Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reflective Equilibrium: Methodology and Phenomenology

In the previous installment, I discarded two prominent modes of Christian apology, and suggested that there was a third way. This third way draws on John Rawls's seminal theory of Reflective Equilibrium. So, let's cut to the chase:

We all enter the world with certain pre-existing substantive ideas about the nature of justice and desirable states of affairs. These are the philosophical questions of the Right and the Good, respectively. How do we come to believe in a God that is both Right and Good? Say we had good reason to believe that Godn existed, but also commanded that murder is good and something we ought to do. Justifiably, that commandment would probably derail our belief in Godn. The upshot of this is that, despite empirical and philosophical evidence, if a given Godn doesn't square with our strong pre-existing beliefs B about the Just and the Good, we are severely disinclined to sacrifice B for the sake of Godn. In keeping with our greater disinclination to believe in that God, the evidence E for Godn has to be correspondingly greater. So the evidence needed of God is inversely related to the differential
D between our pre-existing notions of the just and that which is entailed by belief in that given God. Put mathematically:

E Godn = 1/D((B)( Godn))

Hey! Looks like math! Pretty sweet, huh?

Of course, we'd all agree that the fact that it looks like math is justification enough, but this is actually just a formal extension of the above idea that we need more evidence for a religious idea the farther it diverges from our pre-existing beliefs.

And would that I were so smart to have come up with this all myself. Sadly, the kernel is derived from a man far smarter than me, John Rawls, author of the seminal A Theory of Justice. The basic concept that I've mathematically inscribed is known as 'reflective equilibrium' (RE). The gist of RE is that we already have certain first order normative judgments (moral knowledge about what's right and wrong in a particular situation - for example, the judgment that it's wrong to kill Mr. X), and second order principles that codify and generalize those judgments (for example, "murder is wrong"). The interesting thing about RE is that it isn't deductive. Whereas previously moral philosophers had puzzled about the gaps between the two levels of judgment, or the judgments that didn't tidily fit within clear principles, Rawls's theory recognizes that the two levels of moral theory are interpenetrative. According to the strength of the first order belief, we may adjust our second order belief and vice versa.

In a way that I find rather compelling, Rawls's theory is both explanatory and justificatory. To return to our murderous God, our belief that it'd be wrong to kill, if sufficiently strong, is enough to defeat the plausibility of a God that commends murder. If, however, our belief that murder is wrong is weak, the evidence that there is a God that commends murder would be enough to attenuate the hitherto unchallenged belief that murder is always wrong. Reflective equilibrium, then, both explains how we've come to a given conclusion and justifies why we've done so.

So this is the backdrop against which I read the Bible. Given that I have certain strong beliefs, these beliefs will influence my reading. Some of these beliefs are substantive moral beliefs (feminism; gay equality), and some are logical (God ought to be logical. To the extent that Paul's writings evince a profoundly illogical thinking style, I will interpret him non-literally. I just can't accept that God is so illogical as to reason in question-begging and tautological ways).

Having explained my method, and how my reading of the text is necessarily and justfiably mediated by extra-textual considerations, on to the things themselves!