Sunday, December 06, 2009

Beyond Even Being

Plato says of the good that it is beyond even being.

This is strange. How could a thing lie beyond being? Would it thus not be? But if it is not, it can lie nowhere and thus cannot lie beyond being.

Should we insist against Plato that all that is exists? That all that is lies within the bounds of being, for what is without simply is not?

Perhaps, but I suggest that Plato is not guilty of the simple-minded error I've attributed to him. When Plato speaks of the relation of the Good to being, he means to say this: the Good is prior to and thus explains all else. Plato tells us again and again that what is is because it is good. The Good thus explains all things, and totality of all things that we call the world. The world exists because it was good for it to exist; it has the character that it does because it was good for it to do so.

(What do we say of the Good itself? Does it exist because it is good? If so, does this absurdly place the Good prior to itself? If not, what then is the explanation of the existence of the Good? Good questions all, but questions for another day.)

This is wisdom, I think; it is wisdom that Christianity has embraced. But Christianity has not stopped there, for it tells us what the Good is. God is the Good, and the Good is Love. This is the central theological posit of Christianity; it is the central practical truth is the faith-life of the believer.

So, to be Christian, you must believe this: there is such a thing as the Good (a Good that in no way depends upon us or our opinions for its existence), all things exist because they are Good, God is the Good, and God is Love.

Here's a curious little bit of autobiography. Long before I became Christian, I did believe that there was such a thing as the Good (and that it was not relative to anything human) and that this Good dictated the right relation between persons. Indeed, in the whole of my life I've never felt the least temptation to doubt this. It seems to me now, in retrospect, that all along I was ripe for conversion.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Symptoms of an Age, Part I: Education of the Young

We have lost our way. We prosper (less now that before, but still we prosper). But we do not know how best to live.

In what way is this shown? (Below I will speak of trends, not of exceptionless rules. But what I say does capture how our age differs from its past.)

We do not know how to educate our children.

We are hemmed in all around by educational theories. All that enjoy any popularity tell us that if we but teach our teachers how to teach, success will follow. Students are ready to learn, we are told, but our teachers fail them.

This is false. Where there is classroom failure, almost always there is a student who took her education with little or no seriousness. Why is this? Why are our students so unprepared to learn? They have been failed by parent and by culture. From an early age (by age 1 if not before), children must be instilled with certain traits of character that are essential to success in the classroom; and among the most important of these is respect for authority, perseverance, focus, attention to detail and a desire to succeed. Without these, children fail. With them, they succeed.

Who teaches these? Parents first; culture second. The teacher has little ability to instill them. If the parents work to instill them, and if in this effort they are supported by a culture that places value in them, the student will imbibe them. But if parent and culture fail in this,classroom failure will inevitably result.

This, I suspect, would have passed for plain common sense to prior generations. Success is in the first place a matter of character. But we have forgotten this. We think it a matter of classroom management, and in this we are deluded.

Why have we allowed ourselves to become deluded? I don't pretend to possess a complete answer, but I will say this: we have forgotten what we once knew of human nature. Human beings have tendencies to both good and evil; and we must work to strengthen the good and weaken the evil. This task is not easy; we must often bear down hard to achieve it. Human beings have, for instance, a tendency toward sloth; if they are not made to work - if we do not instill in them the value of work - that tendency to sloth will become so deeply ingrained that they will remain forever lazy. And how do we make them work? Discipline and praise, discipline and praise.

We praise, but we no longer discipline (or if we ever discipline, we do so only occasionally when at wits end). We no longer recognize the hard necessity of hard discipline. We no longer bear down hard. We thus fail our children.

Let me end with a diagnosis of this failure. Our culture has become secular and thus has lost the resources that Christianity provides to understand both ourselves and our place in the world. Christianity is quite clear about the native human tendency to evil; it as our birthright as children of Adam. It is also quite clear about our extraordinary potential for goodness. It makes of this world a struggle against evil and for good. It thus motivates parents to discipline children, to make their children disciplined.

When a secular culture loses sight of the propensity to evil, it will lose sight of the necessity of discipline. When it loses sight of the necessity of discipline, vice will run rampant in our children. When our children are ruled not by virtue but by vice, classroom failure is the result.

Ordinary Goodness . . . and Extraordinary

Perhaps ordinary goodness can be taught.

But the extraordinary . . . I cannot even think of how to begin to teach it. We can explain to a child why he must not lie, cheat or steal. But can we explain why he must love both friend and enemy? Can we explain why he must be prepared to give up his life for his enemy? Is it not natural to hate those hate us?

To the materialist, extraordinary goodness - the sort of goodness that seems unnatural - must be stupidity. Why would the materialist give up a life of comfort, travel to a place of poverty, disease and war and there work for the good of others whom he does not know? What reason could he give?

What reason can the materialist give for self-sacrifice? What reason can the materialist give for sacrifice of my life for another, no matter whether that other loves or hates me? If I am this body and this body alone, and my fate is this body's fate, should I not protect it at all cost? Perhaps I am made to love those near me. But love those far away - to love those who hate me - that nature has not made me to do. And if I am to do just that - love those not near, love those who hate me - then I am not made by nature alone.

If there are extraordinary goods (and of course there are), there is a moral order outside nature. And if there is a moral order outside nature, must we not entertain the possibility that there is a God?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Theist/Athiest Debate: Prospects

I feel less desire to debate the atheist than I once did. I have become skeptical that argument has any power to change minds.

Indeed both theist and atheist should expect that debate will prove forever fruitless. Their reasons will be different, but that conclusion will be the same.

What will their reasons be? I will let the theist speak first.

The Theist
We live in a world ruined by sin. It effects are plain, both within us and without us. Within us we find vice and ignorance, and these two defects cannot be rectified by us. Instead they will persist for so long as God allows. Only He can set them right.

Atheism - explicit, doctrinal atheism - is one expression of the ignorance of God, His existence and His works. Atheism is thus a symptom of sin. Atheism is the sin of ignorance of God become a matter of fixed belief.

Can argument alone serve to dislodge atheism? Of course not. Argument alone can no more undo it than it can undo, say, greed or lust. All are symptoms of our alienation from God, and the chasm that separates us from God can be bridged only by God. Atheism can be overcome only by an act of God's grace (and act which can be either accepted or rejected by the atheist). We cannot do it; only God can do it. Our arguments will prove ineffective.

Do not doubt the power of God to work through our arguments if He so wishes. But the power of the argument itself, the logical power that it possesses in itself, is as naught. So deep are the hooks of sin within him that no matter how powerful the argument, the atheist will reject it. The ignorance of the atheist is a willful ignorance. It betrays a defect not just of intellect but of will. The atheist stubbornly clings to his atheism in spite of all argument to the contrary. Do not pray, then, for eloquence. Pray instead that the atheist will accept the gift of grace. What is needed is not more and better arguments. What is needed is a change of heart, and without the latter all arguments will fall on barren ground.

The Atheist
We ought always to apportion our belief to the evidence. Where there is evidence, we ought to believe. Where there is not, we ought not believe.

This most basic requirement of rationality is flouted by the theist. She believes though there is no evidence. Moreover, much depends on that belief. It shapes who she is, how she acts. The whole of the intellectual edifice of her ideas depends upon it. The whole of her character and its expression in action depends upon it.

Her theism is thus not a little piece of her psyche. It is the greater part of it, and so the irrationality that gives rise to it permeates her whole being. It isn't as if she has some one irrational belief or other. Rather she herself is deeply irrational. She shows herself quite able to take on a whole host of beliefs with little or no reason at all.

We shouldn't expect the theist to be amenable to rational persuasion. The arguments of the atheist will fall on deaf ears. When we ask the theist to believe only that for which there is good evidence, we should expect to be ignored. For we have already been ignored, and the theist has made her identity hang upon her irrational belief.

Thus, as I said, both atheist and theist have good reason to suppose that their arguments will be ignored. The atheist/theist debate thus seems pointless, no matter whose point of view we adopt.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Within You or Without You?

I have begun to search for the way to best formulate a certain assumption that seems to run through much of the theist/atheist debate. (For convenience, let us construe "atheism" widely here. Atheists are those who believe theists irrational.) I've landed on a name. I call it "The Teapot Model". Bertrand Russell argued that the God-hypothesis was much like the hypothesis that a teapot orbits the sun. It is possibly true, he said. But he insisted that, though possibly true, it could not be known true, for no evidence could be given in its favor. Thus, he concluded, the God-hypothesis was deeply irrational.

One might respond to Russell in many ways. One might say that we do have good evidence of God's existence. One might say that God, if real, is so radically unlike a teapot that to assume we must come to know them in the same way is deeply mistaken. I have some sympathy for both responses. (Of the two, the second seems closer to the heart of the matter.) But to me they've always seemed to fall short of the mark.

The issue is this: the God-hypothesis would have us assume that God is an object that stands outside us and whose existence can be known only by inference from what is clear either to sense or to intellect. I reject this assumption.

I am not alone in this. Much Christian theology rejects it. God, we are told, is He in whom we have our being. We are with Him, but not as two who stand side by side. We are through Him, and Him through us. Thus we are not ours alone. God is in us, and at every moment He sustains us. Every iota of what is good in us - and all that truly is is good - is Him. When conscience speaks, it is the voice of God. When we love, the love we share is God.

God is not over and above. (Perhaps we should say that God is not over and above only, for though in us He is no exhausted by his presence in us. We are finite, He infinite.) Rather He is within, and thus is to be found within.

Thus God is not to be discovered as the teapot would be discovered if in fact it were there. The believers relation to God is not that of knower to an external object known. This is why I find atheism a bit ridiculous. I've had a number of moments in my life where the presence of God within me has become quite clear. Even now as I sit with the noise of traffic around me, cold and alone, and still feel that presence. It is a hint, a whisper. It is as motion caught in the corner of the eye. Attention is mostly elsewhere, but a fraction is upon it, and I know that He is there.

When someone tells me there is no God, it seems to as if I have been told that there is no sun or moon. Perhaps I do not see them now, or see them only faintly. But I know they are there.

Perhaps it would be better to say that it seems to me as if I have been told that I have never felt love, or regret. Of course I have, I would reply. I feel them now. They are here before me, with me. I cannot doubt them. S0 too I cannot doubt that God exists. He is here with me now.

So I say to the atheist: God is within you (and without you too in all creation). Do you feel the tug of conscience? That is God. Do you love someone? That is God.

Do not ask me then to marshal evidence in favor of God as He were some variety of exotic particle that could be made to show itself were conditions just so. Do no demand miracles. Do not demand proofs. Search yourself. There is within you a power upon which you depend, a power upon which all depend. Do not close your eyes to it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Moral Chasm

I sometimes write as if Christian theism (CT) is a variety of explanatory hypothesis and that it derives the greater part of its plausibility from this. Indeed I have compared it to theory within the sciences and have argued that it is very much like them. (A favorite example of mine is quantum mechanics.)

I would still insist upon this point. CT does do much explanatory work, both of entities physical and metaphysical; and its plausibility is bolstered by this. But let it not be thought that for me CT does only this. It does more, and more importantly it does something before. The genesis of my belief in CT does not lie in estimation of explanatory power. Rather the genesis is moral and practical in nature. Let me explain.

I feel that a moral chasm lies between the man I am at present and the man I ought to and can become. I am, in my own eyes, radically defective. I see it in what I think and do, and in what I do not think and do not do. I am quick to anger. I am lazy. I am selfish. I am fearful. (There's more . . . and worse.)

I know that I could do better. I know that there is another and better way. But my 41 years have taught me that I cannot do as I would do. (The spirit does not even always will it; and the flesh is always week.) I find it necessary, then, to look to a power outside myself, a power that would do for me what I cannot do for myself. I find it necessary to look to God.

This is not an argument. It is rather a history, and a current fact. I find it absolutely inescapable that I am a wretched sinner. (This is not flourish. It is plain truth.) The sense of this I carry with me always. It colors all that I think and do. I can no more shed it than I can shed my skin.

Nor do I wish to shed it. I do not wish to become on who believes that my faults are not really faults. Quite the contrary - I wish to become one whose defects have been overcome; and I look habitually and continually to God as the sole power able to grant this wish.

I thus am a Christian theist not by argument but by the sheer weight of the awareness of my sins. When I turn to argument, I do so not to lay out those arguments that brought me to Christianity. Rather I do so to show my interlocutors the intellectual power of CT (a power that they reject). But even if I myself were to come to doubt that power, a Christian I would remain. Knowledge of my sins (and inescapable propensity to sin) and of my inability to heal myself makes this inevitable.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Simple "No"

I. There are many things to which I utter a simple "No". I say "No" to murder, and to rape. I say "No" to cowardice and to ignorance.

The relativist cannot in consistency utter a simple "No".

He can say "No for me". He can say "No for us" (though no doubt in the "us" to which the relativist refers, we will find some who say "Yes").

He can say "No for now". But he cannot say "No, not ever, not for anyone".

There is in the mouth of the relativist always a "Perhaps". Even if "No" today, then perhaps "Yes" tomorrow. Even if "No" from me or "No" from us, then perhaps "Yes" for others.

There is no "No" simpliciter for the Relativist.

II. What is that which allows for a "No" with no addendum? What allows for the "No" simpliciter? It cannot be humanity, for that is variable; on that, one cannot plant a stake.

If this world - the human world- is the only world, all "No"s can become "Yes"s. The relativists knows this, of course. Relativism is inconsistent with unshakable conviction. It is a house built on sand. It is a code that is not code, for it is the code which says that all codes can pass away. Relativism is thus moral cowardice. It has made certain that there is always a way of retreat; and it has told us that we can expect retreat at any time.

III. "But, but . . .", I hear the relativist interject. "What kind of irrational dogmatism is this that believes that it and it alone has discovered the truth and will not admit the possibility of change?" My dear friend, in your thirst for justice (and is not relativism a kind of perversion of justice in which not only all men but all opinions are held equal?), you have made a simple logical error. Distinguish, I ask you, between the possibility of error and the possibility that what one holds is false. I will grant you that the possibility of error is inescapable. We are human, all too human; and it is sheer hubris to say that one cannot be mistaken. But that I am possibly in error does not imply that all that I believe is possibly false. Possibility of error is epistemic; possibility of falsity, metaphysical. It seems to me quite clear that certain propositions are true and cannot be false. "Murder is impermissible" is true and must be true. Perhaps I'm wrong about this. Perhaps I've made some mistake. But that is a fact about me and my imperfection. The modal status of the propositions "Murder is impermissible" is quite another matter. It seems to me a necessary proposition, and I will call it thus until such time as anyone casts doubt upon it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Origin of Evil: A Dialogue, Pt. 1

Two friends speak of the origin of evil. Each is Christian, but neither understands how evil came to be. Indeed to begin, it seems to them that, since humanity is a creation of God, the Fall was an impossibility. Together they seek for a solution to this riddle - a riddle central to human existence. N, we will see in a later post, provides the key insight.

F: God is perfect, of course.
N: On this we both agree.
F: But how then can we attribute imperfection to his creation?
N: Indeed how can we? It would seem impossible.
F: Though it seems impossible, we must. For quite plainly the world is imperfect; there is evil within it. But God cannot have willed this evil for its own sake, for God is perfectly good. Thus he either willed it for the sake of a greater good for which it is necessary means; or he allowed it to arise, though he did not will it.
N: These seem the only two possibilities.
F: Let us consider the first possibility - that God willed evil solely as a means to a greater good that could not have been achieved if that evil had not existed. Can we truly suppose that God did such a thing?
N: What is your worry, friend?
F: It is this: to will something evil, even if that evil is a necessary means to a greater good, is yet to will something evil. But how can a perfectly good being will something evil? To make evil one's goal seems to imply that one is imperfect.
N: So it would seem.
F: Moreover, can we attribute to God the state of affairs wherein some evil is a necessary means to some greater good? A world in which there is such a state of affairs seems less than a perfectly good world, for in a perfectly good world, every good that is an effect is an effect of something that is itself good.
N: I do see your point. The state of affairs in which some good is such that it cannot be realized if there is not a prior evil to bring it about seems to infect the world which contains it with imperfection.
F: You will agree, then, that a certain conclusion is inescapable. God cannot have willed a state of affairs in which evil is necessary to bring about good. But if he cannot have willed it and yet such states of affairs do obtain (as indeed they do - some goods can be brought only out of evil), we cannot attribute them to God.
N: I do agree to this conclusion.
F: How then do we account for such a state of affairs if it is not from God?
N: It seems we must return to a point often made by theologians: it is not God but we who are responsible. God but allows it to happen.
F: That's it exactly. Here's where we are, then: God does not will evil. Thus we must embrace the only other possible explanation of its existence. It comes from creature, not Creator.
N: When we say this, we say only what all before have said before. It does appear to be inescapable Christian doctrine. But we haven't put the issue to rest yet. For a new riddle arises when we consider why creature might have turned from God and sinned.
F: I believe that I can guess at what you mean, but instruct me.
N: Consider humanity in its original state, its state before the Fall.
F: It must have been just as God wished it to be. It must have been perfect.
N: Yes, this is so. God in his perfection makes all things just as he intends; and since he intends their perfection, he must have made them perfect. But now the question that I wish to ask must arise: How can humanity, if first made in a state of perfection, ever have sinned. Would not that first sin have implied imperfection in the author of humanity? Do we not say that a defect in the product implies a defect in the producer?
F: So it might seem. But before we spoke of theological tradition. Can't we make use of it here? Tradition tells us that we are free creatures, and that this is part of (indeed the chief part of) our perfection. But since free, we were free to turn from God and seek to make our way on our own. This we did and thus did sin make its entrance into the world.
N: As you know, I am well aware of this move. Indeed I have often made it myself in the past. But I've grown dissatisfied with it. It seems to leave a crucial question unanswered.
F: What is your worry?
N: My worry is this: that we are free to do a thing does not mean that we will do it. Moreover, when we do a thing, even when we do it freely, we are never without motive for what we do. Free action is not arbitrary action. It is not random. It comes with a reason, though that reason does not necessitate it. As Leibniz says, reason inclines only.
F: I begin to share your worry. Will you let me spell it out.
N: Please.
F: The first sin - whatever precisely it was - was freely done. But though it was free, it had a reason. There was something that the sinner hoped to achieve by it. But this very hope is itself a sign of imperfection. That hope - whatever it might have been - was a hope that, if acted upon, would carry us away from God. Thus its very existence in the soul must have been an imperfection in the soul, as would anything that would tend to separate us from God.
N: Yes. It seems that God made us to want that which we should not want; and though he did not make us act upon that desire, the mere fact that it was in us implies that we came into the world imperfect.
F: Simply put, if humanity were created perfect, it could never have motive to sin; and if it never had motive to sin, it would never had sinned. But sin we did. Thus . . .

The friends sit in silence. The afternoon passes. Each is afraid to speak, for to continue on this path is to fall into heresy and perhaps even atheism.

But F summons the courage to speak again, and courage he did need. For he will not attempt a solution of the problem. Rather he will attempt to sharpen it. He has realized that the problem is even deeper than first suspected.

- Pt. 2 to follow -


I wish to speak of the students I know. What I say will not apply to all students everywhere, but it will apply to most in the West. (No doubt it will apply to many elsewhere as well. But I know only the West. Let those who know better speak of other places.) In the West, most children find themselves in a classroom by their 5th year (if not before); most remain in the classroom until at least their 16th. Their teachers do vary in quality. But all (or almost all) have teachers, and all are taught; and if they would but work, they would learn.

The question I wish to address is this: What is that which make students succeed? My answer (I hope) will come as a surprise. The obvious answer - that mastery of content brings success - is at best a shallow truth. What is the truth that underlies? Why do some master what is taught while others do not?

I do not doubt that knowledge is essential to success. If I know nothing, I cannot succeed at anything. But if we would make our students successful, we cannot aim first, or primarily, at an increase in knowledge. For if a student is not ready to learn, nothing we can convey to that student, nothing that we attempt to teach, will be learned. Rather it will pass over the student and leave no sign that it ever touched her.

But how then is a student made ready to learn? What distinguishes those students in my classes who are ready from those who are not? I have embraced an answer that, I suspect, puts me at odds with much of the education establishment. They would say that, when a student appears unready to learn, the reason is ignorance of that which should have been learned before. The view is thus that present failure is bred by past failure and thus that, to remedy that failure, all we need do is teach what had not been learned before. I reject this view. Readiness to learn is first and primarily a matter of character, not of knowledge. Proper character leads to acquisition of knowledge; improper character makes that acquisition impossible.

What is proper character here? What habits of thought and of behavior must the successful student evince? No doubt a good answer must be a long answer; no doubt a good answer must name many traits. But here are the ones that at present seem to me most important:

1. Discipline of mind and of body. A mind prone to constant distraction or a body that cannot obey the dictates of mind makes failure inevitable.

2. Trust in authority. If one believes that the teacher does not know her field or that she cares nothing for the student's welfare, she will be ignored. But when a teacher is ignored, her lessons cannot be learned.

3. Desire to succeed. There will be no success where there is no desire for success. Success must be valued in its own right; it must be sought for its own sake.

4. Desire to know. The desire to know is not present to the same degree in all students who succeed; nor is it present to the same degree at all times in a student's life. (I would suggest that in most cases it increases; and it should.) But it is still there; and among the duties of teacher and of parent is to instill it.

5. Tenacity. The successful student does not give up when the tasks set before her are difficult. Rather she digs in and does what it necessary to succeed.

The best sort of pedagogy inculcates these traits first, and never neglects them when any other lesson is taught. Thus the lessons that are most important are moral in nature, and those lessons must begin early. If a students possesses these traits, then she will learn. If she possesses these traits, she will come to class ready to learn; and as she works her way through the grades, she will learn what she is expected to learn.

I assume (as I said) that in most classrooms in the West, teachers do teach; and of course they do. Not all teach equally well. Not all teach equally well at all times in their careers. (Most get better. A few get worse.) But they do teach, and if the student will but listen and work, she will learn. The teacher is thus not a barrier to success. The student is the barrier when a barrier exists. Teachers are not to blame. The bad habits of their students are to blame; and if, as seems likely, we do not blame those bad habits on the students themselves, we must blame those whose primary responsibility it was to instill those habits. On parents, then, the primary blame must be placed. (Do we dig deeper at this point and blame the culture of which the parents are part? Are there cultures of failure? I would say that this is so. But still we must look to the individual for a remedy. "Culture" is but a name for a shared attitude thus way of life; culture thus entails a plurality of like-minded individuals, and from those individuals and those individuals alone can change come.)

In sum: the ultimate explanation of failure is not ignorance, for ignorance itself is something to be explained. From whence does ignorance come? Bad habit. Good habit leads to success, bad habit to failure. To teach our children well, then, is to teach them the habits of successful students.

Parents, do not take this as an invitation to ignore acquisition of knowledge. Rather I ask that you think clearly about what it means to teach well. Make them do, I say. Make them act as good students act, for as Aristotle noted we learn good habits by activity of a sort evinced by those who already possess those good habits. Do it by praise; do it by censure. Do it however it can be done, but make sure to do it.

Last I'd like to end with a little corollary. But before, let me note an obvious fact. Students forget most of what they are taught. But though this is inevitable, success is still quite real and is quite important. But what is success, then, if it is not possession of knowledge? What is the real import of my work if most of my students will forget most of what I teach?

Here is my answer. Success consists in going on, and I am a gatekeeper to advance. The successful students shows herself in possession of those traits that make success possible, and when I judge a student a success - when I, for instance, give her an A - I testify to her possession of those traits. Her possession of those traits is what's most important; and my primary task is to determine which of those students have those traits and then create the paper-trail that will allow others - either teachers or employers - to know that they have them.

I sift, but I do not sift for knowledge (at least not in the first place). I sift for virtue.

Whence Evil

The two central mysteries of existence: how did evil came to be and how evil will be put to rest.

I understand neither. Thus I do not understand my place in the world. I do not understand why I am as I am, and I do not understand how I will be made whole.


41 and sick.

41 and by myself.

41 with heart of stone.

41 with head hung low.

41 and half-way home.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Up or down?

We either climb the mountain or we descend. None stand still.

Do not judge us by where we stand. Judge us by our direction. I would rather be low but on the rise than high and ready to fall.

Do not shrink from change because you stand at the foot of the mountain. No one expects you to stand on the summit tonight. If you can take but one step up, you do now what is right.

What are we to do tomorrow?

I'm at work on a long post on pedagogy. I teach, and a series of posts on the conclusions to which I've come about that is past due.

But until them, let me say a little about the moral life.

The moral relativist tells us that moral obligation is relative. When I ask, "Relative to what?", not all give the same answer. To some, it is relative to individual choice; to others, to societal norm. But for me now, the answer does not matter. For I wish to ask all relativists how they know what they are to do tomorrow.

I understand well enough when they tell me that present moral obligation is relative to this or that. But we seem able to choose, and to change, our moral views. This I think is a fact of experience, an obvious fact. But if moral obligation is relative and variable, that today it is this (whatever this is) does not imply that tomorrow it ought to be, or will be, the same. Relativist, explain to me why you should not change your moral views overnight. Explain to me why it is necessary to hang on to them for even a second more.

You cannot say that they should not change because they conform to an external, objective standard. You cannot say that they should not change because human nature remains fixed, for a moral scheme that ties moral obligation to human nature runs counter to the fundamental thesis of the relativity of moral obligation. But if you cannot say either, it seems that you can say nothing. You can provide no reason not to abandon your moral views tonight.

The relativity of moral obligation is, I would say, a synchronic fact. It concerns only what occurs at present. At present, moral obligation is merely a reflection of the view the individual or society happens to hold. But that this is so at present gives not even a tiny hint of a reason why it should remain thus. Change or remain the same - that can make no difference to the relativist.

Thus if we cling to our moral views - as we ought and in fact do- we reveal that we are not relativists. If we know what we are to do tomorrow - and we do - we are not relativists.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Intertwined Interests, Pt. II: Good and Evil

I. Evil

The interests of all matter just the same, for this is the Law of Love. Thus I must value your interests as I do mine. I may not, then, act in such a way that your interests are of necessity disregarded. But what sorts of actions are these? How might I act in disregard of your interests?

Two answers are possible. (1) I disregard your interests and have nothing to do with you. This is callousness. (2) I disregard your interests when I force you to act in such a way benefits only me. This is domination.

Here we have before us the two primary sorts of sin: callousness and domination. Of the two, the latter seems the worse. If I am callous, I at least leave you the space to pursue your own interests (whatever they may be). Granted I do not provide you the aid that you might need, but I least I do not seek to do you any positive harm. If I seek to dominate you, however, I do do you positive harm. I force you to act in disregard of your interests and thus, since we all of necessity think our own interests important, force you to act in a way contrary to our interests. (Do not think that Christian love of neighbor requires you to erase your own interests. It does not. It only requires that you not think them elevated over the interest of another. Christians are not required to be selfless. Instead they are required to hold that all selves - and this includes themselves - are of equal worth.)

Here then is evil: it is (conceived negatively) callousness, and it is (conceived positively) domination.

II. Good

Human interests are intertwined. (I'll shift, for sake of linguistic simplicity, to talk of goods.) We are made to love, and when we love perfectly, our good is achieved. But to love you is to seek your good. Thus my good is achieved only when your good is achieved, and your good is achieved only when my good is achieved. Our goods are then intertwined. I cannot achieve mine if you do not achieve yours; you cannot achieve yours if I do not achieve mine. Indeed my primary good is the role I play in the achievement of all goods, both yours and mine; and your primary good is the role you play in the achievement of all goods, both yours and all others.

There is only one good for humanity. The good for one is the good for all, and the good of all is the good of each.

Here then is good: it is the activity of all in the attempt to secure the good of each.

Infanticide and Intertwined Interests

A conversation at Thinking Christian led me to draw a conclusion about intertwined interests. Let me explain.

Th conversation turned (quite naturally it seems to me) to the fate of those who die in infancy and what this might imply about the permissibility of infanticide. The consensus of the Christian voices was that all who die in infancy are heaven-bound. (This is surely wisdom.) The skeptical reply was that, if this is so, should we not say that it is in the interest of an infant to kill it before it reaches the age of accountability and thus before its salvation might be jeopardized.

The reply to this was that it could never be in anyone's interest to commit so gross a sin as to murder an infant.

I'll pick up the thread of the argument here and in a moment draw a quite extraordinary conclusion. We should distinguish, say I, the interests of the one who sins from the interest of the one on whom the sinner acts. No doubt if Mr. Z were to kill an infant, that act is not in Mr. Z's interest. Such a gross violation of God's will must result in a harm to Mr. Z.; even if he is not caught and imprisoned, the harm to his soul will be severe. But that it is not in Mr. Z's best interestto kill the infant does not imply that it is not in the infant's best interest. Their interests need not coincide, it would seem. What would undoubtably do great harm to Mr. Z would, it seems, result in great benefit to the infant.

The only way out of this that I see is to insist that everyone's ultimate interests are the same. But this seems incredible on the face of it. It would seem that my interests are me-centered and your interests are you-centered, and what benefits me need not be what benefits you.

So the world would say. But might this be moral error? Should we say instead that all of our interests are ultimately we-centered? Do we have a hint of this in, say, family life? I don't take my interests to be mine alone. I do well only when my family does well (and they do well only when I do well), so closely are our interests intertwined; for I desire so strongly that they do well (and they desire so strongly that I do well) that, if they do not do well, one of my deepest desires is thrwated and I am thereby harmed.

Is this where humanity as a whole is headed? Is this where it should be now? Do none of us do well when any of us do poorly? Perhaps this is what love of neighbor implies. Strang as it may seem, the atheist Sartre, if a recall correctly, expressed in idea like this. If anyone anywhere, he said, is not free, I too am not free. A beautiful thought, even if I could never quite get my head around it. I always thought it was more a call to action than a literal truth. But perhaps for the Christian it is (near to) the literal truth.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Atonement: Why I've Stalled

I'm at work on an essay about the Atonement. I realized soon on that any account of the Atonement must take on the issue of Original Sin too, for OS must be (or have introduced) the problem that the Atonement fixes. (I choose language here that's deliberately vague. OS is the "problem". The Atonement "fixes" it. All Christians would, I think, assent to this. What I'm after is an account of the problem and the fix.)

I'm overwhelmed. I began to think back over the arc of argument that began in May of '05 (when The Philosophical Midwife began). I've expressed various views about the Atonement and Original Sin, but I now think that those views are not self-consistent.

Here's the set of views that I've expressed in the past that now seem inconsistent to me:

1. All forms of Penal Substitution are false. There was no debt owed by humanity to God that was paid by Christ.
2. Original sin is real, and it consists in a defect in human nature.
3. Sin not only corrupted human nature; it corrupted the world in which we live. The world is not as God intended. It is a world of death and destruction, of a slow slide into maximum entropy, of inescapable danger to life and spirit.
4. Insofar as anything like original sin exists, it is mere spiritual immaturity.
5. The world is a classroom, and we are the students. The lesson is love, and evil is the means of instruction.
6. Christ's primary role was that of consummate teacher, and only he could teach the lesson we must learn, the lesson of perfect love. Our redemption will come through the mastery of this lesson.
7. Christ's life and death made possible the correction of our defective nature.

I still endorse 1, for just the reasons I've given before.

I still endorse both 2 and 3, and I think that 2 explains 3. The world is fallen because humanity is fallen; and the world's redemption will come about through humanity's redemption.

I still endorse 7. Indeed 7 is the claim that Christ makes possible our redemption, that Christ is the Atoner. I would add to it that Christ's life and death made possible the redemption of the whole of nature.

I have rejected 6. The Atonement was not at bottom pedagogical in purpose (though Christ was, among much else, a teacher). Rather, I said, we are not ready to learn Christ's lesson. We are defective in nature, defective in a way that makes us unable to act upon the Law of Love, and that defect must be corrected. The primary purpose of the Atonement is thus correction of a defective human nature. Christ came so that we might be made able to love.

Now, here's where the worry begins. I suspect that my rejection of 6 stands in tension with 4 and 5. Being immature is not identical to being defective. Indeed if we were only spiritually immature, we might be just as originally designed; and if we were as originally designed, there would be no need for Christ to fix us. Christ the perfect pedagogue we might need. Christ the healer of a broken human nature we would not.

Here's another way to make the point. If I continued to embrace 4 and 5, it seems that there would have been little need for God to become man; there would be no real need for Christ. If all we need is instruction, and evil is the means to it, then it would seen that a world without Christ would have all we need. But this is absurd. Christianity without a need for Christ is not really Christianity at all. The incarnation was necessary, and any theology with even the barest hint of plausibility must embrace this.

Here's where I am. We are more than simply spiritually immature (though we are perhaps that too). Instead there's a deeper, much deeper, issue. We are broken. We need a healer. Christ is that healer. I must then reject 4 and 5.

This marks a significant shift in my world-view. Perhaps I should say that I brought different parts of my world-view into contact, saw their inconsistency, and made a decision about what should stay and what should go. In later posts, I'll attempt to bring order and articulation to my views.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

When Commands Conflict

When presented with a multiplicity of commands as we are in the Decalogue, the possibility always exists that among those commands, we will find possible cases of conflict. Consider, for instance, the commands to keep the Sabbath holy and to honor father and mother. If I were to receive a call that my mother was in the hospital on a Saturday night, should I make the 6 hour drive to see her or should I say home and attend Mass? The answers seems obvious to me; indeed I would insist that it is obvious. But that point to the side, in this example commands conflict; and if we are to decide what to do, we cannot simply rely on these commands but must turn to a more basic command/rule/obligation that will allow us to adjudicate between the two. How will the more basic command accomplish this? It will rank the goods of the two commands; it will tell us which is more important and thus which is to be pursued in this case.

Thus commands can conflict, and I wish us here to consider the seek for the command/rule/obligation that will, as it were, break the tie . (Before I do, let me make a quick aside. I do not mean to say that any command can conflict with any other. Some commands are, no doubt, but special cases of others; and when this is so, no conflict is possible. Others might be strict logical consequences of other, higher-level, commands; and when this is so, again no conflict is possible.)

When commands conflict, we must have a way to decide what we are to do, and thus we must search for basic guides to action. Moreover, there must be a most basic guide; for if there were many that were equally basic, cases would arise where they conflict and action would become arbitrary or impossible.

Christ himself seems to have given us the way to decide. He says:

An expert in the law tested Jesus with this question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:35-40)

This is the Law of Love. It is the one ultimate command, for as Christ says all others follow from it; and since all others follow from it, it can never contradict them. Rather, when lesser commands contradict, we must look to the Law of Love to adjudicate between them. Think back again to the case of conflict I considered above, where I must decide whether to keep the Sabbath holy or honor my mother. The Law of Love seems clearly applicable. My mother would wish to see him, and I would wish to see her. She loves me, and I her; and I would display the worst sort of lovelessness if I were not to see her. Moreover, that I would not keep the Sabbath seems, from the point of view of the Law of Love, of little importance in comparison. God will not suffer if I am not in church; and I will suffer much less if I go to my mother than I would if I did not.

My conclusion is this: the Law of Love, since it is the source of all other commands, must be allowed temper them all. None are absolute expect the Law of Love. All expect the Law of Love hold at best for the most part, and the duties they prescribe are, in part at least, situation bound. Only the Law of Love admits of no exceptions. When any other command contradicts the law of love, there we have an exception to it; and when commands conflict, the Law of Love must decide between them.

Moral absolutism, if taken to concern any command expect the Law of Love (and those commands that follow with strict necessity from it, if any there be) is fundamentally unchristian. Christians must not insist that all the various particular moral rules that are found in Scripture are absolute and without exception. By simple logical necessity, they are not. The only rule on which the Christian must insist is the Law of Love.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Reason and Morality

I argued here that our senses alone are not the source of all knowledge. In a reply to a comment, I extended the argument (in a way that I should have to begin); I now take it to prove that some knowledge cannot be traced back to the senses. Some of what we know we know by reason alone; reason does not always act upon the contents of sense.

Thus a certain possibility opens. Perhaps not just a little can be known by reason alone. Perhaps reason makes much known.

Below are a number of principles that seem to me rational in nature. They are not gotten out of the contents of sense by an inference either mediate or immediate. Indeed them seem to dictate which sorts of inferences made from the contents of sense are good ones and which are not. Some are stated. Others are merely referenced. (I would guess that none of the principles below is stated adequately. A lesson learned early on in philosophy is just how difficult it is to say something in a way that's not open to decisive, and in hindsight obvious, objections.)

1. Of all the possible explanations of a certain phenomena that present themselves, choose the one that is simplest. (What counts as simplicity in explanation is a matter of controversy, but most will agree to this: if two explanations are similar except that one posits more entities, or more kinds of entities, than the other, then the one that posits fewer is simpler.)

2. The principles of deductive and inductive logic (taken to encompass the injunction not to commit any fallacy).

3. The principles of probability, e.g. Bayes Theorem, a principle much beloved by philosophers

Let me add another to the list, one that might just have relevance to moral theory. (“F” is for “fair”. The principle is a principle of fairness.)

F. Treat similar cases similarly in ways demanded by their similarity; treat dissimilar cases dissimilarly in ways demanded by their dissimilarity.

An example will make the principle clear. Say that I have two figures before me, quadrilaterals let us say. I consider the first and find that, since it has four sides, it can be decomposed into two triangles; and from this I conclude that the sum of its interior angles must be 360º. (I know to begin that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º.) What then must I say about the other quadrilateral? It is similar to the other in respect of number of sides; thus it too must have interior angles that sum to 360º. The figures are similar in a respect relevant to the total degree measure of their angles; and thus the total degree measure of one must equal the total degree measure of the other.

Why might F have to do with moral theory? Here's my idea. I think that I matter (as you think that you matter). If you were to run roughshod over me, if we were to treat me as a mere thing to be used in any way that suits you, I would object. Indeed I would act to protect myself if necessary. But you and I are similar in a respect that is relevant here. You have needs and desires just as do I and would object if they were systematically disregarded. Thus principle F requires that I think that you matter too and so requires that, when I act, I don't discount how my actions will effect you.

My point is this: I don't think I matter just because I'm me. Being Franklin Mason is not what makes me value myself. Instead I value myself because I am a being with needs and desires, i.e. insofar as I am a being that places value on this or that, I count myself valuable. But sheer consistency then demands that I count you as valuable too, for that which makes my valuable in my own eyes is found in you just as much as in me.

If I'm right about this, then what seems to me the fundamental dictate of morality – that others are to be treated as if they matter just as much as me – seems to follow from a rational principle.

This conclusion has obvious consequences for the debate between moral relativists and moral absolutists. If some moral principle can be given a purely rational derivation, then it cannot be relative. I suspect that when relativists assert that all morality is relative, they have in mind the particular moral principles embraced by different peoples at different times. (Pork is verboten, a woman must walk 5 paces behind her husband, etc.) Such principles do seem relative; they likely have no foundation other than variable, idiosyncratic cultural practice. But I suggest that the relativist turn her attention from these particular principles to something more fundamental. I suggest she consider the principle that all are to be treated as if they matter just the same. This, it seems to me, has a claim to being absolute. (And it is my experiences that relativists come to their relativism out a deep respect for difference. But a deep respect for that seems to me to imply a deep respect for those people who hold those different opinions. And so it seems to me that relativists embrace, even if only tacitly, the very principle that I've articulated.)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reason and the Senses

I wish us to consider the means whereby we acquire knowledge of the world and which of those means are at work in our knowledge of the transcendent. (“God” will be my short-hand for the transcendent.) Now, one might suppose that the only way to gain knowledge of God is through some sort of causal interaction with God on one end and humanity on the other. On this model, God would be sensed much as would tastes or smells; and we would have to suppose that we have an organ of sense whose natural object is God. If one did suppose this, one might be tempted to reject the possibility of knowledge of God. Why? Science has given us no evidence that we have such a sense-organ, and science seems as well to rule out the possibility of a God-world causal interaction.

I wish us, then, to consider this claim, the claim that the sole possible access to God is through sense. In the end, I will reject it. It provides an overly restrictive account of the myriad ways in which we come to know the world.

The so-called senses – sight, taste and the rest - cannot be the only means whereby we come to know the world. Indeed even if we were to assume that our senses were increased in number and we thereby came to have access to aspects of the physical world hidden to us now, they still would not be, could not be, the only means whereby we come to know the world. Let me explain. The senses place us in causal relation to the world. The world acts, the senses receive; and at the end of this process, the brain takes in the input of the senses and produces a mental representations that bears the distinctive marks of the sensory modality that gives rise to them. (The mental representations of sight have color and shape, for instance.)

But our knowledge of the world is not always receptive in this way. Not all knowledge can be reduced to sensory representations. But what else is there? What is the source of this other sort of knowledge?

Reason must be part of the answer. Consider, for instance, a proposition like one that Reitan considered in his post on Logical Empiricism.

All genuine propositions, that is all propositions that actually manage to mean something or other, are empirical in the sense that their truth makes a difference in the empirical order of things.

This proposition self-refutes. (It itself has no empirical content – its truth makes no difference in the empirical order. Thus if true, it implies that it itself means nothing. Thus it cannot be true, and if it cannot be true, it must be false.) Thus we know that its negation is true. But its negation is a non-empirical proposition, and so some of what we know we come to know in a non-empirical way. How might we describe the way in which we come to know this? It looks like philosophical argumentation to me, and I know of no better name for the ability to do that than “reason”.

A point here about reason. It cannot be labeled as subjective. The little philosophical argument above is, it seems to me, quite objectively cogent. It does not merely report how I feel. It results in a conclusion that tells us a bit about the world outside our heads, and everyone, it seems to me, is obligated by sheer logic to grant the truth of its conclusion. (I grant that the knowledge it gives us is negative and thus not really that informative. But we do know something when its over that we did not know before, and that something is really quite important. We know that some genuine, non-empirical propositions are true.)

A second point about reason. Its deliverances aren't like the those of the senses. It has no distinctive phenomenological character as do each of the sense modalities. There's no color, taste or sound to it. There's no way that it feels. Moreover, there is no organ of reason as there is for sight or the other senses. There are no eyes of reason, or ears or nose. Reason is not a faculty whereby the world acts upon us and we as a result build up internal representations of one or another aspect of that world. Reason is rather of the nature of a mental activity. With this, we show that a certain view of how we come to know the world around us is false. On that view, all cognitive content, all that we know, can we reduced to sensory representations. Reason gives us truths that are not sensory in character.

Last point: it seems to me that, once we open to door to non-sensory means to acquire knowledge, we cannot assume that we've got a good grip on what those means are, either their nature or their number. Might there be moral knowledge, for instance? I suspect so, but if this post shows anything, it shows that we cannot rule such a possibility out from the get-go.

(Now, it is of course a very good question how the brain accomplishes this activity I've called reason. I don't have an answer. Indeed I'm not even convinced that the brain could do any such thing as this. At times, I suspect that a soul must be posited as the seat of reason. But my ignorance about this issue does not in the least undermine my argument. Good questions need not be objections.)

Let me reiterate: there are sources to knowledge of the world that do not require that there be a means of transmission of information from world to mind via any sort of causal interaction. Of course some sources of knowledge do require this, and these are the senses. But there is also an intra-mental source of knowledge whereby by reflection alone we can come to discover truths which before we did not know. Knowledge does not in all cases require interaction with the external world. Thus we cannot say that if we know anything of God, we must do so through a sensory apprehension of him. There are other possibilities.

I understand very well that the waters are deep here. I've said little about what I take reason to be, and I've said about how it relates to sense. Moreover, I've only barely hinted at the possibility of other non-sensory sorts of knowledge. But there is a germ of an idea here that I think the theist wise to seize. (I'll speak in metaphors for a moment. I can do no better at present. I apologize.) God is not wholly outside us. He is within us too, and thus we ought to expect to meet him in reflection upon ourselves. Indeed this is the only way in which we meet him. There is no organ with which to sense God, nor need there be. God is met when the mind detaches from the concreta delivered up by the senses and asks after such things as ultimate origin and ultimate purpose. The God who is in us – the only God there is or could be – is not to be found in sky or earth. There are found only the creations of God. Only when in reflection we turn to questions of the origin of the world and its significance do we find God.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Science and the Hidden God

Recently the Times asked readers to define "faith". Many definitions were pejorative and said little expect that faith is irrational.

Why is faith so often thought irrational? Because, many say, it is belief in the absence of evidence. Of course the critic has in mind the standard she believes science provides. It, she believes, is the paradigm of knowledge, for its conclusions, unlike faith, have a solid evidential foundation.

But is this so? Is there a real difference in kind between the faith and science? Is science rational and faith irrational? Is science grounded in evidence and faith cut loose from it? I will argue that it is not.

The argument is two-part. (i) I argue first that the conclusions of science and of faith (and when I speak of faith I mean here the belief that God exists) are similar in kind. Both are grounded in the evidence the senses provide, but both far outrun that narrow evidential base. (ii) I argue second that the critics of faith unjustifiably narrow the sources of evidence and so put faith at an unfair disadvantage. Part one appears below. Part two will appear in a later post.

Science is no mere collection of reports of observation. Rather science is of its natural general. The theoretical constructs of science do not tell us only what the body of researchers has so far observed. Scientific theory is no mere list. Rather it tell us what happens whenever certain conditions - conditions essentially general in nature - obtain. The best examples of this are provided by physics. The Special Theory of Relativity, for instance, tells us about differential time flow in any two reference frames in motion relative to one another; and of course relative motion actually observed forms a tiny subset of all relative motion.

The theoretical constructs of science thus far outrun their evidential base, and so we cannot expect those constructs to follow deductively from their evidential base. Hence the arguments within science are inductive in nature, and so the conclusions of those arguments are at best probable.

Now let us ask what kinds of inductive argument are at work within science. Why precisely do we accept the theories we do? My answer is this: at bottom, scientific theories must be explanatorily superior. They must explain the contents of our observation reports, and those that do a better job of this than any of their competitors are the ones we embrace. Consider, for instance, the revolution that overturned pre-Einsteinian theories of space and time - the ether theories, let us call them - and gave us the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Now, as a matter of historical fact, Einstein himself recognized that the ether theories could be made to square with all evidence that had come to light. It could be made to square, for instance, with the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment. But to do so would require that the ether theories be saddled with a theoretical posit, viz. the existence of a privileged reference frame by which absolute rest and motion might be defined, whose existence could never be revealed in any observation whether actual or possible. This, Einstein thought, counted against the ether theories and for the STR, for it unlike they made no such posit and was thus considerably explanatorily simpler.

My point here is this. The STR did not triumph over its rivals because they could not be brought into consistency with observation. They could. Rather it triumphed over them because of its explanatory superiority. It explained the relevant observation set better than did they.

Now, with this lesson in mind, let us turn to the comparison of faith and science. Many with faith (and I include myself among them, though my faith often wanes) believe as they do in part because they find the content of their faith to explain much that they observe. The universe exists but is contingent (and by this I mean that it might not have existed). What might explain this fact? Presumably something outside the universe, something that unlike the universe is not contingent (for we cannot explain a thing by itself, and we cannot explain contingent existence by contingent existence). Moreover, this something, whatever it is, must possess the power to create a universe such as ours. God is one among the many possible explanatory hypotheses here, and many have argued that it is the best of them all.

Second example. The universe seems to be finely tuned in such a way that it is hospitable to life. If it had been even slightly different in one of a number of ways, life would have been impossible. What might explain this extraordinary fact? It seems two sorts of explanation are possible: either some mechanism produces such a plethora of universes that one such as ours was inevitable, or a power created our universe because it was one in which life could arise. The latter sort brings us very close to God, for a power that acts for some purpose is one that is intelligent. Thus as before one might begin one's argument for God's existence here.

Examples might be compounded, but I will stop. (If I were to continue, I would argue that the existence of moral obligation finds its best explanation in God.) My point is not that these arguments are persuasive as stated. Clearly they are not. But they are arguments that have been developed at great length by theologians, and their point, I take it, is that God is the best of an array of explanatory hypotheses. Deny that they're right about this this if you like, but one point you must grant: belief in God, like belief in the theories of science, is grounded in arguments to the best explanation. Faith is not a repository of superstition. It is not a product of an imagination cut loose from the world. Rather it begins with our knowledge of the world around us, and like science seeks to explain that world in the best possible way. Perhaps you will reject its explanations, but do not deny their existence. They are there. Moreover, do not object that the object of faith, viz. God, has never appeared in your or anyone else's observation of the world and thus that belief in that object is irrational. (I sometimes think that when critics of faith object that faith is irrational, they mean just this. They mean quite literally that no one has ever seen God.) If this objection were sound, science too would be irrational. There is much that science posits that has never appeared to us and will never appear to us. If in fact an asteroid impact does indeed account for the mass extinctions at the end of the Craetacous , that impact will never be observed. Rather we can observe at most a tiny subset of its effects, and we infer that it was indeed the cause of those mass extinctions because it best explains them. We will never observe the curvature of space predicted by the General Theory. Indeed we cannot observe it. It is not an object; it is not an event. Thus it cannot present itself to the senses as do these things. But we can know that it curves because that curvature is part of the theory that best explains much that we can observe.

Thus it is with God. We theists believe that God best explains much that we observe. Disagree if you like, but acknowledge that we believe with reason. We don't believe out of weakness of will or out of irrationality. We believe because we wish to know at bottom how the world works, and in this we are of one mind with science.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Evils of Religion

I grow weary of the charge that religion is a cause of much evil in the world.

Yes, much evil has been done in the name of religion. But what really is the root cause here? Would the human tendency to evil have found another outlet even if religion had not been near to hand?

If the evil would have been done even even if religion was not present to justify it, religion cannot be the root cause. Indeed, if all one does is note the many circumstances in which evil has been done in the name of religion, it is quite possible that religion tends to mitigate the evil people do.

To speak like a logician, if all one does is note how often evil is done in the name of religion, only correlation, not cause and effect, has been discovered; and even if one grants that religion is a cause of evil done, one certainly not identified the root cause. The human propensity evil might lie behind the existence of religion (I would say the perversion of religion) and serve as the final explanation of evil done. In such a case, religion has been exonerated.

It is extraordinarily difficult to tease out root causes, and a casual perusal of history cannot do it. Prove to me that the evil attributed to religious belief would not have occurred without religion and I will accept your conclusion. But until you do this, I will dismiss your accusation out of hand.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Heart and Mind

An idea - an idea about myself and my tendency to unbelief - became clear a moment ago. I find it almost impossible to believe a thing if I do not understand it fully. This is why I began to write about the Atonement. It was no dry, academic exercise. Rather I want to believe but find an inability to understand a barrier to it. I want to believe that, Christ died for my sins. But I don't know what this means; I don't know what precisely I am to believe. Thus I do not fully believe.

I suspect this is a fault. (Indeed it must be a fault if rank-and-file believers believe with good reason, as I suppose they do.) What others pass over with a quick and sure intuitive grasp makes me trip and fall. I immediately begin to analyze, and when analysis fails, belief wavers. Moreover, even if I my analysis of, say, the Atonement were to satisfy me at the moment, it isn't at all unlikely that at a future time it will not. But I don't think it wise to rest faith upon a foundation that might shift.

This is an existential problem, not a theoretical one. But if I know me, I'll continue to pursue the theoretical end, though it have no confidence that it will bear fruit.

The Atonement and Orignal Sin

I've begun now a series of posts about the Atonement. Two are behind me but I fear that many more are in front. The issue has ramified (as so often happens).

I concluded that the issue of the Atonement, if thought through, requires that one both posit Original Sin and describe how it might be overcome. The Atonement fixes or puts right what went wrong with humanity in the Fall and thus makes us able to love God with all of heart and mind and neighbor as self. But what precisely did go wrong and how might it be put right? I find that I have at best a partial answer to this question. Thus do no expect any resolution here. That (if it ever comes) must await another day. All that I have to offer is the very first hint of a solution. Indeed I'll have much more to say about challenges to the form of solution I offer than about the solution itself. My argument is very much a work in progress.

Recall the path whereby I reached this conclusion. I first argued that the Atonement was pedagogical in intent and potential effect; I argued, that is, that Christ, in his death, gave us a perfect example of love, and that this example would lead us to give our love in return. But I realized that this view was shallow and at best a partial truth. Indeed I realized that I was guilty of a kind of inverse Pelagianism. Pelagius argued that from Adam we did not receive a nature warped and thus inclined to sin. On the contrary, he argued that Adam was a bad example and nothing more, and that we are as perfect in nature when we come into the world as was Adam when God first breathed life into him. In my first post on the Atonement, I adopted the view of Pelagius. I assumed that we are quite ready, as we are now, to evince a perfect love if only we are shown what that is. Like Pelagius, I thought that there was no corruption of nature but only an example to follow. For Pelagius, Adam was but a bad example. For me, Christ was but a perfect example. The error is at bottom one and the same.

If we resist Pelagianism here, we must explain how the Atonement made possible a cure for the disease of soul that we inherit from Adam; and to do this, we must explain just what that disease is, for if we do not understand the disease, we cannot understand the cure. Thus we must undertake the task of Theodicy. (Theodicy, recall, is the attempt to explain why an all-good and all-powerful God might have had reason to allow evil to exist.) The issue of the Atonement ramifies once again. (Indeed I fear that it might so fully ramify that I will find that I can give an account of the Atonement only if I also simultaneously give an account of all the fundamental dogmas of Christianity - the Trinity, the Incarnation and all the rest. But if it must be, let it be.) Why must we undertake Theodicy? I believe (as do many Christians) that though God allowed evil to enter the world, he did not create it himself. Rather it is the creation of humanity (and perhaps of other rational, contingent beings as well). This evil, moreover, came about when we severed the relation that before we'd had with God and so made ourselves into sinful creations who, cut off from God, became quite capable of evil both minor and great. This is the origin of the disease of soul that afflicts us all. This is how it came to be.

But this is at most the barest hint of that in which original sin consists. I've said just a bit about its cause and its effect. (Cause: that free act whereby we severed the relation that before had bound us to God. Effect: Evil.) But I've not yet said what original sin is. It is a disease, a disorder of soul that inclines us to sin. But what is this disease, this disorder? What did we do to ourselves when we Fell?

I am tempted by Thomas' view. (The seeds of his view had been sown long before. It is present in Augustine and before him in Plato.) It is at least an answer that is intelligible, and it does explain much of the evil that we do (as any view of original sin must). Thus Thomas in Nature and Grace:

It is the disordered disposition which has resulted from the dissolution of the harmony which was once the essence of original justice, just as bodily sickness is the disordered disposition of a body which has lost the equilibrium which is the essence of health. (Q 82, Art 1)

The whole order of original justice consisted in the subjection of man’s will to God. Man was subject to God first and foremost through his will, which directs all other parts of his soul to their end, as we said in Q 9, Art 1. Disorder in any other part of his soul is therefore the consequence of his will turned away from God. Privation of original justice, by which the will of man was subject to God, is therefore the formal element in original sin. Every other disorder of the powers of the soul is related to original sin as the material which it affects. Now the disorder of these other powers consists especially in this, that they are wrongly directed to changeable good. Such disorder may be called by the common name of “desire.” Materially, then, original sin is desire. Formally, it is the lack of original justice. In man, the power of desire is naturally ruled by reason. Desire is therefore natural to man in so far as it is subject to reason. But desire which exceeds the bounds of reason exists in him as something contrary to nature. Such is the desire of original sin. (Q 82, Art 3)

Intellect and reason have the primacy where good in concerned. But, conversely, the lower part of the soul comes first where evil is concerned. For it darkens reason and drags it down, as we said in Q 80, Art 1. Original sin is therefore said to be desire rather than ignorance, although ignorance is one of its material defects. (Q 82, Art 3)

Since man has lost the control of original justice which once kept all the powers of his soul in order, each power tends to follow its own natural movement. (Art 4)

The gist of the view is clear. When we turned from God, the will ceased to exert the control natural to it; and without that control, our other faculties began to pursue their natural ends without the balance, without the restraint, that the will is supposed to provide.

But about this I have more questions that answers. I list them as they occur to me. Order means nothing.

  1. Why did the will cease to exercise control? What is that connection of the will to God that seemed to render it so vulnerable? Why wasn't, say, sexual desire effected in the same way?
  2. What has the defect of will to do with love? I have said that original sin made us unable to love as we should? But what has our inability to control our various faculties do to with that? The connection is not clear.
  3. How precisely did Christ's life or his death on the cross fix this defect of will?
  4. Given that Christ's life and death might somehow fix the will, why was it necessary for this? (Recall that, at the very start of my discussion of the Atonement, I supposed that the Atonement was not only sufficient to achieve its desired effect but was necessary for that effect as well.
  5. Given that the Atonement made possible the restoration of the proper function of the will, should we not expect that Christians, who have availed themselves must fully of the action of the Atonement, would be morally superior in act to non-Christians? But the supposition that they are is dubious at best. (Indeed this stands as a challenge to all accounts of the Atonement that suppose its primary effect to be the correction of a defect in our nature. If this were so, wouldn't Christians be better people than in fact they are?)

I must leave the issue here. I see no deeper into the issue at present.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In What Can We Trust?

We here in the U. S. seem to place great trust in progress. We believe that we are better off today than we were a generation before, and we work for a like progress in the future.

But the only “we” that matters when such judgments are made are the current residents of the U.S. But if we wish to speak of the condition of humanity, that “we” should include not just those here but all everywhere. I wonder what our judgment must be about the “progress” the world has made if we so widen our judgment.

Moreover, if we wish to speak of the condition of humanity, we must speak of it not only now, but in the future as well; and I have precisely zero confidence that even here, even in the “enlightened” West, we won’t slip back into barbarism. Many Jews refused to leave Europe even after Hitler’s Germany had by its actions made its intentions clear. They believed that “it” could not happen here. They were wrong. Darkness descends where once there was light. Perhaps for us too the light has begun to fade. The Earth warms because of the pollution we spew. Can you be confident that this won’t so stress economies that the whole world will be thrown into chaos? Islamist extremists seeks to destroy the West. What if New York or LA were to disappear in a mushroom clould? What would be our response? What would be the response to the response?

Even where there is progress, it is fragile. It might be lost. Who can judge the probabilities here? Where in the mundane can you place any trust?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Atonement: Second Thoughts

I had what I thought was my say about the Atonement. The view I proposed was a variant of the so-called "Moral Influence View". It (or a variant of it) was articulated by Abelard and Schleiemacher among others. But as I reflected what upon what I had said, I came to doubt that it was complete.

My contention was that Christ wished to display, in the most perfect of all possible ways, his perfect love for us and thereby elicit from us a more perfect love in return. But notice an assumption that I made. I assumed that we are quite able to return His love if only we become convinced that it has been shown for us. But is this true? Are we able in our present state to return it? (Indeed, in our present state, are we able so much as to admit that it has been shown for us?)

I would say no. I am fully convinced of the doctrine of original sin (if this is understood to mean that we come into the world with an inescapable propensity to sin). But sin say I is any act which tends to separate us from the love of God. Thus it would seem that we come into this world with a stubborn inability to unite ourselves to God's love, and a mere example of God's love - for us, a mere story that relates God's love to us - could not possibly overcome this. Our sinfulness is not, say, like a student's ignorance of geometry when she begins the class. There is (let us say) no essential inability in the student that would render her unable to learn, and thus her ignorance can be overcome by example, guided work and the like. There is, in other words, no impediment to instruction in place, and all should go well.

But in the case of sin, there is an impediment in place. We come into the world defective, and this defect is a bottom an inability to unite ourselves to the love of God. Thus a mere example of that love - even that example which exceeds all others in its perfection - cannot be expected to turn the tide. If Christ was a bottom only a teacher of love, then he would fail, for his students are not able to learn the lesson he would teach them.

Thus Christ cannot have been only a teacher, else his life and death would have been a waste. He cannot have come only to give an example of God's perfect love. He must have done more. He must, in particular, have made possible the cure for that inborn defect that made us (before the cure) unable to love God. Now, I do not doubt that Christ is our instructor. But he is much more too, and the more that he is must logically precede Christ the teacher. Christ must be healer before he is teacher.

So the question before us is this: How did the life and death of Christ heal humanity? How did it so effect a defective human nature that it became able to return the perfect love that was shown when Christ allowed himself to be nailed to the cross? I have no answer at present.

So, then, I come to suspect that one must hold a pluripotency view of the Atonement. It did not do one thing. It did many things. (Perhaps this is just what we should expect. In all things, God brings about a complexity of effect through a simplicity of cause.)