Friday, March 30, 2012

Science, Christianity and the Abandonment of Reason

     I am currently reading Alfred North Whiteheads, Science and the Modern World, and came across this interesting remark. Whitehead notes one of the differences between the Middle Ages and the 18th century.

     "The Middle Ages were haunted with the desire to rationalise the infinite: the men of the eighteenth century rationalised the social life of modern communities, and based their sociological theories on an appeal to the facts of nature. The earlier period was the age of faith based upon reason. In the later period, they let sleeping dogs lie: it was the age of reason, based upon faith. To illustrate my meaning: - St. Anselm would have been distressed if he had failed to find a convincing argument for the existence of God, and on this argument he based his edifice of faith, whereas Hume based his Dissertation on the Natural History of Religion upon his faith in the order of nature. In comparing these epochs it is well to remember that reason can err, and that faith may be misplaced." (Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 57.)

     His comparison is interesting especially when we consider that things have changed only slightly since the 18th century. Now, Naturalistic Scientists continue to put their faith in the order of Nature for the accomplishment of Scientific research. Whitehead notes, a little earlier, that, "In the first place, there can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things, and, in particular, of an Order of Nature." (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 3-4.) Whitehead says, furthermore, that, "we all share in this faith, and we therefore believe that the reason for the faith is our apprehension of its truth." (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 4.) However, Hume, in the 18th century, showed that Induction (the primary method of scientific inquiry), which is based upon the presupposition of an Order of Nature, does not actually have a solid foundation. On the contrary, he shows that regardless of how many particular instances of X have been studied, there are always other instances which have not been studied, and there is no a priori guarantee that they will coincide with previous research. The only way that induction can work is for there to be something that guarantees that there is an order in nature. Whitehead has this to say, "I do not think, however, that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope...there seems but one source for its [the belief in an order of nature which allows for induction] origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah an with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality."(Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 12.) For the early scientists, the fact that God exists and that he is providentially in control of the entire universe, was the foundation for all empirical, inductive, research. By the time Hume came on the scene God had been sufficiently removed from the picture such that Hume was able to deal a fatal blow to scientific research. What is interesting, as Whitehead notes, is that "the world did in fact wait for Hume before noting the difficulty. Also it illustrates the anti-rationalism of the scientific public that, when Hume did appear, it was only the religious implications of his philosophy which attracted attention." (Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 51.) The scientific community, in spite of Hume's death-dealing blow to induction, continues to place it's faith, uncritically, in the Order of Nature. It really has to, because no research could be done if it rejected an intrinsic order in nature. It seems that sciences faith is misplaced, but like religious fanatics, scientists continue to believe. Has their faith been misplaced? Have they rejected reason?

     The rejection of reason, however, is not just a problem with the scientists. There has also been as great an abandonment of reason by Christians as there has been by Scientists. (I would add that our faith is only well-placed if our faith is placed in an authority that is trustworthy. Augustine talks about the fact that we need to use our reason to discover that authority that is worthy of our trust.) Christians, in the evangelical movement at least, are relying more on faith than on reason (Do they know whom they have believed? Is their faith well-placed?). Anselm, along with the other great Christian theologians of the middle ages, would be appalled to see the state of today's Christianity which has retreated from the realm of reason, and, in reply to today's scientists has said, "It's a question of faith. Don't try to think about it." Which is essentially saying, "It is unreasonable." However, Christianity is not unreasonable. Peter, in 1 Peter 3: 15, exhorts Christians to be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for  a reason for the hope that is in you." Christians need to begin using their intellect for the defense of Christianity. We need to be able to give reasons for our hope. This means that we cannot just fall back on the party line "It's a question of faith." Rather we need to love the Lord with our minds, and get back into the fight to take back the realm of reason.