The U.S. presidential election results is on everyone’s mind. Therefore, I was inclined to write about politics in this blog. I’ve decided not to do so. Many others have and will continue to discuss these important political issues. For my part, I will continue discussing the underlying philosophical and theological issues which result in our current political and cultural climate and differences. So…
A thirteenth shift in thinking that came about during the Enlightenment has surfaced many times in my posts. In fact, a day does not go by that we do not see this new way of thinking bubble up in conversations, news reports, editorials, books, and everywhere else we turn (including in this election season). I am speaking of the way we now assume there is a difference between “facts” and “values” and between “reason” and “faith.” But this has not always been the case.
The Way Things Used to Be
Prior to the Enlightenment, truth was truth, and facts were facts. Whether one was studying science, history, philosophy, ethics, or theology, the assumption was that truth could be found in those areas and it was our job to find it.
Science assumed that there are truths about the physical world that can be known by study if one uses the correct methods (such as repeatable experiments to confirm a hypothesis), the correct tools (such as microscopes and telescopes), and the right values (such as reporting data accurately).
The same was true of the study of history, which assumed that there are objective facts about the past that can be known by study. Historical study differed from scientific study in some ways; for instance, the instruments were books and manuscripts (and are now electronic databases of digitized historical documents) instead of microscopes and telescopes. But the two disciplines also shared much in common. For example, similar methods are employed (confirming a hypothesis with data that can be independently verified) along with similar values, such as being fair in describing how strongly the data support the hypothesis–for instance, how many eyewitnesses provided reports of the event in question.
Philosophy was no different. Again, it was assumed that there are objective facts in the various areas of philosophy, such as metaphysics (the study of what is real). Therefore the philosopher’s job was to discover and communicate what these facts are. Once again, because the subject matter was different, there were some differences from the study of history and science. In this case, the instruments used were the laws of logic, the tools of hermeneutics so as to correctly understand what others were arguing (for instance, to correctly interpret Plato’s argument in The Republic), thought experiments, and so on.
Yet much was still understood to be the same as in history and science. Methodology remained essentially the same. A hypothesis was posited–for instance, the hypothesis (as I wrote about recently) that we are composed of a body and a soul. This hypothesis was tested against the data available, such as the fact that we are aware of ourselves and can’t help but refer to ourselves with “indexicals” (“I,” “me,” “mine”). These data confirm the hypothesis that we are a soul which has a body. Other data may include the implications of our not having a soul, which seem to lead to ideas that are clearly false (I’ve touched on a number of these data points in previous posts.)
Similar values were also in play in philosophy as in other disciplines, such as the commitment to not attacking a person, but rather focusing criticisms on the arguments for and against a position (in other words, avoiding the Ad Hominem Fallacy).
This was also the case in the study of ethics (actually a subfield within philosophy). All people assumed that there were ethical truths (what is right and wrong), just as there are scientific truths and historical truths. Therefore, it was their responsibility to study hard in order to discover these truths and then help others understand what they had discovered through study. The instruments were the same as used in learning truth in other fields of philosophy–the laws of logic, correct hermeneutical principles, thought experiments, etc.
Again, the methods paralleled those of science and history, as well as philosophy. Hypotheses were proposed, tested, and either confirmed or disconfirmed. For instance, it may be proposed that the right thing to do is always what preserves your life and provides comfort (hedonism). Data can then be evaluated. For instance, data serving as a counter-example (to take a modern example) is Nazi Germany. This definition of determining what is right implies that everyone should have supported the Nazi party once they came to power (or else die), for only by doing so could comfort be achieved and one’s life preserved. But we know supporting Hitler was wrong. So this data counts against this hypothesis being true.
The same values are also used as in the study of science, history, and all other fields of knowledge. For instance, the ethicist should fairly describe opposing points of view before arguing against them (in other words, avoid the Straw Man Fallacy).
Finally, the field of theology was no different. Everyone assumed that there were theological truths, and that therefore one could be right or wrong about matters of theology. In fact, the term “theology” comes from two Greek words: “theos” (God”) and “logos” (“truth,” “logic,” or “reason”). So “theology” is “truth/logic/reason concerning God.” Therefore, it was the work of theologians to discover these truths through study, and to help others understand these truths through their teaching and writing (just as it was the duties of scientists and historians in their own fields).
As with all other areas of study and knowledge, this required using the correct methods, tools, and values. Given the subject matter (ideas, rather than past events or physical phenomena), the instruments used were closer to those of philosophy–logic, the writings and arguments of others, proper hermeneutics to correctly interpret key texts, and so on. Yet the methodology was much the same. Research was conducted to find evidence that either confirmed or disconfirmed a hypothesis. For instance, a theologian may hypothesize that since God is essentially immaterial, he cannot have any contact with the physical world (as Gnostic theologians proposed). Yet the data include historical evidence that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This therefore counts against the Gnostic theologian’s hypothesis.
Similarly, the same values were applied to research as mentioned above in the study of science and other fields–report data accurately, being fair in describing how strongly the data supports the hypothesis, avoiding logical fallacies such as the Straw Man or Ad Hominem fallacies, and so on.
As you no doubt can see, much has changed since those days before the Enlightenment. Next week I’ll discuss how and why things have changed, and a few of the implications.
Until then, grace and peace.