A Sophisticated Theologian explains why theology doesn’t progress

Thanks (I think) to John Loftus, I’ve become acquainted with a half-dozen books on science and religion that I didn’t know. All of them are written by Christians and either attack science or defend the proposition that science and Jesus are compatible.

I’ve just finished the first one, and it’s dire: J. P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science (1989, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI). Moreland, who has collaborated with the odious William Lane Craig, is a philosopher and theologian at that hotbed of LOLzy creationism and baraminism, Biola University in California. (“Biola” is a contraction of its previous name, The Bible Institute of Los Angeles.)

The book is dire. Its thesis is that science and theology are not only compatible methods of inquiry, but the same method of inquiry. They are said to use precisely the same methods to find truth.

The book also attacks scientism (on no good grounds), contains tedious philosophical disquisitions about whether there’s a real universe out there, and about whether it’s even possible to understand it if it does exist, and in the end touts creationism as not only a scientific view, but one that’s well supported. In other words, the book is replete with what comes out of the south end of a horse facing north.  When you open the book and see all the symbolic logic and equations, you know you’re in for a grueling and unrewarding read, for symbolic logic is what religious accommodationists use when they’ve run out of arguments.

But Moreland presented one argument that was new to me, despite my extensive incursions into theology and science. When lecturing on their incompatibility, I always mention that although science has progressed enormously in the past few hundred years, theology has not. That is, we know no more about the nature or existence of God than we did in, say, 800 C.E. Hell, theologians aren’t sure whether there’s one god or many gods (as Hindus believe), or a red-horned devil, not to mention more trivial issues like whether the wine and crackers at communion are wholly Jesus’s blood and body (“transubstantiation”) or only partly Jesus’s blood and body (“consubstantiation”).  The only “progress” theology has made has been forced upon it by science, which made it abandon time-honored tenets of belief like Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood, and the Exodus.  Theology is like postmodern lit-crit: it wobbles from pole to pole but never arrives anywhere.  And of course it can’t, because there’s no way to test whether you’re getting closer to reality.

Well, Moreland contests that in his book.  In his last chapter, “The scientific status of creationism,” Moreland gives the first long discussion I’ve read about why theology doesn’t seem to progress. I say “seem” because he first admits that it doesn’t progress like science, but then asserts that it has progressed—to a near-complete understanding of God! He gives several reasons; here are a few of them from pages 238-239:

Second, theology and especially philosophy tend to operate a higher levels of generality than does science. So, in general, we should not expect theology or philosophy to progress as science does.  Progress is not an appropriate standard for rational comparisons between two theories or disciplines when they operate at different levels of generality.

. . . Fifth, if some philosophical or theological view is true, or some scientific one for that matter, we should not expect further progress in that area.  Thus progress can only be a sign of approximate truth at best, not of truth itself. . . . The slow progress in philosophy and theology may indicate not that they are less rational than science—that is, that they have progressed less toward truth—but that they are more rational. Why? Because the slow progress could be an effect of their already having eliminated proportionately more false options in their spheres of study than science has eliminated in its. If this is true, it means that they have already come closer to a full, well-rounded true world view than science has come.

In sum, philosophy and theology may not progress because they may have already arrived rationally at some truth concerning the world.  This means that a philosopher or theologian has the right to be sure about this conclusion, not in the sense of terminating inquiry or being closed to new arguments, but in the sense of requiring a good bit of evidence before abandoning the conclusion and not being able to use it to infer other conclusions.”

. . . Sixth, it is not true that philosophy and theology do not make progress.

As an example of philosophical progress, Moreland gives the increasing refinement of the ethical principle of utilitarianism. As an example of theological progress, he gives. . . nothing.

Now let me first agree that philosophy has progressed, at least in areas I’m familiar with, like ethical philosophy, where bad arguments have been weeded out and questions have become clearer.

But that doesn’t apply to theology. One need consider only this: if theology has arrived at “some truth concerning the world,” then that “truth” is flatly denied by adherents of other faiths. There is in fact no unanimity among religions about how many Gods there are, what God is like, what God’s commands are, whether there’s a hell or an after life of any sort, how you get saved, whether you’re reincarnated, and so on.  There are, for example, more than 34,000 denominations of Christianity alone, and that doesn’t include all those other religions.  And all of them differ not only in claims about the nature of God and how one is saved, but about things like divorce, sex, gay rights, and birth control.  If you think that religion has arrived at the truth, first have a look at this truncated phylogeny of Christianity (which of course leaves out the thousands of other religions).

800px-Christianity-Branches-2013update

There is, of course, no schism like this in science, which would be pretty much a straight line.  There is no Hindu science, no Muslim science, no Catholic science—there’s just science, which does apprehend real truths (albeit, of course, provisional ones), and ones agreed on by scientists of all stripes, faiths, and ethnicities. The speed of light, or the molecular formula of benzene, is the same to a Catholic or Jewish or atheist physicist or chemist.  But whether the cracker turns totally or only partially into Jesus’s body differs for a Lutheran and a Catholic.  To an evangelical Christian, you go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as savior. To a devout Muslim, you go to hell if you accept that.  For many Jews there is no afterlife, and Hindus believe you can come back as another person, or as a cat (blessed existence!).  So what is the theological “truth”?

Theology is like postmodern lit-crit: it is a game that never progresses to any real understanding. It bounces around from fad to fad, blown by the winds of secular thought, but has no way within itself to arrive at a real understanding of the universe.

It takes real chutzpah for a person like Moreland to claim that theology has eliminated most of the false alternatives. When the faithful, as they are wont to do, urge scientists to show some humility, they might try looking in the mirror first!

89 Comments

  1. eveysolara
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    That pic makes the a+ debacle look insignficant.

    • @eightyc
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      lol.

      It needs a 3D Venn.

      • eveysolara
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        haha

    • jose
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Atheists in general are insignificant compared to Christians. In America at least.

      • Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        I think the point is that we atheists don’t know how to do schisms like them theists do.

        A+ ain’t nothin compared to that graph.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted January 27, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Insignificant as measured in donuts consumed or TV hours watched, perhaps (for some values of ‘insignificant’).

        Not insignificant in terms of scientific productivity, for example.

  2. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Isn’t there a colloquial American phrase, something like, “They don’t know shit, from Biola”?

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • mandrellian
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      “Biola” has always made me think of a virulent tropical disease.

  3. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t find the place for a post suggestion, so leaving it here. A very nice and heartwarming cross-species rescue story, with video:

    http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/01/23/distressed-dolphin-seeks-out-diver-for-help/

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      great!

    • JT
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Loved it!

    • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      amazing. Thank you, Alan. May we all say a hearty “F*ck You!” to William Lane Craig.

  4. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Theology: changing the unknowable into the language of the not worth knowing.

  5. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    “Its thesis is that science and theology are not only compatible methods of inquiry, but the same method of inquiry.”

    It’s always been my contention that they are the same, using the only faculties humans have: senses and reason.

    The difference is in how well they use those faculties.

    Science builds collective methodologies to compensate for the flawed nature of personal observation, reason and introspection, so that we come to know stuff independently of what we would like to be true.

    Religion makes every attempt to affirm the wanted belief, by imagination without confirmation or falsification, and by faith if all else fails.

    • Vaal
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Well put!

      Vaal

  6. Alex Shuffell
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    “Second, theology and especially philosophy tend to operate a higher levels of generality than does science.”

    This is a good point. Because Theology is vague at it’s best, the more open to interpretation the more useful it gets to other theologians. The more specific the claim the easier it is to disprove or prove, maybe even do an experiment and analyse, here science can be used, and will always win. Theology only works at ‘higher levels of generality’, it’s like they’re just making it up as they go.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Well put. Philosophy, as a discipline, is technically above both theology and science, which are specific forms of philosophy. “What is the nature of truth, and how do we know it?”

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

        Science is not philosophy, which is as split as theology. Everyone can have their own truths, but is not entitled to their own facts. Philosophy doesn’t pass the outsider’s test, science does.

        The claim that science is a subdomain of philosophy is not only a grave mistake. It is a nasty arrogation of the backbreaking and hard won achievements of science.

        Philosophy, like theology, has never produced any result outside of the social sphere, so to make up for its feebleness and laziness it tries to steal. :-/

        • MNb
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          That’s not correct. Augustinus of Hippo’s philosophy of time is outstanding – is the best description of this quantity of physics I’ve ever read.
          There are other examples. The main point is this. Good philosophy is consistent speculating about what we can’t know for sure (yet). So there is a considerable risk of being wrong.

  7. gbjames
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    sub

  8. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    In sum, philosophy and theology may not progress because they may have already arrived rationally at some truth concerning the world.

    What are these truths about the world that religion has arrived at and thus require no farther progress?

    • eric
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      +1.

      If “theology and especially philosophy tend to operate a higher levels of generality than does science,” then I want to know what consensus theology has reached at its higher level of generality.

      • Sastra
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        The consensus theology has reached can be found in the definition: God exists. Theologians then argue over what God is like.

        My quarrel with Moreland wouldn’t be that there was NO consensus in theology. It would be that 1.) the consensus is definitional, it wasn’t “reached” the right way and 2.) the wide variation in “what God is like” doesn’t point to a consensus which was reached in the right way — through public forms of argument, evidence, demonstration, and debate. It shows evidence instead of a “faith” belief: people pick and choose according to irrational or non-rational factors.

        Evolutionary biologists all agree on evolution: they simply disagree on the details. But the details don’t go all over the board like the conflicting details of “what God is like.” We see scientific controversies, not a lot of arbitrary proclamations which need to be received and accepted.

        • Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

          Yes, science deals with information that is provable, but subject to change if further investigation turns up facts that show the first consensus to be incorrect. Theology, on the other hand maintains that its tenets are true. If anyone tries to change them, then bang! a new religion is born.

    • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Yes.

      If theology has illuminated such a complete and reliable picture of the divine, then I guess we had better never catch Moreland talking about the “ineffable” or the “mysterious”.

  9. Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Nice analysis. I especially like the approach to measuring progress implied by asking whether there is a proliferation of theories and sub-theories, versus the “straight line.” The overall question of how to measure progress in a field is a difficult one, but that approach at least makes some, well, meta-progress.

    In general terms, I take it, we want the number of incompatible sub-theories within an overarching theory (say ‘monotheism’) to increase at a rate slower than the number of believers increases. If it’s increasing a lot slower, then maybe the theory is overall progressive, but if it’s only increasing a little bit slower–if it’s keeping up–then maybe the theory is degenerating or stagnating.

  10. Sean
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    Two links on the diversification of religion and the narrowing of science (plus some Rush music and great graphics)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeUWJbs9Q5E

    http://www.crispian.net/CrispiansScienceMap.html

    Definitely both worth checking out.

    • gluonspring
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      How perfectly apropos that Rush video is. Chuck with an axe! Ha.

  11. Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Every time he uses the word “theology” he assumes Western Christian theology. Imagine how emphatically wrong he is if you consider that e.g. Hindus, Aztecs, etc. have their own theology as well. This would mean that his assertion that theology has already “rationally [arrived] at some truth concerning the world” is one of the most false things one can comprehend. There’s probably no commonality between Buddhist theology and Christian theology.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I passionately loathe post-modernism which I think was well-exposed by Alan Sokal both in his hoax and his follow-up book “Fashionable Nonsense”. Post-modernism is in fact fashionable in some circles within liberal and progressive seminaries.

    Good call!!!

  13. Dr. J
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    The figure looks a lot like an evolutionary tree ;-)

    • Hempenstein
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Perhaps the best rejoinder to “Then why are there still monkeys?” is “Then why are there still Eastern Orthodox?”.

      • raven
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Why are there still Jews?

        Xianity evolved out of Judaism. Which evolved out of the polytheistic Canaanite religions. Which probably came from something else.

        It’s religions and evolution all the way down.

      • gluonspring
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        Nice.

    • jdhuey
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      And like an evolutionary tree it is important to remember that the starting point is just the ancestor that had some surviving offspring. There were many species of early Christianity that simply became extinct.

      • Dr. J
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        And Judaism is still alive and well and has branched into a number of “new species”.

  14. @eightyc
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    lol.

    The humility theologians urge scientists to exhibit is when scientists show them how wrong they are.

    That’s when the call for humility starts!

    i.e.,
    Theologian: Oh by the way see this cracker and wine, yeah that literally turns into the body and blood of our superhero saviour.

    Scientist: Dude. What’s your evidence for that? You’re a grown ass person. You ain’t 8 years old. You just made that shit up.

    Theologian: Please consider how you are hurting my feelings by not believing me. Please show some humility and sensitivity of others’ point of view.

    Scientist: Lolz.

  15. Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    To claim that theology and science use the same methods to arrive at truth seems at best incredibly ignorant and at worst patently dishonest. Science uses experimentation and evidence to form reasonable, testable and (most importantly) falsifiable theories about what is true. Theology, on the other hand begins with it’s favored truth, and then concocts some justification for it’s being so… I could be wrong but these seem diametrically opposed methods to me…

    The very fact of the “straight line” of science demonstrates it’s greater degree of truth. The fact that there is no Muslim physics, no Jewish chemistry, and no need for such a distinction speaks volumes about the nature of truth… what is true is verifiably true regardless of culture or tradition. Thanks for the post.

  16. Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    “…symbolic logic is what religious accommodationists use when they’ve run out of arguments.”

    I’ve never seen these two words applied in this context. Using them in this manner gives symbolic logic a bad rap.

    I only know SL as a proto-mathematics. Modus Ponens, Modus Tollens, DeMorgen’s Theorem, Tautology, etc. are just four of the 19 “rules of inference” used in the application of symbolic logic to discover the truth value of a proposition. Truth Tables are part of the fundamental structure of modern computing.
    (if proposition p is true and proposition q is true, proposition p conjoined with q are necessarily true.
    p q p*q
    ——————-
    T T T
    T F F
    F T F
    F F F

    • Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      I wondered at that, too. Symbolic logic, when used remotely correctly, constitutes an argument. Maybe Jerry means that accommodationists use it to try to evade or disguise. As for me, I find it refreshing when theologians try to get as explicit and rigorous as possible, for example by symbolizing a proof.

      • Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        I think theologians are only trying to manufacture an appearance of rigor and scientific-like credibility by using SL.

        As you imply, they often don’t use it correctly, and instead are only after the rows of official-looking symbols and letters.

    • Posted January 24, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Dr. Coyne implied that there is a problem with symbolic logic. It’s just that when apologists use it, it’s cargo cult logic.

  17. Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    When you open the book and see all the symbolic logic and equations, you know you’re in for a grueling and unrewarding read, for symbolic logic is what religious accommodationists use when they’ve run out of arguments.

    On the upside, it means that if you’re willing to go through the tedium, you can find any formal error in reasoning or specious definitions; or (if there are none), identify the explicit axiomatic premises and symbolic correspondences, to consider which one is non-univeral for giving an exception case, or consider which one may be a disguised form of assuming the conclusion.

    However, it’s probably a more efficient use of your time to delegate off that task to a grad student in math, with the promise of a pitcher of beer while they explain the premises and any erroneous steps. (I’d make the attempt, but the local library doesn’t have a copy, the sample at Amazon.com doesn’t include more than token amounts of symbolic logic, and I’m not actually a math grad student anyway.)

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      I forget the name of the blog, but there was a skeptical mathematician who loved to take pseudoscience apart because, as he put it, “they can’t do the math.” That’s where they always screw up — and can get caught out.

      Which makes sense when you realize how much equivocation, category errors, slippery slopes and general fuzzy thinking goes on in religion, spirituality, and pseudoscience. Mathematics is a language with no ambiguity: there is nowhere for them to hide.

      • mandrellian
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        Was it Jeff Shallit at Recursivity? An old favourite of mine:

        http://recursed.blogspot.com.au/

        • Posted January 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

          I think John Allen Paulos did some of that at one point on a blog somewhere.

      • Carl W
        Posted April 30, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

        Not sure if anybody is still reading comments on this very old post… but I’m guessing you’re talking about Mark Chu-Carroll (MarkCC) and his “Good Math, Bad Math” blog (currently at http://scientopia.org/blogs/goodmath/).

  18. Ludo
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Interesting that all religions show this tendency towards diversification – is that not an interesting parallel with evolution?

    • mandrellian
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      Certainly is, but religious evolution is driven by artificial selection.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted January 27, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Not sure about that claim; natural selection always operates on memes as well as genes, and there are few people with the power or interest to selectively breed or exterminate whole religious communities. Not that it hasn’t been tried, but tends to be frowned on and ultimately self-defeating.

  19. Kevin
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    If theology has eliminated most of the false alternatives, why is there more than one translation of the bible?

    He’s probably a KJV-believing whack job. Which means he knows there are many, many other translations, but that they’re wrong.

    Seems to me his thesis is kinda blown out of the water simply by logging onto Bible Gateway.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      It’s theology that we have to thank for most of the (obviously) false alternatives in the first place. How anyone could arrive at the conclusion that theology has eliminated any is quite beyond me.

  20. John K.
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Its thesis is that science and theology are not only compatible methods of inquiry, but the same method of inquiry. They are said to use precisely the same methods to find truth.

    Don’t you hate it when the “same methods to find truth” yield different and contradictory answers? I know I do. Actually, I don’t, because that is impossible.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      If you use science on theology, then theology is WRONG. It’s a bad hypothesis.

      They don’t really want to compare science and theology as being similar. They want to separate them as if they were different sciences, like chemistry and biology.

  21. peter
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Jerry: “When you open the book and see all the symbolic logic and equations, you know you’re in for a grueling and unrewarding read, for symbolic logic is what religious accommodationists use when they’ve run out of arguments.”

    OK, Jerry, “gruelling and unrewarding” I’m sure, and quite likely nonsensical or at least formally incorrect, and at the very least total nonsense when it comes to converting formal logic into something meaningful. But on the other hand, I must reiterate that, in the hands of mathematicians mostly, but unfortunately not so often of philosophers, modern logic has had formal results converted into very significantly meaningful things a number of times (and I’m sure not including the “Ontological Argument in that!). This has come up here occasionally and I won’t reiterate.
    I know you didn’t dispute it, and probably did not intend to impugn logic as a discipline, but felt impelled to point that out.

    (I’ll be ‘familiar’ and use your first name now, only having been made aware a few days ago that you prefer not to be called by the last name. That sort of thing is cultural, as it seems likely to me that at least in a seminar in a department comparable in status to yours (say, Cambridge), I’d suspect that last name use even among friends is common! But this is a blog—oops! no, a webpage, and you’re the host, and I’m perfectly comfortable using the first name even if we’ll likely never meet.)

    Moreland: “…theology and especially philosophy tend to operate a higher levels of generality than does science. So, in general, we should not expect theology or philosophy to progress as science does.”

    Perhaps minor, but it seems to me that cosmology/particle physics operates at a higher level of generality than, say, vulcanology, and yet the former could be argued to have made more progress than the latter, surely. (And somebody should explain the latter to a certain Italian magistrate!)

  22. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    If religion and/or theology were working towards some common truth of the world you would expect convergence of faiths/religions/sects. Same with theologies. Same with philosophies.

    Some unfashionable stuff may have been cast aside, but I don’t see any convergence.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Religion and theology are today working towards one common converging agreement: “hey, let’s all go after the atheists!”

  23. Daniel Murphy
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    The simple diagram effectively illustrates the lack of progress of religion(s) with regard to reaching agreement on, well, on just about anything.

    But in showing a single “early Christianity” dividing into competing orthodoxies, the schematic obscures another important difference between religion and science. There were in fact many “early Christianities.” The question of which one was “true” was decided by politically connected so-called experts, imposed by authoritarian decree, and enforced over the years by execution, imprisonment, and torture, or the no less effective policies of shunning and exclusion from whatever political rights were enjoyed by those who professed to believe the current local orthodoxy.

    No Pope of Science demands and enforces obeisance to any One True Belief. Scientific hypotheses thrive or fail because they do or do not prove to be useful models of reality. Unlike religion, science welcomes challenges to currently dominant views, and the ultimate penalty for holding to counterevidentiary views is mere and mild irrelevance, which has turned out to be a much more effective method of weeding out competing theories than all of religion’s appeals to authority and enforced orthodoxy.

  24. coconnor1017
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    His argument for the strength of theology due to its stasis is built on an equivocation. He defines progress to mean new information upsetting the old, rather than closure on questions still being debated. His bias for a particular god would not find agreement to even a Christian of the Roman Rite so the victory claimed in terms of “progress” is phony.

  25. Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    aww, and I just had a Christian tell me that god is still ever so un-understandable and that’s why genocide is a good thing.

    • raven
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Still a Sky Monster then?

      It’s so nice that the old religions are still around. It’s even nicer that we don’t let them run around doing what they used to do, killing people.

  26. Jim Thomerson
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Thomas Kuhn argues that science is the only progressive human activity. I think that is largely true. He thinks science is progressive because scientists share a paradigm. I don’t completely buy his argument, but anyone saying that another human activity is progressive should take note of it.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      The “paradigm” scientists share is basically a commitment to seek truth by minimizing individual biases and divisions as much as possible. This would include divisions like religion. There is no Christian or Islamic or pagan science: there is only humanity and science.

      Any world view can be (or claim to be) consistent within its own group’s “paradigm.” Being provincial and subjective can win a perfect consensus the easy way: throw out all dissenting facts or all dissenters. Instant harmony!

      A method which instead aims at universality and objectivity isn’t the same sort of “paradigm.” I’ve seen too many people try to use (or misuse) Kuhn to say that it is — and thus all views are equivalent and can only be judged from within.

  27. Another Matt
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I “highly” “recommend” Moreland’s book “Scaling the Secular City,” from the 1980s, if you want a compendium of nearly all of William Lane Craig’s debate topics. It’s almost all there!

  28. Neil
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    “There is, of course, no schism like this in science, which would be pretty much a straight line.”

    I’d argue that this schematic, and the corresponding one for science, demonstrate that there really are “different ways of knowing”: converging on reality vs. creating fragmented, fictitious, wish-filled realities (i.e., science would be represented by a branching tree that runs the other direction, with competing ideas being swallowed up and merging towards understood and testable “truths” about the observable universe)

    Glad we’re now in a position to demonstrate their lack of equivalence with a schematic…most people just look at the figures, anyway.

    • gbjames
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the science-tree is different in its orientation (merging towards a trunk) as much as a different kind of tree entirely. The science tree is one that has branches that reflect specialization due to the limits of human beings to deal with so much information. But none of the branches represent ALTERNATE versions of reality. None is there to delegitimize other branches. The religion tree is different because it represents fragmentation of imaginary representations of reality. Every one claims to be exclusively true and the others false in one way or another.

      • Neil
        Posted January 24, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        I see what you’re saying, but, to be clear, the analogy isn’t that all of science is represented by a single tree but that the specialized areas of science are trees themselves, converging on a higher degree of confidence in knowledge by trimming away failed hypotheses (or even theories), whereby a hypothesis (or theory) is a proposed version/framework of reality with parts that may or may not last the test of time. There really isn’t a simple tree that represents science as a whole b/c of the overlap between fields. For example, imagine the once-championed idea of ether to explain forces acting at a distance as a branch within a tree of physics, and I think you’ll see what I was driving at in my first post. I was saying it was a totally different tree (as you say), because of the fact that it’s flipped around.

        • gbjames
          Posted January 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

          I suppose it depends on what the metaphor is supposed to be describing. If we are comparing to religion’s fragmenting sects, then we should be thinking of scientific disciplines in comparison. If we’re thinking in terms of hypotheses and theories that grow or get “trimmed” (I’d favor the notion of twigs and branches dying off) then it is harder (for me) to map over to religion where you can just make shit up. (hey, where did _that_ twig come from?)

  29. gluonspring
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I’d argue that there are schisms in science but they don’t last very long. They’d look like bubbles in a plot like this, a branch which, after some more evidence is accumulated, merges back into a single line. This might even be taken as something like a defining quality of science. If a field has schisms that persist beyond a certain period of time it begins to call into question whether or not the field is actually a science.

  30. Posted January 24, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    At the risk of being a bit facetious, I will point that the folks who edit the Urban Dictionary might have hit upon the correct subject matter of theology, in their definition of “God”:

    God
    An entity whose opinions on the consumption of pork has been a matter of hot debate amongst the world’s religions.

  31. Sastra
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    The slow progress in philosophy and theology may indicate not that they are less rational than science—that is, that they have progressed less toward truth—but that they are more rational. Why? Because the slow progress could be an effect of their already having eliminated proportionately more false options in their spheres of study than science has eliminated in its. If this is true, it means that they have already come closer to a full, well-rounded true world view than science has come.

    Oh, where to begin?

    Ok, first of all, religion and philosophy should not be lumped together. Religious philosophy (theology) is a type of philosophy. It’s what happens when you use the premise that “God exists.”

    Second, Moreland’s description here only works if you see the “progress” of theology as the journey of ONE thread of understanding God: the believer’s own. Thus, all the theological “options” which have been eliminated over time are all the faith and mystical beliefs which one particular selected religion has rejected in order to arrive at where it is today. The “rejects” are heresies and false faiths and phony prophets and heathen distortions and wrong interpretations which are not loved or endorsed by the God the reader believes in.

    Big deal. That’s not “progress towards truth through hard-won consensus.” That’s “trace my own religion backwards and you can see where all the other people went wrong.”

    In science, you have to take your cherished hypothesis to critics, open it up, and let them find errors. If they do, you change your mind.

    In religion, you gaze at your critics from afar and shake your head over them, hugging your cherished hypothesis tightly to your bosom. Oh, if only they would change their hearts and renounce their errors!

  32. Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    If science and theology are the same method of inquiry, and scientism is a bad thing, then surely that means…

    • Sastra
      Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      … then surely that means that scientism is when you DON’T believe that science and theology are the same method of inquiry.

  33. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Theology certainly has not eliminated false alternatives. Polytheism, for example, is routinely asserted to be disproved, but the arguments against it (and supporting the alternative, monotheism) are ridiculously bad.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    The simpler hypothesis is that theology, like its kin astrology, never progressed to facts.

    And the observed splits tests this well, nice observation.

    Its thesis is that science and theology are not only compatible methods of inquiry, but the same method of inquiry. They are said to use precisely the same methods to find truth.

    The book also attacks scientism (on no good grounds),

    They are the same method, so Moreland attacks the concerted use of the method!? I think Moreland has some problems with basic logic.

  35. Ian J.
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The assertions by most people in the theological sphere that religion and/or mythology are attempting to truthfully reveal the external world (i.e., that theology explains reality) are what make it so confusing to everyone in the first place. How can anyone reconcile so many different theories about how our universe is composed, or who/what rules over it?

    Hence, why we turned to science in the first place. We must be able to prove or disprove the ideas put forth as truth. Otherwise, we hand ideas down from generation to generation with an attitude of, “it’s true because I say it’s true.” Add to that mythology mixed with historical accounts and moral strictures of the day, and it’s no wonder theology has stagnated.

    If science went the way of religion, we’d be touting old and/or unproven theories as absolute fact, e.g., “I believe in the Gallagher Melon Theory of the Universe! (totally made up) You can’t prove me wrong because I know it’s right! This knowledge has been passed down for centuries! And I just feel it, OK?!” And on and on…

  36. Miles_Teg
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about WLC. Whatt’s odious about him?

  37. W.Benson
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Sophisticated Highly Intellectualized Theology is really deep stuff.

  38. laconicsax
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    The Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary puts a lower bound on the number of Christian denominations above 43,000.

    http://www.gordonconwell.edu/resources/documents/StatusOfGlobalMission.pdf

  39. Mark
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know much about WLC. Whatt’s odious about him?

    His sophistry for one. His rationalisation of genocide, his atrocious comments on the Sandy Hook massacre.

    And his plain dishonesty. Here is an example:

    Here is what he says in a debate with Sam Harris about hell:
    “Honestly, that just simply shows how poorly Sam Harris understands Christianity. You don’t believe in God to avoid going to Hell. Belief in God isn’t some kind of fire insurance. You believe in God because God, as the supreme Good, is the appropriate object of adoration and love.</b? He is Goodness itself, to be desired for its own sake. And so the fulfillment of human existence is to be found in relation to God. It’s because of who God is and his moral worth that he is worthy of worship. It has nothing to do with avoiding Hell, or promoting your own well-being."

    Contrast this to a recent podcast where he openly admits that fear of hell was a major factor in his embracing of Christianity, and that it is perfectly legitimate that many people come to Christ through this same fear of hell, rather than the love of Christ (from 20:50 to 22:00)
    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/rob-bell-and-hell

    So Craig obviously massages his message to suit the audience.

  40. Cremnomaniac
    Posted January 24, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    “It takes real chutzpah for a person like Moreland to claim that theology has eliminated most of the false alternatives.”

    I wouldn’t say chutzpah. I would say simply deluded. There is no argument from religion that can have any credibility. Those arguments are based on false beliefs, leading to erroneous assumptions and absolutely ridiculous conclusions. Its all false! To think that a person who argues for truth of religion is bold simply misses the point. If they are already so deluded, then it would be absurd to think they have any clue about the veracity of their argument.

  41. Tim Milburn
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    There is a video on Youtube of J. P. Moreland saying that angels come to his lectures.

    Do Angels and Demons Exist?

  42. Minister
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    you make the world a better place, if for no other reason than you read this kind of crap so the rest of us don’t have to. live long and prosper

  43. Posted February 6, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.
    - Thomas Paine


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] was reading a post recently by New Atheist Jerry Coyne criticizing a book by philosopher J. P. Moreland called Christianity and the Nature of Science. I [...]

  2. [...] was asked to provide a response to Jerry Coyne’s essay “A sophisticated theologian explains why theology doesn’t progress.” In the essay Coyne focuses on mocking J.P. Moreland for a book he wrote back in 1989 on the [...]

  3. [...] was reading a post recently by New Atheist Jerry Coyne criticizing a book by philosopher J. P. Moreland called Christianity and the Nature of Science. I [...]

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