St. Augustine on Science vs. Scripture

St. Augustine famously rebuked those who interpret Scripture while ignoring scientific knowledge of the natural world (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1, chapters 19):

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

In this passage St. Augustine seems to reject the idea of using Scripture to correct natural science. However, St. Augustine is sometimes used in a manner which in many cases implies the opposite. In particular, St. Augustine is also understood by many to have said that we must always understand the text in a literal sense except when it can be proved that this would imply that Scripture says something false. And “proved” here is often taken in a very strong sense. For example, Gregory Dawes speaks of this understanding of St. Augustine:

There exist two Augustinian principles that relate to apparent conflicts between the Bible and secular knowledge, one indicating when secular knowledge claims should take priority and the other when a literal reading of the biblical text should prevail. Following Ernan McMullin, I shall call the first of these the principle of the priority of demonstration.

“When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.”

When in other words, enquiry based on natural principles leads to a conclusion that appears to contradict scripture but cannot be doubted, then scripture must be reinterpreted.

By way of contrast, a second principle, the principle of the priority of scripture, states that when rational enquiry leads to something less than certainty, the authority of the literal sense of scripture is to be preferred.

“When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of the Scripture passage should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration.”

These principles are at least implicit in Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, his commentary on the literal sense of Genesis, and are accepted by medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas. They were employed by the church authorities during the trial of Galileo, restated by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century, and invoked by Pope Pius XII in 1950 when condemning polygenism (the view that the human race had more than one origin).

Apart from the claim that these principles are implicit in De Genesi ad litteram, there is no citation of St. Augustine here, neither in this text nor in Dawes’s footnotes. In the footnotes, he cites St. Thomas’s Summa 1a, 68, 1, Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, and Pius XII in Humani Generis.

Let’s look at these texts. St. Thomas says,

In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

St. Thomas certainly does not say here that we should adhere to our particular explanations until they are proved with certainty to be false. He simply says that we should abandon them if that happens. This does not mean that if someone shows that there is a 95% chance that our explanation is false, we should ignore his argument because it does not conclude with certainty.

Here is the text of St. Augustine cited by St. Thomas:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

St. Augustine does not say that we should hold to our interpretations until they are proven with certainty to be false. Rather he says that “we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” This simply says that one should hold to it reasonably, and not unreasonably. But it is not reasonable to ignore reasonable arguments simply because they do not conclude with certainty. Thus, if anything, this text rejects the supposedly Augustinian principle presented by Dawes.

Dawes cites two texts from Providentissimus Deus. The first is paragraph 15:

But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honourable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties. But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long ago have successfully employed their talent and their labour. For although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind-as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages – that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.

Then comes paragraph 18:

In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of very great assistance in detecting such attacks on the Sacred Books, and in refuting them. There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.” If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.” To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.

Leo XIII is not holding the principle indicated by Dawes in the first paragraph unless “reason makes it untenable” is understood to mean that reason has disproved something conclusively. But insofar as it can be unreasonable to hold something which has not yet been disproved conclusively, there is no need to understand Pope Leo in such an unreasonable way. In the second paragraph, since Leo XIII understands the truth of Scripture to be a settled principle, he simply quotes St. Augustine as saying that if something is conclusively proved to be true of the world, then we cannot interpret Scripture to contradict that; and if something is conclusively proved to be the meaning of Scripture, then we cannot understand the world to contradict that. This does not mean that you must hold to a literal meaning of Scripture when there are good arguments that the thing stated would be false, just because those arguments are not conclusive.

It is clear enough that neither Leo XIII nor St. Augustine claim such a principle in the second paragraph, and there is at least no need to understand Leo XIII to be claiming the principle in the first paragraph. The same thing is true of St. Augustine, since Leo takes these words directly from a text in De Genesi ad litteram, where he says that we should not interpret the rivers mentioned in Genesis to be only figurative, if no “necessitas cogeret,” and “ratio nulla prohibeat,” that is, if no necessity requires us to take them figuratively only, and no argument prevents us from understanding them literally. Of course, as with Leo, there is no need for us to understand St. Augustine to be denying that we could be prevented from understanding them literally by a probable argument.

Finally, here is the passage from Pius XII cited by Dawes:

It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

Obviously the supposedly Augustinian principle is contained here in no way.

Dawes begins to discuss whether someone holding to these principles can accept evolution or not, and after some discussion says:

What follows? Ken Miller attributes to Augustine the view that “even the ‘literal’ meaning of Genesis must not stand in contradiction to the kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific.'” But this is not quite correct. “The kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific'” cannot offer, nor does it claim to offer, the level of certainty that would warrant a reinterpretation of the biblical text, at least on a strict interpretation of Augustine’s principles.

In the remainder of the paper Dawes does suggest some possible solutions which do not involve rejecting either Scripture or scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, like Fr. Brian Harrison, Dawes is attempting to cause tension between Scripture and the theory of evolution, although with a different motive. It is not surprising, therefore, that Fr. Harrison uses the supposed principle of St. Augustine in a similar way, except in order to argue that we must believe that the theory of evolution is false.

But this is wrong, both on the part of Fr. Harrison and on the part of Gregory Dawes, and likewise on the part of any others who argue in a similar manner, such as Robert Sungenis. St. Augustine does not hold the supposedly Augustinian principle. The texts of St. Augustine that are actually relevant to the topic are the first one quoted in this post, as well as that cited by St. Thomas, “We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

Natural science also makes progress in the search for truth, and the text of St. Augustine applies just as well to such progress as to any other.

Fr. Brian Harrison’s Bomb Shelter

Fr. Brian Harrison complains about “Bomb-Shelter Theology”:

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, the earth, sun, stars, etc.), on the grounds that such matters fall within the competence of “science,” do a very good job of what they set out to do: their theological bomb-shelter is indeed impregnable against any possible bomb which might be launched by physicists, geologists, historians, etc. No such missile could ever damage that kind of “faith,” any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shot-gun at it: there is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the “asphyxiation” of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

For the credibility of an investigator and that of a witness have to be judged according to very different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may – and indeed, should – contradict what he said only yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence overnight that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data which the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information which is otherwise inaccessible to the rest of us. This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid not only contradicting himself while under cross-examination today; he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday -or the day before. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must forever stick by it, and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his whole credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic “sworn testimony” of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a solid consensus of Popes and Catholic Bishops round the world as being “definitively to be held.”

This analogy should help us to see the folly of those modern theologians and exegetes who think it admissible to indulge in “bomb-shelter” theology to the extent of discarding or “re-interpreting” those definitively taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage which they feel are – or even might be in future – vulnerable to scientific bombardment. Because they are imitating the investigative mentality of the merely human disciplines (“let’s be humbly willing to correct our mistakes”), they can enjoy a superficial aura of intellectual sophistication and respectability, especially if (as usually happens) these scholars work in a university environment. What they fail to realize is that, precisely from the standpoint of intellectual credibility, this “pick-and-choose Catholicism,” which clings to scientifically “untouchable” doctrines while surrendering the scientifically “vulnerable” ones, is simply laughable. If the Church were an unreliable witness on any one definitive doctrine – a “sworn statement” – then there would be no justification for continuing to believe any of the rest. If it were true that science could demonstrate the falsity of one or more such doctrines, the intelligent response would not be to “correct,” “reinterpret,” or otherwise patch up those particular doctrines, while continuing to preach and teach the rest as though nothing had happened. The intelligent response would be that which has in fact been chosen by such ex-theologians as Charles Davis and Anthony Kenny (but not, for instance, by Hans Küng): complete abandonment of the Catholic Church. Outright apostasy can at times have a certain amount of intellectual integrity and coherence about it; mere heresy is always intellectually bankrupt.

Fr. Harrison seems to be saying something like this: Catholics only believe in Catholic doctrine because they believe that the Church is trustworthy. If the Church ever “committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way” to something, and that thing turned out to be false, then the Church would not be trustworthy. Therefore there would be no reason for anyone to believe any of its doctrines.

Fr. Harrison continues:

There are many theologians today who speak as though revelation deals only with transcendent mysteries that are quite beyond the reach of human science or reason. But in fact the Church’s two-thousand-year witness includes “sworn testimony” not only to `intangible´ mysteries such as the Trinity, the Real Presence, Grace, the Redemptive value of Christ’s death, life after death, and so on, but also to “solid” truths in a more or less literal sense: those involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space. The Church has insistently proclaimed as revealed truth, for instance, that Jesus was conceived in His Mother’s womb while she was yet a virgin, and that His mortal remains were raised to life in His resurrection. As both Vatican Councils affirm, revelation includes not only the completely transcendent truths, but also others “which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason” but which for many people would in fact be difficult to ascertain by their own unaided reason. Thanks to their inclusion in revelation, however, such truths “can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error.”

In his work, The Science of Historical Theology,  Msgr. John F. McCarthy has emphasized the importance of these revealed truths which are also accessible to reason – or at least, to some people’s reason -and in particular those such as we have already mentioned, which belong to the field of history. As he says, they can be described as “revealed history,” or “past revealed reality.” The virginal conception of Our Lord, for instance, is a historical fact which is accessible to most of us only through revelation. (Indeed, it was accessible to the natural reason of only one person, Our Lady herself. Mary knew, without any help from revelation, that she had never had intercourse with any man and yet was pregnant. St. Joseph and all the rest of us needed a revelation from on high to guarantee such an extraordinary fact.)

Today’s fashionable bomb-shelter theology, however, in what might be called an overreaction to the Galileo case, refuses to accept the idea of “revealed history.” One such theologian of my acquaintance scoffed at such a concept as an oxymoron – a contradiction in terms. According to him, if a truth is revealed, then by definition it cannot be historical, and vice versa. And he appealed to Vatican II’s teaching on the “rightful autonomy of science” (which here means “science” in a broad sense to cover history as well as the physical sciences) in order to justify his position. He pointed out that in this passage the Council rebukes those Christians who neglect this autonomy. Such believers, it says, “have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science.”

This theologian’s thinking went more or less as follows: “We churchmen burnt our fingers badly over the Galileo case. We went right out on a limb by making statements that were open to scrutiny from the human sciences: statements about concrete, empirically observable things and facts in time and space. And what happened? The limb was rudely chopped off! We were shot down in flames! Then we were almost shot down again when some of us tried to argue with what turned out to be the scientific fact of evolution. Now at last, with Vatican II, we’ve learned our lesson. From now on, theology cannot afford to present as revealed truth any kinds of propositions which, now or in future, might come up for scrutiny by the human sciences – history, biology, astronomy, geology, or whatever. All such propositions come under the jurisdiction of these sciences, and belong to their area of “rightful autonomy.” The Church must stick to ethical statements, and truths which are completely supernatural: the kind which no human science could even investigate. That which science cannot in principle even touch, it can certainly never disprove!”

In other words – according to this approach – the task of showing the harmony between faith and reason should now be carried out by sorting through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classifying its contents according to subject-matter. Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (e.g. dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage. We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were, where they will be exposed to possible bombing-raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines – the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage – and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign on the door saying “revealed truth.” Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

But this line of defence against the accusation that faith is unreasonable will not work at all. In the first place, it is clear that Vatican II cannot mean by the “rightful autonomy of science” the idea that revelation, by definition, can never include any statements of a “scientific” (i.e. physical/historical) nature. That would make the Council contradict itself. Gaudium et Spes cannot be read as contradicting Dei Verbum, which, as we have seen, repeats the teaching of Vatican I that some revealed truths are also truths in principle accessible to unaided reason. (In fact, the Council even gave a specific example of such truth: the textual history of the first sentence in Dei Verbum, §19, shows that it was carefully drafted so as to maintain that the historicity of the Gospels is a truth which is both revealed and accessible to unaided reason.) In rebuking Christians who do not respect the “rightful autonomy” of science, Vatican II did not mean there cannot in principle be any such thing as a revealed physical/historical fact; rather, it means that we must make very sure (by means of a careful exegesis of Scripture and careful survey of what has been said by the Church Fathers and Magisterium) that a given historical/physical proposition really is revealed, before we go asserting it as such to all the world. The Council had in mind here the Galileo case specifically. But even assuming that Galileo’s inquisitors were scientifically wrong (and there are now – since the 1970s – some Catholic and Protestant scholars with PhD’s in physics and astronomy who maintain that they were scientifically right, i.e., that geocentrism is the truth) their error was not in supposing that if the Bible makes assertions about physical reality, these must be accepted as revealed truth (a supposition which they did indeed make – and very rightly). Rather, their error lay in faulty exegesis: in supposing that the Bible does in fact assert a particular physical proposition (geocentrism) which it does not really assert. We have to say that that was the error which led them to trespass unwittingly into the autonomous domain of science.

After some additional discussion, he concludes the section:

It should be clear by now why this kind of dogged persistence in sticking by what we have said for two millennia is not “triumphalism,” pride, obscurantism, or mere “fear of change.” It does not harm the Church’s rational credibility at the bar of reason, as bomb-shelter theologians imagine, but is essential precisely in order to save it from the manifest irrationality of their own “solution.” A witness, in contrast to an investigator, cannot afford to “correct” serious mistakes, because he cannot afford to admit ever having made them! Imagine a witness in a court of law who finds himself embarrassed by the contrary evidence of a certain Miss A., or by that of several other witnesses in regard to his activities on a certain date at Village X. And imagine the response if the witness tries to get out of his difficulty by asking the court to continue believing only certain areas or sections of what he had previously sworn emphatically under oath: “Yes, well, what I said about Miss A. wasn’t really too accurate, I guess. But I assure you that what I said about Mr. B and Mrs. C is God’s truth! And as regards what I said about what happened at Village X on April 15, you’d best forget that. But you can take my word for it – scout’s honor! – that on April 16 I spent the whole day at Village Y, just as I said before!”

Nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything. He has destroyed himself. And neither will any intelligent agnostic (the type of “modern man” for whom an attenuated, “demythologized,” bomb-shelter theology hopes to make the faith more credible) take the Church’s word for anything, if she retracts her previous emphatic “sworn testimony” on even one important point. If the Church could be wrong in proclaiming for two thousand years (in the teeth of rationalistic opposition, ancient and modern) that Jesus’ dead body was raised to life on the third day, why should anyone in his right senses regard her as trustworthy when she keeps on proclaiming that there are three Persons in one God, or that we are destined for heavenly glory after death?

Here, then, we see the basic error of bomb-shelter theology. It is so intent on guarding the faith from all possible attacks from the “bombs” of the secular scholarly disciplines that it unwittingly prods the Church toward a suicidal self-contradiction. In its excessive preoccupation with appearing “respectable” in the sight of the physical and historical sciences, it unconsciously flouts the first principle of the even more fundamental science of logic.

Bomb-shelter theology, as defined by Fr. Harrison, would attempt to make only statements which cannot ever have any empirical consequences. This is in fact absurd, although not exactly for the reasons that he gives. The main problem is that if it has no empirical consequences at all, it cannot have any evidence in favor of it. But any statement that people make has evidence in favor of it, and therefore it cannot avoid having some empirical implications.

However, one can make sure that those implications do not vary much from the implications of opposing theories, and this is more precisely what people actually do when they engage in this project. This has problems as well, although it is not absurd, as it is to say that one’s statements have no empirical implications at all. The main problem here is that to the extent that you make the implications match the implications of opposing theories, you reduce the amount of evidence which is left in favor of your theory. In the end, the probability of your theory will be close to its prior probability according to your implied prior probability distribution. But for many or most religious claims, this prior probability cannot be very high, and so, at least in many cases, there will be little reason to think that the claim is true.

Nonetheless, there are serious problems with Fr. Harrison’s response to this idea. Fr. Harrison claims that after a person has perjured himself, “nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything.” This is not true even in real courtrooms, where for example people are sometimes believed about various things even after they have falsely accused other people, or falsely confessed to a crime themselves.

But it were true in real courtrooms, this would be because the person has been proved to be a liar. If it were simply proved that a person had made a mistake, that would not mean that no one would trust him about anything else. If 90% of the things a person says are true, and 10% are false, then if you take one at random, there is a 90% chance it is true, even after you notice that 10% of the things that he says are false.

Let’s look again at one of his opening paragraphs:

The Roman Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. Rather, it is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the original Church dating back to Christ Himself claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is scrupulously kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner. This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness, and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent: that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

There is an error here very similar to the error of Kurt Wise. If the Church ever commits herself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way,” and then admits that it was wrong about that thing, he says, then we will know that the Church was wrong in its claim “to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years.”

Just as Wise was implicitly assuming that he was personally absolutely certain that Scripture is inconsistent with evolution, Fr. Harrison is implicitly assuming personal certainty about something here.

In the first place, what does it mean to say that the Church committed itself to something in a “thoroughgoing or definitive way”? Does it mean the Church said, “This doctrine is true, and if it turns out to be false, then all of the teachings of the Church are false?” It is doubtful the Church has ever said such a thing, or ever would say such a thing. And even if it did, Harrison’s argument would not follow, since if the Church could be wrong about the doctrine, it could also be wrong in claiming that all of its other teachings would be false.

More likely he means to say that the Church teaches something in a definitive way if it claims as much certainty as the Church can have. “This doctrine is true, and there are no doctrines about which the Church is more certain.” Again, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church can be mistaken in its most certain doctrines, that does not necessarily mean that all of them are false, just as said above about someone who is right 90% of the time. It simply means that the Church does not possess absolute certainty.

It could mean, however, that the Church is making that very claim: “There is a 100% chance that this doctrine is true and no possibility of it being in error.” Again, however, Fr. Harrison’s argument would not follow. If the Church made such a claim and turned out to be wrong, this would simply mean that the Church was wrong not only about the doctrine, but also about its ability to have absolute certainty about it. It would not follow that it possessed no truth at all.

Basically Fr. Harrison is assuming in advance that he knows that either the Church can have and does have absolute certainty about various things, or that there is no truth in the Church at all. But there is nothing necessary about this in principle.

In a second part of the essay, he sets out a syllogism with which he says that certain theologians conclude that the opening chapters of Genesis are not historical in genre:

  • Major – All Scripture (including Genesis 1-3) is inspired by God, and is therefore without error in all that the writers intended to assert.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that Genesis 1-3, understood as a factual, historical account of how the world and man began, would be in error.
  • Concl. – Therefore the author(s) of Genesis 1-3 did not intend to assert in these chapters a factual, historical account of how the world and man began.

He then criticizes this using a parable:

Consider this little parable. In a certain far-off land the dominant religion includes the dogma that on the dark side of the moon there are large craters full of salt water. Comes the twentieth century and space-travel. Rocket-ships finally get to photograph all angles of the moon, including the dark side. The believers are cast into deep anguish and a crisis of faith by the terrible news that, while the new photographs indeed show plenty of craters, all of them are bone-dry! At first there is a reaction of rejection. The hierarchy assures the faithful that the photographs are all faked, as part of a Satanic plot. As time goes on, however, this becomes hard to sustain, since some astronauts of hitherto unquestioned orthodoxy themselves take part in a space-flight to the moon and see for themselves the faith-shattering emptiness of those great craters, reporting this sad news to their brethren on return.

Many of the faithful leave the Church in disillusionment; but for others, faith does not remain shattered for very long. The more learned theologians soon come up with a “bomb-shelter” solution which satisfies well-educated, sophisticated believers. It can be set out in another syllogism.

  • Major – It is revealed truth that there are salt-water craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Minor – Science has demonstrated that no water of any sort is observed in the craters on the dark side of the moon.
  • Concl. – Therefore there is invisible salt-water in the craters on the dark side of the moon.

This eminently reasonable solution comes to be accepted by the bulk of the faithful, because after all, it is logical (the conclusion follows ineluctably from the premises); it is orthodox (the traditional dogma is faithfully preserved); and by accepting the minor premise, this revised faith is perfectly in line with the latest developments in science. Armed (and comforted) by this modern development in doctrine, the guardians of the new orthodoxy can afford to shake their heads condescendingly at the tiny minority of fundamentalists, who, in their naive literalism, regard the new theology as nonsense and continue to insist on the hypothesis of hoax and fraud in all the photographs and testimonies regarding the craters. These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible. The only perplexing thing for the more enlightened believers is that the great bulk of their contemporaries seem to agree with the fundamentalists on this last point. The new theology, designed especially to make faith more credible for modern scientific man, seems to hold little attraction for him. The churches keep on emptying, as a greater consensus grows outside the Church that there is, quite simply, no water of any sort on the dark side of the moon.

What lesson, then, can be learnt from this comparison? Somebody will say that my imaginary syllogism is a mere caricature of the very real and currently respectable one regarding Genesis. And perhaps some non-Catholic reader will say that I seem to be very free in throwing stones for one who himself lives in a glass house: who am I to go laughing at a belief in “invisible water” when I and all orthodox Catholics profess a firm belief in the invisible Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist?

But I am not laughing at a belief in “invisible water” as such. If the conclusion to my second syllogism raised any sort of a smile on your lips, dear reader, then ask yourself why it did so. After all, suppose I had begun my tale by saying, “Once upon a time there was a tribe that venerated water as the source of all life. One of the mysteries handed down from their ancestors was that a certain sacred shrine contained an ancient phial which, as far as human eyes could see, was quite empty, but which in fact contained a sacred, supernatural water – the source and well-spring of all earthly water.” I suspect this would have elicited very few guffaws. You might have thought, “Well, they were pretty superstitious tribesmen. Anyway, what next? If this is a joke, I’m waiting for the punchline.” Whereas when you read the Conclusion to my syllogism about the moon-water, you immediately knew it was the punchline of a joke.

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

It is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight; but perhaps the basic grievance of the poor fundamentalist gives us the clue. For the reason we have already given, his major complaint with the new theology of moon-water – and a very reasonable one it is – will not so much be its intrinsic implausibility (his faith may well already include other marvels as wondrous as invisible water), but rather, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” Reflecting on these naive, but very pertinent questions, we can perhaps formulate the following principle:

If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious, the Conclusion: (a) is not itself true in any obvious way; (b) is the sort of proposition which, if true, is normally reached by quite different methods of inquiry from those of the syllogism; and (c) has never been, and is not now, supported by any evidence from those methods proper to it, or by any other evidence independent of the Major and Minor of the syllogism; – then in that case it is gratuitous and unscientific to affirm that Conclusion as true. Rather, it should be presumed that one (or perhaps both) of the premises which entail such a groundless assertion must be false.

In the case of our parable, the Conclusion fulfilled condition (a), because the assertion that invisible water exists is by no means obviously true. It fulfilled condition (b), because it is the kind of proposition which, if true, would normally have to be proposed as a supernatural mystery, backed up by some pretty convincing and well-attested miracles on the part of the one proposing it. This is not, however, the way in which the sect’s theologians arrived at their “new mystery.” And it fulfills condition (c), because the founding fathers or prophets of the religion never so much as hinted that the moon-water might turn out to be invisible. Nor has any new prophet appeared declaring that the invisible water is indeed there, and backing up his claim with some astounding prodigies. And finally, there is not a shred of evidence from any other independent source for the truth of the conclusion.

(There could conceivably be such evidence, of course. We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.)

Once again, certain readers may object that while some people might find this all very diverting, there is no serious point to it all. After all, am I not just caricaturing responsible modern theology by my syllogism about the moon-water? Well, only in that its Major premise is clearly a lot more implausible than that of the first syllogism (i.e., the divine inspiration of the Bible), so as to make the point more clearly. But I am seriously maintaining that the reasoning process which leads today’s respectable Christian theologians to postulate a “non-literal,” or “non-factual,” literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts is every bit as invalid and unscientific as that which led our “moonies” to revise their theology in such a startling way. They produced a brand-new mystery unsupported by any appropriate evidence: invisible water. And our learned men since the middle of the last century have also produced a brand-new mystery, unsupported by any appropriate evidence: an invisible literary genre.

However, our real-life situation regarding Genesis seems to me more desperate. A century and a half after the existence of a “non-historical” literary genre for Genesis 1-3 was suddenly “deduced” from the studies (not in Hebrew literature, mind you, but in geology and biology) of scholars such as Lyell and Darwin, our exegetes are still looking for it. One recalls here the status of the planet Pluto in the late 1920s: astronomers had deduced that it “must” be out there before they actually spotted it with telescopes. Since their deduction was based on methods proper to the discovery of heavenly bodies, it is not too surprising that they found what they were looking for in short order (in 1930, to be precise). And since our deduction about the existence of a “non-factual” literary genre in Genesis 1-3 was not based on methods even remotely connected with literary criticism, it is also unsurprising that we have not found what we are looking for, even after more than a century of searching. Unsurprising – and also unreassuring as regards any reasonable prospect that the search might one day be successful. Since all appropriate literary methods have so far failed to identify the creation accounts as belonging to any known “non-historical” genre (such as poetry, drama, apocalypse, fiction, midrash, allegory, parable, etc.), and since the field of literature (unlike that of nature) now contains very little unexplored territory, then it might be time to recognize honestly that this genre which just “has to” be there is one which is permanently undiscoverable by any method at all which human ingenuity can devise! In terms of the parable, our “water” has failed not only the visibility test, but also the tangibility test. For us, not only the crater photographs, but also the crater landing-craft, have failed to discover that “water” which we believe “must” be there. This is why I say that our fantasy syllogism about the moon-water, far from caricaturing the real-life syllogism about science and Genesis, is actually too gentle with it! Today’s new “orthodoxy” regarding the literary genre of Genesis 1-3 is in fact more ridiculous than the “new interpretation” of moon-water produced in the moonies’ hour of crisis. They felt obliged to postulate the reality of invisible water; our most respected Catholic theologians have for decade after decade felt obliged to postulate an invisible and intangible literary genre for the Genesis creation accounts.

Fr. Harrison’s “principle” that “If, in a syllogism wherein the truth of at least one premise is not immediately obvious etc” is false. This should be obvious from the ad hoc method with which he came up with it in order to refute the syllogism concerning Genesis. But in any case, it would be easy enough to give examples where he would not deny that the conclusion is true, despite matching his principle. For example, using the methods of Gödel’s theorems, one can construct an equation which has no solution in the integers, and which cannot be proven by the methods of arithmetic to have no solution. One proves that it has no solution with a quite different method. It can easily be seen that this will violate his principle, unless we groundlessly assert that it has solutions nonetheless.

However, he is correctly recognizing that a syllogism “goes both ways” in terms of evidence. If the premises would ensure that the conclusion is true, then the improbability of the conclusion is evidence against the truth of the premises. The claim about the invisible moon water does indeed seem improbable, and this argues that for the likelihood that one or both of the premises is false. And the same thing is true about the argument about Genesis. To the degree that you think it unlikely that Genesis could have such a genre, you should think that it is likely that one or both of the premises in that syllogism are false.

And this is the real issue for Fr. Harrison. The conclusion of the Genesis syllogism seems improbable to him. And to the extent that this is true, this means that one of the premises is probably false. But we wouldn’t form the syllogism in the first place unless we thought that science has shown something about the origins of man and the world. This suggests that the false premise is the major premise. And Fr. Harrison doesn’t like this conclusion. Consequently he would prefer to think that science has not shown anything about the origins of man and the world.

As we have seen, religious views often have semi-political motivations. We can see this in Fr. Harrison’s parable: “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all.” The terminology of victory and defeat indicates this kind of motivation. Someone who wanted to know the truth would not be defeated if his error was corrected, but he would be attaining the truth, which was after all his goal. Thus Socrates says in the Gorgias, “And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.” We can see the same thing in the questions, “Why didn’t we ever hear before now that the moon-water was invisible? And anyway, since when were we supposed to learn our religion from astronauts rather than from the gods?” To the degree that someone is interested in the truth, learning something new is not an issue, nor does it matter from whom it comes.

Objecting to “bomb-shelter theology,” Fr. Harrison is building himself another kind of bomb shelter. If he conceded that the Church was somewhat mistaken about various things it has said in the past, in principle it would still be possible that there is divine truth in the Church, as I said in the first part. But given that situation, Fr. Harrison would feel that it is probable that there is no such truth at all in the Church. And likewise, if Fr. Harrison accepted the minor premise, he would feel that it is likely that the major premise is false. By asserting that science has established nothing about human origins, it seems to him that he is asserting something which is overall more likely to be true. In his parable, he says, “These theological illiterates, locked into their narrow, fortress mentality which leaves no room for growth or flexibility, keep on stubbornly maintaining that if the traditional interpretation of moon-water turns out to be indefensible, the whole religion will be indefensible.” Here his intention is to defend this kind of theology, but it in fact really is a “narrow, fortress mentality.” And not simply because one should allow for the possibility of growth, but also because one should allow for the possibility that one’s whole religion is indeed indefensible.

Apart from all this, Fr. Harrison is making a mistake similar to that of Kurt Wise in a second way. Just as Wise was mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1, Fr. Harrison is mistaken about it in more or less the same way. We have already seen that Genesis 1 is not about the order of time, but about the order of matter and form. And inasmuch as this interpretation was already suggested by St. Augustine, he is also mistaken in speaking of this as an “invisible genre” which does not previously appear in Christian tradition.

Decisions of Faith

In the implicit discussion between Kurt Wise, Trent Horn, and Gregory Dawes, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes disagree about the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, while they agree that a person should be willing to decide about the truth or falsehood of religious ideas based on arguments. Kurt Wise, in contrast, claims that there can be no argument or evidence whatsoever, no matter how strong, that could ever bring him to change his mind.

If Wise’s claim is taken in the very strong sense of the claim to possess absolute subjective certainty, namely the kind that implies that he literally cannot be wrong, this has been more or less adequately refuted in the original post on sola meThus for example Wise holds that Scripture is the Word of God in a strong sense, namely one that implies that God actually asserts the things asserted in Scripture. Many Christians do not hold this. Likewise, Wise holds that Scripture asserts that the earth is young, and again, many Christians do not hold this. So Wise has the responsibility of justifying his position, rather than asserting that he has the infallible knowledge that he alone is right and that other Christians are wrong.

The same thing would be true if the issue were his general commitment to Christianity. Here it is a bit more complex because the real question in this case is, “Is it good for me to belong to a Christian community?“, but one can give neither a positive nor a negative answer to this question without asserting various facts about the world, facts that will differ from one individual to another, but facts nonetheless. Once again Wise will have no special claim to possess an ability to discern these facts infallibly.

If Wise is merely claiming to possess objective certainty, perhaps on account of the possession of divine faith which cannot be in error, then he should be open to changing his mind based on arguments, as Horn and Dawes hold, in the same way that a person should be open to acknowledging mistakes in his mathematical arguments, should someone happen to point out such mistakes.

However, our earlier discussions suggest that the real issue is different, that it is not a question of any kind of certainty, whether subjective or objective. We have seen that belief in general is voluntary, and that it involves various motives. We have seen that this applies especially to beliefs remote from the senses, and to God and religion in particular. All of this suggests that something different is at stake in claims such Wise’s. Let’s look again at Wise’s concluding statement:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

He seems to suggest having reasons for holding young earth creationism, namely reasons which would make it likely to be true. In particular, “that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.” But if God says something, this seems to mean it is true. So he appears to be claiming a reason to think that creationism is objectively true. On the other hand, “If all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist,” stands directly in contrast to this. In other words, here he seems to be saying that the kind of reasons that make a thing likely to be true or false do not matter to him.

The truth of the matter is the latter more than the former. In other words, someone who says about a religious issue, “No evidence could ever change my mind about this,” is not saying this because he possesses the kinds of certainty discussed above. Rather, he is suggesting that evidence and his motives for belief are detached from one another to such an extent that differences in evidence will never give him a sufficient motive to change his decision to believe.

We can see this in Wise’s description of his personal decision, found in the same short text from In Six Days.

Eighth grade found me extremely interested in all fields of science. For over a year, while others considered being firemen and astronauts, I was dreaming of getting a Ph.D. from Harvard University and teaching at a big university. I knew this to be an unattainable dream, for I knew it was a dream, but …well, it was still a dream. That year, the last in the series of nine years in our small country school, was terminated by the big science fair. The words struck fear in all, for not only was it important for our marks and necessary for our escape from the elementary sentence for crimes unknown, but it was also a sort of initiation to allow admittance into the big city high school the next year. The 1,200 students of the high school dwarfed the combined populations of three towns I lived closer to than that high school. Just the thought of such hoards of people scared us silly. In any case, the science fair was anticipated years in advance and I started work on mine nearly a year ahead of the fair itself.

I decided to do my science fair project on evolution. I poured myself into its study. I memorized the geologic column. My father and I constructed a set of wooden steps representing geologic time where the run of each step represented the relative length of each period. I bought models and collected fossils. I constructed clay representations of fossils I did not have and sketched out continental/ocean configurations for each period. I completed the colossal project before the day of the fair. Since that day was set aside for last minute corrections and setup, I had nothing to do. So, while the bustle of other students whirred about us, I admitted to my friend Carl (who had joined me in the project in lieu of his own) that I had a problem. When he asked what the problem was I told him that I could not reconcile what I had learned in the project with the claims of the Bible. When Carl asked for clarification, I took out a Bible and read Genesis 1 aloud to him.

At the end, and after I had explained that the millions of years of evolution did not seem to comport well with the six days of creation, Carl agreed that it did seem like a real problem. As I struggled with this, I hit upon what I thought was an ingenious (and original!) solution to the problem. I said to Carl, “What if the days were millions of years long?” After discussing this for some time, Carl seemed to be satisfied. I was not — at least not completely.

What nagged me was that even if the days were long periods of time, the order was still out of whack. After all, science said the sun came before the earth — or at least at the same time — and the Bible said that the earth came three days before the sun. Whereas science said that the sea creatures came before plants and the land creatures came before flying creatures, the Bible indicated that plants preceded sea creatures and flying creatures preceded land creatures. On the other hand, making the days millions of years long seemed to take away most of the conflict. I thus determined to shelve these problems in the back recesses of my mind.

It didn’t work. Over the next couple of years, the conflict of order nagged me. No matter how I tried, I could not keep the matter out of mind. Finally, one day in my sophomore year of high school, when I thought I could stand it no longer, I determined to resolve the issue. After lights were out, under my covers with flashlight in hand I took a newly purchased Bible and a pair of scissors and set to work. Beginning at Genesis 1:1, I determined to cut out every verse in the Bible which would have to be taken out to believe in evolution. Wanting this to be as fair as possible, and giving the benefit of the doubt to evolution, I determined to read all the verses on both sides of a page and cut out every other verse, being careful not to cut the margin of the page, but to poke the page in the midst of the verse and cut the verse out around that.

In this fashion, night after night, for weeks and months, I set about the task of systematically going through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Although the end of the matter seemed obvious pretty early on, I persevered. I continued for two reasons. First, I am obsessive compulsive. Second, I dreaded the impending end. As much as my life was wrapped up in nature at age eight and in science in eighth grade, it was even more wrapped up in science and nature at this point in my life. All that I loved to do was involved with some aspect of science. At the same time, evolution was part of that science and many times was taught as an indispensable part of science. That is exactly what I thought — that science couldn’t be without evolution. For me to reject evolution would be for me to reject all of science and to reject everything I loved and dreamed of doing.

The day came when I took the scissors to the very last verse — nearly the very last verse of the Bible. It was Revelation 22:19: “If any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” It was with trembling hands that I cut out this verse, I can assure you! With the task complete, I was now forced to make the decision I had dreaded for so long.

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture. Either the Scripture was true and evolution was wrong or evolution was true and I must toss out the Bible. However, at that moment I thought back to seven or so years before when a Bible was pushed to a position in front of me and I had come to know Jesus Christ. I had in those years come to know Him. I had become familiar with His love and His concern for me. He had become a real friend to me. He was the reason I was even alive both physically and spiritually. I could not reject Him. Yet, I had come to know Him through His Word. I could not reject that either. It was there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

This is not a description of discovering that creationism is objectively true and that evolution is objectively false. It is the description of a personal decision, which is framed in terms of being faithful to Christ and rejecting evolution, or accepting evolution and rejecting Christ. Wise chooses to be faithful to Christ. Since this was not a question of weighing evidence for anything in the first place, any evidence that comes up should never affect his motives for his decision. Thus he says that no evidence can ever change his decision.

I would argue that in this way too, Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are correct, and that Kurt Wise is mistaken. The problem is that people have a hard time understanding their motives for believing things. Most people think without reflection that most of their beliefs are simply motivated by the truth and by the evidence for that truth. So if asked, “Would you change your most important and fundamental beliefs if you are confronted with conclusive evidence against them?”, most people will respond by saying that such evidence cannot and will not come up, since their beliefs are true, rather than saying that they would not change their beliefs in that situation. Kurt Wise, on the other hand, does not deny that the situation could come up, but says that he would not change his mind even in this situation.

The implication of Wise’s claim is that his motives for belief are entirely detached from evidence. This is actually true to a great extent, as can be seen from his description of his decision. However, it is not entirely true. Just as people are mistaken if they suppose that their beliefs are motivated by evidence alone, so Wise is mistaken to suppose that evidence is entirely irrelevant to his decision.

This can be seen most of all from the fact that Wise’s position requires that he make the three claims mentioned in yesterday’s post, namely that God always tells the truth, that Scripture is the Word of God in the sense that what is asserted in Scripture is asserted by God, and that Scripture asserts that the earth is young (or in the context of his decision, that evolution contradicts Scripture; he says that the conclusion that the earth is young was something additional.) If any of these three claims are mistaken, then Wise could decide to be faithful to Christ without rejecting evolution. So the framing of his decision depends on knowing that these three things are true. And precisely because these three claims together imply that evolution is false, evidence for evolution is also evidence that at least one of these three claims is mistaken. And note that in his description of the events that led up to his decision, Wise is in fact mistaken about the meaning of Genesis 1.

Since evidence for evolution is evidence that one of the three claims is mistaken, then if “all the evidence in the universe” were to indicate that evolution is true, all the evidence in the universe would also indicate that Wise has made a mistake in the way he framed his decision. Evidence remains relevant to his decision, therefore, because he may have been mistaken in this way, even if the decision in itself is not about weighing evidence for anything.

Someone could respond that Wise was wrong to frame his decision in this way, or at least to make it absolute in this particular way, but that he would be right to hold absolutely to the decision to be faithful to Christ, and to say that evidence is entirely irrelevant to this decision, as long as he does not bring in evolution, creation, Scripture, and so on.

The problem with this is that even if he frames his decision as “to be faithful or unfaithful to Christ,” the framing of this decision still requires that he assert various facts about the world, just as his actual decision did. For example, if Christ did not exist, as certain people believe, then one cannot be faithful to Christ as to a person, and again he would turn out to have been mistaken in the very way he framed his decision. So his decision requires that he assert that Christ existed, which is a claim about the world. Of course it is not very likely that Christ did not exist, but evidence is relevant to the issue, and this is only one of many possible ways that he could be mistaken. If Christ was not worthy of trust, and Wise knew this, perhaps he would make a different decision.

To put this in an entirely general way, even if your decision seems to involve only motives that seem unrelated to truth and to evidence, “this is a good decision,” is itself a claim about the world. Either this claim is true, or it is false, and evidence is relevant to it. If it is false, you should change your mind about that decision. Consequently you should always be open to evidence and arguments against the truth of your position, or even against the goodness of your decision, just as Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes assert.

There is still another way that Kurt Wise is mistaken. He is mistaken to think that evidence should be irrelevant to his decision. But he is also mistaken to think that evidence is in fact irrelevant to it. He says that he would not change his mind even if all the evidence in the universe stood against him, but this is not the case. He is a human being who possesses human nature, and he is changeable in the same way that other human beings are. It is clear from the above discussion that Wise would be better off if he were more open to reality, but this does not mean that reality does not affect him at all, or that things could not happen which would change his mind, as for example if he had a personal experience of God in which God explained to him that his understanding of Scripture was mistaken.

Sola Me Revisited

Earlier we discussed the idea of sola methe claim of an individual to possess the infallible ability to discern a doctrine to be revealed by God.

Kurt Wise, concluding his contribution to the book In Six Days: Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creationprovides an example of someone making such a claim, at least effectively:

Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turned against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand.

Basically Wise is making three claims:

(1) God always tells the truth.

(2) Scripture is the Word of God.

(3) Scripture says that the earth is young.

It follows from these three claims that the earth is actually young. Insofar as Wise says that he would not change his mind about this no matter how much evidence was found against it, this implies that he is absolutely certain of all three of these claims. Any evidence against a young earth, in fact, is evidence against the conjunction of these three claims, and Wise is saying that he will never give up this conjunction no matter how much evidence is brought against it.

Trent Horn, in a blog post entitled Response to a Mormon Criticprovides an implicit criticism of this kind of idea when he says, “Is there anything that would convince you that Mormonism is false? If not, then why should you expect other people to leave their faiths and become Mormon when you aren’t prepared to do the same?”

Trent Horn is a convert to Catholicism, so his question can be understood as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did, or at least he is saying that someone who is unwilling to change his mind himself, should not criticize others for not changing their minds, even if they disagree with him.

Gregory Dawes, interviewed by Richard Marshall, provides another example of such a criticism:

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig writes somewhere about what he calls the “ministerial” and the “magisterial” use of reason. (It’s a traditional view — he’s merely citing Martin Luther — and one that Craig endorses.) On this view, the task of reason is to find arguments in support of the faith and to counter any arguments against it. Reason is not, however, the basis of the Christian’s faith. The basis of the Christian’s faith is (what she takes to be) the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in her heart. Nor can rational reflection can be permitted to undermine that faith. The commitment of faith is irrevocable; to fall away from it is sinful, indeed the greatest of sins.

It follows that while the arguments put forward by many Christian philosophers are serious arguments, there is something less than serious about the spirit in which they are being offered. There is a direction in which those arguments will not be permitted to go. Arguments that support the faith will be seriously entertained; those that apparently undermine the faith must be countered, at any cost. Philosophy, to use the traditional phrase, is merely a “handmaid” of theology.

There is, to my mind, something frivolous about a philosophy of this sort. My feeling is that if we do philosophy, it ought to be because we take arguments seriously. This means following them wherever they lead. This may sound naïve. There are moral commitments, for instance, that few of us would be prepared to abandon, even if we lacked good arguments in their support. But if the followers of Hume are right, there is a close connection between our moral beliefs and our moral sentiments that would justify this attitude. In any case, even in matters of morality, we should not be maintaining positions that have lots of arguments against them and few in their favour, just because we have made a commitment to do so.

Dawes is a former Catholic, and as in the case of Horn, his statement can be taken as a criticism of people who would be unwilling to change their minds as he himself did. According to him you are not taking arguments seriously if you know in advance, like Kurt Wise, that you will never change your mind about certain things.

I would argue that relative to the question of certainty, both Trent Horn and Gregory Dawes are basically right, in several different ways, and that Kurt Wise is basically wrong in those ways. I will explain this in more detail in another post.

Time Out Of Mind

How much do you know about your father’s childhood? Probably not very much. The main way you know about it is from hearing about it from him. He himself will remember a relatively small proportion of his childhood. And basically nobody would actually bother to perform the experiment in yesterday’s post where one attempts to remember as much as possible of one’s past. This implies that he has only told you a part of what he can remember himself, and probably a fairly small part.

How much do you know about your grandfather’s childhood? Probably even less, although it may be about equal, or even a little bit more, if you know him personally. But if you add a few more generations to to this process, very quickly you will arrive at a point where you know basically nothing about your ancestors.

Perhaps you know a little about the general circumstances of your family two hundred years ago, or even three or four hundred years ago, based on historical records, rather than personal reporting, but it cannot be very much, and it would have been even less for those in the past, due to progress in the science of history.

Someone might say this situation where we know only a little, or nothing at all, about our ancestors several hundred years in the past is a recent phenomenon. In the past, they might say, people spent much more time talking to their children, and consequently passed down much more of their history.

One might ask how we could know that this is true, even if it is. But in any case, there is some room for variation but not much. People in the past may have passed down more of their history, but it would still be a small proportion of their lives due to the fact that a person only remembers a small proportion of his own life. Consequently the above process will always take place, even if it may take a little longer in some cases than in others. Perhaps some people in the past knew a good deal about their ancestors who lived several hundred years before them, unlike most of us. But they surely did not know much about their ancestors who lived several thousand years before them.

Thus, as Qoheleth says, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”

Autobiographical Memory

How much of your life do you actually remember? Unless you happen to be a hyperthymesiac, probably not very much. Of course the whole question is extremely vague in the first place. Memory is normally contextual, and happens by association, so there are a great many things which you will remember in the appropriate context, but not otherwise. But my question is what you can remember without any particular context to guide you. Suppose you take pen and paper into an empty room and try to write down distinct events that you remember. Try writing one event that happened on each day of the past year. You will probably fail, although the total number of reasonably distinct events that you can remember will be much higher than 365, since you will remember many events for some of those days. But there will be other days where you can’t assign any particular event, even if you know generally what must have been happening.

Go back more than a year, and things will get more difficult. Within the next 20 seconds, think of something that happened in September 2005. If you can do that, what about September 15 of that year, or at least something close to that date? If you can do that, what did you have for lunch that day?

This will quickly become very difficult. I suspect that if you leave out the first five years of your life, which you probably mostly don’t remember on account of childhood amnesia, and the last year, of which you will remember more due to the recency effect, and take the above empty room test, you will not be able to write down a number of events equal to the number of days in the period, given reasonably distinct events, even allowing for writing down multiple events for a single day, and allowing for the fact that you can’t expect to remember on which particular day something took place. Of course this is merely my suspicion, and it could easily turn out to be mistaken.

In any case, whether my suspicion is right or not, much more than a single event happens in a day, and it is clear from questions like the one about the lunch you had on September 15, 2005, that you actually remember a fairly small proportion of your life, at least under ordinary circumstances, even if there are contexts in which you can remember more of it.

Thus your life as you remember it is much like someone’s biography, perhaps several hundred pages in length, but containing much less material than the person’s life contained in reality.

In

In Book IV of his PhysicsAristotle discusses the meanings of the word “in”:

(1) As the finger is ‘in’ the hand and generally the part ‘in’ the whole.

(2) As the whole is ‘in’ the parts: for there is no whole over and above the parts.

(3) As man is ‘in’ animal and generally species ‘in’ genus.

(4) As the genus is ‘in’ the species and generally the part of the specific form ‘in’ the definition of the specific form.

(5) As health is ‘in’ the hot and the cold and generally the form ‘in’ the matter.

(6) As the affairs of Greece centre ‘in’ the king, and generally events centre ‘in’ their primary motive agent.

(7) As the existence of a thing centres ‘in its good and generally ‘in’ its end, i.e. in ‘that for the sake of which’ it exists.

(8) In the strictest sense of all, as a thing is ‘in’ a vessel, and generally ‘in’ place.

Since the meaning and usage of prepositions tends to vary somewhat according to language, not all of these meanings are very customary in English. Still, none of the meanings are unintelligible to us.

The eighth sense is said to be the “strictest of all,” in the sense that it is the basic physical reality to which we are comparing the other meanings, just as before in time is the first sense of “before” according to the order of time. In this basic sense of “in”, water might be in a glass, or a man in a house.

But just as we saw that “before by nature” is first by nature, here too one sense of “in” is first by nature, and this is Aristotle’s fifth sense, namely as form is in matter. We can see this by noting that every sense of “in” listed by Aristotle, and in my opinion every other reasonable sense, can be analyzed in terms of an analogy with the presence of form in matter.

What do we mean in the strictest sense, when we say that water is in a glass, or a man in a house? This surely implies that the glass contains the water, and the house the man, namely that the container physically surrounds the thing contained. But what is so interesting about this? Wherever I am, there are things all around me, but I don’t say that I am in those things. I might say that I am in the ring composed of this wall, this chair, this table, the computer on which I am working, and so on, but this would be an ad hoc claim made in order to apparently establish that the statement that one thing is in another simply means that some things are surrounding something else. Also, in the case of the glass, we do not have a problem saying that the water is in the glass, even in the strictest sense, even though the water is not completely surrounded. Likewise the man is in the house even if the windows and the doors are open.

Despite the physical incompleteness of the containment in these situations, however, I would still agree that in this basic physical sense, if one thing is in another, it is contained by that other. But something else is going on even here, before we move to any other sense of “in”. This is the implication that the thing which is in something, fills it or partly fills it, so that the thing would be empty if there were not something in it. A glass without water or something similar is an empty glass, and likewise a house without people is an empty house, especially if no one lives there even at other times, and most especially if there is nothing else, such as furniture, in the house.

This is basically the idea that the thing within forms the container, which is otherwise empty and formless. Thus Genesis speaks of the unformed world as a “formless void,” namely as an empty, formless thing. The order of the days of Genesis signifies the order of matter and form, and the last three days consist in filling the empty world with moving things, filling the sea with fish, the air with birds, and the dry land with animals and men. These things are seen as forming the earth, which would otherwise be unformed, as for example is Mars in its current state.

Each of the cases mentioned by Aristotle can be analyzed in a similar way, being understood by analogy with the presence of form in matter.

The part is in the whole because, as was said in the consideration of whole and part, the part is an aspect of the existence of the whole; something which the whole exists as. In this way it is like form, just as redness is a form of the apple, and likewise an aspect of its existence. The whole is in the parts because the whole is made of the parts as its material cause.

The species is in the genus because the genus is like matter which is formed in a specific way to get the species. The genus is in the species because it is a part of the definition of the species, and thus is in the species as a part in the whole.

The effect is in the efficient or final cause because the cause is like something generic, i.e. material, which is made specific, i.e. formed, by the particular effect which it produces.

One thing is in another, therefore, as form is in matter.

Whatever Can Happen Sometimes Does

In St. Thomas’s third way, he says, “that which is possible not to be at some time is not.” Basically he is saying that if something is possible, it will be actual sooner or later. Is this really the case?

With some qualifications, it is indeed the case. If the probability of something during equal units of time remains fixed, or if it does not decrease sufficiently quickly, then at the limit of infinite time, the probability that the thing will happen sooner or later will converge to one. Thus, to give an arbitrary example, if there is a chance that human beings will produce a space elevator during the next 20 years, and the chance for each period of 20 years is not constantly decreasing, then it will happen sooner or later.

Of course the qualifications imply that there are still plenty of ways that this could fail to happen, as if time does not go on forever, or if something happens (e.g. the kind of thing that might be called “the end of the world”) that reduces this chance to zero, or that causes it to start going down, and to continue going down forever, quickly enough that the total probability converges to something less than one.

It might be possible to argue against St. Thomas’s application of this principle in the third way, since even if we believe that it could have happened that nothing existed, we might reasonably suppose that once something exists, the probability of “nothing exists” being true in the future is immediately reduced to zero. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that the existence of contingent beings implies the existence of a necessary being.

In The Beginning

The Bible was divided into chapters in the 13th century, and thus regardless of one’s view of the Bible, there is no need to take the existing divisions as an authoritative division of the text. And in fact there is a mistake in the very first such division, since the first part of Genesis 2 clearly belongs with the first chapter:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

The text has a structure which marks the six days off from one another. Thus we have:

1:5-6 And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. And God said, “Let there be a dome…”

1:8-9 And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. And God said, “Let the waters…”

1:13-14 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And God said, “Let there be lights…”

1:19-20 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And God said, “Let the waters…”

1:23-24 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, “Let the earth…”

1:31 And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

After the sixth day, there follows the passage quoted above at the beginning of chapter 2. Thus, each day ends with “there was evening and there was morning,” except for the seventh day. And likewise, each day begins with “And God said,” except for the seventh day, presumably because on each of the other days, God does some work, but on the seventh day, he rests.

This structure tells us when the first day begins. The first day begins in 1:3, where you have “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” This is a bit odd, because it leaves something before the first day:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

This is traditionally read as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but the NRSV, used here, reads it as “when God created the heavens and the earth.”

This can be understood better by considering what things are created during these six days. When 2:1 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude,” the distinction between “the heavens and the earth,” and “all their multitude” is not an accidental one, but refers to different things created during the six days. The “heavens and the earth” refers to the first three days, and “all their multitude” to the second period of three days. Consider what happens during each of the days:

  1. The first day: Light is separated from darkness.
  2. The second day: Waters above the dome are separated from waters below the dome.
  3. The third day: Water is separated from dry land, and vegetation is created.
  4. The fourth day: Day is separated from night with the creation of lights in the sky.
  5. The fifth day: The water is filled with sea creatures, and the sky with birds.
  6. The sixth day: The dry land is filled with animals and human beings.

Basically the “heavens and the earth” are built, top down, during the first three days, and then they are filled with “all their multitude,” in the same fashion, from top to bottom. Vegetation is included on the third day because it does not move, and thus seems part of the dry land, while the lights in the sky, the sea creatures, birds, animals and human beings are all moving things.

The fact that something happens before the first day indicates that this order is not a temporal order, since otherwise there obviously could be nothing before the beginning of time. So what kind of order is it? We can see this from several things. Throughout the first four days, God is said to create by separating one thing from another, and before the first day, the earth is said to be a “formless void.” And during the fourth through sixth days, the stable foundation of the “heavens and the earth” are filled with moving things.

The order here is of material causality. Thus something confused (not yet distinct) may be matter for distinct things which are formed from it, and likewise the moving things in the world are like form relative to the “heavens and the earth”, which are like matter. This also explains why God says “Let the waters bring forth,” and “Let the earth bring forth,” when he creates the animals, fish, and birds. For these things are literally formed from the matter of the earth and the seas.

Thus the days represent the acts in which God imposes form on matter. And thus the earth is a “formless void” before the first day, because no form has yet been imposed. St. Augustine interprets the text in a similar way (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1, chapters 3-4):

Why, moreover, is it stated, In the beginning God created heaven and earth, and not, “In the beginning God said, ‘Let there be heaven and earth,’ and heaven and earth were made”? For in the case of light, the words are: God said, “Let there be light,” and light was made. Are we to understand that by the expression, heaven and earth, all that God made is to be included and brought to mind first in a general way, and that then the manner of creation is to be worked out in detail, as for each object the words God said occur? For whatever God made He made through His Word.

But perhaps there is another reason why the expression, God said, “Let there be…,” could not be used in reference to the creation of formless matter, whether spiritual or material. God in His eternity says all through His Word, not by the sound of a voice, nor by a thinking process that measures out its speech, but by the light of Divine Wisdom, coeternal with Himself and born of Himself. Now an imperfect being which, in contrast to the Supreme Being and First Cause, tends to nothingness because of its formless state, does not imitate the exemplar in the Word, who is inseparably united to the Father. But it does imitate the exemplar in the Word, who exists forever in immutable union with the Father, when in view of its own appropriate conversion to the true and eternal Being, namely, the Creator of its own substance, it also receives its proper form and becomes a perfect creature.

Some people might say that it is not possible that the book of Genesis would refer to a philosophical idea such as prime matter, but this simply indicates that they are making things too complicated themselves. Causality always implies a first cause, and this is true in the order of material causality just as in other causes. Thus the author of Genesis is simply presenting the four causes of the world: the efficient cause, God; the material cause, the “formless void,”; the formal cause, the distinction and order of parts by which the world is formed; and the final cause, when he says, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

True and False Religion

What does it mean to say that a religion is true, or that it is false? The question is not as easy as it appears at first sight. Bertrand Russell, in Why I Am Not a Christianruns up against this difficulty. In order to explain why he is not a Christian, he has to know what it means to be a Christian in the first place:

As your Chairman has told you, the subject about which I am going to speak to you tonight is “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the word Christian. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who attempts to live a good life. In that sense I suppose there would be Christians in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, if only because it would imply that all the people who are not Christians — all the Buddhists, Confucians, Mohammedans, and so on — are not trying to live a good life. I do not mean by a Christian any person who tries to live decently according to his lights. I think that you must have a certain amount of definite belief before you have a right to call yourself a Christian. The word does not have quite such a full-blooded meaning now as it had in the times of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. In those days, if a man said that he was a Christian it was known what he meant. You accepted a whole collection of creeds which were set out with great precision, and every single syllable of those creeds you believed with the whole strength of your convictions.

Nowadays it is not quite that. We have to be a little more vague in our meaning of Christianity. I think, however, that there are two different items which are quite essential to anybody calling himself a Christian. The first is one of a dogmatic nature — namely, that you must believe in God and immortality. If you do not believe in those two things, I do not think that you can properly call yourself a Christian. Then, further than that, as the name implies, you must have some kind of belief about Christ. The Mohammedans, for instance, also believe in God and in immortality, and yet they would not call themselves Christians. I think you must have at the very lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. If you are not going to believe that much about Christ, I do not think you have any right to call yourself a Christian.

Thus Russell reduces being a Christian to believing in God, in the immortality of the soul, and that Christ was at least the best and wisest of men. Of course there are people who call themselves Christians who do not believe one or more of these things, and do not accept that you cannot call yourself a Christian without them. And other people might well give a different list. Thus for example St. Paul has his own requirements:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Thus St. Paul says that belief in the resurrection of Christ, and therefore in a general resurrection, is required. Otherwise “your faith has been in vain,” which would certainly seem to say that your religion is not true.

Of course, St. Paul is polemically exaggerating the consequences of the position of his opponents. In the first place someone could believe in the resurrection of Christ without believing in a general resurrection. Likewise, even if Christ did not rise from the dead, it does not follow of necessity that anyone’s faith would be entirely vain, but that it would be vain in some respect, since he would still profit from it in various ways, such as by belonging to a Christian community. Similarly, even if Christians have a false belief in the immortality of the soul, there would still be more pitiable people in the world.

We can learn from these two examples. Russell says that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” if you do not accept his list of three beliefs, while St. Paul says that “your faith is in vain” if you do not believe that Christ is risen. There is something common to the two. Some basic belief or beliefs are proposed, such that without these beliefs, it is not worthwhile to count yourself as a believer at all. For St. Paul, this has the form of saying that you should not bother to put your faith in Christ, while for Russell, this has the form of saying that you should not call yourself a Christian.

The basic difficulty is caused by the fact that being a Christian, considered in itself, is not a belief, but membership in a Christian community. Thus saying that “Christianity is true,” or that “Christianity is false,” ought to mean “belonging to a Christian community is true,” or that “belonging to a Christian community is false,” both of which are evidently absurd, since belonging to a community is not the kind of thing which is true or false. But since a Christian community happens to be a community of believers, we identify Christianity as a belief by saying that it is what that community believes.

But the problem is not resolved by this identification, for “what the Christian community believes” is somewhat indeterminate, since Christians believe different things. Russell and St. Paul resolve the issue in similar ways. Russell does so by saying that you cannot “properly call yourself a Christian,” unless you believe certain things, presumably because it is wrong to deceive people about your beliefs. St. Paul does so by saying that your faith is in vain if you think that Christ did not rise from the dead, presumably meaning that it is pointless for you to belong to a Christian community.

Thus both of them are saying that unless you think that such and such is true, it is a bad idea to be a Christian, that is, to belong to a Christian community.

With this analysis we can say in general what it means to say that a certain religion is true, or that it is false. If I say that Mormonism is true, I mean that there are certain true things usually believed by Mormons, which make it worthwhile to belong to a Mormon community, given that I accept those things. Likewise, if I say that Mormonism is false, I mean that there are things believed by Mormons that would make it worthwhile to be a Mormon, if they were true, but in fact those things are false, and consequently it is not worthwhile to be a Mormon. Or more directly, I mean that there are certain things normally believed by Mormons which happen to be false, and the fact that Mormons normally believe these false things, makes it not worthwhile for me to be a Mormon.

Someone might object that this leads to relativism, since according to this analysis, it seems that a religion might be true for one person, but false for another. For example, in an interview conducted by Sergiu Hart, Robert Aumann, the author of the agreement theorem we discussed earlier, explains, among other things, why he accepts Judaism:

H [Sergiu Hart]: So that’s the Center for Rationality. I know this doesn’t belong, but I’ll ask it here. You are a deeply religious man. How does it fit in with a rational view of the world? How do you fit together science and religion?

A [Robert Aumann]: As you say, it really doesn’t belong here, but I’ll respond anyway. Before responding directly, let me say that the scientific view of the world is really just in our minds. When you look at it carefully, it is not something that is out there in the real world. For example, take the statement “the earth is round.” It sounds like a very simple statement that is either true or false. Either the earth is round or it isn’t; maybe it is square, or elliptical, or whatever. But when you come to think of it, it is a very complex statement. What does roundness mean? Roundness means that there is a point, the “center” of the earth, such that any point on the surface of the earth is at the same distance from that center as any other point on the surface of the earth. Now that already sounds a little complex. But the complexity only begins there. What exactly do we mean by equal distance? For that you need the concept of a distance between two points. The concept of distance between two points is something that is fairly complex even if we are talking about a ball that we can hold in our hands; it involves taking a ruler and measuring the distance between two points. But when we are talking about the earth, it is even more complex, because there is no way that we are going to measure the distance between the center of the earth and the surface of the earth with a ruler. One problem is that we canít get to the center. Even if we could find it we wouldn’t be able to get there. We certainly wouldn’t be able to find a ruler that is big enough. So we have to use some kind of complex theory in order to give that a practical meaning. Even when we have four points and we say the distance from A to B is the same as the distance from C to D, that is fairly complex already. Maybe the ruler changes. We are using a whole big theory, a whole big collection of ideas, in order to give meaning to this very, very simple statement that the earth is round.

Don’t get me wrong. We all agree that the earth is round. What I am saying is that the roundness of the earth is a concept that is in our minds. It’s a product of a very complex set of ideas, and ideas are in people’s minds. So the way I think of science, and even of fairly simple things, is as being in our minds; all the more so for things like gravitation, the energy that is emitted by a star, or even the concept of a “species.” Yes, we are both members of the species homo sapiens. What does that mean? Obviously we are different. My beard is much longer than yours. What exactly does species mean? What exactly does it even mean to say “Bob Aumann” is sitting here? Is it the same Bob Aumann as five minutes ago? These are very complex ideas. Identity, all those things that we think of trivially on a day-to-day basis, are really complex ideas that are in our minds; they are not really out there. Science is built to satisfy certain needs in our minds. It describes us. It does have a relationship with the real world, but this relationship is very, very complex.

Having said that, I’ll get to your question. Religion is very different from science. The main part of religion is not about the way that we model the real world. I am purposely using the word “model.” Religion is an experience, mainly an emotional and aesthetic one. It is not about whether the earth is 5,765 years old. When you play the piano, when you climb a mountain, does this contradict your scientific endeavors? Obviously not. The two things are almost, though not quite, orthogonal. Hiking, skiing, dancing, bringing up your children; you do all kinds of things that are almost orthogonal to your scientific endeavor. That’s the case with religion also. It doesn’t contradict; it is orthogonal. Belief is an important part of religion, certainly; but in science we have certain ways of thinking about the world, and in religion we have different ways of thinking about the world. Those two things coexist side by side without conflict.

Well, it is your way of putting it. Let me enlarge on it. The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society; it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.

In short, you can be a moral person, but morals are often equivocal. In the eighties, copying software was considered moral by many people. The point I am making is that religion, at least my religion, is a sort of force, a way of making a commitment to conduct yourself in a certain way, which is good for the individual and good for society.

In the first part, Aumann is basically saying that science gives an idealized and approximate description of the world, rather than an exact description. In the second part he attempts to explain why he accepts Judaism, and he seems to be saying that it has little to do with the way the world is, and more to do with what is good for people. In other words, to explain it in the way we analyzed the truth of a religion, “Judaism is true” for Aumann because he believes that it is true that it is good and beautiful to observe the Sabbath, true that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws, and so on. And since these things are true it is worthwhile for him to be a member of a Jewish religious community.

You may or may not agree that the Sabbath is beautiful, and you may or may not agree that it is good to refrain from breaking copyright laws. But even if you do agree with these things, you probably don’t conclude that it is worthwhile for you to convert to Judaism. At the same time, you may realize that these things might well make it worthwhile for Robert Aumann to remain a Jew.

Thus our explanation seems to lead to relativism, because Judaism can be true for Aumann, but false for other people. However, there are several problems with calling this result relativism.

First of all, there was some remaining ambiguity in the way we defined the truth or falsity of a religion. Jews might normally believe certain true things, and given that Robert Aumann accepts those things, it might be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. But it is possible that Jews also normally believe certain false things, such that if Aumann knew they were false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew. Thus, for example, a Christian would argue that Jews falsely believe that Christ is not the Messiah, and that if Aumann knew that this was false, it would no longer be worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, but to convert to Christianity.

Thus we could make our definition more precise by saying that a religion is true if it is worthwhile to belong to that religion even after you know the truth or falsity of all the beliefs that the members of the religion usually hold, and that it is worthwhile by reason of some of the true things that they hold.

However, this does not sufficiently answer the charge of relativism, because it would still be possible that one religion would be true for one person, and not true for another person.

For example, suppose that theism is true, but that no divine revelation has been given. If Aumann realizes this, he might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Jew, and unreasonable to convert to Islam, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Jews and Muslims. Likewise, a Muslim, knowing the same things, might reasonably believe that it is worthwhile for him to remain a Muslim, and unreasonable to convert to Judaism, even after knowing the truth or falsity of every concrete belief held by Muslims and Jews.

The answer in this case is that the situation simply does not imply relativism, because Aumann and the Muslim do not disagree about anything. Aumann may say, “Judaism is true,” and the Muslim may say, “Islam is true,” but when they explain what they mean and why they say it, they do not disagree with each other about any objective fact. This is no more relativism than it is relativism to admit that one person may prefer vanilla ice cream, and another person chocolate.

Thus, it is possible to mean something reasonable when saying that some religion is true, or that some religion is false. But in the end perhaps it would be better to avoid all the confusion in the first place, by following Robert Aumann’s example and simply distinguishing the question, “What is the world like?” from the question, “Is it, or would it be, good for me to belong to this community of believers?” Of course the answers to these questions are going to be related in various ways, but they are different questions.