Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Plantinga's EAAN Argument is a Non-Sequitur

In Christian theologian Alvin Plantinga's book Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga argues that, if both:

(N) naturalism – the view that there are no supernatural beings

(E) evolution - current evolutionary doctrine

are true, then the probability that:

(R) our cognitive faculties are reliable and produce mostly true beliefs must be either low or inscrutable.

Plantinga claims that this argument gives anyone who accepts N&E with a undefeatable defeater for any belief produced by those faculties, including N&E itself. Hence, N&E has been shown to be self-defeating (this is his Evolutionary argument against naturalism).

Basically, he is saying that "the combination of evolutionary theory and naturalism is self-defeating on the basis of the claim that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then the probability of having reliable cognitive facilities is low."

Now I am not going to criticize Plantinga's skills of philosophy, but it seems to me he actually hasn't thought about the ramifications of the claim.

If no cognitive judgments can be made, then rationality, is an illusion. We only think we are being rational, but in reality, our ability to make a rational, cognitive, decision would exhibit the same probability as a coin toss.

I offer an extremely easy to do scientific experiment which would show that Plantinga's theory is, in truth, a non-issue. It's basically a non-sequitur, and here's why.

Let's test the theory. We shall use a coin. We will give a control group certain problems to solve, while another group will be given the same problems. These problems will require using the cognitive function of the brain and thinking rationally to solve. While the other group will be attempting to answering the same problems based on random coin tosses.

If we see that the ratio of cognitive based problem solvers happen to provide the correct answer, and solve more problems, more often than the coin tossing based problem solvers then we can safely say cognitive function exists--regardless of whether naturalism and evolution both being true makes the probability of cognitive function low. Indeed, having tested the ration of random coin tosses with the ability to rationalize we would at least know, that having validated cognitive function, that the existence of cognitive function is real despite Plantinga's theory that it would be nearly non-existent. 

So we must test it. Here is my proposal.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Due Criticism: The Appeal to Authority

The appeal to authority may be the most widely relied upon informal fallacy there is. Of course the reason for this is most likely biological and psychological. From infancy we have no choice but to rely on the protection and safety of higher powers. These powers are usually represented by our parents and guardians, elders, leaders, and governments. It is also why many people, once fully actualized adults, still seek authority figures in their lives. Without a King, or President, or a functioning government--most people wouldn't have the structure they need in their lives--a structure which reflects their entire upbringing since the day they were born.

Indeed, society as a whole is largely structured with authority in mind. It is why armies need dictators, militaries rely on governments, the pious rely on the priests, and so on and so forth. It is no wonder then that we innately appeal to authority when we are trying to justify our desires, needs, as well as actions.

What I am concerned with here, however, is a specific form of authority used in academia. It is the argument from authority. Now, the appeal to authority is one means in gaining support to justify an argument, idea, or belief. Basically any position we take must be validated before it can become formally accepted. If you write a book on the history of George Washington, it helps to cite historians, and better yet, historians whose expertise is centered on the time and place of your topic. Another important factor is whether there is a consensus on the relevant information. Do the experts agree?

The thing we must keep in mind, however, is that the appeal to authority should be just one aspect of the support we seek--it should not be the sole piece of evidence we have supporting our position--because even authorities can be mistaken or misunderstood.

Appeal to Authority

The appeal to authority may take several forms. As a statistical syllogism, it will have the following basic structure:
Most of what authority a has to say on subject matter S is correct.
a says p about S.
Therefore, p is correct.
The strength of this argument depends upon two factors:
  1. The authority is a legitimate expert on the subject.
  2. A consensus exists among legitimate experts on the matter under discussion.
Subsequently, if an appeal to authority doesn't meet the aforementioned prerequisites, then chances are the appeal is fallacious. What this means is, if the authority lacks the expertise to be considered an authority on that subject, or else, the authority is a minority who holds a belief radically opposed to the general consensus, then chances are the authority is invalid. In which case, the argument based on that single authority would be invalid--thus rendering your position invalid.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The essence of moral reasoning, part 3: informed decisions

In my previous post in this series on morality, I talked about the biological underpinnings of our moral judgments, and argued that variances in the development of "empathy circuits" in various regions of the brain can powerfully shape the manner in which we make moral decisions, and that in our natural environment we may experience a conflict between the emotional circuitry in our brains and our rational faculties, which makes moral reasoning more complex. For the final post, I want to turn to the rational component of moral judgments.

There's a question regarding morality that is commonly posed to non-believers: "If you don't believe in an objective, transcendent and absolute moral authority, how can you say that the behavior of the Nazis was wrong?"

False morals

There are really two components here. The first is that what the Nazis did – treat people as mere objects – requires an erosion of our empathetic circuitry. Save those who suffer from abnormalities in various brain regions affecting empathy, it is simply not in our nature to be cruel to others; in fact, we have very specific, involuntary biological responses to seeing others in distress in which we experience many of the same symptoms that the other is showing. This response, however, can be temporarily eroded – we can be "de-conditioned" of our natural empathy.

The second component has to do with the more rational component of moral reasoning. Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

A Nazi cold-water immersion experiment
And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject "Nazi morality": the beliefs underpinning the Nazi's attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior "race" of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany's economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That's how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It's quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

Since we recently passed the 10th anniversary of the 9.11 attacks, they will serve as a similar example. The bombers were not, in their own minds, villains; on the contrary, they viewed themselves as righteous soldiers in God's army. How can we say they were morally wrong? Easy: because they were factually wrong. False beliefs such as racism, sexism, nationalism, and religious fundamentalism can be flatly rejected as immoral precisely because they are indeed false.

I'll provide one more example. The journalism show Vanguard recently documented the anti-gay culture in Uganda, and showed that evangelical pastors were spreading false information about the behavior of homosexuals that incited outrage from congregants (view the full episode here). It's entirely plausible that such people are true believers and are not knowingly spreading false information, but it highlights a central point to my post: sound moral reasoning is dependent on accurate information.

Making informed judgments

It is for this reason that the pursuit of science is so important to our moral development. Many who treat others cruelly may not be abnormally low on the "empathy bell curve" I mentioned in the previous post; instead, they may sincerely believe that they are acting in the best interest of those they love; any erosion of their empathy circuitry, such as when Nigerian pastors cruelly exile children under accusations of witchcraft, is most likely temporary and reversible since those suffering from abnormalities in the brain comprise a relatively small portion of the population. Many such African nations are bereft of good science education, which will powerfully and adversely affect its people's ability to form rational moral judgments.

It's important to note that rooting our moral reasoning in accurate information provides a sound, non-arbitrary means of making moral judgments. By understanding how empathy works at the level of the brain, we can understand how our emotions inform our behavior and mitigate our rational judgments; and by valuing accurate information about the world around us, we can root our moral reasoning in objective truths, rather than being subject to the arbitrary whims of ideological falsehoods.

The essence of moral reasoning, part 2: making moral decisions

In my previous post on morality, I argued that simply saying that people are inclined to be "evil" fails as an explanation for human cruelty – it not only fails to take into account certain facts about our biological inclination toward empathy, but it leaves important questions about how we make moral decisions – and how our empathetic hard-wiring can be eroded – unanswered. I touched briefly on the fact that many of our "moral" decisions are made impulsively, and we reason about them retroactively. In this post, I want to examine more thoroughly some of the processes involved in making moral decisions – including how our empathetic nature can both influence us and be eroded.

Empathy on the brain

In his excellent book The Science of Evil, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen discusses the many regions of the brain that are associated with our ability to empathize with others. What's fascinating is that damage to specific regions of the brain cause empathy to malfunction in highly specific ways. Damage one part of the brain, and we can lose our ability to feel any empathy at all (sociopathology); damage a different part of the brain and we may be able to feel empathy, but be confused as to how to react appropriately; damage yet another different part of the brain and we may have difficulty reading facial expressions and accurately inferring others' emotional states.

The list goes on, but what this shows is that the physical state of our brain has a powerful effect on our ability to make moral decisions. If we can't feel empathy or accurately understand others' emotional states, for example, then our decisions will be more utilitarian and egocentric. This is not speculation or hypothesis, either – it is well documented in the behavior of those suffering from personality disorders.

The causes of personality disorders appear to be combinations of nature and nurture – something which may seem obvious, but is now well substantiated with research. Abuse and neglect during childhood can have an irreversible effect on the development of the brain which manifests in antisocial behavior during adolescence and adulthood. This has important implications: the deck is not stacked the same for everyone. Empathy exists on a bell curve, with individuals at one extreme being highly extroverted, sensitive, and compassionate; and individuals at the other extreme being literally incapable of feeling empathy. It's beyond dispute: our biology has a powerful influence on how we make moral decisions.

The brain in the environment

Of course, our brains don't just sit in vats all day; they're constantly bombarded with sensory input from our environment. We live in an environment in which competition over limited resources influences our moral reasoning. Much like soldiers trained to de-humanize their enemy, we can be conditioned to overcome our basic human empathy. And even if we are relatively normal on the empathy bell-curve, desperate situations may influence us to temporarily repress our empathy for others.

Our moral decisions take two forms: the impulsive, emotionally-driven reactions I mentioned previously; and moral reasoning, in which we attempt to dispassionately judge what is fair. The famous Trolley Problem illuminates the conflict between these two broad reason:

In the first scenario, subjects are presented with a trolley on course to kill five people; with a flip of a switch, the trolley can be re-directed to another track, where one person will be killed. Most individuals immediately judge that it is better to throw the switch and kill one instead of five.

In the second scenario, there is again a trolley headed toward five unfortunate souls. This time, you are on a bridge where a large man is standing. If you push him off the bridge, his corpse will stop the trolley.

In the second scenario, most respondents hesitate – and it is precisely that hesitation which betrays the fact that our moral decisions are not entirely rational (quite the contrary, in fact). In utilitarian terms, both situations are identical; but the second scenario requires us to directly harm a bystander, which causes the empathic circuitry in our brains to remind us that it is unfair to hurt another human being. Interestingly, people low on the empathy bell curve due to lack of development or damage to parts of the brain responsible for empathy (their "empathy circuitry") do not hesitate, since for these individuals all moral decisions are primarily utilitarian.

So we now know that emotions heavily influence our moral decisions, and that individuals whose empathy circuitry in their brains have been adversely affect by genetics and/or their environment will not make the same moral decisions as most of us simply because they do not feel a compulsion to nurture others, to ease or prevent their suffering, or to otherwise respond to their distress. They are unlikely to value fairness or self-sacrifice, as their inability to empathize with others creates an egocentric form of moral judgment. Since moral norms are concerned with how we ought to behave, it's vital that we recognize the pivotal role our biology plays in shaping our relationships with others, that we may properly understand how moral proscriptions are derived.

In the final post in this series, I'll get away from the emotional component and talk about moral reasoning specifically, and how we can use information to make non-arbitrary moral judgments.

The essence of moral reasoning, part 1: why "evil" fails

In my previous post about morality, I argued that all moral reasoning requires a subjective value judgment – that is, rather than adhering to some objective standard which tells us whether an action is unequivocally right or wrong, we examine each situation contextually and, based on the available information, decide whether an act is right, wrong, or somewhere in between. I also argued that our reasons for behaving morally are rational and non-arbitrary. Over the next three posts, I'll talk about how we make those moral decisions and how we reason about them.

The evidence from biology is unambiguous: certain behavioral tendencies are hard-wired through our evolution. We are, more often than not, cooperative, empathetic and reciprocally altruistic. Save for sociopaths, we tend to feel empathy and sympathy for others who are suffering. Of course, people also behave badly. We can be selfish, ambivalent, or cruel. We can be conditioned to erode our natural empathetic connection to others, to the point of barbarism.

The conventional answer to this dilemma is more or less the following: people behave that way because they're evil. Perhaps we're simply inclined to do evil because, well, that's what we are. But as an explanation, this is a non-starter. It fails to account for the fact that most of the time, we are empathetic, altruistic and cooperative. While stories of people behaving cruelly make for captivating news, they do so precisely because such behavior is not the norm. There is something unusual, something perversely remarkable about those whose sense of empathy has been eroded – and that is precisely why we react with shock and horror at the abject cruelty of things like Nazi medical experiments, US military officers torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or Islamic fundamentalists throwing acid on the faces of women. Were "evil" simply the norm of human behavior, we'd be much more surprised to see an act of goodwill.

But what I'll dub the argument from evil fails in a more important way: it doesn't accurately account for how we actually make moral decisions. Broadly speaking, there have been two competing theories in the behavioral sciences to explain morality. The first is veneer theory. This suggests that evolution has left us as cruel, selfish, and inclined to mistreat one another. It is only through our higher capacity of moral reasoning – perhaps our ability to understand a religious or legal "moral code" – that we have been able to overcome our innate destructive tendencies.

Veneer theory leaves many important questions unanswered. If it is only through moral reasoning that we have been able to overcome this innate evil, how did our species – and our evolutionary ancestors – survive long enough to develop such a moral code? Certain social norms, such as prohibitions against assault, theft, murder and perjury, are integral to the fundamental cohesion of any human society. Had those in primitive human (or proto-human) societies simply given in to every cruel or selfish whim, they never would have been able to coexist. Reciprocal altruism has always been required for us to find food, to protect ourselves from predators and the elements, and to raise children.

In his book The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans De Waal expounds:
Don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or by keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also our closest relatives, the primates. In a study in Taï National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards, licking their blood, carefully removing dirt, and waving away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions, and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof. What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. [p.6]
Veneer theory further fails to account for the fact that even young children have been shown to display empathy. In a study of children ages 7 to 12, researchers at the University of Chicago found that the empathetic response was present even though the children had limited understanding of moral reasoning:
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago.
The programming for empathy is something that is "hard-wired" into the brains of normal children, and not entirely the product of parental guidance or other nurturing.[2]
Finally, veneer theory fails to account for a very important fact – one which I will expand on in part 2: many of our moral decisions are made involuntarily. If we spot a small child wandering in the middle of a busy street, we impulsively rush to protect her. We do not pause to contemplate the cost/benefit to ourselves or society as a whole – it is only after the event that we conjure up rationalizations for our behavior (this phenomenon is illustrated in the Trolley Problem, which I've discussed here). Were cruelty our first inclination, as veneer theory suggests, we would not act with compulsive compassion.  

The facts are unambiguous: we must acknowledge that empathy and altruism are hard-wired and integral to the very survival of our species. We can think of this as the second theory of moral behavior: what I'll dub the grounded theory of morality, to reflect its bottom-up development. But clearly, hard-wired feelings of empathy or an inclination toward reciprocal altruism cannot fully explain our moral behavior. Somehow, these inclinations can be eroded to the point that we are capable of great acts of cruelty. We can, as a society, make rules that reflect a desire for equality and peace, or we can impose militaristic rule and enact barbaric punishments for petty crimes. In the next post, I'll discuss how evolutionary hard-wiring interplays with our environment, and how we reason about moral values.

Morality is subjective

In the previous post I argued against the notion of "objective morality". Now, I want to turn to the subjectivity of moral judgments. All moral judgments are, by necessity, subjective. But that doesn't mean our concept of right and wrong is arbitrary, nor does it mean that our judgments themselves are arbitrary. To illustrate this, I'm going to revisit an example I used in the previous post.

First, I want to suggest that there are three broad "tiers" of moral judgment; an act can be:

  1. Forbidden
  2. Permissible 
  3. Obligatory

Is lying an objectively immoral act? The Biblical God explicitly forbids it in the 10 Commandments, and most of us believe, in general, that lying is wrong. But it doesn't take much effort to imagine a circumstance in which lying is either permissible or even morally obligatory –unambiguously the right course of action.

In Nazi-occupied Poland, families sympathetic to the plight of Jews would hide Jewish families in the attics, walls, or basements of their houses. When Nazi officers came around inquiring as to the whereabouts of these Jews, the families lied to protect them.

Most reasonable people would agree that in this circumstance, it was not merely permissible to lie – lying was the morally obligatory course of action. If this is true, it means that the act of lying cannot be intrinsically, objectively wrong; rather, we make subjective value judgments as to the "rightness" of the action depending on the circumstance. If lying were objectively wrong, it would always be wrong.

It's easy to imagine this with virtually any other act. Is it moral to indiscriminately kill civilians en masse in a time of war? We've evolved our weapons of warfare to minimize civilian casualties – we use laser-guided bombs and missiles, precise rifles fired by trained marksmen, etc. If we had no care of killing the innocent, we could simply drop as many nukes as it took to wipe our enemies off the face of the earth.

But in World War II, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. In those two explosions, hundreds of thousands of people died – most of them civilians. And the ones that were evaporated were the lucky ones – many more suffered slow, excruciatingly painful deaths from radiation poisoning. But in this case, the US military had made a subjective value judgment – that the show of force of the atomic bombs would force Japan to surrender, ending a war that, if protracted, would likely escalated to a full-scale invasion of Japan and cost millions more lives.

Regardless of whether one agrees that this action was either wrong, permissible, or obligatory, the fact remains that it was an act of genocide that was circumstantially justified through subjective value judgments. As horrible as we generally think genocide is, even genocide is not objectively wrong. If it were as simple as saying something like "lying is objectively wrong", then we would quickly run into an impasse as various objective moral tenets conflicted with each other. The Nazi example is a fine one; is it not also wrong to passively allow the abuse and murder of other humans when it is within our power to prevent it?  While surrendering our power to help others is an act of omission, and lying is an act of commission, I think most reasonable people would agree that in this case, the act of surrender would be the greater moral crime, and lying was the right thing to do.

All moral actions require subjective judgments which take into account external factors that influence whether an act is forbidden, permissible, or obligatory. No act exists in a vacuum where it can be considered absolutely and objectively right or wrong. Only one issue remains: how do we determine, then, what constitutes right and wrong? As I've already suggested, though our judgments are necessarily subjective, our reasoning is not arbitrary. I'll be doing a third post on morality soon (hopefully this weekend), and the nature of moral reasoning will be its subject.

Objective morality does not exist

It's been parroted by just about every Christian theologian I've ever encountered (even the armchair kind): Without God, anything is permissible. God is the only source of objective moral law. If there is no God, then there is no objective morality, and no one can say with any authority or rational certainty that any given act is patently immoral.

So, why believe a "moral law" exists in the first place? For some reason, we want to be treated fairly. We want our autonomy respected. Even when we treat others unfairly, we usually still want to be treated fairly ourselves. There's some intuitive sense in us that constitutes what is right and wrong. If we're asked why it's wrong to indiscriminately kill and eat infants, our answer tends toward, It just is.  This intuitive understanding of moral behavior indicates that there exists an objective moral law to which we are subject. If such an objective moral law exists, it must come from a moral law giver whose authority is absolute and infallible – God.

I submit that what Christians really believe is actually just another form of subjective morality. Nobody really believes in ultimate moral absolutes.

Righteous killings

William Lane Craig has recently defended, again, the Slaughter of the Canaanites[1]. In this charming Bible story, almighty God orders his holy army to mercilessly slaughter everyone in Canaan. God explicitly tells them to leave no one alive:
However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. [Deut 20:16-17]
It should be noted that is one of many times God commands his righteous army to kill the shit out of everyone. In the judgement of Israel in the book of Ezekiel, God's instructions are even more explicit (emphasis mine):
Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” As I listened, he said to the others, “Follow him through the city and kill, without showing pity or compassion. Slaughter the old men, the young men and women, the mothers and children, but do not touch anyone who has the mark. Begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the old men who were in front of the temple.[Ezekiel 9:3-6]
Clearly, Yahweh does not mess around. But wait! Doesn't the idea of deliberately slaughtering children offend our moral sensibilities? Isn't this barbaric and... well, evil? Craig has a different explanation. First, he recounts his previous defense, which I have addressed on this blog [2]:
My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so.

Then he adds this juicy tidbit:
There is one important aspect of my answer that I would change, however. I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.
It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it.

Well, I have two objections. The first is that it's not, y'know, true. The scripture explicitly tells them to destroy "anything that breathes". If that's not a command for genocide, well, I don't know what is. But the second problem is that it's sort of like saying that if a murderer entered your house and killed your family, it was your fault for not getting them out of there fast enough. It's blaming the victim.

I am, frankly, much more interested in what Craig said in his first response: that God was morally justified in ordering the genocide. Something tells me that if this weren't creating a little cognitive dissonance for Craig, he wouldn't have conjured up his charitable re-interpretation. It's hard to really, honestly think that killing innocent people en masse is a good thing.

This raises a bigger issue: are horrible things okay if God commands them? The answer, according to Craig at least, is a resounding yes. However horrible we might find the indiscriminate slaughter of children, God had sufficient moral reason for doing so.

What makes something immoral?

But this creates a great conundrum for Christians: if any atrocity can be morally justified by God's command, then no act is absolutely wrong. What Craig is arguing is not that genocide is okay all the time, but that there was a mitigating circumstance in which it was the right thing to do. In other words, there is nothing about the act of murdering children that, in itself, is intrinsically wrong. Because if it were absolutely wrong, then even God would not be able to command it. Remember when William Lane Craig said this (emphasis mine):
God's moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God's commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature. [3]
If that second sentence is true, then God cannot command us to do something that is morally wrong; thus, the mass child killing must have been right, since that is what God commanded. But that erodes the entire concept of what "objective morality" is supposed to be. Presumably, there is a moral law which we all intuitively understand and to which we are all bound. Let's go back a moment, and listen to how C.S. Lewis describes moral law in Mere Christianity:
It seems,  then,  we are forced to  believe in a real Right  and Wrong.
People may  be sometimes mistaken about them,  just as people sometimes  get
their sums wrong;  but they are not  a matter of mere taste and  opinion any
more than the multiplication table.
But if even killing children can, in certain circumstances, be considered an act of good, then what basis is there to assert "it is wrong to kill children" as an objective moral tenet?

Here's a more obvious example. Lying is forbidden in the Ten Commandments. But few of us would object to those who, in Nazi-occupied Poland, lied to authorities to protect the lives of Jewish people. In some circumstances, lying is the most compassionate thing to do. This means that lying cannot be objectively, absolutely wrong. There are circumstances in which we recognize it as not only permissible, but even morally obligatory. Lying is not absolutely wrong. Neither is taking someone's life. We can probably imagine any atrocity, no matter how disgusting and awful, and then imagine another circumstance in which it was the lesser of evils. That is precisely what Christians do when they are defending genocide commanded by God: they're arguing that, while not pretty, it was the best and most moral course of action.

This simply means that morality is subject to God's whims. The Christian is merely positing another form of subjective morality, in which no act is absolutely, fundamentally wrong; instead, the "rightness" of an act is contingent on whether God commands or condemns it. And, of course, God can change his tune; he can say, "thou shalt not kill", or he can say, "kill, without showing pity or compassion". Is killing objectively wrong? Is this an absolute moral law? If so, then God is evil to command it; if the act can be circumstantially good because God commanded it, it cannot intrinsically be objectively and absolutely wrong.

Subjective does not mean arbitrary

Christians who argue against a non-theistic ground for moral behavior, going all the way back to C.S. Lewis, are making a fundamental folly: they are conflating subjective with arbitrary. Morality is not objective. Even Christians, in practice, do not believe such a thing. We all experience moral impulses and moral reasoning subjectively. However, we have non-arbitrary reasons for adhering to norms of moral behavior. There are rational reasons for treating others fairly, for doing acts of goodwill, and even for sacrificing ourselves for the good of others. I won't tread on the subject here, as this post is already quite lengthy, but a fine primer can be found here.

The very notion of grounding morality in God's commands necessarily makes morality arbitrary. If even the indiscriminate killing of children as a part of a hostile military conquest can be viewed as circumstantially moral, then what act can't be circumstantially moral? Truly, with God, everything is permitted.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Religious Epistemology Series Parts 1-4 Ignosticism, Referential Justification, and an Objection to Reformed Epistemology

Religious Epistemology Series Part 1
Ignosticism: Theological Noncognitivism

Belief in God, or some form of transcendent Real, has been assumed in virtually every culture throughout human history. The issue of the reasonableness or rationality of belief in God or particular beliefs about God typically arises when a religion is confronted with religious competitors or the rise of atheism, agnosticism, and theological noncognitivism, i.e. ignosticism.

Ignosticism is the theological position that every other theological position assumes too much about the concept of God.

Ignosticism holds two interrelated views about God. They are as follows:

1)     The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed.
2)      If the definition provide is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.

In other words, a) a definition which is incoherent can’t be about anything, and b) a definition which isn’t about anything cannot be said to be meaningful.

Additionally, Ignosticism is not merely concerned with definitions by themselves, but rather, is concerned with competing definitions which are all attempting to define the same referent.

Referent: Definitions refer to things. A thing in the world that words and phrases are about is called a referent.

Religious Epistemology Series Part 2
Referential Justification
Utilizing the theory of justification, when defining referents, we can develop a new category of formal justification. I will call this category Referential Justification. In fact, Referential Justification is similar to other forms of justification, including: evidentialism, coherentism, skepticism, and other forms of reasoning such as verificationism and logical positivism. However, I personally see it as a branch of Reliabilism.

Referential Justification is the position that in order for a belief to be about something, called a referent, that referent must be verified before belief in it can be justified. Specifically, it is concerned with the links (or lack thereof) between a referent and belief in the referent. As such, Referential Justification holds

1)     A referent must be established, i.e. verified, before we can justify our belief in it.
2)     All definitions of the referent must be coherent in order for us to understand what the words and phrases are in relationship to.
3)      All definitions seeking to define the same referent must be in general agreement. If not, then confusion arises as to which definition is the correct one, or whether any at all are correct.

The importance of clearly stating any given definition of that referent it seeks to define is not at all trivial. If our definitions are in conflict, then this disparity makes it impossible for us to ascertain the correct definition. There are two reasons for this. First, minus a referent the words used to describe something technically do not describe anything at all—and so cannot be about anything. This renders the definition meaningless even when it sounds like a proper definition. Second, provided an incorrect definition, the words supplied us would not adequately or accurately relate back to the referent and so would render the reference invalid, making any discussion on whatever thing the referent seeks to establish irrelevant.

If my reasoning is sound, then belief in whatever object or thing the referent is supposedly about is unjustified until all three criteria of Referential Justification are sufficiently met. If the criteria are not met then it becomes far to easy to make the mistakes of false attribution and equivocation when discussing the object in reference to the belief in said object. Referential Justification helps to ensure we do not make sloppy informal fallacies of this kind.

Religious Epistemology Series Part 3
Referential Justification Wheels: An Illustration of the Logic
To better illustrate my line of reasoning, I have provide two illustrations, in the form of a wheel of justification, which roughly depict various steps which need to be considered between a referent and the belief in the referent.

Panrational Referential Justification Wheel (PRJWh)
1) If Object exists, 2) evidence will refer to object, 3) thereby qualifying object as real. 4) If real, 5) evidence can be tested and verified to 6) establish referent and 7) provides justification for belief in referent—i.e., the object really exists so believing it exists is justified.

Epistemic Referential Justification Wheel (ERJWh)
1) If an object’s existence is unknown, 2) but it appears there is potentially evidence in favor of it, 3) then depending on the quality of evidence object may or may not be real. 3) Verification of evidence is required to either verify or falsify the reality of said object. 4) If object is not real, then no referent exists and we can go no further (the line of questioning has come to a dead stop). 5) If the evidence demonstrates object is real, then referent probably exists. 6) If referent exists it can be verified, 7) and the referent can be established, 8) thus lending credence to the belief in referent’s existence.

Religious Epistemology Series Part 4
Referential Justification as an Objection to Reformed Epistemology
Here I am going to flesh out an objection to Reformed Epistemology. First, based on the notion that any referent must be established (i.e., verified) before we can justify a belief in it, and second, based on the observation that Reformed Epistemology can only establish a referent from a basic belief via induction, which is a major chink in the armor, because induction does not guarantee correct beliefs for reasons we shall discuss.

Before we can object to Reformed Epistemology, however, I must explain why I have brought up the issue of referents with regard to belief. It is my understanding that in order to hold a belief, the belief has to relate to something, either in reality, or else a concept. Nothing new here. But when a said referent is supposed to be real, that is, it is not a concept but an actual tangible part of reality—then it needs to be verified, that is to say, established before we can claim our belief in the referent accurately reflects what that referent is in fact referring to in reality.

The Problem With Reformed Epistemology
Reformed Epistemology is the belief that if one holds a basic belief, then no justification of the belief is necessary. As such, Alvin Plantigna has applied this to Christian theology. More or less, the conclusion is that belief is warranted, that is, belief in God is rational and no justification of the belief is necessary because Reformed Epistemology rejects the notion that belief in God is irrational unless supported by sufficient evidence, where evidence is construed as providing propositions from which to infer God's existence. Reformed Epistemology contends that the requirement of evidential proof is unduly strict, for there are many reasonable beliefs that one may accept without argument.

What I contend here is that Reformed Epistemology falls short as a tool for discriminating justified from unjustified constituent beliefs. As such, it cannot be relied on to claim a belief is rational or warranted. Here’s why.

Consider how referential justification works. In order to have a word or phrase relate to something we have to have a referent. Without a referent, then it is uncertain whether our beliefs could be about anything which exists or not. In order to justify our beliefs, we need to establish a referent.

Now assume that Reformed Epistemology allows us to maintain a basic belief in something. No justification is necessary to hold a rational belief just as long as that belief is properly basic. The problem, as I see it, arises when we try to establish the referent, something required in order to demonstrate the belief is actually about something. Indeed, in order to get from a basic belief to a referent the Reformed Epistemologist must rely on inductive reasoning.

The Reformed Epistemology goes something like this: belief in God is basic—therefore no justification is required—therefore belief is rational. Inductive reasoning takes us the next part of the way toward establishing the referent. If belief is rational, and believers believe in God, then it is safe to assume God exists as the referent and object of people’s belief. 

Remember earlier when I mentioned induction is the kink in the armor to Reformed Epistemology? Using induction means the possibility of God’s nonexistence is equal to the possibility of his existence. This occurs because with inductive reasoning the truth of the conclusion is not always guaranteed (e.g., If we only see white swans then we might assume all swans are white. We would be unaware of the fact that there are also black swans).  What this means is that inductive reasoning can yield both correct and incorrect beliefs. Considering this, the only thing we can be sure of is that, when trying to establish the existence of a referent, both possibilities are equally uncertain (it may exist—but then again—it may not). Certainty in ones belief about something which is said to exist can only be gained by having established the referent as real, and only then can belief in the referent be considered justifiable.

Reformed Epistemology fails to justify the belief in the referent which it is said to be derived from. That is to say, Reformed Epistemology seeks to justify belief in God as rational, but minus a referent, belief in God makes no rational sense. As such, it would not be rational to believe in a referent that is, in point of fact, completely nonexistent (since there is no such thing as a nonexistent referent). Reformed Epistemology then cannot claim the belief as warranted or rational without first demonstrating that the belief actually refers to something. Failing to justify the belief, the whole of Reformed Epistemology collapses—or regresses into fideism.

Some Helpful Resources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (peer reviewed)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (peer reviewed)

Wikipedia Philosophy Portal

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Alternate Interpretation of Q: Some Thoughts

A question that’s been weighing on my mind, as of recent, is whether or not there is any credence to the Q source hypothesis. I think there is, but probably not for the reasons Biblical scholars usually give. What if the Q source isn’t evidence for some illusive artifact or document of ancient history so much as it is evidence for an emerging literary tradition?

In other words, Q may not actually be dealing with any genuine artifact, that is, it may not represent any original sayings at all, but rather, it could represent a type of literary progression. In this case, the progression would be a set of basic logia which have been lifted from an ancient form of oral treaties and philosophical discourses and then seamlessly blended into later literary constructions so that they get transformed. Therefore the sayings, although probably unreliable, may still contain allusions or reference(s) to real historical figures (e.g., Socrates, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.). The problem is, even if they do contain historical information, they may ultimately prove to be little more than imagined dialectics embellished with legend, a real possibility, and one I think my alternative interpretation of the Q hypothesis alludes to.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Problem with Natural Theology

I want to expand a bit on a concept I talked about a while back in my post on ontological naturalism: namely, the idea that supernatural concepts are fundamentally incoherent. Theologians argue that theology is, like science, a viable means attaining knowledge; I am going to argue that theology is in principle incapable of imparting us with knowledge.  I'm not concerned with theological debates over doctrine (revealed theology), but rather natural theology. From Wikipedia:
Natural theology is a branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience. Thus it is distinguished from revealed theology (or revealed religion) which is based on scripture and religious experiences of various kinds.
Natural theology is what most apologists, from C.S. Lewis to William Lane Craig to Francis Collins to Alister McGrath, are preoccupied with; it's the idea that we can use our understanding of the natural world to make inferences about the existence and nature of divine or supernatural things. Take, for example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause to its existence
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause to its existence
The purpose of this argument is to articulate what we feel is intuitively true – the idea that something can't come from nothing – and cantilever those intuitions into realms that are beyond our immediate, objective reach. In other words, it's attempting to use our intuitive understanding of the world around us to infer things about worlds beyond us. That's the crux of all natural theology and, as I aim to show, its downfall.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Does Atheism Equal Nihilism?

Does Naturalistic Atheism Equal Nihilism?

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

Contrary to what you may have heard, atheism isn’t a nihilistic philosophy, since it’s not really a philosophy at all. Atheism is, rather, merely a cogent position which rejects the fallacious claims of the theist. Yet ever since religion has espoused the existence of God, atheism has been getting some bad press. Atheism is often demonized by religionists who have misunderstood it, or by those who wish to demean atheists for political reasons, usually to bolster the illusion of their group's uncontested prestige (often a misguided form of devotional allegiance aided by a massive confirmation bias which refuses to acknowledge any other outside philosophy as worthy of consideration). Needless to say, those believers who have felt threatened by the irreligion of the skeptic and the atheist have resorted to throwing out all kinds of senseless accusations. Among them is the accusation that atheism equates to a nihilistic philosophy. This is simply absurd for reasons we shall now examine.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Responding to Sam Harris on Torture

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris challenges the reader to consider situations in which we might find torture to be a morally permissible course of action. Famously, he gives the example of a nuclear bomb having been dispatched in a crowded metropolis, which will detonate in an hour; we've captured the person responsible, and unless he reveals the location of the bomb in time for it to be defused, millions of people will die. In such an extraordinary scenario, Harris argues, torture is an acceptable course of action.

This passage provoked a knee-jerk reaction from some of Harris' critics, who subsequently mischaracterized him as favoring torture. He recently authored a response to his critics, which he posted on his own blog, in a post titled Why I'd Rather Not Speak About Torture. He reflects,
I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have interest in keeping them illegal).

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Approaching Abortion Objectively

Pro-life. Pro-choice. Women's rights. "Right to life." abortion. These words and phrases are enough to heat up any discussion a few degrees centigrade. Some readers may think the title of this article is too difficult to achieve, and in many cases they may be correct. Humans are an emotional breed, oftentimes overly so, and no topic is as emotionally-charged as abortion. Nevertheless, I have hope that a level of objectivity can be maintained, even when the abortion controversy is raised. Needless to say, the task of approaching abortion objectively is daunting, and hard work is the key. There are three steps to achieving it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Literary Traditions: Ten Reasons the Gospels are Works of Fiction

Literary Traditions

Ten Reasons the Gospels are Works of Fiction

The NT documents, especially the Gospels, are precisely the sort of literature we would expect to emerge from a time when the dividing line between the natural and “supernature,” indeed, the divine and the human, was not clearly drawn: the true miracle would have been for the NT to stand completely outside the limits of Hellenistic storytelling and the rudimentary historiographical interests of a religious community.
–R. Joseph Hoffmann

Often times a certain work of fiction so profound that will challenge the way we perceive the world around us. As a student of literature, I know the profundity of stories which can capture the human imagination and hold power over us. In all this, there is probably one figure, one story that is still considered taboo to criticize completely—a story that has for centuries been so venerated, so inviolable, as to avoid the critical commentary of the iconoclast—and that is the story of Jesus Christ.
Recently, however, there has been a greater attempt by scholars and historians alike to treat the material more explicitly. The Gospels, which contain the exploits of the so-called historical Jesus, once safeguarded from criticism by a shroud of uninfringeable piety and tireless orthodox conviction, are now being adjudicated in a different light by those seeking an unadulterated truth.[i] Whether we are scholarly historians, laymen, believers or nonbelievers we must set aside our preconceived biases and correct our misperceptions by exposing what religious patriarchs would rather keep veiled and out of sight—evidence which shows the Bible to be—a work of fiction.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Slow Crawl Toward Ontological Naturalism

I've often expressed in the past that my atheism is not a founding principle of a philosophy of ontological naturalism, but an outcome of epistemic naturalism: I am not asserting that God cannot or certainly does not exist – only that the absence of evidence for God's existence prevents me from reasonably affirming a such a belief.

But the more I've thought about this, the more I've found it to be not inaccurate, but inadequate.
In the words of anthropologist Pascal Boyer, in his book Religion Explained:
"The sleep of reason is no explanation for religion as it is. There are many possible unsupported claims and only a few religious themes." [p. 31]
I'm not an atheist only because I don't think there is any compelling evidence that God exists; that's actually the smaller part of why I'm a non-believer. On the contrary, I'm an atheist primarily because I think there are lots of good reasons to believe that God does not exist. This is not solely limited to God; I possess a positive belief that supernatural things, in general, do not exist.

I'm sure any theist who has read this blog in the past is thinking, Aha! I knew it!, but they'd be sorely misguided to jump ahead of me before fully understanding my position – I still think that theists generally mischaracterize naturalistic beliefs. Before I explain my beliefs more in detail, I think I should give a quick refresher on Naturalism 101:

Why Say Atheism is a "Lack of Belief in God"?

Those who spend any significant amount of time reading atheist bloggers are bound to see the word atheism defined as a "lack of belief" in god(s). I want to discuss the reasons why we (or at least I) go to pains to describe atheism this way:

1. Because that's the definition. I don't deny outright that there is a god. I don't know whether any gods exist in, around, or above our universe (or "multiverse," si vous préférez). My atheism is an extension of my agnosticism. I know some atheists argue that there is no god, promoting what has been called "strong" or "positive" atheism (as distinguished from "weak" or "negative" atheism). Regardless of whether one's atheism is "strong" or not, the common denominator among all atheists is the absence of a theistic belief.

2. Because it establishes the burden of proof. Because I neither deny nor affirm the existence of a being who could rightly be called "god," I have nothing to prove vis-à-vis atheism. The burden of proof rests on the one who makes the claim. If you say, "God exists!" and expect me to agree with you, then the onus is on you to provide sufficient reason for me to believe your claim. Likewise, if you say, "God doesn't exist!" I will demand the same sufficient reason, or I won't believe it.

Knowing What We Know

The first book on physics I ever read was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. It's actually the book that catapulted me from a sort of weak theistic agnosticism into full-on atheism. It wasn't that I thought Hawking had disproved the existence of God or anything like that, but it was the thought process that intrigued me – he bravely took certain "big questions" out of the realm of mysticism and into the quantifiable world of science. This was also the book that introduced me to the famous double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics. In the experiment, a particle does not take one path from A to B, but rather all possible paths simultaneously. That's a profoundly counter-intuitive idea, one that's even more counter-intuitive than the weirdness of things like gravitational time dilation from Einstein's General Relativity.

Our minds play tricks

We tend to view the world from a rather insular kind of bubble. We're bombarded with a massive amount of sensory data which our brain constructs into a reasonably reliable model that we call "reality". We develop an intuitive understanding of the world, where we assume that things are going to work a certain way. We don't test every inch of ground before we step on it to make sure we won't fall through. We know from experience that if we let go of something, it will fall to the ground – and we don't bother making sure that applies to every object we encounter. In case you were wondering, cognitive psychologists have a name for these assumptions – they're called "intuitive physics".

Where the Mystery Ends

The following is a paper on the Cosmological Argument for the existence of god. I wrote it back in early November 2009. The Cosmological Argument served as the final pillar upon which I continued to accept my belief in god as both rational and warranted. For years the Cosmological Argument stood alone amidst the rubble of other pillars which had collapsed under the weight of scrutiny. I wrote this paper in order to test the strength of that final remaining pillar. This was a test I had been afraid to conduct before. Sometimes, the pursuit of truth means one must overcome one's fear. This was my attempt to do just that.

Where the Mystery Ends: a Critique of the Cosmological Argument

Bud Uzoras

While I never considered the Ontological Argument sound (though for a long time I had difficulty explaining why this is the case) and the Teleological Argument gradually lost its sway over me, for years the Cosmological Argument held the distinction of being the last remaining of the traditional arguments for the existence of god that I accepted as sound; in spite of this, my confidence in the argument (which subsequently augmented my confidence in a theistic paradigm) coincided with a nagging doubt that something is wrong with the argument. I grew frustrated because I could neither demonstrate that my doubt was unfounded nor determine why I suspected something about the argument was amiss.

The purpose of this paper is to both offer a critique of the Cosmological Argument and analyze the foundational premises upon which the argument rests in an attempt to discern and express discursively the source of my continued doubt in the soundness of the argument, so that I may endeavor to offer a variant of the Cosmological Argument that is, if not demonstrably sound, at least yielding a process of reasoning towards a conclusion that is verisimilitudinous.

Inception: Examining the First "Christian" Myth


Examining the First “Christian” Myth

 The [Church] Fathers may sometimes say that we are punished for Adam’s sin: but they much more often say that we sinned ‘in Adam’. It may be impossible to find out what they meant by this, or we may decide that what they meant was erroneous.
 –C.S. Lewis

In the beginning, having created the heavens and the Earth, and on the sixth day God created all living things and among them he created man and woman, from which he fashioned out of the red clay of the Earth herself. God breathed life into his creation and he placed them in a paradise garden, wherein grew a very special tree. This amazing tree had magic fruit containing all the knowledge in the world. And then God made the serpent—and he made sure the serpent was more cunning than all the other beasts.

This Hebrew myth, or more specifically fable (since it involves a talking animal and a moral injunction, as we shall soon see), is familiar to many because it is one of the best known and most revered of all the Bible stories. It is one of the most familiar stories in Western culture. Indeed, many of us were taught it in Sunday school, but outside of church not very many people ever stop to re-examine the story and pause to consider what it’s really about. In other words, they take it for granted, and they simply believe what they are told about it because someone of authority tells them what the conventional Christian thought on the matter is. But there is much more to the story of Adam and Even in a magical garden with a magical talking snake than first meets the eye.

    The goal of this section is to correct several misconceptions regarding the first three chapters of Genesis—specifically that of the story of Adam and Eve. What I want to do in this final chapter is show the difference in interpretations of a well known myth and how certain contextual readings are demonstrably better than others.

As such, I will juxtapose the pious view of Genesis which adheres to a strict devotional belief in Christian theology with the secular view which attempts to objectively look at the facts as they are without any preconceived biases. Admittedly, however, there will always be a certain level of prejudice when interpreting a text, as we must always allow for the variation of our unique personal experiences, but what I propose is that we must, at the least, make an effort to start off as objectively as possible before reaching any set conclusions. Only after considering all the relevant information can we come to any sort of conclusion.

    Although it may seem out of place from the rest of this book, I want to ask that you induldge me (perhaps consider this a bonus chapter of sorts), as I analyse the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1-3. First, I’m going to focus on why the Adam and Eve story in Genesis cannot be considered history and why it is just a myth. Next, I will discuss what the underlying meaning of the story is, pinpoint the core morals of the fable (minus any additional theological dressing), and explain why Christians are misreading it and have been misreading the Garden of Eden story since its inception into Christian faith.

By examining the genesis of the story, to turn a phrase, we can better detect where Christian reasoning frequently goes wrong thereby correctiing any misconceptions which may arise because of it. If true, and the Christian interpretation is colored by a preconceived biase of either theological or the religious kind, then it would suggest that much of Christian scriptural interpretation might also be tainted by similar biases. Something we would need to be mindful of when talking about the historicity or cultural significance of any religious text.
Adam and Eve: What's the Meaning of the Myth? Six Interpretations
    Alice C. Linsley, a Christian scholar, has written about the various views of the Adam and Eve story. Is it fable? Myth perhaps? Linsley outlines six possible ways to read the Garden of Eden story. We can interpret the story of Adam and Eve as 1) literal interpretation, 2) allegory, 3) federal headship, 4) typology, 5) myth, and finally 6) archetype.[i]

    Personally, however, I would submit that myth contains both allegory and archetype, since that's usually what a myth is. But Linsley seems to separate them for the reason that, as with the example of allegory, like most Christians she presumes the concept of sin is a real phenomenon. As the Christian view holds it, the story may be alluding to the supernatural phenomenon of sin. Sin is something humans aren't fully capable of grasping, but because of the simple allegory found within the story we can see that sin is quite real—even while admitting the story is, perhaps, not meant to be taken literally. This is not Linsley’s view personally, just one of the Christian views, which is probably why she separates it into other distinct theological classifications. However, I see no reason for the distinction, since it is merely attempting to allow for the variation of Christian hermeneutics. As we are not talking about what this story means to Christians, but talking about the meaning of the stories content and its possible origins, our exegesis need not apply the additional classifications which Linsley supplies.

Linsley seems to subscribe to the Archetype position that Adam and Eve are Archetypal ancestors of Christ, as Pauline theology teaches. The Biblical scholar Randel Helms details, “For Paul, the story of Adam was not merely the history of past things; Adam was a “type [typos] of him who was to come”—Christ (Rom. 5:14).[ii]

    Such a Pauline consideration is made explicit in Linsley’s comment that “Genesis is first and foremost about Christ and the Edenic Promise (Gen. 3:15). The rulers listed in the Genesis genealogies are Jesus Christ’s historical ancestors, the people to whom God gave the promise that the Woman's Seed would crush the head of the serpent and restore paradise.”

Perhaps Linsley would be better off just combining typology and archetype since it appears as if she is merely using archetypal ancestry to buttress Paul’s theory of typos. If so, we are only dealing with two practical categories, Myth proper and Christian hermeneutics. It is within Christian hermeneutics that various theological considerations, interpretations, or readings can flourish—but all of them are distinctly variant Christian formulations of the same myth.

    On her website, Linsley was asked the question: “What is the point of the Adam and Eve story if it is only a myth’?” Linsley's replied, “The point is that God made us in the Divine Image to enjoy His fellowship and He is restoring that Image through the Divine Person Jesus Christ.”

    While this may sum up Christian orthodox conviction regarding the meaning behind the allegory that Christians find contained within the myth, it is strong misreading of the text. Linsley's answer, however, reveals a common mistake Christians make in their reasoning regarding ancient Hebrew texts. To put it plainly, such an interpretation relies on both the literal belief that the story contains reliable elements of history, that there is implied typology relating Adam (the archetypal man) to Jesus Christ (the perfected man), that the allegory all points toward and defines Jesus ultimate destiny—the Edenic Promise—and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the salvation belief in him brings, as well as his atonement freeing us from the curse of the serpent. All this is what the Christian reading entails when we read the myt literally. However, I feel this literal interpretation is invalid.

Not only does the Christian reading seem rather contrived, because it is, but forcing to myth to mean all this requires lots of theological tap dancing in order for the Christian to pull the meanings they want out of thin air.  In actuality, these Christian claims about what the myth means reak of theological fabrication.

    Myths are typically rudimentary—they are stories with morals—but they do not contain advanced theology or even Christology of the type alluded to in Linsley’s answer. The thing I have always found disturbing about similar interpretations of the Adam and Eve fable is how easily contemporary Christians make an ancient Hebrew fable into a story about the Christian savior. Jesus would not have read the Adam and Eve myth the way Paul did, and so it seems strange to assume he did. Forcing the Hebrew meaning of the story into the straight-jacket of Christian faith does not help to elucidate the unadulterated meaning of the potent myth.

Four Columns


The Sermon That Made Me An Agnostic

"We sit outside and argue all night long
About a God we've never seen, but never fails to side with me."

- Primitive Radio Gods,

Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand

I delivered a sermon once in which I described four categories of understanding, or knowledge columns as I called them. The purpose of these columns, as I'll explain in more detail later, is to address the question of how well we understand god, his will, doctrine, and how we understand ourselves in light of all this. I came across some old notes from that sermon - notes from a sermon I preached in the year 2000 - and that got me thinking about the intellectual and spiritual journey I've been on since I preached this sermon over a decade ago.

I began my sermon by explaining the dichotomy between the noumenal and the phenomenal in Immanuel Kant's epistemology (Sounds like I was a boring preacher, I know, but it actually wasn't as bad as you might think). Noumena refers to the "thing in itself" (Ding an sich), or reality as it is independent of our experience of it. Phenomena refers to the appearances which constitute our experiences. Put roughly, the noumenal is reality as it actually is, whereas the phenomenal is reality as we perceive it.

The Problem of Suffering

It felt both a little cliche and a little inaccurate to give this post the more predictable name: "The Problem of Evil". That's how it's generally written in Christian apologetic literature, but I think that, strictly speaking, "good" and "evil" are fairly abstract and often arbitrarily defined religious terms. "Evil" seems to work fine for things like murderers, rapists, child molesters, fascist dictators, and other behavior of generally unsavory characters in human history, but I think the acts of humans against each other could be (and generally is) theologically dismissed as a mere consequence of free will. "Evil" seems much less appropriate a descriptor when the subjects are things like natural disasters, cancer, disease, famine, and other natural occurrences that inflict great suffering on people indiscriminately – that is, cancer does not seem to care if you are a good person or whether you go to church. Bad things do happen to good people, and in their grief the faithful can only naturally wonder why a loving, all-powerful God would allow such things to happen. For these things, I think a better question than "Why is there evil in the world" is "Why do people suffer?" I don't think "evil" is what concerns most people; rather, it is suffering that makes believers question the view that somehow, God is a god of love and justice. How could a loving God allow children to suffer and die of starvation, cancer, or disease? How could God allow thousands of people to die in an earthquake or tsunami? I don't claim these questions as my own (obviously of course, since I am an atheist!), but these are precisely the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with often, and questions I too struggled with in my days as a Christian.

I am going to examine some prominent theologians' explanations for these issues, and explain why I find them unpersuasive. Then I will describe a secular, naturalistic explanation for suffering – a scientific view of why bad things happen to good people. But first, I think it's important to describe the issue in detail, and really drive home just how deep and powerful a problem for believers this really is.