In Praise of Mystery—Certainty is for Fundamentalists

This post is a reflection upon this one by Bernard Beckett regarding his agnosticism.
First of all, I should point out those features that I appreciate and commend.  The two features in Bernard’s post that resonated with me were tolerance and openness.  In opposition to secular and religious fundamentalism, I think agnosticism is certainly in a much better position, philosophically, to cultivate those two features.  I think Bernard’s approach puts him in a very good position to listen to others and also to be heard.  The type of agnosticism he puts forth doesn’t carry the same aggressive tone that those who are committed sometimes bring to a conversation.  The “True Believers” we can see coming for miles and most of us quickly look for hiding places.  However his agnosticism is not threatening in that way.  It doesn’t take itself too seriously.  The honest statement: “I don’t know” is one we respect.  It is humble and it’s that very aspect (“I don’t know”) that makes it teachable and open to learning.  There is much we could learn from such an attitude and Bernard represents one of the better forms of agnosticism I have ever encountered.
That being said, however, I still find certain areas problematic and would need further unpacking and explanation.  Clearly I could be misreading and misunderstanding Bernard.  Where I think I understand him I will do my best to respond.  And rather than just respond enmasse and in general, I will point to the key areas specifically noted by Bernard where I see problems.
If you were looking for an agnostic hero figure, you could do worse than Protagoras…It was he who was credited with the observation ‘the fire burns the same everywhere, but the law of the land differs from place to place.’ To an agnostic, and I suspect a good many atheists, the distinction Protagoras noted is a crucial one.
I don’t understand why this is a “crucial” distinction.  It is a distinction noted by Christians too after all.  It is when we unpack this distinction and ask ourselves what it means that anything of a crucial nature may arise.  As I’ve noted many times now, if we keep the difference between methodological naturalism (the fire burns the same…) and ontological naturalism (because the material is all there is, that the laws differ must mean [fill in the blank] “there is no god or objective value or truth”) in mind, this so-called distinction, once it is understood, certainly doesn’t take away from a Christian or transcendental view of the world—or it shouldn’t.  The fact/value distinction, in fact, disappears. 
We are poets, story tellers, readers of mood and motivation, incurably social, curious and romantic. We move in a world not just of models, but of laws and lore. And it is this through this aspect of our nature that we experience a world that is much more flexible, where reality leaves us unconstrained in our speculations…
But is this really true?  In reality I don’t think it is.  There are constraints even in this aspect of our experience.  There are some narratives that, over time, become so powerful they are believed as strongly as the fact one will get wet when it rains.  Some narratives are not believed to the same extent.  Some narratives seem to have some power for a time but then die out or are replaced by another.  We take it as completely reasonable and perfectly normal that our Presidents/Chancellors/leaders in the West believe in God.  However, if any one of them were to profess a serious belief in Goblins or floating teapots, they would never even see public office.  So the idea there are no constraints here just isn’t true.
…to the extent that two entirely contradictory stances might be thought of as equally well supported by our collective experiences…
Well, that is the question, are they “thought of as equally well supported by our collective experiences”?  Many times they are not.  It is then up to each person to dive in and try to understand why they are not.  In some instances (Santa Clause v. God) it is easy to understand.  In others, where we are considering world-religions for instance, it is much more difficult.  But what does this prove?  It certainly doesn’t mean one should throw up their hands and declare them all false.  From what vantage was one able to do that anyway?  From what high and lofty place did one look down and declare all narratives (because they contradict) false except one’s own (which, by the way, also contradicts these others!)?  I’m not stating Bernard is saying this explicitly but I do think the mindset is there.  I think Bernard would say, “I’m not saying they are all false—I’m just saying because they contradict, and because both sides seem reasonable—it is fair to withhold judgment.”  Notice though what is going on here.  It is the view from the judge’s seat at trial or the umpire at a game.  I’m sitting back and each of you go ahead and present your case and I will call it as I see it.  This seems to me to be the very idea of what privileging one’s view would amount to.  Unfortunately, in the real game of life none of us are neutral observers.  We are all in the game.  And we are looking at these other narratives through our own narrative—not as neutral umpires or judges.
And part of Bernard’s narrative is the restriction he’s talk about: “The link to agnosticism is that the agnostic seeks to restrict their beliefs to just these cases.”  And “these” cases were represented by something like the observation that when it rains we get wet.  In other words, an empirical observation, which in every way I can see simply erects an arbitrary faith-based boundary that would lead one to only entertain something as true if it can be shown to be true empirically.  So how is this neutral?
Further, again, if we understand the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism that there are contradictory world-views is what one would expect and it is only problematizedby this boundary or restriction set up by Bernard.  It needn’t be so.
The agnostic is defined by the way they respond to these contradictions. The response is to say ‘given that an equally reasonable and well informed person may validly reach the opposite conclusion, I have insufficient faith in my own conclusion to do anything other than suspend belief. I don’t know which of the competing viewpoints is more likely to be true, I can’t trust my own instincts on the matter, given others’ instincts take them in such opposite directions, and so I shall refrain from belief.
My first thought here is how is this (the reasoning reflected here) not instinctive as well?  If one cannot trust his instincts regarding these other reasonable positions—how can he trust the instinct that tells him he should refrain from or suspend belief?  Clearly, he must trust some instinct.  Why trust one over the other?  The other problem here is that while we all might have instinctive (or is this just cultural?) or gut reactions to differing world-views, most reasonable people don’t just leave it at that.  They still ask questions, explore, and try to get beyond their instincts to see what reasons lay behind these differing beliefs.  In other words, most of us ask, “Are (were) my instincts justified here?”  How does Bernard answer that question?  And by what criteria?  Or perhaps that question is never asked.  In past attempts to answer this question it always seemed to me it turned into a veiled attempt to privilege empiricism, but maybe I misunderstood.
To return to the metaphor I favour, a coin spins through the air. What will it be? I don’t know, is the agnostic answer.
I must again object to this analogy on the basis that it doesn’t capture what is going on when we process and choose world-views and I can’t think of a single philosopher familiar with the concept of world-views who would suggest it does.  First of all, we are not neutral observers watching a coin—this thing—this object.  Of course we don’t know which side it will land.  Such is not the “agnostic” answer—it’s everyone’s answer if this is what we are really doing.  But, is that how we choose world-views?  No, it is not.  We might even say that world-views choose us to an extent.  There is something about it, about the narrative, which captured us.  There is an experiential, intellectual, and practical aspect that connected with us and resonated—none of which can be captured or compared to a coin toss or a coin spinning in the air.  We inhabit our world-views; we don’t see them from a distance as an object or concept that is inherently a matter of chance that we stand outside of somehow.
This is not to say this is how we should respond. Agnosticism makes no claim that its stance is superior, or indeed more likely to uncover the truth, than belief. Indeed, it is less likely to hit the target, given it isn’t even taking a shot.
I would counter that it is taking a shot.  It is basically setting up a bar another narrative has to meet for the agnostic to agree with the person expressing their narrative (you passed the bar) and perhaps be moved.  It basically says, “If you meet my personal criteria, I might consider it.”  It is really asking others to take the shot, as the agnostic sits and waits to make his judgment as to whether it met his bar, his test.  I’m not too sure this is a neutral position.  To withhold making a decision is to…make a decision to withhold.  It is also lends itself to being, almost without the agnostic realizing it, inherently judgmental because of the test it sets up that everyone else must meet.
For me, the first is to do with intellectual consistency. I just don’t buy the pragmatic argument. Yes, a certain type of belief might feel right, and this feeling might deliver up certain advantages, but I don’t know how to make an argument from the personally useful to the objectively true. And I enjoy going where an argument will take me. I find that satisfying. The only arguments I can construct take me away from pragmatism, and I follow them.
How is this not an argument…for pragmatism?  After all, Bernard finds this path personally “satisfying.”  That an argument not pass any test other than it seems to “work” or is satisfying seems, to me at least, to lie at the very heart of pragmatism.  This argument, then, seems to contradict itself.  Putting that aside, most do feel like they are going where the argument “takes” them.  A Christian will say that he believes in some sort of final accounting or judgment, whether he wants, pragmatically, for such to be the case or not.  We all want to think we would follow the truth regardless of how it made us feel or even if it were to depress us.  Who is going to say, “Right, regardless of the truth, I just believe in whatever makes me feel good or is satisfying.”?  No one.
A second advantage is that I don’t have to construct a case to explain why my intuition is superior to that of my fellow travellers’. I would find it extremely hard to construct such a case, perhaps impossible.
But Bernard is constructing such a case right now.  It is his “intuition” that the better choice is to withhold belief.  The fact he is holding his agnosticism out for us to consider (“what’s not to like?”) means he hopes we find it preferable, understandable, or at least likable.  Why is hisintuition here superior?  Is Bernard an agnostic because he feels he is taking the lessreasonable, less intelligent, less logical and inferior intuitive road?  No, he feels just the opposite and has been publicly writing about it for the very reason that he finds it superior.  Not superior in the sense of being above us or smarter than everyone else, but simply as the better choice for him.  But we are all doing that.  So, the point?
Further, regardless the subjective component and the place of intuition/instinct in our decision making, most of us believe our world-view is based also upon reasons and philosophical reflection too.  No one is saying something as simple as, “My intuition is superior.”  While we might all say, “I respect your intuitive sense here,” we would all follow with, “but can you explain your philosophical reasoning and how you arrived at your position?”
For me, agnosticism also support a special sort of curiosity. The less one has invested in an investigation, the more open one can be to its possible end points.
Imagine a crime scene.  Three detectives are assigned.  All three examine the evidence.  Two of them believe firmly in a theory and have suspects in mind, although their theories are different and they have different suspects.  The third detective doesn’t believe either theory and doesn’t think either suspect guilty.  When he is asked why by the other two, he responds, “I just don’t know.  My gut, my instincts, my intuition doesn’t line up here.”  “Well,” they respond, “What then is your theory and do you have a suspect.”   To this, he responds, “I don’t really have one.  I don’t know what happened here.”
The other two detectives followed their theories.  Often they came up short.  Something didn’t make sense or fit.  They would go back and go over the crime scene again, go over the evidence again, and chase down new leads and interview new people.  They continued to revise their theories based upon what they were learning.  Sometimes they were right on target and it led to new breaks and they began to get closer and closer to the perpetrator.
The third detective remained inactive.  He could never get past his feeling that he simply didn’t know what had happened or who could have been responsible.  And no theories seem to make sense to him.  With nothing to go on (he felt), there was nothing further to do.  He laid down on the couch, turned on the television, and eventually fell asleep.
My point here is that it is the person with a theory who is the one most curious.  Why?  Because he wants to know if he is on to something or not.  He pursues it.  He chases it.  He believes in it.  Until shown otherwise, he thinks he is on the right track.  The person who says, “We can’t know,” is really done.  Unless, he is willing to say, “But I’m going to try and find out more,” it is the sign of resignation.  Even if they say they want to find out more, if they don’t even have a theory, an idea, some lead, some piece of evidence, then there is nothing to pursue.  There is no reason to be curious.  Nothing has sparked their interest enough to go further.  If they see no tracks to follow in the first place, no journey ever begins.
There is a second consideration here as well.  Historically I don’t think Bernard’s point holds up well at all.  The fact remains that modern science wasn’t a result of an agnostic world-view.  It arose from a Judeo-Christian view and it was inherently curious, thus the explosion of knowledge in the West.  It meant that the cosmos made sense, was logical, mathematical, and orderly.  Thus we could study it and learn more and more.  All this did was generate more curiosity–as it still does today.  We find nothing like that historically coming from a group or community committed to agnosticism.  
So those are the key points where I see problems.  I would also point out that it is a misconception to assume that Christians claim to have found certainty.  Rather, they have discovered, or been discovered by, a profound and eternal mystery.  Instead of closing a book, they find they have opened a book that never ends.  The Christian never claims the case to be closed or solved.  The journey continues into ever deeper labyrinths.  Just as we “know” our spouse or significant other, we always know at the same time they are a mystery and we know them hardly at all.  Curiosity and the journey are bound up with loving others.  Existentially, if we don’t think anyone is there or that we can’t know if anyone is there, the journey never begins.  Such seems profoundly sad to me.  But beyond that, certainty is for fundamentalists.
One final thought.  My theory is that Bernard’s agnosticism is a reaction to fundamentalist religion.  I think most atheism is also a result of the same reaction.  My thought then is that one should consider fundamentalism the problem rather than religion per-se or see this as a “God” or transcendental problem.  I don’t believe in the god of fundamentalism either.  When most atheists and agnostics explain to me the god they either don’t believe in or withhold judgment over, my usual response is that I don’t believe in that god either.
The problem is that anything born of a reaction, that is based in a negativity, that is born in an “against” type of sensibility or mentality is hard to sustain over time and is even harder to translate into something that can become positive, attractive, and winsome.  Therefore, it can rarely become something that begins to impact culture, or even ourselves, in deep positive ways.  Now, perhaps Bernard isn’t interested in impacting culture or being a part of something that is transformative.  Perhaps his agnosticism is entirely personal and not translatable or transferable.  In that case however, why these posts?  Why the comments on this blog and others regarding this very issue?  Does one protest too much?  In other words, it would appear Bernard is saying something beyond something as banal and inconsequential as, “I like ice cream.”  I would hope so anyway.  
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67 Responses to In Praise of Mystery—Certainty is for Fundamentalists

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi- If I could put in a word. My interest was just to pin Bernard down as an empiricist, if not a metaphysical one. Bernard's interest seems to be to say that his beliefs are logical in that they make use of no axioms that are not accepted as reasonable on all sides, which very much includes a practical level of empiricism, (or so we thought!), and really little or nothing else.

    Darrell seems to have the aim of showing that even taking this practical level of empiricism as one's sole axiom for belief is somehow faith-based, and contested. Well, it certainly is contested, since theists can not restrict themselves to empirical axioms, lest they be left stripped of belief. As he puts it:

    That requires an a-priori commitment to empiricism. I do not accept your framing of the issue that something contestable or disputed, because not empirically shown, is a problem. It is only a problem from an empiricist perspective.

    Here is the rub- Darrell has to take faith and other sources of “knowledge” as valid, even axiomatic, (i.e. not problematic), even while giving respect in some minimal sense to that level of practical empiricism that all share (while calling it trivial). And thus has to react as if not taking these other sources as valid sources of belief is itself a matter of “faith” and “contestability”. That is why we are going in such circles. So we await an admission from Darrell that his theism, or theism in general, requires the use of axioms that are not universally agreed upon, and thus branch out from the basic level of beliefs that all reasonable people can readily share… which differentiates it from bare agnosticism, which does not branch off in that way.


  2. Darrell says:


    “So we await an admission from Darrell that his theism, or theism in general, requires the use of axioms that are not universally agreed upon, and thus branch out from the basic level of beliefs that all reasonable people can readily share… which differentiates it from bare agnosticism, which does not branch off in that way.”

    I've always asserted that we, all of us, interpret and “see” everything through our world-view/narrative/faith. Absolutely. Each or our own worldviews provides any axioms. Burk’s atheism also requires the use of axioms not universally agreed upon. Let’s remember for a moment that if we all agreed upon the same axioms, we would all have the same view, metaphysical or otherwise. And Burk, I don’t think there is such a thing as a metaphysical empiricist, as that would defeat the whole purpose of being an empiricist, right?

    I've been arguing that Bernard’s agnosticism does branch off. It branches off by his “restriction” component. If I have a bar set that unless another person’s narrative meets it I can therefore not agree with their view, then I have metaphysically “branched” off. The bar in this case is empiricism.


  3. Darrell says:

    “…unless another person’s narrative meets it I can therefore not agree with their view…”

    I shouldn't have used the word “agree” as I know Bernard will say he does not agree nor disagree with either atheism or theism.

    I meant that in the context of telling us why he cannot commit to one or the other. I think what frustrates Burk, is that if one is going to be an empiricist (or set up a restriction that privileges empiricism), then doesn't that leave atheism as the only option?

    If I have that wrong Burk, let me know.


  4. Hi Burk

    I think you have this right. Of course I am an empiricist when it comes to forming my beliefs about the physical world, we all are. On other questions often addressed by various incarnations of empiricism: that the physical is all there is, or that knowledge extending beyond the physical is impossible, or that non-verifiable statements are meaningless, or that sense data is the only reality, or whatever, not so much.

    Darrell's tactic is to assume that someone who attaches themselves to the non-controversial aspects of empiricism must also commit to these more contested ones, because he does not wish to be the only one committing to contested axioms.

    And good luck to him with that, it's a tremendously difficult case to establish. What is undisputed is that the theist, having reached the extent of empirical belief, must make a further assumption, namely that there is a God, and that their feelings about the issue reflect this objective reality. A strict atheist, convinced that all such intuitions are purely psychological, makes a similar leap.

    Clearly the exception is in those cases where either stripe of believer considers they have discovered an argument that makes their call at this point more reasonable than the alternative. Such arguments have never entirely convinced me, but I remain open to them.

    It's not entirely clear to me where you would place yourself on the agnosticism/atheist scale in this respect. I suspect you find arguments in favour of the psychological a little more compelling that I do, but I may have you wrong on this.



  5. Hi Darrell

    In your reply to Burk you again state baldly the case you would like to make. That at the point where the agnostic says 'I don't wish to choose between contested axioms, I just don't know which is the better option' they have themselves invoked a contested axiom.

    But what is this axiom? Why is it so difficult for you to name it? I speak here of a truth claim, one in the style of 'It is true that there is a God' or 'It is true that there is no God.' What is this elusive truth claim made by agnosticism, and why do you resist articulating it?

    A statement of the type 'Bernard believes A, while I do not' would do the trick. Maybe not now, if you have tired of this conversation. But let the challenge hang there, should you ever wish to return to it.

    Thanks for the conversation.



  6. Darrell says:


    “What is undisputed is that the theist, having reached the extent of empirical belief, must make a further assumption, namely that there is a God, and that their feelings about the issue reflect this objective reality. A strict atheist, convinced that all such intuitions are purely psychological, makes a similar leap.”

    You have this entirely backward. The worldview/narrative/faith comes first is always already present and is what we interpret the empirical evidence through. The “leap” you speak of happens way before and is always happening—there is never a time it’s not happening.


  7. Darrell says:


    I have named it. It is a tacit empiricism. It is the restriction you invoke. Simply note that you disagree, or say you just don’t like my answer, but not that I haven’t attempted over and over to name the issue disputed.


  8. Hi Darrell

    Tacit empiricism, as an answer, is unclear. This is why I have been a little dogged in pressing you on this matter. The empiricism style belief I hold is that evidence based reasoning gives us our best approximation of the physical world. You don't dispute this. So that's not a contested belief. If you think my tacit empiricism implies another belief that is contested, name it clearly and we'll examine that.

    Now, the restriction I personally evoke also involves no truth claim, bar the obvious 'I prefer not to commit to contested truth claims'. And this, given it is a stating only of my preference, is not itself disputed.

    You would like to argue that this preference is itself based upon disputed reasons, but unless we can identify them, this hangs out there simply as an assertion. And asserting won't get the job done. This is why I invite you to name the contested belief, in the form 'Bernard believes A'.

    The statement that 'world view comes first and is always present and is what we interpret the evidence through', is fine, so long as we do not assume that such a world view must of necessity contain contested axioms. That is the point in question and I'm interested in whether or not you can establish it.



  9. Darrell says:


    Empiricism is a pretty clear and plain answer. What is unclear about it?

    “…so long as we do not assume that such a world view must of necessity contain contested axioms.”

    Go back to the definition I gave of what encompasses worldview. Obviously they contain contested axioms whether of necessity or not. What would “necessity” have to do with it?

    The statement 'I prefer not to commit to contested truth claims' is based on a reason. It is based upon an arbitrary restriction that privileges empiricism.

    I think the only form of agnosticism that would meet the requirement of no belief, would be one that provided no reasons with the withholding of belief. None—zero—nothing that could be articulated or defended. Literally no reason the person could come up. Silence. A mute stare and shrug of the shoulders.

    Because the moment one begins to articulate reasons for their view, as you have been doing and even posting a whole series, they have some philosophical framework for their reasons, and their worldview begins to become evident. Everyone stands somewhere. None of us simply levitate above the earth. I don’t have to point out a single “It is true…” that you make to prove this point. If that is all you are hitching your wagon to here, then no wonder you have been sorely disappointed.

    You have said for you personally, that “The link to agnosticism is that the agnostic seeks to restrict their beliefs to just these cases.”

    So it is a sin of omission rather than commission. It is implied not expressed. It still privileges a tacit empiricism that goes beyond the fact we are all empiricists at the level of methodological naturalism because the very restriction is invoked as a way of saying, “because metaphysical beliefs cannot be shown to be empirically based” I will withhold belief. So to then argue that one is not making any truth-claims is sort of like the person guilty of patricide asking mercy of the court because he is an orphan.


  10. Hi Darrell

    If 'Bernard believes in empiricism' is the answer, then what is unclear is what type of empiricism you think I hold, and what contested beliefs does that style of empiricism entail. As always, I do not for one moment wish to imply that one can rise above one's world view. We agree on this. We disagree only on whether or not a world view must of necessity contain contested axioms. What has necessity have to do with it? Well, if it is not necessarily true that all world views contain contested axioms, then one can not make the claim that because a world view is in play, so too are contested axioms (and this is your case).

    You point out, quite rightly, that as soon as one beings to articulate reasons for a stance, world view comes into play. I don't deny this, of course. But this is not sufficient to establish that such a world view relies upon contested axioms. What we have in my case is a world view based upon accepted axioms of deductive and inductive logic, leading to the shared conclusion that in order to extend our knowledge beyond the empirically based, we must invoke contested axioms. That is my reason, if you like, and there's no contested belief hidden in there, that I can see.

    At this point, it really is exactly the shrug of the shoulders you mention in play. Why do I prefer not to engage contested axioms? Just the way I am, really. Sure, there are some advantages, but disadvantages too, and the nature of these can be teased out as logical inference.

    So, to restate you claim at the end here slightly, I am indeed saying “because some metaphysical beliefs (not all, remember, I have some) can not be shown to be derivable from shared axioms, I will withhold belief.” And from here I do indeed argue that at this point I am not making any truth claims that are contested in the sense of being based upon contested axioms.

    You seem to consider this logically invalid, but I can't see why. If you could show me even one contested truth claim, just one, we'd be over the line on this.



  11. Darrell says:


    This is clearly something you believe strongly (rather ironic!) and is important to you. I've never seen someone so committed to something…he's not committed to! Hardly a shrug of the shoulders. Anyway, I would just be repeating myself, and clearly that is not working.

    I am more than happy to let you go on believing whatever you will. Thanks for your patience. Very good discussion. All kidding aside, I do respect your opinion.



  12. Hi Darrell

    Oh well, we tried.

    All the best.



  13. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Let me try a quote out on you, from the book I am currently reading:

    “Experiences of theoria [mystical visions or similar experiences], if we can use Plato's word for them- they are usually visual, and theoria is a kind of seeing, though they can involve hearing, as was often the case in ancient Israel- provide an insight into reality so deep that the whole empirical world is called into question. Such experiences can remain private, but when they are taken as the focus for subsequent reflection they can lead to a radical questioning of the way things are, that is, the world is relativized in light of an all-emcompassing truth.”

    I think this may express what you are getting at, that the mundane frame of practical empiricism, while generally thought to be the most solid and uncontroversial criterion, might, to some (even many) people, possessed of compelling mystical insights, a la William James, actually be problematic and not accepted at all, or at least not as “ground truth”, as it were. This naturally leads us to epistemological, if not psychological, areas again, but I just wanted to see if this clarifies things a bit.


  14. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    I don’t we think have to resort to mystical visions to explain what I am talking about. Again, I think it summed up in the quote by Olthuis:

    “A worldview (or vision of life) is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world and our calling and future in it. This vision may be so internalized that it goes largely unquestioned; it may be greatly refined through cultural-historical development; it may not be explicitly developed into a systematic conception of life; it may not be theoretically deepened into a philosophy; it may not even be codified into credal form. Nevertheless, this vision is a channel for the ultimate beliefs which give direction and meaning to life. It is the integrative and interpretative framework by which order and disorder are judged, the standard by which reality is managed and pursued. It is the set of hinges on which all our everyday thinking and doing turns.”
    Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2
    © James H. Olthuis page 3 of 12

    And it’s not that world-view/narrative calls the empirical physical world into question. Rather that it is what we interpret the empirical physical through and is how we make sense of the world. So it is never that we all do some sort of neutral, objective, scientific, reading of the empirical information and then we come to some juncture where we all go and take our individual “leaps” of faith as to what it means and symbolizes. It is that we are always already interpreting the empirical world through the narratives we inhabit and it is impossible to do otherwise. A fact is just information about something. A “truth” is something more and it comes about through interpretation. So in that sense, I would agree that the “fact” alone is not and could never be the “ground” of truth. We all inhabit the same physical universe, right? Of course that is where we start, but the “ground” of truth is the narratives we inhabit. Obviously- those are different and why we come to different conclusions. So we all do this, not just those having a mystical vision of some sort.

    Think about all the differences and schools of thought even within science. And then consider economics, public policy, political science, or any area you wish to name. We are all looking at the same facts and evidence. So it would be interesting to see how long someone can say, “I just consider what we can know empirically and I abstain on anything contested.” Wow, what is not contested but the most mundane and irrelevant data?

    But as your quote implies, I think I would agree that each one us has a world-view that operates much the same way as far as- “…they…lead to a radical questioning of the way things are, that is, the world is relativized in light of an all-encompassing truth.” I don’t think we need a mystical vision to see this- I just think one needs to be open. I think it is summed up perfectly by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

    “Earth's crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”


  15. Burk Braun says:

    Thanks, Darrell-

    Well, it is just very hard to see where Bernard in this case has some all-encompassing truth through which he is seeing the world. He may have a limited view, but if none of these other views call the empirical world into question, then his limited view seems very much a common denominator of what the rest of us start from.

    It is true that fields like economics remain contested despite putatively working from data and being empirical. But that is because it is a social field with all the attendent subjectivity, historicity, and chaos. Fields working in more truly or more dryly empirical realm, like cosmology, have a much clearer demarcation between what is known and agreed upon, and what is speculative & contested. And that is where many of the questions (or shall we say answers) of theism reside, I think- like what causes everything, what our minds consist of, etc. Bernard isn't even trying to address social issues of what (should) give other people's lives meaning, but simply tries to avoid taking on philosophical & scientific speculations as if they were facts or beliefs.

    Where is that some kind of contestable narrative, rather than a wish on your part for more robust speculation or agreement in your forms of speculation? It may be confining its “belief” to the most mundane and irrelevant data, but what is wrong with that? It still seems to allow speculation and “play” in other realms, however speculative, though perhaps without the frisson of commitment.


  16. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    We all have a worldview that is a “framework or set of fundamental beliefs” about the physical world and how we should interpret it, so such would encircles all those thing we believe as an “all-encompassing truth.” Bernard has one, you have one, we all have one. I don’t think Bernard disputes that. And again, none of our worldviews call the empirical world into question. They interpret that world. And, as I said, yes, we all start there.

    “Fields working in more truly or more dryly empirical realm, like cosmology, have a much clearer demarcation between what is known and agreed upon, and what is speculative & contested.

    No one disputes this. But it doesn't change the fact that in the most important and critical areas and questions, we do have contested theories. Is one an agnostic in these cases? I think we were already told that we are “boots in” in these areas. So how does that work? And Burk, beyond the bare areas of methodological naturalism, every scientific journal is a hotbed of contested issues/theories, whether metaphysical or otherwise. That is why there are many “schools of thought” in every science and every area of knowledge.

    “Bernard isn't even trying to address social issues of what (should) give other people's lives meaning, but simply tries to avoid taking on philosophical & scientific speculations as if they were facts or beliefs.”

    But that is the very heart of the dispute so that would be begging the question. If there is no fact/value distinction or faith/reason dichotomy, then there is no reason for the restriction to begin with. And I think on my blog and Eric's a wide variety of issues have been discussed, so I think there have been comments over meaning in people's lives and other such areas.

    But look, I don’t want to get side-tracked here. I just think the idea that we can abstain from every contested metaphysical concept is naïve at best.

    Part of his worldview is a line of reasoning that goes, “The link to agnosticism is that the agnostic seeks to restrict their beliefs to just these cases.”

    In my mind this is empiricism. Thus, his worldview’s epistemological frame of reference is empiricism. This doesn't mean he is saying that there is no spiritual or transcendental component to existence; it simply bars him from commenting, other than in a speculative way, upon metaphysical matters. In my mind however, the bar is faith based and required by neither logic nor deduction. It is simply one way of interpreting the world but it is ultimately a faith based choice to interpret it that way.

    So we will have to agree to disagree here. I think I've made my case and I really don’t have more to say about it. This is all repetition now. Unless it is something that has not been raised already and addressed (whether you feel I've done it adequately or not), I'm done for now.


  17. Darrell says:

    I should add that you guys should feel free to keep talking, I don't want to shut down the conversation. I just really am repeating myself at this point, which is boring even to me!


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