Saturday, December 24, 2005

Humility in the Academy

Humility in the Academy

Pride is unbecoming to the Christian scholar.  Confidence, expertise, ambition – these are all important qualities of a professor or researcher.  Arrogance, however, is unseemly even for the atheist.

The pride that springs from our proficiency is the particular concern I wish to address here.  We are experts, and expertise is no sin.  When superiority infects our self-confidence, though, we lose our ability to hear from our brothers and sisters outside our expertise.  We begin to think that our discipline has a corner on the knowledge market, and that anyone outside our circle is a second-class academic citizen.  Lest you glibly think to yourself, “Yeah, just like those jerks over in the ________ department,” let me say that I have observed this sin to be ubiquitous.  

Traditionally, the Hatfields in the humanities have been feuding with the McCoys of the sciences.  Both groups look down their bespectacled noses at the other, their patronizing glances lingering disapprovingly.  Both groups have their shibboleths.  They are both right about one thing – the “others” just don’t understand the finer aspects of their discipline.  But this difference quickly festers into disdain.  My contention is this:  such contempt is grounded, not in the others’ incompetence, but rather in our own arrogance.  We are naturally predisposed to consider our own point of view the best, and this is a case of such inclinations gone awry.  We all have a duty to examine ourselves, to see if this manifestation of pride has infected us.

Considering other points of view, while quite convinced of your own position, is perhaps the most difficult thing in the world to do.  This is exactly why humility must be our greatest ambition.  Our Lord, who knew all things, did not close his ears to others.  I’m not suggesting that he was uncertain of his own beliefs (although others have), but rather that his humble nature simply overflowed into his dialogues.  The One who was even willing to set aside his own equality with God was easily willing to sit and listen to his fellow man.  How much more should we be willing to listen?  You may say, “I will listen, but only to those who I deem worthy.”  Such a person has missed the point.  Jesus submitted himself to all sorts, none of whom was worthy.  “But Jesus vituperated some people, like the Pharisees.”  It is another subtle and dangerous truth that those who disagree with us often appear Pharisaical.  Pride colors even our perceptions.  Humility makes others seem better than ourselves.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Intelligent Design Deemed Dumb

Well, this is another fine mess.

ID critics castigate groups like the Discovery Institute for politicizing a scientific debate. They say that the proper forum for this dispute is in peer-reviewed academic journals. This makes perfect sense to me. ID advocates decry that they are being stonewalled -- that the journals refuse to publish their work. Catch-22.

Right or wrong, champions of ID got what they asked for, and more. They circumvented the academic channels and went straight to the courts, where a judge promptly told them to stuff it. Hmm. That didn't work out very well.

Now, here's my beef. Judge Jones is not qualified to decide questions about the nature of science. He is an expert in the law, not the philosophy of science. 80 years earlier in the Scopes trial, the court made this clear enough.

So am I upset with the judge? No. This case should never have crossed his desk.

Friends of ID -- let's get this issue out of the hands of politicians and lawyers and back into the hands of philosophers and scientists, where it belongs. Let's keep trying to publish in the journals. The renaissance in Christian philosophy that is currently taking place was accomplished in this way. Let's keep this an academic issue, not a political one.

Merry Christmas from Chewbacca

Yesterday was highbrow, so today. . . you get this.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Coming of the Magi

Why do you think the birth of the Christ-child was like death for the Magi?

The Coming of the Magi
~ T.S. Elliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

(HT to Thinking Christian)
Monday, December 12, 2005

The Moral Miracle

Grace is a moral miracle. The cosmos has a natural order or configuration -- the Hebrew writers called it hokma -- which encompasses both the physical and spiritual aspects of reality. There are laws of physics and chemistry that govern the material world, and there are moral laws that order our relationships with other beings. When either kind of law is transgressed, there are consequences. Jump out of a plane without a parachute, and gravity will execute swift judgment. Act cruelly to a child, and consequences, while not always immediate, are sure to follow. God is not mocked, and neither is physics.

However, there are occasions when a spiritual being, whose free actions are not constrained or determined by physical laws, will contravene said laws. God can inject his own causal power into an otherwise closed and determined system and produce an outcome that would have been impossible, given those conditions. (In my view, human beings can do this as well, but only with regard to their own bodies.) We call this a miracle. (For the philosophical sticklers, I am merely outlining sufficient conditions for a miracle.)

Justice is a feature of the universe that is as ineluctable as any law of physics. We are constantly assured in the Scriptures that, ultimately, there will be justice. “For God will bring every act to judgment.” (Eccl. 12:14) No one will get away with anything. This is the natural order of things . . . until God intervenes. When God extends grace, it contravenes the moral framework of the cosmos, but He has that prerogative. However, there is a critical difference between moral miracles and physical ones. Physical miracles upset the natural order of things – like tilting a pinball machine from the outside. God needs no justification for such acts. Moral interventions, however, cannot be had on the cheap. One cannot acquit the guilty capriciously and still be called “just.” There is a certain conservation of moral energy in the universe, and this law is not breakable. Edmund could not be freed simply for the wanting, not by Aslan’s mighty roar, not even by the great Emperor-Over-the-Sea.

God can satisfy the requirement for justice, the necessary retribution that I deserve for my evil acts, by another means. He does not simply sweep it under the rug, pat me on the head and say, “That’s OK, I’ll let it go this time.” To do so would be to abdicate his divine throne, to no longer be worthy of worship, for only one who is perfectly just may rule the cosmos. My debt was paid, but by another. What is truly miraculous about this is not the payment, but rather the love that took my guilt upon itself. God was not required to do so – I did not deserve it. God would be just to allow every person to reap what they have sown (and none of us can fathom the true extent of our sowing). So, in a sense, the miracle has a locus in space and time, which is the cross. Everything changed that hour. The juggernaut that is the moral Tao would have rolled along quite oblivious to our fear of judgment, crushing us all to dust. But something happened that the universe did not expect. God intervened. He deflected the path of the Newtonian consequences of sin. It did not crush me, but neither did it stop or lose its hideous momentum. Jesus stood in its path and did not flinch.

Those who trust God are those who know they have dodged a well-deserved bullet. They have jumped out of the moral airplane without a parachute, and somehow found themselves safely on the ground. It is in every sense of the word, a miracle.
Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Chronicles of Nausea?

Paula Toynbee at The Guardian, a British newspaper, detested the film. You can see her scathing review here. The irony is really quite unmistakable for anyone who has read the Chronicles. When a person encounters Aslan, their perception of him is profoundly colored by who they are. Good people generally see him as kind, loving, strong and worthy of worship. People who are rotten tend to either cower in terror, expecting to be eaten, or they simply loathe him and want to kill him or flee from him. They think him a tyrant or a horror. A person’s reaction to Aslan, in Lewis' Narnia, is a sort of measuring rod for the heart.

Ms. Toynbee has simply proven Lewis to be correct.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005

No Perfect Worlds?

If you are reading this blog hoping to be enlightened in matters of theology or philosophy, caveat emptor. Scott Adams at The Dilbert Blog has made it clear that you shouldn't always trust opinions in print. "You’ve probably noticed that opinion pollsters go out of their way to include as many morons as possible in surveys. That’s called a representative sample. And what it means is that the opinion of Einstein, for example, counts as much as the opinion of the guy who thinks The Family Circus comic is sending him secret messages via Little Billy."

What a laugh! The Family Circus stopped sending secret messages years ago.

So here is the secret message from Plantinga's FWD – the following is possibly true:

(4) God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.

OK, it's not secret, it's a quote. And at this point, I think I buy it. So, Charlie or anyone else can feel free to pick at this claim. I will not say, "But that's not what I believe." I'm standing behind Alvin.

So why couldn't God make this "perfect world?" First P. shows that there are some worlds that God cannot actualize (create). Are we agreed here? P. then explains why a world with moral good but no moral evil is one of those worlds. Is it possible that all people suffer from “trans-world depravity” (TWD)? I.e., for every person, could there be at least one set of circumstances in which they will go wrong in every possible world? If the answer is, “Yes, this is possible,” then it is also possible that there is no world that God can create in which there is no evil.

The concept of freedom is consistent throughout the argument. Consider Eve. It is possible that no matter which world God created, Eve would have freely gone wrong at some point (TWD). Now I don’t have to prove that this is true, just that it’s possible. If you think I’m wrong, then you must show that it is impossible for this to be the case. It is possible that there is a sinless world, but it’s also possible that there isn’t.

How does this translate into ordinary language? This world has evil because God wanted us to be free, and we freely made some evil choices. Why didn’t God create a world better circumstances that would preclude evil? Maybe it’s because there is no such world. I can’t prove this, but if it’s a possibility, then we have a possible solution, and that’s all we need.

Now, some atheists have pointed out various problems with the FWD in general, but if we are talking about Plantinga, we’ll want to stick to what he says. Otherwise, we have no way of arguing.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Plantinga's Free Will Defense Spelled Out

The ongoing saga of a meager menagerie of modest-minded, make-believe mavins pondering problematic propositions. We are wrestling with Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga's "Free Will Defense" (FWD), which is a possible solution to the logical problem of evil.

Well, Charlie. I hope you're proud of yourself. You've made a mess. Why can't you just repent and believe like the rest of us?

Seriously, I think we might be making progress here. I can see the solution -- all we need is a set of 30-weight ball bearings and some gauze pads. It's all ball bearings nowadays. Come on guys! It's so simple. Maybe you need a refresher course.

No, seriously, let's lay down a few parameters that I think will be helpful.

(1) If we debate the coherence of Plantinga's FWD, let's stick to picking on him, and not our own versions. So, distinctions not found in Plantinga (P), such as PFW and GWF, or the pass/flunk test, need to be set aside. These are false dichotomies that are not helpful. If they are truly representative of P, then this needs to be shown. Here is a nice summary of P.'s FWD.

(2) Similarly, I think it's important to recognize that Plantinga's FWD is not a defense of theism in general, but rather of Christian Theism. It assumes the Christian version of God, man, sin, etc. So, when we say "sin," we can all agree what we mean. There are other definitions of "sin," to be sure, but we are not refering to those. The charge is with the coherence of Christian Theism in particular. I'm open to broadening the debate if you would like, however.

That being said, let's return to the argument. The captain has now turned on the fasten seat-belts sign. All seatbacks and tray tables should be in their upright and locked position. Prepare for take-off.

Here is the basic line of the FWD:
(I'm changing the numbers for simplicity.)
In the logical problem of evil, atheologians claim that the following two propositions are logically inconsistent:
(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.
(2) Evil exists.

Plantinga says that in order to show that (1) and (2) are consistent, all we need to do is find a third proposition that is consistent with (1), and together with (1) will entail (2). Here's a candidate:

(3) God creates a world containing evil and has a good reason for doing so.

P. distinguishes between a theodicy and a defense. A theodicy (justification of God) wants to show that (3) is true. A defense only wants to show that (3) is possibly true. That is the goal of the Free Will Defense. It only needs to show possibility in order to show that (1) and (2) are logically consistent.

P states, "the heart of the FWD is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also containted moral evil." (Alvin Plantinga, "The Free Will Defense," Philosophy of Religion, An Anthology, Louis Pojman, ed. Wadsworth, 1994). So P. is claiming that the following is possible:

(4) God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.

All this amounts to is that there could be many people who would sin at least once, no matter how God stacks the deck, since He cannot control their free choices. Thus, there might be no possible world in which people are significantly free, and there is no evil. The fact that this might be true, or is possibly true, is enough to defeat the logical problem of evil. Now, the probabalistic/evidential problem of evil is another story. You can see a version of it here.

OK -- now we are clear on what is being debated. That should help. You can now move freely about the cabin.
Saturday, December 03, 2005

Are We Really Free?

Charlie is concerned that the Christian definition of free will keeps changing to fit the needs of the argument. If people are free, and God does not interfere, then they are free simpliciter. If God chooses which world we find ourselves in, then our choices are determined.

Charlie, I think I might be getting the idea here. Imagine world F (free) where God gives people the free choice of either choosing evil or good. Now, in F, God foreknows their choices, and I think you agree that this does not determine their actions. Similarly, their actions are NOT determined by God's choosing to create world F (out of all the feasible worlds). For instance, my choice to have cheerios and not rice krispies today was known by God. He could have created world F', where on this day I had no cheerios in my cabinet, but rather had froot loops, and freely chose them over the rice krispies. So, did God determine which cereral I would eat today?

I think our intuition is to say, "no, God didn't determine the choice, but he determined the parameters." OK? So am I truly free today, even though God de facto limited my choices to only cheerios and rice krispies? Yes, I am, because there were at least two live options. Does this seem right so far? This discussion is really helping me get some clarity.

Now, I think we can say that God determines the parameters of Eve's choices, but not the choosing itself. She is not free to do anything. She can't fly, nor can she have froot loops for breakfast. God gives her a range of limited choices, but they are real choices. In circumstances GS (being in the garden witht the serpent), she is free to either eat the fruit (E), or not eat it (NE). (Remember: God's foreknowledge does not determine this choice.) So whatever she chooses, E or NE, it is a free choice.

Now imagine a world F*, where God orchestrates it so that Eve never finds herself in circumstances GS, or in any circumstances where sin is a live option. She is free to choose from any of the live options available, but none of these options include sin. She is simply never tempted. So, the question is, has she freely chosen God? This is a hard question, and not rhetorical. Her choosing has not been fiddled with, as with a puppet. But the parameters have been so severely limited that her freedom seems to be a mere illusion. In one sense, she freely chooses God, but the word 'chooses' seems to be without meaning when you do not have alternatives. So, Eve does not "fail" a test. From her vantage point, she is free. But from ours, si she really? Again, this is not an open and shut case. What do you think?

Before you answer, imagine a child who grows up in a fundamentalist Christian home where he is sheltered from every temptation and is never exposed to other ways of thinking. He has never heard of atheism, or hinduism or Islam. He has never seen a philosophy book, or read Camus, or seen Contact. Has this child freely chosen the Christian way of life and beliefs? I'm not really sure he has.