Thanks for re-opening the conversation!

I started to answer the very thoughtful and much appreciated comments on my last post (which was about the physicists and the Darwinians not being on the same page) and I realized my responses were becoming essay-length! So I decided to turn them into a new post instead. Thank you, HI, for providing this marvelous stimulus. (At least it was marvelous to me. I hope it will be helpful to others.) I do get rather carried away and impetuous in some of what follows….

Hello HI, Yes, of course I remember you from cosmic variance, and I am deeply touched and humbled that you have been reading my blog all this time, and that you care enough to stay in conversation! Your points are excellent and once again you are calling me to task on a “short cut” I have been using that bothers me also. You are my conscience! 

But then, that is the case in any true conversation, isn’t it? And conversations between science and faith (or science and postmodernity) have got to be real conversations, because it takes a lot of commitment in this day and age even to venture out of the separate camps to talk to one another. 

First, you asked about my “shock and disillusionment” when reading many of the caustic comments over at cosmic variance about faith. (Not all the comments, by any means.) I was shocked that the understanding of religious experience and religious thought was so shallow, and yet so arrogantly dismissive at the same time. It was the intensity of dislike and “desire to stamp the other side out of existence” as Jennifer Ouelette put it, that shocked and saddened me so much.

Regretfully, I have realized much of this anger is due to the Intelligent Design movement, which encroaches onto scientific knowing and scientific classrooms and really does threaten the integrity of science, and therefore makes scientists very angry at Christians. I am very sad about the ID movement, and especially that people don’t realize that this attitude (or this literalistic way of reading Genesis) is not typical of Christianity in relation to science in the long historical view or in the wider global view. 

I want to deny with all my heart and strength that you could take 1) the Church’s persecution of Gallileo and 2) creationism and conclude that Christianity as a way of knowing, in its thought, is opposed to science, or that science is intelligent and religion is stupid and damaging. (Both science and religion have heavy crimes that could be placed to their accounts, btw.)

MY major theme, always, is that there are many valid ways of knowing, addressed to different facets of an enormously complex reality, and their methodologies are different, but they should all be respected and all have something to offer. Science deserves a place of honor, though, I agree. Still, I think that validity has to do with rigor and thoughtfulness and creativity in developing the methodologies, not with the sort of thing the knowing is being practiced for. (I know this isn’t how we think these days, which is why I go back to Plato and Aristotle’s vision of the pluralistic arts and sciences in my own work.)

About the greatness of Newtonian science, I fully agree with you, and my negative comments were not meant to take away from its brilliance or the wonderful basis it provided for contemporary science. I think that both science and Christianity have been historical ways of knowing that have evolved but stayed true to their foundational orientations and methodologies.

When I am critical of Newtonianism (or Cartesianism), I am looking at just one aspect of Newtonianism, let’s call that its worldview, or its cultural impact. Science isn’t really about worldview and culture (or about philosophy or theology either), but it does suggest various conclusions about these things, naturally, and that’s okay, but the West took Newtonian science and made it into a statement about the absolute knowledge of the West and the superiority of the West for having that absolutely factual and unassailable knowledge.

From a historical viewpoint, the Newtonian cultural worldview was intensely dogmatic, HI, and stressed absolute concrete FACTS and one way of looking at things — the scientific method — that is the only TRUE way. This “way” was associated with the masculine mind, “objectivity,” and “rationality.” And for me, because I am looking at things from the point of view of cultural studies, when relativity and Quantum Mechanics came along, this opened up that absolutist scientific worldview to mystery, complexity, and real, dynamical knowing instead of the closed, reductive way of treating nature embraced by Western culture in the earlier period of science. 

The physicists of the early QM decades realized that physical reality was far more subtle and complex than had been thought, and that knowing it was trickier than supposed. Instead of science being on the verge of a complete picture of physical reality at the end of the 19th century, huge new questions had opened up.

BUt most of all, from my perspective, physicists realized that they were working not with nature but with their own measurements of nature, and with such measurements as they were ABLE to take, not directly with the brute reality, whatever that is, from which the measurements are drawn.

There is of course still scientific law and scientific description, but now there is a philosophical gap between that description and “reality” — and this fact humbled the truth claims of science. Do watch or read Bronowsky’s Ascent of Man series in the episode about Newton and Einstein — here is where a great physicist like Bronowsky attempts to show us that after Einstein the way is open (again) to recognize that there are many levels or dimensions of reality and many ways of attempting to know those aspects and no one human way or discipline has an absolute claim or an ultimate grasp of the mystery or the meaning.

In other words, we can’t get at the brute fact, so to speak, directly. Human knowing is always MEDIATED — by our methodologies, by mathematics based on measurements for example, and by language, and worldviews — and this calls for “epistemological humility,” which is a great contribution of postmodern thought, as I see it.

Scientists, because they are not highly trained in philosophy or cultural studies for the most part, or historical studies, tend to feel that postmodern thought is saying science is “just socially constructed” and has no real and growing core of insights. They aren’t aware of the rich area that opens up in-between “absolute fact” and “culturally constructed” that has been mapped out in cultural studies and literary theory and Continental philosophy and other disciplines.

No, postmodern thought suggests something much more nuanced and subtle: that as humans all our knowing is mediated by assumptions and methods which both enable and limit our results. We cannot cometoknow in any other manner! Science is an amazing way of knowing, but not an absolute and universal one. It doesn’t and cannot study everything, and what it does study it studies in a mediated manner.  (The Darwinians have accomodated to this by introducing ways of studying rigorously a mental reality that is on a different level from chemistry and particle physics,  but the current cosmological physicists seem to think the mystery of “the fundamental reality of the natural world” is almost within their grasp. Beyond that ultimate mathematicization of the physical universe, lies nothing more to be said or explained or known.)

This seems so strange to me, given that science itself has learned that not only Newtonian mechanics but also relativity and all the rest may only be “local” realities, and may not apply in the vast majority of the universe. So you see, we have this magnificent opportunity to use and respect all the ways of knowing and to have conversations about their implications relative to one another — and instead in the U. S. we have hardened into this polarized war between an absolutist scientific outlook and an absolutist religious outlook.  This is tragic. There’s no other word for it.

The universities should be teaching kids the historical setting we are in right now and how this rich and exciting new opening for thought has been made by deconstructing modernity’s absolutes. Kids should see the wonders of thinking in all the disciplines (and in faith), when instead we seem to be disillusioned with thinking because it disturbs our illusory absolutes! These modern “absolutes” have been a prison camp shutting us off from the joy of seeking truth, for anti-theistic scientists and for scientistic Christians (fundamentalists) alike.

I want to try to use our own Western foundation in Plato and Aristotle to point us toward the many ways of knowing, without claiming humans can think they understand absolute truth in any of them, especially in religion. The difference between God and us prohibits us from doing more than witnessing to the intimations of truth we have experienced within our religious traditions, and on that basis. We cannot claim that we “know” the truth about God, because God is beyond any human grasp of truth, even if and when (as I believe) God becomes a human being to reveal to humans something of the genuine being of God.  What do humans do with that, by the way, but mangle it and murder it?

To take one example, as a traditonal Christian thinker I believe that God is in the world in the form of its formal order studied by science.  And God is also “formally” beyond the world and the formal order that sustains it that science studies. God is immanent AND transcendent. Another way to put this would be that the formal order within a richly ordered system transcends the system, and I’ve just been realizing that Godel’s theorem may say precisely this. (Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop is about so many of the things I’ve been working on in Plato and Aristotle, for example, and has a wonderful exposition of the meaning of Godel’s “incompleteness” theorum.)

So Western theology and Greek philosophy both reached into the Mystery of all that is and came out with the miracle of the elogant formalities of things. Science studies these elegant formalities in terms of physical matter and motion and the mathematical principles instantiated in them. Before the rise of science, those formalities “in” the physical world were felt by Christians to be wholly natural (or in and of nature), and yet were felt to be one with a transcendent formal vitality that cannot be limited to the natural world. (Which is basically what Dawkins says he believes in, in the interview I linked in my last post! That is what is so ironic. Dawkins believes in the pre-scientific “God” of the West, not in the “God” of modern science, who is a “ghost” in the machine. Over at cosmic variance, Sean Carroll says that the Judeao-Christian God is absolutely opposed to the “god of the philosophers” in the West,  but the same identification of “God” with the elegant formalities of things is everywhere in the biblical tradition. This is a huge subject….)

 This formally immanent and transcendent elegance the Greeks called the divine, and so did the European Christians who came after the Greeks. This is why we have Terry Eagleton attacking Richard Dawkins so vehemently, because Dawkins knows nothing about the depths of Western religious thought and its brilliant exploration into the nature of things.

Isn’t it sad that we can remain so isolated in our own little fields and so hostile to the fields of others? I think that this “fortess” mentality arise from the assumption that humans can have absolute factual knowledge of the truth of things. And this was introduced in the Cartesian and Newtonian Era as the scientific Modern Western worldview. The critique of Modernity — i.e. the postmodern (I would include Einstein and the QM thinkers, btw, as being postmodern in their critique of modernity) — deconstructs these absolutist claims.

But by saying the science can’t get at its own aspect of reality completely, or without mediation (any more than any other way of knowing can), and that science’s results are therefore limited rather than absolute, doesn’t make science’s progress any less real and amazing. But scientists are still thinking (like fundamentalist Christians) that if our knowledge isn’t an absolute truth, then it is “merely relative.”

No, because of postmodernity, we can all return to our roots, that ancient view that knowing is based upon long and thoughtful participation in rigorous ways of knowing. So I’m not saying that truth is any less important to human beings in postmodern times than it ever was.  But what ID fundamentalists and hard-rationalist scientists don’t admit is that WE know that truth “only as we can.” And that means we’d better be very hesitant about asserting that our human grasp on that truth is certain and absolute and overrules every other kind of insight. Doing that is likely to change the part of the truth we think we know into a lie.

Within Christianity, outside of modern North America, it has always been held that the truth that has reached out to us (while also being in us as the natural order that is our bodily and mental life) is Mystery (and most amazingly, a Mystery of Goodness and Love as well as of elegant formal order) and we are trying to cometoknow it, but can only do so in very limited and feeble ways. And in that, pride is our greatest enemy.

You know, HI, pride IS our greatest enemy as human beings, in trying to come-to-know the things we yearn to know about. And I mean that literally, you DO seem to know that. Being Christians or scientists doesn’t insulate us from pride. We humans are a very fallible and self-destructive kind of living being. (This too is a postmodern or deconstructive response to Modernity’s ideal of the rational and objective and entirely free white-male Western mind!)

Here’s where, as it often noticed, the postmodern and the premodern (the earlier Western tradition before the rise of science) share deep affinities. Which is why you have a contemporary Marxist literary theorist like Eagleton defending medieval Christian theologians against a high modernist like Dawkins… 
I’ve gone on waay too long, but I must say something in response to the last question you posed before staggering into the kitchen for some breakfast:
“From my prejudiced point of view, what was fascinating [about the New Yorker piece on the Amazonian tribe’s unusual language] was that Everett (who seemed to be a Christian first and a linguist second) gave up on his Christian faith after interacting with Piraha people, but he still thinks linguistics as a useful approach to understand Piraha people, even though he no longer believes in Chomskyan theory. As someone from a non-Christian tradition, I just wonder how you can remain a Christian when confronted with a different cultural tradition.”

You are already postmodern, HI, because you have the wonderful humility and openness to say “from my prejudiced point of view”! So in return, “from my prejudiced point of view,” let me say that my deepest beliefs as a Christian come from the interactions of different cultural traditions around the meaning and practice of the Christian message. As a medievalist and Renaissance scholar, I study Christian thinkers in other times and places — Augustine and Aquinas, for instance — and also in the world church in other places, in South Africa with the truth and reconciliation hearings, for instance, and this forces me to give up my parochial North American scientistic ideas of what the Gospel is or might be. (And shows me that reading and interpreting the scriptures is limited in the same ways that mathematicizing nature is, and we need to be very undogmatic about it.)

When I encounter Christian faith in all these different times and cultures, I recognize “something,” despite all these historical and cultural differences. As a Christian, meeting new cultures clarifies and deepens my understanding of how limited my own outlook really is, especially as a Christain. So I don’t suppose that human beings need my own particular cultural rendition of the Gospel in order to experience a connection to God, or that they even need any rendition of the Gospel that I might recognize.  Contact with ultimate reality can’t be limited, nor can divine Love.

As a Christian, I do believe the news about what God has done in Christ (however little I may understand it) is true, and I have found that it does connect me to God, based on a lifetime of experience that has been rigorously disciplined by the Christian tradition and its thought and practice. But I don’t believe that I understand or represent it very well, or that I don’t betray it all the time, even in well-intentioned ways.  I’m thankful for a way to know God, but I can’t absolutize that way (my undersanding of that way), not because it isn’t true, but because I can’t know that truth very well. I am inherently limited as a knower of anything, and inherently gifted, too.

One thing different cultures have taught me, though, is that I can’t think the truth I seek to experience through being a Christian is reducible to any set of facts or propositions that, in some absolute and final and in a closed way “equals the truth”! The Judeao-Christian tradition is filled with human beings who claimed to know and practice the truth perfectly and who were judged to be merely empty vessels of self-righteousness and pride — at the farthest remove from actually knowing God. God looks on the heart and knows our deepest desires for the good of the world. God is Love.

I suppose I am, personally, more like Everett’s wife, in that I love linguistics as a way of knowing and I want to move way away from Chomsky, and yet I would also like to truly know how the Piraha live and think and speak, for their own sake but also to encounter their own unique cultural responses to the Christian message, because I think it would teach me as much or more than it teaches them… 

And like a scientist, I know that my faith is always open to new evidence and must prove itself anew and that it might not do so. Faith is a way of knowing.  What calls to us to be known is so much greater than our knowing ever is. Perhaps Goodness and Love are not the ultimate realities; perhaps I do not really know what goodness is or love, and do not even recognize them when I meet them, or mistake them for something else. I am dependent upon the elegant formalities of things to reveal to me (or not) that the awe-inspiring elegant formalities that science studies may have another even more glorious face.

I haven’t talked about that “short cut” that bothers my conscience, but this is way more than enough for today.  I’m sorry if I’ve gotten way off track, but I’m letting this go out into the blogosphere as it is…and staggering off into the kitchen for breakfast now….

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