Scientism discussed

Here [link] is a very interesting article from a biology professor on the limits of science and why scientism is false. There are a number of things that I disagree with in the paper (the author is a non-specialist, and the article highlights for me the opportunities that could arise from better integration of biology with philosophy), but also many things, including the overall gist, that I do agree with. One day I may review this article, as it provides plenty to engage with.

Watts, light, and conversation

“Conversation calls out into light what has been lodged in all the recesses and secret chambers of the soul; by occasional hints and incidents it brings old useful notions into remembrance; it unfolds and displays the hidden treasures of knowledge with which reading, observation, and study, had before furnished the mind. By mutual discourse, the soul is awakened and allured to bring forth its hoards of knowledge, and it learns how to render them most useful to mankind. A man of vast reading without conversation, is like a miser, who lives only to himself.”  Isaac Watts

The quote is from this short book / essay, which I’ve just skimmed – “The Improvement of the Mind” [Wikisource Link].  Apparently it inspired Michael Faraday to educate himself.

A cheery fellow.

Book Reviews

Over the last few days I’ve managed to read a couple of books, which has been an achievement, as it’s quite a while (perhaps 10 or more months) since I’ve  properly finished a book. I comment on these here largely for my own future benefit, in case I decide to try to work out what I think about these things in more detail.

The first was “Knowing with the Heart – Religious Experience and Belief in God”, by philosopher Roy Clouser, and the second “The Secular Trend in New Zealand” by the late historian of free-thought Jim Dakin. They both contributed to my thoughts about responding to unbelief in NZ, but other than that are not related.

Clouser’s view fits within the framework of “Reformed Epistemology” (by my reckoning), but I found it more objectionable than most of the RE material I have read, albeit with many interesting and useful insights; while I do not accept the main argument, I think there is much to learn from the book.  Over 177 pages it traverses six chapters, and I’ll summarise some of the points of interest. One point to note is the book’s style, as it is in the form of a dialogue, with the position of the author argued in the form of blocks of text interspersed with astute questions from a hypothetical interpreter. I thought the questions were generally on point, and this style of an open quest is commendable.

The first chapter argues for a particular conception of what is a “religious belief” – that is, a religious belief is one which is concerned with that which is thought to be “non-dependent”. This makes beliefs such as “materialism” essentially religious in nature, an interesting conclusion and one that I think is fair enough.

The second chapter discusses types of religious experience, and argues that most religious experiences are not weird or of a hyper-spiritual nature. Religious experience can include things such as visions and miracles, but is not restricted to such things. The core of what makes an experience “religious” is not that it is strange, but instead that it involves non-inferentially recognizing truth about the divine. I agree with the gist of this chapter as well.

The third chapter argues that there is such a thing as “self-evident knowledge”, and that it is necessary for further reasoning to take place; it is the ground required for rational argumentation. This chapter does not discuss the specific place of religious belief, and I am sympathetic to the epistemology proposed (I don’t have a compelling alternative anyway).

The fourth chapter argues that belief in God established through religious experience is in a similar situation to self-evident axioms such as “the axiom of equals” (the idea that everything is equal to itself).

The fifth chapter discusses some objections to belief in God, notably the argument from evil. Clouser argues that, in a nutshell, because God doesn’t have moral duties to us (the moral characteristics we associate with Him are not, as traditionally considered, intrinsic to His nature, but instead inhere in the relationship he has with creatures and are a result of free choices concerning His ordering of creation) He is not obliged to prevent all suffering, and we should be amazed at His choice to freely enter into relationship with fallen human beings. This is a very interesting account and response to the problem of evil (PoE), which I am not sure what to make of, but I am sympathetic to it given previous thoughts I’ve had in response to the work of Marilyn McCord-Adams.

The sixth chapter sums up and discusses what happens to those of other religions; Clouser advocates an inclusivist position, which I find untenable, although it seems probable that other views could also be made to fit with something like the epistemology he advocates.

There are a few minor quibbles I had, including his claim that faith in the New Testament is always expressed in terms of “sight”; I would argue it is often talked about as “hearing” instead. The main difficulty I have with the book is its repeated rejection of arguments for God’s existence (part and parcel of “presuppositionalist” approaches to apologetics which this proposal is related to, although often more muted in accounts within the reformed tradition, including reformed epistemology). I think this misunderstands the nature of faith and the biblical witness concerning evangelism, and it also forces Clouser to treat arguments against God’s existence less charitably than I might and/or to develop the alternative approach to the PoE sketched above. If I manage to become better informed about the epistemological issues I hope to write more about it. This book didn’t attempt to respond to the classical arguments for God’s existence (I would advocate  as reasonably strong, for instance, forms of the moral argument, cosmological argument, fine-tuning argument, and historical argument from the resurrection), it simply asserted that all such arguments fail. I am fairly sure that this, particularly in the case of historical arguments, would surprise St Paul and others from amongst the biblical authors. I am also concerned with the prioritisation of “experience”, read as the personal experience of autonomous agents; I doubt that this is a genuinely biblical approach. It is also asserted that no-one is ever converted by argument – I disagree, inasmuch as I think that arguments can often be part of the causal chain leading to people’s conversion; but even if it were true it wouldn’t follow that arguments were of no use to Christian faith.

In summary, this is a far more sophisticated account prioritising “experience” than that found in most churches today (with most churches in NZ also prioritising or elevating experience), and it has an interesting basis in some strands of Reformed thought, however while incorporating some helpful suggestions for sceptics and their Christian friends, nonetheless it has the potential to fuel concerning trends and I think it provides only one facet of what will be required in future persuasive presentations of the gospel.

That review ended up longer than hoped for, so now I will write just a sentence or two on “the secular trend in New Zealand”, a short book intended to play up the increasing role of secularism in the New Zealand populace, in politics, and particularly in education. In reading this short book I was often slightly amazed to see the strength of the opposition to secularism which has been apparent in NZ’s history; frequently it seems it has only been a small group of secularists who have opposed moves to strengthen the position of religion in NZ schools and public life. The history presented was of course rather one-sided, and the role of Christian intellectuals was ignored; perhaps I will explore this more in future. While we are not and I don’t think have ever been a “Christian nation” in the way some conservatives would like to think,  secularism of the anti-religious type has, as far as I can tell, never been particularly strong in New Zealand either. Even national secular organisations have never (according to this book) topped a roll of over approx 1250; there are, by contrast, numerous individual churches with larger weekly congregations than this number. I hope to look further into recent research on religious trends, but I am fairly hopeful, and think that if the charismatic renewal of the last few decades in NZ, along with an increased emphasis on issues of social justice, could be supported by a renewal of the life of the mind, more emphasis on sound evangelical theology, and adequate public responses to the claims of hard-core secularists, then the church would be in a good place and very much ready to fight demographic trends which are too often labelled as inevitable.


A new word for you:

eleemosynary (comparative more eleemosynarysuperlative most eleemosynary)

  1. Relating to charityalms, or almsgiving.  [quotations ▼]
  2. Given in charity or alms; having the nature of alms; as, eleemosynary assistance.  [quotations ▼]
  3. Supported by charity; as, eleemosynary poor.  [quotations ▼]



From a very interesting essay by Milton Friedman – “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”
Here.   I don’t post it as I agree with it – I’m not sure. But it is interesting to consider who bears the cost of “social responsibility” measures by businesses, and how appropriate it is for different people to bear these costs. Small businesses without many shareholders would seem to have more flexibility to pursue activities not focussed on profit. That said, I also suspect that the value of an outcome of profit is often underestimated. Profit is not always good, but it’s not bad either.

Two co-operative dilemma for churches

If I were to write a book on the NZ church, or evangelism in NZ, or such, I think I’d include a chapter along these lines. So, watch this space, perhaps. These thoughts are rough, but might be honed later; for instance I’ve merged at least a couple of economics-based thoughts together, and they could perhaps be profitably separated.

I’d need to revise basic game theory to spell this out rigorously, but it seems to me that there are somewhat distorted incentives operating in the case of local churches that may help to explain failure to act in some ways that seem to me like they would be very beneficial to evangelism. Two cases that I am particularly interested in come to mind.

The first is the large need for Christians moving from small towns to the city to connect in with a local city church – most clearly seen perhaps in the case of new uni students. Other than due to some pastoral concern for the individuals involved, there is little incentive for the home (small-town) church to be part of this connecting-up process. There are no doubt many pressures on a local minister’s time, and they can’t look after everyone to the extent that might be ideal. In many or most cases, there won’t be any direct benefit to the home church of helping a student from the provinces stay connected with their faith – for all kinds of reasons they probably won’t be going back to that town long-term; once they’ve gone to uni, whatever else happens they are most likely lost to that church.

If churches and Christians in general act in accord with this lack of incentive, then surely across the board we’ll see a widespread failure of students moving to university towns to intentionally connect up with good churches in the new city. Many will of course connect up with a church, but this is unlikely to be as intentional as it would be if there was more structured or facilitated support; I suspect the churches connected with are likely to be the largest and loudest, which seems to me to be to the loss of smaller churches everywhere. I say that this is a co-operative dilemma, as it seems to me that if there was a more common practice of facilitating the shift in churches for young people; if students were more intentionally connected in with Christian ministries in their new location,  many churches would benefit. If the numbers involved are significant, then there would presumably be benefit to small town churches in the long-term too, as some of the graduates shifting from the city will have been plugged into churches through the practice (perhaps it would be smaller city churches that would gain most of the benefit), and hence more likely to want to join the small-town congregations. i.e. if most churches did this, everyone would benefit to some extent, while if only a few churches do it they are unlikely to benefit from it.

A second possible example of a co-operative dilemma regards a particular type of evangelism; probably in fact a few different kinds that I’m combining together. I’m not sure what to call this, but some potential terms include “green field evangelism”, “sowing widely”, “preparative evangelism”, and “kicking the rocks out of the way” (thinking of the parable of the sower). I think there is little incentive, particularly for small, struggling, churches, to engage in the early stages of engaging with non-Christians with evangelistic intentions. I think particularly of apologetics, and attempts to shape the thought of society more broadly such that it is more open to Christian theism, at the institutional level of universities and government, for instance. If many Christians are engaging in the area, surely evangelistic fruit would multiply, but there is, you could say, a fixed cost in this field – because the benefits are dispersed (people may come to faith through more direct appeals further down the track, which unknowingly depend on the earlier sowing) the initial pay-offs will be small to non-existent to churches involved in the effort. If there was a concerted effort to promote the fundamentals of the Christian worldview in society however, then activities associated with later stages in an evangelistic pathway would be more fruitful across the board. It occurs to me now, that one outcome of this situation may be (again, this is based on personal experience) that things that could be considered pre-evangelism, such as social-justice initiatives are often not really oriented towards sharing the gospel in practice; we simply don’t expect that particular goal to be successful in our context, so we ignore potential future evangelistic steps rather than acting in light of them (of course social justice type initiatives have intrinsic value in themselves, but if they are able to be oriented towards the holistic good of their recipients i.e. to promote the gospel, so much the better).

To acknowledge that there is an evangelistic pathway, and that apologetics and social justice have a role to play near the beginning of it, is not, I think, to bow the knee to rationalism or any such thing, but this is something I’ll need to develop more. The Word of God should be integrated into these activities in any case, in concert with attempts to prompt the intuitions of those who do not yet trust in Christ. God is pleased to act through secondary mechanisms such as nature and conscience, and surely if we can use these we ought to, while holding that saving faith will only come by hearing and believing the Word.

It seems to me that the wider church, denominations, parachurch ministries, or things along these lines, have an important role to play in reorienting the incentives for local church ministry here, so that people can see the importance of connecting people who leave into a new church and of preparatory evangelism. I’ve only skimmed it, but this article from UCCF on the theological and historical justification for non-congregational groups of Christians working alongside the local church seems very good. [link]