In the early part of the previous (which is to say, 20th) century, philosophers tried to dodge the difficult question of characterizing the logical structure(s) of explanation by arguing that science was really only about description. This program was a failure of almost laughable proportions. Anyone casting even a casual eye at what science is and how it functions cannot possibly avoid the fact that science aims at explanations. But are scientific explanations the only things that qualify as explanations?
Let me restate this question using the points and issues raised in part 1: concepts of “God” serve no valid purpose in scientific explanation, but is scientific explanation the only kind that is valid? I have written at length in other posts about the pathetic misdirection that is to be found in certain elements of contemporary science, primarily gravitational cosmology. But this is a failure of science within science; this still begs the question, is science all that there is?
The answer to this question is, “No.” However, this “no” rests rather shakily on a thorough appreciation for how complex and multidimensional (the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany called this combination “multiplex”) the nature of explanation happens to be. Thus, for example, science – especially within the current, dominant paradigm of nature – seems incapable of accounting for consciousness, cognition, and value, all of which things are central and defining relations of and within experience at its most basic level. How can scientific explanation be ultimate when it effectively denies reality to that which makes scientific explanation possible? There is no path in this argument from ignorance to an assertion of any religiously founded notion of “God.” But the question of the “Big G” does arise, and requires a gloss of the generic forms in which such discussion might take place.
The idea/concept of God comes up in three primary ways: the religious, the theological, and the philosophical modes of engagement. Yet, before I can go further, I must say a word about that term, “idea/concept.” In everyday parlance, the two words are used in a manner that is largely indistinguishable. Even in technical philosophy, the two are often used as cognates. However, amongst philosophical purists, these are very different notions, related somewhat as genera/species. An “idea” is very general; defined enough to produce a kind of order and context of usage, but still extremely open. A “concept” is very specific (and note the deliberate play on genera/species against general/specific); it is the basis of a real, concrete “research programme” (recall my comments at the end of part 1.) Qua such a “programme” it is not something so particular that it stands out as an individual fact (or even a simple set of these.) But a concept is sufficiently determined that one can use it as a directive heuristic in a rationally defensible inquiry. I wish to keep the differences between ideas and concepts alive in this discussion – alive in the sense that beyond what I might particularly say, there are complexities in multiple dimensions (recall: “multiplex”) that I cannot address here, yet refuse to deny anywhere.
So, a few grotesque oversimplifications, just to give us some traction. “God”’s appearances in:
- Religion: this is about worship, community, orthodoxy, and experience. Extravagant modalities of interpretation and analysis are entirely misplaced here. The experiential basis is the dominating character. As such, anyone who is not at least minimally familiar with William James‘ Varieties of Religious Experience has no business talking about “God” at any level. If you don’t get this much, you cannot get anything that follows.
- Theology: This is about community and, more importantly, interpretation. Analysis makes its appearance, while orthodoxy is beginning to fade. Theology retains its sometimes tenuous connections to religious experience, but it is now importing philosophical and metaphysical criteria into its considerations so as to insert more densely and explicitly cognitive methods and materials into its subject matter.
- Philosophy: This is about logic and analysis; insofar as the personal makes an appearance, that appearance is only justifiable on purely logical grounds. But “logic” in this sense, includes both logic and principles, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.
A crude gloss of this would be to say that religion is about experience, theology is about interpretation, and philosophy moves into a kind of explanation. The overlap between all of these characterizations is significant, so these are no mathematically rigorous distinctions to be drawn, merely heuristically functional proposals. None of these ideas/concepts serve any function within science, but some – specifically at the philosophical level – begin to address issues without which science cannot function.
Religion is about personal experience, and the transliteration of that experience into a community of fellow travelers. Whitehead once quipped that religion was how we dealt with our solitariness; it is in that solitary dealing that some people find themselves one among many, and community emerges. In communities that valorize liberal approaches, the experiential element will be directed toward personal growth and spirituality. In conservative communities, experience will be canalized into orthodoxy and conformity. This latter can reach those extremes that have accounted for so much of those state and clique sponsored forms of terror and violence that have dominated so much of the past 1,000 years of Western history.
Religion will tend to downplay cognitive elements for more directly phenomenological modes of expression. In theology, this relation is reversed. Robert A. Heinlein once quipped (in The Notebooks of Lazarus Long) that the relation between religion and theology was rather like that between history and truth; i.e., none to speak of. While amusing, this isn’t entirely fair (although it is not entirely false, either.) Theology is more “amphibian” than religion proper, in that it has one foot in the pond of religion, and one on the dry land of philosophy. Theology will almost always remain rooted in a single religious tradition, but it will begin applying logical principles from philosophy to the primary religious texts and practices so as to develop a more rationalized framework for interpretation. This suggests that there are limits to how conservative theology can be, as there are limits to how far logic can be twisted to conform to a predetermined orthodoxy. Explanatory types of structures will begin to show themselves within theology, but they will be limited by the fact that they remain rooted in their base religion as their primary interpretive frame.
The God idea/concept will often appear in philosophy as a kind of ultimate principle of explanation. This will be purely metaphysical explanation, however. Metaphysical explanations are not as strictly formal as logical ones might be, but they are still considerably abstracted from push-and-shove matters of religion and theology. Thus, for example, “God” plays a profoundly explanatory role in Whitehead’s process metaphysics. God, for Whitehead, is not some magic-vending-machine-daddy-in-the-sky (drop a prayer quarter in the slot, have a wish-come-true gumball roll out below.) In fact, God, for Whitehead, is even less personal than Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.” Rather, Whitehead’s God is the unification of the rational structure of reality, and the font of creativity.
Absolutely no one is ever going to go to church for such a God. Nevertheless, while different versions of naturalism might argue over the “font of creativity” piece, natural science itself is impossible in the absence of the presupposition of that underlying rational structure of reality. What are we to call that underlying structure which is, after all, the explanatory principle which makes explanations possible? If one has spent enough time immersed in the Greek language, then αρχή (“arche”) might suffice. But if your language is English, the only word you can plug in there is “God.” Not the “God” of your religion, or even your theology. But the God of fundamental philosophy, the underlying principle of underlying principles. The God without which, there are nothing but gaps.
Thank you so much for the Whitehead link. As I hoped it turned out to be A N Whitehead. His only book I know well is the Introduction to mathematics 1911 – it is excellent. I gave up on Principia Mathematica on page one or two, and did not know about Whitehead’s other stuff. Now I have to follow it all up.
Incidentally, I nearly became a Christian after reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not A Christian.
Here’s a philosopher story for you:
The late Professor C E M Joad, of Oxford, was waiting on the Didcot railway station for his connection to London. A train pulled and he opened the door. A porter shouted ” Excuse me, Sir, that train doesn’t stop here”. “That’s Ok my man” says Joad climbing into the train. ” I’m not getting on”.
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Gary Herstein said:
The Principia is an interesting episode in ANW’s work, in that for him it was the least relevant thing he did, whereas for Russell it was the be-all and end-all of philosophy.
The 1911 book is excellent — too few people, even among Whitehead scholars, take the time to appreciate it.
With apologies for tooting my own horn, a number of people have suggested that my article on Whitehead at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is actually pretty good, and it is intended as a general intro. The discussion there of Whitehead’s texts might prove useful for your further reading: http://www.iep.utm.edu/whitehed/
I read the whole thing! Now for the books.
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