Friday, January 25, 2013

Answering Dawkins' Question, What do Theologians Study?

Richard Dawkins has asked WHAT theologians study. Not only on Twitter, of course. Also here on his own website, and in various places throughout his published writings. His prose betrays a sense of exasperation. He honestly doesn't get it. The reaction of theologians appears cut from the same cloth: What does Dawkins mean WHAT do theologians study? Theologians stand in a long tradition of reflection on the ways of God with humankind. They are doing exactly what people have always done; the only difference being they are doing it in a scientific age. They honestly don't get what Dawkins doesn't get, or why he doesn't accept their arguments. The conversation seems to have reached an impasse.

My purpose here is to ameliorate the relations between these two solitudes. A little further on, I am going to attempt an answer to Dawkins' question about WHAT theologians study, one which works within theoretical boundaries he accepts. But first, an account of what I think are those boundaries is a necessary preliminary.

There are two types of theology that Dawkins rejects: natural and supernatural. The natural theology he rejects is of the sort found in the Natural Theology of William Paley, who saw evidences of an intelligent Creator in the complex constructions of living organisms. Paley held that individual organisms may vary in bodily appearance from one to another, but the species or generic types of organisms remain unchanged through the whole natural history of life on the planet. Evidence for divinity was in the beautiful and complex construction of the final product: the living organism. Then Charles Darwin, earlier an admirer of Paley, published The Origin of Species, which undermined the intellectual foundations of the idea of unchanging species. His work allowed us to think of the final product, the living organism as we presently observe it, to be the result of the long and somewhat haphazard process that is natural selection. The golden thread stretched between the unchanging nature of God and the unchanging nature of species, as a consequence, was cut, which naturally begged the question about whether there was a God to be found at the other end in the first place.

The so-called supernatural theology that Dawkins rejects is the idea of a supernatural agent who interrupts the natural processes of the world in order to affect some change on behalf of some and not others. Our world exudes a natural regularity, and we may be relatively confident that scientific methods are the means by which to understand that regularity. Old stories about a God calling Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees to go to a promised land, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, smiting enemies, and, last but not least, raising people from the dead don't fit into this picture.

No unjustly, Dawkins places a premium on empirical observation. If the blind see and the lame walk, or some other so-called miraculous occurrence transpire, we are better off looking for a natural explanation. Be honest with yourself: were you to hear that Jimmy or Sally rose from the dead, you'd be skeptical. The question Dawkins puts to many Christians is this: what stops you from extending your skepticism towards resurrection of Jimmy or Sally, to the resurrection of Jesus?

A pious Christian response might be that they stand with Dawkins, as concerns the two other deceased persons, precisely because this sort of thing only happened once--with Jesus. The Christian is more than likely to accept the scientific argument from the regularity of the natural order; they just don't think, as a matter of faith, it applies to Jesus. And, they might add, there no way to determine scientifically either way--which, from Dawkins' perspective, no doubt beggars belief. It does seem rather arbitrary.

When Dawkins asks WHAT it is that theologians study, he wants them to show him something, anything, he can observe and verify through subsequent testing. Whether that observation occurs with the aid of a microscope, telescope, or a sensory apparatus in a large hadron collider feeding data that is displayed on a computer screen is immaterial. Give him something to look at, something that other scientists can look at, something that they can have a rational, dispassionate conservation about. That's all he ever asked.


I propose to give him what he has asked for.

Let me preface the rest of this not-so-small disquisition by saying that I don't think what I have to offer will satisfy all the criteria for a properly scientific statement about the way things are. My intention is to provide Dawkins with something to think about: something he can observe, the existence of which can be verified by others, and something he can have a rational conversation with other people about. And I am going to attach the claim that this is what some theologians--big names like Augustine, Aquinas, and Kierkegaard--have talked about. In sum: classical Christian reflections on the first few chapters of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel of John usually gravitate towards some fundamental, observable phenomenon. The one claim I won't be making is that this is what all theologians talk about, as I am in agreement with Dawkins that a lot of what persons who self-identify as theologians have had to say, in the context of public discourse, is empty fluff. Whether it has meaning within their own communities is another matter.

I offer for consideration that there is a very 'real', and very commonplace distinction between human language, a category in which I include written, spoken, signed, and tactile words and things in the natural world to which they refer, like the sun and moon, rocks and trees, insects, plants and animals. So commonplace, in fact, it is easily overlooked. And I want to offer this consideration in the context of a much broader distinction what I shall designate 'artificial' objects, which include other things of human construction like building, clothing, computer games, and so on, and natural objects, like the aforementioned things populating the natural world.

But I don't want to identify WHAT the nature of the distinction between artificial and natural objects is precisely. It seems to me that jumping to identify the distinction will get us into trouble, as I will venture to explain more fully towards the end. All I want to observe at this point is THAT there is a distinction, and that we all recognize as much, at least implicitly. What is my evidence for that distinction? In an era when the world's natural resources are being harvested more purposefully and marshaled for the rapid extension of an urban civilization than ever before, but with much less forethought about the effect it will have on environmental conditions, examples are ready available. But let me borrow from Paley's famous Watchmaker Argument to illuminate my point for the sake of argumentative continuity. It was Paley's claim that encountering the complex construction of living organisms was like walking along a beach and discovering a watch half-buried in the sand. The watch naturally leads to an inference of an intelligent human creator; so living organisms quite naturally, it is assumed, gives rise to the idea of divine creator. The argument itself rests on an analogy drawn between human and divine creativity, crossing over the categorical boundary I have drawn between artificial and natural things.

Much ink has been split over whether the analogy is valid. That's all it is: ink. Let me be absolutely clear: right here and right now, I could not care less. My only concern is to note, were you walking along a beach and saw a watch half-buried in the sand, you could be absolutely certain a human being was involved in its construction. In all probability, more than one human being was involved. The shape is too circular, the edges too straight, to be the composition of natural processes, given our knowledge of those same processes. The same goes with words. Words inscribed on any material surface whatever always have a human origin. For example, when the Scripture says that rocks will cry out if human beings are silent, the intention is of text is analogical, and the being who originally put pen to paper, or quill to parchment, or what have you, to record the analogy for future generations was a human being. End of story. Full stop. Period. This far, no further.

I trust these observations are so basic, so banal, that there isn't any reason to labour these points much further. Perhaps my own wording could be improved upon. The fundamental point, however, about how am I able to use words to indicate a difference between a whole category of artificial things including words, which have human beings are their 'cause', and a whole category of natural things, which do not, should not be contentious.

If these claims are contentious, for anyone, I am unsure how a person would communicate their objections without proving these claims in the process. They are readily observable AND verifiable.


None of the foregoing sounds like the sort of argument a modern scientist would present in an academic paper. That's true. One persistent feature of the modern scientific endeavor has been to throw back the veil covering over natural processes. It may appear that the earth is in the center of the universe, but Copernicus showed us how to think otherwise, Galileo elaborated upon those initial observations, and the rest is history. A whole web of overlapping scientific finding down through the last few centuries all tend to confirm the Copernicus' initial heliocentric hypothesis. Another example: you may have the impression that matter is solid. Disabuse yourself of any such idea--quickly! The list keeps growing.

What the tool-using capacities of humanity evolutionary cousins? What about the intelligence of dolphins? What about the capacity of many 'higher species of animals to suffer? Don't these fields of contemporary scientific research demonstrate that the distinction that I am trying to introduce for consideration rests on a faulty assumption? Well no. My claim was THAT there is a distinction and that it is real. I avoided wading into a discussion about WHAT the the nature of the distinction is or WHERE precisely that distinction lies. It's the nature of human involvement in and with the natural world, that the lines are more clearly drawn in generality than they are with respect to particular points of interest. My intent was never to ' throw back the veil covering over natural processes'. In that sense, I willingly grant, the evidence I offer may have the slippery feel of a dialectian's obfuscations.

In my defense, all I can do is point back to the distinction. A word on a page has a human being as its cause. The particular dimensions and texture of a page also as human beings as its cause. The same cannot be said for the natural material, from which the ink was prepared or from which the page was manufactured. Human beings came into this world, individually by birth, and collectively as a species by evolution, to find all of that natural material already present, the question of its origin just hanging around, as it were, waiting to be asked.

Now, some might expect that this is the end of my argument. That is, however, not the case. The great imponderable question of the Origin of All Things is only a stop along the way. Think about it. If the great imponderable question were the end, we would have gone a long way to say nothing. Or more precisely, by saying everything, we would have said nothing, because we failed to say something that the human mind can wrap itself around.


I began by pointing to an observable (and verifiable) difference between words and natural things. For example: the word 'tree'. There is the word itself, and the thing to which it refers. We all know what words are, and we have all seen trees. Look outside. In fact, the word 'tree' is not the only symbol I can use to communicate to another person what it is I am looking at, or thinking about cutting down, or carving my name into, or whatever else a person might do with a tree. Different languages have different words for tree. Different languages have different ways of qualifying what sort of tree it is. I will stick with English because I find myself linguistically challenged. The tree in question may be a maple tree, it may be tall, it may be old tree, and so on

I am the cause of this particular instance of the word tree's usage, in precisely the same sense that I am not the cause of the object to which the word refers. It is my subjective intention, however, that this particular perceptible instance of the word tree should refer to that perceptible object. I hold the word and object together in my mind. As I know that we are both drawing on a shared English lexicon, my intention is further that this particular perceptible instance of the word tree should refer to that perceptible object in your mind as well.

So, at this point, neither the tree itself nor the word itself is my principle 'object' of interest. Rather: my subjective intention to communicate that the two are joined together in my mind is the object. The intention to associate words with objects is something that is so ubiquitous in human thinking, of course, that it is very easily taken for granted. This is not an excuse, however, for pretending it is inconsequential.

When certain theologians reflected have reflected on the natural world and human beings in it, they have noted with the author of the second chapter of Genesis that human beings name things. In some sense, naming a thing is integral to understanding what it is and communicating one's knowledge to others. The human ability to name things frees us to mentally toy and tweak the thing described. Certain circumstances allow for us to take an idea and transform available material, as, for example, what happens when a tree is cut down for the purpose of building a house.

One can safely assume, I think, that these theologians were suitably impressed with how the human being was capable of such remarkable feats in the first place. Augustine's discussion of the difference between words and things in De Doctrina Christiana is sensitive to these interests. Why should such a frail thing as a word be able to attach itself to an object and illuminate the human mind about the nature of objects? Does it also not say something, not merely about the frailty of human creations, but also about the frailty of human intentions that not all the words we employ in certain situations are acceptable to other human beings? Everyone has had the experience of being told they are wrong or being offered a different perspective.

What do theologians study? Some theologians have studied observable and verifiable distinction between words and the things to which they refer, or again between artificial and natural objects. The difference between the two members of each pair is a real difference. What is done with the difference remains to be seen. Some theologians have gone the route of contemplating the imponderable question of the Origin of All Things. The first chapter of Genesis--by setting up the contrast between God, who speaks things into existence, and the human being, bearing his image, who names already existent things--does more than contemplate. It sketches out a possible answer to the imponderable question. It's not the only answer, of course.

One gets the impression, however, when reading post-Kantian philosophy and modern scientific theory that this readily observable and verified distinction is irrelevant to modern science. Only what, it seems, fits into a theoretical or hypothetical framework can be counted as real. Behind the rest is placed a question mark indicating a possible field of further study.

This doesn't mean that the distinction is not real. No indeed. All it means is that by some frail human intention, whether consciously or not, some think about the world in a way that the distinction is irrelevant.

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