What's in Your Toolbox?
On numerous occasions, I have heard Bob Prokop boast about the diversity of his epistemological "toolbox" over at Victor Reppert's blog. Bob believes that empiricism (which he thinks is the only source of knowledge available to those who are guilty of "scientism" - see my discussion of scientism) is much too limited in scope, and that to get a full picture of "the Truth", one needs to have a full complement of epistemological tools. He says:
Naturally, no observation of phenomena within the natural universe can ever contradict correct theology. (Just as there is quack science, there is (unfortunately) quack theology. Stick with the Catholic Church, and you can't go wrong!) But that is not the only source of theological truth. Yes, we are assured by St. Paul that an honest study of the natural world will assuredly lead us to an understanding of the true nature of God. But there are other, equally valid means of arriving at such knowledge, such as revelation. Just as the good carpenter needs to make use of every tool in his toolbox, and to only use the appropriate tool for the task at hand, the serious seeker after truth requires a full toolbox, filled with empirical observation, history, literature, art, music, liturgy, revelation, personal encounters, life experience, prayer, and a Sense of Wonder to have the faintest hope of actually learning anything worthwhile. To restrict one's self to the hammer of empiricism while so much of the world is composed of screws is to guarantee failure.Why does Bob believe that observation of nature can never contradict correct theology? Because that's what his church dogma tells him. So this is the first and most important tool in the Catholic toolbox of epistemology: church dogma. It states that theology is correct, no matter what the evidence tells us. If science seems to disagree with theology, it is because the science is incorrect or the correct theology hasn't been properly interpreted. The first and most obvious implication of this dogma is that science can't ever dispute the most fundamental teachings of the church, such as the existence of God, or the resurrection of Jesus. Any such finding by science must be dismissed as "incorrect". But we know that the church claims that their theology is compatible with science, so it has to be in agreement with at least the bulk of scientific understanding.
What happened when Galileo posited that the earth orbits the sun, or when Darwin posited that mankind evolved from apes? Those ideas contradicted the accepted theology at the time, and the church fought them tooth and nail. It was only when they became indisputable scientific facts, that the church eventually gave in and changed their theology to incorporate the new scientific understandings. Today, there are still many areas of dispute between Catholic theology and science. The church maintains that the science is wrong. But eventually, they will again be forced to modify their theology, so that they can continue to claim that theology is always correct. So what is the epistemological value of "sticking with the church" and their dogma? Only that it allows you to continue to believe in things like the existence of God, and he resurrection of Jesus. For people who are more interested in understanding reality as best we can, rather than confirming and keeping their theology intact, it's better to stick with science.
Another major tool in Bob's toolbox is revelation. For the Catholic, there are two basic types of revelation: general and special. Special revelation is that which is communicated through scripture or through apostles, prophets, visions, or apparitions. General revelation is the understanding of God's creation by observation of nature, or understanding of the "natural law" of morality and human obligation by observing what God has "written in the heart".
Let's start with special revelation. If you believe what the bible says, you can believe just about anything. There are fantastic tales of miraculous events, of people rising from the dead, ancient mythology, and spiritual beings. There are also semi-historical or legendary accounts of battles, conquests, and other events from oral tradition that have been retold and embellished to the point that they no longer have any significant historical value. The truth of these tales often cannot be ascertained or can be conclusively ruled out due to contradictions with other substantial evidence-based knowledge, such as archeology or science. Other forms of special revelation may come in the form of visions or religious experiences, which are always subjective in nature, and never reveal any specific information that was not already believed by the subject. In short, there is simply very little if any epistemological value in special revelation.
But what about general revelation? Observation of nature certainly has epistemological value. It's what science is based on. It is the most important tool of the empiricist. But when it is seen as a form of revelation, it must be interpreted in accordance with theology and church dogma, and thereby it becomes a means of validating and confirming religious belief. Thus, the big bang is interpreted as the moment of God's creation of the universe rather than the beginning of a cosmic epoch. The scientist doesn't claim to know what exists beyond the bounds of our universe, but the theist does claim to know - by revelation. Similarly, natural law is viewed through the lens of theological interpretation as the revelation of God's intention rather than a naturally evolved sense of empathy that we all share. But when it comes down to specific questions of moral obligation, there is no universal agreement on what those obligations are, as would be expected if they were revealed by God. Instead we see that each person's moral values are either dictated from outside sources such as the church, or subjective and influenced by his individual life experiences. So once again, what epistemological value can we find in general revelation? We may all agree that our universe emerged from the big bang, or that killing is bad, but those things tell us nothing about God, unless we insist that they do, by virtue of revelation. In that case, they still tell us nothing that we didn't already believe.
Bob also mentions tools such as art, music, and literature. I assume that he means he can experience a feeling of joy or splendor in the aesthetic appreciation of these things. So they fall into the same category as the "Sense of Wonder", which is a kind of religious experience that might be called the sensus divinitatis, in the parlance of Alvin Plantinga. These experiences are interpreted as yet another revelation of God by people who believe in God, yet non-believers simply experience a feeling of joy or awe without interpreting it as a revelation of God. It is clear that these experiences are subjective, and offer no information or knowledge beyond what we already believe.
What we see in Bob's toolbox of epistemological tools is a clear pattern of self-delusion and confirmation bias for the theistic believer. One tool that should be present, but is conspicuously absent, is objectivity. By taking an objective view of the world and the evidence that can be found, Bob would be entering the realm of scientific investigation, and that's the last thing he wants to do. No matter how much he and his church deny that their religious beliefs are incompatible with science, the truth is that they are fundamentally at odds. Bob's epistemological toolbox is just right for the religious believer who wants to make sure that his theological beliefs never face any serious challenge from objective facts.