Empiricism and faith in Nanny McPhee


Our family loved the first Nanny McPhee film with Emma Thompson so when adverts on buses appeared for “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” we had our Easter holiday cinema visit sorted. The second film was every bit as good as the first, it had to be, the plots are almost identical.

Nanny McPhee

There is a moment in the film where two young lads, cousins, are learning to be brave. Their bravery is tested when they have to stand up to one lad’s father, the other’s uncle, who is a cold, fierce-faced commander in the war office. The battle between the boys and the dad is centred on the faith of the boy and the empiricism of his uncle. Faith wins. The script went something like:

Lad: I received a telegram from the war office that said my father was killed in action but I know it’s not true.

Commander (uncle): Has your father contacted you since you received the telegram?

Lad: No sir.

Commander: So someone from his unit has contacted you?

Lad: No sir.

Commander: How do you know that your father is alive. What proof do you have?

Lad: I feel it in my bones sir.

I don’t want to rush into saying “hooray, empiricism is dead and faith wins” because the faith of the lad is the sort of wishy-washy, gnostic, apophatic nonsense that makes empiricists and reformed theologians alike cringe. The dichotomy in the scene above between empiricism and faith is not a dichotomy present in John’s gospel. It is precisely the empiricism of doubting, questioning, skeptical Thomas which establishes the truth resurrection. Christian faith does not lack empirical evidence, rather it depends, in part, on the credibility of John’s account of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ.

I do want to say that the exchange seems to capture the mood of the moment and it is significant that a mainstream film has made the point. Others have said that the rants of the likes of Richard Dawkins have done as much for belief in God as they have for atheism. In the film the empiricist is portrayed as dated, cold and fierce-faced. The message conveyed in the scene is that anyone who believes that knowledge is not knowledge unless it can be measured is heartless and out of touch. But anyone with faith, on the other hand, who trusts that something is true even if it can’t be empirically proved today, is portrayed as having an attractive and good quality.

The film is a too touchy-feely, new-agey to have anything significant to say about true faith and the right place of empiricism. The point made wasn’t great, I’m not against empiricism within its limits but I am against gnosticism. There was, however, a strong, contemporary challenge to the epistemological limitations of empiricism.

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6 Responses to Empiricism and faith in Nanny McPhee

  1. Pingback: The hypocrisy of the anti-intellectual. « Oh My [null]!

  2. morsec0de says:

    Except that, in the real world, that child’s father is dead 99% of the time. Faith or no faith.

  3. neilrobbie says:

    Hi morsecode. Fair comment, the war office doesn’t often make mistakes when it reports soldiers missing in action. I’ve made a few changes to my hastily written post. I don’t mean to be down on empiricism as a discipline only as the sole arbiter of knowledge and truth as we have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

    • morsec0de says:

      If one makes a guess about any given event, there is a certain percent of time that they’re going to guess right. Does that mean that guessing is an ‘arbiter of knowledge and truth’?

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Morsecode, let’s untangle some threads. I said in my post that the lad’s “faith” was gnostic and I am not a advocate of gnosticism. I agree that if people of any “faith” say “I believe my father will return from war” and some fathers return then there is no way of distinguishing between a guess and some gnostic revelation.

    Christian faith is not gnostic. Jesus Christ was crucified and rose from the dead and this was empirically verified by Thomas. Christian faith is based on the testimony of witnesses.

    So, Christian faith combines testimonial empiricism (what the bible says about Jesus is reliable because of the reliability of the witnesses). This is understood within a situational perspective (including the tools of history, science and philosophy) and it cannot be removed from an existential perspective (reason, perception, experience, emotion, imagination, will, skill and intuition). This is what I mean when I say that empiricism is not the sole arbiter of truth.

    How do the situational and existential aspects of knowledge relate to empiricism?

  5. Pingback: The hypocrisy of the anti-intellectual. « Less Of The Different

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