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.