Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yet Another Reaction: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make "God" Obsolete?

In the last post I signed off till after the holidays, not realizing that there would be any more commenting to respond to on the Templeton Big Question site. But there was, and the response actually helped me push my understanding of the interface of "belief and unbelief" along. So it's worth sharing. And again, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

RE: Whole Series
Eugene Bucamp
Tracy Witha (09/19) claims that religious faith helps answer existential questions that science cannot. This is not true. There are in fact two very different kinds of existential questions, at least as I know them: the metaphysical ones and the ones arising from some form of psychological misery. Metaphysical questions exist in two varieties, those that are trivially absurd and those which we don't quite understand, let alone try to answer, and are likely absurd too. Both sorts we can ignore here unless someone gives an example worthy of consideration.

The second sort of existential questions, those that arise from some form of psychological misery, e.g., a medical condition, inadaptability to social intercourse, a serious conflict with somebody else. etc., most likely would not arise if not for the underlying misery. Hence, they would disappear if scientific progress could remedy the underlying condition. Though we are trying, it is true that we are not very good at it yet, but we can also note that science already remedies many cases of physical distress, something no religion does, which are also cause for psychological misery and hence a source of existential questions. Hence, science demonstrably does what Tracy Witham says it could not.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham

In considering Eugene Bucamp's comments of 12/16, I am led to the view that science (and research more generally) cannot answer an existential question. Two examples: 1. A young person wonders whether her life would be more productive of good if she became a teacher or an MD. In this case, a battery of tests and multiple research projects would be telling. Consequently, the question is instrumental; it asks how to achieve a goal, and science can help. 2. A young person wonders whether she should become a teacher to use her life to help others or become an actor to fulfill a personal passion. In this case, the question is existential because it asks what her life is to be about. It involves a choice between two values competing for primacy in her life, and science must wait till the choice is made to be of service.

It is obvious that the Ten Commandments, for instance, seek to tie a person's sense of what life is about to love of God and God's law, or as rendered in the New Testament, love of God and "neighbor," which is seen as fulfilling the law. Now one can clearly and truly speak of one's foundational value system as one's "God." This is apparent even in the atheistic writings of Sartre, for instance.

In that case, "God" remains relevant even for atheists, at least to the extent that they live according to well-formed value systems, systems that can be informed but not determined by science. Science cannot make "God" obsolete in this sense. In fact, "God" remains the most relevant question a person can ask, in this particular meaning of the term. Since the Foundation's Big Question HERE concerns God's continued relevance, not existence, this view carries the day.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reaction #5: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make Faith in God Obsolete?

In this final reaction I ask about the wisdom of engaging in this exchange in the first place.

As indicated in an earlier remark, I view the "conversation" as a pastiche of opinions rather than a true conversation. And as was also indicated earlier, that alone has value, as the pastiche forms a pretty good view of the range of opinion on the subject. But did the dialog actually move "the big question" forward? On that question, the answer has to be no.

An example from my experience will be helpful. As readers will know, I offered an argument to the effect that religion offers existential guidance of a form that science does not and cannot (see Reaction #1). A telling and interesting way to challenge my argument would have been to note that unless religion--"God" for purposes of this post--is the only game around for informing existential questions, that my argument does not put "God" on very strong ground. In fact the very reason that Tillich's theology is next in line for posts here on Metaponderance is that Tillich's view of faith as "ultimate concern" makes that very point. But I digress. Here's how the "conversation" in the comments concluded on the thread my argument started:

RE: Whole Series
Walter W. Lee
Regarding John Cozijn's comment of (09/19): I submit a scientific theory: the inescapable basis for human values is the survivability of the species.

Observation on Mr. Lee's comment:

"Existentialism" is infamously difficult to define, but the reason is straightforward. In all of its forms it stresses the need for existing individuals to determine the meaning and values that guide them. Therefore the one way that a person can respond to a premise that claims that science cannot give human being existential guidance and completely miss the mark is to posit "survivability" as science's answer. ("Existence," in effect, cannot be the answer to an existential question. But the response does make me smile.)

Since I will assume for discussion here that the commentators on the Templeton exchange are bright and well intentioned, I must conclude that Mr. Lee has never taken the possibility that the opposing side has anything worthy of careful consideration to say. Which is to say that, at least where my comments are concerned, only the appearance of a conversation took place--and an appearance that is easily dispelled by careful consideration.

The final comment in the thread I started is worth noting, for the suggestion it provides on just what level the "conversation" was taking place.

RE: Whole Series
Jack King
Walter W. Lee (09/22) theorizes that the basis for human values is the survivability of the species. I agree, but I would add to that the survivability of the culture. The ongoing discussion on this page is testimony to that. This forum has become one of many battlegrounds where the God culture and the science culture struggle for supremacy. The survival of science is not in doubt. At this point I think that the culture of God just wants to coexist.

Observation on Mr. King's comment:

Here, as before, the fact that the comment has not even addressed the relevant premise has not dawned on the responder. And making "culture" rather than the individual the focus of the question does not change the fact. What the response does do is depict what Mr. King thinks the real point of the discussion is: that "the God culture and the science culture struggle for supremacy."

It is alternatively sad or absurd--and hence funny--that a supposed "exchange" of ideas is interpreted in a way that makes the ideas beside the point--it's a power struggle--and that does not take the suggestion of the person to whom one "exchanges" an opinion with seriously enough to even engage the opinion--making the word "conversation" a misnomer here. On that count, I can note that clearly my jumping into the fray in the comments to this Big Question was a waste of time.

Simply put, Mr. King's comment, at least, shows that he doesn't think there is a richer and more interesting debate to be had than that which we see daily in the so-called "culture wars."

I conclude with two observations that are at odds with each other. First, there is a real need for respectful inquiry on both sides. If there is no need for that, there is no point to the question. I believe there is a big need. Thus, the "culture war' mentality needs to be lost. And second, there may be little real hope for that any time soon. In my small way, nevertheless, I will try to contribute to a more rewarding approach to the question.

And that "try" will take the form of some basic ideas taken from Paul Tillich's thought that I think advance the conversation in a positive way, for those willing to seriously engage those ideas.

Note: This will be 2008's last post. What we call "the holidays" are in fact a very busy time of year for me, as they are for so many of us! Since it is important to give a good effort in representing Tillich's thoughts, I think it is wise to wait till there is time to do a proper job...

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Reaction #4: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make God Obsolete?

On one level it was unkind to set a trap for a fellow commenter (see previous post). My interlocutor fell for the trap, thereby demonstrating the substance of my claim, but he did not fail to question my questionable tactic: In fact, he accused me of hypocrisy, claiming it to be "the worst of New Testament sins." It was that accusation that I found challenging, and that I want to address now, by asking whether there is another level to consider.

"Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control": if those traits are to characterize a Christian, then it would appear that the charge of hypocrisy is correct. Should I have let the disparaging and prejudiced comments go unchallenged? One response is that if I had to say unkind things in order to address my interlocutor, that a person committed to kindness, love, peace, patience, etc. would forgo comment. But if so, whenever "the truth hurts" Christians should avoid it in discourse with others. Whether that is always or ever true is a hard question--one that cannot be dealt with flippantly--and it threw me. Moreover, it may well have led to one (the?) reason that my comment in response was not published: It was a tepid response (I have no record of it).

A variety of questions need to be asked. To begin, is hypocrisy "the worst of New Testament sins"? A superficial reading of the NT might seem to indicate that, since Jesus railed against the religious authorities of his place and time for exhibiting it. And yet in every case that I can think of the evident motive for the railing is an oppressive use of religion to benefit religious authorities at the expense of the people they were to serve. Thus a self-serving attitude replacing the law of love is the source of Jesus' outbursts. The hypocrisy is manifest in holding the people to the letter of the law when the authorities let themselves off the hook. Thus Jesus' examples of a sheep falling into a well, David raiding the Temple, and deliberate healing on the sabbath, all contravene religious law as a barrier to the underlying law of love. (Matt. 12, et al) It is not hypocrisy, per se, but hypocrisy in the service of selfish , loveless religiosity that Jesus opposed, and so vituperatively!

In that case, harsh words from Christians can be appropriate when they serve the law of love.

But was that the case in my criticism of Mr. Cozijn's statements? If only it were the law of truth and not the law of love, I would be exonerated! But what The Sermon on the Mount tells us to "let shine" is "good works."

Luther famously opened the "hard nuts" of scripture by "throwing them on the rock of grace." Today the hard questions that scripture presents us with should, I think, be thrown against the rock of love.

Interpreting the New Testament today requires a thoughtful person to choose between faithfulness to the literal words of the text and faithfulness to the example that Jesus set. Jesus was kind to so-called "sinners," but he railed against religious hypocrites. No one is faithful to the bulk of scriptural laws and prohibitions. Therefore, to choose the horn of the dilemma "faithful to the text of scripture or the example of Jesus" that aligns us with the letter of the law rather than Jesus' example of loving inclusiveness makes us the kind of people that made Jesus mad--pure and simple.

[For interesting commentary on this go to Richard Beck's Experimental Theology blog and read his posts on Daniel Friedman's To Kill and Take Possession: Friedman's book makes the argument that moral progress can be traced in scripture. If so, for Christians it must be the example of Jesus in the context of their culture that is relevant. That is the crucial question today's Christians must face, and the answer is clear...]

If I set a trap for Mr. Cozijn that exposed his prejudiced opinion of the Church, perhaps he will forgive me if I concede that he caught me in a trap too. I thank him for that.

One last post remains on my experience reading and commenting on the Templeton Foundations' Big Question ofthe continued relevance of "God."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reaction #3: Does Science Make God Obsolete?

If the Templeton Foundation's Big Question, Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?, was intended as a kinder and gentler approach to Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead," then I suppose that after John Cozijn ratcheted up the rhetoric beyond genteel constraints and I stepped into the fray to challenge him, that the expected response of the Foundation would be to end our participation in the exchange on its forum. I have no complaint about that, though it must then be called a mistake to have allowed Mr. Cozijn to use such rash language to dismiss his rhetorical foils to begin with. By ending the exchange before a response was made to Mr. Cozijn's comments (see the previous post) the Foundation has allowed a false and irresponsible position to stand unchallenged. I am certain that that does not square with their goals in hosting such a forum.

In following posts I will consider, from a wider perspective, the wisdom of engaging in this exchange in the first place. And I will also respond to the purely rhetorical points Mr. Cozijn made. But my response to the substance of his comments follows, as that is basic to understanding the rest.

Response to the substance of Mr. Cozijn's comments from his 09/21/08 response to my challenge of 09/19/08:

Mr. Cozijn writes,

"My starting point, as per my first post in this thread, is that the God discussed here has virtually nothing in common with the religious beliefs and practices of actual believers, including 'educated, intelligent people.' To take Tillich as an example, his entire 'method of correlation' requires the acceptance of Christian revelation as a fact. To quote: 'The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based...'"

I respond that Mr. Cozijn clearly thinks that Tillich correlated the supposed historical facts of Christian Scripture with "the answers to questions implied in human existence." In making this claim he is trying to accomplish two things. First, to reconnect the exchange to his starting point, and second, to take up my challenge (09/19/08) to give an expert abstract of a central position of Tillich's or Kant's, "and explain why they deserve his mocking."

But Tillich did not correlate supposed historical events with existential questions. In fact, he denied the possibility of doing so:

"The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with...belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 87)

How, then, do the stories impact Christian belief?

"All [historical] questions must be decided, in terms of more or less probability, by historical research. They are questions of historical truth, not of the truth of faith. Faith can say that something of ultimate concern has happened in history because the question of the ultimate in being and meaning is involved." (p. 88)

What, then, are the actual correlates of Tillich's theology? He "makes the correlation of existence and the Christ [his theology's] central theme." (Systematic Theology, Vol I, p. 19) It is, then, the symbol of the Christ and its relation to human existence that must be understood to represent the gist of Tillich's theology.

Mr. Cozijn did not only miss-state the correlates that he ventured to explain, he got them backwards, as the remainder of his comments--as they relate to Tillich--confirm. In fact, it would be nearly impossible to venture a coherent point of view about Tillich's theology and state it more incorrectly.

I admit to having set a trap for Mr. Cozijn, knowing that if he took up my challenge, it would be very unlikely that he would succeed in making an "expert abstract" of one of Tillich's (or Kant's) views, let alone critiquing it successfully. My "gotcha" approach may not have been nice, but it could not have been more successful in eliciting the truth of my complaint: Mr. Cozijn clearly "feels free to demean...people he does not understand."

Enough said on this aspect of his response!

What about his objection to "...this kind of high-minded theism which deliberately obscures its relationship to the myths fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews...of this muddled world"?

Again, he could not have got "this kind of high-minded theism" more wrong: For Tillich, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man's ultimate concern." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 1--opening statement.) It is almost painful to note that the entire project of Tillich's theology is the opposite of what Cozijn claims: to "deliberately make plain" the relationship of the biblical stories to the beliefs "fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews..."

Finally, in response to Mr. Cozijn's complaint that I "upbraid" him for insulting people, I simply ask, how can I depict his wildly irresponsible remarks in a positive light? Should his extraordinarily inaccurate remarks have been allowed to stand unchallenged? One would think not!

Yet, I take the question seriously, and will address it in the next post. Was the Templeton Foundation right to post his derogatory comments based on a prejudice never backed up by serious inquiry, and then not to post my response? There are two practical problems with their allowing a response, which makes it defensible for them not to have done so. And so this deserves further exploration.

But as an outgoing comment, I would like to note that Mr. Cozijn is a formidable polemicist, and if only he knew what he was talking about, I'm quite sure he would make a good conversation partner for a person seriously looking for the truth about the ideas on which we disagree. Alas!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Reaction #2: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make God Obsolete?

A brief recap of Reaction #1:

I observed that in the Templeton Big Question, Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? that no one--none of the featured contributers nor anyone who commented on the contributions--offered an explicit rationale for the opinion that science cannot supersede religion. So I did in a comment on 9/19: "If faith provides a framework for answering existential questions and science cannot, then science cannot supersede religion." I then offered the Shema, The Eightfold Path, and the Great Commandments as evidence that it is of the essence of religion to provide existential guidance and threw out the naturalistic fallacy as a reason to think that science cannot.

Responding to my argument John Cozijn conceded that values and ethics do not arise from science, and then went on to ask, "But what makes anyone think that religion has anything to contribute?" and then claim: "The entire history of the Church would seem [to be] eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight..." As you will read, I jumped on that claim and challenged Mr. Cozijn.

Before reading my challenge and Mr. Cozijn's response, it will be instructive to know that there is a 2,000 character limit to comments at the Templeton site, making any detailed argumentation next to impossible. In fact, the contributors were also given scant space for their opinions. So the entire Templeton project could be viewed as little more than--as noted in the first reaction--a pastiche of opinions--albeit notable ones. And that alone has value.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
John Cozijn's (09/19) words show that he feels free to demean and insult people he doesn't understand. The pity is that he asked a good question: "What makes anyone think that religion has anything to offer?" It deserves a good response. But he quickly--between insults--asserts that "The entire history of the Church would seem eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight into moral problems or any other dilemmas." That's a big claim. Then he must have really done his homework!

Since I have great respect for Paul Tillich's theology, perhaps he will disabuse me of the view that Tillich's use of ultimate concern and false ultimacy successfully re-interprets religious faith for educated, intelligent people, and that it offers the key to solving humanity's central moral dilemma. Or perhaps, since I originally brought up the problem of existential crisis, he would rather explain why existential estrangement isn't a good modern re-interpretation of the concept of sin, one that both secular and religious persons can learn from and respect. Perhaps he spent more time in philosophy. How about a critique of Kant's assertion that the only unqualified good is a good will and its relationship to the central theme of his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone--followed, of course, by an explanation of why Kant or any neo-Kantian religious thinker is such a rube that she or he deserves only ridicule?

So, can Mr. Conijn give us an expert abstract of any of these concepts and explain why they deserve his mocking? His big claim implies that he can. My suspicion is that his "argument" has much in common with the straw man it attacks.

RE: Whole Series
John Cozijn
Tracy Witham upbraids me for insulting people "I don't understand" and insinuates I haven't done my "homework," etc. Well, let us not waste time feigning outrage at the polemical tactics of those with whom we disagree lest we be accused of that worst of New Testament sins: hypocrisy. My starting point, as per my first post in this thread, is that the God discussed here has virtually nothing in common with the religious beliefs and practices of actual believers, including "educated, intelligent people." To take Tillich as an example, his entire "method of correlation" requires the acceptance of Christian revelation as a fact. To quote: "The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence. These answers are contained in the revelatory events on which Christianity is based ..."

However, the historicity of these "events" is itself entirely based on the implausible and contradictory narratives contained in the extended press release we now call the New Testament (and its rather troubled relationship to a diverse set of ancient Jewish texts we know as the Old Testament). Now if the test of historicity fails, so does Tillich's entire project. This is an empirical question, and it seems to me that in these "highbrow" discussions people go to great lengths to disguise their necessary adherence to dogmas of talking snakes, virgin births, assorted miracles, bodily resurrections, and other Iron Age nonsense. Instead we are treated to meaningless abstractions such as "God is Love" or vacuous philosophising that purposefully disguises its preposterous premises. I actually have no problem with Deism (since it implies no empirical claims at all), but I do object to this kind of high-minded theism which deliberately obscures its relationship to the myths fervently held by the real people--educated or not--who populate the pews and prayer mats of this muddled world.

Note: My response to Mr. Cozijn was not posted in the Templeton comments. I have a couple of hunches why that I will offer in the next post, along with a response to Mr. Cozijn.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reaction #1: The Templeton Big Q--Does Science Make God Obsolete?

If you haven't looked at the John Templeton Foundation's "Big Questions" series, you are missing a chance to read responses to important questions by brilliant contributors. The articles are actually written at a more-or-less popular level, which means that they are surprisingly readable, though the downside is that controversial claims are frequently made on the basis of the contributor's notable authority, and then controverted by the next authority. The result is a pastiche of differing opinions set out by luminous intellects. My overall impression is that it is the Kantian view that antinomies arise at the limit of human understanding that is vindicated, and not any particular position. And as Kant long ago opined, that leaves those who frankly acknowledge that the expression of their point of view is done on faith who are on the strongest ground.

Philosopher Mary Midgley came the closest of all the contributers to expressing that view. "Belief--or disbelief--in God is not a scientific opinion... It is an element in something larger and more puzzling...the set of background assumptions by which we make sense of the world as a whole." (See the Templeton site for her entire comment.)

That said, I thought something was missing in the series and contributions: an explicit rationale for the opinion that science cannot supersede religious belief in God. So I had the temerity to offer one in the comments to the contributors' articles. There are some interesting lessons to be learned from the reaction that I got from others who jumped on my comments. So I thought that I'd share the experience with you, starting with the comment that put some rather nasty responses in motion.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
Jack King (09/17) concedes that science cannot address the existential doubt in Marcel's play (see my 9/15 comment). Perhaps it will help to make the underlying argument explicit: If faith provides a framework for answering existential questions and science cannot, then science cannot supersede religion. The core of the great religions expressly provide that framework (the Shema, the Eightfold Path, The Great Commandments, etc.).

The Marcel plot was a specific example to illustrate how it can be that a person must choose a meaning in response to a situation that cannot be better understood "scientifically," and where faith provides the only helpful way out. Then I pointed out that the facts of natural history are also beset with opportunity for existential doubt, and that more facts are not likely to change the need for faith--and just think of faith here as "belief where doubt is possible," to use William James's definition--in making up one's mind.

Last, I used the naturalistic fallacy to point out that the understanding of the world that science gives us cannot be turned into the moral and value systems that people use to make decisions. My conclusion follows: science cannot supersede religion. In reply to Mr. King's counterpoints, "science" does not "apply" itself; human beings working as scientists do. Science does not accomplish the greater good. People decide to use science to do good.

To drive the point home that science is contingent on the non-scientific value systems of its practitioners, I ask, will science still contribute to the greater good if a scientist gives atomic bomb technology to terrorists? Is that a terrible thought? Yes. Is that judgment scientific? No. Would the terrorist share it? No. Could the scientist be a terrorist? Yes. Mr. King should consider whether "science" has become his "god." If so, my faith says he can upgrade for free.

RE: Whole Series
John Cozijn
Values and ethics are not derivable from science--that would indeed be the worst kind of scientism. But what makes anyone think that religion has anything to contribute? Fall of man via a trick played by a talking snake, followed by a blood sacrifice that "saves" humanity from this Original Sin? Puh--lease!

Why is a prelate more qualified to offer "moral guidance" than a plumber? The entire history of the Church would seem eloquent testimony that religion provides no special insight into moral problems or any other human dilemmas. And given that science has effectively overthrown its entire ontology, the pronouncements religion does make on such questions are invariably wrapped up in layers of obfuscating mumbo-jumbo.

This of course is the fundamental problem with Steve Gould's position of "non-overlapping magisteria," or NOMA, which just hands over the entire sphere of morality to "religion." The reality is that the world does not need men in dresses to pontificate or evangelical conmen to command others "how to live." Religion in the 21st century is surplus to requirements. We are on our own, so let's just grow up and start taking responsibility for our ethical and personal choices based on the best information about the world we can get (which is where science comes in).