This week’s challenge, taken from a blog comment, is about whether or not there can be real meaning in life if God doesn’t exist:
I personally don't understand why a relatively "local" sense of purpose (limited to the scope of what humanity can grasp) is deemed insufficient by theists. I don't understand why it has to be "all or nothing," why our precarious sense of "meaning" – infinitesimal against the magnitude of physical reality – must encompass the whole universe, or else we lack all meaning. That seems incoherent to me.
Can anything be called “meaningful” in a world without God? If not, why not? How would you answer this blog commenter? Give us your thoughts in the comments below, then Brett will post a video with his answer on Thursday.
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I want to sketch out Thomas Aquinas’ theory of natural law by distinguishing between the four kinds of law he outlines in the Summa Theologiae and then discussing his conception of the Good. Afterward, we’ll ask if Aquinas’ view is compatible with a biblical view.
Thomas Aquinas synthesizes philosophy and theology to arrive at his theory of natural law. In the Summa, he begins his treatise on the essence of law by stating the definition of law in general as “a dictate of practical reason in the prince who governs some perfect community.” Thus, law has an essential relation to reason. By distinguishing between four kinds of law, Aquinas demonstrates that ultimately, all law is subject to Divine Reason, or eternal law.
#1 – Eternal Law: This first law represents the timeless principles found in the physical and moral world by which “the whole community of the universe is governed.” Since “all laws proceed from the eternal law,” ontologically, the eternal law is the measure of all other laws, and thus they find their derivation from the eternal law.
#2 – Natural Law: Aquinas begins his discussion of the second kind of law, natural law, by making a distinction. Not only is a law in the reason of a ruler, but it “can be in something…as in the ruled and measured.” More precisely, natural law is that law which is imprinted upon our human nature and directs us toward our natural good or end. In reference to Aquinas’ view of natural law, J. Budziszewski terms this kind of law “as moral principles that we cannot not know” (from Written on the Heart, p. 61). As such, natural law is a reflection of the eternal law found within the structure of human reason.
#3 – Divine Law: The third law, divine law, is defined as that law which is revealed in the Christian Scriptures. In contrast to the teleology of natural law, divine law pertains to our “supernatural ultimate end”: our reconciliation with God Himself. According to Aquinas, there are two kinds of divine law. There is the old law, found in the Old Testament, and the new law, found in the New Testament. Divine law is necessary because unaided human reason cannot apprehend the whole of eternal law. Thus, divine law is also a reflection of the eternal law in the form of special revelation.
#4 – Human Law: Lastly, Aquinas sets out a fourth law, human law. Human law is simply the derivation of civil law (or the laws of a nation) from the principles of natural law. In this kind of law we observe that “human reason must proceed to dispose of more particular matters. Thus, human law in the United States would include traffic laws, tax laws, specific criminal laws, etc.
With a description of Aquinas’ four kinds of law, the necessary framework is in place to understand his conception of the Good and its relation to his natural law theory. Following Aristotle, Aquinas held that to understand the essential nature, or essence, of a thing (and thus, the Good of that thing), one must know its telos (from the Greek meaning purpose or end). For Aquinas, the end of man is human flourishing. However, in contrast to Aristotle, Aquinas’ theological underpinnings provide a more robust view of human flourishing, one that is in accordance with the Design Plan or eternal law of God. Therefore, the Good of man is the perfecting of a human nature that reflects the eternal law, which is accomplished through the perfecting of human flourishing in accordance with the eternal law.
Aquinas clarifies his view of human nature by outlining the four basic human goods we discover by observing our natural inclinations. Those goods are life, procreation, knowledge and sociability. The realization of these basic ends constitutes the perfection of human nature (the Good). With this Good in mind, it follows that the rules for right conduct would be conducive to human flourishing if they are derivative from laws that are natural to us. Therefore, Aquinas’ theory of natural law enables us to share in God’s eternal law by providing basic moral principles grounded in human nature and “that we cannot not know,” from which we derive human laws (or rules of right conduct) that are completed by the revelation of divine law found in the Christian Scriptures.
So is Aquinas' account compatible with biblical Christianity? Well clearly God’s eternal law and His divine law and human law, as Aquinas defines them, are seen and referenced in the biblical record. But what about natural law? I think so and here's why.
Romans 1:19-20 indicates that God provides general revelation to all, such that man can see and understand His “eternal power and divine nature” in the created order. How is this so? According to Genesis 1:26-27, man is made in the image of God, and thus we are created with the rational and moral capacities that enable us to see the truth of God in general revelation. Furthermore, Romans 2:14-15 states that men “instinctively know what the law requires” because “what the law requires is written on their hearts.” Thus, as creatures with rational faculties we are able to discern God’s natural law through His creation and our own human nature.
At this point, one might object: If the preceding account is true, doesn’t it follow that all men should know right and wrong? However, all men do not know right and wrong, and even when they are able to differentiate, they do not always choose what is right.
A further examination of the biblical record not only states this reality (Romans 7), but it gives us an adequate explanation for the state we find man in. According to Romans 1:18, men “by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In other words, man is sinful and this condition leads to his denial of the truth of natural law. As Budziszewski argues, “we pretend to ourselves that we do not know what we really do know” (from Written on the Heart, p. 182). In addition, as Romans 6:23 states, the penalty of our sin and suppression of the truth is death.
Fortunately, in His unspeakable grace and mercy, God has not only revealed Himself in the created order but He has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, so that He might remedy our hopeless condition and provide a way in which man might fulfill his ultimate end: reconciliation to God Himself. As Romans 5:11 promises, “through our Lord Jesus Christ…we have now received reconciliation.” Amen.
In Greg’s interview with Nabeel Qureshi earlier this year about his book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel told the story of how David Wood (now of Acts 17 Apologetics—a ministry to Muslims) challenged him to consider the evidence for the truth of Christianity after they met on the debate team in college and became good friends. Nabeel eventually believed, and it’s a great story. But the story Nabeel didn’t tell was how David Wood became a Christian. I knew David became a Christian in jail where he was serving time for attempted murder, but I didn’t know the extent of the darkness he was living under.
If you know someone you think is beyond God’s ability to save, watch this and have hope.
Nabeel became a Christian because David became a Christian. And David became a Christian because Randy, his cellmate, was a Christian. The story David didn’t tell was why Randy was there, in jail, in his cell. But you can hear a taste of this story if you listen here at 0:37:17.
God’s grace is surprising, and sometimes even shocking.
God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).
And His power is beyond measure. A change like David Wood’s isn’t humanly possible. But the truth is, neither is the regeneration of any person.
When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26).
We have a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist,” for whom all things are possible.
Given what I’ve written in the previous posts (PART 1, PART 2, PART 3 and PART 4), I think the best model of interaction between science and theology is convergence. What is convergence? Philosopher Garry DeWeese defines it this way: “Science and theology sometimes tell us different kinds of things, and sometimes the same kind of things, about the same thing (the real world). When done ideally, they will not conflict but will converge on a unified description of reality” (in his handout entitled, “The Relation Between Science and Theology”). Let us examine several important features of convergence.
First, central to the convergence model is metaphysical realism. According to this model of interaction, science and theology are concerned with metaphysical exploration, an exploration of the same theory-independent external world. As such, their claims are realist in nature with the ultimate goal of these two disciplines converging “on a unified description of reality.”
Second, a convergence model acknowledges that human knowing is not exhausted by one discipline. Science and theology tell us different kinds of things. Despite what some scientists think, science cannot account for all of reality. What of moral claims? Does science have a plausible account of immaterial moral laws that seem to press in on us with an almost irresistible incumbency? Or what of its own presuppositions? Science cannot account for them because they are philosophical in nature. Indeed, science comes to the table with a priori metaphysical commitments firmly in place. For example:
(1) the existence of a theory-independent, external world
(2) the orderly nature of the external world
(3) the existence of truth
(4) the existence of the laws of logic
(5) the existence of ethical values used in science
(6) the uniformity of nature and induction
(7) the existence of numbers
These second-order philosophical claims undergird the entire scientific enterprise. To be sure, scientific inquiry cannot get off the ground without these presuppositions in place.
Third, both science and theology attempt to provide explanations of both the meta- and minor- kind (see my discussion HERE). At times, the explanations offered in one discipline will overlap with explanations in the other. For instance, scientific investigation of the Big Bang may provide a plausible explanation of the beginning of the universe. Theology may provide a plausible explanation of the nature and character of the intelligent agent causally responsible for the Big Bang itself. And thus, they overlap. (If you recall, my prior account of explanation was broad enough to include more than just physical objects and events. Additionally, my prior account of explanation left the door open to agent causation. Thus, God as the primary causal explanation of the origin of the universe is a legitimate contender as a theological meta-explanation supported by science.) Convergence is not uneasy with such bold integration but invites more of it, knowing science and theology are attempting to get at the same reality.
This possibility of overlap between science and theology points to one of its strengths. On this view, theology is not limited to the Bible as its only text of study. Christian theology has available a second text, the “book of nature” or the natural world. Indeed, the whole of human experience, the seemingly limitless data of the physical universe ought to be included in the data of theology. At the same time, special revelation ought to be included in the data of science. This view allows for epistemic interaction and ultimately, mutual epistemic support.
Lastly, a convergence model of interaction can account for conflict between science and theology. As DeWeese states, “At any point in history, conflict is possible due to the incomplete or inaccurate theories/doctrines and descriptions in one or the other (or both) disciplines” (emphasis mine). This is not an intractable problem. As DeWeese’s claim implies, the conflict is epistemic, not metaphysical. Why think this? Affirming mutually exclusive truth claims is incompatible with a correspondence theory of truth. Logically inconsistent claims cannot be describing the same reality, and thus, conflict resolution must be epistemic. We may need to re-examine current explanations or seek new interpretations of existing data. Whatever conflict arises, we have room for hope. DeWeese again: “When conflict occurs, theology may correct science, or science may correct theology, or judgment may be withheld, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis.” A convergence approach to conflict prohibits theology’s treatment as a second-class citizen to science in its knowledge claims.
In conclusion, although science and theology resist clear lines of demarcation, we can certainly pick out clear cases of each and offer broad conceptual schemes for each that allow room for the work of integration. And the best model of integration between science and theology is convergence, where science and theology converge on a truthful description of the world.
In these last two posts, we will move toward the convergence of science and theology in providing knowledge of reality. However, before we discuss the proper relationship between science and theology, we must recognize an obstacle: definitions. When we talk about science and theology, we must know what we mean by each. This is no easy task.
As I mentioned in PART 3, there are no necessary or sufficient set of conditions for something to count as science. Theology suffers the same definitional difficulty. Just as we cannot draw a clear line of demarcation between science and non-science, we cannot do so between theology and non-theology. Certainly, clear cases or non-cases of both science and theology can be identified, but this can be done without a clear definition of either.
Instead, it may be best to think of both as “cluster” concepts. That is, science and theology consist of a collection of disciplines, activities, and practices. Within science there are various sub-disciplines (like biology or physics), there are various methods employed, and there is overlap amongst scientific sub-disciplines as well as with non-scientific disciplines. Likewise, within theology there are various sub-disciplines (like eschatology or philosophical theology), there are various approaches to theological inquiry, and there is overlap. Again, the collection of common features in either science or theology does not constitute a set of necessary or sufficient conditions. Nonetheless, we must move the discussion forward in order to propose a model of interaction.
With the definitional difficulty in mind, I offer broad but working definitions for science and for theology. First, science may be thought of as “a particular way of knowing based on human interpretation in natural categories of publicly observable…data obtained by sense interaction with the [natural] world” (Richard H. Bube, “Seven Patterns for Relating Science and Theology,” Michael Bauman, ed., Man and Creation: Perspectives on Science and Theology, p. 76).
Theology may be thought of as “a way of knowing [about the natural and supernatural realms] based on the human interpretation of the Bible and human experience in relationship with God” (J.J. Smart, “Religion and Science,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 14). Notice the important commonality in both definitions: science and theology are sources of knowledge about the natural world.
Tomorrow, we'll bring this discussion to a close by proposing a model of interaction for science and theology.
In my first two posts of this series (PART 1 and PART 2), I laid a foundation with an epistemological account of the nature of explanations. Given that account, let us move to a more specific question: What constitutes a scientific explanation?
This is a difficult question because science notoriously resists definition. There is no accepted list of necessary and sufficient conditions that constitute an adequate definition of science. To demonstrate this problem, let us examine a highly popular feature often proposed as necessary and sufficient for an explanation to count as scientific. Many scientists and philosophers of science point to falsifiability as a feature that demarcates science from non-science. There are, however, a number of reasons that count against this criterion.
First, J.P. Moreland points out that “the nature of falsifiability in science is often difficult to clarify” (Christianity and the Nature of Science, p. 33). Science rarely tests propositions or theories in isolation. Any number of theories may be in play during experimentation. But what if the scientist’s observation does not correspond with his predictions? Which theory in play has been falsified? Has the entire cluster of theories been falsified?
There is a second problem with falsification. In our account of explanation, we made a distinction between meta- and minor-explanations, a distinction clearly evident in science. I may hold to some evolutionary meta-explanation regarding the origin and existence of biological life, but at the same time hold to minor-explanations (e.g. that a particular feature of a certain bacteria confers upon the organism some survival advantage) that may fall under umbrella meta-explanation. While the minor-explanations may be easier to falsify, broad meta-explanations are very difficult to falsify as they may encompass entire clusters of minor-explanations. Certainly, falsifiability is relevant to scientific explanations but it cannot constitute a necessary or sufficient condition.
What then are we to do? How do we differentiate between mere explanation and scientific explanation? We may find some progress in identifying a cluster of features that would make an explanation scientific rather than historical or sociological, et al. However, we recognize that taken individually or collectively they would not constitute necessary or sufficient conditions.
First, scientific explanations should exhibit correct deductive or inductive argumentation. The explanadum should be explained by inferring it from the explanans.
Second, scientific explanations should be empirically accurate. Observation, prediction, and experimentation are foundational to scientific inquiry. Positive empirical testing leads to important observations. Important observations lead to law-like generalizations. And continuing scientific testing provides important justification or disconfirmation of scientific explanations. Thus, scientific explanations should cohere with available empirical evidence (anomalies not withstanding).
Third, scientific explanations should include generalizations about laws. Over time, certain scientific predictions are confirmed through observation or experimentation. Given enough justification, they can be taken to demonstrate certain patterns of regularity within the world. From such regularities, scientists can deduce law-like generalizations that are causally responsible for those regularities. And those laws can guide further fruitful scientific investigation.
I have given an account of explanation that is narrow enough to be useful, yet broad enough to be adequate for all disciplines. Although we cannot list necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as scientific explanation, we can outline a cluster of features that help in this task. We are now in a good position to consider the nature of interaction between science and theology and to follow evidence from both disciplines wherever it may lead us.
Yesterday, I began a series of posts aimed at demonstrating how science and religion converge to explain reality. I began by exploring the nature of explanations. Today, I will continue that exploration and then lay out the benefits of my account.
A distinction can be made between meta-explanations and minor-explanations (I take my cue for this distinction from Del Ratzsch’s discussion of maxi-theories and mini-theories in Science & Its Limits, pp. 63-72). Meta-explanations refer to explanations that provide broad conceptual frameworks. Minor-explanations refer to more detailed or specific explanations within a meta-explanation.
Minor-explanations are small in scope and may merely deal with explanandum within a sub-field of a particular discipline. Minor-explanations are more fluid and subject to lower levels of justification both for and against. Taken alone, their explanatory relevance may be minimal as they fail to address explicitly or adequately the most important questions within a discipline.
Meta-explanations are those which are wide in scope and may encompass a host of more narrow explanations. The justificatory requirements for meta-explanations are higher, requiring greater amounts of data and evidence than a minor-explanation. However, they also require stronger defeaters and counter evidence to overturn them. This conceptual scheme helps one see how a number of minor-explanations can be brought under the umbrella of a single meta-explanation to provide explanatory coherence and a deeper, more comprehensive explanation.
I see two benefits to my account of explanations. First, my account has the advantage of disciplinary neutrality or cross-disciplinary applicability. Whether one’s area of study is science, philosophy, history, psychology or even auto-mechanics, explanations are sought. My second-order philosophical account of explanation undergirds all first-order claims in other disciplines. For instance, the auto mechanic will have meta-explanations consisting of minor-explanations, all the while invoking causality, which account for the proper operation of automatic transmissions in cars. In the same manner, a psychologist may employ a Jungian meta-explanation to account for human action.
A second benefit of my account of explanation is its openness to logical contingency as well as to the logical necessity empiricists want to jettison. Again, my second-order philosophical account of explanation does not limit first-order logical claims in other disciplines.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the nature of scientific explanation.