Philosopher Daniel Dennett used the metaphor of cranes and skyhooks to contrast different ways of arriving at knowledge, whether in science or in philosophy.
Skyhooks are approaches that require a jump from what we know (science) to some explanation that isn’t science-based (like God). He argued that we should only use approaches that build from the ground up, just as a crane is firmly based on the ground.
It’s a good metaphor, but is it a good way to think?
Skyhooks and christians
While it is clear that many christians (for example CS Lewis and WL Craig) start with the known and build “upwards” to belief in God, it is also clear that many christians start with faith in God and then look for ways to justify it rationally.
At first sight this may seem anti-rational, but there is another side to the question.
Justin Barrett and children’s propensity to believe
Psychologist Justin Barrett, supported by many other researchers, says studies show that belief in the supernatural arises very early, and naturally, in children. Regardless of whether God actually exists or not, few of us escape that tendency.
Thus many believers will have grown up always believing, and have never had the opportunity to think first and then believe. The only option open to them is to adjust their beliefs as they gain knowledge. Many continue to believe, others do not.
Furthermore, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg says his research indicates that our brains have evolved to need God, or a concept of God, to function at their best.
Jonathon Haidt and how we make choices
Psychologist Jonathon Haidt believes we make most political, ethical and religious judgments intuitively (by “gut feeling”), and then rationalise our reasons afterwards.
If true, this of course applies to non-believers just as much as believers.
So perhaps Dennett was speaking without understanding these aspects of human psychology.
Skyhooks and sceptics
So what are the ways in which otherwise rational sceptics use skyhooks – arguments that are not well based in evidence – to support their views?
Human rights are a significant foundation of modern international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out those rights, which are clearly based on all people being “born free” and “endowed with reason and conscience” (Article 1).
Where did this concept come from? A bunch of atheistic thinkers agree that there was little concept of the equality of human beings in the ancient world, and it was christianity that first introduced the idea. Richard Rorty says the concept of human rights came from “religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God.” Philosopher Luc Ferry: “According to Christianity, we were all ‘brothers’ …. Christianity is the first universalist ethos.”
Modern atheistic materialists have no logical basis for any view of human rights. Darwinism is based on the understanding of natural selection, which effectively means the strong win out, the weak are left behind, and no-one, nothing, has any “rights”. Richard Rorty: “This Jewish and Christian element in our tradition is gratefully invoked by free-loading atheists like myself.”
Most people believe some things (e.g. racism, abuse, wanton cruelty) really are wrong, but that creates a dilemma for materialists – how can anything be truly right or wrong if materialism is true? We can say some things will seem right or wrong because they help individuals, families or tribes survive and prosper, but how can we judge them to be truly right or wrong?
This must inevitably lead to some dissonance. For example, Richard Dawkins says the universe has “no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. Alex Rosenberg says “There is no moral difference between [right and wrong]…. Anything goes.” William Provine said “no ultimate foundation for ethics exists”.
And yet when asked whether his belief in moral responsibility was inconsistent, Richard Dawkins said: “it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with, otherwise life would be intolerable.”
How can science work?
For science to work, the universe has to behave consistently, and mathematics and physics have to apply in the far reaches of the universe as it does where we can observe. We believe “laws of nature” describe what happens consistently and accurately.
Paul Davies draws attention to this marvellous fact: “the underlying order in nature – the laws of physics – are accepted as given, as brute facts. Nobody asks where they come from …. there is a rational basis to physical existence …..”
Historian AR Hall wrote that the idea of a law of nature: “would have been unintelligible in antiquity, whereas the Hebraic and Christian belief in a deity who was at once Creator and Lawgiver rendered it valid.”
Religion and myth
Modern atheists are often opposed not just to the idea of God, but to religion and churches too. But there is a small but growing trend to find value in ritual and even myth. Atheist church services have been commenced and some atheists talk quite comfortably about “spirituality”. One class at Alain de Botton’s School of Life is titled “Filling the God-Shaped Hole”.
But some worry that evolution, science or naturalism may be starting to function as a religion. Stuart Kauffman uses the word God, not because he believes in such a supernatural being, but because the word “carries with it awe and reverence”, and he wants to see the human race experience “renewed spirituality, and awe, reverence and responsibility for all that lives, for the planet.”
Atheist philosopher and author John Gray: “Science hasn’t enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths – chief among them the myth of salvation through science.”
Humanism vs reductionism
There are two strands in modern atheism – humanism, which stresses human rights, freedom, ethics and tolerance, and reductionism, which says that neuroscience has shown that humans beings don’t actually have freedom of choice, and morality is just a product of evolution.
Humanists have much the “nicer” philosophy and worldview, but they are seen as “soft” by many hard core reductionists. John Gray “attacks philosophical humanism, a worldview which Gray sees as originating in religions …. Gray sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion, and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life.”
Many of the more outspoken atheists today hold similar views, but they recognise it is hard to know how the general public could ever accept it. Fellow atheist Thomas Nagel rejects both the christian view of humanity (he cannot believe in God) and the reductionist view (it contradicts common sense), but has no alternative basis for humanism.
The horns of a dilemma
It seems an honest atheist faces a dilemma, a choice between humanism, which is far “nicer” and more liveable, and reductionism, which most agree is impossible to live by. Both seem to me to lead to a serious inconsistency. The humanist ends up living by values that cannot be demonstrated by science, and look awfully like Dennett’s skyhooks, while the reductionist lives with the inconsistency between worldview and life style that even many fellow atheists find repugnant and impossible.
So who needs a crane?
It seems perhaps that we all do. Christianity is more explicit about its need for revelation from God, but atheism or naturalism also seem to require practical “leaps of faith” if they are to be liveable, especially on a societal level.
Coherentism and consistency
Foundationalism is the philosophy that we should build up our knowledge from well-established foundations. Most sceptics seem to think in foundationalist terms, and criticise theists for having an insufficient basis for their beliefs. But we can see that naturalism can easily end up with unsupportable beliefs too.
Coherentism is the philosophy that we can be justified in holding a belief if it forms part of a coherent or consistent set of beliefs. It seems to me that on this basis, christian theism is shown to be more coherent than naturalism – it can better explain more of human existence than naturalism can, and naturalism can only become coherent by denying much of what we experience as humans.
As CS Lewis wrote many years ago: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
I will look at some of these questions in more detail in some future posts.
Many of the ideas in this post come from Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey.