Book Review Essay: Proof of DivineNov 15th, 2013 | By Mike Schwartz | Category: Essays, Lead Article
It’s probably not necessary. In recent years, there has been a growing literature attempting to demonstrate the compatibility of modern rational methods of understanding with faith-based methods. The literature is largely a product of faith-based authors; some of whom are scientists with a desire to legitimize faith thinking within a world dominated by modern rational thinking. These endeavors are destined to fail, but hope is not lost since they are not necessary to increase the confidence in a faith metaphysic.
Demonstrating that the two ways of thinking are compatible is destined to fail because one can never remedy the fundamental difference in the basic epistemologies of the two approaches. The faith-based approach is based on a few grand axioms. First, there is a god. Second, he is benevolent. Third, he is the creator of the universe and is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Although not always claimed by the faith-based community, the knowledge of these things originates in our intuition and is in our nature. The axioms come from within and are self-evident. In fact, this is the kind of explanation that some of the great philosophers have offered. Kant suggests that all questions of metaphysics are known intuitively and beyond the scope of reason. Descartes seems to offer a proof of god which is based on intuition and the recognition of one’s mind. All knowledge using a faith-based epistemology either directly relies on these intuitively-derived axioms or when logical anomalies, contradictions, or roadblocks occur, the method always returns to these axioms for salvation. The method proceeds by collecting evidence to support these axioms or any postulate that can be derived from them but returns to their unquestionable veracity when counter-evidence is discovered. This is the method of a faith-based epistemology.
The modern rational approach is very different. This approach uses a combination of observation and induction and deduction to produce knowledge. Modern rational thinkers, knowing that there are limits to the ability of empirical observations to produce certainty, consider counter-evidence critical to their (especially scientific) method. That is, we can never build certainty by observing patterns; we are required to search for counter-evidence that dismisses our initial belief (especially true since Popper). The more we search and critically dismiss the counter-evidence, the stronger is our commitment to the initial belief; even though absolute certainty can never be obtained. Unlike faith, certainty is not a slam-dunk or a given. This is the method of a modern rational epistemology.
Although the same knowledge (content) may be produced using the two epistemologies independently; it is also true that they shall never lay down together. They are two different methods, not necessarily two different contents. That is why the goal of a synthesis can never be successful. However, it is true that many individuals can embrace both methods in their lives, but never at the same time.
That is the reason why a plan to synthesize will ultimately fail; but why should the attempt be considered unnecessary? To understand this, it is important to distinguish between the two universes of content addressed by this literature. The first concerns metaphysics and the second concerns the potentially observable physical world in which we live (the sub-metaphysical). It is with respect to metaphysics, that the task is unnecessary. So let’s address it.
Metaphysics is concerned with the ultimate questions of cosmology and ontology. These are questions like: How did the universe begin?, Where does the universe end?, and What is the nature of man? These are questions for which each approach has provided answers, but for which neither has done so successfully. Surprisingly, it is for the same reason that the two methods fail. Taking a hint from Kant, we, as humans, can only come to know things when they are defined by time and space and can only make sense of things if they have a cause. Ideas like “before time”, “before the beginning”, “when there was nothing”, or “it just began” are beyond our capability of reason. Consequently, a general theory of relativity can never really be appreciated by those who don’t bracket away normal human reasoning. Nor can the big bang answer the ultimate cosmological question or address what existed before the big bang. Modern reason and science is incapable of resolving the grand questions of cosmology and ontology, because it cannot ignore the human limitations of knowing. The same can be said for faith-based approaches, despite the fact that such an approach claims certainty. What was there before god? Can I really comprehend god as the beginning or do I have to accept it on faith? It is not inadequacies in the two methods that result in the failure to produce a metaphysic of certainty, but inadequacies in the human capacity to know these things.
Consequently, the claim can be made that there is no reason to synthesize the two approaches for the purpose of metaphysics, since it accomplishes nothing. For the faith-based who have embraced the task of synthesis, my advice is to relax and just be happy. The endeavor will not strengthen your philosophical position. Although, I suspect that the reason for the endeavor is less motivated by a philosophical exegesis and more motivated by a broader evangelical agenda or, alternatively, a quest to gain more comfort in the author’s personal beliefs.
With respect to knowledge of the physical world, i.e. sub-metaphysical knowledge, the scenario is a bit more complex. The two epistemologies can often butt heads over more immediate and proximate matters. In recent years, the conflict between intelligent design proponents (nee creationists) and science proponents is a good example. Unlike metaphysics, it is difficult to argue that a synthesis is unnecessary for the faith-based with respect to these matters, since the field on which this conflict is played is one defined by rational methods of understanding—that is, on the field of law and modern rational institutions. Consequently, the faith-based have adopted a strategy of inventive intellectual gymnastics in an attempt to compete on that field. Unfortunately, in the case of the battle over evolution, they have often done so with deceptive intentions. These dubious strategies are required because a true synthesis of faith-based postulates with scientific methods is not possible. It is with sub-metaphysical matters that the Christian bible becomes the ultimate authority. Unfortunately, since the game is being played on a rational playing field, it requires biblical beliefs to be justified using modern rational methods, not faith-based methods. This is an endeavor guaranteed to fail.
This review has made the claim that a synthesis of the two epistemologies is not necessary for metaphysical questions. For the few readers who have made it this far, the following question has probably occupied your thoughts, “Is the somewhat annoying exposition above really necessary? After all, you claimed that this essay is a book review?” So let’s proceed on to Proof of Divine and see if the exposition above helps in an understanding of that work.
Proof of Divine is an enjoyable read. One feels a sense of sincerity and joy emanating from the pages of the book and that is pleasant. Because of that, the reader develops an affinity for Mr. Murtagh and is happy to take this journey with him. The title, Proof of Divine: One Man’s Journey from Doubt to Faith, Hope, and Love, may suggest two different intentions for the book. First, it may suggest a work of philosophy attempting to, in fact, prove the divine. Second, it may suggest an autobiographical essay of a man’s journey to faith. I suspect Mr. Murtagh intended it to be both and the text seems to indicate that. The first objective is a bit ambitious for anyone and, not surprisingly, the book does poorly on that account. It is better to read the book with expectations of the second intention. On this account, the book is an enjoyable story well-told.
Perhaps, Mr. Mutragh had another intention(s) for this book. Perhaps, intentions not fully realized by him. It was claimed in the exposition above that works of this sort, “…. (are) less motivated by a philosophical exegesis and more motivated by a broader evangelical agenda or, alternatively, a quest to gain more comfort in one’s own personal beliefs.” I suspect both of these were motivations for this book. Since the book provides a narrative of the journey to faith that is both intuitive and appealing; it may be successful as a work of evangelism, especially for those readers who are seeking such and who do not read the text with philosophical doubt. The writing of the book likely helped Mr. Murtagh deal with his lingering doubts and assist his faith logic to trump those doubts. Of course, that is a question that only he can answer.
Mr. Murtagh poses three metaphysical questions that guide his search for faith: “(1) Did God create the universe, or is it naturally occurring?, 2) If the universe was created, is this a personal God?, (and) 3) If this is a personal God, what is His character and interest in us?” We have contended that these questions cannot be answered with certainty.
Mr. Murtagh’s exploration of these questions can best be described as using a faith-based epistemological method with a generous peppering of biology and physics in the discussion. In general, his method was one that gathered evidence for foregone conclusions and “ignored” critical counter-evidence. Although he discusses the questions that are responsible for the doubt in his faith, it is not clear that he gives them the weight and counter-evidence status that a modern rational method requires.
Some of his arguments are stronger than others. For example, he offers an exposition of the inability for science to explain a first cause and, when accompanied by a recognition of the complexity of the universe, leads him to accept the proposition that god created the universe. He peppers that argument with selected faith quotes from scientists, ostensibly to aid in the support of such a proposition within the house of science. He extends a similar argument to life on earth. The latter argument is remarkably similar to ones used by creationists in their attempt to gain traction in the science curricula of public schools. He also frames the discussion with the long discarded concepts of microevolution and macroevolution. Concepts that help move the creationist agenda along in the face of easily observable evolutionary processes. The method of garnering evidence consistent with a conclusion can often be intuitively appealing and attractive, but is not a method of science; rather it is a method of faith and rhetoric. Of course the strength and weakness of his arguments needs to be evaluated within the context of their purpose. As scientific or philosophical arguments, they will generally be considered weak; as evangelical or self-affirming arguments they can be considered much stronger.
The book also includes an extended discussion of the divinity of Jesus and his resurrection using eyewitness accounts to support biblical claims. There is also some discussion of the impossibility of morality without a god (a contention that is a bit unfair and hurried) and additional discussions of the veracity of biblical claims.
In the final analysis, Mr. Murtagh claims to have continual doubt and a desire to keep reflecting on the questions he poses in the book. He seems to embrace that prospect with some delight: “I just decided not to let doubt and despair sit only on the side of God’s existence. I will let them permeate the whole, wandering freely back and forth, between belief and skepticism. I will welcome the war with open arms. The battle rages on, but I continue to find doubt and despair more on the side where god is absent. They are certainly present on the side of God’s existence, but in summation, the collective voice—faith, hope, and love—is much bigger.” I suspect as his doubt attempts to be resolved, the epistemological method that he uses to explore it will largely guide his journey.