The Bible and Science, Realism and Idealism
These are some comments in response to recent articles by Gerald R. Baron. (See the bottom for the four sources.) This article is primarily addressed to him but, as the issues he raises are so interesting, it is worth publishing it for the general Medium readership.
He is engaged in a search for unity, “a worldview that integrates faith, spirituality and science”. I find this very interesting since I’m engaged in a similar search myself, and have much in common with him. However, in this search for a unified worldview, I don’t believe that science, religion and spirituality are enough. I would also include philosophy, psychology (if that is different from science), history, mythology and, very importantly, personal experiences — in effect, just about anything that can help us.
He and I agree upon much, primarily that such a unification is urgently needed in order for humanity to move forward, and more specifically the failings of the scientific philosophy of physicalism. He writes very perceptively and knowledgeably about this.
Our differences are about Christianity. He is a conventional and committed Christian (from a denomination, as far as I can remember, not revealed), and ‘biblical theist’. Thus, when he says that he wants to integrate faith and spirituality, by ‘faith’ I take him to mean Christianity and the Bible, since some people might not distinguish between these two terms.
He believes that the Bible is a book of revelation provided by the Creator, and apparently considers it infallible — he accepts without question whatever it says. In my opinion this creates problems for his project of a search for unity. If one is searching for ultimate truth, a grand theory of everything, then surely it is a mistake to make assumptions about what is true in advance, especially when that ‘truth’ is debatable, and what one has been brought up to believe. (Baron says that he was brought up as a Christian, and taught that all truth is God’s truth and there can be no conflict between the Bible and nature — thus science).
In saying this, I am in no way trying to suggest that he is unreasonably dogmatic, and unwilling to change his mind if persuaded, as he has said that his philosophical beliefs have already been modified to some extent. In the case of Christianity, however, it seems that something dramatic would need to happen to persuade him to change his mind.
Prudence Louise on Medium is also seeking a unification, that of all religions. (One existing version is called the Perennial Philosophy or Traditionalism.) She prefers the option of pluralism, which “says all the religions are right and the conflict is only apparent”. On the way to pluralism, however, she has considered the option of inclusivism, in which each religion would have to acknowledge that it has got some things right and others wrong, that “each religion has a partial account of the truth”. Although she doesn’t find inclusivism satisfactory, I suggest that a combination of the two approaches is what is required. To achieve a unification of religions, each one will at least have to consider the possibility that it has got some things wrong, including Christianity (at least in its exoteric forms). This would appear to be something Baron is unwilling to contemplate, as he tries to build a theory of everything on the foundation of his religion.
He must know that historically, when religion is in conflict with science that has been proved beyond doubt, science wins. Galileo and the heliocentric system spring to mind. This is obviously not the same thing as certain scientists believing something to be true despite a complete lack of evidence, for example that the brain is responsible for consciousness.
I therefore suggest that a better approach would be to begin from scratch, with no assumptions, to make one’s mind a clean sheet as far as possible, a tabula rasa. We should begin with the latest, most modern developments — what we currently think is true according to the best of science and philosophy — and after that philosophise and speculate about what has been left out, starting from that secure foundation. Only then should we start investigating to what extent our conclusions are consistent with ancient spiritual teachings.
Here is one example where I believe his approach may have led him astray. He wants to decide whether idealism or scientific realism is the truer philosophy. He begins with what the Bible says (or perhaps his interpretation) about evil, is convinced that this must be true, and on that basis concludes that realism is the preferable worldview. Surely this is putting the cart before the horse. The better approach would be to analyse the claims and beliefs of modern idealism and realism, decide which is more credible, and only then compare this with religious texts to see whether or not they have any relevance.
On the basis of what Baron has written in the past, I thought that he was moving towards idealism. For example, he has said that he is very impressed by two books by Edward Kelly and his team, Irreducible Mind and Beyond Physicalism. These describe some of the latest developments in science and philosophy and, as can be seen from the title of the former, lean distinctly in favour of idealism.
Idealism is usually contrasted with physicalism, a distinction clearly understood by everyone. Here Baron has chosen instead to contrast idealism with (scientific) realism, which he defines as the view that “the world we see, taste, smell, hear and touch is outside of us, it is accessible to our fellow creatures, and is real”, whereas idealism believes (he says) that “there is no external reality and that our belief that there is is an illusion created by our minds”.
Baron now says, because of what the Bible says about evil, that he is tending towards realism rather than idealism but, unless I have misunderstood him, he seems to be actually arguing for idealism. He says that he cannot make the leap that all is mental, saying “I think there is a ‘reality’ to the world outside of our own minds, even if that reality exists only in the Mind or exists in a form that can be accessed by other sentient beings”, because of what he reads in Genesis. He wonders whether birds, the air, the morning sun really exist, or whether they are merely inside his head. He seems to be saying that they have existence independent of his mind: “when the morning sun beats down on me and starts causing discomfort it doesn’t help to think it is all in my head”.
Indeed it doesn’t. Bernardo Kastrup, whom Baron describes as a strict idealist, would agree: “The materialist metaphysics… posits that all qualities of experience — all colours, flavours, smells, textures and melodies — are generated by our brain. Therefore, they can only exist inside our skull! It is materialism that says that the world we perceive is inside our head” (his italics)¹. Baron would therefore seem to be agreeing with Kastrup and his idealism.
Kastrup says “that there is something out there (thus an external reality) beyond individual minds, which would continue to exist even if no one were looking at it”², in agreement with Baron. However, again this is an essential ingredient of his idealist philosophy.
Baron seems to have misunderstood Kastrup’s position. He correctly says: “In Bernardo Kastrup’s view, mind is all there is. There is nothing material in the sense that realists propose because what appears to be material to our minds are ripples or disturbances in the flow of the one mind”. The illusion is therefore that this external reality is material, not that it doesn’t exist.
In his search for a theory of everything, Baron says that he believes that he is “closer to an answer than ever”, and “that answer suggests there is indeed one truth and the two books of revelation (the Bible and nature/science) do not conflict at the deepest levels”.
He does what I suggested, and offers several examples where he believes the two are more or less in agreement (in this article). Some of these would be controversial in the eyes of scientists, but I have no serious disagreement with any of them. The problem is that there is no special link between them and the Bible; such ideas could just as easily be found in many other spiritual traditions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Platonism and so on — perhaps even more so. Baron has actually conceded this in the example of the deep underlying unity of the universe, which “has led the more spiritually-inclined scientists and philosophers to turn or return to ancient philosophy, particularly eastern religions”. He says merely that “similar strains can be found in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics as well”, but that is hardly a compelling argument for adopting the latter rather than the former. Why not adopt the traditions that go into these topics in greater depth?
Having listed these points where he thinks modern science and the Bible are in agreement, Baron then notes one difficult topic for science and other religions where he believes only the Bible offers a satisfactory solution, namely the reality of evil. As I noted above, this is one example where I believe his commitment to biblical theism has led him astray.
He believes that the reality of evil is clear for all to see, but that the physicalist belief system of modern science requires a denial that evil exists. I completely agree. He also finds fault with Eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism, and thinks that this may be one reason why they have become popular in the West among alienated Christians. He believes, however, that “biblical theism confronts the reality of evil head on”.
In a nutshell, he believes that the world as created was good, but something bad happened which perverted the original direction; that evil “can be understood as the absence of the good”. This worldview leads him to prefer (as argued above, what he perceives to be) scientific realism as a philosophy rather than idealism, and to reject the idea of a creative principle that brought the universe into being, rather than a transcendent creator. In my opinion, these are two errors that his faith in the Bible has led him to.
He talks about biblical theism as if this were well established, and that everyone knows what it is. For example, he says that the Bible “records how evil infected a creation that God had declared good”, and that “in the biblical account, God is not the only conscious, willful being in the whole of creation”. However, he does not offer any quotes or references, so that we can see how he arrived at these conclusions. If we knew precisely which verses he is referring to, we could judge how valid his assessment is.
There is also the problem of the Bible itself, and how it is interpreted. Are the ideas of what Baron calls biblical theism actually contained within the Bible itself, or is it perhaps sometimes how he has interpreted the text? That would be a topic for another day.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Brief Peaks Beyond, iff Books, 2015, p16
2. Science Ideated, iff Books, 2021, p93