Friday, July 25, 2008

Introductory Blog: Life as a Question Mark

The Templeton Foundation's most recent "big question" asks whether science makes belief in God obsolete. Reading through the postings there I realized that someone needs to make a simple observation, and then make it over and over again: There are things--basic things, crucial things, momentous things--that no one can know.

I don't mean the grains of sand on the seashore variety, then. The class of "things" I have in mind relates to the fact that, ontologically speaking, there is no privileged position to be had within human experience. It's the question Kant introduced by his self-styled "Copernican revolution" in philosophy: What is the epistemic status of metaphysical speculation? His answer: it is all speculation. For our knowledge does not extend to the "noumenal"--to that which outstrips the forms of experience possible to us as human beings. Paul Tillich gave the point its simplest expression: "Finite being is a question mark." (Systematic Theology, Vol. One, p. 209.)

Of course, science does pull back the veil in a sense: Ingenious telescopes and microscopes, particle colliders and spectrographic instruments, and so much more have revealed astounding and unguessed insights.

And yet, the class of "things" that science does not and cannot reveal to us is literally the most significant class for determining what human life is about: It is the class of basic metaphysical assumptions. And it contains beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality, the ultimate origin of all that we can know, and whether that ultimate origin helps us to determine anything positive in the spheres of values and morality. Kant answered with his famous "antinomies"--arguments designed to show that the ultimate questions can be argued equally well in both directions. God--no God; beginning to the material universe--no beginning; ultimate meaning to existence--no ultimate meaning, etc.

No doubt, many persons are distracted by the marvelous success and progress of science and technology. (And that success is so well known that it need not be elaborated.) But that distraction is ironic, if Kant was right about both the purely speculative theoretical role of metaphysics and its crucial practical role in ordering human morals and values. The irony is that the marvelous success of science and technology has not made the basic questions that religion has traditionally answered less important, but rather much more important. And here's why the Templeton Foundation's question of God's continued relevance in the face of science's ever broadening influence prompted me to muse in a Kantian mode: the divergence of views presented in that forum clearly depict the basic truth of Kant's view, that our basic metaphysical views are both crucial practically and pure speculation theoretically.

And since religion traditionally has claimed its own form of revelation--the kind that cannot be revealed through scientific instruments, no matter how wonderful--it seems that someone should be asking these questions: How can we evaluate the religious truth claims which purportedly can fill the void that science cannot? Moreover, how can religion reveal anything to us, if it makes claims that can never be more than speculation, theoretically?

These are weighty questions that thoughtful persons will want answers to. And they require us to question the way we think about them--a questioning of the means of pursuing answers to the questions. A questioning of how revelation might emerge out of the fog of metaphysical speculation. I invite you to ponder these questions with me--or better said, I invite you to "metaponder" them with me!

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