RE: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)

From: Alexanian, Moorad (
Date: Thu Jun 19 2003 - 13:23:13 EDT

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    There is an important aspect of reality that is not physical and, thus outside the bounds of science. The objectivity of science is related to the way data that constitutes its subject matter is collected by purely physical devices. Of course, humans are detectors of the non-physical, e.g., human reasoning and consciousness. The fact that the latter subject matter is not purely objective does not mean that it is of no significance. Science owes its success to the simplicity of its subject matter, viz. the physical. I believe that life, human consciousness and reasoning will never be amenable to the inquiries of the scientist qua scientist.


            -----Original Message-----
            From: Jim Armstrong []
            Sent: Thu 6/19/2003 12:47 PM
            Cc: Asa
            Subject: Re: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)

            Aye! Outside of science, the criteria to be satisfied become more
            subjective and the results idiosyncratic. JimA
            Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
    >The scientific method is nothing but human reasoning applied to the study of the physical universe. Theological/philosophical musing are also governed by the very same human reasoning but the subject matter, what constitutes evidence, and the method of establishing truth or falsehood are different from that of experimental science.
    > -----Original Message-----
    > From: Jim Armstrong []
    > Sent: Thu 6/19/2003 11:58 AM
    > To: Howard J. Van Till
    > Cc: Asa
    > Subject: Re: Theological theory evaluation (Was: The forgotten verses)
    > Howard - an interesting and thoughtful response. Timely too, in my case. I had started to write a response to the effect the science per se was not the only place where we use the scientific method (basically just to make the point that science and the scientific method are related, but different critters). I got a little bogged down and had a priority issue to boot and so scratched the response. Good thing! What a nice job you did! Thanks...once again!
    > Jim Armstrong
    > Howard J. Van Till wrote:
    > I had asked:
    > How many on this list would identify "derivable from the designated
    > authoritative text" as one of the primary evaluation criteria for the
    > evaluation of theological theories?
    > Terry Gray replied:
    > Count me in on this one. That's what the authority and sufficiency of
    > scripture means in my mind.
    > Thanks, Terry, for the (not unexpected) reply. Here's the background for my
    > earlier question. My apologies for its length, but I would be interested in
    > the comments of a few people willing to read to the end.
    > ************************************
    > There was a time in the early history of science when appeal to authority
    > (often in the form of written text) was an accepted way of answering some
    > questions. In the extreme it might be characterized: "Got a question about
    > the natural world? Go to the writings of Aristotle to find the answer."
    > There is still a limited place for appeal to scientific authority today (say
    > in portions of the educational enterprise), but the sciences have learned
    > well by experience that appealing to authority is no way to learn anything
    > new about the natural world. Galileo and others have demonstrated the value
    > of the empirical approach in science and the need to employ the full range
    > of human experience in the quest for learning. Got a question about the
    > natural world? Good, then systematically investigate the natural world to
    > find an answer. Perform relevant observations, measurements and/or
    > experiments to see what the natural world is actually like and what it
    > actually does. Formulate scientific theories about some phenomenon and
    > evaluate these theories on the basis of a number of criteria that have, over
    > time, demonstrated their fruitfulness in identifying and selecting the best
    > available theory or in suggesting areas where the modification or
    > replacement of a theory might be called for.
    > The formulation and evaluation of theories is one of the core activities of
    > contemporary science. Examples of historically fruitful theory evaluation
    > criteria in the sciences include:
    > * Observational relevance. Is the theory vulnerable to affirmation or
    > falsification by observational data?
    > * Predictive accuracy. How well do a theory¹s predictions compare with what
    > is observed or measured?
    > * Coherence. Is the theory under scrutiny internally consistent? Is it also
    > consistent with other theories considered to be well supported?
    > * Explanatory scope. Does the theory apply to a broad range of phenomena, or
    > is it confined to a very narrow class of phenomena?
    > * Unifying power. Does the theory under scrutiny serve to unify several
    > theories of limited scope into one more comprehensive framework?
    > * Fertility. Does a theory suggest and stimulate further experiments or
    > measurements?
    > * Aesthetic qualities. Does the theory display aesthetic qualities such as
    > simplicity, elegance, beauty, and the like?
    > But science is not the only discipline in which theories are formulated and
    > evaluated. Similar activities are also performed in theology. The question I
    > pose for consideration is, What is the basis for the formulation of
    > theological theories, and on what criteria are theological theories
    > evaluated? In a recent essay, "Retelling the Story of Science," theoretical
    > physicist Stephen M. Barr made a comment relevant to this concern. "The
    > scientist," said Barr, "must submit his mind to the data of experiment, the
    > theologian must submit his to the data of revelation." (First Things, March,
    > 2003, p. 19) Some theologians might well challenge Barr¹s comparison of
    > science and theology, but he is certainly not the only person to make such
    > an assessment. For the moment, let us take it as accurate.
    > If the data of theology is "revelation," where is that revelation to be
    > found? Is it confined to the words of some ancient sacred text? Many members
    > of religious communities assume that it is. If so, then theological theories
    > are formulated from interpretations of that text and evaluated on the basis
    > of their faithfulness to that written authority. The primary theory
    > evaluation strategy in theology would appear to be the familiar appeal to an
    > authority represented in written text.
    > If that is the case, is that a desirable state of affairs, or would there be
    > some merit in reexamining the practice of theory evaluation now prevalent in
    > theology? It seems clear that the natural sciences advanced by abandoning
    > their early dependence on appeals to textual authority and by adopting a
    > theory evaluation program based instead on the relationship of theory to our
    > human experience‹especially to experience rooted in systematic observation,
    > measurement, and experiment. Is there a similar advance available to
    > theology? Would it be desirable to explore this possibility?
    > Specifically, if theological theories were to be evaluated on the basis of
    > criteria rooted, not in appeals to the authority of ancient text or revered
    > theologians of the past, but in a systematic reflection on ongoing human
    > experience, including the experience of scientific investigation, what might
    > those evaluation criteria look like? Is there a way for theology to gain
    > from the experience of science regarding the value of moving from an
    > authority-based theory evaluation strategy to an experience-based strategy?
    > Howard Van Till

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