Re: Fragility and tendentiousness

From: Dr. Blake Nelson (
Date: Fri Sep 19 2003 - 18:15:45 EDT

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    --- Steve Petermann <> wrote:
    > Dr. Nelson wrote:
    > > At the end of the day, I think Kung is right that
    > your
    > > choices are nihilism or theism if you follow
    > through
    > > 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
    to believe?

    > 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
    effective, too?

    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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