the believing game

May 25, 2005

[I've been reading Lesslie Newbigin's Proper Confidence, in which he discusses another book called Creation and the History of Science, by Christopher Kaiser. What follows is based on that discussion.]

The Cappodocian theologians, in the latter part of the 4th century, developed four principles that were to shape the development of science in Europe.

1. Two facts have to be in place for scientific inquiry. One, the cosmos must be coherent, free from any self-contradiction. Two, the human mind must be capable of comprehending this cosmos. According to divine revelation in the Bible – and in the work of Jesus – the cosmos is the creation of a rational God. Furthermore, this same God created human kind in His image. It follows that the universe is not a chaos of random events, and that its ultimate order is in principle attainable by the human mind.

2. Because God intentionally created the cosmos, it is relatively autonomous. Not everything that happens is the direct will of God. It follows, then, that to discover how the cosmos works, we have to investigate the empirical facts by careful observation.

3. Scripture says that God created the heavens and earth, so it follows that the “heavenly bodies” are not (as Aristotle said) made of a substance different from that of earth, but are of the same substance. (Newbigin notes: “It is one of the many ironies in the history of the later conflicts between science and religion that when Galileo, as a result of his use of a telescope, decided that the moon was made of the same substance as the earth, he was condemned by the church because the church had meanwhile co-opted Aristotelian philosophy into its doctrine.”)

4. Because of the work of the incarnate Christ, we know that the use of material means for the advancement of human salvation is desirable. So, for example, the church could use Greek medicine in the development of its healing ministry.

One can see there the outlines of an epistemology that would have undergirded a scientific revolution as vigorous as the one we got. As for the one we got, to understand how it broke off from the Cappodocian principles, we can look at Descartes.

Newbigin describes a debate that took place in Paris in 1628. The question arose: is there any possibility of reliable knowledge? is there any escape from skepticism? (Note: this was not a particularly “atheist” question – there were many who thought that God's omnipotence was not obliged to be attainable by human logic.) So a philosopher at this debate demonstrated that uncertainty could be overcome by recognizing the force of probability. Probability, then, was a sufficient basis for knowledge . The audience was pleased with his argument. One young man was not pleased. He stepped in and proceeded to demonstrate that on the basis of probability he could prove truth to be falsehood and falsehood to be truth, and what is more, that certain knowledge was not beyond our reach.

The young man, who was of course Rene Descartes, was approached by the Cardinal Pierre de Berulle after his impressive performance. Descartes's philosophical method, which had just been deployed to defeat skepticism, the Cardinal wanted to see deployed against atheism: to prove, beyond a doubt, the existence of God. So Descartes received his commission, and so Western civilization got its big alternative to the Cappadocian principles.

Descartes's conceit was that, by starting with the most stringent presuppositions of the skeptics, he could arrive at the same kind of rational inquiry as a scientist would ideally want to affirm – and at the same kind of religious belief as a Christian would ideally want to affirm. As he wrote in his Origins, he dreamed of a foundation “which was self-justifying and self-authenticating, principles so intuitive that they admitted no denial and were sustained by the exercise of doubt.” He started with his own existence as a thinking subject – because to doubt his own existence still affirmed the existence of the thinking subject that doubted.

Three unfortunate consequences of Descartes' move:

1. A deeply reinforced dualism of mind and matter. Descartes isolated the thinking mind as though it could exist apart from its embodiment apart from the whole person. No good skeptic today would permit Descartes to assume a disembodied self.

2. A deeply polarized space between objectivity and subjectivity. Descartes absolved the knowing mind from being in any way implicated in the situation it sought to know. The idea of purely objective knowledge was nice for a mythologized science that could crown the secularized altar of civilization – but doesn't hold much water for actual scientists, after (or even before) Heisenberg.

3. A dichotomy between theory and practice. What will it take to shed forever the idea of working out basic principles in some protected space – uncontaminated by subjective passions and the crude realities of the physical world – and only then putting them into practice? Thanks a lot, Descartes. One valuable thing I learned in my preparation for being a teacher – one of the few – was that reflection is inseparable from action. You don't learn how to think without doing, and your thinking is forever fruitless, a kind of mental masturbation, unless it is integrated with your doing.

I've written elsewhere about the intrinsic limits of skepticism. It's evident to me that we doubt in order to learn, but we must believe in order to know. I'm not just talking about God. Remember the dual nature of Descartes' project – it was not only theological, but trying to find a better (more secure, less doubtful) platform for scientific inquiry. If you don't have the Cappodocian principles, you need some other basis – and you have to choose it. It's not as though you let the Skeptical Beast out of its cage, and it tears down all pretenders to the throne, and whatever's left standing you must kneel down and worship. Sooner or later you must rein in the Skeptical Beast in favor of your chosen perspective.


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