Theologians on Quine

Philosophy for Theologians podcastIn our Quine episode, I mentioned a religious podcast where the participants used Quine's undermining of verificationism to argue that any secular-based knowledge is groundless, and thus that we need revelation in order to have knowledge at all. The podcast in question was this Philosophy for Theologians episode on "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." (I've blogged on this podcast before.) The episode starts off with an explanation of the difference between analytic and continental philosophy, with the ultimate tack of arguing that while Quine writes like an analytic philosopher, his findings are similar to the post-modern continentals.

The PfT guys do a good job laying out the terms and examples (if you were confused after our episode about terms like "salva veritate," giving this a listen might help reinforce a few things), and they get to semantic wholism after only about 1/3 of the way in, whereas it took us quite a while. It's about half way into the podcast before there's an aside that makes evident what the podcast is. The speaker is talking about the meta-language necessary to set up semantical rules (e.g. to talk about "the truth of truth:

As Christians, I think what we would say is that there's a limit to our intellect, and there's mystery at the bottom of every question ultimately, but that does mean that there's never any truth to it, but there's mystery.

This is followed by a response to sum up a theologically friendly interpretation of Quine: "There are no self-standing statements true in and of themselves." Citing Quine's non-Christian view of mystery, it's said that it doesn't really matter that we know anything, we can just pretend that we do, because it's practical.

As Christians, yeah, we can say that everything is interrelated... empirical statements can't stand all by themselves... but instead of being on the precipice of total irrationality, we're on the precipice of God's own thought.

This seems pretty jumbled to me. I can't speak to the positive Christian theory here, as it's not spelled out, but re. the interpretation of Quine: It's difficult to determine what Quine's theory on truth itself is from the "Two Dogmas" essay. I don't see any evidence that he's critiquing truth in the way that Nietzsche is alleged to or that James certainly does. Quine is concerned with science as a collection of statements, i.e. with the way in which we represent facts about the world, not in the constitution of the world itself. Second, it seems uncharitable to interpret Quine as saying that we don't really know anything. The fallibility of knowledge doesn't mean that we can't know anything at all, but either that we can know things but can never know with absolute certainty that we really do know them, or that "knowledge" itself gets defined in such a way as to not necessarily involve certainty. The latter of these is the pragmatist tack, and I think a pragmatist would have to dismiss the theological positivist's demand for certainty as a delusion leftover from Enlightenment thinkers like Descartes.

Likewise, there seems to be something wrong to me about the demand toward the end of the essay that no philosophical critique can go forward without a thorough effort to define all the concepts involved. The point is made in the context of interpreting Quine's semantic wholism as a way of challenging any speaker that he or she doesn't know what he's talking about. "You say that there's bread on the table? What's 'bread?' What's 'table?'" (So everything we say is, per the above, "on the precipice of irrationality.") To a pragmatist, this kind of objection is nonsense, in that the context for wanting to claim that there's bread on the table is likely something defined as, e.g. wanting to eat the bread, so our current commonsense understandings of the terms, even if never spelled out with necessary and sufficient conditions, are already met. Yes, an objection of this sort is called for if, e.g., you're trying to argue about the cosmological argument for the existence of God based on considerations of causality; you certainly need an account of causality for that. And so Kantian objections to arguments about the Divine based on everyday observations will hold, but this situation is not best described as a semantic issue, or as having anything much to do with Quine's concerns.

I've argued before against Christian attempts to base embracing scripture on post-modern despair about the possibility of ordinary/scientific knowledge, and I don't think given Quine's commitment to science that we can usefully read Quine into this project. The strategy is certainly stronger than merely arguing as James and Kant/Schleiermacher do that rationality leaves room for faith, and to really get the whole story and take this on, we'll have to eventually cover a figure like the PfT's favorite philosopher, Cornelius Van Til.

One of the other names dropped (often in the various PfT episodes) is Alvin Plantinga, who is not only unquestionably an analytic philosopher in style, but one of the leading voices in religious philosophy, which should at the very least make it clear that analytic philosophy and naturalism aren't the same thing, if that was your impression from our discussion of Quine and his naturalist precursors (Russell) and disciples (Flanagan, Churchland).

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Profile photo of Bill Burgess says

    Here is Quine in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”.

    “As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries — not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. Let me interject that for my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.”

    I read Quine as making an honest assessment of the only true basis for science. This basis being, as he says here, that it has proven for him, more efficacious in working a manageable structure into the flux of existence.

    I don’t see why his honest assessment for the basis of science can’t also be used by someone who finds the embracing of scripture to be, for them, more efficacious in working a manageable structure into the flux of their own existence.

    Nor do I see why someone can’t be both committed to science and committed to scripture. Science admits itself fallible and anyone who embraces scripture certainly should admit themselves fallible. The idea that scripture is the Infallible Word of God is as useless as the concept of pure or necessary knowledge that Quine attacks. Fundamentalists are in denial, whether they be materialist fundamentalists or Biblical inerrantists, but this doesn’t mean that they are REALLY able to avoid the existence we all share, and for the most part, their denial doesn’t seem to hinder their competency in dealing with it all that much.

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