The following text is for the present submitted without comment.

"If all you have is a hammer...everything starts to look like a fact -- um, I mean..."

The remarkable Cambridge (UK) philosopher, the late John Wisdom, began his landmark essay "Gods" (1944) with this: "The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it was."

Belief in God is not now usually put to the test by looking for the results, say, of a particular prayer or ritual. If the desired outcome fails to materialize, suspicion first falls on the prayer; there must have been something faulty in the intention. The initial desire behind the prayer deserves blame, not God. Whether a divine all-powerful benevolent Creator exists is not seen anymore as a question susceptible of being "settled" by a sufficiently diligent collection and collation of facts.

In Western modernity, this has become the accepted wisdom regarding most questions involving "ultimate concerns" (Tillich's phrase). So-called "natural theology," which purports to extract evidence and consequent compelling reasoning from the physical, natural world in support of God's existence and estimable character, has for the most part been confined to a corner of Roman Catholic teaching, being, as it was, a component of the approach of St. Thomas Aquinas to the question. The modern point of view, holding sway since, roughly, the end of the eighteenth century, holds that the really difficult, and most important questions that confront us are not such as can be answered by any imaginable collection of facts, but are instead tangles that demand increased clarity of thought. Conceptual muddles are what bedevil us, not lack of information. Historically, this has been the conclusion since Hume and Kant tackled the foundations of modern science, and left them, still, for the most part not on solid footings.

As an aside it ought to be noted here that the dubiously named enterprise known as "creation science," rather than seeking to make inferences from facts observed in nature to God's existence starts with the latter claim and then attempts to explain in supposed theoretical fashion the facts of evolution. But this is really a dog in another fight, namely the one about the true character of scientific method. What's central to the present discussion is the importance attached to facts in all kinds of diverse settings; their presumed Divine Authorship is yet another fight, one we will bypass for now.

If our ultimate concerns all bear question marks, do we labor more under a dearth of facts, or in a fog of confused thought? Well you may ask, "What are these vital questions that give you so much pause?" Fair question. Let's take a shot:

Is the human mind fitted to understand the universe?

What is reality?

When does life begin?

Does anything exist independently of our idea of it?

In the context of this discussion, here's the real kicker:

What is a fact?

That last one is useful, as it brings out in stark outline the folly of relying on the relentless, and ever-widening search for facts to answer our most basic concerns. This search has gained momentum as more and more aspects of human experience appear to fall under the aegis of something called "science." The medical field especially, awash in new genetic findings almost daily, adds its powerful imprimatur to the notion that very few significant questions ultimately will be left standing when all the data "is in."

We are told that the availability of cheap computing machinery has spawned a new branch of mathematics: experimental mathematics. Are we now to believe that fundamental problems in mathematics have resolved themselves into "factual" questions? Alas, we are going to be bogged down for some time, since the following question is hardly one that can ever be answered by any imaginable collection of facts:

What is scientifc method, and what makes it preferable to, say, divination?

No doubt many will rush in at this point with vague talk about how science can predict events, but actually very, very few sciences have developed to the point where their predictions are much more than educated bets on future outcomes. Physics, chemistry, and some parts of biology can exercise precise predictive capability based on theoretical laws. For the rest of them, they are at best "correlational" pursuits. This, of course, is the wide open barn door through which creation science yokels can drive their buggies into downtown Boards of Education. But to listen to the proud peacocks of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the line between science and beguiling fiction is clear for all to see! Science deals with natural causes of events! Everyone knows that!

By now, you should be ahead of me. You should have already framed in your mind the next addition to our list of important questions which no imaginable collection of facts can ever answer. No? Ok, don't blink: What is nature? How should we discern the natural from what is not natural?

The blame for the creationism debacle in Kansas lies squarely with our scientific community, which has comfortably ignored (for the most part) most all of the philosophical discussion of science that has transpired, as noted, since Hume and Kant pursued their investigations more than some two hundred years ago. That's a long time for perhaps our most powerful intellectual community to ignore the crumbling of its own foundations. And now the piper wants to be paid.

Physicists may enjoy contributing to ventures such as the film What The Bleep Do We Know!?, but if we are all only involved in crafting edifying guiding fictions, then let no one take umbrage when the folks from the other side of the tracks notice that no guiding fiction is any better than any other guiding fiction. Isn't that a fact?

But, when all is said is done, when I look at a pencil sitting in a glass of water, I know the pencil is still straight. I know what is fiction, and what is not. Isn't that a fact?

A pdf of Wisdom's article "Gods" can be downloaded.