The Two “How’s” – On Multiple Causality

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“So, when a ship has overcome the dangers of the sea, although the result be accomplished by great labor on the part of the sailors, and by the aid of all the art of navigation, and by the zeal and carefulness of the pilot, and by the favoring influence of the breezes, and the careful observation of the signs of the stars, no one in his sound senses would ascribe the safety of the vessel, when, after being tossed by the waves, and wearied by the billows, it has at last reached the harbor in safety, to anything else than to the mercy of God. Not even the sailors or pilot venture to say, I have saved the ship, but they refer all to the mercy of God; not that they feel that they have contributed no skill or labor to save the ship, but because they know that while they contributed the labor, the safety of the vessel was ensured by God.” – Origen, De Pricipiis, 3.1.18

One of the many criticisms laid at the doorstep of theists is that we attribute to God that which seems to be easily accounted for by natural factors. A person suffering from a great illness recovers after consulting a physician and undergoing the physician’s recommended treatments. A husband safely navigates icy roads to come home to his concerned wife. A student, after long hours of study, finally passes the last exam and wins for herself degree and title.

If the patient, man, and woman are theists and devout, they will thank God for the outcome.

This seems like foolishness to those who believe firmly that we live in a world of simple efficient causality. In a mechanistic universe where no room for freedom exists, no room for multiple causality can exist. But the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or any other religious person, need not hold to a purely mechanistic universe. And, even if we did, the causation of God’s intent would still by no means be ruled out.

Let us put aside the question of mechanistic/non-mechanistic universes and consider a thought experiment with regard to causation.  We will see if we cannot get at what theists mean when they attribute to God some good event.

Imagine a man walking down a mountain path, hurrying to bring medicine to his daughter which he has acquired in a nearby village. The man is suddenly set upon by a mountain lion, and prays to God for help. In what seems a miraculous event, a fall of rocks at that moment crushes the mountain lion, allowing the man to pass by safely and rescue his child’s life. And so begins the story of a young woman who grows up to save her nation from poverty, despair, and invasion.

In a mechanistic appraisal of these events, we might say that the events could not have happened any other way. What appears to us as a shocking and favorable coincidence is, indeed, just one of the many patterns that emerges from the complex interaction of the factors of the universe. Those rocks would have fallen at that moment whether the man’s prayer had happened or not. Perhaps they would have fallen even if the man and mountain lion had not been there. Perhaps the motions or weight or sound of the mountain lion shook them free. Indeed, we could trace the physical causes of those rocks, that lion, and that man back through billions of years of determined causality to the moment of the Big Bang and say that the “why” of that moment was the exact formation of the energy and matter that first expanded in that principal moment.

Yet, we may see the events in another way. The “how” of the rocks falling and killing the mountain lion is also that I, the story teller, have made it happen. I have told the story, not putting the Big Bang first and leading up as a result of its form and matter to the inevitable encounter between man and mountain lion. Instead, the man’s experience, or the daughter’s life of heroism, are the center of the story. The story goes outward from there, and we follow it back to give it context and history. The “how” on this level of the events is my will and act of creating the story. It need not “begin at the beginning” if by “beginning” we mean the first chronological event.

Both “how’s” can exist together, simultaneously, but the mechanistic “how” exists due to the “will and act” how. This leaves out entirely the question of “why.” The why is also my will, but perhaps then it is my will that the young woman should save her country, or that the man should save his daughter, or that the wife of the man might not be widowed. In each case, though, the efficient causes are human efforts, or natural events.  Each person would be right in saying that, though they did their part, the accomplishment of their goal was given by the author of the story.

Benedick and Beatrice spar their way toward each other, but it is the Bard that is to be thanked for their marriage. Frodo may put in the very last of his strength to climb Mount Doom, but it is Tolkien who has ensured that the task is complete.

That we live in a story and not an accident of random events is a matter of perspective. One cannot demand scientific proof that we are in a story any more than Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy might. There is no experiment to run to tell us if we are in a narrative prepared with vast cosmic backdrop for our little lives of love, hatred, jealousies, nobilities, defeats and victories. One either considers the many elements and recognizes the master hand of the master storyteller, or one does not.

But it is clear that it is not contradiction or foolishness when, as the much maligned giant of Christian thought, the second and third century theologian, Origen, relates the situation of sailors above. For it is rooted deeply in the mystery of St. Paul’s teaching, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12-13).

It is in the will of God that Christians identify their salvation in both mundane and spiritual things. This is not merely theologizing, for the idea itself is contained in the scriptures. For St. Paul speaks from the Areopagus speaking of God as the one “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28).

I bring this last point up because some people who have not read much from the ancient world have an assumption that many of Christianity’s arguments are newly minted to defend an old system. But the argument for mechanism/fate is older than Christianity. The Stoics, as best I understand them, held a fatalistic view of a mechanistic universe. Origen, quoted above, lived at the end of the second century into the third century.

The debate is an ancient one, one that Christianity has been very active in from the beginning. And from the beginning we have maintained a very clear idea of (at least) two “how’s” of causality.

 

 

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Why Suffering 2: After Goodness

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Last week’s blog attempted to explain why, on a natural level, there must be some level of pain, if only very minor, in the process of becoming like God. This week I want to look at why I think that in our present state, it must involve more than simply that small act of letting go of our natural desires and involve real suffering. But first I want to revisit that transcendence of the natural desire for a moment.

We might imagine that for the first unfallen humans, not killing a particular animal or not eating the fruit was as easy as any other task. I think we would be wrong in saying this, for there are two kinds of commandment. The first, which we are more familiar with, involves keeping us away from doing what is really evil. “Do not murder” is always true everywhere. “Do not lie in court against your neighbor” is never untrue. However, “do not slay the white hart, for in the day you do Camelot will fall” is a different kind of command.

On its surface, it is a kind of magic. As long as the fruit is uneaten, or as long as the hart bounds through the forest, the magical land holds. When the rule is broken, the magic fades. But there is a deeper reality to the rule. It calls creatures onward and upward into God’s life. Each time the first people saw the fruit or the animal or whatever they were forbidden, there must have been a process of putting down a natural desire for it. That denial would have been an effort. It would probably not have been very hard, but it would have had to have been conscious for the magic to work. For in denying the natural good of this one thing, they see the better supernatural good of God.

But they did not do this forever. They fell. They broke the magic, and the garden fled. Or, perhaps, it is better to say that the garden was only a garden and not a wild jungle of dangers because those who walked in it were immortal gods for as long as they were obedient to the command. Lions will be lions, but their fangs mean nothing to Apollo. We need not claim that the world became wild only after sin, but that we, after long ages of evolution, came to be men and women with the immortalizing of our spiritual and rational elements as they were given to our newly immortal bodies. To such ones even the saber toothed tiger would be no more dangerous than the housecat . . . even less so.

However we say it, the gods became mortal, and sin entered the world. This sin, which is no different than the sin that lives in each of us, takes from us the easy joy in the other’s good, and sets us in fierce competition with each other. It makes the desire for things a terrible lord over our hearts. It sets jealousies and desires where there should not be. The lusts for sex and pleasure are set in a kind of disorder, but terribly worse is the lust for power and domination. To set our wills above the wills of others, to engorge ourselves by making others slaves or mere extensions of ourselves, is the direct product of our sin.

To be in this state is to be in a state opposed to God. And how can it not be suffering to turn from all of this? One might say that it would be only joy to do so, and in the end I would agree. But in the beginning it involves pain. Firstly, because it involves the giving up of that which we desire with disordered longing. Strengthened by sin, this desire is not only disordered but ravenous. The denial of such ravenous desire must be pain. We have gone beyond the simple natural desire for the fruit that we imagine must taste good, or the animal which would give us hearty chase. Those desires might be overcome with only a small denial of self. But these desires, these lusts after power, possession, and dominance, can only be resisted with effort and pain. Secondly, because we have identified ourselves with these desires, to turn from them is to turn, in some ways, from ourselves.

For a sinless person, a turning from things that are bad would be ease and joy. But a sinless person need not turn from such things. Her trial comes in denying the good things which have been forbidden her because better things have been offered. But a sinful person suffers greatly when turning from her sin. She reaches once more for the old evil, pulls her hand back, kills the self again, weeps, and cries out for aid. The process involves tears. They are the tears of the desperate, the one in need of strength, not merely the contrite. The hunger for evil does not simply go when she has “cried it all out,” but remains until it is cut out of her.

Here we must remember the distinction between “a sin” and “Sin.” A single sin, or a bundle of sins, may be set aside with contrition (here I do not stand with my Catholic brethren, for I do not think that attrition is needed, or, if needed, is wholly dealt with by the cross). However, Sin, that destructive power that lives within us, cannot simply be wept away. No, remaking is necessary there, and that process must involve some level of suffering, for it involves death. Who and what we were will be unmade to be made again. The unmaking of a thing certainly is not a pleasurable process, and that must come first. Perhaps it will all come in the cancer or fire that take our lives. Perhaps.

All of this has been theology of reason. It takes what has been revealed and what is in our experience and considers its ramifications. I want to turn next week to the tradition of the church. For it does not seem to be the consensus of those who have gone before us that the suffering that will purge us from all sin is simply our natural death.

 

Image: “Garden of Eden” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1621

Why Suffering – 1. The Natural and The Supernatural

My post “Jesus: On Our Side” generated a single question: Why am I so sure that the process of becoming like Christ’s idea of me will involve pain? Why will it not be, as it sometimes is, a delightful enfolding of love? I have been asked for a clear reason as to why I think the God of love will cause us suffering in the process of moving toward Him. Is God not the great healer? The great source of love? Why then shouldn’t God make the change one of, not suffering, but a kind of catharsis? When we are swallowed up in love, might we not weep away our sin until we are clean?

Intending to write a single blog post, I realized that this is in fact five posts. So I will be posting, perhaps once a week, a single reason why I believe the process of becoming like Christ involves suffering.

Week 1: The Natural and the Supernatural

Week 2: After Goodness

Week 3: Authority

Week 4: Spoken Aloud

Week 5: The Ever Higher Hill

The following is, I hope, if not a convincing argument as to why the process must involve suffering for us, a satisfactory explanation as to why I believe it must.

There is a debate, especially among my Catholic brothers and sisters, about the question of the relationship between nature and grace. If we can’t be fully satisfied by natural things, we are in some way owed God’s gracious gift of Godself (this is based on a philosophical concept from Aristotle). For a creature must be able to attain its own ends. However, if our own natural ends satisfy us so much, why should we care about God’s gracious gift? We could, it seems, reject it without any violence to our nature.

I find the debate to be difficult at best for a number of reasons, but primarily because, once you get into some of the higher philosophy and theology of it, it predicates of God distinctions that are not meaningful. The God presented in the debates is too anthropomorphic, making one decision “after” another, and setting divine freedom against divine necessity. (These are also the problems inherent in the philosophical debate about God’s freedom starting from Leibniz until today).

However, what is useful for our discussion is the focus on the distinction between human nature and God’s grace. I, siding with St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and many others and hold firmly that the human being is made primarily for fellowship with God. Our hearts are restless until we do. Yet, I also hold that the divine call to grace is a supernatural one. Nature points us in one direction, and the gracious call of God pulls us in another. There is pain in leaving the natural path; a giving up of many of our natural inclinations for supernatural commands. Indeed, following the commands will bring joy, or, when we are at our best, are joy themselves. But that does not remove the fact that by doing them, we are giving up something we would also like to be doing.

Anyone who has come from a relatively happy family, or at least a family of love (for a loving family is not always happy), and gone away to college, knows the feeling. You know you are doing what you must, what you should; even what you want. You know that joy waits just around the corner. But there is a wrench, a tearing, and a suffering that comes from that parting. You are leaving something natural, the home, for something less natural, the dormitory. Those of us who successfully went through the process will say without question that the process is worth it, and that untold joys have been the result. But that does not make the suffering not suffering.

Indeed, all steps away from the natural involve suffering. Christianity, or even religion, is not the only one to lay claim to such things. Let us take marriage for example. The Christian position on marriage is varied, but I will consider here the view held by Catholics, Orthodox, and most Anglicans: that marriage is a sacrament. As a sacrament, marriage is called to a supernatural level. It not only puts two people together in a binding contract with all due legal rights, but calls them to an “unnatural” relationship. They “forsake all others” and swear that the union will end only when their mortal  lives come to an end. This is an unnatural state for humans to be in, as we are constantly reminded by our culture. On the other side, we can see the growing movement of polyamory and open marriages (two distinct practices). These lifestyles, as best I understand them, hold that having only a single partner is not the situation that makes human beings the happiest.

In the middle is the system of the old Roman Republic. Two people make a contract together, and remain together as long as that contract is profitable to them. Hopefully the profit is joy, children, and a richer life, but that is not always the case. Then, when the contract is done, they go their own way to make another contract. Breaking of the contract is forbidden, but happens too often anyway. This system is very much like our own, and is, from a natural level, preferable to our own as it acknowledges that this kind of marriage is a purely natural institution that can and should be left naturally without much in the way of suffering.

What the Christian and the Open Marriage positions have in common is that they both call us to deny certain natural tendencies. The person in the Open Marriage must find his way through the jungle of jealousies and natural reactions to his mate being with other people. Sex aside, one must deal with the touch of the cheek, the affectionate hand holding, and the private jokes that, if all is well, they will be let in on but not in the same way as the two originators. There is a killing of the self that takes place in such situations that is done with the hope that, when these parts are dead, something better will be achieved on the other side. The Christian is in the same position, but on the opposite side of things. There is a death involved every time we meet someone truly wonderful who we might have loved deeply with Eros. We look at what might have been and we say “no,” knowing that we have committed ourselves to a choice. Our partner might be the best person for us, or he might not. Perhaps he is too loud, too angry, too lazy. And yet the Christian call is a supernatural call, one that calls us to deny our natural desires at times. Instead of killing the part of ourselves that wants exclusivity, we must kill the part that wants choices after our decision has been made.

Interestingly enough, both positions claim to draw their adherents to a kind of arch-natural state. Those who insist that human beings do not naturally have only one partner are no less claiming a “rightness” to their position than the Christian who claims a “rightness” to sacramental marriage. Both say that on the other side of the death of the “natural” level, there is something more natural and more life-giving.

The differences between these two positions are obvious and need not be gone into here in detail. But where they are similar is what is important. They both draw us away from our natural state, and this involves a fair amount of self-sacrifice and suffering. For no one has seen the one they truly love looking deeply into the eyes of another with equal love and not felt pain. And, conversely, no one has looked into the eyes of another and though “he . . . he would have made me far happier” and not suffered the shock of loss.

Another way of demonstrating this natural/supernatural dichotomy is from Scripture. The story of the Garden of Eden contains within it a special commandment. The man and his wife are not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a commandment given in a mythical setting, and I am fairly certain that the tree and commandment represent some other commandment given to humanity at its inception. Perhaps it was “do not kill creature X, for in the day that you do, you will surely die”. Or perhaps it was even a command not to eat a certain fruit. But whatever it was, it was not a natural commandment. If it lined up perfectly with the nature of the human creatures, it would have needed no commandment. God did not need to tell Adam not to eat rocks, Adam’s biological tendencies had that well in had. Instead, the command was itself a call to supernatural life: trusting that God is good, and that there is more for us than the natural world.

Obeying the commandment would have been almost nothing, a small self-denial for something much greater. But the self-denial must have involved some small level of suffering, else it could not be self-denial. Something must die in the giving up of what we want, even if the desire is small. If God had told us, “you shall not wear the color yellow” it would be only a small loss for me (though perhaps for others a deep loss). Yet, on those days when wearing yellow might seem best, it would involve a small, perhaps almost (but not quite) meaningless leaving of the self.

This plays out more obviously when we think about the demon of competition. We consider a good that we want, and that is not unlawful or harmful: a job, a friend’s time, a particular book on a shelf. We reach for the thing and find that another wants it. If it is someone we love, we naturally want them to have what they want. If it is a stranger, we may feel quite magnanimous to them. If it is an enemy, we may feel exactly the opposite. But how, even in the first two situations, are we to want their good if it conflicts with our good? How can I wish you to have the same job that I wish for myself?

The commandments of Christ demand from us that not only are we to wish good for all three of these people, our enemy not less than our loved ones, but that we are to give them the very thing we desire if they desire it. It is a giving away that involves suffering because, if we truly desired the job, or the treasured hour with a friend, or the hard to find book, we cannot lose it except with some level of suffering. Having worked for years to be ready to take the job, we find that another has it. How can we not suffer? Having been parted for a year, and having endured many sorrows, we find that the coveted moment is stolen from us when we might embrace our friend, and for a time hear his laughter and bad jokes again because another needs his time more. How can we not suffer?

Yet, we are called by God to go beyond these natural inclinations into joy. They can’t help but be suffering for us, and yet we must let them go. We must not stamp our feet and insist that the job is ours, or that our friend turn his back on someone in need. We must kill that part of ourselves and grow. I do not mean here into “mature adults” who can simply bear the pain, but into sons and daughters of God who give thanks that another has received good. This all involves pain.

But the fact that it involves quite as much pain as it does is strange. Should these things not be small “almost-nothings” that we give away easily? The fact that they are not will require another blog post.

Can God Make a Rock?

We are often presented with “unanswerable” questions by those who find the idea of God to be either ridiculous or self-contradictory. One aspect or another of the divine fullness is attacked by those who question every minute of every hour. Many of us, who believe that God is the God of traditional Christian expression, have had the question put to us “Can God Make a Rock that God can’t lift?” This post is a short exercise in answering this very question from a number of different theological perspectives. The first approaches the logic of the proposed situation, the second approaches the logic of the question itself, and the third approaches it from a specifically Christian perspective.

1. The Logic of the Proposed Situation

The question is aimed at attacking the omnipotence of God, or even the concept of omnipotence itself. The general idea is that because there are conflicting and mutually exclusive potential realities that an omnipotent God cannot exist, because both alternatives cannot logically be accomplished. Thus, the question asks whether it is possible for God to create a rock that omnipotence cannot lift. If the creation of the rock cannot be done, then God is not omnipotent. If the rock cannot be lifted, the same outcome results.

The question assumes a model of omnipotence that no theologian that I am aware of holds or has ever held in the Christian faith (though I did once meet a pastor who thought this way). The most famous statement on this is from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, who states “whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.” (Summa Theolog. I Q25, 3). Thus, whenever Christians say that God is all powerful, we mean specifically that all intrinsically possible things are within God’s power. Thus, God cannot make a square a circle and also leave it a square. It is possible for a square to become a circle, but it is not possible for it to also remain a square during or after the change.

Now that fact has major ramifications for many questions of Christian theology. For those who hold merely to forensic justification or imputed righteousness, one must ask how a person can be saved, i.e. have the life of God, and be in the very likeness of God, while remaining what they were beforehand. These models seem to propose that God can make a circle into a square and leave it still a circle after the fact. Such a thing is impossible, even for a God for whom all things are impossible.

Thus the question of the rock and God’s power, proposes a logically contradictory situation. God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, not because it is a possibility that there can be rocks that omnipotence cannot lift, but because it is a sheer impossibility. A rock, being a rock, must have weight, even if it is by some miracle of physics, infinite weight. Omnipotence can easily create enough force to move the rock. The logical contradiction is if Omnipotence could not move the rock, for then it would not be omnipotence. Thus we are left with a situation in which God can create a rock of any size, but the fact that it could not be lifted by omnipotence is itself a logical contradiction, and as we have seen, nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God…or any omnipotence for that matter.

Now, if this means that omnipotence is impossible, in the sense that many of our detractors imagine it, then we must agree, and have always agreed. Omnipotence which implies the ability to do logically contradictory things has never been, to my knowledge, put forward as an attribute of God by any reputable theologian in the entire history of the Church. So, we may agree with our detractors in deriding this particular version of omnipotence. Thank goodness we’ve never actually proposed it.

2. The Logic of the Question

The question itself is structured in a way that most people do not notice. It essentially forms a double negative, and thus condemns God, not for a lack of power, but for actually being omnipotent. I found this answer while reading Gregory of Nazianzus’ Orations, but the answer is so obvious that I’m embarrassed that I did not see it myself immediately.

On the surface, the question proposes two powers that God may have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size or weight. The second is the power to not lift a rock over a certain size. Immediately the problem comes out at once. The second is not a power at all, not an ability that God can have. The first is the ability to create rocks of any size at all. The second, however, is not an addition to power, but a subtraction of it.

To say that God lacks the ability to not be able to move certain sizes of rock is simply a very complicated way of saying God can move any rock. The fact that God can move rocks is a power, the ability to find a rock, or even to create a rock, that God can’t move, is not an addition to God’s power, but a subtraction from it. The trick to the question it that it shrouds the proposed lack of God’s power as if it were an addition to it. This would be like proposing the idea that I am a poor writer because I cannot write a sentence that I cannot read. (One need not resort, incidentally, to such complicated means to argue for the weaknesses in my writing). If I were a great writer, I could write any sentence. But I must not be a very good one, if there are sentences from my own hand that I cannot read. This is, of course, nonsense.

3. The Christian Response

This will not be a “Christian” Response in the manner that it will attempt to be nice. Christians should in fact be nice, as far as that goes, but they should also be as accurate as possible, and as faithful to the truth as possible. This answer is Christian, in the sense that it comes only from a Christian perspective. The first two answers could be given by anyone of any faith with a little logic behind them. This, however, turns on that most peculiar of Christian doctrines, the Incarnation.

For, it is true that God has made many stones that God cannot lift. One might guess that any stone much over a hundred and fifty pounds would be too much for the God of the Universe. For we, as Christians, believe that God emptied Godself in the act of becoming human, and dwelling among us. God, with human hands and feet, could not lift the vast majority of stones in the world. The body of a carpenter or stonecutter is strong, and Jesus of Nazareth could almost certainly bench more than I can. But the range of human strength is quite limited. Human beings are small things when it comes to the vast weight of many stones. And this Jesus, though God of the universe, was also a man.

And thus the answer particularly from Christianity is, yes. God can, and has, made many stones that God cannot lift. And this too is no detraction from His power. For the God of all creation to empty Himself, a process called Kenosis, is a vast and mighty miracle. To bridge the gap from that which is not created, God the Trinity, to that which is, the universe, and that particular bit we call Earth, is a miracle that even dwarfs the creation of the Universe itself. So mighty is God that God can walk with human feet, and hold things with human hands. But then, those hands can only hold so much.

Of course, we remember as well that Christ knew very well about humanity’s rock problems. So he offered us the power to move them, to become like Him, and to be able, through faith to move mountains. (Mt 17:20)

So ultimately, the question is not, “Can God make a rock so big that he cannot move it?” The question is “Can God make a rock so big, that those made to share God’s own nature cannot move it?” And the answer, thanks be to God, is no.

Ethics Without Teeth

Mr. Zindler has written a post that outlines why Atheism can in fact have ethics without divine fiat (found here: http://www.atheists.org/content/ethics-without-gods).  The question has been addressed by numerous people, but bears some reexamination.  Mr. Zindler’s article can be broken down into a number of simple and worthwhile points.  I will address a number of these together immediately after, and then go on to some particular responses, following that.

1.  The ancient Greeks and Romans had ethics without divine fiat, especially some well known figures such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius.  These ethics were very serviceable at that time, though they would perhaps not be today.

2.  Religious people do not actually act good because they fear hell or hope for heaven.

3.  Our psychological makeup, formed by evolution, wishes to be surrounded by happiness, and thus drives us to make the people around us happy.  We are by nature, tuned to care for each other so that we ourselves will be happy.

4.  Altruism, or some form of it, is demonstrated by our near relatives in the animal world.  Heroism, is older than religion, and thus needs no foundation in religion.

5. Religious moral codes are stuck in previous times and places, and have not changed with the times.  Ethics are to be planted on the ground of scientific self-knowledge, and thus must change as our knowledge of science changes.

6.  Gods are not solid grounds of ethics anyway.  Either they decree whatever they will, and thus goodness is arbitrary, or they recognize universal truths outside of themselves, and then what do we need them for?

7.  Practice of Enlightened Self-Interest is the best way to gain prolonged happiness.

8.  Ethics is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but the practice of predicting outcomes and acting in the way that brings the most prolonged happiness to oneself.  Because we are social creatures, hard wired to find the most happiness when others around us are happy, then we would do best to keep as many other people as happy as possible to prolong our own happiness.

Each of these points is excellently made by Mr. Zindler.  However, the central theological question for Atheists is not, “can you have ethics without a God,” but “can your ethics have an imperative ground without a god?”  We may set up whatever rules for ourselves we like, but when push comes to shove, why should I do this or that?  For morality and ethics are the sciences of “should” and “should not.”  A man should not secretly murder a homeless man on the street, even if there is no chance of his getting caught, and every chance that the man’s death might make everyone on the street happier.  But by Mr. Zindler’s showing, there is no good evolutionary reason not to kill such a man, except that I should not do it too often and risk capture or reprisal.

In fact, the whole upshot of Mr. Zindler’s ethics is “if you do blatantly bad things too often, people will kill you.”  Yes, unless you are the strongest person in the room, or the one with the biggest weapons, or the one who has decided to make the other biggest, strongest, most well armed people happy and no others.  I may make a man with a machine gun happy, only to take the gun, shoot him in the head, and then be the man with the machine gun myself.  In a poor village with no one to stop me, and in a backwater that no world government cares about, who is to say, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, that I am wrong to rape and steal if I, or I and a few close friends, have machine guns, and the villagers do not?

There is no force of “should” to Mr. Zindler’s ethics, except “I should do this if I want to be happiest.”  But if the plunder of a village, and the rape of women and children makes me happy…as it seems to for quite a number of people in the history of the world, not simply the rare sociopath or psychopath, then where is the impetus to not do these things?  If, in fact, I do these things to increase the wealth of my own village, at the expense of other villages, I am not, by Mr. Zindler’s definition, being unethical.

Ultimately, Mr. Zindler has presented a method for treating human beings merely as objects through which we are to attain our own prolonged happiness.  But he has failed to show that there is any ground for me to follow these rules when they no longer suit me, or for me to make any claims against anyone else’s actions.  Nor has he shown good reason why rational sentient creatures should show the kind of heroism that he describes in his description of African Apes.  An ape may be driven by strong instinctual forces to die for those who can still reproduce, but a human can make a conscious choice.  And that choice, if driven by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, can never be made for the prolonged happiness of self if that choice leads to the death of the self.  In fact, when weighing between non-existence, and a semi-happy, or even miserable life, the life of any kind offers more chance of happiness than non-existence.  So, by Mr. Zindler’s ethics, anything at all should be chosen over the loss of one’s own life, since the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate goal of human ethics, and no happiness can come to a person who does not exist.

Thus, while Mr. Zindler shows that people can in fact have ethics, a statement that Theologians would not, I think, argue with, he fails to show that the ethics he can come up with are unworthy of the name.  In fact, he once more shows how weak such atheistic ethics really are when they are held up to simple reason and practical example.

Particular Responses:

Now, to some of his more interesting points.  (2)The fear of hellfire may not be the impetus for good action in many people, but can Mr. Zindler show that it is not the impetus in most or all religious people?  Certainly there are a vast number of religious personal accounts which contradict this statement.  One need only consider the piety of the late medieval period to find Mr. Zindler’s statement to be highly uniformed.

(6)His dissection of Plato is flawed as well, especially in a world where both Christianity and Islam have deeply considered Plato’s writings.  The Christian theological answer to this is that God, as the ground of being, forms all things in God’s own likeness, and therefore as a reflection of God’s own goodness.  Telling the truth is good because it reflects the Character of God who, being external to time and space, is not subject to predicates of condition.  Thus, we cannot say “God might have been a liar” because “might have been” is properly predicated of entities with a past and dependent on external conditions.  The Christian understanding of God is that neither of these apply, as God is external to time (Eternal) and unconditioned (no external power shapes God to be what God is).  Thus, ethics in Christian Theology are not merely the whim of a God, nor a God observing an external reality, but the very character of God, the ground of all being, reflected in the world that God created.  (5)  Thus, since God is unchanging, the structure of ethics and morals are unchanging.  If Christian ethics are stuck in an ancient time, it is not because they have merely been carried forward; it is because they reflect unchanging realities in the created world.  Therefore they carry the weight of “Should” because they are intrinsic to the very nature of the created reality.  We are made to follow them, and not following them does violence to ourselves and others, in either very practical ways (which he has shown through his explanation of our sociological and psychological norms) or in ways which we may call “Spiritual” that lead us further from these eternal moral realities.

(4) Mr. Zindler claims that Heroism is older than religion. Where is his evidence of this?  Certainly Heroism is older than the oldest Monotheistic religions, but where is this historical record of pre-religious humanity?  The simple fact is we have none.  Mr. Zindler is making a claim that cannot here be backed up by anyone, but is simply fueled by a myth propagated by people who dislike religion, and thus believe, without any kind of historical evidence, that early humans did not have religion.

The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.

The Permitted Tactics

There’s all manner of things going on these days with the swelling support for gay marriage rights in the USA.  In the best situations, people on both sides of the issue are doing their best to stand their ground on what they believe to be the ethical sides of the issue.  But there seems to be, as well, a growing consensus that companies which take a particular stance on the issue should be subject to boycott, and in some cases actual governmental involvement, such as in the case of an Alderman blocking a Chic-Fil-A from receiving zoning rights.  These stances are taken on both sides, and we’ve heard about Evangelical Christians boycotting, or at least trying to boycott, companies for years based on their support of gay rights.  However, I think we’ve gone down the wrong road here on how we react to political stances, as well as how we have understood the proper use of the boycott.

For the purposes of discussing this topic, I’m going to put forward two hypothetical groups.  The first is the Inclusives, and the second is the Exclusives.  The Inclusives strive to bring in people and voices that have been excluded in the past.  They want equal rights under the state for all people.  The Exclusives think there are voices that do not need to be heard, and do not think that all rights apply to all people.  In our particular case, the Inclusives are striving for marriage rights for gay people, and the Exclusives are insisting that these rights belong only to the union of a man and a woman.

Now, what has happened, is that many avowed Inclusives have inadvertently become Exclusives through the conflict of these two ideologies.  The Inclusives want all voices to be heard, except the voices of the Exclusives.  They are fighting to get their point across, and to achieve goals, but in the midst of this struggle, they have advocated boycotts and what are essentially sanctions against the Exclusives.  Were these boycotts successful, these entities would cease to exist, and thus be effectively silenced by the exclusionary practices of the Inclusives.

Now, of course, the Exclusives are doing the same thing, and have been for years.  However, there is nothing particularly contradictory about the Exclusives doing this.  This is not a statement of support for the Exclusives, but only an observation that their position does not end up in contradiction if they maintain that there are voices which should no longer exist.  The Inclusives cannot maintain this position without some level of absurdity.  Thus, while we may not like it, it is fully consistent with the views of the Exclusives to attempt to silence their opponents through boycotts and the like, but not for the Inclusives to do so.

But then, there is the question of the rationality of the boycott itself.  I want to distinguish between two reasons for boycotting a company.  The first we will call a boycott for Teleological Reasons, and the second for Non-Teleological Reasons.  The Teleological Boycott is a boycott that is enacted because there is objection to the way the company does its business.  Thus the boycotts of the 1960’s regarding department stores and bus companies were Teleological Boycotts, as they aimed at the actual business practices of these companies.  They did business in an unfair and biased way.  The Non-Teleological Boycott objects to some element of a company that does not in fact have to do with how they do their business.  The repeated attempts by Evangelical and other Christians to boycott Disney for their perceived support of gay rights, is this kind of boycott.  There is no objection to how Disney does its business, making movies, running theme parks, but instead focuses on its stance on an issue.

Now, the boycott itself seems to be properly applied when it comes to Teleological Boycotts.  One may boycott Wal-Mart because of how they do their business, and not run into contradiction.  If one wishes that the company either ceased to do business in this manner voluntarily or not-voluntarily (through economic pressure) then this is fully consistent with the methods of the boycott.  However, if one boycotts Disney or Chick-Fil-A for their stances on gay rights, one seems to run into some confusion.

For it is ostensibly because of one’s ethics that one takes a stance on an issue.  The boycott over an ethical issue unrelated to the business of a company at best seems to be assuming that the ethical stances of companies, and the people who run them, are for sale.  At worst, it is bordering on a tyrannical tactic.  If their ethics are for sale, you simply give them an economic proposition that it will be in their best interest to change their stance.  As a tyrannical tactic, however it seeks to deny people money, and ultimately their living, home, clothing, and food, if they do not agree with one’s position.

Now in the first case, if the ethics really are for sale, then they are not really ethics.  They are merely economic maneuvering to take the position most likely to provide the most revenue.  However, if they are sincerely held beliefs, then no economic pressure will change them.

And here’s where the practical problem comes in.  For if we apply the Non-Teleological boycott to get our way, we assume that when a company agrees with our side of the debate their stance is a sincerely held ethical belief.  But when they are on the other side, we view it as an economic maneuver.  For if we thought that it was a sincerely held ethical belief, we would be monsters for denying people their livings for being in disagreement with us.  In fact, we would be extreme Exclusionists to the point of monstrosity.

Thus it seems that the tactics of the Inclusionists, if they wish to remain Inclusionists, must reject the desire to silence their opponents.  In fact, the tactics that we Inclusionists (because yes, I include myself as one who thinks that all people should have equal rights under the law, no matter what my theological views of the sacrament of marriage are) are free to use are much harder and much less tempting than those power plays that the Exclusionists use.  We are free to have everyone sit down at the table and to hear the voices of those who disagree with us, and to debate them.  And we are free to argue, and make our points known.  But we are not free, if we wish to remain Inclusionists, to exclude anyone, especially in a democracy.

Now, this short piece does not take into consideration questions of lobbying and those kind of elements of the situation.  But even taking those political elements into the discussion, we are still left with the economic or ethical motivations that either can or can’t be pressured by the attempt to silence the parties involved.  Ultimately, as in all struggles, to use the weapons of those you fight is to make you into your enemy.

An Alien Excellence

A recent debate I had with someone close to me brought into sharp relief a significant reality about our current cultural situation.  The argument was about the privatization of public schools due to the lack of government funding.  This short piece is not meant to address the problem of the lack of school funding specifically, but instead to consider the dangerous overall trend that our culture has been moving in.

The modern world has generally gone away from what is considered a “virtue ethic.”  Even more, we have moved away from the idea of virtues in the Greek sense of the word, meaning the “excellence proper to a particular thing or species.”  This concept of virtue evaluated anything, human, animal, or object, by measuring it against the particular excellence which it was intended to embody.  A hammer is a good hammer, in this view, when it knocks nails into wood well.  A horse is a good horse when it transports a soldier through a battle safely.  A sweater is a bad sweater if it does not keep us warm.  The excellence of one thing is not the excellence of another.

This will, of course, be familiar to those who have studied Plato and Aristotle.  But, this idea of what makes anything “good” in a qualitative sense is inherent in human evaluations of the world.  We know that a good dog is the dog that does what a dog is supposed to.  A good child is the one that acts as a child should, not as he or she shouldn’t.  Unfortunately we have, as a culture, found a new way of evaluating the quality of things.  Instead of having inherent excellence in themselves, we have found their excellences external to their particular natures.  We have defined their excellence, not by conforming to what they ought, but by how much profit they can bring us.

Within the realm of manufacturing, this has been evident for a very long time in our culture.  Cars are rarely made to be excellent modes of transportation, but instead are designed to generate profits for the manufacturer, the sales person, and the mechanic.  Our clothes are not designed to be excellent sources of covering for us, but instead wear out either physically or socially so that we must replace them.  We are all familiar with the term “Planned Obsolescence” as a concept which contains the idea that the things that we buy are going to break by design; so we will need to buy new ones.

And while we may accept this as the due course of industry, we find that it has also entered realms that we may be far less comfortable with.  The old idea of the virtue of art, whether visual or audible, was that it gave pleasure to those who experienced it.  A great artist would have a patron who, desiring to have art for its particular excellence, would provide for the artist’s material needs.  This is true from Michelangelo to the travelling bard going from one Lord’s hold to the next for a night’s food, shelter, and a bit of coin in exchange for his tales and songs.  A good song was one people wanted to hear again because it was pleasing to the ear.  People were not trained to want new and innovative songs all of the time.  They were content with familiar songs sung well.

These days, music is made, by and large, for its profit potential.  Movies are designed to be blockbusters racing for the highest ticket sales.  Video games are made to be “Triple A” titles measured in success by how many millions of titles they sell.  Our art has moved from being valued for its intrinsic virtue, the communication of joy, sorrow, or whatever particular human experience the artist has in mind (or his or her patron desires).  It is now valued for one particular reason: profit.

We see it as well, just as disturbingly, in our news.  The virtue of news is to report the truth with as little bias as possible.  Sensational news is nothing new, especially in the print business[1], but the recent explosion of news channels, websites, and personalities shows that we have moved almost wholly into a realm where what we learn is based more on how many clicks or views a thing gets, and not on its intrinsic worth to us.  More disturbing, we find that the central virtue of reporting, that of telling the truth, is pushed aside for the new central virtue:  profit.

We can move from these fields to one even more disturbing, that of our justice system.  Several new reports and articles outline the miscarriage of justice in many of our new privatized prisons which run, like all privatized industry, with the bottom line in mind.  Here we find human beings treated, not as consumers who must be courted, as in the two examples above, but as a new kind of slave labor[2].  The virtue of the justice system, to give to each individual what is his or hers by just rights, has been redirected to the new mono-virtue:  profit.

The same story can be told of our sports, our hobbies, and terrifyingly our healthcare system.

If we then consider the root of this discussion, my debate about the privatization of our public schools, I think the trend is obvious and frightening.

For the power that has moved the center of these different goods out of themselves and into the realm of profit is simply and plainly the love of money, or greed.  Put another way, it is Mammon that is drawing all things to itself, and turning all faces to look at it.  Each new thing that it turns serves it.  And if it serves Mammon…well, we know what it cannot serve.

Now when we look at a society that no longer finds the virtues of things in their own excellences, but only in their ability to produce profit, we find a few very troubling trends.

1.  The excellences of things, all being the same, no longer serve to distinguish them from one another.  A song is as good as a book, which is as good as a pair of socks, if they will each produce the same amount of profit.  In the past, the virtue of a book could not be compared with the virtue of a pair of socks, for a book does not keep one’s feet warm, except in the most dire of circumstances.  And socks make for very poor reading material.

2.  Since the virtue of a book is found in whether it will produce toys, movies, or sequels, and thus more and more profit, it matters very little that the book is a good book in the old sense of the word.  Any book will do, whether it is drivel or genius, as long as it sells.  It matters very little whether it has something to say, or is a work of brilliance.  The primary question now is not, “Is this good writing” but instead “will it sell?”  The only saving grace, so far, is that people, while they like very many bad books, still do love good books.  And thus good books often, though not always, produce good profits.  This may change, however, if the institutions which teach our children which are good and which are bad books, are more concerned with profit than the virtue of literature.

3.  This brings us to the concept of the dissonance of the consumer and the provider.  For a provider, the point is simply to produce a product that will sell, and sell enough to make a tidy profit.  For those more competitively minded, the goal is to take as much of the market as possible, since this will bring the greatest profit possible.  For the consumer, who still values the old concept of virtue and excellence to some degree, the product is only attractive as long as it still has some semblance of the old virtues.  A hammer that does not knock nails into wood will not sell.  Not yet anyway.

So now we come to the central question of the privatization of schools.  For in the old model, the virtue of a school was to teach children two things.  The first was information that they could use in the world for practical purposes.  The second was to teach students the proper virtues of things.  A book was for literary enjoyment, a basketball for play, and a laboratory for discovering the nature of the universe.  In the new model, a corporately run school has every interest in teaching children that the proper end of books, balls, and Bunsen burners is profit.  Why do we do science?  In the old model, it was for the virtue of knowledge, or the virtue of mastery over the material world.  In the new model, it is to patent new drugs, new technologies, new methods by which we may make a profit.  Why do we write?  In the old world it was to communicate our very humanity to others.  Now, it is to sell books, or get clicks on blog pages to get ad revenue.  Why do we play?  Once we played to express the joy of being embodied creatures in a world with limits.  We were masters of the world by finding joy in the limits of gravity, the firmness of hoops, and the resilience of rubber.  Today we play to get millions a year, and our face on shirts, sports drinks, and video games.

A powerful corporate run school system can choose to not create the well taught humans who have value in and of themselves, but indoctrinated consumers who are designed to serve that ancient god Mammon at every turn.  Every work of their hands, every thought, every joy, will be servant to this all consuming power.  To turn our schools over to institutions whose central tenet is greed when we have seen what they have done to all other areas of our lives that they have touched, would be, in an almost literal way, to bow down to ancient Moloch, the god who ate children.

Of course, things are not so grim yet that no music is made for its own excellence.  Sports are still played for the joy of being embodied creatures.  Books are still written because things must be said, or because a story longs to be told.  There are still women and men reporting the news to us with deep integrity.  The description above of our dire state is the description of the corporate view of these things, both corporation and the corporate mindset, not the view of the community or individual.  These last two still have some idea of what virtues still are.

But how long can this last if we turn our schools over to this power that Jesus described as mutually exclusive to the service of God?  When my debate partner answered that “the schools will have to be good, otherwise they won’t be profitable” he made a very simple error.  How will people know, in twenty years time, if the schools are good or not, if they have been taught to think that the only good is profit?  If the school makes profit, it will be, in this new understanding of virtue, a good school.  In fact, the old school, the one that showed each thing to have an excellence in and of itself, will be viewed as the bad school.  For it produced men and women, not merely consumers.

As a last thought, there is one area that I have not mentioned as being affected by this converting power, because it is one that is supposed to exist with an excellence outside of itself.  That is the church.  The excellence of the church lies in her Bride, the Son of God.  But even here we find that many churches, especially in the mainline protestant expression of the faith, find themselves functioning like businesses, with the bottom-line as the main goal.  This gets shrouded in language that indicates that the reason pews should be filled is due to concern for the immortal souls of people.  But the practical realities are shriveled endowments and shrinking tithes.

Even now, we see the move to turn the church over to Mammon. And we must work and pray to resist this.  For if our schools and our churches are in the service of this terrible God, where will we find the power to resist?  Where could it come from if our children are not taught to love the good and hate the evil, but instead taught to love the profitable?  Where will we find it if our preachers are worried for their jobs, and not worried for the truth of God’s love?

Closed and Contradicted

Contradicted

One of the more difficult things about debating with many atheists is the very practical self-contradiction of certain positions they can take[1].  For example, I posted several months ago about someone who argued that “Only an idiot believes that things which cannot be/aren’t proved to exist are facts[2]”  and more recently a gentleman who I have debated with on my last post has argued on his blog “If something is 100% truth then it is not scientifically testable, thus not true. We can only say that things are 99.9(repeating)% truth, but not completely true[3].”  Now, one must ask very simply, how does he know that what he is saying is true?  He seems to say it with the authority of an agreed upon reality, but it is a reality which does not live up to its own test.

In other words, is his statement verifiable only to the point of 99.9(repeating)%?  Has his statement been shown to be consistently true through repeated independent experimentation?  Is there some doubt in his mind that, if further evidence appeared, we might find that his statement is untrue?

The answer, of course, is “no” to all of these questions.  The reason is that the statement “if something is 100% truth, then it is not scientifically testable, thus not true” is not a scientific statement.  It is a philosophical statement.  It has philosophical assumptions that it rests on, like “truth can only be gotten at by scientific means.”  Of course this is a self-contradictory philosophical statement, for it does not rest on scientific experimentation.  It thus fails its own rigorous standards.

This assumption and philosophical position is rampant throughout much atheistic debate.  And it reflects a move to subsume all human knowledge under the rule of scientific discovery.  But there is a category confusion here, as human knowledge is composed of two elements, pieces of information (premises), and the relationships between each piece of information (conclusions).  Now, science can give us new pieces of information, but the relationships between those pieces are left to logic.  And, as much as atheists claim “rationality” as their watchword, they have fallen into a very obvious and illogical blunder by attempting to subsume the logical connections under the rule of the pieces of information.  But this simply will not stand.

For it is only by the laws of logic that we see how things relate, and only by building on apriori truths that we can know anything at all.  Now, by arguing that “the only truth worth knowing is scientific truth” they are in fact obeying the basic laws of logic by asserting an a priori truth, one which is not assailable by any outside means.  However, we need not assail it by outside means, as it destroys itself internally by invalidating itself as a philosophical position.  If all philosophical positions are invalid, as they cannot prove themselves scientifically, so then too is the position that all philosophical positions are invalid.

So as to not be accused of a lack of rigor, let us simply state the argument in its most basic form.

1.  Truth can only be attained through scientific means

2.  Statement 1 is not attainable by scientific means

Conclusion:  Statement 1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

The basic pattern follows for all self contradictory statements:

1.  Only x is true.

2.  Statement 1 is not x.

Conclusion:  1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

This also follows for the basic structure of the negation of all truth:

1.  No statements are true.

2.  Statement 1 is a statement

Conclusion: Statement 1 is not true, and is self contradictory.

That this should not be obvious to anyone arguing for the “rational” position is shocking.  That they do not readily admit to it is not.  For to admit that their view of “worthwhile truth” is itself merely a philosophy (and a self-contradictory one at that) will remove the mystique that what they are doing is SCIENCE, that word that carries with it so much weight in the modern world.  They pass off as professional science done well what is actually amateur philosophy done poorly.

And this is the reason why science can never be sufficient for human purpose.  It is a category of facts, not truth.  Truth belongs to the realm of logic, not experimentation.  Now this too is an a priori position.  However, we can see very clearly that it is not self contradictory, as the statement “truth may be gotten by logical means” is not self-defeating.  It does not prove itself to be true, of course.  And we should point out that there are many positions like this that we fundamentally disagree with.

1.   Josh is the only person who can be right.

2.   Josh is the one who claims statement 1.

3.  Claim 1 is not self contradictory.

The reasoning may be valid here, but anyone knows that the reasoning is not sound.  So the point is not that “truth comes through logic” must be true, but that it is not self-contradictory where the opposite is self contradictory.  And since those are the only two possibilities, we conclude that “truth comes through logic” must be true, because its opposite is self-contradictory.

There seem to be two stances that a skeptic can take here.

1.  “Truth comes from logic, that’s fine.  But logic is incredibly unreliable at delivering that truth, so let’s rely on something else.”  The problem is, once more, how do you know?  You would have to argue from experience here, but that is very shaky ground for a skeptic.  Experience can be falsified.  And if we concede that logic is unreliable at delivering truth (which I do not actually concede), then how can we rely on it to tell us that science is the reliable source of information?

2.  A skeptic might argue that we need to show some evidence that this is the case.  We need not, in fact.  The reason we need not is because we accept that truth can come from logical means, not merely from factual evidence.  We can maintain this without evidence, but with logical certitude without self contradiction.  They however, cannot even say “I will not believe it without scientific evidence because only scientific evidence is truth” because the “because” that connects “I will not believe it without scientific evidence” and “only scientific evidence is truth” is a logical connection, not a scientific connection.

Closed

Now this brings me to the second point of a philosophy based purely on naturalism that insists that no other thing exists.  It can explain everything by means of itself.  This may sound like a positive, but when compared to the other systems that can explain everything, one sees how destructive it is to both rational thought and public discourse.  For the other systems which explain everything by means of themselves are Solipsism and modern Biblical Fundamentalism.

Both a naturalist and a solipsist can explain everything in the universe by means of their own philosophy and make room for no other.  The Solipsist says “I am the only thing that exists, and I, though at my current moment do not know how I am doing it, create all of the sense data that I experience.  Thus, even external verification or lack of verification of my experience is invalid, for it too must come through my senses.  Do you slap me?  I feel it, but that is merely sense data that I am imagining for myself.  Do you tell a different story of an event?  It does not matter, for the event never really happened.”  The naturalist says “you have spiritual experience?  That is really just natural experience.  You have seen miracles?  You are deceived by nature.  You believe historical documents about miracles?  We all know they don’t happen, so once again you are deceived.”

The modern Biblical Fundamentalist does the same when confronted with dinosaur bones or evolution.  They say that the Devil is at work, that God has placed things in the world to test our Biblical faith.  They say that people are deceived by anything other than the Bible.  Their mode of interpreting the Bible explains absolutely everything, and you can say nothing to them to bring them out of the tunnel vision of their monomania.

The closed systems then answer in the same ways, and interestingly enough, with the same paranoid and conspiratorial suspicions.  It is no wonder that paranoia itself is a disorder once diagnosed as a monomania.  If everyone is out to get you, no one, no matter how they tell you that they are not out to get you, can appear as a friend.  No information can come in but that which is filtered through the one single lense that you allow for.

Now what we do with closed systems is first, admit that they might, by logic, be true.  For there is no way to prove them false.  One cannot prove by logic that the outside world does in fact exist.  One cannot prove by science that God or the supernatural exists.  Thus we must admit with all rigor that they are possible systems.  But then, that is as far as we can go with them.  For from their little self-referential positions, they can answer all questions, and they do it in the same way.

They may shout “Yes!  Of course we can answer all questions, that is our point!  You should listen to us!”  But it will not do.  The paranoid person can explain all of your actions as well, sitting in his chair, back to the wall, staring out his window to make sure that “they” aren’t coming for him.  If you say you are a friend, he says you are part of the conspiracy.  If you shake him to get him from his madness, he laughs and says that you have revealed yourself  as part of the plot.  If you can explain all things by a single lens, you really fail to explain anything.

Next, it seems, we should then say about them as Confucious does “Those whose courses are different cannot lay plans for one another.” (Analects 15).  Their course, like the course of a Solipsist, is different.  Their system is closed; they can explain all things without room for other kinds of knowledge.  Our system, however, is open, and makes room for their knowledge, and the knowledge of logic, of experience, and of that special kind of experience called inter-personal experience.

Thus we come to what is an impasse, but it is an impasse between the actually open minded, who accept many sources of information, and the solipsist/naturalist/fundamentalist, who insists on only one piece of information.

Response

There seem to be two ways of responding to this post.  First, a Scientific Naturalist or Positivist might try to argue logically.  This will not do.  They have stated that logic is not useful at getting to truth.  Why then do they insist on using it?  I invite them to stick to their guns, and to argue without logic.  Show me that scientific evidence is a superior source of truth than logic by doing so without logic.  If it really is what they claim, they should be able to show quite easily how this is the case through only evidence.

The problem, of course, is that all argumentation is rooted in logic.  One cannot say “if…then” without using logic.  One cannot say “I answer that…” without logic.  Nor can one even respond without the ground/consequent relationship underlying one’s response.  For the “if…then” of “If I wish to answer, I must respond” or “because I want to show him to be wrong, I will write…” is the ground consequent relationship.  We can see this here.

1.  I wish to answer an argument

2.  To answer an argument I must write/speak the answer

3.  I must then write/speak

All of this happens at such a basic level of human thought that we don’t notice it.  We simply do it.  But that is my point.  You cannot get at truth except by logic.  You can experience things, you can test things, but they do not have “truth” without the logical process that every thought of our minds use.  To show that science is superior, one must somehow stop using logic to how it is inferior to evidence.

The second way is to deny that their system is closed and to accuse theism of a closed system.  This will not work.  For theism allows for unknowns, and allows for doubt.  We allow that information can come from many different sources.  We explain dinosaur bones by science, we explain picnics by way of sunny days and groups of friends, and we explain miracles by way of the supernatural.  We are open to many sources of information.  We utilize all four of Aristotle’s causes, not just one.  And thus our system is open, embracing science, embracing logic, and embracing experience.

In other words, our system is human.


[1] Having argued against the position of fundamentalists myself, I appreciate the frustration they must often feel when arguing against us as well.

[2] http://theologian78.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/truthandtruth/ The current post is an expansion of the ideas contained in this post from last July.

[3] http://garrettspeaks.com/  There is another problem here, of course, other than the one I am going to focus on here in this post.  It is the self-contradiction of the statement “if something is 100% true, it is not true” which equates truth and falsehood with each other.  This is not only an illogical statement, it is also a logically destructive statement, which functions simply and practically the same as the rest of this post indicates the larger philosophical statement does.

Audhumla and Quantum Fields

I’ve just purchased the book A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival from Amazon.  I’ve done a bit of reading on the book and found, to my disappointment, that Dr. Krauss does not in fact explain why we have a universe.  In fact, Dr. Krauss apparently makes some common mistakes of logic that are, I think, very ancient.  I will reserve my judgement on the book until I get it and get to read what a physicist thinks about theology.

However, this short piece is on what a student of theology thinks about physics, an equally bracing and invigorating endeavor, I hope.  In a review of Dr. Krauss’ book, I found an interesting statement that reinforced something I had known for a while:  modern science does not attempt to explain where the laws of physics or quantum fields come from (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/04/23/science-will-never-explain-why-theres-something-rather-than-nothing/).  They are givens, already on the field before the game starts.  So when a professor of physics states in his blog (http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/why_is_there_something_rather_than_nothing)  that we can model “nothing” at the beginning of time, he slips in that we also need to imagine first a “monochromatic electromagnetic field.”  Now, Dr. Stenger, whose blog I’m referencing, does not tell us where this field came from.  Nor does he explain how the field, being something, is also nothing.

Anyone familiar with the ancient world will see what is happening here.  Such attempts are nothing more than the old model of pagan “creation” stories.  We begin with Gaia, or Uranos, or Ginnungagap, or the deep.  From these things, other things arise. The world cow, Audhumla, licks the ice and a head appears.  The world gives birth to the sky, or vice versa, and then all things come from their union.  The hero rises from the depths of the primordial ocean.

Or, in the modern world…a monochromatic electromagnetic field gives rise to particles because it is unstable.

They are the same answer to the same question.  They answer it in the same way, and they fail at answering it in the same way.  For the Norseman, Ginnungagap simply was, and then there was the cow, and the first giant.  For the modern physicist who tries to explain these things, there are fields.  And while the modern physicist has bigger words (though Ginnungagap is pretty big and much more fun to say than monochromatic), he doesn’t have more precise tools to answer the real question.  Where did Ginunngagap come from?

For, no matter how we torture the words, we cannot explain quantum fields by means of quantum fields, just as the heavens are not an explanation for themselves in the Greek myths.  Quantum fields are not self existent.  For quantum fields are in relationship to each other in a context.  One field is not the other, nor is it the context in which all the fields exist.  For two things to have relationship to each other, they must exist within a shared context.  Anything that exists within a context is not self existent, for if it were, the principle of its own being would be itself.  If that is the case, that being can have no shared reality with anything else unless that reality is based on the self-existent object.  Quantum fields do not have the principle of their own existence within themselves.  We know this because they are in the universe.  The only thing that we know of that could fit the requirements of a self-existent thing, as far as our reality is concerned, is the universe itself.  And here I mean that vast empty space with no attributes, not the ever expanding conglomeration of space-time that we inhabit.

And here is where the problem of a self-existent universe comes in.  For if the vast empty space with no attributes is self existent, then how does it come to have things inside of it.  It is logically possible, as I said above, for a self existent thing to bring other things into being that have a shared context with each other, and with the self existent being.  However, if that being is simple, (and it must be, for if it is composite, where do its composite parts come from?) where does its creative power come from?  For to create is the function of a mind and power.  Thus, if the vast empty space is self-existent, then it must also be a mind and agency.  But then these two ideas are obviously contradictory.  For if the endless empty space is truly empty, then where is the mind and what is the tool of its power?  If we say one of the things in the universe, we have contradicted ourselves, for the question is where those things come from.

Christianity answers all of this and says that the self-existent being is simple, non-composite, and creates a separate reality from itself that exists as a dependent on that self-existent reality.  That being is mind, meaning that it thinks and has a will.  It chooses to create something other than itself.  It is omnipotent, and thus has the ability to create.

Now, all of this has been said before.  But what I would like to propose is that there is an element of this that is not often considered.  And here is where I will bring in my other area of some knowledge, computer programming.

When we create virtual worlds, such as video games, we create an interesting three layer reality.  There is the reality inside of the game world, where objects relate to each other by the rules of the world.  There is the reality that we exist in, where the game is represented by electrical impulses and silicon in our computers.  Then there is the layer which defines the world of the game, in other words, the computer code.  That code exists in one way in our reality, and in another way in the game’s reality.  In our reality I can write:

void CalculateVelocity(ref GameObject O)
{
if (O.Mass > MassLimit)
{
O.Speed -= 1;
}
else
{
O.Speed +=1;
}

}

In simple terms, this simply means that I can check the mass of an object in my game world, and make a choice.  If it is higher than a threshold that I set, then the speed of the object decreases.  If it is not, then it increases.

Now, there are two things to note here.  First, this is not a representation of how mass and speed work in our world.  I know that much science.  Second, this doesn’t matter at all, because that code is defining how mass and speed work in the virtual world that I’m creating.

What is fascinating is that in the game world, these rules work just like the laws of physics.  You can observe them working, and you can, through experimentation, deduce what they are.  But, search the whole game world and you will never find them.  Because they both exist and do not exist in the game world.  They are part of its makeup, but not in the same way that the objects in the world are.  They are not affected by the laws of the world; they are the laws of the world.  And the laws of a world, while observable, are hidden.

And this is a good hint to us that we live in a created universe.  For, just as we create very small virtual worlds, and observe that they function a certain way, we observe that our world works in the same pattern.  And since we know for certain that the virtual worlds are created worlds, it may be a safe bet to say that the universe, which displays this same strange quirk of having observable but hidden laws, is also a created thing.

It also shows why science can never answer the question of “why there is something rather than nothing.”  For while it might catalog everything in the universe, the laws of physics and quantum mechanics are not “in” the universe the same way that matter is.  They govern the universe.  But to govern it, they must be, in some way, outside of it, and therefore outside of the reach of science. They are, even if we do not think of them this way, supernatural to the universe.

And thus, without a real understanding of the doctrine of Transcendence, which the ancient pagans did not have (with the possible exception of Plato), the best we can do is Ginnungagap and the monochromatic electromagnetic field.  We find that materialism always leads to the same results, just with different formulations.  And, contrary to Dr. Strenger’s strange assertion, we do not fall back as a last resort to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”  Instead, we begin with the revolutionary and startling statement:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.