The Trouble With Realism: Why David Boulton is not Anti-Quaker

This is in response to Simon Heywood's blog on David Boulton's book The Trouble with God posted here.

As a nontheist Quaker, I will begin by saying that while I do not agree with everything that David Boulton writes in TTwG*, I do not consider him anti-Quaker. Far from it, I consider him a respectable Friend with whom I have co-clerked a workshop and more than a few good conversations and arguments.

Though not the core of David's atheology, Simon has focused on something that even I find a bit overplayed in TTwG. David is concerned with an overconfident view of realism, i.e. that human perceptions can be trusted to refer to external realities. This view is called "naive realism" in philosophical circles. It was the view of most of the West before the scientific revolution and Descartes. Naive realism was held by both Quakers and their religious antagonists in the 1600s. For the most part, Cartesian doubt played no role in the thought of either early Quakers or their anti-Quaker opponents. Both were naive realists.

Today, most everyone knows that the human brain plays tricks on us. We learn science, logic, and critical thinking in an attempt to ward off naive realism. The Christian mystical tradition is replete with challenges to naive realism, in that it holds that God cannot be known directly by the human mind, but only by intentionally discarding the mental tools we rely on everyday.

David is making an analogous claim in his anti-realist argument. As we cannot know God through our everyday mental toolkit, and since science has questioned the very reliability of human perception beyond a pragmatic level, David is arguing that we stop with that pragmatic level. God is a fictional personification of the highest ethical ideals that have ever been conceived.

As an aside, I think a lot of great ethical ideals come from non-Christian sources. David probably does, too, but his argument focuses on the source of Quakerism, the Christian narrative. He is saying something that many nontheists find hard to accept, actually. He says we have to keep the Christian narrative, but that as postmodern nonrealists, we keep it as fictional, not literal truth, since all our apparent "truths" are fictional, even atheist truths. Simon finds this offends truth and affords license to engage in "make-believe."

Simon allows that a nontheism that was realist about truth could be Quaker, but to his mind, nonrealism - theist or nontheist - subverts Quakerism irreparably. Interestingly, Simon may be unaware of something that is more prevalent among Quakers than David's sort of nonrealism. I have met many nonrealist Quakers who regularly say things like, "everyone is entitled to their personal truth." Many of these folks probably believe in God. Their favorite story is the 5 Blind Men and the Elephant.

David Boulton is arguing a sophisticated variant of this fairly common epistemological uncertainty. We can't know for sure the real truth about anything, so just accept what we can as useful fictions, including the Christian faith.

Simon tells us that this view is counter to everything he appreciates about Quakerism. We have found the Truth with a capital 'T' and we Know it with a capital 'K.'

As I said, I think David overdoes nonrealism in TTwG, and I can say that at least a few nontheists agree with me on that. However, by the same token, I think Simon overdoes realism. He seems to have no doubts about his own experience, that it is somehow pure and untainted by his own preferences, desires, and I guess, his brain. If you allow yourself to ask the scientific question, "How do I know the world beyond me through such things as an epidermis, nerve fibers, electrical impulses, and a mass of neural tissue?" one gets a sense of the difficulty.

If this critical questioning challenges our physical perceptions, how much more does it challenge our experiential perceptions! How can we say, "I have experienced God", when all I have to experience anything is electrical impulses inside a mass of neural tissue? Simon may argue that he does not experience God through his physical senses, a common claim of theists. This is the point at which a view of human beings as bearers of nonphysical souls comes into view.

Having come to a similar place as David on the issue of nonrealism, I will argue that in fact I believe that we can be more confident in our view of truth than he allows. Although, this requires certain unprovable axioms about the methodology of science, nevertheless, scientific methodology has succeeded time and again where other methods have failed. Science has proven the roundness of the earth, the mechanisms of genetics, and many, many other things most of us accept as fact. David's skepticism about God seems to arise from a different source than most atheists, since he nowhere argues that science has "no need of that hypothesis." His skepticism is about truth in a larger sense.

Of course, even a suitably humble scientific realism offers no comfort for Simon's experiential certainty. However, it does answer one of his concerns about the source of truth for nontheists. We do not, emphatically do not, hold that truth comes from our heads. We hold that it comes through hard work and critical judgment. We try to rid ourselves, always partially unsuccessfully, but also partly successfully of our biases and prejudgments. We may never get to naked unvarnished truth, but we can get closer, and for some of us, it remains an operative ideal.

Now, is either David's nonrealist or my semi-realist viewpoint anti-Quaker? I am "absolutely confident" that David is not anti-Quaker! What "absolute confidence" means is that I would publicly stand in the way of any attempt to read David or any other nonrealist out of meeting for business. Not only that, I would defend continued engagement with David on the part of all Friends who are open to differing viewpoints.

Where Simon goes awry is when he states that David's view "acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve." Simon is accusing David of solipsism, the view that we all we experience is entirely in our heads. We could be brains in a vat connected to a computer that makes up stories using electrical impulses.

Admittedly, David's views sometimes approach this level of skepticism about realism. However, his argument is not about science or facts, but about theology, about doctrines. He is arguing that when we say "God told me war is wrong" the word "god" in that sentence does not refer to Simon's absolutely certain experience of "something beyond us... [that] authoritatively guide[s] our choices" but rather to Simon's limited cognitive understanding of that experience. An ineffable experience is just that, it can't be described. The very act of description, alters the perception of the experience. If one is going to claim a mystical high ground, then one ought to go all the way to a sheerly apophatic silence about what is being experienced.

A nontheist may have experiences that one considers authoritative and ineffable, as when I hold to the unprovable axioms of scientific method or to my rock-solid view that torture is wrong. I can't prove it using either science or theology, but I cannot deny it without going against my own deepest sense of truth. Simon wants more, he wants to claim that we can get outside of this uncertainty, and that early Friends did so.

After all, isn't the world is better off without naive realism, since we are less inclined to go to war over uncertainties than we are when we have an unshakeable confidence that God tells us to kill in God's name? Even as much as we admire early Friends, aren't we all a bit uncomfortable with their rigid certainty, their willingness to condemn Catholics and Calvinists with harsh diatribes?

I submit that far from being anti-Quaker, a measured skepticism keeps us humble, more honest, and in the end, more effective at standing for peace in a world at war.

Peace! Charley

*_The Trouble With God_

Views: 936

Comment by Justin Meggitt on 9th mo. 8, 2009 at 4:10pm
I did enjoy this - although I really should read David Boulton's book before posting, so apologies for joining a conversation part way in and sorry if this isn't a useful contribution.

However, I would stand up for naive realists (though i do think they might well have had their 'naievety' tried in the fires of experience and found it to be the most plausible interpretation of reality). When you say:

'After all, isn't the world is better off without naive realism, since we are less inclined to go to war over uncertainties than we are when we have an unshakeable confidence that God tells us to kill in God's name? Even as much as we admire early Friends, aren't we all a bit uncomfortable with their rigid certainty, their willingness to condemn Catholics and Calvinists with harsh diatribes?'

I would say that:

'After all, isn't the world is better off with Quaker naive realism, since we may be more inclined to resist war when we have an unshakeable confidence that God tells us that to kill, in the name of God or any human claims, is wrong and empower us to resist evil even unto death.'

I am grateful for the early Quakers' naivity on this - though actually I do think people like Samuel Fisher - an associate of Spinoza - or Robert Barclay were very aware of the philosophical questions around epistemology (even if, say, Fox or others weren't) - so can't really be called 'naive'.

Anyway, thanks for the long response to Simon's comments. I do think the question of whether David Boulton is anti-Quaker depends on what exactly constitutes the Society of Friends (obviously) - in the UK at least (it is much clearer with the other 90%). I don't think clerking does but then again, I honestly think I am wrong on this and most Friends would probably follow the line that whoever turns up and behaves the right way is a Friend - and if that is what the Society of Friends is then neither David Boulton nor anyone else who turns up is anti-Quaker.
Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 8, 2009 at 4:23pm
Good Friends:

I'd like to second Justin's comment regarding naive realism; is it really that naive? In a plain sort of way, if I want to grow apples I have to plant an apple seed, planting a pear seed won't do if it is apples I want. All the subtle analyses and postmodern skepticism won't deflect this.

Best wishes,

Comment by Simon Heywood on 9th mo. 8, 2009 at 7:44pm
Hi guys

Thanks for the thoughts. I'll hopefully respond properly, but quickly, to start with, I deliberately didn't say that David Boulton was an anti-Quaker; I said he'd written an anti-Quaker book. There is a world of difference there.
Comment by Charley Earp on 9th mo. 8, 2009 at 7:57pm
My apologies for not being more careful on that point.
Comment by Simon Heywood on 9th mo. 8, 2009 at 8:50pm
One or two further disjointed notes - it's late, but I'm interested:

I do think 'The Trouble with God' is solipsistic;

I do think that TTWG is an anti-Quaker book, but it's possible that this anti-Quaker book has somehow come to be written by a Quaker, in which case I'm simply noting the paradox, which is OK because Quaker life is full of paradox, but the next stage of the process is to flag up the paradox;

The more I think about it, the more I think that the core anti-Quaker thing about TTWG is the deliberate reliance on pretence and make-believe;

I am a realist of some sort, because I think that (1) everyone is really, and (2) 'We can't know for sure the real truth about anything' is an assertion which disproves itself. In the story of the blind men and the elephant, there really was an elephant;

I think apophatic silence is, in fact, the best response, and I reserve the option of lapsing back into it, but I'm taking issue with TTWG mainly because, with its Quaker label, the book seems to risk making the grounds of the apophatic silence harder to discover;

Maybe I am a pragmatic nonrealist and not a realist, but if I am, I find that calling God a fictional personification is not stopping at the pragmatic level, it's failing to get as far as the pragmatic level;

'make-believe' is David's phrase, not mine.
Comment by Nat Case on 9th mo. 12, 2009 at 1:29am
My rambling post-midnight response, which is probably only partly to the point, is here. Mere fiction. Harumph.
Comment by Joan Gunn Broadfield on 9th mo. 20, 2009 at 8:22am
Wow! At risk of being analyzed to the nth degree, I'd like to suggest that 'beyond words' for me is how I understand it all. But what an intriguing experience, reading the depths of your thoughts on this. (Can a book be unquakerly? hmmmmmm.....) The idea of 'fiction' as a frame for looking at the Christian 'history' is intriguing, but I'm happier with 'myth'.

I was happy in high school with the idea of 'suspended disbelief' and tend to live my life and faith more in that frame. I respond to Rabbi Waskow's description of God as BREATH and understand the Hebrew ***** (yaweh) in that way. I do not need more. Thanks for your brain exercise, though!


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