Devils in the Details

Wolterstorff, Worldviews and Control Beliefs: The Devils in the Details

This week, the Outrageous Ideas Reading Group (OIRG) discussed Nicholas Wolterstorff’s chapter “On Christian Learning” in Stained Glass: Worldview and Social Science (University Press of America, 1989).  Wolterstorff, a moral philosopher at Yale University, raised a number of important (and still current) topics.

Wolterstorff’s Approach

Wolterstorff opens his chapter with an appreciation and a challenge.  Both of these grow out of his understanding of the neo-Calvinist critiques of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  This critique played a part in spreading the, now uncontroversial, idea that the academic disciplines are not ideologically neutral.  All science is value-laden, as thoughtful critics of the secular academy would put it.

But Wolterstorff moves on from affirming this widely-accepted premise to suggest that true academic pluralism must include a diversity of opinions, even across contested religious fault lines.  But does this mean that theistic social science research must be accepted and even published along with secularist approaches?

The OIRG launched into a discussion of Wolterstorff’s chapter with this question in mind.

Kuyper vs. Descartes

Wolterstorff launches his argument with a short excursus on the role of Leibnitz and Descartes in elevating the importance of modern approaches to the scientific method.  According to Wolterstorff, these early modern thinkers supported the deceptively simple idea that proper methodology should lead to a reasonable certainty of analytical success.

The neo-Calvinists argued that if God is in the picture, a scientist’s insights and method will be inflected.  Accordingly, there must be at least 2 divergent sciences – Christian and non-Christian.  Or, as per the thinking of the OIRG, to remove the sectarian frame, this might better be described as theistic and secular.

This approach finds support all the way back to Augustine: “I believe in order that I may know.”  But, asked the OIRG, was the converse true?  “If I do not believe, might it be that I cannot know?”

Kuyper vs. the Fall

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a key figure in Dutch Reformed scholarship, is one of the key thinkers and founders of this neo-Calvinist approach in the modern age.    Kuyper, while stressing the pervasive impact of the Adamic Fall on every area of human life, allows (in his Principles of Sacred Theology, 1954) that empirical observation may be impervious to the impact of the Fall on human intellect.  And that even the understanding of many relationships and correlations (“entailments”) embedded in that data may also be untouched by the effects of the Fall.

Higher levels of explanation, however, diverge at the fork in the road marked by the presence of God’s explicit grace, and by our awareness of that presence.

But, according to Wolterstorff, Kuyper built his arguments around metaphors rather than hard theories or a comparison of actual methodological divergence.  There may be two Cities of Man and two Cities of Science, but how does one detect meaningful differences between the two?  And, asked the OIRG, how does one construct a method that accounts for theistic assumptions but is not overpowered by them?

Kuyper’s disciples have chosen one of two paths: the Worldview approach or the Idolatry-centered approach.

Worldview meets Idolatry

Worldview approaches, remain on the vague and metaphorical side of the debate.  For Wolterstorff, this approach provides little in the way of actual practical guidance to the modern scholar.

The neo-Calvinist idolatry test, according to Wolterstorff, would have it that the non-believing scientist displays his lack of belief by elevating some element above God as his guiding star in either methodology or practice.  The practical result is reductionism.  But it does not seem to be the case that all non-believing science is reductionistic or that believing thinkers are immune to the practice.

So, according to Wolterstorff, the first approach remains too undefined and the second too narrowly defined.

Faithful Scholarship?

Wolterstorff has long nurtured suspicions about this approach even though he was himself a product of the teaching and tradition of the disciples of Kuyper in Grand Rapids.

For Wolterstorff, a better starting point has to do with the notion of a necessarily divergent Christian science.  “Why isn’t it enough to urge that Christians be faithful in their scholarship?”

It is possible that faithful scholarship might diverge from secular work.  But it might not.  Where it does not diverge, why not celebrate those areas where it reinforces or learns from the work of secular colleagues?  And, must we ignore those overlaps with believing scholars of other faiths?

So, if faithfulness is the key, then how do we monitor faithfulness in a scientific method that is true to rational approaches but is not restricted to a narrow secularism?

Control Beliefs

Wolterstorff builds an answer to this question by relying upon Alasdair MacIntyre’s view of science as a social practice.  The scholarly guild oversees the broad collection of academic practices with an eye to a number of important guild outcomes including economic benefits, increased prestige, and social power.

One important work of the guild is in the training of its members in the methodologies and languages appropriate to the social practice itself, and especially, the analytical frames used to evaluate the strength of academic argumentation.

While a Worldview-based critique of the strategies (empirical, falsifiability, deductive, secularist, natural law, etc.) used to evaluate valid arguments  may be of some use as a starting point, Wolterstorff argues that the Worldview approach is simply too broad a brush, especially if one is willing to admit elements of each (or several) of these as helpful in one’s hermeneutic.

For this reason, Wolterstorff offers the concept of “Control Beliefs” to solve this problem.  Researchers, on this approach, are warranted in accepting higher-level philosophical commitments, at least as starting points, in the hermeneutical process.  For instance, most theists believe that human responsibility (as moral agents) is one of the bedrock truths (control beliefs) of their understanding of reality.  This is primarily based upon their theological texts, but is probably also connected to the life experience and moral commitments formed from a young age, of the scientist herself.  As a result, this control belief will lead the theistic scholar to choose against determinist explanations in philosophy and possibly in natural science as well.  A secularist will, alternatively, be likely to choose against any theory that posits a supernatural creator.  The secularist may have reasons for this choice, but it is his control beliefs that dominate, not “science” itself.  The advantage to Wolterstorff’s approach is that it allows scholars to focus on specific control beliefs rather than on an effort to label one another as Worldview heretics of either extreme.

For the theistic scholar, this approach has the added value of alerting her to the need to carefully sort through those control beliefs that are actually operative in her specific field, subfield and research project.

Finally, Wolterstorff argues that there may well be times when a challenge to one of our control beliefs may well cause us to refine or reject such a belief.  This may result in a change in our understanding of the religious sources of our beliefs.  He raises the example of the shift in the Church away from the geocentric solar system after the Copernican revolution in the 16th century.

Questioning Wolterstorff and Kuyper?

The OIRG focused on several interesting highlights that arose in the discussion of Wolterstorff’s chapter.

First, it is a valid and valuable point to remember that methodological concerns are not just about excluding non-positivist “heretics” from the halls of the academy.  Even if methodological secularism has at times been used in this way, it is vital that scholars remember the importance of this issue.  Science, as Wolterstorff reminds us, is a social enterprise, and its language and social rules are important to the continued advance of the dialogue of which it consists.

Second, theistic “totalisms” seem to be as counterproductive for that endeavor as are the secularist totalisms.  It may be convenient to label secularists as blinded by the noetic effects of sin, but it is may be no less destructive to good science as is the secularists’ efforts to exclude theists as if their theological commitments somehow corrupt their ability to calculate the probabilities involved in techniques and paradigms from binomial logistic regression to “irreducible complexity.”  Arguing that one side is “objective” and the other “unscientific” is surprisingly naïve and perhaps even intentionally obtuse.

Third, even if we avoid the temptation to label our scholarly colleagues according to their methodological tribe, it may well be that the whiff of reductionism will lead us to the fire of academic idolatry.  This hermeneutic “tool” (a deep suspicion of any reductionism) might be of use to scholars in the detection of their own (and others’) unrecognized or unstated control beliefs.  These can then be discussed without the need to resort to academic identity politics.

Finally, where and how does one start to catalog prevalent control beliefs in any community of scholars?  And, how does one discern which of those control beliefs are actually “faithful” to a reality that includes a Creator or reflects accurate understanding of the divine will for creation?  Where do theology and sociology meet?  And how does one prevent one from devouring the other?

These are the questions the OIRG hopes to wrestle with in coming meetings.

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