Pascal’s Fire 5: The priority of the personal

In part one of Pascal’s Fire Keith Ward emphasized the ways in which the best contemporary science is consistent with, and maybe even suggestive of, belief in God. In part two he goes one step further to look at the ways in which science falls short of offering an exhaustive description and explanation of reality.

The success of science in providing precise and law-like explanations of phenomena, Ward says, owes a lot to the fact that it abstracts away aspects of reality that don’t fit its model of explanation. Things like subjective conscious experience, values, purposes, and meaning are all part of our everyday experience of the world, but they aren’t publicly observable, quantifiable, and measurable like the physical aspects of reality are. “Modern science begins with the ejection of purpose, value and significance from the universe. This is one main reason why the ‘scientific worldview’ fails to deal with all aspects of reality” (p. 116). To say that consciousness, value, purpose, and meaning elude scientific explanation is not to show that they aren’t real. At best science seems to offer us reductionistic accounts of these phenomena: consciousness is just brain function, values are subjective, purpose is an illusion, etc.

It’s possible to argue that we should take experimental science as the sole avenue to truth. This might seem to be the most economical approach to forming beliefs. But, Ward says, part “of a reasonable account is that it should cover all the different sorts of data there are in as coherent a way as possible” (p. 118). Our experience of consciousness, purpose, value, and meaning is in many ways more certain than any theory that would purport to explain them away, as reductionist accounts do. And by excluding that which isn’t publicly observable or able to be established by experimental methods, science doesn’t show that such things don’t exist, only that it’s incapable of accounting for them. If such things are real, they would of necessity not be reducible to more basic constituents that can be explained in a thoroughly physicalistic way.

There are personal experiences, known to all of us in a direct and natural way, that do not fall within the domain of the natural sciences. The scientific domain is that of publicly observable objects in shared public space. Since science does not deal with personal experiences, it cannot itself give an account of what they are or how they relate to objects in physical space. Science itself cannot provide a comprehensive worldview, because there are aspects of reality with which it does not deal. The most obvious aspects of this sort are personal experiences. It is precisely in such experiences that such notions as value and purpose have their home. (p. 123)

What’s going on here, it seems to me, is that we have a fundamental difference in worldviews. One takes personal reality and all that it encompasses to be in some way fundamental to the constitution of the universe. The other takes personal reality to be ultimately reducible to some non-personal reality. Since personal existence seems to involve features which elude quantification, measurement, prediction, and public observability, any worldview that takes science to provide the key to an exhaustive account of reality will have to offer a reductionistic account of personality. But this will only be as plausible as the initial decision to treat quantifiable, etc. aspects of reality as the really real aspects of the world. Science as such can’t show us that those things it is methodologically incapable of dealing with aren’t real.

But, if personal existence is a non-reducible aspect of reality, and given that humanity is a latecomer on the cosmic scene, this rasies the question of whether there is a personal reality that underlies the entire phenomenal world. Which is the subject of the next post…


2 thoughts on “Pascal’s Fire 5: The priority of the personal

  1. Joshie

    “But, if personal existence is a non-reducible aspect of reality, and given that humanity is a latecomer on the cosmic scene, this rasies the question of whether there is a personal reality that underlies the entire phenomenal world.”

    my head hurts

  2. ktismatics

    Atheistic artists are just as appalled as theists by scientific reductionism, whether it’s applied to subjective personal experience or to the cosmos. But that’s all science is meant to do: understand the what and the how, but not the wherefore. Science has limits. Hard-core empiricists believe that the limits are absolute – that if something can’t be observed and measured then it’s not real. More modest scientists agree with Ward: there are subjects on which science can shed no light.

    What’s implied in Ward’s discussion is that our subjective experiences of value, purpose and meaning somehow map onto the value, purpose and meaning that exist out there in the world. So if I have a feeling that God is directing my steps, it’s because God really is directing them. This is similar to Ward’s contention in the prior installment, that if we can think of mathematical ways of characterizing nature it’s because nature really is mathematical in its design; or that if trees look green to us it’s because they were designed by and for color-sighted beings.

    It might be evolutionarily adaptive for us to believe that the world is meaningful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that our genes are just tricking us into a false belief. Conversely, we can’t infer the presence of an intelligent Designer behind the evolutionary process, leading our species to grasp intuitively and subjectively the intrinsic meaning that’s been built into the universe. Science has nothing to say about these matters: it must remain agnostic with respect to meaning and purpose.

    Even outside the context of science it’s difficult to be sure that our inner subjective experiences correspond with the objective truth. We’ve all harbored beliefs and interpretations that turned out to be wrong when confronted with tangible evidence. When we don’t have access to tangible external evidence, all we’re left with is our inner state of mind. Presumably that’s the value of a reliable objective revelation: it can give us a God’s-eye view of what things are really like outside of our own heads. Why? Because God presumably has access to empirical data that we can’t get on our own.

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