Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Another Aphorism on Postmodern Times

"Never have so many been so certain of so much about which they know so little"--Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.

32 comments:

Weekend Fisher said...

Good one.

BlindBeggar said...

A great turn of words that communicates so much!

WES ELLIS said...

that's a great Quote!

Douglas Groothuis said...

Rebecca's comments help explain so much of postmodern glibness. Opinions are as good as truth, so why bother being serious about anything? "I know it because I know it--get over it," some think.

Quotidian Grace said...

SO true!

Fletcher said...

Great quote, and entirely relevant to my personal experiences in Christian witness. It is frustrating to learn of people's perceptions of the Christian faith during such discussions.

Many unbelievers I have talked to speak as though they are authorities on the matter, citing references such as "The Da Vinci Code", the "Jesus Seminar", and Peter Jennings. When presented with the Truth about Christianity, it is sad to see that usually no effort is spent in pursuit of these claims... many folks that I talk to opt to return to the Tattered Cover to get their hands on the latest Elaine Pagels book, or a throwback copy of "Holy Blood Holy Grail".

Eagerly awaiting the next Tom Hanks blockbuster,

Craig

dhyams said...

Quite true. The vast amounts of information available allows us to become casually versed in a plethora of subjects without actually requiring a true understanding of any of them. We open our mouth, and are soon dispensing copious quantities of Frankfurtian bovine excrement.

Douglas Groothuis said...

I asked students in my Intro to Philosophy class at Araphahoe Community class what their favorite book was. A distressing number answered, "The Da Vinci Code." Some in the class are teenagers! That is a new challenge for me.

Bill said...

Just because it's someone's favorite book doesn't mean they believe it's true. If my favorite book was The Odyssey, that wouldn't necessarily mean I believed Greek mythology was fact.

But it's interesting that is how you guys interpret those comments when people say they like The Da Vince Code.

Also, it's not like The Da Vinci Code or Holy Blood Holy Grail are terrible books. You may disagree with them, but they are entertaining. I find JKF an entertaining film even though most of the "facts" Olive Stone presents never really happened, either. There isn’t a huge entertainment difference between Da Vinci and JFK ...

One more thing, I have made this comment before, but Christianity isn't a fact. If it was, it wouldn't be called a religion. Saying Christianity is the “truth” is just as much as opinion as someone saying they believe every one of Dan Brown’s words.

And isn't Rebecca's comment just as glib as saying, "I know it because I know it -- get over it"? What's the difference? My guess is because you agree with the person. But if someone like Bill Maher made the "never have so many been so certain of so much about which they know so little" comment - I have a feeling you'd be saying that is the typical of the sound bite/glib media.

P.S.- Doug, thanks for the article on TV, I really enjoyed read it.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Bill:

Bill Mahr isn't that good. What Rebecca said hits him between the eyes. He pronounces on all kinds of things sans argument. Moreover, I have the context to know why Rebecca said it and to know it isn't glib.

Christianity is or is not factual: either/or. Determining its factuality is a matter of investigation. You seem to think that if something is disputed it cannot be factual. That doesn't follow. You confuse a fact with its being rationally established. In fact (!), there are many facts that no one knows (outside of God): 1. How many grains of sand exist in the world; 2. How many hairs are on my head; 3. How many times your heart beat in the last 7.67 years. And so on.

Best,
Doug

Small Group Guy said...

Along the "postmodern glibness" thought train The Dawn Treader Blog at: http://www.mrdawntreader.com is having a great discussion right now on relativism. I think it is quite relevant to discuss why people believe there opinions are as good as the truth.

Bill said...

Doug:

You make my point. For all of us who don't know Rebecca, her statement is glib. Like I said, it's not glib to you because 1) you know her and the context 2) you agree with her. But if Bill Maher, or Chris Matthews, or any other media talking head made that same comment without any context, you'd be criticizing him and how he doesn't really know "the truth."

Better still, what if Rebecca's quote was the tagline for a new scholarly, well researched book against the Bible or Christianity, would you still feel the same? If you can say yes, then you can say her comment isn't glib.

Bill said...

Doug:

I am playing devil's advocate (no pun intended) a bit about this topic since 90% of your comments are people just agreeing with you; and it makes it more interesting to have a dissenting opinion.

Susan said...

Bill brings up a crucial point about the written word, particularly on the blogs. Without the context of personal relationship we tend to bring into the reading of a post our own emotional and intellectual milieu and it skews our comprehension. The best way to assess Rebecca's fine statement is to get to know her, and if that is not possible, one can become well-acquainted with the books she has authored. That would provide a much better means of evaluation than how a single quote "strikes you" at any given time or in any given context.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

Just read and think about Rebecca's post.
"Never have so many been so certain of so much about which they know so little"--Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.
She does not name any particular group or person nor does she disparrage any particular group or person. Regardless of the authorship, when I read this above comment, I see it as proverbial wisdom that I should consider. I see the proverbial wisdom of this claim all over in our postmodern society (beginning with myself). If I am willing to look deeply into the mirror of this wisdom and then not walk away and forget the truth that was revealed, I can see myself at times acting like a person who is so certain about things that I know so little. I plan on holding on to her words and reviewing them regularly, because it may cause me to grow from being intentional about understanding things more deeply before deceptively believeing that I have arrived at a comfortable but superficial certainty!

BJ the Tornado said...

Bill:

Allow me to ask you something regarding a post of yours. You wrote:

"One more thing, I have made this comment before, but Christianity isn't a fact. Saying Christianity is the “truth” is just as much as opinion as someone saying they believe every one of Dan Brown’s words."

For purposes of clarity, let's bracket your whole above quoted words there and call that thing X.

Now, I ask you: Is X a fact?

If you claim to me that X is a fact, and I dispute you, will that then make X just an "opinion."? It would seem to me that your claim "Christianity is not a fact," sure sounds like you think it is a fact. But if I dispute you and claim that your statement "Christianity is not a fact" is not a fact, will that change the status of X's facthood? Will that then make it an opinion? If you claim that your claim X is not a fact, then I wonder why you said it.

It would seem that the matter of X's facthood is up for investigation, yes? Whether or not the statment "Christianity is not a fact" is a fact, would appear to be something that we would have to research.

Let me give you another example. A lot of people say things like, "Macro-evolution is not a fact." Well, their statement is making a clear truth claim (or fact claim). And that claim is one that we will need to research in order to know if the claim is a fact or not. Simply saying that it is an opinion doesn't change its facthood or non-facthood. It either is or it is not a fact. Our job is to figure that out.

What is incredible about Christianity is that its claims are historical, factual claims. That is, evidence can be brought for or against them. The claims of Christianity are verifiable or falsifiable. The same cannot be said of many other religions that make claims of a such a nature that no evidence could ever refute them or confirm them even in principle.

Here's a claim for you:

The human who walked the earth a couple thousand years ago from Nazereth named Jesus was killed and then three days later he rose from the dead.

That's a claim that is either a fact or it is not. If it is a fact, then I would go on to assert that the broad body of beliefs generally considered to constitute Christianity are also facts (that is, they are true). If the claim about Jesus's ressurection is not true (that is, not a fact) then I would assert that Christianity is also not true (not a fact).

I'm also willing to bet that in all other areas of your life outside of religion you live in such a way that things are either true or they are not true (regardless of whether you know, at the moment, or will ever know, if they are true or not). So why should the claims of religion be any different?

They shouldn't.

Bill said...

That's a lot to respond to, so I'll just touch on the part about my life.

Absolutely not do I look at things to be simply true or untrue. I realize that most things in life lay the grey, not the black and white. There are far more things I don't know, then I know. I am not cocky claim anything other than that. And as I get smarter, wiser; and we as humans learn more and more - I change. I would hope you do, too.

That is the beauty of science. It presumes to know nothing (I am simplifying , but you get my drift). Science looks for the best explanation possible, and when a new one is found, it moves on from there, until the picture gets clearer and clearer (again, simplifying but I am sure you understand the scientific method). Two thousand years ago, Christians claimed the world was flat and the Earth was the center of the Universe. So what happened to Galileo? He was deemed a heretic because his scientific views were different than what the Bible claimed. Those Christians knew the “truth” and had their “opinions” too.

Science doesn’t have to take a hard stance about knowing the truth about anything, because the truth changes over time. Christianity doesn’t really allow that sort of evolution (pun intended). You stated that if we could historically prove Jesus died and rose from the dead, that would mean Christianity was mostly true. Science would never make that kind of jump. Just because we can prove one species evolved, doesn’t mean they/we all did. See the difference? Science doesn’t allow one thing to prove all others.

More importantly, if somehow tomorrow Christianity could be proved through the scientific method, science would embrace what was claimed in the Bible and Christianity. And that is one of the things that makes science great; it allows for new evidence, opinions and truths. Yet if tomorrow somehow science disproved Christianity, you guys would never support science.

So no, in my own life I do not look at everything to be either true or untrue. To me, that’s a pretty narrow way to view an ever-changing world. But that’s just me.

John Stockwell said...

Metaphysically speaking, science operates on a relatively simpler level than religions and worldview philosophies. The ontology of science consists of a barebones set of assumptions: uniformity, objectifiability, persistence of phenomena, and causality.

These notions are consistent with our normal experience and allow us to identify and describe regular behavior of phenomena. Such descriptions of regularity are often referred to as "natural law".

Epistemologically, in science we are restricted to those aspects of our experience that we can have some possiblility of understanding (comprehensibility) with human intellect,
describing with human language (communicability), and to those things that we can observe with the human senses
(apprehensibility). In each case, we allow that we can augment human capacities with technology. Hence our capacities in each of these areas differ over time. (This is
not all, but all we need for this discussion.)

The results of scientific investigation have clarified our knowledge of the world around us, often contradicting the historical traditions of religions.

The dilemma for the believer has been whether to give ground to scientific notions, at the risk of violating doctrine or dogma, or to meet the challenge.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Are all aphorisms glib? No! Her statement is true and rational, not glib.

Ed Darrell said...

Not glib, and it so perfectly catches the spirit of so many who argue for things they know little about -- including many apologists who use the device against giving good information about sex to kids, against evolution and other science, in support of politicians who act contrary to their supporters' interests, etc.

It's a warning to all of us. As Will Rogers observed, "It's not what we don't know that gets us into trouble; it's what we know that ain't true."

Fletcher said...

While we cannot empirically PROVE the truth claims of Christianity, we can certainly scrutinize and investigate them using the same criteria that we use to validate (or invalidate) other claims in history. To say that knowledge (justifiable true belief) is limited to the hard sciences is to rule out by default that we can know anything about a set of "religious" beliefs. The reason why I wrote of Christianity as being "The Truth" in an earlier post, is because after extensive scrutiny and study of its' truth claims (initially aimed at disproving them by the way), I have come to the conclusion that it is HIGHLY likely that these claims are in fact objectively true. Sure, this has profound metaphysical implications, but that doesn't rule it out of the "pool of possibilities" just because some may not like it to be true (a preference or opinion).

For example, if you are willing to examine the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus... you will find that it makes a lot more sense to believe that what the New Testament texts are in fact true, than to believe what is written in say, "The Da Vinci" code. This includes a study on the historical validity of the New Testament texts themselves, and a study on extrabiblical references. Again, using the same criteria that we use to discern the claims of other ancient texts, you’ll find that the NT (and MANY other extrabiblical sources) not only stand up to these criteria, but they come out looking like shining stars. Or, if you just look at the empirical evidence for "a god", you'll find, if you're willing to even consider it (willing being they key here) that it makes much more sense, and requires a lot LESS faith, to in fact believe that there is a real, living God that created the universe and everything in it, intentionally.

Sadly, most are not willing to devote the energy into such an investigation, so therefore they will never know The Truth. I suspect that this reluctance is due to misconceptions about Christianity (wrong answers to the question “what IS Christianity?”), coupled with a fear that Christianity might actually be true, so therefore it would “cramp my style”.

Doug cited Os Guinness earlier: “Christianity isn’t true because it works, it works because it’s true”.

nancy said...

Moreover, limiting knowledge to the hard sciences proves Rebecca’s point! Science does not exist in a vacuum but is rather built upon and conducted along certain philosophical presuppositions (as John noted). Additionally “the conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests on ands uses to reach those conclusions” (Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult p. 136).

It is a bit naïve to assume that science is about black and white facts. Rather scientists must interpret the facts against a background of data that can be quite cloudy. This does not begin to exhaust the uncertainty related to the interference of the measurement device in the experiment or the insufficiency of the measurement device to capture all of the relevant data. The scientist must also exercise judgment in choosing a theory or line of pursuit. It is also expected that the scientist will honestly present results for peers to review. Does anyone want to argue that the awarding of federal grants for scientific research is void of politics?

Yes, science continues to shed additional light on our physical universe (Bill – truth does not change), but its underpinnings of philosophical naturalism that exist today limit science from pursuing truth wherever it may lead. Finally, the truth that science may unveil indeed has its limitations as Pascal notes “Knowledge of the physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science” (23/67).

Douglas Groothuis said...

Nancy:

I agree. Good chops. Start that blog!

DRG

John Stockwell said...

The simple metaphysics of science is very much the same as that assumed by the religious person conducts his/her daily business or when he/she blythely assumes that words in his/her religious text have not shuffled around between readings.
Even worldview philosphies that hold that our experience of the world is illusiary will admit that the illusion is a convincing one because of its uniformity.

There is no quarter for the religious person who would attempt to cast doubt upon the results of science by metaphysical arguments, alone. To argue against the metaphysics of science is to argue against the everyday metaphysics that we all live by. Religions and worldview philosophies may add to or allow punctuations of that commonsense view, but they cannot replace it.

John Stockwell said...

To address a couple more of Nancy's points.

Science does have a political aspect in terms of what gets funded. However, to a large degree, scientists study what they want to study, making much of proposal writing an exercise in spindoctoring the scientists specialty into a form that fits the expectations of the reviewer.

Science also has a political aspect in terms of the dynamic personalities involved in research. However, there comes a time for all of us in the fields of science to act as the (anonymous, if we desire) judge and jury of scientific papers. Peer review, while not perfect, does help improve the product by running the paper against an extra pair of eyes.

Even this is not perfect. The fact big scientific fame is tied to *overthrowing* reigning paradigms, and that scientists eventually are taken out of the game by old age and death, allows for further opportunities for turnover. It's not perfect, but it is the best we have.

As to Nancy's further claim regarding "metaphysical naturalism" this criticism obviously stems from a foggy understanding of science promoted by the writings of individuals such as attorney Phil Johnson.

Johnson is a really good lawyer. He is engaging totally in a long winded legal argument, and has done it so well that many people actually think that he is addressing issues of science, or at the least, the philosophy of science. Whatever politics may exist in science, this does not justify doing science *by* political fiat, as the ID movement would have us do.

Ed Darrell said...

The rejection of naturalism as a method to know God's creation is, in my experience, a mental disease. Certainly, where one has a choice of measurement methods, one method may work better than another.

But where we use the same measures, it is not really accurate to say that a choice of using a hard scientific measure is a philosophical choice. If the butcher tilts the scales with his thumb, surely it is a moral matter. But if the butcher gives good weight, then it is a distortion of reality to say that what is weighed may not be what the scales say.

It is a moral issue, it seems to me, to urge that we should disbelieve accurate measures.

The sunlight is warm; claims that it is cold should be rejected. Water is wet; claims to the contrary are attempts to mislead us. The Earth is what it is, often directly from the Creator's hand -- to deny that it manifests what it manifests is ultimately a denial of the creation, and of the Creator.

Listen to Mr. Stockwell. He puts in more techinical terms what Will Rogers warned us against. Rejecting an interpretation of facts is one thing; rejecting the facts themselves is quite another. We may not like the facts we get. That is not justification for rejecting them.

nancy said...

John, I think we would concur that despite the current imperfections in the contemporary conduct of science, we do generally gain greater and greater knowledge about the physical world. Like Pascal said in his “Preface to the Treatise on the Vacuum”, “Truth should always have the advantage, even when newly discovered, since it is always older than every opinion men have held about it.”

With regards to Phillip Johnson, I have not read his work in many years. But lest Rebecca’s aphorism be posted to my hind side I’ll defer to the professional philosophers DeWeese and Moreland. “Science presupposes methodological naturalism but not philosophical naturalism, and the two should not be confused” (Philosophy Made Slightly Less Difficult, p. 145) I stand corrected in my above post when I confused these two terms. DeWeese and Moreland distinguish empirical science and historical science. Though methodological naturalism is proper in the study of the natural world, it is insufficient in the historical sciences, such as archaeology and forensic science, in which the intent and motives of an intelligent agent must be discerned. With regards to the ID debate. DeWeese and Moreland note that though some make the “philosophical claim that ID theory isn’t even science in the first place. It is this philosophical claim that we reject. The inadequacy of methodological naturalism and the genuine scientific nature of ID theory are widely acknowledge by philosophers of science, even among those who are atheists and who believe ID theory is actually false” (ibid, 146). So it seems unfair to pin this all on the musings of a slick lawyer.

Ed, to clarify my view, I do not discount that rigorous science provides us with facts about the world in which we live. I’ve spent the last 15 years, of my professional career, assisting scientist and engineers in the collection, analysis, and presentation of data from laboratory experiments. I thoroughly enjoy learning more about the world through the interaction with my clients. I have learned that the “facts” can be cloudy at times and even when they are not cloudy, conclusions may not be justified by the facts. When I speak of facts that may be cloudy I am not discounting the obvious experience that the sun is warm. However, the art of accurately measuring physical phenomena in the laboratory, even something as basic as temperature, is not always as simple as going outside and reading a thermometer.

John Stockwell said...

To Nancy. It is not generally agreed by scientists that any such distinction between "historical" and "empirical" sciences actually exists.

Science is not about studying reproduceable events, it is about studying evidence a reproduceable way. For example a field such as historical geology is most definitely an "empirical science."

Of course certain individuals would like to cast doubt by fiat on the old-earth, no-global flood results that are well established by the community of earthscientists, so the false dichotomy of "historical" versus "empircal sciences" is a natural one to employ in order to "divide and conquer".

As to ID, if it is science at all, which is not apparent that it is, it science of a very weak type akin to "paranormal investigations" or to a science-like forms of augury such as astrology.

In each case, there is a rule that is stated for identifying the action of an otherwise unobservable, and unmodelable phenomenon. In each case no scientific theory exists for why that particular rule and not another is to be employed.

When the scientific deficiency of the field is pointed out by critics, proponents of the field resort to weak pleading of the form of "ID is not a mechanical theory" or "the stars incline but do not control" is employed.

In addition, it is claimed by the promoters of the field in question that it is a "deficiency of science" that is the reason that the alleged phenomenon is not accepted as being real.

When people say that ID is pseudoscience, I think that they have hit the nail on the head.

nancy said...

John, your caricature of ID as a group of individuals attempting to impose a young-earth, global flood view on the rest of the world completely misrepresents the views, intent and aim of ID as proposed by the theorists. I’m sure that you are aware that many who hold to the ID theory believe the earth is old and the flood was limited.

Proponents of ID merely state that purposeless, non-intelligent and chance causes cannot adequately explain the origins of life. Some ID theorists (if memory serves me correctly) would even adhere to a common ancestor for most if not all of life. That some followers of ID would have grander ambitions does not discredit the goals and intents of those who have worked to develop the theory and those who have endeavored to accurately understand it.

ID does not want to eliminate natural causes from the purview of science, but rather very carefully, and in limited cases, augment naturalism with the purpose of an intelligent designer at work in the world. For instance, where methodological naturalism may limit scientific investigation of accidents of nature such as vestigial parts or junk DNA, the ID theorist would say “Hm…that can’t just be a random mistake of chance and necessity, there must be some purpose for that thing, lest go investigate the thing and discover its purpose.” ID does not limit science but expands it.

Many may disagree with ID theory, but affirm that it has earned a seat at the table. As Dr. Philip Skell (member of the National Academy of Science and prof of Chemistry at Penn State) said in an open letter to the South Caroline Education Oversight Committee, “Intellectual freedom is fundamental to the scientific method.” Not only does Dr Skell expose the philosophical underpinnings of neo-Darwinism in his letter, but he suggests that education on the origins of life should not be limited to evolutionary theory, but should also include the valid criticisms of the theory.

John Stockwell said...

Dear Nancy,

Indeed, the ID group is more ecumenical than the young-earth global-flood crowd, but they often employ the same methods, just as you are doing with your comments about "junk DNA" and "vistigal organs".

First of all, it is the theory of evolution that tells us to look for a selective advantage in the retention of structures in organisms. There is nothing in the term "vestigal" that says that the bodypart in question is "nonfunctional" only that its "function" if it has one, may not be the same as that of the homologous structure in other organisms.

As to "junk DNA" the "junk" designation came from when it was believed that the only thing DNA did was to code for proteins. Again, it is the theory of evolution that points us in the direction of seeking an explanation for their retention.

Indeed, it was not "ID theorists" who discovered any of these things. Nor does ID tell us what we should expect to see. Where are the scientific papers by ID'ists showing how the "designer" aways reuses and modifies exhisting parts, and never seems to create anything really novel, fully formed.

However, ID proponents will often trot these particular chestnuts out, as did their young-earth global-flood creationist bretheren decades ago.

Regarding Dr. Skell, I can only point you to a couple of web sites regarding his comments
http://www.idurc.org/interviews/skell0605.htm

Here, he basically states that both ID and evolution (as related to what he calls "historical biology") are unscientific. So, this doesn't really win points for ID as a science.

Some commentary from another site:

http://pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/creationist_e_mail_phil_skell/

which indicates that Dr. Skell seems to be playing some of the same sort of games that traditional creationists play, such as asking questions of obfuscation, rather than questions that illuminate important issues.

Whatever the case, it is clear that Dr. Skell hasn't done any science related to evolution. He may not be doing any science at all, anymore, for that matter. (He is an old guy.)

Ed Darrell said...

Phil Skell is not "many."

Heck, even the big money IDists at the Discovery Institute say that ID hasn't earned a spot at any science table.

What is it with philosophers who want to wonder about what could be if, but then forget that "if" hasn't happened?

John Stockwell said...

Dear Ed and Nancy,

I believe that part of the reason that there continues to be a controversy in the public regarding evolution is, in part, that scientists have not really figured out a proper protocol for disseminating information to the public.

We see in popularized science (pop sci) books presentations of current results, but also the scientist may decide to use his or her book as a "bully pulpit" to state personal political views or views about philosophy and religion.

The scientifically knowledgeable person knows enough to filter out those items, and to pay attention only to the science parts. Indeed, scientists themselves come from the entire spectrum of religious and political persuasions, yet we do not have bitter conflicts over those sorts of things among ourselves.

It's not like we are being polite, or something, it is that when we are doing science we talk about purely scientific issues, because that is the topic of import. We know where the science stops in our discussions.

As I have argued in my previous messages, the ontology of science is a simple one, and is unchanging. Scientists are not making ontological statements when they are talking about scientific theories, they are making epistemological statements. The most powerful epistemological structure that exists in science is that which is called "theory".

A theory is a metaphysically-light but data-heavy structure describes and organizes the knowledge of the day regarding a particular phenomena or collection of phenomena, but also has predictive power.

A theory is a model, or may be expressed as one or more models. When scientists talk about evolution being the result of a process of a "random" input, that part of a model. That model reflects what is observed as the mechanism for the origin of new traits, which is to say the various mechanisms of mutation. (Certianly, natural selection is not random, nor is chemistry, or any of the other aspects of physical science that interface in issues of biology.)

The use of the world "random" is not an ontological statement, and should not be viewed as such.