John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy

So let me tell you the story of John Locke and the meta-narrative of rational primacy1.
John Locke was born on the 29thAugust 1632, and grew up in the Somerset countryside some ten miles from Bristol. His parents were staunch Protestants, and his father fought in the Civil War on Cromwell’s side – indeed, Locke himself was reputed to have said to Cromwell, when Locke was 21, ‘You sir from Heav’n a finish’d hero fell’.
At the age of 14 Locke attended Westminster School – which he did not enjoy, due to the flogging – and then went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he stayed until 1665. After leaving the university, partly in order to avoid having to take holy orders, he took up a post as physician and adviser to Lord Ashley, the man who – better known as the Earl of Shaftesbury – became the most prominent Whig politician of the period.
Due to the controversies in English political life, principally the tension arising from the potential accession of the Catholic James II to the throne, Locke spent two significant periods of his life abroad. His first ‘exile’ was from 1675 to 1679 and spent in France; the second, and more significant, was from 1683 to 1689, and was spent in Holland. He returned on the same ship that bore Queen Mary to England. Locke was the pre-eminent spokesman for the Whig ideology2, most especially in the sphere of religious toleration and a limited monarchy. He published (anonymously) his Letter on Toleration, then his Two Treatises on Government, and finally his masterpiece, the Essay on Human Understanding, all in 1689.
Locke was a man of nervous constitution – what we today might call ‘highly strung’ and it is clear that his views on religious questions evolved throughout his life. Having lived through the English Civil War as a teenager, his mature life was marked by the faction fighting and religious conflict endemic in the Royal Court. Locke’s perspective was conditioned by a rejection of religious enthusiasm, which he saw as responsible for the reckless slaughter and political strife experienced in England and Europe in his lifetime. This made a profound impact on his mature philosophy.
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Locke’s principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve the destructive disagreements between different religious views, we should resort to the light of Reason. He wrote:
since traditions vary so much the world over and men’s opinions are so obviously opposed to one another and mutually destructive, and that not only among different nations but in one and the same state – for each single opinion we learn from others becomes a tradition – and finally since everybody contends so fiercely for his own opinion and demands that he be believed, it would plainly be impossible – supposing tradition alone lays down the ground of our duty – to find out what that tradition is, or to pick out truth from among such a variety, because no ground can be assigned why one man of the old generation, rather than another maintaining quite the opposite, should be credited with the authority of tradition or be more worthy of trust; except it be that reason discovers a difference in the things themselves that are transmitted, and embraces one opinion while rejecting another, just because it detects more evidence recognizable by the light of nature for the one than for the other. Such a procedure, surely, is not the same as to believe in tradition, but is an attempt to form a considered opinion about things themselves; and this brings all the authority of tradition to naught’3
Crucially, what Locke rejected was the idea that we should have recourse to a tradition at all, as he saw traditions as the source of all vice and pernicious beliefs (the ‘best are riddled with error’). In this he was very much a Protestant thinker, for the central issue in the trial of Galileo was the very same: the authority of the tradition. In Locke’s new account, appeal was made to something outside of any given tradition: reason, understood as the discriminatory judgement of probable beliefs.
Locke fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided, with three key elements: firstly, he argued that we have a moral responsibility for what we believe; secondly, that we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and finally, that in all things we should let reason be our guide. Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation.Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason – to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the 17thCentury.
Locke’s programme had at its centre that assertion that, to be morally justified in believing something, you must be able to demonstrate its rationality:
“Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything, but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it. He that believes, without having any reason for believing, may be in love with his own fancies; but neither seeks truth as he ought, nor pays the obedience due to his maker, who would have him sue those discerning faculties he has given him, to keep him out of mistake and error. He that does not this to the best of his power, however he sometimes lights on truth, is in the right but by chance; and I know not whether the luckiness of this accident will excuse the irregularity of his proceeding. This at least is certain, that he must be accountable for whatever mistakes he runs into: whereas he that makes use of the light and faculties God has given him, and seeks sincerely to discover truth, by those helps and abilities he has, may have this satisfaction in doing his duty as a rational creature, that though he should miss truth, he will not miss the reward of it. For he governs his assent right, and places it as he should, who in any case or matter whatsoever, believes or disbelieves, according as reason directs him. He that does otherwise, transgresses against his own light, and misuses those faculties, which were given him to no other end, but to search and follow the clearer evidence, and greater probability.”4
What was the rationality that Locke had in mind? It should be noted that Locke was not claiming that Reason is the source of our beliefs, only that Reason should be the judge of our beliefs (that reason should assess how probable our belief is, and we are then under a moral obligation only to give an assent to a belief in proportion to the relevant evidence.
“Reason must be our last judge and guide in everything. I do not mean, that we must consult reason, and examine whether a proposition revealed from God can be made out by natural principles, and if it cannot, that then we may reject it: but consult it we must, and by it examine, whether it be a revelation from God or not.”5
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It is important to emphasise that, for Locke, there was no contradiction between a commitment to judging beliefs by the light of reason, and a clear faith in Christianity. Although revelation could not be accepted contrary to reason, there was – at the time Locke was writing – no general sense that Christianity was incredible. Consequently, as part of his philosophical program, Locke published ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity’ in 1695, arguing that it was clear to reason that Jesus was the Messiah, and that the essence of faith was the ‘school of virtue’ formed by taking Jesus as the moral guide for life.
This sense that Christianity could be upheld by rational inquiry was rapidly and widely accepted – thanks in part to two prominent supporters. The first was Isaac Newton, whose Principia was published in 1687, and whose stature and scientific authority lent credibility to the project. Newton had a lifelong interest in alchemy and theology, and his last writings were attempts to reconcile the biblical chronology (which he took to have been falsified by wayward Roman Catholicism) with the insights of modern science, especially astronomy6.
More significant, the Church of England itself embraced the Lockean program, and it acquired the name ‘Latitudinarianism’ – meaning simply a respect for individual judgement, an acceptance of Reason as an authority (in the Lockean sense7) and a more critical engagement with tradition. This view gained many prominent defenders in the Church, including John Tillotson, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1689, but the most important was Samuel Clarke. Clarke not only embraced the Lockean philosophy, he united it with Newton’s cosmology, in arguments showing the Providence of God – that God was a type of constitutional monarch, just as had been granted to England in the Glorious Revolution, who oversaw a realm that was governed by a stable framework of law.
These three figures, Locke, Newton and Clarke forged a particular religious settlement – a settlement that was welcomed as not only enabling an end to religious strife but as providing a theological support for the new political framework – a framework which, in essentials, has continued through to the present day. That framework remains the dominant paradigm through which discussion about religion is conducted, especially in the English speaking world8. The basic foundation comes from Locke, in that we are obliged to justify our beliefs through an appeal to reason. Supplemental to that basic foundation is the claim – held by all three men – that Christianity9could be justified by reason.
The history of English Christianity since the Glorious Revolution could be described as the progressive rejection of that supplemental claim.

1 I am drawing on a number of sources here (see the bibliography), but the most important is Nicholas Wolterstorff, John Locke and the Ethics of Belief, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
2 Roy Porter calls Locke ‘the presiding spirit of the English Enlightenment’. His influence was huge – see the discussion in Porter, Enlightenment, Penguin, 2000, especially pp 66-71.
3 John Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature, taken from Wolterstorff, p3.
4 John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. Nidditch, Oxford University Press, 1990, IV, xvii, 24
5 Locke, Essay, IV, xix, 14.
6 This particular line of research culminated in the work of Archbishop Ussher, who calculated – on the basis of a rigorous and empirical assessment of the available evidence – that the earth had been created in 4004 BC. Such a task had not – and indeed, probably could not have – been undertaken in the previous history of Christianity.
7 There is much scholarly debate concerning the influence of Anglican theology on Locke, and whether the Lockean notion of Reason had been accepted earlier, in particular by Hooker. For a recent discussion, denying that this is the case, see Newey, The Form of Reason, Modern Theology, January 2002. My own view is that Locke was substantively original.
8 One might even call it a ‘Whig interpretation of religion’ that still awaits its Herbert Butterfield.
9 We now know, from the study of private correspondence, that the Christianity of Newton, and probably of Locke, was Arian, and therefore unorthodox, as it denied the full divinity of Jesus. That was not made clear at the time.

Sound doctrines are all useless

This is from my earlier book – and I realise that there’s rather a lot of material there which has never been posted. Reading something that Scott has written has prompted me to post it. It’s quite long but, if I might be so bold, I think it’s worth reading!


‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life)’
Wittgenstein, 1946

In much of what I have written so far I have explained the way in which certain Christian doctrines have come to be held, and the way in which the rite of the Eucharist has come to be understood. However, the most important part of Christianity is not the doctrine, or the rite, but the life lived as a result. That is the subject of this chapter.

In many ways, Jesus inherited the criticisms of Jewish practice that were first articulated by the prophets. One of their principal objections related to the way in which certain cultic practices were allowed to override the claims of justice. Consider the prophet Amos, who is generally considered to be the oldest of the prophets who have their utterances preserved in a separate book. He was active c. 750BC during the reign of Jeroboam II, at the end of a fairly long period of peace and prosperity. The prophet himself might be considered to be fairly well off as he is described as being a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, and therefore a property owner. The people were quite ostentatiously ‘religious’ in that they paid their tithes, made elaborate sacrifices and so on, and yet there was a significant degree of corruption and social injustice. According to Amos:

‘Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes – they that trample the head of the needy into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the humiliated; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined’ (Amos 2.6-8)

Amos’ concern is with the humble and the needy, who are being excluded from the community and exploited by the wealthy. As a consequence of this injustice Amos proclaims the imminent judgment of God:

‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the needy, who crush the poor, who say to their husbands ‘bring that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his Holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her; and you shall be cast forth into Harmon, says the Lord.’ (Amos 4.1-3)

A key aspect of Amos’ criticism relates to the sanctuary of Bethel, which under Jeroboam II was being built up as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. The priests there were being employed in the service of the king and at one point they drive Amos away from the sanctuary (Amos 7.13). As such this place was the centre of the ‘cultic’ aspects of worship, which Amos denounces: ‘Come to Bethel and transgress’. It is this criticism of the cult in all its aspects which is so unprecedented:

‘I hate, I despise your pilgrimages, and I cannot feel your solemn assemblies. When you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, nothing pleases me, from the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I turn away my eyes. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I cannot listen.’ (Amos 5.21-23)

This message is echoed in many parts of the New Testament, and is at the heart of the criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees offered there. For example:

‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men”.’

‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

And most clearly of all:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And then the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sickand in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

As Jesus puts it on another occasion, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.’

The point of these references is to indicate that Christianity is not a matter of believing certain propositions to be true, still less is it a matter of being a member of a particular institution. All the language used is there to explain a picture, a way of understanding life and the world. To claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say something about the way life should be lived. That claim, as a form of words, is irrelevant. If ‘Jesus Christ is a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie’ had the same result in terms of the way life was lived then it would have equal doctrinal merit.

Christianity is about a way of living life, so that the life is lived in imitation of Christ, acting in accordance with his Spirit. In essence, it means that the faithful person lives their life in a way that has love at the centre, firstly a love for God, and secondly love for the neighbour. The first is crucial, for it is the relationship with God that constitutes the faith which Paul describes as necessary for salvation. To have that relationship with God is to perceive that the most fundamental feature of the universe is that it was created by a God of love, whose nature is revealed in the life of Jesus. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and he who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Much of the early Christian writing was concerned with spelling out what this primacy of love meant in practice. For example, Paul writes in Galatians:

‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’;

and in Colossians,

‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forebearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also forgive’;

and most famously of all, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.’

These are all examples of Christian virtues, but of course, these words, these descriptions do not amount to much on their own – they require a life to be lived out in order to demonstrate their nature. Our culture suffers from the illusion, ultimately derived from Platonism, that the way to God is through the intellectual path. If we could only understand correctly, then we might be saved. Christianity is opposed to this, for ultimately that aspect of Platonism is idolatrous – it is the search for a truth which can be held with certainty in our own human sphere.

The Body of Christ is made up of all those who act in a way concordant with the Spirit of Christ, ie who exercise and demonstrate these virtues. It is by actions that faith is borne forth. As Paul writes,

‘For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…’

In this way, Christianity is very much a product of the Hebrew faith from which it sprang. In the opening chapter I argued for three elements in the Hebrew faith: anti-idolatry, relationship, and praxis. Those three elements are retained within Christianity, although the understanding of God is now lensed through the life of Jesus and not through the Law as delivered to Moses. As such, Christianity is a dynamic religion – it requires active moral judgement each day.

As Christianity developed this aspect was at the forefront. If you read the Church fathers their concerns are with this shaping of a life. The Church exists to serve the world by demonstrating this understanding of God – by acting in a righteous manner and showing the nature of love. Of course, if this is what the Church is about, how come we have ended up in such a mess?

SOL #1.4: Logic

Humans are rational animals, that is, we are creatures that can apply a mental faculty to the understanding of events and actions. This has its roots in the very biological need to perceive the necessary consequences of certain actions: IF I put my hand in the fire, THEN I will be burnt. IF I go to the waterhole at dusk, THEN I might be able to kill one of the animals drinking there, AND I might gain some food. This faculty, this capacity to reason, is indeed a marvellous attribute.

In the paragraph above, I capitalised certain words: IF, THEN, AND. Computer programmers might recognise them as logical commands – in other words, they are commands which a computer can execute. The computer knows what to do when a program includes such terms – that is how it has been set up and programmed – and the computer will happily pursue such commands for as long as the person doing the programming wishes it to. When I was younger I learnt how to program computers using the language BASIC, which included terms like these. One of the most important elements in the programming was the IF…THEN command. This allowed the computer to make ‘choices’ according to certain established criteria. Perhaps the program wanted to ask the observer to press a certain key to indicate ‘yes’ and another key to indicate ‘no’ as an answer to the question that the computer was asking. The programmer could then write IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do one thing, but IF (keypress = ‘N’) THEN do another thing. Of course, my language there was a little inaccurate – the computer is not making a real choice – it is simply following the predetermined path laid down by the programmer. The programmer wanted to give the user of a program a choice at this point, and has instructed the computer to react to that choice in the appropriate way.

What I would like to bring out from this example is the way that reason follows a set pattern – we even have the phrase ‘a chain of reasoning’ to talk about such patterns – and a computer program is a very clear example of the pattern in which reasoning functions. This pattern which reason follows has its own name: logic, and reason and logic are essentially linked. Logic is the study of these patterns or chains of reasoning, and the usefulness of logic lies in the way that it can show how some chains work (i.e. are ‘valid’) and some chains do not. To go back to the example of a computer program, the line of programming could read: IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do such and such ELSE IF (keypress = ‘Y’) THEN do some other thing. When the computer follows the program and gets to this point then it will become stuck and ‘crash’. This is because the command has told it to do two different things at the same time. If the user presses the Y key then both sides of the argument are satisfied – and the computer will have to do both!

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Another way of thinking about this same point is to talk about consistency. In the example of bad programming above, the source of the difficulty was that ‘Y’ was given as the ‘keypress’ in both cases. One or other should have been ‘N’ – or, even, ‘any other keypress’. This line of programming was therefore inconsistent – it was asking the computer to do two different things if the keypress was ‘Y’. Let’s go back to the waterhole – imagine a brain set up like a computer, with instruction sets that stated: IF it rained yesterday THEN go to waterhole today at dusk, but also, IF it rained yesterday, gather fruit from trees. In this situation, the person concerned is given two incompatible instructions – gather fruit or go to the waterhole? Chances are the poor individual will just stay where they are, unable to reconcile the contradiction, until some other impulse takes over and the situation changes.

To put this in the language of logic, the program at this point is invalid, and in computer programming to call a program ‘invalid’ is to say that there is something wrong with it, that it has a ‘bug’. Although the situation gets much more complicated with today’s software, in essence this is what happens when any computer crashes – it is trying to carry out commands that don’t ‘make sense’. The millennium bug caused some concern a little while ago – this was, in principle, just such an example of invalid programming. Computers were set up to recognise dates by only the last two numbers in the year – so 1999 was simply ‘99’, for example. This was because the computers were programmed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the assumption was made (either consciously or unconsciously) that they would be changed before the year 2000 came along. So, in the programming, a certain assumption was built in – all years would be 19xx, where the xx was the date supplied by the user. The millennium bug happened because this assumption became untrue from the year 2000 onwards. Consequences followed from this mistake, which at some point were believed to be on the scale of a minor apocalypse, although in practice we were spared such a judgement.

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So logic is really a way of working out if something makes sense, either in terms of an argument being able to follow on properly (like a computer program) or in terms of one thing being consistent with another. Consider the following, which is something of a classic:

1. All men are mortal
2. Socrates is a man
Therefore,
3. Socrates is mortal.

This is an argument: that is, it is the assertion of one item (3) as a consequence of the assertion of two other items (1 & 2). It is saying: because 1 & 2, therefore 3. In some ways it is a similar argument to a computer program which uses IF…THEN language. IF 1 & 2, THEN 3. As it happens, this argument is a valid argument, and it is worth unpicking why it is valid, and precisely what it means to say that the argument is valid.

The first item, 1, defines an attribute of men, stating that they are mortal. The second item, 2, states that Socrates belongs to the class of men. The third item draws the logical consequence of these two items: Socrates is a man and therefore shares the attribute that all men share – mortality. As such, Socrates is mortal. To say that this argument is valid is to say that the conclusion follows from the premises, that it makes sense. If it were a computer program you would say that it didn’t have any bugs in it. In this argument, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises (philosophers say that the conclusion can be deduced from the premises) – in other words it has to be the case that, IF 1 & 2 are true, THEN 3 also has to be true. There are no situations in which 1 & 2 are true, and 3 is not. This is what is meant by a valid argument: that the logic is sound, there are no ‘bugs’.

~~~

However, although interesting, this is not ultimately very exciting. This is because logic and valid argument tell us nothing about truth, or how things are in the world. Consider the following adaptation of the above argument:

1. All men are born with two heads
2. Socrates is a man
Therefore,
3. Socrates was born with two heads.

In terms of the logic of this argument, there is nothing to choose between this argument and the original; they are both equally valid. Yet the first argument says something true, the second says something that is not true. This is because logic is not concerned with truth or falsehood, but only with consistency and the validity of arguments. The difference between these two arguments – one says that all men are mortal, the other says that all men are born with two heads – is not something that logic can be employed to decide between. Whether men are born with two heads or not is not a question about the validity of a particular argument but about what is the case – is it true that all men are born with two heads? In the normal course of events, this is a question that would be answered by looking at the evidence of our senses – have we tended to see men always born with two heads? Are one-headed men carrying wounds where one head was taken away at birth?

In order to establish the truth in this situation, then, we would need to employ a different tool of our understanding. This is a crucial point to bear in mind: logic is a tool, it is not the source of all enlightenment. Think of the tools in a tool-box; there is a hammer, a chisel, a hacksaw, a spanner. It would not be appropriate to use a spanner to separate a plank of wood into two halves – there you should use a saw. In a similar way, although logic is a wonderful and essential part of human life, it is not the only tool that we have when we are reflecting upon the true nature of our world – it must be used in the correct place, in the correct way, and not elsewhere.

~~~

So can we use logic to determine which account is the best, between Dawkins, Gould and all the others? Well, it will certainly assist (it might point out some self-contradictions in an argument), but on its own it is not much help. That is for the simple reason that any position you like can be made logically coherent, if a person is prepared to take the consequences. As pointed out above, something can be perfectly logically valid and still be untrue (Socrates has two heads). Consider: although I have never met someone who believes that the earth is flat, I am assured that there is a ‘flat-earth society’, whose members believe that the earth is not a sphere in orbit around the sun, but is instead a flat disc, with edges, and that it is possible to fall off the edge. You might think that it is impossible to make such a belief consistent, that it is impossible to be a logically consistent believer in a flat earth. Yet what arguments would be persuasive? Pictures of the earth as a globe could be fabricated; stories of travel around the world might be fables to lure the unwary; various physical tests could be written off as optical illusions. Even if it were possible to take such a believer out into space so that they could see for themselves that the earth is a globe – “Look! See! It IS round!!” – that would not necessarily succeed. The believer could say “I have been drugged; you have set up a theme park providing this remarkable illusion. My eyes see a globe, but I do not believe my eyes…” And so on.

You can lead the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. So our analysis must shift to the second of our standard criteria: questions of evidence. Even if we cannot reach a logically conclusive argument, we could at least gather together as much relevant evidence as possible and then let people make their own conclusions – and surely, there aren’t many people prepared to place logical consistency ahead of the straightforward evidence of their senses?

SOL #1.3: Gould, Intelligent Design, Creationism

The first set of objections is associated with the name of the late Stephen Jay Gould, and this approach goes by the name of ‘punctuated equilibrium’. It should be stressed that – as Richard Dawkins himself has written, “the theory of punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian synthesis.” The difference between Dawkins and Gould is rather technical, but illuminating nonetheless. ‘Orthodox’ neo-Darwinism – by which I mean that understanding described above, associated with Dawkins – asserts that the pressure which natural selection exerts is a gradual process; that species change in small amounts over vast stretches of time; and that this selection pressure operates through the genetic inheritance passed on from parent to child. Gould disputes this emphasis upon the gene – for him, not only is there a significant amount of luck involved in inheritance, but the pressures of natural selection bear down upon the individuals, not just their genes. Put differently Gould disputes the ‘genetic determinacy’ associated with the orthodox neo-Darwinian account. For Gould, much of Dawkins’ understanding is accepted, but Gould’s outlook allows more room for random chance (e.g. asteroid impacts), and also a slightly different notion of what science can and cannot achieve. For Gould science is not immune to cultural influences, and there is much in human history that cannot be sufficiently explained by reference to natural selection, or indeed, by any scientific outlook. Gould’s writings take much from the realms of literature, history and religion – and are much richer as a result.

The second set of objections is one which is presently gaining ground in the United States of America, and comes in two varieties – ‘creation science’ and ‘intelligent design’. Put simply, these understandings of the universe derive from a more or less literal rendering of chapter one of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, so that the source of the diversity of life as we experience it is explained as a choice by God. Depending on the particular type of creation science advocated, the earth is seen to be only a few thousand years old, and the variation of life experienced is explained by describing the inexhaustible creativity of God. Intelligent design is a slightly different account, although it shares some assumptions; it accepts that the earth has existed for billions of years, but sees the change in different species – and most particularly the development of human intelligence – as something which results from a direct intervention in the universe by God. These approaches argue that the intelligent cause can be identified with the Judaeo-Christian deity, the ‘God of the Bible’. Their understanding grants authority to a religious text and a tradition of interpretation of that text, and they point out the various problems with the theory of evolution, which, on their accounting, leave room for that traditional religious commitment. The creation scientists go one step beyond the intelligent design theorists, in that their tradition of interpreting the Bible requires a strictly literal rendering of the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis. They reject the notions of natural selection, evolution, and indeed the generally accepted timescale provided by modern science, considering that the universe is only some few thousand years old.

How are we to determine the truth between these different accounts? The conventional view – and I imagine the one that Professor Dawkins would advocate – would be to examine each point of view and ask: does this point of view make sense, is it logically consistent? And then ask: what is the evidence for each point of view? Which point of view is best supported?

So let us look at logic and evidence.

SOL #1.2: the claim of evolution

Dawkins draws a remarkable conclusion from this approach. His conclusion is that science can replace religion; that religion has been superseded by science; that science can answer the questions which were once answered by religion. Consider these comments:

‘[now that we have the theory of evolution we] no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man?’ (from ‘The Selfish Gene’ )

‘…our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but… it is a mystery no longer because it is solved.’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ )

‘I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence’ (from ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ , his emphasis).

Dawkins is here asserting that the theory of evolution is able to provide the only answers that are viable in our present age; that, in the words of a fellow zoologist whom he quotes with approval: “The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question [What is Man?] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely” .

In making this argument, Dawkins’ writings are congruous with much ‘popular science’ writing. Paul Davies, for example, claims that ‘In my opinion science offers a surer path to God than religion’ . Stephen Hawking’s famous conclusion to ‘A Brief History of Time’ ends with the dramatic claim that if we found a complete physical theory of the universe, “…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God”. According to ‘The Independent’ newspaper: ‘The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution’ .

~~~

Dawkins refers to ‘deep problems’ or ‘mysteries’. These problems are the ones where, historically, Christianity has offered the answers that our culture has accepted. Other cultures have had more or less different answers, bound up in each case with religions that are more or less different from Christianity. Yet in each case the character of the answers provided are religious – they engage with us at the most profound level possible, and the answers given then shape the wider culture. Let us agree to call these questions of meaning, purpose and self-understanding “serious questions”, for they are concerned with the seriousness of life. Dawkins’ claim, then, is that science gives the best answer yet to our ‘serious questions’.

I believe that this is profoundly mistaken. I believe that no scientific answer could possibly be an answer to our serious questions. In my view, the process by which an answer becomes a ‘scientific’ answer (in the sense that Dawkins requires) necessarily stops that answer applying to our serious questions.

Clearly, I have a significant task of explanation on my hands.

~~~

So what is this conception in which Dawkins places such trust? In brief, it is an explanation of biological complexity, which relies upon only a few simple axioms to account for the diversity of life as we presently experience it.

The central idea is that of natural selection. If we consider the history of animal breeding – for example, with horses or dogs – then it is clear that humans have changed the characteristics of various breeds, in line with their own preferences. In these instances there is a human being (or a succession of human beings) acting as a selector of different traits within a breed which causes the breeds to change over time. Darwin employed this as the ground for a metaphor – that, over time, nature acted in the same fashion as these human selectors – and that there is therefore something called natural selection.

Where human selection was driven by human preferences, natural selection is driven by one single ‘preference’ or constraint – the ability to reproduce, to have offspring. The idea is that in any given context there are limited resources available and that different species – and different individuals of the same species – will compete to gain those resources. Those individuals and species which succeed in gaining those scarce resources will be able to have more offspring, and, over time, will dominate and drive their competitors to extinction.

For Darwin, the ‘unit of selection’ was unknown. That means simply that Darwin didn’t know how the ability to compete was passed on from parent to offspring. This is crucial to the theory, for if it could be shown that the ability to compete is not passed on from parent to child, then the theory breaks down – for there is nothing for natural selection to act upon. However, following twentieth century developments in molecular biology, we have a much better understanding of what this unit of selection might be – we call it the gene. Although there is still much that is unknown about the ways in which the gene affects the overt characteristics of individuals and species, it seems fairly clear that the genetic inheritance is responsible for a great deal of the success or failure of individuals and species within a particular environment. This is the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ – a synthesis which combines the Darwinian ideas of natural selection and inherited characteristics, with the science of DNA. It is this synthesis which Dawkins articulated and popularized so successfully in ‘The Selfish Gene’.

~~~

There is a great deal of evidence which supports this synthesis, which recommends it to us as a good account of how different species have come to be as they are. To begin with, there is the question of timescale. We know from research in geology and astrophysics that the earth has existed for a very long time – some four and a half billion years or so. This provides evolutionary theory with a sufficiently broad canvas, within which natural selection can operate.

Secondly, there is the evidence from palaeontology – the study of fossils. We can tell from examination of rock strata that certain layers of rock were laid down at certain periods of time (the Pleiocene, the Cambrian and so on), and in those strata there are fossils of all sorts of different life-forms. The most popular of those life-forms are, of course, the dinosaurs, who existed until some 65 million years ago, and whose demise – probably as the result of an asteroid impact with the earth, although that is disputed – allowed mammals to become the dominant species on our planet. So we have both a sufficient timescale within which evolution can take place, and we also have evidence of a wide variety of life existing during those different periods.

In addition to this, through the study of DNA we now have a very clear idea of how characteristics can be inherited from parent to child, and through mathematical studies, we can model the distribution of particular characteristics in a population. There is a wealth of detailed evidence to support this understanding.

For Dawkins, then, all of life can be explained by the story of evolution, the slow step by step climbing of ‘mount improbable’ by the genetic line of inheritance. Natural selection – and only natural selection – is both a necessary and sufficient explanation for the existence and nature of life as we know it.

Does this mean that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is incontestable as an account of human nature? Not so fast.

SOL #1.1: Beginning from Richard Dawkins

Chapter One – The story of creation

“Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former.” (Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §336)

“The popular scientific books by our scientists aren’t the outcome of hard work, but are written when they are resting on their laurels.” (Wittgenstein, 1942)

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.52)

~~~

I read this in ‘The Independent’ newspaper of 20 February, 2003. Richard Dawkins is responding to questions sent in by readers of the newspaper.

Did you have a Pauline conversion to atheism? Or did your beliefs evolve more slowly over time? What changed your mind?
(Adam Elford, Northampton)

I had a normal, decent Anglican upbringing, which is to say that I was never brainwashed as I might have been had I been brought up in another faith.

I toyed with atheism from the age of about nine, originally because I worked out that, of all the hundreds of religions in the world, it was the sheerest accident that I was brought up Christian. They couldn’t all be right, so maybe none of them was. I later reverted to a kind of pantheism when I realised the shattering complexity and beauty of the living world. Then, around the age of 16, I first understood that Darwinism provides an explanation big enough and elegant enough to replace gods. I have been an atheist ever since.

If, when you die, you find yourself unexpectedly at the Pearly Gates, what would you say to St Peter?
(Mark Richards, by e-mail)

OK, I was wrong. But I was wrong for the right reasons. Those guys in there were right. But just look at their reasons.

Richard Dawkins is possibly the most prominent atheist in England. He is the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He has written many books about the nature and implications of evolutionary theory, books marked by their lucidity and intellectual verve. He is clearly a very intelligent man with a gift for communicating difficult ideas in an accessible way. Unfortunately, almost everything that he has ever said about Christianity is false.

~~~

This is not entirely Professor Dawkins’ fault. His understanding of Christianity is a very common one. Yet, as I am sure that Professor Dawkins’ would agree, the fact that many people hold such a common understanding does not mean that it is the correct understanding. As the joke has it: a hundred thousand lemmings cannot be wrong.

~~~

My point is not that Dawkins believes Christianity is about believing one thing, whereas in truth Christianity is about believing something else. No: although beliefs have their place, my disagreement with the Professor is more basic than this. Dawkins – in common with many people on both sides of the Christian/atheist divide – considers that the defining characteristic of a Christian is the acceptance of certain beliefs. This I deny. Christianity is not about belief in certain propositions, it is about the orientation of your life.

~~~

Dawkins has a very distinct conception of what sort of thing religious faith is. He writes in ‘The Selfish Gene’:

‘Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.’

In a footnote to this passage he expands:

‘But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something – it doesn’t matter what – in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway… I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.’

Dawkins goes on to say:

‘…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness… Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings… What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.’

According to the Dawkins conception, then, faith is ‘blind’, and not open to rational debate. Justifiable beliefs must rest upon a rational account of the world, where there is recourse to publicly available evidence and harmony with our discoveries and experience. In other words, they must be scientific answers.

Faith and science are therefore the same sort of thing. They are both beliefs about the world. They have the same logical status. The difference between them is one of rational legitimacy. Religious beliefs cannot be supported by appeals to reason or evidence. Scientific beliefs can. Therefore, scientific beliefs are superior to religious beliefs.

This is the key mistake, for religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are not at all the same sort of thing.

The Seriousness of Life

‘If what we do now makes no difference in the end then all the seriousness of life is done away with’

That’s Wittgenstein, responding to why Origen was considered a heretic for believing in universal salvation.

It’s also the title of the book I’m writing. So when I put extracts onto the blog I’ll title them ‘SOL #1’ etc – normally with something else as well, to indicate the content.

First example following shortly…

For my friends

Hello my friend.

You and I have had many conversations in this last decade, for we share significant interests – not least an enjoyment of ‘popular science’. Yet I have so far been unable to explain how and why it is that I see no conflict between science and my Christian faith; or, to make that point more strongly, why it is that I consider my Christian faith to include and perfect science – to be a more sophisticated and complete understanding than science could ever offer.

For you, things are different. You find it impossible to believe the sorts of things that (you think) Christians are required to believe, even though you are not hostile to religions in general. You enjoy debating religious questions, many of your best friends are Christians, and yet you cannot see a way to accept Christianity without at the same time surrendering your intellectual integrity. For surely Christianity is historically discredited – a threadbare stitching together of superstition and supernatural nonsense, compromised by papal arrogance and protestant bigotry, implicated in wholesale slaughter and the denial of our deepest human values. Centrally, Christianity and so many Christians seem transparently unreasonable, both in belief and behaviour. You do not consider it an accident that Galileo was condemned, and deep down, I suspect you think that those Christians whom you respect are worthy of respect in so far as they are less whole-hearted in their faith; they are ‘liberal’ and accommodating to the modern world.

I do not deny that, as a Christian reflecting on Christian history, there is much cause for shame and repentance. Yet I would like to explain why I do not abandon my faith – to retell the story of Christian history in such a way that the causes of such evil are laid bare, leaving, in consequence, a clearer understanding of what Christianity actually is – and, moreover, a clearer understanding of science, that pattern of thinking with which Christianity has been struggling like Cain with Abel.

I can summarise our differences quite easily: you consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain supernatural beliefs. I deny this – strongly – for I consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain mystical practices, which bear fruit in a holy life. My hope that I can explain Christianity to you is founded on the belief that we would both recognise such a holy life when we saw it.

To justify these comments is the endeavour of the book that you hold in your hand. I have come to realise that I need this large canvas on which to paint my portrait of Christian faith. As a portrait it reflects my own understandings and emphases; it is a sketch, not an exhaustive analysis. I have deliberately tried to use broad and bold brushstrokes and not to become distracted by academic detail, for both practical and principled reasons. As will become clear, I do not believe that the academic method is appropriate in all forms of inquiry, indeed, it can be radically counter-productive. Nor is this book meant to be a ‘final answer’ to our questions – on the contrary, it is an invitation to conversation, a conversation at a deeper level than many of our favourite ‘popular science’ writers have shown themselves able to achieve. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to develop a more rigorous ‘summa’, but that is not in my hands – if it is God’s will, then he will ‘make it so’. In the meantime, I offer this brief essay to you, with my love and prayers.

The first two chapters of my book can be downloaded here

I’m going to write it on-line, in small chunks. Feeback welcome :o)

The first two chapters of my book

As long standing friends will be aware, I have been working on a book for at least a dozen years. The first two chapters are now in reasonable shape, so I thought I’d let people have a look at them, and feed back any comments they might have. It’s available on my home page here for downloading.

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