At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

The True Character of Science

posted by Jack Kerwick

Semester after semester, I continue to encounter students for whom the proposition that science alone is the embodiment of unimpeded Reason is axiomatic.  But it isn’t just my college students who think as thus; most adults seem to be just as mistaken on this score.  That this notion of science pervades not just the popular culture but academia as well can be gotten from the readiness with which specialists in a variety of non-scientific disciplines seek to impose a scientific character on their work.  Considering the image of science that they affirm, an image according to which science is, if not necessarily the exclusive means by which to secure the Truth, certainly the most legitimate of such means, this should come as no surprise.  And if the Intellect reaches its glorious culmination in the practice of science, this is only because the scientist alone among the mortals that walk the Earth has succeeded in bracketing his prejudices in order to attain an “objective” and “impartial” perspective on the world.  The scientist has liberated himself from all preconceptions; he is concerned with the brute “facts” and only these. 

This is the conventional understanding of science and the scientist.  Besides being popular, it is also appealing and even grandiose. 

But it is also an out-and-out fiction from which no slight degree of mischief has sprung.  

Although what we today call “science” is commonly identified with modernity, in the interest of historical accuracy, it is imperative that we take stock of the conveniently forgotten fact that the origins of the study of “the natural world” trace back much further than this.  Over 2500 years ago, the “pre-Socratic” philosophers of ancient Greece labored long and hard to achieve a “scientific,” as opposed to a mythical, account of the cosmos.  To the objection that Democritus, Pythagoras, Empedocles and others weren’t doing real science but only philosophy, three replies are in the coming.

First, insofar as their analyses characterized the universe in natural, basic, quantifiable terms, they were indeed engaged in a scientific enterprise. 

Second, since the pre-Socratics were the progenitors of Western philosophy, since it is they who are responsible for enriching the Western mind’s vision with the yearning to move beyond myth in exploring the world, science and philosophy at this juncture were one. 

Third, if by philosophy critics refer to a set of metaphysical assumptions underwriting “the science” in question, unspoken yet controversial suppositions that foreclose from the outset those possible lines of inquiry that fail to comport with them—and this is indeed the conception of philosophy that such critics typically have in mind—then we need to point out the painful fact that no science is devoid of them. 

So-called “modern science” is as dependent on non-empirical, “philosophical” presuppositions as any other.  That there is something that can aptly be called the universe; that this universe is a candidate for study; and that it is orderly are just some of the assumptions without which science wouldn’t exist.  Yet there are others.

Scientists make predictions.  The laws of the universe are nothing more or less than probabilities regarding future patterns that scientists predict on the basis of their observations of past patterns.  The operative principle here is what the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and empiricist, David Hume, called “the principle of induction.”  This principle, Hume said, is simply the assumption that the future will resemble or be continuous with the past.  That it is an assumption and not the product of scientific discovery must be readily admitted once it is grasped that there is no way to prove it: since, by definition, the future has not yet occurred, it cannot be known what it will be like.  Logically speaking, it is conceivable, however unlikely, that tomorrow could be radically discontinuous with today.

In addition to the assumption that Hume characterized as the principle of induction, the modern scientist also has a tendency to suppose that reality is ultimately composed exclusively of material entities.  His map of the universe resolutely disallows any place for any considerations with so much as a whiff of what we would be inclined to call “the supernatural” (thus, the derisiveness with which the theory of “intelligent design” is met by the vast majority of scientists).  Yet this robust “naturalism” that pervades the contemporary scientific project is not scientific; it is philosophical.

There are other considerations to behold.

However brilliant or talented any given person may be, he will not become a scientist unless and until he immerses himself within a tradition of science.  That is, science, not unlike any other thing with which we are familiar, is an activity or a habit distinguished on account of the considerations that are proper to it.  A person becomes a good scientist in the same way in which he becomes a good anything: through practice.  So, for example, the knowledge of how to formulate hypotheses is something that only a practitioner of science can have.  And “the facts” that the scientist investigates, far from being self-explanatory, derive their intelligibility from the theories that they inform. 

Science is a good and noble thing, for sure.  But its character has for far too long been radically misunderstood.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 

originally published at The New American





The Debt Ceiling Deal: A Victory for President Obama

posted by Jack Kerwick

The highly publicized debt ceiling debate has drawn to a close.  Politicians and commentators from both political parties are hailing this as a victory for the Tea Party.

I am not so sure. In fact, I am disposed to judge this a victory for President Barack Obama. 

According to the conventional narrative, Obama is the big loser in all of this because, as Pat Buchanan said, the Republicans, thanks to the Tea Partiers, achieved some of what they wanted while Obama and the Democrats received virtually nothing in return.  The President originally demanded an unconditional increase in the debt ceiling.  Then, when he recognized that this wasn’t going to occur, he indicated a willingness to negotiate some spending cuts while insisting upon tax increases.  The Republicans, though, held firm, and in the end, Obama conceded to spending cuts in spite of having abandoned his hope for any tax hikes.

This wisdom, I am afraid, is but a species of wishful thinking at best, deception at worst.

There is no way that Obama could not have known that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives would under no circumstances agree to raise the debt ceiling in the absence of conditions.  And it is doubtful that he had much confidence that Republicans would endorse any proposals involving overt tax hikes.  Yet so that he could obtain at least a good measure of his heart’s desire while perpetuating the myth of Obama the Great Conciliator of conflicting partisan interests, the President began this series of negotiations with requests that he knew were unrealistic.

But it can’t be accentuated enough that, far from getting “nothing” from the debt deal, Obama received no inconsiderable amount of what he wants. 

First and most obvious, Obama achieved a raise in the debt ceiling.  This means that now there are more resources available for he and his fellow partisans to deploy in their task to “fundamentally transform”America, as Obama promised while on the campaign trail in 2008.

Second, real spending cuts are immediate spending cuts.  So-called “projected” or “future” spending cuts are nothing more or less than potential spending cuts.  However, as both experience and logic readily reveal, practically speaking, potentiality is nothingness. Within the next two years, Republicans managed to secure approximately 60 billion dollars in spending cuts.  When it is considered that Obama will have at his disposal 900 billion new dollars over this same period, and when we remember that the national debt is in the trillions, it becomes obvious that Republicans are guaranteed virtually nil. 

Third, along with a motley crew of irresponsible journalists and pundits in the media, Obama succeeded in promoting the lie that a failure to raise the debt ceiling is tantamount to a default on our debt obligation.  In reality, the two are entirely distinct.  But reality hasn’t anything at all to do with the perception that during his tenure, Obama averted economic Armageddon by compromising just enough to get the debt ceiling raised.

Fourth, Republicans cheer and herald this resolution as a victory for the Tea Party.  Democrats in Washington and the media tend to characterize this as a win for the Tea Party as well, but in contrast to their opponents, they have depicted the Tea Party as having pursued their goals at the expense of the country.  In the meantime, Obama openly laments that he was forced to consent to terms for which he lacks all enthusiasm.  When stocks are plummeting and the world’s confidence in America’s ability to get her financial house in order continues to deteriorate as our economy worsens—as it is guaranteed to do (at least) until the next election—Obama’s somberness casts the Tea Partiers and the Republicans in the role of Nero, the tyrant who fiddled while Rome burned. 

In short, when this deal proves to be for naught (vis-à-vis the economy), Obama can remind voters that, as Republicans are repeatedly informing us, this was the Tea Party’s deal.  We tried it their way, he will doubtless say, and it only made matters worse. So Obama will have found himself a new scapegoat for the problems that he has created during his time in the White House.

Fifth, by being able to now shift responsibility off of himself and onto the Tea Partiers and Republicans, Obama can kill a second bird with this same stone.  He can now use the worsening economy as a pretext for pushing through the remainder of his socialist agenda.  This just might work too, for recall, Americans originally voted for Obama and the Democrats because of their belief that it was primarily the Republicans who were responsible for having brought the country to the precipice of financial ruin.  Obama and company, exploiting the perception that the Democrats were generally more trustworthy when it comes to matters of economic significance, convinced an economically and politically illiterate electorate that it was the Republicans’ “tax breaks for the rich” and their support of a “deregulated market” that explains the mess that Obama “inherited.”  As the economy further erodes in the wake of this latest “Tea Party victory,” it won’t be too terribly difficult for Obama and an exceptionally Democrat-friendly media to push this line again. 

Sixth, the debt deal proposes cuts in the military budget.  This pleases both Obama’s left-wing constituents as well as some on the non-neoconservative right—including and especially the much coveted “independents.”

Finally, in spite of all of the talk we have heard from Republicans regarding the dreadful “Obamacare” and their pledge to defund and repeal this Leviathan, it is not so much as touched upon in the latest debt deal.  In other words, Obama gets to keep his signature landmark program (at least for now). 

Republicans tell us that this is as good a deal as they could get given that they control “only one-half of one-third of the government.”  If we really want to restore “fiscal sanity” toWashington, then we need to regain control of the Senate and the White House in 2012.  A couple of brief remarks on this line of reasoning are in order.

First, it is deceptive, for it suggests, and is designed to suggest, that the Republicans have less power than they really do.  The three branches of our government are the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  Only the legislative and executive branches have anything to do with this debt ceiling issue.  So, while the Republicans do indeed control one-half of one-third of the government, the Democrats control, not everything that is left over, as this argument is meant to imply, but half of the government.  Of course, the numbers here are not nearly as important as we may be misled to think, for that “one-half of one-third” of the government that the Republicans control is the House—exactly that chamber of congress where all spending originates.  To control the House of Representatives is to wield much power.

Second, those Republican politicians and pundits who are now “reminding” the rest of us about how constrained they currently are didn’t issue any of these condescending, disingenuous cautionary tales in the weeks and days leading up to the November election of 2010.  No one said then that if Republicans only take control of the House, they would never be able to arrive at any deal on spending that wouldn’t be better than the one they now have. 

So, my advice to Republican and Tea Party voters is to force those Republicans running for office in 2012 to specify, not just what they want to do in order to restore “limited,” constitutional government, but how they plan on doing it. 

For now, though, we must accept the brute fact that this debt deal, far from being a victory for the Tea Party, is a victory for Obama. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 






The Debt Ceiling Deal: A Victory for the Tea Party?

posted by Jack Kerwick

It appears that Republicans and Democrats, Congress and the White House, have arrived at agreement on the debt ceiling.  To sum it all up: the debt ceiling will be raised (shocker there) and Armageddon will be averted!  Both Republicans and Democrats are claiming victory for their respective sides.  

All of this was more than just a bit predictable. Republicans swore that they would not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats in turn swore not to raise taxes.  Presumably, then, Republicans believed that we could afford not to raise the debt ceiling, that the alternative to not doing so, though perhaps not all that pleasant, would nevertheless be tolerable.  At the same time, they continually told us that unless they agreed to raise the debt ceiling, world-wide economic catastrophe would ensue.  So, the debt ceiling would have to be raised.    

Once Republicans reduced their position to a logical impossibility by simultaneously claiming that it is necessary to raise the debt limit and that it is not necessary to raise it, it should have been clear to all with eyes to see and ears to hear that along with their ostensible foes the Republicans had every intention on increasing the debt ceiling.

Considering the Republicans’ track record, it would be foolish to expect otherwise, would it not?  President Obama and the Democrats are unmitigated proponents of a robust Welfare State.  This conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party activists know all too well. What we do not know as well, however, what we need to be reminded of at every turn—especially now—is that the GOP, the party of “limited government,” is no less committed to sustaining—and growing—the Welfare State. 

Obama famously pledged to “fundamentally transform”America.  His opponents have seized upon this remark as proof that our “historic” president holds the United States in low regard, and that it is from this contempt toward his own country that his desire to remake it in the image of a Western European (socialist) state is born.  Now, that Obama has disdain for the Anglo traditions of liberty in which American was conceived and nurtured can be denied only by those who choose not to recognize it.  Equally certain is that he does indeed seek to “fundamentally transform” our country by stamping out even those few remaining vestiges of our Founders’ vision for the Republic that they bequeathed to their posterity. 

However, as of yet, at any rate, Obama hasn’t come nearly as close to achieving his professed goal as did his immediate predecessor, President George W. Bush. 

Bush never vowed to “fundamentally transform” America, it is true.  Yet our 43rd president and his Republican-controlled Congress made profound and abrupt contributions to the bi-partisan project of transforming theUnited States from the association of free agents that it was originally intended to be to the association of servants that it is rapidly becoming. 

Bush not only never slashed a single government program, let alone a whole agency; he expanded what programs there were, added new programs of his own, and created entire bureaucracies.  For example, just when you thought the states couldn’t be more subservient to the federal government than they already are, along comes Bush’s signature “No Child Left Behind,” a law that, far from divesting the Department of Education of just a modicum of its vast power, further enriched its resources.

Yet this was just the beginning of his agenda of “Compassionate Conservatism.” 

Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiatives” rendered religiously-centered charitable organizations that had always been private and voluntary subject to the mercies of the federal government.  In light of the fact that it was this president that further eroded the autonomy of religious institutions, it is more than just a little ironic that Bush’s critics not infrequently blasted the president for what they deemed to be excessive displays of his religiosity.  But the irony is compounded when it is considered that it was also the “pro-life” Bush who was the first to extend federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, a move that, by contradicting the central claim of the enemies of abortion—i.e. the fetus is a human life—substantially weakened the anti-abortion cause.

Many apologists for Bush have justified both his declaration of a “War on Terror” as well as the means by which he has prosecuted it—two wars, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq; “the Department of Homeland Security”; and an expansion of the state’s police powers in general—by pointing to the events of September 11, 2001.  “We were attacked!” they will shout, as if the president’s critics weren’t as impacted by that horrific day as anyone else, and as if Bush’s response to those attacks is self-evidently right.  But by declaring war on an abstraction, the president essentially set his nation on a course for a war in perpetuity, for terror there has always been and will always be.  A genuine lover of freedom, though, will engage in war only when absolutely necessary, for he is painfully aware of the reality, both historical and political, that a government is most inimical to freedom when it is at war.   As Rahm Emmanuel famously (or infamously) said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste;” well, war is the mother of all crises, and a war on an abstraction like “terror” is a crisis from which, in principle, relief is sought in vain.

On this topic, much more can be said.  For now, though, suffice it to say that while Bush was undoubtedly concerned to insure that Americans never again had to endure an attack on their soil under his watch, the measures that he appropriated toward the end of realizing that objective were, at the very least, fundamentally misplaced.  The most cost-effective, reliable, and, most importantly, constitutional means to secure Americans against terrorist attacks would have been to, one, seal our porous borders and, two, radically revise our current immigration policy so as to render it vastly stricter than it is at present.  However we would have decided to do this, the point is that Bush did not do it.  Instead, he pursued an aggressive plan of inflating the Welfare State both at home and abroad.

There is much more that Bush and his Republican colleagues did during his tenure that time and spatial constraints preclude me from recounting.  Hopefully, the reader’s memory of their abysmal record on the issue of “limited government” is now refreshed sufficiently to recognize why only a sucker would uncritically (or even critically, for that matter) trust this current Republican congress to deliver on their promise to drastically reduce the size and scope of the federal government by acting in accordance with their rhetoric.     

So as to avoid involving myself in any of the quarrels that are now transpiring over the many staggering numbers that have been thrown around throughout this debt ceiling debate, I will further justify my skepticism toward the Republicans by adding this one simple observation. 

Notice, for all of the talk of spending cuts of which this deal is allegedly replete, we haven’t heard of one program, let alone an agency, that is going to be cut. 

No, I suspect that this widely heralded “Tea Party victory” is but the latest instance of political theatre at its best. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 











Reflections on Hell and Evil

posted by Jack Kerwick

Not too long ago, I received word that someone from my old neighborhood had died prematurely.  While discussing the matter with another old acquaintance, the latter confidently asserted his belief that the deceased was now enjoying his eternal reward.  I replied: “We can hope.”

The truth is, for as well-intentioned as my interlocutor undoubtedly was, I regarded his sentiment and the certitude with which he expressed it as the function of a Biblical illiteracy that pervades our culture.  Had the person to whom he referred been known for his Christian virtue or even a more general Godliness, I doubtless would have found my old friend’s remarks less noteworthy.  Yet even when it comes to the passing of those recognized as having lived decent lives, the ease with which untold numbers of self-styled Christians unhesitatingly suppose that they will inherit theKingdomofGodis a curious phenomenon deserving of comment.

From a psychological perspective, it is no mystery why most people—including most Christians—are disposed to uncritically reject as unthinkable the traditional Christian notion that the godless will be subjected to God’s wrath in the afterlife.  Such a notion induces in us no small measure of discomfort; more to the point, it pains us, for there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being visiting his justice upon us.

Sociologically speaking, it is also no wonder why in the contemporary Western world generally, and the United States in particular, the idea of a wrathful God would be unpalatable.  When Jesus informed His disciples that only those who passed through “the narrow gate” would enter the Kingdom of Heaven, He was doing nothing more or less than reiterating the central theme of His ministry, namely, that only those who believed in Him would have eternal life. Now, this wasn’t a tough sell in a religiously homogenous, exclusively Christian culture.  Yet in the sort of “multicultural,” militantly secular society in which we reside, matters are obviously otherwise, for in our quest for peaceful co-existence, prudence would seem to dictate relegating the idea of a judgmental, wrathful God to the dustbin of history.  

But from a theological vantage point, it really is quite puzzling that any Christian so much as remotely familiar with his religious heritage would even consider banishing the idea of Divine Judgment from his mind.  From the book of Genesis to that of Revelations, his Sacred Scriptures speak with a single voice on this issue: God is Mercy itself, yes, but He is also Justice. 

And Justice demands that each person receives his due. 

What this means, though, is simply that those who insist on rejecting Christ will be deprived of eternal life while those who affirm Him will enjoy it.

Although Christianity is clear enough on this score, Christians continue to quarrel amongst themselves as to what exactly this means.  So, the reader ought to guard against either drawing any hasty conclusions from this assertion or assuming that its’ meaning is straightforward.  There are several considerations to bear in mind.

First, since only one who has had the opportunity to embrace Christ could either affirm or reject Him, those who haven’t had such opportunity in this life will not thereby be deprived of it in the next. To lack a belief in “X” is not synonymous with disbelieving it.  For example, that I do not believe that you have a friend named so-and-so doesn’t necessarily mean that I disbelieve it; I may not believe it only because I know neither you nor any of your friends.  Non-belief is one thing; unbelief is something else.   

Second, if God can reach out to non-believers in a post-Earthly mode of existence, then it isn’t at all unreasonable to think that perhaps He will as well use it to provide unbelievers another chance to set things right.  This, after all, is what the Catholic notion of “purgatory” is all about.

Third, that affirming and rejecting Christ consist in the fully conscious production of explicit statements of one’s faith is anything but the axiomatic proposition that many Christians—Protestant, Evangelical Christians, especially—take it to be.  That is, a person who never expressly proclaimed Jesus as his Lord and Savior may very well be more Christ-like in his conduct than one who has.  Conversely, a person who gives glory to Christ with his lips may habitually betray Him with his deeds.

The nature of genuine belief and the relationship between belief and conduct are particularly complex issues.  Fortunately, we need not explore them here.  However Christians decide to understand the specific terms in which God will judge us, the point is that they must understand that God will judge us. 

Along with such concomitant ideas as evil, the idea of Hell has fallen on hard times indeed.  In fact, I suspect that it is largely because talk of evil has subsided that talk of Hell has as well.  As a practicing Catholic, I can assure you that except for when the members of my congregation collectively renew their baptismal promises, the language of both “Hell” and “evil” is conspicuously and consistently absent from the pulpit.  On the other hand, the idiom of “compassion,” “equality,” and “social” and “economic justice” is abundant.

Yet the benefits to be reaped from the Christian’s revisiting his tradition can’t be overestimated.

God’s compassion is a reality to which no Christian should be oblivious.  However, neither do Christians achieve as clear an understanding as they could of God’s character and the life He calls us to live unless they also comprehend His abhorrence of evil and the wrath that He reserves for those who purvey it.

In addition to the intellectual reward of reacquainting himself with the concepts of Hell and evil, there is as well a moral return of inestimable worth.  The Christian is called by his God to be a light unto the world, to “overcome evil with good,” as Christ said.  The Christian is no less impervious to the seduction of evil than anyone else, but his confidence that the Godly and the evildoer will indeed alike one day receive their just desserts is a powerful spur to strengthen his resolve in his pursuit of moral excellence.

Third and finally, in regaining the knowledge of a just God, the Christian will have some inkling of what to expect in the wake of his death—something he will never have as long as he continues to be treated to sermons on “social justice.”

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.   



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