You say revelation, I say hypothesis

Bruce Charlton’s interesting new blog Scientists considering Christianity (the title refers to the intended readers, not to the writer) does not, regrettably, allow readers to leave comments, so I’ll just have to do my commenting here. I should mention at the outset, I suppose, that I myself am neither a scientist nor seriously considering Christianity.

In a recent post called Hypotheses and revelations, Mr. Charlton addresses those who think “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories.” After describing the way hypotheses often occur to scientists suddenly and inexplicably in a flash of inspiration, he concludes that the formation of a scientific hypothesis is not itself a scientific process, and that hypotheses are no less “made up” than revelations. He closes with this (I’ve proofread it a bit):

My point is that hypotheses in relation to [science] are analogous to revelation in relation to religion — both come from outside of the system, but science is based on hypotheses in the same way that Christianity is based on revelation.

But the point is that in formal terms (in terms of systems theory, to be exact) Christian revelations are no more bizarre than scientific hypotheses. Or both are equally bizarre.

To say that a revelations and hypotheses are “analogous” is actually an understatement. I would go further and say that a revelation simply is a hypothesis. Prophets and scientists come up with their ideas in pretty much the same ways — hunches, flashes of intuition, even dreams or visions (see Kekulé). The choice of words, “revelation” or “hypothesis,” is simply a reflection of one’s opinion about where the idea came from and how trustworthy it is. If you think it came from God and is therefore True, you call it a revelation. If you think it came from God-knows-where but might turn out to be true after being tested, you call it a hypothesis. Revelations are not a category apart; rather, a “revelation” is just a hypothesis you don’t feel the need to test.

When Mr. Charlton introduces the issue — “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories” — he’s being a little sneaky, lumping hypotheses and theories together. Once he’s convinced you, correctly, that a hypothesis is no more reasonable or “scientific” than a revelation, you’re meant to conclude that revealed religion is therefore just as reasonable as science. But while Christianity has hypotheses aplenty, in the form of “revelations,” it offers nothing as robust as a good scientific theory — that is, a hypothesis that has proven itself through rigorous and systematic testing.

Of course religious people test their hypotheses, too, after a fashion, since they don’t indiscriminately accept every purported revelation (Christians, for example, don’t generally accept the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad), but the testing is of a very different — and, it must be said, rather arbitrary — sort. Christianity generally focuses on the source of the hypothesis: Did he have a vision? Did your heart burn within you? Is that in the Bible? In science, on the other hand, the source of the hypothesis is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the hypothesis originated in a hunch, a dream, a bit of wishful thinking, or even in scripture; all that matters is whether it can be tested and how well it passes those tests. If a hypothesis consistently makes true predictions, we accept it, regardless of where it came from; and if it doesn’t, we don’t.

John Dominic Crossan had the right idea:

And only when [the] human normalcy [of “revelation”] is accepted can a proper response be offered. It should not be this: We deny the fact of your vision. It should be this: Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will have to judge not whether he had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not. (The Jesus Controversy, p. 7)

And so did William Blake:

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet; watch the roots,
the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

So, yes, Christian doctrines seem arbitrary compared with scientific theories. But the difference lies not in the admittedly arbitrary hypotheses/revelations that provide the raw material for both disciplines, but rather in the differing ways in which hypotheses are tested or validated. — whether by the objective tests of the scientific method, or by the arbitrary ones prescribed by various religions.

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Filed under Philosophy, Revelation, Science

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