Sunday, May 05, 2019

God and physics

1. There is often thought to be a point of tension between exegetical theology and philosophical theology. And the Protestant faith exacerbates that tension because, in Protestant epistemology and theological method, Biblical revelation takes precedence over philosophy. In traditional Catholic theology, the tension was suppressed, but nowadays there's a stark dichotomy between, say, Thomistic hermeneutics and grammatico-historical hermeneutics. Say, the way Ed Feser interprets the Bible and a Catholic Bible scholar.

There is, for instance, a prima facie tension between classical theism and narrative theology. Open theism represents one extreme, taking its cue from narrative theology. 

I think there are cases where there's a genuine contradiction. For instance, it's really hard to square the Thomistic theory of the soul with the intermediate state. Likewise, I think it's really hard to square Thomistic simplicity with divine freedom, the Trinity, and theologically crucial distinctions between, say, justice and mercy. 

To take another example: the argument from evil is routinely cast in terms of perfect being theology rather than biblical theism. The argument from evil would dissolve if you plug Yahweh into the formulation because Yahweh coexists with evil. There's no contradiction in narrative theology between Yahweh's existence and the existence of evil. Those exist side-by-side. 

2. However, it doesn't follow that there's necessarily a dichotomy between exegetical theology and philosophical theology, although some modifications are required (see above). 

To take a comparison, there's often thought to be a point of tension between physics and common sense. What the world is really like is different from how we perceive it. Physics gives us an "objective" description of the world which falsifies common sense. How we experience time, color, and "solid" objects is said to be something of a psychological illusion. 

Now, there may be a grain of truth to that, but the alleged bifurcation between what the physical world is really like, independent of human perception, and how it appears to us is often misleading. For one thing, there are competing theories of time and color. 

More to the point, a scientific explanation doesn't necessarily undermine common sense, but provides a more complex and complete picture, including how what stands in back of common sense generates our common sense perception. The impression that some objects are solid to the touch isn't by any means an arbitrary postulate or tactile illusion. Rather, physical objects have relative density, so that two objects of similar density are solid in relation to each other. A door is solid to me because my body and the door have similar density, compared to my body and a swimming pool. Particle physics is consistent with the world of touch. 

Likewise, color is a relation between the composition of a physical object, the quality of light, and how the eyes of an organism are tuned to sample certain wavelengths. Although there's a percipient-relative element to color perception, insofar as our visual processing system makes a contribution to the total effect, that's not a sheer projection. When human observers with normal color vision see a stop light, the top light is consistently reddish, the middle light is consistently yellowish, while the bottom light is consistently greenish. It's not as if some drivers see the top light as yellow or green while other drivers see the bottom light as red or yellow. No, there's constancy in how drivers with normal vision perceive what shade colored objects are. And that's because there's something about the composition of the object that makes it one color rather than another. That can't be switched around. While a common sense theory of color is simplistic, it has an element of truth. Although a scientific explanation will be far more intricate, it will supplement and account for the common sense impression rather than disprove it.  

3. By the same token, there are ways of modeling how a God who exists beyond time and space is compatible with narrative theology or the Incarnation. If the model is successful, philosophical theology doesn't correct narrative theology and narrative theology doesn't correct philosophical theology. Rather, philosophical theology can sometimes provide a deeper explanation for what lies behind events, and how that causes events. 

By way of illustration, suppose we were artificially intelligent virtual characters in a video game. Initially, we don't know that there's any larger reality. Suppose we then discover that we're virtual characters. Reality extends beyond the game. Indeed, an external reality produces the game. That doesn't mean our experience is false. The virtual characters really exist. There really is a video game. That's not an illusion. But our experience within the game is an incomplete sample of reality as a whole. 

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