Category Archives: Christianity

The Argument from Reason: Understanding Materialism and Determinism

Billiard balls in motion at break

Let’s star by examining the very first part of my rough outline of the argument from reason from Monday’s post.

1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.

Let’s start by defining terms. What exactly does materialism mean in this context? Materialism as used here refers to a philosophical position about the ultimate nature of reality. Essentially materialism is the idea that everything that exists consists of matter following the laws of nature. In this definition “matter” and “energy” are essentially interchangeable, especially after Einstein proved that matter and energy are simply two different forms of the same thing. Materialism is also known as naturalism, or occasionally scientism (though technically scientism more properly refers to the idea that we can only know things that are provable through the scientific method, which is a whole different barrel of fish altogether). On a practical level materialists reject the existence of the “supernatural:” no ghosts, spirits, souls, or gods are allowed (interestingly enough a materialist wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with ghosts, or even a god, as long as such entities were shown to consist of and be produced by matter and energy working through purely naturalistic processes).

The essential point for the purpose of discussing the argument from reason is the materialist’s rejection of the existence of the soul. By soul, in this particular context, I mean the idea that there is something non material about my identity, something that may have existed before I was born and may exist after my death. This sense of soul could be interchanged with the idea of “mind” as existing, in some capacity, apart from the workings of the brain. Materialism naturally rejects the idea that the human mind consists of anything other than the natural and material actions of the brain.

With materialism out of the way we can move on to the next big word: determinism.

Determinism is simply the idea that everything occurs on a cause and effect basis and that there is only one possible effect for any particular cause. This means that everything is essentially predictable and inevitable. A good example of determinism in action is a game of pool. At the beginning of a pool game the pool balls are set into a triangular formation. Then the cue ball is hit with a pool cue and sent flying at speed into the triangle, scattering the pool balls all over the table. To a casual observer this scattering seems to be essentially random, a way of setting up a unique playing field for each game. However, as a determinist would be quick to point out, the pattern that results is anything but random. If you had enough knowledge you could predict the end pattern as soon as the cue ball has been hit. If you knew exactly how much kinetic energy the ball contained after being hit, it’s velocity, the amount of energy being lost to friction with the table’s surface, the exact positions, weights, and densities of the individual pool balls, their exact shape, etc., etc., and you knew all the relevant natural laws of physics involved, you could predict exactly where each individual pool ball will end up. This is because we know that matter and energy follow strict natural laws. When a pool ball is hit with the cue ball it doesn’t get to choose how it will react to that impact; it doesn’t get to decide which direction it will go, or how hard it will hit the other pool balls around it, or where it will stop. The pool balls simply follow the laws of physics. Really the whole pool ball scenario can be reduced to a physics equation, and there is only one right answer to any particular equation. You’ll never solve that same equation twice and get two different answers.

Such cause and effect relationships have been proven definitively when it comes to interactions of matter and energy. Matter and energy don’t get choices and their reactions can be mathematically modeled and predicted. Now, remember, a materialist believes that nothing exists besides matter, energy, and the reactions between the two. So now we have two ideas: the first is that matter and energy always follow the laws of physics in strict “cause/effect” relationships that can be modeled and predicted. The second idea is that nothing exists besides matter and energy. If both of these ideas are true then it naturally follows that everything that exists can be modeled and predicted. Everything is one giant chain reaction, like a pool table the size of the universe with pool balls crashing into each other at the speed of light and bouncing all over the place. It may seem random, and to an observer who doesn’t have all the information it is essentially unpredictable: but, if you did have enough knowledge you could predict exactly what will happen, what is happening, and what happened in the past all the way down the chain of cause and effect to the very beginning, and back around again to the very end. This is what we call determinism when it comes to the field of philosophy: everything can be predicted and everything is part of an inevitable series of cause and effect.

This is what I mean when I say “If materialism is true then determinism must be true.” Now what does that have to do with reason?

We’ll discuss that in detail in my next post.

 

 

 

The Argument From Reason: Getting Started

Things went so well with my short series on the moral argument that I knew I’d have to dive into my favorite argument of all: the argument from reason. However the argument from reason is a difficult one to convey, and I’ve seen well intentioned people absolutely butcher it while trying share it with skeptics. So I thought I would start with a simple and very rough outline of what the argument from reason is before diving into the specifics in other posts. I’m going to take this one nice, slow, and careful.
The argument from reason is, very, very roughly, as follows:
1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.

2. If determinism is true then the process of reasoning is an illusion.

3. Reasoning is not an illusion.

4. Therefore, materialism is false.
This initial rough argument only takes us as far as rejecting materialism, in much the same way that the moral argument does (note: the primary point of debate here is number 2, though I’ve seen people argue against 1 and 3 on occasion). However there is a second part to the argument from reason:

 

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. At some point my mind began to exist.

3. If reasoning is not an illusion then the mind was not wholly caused by naturalistic processes.

4. Therefore an eternal and non-naturalistic cause must have been ultimately responsible for the existence of my mind.

 

Again, this is a very rough outline. There are many points along the way where a reasonable person might disagree: therefore I’d ask that you save any particular objections you may have to the arguments as written until I put up posts that go through these points step by step. Unless, of course, you simply disagree that I have basic argument outlined correctly, in which case feel free to comment with your critiques.
I’m looking forward to diving into this in detail over the next few weeks! I hope you’ll join me.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Let’s Talk About My Favorite Saint!

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It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m rocking a nice emerald green shirt today. I’ve always been fond of St. Patrick’s Day because I love the color green.  I hope all of you are having as fun a St. Pattie’s day as I am!

Now I’m not Catholic, but of all the Catholic saints I’ve read about I’d have to say that St. Patrick is my favorite. Why?  Let me tell you.

St. Patrick was born to a Roman family living in Roman occupied England. This was late in the life of the Roman Empire and Patrick’s families were Christians. Patrick was a nominal Christian, but didn’t have a particularly strong belief.  Life was probably pretty decent for Patrick growing up, until in the middle of his adolescence he was kidnapped by barbarians from Ireland. Ireland at this point in history was a primitive place full of warring tribes that often sailed over to England to raid and take back slaves. Patrick became such a slave and spent the next six years stranded in the middle of nowhere herding a barbarian’s sheep and trying to survive as best he could. During that time he became close to God, and gained a serious conviction in the truth of Christianity. He managed to escape Ireland and made his way back home where he joined the priesthood.

He spent several years studying when he had a dream where a voice was calling to him from Ireland saying “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” Convinced that it was God’s will he traveled to Ireland and began to teach Christianity to the various clans and tribes. Though simply surviving as a foreigner without protection in Ireland was difficult he made many converts. As the number of Christian Irish grew he set up some as priests and nuns and worked to build up the church on the Emerald Isle. Some of the more historical estimates put him as having established or helped establish 300 churches and winning over 100,000 converts. Patrick essentially built Christianity in Ireland.

This would be cool enough, but the Irish church did some amazing things afterwards! You see the “barbarians” of Ireland, having now been converted began to establish monasteries across Ireland and Scotland.  Their scholars learned to read and write and they had a voracious appetite for works of literature and philosophy from the Roman Empire. Thousands of books were brought to Ireland where the monks studied them and copied them. By this time the Roman Empire was on its last legs and the continent feel into the chaos of the Early Middle Ages. Schools were abandoned, books were lost, and people worried more about survival and power than learning and education. Many scholars fled to Ireland where they had heard that monastic schools were flourishing. They brought the intellectual traditions of western civilization with them, and the Irish accepted it with glee. By the time Charlemagne managed to beat things back into shape in France the Irish were known across Europe as scholars and teachers. When Charlemagne set up his system of schools, that later became the universities that fostered education and invention throughout the rest of the Middle Ages , it was scholars from Ireland who came to teach and them and pass on the knowledge they had rescued from the fall of the Roman Empire. So much was preserved and passed on that would have otherwise been lost if it wasn’t for the Irish: and if it wasn’t for St. Patrick the Irish would have remained raiding barbarians instead of becoming peaceful scholars.

St. Patrick’s impact, and the impact of the early Irish church, can still be felt today. One man’s dedication to Christ had consequences that still reverberate over 1,500 years later.

And that’s why St. Patrick is my favorite saint.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

The Moral Argument: Wrapping Up

The last few posts have been really neat: it’s been a pleasure to write them and I’ve been happy with all the discussions they spawned in the comments. I’m hoping next week to start a series on my favorite argument for God’s existence, the argument from reason. Or maybe I’ll take a break from arguing for a few days and post about something else. Either way, we’ve just had a good run of posts and I’d like to take a moment to wrap things up.

The moral argument, at its core, is not what I’d call a “compelling” argument. By that I mean it does not necessarily force anyone to believe in God. Some arguments are compelling: for example, the classic “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” As long as you agree with the premises the conclusion can’t be denied. But you can agree with the premises of the moral argument without being forced to accept the God conclusion. There are several other conclusions you can come to: the first and most obvious is nihilism. If someone finds that they would rather believe that moral truth is an illusion than a facet of reality there isn’t too much I can say (as far as logical arguments go) to change their minds.  

certainly the moral argument does not necessitate the existence of the Christian God. One can agree that moral truths exist while being a deist, or a member of a different religion, or simply a Platonist. Still, I did lay out the reasons why I think the Christian God works particularly well when explaining moral truth.

And I’d like to think that even among my critics I’ve shown pretty well why simply saying “morality is a result of evolution” is not a good response as far as the moral argument is concerned.

So I’d like to end by simply asking that we all reflect on what we believe about morality, and what that means for our daily lives. Are we behaving in a way that is contrary to what we believe? Are we comfortable with where our beliefs lead us?  As it stands I believe that moral truth does exist. If you disagree with me, fine. But no more hanging around in the middle. Find out what you do believe, and why, and what you should do about it now that you know.

The Moral Argument: What Good is Christianity in Solving it?

While discussing the moral argument a while back Violetwisp mentioned in the comments “I still don’t understand why you think the Christian belief system makes this any clearer.” The problem at hand is that we feel like there is some kind of standard of right and wrong that everyone should be held to but it is unclear exactly what the standard is or how we could discover it. As I’ve said before you can believe in objective morality without being theist, and you can certainly believe in it without being a Christian. So what do you do if you’ve followed the moral argument this far and accepted that there is such a thing as moral truth? What are your options?

Well the only real non-theistic option I’m aware of is that morality exists as a kind of Platonic Form. Though they aren’t very numerous at this period in time there are people who believe in Platonic Forms today. Some people even believe that mathmatics and numbers exist as something very like Platonic Forms. If you really want to understand what a Platonic Form is you’ll have to study some Plato, but my own butchered and ridiculously simplified version is that a Form is a non-material always-existing substance that embodies an ideal. Wow, that really was butchered. Let me try again: Forms theoretically exist outside of material reality but at the same time are connected to and reflect reality. Beauty, for example, is a traditional Platonic Form. Why do we find some things beautiful and some things ugly? Because the things we find beautiful have something in them that partially conforms to the Form of beauty. If something is ugly it deviates greatly from that Form. For Plato the Forms were arguably the only really real things in existence, and our world was a kind of shadow being cast by the forms themselves.  One Platonic form is known as the Good. If an action resembles the Good then we recognize (in general) that it is good. If an action deviates from the Good then it is wrong, or evil. So it is possible that moral truth exists like this: that somewhere there is a concrete standard of good by which all actions can be judged.

Now what would happen if this absolute, immaterial standard of good was more than just a force of nature? What if Good was not a Form but a person? This leads to one of the other major options presented to us, and the option that the Christian traditionally takes. Christian theology teaches (again, I’m simplifying this a great deal) that goodness is that which aligns with the unchanging character of God. It’s important to note that the Christian believes that goodness is a property of God: just as wetness is a property of water. A human being can be good or bad, just as a dog can be wet or dry: but water by definition can’t be dry, and God by definition can’t be bad. To understand the Good is thus to understand a person: the greatest Personality of all, to be specific.

Now some Christians, and some other religions, have a different conception of how the Good might relate to God. Some would argue that good is whatever God commands: if God commands it then it becomes good. The problem with that theory is that it falls prey to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which is named after one of Plato’s writings where Socrates debates morality with a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether good is commanded by the gods because it is good, or whether it is good because the gods command it? If a god commands you to do something because it is good then that means that there is some greater standard of good that the god in question is abiding by. Thus the standard of Good must be something other than that god. However if something is considered good because that god commands it the morality is arbitrary. Perhaps the god in question will change his mind at some point: if so then suddenly what was once right is now wrong, and vice versa. If this is true then moral truth doesn’t really exist: we merely feel like it does because god told us to.

That’s why, if Christian theology has anything right at all, it must be right about Goodness being a property of God’s character if God is the source of moral truth. In this view God cannot do evil any more than water can stop being wet. He is the standard of Good itself.

So those are really the best two options that I’ve found for explaining the existence of moral truth. Either it is a Platonic Form or it is God himself. Now the Christians go one step further: they claim that Good loves humanity. The Good loves humanity so much that it became a human so that we could have a relationship with it. Christianity teaches that Goodness is not simply the standard by which actions are judged but is a living and active reality that wishes for us to become closer to it. Through such a relationship an individual flawed human can get closer to the Good and become like it.

So either Goodness is an illusion, an absolute, or a person.

Believe it or Not: Does Either the Universe or Moral Truth Exist?

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Not all questions can be answered for certain.

Some questions can be answered with a high degree of certainty. If I ask you “Is grandpa in the kitchen” you can go into the kitchen and see for yourself. This question is rooted in some reasonable assumptions: for instance, the question assumes that my senses actually inform me about the world around me, and thus if I see grandpa is in the kitchen that means that he is actually in the kitchen in reality. Most people take these assumptions for granted, and I’d say that there is good reason to do so. However the strange fact of the matter is that we can’t actually prove that any of those assumptions are true. It is possible that we are nothing more than Boltzmann brains: simply a mind that experiences a reality that doesn’t actually exist. Or we could be a brain in a mad scientist’s jar with all our sensory inputs being manufactured from some computer program. Or the world around us may be a simulation created by beings unknown. This is an example of solipsism. Solipsism is a philosophical position that states that the only thing we can know for certain is that we exist: after all, if we don’t exist than who is asking the question “What exists?” Everything else we must take on faith, as it were. It is possible that the world around us is a real place, that the people around us are real people, and that our senses (on the whole) provide us with accurate information about reality. Or it is equally possible that we are the only things that exist and everything else is simply a kind of convincing hallucination. Both possibilities are equally supported by the evidence at hand, and both explain our experiences to an equal degree. When it comes to a question like this we have to make a decision even if no hard evidence can be had. Most of us decide that the world is real and our senses do inform us about reality. A few (very few, but they exist) take the position that everything apart from themselves is an illusion. Neither one can provide compelling evidence to convince the other to change their position. If I try to convince a metaphysical solipsist that the world does exist he can simply reply that any evidence I offer is just an illusion, same as everything else. This isn’t an illogical response: after all, if we believed we were hallucinating a talking pink elephant we wouldn’t accept any evidence the pink elephant provided for its existence.  To the metaphysical solipsist all of reality is a hallucination, so naturally any evidence the hallucination provides can’t be trusted.

We are in a similar situation when it comes to deciding whether or not moral truth exists. All we know is that we experience moral  “sensations:” for example, when we see an old man being robbed and beaten by young thugs we feel that this is monstrously wrong, or when a friend breaks a promise and we feel this is unjust, or even something as simple as a stranger stealing our lunch from the break room fridge. Now there are two proposed explanations for why these sensations exist: either they are sensing something real about reality (moral truth) or that these sensations are the result of the architecture of our brains and have no correspondence to actual objective truth other than “This is how I happen to feel because I have this type of brain.” Neither explanation can be known to be true for certain. Those who favor the later explanation may rightly say “There is no need to propose that some kind of natural moral ‘law’ exists: brain architecture developed through natural selection is all that is necessary to explain these sensations.” However I would remind you that the metaphysical solipsist can say the same thing about everything: “There is no need to propose that some kind of physical reality exists: mind alone is all that is necessary to explain the sensations of reality I experience.”

So that’s where we find ourselves. When it comes to the question of whether our moral senses tell us anything about reality, or whether our physical senses tell us anything about reality, we have to do something scary. We have to make a decision without compelling evidence. The idea that moral truth exists, that morality is something that is discovered and not simply felt, is one that I hold dear: however I must admit that I can’t compel anyone to believe it through evidence alone. As I’ve said before, if you take the other position that’s fine. I’m alright if you’re a nihilist. I think you’re wrong, but at least you’re consistent. My main objection is when people who claim to believe that our moral senses are purely illusionary then start to preach about what we should or shouldn’t do. And I would ask everyone to reflect on this question and decide which side of it they land on. Is there a moral dimension to reality, or is morality a useful illusion in order to aid the survival of the species? Which is it? And whichever one you choose, are you prepared to live your life in light of that knowledge?

It’s something everyone should contemplate. Some say the unreflective life is not worth living. If you behave as if something is right or wrong, I think you should really take the time to figure out why.

The Moral Argument: Evolution is an Answer to the Wrong Question

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In my last post I touched briefly on the moral argument, and it’s been stewing in my mind ever since. What has  been particularly bothering me is one common response to the moral argument. In fact it’s the only response I’ve reliably seen atheists provide for why the moral argument doesn’t work, other than nihilism. A nihilist, as I mentioned before, has nothing to fear from the moral argument. After all the moral argument essentially states that either moral truth exists, or nihilism is true. It then follows that with an argument that the best explanation for moral truth is God, or minimally that the “cause” of moral truth is supernatural in nature. If you’re a nihilist you might completely agree with the reasoning of the moral argument and still reject the supernatural since you don’t believe that moral truth exists.

I’ve known and accepted this long before I ever made much of a serious attempt to discuss the moral argument with atheists. I knew that there was little I could say to a nihilist on the subject other than to try and convince them that moral truth does exist. However what I’ve found is that there are not nearly as many nihilists as I would have imagined. Most of the atheists I have had discussions with do live their lives, and make statements that line up with, the idea that moral truth exists. They write blog posts about the evils of religion, point out abuses of power within the church, and rail against executions, persecution, and mental or physical abuse. Some even say that religion is entirely pointless because you can be a good person without it. I found this all very curious. These atheists behaved and spoke as if there was an objective standard of good and evil. They judged individuals and religions by this objective scale. I’ve certainly heard Christianity be referred to as an “evil” religion many times. These judgments were not couched by phrases such as “I believe that,” “In my opinion,” “I personally believe,” or any other relativistic phrase that would imply that these were simply personal perspectives. No, these people spoke and wrote as if the evil of, say, an apostate from Islam being stoned to death was objectively bad and that every right minded individual should agree with them on that point.

Naturally my next step was to ask them why they believed that some things were right and some things for wrong and that we should all agree on those points.  Not to say I didn’t agree with them; I applaud their desire to destroy evil and advance good. But I believe that goodness can be defined in relation to the character of God; what did these atheists, most of them materialists who rejected anything supernatural, base their idea moral truth on? In other words, why did they believe that we should do some things and should refrain from doing others? Their response was almost universal in content: evolution. Having empathy towards others and punishing those who do wrong is good for the survival of the species. Your “conscience” is the finely tuned result of millions of years of evolution selecting for behaviors that would maximize the humanity’s survival. Though our morals often urge us to do things that are personally destructive (such as leap into a burning building to rescue people, or even merely give up money to feed the poor) the actions we are driven to do are, on the balance, helpful to the overall survival of the human race. In their view evolution has explained why morality exists, and there is no need of a “god” to throw his seal of approval on it.

Now I don’t necessarily disagree with any of this. I certainly believe that doing the right thing is beneficial for humanity as a whole. I also believe that a virtuous society will be more prosperous than a morally decrepit society.  And I agree that because of this natural selection may have weeded out those who reject such morality. It certainly is possible, and is far from unreasonable. However the problem is that this response is answering the wrong question. Evolution may be an fine explanation for why we feel like there is an objective right or wrong. However it doesn’t explain why we should follow those feelings.

By way of example, imagine that an accomplished mad scientist created a pill that, when consumed, would manipulate the architecture of our brains to such an extent that we felt we should follow his every order. This pill made the inner compulsion to obey the mad scientist just as strong as our inner compulsion to help those in need, or to refrain from hurting others. Now let’s say that a woman named Jill has consumed such a pill at a young age, and has served the mad scientist all her life. Now another scientist arrives, examines Jill, and explains to her that the reason she feels it is right to obey the mad scientist is because of the pill she took as a child and the effect it has had on her brain. In other words, there is a completely natural explanation for some of the moral impulses (the ones that drive her to obey) she experiences. With this knowledge in hand we would likely encourage Jill to no longer obey the mad scientist’s orders. Now certainly she still feels that it right to obey the mad scientist, but she now understands that those feelings are purely the result of the architecture of her brain. She can now resist such impulses, and safely ignore any guilt she may feel for disobeying the mad scientist’s commands. Or she can continue to follow them, but with the knowledge that there is no reason she should,  and that she only obeys because she finds happiness by following those impulses. What wouldn’t make much sense at all is if she went around trying to explain to everyone else that the only reason they obey the mad scientist is because their brains have been modified by a pill, and at the same time told them that they should keep obeying the mad scientist and that anyone who doesn’t is evil. Yet this is essentially what I have seen many atheists attempt to do. They proudly inform us that our moral impulses are the result of the architecture of our brains, honed by millions of years of evolution, and then they tell us that we have a responsibility to follow those impulses and condemn anyone who does differently. Evolution may explain why our moral impulses exist, but if morality is solely the result of our brain architecture then there is no good reason why we should follow them.

One response to this is that following our moral impulses we will ensure the continued survival of the species, and the survival of the species is good. But by what standard do we say that it is good for the human species to survive? Surely this impulse, more than any other, is the result of natural selection. We believe that it is good for humanity to survive because evolution has crafted our brain architecture to produce this result, and culled those whose brain architecture produces anything different. We are very much like Jill in this case, only the mad scientist has been replaced by our own DNA. From birth we have swallowed the “pill” that forces us to value human survival. Now that we’ve seen through the illusion we can either follow that impulse out of convenience or rebel against it. And many people have rebelled against it. There are environmental groups that believe the human race must be diminished in size, to become less successful as a species in order that other creatures may survive. Some very radical environmentalists believe it would be better if every human was wiped from the face of the Earth. There some who consider life itself to be a kind of joke, and consider death and nonexistence as superior to life. Nihilists believe that the survival of the human race is just as meaningless as everything else. The point I’m trying to make is that evolution does not give us a reason to value the continued survival of the human species: it merely explains why we might feel that it’s good for our species to survive.

Once this is understood the choice becomes clearer. Either there is more to morality than merely impulses that are the result of purely natural evolutionary processes or we must abandon the idea of good and evil existing as anything more than personal opinion. Either some things are good and bad apart from humanity, and apart from any individual brain architecture, or else morality simply exists on the level of your skin color, or whether your hair is curly or straight. And just as you can’t say someone is “evil” for having curly hair or fair skin, you can’t say that they are evil for preferring rape or murder: both are simply physical aspects based on their genetics. This is the choice we have: either we admit that there is an extra-natural dimension to morality, or we become nihilists. But let’s not have any more nonsense about evolution “disproving” the moral argument. The moral argument is about why we should be moral; evolution can only explain why we might want to.

As for why the existence of moral truths may point to God, I may talk about that on Friday.

Is an Argument Bad Because it Doesn’t Convince Everyone?

Recently I was listening through the archives of the raido show/podcast “Unbelievable?” and ran into a discussion between former atheist blogger turned Catholic blogger Leah Lebresco and Hemant Mehta, who blogs under the name “The Friendly Atheist.” The discussion was over why Leah Libresco, an active blogger and highly intelligent woman, would convert to Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It’s a neat little discussion, well worth listening to as both Leah and Hemant (being bloggers) have a decently engaging conversational style, especially in contrast to the scientists and academics that are usually on the show (let’s just say that public speaking isn’t usually a course that most hard scientists are required to take and leave it at that).

Now something very interesting (to me at least) happened during the discussion. Leah explained that her primary reason for converting, the argument that finally knocked her over into the theist camp, was the moral argument. And Hemant Mehta made it clear that he had never heard of it. This was so suprising to me! In retrospect it shouldn’t have. I mean not everybody has had my life or read the books I’ve read or has had the discussions I’ve had, obviously. This is simply an example of what they call the “curse of knowledge.” Because I know the moral argument, and have contemplated it for years, I naturally assume that other educated people would know about it as well. Hemant Mehta can’t be blamed for not knowing about it, any more than I can be blamed for not knowing the ins and outs of Gnostic philosophy, or Mormon theology. Still, it caught be by surprise.

I can’t really do the moral argument justice here, but I can summarize it a bit. I would really recommend reading up more about it. Basically the moral argument says this:

  1. Moral truths exist.

To explain this first point in a little more detail, by “moral truths” I mean that there are things which are wrong regardless of culture, level of education, or personal opinion. For example, I believe that the concept “Rape is wrong” is a moral truth. If rape is a moral truth than no matter what you personally believe about rape, rape is still wrong.  If everyone in the world was taught that rape was acceptable rape would still be wrong. That’s what I’m trying to get across by “moral truths.” Naturally not everyone agrees with this sentiment, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

  1. God is the best explanation for the existence of moral truths.

This is where I’m really butchering the argument. There are other possible explanations for moral truths (such as Platonic ideals) but right now we’re focusing on the moral argument in regards to theism and I’d have to add seven more points or so if I wanted to do this exhaustively. Since a detailed description of the moral argument isn’t the point of this post I hope you’ll forgive me for cutting corners.

  1. Therefore God exists.

Now naturally most people who reject the moral argument do so at point number one. They would disagree that moral truths do in fact exist and would attribute morality to cultural and evolutionary forces. Most defenders of the moral argument would agree, but would further point out that those explanations for morality lead to nihilism. Some people can live with nihilism. Some people can’t. If you don’t believe nihilism is true then you should believe in moral truths and thus, by way of explanation, God. Again, this is a very rough description but I think you get the general idea.

What I found fascinating, however, was that Hemant Mehta seemed to not even get as far as understanding point number one. The concept of “moral truth” seems to have never been explained or even proposed to him. The idea was completely foreign to him, and by the end of the podcast he admitted that he still didn’t understand the moral argument. I want to be clear that he didn’t mean that he disagreed with the argument, simply that he didn’t yet understand it and thus couldn’t comment on whether it’s a good argument or not.  However he did reject the argument out of hand anyway. Why? Because he felt that if it was a good argument then there would be a lot of people following Leah in converting to Christianity. Since there wasn’t a mob of people converting with her he felt that “her” argument must not be very good.

That’s what I want to talk about today. The concept that an argument can be rejected because it fails to be widely persuasive. It’s a crazy idea, and like a rabid dog it should be put down before it can infect anyone else. I don’t know if Hemant Mehta was ever involved in debate while at school, but as any speech and debate competitor can tell you persuading people is hard. Persuading people to change deeply held beliefs (like whether or not God exists) is really freaking hard. Even if your arguments are flawless it is just plain hard to persuade people. Complicating matters further is the fact that there is no argument that is perfect. There isn’t even a perfect argument that anything exists at all! The only argument I’ve ever found that comes close to perfect persuasiveness is Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.” And there are people who disagree with even that, who believe that we don’t actually “think” at all and that consciousness is merely an illusion. No argument has such a powerful persuasive force that it will convince everyone everywhere with the same strength. Why? Because there a many obstacles that stand between an argument and actually persuading someone.

First the argument must be understood before it can even try to persuade someone. The moral argument was not persuasive to Hemant Mehta during the discussion because he didn’t understand it. This is perfectly reasonable, and I’m surprised that he didn’t realize that maybe droves of people aren’t converting because they too share his confusion. Some people might not have the background education in philosophy and logic to make sense of a particular argument. Others might believe that logic and rationality can’t actually teach us what is or isn’t true. I know, that sounds hard to believe, but those people exist and I’ve met them. Chaulk it up to postmodernism. Whatever the reason a good argument can be misunderstood, or simply not understood at all, or the idea of logical argument itself can be rejected out of hand. That’s the first hurdle to jump.

The second obstacle is that people may disagree with the premises of the argument, or with the logical form of the argument itself. So those premises must be proven, which requires more arguments, which puts us back to hurdle one. Now sometimes an argument has flawed or false premises. Sometimes the argument itself is fairly sound but it’s being expressed in a way that oversimplifies or miscommunicates what the argument is actually trying to say (see my butchered explanation of the moral argument above).  If it’s a bad argument this is where it will usually fall apart. However people can agree that an argument is sound and still disbelieve in its conclusion if the argument fails for them at the next obstacle.

Simply put, often one of more premises is something that intelligent people can simply disagree on. Leah Libresco is quite aware that one can understand the moral argument perfectly, reject premise number one, and become a nihilist. However Leah, through her own observations, contemplations, and experiences does not believe that nihilism is a viable option. Since the moral argument shows that one should either be a nihilist or believe in moral truth, and she cannot accept nihilism, then moral truth must be real, and thus God must be real as well. Again, I’m simplifying here. Now some people have no problem with nihilism, so they won’t be convinced in the existence of God by the moral argument. This is mostly a personal trait. Some people can live with nihilism, some people can’t. It works for other arguments as well. For C.S. Lewis the argument that tipped him out of the materialist camp was the argument from reason. Basically he came to the conclusion that if the mind consists simply of what the brain does then there is no such thing as free will. Now some people believe this but have no problem with people lacking free will. However for Lewis the idea that we can have reason and rationality without free will was literally unbelievable. He could not make that jump. Some people can. For him it seemed far more plausible that the mind was something more than the actions of the brain. Others had no problem with it. That’s just the way things go. What is compelling evidence to one person isn’t always compelling to others because we value different things, have different experiences, and think different thoughts.

All of this is understandable to someone who has spent time trying to persuade people. So it’s surprising that Hemant Mehta would make such an argument. Surely he, as an atheist, knows that there is no argument for atheism that will convince everyone, just as there is no argument for theism that will convince everyone. If there was such an argument then there would be far more atheists, since all theists who heard it would deconvert on the spot. The thought of any argument having universal persuasiveness is ridiculous. Let us not judge arguments by the number of converts they produce but on their own logical merits. There may be many reasons to reject an argument, but “it’s not very popular” should not be one of them.

Is it All About Hate?: Understanding Proponents of the Arizona “Discrimination” Law

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There’s been a lot of controversy about “gay discrimination laws” lately, namely about a failed bill in Kansas and a bill that’s currently making it’s way through the Arizona government. These bills essentially ensure that business owners will not be sued if they refuse service to someone because they are gay. Naturally almost all of the media attention is negative, with articles about bigotry and discrimination, as well as comments that we might be seeing “No Gays Need Apply” signs showing up in businesses around the country. Personally I don’t necessarily support such laws. However I do think there is a good reason that they’re being proposed, a reason that is mostly being ignored because of the shock value of a bill that appears to support discrimination.

I think the main reason why these bills are contentious are a matter of framing. Just about anything can be made to sound good or bad based on how you frame it. The framing these bills have mostly received is along the following lines: “This bill will allow small businesses to refuse service to people simply because they are gay.” Or even “These bills make it legal to discriminate against gays.” These are powerfully negative framings. Who would want to support a bill like that? On the other hand, the bills can be framed another way. “These bills ensure that an individual cannot be forced to do work that violates their religious beliefs. “ This framing puts it in a completely different light. After all, we don’t want to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That would be going against the first amendment. The funny thing is that all three of those framing are technically accurate. I just think it’s important to take them all into account when trying to find your own stance on this contentious issue.

On the one hand these bills do seem to be legalizing discrimination based on sexuality, which is obviously bad. I completely understand why people are upset about this, and I think they have a right to be. On the other hand we need to recognize why the bill is being proposed in the first place: to protect religious rights. Separation of church and state is a road that goes both ways. The government is not allowed to force a person to violate their religious beliefs. That’s what “separation of church and state” is all about. The phrase comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to churchgoers who were concerned that the new government was going to prevent them from practicing their religion, or force them to convert to another faith. Thomas Jefferson assured them that the first amendment built “a wall of separation between Church & State” and that the government would not interfere with their beliefs. In the case of these bills, the concern is that the government will force business owners to perform work that they have religious objections to.

So, again, the controversy about this law is a matter of framing. If the question is “Should the government legalize discrimination?” the answer is obviously “No!” But if the question is “Should the government force people to violate their religious beliefs?” the answer is also obviously “No!” The concern of the proponents of these bills is that under the current system people can, and have, been sued for refusing to serve gay individuals based on religious obligations (photographers declining to photograph a gay wedding, bakers declining to bake cakes for a gay wedding, etc.). This appears to be an example of the government punishing individuals for following their religious conscience.

Now I personally do not think it is morally wrong for a Christian baker to bake a cake for a gay wedding, or at least not any more “wrong” than it is for a baker to bake a cake for a person’s third wedding after two messy divorces. However some people do have moral objections against that kind of work, and even if I disagree I support their right to follow their religious beliefs. On the other hand, I don’t think a bill like this is the way to do it. I believe that the ideal solution is for the courts to handle this. If someone is sued because they refused to violate their religious beliefs then the courts should (ideally, remember) recognize that their first amendment rights are being violated. That’s the whole purpose of the judicial branch of government: to identify when laws violate a citizen’s constitutional rights. Passing a bill seems more likely to simply cause controversy (as we’ve already seen) instead of understanding as to why supporters of religious rights are concerned. If our current laws violate the first amendment then it is the job of the courts to overturn them. On the other hand, I can understand that everything is not ideal and our judicial system is far from perfect. I can see why some people would rather pass a law then put their faith in the judiciary.

So, whether you’re for or against these bills, try to understand the other side’s perspective. This isn’t about bigots and persecutors fighting each other, but rather about two different ideas that are both good but sometimes have trouble working together: individual rights (religious liberty) and civil tolerence (human dignity). And always remember, whatever the controversy is, that moral, rational, and educated individuals can disagree on important issues. Try not to demonize anyone out there.

Memento Mori

 Detail of the Wall in the Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos)

C.S. Lewis once pointed out, while commenting on the massive fear that accompanied the invention of the nuclear bomb, that all of us were doomed to die whether the bomb existed or not, and that most of us will die in horrible ways. When I first read that it seemed almost funny. It was certainly true. Most of us dream about the “perfect death:” to die peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age. Most desire it, but few achieve it. Very few. My great-grandfather was counted among the lucky ones. He died peacefully at the age of 101. I believe he was making a sandwich when his heart gave out. It happened quickly and presumably without much pain.

But my grandfather wasn’t so lucky when he died. He was in great pain for days before the end. He struggled and moaned under the weight of the painkillers. He could not even put on a brave face for his family: the drugs robbed him of that. It was a horrible way to die. In that sense it was very natural. Most death is horrible.

I don’t find that sentiment as funny anymore.

I have been blessed with getting to know my wife’s grandfather quite well. He lives in the same city where my wife and I went to college, and my wife stayed in a little apartment above his workshop before we got married. I got to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch across from him, watching TV and talking about cars and life. He’s a wonderful man who really loves God and loves others. He also has a wicked sense of humor: when he gets together with his best friend you’d think they were worst enemies the way they toss insults at each other.

For some time now he’s suffered from several different medical conditions. His kidneys keep failing, and he’s been on and off dialysis for years. He finds the dialysis extremely painful, and becomes listless and weak in the days following a dialysis session.  His heart is weak, so blood doesn’t properly circulate in his legs which leads to pain, numbness, and infections. A few months ago one of his legs had to be amputated because of this. He is often in pain, and his “good days” come and go almost unpredictably.

I’ve often thought that it would  be nice to be retired, to be able to sit around and watch TV or work on your hobbies all day. When I look at my wife’s grandfather I can’t be jealous. He has all the time in the world, but most of it is spent in pain. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t work on his cars anymore. Over the past several years he’s been slowly preparing to die. He auctioned off almost all of his tools and his collection of automobile memorabilia. His health is bad, and he’s ready to go. Yet for some reason he’s still here (and my wife and I, and all who love him, are grateful for that). I wonder if this is the kind of death I have to look forward to. Will my twilight years be full of drawn out pain and weakness? Or will my death be like my grandpa’s: an unexpected and terrible end to an otherwise idyllic retirement?

I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll die peacefully while making a sandwich.

All of this seems very morbid, but I think it’s something we need to think about more. Too often we try to insulate ourselves from suffering and death. We try to cut them out of our lives and our thoughts. The medievals had a different value. The prized the memento mori: something to remind us that we will die. Many medieval scholars and priests kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that someday they too would nothing more than bones. Franciscan monks in Portugal made an entire chapel out of human bones to serve as a memento mori to all who entered it. The engraving above it’s door reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: “We bones that are here await your own.”

The simple fact is that we will all die, and we will all suffer. Some of us will suffer greatly before the end. We should not deny this fact but accept it. That way we won’t be dismayed when suffering does come. Instead remember that this world is not the end, that suffering can strengthen us if we let it, and that we can survive more than we might imagine.