Doubting the Principle

I have been somewhat involved in an interesting discussion over at Jon Rowe’s place about the possibility of being a Christian philosopher. My involvement included this response to an essay by DSH. Jon has featured DSH’s latest comment in its entirety here. In essence, DSH contends that being a “Biola philosopher” is a contradiction in terms. Though my philosophy training is relatively minimal, my Biola credentials are exemplary, which makes me as good a candidate as any to respond. I accept.

Jonathan’s comments are precisly on target. But a careful read of my ad hominem is not “Christian philosopher,” but “Biola philosopher.” Let me explain.

Jonathan situates philosophy rightly as a discipline that asks ultimate questions. But the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith.

Well, that didn’t take long. In short, I deny the principle that “the necessary prerequisite to all philosophical [thinking?] is the doubting of all presumptions, even the presumptions of faith.” It is DSH’s position that we should doubt the presumption of faith–I will take his own doctrine a step further and doubt the presumption of doubt. Indeed, we may as well doubt thought itself. To carry the presumption of doubt to its limits is to end in a Chestertonian ‘suicide of thought’–it may allow a skeptic to conveniently dismiss thousands of years of Christian philosophical thinking, but it decidedly short-sighted as a philosophical project.

Rather, I would suggest that in order to be a consistent philosopher, one is forced to accept the presumption of faith. Paradoxically, faith can only be doubted if a previous act of faith to trust the tools of thought has been made. At some point, we must all be fideists.

Further, there is a strong bifurcation in philosophy. The ancient Platonic tradition is extremely metaphysical (beyond the physical), often giving “armchair speculation” as answers. A Being qua Being is conceivable to the imagination, even if such a Being is unknowable (isn’t it a tenet of Christian faith that God is inscrutable?). Even Anselm’s God is “the Being beyond which all other being can be conceived”). In the ancient scheme, giving imaginable ideas as answers to fundamental questions was permissable.

The Empirical tradition, on the other hand, has falsifiability as its criterion (esp. Hume, Popper, and the Vienna Circle). But the falsification of religious propositions is literally impossible (how can one falsify something that has no materiality, and the last time I checked a necessary property of God is immateriality?). I think Jonathan explained himself extremely well on these two points.

And this is the same empirical tradition that is increasingly being subjected to scrutiny and increasingly being rejected for the traditional theism of the past. I’ll quote atheist philosopher Quentin Smith on this point: “God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.” As a sidepoint, I’ll note that Christian theism has the added advantage of being falsifiable. Disprove the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ and it is certifiably false. But that’s a sidepoint–the real point is that DSH is conflating philosophy of science and what counts as a viable scientific hypothesis and epistemology. While this worked for Popper, etc., in my experience nearly all epistemological discussions are about methods of justification for beliefs that do not submit to the “scientific method” (whatever that may be). The only conditions the inability to be falsified through scientific or empirical means counts against Christian theism is if one accepts only the conclusions of science as true. But that’s an extremely difficult position to hold and live daily life.

But that does not mean that one cannot be a Christian philosopher. Rather, it means if one is to adopt a philosophical “attitude,” one must be prepared to question everything, including articles of faith. Most Christian philosophers simply do philosophy and leave religious tenets to the side. Some Christian philosophers, notably Aquinas in the 12th C. and Maritain in the 20th C., tried to incorporate insights from both disciplines into whole cloth. For whatever reason, such hybrids simply do not work in the modern era. Maybe when the Metaphysical tradition held sway, the hybrid might be defensible. But when the Empirical tradition came to the fore, the hybrid had to be divided, once and for all. And, let’s not forget that Descartes, the “first” modern philosopher, was a Catholic Christian, and gave God as an explanation for why he “knew” his sensory experience had not been deceived. So being a modern philosopher and being a believing Christian are not mutually exclusive, but they can no longer be “held” in the same way. Faith and Philosophy are just incommensurate.

Actually, I’m fairly confident that Aquinas would have subscribed to the presumption of faith as I articulated it above. As would Aristotle. And probably Plato too.

But my ad hominem was not “Christian philosopher,” it was “Biola philosopher.” What’s the difference? What was my “silly” point?

Fundamentalist Christian academies, and Biola, Liberty, and Oral Roberts’ University are certainly instances of the kind, take their faith not only as a presumption toward “everything,” but literally “informing” everything. Their who raison d’etre is to incorporate a fundamentalist Christian perspective into every academic discipline, even where that perspective might be a tad bit untenable. I grant that one might admit of Christian “veil” over political science, a Christian “veil” over Language and Literature, maybe even a Christian “veil” over anthropology. But a Christian “veil” over Biology, Chemistry, and Physics is just a bit challenging. And since modern philosophy adopts the scientific method as elementary, having a Christian “veil” over “Philosophy” is contrary to both its method and its purpose. Thus, to put a Christian “veil” over philosophy is not only untenable, because the two are incommensurate, but imposing an attitude is contrary to its very method. Even the “scientific method” is not universally accepted by philosophers (e.g., Feyerabend), but as philosophical methods, only the scientific method and logic are admitted tools (but not “unquestioned” tools). Thus, deliberately casting any kind of “veil” over philosophy so that a certain perspective is entailed is wholly contraindicated. But Biola’s mission is to “Christianize” academia, and philosophy’s mission is to “question everything,” which are totally at cross-purposes. One deliberately imposes a definite perspective onto academic questions, the other calls all presumptions into question. The two approaches are opposite each other.

And that’s why I made the ad hominem “Biola philosopher.” Perhaps it’s not a fallacy after all.

My hunch is DSH is spinning a paradox for us: in the same paragraph we’re told the “scientific method” is “elementary” for modern phMy hunilosophy and that it’s not universally accepted. But the substantial claim is that the attempt to “Christianize academia” is at odds with the philosophical enterprise. This is a curious claim, given that most university education in the past has been sponsored, promoted, initiated by the Church–after all, those crazy medievals thought that theology was the “queen of the sciences” (i.e. disciplines). Even if we grant the claim that the “scientific method” and logic are the only admitted tools of philosophy, that still doesn’t get DSH to the conclusion he wishes. Logic is only the tool–truth claims are the materials, and Christian thought can provide the truth claims that are then subjected to the tool of logic. This isn’t new and it’s not controversial. I daresay it’s not even interesting.

But it is DSH’s last sentence that is his most forceful objection: Christians (that is, Biola Christians!) think we have answers–therefore, we cannot ask questions. But here DSH makes the common error of conflating faith with close-mindedness. I am, as far as I know and as much as I’m able, open to being wrong about anything in this post–if DSH or any other wishes to demonstrate me wrong, that is why I blog. But though it may be foolish, until proven wrong I persist in thinking I am right and will persist in arguing for my beliefs. Perhaps this is not ‘philosophical,’ but I fail to see how it differs from the disputationes of the original universities.

Christian thought has always existed within conflict and dialogue–the heresies of the early Church forced it to impose answers in the form of a Creed. Before then, the articles of faith were the Scriptures themselves. But this has never inhibited questioning or thought–rather, it has promoted it. In an interesting analysis of Roman culture, Charles Cochran contends that it was the Christian faith that revived thinking. Greek rationalism eventually ground to a halt, having run on the fumes of Neo-Platonism and Stoicism. At that point, Christian theology, and specifically Trinitarian theology, moved thought forward and laid the foundation for the cultural revival of the Middle Ages, a period of time that was dominated by Christian theism. Biola has inherited the tradition of cultural engagement through philosophy that began in the second century with Justin Martyr and includes Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, and in the modern century, Alvin Plantinga. It as good a time as ever to be a Christian.

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