Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A scientist's idea of Truth (in relation to theology)


I have, and it seems I am stuck with this for good or ill, a scientist's idea of Truth.

This means that while I regard Truth as a transcendental entity - that ultimate Truth is eternal, permanent, objective - I regard the Truth that we can know in a broad-brush fashion: when stated as something that is as broadly correct or broadly wrong (details to be worked-out, if possible, at some later point).

So when it comes to theology, I am, compared with most people, unfazed by detailed error - because this is something I expect with all Truths, because this is always the case in scientific theories.


To believe that a scientific theory is True is certainly-not to believe that every microscopic detail of it is True; it is, on the contrary (almost contrary) to believe that it is basically true, but to accept that all Truths will have errors of detail - and indeed these errors are what get worked-on by many scientists.

Sometimes they turn out not to be errors, and very occasionally this leads to a revision of the theory - other times the appearance of error was the result of some kind of misunderstanding, or problem with an observation, or problem with expression... or else they just don't get sorted-out (maybe in future, when theories are better or technology is better they will get sorted out?).


So, in science, Truth is real, objective, consistent etc; but the Truth that I can know as a scientist is not like this.

Rather, Truth is the best among rival theories, Truth is single and objective and self-consistent but Truth that I can perceive is (or contains the) subjective; is not eternal, not self-consistent etc.


I feel just the same about theology. Theology is not primary reality - it is the science of 'God' - of religion, of Christianity - it is a second order kind of thing.

Theology is never coherent, consistent etc - none of the Christian theologies are without significant problems in detail.

To me it is very obvious, undeniable, that all and every one of the Christian theologies are wrong, in detail, to some extent - but how could they be otherwise? Theology is not 'revealed' by God but made by man from what God reveals and also from other ingredients and using man-made methods. 

Theology, like science, is therefore a work-in-progress; and choosing the 'correct' theology, like science, is a matter of choosing the best among flawed theories.


All theologies are incorrect in detail - and some are incorrect in broad brush terms as well (useless, wrong, misleading); and therefore it is a matter of judgement (discernment) about which theology/ theory is best overall (which in turn depends on the purpose in hand).

(But although all theories are wrong in detail; scientific theories that are basically-wrong do not work in more obvious and immediate and damaging ways than theories that are basically-right - that is the importance of knowing which is best - and the importance of distinguishing between broad brush truth and detailed error.)


We ought not to build Christianity from theology; any more than science is built from theories;  theories come from science, not the other way about and the same for theology with respect to Christianity.

Or, at least, that is how I seem to perceive things, perhaps because of my scientific education - and can't seem to shake it off.


I simply cannot regard theology is primary, nor can I see good reasons why I ought to regard theology as primary, nor could I choose which denomination was 'best' primarily on the basis of theological coherence.

Each theology is a theory.

I perceive that theology is necessary, yet each theology is flawed in detail (and some of these details are more important than others - as revealed by whether the theories of theology work in practice); and each theology is always wrong - but some theologies are better than others.

However, this evaluation of 'better' does not come from within theology, is not a matter of coherence - but the judgement of 'better' must (as in science) come from that which is the primary well-spring of Christianity: a matter of the heart, I suppose; working upon experience and knowledge of how theology comes-out in practice...

Just as with science, the test of theology is how it works-out; but the measure of 'works-out' is, of course, qualitatively different from the measure of validity in science. 


NOTE: My conversion to Christianity (from an unstable mixture of secular materialism with New Age subjectivism) was precisely on the basis that although I did not believe (nor did I understand) all the specific details of Christianity; I perceived that it was a better 'theory of everything' than the one I already had. - including that it worked better in practice. Since I became a Christian understood a lot more of it, and believed more of it; but the process has never approached completion nor do I expect it ever shall in this life. 



Joseph A. said...

I do not think that theology constitutes the Church. Rather, theology is the attempt to articulate the truth revealed and experienced in the Church. So, instead of seeing the Church as an inadequate glimpse or expression of truth, we see it as the community of scientists where most of the research is done.

Now, there may be independent scientists who discover important things who are not visibly part of the organization (say, the NIH of the soul, or whatever your British equivalent is). However, the bulk of the work is done by the Church because that is where the (divine) funding is, where the best labs are, where proper training is instilled, and where methodologies are followed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JA - Well, yes; but then the arguments *really* begin when 'the church' needs defining...

George Goerlich said...

I agree completely. The first objection that I would raise is that most-people may need to hold the idea that the church is completely accurate and right. The second object, that even those who may realize it is akin to an accepted theory, only an extremely small number of people would be qualified to work on the theory, otherwise it may lead to disastrous and stupid results like protestant mobs destroying Catholic art, or (more likely) just lead to heresy.

I think what you express here was also held, though perhaps expressed differently, by great Church theologians. It was common to accept pagan philosophers like Plato had highly accurate theories, which the Church was able to complete and fulfill.

So this idea is much better than simply and incorrectly calling everything that ever existed outside our denomination as wholly evil/incorrect, yet is very distinct and separate from a ├╝ber-tolerant universalist church that doesn't even bother choosing a theory.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - Indeed.

A good example relations to the ordination of women as priests/ ministers.

If you examine the arguments they boil down to three:

1. The orthodox Catholic - based on 2000 years of tradition that women never have been priests. We may or may not believe that we understand the reasons for this tradition - but this consistent practice should not be changed without a compelling Christian reason.

2. The orthodox Protestant - scriptural. Biblical statements that (have for hundreds of years been interpreted that) men should be leaders in the church (this is not specifically about priests - rather it reates to 'pastors').

Note that scriptural evidence may implicitly include traditional interpretations.

Alternatively, there is the scriptural 'theory' that the meaning of scripture is 'whatever the latest/ most prestigious Biblical scholarship says it means' - in which case Christians simply ask Professor NT Wright (or equivalent) for his latest advice on how the should conduct the church and their lives.

3. Liberal - that the church should become consistent with societal changes in sex roles as far as possible, unless there is a compelling reason not to.


These three arguments amount to three *theories* of evaluation of church doctrine.

(There are others, these are the three most commonly applied to this issue)

- and more than one of these theories may be brought to bear; but when there is contradiction one or another may take precedence: tradition, scripture, or secular values.

Each of these theories has problems: gaps, inconsistencies, gray areas, hard cases - but the theories can be compared. And the grounds for comparison can be made clear; and the comparisons should use evidence where possible. "a matter of the heart... working upon experience and knowledge of how theology comes-out in practice."

Sometimes it is difficult to know how theology will come out in practice - but with some issues (including ordination of women; and the associated changes which go with this theory of evaluation) there is considerable experience of the consequences; so the decision can be made accordingly.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

There should be no difference between a scientist’s and a theologian’s idea of Truth. Ultimate truth in natural sciences is rightly deemed unattainable for us, because of the relative unintelligibility of material things (us included), linked to potentialities not actuated: any existent is intelligible only in the measure of its “actual” existence. We are then left with partial truths but we have to seek complete truth, always.

We can gain some idea of supernatural and transcendental Truth with our natural powers (metaphysics and natural theology), but as we are limited creatures, absolute Truth can only be given to us. We receive it from Revelation and theologians try to understand and explain it scientifically with the help of philosophy.

A theology which rejects philosophy – its scientific method – is not a science anymore; and when it rejects a Magisterium that can assert the contents of Revelation, every error and fantasy can be passed for revealed truth, hence all Christian heresies and sects. Thus, most theologies are wrong not only on details, but on fundamentals, beginning with the Real Eucharistic Presence. But this is not the case for Roman Catholic theology – at all.

Except for a few “disputed questions,” theology is based on asserted Revelation, that is, on real, absolute Truth, and is not in the least theoretical. And the Church is built on Christ and Revelation, not on theology. Our grasp of Revelation will always remain incomplete in this world, but there are no major error in the theology of the One True Church. If things need more explanation and precision, as David Warren wrote recently, we “sweat it through until we’ve fixed it,” as we have done for nearly 2000 years (quote and link in my post “On Theology and Western Civ.” http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/on-catholic-theology-and-western-civ/).

Adam G. said...

" The first objection that I would raise is that most-people may need to hold the idea that the church is completely accurate and right."

There is some evidence for this. Denominations that have rigorously asserted their exclusive truth claims and then backed away (Roman Catholics are a prime example) have at the same time suffered losses in membership and especially commitment.

But there is also some evidence against. The prime case is Mormonism. Mormons specifically believe that their prophets are fallible and their revelation incomplete and subject to revision. But in the main they act as if the prophets are infallible.

I wonder if its not the strong claim to complete accuracy that is necessary but rather sticking with the claim once its been made.

Bookslinger said...

This "more to be worked out later" and "more to be revealed later (by God)" is also very Mormon-ish.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - Somebody recently quoted to me an amusing saying which went something like: Roman Catholics assert that the Pope is infallible, but they don't really believe it; Mormons assert that their Prophet is fallible, but they don't really believe it.