Thursday, 1 June 2017

Science and Atheism

I focus on the seemingly close relationship between science and atheism. Why is that so? I argue that the primary reason is that certain scientists and most atheists share a common modernist philosophical framework that goes back to the Enlightenment. I discuss the historical reasons for this situation and show why current philosophical thinking rejects that view as discredited. I present a better philosophical framework - a middle-of-the-road approach between modernism and postmodernism - that includes not only science but all the human sciences, the hermeneutical disciplines and even art in its embrace.

In the context of the conversation between Christians and atheists, we now come to another important issue, namely the fact that many scientists - especially natural scientists - are also atheists. I think most people would concur that this observation is correct. This immediately introduces the question as to why this is the case? Does it mean that scientists as experts know better than other people what is true in metaphysical matters? Or is it merely the critical stance that scientists take towards their object of study which influences their stance towards religion? What is the reason for the seemingly close relationship between atheism and science?

Although there are many possible answers that people may give to this question, I believe that the one that really goes to the bottom of the issue involves a certain philosophical perspective which such atheistic scientists have on the world. It is true that many scientists are not well-educated in philosophy and are not even aware of the philosophical presuppositions that they bring to science, but there nonetheless cannot be any question that for historical reasons, science was and is strongly influenced by the modernist philosophy which stood at its cradle.

I argue in this essay that the reason why so many scientists are atheists is that they share the modernist philosophical framework which originated in the Enlightenment – which is also the case with many other atheists and agnostics who take them as role models. So, the actual question is one concerning such philosophical frameworks. In a previous essay, I considered atheism and Christianity in terms of their metaphysical worldviews (i.e. in thinking about the world as it "really" is; part 3). Now I consider them in the context of philosophical thinking.

In my view atheists strengthen their standing in society through their association with science. When most people think of science, they think of a no-nonsense, objective methodological approach that goes beyond all subjective opinions. Through its association with science, atheism is often also cast in such terms. The problem is that this is actually a case of honor by association, where atheism gains some honor in society due to their close relation with science (which is a fallacy in thinking).

When one, however, understands that the real reason for the relationship between atheism and science (to the extent that this is true) is a common discredited philosophical framework, the situation changes a lot. What I assert is that there is no direct relationship between atheism and science except that, for the most part, atheistic scientists such as Richard Dawkins (and their followers) adhere to an outdated philosophical perspective.

In this essay, I am primarily concerned with the basic philosophical frameworks that govern contemporary thinking, especially modernism (Enlightenment humanism) as viewed in the context of our postmodern era and how this relates to the atheist-Christian conversation. (As always) I work from a Kantian angle to bring these perspectives into focus – showing that both modernism and postmodernism belong to the extremes of philosophical thinking.

I also show how we may use Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in combination with that of Hans-Georg Gadamer to establish a middle of the road philosophical approach in which science, the human sciences, the hermeneutical disciplines and even art are all part of one coherent outlook on life. I show that whereas atheism is closely connected with modernism and religious plurality with postmodernism, Christianity finds its natural place within the space between these extremes. As such Christianity is - in my evaluation - more in line with a balanced philosophical understanding of our world than any of the other metaphysical worldviews.

Modernism – a historical perspective

When we consider the issue of modernism in science and elsewhere in society, it is important to remember that this term can be understood in various ways. In this essay, I am only concerned with the contemporary understanding of the word as a reflection on the thinking of the modern era from the perspective of our postmodern era insofar as society has moved beyond modernism.

As such modernism is understood in the context of the reaction of postmodern thought (but not only postmodernism, as we will see) against the ways of thinking that belonged to the so-called modern period (from the Enlightenment to the middle of the twentieth century), in some way as its direct opposite. So, the term modernism refers to a philosophical school of thought which originated in the modern period – it is retrospectively so applied. Although modernism lost its prominence in current philosophical thought, it is still alive and well in certain circles in the UK and US.

What does modernism mean? By modernism, I refer to the Enlightenment ideal of achieving absolute objectivity in science. Within modern philosophy, the idea developed (starting with René Descartes (1596-1650)) that science could obtain some Archimedean point from where the observer could achieve an objective perspective on the subject of inquiry. In philosophy, the pursuit of this ideal of absolute objectivity reached its climax in the neo-Kantian and Logical Empiricist (Logical Positivist) schools of thought during the first part of the twentieth century.

The impact of the Logical Empiricists was the greatest – especially in the Anglo-American world. On the one hand these proponents of a “scientific philosophy” valued logic and mathematics, on the other they were the true heirs of British empiricism. They accentuated the “scientific world conception” and articulated the scientific method and a scientific conception of philosophy as a liberation of the mind from the "metaphysical shackles that keep society down", especially in the context of culture. They had an enormous influence on Analytic (English) philosophy and the philosophy of science. One may even say that the spirit of the movement still has adherents. Many philosophers and lay people took one of the founders of this school, the atheist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), as a role model.

The central feature of modernism is that science can obtain an objective view of the world in which all non-objective and subjective perspectives are removed. As such science is the only true measure of reality available to us – all other measures are suspect since they do not adhere to strict scientific standards and cannot be verified (the verifiability criterion [1]). This means that all of human life – including the human sciences and hermeneutic disciplines – should be measured only in terms of science.

In practice, this led to a scientism view on reality – "objective" science alone can be trusted since it is the only true and objective measure of reality. As such "objective" science was and is used to make pronouncements about the totality of existence. All other perspectives are considered to be mere “metaphysics”. There cannot be any space for God or gods in this view. In this way, modernism inspired not merely to a certain philosophical goal – that of absolute objectivity – but also an atheistic worldview based on that. Modernist science and atheism were both grounded on the modernist philosophical perspective.

This elevation of the ideal of objectivity to be the measure of all reality led to a reaction which is especially pronounced in postmodernism, originating already in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) but which only became a large movement and framework of philosophical thought during the second part of the twentieth century. Whereas modernism is primarily concerned with science, postmodernism takes its impulse primarily from art. As such we may consider postmodernism as the heirs of the romanticism of post-Kantian philosophy.

When the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard for the first time used the word “postmodern” in his booklet The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), he argued for a plurality of narratives as standing opposed to so-called “metanarratives” (one overarching narrative), of which that of the sciences is one of the most important ones. Instead of one objective meaning, we find that a plurality of meaning is celebrated in postmodernism as we find, for example, in the work of Jacques Derrida.

Since its inception, the postmodern philosophical perspective has found wide acceptance not only within the arts, the hermeneutical disciplines and the human sciences in general, but especially (in the context of our current discussion) within the sphere of cultural and religious diversity. As such it is often asserted that all religious narratives are true in some way (Lyotard even celebrated the pluralism of the many gods of paganism in contrast with the one God of Judeo-Christianity). It has been argued that, since we as humans do not have an objective view on Truth (objectivity), there is no solid ground for us to assert the truth of one religious narrative over the other.

Although some atheistic scientists view postmodernism as the only alternative to their way of thinking – and rejects it outright as unscientific – this is actually a false dichotomy. There are philosophical perspectives that cannot be grouped with either of modernism or postmodernism. As such we may take a closer look at the criticism of modernism without implying that postmodernism is the answer.

A critique of modernism [2]

Although the Logical Empiricists saw themselves as the heirs of the Enlightenment, they at the same time knew that science made a dramatic leap forward when Newton's theory was replaced by Einstein's theories. One may think that Einstein’s theories are merely a more sophisticated understanding of the world which built upon that of Newton, but that is not the case. As Thomas Kuhn argued in his well-known The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the shift from Newtonian science to that of Einstein involved a true revolution in which a whole paradigmatic view of the world was replaced with another. And one should not forget that Newton was wrong in some ways – think of the measurement of the orbital motion of the planet Mercury.

This place the question of objectivity at center stage. The modernists originally believed that Newton’s theory gave an objective view of the world, but they were wrong. How do we know (or prove!) that future generations would not also find fault with Einstein’s theories even though they are obviously much better than that of Newton? There is no way to show that Einstein's general relativity is a true measure of what reality is like (other more sophisticated theories that view the world differently have been proposed) even though it is obviously consistent with results within certain contexts. 

In fact, we have a competing theory in the form of quantum physics which view the world dramatically different from Einstein’s general relativity. Although scientists try to reconcile these two perspectives on the world, that does not change the fact the one is basically deterministic and the other non-deterministic. These are directly contradicting principles and there is no generally accepted view as to how these are to be reconciled. This merely accentuates the fact that our knowledge of the cosmos is limited and that we do not have an objective view on it.

Scientists often mention that the scientific method guarantees that data is correct and repeatable in experiment – even in quantum physics. There can be no doubt that this is indeed the case. The problem is, however, that one of the interpretations of quantum physics connects the outcomes directly with the involvement of the observer (even though this cannot be “proven”). Furthermore, even though “objective” data is obtained, the primary question is how that data is to be understood. What does it mean insofar as our understanding of the workings of the universe is concerned?

Since quantum entities are outside empirical reach during their pre-measurement phase, we do not really understand them. The mathematical equations which describe them do not place them in proper space in the case of quantum mechanics or proper space-time in Quantum Field Theory, but in an abstract Hilbert space (or abstract space-time manifold), which is irreducibly complex insofar as it can only be expressed in complex numbers. Science can only gain a direct understanding of things if they are presented in space-time – which is not the case with these quantum entities which merely “appear” in space-time when measured (in which case their characteristic behaviour have changed). As such, it eventually became clear that the verifiability criterion of the Logical Empiricists was not only untenable (quantum entities cannot be verified in their pre-measurement phase; the same is true for gravitational fields) but is itself in fact unverifiable!

This problem of the empirical access of quantum entities is also the reason why there are various well-known interpretations of quantum physics – none of which can claim to provide an objective understanding of our world (for example, the Copenhagen interpretation, Bohm's interpretation, Von Neumann's observer interpretation and the many-worlds interpretation). So, although we have “objective” data, an objective understanding of that data (and therefore knowledge as to what that means) is beyond the reach of science. In fact, science have absolutely no idea what lures in the world of quantum physics! Dark matter and dark energy have become household terms – but science does not know much of that either. In contrast with the view of the Logical Empiricists, the idea of the “metaphysics of science” has become an established feature of quantum physics in the philosophy of science.

The same is true for the human “sciences”. Although the scientific method is generally used, we have no idea what an objective understanding of such matters would entail! As is the case in quantum physics, such scientists are forever doomed to interpret the data – and there are about always various possible interpretations that present themselves. The result of this problem in science was that the Enlightenment ideal of absolute objectively has long since been dropped from serious discussion.

In fact, the ideas of the Logical Empiricists in this regard had been thoroughly discredited in current philosophical thinking. This, however, does not stop many scientists and atheists from (unconsciously) using this philosophical framework as the basis for their pronouncements about the nature of our universe. In fact, it often seems that they are not even aware that scientism is merely another metaphysical worldview – which falls in the very same category as religion! To the extent that they use contemporary science to say something about the “true” nature of our world – which according to them do not include God or gods (spiritual entities) – they engage with metaphysics. This is a metaphysics built upon an outdated modernist philosophical view about science.

Towards a viable philosophical model

In my view, the Kantian philosophical framework provides us with a middle of the road approach which does not only account for objectivity in science, but also for a viable understanding of the human sciences and humanities in general. Not only does it provide us with a balanced philosophical perspective of life (when we read Gadamer’s philosophy as expanding the Kantian project – see below), but it is also consistent with the Christian worldview.

The challenge for atheists – since modernism has been discredited – is not only to provide a viable philosophical framework which is not merely agnostic (as we find, for example, in Bas Van Fraassen’s Constructive Empiricism [3]) but which also provides us with positive tools for understanding our world. As I discussed previously in another essay (see part 3 of this series), atheists and agnostics may get away with not providing any consistent metaphysical worldview based on some kind of philosophical perspective, but that is not in tune with their appreciation of science in which our only measure of truth lies in testable theories – metaphysical ones, included.

Some readers may find it strange that I call upon an Enlightenment philosopher such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to present a view that rejects modernism. There is, however, good reason to reject any identification of Kant with modernism. Although Kant accentuated reason in a way that was typical of his age, his theory of knowledge – which grounded Newtonian science and any kind of mathematical science, for that matter – is not one in which absolute objectivity feature. The reason is simple: in Kant’s view the observing subject (the thinking I) is grounded in the noumenal self (of which we cannot know anything) and objects are grounded in the noumenal realm, which means that we can never fully explore their true reality!

When Kant speaks of “objectivity” (or “truth”) he has something very specific in mind, namely that the empirical data which are given in our intuitions (as particulars) are brought under the rules given by our concepts (as universals) through determinate judgment (see part 2). So, when we judge that certain data conform with our theoretical model, we may say that we have achieved “objective” knowledge in that regard. This process, however, is not singularly determined – one may have data within certain contexts agreeing with simple models and data in other more complex situations agreeing with more sophisticated models (Kant nowhere says anything contrasting this). In this way, we may think of Newton’s theory as describing objective reality in classical contexts and Einstein’s theories as describing objective reality in relativistic contexts.

What is more, I argued elsewhere (part 4) that we may view Kant’s conception of “noumena” as consistent with quantum entities since Kant’s noumena are outside our forms of intuition, namely space and time. Although Kant argued that we cannot gain any knowledge of noumena, I previously also argued that Kant’s system may be reworked in such a way that it is consistent with quantum physics (part 4). In that case, we may gain knowledge of quantum entities in the context of their appearance in space-time, i.e. when they are observed. This is consistent with the work done by Hernán Pringe in his Critique of the Quantum Power of Judgment (2007).

Image result for gadamer image

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)

What about “objectivity” in the human sciences? At this point, I bring the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) into play. In his monumental work Truth and Method (1960), Gadamer presents his philosophy in terms of a hermeneutical understanding of the world in which the absolute objectivity of modernism in neo-Kantianism and elsewhere is rejected (this is an essential feature of the book) [4]. He asserts that all our interaction with the world – in the arts, the hermeneutical disciplines, the human sciences and even science itself – is always interpretation. When we understand something, we always interpret.

Gadamer takes the idea of the game or playing as a dynamic whole which embraces the human subject as a point of departure. He applies this to our human way of existing in the world, in which all experience is verbal in nature. In linguistic experience, our concepts “disappear” behind that what they bring to speech in our understanding of objects (p399) [5]. All understanding may be regarded as an “event”, as a “mode of being”, which is an interpretation within the context of experience. As such all meaning is understanding that involves application in some concrete situation, which Gadamer calls “concretization” (p328).

I suggest that the Kantian conception of “truth” (objective knowledge), which I discussed above, may be understood in terms of Gadamer’s idea of “concretization”, which is also understood in terms of the kinds of truth that we encounter in interpretation. As such it is important to remember that Kant’s concept of cognition is not first of all concerned with scientific cognition, but with cognition in the context of experience in general (it is only secondary applied to science). Although Gadamer’s philosophy is concerned with our cultural and historical conditionedness (and Kant not), this is not in conflict with the Kantian position but includes it as precondition since Kant thinks in terms of the basic “forms” of our understanding and intuition before any experience (as well as before our cultural and historical conditionedness), which find expression exactly within the context of experience.

In Kant’s philosophy, our gaining objective knowledge is possible only insofar as our concepts (understanding) are synthesized with our intuitions through the intermediate role of our imagination. As such the productive imagination produces images in accordance with a schema, i.e. the rules governing this process, in such a way that they are consistent with the object to be presented in intuition. This process involves the play of the productive imagination within the framework of the rules governing the process. It is not only our understanding that is actively involved in the achievement of knowledge, the idea of “play” is very much part of this process.

Clearly, the Kantian conception of the process which results in our obtaining truth (gaining “objective” knowledge) is consistent with Gadamer’s idea of understanding viewed as play in the context of games structured according to rules [6]. In fact, I think that Gadamer’s idea in this regard may have originated in Kant’s philosophy, which had a great influence on Gadamer’s own work. We may, therefore, think of Kant’s concept of our obtaining knowledge in Gadamerian terms as an “event of understanding” within the context of human experience [7].

One may ask: What is gained by reworking the Kantian system within the context of Gadamer’s philosophy. Well, in this way the Kantian approach can be expanded from the natural sciences to the human sciences and hermeneutical disciplines. What is especially important about the Kantian system, is that it provides us with a measure in which “objective” knowledge can be distinguished from mere illusions of knowledge through the use of determinate judgment. Now, this very same measure may be applied to the human sciences and hermeneutical disciplines without trying to achieve absolute objectivity. This merely ensures that the various interpretations that we allow in these fields are consistent with the data – and that one does not end up with an anything-goes situation which postmodern philosophy is often accused of.

When we view judgment as part of the “event of understanding”, this new approach provides us with the tools through which we can distinguish between sensible interpretations, where the conceptual models agree with the empirical facts, and non-sensible interpretations where this is not the case, not merely within the framework of the natural and human sciences but also in the context of hermeneutical disciplines where texts are so considered. Following Gadamer, we may say that in this case, the hermeneutical “object” refers to the subject matter of the text that is interpreted. The interpreter and interpreted are brought together in a “fusion of horizons” in which the horizon of the reader is fused with that of the text in the event of interpretation.

When viewed from a Kantian angle, we can now distinguish which interpretations are sensible ones and which are not, i.e. whether the interpretation is consistent with the data presented in the text as well as that belonging to the historical horizon from which it originated [8]. The difference with modernist philosophy is that there is no aspiration towards absolute objectivity – various sensible interpretations of the situation (such as in quantum physics or the human sciences) may be possible. This approach does not value the plurality of (subjective) interpretation in its own right as we find in postmodernism. On the metaphysical front, one may use this philosophical approach to even evaluate metaphysical narratives insofar as these describe our engagement with the world, including religious texts such as the Bible.

Good and bad hermeneutics in Gadamer

When we consider scholarly fields such as history or textual hermeneutics, Gadamer’s approach show why the modernist approach is not valid. The main feature of the modernist approach is that it tries to obtain objectivity – which results in “historical consciousness” aimed at “a truly historical viewpoint on everything” (p225), where scholars think of themselves as standing apart from history or the texts that they study. Gadamer argues that all interpreters are not only situated within a certain culture (which may include a scholarly paradigm) but also brings certain fore-understandings to their study. Nobody can achieve a purely “objective” perspective [9] – we are all affected by the traditions and texts that we are studying. Gadamer calls this “historically effected consciousness”.

When it comes to the study of the Biblical text, the modernist grounding of the historico-critical method resulted in an understanding of that text in which the prejudices against Biblical tradition (so clearly on display in many circles during the Enlightenment) were very much part of the mindset of the scholars who thought of themselves as “objective”. As such they totally rejected the witness testimony recorded in the text [10] and replaced that with reason. Gadamer writes in Truth and Method:

In general, the Enlightenment tends to accept no authority and to decide everything before the judgment seat of reason. Thus the written tradition of Scripture, like any other historical document, can claim no absolute validity; the possible truth of the tradition depends on the credibility that reason accords it. It is not tradition but reason that constitutes the ultimate source of all authority. What is written down is not necessarily true. We can know better: this is the maxim with which the modern Enlightenment approaches tradition and which ultimately leads it to undertake historical research. It takes tradition as an object of critique, just as the natural sciences do with the evidence of the senses...This is the point at which the attempt to critique historical hermeneutics has to start. The overcoming of all prejudices, this global demand of the Enlightenment, will itself prove to be a prejudice, and removing it opens the way to an appropriate understanding of the finitude which dominates not only our humanity but also our historical consciousness.” (p274, 277; see also p342)

This means that the traditional approach of Biblical Criticism is deeply flawed – it afforded itself a misplaced superior position above traditional scholarship [11]. In fact, its whole method in approaching the Biblical text – and all the conclusions drawn from that which became part of its academic paradigm – is suspect and may even be regarded as discredited insofar as it is based on false premises. One is not amazed that some students and scholars who followed this approach to the Bible have themselves become agnostics and even atheists – this seems to be the logical outcome if one takes modernism to its logical conclusion. Biblical Criticism regarded as a "scientific discipline" had an enormous impact on societal thinking regarding the Bible, which is why so many people merely accept that it is an untrustworthy witness of history.

In a rather strong critique of the historico-critical method Gadamer writes:

A person who believes he is free of prejudices, relying on the objectivity of his procedures and denying that he is himself conditioned by historical circumstances, experiences the power of the prejudices that unconsciously dominate him as a vis a tergo. A person who does not admit that he is dominated by prejudices will fail to see what manifests itself by their light. It is like the relation between I and Thou. A person who reflects himself out of the mutuality of such a relation changes this relationship and destroys its moral bond. A person who reflects himself out of a living relationship to tradition destroys the true meaning of this tradition in exactly the same way. In seeking to understand tradition, historical consciousness must not rely on the critical method with which it approaches its sources, as if this preserved it from mixing in its own judgments and prejudices. It must, in fact, think within its own historicity. To be situated within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge but makes it possible.” (Ibid p354)

What Gadamer suggests is a totally different approach. It is not an approach which accepts tradition uncritically, but one which makes an effort to really listen to the text and the tradition from which it originated as if one is partaking in a conversation. As such one does not try to “dominate” the text from a superior position; rather, you allow the text to speak on its own terms: “Hermeneutics in the sphere of philology and the historical sciences is not ‘knowledge as domination’—i.e., an appropriation as taking possession; rather, it consists in subordinating ourselves to the text's claim to dominate our minds.” (p310)


In this essay, I discuss the relatioship between modernism and atheism. Although I do not think that all atheists hold a modernist view of reality, I have argued that most of them probably do. That include atheists and agnostics from both a natural and human sciences background – where the modernist approach has blinded many into thinking that "objective" science is the only true measure of reality. Since the idea of an objective view on the world has been discredited in science (especially in quantum physics) and modernism in philosophy, we know today that this cannot be the case. The problem for atheism is that the general rejection of modernism has effectively discredited the kind of atheism built upon that way of thinking!

The challenge for atheists – as I see it – is to produce a balanced philosophical framework that takes account of all the complexities of life which is consistent with their metaphysical worldview. In contrast, Christianity has always been able to show that it aligns itself with good philosophy. Historically this had been the case in the acceptance of Platonic philosophy in the Augustine tradition and the acceptance of Aristotelian philosophy in the Thomasian tradition.

Closer to our own time, we may remind ourselves that Kant himself was a Christian and that he tried to argue for the Christian viewpoint regarding metaphysics and morality. During the twentieth century, some of the greatest philosophers of hermeneutics such as Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur were Christians. The interesting fact is that these philosophers always presented a sensible philosophical framework which stood the middle ground. I showed how we may read Kant from a Gadamerian perspective to bring his ideas in line with contemporary thinking. This provides a healthy and sound philosophical perspective in which the Christian worldview can flourish [12].

[1] “A statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of the experience - this assertion is called the verifiability principle [aka the 'verifiability criterion of meaning']. The meaning of a statement is its method of verification; that is we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false.”
[2] This is absolutely not a detailed discussion of the topic. In the context of this essay, I present merely some basic aspects insofar as it is relevant to the topic and presentable to a lay audience.
[3] Constructive Empiricism stands in contrast with Logical Empiricism. It holds that science aims only at the truth of observable aspects of the world (not unobservable aspects) and that its theories aim to be empirically adequate: “a theory is empirically adequate exactly if what it says about the observable things and events in the world is true” (van Fraassen in The Scientific Image, 1980, p12).
[4] Since Gadamer is not well-known to those from the analytic philosophy tradition, I include various quotes from his work in this essay. He writes in Truth and Method regarding understanding: “understanding is never a subjective relation to a given ‘object’ but to the history of its effect; in other words, understanding belongs to the being of that which is understood” (pxxviii) and “The alienation of the interpreter from the interpreted by the objectifying methods of modern science, characteristic of the hermeneutics and historiography of the nineteenth century, appeared as the consequence of a false objectification” (p312). When one’s belonging to history is acknowledged, understanding nonetheless still involves (as in the two-aspect interpretation of Kant’s philosophy) that particulars be brought under rules in judgment. He writes in Truth and Method: “Understanding, then, is a special case of applying something universal to a particular situation.” (p310)
[5] In contrast with the Logical Empiricists for whom only statements verifiable through empirical observation are cognitively meaningful, Gadamer takes our whole being in the world as meaningful. He writes: “Our verbal experience of the world is prior to everything that is recognized and addressed as existing. That language and world are related in a fundamental way does not mean, then, that world becomes the object of language. Rather, the object of knowledge and statements is always already enclosed within the world horizon of language. That human experience of the world is verbal does not imply that a world-in-itself is being objectified. The world of objects that science knows, and from which it derives its own objectivity, is one of the relativities embraced by language's relation to the world.” (Ibid p447)
[6] There is a difference between Kant’s concept of the “play” of the imagination, which is a formal conception in terms of our human faculties, and Gadamer’s concept of play, which views it as a dynamic whole (p53). However, insofar as Kant’s concept is not merely subjective, one can easily see that it is in line with that of Gadamer’s conception of “playing” insofar as our understanding is concerned. Gadamer’s observation in Truth and Method that “play has its own essence, independent of the consciousness of those who play” (p103), is also true of Kant’s conception of the play in the imagination of which we are not particularly conscious.
[7] In the traditional two-object interpretation of Kant’s philosophy, the object in our mind is distinct from the real object in the world – as such the thinking I stands in some way opposed to the object of cognition situated outside our minds. The two-aspect interpretation sees it differently: the very same object is regarded from two perspectives, namely as presented in perception as well as beyond that. The last view implies that concepts do not bring form to empirical data given in intuition (as in the two-object view); the form of the empirical object is already included in its presentation in intuition. As such cognition involves merely a particularization of the generalized a priori “object”. In this case, we may regard cognition as an event of understanding through determinate judgment which is not so much reflective as it is synthetic (to use Kant’s expression). For both Kant (in the two-aspect view) and Gadamer, this involves a concretization (to use Gadamer's terminology) in which a judgment is made in the context of experience that includes both subject and object in one dynamic process. Insofar as Kant’s concept of cognition is included in Gadamer’s concept of “concretization”, we may say that Kant’s epistemology becomes part of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. As such the scientific model of epistemology based on Kant’s work which centers on methodology is forever subservient to our hermeneutical being in the world.
[8] The distinction between sensible and non-sensible interpretations is only possible insofar as concepts are included in the process of understanding. When they are not – such as in the evaluation of art – the mentioned criterion does not apply. In this case we may remind ourselves that Kant distinguished between two kinds of judgment in the process of understanding things. The one is determinitive judgment which is used in cognition; the other is reflective judgment which is used in evaluating art. In this case, Kant allows in his philosophy of aesthetics in his Critique of the Power of Judgment for the free play of the understanding and imagination without the involvement of concepts. This draws the line between interpretations in the framework of “knowledge” claims and that where no knowledge claims are made. This does not mean that only scientific knowledge is allowed – there may be other sources of knowledge such as divine revelation which I discuss in the next part of the series.
[9] Gadamer writes in Truth and Method: “In contrast to the mere givenness of the phenomena of objective consciousness, a givenness in intentional experiences, this reflection constitutes a new dimension of research. For there is such a thing as givenness that is not itself the object of intentional acts. Every experience has implicit horizons of before and after, and finally fuses with the continuum of the experiences present in the before and after to form a unified flow of experience.” (p237)
[10] Gadamer writes: “Even as the scholarly interpretation of the theologian, it must never forget that Scripture is the divine proclamation of salvation. Understanding it, therefore, cannot simply be a scientific or scholarly exploration of its meaning.” (Ibid p327).
[11] See also my own essay in this regard: A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline
[12] What is the task of the Christian philosopher? In my view, it is not to return to the scholastics or to become embroiled in the petty thinking of analytic philosophy, but to work towards exploring the middle position in philosophy in the footsteps of the great philosophers mentioned. I do not think that Christian philosophers should try to prove the correctness of Christianity (Kant and Nietzsche have dismantled that avenue); they should rather show that the Christian narrative is consistent with reality, worthy to be trusted and makes more sense than any of the other competing metaphysical narratives.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, and science.

Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 1: The problem of spontaneity in quantum mechanics
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 2: Science and our restricted human understanding
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot
                                                      A new argument for the existence of God
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 4. Science and the spiritual realm
Science, Philosophy, and God. Part 5. In defense of the soul

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Posts on this blog

Life is like a puzzle. Although one may think that the available pieces make sense, there may be other pieces which change all of that! This is the purpose of this blog: to provide information and interpretations on a wide range of issues, enabling readers to make sense of our world (and even their own lives) in an honest, coherent and sophisticated manner. "S/he who seeks will find!" The essays are written by the scientist, philosopher and author Dr Willie Mc Loud [1] (and other authors) with the general reader in mind and engage with all sorts of interesting (and difficult) topics regarding science, philosophy, religion, current events, eschatology and other topics, bringing it all together in one coherent worldview. The essays argue for the Christian worldview, providing a fresh and original perspective that is not a mere repetition or rehearsal of the usual views.

The blog is dedicated to all those people who are willing to read with an open mind and to carefully consider the various nuanced aspects of the issues at hand. When we really listen to each other, we may find true answers in real conversation. At the same time, the essays provide tools, knowledge, and information to engage with others in everyday conversations about their faith. To facilitate the reader's access to these essays, the most important ones (all with links to the essays) are listed below according to the topic they belong to. Essays which are "highly recommended" are marked with an asterisk. Readers are welcome to use the information, share or forward the essays and make use of them as they see fit [2]. 

1. Science, Philosophy, and God

Part 3: Science and metaphysics: in search of Russell's teapot. (*)
            Presenting a new argument for the existence of God
Part 5. In defense of the soul

A critique of archaeology as a science
An archaeological perspective on the Bible
Presenting a new ancient Middle Eastern chronology
A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline (*)
A hermeneutical perspective on the Bible (*)
Is the spirit world more than an idea?

2. Origins in the Book of Genesis

3. Eschatology

5. Discovering the Keystone, Solving the Riddle of The Red Serpent after 40 years by Guillaume Brouillard (Griffel Media, Cape Town, 2009). 

6. Spiritual/geestelik

Meeting God
The Power of God
Wrong choices
Something or Someone is missing? (Dr. Francois Carr)
A message for the church
God hoor
Die profeet

7. Dialogistics/Apologetics

Towards a new dialogistic approach
Engaging with atheists and agnostics
Biblical inspiration: in a postmodern world
Faith and reason: finding the balance
The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies
Darwin's Doubt (book review)
The God Impulse (book review)

8. Current events

Brexit: What to expect
A New Iranian Empire is rising
The European Union: forever rising
Is a Third World War brewing?

[1] Books by Dr. Willie Mc Loud (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy, MBL):
Akteurs in die Laaste Drama, 'n studie van Openbaring 13 en 17 (1989)
Alles omtrent die "New Age" (1990)
Op pad na Armageddon, 31 bepeinsings oor Openbaring en ander Bybelprofesieë (1995)
Alles omtrent die opkomende Antichristelike orde (2000)
Discovering the Keystone, Solving the Riddle of The Red Serpent after 40 years (Griffel Media, 2009)
(with Guillaume Brouillard)
Die Arabiese Opstande (Griffel Media, 2011)
Op soek na Abraham en sy God (Griffel Media, 2012)
[2] Due recognition is required according to accepted copyright practice. Since all the essays include a reference to the author, they may be freely shared, distributed and circulated.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Jews: the people of God?

Israel has become a highly contested topic in recent years. For some, the Jews are the people to whom the divine promises belong which God had made thousands of years ago to the Biblical fathers – which include the land of Israel. For others Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its bombardment of Gaza are major injustices – why should the Palestinians who have been living in the land for centuries pay for the Jews’ religious views? Should Christians pick a side?

The declaration on 14 May 1948 of Israel as an independent state was one of the most important geopolitical events of the previous century. It had an enormous impact on the politics of the Middle East where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become one of the enduring realities of that ancient region. In time Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and the wars with its neighbors became a major bone of contention which affects many other nations.

Christians also have to make decisions: in general evangelical Christians support the Jews since they regard them as the descendants of the Biblical Israel to whom God’s promises to the patriarchal fathers belong whereas Palestinian Christians – who were once in a majority in some parts of Israel – cannot understand how Israel can be absolved by other Christians from the horrific way in which it treats them. Although their plight was brought to the attention of Christians by the likes of Brother Andrew who co-authored with Al Janssen the book Light Force, A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire (2004), many Christians could not understand how he could “take the side” of the Christian Arabs. Somehow, for many people, everything is to be taken either as “for or against” in this fight for influence and survival.

In this essay, I bring Israel as a nation into focus within the wider context of Christian thinking. I give a short overview of the Christian-Jewish relationship through the ages. I also engage with some of the important questions regarding Israel’s destiny, such as: Are the Biblical promises regarding the land still applicable to the Jews? Do they still have a part in God’s plan? What should Christians do in the face of the plight of Palestinian Christians? Should Christians give their unconditional support to Israel irrespective of their actions? There are no easy answers but seeing the wider context could help.

Christians and Jews

One of the first things that the early Church had to figure out was what the relationship of the Church, as the redeemed people of God, was to the Jews who was the descendants of the Biblical Israel, the chosen people of God in Old Testament times. Already in the Patristic era (100-500 AD) did the church fathers came to the general conclusion that God had rejected the people of Israel and that they had no further role in his divine plan. They believed that although the Jews had the expectation to be returned to their land when the Messiah comes, that this was a futile hope. Since God had rejected them, that would never happen. In the view of these church fathers, the prophetic promises of restoration had all been fulfilled with the return from Babylon. Jerusalem would never be rebuild.

The relationship between the Jews and the Church was, however, no simple matter. Ever since the Church became an established entity apart from the Jewish nation late in the first century AD, Christians and Jews held conflicting claims about Jesus as Messiah and how that determined their relationship with God. The assertion by both that they were the true people of God eventually led to open hostility between them. Whereas there are some very negative comments about Jesus in the Talmud, many Christians regarded the Jews as “killers of God” who brought misfortune over themselves in accordance with the words recorded in the Bible: “His blood shall be on us and our children” (Matt. 27:25). We find this view already in the fourth century AD in the writings of church fathers such as John Chrysostom.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Jews were regarded with suspicion. The early second millennium AD saw the first persecution of Jews by Christians in 1096 AD when Jewish communities along the Rhine were attacked and many massacred during the so-called “Rhineland massacres” in the period leading up the First Crusade. Jews were sometimes accused of ritual murder and were expelled from many countries – from England in 1290, France in 1394 and numerous areas in Germany, Italy and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450. Jewish communities were often subjected to severe discrimination – having to wear something such as a badge and live apart in ghettos – and there were many pogroms against Jews.

Some Jews, however, were traders and bankers who were able to overcome the obstacles that Jews, in general, had to deal with in their everyday lives. Since the nineteenth century, some of these Jews rose to high positions in politics and society in general, especially in the UK and US. There were even those who became remarkably influential – many would remember the Rothschild family in this regard, who is to this day a force in international finance. This, however, led in turn to accusations that “the Jews” were conspiring behind the scenes.

One of the important documents that is often mentioned in this regard is the so-called Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion which was first published in 1905 in Russia and in which a program to establish global domination is outlined. Related to this was accusations of Jewish involvement in the revolutionary movement of the early twentieth century in Europe, especially in the Russian revolution of 1917. One of the best-known works in this regard was Henry Ford’s The International Jew (1920), in which a series of articles which were first published in his journal The Dearborn Independent were reprinted. The story is told that the “Jewish media” published only pictures of Ford cars in accidents leading to the rumor that these were unreliable, which eventually forced the great magnate to reconcile with his enemies.

During the early twentieth century, Jewish-Christian relations saw two very different outcomes depending on the countries involved. On the one hand, the Jews gained some real influence within the Anglo-American world which was predominately Christian. Here one may mention the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, handed a declaration in which Britain promised Palestine to the Jews to Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, and leader of the Jewish community, to be presented to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland [1].

On the other hand, anti-Semitism increased and led to the Holocaust during Adolf Hitler’s rule when millions of Jews were murdered. In some way, the Holocaust represents the culmination of a very long tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe. Of particular importance in this regard was the role of pope Pius XII who’s actions with regard to the Holocaust is to this day a source of great controversy. Historians, in general, think that he was too cautious in his condemnation of Jewish deportations and Nazi crimes.

Image result for jews ghetto picture
Entrance to the Lodz ghetto during WWII
Both the Balfour declaration and the Holocaust played a central role in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Anglo-American support for the Jewish people and the country of Israel, in particular, was one of the important foreign policies which characterized the twentieth century. At last the Jewish people had a homeland where they were safe from persecution. For many Christians, this was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel would one day be restored to their land.

God’s promises to Israel

After WWII there was a lot of goodwill towards Israel throughout the Christian world. At the same time, the fact that Israel was restored in their original homeland forced the Church to rethink Israel’s role in eschatology. It seemed that the theology according to which God rejected Israel after the crucifixion and replaced her with the Church in his plan (called “replacement theology”) was contradicted by the facts on the ground. The new reality went straight into the face of that assessment. It was time to rethink the well-established views about Israel.

The Church’s actions over the centuries also came under scrutiny. Some argued that the way in which the Church treated the Jews throughout the Middle Ages prepared the way for the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII’s tempered reaction during WWII reinforced the view that the Roman Catholic Church had a deep-seated prejudice against the Jews. This placed pressure on the Church to change its attitude towards the Jews and reevaluate her spiritual relationship with them.

In the US the evangelical Christian community supported the Jew’s return to their original homeland and in time became one of the most steadfast allies of Israel. These Christians rejected the replacement theology. Instead, they developed a dispensational eschatology according to which God still has a plan for Israel. They took St. Paul’s words serious that the covenants belong to Israel (Rom. 9:4), that they are still “beloved for the fathers’ sakes” (Rom. 11:28) since the “calling of God is without repentance” (Rom. 11:29).

The same apostle also writes in the same passage: “[B]lindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the [era of the] Gentiles come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:25-27). This passage says that God still has a plan with Israel even though many of them have rejected Him as Messiah and that in the end of times they would come to salvation.

Christians who take Scripture as God’s Word serious have to acknowledge that God still has a plan with Israel – irrespective of how one reconcile it with one’s theology and eschatology. In this context, the events of May 1948 may be taken as confirmation that God is still keeping his side of the covenant with Abraham that He would give the land to his descendants as an eternal inheritance. The only problem was a practical one: large parts of the land were still in the hands of the Palestinians. These Christians, however, believe that God would eventually give the land to the Jews in the same way that He did so after the exodus.

Not everybody accepted this interpretation of Biblical prophecy. Some kept to replacement theology. Others had doubts if the Israeli’s were the true descendants of the Biblical Israel to whom the promises belong. This stems from the fact that the Jews intermarried with other nations during the long period of exile with the result that they do not share common physical traits. Some nations even converted to the Jewish faith without being of Semitic descent. 

The Khazars, for example, were a semi-nomadic Turkic people from the north Caucasian region who converted to Judaism during the eighth century AD. Some think that the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe were descended from the Khazars and were therefore not “true” Jews. In fact, although some of them may be of such descent, the most were descended from Jews who lived in those areas for centuries - even from the time before the conversion of the Khazars. Many Jews also fled eastward after the persecution in the western parts of Europe. As proselytes were always welcome in Israel since ancient times, the conversion of the Khazars should not be taken as an important issue regarding the identity of the Israeli’s [2].

Israel at the crossroads

When Israel became independent, the Western media was solid in its support for the Jewish cause. That has changed in recent years. Through the course of the last few decades criticism of Israel has increased. The handling of the Palestinians by the Israeli government has generated a lot of negative feeling. Even the large Christian community among the Palestinians had not been spared. Many have migrated to the West. Some even compare Israel’s rule over the West Bank with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The wars with Hamas in Gaza in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 and the many Palestinians killed in the bombardment have led to a lot of criticism of the Israeli government.

The result is that the pro-Israel sentiment of the post-WWII era has all but evaporated in a large part of the world. Whereas the Palestinians found it difficult to find a willing ear in the post-war period (even though some Arab states were close allies of the US) and the aftermath of the Holocaust gave the Jews a lot of sympathies, this had been slowly but steadily eroded over the last few decades. Today most EU countries have large pressure groups that support the Palestinian cause and most of those countries take a harder line towards the Israeli government.

Also, we live in an epoch where many people in the Western world (not to speak of the Arab world) do not believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. In the postmodern world, people do not take the divine promises made to Israel serious. They only see that Israel occupies the land where the Palestinians and their ancestors have been living for centuries. As such this has become a paradigmatic case of injustice – and not even the injustice of the Holocaust is nowadays taken as a reason to let Israel off the hook. As such it is not only the usual anti-Semites that find a sympathetic audience; fighting for Palestinian rights has become a just cause.

As is often the case in such situations, there are two sides to the story. Some Christians and Jews do not take these accusations against Israel serious. They feel that anyone under the same circumstances would have done the same – Israel has in fact been fighting a low-intensity war for many years against terrorists who do not mind to kill innocent people. The problem is that Israel’s actions are not only directed towards terrorists: innocent Arabs including Arab Christians have suffered a lot as is described very well in Brother Andrew’s book. Should evangelical Christians’ view about Israel blind them to the fate of their own brothers who live in extremely difficult circumstances?

Christians who support Israel have to ask themselves how they reconcile their love for Israel with the outcome of Jewish actions in that land? How should they reconcile the divine promises with the injustice done by the very people who they regard as the “people of God”? These are not easy questions to answer. It is easy to take the Palestinian side and reject Israel’s identity as God’s people. But is that the right way for Christians to go?

We find that God did not absolve Israel from her unjust actions even in Old Testament times. In fact, the prophets spoke out against injustice and warned Israel when they served other gods – but that did not change the fact that they were His People. In my view Christians should take a similar approach: They should not whitewash Israel’s actions but they should also not lose their faith in God’s eternal promises that He would eventually bring them to salvation.

I expect that the tide would turn more and more against Israel. According to Biblical prophecy, there would come a time when Israel would be hated by all nations. This may be one of the reasons why they would gather in the end times to make war against Israel as we read in the prophet Zechariah:

“Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about… And in that day I will make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it… And it shall come to pass in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son” (Zec. 12:2, 3, 9, 10; see also Zec. 14).

When Jesus Christ returns with his Second Coming, Israel will indeed see the One that they have “pierced” when he was crucified. Then will they be reconciled with their Messiah. When we consider things in this light, we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6) rather than siding with her enemies. Let’s not be caught on the wrong side of history.


In this short essay, I discuss Israel’s identity as the people of God to whom the divine promises belong. St. Paul is clear that God still has a plan for his people. This includes the fulfillment of the promise made to the fathers that God would give the land to them as an eternal inheritance. Israel’s restoration in their land is therefore indeed of prophetic significance.

When we accept Israel’s prophetic destiny, it does not mean that we have to accept everything that they do as right. Israel has done some great injustices over the decades since 1948, especially against those Christians who are also God’s people. As Christians, we should, however, not take side with the enemies of Israel. Even when we criticize the things they do (and it serves no good to always absolve Israel from all wrongdoing!), we should do so with the right disposition. We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the salvation of all the people living in that beautiful land.

[1] “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
[2] There are also other views. “British Israelism”, for example, believes that the white people from the UK and US are descended from the ten “lost” tribes. They often regard themselves as the true heirs of Israel and view the Israeli’s as a mongrel race. There is, however, no evidence to support their claims regarding history. In fact, it is easy to show them wrong.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref.

The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, and science.