Friday, June 14, 2013

Issues in Christian scholarship

This week at the Volfians group we will be discussing the short book Reason within the bounds of religion by Nicholas Wolterstorff.

There is a very helpful summary of the book by Michael Wilson.
Here is my summary of the summary!

Every scholar must choose:

1. what specific subject to investigate
2. what views to hold on that particlar subject

Wolterstorff suggests that a Christian scholar should have distinct views and practice relating to both these issues. To consider, the second, he reviews foundationalism and its failures.

Foundationalism is the classic Western philosophical perspective on theory construction.
One starts with a foundation of specific assumptions that are certain or self-evident. From this foundation one uses inference to demonstrate the certainty of new propositions.

Wolterstorff considers three different types of foundationalism:

1. Complementarism.
Following, Aquinas, faith and reason are considered to be complementary to one another.
Believers and unbelievers can both apprehend the truth of certain matters.

2. Preconditionalist Foundationalism.
"I believe in order that I might understand."
Augustine, Anselm, and Calvin had this view.
Unbelief can prevent apprehension of some matters.

3. Incorporationism.
Followed by many modern Protestants.
"everything the Bible teaches, ..., is incorporated within a body of foundational certitudes."

Foundationalism has significant problems as a self-consistent philosophy. "Many theories that seemingly warrant acceptance are not deducible from any foundation. The example is given of the claim, "all swans have wings." A strict foundationalist can only accept this if they exam all the swans in the world.
The problem is distinguishing between certainty and what is true with high probability.
Furthermore, foundationalism does not provide a justification for induction.

Falsification [Karl Popper's alternative to foundationalism] is not the solution. No theory stands alone. If some experimental result is inconsistent with a theory one does not then always abandon the theory. One may instead reject the experimental result as unreliable.

How does one actually weigh the evidence for a theory?
This is influenced by three things.

a. Data beliefs
Decisions about what data is valid and what is not.

b. Data background beliefs
Criteria one uses to accept some and reject some data.

c. Control beliefs
Criteria that one uses to assess whether a theory itself is an acceptable candidate theory.
Examples include  aesthetics, logical structure, or consistency with another theory.

Wolterstorff suggests that some Christian scholars make the supremacy of science as a control belief. In particular, "Christian commitment [does not] enter into the devising or weighing of theories within the sciences." [page 82]. Furthermore, Christian scholars seldom "suggest any research programs within the sciences" [page 105].

Finally, he turns to issue 1. above: what subjects should a Christian scholar investigate. He contrasts "pure theory" and "praxis-oriented theory." The relative priority is based on "deciding which holds the most promise of contributing most substantially to the cause of in-justice shalom." [page 133-134].

"in justice shalom" means that the "goal of human existence is that man should dwell at peace in all his relationships: with God, with himself, with his fellows, with nature, a peace which is not merely the absence of hostility, though it certainly is that, but a peace which at its highest is enjoyment." [page 114]

This is certainly a challenge for Christian scholarship.

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