Into The Abyss – May 7 2020

Todd and Jack discuss missionary work, language study, faith changes, institutions, secular alternatives to religious institutions, communism, political parties, online communities, effective altruism, vocations and their purposes, and free time.

Todd and Jack discuss missionary work, language study, faith changes, institutions, secular alternatives to religious institutions, communism, political parties, online communities, effective altruism, vocations and their purposes, and free time.

Nature and Grace

τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμου τοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται, ἥ τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης (Romans 1:20)

ἐν αὐτῷ γὰρ ζῶμεν καὶ κινούμεθα καὶ ἐσμέν (Acts 17:28)

I enjoy learning how things work. This is often a professional task in my day job as a chemical engineer but this curiosity extends to pretty much everything I encounter. Part of learning how things work is conceptual or physical dissection, dividing a thing into simpler components, but crucially, a comprehensive understanding also requires parallel reassembly, understanding how the components fit and work together. To understand most comprehensively what a thing is requires looking at it in several ways and I marshal a heavy arsenal of varied methods. This includes religious ways of looking at things.

For a secular audience using religious methods of understanding would seem to require some justification. The justification I can give with most confidence is pragmatic, that many aspects of my world of experience, my lebenswelt, are simply more comprehensible with these methods than without them. Not all things of course. Empirical and mathematical methods work just fine for learning about the design of devices and manufacturing processes. But understanding other kinds of things requires other kinds of methods, like literary, artistic, and philosophical methods. What a thing is is often more than its physical makeup, though it is also that. Paintings and photographs are physical objects with no meaning in themselves. But as objects we interpret they are representations, which in a sense transcend their physicality. Similarly a musical composition is more than just a sequence of sounds, though at one level it is that as well. Roger Scruton calls this possibility of looking at things in different ways “cognitive dualism”. He contrasts this with ontological dualism, the view that there are different kinds of things. Cognitive dualism by contrast allows for multiple and similarly acceptable ways of looking at a single type of thing, a difference in perspective rather than in nature.

Objects of religious interest like existence, life, death, and personal identity all have non-religious interpretations that can work just fine in practice but I happen to find that religious interpretations add something to the others. I don’t consider different approaches to an object to be in competition with each other but to have complementary relationships. One criticism I have of scientism and overreaching naturalism is that they presume to exhaust all legitimate perspectives on an object, dispeling all others. Free will is debunked because decisions are physical neurological processes. God is expelled from nature because nature operates according to self-sufficient physical laws. Things are nothing other than what science and naturalism say they are. Mary Midgley called this kind of reductionism “nothing buttery”, the tendency to see a thing as nothing but one particular view of it. My approach is not to deny the empirical, scientific perspective. I view things in that way too. Rather my approach is to see things from additional perspectives, including religious perspectives. Yes, the thing is that, but it is also this.

In many cases this leads me to see God in precisely those places from where he is thought to have been dismissed, particularly in the natural world. I see the natural and supernatural as distinct but not separate. In this I take a side in a significant, if somewhat technical theological debate within the Christian tradition. The direct focus of the debate is between realism and nominalism, which to explain with some simplification is basically a debate over the nature of abstractions (“universals” in medieval terminology), whether they have independent reality or whether they are useful fictions.

In a Platonic or Neo-Platonic conception of reality the physical world is patterned after and governed by a higher order populated by eternally existing universals or forms (εἶδος). Examples could be mathematical and physical laws. In the Christian Platonism these forms subsist in the mind of God. Because this higher order is, at least in principle, comprehensible the mind and nature of God are also comprehensible. Significantly nature, by being patterned after a higher order, is itself ordered and rational. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) understood this connection to be an operation of God’s grace in the created order. Nature is continually driven and directed by God’s power. And so to observe nature is also to see God’s hand in it. Paul of Tarsus, no stranger to Hellenistic thought, expressed this affinity between Gentile and Judaic ideas. For example he said of the Gentiles in his letter to the Romans that “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). He also  taught the people of Athens that God infused nature with life, quoting the Greek poets as saying, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

William of Ockham (1280-1349) dispensed with universals in his metaphysics and in his theology saw God as much further removed from nature, unknowable, and unpredictable. This had important implications for Christian ideas about judgment and salvation that carried into the Protestant Reformation centuries later. In an application of his famous “razor” Ockham dispensed with the forms populating the higher order of reality as entities that had been multiplied beyond necessity. One benefit of this move in Ockham’s view was to make God absolutely free. Nature is not ultimately governed nor ordered by eternal law but by God’s pure will. God can change anything in nature as he sees fit and can make things opposite of what they are. Because of this it is not possible to learn anything essential about God by observing nature. God becomes more inscrutable, known through scripture alone.

As I said, I take a side in this theological debate on the side of Aquinas and the realists. There are various reasons for this but among them is a Christian sentiment that God is intimately involved in the world. I find this more satisfying both spiritually and intellectually. Admittedly that’s not a solid rational argument but it makes more sense to me. One implication of this is that I see the demystifying, debunking, and secularizing impulses of naturalism and scientism around any natural phenomena rather unthreatening to a religious perspective of the same phenomena. Because God’s grace is observable in the operations of the natural order any greater understanding of the natural order by science in no way displaces God. It is rather a fuller description of God’s activities in nature, one that is more comprehensible to a particular form of human understanding.

I think evolution is a good example of this. Historically no scientific idea has been more threatening to religious people because it provides a way to think about life developing in nature without God. But I think this was only a threat because of a historically contingent intellectual climate in which, centuries after Ockham, it was even possible to think of nature as a whole operating independent of God. David Bentley Hart has argued that the theory of evolution would likely not have bothered ancient and medieval theologians at all had they known about it because in their view any operation in nature is also an operation of God’s grace. They may have simply seen evolution as “the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.” In other words, if evolution proceeds by natural selection according to a predictable algorithm, to use Daniel Dennett’s characterization, this is simply the Platonic conception of nature following after the pattern of a higher governing order.

Because I see God and nature so closely related I don’t find certain views of the creationist or intelligent design movements especially compelling or necessary. You could say that I do subscribe to intelligent design in the most general sense of God being active in evolution, since God is active in all of nature and evolution is part of nature. But I don’t see a need to look for gaps in the fossil record or instances of irreducible complexity in molecular biology to carve out a space for God. There’s no need to carve out a space for God because God infuses the whole process from start to finish. Certainly there are gaps in the fossil record and instances of complexity in molecular biology that we can’t explain. But I believe these are simply instances of incomplete knowledge of the process rather than actual gaps in the process itself. For my aesthetic taste I hope that is the case. I would find the divine design of a seamless process that did not require periodic interruptions and fixes much more elegant.

I’m similarly unperturbed by neuroscientific descriptions of mental experiences and find “eliminative” interpretations of them quite unpersuasive. In an eliminative view, physical descriptions of our mental experiences eliminate the need for common-sense notions of mental experiences like fear, belief, anxiety, and desire, dispensing with these concepts as superfluous “folk psychology”. I find it improbable and impractical that one way of interpreting something, even if it is empirical and quantitative, should eliminate the utility and possibility of interpreting in other ways, especially ways that are primary to experience. I don’t know if concepts like fear and desire will be useful in the future of neuroscience but they are certainly useful in many other domains, especially in daily life.

The most inviting target for a naturalistic perspective of the brain is the soul. Do we have souls? Eliminativists and presumably many religious people must have a much more fragile understanding of what a soul is than I do because I cannot imagine what it would even mean for people not to have souls. I understand a soul to be the totality of the organism, its substance and its activities. At first glance this may seem to claim very little. If this is all a soul is then of course we have souls. Souls are what we are. But I maintain that on more thorough reflection the totality of the organism and its activities, particularly the human organism, is an incomprehensibly remarkable entity and that the soul, even understood in so seemingly minimal a way is just as miraculous as whatever maximal conception one might have of it. One need not refer to religious ideas to appreciate this. Two “problems” in the philosophy of mind will suffice. The first, “easy” problem of consciousness is the project to give thorough physical descriptions of the processes in the brain that produce conscious experiences. The easiness of this first problem is only easy relative to the second because it is quite difficult relative to current scientific capabilities. The brain is fantastically complex and the more I study neuroscience the more I come to see how far we are from understanding it as a physical system. Still, I can imagine it being solved eventually. The second, “hard” problem of consciousness is a more fundamental philosophical problem of how the physical material of the brain produces first-person, self-conscious experience, which would seem to be something immaterial. I cannot even imagine how this explanatory problem could be solved, even though the process it concerns obviously takes place.

From a religious perspective the soul has a spiritual origin and I find that perspective a perfectly adequate account for it. As in the case of many other things for me a religious perspective of the soul, of the totality of the organism, adds something to it, a certain way of seeing our connection to all things. The soul, as a part of nature, is not thereby separate from God or anything spiritual because in my theology God and nature are intimately connected through grace. God’s creative activity in nature coincides with his animating, life-giving activity that produces our souls. The Bible gives a sublime narrative and symbolic illustration of this. God breathed into the nostrils of man the breath of life and he became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). The breath or spirit of God is an important creative force in biblical text. On the first day of creation God’s breath or spirit moved or brooded upon the face of the chaos of primordial waters prior to bringing order to them (Genesis 1:2). Just as God infuses all nature, governing and directing it, God’s spirit inspires and animates all life. I find this a significant perspective to consider as a synthesis of all the information we might gather about the universe and ourselves. It all weaves together into a coherent whole and we are connected to all things in God.


She knew what he was planning to do but only after it was too late. By then they were several days from home and she could never reach them in time. All she could do now was wait, alone with her thoughts and her anger, for her husband to return.

She should have known. Her husband would do anything for what he believed in. And people admired him so much for it. But they never saw what it cost or considered what it cost her.

She sat outside the house while she waited. When he came back she would be ready.

She saw him first when he was just over the horizon, out on the flat, arid plain, still hours away, approaching on foot with his hired hands. By the time she could finally make out their faces she could tell that their son with them. He was still alive.

She should have been relieved but instead felt nothing. By then she could no longer feel anything. When she realized what he had planned to do she had changed permanently. Nothing would be the same again.

Her husband approached her hesitantly. He could see in her face that she knew.

“I didn’t do it,” he said.

“But you would have,” she responded flatly. “You were planning to.”

He was silent for a time but then stood to full height and spoke deliberately. “I do what I have to. Everything we have, everything you care about, we have because I am willing to do what needs to be done. He would not be here in the first place if it were not for that.”

“I know that,” she said. “I love him and I know what it cost.”

It was true and she could not rightly blame him. But she could not love him either. Everything has its cost.

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.