Rational Theory Choice and Religious Traditionalism

Philo Sophia

Philo Sophia

By: Jay Dyer A major problem for the philosophy of science and religious traditions is the question of observational neutrality and rational theory choice.  Can one’s observations be independent of an entire theory or paradigm?  Can there be a rational choice made between theories, paradigms and religious traditions?  The question is answered variously by relativists, objectivists, pragmatists and realists.  My thesis is to offer a possible idea that might point towards an answer. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn outlines the pragmatist approach to the question of theory choice succinctly, giving several examples why he believes rational theory choice is not possible.  The book has since become famous as an example of paradigm or worldview analysis as it relates to the question of scientific methodology and principles.  Initially, Kuhn argues that the transformation of a prevalent theory choice is like a revolution: "These transformations of the paradigms of physical optics are scientific revolutions, and the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science."  Next, Kuhn explains that normal science is puzzle solving, and that the choice of paradigms simply provides a criterion for choosing problems that are assumed to have an answer.  Third, he details the nature and inevitability of scientific revolutions, writing, "Scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense…that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately…"  He proceeds to compare scientific revolutions to political revolutions in that there is a period of crisis, division into factions, and mass persuasion eventually prevails to establish the victorious paradigm. Kuhn falls into scientific relativism at this point, declaring, "…the choice [of paradigms] cannot be determined by merely the evaluative procedures characteristic of normal science, for these depend in part upon a particular paradigm, and that paradigm is at issue.  When paradigms enter, as they must, into a debate about paradigm choice, their role is necessarily circular.  Each group uses his own paradigm to argue that paradigm’s defense." (brackets mine) Since, for Kuhn, "there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community," he carries this thinking through and argues that scientific revolutions are changes of worldview.  "When paradigms change, the world changes with them," Kuhn says.  It is as if the academic community has been "transplanted to another planet" where scientists are "responding to a different world."  It is at this point that Kuhn correctly elucidated that paradigms are requisite for perception itself.  Paradigms or worldviews are the matrix or program through which we interpret the world.  They are a schema that we develop from our given upbringing, social relations and individual thought. Kuhn does not seem to think, however, that gestalt experiments are definitive proofs that observation is theory-based.  "They do display characteristics of perception that could be central to scientific development…"  The reason for this seems to be that a gestalt experiment is an isolated event in which the subject knows his perception has shifted, and can be controlled and checked by the subject.  The scientist, however, cannot have recourse to anything beyond what his eyes and instruments tell him because there is no higher reference point to refer to. Kuhn goes on to give some astronomical examples of paradigm shifts: William Herschel’s discovery of Uranus, which had previously been believed to be a star, and that Western astronomers first saw astronomical change fifty years after Copernicus’ new system.   The Chinese, Kuhn clarifies, had observed sun spots centuries before Galileo.  What was before a star was now a planet: scientists now operated in a new world, Kuhn concludes.

At this juncture we can find common agreement and disagreement with Kuhn.  It is clearly the case that observation is theory dependent.  There are sympathies with Quine and meaning holism at this point:  How else can one relate the objects of experience without a system that interprets them and places them?  Quine’s model of a graph or web is helpful here, especially since transcendentalists agree that our worldview is more like a web of beliefs, with some situated at the center functioning as more foundational than others. These distal beliefs can be dispensed with or retained without damage or reconstruction of my worldview as a whole.  However, some beliefs, things that would be necessary for rationality at all, I would be far less likely to give up.  In fact, giving them up would lead to relativism and incoherence.  These are preconditions for rationality, or transcendentals.  Here we could list things like the belief in the basic principle of induction, causality, the existence of the self, and so forth.

But from Kuhn’s vantage point, he is forced into agreement with the skeptic if one seeks a justification for these things in the normative sense of epistemic justification, because there will not be an answer.  A transcendental belief is something that is, in a sense, outside the sphere of normal empirical justification or at times even a priori or logical justification due to the nature of the belief in question.  This historic dilemma is what has given rise to the realist and pragmatist approaches. When one is discussing the things that are the necessary conditions for justification at all, one cannot use the same type of criterion or mode of justification as “normal” epistemic justification.  An example here should be helpful.  In debates about God’s existence, it is often assumed by those a strict empirical bent that the fact that God has not been “seen” by such and such believer provides a formidable argument against His existence.  This, however, is what one religious philosopher has aptly called the “crackers in the pantry fallacy.”  Since, by definition, God is not like anything else in experience, it’s absurd to ask if He has been seen, since He cannot be seen.  We don’t determine the existence of God in the same way that we go to the pantry to see if it contains crackers, as Bahnsen used to say.  This is because God is an entirely different type of Being than other being.  We will not determine his existence in the same way we determine empirical things.  As such, the question already assumes the non-existence of God and presupposes pure empiricism; a principle itself which cannot be “seen.”

In the same way, Godel’s Theorum shows the same truth for theory-based decisions inside any system: The closed system itself cannot explain the starting point or presuppositions upon which the system is founded.  Any attempt to explain the system or set or paradigm with the system’s own criteria ends up being circular, and “circular reasoning” is not acceptable for those of the rationalist or empiricist bent.  The point of this article is not to debate God’s existence, but to show that what one considers a justified, rational belief will invariable depend upon one’s paradigm.  Operating within a presupposition of strict empiricism as one’s worldview (as the modern world still does), the dismissal of rational theory choice is inevitable, but upon further examination, is problematic and incoherent on its own grounds.  Thus, we can agree with Kuhn that our paradigms themselves will contain within themselves apparent justifications, but those will not suffice to compare other paradigms.

Eastern theologian Dr. Philip Sherrard offers an illuminating perspective on this question in relation to traditions and traditionalism and choosing between traditions, which readers will here recognize as the same issue as Kuhn’s concern for (and ultimate rejection of) rational theory choice.  In his essay The Tradition and Traditions, Dr. Sherrard says of traditional systems and the choice between them:

“To answer this question implies that one is already in possession of the knowledge according to which it can be answered: clearly to discern to what degree a particular tradition is universal already presupposes that one has the knowledge which makes it possible for one to do this, this knowledge necessarily being no less than the highest humanly possible. It is precisely here that what one might call a petitio principii is involved and that the shift in question takes place. For the degree of knowledge one possesses will be that represented in the tradition from which one has obtained it: otherwise one would not be in possession of it. To say then that this is the highest degree of knowledge, the fullest expression of the truth possible (which one must say if one is to carry out the act of discernment with which we are concerned), and consequently that the tradition through which one has obtained it is a universal tradition in the full meaning of the words, is simply to argue round in a circle. It is to use as one’s criteria of what constitutes the highest degree of knowledge, and hence of where this is fully represented, precisely those principles enshrined in the tradition from which one has obtained them in the first place.”

Thus, the question Sherrard asks is the same asked by Kuhn, yet applied to different fields.  Kuhn is concerned with scientific paradigms, and Sherrard with religious, philosophical and perennial paradigms.  Yet both are getting at the same issue, and this is a deep insight I myself have encountered and tried to interact with in my own life.  Many have wondered why I have taken the religious paths I have and why I asked the questions I have, and this explains it.  The philosophical and religious tradition from which I emerged is one in which it rational and normative to ask this question (or at least for me, it is).  The selection of traditions is thus a subtle, mysterious event that operates in many ways like the scientific revolutions Kuhn describes.  A whole new paradigm is adopted that sheds light on, and illuminates further, deeper truth with more complex answers, while showing the fundamental problems and errors in other systems.  At the heart of all this is still some functioning presupposition of “truth” and rationality or logos behind reality which is potentially accessible, and through which systems and traditions may be compared, appreciated and accepted or rejected.

As I have done in many instances, Dr. Sherrard takes up Vedic religion as a test case for rational theory choice as applied to traditionalism.  If we look at the foundational principles upon which Vedic religion stands, we can get a glimpse of both the unique nature of biblical and Eastern Theism, as well as understanding flaws in the Vedic worldview.  Sherrard explains:

“All this may appear to concern purely abstract notions. But its importance is more clearly seen when certain central ideas concerning the nature of reality as these are enshrined in the various traditions are confronted one with the other. To indicate the kind of problem involved it is sufficient here to confront certain central ideas of the Hindu tradition with those of Christianity, ideas concerned with the nature of the absolute and consequently with the nature of manifestation, or the created world, as Christian thought would express it. In effect, Hindu doctrine, as contained in the Vedanta, has its starting-point in the idea of the absolute, or the infinite, that is absolutely unqualified and totally free from any determination or particularisation. To affirm anything of the absolute is in some sense to limit and determine it, and so to make it less than the absolute; any distinction or qualification that is made is transcended by the absolute non determination of the ‘one truly non-dual’ (the ekam ena advaitam) of the Upanishads. Pushing to an extreme its discrimination between the permanent and the impermanent, the immutable and mutable, being and becoming, and with a via negativa, or apophatism, that ultimately refuses any idea of determination or differentiation in the Absolute because it regards it as necessarily implying limitations and imperfections, Hindu thought tends to become ‘fixed’ in the idea of the pure isolation (Kaivalya) of the non-communicable, non-participable absolute (nirgunabrahma).”


“This idea of the isolation and purity of the absolute has however another aspect, that of its omnipresence. It is only from an inferior and individual point of view that one can oppose the absolute to maya or to the contingent. In reality these distinctions do not exist and are rigorously transcended by the absolute. The reality of everything is the absolute; for if there were any reality less or other than the absolute, the absolute would not be all: there would be something external to it by which it would be, not infinite, but limited. Hence the reality of everything is the absolute: It is perfectly and exhaustively immanent in all things, for not only can there not be anything other than itself, but also it can have no content but itself, for it gives itself to itself entirely and infinitely in its infinite generosity. All the reality that manifestation possesses resides in its non-manifest principle and in so far as it is not different from its principle: all appearance of the effect as such, or of its difference from its principal cause, is illusory. The reality of manifestation is the same as that of its principle and there is no other reality. In this sense the doctrine is pantheistic: the all and the absolute are one. Though in the well-known Upanishad image it is said that there are two birds on the same tree, in reality there is only one bird, for the distinction of the one from the other is but an illusory matter.

All this being so, one is nevertheless still faced with the original question, the question of the jivatman who has not yet recognised that ‘the flux and the absolute are the same’ or-what is the same thing-his identity, essential and existential, with the infinite self, the Brahma: whence comes this illusion of particular being and this appearance of the world? What are their mutual relationships with the supreme self, with the absolute? What is their ultimate sense? Here Vedantic metaphysic, issuing from the sphere of non-being and non-duality, decomposes into two different notions which together constitute the horns of an irreducible dilemma: one is the notion of the illusory transformation of the absolute-all that is, is really the absolute, and only because of individual ignorance does it appear other than the absolute-preserves the total purity, simplicity, immutability, and permanence of the absolute, but leaves unaccounted for the fact, fictitious or real, of error.

The absolute cannot err; from what cause, then, cosmic or supra-cosmic, proceeds this ignorance according to which I err in thinking myself other than the absolute? If the idea of my separate identity is an illusion from which I must escape through spiritual realisation, why does it come to be at all? And if its coming to be is only an appearance and has no ultimate reality, so that in a sense it has never really come into being, why does this appearance come to be? Here it is no answer to say that I err because of what is fated and determined by past or mediate causes, whether I am responsible for them or not, for this still leaves unanswered why I bound myself, or was bound, to think I am a particular being in the first place, and why this causal chain of ignorance of which I am now a victim was set in motion at all. Who or what, that is to say, determined this original false choice of identity? Who or what determined originally that I should think of myself? And why was it so determined? If in order to answer these and similar questions the notion of the illusory transformation of the absolute is replaced by that of its real transformation, it is then possible to give some account of how and why the world, the self, and their identity and separateness, have arisen. But in this case the purity, non-particularisation and immutability of the absolute are sacrificed, and a whole host of fresh dilemmas are presented. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that according to the Vedanta there can be no understanding of the relationships between the absolute and manifestation that does not involve either an ‘acosmism’ reducing the world and particular beings to the unaccountable appearance of maya and the ignorance that goes with it, or the disruption of the absolute simplicity, immutability and transcendence of the divine essence.”

Sherrard has hit upon crucial insights here.  In any system of thought or belief, the most foundational belief will condition all the rest in some way.  The belief in or rejection of God or some deity will condition the view of the rest of reality.  Being, for example, is either created or not, and either option will have tremendous ramifications for how one approaches reality.  As has been examined many times in my articles, the view of the starting principle of Truth or God in the scheme of classical western Theism is one of absolute divine simplicity which has evident similarities with the Neo-platonic and Vedic philosophies.  In his essay Christian Theology and The Eclipse of Man, Sherrard relates the error of Neo-platonic divine simplicity as conditioning the philosophical discourse of the west resulting in the inability of the unity of a substance to allow for real, multiple substances within a single object.  He writes:

sher 1

sher 2

In other words, the ability to have a balance between the one and the many is a crucial point in any philosophical system.  Multiple “substances” or essences can subsist in a single object in a unitive way that maintains the continued existence of both, with no destruction or absorption of one into the other.  Thus, the doctrine of the divine energies that are really distinct from the divine essence and each other, are also uncreated and fully divine.  Divine unity does not absorb the divine multiplicity in any kind of imbalance.  Likewise, for the metaphysics of created reality, there is a unity in multiplicity in any object, and the unity of the object does not destroy the multiplicity of its parts or aspects and more than the multiplicity destroys the unity.  And as with Sherrard’s analysis of Vedic religion where all is absorbed into the absolute, so with modern secular materialism, all is absorbed into the mass of material unity.  Without the reality of unity and multiplicity in balance, monism of some form is always going to be the result.  The basis of this balance between the one and the many is the theological balance of one and many, and any system which negates this ultimate balance, or like Platonism makes change, multiplicity and difference the source of the fall or evil, is reduced to the incoherent, contradictory problems of monism.  Sherrard is perceptive to choose this absolutist monism as a key element that unites the perennial tradition(s).

So, the theory choice Sherrard engages in is similar to the process Kuhn points out, yet has unique features insofar as the subject matter of religious traditions is much more involved in than many scientific paradigms.  Religious traditions tell us much more about the world and include a larger scope than scientific theories are supposed to, yet often “scientific theories” are simply masks for rival mythologies, despite the guise of secular, humanistic, technological progress they don.  For Sherrard and the religious enquirer, the principles at work are more fundamental and large-scale.  We are asking about the Absolute – God, and the rest of reality.  Although “science” may not directly ask that question or pretends to not care or oppose the notion, it implicitly makes sweeping metaphysical declarations on the subject by its very theoretical process.   In the process of rational religious theory choice, we are still bound to the system that is logical – logos-ical.  It’s truth is certainly supra-rational, but there is nothing contradictory about supra-rational matters.  Too often in the degenerate state of western religion as a whole, matters of “faith” are considered fideistic, while “matters of fact” are treated as self-evident maxims.  If God is Truth, and truth is Logos, then even the divine mysteries are supremely logical and rational, regardless of whether we as finite humans grasp them.

13 Comments on Rational Theory Choice and Religious Traditionalism

  1. “If the idea of my separate identity is an illusion from which I must escape through spiritual realisation, why does it come to be at all? And if its coming to be is only an appearance and has no ultimate reality, so that in a sense it has never really come into being, why does this appearance come to be? Here it is no answer to say that I err because of what is fated and determined by past or mediate causes, whether I am responsible for them or not, for this still leaves unanswered why I bound myself, or was bound, to think I am a particular being in the first place, and why this causal chain of ignorance of which I am now a victim was set in motion at all. Who or what, that is to say, determined this original false choice of identity? Who or what determined originally that I should think of myself? And why was it so determined?”

    The question of all questions, for the few who actually think this far.
    The answer is “That” which is beyond body and mind: the True SELF.
    ( Nondualism. It cannot be understood in words. It must be experienced.)

    “Thousands can understand a drop of water merging into the ocean, but only one in a thousand can understand the entire ocean merging into a single drop.” ~ Kabir

  2. Contemporary scientism really does come down to pragmatism, even when adherents claim to be unearthing absolute truth. The logical positivists have been trounced, resulting in supermodernism, an unholy and unsurprising marriage of modern science and postmodernism. You even got so-called scientific realist Richard Boyd using what amounts to “Shut the fuck up, we have airplanes” as an argument. “If it works, it’s true”: a society ruled by magicians couldn’t have cooked up a more apt maxim.

    Sherrard’s sympathy with perennialism was once a concern for me. However, he demonstrated that he’s on the right side with the devastating critique of the “Vedic-Neoplatonic” system you have cited. Now, I did read somewhere that in one of his books, Frithjof Schuon addresses the kinds of criticisms Sherrard raises. I’ve yet to get my hands on it, but considering that Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, probably the foremost Schuon scholar today, “dismantled” the problem of evil by making God’s infinity contain within itself *its own negation*… well, to put it bluntly, I wonder how Schuon can avoid satanism. And that’s the ultimate question for any worldview.

    • I read on another blog that the Schuon piece which supposedly refutes Sherrard is called “Transcendence is Not Contrary to Sense.” I have not read it, but I will soon. I hope Jay does a follow-up article that adresses the Schuon response. Should be good, as always…

      • wessexman // May 22, 2014 at 2:55 am //

        Why would it make you shudder?

        Anyway, as far as I can see, Sherrard simply misunderstand the Platonic (and perhaps the Vedic) idea of unity. This is common amongst Christians. This unity does not destroy particularities but unifies them in much the same way that Sherrard thinks Christianity unifies multiplicities. This might be demonstrated by number. Pure number contains within it all the distinct numbers (1,2,3, etc,), it unifies these. Number must include these particular numbers and yet it transcends them, utterly unifying them. This is the kind of unity that the Platonist believes in, not one which destroys particularities but one which completes them by unifying them.

      • I’ll meet your condescension–“This is common among Christians”–as it deserves.

        “This is the kind of unity that the Platonist believes in, not one which destroys particularities but one which completes them by unifying them.”

        You Platonists always say this, and I can never shake the feeling that you’re either outright lying or lying to yourselves. You claim that Christians commonly misunderstand the Platonic idea of unity. I can (and do) make the claim that Platonists always misunderstand the Christian idea of particularity.

        The Christian particularity is the person, the hypostasis, the “who.” There is no universal of personhood. None. There are only unique persons, unique “whos.” Even my talking about personhood in the abstract is merely a useful fiction for use in metaphysical discourse: person (as concrete particular) is real, personhood (as abstract universal) is not real. Now, persons are unified by their essence. Thus, what makes, say, two human persons unified is their each possessing the same human essence. It is not “in their nature/essence” to be persons. Personhood does not belong to essence.

        Let that sink in. In fact, it bears repeating: Personhood does not belong to essence. (It’s more likely that essence belongs to personhood, but that’s a deep and somewhat tangential topic.) The Platonic idea of unity is that everything real can be unified, including personhood. Orthodox Christians understand this perfectly, and we rail against it as the satanism it is.

        When Orthodox Christians and Platonists understand each other, they stand at the indissoluble impasse between Heaven and Hell. Why would Platonism a la Schuon make me shudder? I’ll lay down some testimony for you: I’ve encountered the demons. No, not the demons as Neoplatonists/Vedics/et al understand them. The real McCoy, in sleep paralysis attacks and other phenomena. I’ve experienced first-hand what true applied Platonism is.

        It is absorption. Your Sun is a Black Sun, an Unholy Asshole.

      • Please ignore the iffy italics formatting in the comment immediately above.

  3. In Heaven, the Christian community is surrounded by a wall. Outside the wall, someone asks, “what’s behind the wall?” “Shhh,” is the reply. “Don’t speak too loudly. Behind the wall are the Christians. They think they are the only ones in Heaven.”

  4. Sherrard doesn’t fully grasp the metaphysical point of view. What blocks him is a certain sublimism and a certain “Christian nationalism.”

    I’ve uploaded a pdf I made of Schuon’s article “Transcendence is Not Contrary to Sense,” from his book “From the Divine to the Human.”

  5. Redoves–filthy swine. He has no business writing on topics regarding the sacred. This is what happens when profound doctrines are at the disposal of the “dogs” and the “swine.”

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