Picking up where we left off yesterday, most of Feser’s post is devoted to a hypothetical dialogue between a scientist and a skeptic who thinks that science is all a lot of nonsense. The idea is to make Jerry Coyne’s objections to theology seem silly, by showing the absurdity of comparable objections leveled at science. As I see it, however, Feser has been more successful at showing how science is different from theology. Here is the first exchange:
Skeptic: I’m trying to learn science so I can meet head-on the argument that we science critics are ignorant of the subject. So, under the tutelage of the estimable Bruno Latour, I have spent several weeks reading this stuff. And so far, I’ve learned only three things. First of all, I’m wasting my time reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact when I could be learning about real things instead. Second, scientists can’t write. A lot of what they have to say is obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate because of reason three (which I’ll get to in a minute). I have for example, just opened Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam by John Wheeler to a random chapter. And there I find this:
“On the other hand, when we see time symmetry marred in an elementary process, when we contemplate the writhings of spacetime in wormholes and quantum foam, when we see tiny deviations from Dirac’s predictions for the electron produced by quantum fluctuations, we realize that the “floor” of simplicity as we move to smaller and smaller domains is illusory. Beneath that floor, in still smaller domains, chaos and complexity reign again.”
Believe me, the book contains paragraphs far more obscure and pretentious than this one. Can you imagine reading this stuff night after night? Do you see why my head feels about to explode? Bruno, why are you doing this to me?
Scientist: Well, it’s easy to make fun of serious ideas by ripping them out of context. Actually understanding them is a different story. Wheeler is an important thinker, and you quite obviously haven’t the faintest understanding of what he’s saying.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Feser’s discussion of the Wheeler quote is a reply to this statement from Jerry:
Theologians can’t write. A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate because of reason 3 (below). I have for example, just opened my book (An Introduction to Christian Theology, edited by Roger A. Badham) to a random chapter, which turned out to be “Process theology and the current church struggle” by John B. Cobb, Jr. (Process theology holds that god is not immutable but changes over time, and so does his creation, not totally under his direction.) And there I find this, in a discussion of Alfred North Whitehead (one of the founders of this “school”):
But each occasion transcends the causality of the past by responding to it with more or less originality. This requires that physical prehensions are supplemented by “conceptual” ones. Thus, in addition to prehending past events, an occasion also takes account of possibilities ingredient in those events or closely related to them. Just how it relates these possibilities to the actualities it feels is its “decision.” That means that in a situation that is inherently indeterminate, there is a determinate outcome Other possibilities are cut off.
Believe me, the book contains paragraphs far more obscure and pretentious than this one. Can you imagine reading this stuff night after night? Do you see why my head feels about to explode? Eric, why are you doing this to me?
Let’s compare the Wheeler quote with the Cobb quote. Wheeler’s statement certainly contains lots of jargon, a fact that no doubt makes it incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the relevant physics. But the fact remains that phrases like “spacetime,” and “quantum foam” have precise definitions that you can find with a few minutes of Googling, or by talking to an actual physicist. And once you know what the strange words mean, you can also quickly make sense of what Wheeler is saying. Moreover, a qualified physicist could quickly tell you why “spacetime” and “quantum foam” are useful notions.
For the most part that is not the case with the Cobb quote. This is not a matter of technical theology jargon preventing a beginner from understanding Cobb’s point. We have instead an instance of perfectly ordinary words being used in ways that don’t make sense. Even when you understand what all the words mean the idea Cobb is trying to express remains opaque.
I hedged slightly in the last paragraph because some of what is mysterious in Cobb’s quote does become clearer when you understand the idiosyncratic ways in which process theologians sometimes express themselves. No doubt it seems weird to speak of an occasion “transcending” something or “responding with originality”, not to mention the strange notion that an occasion can feel or make decisions. It will help to know that within process theology events (or occasions) are considered the fundamental units of reality (as opposed to physical objects), and they are said to have free will no less than human things. Given that premise, Cobb’s anthropomorphisms are somewhat comprehensible. But understanding this much just leaves you wondering frantically why anyone would apply a notion like free will to an inanimate object, or why such strange ideas about the nature of reality are either helpful or likely to be correct. Nor is it much help in understanding Cobb’s point, which appears to have something to do with the future not being determined by the past.
Perhaps it’s unfair to try to assess Cobb’s point on the basis of just a few sentences. But I have read enough process theology to know that you simply never come to the moment where their point is suddenly clear. Instead it’s just sentence after sentence of gibberish.
In short, the great science writers seem to value clarity above all else, and when they use jargon or technical language you can be sure the jargon has a precise definition and the technical language is absolutely essential. The great theologians cannot say the same, at least in my opinion.
There is a second point to be made. Feser opens his post with:
A reader alerts me that Jerry Coyne, whose philosophical efforts we had occasion recently to evaluate, has been reading some theology — “under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald,” Coyne tells us. And who is Eric MacDonald? A neutral party to the debate between theologians and New Atheist types like Coyne, right? Well, not exactly. Turns out MacDonald is “an ex-Anglican priest” who has been “wean[ed]… from his faith,” and who claims that “religious beliefs and doctrines not only have no rational basis, but are, in fact, a danger to rational, evidence-based thinking.”
This helps explains Jerry’s reference to “Eric” in the quoted passage. Feser’s observation that MacDonald has a low opinion of theology (while being very well-trained in the subject, we should add) might be relevant if MacDonald had said something like “You should learn theology entirely from reading my blog posts.” Actually, though, MacDonald just recommended a few books to Jerry (one of which was mentioned specifically above.) That book, at least, hardly seems like a tome designed to make theology look bad. It is instead a collection of essays written by scholars with good reputations in the fields they are addressing. If Feser wants to argue that MacDonald’s reading list is irretrievably biased in some way then he should just say so. Otherwise this just looks like a straightforward ad hominem attack. He is trying to cast suspicion on MacDonald’s suggestions not because those suggestions are poor, but because of something MacDonald believes.
This also shows why Feser’s invocation of Latour is inapt. Latour was known for his contributions to “science studies,” as opposed to science itself. He has a poor reputation among scientists for his endorsement of certain dubious ideas about the social construction of science. Feser is trying to suggest that, just as Latour would be generally considered an unreliable source for learning about science, MacDonald is an unreliable source for learning about theology. But to make the comparison correct we would need to know what Latour instructed the skeptic to read. To judge from Feser’s hypothetical exchange, the skeptic was told to read Wheeler’s autobiography, which certainly would be an odd recommendation to someone wanting to learn some basic science. MacDonald, by contrast, recommended a book edited by a reputable scholar and called An Introduction to Christian Theology. Certainly seems like a decent suggestion.
Let’s move on to the next exchange:
Skeptic: Oh brother, here we go again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” You always say that. Then comes the Courtier’s reply: “Learn the science before commenting on it!” But now that I have learned it, even that’s not enough for you. Why don’t you just finally admit that science is like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? I mean, “geons” and “quantum foam” are only the beginning. This Wheeler guy goes on about tons of other crackpot stuff, like “black holes,” “muons,” “cosmic rays,” “wave-particle duality,” and “It from Bit,” whatever the hell that means.
Scientist: But my point is that you haven’t “learned the science.” Just reading a book doesn’t mean anything if you’re not even trying to understand it. And you’ve more or less admitted that you’re not — you’re only interested in scoring a debating point against those who’ve exposed your lack of knowledge of science. There’s nothing obscure or crackpot about anything Wheeler said. He’s just using technical terminology. But the ideas are complicated and are the result of decades or even centuries of scientific developments. You can’t seriously expect to understand it all just by mining a couple of books over the weekend for passages you can make smart-ass remarks about.
This actually gets to the heart of the matter, as I see it. As already discussed, all of those bits of jargon to which the skeptic points have rigorous definitions in the literature, and physicists can give precise, detailed reasons for believing that they refer to actual things in nature. They can point to the experiments and data that led people to hypothesize such ideas, and they can point to the successful predictions the ideas allow.
Thus, the skeptic is simply showing his ignorance in referring to black holes or cosmic rays as crackpot ideas. The proper response is to refer him to some basic textbooks in astronomy. Of course, the skeptic might just fol\d his arms and shake his head no matter what you do. But the fact remains that virtually everyone acknowledges that consistent predictive accuracy is a strong reason for accepting a scientific idea. Science works, after all.
By contrast, the person who says, “Original sin is a vapid idea with no basis in reality,” is not committing the same error. You certainly can not show him the practical successes of original sin in explaining much of anything. (Spare me the arguments about how original sin permits us to explain the frequently poor behavior of human beings towards one another.) You can refer him to books that explain the history of the idea, or to the different interpretations people have given it over the centuries, but that does not answer the skeptic’s objection. The problem is that no one would ever have come up with the idea of original sin were it not for certain passages in the Bible, and no good reason can be given for thinking that those passages offer any genuine insight into humanity’s spiritual condition. When modern scholars write books explaining how to reconcile original sin with modern science (which shows, among other things, that Adam and Eve never existed), for example, they are hard-pressed to explain why we should have confidence in the correctness of their novel interpretations.
The same can be said for other theological notions, like the triune God or transubstantiation. The problem is not that theology is often difficult or makes use of jargon that can be offputting to a beginner. It is that, even after you have invested the time to understand what is actually being claimed, there still is no good reason for thinking that any of it is true.
Feser’s next exchange addresses this point:
Skeptic: But why waste time trying to understand it when these scientists never show how what they’re saying tells us anything about reality in the first place? Because that’s the third thing I’ve learned. There seems to be no “knowledge” behind science. One gets the strong sense when reading science that everyone is just making stuff up. There are few arguments for relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, etc. at all in what I read. People just assume these things are real and go from there.
Scientist: What are you talking about? Lots of scientists have argued for those things, at length!
But this is just getting silly. Even the most ardent religious fundamentalist does not claim there is no knowledge behind science or that scientists routinely just make stuff up. They might demur from a particular scientific consensus, but they usually bend over backward to emphasize their great love for science. That is because they can see as well as anyone that science produces tangible results. They have no problem with the idea that consistent predictive accuracy (among other characteristics of good science) is a sound reason for accepting a scientific idea.
What science brings to the table in this discussion is a set of investigative methods that everyone regards as legitimate. That is precisely what theology lacks. There is no compelling answer to be given to the question, “How do you know“original sin” refers to anything real?” let alone “How do you know that Smith’s understanding of original sin is right and Johnson’s is wrong?”
Skeptic: Not in what I’ve read these last few weeks. For example, read a book like Gregory’s Eye and Brain and you’ll find he talks about how evolution did this or how photons do that. But he never gives us any argument for the existence of these “photon” thingies, and he never answers all the objections people have made to evolution. It’s all based on faith.
Scientist: He doesn’t address those things at length because the book is about vision, and not photons or evolution per se. He can take that stuff for granted because other people have argued for it elsewhere. He isn’t even trying to answer skeptics about evolution or modern physics in a book like that. Really, do you expect every science book to start from square one and recapitulate what others have already said about every issue that might be relevant to a subject, just to satisfy skeptics like you?
I’m not sure what this is apropos of. Jerry ends his post by asking several questions, such as whether theology has progressed or whether it can fairly be said to have produced actual knowledge. He opened the post by criticizing one essay in an anthology about Christian theology. But I don’t see any place where he criticizes a specific piece of writing for not answering questions it was never intended to answer.
Feser continues the dialogue through several more exchanges, but they add little to what we have already seen. He then writes this:
Now, Coyne would be outraged by our Skeptic, and rightly so. But replace “Skeptic” with “Coyne,” “Scientist” with “Theologian,” and so forth, and I submit that you’ve got a dead-on summary of Coyne’s attitude toward theology. Of course, Coyne and his ilk will insist that the cases are different. But what you will never get from them is an actual argument for this claim, or at least not an argument that doesn’t beg the question.
Of course, the two cases are transparently different. It is in the nature of science that its practitioners must strive for the utmost clarity (because other people must in principle be able to replicate their results). Not so for theology. Science writing may contain jargon and technical sections, but the jargon is ultimately defined rigorously and the technicalities are essential to expressing the ideas properly. By contrast, so much theological writing is impenetrable not because there is difficult, technical vocabulary to master, but simply because obscure writing is employed where it is unnecessary. (Seriously, do you really want to argue that Cobb chose the clearest way of expressing whatever point he was trying to make?) Science has investigative methods the everyone regards as legitimate, and it proves its value in very practical ways. Theology does not.
The fact is that Feser might simply have given clear answers to Coyne’s four questions, but he chose instead to write that silly dialogue. The only one of Coyne’s questions he even addresses is the question of God’s existence, and his answer is that Aquinas’s five ways, especially the cosmological argument, provide a rational basis for belief. Not many philosophers agree, of course, and for good reason.
For all my criticisms of Feser in these last two posts, I would genuinely be interested in reading his answers to Coyne’s other questions. But after long experience I am not optimistic that I will find those answers convincing.