Archive for June, 2012

Charles DarwinThe New Yorker has an article up on “Why We Don’t Believe In Science.” This essay, though mainly concerned with a study of our neural reactions to counter-intuitive experiences, begins by citing a recent Gallup poll on what Americans believe when it comes to evolution. Somewhat surprising is the large percentage of Americans (45%) who reject the theory of evolution and instead hold that the world was created within the last 10,000 years by a supernatural agent.* 32% of adult Americans hold what might be called theistic evolution, while only 15% hold to a purely naturalistic account of evolution.**

*Is this regression? Even among those who rejected evolution in the early 20th century, William Jennings Bryan among them, they were generally not this type of “Young Earth Creationist.Instead, they readily proclaimed that “a day is like a thousand years to God,” which allowed them to accept the antiquity of the Earth without abandoning the 7 days of creation in Genesis – a position known as “Old Earth Creationism.”

**Lost in this is the fact that more people accept evolution than reject it. And I have a major bone to pick when it comes to the use of the word “believe” in reference to scientific theories. One does not “believe” a scientific theory, one can only accept it (or reject it) as the theory that makes the best sense of the empirical evidence. And to do this, one must employ logic – the kind of thing that Aristotle developed and was so important for the medievals, even though Aristotle gets kicked around in this article for being naive and erroneous. If you want to know what belief is, go read this. It has nothing to do with science, and to use faith/belief in reference to science is to actually denigrate what science is in the first place.

As my students would tell you, I am a defender of the theory of evolution and work hard to show them that there is no biblical or theological basis for supposing a conflict between Christianity and evolution. Darwin certainly did not think so, nor have most educated Christians since the emergence of Darwinian evolution. This conflict – and this is so crucially important to understand – has been trumped up (by both sides!) as a subset of the (trumped-up!) conflict between the secular and the religious, and is ultimately a political (broadly understood) conflict that has to do with particular configurations of power rather than ideological beliefs. But that is for another post. (more…)

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Wittgenstein, being silent

I came across the following quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuswhich was cited in Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s Theology and the Philosophy of Science (32-33):

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world. (6.41)

This, in the manifesto of logical positivism!*

*Pannenberg cites this in a section that discusses the problems presented for theology, particularly the word “God,”  and how certain theologians (van Buren) reduced the content of theological speech to a “mere form of expression.” Of course, Pannenberg does not accept a logical positivist approach to theological language, which results in something like the liberalism of Schleiermacher or the neo-liberalism of Bultmann. Rather, he follows Popper’s critique of positivism (which he considers total and complete) and suggests another way of regarding the content and function of theological language.

When I initially read this quote in its full context in the Tractatus my mind was immediately drawn to the classical distinction between necessary and contingent beings. Wittgenstein is of course concerned with language here, but in his quest to understand meaning in its ultimate or unconditioned sense he is driven “outside the world.”

This statement, rather than lay the foundation of an all encompassing positivism, seems to provide strict limits for the ability of a completely immanent logic (and metaphysics) to establish any final meaning or value. The reference for any one thing, a word in a sentence or an object in a painting, has meaning only in connection with those words or objects that surround it (this was the fundamental thesis of the Tractatus, wasn’t it?). Any necessary meaning, as Wittgenstein says, must lie outside the world, outside the internal reference of a sentence or language or system of culture.*

*There is of course the interpretation of the Tractatus as a big middle finger to the Vienna Circle, who are supposed to have completely misunderstood its purpose and proceeded to build a philosophical system on its basis. I so hope this is true.

In spite of these limits, Wittgenstein is not saying that we should aim to speak of the value of things in their ultimate, unconditioned reference. As he famously concludes:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

What can we truly and meaningfully say, then? Maybe the monks had it right after all.

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