Explanation and Value-Free Thought
Jerry L. Sherman, Ph.D.
On the day that he died, Socrates gave the world a piece of intellectual autobiography in which he expressed his disappointment with the world view of Anaxagoras. He had expected to find "an authority on causation who was after my own heart," because he knew that Anaxagoras had written about the concept of `mind' (nous) as the source of the world's order. But he found instead that Anaxagoras was breaking matter down into its parts and calling this a causal explanation. Socrates found this absurd, for to him an explanation is about reasons and purposes, the activities of minds, and it tells us why it is GOOD that things happen as they do. Socrates had a teleological and value-laden view of explanation, what I will call "axiological." He saw in Anaxagoras the emergence of something quite opposite. It was alien to him, but he spoke prophetically about those who took this approach, saying, "They imagine that they will someday find a more mighty and immortal and all-sustaining Atlas, and they do not think that anything is really bound together by goodness or moral obligation." (Phaedo 97c-99c)
For many people today, Socrates' teleological view of explanation will seem a relic of the far past. The idea that to explain something is to say why it is good that it happened that way will sound very strange, because one must ask, For whom is it good? From whose point of view? In one sense, an event is "explained" for a person when that person is satisfied that it was justified, but that is not the scientific sense of explanation. Rather, causal explanations come out of laws that transcend persons and exist in a non-personal universe.
This modern view of causal explanations fulfills Socrates' prophetic complaint that "they"--the early scientific materialists or naturalists, we might say--will "find a more mighty and immortal and all-sustaining Atlas." They did find such an "Atlas"; this kind of thinking did become prevalent, and the world was then thought to be held together by that impersonal laws that have little to do with value judgments. From that point of view--what I will be calling "value-free scientific thought" or "naturalism"--Socrates' connection of causality and goodness can easily be marginalized as a product of ancient theism. In a nutshell, the dismissal says, Only if you need a person to explain natural events do you need a metaphysical view with personal things like value and purpose in it. But that person has been explained away."
But in this paper I want to consider how Socrates' position might be revived and applied to the current debate between naturalists and theists regarding scientific thought. There is a way to "marginalize" the value-free and naturalistic understanding of causality, too. It is not just by reverting to old-time theism (though I am a theist), but by understanding naturalism as a metaphysical position produced by the motive of technological control. It is an outgrowth of "technological consciousness" or "technicity"--a Heidegger concept. And it is a kind of nihilism.
As a Christian philosopher, I see Nietzsche and Heidegger and much of twentieth century philosophy rediscovering, of all things, sin. Technicity is a form of idolatry, a misplaced trust that produces a constructed reality that is value-free. It is parallel to religious idolatry, which is also a misplaced trust, and which produces a lifeless religious experience.
Such a diagnosis is a way of explaining away the naturalistic explaining-away of purpose and value. But so far it looks as if we just have two camps explaining each other away, as if Nietzschean perspectivism were the last word on the subject. It is equally gloomy to say that we seek to "marginalize" each other, for that emphasizes the political side of the "debate," as if intellectual resolution were impossible and the goal were to silence the other side. I am more optimistic than that, and I look for synthesis, for a larger view in which the opposing positions can be placed. I think this comes through historical understanding, and I will provide a sketch that moves in that direction. Yet I realize the project is too big to be done convincingly here. My realistic goal is directed toward theists. The critique of naturalism based on its "technicity" probably applies to us as well. We, too, may be operating partly within a world view that is a product of the human will to power, a technological motive that is not entirely innocent. If so, we may need to hear, and we may be the ones best able to hear, what Socrates said about causal explanations and goodness.
I will begin by looking more closely at Socrates' position, and then I will present the Heideggerian critique of technological consciousness. Putting that critique into historical perspective makes it appear that theists have the problem, too, and I will consider how it affects the naturalism-theism debate.
II. Explanation and the GoodThe disappointment that Socrates felt came from his expectation that Anaxagoras would use `mind' in a significant way in giving scientific explanations. He tells us:
Somehow it seemed right that mind should be the cause of everything, and I reflected that if this is so, mind in producing order sets everything in order and arranges each individual thing in the way that is best for it. Therefore if anyone wished to discover the reason why any given thingcame or ceased or continued to be, he must find out how it was best for that thing to be, or to act or be acted upon in any other way. (Phaedo 97c)
Even physical things like planetary motions, with their quantitative aspect, would be explained in this value-laden way, with reference to "in what way it is better for each of one of them to act or be acted upon as it is." (98a)
But Socrates found that Anaxagoras departed quickly from the expected program of putting mind and value judgments into natural explanations. He tells us:
It seemed to me he was just about as inconsistent as if someone were to say, The cause of everything that Socrates does is mind--and then, in trying to account for my several actions, said first that the reason why I am lyinghere now is that my body is composed of bones and sinews, and that the bones are rigid and separated at the joints, but the sinews are capable of contractions and relaxation, and form an envelope for the bones with the help of the flesh and skin . . . and since the bones move freely in their joints the sinews by relaxing and contracting enable me somehow to bend my limbs, and that is the cause of my sitting here in a bent position. (Phaedo 98c,d)
The real reason, Socrates counters, has to do with the choice of Athens to condemn him and his choice to submit to the penalty. The reason is not a description of the material conditions under which an event occurs. He says, "Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of a thing and the condition without which it could not be a cause!" (99b) These material descriptions have an intermediate role in explanations, but the cause is a "choice of what is best."
Socrates spoke about a personal decision, but this was an analogy; his statement was about causation in general and about our understanding of the cosmos. He adds, "It never entered my head that a man who asserted that the ordering of things is due to mind would offer any other explanation for them than that it is best for them to be as they are. "
Socrates objected to the inconsistency in what he read. `Mind' was a featured concept, but it turns out not to be the real basis of explanations. Anaxagoras may have, by emphasizing `mind' as a concept, succeeded mainly in extracting one element of an explanation--the teleological--in a way that would prepare for its removal. (Compare how Descartes separated mind and matter, thinking and extended substance, and set the stage for eliminative materialism, in which only extended substance exists. And Kant separated the noumenal and the phenomenal realms and helped those coming after him to set aside the noumenal. Things being put on a shelf and made special are sometimes being shelved.) If so, then what Socrates saw in Anaxagoras was the beginning of the end for `purpose' and `value' in a causal account.
Aristotle reiterated Socrates' complaint about inconsistency in a way that supports the above conjecture and is relevant to the present debate about causation. He wrote, "Anaxagoras uses reason as a deus ex machina for making the world, and when he is at a loss to tell from what cause something necessarily is, then he drags reason in, but in all other cases ascribes events to anything rather than reason." (quoted in Stumpf, p. 24) That sounds remarkably like what theists do if they fall into the "God-of-the-gaps" problem: God is needed only to get things started and cover a few weak points in the explanatory system. Such an account is very vulnerable; the "system" for which it is covering the gaps tends to expand and push God or reason out altogether.
By contrast, Socrates proposes a completely axiological form of causal explanation. To explain an event is to say why it is good that it happened as it did. Explanations cannot be expressed in purely descriptive language but require value terms. Thus explanations do not occur in the purely descriptive or value-free language of naturalism.
Can such a position be made plausible today? Can it be incorporated into the discussion between naturalists and theists about causal explanations? As I said above, I will not pretend to settle matters between theism and naturalism but will consider how this issue affects theists, especially in their communications with naturalists. This is a critique of naturalism, but I am interested in how theists may be affected by naturalism in their own thinking. The Socrates-Anaxagoras interchange raises the question, Are theists today involved in a double minded commitment to both teleological and materialistic (that is, value-free) modes of explanation? If so, is that inevitable? Can the motives of such a double commitment be understood? Is a pure commitment to axiological explanation possible?
I will address these questions through a historical and diagnostic treatment of naturalism. But first let me simplify the position being offered. Socrates' alternative to the world view he was criticizing was the theory of forms. The explanation for a thing being a certain way was that it participated in that form. A thing is beautiful because it partakes of absolute Beauty. (Phaedo 100c) Now, to almost anyone today that is a non-explanation. However, the `Form of forms', so to speak, is `the Good'. It is not so wildly implausible to say that everything that exists participates in an essence, that essences are manifestations of order, and that order is good. (cf. Augustine, The Nature of the Good) Thus in the final analysis everything that exists participates in the Good. A Platonism of this sort could be understood flexibly; for instance, it may arise from a theory of mind and the metaphysics that theory produces. But for the present discussion the point is just that Socrates asks us to not think of the world in purely descriptive, value-free language. Nothing as complex as a theory of forms is being offered, just the admonition to make explanations axiological instead of purely descriptive.
Focusing on value-free thinking will make things easier for the naturalist. Teleology and value are part of the same world view, but we all experience value. To admit value into one's metaphysics may be a step toward purpose and personality, but it is an easier step than the entire package of theism.
More importantly, a theist may have a place in his thoughts for design and purpose and still conceive nature as value-free. He will then have a patched-together system, like Anaxagoras.
Though I am not presenting the theory of forms, I can preview the critique of naturalism by considering why Socrates' alternative view of explanation is so implausible. Something is beautiful because it partakes of The Beautiful. This tells us nothing, right? He even discounts an aesthetic analysis that might isolate the qualities that make the thing beautiful. (100d) That is, he has no interest in applying descriptive language to the problem of how something becomes beautiful. Why not? He seems to lack an interest that we find integral with rationality itself: we want to know how to do it. The "participation" idea is an impoverished explanation for us, because it does not tell us how to make a thing beautiful. It does not empower us, but instead refers us to something transcendent. It has no technology to it. The Greeks were by no means free of technological thinking, but the theory of forms as stated here gives us no method. This is a hint of what a Socratic explanation might be for us: an acknowledgement of the goodness of the creation as we look at it with no need to control it.
That, of course, is terribly easy for a naturalist to marginalize: What good is it? But people are beginning now to ask, What good is technology? A transition may be in process in this respect, a shifting again of where we place our trust, and it is conceivable that technological explanations will become a bracket within a more fundamental way of understanding the world.
III. A History of Technicity and Positivism:
Historical reflection is important because every person thinking on fundamental issues will have a metaphysical position, a set of assumptions about what is real, and it is hard to see beyond one's metaphysics without historical perspective.
I believe--because I am a voluntarist--that assumptions about what is real show where people have placed their trust. But the choice is not made consciously, and those things seem simply to BE the real; they never seem to be the construct of one's will. Various kinds of reflection, such as philosophical, spiritual, or psychoanalytical, may let someone catch himself "constructing" something. For instance, a Christian might discover that some aspect of what he thought was the real God was instead a construct of his wishful or prideful thinking. Metaphysical positions, which reflect values, can change when those value judgments are challenged, when an idol fails. But metaphysical changes do not occur much in adult human individuals. They occur across generations and centuries. In order to get perspective on these positions, one needs to get beyond the individual life.
The authority of tradition and divine revelation, which claims to be timeless, is one way to get beyond one's perspective. But skeptics and historicists will insist that such authority is totally conditioned by its time and the agenda of its developers. Nietzsche would say that. For myself, I thank God for revelation and believe nothing else would make sense without it. But the revelation is largely about history, so to explore it includes the study of history.
We need to study history because our metaphysical prejudices generally have their own historical stories, whether acknowledged as such or not. We have heard from the naturalist how the theist lives in the ignorant past, and from the theist how the naturalist has fallen into a modernist deception. But I believe we need a more complex story about something both the theist and the naturalist are doing. First I will give a diagnostic analysis of the problem, using the words "technicity" and "positivism," and then I will put these into a time frame.
Martin Heidegger's term, die technik, can be translated simply as "technology." But it has been translated with the neologism, "technicity." I use that as a technical term to refer to "technological consciousness," which is a kind of thinking. It is not limited to highly technological societies, though we have become aware of it as a problem. It is rather the human way of thinking that construes reality as material for human control. As such, reality is value-free material. We have purposes to impose upon it, but it imposes no purposes on us. This is a world view that maximizes human autonomy.
A good introduction to this concept, in a few pages, is Michael E. Zimmerman's article "Beyond `Humanism': Heidegger's Understanding of Technology." (cf. Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology.) Zimmerman explains how the Greeks, according to Heidegger, had an awareness of Being, itself, of `presence', that would be displaced later by consciousness of beings, that is, things. "The uncanny fact THAT there is something rather than nothing, THAT beings are somehow accessible to man, this was neglected." (p. 221)
Technicity really took hold through the thought of Descartes. In his quest for certainty apart from authority he made man the determiner of what is real. Metaphysical views reflect insecure humans' choices about where to place their trust, and Descartes moved us toward trusting ourselves, which changed our view of the real. The real became that which we could control.
As Zimmerman tells it:
For the Greeks, the reality of the real was constant presence. For Medieval man, too, presence was determinative for reality: God's absolute presence maintained the existence of all His creatures. With Descartes, the reality of the entire cosmos was also revealed as presence, but as something present FOR the self-certain subject (man). "Tobe" meant to be conceived by and through the subject and held over against the subject. Everything got determined and evaluated from the standpoint of man. (p. 222)
Descartes's quest was for certain knowledge, but the way to find that was to conceive reality as that which could be certainly known. So the epistemological method had a pronounced metaphysical effect. Zimmerman goes on:
Instead of a realm of beings ordered in a great chain and sustained in their presence by the absolute presence of God, the universe now stands revealed as a mathematically quantifiable field of energy present as an object for the subject. . .. Only extended (mathematically measurable)beings are taken as "real" by the subject, i.e., able to be known with certainty . . .. Anything not able to be known precisely and exactly by such sciences is deemed "unreal," or the "object of suspicion" (e.g., God) This is the dawn of the age of technology. The essence of technology, it shouldbe clear, is nothing technical. Instead, its essence is the fact that the Being or reality of things is disclosed as calculable, wholly "rational" (mathematical), and thus controllable. (p. 222)
Heidegger's concern is that we have lost contact with Being, which has withdrawn from us, and have come to live in a world of matter that is calculable but lacking "presence." What is that "presence" exactly? It is a strongly sensed significance of the fact of existence. To me, Heidegger seems to practice a suppressed theism, for what he thought the early Greeks experienced and we have lost is something like the goodness of Being, which can be celebrated, worshipped. I doubt that early Greek culture really experienced this, though their art somehow touched upon it. I think, though, that it can be experienced, and it is nothing less than knowledge of the goodness of the Creator and his creation. It is connected with the Platonic experience in which an explanation is the realization of the goodness of things. But what Heidegger gives us is not a program for experiencing this, just an awareness of what is standing in the way: technicity, which is seeing the world as value-free, controllable matter. It is value-free and non-teleological because we stand over it to control it.
The whole point is lost if we do not acknowledge that what we consider to be the nature of reality, in itself, its value-free and non-teleological character, is a product of what we are trying to do with it. That is the key thing to reflect upon.
There is another word almost as probing as `technicity', and that is `positivism'. Positivism is to understand reality in terms of the instruments that measure it. This applies to a laboratory and the theories developed there, but it applies more broadly, too. Epistemology produces a metaphysical position, because reality gets its character from how we know it. In the statement above about Descartes, "Real" is equated with "able to be known with certainty." In this account, Descartes practically invented positivism, though the word would appear two hundred years later, first as a celebrated new world view totally cleared of superstition (Comte), and then as a critical term, an acknowledgment that we lost something when we began to limit our world to what our instruments could measure.
Jrgen Habermas's Knowledge and Human Interests bills itself as a history of positivism, which is failed reflection. (p. vii) In positivism we lose the ability to know ourselves in our knowing of the world. Habermas reflects in part the nineteenth-century German tradition in which the thing we discover through reflection and get excited about is the human subject himself. In failed reflection, we see a flattened world that is material for us, but we do not see ourselves, nor do we know about the technological way that we are knowing the world. Habermas's title suggests that to know the world truly is to know how our interests have shaped it, which is exactly what positivism and technicity do not acknowledge.
Lezsek Kolakowski's The Alienation of Reason is also a history of positivism, but more ambivalent than Habermas. He brings out how human reason, which attempts to know the world and affirm it and belong in it, instead feels alienated in a world where it does not belong. Positivism is at least a measure of success for us in our attempt to interact with the world. But the question is, Are we trying to control material, or are we trying know the creation and its source in a satisfying way that makes us secure? Kolakowski does not openly ask this, but his ambivalence shows that both motives are real for him. His title complains about a failure that would not be lamented if all we wanted were technological power.
If we can ask that question about our knowing, separating the technological motive from the spiritual, then we are not fully in technicity or positivism. To be fully in it is to conceive the world as manipulable material and take it for granted that there is no other way to conceive it.
What do we lose when we conceive the world as material for our control and as that which can be known through our instruments? Well, God, teleology, design, providence, souls-- all the realities of theism. But for my narrowed analysis let me just focus on the loss of value. The world known technologically and positivistically is value-free. This is a nihilistic consciousness. From within that nihilistic view we cannot conceive of an explanation that does not tell us, in principle, how to do something. From within that view an axiological explanation, "It is good that it happened this way," lacks sense, and if there is no technology involved there is, for this kind of thinking, nothing.
Exactly why reality loses its value when we stand over it in a controlling manner is not an easy question. Theism's general answer is that man cannot be his own center. Value comes from that which transcends humanity, because only something bigger can provide security. Thus the quest for autonomy produces nihilism simply by cutting us off from transcendence.
Consider also that a truly valuable entity is valuable in itself, not as an object to be used. The alternative to technicity, for Nietzsche and Heidegger, is aesthetic experience, in which objects are intrinsically worthy to behold. In spiritual experience, too, we encounter something or someone whose value does not depend upon our purposes. If God is made into an object of our purposes, then we have idolatry, not spiritual experience, an idol, not God. The same is true of personal relationships: to use someone is to devalue him, to lose him as a genuine person in your life and to remain lonely.
The whole story of why technicity produces nihilism requires, I think, a treatment of human origin and the fall that is beyond my scope here. (cf. my dissertation, "Fallen Reason and Value-Free Thought: a Christian-Platonist Account of Nietzschean Thought and Nihilism.") But the diagnosis is clear enough: value-free thought comes out of a controlling consciousness.
To diagnose value-free scientific materialism or naturalism as a product of technological thought is to tell a story counter to the one the naturalist tells. He thinks that his world view is truth itself, which came into view as humanity outgrew its childish dependence upon a made-up divine authority. But according to the technicity critique it is a function of motives of which he is unaware. He is looking at the world through gray-colored glasses that he does not know he is wearing.
Does this apply also to the contemporary theist? That will be clearer, I think, when I put the criticism in a time setting.
Technicity took hold at the time of Descartes, but both Nietzsche and Heidegger felt the early Greeks, before Socrates and Plato, had an aesthetic-religious contact with reality that was lost thereafter. Nietzsche castigates Socrates as the source of "a profound illusion that first saw the light of the world in the person of Socrates: the unshakable faith that thought, using the thread of causality, can penetrate the deepest abysses of being, and that thought is capable not only of knowing being but even of correcting it." (The Birth of Tragedy 15) Heidegger used "metaphysics" in a special way to refer to an era reaching from Plato through Nietzsche in which Being was "forgotten" and the notion of truth (aletheia) changed from "unconcealment" to "correctness." This all happened as reason was harnessed to the task of world domination. (Biemel, p.168)
If these men are right at all, then Socrates was in technicity, not free of it. I believe people always have been in such a state, for it is part of the fall. Fallen reason always tries to grasp the world in a way that lets us handle it, and this always produces value-free, descriptive thought. That is true of religion and science and many other areas of thought. For instance, a theologian like Paul Tillich, in seeking to understand the fall, struggles with the fact that he cannot explain it, for an explanation always produces impersonal laws that remove moral responsibility from man. The explanation makes the fall inevitable and transfers guilt to the Creator.
The problem of technicity, although it appears vividly in the modern thought and begins to be recognized in post-modern, is criticized in Isaiah 44, as idolatry. Consider these words:
10 Who fashions a god or casts an image, that is profitable for nothing?
11 Behold, all his fellows shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are but men; let them all assemble, let them stand forth, they shall be terrified, they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals; he shapes it with hammers, and forges it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint.
13 The carpenter stretches a line, he marks it out with a pencil; he fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.
14 He cuts down cedars; or he chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest; he plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
15 Then it becomes fuel for a man; he takes a part of it and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread; also he makes a god and worships it, he makes it a graven image and falls down before it.
16 Half of it he burns in the fire; over the half he eats flesh, he roasts meat and is satisfied; also he warms himself and says, "Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!"
17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol; and falls down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for thou art my god!"
This passage is not about making an idol of technology, which would not have been prevalent at the time, but about the technological thinking in idolatry. When we commit religious idolatry, we use our constructive ability to "make a god," to construe reality as if we could bargain with God. The real God withdraws, but we pray to our dressed-up abilities. In modern terms, we construct a manipulable world and set out to make reality good, praying to our methods.
If Isaiah is talking about technicity, then this is not a new problem. Socrates had it, but he had also a lively theism, a reaching out for a transcendent source of goodness. He thought that God was good enough to make a world that men could affirm and in which they could be secure. He did not know about the pollution of the rational faculty he trusted, nor the radical nature of God's solution to sin. So he mixed his faith that Reality simply was good with a humanism that would implicate him in technological thinking. But the theory of forms, nevertheless, did not give us a method and proposed a purely axiological form of explanation.
Plato definitely turned the aspiration to know the Good to a method, mainly education. But Platonic knowledge of the Good has hardly been experienced, I think because of mixed motives. There is "spiritual" knowledge, which reaches out for God's goodness, and which has an aesthetic counterpart in Heidegger, and there is the human attempt to make life good through method. But only pure dependence on God's goodness gets one in touch with him. The spiritual side of Socrates and Plato, their aspiration to know the Good, flowered briefly in Augustine, by the grace of God--see Confessions VII--but went no further as a historical movement.
Aristotle, on the other hand, would take the technological, scientific side of knowing and run with it. At the end of the medieval period, Aquinas would carry this kind of thinking into the beginnings of the modern era. When Descartes arrived, the trust in the goodness of Reality, which was always mixed with the human attempt to fix things ourselves, began to be officially banished, and naturalism, as a single minded metaphysical position, became possible. (Theism is almost never a pure position, because human nature inclines us to naturalism, and conversion only begins to move us out of it.)
Although the naturalistically conceived world is value-free, naturalism is at heart a negative value judgment, the decision that Reality is not good and we will have to make it good. In making that decision, Descartes is "completing the fall," which is true also of a number of early modern figures, of Kant, and especially of Nietzsche.
What did theists do during this transition? Bear in mind that Descartes considered himself to be one. And consider Nicholas Malebranche. He strove to preserve theistic and Platonic thought while also bowing enthusiastically before Descartes's revolutionary outlook, and he produced a strange theory called "occasionalism," in which God's will and natural law have an uneasy relationship. God wills according to the natural laws, because he values the economy of doing it that way. Miracles are possible, but not the preferred way to operate. If you consider that the scientific view is a positivism, a restriction of reality to what our instruments can show and what we can aspire to control, then it is presumptuous to identify God too much with those laws, for we are bending him to our purposes. But something like that may be true of most theists in modern times.
What is disturbing about Malebranche is that he had a commitment to tradition and the past but a great excitement about Descartes's new future. It is that kind of excitement that will supply the motive for a compromise with technicity. A study I hope to do in the near future will document the doublemindedness in Malebranche and then investigate the scientific thought of Christians through the next three centuries and ask how much of that remains. Without doing that, I can simply suggest what the signs are that theists remain tied up in technicity, what might move us toward a change, and what it would be like to recover from technicity.
IV. Toward a Post-Technological Consciousness:
The problem with technicity, or, I would say, with fallen reason in general, is that we always make an object of whatever we think we are understanding. Consider logic, which is a mechanism for handling thoughts that can be contained in distinct forms, such as statements, which are either true or false. Christian philosophers in the U.S. often rely heavily on being able to make if-then statements and to otherwise structure their thoughts logically. Logic once appeared to many to be the structure of reality itself. But of course the height of this thinking was with the logical positivists, whereas the critical use of "positivism" tells us that reality is being shaped to fit the system built to handle it. (cf. Nietzsche, The Gay Science 112, for insight into how conditional thinking is an unreal construction.)
Logic may be useful in argumentation, but it cannot go far in talking about God or his reality. God cannot be made an object to be handled in the machinery of logic. Much lesser things than God will show the limits of the attempt to formalize thought; for instance, semantic paradox arises when self-referential statements are formalized. What logic does exceedingly well is set conditions within an arena where we have control. If a company wants to specify to whom it will extend credit, it can quite easily formalize the conditions. But logic does not get us much in touch with the world as a whole. Perhaps the difference is that the world as a whole does not lie within our arena of control.
If-then statements are basic to scientific explanations, and as a result God sometimes gets thought of as an object when theists explain natural events. For instance, the call for papers of this conference posed questions about whether the scientific method could include an appeal to a supernatural agency, and whether cosmic design can be a testable hypothesis. But supernatural agency may not fit well into the form of a causal explanation, because it is not an object in the creation but an aspect of the Creator. A certain temperature may be a condition for a habitable planet, but God is not such a condition. He is responsible in a different sense than as an efficient cause. Socrates gave us words to express this objection, when he said, "Fancy being unable to distinguish between the cause of the thing [the God who made the Earth habitable] and the condition without which it could not be a cause [the temperature]!" (Phaedo 99b)
Another problem with technicity is that it uses purely descriptive and value-free thinking. God as a cause cannot be included within a scientific causal analysis, because to see God as a cause is to make a value-judgment, a different value judgment than the one a naturalist makes. He judges reality to be without value and supplies an analysis that tells you how you could in principle affect some situation by inserting a new factor, say, by reflecting extra energy from the sun to Mars. But if the theist wants to say that God is responsible for the habitable planet, that is not to insert a new condition, but to give God credit for the fact that it happened, however it happened.
Robert B. Fischer wrote a book in 1981 called, God Did It, But How? He separates Who gets the credit from the particular "conditions," as Socrates would put it, under which it happened. He notes that knowing the conditions under which something happened does not replace God as the person who did it. To think that it does is to engage in god-of-the-gaps thinking. (p.37) I mean the same thing when I say we should separate the conditions under which an event happened from the value judgment that God did it, or that it was good that it happened as it did. If we do not make that separation, then I think we force God or goodness or design into a mold prepared for a kind of thinking that knows little of God and his goodness. Anything that can be described with a word can be made an object in a value-free analysis, but some things, like God, don't belong as an object in our system. The theory of forms is actually more appropriate, for there we look up to the transcendent reality that is getting credit for the way things are.
What might move theists away from compromise with technicity? Primarily I think it is sensitivity to the challenges of post-modern thought, which is aware of this problem. The motive for a changed approach will be disillusionment with the promises of technology. I call it the Jurassic Park syndrome: the realization that we do not have very much control. Knowing that, we can let go of the world that we constructed in order to be in control. If we are less enamored with technology, we are less likely to confuse its construct with the real world. We can catch ourselves constructing a world and see it for what it is. The result will be not that we cease to practice science and construct technology, but that we bracket those activities, know them for what they are, and no longer have them dominating our world view. Theists already have a world view not based on the technological consciousness, but it exists awkwardly with a view of nature that is. To weaken the grip of naturalism will produce a more integrated world view.
The time is right for this kind of change. Phillip Johnson's Reason in the Balance practically stands opposite Descartes's Discourse on Method, ending the era that Descartes began. Two centuries before Darwin, Descartes surmised that God could have created the world we know out of chaos, given only the natural laws that newly born modernity was so excited about. (Discourse on Method, Part 5) Now Johnson is arguing convincingly that we do not have a natural mechanism to account for the origin of life or the development of complex life. Perhaps the shift toward axiological explanation occurs when we are disillusioned with technology's prospects and beginning to face the limits of scientific knowledge. Yet it is just at that point, when we cannot understand something, that we do not want to "drag God in," as Aristotle felt that Anaxagoras "drags reason in." Let me conclude by saying how axiological explanations might handle the gaps.
Phillip Johnson reports in both Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance that Christian scientists who are theistic evolutionists object to his approach because of their fear that it leads only to a god-of-the-gaps, and because it almost asks them to give up working on the scientific problem. I identified with those objections and felt that Johnson never fully addressed them. In some places he clearly states that creationism, as opposed to creation-science, is just the belief that there is intelligent design. "The essential point of creation has nothing to do with the timing or the mechanism the Creator chose to employ, but with the element of design or purpose." (Darwin on Trial, p. 115) Johnson shows that Darwinism is the opposite: its essential point is the lack of purpose in nature, which requires it to posit a non-teleological mechanism, even if it cannot be found. But in many other places Johnson seems to place very much stock in those gaps that naturalistic science cannot fill. He uses them to show that naturalism is more a philosophy than an empirical science, which is a wonderful point, but he also seems to need the gaps to keep a place for God, despite his statement about the meaning of creationism.
The key statement perhaps is in the epilogue to the 1993 edition, p. 168. Johnson points to what may be a bit of double-talk by theistic evolutionists. We believe that the universe does have intelligent design, but that life began somewhat as scientists say it did. He says that if we did not hold to naturalism, then we would have no need for a "blind watchmaker mechanism." God could simply have done it. But I object that this is making God an efficient cause, an object in our system of causal explanation. This, too, is a subtle product of naturalistic thought. And it leaves theists open to the possibility that God as efficient cause will be replaced.
I believe the theistic evolutionist does perform some double-talk--it happens by design, but it happens by chance--and that Johnson does give us a god-of-the-gaps. But both problems come from operating partly within the value-free system that comes with fallen reason, technicity, and naturalism.
If we find ourselves free to say that life began on earth, and we are it, and it is good, and we do not know how it began, but we know that God did it, then the theistic evolutionist thesis is slightly changed. It happens by design, because it is good. It appears from the naturalistic (fallen, technological) standpoint to have happened by chance, but it did not happen by chance, because that is a negative value judgment. "Chance" is the naturalist's disappointment with the parts of the world that cannot be controlled. "Design" is the affirmation of the world in both the areas we understand and those we do not. If we think axiologically, the theistic evolutionist is not doing double-talk.
And the creationist, as distinguished from the theistic evolutionist? He also says that life began and it is good and we do not know how it happened. After all, to say that God did it is not in the least to say how it happened. Think about how God might have created Adam out of dust. (This is scriptural evidence, I think, for a kind of theistic evolution, since man was made of simpler stuff.) He did not do it with physical fingers, because fingers cannot form dust into cells with DNA molecules in them. If it was a miracle, by definition we do not know how. If he did it through divine intent, again, that transcends our understanding. If he did it through natural law, we do not yet know those laws. To say that God did it does not tell us how it happened, not in the sense that our fallen reason seeks to know. Instead, it is a value judgment, an affirmation.
Johnson is convincing on the point that life requires pre-existing intelligence. It took intelligence to produce DNA. The Bible says that wisdom was with God in the making of the world. (Proverbs 8) and that, in the beginning was the Word. (John 1) We tend to think this means that intelligence precedes us in time, and that the intelligent God is an object back there in time that began things. But that is putting God into our crude mechanism of understanding, which was designed for the little parts of life over which we have mastery. We should be prepared for the possibility that God's intelligence is fully immanent in nature. It is transcendent, too, but this transcendence is not a prior existence in time, for God is beyond time. So pre-existing intelligence is not an efficient cause. It is, once more, the fact of design, the fact of goodness. It is even, if you will, the transcendent Platonic form, which does not tell us in time and space how a thing came to be (and how we might do the same), but which instead is extolled as the source of its goodness.
To be in a state of affirmation and gratitude may someday become, in natural science as well as in personal lives, the real meaning of having an explanation. If we could bracket the scientific method as applicable to just a small part of life, then affirmation could become a larger stage on which technology plays its minor role.
So, what should Christians do in the practice of science? First, let's not think that naturalism is one starting point for thought and theism is another, as if we could just stake out new theistic starting points and then do better science. That will leave us in the mold of naturalism while thinking we are on different ground. Instead, let's acknowledge that all humans start from within technicity. Then we can examine how it interferes with our practice of theism, which does not offer us means of control, but worship. And let's be grateful for the gaps, the areas where control is impossible and technological understanding is impossibly stretched. These can bring us back to the affirmation that is more important than empowerment. And it does not matter if the gaps grow smaller, because we affirm what we understand as well as what we do not, which is to say that, in this new sense, we understand it all.
Jerry L. Sherman, Ph.D., Albuquerque, New Mexico, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org http://planet.tvi.cc.nm.us/jersherm
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