Saturday, January 30, 2021

Philosophy of the Sciences

What are the relationships between different departments of knowledge? I suppose that one problem with this question is the human habit of compartmentalising what we do. I am a physicist; that means that I know (or should know, professionally) little or nothing about history, theology, philosophy, or geography (to name but a few). I might, but my knowledge is that of an amateur.

This problem is sometimes painfully obvious. For example, the highest-profile atheist of recent times, Richard Dawkins, is a professional developmental biologist. However, he developed a tendency to write outside that area, discussing philosophical ideas and a-theology. It became evident to experts in these fields that he did not really know what he was talking about or dismissing. I believe he is on record as claiming that theology is not an academic subject, which seems to me to be simply an admission that he has not read any.

The possibilities of shooting oneself in the foot if we stray outside our expertise are many and varied. A number of theologians I have read comment on science, for example. What becomes clear is that, mostly, they have not done any science and, therefore, make mistakes that a scientist in the area would not make. Similarly, scientists straying into theology can make howlers which their new colleagues probably shake their head over. That does not mean that there is no insight into these areas by those from outside, it is just that it is very easy to make mistakes.

If there were enough time in a life, we would want to study every area before blundering in with our own views and arguments. Sadly, this is not open to us. At most, we can be expert in one field and a well-read amateur in another. This does not absolve us of the responsibility of trying, of course, but it does make us rather humble in doing so.

And yet there is the nagging feeling that these fields can and do link up. A number of examples are obvious: chemical physics is a subject incorporating some aspects of both subjects. Health geography (if I really knew what it was) would probably be another area. These neatly categorised areas of thought are found to link up and, sometimes, that linkage can be highly productive. But, even so, the links are not strong and the boundaries between one subject and another are sometimes jealously guarded.

F. R. Tennant, in his Philosophy of the Sciences, has a decent stab at a modern hierarchy of the sciences. This book started as the Tarner series of lectures in 1931-2. Tennant suggests that there is an order of knowledge and it that starts with psychology. Psychology, he argues, is primary because it is the first thing to do with thinking, thought, and knowledge. It is interesting to note as well, that Tennant seems to consider every subject a science. Whether this is a generous spirit or deference to the advance of the physical sciences I am not sure.

Tennant goes through various subjects. For example, he discusses the debates around whether history is a science or not. That, of course, turns on what you think science is in the first place. Physical scientists would probably be inclined to say no, and indeed, scientific method of hypothesis, experiment, and verification probably is not that easy to apply to history. After all, we cannot re-run the battle of Waterloo and see if the outcome is different. On the other hand, critical analysis of documents, formulation of hypotheses to fit the facts, and determination of the fit would be recognisable to history. This is not a million miles (light years?) away from astrophysics which starts with observation and develops hypotheses from them and physical theory and then checks back with the observations.

Tennant goes on the discuss the relations of natural science with logic and mathematics (which he calls ‘pure’ sciences). Incidentally, I am not convinced that these pure sciences are so pure. Mathematics often takes its cue from ‘how do I do this?’ where the ‘this’ is, for example, build a pyramid. Tennant sees logic and mathematics as instrumental to the natural sciences. Nor do the pure sciences inform philosophy or metaphysics. Tennant concludes that there is no hierarchy of the sciences and that any order is a matter of the interest humanity puts on a specific area of knowledge.

Theology, as is well know, used to be the ‘Queen of Science’ and was dethroned during the Enlightenment, if not sooner. However, theology is not isolated from other subjects. Views that it is lead into difficulties. Religious experience, for example, does not offer the establishment of the uniqueness or reality of the experience. A religious experience is, necessarily, subjective and the question from an external observer can always be ‘to what object does this experience refer?’ If the experience is of God then, as God is not an object in the universe (despite the claims of some a-theologians) the experience cannot be of anything objective. The experience is a real one, but the content of it cannot be established, at least by our normal methods of establishing the reality of experience.

Tennant argues that theology is a generalisation of ordinary knowledge or world and man, synthesised into a reasonable belief in theism. Science itself, he argues, is a venture in faith, faith in the reliability of the world. Theology, on his view, is a self-completion of science, a creation of a philosophical world view. I would grant that science is a venture in faith, but not that science can be completed in any sense. Every time humanity has thought that science is nearing completion another world of science opens and its implications seem limitless. On that basis, it seems to me that theology cannot complete anything, but is similarly open to new insights, whether from science or other areas of human experience. One of the lessons of theology in recent decades is that the deliverances of science are to be taken seriously, but not absolutely. Science delivers new models and concepts, not absolute unshakable truth.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Herbert Spencer

 As I mentioned before I do think it is important to read, or at least read about, people with whom you do not agree with. The important thing is to work out why you disagree. Then you not only have arguments against that point of view, but you may also have refined your own position.

It seems unlikely that these days, many people will have heard of Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903), but he was a very well known, appreciated, and widely read political philosopher in the Nineteenth Century. His life was actually fairly unremarkable, except for his writings. He lived in an England which was rapidly industrializing, and in which scientific ideas, particularly about evolution, were becoming widely disseminated and discussed.

The interest in Spencer’s writing seems to come mostly from the political right in the United States. One of his key ideas is that of ‘small government’, that is, that government should only undertake those activities which provide minimal standards of justice and peace for the citizens of a country. Immediately, I suspect, most of us liberal post-moderns detect a problem here, in that what these minimal standards might be is a matter of dispute. What exactly, is the government’s role in, say, healthcare, the administration of justice and control of the market, let alone ensuring that no-one actually starves.

Spencer actually seemed to believe that society evolved from ancient anarchy, through agrarian city-state, into feudalism and thence to industrialism. This latter, the emerging -ism of Spencer’s age, was the highest point and, Spencer believed, required the minimum of government intervention. Everything within an industrial society is determined by private contract. Thus, I agree to provide my labour in exchange for a fair day's pay.

We can immediately observe another hole in Spencer’s idea. Why should someone agree to pay me a fair day's pay? If I am in need, I will work for less than that just to provide something. The playing field is not as level as Spencer seems to imagine. Even in a job-rich market, my own situation may not enable me to obtain a fair days pay for my labour. Furthermore, in Spencer’s world, important aspects of employment, such as health and safety rules, may not be covered. If it is up to me and the private contract I sign with an employer, then things like expensive equipment to keep the workforce safe may well be ignored. I need a job; the longer-term impact on my health may not be paramount in my mind, or, indeed, anything I have thought about.

Even in Victorian times, government did act to preserve people’s health and wellbeing. Children were prevented from working from a young age, and, eventually, education was made compulsory. Sewage systems were improved and working conditions were also made better for many workers. This is not to say, of course, that most employers were actively trying to harm their workforces, but many were trying to maximise profit. Human nature is such that maximising profit is going to harm someone, often the workers, and now, we are painfully aware (even if we do not seem to want to do much about it) of the environment. The role of government is bigger now than it was under Victoria; the world is more complex and we have at least perceived that it is much more interlinked than Spencer’s generation thought.

Spencer, essentially, had hope in progress. Technological progress had brought about the modern industrial society, with its opportunities for raising people’s standards of living if they were hard-working and diligent. Moral progress, such that those with power (e.g. employers) would not misuse that power for their own gain, seems to have been rather assumed. The whole age seemed to be buoyed up by the idea that human progress would make the world perfect. In a sense, this is a reflection of Marx, of course.

The problem with human progress is that it is all too human. We are finite and are possibilities are also limited. We cannot see the big picture; too often we act for our short term interests, whatever they might be. It is possible to argue that the idea of progress, which began with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, or possibly with the Ancient Greeks, died on the battlefield of The Somme. If not there, then perhaps the concept of industry saying the world should have expired with the Concentration Camps and Gulags of the Twentieth Century, let alone the prospect of nuclear and environmental catastrophe.

Spencer, therefore, is mostly out of fashion. The activities of governments in the 1930s and subsequently, of using public finance to get economies going and provide employment, are the antitheses of Spencer’s small-government ideas. That does not mean they have entirely gone away, of course. Classical liberalism is alive and well in the views of F. A. Von Hayek, at least, and his ideas are influential, at least in a section of the right-wing political spectrum. The problem is, it seems to me, that classical liberalism of Spencer’s brand fails to deal with humanity as it is.

If we place a theological cast over anthropology, we find the idea of sin and, perhaps most pointedly, original sin. As noted above, even the most secular atheist has to accept that we are finite beings with a limited viewpoint and knowledge. This is also what the concept of sin implies: we act in partial ignorance for our own limited aims, which are themselves not necessarily in fact for our own good. This should give us pause for thought in considering Spencer’s views. His ignoring of the structures of power inherent in an industrial society seems to me to doom his project to failure. The employer can call the shots unless the workers have some protection from the government, union, society, or (the most unreliable of all) the benevolence of the said employer.

Except with a smallish slice of thinkers, Spencer’s ideas are out of fashion. Perhaps it is an important activity, however, to engage at least a little with them. Firstly, they are a right-wing equivalent of Marx, it seems to me, bourne out of a rapidly industrialising ‘age of progress’. As such they are of historical interest but also, secondly something of a warning as to how political philosophy can, ultimately, albeit accidentally, justify all sorts of abuse of the well-being of our fellow humans and our planet.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Theological Ping-Pong

I have just finished a book with a rather odd, and strangely endearing title:

Mitchell, B. (1990). How to Play Theological Ping-Pong: Collected Essays on Faith and Reason. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Mitchell was Ian Ramsey’s successor as Nolloth Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Oxford and the collection includes his inaugural lecture. However, that is not the one I want to focus on. The one I do want to discuss is the title piece, about theological ping-pong.

Initially, Mitchell apologises for the frivolity of the title, which, he says represents all too accurately the contents of the paper (originally a talk at an informal theology group (such things only happen in Oxford, I surmise)). Anyway, there is a serious point within the text, and I think it applies more widely than just to theology.

Applying some basic logic to various theological writers, Mitchell suggests that there are, in many such writings, two basic positions, which he names ping and pong. I suppose we could recast that in Hegelian terms as thesis and antithesis. Firstly, Mitchell states, two combinations must be ruled out:

1. Neither ping nor pong.

2. Both ping and pong.

Having done this, the argument can move on, as he notes, to establish your position with minimum effort and maximum discomfort to an opponent. The basic argument is:

1. Either ping or pong.

2. Not pong.

3 Therefore ping.

Ping is, of course, the position of the author. It is of course an option for the opponent to avoid playing the game, and declare that the outcome is, or could be both ping and pong, or neither ping nor pong. The defence to this, however, seems to be that the opponent has not addressed the issue and, therefore, has not understood the original meaning of the author (and is therefore being a bit thick). The latter points are, it seems to me, usually implied.

Having mastered the basic rules of ping-pong, more advanced strategies are advanced. The first Mitchell suggests is transcending ping and pong. Here, the claim is made that there is an element of truth in both ping and pong and that there is no third position except somehow above them. The two basic rules are obeyed, but a ‘higher synthesis’ is found. Again, critics might say that this seems silly: theism and atheism cannot be that simply transcended, for example, but the author can simply smile, leaving opponents suspecting they have not understood this deep theologising.

Next up, Mitchell suggests a strategy is to hold ping and pong in dialectical tension. Ping and pong are both true but opposed to each other. The tension involved in thinking this is simply part of being human. Hence sin is both inevitable and humans are responsible for it. Ping pong suggests you cannot have both, but holding the tension between them allows the author to claim that the situation is not as paradoxical as lesser intellects might believe. Most of us probably shrug and move on at this point.

Next up, the advanced player can claim, in fact, that pong is pong. This is almost a matter of definition. If we defined our terms right, we can show that ping is pong. For example, if we define praying for grace sufficiently tightly, we can claim that it is both expressing human freedom and exhibiting the grace of God at work. The grace of God, on this definition, is identified with the highest expression of human freedom, that is, praying for grace. Ping is pong. The author presumably is hoping that the narrowness of the definition used to prove the case is either unnoticed by the reader or forgotten by the end of the argument.

Mitchell explores other possibilities. He cites Ramsey’s Religious Language where Ramsey is writing about ‘theological episcopacy’ and ‘empirical episcopacy’. Mitchell is not sure exactly what game Ramsey is playing here but reckons it must be some form of ping-pong. I dare say that examples could be multiplied.

Mitchell finishes with advice for novices. The basic game gives a clear-cut victory with minimum effort, but the gambit is obvious and the opponent may either not play the game or simply counter-attack, arguing that ‘not ping therefore pong’ refutes your position. It also looks a bit polemical. The more advanced games have some disadvantages as well. Transcending ping and pong puts you out of reach, but loses you sympathy. Holding the tension is similar, but you do not look so superior so you do not lose as many points for style as you might otherwise. Dialectical tension is an uncomfortable position, so you might do not appear to be claiming to be cleverer than anyone else. On the other hand, Mitchell does note that there is a fine line between holding dialectical tension and simply contradicting yourself.

If you identify ping and pong you seem to have won, and so does your opponent. You have granted them all they could desire while actually redefining their position to be yours. This is a very powerful position to be in, as you can reject any protestation that pong is not ping as unintelligible, as you have shown that pong is ping. The only problem is that a stubborn opponent might simply argue that they can tell the difference between ping and pong, even if you cannot. In these circumstances, your near invulnerability starts to look rather shaky.

I suspect that these sorts of arguments appear much more widely in the academy than just in theology. In physics, for example, there was a period of time when it was thought that a photon must be either a wave or a particle. The answer to the question ‘which is it’ is, of course, ‘neither or both’, which must be some sort of ping-pong result. Similarly, arguments as to the cause of the English Civil War swirl around: the rise of the gentry, the fall of the gentry, religion, capitalism, bourgeoisie, and so on. Again, which was it? The answer is somewhere in the ping-pong of debate.

The problem seems to be, really, that academic debate starts to look a bit like petty point-scoring over issues for which most people care little, if anything, for. But then, that is the academy for you. No one really cares that much whether a spectral line in helium shifts the wrong way under certain conditions, or whether the religious epistemologies of Bernard Lonergan and Ian Ramsey are compatible. In fact, investigating these issues can lead us to further reflection and ideas about the nature of reality and of being human. But in themselves, they appear to be simply counting the number of angels that can dance on a pin-head.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

The Word and the Word

 Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:20)

Jesus is, of course, the Word of God (The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The Bible is also said to be the word of God. The word is read in our services – ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ And then there is the presence of Jesus with us always. The end of the age in the Matthean passage quoted is, presumably, a reference to the second coming of Jesus. The resurrected Jesus is always with us until he comes again.

How, though is he with us always? The words of the Bible are with us, having been carefully preserved down the centuries. However, they would not have been available to the disciples in the weeks after the first Easter. Somehow the words written down about Jesus have become the word of the Lord for us. Words about Jesus become the Word of God.

‘This is my body which is given for you’ (Luke 22:19) Jesus identifies himself with the bread and wine, remembered in the Eucharistic services we conduct. This, of course, has led to a great deal of debate, argument and break down within and between churches as to how, in a service, the bread is identified with Jesus and what it actually means. But no-one really disputes that there is an identity as such.

So, Jesus is the Word of God, and the word of God is spoken in our services: This is the word of the Lord. But Jesus is also present somehow, exactly how is a matter of debate and argument, in the bread broken and the wine shared in the Eucharist. So the fulfilment of Jesus' final statement in Matthew is fulfilled, one way or the other, in the weekly Eucharist. Of course, for some that is daily, for others quarterly or whatever. The point is that through word, bread and wine Jesus is with us now and always, until the end of the age.

Lonergan characterises this as the outer and inner messages or gifts of God. The outer message is the preaching of the church, what Christians are to believe, be, and become. This is, in part, a cognitive message: some things are stated and are to be believed; these things can be analysed, considered, reflected upon, and, ultimately, rejected or accepted by the individual. It is not quite that simple, however, as each individual is part of a wider community and the norms of that community interact with the considerations of the individual. Someone embedded in a believing community is more likely to accept this outer message that someone who is in an unbelieving or indifferent community.

That is not, however, the whole story. The inner gift of God is His love, poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5 – one of Lonergan’s most quoted passages of Scripture). The outer message makes known this inner gift, and also shows what believers have to do with it. It is all very well proclaiming the good news of the salvation of humankind, but, at some level, that can just be dismissed as words. Actions speak louder than words, even if the words are needed to give the actions their meaning. Anyone can proclaim ‘This is the word of the Lord’ on a Sunday and continue to exploit and belittle their fellow humans Monday to Friday (we’ll give them Saturday off). Similarly, anyone can feed the poor, which is always of practical help. But to feed the poor because Jesus calls me to do it is a bit different from doing so just because it keeps the poor quiet.

For the believer, therefore, there are several aspects to the word proclaimed and the word received through bread and wine. Proclaiming the Word, as something a church and all believers are called to do, is both through words and through actions. Receiving Jesus is both through words heard and through bread and wine taken. There are the words spoken by a preacher, and the words spoken by the people. These words start to constitute a community of believers, but this is also created by the activity of the community, not just in words, but in actions. At the simplest, the actions include, perhaps, arriving at a certain place at a certain time on a given day of the week. But they also include doing things, such as proclaiming a belief collectively and receiving elements (bread and wine) which, in that context, have a certain and specific meaning.

The actions, however, should spill out beyond the activities which constitute the community of the church. The difficulty here is the tension between activity which is acceptable to the wider society because it resonates with the norms of that wider society and activities which are undertaken because of the beliefs of the Christian. The latter has to maintain a critical and questioning role of why things are as they are. This can lead to conflict. To quote Bishop Camara ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.’

Perhaps too often the church has acquiesced in the norms of the surrounding society. Too frequently the senior figures of the church have become political figures, identified with the state and the establishment. This was particularly true, perhaps, in pre-Revolutionary Russia where the senior clergy were state appointments, or in medieval England where bishops were often appointed from the king’s clerks, and bishops (and abbeys) were often major landowners anyway. But it still happens today, or is expected to. On occasion, when clergy have criticised government policies in some area, the church is told to ‘stay out of politics’. The implication here is that Christians should just speak the words of Jesus to themselves, and, perhaps, seek to bind up the wounds of members of society, rather than question why those people are wounded. But word and action fit together, and it should be impossible for the church to stay out of political engagement.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...