Thursday, May 23, 2013

Proto-Fundamentalist Epistemology

The Fundamentalist’s Bible: They know what it all means from day one – all that remains to be done is to support that meaning, come what may. What the fundamentalists deem as "revelation" isn't subject to any serious dialectical process

I have recently come across a prototypical fundamentalist view on epistemology. I found it in the comments section of a post on Uncommon Descent.  I hope, being only a comment, that it is not typical of UD itself, although I'm reminded of this post of mine where I remarked in a footnote that the North American “Intelligent Design” community is unhealthily close to fundamentalism. (Probably a consequence of the North American aptitude for polarization)

In this UD post a commenter called Barb starts with a toy-town statement of scientific epistemology and then proceeds to go well astray.  Below I've published Barb's comments in italics followed by my own remarks:

  1. Observe what happens.
My Remarks: We never directly "observe what happens". Our contact with the world is always processed through a mountain of mental a-priori theoretical constructions. Some of these constructions are likely to be innate, but a huge amount are cultural. The other major misrepresentation here is that the data we each receive via direct observation is not nearly as prevalent as the data we receive through the texts of society: Most of our personal data comes through public domain texts recording the observations (and theories) of others. As a consequence the childish and simplistic fundamentalist cliché “You weren't there” has the potential to subvert the validity of just about all scientific data!

  1. Based on those observations, form a theory as to what may be true.
  2. Test the theory by further observations and by experiments.
  3. Watch to see if the predictions based on the theory come true
My Remarks: “Testing” (in the classic Popperian sense of the word) of our theoretical structures may not always be possible. Retrospective “best fitting” of a theoretical narrative to given data may in practice be the best that can be achieved in some circumstances. “Abductive Science” is probably the right way to describe the actual epistemic practice of science - a concept that I know seasoned UD posters are aware of. But the above quote  makes me wonder if this particular customer is a fan of the fundamentalist’s false dichotomy of “historical science vs. observational science” 

Barb: Scientific truth is not revealed; it is discovered. This necessitates a system of trial and error, with the searcher for scientific truth often finding himself in a fruitless endeavor. But by systematically following four steps, he pursues a fruitful search. Nevertheless, scientific victories are celebrated on the ruins of scientific defeats as formerly accepted views are rejected to make way for new ones viewed as more nearly correct.

My Comment: This is where “Barb” probably betrays a proto-fundamentalist’s mind set:  (S)He is beguiled by a false dichotomy between revelation and discovery. The connotation here is that there is as a category of  “Revealed knowledge” which has an epistemologically superior status and figuratively speaking "carved in stone" when compared to "inferior" science whose epistemic method is mere trial and error. Well yes, I agree, science is trial and error, but then so is all thinking, and thinking is the cognitive filter through which we interpret all data, Biblical and otherwise; the right interpretation and meaning of any data is discovered through the trial and error inherent in the cognitive process (which involves search, reject and select).  In fact support for the universality of this principle can be found in fundamentalist circles themselves: There are so many sharp disagreements between fundamentalists who claim to have the very “Words of God” that it is clear there is a large measure of trial and error going on amongst fundamentalists as they attempt to make sense of the "Words of God". So it seems that fundamentalists don’t have an epistemic short cut to “revealed” certainty after all. There is no dichotomy that allows us to arrogantly hold onto to some knowledge as if it is beyond the trial and error dialectic.

The general principle I'm invoking here comes out of the understanding that all data signals we receive, whether from deep space, deep history or deep within the Bible, classify as signals requiring interpretation; the act of interpretation entails the use of imaginative explanatory theoretical narratives which endeavour to integrate received data samples into a themed whole. These pro tem explanatory narratives then go on to contend* with a wider context of experience and texts as we seek to discover whether our narrative works on a more general level or whether we should hunt and discover a better fit solution. Trial and error rules OK in the world of man right across the board. This means that discovery and revelation are identical categories: In fact we read in Acts 17:27 that seeking, which in essence is a trial and error process, is the very means by which we find God: "God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us".  In contrast to Barb’s view let me annunciate the principle that all revelation entails discovery and all discovery entails revelation.

The Bible doesn't provide us with a body of knowledge insulated against the seek and find dialectic. This follows because the Bible is not fundamental or axiomatic; it is book of signals that we interpret against the background of our nature and nurture, thus entailing the trial and error epistemic. Bible interpretation draws on the resources of innate cognition and cultural knowledge. God’s  Revelatory Word emerges through His sovereign management of both our thought processes and our cultural context as they interact with Biblical writ. I suspect that the underlying motive of Barb and those with a like leaning toward fundamentalism is a desire for an epistemology that short cuts the trial and error dialectic and generates knowledge above contradiction.

Barb: Despite this hit-and-miss method, scientists have over the centuries built up an amazing amount of scientific knowledge. Although often mistaken, they have been able to correct many inaccurate conclusions before serious damage was done. In fact, as long as faulty knowledge stays within the realm of pure science, the danger of inflicting serious harm is minimal. But when attempts are made to transform seriously flawed pure science into applied science, the results can be disastrous.
Ironically, scientist Vincent Wigglesworth of Cambridge University observed that the scientific method itself is “a religious approach.” How so? “It rests upon an unquestioning faith that natural phenomena conform to ‘laws of nature.’”

My Remarks: I wouldn't say I especially disagree with the foregoing except to say that I certainly wouldn't express it in such extreme terms as “unquestioning”; the underlying sentiment connoted by that term is endemic amongst fundamentalists. The spirit of scrutiny should be admitted into the whole field of our theoretical endeavours. Self-examination and criticism are in the spirit of the Christian way: I don’t see much of that in fundamentalist epistemology; but I do see a lot of epistemic arrogance, an arrogance from which basis the fundamentalists will attempt to impugn the integrity of many a Christian.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 2 Corinthians 13:5
….continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, Philippians 2:12
Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. Lamentations 3:40

* "Contend": A purposely vaguer word than "test". 

Addendum: Six feet above contradiction

A blog post by fundamentalist apologist Jason Lisle dated March 27  has at first sight what looked to me the very promising title of “It’s not ‘Human Reason vs. God’s Word’!” . So, I thought, Jason is getting into exposing false dichotomies as well! In fact I wouldn't say I especially disagreed with the tenor his post; he is clearly not a fideist which can’t be bad; actually I think I've seen him arguing against fideism.  However, in spite of generally finding the post innocuous I think there is just one part that betrays his fundamentalist epistemology: Viz:

What then is the difference? [i.e. Between creationists and evolutionists] The difference is our starting point – the standard upon which we build our reasoning. The Christian should take the Word of God has his or her ultimate standard. We are supposed to reason from the truths given to us in the Scriptures. God’s Word is like a solid rock; and reasoning that rests upon that rock will stand. What is the alternative structure on which non-Christians attempt to build their thinking? There is none. God’s Word is the only ultimate standard by which can truly know anything about anything.

Notice that for Lisle the Bible is a starting point, a foundation, the ultimate standard, and above all a solid rock on which reason rests.  This all sounds very dangerously a-priori to me – that is, that Biblical meanings, once imputed by fundamentalist culture, become axiomatic, set in stone and not subject to any dialectic or debate; they are six feet above contradiction. These meanings consequently get stuck into fundamentalist culture as foregone conclusions and people like Lisle bend over backwards to defend these conclusions with quite bizarre theories.

To the fundamentalists the Bible looks as though it is a given/axiomatic "lens" through which they interpret the world. But in fact the Bible and its cultural context form a symbiotic relation as they mutually assist (under Divine Sovereignty) in the interpretation of one another. Fundamentalists of all brands seem unaware of the role that their fundamentalist context plays in the interpretation of the Bible; they understand the Bible the way they do because they see it through the "lens" of their strict and particular fundamentalist cultures. But actually neither culture nor Bible can claim to be the fundamental "lens"; culture and Bible have a two way symbiotic relationship.

The Bible doesn't “contain” meaning; rather it is a set of triggers that generate meaning and that triggering, under Divine Sovereign Management, uses the resources of context. That’s probably where I fundamentally differ from the erroneous fundamentalist folk concept of language as something that stands aloof from its cosmic context. It looks to me as if Lisle has no conception that Biblical meaning is not intrinsic to the text but extrinsic to it; that is, Biblical meaning arises out of the relation of text and context. Biblical meaning is less a rock like starting point than it is an end point.

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