Indirect Methods, Knowing by Their Fruits

ἀπὸ τῶν καρπῶν αὐτῶν ἐπιγνώσεσθε αὐτούς.
– Matthew 7:16

When Jesus warned about false prophets he taught that people could know them by their fruits. Because important features of things and people are not always apparent at an observable surface level appearances can be deceiving. False prophets can come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly be ravening wolves. A tree that appears good may be corrupt. But these inner qualities are not directly accessible for us to evaluate, so we need indirect methods. I believe this practice of using indirect methods is generalizable to many areas of knowledge. It may be frustrating to lack direct access to things we want to understand or disappointing to realize that what we thought we knew directly is actually indirectly mediated. But I don’t think we need to be frustrated or disappointed with having to know things in indirect ways. Instead, it’s helpful to realize and accept that this is just how knowledge works and that understanding these indirect methods can help us to be better knowers.

We might imagine that this kind of indirect access to things, knowing things by their fruits, is some kind of low-grade concession appropriate to dubious things like religion but not necessary in the firmer fields of the sciences. But the sciences are no exception and do not bypass indirect methods. In fact indirect methods are especially important in the sciences. Something I admire about scientists is that they have to be very clever to get at their targets of interest. They cannot simply watch nature passively as casual observers and read off its features but must, as Francis Bacon put it, contrive experiments that compel nature to give up its secrets. Scientists are always trying to dig deeper to understand the hidden structures and laws that govern what we observe. Getting at these hidden structures requires some skillful means because they are not the kinds of things that can be seen in the usual way. We have to see them indirectly.

Often the best way to see something unobserved is to correlate it with something more readily observable. Chemistry uses many such analytical methods. Flame color correlates with the presence of certain metals and organic functional groups. Chemists have an array of methods correlating molecular structure to observable responses like infrared absorption (IR spectroscopy), ion magnetic deflection (mass spectrometry), and radiation absorption at different magnetic field strengths (NMR spectroscopy). We might imagine from the ball-and-stick drawings of molecules we see in textbooks that this is something primary, like what scientists first see when they look at molecules. But these are models, simplified representations that help us to think about and summarize experimental findings, even allowing us to ignore the experimental procedures used to generate these pictures. But a more thorough understanding of the science pays attention to our methods of knowing. For example, the analytic methods mentioned make use of theories of bond energy, electric charge, magnetic force, and magnetic field, all of which are necessary for a thorough understanding of organic chemistry. The lines on a spectrum that a device generates are meaningless without these interpretative concepts. Philosophers of science say these things are theory-laden.

We might see this as yet more bad news. Not only are we cut off from direct access to things as they are but our indirect methods require interpretative methods that carry even more baggage. First we couldn’t know the tree directly but needed to know it by its fruit. Now on top of that we can’t just consider of the fruit in isolation but need an entire discipline of husbandry or culinary sense of taste. These are the kinds of constraints that the modern philosophical project strove to avoid. Let’s work out a system that doesn’t depend on any tradition or culture, something that will be universal and independent of those kinds of particular constraints. I’m not convinced that that is possible and that has basically been the conclusion of the postmodern critique, though I don’t see it is as so devastating a critique as it might be thought to be.

That science has a tradition was the theory of Thomas Kuhn in his infamous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. These aren’t traditions bound to particular locations, nationalities, or ethnicities but traditions of thought, collections of accepted practices and theories. Kuhn proposed that scientists usually operated under a consensus of basic theoretical assumptions, like Newtonian mechanics, and tend to explain deviations in ways that preserve the theory. But there are sometimes periods of revolution that upend the theory and transform the tradition, as with relativity and quantum mechanics. Willard Van Orman Quine also challenged the tradition-free aspirations of logical empiricism in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. The second of the dogmas he challenged was empiricism’s reductionism, the idea that a single statement can be meaningful in isolation. Instead Quine argued that all scientific statements are interconnected, a theory of holism rather than reductionism.

Another interesting attempt to cut free from tradition was in moral philosophy, what Alasdair MacIntyre called the Enlightenment project in his book After Virtue. MacIntyre reviews the moral philosophies of Hume, Diderot, and Kant, charging that each, in their attempt to produce an ethical system from first principles all-too-coincidentally managed to reproduce the norms endemic to their native cultures. MacIntyre argues that this Enlightenment project had to fail because morality depends not only on human nature but on a tradition’s teleological conception of what a human person is to be. Traditions have narratives that define a person’s development in that tradition. These narratives are so engrained that, like Hume, Diderot, and Kant, we might be led to think they would be the natural outcome of any free-thinking, enlightened person. But on closer inspection we find that our moral reasoning depends somewhere either on arbitrary preferences or a traditional narrative.

There have been similar impulses to liberate religious ideas from particular traditions and from scripture. In the sixteenth century this took the form of a rationalistic natural religion, as in deism. In the eighteenth century this took a more experiential, emotional turn in liberal Christianity, notably in the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher. These movements had multiple counter-reactions but one of special interest to me is the tradition-embracing postliberal theology of George Lindbeck in his book The Nature of Doctrine. I was introduced to postliberal theology by one of Lindbeck’s students, Phillip Cary. Postliberal theology grants the postmodern critique of modern philosophy, that knowledge and meaning are not possible independent of some kind of tradition. So postliberal theology enthusiastically embraces dependence on Christian tradition and the Bible.

I find indirect methods interesting in all these areas – science, ethics, and religion – but most especially in religion. Maybe that’s because I see religion as most ultimate and extensive in its scope and concerns. Going back to the initial problem of direct versus indirect access it is quite apparent that the big religious questions elude direct access. Mysticism may be a form of direct, personal access but it also seems to be ineffable, so we can’t say too much about it. Communicable religious ideas and practices seem to acknowledge and embrace the hiddenness and mystery. The Hebrew Bible notably forbids images of God. The Bible frequently speaks in myth and parable. Its many rituals seem to indicate that the language of God is the language of symbolism and that if we are to approach God it is to be on these terms.

Why should it be this way? In a sense it is not surprising if God is the ultimate of all things. If the more immediate and tangible matters of science require indirect approaches through scientific models how much more symbolic and parabolic will religious approaches to God need to be? Still it seems that God is to be accessible to everyone, not just through elite religious adepts. This may make symbolism and ritual all the more necessary. Most people don’t approach scientific theories in the most precise and rigorous form of highly mathematical expression but instead through simplified models that nevertheless convey much of the essential intuition of the theories. God may not be comprehensible directly but through indirect religious methods one may encounter God in other ways, as one encounters Christ in a piece of bread or cup of wine.

The perspective I want to promote is to see indirect methods not as stumbling blocks but as stepping stones, in all areas where they are applied, including in science but especially in religion. The parables, commandments, and rituals of Christian practice are not smokescreens that obscure the face of God, or worse an unreal delusion. Rather the parables, commandments, and rituals are the means of access; they are our way in. Baptism is a renewal of life. The eucharist is an encounter with and internalization of God. The cross is a sign of God’s self-giving love and saving act for all people.

Atheism in the Service of Theology

I find atheism quite fascinating. It’s not an outlook I’ve ever been able to stick with seriously for various reasons but I like to follow the conversations to see what’s being discussed. It’s theologically interesting to consider what it might mean for atheism to be true, what implications would follow. Such speculations can show in relief the nature of the deity they deny, something of central theological interest. As with religion it’s important to consider that atheism is not one thing but that there are rather many forms of atheism, a variety that makes its study all the more theologically fruitful.

I think I had an unarticulated sense before that there were many forms of atheism but I was pleased to see this idea fleshed out in detail in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, published in 2018. Gray is an atheist but rather sectarian, having strong preferences for only a few select forms of atheism over several forms that he finds untenable. I divide up the possible types of atheism into different categories than the ones Gray uses but I nevertheless appreciate his general approach of making these distinctions. I like to organize forms of atheism and theism into complementary pairs, each sharing a similar conception of God that they either deny or affirm.

One form of atheism I find denies a conception of God as master craftsman, what Plato called a demiurge. This is a kind of scientific atheism that sees God as an explanatory hypothesis in competition with modern science, modern science understood here popularly as a kind of canonical set of laws and theories, as opposed to the technical meaning of a general method of empirical enquiry. To prefer the “God hypothesis”, as Victor Stenger called it, is to reject competing scientific hypotheses that have been confirmed by mass experimental evidence. I actually find the claims of this type of atheism rather modest. The world does not look much different today whether this craftsman God exists or not. It just has different origins. There’s no difference in observed reality, just different hypotheses for the origin and cause of its various features. The corresponding theism, belief in God as master craftsman, may be part of many people’s religion. Creationism and intelligent design see God as master craftsman. But most people’s religion is also much more than this and may not even include it or give it much attention. Allegorical interpretations of religious stories have been common for centuries among religious adherents. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden isn’t necessarily a competing hypothesis about human origins. Consistent with the indistinguishable universe that follows from either atheism or theism of this sort, religious believers with alternative or expanded forms of theism may completely accept many or all of the scientific explanations of observable reality without compromising anything. That’s another reason why this type of atheism seems to me quite modest.

Other forms of atheism are kinds of morally-focused atheisms and I see these taking two forms. In one form God is a superfluous law-giver, superfluous because we can derive moral law without God. Moral law and moral progress are real in this view but transcend God and even contradict what God is believed to have decreed. This makes it possible to condemn atrocities committed in the service of religion throughout history. This atheism would take the side of the Euthyphro Dilemma, proposed by Plato, that the gods love what is good because it is good independent of them and not that the gods make things good simply by saying so. There is something transcendent beyond God that grounds morality. This form of atheism makes space for something that would seem supernatural, though naturalized by other names. I still find this form of moral atheism quit modest because the moral world looks very similar to the moral world of theism, though with differences in the specific moral laws.

A more significant form of moral atheism is one that dispenses with moral law altogether, an amoral atheism. Here the moral worlds of atheism and theism look very different. Atheists accepting this form of amoral atheism may still behave in ways that would be considered moral. But there would be no moral fact of the matter, no real right or wrong. There might still be a sense of right and wrong as social convention but it would be of a different ontological category. I don’t find this form of atheism discussed as much though people might take it for granted and acknowledge it when pressed. Richard Rorty is one thinker who has explored this outlook quite thoroughly. Rorty defends liberalism and human rights but without recourse to any ultimate grounds of justification. Promulgating such Western values is a benign form of chauvinism, something other parties in the modern clash of cultures, such as China and Middle Eastern states, would agree with but view less favorably as unwelcome Western imperialism. I find the Rortian outlook quite fascinating and even attractive, especially in some climates of absolutist hyper-moralism that start to get exhausting. But it’s worth stressing some of the jarring implications of this. In an amoral world slavery and mass murder are not morally wrong from any absolute perspective. We can deplore them, declare them immoral in our own adopted morals, and make laws against them. But there’s no fact of the matter beyond that.

The complementary form of theism that amoral atheism denies grounds morality in God. This could be as a matter of divine fiat, as proposed by William of Ockham and divine command theory, or as something essential to God’s nature: God is good, as a fundamental axiom. Theists can appeal to the natural sense people have that there really are things that just are right and wrong to make the case that this moral reality has a transcendent origin. If the view that mass murder is no more immoral from an absolute perspective than selfless love seems implausible it undermines the plausibility of amoral atheism. Non-theists may object that a person doesn’t have to believe in God to be moral but that isn’t quite the same issue. It’s not a matter of whether belief in God leads to moral or immoral actions but whether God’s existence is necessary to make anything moral or immoral in fact, regardless of people’s beliefs. Again, the difference between atheism and theism here, what the world is actually like, seems significant.

One form of theism that, to its credit, would seem to have no possible complementary atheism is God as being itself, or Being with a capital B. This is the God of classical theism, sometimes called the God of the philosophers. David Bentley Hart gives an excellent overview of this classical theism in The Experience of God in which he sets out “simply to offer a definition of the word ‘God’”. One way I like to wrap my head around this ontological conception of God is to imagine, or try to imagine, what it would mean for this God not to exist. This is a God whose nonexistence would entail the nonexistence of everything else. If this God does not exist, nothing exists. And it’s important to be clear what this means. It’s not entirely clear, to me at least, what else about the nature of God follows from this, or if it overlaps with anything that religions have traditionally said about God. I think it does but it’s not obvious. The only thing immediately apparent here is that there is something underlying all of this, all reality. That could simply be the brute fact of the universe itself, basically pantheism, or something more than that, which I find more plausible. But if this is the most basic definition of God the difference between theists and atheists may amount to a preference of language, theists preferring traditionally and historically loaded terms like God, Brahman, and Dao, and atheists preferring more secular language like Immanuel Kant’s noumena, or just shelving the matter as something indulgently metaphysical and unscientific. For my part I accept the classical understanding of God, with a lot of contingent, scriptural features added on. That the personal God with whom I have an intimate relationship of love and trust is identical to the ground of all being is something that fills me with awe and reverence. I think awe and wonder in the face of the ultimate mystery behind all things is something available to anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. But combining that with the intimacy and love fitting a personal God comes after the fact of accepting a particular religious narrative and doesn’t seem to be derivable or provable from metaphysical reflection alone.

The last complementary set I consider may be one of convergence in mysticism, where atheistic and theistic complements do not differ all that substantially, particularly in their practice if not in belief. I wouldn’t have considered this convergence until I read Gray’s book but I find it quite interesting. He proposes that “some of the most radical forms of atheism may in the end be not so different from some mystical varieties of religion”. This may be one of those cases where opposite directions on a curved linear spectrum wrap around and meet again. Mysticism isn’t a form of religious practice I adopt yet myself but it feels like something I might save for retirement when I’ve retreated to a tranquil villa somewhere. Mysticism has competing definitions but I think of it as direct, relational encounter. In religious mysticism this is direct and immediate communion with God at a personal level. A relationship with any person who is not me holds unbridgeable mystery but to recognize this and to see another person as another person with their own consciousness and perspective is to see them more profoundly than in any other way. The mystery and the intimate knowledge coexist and reinforce each other. There’s a kind of factual unknowing in this new way of relational knowing that coincides, if not with atheism then with an agnosticism that’s open to the ultimate mystery of reality. That’s one reason it seems particularly fitting for old age, after I’ve have figured out how much I don’t know.

 

The People Inside the Balloon

Story by Todd Decker and his daughter
Illustrated by Todd’s daughter

 

Anna went to a restaurant with her Mommy. They had chicken sandwiches and milkshakes. And best of all, she got a big, red, shiny balloon in the shape of a heart. She was so excited to get a balloon. They were her favorite. She loved the way they floated and bounced around. But there was something really special about this balloon. There were two little people floating inside it. The people at the restaurant told her about the little people but she thought that they were joking. That would be so silly. How could there be people inside a balloon?

They walked outside the restaurant and to the car. Anna held on really tight to the balloon. She didn’t want it to float away.

When they got home she ran inside pulling her balloon by its string. The balloon floated up to the ceiling. But she wanted to pop it. So she pulled it back down by the string. Then she got a tooth pick from the kitchen. It was one of the toothpicks that Mommy and Daddy used to check the bread when they were cooking to make sure it was done. But today it was going to be used to pop a balloon.

Anna pulled the balloon down toward her. And nervously she brought the toothpick toward it. Then she counted. One. Two. THREE! And she poked the balloon with the the toothpick and it made a big POP! Then two little people popped out.

Anna couldn’t believe her eyes. There really were two little people inside this balloon. The little people were frightened and they started to run away. But Anna chased them and picked them quickly. And then she carried them over to her box and threw them inside. Anna was just a little girl and she was still a little rough with animals and toys. So she was a little rough with little people too. But she did make a window on the side of the box so the little people could see outside. But she covered the window with glass panes so that they couldn’t get out even though they could see through them.

Anna’s mommy saw her over by the box and asked, “What do you have there Anna?” “Oh, nothing,” said Anna. But Mommy came over to see anyway. And she peaked through the window and saw the two little people. “Oh my goodness!” said Mommy. “Where did those two little people come from?” Then she remembered what they had said at the restaurant about the balloon. “Oh, there really were two little people in that balloon. Anna, did you pop it?”

Anna just shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. But Mommy looked around the room and saw little pieces of balloon. She picked them up and put them back together and saw that it was the balloon from the restaurant. She also saw her toothpick from the kitchen. “Ah, you did pop the balloon, Silly.” Anna was embarrassed but Mommy told her, “It’s OK, you didn’t know that there were people in there. But let’s see if we can make them more comfortable.”

Mommy went over to the box and propped up the cardboard top into a triangle to make a roof. Then she cut out some more pieces to make a door and more windows. Then she said, “It’s OK, little people. You can come out and in whenever you want. This is you’re home now.” The little people said nothing. They were still very shy. But they were happy to be in this home inside a bigger home with people who seemed pretty nice. Even if the little girl was a little rough.

THE END

The Sneaky Piano

The family piano had an strange habit of sneaking around the house when no one was watching. It couldn’t just sit still the way a proper piano should. Not that it was a bad piano. It was upright and usually stayed in tune. Most guests found its music pleasant. By all the usual pianistic standards no one would have any complaints. But you wouldn’t usually think to ask whether a piano remained stationary.

The girls were the first to notice. Daddy asked, “Who put your shoes in the middle of the floor? That’s not where they go.” “I don’t know. Maybe it was the piano.” Kids have a way of figuring these things out that grownups tend to miss.

They noticed other oddities. Things in the house that would “wander”. Toys thrown into the middle of the floor. Socks and dresses pulled from their drawers and dressers. It was quite a mess. They didn’t wander by themselves of course. That would be ridiculous. It was the piano that moved them. And it seemed to follow the girls around the most.

Being a piano, it was musical in its mischief. For stealthy accompaniment it might play Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther”. Or Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot lunaire”, plunked out in slow staccato. It would pause or trill on long fermatas as it peaked around the corner to make sure no one was there. And as soon as anyone returned it slunk right back to its spot.

Mom and Dad found it kind of irritating that the piano left its messes for everyone else to pick up. But also mildly entertaining that it was the piano that had done it. It was unique at least. No one else had a moving piano. They tried to get the girls to do most of the clean up, since it was their stuff that was thrown around. But mom and dad helped out a little. After all, the kids weren’t the ones who’d made the messes. It was the piano.