Friday, January 23, 2009

On Hate, Love and the Sinner

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. ~ Fredrich Nietzsche, Chapter IV: Apophthegms and Interludes, #146.

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Galatians 6:1
Over the past three to six months, I’ve become increasingly aware of the controversy surrounding the use of Mahatma Gandhi’s now hackneyed line, 'Hate the sin, love the sinner.' While, like most slogans, it seems rather sound and has a certain popular authoritative quality to it, I also get the feeling that something fallacious lurks below said authority and popularity. Is it used to obfuscate the true intentions of the user? I’ve honestly never really had a problem with this saying, so it struck me as odd the way certain people were so quick to dismiss it. Then again, I’ve never really thought about it either.

My first refuge for answers on this is the Bible. I attempted to approach the question from a New Testament perspective (as we Christians seem to be the most likely to bandy this phrase) in an open-minded way. I wondered if 'Hate the sin, but love the sinner' is a true Christian attitude reflected in the words and actions of Jesus and the New Testament writers.

I won't dwell on the Old Testament, because there is clearly a different ethic going on. God, as depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, seems to have a rather heavy hand; there are long lists of things that He hates (Proverbs 6:17-19) but there are a few passages that seem analogous to Gandhi’s phrase. For example, Amos 5:14-15 which reads:
Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the LORD God Almighty will be with you, just as you say He is. Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the LORD God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.
While this is not exactly what Gandhi had in mind, I think, someone who esteems the Bible could make a case from the Old Testament that God wants us to hate sin but be just (love, perhaps?) the transgressor (and maybe, just maybe He won't squash you like a bug). It also seems that the case can be made that Old Testament God hates the sinner as well. Nonetheless, there are things that God clearly hates.

But for a Christian, we must seek the example of Jesus. How does the character and actions of Jesus guide us? Did Jesus hate sin, but love the sinner? Would this be a motto He might have lived by in His dealings with others? I think these questions are answered depending on how you see Jesus: Is He your Friend, Rabbi or Judge? There are, of course, other ways of thinking about Jesus’ character—rebel, healer, savior, for example—but the three categories I have chosen seem to bear most closely on this issue.

For some people, Jesus is a groovy dude who, were he alive today, would have the world’s record for the number of Facebook friends. He laughed, told jokes and horsed around with everyone He encountered. This version of Jesus is often summed up in another slogan (which probably invites some examination itself): 'He accepts me just as I am'. Jesus got into quite a bit of trouble for hanging out with sinners (man oh man, are tax collectors evil or what?). Jesus was available to anyone who seemed to really want to know God, despite how messed up their thinking or their lives were. This Jesus is the Jesus of love, compassion, camaraderie and forgiveness. His main emphasis was friendship and nonjudgmentalism. For people who see Jesus in this way, judging others is the highest form of antichristian behavior. They are likely to passionately quote Matthew 7:1 ('Judge not, that ye be not judged.') and likely will have the entire chapter committed to memory (Matthew 7). Likewise, a person who prefers to see Jesus in this nonjudgmental light will cite the example of Jesus and the adulteress (John 8:1-11) which has an interesting tag in final verse).

For others, Jesus is seen as the completely just judge. He is quick to right wrongs and punish sin. He is seen as the Temple cleanser and guardian of righteousness. He demands that we be morally outstanding, to live our lives even more true than the most religious of the religious. He cast judgment on people, places and things, even whole towns), proclaiming 'Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matt 4:17). For people who choose to see Jesus in this way, Mark’s (Mark 11: 15-17) account of Him cleansing the Temple of moneychangers shows that Jesus can become angry and, perhaps, hateful of sin.

Finally, Jesus is seen as a sort of ultra-wise Socratic mystic. He is their 'favorite philosopher'; He is Rabbi Yeshua. He was here to reveal the Truth and to be the Truth. His job was to enlighten. On moral issues, he was revolutionary, teaching a strict personal ethic combined with a nuanced philosophy of the ‘Kingdom of God’.

In my mind, this Jesus is more balanced (if still simplistic) and, therefore, probably the more helpful image in relation to this issue. Clearly, He teaches that we need repentance (Luke 5:32) but warns that we should not put burdens on others (Luke 11:46-47) that we ourselves cannot shoulder. He warns that we should love our enemies (Matt 5:43-48), but to take care to avoid rubbing shoulders with evil too much (Matt. 7:6).

When we say 'hate the sin, love the sinner', we need to be careful who we are judging here. The New Testament makes it clear that we should not judge those outside of the Church. I Cor. 5:12-13 asks: 'What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. 'Expel the wicked man from among you.'' We should cast out heretics (I’m using the word in a very technical sense) as 2 John 1:10 suggests; our primary focus as Christians is inward and upward therefore. We need to clean our own house before we judge the world (and we all know how much effort that takes). Jesus did not come to judge the world (that will be later), and, we Christians, being imitators of God, should do the same (2 cor 5:19-20, Eph 5:1-2). Love first (see I Cor 13), forgive (we are commanded to forgive and forgive and forgive, Matt 6:12, Matt 18:15-35), then finally turn the sinner from his ways (James 5:20).

When St. Paul says 'Hate what is evil; cling to what is good', I think it is clear that he is referring to a personal struggle.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:9-16)
Christianity is a relationship with God and a radically ethical lifestyle (see Matt 5:20 for example). Both of these aspects are difficult (don’t I know it!) but having a 'Christian' lifestyle is what provides evidence to the outside world that our relationship is true. Jesus saved us to be better people, to be better citizens, neighbors, and friends, not to harp on others’ sins and make their lives more miserable. First see to the sins in your own life, then we can talk about the moral failings in your neighbor’s life (Matthew 7:3).

That is certainly not to say that we ignore the evils around us. There are evils that people do that should not be ignored. Where evil exists, it should be despised and combated, for I think that is also a Christian duty. Tolerance, in this sense, should not be our standard. As St. Augustine said,
Any and every unrighteous man must be the object of our hatred in respect of his unrighteousness and the object of our love in respect of his humanity; that by reproving the fault in him which rightly earns our hatred, we may liberate that in him which rightly earns our love, that is to say the human nature itself, and set right every fault in it.
We are, indeed, required to work toward removing sin in others’ life and in the world in general (Jude 1:22-23), but that must be tempered with the fact that we are not God, whatever God we attempt to imitate.

Following a Jesus who is the Judge may give intolerant and militant Christians 'permission' to go on elaborate and hurtful crusades against a particular sin or sins. The monster I pursue with such passion may spawn other monsters in my soul.

While, seeing Jesus as merely a Friend also has it's dangers. Those who focus too much on these aspects of Jesus may find that they begin to become more open to moral lapses. The abyss will open up to them, beckoning them toward lukewarmness, making excuses for sin in others and in themselves.

While we may be better served with a slogan more along the lines of ‘hate the sin in me, love all sinners as brothers and sisters’, in the end, I do think the phrase ‘Hate the sin, love the sinner’ has a certain utility to it. But it cannot be used to justify our own personal crusades against ‘unrighteousness’. We cannot attack the sin outside before we attack it on the inside.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stage Fright

I’ve been playing music in front of people since 1988 and I can’t remember a single moment of complete and utter stage fright. Don’t get me wrong, I screw up all the time. In fact, I clearly remember my first opportunity to play 'professionally' (I think we got free beer for our efforts that night). It was spring of 1988 and our band, The Pearldivers, had booked a gig in some tavern in downtown Portland. This was the sort of band who spend entire evenings going over one song, so I wasn’t unprepared to play. But nothing can get you ready to play in front of strangers. Needless to say, I kinda freaked out and had to stop playing for nearly the entire first verse.

But that was not true stage fright; that was just forgetting what I was supposed to be playing.

Earlier today, I was once again afforded the privilege to play in our church’s worship band. I’ve been doing that for almost 10 years now, so, in a lot of ways, it’s pretty routine. This morning we were playing 'Let God Arise' by Chris Tomlin and I was on bass. I wasn’t terribly sure how we were gonna play that little F-F-F-G lick and how I was going to swing back into it and messed up.

No biggy, like I say, I mess up all the time and recover pretty well.

What was incredible to me was that during the second service, I completely spaced it and began to freak. I couldn’t remember which of the four strings I was supposed to be on, much less where a G was. Maybe I needed to do it in another octave? Oh no, the lights are too dim; I can’t even see the music! What’s that!?! My hearing aid just died! EVERYOHNE’S LOOKING AT ME!

For nearly the entire song, I was flustered, but I troopered through and played . . . umm something.

I recovered pretty quickly though and the rest of the service was wonderful. I really felt connected to God through the music and through my fellow musicians (who always seem to do such a wonderful job!).

Long story short, I tend to see playing music at church much the way I see living life. We all have our parts to play. I'm a bass guitarist, which means to me just being there. I don't think most people really 'hear' the bass; it's just there giving support to the more 'interesting' bits. I like that feeling, I'm nothing special, but I can let other people shine.

But sometimes, I can get rather self-centered and let myself start to believe that my part in life is more important that other people's. (Probably why playing leadish licks makes me so nervous on stage.) For my part, the second I start to be something I'm not, something God has not made me to be, there is a momentary feeling of self-importance followed by me falling on my face. But if I stay in what God wants me to be (or pushes me to be!), then I have all the confidence I need.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Give the Gift of Friendship

It's free.
It's fun.

So this year, I would encourage to find a geek and be their pal. Befriend a geek this year; we all need it!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Befriend a Geek from White October on Vimeo.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Information and the Teleological Argument

Before I moved on to the Moral Argument for God's Existence, I was doing a little more reading and thinking about the Teleological Argument. Basically, the teleological argument says, we see design therefore there's a Designer. Nevertheless, how do we know we see design? What feature of a "machine" implies design? How does the blueprint for that machine play a part in these observations? Moreover, how does the concept of God connect with these “blueprints”?

Well, the simple answer is that "machines" have information associated with them. They are conceived immaterially and are birthed physically through a blueprint or plan that is expressed through some sort of language or code. Information is this code.

In English, the word information means to “give form” to something. It is not the thing ultimately formed, nor is it the medium that conveys formation. Information is the immaterial meaning that eventually has expression in the sensible world.

One researcher, Andrzej Chmielecki, claims that information really is just the ability to discriminate:
The fundamental feature of animate systems (which are all informational systems) is their ability to discriminate and select. From single cells to plants to animals and human beings the behavior of animate systems depends on what they can discriminate, be it the concentration of certain substances, or the magnitude of physical parameters like temperature, humidity, or shape. What counts here is thus some detected difference between things that can be distinguished by a system. "Difference" and "detection" are thus two key words in our enterprise of grasping what information is. Information is, roughly speaking, any detected difference . . . . .
And later:
Information is an abstract entity. It has no separate existence on its own, because no difference can exist save there are real states of affairs between which the difference holds, and which constitute its code.
I think this makes sense because the physical “blueprint” we usually call information (but isn’t), only comes about through an immaterial process (especially when we are looking at higher concepts such as art, love, morality, spirituality, ect.).

According to another researcher, Werner Gitt,* information equals the sum of the following:
  • Statistics: the number and kind of symbols used in the code.
  • Syntax: the permissible combination of symbols; the structural characteristics of the code.
  • Semantics: the sequential rules for the code which carries the actual meaning of the message.
  • Pragmatics: the sender's invitation to action; the intention of the sender.
  • Apobetics: the results, the consequences and outcome of the reception; the receiver's action predicated on the sender's intention.
Thus, information is a code made up of "freely willed" conventions and arbitrarily defined symbols designed to discriminate between states. There is no information without a code, and no code without an intelligent sender. Even if no "author" is physically present, you can still know that there was an author. It requires a material medium for storage and transmission but can only be generated from non-material sources--souls, consciousnesses, wills.# It cannot be generated from a material entities and, according to Gitt, is the basis for all program-directed technological and biological systems.

But how do we know that information is non-material? Gitt attempts to demonstrate this by imagining a sandy beach. On this beach, we take a stick and write out a meaningful English sentence. Then, we smooth it over with our foot and write another. The material in which the information was temporarily stored had not really changed. The sand's mass and energy had not changed; it's configuration changed, not it's material. The meaning in the code transcends (if I can use that word) the sum total of all of the silica, quartz and other materials found in the sand and is expressed in the arbitrarily-, but intelligently-, constructed code we call English. The meaningful English sentences, obviously intelligently designed and evolving (not to put too fine a point on it), is the insubstantial code. It is the active force that motivates structure, cohesion, discrimination and perception in the physical world. While it has no form in itself, it must reside in some kind media. Unfortunately, due to metonymic conventions, it is sometimes difficult to separate the media (the blueprint, speech, book, DNA) from the information it holds. For example, sounds (and their accompanying information, speech, music) are not stored on an MP3 file, rather they are merely causally connected to the 1’s and 0’s on the magnetic disk. In much the same, information is not on the medium.

Is it true that the material world cannot explain the non-material? Obviously, I'm not going to be able to elaborate on my belief that non-material entities exist here (for starters, I think that Kant's noumenal world, among other things, is generally correct), so for now I will just assume immaterial entities exist for sake of argument and try to elaborate on that at a later time. If non-material entities--such as minds, ideas, consciousness, spirits, God--exist, then we can should be able to see how they produce tangible results in the physical world. We have a thought (which, I argue, may have material components, but it is essentially immaterial) that is transferred into language, then becomes an impulse to do something. As this impulse is transferred, either through speech or action or set in some physical medium for future use, it now becomes able to form something in the physical world. If information is non-material and has a non-material origin, yet can be expressed in the material world (our English sentences written in the sand, for example), then it seems plausible that the ultimate creator of this code (God) exists.

Interestingly enough, this is exactly what the book of Genesis suggests that God did, through some kind of information stream (apparently, speech), when He created the world. In the New Testament, Jesus is identifies as the Word (logos, both speech and action). This is, perhaps, an apt description of what information is: arbitrary symbols that are designed to express, motivate or otherwise create or cause action in the material world. While I don’t believe Jesus was purely information (that seems rather absurd), it is clear from the Bible that before there was a material world, there was some sort of code in preparation for everything substantial. The author of this code is God.

For pantheists, this makes a lot of sense. God is, for them perhaps, the insubstantial code behind everything we see in the universe. From my point of view, this does not go far enough though because information is only an expression of the author’s intent. Therefore, there must be an author beyond, before and superior to the information itself; artificers are not the same as the artifact.

I’m not entirely sure that this line of argumentation is completely persuasive. I’ll have to give this some more thought, but information does, for myself, seem to play an important role in how I can properly apprehend the existence of God.


* I first encountered Gitt's work at Answers in Genesis. AiG presents a lot ideas that are, frankly, interesting and supportive of my views in general, but also present some hastily constructed arguments that, to me, seem far fetched and not terribly defensible. Gitt, while controversial, raises some interesting points. I have ignored his major arguments about the validity of evolutionary theories, which--in all honesty--I don't completely understand yet and concentrated on his proofs for God's existence.

#Of course, animals and plants may produce information. It is probably a quantitative rather than qualitative difference between the information created by non-material entities (human souls, God) and reflexive, responsive information created by plants and animals; animals posses souls (nefesh) but human beings posses living souls (nefesh khaya) in the image of our Creator. Leave it to my cat-loving wife to destroy my carefully constructed argument; no wonder I'm so conflicted! hehe

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Monday, December 8, 2008

All We are is Dust in the Wind . . .


Pre-Game Coin Toss Makes Jacksonville Jaguars Realize Randomness Of Life

I laughed hard when I saw this again. And I think, in a way, it has finally brought me out of my funk. When I watched that video, I had my own little existential realization, even if the universe is completely meaningless, we still get to create our own meaning in life. I plan on getting out of my own locker room and making my own meaning.

Oh the absurdity of absurdity!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bout of Doubt, Round 4,994,847

So, my wife comes home last week and sees the complete mess strewn around the desk here, books splayed open, spine up, pages marked, scribbles of three Word documents, four Bibles all opened to the same passage and umpteen hundred Web pages open in my browser. For a brief moment, I feel like she's looking at me as if I were Ted Kaczynski hammering away at some old typewriter.

Perhaps, she's right.

She laughs and shakes her head, and we head out to dinner. We talk about the stock market, databases and computer games instead of what's really on my mind; we both know I need a break from my quest to discover The Truth . . . dun, dun, dun.

I had an entire journal entry written up that talks about my current bout of doubt and how other people have reacted to it. Instead, I think I'll just show you where I'm trying to focus my mind. So, here's a short list of things I've been trying to meditate on:
But he must ask in faith without any doubting (wavering), for the one who doubts (wavers) is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. ~ James 1:6

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ~ II Corinthians 10:4,5. (This passage is very interesting in The Message as well)

Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to 'knowledge-with-doubt' is no knowledge at all. Only God and certain madmen have no doubts. ~ Martin Luther

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply. ~ C. S. Lewis

If I doubt, I exist. ~ St. Augustine

I believe; help my unbelief. ~ Mark 9:24
Anyone out there really suffer with doubt in their faith? How do you deal with it?


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Evaluation of the Teleological Argument

Look round the world; contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. ~David Hume
I honestly don’t know how anyone can not stand in awe of the natural world, our bodies, our cells, the very particles that make up . . . well, everything. I am continually blown away by the natural world, both in it’s beauty and complexity. (The other night I caught The History Channel’s exploration of the brain--“the most complex machine in the known universe”--and was completely dumbfounded; well, my brain thinking about my brain is dumbfounded!) Indeed, the brain makes even the most complicated human invention look like a randomly tumbled stone. But does this complexity, this wonderfully amazing “machinery” we call life, compel us to believe in a creator? Does the “design” we see in nature require a Designer?

As with the other arguments for God's existence, there are some problems. First, the basic premise of the argument seems to require us to believe that bodies, organs, solar systems, ecosystems and planets behave as if they were machines. Paley (and others) want to say that our eyes, our cells, the very planet we live on is analogous to a machine (a watch in this case). This analogy has never seemed necessarily credible as it seems to break down rather quickly. Watches have makers; that much is clear. They are not made by themselves, but animals, plants, even planets and solar systems are self-replicating or self-organizing through the laws of physics. (It might be argued that the physical laws implies a creator, but that only says that God created a set of rules not the universe itself.) It breaks down because we are comparing non-living with living, self-sustaining with non-self-sustaining. Watches do not reproduce. Animals do, cells do. All of the systems we see today that appear to evidence design were formed through the use of preexisting materials; God, at least the God of the Bible, is said to have made the universe without that benefit. Without a doubt, the universe is a wondrous and complex thing, but an analogous argument never entirely convincing.

Next, while I am completely amazed by nature and how it appears that the universe evidences design, I am also aware at how wasteful and, dare I use the word, evil it can be. For all the carefully designed elements of life, there are also many maladaptions that seem to defy the notion of a thoughtful, entirely moral Designer. The abject waste of young life is an observable fact; it's pretty clear that for every "fit" individual in nature, there is massive majority of "unfit" individuals die before they can reproduce. Such waste must be addressed if I am to make claims about the perfect design of the natural world.

By way of a partial rebuttal to this objection: Sin may be a powerful explanation, but, if so, then we might not be able to have our cake and eat it too, perhaps, forcing us to make the rather weak claim that God only designed the good parts of nature. I personally think evil can be explained sufficiently to at least address this issue enough to set it aside.

There may be an "unconscious purpose" that has produced the appearance of design in the world. I can imagine, given some vast stretch of time, that the standard evolutionary story could become plausible. If a thousand monkeys hammered on a thousand keyboards for a hundred million years, something approaching the genius of Shakespeare could appear on the page through pure chance. But chance is not the only active force in nature: there is gravity, there are chemical interactions, there is natural selection (known most commonly by the tautological slogan: "survival of the fittest"). To my way of thinking, the all-to-common example of the human eye may have plausibly evolved gradually from a simple light-sensitive organelle through successive modifications, down to the variety of eyes we see today in the animal world. This doesn't mean that something has purposed to create an eye. Rather, it could be that my eyes are more adaptive than my ancestors and their eyes were more adaptive than their ancestors, etc., until we reach back in time to find a mildly photosensitive skin cell on some sort of primitive and completely unknown creature.

Finally, I think it is quite possible that we may be fooled into thinking that there is actual design, when there really isn't. Our brains, being, as I say, pattern--whether there really is a pattern or not--recognition machines, may be attempting to overlay meaning and cohesion onto the complexity we see. We see the amazing fine-tuning required for life on this planet (well, perhaps, life anywhere in the vastness of space), and we are required to interpret this data. Our limited perspectives and psychology may trick us into a false apprehension of purpose where there really is no purpose at all.

As probably the strongest line of reasoning for God’s existence, the teleological argument leaves some interesting questions even if I find the counter-arguments lacking. Even if this complexity leads me to the acceptance of a Grand Designer, what kind of God does the argument imply?

If I take the teleological argument at face value, I think I may be justified in saying that God likes death, suffering and meaninglessness as much as He likes life, pleasure and meaningfulness. God simply sets out the plans and hopes that things will turn out for the best. If you believe that God is the grand and wonderful designer of the universe, then how does one explain Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague) or cancer? How does one explain why all animals (including, under normal conditions, humans) have far more offspring than usually don't survive until maturity? How does one explain earthquakes and famines? To me, this is not particularly good system design. (I could be wrong, of course, and I do think, as I've said, that a good argument can be constructed to tell us why evil is a necessary thing, but that’s for another time.)

I have studied evolution and I’ve studied creationism (in all their various permutations) and I find that either explanation is equally plausible. Both, though, have problems, crippling problems if you ask me. These problems require some kind of leap of faith to overcome. For some, the problems associated with the teleological argument are insurmountable, but for myself they do not hold me back from a belief in God. Indeed, while this argument does not come close, in my mind, of proving God's existence, it certainly makes for a plausible case. It seems likely that if there was a God, we could see some sort of design in the world and I think we see just enough of that to make it likely that God exists.


Friday, November 7, 2008

From the Depths CD Release

It looks like 'From the Depths: Songs of Hope and Healing' is compete and ready to be shipped. Over a year ago, the worship team at our church decided to put their considerable talents together to record music as a fundraiser for Jacob Wacker. Jacob was in a pretty serious accident last summer and barely survived. Today, he continues to struggle with paralysis and, I can only imagine, discouragement but he is planning on moving out on his own. Medical costs are, as you all know, nothing to sneeze at and he will continue to need support. While the CD's main focus has been as a fundraiser specifically for Jacob, it's been my hope that it would be appreciated by a wider audience.

You can get more info on the CD project, Jacob himself and even order the CD here: Jacob's Hope CD

PS. I started this post it looks like almost an entire year ago, but God has a way of moving things along in His own time.

Teleological Argument

The next argument I would like to address in my continuing quest to figure out why Lee believes in God, is the Teleological arguemnt, a subargument of the cosomological argument. In short, the argument goes something like this:

  1. All things designed have a designer.
  2. The universe (from galaxies to single cells) evendence design.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a designer (and that is God).
Today the argument is most often accociated with the English theologian William Paley, who presented the argument in his 1802 book Natural Theology. Paley suggests that the analogy—watch is to watchmaker what universe is to God—pooves that there is a designer, because the universe, the planet, our eyes, even the very cells of our bodies exhibit positive signs of being designed. They are so dazzlingly complicated that they must have been intentionally created. Even if one had no real idea what the purpose of a particular part of the world, we reconginze the difference between an erroded stone and the complex mechinism of watch. In short, as A. C. Ewing demonstrates in the following passage, we are allowed to attribute design when we see complexity:

Suppose we saw pebbles on the shore arranged in such a way as to make an elaborater machine. It is theoretically possible to they might have come to occupy such positions by mere chance, but it is fantastically unlikely , and we should feel no heistation in jumping to the conclusion that they had been thus depositinted not by the tide by some intellegent agent. Yet the body of the simplest living creature is a more complex machine than the most complext ever devised by a human engineer.
Systems in nature, it is argued, appear to be not unlike machines built by human beings. Therefore, there is a Great Designer.

To avoid the weaknesses of an analogy (analogies always seem to break down, don’t they?), two supporting theories have gained groundin recent years: irreducible complexity and fine-tuning.

Since the mid-1990’s the teleological argument has been repackaged by supporters of Intelligent Design into what is known as irreducible complexity. First fully articulated by Michael J. Behe, irreducable complexity is
a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic funtion, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complext system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuosly improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precusor to an irreducibly complext system that is missing a part is by definition nonfuctional.

Even in the highly unlikely event that a complex system (say an eye or bacterial phygelum) came into existance by random, grandual and undesigned means, as complexity increases the less likely that it came to be without the benefit of a designer. Specifically, Behe is speaking about biological systems, but as early as the mid-1960’s larger systems, including the universe itself has been looked at in a similar light.

The other modern extension of the teleological argument has come from astronomy and astrobiology, namely the idea that the universe is finely tuned to support life and, for some, human life in particular. Astronomers had now identified more than 150 finely tuned characteristics. In the 1960s the odds that any given planet in the universe would possess the necessary conditions to support intelligent physical life were shown to be less than one in ten thousand. By 2001 those odds dramatically shrank to less than one in a number so large it might as well be infinity (10 to the 173th power). In other words, if the universe were actually different in any of those 150 ways, we wouldn’t be here at all.

For many observers, this would only be possible if the universe was indeed created to support life. And the creator of the universe is none other than God.

  1. Anthropic Principle
  2. Fine Tuning for Life on Earth


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's Been Fine to Have a Chance to Hang Around

Today, I begin my 43rd year on this lovely little planet. Which means, I’ve lived through 15,706 days (including 11 extra leap years days). About a third of that time was taken up in sleep, so I’ve been only been awake for about 27 or 28 years. Probably a bit less if I factor in sick time, recovery from surgeries, and my increasingly frequent late afternoon naps. I have no idea how many years of my waking life I’ve wasted watching TV and I’ll never get back the time I spent reading “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. At any rate, I’ve always thought of birthdays as a great excuse to slow down and think about my life, to contemplate everything that has made me me.

I remember listening to "Poems, Prayers and Promises" by John Denver when I was growing up and thinking that it was a very sweet song, but it has only been since I've been married that I've really begun to appreciate it. I looked it up on YouTube the other day and was fondly impressed. I really like this version, because I've never sat around a fire passing a pipe. *grins*

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

This year will be rather subdued compared to other years. I didn’t really do much decorating. In fact, I only yesterday decided to bring down some of my props and set up a little display out in the back yard. I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to set them up even if we don't plan on being around tonight. So this is tucked away in a corner of my backyard (for those of you who've been back there, please note the huge new two-story house in the far background that was shoved into my neighbor's backyard . . . why in the world they thought that was a good idea, I have no idea.)

We’re planning on being out tonight (over at our church’s “Halloween Extravaganza”) so I didn’t feel like making a to-do for a dark and candy-less house.

I’ll just leave y'all with some thoughts on Halloween and ghosties from last year:
Have a safe and enjoyable Halloween!

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Being a 'Thoughtful' Christian

I started writing about my Christianity a couple of years ago while in the middle of a crippling bout of depression. My councilor wanted me to double check some of my assumptions, history and associations I had to see if anything in Christian life, either due to faulty thinking or unhealthy habit, may be contributing to those dark thoughts. What follows is the concluding remarks from my 'book' on how I became a Christian.

Rightly or wrongly, I, probably, will always be a little suspicious of people who have been Christians their whole life. They were born Christian and will die Christian. I wonder, hopefully not too cynically, whether they have actually made a choice to become a Christian or was that simply the default setting, as it were? Did they ever come to a point when they made Christianity their own? Have they ever really had to struggle with the difficulties involved in accepting the Bible the way I have? Have they ever been “bad” enough to realize what they’ve been saved from? Do they ever actually philosophize about their faith or is it a purely reflexive worldview? Granted, this suspicion may, in some part, be born out of a sense of envy; I wish sometimes that I didn’t have to struggle as much as I do with my faith. I wish it was as easy as some Christians seem to want me to believe, especially when I so often feel like a weird space alien where ever I go.

Dr. Brian Leftow, professor of philosophy at Forham University, says “I am a philosopher because I am Christian.”[1] I suspect for many modern people that makes little or no sense, but to me, I could never see it any other way. This claim, of course, is a problem for both the theologian and the philosopher. Philosophers tend to think religion isn’t worth the trouble, and theologians tend to think philosophy is more trouble than it’s worth. Philosophy is an act of the mind and will, which is often seen as unreliable “fleshly wisdom” by the religious. Religion, on the other hand, is seen as too subjective to be rationally examined by the philosopher. Both sides, though, are equally guilty of calling out the Thought Police. In Christian circles, it is quite alright to think and question, as long as you think correctly and quickly accept the right answers to your questions, and, in philosophic circles, is quite alright to be Christian as long as your faith does not contaminate your intellect and interfere with your quest for the “truth”. Both sides eye each other with suspicion and both sides too often take their point to an absurd extreme.

I seem to be reasonably well suited to live with uncertainty. I have always been fairly pessimistic about the world, people, the future, but I have always been able to navigate the tensions between my Christian faith and the rigors of reason in an almost aloof sort of way even as faith and reason seem to be polar opposites.[2] For example:

  • Faith is stable, eternal. While reason is always tentative, speculative, probing.
  • Christianity is orthodoxy. Reason requires testing new ideas; it requires avoiding the crowd (Kierkegaard) or herd (Nietzsche) mentality and anything that interferes with sober thinking (Marx).
  • Faith is seen as the opposite of reason. Faith is the evidence of things unseen, while reason requires evidence and argument. Faith is subjective; reason is objective.
  • Intellectual pursuits are often seen as unimportant in the light of God’s eternity.
  • Intellectuals are seen (often rightly) as the enemy of the Church.

It is sometimes difficult to maintain a sense of worth when you “sit on the fence” the way that I do. While Church and Academia so often stand in open hostility, the world at large generally isn’t much help either to the self image of a philosophically minded person. Popular culture is extremely pragmatic; it wants to know how to get something done. Being a “thoughtful” Christian doesn’t usually produce anything of practical use. The education we all receive in school is extremely utilitarian; you need to learn enough to get a job. Thought life is not necessarily entertaining, quick or upwardly mobile. So, my questions are generally kept to myself. I have to pick and choose my battles, and make sense of all this religion-talk as well as I can away from the prying eyes of the Church, Academia and the world at large.

My questioning is sometimes more accepted in secular circles, though. In the Church, I often am met with offended stares if I openly raise questions or present opposing viewpoints. (Though I think in some circles this is becoming less of an issue.) I’ve been told by very well meaning Christians, that my methods are completely wrong. That I just need to stop questioning and “surrender to Jesus”. OK, so how should I do that, I ask. The answer usually is something like: just read the Bible and all your questions will be answered.

This solution to the problem is, for me, entirely insufficient.

While obviously I believe the Bible is the “Word of God”, I still struggle with some of the same old questions about its authenticity, accuracy, legitimacy and its moral lessons. Some parts of the Bible are easy to grasp and accept. Others are not. If we are honest, we all have our favorite books, passages and verses in the Bible and (if we are being honest with ourselves, right?) we are guilty of completely ignoring certain passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand, or that the meaning is at odds with our current views. We act as if certain passages are divine commands for everyone and at all times, yet deliberately break others. We take verses and parts of verses out of context to fit our own needs. Indeed, whole religions and denominations have sprung up because of this tendency. For example, I seriously doubt the Mormon Church would be what it is today if John 10:16 (“And other sheep have I, which are not of this fold . . .”) did not exist.

That said, it should come as no surprise that I believe that this isn’t always a bad thing. Every human being is different, with different backgrounds, needs and desires, giftings and purposes. For myself, I will honestly say there are things about being a Christian (and being a Christian probably means, in the final analysis, believing what the Bible has to say) that are anything from mildly disagreeable to down-right offensive (rightly or wrongly, I’m still working that out). There are things also that seem to completely contradict what I think the rest of the Bible is saying about God. There are things in the Bible that I don’t understand and there are others that I flat out don’t agree with (at least as far as I understand them). And, I firmly believe, that’s OK with God. Our Christian-hood does not rest, in general, on our philosophical views, our ability to comfortably interpret key biblical passages or even our wants and desires. But I think we should recognize that certain passages are absolutely meant for us for a particular time and place in our lives. There are others that we simply won’t understand. Our lack of understanding may be due to any number of things, including pride, mistranslations, poor study and prayer habits, or God may be withholding understanding for a particular time. We may be resistant to abandon a “black and white” perspective to more fully understand the truth, such as when we tackle “loving the sinner yet hating the sin” or “consumer Christianity”. We may need to look at a variety of issues and Bible passages from radically different points of view that we may really understand them. In other words, the Bible is not accessible without interpretation and application. Sometimes, this requires others to highlight parts of the Bible that are meant for us at a particular time. This is why I spend so much time reading, not only the Bible but also, what people have to say about it. That means dealing with the, more often than it ever should be, evil and inefficient organization called The Church.

My feelings about religious organizations have not changed much since my atheist days. The people who comprise the Body of Christ continue to, on the one hand, disappoint and appall me, and, on the other, educate and inspire me. (That doesn’t surprise me though!) Where would I be without Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Kant, Lewis, McGee, Swaggart and, despite the fact that I think he’s completely off his rocker, John Shelby Spong? Where would I be without Lucile [a woman I met just after becoming a Christian who really taught me alot about the Bible, prayer and Christian love], or that nameless librarian [who helped me to become a Christian by pointing me to a stack of really great books]? Where would I be without my pastors and friends at Greater Portland Bible Church? The most likely answer is a complete mess, or, just as likely, dead. Obviously, I now hold that the Church is a God-inspired organism, created as an instrument of salvation, authentic spirituality and physical healing, comfort and reconciliation on earth. But,
The parallel reality, however, is that at the same time the church is an institution which operates, consciously or not, like other human institutions. The primary goal of all institutions and subcultures is self-preservation. Preserving the faith is central to God’s plan for human history; preserving particular religious institutions is not. Do not expect those who run the institutions to be sensitive to the difference. God needs no particular person, church, denomination, creed, or organization to accomplish His purpose. He will make use of those, in all their diversity, who are ready to be used, but will leave to themselves those who labor for their own ends.

Nonetheless, questioning the institution is synonymous, for many, with attacking God—something not long to be tolerated. Supposedly, they are protecting God, an almost humorous notion if its consequences were not so hurtful. Apparently God is fragile, His feelings easily hurt, sort of like Mr. Suffleupagus on “Sesame Street” who feels sad and frustrated when people don’t believe he exists. Actually, they are protecting themselves, their view of the world, and their sense of security. The religious institution has given them meaning, a sense of purpose, and, in some cases, careers. Anyone perceived as a threat to these things is a threat indeed.">[3]

This tension between the needs of the earthly institution and the authentic Will of God is so often a difficult and narrow path (as all members of my church can attest to over the past couple years). On the one hand, we can begin to see that church is really all about our own individuality and start to demand that it tolerate anything we have a notion to complain about. On the other, it is tempting to circle the wagons and burn the heretics. The intellectually lazy notions of conformity so often squash the awesomely sublime reality of biblical unity. Authoritarian unanimity can be manufactured, measured and enforced, while biblical unity is a mystical phenomenon that transcends all outward identifiers. The true Church is a product of unity, not conformity. In my case, conformity actually did its best to destroy my chances of experiencing unity.

For me, the intellectual life is one of the major ways I combat uniformity and selfishness. It is also how I attempt to promote biblical freedom. More often than not, thoughtful consideration on a deeply philosophic level is what makes religion tolerable for me. It makes God seem more real to me. It helps me live a moral life, one pleasing to God. It roots me in the full meaning of Christian life, allowing me more fully grasp the awesome realities God may hide from those who may just skim through the Bible, or simply “do their time” Sunday morning. It helps me reconcile what I see with my eyes with what I see with my spirit. There really are bad reasons for being a Christian; hopefully, reason itself helps me to properly evaluate them for what they are. All in all, I could never be a “good Christian” unless I led a questioning and examined life.

Are there dangers of the so-called intellectual life? Of course. An over-examined life really isn't much better than an unexamined one. The Bible is full of warnings against overly intellectualizing the spiritual, of rationalizing our wants, excusing our sin and relying too heavily on our own thinking. These should be heeded. Thinking too much may cause all sorts of problems, such as:

  • Pride, we know the mind of God
  • Lording it over people, we are better than those who are not as intellectually curious.
  • Objectification of God.

If you think about it though, over-emphasizing any aspect of ourselves (mind, heart or body) will get you into trouble, but it may be more tempting for “thoughtful” Christians, like myself, to feel superior to “emotional” Christians or those who are always seem to be doing something (the Martha Syndrome, different hang-up, same sin). We can start to believe that a “simple” faith isn't really faith at all. Because we've “studied” and are “smarter” than those who seem to blindly accept and are so easily swept up by their emotions, we can easily start to believe that God has favored us. Worse still, we can begin to believe that our methods are somehow a particular blessing to God, a blessing that feeling and working can’t even begin to compare. We can even set ourselves up to be the very priests of Truth.

Sometimes this can go beyond simple pride when it turns into cancerous suspicion (something I myself must take steps to actively avoid). When someone talks of a miracle, revelation or some blessing from God, I often immediately wonder if it is really true. Is this person looking for some kind of undeserved attention? Are they making it up, or are they completely fooled by their unreliable emotions? There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism, but when it becomes reflexive and cynical, then we have problems, especially when we can help to destroy the fragile faith of others (or my own faith, let me tell you!). Of course, we sometimes find it difficult to realize that our own over-analysis can come off as arrogant or unintelligible to those who have a less cluttered (for lack of a better word) faith until we get smacked in the face with that fact. Sometimes, people like me put our faith in our ability to reason, rather that faith in the Living God, which, of course, defeats the whole project of Christianity.

The final point is probably much more insidious and difficult to correct than simple pride. Philosophy is, in the final analysis, the act of defining things. For all practical purposes, each of the four major branches of philosophy tries to “box up” a single word. Epistemology tries to define the word “knowledge”, ethics the word “good”, aesthetics the word “beauty” and metaphysics the word “real”. Theology, or the philosophy of religion, tries to tell us what the word “god” means, among other things. (True spirituality and devotion, on the other hand, is the act of trying to get “god” out of a box.) We might end up knowing a lot about God, but we only think about “god” as long as “it” is safely under a microscope. And, before long, we can entirely loose sight of the object of our study and begin an endless and sometimes pointlessly destructive obsession with the microscope itself. We loose sight of the fact that our theology, our world view, our philosophy, the handy box we put God in (the microscope) is only a tool. We wake up one day completely unable to tell the difference between the eternal God of the Universe and the divisive philosophies we hold so dearly. In trying so hard to understand Christianity, we can entirely miss the point of even being a Christian.

Does that mean we should just give up trying to understand God? God forbid. While, there may be a very thin line between thinking too much and thinking too little, I believe God created human beings complete with (or later grants us, I’m not sure which) a set of mental and spiritual tools for determining truth and (re?) discovering Him. (If not, then free will is a sham, right?) For me, that means always questioning, testing and having the courage to abandon ideas that I once held sacred. I will give up any untrue belief I have because I believe God still holds me to my first prayer. In order to do that though, I must always test whether I have become complacent in my thought life. Have I taken something for granted? Do my beliefs justify something impure in myself? Do my philosophies help others backslide?

And this approach has served me well from the very beginning. Through loneliness, joblessness, deaths, injuries, disappointments and suicidal thoughts, I have never encountered a new fact or perspective that has lead me to believe that my decision to become a Christian was ever in vain.

Granted, there have been times when I needed more than a little help. These are times when religion, that old self-absorbed emasculator of truth, actually fulfils the purpose for which it was created. If allowed to step in from time to time (in prudent doses, of course!), it allows one to see God in action in a concrete way and reinvigorate failing faith. For me, this is especially helpful when I don’t particularly feel like being a Christian. Other people who share my convictions can encourage and support me (and I them in turn, hopefully). These are other people who maybe, just maybe, know something I don’t, who have powerfully experienced the truth recently and can help me to reclaim that vision for myself again. So, the trick is to avoid having faith in my own mental abilities and rely on the help of other people, and, more importantly God Himself.

In the end, the “thoughtful life” is only a set of tools, not the solution itself.

As the years have passed along, I have become increasingly aware of the fact that these tools cause me to do a good deal of fence sitting. I know it and it quickly becomes apparent to anyone who gets to know me. I've been told it’s a bad thing; I've been told it’s a good thing. Perhaps, it’s really the fate of all people who live east of Eden. Some of us embrace it more than others. In the end, it probably just is. It will remain a source of constant torment for me while continually spurring me on toward the full and joyful knowledge of God. It’s just who I am and how I deal with the world.

[1] Morris, Thomas V., ed., God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p. 189.
[2] Williams, Clifford, The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective, Baker Academic, Michigan, 2002, pp. 61-70.
[3] Taylor, Daniel, The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & the Risk of Commitment, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 1992, pp. 29-30.
[4] Deuteronomy 6:5, see Matthew 22:37.
[5] Ephesians 4:4-6.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Evaluation of the Argument from Contingency

So what to make of the Argument from Contingency? Is it persuasive? Does it prove that God (or god) exists?

Let me first lay out the arguments again. First, here's Leibniz's version:
  1. Every existing thing has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
  2. The universe is an existing thing.
  3. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  4. Therefore, the explanation for the existence of the universe is God.

And Aquinas':

  1. There is cause for everything; nothing can be the efficient cause of itself and everything must be caused by something.
  2. Either the chain goes on forever or there is a first cause.
  3. If there is no first cause then there will be no other causes or effects; the chain of causes can't go infinitely backward.
  4. Therefore, a first cause exists (and this is God).

Without giving this much thought, these arguments seem reasonable to me. At least, I've never really thoroughly questioned them until recently. It seems rather obvious that every effect has a cause and that we could either trace those causes back through time. This could go on infinitely (that is the universe has no beginning) or to a specific first event and therefore to an uncaused cause. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to say that every thing in the universe contains within it one or more logical dependencies. That is to say that everything is made up of or depends on other things to constitute that thing or effect. A thing is either necessary (it exists because of itself) or it is dependent on something else. In the case of the universe itself, it may be that it is necessary by itself.

First, the most troubling problem with these arguments is that, as Hume points out in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (§XI), we can’t really say much about a particular cause other than what is necessary to produce the effect in question. The effect may actually be an arbitrary outcome not a necessary one. As we follow the chain of causes backward, as Aquinas would have us, we may wrongly attribute design (more on that later) to a particular outcome. When we toss dice, for example, we know what the cause is but the necessary effect (the number of pips on the top side of each die) is random, unguided and thus we only say that the dice were thrown, but we can say nothing about the individual craps player.

There is some skepticism on my part as to whether there is anything necessarily illogical about an infinite, eternal and non-contingent universe. In other words, what makes it impossible that there was no first cause? Just because our finite brains has difficulty accepting the idea of the infinite (which is only to be expected, no?), does that mean that the universe must be finite as well? But don't we encounter infinities all the time? (How many times have I screwed up a computer program because I failed to close my loops somehow, I don't really know. But then again, does that make me the First Cause of that infinite loop . . . .) It may be that there is nothing but the universe and that everything in it, including all causes and effects. Meaning, because we have only seen these causes, effects and dependencies within the universe, it may be that the universe itself is non-contingent. Having no way of apprehending the universe's contingency, we can not, with any measure of certainty, decide the matter.

Finally, on a related note, I think in some ways this argument fails because it really is a thinly disguised ontological argument. I think Kant would agree (see, if you dare, Transcendental Dialectic in Critique of Pure Reason) that in order to turn the idea of a First Cause into an actual fact the ontological argument must be invoked. What the Contingency argument may be doing is saying: "God is that thing that we conceive is holding the universe together." This doesn't prove God exists, rather it only gives us a name for that thing which, if our argument is true, started or is the necessary dependant for everything in the universe. Again, just because we have an idea (especially an a priori concept) of some being does not require us to accept its reality.

In the end, the best that can be said for these arguments is that they may prove that something exists, but that "God" is fairly impotent in today's world. The Uncaused Cause, if true, is merely the "inventor" of the universe and, as far as the argument goes, has only been idly watching the unimaginably complex chain of cause and effect since time began. Or, if Leibniz is correct, God is merely the extra-substantial necessary property of the universe, the "spiritual", super-small particle/energetic glue that binds all effects of energy and matter.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Faith and Confession

This morning I missed church, so I watched a little “church” on TV. I’ve always enjoyed Pastor Fred Price of Ever Increasing Faith Ministries. I’ve not always agreed with him, but his sermons are always challenging, uplifting and reasonable. This morning, he was talking about how to increase our faith, an area I have always struggled with. For me, thinking is how I relate to God (as demonstrated by the inordinate amount of BS in this blog). I most strongly connect with my “faith” through rational means. This, of course, leads to all sorts of problems if I over-weight my time and energy in religious philosophy without taking the time to connect emotionally, practically and relationally.

The most striking thing about Pastor Price’s sermon today was a point about confession. “My faith,” he said, “will never rise above the level of my confession.” How true! For myself, I often have a real hard time believing the God of the Universe cares, much less loves, me. Though I tend not to dwell on my circumstances, I do not necessarily always believe what the Bible has to say about me and my relation to God. I am by nature too much of a skeptic and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t always find doubt to be a necessary evil.

I need to remind myself of this, because faith, despite my unhealthy fixation with rational religion, is really the only thing that leads one to God and faith is only exercised by what we confess in faith.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Argument from Contingency

“It is self-evident that truth exist in general, but not self-evident to us that there exists a first Truth.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, Q2, art. 3)

The Argument from Contingency is the probably the most popular and, perhaps, the oldest cosmological argument for God’s existence. While the Bible does not attempt to prove God exists (it assumes it), the argument can be found in the Bible itself, as typified by Psalm 19:1 which reads “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.” The cosmological argument says in an oversimplified nutshell, “hey, look at the universe—something must have created it!” The argument from contingency says “even the universe depends on something for its existence and that something is God.”

Key to understanding this argument is the notion of contingency. Contingency is used in this argument in two distinct ways. One, contingency is used to denote an unknown state in the logical necessity of a given claim. A contingent claim is one that may be true, but there is nothing that forces us to accept it as truth. To say that a thing’s existence is contingent is to acknowledge that it need not exist at all or that its existence is merely possible. For example, it appears that human beings are contingent (that is, there’s no reason why we could not exist). Some truths depend on something else. This sentence depends on each word; each word depends on many letters. (For all you other database nerds out there, think functional dependencies between attributes in related tables.) Others do not in the same way that a triangle with three sides depends on nothing else. In fact, it appears that the entire universe is contingent because each element or property of a whole is required before we can say a thing exists.

But why was there a universe at all? Under what circumstances could we conceive that it not exist? Why, as Leibniz asks, is there something rather than nothing at all? There is a universe; that much is obvious but how do we explain its existence? The answer given by those who subscribe to the cosmological argument is that, because it appears that everything we can experience could not exist (that is, they are contingent and dependent on their various relationships), a necessary cause (as opposed to contingent one) must act in such a way to hold the universe as an existent whole.

The second, and perhaps more important, way in which contingency is used is more closely related to the idea of dependence. Specifically, any change is contingent (dependent) upon another. Things don’t simply change on their own, rather they come about because of something else. If one thing (the universe) is the creation of another, it is dependent (contingent) for its existence on that other. Things do not owe their own existence to themselves. Even if some things are eternal (suppose, for example, the sun or the universe itself), they do not owe their existence to their own nature. Their existence depends on, and is caused by, something else. That something is what we call God.

While almost every major philosopher throughout history has attempted to tackle this problem, the most oft-sited formulation for this argument comes from St. Thomas Aquinas (and a lesser extent Leibniz). Aquinas builds on St. Paul’s claim that “the hidden things of God can be clearly understood from the things He has made” (Rom. 1:20). He therefore argues that, if that were so, “we must be able to demonstrate that God exists from the things he has made, for the first step in understanding a thing is to know that it exists” (Summa Theologiae, I, Q2, art. 3). Aquinas claimed that, in order to know that God exists, we should be able to find God by tracing a linage effect to cause, infinitely backtracking. Each event, object or state is caused by something previous and each effect implies something about it’s cause. As we trace these implications backward, we see that, eventually, we must encounter some sort of uncaused cause. If not, we would not exist at all.

If we trace all of these effects back through time, carefully noting each cause in turn, we will, according to this line of reasoning come upon a moment when there was no universe at all and we will encounter God. Unlike Aquinas’ argument, the so-called Kalam arguments assume an actual beginning of time. But this isn’t a required element of the contingency argument. Aquinas simply states that God (the Uncaused Cause) is non-contingent to the universe; whether He created (in the conventional sense of the word) the universe is indeterminate. The universe simply depends upon God the way that the moonlight depends upon the sun. For most people today, we can, with some confidence, argue that the universe did have an actual beginning: the so-called Big Bang some 15 billion years ago. But this does not necessarily torpedo the argument. Not even God can bring Himself into being. Self-caused or uncaused, in this case, simply means that God exists independent of any cause whatsoever. He is necessary, though not the “first” cause in time, but the ultimate, primary cause of the universe. (The claim is that the Big Bang wasn’t the first moment IN time but rather the first moment OF time.) The universe depends on God to exist, perhaps, to hold it in place, to give it shape and meaning.

Whether or not there was a specific beginning of the universe in time and space seems to me irrelevant to the question. Rather, the point of the entire argument is that there seems to be a particular relationship between things in the universe. Whether we can trace these dependencies back in time (one cause/effect at a time) or in some kind of relational (the earth depends on atoms which depend on smaller particles), there is, according to Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz and Taylor, a direct pathway back to God.

I am not convinced that this is a completely sound argument in general and some problems seem to pop out at me immediately, but that is a task for another day.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Cosmological Argument for God's Existence

As probably the most widely used argument for God's existence, the Cosmological Argument attempts to reconcile observed facts with the existence of God. We observe that there is a universe and that the universe appears to follow some kind of rules of behavior (if not, we could not really say anything about it). What caused the universe to be? What designed it to be the way that it is? We observe a set of facts (the existence of the universe, the apparent design found in nature and a universal sense of morality) and attempt to induce the existence of god. Where the Ontological Argument is a deductive, a priori argument, the Cosmological Argument is an inductive, a posteriori argument.

The Cosmological Argument usually takes of one of three forms:
  • Argument from Contingency
  • Argument from Design (teleological)
  • Argument from Morality

In a nutshell, the Argument from Contingency says that God must exist because something must have caused everything we see now. This is why it is often referred to as the "First Cause" argument. The most famous formulations of this argument come from St. Thomas Aquinas (I will also be relying on Richard Taylor's and a collection of Medieval Arab scholarly writings as well to explore this argument).

The second formulation of the Cosmological Argument is a result of the perceived order we find in all natural systems. It is often referred to as the Teleological (telos, purpose or end) Argument. If we look around, we, apparently, see only order. We see systems in some state of functionality. Where we see chaos, we are really seeing other systems acting upon other systems. Why does there seem to be design in everything we see? According to the proponents of this argument, the answer is God.

Finally, there is the argument that human beings are morally aware, then there must be an originator of that awareness. Most notably championed by Immanuel Kant, I will also be looking at some of the writings of C. S. Lewis to help me understand this argument.

I'll need to do a little re-reading and will attempt to tackle each of these sub-arguments in turn.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Criticism of the Ontological Argument for God's Existance

As one of the weakest arguments for the existence of God, I thought it would be a good place to start. As stated before, the ontological argument basically says that if we have a concept or definition of God, then God must exist. This is true, Anselm and Descartes would argue, because God's basic traits (the greatest thing imaginable and that thing that cannot deceive) demand that we acknowledge the fact that God exists.

A number of very solid thinkers have pointed out several rather obvious problems with the ontological argument, namely, we can have all sorts of images in our head that do not, nor have ever corresponded with reality. For example, the contemporary of Anselm, Gaunilo asks "Now could it not with equal justice be said that I have in my understanding all manner of unreal objects, having absolutely no existence in themselves, because I understand things if one speaks of them, whatever they may be?" He further accuse Anselm of confusing the mental formation of an object with actually discovering whether it even is real. Gaunilo asks us to image the greatest possible island and compare it with the concept of a being that which nothing greater can be imagined. (What properties of this island would make it the best island after all?) If, according to Gaunilo, this argument works for the existence of God it should work for the existence of the perfect island, which, on the face of it, seems silly. Just because we can image the greatest possible island, for example, does that mean it exists? Does Santa Claus exist because every December I am bombarded with mental constructs of the Jolly ol' Elf?

A more coherent and real critique of the ontological argument comes from Kant. Without going into too much detail (and the much dreaded re-reading of Critique of Pure Reason), Kant says that existence is not a property of objects. Existence is only a property of a concept. Whether the ideas that make up the concept of God (which may or may not manifest themselves in reality) is yet to be determined. Existence (being) is not something we can safely call an attribute. Existence is not a predicate. Consider the following attributes of God:
  • God is good
  • God is all powerful
  • God is the creator of the universe

Each of these predicates (good, all-powerful, creator of the universe) is a real property of God. What Kant is saying, though, is that the ontological argument makes a fundamental mistake by neglecting to have a real predicate. In other words, the ontological argument simply states "God is" (simply because I can construct the concept of God in my imagination). This statement is actually contentless because existence is not a true property of God (or anything else for that matter). Therefore, the ontological argument fails. What Kant seems to be saying, and I think I agree, the ontological argument is really saying: God is, therefore God is. To which, Kant would ask: have you no other premises? (And, after showing that the ontological argument lacks the basic structure of a real agrument, God is what?)

I personally find Gaunilo and Kant persuasive, especially in the absence of other empirical or rational arguments for God's existence. There is just something wrong with the basic ontological argument; I feel like someone is playing some kind of word-game with me. But I cannot exactly pinpoint the problem any better than Hume, Aquinas, Gaunilo, or Kant. In essence, as a metaphysical realist myself, I reject the idea that if something can be imagined, conceptualized or defined then it must exist. All sorts of loony things go on my head that I thank God do not exist! Does this mean that God does not exist? That is yet to be determined (even if, obviously, I suspect He does). A purely a priori argument does not seem to be completely sound to me.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Predestination or Free Will?

A friend of mine posed this question: Predestination or Free Will? For me, this was one of my first big stumbling blocks against Chrisitanity as my strong early preconception was that humans must have complete and total free will, yet the Bible repeatedly affirms God’s complete control over everything. We have Ephesians 1:4-6 and Romans 8:28-30 proclaiming unappologetic determinism. God gets to save whosoever it pleases him to save from hell. There is absolutely nothing we can do to avoid hell or choose heaven; it is completley in God’s hands alone. Yet, the oft-sited John 3:16 seemed to me to be saying that God has offered salvation to us, and we have the ability to accept or reject it.

In the end, I returned to my assumption that free will was a requirement for any kind of rational religion. While I could accept the power and authoritiy of God to make whatever He wants to happen happen, randomly earmarking a decidely small minority of human beings for heaven and the rest being sent to hell was not what a moral god would do. The most reasonable answer was that God valued free will over all other possible traits He could have endowed us with. So, it seemed most reasonable that God would only want to be in relationship with those who actually wanted it. Obviously, God would have some influence, whether through people or through some sort of direct action, but, if the word “morality” had any content, then people must ultimately be responsible for their actions, and their choices must be real choices. We can’t be punished or rewarded for something we have absolutely no ability to change. In order to end up with a moral god, I had to have an explanation for the apparent contradiction I saw in the Bible.

God, being omniscient and beyond time, could see how things would turn out. From our perspective, it appears as if God chose everything that happens to happen, but that’s not what is really going on. Though I was only really beginning my study of history at the time of my conversion, I was keenly aware of the odd way in which historical events appear to be predetermined. At any point, people could act in whatever way they want, but they don’t. They have free will to act in whatever manner they so choose, but their circumstances limit some options. The slow accumulation of limitations produces a smaller and smaller number of possible outcomes. Eventually, looking back, it appears that people don’t actually have a choice in the way they act as they are funneled into one, and only one, possible choice. This is the way I imagined God saw the unfolding of our lives. So, I became convinced that we see things as being of our own free will, and God sees things as completely predetermined.

The consequences of that was that at any given time I can choose to accept Jesus as savior, assuming that choice is a credible and known option given my circumstances, yet God has already seen (predestined) my conversion. I am responcible for accepting or rejecting the way that God has prepared for me.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bible Code Skepticism

After an interesting, but hopelessly short, discussion with a good friend last night on the topic of the so-called Bible codes, he wanted to know why I was skeptical. Basically, it is claimed that hidden prophecies can be uncovered in the Bible through computer-aided statistical analysis. Once a passage of Scripture is laid out in a grid, letters can be read in a crossword puzzle-like grid. Words and phrases can then be read by combining letters along this grid work. Believers claim that codes can be found in distinct patterns referring to the Holocaust, President Kennedy’s assassination, even 9/11. (I found this article interesting because it apparently predicted events that should have happened two years ago: In essence, believers claim that this represents the “fingerprints of God”.

As I told my friend, I am skeptical. Firstly, I believe that the Bible is given to us by God (what that exactly means, as you may have noticed, I don’t exactly know). That said, these hidden prophecies, if they exist at all, do not necessarily add anything to the awe I feel about the Bible. In some ways, it detracts from it, because, if, as I suspect, these codes are really just artifacts of chance and how the experiment is set up, it makes it appear as if there is really nothing miraculous about the Bible. While I think it is completely possible for God to put these codes into the Bible, I can’t really see why He would if we appear to only be able to decipher messages about the past.

Additionally, the scientific skeptic in me wants to see what other dispassionate (if that is possible) researchers have to say about the topic. A number of credible researchers find fault with the methods, most notably Dr. Barry Simon, PhD. Indeed, the codes have been seriously questioned as early as 1994. I’m sure, if I gave Google a little more time, I could come up with more research to at the very least make me wonder.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Ontological Arguments for God's Existance

Ontology is the study of the most basic or base metaphysical categories. The study of ontology seeks to place categories of reality into simple hierarchies. Therefore, ontological arguments for God's existence are derived from categories of pure logic and a priori reasoning. In this case, they seek to marry what we know with what is real.

There are a number of ways in which this argument for God's existence can be laid out, but I will focus on just a couple. St. Anselm of Canterbury's argument is probably the most famous. Essentially, Anselm's argument can be boiled down to the following:

  1. God is a being that which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. Existence in reality is greater than existence solely in human imagination.
  3. Therefore, God must exist in reality because if God did not, God would not be a being greater than anything that can be conceived.
Anselm observed that people have an idea of a perfect being, they can imagine a being that is so complete in its perfection that no other perfect thing can compare. How then did such a being come to inhabit human imagination if it did not exist in the first place? It got there because it actually exists. Something that does not exist is somehow lacking in perfection, thus that which nothing greater can be conceived actually exists. It seems to me, and here I agree with Karl Barth, that what Anselm is saying is that God isn't really proven by this argument, but rather that God cannot be denied once we know what He is: the most perfect being.

Later, Rene' Descartes expanded on this idea. He compares the knowledge of geometric shapes and the reality of God, writing,
But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature.
Clearly, as Descartes alludes, there are things that we know cannot exist--such as three sided squares--and there are things we know exist--three-sided shapes called triangles--without really giving it much thought. Because we have a clear understanding of what God is, according to Descartes, we know God exists. In other words, because the concept of God includes, by definition, the perfect goodness of God, God must exist. Because God, "a being subject to no defects whatever . . . [who] cannot be a deceiver, for it is manifest by the light of nature that all fraud and deception depend on some defect", cannot trick us into believing something that is not so and we can trust our perceptions about the world can be trusted--our perceptions of the world includes a perfect being--God must exist.

If this argument is sound, then it really does not tell us much about God in terms of our relationship with that Being. It only says that God is perfect in any conceivable way. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal and entirely good.

Perhaps, that is all we can really say about God.

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