We’ve been mud-wrestling about scientific materialism vs. faith recently — especially with that peculiar disdain and condescension secular scientists often exude toward those foolish enough to believe in a divine Creator. One commenter named Mark, of the latter persuasion, started off reasonably enough but in short order fell off the cliff, ranting about my weaving a conspiracy worthy of Karl Rove. While I’m flattered to be compared to a master mind manipulator such as Mr. Rove (who controls the thoughts of countless wingnut drones, doubtless including mine), rational discussion is invariably fruitless with those of such a mindset, and he was, sadly, cast into the outer darkness.
Another commenter, the elegantly-named Chieftain of Seir, posed this comment to a subsequent post answering my friend Mark:
… I think you are expressing your frustrations at the wrong target. After all, the good book does say that judgment begins with the house of God, right?
I say that partially in jest. After all, you have to deal with the argument that is on your doorstep. But if you look around, I think you will find that most Christians use the same kind of reasoning as Mark. So why not direct your ire at your fellow Christians as well?
Mark’s fundamental problem is that he thinks that anyone who does not accept his a priori beliefs is unreasonable. Most Christians think the same way. They typically argue that if anyone operated on pure reason without any biases then they would be forced to agree with the Christian position.
This is the same faulty logic that is used by Mark. People like to think that their a priori beliefs are required by reason. But reason does not require any particular a priori and it can never prove that any a priori is true. To think that reason will provide proof for your beliefs is a fool’s hope for both the Christian and the Atheist.
… But what it all boils down to is that reason depends on revelation. It does not matter weather the revelation is what you see with your eyes or what you feel in your heart. It is all the same as far as reason goes. And the choice of what revelation you chose to accept as a guide to truth is made by the desires of your heart, not reason.
The Chieftain is beginning to tiptoe around some core issues here, although he does seem to have his wires crossed a bit, seemingly confused about both Christian belief and the relationship between revelation and reason — more on this in a moment. Let me say at the outset that I have no quarrel with the scientist who, be he atheist or agnostic, pursues science to its logical end, seeking deeper understanding of the mysteries of the universe, large and small. It is that peculiar arrogance of the secular fundamentalist — be he in science, or education, or politics, or most any field — which abrogates, in my opinion, all intellectual integrity, moving from objective pursuit of truth to subjectivism, disdain for differing opinions, and emotionalism, resulting in the intellectual suicide, as Herbert Spencer described it, of “contempt prior to investigation.”
Sweeping generalizations about what “most Christians think” seem common among those who understand little of what any Christian thinks, and miss the mark anyway: the standard is not what “most Christians” believe, but what Christianity as a faith has taught and maintained throughout its two-thousand year history. And while Christianity maintains that aspects of its core beliefs may be reached through reason alone — such as the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and the existence of a natural moral law — Christianity is above all a faith based on revelation. It maintains that God exists, that He is personal, and that He has intervened in human history, making Himself known both by written revelation and through the person of Jesus Christ. While the secular materialist views such a position as irrational — contrary to reason — Christianity maintains instead that it is supra-rational: not contrary to reason, but above reason by the very nature of God. It stands to reason that man — confined by his very nature to space and time — cannot through reason alone understand a Being who transcends space and time — eternal and self-existent in nature, unlimited in intellect and power, unchanged and unbound by time, having existed both before time and throughout eternity.
Yet Christianity also maintains that this God, who has revealed Himself to man, is the embodiment of pure reason, of absolute truth — hence His self-description as Logos, the pure Reason sought — and apprehended, albeit incompletely — by the high science of Greek philosophy.
The tension between science and faith is often thought of as beginning with Galileo, the Italian mathematician and astronomer who ran afoul of the Church for his theories in the early 17th century. But the conflict between reason and revelation is far more ancient, starting with the Greek philosophers who struggled to rationalize their crude pagan mythologies, and early Greek converts to Christianity, such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Origen. Augustine was the first to systematically address the relationship between faith and reason, finding faith preeminent while having great respect for Platonism and its logical constructs. The struggle continued with surprising intensity throughout the Middle Ages, finding its highest and most sophisticated resolution in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. To a lesser extent, similar struggles between philosophy and theology were taking place not only in Christianity, but in Judaism and even Islam during this time.
While disputes about philosophy and theology may seem irrelevant to the struggle between 21st century science and religious belief, they are in fact highly pertinent to today’s polemics, for the core issues — the veracity of knowledge obtained by reason and investigation, versus knowledge derived from divine revelation — are identical. Aquinas distilled these differences with extraordinary clarity: I know by reason (or science, or mathematics) that a thing is true because I see that it is true. But I believe that something is true because God has said it — because its source is the embodiment of absolute truth. In the former, knowledge is affirmed because of sight; in the latter, because of source.
The scientific materialist stops at the first: nothing exists which cannot be verified by proof. Knowledge obtained by faith and revelation cannot be seen or proven, and is therefore invalid. The materialist cannot evaluate the immaterial, and thus must remain a rigid reductionist: all aspects of the universe, and in particular the peculiar aspects of our human nature — purpose, free will, love, sacrifice, spontaneity, creativity — must ultimately be attributed to deterministic sources: neurochemistry, genetics, survival instinct, random chance. Their philosophical handcuffs are constricting in the extreme — though few seem to understand the constraints and inconsistencies inherent in their own philosophy. They live, as all humans must, in utter disregard for their core conviction: they love and hate; make free choices; are spontaneous and unpredictable; act contrary to the prime directive of survival of the fittest through sacrifice and altruism; pursue life goals in accordance with principles which are both immaterial and unprovable.
By contrast, those who assent to knowledge by faith and revelation need not reject science, or knowledge, or reason — in fact, these remain critical tools by which to assess, and in some regard verify, their faith. Since we cannot see what we are called to believe, investigation using material knowledge, science, and history nonetheless may serve to verify or refute the proposition that revelation indeed has its source in a Being embodying absolute truth and trustworthiness. Thus, we evaluate scriptures claiming to be revelation with the tools of archeology, linguistics, textual analysis for internal consistency and external verification, to validate, in some measure, the veracity of such claims. When we find, as in the case of the Christian scriptures, extraordinary evidence of accuracy to ancient manuscripts sustained over many centuries, abundant internal and external evidence for origins nearly coincident with New Testament events, and abundant archaeological support for many of its events and personalities, we do not thereby prove that they represent divine revelation. But such evidence is consistent with what we would expect were they in fact revelation.
Thus logic and science do not prove faith — they cannot by their very nature — but lend credence and reasonableness to its veracity. Conversely, lack of such objective, measurable evidence — the lack of archaeological and historical evidence for the events of the Book of Mormon comes to mind — does not disprove its divine origins, but certainly suggests serious inconsistencies in its claim to be revelation.
And thus, by a long and rather circuitous route, we return to the Chieftain’s assertions: that reason depends on revelation, and that the veracity of revelation is purely subjective. Neither is true: one may have reason independent of revelation, and have revelation which is above reason, yet inferentially supported by the tools which reason provides. To maintain that any claim to revelation is valid, if we only believe it to be so, substitutes self-direction based on emotion (invariably self-serving) for revelation from the source of absolute truth.
And that supposition is, in my view, unreasonable.