Science: Universals and Particulars, again

11 October 2009

This universals and particulars thing just isn’t going away.

In this week’s tour (or more correctly, half-tour), Tackett said that philosophy’s task is to deal with the universals, and science’s task is to deal with the particulars, but science is now taking a more philosophical mode and trying to evangelize for materialistic Darwinian philosophy.

This is half true.  The institutions of modern science certainly do evangelize for Darwinian materialism.  But why should scientists stay away from the universals and stick to particulars?  And is that even possible?

No, it isn’t.  Psalm 19 — of which this tour has correctly made much use — works from particulars to universals.  The heavens declare the glory of God.  A scientist rightly studying the heavens will hear them declaring the glory of God, and he will, in turn, glorify God and be thankful.  God has so made the world that the particulars of it educate an observer in certain key universals — notably Yahweh’s eternal power and God-ness — and obligate that observer to worship Him.  When scientists don’t worship, it’s sin.

Moreover, the whole edifice of modern science rests on a Christian worldview to start with, as Pearcey and Thaxton show clearly in The Soul of Science.    The development and long-term support for science in Western culture depends on a series of Christian beliefs:  the material world is really there (Hindus and Buddhists, among others, take it as an article of faith that it isn’t); the material world is separate from God, and valuable, and behaves precisely in an extrinsic order that is comprehensible to man, and so on.  Most of the people in the world do not affirm these things even today, and very few cultures in the history of the world have ever espoused them. So universals and particulars can’t be separated in science because to even do science is to rest on a certain set of universals.

Since these beliefs are Christian, the implication is that science today is subsisting on borrowed capital and institutional momentum, and has been committing a slow and painful suicide for a century.  Exactly.

Everything is an echo of the Trinity.  In the Trinity, universals (one divine Nature) and particulars (three Persons) are equally ultimate.  Universals and particulars must ultimately must be understood together, and in terms of one another, and so it is in science.  Trying to separate universals from particulars is just absurd; we can certainly comprehend partially, but real separation can’t happen in the world God made.  Trying to keep true particulars, but build on false universals, is just as absurd.

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Truth is a Person

4 October 2009

A further thought to add to the earlier reflection on universals and particulars:

Ultimate reality — truth — is a Person: “I am the Truth,” Jesus says. Because the Truth is also the divine Word, one expects propositions, and there are propositions. But because the Truth is a Person, one expects more than propositions: one expects acts in history, questions, commands, stories, emotions, all the true things of which a person is capable. And there they are. These lay claim to truth in the same way that propositions do: they are the derivative truth that comes from being a reflection of Truth, the Person.A life that honors God — “walking in the truth,” the apostle John calls it — derives its truth in the same way: by reflecting Christ.

This is another reason why universals and particulars are equally ultimate. When the divine Word is made flesh, when Truth is a person with hair of a certain length and eyes of a certain color, particulars and universals have met and kissed, and can never be separated.

Which leaves us with a burning question: how are universals and particulars related?  It’s a question that has plagued philosophers for centuries (again, see Rushdoony’s The One and the Many for details on the history).  Christians have an answer to this question: “The same way unity and diversity are related in the Trinity.”  We have a word for it: perichoresis, the mutual indwelling of the Persons of the Trinity in one another.  So we might say that in the world, universals and particulars are perichoretically related — each indwells the other, as in the Trinity.  Which is to say, we don’t understand the phenomenon in the world any better than we understand the Trinitarian phenomenon of which it is a reflection.  But since the world is created by the Trinity and reflects the Trinity, we expect to encounter a mystery on this point, and it should not surprise us that the answer is beyond our ken.

Discovering that the thing is, finally and forever, beyond our reach forces us to realize that we are not God, and never will be.  There are two possible responses to this: glorify Yahweh in gratitude, or be offended and ungrateful.  One of them is life, health and peace, and the other is struggle, sickness and death — the same two choices humanity has always faced, from the Garden right down to today.


Understanding God

29 September 2009

Early in this week’s Truth Project video, Del Tackett said

Nothing that is true contradicts the nature of God.

Amen and amen.  This is absolutely vital, especially in the sort of wide-ranging endeavor that Tackett is engaged in.  See some resources for a further exploration of its implications in different fields here under week 4.

Coming to grips with the truth of God is not the work of five minutes.  The effort is coextensive with sanctification, and it is, at very least, the work of a lifetime.  A couple of paragraphs down on this week’s handout, I find the following:

At the same time, there is no assignment more daunting, no task more demanding…than that of seeking to understand the being, nature, character and attributes of the eternal Creator, who is Himself the ultimate source of all truth (Colossians 2:3).  So impossibly huge is this endeavor that we could not hope to tackle it at all except for the fact that He has graciously revealed Himself to us in His Word.  Apart from this revelation, mankind gropes and struggles in the darkness to piece together even the most flawed and rudimentary concept of God.

A hearty “Amen!” to the first part, but there is a problem here, and the problem is the words “in His Word” at the end of the second sentence.  Apart from the Bible, Tackett says, we have to grope around to find anything of God.  There is a sense in which this is true, as Paul says on the Areopagus:

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him…

Mankind is blind and in darkness, worshipping idols instead of the true God, Paul says, but God has so designed man’s existence that it points man to Himself, so that even in the darkness man might grope after Him.  But there’s a catch.  Paul continues in the same sentence:

…though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and have our being….

So why is it that man does not find God, if He is not far from any of us?  Paul tells us in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man — and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.  Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves,  who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

And herein lies the problem with the statement in the handout.  Even apart from the Bible, man does not have to hunt for the basic facts about God; we already have them.  The problem is not that men don’t know God, but that they don’t like Him. Because they refuse to glorify Him, their thinking grows futile and their hearts grow dark, and in their darkness they descend to the madness of idolatry.  It was precisely this madness for which Paul rebuked the Athenians.  Why are they in the dark?  Is it because they don’t have the Bible yet?  No!  It is because they fled from clear knowledge of God and did their best to suppress their knowledge of Him.  When Paul found them in their self-inflicted darkness, they were not groping after God, because they were afraid they would find Him, which, Paul says, they would have, because “He is not far from each one of us.”

Now of course, apart from God revealing Himself, we would not know Him.  But God is already revealed in the world that He made, and it’s not as if we can choose to live somewhere else.  So it is not true that mankind would know nothing of God apart from the Bible, because in the creation, God already confronts us always and everywhere with Himself.

So what?

So understand that when you take the gospel to an unbeliever, it is not the case that he has always been ready to believe, if only someone would give him the truth.  It is not true that he’s “never heard.”  It is not true that he simply lacks enough evidence. He is not a well-intentioned person who suffers in ignorance purely because nobody ever showed him a Bible.

He’s the very opposite.

He is a willing captive of the enemy.  He does not want to be freed.  In his heart of hearts, he knows God, and he has fled God, straight into the futility, darkness and madness that afflicts his life and his soul.  God gave him over to these things, and he’s glad; he accepts them because he prefers them; he would rather be futile, dark and insane than have to face the God of the universe.  (Hard to believe?  It’s what Romans 1 says.  If you want to see it in action, read Nietzche sometime; he’s clearer about the choices than most pagans.)

You take this person the Good News that God hasn’t given up on him as completely as he’d hoped.  In fact, he will one day face God regardless, and God has assured us of this by raising Christ from the dead.  No wonder he doesn’t like hearing it — as Paul says elsewhere, it is the aroma of death, leading to death for someone who does not want to face God.

Of course, the rest of the story is that the unbeliever need not wait until he is forced to reckon with God.  He can face God as a forgiven son rather than as a stubborn enemy, because Christ died for his sins, and because Christ was raised to a new life, he can enter into everlasting life in God’s presence without fear.

Every knee will bow.  You can go easy, or you can go hard.

As we share Christ with people, we would do well to remember that it’s not in human nature to want to hear this — but God made man for Himself, and by grace man responds to the truth anyway.


Universals or Particulars?

28 September 2009

In week 2 of the Truth Project, Tackett notes that many pagan philosophies attempt to begin with particulars and proceed thence to universals. Others, notably Plato, try to begin with universals and make their way to the particulars. Tackett contends that “Plato was right; he just didn’t know where to get” his universals. He goes on to say that God gives us the universals by which all the particulars make sense.

There is an element of truth there, but it’s too simple by half, and flies directly in the face of some of the Scripture he cited earlier. When we look at a sunset and see the heavens declaring the glory of God, we are learning a universal from the particulars. When Paul tells us that everyone in the world is without excuse because “since the creation of the world, His invisible things are clearly seen, being understood by means of the things that are made,” Paul is telling us that man knows the universals — particularly God’s eternal power and God-ness — because he sees them in the particulars.

On the other hand, in Genesis 1-2, we note that God speaks to man, and by that revelation gives the principles by which man and his place in the creation make sense. Genesis 3 provides us with a graphic lesson in what happens when man tries to start from the particulars without taking account of what God has already told him. (Even this is oversimplified — we’re equating verbal revelation with universals, which is a bit too facile, but let it pass for now.)

So which is it? Do we start with the universals, or the particulars? The Christian answer to this is “both,” and a brief reflection on the Trinity should be enough to teach us this point.

God is ultimate reality.  Where do we start in the Trinity: unity, or diversity?  Which is more important, more fundamental to the nature of God? Both are equally vital, you say? Exactly. For more on this, see The One and the Many (more demanding, but a great review or the relevant history) or Trinity and Reality (more accessible) and its companion piece, Paradox and Truth.

Does all this seem a little arcane to you?

That’s because it is. But pushed out into the corners, the thing has serious consequences. Rushdoony likes to talk politics, and goes to some trouble in The One and the Many to show how societies that take plurality as ultimate disintegrate into chaos, and how societies that take unity as ultimate trend toward totalitarianism. Since the trinitarian idea isn’t available outside Christianity, pagans find themselves oscillating forever between one pole and the other, unable to reconcile them.

At a simpler level, I’d leave it with this: Christians ought not to forge an alliance with Plato when Scripture has given us a much, much better answer.


Defining Truth

20 September 2009

The Truth Project takes as its definition of truth a quote from Noah Webster’s 1824 dictionary:

that which is in conformity to fact or reality

(Missed a heck of a trick by not sticking with John 14:6, but anyway…)

Returning to the Webster definition for the moment, the advantage is that it ties “truth,” “fact” and “reality” together.  This keeps someone from playing silly word-games where they talk about how truth is different from fact, and so on.  But when you insist on the Webster definition as a way to say that there’s such a thing as truth, and that it’s not relative, a savvy unbeliever will ask you to define “reality,” and before you know it, you’re mired in a debate about post-foundationalism, postmodern epistemology, social construction of reality, reliability of sense perception, optical illusions, misperceptions, and the like.  Messy.

Navigable, if you keep your head, remain humble, ask for clarification, and keep your eyes firmly fixed on Scripture, but very, very messy.

Tactically, there’s a better option. The Webster definition has the same essential meaning as a famous definition of “truth” given in one-syllable words (Socrates by way of Plato by way of C. S. Lewis, if I remember correctly):

He who says of what is, that it is, or of what is not, that it is not, tells the truth;

he who says of what is not, that it is, or of what is, that it is not, lies.

Now, because it has the same sense as the Webster definition, it’s vulnerable to the same sort of attack.  It’s just that since it doesn’t have the words “fact” or “reality” in it, he can’t ask you to define “fact” or “reality.”  Instead, the attack comes at the word “is.”

That’s right.  Your savvy interlocutor is going to have to ask you to define “is.”

And thanks to a certain former president, you get to say, “So it all depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is?  Really?”

That presidential statement has become, in our culture, a universal symbol for a liar playing stupid word games in order to avoid facing the obvious truth.  Milk it for everything it’s worth: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”


One-Page Worldview Statement

18 September 2009

As part of the ongoing Truth Project involvement, the pastor challenged each member of the congregation to write out a statement of their worldview. He suggested keeping it to about a page, so it doesn’t get unwieldy.

I realize that I’m being more than a little cute here, but here’s my first draft: A One Page Christian Worldview.

Have a look.

Go on, I’ll wait. Read the rest of this entry »


The Truth Project, week 2: Philosophy and Ethics

18 September 2009

Before the beginning was Yahweh the Triune God, one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, joined in mutual love, coequal and coeternal. Thus we understand that one and many, universals and particulars, are equally ultimate, and find their reconciliation in the Trinity.

In wisdom Yahweh spoke the world into existence. He is the knower and lover of all the creation, and all of it belongs to Him. On the first day of creation, Yahweh made light and darkness, night and day. On the corresponding day in the second half of the week—the fourth day—He made the heavenly lights to rule the earth: the sun for days and years, the moon for festival times, and the stars for signs; the sun to rule the day and the moon, the night.

On the sixth day, Yahweh made man after His image, according to His likeness, to know and love the creation, to rule over all the works of His hands. Thus man lives, and moves, and has his being not simply in the world, but in Yahweh, and He is not far from any of us.

Yahweh commanded man to express his rule through naming the animals, and from true recognition of the nature of each one Adam gave its name. In the world’s first poem he named his wife Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Thus man knows the creation because he is the image of Yahweh the creator and knower, because Yahweh made him to know the creation, and the creation to be known by him, that he may wisely rule over it.

Yahweh planted a garden and put our parents in it, and there He planted two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He gave them every green herb to eat, and the fruit of every tree except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Of that tree, Yahweh said, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Not content to rule as vassal king and queen of the earth under the sovereignty of Yahweh, our parents disobeyed, seeking to be like God themselves, following in the footsteps of the Serpent instead of following their Lord. Instead of life, they chose death, and God had promised, when they sinned, they died, and all their dominion with them. Cast out of the garden of God, the way back blocked by an angel with a flaming sword that turned every way, our parents went out into the world, still responsible to be the life-preserving king and queen of a planet now plunged into death and futility.

Through the generations of their offspring, mankind chose death again and again, becoming so corrupt that his every thought was only evil continually. But one man, righteous in his generations, found grace in the sight of Yahweh. Yahweh commanded this man Noah to build a boat, and in it he and his family were spared from the flood with which God destroyed the wicked world.

Leaving the ark and coming to a cleansed world, Noah and his family became a race of kings, founding civilization as we now know it. Again they chose death, and God confused their languages and scattered them family by family across the face of the earth. Not chastened, men turned still to worshipping animals, the stars, the sun and moon rather than Yahweh who created them.

From one such idolatrous family Yahweh graciously chose one man, Abram, and made a covenant to make him heir of the world, and bless the world through him. Though he was a wandering Aramean, God multiplied his descendants into a great nation and brought them from slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea to Sinai to make a covenant with them. There they heard God’s voice from the mountain; there they heard the words of the covenant from Moses, all the commandments and offerings and festivals; there they said “All that the Lord has said, we will do!” Moses sprinkled them with the blood of the sacrifices to ratify the covenant there, but they shortly rebelled and God killed them in the wilderness. Moses instructed their children in all the Law of God, the covenant He had given them, and said “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.” They chose life, and received the blessings God had promised them. Future generations rebelled, and God raised up judges, kings and prophets to call the people to repentance. Some of these they heard, but most they persecuted, and many they killed. After a thousand years, God sent no more prophets, and for four hundred years God did not speak to His people.

The Mosaic festivals followed a lunar calendar, that is, they were ruled by the moon—which is to say that the old covenant was God’s grace given to His people to see them through the long, long night. At the very end of the night, a Star rose out of Jacob. John the forerunner cried out in the Judean wilderness, calling on Israel to prepare the way for the coming of her Lord. John called the faithful from their homes, their holy city, even from the Temple itself, to come into the wilderness and pass through water, a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Among the throng of God’s people came John’s cousin Jesus, and at His baptism the Spirit descended on Him, and the Father spoke from heaven: “You are My Son, My Beloved; In You I am well pleased.” The Sun of Righteousness had begun to rise, with healing in His wings. The Light of the world shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overwhelm it.

But men love darkness rather than light. As mankind has always suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, preferring a futile mind, a darkened heart and descent into the madness of idolatry rather than to worship and serve the Creator; as Israel unfailingly persecuted the prophets; so Jesus’ own people rejected Him and delivered Him over to be crucified.

With His death Jesus purchased the nations for Himself, and all who believe Him are redeemed by His blood, given everlasting life. He was buried, and while still dead proclaimed His victory to the imprisoned demons, but the Father would not leave His soul in Hades. On the third day, He rose from the dead, and in due course ascended to the right hand of the Father, and has sat down on the throne of God, the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle made by Yahweh Himself. There Jesus has entered as our High Priestly forerunner, and we follow behind Him to worship. Following His example, we shine as lights in the world, earthen vessels full of glory, knowing that the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. We endure our present sufferings with our eyes on Him, knowing that as He was vindicated, so we will also be vindicated, and as He has ascended to rule, so also we will ascend to rule at the coming of His Kingdom, each one rewarded according to his works. Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun, and Jesus will sit on David’s throne to judge the world and all in it.

Even in the Kingdom, there will be rebellion, and in due course, judgment. At long last, the books will be opened, and the dead, both small and great, will be judged according to their works. This world will be destroyed as in the days of Noah the world was destroyed, and Yahweh will make all things new. In that day, evil will be permanently quarantined in the lake of fire, the second death. In that day, the dwelling place of God will be with men, and we will live eternally with no sun to rule the day, because Jesus Himself, the Light of the world, will rule in never-ending day.