Monday, 18 May 2015

The big problem - and the solution

The problem is one that is easier to notice and feel than it is to prove, but I would suggest that it is something like this: that life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow. 

I do not mean that our lives are meaningless, nor that the opportunity liberal democracy uniquely gives to pursue our own conception of happiness is remotely misguided. On a day-to-day basis most of us find deep meaning and love from our families and friends and much else. But there are questions which remain, which have always been at the centre of each of us and which liberal democracy on its own not only cannot answer but was never meant to answer. 

“What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” These are questions which human beings have always asked and are still there even though today to even ask such questions is something like bad manners.

What is even more, the spaces where such questions might be asked — let alone answered — have shrunk not only in number but in their ambition for answers. And if people no longer seek for answers in churches will they find them in occasional visits to art galleries or book clubs? ...

But what is interesting to me is that everything about these accounts is both of our time and runs against the assumptions of our time. The search for meaning is not new. What is new is that almost nothing in our culture applies itself to offering an answer.

Nothing says, “Here is an inheritance of thought and culture and philosophy and religion which has nurtured people for thousands of years.” At best the voice says, “Find your meaning where you will.”

At worst it is the nihilist’s creed: “All this has no meaning.” Meanwhile politicians — seeking to address the broadest range of people — speak so widely and with such generalities as to mean almost nothing.

Almost nowhere is there a vision of what a meaning-filled life might be. The wisdom of our time suggests that education, science and the sheer accessibility of information must surely have knocked such urges out of us. And the divide can be staggering...

I know that non-religious people do not like talk like this. And I know that religious people find it frustrating because for real believers the question will always be, “Why do you not just believe?”

Yet this latter question simply ignores the probably irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal truth-claims of religion and ignores the fact that people cannot be forced into faith.

Excellent diagnosis - terrible (non-) prescription.

What is the point of saying that we are painted into a corner without checking whether we really are painted into a corner? What is this nonsense about the probably irreversible damage that science and historical criticism have done to the literal truth-claims of religion?

Honestly, people really need to be able to distinguish between metaphysics and wissenschaft. Science and historical criticism exclude religion by assumption, therefore they can have nothing to say - and say nothing - about the truth claims of religion.


No actual or possible discovery of science or history makes or could make any difference to the truth of religion. If  you don't understand this, then that is what you need to understand.

Don't keep on and on and on spouting nonsense - stop; analyze the nonsense and find out why it is nonsense.  


And what is this straw-mannic stuff about 'literal' truth-claims? I have never come across a literal truth-claim from anybody that did not really mean something contextualized. Words need to be interpreted for intentions; especially when words are the end-product of chains of forced choices. Accusations of literalism are just a rhetorical device to discredit the opposition. Nothing at all is 'literally' true - in the sense that religion is supposed not to be literally true - certainly science is never literally true (even when uncontroversially regarded as correct).


Sometimes things really are simple - this situation is simple.

“What am I doing here? What is my life for? Does it have any purpose beyond itself?” Do you really want to know the answers? If so, then choose your religion.


Religions can't be invented to order, not real ones; so decide which existing religion is true/ truest, and then get on with it.

Get on with it as best you can.  

You may not get it right first time, or second time or even third time (we work by trial and evaluation, repentance and try-again), but you will at least be on the path, and moving broadly in the correct direction.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

No actual or possible discovery of science or history makes or could make any difference to the truth of religion.

Well, that just isn't true. Much of religion is metaphysics, true, but it also contains claims which are subject to historical confirmation or disconfirmation. For example, that Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried" (the 4th article of the Apostles' Creed) is a straightforward historical claim which could in principle be substantiated or disproven by ordinary historical evidence.

Mormonism in particular makes sweeping historical claims which are foundational to the religion itself. Any evidence that there never were any Nephites or Lamanites, for example, is also evidence that the Book of Mormon is false and the CJCLDS founded on lies.

I know that your position is that the available historical evidence happens to be ambiguous and inconclusive, and that we must therefore choose what to believe, but that's not the same as this much stronger claim that no conceivable evidence ever could be relevant to the truth of a religion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Either metaphysics can be disproven by science, or not. If you decide that it can be - then that is a change of metaphysics, not a discovery of science.

If Mormonism chooses to open itself to disproof from secular history, then that is a metaphysical decision. There is nothing inevitable about it. It would be possible to dispose of any historical or scientific 'evidence' contrary to the the sacred history - indeed that has been usual for many/ most religions.

According to Owen Barfield, the proper way to interpret the Galileo affair was that at that point science was given hierarchical superiority over the church - this was not an empirical discovery, it was a metaphysical change.

Science was accorded the authority to define the truth about reality - whereas up to that point science was only allowed to be 'saving the appearances' by ad hoc hypotheses (it being recognized that typically several hypotheses could account for any given set of observations).

The same applies to history (mutatis mutandis).

ted said...

Getting on with a religion is fine, but many contemporaries today have the Jesus-willies and can't relate to fundamentalists and strict dogma. I suppose the question is can we create a new language for the same metaphysical truths. I suppose some theologians are doing this (Joseph Bracken comes to mind who brings a systems/evolutionary approach to the Trinity.) Not easy, messy, but worth a try I suppose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - OK, but you can only do this kind of thing *after* becoming a Christian.

Nicholas Fulford said...

If you want to say that all conceptual systems - of which science is one and a particular religion is another - have a metaphysical set of axioms then all is well and good and few will disagree.

What distinguishes science from religious systems is not that they each have a set of metaphysical axioms, but that under science, empiricism provides a way to cull away at what is false. I would submit that this has been demonstrated repeatedly as true. At any particular point what we know scientifically is incomplete and contains error, but through the practice of the scientific method what is false is culled. Technology - the practical progeny of science - is something which stands as prima facia evidence. Build a computer or an airplane using a religious system without science and see how far it gets us. Not very far.

Religion *can* form a basis for establishing purpose and generate meaning through the practice of its precepts. Religion *can* unify a community and result in many social goods, of which charity, love of one's neighbour stand out. But religion can also yield some distinctly dark fruit as well. In this regard it really is a mixed bag looked at over time.

Nihilism - deconstructing the basis for meaning - yields anti-social expression, depression, anger and alienation. (Nihilism and young men often tend to go hand in hand, and religion may be a useful antidote to this mostly modern malaise, but one must beware that the wrong form of religion can yield an even worse outcome if it follows nihilism.)

The question for me is: Can a metaphysical system be derived which yields the advantages of the best of religion - without the harms of nihilism and religious zealotry - while still retaining the full benefits of empirical science? Is a *good* religion so much a matter of "belief" as providing purpose and meaning that are congruent with harmony over discord that is scalable from the individual to family to society to humanity to the whole ecology?

We have a very unfortunate situation today in that we have the capacity to have great effect without the means to constrain the harms which result. What may seem beneficial on a local or time limited scale is harmful in the long term. This indicates that as a species we have some traits that need to be modified, but we have the unfortunate perspective of seeing that and trying to modify those traits while still possessing and being biased by those same traits. There are problems of aggregate behaviours, games theory, vestment and psychological and social fragmentation and dissociation.

I actually think that people tend to behave better in small relatively homogeneous and isolated communities where the good of the community and the individual are tightly bound to each other.
The degree to which a world ecology can be compromised is also strictly bound when people inhabit "islands" which limit them. Our ability to move beyond those natural limits, to go anywhere, to grow as large in numbers as our technological savvy permits has had very undesirable contraindications. (In this regard the scientific method has merely provide an amplifier that makes matter worse because without it we never would have been able to have become quite so big for our britches.)

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Metaphysics in the strict sense is not subject to empirical proof or disproof, but my point is that religion is more than just metaphysics. (Buddhism could perhaps be considered an exception; Christianity, certainly not.) That's what I was trying to convey with the examples I gave. "Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified" is no more a metaphysical assertion than is "Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth." If the one is subject to empirical disconfirmation, so is the other.

In principle, some form of Christian-inspired metaphysics could survive the disproof of every one of Christianity's empirical claims, but that would no longer be Christianity as we know it. Metaphysics is not what makes Christianity Christian -- which is why, as you have often pointed out, the Thomist and the Mormon can both be Christian despite dramatic metaphysical differences.

Imnobody said...


What distinguishes science from religious systems is not that they each have a set of metaphysical axioms, but that under science, empiricism provides a way to cull away at what is false.

Right. (Natural) science is the easy stuff because its realm (the physical reality) is easy to check by empirical experiments.

This empiricism cannot be applied to history (you cannot apply experiments to determine the cause of the French Revolution), most social sciences, metaphysics, philosophy, ethics, religious systems or atheism.

All these realms cannot have a 100% certainty as natural sciences do, but can be explored by other methods different to the method that the natural sciences use.

Believing the natural science method is the only way to explore the truth because it is so error-free is like the drunkard who lost their keys and he is only looking for them under the lamppost because the light is much better there.

Religion *can* [do a lot of good things] But religion can also yield some distinctly dark fruit as well.

Right. Like everything. Love can be dangerous too. A lot of people get killed by lovers. So can we find a better feeling that has all the benefits of love (without the dark fruit of the violence) and with the benefits of empirical science?

Cars? They are very useful but they can give the dark fruit of car accidents. Can't we find a transportation system which is 100% safe?

Government? Most wars have been produced by governments so we must find a better way that has all the advantages and no drawbacks. Anarchy, anyone?

Family? The majority of child abuse comes from the same family. Maybe we can find a better way.

Science? Well, they produced the nuclear bomb, most wars have used science as a way of killing more. Science has enabled American imperialism throughout the world. It powered the Holocaust. Dr. Mengele was a scientist. Can't we figure a better way without those dark fruits?

Atheism? Way more killings than religion. See the numbers.

The question for me is: Can a metaphysical system be derived which yields the advantages of the best of religion - without the harms of nihilism and religious zealotry - while still retaining the full benefits of empirical science?

You are looking for an unicorn. Real world does not have things that are 100% perfect. Christians say that this is a fallen world. An atheist could say that all things have advantages and drawbacks.

Religion has produced way less dark fruit than atheism but it is not perfect either.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NF, WmJas, Imn

I have been inside science as it actually is and (to some extent) was; and I can assure you that it is not and never has been anything to do with certainty or that sort of thing.

All the time one is doing science, human judgments are being made - or else protocols are being followed which depend on human judgment. There is no such thing as 'scientific method' - unless it is arbitrary; and then it does not apply to most examples of successful science from the past.

Indeed real science cannot be distinguished from normal activity in terms of method - its main attribute is indeed ethical (as Jacob Bronowski perceived) that is The Habit of Truth - to be truthful in all matters, great and small.

And 'science' as it is *now* has nothing more to do with the truth than the pronouncements of any government bureau - because modern 'science' is permeated with hype, spin, selectiveness, distortion and outright lies.

Dishonesty = not-science and there is nothing more to be said about it: methodologies cannot, now or ever, compensate for lack of honesty. Garbage (Lies) In - Garbage (Rubbish) Out.

WmJas - You are taking a Platonic God's Eye view as if you knew for sure and exactly what happened and what was real; but science and history operate from within a human perspective that is utterly different.

The metaphysics is the set of rules about what counts as evidence, what counts as evaluation and proof etc. Christianity is compatible with many metaphysical systems.

But with science and history being as they actually are, it is a metaphysical choice whether or not any specific thing counts as evidence.

After all, the prevalent metaphysic in secular modernity assumes that there are no miracles and every report of a miracle is not a miracle. There is no need to investigate because it is already 'known' for sure that miracles cannot happen, and that all reports of miracles are due to some kind of combination of lies, gullibility, mental disorder, low intelligence, lack of knowledge or whatever.

Similarly, many/ most religions have been protected from disproof by the assumption that anything put forward as evidence against them was likewise a product of human error/ deceit or whatever.

This isn't at all unusual. Religious Native Americans often believe that their ancestors have always inhabited the Americas (and that therefore they did not come across the Bering Straits from Asia 15,000 years ago - or whatever the current estimate may be). They simply assume that the apparent evidence regarding this is mistaken, because it must be mistaken. And of course the evidence has indeed been interpreted within a vast theoretical construct of evolution, geological change etc. including huge assumptions and gaps - so maybe they are correct.

But my point is that the fact that science or history is regarded as evidence at all, or in specific bits, is inescapably part of the metaphysical system.

So while I agree that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false - for any specific communication on this theme to regarded as evidence one way or another, requires a metaphysical decision.

And that is where metaphsyics comes in.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I just don't think most Native Americans (or other religious people) are operating within an alternative metaphysical framework which has different standards for what counts as evidence. Rather, they have pretty much the same idea as anyone else as to what constitutes empirical evidence, but they make unprincipled exceptions when it comes to certain beliefs which they are unwilling to question.

I agree with you that science can have nothing to say about miracles and other such things which science excludes from consideration by definition, but it can have a great deal to say about other claims made by religions -- those claims which, apart from their special relevance to religious beliefs, are just ordinary historical claims which can be judged by ordinary standards.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - OK, let's say that 'unprincipled exceptions' can be part of the description of a person's metaphysics - they can amount to (can be evidence of) what is primary to their system of underlying assumptions.

The thing about unprincipled exceptions is that they can never be encapsulated.

For example, fifty years ago, Leftism made an unprincipled exception that all races and both sexes had exactly identical intelligence - and since then that single metaphysical assumption (as I would now have to call it) has come to structure the lives, laws, rules, science of the West. The rules of evidence, what counts as evidence - how we interpret it, has been transformed - even reversed.

This is a very profound thing, with wide spread consequences - yet undisproveable by any actual or conceivable discovery; which is why I think it is reasonable to consider it part of metaphysics.

The 'exception' is defended vigorously exactly because the whole New Left (politically correct) metaphysics (ideology) has come to depend on it - although seventy years ago sex and race differences in intelligence were a part of Leftist metaphysics/ ideology, indeed emanated from it.

Nicholas Fulford said...

My main concern is that the fruits of empiricism have yielded a capacity for surpluses that have enabled us to grow beyond the point which is healthy for us as individuals, communities and ecologically. We have demonstrated repeatedly that we will expand to fill any available space that we perceive of as having utility.

Ethics be damned - we are the master species. (The master of what has yet to be determined, but I don't like many of the possibilities. It reminds me of a comic I saw years ago during the cold war of a man pressing a button with a mushroom cloud popping out of his head. The caption read, "Man showing his superiority over animals.")

Such hubris: And then the most primitive and aggressive forms of behaviour express themselves as shadows given reign without inhibitors - social or environmental. Man requires governance and limits or his deep and ancient drives unbound will unfold with all the destructive effect that our scientific and technical prowess allows.

We have such capacity for experiencing and creating beauty and meaning, and such capacity for committing the most horrific of acts through self-centredness, short-sightedness, indifference and addiction.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
- Hamlet Act II, scene 2: 303-212.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nicholas - Indeed. I think we are both old enough to remember that era in the early 1970s - when Schumacher came to prominence, but others along the same lines as well - when it looked as if Western Man had acknowledged that he had *enough*, and therefore it was now time to move the emphasis onto 'higher things' - and we both know that nothing of the sort happened, but we instead took the path of more and more and more 'stuff' - and that trend continues....

ajb said...

"No actual or possible discovery of science or history makes or could make any difference to the truth of religion."

I echo WJms's comments - this is a perplexing statement.

Certain discoveries are *discoveries* that change our view of the world, and impact our interpretation of (in this case) theologies or Biblical exegesis.

When Jesus supposedly goes to the top of a mountain and looks at all the nations of the world (Matthew 4), we can say (now) that this could not occur in a straightforward sense.

This in turn puts pressure on certain kinds of claims of Biblical infallibility.

Of course, one can maintain the view that he did go to a really high mountain and view all the nations of the world in a straightforward sense. Yet, this comes *at a cost* - you have to start making seemingly implausible claims in other places, or just assert things brutely ('I don't know how to explain it, but it must be right because that's my world view').

To use a modern phrase, a world view can become more and more 'high-maintenance'.

My feeling is that you're taking an insight (metaphysical assumptions can greatly affect our interpretation of empirical discoveries) and stretching it to become an untruth (it's all just metaphysical assumptions, it makes sense to just believe whatever we want).

Indeed, you seem to be undermining the basis of your critique of things like political correctness.

"Science and historical criticism exclude religion by assumption"

Except that most scientists through history - and most of the best scientists - have been religious. You're talking about specific scientists, who say 'there's no such things as divine actions', therefore if something seems like it's due to divine action, it must be something else. This is to conflate a certain view within science with science itself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I think we need to step outside of this particular era, and the whiggish interpretation of history.

Also to recall that the main change in the world over the past century has been the growth of Christianity's most formidable rival - growing up within a modern world including all the evidence from history or science.

I can only reiterate, that to suppose history or science evidentially contradicts Christianity is to misread metaphysical change as if it was development within an empirical subject.

I'll put forward another example - the origin of species by natural selection. This is a metaphysical system which has (mostly) displaced Christian accounts of evolution. But what actually happened was simply that Darwin, arguing from an the analogy of quantitative within-species changes produced by artificial animal breeding, said that 1. natural processes could do the same as artificial selection (true); and over a sufficient timescale such quantitative changes could become qualitative and lead to differences between all major forms of life (pure speculation - still without empirical confirmation).

On this basis the argument was that this actually did happen, and Christianity was supposedly disproved by science. Well, it wasn't - but that is what people assume has happened.

In other words, people repeatedly misinterpret changes in the structure of enquiry, changes in the assumptions behind science, history or whatever (ie changes in metaphysics) as if they were discoveries resulting from observation/ experiment etc.

Another example, historical Biblical scholarship. Before the modern era, scripture was assumed to have emerged under direct divine guidance - including miracles, revelations etc.

But scholars such as Strauss began to study the Bible using the methods of secular historical scholarship, philology etc - which excluded any special divine/ miraculous/ revelatory mechanisms - and then the scholars (and pundits) claimed that scholarship had discovered all sorts of problems with scripture which were interpreted as having invalidated claims of divine guidance/ miracles/ revelations etc. Christianity was weakened.

What had changed were the assumptions; but what was claimed was that evidence had challenged religious truth.

What I see is NOT a series of challenges from wissenschaftlich academia; but just a string of category errors, resulting from a mixture of ignorance, incompetence and dishonesty.

In the end, each of us is responsible for our beliefs; and it seems that over a century or two many people were looking-for excuses (not reasons) to reject Christianity.

Looking at modern society, the *real* reason for the bulk of apostasy *seems* mostly to have been the hope of taking advantage of one or another aspect of the sexual revolution. But history and science have been among the more plausible excuses.