Here's a Thought

Evolutionary “Explanation” and the Limits of Science

In the last week, I’ve had two conversations with friends and colleagues about the explanatory power of evolution (particularly evolutionary psychology) and the potential explanatory reach of the scientific method. So, a few thoughts on the subject:

      It is disturbing to me how quickly modern thinkers feel comfortable making explanatory moves that are in tension with our actual experiences of the phenomena being allegedly explained. That is to say, the explanation of a phenomenon is not related to our intuitive sense of what is going on. Rather, our intuitive sense is really a smokescreen for something completely different. Take morality, for instance. Human beings have always or for the most part connected morality to ontology. The reason right is right and wrong is wrong has everything to do with actual structures and moral norms woven into the fabric of the universe. And indeed, we intuitively experience morality this way. Wrong is just wrong because it is wrong, etc. It’s ontological. Even if it were not “inefficient” to rape a dying woman in the desert, you still shouldn’t and that is obvious. And then along comes evolutionary explanations to say that the real reason we relate our moral impulses to an ontology is because it is beneficial, given the evolutionary search for survival, for human beings to relate their moral feelings to something grand and great. It would take more “energy” for evolution to “explain” to its subjects what’s really going on. And, indeed, the tendency of humans to relate their morality to an ontology is very useful for making secure the actual behavior that contributes to individual and societal preservation. If we were in on the joke, so it is argued, the survival benefits of our deception would cease to exist.
     Now, let’s imagine that this is all actually possible or plausible. I don’t think that it is, but that’s not my main point here. Even if this were an option on the table, how does this become an “explanation” for the actual features of a phenomenon? Explanations which require such counter-intuitive moves require a huge burden of proof. So in this case, for instance, even if evolution could explain the origin of moral feelings, does it really explain the human tendency to relate these moral impulses to a metaphysical notion of “the Good?” This seems superfluous. If the evolutionary process is competent to make metaphysics, isn’t it competent to make creatures who are deeply motivated by simple socially pragmatic ends? Indeed, we operate in the realm of pragmatics (with no conscious metaphysical convictions) all the time. Why add “the Good” into the picture? It is not that, given a certain perspective, evolution could not produce notions of “the Good,” but (even if it could!) this does not mean that the evolutionary process actually persuasively accounts for such a notion in any unique manner. That is to say, even if evolution did produce our notion of “the Good,” the latter seems superfluous – something like a spandrel in our otherwise useful ethical impulses. Evolution more “allows for” the notion rather than “accounting” for it.
     And that gets me to my main point. Why do such explanations satisfy us? If we presume metaphysical and methodological naturalism, we’re likely to find this the only available explanation. But, the irony is that such naturalism is usually said to be warranted by precisely the explanatory power of the evolutionary process. In case my verbosity causes the reader to miss the point here, that is circular, especially if there are options on the table which explain the various features of morality precisely as they are intuitively experienced. If we do not assume metaphysical naturalism (and we should not), there are possible resources available to account for our notions of “the Good” in a manner that does not require this somewhat Freudian appeal to what’s “really” going on (Dennett’s alleged “universal acid”).
     Of course, this does not mean that evolution or evolutionary psychology is wrong. It just means that it is not as obviously a “sufficient” explanation as it confidently proclaims itself to be. The recent debate over the explanatory power of natural selection and evolutionary psychology between atheists Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober suggests that this is being increasingly recognized, even in the atheist community.  The speed with which modern thinkers cling to such explanations suggests to me that metaphysical naturalism is often less of a critical conclusion than an assumed victor which, consequently, must explain all phenomenon. Of course, given such a method, it only takes a little bit of creativity, an imagined environment of evolutionary selection, and a dash of skill in abstraction, to come up with an explanation for pretty much everything. Can these sorts of explanations even be falsified (a la Karl Popper)?  Interestingly, another recent conversation between Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and atheist Thomas Nagel suggest that at least some atheists sense the problem in these sorts of explanations and are re-exploring older “naturalisms” which allow a larger place for “mind.” I can imagine two reactions to this overall point:
     Objection 1: “Science has produced counter-intuitive results in the past, so what wrong with that here?” First, I suspect that this is overplayed. There are many results of science which are unexpected but which do not necessarily violate what we would expect. The observations of particle physicists, for instance, can be genuinely surprising, but since we don’t experience “particles” in any conscious manner, our intuitions are not overtly violated. As well, it is worth remembering that the ancients anticipated (at least in principle) many of these modern observations. The “micro-world” was always seen to be mysterious. Many things were theorized concerning it, but it was probably always known that we knew very little and that the “small stuff” might be surprising. Probably a better example is that of heliocentrism or Newton’s laws of motion. The earth seems “central” and “stable” from our perspective, but our observations demonstrate to us that it is neither. Even here, I could imagine an argument distinguishing our phenomenological experiences from cosmic inferences. After all, even some ancients thought the earth moved!  Still, I won’t try to argue that there is nothing counter-intuitive here. But even if there is, our persuasion that these counter-intuitive propositions are correct has required an extraordinary amount of evidence (and  falsifiable evidence) concerning objects which are immediately or easily accessible to us.
    Objection 2: “Maybe evolution does not have unique explanatory power in relation to all the features of morality, but because it has explained so many other things very well, it has been shown to be a powerful causal force in the world and so we should be disposed to accept an evolutionary explanation, even if it is not equally illuminating in all circumstances.” And now the rubber meets the road and we get to the limitations of science. In my judgment, what is almost entirely overlooked in debates over the “new atheism” is the inability of science to actually prove metaphysical propositions. And unlike evolutionary analyses of basic physical traits, human consciousness, morality, joy, aesthetics (etc) – are all perceived by said humans to have qualitative and metaphysical properties. Let us imagine, for instance, that there was an evolutionary explanation (of the “efficient causality” sort) of all observable phenomenon. I don’t find such a claim persuasive, but even if I did, it would not mitigate any notion of “final causality” in the whole process. And there is no way to get around the fact that final causality has everything to do with the particular features that various phenomenon take. See Cunningham’s delightful “Darwin’s Pious Idea” on these matters. Let’s go back to morality so that we can make this concrete. What if every moral event had a corresponding and predictable mental equation/brain-event? Would we have “mapped” morality? Would moral impulses then be reducible to the equation. Many people assume so, but this is actually very far from obvious. In most of history, notions of “quality” (justice, good, right, wrong, evil, beauty, etc) were seen as just “there.” And why should we think otherwise? Because they are always attended by predictable physical or neural correlates? Why should we expect otherwise? Perhaps we would not have guessed it, but it’s certainly not surprising. Now, this is conceding a lot, but only to make a point. Even in the “worst case scenario” for the non-naturalist – indeed, even if naturalism were right (!) – there would be no reason to be persuaded that naturalism was true. Science can only traffic in measurements and observations. It can make inferences (and ideally!) predictions. But it cannot move beyond the realm of quantity to the realm of quality – which, from a purely phenomenological perspective, is an irreducible  feature of our consciousness. So to argue that science can move from that realm to explain morality, justice, goodness, God (etc), is to already assume that these things are reducible to quantities rather than being irreducibly qualitative realities. And this, my friends, is a philosophical move, and a bad one at that. If you don’t make that move, then even if naturalism were right, you could never use science to show it to be right. Indeed, to go back to the above metaphor, if naturalism is true, then it is necessarily far more clever than many atheists assume it to be. Why? Because even atheists can’t really be in on the joke and remain rational, given the phenomena that blind nature has built. If it’s true, even atheists shouldn’t be persuaded.
     As an antidote to this reasoning, see Herman Bavinck’s reflections on the foundational epistemic role of “self-consciousness” in his “The Philosophy of Revelation.”

Tragedy, Collective “Grief,” & Media

When tragedies like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School occur, I always wind up feeling guilty. Why? Because while many of my friends family express profound grief and sorrow over such a heinous event, I usually feel very little. Sure, it disturbs me, but mostly it just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps this means I lack empathy, but I doubt it. When grief strikes my family, friends, or community, I usually respond with a good bit of emotion and empathy. And that’s just the difference. I don’t know these people. I don’t know their children. I don’t know their community. And after all the tears of my friends are wiped away, those parents and those children and that community will keep weeping. This has all made me think about two things, and then a third.

First, I have been reflecting on what Charles Taylor has called the modern “social imaginary” – the way in which we collectively and reflexively experience our connection with other people in our modern open access society. For Taylor, this involves public space, public action, and what he calls a “simultaneous mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each one of us as we act that the others are there, as witness of what we are doing, and thus as co-determiners of the meaning of our action” (A Secular Age, 481). This is perhaps the way in which our modern society preserves some pre-modern forms of religious ceremony. We have collective experiences through things like rock festivals. And indeed, we experience collective grief (think Princess Di’s funeral).  And these moments of collective action stand in contrast to (perhaps a therapy for) modern atomistic and dis-engaged Western individual existence.

Second, I have been reflecting on the role of the media in our modern collective experiences. Collective grief is more complex that common excitement at a rock show. We don’t plan for it. It just happens – usually as served through news-media. In the recent tragedy, it would be difficult to describe the networks’ reaction to this as much different from the “play by play” mode of reporting that is common in professional sports reporting. “it was this boy.” “No it was the other one.” “His mom worked there.” “No she didn’t.” “It was 10 kids.” “No, it was 20 kids.” It is important to come to grips with the fact that the news is an entertainment medium. The music which opens the news is indistinguishable from that of a game show. And the developments in our world that the news reports are not those which are most important to our lives, but the ones likely to get the most viewers – and therefore most likely to gain the biggest audience to watch the commercials which fund the programs themselves. This is the nature of most television, internet, and newspaper reporting. Neil Postman spoke about “the news of the day” as a modern genre of information. There are many important things going on in the world, but exceptional evil and the sex lives of celebrities sell. I’m observing more than I’m judging. Like many people, I’m quite sure I have found myself curiously clicking on a link featuring some detail of Taylor Swift’s private life when I could have been reading about recent grain developments in the third world or about local political issues which directly affect me.

And so a third and final thought. At the end of the day, these are illusory and transient experiences. Our faculties are designed to respond to evil with grief. And it is a natural human response to want to “do something” when these tragedies hit. And digital media has made us to feel a part of these events. The schoolhouse, grief-striken parents (etc) are all in our living rooms. But again, this is illusory. We’re far away. We don’t know them. We usually can’t help them. And again, we will stop crying very soon. They will not. They will never “get over it.” They will find a new normal. I might send up a nameless and faceless “air prayer” and then get back to whatever I was doing before. I don’t mean to denigrate our prayers or our emotions, but it seems to me that they are (in many of these cases) a servant to modes of receiving information for which are faculties were not designed. And even if we actually “do something” in light of the information, we did not receive the information because we can do something, but because it was a “good story.”

And so I’m ambivalent. I have moments of sadness. But it is surprisingly easy to forget. And that, too, is normal. In a way, it almost seems almost disrespectful to feel “a part” of this tragedy. It was given to me by a dispenser of “good stories” because it was more interesting than any other number of things that could have run that day. But many real families in a real location in real space and real time are forever really changed. I am not. I can pray for them, but not like their neighbors and families. Perhaps this seems unfeeling, but I can only imagine that if (God forbid!) something similar happened to me, I’d look with bewilderment at the NBC van but with longing at the comforting and tearful grasp of my real neighbor.


Book Review of “Kingdom Through Covenant”

A few weeks ago, The Calvinist International hosted my book review of Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s recent tome, Kingdom Through Covenant.



Thoughts on Church “Authority”


After several conversations with a dear friend concerning the nature of the church’s authority, he bought me the 2010 book, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline, by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman argues, in sum, that God’s love is defined for the world by the practices of formal church membership and discipline. This book is endorsed by prominent Southern Baptist pastor, Mark Dever, and by the Reformed theologian, Michael Horton. It represents a trend among recent confessional evangelicals in North America to reclaim (against the backdrop of its de-emphasis) the doctrine of the church and its centrality in the life of the believer. While I benefited from many sections in the book, I’m uneasy about this new re-emphasis on church authority. In my judgment, many ambiguities attend the recent Protestant recovery of “church authority.” And as much as I consider myself to have a “high ecclesiology,” the flavor seems off here. Many of Leeman’s most controversial statements must die the death of a thousand qualifications – some of which he gives and some of which he does not give. Here are a few thoughts:

1. The concern for “clarity” as it concerns the relationship between the visible and invisible church can, in fact, be unprincipled. Over and over again in Leeman’s book, he argues that church membership and discipline are God’s way of guarding His name, making clear what His love actually looks like, etc. The less we practice formal membership and discipline, presumably, the less clear we are about the exclusive nature of the gospel and Jesus’ gospel demand for repentance. But, the “boundary” between the visible and invisible church has never been particularly clear. Look at the people Paul can meaningfully call “brothers” and “churches” in his Corinthian correspondence. Consider the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The objective behavior difference between the visible church and the world is sometimes sadly blurry. But this is just a feature of living in the age between Christ’s first and second comings. Certainly, the line between the church and the world is not endlessly elastic. Paul did, after all, oust someone in 1 Corinthians. And surely if a person said, “I don’t believe in Jesus anymore,” they’d be out. But the threshold of entrance into the church in the New Testament is not particularly high.

As much as we might like to make the line more clear, we are not authorized to do so in the New Testament. While the entrance threshold is quite low (i.e. basic confession and the lack of any explicit evidence against the confession) – the standard that the confessed are held to is rather high. Paul spends a lot more time in his epistles exhorting confessors than he does questioning the “reality” of their faith. In any case, once we focus too much on church membership and making the line “clear,” where do we stop? Church history is, after all, riddled with churches that have all sorts of ways of making “extra sure” that individuals’ confessions are real – and with terrible consequences.

The answer to nominalism in our churches is not to “up the ante” for church-membership, but to encourage and disciple one another with the word of God. We do not need to construct artificial forms of community (see below), but rather be ever more vigilant in pursuing the love of God through the gospel. The risk of luke-warm Christianity is not a risk Jesus saw fit to absolutely eradicate. And this is precisely because the church is a school for sinners, not a club for saints – a contention that surely everyone in the current debate would agree with.

2. While I think the first point constitutes the largest sentimental problem with Leeman’s paradigm, the largest semantic problem has to do with his equivocal use of “authority” in ecclesiological matters. Again and again, we are told that the church has been given Christ’s authority. We are told that the local church (not individual Christians) has been authorized to speak in His name, declare who belongs to Him, separate those who don’t, disciple its members, etc. This might offend us, we are reminded, but this is only for the same reason that God’s authority offends us.

There is a major problem with putting the matter this way. As I’m sure Leeman would agree, when it pertains to Christian conscience, the church only has the authority of the word. If the church excommunicates you for no good reason, it has no spiritual implications. If the church doesn’t excommunicate you when it should, then you are still in big spiritual trouble! Why? Because the church is only declaring externally what is already true spiritually. The only “authority of Christ” it has is an “inasmuch as” authority. That is, it has “ministerial” and declarative authority. But, this authority really belongs to every individual Christian. Spouses can minister God’s word to one another and to their children. Individual can admonish one another and rebuke one another with the word. And inasmuch as their admonishments, encouragements and rebukes accurately reflect the word, they are (indeed!) speaking for Christ! The only difference the “group” makes is with respect to the “group,” not with respect to the underlying spiritual realities so declared. Certainly only a body of believers can kick someone out – but that is because of the nature of belonging to a collective body. Certainly only a local church (not an individual) can refuse you the Lord’s Supper or baptism, but that is because both of these are communal events which require more than one person. But here is the key. The spiritual meaning and implication of this refusal to the sacraments is not different when it is said by a group or by an individual, because all that is being said is what God’s word says. It is not as though one is “right with God” up until the moment of excommunication and then they’re “out with God” when the church gavel hits. That is just a visible testimony of what is already true of someone – and which can (in principle) be stated by any believer. And this is also, by the way, the reason the tense of the verbs in Matthew 16 matters. “What you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” can also be translated “shall have been bound in heaven” (future passive). In other words, the earthly binding takes its “binding” quality from its already heavenly archetype.

And so, the church does not have “spiritual authority” in any way analogous to the earthly authority of a parent over the life of a child or a magistrate over a citizen. The church has this sort of authority only as it pertains to certain externals: the time of worship, the order of the service, the “Cider House Rules” of each particular church community, etc. These are a function of the church being like any other organization or political structure. As a political or institutional structure, the church has no particular or unique relation to Christian conscience. It is only in respect of its gathering around the word and sacraments that the corporate church has a particular relationship to Christian conscience – but this is (again!) a function of the word being gathered around and its ministry rather than a function of the institutional quality as such. The “spiritual authority” is only ever the word – and this exists in principle with any priest (i.e. believer) ministering in God’s name.

Of course, we certainly render our elders and pastors the submission and deference due their office, service, etc. We want to make their lives a blessing in gratitude for their ministry to us! And (hopefully!) as exemplars of what the word looks like in practice, we might take their council as more weighted in moral and spiritual matters than most other church members. Indeed, churches normally hire someone to explain the word and it is normative for a believer to go to such a  person for help in understanding what God’s word requires us to do and believe. But in all these cases, as it pertains to Christian conscience, we are only bound to follow these men inasmuch as they proclaim the word accurately – and (in precisely this sense) we are just as obliged to listen to any brother or sister who accurately applies the word to us. Again, the most obvious difference between the authority of any individual in Christ’s body and its leaders (or the church corporate) is in the non-binding prudential matters which are a part of any institutional organization of people.

3. Behind this semantic issue is a confusion, in my judgment, about what the “church” is. The visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression. This is why a mother can “minister” to her child. The church is a community (both worldwide and local) and has all the ambiguities of normal human communities. Indeed, in founding the church, did Jesus’ even found a particular institutional form? For the most part, the history of church structure and government has been a history of Christian prudence. Like Jethro’s prudential suggestion that Moses institute judges in the Old Testament, so the New Testament church basically follows the Inter-Testamental Synagogue pattern (See James Burtachaell’s From Synagogue to Church). In Acts, the founding of the office of the deacon seems to be rooted in particular problems that require a particular solution. And what is more, most human communities in history have had something very similar to “elders” and “deacons.” Even in Ephesians 4, Paul’s exposition of the “word ministries” assumes the prior existence of the church to which the ministries are given as fitting to “build up” the people with the word. In sum, the church is just the community of confessors and the political form they take is rooted in nature and in Christian prudence as guided by Scripture.

The point here is not to say that we can pick and chose any form of ecclesiastical organization that we want – any more than we can say the same of human government generally. The point is rather to say that the rhetoric which is associated with “ministers” and “offices” that Jesus has given to the church as “authorities in His name” understate the extent to which these ministries stand in continuity with the ministries of Israel and with all human communities. And in recognizing this, we move a step away from viewing the church as a people associated with a priestly caste and rather just call the church the people – the offices just comprising the political expression of the people in the manner that all human communities express themselves. Far from making a “free for all” blueprint as it pertains to forms of ecclesiastical government, however, there are independent arguments (both Scriptural and prudential) to be made for particular forms of church organization.

Putting the matter this way also helps to clarify that the individual Christian has the same relationship to the word as “the church” does corporately. Both as individuals and a body, we stand under the word. The body nor its officers mediate the word to the individual as a political ambassador reading decrees. Any individual can receive such decrees from the word individually or from another Christian apart from a particular institutional expression – even if we recognize a particular blessing in the worship gathering and the uniqueness of the manner (preaching and sacraments) in which we receive the word there.

4. As stated above, there is a failure here to perceive how the church as an institution is not unique among human institutions. Making the church as a local institution something “special” in this sense creates lots of awkward problems. Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution. Does the fact that one has a significant ministry in the life of one’s unbelieving neighbors play a role in making a decision about whether or not to move? Does the societal benefit that incurs when one uses their gifts at their job perhaps mitigate against an offer to make more money?

Certainly it is a problem to move from church to church willy-nilly. But this is not because our “church vows” obligate us otherwise, but because we shouldn’t behave this way in any community of which we are a valuable part. Members in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, develop deep relationships with one another and really need each other. It would reflect bad character to skip from AA chapter to AA chapter without building the deep and personal relationships for which the program was designed. The problem of “church skipping” is not to be solved by binding the conscience (comparing local church membership to a marriage contract, for instance), but rather by dealing with the societal impulses that make us unable to commit and love people.

5. This leads to a final point. It seems to me that the “return to ecclesiology” (which is a good thing!) can have some uncritical “pendulum” effects. In a culture awash in options, a culture in which there is nothing forcing us to commit to anything, where we can divorce at will, choose to form relationships in ways that our forefathers would never have dreamed, etc – we face many complex pastoral problems that former generations did not have to face. The solution to this, however, does not lie in the artificial erection of boundaries or laws to “compensate” for the modern situation. The solution is to reflect upon the uniqueness of our situation, pray for wisdom, and seek the Spirit’s help in building up natural community and accountability in the way that human beings have always done. Behind this solution is the old Reformed notion that redemption renews (rather than replaces) creation. The reason church community looks very much like natural community is that God is in the business of redeeming creation. And for precisely this reason, the problem of church membership and discipline is not different from the problem that faces our human communities generally. We don’t suffer from a problem of church commitment only, but from job commitment, marriage commitment, organizational commitment, friendship commitment, etc. The solution is to analyze the way in which our modern situation destroys natural human bonds and flourishing and to recover nature – but as moved along by grace.

The other solution is to recover the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” for which I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s recent series.

On Galatians 2’ing Your Opponent

If I had a quarter for every time I’ve seen Paul’s rebuke of Peter (in Galatians 2) be used as an excuse to circumvent a careful conversation and get right to theological mudslinging, I’d be a very wealthy man. In case you’ve never witnessed this paradigmatic exchange, the conversation usually goes like this: 1. Someone with a name like Reginald makes a controversial statement. 2. Someone with a name like Buck says that Reginald is surely leading everyone to Hell. 3. Reginald (or one of his friends) politely suggests that perhaps Buck does not fully understand Reginald’s position, and urges caution and patience in order to develop his argument. 4. Buck (or one of his friends) down the Pauline gauntlet: “Was Paul careful and measured with Peter – checking to make sure that he knew all the nuances of Peter’s position, etc?”

Perhaps Buck (or one of his friends) will never read this, but just in case – three thoughts. 1. Paul confronted Peter about a matter directly related to the gospel. Most of the time when his example is made the object of appeal, the gospel is not at stake. 2. I am quite sure that Paul understood Peter. I am not quite sure that you understand Reginald. 3. Most importantly, this analogy only works if you actually do grasp what Reginald is claiming. But that is the very point of contention. Typically, the reason you are being politely chided is that Reginald (and his friends) are rather unpersuaded that you have actually understood his position. Once they are persuaded that you understand him, and if you still then decide to pull a Galatians 2, at least your only potential sin is being a jerk who is disproportionate in his judgments – rather than an ignorant jerk who is disproportionate in his judgments. Or, of course, it is always possible that Reginald is in fact leading everyone to Hell.

A Blog

Well, here it is. A blog. I’ve resisted the urge to blog for years and all the musings of the media ecologists make me feel guilty for finally giving in. But here we are. Or, more likely, here I am. Cheers.