Physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox said on Q and A tonight that the power of science is that it’s the only discipline that admits its own fallibility.
Seems like a really nice guy, but I’m perplexed as to why he would believe something that is so obviously false: I’ve never met a philosopher, historian, economist, lawyer, literary critic, OR theologian, who does not admit their own fallibility and the fallibility of their discipline.
And yes, I meant it when I said theologian. Theologians consider the text they work with (e.g. the Bible) – their data source – to be infallible, but they consider their own interpretations of the text to be fallible.
Note that this is exactly the same as scientists, who consider nature – their data source – to be completely infallible: never lying to us, and never changing, but constantly being misinterpreted by us.
Scientists and theologians are no different in this regard.
[Edit (03/10/14): Apologies for how long this post is. If you’re in a hurry you may find it effective to just read the bits in bold to get the main points, and prioritise reading the final section.]
“Christianity” can mean so very many things.
When you meet enough people – especially people who have met a lot of other people – and when you see enough of the world, you must concede this fact, that two different “Christians,” when randomly plucked from different places on the globe, will not necessarily adhere to beliefs or practices that at all resemble each other. To study history only multiplies this phenomenon: not only is Christianity different from one place to another, but also from one time to another, within the same place! Over the centuries since Jesus walked the earth, those who claim to follow him have said and done radically different and irreconcilable things. In the name of Jesus, some people have fed the hungry and clothed the poor, while other people have fought wars and taken land by force; some people have abolished slavery, while others have enslaved generations; some people have set up schools as centres of free education, while others have sought to suppress and persecute free thought. Some Christians have called Jesus the very Son of God, while others have called him only a good teacher; some have said that salvation is a free gift received by faith, while others have said we are to earn our way into Heaven by our good deeds. Some Christians believe fully in the authority of scripture, while others say it’s only a flawed human guideline. Of those who do believe the Bible, they can’t agree on how long it took God to create the Earth, or whether God exists as a Trinity, or whether or not women ought to preach. All the while some of these people are singing hymns while others sing rock music – and have even waged war on each other over differences comparable to this.
I hope you get the point. There is a serious question on the minds of so many people on the outside, looking in: What is this thing called “Christianity”? And why can’t its proponents get along? How can you say that there is one Christian religion worth talking about, when there as many interpretations of it as there are “Christians”? Of course, Christians like myself will say that people who fight wars in the name of Christianity have entirely abandoned the very essence of what Jesus came to earth to achieve – a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36). “They are not true Christians,” I will say. But of course that’s exactly it, they shall reply: who gets to decide who are the true Christians and who are the fake ones? Your peaceful Christianity is just your interpretation, while those who want to advance Christendom by the sword will tell you that your interpretation is wrong; you are the fake Christian. Who, then, can be the arbiter? Who can really say what ‘true’ Christianity is?
To complicate matters further, while there are a whole bunch of people who claim to be Christian that I will say are in fact not Christians, there is a whole group of other people whom I affirm when they profess to be Christian, even though I disagree with them on smaller but still major theological issues, such as the nature of God’s sovereignty and its relationship to human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or creation and the age of the Earth. Yes it seems as though Evangelical Christians (by which I mean roughly “Protestant Christians who believe that Bible is the sole authoritative word of God and that people must be saved from deserved punishment for sin through a personal faith in the atoning work of Jesus’ death and resurrection”), have decided upon a certain set of criteria for what it is to be a real Christian. We have at some point drawn a theological circle, inside which you count as a Christian and outside which you don’t. And of course, “to be a Christian” is here synonymous with “to be saved”, and thus such theological line drawing comes with a certain level of moral connotation, and can cause all sorts of offence. And yet such line drawing must be done, for not just any old person who believes any old thing can be called a “Christian” just because we want to be nice – no more than just anybody can be called a “hipster” (not that they necessarily want to be). The question then is, on what basis do we mark the cut-off between Christian and not? Just how much can a person disagree with me before I say they have departed from the true faith? Ultimately, on what basis can I say that there is one religion called Christianity? Continue reading
We all know how often science and religion are pitted against each other. And it happens in so many ways. Various inherent differences are suggested between these two enterprises. They say that science appeals to reason while religion appeals to authority; science improves society while religion hinders society’s progression. We’ve all heard the fairy tales – you might not call them fairy tales, but I do. Anyway. There’s one particular difference that I commonly hear suggested as existing between science and religion, which I want to address here. And that is that science is inherently progressive, while religion is inherently stubborn or static.
To be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part XII (closing statement)
Hume, I believe you’ve hit the nail right on the head.
The atheist asks the Christian how God can exist as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit.
The Christian replies that he doesn’t fully understand the answer to this, pointing out that an infinite being such as God cannot be fully grasped by a human, finite, mundane intelligence.
The atheist is unsatisfied, and says that the Christian is committing a copout. “How, after all, can you expect me to believe in your God when you don’t even understand him? I point out logical incoherencies in your God, and all you can say is you can’t expect to understand the infinite.”
This is a fictional anecdotal example what I’m going to call the incomprehensibility fallacy – who it is that commits the fallacy hasn’t been named.
I think it is often said by Christians that we simply don’t understand, and thus can’t give you an answer, and that this is because God is totally other-worldly, immaterial and infinite. And it is often said by atheists that this is a copout.
But consider this. There are many, many things I don’t understand about Australia’s legal system. But I’m quite convinced that it exists – and justly so (the evidence is reasonably overwhelming). To say that the fact that I don’t understand the Australian legal system is a good reason to think that it doesn’t exist is pretty unreasonable. You might even call it a sort of “incomprehensibility fallacy”. There are all sorts of things whose existence I am convinced of, and that I don’t understand and do not even expect to understand: my own circulatory system, the discipline of economics, the universe at large, atoms, and of course, women.
The question is not: “can you give an exhaustive and comprehensive theory about this object and all its qualities?”
The question is: “do you have sufficient evidence to be able to say with confidence that this object (with at least x number of essential qualities) exists, whatever other qualities it may possess?”
Of course we don’t understand everything about God. But I do believe we have enough evidence to be able to say confidently that he exists, and to understand certain characteristics that he has: that he is good, that he loves all people, that he created the universe, that he is all powerful, and a few other things.
We also know that he became human in the person of Jesus, died, and rose again. Some of the consequences of this are very hard to grasp, though. If God is eternal, and he existed on Earth for a time as a man, then it is necessary that God was at once both in Heaven and on Earth. It is from here that all the deductions have to begin, to bring us towards the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is a very confusing and often seemingly incoherent concept. But it is a metaphysical difficulty that is necessitated by irrefutable empirical facts. The fact that we cannot understand it does not license us to throw it away entirely, because it is not the theory’s tidiness and comprehensibility that causes us to believe it; it is the theory’s grounding in indispensable premises.
Let us teach our people that there is no God.
Let us teach our people that they were not made with intention or purpose.
Let us teach our people that their actions will not ultimately be judged.
* * *
Let us teach our people that there is no such thing as truth; that there is no right way.
Let us teach our people that they should believe any doctrine, except for the doctrine of objectivity, so long as it makes them happy.
Let us teach our people to let the self reign supreme.
Let us be our own dictators over truth.
* * *
Let us then be shocked and disgusted when individuals refuse to behave according to our moral principles.
And let us panic as we find ourselves powerless to convince them into obedience.
Let us shout out words of which we have stripped all meaning and power.
Let us compose arguments with no atmosphere through which to transmit them.
Let chaos silently sweep the nations as we observe at a helpless distance, locked inside our vacuous void, having successfully removed the possibility of human connection.
* * *
Let, then, our blood boil with anger as we strike down our enemy.
Let us lock him up for his crimes against us,
And weep tears of tyrants.
This world may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it may be the best of all possible means to the best of all possible worlds.
When atheists grow out of likening God to unicorns, believers will start listening. Until then, they are only reaching an audience of themselves.
– Written 15th August 2010
Have you ever gazed upon something of incredible, majestic beauty, only to feel a sense of distress and tragedy? I have. And hopefully I’m not the only one, otherwise everything I’m about to write might fall on deaf ears. But let me explain.
So many times I come across some amazing sight and, despite my captivation, I am deeply unsatisfied by it. Something about it distresses me far down in the depths of my consciousness. Continue reading
Everything is exactly what it is.
No more. No less.