Logic on fire

A two-part essay by the excellent Nick Hudson, of PANDA, is available here and here. Nick discusses how the disastrous worldwide COVID response stems, in large part, from epistemic failure.

The time-honoured tools for gaining knowledge, deductive and inductive reasoning, have been undermined across society by what he summarises as the three “Ms” – Marxism, Malthusianism, and post-Modernism. How all three tend towards rigid authoritarian systems that are incapable of self-correction is an illuminating exploration.

The first episode, extolling the virtues of inductive logic in particular, gave me a slight pause in reminding me of the contrast many secularist scientists make between the dispassionate inductive logic of science, and the “religious” nature of “woke” knowledge, often with some reference to the bad old days when people were Christians and priests ruled all by authoritarian fiat. Was Hudson in fact proclaiming a purely secular version of true knowledge?

Hudson doesn’t make that comparison, though, in Part 2 contrasting the pseudo-scientific utilitarianism of Marxism with the superiority of the traditional value-based system. Interestingly, though, he bases his approval of “the established ways” on their “evolutionary” nature:

The opposite of Marxist-utilitarianism is a virtue or value-based system where you negotiate the world by way of an evolved system of values; something that comes to us from the dawn of time, the early days of civilisation and culture; a set of cultural rules, norms, taboos and explicit values that give us a way to negotiate all social interaction and cultural discourse. And because it’s evolved, that system is capable of embedding knowledge. Again, the complexity inherent in human culture and societies means that the system defies parsimonious deductive analysis; comprehension requires evolutionary explanatory knowledge.

There’s a strong element of truth to that analysis. Societies, prior to revolutionary politics, always evolved in the old sense of changing gradually by trial and error, rather than in the strict Darwinian sense of random variation and natural selection. But still, one can imagine someone (not Hudson in this case) contrasting such a natural system with the dogmatic Bible-based religion of Christianity, lumping the latter with the top-down “algorithmic” ideologies of the Marxists. In fact, the supposed imposition of Christianity on carefree traditional societies has long been a secularist trope, however lightly it sits with historical truth.

What I think Hudson’s analysis misses is that whatever human progress is hidden in the mists of time is not necessarily the fruit of inductive logic, and is certainly not amenable to it in retrospect. Nobody can reverse-engineer the historical processes that led to received ancient wisdom, and any assumption that it arose by an evolutionary process is just that – an assumption. The wisdom itself has to be accepted on authority (just as, in real life, inductive science has to be accepted largely on trust, because no one person can critique such a huge body of literature).

There is always, then, a necessary element of submission to authority, be that a society’s traditions, some innate human value-system whose origin may be attributed to evolution or, as in the American Constitution, to divine providence, or a specific religious authority such as the Bible, behind which, of course, is believed to stand the authority of the Spirit of God.

Once it is accepted that knowledge is a mixture of reasoning and respect for some tradition, the real authority being obeyed is not the hypothetical source of a tradition, or even the word of Scripture in and of itself, but the “tried-and-tested” nature of broad human experience over space and time. Monogamous marriage has been honoured in our society throughout history, so it is not to be undermined lightly. We British gave up paganism for Christianity two millennia ago, so it is not to be sneezed at. This trust in our forebears is not infallible, or slavery or torture would have been self-evidently wrong forever (whereas both have now crept back under utilitarian considerations such as needing cobalt for batteries or cheap trainers for watching TV, or dealing with “bad people” from Afghanistan in Guantanamo Bay). But it provides a much stronger foundation than the writings of some academic eager for fame or power.

The inevitability, and desirability, of recognising some authority from tradition certainly demolishes any pretence of science to infallibility, since science too has a strong traditional element. But also, it paradoxically demonstrates that the Bible is, in point of fact, a more transparent source of tradition, and more capable of generating intelligent “cultural evolution,” than many other traditional sources.

The Bible’s origins, after all, are lost neither in the mists of prehistory, nor in the hypotheses of human evolution. Rather, they are broadly known, and the book’s influence on culture is a matter of fact. All that is really open to question is its divine authorship and authority, but as Alvin Plantinga has argued in his work, belief in God may well be as “properly basic” as whatever belief commands our acceptance of any traditional authorities in the first place, so requires no greater departure from strict logic.

Whether one takes the last step in granting the Bible’s divine origins may have eternal consequences for individuals, but in the context of Nick Hudson’s thesis, even taking it as just one part of “evolved tradition” gives it an unusual utility as a tool for building a society. For it assumes a single, simple axiom: “This book carries unusual authority.” After that, it is simply a question of legitimate exegesis and hermeneutics – what it says and what it means – applied to today’s particular situation.

This has a lot more in common with inductive science than does, say, the evaluation of variations in marriage customs or property rights around the world, or even within one’s own society, since, unfortunately, part of the tradition of human societies is the widespread violation of society’s traditions. The Bible, of course, accounts for this by sin and so provides added clarity.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, trained as a doctor before becoming one of the leading Evangelical preachers of the twentieth century, called preaching “logic on fire.” And B. B. Warfield actually saw biblical theology as a scientific pursuit. The application of the Bible truly is a process of inductive logic, even being “evolutionary” in the sense of bringing old light to new situations. But behind that logic, to Lloyd-Jones and Warfield alike, is the fire of the living God. This is logic that stirs the heart as well as the mind, which why it will outlast Marxism, Malthusianism and post-Modernism alike.

As the Puritan Samuel Rutherford, an early advocate of limited government and the social contract, wrote:

Do not seek for warm fire under cold ice.

In effect that warmth is love. Not a lot of that is to be found in the three “Ms”.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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