DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Positivism (continued)

Complete dependence on logical analysis seems, however, to end up in a cul-de-sac. Carnap thought that metaphysical (ontological) assertions are not completely without sense. But the meaning relates to language, not to the observable world beyond language. Similarly, one school of Positivist philosophers in the 1930s (epitomised by A J Ayer) proposed that neither facts nor the scientific method lead to knowledge, but only language itself. That is, what we can know is limited by the efficacy of language. 

More specifically, Ayer concluded that all metaphysical statements, such as "God is omnipotent" (a central tenet of traditional Christianity), are meaningless because they contain no empirical content. But what then are we to make of such apparently scientific statements as "The surface temperature of the sun is 5770 degrees Kelvin"? We can't test that directly for its empirical content. But that doesn't ultimately matter, says Ayer. We can test it indirectly through other observations which are entailed by the statement, and which we can test directly. Similarly, for example, Einstein's Theory of Relativity remains a mere hypothesis until given empirical content - in this case as when light was recently shown to "bend" in the gravitational fields of stars as Einstein had predicted it would.

Similarly, Ayer and other Positivists would argue that most, if not all, statements of Christian doctrine are without empirical content. Take the Christian teaching about life after death and about heaven and hell as examples. The Positivist counter to such teaching is, I think, hard if not impossible to answer. It is to ask the simple question: "What evidence have you for life after death and for heaven and hell?" Going to the Bible for "evidence" only pushes the question a step further back: "What evidence have you that what the Bible says about such matters is true?" The lack of such evidence is palpable, since it is available only to the dead.

It's all very well to show the limitations of language to express truth and that certain propositions lack empirical content. For example the statement

This logical problem is red.
I dislike the colour red.
Therefore I must dislike this logical problem.

meets all of Ayer's criteria for being empirically meaningful. But it's also clearly nonsense, even though it's logically correct.

So elucidating the limitations of language doesn't mean that language is either meaningless or useless. As C Southgate and others remark, adopting the vigorous and undiscriminating application of logical positivism to language

... would condemn vast swathes of discourse as meaningless - in particular metaphysics, religion, aesthetics and ethics. [6]

By the 1950s many had begun to question the sharp and uncompromising Positivist distinctions between science and metaphysics. Quine and others contested the idea that "high-level" scientific statements can in fact be unpacked into lower-level ones, even in principle. Further, they began realising that our perceptions are "theory-laden" - by which they meant that each of us inevitably experiences the world from his or her own, unique vantage point. It could be put in this more stark form: "Any observation of x is conditioned by our prior knowledge of x and its environment." 

There is therefore no such thing as an uncontaminated scientific observation, regardless of whether or not it is called "empirical". Indeed, there is no such thing, they would maintain, as an identical perception held by two or more people. All in the last resort have to accept at least that the only valid answer to "How long is this piece of string?" is "However long I decide it is."

Thomas Kuhn elaborated this sceptical outlook in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He held most convincingly that even so-called objective scientists are confined by ruling paradigms which determine what they can make of empirical evidence. These paradigms change from time-to-time. Such changes

... cause scientists to see the world of their research-engagement differently. Insofar as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a [paradigm] revolution scientists are responding to a different world.

This insight into the relativity of perceptions has proved highly influential, despite those who have taken it to extremes in extravagant positions generally included in the broad label "postmodernism". It seems to be settling down now into a stance which acknowledges the absolute relativity of individual perceptions, but nevertheless asserts that

  1. it is possible and useful to use the scientific method to reach provisional and temporary broad consensus about the reality which is "out there" for each of us;

  2.  that conclusions reached by the scientific method are inevitably provisional because (a) new evidence may come along, (b) our perceptions may change, and (c) both may in turn change the paradigms through which scientific consensus has been reached. Indeed, an experiment may in theory yield identical conclusions when repeated a thousand times, and yet vary significantly when performed the 1 001st time or the 1 000 001st time;

  3. and that, even though we can't exactly or permanently define or describe the out-there-reality, it does exist. Aspects of it can be accurately and permanently described, but we must always recognise that such apparently "final" descriptions are partial and provisional. For example, Einstein's relativity mathematics may be superceded by new mathematics or physical data, but they nevertheless remain always true in a limited sense.

One reaction to Positivism has been the attempt of some theologians to cut free from its far-reaching influence by, in effect, asserting that the essence of Christian faith lies beyond reason. Martin Luther reacted early in this way by describing reason as "the great and mighty enemy of God" in his Commentary on Galatians

The greatest modern exponent of this line was Karl Barth (1886-1965). Although his theology in total was highly complex and changed throughout his long active life, it is fair to say that for him revelation supercedes reason, continuing where the latter fails. Faith, not reason, is ultimately the way to God. Reason can take us only some of the way. A more recent example is that of the Roman Catholic New Testament scholar John P Meier. He asserts that the gospels can and must be relentlessly examined to determine their historicity. However, some aspects of it, particularly those concerning the resurrection of Jesus from death, are beyond the scope of history.

Another Christian reaction has been to revert to what is generally called a fundamentalist position. This dismisses Positivism by proclaiming that the contents of the Bible are God's direct and unchangeable communication with humanity. Since God by definition can neither lie nor mislead us, what the Bible tells us must be accepted without reservation. Even if its contents contradict everything contained by the analytical disciplines - including the physical sciences, history, archeology, geology, anthropology, psychology and all the other modern fields of knowledge - the Bible remains the final and absolute truth. Even if analysis of its contents reveal many layers of origin and meaning, the words of the Bible are without error.

The gradual breakdown of Christian teachings in the 20th century, which continues apace in the 21st, can be largely attributed to the insights of Positivists and their more moderate successors such as Quine and Kuhn.

Whether or not the Positivist positions will stand the test of time, what is plain is that they are rapidly (in historical terms) penetrating the consciousness of humanity at large. In this respect it should perhaps be noted that certain mental constructs are remarkably resilient over great lengths of time. For example, Plato's conclusion that our experience is only a reflection or "form" of what is real and unchanging (the latter existing in what we would today call another "dimension") has already been sustained for well over 2 000 years. It is likely to continue for centuries to come.

Nevertheless, in what we today call the West the idea is already deeply embedded that (a) this world as we experience it is the only reality there is, and (b) that our constructs about it need to be "tortured" to ensure their usefulness (validity). It has taken some 300 years to reach this point. It will no doubt take another several hundred before it is similarly embedded in the minds of a majority of humanity as Plato's ideas have been. 

The Positivist philosophy as expounded by its early followers seems to have been judged too extreme by many, perhaps a majority. But it has nevertheless given considerable clarity in its modified and more moderate forms to the way in which the world is perceived by increasing numbers of people worldwide.
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[6] Truth and Reason in Science and Theology in God, Humanity and the Cosmos, T&T Clark, 1999

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