Crossing Hudson’s Bridge

February 8th, 2018 by

Hud Hudson, professor of philosophy at Western Washington University, delivered the second of Fuller’s 2018 Analytic Theology lectures. Besides having a cool name, and a voice that our team deemed radio-ready, Hudson’s paper evinces a truly collegial spirit.  In his three-part paper, “A Metaphysical Bridge,” he suggests that analytic philosophy can play the role of a bridge (i.e., interface) between science and religion in dialogue.

Hudson frames part one of his talk by referencing Louise Anthony’s, Philosophers Without Gods. A recurrent theme, reports Hud,  is the “alleged fundamental and irreparable opposition between religion and science.” This perspective is making its way into society at large. Thumbs are pointing downward in the arena. The crowds are calling for religion’s public voice to be eliminated.

Hudson suggests all is not lost however. Theology has capable defenders in analytic philosophy, who today represent a kinder gentler breed than their Logical Positivist predecessors. They are more suited to handle the language of the sciences than theologians and are capable of checking unwarranted anti-religious maneuvers like this one:

 

  1. Some religious folk (e.g., Christians) believe that P.
  2. Our “modern” worldview implies that P is false.
  3. If our modern worldview implies that a proposition is false then we are justified in believing that it is false.
  4. We are justified in believing that the religious belief that P is false.

 

This is a generalized pattern that many arguments tend to follow. To save space, I won’t repeat Hudson’s criticisms. (You can find the recording of Hud’s talk on the AT Fuller Facebook page)  What is important for theologians is this. Hud’s ability to detect and expose the pattern of unsound reasoning that gets repeated in a variety of “persuasive” arguments is just the sort of help that philosophy can offer them. Hud’s overall point in part one seems right. Theologians should increase their efforts to work more with analytic philosophers given the sort of protective buffer philosophy can provide.

One irony needs to be addressed here. Hud presents the above argument as exemplifying the sorts of external attacks on theology that philosophy can help deflect. However, voices from within theological circles also make these sorts of arguments. Sometimes theologians lead the charge! In a world where scientists still serve as the West’s intellectual gatekeepers, the lure of scientific credibility is understandable.  Analytic philosophy then stands ready to offer a second service to theologians by keeping them from too rapidly imbibing the purported implications of new scientific claims.  This raises the possibility for a different metaphor. What theologians need is not only “philosophy as bridge” but philosophy as an appraiser, accountant, or consultant.

While Hud’s topic was not specifically aimed at theological anthropology (this years AT theme), the application should be obvious. There is no requirement that theologians defer to the sciences on every question of anthropology. Having said that, if there is any hope that a theologian’s work will get a wider reading, it seems that careful attention must be paid to what the sciences are discovering about the human person.   It is just here that philosophers, conversant with the literature in a particular field of science, can aid theologians in deciding how and how much to allow science and theology to shape each other.

A classic example here is the mind-body debate. Today, a growing number of neuroscientists reject the concept of an immaterial component to the person. How quickly should theologians adopt that stance? Is it time to let physicalism deeply impact our theological anthropology, and inform our understanding of Scriptural words like nephesh, pneuma, etc? How much should science’s infatuation with naturalism affect the weight we give to its claims about the presence or absence of an immaterial component to the human person?  Even if Christian philosophers disagree on whether science has disproved substance dualism, merely being exposed to the philosophical evaluation of claims about what “neuroscience now shows”  can give the theologian some deeply needed perspective.

Hud’s main point in part two is that scientists should not be lured by their fascination with naturalism into thinking that only the “methods of science” provide its basic sources of evidence.   Hud grants that science has much to teach philosophers. This however should not be taken to imply that in all cases, science does the teaching and philosophers should do the learning. The science-philosophy relationship is not as asymmetric as the science-religion relationship tends to have been.

Substantial philosophical concepts make their way into scientific work far more frequently than the local science department may realize. Hudson mentions modality, causation, persistence, time, possibility and logic as philosophical concepts with which science is shot through. Interested readers might also consider picking their way through a philosophy of science book (e.g., Understanding Philosophy of Science, by James Ladyman) to see how science is far less transparent than the “scientific method” one is taught in grade school. Science, and how to interpret science, are very human endeavors. Scientists can and do slip into making metaphysical pronouncements they are not qualified to make.  Being a scientist does not qualify one to do philosophy any more than being a philosopher qualifies one to do scientific work. Incompetence can run both ways.

Reflecting on part two, I again find myself in agreement with Hudson. Science can’t divorce itself from philosophy. This second point is really just the flipside of the first part of part one. The reason why theologians should allow philosophers to befriend them is because scientists engage in philosophical concepts inside and outside of the lab. It would be odd if they didn’t. Like the rest of us, if not more, scientists are interested in things like possibility, implication, significance and prediction. The point here is that philosophers can spot this shift more quickly than the untrained eye. They are also more qualified to explain why those philosophical claims might not follow from empirical data.

In part three of his talk, Hud gives three ways theologians might respond to naturalism. He demonstrates that deriving atheism from naturalism requires abandoning the epistemological or methodological naturalism that is touted as the basis of genuine science. If methodological and epistemological naturalism can’t rule God’s existence out of the picture, this disqualifies science from making self-assured claims about whether religion matters beyond the sociological level or if it has anything worth saying to the sciences.

As a theist, I appreciate Hud’s third point. I think more scientists would concede this point than the public might imagine. Hud’s talk painted the picture of a bridge that philosophy could facilitate in conversation between science and religion. Most of us are familiar with the kinds of things that science will say to religion during such dialogue. What Hud does not discuss in this talk are the kinds of things that religion could say to or teach science. Interestingly, science’s own discovery of the strangeness that is our universe (e.g. quantum indeterminacy, the hard problem of consciousness, anthropic fine tuning) has led many to conclude that the science-religion dialogue is not quite over after all.  Furthermore, it is possible that we have not seen the last of these paradigm shifting discoveries. If so, there may be even more for the sciences and religion to talk about in years to come. If this is right, then theologians should think twice before attempting to swim the science-religion river on their own. If the 21st century is anything like the 20th, theologians should consider reviving friendships with analytic  philosophers and crossing Hudson’s bridge.

Jesse Gentile is a new PhD student at Fuller seminary studying systematic theology. He has interests in theological anthropology, epistemology, ethics, technology and pretty much everything else. Jesse is the father of two awesome elementary school kids and is the husband of Ella (who works as a wills and trust attorney). He regularly does itinerant preaching among plymouth brethren assemblies throughout the U.S. Jesse hold’s degrees in Biblical Studies, Philosophy, and Instructional Design.

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