Saturday, November 15, 2008

Einstein and God

Einstein's biographer on the great man's religious belief

Friday, November 14, 2008


One of the major problems in the work of finding useful complementary interactions among science, philosophy, and theology is the question of divine action in creation: how does God interact with His creation?

Three are three basic schools of thought that address this question:

Classical theism (CT): God is Being per se; He created all contingent beings ex nihilo (from nothing) and holds all creation in existence; He exercises His will according to His nature as Love through instrumental causality (sacraments, people); He allows moral evil as a consequence of His choice to give His human creatures free will; natural evil is a consequence of the fall and the entrance of death into creation; He is Self-limiting, that is, limited only by His own choices and wholly unaffected by His creation. Total transcendence.

Pantheism (P): God is identical with creation, "All is God, God is All"; Spirit is the Soul/Mind of the physical universe, which is God's body; everything is divine because everything is God, there is nothing "outside" God; God acts in the universe in a way analogous to the human mind acting within the human body; as the universe grows and changes, so does God; God is directly affected by free human choices; moral and natural evil are consequences of physical law, God is unable to intervene; He is naturally limited by physical law. Total immanence.

Panentheism (EN): God contains creation but transcends creation, "All in God, but not all of God in All"; creation is ex nihilo but also on-going; creatures assist in on-going creation through free will and choice; God allows His will to be affected by free human choices; He operates in the world through persuasive human agency; moral evil is a consequences of this agency; natural evil is the consequence of physical law. Transcendent and immanent.

Each of these has various versions that fine-tune the basics presented here (deism, process theism, qualified panentheism). There is little agreement among proponents of each position concerning what counts as a conclusive definition of each position. Broadly speaking, each provides a basic way of talking about who and what God is, and given that particular view, how God interacts with the universe.

For orthodox Christians, that is, Christians adhering to the langauge and intent of the ancient creeds, pantheism is not a viable theological option. Pantheism explicitly denies God's transcendence, choosing instead to equate God with the body/soul of the universe. Theism and panentheism are certainly viable options.

Traditionally, the "problem of evil" plagues CT: how can an all-powerful, all-good, all knowing God allow moral and natural evil? Classical theists have given any number of answers to this question, sometimes limiting God's goodness, knowledge, or power in their answers. Others take a more traditional tact, the "free-will defense," and argue that evil of every kind is a natural consequence of man's free will and choice.

Panentheism offers orthodox Christians with a rather broad palatte to paint a theological picture of God who is both transcendent of His creation and immanent in it. EN offers the best of both CT and contemporary science. Also, EN offers science and philosophy a place at the theological table by allowing these disciplines to explore creation at its macro and micro levels. Given the insights of science and philosophy, the panentheistic theologian is then charged with incorporating these insights without sacrificing either divine transcendence or immanence.

The degree to which an EN theologian's work concedes either divine transcendence or immanance will determine that work's degree of usefulness to orthodox Christianity.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Realism vs. anti-realism

A first attempt to understand the difference between realist and anti-realist claims for knowing X.

From the Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind:

"Briefly, a realist about x holds that x enjoys mind-independent existence, that is, x exists regardless of whether anyone thinks, hopes or fears that x exists.

It may sound odd to demand of minds and other things mental that they have mind independent existence, but the claim, for instance, that my mind is mind independent just means that I have a mind regardless of whether anyone thinks, hopes, or fears that I do.

As well, a realist insists on there being explanations of the empirical world (including minds) in terms of the real world. Thus, a complete theory of the mind should explain the existence and functioning of minds in terms of the reality lying behind their empirically testable properties."


[Anti-realism] "insists that we can only understand a statement if we understand under what circumstances someone who asserted it would say something true, and that we can only understand this if we could manifest our understanding, at least in principle, by asserting it in the relevant circumstances.

It follows that we could not understand any alleged truths that transcend all possibility, even in principle, of being verified. The view gains plausibility when we ask what sense it makes to talk of understanding something when we could never in any circumstances manifest a knowledge of it.

But realists (of the relevant kind) insist on the contrary that truth must be prior to, and independent of, our means of ascertaining it."

Glossing over the substantial differences within each camp, we can say that the primary difference between realists and anti-realists abides in the answer that each gives to the question: what do we know when we claim to know?

Realists answer: "We know something true about a reality that exists prior to our knowing it."

Anti-realists answer: "We know only our true descriptions of what we believe to be real."

In other words, the difference is the difference between so-called "mind independent reality" and "mind dependent reality." To be clear, anti-realists generally do not argue that what we call reality is non-existent in common sense terms; that is, they do not claim that the real world is a product of individual perception and consciousness. Rather, the anti-realist is making a claim about the ontological status of exactly what it is we know. We know our true descriptions of reality. The realist will counter that we must know something more than our descriptions because those descriptions must be describing something other than themselves.

For realists, descriptions are true if they are empirically verifiable; that is, if our descriptions accurately match a prior reality then we can say that we have truthfully described reality. For anti-realists, descriptions can only be shown to be true within the limits of our descriptive language; in other words, there is no appeal to a reality prior to our description of that reality. What we "know" about reality is our description of it.

As I understand it, critical realism takes the best of both views and claims that we know both descriptions and what these descriptions describe. However, our descriptions are limited by our physical perceptual capabilities (and extensions of them), our language, and our means of verification; so, when we claim to know X, we are really saying, "To the extent that our perceptual capabilities, our language, and our means of verification allow, we describe X in this way and we do so accurately though not absolutely." So, my description of an apple will be accurate in comparison to an apple, but I cannot describe everything about any particular apple, only what is knowable given my limits. As my limits are expanded (though instruments, experimentation, more precise language), I am more and more capable of accurately describing the apple as it is, but my limits are infinite in that there will always be some question unanswerable by perception or experimentation; e.g. which apple produced the seed that produced the tree that produced this apple, ad inf?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Dominican Study: LCO 76-83

I offer these portions of the Dominican Book of Constitutions and Ordinations (LCO) on the ministry of study as a way to come to some understanding of how a faithful Christian might approach the study of the complementary interactions of philosophy, science, and theology. The following paragraphs show that it is possible for a faithful Christian, without subordinating one field to another, to be both scientifically astute and philosophically coherent. This uniquely Dominican element presents study (along with prayer, ministry, and community) as a means to the end of preaching and teaching the gospel. In other words, for OP's, study, our intellectual life today as a ministry, can never be separated from the fundamental charge and goal of our founder to preach Christ Jesus and him alone.

Chapter III


Art. I. -- On the Importance of Study and its Sources

76. St. Dominic included study, ordained to the ministry of salvation, as an essential part of his plan for the Order: in this was no small innovation. He, who himself always carried with him the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Epistles of Saint Paul, directed the brethren to schools, and sent them to the major cities "so that they might study, preach, and establish a convent." [Thus OP's do not understand study to be an end in itself but as a means to understand creation and its Creator more fully in order to better preach the gospel.]

77. I. Hence "before all else, our study should aim principally and ardently at this that we might be able to be useful to the souls of our neighbors." [So, no Ivory Tower-ism for OP's!]

II. By study the brethren consider in their heart the manifold wisdom of God and prepare themselves for the doctrinal service of the Church and of all mankind. It is all the more fitting that they should devote themselves to study, because from the tradition of the Order they are more specially called to cultivate mankind's inclination toward truth. [Since God's grace builds on our nature as rational animals we are inclined as a matter of both nature and grace to seek out, find, and make use of God's "manifold wisdom.]

III. Study of this kind must be pursued according to the different requirements of each subject; it requires strict discipline and the application of all one's abilities.

78. The light and source of our study is God, who spoke in former times and in different ways, and last of all speaks in Christ, through whom the mystery of the Father's will, after the sending of the Spirit, is fully revealed in the Church and enlightens the minds of all people. [If God is the "light and source of our study," then it follows that everything we study will be illuminated by God's light and found originating from God; therefore, biology, physics, math, music, literature, etc. are all limited manifestations of God's Self-revelation to His creation.]

79. The brethren should contemplate and study divine revelation of which Sacred Scripture and
Tradition constitute a single sacred deposit, and from the perennial instructional value of its overall plan, they should learn to discover the many paths of gospel truth, even in created things, in human works and institutions, as well as in different religions. [All truth is God's truth, so any truth we discover--regardless of the source--must be a revelation of God and capable of leading us to a fuller understanding of God and our relationship with Him. This does not mean that all sciences, all religions, all philosophies are true as a whole. It means that what is true in each is true insofar as the truth is found first and perfectly in Truth Himself.]

80. In all things the brethren should think with the Church and exhibit allegiance to the varied exercise of the Magisterium to which is entrusted the authentic interpretation of the word of God. Furthermore, faithful to the Order's mission, they should always be prepared to provide with special dedication cooperative service to the Magisterium in fulfilling their doctrinal obligations. [OP's are especially charged with assisting the magisterial office of the Church in researching, defining, defending, and promulgating the truth found in scripture and the tradition of the Church, making use of any and all sciences and philosophies that bring us more fully to God's final truth revealed in Christ Jesus. Though this path is wide, it is well-traveled and clearly defined, thus OP's are obligated as a matter of faith and obedience to adhere to the teachings of the Church, all the while finding better and better means of understanding and preaching and teaching these truths.]

81. The brethren should study attentively the writings of the Fathers of the Church and distinguished witnesses of Christian thought who, with the help of different cultures and the wisdom of the philosophers, labored to understand the word of God more fully. Following their thinking, the brethren should respectfully listen to the living tradition of the Church, seek dialogue with the learned, and open their mind to contemporary discoveries and problems. [Since the path to God's truth is both well-traveled and clearly defined, OP's are obligated to consider how our ancestors in the faith understood God's revelation in different ages and cultures. While obedient to these traditions (respectfully listening), OP's assist in the on-going task of creating a contemporary tradition that accounts for novel discoveries without inventing "new truths" in the wilds far from the well-traveled and clearly defined way.]

82. The best teacher and model in fulfilling this duty is St. Thomas, whose teaching the Church
commends in a unique way and the Order receives as a patrimony which exercises an enriching influence on the intellectual life of the brethren and confers on the Order a special character. [Thomas provides OP's with a nearly comprehensive synthesis of ancient and medieval wisdom that accounts for both the best of sacred tradition and reasoned discourse. Though Thomas is the master of Dominican synthesis, providing for us a formidable starting point, his work is subject to impovement and revision in light of the on-going work of creating a contemporary tradition.]

Consequently, the brethren should develop a genuine familiarity with his writings and thought, and, according to the needs of the time and with legitimate freedom, they should renew and enrich his teaching with the continually fresh riches of sacred and human wisdom.

83. Continuous study nourishes contemplation, encourages fulfillment of the counsels with shining fidelity, constitutes a form of asceticism by its own perseverance and difficulty, and, as an essential element of our whole life, it is an excellent religious observance. [Understanding study as a form of asceticism--"virtue in daily practice"--OP's pray when they study; that is, contemplative study in the service of preaching and teaching the gospel with the Church is prayer.]