (Einstein, 1982)

Elsewhere, Einstein was quite explicit on this issue:

“We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention, which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow indirectly out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts. The more primitive the status of science is the more readily can the scientist live under the illusion that he is a pure empiricist.” (Pais, 2005)

Although we require sense-experience to attain valid knowledge about many things, for other things reasoning provides valid knowledge, either alone or in conjunction with sense-experience. The calculation of the circumference of the Earth by the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes of Cyrene is an apt example. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth by measuring the shadow cast by the sun on identical sundials at the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Aswan. The gnomon of each sundial was perpendicular to the Earth, and the measurements were taken at noon on the day of the summer solstice. There was no shadow at Aswan, but a shadow of 7.2o at Alexandria. From this anomaly Eratosthenes knew that the Earth had to be spheroid – 2,300 years before anyone had actually seen the evidence from space. Knowing the difference between the two cities, he was also able to calculate the Earth’s circumference to be about 24,500 miles. The significance of Eratosthenes’ experiment is not the remarkable accuracy with which he was able to compute the circumference of the Earth, but his demonstration that empirical confirmation is not necessarily required to gain knowledge of the physical world, and that knowledge can be attained from investigating the paradoxes in our experience, rather than just from experience itself.

Of course, there are also examples of scientific discoveries made through the interplay of theory and data without any physical experimentation: British physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter purely on the basis of mathematical considerations, and modern string theorists such as Edward Witten work at the cutting edge of mathematics. Black holes were predicted based on singularities in the tensor equations of relativity, and the Big Bang itself was discovered mathematically by Belgian astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre before it was detected empirically.

This important interaction between theory and data gives us an indication why a New Scientist editorial discussing the origin of our orderly universe from nothing stated:

“Without an escape clause, physicists and philosophers [emphasis added] must finally answer a problem that has been nagging at them for the best part of 50 years: how do you get a universe, complete with the laws of physics, out of nothing?” (Editorial, 2012)

The mention of philosophers by New Scientist in this context is notable in light of Hugh’s belief that an announcement by a team of philosophers that they had discovered “an incontrovertible answer to the existence of the universe” would be “greeted with derision.” Given the experimental and theoretical nature of research into the origins of the universe, and the fact that there are philosophers engaged in theoretical analysis at the forefront of such research (see for example: Smolin, 20152), the notion of an interdisciplinary team consisting of philosophers and physicists and/or cosmologists making such an announcement would only come as a surprise to the uninitiated.

Philosophical Inquiry

Hugh claims “The supernatural is defended by proposing methods of enquiry beyond the scope of empirical science,” and that “the supernaturalist posits other means of evidence.” What this entails exactly appears to elude Hugh, as he remarks “it’s not entirely clear what this ‘evidence’ is.” Fortunately, I can reveal to Hugh that these other methods of inquiry and means of evidence typically involve either deductive philosophical arguments based on solid empirical and/or metaphysical premises, or abductive inferences drawn from observational data. For example, one of the argument’s I have employed so far in my case for a transcendent reality (the kalām cosmological argument) starts from well-supported metaphysical and empirical premises and draws a conclusion that necessarily follows from these premises. In other words, the argument is neither entirely empirical nor merely analytic. Instead, it combines premises that have firm empirical and metaphysical foundations with a logically sound (deductive) conclusion. Thus, Hugh’s allegation that proponents of supernaturalism generally seek to justify the existence of a transcendent reality “by inventing [their] own special realm of supernatural evidence” is erroneous.

Exhibit A

Big Bang Graphic - gif

Hugh asks “Where is Exhibit A?”, yet there are plenty of ‘exhibits’ right under his nose. Since we’ve been discussing it already, I submit the Big Bang as my first exhibit in this debate. This cosmological event involves the creation of the natural world from nothing. The question we need to ask is: What logically sound inferences can be drawn from a beginning point at which complete nothingness became an early stage of the physical universe? According to Stephen Hawking, “the idea that time has a beginning … smacks of divine intervention” (Hawking, 1988: p46) and “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.” (Grossman, 2012). A New Scientist editorial echoes Hawking’s view:

“The big bang is now part of the furniture of modern cosmology, but [Fred] Hoyle’s unease has not gone away. Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don’t you need a creator?” (Editorial, 2012)

The late Sir Arthur Eddington, Professor of Astronomy, Cambridge University, expressed the implications thusly:

“The extrapolation towards the past…gives real cause to suspect a weakness in the present conceptions of science. The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.” (Eddington, 1940:117)

Further, John Maddox, a former editor of the world’s pre-eminent science journal Nature, stated in an editorial in the 10 August 1989 issue that the theory of a Big Bang origin of the Universe was “philosophically unacceptable” because it gave theists “ample justification” for inferring supernatural creation. (Maddox, 1989). Thus, many physicists and cosmologists perceive the notion of a beginning of a universe ex nihilo as lending credibility to the biblical notion of a supernatural designing intelligence. The fact that many of them reject the inference from observational data that the universe had a transcendent cause is often based on the inference’s theistic implications and therefore reflects their materialistic or naturalistic commitments, not the plausibility of the inference. Of course, the empirical data doesn’t prove the transcendent cause is God; it merely suggests that an inference to supernatural causation is plausible on evidentiary grounds.

Framing the Debate?

The accusation that “supernaturalists seek to frame the debate in a philosophical, rather than scientific manner” is bewildering for a number of reasons:

Firstly, Hugh would be hard pressed to find any authoritative scientific or philosophical body that would consider a debate between adherents of competing metaphysical positions (eg, philosophical naturalism and theistic supernaturalism) over the ultimate nature of reality to be a scientific debate. Perhaps Hugh would like to cite a professional or government source to support this allegation.

Secondly, as mentioned above, Hugh admits that “Ontological naturalism is indeed a philosophical position”, so why he thinks arguing whether naturalism depicts reality more accurately than supernaturalism constitutes a scientific debate is a bit of a mystery. A debate on the validity of philosophical positions cannot be anything other than a philosophical debate, no matter what type of supporting evidence is cited. Hugh follows this admission with: “but as a study of the ultimate nature of reality it cannot be simply hived out and segregated from science.” That is correct, however neither of us are segregating our respective views on the constituents of ultimate reality from science. Philosophical propositions are not formed in a vacuum and many, including my own, employ scientific findings in one or more of their premises. Similarly, Hugh appeals to science in this debate, but his posts heavily rely on philosophical arguments. In fact, his post prompting this response chiefly consists of philosophical claims and arguments – from its very title (regarding the philosophical burden of proof), to what counts as a valid epistemology, through to what constitutes the soundest metaphysical explanation of reality.

As I have pointed out in previous posts, proponents on each side of the ‘naturalism versus supernaturalism’ debate often use scientific facts and empirical data as supporting evidence for their respective positions. But this does not change the nature of the debate, which is philosophical in character. That scientists are engaging in metaphysics when they advocate a naturalistic worldview, whether empirical considerations form part of the rationale behind their naturalism or not, is expressed cogently by British philosopher Roger Trigg.

“Those who say that science can answer all questions are themselves standing outside science to make that claim. That is why naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics. It involves standing outside the practice of science and talking of its scope.” (Trigg, 2015)

Professor Trigg’s comment is well supported by numerous authoritative sources. For example, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

“…naturalism is a decidedly philosophical approach and an entrant in the grand debate about what is the true global view. As noted above, naturalism is itself a philosophical view, though it claims to be a rejection of a great deal that historically has been distinctive of philosophy. Even if naturalism is articulated in strictly empirical terms, and strives to be scientific, we are still faced with the issue of whether strictly empirical terms are adequate to capture and express all that there is and all we can know. It is not as though naturalism can avoid questions about whether it is itself a true view, and all the associated concerns about how to interpret truth, and what would make it a true view. The issue of whether naturalism is true may be the sort of issue that is not clearly resolvable in exclusively naturalistic terms. At least it seems that the view that it can be, is itself a distinctively philosophical view. Once we begin to explore such questions, we are of course doing philosophy, even if our aim is to make the case for naturalism.” (IEP: ‘Naturalism’)

Therefore Hugh’s accusation against exponents of supernaturalism shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the debate, which is innately a philosophical one and, hence, does not need to be ‘framed’ that way

Conceptual Concerns

In summary, a naturalistic worldview that accommodates macroevolution, scientism, empiricism and verificationism is in serious trouble, being both incoherent and self-defeating. Hugh insists that his brand of ontological naturalism “is justifiable on its own terms,” however from his posts on the topic so far it seems that these terms are designed to shield his worldview from counterarguments and disconfirming evidence. Aside from evading the onus of proof by equivocating on the definition of weak naturalism, Hugh adopts an epistemology that restricts admissible counterarguments against his philosophical position to just those entirely based on empirical evidence, and even then he only deems such counterargument to be legitimate if they interpret the evidence, or its implications, in the context of methodological naturalism.

Hugh states, “By weakening naturalism to a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary, weak naturalism becomes an even more formidable opponent to supernaturalism.” Hugh’s confidence in the validity of his version of naturalism notwithstanding, I find nothing “formidable” about “a belief held in the absence of evidence to the contrary”; one that simply “appeals to the lack of evidence for anything supernatural”. Indeed, theists could similarly apply the same dubious reasoning and proclaim that supernaturalism is a formidable opponent to naturalism because of the absence of evidence to the contrary. Very few naturalists would be convinced by such an argument, and rightly so.

Hugh claims that weak naturalism leaves itself “open to disproof by evidence of a supernatural realm,” however, as I have argued, what Hugh considers ‘evidence’ is distorted through his adherence to a flawed epistemology. More accurately, and with the greatest of respect to Hugh, his worldview mainly leaves itself open to disproof by being conceptually flawed. The naturalism Hugh embraces is in deep self-referential trouble. There is no good reason to believe it and, given its unsalvageable epistemological problems and other substantial difficulties, many valid reasons to reject it.

 

NOTES

  1. Hugh himself acknowledges the equivocation in his reply of January 13, 2017 to a comment about his essay ‘Naturalism vs Supernaturalism – the False Dichotomy’. He states: “Yes, I concede that I equivocate between weak naturalism and strong naturalism in my essay.”
  2. Physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, which aims “to advance our understanding of the universe at the most fundamental level, stimulating the breakthroughs that could transform our future,” states:

“Cosmology has new questions to answer. Not just what are the laws, but why are these laws the laws? How were they chosen? We can’t just hypothesise what the initial conditions were at the big bang, we need to explain those initial conditions. Thus we are in the position of a computer program asked to explain its inputs. It is clear that if we are to get anywhere, we need to invent new methods, and perhaps new kinds of laws, to gain a scientific description of the universe as a whole. Physicist James Hartle has talked about the “excess baggage” that has to be left on the platform before we can board the train to further progress in cosmology. In work together with philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger [emphasis added], we believe we have identified several of pieces of this baggage. The first thing that must be discarded is the assumption that the same kind of laws that work on the scale of small subsystems of the world work, scaled up, at the level of the whole universe. We call this assumption the cosmological fallacy because it leads to a breakdown of predictability – as in the multiverse.

“… Mangabeira Unger and I [emphasis added] propose three principles, which we argue are necessary to underlie any theory capable of explaining big cosmological questions – like the selection of the laws and initial conditions of the universe – in a way that is open to experimental test.” (Smolin, 2015)

 

SOURCES

Blackburn, S (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy Oxford University Press. pp. 331-32.

Editorial (2012) ‘The Genesis problem’ New Scientist (2847) 11 Jan 2012.

Eddington, A (1935) New Pathways in Science. Cambridge University Press. p.211.

Eddington, A (1940) The Expanding Universe. Penguin, Middlesex, UK. p.117.

Einstein, A (1982) ‘On the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Kepler’s death’ in Ideas and Opinions. Three Rivers Press, New York. p.265.

Feser, E (2010) ‘Blinded by scientism’ Public Discourse 9 March 2010.

Grossman, L (2012) ‘Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event’, New Scientist (2487) 11 Jan 2012.

Hawking, SW (1988) A Brief History of Time Bantam, London. p.46.

Kekes, J (1980) The Nature of Philosophy, Rowman & Littlefield, New Jersey. p.158. Cited in: Moreland, JP & Craig, WL (2003) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, InterVarsity Press, Illinois. p.348.

Maddox, J (1989) ‘Down with the Big Bang’ Nature (340) 10 August 1989. p.425.

Noone, T (2013) ‘Can materialism explain itself?’ Australian Rationalist. Summer 2013: p.5.

Pais, A (2005) Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford University Press. p.14.

Smolin, L (2015) ‘So you think there’s a multiverse? Get real’ New Scientist 17 Jan 2015. pp.24-5.

Trigg, R (2015) ‘Why science needs metaphysics’ Nautilus (29) 1 October 2015.

Wilkinson, T (2016) ‘Was Einstein Right? by Clifford M. Will’ [Book Review] Philosophy Now (117) Dec 2016-Jan 2017.

 

In Defence of Santa: Why he’s just as likely to exist as Jesus

In Defence of Santa – The AIM Network 24/12/2016

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By now, the elves are wrapping the toys. The reindeers are running test flights. Santa is busy double-checking Xmas lists, and plotting the logistics of the world’s greatest overnight delivery.

But a new UK board game, Santa vs Jesus, has blighted the festive season with unwelcome sectarian dissension, presenting Xmas as a pitched battle between Jesus and Santa. Cries of “insult, blasphemy” ensue: the satirical board game is accused of falsely equating belief in Jesus with belief in Santa Claus.

My blood boils at this sacrilege. Yet another example of politically correctness gone mad, and elitist intellectuals tainting our most cherished institutions. How dare they demean the good name of Santa Claus? On behalf of children everywhere, let us rise up and defend Santa’s honour. If not for own sake, for the sake of our culture, of our civilization, and by God, for the real meaning of Christmas.

That is, what Christmas really is: an end-of-year celebration, retail bonanza, and family reunion. A shop-til-you-drop procession of tinselled shopping malls, parking rage, office parties, Kris Kringles, twinkling streetscapes, Die-Hard and Love Actually re-runs, culminating in the once-a-year family get-together with the usual disputes and rows – all of the above made tolerable, joyous even, by stupefying quantities of sugar and alcohol.

Arrogantly, anti-Christmas-carol activists poke fun at the Santa story. How could anyone believe a jolly fat man at risk of early-onset-diabetes has the stamina and wherewithal to deliver gifts to every child in the world? Claiming that Santa is only Coca-Cola’s amalgamation of the yuletide characters of various traditions, these immoral, believe-in-nothings only demonstrate their blindness to the value of culture and tradition. Can they prove Santa isn’t real? No.

Frankly, I’m agnostic about the existence of Santa. But just because infrared technology fails to find any trace of an enormous toy shop at the North Pole, doesn’t mean I should rule him out altogether. Sure, I’m sceptical about Santa even fitting into most chimneys and I’ve never seen a flying reindeer. But “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, as they say.

And, since when must omniscient beings lower themselves to mere terrestrial standards of empirical proof? Why should the lowly and common measures of evidence be applied to Santa alone? Indeed, using the arguments applied to other contemporary deities, belief in Santa is more than reasonable.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

As St Anselm argued: given we can conceive of the greatest possible being – and, we accept that a being which exists, is greater than one purely imagined – then, that greatest being must exist. Thus, if we accept the premise that Santa is the greatest gift-giver, then, by irrefutable logic he must exist. Never mind that this also applies to the greatest sophist, the greatest idiot and the greatest obscurantist. They exist also, and often employ St Anselm’s argument in favour of their own articles of faith.

And, as we know, faith is an element of proof in itself. Have faith and ye shall be rewarded. Where a deficit of proof exists one can legitimately insert “faith” to bridge the gap. Then – Poof! – the object of faith reliably appears!

Behold, every year, millions of children put their faith in Santa and the Christmas team dutifully delivers. After days and days of breathless anticipation the big day comes… Then, hurrah! Squeals of delight, and yelps of excitement attend the feverish unwrapping of real, actual gifts. Ask any child how convincing this is.

Further, Santa is ubiquitous during the festive season, appearing on television screens constantly. News services track his progress from the North Pole. Parents everywhere use the supervising presence of Santa to wring some good behaviour out of their otherwise insolent offspring. Either Santa exists, or most of the adults in the world are complicit in a global Santa hoax conspiracy.

If this still fails to satisfy, allow me to borrow one of the planks of Biblical scholarship. The “criterion of embarrassment” states that if historical accounts are embarrassing to their author they can be assumed to be true. Now, consider the story of a ridiculously attired and morbidly obese man who supposedly travels all around the world on flying reindeers delivering presents to children he somehow divines as good. Embarrassment galore! Increasingly, scholars dispute the validity of this criterion – justifiably so, considering debate in the Australian Senate.

Austere scientific thinkers may have trouble accepting the Santa narrative. But remember, this is a moral tale not a scientific one, not meant to be taken literally. It’s about favouring “nice” over “naughty”, “good” over “bad”, by rewarding the good children with presents and lumbering the rest with smelly coal.

But, as all parents of young children know, this begs the question as to how children actually behave. The problem of evil. Given Santa’s omniscience and superpowers, how do we explain the continued reign of terror by these frightening midgets? Free will hardly suffices to explain temper tantrums, impudence and addiction to video games, rivalling that of present-day Australian tennis stars. Seeing as the incentive of gifts has conspicuously failed, and since global warming has curtailed Santa’s access to coal, a more interventionist policy is warranted. It’s unsurprising that the world’s major religions moved to slightly harsher penalties such as an eternity of roasting and re-roasting in the flame-pits of hell. Likewise, it’s easy to see how the religions of Abraham condemned the whole of humanity as corrupt and fallen, requisite of salvation.

And so, a radical new plan emerges. A new prophet will arise – Santa Junior – an elfin messiah of the children. He will be seized by secular powers and gruesomely tortured to death, signifying Santa’s gift of redemption to horrid little monsters everywhere. And then, showcasing Santa’s full repertoire of magical powers, Santa Junior will be sensationally brought back to life. Although this somewhat negates the supposed sacrifice, it caps off the story nicely. And, if this doesn’t work, Santa will equip his sleigh with intercontinental ballistic missiles and commence laying waste to play centres and schools. So please, give Santa some respect. And kids, if you don’t like the sound of apocalyptic Santa, you had better actually be good from now on.

Defogging the Enchanted Glass

enchanted glass

 

 

For the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.

 

            Sir Francis Bacon, 1640

 

In the murky depths of the human mind, faith and reason both participate in forming beliefs. But they don’t necessarily overlap or share the same epistemic value in forming knowledge. I’m inspired by Nick Trakakis thoughtful account of his struggle to reconcile his faith with philosophic inquiry in Why I Am Not Orthodox, ABC’s Religion & Ethics, 7 December 2015. Trakakis concludes that faith commitment to the main forms of organised religion is “incompatible with the pursuit of truth and wisdom”. The idea that faith contains epistemic value is the mirage of organised religion.

I want to challenge the understanding of faith presented in the responses to Trakakis article: Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Benjamin Myers, 9 December 2015, and Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nick Trakakis, by Richard College, 22 December 2015: both from ABC’s Religion & Ethics.

Blaise Pascal paradoxically described faith as providing the “heart” with “reasons” which elude “reason”:

 

The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.

 

By definition, faith and reason are mutually exclusive. Faith is defined various ways, but always entails a lack of evidence. Faith always walks hand in hand with doubt. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines faith generally as “trust”, and notes religious faith has several models: “affective”, “cognitive” or “volitional”.

Affective faith is a state of confidence and trust.

Cognitive faith refers to certain knowledge of God provided directly through revelation. Cognitive faith arms itself with Reformed Epistemology, an alternative epistemology where claiming direct knowledge of God is a legitimate form of evidence. The cognitive faith of reformed epistemology is excluded from this discussion because it attempts to fundamentally alter the generally accepted rules of evidence and verification. It even endows humans with a cognitive faculty for detecting God, the sensus divinitatis, of which no evidence exists. Unless there’s some reason or evidence to regard reformed epistemology as a legitimate arm of knowledge, then it remains an article of faith itself.

Volitional Faith is the choice to believe sometimes characterised as intellectual assent.  Faith can be either a type of act or a type of assent. So both affective faith and volitional faith involve trust and confidence in a proposition.

Philosopher Matt McCormick defines faith as:

 

 Faith: Belief without sufficient evidential justification.

 

Faith is offered in defence of believing in what we have insufficient legitimate reasons to believe. Faith should not be used as a substitute for evidence. To use it as justification for belief is a category mistake which assumes the existence of a faith-based category of knowledge which is unavailable.

The Oxford Dictionary defines evidence as:

 

Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.

 

If faith could actually contribute something tangible towards accepting a belief, it would constitute evidence. Since faith, by definition, is belief in the absence of sufficient evidence, the concept that it’s an actual reason for belief is self-negating and self-referential. It’s breaking the rules of epistemology to insert faith on the evidential scale as if somehow bridges the gap between incomplete evidence and knowledge.

Faith is an attitude towards evidence, rather than a form of evidence in itself. Faith does not provide “fullness to reasoning”, it simply pumps up the tyres of belief beyond what is epistemically justifiable. Faith has no epistemic content to apply to the proposition.

Failure to understand this leaves us imprisoned in an epistemology where the unknown and the unverifiable share the same status as verified knowledge. We lament the results of this failure over and over in debates about evolution, climate science and other areas where pre-existing beliefs and mythology clash with science.

Once we liberate knowledge from its foggy prison we can consider the merit of applying the same discipline to religion. What happens to religion without the supernatural? Can we reconsider religion without its myths? Is there a non-theistic future for religion?

The “Faith” of the Gaps

The God of the Gaps argument uses gaps in scientific knowledge as evidence for God’s existence. A parallel can be drawn in the use of faith to plug the gaps in theories of knowledge. To Benjamin Myers, faith and reason are indelibly connected. Further, Myers claims faith is foundational to reason. But his claim that we “cannot get started without faith” is flawed. The reality is that we cannot get started without evidence.

Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s argument that we should accept Christianity on faith alone. (I note Clements self-defeating claim to have dozens of cogent arguments in reserve). But we simply cannot consider Christianity without processing a substantial sum of information describing the beliefs and doctrines of the religion. These make certain claims about the creation of the world, the life of Jesus, human nature, and our purpose in the world. One cannot fail to consider how credible these claims are. One cannot switch off inbuilt mechanisms for applying our critical faculties to the story, and contrasting it to knowledge of history, cosmology, anthropology and so on. It’s true that we might choose to adopt belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. But that’s not the same as starting with faith alone. The proposition contains basic information which constitutes evidence. So we’re not starting with faith, but evidence. It’s more accurate to say that we’d be starting with insufficient evidence and heaping faith on top of it, like coals onto a fire.

To start with faith Myers argues we need to adopt a change of disposition to one of “basic trust”. Myers offers Clement of Alexandria’s comparison of faith to getting drunk at a party.

 

You might have some doubt about whether it’s right for a person to get drunk. But it’s your practice to get drunk before considering the question….Only when divine things are in question do you first inquire…

 

Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that most people don’t just get drunk without thinking about it anymore. Drink driving laws have put paid to that. And even prior to modern sensibilities about alcohol consumption, it’s quite silly and untrue to say we only apply reason to questions of the divine. But the insistence on applying a “disposition” of trust helps us acknowledge that this is what “faith” is: an attitude, a belief – not a form of evidence.

Nonetheless, it’s worth exploring the problem of propositional knowledge Myer’s outlines. The assertion that there are things which first must be accepted without proof is based on the philosophical problem of defining knowledge. But alas, it doesn’t provide a compelling argument in favour of faith. Myer’s point is valid only to the extent that philosophical theories of knowledge are inadequate. Theories of knowledge fail to provide an agreed evidential foundation for what we regard as knowledge.

If I take my knowledge of a thing A, based on the evidence for it B, I should also logically require evidence for B. But now I am stuck in an infinite regress unless I can prove some item of knowledge which is foundational. A foundational type of knowledge might be considered our first direct perception, or an article of faith. Thus, so the argument goes, we must start by assuming something is true.

But equally, we acknowledge the substantial progress made in science, technology and other areas of knowledge without an apparent foundation. Our expectation that knowledge must have a foundation may be unrealistic, especially considering the traditional definition knowledge – as justified, true, belief. Gettier problems demonstrate the expectation of perfect knowledge is unrealistic given they rely on our own imperfect perception. Things that seemed justified and true have long turned out to be false on closer inquiry. Virtually nothing is known with absolute certainty.

When, for instance, we view a red car, our perception and knowledge is often incomplete. We recognise the image and the attributes of a motor vehicle, but we don’t appreciate the object in its totality. We don’t know what brand of oil is used. We mightn’t know all of the parts of the car. Many things inside are hidden from view. We wouldn’t perceive all of the molecules and atoms which make it up. In addition, we may be deceived by an illusion, or by mental illness, or a failure of eyesight.

But, in practical terms, we can use the red car to go to and from work, to pick up our kids from school, and to go shopping. It’s not an article of faith that our red car will reliably assist our lives – it’s based on reasonable evidence. Yet our knowledge of it is far from perfect. But even so, there’s no reason whatsoever to place “faith” as the foundation of our red-car knowledge. And though we’re satisfied by our practical knowledge, we cannot justify how our knowledge of the red car is founded.

The “Faith” of the Gaps is the unjustified insertion of faith as the foundation of knowledge. This theory not only suffers from a lack of any substantive argument, but must overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle that faith is not an article of evidence but an attitude towards it.

The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours

sunlightstainedglass

Crucially, the limits of knowledge don’t dictate that we must take things on faith. The nominated candidates for faith are almost always an extremely narrow set of metaphysical, religious beliefs for which no verifiable proof or disproof exists. It’s hardly coincidental that the advocates for elevating faith are the same people who advocate the unverifiable beliefs.

Myers quotes Augustine from The Advantage of Believing:

 

If it’s wrong to believe something we do not know, I’d like to know how children can obey their parents and return their love and respect without believing they are their parents. There’s no way this could be known by reason. We have a belief about our father based on the word of our mother…

 

It’s not the case that children rely on faith to determine who their parents are. Children have many good reasons to conclude that their parents are their real parents. Their mother has cared for them ever since they can remember. Their parents might share physical similarities. Their parents claim to be their parents. And their siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents all agree. The foundation is not trust, but reasonable evidence. They could even get a paternity test if necessary!

Augustine continued:

 

… But we do believe, without any hesitation, things that we admit we can’t really know … We could give lots of examples to show that nothing in human society would be stable if we decided not to believe anything except the things that can be held with absolute certainty.

 

From the premise that we believe many things which cannot be known with “absolute certainty” it does not follow that we must therefore rely on faith. As Sigmund Freud said in The Future of an Illusion, “The weakness of my position does not imply a strengthening of yours.” The human cognitive bias towards absolutism tricks the mind into imagining the problem as a false dichotomy: Faith or reason. But that’s a false choice. We base our beliefs and knowledge on a varying scale of reason: a scale varying between no evidence, some evidence and an irrefutable amount of evidence.

Do we, for instance, know anything with absolute certainty based solely on faith? And tellingly, how would we test any claim that we do? By using evidence? How do we choose which beliefs to have faith in without evidence? Why not choose Poseidon, Mithras, Apollo or any other God to place our faith in?

Faith is not a category of evidence

awillioam jameswill to believeIn William James famous lecture given in 1896, The Will to Believe, he argues in “defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, despite our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.”

James is influenced by the human need for necessary knowledge:

 

…the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessing of real knowledge.

 

He argues absolutism is a requirement of knowledge because humans need it.

But simply because humans want or need it, does not make it so.

The underlying a priori assumption that because humans need certain things, the world and its objective reality must necessarily comply, is clearly a product of religious belief itself. One only assumes such a thing if we consider humans pivotal to creation itself.

His most persuasive point is that evidence regarding a beliefs truth or falsity is sometimes only accessible to believers. Pointing to St Augustine’s oft quoted “Unless you believe, you will not understand” James contends that we must first use faith to welcome in the object of our faith, and only then can we achieve further knowledge.

If this is true then it stands to reason that it applies beyond religious belief. But the testing of a hypothesis or holding a provisional belief in one, isn’t the same as intellectual assent. Do the scientists investigating “string theory” actually believe in it? From reading about them recently it seems they do make an investment in belief to some extent. To be precise, they hold a provisional belief. Provisional means subject to testing and verification, sitting somewhat short of accepted knowledge. Scientific history is full of surprising discoveries made whilst trying to prove something else. By no means is it demonstrated that any particular knowledge relies on holding a belief in it prior to discovery or verification. And wondering if something is true is hardly the same as believing it.

And how can we ignore the internal contradiction of arguments made for faith on the basis of evidence and reason? We’re asked us to accept an attitude of “basic trust” to propositions such as the existence of God or Christianity, without sufficient reason and evidence, by accepting the offered reason and evidence. On what epistemic basis do we consider such arguments? If they are lacking in evidence do we just insert an attitude of faith? And if so, how can we ignore the obvious circularity in using faith to justify faith, and the internal contradiction of using evidence to justify faith?

Distinguishing Faith and Reason

faith-and-reason

Richard College, Intellectual Assent and the Value of Disagreement: A Response to Nik Trakakis, ABC Religion & Ethics, 22 December 2015, provides an interesting discussion of the “the epistemology of disagreement”.

The founding premises of our beliefs are informed by “gut intuitions”. These intuitions are influenced by such things as our genes, early life experiences and traumatic events, socio-cultural influences, the structure of one’s language, geographic and political context, and religious instruction. Experimental psychologists have scientifically identified these tribal influences as producing cognitive biases.

Referencing William James The Will to Believe, College contends that “underlying pre-rational passions and volitions” inform which “truth-claims are more or less on the table”.

College’s “gut intuitions” are the human fogginess in the enchanted glass. There’s no doubt that human beliefs are informed by reasoning which is unduly influenced by non-evidential factors. But it doesn’t follow that abstract concepts such as reason and faith are artificially conjoined by human folly.

College contends:

 

Faith and reason are not hermetically sealed rival domains – the so-called disjunction of Athens and Jerusalem – requiring us to either suppress one and champion the other (hence the alternatives of hyper-rationalism or fideism), or try to find a way of breaching the abyss between them through some kind of uneasy balance.

 

College’s argument mirrors James argument that because humans use faith to form beliefs, then faith must be indelibly bound to reason. ie. because humans practise it, it must be so. But acknowledging the human propensity to prematurely form beliefs by using cognitive biases, such as wishful thinking, does nothing to suggest that those biases contribute to the epistemological status of the hypothesis. What humans believe has no bearing on reality. The scientist’s test is not made more likely of success because he has a hunch it might be true. Just because humans are prone to make these mistakes, doesn’t imbue them with virtue. Humans are inclined to apply faith to hypotheses with insufficient evidence. Acknowledging this unremarkable fact should not compel us to enjoin the magisterium of faith and reason. To the contrary, it should stiffen our resolve not to conflate them.

Since the world exists independently and objectively, then reason ought to be the most efficient and effective way of ascertaining knowledge of the world. Perhaps reflecting centuries of near universal religiosity, philosophers attempting to define “reason” often presume it only applies to humans. Despite this, we see other animals in nature displaying the use of reason, albeit at a more primitive level. Reason is a variable faculty in humans, as it is in nature. We easily envisage the possibility of alien life forms using reason much better than we do. We expect man-made technology to assume and even outperform the human capacity for reason some time in the future. Reason is an abstract concept which needn’t be limited by humans.

We ought to use the concept of reason to find the best path to knowledge. We must distinguish reason and human reason. To accept reason as subject to the passions of humans is to limit the human project. And to succumb to the rationalisation that evidence plus a dash of faith constitutes reason, is gaming the system to achieve a preordained result.

The faith claims of religion aren’t susceptible to reason’s weighing of evidence because they contain none. Artificially moving the concentric circles of the two domains over one another may provide hope for holders of unverifiable beliefs, but that hope is a mirage.

As Trakakis argues, the problem with religious faith is assuming we know the truth to start with. We’re not open to honest enquiry if we assume to know the truth on faith, as if faith constitutes an article of evidence in itself.

Can we imagine religion without God?

skylanterns

Having separated faith and reason let’s now attempt to reunite them again. There’s nothing wrong with faith per se: my argument merely notes faith is an attitude of trust not an article of evidence. If we cannot have faith in God, what then do we put our trust in?

In western societies the supernatural claims of Christianity are waning. In the post information-explosion world, faith is no longer enough to perpetuate extraordinary claims which continue to elude proof. The question becomes whether religion can survive and in what form. The diverse and changeable history of Christianity suggests that it may live on.

The beliefs of Christianity have changed continuously from the 1st and 2nd century until now. The original belief in a heaven on earth was reinvented to a supernatural one when the “imminent” second coming failed to arrive. From Judaism to Gentile Christianity to Medieval Christendom, from Protestantism to Enlightenment secularism, to the myriad modern Christian sects – the doctrines of Christianity have been debated, revised and reinterpreted. Christianity is nothing if not resilient.

That’s why it’s possible to envisage the religion which will replace Christianity is Christianity itself: a new form which reimagines theology by placing faith entirely within the realm of reason. Consider how much stronger faith would be when unshackled from fancies and clamped-on-hard to the real world.

Rather than providing “fullness to reasoning”, faith can become an attitude of trust to reason. Not, mind you, the elevation of human reason to exalted status, or the reification of reason to the point where it’s harmful, but simply a trust in using evidence to form knowledge whilst acknowledging the limits of knowledge. In a religious sense, trust can extend to using reason to seek wisdom – the wisdom necessary to properly define and fulfil the mortal human project.

By following reason rather than faith, the metaphysical claims of a deconstructed Christianity would become natural rather than supernatural. The Sermon on the Mount loses none of its force if we accept a non-divine view of Jesus. The tale of the Good Samaritan may or may not be based on a real event. In terms of its use as a parable in the modern age, it’s truth is neither here nor there. Also, regarding Jesus as a mortal teacher and a moral compass allows the sort of mutability envisioned by Sigmund Freud. The existing teachings and values of Christianity can change according to their utility and relevance.

The power of mythology is not its perceived truth, but the power to unify. Myths have defined societies from prehistory to the present day. Today, we witness the myths of religion replaced with conspiracy theories and a fragmented set of social networks. Modern humans participate in a wide array of disparate preoccupations including social networking, meditation, reality television, online gaming, personal development, political causes, literary pursuits, sporting and social clubs, weight loss schemes, personal fitness and so on. Replacing the sense of community of religion with their own narrow values and aspiration these are pseudo-religions. No doubt modern society would benefit from the rituals and healing of organised religion under an umbrella of shared values. But in modern pluralist society, unity cannot be achieved by exclusionary religious groups practising a narrow set of beliefs. Whereas once unity was achieved by universal conformity and punishment of dissent, nowadays, it could only be achieved by a broad and inclusive philosophy.

Reprising the earlier discussion of provisional beliefs, there might be a way for Christians to maintain some theistic beliefs without offending reason. It’s not unreasonable to admit the mystery of existence whilst entertaining a notion of a creator-God. Provisional beliefs in cherished aspects of Christianity could survive, whilst acknowledging alternative theories and competing views occupy equal status. Embracing uncertainty, and admitting the limits of knowledge, will become tools to regulate beliefs.

The dogma will go. Consider how few of the 613 Mosaic Commandments of the Old Testament – including edicts such as “Break the neck of a calf by the river valley following an unsolved murder” – remain relevant today. Add to this the disproven stories, such as Genesis, Noah’s Ark, and the Exodus, and it’s not hard to imagine postmodern Christians taking a more agnostic attitude to the metaphysical and doctrinal claims derived from The Book.

A new Christianity may become a melting pot of Christian humanism, secular humanism and a philosophy. Christian humanism has a long tradition dating back to Justin the Martyr and other 2nd century writers. Using the teachings of Jesus and selectively using other parables from the Bible, might form the basis of a non-theistic Christian ethics.

This is not to say that Christianity will simply become secular humanism. Humanism is a broad and loosely defined movement derived from both Christian and secular influences. As an ethical philosophy focussed on humans eschewing the supernatural or transcendent, humanism isn’t as broad in scope or ambition as Christianity. But the rituals and institutions of Christianity could transform humanism into a theological project. One can readily imagine the commingling of the rituals, philosophies and ideas of both resulting in a new type of religion.

Rather than a set of fixed beliefs and creeds, the “religion” becomes a collection of ideas aimed at remodelling and convalescing humankind. The religion would more realistically produce ideas on how to improve the human condition – ethically, spiritually and philosophically. The consensus of human knowledge would form a basis for human betterment.

Capturing the essence of what is human and how to describe human nature would inaugurate such a project. An unsentimental, naturalistic picture of humans and our natures is by no means a finished project. Since our scientific understanding of human nature is incomplete, our philosophic meditations on human nature will necessarily be provisional. The study of human nature cuts across many fields. Any progress made in solving the “hard problem of consciousness”, in understanding the origins of life, and describing the elements within the universe, will all contribute to a deeper understanding of the human condition and our place within the universe.

Our knowledge is still in its infancy. We are no wiser on the best of way to live than were our ancestors in Aristotle’s time. We aren’t even much wiser than the humans who blew their handprints in red ochre on cave walls 25 thousand years ago. We’ve had thousands of years of erroneously assuming we are the centre and pinnacle of creation, the lone species for whom a divine purpose has been set out: preparing ourselves for a mythical life after death. We need to unlearn all that.

Lloyd Geerings Christianity Without God describes a pathway for Christians to reconcile and combine the cultural heritage of their religion with humanism. Geering argues humanism is a product of Christian thought, and describes the continually changing nature of Christianity. Daniel McGuire’s 2014 book of the same name argues for a “moratorium on god-talk so that together we could explore alternatives to earth’s current social, political, economic, and ecological distress”.

We’ve seen emergent Christian movements such as Peter Rollins, Ikon assemblies, offering a religion without religion using transformative art. One of the most admired Christians of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a series of letters from prison speaking of a “Religionless Christianity”. Though Bonhoeffer demurs from religion, not from faith, his focus on the provisional nature of belief has been taken up later post-modern Christian offshoots such as Jesuism, Christian atheism, and Paul van Buren’s Death of God movement.

 

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur (as if God is not given). And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it… The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.

 

In the Netherlands, 42% of Protestants don’t believe in God, and 1 in 6 pastors are agnostic or atheist. One of its ministers, Klaas Hendrikse describes God not as a deity but as an expression of human experience. In his book, Believing in a God who does not exist: manifesto of an atheist pastor, Hendrikse argues that God is a word for what connects people: “Someone says to you, for example, ‘I will not abandon you’, and then makes those words come true. It would be perfectly alright to call that God”.

The existential mystery is central to the religious urge. To echo the Tasos Leivaditis poem, Violets for a Season (quoted by Trakakis), we stretch out our hands toward the infinite like lost children. The handshake with the infinite never happens. But the hope of finally grasping hold of the keys to our existence is nevertheless exhilarating. Many modern non-theists foresee a day when religion will no longer exist. Personally, I doubt it.

I recently watched a moving documentary about the devastation caused by the Chinese Sichuan school collapse. Many parents lost their children in the disaster.

In one moving scene we see a mother at dusk, on the 5th anniversary of her daughter’s death. She lights a sky lantern. Rising slowly, its red glow gradually animates an expression of inconsolable despair on the mother’s face. She clasps her hands in prayer. Family members cling to each other all looking upwards.

 

My beautiful daughter. I have to believe that you are happy in your life in heaven. When I look to the sky you are the brightest star.

 

Other than with religion, how else could the mother reconcile the immensity of her loss? The mother cannot cease being a mother. If there are better ways of soothing human despair than this, and there must be, then we have so far failed to find them. Acknowledging the obvious self-delusion does nothing to invalidate the urge to ancestor worship and false consolation embedded within our psyche. If we intuitively practise religion in certain situations, then we must at least acknowledge the deep human need for worship.

In his influential Kenyon college commencement speech, What is Water, David Foster Wallace asserts that “there’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”. A good reason for religious or spiritual worship is that anything else will “eat you alive”. Worship money and you’ll always be poor. Worship appearances and you’ll always be ugly. Worship power, and you’ll be weak. Worship the intellect and you’ll never be smart enough. Wallace’s message acknowledges the human need for meaning, communion with others, and to exercise control over our mind. His overall message is that the most obvious and important realities are often the most difficult to see.

Humans have long tried to exercise dominion over the Earth. But the organ we need to subdue is the one inside our own craniums. The mind of man remains an enchanted glass. We can only attempt to tame its lavish appetites by continually refilling it with evidence. And once the glass is clear and the beams of light travel straight and true, what we see might seem so obvious we’ll wonder how we never noticed it before. The deus ex machina of religion, the phoenix arising from the ashes of dogma, is doubt and uncertainty. Reason and evidence are the best hope of revitalising the religious project.