Approaching Easter

In schools we need to be aware of the big ideas that underpin all that we do. At our intellectual core is a discussion about the relationship between knowledge and belief.

It is wonderful that the word ‘hope’ exists – that it is extant. The fact that it is extant itself is, I believe, significant. ‘Hope’ suggests that there is a link between our lived experiences and meaning and purpose in our lives. As educators, we wish to build purpose in students. We often have it quite strongly in ourselves.

As Easter approaches I note a few words about Nihilism: the notion that all academic work leads inevitably towards an absolute loss of meaning and hope.

I write it because I suspect that Nihilism plays a bigger part in our society that is presented popularly. In my office I speak with parents who have lost some hope after a messy divorce, or who have just received bad news from the doctor or who are impacted by suicide or a personal tragedy. You no doubt have contact with people in similar circumstances. There are temptations to despair. Nihilistic thoughts run through our culture. Intellectual frameworks that state that we are ultimately nothing support this despair.

There was a call this weak from a Queensland Rationalist that schools should focus only on ‘the rational’, being his definition of what is rational. Religion should be removed from education.

I note that the rationality of Nihilism is quite strong: if we are simply an evolved species with no Transcendent Being or Entity, no God, no ‘Other’ behind and beyond the Universe, then there is no reason to expect that anything we do is necessarily in line with what we might call the truth about the Universe. Just as we would not expect a blind worm or a fly with an arthropod eye to be able to form a theory of the Universe that is accurate (their senses and cognivity have not evolved to a degree whereby they could be considered to have formed a view of the Universe that corresponds to its complexities), we cannot also validly argue that our senses have reached the point where we can validly perceive all that is, to describe the truth. It is a conceit to think that our evolution of senses is complete. We have no externally reliable means of knowing the extent to which our senses detect all that is. Like the blind worm, we might not be able to sense important data. Further, because there are feasibly improved creatures in the future that could have evolved senses that identify things that we can’t currently identify, we can’t reasonably declare ourselves to have reached the evolutionary state where there are not more senses to develop. A physicalist evolutionary framework assumes we could develop further senses. This leads some philosophers (e.g., Vardy) to write about having views of truth that are coherent rather than correspondent: he thinks we can only work out a theory that coheres with elements of reality, not one that corresponds with reality.

Aristotle divided thinking into ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ and, despite the work of Barthes and Derrida, the popular frameworks of our western civilisations still rest on these categorical distinctives. The thought described in the paragraph above indicates everything may in fact be belief – that we can’t rely on empiricism to determine knowledge. Knowledge, by this reading, is a tentative thing. Why? Because we can’t guarantee that we have the capacities required to enact the empiricism accurately. Kuhn has outlined his theory of paradigms based on this. We develop a paradigm about how to establish the truth until we realise that our current theory is inadequate (thus we have moved from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein and beyond).

Dawkins’ picture of religious belief is that belief in God is a means of filling in the gaps. Knowledge is ever increasing and ultimately we will fill in the spaces and no longer need religion. Yet Dawkins could be critiqued as not taking into account adequately the problem of knowledge. There is no way to externally measure what is not known because we don’t have the capacity to ascertain the things that we can’t perceive. Yet what we don’t know could be critical: we now count Einstein’s contributions as critical whereas characters in the Newtonian world weren’t even aware of them. Knowledge might indeed be tiny slithers and the gaps could be enormous.

It is at this point that the Progress Myth becomes very important to those who call themselves Rationalists. If we accept that our knowledge is partial, but have complete faith in empiricism as the superior methodology for uncovering knowledge, we will believe in progress. According to this view, knowledge grows like a pyramid of stones. Each new validated theory trumps that which is prior. It seems reasonable that Einstein trumps Newton who trumps Aristotle.

In taking this route we assume that our theoretical frameworks themselves are valid. Yet it would appear that our lines of thought aren’t as clear as we might have hoped. Einstein still leaves us with unanswered questions, and to answer them we might divert from some of his theories one day. We often return to theories that were once discarded and reexamine them. Anselm was once held in esteem, then dismissed. Yet there are academics who are again exploring his philosophy. Similarly Kierkegaard and Hegel and …

For example, Benjamin Libet once argued that science has disproven free will. Yet, in line with Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘in science there are conceptual methods and philosophical confusion’, Mele argues in his book ‘Free’ that the experiments which claim to refute free will don’t do so at all.

The problem with the popular conception of progress is that it assumes that debates get settled, that knowledge is formed unequivocally such that it becomes the bedrock for further knowledge.

And those who wish to import that knowledge into schools in the category of uncontested fact are actually anti-education. The contested nature of ‘knowledge’ and its connection to ‘belief’ becomes a very important aspect of education. Students need to engage with this uncertainty and recognise the role that faith plays in developing understanding.

STEM, for example, is a very important aspect of education. As the principal of a school that had students finish first last year out of all NSW schools (public, selective, independent, Catholic) in student research awards in Biology, Physics and Chemistry; a school that employs specialist science and technology teachers in our Junior School and a Mathematician-in-Residence in our senior school; a school that had a student come first in Chemistry in the NSW Higher School Certificate in 2014, I wish to note also the importance of theology and philosophy and the arts to ‘knowledge’ in science. Reliance on science alone to determine truth is reliant on ‘a science of the fragments’. Our experience of such a science would be of a constant shifting in trends (to refer to a recent news article: at one time our ‘knowledge’ is that we use paracetamol to reduce fever in children; at another point it is that we don’t). Empiricism is an important ‘subset epistemology’ in knowledge formation: it doesn’t provide a bulwark of established knowledge but a series of apparent collations of knowledge in different disciplines – often contradictory of one another.

This is fine by me. And saying this doesn’t, in my view, diminish the importance of the scientific method. It just means that it should not be elevated to be the only way to establish knowledge.

The father of Analytical Philosophy, Wittgenstein, changed his position over the course of his life. Whereas early on he said: ‘About that which we do not know we should be silent’ (thus supporting only an empirical framework and perhaps warning against religious knowledge), in the second part of his life he moved more and more into consideration of the role of language in creating meaning and he began to reconsider religious ideas.

In life we can’t sit back and wait to gather all knowledge before we make a decision about what is. ‘No net is large enough to catch the world’ said Judith Wright. We live with a deep interaction between the personal and the so-called objective. We live between the transcendent and the immanent.

It was Augustine who flipped Aristotelian ideas. Aristotle supported the notion that we should believe things based on our knowledge: Gradual accrual before commitment. Augustine said: ‘I believe that I might understand.’ It was an Augustine who developed the role of faith in knowledge formation. Many centuries later Soren Kierkegaard based his theology/philosophy on this idea that an individual’s understanding of the Universe is grounded in faith. Faith is indispensable to knowledge. More recently Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief and knowledge can come together around the idea of ‘warrant’.

Final ‘knowledge’ about all things is not possible. Doubt is an indispensable tool but alone it leads to despair. Faith is actually impossible to avoid and is essential to the development of the person as someone who considers the role of integrity and love and hope in life. We should not be afraid of the consideration of theological questions. And we should not be so conceited as to think that we can dismiss them.

Interestingly Plantinga argues that one can believe a finding about physics because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it. And one can have religious faith because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it.

Some readers will feel nervous about these two sentences being included in one paragraph with the same grammatical structure – as if they are two sentences carrying equal epistemological weight. Basing knowledge on scientific process appears to give a greater chance of security than does faith. Or are they both necessary? We have faith that we as humans are sufficiently ‘formed’ (have adequate senses) to be able to reach some sort of conclusion about knowledge – and we have faith that our assumptions in undertaking the investigation are valid. In short, we each have presuppositions that often rely on religious views of the significance of the human being and their purposes in being.

What is this to do with Easter? Easter could be viewed as a claim that in science there are conceptual methods but theological confusion. I teach a Theology and Philosophy class that covers the history of Western thought (and some Eastern) to middle years high school students. We cover Athens (e.g., Thales and Parmenides and Plato and Aristotle) and Jerusalem (e.g., Moses and David and Jesus). We cover Augustine and Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard.In the course we don’t exclude someone because, in our conceit, we believe we have ‘progressed’ beyond his or her theory. We believe that Faith and Science have actually interacted through history. We don’t fall for the propaganda generated by one side or the other that indicates that to be religious is to be bigoted and dogmatic, or to be irreligious is to be immoral. Christianity, for example, has always held that our knowledge is partial. It was St Paul who said ‘we see but through a glass darkly’.

None of us stands on the top of the Tower of Babel and sees the world aright from the point of view of all languages combined. None of us have ever seen God, says the apostle John (1:18). Yet it is also valid that the Gospels hold a claim, because of their basis in a belief in a sovereign God, that one day ‘we shall see face to face’. This claim is worthy of consideration in an education. Why should it not be?

Easter is a claim that the human being is of eternal value: our persons, our hopes, our inclinations, our thinking, our relations, and our search for knowledge. Just like the view the vast majority of us form about the babes in our arms when we have children. Isaac Newton based his inquiries into Mathematics on the foundation that he was searching after knowledge that rested ultimately in God.

The Christian hope at Easter underpins learning – it is a basis for believing that knowledge is possible. And it is also, I add as a coda, a statement that there are more lasting things than surety about matter and anti-matter: ‘and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ 1 Corinthians 13:13