Fideism and Empiricism

Apostrophe Abuse

            I have affirmative proof of the imminent collapse of civilization.  In Britain there was something called “The Apostrophe Protection Society.”  They just announced:  “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won.”  In case you think I make this stuff up, a more believable source is the UK Evening Standard, article here.   


Look for the Keys Where the Light Is

            I recently submitted the manuscript for my next book to the publisher.  It has a big-ol’ long chapter on consciousness, but I could have just said this instead:

Neuroscience has tried and failed to explain consciousness for over 50 years. Why? “If you simply rule in advance that the mind must be physical and assume that an understanding of consciousness must be a materialist understanding, because scientific materialism is obviously correct, you end up looking for your keys under the streetlamp because that’s where the light is.”


This pithy quote came to me through Prufrock, Micah Mattix’s blog, and working backwards to source, a BookForum book review by Michael Robbins, reviewing three books at once on consciousness.  I strongly commend it to you, if you have only a passing interest in this subject of consciousness that has consumed me for lo these many years. 



            In an offhand way Robbins mentions in his review, as an analogy, that “we still don’t know what gravity is.”  He’s right, you know.  Think about it.  We like to look at the little illustrations showing a planet sitting in something like a net to demonstrate the interaction between material and time, and from that we think we have an inkling that time is another dimension, just like the spatial dimensions of length, width, and height.  Time is qualitatively different from matter, however, notwithstanding their interactivity as Einstein showed.  Matter is composed of atoms, but what is time composed of?  What is time’s equivalent of an atom?  A clockotron?  What is the mathematical location of a clockotron?    


            In the same way, we can ask of what are the cosmological forces like gravity composed?  The net dips because of gravity, but what exactly is that?  “Force” is way too vague, I would think, for physicists.  It is merely descriptive of an attractive force they observe.  We speak of “gravitons” and think of them like photons, but there’s really no such thing as a graviton.  It’s only an analogy we devise in our minds, and it’s kind of a lame analogy:  atoms to units of force, or photons to units of force.  We know about relativity and we can measure degrees of force between objects, but how, physically, does the force exist? 


            No one knows.  Our circumlocution in definitions and catchphrases doesn’t help.  It obfuscates further.  In reality the whole of science rests as much upon unseen reality as theology does.  I hope you’re now feeling a little disconcerted.  At any moment your feet may separate from the earth and you’ll drift off into space.  This is what happens when you fail to believe.      



            Speaking of believing, I used the word “fideism” recently and someone asked me what I meant.  Technically it is the epistemological view that belief does not rely at all on reason, but instead entirely on revelation.  So if you’re a Christian and a fideist, you say forget all this “reason” business, I believe in the revelation (disclosed in the Bible) and that’s it.  Away with thee, heathen. 


            But reason and revelation are inseparable.  All of revelation enters your thinking over the medium of your consciousness, which is itself a form of revelation, and your consciuosness operates on priniciples of reason.  It is impossible to form beliefs without reason.  Fideism is really just belief in belief.  It would mean the object of your belief needn’t be true; belief is sufficient unto itself.  So if you can’t answer hard questions about why you believe in an ultimate Force in the universe, and virgin birth and a Messiah and resurrection, you can say “you just gotta believe,” and be done with all this hard thinking so you can get back to the TV.



            People who reject God do exactly the same thing, though.  Instead of “revelation,” think “observation.”  Instead of “fideism,” think “empiricism.”  Philosophically, empiricism is the epistemological principle that you can only know what you observe.  (Don’t be confused by the more pragmatic way the word is casually used in science, overlaying reason onto the observations).  Philosophical empiricism amounts to secular fideism. 


            You observe physical things.  They’re “revealed” to you by God, or else exist independently of Him, brute facts of existence merely perceived by you.  “Revelation” suggests a greater Power doing the revealing.  “Observation” suggests the power lies in you, doing the observing. 


            Our knowing is imagined to be divorced from reason for both fideism (the word applied to religious truths) and philosophical empiricism (the same concept applied to materialist assertions of truth.


            People who smugly reject God because some Christians are fideists ought to turn their sights around.  They’re doing the same thing as the clueless ostensible Christian who clings to that good ol’ time religion without knowing why.  If you’re disposed to reject miracles or the need for redemption (you mean I’m bad?) or a Prime Mover of the universe, you can either think through why, or you can accept materialism on the basis of a secular fideistic faith-alone outlook.    


The Similarities are Camouflaged

            Though the way of thinking is really the same, the way these positions are manifested in our culture isn’t.  The atheist materialist doesn’t say, like the fideist, “you just gotta believe” in materialism.  The materialist beliefs are hidden away, nobody points to them.  Instead, they point to Christian beliefs, and say “you just gotta not believe.”  In this way he can out-smug the smug fideist Christians.  It’s not obvious that he’s doing the same thing he derides them for. 


            See how this works?  This is what my book is trying to overcome.  Believe what the evidence persuades you to believe, using both observation and reason, and be conscious of the process, so you don’t kid yourself about how you got to your beliefs. 


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