A Tour: “Reason Within The Bounds of Religion” – Pt. 2

I mentioned in my introductory essay to this very brief tour through Wolterstorff’s “Reason Within the Bounds of Religion” (henceforth, RWBR) that the question being addressed in this book is the following:

What is the proper role of one’s Christian (or otherwise religious) commitment in one’s scholarship? (Where the “scholarship” under consideration is not just that of the professional scholar; Wolterstorff means to include the inquiry of the layman as well)

Wolterstorff declares himself unsatisfied with the answers to this question that have been proposed in the past. So his project in this book: sketch the outline of a better answer.

Doing this starts with his introducing a concept that will play an important part in RWBR. The concept of what he calls a “control belief” — a belief that exhibits a significant amount of control over what other beliefs or theories we will accept or reject. To illumine this concept he gives us a handful of examples:

* The Church of Rome’s response to Galileo’s theory regarding the motion of the heavenly bodies, circa 1616: The Church officially ruled that Galileo’s theory could not possibly be true, for it conflicts with their interpretation of Holy Scripture. In this case, their beliefs about the authority of (this interpretation of) Scripture functioned as a control belief over which scientific theories they were willing to accept.

* The Cartesians’ response to Newton’s publishing of his Principia, circa 1687: The Cartesians reject Newton’s theory on the basis that it reintroduced Medieval philosophical ideas about essences and natures. Their philosophical convictions about the (non)existence of Medieval-Aristotelian essences functioned as a control belief over which scientific theories they were willing to accept.

* Ernst Mach, in the late 19th century, rejecting both the science of Newton and the atomic science of his own day on the basis that neither of them fit with his methodological assumption that the only data that deserved a place at the scientific table was directly observable data. This assumption functioned for Mach as a control belief. In fact, it held such sway for Mach, that he was willing to lose the title of “scientist” if it meant maintaining his steadfastness to this belief. He was willing to throw out the theories of the scientific community if they did not measure up to his methodological standards.

* In the early 20th century, a school of thought which has been called “logical positivism” was all the rave in the natural sciences, upholding a sort of Machian methodology which rejected any claims or data if they were not confirmable through observation. They believed this radical empiricism to be at the heart of the natural sciences. But after logical positivism came under intense, and ultimately fatal, criticism within (and without) the scientific community, virtually all scientists threw their logical positivism out in favor of their commitment to the scientific community. In this case, their belief in the truth-discovering value of the scientific community functioned as a control over what philosophical/methodological theories they were willing to accept.

Four different examples of control beliefs. Chosen by Wolterstorff, presumably, for two reasons. In the first place, these diverse examples offer us some valuable insight into the nature of control beliefs — what they are and how they work. But, perhaps of even more interest to Wolterstorff, these four examples highlight the fact that, historically, it is not only religion that gets “in the way” of science: Sometimes religious beliefs have functioned as control beliefs over scientific theorizing, but sometimes philosophical beliefs have controlled scientific theorizing; sometimes scientific beliefs have controlled philosophical theorizing, and etc. etc. The historical situation has not been that of science struggling to free itself from its religious chains; there have been chains from every side. But Wolterstorff would probably not want us to use a negative metaphor like “chains”: part of what he wants to show us is that control beliefs are inescapable. We all have them – religious and unreligious alike. The real question is how we ought to conduct ourselves in light of this fact.

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