What Makes Sense?

Written by Skip Moen

whatmakesense1Have you ever wondered why the Bible never attempts to prove God exists? After all, God is the main character in the book.  Furthermore, the Bible purports to tell us who God is, what He wants and how we should live.  The Bible has been used by more than one religion to provide proof for all kinds of rules about life.  It has played a central role in the formation of nations, the spread of civilizations, the development of law and the basis of commerce for thousands of years.  You could argue that no book has been more influential in the history of Man than the Bible.  But the arguments about the central figure of the Bible have been left to theologians and philosophers, not to the authors of the story itself.

It’s true that Paul offers a rudimentary argument for God’s existence in the opening of his letters to the Romans.  But his intention is not to provide a philosophical demonstration.  He is interested in the moral implications of God’s existence.  His theme is guilt and forgiveness, not being and existence.

Sometimes I think that the answers to our questions are so simple that we just don’t see them. We expect something deep and amazing, so we overlook the obvious.  This may be the case when it comes to questions about God’s existence.  I am inclined to think that when someone raises a question about God’s existence, they are usually not really asking whether or not there is a God.  They are usually asking something much more personal.  In fact, I have rarely met anyone who genuinely seeks the answer about God’s existence with an open mind. I am not suggesting that an open mind should be like a blank slate.  Enough theoretical work has been done in both science and philosophy to show that all of us come to any experience or set of data with an interpretive framework.  There is just no way of avoiding it. The human mind is never a blank slate, and no amount of demythologizing will make it so.  What we think of as facts are always determined by what we will allow as reasonable evidence.  For example, if I believe that all illness is a result of impure thoughts, then under no circumstances will I seek medical attention for a disease.  The fact that I am ill is interpreted to mean that I have a mental deficiency, not a biological one.  My interpretive scheme integrates the data into it.  Another perhaps less odious example is the current situation in modern psychology.  The structure of the human psyche is determined by which theorist I happen to follow.  The same “data” can appear to provide quite different conclusions depending on which interpretive scheme I believe.

The Bible has an interpretive scheme too.  It is not a neutral book.  It has a viewpoint that infuses its entire message. When we consider the written record of the Bible, we bring our interpretive scheme to the existing text.   This means that if we are going to understand what the Bible has to say on its own, we must work hard at not allowing our existing interpretive scheme to override the data that the Bible presents.  Of course, we don’t have to do this.  We can come at the Bible with all the verificationist theory of modern science or all the Freudian concepts of modern psychology or all the empirical method of a modern historian.  We can override the data as it is presented in its own interpretive scheme and try to make it fits our categories.  But we will soon be quite frustrated and eventually have to abandon the project – unless our motivation was to show that the Bible is not a modern scientific physics text, or a primer on modern psychology or a Time-Life history of the world.  If that is what we wanted to prove to being with, we will have no problem doing so.  The reason is another one of those so-obvious things:  we can show that the Bible is not any of these things because it was never intended to be any one of these in the first place.

There is an alternative to this self-seeking polemic.  The alternative is to try to understand the interpretive scheme of the Bible first, and then look to see what questions it attempts to answer. But this approach supposes that the motivation of the inquirer is understanding, not justification.  There is a big difference between these two pathways.  In my experience, this difference makes all the difference.

Seeking justification presupposes that we come to this data (the Biblical record) with the motivation of matching it up with something that we already believe. For example, if I believe that miracles are scientifically impossible (I believe that the law of cause and effect is inviolable), then the examples of miracles that I find scattered throughout the text of the Bible will have to be re-interpreted into the categories of my system of beliefs.  So, miracles will become “illusions”, “misunderstandings”, “religious frenzy”, “redactions” or some other explanation.  Since miracles cannot exist, no account of the miraculous can be true.

Let’s consider another example, perhaps a little less contentious.  The Bible claims that everyone is estranged from God because of sin.  As a consequence of this estrangement, every human being who has ever sinned is subject to God’s final judgment and punishment.  If I am looking for justification of my belief that there is more than one pathway to God, that God would never send millions of human beings to Hell, or that Hell itself is an outmoded concept, then I will have to re-interpret the text of the Bible so that these statements are seen as the misguided statements of unenlightened past ages or the mistakes of prior church extrapolations or the false beliefs of an ancient nomadic people.  I will not try to understand the claims about sin from the perspective of the interpretive scheme of the Bible itself because the very idea of sin, guilt and punishment is not in my belief system.

One more example will bring the inquiry to a personal level (where it usually begins anyway).  Suppose that I like the way that I live now.  I enjoy the freedom of doing what I want, when I want.  I subscribe to the moral code, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s OK”.  Then I read in the Bible that immorality, sensuality, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, envyings, drunkenness and carousings are actions that are unacceptable to God.  God’s message to me through the Bible is that my particular moral code is deficient, and ultimately punishable.  I am confronted at the personal level.  If I seek to justify my life style, I will have to look for ways to show that these words were written to earlier churches in situations where civil unrest, cultural conflict and religious battles made people think differently than we do today.  Those people lived 2000 years ago.  Things have changed.  We are much more pluralistic today.  We live in a global village.   The rigidity of those old beliefs must be replaced with more cosmopolitan views.  The God that I want to believe in is much more tolerant than that angry God of the Old Testament.  My modern God is a God of love and understanding so those old ideas no longer apply.

Justification fails to find any answers to serious questions because justification is not interested in any answers except those that support existing interpretive schemes. If we are to understand rather than justify, we will have to take a different approach.  We will have to begin by trying to put ourselves as much as possible into the framework of the authors of the books of the Bible.  We will have to work hard at opening our minds to allow their view of the universe to reform our preconceived categories.  No other inquiry will suffice for any other method will ultimately be self-serving. Without a serious attempt to place ourselves in the interpretive scheme of the text, we will find only those answers that we want to find.

Therefore, the first task in understanding is to reflect on motivation. Our motivation must be to seek the pure truth, as best as we are able to, no matter where it leads or what current beliefs we may have to jettison along the way.  Otherwise the entire effort is doomed.  Otherwise we will end up at the beginning – knowing nothing more than we already believe to be the case.  To proceed, we must incorporate a simple heuristic device (a device that we neither hold to be true or false but simply pragmatic – it gets the job done).   That device is:  whenever we encounter a statement that seems counter to one of our current beliefs, we must ask about our motivation before we pass judgment on the belief.   If we don’t like the sound of it, if we hesitate about the implications, if we are challenged or confronted, we will not dismiss the claim until we have first examined why we are reacting.  Our reactions are indications of interpretive scheme conflict.  After all, men and women who are players within the interpretive scheme of the Bible, whose lives are written within the pages of the story, do not seem to have major intellectual problems accepting the claims of the text.  The data they encounter is integrated into their interpretive schemes without much difficulty.  And they are just as human as we are.  So, when we encounter something in this long story that seems difficult for us, we need to examine our thinking to make sure that we are not excluding the idea simply because it does not fit our current set of presuppositions.

An historical example might help us see how this works. About two hundred years ago, a large portion of the American white population argued that slavery was the result of a curse that God placed on Ham, a son of Noah.  This argument used bits and pieces of tradition, legend and Biblical text to support a preconceived notion that was entirely self-serving.  Today, such an argument would be unthinkable.  But in America of the early 1800’s, the political interpretive scheme did not allow Negro populations to be treated as fully human.  So, the Biblical text was squeezed into a framework to fit the justification of slavery.  If you look at the text today, you will see the curse that Noah placed on Ham, but you are unlikely to find any text that suggests such a curse was related to race or even to slavery.  Is it possible that the current attempt of some church leaders to demonstrate acceptance of the gay lifestyle falls into the same self-serving, politically correct morals?

Example after example only confirms that the first order of business is to understand what the text meant for the people to whom it was written.  Placing our particular political, economic, sociological, scientific or even religious framework on the text without understanding the text in its own right is intellectual obnubilation (you’ll have to look that one up in a dictionary).

In summary, first comes an examination of motivation.  Why are we seeking answers? The motive will illuminate our presuppositions.  If we are going to look for truth, we better understand what is pushing us.  Secondly, we need to pay attention to our own internal alarms.  Yes, we will always be subject to an interpretive scheme.  That can’t be avoided.  But as we approach the text, looking for truth, we must pay special attention to those concepts and ideas that disturb us the most.  They are likely to reveal our own hidden biases.  If we ignore these alarms, we are likely to find no more than what we wanted to.  Thirdly, we must make every effort to read the text as though we are part of the interpretive scheme of the original audience.  Not an easy task.  But not impossible.  The methodology is fairly straightforward.  Start with the words.  Find their etymological roots.  See how they develop.  Dig into the cultural influences.  Then assume that the choice of word is not accidental.  Ask why this particular word was used in this particular place. How does it fit into the larger interpretive scheme?  After a little practice, it won’t be so difficult, although it will undoubtedly challenge some of our modern ways of looking at things.  Finally, apply the three canons of logic that form the foundation of any interpretive scheme purporting to answer life’s basic questions:  internal consistency, external comprehensiveness and relational coherence.

Why these three canons?  Every interpretive scheme fits the human “form of life”.  One of the great philosophers of the modern world, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the observation that being human carried with it certain basic ways of thinking and behaving.  These bottom-line activities he called “forms of life”.  They are what is common to all human beings.  The three canons of rationality are part of this “form of life”.  If I am going to answer the question, “How do I make sense of the world?”, I will need to pay attention to these three canons.  Ignoring, overlooking or missing any one of them will undermine my attempts to answer the question.  Let’s take some examples to see why this is the case.

Internal consistency is the canon that says that if an interpretive scheme is going to be true about reality, it must not contain within itself statements that contradict each other. It must be internally (that is, within the interpretive scheme itself) harmonious.  Suppose that we are trying to evaluate an interpretive scheme.  We look at all the claims about reality that it makes.  We see that in one instance it claims that no interpretive scheme can be the final truth about life, i.e. that every interpretive scheme is culturally bias and therefore, relative.  Many people believe this to be true.  But do you see that this claim itself is internally inconsistent.  It says that there is no absolute truth – and it says this absolutely.  Such a claim is asking you to believe that all claims are relative, but it is asking you to also believe that this claim itself is not relative.  It’s like saying, “Everything is relative except my belief that everything is relative.”  We might call this the Russell paradox, after Bertrand Russell who discovered in mathematics that the set of all elements whose members are not members of another set is a paradox.

Confusing, isn’t it?  But it is not so confusing when we automatically apply this canon to political speeches, newscasts, neighborhood conflicts or courtroom battles.  We expect that if something is true it will not be in logical conflict with itself.  When a politician tells us that the budget needs to be cut and at the same time votes for additional expenditures, we find that inconsistent.  When the news reports that Hollywood stars are being denied their right to speak out and at the same time parades them on national television, we are amazed at the inconsistency.  When the legal battle shows that the testimony of a witness conflicts with his own confession, we are using the canon of internal consistency.  We use this canon every day of our lives.  It is part of the human “form of life”.  And if we are going to examine an interpretive scheme for truth, we will certainly want to apply it.

External comprehensiveness is about the scope of the interpretive scheme.  Does it account for all the data (facts)? Does it leave out anything (purposely or accidentally)?  If we are going to look for an interpretive scheme that makes sense of reality, we will need to examine such a scheme on the widest possible basis.  Reality is pretty big.  An interpretive scheme that does cover all of what we know will not be adequate.  For example, Rene Descartes, an early 17th Century rationalist, believed that only human could feel.  Therefore, he had no compunction about torturing animals because in his belief system, they did not feel pain.  He ignored the evidence in favor of his beliefs.  That is a problem with external comprehensiveness.  It is no different than the family that ignores medical evidence of disease, or the culture that ignores the status of women as fully capable humans, or the religion that ignores the reality of suffering.  If we are going to find an interpretive scheme that tells us the truth about reality, we must be open to all the experience and evidence that reality presents.  Dreams, string theory, reports of ghosts, para-psychological evidence, and just plain mysteries of life need to be accounted for by the interpretive scheme.  A never-ending project, it would seem.  But the principle application of external comprehensiveness is fairly simple:  if your interpretive scheme rules something out in spite of the evidence reality presents, you had better be able to give very good reasons why?

Coherence is a bit more difficult to explain.  Interpretive schemes are like spider webs.  In fact, some philosophers have called them “webs of belief”.  Each of the strands of the belief system is tied to other strands. If one of the strands is broken, the entire web may become unstable and collapse.  An example from the realm of science may illustrate the idea.   A few years ago, scientists proposed a theory that the atom was the smallest particle of matter.  Atoms were the bottom line of reality, said the theory, and were therefore the building blocks of all physical matter.   Not all scientists agreed.  Some renegade scientists continued to explore the realm of sub-atomic physics.  They believed that there were other particles within the atom.  It was a matter of great debate.  Two rival theories presented themselves.  In order to settle the issue, scientists predicted behavior of atoms based on the two theories.  The scientist who believed that there were particles smaller than atoms used their web of beliefs (called a scientific theory to give it a more legitimate sounding name) to predict new events that would confirm the theory.  In other words, they examined the links between what the theory told them should be true and what they already knew to be true.  They mapped the coherence of the web of beliefs and discovered that if one thing was true, then that meant something else must also be true.  As a result of this mapping, they did something quite amazing.  They split the atom.  The world has never been the same.  By the way, it is also interesting to note that many of the old guard scientists refused to believe that the atom had been split in spite of all the evidence because their belief system was more important than reality.

When we examine an interpretive scheme that claims to make sense of reality, we will want to look at its internal coherence. Do claims made in one part of the web of beliefs correlate with claims made in another part?  A religious example will also help you to see this relationship.  Roman Catholic theology claims that Jesus was sinless.  In this theological system, every human being is born sinful by virtue of a doctrine called original sin, a sin nature passed down through heredity from the first human parents.  Jesus was human, so by deduction, he must have also been born with original sin.  That, however, would violate the belief that Jesus was sinless.  So, theologians needed to find a solution to this problem of coherence (one belief in the system is out of sync with another belief).  The solution that they came up with is ingenious.  Since there was no human father in Jesus’ birth, the only human chain affecting Jesus was his mother.  If she were also without sin, then Jesus would have been the progeny of two sinless parents – God and Mary.  So, the Roman Catholic Church announced that Mary was also sinless – that she had been born by an immaculate conception.  Voila, the problem for Jesus is solved.  But is it really?  All we really did was push the problem back to Mary’s mother.

One more example, if you please.  Modern science holds to the law of causality.  This simply means that science believes every effect has a cause. Everything that is can be traced back through what caused it to be what it is.  Practically, this assumption has been very successful.  It is a pillar of scientific research.  If you want to know how to cure AIDS, trace the disease back through its causes.  Understand how it works and where it came from.  If you want to know why the space shuttle Columbia crashed, trace the accident back through every piece of information until you find a cause.  Nothing happens by random, unexplainable chance.  There is always a cause for everything.  One of the implications of this belief is called the infinite regress of causality.  Every effect has a cause, backward forever.  But this also implies that unless there is a first cause, nothing in the chain can every get started.  So, since the infinite regress of causes is infinite, there never was a “first” anything.  There is always going to be something behind the “first” thing.  And that means that nothing can ever get started.  The very existence of the universe calls into question the entire structure of causality as an explanation for existence.  And it’s pretty obvious that things do exist.  So, how did they get here?  The only rational answer is that there must have been a beginning that did not require a previous cause.  Now we can appreciate the profundity of the first word of the Bible, “In the beginning” (beresit).  The Bible introduces a cosmology that is unlike any other ancient cosmology.  It actually addresses the infinite regress of causality with the very first word.

We are left with three canons of rational thought: non-contradiction, comprehensiveness and coherence.  Are there proofs that these are the only three?  Are there proofs that these are exactly what are needed?  Frankly, no, but not because they don’t make sense.  There are no “proofs” because these are the very criteria that we use to talk about “proof”.  That’s why Wittgenstein referred to as “forms of life”.  They are built in to what it means to be human.  They are expression of the fabric of what it means to think.  So, they are meta-rational, that is, they stand just outside the idea of “proving” something in the same way that metaphysics stand just outside of the realm of physics.  Proving something assumes that these canons apply.  They are the bottom line.  Without them, all we have is nonsense.

What makes sense? We might not have all the answers but at least we know this much.  Unless our system of thinking meets the criteria of non-contradiction, comprehensiveness and coherence, we are not thinking very well.  If you want to discover how well you are thinking, start pushing your interpretive scheme toward its implied limits and see if you run into any “canon” problems. If you don’t, congratulations.  Keep pushing.  If you do, you have an indicator that something has gone wrong.  Time to retrace your steps and ask, “Where did I violate one of the canons?” Happy hunting.

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