From: Dr. Blake Nelson (email@example.com)
Date: Fri Sep 19 2003 - 18:15:45 EDT
--- Steve Petermann <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> Dr. Nelson wrote:
> > At the end of the day, I think Kung is right that
> > choices are nihilism or theism if you follow
> > the consquences of various worldviews.
> I agree with this, but I think I need to define what
> I mean by a "scientific
> worldview". Perhaps there's better term to use. By
> scientific worldview I do
> *not* mean scientism. Rather I mean a respect for
> what science says about
> the way the cosmos operates. In my view this does
> not necessitate the
> exclusion of religion or theism. It just says that
> within the limited scope
> of the tools science has, what is says about the way
> the universe works
> should be respected and perhaps accepted.
I don't see how, at least christianity traditionally,
which fostered the development of science, doesn't
respect what science says about the world.
> The point you keep making that science cannot
> logically exclude
> supernaturalism is a truism. I never contented that
> science could. My
> contention and that of many others is that as
> science has discovered the
> natural causes for the unfolding of the cosmos, it
> has raised the specter of
> skepticism surrounding supernatural causation.
Actually, that is not the main part of my point. My
main point is that religion, at least christianity, is
a call to enter into a new relationship with God and
fellow human beings here and now, with the exemplar
for christians being the revelation of God in Jesus.
The point of that is that science really has nothing
to say about whether committing your life to that
example is right, wrong or indifferent.
The question of supernaturalism depends on one's
definition. Certainly, there were some sort of
physics involved in the resurrection -- the body was
no longer there. Certainly, any "miracle" has physics
involved. An analogy Polkinghorne has used in writing
is that superconductivity was completely unknown and
considered impossible, but under particular
circumstances it occurs. Of course, the resurrection
is a one-off event.
Christian theology has always had some strains that
George has talked about in the past of the idea of
miracles being built into the creation by God from the
What I am trying to say succinctly is that events that
are sometimes labeled as supernatural -- lets take the
resurrection -- involve divine action but do not
necessarily involve a disruption of the created order
or the laws of physics. That is a Humean idea of
miracles that ignores the plain meaning of the word
and begs the question of what constitutes a miracle.
Miracles do not require violations of the laws of
physics, which I tried to get across by pointing out
that many things ascribed as miracles are clearly
natural phenomena and scriptures dont pretend they
It seems to me the existence of everything is a
miracle. Now, the existence of everything is not at
odds with the laws of physics. I do not see the
resurrection as any different problem than my
existence or yours or the existence of e coli, all of
which are miracles in my way of thinking. What the
modern "scientific" worldview has denuded the wonder
of the existence of things -- and not in a way that is
philosophically (or metaphysically) justified.
Skepticism about the existence of houses and rocks has
become a matter of only a theoretical issue now,
despite its pervasive concern for ancient Greek
skeptics. So, today's scientific skeptics are
actually a lot less skeptical than the Greeks to whom
they pay some lip service.
Once we decide who defines what is or is not
supernatural and what supernatural means, then we can
determine whether the scientific worldview holds any
problem for the miraculous.
I think the point that I have tried to make is that
there is profound misunderstanding and lack of
definition for natural/supernatural/miracle, etc. In
Sagan's Demon Haunted World, you are exactly right,
science makes the supernatural seem less likely. But,
to accept those definitions and characterizations of
divine action is begging the question.
Profoundly, science in viewing the cosmos as behaving
in regular, lawful ways, is a reflection of the
traditional christian conception of God.
So, here's the question for you. How did it come to
the point where the normality and rationality of the
created order, which was once seen as completely
consonant with the christian concept of deity and, in
a sense, a proof of its existence, come to be seen as
in conflict with a christian view of deity when it is
that christian worldview that presumed science was
possible and set forth the bases upon which modern
science is based?
That's the question. Personally, I think it goes back
to the lack of theological education (and the break
down of intersubjective religious understanding in the
West), and the distortion created by press coverage of
religious issues especially in education and those are
zealously young earth creationist and the zealous
advocacy of folks like Sagan and Dawkins to fight some
strawman of folk religious belief which is not
christianity. I'm interested in what your take is.
> All major religions and all major religious
> scriptures describe supernatural
> events. Example: Hinduism has a story that the
> universe began as a giant
> egg. It also describes supernatural events
> surrounding the Krishna, an
> incarnation of Brahman. Christianity does not have a
> lock on supernaturalism
> or even remarkable scriptural claims.
Of course, there are large differences between the
scope of "supernatural" claims between other religions
and Judaism/Christianity on one hand and even on the
claims of Hebrew scripture versus the New Testament on
the other. Should we paint all such claims with such
a broad brush?
The christian tradition has been very sparing in its
use of "supernatural" events theologically, suggesting
that such are far from the norm. You see this
throughout the christian tradition, including in
Luther's discussion of the hiddenness of God. Again,
this is contrary to the faux "scientific" worldview
that trots out every Lourdes miracle claim, as Sagan
does, as if that is what christianity claims. This
should help it lead the pack of religions under a
scientific worldview, shouldn't it?
> Does science
> logically destroy these
> claims? No. The challenge for supernaturalism is
> not the logic of it. The
> challenge is its believability. Believability is
> not solely based on logic.
> It is a gestalt of reason, emotion, intuition,
> knowledge, etc. Just because
> someone can mount a logical case for something does
> not make it compelling.
> The scholastics could do that but there approach was
> obviously not that
> compelling since it was supplanted.
What about christian belief in practice or
scripturally do you think is so difficult for people
> Is it possible that Krishna blew a tornado away?
> Yes. Is it possible that
> Jesus walked on water? Yes.
Well, the two stories are somewhat different in their
aspects from the get go, but my comments below relate
to this issue.
> The real question is
> not that but now
> compelling those stories are to people who are
> regularly confronted with
> natural causation and *never* experience
> supernatural causation.
This brings up a whole boatload of issues largely
centering, I think, on the role of experience in our
daily lives. I am sure you would agree that
empiricism has a very unsatisfactory and shallow
concept of experience a la Hume (who of course also
critiqued inductive reasoning well and then ignored
his own critique when he wrote about miracles). As I
said above, I think we have defintion problems and you
may be stacking the deck in your favor, especially if
you presume to define religious experience as
supernatural and then define supernatural as in
violation of or contrary to the laws of physics. I am
sure you are familiar with James' Varieties of
Religious Experience. I do believe that vast majority
of religious experience is every day experience imbued
with religious meaning. This is the heart of
religious experience, not supernatural experiences per
se (if we can come up with a definition of
supernatural experience). So, it seems that the claim
about supernaturalism as a barrier to religious belief
must not be in the practice of the religion, but in
reports of "miraculous" events in its scriptures?
There are at least five paths one can deal with in
dealing with the miraculous 1) reject it out of hand,
2) try to understand if the miracle story has a
naturalistic explanation, 3) try to understand if the
miracle story is meant to convey some particular
meaning, 4) to the extent one can, determine if the
report of the miracle seems otherwise reliable and
possibly believable, or 5) dogmatism.
The central "miracle" for christianity is the
resurrection. Do you think this is problematic from a
"scientific worldview"? If so, why? Are we back to
I would argue -- but wont for brevity sake -- that
option no. 1 is really no option at all. It is a
simple inability to see one's assumptions about
ontology and epistemology.
Option no. 2 merely makes it less unpalatable to the
"scientific" worldview, but really does it have any
importance to the religious belief itself? How does
whether christianity is a viable choice to someone
hang on whether, for example, you can believe water
was turned into wine? Would someone say something
like, "wow, that Jesus is pretty cool and showed a
radical new way to live in harmony with God and the
rest of mankind, but I can't believe that water to
wine stuff, so I'll go buy some more stuff from the
Option No. 3 recognizes, perhaps properly, that there
are different forms of communication than
communications trying to convey scientific facts.
There are those like Bruno LaTour, who would argue
that when you ask "scientific" questions of religious
texts that you have completely missed the point. So,
for example, when you ask questions about Mary's
obedience to God such as ‘who was Mary’, checking
whether or not she was ‘really’ a virgin, imagining
how she could be impregnated, whether the Angel
Gabriel is male or female, etc. entirely misses the
point of the content of the message. I wouldn't quite
go as far as LaTour does, but I think he is partially
right when he says: "These questions are not impious,
nor even irrational, they are simply a category
mistake. They are so irrelevant that no one has even
to bother answering them." I would disagree with the
second sentence and say that they are irrelevant, but
that one needs to explain why those questions are
*often* (not always) irrelevant.
In another vein of this approach, there is a cottage
industry in understanding the symbolic meaning of
miracles in the New Testament without being
particularly concerned if they are historical records
in the modern sense. This, of course, dove tails
perhaps more fully with a "scientific" worldview, but
has its own set of problems.
A third vein of this approach is frequently associated
with existentialism (although it is also consonant
with LaTour's comments above) and involves accepting
responsibility for believing what cannot be proved
(the belief may still be reasonable in line with
either options 1-3).
Option No. 4 is the realm of much traditional
apologetics. I assume that you think that the
scientific worldview precludes this from being
It seems, in part, that this line of questioning re
supernaturalism mistakes the reason people leave
On what basis do you think some "supernatural" content
of a religoin is a barrier to belief?
When one posits God, one necessarily posits something
above or over nature "supernatural" -- the question
then becomes how God interacts (if he does) with
creation. Are you asserting that a "scientific"
worldview writes off God altogether without proof
(requiring some sort of super Neo-Thomist approach)?
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