Monday, March 16, 2009

Getting Along: Civil Disagreements with a Thinking Christian

It’s always salutary to get evaluated by a strong critic of your position, someone who doesn’t share your preconceptions and assumptions and who therefore is able to detect weaknesses in your premises and arguments. Being an advocate of a worldview is to be biased in its favor, and it’s good to achieve some virtual distance from your commitments by looking at them through the eyes of an opponent.

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian was kind enough to offer a critique of Reality and its rivals, an article that discusses the justifications for intersubjective empiricism (exemplified by science) as our most reliable way of knowing, how empiricism tends to support naturalism, and the ethical obligation we have to one another to be empiricists (and thus, perhaps, naturalists). He then invited me to a debate in three parts, which you can read here.

I won’t reprise the arguments since the disagreements are perhaps less important than the tone of the discourse, which was pretty amicable. Since it’s unlikely that unanimity on the fundamental questions that worldviews address will ever be achieved, it’s crucial that worldview adversaries share a belief in live-and-let-live tolerance, otherwise things can get very nasty, as the history of ideological conflict shows. They should agree that maintaining an irenic philosophical pluralism is more important than achieving world domination for their worldview, because that’s simply not achievable given human diversity. Better we disagree peacefully than try to enforce an untenable uniformity.

I wrapped up my contributions by noting all the common ground that had come to light during the debate. I’ll quote that and the end of Tom Gilson’s reply, just as an example of how focusing on commonalities helps to generate cross-ideological comity. To put it succinctly and imperatively: everybody play nice!

Clark writes:

…But what I’ve learned from this debate is that we agree about those [epistemic] commitments more than I expected. We agree that “first person data” – for instance the subjective experience of being embraced by God – aren’t alone adequate to prove the claim of God’s existence. We agree (I think) that intersubjective evidence using public objects is necessary to justify that claim to persons not having such experience. We agree that history and philosophy have intersubjective elements to them, and we agree (I think) that one can’t simply reason one’s way to God: philosophical arguments supporting God’s existence involve premises about how the world actually is in various respects (otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in history or science, which of course you are). We also agree that there are unsolved mysteries about how the world works, that dogmatism is to be avoided, and that argument, not force, is the best way to resolve worldview differences. And if they can’t be resolved, we agree that we can still live peacefully together in an open society (my cardinal value). So all told we agree on a lot, and for that and the very civil discourse I’ve encountered here, I’m most grateful.

Gilson responds:
...I continue to hold that God can communicate his reality to persons in a private manner, and that he does so, and that the shared reality of that experience among believers is as valid as persons’ shared experience of “red.” This is in addition to, not instead of, external inter-subjective validations.

I agree that there is epistemological value in your two requirements [the insulation and public object requirements], but I hold that to place complete reliance on them is self-defeating. I think you probably have agreed with that in the end, but I’m not entirely sure.

This has been an interesting discussion. There’s room for more response here, and (whether this is good news to you or not I don’t know!) I have two further topics to address from your epistemology article, relating to meaning and ethics, so I’ll take those up in blog posts before long. I appreciate your excellent interaction!


Blogger UnBeguiled said...

I am reading this exchange and came to this gem:

"if you use methods whose competence is limited to discovering the natural world."

Will he present a method that is competent at discovering knowledge of the alleged supernatural world? Will the method produce converging results if employed by Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian?

I shall read further, but past experience leaves me biased that I shall find his method unreliable. But, I might be wrong about that.

Mar 16, 2009, 7:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, thanks for the note here. It has been a good exchange to date, and I have not forgotten the other two topics I planned to address. I'll look forward to more interaction.

unBeguiled, thanks for reading... if you look around on my blog you'll find that I do believe there are reliable ways to discover truth about the supernatural world. That was not the subject of this set of posts, however.

Mar 18, 2009, 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much appreciate your kind spirit and your careful thinking. However, and we have toyed with this issue before, I still find it terribly difficult, given your worldview stance, how you can make assertions like:

"To put it succinctly and imperatively: everybody play nice!"

If you are a sincere and pure naturalist, surely you see that this moral dictate you are placing on everyone else has no grounding within the guidelines of your own worldview.

Not that I wish you were cruel, but just that you have no reason not to be, nor does anyone else, according to your position.

Again, I know this issue comes up all the time, and I know your responses (my mind is still open to better explanations), but I still have a terribly difficult time understanding how you justify your moral life and you philosophical life.

Nietzsche was the most consistent naturalist I know of. If God is dead, so are all objective moral constraints.

Mar 21, 2009, 12:43:00 AM  
Blogger UnBeguiled said...


Your position was debunked 2300 years ago.

For a nice easy to read guide to secular ethics I recommend "Being Good" by Simon Blackburn.

Mar 21, 2009, 12:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the view was "debunked" 2300 years ago, it seems nobody informed the brightest philosophers of the past 100 years.

"Debunked" in your mind.

Mar 22, 2009, 6:23:00 PM  
Blogger UnBeguiled said...


I suspect we would disagree about who are the brightest philosophers of the last 100 years.

I'm just curious, who are these philosophers which you consider "the brightest" that also hold that belief in God is required for a justified moral philosophy.

Or put another way, who are these philosophers who hold, as you do, that a naturalistic worldview provides no ground for ethics.


Mar 22, 2009, 6:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Tom Gilson said...

Tom, I've posted another response this week. Hope to see you there!

Mar 28, 2009, 8:33:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home