googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Pragmatism is No Substitute for the Truth

Monday, March 12, 2012

Pragmatism is No Substitute for the Truth

The failed philosophical assumptions behind atheism and secular science, I believe, will be its undoing. The irrational worldview of naturalism cannot stand up to scrutiny as I've discussed many times on my blog before. The more I discuss it with critics, the more irrational they become. I can't say I'm surprised at the lengths people go to justify a position that makes no sense because that's what irrational people do; but I am impressed by their persistence. They just won't let their failed argument go – even when they see the absurdity of their beliefs.

Several months back, I was speaking in another forum about the fundamental “tenet” behind science – methodological naturalism. As usual, I was asking for scientific evidence to support the belief that every phenomenon must have a natural explanation and was hearing the usual non-responses. In frustration, one poster (who seems to post under his real name so I won't give it here) replied with the following quote:

I'll be brief. Science works. That's all the justification it needs. ¶Oh, and it's a great shame to see an obviously intelligent man going to such torturous lengths to try and support the unsupportable.

By “intelligent man” I assume he meant me but I couldn't be sure because his statement seems to work equally well when applied to himself. I'm also a little confused about his comment that “science works.” My question wasn't about science but about the naturalistic presuppositions that underlie science. I believe he meant to say, “[the methodological naturalism that underlies] science works. That's all the justification it needs.”

Anyway, this has become a typical response to my criticism of methodological naturalism. “Naturalism works so it's fine.” The technical term for this attitude is “pragmatism.” Basically, in pragmatism, practicality is used to measure the “rightness” of something. If something works, it is accepted as “correct.” The danger is that, even if something seems to work, it can still be very wrong.

When my son was younger, he was a little afraid of the dark. He would always sleep with the lights on. Perhaps in his young mind, turning on the lights kept the monsters away. Since no monster ever came into his room when the lights were on, then keeping the lights on to scare away the monsters worked. What other justification do we need?!

That was basically the reply I made to the evo critic. In typical, irrational fashion, he replied with the following remark:

You're a bright enough guy. Can you think of a way of testing the truth or otherwise of the idea that turning on the lights keeps the monsters away?

I thought it was rather amusing that this critic, on the one hand, says science (that is methodological naturalism) works and so doesn't need to be justified but, on the other hand, he immediately seeks a way to test my claim about lights keeping away the monsters. The fact that it seems to work isn't enough for him. It's a blatant case of special pleading. He doesn't see the need to justify his assumptions but asks me to provide evidence for mine.

Another funny thing about a natural-only approach to science is the circular nature of it. Many evolutionists have said the evidence does not support a super natural creation. In other words, if one starts with the assumption that every phenomenon has a natural explanation, then he will see that every phenomenon has a natural explanation.

This critic could see how pragmatism is a flawed test for discerning truth. The sad reality is that he couldn't see the similarity between my example and his own worldview. Circular reasoning, special pleading, and a self-refuting premise – it's all there. Evolutionists always fail to disappoint. I expect bad arguments and they deliver bad arguments. It would be nice, though, if they could see how silly they're being just a little more often.


Steven J. said...

Perhaps there are only imperfect methods of obtaining knowledge. Perhaps methods that grant greater certainty do not grant greater access to truth.

I also think you misconstrue your interlocutor's point about lights keeping the monsters away. Can you hear, smell, feel, or stumble over monsters if you turn the lights off? Is there any empirical evidence that monsters are more common with the lights off than with the lights on? The point is that an explanation that works, with a limited number of observations, will often fail to do so as more observations are added. The view that the Earth was flat worked, until various observations (from the way ships disappeared going over the horizon to the shape of the Earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse) had to be explained. The view that the sun orbited the Earth worked much longer, but again, fell to further investigation.

Note that these claims, like your photophobic monster example, are pragmatically testable empirical claims. They are also claims that were once quite seriously defended in the name of biblically-revealed truth: Theophilus of Antioch and Lactantius Firmianus, in the third and fourth centuries, both rejected the pagan Greek idea that the Earth was a sphere, and Pope Urban, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all agreed that the idea that the Earth rotated and orbited the sun was unbiblical and false (Christians had, of course, by that time accepted for nearly a thousand years that the Earth was in fact a globe).

In short, revelation has a history of not "working" as well as science. That seems a moderately odd basis on which to conclude that it is a more likely path to truth than science.

Now, I grasp that you aren't serious about the photophobic closet monsters. But it seems to me that you are engaged in the same sort of reasoning regarding, e.g. evolution that you are pretending to engage in with regard to monsters: rejecting views that "work" with regards to the full body of evidence we have now in favor of views that "worked" with a much smaller and less varied body of evidence, and insisting that the earlier view should be immune to revision in light of better evidence.

Steven J. said...

A question, with no very obvious connection to the subject of your post: what is your interpretation of 1 Timothy 12:15?

"But women will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety."

I ran across a feminist post that argued that this verse teaches that childbearing is a form of atonement. I was not terribly impressed by the post; on the one hand the author was perfectly happy to indict the Bible's teachings about women by quoting, e.g. Tertullian from centuries later, but on the other she offers an interpretation of this verse that I do not think has been endorsed by any major theologian or Christian sect ever. But the verse is rather odd; in my own opinion the most likely best interpretation is that it means that women of faith will be saved in spite of bearing children with all the biological and ceremonial messiness that entails. But what is your opinion?

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I love answering questions on Scripture so don't ever worry about asking them.

Let me begin by saying that this is certainly an ambiguous passage and it's always a bad idea to base doctrine on an ambiguous passage. That's how cults are born. Women are given special regard in the Bible and there are many other passages, ones that are far more clear, that someone could appeal to if they want to express the importance of women.

The opinions on this passage vary but I will be happy to give you my own. I looked up the passage in the Greek and the word translated as “through” is the Greek word “dia” (διὰ). “Dia” is a preposition that can be used to modify two different cases. When used in the accusative case, it means “because of.” Your feminist friend seems to argue that somehow women are saved “because of” childbearing. However, in this passage, “dia” is used in the genitive case. In the genitive case, it literally means, “through.”

Childbearing in the Bible always refers to a type of travail. That women should bear children in pain was part of the Curse given in Genesis at the Fall. 2 Timothy 2:15 (BTW, there is no 2 Timothy 12:15) seems to say that women will be saved “through” the travail if they continue in faith. That is, they will be delivered through their time of distress by their continuance in the faith. So, as in every other passage in the Bible, it is the faith that saves her – not the childbearing.

I hope this helps. God bless!!


RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Boy. Am I embarrassed. I typed 2 Timothy when I meant to type 1 Timothy 2:15. Please note the correction. Everything else is as I intended.

Sorry for the confusion. God bless!!


RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Concerning your comment on my post: I understand your point but I think you haven't addressed the real issue at hand. I'm fine with empirical evidence. If you want to test my claim about lights keeping away the monsters, have at it.


The critic in question seemed to believe that, as long as the assumption of naturalism seems to work, it doesn't need evidence. In his own words, "it doesn't need to be justified." I wanted to demonstrate that something seeming to work isn't necessarily evidence of its truthfulness.

You're welcome to test for the presence of monsters in the dark. You're welcome to test "flat-earth-ism." How do we test the fundamental tenet of naturalism? When I bring it up, why do the same people who demand empirical evidence suddenly retreat to "well, it works - so there!"?

Evolutionists accept certain things on faith. They just don't like to admit it.

Thanks for your comment. God bless!!

Steven J. said...

There is a point of view, propounded by some Christian creationists today, that the sun -- and a hundred billion galaxies as well -- does indeed orbit around the unrotating Earth once per day, their motions carefully calibrated by God's design so that they merely appear to match the predictions of a universe where the Earth rotates and orbits the sun in an elliptical orbit. It is remarkably difficult to convince these geocentrists otherwise: they have, after all, merely another interpretation of the same evidence. Your attack on methodological naturalism works equally well for their views as for yours.

If we allow the view that the laws of physics can be radically but undetectably altered when we're not looking at them, no observation can be trusted, no inference from these observations can be trusted, and even "operational" science is useless (if a Roman Catholic theologian wants to argue that the sacramental wafer has really been changed into the body and blood of Christ, but that spectroscopic and chemical testing can't detect this miraculous change, isn't it really a resort to baseless methodological naturalism to try to offer evidence to the contrary?

One might suppose that the myriad contradictory beliefs that can be sustained if one abandons methodological naturalism, coupled with the insight that they can't all be true simultaneously and in the same way, might serve as a sort of empirical evidence for the necessity of methodological naturalism.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

May I assume from your comments that no evidence for methodological naturalism is forthcoming? No worries; I really wasn't expecting any.

I could understand your frustration if you present evidence for heliocentrism and are stymied by an appeal to the supernatural and a God who just makes it seem that way. That's not what's going on here. I want to know what evidence you have for your philosophical assumption that every phenomenon has a natural cause.

It is painfully obvious that such a principle pure assumption. Why are people on your side so loathe to admit it? I ask rhetorically, of course. I already know why. The reason is painfully obvious as well.

God bless!!