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"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Reviews of Roy Clouser's Myth of Religious Neutrality

Here is my review from Science and Christian Belief 19 (1) (2007) pp 93-94 of Roy's excellent Myth book:

Roy Clouser
The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories
Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. 397 pp. pb.
£19.95 ISBN 0-268-02366-2

Every so often along comes a book that is paradigm shaking – this is one such book. Not least it challenges the idea that science and religion are independent. Roy Clouser, professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at The College of New Jersey, Trenton, has produced, to use a cliché, “an important and seminal work”; in Clouser’s case this is not an over exaggeration. He shows the relationship of religious beliefs to theories. This book is a revised and updated version of his 1991 book.

Clouser’s main thesis is that theories are controlled by religious beliefs. Religious beliefs guide and direct the use of reason in all of life. After a brief introduction (ch 1), Part I looks at “Religion”. In chapter 2 he examines ‘What is religion?’

He then identifies (Ch 3) the main types of religious belief and concentrates on three main types: pagan, pantheistic and biblical. For the pagan, the divine is some part, aspect, or force or principle in creation; for the pantheistic, the non-divine is a subdivision of the divine; and the biblical denies that there is one continuous reality: the creator is distinct from the creation.

Part II puts “Theories” under the scalpel. After looking at “What is a theory?” (Ch4), he looks at the relationship between religion and theories. He identifies three basic alternatives: religious irrationalism, religious rationalism and the biblical (Ch 5).

The first sees religion and reason as two distinct realms: the two ‘have nothing to do with one another’… so ‘neither is capable of passing any judgment on the other” (p 89). The second, religious rationalism, accepts the neutrality of reason, reason is the final court of appeal being able to decide on all matters; consequently, religious beliefs are optional and a logical conclusion of reason. Reason shapes religious beliefs. The biblical position reverses this: religious belief shapes reason. Religious beliefs guide and direct the use of reason; hence, reason is not neutral; it is controlled by religious beliefs.

It is this biblical position that Clouser defends and advocates. Part III is a “casebook” of illustrations. By examining the role of theories in mathematics (Ch 7), psychology (Ch 8) and physics (Ch 9), he shows that religious core beliefs not only influence theories by acting as presuppositions, but also that they are basic presuppositions ... religious core beliefs act as guiding presuppositions to theorizing (pp 127-8). This part culminates in chapter 10: ‘The need for a new beginning’. This is perhaps the most controversial and closely argued chapter. Clouser examines the problems in the Augustinian, Anselmian and Aquinasian view of God (the AAA view). He demonstrates that this view is inconsistent, illogical, it means that humans would have to be (partly) divine – as they share some of the attributes of God, such as goodness and justice – and it requires the cosmos to be understood reductionistically. The AAA view of God’s attributes in need of an overhaul. In its place Clouser looks to the Cappodocians and the Reformers’ (the C/R view) view of God. This view provides a much stronger basis on which to build a non-reductionist theory of reality.

Part IV attempts a reconstruction and develops non-reductionistic theories of reality (ch 11), society (ch 12) and the state (ch 13). Here Clouser develops and expounds the ideas and theories of the much neglected and misunderstood – particularly in the UK – Dutch Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Dooyeweerd’s own writing can be extremely opaque, fortunately Clouser has provided an excellent, clear and readable introduction to them.

This revised edition is more nuanced than the original – the typeface is also smaller, but much clearer and it has 33% more pages. There are 49 pages of end notes and an improved 17-page index. Even if you have the first edition, it is well worth investing in this one.

It should be required reading for all those involved in any academic disciplines but especially for those involved in the biological and physical sciences – to paraphrase Luke22:36: “if you don’t have a Clouser, sell your cloak and buy one.”

Reviews can also be found here:

by Kenn Hermann (from Christian Scholar's Review) also here

In my judgment, this edition will stand as the best, most complete, introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s thought in the English language for many years to come.
by James Skillen All theory is grounded

There is also a review by Michael De Moor in Religious Studies Review 33 (1) (Jan 2007) 50–51

Here's a comparison of the table of contents of the first and second edition.

Reviews of the first edition:
by Peter Bryne Religious Studies 31 (1) (March 1995) 142

This book argues for the conclusion that explaining and understanding the world is inevitably determined by our fundamental religious commitments. There is no religion-neutral way of understanding reality. Christian thinkers should return to what is claimed to be the Biblical view that religious belief should underlie and direct all knowledge and they should thus produce theories of reality, society and so on that reflect the underlying faith commitment that all things are created by God.

Chapters 1-6 offer arguments about the character of religion, explanation and theories which support the general claim that no explanation and understanding can be religiously neutral. The author defines the religious in terms of belief about what is ontologically fundamental. A view of reality rests on a religious commitment, has a view about what is divine, in so far as it affirms that something exists independently of other things and supports the existence of other things. A materialist on this account has a religious belief in which matter is given the status of the divine. These chapters contend that differences about what is ontologically ultimate radically infect all modes of enquiry. They therefore criticise those theological outlooks (called here 'Scholastic') which have tried to preserve an area of the 'natural' which is the object of shared, neutral understanding by those with differing religious views. Chapters 7 to 9 offer case studies of the way in which understanding in mathematics, physics and psychology has been dependent on views about the ontologically fundamental. This is alleged to support the general claim that religious commitments cannot be set aside in theorising about matters of substance. Chapters 10 to 13 close the argument by showing what a radically Biblical (that is, 'pancreationist') understanding of the material and human world would look like.

The general thrust of these reflections appears to be to establish the basis for a kind of 'Christian philosophy', Calvinist style. The arguments throughout are presented in a crystal clear fashion and with considerable vigour. Despite going over some very abstruse territory (for example, 176-80 argues that God creates all cognitive objects, including abstract entities and necessary truths), the book remains readable throughout.

Leaving aside the somewhat stipulative definition of religion, critical questions should begin by querying Clouser's 'top-down' approach to human enquiry. The book tells us that we must have the right account of the fundamentally real (that is, the divine on his definition) otherwise understanding the world goes astray. But it seems to be a feature of much, very successful, human understanding that it begins from what is more easily understood and moves upward to guesses about what is less so. Frequently this move is from particulars up towards, with luck, first principles. Folk who hold different hunches about first principles and the character of ultimate reality, or with no hunches at all, seem able to join minds in the search for understanding. It appears to me to be a very great mistake in epistemology to claim that unless we get our metaphysics of ultimate reality clear, then we cannot gain understanding of the world. Rather, are we not very frequently in a position in many forms of enquiry of testing different claims about first principles and ultimates by reference to how far they fit in with what knowledge' of particulars has established?

This is to argue that Clouser has not appreciated the full force of a counter to his claims based in a fallibilist, agnostic epistemology. It is a measure perhaps of his lack of awareness of the possibilities of alternative approaches to understanding the nature of reason and enquiry that he appears supremely confident that we know where to get the religious recipe for putting together a right theory of things. Throughout he refers to 'Scripture' as the source for this, as if we could be certain: (a) what is included under this heading; (b) that it has a unified meaning; (c) that its meaning is clear; and (d) that someone can tell us authoritatively what that clear meaning is. Even granted the point that he is speaking to a 'Judaeo-Christian' audience, even an exclusively Christian one, this stance seems problematic.

If Clouser is right in saying that we need to know who/what is the right God to theorise about the world, one response would be 'Heaven help us!'

Despite these criticisms, this book can be warmly commended. It treats of important issues in a clear and energetic way and it is a genuine attempt to break some new ground in the philosophy of religion.

PETER BYRNE King's College London

by Montague Brown The Review of Metaphysics 46 (2) (Dec 1992)

Clouser claims that every theory is based on a religious presupposition, that is, on an idea of what is self-existent (divine). Since all such ultimate presuppositions are unjustifiable in principle, those who presuppose the biblical faith in God as creator are equally respectable intellectually as are those who presuppose any other theory of reality. In fact, the presupposition of a creating God results in superior interpretations of reality in all its many facets. This thesis is laid out in four parts: (1) "Religion," (2) "Theories," (3) "A Casebook," and (4) "Radically Biblical Theories."

In the first part Clouser defines religion: "A religious belief is any belief in something or other as divine. 'Divine' means having the status of not depending on anything else" (pp.21-2). In other words, religious belief is one's assumption about what is independent and self-existent, and on which all else depends.

In Part 2 he defines what he means by a theory and shows that every theory presupposes a religious belief. A theory is a hypothesis based upon an abstraction of an aspect of reality (p. 59). Behind every theory, whether of mathematics, physics, psychology, or ethics, there lies an unproven (indeed unprovable) religious presupposition which guides one's choices about what to emphasize and what to downplay. Thus, one's assumption about what is self-existent (for example, matter, mind, God) will affect how one accounts for the order in the world or the status of mathematical entities or the nature of human agency.

In the third part Clouser presents a case book of theories, focusing on various theories of mathematics, physics, and psychology, and showing how these theories differ in proportion to the difference of their assumptions of what is divine (that is, what has independent status).

In Part 4 Clouser presents a biblical theory of reality, and then applies it to theories about society and the state. Throughout this part of the book Clouser draws heavily on the work of Herman Dooyeweerd, especially his New Critique, and grounds his theory on passages from Scripture with support from the writings of John Calvin. Clouser rejects what he calls pagan theories of reality (any theory which makes part of creation self-existent) because they are reductionist, and he rejects traditional Christian explanations of reality (for example, those of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas) because they make extensive use of these noncreationist pagan theories. Only by presupposing the biblical position of God as creator can an undistorted interpretation of reality be achieved. Such a position Clouser calls the "law framework theory," and it is guided by four principles: (1) the "principle of pancreation," which means that "everything other than God is his creation and nothing in creation, about creation, or true of creation is self-existent" (p. 202); (2) the "principle of irreducibility," which means that "no aspect of creation is to be regarded as either the only genuine aspect or as making the existence of any other possible" (p.202); (3) the "principle of aspectual universality," which means that "every aspect is an aspect of all creatures, since all creation exists and functions under all the aspectual laws simultaneously" (p.215); and (4) the "principle of aspectual inseparability," which means that "aspects cannot be isolated from one another; their very intelligibility depends on their connectedness" (p.217). An explication of the theory is quite complex and would require definitions of many technical terms for which there is no space here.

The book is very well written. It is clear and informative. There is excellent work on recognizing deficient theories in terms of logical inconsistency, self-referential incoherence, self-assumptive incoherence, and self-performative incoherence (pp. 68-73). His case studies point out clearly the unproven presuppositions behind many so-called "rationalist" theories about various aspects of reality. In addition, the "law framework theory" is impressive in its complexity and subtlety and well worth serious study.

I have two general comments. First, treatment of Aristotle and Aquinas is rather weak. Perhaps Clouser is influenced by late Scholasticism's interpretation of their theories--the kinds of things Calvin would have known. Aristotle's notion of substance is far subtler than it is characterized here. Also, Thomas Aquinas's doctrine of creation is very bit as strong as the pancreationism recommended by Clouser, with this difference: Aquinas thought creation was not just a matter of belief, but could be established by natural reason. This brings me to my second point. It does not seem to me that all ideas about what is self-existent (what I would call metaphysical rather than religious principles) are equally unjustifiable, and this for the very reasons Clouser mentions. The reductionist positions which he criticizes all lead to incoherence, whether self-referential, self-assumptive, or selfperformative. Only a view of reality which lets reality speak in all its many aspects can avoid these incoherences. When reality is allowed to speak this way, it shows itself to absolutely dependent on God the creator.

--Montague Brown, Saint Anselm College, Manchester, N.H.

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