Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A Trinitarian vs. A Classic Natural Theology

(From Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations)

Alister McGrath's wonderful A Fine-Tuned Universe depends on a critical distinction between a "Trinitarian natural theology" and a "classic natural theology."

A "classic natural theology" is: "the way of understanding the natural world, based on a religiously uninformed or neutral stance, which leads to the conclusion that some transcendent entity exists." (35)

A "Trinitarian natural theology" is: "the way of understanding both the natural world and the human engagement with that world which results from the Trinitarian vision of reality that is articulated by Christian orthodoxy."

The difference between the two is that McGrath presents us with a way of looking at things that is a consequence of the Christian revelation, and not something that is entailed by nature itself. To understand McGrath (and, I think, N.T. Wright) one must understand this distinction.

I think this is, in general, a more European way of looking at things, rooted in the Kantian heritage that finds its way through Gadamer and what used to be called "the new hermeneutic" (see here). It's also going to utilize the logic of inference to the best explanation. (See p. 37 - "What is proposed appears to represent a very different form of reasoning, which might be termed "abduction," "inference to the best explanation," or perhaps "inference to the best theory."")

There's even some Wittgensteinian influence working here, in the sense of Wittgenstein's "seeing-as."  McGrath stresses the importance of "seeing": one must "see" nature through or within the context of a natural theology. He writes: "A "theology of nature" refers to how humanity interprets nature; a "natural theology" designates both the hermeneutical process and its outcome. The terms "natural theology" and "theology of nature" designate distinct though clearly related notions." (36) One always "sees" as a being-situated-in-context. There's no a-contextual seeing. (I don't think the recognition of this truth condemns one to a hopeless epistemological relativism. But perhaps more of that elsewhere. And, McGrath only mentions Wittgenstein twice and D.Z. Phillips once in his FTU. Surely McGrath wants to avoid the cognitive abyss of "Wittgensteinian fideism.")

McGrath's approach moves away from "Paleyesque accounts of natural theology (referencing William Paley's famous "watchmaker" argument for the existence of God). McGrath correctly and helpfully notes and explains that Paley's reasoning was itself deeply embedded in its specific cultural environment. So his reasoning intellectually resonated with his readers. But today things, culturally (to include intellectual culture) have changed. McGrath states that "subsequent shifts in this network of prevailing scientific, cultural, aesthetic, and theological judgments inevitably point to the need for a different style of natural theology." (36-37)

So what's McGrath up to? Apologists for Christian theism will note that he is leaving the arena of "traditional deductive arguments of the philosophy of religion." (37) What he proposes "is an understanding of explanation as "a making intelligible" or a "disclosing of the instrinsic rationality of things." McGrath will argue that "Christianity makes better sense of the empirical evidence than any of its alternatives or rivals." (37) With this last sentence he's similiar to N.T Wright who, in his The Last Word, argues for the greater explanatory power of the Christian-theistic narrative.

What do I think?
  • I have invested a lot of study in classic natural theological reasoning, to include keeping up with present arguments, such as J.P. Moreland's argument from consciousness for the existence of God which is an evidentialist argument.
  • I am personally much-taken by the fine-tuning argument for God's existence, but note that it rests on logical reasoning called "the prime principle of confirmation" which is, to me, similar to abductive reasoning.
  • I am greatly interested in McGrath and N.T. Wright as they present what I will call a more European philosophical approach to reasoning and truth.