Trent Dougherty on Phenomenology of Evidence in Science and Theology

February 15th, 2018 by

What is the relationship between theology and evidence? On January 24, the Analytic Theology team welcomed Dr. Trent Dougherty, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, along to help us answer this question. This term, the AT team is investigating theological anthropology, particularly in conversation with the sciences. A fitting prelude to this investigation is to think through the ways in which theologians and scientists—acting according to the norms of their respective disciplines—might understand basic requirements for the justification of beliefs formed out of the deliverances of those disciplines. For, at least prima facie, if the disciplines cannot agree on what counts as a properly justified belief borne out of the respective discipline, then it is not obvious that they are going to be able to achieve interdisciplinary conversation and findings.

For example: suppose a physicist and a theologian are discussing the possibilities of what can occur within the universe. Anyone who reads Richard Dawkins (not a physicist), for example, might come across the following sort of conversation. The theologian claims: “There is a God who causally interacts with the world; he is an agent who is not a part of the world nor is the world a part of him. Even still, he upholds and sustains the universe at each moment; he even ‘breaks in’ in special ways to do actions that look—for all the world—as if the actions defy the so-called ‘laws of physics.’” In response to this, suppose the physicist claims: “That’s nonsense. There are energy conservation laws in our universe; it’s a closed system. Energy neither leaks in nor leaks out. The sorts of events you theologians describe require additional energy, but that’s nomologically impossible: no additional energy can be added to our universe. So, you’re left to provide a different sort of energy, energy—mind you—that is not measurable. If it’s not measurable, if it’s not empirically verifiable, then the sorts of statements you’re making that are based on this “energy” are either false or meaningless.”

Part of Dougherty’s task in his talk is to provide some reasons to think that these sorts of conversations are fraught with ill-defined terminology, suppressed premises, and so on. Another part of his task points toward an underlying motivation for his talk. It’s an apologetic: the theologian can clear the way—a sort of “pre-evangelism”—for the cross of Jesus Christ to be the only remaining hurdle for the skeptic interlocutor, if the theologian carefully attends to the thesis Dougherty defends: The relationship between theology and evidence is exactly the same as the relationship between science and evidence.

At first blush, this thesis is rather daring. Science, so goes the report, relies on empirical data, that which can be “seen under the microscope.” This is Science’s evidence (the capitalization of the term ‘Science’ to be made apparent anon). Theology, on the other hand, attends to different matters for evidence: history, logical inference, divine revelation, and any number of things one doesn’t normally think can be “seen under the microscope.” Dougherty suggests, though, that there are a number of problems with this analysis of the ways in which Science and theology inquire into what’s true about the world. First, says Dougherty, there is no “Science,” a supposed monolith discipline of inquiry. Rather, there are the sciences: physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, psychology, etc. The data that each of these use as evidence for their truth claims differ. Some of the sciences, like medicine, make heavy use of testimony and narrative for data (e.g., according to Dougherty, the medical field takes patient testimony as evidence when diagnosing a patient’s illness). Theology likewise makes use of testimony and various other sources of data.

The idea (so far as I understand it) is that, at bottom, what each discipline counts as evidence—in the sciences, philosophy, theology, etc.—is not properly distinguished between “being able to be seen under a microscope” and “not being able to be seen under a microscope.” Even more plainly stated: the difference between the way the sciences interact with evidence and theology interacts with evidence does not reduce to whether or not the evidence in question is “empirical.” For, says Dougherty, the form of the inquiry is the same. Each discipline has the same fundamental methodology: an explanation of some kind of data where “being datum” is a functional property, possibly filled by any number of things (the property “being datum” is multiply realizable). The implication here is an Aristotelian one: what individuates each form of inquiry from another is the material over which it ponders. That is to say: the stuff under investigation is what individuates between physics, biology, psychology, theology, philosophy, and the like (e.g., physics investigates fundamental particles; biology investigates living organisms). But the form of inquiry—how each treats its evidence/material—is the same.

According to Dougherty, there’s a phenomenological reason for thinking that this is the case. And that’s this: the most fundamental way each discipline attends to evidence is through a certain kind of experience. Says, Dougherty, there’s a “what it’s like” to remember a particular thing; there’s a “what it’s like” to be appeared to in a particular way; there’s a “what it’s like” to any number of experiences one has when attending to particular propositions that one gives as reasons for beliefs. If I recall correctly, on Dougherty’s account, it’s not just any experience that qualifies a particular experience as evidence for a particular belief. Rather, it’s those that have a feel of truthiness to them. There’s a particular “what it’s like” to be appeared to/remember/etc that something is the case. And this, says Dougherty, is the evidence that each discipline really attends to. If that’s correct, then the sciences and theology treat their respective evidence in exactly the same way.

If I’ve got Dougherty’s presentation correct, then I have to admit that I’m not fully convinced that his case for a phenomenology of evidence is correct. Of course, that’s not an argument against it. I’d like to think more about it. As to the idea that theology and the sciences, as fields of inquiry, treat evidence in the same way: that seems correct to me. Routinely, when asked “what’s the evidence for theological proposition ‘that p’?” I respond with “what do you count as evidence?” It’s never been clear to me that the term ‘evidence’ has a self-evident domain of things over which it ranges. And, I think that Dougherty’s presentation points out exactly why I have that impression. In any case, insofar as one can take Dougherty’s arguments to level the playing field between theology and the sciences, so much the better for potential interdisciplinary dialogue.

J. T. Turner is a Research Associate on Fuller Theological Seminary’s Analytic Theology Project for the 2016 – 2017 academic year. He holds a PhD from The University of Edinburgh, a ThM from Erskine College and Seminary, and an MA and BS from Liberty University. Turner’s current research projects include writing a book on the metaphysics of afterlife in Christian theology, and work on constructing an analytic theology of what some biblical theologians call “holistic eschatology.”

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