Naturalism: is it just another story?

I posted an article by Mike Young, “Living with Theological Diversity” over a year ago and I thought I would post it again.

It is about seeing theology (and atheology!) as language. Seeing it as a model rather than reality; seeing it as a pointer to human experience rather than seeing it as a true or false proposition.

The appeal of this approach is obvious: making the truth unknowable allows for humility and to put all perspectives on an equal footing. More than that, it introduces the idea that common human experiences underlie this diversity of theological opinions, so it encourages a sense of unity and mutual understanding (which seems otherwise incredibly difficult for people of different world views). It asks us to “look where the finger points, not at the finger,” with the implication that every theological finger is pointing to the same set of human experiences.

I find this challenging. Firstly, I don’t think the same set of human experiences are pointed to in each case; I think the different philosophies evoke different sorts of experiences. It seems the experience of a Buddhist in meditation practice is quite different from the experience of a Christian speaking in tongues for example. These produce measurable effects on the brain and altered states of consciousness which I think are different from each other.

Secondly, I am all for seeing theology as stories portraying the human condition rather than as truth, and I do find that it can sometimes be an interesting and meaningful way of framing the human experience even if I don’t believe in it literally. But should I be prepared to put my own naturalistic world view on the same footing? Am I prepared to do that?

Science too is just a model for reality, but a more useful and accurate model for practical purposes. Much of our modern life, technology, medicine and so on, all rely on the success of the scientific method. Evolutionary biology and geology describe the factual history of our world much better than religious myths and I would not put these on the same footing. Sam Harris says that religions are failed sciences. There is more to religion than that, but on the level in which science operates, yes, they have failed to account for the way the world is.

Religion can always accommodate science, of course, as these myths can be reinterpreted as allegorical accounts operating in the realm of meaning rather than literal truth. This pushes God further and further out of the picture; he becomes less of a personal agent actively engaging with the world and more associated with sustaining the deterministic order that science reveals underlying the universe.

My question is how far can this go? How far can God reasonably be pushed out? At what point does physics become metaphysics and speculation, and therefore on an equal footing with supernatural or non-materialist world views? How much truth is knowable? Is my scepticism a sort of awakening, or is it a more arbitrary conditioning of my thinking due to the kinds of environments I’ve been in?

A couple of commenters on the previous post mentioned evidence from near-death experiences that might suggest the possibility of disembodied consciousness. I realise with some concern how sceptical I have become in that I automatically have no faith that looking at this evidence will convince me. This comes directly from my belief that everything boils down to material causes. How did I get to this belief? I suppose I believed in a “God of the gaps” and then enough of those gaps were closed for me to become jaded about the possibility of science ever supporting my belief in that God. Others clearly feel differently. Why should I think I am right?

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18 Responses to Naturalism: is it just another story?

  1. Marahm says:

    You should think you are right because you have discovered no evidence to convince you that you are not right.

    The more interesting question is, “How much truth is knowable?” It’s nearly nonsensical. We’ll never be able to determine that X amount of truth is knoweable, and Y amount of truth is unknowable. Actually, the amount of truth that is ultimately knowable is more like X plus Z, where X equals currently known “truth” and Z represents the qualities of truth that are presently unknown, but knowable.

    Y quantities and qualities of truth may actually not be fininite, and we’ll never know any of it confidently, until we have a proper scientific sample of people who have died and come back to tell us about it.

    • Achelois says:

      I really like what you said, Marahm!

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, that’s a very interesting thought… quantities and qualities of truth, or reality, may not be finite… it’s hard to imagine an infinite chain of causes, but equally it’s hard to imagine that we could ever run out of “why?”s!

      We can maybe say that some things are outside the limits of human knowledge, because all we know is inferred from the input we get through our senses. We can’t know the nature of reality because we are a part of that reality, a part of that which we’d like to understand. Just like the character that lives in the pages of a novel can’t see the nature of that novel or what’s outside of it.

      Maybe the laws of physics are just illusory side-effects of something else that’s going on. We can’t know and that really blows my mind…

  2. Achelois says:

    I believe that truth is not quantifiable. Some things just aren’t. Can I quantify how much love I carry in my heart for a man? Does heart even *carry* love? Maybe we have become used to mysticism and some of it is good for us, I think. Dissecting ourselves down to tendons and muscles removes that bit of mysticism that adds beauty to us. Am I even making sense? 😀

    “Secondly, I am all for seeing theology as stories portraying the human condition rather than as truth…”

    What if God is doing just that? What if God is portraying the human condition through theology? Doesn’t it then become truth?

    • Sarah says:

      I agree with you that truth is not quantifiable. 🙂

      I’m not sure whether understanding the nuts and bolts of how things work makes them less magical. I think a lot of people think that. Paul McCartney if I remember right, didn’t want to learn to read music incase that kind of technical knowledge ruined his aesthetic appreciation of it. I’m inclined to think it only adds to the wonder.

      “What if God is portraying the human condition through theology?”
      Interesting. But I wish God would tell us the things we can’t figure out ourselves, rather than the things we can!

      • Achelois says:

        “I wish God would tell us the things we can’t figure out ourselves, rather than the things we can!”

        Hehe! I would say that’s because God is not doing the telling 😀

  3. HMJ says:

    Given that we can all agree that the ‘God Concept’ is unknowable, this side of the grave anyway, why on earth can’t we live and let live?
    The Believers can have their beliefs, the Doubters their doubts and the Unbelievers their form of beliefs.
    Why do we ‘inbetweenies’ beat ourselves up about ideas of truth, whether we are right or not, and carry on a life of searching?
    Actually, far from being a sad position of ‘limbo’, it’s an active, intelligent, respectful place to be.
    The Believers and Unbelievers aren’t exerting themselves, weighing up evidence, checking their position against their neighbour who might hold a different position.
    We may, to some extent, feel destined to be rational, bending over backwards to understand and accommodate other’s strong viewpoints, but surely this inbetween position of knowing that you can’t know, admitting it and trying to constantly remain OPEN (as oppossed to the other 2 positions, which really are more CLOSED) to possibilities of evidence on either side of the God Concept, is the only logical place to be.

    • Marahm says:

      We “inbetweenies” are not entirely comfortable in our “active, intelligent, respectful place to be.” Let’s face it– we’d love to feel the warm fuzzy security of those on either side of us. We’d love to know, really know, what we cannot know.

      Our nagging little uncertainties prod us to remain in that space. We keep studying, thinking, praying sometimes, writing on blogs such as this one, and we actually do make some sort of progress, but it’s never the kind of progress that brings us any closer to the almost childlike sense of certainty that animates the Believers, or satisfies us as thoroughly as lack of evidence satisfies the Disbelievers.

      We are in a limbo of sorts.

    • Sarah says:

      “Why do we ‘inbetweenies’ beat ourselves up about ideas of truth, whether we are right or not, and carry on a life of searching?”
      Because it’s fun?!
      Seriously though, I don’t know about beating ourselves up, but personally, I search because I want to be right. I want to be sure. I want to know as much as I can know about everything, and I want to know what I know and what I don’t know.

  4. Marahm says:

    What we are doing here (in trying to balance Belief with Disbelief) is called “holding the tension of the opposites.” It’s a Jungian concept about which entire books are written. The gist of it holds that when a person stands between two opposing positions (not necessarily religious)— without yielding to the pressure for resolution by running to either side—- a third position will emerge, different from the two opposing poles, but eventually more satisfying than either of them.

    Holding the tension of the opposites is a difficult task, and most people can’t do it without experiencing psychological discomfort. I’m convinced that with respect to Belief and Disbelief (notice, not in any particular religion), holding the tension of the opposites is the best way to remain open to suggestion, so to speak, open to that third position that is probably more real than the other two.

  5. susanne430 says:

    Enjoyed the post and discussion! The more books I read, the more I am amazed at how very little I know and how much more I need to read, read, read and learn!

    You wrote in the comments:

    “But I wish God would tell us the things we can’t figure out ourselves, rather than the things we can!”

    Like what things?

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks Susanne.

      I just meant that I wish the scriptures revealed some surprising new insights that were genuinely independent of time and culture and so on, as it’s all too easy to believe they were just written by men otherwise. They seem very “human”. If God was going to tell us something, I’d want it to seem like it couldn’t possibly have been written by men.

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