JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 4: Briefing Note

GEM 03:10:29

“Modernity”: Knowledge, Faith and Skepticism



1. The Discontents of Modernity

2. The Rise of Modernity

3. The Epistemological Clash

Appendix: Evolutionary Cosmological Timeline

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: We now live in what is by general consensus called the “Post-modern” era. This naturally invites the question as to why modernity has been unsatisfactory. In turn, this surfaces issues relating to the dominance of epistemology in Western thinking over the past several centuries, and the associated questions of faith, reason and radical doubt; i.e. skepticism. So in this session and the next, we will take a look at the rise and fall of the modernist paradigm of progress and scientifically based enlightenment.  In so doing, we will also highlight the prospects for a renewed programme of Christocentric prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership, such as transformed western culture in the first several centuries of the Christian era, and a gain in the aftermath of the reformation of five centuries ago.  

1.         The Discontents of Modernity

Perhaps, a good place to begin is a recent exchange in one of our local newspapers, which aptly but sadly illustrates how philosophy often underlies popular discourse.

In this case, local media pundit Michael Dingwall has publicly rebuked Rev. Clinton Chisholm, a leading Christian Apologist in the Caribbean[1]:

We both know that what we call “God” is man-made; the reverend gentleman is just having difficulty accepting the fact.  There was history before his God came and there will be plenty of it after man sees the light and discards his God . . . .

[Chisholm] states that the Christian God created man with free will and in exercising this free will he sinned.  I don’t see how he could make such a statement.  How can we be free to make choices, and at the same time be punished for making the one that seems the better of the two?  What kind of freedom is that?  It seems that the original purpose of the Christian God was for mankind to remain forever ignorant, serving him blindly . . . Man may have been created with free will, but he certainly did not have freedom to use that will.[2]

This bold assertion of atheism illustrates the confident pugnacity of the secularist/atheistic vision of the world, which sees the world through the eyes of a materialistic, progressive, evolutionary, Naturalistic “Science” that “explains” everything from hydrogen to humans. Such men therefore often deride the evangelical concept of a Creator-Redeemer God who speaks in the pages of the Bible as a dangerous myth used to support the power agendas of certain “backward,” religiously motivated interest groups.  

However, in light of such an atheistic, evolutionary progressive worldview, “moral values” are at best seen as relative to individuals, communities and cultures; they lack any rationally or morally compelling universal scope. For, if we are free to make choices, we should have the right do that which “seems the better” to us, perhaps after a bit of reflection.  Unfortunately, the deceptive effects of moral blindness, selfishness and out of control passions are too often glided over with a sarcastic remark or two that make it seem that it is those who are concerned about the need for moral restraints who are living in Plato’s Cave!

 Consequently, we can easily see why contemporary society struggles to find a way to consistently justify moral restraints in the face of the ever-present nihilistic/Machiavellian challenge that what counts is not so-called “morals” (much less stewardship of our world and communities under God) but rather power to do as one pleases.  For, we must never ever forget that in the past 100 years, over 100 millions have needlessly died in various attempts to achieve secularist utopias. 

In short, sadly, the mass slaughters of the last century in the name of progress, the ruthless exploitation of the powerless, and the horrifying despoiling of the natural environment emerge as natural outcomes of the modernist, progressivist worldview when it is unrestrained by moral considerations. Thus, we see how post-modernity emerges as thinkers and societies grapple with the discontents and disasters of modernity.

These forces, events and trends clearly call out for a philosophical assessment and an informed response.

2.         The Rise of Modernity and the Skeptical-Scientific Spirit

Now, the roots of the modernist spirit and worldview lie in Rene Descartes’ pessimism about knowledge. For, that C17 thinker struggled with radical doubts in the face of the disintegration of the unities of the medieval world of scholarship -- under the impact of: (1) the renaissance, (2) the age of discoveries, (3) the reformation, (4) the resulting wars over religion and (5) the associated rise of modern science:

It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis . . .  [So I] must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundations, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structures in the sciences . . . . reason already persuades me that I ought no less carefully to withhold my assent from matters which are not entirely certain and indubitable than from those which appear to me to be manifestly false, if I am able to find in each one some reason to doubt, this will suffice to justify my rejecting the whole.[3]

 Thus, notwithstanding the infinite regress of doubts implied by Descartes’ words, we find stated the energizing principle of the radical skepticism that has haunted the world of thought ever since 1640.  For, since most things are not accessible to Mathematical certainty, doubt reigns as the champion by default and faith in the absence of certainty appears to be naïve and/or dubious, at best.

In this skeptical intellectual context, scientific thinking soon became the model for a way forward: a rational, step by step process for describing, explaining, predicting and controlling the natural – and increasingly the human – world.  For, through the sciences and associated technologies, humanity has developed a proven means of building reliably useful – even if not absolutely certain – knowledge of the Laws of Nature.  So, a spirit of optimism reigned (until the twentieth century):

3.         The Epistemological clash: doubt, faith, reason and knowledge

Clearly, epistemological issues are central to the critical assessment of the modernist picture of the world. 

First, is the Descartes project feasible?

No. For, as suggested above, it leads to an infinite regress of doubts: “I doubt my existence. But, to doubt is to think, and to think is to exist” implicitly assumes the continuity of an I that can think, remember and perceive veridically. Is that indubitably certain, given the uncertainties of our senses, memory and perceptions[4]?

Obviously not, and so, we see the corrective force of the principle of conservation of beliefs:

It makes good sense to stick with your current body of beliefs --  and to have  confidence that your basic belief forming mechanisms are generally reliable -- unless there are compelling reasons to accept a radical alternative.

Furthermore, Science itself is neither as progressive nor as certain as its more enthusiastic proponents suggest. From the 1880’s to the 1930’s for instance, the classical view of Physics that had been steadily built up since the 1660’s collapsed: a mounting body of empirical evidence contradicted the hitherto well established laws of Physics; under situations of the very small and/or the very fast and/or very large. This led to the rise of Quantum mechanics to explain the strange behaviour of matter and energy at molecular scales and smaller, and of Relativity Theory to explain the behaviour of bodies traveling at about 1/10 the speed of light and faster (as well as the gross structure of the cosmos in light of discoveries about how gravity warps space and time).

As a result, Philosophy of Science has undergone a considerable ferment across the last century[5]:

Consequently, the scientific picture of the world is not as certain or unified as we may have been led to believe while doing School Science courses, or even in College.  However, the powerful impacts of science in our world lend scientific claims great credibility, often to the point where “that’s unscientific” is tantamount to the claim that something is irrational.

3.         Faith, Science, Philosophy and Theology

But, notoriously, Theology is not scientific, and its “partner in crime”, morality, is also a matter of what ought to be rather than what is the case. Are these properly suspected of being significantly irrational and/or subjective only, as some suggest?

Philosophical analysis, in light of the recent history of the Philosophy of Science, gives us a way to evaluate such a claim:

In short, philosophical analysis shows that scientific thinking is not privileged in a way that other fields of study are not. In particular, scientific work is prone to disagreements, and even to quarrels among competing paradigms. In general such thinking embeds a necessary open-endedness, and a willingness to trust uncertain hypotheses, leading to a history of minor and dramatic changes as the consensus of the relevant community evolves. This is quite similar to the way other fields of study work, including theology and ethics; and so the methods used have a significant degree of overlap.

CONCLUSIONS: It is evident that the modernist tendency to denigrate theistic perspectives and associated moral concerns has had a devastating impact over the past 100 years, when attempts have been made to institute progress-oriented utopias.  On examination of the closely linked concept that scientific methods are privileged, it turns out that this is not so, and that the moral concerns characteristically raised by theists are directly relevant to making and living by wise choices in the community and wider world.  Major ethical principles, such as the Golden Rule/ Categorical Imperative; while  originating in theological contexts, have a general rationality that is objective and widely relevant.  In the case of Science, integrity in performing and reporting research and the findings of that research are vital, if the field is to be worthy of the trust of the public and policy makers alike. In public policy, the implications of the Golden Rule directly speak into the soundness across time of policy alternatives, as well as the impact of examples set by decision-makers and implementing agencies. Finally, a version of Pascal’s Wager emerges as a powerful tool for guiding decision makers in making prudent choices.  

Evolutionary Cosmology Timeline for the Universe

The following timeline is commonly taught in Colleges, High Schools and even Primary School, as well as on the media, as a scientifically established framework for our past.

Cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_Universe and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_timeline for typical sources. BYA, MYA and TYA stand for: billions, millions and thousands of years ago, respectively. With a refreshing honesty, Wikipedia notes of the first of these timelines, that:

Since human observations cover a very short time interval and relatively short distance, making detailed predictions about the distant future or distant past is difficult. Humans can only observe a fraction of the total universe, and the observations cover a very short time interval. It is possible that our current understanding of physics contains errors that are only noticable on a very large time scale or very large astronomical scale. See also:

13.7 +/- 0.2 BYA
Cosmic singularity, aka the big bang: Universe as we know it begins
13.7 - 13.1 BYA
Formation of Hydrogen atoms, stars and galaxies; later, through the explosion of large stars heavy elements form, required for rocky planats and so life.
5 - 4.6 BYA
Sun forms, then planet Earth
3.5 BYA
First, single-celled, life forms evolve through chemical evolution
1,000 - 500 MYA
Multicellular life forms emerge after single celled life forms transform the atmosphere to support oxygen-dependent life forms
475 - 300 MYA
Plants, Fishes, Amphibians, Reptiles, colonisation of land
250 - 200 MYA
Permian-Triassic mass extinction, after which reptiles that evolve into crocodilians, dinosaurs and birds emerge. The first mammals appear.
200 - 65 MYA
Dinosaur age emerges. At 65 MYA the Cretacious-Tertiary mass extinction is triggered by a meteorite hitting the Gulf of Mexico. After this, mammals dominate the land.
10 - 1.8 MYA
Apes, then primitive men emerge
130 - 100 TYA
Neandertals, then modern Homo sapiens sapiens, emerge.
50 - 27 TYA
Modern men colonise the continents, and the neandertals die out.
15 - 10TYA
Agriculture, settlement, domestication of animals, cereal crops, cities
Recorded History begins
Beginnings of so-called "Common Era" (CE); i.e. that formerly dated from the Birth of Christ and the origin of church: AD.
0.5 - 0.2 TYA
European settlement of Americas. Globalisation begins as the Iberians pioneer global trade routes dependent on the trade wind system discovered and used by Columbus and other early navigators. Modern Missionary movements first begin in the Catholic then the Protestant churches. Renaissance and reformation reach their height, then foster rise of science, enlightenment and industrial age. Rise of modern democratic self-government under the rule of law.

Points to ponder . . .

  1. On balance, has science served to bring progress or harm to the world?
  1. Has the project of scientific enlightenment under an evolutionary materialist view of the world allowed moral concerns to play an adequate role in life and community?
  1. Is radical doubt an appropriate paradigm for progress and enlightenment?
  1.  In light of the above, how should we respond to the needs and trends in the Caribbean?

References & Readings

Morris, Tom. Philosophy for Dummies. NY: Hungry Minds, 1999.

Stanford online Enc. of Phil: http://plato.stanford.edu/


[1] Rev. Chisholm had made remarks on Bishop Spong’s essentially atheistic views on basic points of Christian faith. (He has been described in the promotional blurb on one of his recent books as “an atheist who does the job of a Bishop very well.”) Cf. Martin Henry’s expose in http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20020131/cleisure/cleisure2.html and Peter Espeut’s uncritical endorsement: http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20020116/cleisure/cleisure2.html.

[2] “Disputing Rev Chisholm’s views,” The Daily Observer (Kingston, Jamaica), Feb. 6, 2002, p. 9.  Emphases added.

[3] Meditations on First Philosophy, 1640.  http://www.cola.wright.edu/DesCartes/Meditation1.html

[4] This lack of absolute certainty was pointed out by Descates himself in Meditation II: http://www.cola.wright.edu/DesCartes/Meditation2.html . However, he saw his own existence as the doubter, as undeniably certain. Later philosophers have demurred.

[5] Cf. J P Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science (Baker, 1989), for a good survey from a Christian perspective.

[6] But it is not to be inferred that they refer to things that exist in the external world beyond logic: these are claims about words in effect. 2 + 3 = 5 is an example.

[7] E.g. Aristotle’s Men are mortal, or Newton’s F = m.a. Such propositions make claims about reality that add to our knowledge of the real world, if they are confirmed.

[8] Cf. Blomberg, Craig: “The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” in W. L Craig’s Reasonable Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 203 – 208.