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SCIENTIFIC METHODOLOGY AND MORAL TRUTH IN EDUCATION

To begin I want to define three terms and briefly state my problem for discussion. 1. Fiduciary framework: the frame of reference and worldview of unconsciously and acritically held assumptions by which we evaluate ideas; a framework for judging ideas; a paradigm. 2. Purposeful creaturism: The belief that mankind is a purposeful creature; a fiduciary framework in which the order, beauty and intelligence in the universe is assumed to reveal a purpose which includes good moral behavior and that mankind is best fulfilled when that purpose is discovered and pursued. 3. Accidentalism: The belief that mankind developed at random or by accident; the fiduciary framework in which the universe is assumed to be unintentionally formed and without purpose.

The problem: The hard sciences have adequately demonstrated the truthfulness of facts relative to the physical world such as two plus two equals four and other considerably more complex scientific facts. There is no problem with these but some scientists further presume that what cannot be physically proven, merely on the basis of the fact that it cannot be proven, is to be considered either not true or not knowable even if it is true. The belief that students ought to obey teachers fits this latter category—a belief some would debate. Thus we divide knowledge into “facts” which are scientific and “opinions” which are things believed but not provable. This makes it difficult or impossible to discuss intelligently or with certainty the moral issues which effect education. These issues are of great interest to educators. Order in society is, of course, of interest to citizens in nations everywhere. I want to make a case for accepting true “beliefs” as “facts.” First, I will argue that there is such a thing as true beliefs and secondly I will argue that they should be accepted as factual just as we accept other proven, true hypotheses as facts. This issue is not a culture-bound problem. It is a problem relating to scientific and moral knowledge in any culture. Educators could do a better job of teaching morals and ethics were they to reconsider the issue of moral truth viewed as fact, not merely opinion. The foundation for such thinking must be built carefully.

I. NEED FOR A FIDUCIARY FRAMEWORK

We do need some form of reference in order to think. Unless something is believed acritically one has no judicial frame of reference by which to judge all else. Stated another way, anything we doubt is caused by other beliefs which we don’t doubt.

The matter at issue is not whether we are critical or uncritical; it is the question of which fiduciary framework we use when we exercise our critical powers, for no criticism is possible except from within a fiduciary framework that we indwell acritically.

The idea that we can have a critical approach to everything at the same time is, of course, absurd. It is strictly impossible to doubt anything except on the basis of something that we do not doubt, some set of beliefs that we hold acritically. Everyone needs some standard in order to think. Groups of peoples with a common general persuasion usually are in agreement because their fiduciary framework is the same or almost the same. My intent in this paper is to provide a fiduciary framework that is adequate to evaluate both scientific facts and moral truth—both realms—with equal possibility of knowing truth.

II. INADEQUACY OF EXISTING FIDUCIARY FRAMEWORK

In our scientifically advanced age we value the critique. In the University where I teach we are to help our graduate students develop the ability to do critical thinking. What I want to suggest is that we critique the idea of critiquing for a moment. The generally held assumption seems to be that doubt is more intellectually respectable than assent to a creed. This assumption must itself be criticized. It is a product of the rational thinking of our times. It assumes that ultimate reality is unknowable. It insists that truth claims about the origin, nature and destiny of humankind must be in the form of “This is true for me,” not in the form of “This is true.” Confident statements of knowledge about such things are regarded as arrogant. It is assumed that there are statements of what is called “fact” which have been scientifically proved; to assert these is not arrogance. But statements about human nature and destiny cannot be proved in the same way. Therefore to assert them as fact is considered inadmissible. They can never be more than “How it seems to me,” or “My personal experience,” or—even more typically—“How I feel.” Teaching physics is not arrogance; it is communicating knowledge and neither is it arrogance to tell others what we know about origins—and its related moral purpose. I want to suggest that we question the assumptions that say we cannot know such personal and abstract issues by drawing our attention to the following five considerations:

One, we should learn to doubt our doubts—what someone called the critique of doubt. When we undertake to doubt any statement, we do so on the basis of “knowledge” which in the act of doubting the thing being evaluated we do not doubt. Agnostic doubt can take the forms of “Your statement is not proved,” or “Your statement is of such a kind that it can never be proved, therefore I doubt it.” In both forms, this assumes that the doubter believes there are criteria of proof that would be applicable in this case or he believes that no such criteria exists. In either case he is able to doubt only because of things that he believes without doubting. There is nothing wrong with this process I merely want to bring it to our attention. Later I will argue that we are using the wrong set of beliefs to critique all else.

Secondly, there are relative roles of faith and doubt in the whole enterprise of knowing anything. In order to know anything we have to begin with an act of faith whether it is in the evidence of our eyes, ears, or those who are teaching us science, history, or any other branch of knowledge. Both believing and doubting have a place in the enterprise of learning and teaching, but, actually, believing is primary and doubt is secondary. The contemporary opinion, however is, strangely, that doubt is somehow more honest than faith. This process itself is an entirely irrational prejudice. It is a form of dogmatism that is destructive—it hinders creative thinking and moral progress. It does not allow for acceptance of facts outside of one’s own fiduciary framework.

Thirdly, the whole work of modern science rests on two faith commitments which cannot themselves be demonstrated by the methods of science. In order for science to have even developed it was required of thinkers to believe (1) that the universe is rational and (2) that it is contingent. If everything were total random science could not have developed. This is in spite of the fact that no one can, nor felt it necessary to, prove rationality in the universe. It is rather something that is assumed as one studies it. Now, regarding contingency, if as some believe, the universe were controlled by an absolute spirit, science, as we know it, would be unnecessary. In that case we would know ultimate reality by pure contemplation and all of our study of various hypotheses in an effort to know truth would simply be unnecessary. As simple as contingence in the universe may seem, the fact that some things are more likely than others but not necessarily true, is what makes it possible and necessary to examine them. We are capable of creating hypotheses that, in turn, enable us to meaningfully test them. No one ever thought it was necessary to prove this yet we accept it as true.

Fourthly, the fashionable preference for doubt as against faith—as though we can assume that doubts are honest and beliefs are dishonest—may conceal the very arrogance that it proposes to condemn. Just because there are some things that are unknowable does not mean than nothing is knowable. Some things are knowable. Just because one does not know them does not mean that another does not know them. The knower is entitled at any time to ask the question “How do you know that the unknowable exists?” How can one know that the material thing in itself, apart from our sensual perception of it, actually exists? Following this line of thought when someone says, “There is no moral Creator who is the basis for all morality,” does one not have the right to fairly ask, “What is the source of your knowledge that this is so?” Also, when one states, “There is a moral creator who is the basis for all morality in the universe,” when one asks how one knows this, the questioner deserves an answer even if the answer is, “That is one of my assumptions which has held up just fine so far.” If in affirming what I believe to be true I suggest that I possess the truth in such a way that I have nothing more to learn, I am rightly condemned. That is the element of validity in the position I am criticizing. There is always more truth to be discovered, but we still need a workable fiduciary framework in which to question, test, hypothesize, and discover.

Fifthly, the devaluing of belief statements as merely subjective involves a logical absurdity. What is true for you but may not be true for other people is not a logical, rational statement. It presupposes the possibility of an “objective” knowledge which is not knowledge as believed to be true by someone. When I say “I believe” I am not merely describing a subjective, inward feeling or experience that is only “true” for me, I am affirming what I believe to be true, and therefore what is true for everyone. My commitment to this conviction is that I am willing to say what this belief is, publish it, subject it to the scrutiny of other thinking persons, let them judge it and if necessary I am willing to correct it.

It seems we have two kinds of “truth.” To teach that human beings exist as the result of the successful elimination of weaker species by those who have accidentally inherited superior strength or skill is allowed in school systems all over the world. Yet to teach that human beings have a purpose and that they were created by an intelligent being is not allowed by many of the world’s school systems. Both of these beliefs refer to what is believed to be true for all human beings. Either of these two beliefs is of great significance to individuals who believe them and both of them lead to philosophies of life that strongly effect human behavior, attitude and morality. Both claim to be true though they are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be true. Both theories claim to be dealing with facts yet for the large part only one is permitted to be taught in the schools in both of many countries.

In the education system of the United States there is an on-going debate regarding which theory to teach in the public school system. One view of the origin, nature, and destiny of human beings may be taught in the public schools; another may not. The court handed down this judgment with apparently no consideration for what was truth or error. The only question is whether the proposed view is science or religion. If it is called science it may be taught whether it is true or false; if it is religion it may not be taught whether it is true or false. The reason given was that science is what we all “know” and religion is what some people “believe.” In many nations a similar situation exists.

Another illustration is found in Biology in the study of DNA molecules. Every student will be expected to know that the development of the human person is governed by the program encoded in the DNA molecules. This is a fact. But that every human person has a moral nature placed there intentionally is not a fact. It is a belief—one among many possible beliefs. It is therefore not part of the school curricula. And yet, clearly the question of truth is at stake as much in the second matter as in the first. It either is or is not true that every human being is ultimately responsible to and fulfilled in a Creator (who made him). If it is true, it is universally true, just as the statement about the DNA molecule is true; if it is true at all, it is true for everyone. It belongs to the public sector as much as to the private. Moral teachings can and should be presented to our students as factually and surely as other facts regarding the material universe.

Two plus two is four. This is a true statement. A student ought to respect and obey his teacher. This is another generally true statement. (For the sake of the flow of my argument I would like to lay aside the possibility that the teacher may be in error and the student correct to disagree with him.) But how do we prove the latter statement? Can it be true without proof? Is it rational to believe it without proof? Is it rational to not only believe it but also let it be a part of the value system by which other’s behaviors are judged? Are some truths simply not self-evident? Most educators agree that students ought to obey and respect teachers even though individuals have acted with different degrees of consistency with the principle. Does this truth need to be proved or simply enforced?

What if children should obey parents, students ought to obey teachers, employees ought to obey employers, citizens ought to obey governments and creatures ought to acknowledge a moral Creator? Is it unreasonable to believe these true statements without proof?

What if a new level of personal creativity, self-confidence, energy, moral virtue, peace of mind within one’s self, respect for law and order, willingness to pay taxes and work hard without supervision and control, self-control in families and courtesy in the public arena, including the public transportation system, were made available through looking at the world from another judicial frame of reference—that each person realized personal responsibility for attitudes and behavior and that the trained, ever-present human conscience of each individual could become their own constant personal law enforcement agent? Would not such a fiduciary framework benefit our two societies?

If we teach our young people that the universe is an amoral, haphazard accident then amoral behavior is understandable. If we teach our young people that the universe was intentionally created to be orderly and purpose driven and that this was done by an intelligent and loving creator, then the rightness of right behavior and wrongness of wrong behavior can be understood. This would be the case if we had a fiduciary frame of reference in which it was appropriate to say that moral issues are just as true as “facts” of science.

III. NEED FOR ANOTHER FIDUCIARY FRAMEWORK

Can the educator, in the context of today’s cultures, offer a new “fiduciary framework,” a new way of grasping the totality of things that can replace the commonly accepted fiduciary framework into which all of us have, from childhood, been inducted with our scientific educations and in which we have lived? For two and a half centuries many Western thinkers have understood purposeful creaturism only from within the fiduciary framework of accidentalism as it has developed since the end of the seventeenth century. Since each of these are merely fiduciary frameworks for evaluating other data it is possible in an intellectually coherent way to undertake the reverse operation; involve the critical principle in the other direction. We can we find in the purposeful creature a fiduciary framework from within which to undertake a critical examination of accidentalism.

I would like to insist that I am not appealing to “revelation” against “reason.” This absurd opposition is a commonplace philosophical discussion. Reason is not a separate source of knowledge. It is the power by which we seek coherence in the data of experience, and it operates, can only operate, within a complex of language, concepts, symbols and images that make up one’s fiduciary framework. No move towards understanding reality is possible except by the use of reason; the question is “Within what fiduciary framework is reason operating?” When we offer a different fiduciary framework, an alternative to the one that is dominant in our culture, we are calling for a change, a radical shift in perspective. In order to bring into the educational arena credible acknowledgement of moral truth we need the boldness of the courageous educator who dares to challenge the accepted fiduciary framework, even though the words he uses must inevitably sound absurd to those who dwell in that framework.

As an educator I am not against science. Since I am a researcher I am a scientist. Science can tell us something about the universe by observation and examination, but it cannot tell us the purpose of the universe. The order and beauty of the universe coupled with the intelligent ability to appreciate order and beauty on the part of humans in the universe cannot be explained by science. It takes less mental effort (sometimes called “faith”) to know (some would say “believe”) that the order, beauty and intelligence in the universe exists because it was purposely created than it does to try to explain order, beauty and intelligence as happening accidentally.

Some argue against knowing there is a purposeful source of order and morality by claiming that we cannot know everything. This, they say, is unknowable. That we cannot know all truth is not a reason to conclude we cannot know more truth than we now know nor is it proof that we cannot know more truth than is provable. None of us can grasp the whole truth, but that fact is too often made an excuse for disqualifying any claim to have a valid clue for beginning to understand things outside our existing paradigms. There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, but if this is used to invalidate all claims to discern the truth it is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to the knowledge which is available to fallible human beings. We return to an earlier statement: If someone says, “There is no ultimate moral creator who provides a reasonable basis for morality,” we must ask the question, “How do you know that to be the case?”

IV. ADVANTAGES OF CROSSCULTURAL EXCHANGES

I am a more broadminded American because I lived thirteen years in Korea, five years in Beijing, and have made numerous trips to the nations of southern Africa and had my assumptions challenged many times. I want to humbly invite you, my colleagues in the field of education, into the process. The mutual correction that can result from crosscultural exchanges is sometimes at first blush unwelcome, but it is necessary to shake us from our narrow conceptual confines. This is helpful for growing educators. By being faithful participants in a multinational, multicultural family of scholars we can find the resources to be both faithful sustainers and cherishers of our respective cultures and also faithful critics of them. The criteria for making judgments between one culture and another cannot arise from any one culture. This is possible, however, through the tension and sometimes trauma of the clash of ideas in a multicultural arena. It takes courage to walk into that arena but tested ideas that have been challenged and retained by logic can be refined and bring all of us closer to a more perfect understanding of the truth.

Education for life as well as education in the sciences has suffered as a result of our dividing knowledge into public fact and private beliefs. Our students are educated in the sciences but they do not know how to live life at a practical daily level. Modern science is largely responsible for causing this division. The crucial decision was to turn from asking questions about purpose to asking questions about cause; from “What purpose does this serve?” to “How does this work?” We have learned a lot from the new series of questions, but we have paid a price. We no longer know the difference between “This is” and “This is good.” Value free facts are the currency in which our public world carries on its business and value free facts lead to moral confusion.

Purpose questions are essentially a far more important than how things work. We know how things work better than any previous generation, but morally we have paid a heavy price and now we don’t know why we are here. Purpose can be discovered if we correctly interpret the hints about it left by the Creator in the universe. If we don’t know our purpose we don’t know which direction to go—we are lost.

V CONCLUSIONS

I have tried to demonstrate that there is moral truth that is important to educators that has only been given the status of “belief.” Therefore moral instruction has not had the strong effect it should have to give our students a strong moral basis in life. We have allowed moral issues to become mere opinions. I have also tried to demonstrate that if we were to acknowledge the factual nature of the moral obligation given on purpose to mankind by a creator that this fiduciary framework will allow us to both pursue science with the eagerness of a discoverer and to establish a basis for upright moral conduct in our societies. When we know where we came from we know where we are going and to whom we have a moral obligation. The purposeful creaturism fiduciary framework allows for better research and behavior than the inadequate fiduciary framework of accidentalism.

I know better than to think that with one short paper anyone would be persuaded to change their fiduciary framework for life. However, I dare to think that there are creative and thinking readers who are willing to have their viewpoints broadened to include the possibility that the best source of moral awareness comes from within ourselves and that maybe it was first placed there by a Creator. Such a fiduciary framework allows for moral teaching to have the authority of recognized truthfulness so that as creatures acknowledge a moral Creator, students are more likely to obey teachers, citizens more likely to obey governments, learning proceeds in our schools and order is maintained in our societies.

Note: For a more thorough treatment of some of these themes see Leslie Newbegin’s books: The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. These are the sources of some of the ideas I have expressed in this paper.