Friday, July 10, 2015

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.


  1. The heavens declare the glory of God;
    and the firmament His handiwork.
    (Psalms 19:1)

  2. Thank you for coming.

    The firmament was an ancient concept of the sky as a dome (or several domes) above the earth that held the stars in place. This concept has been thoroughly debunked by science.

    It would be fair to say that as we gain an ever-better understanding of nature, we see that there is beauty and there is pitiless indifference. As we learn to love our mothers in infancy, we also learn to love the world that nurtures us. It is not surprising, then, that we can see the beauty of nature while overlooking the ugly. Still, there is plenty in nature that would be difficult to ascribe to a loving, benevolent God.

    An objective view of the evidence requires that we don't overlook that parts that tell a different story from the one that we hope is true.

    I welcome your further comments.

  3. Back at Victor's echo chamber, Bob gives quotes from astrophysicist Arthur Eddington:

    "The scientific answer is relevant only so far as concerns the sense-impressions. For the rest the human spirit must turn to the unseen world to which it itself belongs."

    Bob: "//Hmm... It appears that Sir Arthur had more than one tool in his toolbox.//"

    This is, of course the usual blather we hear from theists all the time. They spout their religious beliefs as if they were objective truth, and pretend they know something the rest of us don't. Eddington didn't employ any powerful epistemological tools in reaching his conclusions about the nature of mind. He simply reached into his bag of superstition and religious dogma, and pulled out the same old delusions that theists always do. Had he lived a century later, he might have seen that science has much better means of understanding mind. Bob, on the other hand, doesn't have that excuse. He just clings to his religious delusions, unable to distinguish his fantasy from objective reality, and unwilling to even consider that he might be confined inside his little theistic epistemological toolbox.

    To use his own illustration, trying to build an edifice of knowledge is bound to fail if you restrict yourself to a set of tools that isn't adequate for the task. And while he may think that he also has empirical knowledge in his toolbox, the fact is that everything he believes is strained through the filter of his religious delusions, so that any objective reality has been purged.

    1. Thus says the man who stubbornly insists on keeping only a single tool in his toolbox.

      Are you that blind to how prejudicial your comments sound? Just look at the loaded wording. "the usual blather ... They spout ... pretend ... bag of superstition and religious dogma ... same old delusions that theists always do". Sounds awfully like someone who has jumped to conclusions prior to giving a fair hearing to the case before him. You've got your set opinions and nothing, it seems, can shake your prejudged verdict.

      Had [Eddington] lived a century later

      I just googled him, and were that the case, he'd be alive today and wouldn't die until 2044! Surely you're not trying to say that no scientist today is a believing Christian! That is easily disproven.

      confined inside his little theistic epistemological toolbox

      You appear to have things precisely backwards. After all, you're the one with only one tool. Doesn't that make your toolbox the "little" one?

    2. "Are you that blind to how prejudicial your comments sound?"

      - No. I understand that to you it sounds very prejudicial, because it disagrees with your worldview. To me it sounds like someone who has examined the evidence, looked at both sides, and then changed his mind. By the way, are you that blind to how prejudicial your comments sound?

      "You've got your set opinions and nothing, it seems, can shake your prejudged verdict."

      - Thus says the man who stubbornly insists on keeping only a religious worldview despite all the available information and logic that soundly thrashes that fantasy. Who's mind can't be changed? Show me some good evidence, and I'll change my mind. You can't say the same.

      "you're the one with only one tool"

      - You should read my post about scientism. But even if it were true that people like me have only a single tool, It's still better to have a single tool that works than a whole chest full of tools that are not right for the job. Bob's toolbox is full of all the things he needs to sustain his religious belief, and none of the things that will help him distinguish that belief from reality.