Saturday, June 12, 2010

The existence of the world is a contestable hypothesis

Whether science does or even can establish the existence of an objective reality is a debate that has raged for centuries. It has been particularly contentious and strident in the twentieth century with both the success of science and the rise of postmodernism, leading to the conflict of "the Science wars."
Different philosophical positions on what science really does tell us range from a naive realism, to critical realism, to instrumentalism, to anti-realism.
There are some rather subtle philosophical issues here which are sometimes dismissed
too easily by practising scientists. I contend that science does involves faith, e
specially in an objective reality.

This issue is actually addressed by Karl Barth, but in an indirect manner, and not at all motivated by questions in the philosophy of science. Furthermore, as is often the case with Barth, his starting point is completely different.
Barth asserts that confession of faith in the Tri-une Creator involves
faith that there is an objective reality.
It cannot be shown that God must have created the world, .... Nor can it be shown in relation to the world that because God has created it, because it necessarily exists and has its being from Him, it is not an illusion, a dream, a mere figment of the imagination, but concept and reality.

The positive counter-assertion that God exists alone, that this divine being is the only one to the exclusion of all others, and the negative counter-assertion that the world and we ourselves do not exist at all, that we do not have a being distinct from that of God, but that everything else apart from God is only supposition, are, of course, as contestable and as little demonstrable as the assertion. But they cannot be refuted by the assertion.
On the contrary, they are refuted only if two conditions are fulfilled-and it is here that we see the real point of the [doctrine of Creation].
The first is that it should be established on the basis of the divine self-witness-....-that God has in fact created the world; that it is, therefore, a reality by God's free will and contingent act.
And the second is that we should have no less factual knowledge of this factual being of the world. Thus if we dare to take the not unimportant step of ascribing its own reality to that which is distinct from God, i.e., heaven and earth and ourselves; if we are Of the bold opinion that we ourselves, and with us the so-called world, are and are not not, we have to realise that this is always an undemonstrable and contestable hypothesis,

It need only be added that the assertion of creation is a statement of faith, i.e., a statement which can never be more than a hypothesis apart from its foundation in God's self-witness, not only on the side which maintains that God is the Creator of the world, and which therefore asserts the reality of God, but also on that which asserts that God is the Creator of the world, and which therefore asserts the distinctive reality of the world. It is only too easy to suggest that, while the reality of God as the Creator is uncertain, and therefore needs proof or revelation, the reality of the creature is all the more certain, so that the one is to be treated as a factor which is not given but has still to be sought, whereas the other may be presupposed ....

the whole history of theology [might be viewed] as a continuous fighting retreat in face of the irresistible advance of a rational and empirical science which on the very different grounds of a triumphant human self-conceit is quite sure of its subject. In preoccupation with only one side of the question, there has been a dangerous failure to realise that the question of creation is not less but even more concerned with the reality of the creature than that of the Creator. Presupposing the certain knowledge of God in His Word, it is actually the case that the existence and being of the world are rendered far more problematical by the existence and being of God than vice versa.

If the world is not created by God, it is not. If we do not recognise that it has been created by God, we do not recognise that it is. But we know that it has been created by God only on the ground of God's self-witness and therefore in faith. Therefore we know only in faith that the world is. The pressure exerted by science on theology could have been resisted if theology had been more energetically and effectively concerned with its own .... divine science; if it had realised that it is primarily the creature and not the Creator of whom we are not certain, and that in order to be certain of him we need proof or revelation.
The Doctrine of Creation, Church Dogmatics 3.1, page 5

Much of this argument is succinctly summarised in the Translator's preface as, "the supreme problem of theology is not the existence of God, as natural theology supposes, but the independent existence of creaturely reality."

So perhaps, Christians should not expect non-Christians to believe in objective reality.

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