Newbigin's challenge to secularism (Does it exist?)


(John Dalton) #22

I’m not sure I follow you. Objectively there is one truth. But if we have 10 different people pronouncing a different version of truth in an area, a few things become apparent on consideration. For one thing, only one at most can have the actual truth. Nine of them at least must be wrong despite their conviction. Also, the possibility that no one actually has the full truth starts to come into view.

how do we know this, you ask? [and you really do ask that … quite a bit; I think that is your theme here and quite a good one even if rhetorical]

I’ll agree with that. :tada:

You assume the best blanket answer is by science, but then you stop there.

Here I don’t agree. There are a lot of questions that science is now unable to answer, and may well always be. So in my estimation, it doesn’t have any blanket answer. It does seem to be a good tool and our best tool for gaining knowledge of reality. Maybe this is just semantics on my part.

We theistic believers (many of us here) came with you that far but then did not stop and went on to include relational knowledge, life testimony and witness, tradition and church community – also sources of knowledge outside our individual selves by which we can check to be as sure as we can that we aren’t fooling ourselves. None of that discounts science – it just goes beyond where science has been able to go (or perhaps never will go.)

Understood. I’m not rejecting such sources of information out of hand, but I wonder how you define “knowledge” in this context. You might feel you know something, but will I? Will another person down the street? I believe you once said that science is good at producing facts, in our first conversation here I think. When information is verifiable, a point is approached where rejection of such knowledge is objectively unreasonable. When we’re dealing with personal experiences and the like, with limited potential for verification, we’re not talking about the same kind of information. Again, that doesn’t mean I’m rejecting it out of hand or saying it can’t have any value. But it’s a different ball game, objectively speaking.

I’m delightfully snowed in today, and what’s a guy to do?

It’s about as cold as it usually gets here, about 9 C (I’m a bit rusty on F but the computer says 49) and I have my house robe on–crucial with no central heating here–so I guess I will be here for a while too :slight_smile:

Well here’s the thing, and I hope I’ve been clear about my position here as well in my time here–I’m not making any demands. I recognize that people have many reasons for coming to their beliefs, and I don’t possess the kind of information that would enable me to positively rule out many potential facets of reality. However, if it’s suggested that I should believe certain things, or that they are objectively true, or even if we get into a discussion about the value of types or items of evidence, then I may well be inclined to dispute some things.

It does seem to be challenging me, but I’m not sure that my starting point has been accurately characterized.

So while the book is more for believers, you would nonetheless benefit from reading it I think; if you truly want to understand how/why believers think as they do. But even if you don’t [read the book] you’ll probably get exposed to much of it from my posts here before we’re done.

Well, I’ll put it on my list! I’m reading Haidt’s book again now. I think you really should read it; I was just about to suggest it again after reading the “fundamentalist vs. liberal” quote above!


(Jay Johnson) #23

You’ve touched on a key point here. The favorite whipping boys of the Culture War are relativism and naturalism. (Thanks, Francis Schaeffer!) Don Carson even interrupts his book Christ and Culture Revisited to spend a great deal of time and effort laying all the ills of modern society at the feet of post-modernism. Then, of course, these same Culture Warriors rail about scientific bias, media bias, educational establishment bias, secular cultural bias, etc., and harp on the importance of worldview in Christian education … and never realize that all of these arguments were borrowed from post-modernism. Our God truly is the God of irony.

This article on Wittgenstein’s Forgotten Lesson sheds a lot of light on the discussion of scientific knowledge versus other types of knowledge (or ways of knowing). Just a few quotes:

His work is opposed, as he once put it, to “the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilisation in which all of us stand.” Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified. If we wanted a label to describe this tide, we might call it “scientism,” the view that every intelligible question has either a scientific solution or no solution at all. It is against this view that Wittgenstein set his face…

There are many questions to which we do not have scientific answers, not because they are deep, impenetrable mysteries, but simply because they are not scientific questions. These include questions about love, art, history, culture, music-all questions, in fact, that relate to the attempt to understand ourselves better.

The difference between science and philosophy, he now believed, is between two distinct forms of understanding: the theoretical and the non-theoretical. Scientific understanding is given through the construction and testing of hypotheses and theories; philosophical understanding, on the other hand, is resolutely non-theoretical. What we are after in philosophy is “the understanding that consists in seeing connections.” … Non-theoretical understanding is the kind of understanding we have when we say that we understand a poem, a piece of music, a person or even a sentence. Take the case of a child learning her native language. When she begins to understand what is said to her, is it because she has formulated a theory?

One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding. This is why the understanding of people can never be a science. To understand a person is to be able to tell, for example, whether he means what he says or not, whether his expressions of feeling are genuine or feigned. And how does one acquire this sort of understanding? Wittgenstein raises this question at the end of Philosophical Investigations. “Is there,” he asks, “such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling?” Yes, he answers, there is. But the evidence upon which such expert judgments about people are based is “imponderable,” resistant to the general formulation characteristic of science. “Imponderable evidence,” Wittgenstein writes, “includes subtleties of glance, of gesture, of tone. I may recognise a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one… But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference…

And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value, “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”


(John Dalton) #24

Interesting article. I’m woefully unread in such areas–only so much time, and the desire hasn’t been there. But I’m thinking Wittgenstein will have to go on to my reading list first.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #25

Ditto to what John said about reading Wittgenstein! Thanks for introducing that here, Jay. Is there no end to all the great philosophers I know nothing of?


(Jay Johnson) #26

He’s an odd duck, in terms of his writing style. It’s more like reading Pascal’s notes than actual essays, and he doesn’t indulge at all in lengthy argumentation. The best place to start is this small book by the same author as the article, Ray Monk, who also was Wittgenstein’s biographer and friend.

How to read Wittgenstein


(John Dalton) #27

Lol. That’s not very encouraging if I have to read that first. I dunno–I might just go for the whole biscuit. I’ll probably muddle through somehow :man_student:


(Mervin Bitikofer) #28

I take issue with you here. A clean statement / negation pair actually must be carefully crafted before it can be certain that exactly one of the propositions is correct and its negation is false. I.e. 2 + 2 = 4 or 2 + 2 does not equal 4. One of those statements is correct provided there is agreement about language and base number systems, etc.

So stating that one teacher is right and the others are all wrong is (I maintain) incoherent. No adult has ever lived who was wrong about everything. I’m pretty sure the religion never existed that managed to get every last thing wrong. So asking “which religion is right” really amounts to blathering nonsense. One must ask about a specific proposition from a particular religion. I.e. Did Jesus bodily rise from the dead or didn’t he? That would come much closer to something that could be argued to either be right or wrong.

That, actually, is an absolute certainty – and always has been. Newbigin pounds that drum consistently and it seems to me the sort of statement that is hard to disagree with.


(John Dalton) #29

I thought we weren’t talking about math :slight_smile: Let’s be practical. If we have a Christian of some stripe, a Muslim (same caveat which I won’t repeat), a Jew, a Buddhist, an Atheist, etc., each claiming to possess the truth about reality, how can they be said to all be correct in that assertion? If they have some epistemological humility (I think I’m borrowing your phrasing again) and accept that their conception of the truth has limits, great. But that would be a recognition that they don’t have the full truth, right from the outset.

So stating that one teacher is right and the others are all wrong is (I maintain) incoherent. No adult has ever lived who was wrong about everything. I’m pretty sure the religion never existed that managed to get every last thing wrong. So asking “which religion is right” really amounts to blathering nonsense.

It’s all well and good to have a philosophical or religious perspective which can shed some light on the nature of reality. But I thought we were talking about the truth. You even said just above: “but there is one truth!” So I guess I’ll ask you to clarify. If there’s one truth, which everyone gets to have an opinion about in ways that are frequently diametrically opposed, it seems to me that truth become meaningless. The opinions may well have great value!

One must ask about a specific proposition from a particular religion. I.e. Did Jesus bodily rise from the dead or didn’t he? That would come much closer to something that could be argued to either be right or wrong.

But what else is there besides this kind of proposition?

That, actually, is an absolute certainty – and always has been. Newbigin pounds that drum consistently and it seems to me the sort of statement that is hard to disagree with.
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Now this is talking my language. It “came into view” a while back for me, and does seem hard to disagree with :slight_smile:


(Jay Johnson) #30

I’m sure you’ll do better than that! The benefit of the “how to read” book is bringing together the various strands of his thought scattered throughout different books. More to give the “big picture” before diving into individual books.

Full truth is always beyond our capacity. It would require infinite capacity to have the full truth about every “fact” that exists, so we can set that thought aside from the outset. I’m not a C.S. Lewis guy, but I do think he was right on this:

As in arithmetic—there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #31

Referring to the Truth is (in my case) just to highlight my firm faith conviction that there is only one objective reality in which we all live and share. I don’t believe in alternate universes (or if they are there, then the existing universe is just “bigger” and more complicated) because my mathematically conditioned mind likes to take words at their definition, and since “universe” refers to all physical reality, that would mean you don’t discover something outside our universe. You only discover that the universe is bigger than previously thought. Sorry. Rabbit trail. Back to “truth”. So the fact that I may be casually conflating truth and reality (and calling it one) is in no way to call it simple or single-faceted. So of the multitudes of facets and propositions we can dicker over regarding our one said reality, we are all going to get some of them right and some of them wrong, whether they are physical or mathematical or spiritual facets.

“Christianity” is a noun referring to a multitude of people and relationships and propositions (or doctrines). Only the latter can (on an individual basis) be said to be true or false. Now – if all of Christianity stands or falls around one of those propositions (i.e. Jesus rose from the dead), then in that sense I’ll grant that we can begin to objectively address it as right or wrong – and either way that is an objective truth even if we can’t agree or scientifically find out which of us chose the correct answer.

Not all propositions can be said to be true or false, though without much qualification. “People are basically good.” Calvinists might storm out of the room on that one, but most of us are willing to allow that the answer to that depends on a lot of things, including definitions that we aren’t all likely to agree on. So the answer is both yes and no.

When I hear people put down religions by asking “which one is right”, I think their question with its embedded (and false) statement needs immediate correction. It’s akin to somebody musing: “I wonder which subject is right: science or history? My history teacher taught a flawless lesson today with nothing I could disagree with. But my science teacher made a careless mistake at the board today. So I guess the subject of history is right and science is just wrong.” It’s a bizarre form of logic, that!


#32

“. . . when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together”–Isaac Asimov

In fact, the whole essay, “The Relativity of Wrong”, is a pretty good read.


(Jay Johnson) #33

@T_aquaticus, we are all somewhere on that continuum of “the relativity of wrong,” right?

Speaking of which, and bringing it back to the cultural questions of the OP, I think Newbigin misses the mark on the question of “cultural superiority,” as the analogies of Lewis and Asimov show. All cultures are imperfect, but some may be less imperfect than others. Yes, there is no “perfect” culture by which to judge, but this doesn’t mean that judgment is impossible. Because humans have symbolic culture, we pass information, behaviors, and attitudes from generation to generation through symbolic modes of transmission. When the information, behaviors, and attitudes that a culture fosters lead to evil intentions or actions, then that culture legitimately may be said to be “evil.”

And, in light of our present political situation, it is worth noting that one of the primary modes of cultural transmission is “institutional reproduction.” As one sociologist explains that process: “The powerful select those who share their values and other cultural preferences, and they control the processes of socialization. They also act as ego-ideals, as role models for ambitious younger persons, ensuring that the cultural processes they favor will be disproportionately imitated and re-enacted.”

Food for (scary) thought …


#34

Correct. However, it is foolish to think that 99% wrong and 1% wrong are somehow equal.

That gets a bit hairy. Because of our cultural upbringing we judge cultures by how well they match up to Western ideals, but is it correct to assume Western style democracies are correct? Tough to say. We have watered down version in the form of “basic human rights” that groups like Amnesty International judge countries by, but those “basic human rights” are a relatively recent invention. I think the only way we can really judge these ideals is by how readily cultures adopt them.

I once heard a really interesting story from one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square who has since immigrated to the US. She talked about how the 100 or so student leaders got together to decide what they should do at the height of the protests. They decided they would try some democracy and vote on what to do. The problem is that voting didn’t work because, in her words, none of the proposals got 100% of the votes. They thought democracy required 100% agreement. To us, this is wrong. However, is it really? In their culture and according to their philosophies it might make perfect sense, even if it seems a bit quaint to us westerners.

That’s why gerrymandering is scary because it allows politicians to choose their voters.


(Jay Johnson) #35

The question always comes down to standards. But, I’m not really so interested in criticizing the cultures of other nations. I’m thinking more of our own. When do we feel we are making progress? When do we feel we are regressing? The Culture Warriors have set up certain standards. Are they the right ones? The “secular elite” have set up other standards. Are they correct? Both sets of standards are based on “value judgments,” so are both therefore immune to criticism? I don’t think so.

Beyond that, I should probably start keeping my mouth shut! haha


#36

I think it is worthwhile to differentiate between the opinions of citizens and the reality of society. It is one thing to have extremists from either side of the political spectrum spouting nonsense. It is another if society is as a whole or majority adopts these same extreme views. Since the “Culture Warriors” make up a very small minority, I don’t know if it warrants judgment. People saying stupid stuff is just a byproduct of free speech.

Perhaps it all boils down to the Fist/Nose Rule. The freedom to swing your fist ends where another person’s nose begins. We allow people to live their private lives how they see fit and try to set up secular rules for how people interact in society. Perhaps this solution isn’t perfect or perfectly implemented, but it does seem to be the fairest. I think we measure progress by how well we adhere to this ideal and allow criticism of this ideal in our halls of government and courts. Even if certain parts of our society complain about the results, I still don’t see anyone calling for a repeal on the Bill of Rights or the US Constitution as a whole. Instead, they complain about the specific implementation of secular rules. At least from that perspective, there seems to be majority consent for sticking with secular rules.


(Phil) #37

Indeed. My idea of philosophy reading is Existential Comics. (actually can learn a lot there)


(Mervin Bitikofer) #38

You may be right on this (I certainly agree with Azimov’s point in his essay). But let me push back just a bit (possibly in defense of Newbigin). You are obviously evaluating two different cultures: your own present one as compared with some more removed one. And … surprise! … you rate yours as the better (closer to right) of the two; and for very good reasons that we all would probably here agree with. We could probably imagine that if given a chance in a time-machine to mix it all up, there would be loads more people from ancient cultures that would love to join our present culture now (if they could see how easy we have it in so many ways) than there would be people from modern culture (apart from a few anthropologists) stumping to go back and join them. And we are privileged to have some advantage of comparison in that we at least have partial access to past cultures through what history has survived.

BUT … BUT … BUT … (and this is a mighty big butt) … whose terms is our comparison done on? Ours. Who decides what makes for progress? We do. And towards what? Evolutionists in the last century had to labor long and hard to dismantle the misconception that evolution is a kind of progress toward something. That notion dies hard. Anytime we are more comfortable, have more gadgets to play with, worry less about where our next meal comes from … we chalk that up as progress with a naively facile certainty. But would some fictitious future historian who actually was on that neutral platform that none of us can ever reach – would that historian agree with us? Is it possible we could be mocked for over-population, proliferation of the most un-godly style weapons, and general mucking up of the world? And these are just guesses about possible demerits already in view from worriers just within our own culture! Imagine what an impartial observer might think who has no “my culture = progress” axe to grind! It depends on how badly some of these things turn out, or if by the Lord’s grace we and those coming after are spared the brunt of present folly. What if the measure of a culture was how many generations it could last in a more-or-less thriving state? Our present western culture at a juvenile few centuries might not even be within sight of the top ten yet (at least probably not if we could see all the cultures that ever were through all history). My point is, this: who made us judges with authority to declare that history ought to be progressing toward a better scientific (physical) understandings of our world and cosmos?

It’s easy enough for us to say here that of course this is good. But that is your culture and tradition talking, not some cosmically impartial judge talking! I’m not thinking that either of you have yet escaped Newbigin’s sting on this one.

Again … (my response above continues to apply) … who decides what’s fair? You do, with full dependency on your own cultural traditions do.

Our family has taken to watching a Star-Trek parody (semi-funny, but semi-serious too) show called “Orville” (think Star Trek, only with real people who do stupid things on a more-or-less routine basis.) One episode had them visiting a society very parallel to our own current one. Non-space-faring people who had something equivalent to our internet. The justice system in that society, though, consisted of a button system where others would rate you (basically thumbs up, or down), and your cumulative rating would always be part of your identity. If your bad ratings exceeded a certain threshold you were deemed a criminal and if it got bad enough (like you committed --or were thought to have committed some horrendous crime) your bad ratings would go through the roof and you would be sent in for some horrifying electro-lobotomy “correction” (from which the “real you” would never emerge, of course.) Anyway, this was a terrifying portrait of “pure democracy” in action where a majority of people actually determine what is right and what is wrong. They had no other concept of right or wrong --no reference point whatsoever beyond the simple will of the majority. It is a devastating critique of what could nearly be the state of our society today if right and wrong are merely what the popular culture of the moment says it is.

Newbigin is right, I think, to hearken back to what Nietzsche foresaw: that the only place this can ever lead is to the simple will-to-power. We can dress it all up as a “people’s democracy” and put lip-stick on it if we like, but underneath all the soft cotton there would still be that iron will-to-power imposed by a few powerful onto their subjects. Apart from our Christian hope (hope with universal intent, no less) how would Nietzsche’s vision ever be defeated?

Note … I’m not advancing this as evidence that the Christian God exists; wanting something doesn’t make it true, and I already know that. My belief has ample other grounding. I’m merely pointing out the enormity of the task if our culture were to “advance” away from traditional theistic belief as some are hoping for. Perhaps it is really Nietzche’s sting (and not Newbigin’s) that should be keeping us up at night.

(And … the editing has begun…)


(Jay Johnson) #39

Glad I caught you before your edits cost me a chance to reference Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back … haha

I’ve exceeded my word limit for the day. Time to give some other folks a chance to chime in.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #40

Hmmmm. I’m thinking I’ll leave that one in. I don’t suppose an emoji might have been available?

Word limit? What word limit!? I wonder how many of those I blew through today already!


(John Dalton) #41

Thanks. I was trying to fight off the chill with a bit of whisky, and maybe getting a bit too sarcastic :slight_smile: An occasional failing I ascribe to my NYC background. Really, that does sound interesting, maybe I will give it a go!

Indeed. Of course, no one has the full truth or can be expected to. I was speaking in shorthand, because MB and I were talking about a limited point: in short, the students. To take it back to that, my whole point is the impression the students will be getting. In that sense, I don’t really think there will be a substantial difference in the two paradigms: “some people believe” and “my concept of truth is”. Students are going to see either way that we’re talking about something more akin to social studies with different interpretations of events possible, rather than the harder truths of math and sciences. I’m okay with either one, given balance. MB prefers the latter, and I think I understand why, but not convinced it matters too much.

Surely!

I don’t believe in alternate universes (or if they are there, then the existing universe is just “bigger” and more complicated) because my mathematically conditioned mind likes to take words at their definition, and since “universe” refers to all physical reality, that would mean you don’t discover something outside our universe. You only discover that the universe is bigger than previously thought. Sorry. Rabbit trail. Back to “truth”.

Hmm. To me our universe is finite, and there could well be things outside it, in time or space. The term “cosmos” is there to refer to everything in reality, inside or outside our universe, but I like–“reality” :tada: Ok back to truth :slight_smile:

So the fact that I may be casually conflating truth and reality (and calling it one) is in no way to call it simple or single-faceted. So of the multitudes of facets and propositions we can dicker over regarding our one said reality, we are all going to get some of them right and some of them wrong, whether they are physical or mathematical or spiritual facets.

Sure.

“Christianity” is a noun referring to a multitude of people and relationships and propositions (or doctrines). Only the latter can (on an individual basis) be said to be true or false. Now – if all of Christianity stands or falls around one of those propositions (i.e. Jesus rose from the dead), then in that sense I’ll grant that we can begin to objectively address it as right or wrong – and either way that is an objective truth even if we can’t agree or scientifically find out which of us chose the correct answer.

So let’s go back to our hypothetical teacher then. Outside of the doctrines, is there any “truth” for the teacher to propound upon? The teacher can describe the people, relationships, etc., but will they be making any assertions about it? If so, isn’t that a statement about truth? If not, aren’t we back to “some people believe”?

When I hear people put down religions by asking “which one is right”, I think their question with its embedded (and false) statement needs immediate correction.

I was talking about how things will be perceived under our educational paradigms, and not making a general criticism. But I do think it is a problem for theism in general. I once heard a Catholic priest give a talk where he explained his view that everyone can reach God through their own tradition. What do you make of that idea? I’m just not sure what such a God is trying to tell us or actually wants from us. A detached view seems reasonable to me in response. If you want to say that your conception of God is the correct one, I understand that more readily, but you’re necessarily negating other conceptions by doing so. Not necessarily totally, but to some degree at least. I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too here. Maybe you think there’s some kind of middle ground here, but I’m not seeing what it is.

It’s akin to somebody musing: “I wonder which subject is right: science or history? My history teacher taught a flawless lesson today with nothing I could disagree with. But my science teacher made a careless mistake at the board today. So I guess the subject of history is right and science is just wrong.” It’s a bizarre form of logic, that!

That is bizarre, but not what I’m saying. Here the subject would be “religion” in a broad sense. We’re not talking about mistakes. We’re talking about what will be a presentation of conflicting viewpoints, each presented as “truth” and not merely as something that “some people believe.” All I’m saying is that the overall impression given isn’t going to be the same as that given by ordinary academic subjects, which tend to rest on more verifiable and uncontested sources of information.