DiaBlogue: Fundamentalish Theory

I am going to take the unusual step of starting with Alan’s reply to my comment on Psi-lent Night?, about why he believed moral standards are “objective, but [not] necessarily universal”:

By way of analogy, one might say that Newtonian mechanics are objective, but not universal, since they break down at relativistic speeds and in large gravitational fields. Of course, in that case, there is a more universal theory available, and presumably (hopefully?) there is a truly universal theory waiting to be discovered. Until then, there are objective but not universal theories of mechanics.?
My first reaction, “Wait, that analogy doesn’t make sense, since Newtonian mechanics is a well-defined theory, and we are discussing moral standards as a generic discipline.”

My second reaction was, “No, I’m overreacting, I know what he meant, and he understands the distinction.”

My third reaction was, “Actually, no. This is in fact a pretty subtle and crucial distinction, and in fact it may well underly all the other confusion we’ve had about a wide range of issues.”

[Read more] for attempt to unpack the fundamentals of theory, or perhaps the theory of fundamentals…

We’re going to cover a lot of ground here, so let me try to break it down into bite-sized topics. I’ll go quickly, to avoid boring everyone to death, and trust that Alan will zero in on the areas of disagreement or confusion.

1. Epistemic Hierarchy

The first point I wanted to make is that I feel Alan was blurring two important categories, that between a “theory” and a “discipline.” While not very significant here, I believe that distinction is crucial to other disagreements we’ve had. Using examples from a related theory from Newton, I would define the various categories as:

a. Discipline: Physics
b. Paradigm: Instantaneous action at a distance
c. Theory: Newtonian Gravity
d. Data: Astronomical and Laboratory Observation
e. Observable Reality: Planets, Apples, Clocks, etc.

While somewhat simplistic — and not the only way to break things down — I hope this is sufficient to illustrate the overall concept. If not, let me know.

2. Contingency

If you accept this breakdown, then a better analogy to “non-universal moral standards” might be that “chemistry is contingent on physics.” That is, while we can talk about chemical concepts like “valence” and “electronegativity”, we know that those are in principle just approximations to physical concepts such as electron shells. However, in practice we may not be able to derive everything all the way down, so we can still make chemical statements that are objective verifiable as either true or false within that domain.

Again, I’m pretty sure that this is consistent with what Alan actually meant, but at the risk of being pedantic I wanted to confirm that we’re understanding each other correctly. OK, Alan?

3. Fundamentalism

The reason I considered this such a crucial distinction is that I think it explains why we’ve been talking past each other regarding the truth/falsehood of Christian belief. Specifically, I feel Alan hasn’t properly distinguished between that Christianity and Fundamentalism. I would characterize their relationship, using the above hierarchy, as:

a. Discipline: Divinity (“the study of ultimate reality”)
b. Paradigm: Christianity (“Jesus manifests the true character of divinity”)
c. Theory: Fundamentalism
d. Data: The Bible
e. Observable Reality: Documents, People, etc.

4. Critiques

Using those categories, Alan’s fundamental argument appears to be that:

“Either Fundamentalism is True, or the Bible is intrinsically unreliable and Christianity is False.”

However, I fear he is conflating a Theory with both its underlying Data and overarching Paradigm. To me, that would be like asserting that:

“Either String Theory is true, or Particle Accelerators are intrinsically unreliable and Quantum Physics is false.”

Sure, the different parts are correlated — kill enough theories and you weaken the paradigm and cast doubt on the data — but hardly identical. We accept all of Newton’s data, and even much of Ptolemy’s, even as we’ve rejected or modified their paradigms.

In this case, I define Fundamentalism as theory which elucidates a very particular interpretation of Christianity and asserts a very rigid hermeneutic about the Bible. And given that interpretation and hermeneutic, I actually agree with Alan: I think all of his eight eight arguments are mostly valid critiques of Fundamentalism. The really important question, though, is this: if Fundamentalism if false, what is true?

5. The Excluded Middle

I suspect Alan’s response would be that if his arguments are true, then the only rational alternative is a Liberalism that rejects the divinity of Christ and authority of Scripture — which he and I would both agree isn’t very much like orthodox Christianity. However, this is where I believe Alan has run afoul of the fallacy of the excluded middle.

In particular, I feel that Alan has not been sufficiently precise about the specific interpretation and hermeneutic he has been arguing against, so he is unjustified in extrapolating his falsification to cover all of orthodoxy. Of course, to be fair, I haven’t been all that precise myself.

6. Orthodoxy

So, let me try to concisely summarize the version of Orthodoxy I am willing to defend. I believe:

I. There exists a singular principle of divinity responsible for all aspects of observable reality (“There is One God.”)
II. The character of that divinity was fully manifested in the historical person of Jesus Christ (“Jesus is Lord.”)
III. The entire Christian movement originated when numerous individuals encountered a resurrected Jesus (“He Lives.”)

That’s it. Everything else — the Bible, ethics, heaven and hell, traditions, creeds — is contingent on those three truths. I hope Alan would agree that this is both a necessary and a sufficient “paradigm” to define orthodox Christianity. That is, any “theory” which affirms all of these would qualify (in our book) as Christianity, whereas any theory which denies any of them would not.

Fair enough? To be clear, this doesn’t address the question of why I believe it, or how I know it is true; I still need to elucidate a specific, testable interpretation and hermeneutic — i.e., an alternate theory — before we can explore those questions. However, I want to first make sure we’re talking about the same thing! Still with me, Alan?

7. Contingent Reality

Given all that, let me first check to see whether we really agree or disagree about “I.” Going back to my three universes, it does seem we’ve agreed on the existence of three different classes of objective reality:

A. mathematical systems
B. physical systems
C. moral systems

with the proviso that “moral” is contingent, and “mathematical” is independent of “physical.” Right?

This raise the question: is physical reality is independent of mathematical reality? If so, then how do you account for the mathematical nature of physical law? If not, then is physics contingent on math, or are they both contingent on something else? And which — if any — of these are “moral standards” contingent upon?

I don’t expect you to “know” the answer, Alan, I’m just trying to figure out what you currently believe.

8. The Omega Factor

For my part, as a physicist I firmly believe that mathematical truth is intrinsic to physical law, and hence there exists an underlying reality — earlier labeled “Omega” — which is responsible for both. In other words, the fact that elegant mathematics correctly describes the natural world to a very high degree is not an accident, but a profound truth that can be utterly relied upon. Would you disagree?

As a Christian, I would go one step further, and assert that Omega is also what moral standards are contingent upon. This non-contingent reality is what we have earlier defined as “divinity”, and thus — in these very specific terms — belief in a singular Omega is equivalent to faith in the existence of a single divine principle. This is the essence of my first point (“I. There is One God.”).

This doesn’t mean that “principle” is necessarily a “person.” It is also completely compatible with strong Deism; it doesn’t become Theism until you add “II”, or orthodox Christianity without “III.” However, Alan has earlier implied that he isn’t an “adeist”, merely an atheist, so I’m hoping that he will at least provisionally accept “I” so we can focus on “II” and “III.”

Over to you, Alan.