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November 11, 2003

Let us presuppose....

In my previous post titled "Fact or Opinion" the Opinion character is probably most easily mapped onto someone of fashionable Leftish views. But the Fact/Opinion dichotomy was not simply a way for me to skewer the Left-many of the arguments of the Intelligent Design movement use the methods of Opinion, though the ends are far different[1]. See this post over at Carl Zimmer's blog parodying the "equal time" camp that wishes scientists were less "dogmatic" about evolution in the context of the Texas textbook debate.

An extreme case of Christian theology and philosophy existing in a hermetically sealed intellectual climate is the presuppositionalism of the conservative Calvinist tradition. Roughly speaking, presuppositionalism simply assumes the existence of God and the inerrancy of the Bible and uses these two axioms to construct an alternate mental universe. My link to the term methodological naturalism in the prior post was in fact to a presuppositionalist Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. Though not all conservative Christians are presuppositionalists, nor are they Calvinists (Presbyterianism being the mainstream Calvinists tradition in the United States), I believe that their ideas do influence the Christian Right. Terms like "methodological naturalism" are probably more likely to be used in conservative Christian intellectual circles, because methodological naturalism is the default position in the sciences, so it needs no definition or elaboration. I also find it interesting that Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, who has spoken of both methodological naturalism and the use of Post Modernist critiques in the deconstruction of evolutionary theory, is a Presbyterian by faith. I suspect he knows of of presuppositionalism, and the new scientific paradigm that he proposes to replace methodological naturalism will probably owe some debt to thinkers like Cornelius Van Till and Alvin Plantinga.

The moral of the fable is this: the balance between skepticism, empiricism & rationalism that characterizes modern natural science, and has traditionally influenced the methods of scholarship in the West in the past few centuries, is under assault from many perspectives. Opinion seems to have fallen in love with skepticism, while the presuppositionalists are excessively rationalistic in the context of their theological axioms. Personally, I believe these attacks on the established intellectual orthodoxy is somewhat natural, in that animism, supernaturalism, vitalism, idealism, etc. and the modern movements that borrow and expand upon them, are part of our species mental substrate, while the Enlightenment Tradition is profoundly alien and unnatural, emerging out of complex interactions between the various mental modules that act to check and balance their individual excesses. The Liberal Moment in history has been waxing for the past 50 years, if those of us who are partisans of that tradition in its most broad sense wish to perpetuate its dominance, we must be wary of philosophical and social movements that aim to tear down its intellectual pillars in the interests of greater moral or religious goods.

fn1. Of course, Christians who use the methods of Post Modernist Critique don't accept the premises that undergird them, but they are pragmatic in that they understand in a pluralistic society they can't achieve a monopoly position for their Truths and so simply try to attain the most favorable perch possible-by any means necessary.

Posted by razib at 03:56 PM

Nietzsche The Gay Science, Verse 111:

Origin of the Logical. How did logic come into existence in man's head? Certainly out of illogic, whose realm originally must have been immense. Innumerable beings who made inferences in a way different from ours perished: for all that, their ways might have been truer! Those, for example, who did not know how to find often enough what is "equal" as regards both nourishment and hostile animals, who subsumed things too slowly and cautiously, were favored with a lesser probability of survival than those who guessed immediately upon encountering similar instances that they must be equal. The dominant tendency, however, to treat as equal what is merely similar, an illogical tendency—for nothing is really equal—is what first created any basis for logic.

In order that the concept of substance could originate—which is indispensable for logic although in the strictest sense nothing real corresponds to it—it was likewise necessary that for a long time one did not see nor perceive the changes in things; the beings that did not see so precisely had an advantage over those that saw everything "in flux." At bottom, every high degree of caution in making inferences and every skeptical tendency constitute a great danger for life. No living beings would have survived if the opposite tendency, to affirm rather than suspend judgment, to err and make up things rather than wait, to assent rather than negate, to pass judgment rather than be just—had not been bred to the point where it became extraordinarily strong.

The course of logical ideas and inferences in our brain today corresponds to a process and a struggle among impulses that are, taken singly, very illogical and unjust; we generally experience only the result of this struggle: this primeval mechanism now runs its course so quickly and is so well concealed.

Posted by: martin at November 11, 2003 06:49 PM

Nice quote. Nietzsche rocks, as usual.

Posted by: bbartlog at November 12, 2003 06:47 AM

Yep. Our hard won scientific achievements might be a peacock's tail.

Posted by: martin at November 12, 2003 03:21 PM

Someone who was familiar with Aristotle, or logic, would fix Nietzsche's screed in the following manner. Where N. says we are ignoring differences and pretending equalities to produce 'logic', a better way of putting it is that the successful creature differentiates between 'essential qualities' and 'accidental qualities', in the Aristotelian sense, better than the unsuccessful creature, and ignores the accidents and concentrates on the essentials. If you read the passage that way, you'll see that N.'s thoughts on this topic are obviously silly.

Posted by: j mct at November 12, 2003 08:47 PM