Tillich-ish, Pt. Nineteen: Wrong Base Assumption
[I got to spend some time with our mutual friend W.] The conversation was amazing, as you’d expect. … There were a handful of things I’ll definitely be giving some more thought, and probably writing to W about, and copying you. Here are probably the top two. I made a point about how infinite actual or possible religions could fit with cosmology, morality, and meaning the way that Christianity does. W pushed back: Are there infinite possibilities that fit equally well? He contends that Christianity fits, not exclusively, but best. Second, W is skeptical that evolution can fully explain life, along lines of intelligent design and irreducible complexity. I acknowledge how some of those arguments may seem compelling, but most actual experts believe that evolution is in fact fully adequate to explain life—so what do we do with that, form a conspiracy theory or something? W offered the first decent answer I’ve heard to that question: It’s nothing like that. “All you need is the wrong base assumption.” Then it compounds and reinforces from there. Huh. So I’ll be giving these things some more thought.
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I’ll save the infinite possibilities matter for my response to our earlier thread, but I would just want to caution that no evolutionary theory as a scientific theory claims that evolutionary theory fully explains life. As a scientific theory it makes the much more modest claim that the variety of life can be explained by a number of natural factors including random genetic mutation, environmental pressures, and the heritability of selectively adaptive prodigy variation. It’s not a theory of origins. It’s not a theory of meaning. As such, unless one is defending a literalist view of scripture, I think there’s no reason to react against it unless the proponents move it from being a scientific theory to a religious claim, i.e. that it shows there is no ultimate purpose or meaning to the empirical world, that there is no divinity, etc. Opposing evolution on religious grounds is a bad idea… just as bad as opposing religion on evolutionary grounds.
At any rate, what about “All you need is the wrong base assumption” was compelling to you? And what did he see as the wrong base assumption?
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Here is the trail of thought I’m following:
How do experiences of things like love, courage, and joy entail the ultimate meaningfulness of life?
They “entail” no such thing. They whisper of it, and faith lives into it. How? Phenomenologically, they are self-justifying. The experience of ultimate good (subject/object transcendence) is the experience of ultimate good. Completely circular, you say? Yep. It’s the circle of faith. Is there any objective verification? Nope.
You acknowledge complete circularity, and a lack of objective verification. Well… this imposes absolutely no limits, right? There are infinite possible circular and unverifiable systems. You might answer that the subjective sense of happiness or fulfillment or meaningfulness imposes some limits, and that’s true. But there are still infinite possible circular and unverifiable systems that can give a sense of meaningfulness.
The issue is not one of systems at this point. Systems are the beliefs that are formulated as a result of the experiences we are considering (the realities we are pointing to with words like love, courage, joy). I think systems can be (and have been) spun out in all kinds of different directions in an effort to give structure to phenomenologically similar experiences (they also drive our interpretation of experience, but that’s another matter). What we are dealing with here is the question of how we can know that our experiences of what we take to be ultimately meaningful properties really are ultimately meaningful. That is to say, how we can know that our selves and our actions have any significance beyond our experiences of significance.
And my answer to that question is that we can’t know that. But faith takes this objective doubt into itself and lives into the possibility of an affirmative answer.
As for justifying your faith, just as the experience of truth, love, joy, peace, etc… justify themselves, so faith is justified (or not) in its living. It is never justified objectively after the fashion of a scientific or historic theory. And even in its living the ultimate objective risk remains.
Re: Christianity as a system. I say cut the systemic formulated belief character of Christianity some slack. It, like all religious systems, is an all too human attempt to make sense of something which it has encountered and which it does its best to preserve in all its historically conditioned particularity. We need to get get beneath the systematic theoretical appearances to the wild beauty that it attempts to transmit. If those of us who have had our critical impulse piqued can’t imagine such a distinction we will either be repressed fundamentalists or leave the faith behind.
Let me know what you think.
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P.S. Check out the papers section at the Faraday Institute out of Cambridge for some good stuff on science and religion. They also have some lectures on iTunes U.