Showing posts with label knowledge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label knowledge. Show all posts

Monday, December 12, 2022

It’s Iimi! One in One or Zero in One

Machen and Otios enlist math teacher Paul Gehr to challenge Iimi. When he appeals to probability about extraterrestrial life and casts doubt about religion, Iimi must show why she thinks that the real question of probability is… One in One or Zero in One

Post-Comic Notes: Like Iimi in the comic, I’m agnostic on the topic of extraterrestrial life. We won’t know if it exists unless we encounter it. We won’t know it doesn’t exist unless we search every possible place that such life could exist. I’m unaware of any Church teaching on the subject. I can only say that if it does exist, it is from God, not chance. The title of the comic reflects my formulation that, if God willed to create extraterrestrial life, then it exists (a 1/1 “chance”). If He did not will to create extraterrestrial life, then it does not exist (0/1 “chance”).


One thing I’ve noticed on this: Neither the Creationists nor the Atheists I’ve encountered like this theory. The Creationists I’ve met think like Saul. The atheists I’ve met dislike the fact that my view doesn’t exclude God from the universe.

Friday, January 25, 2019

A Little Knowledge is Dangerous

After New York passed its barbaric abortion law, Catholic Social Media attacked Cardinal Dolan for not excommunicating Cuomo. There were two problems with this. First, it’s not Cardinal Dolan, but the bishop of Albany (Bishop Scharfenberger) who has jurisdiction over Cuomo. Second, Excommunication for abortion is for those involved in the act of procuring [brings about, achieves] abortion. Canon 1398 states 

person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication.

When it comes to the Catholic politicians that legalize abortion, the proper canon is 915:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

In most cases, the individual is told by the bishop not to present themselves for Communion and the appropriate pastors are notified. Usually this is done privately. In rare cases (e.g. Sibelius, during the Obama administration), this is made public.

So, the attacks on the Cardinal Dolan were doubly wrong. First, because they demanded action from someone who could not perform it. Second, the action demanded was not the action that the Church applies. All excommunications involve grave sin, but not all grave sins have the penalty of excommunication. The bishops cannot arbitrarily go beyond the penalty set. This is a safeguard against abuse of power. Otherwise a bishop could excommunicate someone for any minor irritation.

This incident is an example of one problem in the Church. Many people do not know how the Church governs herself. The Church is not a tyranny (rule by the whim of one with dictatorial powers). She is governed by canon law which lists rights, responsibilities, and procedures. The Pope can amend canon law when needed (it is a human law, after all) to serve justice, but he doesn’t do so arbitrarily.

So, it is unreasonable for a Catholic to get angry with a bishop when the bishop doesn’t have the authority to do something through jurisdiction or the obligations of law.

So, the Catholic must ask whether he or she understands how the Church handles things in general and whether he or she has all the information needed to correctly judge what is going on. If the Catholic does not, he or she has no right to condemn the bishop.

If, however, a Catholic should do the required study, and remain concerned that wrong is being done, he or she has an obligation to convey that concern properly. As Canon 212 §3 puts it:

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

Even if you’re concerned that a bishop made a “bad call,” you have the obligation to be reverent and respectful. That means no snide comments about “backbone” or insults. The bishops are successors to the Apostles and must be treated as such.

This is an example of why the adage, “a little knowledge is dangerous,” is true. A person ignorant of what the Church requires, accusing the Pope or bishop of doing wrong, is risking committing schismatic or heretical behavior because they don’t understand the responsibility and obligations of their office. They are effectively picking a needless “hill to die on.”

Understanding what the Church does and why is essential for assessing the actions of the Pope and bishops. Without that knowledge, those clamoring for “justice” are merely committing rash judgment.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Not Knowing We Don’t Know

Socrates, in his Apologia, discussed ignorance and wisdom. He was not a skeptic who believed we knew nothing (as some portray). Instead, he recognized that it was better to be aware that one was ignorant than to be ignorant and think one knew the truth about something. The former could be educated by seeking out the truth to learn what was ignorant about. The latter, thinking he knew something when he did not, would never search for the truth, instead remaining locked into his uninformed views.

This is not something limited to one faction or one area of knowledge. One can be conservative, liberal, or moderate. One can be ignorant on religion, philosophy, law, science, or any number of technical subjects. Both a theist and an atheist can be ignorant on a subject. But the wiser man knows his lack. The fool gets into arguments over things he knows nothing about.

Wisdom should not be confused with intelligence or education. A brilliant scientist who gets into arguments about a field he knows little about is still a fool next to a man with little education but enough wisdom to know what is beyond his knowledge.

I think of this as I watch the various religious and political disputes Americans go through today. We are tempted to think that what we don’t know is not worth knowing, and that we can interpret for ourselves what we read—even if we don’t know anything on the topic or the context of what is said. We fill in the blanks with unfounded suspicions and imagine vast conspiracies where people who don’t agree with us are conspiring to damage our Church or our nation. 

I should note that I don’t write this to demand a meritocracy where only those deemed the wisest be allowed to speak. Instead, I think we would be better off if we asked ourselves whether things really were as we thought them to be. Instead of arguing that a member of the Church should have known something, therefore he must be guilty of coverup (or plausible deniability). Instead of arguing about a coming “invasion” of refugees traveling through Mexico, we could ask ourselves how much we actually know about their motivations and intentions.

Being wise about not knowing something should require us to ask questions on a subject? How many people bashing Islam actually know the difference between teaching and culture, or how interpretation of the Quran varies from sect to sect and country to country? How many people realize that the “evils of Catholicism” they rail against were never taught by the Catholic Church? A wise man asks, “Is what I heard true? Or is it just a rumor?” If it is a rumor, then one has the obligation to determine if it is true. If it is not true, then we have an obligation to stop treating it as if it was true. That’s the minimum. It would be wiser to learn what is true about the topic and to share that truth.

I believe that’s part of Our Lord’s commandment in Matthew 7:1 on not judging. We cannot judge one’s moral guilt without knowing the circumstances behind an act. For example, Pope Francis, in Amoris Lætitia, pointed out that before we treat a divorced and remarried person as being in a state of mortal sin, we must ask ourselves whether that person met all the conditions of mortal sin. Nobody’s debating the grave matter. The question is whether the individual had the sufficient knowledge and consent required to make a sin mortal. Unfortunately, people who do not understand this misinterpret it as a “come if you feel called” opening of the Eucharist.

I also think this is relevant to our sexual abuse scandals. Many people are arguing whether the existence of a highly placed Churchman who did evil indicts everybody whom he happened to know. People assume that any complaint made is automatically forwarded to the Pope who knows everything about the incident. Nobody asks whether complaints get redirected, misplaced, or even quashed before it reaches the Pope. Nobody asks whether the information that arrives in Rome is enough to act on.

It’s one thing to say “If X happened, then Y should happen unless other information would make Y unjust.” It’s quite another thing to say “X happened, so unless Y happens, the Pope is evil!” Do we know X happened? Do we know the conditions of X? Do we know Y is a just response for the circumstances surrounding X? That’s where the wise man realizes he is ignorant and tries to learn about X and Y. Sometimes, finding out about X and Y will go beyond our abilities—especially if the information is not available. But in that case, the wise man does not make unfounded statements about X and Y. Instead he learns what he can and does not go further than his knowledge allows.

But if we don’t do that, we’re simply fools, rashly judging things we do not know, but think we do.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Knowledge and Understanding

[H]e would answer: ‘My good friend, he who would be a harmonist must certainly know this [i.e. how to pitch the highest and lowest note], and yet he may understand nothing of harmony if he has not got beyond your stage of knowledge, for you only know the preliminaries of harmony and not harmony itself.’


Plato, Phaedrus. The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 1 (New York; London: Macmillan and Co., 1892), 477.

A common problem for our times is thinking that because we have some knowledge on a subject, we are qualified to pass judgment on that subject and those who have authority on that subject. The problem is, this is false. A little knowledge of First Aid does not make one qualified to serve as a surgeon. A little knowledge on changing an oil filter does not make one qualified to serve as an auto mechanic. Likewise a little knowledge in theology does not make one qualified to be a theologian. Yes, the surgeon needs that knowledge of First Aid. The mechanic needs that knowledge of changing the oil filter, and the theologian needs that basic knowledge found in the Baltimore Catechism. But, to be qualified in their field, the surgeon, the auto mechanic, and the theologian need to know much more than that.

As the dissenting Catholics (whether radical traditionalist or “Spirit of Vatican II”) grow more defiant against the Church teachings they dislike, we see more clearly their deficient knowledge that leads them to false conclusions. Compassion for the sinner was also taught before Vatican II, while moral obligations were also taught after. Yet the dissenter insists that the Church was/is defective for not teaching those things. But their criticism is based on gaps in their knowledge, while assuming they know enough.

The Saints, the Popes, the Councils, the Theologians have written a great deal on our Catholic faith over the almost 2000 years our Church has existed. One individual Catholic cannot hope to read it all. So, it is not surprising that a Catholic will discover something unfamiliar to them. It may even seem excessive or deficient based on their own experience [†]. But we have to recognize that what seems strange or false to us might actually be due to deficiencies in our knowledge. This is why it is dangerous to quote mine Scripture or Church documents in order to declare something the critic dislikes as being contrary to God’s will or Church teaching. Certainly individuals in the Church can and do go against these things, but it does not follow from the fact that sin exists in the Church that those with the authority to teach are teaching error.

I would say this error revolves around making the wrong choice on how to look at things:

  1. What could the Church mean by this?
  2. What else could the Church mean but this?
The first choice says, “I don’t know what the Church, Pope, Bishop, Council is saying here.” The second is refusing to consider any possible interpretation than the one the critic has drawn. The problem is, if that interpretation is wrong, the conclusion will be as well. Before we conclude that something taught by an authoritative source in the Church is in error, we have to make sure we properly interpret what the person says, and properly understand what the Church teaches on the subject. If we focus on only the absolute teaching while ignoring the circumstances that may reduce culpability, or if we only focus on circumstances without the absolute teaching, we will miss the point that leads the Church to apply teaching one way in one circumstance, and a different way in a different circumstance—without denying either the moral obligations or the personal culpability.
So, when the Pope talks about the divorced and remarried, calling for bishops to investigate the culpability of individuals, he is not denying the Church teaching that divorce and remarriage is wrong. He’s talking about assessing where this specific individual stands in terms of culpability, using that assessment to help that individual reconcile with the Church. The critic who thinks that this means ignoring past teaching is overlooking the long held teaching of the Church on the necessary conditions for mortal sin—grave matter, knowledge, and consent. Grave matter is usually straightforward. Determining what the person knew and whether they consented to what they properly understood to be evil is more difficult. If a person got themselves into a grave sin through deficient knowledge or consent, they may have difficulty extracting themselves from their sin. That’s what the confessor needs to evaluate. Is the person trapped in a sin where they did not realize the gravity of their act when they first began?
If they did not, then they may not be guilty of a mortal sin, even though they are committing a grave sin. That’s a nuance of Catholic moral theology for confessors to determine culpability. It’s not something Pope Francis or Vatican II invented, and it’s not something that lets sinners go on sinning with permission. It’s something aimed at helping such people escape their sin at a pace they can endure. Can it be abused? Yes, but that can be said about any Church teaching that deals with individual cases. An individual priest, for example, might be too lenient out of pity or too rigid out of legalism. Or a member of the laity might resent being told they are at odds with the Church. But this hypothetical priest does not make Church teaching and practice wrong. Nor does the perceptions of the individual member of the laity mean that the properly applied teaching is unjust.
The point is, before we accuse the Pope, bishop, or Council of teaching error, we need to make sure we understand what they actually said and the intention in saying it. We also need to make sure we understand the Church teaching we contrast it with. Because if we are mistaken about either (or both), our accusations would be unjust. I think this is one of the major problems leading to our growing disobedience from those who claim to be “true Catholics” or “true Christians” while being in opposition to the Church.


[†] Examples might include St. Louis de Montfort, whose writings on the Blessed Virgin Mary can seem to go too far for some, or some medieval teachings on keeping order in society might seem to be deficient in mercy. In both cases, we need to know the context.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reflections on Faith and Suffering in the Book of Job

Of all the books in the Old Testament, I believe the Book of Job is my favorite. It details the struggles of a person to make sense out of suffering—in fact the destruction of everything Job found dear--and his faith in God.

The basic synopsis of the Book can be summed up as follows:

The devil claims that Job is only a faithful follower because he is materially blessed. God permits the devil to afflict Job, first by destroying his property, then his family, then his health. His friends (and with friends like these, who needs enemies?) assume that Job is suffering because he sinned and he needs to repent. Job knows he did not sin, but feels betrayed by how he is treated when he tried to live a holy life. Finally God shows up in the middle of the debate and demonstrates that both Job and his friends are operating from false premises which lead them to false conclusions. God then restores to Job the blessings he lost.

The premises used in the Book of Job run as follows.

Job's detractors, wanting to defend the goodness of God, reasoned:

  • God punishes the guilty
  • You're being punished
  • Therefore, you're guilty

Job's counter argument, wanting to emphasize his innocence, was:

  • God is afflicting me
  • I don't deserve it
  • Therefore God is not treating me as I deserve, and I want to know why

Both of these seem to be irreconcilable. If Job speaks the truth, then his detractor's premises must be false. If his detractors speak the truth then Job's premises must be false. Up to this point, we're left with a dilemma. Either Job is a bad man or God is not just. That's where the opponents of Christianity smirk. "Well, which is it?" they ask.

God's response shows both Job and his detractors have missed the point:

  • You cannot judge what is beyond your ability to understand
  • What I do is beyond your ability to understand
  • Therefore, you cannot judge what I do.

Job's detractors argued under the assumption that they had all the facts in concluding Job was guilty. Job's also argued under the assumption that he had all the facts, that because he did not behave in a way that deserved these acts as a punishment, he should not be experiencing these acts. God's response was to show how both ways of thinking were wrong.

But, this way of thinking is not a product of ancient times. Many people undergo loss and suffering. When they do face this suffering, some ask "Where is God in all of this? Why did He let this happen?" Because they cannot find an answer, some begin to doubt some aspect of God . . . or even whether He exists.

The common lament is, "If God exists/is all powerful/is good, how can He allow X to happen?"

That's probably why a common modern approach to God argues that, to avoid contradiction, we have to admit that God has one of the following weaknesses:

  1. God is not all powerful
  2. God is not all knowing
  3. God is not all good

Some argue this way to try to justify dissent. Others to justify their unbelief. But when one reads Job, it becomes clear that God is All powerful, all knowing and all good. However, WE are not. Therefore, to accuse God of one of those charges reflects the false belief that finite human reason is sufficient and anything outside of what we can understand is unjust.

But when we think this way, we are actually thinking "If I were God, I would stop this!" The problem is, we are not God. We do not have all the knowledge required to truthfully say this way is better than how God handled it! That brings us back to God's response to Job. We can't judge what we don't understand. That's where Faith comes in. If we believe God is all knowing, all powerful and perfectly good, then when some misfortune strikes, we have to trust that God is not acting out of negligence . . . even if we don't understand why He permits some things to happen.

God, being all knowing, all powerful and all good knows all the ramifications of His choosing to act or not to act. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:

272 Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.”

I think this is important to remember. On Good Friday, the friends and family of Jesus were no doubt thinking, "How could God allow this to happen?" But the fact of the matter is, this happened for us and our salvation even though people present at that moment in time could not realize this.

It is important for all of us to remember this when we suffer a hardship, or lose a loved one. Jesus suffered on the cross and died for us. Suffering is not necessarily a sign of punishment. It is certainly not a sign of God's absence or weakness. When we face suffering and loss, we must remember God is still in control and He does love us. We must not assume we know all there is to know and turn away from God in our pain and grief.

Monday, September 3, 2012

TFTD: Damnant quod non intellegunt (They condemn what they do not understand)


Dammant quod non intelligunt – They condemn what they do not understand.  These words of wisdom by Cicero are important to consider when witnessing the modern American political discourse.  All too often we see rhetoric which condemns a position while that condemnation demonstrates no comprehension of what they oppose.

A couple of days ago, someone posted the following comment on Facebook.

"[A]ll of us need to put a stop to the 'Republican WAR ON WOMEN'. I can NOT, I am mean [sic] I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican."

Which made me think of a comment made by GK Chesterton:

"It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

—G.K. Chesterton in The Catholic Church and Conversion

I think this points out the dangers of the ideology being forced on us today.  The people who cannot comprehend why we believe what we do respond by ad hominem attacks condemning those they disagree with. 

GK Chesterton wrote once, in the article, The Drift from Domesticity:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

I think it is a valid point.  I can understand why a Blue Collar Catholic or a Feminist might support the platform of the Democratic Party.  I believe their reasoning is faulty and leads them to a wrong conclusion, but I do understand the point their reasoning comes from.  I can also understand why certain Conservatives might be tempted by the Ayn Rand concept of Objectivism (a wrong turn in the concept of objective truth), even though I believe it is also wrong.  It is by understanding what they do think, I can also understand where they go wrong.

But when someone who opposes the Republican platform says, "I can not understand why ANY woman would be a republican," shouldn't such a person step back and ponder the issue before condemning it?  How do they know their knowledge contains all truth and no part of untruth?

Essentially this mindset argues that (to put it in a valid form):

  1. Everything I understand is true (All A is B)
  2. I do not understand [X] (No C is B)
  3. Therefore [X] is not true. (Therefore No C is A)

Even if the major premise is true (doubtful), that does not mean Everything that is true I understand (all [B] is [A]).  There can be gaps in the knowledge, and if there are gaps, there can be things which are true and you do not understand.  So it is foolish to think that because you do not see a reason a thing can be so, it follows that it cannot be so.

One can say, "I understand what they claim, but reject it as false."  One can say, "I do not understand, and so I need to explore more."  One can say, "I understand what is claimed and I accept it as true."  These three responses can be wise.  But to say, "I do not understand, so I think it is wrong" is not the act of wisdom, but the act of a fool.

This is one of the problems of modern thinking.  Nobody seems to recognize Socrates' maxim, The unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, Apology 38a), which is a pity  Responding to the question at his trial as to why he cannot just be quiet and stop teaching to save his life, he says:

Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; [38a] and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less.

Plato. (1966). Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1 translated by Harold North Fowler; Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

In other words, Socrates believed he was obligated to continue to examine himself and others as the greatest good to man, and the life which failed to do so was not worth living – not an endorsement of suicide but a commentary on the quality of life of the person who does not do so.  All of us are called to search for the truth and to absorb it into our lives. 

To refuse to accept truth and to refuse to reject error on the grounds of not understanding, is foolishness.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No Swans are Black: Reflections on Agnosticism

"No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong."

—Attributed to Albert Einstein


I have encountered several types of agnostics who range in opinion from claiming we can know nothing at all to those who deny we can know religious knowledge.  The agnostic differs from the atheist in the sense that atheists claim to know there is no God while the agnostic claims that nobody can know whether there is a God or not.  (Some atheists tend towards agnostic arguments, saying that one cannot know one way or another, but it is more reasonable to assume not).

However, while agnostics do differ in what they claim to be unknowable, they do have one thing in common.  Whatever they claim is unknowable, they effectively claim to know where this boundary line is.  It is a claim to know we can't know.  The problem is, once the claim is given "We know," one can ask the reasons "how does one know?"

Ipse Dixit

Now at the level of total agnosticism ("We can't know anything"). such a claim is a self-contradiction.  At lesser levels of denial, we have a right to ask what sort of "proof" is desired and whether such a demand is reasonable.  For example, to demand physical proof of something which is not made of matter is unreasonable.  For example: think of your eye color.  Now physically prove that thought exists in a way which does not involve ipse dixit.

I do not ask this question out of mere argument.  Just as unbelievers ask Christians for "proof" about our faith, we do have the right to ask for their justification to claim we can definitively know some things cannot be known.  Moreover, if one insists on limiting proof to certain areas, we can ask them to practice what they preach and limit themselves to the same areas.

There is a difference however between the one who says "I do not know" and the person who says "This cannot be known."  The former still searches for knowledge.  The latter has stopped searching, claiming to know further searching is futile.

Limitation of Individual Knowledge is not an Absolute Limit to Knowledge

Unfortunately, this kind of knowledge is not an acknowledgement of the limitation of the knowledge of all persons.  It is based on the limitation of knowledge by an individual with the claim that because one person has a limitation of knowledge, no person can ever know what this individual does not.  It does not consider the possibility of personal deficiency of knowledge for example.  It does not consider the possibility of misunderstanding what another claims to experience.


It is essentially the old claim of "No swans are black."  Prior to their discovery in the 17th century, Europeans thought they did not exist.  So the assumption was:

  1. Nothing in the Past demonstrates Black Swans exist.
  2. Therefore we cannot know black swans exist.

The problem is: our lack of knowledge does not mean that nobody can know they exist.  If we see a white swan, it is reasonable to say "This swan is not black."  It is not reasonable to say either "no black swans exist" or "we cannot know that black swans exist."  Such an assertion is limited by geography and experience.  In fact, once black swans were discovered, it was no longer reasonable to deny that black swans existed or to claim that knowledge of black swans could not be known

So to base the possibility to know based on what has been known in the past is to make an assertion which is necessary limited, and if it is too limited, cannot be considered reliable.

This is why just because one, two, ten, a hundred claims to knowledge does not satisfy a person as being adequate, it does not follow that no claims to know are true or can be known.


The difference between agnosticism and saying "I do not know" is a difference between making a declaration of knowledge in general and one who admits one's own deficiency.  The Agnostic says "I cannot know… and neither can you!"  The person who says "I do not know" but does not assume his lack of knowledge is shared by all.

Of course not all agnostics are arrogant.  Some are sincere, but become frustrated by their lack of progress and can end up saying "I tried, I can't get anywhere.  It can't be known."  (Former atheist Jennifer Fulwiler describes hitting this wall in her testimony).  To such a person, I would hope to encourage by saying that just because one hits a wall does not mean there is no way around it.  I won't claim it is easy to find the answers, and I know it can be frustrating not to have an answer one can understand.

However, the ultimate defeat comes not from not knowing but from giving up and stopping the search all together.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chronological Snobbery


Definition of Snob:

a person who has an exaggerated respect for high social position or wealth and who looks down on those regarded as socially inferior.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2004). Concise Oxford English dictionary (11th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

There is a tendency in modern times to look at the past with disdain, and to assume that something of the past is of no value simply because of the age of the observation.  CS Lewis describes this in his book, Surprised by Joy, when he says:

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also "a period," and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (p207-208)

The Effective Assumptions of Chronological Snobbery

The argument of Chronological Snobbery tends to run as follows:

  1. It is argued that A implies B.
  2. A implies B is an old argument, dating back to the times when people also believed C.
  3. C is clearly false.
  4. Therefore, A does not imply B.

Because we have an exaggerated respect for the scientific data we know today, we look down on people from earlier periods of time as being mentally inferior.  I suppose many might believe this today, but I'd suspect Socrates and St. Thomas Aquinas probably had superior intellects to most people who disdain them today.  They might not have known the scientific data of today, but there is no doubt that had they lived today, this modern data would have deepened their arguments, not led them to hold the opposite of what they held when alive.

Of course this brings us to the major problem of Chronological Snobbery: The disdaining of the belief in God and in miracles based on our incrementally increased knowledge over the past

Scientific Data and Truth

Chronological Snobbery assumes, that because we have more scientific data available today (due to the advances in the past), it means the society which did not have access to the scientific data we have now were basically "dumb as rocks" and whatever they claimed to have observed could not be true, especially if they spoke of a Theophany, or of an action by God, it must have been an event which had a natural cause, and the ancients did not know it.

However, we need to recognize that something that is true today could be known in the past, even if it was known with less detail.  The fact that ancients believed some things we obviously know to be false now does not indicate everything they believed was false.  The ancient world may have believed in Geocentrism for example, but that belief did not make untrue the other things which they held, such as Geometry.

In other words, just because ancients did not know some things were true, does not mean they had no knowledge of truth.  The claim that it did is essentially Scientism, holding that only that which can be established scientifically, ignoring all other forms of knowledge.  (The paradox of scientism is that one cannot establish it scientifically).

An Reductio ad absurdum for Chronological Snobbery

Let's envision a time in the 23rd century, where society has changed, and the world is a meritocracy.  Those with genetic advantages in the mental field are given positions of authority and power.  Those who lack are relegated to doing menial jobs, essentially the property of those who have.  Now, lets assume that a person comes forward, and brings up writings against slavery from the 19th century as showing arguments as to why the current system ought not to be tolerated.

Would it be valid to negate his arguments on the grounds that "people back in the 20th century believed [X], therefore they had no idea what they were talking about on slavery"?

Chronological Snobbery Today

Yet, that is what passes for argument today.

  1. Medieval People believed in God and Miracles (Medieval people believed [A])
  2. They also believed in Bleeding as a medical practice (They also believed [B])
  3. They were wrong on Bleeding (They were wrong on [B])
  4. Therefore they were wrong on God and Miracles (Therefore they were wrong on [A])

The problem, of course, is that Medieval people being wrong on [B] has no bearing on whether they were wrong on [A].

A Variant of this Error: The Ancients "Didn't Know" About Natural Phenomenon

Because of this assumption, we often assume (as I said in the beginning) that ancient peoples were "dumb as rocks" about natural phenomena, and assumed natural phenomena were the acts of gods.  In modern times, we assume that because there is a natural cause for these things, the belief in gods must be attributing a supernatural cause to the natural.  However, the ancient Christian author Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), in his Stromata, wrote on superstitions over "ill omens" this way:

It was a clever remark of Antiphon, who (when one regarded it as an ill omen that the sow had eaten her pigs), on seeing her emaciated through the niggardliness of the person that kept her, said, Congratulate yourself on the omen that, being so hungry, she did not eat your own children.

“And what wonder is it,” says Bion, “if the mouse, finding nothing to eat, gnaws the bag? ”For it were wonderful if (as Arcesilaus argued in fun) “the bag had eaten the mouse.”

Diogenes accordingly remarked well to one who wondered at finding a serpent coiled round a pestle: “Don’t wonder; for it would have been more surprising if you had seen the pestle coiled round the serpent, and the serpent straight.”

For the irrational creatures must run, and scamper, and fight, and breed, and die; and these things being natural to them, can never be unnatural to us.

Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. II : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. Fathers of the second century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) (529). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.

In other words, the educated ancients were quite aware of natural causes for things, and did not possess the superstition the modern with chronological snobbery claims all ancients held.  CS Lewis, in speaking of miracles, had written about the Virgin Birth of Christ as such:

The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people in ‘olden times’ believe in them 'because they didn't know the Laws of Nature. Thus you will hear people say "The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin. but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment's thought shows this to be nonsense and the story of the Virgin Birth Is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancée was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modem gynaecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynaecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point—that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St Joseph obviously knew that. In any sense in which it is true to say now, 'The thing is scientifically impossible,’ he would have said the same: the thing always was, and was always known to be, impossible unless the regular processes of nature were, in this particular case, being overruled or supplemented by something from beyond nature When St Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancées pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature.

The error of Chronological snobbery asserts that because they did not know in the past what we know now, they therefore knew nothing and thus attributed to supernatural causes things of nature.  But we can see this was not believed in the time of the Old Testament, as we can see in Genesis 38:24 where it says "About three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law Tamar had played the harlot and was then with child from her harlotry."  Sounds very much like knowledge of where babies came from.


Essentially, the argument from chronological snobbery is to assume that, because the ancients did not have knowledge of cells or atoms, they had no knowledge at all and therefore an appeal to an old source has no validity because of its age.  However this is not logical.  A lack of knowledge on topic [A] does not mean a lack of knowledge on topic [B].  Nor does increased knowledge in the present on topic [A]mean no knowledge in the past on topic [A].  We might have radar and other things to help us with advanced knowledge of storms, but this does not mean the ancient sailor or farmer had no knowledge of weather.

To assume that the ancients believed in God because they had no knowledge of science is false.  It is also false to assume that because an idea is old, it is untrue.  These are a priori assumptions of one who rejects belief in God or miracles (I say "or" because not all who deny miracles also deny God… we do have Modernists who reject miracles yet seem to have some sort of belief in God)

It is not the newness or age of the knowledge which is important, but whether it is true that matters.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reflections on Existence, Truth and Science

When the Christian and the Atheist debate on the existence of God, there needs to be some sort of common ground of course.  Otherwise we end up talking past each other.

I think from this assumption we need to look at what Existence and truth are.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines exist as: have objective reality or being.

It defines true as: in accordance with fact or reality.

It is with these definitions, I wish to bring to attention some considerations.

Existence and Truth In Relation to God

The atheist generally argues that God does not exist, while the Theist argues there God does exist.  Unfortunately, what is often forgotten is the fact that this debate ignores a prior consideration.  When the atheist and the Theist dies, one of them will be wrong.  If the theist is wrong, there will be no God on the other side.  However, if the atheist is wrong, there will indeed be some sort of God on the other side.

In other words, there is an objective answer which is in accordance with fact or reality regarding the existence or non-existence of God.

With this in mind, all of the arguments on one side are futile.  They may be arguments which make sense to the one who holds them, but ultimately all persons should be seeking what is true, and the greater the truth claimed, the more important it is to seek to understand it.

One commenter on a blog of mine wrote (in reference to an example of Oxygen not being discovered until the 18th century):

You've pointed out a valid gap in knowledge, but what you've filled it with is arbitrary. Oxygen existed before the 18th century, but without evidence to show that it did, it would have been foolish to believe that it did.

I think the problem with this view is that the previous view of oxidation involved a belief of a substance called "phlogiston."  We know this view is false, and contributed nothing to the truth of understanding oxygen or rust.  Moreover, science had to unlearn this in order to progress.

So despite what science of the time believed was the best theory, it was false and objectively it was an error to hold to it.

This isn't to say "Science is bunk," but rather I wish to point out that what scientists may think on a subject may be entirely wrong if they approach it from the wrong perspective.

What Science Does

The Concise OED defines Science as:

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.

I have no objections to this definition.  Now, I believe it is crucial to note what Science does study: the physical and natural world.  It stands to reason that whatever is not a part of the physical and natural world cannot be measured by science.

Because of this, science in seeking to study the existence of things can only do so in the physical and natural realm.

The Definition of God

I don't like the definition in the Concise OED as it is too vague (a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity).  The problem is it so broad it could encompass a pagan Greek concept of anthropomorphic physical beings as well as the Christian concept of God which is Spirit. 

However, we can say this, a definition of God which makes a deity a physical being could (theoretically) make that concept of a god observable by Science.  A concept of a god which is not physical cannot be measured by science.

What Science can do In Relation to the Concept of God

Science can only deal with the physical and natural realm, so it can speak of a god only to the extent that a god is physical and natural.  However, if a god exists which is not physical or natural, we need to recognize that whether or not this god does exist, science is inadequate to establish or deny this existence.

Not "God in the Gaps"

It should be understood here that this is not an argument from silence fallacy, nor a "God in the gaps" argument.  I am not saying that because science cannot speak at all on the existence of God in the Christian concept, it proves the Christian God exists.

Right now I am merely speaking on the limits of physical (scientific) knowledge.  if something cannot be observed by science, this does not mean by itself that the thing cannot exist.

Things which we can establish exist that Science cannot explain

Consider the works of Mozart.  Science can explain music as the striking of certain tones of soundwaves in a certain rhythm, but it cannot explain why the music of Mozart is considered beautiful to people of quite different cultures and geographical regions.

Science can explain the idea of brainwaves and chemical interactions involved in emotions, but it cannot explain the idea of consciousness or cogito ergo sum.

I would advise the reader here that this does not prove science is useless.  I think science is in fact a very important thing for the physical well being of humanity.  What it does do though is to establish that "one size does not fit all."

The Right Tool for the Right Job vs. Scientism

I don't use a telescope to observe microbes and I don't use a microscope to practice astronomy.  I use a telescope to study the stars and a microscope to study microbes.  The failure of the microscope to show me the stars does not mean a microscope is useless.  Nor does it mean the stars do not exist.  It means that it is the wrong tool for the job.

Likewise, science which deals with the natural and physical world cannot answer the questions which go beyond the physical world.

Scientism is defined as "the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences."

The problem with Scientism is that it insists on reducing everything to the natural and physical.  Something has to be testable to be true.  Yet if something is not natural and physical, science will not be able to have authority over it.

Of course the problem, as I pointed out earlier, one cannot determine the Scientific Method through science alone.  It is a theory which self-destructs when applied to itself.  Empirical testing cannot prove the scientific method true, so under the theory of scientism, the scientific method must be rejected.

What We Need to Remember

Again, what I have laid forth here is not an argument for the existence of God.  Rather it is a statement reminding people of what Science is and what it is intended to do, as well as remind people what truth is.  The attitude of scientism bases existence on the ability to be detected and tested scientifically.  Yet this is what needs to be proven before science can be accepted as the arbiter of all things.

This is the First Lesson

Some atheists may be wondering where are the proofs for God.  They exist, but they are not yet presented here. Before we can move on to them, we need to unlearn scientism.  Otherwise a person who applies scientism to the proofs for God will argue that these do not "prove" anything.

Once one accepts that science cannot be the judge of all things, we can go on to discussing how we can know non-physical and supernatural things.