July 18, 2012

Mistaking a Part for the Whole

In the late 1700s Scottish philosopher David Hume published (posthumously) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, oft cited by those “in the know” as one of the most effective attacks on the design argument for God’s existence. Though failing to genuflect before the Dialogues’ acclaimed success, I will concede that Hume did an effective job of exploiting the inevitable cracks found in any nondeductive argument, especially one built on analogy.

Let’s say that the design argument works in favor of God’s existence 98 percent of the time. Would Hume’s well-done deconstruction of the remaining 2 percent nullify the other 98? Of course not.

My point here isn’t to debate Hume’s overrated assault on a teleological argument, but to exemplify a common flaw in human thinking, which is to mistake a part for the whole.

Take, for instance, Karl Marx. Marx saw, rightly so, that economics played a big role in shaping society and history. So what does he do but build an entire social and philosophical system based on economics, as if buying and selling alone were the ultimate driving force behind everything in time and history? In short, he mistook a part for the whole, and we all know how well that worked.

2012 1520 page21And there’s Charles Darwin: Darwin noticed that, yes, species adapt. Thus because some aspects of a creature will modify slightly in order to better adjust to its environment, Darwin makes that limited adaptability the architectonic explanation for the origin, form, and nature of all life on earth. That’s like saying that because the “check engine” light in my car goes on, my Honda Civic will eventually evolve into a B-2 stealth bomber. Mistaking a part for the whole, Darwin got it all so wrong.

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel noticed a struggle between ideas and incidents in history. Something happens that causes a response, maybe even a contradiction. But eventually these competing forces meld, synthesize into each other, and the process starts again with new forces, ending in new synthesis, and on and on. This dialectic, often called “compromise,” became for Hegel the überexplanation, not just for all human history, but for creation of the cosmos and for God’s interaction with that cosmos—a  process that, argued Hegel, reached its climax in Bismarckian Germany and, perhaps, even in Hegel’s philosophy itself!

Then there’s what’s been deemed “the linguistic turn,” in which philosophers came to the startling conclusion (about 2,400 years after Plato) that language impacts our concept of reality, and that words can’t fully express truth. Expanding these limits ad extremum, they argue that language structures reality; and because language is so inadequate we can never know reality or even if there really is one. “The limits of my language,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “mean the limits of my world.” Thus (I guess) because my French is so bad, the Champs-Élysées might not exist; or even if it does, I can’t know what it exists as, no matter how many times I’ve been there.

Hewed out of this same fog has been the postmodernist project, a Hegelian response to the hard-nosed dogmatism of science, which has reduced all reality to the mathematical equations of subatomic particles and the forces that make them whirligig through space and time (another example of mistaking a part for the whole). Because contingency colors and tilts our understanding of truth, postmodernists downgrade the notion of truth itself, focusing instead on our subjective experiences, as if truth and reality begin and end only in us and in our communal urges and rages. Or, as Richard Rorty said: Forget about understanding reality; we need to learn only to cope with it.

Realizing that the gospel entails our subjective response to the cross (John 12:32), some theologians argue that the plan of salvation is simply that subjective response. Mistaking a part for the whole, they have truncated other foundational truths—e.g., the substitutionary atonement and Christ’s being punished for our sins (Isa. 53:4-6; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2)—into peripherals, nothing but crude metaphors for what they erroneously deem a grander soteriology.

Reality is big, and it hones in on us in lots of fine, little parts that remain fine when they remain parts. But when distorted into wholes, they expand into error, even heresy. 

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Shadow Men, was recently published by Signs Publishing in Australia. This article was published July 19, 2012.