Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tim McGrew on the Gospels

A third installment is now available in Dr. McGrew's lecture series on the Gospels.

Part 1: Who Wrote the Gospels? --

Part 2: External Evidence for the Truth of the Gospels and Acts --

Part 3: Internal Evidence for the Truth of the Gospels --

You can find links for the PowerPoint slides and handout at Brian Auten's site, here:

Dan v. TFan in the Octagon

Spooftexting libertarian freedom

I’m going to comment on this post:

Dan tries to prooftext his position from Scripture. However, that’s misleading, for he filters his prooftexts through his definition of “choice.” Therefore, he’s not really beginning with Scripture. Rather, he’s beginning with his preconceived theory of what makes a choice a choice. As such, his entire exercise begs the question.

What does choose mean? We could let determinist philosophers define choose for us and sometimes their voices are louder than ours, but they do not speak for the majority. If you want to know what a word normally means, you look it up in a dictionary.

There are several things wrong with this statement:

i) Dictionaries define words, not concepts. You can’t master quantum geometry by looking up “quantum” and “geometry” in the dictionary.

Likewise, libertarian freedom is a philosophical construct. Indeed, there are different versions of libertarian freedom. You can’t get all that from dictionary definitions.

ii) Moreover, dictionaries define words, not reality. Dictionaries don’t determine what is true or false, real, or fictitious. A dictionary isn’t the touchstone of truth. It’s not an oracle.

Dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive or proscriptive. They simply reflect popular usage. But whether or not popular usage maps onto reality is a separate issue entirely.

iii) Furthermore, it’s deceptive for Dan to suggests that Calvinists must reply on “determinist philosophers” to define the word “choice.” For instance, here’s how two libertarian philosophers define the key terms:

A choice is the formation of an intention or purpose to do something. It resolves uncertainty and indecision in the mind about what to do.

Robert Kane, Four Views on Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 33.

Before going into arguments for determinism, it is necessary to remove some misconceptions about the determinist position. To begin with, it must be emphasized most strongly that determinists do not deny that people make choices. If they did deny this, their position would be absurd, but the fact is they do not. Furthermore, the experience of choosing–of seeking alternatives, weighing their desirability and finally making up one’s mind–is not any different whether one is a libertarian or a determinist. For while determinists believe that there are sufficient conditions which will govern their choices, they do not know at the time when they are making a decision what those determinates are or how they will decide as a result of them. So, like everyone else, they simply have to make up their own minds! The difference between libertarian and determinist likes in the interpretation of the experience of choice, and not in the experience itself.

William Hasker, Metaphysics: Constructing a World View (Downers Grove; IVP, 1983), 37.

If we plug these libertarian definitions of choice into Dan’s prooftexts, that’s perfectly consistent with predestination.

This is a positive case. The king is deliberating about what is possible and asking himself how likely he is to win. Can he win or not with the forces he has on hand?
And that's what deliberation is.  Your asking yourself what's possible and what things would be like if that's what you choose.
We deliberate to figure out what we are able to do.  Those are our alternatives.  We then select one possibility rather than the others.

Two basic problems with this argument:

i) Predestined agents can deliberate. A predestined agent can contemplate hypothetical alternatives. A predestined agent can also select one of the hypotheticals he contemplates.

He’s not selecting a possibility; rather, he’s selecting an idea. His idea of what’s possible.

Indeed, if a predestined agent engages in deliberation, then he was predestined to engage in deliberation. If he selects a hypothetical course of action, then he was predestined to make that selection.

ii) When you deliberate, you imagine you have a range of possibilities at your disposal. This is about ideas rather than possibilities. You have ideas about what’s possible. Imaginary possibilities.

But simply as a matter of common human experience, what we think is possible may often not be possible. An Olympic hopeful may think he can win a gold medal. That doesn’t mean he can. In many cases, that’s not a realistic option. Many things are conceivable that aren’t live possibilities.

After choosing, we believe we could have chosen otherwise.

Really? Here’s how one philosopher describes that process in retrospect:

The first reason is that when we are making a choice our faces are always turned toward the future, toward the consequences that one act or the other will bring us, never toward the past with its possible sources of constraint. Hence these sources are not noticed. Hence we remain unaware that we are under constraint at all. Hence we feel free from such constraint. The case is almost as simple as that. When you consider buying a new typewriter your thought is fixed on the pleasure and advantage you would gain from it, or the drain it would make on your budget. You are not delving into the causes that led to your taking pleasure in the prospect of owning a typewriter or to your having a complex about expenditure. You are too much preoccupied with the ends to which the choice would be a means to give any attention to the causes of which your choice may be an effect. But that is no reason for thinking that if you did preoccupy yourself with these causes you would not find them at work. You may remember that Sir Francis Galton was so much impressed with this possibility that for some time he kept account in a notebook of the occasions on which he made important choices with a full measure of this feeling of freedom; then shortly after each choice he turned his eye backward in search of constraints that might have been acting on him stealthily. He found it so easy to bring such constraining factors to light that he surrendered to the determinist view (p21).

Back to Dan:

The passage [Deut 30:14-19] lays out the alternatives for us – blessings and curses, life and death. It talks about our ability – verse 14 says so that you can do it. And then we have the exhortation to choose life.

Several problems with Dan’s appeal:

i) He’s overinterpreting the Hebrew verb in v14. To my knowledge, the imperfect verb has many shades of meaning, viz. may, might, should, could, would.

ii) In context, the passage is stating the accessibility and intelligibility of God’s law.

iii) The passage isn’t just about “choosing.” Rather, the passage contains hypothetical syllogisms. If you do x, then y will result–but if you don’t do x, then z will result.

But this is perfectly compatible with predestination. If a predestined agent obeys the law, then he will be blessed–but if he disobeys the law, then he will be cursed.

The passage isn’t merely about choice, but about the hypothetical consequences of hypothetical choices. It concerns the link between the protasis or antecedent (“if”) and the apodosis or consequent (“then”).

That linkage is entirely consistent with predestination. God predestines the choice as well as the end-result.

iv) The passage isn’t confined to individual blessing and bane, but primarily concerned with collective blessing and bane. If Israel obeys, she will be blessed. If Israel disobeys, she will be cursed.

You choose the respective consequences by choosing to obey or disobey. Yet individual Jews don’t control the outcome, for even if a righteous remnant is faithful, the infidelity of the majority will trigger the curse sanctions. Individual Jews lack freedom of opportunity, for even if they choose with a view to be blessed, that can be overridden by the apostate majority. At the corporate level, individuals can’t do otherwise than suffer the consequences. You may choose life, but if the apostate majority chooses death, you will die with your compatriots.

v) The collective dimension also applies to children. They will be blessed or cursed based on what the adults do.

God expected the opposite to happen.  Not only was it possible, God asks what more He could have done [Isa 5:1-4].

i) Dan is quoting a parable, in which the farmer represents God. We must make allowance for the anthropomorphic limitations of the extended metaphor.

ii) Even if we grant Dan’s misinterpretation for the sake of argument, his appeal would only make sense if Dan is an open theist. Yet Dan is a Molinist. At least he used to be.

Does the Molinist God not know what happens in the possible world he instantiates? Does the Molinist God instantiate a possible world, only to discover after the fact, much to his chagrin, that what actually transpired was the opposite of what he expected to occur?

I thought that according to Molinism, God selects one possible world over another because he prefers the overall balance of one possible world rather than another. But how can that be if he’s caught off guard?

Paul's statement [1 Cor 10:13] on God's faithfulness is in light of what some Jews did, such as grumble in the dessert.  Not all the Isrealites fell into sin, but many did, even though God always provides His people with an exit path. That God does not allow unbearable temptations is a reflection on His faithfulness.   The implication for Paul's audience and for you, dear Christian, is that every time you go through a temptation, God gives you the ability not to succumb.  Sadly we sometimes do give in to temptation, even though we are able to do otherwise.

i) In context, the passage isn’t dealing with temptation in general, but idolatrous apostasy in particular. That’s been documented by standard commentators, viz. Fitzmyer, Garland, Ciampa/Rosner.

ii) Freedom to do otherwise is inconsistent with Arminians who believe in God’s simple foreknowledge.

iii) Freedom to do otherwise in the actual world is also inconsistent with Dan’s commitment to Molinism. Freedom to do otherwise involves a contrast between two (or more) possible worlds, or between the actual world and one (or more) possible worlds.

It’s freedom between worlds, not freedom within a given world.

When God instantiates a possible world, that actualizes one set of possibilities to the exclusion of other possibilities. That’s the logic of Molinism.

iv) Incidentally, Calvinism doesn’t have a problem with alternate possibilities or possible worlds. But that’s a measure of divine freedom, divine power:

The Jews had eyes but don’t see and ears but don’t hear [Ezk 12:2] meaning they have abilities they don’t use and God holds us accountable when we don't use the abilities He gave us for Him!

Calvinism doesn’t deny that fallen men have eyes to see and ears to hear. They see and hear, but they fail to perceive or respond appropriately. According to scripture, God hardens unbelievers, yet holds them accountable (cf. Isa 6:9-10). 

Fearfully and wonderfully made

After a sperm fertilizes an egg, a zygote is formed:

Down syndrome tests

I thought some might be interested in how doctors test for whether a pregnant mother has a kid with "chromosomal abnormalities." Of course, the allusion here is primarily but not solely to a child with Down syndrome (e.g. doctors can also look for other things like anencephaly or spina bifida).

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Death Of The Apostles

This post is an index to some of my material on the death of the apostles. The index will be updated as I write more on the subject.

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles

Part 1: Preliminaries
Part 2: More Preliminaries
Part 3: James And John, Sons Of Zebedee, And James, The Brother Of Jesus
Part 4: Paul And Peter
Part 5: Larger Groups Of Apostles, The Reception Of The Sources, And Conclusion

Ancient Non-Christian Sources On The Death Of The Apostles

Ancient Non-Christian Sources On The Death Of The Apostles
The McDowell/Humphreys Debate On Apostolic Martyrdom

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 5)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

Larger Groups Of Apostles

I've been citing passages in which the apostles and their contemporaries discuss the death of one or two apostles. I now want to turn to passages in which they address the death of a larger number of apostles together.

Living for God

I’m going to comment on this article:

Craig never defends his claim that nothing temporary has significance or its implication that all temporary things are equally insignificant. He only repeats it, many times, as if it should be obvious. But is it true that nothing temporary has significance?

Has Craig argued that nothing temporary has significance? Or has he argued that human life lacks significance if we pass into oblivion? I don’t see why Craig’s contention wouldn't be true unless it's a special case of a general claim about all temporary things. That would only follow if human lives are analogous to everything else. For instance, a human being is not a falling leaf.

Think about great music or drama. Does a world-class performance of Tosca or King Lear lack significance just because it lasts only a few hours? Would it have more significance if it never ended? Hardly. Its significance in fact depends on its having a finite arc; it would lose its significance and become unbearably tedious if it went on forever. Nor does its finite length make it just as insignificant as an equally long nap. Clearly, then, we need a better measure of significance than mere duration.

That comparison is simplistic. What if, an hour after the performance, the audience suffered collective amnesia. No one remembered the performance. What’s the point of a world-class performance of Tosca or King Lear if it’s instantly forgotten?

There’s a reason we invented recording technology. We think it’s a waste if a great performance comes and goes without a trace. We try to preserve the past.

Likewise, we record (or photograph) things because we often want to hear or see the same thing more than once.

We know that people often try to make their lives significant by seeking purposes “greater than themselves.”...This version of the argument starts with the question “What’s so great about feeding starving children?” An answer comes pretty easily: “It relieves suffering by innocents and gives them a chance to flourish.” But notice that we can use our imagination to “step back” from that answer: imagine looking at Earth from a billion miles away or looking back from a billion years in the future. Having stepped back, we can ask: “What is (or was) so great about doing that?” Step back far enough and any purpose can begin to look small and trivial in the vastness of time and space. It’s a familiar enough idea that you can make something look insignificant, or even reveal its true insignificance, by stepping back from it. Think of parents who try to convince their tearful child that an embarrassing incident at school isn’t really a reason to stop living.
The argument exploits our ability to take the long view—to occupy a standpoint that makes any purpose questionable, no matter how significant it seems: Why bother pursuing that purpose? It’s not hard to get going down this path, as we’ve seen, and soon we may find ourselves seeking a purpose that transcends the limits of our earthly existence. “Our lives can’t have significance,” we may conclude, “unless their significance goes beyond our time on Earth.”

Several problems with Maitzen’s objection:

i) It isn’t clear how Maitzen went from ultimate significance to greatness. Something doesn’t have to be great to be good or worthwhile.

ii) Doing something “greater than ourselves” is a way of saying it serves a larger purpose. “Greater,” not in the sense of excellence, but teleology. What makes it important is that it’s part of something important. It contributes to something beyond itself. A part/whole, means/ends relation.

iii) Maitzen overlooks the asymmetry between a secular outlook and a Christian outlook at this juncture. From his atheistic standpoint, taking the long-range view of any particular event dilutes the significance of that event: “Step back far enough and any purpose can begin to look small and trivial in the vastness of time and space.”

But it’s just the opposite from a Christian standpoint: Because our little lives are purposeful in the great scheme of things, the long-range view enhances rather than diminishes the significance of our tiny lives and deeds. Even the lives of the damned are significance.

From a Calvinistic perspective, every life is special, for God wrote the story of everybody’s life. He wrote the story of your life. And my life. Customized. A unique narrative for each and every life. God planned every experience you have, down to the last detail.

And each life-story is part of a larger story. Interlocking stories. Synchronic and diachronic stories.

The smallness of our lives doesn’t make them insignificant. There can be meaning in miniature. God made us small. That’s good.

God’s story for the world is like the Mandelbrot set. There are lower scales of meaning as well as higher scales of meaning. Microscopic meaning as well as macroscopic meaning. Just what happens in one place on one day is packed with meaning. Higher resolution discloses ever more detail.

You can’t put an end to those pesky questions, no matter what you do. Any purpose that we can begin to understand, we can step back from and question. Consider what theistic religions offer as God’s actual purpose for our lives: glorifying him and enjoying his presence forever. Surely we can ask—I hereby do ask—“What’s so great about that?”

i) Even if it weren’t “so great,” something doesn’t have to be the greatest to be significant.

ii) If we were made to glorify God, if our fulfillment lies in doing what we were designed to do, then that’s significant.

For instance, a homosexual is physically and emotionally frustrated, for he wasn’t designed to find sexual fulfillment in another man.

Now, my opponent might offer this proposal: “Sure, we’d be disappointed to discover that we’re mere CO2 factories, so that can’t be our ultimate purpose. But if God had made us merely to produce CO2, then we’d find that purpose satisfying and would feel no inclination to question it. God adjusts our intellects and aspirations to fit the purpose he gives us.” But this reply is just speculation...

i) There’s a sense in which the whole debate is speculative. So what? That’s what philosophers do. Maitzen is a philosophy prof.

ii) But what’s so speculative? If, in fact, we were merely designed to produce CO2, then we’d find that satisfying. Then again, we might lack the intellect to find it either satisfying or dissatisfying. Does a clam find life satisfying? The question is inapplicable.

Conversely, if we find it boring to merely produce CO2, that’s because we were designed to find other things interesting. So Maitzen has postulated a false dilemma.

If we seek an absolute stopping point in our quest for purpose and significance, we’ll inevitably come up empty. Ultimate purpose can’t exist even if God does; it’s a fantasy that shouldn’t draw anyone to theism.

If human nature was designed by a wise Creator, then doing what we were made to do is, indeed, ultimately significant.

That’s hardly analogous to atheism, where men are the incidental byproduct of a mindless amoral process.

What is IVF?

I thought it might be helpful for Christians if I wrote up a brief intro to "IVF" as well as a glossary of various methods fertility doctors use to help women get pregnant.

1. There are various specific methods doctors use to help get women pregnant. IVF is only one of these methods.

2. The umbrella term for all these methods and procedures and technologies which doctors use to help women get pregnant is known as Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART).

3. First, what does it mean to be infertile? One way we can think of infertility is the following. A couple has been trying to have a baby for 12 months or more and can't get pregnant. That's far from a perfect definition but it's a definition with which we can work.

4. Why is a woman infertile? There could be various reasons. Let's categorize them according to the specific anatomical location.

a. A part of the brain controls various hormones which in turn cause a woman pop out an egg every month (give or take) during her menstrual cycle. This is called ovulation. So the first category of problems the woman could have is problems in regulating hormones. If it's a hormonal cause, then doctors will look into giving the woman certain hormones to help her ovulate or regularly ovulate or the like.

b. Next is the woman's ovaries. A woman has two ovaries. Is there something wrong with her ovaries? Think of ovaries as a sort of factory. Ovaries are like a factory for manufacturing eggs. Eggs are released about once per month (the ideal menstrual cycle is 28 days but that's often not reality). If there's a problem with her ovaries, then the doctors will try to fix her ovaries. For example, one problem could be that her ovaries are full of cysts everywhere which interfere with the production of eggs.

c. After the ovaries, we have the uterine tubes aka the Fallopian tubes. This is like a highway which transports the egg from the ovaries to its next destination, the uterus or womb. Is there something wrong with the Fallopian tubes? Maybe the woman has had a sexually transmitted infection that has somehow damaged her Fallopian tubes. Maybe her Fallopian tubes are blocked in some way.

d. Finally, the woman might have other problems such as genetic abnormalities or immunological disorders.

5. But doctors don't look just at the woman. They also look at the man who is her sexual partner. Men's reproductive problems can be divided into a few categories as well.

a. Testes. This is where men produce sperm. This is the male analogue to a woman's ovaries. It's the factory where sperm is produced. So is there a problem with the testes? Has the man had testicular cancer, for instance? Sperm need a cooler environment in order to thrive. Sperm would start to die off if they were placed in a higher temperature such as the center of the body where it's a couple of degrees hotter. That's one reason why the testes aren't at the core or center of the body like a woman's ovaries are. It's also believed professional cyclists sometimes suffer from poor sperm because of this.

b. Sperm. This is the most common problem in men who are infertile. Something's wrong with their sperm. It could be (i) a low number of sperm. Or it could be (ii) sperm which aren't moving properly or "swimming" very well. Or it could be (iii) the sperm are abnormally shaped (e.g. they have two or three tails rather than one). In fact, even in a perfectly young and healthy male, only approximately 15% of sperm are what we'd consider perfect. Most sperm look funny, function funny, swim slowly, etc. But that's "normal." The problem is when less than 4% of the sperm look funny, function funny, swim slowly, etc.

c. Penis. There could be erectile problems. Men can't get an erection for psychological reasons. Or due to age. Or for other reasons.

d. Finally, men could have problems with their genetics or immune system too. Such as if their immune system is attacking and killing their sperm.

6. Fertility doctors look into other stuff like the past medical and surgical history of the couple trying to conceive, the woman's menstrual history, previous pregnancies (if any), their weight, height, body mass index, past contraception use, vaccinations, sexually transmitted infections, history of smoking, alcohol, drugs, etc. All these things could be important in why a couple isn't able to conceive or get pregnant.

7. Finally, here's an ART glossary:

a. OI. Ovulation Induction. This is stimulating the woman's ovaries in the hopes that the ovaries release eggs. It usually involves hormonal drugs which can be taken orally or injected.

b. IUI. Intra Uterine Insemination. Also known as artificial insemination. This is taking some sperm and using a needle and injecting sperm directly into a woman's uterus or womb so that the sperm can swim up and fertilize her egg.

c. IVF. In Vitro Fertilization. Basically, doctors and scientists collect several eggs from a woman, collect sperm from her man, put the eggs in Petri dishes, put the sperm in the dishes, and wait for sperm to fertilize the eggs. Generally speaking, fertility doctors attempt to collect about nine eggs from the woman and fertilize them to form several embryos. Then they place one of these embryos into the woman. The others are cryogenically stored.

d. ICSI. Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection. This is where doctors and scientists collect an egg from a woman, some sperm from a man, select a single sperm which they think is in the best condition, and inject this sperm directly into the egg so that it fertilizes the egg.

e. SSC. Surgical Sperm Collection. This is where doctors surgically remove sperm from a man's testicles.

8. I've left out a lot of other stuff including the more technical stuff. But this should hopefully serve as a rough guide.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tiessen reviews Against Calvinism

Terry Tiessen has completed a serial review of Roger Olson's Against Calvinism. Here is the final installment:

At the bottom of his post, Dr. Tiessen has given the links to the preceding installments.

I don't always agree with Tiessen. I'm a consistent high Calvinist. However, it's a very thorough and useful review. And even when I disagree with him, Tiessen is always reasonable.

More on Mark

Sola Scriptura and the Burden of Proof

Judicial persecution

Schools ban children making best friends

Secular sentimentality

I’m going to comment on this article:

We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket.  Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.

She fails to explain how moral obligations are generated by the vulnerabilities of sentient beings.

For instance, both the serial killer and his victim are vulnerable sentient beings. Do both have equal value? Are both entitled to equal treatment?

This view of the basis of morality is hardly incompatible with religious belief.  Indeed, anyone who believes that God made human beings in His image believes something like this — that there is a moral dimension of things, and that it is in our ability to apprehend it that we resemble the divine.  Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things.  Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic.

i) That’s a false dichotomy. Take a da Vinci painting. Because da Vinci was an artistic and scientific genius, his painting is a concrete expression of his genius. The painting has inherent value, but that’s because da Vinci transmitted some of his genius to the painting. The value of the painting is still derivative.

ii) Creatures aren’t valuable merely because God prefers them, but because God made them. God made morally valuable creatures. That’s a design feature of certain creatures.

It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship.  It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.
Let me explain why.  First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God.  Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:
•            It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
•            It is wrong to enslave people.
•            It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
•            Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required to try to stop it.
To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

Notice that she’s assuming what she needs to prove. She’s hardly entitled to take that as a given, then premise her argument on that gratuitous assumption. 

Think now about our personal relations — how we love our parents, our children, our life partners, our friends.  To say that the moral worth of these individuals depends on the existence of God is to say that these people are, in themselves, worth nothing — that the concern we feel for their well being has no more ethical significance than the concern some people feel for their boats or their cars.  It is to say that the historical connections we value, the traits of character and personality that we love — all count for nothing in themselves.  Other people warrant our concern only because they are valued by someone else — in this case, God.  (Imagine telling a child: “You are not inherently lovable.  I love you only because I love your father, and it is my duty to love anything he loves.”)

i) But we don’t have equal concern for everyone. We don’t value everyone equally. Louise Antony surely values her own kids more highly than someone else’s kids. She surely has more concern for the wellbeing of her own friends than she has for perfect strangers.

Or, to put it crassly, a mother and a serial killer don’t place the same value on the mother’s daughter.

ii) Abortion proponents don’t ascribe inherent worth to their babies.

iii) Actually, there is something to be said for valuing someone because they are valued by someone else. Take a son who introduces his friends to his father. Because of what the son means to his father, the father befriends the friends of his sons. He values them because he values his son, and they are valued by his son.

What could make anyone think such things?  Ironically, I think the answer is: the same picture of morality that lies behind atheistic nihilism.  It’s the view that the only kind of “obligation” there could possibly be is the kind that is disciplined by promise of reward or threat of punishment. 

But that’s a typical atheistic caricature of Christian morality. Threats and rewards function as incentives or disincentives. They’re not the basis of morality.

Such a view cannot find or comprehend any value inherent in the nature of things, value that could warrant particular attitudes and behavior on the part of anyone who can apprehend it. 

Notice how she keeps begging the question. Yet that’s the very issue in dispute.

For someone who thinks that another being’s pain is not in itself a reason to give aid, or that the welfare of a loved one is not on its own enough to justify sacrifice, it is only the Divine Sovereign that stands between us and — as Hobbes put it — the war of “all against all.”

i) She has yet to establish how that in itself is a reason to give aid. Suppose a suicide bomber is hurting. Is that a compelling reason for me to come to his aid?

ii) On a secular basis, why is the welfare of a loved one enough to justify sacrifice? That has emotional appeal, but how is that objectively obligatory? For one thing, your loved ones aren’t my loved ones. Why should I sacrifice for your loved ones? Or is she admitting that it’s relative after all?

D.C.T. says that it is God’s command that explains why the good acts are “good” — it becomes true merely by definition that God commands “good” actions...This makes for really appalling consequences, from an intuitive, moral point of view.  D.C.T. entails that anything at all could be “good” or “right” or “wrong.”  If God were to command you to eat your children, then it would be “right” to eat your children.  The consequences are also appalling from a religious point of view.

i) That’s a straw man. There’s no reason to reduce Christian ethics to voluntarism. To some extent, moral obligations correspond to the nature God gave us. For instance, lions will kill the cubs of a rival lion. That doesn’t give me the right to kill the offspring of another man. For I’m not a lion. What’s permissible for lions isn’t ipso facto permissible for humans, given natural differences. And that, in turn, is grounded in how God designed different creatures.

ii) There is also the fact that, in varying degrees, creatures exemplify the goodness of their Creator. Like the relation of a painting to a painter. They reflect the wisdom of their designer.

If “good” is to have normative force, it must be something that we can understand independently of what is commanded by a powerful omnipresent being.

That confuses the ontology of ethics with the epistemology of ethics.

So what about atheism?  What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs.  The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms.  You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.

She hasn’t shown that there are any ethically significant aspects of life to respond to. You’d expect a secular ethicist to begin her article by making a case for secular ethics, then compare and contrast that to Christian ethics (or Jewish ethics, or what have you). But she never does. Instead, she cites some emotionally appealing examples of what she takes to be paradigm-cases of morality or immorality. But that’s just sentimental. 

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 4)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

Paul And Peter

There's a lot of overlap in the material on Paul and Peter, so I'm addressing them together.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Atheists don’t own reason

Artistic interpretations of Christ

When artists depict scenes in the life of Christ, this is a theological interpretation–no less so than a creed, hymn, or sermon.

History, Theology and the Biblical Canon

Upon this stonewall I will build my church

Leading Obama critic named archbishop of Baltimore

Tuesday, March 20, 2012
(03-20) 09:55 PDT BALTIMORE (AP) --
The leading voice of Roman Catholic bishops opposing a contraception mandate in the Obama administration's health care law was named Tuesday as the 16th archbishop of Baltimore, the nation's first diocese.
Bishop William E. Lori, 60, comes from the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., and has testified before Congress several times in the past few months on a proposed measure to make religious employers cover contraception for their employees. 
Lori has also served on a national committee to respond to the church's sexual abuse crisis and fought the release of sealed court documents generated by lawsuits alleging abuse by priests in Connecticut.
The Supreme Court refused to block the release of the documents after newspapers sued to get access to them, arguing they could shed light on how retired New York Cardinal Edward Egan handled the allegations when he was Bridgeport bishop.
Lori said at the time that he was disappointed with the decision. The diocese had argued unsuccessfully that the documents were subject to religious privileges under the First Amendment and Lori said details of the abuse were made public years earlier.

Making the grade

I have a couple of problems with how grading is traditionally done in education. One is the whole notion of a grade spread from, say, A to D. Shouldn’t the pass/fail cutoff come higher?

The implication of a wide grade spread is that teachers are teaching unnecessary material. Teaching more than students need to know. After all, if you can get a lot of questions wrong, but still pass, then, by implication, you don’t really need to know the stuff you got wrong.

Yet surely it’s important (depending on the course) for students to get some things right, and not just randomly. To take an extreme example, imagine a surgeon who could identify 5 out of 6 vital organs. Would you want him operating on you? Does he need to know all 6 vital organs? Likewise, there are several core problems that an automechanic needs to know how to diagnose and repair. What if an automechanic knew everything about a car except how to identify or fix faulty brakes?

Shouldn’t exams focus on mastering the essentials? If you can get a number of questions wrong, but still pass, or even get a high score, doesn’t that mean the exam is padded with unnecessary questions? Isn’t it better to keep taking the same test until you master the essentials?

I also have a beef with curve grading. If teachers didn’t grade on a curve, then even though cheaters would still have an unfair advantage, they wouldn’t push the grade down for honest students.

But when teachers grade on a curve, that averages the scores, so the grade distribution penalizes honest students. The grader totals the scores, then divides by the number of students. This means students aren’t graded on their independent performance. Rather, it’s a comparative grade. You’re graded relative to other students. 

Every time the same test is given, there’s a different grade distribution. You could get the same questions right or wrong, yet you’d receive a different grade each time you took the same test. Isn’t that arbitrary?

And the cheaters effectively downgrade the honest students, because their scores skew the grade cutoff (from A+ to A to A- to B+ to B to B-, &c.), since curve grading centers on a mean score. The high scorers depress the grade distribution for the lower scorers. When you throw cheaters into the mix, who score high through cheating, they win by making other students lose.

Early Sources On The Death Of The Apostles (Part 3)

(Previous parts in this series: part 1, part 2.)

James And John, Sons Of Zebedee

Since there's so much overlap in the material on James and John, I'm treating them together.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Coptic “Pope” Dies at Age 88

You may have seen this story floating around the Internets:

Shenouda, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church [in] Alexandria who led Egypt's minority Christians for 40 years during a time of increased tensions with the majority Muslim community, died yesterday in Cairo. He was 88. Shenouda, known in Cairo in Arabic as Baba Shenouda, led one of the world's oldest churches, which traced its founding to St. Mark in the 1st century. Shenouda suffered from the effects of cancer and died of a heart attack yesterday afternoon.

Coptic Christians trace their roots to the flight to Egypt by Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.

There was a time when there were several “popes” in the church, and the church in Alexandria, Egypt had one of them. The Coptic Church was formed as a result of the first significant schism of one of the earliest “Apostolic Sees” (Alexandria, in Egypt; the other two being Antioch and Rome, prior to the “development” of “the Pentarchy” as it was adopted in the fifth century). The historian Samuel Hugh Moffett records it this way (“A History of Christianity in Asia” Vol 1, 2nd ed Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, ©1998):

Constantinople in the last half of the fifth century was, in effect, ruled by Germans and Isaurians, not by the imperial aristocracy, and Alexandria felt culturally and politically as well as theologically superior to such barbarians. When Chalcedon (451 A.D.) humiliated and deposed the Egyptian patriarch Dioscurus and forced a Byzantine Chalcedonian patriarch, Proterius (452-457), onto the throne of the great Cyril [of Alexandria], Egypt exploded, resulting in the first permanent schism of the Christian church. The Egyptian Monophysites elected a rival partriarch, Timothy Aelurus, nicknamed Timothy the Cat. This rupture marks the establishment of the Egyptian church as a separate, independent entity commonly called the Coptic church, since “Coptic” is the ancient Greek word for “Egyptian.” In 457, the year that Hiba of Edessa died and was succeeded by a Monophysite, mobs of Egyptians took to the streets of Alexandria, cornered the orthodox patriarch Proterius in a church, killed him, and burned his bloody body in triumph (pg 190).

There was a lot of that sort of thing going on back then.