Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Interesting Swedish Proverb

“Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.”

The "plus" lies in the fact that theology makes truth claims concerning the practice of life and what is sacred. Of course poetry does too, but theology usually couples the aesthetic, abstract claims of art and philosophy with a concrete lifestyle program to be enacted.

Valid faith claims lie in the realm of axiomatic premises about what is good. They lie outside the realm of provability and at best point us to the limitations of human knowledge with a sense of hope and wonder. Religions are man-made symbolic systems to attempt communication and deeper understanding of this hope and wonder. Unfortunately these symbols often become the truth themselves for millions of people instead of remaining the humble, flexible signposts pointing to truth that they are meant to be. While I feel strongly about naturalism, or at least if there is anything supernatural I feel strongly that we cannot successfully argue for it logically without severe ad hoc constraints asserted onto the supernatural, naturalism describes the past up to this point. It also provides us with the materials we have to make decisions. Yet it does not inform us of what exact decision we should make in any given circumstance.

For that it seems we need a “plus”. Religion is not necessary, of course, but it is a language that can sometimes help us discuss and think through our experience of existence. At its best it is "poetry plus."

And theology is certainly capable of being “science minus”. This happens when religious discussion, meant to provide a language to describe the indescribable, is used to make concrete scientific claims. It’s when we claim to know things, objective things, that we don’t really know, except perhaps in our non-objective (and lovely) hearts.


  1. “Yet [naturalism] does not inform us of what exact decision we should make in any given circumstance.”

    I think given a circumstance naturalism can inform us on what decision to make, just as theology, only with reproducible and testable results (at least on average).

    When we talk about “what I should do” in the framework of theology, we are really saying something to the effect of what I should do –to be right with God. Theology is a bit out of my area of interest, so forgive me if this is not entirely accurate. But it seems to me that “should do” is referring to some sort of should do –if you want to please God, -if you want to follow the rules, -if you want to go to Heaven, or whatever. Another way to put it is “Given the circumstance that I want to do what God desires, then I should do this.” (Let me know if I have jumped track here)

    This is exactly the kind of thing naturalism, with its awesome science, is good at. Given that I want to be fat, I should eat more calories than I burn. Given that I want to live longer, I should abstain from smoking cigarettes. Given that I want to increase my chance at being happy, I should give weight to the experience of others over my imagined scenarios (see Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for more examples).

    Given a circumstance, a desired outcome, it is the business of science to naturally quantify, measure, and test how the range of available interventions affect desired outcomes while eliminating and accounting for sources of variation. Thus this method reliably tells us what we should not do, and hence increases the probability of knowing what we should do to increase the chance of making decisions that lead to the desired outcome.

    I have a feeling that I am missing a distinction. Let me know if I we are talking about the same thing here.

  2. Great points.

    I agree that naturalism/science is the greatest tool at our disposal to accomplish a goal. I think that theology, spirituality, mysticism, metaphysical thinking, heck, opinion, is the realm of deciding what the goal should be. Should we pursue comfort? happiness? nihilism? etc. etc.

    Even if we use naturalistic arguments to make a case for one over the other, we still have to set up a priori premises - what our ultimate goal is. And if it's happiness, and naturalistic evidence shows us the most effective choice to bring about that happiness, this still doesn't make the choice less metaphysical, or more pre-determined - as our perspectives, etc. affect everything. The pursuit of positive feedback changes as our world views change.

    As far as "God" goes, I think that depends on how we view God. Like many others, I don't see God in a "top-down" kind of way. If I am trying to "please God", that's another way of saying "do what's right" or "enhance that which makes life worthwhile".

    We can debate the merits of the terminology, but that is probably for another post. I"m already working on it........

  3. Theology/spiritualism/opinions/whatever as telling us what the goal should be… to me, this is either a top down claim, which I do not think you are making, or it is an inside -> out claim that relies heavily on complexity to lead you down the path to unknown and then on to metaphysical (man, I really need some sort of agreed upon definition of metaphysical here!).

    Let’s say we choose personal comfort as our goal. Why did we choose that? Because it feels good. Why? Because of endorphins and receptors. Why do we have those (or why are we those)? Evolutionary explanation…. And so on. It is not flat out assertion that led us to choose comfort as our goal, we have no shortage of natural (non theological/whatever) reasons explaining where this decision comes from. So then why do we still have to set up a priori premises to tell us what our ultimate goal is, we have already determined it. We want personal comfort as our ultimate goal.

    I have always had a difficult time understanding what exactly is meant by metaphysical. But choices about ultimate goals are not any less determined that anything else, are they? Sure we have choices in life, but our decision do not come from variety of “plus” do they?

  4. I dislike the word “metaphysical” as well. It’s a term seeking to describe the world of the mind, I think. Or decisions that we don’t have the ability to make purely scientifically. I can make a scientific decision about treating an illness, but can I make one concerning a moral decision? Maybe someday I will, though my intuition tells me that we will never be able to totally master our consciousness, since it’s consciousness analyzing itself, but who knows?

    “We want personal comfort as our ultimate goal.”

    I actually think we agree, but I would choose “happiness” instead, as happiness and comfort often do not go hand in hand. Many people give up their immediate comfort for greater happiness - those who help the poor, or climb Mount Everest for instance. I suppose the question is - What makes us happy? Endorphins/receptors are the mechanism for happiness, but are they the total cause? Part of the cause for sure, but something triggers them. What about our decisions? Why does eating meat cause pain for a Buddhist? happiness for a typical Oklahoman (despite possible similarities in the physiological response)? Why does killing people cause joy for some? What is the relationship between our world view, our perspective, our opinions, and our endorphins/receptors and our choices or what is good or right? This is metaphysical to me. Because right now, science may be able to look backwards and describe what we want, and perhaps why we want it - to a degree - but can science tell us what we SHOULD want? So metaphysical isn’t antiphysical - it’s just more about our limitations I suppose, and the fact that we still have to take a step forward without a complete map.

    “But choices about ultimate goals are not any less determined that anything else, are they?”

    Probably not - I just mean that determinism is a backwards looking argument to me. I think there are certain amounts of determinism that can be measured looking forward to, but surely there is lots of indeterminism - chaos. Hindsight is 20/20 - foresight is not. At least not yet.

    “Sure we have choices in life, but our decision do not come from variety of “plus” do they?”

    Perhaps they do, in part. Is a naturalistic philosophy prescriptive? I think that some sort of “plus” has to be involved - like the idea of the moral contract or other various moral theories, like the Golden Rule, etc.

    BTW, I do think that the Golden Rule provides us with benefits that can be naturally described. But what if someone decided that they didn’t need the community to establish his personal identity? What if a person argued - “I am me. You are not me. I seek greater immediate pleasure for myself, with little care for my existential situation. I am going to take your stuff.”

    Can I challenge this person logically? On what grounds? I think we both agree that we could not if they did not except certain axiomatic starting points in his/her thought. Of course, we could lock this person up if need be, and not judge too harshly - his “plus” was different. Of course this assumes that people with similar “plus” ‘s as us are in the majority!

    Doesn’t any logical progression require an axiom at the beginning? a “plus”?

    I do think that everyone is working for their own happiness - but I also think people are delusional. However, I recognize that this perspective is my own “plus”. A nihilist may not be able to be logically convinced of my perspective.

    Great back and forth here. Sorry for the length, but this is more about digging into thoughts than organizing them too much for me.....

  5. Is your use of metaphysical synonymous with psychology or cognition?

    I think natural philosophy and theology are both prescriptive as far as ‘if you want X then Y’ goes. Ex.: If you want to please God, then follow this prescription rather than that one. If you want to be healthy, then follow this prescription rather than that one. The X in this equation can vary widely and the Y is dependent on the X.

    Where I think you are going with this is the theology equation starts with something like ‘you should please God’. This apparent starting point is the axiom that comes from ‘plus’. There is symmetry in the natural philosophy version in ‘you should be healthy’ or ‘you should be happy’. But I don’t see why a plus is required in either case. These starting points are not real starting points. ‘You should please God’ or ‘you should be healthy’ have deep explanations in natural philosophy (I prefer evolutionary explanations, but see the psychological perspectives of psychoanalytical, cognitive, behavioral, biological, social, etc….).

    We don’t just start out from a clean slate and decide that God is good and we need to please it, therefore we should follow the equation ‘if you want to please God, then follow this prescription’. There are many non ‘plus’ sources that determine this decision – notably factors regarding parenting, authority, obedience, and so on.

    I agree that there will always be some sort of free floating axiom required for any complete system (see Godel’s incompleteness theorem), but to apply this outside of mathematics and into life and evoke some sort of plus is to assume that a perfect map or some sort of ultimate should exists or can even exist. I have yet to see that this is the case.

    We might be in one big circle of axioms, where each postulate depends on the next, and it may not be complete or consistent. There just might be no ultimate criteria for which to judge by or to ground one or all axioms in. I think I am ok with that, but above all, I think I have exhausted my ability to think about such an abstract topic for the time being. Maybe more later.

  6. No doubt! I think that the real "plus" here is the abstraction in our thoughts! And possibly a "minus" in my case....

    "There just might be no ultimate criteria for which to judge by or to ground one or all axioms in"

    This is exactly what I mean by the whole "plus" thing. I am not arguing that one needs something like a god to give them the grounding. I am arguing that the only grounding is the internal leap we take. Then we can utilize our left brains, scientific method, critical thinking, etc. to evaluate those the results of those leaps. And the leaps can have good reasons behind them - but the lack of any ultimate grounding is exactly my argument.

    I know that most people use the argument "without god there is no grounding for morality" -but I simply argue that there is no grounding for morality - we kind of have to invent our own. Whether we use theology or not, is a personal choice - it's just a different language, or framework, or even mechanism for establishing enough grounding to proceed on any chosen path.

    All this shows why I am partial to so many Buddhist ideas. They attempt to show objective reality through internal, subjective experience of consciousness. They all meditate for generations and compare notes. Then a consensus builds over time about the best ways to proceed. What is their proof? "Try it yourself and see". And I think that's about as good as we can do.

    so in short (ha!) - We all believe in objective truth - but it's completely reliant on our subjective point of view, so it's difficult to truly "ground" objectively - unless we can establish premises which we can all agree upon- and yet those premises may have no ultimate grounding.