zaterdag 27 maart 2010

The End of Times

One may wonder, in response to the previous blog post, whether there I perhaps apply double standards. Why do I find it interesting that Herman Philipse qualifies the Christian reinterpretation of the end of times as cheating, while I appreciate the revision by professional historians, for example concerning the history of Israel, as a sign of a scientific attitude? What is the difference between the two revisions? Don’t they both testify of advancing understanding and therewith of an open and actually modern approach to reality?

About the latter I'm not so sure. For me, in making revisions and changing images, it is very important to know by which motive that is inspired. Is it in order to rescue an Idea or an Ideology (which I think is dubious) or only because the existing image is in conflict with certain empirical findings and hence with experiences of people (which I think is nicely empirical).

The abandoning by Christianity of the expectation of a soon end of times is, in my view, an example of the first mentioned kind of reinterpretation. In it the original central notion is maintained: that of a divine Plan which, after the salvation work of Christ, provides a logical plan-completion in the guise of the end of the world, that’s to say of Doomsday. In itself keeping that idea intact may be quite harmless, but it gets complicated if meanwhile empirical reality retains its function of supporting that idea. Because to the extent Doomsday fails to occur, one has to do more and more violence to empirical reality to ensure that the latter remains consistent with the Plan.

The historian Hugenholtz expresses this in response to the sixth century bishop and historywriter Gregory of Tours as follows: "The past and also the often lovingly described present is subservient to the future, also proves the correctness of expectations of the future. The past and the writing of history are at the service of the expected youngest day, they seem to determine that youngest day, seem to open possibilities for calculating the exact time of the youngest day”.

So, reality here has the function of providing proof. And that role was not kept limited in the Christian tradition to historical reality, also physical nature began to be examined for signs of evidence, with a view on the positioning of man in the divine Plan.

If faith stimulates the empirical sciences but at the same time assigns to the empirical the function of providing proofs for its theology, then two things happen. In the first instance, the sciences will come to flourish because of that stimulus. But in the second instance the specific dynamics of science, with the critical cognitive attitude that belongs to it, leads to resistance against its position of subordination to faith. Science then may revolt against truth claims of faith in the empirical field and dissociate itself from it. In this phase, I believe, the Western Christian world finds itself since the Enlightenment.

For a comparison it is interesting to iuxtapose to the Christian scheme the relationship between faith and the empirical in Judaism. In the Jewish tradition, empirical science never expanded as enormly as in Christianity. Reality in Judaism has never had to the same extent the function to provide evidence for the correctness of a revealed Plan. The fact that contemporary Israeli settlers interpret their annexation successes as proof of God’s will in accordance with his Plan is therefore a relatively new, and in my opinion not welcome development in Judaism.

It is decidedly not the case that in Judaism traditionally there was no Plan. It was and is very present there indeed, and may even be called the Mother of All Plans. But, as to the content of the Plan, one could not do much more than speculate about it. Therefore new thoughts about the Plan could relatively easily develop when events gave cause for that. And there was no lack of occasions or crises. Thus, history is a form of digesting and coming to terms with the past. For this purpose history needs not to be practiced in an exact way. The faith did not depend on empirical vicissitudes, however difficult it was to interpret them. It just was the way it was, it was identity.

Thus in the above the distance has become clear which separates both Christianity and Judaism from scientific historiography. Reinterpretations in the historical sciences are ideally only about empirical reality. Unlike in Christianity in the historical sciences the core of your beliefs may change because that core ís the image of empirical reality, nothing more and nothing less. And unlike Judaism scientific historiography attaches big value to exactness of research with no other purpose than making a credible reconstruction of the past.

Large differences therefore, all in all.

See also Mission completed

vrijdag 19 maart 2010

History as an exact science

The Dutch religion basher Herman Philipse is not one of my favorite thinkers, but lately I heard him speak on the slipperiness of a lot of religion on which I could agree with him. He talked about the philosophical school of the logical positivists and explained that they view religious statements as impossible. That's to say, meaningful religious statements. Because, they and Philipse say, propositions are only meaningful if they are empirically decidable. So you have to be able to test on the basis of observable phenomena whether a statement is true or not. If you can not perform such a test those statements have no meaning.

When you claim a statement to be true, the question is, according to the logical positivists, to formulate it in such a way that the statement is verifiable. You can do that by adding specifications. For example by indicating, in making a prediction, as precisely as possible the phenomenon you expect to occur. If indeed it occurs then you're right, otherwise not. At least this provides clarity.

However, religions generally do not pretend to offer that kind of clarity. And as they don’t have such pretension they don’t bother so much when Philipse reproaches them unclarity or meaninglessness. There are different kinds of meaning, those religions say. So they don’t háve to worry about his criticism.

But Philipse also pointed out - and I found that interesting - that sometimes religions dó claim to make true statements about physical phenomena. He mentioned as an example the predictions of early Christianity, among other places reflected in the letters of Paul, about a soon end of the world. The end was expected to occur within a generation. So, here a specific, rebuttable statement is being made, which meets the requirements which according to logical positivism may be posed to propositions. And so appeared, because the world did not finish. So the statement was refuted by reality.

But, says Philipse, Christianity was not a good loser. People preferred not to dwell too long on this refutation of the prediction and instead they switched to another register. Namely the register of unearthly meanings. And even though I believe that these may have their own legitimation, I understand very well that to Philipse such a maneuver feels like cheating. Especially since after this first register change the switching between registers continued. The claim to be able to designate God's signs in the observable reality remained and we partly owe the flowering of Western science to that pretension. But, on occasion, that claim could be traded in for the idea that the Real Truth absconds from earthly dimensions.

The interesting thing about this is that it reveals a fundamental orientation of Christianity: it is about truth, and in that orientation towards truth empirical reality plays - sometimes - the role that reality plays for the logical positivists: to provide proof for propositions. However, when such proof cannot be provided, in Christianity the empirical gets a subordinate place and appears to be of only superficial significance. And that’s precisely contrary to what the logical positivists thought was right.

And different also from what historians want to do. Because in historical science, carried out properly, findings matter. The reconstruction of the past can change, based on new findings and insights, and even fundamentally so. This is shown for example in the historiography of the Second World War or with the New Historians in Israel about the creation of the Jewish state. From this perspective it is really strange, in fact, that logical positivism is associated primarily with the natural sciences. For in historiography the empirical matters substantially. Isn’t that what we call ‘exact’ indeed?