I am astounded. Alister McGrath wrote something that was correct!
Reason needs to be calibrated by something external. That’s one of the reasons why science is so important in the critique of pure reason — a point that we shall return to in the next article.
Of course, it’s only two sentences embedded in a great gross tangle of wrong, and he does accompany it with a threat to screw it all up in his next essay, but let’s give him credit for finally, after years of pretentious mumbling, managing to say one thing I can agree with.
It is exactly right. I’ve had the experience of putting together beautiful theories to explain phenomena I’ve seen in the microscope, simple, clean, elegant explanations that would be efficient and sufficient…if only the biology actually worked as I deduced. And then I’ve done an experiment or made an observation or read a paper with new data, and immediately had to discard my lovely logical construct. This is routine and expected. Science is built on a foundation of empiricism.
And it’s not just science. I remember looking for a used car in my teenaged years, and finding a sweet-looking used machine in my price range, and I could imagine cruising the town and picking up chicks with it…and then my father the auto mechanic had me turn the engine over and explained to me what all those strange grindy sputtery noises meant, and I looked in the rear view mirror and noticed that James Dean wasn’t sitting in the driver’s seat, and a lot of lovely fantasies came crashing down under the oppressive weight of reality. Dammit.
A much smarter man than I also had something to say about it.
Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.
It’s what most mundane science is about. It’s not the sudden eurekas that drive the process, but the regular, repeated check and recheck and double-check and triple-check, plodding forward by constantly comparing our logic and expectations against the actual terrain.
I’m glad McGrath noticed. So why does he get everything else exactly backward?
McGrath asserts that the Gnu Atheists are prisoners of “mere rationality”, that we’re trapped in the “dogma of the finality of reason”, and even claims that we’re just rehashing discredited 18th century philosophy that claims a sufficiency of logic and reason to discern the nature of the universe. It’s utterly bizarre that at one point he can notice that foundation of science in reliance on empirical evidence, and then go on to complain that these Gnu Atheists, who he generally likes to accuse of scientism and overly demanding of mere evidence, are now a gang of armchair pontificators who insist on the primacy of reason alone!
It’s simply not true. Gather a mob of unruly atheists to confront theologians like McGrath, and we are not chanting demands for them to expand on their logical ‘proofs’ for the existence of gods (those freakin’ bore us), we’re more likely to be chanting “evidence, evidence, evidence” and pointing out that their fantasies are built on weak to nonexistent foundations.
And then there’s this:
The New Atheism seems to think Christianity refuses to have anything to do with reason — a delusion that can only be sustained by refusing to read the many Christian writers who take it seriously, such as Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis.
That’s wrong. I’ve mentioned this a few times: I’m very impressed with the logical abilities of theologians, who construct the most intricate, elaborate, methodical apologetics imaginable (I don’t include C.S. Lewis among them, though — that man conjured up flimsy, weak appeals to mindless sentiment and inanity). The gripe isn’t that they’re stupid or incapable of rationality, it’s that they build fantastical castles in the clouds and expect you to ignore the absence of testable, observable support.
Although, come to think of it, I do agree that dedicating your life to constructing elaborate rationalizations while never questioning or testing the premise of the divine origin of a badly written book is rather stupid.
McGrath reverses everything, though, and tries to argue that the scientists who constantly question their hypotheses and measure them against empirical reality are the prisoners of mere rationality, while the dogmatists who build a cage of improbable extrapolations from flawed and limited ancient texts are wandering about free. He’s literally engaging in double-speak and reversal of meaning.
For Christian writers, religious faith is not a rebellion against reason, but a legitimate and necessary revolt against the imprisonment of humanity within the cold walls of a rationalist dogmatism. The Christian faith declares that there is more to reality than reason discloses – not contradicting reason, but simply transcending it, and escaping from its limitations.
As I have said several times now, science and the Gnu Atheism are not about using reason to discern reality, but using observations of reality itself as the yardstick for determining the validity of our modeling of the universe. Reason is important, but not sufficient.
It is revealing that McGrath is willing to argue that abandoning reason is a virtue, while still failing to bring up any empirical evidence that his imaginary magical explanations actually reflect anything particularly relevant about the universe.