ideas of dogma

Via Bad Astronomy I have seen this comic that allegedly shows the difference between dogma & science. There are a few obvious problems with this set–up— so obvious that they illustrate the dogma of the very persons who are sharing it.

I do not believe that the natural sciences are wholly dogmatic no more than I believe Christian theology is (more on this, later, as I do not mean this in what might seem to be the ‘normal’ sense). However, they do include unprovable assumptions. Further, even among educated persons the acceptance of evolution or relativity or quantum mechanics are not remotely understood; they are understood in a dogmatic fashion via authorities. I do not think that there is anything wrong with this; even those with the intellectual ability to be such multifaceted polymaths simply often lack the time to engage these various subjects even at the level which can involve fairly reasoned assent, much less exhaustive extent. A large portion of my academic training was tied up in a discipline so related to evolutionary biology that it is one of its pillars, but I do not have any real understanding (beyond basic outlines) of things like biochemistry or comparative genetics. In other words, my assent to evolutionary biology involves (partial) dogmatic assent; I trust the pronouncements of authorities (with some reservations at times), because they are authorities.

Now, Phil Plait would likely insist that there is some radical difference between assenting to scientific & theological (or philosophical) authorities. The most difficult would be the range of opinion, but that could be largely due to the relative well, modernness, of modern science. You don’t have time for vast ranges of less–correct (to be generous) opinion to grow up from (allegedly) the same sort of source; theology and philosophy have both had plenty of time. Even among ‘professional’ philosophers—for an example—ignorance of large portions of philosophical/theological (I do not believe there is a particular difference between both disciplines, properly understood) history on dogmatic grounds that they were so wholly mistaken that it is not worth investigating them in a more than cursory matter. (There is some real ‘turning back’ even within Anglo–American philosophy at this point, mostly to Aristotle.)

Most striking in all this is the ignorance of the philosophical genealogy of modern science.

Last week I went to a star party in north–central PA. It was a great time, despite non–ideal weather for much of the time. There were talks given on Saturday which were very interesting; of the ones I attended (I may have attended all of them) there were: one on magnetars, another on the shift in space exploration to private and academic institutions, another on the history of the intertwining of SF and science, and another on the history of astronomy.

The speaker was a non–specialist, but for the most part he did a good job exploding some myths, like believing the earth was flat was almost non–existent in the west, for example. He was, however, wrong and even ignorant on some of the particulars such as believing in heliocentrism was not, on its own, an ‘offense’. While geocentrism was held in high esteem (in part on the authority of Aristotle, on part of the authority of the Bible in such things as Joshua’s prayer that the sun stand still being answered), it was not given strict dogmatic authority. Galileo was not put under house arrest for his heliocentrism, and he was dead wrong about other things. (Further, his long term patron was the Barberini family member who later became Pope Urban VIII.)

Further, Galileo’s heliocentrism was dogmatic; he insisted that astronomy was not mathematical, and believed that comets were an optical illusion based on the fact that if they were not, they would have impossible (to his mind) elliptical and tilted orbits. In this he was contested by a Jesuit astronomer. Indeed, until Kepler became widely known, the empirical justifications for heliocentrism were weak; the Aristo–Ptolemaic tradition’s series of complex epicycles was much better at predicting astronomical phenomena than the heliocentric system. The birth of heliocentrism was deeply connected to the quasi–late pagan Platonism which had taken root, first in Italy, after its introduction around the time of the fall of the Eastern Empire; the sun, as the source of light, was the image in the universe of the One— that it was the center of the universe was obvious.

Further, there are unprovable assumptions in the bedrock of our current science, such as the continuity of the slow processes we call gradualism; gradualism is fantastic as an instrument, but it occasionally is not. I am not talking about the controversial and not widely–held punctuated equilibrium of Gould. (Though there are paleontological reasons to doubt a pure gradualist account; while it does not precisely debate gradualism, my undergrad thesis was making a case that the rise of new species in one series illustrated changes in body–size due to paleoëcological conditions, not a transition of species.) There are questions, but it is possible that they will be solved, or at lest given reasonable explanations within the normal view.

• • •

Dogma extends into areas which are actually about the defense of dogma. While not to pick on him, Bruce Charlton and I recently had a short exchange about whether or not Stravinsky was an iconoclast. (Well, that was the explicit debate.) Here we have Charlton rejecting what amounts to over three–fourths of the musical tradition of the Christian Church for what amounted to a fairly radical innovation that occurred over the very same time that the theological, philosophical, and political transitions that Charlton decries— as if the arts are divorced from the rest of culture!

Stravinsky explicitly made a return to the tradition (especially in his latter works), even as he developed it. The tradition never has stayed static, but has changed with what Chesterton has called the votes of the ancestors intact. Charlton further made appeals to C. S. Lewis, who despite his constant appeals to tradition mostly followed modern sources (The Discarded Image understands the Middle Ages through the Platonist tradition that Galileo was part of, rather than the Platonist–Aristotelian synthesis that Christian theology wed itself to), and whose innovations were glosses upon that line of thought. The breach in art and ideas between Tolkien and Lewis was no accident on personal differences or mere artistic differences— Tolkien appealed more to Lewis’s theology than his art, simpliciter.

Further, Tolkien was a man who developed within the tradition; he was not a mere conduit of it, but was consciously trying to revive it in a new fashion and strengthen it thereby. There are unique elements to his art and even theology which amount to faithful attempts to advance the tradition. And that’s just it— unlike Charlton’s image of the tradition, the tradition develops within itself it dives deeper & deeper into the truth, rather than continuing to propel along a course upon its surface. (Submarine metaphors are somewhat natural to me.) Indeed, the eccentricity of Charlton’s ‘tradition’ is illustrated in his reluctance to submit to any Christian tradition— rather, he begs off the issue by appealing to the imperfection of it, as if such imperfection was not the reason for its continual correction against its issues!

• • •

Heidegger argued that theology was not philosophy because it could not bring up radical questions regarding the nature of being. That is absurd; theologies are simply philosophies which have theories of the nature of being (often, however, in very general senses— there is no real ontological dogma in the Christian tradition), or set a fence around the range of ontological possibilities. Before the philosophical embrace of a theology, the philosopher may have a range of possibilities he contemplates, but he can discover that the ontological limits of a theology are correct.

The objection I anticipate here—at least from Orthodox of the Eastern tradition—is that a theologian is not a philosopher, but rather is one who simply describes brute facts which are revealed radically in the hermetic life (or a life that is blessed such that it mirrors it). Theology is fideist; it is anti–philosophical. That is—frankly—bullshit. St Gregory the Theologian—one of only three saints to bear that title (and with St Symeon it is unclear if that was ever not a negative epithet for some time)—would have vigorously denied it; he saw his very work as theologian as his own asceticism. Indeed, in some ways, the hermetic life is not suited to theological discourse as its time is focused about a role just as unique as the life of a true theologian, but different.

The recent rise of ‘the theologian is the one who prays’ as a catch–phrase seems to track alongside late–modern philosophy and a Protestant influence which seeks to divorce theology from the ‘corruption’ of (Greek) philosophy— as if the rise of such ideas is apart from contemporaneous philosophical movements! (Let me not omit that another man entitled ‘theologian’—St John the Evangelist—shows every sign of philosophical sophistication in his Gospel. And St Symeon’s own relation to philosophy is often misunderstood so that it can be used as ammunition.)

The idea of dogma is far more complicated than both the believers in science–as–philosophy–entire and the fideists would wish to believe; and the fideists and their close allies would both do well to recognize the intimate relation between their ideas of it.



Filed under philosophy & theology, science

4 responses to “ideas of dogma

  1. I’m not really sure of what you are getting at here!

    But I would suggest that there is a world of motivational difference from the way that both Tolkien and Lewis wrote from immersion in a tradition, growing from it (ignoring post 1917 developments); and the way that Stravinsky re-used traditional elements in modern ways.

    You must not assume that I am arguing all modernist experiments are bad art – for example, I am very keen in the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid who used traditional elements in the modernist way: creating a new synthetic or ‘plastic’ Scots from dialect and dictionary sources.

    Or Robert Frost (my favourite poet of the past 100years perhaps of all time) – whose poetry was essentially all about poetry – or the poet (behind its superficial subject matter) which is a very modern stance.

    Insofar as Stravinsky used tradition, I would guess it was in this Frostian way – writing music about music.

    But that is not what traditional artists did.

  2. Pingback: the role of the idea | Anthropismos

  3. Lvka

    For the ancient Greeks themselves, philosophy was a way of life. The same holds true for the Orient in general. Philosophy as an object of study seems to have been a Carolingian novelty, which later blossomed into Scholasticism, and found its peak in the Enlightment, and Protestantism. And the Saints obviously live out the faith and theology, otherwise they would not have become Saints in the first place.

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