Tuesday, October 13, 2015

How to (really) think about metaphysics

Today I was visiting some of the blogs I frequent and I stopped by the blog Atheism and the City, authored by a frequent commenter at my blog who goes by the name “The Thinker”.  He has just posted a review of Chapter 3 of Edward Feser’s book The Last Superstition. There is much to quibble with in Thinker’s post, but I’ll save an attempted refutation of his arguments for another day. My main focus here is regarding his comments on metaphysics and scientism.  I’ve gone on ad nauseum on this blog about the importance of metaphysics, and the falsity and self-refutation of scientism (see here),  but Thinker presents a different spin on this issue—a view he calls “weak scientism”—and therefore I felt the need to point out its falsity, thereby tossing it in the trash-bin with the other failed metaphysical frameworks.

Thinker begins to articulate his thoughts on weak scientism:
 I hold to what is sometimes called "weak scientism." Unlike strong scientism, which says that "the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society," weak scientism says that the natural sciences are given a privileged status over metaphysics and logic and all other methods of derived knowledge, but it stops short of saying that science and logic are the "only" ways of yielding true knowledge.
It’s hard to say exactly what Thinker means by the natural sciences entertaining a “privileged status” over metaphysics and logic. Perhaps he means that the natural sciences are more genuine and pure methods for attaining knowledge of reality. It is certainly true that the natural sciences have illumined the majority of beliefs and knowledge that we have about how the natural world behaves. But does this give one warrant to claim that science therefore entertains a privileged status for gaining knowledge about reality, over and above metaphysics? I don’t see how. For, as I’ve argued before, science tells us how the world behaves, but it does not, and cannot, tell us why—only metaphysics can hope to do this. Science might be able to tell us about the four forces of nature, for example, but it cannot tell us why those forces obtain at all as opposed to others. So I fail to see how science should be given a privileged status regarding methods of inquiry above methods like metaphysics.

The Thinker continues:
Furthermore, I apply this privileged status of science mostly when entertaining questions regarding ontology, such as the fundamental nature of reality—for which science is our most reliable epistemology, contrary to what Feser says.
So now Thinker says that science seems to be our most reliable guide for answering questions regarding the fundamental nature of reality. Again, this presents a couple problems. First, science by itself does not have the tools to comment on the fundamental nature of reality. This might seem like an arrogant statement against science, but it’s the truth. Scientific law only describes what already exists and how it behaves. But simply describing what already exists is purely abstract, in that it doesn’t actually enlighten us to the intrinsic nature of what it’s describing. So science simply doesn’t cut deep enough to penetrate the fundamental nature of reality.

Second, the natural sciences necessarily describe only the natural world. Therefore, if there were other aspects of reality, science could not enlighten us one way or another regarding their behavior. In fact, even if there exists no supernatural aspects of reality, science could likewise not comment on its non-behavior. The point is that science is completely silent on the question of what comprises the set of reality and being. To construct my point in another fashion, the description of a set of elements is not sufficient to conclude that only the set exists. Something else would be needed to ground this proposition, and it couldn’t be a mere description of a set’s behavior.

Let’s move on:
No logician could ever derive the physics of quantum mechanics from the laws of logic, or from metaphysics. Only empirical evidence could enlighten us to such phenomena, and the universe is ultimately quantum mechanical in nature.
Thinker continues to make the similar mistakes here. First, I agree that science, and only science, enlightens us to the physics of quantum mechanics and general relativity etc. But nobody ever said that metaphysics was the method of inquiry that should have done this. You see, science uncovers the physical contingencies of the universe that can be repeated and predicted using abstract mathematical equations—equations that could have been different. But, metaphysics enlightens us to the necessities of the universe, and anything that could or would exist. It tells us the ontology of causality, identity, first principles, time and free will etc. So, to once again engage in chest-thumping on behalf of science because of its discoveries of the physical contingencies of the world is simply misplaced here, since metaphysics wasn’t attempting to do this in the first place. It’s like a basketball player praising his dunking ability, while playing soccer. Metaphysics tells us the fundamental nature of reality, and science tells us how this reality happens to behave. The latter is not equivalent to the former.

Second, Thinker shoots himself in the foot here with his last statement about the universe being quantum mechanical in nature. How does he know the universe is entirely quantum mechanical in nature? Well quantum mechanics cannot tell him this, since, to reiterate, QM is only a description of sub-atomically existing matter. How does he know this description constitutes the fundamental nature of reality? Even if he has an answer to this question, it will not be given to him by QM. He will have to have some other fulcrum to lay this proposition upon. And this goes for any set of natural sciences you want to erect as the end-all be-all description of reality. A description of a set simply will not be sufficient for concluding that only what’s in the set is what exists, or that the set does not have an aspect of its nature not captured by the original description. The Thinker’s attempt, then, to ground weak scientism seems to have failed.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Apocalyptic Jesus (Part II): The imminent kingdom of God

Let us continue with our series which attempts to highlight the imminent eschatology of Jesus (part I here), an eschatology we would label as apocalyptic. In the previous post I highlighted how important it is to interpret the ministry of Jesus against the backdrop of the worldview of second temple Judaism, and how this worldview shaped and catalyzed the apocalyptic framework. This will be important to keep at the forefront as we, in this post, delve into another focal point of Jesus ministry: the Kingdom of God.

To those familiar with the New Testament it should come as no surprise to hear that Jesus’ ministry was organized around and predicated on the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of this Kingdom probably more often than he spoke of anything else. In fact, in the book of Matthew alone the phrase “kingdom of God” (or kingdom of Heaven) is used thirty-seven times, while it is used thirty-two times in Luke’s Gospel! In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus famously asked for “Thy Kingdom come.” Scholar Craig Keener notes that “virtually every stratum of Gospel tradition testifies that Jesus regularly announced the kingdom, there should be no doubt that this was a characteristic emphasis of Jesus teaching.” In the same vein,  secular historian Michael Grant claims the following in his book Jesus:
[E]very thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing […] the realization of the Kingdom of God  upon the earth[…] This one phrase sums up his whole ministry and his whole life’s work. (p. 10-11)

So it’s clear then, Jesus’ ministry was about one general focal point: the kingdom of God. But what exactly was meant by this phrase? Was it metaphorical or literal? Christians these days interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” as meaning a Christian lifestyle of love, or some interpret it as world evangelization. But in order to find out what Jesus meant by the phrase we need to understand how it was used in second temple Judaism.

In The Historical Jesus of the Gospels Craig Keener claims that in Jesus’ time the phrase “kingdom” signified the concept of “rule”, “reign”, or “authority” (p. 196).  Again, Michael Grant, in agreement with Keener, claims that “the Hebrew term [kingdom] refers not so much to a realm as to the dynamic kingly rule and sovereign action of God.” (p. 15) So, the kingdom of God seems to represent God’s sovereign rule and reign. To quote Keener again, “When Jewish people prayed for God’s kingdom to ‘come,’ they weren’t simply invoking God’s mystical presence among them for the present time; they were praying for God’s future reign to come.” (p. 198)

Moreover, we can survey Jewish texts in the second temple Judaic period and see how they used the phrase “kingdom of God.” The Kaddish prayer states the following: “May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and at a near time.” In the Testament of Moses 10:1 it says that “[God’s] kingdom shall appear throughout his creation, and Satan shall be no more[.]” And from the Dead Sea Scrolls 4Q246 it states the following: “His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom and all his ways in truth. He will judge the earth in truth and all will make peace. The sword will cease from the earth and all provinces will worship him[.]” These uses of kingdom surely seem to imply the reign, rule and authority of God.

Thus, the phrase “kingdom of God” seems most plausibly to be conceived as the restoration of God’s rule and authority as seen through the Davidic Kingdom, brought about by divine intervention ( see part I).  Again, this is what was expected by most Jews and it makes perfect sense to interpret Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom” in this vein—any other interpretation only strains credulity and is anachronistic.  For, as the Jews believed, God’s authority obviously was not being exercised in second temple Judaism since the Jews were still being oppressed. But, His rule was soon to come, and his Kingdom would be established once and for all. At least this is what Jesus and many Jews believed.

This brings us to Jesus actual statements about the kingdom, and exactly how close he believed God’s rule was to being realized:
The kingdom of God has come near you. Luke 10:9
Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power. Mark 9:1
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.  Mark 1:15
You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Luke 12:40
Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Mark 13:30
And will God not grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. Luke 18:7-8
Obviously this is the tip of the iceberg. Anyone who’s ever cracked open the New Testament will see phrases of this kind peppered throughout. The point is that Jesus believed God’s intervention, which aimed at establishing his kingdom once and for all was right around the corner. So close in fact that his disciples wouldn’t even die before it happened. So close that Jesus’ own ministry was the first fruits of the ushering of this kingdom. This is apocalypticism, plain and simple.

But this line of thought can be taken even further, and can illuminate further elements of Jesus’ ministry. Think of some of Jesus’ extreme commands in the vein of asceticism: Taking no thought or concern for subsequent days.   To make oneself a eunuch for the kingdom’s sake. A lack of concern for material things, including personal possessions and even shelter. Jesus’ willingness to die etc. (This asceticism is also illuminated in Paul when he told the churches not to marry.) It should be obvious from reading the Gospels that Jesus kept a general distance from the way normal society took its course. He simply didn’t care about what most Jews and Romans cared about. And why should he have, since he believed the world was about to end due to God’s intervention. Why care about possessions if they won’t be important any longer? Why care about what’s going to happen tomorrow, since tomorrow might not come at all? Why care about your family or marrying a woman if such things won’t matter when God intervenes? This point is driven home in Karl Frank’s book With Greater Liberty when he states that “the conviction that the end of the world was near always fostered asceticism.” (p. 30) It should be obvious that this ascetic outlook fits like a glove with an apocalyptic worldview, and therefore gives us more reason to regard Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.

Thus, we see that Jesus’ ministry rested on the fulcrum of the kingdom of God. Yet we’ve seen that in second temple Judaism the kingdom of God represented God’s eventual intervention which would establish once and for all his sovereign authority. And we’ve seen that Jesus made statements that explicitly state that this intervention was right around the corner and would happen within the lifetime of his disciples. Lastly, we saw that Jesus’ indifference to the common matters of the world makes perfect sense under the condition that Jesus believed the world would be ending soon. Everywhere we turn, the apocalyptic framework makes perfect sense when predicated of Jesus’ ministry.