In accordance with my standing as an outsider, I’ve been increasingly inclined over the years to make up my own mind about matters of philosophical theology, attendance of religious ceremonies, and matters of faith. I am unimpressed by the tenured faculty member who proudly proclaims his atheism, unless he can show that he or she has actually read a few lines of the New Testament — or has an explanation for those curious events many of us have experienced that don’t quite add up, given the materialist view of the universe.
These days I think of myself as a Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian. What does that mean, and how does it differ from some kind of fundamentalism?
First, I’ve long accepted the idea that Western civilization is the scene of a long cold war between two worldviews. One is that of Christendom in a broad sense — the worldview of Christianity. The second is materialism, or materialist naturalism. There are other worldviews, but they are not major players, at least not at the moment. And there are several variations on both Christianity and materialist naturalism. There are the many Christian denominations, that is, leading to struggles over how you identify a person as a Christian. And there is Marxist materialism, which differs quite a bit from the varieties of materialism found in the so-called capitalist world.
I am more interested in what they have in common than where they differ. What all forms of Christianity have in common is the existence and centrality of the Christian God, and the believer’s fealty to His dictates, including how Christian salvation occurs (Jesus Christ). Can God’s existence be proven? is one of the most longstanding debates in philosophical theology, or in Western philosophy generally. The upshot of over 2,000 years of conversation is: probably not. The three most widely studied arguments for God’s existence of interest to philosophers, the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, all face well-known and daunting criticisms. But where do we go from here? is the really interesting question. We can, of course, simply become atheists. But atheism does not follow logically from the failures of the arguments. How about agnosticism? Agnosticism might seem to be on safer ground epistemologically, but not existentially. Sooner or later, you must choose. Do I believe, or do I disbelieve? You must commit to one or the other. And be willing to accept the consequences. To refuse to talk about it and live a life under the assumption that belief in God has no part to play in it is to commit to God’s nonexistence. Are there grounds for belief, absent a decisive argument for God’s existence? Is an argument for the existence of a Being such as God even a good idea? An argument is possible that it is not, that such arguments really are a misuse of whatever rational faculties we have, however construed.
From the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) we obtain the idea that the human mind is structured to operate in a world of three dimensions plus time. He developed this idea in great detail in Critique of Pure Reason. To make this as easy as possible and hopefully without oversimplifying too much, Kant had the idea that the world of experience is a kind of construction of consciousness, via forms of intuition (space, time) and categories of the understanding. Reality apart from the constituting human consciousness is an unknowable Ding-an-Sich (thing-in-itself). To make this a tad more accessible, all we need to say is that we cannot step outside our humanness, to see what reality looks like from a totally neutral vantage point, outside the structure our conscious intellects bring to experience. You cannot cease being human. You don’t have a “God’s eye point of view.” If God exists, only He has a “God’s eye point of view,” standing outside of space and time. Subtract the theistic element here, and we have what has been a common theme of much subsequent philosophy, explaining the increasing importance assigned to such matters as historicity, culture-centeredness, and so on. For if it is true that we cannot cease being human, nor can we cease being members of particular cultures. How to construe these apparently genuine limits on our cognition remains a problem, because if they are pursued too far in the extreme, they lead to various forms of self-stultifying relativism and subjectivism.
A realist, non-constructionist version of Kant’s ideas is possible that would enable us to avoid a variety of problems. It would hold that our world of experience, of physical nature, is real insofar as it goes, as indicated by our ability to act effectively in it. The objects of experience, that is, are real, but our experience is only of certain elements of them. I have a visual experience of the table my computer is sitting on as I type this, that is, but not of the atoms and molecules which comprise the table, and given the limitation of my visual perception resulting from the way my eye, optic nerve, and visual center in my brain is put together, this is to be expected. Physical nature extends beyond the senses, in other words, and this is the testimony of modern theoretical physics.
Physical nature, too, hardly needs to exhausts reality (as materialism asserts). Theoretical physics supports this idea as well. Theoretical physics is based on higher mathematics, not experience; higher mathematics is, in turn, based on necessity. It is not arbitrary, even if we can find many cultures that make no use of it. The mathematics of, e.g., superstring theory, appears to require higher dimensions: nine, according to one count (the number may have increased). The details are unimportant for our purposes. All that is required is that we be realists about mathematical objects and their ontological implications, as it is unclear what our being something else (nominalists?) would amount to. We find ourselves in a transcendental reality vastly different from the world we experience, something that was evident over a hundred years ago when Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) was writing.
The most advanced modern science, in this case, is at variance with the requirements of materialism but compatible with Christianity. Note carefully: compatibility is a logical relation. Two propositions are compatible if both can be true in the same possible universe. Physical science may not prove or even offer direct evidence for the existence of any deity, or set out to do so. It, like experience, begins with the assumption of a physical universe of three spatial dimensions plus time, at least until reasons appeared for questioning that assumption. Its presuppositions that this universe is both ordered (not chaotic) and that its order is comprehensible to the human mind, are suggestive. For are these presuppositions true? What does it mean to ask this?
All of which brings us to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Some historians of ideas label Kierkegaard’s philosophy “Christian existentialism.” He himself had no label for it, and would have rejected labels. And he would have been suspicious of the above presuppositions, which are just too easy — thrown into doubt by what we would today call “black swan” events.
Kierkegaard emphasized that God’s existence is impossible to prove. He singled out the design argument, popular in his day, and still popular now among many Christian theists, who use the term Intelligent Design even though neither does Intelligent Design necessarily entail that the Designer is the Christian God. The point is, perceived disruptions in the design would cause the perceiver to throw out the whole thing (cf. Philosophical Fragments, ch. 3), in the context of the absence of logical entailment from “Intelligent Design” to Christianity’s God. An agnostic friend once reasoned to me, “There’s no proof.” It dawned on me later that day: that’s true, and it’s the key! Christianity is based on faith, on a Kierkegaardian “leap” (his term), and cannot be based on anything else.
Nor can any other worldview be based on anything else. Materialist naturalism seems to me refuted by recent findings of theoretical physics, the many experiences we have that do not align with it, as well as careful attention to what goes on with language and our understanding of it (not a material process). I know that any materialists reading this will complain that I don’t understand materialism. It is always possible to reinterpret experience so that it fits a favored point of view, usually by ignoring or discounting those elements that “don’t fit.” The point I would make is, materialism is not a finding of any science. Nor does any scientific theory entail it, not even the ones on which there is largescale consensus, like Darwinian evolution. Those who believe otherwise, all they have to do is lay out the logic leading from specific findings of these sciences to the general thesis that materialism is a true account of reality. I submit that this cannot be done. Materialism is, if anything, a presupposition of a certain way of looking at physical reality alone through science. Empirical science, therefore, has not refuted Christianity, nor could it do so. Much modern philosophy of science begins by having science on an epistemic pedestal (except for a few writers such as Paul Feyerabend): positivism and its immediate descendants. Remove it from this pedestal, and this becomes instantly and abundantly clear.
We can say all this before we even get to ethics, or political philosophy, or legal philosophy, with all the practical problems they lead to. I submit: in all three of these areas, if our goal is to base our conclusions on reason instead of obedience to secular authority, materialism leaves us completely at sea. You can see this by googling the essay by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), “A Free Man’s Worship,” and reading it carefully. It is a classic statement of the secularist’s stance based on purported findings of modern science … and dilemma. In different ways, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) and the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), each had far more dramatic and compelling accounts of the actual consequences of “God [being] dead.”
But this should be sufficient for now. Normative matters require a far different discussion than we’ve provided here. I will discuss them in a future post. Just as a teaser: while it is possible to quarrel with Christian ethics, or claim that there are many points where the Christian worldview is unclear, all I can say at this point is, Christian ethics is no worse off than any of the available secular theories, all of which fail miserably if the idea is to establish them with something more than, “This is where I make my stand.” As for legal philosophy, I will invoke the idea of legal positivism: the idea boils down to the law being whatever those in power say it is. Legal positivism stands unnoticed in the background behind social issues ranging from abortion to Kim Davis’s refusal to put her name on marriage certificates for gays, and behind Judge Bunning’s contention that natural law would set a terrible precedent. It would at that, because it would destroy the entire edifice of legal positivism! But … I get ahead of myself. More on a future occasion. Where we will end up … there are propositions worth believing … even if you cannot prove them true! This ought to be compatible enough with all the modern and postmodern tendencies to be of some interest!