Sunday, 16 February 2014

Doctrines qua Data

Whilst I knew that this happened in general, in recent times I have personally been asked and challenged variously to defend the idea of doctrines. Are they not good insofar as they are practical? Are they not vestiges of past authoritarianism, that should now be dispensed with as progress is made? Is it not narrow-minded to see doctrines as true when something new could appear which discounts them? Can you really affirm a doctrine to be true without some other experience of its veracity?

These questions have been timely as I think about what it would mean to have a theology that expresses itself in language and conceptual structures of today (cf. Theology in the Language of Today). I would like to propose tentatively that doctrines could be viewed as the theological analogue of data in the natural sciences. In particular, I will use physics, since it is the sort of data I am most familiar with.

First, what does it mean for something to be data in the natural sciences? Data is the collection of facts that have been observed or measured in a system. In the very simple kinematics problems that are done in high school physics, the data set might be the stopping distance of some cart. The job of the scientist is to take that data, which could be called the "given", and explain why it occurs. A theory in physics is not the concoction of pure thought, but an explanation of empirical data, the starting point of all good science.

Data is hence not opinion. Data is the starting point for science. From the observation that the cart with bigger wheels is going slower when it gets to the bottom of the ramp, one begins to devise a theory that explains it. But the data itself is not science,  even though it is a necessary condition for science. This is why data or evidence is sometimes called the "given", precisely because it must be given to do science.

Data does not only start science, it constrains science. Does a particular scientific theory explain the observable phenomena? If yes, then it might be correct. If not, then it is to be rejected. Furthermore, data modifies or even re-invents theories: the hugely successful theory behind classical mechanics, for instance, was shown to be the limit of the more general theory of quantum mechanics when phenomena started to be observed that did not fit the classical picture. In all of this, however, the data is only added to. Nothing that was genuine data before is now considered non-data.

One moment where data looks like it is rejected is in the case of outliers or systematic error (for instance, faulty apparatus). Outliers are rejected because they are seen as not truly being part of the genuine data set. Similarly, when systematic error is found in an experimental method, setup or execution, the data collected is rejected because it is not real data. Here, by data I mean the actual evidence, what is really empirical, and I will set aside the issue of faulty data.[1]

My proposal is that doctrines are the analogues of data for theology. Let me set aside the epistemic barrier that separates empirical data from theological data (or doctrines), a very important issue. Suppose, also, we do have a clear idea of what doctrines are and are not infallibly defined. If we can assume to have a set of doctrines that have been infallibly taught (an instance might be the doctrine of the Trinity), then the parallel with data is relatively clear: we can talk about a doctrine set (viz a viz data set), about doctrines as the starting point for theology, or doctrines as constraining, modifying and reinventing theology.

For the Catholic, notwithstanding some rough edges, there is a doctrine set which has been infallibly taught. Some doctrines are papal, others conciliar, still others are known to be true without being explicitly defined, but however they are arrived at, the Catholic theologian should consider them to be true. The doctrines of the Church are the starting point, constraints and modifiers of Catholic theology. This view helps explain exactly what the job of the theologian is: just like the scientist with empirical data, the theologian is to start from doctrines and bring them together in a unified way. This could be done in just one field (say, moral theology or Christology) or in a more comprehensive way (like the brilliant work of St Thomas Aquinas).

This view also explains two other phenomena of Catholic life, ones which produce considerable tension: namely, the role of the Magisterium (and in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) as well as the so-called "development of doctrine."

The "Thuggish" Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

If doctrines are essentially theological data, as empirical data is for the natural sciences, then for a Catholic theologian to go against the truth of doctrines, that is, to be heretical, is essentially the same as for a scientist to produce a theory in contradiction of data. Pseudo-science and pseudo-theology are related by their denial of what the relevant data (empirical or theological) is.  It is no use to deny genuine doctrines in theology in the same way it is pointless to deny genuine data in physics. In this manner, the actions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which every so often issues a "Notification" relating to the erroneous propositions asserted by someone alleging to be presenting true Catholic thought, is just as reasonable as the scientific community condemning pseudo-science, like one of the science associations (for example, the American Physical Society) denying that young earth creationism can be thought of as science (not that I know of any time the APS has actually done this).

It is not "thuggish" to do so, as people have at times described the CDFs Notifications; the CDF is simply saying "no, whilst you may have taught this in good will, that particular stance is at variance with the facts; it cannot be taken as actually true." The stakes are much higher in theology than in science, however, as theology is at the heart of the lives of billions of people, and assuming that the Church is right for a moment, her theology has an impact on every human person. If scientific truths were of the significance of theological ones, it would be a moral obligation for the scientific community to issue every so often a condemnation of a particular stance as contrary to the facts of reality. If, as some people have claimed, teaching anti-evolutionism is child abuse, then it must be condemned as erroneous and actively opposed. To do anything less would be to cooperate with evil.

The problem some people have with the CDF is that they think doctrines are about "that which would be nice if true", whereas in fact, doctrines are more like "that which happens to be true." I do not regard all of the Church's doctrines are pleasant, but I do not believe them because they are pleasing to me, but because I consider them to be true. In this way, when some reformer tries, perhaps with the best of intentions, to change the Church by changing her doctrines, the reformer exclaims the scientific equivalent of "oh, but would it not be far better if classical mechanics were true, and not this complicated quantum mechanics!" Perhaps, perhaps not. But we must make do with the world we live in. Indeed, the further argument that claims to know better the mind of God is directly analogous to Einstein's famous statement relating to quantum mechanics that "God does not play dice." The facts of nature and God are both of the sort that regard our whims are largely irrelevant.

The Development of Doctrine

It also explains something else which has begun to be a topic of great interest in the last hundred and fifty years, particularly since Bl. John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: theology seems to change. No Christian theologian actually seems to believe exactly what the Christians in the first and second centuries believed. For instance, whilst I do not deny that the very earliest Christian communities believed in the divinity of Christ, it was not until a few hundred years later that the idea really took force. The Trinity is an even clearer example of development of theology.

It is true that, on the view I have just proposed of doctrines qua data, it makes no sense to talk about doctrines developing, but this seems to be a semantic difference. What Newman meant by the development of doctrine was that doctrines become more detailed and explicit over time - if you like, this is analogous to data being of improved quality as technology advances. In this sense, data allows itself to be "developed", but the underlying idea in Newman's thought is that theology develops.

Theology can develop as more doctrines are discovered. For instance, the Council of Nicea or the Council of Chalcedon, far from hindering the development of Christology, enhanced it. Doctrines produce creativity, they do not deny it, because creativity is about working with the given. Theology without doctrines would be like painting without colours or poetry without words - it would not be fruitful. I am reminded of a lecture given by the musicologist Jeremy Begbie in which he explained that the structure of music allows for freedom, a point echoed in another talk by Con Campbell, where he showed that the structure of jazz music was exactly what allowed for freedom in jazz bands. In this, they both apply that famous line of Jesus, that "the truth will set you free."

Of course, theology is not entirely about creativity, since in an artistic sense, creativity is about producing whatever is imagined, whereas theology is about discovering things that are true. Still, for development in theology to happen, creativity is to be possible, and for creativity to be possible, doctrines are important. The view of doctrines as data facilitates the connection between what is true and what could be true, by showing that doctrines are not stoppers to theology but the beginning of it.

Concluding Note

The idea of doctrines as (theological) data could be the starting point for a fruitful theology, though I doubt it is incredibly new. I am not aware of anyone else who has proposed it, although Bernard Lonergan may have, since from what I know about his epistemology, this view fits quite nicely. Alister McGrath may also have proposed it in his trilogy A Scientific Theology, but I have not read that yet. It is unlikely to be a very old idea, because "doctrines qua data" seems to be a framework that arises most naturally out of a post-scientific revolution culture. We now live in a culture, at least in the West, where the highest authority is science. For precisely this reason, the more scientific approach of viewing doctrines as analogous to how empirical data functions in the natural sciences may well be a fruitful manner of presenting the teaching of the Church to a scientific culture.


[1] If you are convinced that bad data ruins the parallel, or shows that the idea of doctrine is defective, then I would say this: bad data is like bad doctrine. In the Christian tradition, outliers would correspond to wacky Christian thinkers of ages past, or just their abnormal thought in one area. Origen, for instance, could be thought of as an outlier to be rejected on some issues. Systematic error arises out of getting doctrines in the wrong way - for instance, one might think of some heretical "council" as a good source of doctrine, where in actual fact, that council lacks the proper apostolic authority.

No comments:

Post a Comment