Bill Nye the Philosophy Guy? A Call For Metaphilosophy

If you’re into philosophy or philosophy-esque topics, you may have seen Bill Nye’s recent videos on “Big Think”. Dan DeWitt’s recent blog post alerted me to a video (posted about a month ago) in which Nye seeks to answer the question “Does science have all the answers or should we do philosophy?” In the short video, Nye’s answer betrays a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and the types of questions philosophy seeks to answer. His examples and illustrations are but caricatures of philosophy as a discipline and actually hurt, rather than aid, his argument.  Olivia Goldhilll critiques Nye’s response over at Quartz in her post titled “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” Goldhill provides a succinct response to every claim Nye makes in order to demonstrate that today’s intellectual superstars betray an inexplicable misconception of the very discipline that gave birth to modern science.

While it is understandable that the general public has misunderstandings of philosophy, it’s another matter when some of the public intellectuals of our time display the same misconceptions. Nye’s view of philosophy reflects that of other scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking and of the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. For these thinkers, only science provides the means by which we discover and know truth. That is, not only does science help us understand how the world works, it also informs us on ethical issues like abortion and explains why we exhibit empathy and love towards others (see Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape). In short, science is built upon fact, while philosophy focuses upon mere speculative questions that cannot be empirically verified. Science alone can discover truth.

How did we get here? Though philosophy and science were inseparable for many centuries, modern science has (to borrow a phrase from Sam Harris) “flown the perch” built by philosophy. The reasons for philosophy’s precipitous fall from “the mother of all disciplines” are varied and too many to summarize here; let it suffice that as modern science progressed and out knowledge of the world expanded, philosophy (and theology) began to be viewed as unnecessary, as relics of a time gone by, or as incapable of discovering truth. Instead, confidence in the scientific method and its track record led many to jettison philosophy in favor of science as the bar of truth.

Philosophy is not an innocent victim in this seismic paradigm shift. Some of philosophy’s heavy hitters have fed the growing ambivalence toward their own discipline. Nietzsche declared philosophy as faulty to its core; philosophers’ assertions are just “assumptions” and “virtuous noise.”[1] William James, the great pragmatist, favorably quotes the old proverb “Philosophy bakes no break” in Lecture I of Pragmatism. Bertrand Russell asserted that philosophy does not bring about definite knowledge; instead, the “residue of science” is left to philosophy.[2] Karl Popper relegated professional philosophy to “idealistic naval gazing.”[3] Finally, Richard Rorty claimed that we are no longer in an age where philosophy is a constructive discipline aimed at determining truth.[4] Though not all philosophers have had a skeptical or negative view toward philosophy, what is illustrated in this paragraph is the shift away from the classical view of philosophy that was prevalent for centuries.

Phil DefSo, is philosophy useless? Has its usefulness and value been exhausted, only to be studied as a relic of intellectual history? Well, ironically, these questions are actually philosophical in nature. So, to declare philosophy as “valueless” is to make a philosophical claim, which in turn requires—if one is to support their assertion—an investigation into the nature of philosophy (in order to declare it valueless). This investigation is itself…as you’ve probably guessed already…a philosophical endeavor.  Those like Nye cannot escape that which they have declared dead. As such, merely asserting that philosophy is no longer useful does not make it so. It is intellectual laziness to make such a careless claim without recourse to an investigation in, reflection upon, and support of this all-too-common view.

The question of whether philosophy is still valuable is a question asked by not only scientists, but by higher education institutions, politicians,[5] religious institutions, and other disciplines as well. Further, the question of philosophy’s value is one that has been visited quite often throughout the centuries. And despite the questioning, philosophy has remained engrained in the fabric of life.

The act of questioning something’s work seems on the face of it a way of putting it down or silencing it. On the contrary, though, questioning philosophy’s utility is actually a one worth asking. My studies have led me to believe that most people will acknowledge that philosophy has some value today. The issue tends to be not if it has value, but how it has value. That is, how does philosophy apply to today’s day and age? One is then led to ask: What questions does philosophy answer, and what issues does it investigate? In answering these questions, one can then answer the why question: why do we study philosophy?[6] In short, philosophy has focused upon—and continues to do so—the very nature of its enterprise. To do so is to participate in the philosophy of philosophy (known as metaphilosophy).

What we need, then, is not a haphazard dismissal of philosophy, but an investigation into the nature of philosophy. Such investigations have been done in the past by various thinkers, but today most people operate from an assumed understanding of philosophy as opposed to a well-formed and well-informed view of what philosophy is and its value to life (and all it entails) today.[7] If we are to accept the claim that philosophy is dead, then we can only do so after the philosophical investigation into that question, thereby breathing life back into a supposedly lifeless discipline.

I have already gone too long in this post, but allow me to wrap it up by extending a call to Christians to investigate the question of philosophy’s value. Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne, Eleonore Stump, Paul Moser, Paul Copan, and so many more have revived philosophy, particularly in Christian circles. While Analytic philosophers had once discarded philosophy of religion and metaphysical questions as unnecessary, these thinkers (among others) have demonstrated that not only are religious and metaphysical beliefs an integral and necessary aspect of life and study, they have established that philosophy can be a vibrant area of study and a valuable partner in the quest to understand the world in which we live.

One Christian who has done much in the area of Christian metaphilosophy is Paul K. Moser. Check out the online symposium that began with his article titled “Christ-Shaped Philosophy: Wisdom and Spirit United”; the symposium is housed at the website for the Evangelical Philosophical Society. The online symposium was begun in 2012 and flourished for about two years, but little has been done since. Further, little seemed was accomplished apart from academic wall-building between those of differing views regarding Moser’s claim. Moser’s work began a conversation that–in my opinion—should be continued if we as Christians are to develop a well-grounded understanding of the nature of philosophy and its value for the believer. Finally, Christian thinkers can also carry the torch into the broader intellectual arena, redeeming a discipline that was once known as “the handmaiden to theology.”


 

[1] This section is adapted from the first chapter of my dissertation, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy: An Analysis of E. Y. Mullins, John Newport, Richard Cunningham, and L. Russ Bush (2014). The quote is from Nietzshe, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers” I.5.

[2] Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, 155; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 31.

[3] Popper, “How I See Philosophy,” in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy, 42; quoted in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Metaphilosophy, 34.

[4] Baldwin, Contemporary Philosophy, 272; referenced in McDonald, Toward a Baptist View of Philosophy, 36.

[5] One only has to recall Marco Rubio’s “We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers” quote in the early stages of his presidential campaign.

[6] A very helpful book that discusses these questions is the 2013 book titled An Introduction to Metaphilosophy by Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood. This book served as the impetus behind my dissertation and continuing studies.

[7] This view is affirmed in Overgaard, Gilbert, and Burwood, An Introduction to Metaphilosophy, 8.

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Value of Fiction in Teaching and Some Tips

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In the final installment of a three-part series, Dan DeWitt – author of The Owlings: A Worldview Novella and The Owlings Book II – shares his thoughts on the value of fiction in teaching, as well as some tips for those who aspire to writing purposeful fiction.

How can fiction be used to serve propositional books?

Let’s say I were to say to my wife propositionally how I care for her as opposed to writing a poem. The poem can awaken emotions, it touches on the imagination, it’s going to be more meaningful, although substantively it’s not going to say anything differently. This is how I see the difference between fictional writings and propositional writings. Propositional truth is really important, which is why I wrote a discussion guide for The Owlings. But writings like poetry awaken the imagination.

What I think Lewis did in Narnia was…in Michael Ward’s Narnia Code, Ward proposes a theory that Lewis hid a Medieval cosmology into the Narnia stories. Each book dealt with a specific planet within the Medieval perspective. I think he built a compelling case, but I think if he is right, then Lewis did this in a very powerful way. You read the story and say, “What he’s saying is really about our world.” He’s talking about Narnia. Aslan tells Lucy, “You will come to know me in your world by a different name.” But there’s a sense in which you have that epiphany where you go, “Wow! This is true about reality. This isn’t just true in the story, but this is something true in our world.”

In what way can Christians improve upon this genre?

As a very young author in this genre, I don’t want to speak on this with hubris. I don’t think I’m necessarily changing a negative trend. I would say that I go to the Christian fiction section and all I tend to see is Amish romance. Nothing necessarily against this genre, but I do think N. D. Wilson and Andrew Peterson are great examples of ways that you kind of write fiction in a really powerful way.

I will tie this back to a question that I was asked last week in my C. S. Lewis class. Someone asked if there was going to be another C. S. Lewis, or is there another C. S. Lewis? If there is, they are not teaching at a Christian school. The power of Lewis was that he was a professor of philosophy early in his career, and later in Medieval/Renaissance literature. He brought all that to bear on his stories. If the problem in Christian fiction is going to be corrected, it’s going to be done by someone who is well-versed in literature. It’s not going to be someone who is a Bible college professor like me, but someone who is outside of Christian circles professionally. C. S. Lewis said, “Do we need more books about Christianity? We need books about other topics written by Christians.” So a Christian is bringing their worldview to bear on a particular topic. [Today, though,] I agree that the Christian fiction section feels like the Hallmark section instead of something like the literature section in a used bookstore that contains books by Austin and other greats.

Based upon your experience and what you are doing, if there are those out there who want to write fiction, what are some tips that you wish you knew before hand or those that you have used that are helpful?

C. S. Lewis wrote a letter to a child about how to write for children – that would be a good place to start. [See also “On Three Ways of Writing for Children“]The think I wish that I had done more of and that I want to do more of now is to read more award-winning children’s literature. I think that would improve my writing. When writing the first and second books of The Owlings I picked up best-sellers in the age-frame that I’m writing for, and I would read either the entire book or just sections of it to see what the author is doing. I would say read a lot of children’s literature. Or, if you’re wanting to write fiction in another genre, then read more in that area. So, read a lot in your area and read books about writing. Doug Wilson’s book Wordsmithy is an appetizer.

Another thing I would mention is that there are two different approaches. One, you could wait until you perfect the genre, perfect your craft, perfect your storytelling, before you publish. I think if you did that you would probably die before you published. So, the other route is the route I’ve taken is to just write. The downside is that you might get some harsh criticism, but I would rather try it and fail rather than not try it. So, I’ll tell people to read books in the genre, books on writing, and then try it whether it’s on a blog, you’re self-publishing, or other routes. I’m self-publishing; I work with a literary agent and he told me that the children’s market is almost impossible to get into and that he didn’t want to represent me. I thought that I could sit around for the next ten years waiting for someone to give me a contract, or I can just do it. I’ve never pitched my idea to a publisher. If in time someone’s interested, then great. If not, it’s okay.

What I find valuable in what DeWitt shares is that the writing of fiction is a good thing for Christians to pursue. As I stated in the previous post, Scripture is full of examples where story is used to teach. Christians can, and should, strive to produce quality, purposeful fiction. There’s something to stories that grab the audience’s heart, making the path to their mind an easier road to travel. If we aim to proclaim the Gospel and to teach truth – then the use of story is a most excellent vehicle.

_____________

If you missed the first part of the interview, you can follow these links:

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Role of Fiction in Teaching

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In yesterday’s post, DeWitt shared with us what writers influenced his work on The Owlings. In today’s post – the second installment of a three-part series – DeWitt discusses the role of fiction in teaching.

What role does fiction play as a vehicle for teaching in your novellas?

I’m very new to writing fiction, so I make no claims to being an expert. I’m an amateur. What Andrew Peterson is doing [today] is way up on the list – I think he’s great. What I’m doing is even different from what Andrew Peterson has done – it’s not nearly as good. It’s different in that I’m trying to be a bit more explicit, and so…I think G. K. Chesterton did this a bit.

If you were to have a scale with Tolkien on the far end with rich symbolism and not nearly as explicit; C. S. Lewis might be somewhere in the middle; and Chesterton would write a novel and it would be very explicit with the worldview principles he was trying to teach. I have very specific things I want to teach on, and fiction allows me to tell a story that I think someone can be interested in and want to know what happens – something my kids would be interested in. But, then I turn to teach a very specific principle.

Regarding the power of story, I’ll give a quick example. Several years after James Sire’s book The Universe Next Door, Sire wrote Naming the Elephant in which he critiques The Universe Next Door. And one of the elements is that he talks about the power of story to communicate worldview. Now, the newer editions of The Universe Next Door have an updated definition of “worldview.” I think Sire has come to realize the power of story. Through reading Sire, it’s helped me to realize that if we only teach propositionally, we’re going to miss this postmodern generation.

So, my goal in The Owlings – to go back to Sire – is to teach his seven questions he lists at the end of each chapter. (I say that there is an eighth question, because he always asks whether the worldview in question lines up with how one lives.) I want to find a way to deal with these eight questions and find a way to teach them to kids through story. The first book dealt with metaphysics – nature is not all there is. The second book deals with epistemology – specifically scientism: “Is science the only way to know things?” And so, the next book is going to deal with the question, “What does it mean to be human?” You see that I’m following Sire’s questions, but in total I am writing five stories dealing with these questions.

The theme that sticks out in this post is that fiction can be purposeful. That is, fiction is not necessarily a genre for mere entertainment. Narrative can be a powerful vehicle through which important truths are communicated. The encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David (2 Samuel 12: 1-15) comes to mind here. After David’s affair with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, the prophet Nathan approached the king to confront David with his grave sin. Rather than accusing David of his sin, Nathan begins with a parable – a fictitious story that aims to instruct. Nathan was able to drive home his point in a powerful way. Nathan’s parable engaged David’s mind, emotions, and imagination such that when Nathan connected the story to David’s sin, David confesses (2 Sam. 12:13) “I have sinned against the Lord.” This is not to take away the conviction of the Holy Spirit in David’s heart; indeed, the work of the Spirit is necessary and vital!

Rather, what 2 Samuel 12:1-15 illustrates is that truth can be communicated through different means, and some times story can be more effective and powerful than just communicating propositionally. In the final installment of our three-part series, Dan DeWitt discusses the value of fiction in teaching, as well as some tips for Christians who aspire to write fiction purposefully.

_____________

If you missed the first part of the interview, you can follow these links:

An Interview with Dan DeWitt: The Influence of the Inklings

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In the first installment of a three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with me what writers have influenced his work on The Owlings – both in his style and in his approach.

What drew you to the Inklings as an influence on your work with The Owlings?

During the early stages of my doctoral studies I signed up for a community reading group on The Screwtape Letters. I read The Screwtape Letters (rather, I re-read it as I had read it in my younger days) and thought about it, and showed up at the study, but nobody else was there. It was just me. I had the Signature Series of C. S. Lewis, so I read some of his other works. I realized while sitting there that I didn’t really know C. S. Lewis. I had loved the idea of C. S. Lewis, and I loved that everybody around me loved C. S. Lewis – it’s like you saying that you love John Calvin but may have never read his writings.

So, I began reading as much of C. S. Lewis as I had time in my doctoral studies. It was my leisurely escape. And so, I was exposed to his powerful ability to teach you without feeling like you’re necessarily being taught. That’s what first drew me to C. S. Lewis. And then I learned about G. K. Chesterton’s influence on him, and so I began reading Chesterton. I read a little bit of George MacDonald because of MacDonald’s influence on Lewis. Then I was introduced to Dorothy Sayers, and through that Tolkien. I was familiar with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t know about his children’s stories that he wrote for his children – his Father Christmas Letters that he wrote every year for his kids. And so I stepped into this world.

What I hope I did, and what I encourage my students to do, is – say you hear a great sermon. Don’t just listen to the content of the sermon, but to think about the method – to learn from the methodology of the preacher. What is he doing besides his content? I learned from the Inklings’ content, but I slowly adopted their methodology, although far from where they were with it. That, though, is what drew me to the Inklings.

I have small children, and I thought, “How do I expose them to the authors that I love?” And not just these authors, but also a way of looking at the world that I think is rich in truth and also in imagination. So, I got the idea to write a children’s story, specifically after I watched a video with Richard Dawkins where he talked about writing a children’s story himself – The Magic of Reality – a book for pre-teens and early teens. In this book he calls people who teach their children about the Bible “those stupid people.” This kind of made me mad. So I thought, “What if I wrote a children’s book? How do I present these dead British authors to my children?” So, that’s where an idea of an owl as the symbol of wisdom, and then I thought, “What if I have talking owls?” And that’s how the Inklings became The Owlings.

In my review of The Owlings: A Worldview Novella, I noted the evident influence of C. S. Lewis on DeWitt’s writing:

As I stated in my previous post, The Owlings is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, particularly his Chronicles of Narnia, in that throughout the book, Josiah encounters talking owls. Where this book departs from Lewis’ Narnia series is that it lacks the adventure and action of battles, travel between worlds, and mysterious lands and castles. But such aspects would not fit with the dilemma in which Josiah finds himself. Rather than facing evil cronies of the White Witch, our young friend encounters reality of a harsh world (losing his home to eminent domain) and of competing worldviews. It is the seemingly mundane, every-day life issues where one finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

What DeWitt finds in the classic works of Lewis is the use of imagination and creativity to convey significant truths that impact everyone’s life. In the second installment of this three-part series, Dan DeWitt shares with us the role fiction plays in teaching. In the meantime, visit Dan’s website at Theolatte.com, and order The Owlings Book II!

An Interview With Dan DeWitt – Author of “The Owlings”

Front Cover - The Owlings Book II

Front Cover – The Owlings Book II

In early 2015, I reviewed Dan DeWitt’s novella titled The Owlings. DeWitt’s novella is a foray into children’s fiction, but with a special twist. Here is what I said a year ago:

DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public. If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

DeWitt has followed up his first novella with Book Two of The Owlings series. The story picks up with Matt and his sister Megan, leading to their eventual encounter with the beloved owls from Book 1.

To mark the recent release of The Owlings: Book 2, I had the opportunity to interview the author, Dan DeWitt back in December. The focus of our interview was threefold: 1) the writers that influenced his work on The Owlings, 2) the role of fiction in teaching, and 3) the value of fiction in teaching. The interview ends with some advice from DeWitt for aspiring writers.

In addition to marking the release of Book 2, my interview with DeWitt also serves to add to my work into the value of fiction (in particular) and literature (in general) in teaching. To gain some background on what I’ve written so far, you can check out the following posts. This can give you some context into why I asked the questions I did.

So, stay tuned! In the meantime, take the time to visit Dan DeWitt’s website – you’ll get a glimpse of his God-given creativity!

Using Science Fiction to Convey Theology: Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” as a Test Case

The post below is a revised version of a post from a now defunct blog I once had. In this post I discuss Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and briefly explore how science fiction can be used as a vehicle to explore philosophical and theological ideas. This post coincides with my recent post regarding the value of historical fiction. More and more I am convinced on fiction’s value as a vehicle for philosophical and theological exploration and teaching.

What I’m purporting here is nothing new; rather, I’m discovering something that has been utilized with great skill by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Twain, Lewis, and Tolkien, and more recently Umberto Eco. Other authors of less renown include Kenneth L. Roberts and Leon Uris. The genre of fiction is immensely popular in Christian literature, but (at least in my opinion) has little value in teaching and exploring; rather, Christian fiction seems to go little beyond mere storytelling. Storytelling is not bad in itself, but it seems that Christian authors have a phenomenal opportunity to use fiction to its fullest extent in teaching Christian truth in way that captures not only one’s mind, but one’s imagination and heart. We have a rich heritage from which to draw in the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, but it is one that is seems to wield little influence in contemporary authors (for the most part).

Despite the flood of fiction-for-fiction’s-sake book flooding Christian bookstores, there are Christian authors who seek to use fiction to build up the Christian worldview. One such author, who is fairly new on the scene, is Dan DeWitt (see recent post on The Owlings: A Worldview Novella here and here. See also his site for other books he’s published.) DeWitt has a new book coming out soon that is in the same vein as The Owlings. Another author is singer-song writer Andrew Petersons The Wingfeather Saga. I am sure there are more out there, but to this point, this is what I know. As I continue my discovery, I hope to find more!

And now, without delaying the inevitable, here is my discussion of Calculating God and the use of sci-fi to convey philosophical and theological ideas.

In 2009 I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God and found it to be an interesting work of sci-fi.  To be honest, my impression of sci-fi at that time was not that high.  I’ve tended to see the genre of sci-fi as nothing short of a playground for the imagination.  However, Sawyer’s book has dismantled my ill-informed view.  Science-fiction, at least those that are written well, can serve as a vehicle in integrating current scientific thought into the everyday world.  In other words, sci-fi can serve as a vehicle to play out the implications of certain scientific theories and experiments, utilizing the possible-world line of thinking as employed by philosophers.  More so, some sci-fi can even attempt to deal with the centuries-old problem of science and religion – what is their relationship, if any?  Sawyer’s Calculating God is not necessarily a book about extraterrestrials and their attempt to over take earth, thus resulting in a galactic world war; rather, Sawyer’s book is an attempt to meld together evolution and naturalism with Intelligent Design with the purpose of coming to grips on the existence and nature of God.

The Story

Without going into too much detail, I’ll need to go into the setting of the book in order for what I’m about to say to make sense.  Tom Jericho, a paleontologist (and, important to the story, an atheist) at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, is visited by an alien (Hollus) who is in the process of studying the evolution of the universe.  Hollus, along with several other aliens, visits Earth with no intention to overtake it; rather, they are on a voyage to several different universes to gather data for their research.  The book, then, is largely Tom’s interactions and conversations with Hollus (and at times another alien, T’kna) in which they collaborate with each other on their own findings and attempt to understand the nature of this world and its relationship to “God”, if there’s one at all (at least according to Jericho).  Of course, there must be action, so sprinkled throughout the storyline is a side plot of two religious fanatics (young-Earth creationists who hold to Scripture and the “traditional” God) who seek to destroy the fossils located in the ROM because of the “lies” they teach.  These characters quickly fade out of the picture, but play an important role in supporting Jericho’s (and ultimately the author’s?) view that anyone holding to the belief in the biblical God and the biblical teaching of creation (specifically of the young earth) is basically barbaric, an un-evolved person.

The Problem of Evil

A significant subplot of the story is Tom’s cancer.  The alien’s visit coincides with Tom’s final stages of lung cancer.  As Tom struggles with Hollus’ argument for “God”, Tom is unable to see why an Intelligent Designer would allow for the “mistake” of cancer, and ultimately, suffering.

Not a Bad Start!

In its teaching regarding the nature of God and this world, the novel starts off rather tame from a Christian perspective.  In the initial stages of Hollus’ visit with Jericho, the alien breaks the news to Jericho that there indeed exists an Intelligent Designer – God.  Hollus explains that the universe itself gives evidence of this Intelligent Designer and uses the same illustrations as current ID proponents to support their thesis (i.e. how the world consists of the right combinations of certain elements, the distances between planets and their sun are set at the precise measurement to avoid destruction, etc.).  Hollus finds it surprising that Jericho and fellow scientists on Earth do not believe in God as, according to Hollus, the evidence clearly points to an Intelligent Designer.  We see throughout the book Jericho’s struggle with this argument and his eventual acceptance of an Intelligent Designer.  Upon further reading, however, Sawyer’s concept of an Intelligent Designer begins to diverge significantly from the Christian concept of an Intelligent Designer (as such, when referring to God as defined by Sawyer, I’ll place the word “God” in quotes, along with any pronouns referring to Him in order to distinguish between the biblical God).

Sawyer’s Assumptions

A major assumption of Sawyer and his characters is the truth of Darwinian evolution and naturalism.  The universe is closed with no being existing outside of the material universe (as opposed to the traditional Christian view that God, as creator, is outside the universe though able to intervene in His creation at His pleasure).  As such, the material world is all that exists and has existed over time.  Further, implied in the novel, I believe, is an empirical view of epistemology – one comes to know something only through observation.  As such, there is no special revelation, no a priori knowledge, etc.  The aliens’ knowledge of “God”, then, came about only through their study of the universe.

A “Scientific” God

Because of Sawyer’s empiricism, naturalism, and Darwinism, his view of an Intelligent Designer takes on a non-theistic understanding of God.  For instance, in one of Hollus’ conversations with Jericho, the alien states, “I suspect God exists in the universe because of science” (92).  The alien further explains:

“As I said earlier, our universe is closed – it will eventually collapse back down in a big crunch.  A similar event happened after billions of years in the universe that preceded this one – and with billions of years, who knows what phenomenal things science might make possible?  Why, it might even make it possible for an intelligence, or data patterns representing it, to survive a big crunch, and exist again in the next cycle of creation.  Such an entity might even have science sufficient to allow it to influence the parameters for the next cycle, creating a designer universe into which that entity itself will be reborn already armed with billions of years worth of knowledge and wisdom” (93, emphasis mine).

In other words, with the creation of a new universe (after the previous universe collapses in a “big crunch”), a new “God” is reborn and “God” gains scientific knowledge based on what was learned (?) from the previous creation(s) and as evolution progresses.  Further, according to Hollus:

“I believe that the being which is now the God of this universe was a noncorporeal intelligence that arose through chance fluctuations in a previous  universe devoid of biology” (93).

As such, “God” is not omnipotent or omniscient, for these are just “adjectives” assigned to “God” by humans (170).  Instead, “He” just seems to be a higher evolved being than humans (and whatever else exists out there).

A question I have based upon this reading is: what has priority, science or “God”?  If I’ve read Sawyer’s work correctly, it seems that science has priority, setting the parameters from which “He” is to work.  Nonetheless, one sees the preeminence of science in understanding the world and God according to Sawyer’s view.

Implications

With a “God” limited by the world (being contained in a closed universe) and possibly even being created “Himself”, how, then, does “He” relate to creation, and specifically, to mankind?

Real = Imperfect

According to another alien (of a different species) named T’kna, because “God” is real, “He” is imperfect, as only “an abstraction can be free of flaws.”   In fact, the idea of a perfect God is a “fallacy.”

Referring back to Tom’s cancer, because “God” is real (and thus imperfect), it ‘follows’ that suffering exists since an imperfect “God” cannot prevent it.

Metaphysics

Borrowing from quantum physics, only that which is observed is real.  Whatever “God” chooses to observe (having chosen from any number of possibilities) is what is real.

An Impersonal Being

“God” does indeed have a purpose for creating the universe (a purpose not mentioned, at least explicitly); however, “God” takes no interest in individuals and their lives.  As such, one is “delusional” in thinking that God listens to his prayers.

This idea is illustrated towards the end of the novel when Tom was able to travel with the aliens to the site of  a dead star (a star that had gone supernova that “God” shielded the aliens’ universe and Earth from) in order to meet “God.”  Upon arrival, Tom expects to receive no acknowledgment from “God” (though he does have some slight hope for a small acknowledgment at the least), and his expectations come to be true.  “God” is portrayed as some deep-black, spherical being with six appendages that shows no inclination of acknowledging the presence of the aliens and guests other than giving “life” to the concoction of DNA made by one of the alien groups.

Morals/Ethics

With “God” having no part in an individual’s life, the role of morals and ethics takes an expected turn – they are merely man-made.  Specifically, morals are just a means to an end.  For instance, Hollus’ species determined their morals in order to instill peace in their society (which had been war-wracked for so long and almost faced complete destruction of their race).

Death

Staying true to the naturalistic view, there is no life after death.  Any belief of life after death is based upon a fear of death

Science, then, can lead one to belief in the existence of God, but this “God” is nothing like the God revealed in Scripture.  In fact, Scripture is never referenced as support for “God”.

Scripture, etc.

Though not explicitly stated (if I recall correctly), Scripture is nothing but a book developed by ignorant (not as highly evolved) mankind.  Scripture, according to this book, does not reveal a true or real God.

If you recall the side plot with the two religious nuts, those who believe in Scripture as literal truth (the world is created, God is revealed to us in the Word, etc.) are presented as fanatics, those who seek to impede the progress of mankind.  In fact, when Tom finds out the purpose of the religious fanatics and their plot, he mutters, “Creationists!”  Quite humorous, but a sad fallacy of generalizing all who believe in creation to be backwards, ignorant people.

Sawyer’s book by no means conveys a traditional view of God, but it does illustrate what I spoke about earlier in this post. Fiction is one area that Christians can redeem and use to its fullest extent. Fiction need not be for the sake of merely telling a story; rather, employed with telos, it can help shape and guide the worldviews of generations of Christians to come.

I hope to write more on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned!

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part II

image

Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

The Owlings’ main character, Josiah, is a young boy who lives in rural America. Nothing is given by way of information about Josiah when it comes to his age and location. What is said of Josiah gives the reader a glimpse into his interests, of his observations of his small world, and his family life. For instance, Josiah and Addi (his best friend) note their bus driver’s peculiarities in order to detect his mood and tendencies. Also, when Josiah and Addi arrive at her house after school (Chapter 3 “Bad News and a Scary Owl”), the children note the somber mood in the air, making the distance between their parents in the kitchen and the front door seem like “a country mile.” DeWitt’s development of Josiah allows the reader to step into his world and to connect with the issues he’s facing. Unbound by age or geographic location, anyone can relate to Josiah.

As I stated in my previous post, The Owlings is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis, particularly his Chronicles of Narnia, in that throughout the book, Josiah encounters talking owls. Where this book departs from Lewis’ Narnia series is that it lacks the adventure and action of battles, travel between worlds, and mysterious lands and castles. But such aspects would not fit with the dilemma in which Josiah finds himself. Rather than facing evil cronies of the White Witch, our young friend encounters reality of a harsh world (losing his home to eminent domain) and of competing worldviews. It is the seemingly mundane, every-day life issues where finds the greatest tension and the impetus behind Josiah’s transformation.

DeWitt’s novella opens up with Josiah sitting in his thinking spot. On this particular night, the young lad thinks back upon his day at school, particularly his science class. With his regular science teacher out on maternity leave, the substitute teacher (Sam) introduces the class to
naturalism – that nothing exists outside of nature. Though the students seem confused, Sam patiently and respectively answers students’ questions. Josiah Is not sure, though, whether what Sam claims is true; Josiah likes nature and had hoped there was something beyond what we perceive in this world.

Josiah’s world is soon rocked with the news that he and his mom would be required to move from their family farm to make way for a highway expansion. Once Josiah receives the bad news, The Owlings is dominated by his family’s concern about and planning for the move, as well as Josiah’s strange encounter with a bespectacled, caped owl. Sam and his naturalist message takes back stage to Josiah’s impending move until he is visited by three owls on one fateful night.

DeWitt’s juxtaposition of the two dominating themes in Josiah’s life mirrors contemporary culture. Josiah’s concern about Sam’s claim that “nature is all there is” takes the back seat to his family’s impending move and loss of their family farm. Josiah has to come to the realization that not only is he going to lose his home, but he will also have to move away from his best friend Addi, whom he has lived next to his entire life. In fact, as the book progresses, Josiah’s home situation and his curiosity about the owls dominates the story. It lulls the reader into placing greater emphasis on the housing problem as opposed to the worldview clash taking place in the classroom.

And so it goes in the Western culture (particularly American culture) – life’s ultimate questions are typically brushed aside as everyday struggles and decisions are given greater attention and prominence. Questions about the origin of the universe, the nature of mankind, ultimate reality – among others – tend to be relegated to the arena of “personal beliefs” or for those interested in such “academic” questions. Such questions have little (if any) relevance on the goings on and problems of the modern world and do little in solving problems such as that faced by Josiah and his mother.

A significant twist occurs in the story when Josiah is greeted by three owls one evening. They sought to help Josiah with his very serious issue. Josiah – as well as the reader – is taken aback when the owls seek to discuss what Mr. Sam is teaching in science class as opposed to Josiah’s impending move. According to the owls, one’s worldview – how they understand and view the nature of the world – is a far more important issue as it affects how one approaches all of life, including issues like losing one’s home.

Josiah is confused at first; he thought the owls would help him figure out a way to get his house back. Yet, as the owls discuss the importance of one’s worldview, Josiah comes around to understanding the issue at stake. The morning after his late-night conversation with the owls, Josiah and his mother are surprised with the news that their farm home would be saved because their land is home to a rare owl.

The Owlings does not end with Josiah accepting Jesus Christ as his savior. It does not end with him at least going to church to learn more about what the owls shared with him. But, this was DeWitt’s intention. The purpose of the novella is to get anyone – believer and un-believer – to acknowledge at the least that life’s ultimate questions are very important – more so than many are led to believe.

DeWitt intends his book to be a conversation-starter. Unlike the atheistic naturalist who holds that all answers are found through science, DeWitt’s books points one to the need of going to Scripture to know more about the answers to life’s ultimate questions. They are not found in a novella – or any other work of literature; rather, the answers to these vital questions are found in the Bible. As such, DeWitt’s book intentionally leaves the reader with more questions than answers so that they are spurred on to search out those answers from the Wise One Himself – God as revealed through His Word.

DeWitt’s use of literature to illustrate the importance of reflecting upon life’s ultimate questions and on worldview thinking helps make what many feel to be a dry academic topic more accessible. The message is more readily received through connecting with realistic characters than through dry or technical textbooks. The Owlings is an excellent for parents to share with their children as a means to introduce the all-important task of developing a thoughtful and, Lord willing, biblical worldview.

Review: “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” Part I

Dan DeWitt, "The Owlings: A Worldview Novella" (Theolatte Press, 2014)

Dan DeWitt, “The Owlings: A Worldview Novella” (Theolatte Press, 2014)

 

In a day and age where more pragmatic and results-oriented careers drive universities to offer degrees in the hard sciences, institutions of higher education offer fewer and fewer degrees in humanities and liberal arts. In particular, philosophy is a discipline that has seen its better days when it comes to its perception and reception by not only academicians, but by the public as well. Over the last half-century, philosophy has been relegated more and more to a peripheral area of study – one that serves to merely fulfill an elective or to satisfy the philosophical itch some may have. As a result, our society is increasingly populated by those who lack any basic knowledge of philosophy (or, at the least, have a very minimal working knowledge) and how it under-girds various aspects of human life, including disciplines of study, public policy, economic policy, among other areas.

However, the blame for contemporary attitudes toward philosophy ought not to be placed only on universities – the reasons for the malaise in which philosophy finds itself are numerous and varied (something that’s been written about in many a book and article). Philosophers themselves shoulder some of the blame because of the obtuse, dense, and technical nature of many modern philosophical works.

One of the few things that I remember from my writing courses in high school and college is the maxim to write clearly – write so that your point comes across to your audience.  Unfortunately, this basic maxim is forgotten or neglected by some philosophers with their works requiring specialists to decode their meaning. But, this situation is not as prevalent as some may think; rather, the dense, obtuse,  and/or technical nature of philosophical works is due to the dense, obtuse, and/or technical nature of many philosophical subjects. Thus, without a sufficient background in the basics of philosophy, the non-philosopher finds philosophy uninteresting and difficult, to be ready only by those who are “super-smart.”

So, how does this apply to Dan DeWitt’s new book, The Owlings: A Worldview Novella? DeWitt, Dean of Boyce College, approaches the philosophical and theological concept of worldview in a manner reminiscent of C. S. Lewis – through the medium of narrative. The primary way to communicate philosophical ideas in Western philosophy is through monographs, treatises, journal articles, and other forms generally preserved for academic and professional realms. Such avenues, though effective for the student and professional philosopher, have inevitably isolated philosophy from the general public.[1] If one seeks to communicate philosophical concepts beyond the walls of academia, narrative literature has the potential to make philosophy more palatable and easier to understand for those uninterested in or unable to pursue philosophical study.

The use of narrative is not unique to DeWitt, and not even to Lewis for that matter. One can go back as far as Plato, who presented his philosophy in the form of dialogues between Socrates and misguided or unsuspecting individuals. Jumping forward one millennium and several centuries, Hume, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard employed dialogue in some of their writings, while Sartre, Rand, Camus, and C. S. Lewis utilized fiction.[2] The benefit of writing philosophy in narrative form is that it appeals to our proclivity to connect with stories, it lowers philosophical concepts from the ivory tower into the nitty-gritty of everyday life, and it has the potential of appealing to the whole person – heart and mind.

In The Owlings, DeWitt illustrates in story-form the life-impacting value of worldview thinking as he takes the reader into the life of young Josiah who, in a matter of days, faces the reality of leaving the only home he knows and of the weightiness of life’s ultimate questions. More to come in Part II…. in the meantime, visit Dan’s blog Theolatte to get to know him more.


 

[1] This is a rather loaded claim here that can be misleading. What I intend to communicate here is that while various philosophers have decried the apathy toward philosophy exhibited by many non-philosophers, they have not helped out the situation by making difficult philosophical issues more accessible to the non-philosopher (whether it be through popular works and other non-technical avenues). This is changing, though, in some ways through sites like 8-bit Philosophy and philosophy presented in comic book form (http://www.actionphilosophers.com/). Nevertheless, such efforts appeal to a very narrow demographic and do not have the mass appeal needed if philosophy were to gain a wider audience.

[2] This list is by no means exhaustive; rather, it lists the names of those who have transcended academic circles and therefore recognizable by the general public.