Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Christian Apologetics and Popper's Non-Justification

Popper on page 29 of Unended quest: An Intellectual autobiography, wrote “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood: there will always be some who misunderstands you.”

On this point I agree with Popper, but Popper applied this approach to all knowledge. No knowledge could be justified as being absolutely true. We can approach truth but we can never quite get there. His opponents on the other hand believed that knowledge can be “justified,” i.e, proved true in a scientific laboratory.

Popper wasn’t a Christian as far as I can tell; so he was dealing with any spoken or written text when he wrote “it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood,” and also when he argued that scientific knowledge cannot be justified as being absolutely true. He wasn’t being a nihilist when he said that. He would say (I imagine) that science should move ahead with its work based on a 99.9999 percent confidence in the lab results.

It is true that evaluations in a laboratory can substantiate some physical facts and discount others, but as Wittgenstein implied at the end of his Tractatus, the most important knowledge can’t be demonstrated in a lab. Wittgenstein was converted to Christianity by reading Tolstoy’s paraphrase of the New Testament while fighting on the German front during World War I. He demonstrates that it is possible to understand and believe in the Scientific Method without believing that method to be the only source of knowledge. Whereas Scientists typically view their epistemology supporting an open-ended enlightened quest; Christians view the scientists’ parameters as forming a box from which they cannot hear the Holy Spirit that Wittgenstein heard.

The writer of Hebrews in Chapter 3 verse 15 wrote, “As has been said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” And again in 4:7, “Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David as was said before: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’” But as a result of the scientific box that excludes any voices that cannot speak through its laboratory walls, these philosophers and scientists cannot hear ‘his voice.’” The scientific method and hardened hearts seem to go hand in hand, but it needn’t be so, and using Popper’s “falsification method” we falsify that belief by means of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

The term “fideism” means a reliance upon faith rather than reason. This term is normally applied to religion, but Popper admits a kind of fideism in that he has faith in reason. He cannot demonstrate “reason” or “rationality” in a lab. This is an assumption that he holds by faith. Are we Christians fideists in relying upon faith and not on reason? Some Christians are, but Thomas Aquinas believed that the religious truths of Christianity could be proved using reason. He believed (according to Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550, page 35, “that universals were really in things and, as so-called intelligible species, also really in the mind, so he believed that grace was really in sacramental rituals and elements and, as an accidental form, also really in the soul.” This belief didn’t remain unchallenged. William of Ockham and the Nominalists challenged this overweening reliance upon words.

Few Christians today would follow Aquinas or Duns Scotus in the belief that God can be proved by verbal argument. Thomism didn’t disappear but Ockham’s Nominalism weakened it fatally. The Fourteenth Century was a time of great insecurity, for if the proofs of Aquinas and Duns could not be relied upon, then perhaps God didn’t really exist. A fideistic approach to belief was a viable alternative, but it didn’t satisfy everyone.

Luther and Calvin followed Ockham in rejecting Aquinas and Duns. Justification was to be by faith and not by philosophical “proofs.” Assurance of salvation was to occur through reliance upon the testimony of Jesus and his disciples as quickened in the believer by the Holy Spirit. This process is not demonstrable in a scientific lab, but no generation since the Church was formed has lacked believers and evangelists.

Peter (1 Peter 3:15) writes “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” So how would Peter answer Popper’s opponents? He wouldn’t have quite as much trouble with Popper who admits to a fideistic belief in reason, but is this hope that we have truly fideistic? Not according to Cornelius Van Til, the recent Professor of Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has been accused of fideism, but his “hope” was never a blind one. He made assumptions equivalent to those of Popper’s opponents and then argued with as much acumen as the most sophisticated philosopher. They assumed the Scientific Method, Van Til assumed the truth proclaimed in Scripture.

But wait, if it is impossible to write in such a way that ambiguity is eliminated (a paraphrase of Popper) how shall we know what Scriptural truth is? Won’t it all be ambiguous? In this regard, Christians rely upon the Holy Spirit to provide enough understanding for salvation. But we should at the same time understand that Scripture is not self-authenticating. In every generation some bright fellow will think it is, read the Bible and rely upon his own understanding and produce or more likely reproduce a heterodox theory of Christianity. Luther and Calvin advocated sola scriptura, scripture only, and by this they intended to object to the Catholic traditions that the RCC claimed equivalent to Scripture, but much confusion has resulted from this expression. If we accept Sola Scriptura then surely Scripture is self-authenticating, many have tended to think, and it is therefore in no need of an exegete. Of course this isn’t a tenable position. Both Luther and Calvin spent much of their lives explaining Scripture. We have always needed teaching. The best way to avoid a heterodox tangent is to familiarize ourselves with the great teachers provided to the church down through the ages. Are any of us as wise as they were? Perhaps, but if so we will surely agree with them. If we discover that we do not then we are on shaky ground. Sola Scriptura yes, but let us consult the teachers who have wrestled (with the help of the Holy Spirit) with the ambiguities of Scripture. Who are these teachers, some will ask? Here we can apply Popper again. We should strive to accept the teachers who stick closest to Scripture but as our studies grow we can compare teacher to teacher and more closely approach a thorough understanding. We should choose wisely. Someplace it is written that we shall be held accountable for the teachers we set over ourselves.

We are not alone in this. He has not left us comfortless, and he has told us he will be with us until the end of the age. As to the ambiguity in that statement, we don’t know quite what “the age” is or when it will “end,” but whatever it is and however long it lasts, Christ has promised to be with us, and with the help of the Holy Spirit we accept that knowledge as justified – not in a lab, but with quite as much confidence as the lab technicians have as they pursue their experiments. 99.9999 percent? Perhaps.

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