Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent and the Agency of Mary

So SEA plugs this article:

If you read it, what Jamie says is interchangeable with what Roman Catholics say about Mary's "fiat". 

Also, did you catch what she says about God "affirming and respecting the agency women should have over their own bodies." What's her position on abortion? 

City on the edge of forever

To set the stage, let's begin with a definition: 

Skeptical theism is the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.  In particular, says the skeptical theist, we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom. 
If skeptical theism is true, it appears to undercut the primary argument for atheism, namely the argument from evil.  This is because skeptical theism provides a reason to be skeptical of a crucial premise in the argument from evil, namely the premise that asserts that at least some of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  If we are not in a position to tell whether God has a reason for allowing any particular instance of evil, then we are not in a position to judge whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous.  And if we cannot tell whether any of the evils in our world are gratuitous, then we cannot appeal to the existence of gratuitous evil to conclude that God does not exist.

Now let's quote an atheist:

Jason Thibodeau 
We make judgements about the value of things; i.e., that something is good or that it is bad. And we make judgements about the relative value of pairs of things or groups of things; that one thing is better (or worse) than something else. 
In this case, I don't see how we can believe that the suffering of a child who is dying of leukemia can be either good or necessary for some greater purpose; a purpose which, incidentally, is unknown to us. One of the judgments that we make is that each human life is of infinite value. What greater purpose could the suffering and death of a child be necessary for the realization of? Our conviction that such suffering would be a tragedy is a manifestation of our judgement that it serves no greater purpose.  
Suppose such judgments are by and large accurate. When we judge that suffering is bad, we are correct; when we say that happiness is good, we are correct. When we judge that the loss of a life is worse than the loss of a wedding ring, we are correct. 
Suppose, on the other hand, that such judgements are not, by and large, accurate. When we judge that something is bad, we are often wrong; when we judge that something is good, we are often wrong. This might be true because there are valuable things the existence and magnitude of which we are ignorant. The existence of such valuable things might provide God with morally sufficient reasons to allow the occurrence of things that we judge to be horrors (such as a child dying of leukemia). But if this is true, then obviously we cannot trust our judgements about which things are good and which are bad and which things are better or worse than other things. It follows that, for all we would know, the death and suffering of children is good. For all we would know, war is good. For all we would know, famine is good.

This goes awry in so many different ways:

i) There's absolutely no basis in secularism for the claim that "each human life is of infinite value". For that matter, I don't think that's true from a Christian perspective, either. You can say each human life is valuable without saying each human life is infinitely valuable. What does that even mean? Moreover, what's wrong with saying some lives are less valuable than others? What about the possibility that some people devalue their lives through their misconduct? Take serial killers. 

ii) On the one hand, Thibodeau says "When we judge that the loss of a life is worse than the loss of a wedding ring, we are correct." On the other hand, he said "we make judgements about the relative value of groups of things; that one thing is better (or worse) than something else." Notice that his denial is inconsistent with his prefatory observation. It's not, in the first instance, a question of comparing a lost life with a lost wedding ring, but by his own admission, making comparative judgments about "groups of things." Not an isolated comparison between a life and a ring, but comparing the connected goods and evils between different chains of events. Sure, taken by itself, a wedding ring may be of trivial value compared to a human life, but what other things are linked to the respective chains of events? 

iii) And while, in general, a human life is more valuable than a wedding ring, some people can forfeit their prima facie right to life. Take serial killers. 

iv) Likewise, it can be simplistic to say something is either good or evil. Sometimes that's a false dichotomy. Once again, we need to distinguish between discrete events and chains of events. A child dying of cancer is generally evil in and of itself. I say "generally" because, if the child is Stalin, we might judge that differently. 

However, something evil can be a source of something good. But the fact that it produces a second-order good doesn't make the evil good. Rather, it means we're assessing the good of the whole as well as the good (or evil) of the parts. It's not merely an atomistic assessment of each particular incident, but judging the package. The package may have goods while some individual elements are evil. And some of those goods may be contingent on some of those evils. So you're rendering a collective judgment. 

And a collective judgment can be a qualified judgment. The resultant goods don't make the evils good. But it isn't just evil. Rather it's a combination of goods and evils. And their interdependent. You don't say it's better than it is. But it has an overall value that's distinct from the individual elements. 

Take marriage. Even in good marriages, bad things happen. Couples say and do inconsiderate things. But that doesn't mean it can't be a good marriage. 

v) We can judge a bad thing to be bad in itself. But our judgment may be shortsighted if what's bad leads to a future good, of which we're ignorant. It's possible to have trustworthy judgments about the present qua present, but have untrustworthy judgments about the future in relation to the present. 

vi) By the same token, retrospective judgments can be very different from how we viewed events at the time. Take people whose plans fall through. At the time, that may seem to be disastrous. But in some cases, looking back on the incident 10 years later, they realize that it would have been disastrous if their plans hadn't fallen through. 

vii) Thibodeau asserts that "Our conviction that such suffering would be a tragedy is a manifestation of our judgement that it serves no greater purpose." But that's a non sequitur. An incident can be tragic for some people, but benefit others. 

viii) There's nothing esoteric about the notion that, for all we know, something which seems to have no redeeming value at present may generate unforeseen goods in the future. It's not unique to theodicy or skeptical theism to point out that because we're in the dark about future consequences, we lack the necessary perspective to predict and assess what good may come of some event. It isn't special pleading for a Christian apologist to make that observation, for that's a general truth. 

ix) Take a famous episode from Star Trek: "The City on the Edge of Forever". In that episode, the Enterprise investigates a planet that's emitting time waves. One wave rocks the ship, causing Dr. McCoy to accidentally inject himself, making him psychotic. He beams down to the planet, with Spock and Kirk in hot pursuit. But they fail to intercept him before he steps into a time portal. At that point they lose contact with the Enterprise, because McCoy did something in the past that erased the timeline from which they came. So they step into the time portal, and come out the other end in New York City, during the Depression. They must figure out what McCoy did to change the future, and prevent it, to restore the original timeline. 

They go to a soup kitchen and befriend a pretty, idealistic social worker. Tweaking his tricorder, Spock discovers that in the future, she will lead a pacifist movement which will keep the US out of WWII, resulting in the Nazi conquest of the world. In the original timeline, she died before that happened. So they must prevent McCoy from saving her life, to avert that dire outcome, and restore the original timeline. 

When Kirk sees that she's about to be run over, not only does he not intervene to stop it, but he prevents McCoy from intervening to stop it. To an onlooker, his behavior is unconscionable. She was an admirable woman. What possible justification could there be for letting her die in a traffic accident? To McCoy, Kirk's behavior is inexcusable. But the audience knows something McCoy doesn't.  

x) In attempting to save her life, McCoy did the right thing, given the information available to him. In refusing to save her life, Kirk did the right thing, given the information available to him. McCoy acted on his prima facie duty, but that was morally overridden by Kirk's superior viewpoint. 

That principle isn't distinctive to theodicy or skeptical theism. In making morally responsible decisions, we must often take into account the impact of our actions. That interjects an element of uncertainty into decision-making, for the future is unpredictable to some degree, and increasingly unpredictable the further it proceeds. 

This doesn't mean results are the sole consideration in decision-making. But it's often a morally salient consideration. 

xi) Some time-travel scenarios may seem to be fatalistic. Was it McCoy's temporal incursion that changed the timeline, or was it the temporal incursion of Spock and Kirk that changed the timeline? Should they do something or nothing? If they follow him into the past, is that what changes the past? What if their effort to rectify the problem is the very thing that instigates the problem in the first place? (In the actual episode, that's made clear, but it's easy to imagine a variation in which it's not.)

If they don't know in advance, they must make their decision based on the information at hand. In the nature of the case, we can't take unknown variables into consideration. So that doesn't figure in our deliberations. 

That's analogous to the duties of human agents. By contrast, God has the entire context in view. In that respect, what's right for God might be wrong for you and me, or vice versa. 

xii) In addition, because God isn't human, he can do some things that might be morally or psychological harmful if humans did it. Suppose a house burglar breaks into my home. I shoot him in self-defense. I can live with that.

By contrast, suppose my teenage son, through no fault of his own, is prone to psychotic episodes. During one of these, he comes at me with a butcher knife. Suppose I'm armed. I could shoot him in self-defense, but I can't bring myself to risk killing my son. I could never live with myself if that happened. So I take the risk of being killed rather than taking the risk of killing him.

Suppose, though, I have a friend with me who's armed. He shoots him instead. Because my friend doesn't have the same emotional investment in my son that I have, he can do something I can't face up to in that situation. 

To Appreciate Christmas, Read The Quran

I want to expand on Steve's recent post about competing miracle claims. One way to falsify the ridiculous skeptical suggestion that Christianity's miracles aren't significantly different than the competing miracles of other belief systems is to set Christianity next to each of its primary competitors, one-by-one, and see how they contrast. Islam, the second largest religion in the world and, in that sense, Christianity's biggest competitor, provides a good illustration. Contrast Jesus' credentials to the lack of credentials for Muhammad. Contrast Biblical prophecy to the Quran's lack of anything comparable and the pathetic nature of Islam's attempts to come up with something comparable. Contrast Muhammad's credibility problems to the credibility of early Christian leaders like Paul and James (former opponents who converted upon eyewitnessing the resurrected Christ and died as martyrs) and Luke (a demonstrably reliable historian who goes into a lot of historical detail in his writings). Contrast the vagueness and lack of historical context, names of individuals, place names, etc. in the Quran to the large amount of such details in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, and other Biblical documents. And so on. The idea that the credibility of Christianity and that of Islam are comparable is absurd. The claim that the two are comparable undermines the credibility of the person making the claim.

I referred to how large Christianity and Islam are. Their size doesn't, by itself, prove that either is true. But it is a significant factor that should be taken into account. The fact that Christianity is the largest religious movement in the history of the world gives it a lot of plausibility as a candidate for a Divinely-revealed religion, more than any of its competitors. The vast majority of Christianity's competitors down through the centuries either don't exist any longer or are far smaller. The largeness of Christianity takes on even more significance when you consider how the religion's growth was so unlikely and fulfills some unusual prophecies. I wrote about this subject several years ago in a couple of posts at Christmastime (here and here). The opening of Isaiah's Suffering Servant prophecy (52:13-5) is especially striking. You wouldn't expect a Jewish Messiah to initially be rejected by most of the Jewish people, then become widely accepted among Gentiles, including Gentile rulers. (For more about the Suffering Servant prophecy in general, see here. Not only is Jesus' rejection by the Jewish people and influence on the Gentile world beyond reasonable dispute and something that continues to unfold in modern times, but other aspects of Jesus' life that fulfill the prophecy are also highly evidenced: his crucifixion, the earliness of the belief that his death was intended to make atonement for the sins of others, etc. Isaiah's prophecy is detailed enough to single out Jesus among the billions of people who have lived throughout history.)

You'll have a greater appreciation of Jesus and his prophecy fulfillments at the time of his birth and his other miracles if you contrast them to what we see in Islam and other competitors. The large majority of those competitors are on the ash heap of history while Jesus grows increasingly "great to the ends of the earth" (Micah 5:4).

Friday, December 23, 2016

Quest for the historical hobgoblin

Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of witches or hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his inquiries. J. Y. T. Greig, ed. The Letters of David Hume (Oxford, 2011), 1:350.

Clearly there's something right about this statement. The insinuation, however, is that Christian apologists have a double standard. Why their selective, one-sided fixation on Christianity, while ignoring so many other candidates? This raises a number of issues:

i) As a matter of fact, Christian apologists do evaluate rivals to Christianity, or orthodox Christianity. They evaluate Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the cults. Protestant apologists evaluate Catholicism. And so on.

ii) The issue is by no means unique to religious claims. It's true regarding factual claims generally. Historians and biographers wrestle with competing interpretations. Why did Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis really break up? Suppose I don't care. Conversely, suppose I do care about the medical options for an ailing relative? Is it arbitrary for me to be more interested in nailing down some factual claims rather than others? Hardly. 

iii) Apropos (ii), is it incumbent on me to have an informed opinion about the Loch Ness monster, or whether extraterrestrials have made contact with earthlings? What difference does it make to my life whether or not the Loch Ness monster exists?

Likewise, suppose extraterrestrials have made contact with earthlings, but I don't believe it. My disbelief has no impact on their behavior. They will continue to do whatever they are doing regardless of my belief or disbelief in their existence. Even if they exist, everything happens in my life the same way as if they don't exist. Unless and until they take control, the status quo is indistinguishable from their nonexistence. 

However, the same can't be said for Christianity. For one thing, there's the Christian doctrine of the afterlife. If Christianity is true, then my beliefs and behavior do matter in the long run. 

iv) There's a difference between examining evidence for a general kind of thing, and evidence for any particular candidate. There's a difference between establishing the category of the supernatural, and proving or disproving the existence of each and every candidate. 

v) Apropos (iii), I don't have to run through a list, proving or disproving every particular candidate, to prove the reality of the supernatural. A few good examples will suffice. And that's a very significant finding. A world in which supernatural events and entities of any kind exist is a very different kind of world than naturalism.

vi) In attempting to prove or disprove the general proposition, it's by no means arbitrary to confine myself to the best-attested candidates. And that starting-point is scarcely confined to religious claims. To establish the existence of a supernatural realm, it's only rational to consider candidates with the best evidence. And do the same thing were I attempting to confirm the exists of a rare animal. I'd begin with credible sightings. 

vii) It isn't always necessary to directly disprove a claim to successfully disprove it. For instance, there's direct evidence that Newtonian physics is false. But even apart from that, if there's direct evidence that Relativity is true, and if the concepts of time and space in Relativity are incompatible with the concepts of time and space in Newtonian physics, then that indirectly falsifies Newtonian physics.

By the same token, if Christianity is true, then that at one stroke falsifies Islam and paganism. It isn't necessary to independently disprove the existence of every heathen god and goddess, for if their existence is incompatible with Christian theism, then demonstrating Christian theism ipso facto eliminates any and all contrary contenders. 

Hidden in Plain View


You think that my denial of Sweden is an actual claim of some kind, that it's a belief. But it isn't. It's a non-belief. There's nothing I need to explain–rather, I'm talking about something I lack, namely a belief in Sweden, so I don't need to give any evidence for it.

I don't have to provide evidence for my non-belief in Atlantis, El Dorado, Shangri-La, or the Customer Support Department at American Airlines, and nor need I for my non-belief in Sweden. I'm not making a claim of any kind–in fact, just the opposite: I'm claiming nothing. I'm merely rejecting one your  beliefs, your belief in Sweden. Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn't Exist (Monarch Books, 2015), 31-32.

Carols from Coventry

Is it wrong for Christians to celebrate Christmas?

Some professing Christians say it's wrong to celebrate Christmas due to it's supposedly a pagan roots. Others say it's wrong due to its Catholic associations.

Putting aside the dubious historical claims, it's odd that some professing Christians think pagans should have a permanent lock on certain days of the calendar. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that date of Christians was originally the date of a pagan holiday. How does it follow that Christians are not allowed to reclaim that day for Jesus? Are we not free to celebrate Jesus on days that used to be pagan festivals? Doesn't Jesus supersede heathenism? Doesn't Jesus have the right to supplant paganism? 

Same thing with the Catholic background. If the church of Rome has traditional holidays, does that mean those days are forever off-limits to evangelical worshipers? Who said those days are reserved for Roman Catholics? Aren't all days God's days? Doesn't time ultimately belong to God? 

If members of a false religion have traditional holidays, aren't they squatters? Is it not the Christian prerogative to take back what they purloined? Let's recover the calendar for Jesus. Everyday is a fit day to worship God. Let's redeem what usurpers defrauded. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

When should we thank God?

Justin Schieber
When somebody thanks God for helping them find their keys they betray their belief in a God with some profoundly misaligned priorities. 
Jason Thibodeau 
But it is ridiculous to think that God is going to go out of his way to help someone find a wedding band when he won't go out of his way to save children from bombs.

Both Schieber and Thibodeau are atheists. In a broken clock moment, Randal Rauser said some worthwhile things in reply to Schieber:

I'd like to make a few additional points. 

i) This raises the significant question of what Christians should thank God for. Likewise, it goes to the question of what counts as answered prayer. 

ii) Should we only thank God for big things and never for little things? Only thank God for extraordinary things and never for ordinary things? If that is Schieber's point, then he has no understanding of Christian theology. 

iii) Perhaps his point is that if something is naturally explicable, like finding your keys, then you have no warrant to thank God because you have no reason to believe God enabled you to find your keys. 

Mind you, it may be overly generous to assume that much thought went into Schieber's statement. 

It would be a mistake to base your belief in God on naturally explicable incidents. If finding your keys is consistent with God's nonexistence, you shouldn't base your belief in God on the evidence that God answered a prayer like that. Identifying incidents like that as divine signs can precipitate a crisis of faith, because it's such a thin foundation. 

iv) If, however, you have good reason to believe in God apart from such incidents, then it's proper to interpret such incidents within that larger, preestablished framework. 

v) Assuming that an outcome is consistent with coincidence or answered prayer alike, you should thank God or withhold judgment–since it might be coincidental? 

To begin with, that's a false dichotomy. Even a coincidence is part of God's ordinary providence. It's not as though some events happen randomly while God directs other events. No, God is behind every event. 

The only question would be whether that particular outcome was for your benefit. Is it special providence, or is it an incidental result of God's general providence?

Even that can be a false dichotomy, for God can intend the same chain of events to benefit more than one individual. That link may benefit you, while another link in the chain, may benefit someone else. Even if the entire chain isn't for your benefit, different links can benefit different targets. 

In any event, we can thank God, but with the mental caveat that in ambiguous cases, it might not be an answer to prayer. I thank God for answering my prayer–on condition that it was, indeed, in answer to prayer. "Lord, thank you for that–if you did it for me".  

We don't have to commit ourselves to interpreting an ambiguous case as an answer to prayer. We can make allowance for the possibility that it's just a coincidence. And that's important from an evidentiary standpoint.

Moreover, that's a pious caveat, as it would be presumptuous to be dogmatic when we attempt to discern God's providential aims. We need to be circumspect in that regard.  

Yet we can still express gratitude when things work out according to our needs. 

vi) It's not as if praying for one thing prevents us from praying for another thing. It's not as if giving thanks for one thing prevents us from giving thanks for another thing. Those are not mutually exclusive options. 

vii) Thibodeau's objection is confused. It isn't possible for an omnipotent being to go out of his way. Everything God does is equally effortless for God. 

viii) Thibodeau's underlying objection concerns the old issue of theodicy. In particular, the seemingly random distribution of weal and woe. One problem with that objection is assessing particular incidents in isolation to their place in vast chains of events. Yes, finding or not finding your keys may be trivial comparing to saving or not saving children from bombs. But we need to compare one chain of events with another chain of events. Not just comparing one link in one chain with another link in another chain, but all the links leading up to and away from those respective links. What else is connected to those particular links? And other good things and bad things are linked in different chains of events? 

What goods down further down are linked to evils further up? You can't just remove one link without removing every link thereafter. Each succeeded link is dependent on each preceding link. When goods are eliminated in the process of eliminating an evil? 

And, frankly, it's hard to see how we're in a position to assess that. It's far too complex. We don't know the future, and our knowledge of the past is very spotty. Heck, our knowledge of the present is very spotty. 

Star Trek at 50

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This post is just under the wire. 

I thought the best films with the classic cast were The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country

I liked Generations better than Roger Ebert did. It has some very fine acting by Stewart and Malcolm McDowell. Spiner does some of his best acting as Data. Even Shatner is amusing in the opening scene, as a flabby, curmudgeonly Shatner. 

First Contact was certainly the best entry with the TNG cast. Star Trek (2009) was fine film of its kind. I haven't seen Star Trek Beyond

In general, I don't think TOS was all that good. Roddenberry was a poor storyteller. Among the better episodes are "Balance of Terror," "Journey to Babel," and "Mirror, Mirror." The mimetic and balletic acting of the empath make that eponymously titled episode memorable. Likewise, budgetary constraints made "Spectre of the Gun" unintentionally artistic and impressionistic. 

Shatner is a ham actor, but he has the pushy star power that Jeffrey Hunter lacked. 

I thought TGN was the best of the spinoffs, and generally superior to TOS. Some of the better episodes include "Genesis," "The Inner Light," and "Lessons." 

Stewart is a natural stage actor, so the role is noticeably confining, like he's wearing a suit two sizes too small. It puts a crimp in his style. 

In that respect it was nice to see him in "Chain of Command". A good match-up with another really fine actor (David Warner). 

Moby-Dick was a better vehicle for Stewart's larger-than-life onstage persona. Gives him more room to stretch out. 

Spiner is a limited actor. He was never convincing as an old man (Noonian Soong). However, Data is his signature role. He created the role, and he nails it.

Unlike many Trekkies, I generally like Dr. Pulaski. McFadden and Sirtis were a feast for the eyes. 

Worf was a likable character, but Star Trek producers and screenwriters tried too hard to make him into a warm, lovable Teddy Bear beneath the gruff exterior. 

There were a couple of fun episodes between Worf and his wife K'Ehleyr.

Lieutenant Reginald Barclay was a fun character. He became a recurring character. 

Producers had the wisdom to kill off Tasha Yar. Pity they didn't kill off the insufferably cloying Wesley Crusher while they were at it.

I didn't care for Guinan. She's a variation on the Hippie Hindu/Buddhist sage. But her wisdom is no wiser than the screenwriters.

I admit that in general I don't care for Goldberg. I avoid most of her movies. I did like her in Fatal Beauty–which I once saw when it came on TV years ago. There she's in her element as the street smart, street tough narcotics detective.  

For some Trekkies, DS9 is their favorite series due to its complexity. It has many layers and interwoven storylines compared to other Star Trek series. In general, though, I find it too campy for my liking, and I dropped out before the series ran its course. 

My favorite characters were Odo and Garak. Auberjonois played Odo with mordant wit. At his best in repartee with other characters. 

Garak was shifty and secretive, with some good verbal sparring between himself and Bashir. 

The cynical Kai Winn (Estelle Fletcher) was mildly entertaining, but the character is a Dragon Lady cliché.  

The father/son dynamic between Brooks and Jake is a nice idea on paper, but the actors lack rapport. Seems strained to me. 

I didn't care for Dax. Michelle Forbes was the first choice for Kira, but she turned it down–unfortunately. She would have been so much better in the role than Nana Visitor, who just doesn't do it for me. 

Perhaps, though, the worst part of the show were the Ferengi. The Ferengi are to Star Trek what Ewoks and Jar-Jar Binks are to Star Wars. A mistake that should have been written out of the script after the first draft. Instead, they had a central role in DS9, which singlehandedly makes it nearly unindurable. 

There were some good individual episodes, like "The Visitor". But I bailed on the series long before it ran its course. 

Star Trek: Enterprise was forgettable long before it was gone. 

A new series is slated for next year: Discovery. I wouldn't be surprised if it has gay and transgender characters. 

After TGN, I'd say Voyager was the best series.

"Tuvix" dealt with a moral dilemma. A transporter mishap fused Tuvok and Neelix, creating a new person with the best character traits of Tuvok and Neelix. But the mishap was reversible. Therein lay the dilemma. Tuvok and Neelix died in the mishap. Tuvix was the novel result. The unintended beneficiary of their accidental death. Should he die to restore them to life? Or should they remain dead, as a tragic, but settled event? Leave the past in the past?  

If evil produces a second-order good, should you accept the resultant good, or kill an innocent person to restore the status quo ante? Destroy the present to recreate the past? Either way, there are winners and losers. Someone winning at the cost of someone losing. And not a game, but life or death.  

"Mortal Coil" dealt with loss of faith. Neelix is killed, but restored to life with Borg technology. Talaxians traditionally believe in the afterlife, a belief that Neelix shares, until he dies, to be regenerated 19 hours later. Problem is, he wasn't reunited with his dead relatives when he died. Apparently, he passed into oblivion. That discovery leaves him desolate, not only for himself, but for his dead loved ones. 

"Year of Hell" presented another moral dilemma. An alien time ship erased the crews' own past–including their loves ones. For the past 200 years, the same crew (which is shielded from the passage of time) has labored to keep changing the past until they can restore their own timeline, and loved ones. But they never get it right. There are always unintended consequences.

Another interesting episode was "Barge of the Dead", which explored the Klingon mythology of hell. 

Mulgrew was suitably decisive as captain. Betran was underutilized. 

The Doctor had moments (e.g. "Real Life").

Tuvok, Tom Paris, B'Ealnna Torres, and Harry Kim were cardboard characters played by third-tier TV actors. 

The insipid Kes was mercifully killed off to make way for Seven of Nine. In addition to her hourglass figure, Ryan brought sass to the character, perhaps owing to her experience as an army brat. 

She became the instant star of the show. The male actors were fine with that, but Mulgrew bitterly resented having Ryan usurp her. 

In my admittedly limited observation, I think that reflects a difference between men and women. The entertainment industry is ferociously competitive. Singers and actors vie with each other for the same parts or the same audience. Yet although the men are often professional rivals, they can still be good friends. But from examples I've read, female rivals are more likely to hate each other. 

An Israeli Newspaper Misrepresents The Events Surrounding Jesus' Birth

Over the last few days, I've been writing responses to media stories on Christmas issues. (See the comments section of the thread as well, since I've posted additional material there.) I want to start a new thread for another article that was just published.

Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, has an article by Elon Gilad about the date of Jesus' birth. He writes:

The only record of the life and ministry of Jesus are the four Canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Modern historians take these narratives with a grain of salt when examining historical Jesus, as the authors of these works were clearly more interested in theology than history; they were written quite a bit after the fact; and they contradict one another, themselves and other historic documents in both matters big and small.

Public and private miracles

I think it's useful to distinguish between public and private miracles. That's a rough-cut distinction. There's some overlap. 

i) By public miracles, I mean a miracle that's sufficiently impressive, as well as witnessed by enough people, that it has value in validating a religion. To serve that function, enough people must see it so that it takes on a legendary status. It becomes famous through word-of-mouth. Likewise, it helps to be a spectacular miracle. 

The primary value of a public miracle is to authorize religion. But it could have beneficial side-effects. For instance, the ten plagues bore witness to Yahweh through the public humiliation of the Pharaoh cult and the gods of Egypt, but they were also instrumental in delivering the Israelites from bondage. 

ii) By contrast, a private miracle is a miracle that God does for the benefit of an individual. It may only be known to that individual or a handful of people in his inner circle. Although it may bolster his personal faith, it's not on a scale sufficient to validate religion for second parties. The miracle is unknown to most outsiders. 

The function of a private miracle may be an exercise of divine mercy. The design isn't to confirm or prove God's existence, although it might have that side effect for the beneficiary, but to help someone in need. Take a dramatic answer to prayer. Not prayer for a divine sign, but prayer to relieve an urgent or desperate extremity which only God can meet. 

Or a private miracle might be for the benefit, not of the immediate recipient, but someone further down the line, in a chain reaction. Say the miracle is to benefit the great-grandson of the recipient–who won't exist apart from a miracle upstream to himself. 

iii) We should distinguish between the ontology and epistemology of miracles. To function as a divine sign, attesting religion, a miracle must be recognizably miraculous. But in principle, an event could be miraculous even though people fail to recognize the miraculous nature of the event. What makes it miraculous is the kind of event, and not how it's perceived. 

To take a comparison, suppose a used-car salesman turns back the odometer on every car he retails so that no car displays more than 50,000 miles. Even though that's his uniform policy, there's something funny going on, since it's highly unlikely that every used car will naturally have such low total milage. Someone had to monkey with each odometer to produce that result. In this case, uniformity is suspicious. 

iv) Apropos (iii), in principle, private miracles could be frequent. But because private miracles are isolated events which happen to ordinary individuals, they are consistent with the apparent rarity of miracles. Since, in the nature of the case, private miracles aren't well-known, even if they were common, their frequency wouldn't diminish the value of public miracles, since most folks would remain ignorant of all, or nearly all, private miracles. Public miracles would still stand out against the apparent regularity of nature. Miracles in the public domain could be infrequent while miracles in the private domain could be frequent. I'm not saying that's the case in reality, but it's a useful clarification. 

Likewise, private miracles might be more prevalent at a particular time and place, but less prevalent at other times and places. Or one individual might experience several miracles in the course of a lifetime while another individual might experience none. That would depend on factors like persecution, inaccess to mundane solutions, and the strategic placement of miracles to further God's agenda in history.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The world to come

Here's a sequel to a related post:

For reasons I've stated in the past, I don't think stock objections to the resurrection of the body are impressive. But for the sake of argument, suppose the intermediate state is the final state. 

1. One question is whether the resurrection of the body is superfluous. It seems to be unnecessary if a disembodied state can simulate an embodied state. Examples include a vivid collective dream. God inspires an eternal dream for the dead. That would make it stable, and give it a coherent plot and landscape. For the saints, it would be Edenic, and for the damned, it would be nightmarish.

A more hitech analogy is virtual reality, a la The Matrix, Harsh Realm. But it's the same basic principle. A psychological simulation that's indistinguishable from embodied experience. 

There are certain prima facie advantages to this. For one thing, you don't have an overcrowding problem on the new earth, or natural disasters. It could be customized so that the saints can experience different historical periods, if they wish.

2. The obvious objection to this is that Scripture describes the final state as a reembodied state. And the resurrection of Christ is the template. 

Suppose, though, we consider that depiction to be a divine accommodation. There really is a world to come. But it's incorporeal. 

Now, what would be the most effective and convincing way to convey that to people? 

i) Someone physically dying, being dead for about 36 hours, then coming back to life, is more convincing than a promise about the afterlife. And it's more convincing than a ghost or vision, which might be dismissed as a hallucination. So that would prove there really is an afterlife.

ii) In addition, if the afterlife is like physical existence, even though it's not physical existence, the simplest way to convey that idea is to describe the afterlife in physical terms. That gets the basic point across. After all, they're phenomenologically interchangeable. 

By contrast, attempting to explain that the afterlife resembles embodied life in a physical environment, even though it's not actually physical, is more cumbersome to articulate, especially for ancient readers who haven't been raised on science fiction. It's hard to think of a simple way to express that idea. It would take a lot of exposition. So God describes the world to come as if it's physical, since:

i) They're comparable. 

ii) It's the best way to communicate. Audience adaptation. 

iii) Although they're metaphysically distinct, you can't tell the difference. The experience is identical. Psychologically equivalent. 

Moreover, eschatological imagery is often figurative. So where to draw the line?  

Certainly we can draw a line with Christ, since my scenario affirms the physical resurrection of Christ. 

Thieves and crocodiles

Alice has tools in a shed and sees a clearly unarmed thief approaching the shed. She knows she is in no danger of her life or limb—she can easily move away from the thief—but points a gun at the thief and shouts: “Stop or I’ll shoot to kill.” The thief doesn’t stop. Alice fulfills the threat and kills the thief.

Bob has a farm of man-eating crocodiles and some tools he wants to store safely. He places the tools in a shed in the middle of the crocodile farm, in order to dissuade thieves. The farm is correctly marked all-around “Man-eating crocodiles”, and the crocodiles are quite visible to all and sundry. An unarmed thief breaks into Bob’s property attempting to get to his tool shed, but a crocodile eats him on the way.

Regardless of what local laws may say, Alice is a murderer. In fulfilling the threat, by definition she intended to kill the thief who posed no danger to life or limb. (The case might be different if the tools were needed for Alice to survive, but even then I think she shouldn’t intend death.) What about Bob? Well, there we don’t know what the intentions are. Here are two possible intentions:
    1. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles, but as a backup any that not dissuaded are eaten.
    2. Prospective thieves are dissuaded by the presence of the man-eating crocodiles.
If Bob’s intention is (1), then I think he’s no different from Alice.

I disagree with Pruss that Bob is guilty of murder under that scenario. I don't know if Pruss draws that conclusion based on Catholic moral theology or his own moral intuition. If intuitive, I don't share his intuition.

Indeed, I think this might illustrate how God can be the remote cause of something without being culpable. 

The thief attempts to steal the tools at his own risk. Surely there's no obligation to make thievery safe. Surely Bob is under no obligation to protect the thief from harm. The set-up by itself doesn't put the thief in mortal danger. Rather, the thief puts himself in mortal danger by assuming a risk. In that respect it's different from a mantrap, which the unwary don't detect until it's too late. They never knew what hit them. But in this case, the hazard is in plain sight, and they defy the hazard, at their own cost. 

Can God experience pain?

1. Every so often I hear a pastor or even a theologian say something like, "God knows what it's like to lose a son". That's supposed to be comforting in the face of tragedy. 

I bite my tongue when I hear statements like that because I think it reflects a flawed understanding of the Incarnation. The implication is that due to the hypostatic union, the divine nature experiences what the human nature experiences. As a result, the Incarnation is a learning experience for God.

But in reality, the Father didn't "lose" his Son. The Son qua Son didn't die. The Son was never inaccessible to the Father. 

Likewise, the human nature doesn't bleed into the divine nature. 

2. In addition, there are various mental states that God can't have. Due to divine invulnerability, God can't experience fear or longing.

3. That said, can God experience simulated sensations? For instance, I remember what different foods taste like. I can mentally summon the flavor of some foods. I can imagine tasting steak, lobster, pizza, pasta, chocolate ice cream, spare ribs, &c. It isn't as vivid as actually tasting food, but it's similar, if fainter. 

That's not the physical sensation of taste, but a mental simulation. 

Likewise, I remember what my favorite singers sound like. I can hear the timber of their voice in my mind. Same thing with actors like Gregory Peck, Johnny Cash, and James Early Jones. That's not the physical sensation of hearing a recording of them, but a mental simulation.

I can visualize colors. That's different from perceiving a colored object with my eyes. When I visualize colors, there's no external stimulus. 

I can remember/imagine textures. Or a rose scent. 

I can remember what it feels like to be thirsty. Or have cold feet. Not as vivid as the physical sensation, but similar, if fainter. 

Assuming that simulated mental sensations are immaterial, that raises the question of whether God can experience simulated sensations. 

4. One other illustration: although it's been a long time since I had this dream, on occasion I've dreamt about jumping off a cliff. A fun part of dreaming is that you can get away with some activities that would kill you in real life. Jumping off a cliff in a dream is exhilarating. 

However, when I've dreamt about it, it isn't painless. When I hit the ground, it's a hard landing, and it hurts the soles of my feet when they smack the ground after the long drop, even though I'm just dreaming. It's not excruciating pain. Rather, it's like the sensation of jumping from a 10-15 foot wall onto concrete. (Not that I've every done that, exactly.)

If it's possible to experience simulated pain, if simulated pain is mental (i.e. immaterial), then is it theoretically possible for God to experience what physical pain feels like? 

Nobody can inflict that on God, but can he voluntarily experience simulated pain? If so, can God know what it feels like to be crucified?  

Planned obsolescence

Secular Outpost
Dec 19
A lot of tubes in the human body seem to be cases of imperfect 'design': Eustachian tube, ureters, urethra (esp. in older men), etc.
Secular Outpost
Dec 19
Or consider 'silent' diseases like hypertension (high blood pressure), pre-diabetes, periodontal (gum) disease. Pain system not fine-tuned.

I assume this is Jeff Lowder's Twitter account. If so, several problems with Jeff's objections. 

i) It's not an undercutter, much less a defeater for Christianity, that humans develop health problems. To the contrary, Christian theology predicts for that. Mortality and illness are inevitable in a fallen world. That's not a design defect, but a punitive sanction. 

ii) How is a sinus infection a mark of poor design? That's caused by something external to the organ. 

iii) It's hardly a design flaw that aging organs, systems, and body parts are less efficient. Moreover, even planned obsolescence is can be a mark of good design in the sense that it was doing what it was programmed to do. And that serves a purpose. 

iv) It's easy to venture armchair complaints about alleged examples of poor design, but I don't see people like Jeff producing technical schematics for better designs. In addition, what compensatory adjustments would need to be made in the body to accommodate an allegedly superior design for one particular organ or body part?

v) On the one hand, atheists complain about God-of-the-gaps arguments. On the other hand, atheists point to examples of what they deem to be suboptimal design. But isn't that a naturalism-of-the-gaps argument? They default to the bungling, groping process of naturalistic evolution. They say that's just what you'd expect if life is the result of a haphazard process. But why isn't that an ad hoc fallacy or argument from ignorance? The very thing they impute to theistic explanations? 

vi) In general, would it not be disadvantageous rather than advantageous for "silent" diseases to be painful? Until the advent of modern medicine, what could be done about hypertension? How is it beneficial for the pain system to be fine-tuned to register untreatable or incurable conditions? How is it beneficial to experience pain if nothing's available for symptom relief, much less a fix for the underlying cause? Isn't that detrimental rather than beneficial? 

vii) How is the fact that body parts, systems, and organs can malfunction evidence of suboptimal design? Take sports cars and luxury cars like Lexis, Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW–not to mention Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Bugatti, and Lamborghini. Sooner or later, these will break down without regular maintenance. Is that a design flaw? Are they poorly engineered? 

Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if modern high-end vehicles aren't more prone to malfunction than cars in the 1950s. Today's vehicles have so many gadgets, so many extra things to go wrong. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Did God send himself to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself?

Secular Outpost retweeted
Linda Beatty
Dec 8
Atheist: Because god sending himself to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself is a bit too much.

I wouldn't normally comment on a tweet by an atheist bimbo, but since this is an atheist trope, and since this was retweeted by the Secular Outpost, I'll discuss it. 

i) As is so often the case, this illustrates the chasm between the self-image of atheists and the reality. Atheists pride themselves on their superior rationality, yet so many of them operate at such pitifully deficient intellectual level. 

ii) To begin with, the formulation is unitarian. But according to the Christian doctrine of the atonement, the Father sent the Son. And the Son didn't sacrifice himself to himself. There are two individuals, two parties, not one. (Not to mention the role of the Holy Spirit in the plan of salvation.)

iii) But let's play along with the trope for a moment. Is there something innately absurd about the notion of a person sending himself? Take the case of someone who volunteers to go somewhere on an errant of mercy. In a sense, he sent himself by volunteering for the task, rather than sending someone else or leaving it up to someone else to go. 

iv) Is there something innately absurd about the notion of saving us from himself? Suppose a policeman discovers that his teenage son committed arson. The policeman has conflicting duties. On the one hand, he has a prima facie paternal duty to protect his son from harm. If his son is convicted of arson, that may ruin his life. 

On the other hand, he has a prima facie official duty to protect the community from arson. Indeed, even if he wasn't a policeman, he has a prima facie duty to protect his neighbors. What should he do?

Suppose he tells his son that if he ever repeats the crime, he will turn him in. Suppose he also makes an anonymous donation to recompense the arson victim. He makes that a loan to his son, which he requires his son to pay back, by working a job. If his son defaults on the loan, he will turn him in.

On the one hand, the father saves his delinquent son from himself (the father) by not arresting him. As a law enforcement officer, he has a prima facie duty to arrest an arsonist. In that capacity, he poses a threat to his delinquent son. Indeed, his son deserves to be arrested. But is there a way to give his son a second chance, while making restitution for the crime? 

There's nothing ridiculous about the possibility of competing duties. And there's nothing ridiculous about the same agent attempting to do justice to competing duties. 

Not that God has an obligation to save sinners, but if he chooses to exercise mercy, that must be consonant with divine justice. Forgiveness cannot be at the expense of justice, for that would compound the wrong. 

Is Mary the Mother of God?

I responded to some Catholics on Facebook. The context was whether Mary is the "Mother of God". 

There's a lot of equivocation going on in this comment thread. Is Jesus God?

i) It's unorthodox to say that Jesus is God without qualification, just as it's unorthodox to say the Father is God without qualification. After all, without introducing necessary qualifications, to say the Father is God and Jesus is God entails that Jesus is the Father. Surely we wish to avoid that conclusion. 

Orthodox theology requires precision thought. Using simplistic terminology isn't orthodox. So let's drop the facile accusations of heresy when the accusers are using ambiguous terminology. 

It would be more precise to say the Trinity is God. Likewise, it would be more precise to say each person of the Trinity is divine. 

ii) In addition, Jesus isn't simply divine. Rather, there's the doctrine of the two natures. Distinguishing the two natures isn't equivalent to separating the two natures. Some things are true of Christ's human nature that are false of his divine nature, and vice versa. That's a necessary, orthodox distinction. 

There was never a time when the Son qua Son did not exist. Mary was never the mother of the Son qua Son. 

I repeat: orthodoxy requires precision thought and precision formulations. 

Now, you can say things like "God died on the cross" in the extended sense that an individual died on the cross who united divine and human natures in one person. But to say "God died on the cross" without further qualification is confusing, inaccurate, and unorthodox.

"Motherhood" has connotations of sourcehood. Mary was not the source of the Son qua Son's existence. Jesus has an origin in time. The Incarnation as a calendar date. But orthodoxy requires us to draw conceptual distinctions. 

Consider the following logic: Jesus is God, the Father is God, therefore Mary is the Mother of God the Father. 

That's a problem with using simplistic, ambiguous formulations. In their zeal to paint evangelicals in a corner, some Catholic apologists are painting themselves in a corner. Don't use arguments that can easily be turned against you.

Flying ships

Atheists typically attack Christian appeal to "anecdotal evidence". They brand it to summarily discount miracles, answered prayer, special providence, and the like. These are chalked up to coincidence and bias. I've discussed this in the past, but I'd like to make some additional observations.

One of the ironies of their objection is that atheists are only too happy to resort to anecdotal evidence when they think it serves their purpose. Take Hume's notorious claim that "A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined…But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country."

What is that if not an appeal to anecdotal evidence? Hume never witnessed a resurrection. No one in his social circle did.  

Nor can it be said that his objection isn't confined to person experience because he is basing that conclusion on his reading of history, for reported miracles crop up in ancient history and church history. 

Or take his illustration: "The raising of a house or ship into the air is a visible miracle."

That may have been impressive to Hume and his 18C readers, but it's unwittingly quaint to a modern reader, raised on aerospace technology. We have a different sample than Hume. 

Which brings me to the next point: it seems to me that the distinction between experimental evidence and anecdotal evidence is generally a difference of degree rather than kind. What makes the appeal to anecdotal evidence unreliable in some instances is when the sample is unrepresentative. In that event, it's fallacious to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence.

But the same challenge confronts experimental evidence. I daresay experimental evidence is invariably incomplete . So it becomes a question of whether the experimental sample is representative. In that respect, experimental evidence is anecdotal as well. Both experimental and anecdotal evidence rely on samples. But it's hard to avoid circular justification. How can you know in advance that your sample is representative? After all, isn't the point of testing a sample group to discover something about the sample group that you didn't already know? 

Take a horse doctor. Suppose he's been in the business for forty years. He's treated many horses. Yet isn't that anecdotal? 

It really depends on whether horses have stable traits. If one horse is much like another, then anecdotal evidence is representative. 

But the same thing would be said for miracles, answered prayer, special providence. 

The experimental method works best for inanimate processes with invariant reactions. Even in that case, you can have systems that are too complex, with too many unknown variables, as well as known, but uncontrollable variables, to extrapolate from the sample at hand. Take meteorology. 

And it's even more uncertain when you introduce personal agents into the mix. That's what makes the stock market so unpredictable. Real life is volatile and unforeseeable in a way that ideal experimentation is not. Anecdotal evidence for religion is not a class apart from the same kind of evidence we rely on for almost everything we believe in. 

There is, of course, the danger of bias and coincidence when we interpret  reported miracles, answered prayer, and special providence. But, once again, that's scarcely unique to religion.