Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Brief History of Reality (as it relates to the culture wars of our times)

Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rorty. Each proposed a different model of reality.
I’m not trained in philosophy, by any stretch, although I’ve done some reading on the topic. As well, I’m not a sociologist, nor even a close observer of contemporary culture, but I do live here and observe things.

And so I publish this blog post with the idea of starting a discussion that is looking forward to diagnosing some of the cultural difficulties that we face today, and not because I’m not suggesting I have all the answers. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I see myself as more of a journalist, a reporter (but an honest one), collecting information and passing it on, than anything else.

The study of “reality” may be found within the fields of “metaphysics” and “ontology” (with the differences between them viewed as):

Metaphysics is a very broad field, and metaphysicians attempt to answer questions about how the world is. Ontology is a related sub-field, partially within metaphysics, that answers questions of what things exist in the world. An ontology posits which entities exist in the world. So, while a metaphysics may include an implicit ontology (which means, how your theory describes the world may imply specific things in the world), they are not necessary the same field of study.

While there are many complexities within these discussions, in broad outline form, the history of “reality” has kind of followed this trajectory:

Monday, August 21, 2017

"No one is good but God"

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Mk 10:17-22).

This is a sequel to my prior post:

It was clearly not my aim in the original post to expound and defend my own interpretation. However, apostate Dale Tuggy jumped in:

The standard unitarian reading will be like this. We all know that Jesus is good, and extraordinarily so, given his track record of obedience to God and self-sacrifice. But he says only God, only the Father is good. So, he must have in mind some unusual meaning of "good." Perhaps: absolutely good, perfectly good, essentially good, necessarily good. immutably good. Some such distinction makes sense, as the NT explicitly asserts that God can't be tempted, and that Jesus was tempted - you know the texts. One kind or degree or aspect of goodness is untemptability - immunity from the allure of sin. So whatever this other sense is, Jesus is straightforwardly saying that he isn't good in that sense, though God is. 

It would be puzzling why (on your assumption of "the deity of Christ") why he also directs the man's attention away from Jesus, with the implied rebuke for his calling Jesus good.

Both, of course, make sense on a unitarian reading. 

Once you're done calling strikes, perhaps then you should admit that your dilemma is easy for any unitarian reader to address. Looking forward to that.

i) A basic failing of Tuggy's explanation is the fact that the ruler didn't think Jesus was good in a divine sense inasmuch as the ruler presumably didn't think Jesus was the Deity. Tuggy's explanation is especially ironic from a unitarian perspective, since unitarians don't believe Mark's Gospel (or the Synoptics generally, who reproduce this exchange) teach the deity of Christ. 

ii) But even from a theologically orthodox standpoint, there's no reason to suppose the ruler thought Jesus was God. Most folks in the Gospels, at least initially, don't suspect that Jesus is Yahweh Incarnate. That doesn't lie on the surface. And it's unexpected.

It's only when Jesus says and does certain things that it dawns on them. Like stories about kings who disguise themselves as paupers to test their royal subjects. 

If the ruler doesn't think Jesus is God, then his mode of address never suggested that Jesus is good in that sense. Even from a unitarian perspective, the ruler's not confused in that regard, so there's nothing to correct in that regard.

iii) As we know from other conversations in the Gospels, sometimes Jesus refuses to answer a question directly. That's because people don't always ask the right question. So sometimes Jesus answers the question they should have asked. Or he deflects the question to focus on what's really at stake, because their priorities are askew.

That's what he's doing here. In this passage, Jesus isn't talking about himself. He's not affirming or disaffirming that he is God or he is good. 

That's because the rich young ruler suffers from an impediment that prevents him from valuing what Jesus has to offer. The ruler is self-righteous and his piety lacks total devotion. So long as he suffers from spiritual pride, so long as his priorities are misplaced, he will fail to recognize his need for what Jesus has to give, viz. "but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful" (Mk 4:19). 

iv) Nevertheless, Christ's response carries the implication that if he is good, then he is God. That's left hanging out there, but other passages confirm the deity of Christ. 


When reading the creation account, I often try to appreciate the significance of celestial luminaries to people who lived before the advent of electrical lighting. One category would be celestial portents and prodigies, viz. supernova, comets, meteors, eclipses. In Scripture, these figure in stock apocalyptic imagery.

But even in the scientific age, when such phenomena are natural explicable, they still evoke popular fascination. Take today's solar eclipse, which I just witnessed. I went to an abandoned parking lot to have an unobstructed view. Other people had the same idea. Although the parking lot is right beside a busy arterial, the arterial was nearly deserted in anticipation of the eclipse. Despite secularization, striking celestial phenomena retain numinous connotations in the popular imagination. Psychologically, we aren't that far removed from our prescientific forebears.

Due to overcast skies, the sunlight was filtered through fine cloud cover, which gave the corona ringing the moon an ethereal bluish tint. It was very pretty. And, of course, the lighting in general was unusual.

What would it take to abandon your faith?

Recently I watched a video clip by Andy Bannister:

Before I comment on the specifics, I don't wish to be too critical. I'm sure he's doing far more good than I ever will. And I think the situation for Christians in England is tougher than the situation for Christians in the USA. Finally, this is an intentionally a brief reply, pitched at a popular level. That said, I wouldn't answer the question the way he does, and I think there's a serious problem with the tack he takes. 

i) Suppose a Christian were to answer the question by saying that nothing could make him abandon his faith? Atheists would exclaim how his admission goes to show that Christians are fideists. Their faith isn't factually motivated or grounded.

I think Christians like Lennox and Bannister are defensive about that stereotypy, which is why they counter by stressing the factual basis of Christian faith. They have evidence for what they believe. 

And that's an important corrective to the atheist stereotype. Many atheists are completely ignorant regarding the arguments for Christianity. They reside in a secular echo chamber where all their friends and acquaintances agree with each other than there couldn't possible be any good reasons to believe in Christianity. 

There is, though, the danger of overreacting to the stereotype. In particular, there's the danger of intellectual elitism. As Leibniz noted:

If you [John Locke] take faith to be only what rests on rational grounds for belief, and separate it from the inward grace which immediately endows the mind with faith, everything you say, sir, is beyond dispute. For it must be acknowledge that many judgments are more evident than the ones which depend on these rational grounds. Some people have advanced further towards the latter than others have; and indeed, plenty of people, far from having weighed up such reasons, have never known them and consequently do not even have what could count as grounds for probability. But the inward grace of the Holy Spirit makes up for this immediately and supernaturally, and it is this that creates what theologians strictly call "divine faith". God, it is true, never bestows this faith unless what he is making one believe in grounded in reason–otherwise he would subvert our capacity to recognize truth, and open the door to enthusiasm–but it is not necessary that all who possess this divine faith should know those reasons, and still less that they should have them perpetually before their eyes. Otherwise none of the unsophisticated or of the feeble-minded–now at least–would have the true faith, and the most enlightened people might not have it when they most needed it, since no one can always remember his reasons for believing. G. Leibniz, New Essays on Human Understanding(Cambridge, 2nd ed., 1996), 498.

Most Christians lack the aptitude to make a philosophically sophisticated case for their faith. And that limitations is not confined to Christians. Most atheists are not intellectuals.

And just in general, most of us, including most philosophers, have fundamental beliefs which are very hard to defend in a philosophically rigorous fashion, yet we are right to believe them. 

ii) There is a sense in which we need to say that there are things which would make us abandon our Christian faith. The classic example is Paul's statement that if the Resurrection never happened, that falsifies the Christian faith (1 Cor 15:14,17).

The basic principle is that for Christianity to be true, some other things must be false. Christian propositions as well as propositions that contradict Christianity can't both be true. 

To deny this renders the Christian faith vacuous. Christian theology can't affirm anything to be the case unless it implicitly disaffirms the contradictories of whatever it affirms. Falsifiability, in this hypothetical sense, is necessary to preserve the intellectual integrity of the Christian faith, in contrast to theological noncognitivism.

iii) However, it's misleading to leave it at that with no further qualifications. For one thing, Paul's statement is a counterfactual claim. He doesn't offer that as a live possibility. To the contrary, Paul is using the Resurrection as a wedge issue. He regards the Resurrection as an unquestionable benchmark. If the beliefs or behavior of the Corinthians is at odds with the Resurrection, then they need to bring their beliefs or behavior in line with the Resurrection. 

iv) In addition, the status of counterfactuals is metaphysically demanding. What makes counterfactual statements true? They can't be true in or about the actual world, because counterfactuals statements are claims about what might have been. What didn't happen. 

Typically, counterfactual statements are grounded in possible worlds. But what are possible worlds? What must reality be like to accommodate possible worlds? 

A Christian might say a possible world is a world plot in God's mind. God imagines alternate histories, and God is able to instantiate these scenarios in real space and real time. On that view, possible worlds are divine ideas. They inhere in God's omniscience and omnipotence.

But if physicalism is true, and if the universe is all there is, then there's no room for possible worlds. Not at least if we define possible worlds as abstract objects. 

Paradoxically, Paul's counterfactual only makes sense given a theistic worldview. It's an argument per impossibile. If (per impossibile) Christ didn't rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain. 

v) And that line of reasoning can be extended much farther. In asking what it would take to make you abandon your faith, you should also ask what other beliefs you'd need to abandon to abandon your faith. What does it take to be a consistent atheist? Loss of faith isn't the only intellectual casualty. Carried to a logical extreme, what other beliefs are swept away by apostasy? 

It might be wholly irrational to abandon your faith. In that event, to say nothing would make you abandon your faith is not a fideistic admission, but just the opposite. To abandon your faith you'd have to abandon basic epistemic norms. 

vi) It might be objected that I've oversimplified the alternatives. It's not a stark choice between atheism and Christian theism, but a continuum. And in theory that's true. It's important to eliminate other candidates, like Platonic realism and rival religions. And the analysis could take it to the next step. 

What evidentialism isn't


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sky High reunion

Christians often attend a variety of churches over the course of a lifetime. One reason is our mobile society. If they move out of town or out of state, they find a new church.

I've attended a number of different denominations over the years. Partly this is due to curiosity, in terms of exploring different worship styles. Although I'm a stickler for theology, I'm quite flexible about church attendance, within basic boundaries of orthodoxy. 

For a time I attended in Anglican church. One time I was sitting in church, watching the priests, altar boys, and acolytes prepare for communion. The altar boys were cute elementary school age kids. The acolyte was an older teenager. Made me reflect on me when I was his age, some 40 years ago. I will predecease the acolyte and altar boys by decades. 

It also made me think of all the Christians we encounter, inside and outside of church, in the course of a lifetime. Some of them we may briefly meet, while others we come to know for months or years. But as we move around and they move around, they pass out of our lives. And in some cases they die, which is why we don't see them anymore. And we don't normally think about them.

Occasionally and unexpectedly we bump into people we knew years ago. Suddenly, from out of the past, our paths cross once again. All the dormant memories awaken. 

All of this prompted me to think of what it will be like, after we die, to see all these people again. Christians we met in this world, at one time or another, whom we will see again in the world to come (or intermediate state). Many of whom we lost track of.

Some of them will be waiting for us when we die, while we'll be waiting for some of them when they die–which ever comes first. Like an everlasting high school reunion for Christians!   

"Why call me good"?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone (Mk 10:18; par. Mt 19:17; Lk 18:19). 

That's a unitarian prooftext. The typical evangelical explanation is that Christ's response is ad hominem. The young man suffers from an exaggerated opinion of his virtue, so Christ is redirecting his attention to the absolute standard of comparison.

I think that's correct, but I'd like to make another point. This text poses a dilemma for unitarians, for Jesus links God and good. If the statement denies that Jesus is God, then by parity of reasoning, the statement denies that Jesus is good. Jesus makes these parallel claims. You can't affirm one and deny the other; either affirm both or deny both.

Faith journeys

Here's the testimony of a Christian med student:

Around the 6 min. mark he recounts a miracle. He says he overheard a phone conversation that was too far away to naturally hear, not to mention all the noise from passengers mulling around. In addition to hearing God's voice. If it happened, it must be telepathic. 

This is veridical in the sense that his impression was corroborated, both by what happened when he spoke to the man and the message on the video, by the guy recounting his side of the exchange. 

There are only four logical explanations:

i) He's mistaken

How could he misperceive what he thought he heard? How could that accidentally correspond to what was actually said? 

ii) It's a coincidence

What are the odds?

At this point an atheist might say, sure (i-ii) are astronomically improbable, but they're more probable than the alternative of something that crazy actually happening. 

Yes and no. (i-ii), however wildly improbable, might still be more plausible than the alternative naturally happening. But that's not the comparison. The comparison is whether God made it happen.

iii) He's lying

That's something we should make allowance for. If, however, there are many stories like this from prima facie credible witnesses, then what's the tipping point to overturn naturalism (i.e. physicalism, causal closure)? It's circular for an atheist to discount all these reports as unbelievable because we don't live in a world where things like that happen. But how do we know what kind of world we live it? What's the benchmark? If enough witnesses report incidents like that, then we do live in that kind of world!

The atheist is appealing to experience, yet he's using one set of reported experiences as the benchmark to evaluate other reported experiences. But what's his justification of appealing to naturalistic experiences to set the standard of comparison? Why not the other way around?

Moreover, there's not even a prima facie conflict. Not experiencing the supernatural isn't positive evidence to the contrary, that counters evidence for the supernatural. If I've never seen something, that doesn't count as evidence against your reported sighting. 

iv) He's telling the truth

Permission to die

Sometimes we need to give people permission to die. They don't have a duty to fight death right up to the last minute. They don't have a duty to soldier on. 

It's a balancing act. On the one hand it seems right to hope for the best, pray for the best, hope for a miracle.

On the other hand, that drumbeat makes it hard for someone to be a peace with the prospect of dying.  To prepare themselves for death, which denies them a peaceful death, because they feel they have an obligation to resist death. And that can be cruel. Sometimes it's okay to let go–especially as a Christian. 

From a Christian standpoint, it's okay to say good-bye to this life and leave this world behind. In our efforts to "encourage" the terminally ill, I think some well-meaning believers have contributed to their ordeal and mounting sense of panic because they think we have a duty to always say something "hopeful" in the sense of waiting for a last-minute miracle. The terminally ill are never allowed to resign themselves to the probability of death and make the emotional and psychological adjustment. It's always, hang on to the last dying breath–just in case.

Death is easy for some Christians and hard for others. The danger is to make dying harder than it needs to be. If the terminally ill are made to feel that they are letting down the cause by "giving up", that makes dying harder. They aren't allowed to mentally prepare themselves for death. For release from this life. Release from pain. Release from unnecessary anxieties. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Pornographic imagination

Many evangelical pastors and parachurch organizations refer to the perils of porn addiction. The unexamined assumption is that porn is primarily a masculine vice. However, Jordan Peterson has discussed the neglected fact that many women are avid consumers of pornography. Peterson differentiates between visual pornography, which appeals to men, and literary pornography, which appeals to women. Men are attracted to direct imagery whereas women are attracted to graphic verbal descriptions or tales of seduction. For instance:

A pornographic imagination isn't distinctive to men. Both men and women are susceptible. The difference is the medium. 

Profiles in courage


A radical on radicals


Roman Catholicism needs a procedure for a pope who “teaches error”

Fr Aidan Nichols wants a procedure to discipline a pope who “teaches error”
Fr Aidan Nichols wants a procedure to discipline a pope who “teaches error”
Many Roman Catholics are willing to whisk away the current teaching of "Pope Francis" as if it were a continuation or a "development". But here is one leading Roman Catholic priest, intellectual, and theologian, who thinks that's not the case.

Link: Fr Aidan Nichols said that Pope Francis's teaching had led to an 'extremely grave' situation

Fr Aidan Nichols, a prolific author who has lectured at Oxford and Cambridge as well as the Angelicum in Rome, said that Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia had led to an “extremely grave” situation.

Fr Nichols proposed that, given the Pope’s statements on issues including marriage and the moral law, the Church may need “a procedure for calling to order a pope who teaches error”....

Solution Sunday


Friday, August 18, 2017

Just one god separating atheism from Hinduism

Here's an oft-quoted definition of atheism:

I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

I wonder how that would work in dialogue with a Hindu:

Atheist: I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.

Hindu: I believe in 333 million gods. When you understand why I believe in all 329,999,999 of your gods, you will understand why I add one more.

Saturday debate on Islam


Why Evangelicals are Drawn to the Alt-Right


Aids to prayer

A friend recently asked, "What ideas or practices have helped you grow in prayer?"

i) I think it varies depending on what you're going through at any particular point in life. What may be helpful when life is going well may be inadequate during a crisis or dry spells.

ii) Some Christians find it useful to keep a prayer journal. That way they have a record of answered prayer. More generally, it's easy to forget all the things we've been through once they're past. But reviewing that periodically can provide a sense of providential care. 

iii) Another thing: it's good to alternate between praying for our own needs and praying for others. Intercessory prayer keeps us from becoming too depressingly focussed our own problems. And taking a break by praying for others enables us to come back to our own problems somewhat refreshed.

iv) Can be good to read/watch (credible) testimonies of answered prayer. Even if your own prayer life seems to be spinning its wheels, evidence of God at work in the lives of others can be inspirational. Reminds one of God's reality, even if he doesn't seem to be palpable in your own life at the time. Two examples:

v) In my experience, there's value to looking back on evil. Looking back on a particular ordeal in one's life and say to yourself, "Well, at least I've put that much behind me! At least I'll never have to go through that again! Maybe the worst is behind me." 

I realize it's too soon for Christians undergoing a crisis to be able to have that detached perspective. But if you get beyond point, it will be a relief to consign that to the past. And even if you're not at that point as of yet, and it's nowhere in sight, even so, it is good to anticipate a time of life when you can view your current ordeal in retrospect. It's an outlook I've been cultivating lately. Remembering events I'm happy now lie in the past.

Death and flooding

I suspect that when many people read about Noah's flood, they assume the victims died by drowning. And that has some implications of the depth of the flood, since you can only drown in water that's over your head (or above your neck).

Now, I'm no expert, but it seems obvious to me that there are various ways to die in a flood short of drowning. Suppose there's standing water at waist-level or chest-level for just a month. You can still breathe. You won't die by suffocation. However:

i) You can't sleep because you can't lie down. But there comes a point when the urge to sleep is irrepressible. So you can only keep your head above water for so long.

ii) Other than fruit trees (which are seasonal), you have nothing to eat. You can't even see where food is, because it's submerged. 

Stored dry foods will be spoiled by the flood waters. Wineskins suffer the same fate. No waterproof containers. No tupperware in the ancient world. 

You can't hunt game. Standing water impedes mobility. Even if you could catch game or livestock, you can't cook it. And the flood will drown the low-slung livestock.

iii) You don't have drinking water. The flood waters are polluted. So you either drink contaminated water or die of thirst.

iv) Depending on the temperature, you can die of hypothermia. 

v) Depending on the rapidity of the deluge, Noah's neighbors might not have time to evacuate to high ground, assuming they lived in the vicinity of high ground. 

It also depends on the direction of the floodwaters. If torrential floodwaters are rushing downstream, that will impede ability to reach high ground. You'd either be heading into the floodwaters or be overtaken by the floodwaters.

And even if coastal flooding was the primary source, causing rivers to back up, you could still be overtaken by the deluge, and swept away by strong currents.