Friday, November 12, 2004

On Common Method

I had previously wondered why people would become Christian in the first place. There seem to be a number of different approaches that have been advanced: first, there's the top-down, historical or analytic approach, in which the questioner dutifully goes through the historical record or philosophical arguments (McDowell and Pascal, respectively*), confirms the veracity of Christianity, and then adopts the religion lock-stock-and-barrel. Another avenue by which people seem to come to Christianity is akin to Dantean psychology; the subject goes through some horrible period, in which life 'loses meaning' or something similar, and then seems to just latch onto Christianity. I find neither of these compelling. The Dantean avenue just seems odd; even if one were to bottom out, the need for recourse plainly underdetermines any one mode of restoring meaning or whatever hippie crap is being sought. Put plainly, it just begs the question to use some kind of purely formal want or need as evidence that Christianity, specifically, can fill that need. People routinely say that they became Christian because they 'felt a hole in their soul,' but this doesn't tell us anything about why Christianity, and Christianity only, could do that; it merely tells us that Christianity meets the minimum requirements of what a religion is supposed to do.

The analytic method leaves me unmoved for two primary and interlocking reasons: first, I have pragmatic or temperamental reservations. Josh McDowell, in coming to the conclusions that led to Evidence That Demands a Verdict, went through thousands of documents and a whole lot of time. This was no small feat; as a matter of fact, the herculean nature of his task was precisely the ground on which much of the credibility of his project rested. Contra McDowell, I simply don't have the patience to slog through bazillions of pages. This reticence is both a function of temperament and philosophy: as one predisposed to philosophical arguments, I tend to look skeptically upon empirical arguments**
. The simplest way to put this philosophical objection to the historical method is by way of reference to the historiological axiom that empirical evidence always underdetermines historical conclusions. In other words, history as a discipline is isomorphic with science in this respect; one starts with provisional evidence, moves on from that to a provisional*** hypothesis, and from there starts to accumulate evidence. Because of the distinctly inductive nature of this process, though, it's logically impossible to prove an hypothesis. One can make good guesses, but one can't prove anything per se. Put differently, the inductive nature of empirical methods always leaves an epistemic gap between hypothesis and truth. That gap leaves me very wary of putting too much stock in the hypothesized propositions. In the case of the Christian analytical method, this gap is two-fold. Not only is there the question of whether Jesus truly existed and rose from the grave, but there is the equally important and possibly more vexing question of whether the Bible, as the curious admixture of ancient Hebrew and newer Greek texts, is in fact the definitive collection of God's writings. The upshot of these concerns, then, is that I really don't think the effort required by the historical approach justifies the payoff.

What else is there, though? There seems to me to be a third way that wends its way between these two, which borrows the force of the intuitions of the Dantean method and the some of the conceptual rigor of the analytical method. Since I'm going long, I'll reserve my positive statements on method for the next post.

* While Pascal is the obvious embodiment of this methodology (Pascal's Wager), it's not entirely clear whether Pascal is an ideal exemplar of the top-down philosophical method. Given that he was also the author of the fabulous maxim 'kneel and ye shall believe,' which seeks to build faith on repetition of practice, one could argue that his method was distinctly bottom-up, rather than top-down.

** I'm fully aware that this predisposition toward philosophical arguments could be considered another species of temperament, but at least prima facie they seem different in kind; at the least, analytical clarity recommends taxonomical differentiation. So, while "laziness" and "skepticism" may both be features of temperament, then, either bide with me as I try to build a case for their difference, or be a fellow pragmatist and accept that this bifurcation will facilitate ease of reference in the future. Heh.

*** Note the pointed description of pre-hypothesis evidence as provisional: many philosophers of science will contend that evidence isn't properly evidence until it's oriented by a hypothesis; before a kind of Kiergaardian leap of faith to a hypothesis, it literally doesn't mean anything (see generally: Helen Longino). This is a tenet of a certain kind of radically skeptical philosophy of science, and the fact that I buy into it probably says more about my anti-empirical bent than it does the strength of the theory.