Friday, June 4, 2010

Reformed Doublethink

1. Last month (April 27, 2010), Reformed Academic posted an article Reformed Academic Responds to “Ten Reasons” wherein, among other things, they defend themselves against the charge that they consider Gen.1-2 to be myth. One of their arguments is:

“Third, no resort to ‘myth’ is needed because one can hold both that the theory of biological evolution and the text of Genesis 1-2 are true by suspending judgment as to how they fit together. This is the position Dr. Jitse van der Meer takes in “Humankind: The Image of God and Animal Ancestry”.

This is an intriguing defence: that it is possible--and permissable--to hold two contradictory beliefs as long as you suspend judgment as to how they can be reconciled.

Dr. van der Meer, in the (Aug.17, 2009) paper cited, ascribes this notion to Dr. Terry Gray. Gray had been suspended from his office as ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church for asserting that Adam had animal ancestors. Recently, Gray relates:

The censure was to suspend me indefinitely from the office of ruling elder…until January 1998 when I was restored after recanting of my views. My recantation was not a denial of primate ancestry, but rather an admission that I did not know how to hold my views about human evolution together with the uniqueness of Adam as taught in the Confessions and in Scripture. This small step back from my previous assertion was satisfactory to the church elders. I did not violate my conscience in this and continue to this day to have no firm idea about how to put all the pieces together. “

Van der Meer concurs with such suspension of judgment. He contends that respecting both Scripture and nature means that sometimes

there is more integrity in leaving apparent conflicts unresolved than in solving it to the detriment of our understanding of either Scripture or nature. This is my position with respect to the question of the common ancestry of humans and chimpanzees that is strongly suggested by the genetic evidence.

2. One is reminded of George Orwell’s famous (1949) novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This novel describes a terrifying vision of life in the future when a totalitarian government watches over all citizens and controls all thought. One very useful government tool is the notion of doublethink: the act of simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself -- that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink... (Orwell, 1984, p.32)

For example, doublethink enabled workers in the Ministry of Truth to falsify public records, and then believe in the new history that they, themselves, had just written. Doublethink's self-deception allowed the Party to realize huge goals. Together with state propaganda and state police, it hid the government's evil not just from the people, but from the government itself.

Doublethink consists of a wilful intellectual blindness to contradictions in a belief system. In Orwell's novel it differed from ordinary hypocrisy in that the "doublethinking" person deliberately had to forget the contradiction between his two opposing beliefs—and then deliberately forget that he had forgotten the contradiction. He then had to intentionally forget the forgetting of the forgetting, and so on. Orwell described such pragmatic self-deception as "controlled insanity".

3. Is it possible to genuinely hold two conflicting beliefs simultaneously? Usually this leads to mental stress known as "cognitive dissonance". One way to relieve the stress is not to try to reconcile the conflicting beliefs. Sometimes the conflict may be only apparent. Consider, for example, the perplexing relation between God's providence and human sin. In this case we are urged not to "curiously inquire further than our capacity allows us...but to content learn those things which He teaches us in His Word, without transgressing these limits" (Belgic Coinfessions, Art.13).
The situation differs when it comes to origins. Here one might face challenges in interpreting the data (e.g., genetic information, fossil, etc.) within a biblical worldview.  Nevertheless, we can be confident that biblical solutions will be found. No suspension of judgment is called for.

However, Reformed Academic refers not just to data but to the truth of the theory of biological evolution, including human evolution. Here cognitive dissonance is induced by upholding beliefs from two contradictory worldviews. In this case, the mind will strive to relieve cognitive dissonance by modifying its belief structure. The suspension of judgment will then be only temporary--one of the worldviews must ultimately prevail.

Indeed, in a more recent (Oct.1, 2009) paper van der Meer writes,

One can suspend judgment about the details of the interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis...
and concludes,
From an exegetical point of view we can, therefore, accept the history of life on earth as reconstructed in biology, paleontology and paleoanthropology.

Note well: now there is no longer a suspension of judgment as to evolution, but only regarding Genesis.

4. Finally, one wonders whether Reformed Academic's suspension of judgment is permissable, particularly for officebearers in the church. Dr. Gray, we saw, was re-instated as ruling elder simply by proclaiming to believe in both human evolution and the OPC position, which denies it. This defies elementary logic and makes into a farce the OPC's official stance against evolution.

The Reformed Confessions stress that we are to believe without any doubt all things in the Bible (BC Art.5) and to reject with all our heart whatever does not agree with it (BC Art.7). The Canadian Reformed Form of Subscription, which any officebearer must sign, stipulates:

We promise, therefore, that we will diligently teach this doctrine and faithfully defend it without contradicting it publicly or privately in teaching or writing. We also declare that we reject all errors conflicting with the doctrine expressed in these confessions and promise to oppose, refute and help prevent such errors.

This clearly rules out any "suspension of judgment" between a biblical teaching and its worldly opposite. Rather, the officebearer is obligated to uphold all biblical teachings and, not just to reject, but to oppose, refute and help prevent any errors...such as theistic evolution.


Anonymous said...

Doublethink translation of John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Illogic ..."

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Relevant to your concern is an idea advanced by Herman Dooyeweed (perhaps you hold him some regard, perhaps not). It's cited by the 1991 CRCNA Report on Creation and Science. I suspect that you don't have a high regard for the CRCNA or even this particular report, but nonetheless it's worth mentioning because of the Dooyeweerd connection. One other disclaimer is that I have not sought out the original source--I'd welcome any leads however.

Here's the quote from the CRCNA report (p. 405. Agenda for Synod 1991--I think this report is on-line at the CRCNA website.

"Although there is a great challenge to vigorously pursue creative research and reflection on both sides of the issue, it is unlikely that the tension between the Bible and science on origins will diminish significantly in the foreseeable future. As Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd put it, on this issue we are going to have to live with a docta ignorantia, a well informed admission of ignorance."

It seems that Jitse could have just as easily attributed the notion to Herman Dooyeweerd.

For the record, I'm a defender of Biblical inerrancy as can be seen from a recent post and subsequent comments at the ASA Voices blog. I don't think this "docta ignorantia" viewpoint is so radical. I think we can point to many examples of being unable to resolve apparent contradictions in the Bible itself (harmony of the Gospels issues, harmony of Kings and Chronicles). I don't see why we should expect it to be any easier with Bible/science issues or with Bible/history issues.

Perhaps our more fundamental disagreement is this: I think modern science is rooted in a Christian worldview and Christian presuppositions--namely that God governs the universe in a lawful and orderly way and that that order is to be empirically determined via scientific investigation rather than through the reading of the Bible. In other words, Christians must take the findings of modern science with the utmost seriousness.

I agree whole-heartedly with your comment about the vows of church officers. Interesting, my trial did not turn on any particular disagreement with the Westminster Standards, but rather an on a broadly accepted exegesis of Genesis 2:7 which my position seemed inconsistent with. I have no disagreement with key issues such as the historicity of Adam and Eve, the historicity of the Fall, the probation/covenant of works.

Finally, as to my recantation and the subsequent lifting of my censure. After over a year of indefinite suspension during which I prayerfully thought through the decision of the OPC, this was all I could say in good conscience. You may not think so but it was a most definite retraction of my previous position that I held with a fair amount of certainty. I left the decision to the Harvest session and was willing to submit to their decision. I was pleased that they recognized my retraction for what it was, but had they not I would have honored their decision and resigned my office.

John Byl said...

Hi Terry

Thanks for your comments and clarification.

Actually, I concur that “science is rooted in a Christian worldview, that God normally governs the universe in a lawful, orderly way, and that that order is to be empirically determined through scientific investigation.”

I also concur that Christians must take the empirical findings of modern science seriously.

However,this concerns operation science, the science that is done via lab experiments and data collection. Here there is little dispute.

The matter in dispute, on the other hand, concerns origin science--interpreting such data in terms of origins. Here the worldview of the scientist determines which theories he will construct and choose. Modern science, despite its initially Christian roots, rejects any biblical input.

Moreover, divine miracles, such as the creation of Adam & Eve and the resurrection of Christ, are irregular acts of God and, as such, beyond scientific investigation.

The tension is thus not between Bible and science, but between the Bible and secular interpretations of scientific data.

Abraham Kuyper (Principles of Sacred Theology) viewed this in terms of the antithesis: "Not faith and science, but two scientific systems. Two scientific elaborations, are opposed to each other, each having its own faith.”

I would respect your position if you professed ignorance as to how to reconcile Genesis with empirical evidence that is often interpreted as supporting animal ancestry.

But you go further. You want to assert the truth of both the direct creation of Adam,based on the OPC interpretation of the Bible, and the animal ancestry of Adam, based on secular science. This is a clear contradiction, caused by trying to combine two conflicting worldviews.

Dooyeweerd would call this an antinomy, which he considered a sure mark of speculative thought that does not recognize the limits of the creature (New Critique, II, p. 38).