Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Christians often claim that philosophy has little to contribute to "the faith". While this may in some senses be true, it may also be fatal to think that Christians teachings are not influenced or even decided by currents and tides of human thought. One such recent influence is Positivism. A majority of Christian theologians have, I think, failed to come to terms with it.

Characteristic of classical Positivism is the claim that conclusions derived by using the scientific method are the only valid form of knowledge. As a result, facts are the only possible "objects" which can be truly known. As Karl Pearson puts it:

The whole range of phenomena, mental as well as physical - the entire universe - is its field. The scientific method is the sole gateway to the whole region of knowledge. [1]

The non-professional thinker may go along with Positivism up to this point, perhaps remarking that there are nevertheless questions other than those the scientist might ask. If this is true, there are likely to be other sorts of answers which fall outside the scope of science. For example, the question, "How do volcanoes operate?" will be answered by data which have been observed, tested and finally accepted by the consensus of a particular scientific community specialising in the study of volcanoes. But the question, "What is free will?" cannot be investigated by the scientific method.

Positivists go several steps further, particularly by extending their efforts into the realm of philosophy. They are likely to claim that their philosophical methods are essentially the same as those of scientists - or, if not identical, are subject to identical rigour and yield the same assured results. Positivist philosophy seeks to find and understand completely the general principles common to all science. These principles, once known, can be applied to human conduct. 

Despite this claim, a thoroughgoing Positivist such as Rudolf Carnap in contrast states that

... we give no answer to philosophical questions and instead reject all philosophical questions, whether of Metaphysics, Ethics or Epistemology. [2]

Positivism, it follows, must oppose the conclusions of metaphysics - which is the speculation from first principles (axioms) about matters which can't be answered by scientific observation and experiment. Most of what is covered by religion is usually included within the scope of metaphysics. Positivists would say that conventional religion recognises that we can't know "the ultimate" and therefore fills that gap with what is often termed "myth".

The Positivist theses, if they have even a modicum of good sense, pose considerable difficulties for traditional Christian teaching. This is mainly because such teaching depends upon a very different way of knowing truths about the world.

  • Christian teaching depends upon knowing (a) that a person we call Jesus of Nazareth did actually live some 2 000 years ago; and (b) that he did do and say certain things. Without that knowledge, the best we can say is that Christian doctrine is "invented" or "made up" by human beings. 

    Positivists would insist that historical knowledge about Jesus is valid only if it is backed up by solid evidence and good reasoning, accepted as such by the great majority of those who are acknowledged as historians. If sufficient, this evidence would give our knowledge of Jesus the quality of being empirical and therefore "true" in the Positivist sense. This kind of thinking lies behind the ongoing drive of some Christians to examine and test the New Testament for its historical accuracy.

  • In its traditional forms, Christian doctrine rests upon the thesis that God has communicated certain unalterable and inalienable truths to humanity by a process usually called "revelation". The process itself is likely to be of relatively little interest to the Positivist. What is at issue is the quality of the revealed "knowledge". No matter what it is, it will satisfy the Positivist only if it stands the test of reasoned investigation. Thus (one supposes) if the Bible contains both some revealed knowledge and some ordinary knowledge, it must be possible to differentiate between the two according to reasoned criteria.

  • Traditional Christianity proposes that God in and through the person of Jesus and "spiritually" throughout the ages relates personally to each of us just as we relate to each other. That is, one of God's characteristics is that of personhood. 

    The Positivist would insist that Christians demonstrate that this is the case by advancing some evidence for it. Only if that evidence is sufficiently weighty does this or any other characteristic of God (such as being merciful or caring, for example) qualify to be termed empirical.

The rise of Positivism coincides with the start of what is now increasingly being recognised as a conceptual crisis throughout much of the Church. The distant origins of Positivism lie in the works of Francis Bacon and other thinkers of the Enlightenment, particularly David Hume. But it was not until the 19th century that it took full flight and metamorphosed into an attempt to provide a complete set of answers for human life. It is in this sense that its type of reasoning is thought of as "positive" - that is, an attempt to replace the ancient "negatives" of unreasoning religion.

To put this type of thinking another way: if we are to consider anything other than experience as a basis for knowledge and truth, it must be mediated by the realm of facts. If, for example, it is true that dead human beings cannot come back to life, we must beware of any chain of reasoning which concludes with resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 

Again, if the totality of our experience in the 21st century indicates that human beings cannot walk on water, the Positivist would say that either Jesus wasn't a human being or he didn't do what the Bible says he did. We know as a matter of fact what makes a being human. If Jesus wasn't human then what kind of being was he? The Positivist will demand either empirical evidence or excellent argument at this point - if only because, according to Positivist standards, stupendous claims require stupendous evidence. Mere traditional teaching labelled "revealed by God" will not do.

A valid commitment to the metaphysical as a source of truth therefore requires a prior concern for the realm of facts. In the last resort, metaphysical propositions remain vulnerable to to refutation by what our senses reveal to us, and by carefully reasoned argument. 

Thus theology keeps its feet solidly on Positivist ground only as long as it can demonstrate its compatibility with established conclusions of science. Indeed, it is folly according to the Positivist to think that we can attain any knowledge whatsoever of an ultimate reality not of this world. 

August Comte (1798-1857), the recognised founder of Positivism, thought that humanity has gone through a number of stages. The first stage attributed knowledge to revelation by God; the next (having been deprived of the certainties of revelation) depended on speculative thinking from axioms. The highest stage is that which restricts itself to observable phenomena - what I have more broadly here termed "experience".

A longer quotation from W Quine helps explain this restriction:

The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics or logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only at the edges ... A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior ... [the] re-evaluation of some statements entails re-evaluation of others ... [3]

A 20th century variation of Positivism is known as Logical or Scientific Positivism. It is usually regarded as the brainchild of Ernst Mach (1838-1916), an Austrian physicist and philosopher. He recognised that science is ultimately a description of human experience. The essentially subjective nature of that experience makes it difficult to mediate it from one person to another. If you describe your experience to me, how am I to know that an apparently identical experience I think I have had is actually identical? This seems impossible, since there is no way of comparing them - except via the scientific method, according to the Positivist.

This is where logic, mathematics and theoretical physics come in. They provide the underlying methodology by which the essential meaning of any proposition is identified for, and made available to, everyone. They are independent of experience because they are a higher order of truth. 

In particular, they are a way of ordering truth which rises above the myths of religion. As John Macquarrie puts it, science ...

... aims at economy, that is to say, at bringing wide areas of experience  under as few concepts and hypotheses as possible, and as it succeeds in its task, we can better adapt ourselves to the environment and manage our experience ... the question of "why" is solved by ceasing to ask this question and by confining ourselves to the facts ... [4]

Some determined protagonists of Positivism have continued to maintain that there is no reason in principle why every field of knowledge, including psychology or sociology, for example, should not in the end be expressed in terms of physical propositions of physics. This position is usually known as scientific reductionism.

But this reduction of "everything that is" to empirical observations is easier said than done. The world of experience is extremely complex. Any attempt to describe it using normal language has proved impossible. Even the simplest mathematical statement of a physical law is generally too complex to state verbally. What science does for us, therefore, is to use logical analysis to

... reduce complex statements to elementary propositions, so that the "high-level" scientific statements of a given theory might be unpacked into "low-level" (and directly verifiable) claims about observation and experience ... [5] 

[1] The Grammar of Science, 1892, quoted by Macquarrie
[2] Quoted by J Passmore in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967
[3] From a Logical Point of View, Harvard University Press, 1953
[34 Twentieth Century Religious Thought, SCM Press Ltd, 1963
[5] A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, Ed. W H Newton-Smith, Blackwell, 2000

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