December 26, 2014

In Their Own Words XXV: Man In A Box

The quote(s) for this post is/are a serious humdinger by any measure.  I have to be honest, I didn’t even know who Alan Sokal was before reading this quote from him. I had no preconceived notions about him nor bias against him. After reading this quote I question his reasoning ability, his grasp of logic and know unquestionably that his understanding of philosophy is surprisingly flawed. So who is he? 

Well, supposedly this man is really really smart by worldly standards. Sokal is a professor of mathematics at University College London and he is also professor of physics at New York University (NYU). He is known for his work in statistical mechanics. He is best known to the wider public for his criticism of postmodernism. Ironically, he also works to counter faulty scientific reasoning. I guess it is this fact that makes this later quote all the more astounding and contrary to his character. It’s hard to believe he made the comment at all. He had to have known he was mixing philosophies of knowledge, reasoning and logic.

He should’ve understood the differences between different types of epistemological knowledge and he should know when he is mixing categorical areas of thought. I suggest that because of his anti-theistic biases his reasoning becomes clouded and he makes the hackneyed atheistic comments like the one below. For such an intelligent man that is usually well-reasoned, this is a real whopper of a quote. I mean…this guy’s reputation is supposedly grounded in is ability to think clearly. 

Sokal is also known for an academic hoax known as "The Sokal Affair" that he pulled on the postmodern journal Social Text published by Duke University Press. In it he purposely flattered the editor’s ideological preconceptions. It essentially was a nonsensical paper showing how Social Text would be better served by intellectual underpinnings based on reason. The journal and the academics involved didn't even know that they were hornswoggled until he revealed the truth of the matter in another academic journal named Lingua Franca.

In other words, Social Text was not reasoning well and illogical in their approach to knowledge. This leads me to believe that the following quote might also be a hoax….but I will approach it as a legitimate statement albeit highly philosophically flawed. I guess there is just something about man’s hate of God that severely clouds their judgment and thinking.

“Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all 'faith' is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: 'By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.' It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. 'Faith' is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. 'Faith' is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence. ― Alan Sokal

It would appear Alan didn’t read the Bible properly (or at all). He seems to be making the Bible into a Straw man / Red Herring fallacy. I am guessing he misses the hundreds of historical references to real kings and real rulers that validate the time in which the texts of the Bible were written? Caesar Augustus, Governor Quirinius, Herod Agrippa and Herod Antipas to name a few. I am guessing he didn’t do his archeological homework either: Nag Hammadi and Tel Dan (“David”) Stela. Archeology that validates more and more claims as outlined in the documentation of historical events in the Bible? Regardless, we have 29 kings from ten nations including Egypt (Rameses II, Exodus 1–14), Assyria (Tilgath-pileser, 2 Kings 15:29; Shalmaneser, 2 Kings 18:9-12; Sennacherib Isaiah 36:1), Babylon (Nebuchadnezzaar, 2 Kings 24; Belshazzar, Daniel 5-8), etc. whose identities are mentioned not only in the Hebrew Masoretic text (the Old Testament), but are also found on physical monuments of their own time. Therefore, we have physical historical markers with which to cross-reference the Bible’s historical validity. If it is accurate historically, can’t we possibly assume that other aspects of the Bible are also accurate or at least approach the Bible with this presupposition?

He also makes the claim that the believer of the Bible only knows the Bible is accurate because it was revealed by God and can only be accepted in faith. If one actually reads the Bible they would see it is internally consistent when dealing with historical people even when the archeological records have been incomplete or wrong. The Bible has also been consistent when dealing with modern scientific understandings. Has it been detailed scientific knowledge? No, but what it has spoken to it has not been wrong.

Furthermore, Sokal makes an accusation of circular reasoning unjustly. This is an old and often recycled atheist argument that doesn’t hold water in the end. The argument by atheists often goes like this: The ultimate justification for most Christian's beliefs is a simple one: They believe what they believe because their holy scriptures say so. Although this is true for the person that has faith, it is not the sole source for the validity of the Scripture. As I’ve already described above, The Bible and Christianity is a faith that is anchored in history. It specifically references the reigns of kings that were contemporaries of Biblical characters. Furthermore, these biblical characters are backed with archeological proof that they once existed. This is not circular reasoning, it is historical science. Jesus was a real man that entered real time during the reign of real rulers.

Alan continues…

Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations. Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts.

What Sokal is doing here is building a partial list of what Christians rely on to gain factual knowledge. Like way too many other atheists (like Hawking, Dawkins, etc) is he building a false dilemma/dichotomy (black and white thinking). He only is accepting empirical “sense experience” as he terms it. This means he adheres solely to a posteriori evidences to make claims about what truth and facts are. In so doing he is short-circuiting the metaphysical and a priori knowledge and rationalism which also contains the realm of God. He also demeans revelation from a metaphysical source [God] as a valid origin for facts. In other words by assuming there is no metaphysical, he automatically negates Special/General Revelation from a supernatural source (God and Bible). In short, Sokal believes in the totally incompatibility of science and religion and states as much.

He is either being philosophically disingenuous or he is intellectually ill-informed. By ignoring the metaphysical as a valid source of evidence he then just goes on to ignore anything that comes from it as if it doesn’t exist. This is purposefully self-limiting his knowledge sources while simultaneously ridiculing the knowledge source of others he deems intellectually inferior (those that believe in the supermundane….God). I challenge anyone to read this second portion of his statement any other way. He is limiting the sources from which he draws his “facts”. In so doing he totally ignores half of reality just as other arrogant self-limiting atheists are so prone to do. 

Sokal digresses even more…

But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones? At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods-astronomy, geology and history, for instance-they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?

Above, in this third portion Sokal begins to inconstantly frame what he considers what is “true” and what is “false”. He limits what is a proper measure of these “truths”. He is mixing and matching philosophical truths here: Objective and subjective. He assumes that objective truths of God can be scientifically tested. He is trying to mix epistemological truth sources. He is trying to prove (actually disprove (metaphysical) truths with physical or empirical/naturalistic means. This is like trying to explain light in absolute dark. You cannot epistemologically get there from here. It is an unbridgeable chasm. By trying to force this while limiting what he will consider valid evidence is a fool’s errand. He either doesn’t realize he’s cutting his nose off to spite his face or he is being purposely duplicitous (I can’t tell which). 

In other words, according to empiricism, we can only know things after we have had the relevant experience-this is labeled a posteriori knowledge because posteriori means “after.” According to rationalism, it is possible to know things before we have had experiences-this is known as a priori knowledge because priori means "before". This means everyone is either a rationalist/empiricist or an empiricist only when it comes to their theory of knowledge. There is therefore is no middle ground for the empiricist. 

Atheists tend towards a false dilemma default which requires they only accept empirical means for gaining knowledge. Such is the case with Alan Sokal, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. They insist that truth-claims be accompanied only by clear and convincing physical evidence which can be studied and tested. Christians on the other hand accept both because the Bible speaks to both in the form of General and Special Revelation. Christians also believe truth can be attained through faith.

Sokal is also trying to define what his reliable evidences and truths. In this way he is doing the same thing David Hume did when he attempted to limit what was acceptable criteria for describing and accepting miracles as legitimate. He is literally a man in an intellectual boxIf people let these naturalists define the rules of engagement, they will always stack the intellectual deck in their favor. We as Christians need to get smarter about this and expose this duplicitousness for what it is….deceptive and demonic double-mindedness and Orwellian “doublespeak”.

Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?” 

Sokal concludes his diatribe with an appeal to logic but has soundly violated other philosophies and other logic in his longwinded haranguing against theists. He assumes that all sacred texts should be theologically aligned to one truth. At least that is how he has framed his quote. He assumes that all sacred texts from disparate religions (or within religions) should somehow agree if they are all speaking of truth. He makes the fatal assumption like that of a Universalist that all religions and their sacred texts lead to the same God or same truth (or worse, he's claiming all truth claims are true which violates the Law of Non- contradiction). As said before, he also confuses absolute truths and subjective truths when he speaks of the truths in this long diatribe. The Bible deals in absolute truth, science is purely subjective and relative to the observer and based on the abilities of a flawed observer. The Bible comes from an absolute God with an absolute divine view point separate from subjectivity. The Bible also says that not only should believers not have any other gods before Him, it is clear…there are no other gods. Yes, this is the claim the Christian must make if they are truly Christian and assume inerrancy when it comes to the truth of Scripture.

The Christian Bible appeals to the One True God. What it boils down to is what belief system best explains reality without contradicting itself or misinterpreting reality. The only one that hasn’t to this point is the Christian Bible. Archeology has validated it, not discredited it. Historically, it has been accurate. Sokal and his quotes on the other hand...have not been.


To better understand or be confused by the field of epistemology, differences between different types of knowledge and how we know what we know (or don't)...I recommend the following source material.

Meditations by Rene Descartes
Treatise on Human Nature by David Hume
Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke

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