Thomas Gilby OP wrote, "Civilisation is formed by men locked together in argument." Our hope in this blog is to help generate a good healthy argument by challenging common assumptions about the question of God's existence. This blog is a resource for my students--and anyone who is interested--studying topics in the philosophy of relgion at A Level and beyond.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is there a conflict between religion and science?

Richard Dawkins for one would have us think so; but apart from his specious polemic anyone with an open mind and a few minutes to conduct some basic research can see that the supposed conflict is imaginary. In fact, not only is relgion not at war with science, the two have often facilitated one another.

While Galileo Galilei is the poster boy of those who like to insist on the perceived conflict, his dispute with Churchmen was not a battle of enlightned science trying to free itself from the superstitious minds of religious folk. It is true that overzelous clergy tended to meddle in worldly affairs, but the reality of the situation points to the fact that Copernican astronomy was encouraged and facilitated by the Church. During the so-called 'Dark Ages', it was in fact the monasteries of Europe which preserved and persued philosophy and science.

The long list of religious scientists gives us some prima facie evidence to the partnership: Robert Grosseteste (who introduced scientific thought to Oxford Unversity) Nicolaus Copernicus (who discovered heliocentric cosmology), Gregor Mendel (who is considered father of modern genetics) and Georges Henri Lemaitre (who proposed the 'hypothesis of the primeval atom', which later became known as Big Bang theory) to name just a few--were all Roman Catholic clergy.

And we should not imagine that their scientific skill was in spite of their religious convictions; in fact, the scientific method itself was born out of a true appreciation for philosophy and theology. Grosseteste, the thirteenth century Bishop of Lincoln, insisted on the need to conduct physical experiements to verify hypotheses in natural sciences, which was then a division of philosophy. St Albert the Great, teacher of St Thomas Aquinas, taught that the scientist of nature was compelled not simply to affirm what he had heard or been told, but to seek first hand the causes of physical phenomena. These approaches to the natural sciences sought to train the mind to distinguish between what is known inductively, and what is known of faith.

And the religious catalysts of science were not limited to the West; the period of 750AD - 1050AD is often considered the Golden Age of Islamic scholarship, with tremendous and often astonishing advances being made in the fields of medicine, mathematics and astronomy by scholars intent on understanding the Divine Creation: "He who pursues the road of knowledge Allah will direct to the road of Paradise... The brightness of a learned man compared to that of a mere worshiper is like that of a the full moon compared to all the stars...." (Hadith [saying] of the Prophet Mohammed).

It is true that ancient and medieval scientists made numerous errors in fact, but these errors were not on account of any superstition but rather due to the nature of scientific study itself: it is a process of trial and error, and our accomplishements in the sciences today are built on the foundations laid by many a religiously motivated scholar. In fact, science and religion are indistinguishable for much of our history.

3 Kinds of Cosmological Argument

According to William Lane Craig, there are three types of cosmological argument:

[i] That which argues against infinite regress (Aquinas)
[ii] That which argues that whatever begins must have a cause (‘Kalam’)
[iii] That which argues on the Principle of Sufficient Reason (Leibniz)

The cosmological argument of St Thomas Aquinas is contained in the first three of his ‘five ways’ (Summa Theologica); each of the three ways demonstrates that a infinite regress of (1) motion, (2) efficient causes and (3) contingent beings is not possible and that consequently, there must be an ‘Unmoved Mover’ and cause of the universe that exists per se.

The Kalam cosmological argument holds that (1) whatever begins to exist has a cause; (2) the universe began to exist; (3) the universe has a cause; there can not be an infinite temporal regress of causes because an actual temporal infinite is not possible;

According to Leibniz, the universe does not contain within itself a sufficient explanation for its own existence; therefore, we must look outside of the universe for an explanation.

The Problem of Personal Identity

What is meant by “The Problem of Personal Identity”?

What is a person? What is it that makes us who we are? Is personality nothing more than our biology, or is the psychology of the inner-self something other than flesh and bone? And why should we care?

These questions are significant for at least at least two reasons: firstly, they are of paramount importance to religious believers who maintain—as do Buddhists, for example—that we are reincarnated (a significance which is highlighted in the ancient Buddhist quest for the soul, The Questions of King Melinda) and for Christians who believe in heaven—which, if true, is totally desirable. Secondly, they are of great importance to humans in general since the way in which we conceive the value of a human person invariably affects our ethical treatment of one another. If a human person is nothing more than a mass of tissue that ceases to exist at the moment of death then human experimentation, such as cloning, may not seem like such a pressing moral issue. On the other hand, if personal identity is intrinsically related to a Creative God to whom we are answerable at the end of life, then such ethical questions are considerably weightier.

David Chalmers of the Australian National University refers to these questions of human identity as ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’ and suggests that simple biology alone can not provide a total answer. There is, he suggests, something more to being human than what biology alone can account for: there is, for example, not just a sensation of pain, love and joy in the person but an experience of these things too. A machine, like a computer, can simulate a reaction to pain, but this does not count as an experience in the way a human experiences things. It is these experiences that seem to make up our personalities and to be something more than just physical flesh and blood.

John Locke, the 17th century English empiricist philosopher, took up this distinction in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke highlights the division between being ‘a man’ as flesh and blood and ‘a person’ as a source of identity in two thought experiments aimed at showing that the we typically identify personality with consciousness.

In the first thought experiment, Locke supposed that a parrot and a man had switched bodies. The physical man now could only repeat a few words mechanically, whereas the parrot—which assumed the man’s consciousness—was now a thinking, reasoning being with an sense of identity and a set of desires. Locke believes that this mind experiment clearly shows that we would consider the parrot to contain the ‘personality’ of the subject while the body simply contains ‘the man’. The distinction is underscored by the second thought experiment, which describes an educated and cultured prince whose consciousness enters and reanimates the dead body of an uneducated and unlettered cobbler; even though the prince is in a new body, he retains his love of culture and awareness of the world he had as a prince.

This is all well and good and on the face of it, Chalmers and Locke seem to have a strong case in favour of a non-material notion of personality—but in itself, showing a distinction between body and consciousness is not sufficient to count as a defence of belief in a Cartesian soul.

The Catholic theologian and founder of CTS publishing, Frank Sheed, in his book Theology for Beginners, tells a story of an argument he had one day with an atheist. “What is a soul?” asks the atheist; Sheed replies (and this is a paraphrase of the anecdote, not a direct quote), “A soul has no shape, no colour, no size and no weight and you can’t see it, feel it, touch it or smell it.” The atheist replies, “that’s the best definition of ‘nothing’ I have ever heard.” The story highlights the difficulty facing the theist (or at least the mind/body dualist): how to give a coherent account of an intangible entity? If there really is a distinction between consciousness and the body, what does ‘consciousness’ itself consists of? Surely not atoms, protons and quarks—but if it is nothing physical, what account can be given to satisfy us? Sheed's experience with the materialist in Hyde Park underscored for him the need for a substantial explanation of what an inanimate ‘soul’ actually is.

Chalmers and Locke may have successfully shown that there is a distinction between body and consciousness, but this distinction may be nothing more than a theoretical distinction. Gilbert Ryle, for example, who famously (and pejoratively) characterised Cartesian Dualism as being like the belief of a “Ghost in the machine” criticises theories which hold that the mind and body are separate entities as being a ‘Category Mistake.’ In a 1949 book called The Concept of Mind, Ryle draws a distinction between modes of talking and modes of reality. It’s one thing to talk about the mind as being an independent entity, but logically it is meaningless. In a sense, talk of a soul is mythological to help us make sense of difficult concepts, but the myth should not be confused for a literal explanation.

“A myth is…the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another.” [The Concept of Mind]

While it is true that the problems raised by Ryle and characterised by the anecdote of Sheed are significant challenges for those who believe that personhood is tied up in something more than just the body, those challenges are not insurmountable. Peter Bertucci of Boston University for one provides a convincing argument that there is a very clear distinction between ideas and neurological realities. My ideas of beauty, for example, are not equivalent to the neurons that are produced in the brain. This distinction can not simply be dismissed as a ‘Category Mistake’. It is in fact logically necessary Bertucci maintains, that the idea of beauty is distinct from the mechanics of the idea of beauty (cf. Leibniz's Law of Indiscernibles). Mind is something other; the need for a fuller explanation does not diminish that reality.

“If the intellect is a physical body, it would have no knowledge of anything but bodies. But this is clearly false, since our intellect extends beyond the realm of phusical bodies. Hence, the intellect is not physical.”
[Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2:49.5]

"The Greatest of Miracles"

St Thomas Aquinas,
Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:6

"That anyone should assent to the teachings of the Christian faith is the greatest of all miracles."

Of course, Aquinas is not being sarcastic here: what he means is that it truly is a *wonder* that anyone should accept a teaching that is so contrary to what the world teaches. To accept the teaching of the Christian Faith requires a dramatic change in the way in which one lives, such as rejecting the pursuit of earthly pleasures and riches in favour of something that is future, unseen and of faith.

Aquinas' position reminds us that we should not forget that miracles can not really be properly understood except in the context of faith.

What do pigs and philosophy have in common?

"Pig Philosophy"

An excellent question. On one hand, the name is an allusion to Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Scottish essayist. He coined the term, 'pig philosophy' to register his disgust at those systems of philosophy (such as utilitarianism) which treated the human person as a robotic animal that is a slave to emotions and appetites. Rather, he insisted, the human person is made in the image of God with dignity and a higher calling, and is not simply a mechanical object.

While it is true that we are made in the image of God, we are not beyond wallowing in the mud in our search for truth. Getting to the truth for us humans is often "ab asino lanam": like getting wool from an ass (another way of saying, blood from a stone).

And there is a final reason: pigs are used to find truffles (edible fungus) which is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. Since truffles are very hard to find, they tend to be very expensive. Black truffles, for example, can cost hundreds of pounds for a kilo. There is an analogy between the search for highly prized truffles and highly prized truth: they are both hard to find but delicious once you've got them!

Aquinas' three types of miracles

There are three types of miracles according to Aquinas:

(1) Those things which only God can do and which nature can not do (these are supernatural events, such as the creation of something from nothing)

(2) Those things which nature can do, but which are not in the usual order (for example, nature can give sight but not, in its normal operation, after blindness. Jesus' healing of Blind Bartimaeus is an example of this kind of miracle).

(3) Those things which nature can do, but which are without the usual principles (for example, a crop that grows without seed).

Miracles and the problem of evil...

One of the common criticisms against miracles is that if God can and does perform miracles, why doesn't he do so for little children, for example, starving to death in Darfur?

The question is suggesting that if God can and does intervene in human affairs in an extraordinary way, why doesn't he do so regularly, and so make such an intervention an ordinary occurence?
Again, put another way, if God helps a few people with miracles, why doesn't he help all of us with them?

Is a belief in miracles and a benevolent, all-powerful God justifiable? How might one respond to this criticism? In the first instance, the problem of evil is not an argument against the possibility of miralces, but of the reason why God allows evil. For more information on this topic, refer to blogs on 'Theodicy'.

David Hume on miracles

Hume's Attitude to Miracles

Hume is often considered the starting point for philosophical discussions on and evaluations of miracles. The primary source is Chapter ten, "Of Miracles", in his "Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding" (1748).

David Hume defines miracles as being "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent."

Hume does not think that we should believe in miracles because there will never be enough evidence to support belief in them. It is more likely that someone who says there has been a miracle is mistaken or lying.

The only time we should believe the claim that there has been a miracle is if accepting that there was no miracle would be more unbelievable (and of course, that will never be the case).

Hume's criticism of miracles is not that they can not happen, but that it would be impossible to know if they had happened or not. As such, his critique is an epistemological one: at what point can we say we "know something"? In the case of miracles, Hume's answer to that question is "never". Remember that for Hume, all knowledge is gained inductively. Since we can never have sufficient inductive knowledge of an alleged miracle, we can not claim to know that it is an event as he has defined it.

(Follow the link 'Criticisms of Hume' for a short evaluation of his position).

Faith & Miracles

Do miracles "prove" the existence of God?

There is a passage in the Gospel of Mark in which some pharisees demand a sign from Jesus. They want him to prove that he is from God, to prove that he has the authority he says he has.

Jesus refuses their request. He is not a magician who conjures up miracles to impress people, or to compel them to believe in him. In fact, when you consider Jesus' miracles in the Gospel, you can see that they are not attempts to show-off or to grab attention and humiliate his critics, but rather responses to cries for help: the paralysed man, the bleeding woman, Jairus' daughter, blind Bartimaeus, etc. All of these came to beg Jesus with urgency and he in turn responded to them in mercy. Jesus' miracles represent a profound human encounter, encounters full of mystery and love, encounters which say something about what it means to be human and about human destiny. Nowhere do Jesus' miracles appear as "philosophical demonstrations". How can one subject an act of love to the scrutiny of a "logical exercise"?

Jesus makes it clear that miracles and faith go hand in hand (consider the story of the man whose son is possessed; Jesus says that only faith can help in those situations).

Miracles do prove God's love to those who believe in him, but it does not seem that they can have any value as a "proof" for a heart that is not disposed towards him.

In that sense, we can say that miracles do not prove God's existence philosophically--unless you subscribe to a type of philosophy that already accepts the existence of God, in which case they are useful in helping us to increase a little more our understanding of the Creator.

Are miracles philosophically significant?

Pick up any philosophy text on the philosophy of religion, and you are likely to find entries on "miracles." Often, these articles will ask, "are miracles religiously significant?" In other words, can miracles be proven to be from God? And if not, what possible significance can they have for religious believers? After all, if you can't prove that a miracle really is from God, aren't you better off taking the safer path and keeping a bit of healthy skepticism about them?

Philosophers who take this view--that miracles are either unknowable or impossible--include Hume, Spinoza, Schleiermacher and Flew. They represent types of philosophy called empiricism and rationalism. In a nutshell, empiricism is the belief that you only have true knowledge if what you claim to know can be verified by sense experience. Rationalism is the belief that you only have true knowledge if it can be demonstrated by logical steps.But other philosophers and theologians, such as William Lane Craig (see link) turn the question around: are miracles philosophically significant? The affection between two young lovers, for example, may not be philosophically significant. This does not mean that the reality of love is any less significant simply because philosophy can not quantify it in its totality. There is an aspect of love that transcends the rational process, like elements of beauty, music and poetry.

Miracles may only make sense in the context of faith (see Faith & Miracles). Just because miracles can not be contained by a philosophical investigation may point to a limitation in philosophy, and not necessarily in religious belief.