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.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Moral Relativism and Human Freedom

All moral theory is of two types. On the first, at least one thing is good simpliciter, good in its own right, good not merely in relation to this or that but good in itself. On the second, anything that is good is good for or good to something outside itself.

A wasp stings a caterpillar. The caterpillar is paralyzed. The wasp then lays an egg in the caterpillar, an egg that will later hatch and consume the caterpillar. Here we have something good and something evil. For the caterpillar, to be consumed by the wasp is an evil. For the wasp, to make possible the continuation of its kind is a good. But these of course are a good and an evil of a relative sort. The good is a good for and the evil an evil for. Neither is a good or an evil in its own right. Each is, if you like, what it is only from a certain, partial point of view. Change that point of view, and the quality of the event too must change.

When I think of such events as this, I am tempted to place them beyond good and evil. Yes, in a way we have a good, and in a way we have an evil. But when one simply observes such an event - when, that is, one does not take the point of view of either caterpillar or wasp but simply watches and contemplates - it seems that the event simply is. The caterpillar dies. The wasp grows. This is simply the way the world is, and nothing in it is good simpliciter or evil simpliciter. I attempt to inculcate this attitude in my children, and it is, I think, the attitude of the scientist. The wasp is in no sense evil or corrupt for what it does. Nature is in no sense evil or corrupt because such things happen in it. It just is. The event is beyond good and evil and its occurrence implies no imperfection in the world.

On the second sort of moral theory defined above ("moral relativism" I called it), all events are like the one described. If one raises oneself outside an event (even if this is only possible in imagination), one recognizes that the most one can say about it is that it simply is. It might well involve great harm to some being, and thus if one adopts its point of view, one will say that it is evil. It might involve benefit to some being, and thus from its point of view, it is good. But this is the only sort of good and evil within it. The sole good that it possesses is a good for. The sole evil that it possesses is an evil for. But in itself - or equivalently, from the point of view of a being not part of the event and in no way effected by it - it is neither good nor evil. It is rather beyond them.

On relativism, all moral judgments are judgments from a certain point of view. In particular, it is the view that "x is good" means "x is good for or to y" and that "x is evil" means "x is evil for or to y". Relativism attaches no sense to the predicate "x is good". It thinks such a predicate incomplete.

Moral relativism seems precisely the right sort of view to hold if one limits one's attention to non-human forms of life. If one adopts their point of view, one finds much that is good or evil to them. But this means no more than that much is helpful and harmful to them. But if one lifts oneself outside their point of view and, as it were, takes in the whole of nature (humans perhaps excluded - more on this in a moment) in a glimpse, that good and evil are revealed to be partial; and from that point of view outside, nature as a whole - nature in which we consider not merely this or that creature but all in their myriad of relations - has none of the good or evil we found in the individuals within it. It is beyond all that.

Moreover, this sort of moral relativism seems equally applicable to us human beings if we are not free. If not free, we act under compulsion, compulsion to pursue that which seems good for us and avoid that which seems evil to us. If not free, then, we are precisely similar to all other forms of life. We have our perceived goods and we pursue them of necessity; we have our perceived evils, and we flee them of necessity. But the only goods are of the perceived, that is of the relative, sort. To a being able to take in the whole of nature at a glance, we are just like all other creatures within it. Our goods are not good simpliciter. Our evils are not evil simpliciter. They are simply what we of necessity pursue or flee in the attempt to flourish.

But what if we are free? What if there is no iron necessity to our pursuit of that which appears good to us? If we are free, there comes the possibility that we are responsible for our acts in a way that no creature that acts under compulsion can be. If we are free, there comes the possibility that we will act not only on the shabby little desire to benefit only ourselves. Free creatures can reject what is good for themselves and act on a greater or a higher good. Free creatures can lift themselves up out of the point of view of the individual and consider what is good for the whole; and maybe, just maybe, then can act on what is best not for the individual but for the whole. Thus the relative good gives way to the absolute good. The relative is partial and considers only what is good for this or that individual. The absolute considers the good for all, and freedom makes action in accordance with a conception of the absolute good possible.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Atonement

As I sat in church today, I began to think again about the Atonement. I have argued that a certain view of the Atonement - a view that goes by the name "Substitutionary Atonement" - is fatally flawed. But since I came to that conclusion, I have been uncertain how one might do better. I now have a suggestion.

But before I lay it out, let me first say what I believe are the criteria that any plausible account of the Atonement must meet. (1) First, something of great importance to humanity was achieved by Christ's death, and any plausible account of the Atonement must say just what this is. Here of course one will likely say that Christ's death made possible (or inevitable as we universalists would say) humanity's salvation. This is no doubt so, but of course a word is not itself the explanation we seek. If we say that Christ's death made possible our salvation, we must then explain just what we mean by "salvation". (2) Second, any account of the Atonement must explain the necessity of Christ's death. What Christ achieved, He achieved (at least in part) through His death; and what was achieved by His death could not have been achieved in any other way. (3) Third, any account of the Atonement must explain how Christ's death achieved its effect.

So then we need these three things: an account of the what, an account of the necessity of the what, and an account of the how.

Here's my idea. (I'm certain that it's not new. It - or a variant of it - comes to us from Schliermarcher.) I begin with a number of propositions that seem to me axiomatic to the Christian world-view. Sin brought about a rupture, a breach that separates God from man. The purpose of the Incarnation was to heal that breach. The breach consists is a lack of love, both for God and for neighbor; and thus the purpose of the Incarnation was to perfect love.

Let us then view the Atonement through the lens of this idea. It was a bottom an expression of love, and in that love God makes possible the perfection of our love. How was his done? As Christ told us, there is no greater love than a love that will sacrifice all for another. This fact is known by all. Thus if Christ were to "give His all" for us, and if we knew that He and the Father were one, we could know that God's love for us is unsurpassable. But if we knew this - if we knew that the author of our being loves us with an unsurpassable love - we would inevitably begin to return that love. But to the degree that that love is returned, the breach between God and man is healed.

Here then is our What and our How. The Atonement achieves a perfection of love, and it does so by the natural human propensity (no doubt implanted in us by God) to return love that is given to us. But what of the necessity of the What? How might we prove that God could achieve the perfection in no other way than the sacrifice of Christ? I do no see my way clearly here, but I suspect that we must draw upon our capacity for free will. A perfect love is a love freely given; it is a love that is not forced. But how might one lead another to love if one cannot force that love? One can do no better than reveals one's true nature and hope that this touches the other deeply. But what is God's true nature? It is love. Thus God had no choice but to make known his perfect love for us. How best to teach this lesson? How bestfor God to make known His love? By the most perfect expression of that love, and this I contend comes in self-sacrifice. In any other act, one might suspect that the motives are ultimately selfish. But in self-sacrifice - a sacrifice that ends in death on the cross - there can be no such suspicion. The very nature of deliberate sacrifice of a life rules out the motive to serve only the self.

This is my view of the Atonement. It was not a price paid. It was a love displayed. It does not ransom us. It calls forth from us the perfection of love for which we were made.