And another thing…

Centrists / Religion / Science

I’ve not seen a distinction made before between reductionist materialism and eliminative materialism.

“Reductive and eliminative materialism describe the poles of the process known as intertheoretic reduction. Intertheoretic reduction refers to what happens when a new scientific theory either better explains or else completely invalidates an existing scientific theory. If the new theory better explains the old one, it is said to have reduced it to a fuller, more convincing explanation. A successful reduction of this kind was the incorporation and clarification of Newton’s laws of motion in Einstein’s theory of relativity, or of Maxwell’s laws of electromagnetism in quantum theory.

The other pole of intertheoretic reduction, eliminative materialism, consists of the invalidation or complete displacement of an earlier theory by a new one. Examples of this kind of elimination are: the theory of demonic possession being eliminated by the theory of mental disease, the theory of phlogiston being eliminated by the discovery of oxygen as the cause of combustion, or creationism being eliminated by evolution as an explanation of the earth’s history.”

But seeing it has reminded me of Kendall Harmon’s suggestion that a helpful way of understanding the differences in the Communion today is to categorize thinking as either reasserting or reappraising. A reasserter reasserts the fundamental truth of traditional teaching as being applicable to modern experience too. A reappraiser believes that ancient teaching must be revisited in terms of new insights into how things work. The reappraiser category seems very close to the eliminative materialist category above.

I’ve never been convinced that it’s possible to tease out the tangle of underlying thinking present in theological debate into these two categories of Kendall’s. To be fair, I don’t think he’s suggesting that it is, rather that it’s meant to be a helpful shorthand.

My issue though is that the categorical term “reappraiser” (and it’s cousin “revisionism”) are both really forms of materialism. And there are no mainstream materialist theologians in Anglicanism today.

I wonder if we might find it more helpful to think instead about distinctions between Aristotelian based and Process based theology? (Granted Process Theology is a very new thing and as such represents an ongoing process more than I think it is a fully developed fixed state… (ironic isn’t it?)).

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Again, I don’t think “the issue” need be categorized this way at all, indeed, I’m suspicious of this kind of categorization because both poles in my mind are telling half-truths. Sarah Coakley’s essay
    and the work of Eugene Rogers among others on the matter would actually suggest the reductive approach at a deeper level where the sex of the partners is what we might term an undifferentiated matter (adiophora) but the type of relationship is vital (and at the same time is an eliminative approach on a more surface level–that reassertion that homosexuality anywhere and everywhere is wrong and cannot lead to good things ever) that I might add has taken in the new insights we so readily apply to heterosexuality these days, say contraception.
    At heart, it comes down to if fruits can be discerned in homosexuality or not, and Coakley says yes, and zooms out a bit to reexamine celibacy and partnership (same- and different sex- )together in light of discipleship and desire. In her sense, reassertion and reappraisal are both wrong or only half-correct, and I tend to find her views the kind of richly monastically informed, discipleship concerned views most helpful to rethinking between the poles of “no” and anything goes.

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