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Only Two Scenarios?

It seems like every time I walk into a bookstore these days there are a handful of new books on the shelf, confidently explaining how science has shown this or that religious understanding of the world to be unfounded/misguided/false/naive, etc.  The obvious response to such claims—and one that is frequently made—is to question just how it is that science could “prove” or disprove anything about an overall worldview within which science is located.  

Edward T. Oakes makes this point, among others, in an interesting article about science, theism, atheism, and  over at First Things called “Atheism’s Just So Scenarios.”  According to Oakes, we humans crave an “overarching story within which to order our facts.”  Science cannot provide this overarching narrative; rather, it has to be slotted into one of two options:

It seems to me that only two truly overarching scenarios exist to explain how science as a human activity fits into the world. Moreover, each one is by definition impossible to verify by science, since it is science that is seeking admission into the overarching scenario, rather than providing its own. These two narrative frames are: the biblical one of linear time culminating in an eschaton directed by God’s providence, and Nietzsche’s scenario of pointless humans weaving their scenarios against an unfeeling universe….

The battle is still between nihilism and theism. There is no third option.

Is Oakes right about this?  Are there other options?  Thoughts?

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. He might be oversimplifying, but yes, he is basically right. Especially “Moreover, each one is by definition impossible to verify by science, since it is science that is seeking admission into the overarching scenario, rather than providing its own.”

    June 2, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I don’t think he is right.

    I think when the claim is made that science shows that there is no God it means that the success of science supports the conclusion that the metaphor “chance and necessity” is sufficient to explain observed phenomena. God is an unnecessary hypothesis.

    When the claim is made that religion is “unfounded/misguided/false/naive,” I think there is an anti-religious sentiment at work that goes beyond the claim that God is an unnecessary hypothesis.

    Even though there are philosophical problems with positivist claims about science and truth, the suspicion that Nietzsche and Darwin are right is not without grounds (although I would not summarize Nietzsche’s remarks in the crude way of Oakes.)

    I think an alternative to nihilism and theism is religious naturalism.

    June 2, 2010
    • Like James, I find religious naturalism puzzling. How do you see it as representing a third option here?

      I think when the claim is made that science shows that there is no God it means that the success of science supports the conclusion that the metaphor “chance and necessity” is sufficient to explain observed phenomena. God is an unnecessary hypothesis.

      Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that “chance and necessity” is sufficient to explain observed phenomena, it does not follow that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. It is not just “observed phenomena” that require explanation, after all.

      June 2, 2010
      • Ken #

        I am just observing that it is a third option, one that embraces the “reality” that Darwin described, the “reality” that Nietzsche believed leads inevitably to nihilism. In nature writings that reflect a religious naturalist position I don’t see nihilism. Instead I see in religious naturalist writings a kind of peace and joy associated with being part of wondrous nature. I don’t mean to present a defense, only to report what I see (because it contradicts Oakes.)

        Re: “Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that “chance and necessity” is sufficient to explain observed phenomena, it does not follow that God is an unnecessary hypothesis. It is not just “observed phenomena” that require explanation, after all.”

        Here I was only trying to state the naturalist position in a fairer, less polemical, way than Oakes did. There are those like Dawkins who persist in positivist claims about science and truth in spite of its philosophical problems, but I find this to be far from universal among naturalists.

        As I wrote above, even though there are philosophical problems with positivist claims about science and truth, the suspicion that Nietzsche and Darwin are right is not without grounds. Religious naturalism encompasses that suspicion, rather than logical positivism.

        Of course, “religious naturalism” is not just one thing, but a cluster of religious beliefs in which there is much variation. One religion scholar in Florida (whose name I cannot remember right now) uses the expression “dark green religion” for this cluster.

        To understand religious naturalisms I think it is better to see them as narratives rather than as logical arguments.

        For better or worse, I think that Christians are assimilating the religious naturalist narratives, just as our ancestors assimilated Greek philosophy. Certainly western culture is assimilating it.

        June 2, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        To me it seems that you use logic to deconstruct a Christian cosmology [ie Darwin and chance render God logically unnecessary] but then appeal to arguments that transcend logic in your defense of religious naturalism. I don’t think you can have it both ways. A logical hypothesis for the “peace and joy” that naturalists experience can easily be that they are content to be deluded rather than face the logical conclusions of Darwin/chance driven world view [you may recognize that as a version of Marx’s “opiate of the people” hypothesis].
        If you grant that logic is not sufficient to deconstruct a position [ie Christian theism] then what would your argument against it be?
        I tend to agree with your narrative approach when assessing naturalism but then the same test should be applied to the Biblical narrative. We know how syllogisims do battle- but how do narratives compete?

        June 2, 2010
    • Ken #

      The paragraph above that includes the phrase “God is unnecessary” was intended only to clarify, not defend, the claim that some make that science proves there is no God.

      Ryan’s questions were: “Is Oakes right about this? Are there other options? Thoughts?

      My thoughts are: Oaks is wrong. There are other options. Religious naturalism is an example of another option. Naturalism does not necessarily lead to nihilism, in spite of the still valuable insights offered by the writings of Nietzsche. Right or wrong, delusions or not, those are my thoughts.

      June 3, 2010
      • I guess the question would be, why is Oakes wrong? How does religious naturalism avoid nihilism?

        June 3, 2010
      • Ken #

        First, let me say that I am referring here to an impression that I get from reading nature writing – that it is not theistic, and not nihilistic – rather than to anyone’s systematic presentation of it or argument that it is not.

        I think it avoids nihilism by seeing humanity as part of wondrous whole, as part of nature. In that is the source of meaning in religious naturalism. At the same time, I don’t think religious naturalism is a quest for meaning.

        I would say Oakes is wrong because religious naturalism is not theistic and not nihilistic.

        June 3, 2010
      • James #

        I agree that naturalism does avoid nihilism- the question is- is that avoidance merely a modern version of “the opiate of the idealists”. You seem to think it is not. I have a hard time coming to any other conclusion than that it is.

        June 3, 2010
  3. James #

    Your question does bring the old debate back to the table, Ryan. I agree that this is a simplification but IMO an appropriate one.
    Ken’s response that “the success of science supports the conclusion that the metaphor ‘chance and necessity [?]’ is sufficient to explain observed phenomena” and that therefore “God is an unnecessary hypothesis” calls for the classic response- It does not follow that, the fact that chance is sufficient for a monkey on a typewriter, given eternity, to reproduce The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, that chance is a worthy hypothesis for life as we know it. This is of course a very old response- but then this is a very old puzzle.
    Those of us who see the world divided into these 2 options see other options as wishful thinking. I could be an atheist [and have been an agnostic] but the logic of religious naturalism continues to puzzle me.

    June 2, 2010
    • James, Dawkins argues very effectivley against the type writer example in ‘The Blinde Watchmaker.’ My copy is on lend right now, but he shows mathemtically how certain principles can make it very probable the complex life emerges. The classic example, which you have given, assumes that its all or nothing. Rather it is chance plus enviromental pressure that forces a trait to remain. Essentially his argument against this example is one based in cumulative evolution.

      June 2, 2010
  4. Between these two categories there is a lot of room for movement. Both of the extremes, in my opinion, seem unattainable with unaided reason. But, in the works of authors such as Plato and Aristotle you see ideas of both theism and nihilism in a more diluted form which do seem more reasonable. Yet, as we read them we attempt to dismantle the work by boiling it down into one of the two categories. I say this with a guilty face.

    Maybe then it is a common error is to assume that it must be one category or the other and we can’t see a third option because we have become so indoctrinated in the other two. We spend all our efforts in attempting to conform to the two over arching views and are now incapable of escaping them.

    June 3, 2010
    • James #

      Hi Tyler. I beg to differ on the effectiveness of Dawkins argument. My recollection of it is that he argues backwards from the fact that life as we observe it clearly “is”. Given his presupposition that there is no God, then chance will necessarily be the mechanism required to produce life. My recollection is that his trump card is “complexity is the answer.” To me it is merely the materialists version of the theists “God of the gaps.” When you can’t explain things- appeal to complexity and math that very few people really understand.
      I’m not sure how this particular argument allows for anything but an all or nothing response. Either there is a God who created everything or it was “created” by chance. Other options on that question sound like the “half pregnant” possibility driven by an unwillingness to accept the conclusions of the 2 possibilities. Using the pregnancy metaphor- there is certainly a period when it is difficult to determine which state exists but the solution is still binary.
      Clearly, there are many other scenarios possible- string theory, multiple universes, alien seeding of life, Descartes’ evil God scenario and on and on. The question is which is most plausible.
      No surprise that I think that the Biblical narrative wins on both logical and narrative tests 🙂

      June 3, 2010
      • James, in the case of the type writer Dawkins is not adding increasing layers of complexity. He is only highlighting that this example is inadequate at explaining natural selection but is often cited, such as you just did. He explains it is not a true representation because it only representational of chance. But, as we know natural selection is chance plus environmental pressure. Which, he shows, with rather simple math, it is possible for a monkey to use a type writer to recite a Shakespeare verse. It is one thing to say life is created by chance and another to say it is nihilistic. For complex life can emerge from chance and become perceptual of objective truths.

        “I’m not sure how this particular argument allows for anything but an all or nothing response.” Just because you, I, or maybe no one else on the face of the planet cannot currently imagine a different response does not mean the potential is not there. It is a real possible these are the only two options… if that is the case I fear for the future, as the biblical narrative to many others does not appear to win on the logical and narrative tests.

        June 3, 2010
      • James #

        On the matter of Dawkins, I am speaking from memory- and stand to be corrected. My memory was thinking, when reading his explanation- “chance plus environmental pressure still boils down to chance plus chance since in the materialist paradigm there is no teleology.” I read “environmental pressure” as a complexity black box. To really sort this out I would have to dig the book out.
        As to the Biblical narrative- it is clearly not the only option but it does neatly juxtapose the materialist option. Do you think that the pregnancy metaphor doesn’t apply to Creator/no Creator question?

        June 3, 2010
      • I think the metaphor accurately depicts our current situation, but I would be hesitant to say they are the only two narratives possible. Another may come along that does not fit into either.

        June 3, 2010
      • James #

        Thanks for the response, Tyler. I agree that there can be other options/scenarios but I argue that each scenario needs to be taken on its own merits. A popular scenario is multiple universes, another is string theory, another is the seeding of life by ETs and on and on. The Platonic scenario was the reality of ideals [which Aristotle challenged]. Scenarios are not created equal but I think that the 2 we are discussing are the most robust by several orders of magnitude.

        On a side note between us- the reason I like Aristotle is his aversion to Platonic idealism. I think Christendom would have had quite different shape had Augustine become Aristotilian rather than Platonic before he became a Christian. IMHO Christianity has been cursed by Platonism ever since 🙂 Of course I would have preferred than he had taken Skepticism more seriously. But now I’m really out in left field 🙂

        June 4, 2010
      • Out of curiosity, what is that you wished Augustine borrowed more from Aristotle? Or what would have Christendom been shaped like if it had (hypothetically of course)?

        I agree with you that some scenarios are more robust and some are not worthy of consideration at all. With that said, personally I find that the God or theism depicted in the bible is not robust as maybe I wish it to be. If I had to decide between the biblical account of divinity and Nietzche’s realizations, then I would have to go with Nietzsche, not because I want to, but because he is the most compelling. In reading Nietzche’s work I find him to be accurate on many accounts, through his reasoning as well as his accurate depictions of lived reality. Not just his criticisms towards Christianity, but also democratic ideals, nationalism, rationalism, platonism, the list goes on. But, notably absent from much of his criticism is….wait for it….. Aristotle.

        June 4, 2010
      • James #

        What I like about Aristotle is his empiricism. Conversely I really don’t like Plato’s idealism. It has been a really long time since I spent time with Nietzsche but after a period of fascination came to feel he was disingenuous and cruel. Those are the deadliest of the deadly sins, IMO. Once that settled in he never looked the same again. To be fair I should probably look him over again.

        June 4, 2010
  5. Interesting discussion thus far… Perhaps some of the resistance to accepting the way Oakes presents things might be due to our inherent aversion to the term “nihilism.” We probably also don’t like things being presented in such stark terms: either it’s a linear “biblical” (a term fraught with its own baggage!) view of time or it’s nihilism (of course, as Flannery O’Connor once said, “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” but I digress…). Maybe there’s another way to get at what Oakes is saying…

    Rather than portraying the matter as either theism (whatever that is) or nihilism, perhaps a better way to frame the matter would be around concepts like meaning or purposivity. Is there anything like a meta-purpose behind our existence/the existence of our planet or is purpose simply something we bring to the table as human beings (as Oakes puts it, “pointless humans weaving their scenarios against an unfeeling universe….”).

    Or, even more simply, is our “scenario-weaving” a response to something independent of us or is it entirely our creation? If the former, what are we responding to? If the latter, why might we need to weave our scenarios?

    June 3, 2010
    • Ken #

      Re: Is there anything like a meta-purpose behind our existence/the existence of our planet or is purpose simply something we bring to the table as human beings (as Oakes puts it, “pointless humans weaving their scenarios against an unfeeling universe….”).

      I think the naturalist answer is “no apparent purpose but wondrous possibilities.”

      Oakes expression (“pointless humans…”) is polemical. Naturalists do not think of their lives in this dark way. They might say instead “humans living in a wondrous universe full of possibilities of which they are part.”

      Re: the questions in your last paragraph. I think the questions are not the ones a naturalist necessarily answers, at least not in the way you have asked them. I do think naturalists ask and answer questions about who we are, what is our history, and what is our future. The questions you asked are the questions a Christian theologian asks and answers.

      June 3, 2010
    • Just because they aren’t the questions a naturalist would necessarily gravitate towards or frame in that way, doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth pursuing or discussing. I happen to think that they are generic human questions that all of us ask in some way or another. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t accept that there are “naturalist” questions and “Christian theologian” questions and that those of us who happen to align in either of these camps can only stare across a chasm of incomprehension at each other and the questions we ask.

      How about this: “Why, in a world that has no apparent purpose, am I the sort of creature that is intrigued and motivated by the wonder of (meaningful?) possibilities?”

      June 3, 2010
      • Ken #

        I agree that the questions you ask are important, even though my impression is that they are not generic. And, as you have written before, the fact that we do ask such things suggests that they correspond to something real and important – they do suggest God.

        In my view your approach to apologetics is better than the polemics of Oakes.

        June 3, 2010
    • The refinement of the questions is pleasing.

      I do believe their is a purpose to human life based around concepts such as justice, love, and goodness. However, even though it has meta-physical implications I do not associate that with a deity. A deity introduces so much complexity to the equation through extreme leaps of logic that I simply cannot buy into a biblical narrative or something similar.

      There is a passage in Plato’s republic in the first book, which I recently discussed with a prof, in which he refers to a body of knowledge that just seems to exist out there. The example Socrates’ uses is how artists are not in competition with one another in the sense that they do not seek to have ‘more’ of something. A guitar player cannot have more of A sharp than another. A sharp exists independently of any guitar player and they all strive for it in perfection in relation to A sharp, not by having more of it. It is an odd example and confusing in many senses but it does somewhat allude to the abstractness of justice yet the very realness of it.

      June 3, 2010
      • I forgot to mention that they were discussing justice, and Socrates was comparing the arts to justice.

        June 4, 2010
      • I don’t see how “a body of knowledge that just seems to exist out there” is less complex than a deity—especially if we are going to argue that this body of knowledge is somehow normative, that it makes demands upon us, how we live, what we aspire to, etc.

        It seems to me that so much of what we consider to be a part of this “body of knowledge” or think ought to be included in it is personal in nature. It addresses us as persons with obligations toward and expectations of other persons. The ultimate goal or purpose of this body of knowledge is some kind of human flourishing, whether that be with respect to justice, love, goodness, or a combination of these and others.

        It seems to me that if the primary beneficiaries of understanding and applying this “body of knowledge” are human persons or human communities, then it is less complex to imagine that the body of knowledge originates from a personal source.

        June 4, 2010
      • “It seems to me that if the primary behave read at beneficiaries of understanding and applying this “body of knowledge” are human persons or human communities, then it is less complex to imagine that the body of knowledge originates from a personal source.”

        Less complex? How so?
        If we are talking about a biblical deity it is so much more complex as it introduces an active force, huge abstractions of good and evil, and often promotes actions counterintuitive to human flourishing.

        June 4, 2010
      • Less complex in the sense that you don’t have to make the leap between an impersonal ultimate reality and a a body of knowledge that sure seems to have human flourishing as one of its main goals (or, at the very least, by-products).

        Huge abstractions about good and evil may be complex on one level, but good and evil are ordinary observations about our world and our behaviour that any of us can make. As I see it, there is a straighter line between a personal deity with moral intentions for the universe and our ability to make judgments about good and evil than there is between an impersonal “ground of being” or set of ideals or principles and these same abilities.

        Re: the biblical deity promoting actions counterintuitive to human flourishing, there are a whole bunch of issues about historical/cultural context, hermeneutics, understandings of the nature of Scripture that are at play there. We’d probably need a couple of americanos and an hour or two to make any progress on that one :).

        June 4, 2010

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