Don Wiebe’s Response to “Substituting One Delusion with Another”

Dear Jean-Michel:

Perhaps I will begin with just a comment or two on your earlier essay comparing Professor Davis and me. I think if you look at the essay (and notes) of The Failure of Nerve article you will see that I do not really overlook what you and Davis refer to as the “evolving nature of theology itself.” I don’t go into the history of theology in detail but I do provide sound reason for recognizing the difference between capital C confessionalism and small c confessionalism, with the latter largely identified with the philosophy of religion. The fact that I do not take the latter as being a huge move away from traditional capital-C confessionalism is that it still makes the same substantive assumption (without providing anything by way of support that might give the assumption at least an initial degree of epistemic credibility) as capital-C conrfessionalism. The study of religion, I had argued, must begin with what is intersubjectively available to all those who wish to explain religious phenomena, and that is restricted to what the anthropologist Spiro referred to as “the cultural postulation” of such transcendent realities. As for the neutrality to which you refer – this is not a metaphysical position, either assumed or argued for, but rather the acceptance of what we might call a conventionalism scientific stratagem that involves transcending idiosyncrasy in the making of knowledge claims about states of affairs (physical or psychological) in the world. So, the objectivity sought (what you and Davis call the self-deceptive illusion of cognitive neutrality) is really nothing more than achieving intersubjective convergence of opinion about states of affairs in the world (which, again, is simply refusing to accept idiosyncratic claims to knowledge as legitimate knowledge claims). A final comment about Davis on reason: Davis is concerned, as you suggest, with the the value of reason beyond simply obtaining knowledge about the world; Davis, that is, espouses reason not as a non-moral instrument of inquiry as it developed first among the ancient Greek philosophers and then the modern western scientific tradition, but rather right reason that involves intelligibility with respect to living “a flourishing life.” That is, no doubt, something of value to all persons, but it is not the avenue by which the sciences adjudicate claims to knowledge about states of affairs in the world.

So, now on to Martin and Wiebe: our concern is with the claim of students of “religious studies” who wish to claim the scientific legitimacy for their ‘understanding’ of religion; for laying claim to the same cognitive/epistemic legitimacy for their ‘understanding’ of religion as the other sciences make for their claims about states of affairs in the physical and social worlds. That just doesn’t wash. Nor does your wish to assume that science is simply another discourse like all other discourses. When it comes to manipulating the physical world, science is simply more successful (without political coercion or any other kind of power tripping) than any of the other “discourses.” That people can abuse scientific knowledge for political, religious, or personal ends doesn’t make knowledge simply “another discourse” – it is simply knowledge that is abused.

So to repeat the essential message in our article: people in research university departments are claiming the same (epistemic) status for the results of their work as natural, social scientists, and historians claim for theirs but do not work within the same epistemic framework – indeed, they flout that framework and lay claim to some other basis for their (special?) epistemic claims. That’s what we were trying to “clean up,” but were unsuccessful in doing so; and were deluded in believing that it was actually possible to achieve that goal.

Best wishes,

Don Wiebe


One thought on “Don Wiebe’s Response to “Substituting One Delusion with Another””

  1. I would like to respond to Dr. Weibe’s comments about your article “Substituting One Delusion for Another”. There are aspects of this comment with which I cannot disagree, e.g., that using empirical methods to justify one’s ‘understanding’ of religion is unjustifiable (assuming that by ‘understanding’, Weibe means a view that contains a transcendent component), and that science is easily the best tool we have to manipulate the physical world. These are points where Weibe is spot-on in his analysis.

    However, he falls short of convincing me because he has left out several points that I believe are crucial to the debate. I shall start with the latter first. The scientific method and the truly astounding things that it has allowed humanity to do are beyond reproach in understanding and controlling how our world works. It goes without saying that our understanding is not complete, else we would have solved many of our technological problems. But this simply does not go far enough to be fully satisfying. All we can really say about empirical knowledge of our world is that it has an internal consistency that seems to fit with our perceptions. Weibe’s argument presupposes that this is all there is in the world; the only things that exist are the things we can know. It may be true, instead, that we can only know the things that match our perceptions, and this phrasing does not eliminate reference to something that does not ‘exist’ empirically. Now, the move I have just made leaves my position open to the obvious criticism that I am simply saying that anything we don’t know is transcendent or, worse, God’s hand in the world. Let me be clear that this is not my position. I am simply saying that there exists the possibility that there is a component of our cosmos that can, does, and always will exist outside of our ability to understand using the very powerful tools of science.

    This brings me around to my first point. It is precisely for the reasons I have outlined above that any attempt to use empiricism to ‘prove’ any sort of viewpoint that includes the transcendent is a mockery of both science and of the study of religion. Science does excellent work in the world of matter, but it is completely useless to when it comes to trying to understanding anything that falls outside of its purview. My approach sounds very instrumentalist, and surely there is a hint of that there. But the really interesting part is the realization that the exclusivity of scientific reason borders on religious fanaticism. The difference between scientific fanaticism and religious fanaticism is, presumably, that we have a reason to be fanatic about science because we can prove what we say is true (small-t). This argument only stands to prove the internal consistency of the modern scientific mindset, not that it is True (capital-T).

    So what is True? I certainly don’t know because I was raised in the same secular modernity as the rest of us that presumes logic and reason to be essential features of the universe. It is a step outside of reason – a step that requires the “virtue of the absurd”, if I may dangerously quote Kierkegaard – that allows us to engage a universe that is more than merely empirical. To borrow one of my favourite metaphors from Michael Polanyi, empiricism allows us to see and understand every aspect of a clock and how it works; from the way the hands move across to face to the way the pendulum swings and eventually comes to a rest over time. But from within that empirical view, we can never fully understand the clock or its purpose, which may at this moment be to tell me how much time I’ve spent responding to this article and realize that I must get back to work. This is something the clock itself will never understand, and neither can we if we voluntarily limit our understanding of the universe to a singularly empirical view.

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