April 17, 2008

Ian G. Barbour

Ian G. Barbour, winner of the Templeton Prize (1999), is professor emeritus of physics and religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? provides a well-organized guide to contemporary literature on the relationship of science and religion. Author and professor, Arthur Peacocke (Oxford University) says, “No surer and fairer guide to the proliferating literature on the relation of science and religion can be found than Ian Barbour.”

That was the good news. Now, here comes the not so good news. Despite Barbour’s interesting and useful presentations of various theories, I was deeply disappointed with his own philosophical views. Many of Barbour’s opinions, plus interpretations of certain writers, will not stand critical analysis. I will discuss herein a number of Barbour's problematic statements, without making extensive comments at this time. An extended analysis would require studying fuller explanations of Barbour’s opinions from his other writings. So, I will limit my brief comments to his faulty interpretations of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought and various biblical concepts.

Thomistic metaphysics:
Concerning the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas Barbour states (p. 34), “But I would argue that Aquinas’s thought expressed dualisms of matter/spirit, body/soul, temporality/eternity, and nature/humanity that have been only partially overcome in more recent Thomistic thought (see Chapter 5).” To say that Aquinas’ dualism has “been only partially overcome in more recent Thomistic thought” is to talk nonsense. If a Thomist attempted to “overcome” recognition of immaterial reality, his Thomistic credentials would be highly suspect. That is to say, he would not be a Thomist. Furthermore, Barbour says to “see Chapter 5”. However, I did not find any reference to this so-called “recent Thomistic thought” in Chapter 5, or in any other chapter. Whatever the case may be, the nature of Barbour’s comment on Aquinas reflects his predilection for a reductionist understanding of reality.

Under the subtitle, “The Religious Meaning of Creation”, Barbour says (p. 48), “The idea of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) is not stated in Genesis.” One can make a fair argument in favor of Barbour’s assertion, and some reputable Old Testament scholars have previously taken the same position. However, I am not sure the interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is settled in such a way that one is justified in stating without qualification, as Barbour does, that Genesis 1 does not teach creation ex nihilo. That is, the author of Genesis 1 may be reaching to express in language that is inadequate for that which is inconceivable--creatio ex nihilo--by using negative images such as “void”, “empty”, “darkness”, and “face of the deep”. Furthermore, by “speaking” God brought some things into existence: “And God said: Be light made. And light was made.” There is no suggestion here of God creating or fashioning light from anything that pre-existed. Does verse 1: 3, for example, indicate that God created, to use much later terminology, ex nihilo?

Comological argument:
When discussing Thomas Aquinas’ ideas regarding creation ex nihilo and the eternity of the universe (p. 49), Barbour says, “To be sure, one of the versions of his cosmological argument did assume a beginning in time: every effect has a cause, which in turn is the effect of a previous cause, back to a First Cause that initiated the causal chain.” Barbour’s terse presentation of the cosmological argument reveals a misinterpretation of Aquinas’ writings. The argument to the existence of a First or Uncaused Cause is a philosophical argument. If the argument assumed a beginning in time, as Barbour thinks, then it would not be a philosophical argument. Aquinas makes clear that creation ex nihilo is known only because God has revealed it to man. Since philosophy or human reason alone cannot prove the world had a beginning in time, a world with a beginning in time cannot be assumed in what is strictly a philosophical demonstration.

Furthermore, Barbour incorrectly interprets the cosmological argument to assert a chain of causes going “back” in time to a First Cause. The causality of the argument is, rather, a metaphysical relationship at any particular point in time. To clarify this critical difference, it helps to think of the chain of causal relationships as “vertical”, and not as a “horizontal” sequence of events stretching back in time. The argument assumes Aristotle’s eternally existing world.

God and the Design arguments:
Concerning God and the Design arguments, Barbour says (p.84) “Design is what one would expect with an intelligent and purposeful God—though I will suggest that the presence of chance, evil, and human freedom should lead us to modify classical ideas of omnipotence.” Barbour’s suggestion of re-conceiving God as less than omnipotent has the dubious benefit of reducing problems and issues (the presence of chance, evil, and human freedom) to within the scope and limitations of the finite human mind to better comprehend. Genesis says, “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” Barbour responds by suggesting that we make God according to how we like. There is one major problem with Barbour’s suggestion: a God that is not omnipotent is not God.

Barbour next states, “My main objection to such design arguments is that they leave us with the distant and inactive God of deism, a far cry from the active God of the Bible who continues to be intimately involved with the world and human life.” I must say that it appears a strange and contradictory argument, which in one sentence suggests demoting God from the state of omnipotence, while the next sentence expresses preference for the concept of the God of the Bible. My sources tell me that “I Am Who Am” who spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and who will create a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1), and who will overcome all death, suffering and evil (Rev. 21:4), was not impressed with Barbour’s suggestion that He is less than omnipotent.

Body/soul dualism:
In the chapter titled “Genetics, Neuroscience, and Human Nature”, Barbour says (p. 148) “Both reductive materialism and the dualism of mind and matter (or body and soul) are avoided by two-aspect theories and by the dipolar pluralism of process thought.” Barbour previously explains what all of this means, but his path leading up to the articulation of his own position is largely composed of statements biased against the immateriality of the soul. I prefer that Barbour would have provided philosophical arguments for his position. As it stands, Barbour proffers a reductionist view of reality without any supporting argument.

Barbour’s various discussions of philosophical dualism of body and soul generally consist of references to Plato and Descartes, who identified the person with the soul. Clearly, the extreme dualism of Plato and Descartes makes for an easy target. The moderate dualism of Thomism is another matter. Even though Barbour himself advocates what he believes to be an integral conception of human nature, he fails to discuss Thomistic hylomorphism. With Barbour, the moderate dualism of Aristotle and Aquinas gets only minimal airtime. Yet, what theory could be more explanatory, integral and holistic than Aquinas’ teachings about the nature of the human body and soul?

In addition, Barbour’s claim that the biblical concept of man does not include the notion of an immortal soul is inaccurate. Barbour does cite biblical scholars who claim there is not any notion in the Bible of the human soul as an immortal entity. One of the Protestant biblical scholars cited, Oscar Cullman, is an excellent scholar. And it is true that the majority of Old Testament references to the soul (nepês), indicate the entire person, and lack any notion of man composed of a subsisting immaterial component. However, the Greek concept of the soul (psychē) does appear in Wisdom. The author reveals a limited familiarity with the Greek idea of the soul when he says, “But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torment of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure was taken for misery; and their going away from us, for utter destruction; but they are in peace (3:1-3).” Wisdom also speaks of the soul as pre-existing: “And I was a witty child and received a good soul. And whereas I was more good, I came to a body undefiled (8:19-20).”

Also, to understand what Jews and Christians believed about human nature and life after death cannot be thorougly understood by looking only at what was intended by the word for "soul" in the the Old and New Testaments. But Barbour has limited his analysis to nothing more than what can be learned by looking up the word "soul" in any Protestant reference to the Bible. One needs to expand their resources, study the entire Bible (Catholic list of books), and reflect on later Jewish practices for what they may suggest concerning existing beliefs about the state of man after death. For instance, in II Machabees, Jews offered prayers and sacrifices for God’s forgiveness of their fellow Jews slain in battle because they died wearing amulets of an idol. Was it believed that something of the fallen soldiers’ being survived the death of the body and could receive God’s forgiveness, and the guilt of their sins expiated soon after death of the body, all as a result of prayers and sacrifices offered?

In the New Testament, the concept of the soul, psychē, contains nothing significant over the Old Testament nepês. Yet, if it is the entire person that dies and remains stone cold dead until the Resurrection, as Barbour asserts, then what are we to make of Christ’s words to one of the thieves crucified with Him?: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Amen I say to you thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.’” How is it that the thief went to paradise that same day with Jesus while their bodies were prepared for burial?

One can find any number of passages in the New Testament, which throw doubt on Barbour’s unqualified assertion that the Bible teaches the entire person dies and remains so until the Resurrection. For instance, St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “We even have the courage to be exiled from the body and to be at home with the Lord. And therefore we strive, whether in the body or out of it, to be pleasing to him (II Cor. 5:8-9).”

Revelations given to Israel, and Israel's understanding of the great mysteries of life, show historical progression. The primitive Jews knew nothing of an afterlife. Their mentality and concern was with living a long life and prosperity. Death meant going down to Sheol, where one was not completely bereft of life, but existed as a shadowy replica of his former self. Kings still sat on thrones, and so on, among the Shades.

Centuries later, the Prophets revealed the future Resurrection of the dead. Also, the concept of Sheol progressed and later called the Bosom of Abraham, where one is gathered to his fathers. The concept of Sheol also evolved to be thought of a place that had a separate domain of punishment for the wicked. By New Testament times, the Jews referred to the Bosom of Abraham also as Paradise. Paradise is that part of Sheol where the just awaited redemption and salvation. This is where Jesus descended to after His crucifixion. The Paradise of the just is sometimes referred to as Hell in the Catholic Creeds where it states that Christ descended to Hell. It may sound confusing at first, but in the Creeds, Hell does not mean the Hell of the damned. It is the same as the Paradise of the just. Clearly, the use of alternative term to Hell would avoid any initial confusion in modern times about the intended meaning.

My main point here is that by merely looking at the meaning of the word psychē in the New Testament one will not acquire a full picture of what Jews and Christians during New Testament times believed about death of the body and the afterlife. Barbour’s shows that his biblical knowledge is severely lacking. I suspect this is due to his process ideology and philosophically untenable conception of human nature, through which he filters his reading of the Bible. Barbour would like the Bible to appear supportive of his ideology. For instance, he says (p.134) “I do not myself accept either the classical body/soul dualism or the proposal that body and soul are terms in complementary language. I will defend an integral view of the person as a psychosomatic unity, which I believe is closer to both the biblical view and the evidence from contemporary science.” As I have tried to show, Barbour’s materialistic view of man cannot be supported with the Bible. And contemporary science does not truly support Barbour’s view of man. It is a matter of how various scientists interpret the data. I will discuss this particualr problem in a future post.

Barbour Borks the Bible:
Wherever the Bible is in clear contradiction to Barbour’s ideology, he has no qualms about emasculating biblical doctrine by means of “reinterpretation”. Barbour denies the Fall of Adam, the biblical doctrine of Original Sin, and much more. For example, he says (p.135), “I will suggest that even the biblical concepts of sin and redemption, which seem far removed from any scientific data, should be reinterpreted today in the context of evolutionary history and the social and behavioral science.”

Aspects of a few biblical concepts and various biblical passages may be understood more accurately in light of new scientific evidence, but when Barbour’s “reinterpretation” means denying fundamental biblical doctrines, then such reinterpretation is tantamount to heresy. Barbour's approach to the relationship of science to the Bible is unacceptable. Theology is a science higher than the natural sciences and provides an external and negative guide to the natural sciences. There are various, changing and conflicting scientific views about man and nature. It is one thing to modify one's interpretation of Genesis 1 when science shows that the earth is billions of years old. The view that supports a direct creation in six days has never been Church doctrine. Here, the biblical interpreter learns something from genuine science.

Also, modern biblical scholarship has show that story of Noah and the Ark to be a theological polemic against Middle Eastern flood stories such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The biblical Deluge account was worked into the historical narrative of Genesis. There is no longer any reason to insist the story was historical. The meaning and message of the story is not lost or diminshed in any way by recognizing its non-historical character.

Furthermore, scientific evidence confirms there was no universal flood, or even a disasterous regional flood of the magnitude portrayed by the Deluge account, during the period it was said to have taken place, a very, very long time before the written account.

The upshot here is that scientific evidence merely confirms the non-historical character of the Deluge, but the scientific evidence does not and cannot suggest that the meaning and the message of the story of Noah and the Ark needs to be re-interpreted.

In addition, when it is a matter of biblically based doctrines in which there is a tradition of agreed upon interpretations, and are supported by the teaching authority of the Church, such doctrines are unchangeable. For example, the Church's interpretation of Christ's words, "This is my body" and "This is my blood", to indicates the Real Presence of Christ, and that the substance of what was bread and wine no longer exists. Merely because transubstantiation cannot be proven by the limited methods of the natural sciencs is no reason for Catholics to question and re-interpret the biblical passages and Church teaching. But this is what Barbour's type of reasoning leads to--a total denial of the truths of Christianity.

It is the height of absurdity for anyone to think that certain and traditional interpretations of biblical doctrines ought to be changed every time a new scientific hypothesis or psuedo-scientific theory of man and nature becomes popular. But such is the arrogance of man wanting to alter God's message of salvation to his own liking. There is a timeless message in the primitive story of the Tower of Babel.

I have no sympathy whatsoever for Barbour’s ideological driven attacks on Sacred Scripture.

rev. 04/20/08

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