Monday, 13 January 2014

An hypothesis which apparently explains everything, actually explains nothing (applied to understanding the nature of God)


The above was - for me at any rate - a truism of science.

An hypothesis which explains everything is un-dis-proveable. It could be so inclusive as to explain whatever happens - to include all opposite happenings; or (and this seems common) an hypothesis is so vague and imprecise, or so highly abstract and remote from experience and observation, as to be essentially disarticulated from any possible counter-evidence.

How about religion, theology, and Christianity in particular - does the above maxim also apply?

Yes it does apply. Any religious theory or belief which explains everything is immune from counter example, which means that it is detached from observable reality - past, present or future.

I think it is inevitable that metaphysical beliefs are of this kind - that they are assumptions which structure our interpretation of experience and observation, but can neither be confirmed nor refuted.


What of the nature of God? Is knowledge of the nature of God a metaphysical assumption which explains everything and is immune to all possible eventualities; or is understanding the nature of God a matter of experience (including revelation) and observation (things that happen to us and which we perceive), which can therefore be modified by experience and observation?


For classical theology, the nature of God is (par excellence) described in terms of an hypothesis which explains everything - God is described as containing everything, the creative source of everything, sustaining of everything - all powerful, present everywhere, all-knowing...

Therefore this is an hypothesis which is immune to all possible experience and observation (including being immune to all actual and conceivable sources of revelation - such as scripture or personal revelation).

Therefore the classical theological explanation of God is on the one hand irrefutable, and can be believed with absolute security - but at the cost of explaining nothing (and, by the way, rendering revelation superfluous).


The 'pluralist' understanding of the nature of God is a consequence of experience and observation - especially of actual revelations as derived from specific writings and persons (potentially including ourselves).

The pluralist God does not explain everything - and therefore the understanding of a pluralist God could be shaped and even refuted by events.


To believe in a pluralist understanding of God is to acknowledge a radical insecurity in terms that contradiction, exposure of error is always theoretically possible - not that it is a realistic possibility for a person of solid faith.

A Man may have total confidence in his knowledge of God and his relationship with God - but this confidence is not a confidence which comes from knowing a priori that whatever happens could not in principle refute him.

The confidence of a Man of solid faith in a pluralist God is that some things will not happen. Total confidence that future events will not, as a matter of fact, be such as to refute his understanding.

Not because future events cannot refute faith, but because they will not refute faith.



Samson J. said...

Therefore this is an hypothesis which is immune to all possible experience and observation (including being immune to all actual and conceivable sources of revelation - such as scripture or personal revelation).

Therefore the classical theological explanation of God is on the one hand irrefutable

"Immune to all sources of revelation" - perhaps. But not irrefutable. I recommend everyone read Ed Feser's excellent The Last Superstition, in which he explains that the classical conception of God, best developed by Thomas Aquinas, isn't really a "hypothesis" in the way that we would commonly understand that term - in the sense of something that could be "disproven" by evidence. It's rather a logical, deductive proof.

You seem perpetually to suggest that logical proofs are not worthwhile, which I think is an awfully weird position to hold.

but at the cost of explaining nothing (and, by the way, rendering revelation superfluous).

What, oh what, *can* you mean by this?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - If it works for you - fine. I'm trying to do something else - I'm trying to do theology in the 'pragmatism' school/ style of William James; using different metaphysical presuppositions. Why? Because they solve some of the metaphysical problems which lie nearest the core of Christianity, while pragmatism provides a clear and coherent explanation of the core things - I mean how God can be wholly Good, yet there is vast suffering, how Men have free will, what is the relationship of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and Man - in other words pragmatism solves the toughest and most faith destroying (and divisive) problems with Classical Metaphysics. Pragmatism has its own problems, but these are not at the core of Christian belief - so I think it is - on the whole - better!

DougCLind said...

Ok, I'm no philosopher so I don't get what all your terms imply, however when you use the word "everything", that IS a word I can wrap my mind around. Seems to me like you're trying to combine the idea of potentially explaining everything and actually explaining everything. I have no idea what this "classical theological explanation of God" is. I just read the Bible and see what's there. And what IS there is "in whom we live and move and have our very being", and "for by him all things were created ... and in him all things hold together." So he is a super intelligent being who lives outside of space and time, since he created them.

Knowing or believing this doesn't give you any understanding of Einsteinian Relativity or of quantum mechanics or of any other scientific discipline. But we can see in the Bible that God is a god of order and that leads to the belief that what he created follows orderly principles. That belief is behind all scientific investigation and it also leads to the belief that everything could eventually be understood.

So the description of God in the Bible potentially explains everything. In actuality it DOES explain what we see in human nature and it DOES explain, in general principles, how everything got to be the way it is, i.e. the origin of the earth and why human nature is what it is. But it explains nothing in terms of the specifics of chemistry and physics, for example.

As a contrast, the "theory" of evolution is one that is so vague that it can explain everything, even contradictory observations such as the sulfur bacteria which supposedly showed no change over 2 1/2 billion years. So it IS an example of theory which supposedly explains everything but in actuality explains nothing. And the closer and more objectively you look, the worse it gets. It's PROponents specialize in bluster, bombast, and baloney (or bluff.)

The biblical description of God is the opposite. The closer and more objectively you look, the better it gets. It's OPPONENTS specialize in bluster, bombast, and baloney (or bluff.) So I don't know about the classical description of God but the biblical one doesn't really fit the description of being immune from observation and experience. As a matter of fact the biblical God invites investigation: "taste and see that the Lord is good." So maybe the problem is relying on "classical theology." Better to just stick with the Bible and get on with things.