Saturday, July 29, 2006

Immigration: A Plea for Redescription

I'm quite surprised by the Evangelical voice in the immigration debate. Yes, I know that it is a conservative voice. Yes, I know that it is a voice that's often nationalistic. But I'm still surprised. The language they use is not the right one for a Christian.

Evangelicals talk of illegal immigration and often say of illegal immigrants that they're criminals. They say they have no respect for law.

Evangelicals talk of the need for border security. They talk of the economic drains on the U.S. economy - health care and education are the two mentioned most often. They talk of the threat of terrorism.

I don't wish to dispute the truth of any of this. Some of it seems true to me. Some false. But let's put the issue of truth to the side. Instead let's redescribe the situation and ask whether the Evangelical ought to change her views if she adopts this redescription.

Let us say that the great majority of illegal immigrants are Christian. Let us say that they come from poverty, and that their sole reason to enter the U.S. is to make a better life for themselves and their families. Let us say that they work very hard. Let us say that they love their families deeply - indeed that their culture seems to value family greater than our own.

What is the Evangelical to say? I think it obvious. Illegal immigrants are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They live out the Christian ideal of love of family and of God. They are, like all national heroes here in the U.S., risk takers who sacrifice for the sake of those they love.

Evangelical, I say this to you: if you really do believe what you say you believe, you must change how you speak - and how you think - of illegal immigrants. In Christ, there is no nation, there is no race. Rather there is only humanity. Treat the illegal immigrants with the respect their humanity demands. Recognize in them their great virtues. Know that they're precisely the sort of people you wish to live and work here in the U.S.

If you do not change, you make those around you suspect that you are racist. You give lie to your proclamation of your faith. You make your faith seem like a cover for your racism.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Divine Simplicity

I still do a bit of philosophical work. A few months ago, I came across this piece. Its authors are Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey Brower. Among its topics is divine simplicity. Much in the paper is good, but the discussion of divine simplicity is deeply flawed. I explain why here.

What is the doctrine of divine simplicity? It is that God is simple in all ways that a being can be simple. It is that within his being, God displays absolutely no multiplicity of any kind. On this doctrine, God has no temporal parts and he has no spatial parts. On this doctrine, he exemplifies no property, for if a thing exemplifies a property, we find within it both that property and the relation of exemplification.

The doctrine of divine simplicity has many defenders. Among them are Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. As one might expect given that men of such philosophical acumen are among its defenders, its allure is undeniable. For if God in some way divides his being up into parts, it seems that those parts are more basic than is he. If God divides his being up into parts, he must depend upon those parts for his existence, for in general a thing, if composite, depends for its existence upon the existence of its parts.

But we simply cannot say such things of God. Nothing is more basic than is he. He depends upon nothing for his existence. Thus God has no parts of any kind. He has no temporal parts. He has no spatial parts. He exemplifies no property.

I'll leave you with a set of objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Though I do feel its allure, I do not know what to say in response to them.

1. The Christian God is triune. He unites with his being three persons. But even if this does not imply a multiplicity of distinct Gods, does it not imply a multiplicity of distinct persons? Does it then not imply that there is a kind of plurality within God's being?

2. God is omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. But does this not mean that he exemplifies three distinct properties? Thus does it not mean that God's being evinces plurality? Even if we could somehow prove that we have here not three properties but one property with three names, do we not have to say that God is distinct from this property and thus that his being evinces plurality? For a property is something abstract, something that can be exemplified. But God is not abstract. Rather he is perfectly concrete, and like all things that are concrete, he cannot be exemplified. (If he could be exemplified, it would make sense to say some such thing as this: x exemplifies Godness. But this is nonsense. Thus God is not at all like, say, color. It makes perfect sense to say that a thing exemplifies redness.)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

My Creed

Ever since my interest in Christianity began to grow (I seem now to recall that it began the year my twins were born - 1999) I've found that I cannot join a church. The reason, simply put, is that I know of no church where I'd find myself in complete agreement on all doctrinal matters with other members. Those brave few who've read more than a few of my posts know something of the objections I raise to Christian doctrine, both Catholic and Protestant.

Last night I had a minor epiphany. I realized that I was wrong about this. My lack of agreement should not serve as an impediment to my conversion. There is much in Christianity that I accept. Perhaps that makes me a Christian. Perhaps I should simply pick a church with whose members I am in agreement on a number of fundamental issues, and join it.

What are those issues that I think important? For what should I look in a church? My answer is My Creed. (My Creed is subject to change without prior notification. The author of My Creed does not claim he has certain knowledge of any of its constituent propositions. Rather he claims only that they now seem plausible to him.)

My Creed

The world revealed to the senses is not the whole of the world. The self revealed to the senses is not the whole of the self. The world did not come to be from nothing. Rather it had a cause that stands outside it. The cause is single, not multiple. The cause is God. The self did not come from nothing. It did not come from blind physical processes unwatched and not chosen. Rather the self was made by another and greater self. It was made by God. God wishes that we love both him and one another for eternity. But in our present state this is impossible. We live in a state of spiritual infancy, and our purpose in this life and in the life after is to learn to love perfectly. All are immortal. All will fulfill their purpose. The opportunity for spiritual growth does not end when we die. Rather it persists for so long as we fall short of perfection. Perhaps I will be perfected in this life. Perhaps my perfection will require the life-age of the universe. But no matter how long it takes, it will happen. Christ was perfect love made flesh. He came not to pay a price, but rather to evince love, give hope, and form a body of followers in which love might grow. Scripture is a human record of God's relation to the world of his creation and as such is subject to the very errors that plague all human work. Scripture is not inerrant. Scripture answers in us a felt need for guidance in our moral quest. We know that its ethic of love answers to our most fundamental need. Its sole authority rests in this.

I'd be curious if anyone has a suggestion about a denomination in which someone such as me - someone who believes only My Creed and no more - might be welcome.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Many From One: The Metaphysics of Human Genesis

The debate over the research use of human embryonic stem cells rages. I have little new to say about it. But I would like to correct one nearly ubiquitous mistake. It is that a human being begins to exist when sperm fertilizes ovum. (In what follows, when I speak of sperm, ovum and zygote, I mean the human variety.)

Of course I do not dispute that the fertilized ovum, i.e. the zygote, is alive. Nor do I dispute that it is human. But it is not yet the human being that will come to exist.

How can it be human and not a human being? It is human but not a human being in precisely the sense that a sperm or an ovum is human but not a human being. (For simplicity, consider only the example of a sperm cell.) A sperm is human in the sense that it originates in a human male. It is thus human and not, say, bovine or canine. But of course it not a human being.

Note that the indefinite article 'a' is crucial here. A sperm is human but is not a human. (Of course a human is human. But a thing might be human and not a human.)

What I've said so far is beyond dispute. If you think it false, or do not understand, give it another go. Do not continue on until you understand.

Now begins the metaphysics. I've said that a zygote is human but not a human being, and I've explained what I mean by this. But I've not yet given my reason. The reason takes us into the metaphysics of identity.

When the zygote divides, it gives rise to a pair of new cells. Does the zygote survive its division? If it does, it is either one or the other of the pair of cells to which it gives rise. (It cannot be both, for one thing cannot become two things.) But since the two cells to which it gives rise are exactly similar, we can have no more reason to say that the zygote becomes this one than that it becomes that one. Thus neither of the pair of child cells is the proper successor to the parent zygote cell, i.e. neither is identical to the parent. Conclusion: when the zygote divides, it ceases to exist.

Note that a human zygote is in this regard precisely similar to all cells that undergo division. When an amoeba divides, it ceases to exist. When a bacterium divides, it ceases to exist. Cell division is, in all cases, at once both destructive and generative. The parent cell ceases to exist. The child cells begin to exist.

Now, assume for the sake of reductio ad absurdum that a zygote is already a human being is not a mere precursor thereof. (Reductio ad absurdum is a form of argument in which a certain assumption is show false by the deduction of an absurdity from it). As argued, when the zygote divides, it ceases to exist. Thus when the zygote divides, the human being that by assumption it was ceases to exist. Of course if this were so, we must say at some point in time either at or after zygotic division, a new human being comes to exist, for of course pregnancy does end in the birth of a human being.

This is absurd. Pregnancy does not progress through the creation of one human being, its destruction, and the creation of a new. Rather there is only ever one human being within the womb. Thus the assumption with which be began must be false. It must be false that a zygote is already a human being.

This leaves us with the question of just when a human being does in fact begin to exist. Is it when the zygote divides, or is it after? I suspect that it's not at the time of division but rather some days after. I'll return to the issue in a later post, but do note that the door has been opened for even the most ardent defender of the sanctity of human life to endorse embryonic stem cell research.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God: Addendum

In Infinite Sin, Infinite God I asked the question, Just what is meant when we are said to have an infinite obligation? I considered two possible responses, viz. we have an obligation to do something infinite, and we have an obligation to do a thing perfectly. But I now say that two other answers are possible. (iii) An infinite obligation is an obligation that extends through all future time. (iv) An infinite obligation is an obligation that is infinite in strength.

Let us consider each in turn.

An obligation that extends through all future time is of course infinite in a way. But its infinitude does not necessarily imply that its violation merits an infinite penalty. For any particular violation of that obligation need not itself extend through infinite time. Rather it might occur at a single point in time, and if so, it does not evince the kind of infinity found in the obligation.

What if the violation were never to cease? What if, for example, I were to never love God as I ought? Even if this were so, still the violation would never be infinite in time. It would in a certain sense grow but it would always remain finite. Thus even a violation that never ceases does not for that reason merit an infinite penalty.

Now let us turn to iv. What sense are we to make of talk of an obligation infinite in strength? Only one answer seems possible: an obligation is infinite in strength just if no other possible obligation can take precedence over it. For what can we mean when we say that one obligation is stronger than another than that the one takes precedence over the other? Plausibly our obligations to God are of this sort, for no matter how great is our obligation to one another, our obligation to God is greater still. Let us now ask whether the fact that our obligations to God can never be trumped entails that their violation merits an infinite penalty. Here I begin to loose my way. When we trade in talk of infinite strength for talk of precedence, we seem no longer to have any basis on which to judge just how harshly this or that violation should be treated. Of course we do have a basis on which to say that this violation should be treated more harshly than that, and thus we have a kind of relative penalty scale on which we can order possible violations. But we have no reason to say that a certain violation, considered in isolation, deserves just this penalty and no other. We have no way to fix any point on the scale.

Thus again we find that we have no reason to suppose that the violation of an infinite obligation requires an infinite penalty. A violation of our obligation to God, even though it can never be trumped, might still merit only a finite penalty. (Of course it would merit a greater penalty than a violation of any other sort of obligation, but this alone does not imply that the penalty merited must be infinite.) With this, SMITE collapses.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Infinite Sin, Infinite God

I often hear said that any sin, no matter how minor from our point of view, merits eternal torment, because like all sins it is an infinite sin against an infinite God. (Call this doctrine "SMITE", for "Sin Merits Infinite TormEnt".) A perspicuous statement of this doctrine is found in Jonathan Edwards.

[S]in is heinous enough to deserve eternal punishment, and such a punishment is no more than proportionable to the evil or demerit of sin. If evil of sin be infinite, as the punishment is, then it is manifest that the punishment is no more than proportionable to the sin punished, and is no more than sin deserves. And if the obligation to love, honour, and obey God be infinite, then sin which is the violation of this obligation, is a violation of infinite obligation, and so is an infinite evil. Once more, sin being an infinite evil, deserves an infinite punishment, an infinite punishment is no more than it deserves: therefore such punishment is just; which was the thing to be proved. (Jonathan Edwards, "The Eternity of Hell Torments" in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 1974) 83.)

In sum, the view is this. All sin is a violation of our obligation to God. Moreover, all our obligations to God are infinite. Thus violation of any of those obligations is an infinite evil. But an infinite evil deserves an infinite penalty. Thus all sin deserves an infinite penalty.

Let us ask if this view is defensible.

Let us turn first to the notion of an infinite penalty. How are we to understand 'infinite penalty' in this context? Is is a penalty exacted for infinite time; in this context, the kind of infinity meant is eternity. But note that it is a penalty that has not been paid for all past time. Rather it's a penalty that a sinner will begin to pay at some time in the future. But if this is so, the penalty paid will always be finite. After a day, the sinner will have paid only a bit. After a thousand years, much will have been paid. But no matter how far we go into the future, only a finite amount of the infinite penalty will have been paid. We must conclude that it's a logical impossibility to pay the infinite penalty. But if it's impossible to pay the penalty, it seems absurd to say of God that He exacts it from us. Surely we should not say of God that He attempts to bring about a thing that simply cannot occur. The circle cannot be squared. Thus God will not attempt to square it. We cannot pay the infinite penalty. Thus God will not attempt to extract it from us.

What now of the claim that all sin is a violation of our obligation to God? (Edwards does not make this claim explicit, but he does seem to presuppose it.) I do not say that it is false. Instead I say only that I do not understand it. If I fail to discipline my children, I violate the obligation I have to them. But how do I also thereby violate an obligation I have to God? Have I wronged God? Perhaps I wrong God as I wrong a parent if I were his child's teacher and yet failed to teach that child. But this is speculation.

Last let us examine the claim that all our obligations to God are infinite. Take Edwards' example of love. In what sense is my obligation to love God infinite? Two answers seem possible. (i) Perhaps it is an obligation to evince an infinite love of God. However, I do not think that I'm capable of such a thing. I am a finite being, and all that I feel and do is of necessity finite. Thus it's impossible for me to evince an infinite love. (ii) Is the obligation to evince infinite love of God an obligation to evince a perfect love of God? I find it plausible to say that I ought to love God perfectly. But as said before, I cannot love God infinitely, for I can do nothing infinitely. Thus to love God perfectly is not to love Him infinitely.

Indeed what I've said of love can be said of all our obligations to God. They are not infinite obligations. Rather they are obligations to do a thing perfectly. (I suspect that Edwards has confused 'infinite' and 'perfect'. In the case of God, all that He is and does is of course both infinite and perfect. But in our case, though perfection is possible, infinity is not. The perfection appropriate to us qua finite beings is finite; the perfection appropriate to God qua infinite being is infinite.) But once we've said this, we find that we must reject SMITE. Our sins, since not infinite, do not merit eternal torment.

If I were more cynical that I am, I would say that Edwards invented a fallacious little argument for a conclusion he already believed. (If I were more cynical than I am, I'd say he often does this.)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Whither Personal Responsiblity?

A few days ago I had my say about Evangelical Christianity and the American ideal of self-reliance. Last night as I lay in bed, I began to wonder about a certain related ideal, the ideal of personal responsibility. It too is touted by Evangelicals; it too is an American ideal. (You're most likely to find it in the mouth of a Republican, but it is not unique to them.)

Calls for personal responsibility are calls to take personal responsibility for what we do. Thus they are not the really quite trivial claim that we in fact are responsible for what we do. They are rather calls to acknowledge that we are responsible and to act as if we know it.

(Before I continue, let me say this about the 'personal' of 'personal responsibility'. It adds nothing more than emphasis, for of course all responsibility is of necessity personal. The only beings that act are persons - groups act only in the sense that the persons who make them up act. But only those beings who act can be responsible for what they do, and so only those beings who act can take responsibility for what they do. Thus I'll drop the 'personal' from 'personal responsibility' in what follows. I'll say only 'responsibility'.)

What has the call to take responsibility to do with self-reliance? First we must say that they are not one and the same. The fact that ones takes responsibility for what one has done in the past does not imply that one was then self-reliant; one can take responsibility, for instance, for one's lack of self-reliance, for one's reliance not upon oneself but upon others. But surely the two are related in a way. Indeed in the minds of those who think both important, they are inextricably linked. What is the nature of that link? Here I think it helpful to distinguish a past-directed call to take responsibility from a future-directed one. The past-directed call is a call to accept whatever consequence might be associated with one's past mistakes. The future-directed call is a call to take charge of one's life, to make it one's own. How do I at present act in such a way that I might take responsibility for a day to come? Insofar as it in my power, I quite deliberately decide how best to act and invest myself fully in the fulfillment of my plan. But if I do this, I am self-reliant.

Thus we find that a call to take responsibility, if understood as a future-directed call, is one and the same as the call to self-reliance. But if this is so, the Evangelical belief that we ought to take responsibility for what we do is subject to the very same objection that I made in Can a Good Christian be a Good American? Evangelical Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon Christ. Thus it cannot be a religion of responsibility for our future. It is on the contrary a religion of Christ's responsibility for our future.

The Evangelical will of course protest. She will say that, though my conclusion has a kernel of truth in it, that kernel is wrapped in falsehood. The kernel is that through Christ and Christ alone are we able to keep His commands. If left to our own, she will say, we are quite incapable of obedience to the law. But that this is so, she will say, does not imply that we can take no responsibility for our future. For Christ will not come to our aid if we do not ask Him, and if we do not ask we will stand quite justly condemned. Thus there is one thing that we must do. We must ask for Christ's aid. We must admit our weakness, our sinfulness. We must acknowledge Christ's rightful place as our ruler and we must submit to him.

But notice just how weak is this move. We are left with a drastically attenuated type of responsibility. There is only one thing we ought to do, only one thing we can do, and it is to ask for help. If the call to take responsibility is only this, how very thin it is.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Can a Good Christian be a Good American?

Can a good Christian be a good American? (Some cringe when citizens of the U.S. use 'American' to describe themselves and themselves alone. America, they say, includes all of North, Central and South America. With all due respect, they seem not to have considered the possibility that 'American' is ambiguous. It means either an inhabitant of the United States or an inhabitant of the greater continent of which the U.S. is part. I mean the former.)

American Christians, at least those of an Evangelical bent, are likely to say 'Of course a good Christian can be a good American'. Indeed they're likely to say good Christians make the best Americans, that the ideals of Christianity and of Americanism are not only compatible but serve to reinforce one another. (This is no doubt part of what's claimed when Evangelicals say that this is a Christian nation. They mean not only that America was founded on Christian ideals but that those ideals, if followed, make one a good American. Evangelicals seem on the whole quite patriotic, quite nationalistic, for they believe that in the U.S. Christianity fares best.)

I deny this. Good Christians most certainly cannot be good Americans. For consider an ideal at the core of Americanism, the ideal of self-reliance. It is part of what makes us distinctive as a people, and even when we fall short of it we still project it as a ideal. We are the people who do not need help, who do not rely upon help. Indeed we think that help corrupts. It makes us lazy, it makes us dependent. Better to eschew all help even if one fails without it, we say.

Who do we admire most here in the U.S.? The scrappy young boxer from a broken family who fights his way to the top. The child of poverty who, against all odds, manages to get an education and then begins a business that she makes successful through sheer grit. We're all told to be like these, to go out into the world and follow our dream. (Evangelicals often criticize Hollywood for its anti-Christian bent. But Hollywood still pushes the 'follow your dream' message hard. Consistency demands that Evangelicals commend Hollywood for that.) We're not told to sit back and let the dream come to us. We're not told to attach ourselves to another who will realize our dream for us. No, not that. We're told to go out and ourselves realize our dream.

Note just how deeply individualistic is this ideal. It's the individual that is told to go out into the world and make his way there. Whatever success he meets is his alone; whatever failure he suffers is his alone. He owes neither success or failure to anyone or any group outside himself. It is all his and his alone. It is a lonely ideal, an ideal that posits only the individual and a world to be conquered. It has no use for group or for origin. Indeed it is deeply suspicious of talk of such things. On the ideal of self-reliance, talk of group-membership or of origin can easily turn into an excuse not to work, not to better oneself or one's station. Better to put talk of such things to the side and get on with the work at hand.

This ideal of self-reliance is fundamentally at odds with Christianity. Christianity is a religion of non-self-reliance. It is a religion of reliance upon another. The other is of course Christ. Whatever strength we have comes from him. Whatever in us is good has him as its source.

Does this mean that we do no work? Of course not. Does this mean that we set not goals? Of course not. Rather it means that we must recognize in all we do that it is not we who achieve some good but rather Christ through us. Self-reliance is a myth. Christ-reliance is the only truth. Pride in the fruits of our own labor is always misplaced. Gratitude to Christ for what he works through us is always required.

Moreover Christianity is a religion in which the group is of fundamental importance. It is a religion that demands we set aside the individualism proper to Americanism and submit ourselves to serve the body of Christ here on Earth, the Christian church. The Christian is at bottom not one set out to conquer the world. He is rather one of many, and his very identity is wrapped up in his place within the Church. He is who is he because of that place.

This seems to me a fundamental incoherence in the Evangelical world-view. I suspect that Evangelical's keep their adherence to the ideals of Americanism and of Christianity separate. They do not allow they to come into contact, for if they did the psychic strain of their inconsistency would force them to give up one or the other. I submit to them that they should consider the two ideals together.

One last point. The incompatibility of the ideals of Christianity and Americanism should lead Evangelicals to rethink their oft-made claim that the United States is a Christian nation. If they mean by this that the ideals that animate the two are fully consistent and indeed serve to reinforce one another (and no doubt this is part of what's meant) they're dead wrong, and if one's fundamental loyalty is to Christ one must work to rid American of the myth of self-reliance.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ad Hominem

I often find that I do not understand charges of ad hominem. (For the novice: ad hominem is a fallacy of a certain sort, i.e. it is a kind of mistake made in the attempt to establish the truth of some conclusion. The phrase 'ad hominem' is from the Latin, and means roughly 'against the man'. Ad hominem, we will find, is a fallacy that illegitimately substitutes a judgment about the character of a man for a judgment about the truth of what he says.) I don't mean that I don't understand what's meant by 'ad hominem'. About that I'm tolerably clear. What I often don't understand is why in debate this or that person thinks his opponent is guilty of ad hominem. I suspect that many charges of ad homimen are misplaced.

In the course of my discussion of ad hominem, I'll explain why I think charges of ad homimen are often misplaced.

First, let us place ad hominem on the fallacy map. Ad hominem is an informal fallacy. It has to do not with the form of an argument but rather with the content of its premises and conclusion. It is, moreover, a fallacy of irrelevance. The premises of an argument guilty of ad hominem are not relevant to its conclusion, i.e. the truth of those premises (if in fact they are true) should in no way contribute to our confidence in the truth of the conclusion. Last ad hominem is a species of genetic fallacy. One who commits ad hominem invites us to reject an opinion for no other reason than that its source is tainted in some way.

Next let us have a definition.

An argument commits the fallacy of ad hominem just if it infers from premises to do solely with the character of a person that that person's views about a certain irrelevant matter are false.

The definition makes quite clear just what ad hominem is. It is a fallacy of irrelevance in which we are to conclude that what a man says is false because he and not his argument has some defect. (Excuse the sexist language. I promise next post to shift to 'she' and 'her'.)

Why take the time to define this particular form of fallacy of irrelevance? Why not simply counsel that when one argues one must be careful never to commit any fallacy of irrelevance? Of course all arguments in which the premises are irrelevant to the conclusion are fallacious. Why not simply say so and leave it at that? The reason is that ad hominem is really quite common. Indeed we humans seem to have a predilection to commit it. We do it again and again. Why is this? Do we perhaps feel a need to believe that those we condemn must be through and through corrupt, so corrupt that even their very words are always false? Do we perhaps feel a need to tear down those we condemn so that we cannot even grant the truth of what they say? These are but guesses. I'll speculate no further. This question is, in all strictness, not a logical one at all; it has nothing to do with logic per se.

If you've ever had a logician explain to you what ad hominem is, likely that logician will not have inserted 'irrelevant' into her definition as I have into mine. Why insert it? Why not leave it out? If we leave it out, we must conclude that ad hominem is not always a fallacy. For we might well encounter an argument in which both premises and conclusion are about the character of a man. Indeed such a argument might take this form:

Issac is quick to anger but slow to forgive. Thus Issac is a hypocrite.

In this little argument, both the premise and the conclusion concern Issac's character. But the premise is quite clearly relevant to the conclusion. (Those who are quick to anger sin against others and thus are in need of their forgiveness. But Issac only very reluctantly gives forgiveness to others.) Thus the argument commits no fallacy. We must conclude then that if we wish to say that ad hominem is in all cases fallacious, the claims made within the premises about a man's character must be irrelevant to the claim made within the conclusion.

Of course instances of ad hominem are likely not as brazen as the definition might lead us to suspect. As with other sorts of fallacy, one who commits ad hominem will likely try to hide his mistake. He will not say any such thing as this: "Issac is a mean son-of-a-bitch. Thus his proof of the Poincare conjecture must be mistaken." Rather one who commits the fallacy of ad hominem is likely to hide his error by misdirection. Often he begins with a discussion of another's views. But he quickly leaves off discussion of those views and begins a rant about the other's faults. In this way we are invited to reject the other's views though we are never explicitly told that his views must be false because he has this or that fault of character. The moral here is that we must take care both when we read the arguments of others and when we construct our own. Ad hominem can be subtle. It can attempt to hide itself. Beware, then, when an argument - whether your own or the argument of another - begins to delve into the life of a man. This is no sure sign that the argument is fallacious. (Recall the little argument about Issac.) But it is a danger sign.

I'll say just a few words about mistakes to avoid when a charge of ad hominem is made. (i) One does not commit ad hominem simply because one says something critical of the character of another. Criticism of character is quite obviously often permissible, indeed sometimes it is required. But one may not infer anything irrelevant about the truth of a person's views simply because one has found fault not with those views but with them. (ii) In cases where one wishes to determine whether a certain person is a genuine authority in some area of inquiry, one may quite legitimately say something about their character. An environmental scientist - a climatologist, say - who radically altered his views after he began employment in the oil industry quite naturally and inevitably comes under suspicion. He looks to have sold out. Now, we cannot say that his views are for that reason false - if we did, that would be ad hominem. But we can for that reason find him no longer a legitimate authority. He has likely compromised his objectivity and thus we can no longer look to him as a source of unbiased, expert opinion.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A New Type of Theodicy: Dembski on Natural Evil

I suspect that some will say that I've been overly harsh with William Dembski. Perhaps so. But even if I have not been overly harsh, let me now be unabashedly enthusiastic. Dembski has authored a quite extraordinary piece in which he attempts to square the claims that (i) natural evil long predates the Fall, and (ii) the existence of natural evil depends upon the Fall. It is here: Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science. The style is crisp and conversational with no sacrifice made to clarity. It is at once both insightful and creative. It should be read by all who take an interest in theodicy. I do hope that it has the effect that it deserves.

Dembski provides a short summary of his view in the passage below:

God does not merely allow personal [i.e. moral] evils . . . to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God also brings about natural evils (e.g., death, predation, parasitism, disease, drought, famines, earthquakes, and hurricanes), and lets them run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself disorders the creation . . .. God disorders the world not merely as a matter of justice (to bring judgment against human sin as required by God’s holiness) but even more significantly as a matter of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin).

In his argument he relies upon the view, held in common by such diverse thinkers as Augustine, Thomas and Calvin, that in the 'moment' of God's creation of the world, He knew all that would happen within it. (I scare-quote 'moment' because it does not signify a moment within time but an, as it were, all-at-once creative act in which the world and all its contents come to be.) God thus knew that humans would fall. He thus knew the necessity that He would have to act so as to reconcile fallen humanity to Himself. The plan to reconcile was two part. He would send Christ so that fallen humanity might be restored to the perfection it enjoyed before the Fall. But He would not do only this. He would also make the world such a place that the 'gravity of sin' would be manifest in the world about us, and in this way humanity would know the necessity that it cleave to Christ for its redemption. How must the world be ordered so that the gravity of sin would be manifest? It must be a world of death and destruction, of failure and pain. It must be a world of injury and disease, of hurricane and earthquake. It must be, in short, a world of great natural evil. The necessity of natural evil is a pedagogical necessity.

Let us be clear. God did not at the time of the Fall so transform a perfect world that it would thereafter make the gravity of sin apparent to us. Rather He set the world up so that from it's very start it would contain those natural evils (or potential for natural evils) that, after the Fall, would make clear to us the gravity of sin and our need for a redeemer. The the taint of the Fall does not enter the world when the Fall occurs. It was there all along.

We do here have a species of what metaphysicians call 'backwards causation'. Events at a certain time - Adam and Eve's fall - bring about a state of affairs at a prior time - a world shot through with natural evil. But they do not do so directly. Rather between the first and the second in the explanatory chain lies God and His desire to make known to us the wages of sin. The explanatory chain is this. Our world is such that, at a certain time and place, humanity will fall. God thus knows this, for God knows all things, now, before and to come. Thus God, since all-good, so ordered the world that humanity might be reconciled to Him. A world able to bring humanity to the realization of a necessity for reconciliation must contain great natural evil. Thus God so ordered the world that it contained great natural evil. Finally, in His wisdom God found it best to allow natural evil free reign even before the time of the Fall.

Note that this explanatory sequence is not a sequence of temporal succession. What comes first in it does not come first in time. Rather it comes first only in the logic of explanation.

So ends my little explication of Dembski's views. In a later post, I'll comment a bit. For now, let me say only this: I am skeptical that a world in which natural evil is given free-reign before the Fall is better than one in which natural evil enters the world only after the Fall. (Also I'm skeptical that Dembski does the views of John Hick justice. Indeed we'll see that Dembski's view, like so many other types of theodicy, likely collapses into a kind of Hickianism.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Uncommon Condescent

Con`de*scent", n. [Cf. Condescend, Descent.] An act of condescension. [Obs.] --Dr. H. More.

The title of my post is a pun on a pun. I hope that you'll forgive me.

A few days ago I began to read William Dembski's Uncommon Descent. I'd like to take a moment to explain why I don't think I'll return.

First, let me say something about the tone of the posts. An anger suffuses them. Anger directed at whom? For what reason? The object of his anger, I assume, is that part of the scientific and academic community that refuses to take his work with any seriousness. He is quite thoroughly marginalized and will likely remain so. (I mean to make no judgment about the justice of this state of affairs. Rather I only mean to report what seems to me to be the case. Has he been treated unfairly? I have no idea.) Indeed the great majority of his peers will not even so much as take him on. Most, I suspect, don't think it worth their time. The few who might feel some temptation to take on the defenders of ID, moreover, fear that their peers would ostracize them if they did so. Thus Dembski and others of his sort labor mostly in scientific obscurity. (Of course they do possess some cultural notoriety. But this is due to the existence of a community of conservative Christians who find ID congenial.)

But even if I'm wrong in my speculations about the cause and object of his anger, I am quite certain of its existence. The anger most often takes the form of sarcasm. His posts are often deeply, darkly sarcastic. He lashes out at those who have denied him a place at the table, and sarcasm is his weapon of choice. This makes the whole of Uncommon Descent seem like one great fit. It's expressed not by cries but by the written word. It's a clever fit. It's a long fit. But a fit it is.

This is the first of my reasons to give up on Uncommon Descent. My second concerns not the tone of what is said there but the content. Dembski has a quite low opinion of those of his scientific peers who reject ID. Indeed he is quite often openly derisive of them. He accuses them of the most simple and obvious fallacies. He accuses them of bad faith; they quite deliberately, Dembski says, cover over the faults of their view. Now, it might well turn out that some form of ID will become the dominant paradigm within origins science. But no matter if this happens or not, I find it highly unlikely that the men and women upon whom Dembski heaps his derision are guilty of the sins, whether intellectual or moral, of which they're accused. They are not stupid and they are not wicked. Perhaps they are wrong, but their mistakes are for the most part honest.

Don't expect me to say anything about the virtues or vices, whether intellectual or moral, of either this or that foe or this or that ally of ID. Don't expect me to say anything of the vices or virtues, whether theoretical or empirical, of either ID or or the Darwinian account of origins. I simply do not know enough to make any judgments of this sort. In this, I am no doubt like the great majority. We are on the outside and will never know enough about the theories or the theoreticians to make any judgment about character of theoretician or content of theory. Rather we who are outside must look for certain marks of genuine scientific authority and make our judgments based upon that and that alone. What are these marks? Has a person been trained by experts in her field? Does she work at a place known to house experts in her field? Has she published in peer-reviewed journals in her field? Does she have the esteem of her peers? Do her opinions cohere with other experts in the field? Is she free of any entanglements that might compromise her objectivity? Most evolutionary biologists meet these criteria and thus we must trust them and what they say. (Trust them absolutely? Of course not. Error both small and great could still easily creep in. The mere fact that a generation of scientists agree on a certain matter is no guarantee that their opinion is true. But that they agree is good reason for those of us on the outside to believe what they say; for those of us on the outside, that the experts say a thing is good though not conclusive reason to believe it.)

Does Dembski meet these criteria to the same degree as they are met by his opponents? No. Thus we have less reason to trust him than we do his opponents. But even if we should have made a mistake in this, we still can say this with certainty: the charges of intellectual shabbiness and moral corruption that Dembski levels at his opponents are very nearly certainly false.
(Dembski does his cause no favor when he makes such charges. He alienates his peers in the scientific community, and he alienates those such as me who have insufficient knowledge of the content of the disputes to form any independent judgments.)