May 29, 2005

Evangelical Outpost: Dead Wrong on "Hyperbolic Doubt," Modernism, and Christianity

Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost has posted a pair of articles on the subject of "doubt, certainty, and epistemic humility" in which he blasts Rene Descartes for giving place to doubt in his quest to utlimately provide the epistemic groundwork for a Christian worldview. Descartes' method in his Mediations on First Philosophy (and Discourse on Method) is to practice doubt with great effort, and discover the limits of doubtability. I am of the opinion that Descartes' arguments ultimately fail to prove the existence of God, or anything else beyond the existence of the meditator himself, as the limits of doubtability give us information not about the ultimate truth of the universe, but about our own psychology (and, despite my idealist/phenomenalist metaphyics, I absolutely insist that the two are not interchangeable). However, Mr. Carter goes on to criticize the entire enterprise of the Christian philosophers of the early modern era (he speaks positively of Pascal, but from what little I know of Pascal I would say that he fits better in the tradition of medieval philosophy than that of the modernists). I cannot overemphasize how greatly misplaced his criticisms are, and I wish to argue here that it is not modernism but post-modernism that is the enemy of Christianity; the tradition of modern philosophy has much to contribute to the Christian worldview and quest for truth. It in no way contradicts Scripture, nor does it undermine faith.

Carter's primary claim is that "ontology precedes epistemology," and the early modernists missed this. Certainly this criticism sticks with Descartes, at least to some degree. Despite the tendency of modernists to reject Aristotle, Descartes seems to assume an ontology that has an Aristotelian foundation, at least on the lowest level. In particular, he assumes that the world is made up of substances, accidents, and events, and that events do not occur in the absence of substances. This is how he is able to make his famous "cogito ergo sum" claim: there is thinking going on, and thinking presupposes a thinker. But without these Aristotelian assumptions, thinking might occur without a thinker. In order to save Descartes from this criticism, some interpreters have argued that the cogito is not an argument at all, but rather one of the "brute facts" Descartes finds himself unable to doubt. This seems probable; I myself am most certainly unable to doubt the idea that events require substances, and in particular that thinking requires a thinker. On this interpretation it is merely important to keep track of the fact that the cogito is establishing not just the existence of the thinker, but certain ontological underpinnings which allow us to make sense of the world. In this way, Descartes would be building his metaphysics and his epistemology in tandem.

Carter then claims that this allegedly critical mistake (or omission) in Descartes leads to intellectual pride, undermines faith, supports Communism, and kills puppies (well, actually I made up those last two). But Carter greatly confuses the issue. He points out (rightly) that "what is is prior to what can be known" (emphasis original), but this is utterly irrelevant. Of course it exists before we know about it, but how does this do us any good in philosophy, since we don't know about it? Without an epistemological basis, our metaphysics or ontology amounts to so much wild speculation and there is no grounding, no reason for belief. "Christ is ontologically prior to all of Creation. We only know any truths because he exists." That's absolutely true. But how do we know it? Because the Bible says so. Why do we believe in the Bible? Because it's true. How do we know it's true? At some point we must reach an epistemic grounding, or we will never escape doubt. There is no virtue in believing without or contrary to the evidence. When Jesus says "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29), he is not saying "you're a really great guy if you believe in Me for no reason whatsoever, with no evidence, no grounding, no nothing, and foolishly bet your life on a proposition which, so far as the evidence you have seen can tell, may or may not correspond to reality." Rather, I believe, He is saying that those who come to the conclusion that He exists and can save them based on evidence of his interaction with the world independent of a physical human body have a more difficult time than the initial disciples who saw Jesus in the flesh, and will consequently be blessed. Contrary to Mr. Carter's claims, honest doubt is never discouraged by Scripture. The passages he cites refer to doubt used as an excuse to avoid acknowledging moral responsibility before God. In the passage in John just referenced, Jesus gratifies Thomas's doubt, and the statement above isn't much of a rebuke. Even stronger is Paul's exhortation to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) and his bold assertion that "if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable" (1 Corinthians 15:19), that is: "if the factual claims of Christianity are false, get out now, you're patheticly wasting your life.' How can this not be seen as encouraging honest doubt? And what about the Psalm that says "taste and see that the Lord is good" (34:8)? Isn't this an invitation to seek for ourselves to find the truth about God? And isn't reason one method by which we do this?

Early modern philosophy (including "natural philosophy;" what we now call science) was a Christian quest for truth. It began because Christians believed that truth was important; even sacred (as I argued recently). Disregard for science, reason, and knowledge can hardly be said to be Christian values, and examining the truths of Christianity honestly and openly can hardly be criticized from a Christian perspective: Jesus invites Thomas to test his doubts, and does not scold him.

As for intellectual pride, doubt hardly creates this. Mr. Carter insists that "to doubt requires that the doubter be the supreme judge of what can or cannot be known." Can someone else be the judge of what I know? God gave us intellect so that we could reason and form beliefs, and He reveals Himself both by means of and independently of the intellect. Like everything else in the world, it was created so that we could come to know Him. That is the ultimate purpose of this world. Certainly our unaided intellect will not discover the deep truths of the inner nature of God, but Descartes was very open about acknowledging that ("Since I now know that my own nature is very weak and limited, whereas the nature of God is immense, incomprehensible and infinite, I also know without more ado that he is capable of countless things whose causes are beyond my knowledge ... there is considerable rashness in thinking myself capable of investigating the impenetrable purposes of God." - Meditation 4). Besides, the key term here is "unaided." The Holy Spirit is very active in assiting our intellect to grasp deep truths. In fact, that is part of His primary purpose ("when He, the Spirit of Truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth" - John 15:13). Is it so terribly prideful to judge for yourself what to believe and not to believe, even when aided by the Holy Spirit? Is that not why God put you on earth, so that He could show Himself to you and you could decide whether or not to believe in and accept Him? And if reason doesn't lead us to God, then why should we continue believing that He exists? Would this not make us "of all men the most pitiable," according even to the Bible itself?

The second post talks for a long time about physicalism vs. Christian theism. It is true that physicalism leads to skepticism. I, or anyone else who calls himself a Berkeleian, must not merely accept, but vigorously assert that claim. But it does not follow that doubt and reason lead away from God. Many heroes of the faith, notably in recent history C.S. Lewis, have been brought to Christ by this very path. In fact, George Berkeley's arguments present theism as the solution to such doubts, which seems to be precisely what Mr. Carter hopes to assert. However, what is significant is that, as one of the commenters pointed out, ontology is not exactly prior to epistemology, but rather the two are mutually dependent. To be precise, ontology is ontologically prior to epistemology, and epistemology is epistemically prior to ontology. What this means is that the truths of ontology are what make true the truths of epistemology, but the truths of the epistemology are necessary in order for us to have proper knowledge of the truths of ontology. This is a vicious circle, and difficult to escape, but merely assuming a "Christian ontology" (whatever that means) will certainly not do the trick - it doesn't prove, it assumes. It is absolutely critical that Christians learn again to take the pursuit of truth seriously and not to be afraid of challenging dogmatic assumptions. After all, there was a time when people thought that the Bible taught that the earth was the center of the universe (incidentally, it doesn't). We cannot afford to fear doubt and rest in our comfortable dogmas. This does not take God seriously; it does not show a desire to "know Him and the power of His resurrection." (Philippians 3:10).

Modernism was, at least in its early stages, a very Christian movement in philosophy. It sought to remove from the Church dogmatic assumptions which gave Aristotle almost as much credence as Scripture. It sought truth honestly, humbly, and with proper motivation, and it believed in a single truth of the universe. This is in stark contrast to philosophical post-modernism, the true enemy of Christianity. Post-modernism denies the validity of reason and the existence of truth. This undermines Christianity. Modernism does not.

Posted by Kenny at May 29, 2005 1:46 PM
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