I want to address an issue that has come up from time to time regarding Narrative and what it encompasses as far as the physical world and meta-physical beliefs. If one goes here and then goes through the comment section, especially the last two by RonH and Bernard, it is to their last two comments that I want to attempt a response. I also realize that this may be the critical issue in Bernard’s articulations regarding his agnosticism. Because it is related, I will also address other issues that have arisen since that post.
First of all, I think in their questions and comments there is a line of reasoning that goes something like this: “Yes, there is a wide body of differences when it comes to meta-physical beliefs like God’s existence and morality, and clearly those are faith/narrative/world-view based; however, when we are speaking of distance to the sun or whether the earth is round, such are “commonly held” –there is “convergence” and thus stand apart from faith/narrative/world-view aspect because these are questions readily adjudicated by empirical means, methods we all agree upon and require nothing more to discern as true than our five senses and the ability to reason.”
Now, if I have that wrong, I will need RonH and Bernard to let me know. And, it may even be they are saying that even our agreements regarding things like distance to the sun and the earth being round are faith-based as well, but it is a different type of faith involved. To this I would say that I am using the word “faith” in the sense I have been speaking of over and over (see again the post already noted) and it is in this sense only that I use it in these conversations. So I think it unhelpful to talk of different types of faith. There are comprehensive world-views that are held by faith. However, the difference of how we determine the “truth” of matters within our worldview depends upon what is being asked and the matter in question. If we are asked how far the sun is from the earth, although this is narrative sensitive, it is not that we are exercising a different “faith” to answer the question, it is that we are dealing with a specific category of question—one that demands a certain type of knowledge and methodology. But it isn’t a different type of faith.
Want I want to assert here is that our views, even of how the physical world “works”, are narrative laden and there is no area of life that lies outside of it—nor are there different types of faith involved- only different types of questions. I will try and unpack this by noting three key factors that lead me to these assertions.
First of all there is the historical factor. It is easy for us to wake up in the West and just assume that the scientific method, elements of empiricism, evidential methods, and what we think of as modern science just being “the way things are.” It is the air we breathe now after centuries of articulation and education. But it was not always thus. What changed? What happened? Well, narrative happened. Murray Jardine, in his book The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society, writes:
Most people have been taught in school that science comes from the Greek philosophers. In fact, although it is true that the Greek philosophers were the first people to attempt something like science, that is, the systematic understanding of how the material world works, modern historians of science agree that the conceptual basis for modern science comes from the Bible, and that in fact the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas into Christian theology actually retarded the development of science.
It is not just a coincidence, then, that modern inductive, experimental science, and the technological capacities derived from science, developed in the Christian West, not elsewhere. As a practical matter, the beginnings of modern science developed in the monasteries during the latter part of the Middle Ages, and the history of this development is essentially the story of the monks slowly creating physical concepts, particularly those for describing the motions of bodies, that were compatible with biblical cosmology.
There is one other crucial implication of the biblical model of reality. Whereas the ancient pagan cultures saw the world as essentially chaotic, in the biblical view the universe is ordered.
There is a lot more that could be said here and there are tons of books out there now that basically shore up and agree with this understanding of history. The bottom line is this: Even our view of the physical world and how it works is shaped by a narrative. The pagan narrative—the story they told of how the world worked—determined that modern science would have been impossible for them. They could not “see” it. “Seeing” comes first. Narrative, the philosophical resources, the theoretical concepts, all have to be in place before we can “see” what is really there and what is true.
So it is easy in 2013 to say, “Well, we all agree upon certain physical brute facts, and the ways of science therefore…” Pagans had “brute facts” too and so did the rest of the world. They saw and had before them the same evidence and physical world that everyone did. However, they did not have the narrative, the story, the world-view, that would allow them to “see” deeper, or a view that would open up new avenues and methods of understanding. Thus, even our cursory view of empirical facts, science, and those areas are all narrative laden and spring from a narrative. We think our modern conception of science completely normal, but it’s not normal. It had to be imagined. Kuhn made this very clear. Fundamental changes in science come from “paradigm” changes. It is not that the “facts” and the “evidence” were new or had changed. What changed was our way of “seeing.” Our minds had to change. Narrative changes minds and it allows us to “see”- not in the sense of something new, but in the sense of learning that the thing was always there, but we couldn’t see it before.
The second issue is the role of interpretation. It is irrelevant, I think, in a conversation like this one to simply note that there is agreement or a common understanding regarding empirically arrived at matters as if it was a distinction that made a difference. Of course there is agreement and a common understanding. Once ensconced within a narrative that allows for repeatability and predictability in nature and after centuries of education and enculturation—why wouldn’t we expect such? Further, there isn’t a person or culture in the world that goes up to the edge of empirically arrived at information and stops. No person or culture lives out their lives on a collection of unorganized, unconnected, and meaningless “facts” or empirical findings. Every area of knowledge has a philosophical component to it (for instance, philosophy of science) that tries to connect the dots and articulate a holistic comprehensive web that makes sense of that area of knowledge. And all such endeavors are steps beyond simply noting what the “facts” are because “facts” are always interpreted “facts.” So a supposed distinction here is moot and irrelevant. No serious person escapes the “But what does it all mean” question. Even if the answer is, “I don’t know”; or, “We can’t know”; or, “It means nothing,” one is basing those answers on some criteria, some world-view, some bar, or some standard that reveals an underlying world-view. Even if the answer is, “I don’t know,” a follow up question such as, “What would you need to form an opinion?” and others would reveal an underlying world-view. Normally, if those are the answers (the above three) one gives, the underlying view is one that is empirical, modern, and secular. Many, instead of just coming out and admitting this will try and assert some other appeal. But it is always an appeal to something they feel is more compelling, reasonable, or truer than whatever it is they are critiquing—even if the appeal is to themselves and their own personal whims or tastes.
So to the person who would say, “Well, but there is a difference between the faith that notes the sun will rise tomorrow and the faith that notes God’s existence,” I would say two things: First, it is not two different types of faith. It is one faith that sees both (or a faith that sees one and not the other). Secondly, the difference revolves around categories, the question at issue, and not the faith involved. We would never approach the different categories the same. And that we know they are different categories and two different types of questions means we are not surprised if two people can agree the sun is hot but not whether or not God exists. In fact, we would expect such a state of affairs. It makes sense. It is reasonable and logical. It only becomes an issue if one is already a-priori committed to empiricism. Then it seems problematic. Why? Because it doesn’t conform to an already agreed upon criteria for what can be objective or true.
The third and final issue is the “fact/value” distinction. I think any attempt to draw a line or distinction between how we know the earth is round and how we know we shouldn’t torture children (or believe in a god), where the clear attempt is to privilege empiricism, is simply to assert, a-priori, a philosophical commitment to philosophical naturalism/materialism (and its hand-maiden epistemology, empiricism) with the usual result of atheism or agnosticism. If one has already admitted that such a stance is faith-based, then he must admit he simply chooses a view that makes a fact, like “The sun is hot” more true and compelling than a statement like, “we shouldn’t torture children.” If, again, he has agreed his view is faith-based, he agrees then there is no empirical justification for this view. If he has not admitted that such a view is faith-based, he then thinks that “science” or the “facts” or the “evidence” somehow support this exclusive view. Either way, it must depend upon the modern fact/value distinction. I’m not going to take up this entire post with why or how it has been called into question, but here and here are places where one can explore why the distinction has been called into question and how it, at least at an academic level, no longer holds sway. Here is also a related link.
In one link, we notice the writer deals with the fact/value distinction or difference between how we approach different questions by speaking of ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism. He notes the difference here:
A certain methodological naturalism is commonsensical. It wouldn’t be very helpful when making a cup of tea if, when the kettle boiled, we became overly entranced by the mystical wonder of the emission of steam, thinking it was the communication of the spirits of our ancestors. Science must preclude this, and thus it seeks to explain phenomena in purely natural terms. This is eminently sensible – we may expect the farmer to pray to his maker, asking for a good harvest, but we don’t then expect the farmer to put his feet up and leave God to get on with ploughing the fields.
Ontological naturalism goes further…It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural, but that the natural is all there is – indeed, all there ever could be. [emphasis added]
But it is clear that naturalism is also self-defeating in its slavish following of science and its rejection of all things metaphysical. As E.J. Lowe points out, “without a coherent general concept of the whole of reality, we cannot hope to render compatible the theories and observations of the various different sciences: and providing that conception is not the task of one of those sciences, but rather that of metaphysics.”
Moreover, any arguments given in opposition to metaphysics seem to be employing the very thing that they are denying, for they are inevitably making metaphysical claims. For example, it is self-defeating to assert that philosophy must relinquish its claim to formulate a First Philosophy, and that it should instead be subservient to science, as science allegedly provides the best account of reality. Such an assertion is self-defeating because it is, quite obviously, not a scientific claim but rather a metaphysical one.
I would point out that one should re-read that last paragraph. Let it sink in. Mull it over. To assert that we should withhold our belief, reserve it, or have no opinion, based upon a claim of some advantage to empiricism or that we can move no further beyond truths established empirically, is self-defeating, because such is a metaphysical claim, in and of itself, whether coming from a single person or an entire culture. To this day, I don’t think Burk or Bernard understand the ramifications of that paragraph. If they did, they might see the cracks in their own supposed foundations. And of course, in my opinion, this is why Bernard wants to talk about “tastes” rather than reasons. Then, when asked about the reasons behind his “tastes”, he has none. Well of course he doesn’t because he knows he would then be making metaphysical claims–faith based claims I might add.
Related to all these issues is the idea of “convergence.” In questions of an empirical nature, it is asserted, that because the methodology is set, and because there is an agreed upon criteria, we end of with convergence and agreement (the earth is round) and this must count for some advantage as opposed to how the questions of a metaphysical nature are settled.
I think this line of reasoning fails for two reasons. First, it is only a problem if one assumes that questions of a physical nature and questions of a metaphysical nature must be settled in the same way. If one doesn’t recognize philosophical categories or collapses every question into the physical (in other words assumes the material is all there is), then the fact there is convergence in matters of a physical nature and not in matters of a metaphysical nature is not only not a problem, it would be expected. One cannot help but feel that for those who see it a problem, it is only because it threatens their privileging of empiricism. Why else is it a problem? We simply note that we decide questions of a physical nature differently than those of a metaphysical nature and move on. No problem.
This same issue is addressed in the link on the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism. The writer notes:
I’ll explain what I mean. Generally speaking, there are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach that science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such.
He goes on:
While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion of what exists…
Now his point is not that there isn’t a narrative behind even methodological naturalism (see Jardine again) or that noting the distinction between the two means privileging one over the other. He is simply noting they are two different areas of enquiry—each has its own place depending upon the type of question (category) involved. It issues no opinion because it recognizes the very distinction under discussion.
Second, any perceived advantage to the ideal of convergence runs both ways. If one is going to elevate convergence to some advantage, then what does one do with the fact that historically, from time immemorial, and to the present day, there has been a significant convergence toward belief, theism, religion, and the transcendental. It has been and is the predominate state of affairs. Even today, atheism and agnosticism are minority views. Historically, they are a small blip on the radar screen of history. There is no wide or significant convergence as to those belief systems. To assert a convergence defense of empiricism is to cut off the very branch on which one sits.
One final point about the supposed “distinctions” within world-views. If the distinction is to only note the difference between ontological naturalism and methodological naturalism, then fine, because what it does is preventone from making philosophical category errors. However, if the distinction is being noted to try and hold on to the fact/value distinction, then one is still trying to protect the “last dogma of empiricism.” Or if one is noting the distinction to say we should not move beyond what we can’t know empirically, then one is still just privileging empiricism. Therefore, one is asserting the very issue disputed and thus begging the question. And let me just point out that this issue of distinctions has not been sidelined, or pushed aside, or not heard in any critiques. In fact, it has been the very key issue disputed (just discussed under different terms) and dealt with in all these long posts and comment threads. It has been noted and addressed repeatedly.
Related, I want to address a recent statement in the comment section of another post: “Similarly, should we end up converging on a God solution, such that no alternative seems viable, then in this case the distinction would break down.”
If convergence means a preponderance, or a majority of people, or a consensus, then we already have converged upon a God “solution.” The convergence is entirely upon the side of belief. If by convergence we mean 99.9%, then we would never expect this anyway because metaphysical questions, by their very nature and category, are never such that we would ever expect 100% agreement anyway. Secondly, how would an “alternative” to God exist? If by the word “God” we are talking about what philosophers, theologians, and orthodox Christians have been referring to for centuries, we are talking about the “necessary” being, the “ground” of all being, the uncaused cause, the reason for everything, the being for which there is no alternative, otherwise whatever “that” alternative was- would be God. Or, if knowing this, one is then saying the alternative could be no God, thus atheism, then just come out and say it. Of course it could be an alternative. So could aliens, and a host of others causes. So what? No one has said there couldn’t be other alternatives. But this certainly isn’t an argument for agnosticism. And any “alternative” one would suggest would be coming out of a world-view/narrative/faith belief system of some other sort.
One final comment about agnosticism. The agnostic should ask this question: What would it take for me to believe in God or some transcendental aspect to existence? The answer will reveal some bar, some criteria, or some standard which will be part of an over-all meta-narrative, world-view, that most of us have agreed are faith-based. So the reason is always going to be an appeal (by faith) to something the agnostic believes is more certain, true, or reasonable than belief. In other words, there is no neutrality here. There is no withholding of belief. We are all believers in this sense. There is only belief in another narrative, thus the agnosticism in the first place. Doubt and Belief are always two sides of the same coin. Was one born with their agnosticism? Is it genetic? No. It was reasoned to. It was believed. It was imagined. It fits because of a certain story one believes. And as we hear that story told it certainly sounds like the Enlightenment, Secular, Modern, story.
I should add that an appeal to some “feeling” that is without reasons is no defense or even an argument. It is a conversation stopper. If one’s appeal is to a feeling that even the person asserting has no reasons for, then it isn’t even an argument to himself. When someone says, “I don’t like broccoli but I can’t really tell you why,” nobody cares and we just offer him something else to eat. However, when someone says, “I doubt God exists; I just don’t feel good about the idea,” we are struck by how unreasonable the assertion. After all, in a philosophical discussion, as opposed to a conversation about whether we like broccoli, we expect someone to have reasons for their “feeling” a certain way. If one has no reasons, then we smile and move on. There is nothing to talk about. But the person certainly hasn’t made a case for anything, to anyone, or even to themselves. They just know they “feel” a certain way. Okay. Cheers.
So, I assert again that we all live by faith. Narrative encompasses all. To make an argument against this, one would simply be employing another narrative to do so—it is self-defeating. And once we note that the distinction between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism does away with privileging one over the other, then the idea of different types of faith and other distinctions melt away. Thus, I again ask why the opposition to this idea of an equal plane–a common table. All it does is put us all on equal footing as to the foundations of our respective narratives. There is no privilege here. No one gets a space above another. We are all admitted to the same table. As we then sit around this table and have a conversation, each one can tell their story. But to reject the main thesis of this post is really to reject sitting at the same table with those whose stories differ from one’s own.