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?