The Boomerang of Belief - Problems in Religious Epistemology - An Introduction

© Domenic Marbaniang, December 19, 2007.

‘The sense of the world must lie outside the world,’ said Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951).[1] The human problem is seeking sense of the world within the world or within one’s own self. But can man go beyond himself by himself? Can someone lift himself up by pulling up his bootstraps? The epistemic predicament of man has been just that in several cases: when he started from himself or nature he returned to himself or nature, to the extent that ‘man is the measure of all things’ was reflected in all his cogitations on man, God, and the world. A glance at monism, polytheism, materialism, and pantheism[2] will demonstrate all that man can do to limit ultimate meaning to this-worldly-reality.

This has also been true of Christian theology several times. The rational entanglements of scholastic theology in attempts to rationalize revelation, and the empirical obsessions of liberal, process, existential, and charismatic theologies reflect the segregated pursuits of two different epistemic streams in order to understand divine reality. There are claims to truth in each philosophical school of theology. However, from want of any epistemic theory that could synthesize the rational and the empirical and a resolute adherence to the segregated epistemic lines, the conflict between reason and experience surfaces more often; the consequence, rationalists try to invalidate experience to maintain reason’s standing while empiricists try the same against reason.

The conflict between reason and experience, however, is not restricted to propositional theology; it affects the personal, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions of man as well. The problem with epistemically deficient theologies is not only their one-sided approach towards revelation, but also their failure to synthetically encounter revelation in pursuit of a holistic theology. One seems to find some respite from philosophical vexation in transcendental theologies such as neo-orthodoxy, which proposes encounter with revelation as the basis for theology. Though wrapped in possibilities of self-deception and blind belief, this epistemic proposal at least permits some theologizing in contrast to empirical traditions such as Zen Buddhism that are aversive to reason; consequently, to any form of theologizing.

Despite the advance of empirical science in the past two centuries and the waning of rational theologies, the power of religion has not suffered decrease. In fact, one may not be surprised to find a great percentage of the scientific community to be religious in some sort or the other. In parallel is the ever increasing spate of fideism in the field of science, to the extent that evolutionism is now regarded by many as not just a philosophical hypothesis but a powerful religion that authoritatively draws believers in the name of science. Much of this influence owes to the psychological mechanics of imitative learning: one simply believes what others believe and assert to be true. One adopts the popular world-view, the weltanschauung, by submission to the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist. This is also true of religious believers in general who hold on to their particular religious beliefs by reliance on societal authority. However, the phenomena of religious conversions reveal that believers when countered by crises are often willing to change their beliefs. Whatever be the strength of any religious conviction, there has been a marked disposition of believers in general to seek scientific or empirical recognition of faith in recent times. Especially, in a more secularly oriented world, the pursuit for secular recognition escalates seeing that isolationism will not strengthen the religious appeal for adherents. It is, however, important to understand that the empirical sciences can neither produce nor authenticate propositions of ultimate value. It is not surprising then that Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, called the knower of universals (ideas, principles, theories) wiser than the knower of particulars (things).

Experience does play an important role in the acquisition of knowledge. However, when experience is just sensual, brutish, and intensely immanent, one soon encounters the spiritual turbulences of emptiness, boredom, vexation, anxiety, and loneliness: ‘the sense of the world must lie outside the world.’ That is why Jesus told the Samaritan woman that the world could not quench her thirst; only God could do that.

But then, one may argue that spiritual experiences are also one form of experience and religious experiences have been often used as basis for faith in God. For instance, Alvin Plantinga’s theory of foundationalism categorizes belief in God as basic to the noetic structure of the believer having appositive religious experiences. However, the qualification of such experience as religious is subjective and therefore immune to empirical or objective verification or falsification; thus, unqualifying as scientific. John Wisdom’s parable of the invisible gardener is a classic illustration of this problem. It shows how an explanatory hypothesis, such as the existence of God, may initially appear to be experimental but end up as a non-empirical, unscientific hypothesis. In John Wisdom’s own words, the story is as follows:
Two people return to their long neglected garden and find among the weeds a few of the old plants surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other “It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these plants.” Upon inquiry they find that no neighbour has ever seen anyone at work in their garden. The first man says to the other “He must have worked while people slept.” The other says “No, someone would have heard him and besides, anybody who cared about the plants would have kept down these weeds.” The first man says “Look at the way these are arranged. There is purpose and a feeling for beauty here. I believe that someone comes, someone invisible to mortal eyes. I believe that the more carefully we look the more we shall find confirmation of this.” They examine the garden ever so carefully and sometimes they come on new things suggesting that a gardener comes and sometimes they come on new things suggesting the contrary and even that a malicious person has been at work. Besides examining the garden carefully they also study what happens to gardens left without attention. Each learns all the other learns about this and about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says “I still believe a gardener comes” while the other says “I don’t,” their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, no difference as to what they would find in the garden if they looked further and no difference about how fast untended gardens fall into disorder. At this stage, in this context, the gardener hypothesis has ceased to be experimental….[3]

Obviously, attempts to give an objective basis to subjective religious beliefs are not always very successful. This doesn’t mean that all faith is groundless or lacks reason. It only means that the reasons are not always sought in the right place. For instance, to declare that the only proof for God’s existence would be his visible manifestation is to assume that God is spatio-temporally limited and is physical in nature. But to decide the nature of God before having the proof of his existence is to argue from existence and not towards existence. The empirical mind, however, can think of reality in terms of sense-experience alone and so demands of any claim to truth an empirical validation. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that empiricists and logical positivists call all metaphysics a nonsensical and futile enterprise, in doing which, they nullify the validity of all metaphysical claims, including the belief in a rational God.

One important question haunting psychologists of religion is why people believe in God. Another question, asked by philosophers, is whether belief in God is similar to belief in people or things. Are religious beliefs essentially same as or different from secular beliefs? Some philosophers, like Platinga, have argued for the basicality of belief in God. In other words, belief in God is seen as basic to the human noetic structure as the belief in the existence of the external world. This axiomatic status of theistic belief nullifies the need of evidences. One problem with this approach is that belief in God is always theological, belief about God as well. In the modern pluralistic world, belief in God is always belief in some kind of a God, and when such belief is questioned one either recourses to reason or to experience or to revelation; and, obviously, each of the sources of knowledge lends differing perspectives on the same enquiry.

[1] John Hick (ed.), Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), p. 333
[2] Atheism can’t exist alone since it is a negative philosophy; it must find a positive counterpart as in materialism, monism, or pantheism. Alone by itself it encounters nihilism and self-destruction; for when a man turns his back on God, he must turn to something else, or … to an infinite, unlivable void.
[3] John Hick (ed.), Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, 2nd edn. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970), p. 434

© Domenic Marbaniang, December 19, 2007.


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