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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Ruse article - on theology and science

Michael Ruse discusses science and theology over here.

Jerry Coyne already has a bit to say about this piece, but let me quote just a few sentences from Ruse: "What should be the attitude of the Christian faced with clear evidence that some part of the Bible cannot be taken literally and that this must have consequences for hitherto-accepted theology? Clearly, some alternative theology must be sought. This is not giving up or mere ad hoc responding."

Well, it's not giving up. But it sure looks like ad hoc responding. If successive responses are made solely to protect what is considered a non-negotiable core of beliefs, that is exactly ad hoc, and it's a reason to think the whole theological enterprise was misguided in the first place. We wouldn't be impressed with this method of inquiry in any other enterprise.

And why should an omniscient God give such poor guidance to prophets, inspired authors, and so on, as to make such a process even necessary? Yes, I realise that some kind of theological answer can be given (based on the Fallen state of the world, for example), but the simplest answer is that the whole enterprise is not divinely inspired but a merely human construction.

Thus, theology can adapt itself at any given time to whatever is the current state of play with science. You can always hold on to a small set of non-negotiable beliefs if you are prepared to believe whatever is required in order to do so. But theology is forced to adapt. Theology is conspicuously not in a position where, by divine guidance, it anticipates scientific findings in advance. To call this compatibility between science and theology is a joke. It's like someone trying to sell you a very handsome alligator while calling it a Labrador retriever.


Paul Wright said...

You can always hold on to a small set of non-negotiable beliefs if you are prepared to believe whatever is required in order to do so.

This reminded me of this article about the psychology of Biblical inerrancy, where the author elaborates on that point and brings in Quine.

Jon Jermey said...

Not to mention the effect it has on your claim to be in possession of the divinely-revealed unchanging Truth when you have to faff around with it every decade or so to try and keep the sawdust in.

Svlad Cjelli said...

But, JonJ, clearly it was unchanging for that decade. And then it became unchanging again for some time. /Clowning

Mutty said...

Some believers have an easy get out clause. One of my siblings considers herself devout yet will happily ignore substantial elements of scripture she does not agree with - her explanation is that the scripture is man-made and thus has nothing to do with belief in god.

DEEN said...

"To call this compatibility between science and theology is a joke. It's like someone trying to sell you a very handsome alligator while calling it a Labrador retriever."
I think it's more like trying to convince someone that surrender is peace.

Wholeflaffer said...

"If successive responses are made solely to protect what is considered a non-negotiable core of beliefs, that is exactly ad hoc, and it's a reason to think the whole theological enterprise was misguided in the first place. We wouldn't be impressed with this method of inquiry in any other enterprise."

So the issue is the "non-negotiable" aspect? I am trying to find a way that this "ad hoc" responding does not capture the history of philosophy as a debate where positions are laid out, objections rehearsed, and changes are made to the original position, trying to capture a piece of that previous position.

Marshall said...

You and Jerry seem to be saying that Religion isn't ever allowed to make any progress, on pain of not being a True Scotsman. Certainly there are believers who think so. There also seem to be scientists who think that Physics Already Explains Everything (for middle-sized objects at standard conditions) (SciAm as my Dad subscribed to in the 50's would be ashamed of itself.) Other scientists understand that while we know a lot, we don't really understand very much at all; we can be surprised by something as simple as a double pendulum. Yet we get along OK. We don't actually need to be "in possession of ... unchanging Truth", divinely inspired or otherwise.

This is really much the same point as Mackie saying that there are no objective moral objects. In fact there are no objective objects of any kind that we can actually experience... it's turtles all the way down. Quine said you can mash any set of assumptions together by adding sufficient new assumptions, and he was right.

That isn't to say that Adam and Eve "exist" somewhere in the Gaps of quantum uncertainty or the multiverse, which I think is a foolish thing to say. Rather the point is that science proceeds by looking around at the world, making something up, and seeing how far it can be stretched. When it fails to cover some new observations, (good) scientists adjust or completely rewhack their assumptions - I don't guess you think that's ad hoc? I can't see why religion should behave differently. Of course many religious people are unwilling to give up their pet guesses; so are many scientists (Kuhn gives examples). Scientific discovery tends to penetrate religious doctrine slowly because religious doctrine is not about epistemic truth, but about human response to how the world is, as observed in everyday life. Whyever would you expect religion to anticipate science??? Whyever particularly despise religion that seeks to accommodate science???

Jerry: “General incomplete nature"?  What the bloody hell is that?

Jerry seems to be a singularly self-satisfied individual, one of James' "once-born", and I say it's a blessing to him. But I don't know how anybody can look around at the world without seeing the tragic incompleteness of so many other lives. Either collective: ensuring effective genral access to public health/welfare/education - or individual: "For I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.... I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out." Romans 7:15-18. There's an epistemic fact that Gnus don't seem to want to acknowledge.

Russell Blackford said...

Not at all, Marshall, you don't understand the argument. I've had this before from people who think this is a legitimate way for a field to make "progress"; it's not how any other field works. In any other field, the core propositions that religion tries to preserve at all costs would have been abandoned long ago.

Marshall said...

"don't understand"... that's quite possible; obviously you see something I don't. But I don't think you understand my argument either, and Gnus don't seem to have any reply to it except to insist that I, personally, am required defend specified absurd "core propositions". Many do! but I say it would profit all if all would give up formalistic dogmatisms and try to think about what the other side is saying, or trying to figure out how to say.

Looking around, do you think humanity and the world we live in is essentially complete as it is, that we already understand the main things, that we are on the road to universal fulfillment? Go well, Once-Born.

(...looks like I messed up my first link. Should be Physics Already Explains Everything (for middle-sized objects at standard conditions). Also here. You've seen it before, I believe.)

DEEN said...

@Marshal: "I can't see why religion should behave differently."
Because religion claims a special authority for itself. Theistic religion at least claims that it can rely on revelations from an omnipotent being. Is it really so unreasonable to hold religion accountable for its claims?

If, instead, religion has to rely on trial and error like everyone else, then what is so special about religion? Why do theology at all, and not just stick to secular reasoning?

Russell Blackford said...

DEEN, true - but it's actually worse than that. Theology does behave differently ... but it does so in a way that exposes its intellectual bankruptcy.

Marshall said...

You don't see that Gnus are likewise claiming a special authority for "science". You don't think it's a special authority because you see your method as the final method, legitimately authoritative. There have been many attempts to declare the "end of History" and none have proved durable yet. You did see that Sean Carroll actually got printed in the venerable old Scientific American that

the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws ...

and whatever proposition he likes after that as if he's never heard of Godel. As if he understands his wife, what she's going on about. Does Sean think "everyday life" is about levers and inclined planes? As Quine showed, any proposition can be made true once suitable supporting propositions are gathered, as per Sean's link. I laugh, but never mind.

Empirical descriptions of reality are necessarily nontrivially incomplete. Nonetheless, empirical descriptions are useful many purposes, but they are not ALWAYS the best, most useful descriptions of humans in society. Not at the current state of play.


Any modern person should know better than to take what any person or organization or brand of toothpaste says about itself at face value. Any religious or political organization in fact has just the authority that people give it. People always enjoy asserting the absoluteness of their ideas; such appears to be a feature of human cognition. Religious/political/scientific ideas and systems thrive and evolve by trial and differential transmission in the usual sort of evolutionary process. How else?

Recall that Protestantism has always been about the individual facing God directly, against traditionally claimed authority. Every few hundred years we need to clean out the basement, to be sure.


Why not stick to secular reasoning? I'm a little vague on what you mean by that (...waiting for Russell's book!...) but I suppose it means or restricts itself to Empirical Objectivism. Which those of us who agree with Mackie claim contains no objective moral values. Do I have to go on? Without moral values of some kind you can't tell the difference between liberalism and fascism, which liberals like me think is an important distinction. Without socially binding moral values the liberal center can't hold against short-term self-interest (the altruism problem).

Religion does produce subjectively binding moral values; indeed, that seems to be the very thing you all dislike about it. For dog's age it has produced moral communities of unrelated individuals. As I look around, The Big Problem is the difficulty people have trusting each other. I'm not willing to throw out the traditional solution because it doesn't do sums well. If some religious notions are backwards, then I insist the thing to do is to understand them in a more liberal way for ourselves, and also to help others improve their understanding. What we call Evangelism.

Russell Blackford said...

Marshall, you're totally missing the point. The post had nothing to do with Sean Carroll. You're starting to seem like a troll.

Marshall said...

I beg your pardon, Russell, your space entirely. Not a troll, I assure you.

Russell Blackford said...

Okay, okay. But some of your behaviour lately is starting to look like an attempt to hijack the blog or to "witness" to us. That may not be intentional, but that's how it can come across.

Marshall said...

Probably "witness" has different associations for you. Personally, I think spending time with people who agree with you is supportive, but possibly time with those who disagree is more productive.

Do enjoy your vacation; I'm off for one of my own. :-)

Russell Blackford said...

Disagreement is welcome, and I get plenty of it. But when you repost the same links after having every opportunity to get people to read them the first time, start attacking people whose positions are simply not the subject of the post, and especially when you start quoting the Bible to support your views ... well, it starts to look e more like you're coming here to evangelise than to put arguments that will be taken seriously. Just something to keep in mind.

Anyway, enjoy your break. Mine has been good even if I had a trip to Pentecost Island cancelled yesterday because of heavy rain.

Brian said...

The issue for me is this knee-jerk assumption that science would make Christians question and ultimately revise their core beliefs, if in fact they were willing to practice it. I would also question your assertion that in fact adjustments are made to protect core beliefs. Honestly, I just don't see how the core beliefs of Christianity even need protection, and certainly not from science. To me, the ultimate, core assumption of Christianity is that a man named Jesus, claiming to be the son of God, was executed and then rose from the dead. At the end of the day, science can have nothing to say about that. Surely it can say that a man rising from the dead is impossible. And yet clearly, if God exists, then the "rules" can be bent. Or rather, what one would refer to as a "miracle" can happen.
Now, clearly, one can argue until blue in the face the points of history, and I watch the debate on both sides with interest. And at the end of the day, the historical arguments will never convince anyone on either side, since it's likely they never will find 100% conclusive proof one way or another.
Ultimately, one is a Christian based on personal experiences that have convinced one of the veracity of the Christian narrative. Why should science ever have a say in that? Science merely tells us about how the world works on the mechanical level, and very little else. It can certainly make even the most devout Christian question the literal truth of Genesis, and yet that has so little to do with Christianity that it's barely worth mentioning.
I understand that someone's "personal experience" is never going to convince someone else who is convinced that God does not exist. And yet, personal experiences convince everyone of arguments every day. If you were to wake up tomorrow, walk outside, and a giant being were to stick his head out of the clouds right above you and say "I'm here", no one who didn't see it would believe you, and certainly your colleagues would say that you had gone insane.
Well, something similar to that has happened with Christians, and no matter how much science is used to disprove literal truths in the bible, it will never convince us to question the reality of our own experiences.

Russell Blackford said...

Believing that some particular person rose from the dead 2000 years ago would be very strange, arbitrary, and improbable outside the context of a theological system within which it is made at home.

Likewise, believing that any "personal experience" such as religious believers have could be evidence for any such thing would also be very strange outside of a whole theological system that you're prepared to buy into. Once you start doubting the system as a whole, you really can't rely in the idea that some experience that you've had validates any such claim. Such experiences can always be interpreted in many, many ways.

But theological systems can also look strange and implausible to outsiders to them. Not only that, whole theological systems can certainly clash with science. That's the problem Ruse is addressing.

GentleSkeptic said...

"Jesus, claiming to be the son of God, was executed and then rose from the dead. At the end of the day, science can have nothing to say about that."

Well, that settles THAT!