Thursday, May 12, 2016

We Won't Find God In A Test Tube

(An earlier version of the Throwback below titled "To Love God Is To Know Him" was first published 31 March 2015 on the blog Nisi Dominus)

How do we know He’s there?

     In our present skeptical age Christians are often asked: "How we can know that God is there?" What and how we know is, of course, the matter of epistemology and related branches of philosophy, and the vast majority of us don’t have the academic training to engage in high-powered epistemological debate.   Nonetheless, we all conduct our lives guided by things we know are true, and reject others as false, and we Christians stake everything on certain very definite truth claims.  How can we justify our confidence in Christian Truth in a clear but comprehensible way that does not require formal philosophical training?

How do we know at all?

Does "science" have all the answers?
    We need to start with the understanding that the prevailing world-view today, even among many people who don’t consciously embrace materialism, is materialistic.  It’s just assumed that we can only know about things that can be observed, measured, and be proven using what is commonly called “scientific” proof.  
     How does one respond to the common near deification of science?  I’ve discussed a number of approaches to this problem on previous occasions (see below); here’s a more comprehensive tack.  We can start by pointing out that the materialist argument above arbitrarily limits “knowledge” to a very narrow class of things.  There is no scientific proof, for instance, for justice (an example used by St. Augustine), or for love.  Nevertheless, even strict materialists can be certain that they know when justice has been done (some of them are particularly vocal about injustices that they are convinced have been committed by the Church), or when they are loved.  Scientific knowledge (knowledge about things) is what philosophers call “propositional knowledge”, but that doesn’t apply at all to an abstract reality such as love, which is a matter of “acquaintance knowledge”. The question, then, is whether knowledge of God is a question of propositional knowledge, or knowledge of another sort.
     Before moving on, it’s worth pointing out that even scientific knowledge is not as straightforward as it may seem.  People often say things like “Science tells us that . . .”, but “science” itself can “tell” us nothing: it is simply a method by which we, with our limited and fallible intellects, interpret the phenomena of the natural world. The accuracy of our interpretation can be limited by human factors such as our incomplete knowledge, limited powers of cognition . . . or attachment to sin.  And however carefully we have formed scientific propositions, they can only be considered knowledge when they have been confirmed by repeated experiment.  Even then, scientific “truths” can be displaced by newer discoveries.  Scientific knowledge, then, is very often more a matter of evidence than of iron-clad proof.

Proof, or Evidence?

"What proof do you have of this 'God' ?"
"Why, the heavens proclaim the Glory of God!"
     We also need to recall that there are different kinds of evidence.  For instance, how can we be sure enough to convict somebody of a crime, even condemn them to long imprisonment or death, without direct physical proof?  The answer, of course, is that the evidence of witnesses, if they are known to be reliable, can secure a conviction (and it’s hard to conceive of an adequate system of criminal justice that does not admit eye-witness testimony as evidence).  We can also make reasonable conclusions about something we can’t detect directly, based on its effects on things that we can apprehend (I discuss this kind of evidence at greater length in my post “A Dark Matter: ‘Proving’ God in a Materialist World”). 
    At this point, we can consider the question of how we can have knowledge of God.  If God is the creator of nature, he cannot be part of it, just as no matter how hard we look, we will not be able to find a painter inside his painting. God is therefore necessarily outside the scope of scientific inquiry, as he necessarily is not part of the natural worild (see “Looking For God In All The Wrong Places”).  We might expect, of course, to see evidence of the artist in his work (characteristic brush strokes, a certain use of light or color, etc.), which brings us to the other, indirect, kinds of evidence we looked at above. The first converts to Christianity, for example, were convinced by the eye-witness testimony of the Apostles and other Disciples who had known Jesus personally, and were convinced of these witnesses’ reliability both by their manifest integrity, and by their willingness to suffer excruciating deaths for the Gospel (the word “martyr” itself comes from the Greek word for “witness”).  Over the intervening centuries, countless others have been drawn to the Church by the testimony of Christian witnesses to the power of the Risen Christ (often, like the Apostles, witnessing with their lives: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, as Tertullian said).  Having accepted Christ, they see the fulfillment of his promises in their own lives, thus gaining experiential knowledge.
     We should also consider whether the Christian explanation fits reality better than the materialist one.  The better fit is more likely to be true (see "The Geometry of Faith").  Societies and individuals who embrace the Christian worldview tend to be more successful by any number of objective measures (see “What Would Darwin Do? Random Selection Favors Religion”).  The evidence shows that Christianity is more conducive to human flourishing, and so is more likely to be true.

God is Love

The Holy Trinity
   There are some genuinely scientific arguments that can play a supporting role (see Fr. Robert Spitzer's Magis Center), but we should avoid trying to rely on science to prove the existence of God (notice that the discussion of Dark Matter to which I link above is an analogy, not proof).  Theological truths, as we have seen, are simply beyond the scope of scientific inquiry and an argument based only on science is unlikely to be persuasive.  We should also want to avoid conceding the false (and unscientific premise) that "scientific" proof is the only proof.     

   Not that any purely intellectual argument is going convert many people. Let’s go back to our discussion above about kinds of knowledge.  As Christians we understand that God is a Trinity of Persons, that God is Love (1 John 4:8): knowledge of God, therefore,  is  “relational knowledge” , and we know him through the God/Man Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Father Larry Richards is known to wind up discussions of this sort by saying that he knows that God is there because he knows him.  For every one of us, that’s the only kind of “proof” that will lead to real faith.  We can show through our arguments that belief in God is reasonable, but we can only really “know” when we return his loving embrace.