Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Do religion and theism make factual claims?

Literal and metaphorical images and myths are often contrasted with each other, and we are sometimes asked to choose between them. Are the stories of the bible (with their miracles) to be taken literally, or metaphorically? Which? Tell me!  Julian Baggini recently asks these questions in the Guardian Newspaper, in his column entitled The articles of 21st-century faith. He says
Atheist critics of religion are often dismissed for dealing only with the simple, highly literal forms of belief, while ignoring more nuanced, intellectual understandings of religion. The form of this argument varies, but in general terms it rests on a rejection of the idea that religion requires belief in anthropomorphic supernatural beings. As Theo Hobson put it in an exchange with me a few years back, "a huge proportion of believers inhabit this grey area between 'literal' and 'metaphorical' belief – in a sense all believers do.
He wants to know whether religious people choose between a metaphorical interpretation of religion, the first bullet of which is:
M1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant. 
Alternatively, the choice is to take stories and miracles literally, which is to take the opposing positions:
L1. Religious creeds or factual assertions are neither secondary nor irrelevant to religion.
L2. Religious belief requires the belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth.
L3. Religions can make claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should not be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail.
L4. Human intellect and imagination are insufficient to explain the existence of religious texts.
Baggini thinks that such people would like to take these 'opposing positions', but are reluctant to admit this in public, because this exposes them to being contradicted by science. So they retreat to the metaphorical views M1-M4, which are almost devoid of content.  Baggini's immediate aim is to determine whether the fashionable atheists of today are correct in attributing positions L1-L4 to the religious believers, and hence whether they are targeting actual beliefs when they attack these from the scientific materialist & atheist point of view.

In theistic science, by contrast, our position is clear. We clearly affirm all the positions L1, L2, L4, and the first sentence of L3. And we do not retreat from them in the face of science. Instead we take science as the systematic application of reason and evidence in examining the nature of things. We therefore use science to examine things of religion, of spirituality, of mind, and even of God insofar has the Divine has effects in the world. That is our challenge in theistic science.

There are some provisos, however:

  1. We do not insist that "if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim need not prevail", because religions are also subject to investigation by theistic science, and, after sufficient investigations, not all parts of all religions will necessarily be found based on fact.
  2. We do not insist that all stories in religious scriptures are necessarily literally true. That is because some stories may be included because they are parables rather than history. Or they may be selected pieces of history put together to illustrate a spiritual truth as if history were the parable. We are not going to get into discussion about whether the stories are 'real but not true'.  Only to say that the true reference of the characters and events in the stories may be at one of the discrete levels that exist in the interior parts of our minds.

There is much to discover and to learn.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Trying to understand Spiritual Identity

Many of us feel that that our identity is not constituted by our bodily or mental processes that change many times during each day, but is formed from something more fundamental and permanent. We might call this our 'soul' or our 'spirit'. Two recent blogs have been trying to understand this in more detail. They have made partial progress progress, but are still short of a full account.

The first comes from a blog by StephenB under the topic of  'Christian Darwinism and the Evolutionary Pathway to Spirit, and has (so far) generated 59 comments. Stephen describes;
Traditional Theistic Evolution [that] acknowledges two Divine creative strategies. (1) Through a purposeful evolutionary process, God “forms” man’s material body from the bottom up, and (2) By means of a creative act, God “breathes in” an immaterial soul from the top down, joining spirit with matter
He contrasts this with 'Contemporary Christian Darwinism', but here I am more concerned with what he takes to be the better view. He elaborates:
spiritual entities such as souls, minds and faculties, are non-physical entities and contain no parts, which means that they cannot disintegrate, die, or be changed into something else. ….  If then, spirit is to be joined with matter, its origins cannot come from matter or from a material process; it must come from another source, that is, it must come directly from God, who creates spirit and implants it in a pre-existing being from the top down.
What is interesting to me about this, is how he characterizes souls as 'non-physical entities'. That is the challenge for theistic science: to describe those entities in a  realistic and scientific manner as possible. We should not rely negative descriptions such as 'non-physical, but should seek a good positive description. And our new scientific description of the soul should describe *how* the soul *operates*. It is not fruitful to describe our soul as having 'no parts', and being 'unable to change into something else'. I know he means that they do not stop being souls, but it sounds like they would have trouble changing into a newer soul. Birth, growth, and re-birth of souls almost sound like they are forbidden. He also claims that souls 'come directly from God' and are 'implanted' in our newly conceived bodies. Surely, we might have thought, no body can live without some soul -- since souls are the source of our lives. So how can we ever live before that soul was implanted? To think of bodies existing without souls, even for a short time, opens many bizarre opportunities from zombies to soul-less humans. Not only bizarre, I should think, but impossible.

The other recent blog comes from a blog by  Gregory Ganssle for the Evangelical Philosophical Society under the topic Existential Dissonance and Core Identity, especially in relation to how young people form their own spiritual identities as the result of trying to sort out cognitive dissonances between conflicting scientific, philosophical and theological viewpoints. Gregory writes:
At the heart of each person is the very deepest region of our selves. I call this region, for lack of a better term, our core identity. A person’s core identity involves the deepest sense the person has of who she is or who she longs to be. What constitutes our core identity is rarely in the forefront of our minds. Often it takes patient self-reflection and work to identify the contours of one’s core identity. 
We see again here a struggle to formulate some clear idea of our soul as the basis for our identity. However, he does not seem to have a clear idea of what this 'deepest region' is actually made of. It is clearly related to 'longing', but it cannot be just what we long to be, but what we already are, now. He sees that is related to our 'values and beliefs':
we may determine that some belief or value that functioned within our core identity ought to be revised in light of other beliefs and values. We may recognize that we have a deeply ingrained habit that we want to change. This habit may be revealed in our relationships with others or our thoughts about our own lives. Beginning such change will be difficult, in part, because we are changing against the contour of our deeper values. We have to re-habituate ourselves to inhabit a new ordering of values and beliefs.
I do not think, however, that we are constituted by what we value or believe, but by something else. One of his commenters (Marty) has put a finger on something important here:
"What we love, the proper ordering of our loves, is a critical component of spiritual formation. Our heart always follows our treasure. Always."

I think that the best explanation of our 'core identity' is  that it is our most fundamental love. It is what we love that defines who we are. Everyone loves differently, so we are all different people. This idea of love as a substance may seem strange, but I see it as an essential and fundamental part of the theistic science that we are trying to construct. 

This views also consonant with a new view of the substance of physical objects as being constituted by all their powers and dispositions. See for example my paper 'Power and Substance' at  generativescience.org.