A Power Unto Salvation?: Science, Semantics, and the Supernatural (Part I: Defining The Views)

“In all religion there is a recollection of the Divine Truth which has been lost; in all religion, there is a longing after the divine light and the divine love; but in all religion also there yawns an abyss of demonic distortion of the Truth, and of man’s effort to escape from God.”

Emil Brunner

In this series I examine three broad approaches to engaging the question of the human condition. Those approaches are Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturlism. After defining each, the question will be asked: “Which of these, if any, has the power to save people from their existential condition?” Each view offers some answer to the problem of human existence, but I will argue only one is sufficient to truly liberate us from our present condition of alienation and oppression.

Introduction: Two Kinds of Naturalism

Since the Enlightenment and the breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis1 The Medieval Synthesis is best represented in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who synthesized the inspired Special Revelation of the Bible and the authoritative teachings of the Church with the best philosophical reflections on general revelation, namely, Aristotle. there have been, at least in the European and especially in the Anglo-Germanic speaking cultures, essentially two posited views on the nature of the human condition: the scientistic materialist view and the semantic existentialist view. The former of these places authority and power in the domain of the natural sciences and the scientific method, the other in the domain of language and human culture.

For most Christians living in English-speaking contexts today, the major battle of ideologies has played out between a very logic-centered, scientistic empiricism and a reason-oriented, metaphysical, and historical Christianity. In the 19th and 20th century this battle was waged between rationalists on both sides: metaphysical naturalists and metaphysical supernaturalists, who used arguments and evidence to both justify and compel belief– either toward atheism or in Christian theism. These engagements developed into robust philosophical debates between the great minds of the previous generation, e.g. Copleston and Russell, and those of today, e.g. William Lane Craig and Graham Oppy. Since the emergence of Christian analytic philosophy in the 1960s with the likes of men like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, this domain of intellectual dispute has informed much of our theological dialogue in the United States, especially in Evangelical Christianity.

Less familiar perhaps to many Evangelical Christians in the United States, however, were the contemporaneous developments occurring in the German and French speaking worlds of existential philosophy. As such, for many Evangelical apologists, the works of men like Sartre and Camus (on the French side), or Heidegger and Jaspers (on the German side) went unnoticed for quite some time. In addition, the Christian, or theistic, interlocutors to these existentialist philosophers have also gone under the radar, or perhaps remain entirely undiscovered, with the exception perhaps of particularly giant names like Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedikt XVI), or the much beloved Francis A. Schaeffer.

In particular, the most impactful group of German existentialists were the founders of Critical Theory, the philosophical grandfather of today’s multitudinous critical theories. This group attempted to develop a third way of looking at the world, one that neither denied the metaphysical naturalism of the scientistic worldview, nor that rejected the symbolic value and meaning of the religious worldview. The main figures in this very German-Jewish secular movement of philosophy were Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Max Weber.

For critical theorists, the result of accepting metaphysical naturalism (i.e. rejecting philosophical metaphysics), while not rejecting the existential aid of Christian theology, invested this innately Marxist philosophy with a quasi-religious flavor or tone. A flavor or tone that makes it very difficult to discern for many Christians today whether or not its tenets, or the tenets associated with any of its successor theories, are compatible with an actual biblical worldview, a worldview replete with God, gods, angels and demons, or human souls that have actual causal powers, moral natures, and that will endure after physical death. This is a quite different kind of naturalism in this sense, and one harder to identify than its overtly anti-religious counterpart.2 For a prime example of scientistic critiques of religion, see almost anything by Richard Dawkins, most especially, The God Delusion.

Before we look at each one of these types of naturalism individually, and how they attempt, if at all, to address the human condition, let’s define them a bit more narrowly, and also introduce their metaphysical opponent, Supernaturalism.

The Three Views: Scientism, Semanticism, and Supernaturalism

Scienticism is best embodied by philosophers like A.J. Ayers who avowed logical positivism (at least early on),3 Ayer went on to say this of his former views “I suppose that most of the defects of it were that nearly all of it was false.” or W.V.O. Quine, who tried to naturalize the philosophical domain of epistemology,4 see Stanford entry on “Naturalism in Epistemology” especially Chapter 2, “Epistemology Naturlized” or scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss today. Since the days of Ayer’s positivists, who considered any claims that could not be verified through scientific means to be meaningless, modified versions of Scientism have been fairly robust and well-defended in the English speaking world. Scientism, in brief, holds that while there are true statements about the world (i.e. the way things really are), the only statements that we can know to be true are ones that can be known via the natural sciences. According to the eminent philosopher of Metaphysics, J.P. Moreland, “In scientism, therefore, science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality….There are no truths that can be known apart from the appropriately certified scientific claims, especially those in the hard or natural sciences [e.g. physics, chemistry, biology].”5 J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism, 29.

Thus, when it comes to metaphysical statements about non-physical entities or agents, Scientism says these are at best speculative (weak Scientism), or, more likely than not, they are just false or meaningless (strong Scientism)6 Moreland, 29-30.. When it comes to moral issues, those who hold to Scientism may try to ground moral values or obligations in scientific facts about material reality, even though this has been traditionally seen as an inherently quixotic task, as it is almost universally agreed upon that the fact-value distinction cannot be bridged apart from something other than, or outside of, the scientific statements. In short, you cannot get “an ought from an is.”7 This idea goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). As we will see in a later post on the question of meaning and purpose, those who avow Scientism cannot help but be noticeably quiet.

Semanticism, or what I am calling “Semanticism,” might be described as an ideology that rejects the hegemony of science to fully explain the world, but also the hegemony of any religion, most specifically of the Judeo-Christian religion, to do the same, yet that retains core components of both. On the one hand Semanticism holds on to the empirical analysis of the scientific method, while affirming the symbolic and “semantic” world of theology and religion on the other. Semanticism sees power primarily in how language is used and how concepts are employed in human societies. As such the main theories that assume Semanticism are social theories, most predominantly Critical Theory, and its successor theories (e.g. Critical Race Theory, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, etc.) that try to rationally analyze not the composition of physical objects, natural processes, or the nature of causal relations, as in chemistry or physics, but rather analyze the meaning and value of human artifacts, i.e. of human culture itself. In empirically analyzing forms of culture, Semanticism tries to understand how individuals interact in their own socially constructed environments of communication and meaning. As such, Semanticism puts far more emphasis on human experience and the subjective life of the human person than does Scientism, which tends to reduce the human subject and her experiences down to mere natural, and impersonal, facts (i.e. facts about particles, gravity, and neuro-biological functions).

This semantic approach to the human condition can be summed up in Jürgen Habermas’ comments on Karl Jasper’s theory of the role of modern philosophy:

Jaspers regards the transition to modernity and to postmetaphysical thinking as a profoundly ambivalent process. On the one hand, the Enlightenment frees us from the dogmatism of a faith based on inherited authority [i.e. the Bible and the Church’s teachings]….On the other hand, this philosophical translation of symbolic [religious] meanings courts the danger that the enciphered truth-contents of the great traditions [i.e. Judeo-Christianity] will be entirely forfeited, while the modern sciences reduce the lifeworld to the domain of the objectively knowable and technically controllable.

Jürgen Habermas, “The Conflicts in Belief” in The Liberating Power of Symbols, 37.

What Scientism and Semanticism have in common is that they both share a common view of metaphysics, namely, that beyond the physical world nothing exists. Jaspers and other critical theorists can confidently claim along with Dawkins and Dennett that we all now live in a “postmetaphysical” world. However, as Habermas explains, the costs of accepting a full-blown Scientism is too great for the human creature, and, consequently, the existential content of religion must be salvaged to protect us from science reducing “the lifeworld” down to the merely objective and impersonal, even if we can be happy about being relieved from religious “dogmatism” at the same time.8 And here I think we could say that certain moral dogmas of traditional Christian churches, especially in the area of sexual morality and ethics, are in view for the critical theorists. For more on the deconstruction of religious sexual ethics see Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues for sexual “free play” and a “libidinal rationality.”

When it comes to morality, therefore, these two kinds of naturalism begin to differ in that those who invest their hope in the semantic power of language and symbols try to ground morality in some universally shared aspects of human culture, as opposed to merely natural facts about the human organism. As we will see, however, this is no less a quixotic, or herculean, task than that of its materialistic cousin.

It is at this point, nevertheless that both Scientism and Semanticism are on one side of a philosophical line, while a third view, Supernaturalism, is clearly on the other side of that line.

Supernaturalism is the view that there is a real world of immaterial Being (either God, or something like Abstract Objects, or both), and real cause and effect agency beyond the mere physical world of natural processes, or human biological machines. As such Supernaturalism is usually the overarching view of the traditional theist, the view of someone who really believes that the semantic content of their sacred texts actually refers to mind-independent, entities: to a God or gods, angels or demons, etc. For the supernaturalist, these are real substances (albeit immaterial ones) that have causal powers, a moral dimension, and some kind or degree of free will. Those who hold to the existence of minds may also be rightly called super-naturalists, or at least metaphysical dualists of some sort.

For Christians of a classical persuasion, Supernaturalism is the correct understanding of and approach to reality. Although it may sound unfashionable or shocking to modern and post-modern ears, the true Christian really does believe that the cosmos is a lot “spookier” than the scientist or semanticist may be willing to grant. Christians who accept the full inspiration of Scripture, for example, really believe that the scriptures contain a special kind of knowledge, a revelation knowledge, part of which confirms our common sense notion of a realm that goes unseen in the normal day to day. As such, the beings the scriptures speak of, this “unseen realm”9 For more on the unseen realm of the Bible, see Michael S. Heiser’s book of the same name, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. referred to in its pages, are to be taken quite seriously, since they themselves are in some sense more real than the physical world itself (or, at least, equally as real).

When it comes to morality, the supernaturalist will have a far wider range of explanatory options than the adherent of scientism or semanticism, and that in virtue of their being an actual Divine Person, and various principles that issue forth from that Person, either directly in the form of commands, e.g. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, or wife, or ox, etc…” or indirectly through natural laws embedded in the creation itself. The same goes for meaning and purpose, as the supernaturalist, whether Christian or Jew or Muslim, will also claim some kind of true story, some universal hermeneutic that explains our position in reality, and that comes replete with an origins story and an eschatological future.

In the next post I will look at Scientism, and ask the question of whether or not it can offer us any sense of hope in light of our existential circumstances.